Friday 14 August 2009
An bhliain seo caite thug mé féin, Bean Thomaltaigh agus Mac Thomaltaigh, thug an triúr againn cuairt ar Iar-Thuaisceart na Fraince. Ligeamar ár scíth i mbaile beag cois farraige ar feadh coicíse. Thug mo thuismitheoirí cuairt orainn don dara seachtain - faoi mar a rinne tuismitheoirí mo mhná le linn na chéad seachtaine. Bhaineamar go léir an-sult as.
Ach i mbliana ní rachaimid thar lear. Fanfaimid ar an tseanfhód - ar feadh coicíse. Tá fúinn cuairt a thabhairt ar oirthear na Gaillimhe ar dtús (ón lá amárach). Thart fá Ghleann na Madadh a bheas muid - ceantar dúchais bhean Thomaltaigh. Áit bhreá chiúin le scíth a ligean. Iar-fheirmeoir é athair bhean Thomaltaigh agus tá eallach aige fós, cé nach bhfuil i gceist ach cupla ceann chun deis a thabhairt dó leannacht lena shean-cheird. Tá dúil mhór ag mac Thomaltaigh sna hainmhithe agus cuirfidh an chuairt seo gliondar ar a chroí (níl ag an chréatúr ach dhá bhliain d'aois).
Is deas an rud é freisin seal a chaitheamh i gcuideachta daoine a bhfuil táithí an tsaoil acu, go háirithe daoin muinteartha. Is breá an fear é athair bhean thomaltaigh agus é i mbun scéil (rugadh é sa bhliain 1933 agus ar ndóigh tá cuimhne mhaith aige ar Eirinn a d'imigh uainn ó shin). Agus tabharfaidh mathair mo mhná cúram maith dúinn fosta. Bean bhródúil bhríomhar í agus nós aici béilí breátha a réiteach.
Ina dhiaidh sin tabharfaimid cuairt ar Chathair na dTreabh, áit a mbuailfimid le sean-chairde, daoine ar chuireamar aithne orthu nuair a thugaimis 'baile' ar an chathair chéanna. Ní thugaim cuairt ar an chathair sin gan smaointiú ar na seanlaethantaí - sé sin, laethanta móra geala m'óige. Caithfimid béile i gceann de na bialanna is fearr sa chathair (más féidir) agus, le cuidiú Dé, ólfaimid pionnta nó dhó i gcuideachta Na Guí Aniar agus a bhean. Daoine a chuireann fearadh na fáilte romhainn i gcónaí.
Uaidh sin, tabharfaimid ár n-aghaigh ar Thuaisceart na Tíre. Caithfimid cupla lá i dTír Aoidh (sé sin, an 'barony of Tír Hugh' mar a thugadh na Sacsanaigh air!) i nDeisceart na Condae. Sin áit dhúchais Thomaltaigh. Táim ag súil go mór le tamall a chaitheamh i gcuideachta m'athar (fear mór a' bhocsa ceoil) agus mo mháthar, bean a bhfuil an speís aici i dtaisteal ar fud na condae! Tá sé ar intinn agam caitheamh aimsire a bhíodh ag m'athair athbhunú, sé sin an iascaireacht. Tá an t-uafás aibhneacha agus locha breatha thart fá dheisceart na condae agus ba ghnach le m'athair gabháil ag iascaireacht acu - nós a lig sé i ndearmad nuair a chuaigh sé anonn i mblianta agus go háirithe tar éis bhás uncail liom a raibh dúil aige san iascaireacht fosta.
Más féidir fosta ólfaidh mé cupla pionnta i gcuideachta m'athar - thar rud ar bith eile ba mhaith liom fáil amach, óna chroí féin, goidé mar atá sé ó scoir sé i dtús na bliana seo (tar éis dó beagnach 50 bliain a chaitheamh ag obair).
Fágfaimid Tír Aoidh inár ndiaidh agus rachaimidh níos faide ó thuaidh - caol díreach go barr tíre! Ceann Mhalainne in Inis Eoghain. Níl eolas ná aithne agam ar an taobh sin - taobh amuigh de Shamhradh a chaith mé ag obair i mBun cranacha nuair a bhí mé óg. Is ar Bhaile Lifín a thabharfaimid ár n-aghaidh. Caithimid roinnt laethanta ansin in óstán breá. Ó, mo dhearmad, tá sé ar intinn agam An Grianán Ailigh a fheiceáil ar mo bhealach ó thuaidh - sean-dún a tógadh san Iarannaois agus a deirtear atá thar barr ar fad.
Siar linn tar éis an tamaill sin in Inis Eoghain, siar frí cheartlár na condae - an bealach garbh, sléibhtiúil idir Leitir Ceannainn agus Gaoth Dóbhair. Is ó bhéal cruite do bhean chéile chara liom ó Chondae an Chláir. Cónaí orthu anois i mBAC ach caitheann siad seachtain gach samhradh i dTír Chonaill. Tabharfaimid cuairt orthusan. Súil agam go mbeidh an aimsir measartha maith nó tá an taobh sin tíre go hálainn ar fad. Tránna breatha geala tréigthe i measc na gcnoc cois farrairge.
Ar an bhealach ó dheas caithfimid oíche eile le muintir Thomaltaigh. Sin an tsaoire atá romham i mbliana.
Thursday 2 July 2009
I see that the major universities are still busy running Cúrsaí san Iriseoireacht (Irish language journalism). UCG has a couple of comms/iriseoireacht diplomas, UCD has one, DCU. There are probably more I don't know. Which makes me wonder where do all these aspiring iriseoirí think they are going to get a bit of work.
Almost all third level education is heavily funded by the tax payer, no doubt these cúrsaí are too, and perhaps they get and even higher percentage since they are ar son na cúise.
One stark figure should be enough for all those cúrsaí to simply close their doors - it is the number of full time Irish language journalists who make a living from the written word: one. Yip, just one. And that's the Irish language editor of none other than the English language paper, the Irish Times. His name is Pól Ó Muirí and he became the last surviving member of a species that is one heart beat from extinction - the full time Irish langauge journalist.
About six months ago the always-struggling daily Lá, published in Belfast, shut down. And last weekend the Irish language weekly, Foinse, running since 1996 shut down. It's advertising revenue collapsed and the grant money from Foras na Gaeilge wasn't enough to keep it alive. So plimp, it's gone.
We know that in the present climate there is no way the substantially funded Irish language project, for want of a better term, is going to get more money. But the issue is, given the level of wasteful and frankly nonesensical spending on Irish elsewhere, why funds couldn't be found to keep the weekly paper going.
Apart from the courses I mention, money is still dished out to absolutely hideously bad private operators for unused online courses and the likes.
But this exposes the insanity of the way the Irish language strategy has been piloted. All sorts of grants were available for Gaeltacht schemes - even thought about 70% of the Gaeltacht is now a fiction - and money doled out on making Irish a working Eu language. Imagine - the intricies of Eu protocols being tranlsated into Irish by Irish-trained linguists in Brussels while the last remaining Irish language news publication is allowed to die. There is no more perfect symbol for the self-defeating, wrong-headed, vested-interest driven thing that is state policy on the so called preservation of the Irish language.
There is some dignity in a genuine failure, an honest best-effort which just cannot succeed. But there is nothing noble about the shambolic, incompetent, rivalrous, clique-infested, and costly failure that is our nation's effort to preserve its still-dying native tongue.
Monday 29 June 2009
Maybe it's part of that nostaligia thing that I'm going through, these vivid imaginings of episodes and relationships from my childhood that I'm denying has anything to do with the concept of a mid life crisis! (In coversations with self I convince myself that my life isn't in crisis - this cannot be a crisis, for if it is then I can imagine that it will throw me into pure calamity when more nasty things happen, as they surely will. So not happy to concede on the term crisis, I tend to settle for the softer 'defining period'.)
One way or another childhood has been on my mind lately, which is probably what drew me towards Huck Finn (I had never read it). It's a beautiful and amazing work and I am enjoying its every line. But in this frame of mind a personal essay about Childhood by Michael Chabon in the NY review of books caught my attention.
In a beautiful piece Chabon talks about one essential component of childhood - the freedom to head off, through streets or woods, with others or alone, every or most days, and just conduct a little adventure. This aspect of childhood, according to Chabon, and I tend to agree, is, sadly, almost a thing of the past.
Chabon talks about his pursuits in Woodlands near his early home, and then antics round a more urban environment later on. The sense of adventure wasn't just spontaneous, but inspired by stories - from legend to history to childhood myths about other adventurers. He described this experience as being his "Wilderness of Childhood" and is now struck by the incredible degree of freedom his parents gave him to roam there. But ... "A very grave, very significant shift in our idea of childhood has occurred since then. The Wilderness of Childhood is gone; the days of adventure are past. The land ruled by children, to which a kid might exile himself for at least some portion of every day from the neighboring kingdom of adulthood, has in large part been taken over, co-opted, colonized, and finally absorbed by the neighbors.".
Now it's all about control ...
Nowadays, "we schedule their encounters for them, driving them to and from one another's houses so they never get a chance to discover the unexplored lands between. If they are lucky, we send them out to play in the backyard, where they can be safely fenced in and even, in extreme cases, monitored with security cameras."
And it's all about irrational fear, especially the that seems to have taken over these days, fear of abduction...
Yet "in 1999, for example, according to the Justice Department, the number of abductions by strangers in the United States was 115. Such crimes have always occurred at about the same rate; being a child is exactly no more and no less dangerous than it ever was."
The freedom Chabon enjoyed was "a liberty that now seems breathtaking and almost impossible."
He then mentions taking his daughter for a trial on her new bicycle in their leafy neighbourhood on a beautiful afternoon. What stunned him most was the absence of other children. There were none in sight. The streets were empty.
It would be easy for us to lament the lack of community in the states and how different it is here. Thankfully, it is different, but the trend, in urban areas at least, is towards something approximating Chabon's descriptions of childhood taken over by adults and under continual surveillance.
Mac Thomaltaigh isn't old enough yet to be on the street, so I have no idea of the pressures involved or how real fears are of calamity or just malign influence. But from friends and neighbours who have kids I know that there seems to be a huge level of parental intrusion into 'child time'. In some cases it is security related - text me when you leave the concert, text again when you're on the bus, and I'll pick you up at the bus stop. And so on.
But some of it is pure ambition to create the best possible future for one's children. Here in South Dublin you are either careless or broke if you don't bother to send your kid to a good fee paying school. And bring them to piano lessons. And do three soccer runs a week, and two karate, or whatever. The kids must enjoy all of this. Surely there'd would be feedback from them if they didn't? And surely it would be heeded if it were given?
But in some instances I sense a parent who is living vicariously, seeing their own child as a vehicle for fulfilling the dreams they, the parent, had for themselves but which, life in all its vagaries, frustrated. A sense of pushing them - not in the direction they necessarily would like to go (as if they should have any choice!), but where oneself wanted to go once upon a time.
This is probably a real temptation - and isn't nessarily always negative. But looking at it as I just head for that territory, I feel myself wondering if childhood has been over colonised by adults. And if, by falling prey to hyped fears, and our own weaknesses for status and advancement, we aren't robbing our children of something that is precious;
Aparrently in Japanese they refer to childhood as 'little boy time' or 'little girl time'. It is precious territory and we would do well not to conquer it fully. After all, it is not 'little adult time'.
Wednesday 17 June 2009
You steered the truck by pulling on twine that was attached to the left and right side of the front axle which could pivot to give direction. The truck was simple yet frighteningly effective down the steep hilly roads of South Donegal.
Our trucks had two flaws. One was born of youth's immunity to fear - they had no brakes. We probably could have fitted some kind of crude brake, say a lath that would press against the wheel, but we never did. No brakes were fitted because we never assessed the risk - and even when the risk of a potentially terrible crash was obvious (like long steep hills with a corner at the bottom, round which a car could appear at any instant) we ignored it. The bigger the hill you took on with your truck, the more daring you were, not the more insane.
The truck's second flaw was that it was hopelessly unstable: it was too narrow and, with one or more bodies sitting atop, its centre of gravity was too high. A sudden turn made a tumble certain, and many a time I took such a roll. The result was usually a lot of bruising, and often a torn jumper or trouser knee - which meant more pain later, particularly if they were new!
On a very large hill you sat at the top, peering down into the abyss. You knew your ride was going to be perilous, you nerved a bit, but your young mind was unable to muster enough fear to do the wise thing. You pulled left and right on your twine, like a pilot checking his rudder, then straightened up, lifted you legs, and away.
Even if you had launched from a particularly scary hill, there was no going back. You were rapidly picking up speed and hurtling towards some kind of disaster. You had only two choices - to bail now, which meant taking a certain amount of pain, or carry on gaining speed and losing control, and rushing headlong into an even greater horror.
Tuesday 16 June 2009
Nuair a thagann an bhail sin orm is ionann mé agus duine nach bhfuil ach seal beag fágtha aige agus é faoi bhrú a oiread eolais agus is féidir a chur ar an tsaol. Brú ama atá i gceist. Sílim go gcuirtear ina luí orm na babhtaí sin go bhfuil saol an duine teorannta, go bhfuil deireadh leis, i mbeagán focal, go bhfuil an duine básmhaire.
Agus mé buailte ag an imní fáisnéise téim ar thóir an eolais mar bheadh fear mire ann. Ní féidir liom siopa nuachtáin a fhágáil gan gach nuachtán a bhfuil acu a cheannach. Braithním ar na hirisí, agus dar liom, bíonn fáisnéis agus eolas in achan cheann acu atá de dhíth orm. Ní hea go bhfuil an t-eolas seo spéisiúil - tá sé riachtanach. Gheobhainn bás gan é!
Smaointím ar fhiche réimse eolais a bhfuil spéis agam iontu nó atá tábhachtach chun mion-eolas a chur ar an tsaol - ar an chruinne, ar stair an duine, ar bhealaigh an tsaoil: an stair, an eolaíocht, an tsocheolaíocht, an pholaitíocht, an eacnamaíocht, an t-airgeadas, agus ábhair eile nach iad. Ceol, cultúr, cócaireacht. Matamaitic, tíreolas, teangacha. Agus sa deireadh caillim smacht ar m'intinn féin, bíonn an t-easnamh ar m'eolas ró-mhór, agus briseann an balla uisce orm, agus ansin, caithim seal, cúpla lá gruama, ag smaoineadh go bhfuil teipthe orm mar dhuine. Agus sa deireadh, de réir a chéile, éiríonn an ghrian, scaipeann na scamaill, agus tagann lonrú ar an tsaol arís.
Is ansin, agus loinnir ar an domhan, a thuigim nach féidir 'an t-iomlán' a thusicint. Agus níos fearr, gurb í an fhoghlaim an rud is tábhachtaí, agus ní an t-eolas féin : an turas seachas an ceann scríbe.
Caithim amach na nuachtáin (go minic, nár léigh mé), agus fágaim na leabhair fháisnéise, nó neamh-fhicsin ar leataobh. Agus déanaim an rud a mhol cara liom : "má tá tú ag iarraidh eolas a chur ar an tsaol nó ar an duine, léigh leabhar maith ficsin nó filíochta". B'fhíor dó.
Sin an rud a rinne mé cúpla mí ó shoin nuair a chuir mé an babhta d'imní fáisnéise tharam. Agus léigh mé rudaí a chuir iontas agus gliondar ar mo chroí: The Great Gatsby, Leaves of Grass, The Scarlet Letter, Stepping Stones, Out Stealing Horses, Cúirt an Mhéan Oíche, agus Huckleberry Finn.
Thursday 4 June 2009
Some of my readers will have seen that I suddenly lost my job 9 months ago. With it went the only exercise I ever get - cycling to work. For pretty much most of my adult life I've cycled to work or college. (In fact I only learned to drive a couple of years ago when Bean Thomaltaigh announced that Mac Thomaltaigh was on the way. It was an unstoppable train that no excuse could deflect- I had to learn to drive or else. I'm not, announced Bean Thomaltaigh, in a tone that sounded final, going to drive myself to the maternity hospital. That was that).
But even after I got my license I continued to cycle to work - and continued to enjoy it. Or most days anyway. Only a few times did I let the weather or a hangover serve as an excuse. And even then I preferred to take the Luas instead of the car. (You can listen to podcasts easier on the train or walking. I find that when I'm driving anything engaging is lethal - my concentration drifts to whatever topic is at hand. I confess to shooting through an unnoticed red light once because someone said something interesting on the radio. Terrible I know, but there you are. To remove the temptation of anything engaging I now listen to the impeccably boring Mary Wilson on drive time.)
A few months ago I was fortunate enough to find a job, but at a location about 50% further from home. My previous job was, I thought, at just about the right distance for cycling to work. I could tolerate a further kilometre or so but scarcely more. So when I began at the new place the bike never really figured. I would see it in the garage, and I'd often feel a faint nostalgia for it. The crisp mornings, the extra adrenalin from getting moving in the morning, the passing of motorists stuck in traffic. Though never far behind was the wet gear, the dark, damp winter mornings, the puncture. So in the end I found it easy enough to let the bike slip back, to let my cycling days drift back in memory, to shuffle all that back from a part of me that I still possess to a chapter of my history.
Then came the swollen heart. There it was live on TV, open heart surgery. By the time I joined the spectacle, the whole chest had been cut open. There was nothing but a red-raw, rather unreal cavity which contained a rather large and shapeless pulsating muscle.
They were about to repair a valve it seems, but in order to do so they had to drain and stop, yes stop the heart. When the artificial pump had been plumbed in they sucked out the remaining blood from the chambers of the heart and then the surgeon announced, in a way that someone would normally speak of a farm animal, that he was now going to put it to sleep. They poured a large jug of ice-cold saline solution over the heart, then poured and poured again. And all the while the vigour just ebbed away from the once impressive throbbing. Slower, slower and weaker until it just lay there like a fresh steak. Then they drained off the saline solution and proceded to repair the heart. (I didn't, perhaps couldn't, watch the nitty-gritty of that part of the episode but I heard later that they restarted the heart by simply letting it warm up, but that occasionally they have to give it a squeeze or two. At its most basic the life force is as mechanical as a coiled spring).
But it was the fat around the heart that shook me. This gentleman's heart was wrapped in a swathe of fat, big soft, globular, sinister fat. And I remembered I had put on several kilograms since I had put aside my bike, so I thought of my own heart, and I imagined that it too had become choked in fat. I could see it in my chest, tired, squelching in that same horrid fat, struggling to press the next beat-full of blood around my body. There it was, my life-force, straining to keep going, but not even getting a chance. I had to do something to help it.
And that's what made me return to my bike and make that first exhausting journey today, the first I hope of many. And by this I hope to support and fortify my own beating heart, to tell it, O great indomitable life-force, be strong, keep going, beat on.
Thursday 28 May 2009
"By most accounts, most projections say that the European Union is going to have a somewhat deeper recession this year than the United States. So in terms of macromanagement, they're actually doing a poor job, and there are various reasons for that: the European Central Bank is too conservative, Europeans have been too slow to do fiscal stimulus. But the human suffering is going to be much greater on this side of the Atlantic because Europeans don't lose their health care when they lose their jobs. They don't find themselves with essentially no support once their trivial unemployment check has fallen off. We have nothing underneath. When Americans lose their jobs, they fall into the abyss. That does not happen in other advanced countries, it does not happen, I want to say, in civilized countries.
And there are people who say we should not be worrying about things like universal health care in the crisis, we need to solve the crisis. But this is exactly the time when the importance of having a decent social safety net is driven home to everybody, which makes it a very good time to actually move ahead on these other things."
Paul Krugman, 2009 Nobel Laureate in Economics
Thursday 21 May 2009
The Irish Times editorial strikes a poignant and thoughtful tone, and if you have time to read nothing else, give it a browse.
I am brought back to the story of poor Peter Tyrell, who spent seven years in the awful hell that was Letterfrack industrial school in the 1930s. Shortly after leaving Letterfrack, Tyrrell joined the British army and fought in the second World War. He was captured, but described the German prisoner-of-war camp as a tea party compared with Letterfrack. His experience in the school caused him irreparable damage as a human being. In the 60s he tried to speak out and made several attempts to raise the issue with the authorities in Ireland. But he was stone-walled.
In 1967, with no indication that anyone had taken his accounts of brutality and rape in Letterfrack seriously, Peter Tyrell committed suicide by setting himself on fire in London's Hampstead Heath. He was so badly burned that it took London police almost a year to identify his body. They traced the unburned corner of a postcard in his pocket to his friend Dr Owen Sheehy-Skeffington, himself a noted campaigner for reform in this area. Sheehy-Skeffington was able to confirm that he had indeed sent the postcard, and that the body was that of Peter Tyrell.
When Letterfrack finally closed in 1974, the Secretary of the Department of Education sent a glowing letter of profuse thanks and praise to the Christian Brothers. The Department, he said, was deeply appreciative of the great care given by generations of Brothers to the boys at the institution.
Below is an earlier post I made in response to a piece by Mary Raftery some years ago when she began to delve into the whole child abuse scandal.
Mary Raftery recently likened the dreadful experience of Peter Tyrell to that of Primo Levi . After hearing extracts from Tyrell's book on the radio the other night, I was struck by the aptness of Raftery's comparison
Both men, through no fault of their own, found themselves locked in a nightmare. They suffered appalling brutality and humiliation. They were stripped of their dignity and lived in sheer terror.
The comparison doesn't end there. In both cases society closed its eyes. The extraordinary way in which a combination of hatred and cowardice gave rise to collusion in Nazi Germany is well documented. But if it is true that ordinary Germans knew well about the horrors inside Dachau, here in Ireland ordinary people knew about places like Letterfrack. Worse still, they colluded in it. A garda would assist in rounding up boys for industrial schools. A farmer would hand over escapees that he found on his land. All in full knowledge of the cruel regimes to which the boys were being returned. Politicians rounded on anyone - and they were few - who dared to speak out. The Catholic Church, cruel and tyrannical, defended its regime with ferocity.
As Peter Tyrell sobbed after his brutal drubbings, he must have wondered what kind of people lived in the little cottages all around. He must have asked himself how a Mass-going community could allow an enclave of brutality in its midst. His heart must have been continually breaking as he wondered what he had done to deserve this cruelty.
Levi suffered a similar collapse in his faith in mankind. But at least he had the satisfaction of seeing the demise of the sick regime that was responsible for his suffering. Poor Peter Tyrell had been brave enough to raise his voice against the tyranny only to be shouted down.In his quest for justice he met a stone wall, thick and steadfast like that of a church. We are still dismantling that wall and it is essential that we try to understand how it was built.
Thursday 14 May 2009
In all probability they don't. First, people have an affection for our current system, and they would be wary of proposals to push them from familiar territory. Second, while there is widespread anger at the way in which our political (and financial) leadership have contributed to our economic destruction, most of the anger is probably directed at individuals (bank execs or senior ministers) or parties (FF) or organisations (the banks, the regulator). Third, most voters have probably not given much thought to the question of how the quality of our government and leadership is a function of our political system and indeed our political culture. As Dr Murphy says in relation to some changes, such as the move from the current electoral system, even political scientists cannot agree on the likely consequences.
That the electorate does not pine for change, however, is not a reason for our political leaders to shy away from the subject. Perhaps if the subject can be opened up enough - by contributions such as that of Dr Murphy - then the debate could gather enough momentum to make its way onto what might be called the national agenda.
Dr Murphy points out that any significant change, whether it requires constitutional change or not, would have pros and cons that would have to be carefully weighed up. Yet I think it is fair to say that our political machinery has shown itself wanting for the complexities of twentieth century government. In that context I think it is time for a public debate on how the quality of our governance, the very effectiveness of our democracy, is hindered by the nature of our political system - from local to national in all its facets. In terms of effectiveness I am thinking about the quality of both executive decisions and legislation; transparency, responsiveness, and accountability; the ability to form and carry out effective long term strategies; the degree to which the system allows for sensible regional development; and so on.
I would agree with Dr Murphy that the Irish people hold dear the easy access which they have to their elected representatives (though for all its charm, I doubt if this has as much merit as we imagine). But having said that, there must be some formula for tiered government possible which can retain reasonably good access and yet allows sufficient distance for decisions that are in the national interest. And it should not be forgotten that direct access, without sufficent transparency and accountability can be more of a negative force than a positive one.
Dr Murphy's warning rings true that says certain reforms, such as a better scrutiny of legislation or improved executive accountability likely have down sides in terms of speed or simplicity. But that shouldn't daunt us. Speed isn't always of the essence, and it is hard to see how effective government in today's hideously convoluted world, would not itself be rather complex.
In short, I think the innards of our political machinery are badly worn and have evidently let us down badly. We need a refit in order to make the thing fit for purpose in the world of the twenteth century. The optimist in me believes that as a people we are ciapable of remaking our system to deliver better results. But after a moment's pause, as my thoughts drift from the mechanics and theory of change to the practical reality of political inertia, voter apathy, and party self-interest, my belief in the possibility of change dissolves.
Tuesday 12 May 2009
No small amount of furore surrounded George Lee’s putting himself forward as a candidate in the forthcoming by-election. It made big news with his former employer for obvious reasons, not least that he gave them practically no notice. The story made headlines everywhere. Lee was talked about in canteens and snugs and both up and downmarket coffee shops. Sunday paper and Irish Times columnists weighed in. And of course the political blogosphere revved up with its spin on Lee’s sudden emergence.
The initial burst of excitment subsided, giving way to a more sober analysis which in turn is now giving way to less generous comment which is beginning to be laced with the Irish version of cynicism; that is to say, cynicisim with wee doses of begrudgery and ill wishes! (though I accept RTE should have a tighter rule book and Lee a better awareness of the ethical issues in the step between journalism and poltics)
When all is said and done I welcome Lee’s decision to contest a Dáil seat. The reason is simple and has nothing to do with how early Lee, with vetinary precision, diagnosed the ill health of our Celtic Tiger. Nor has it to do with his politics (After all he has joined Fine Gael!). Lee is unlikely to suggest any major change in the balance of power in Irish capitalism. He’s more likely to advocate more of the same model, just done better and with tigher ethical standards of governance.
So the reason I welcome Lee is neither politcs nor economics as such. I welcome Lee because what Irish politics desperately lacks is the ability to attract people who have seasoned experience and tested competence in diverse fields. Recall, we live in a country where, owing to parish allegiances and our peculiar political culture, people are elected for who they are, not what they know or how they are qaulified. Our ‘top three’, Cowen, Lenihan and Coughlan inherited their politcal dynasties. And in the two upcoming by-elections, one is being contested by the brother of our former Taoiseach and the other by the son of the former occupant. In other words, our political culture has a particular capacity for replicating the same genes over and over. (And I want to say, the two men involved have every right to run. And there are other candidates in the fold).
But I say Lee’s decision is positive if it can represent even a slight change in the profile of those who run for public office. Surely it would be for the better if we could see accountants, architects, business people, community activits, pyschologists, etc. etc. making their various expertise and experience available to help govern the country. Yes, we have lawyers, teachers, doctors, accountants, etc already, but the bulk of them are those who trained but came from a political background and entered politics early. I am talking about finding highly successful and talented people — from any field — and getting them to switch to take on elected office.
Back to Lee. The hype surrounding his announcement showed how truly unusual it is for a well known figure to enter the fray. And yet in terms of what he represents the whole thing was vastly overdone. Vincent Browne lamented that Lee has now tied his great talent in the chains of party dogma and his contribution to this country in consequence will be greatly diminished. What a load of rubbish!
First: Are we saying that George Lee’s early call on the Tiger tells us that he is some kind of one in a million guru whose wise, independent voice is now needed to guide us to safety? The truth is that almost everyone knew what Lee knew. And those who didn’t were willfully ignoring the reality. We had the OECD, ESRI, IMF, National Competitiveness Council and swathes of independent (?) economists studying our economy and giving us warnings and advice. (In fact, all Lee was doing was reading these reports and passing on the message - can no-one else be found to do that?).
Second, Browne implys that the best or wisest voices should be kept out of the political system (so they have no direct access to power). But locking out wisdom - as our political culture does — sits tightly among the chief causes of our political paralysis.
And that is why we need new voices, new talent, a wider net for drawing in seasoned experts from all walks of life, into the heart of our moribund political clique. but we need many more if they are to sweep into our system and blow it open.
Wednesday 6 May 2009
Monday 4 May 2009
Monday 27 April 2009
Something in the headline struck a chord: the small planet. Strangely enough I have often brooded on the melancholy thought that yes, indeed, our planet is terribly small. The most recent waves of Globalisation which occurred over the last 60 years in particular have truly shrunk the world. In part this is a conceit - we in the rich countries can fly almost anywhere while those in the poorer countries struggle to feed their families. But even in developing countries the numbers travelling have been growing. And if the runways in Kathmandu and Kigali are mainly used by Western tourists, the truth is that despite the inequality this a thickening of the connection between one part of the world and another.
When you have travelled a reasonable amount you begin to feel that the world is small. I haven't clocked an amazing number of air miles but I've been several times to North America, a couple of times to Asia, round a good deal of Europe, and once to Africa. Of course one trip to Africa hardly means I know the world's second largest continent. But the point is that the path is open.
And so many paths are now open on an enormous scale. Ads by travel agents convince us that nothing stands between us and the wonders of the Pyramids of Egypt, the Amazon rain forest, or the polar Ice caps, but a phone call and credit card number.
I have always been fascinated by that page in the in-flight magazine which shows the destinations which your airline serves; and filled by a mixture of amazement and horror by the number of destinations served by big airports like Heathrow. When you're at an airport the whole world seems to be on the move. You feel - or at least I do - that the whole earth has been unsettled and everyone is going somewhere else.
It is an amazing feat of technology and a triumph of the human desire for exploration and progress that we now have a world where you can pretty much get from one point on its surface to any other within about the time the whole thing takes to rotate on its axis. Amazing and triumhant yes. But also somewhat sad. It reminds of the star trek saying that space is the final frontier.
When I imagine our former earthly frontiers, the East, the West, the Dark Continent, the American West - which have been pushed into history by our intrepid explorers, I cannot suppress a faint but deep pang of nostalgia for that older world - the one that lay utterly undiscovered.
There had to be something of a spiritual vacuum at the heart of our burning desire to discover an elsewhere. The dream that beyond the frontier lay some untarnished wonder: an exotic people, a green, empty continent, an unlimited supply of gold. And now, when I visit other once far flung parts, I wonder what did the first visitors see? What vision had they or their immediate descendants for the land they were soon to make their home, or in the case of Africa and other parts, the land they were soon to exploit within an inch of its life? But above all imagine their wonder. The excitement of first setting foot in a new world. Like all journeys the expectation and the dream were probably bigger than the reality when it came.
And so we pushed back all earthly frontiers and made rapid paths - by land, sea, and air - to all corners of our world. God gave us a large planet, and we made it small.
Tuesday 21 April 2009
Táim ag súil go mór le tuilleadh ón pheann chéanna.
Thursday 2 April 2009
Yet I think that most commentators, interest groups and politicians have failed to identify the crux of our problem. The unions blame big business, the government blames the world economy, the opposition blame the government, and for the most part the ordinary man in the street blames the bankers and the builders.
All of the above have indeed a part to play in how this sorry saga left us where we are. But as far as I'm concerned, the failure which lies at the very heart of our crisis is not one in regulation or integration into the world economy. Nor is it a failure to set remuneration for bankers which reflects accurately on value generated. No, the prime failure responsible for getting us where we are is a political failure.
Not in the narrow sense that the FF ministers who piloted the country during the boom bear sole responsibility. Certainly it is shocking that none of the said ministers has come close to even admitting that serious mistakes were made. To hear Mary Coughlan on morning Ireland it was as if she and her fellow ministers arrived in Leinster House only last week. I put this down to pure arrogance. It seems to me that the current cohort of FF ministers has been infected with a brazen, brass necked arrogance which makes them unable to contemplate, even for a second, that any one of them might be fallible. There isn't even a scent of humility left in their tired, brain dead beings. They have spent so long in the ministerial cars and arriving in for their executive meetings that they cannot imagine any other existence. It is hard to allow that they might have any inkling of what real life is in our crumbling economy, so removed are they from the harsh winds buffetting our lives right now.
So, much as I loathe the current crop of ministers, I think that our problem as a nation is broader still. It lies in the very nature of our political system two aspects of which are critical. One is our politicial structures which are clearly unfit for the purpose of twenty first century government. The second is our political culture.
Our moribund senate is a relic of some 1930s fantasy about diversity. Our tired and tiresome Dáil has become no more than a platform for the executive to announce its latest great plans. These houses make up our legislature but it barely deserves the name. Our executive makes the law, and makes it in the face of a legislature which is uterrly toothless to influence the main thust of what the government wants. As an executive, the government is almost completely immune from scrutiny.
True, the committee system has been a useful development over the decades. But it remains ad hoc and terribly uneven. It is a tangled web of undefined and overlapping interests. And for the most part, the general public has no purchase on it. There is without doubt a huge aspect of jobs for the boys.
On the whole then, our Parliament, the Oireachtas, needs a complete overhaul.
On a broad level, it is high time we attempted to break the connection between the parish pump and national office. The parochial nature of our political system is terribly debilitating. The constituency system needs to be re-thought. It is simply not good enough to say it served us well and therefore should be left alone. All political systems should evolve to meet the new requirements of democracy. One suggestion might be that we have a mixed system, partially list and partially local constituencies. No need to rewrite the constitution here, merely to point out that our current arrangement is deficient.
Leave it all to the 800 or so state agencies - a number which ballooned during the celtic tiger. The report by TASC a few years ago showed just how many important functions have been outsourced to powerful bodies with little or no accountability. Key positions still appointed not on merit or by an independent panel - but on the basis of being one of the old boys in the, largely, FF network. Fit for purpose indeed.
Then there is local government. Well it really is a joke isn't it. At present it doesn't really exist - we have local administrators rather than local government. Are we still so immature that local public servants cannot be trusted with our affairs?
Perhaps, and that leads on to a question that is even more important and intractable. Our political culture. At its core lies the notion that those in power should be able to do things their way and get their associates involved no matter what. It is a culture which is all about looking after those who gave the dig out. It is about nods and winks, and we hope fewer brown envelopes than before.
But its striking feature is the absence of a sense of civic duty, the modern concept of which includes transparency and accountability. The idea of accountability is almost completely absent from our political culture. As is the idea that those in high office are there, primarily, to serve the nation and the common good.
This inward, party-and-friends-first mentality is so ingrained in our political elite that it prevents them from rising to the occasion even in a crisis. Even in this hour of need, party and friends come first, not the common good. On Morning Ireland Mary Coughlan was accused of being all about the party. In defending herself, she unwittingly underlined the truth of the allegation: she listed out her priorities, which she pressed, included the nation. "First, my party and Fianna Faíl". Then " the good people of Donegal", and of course in her ministerial role, she was there to serve the nation. Basically, after Party and locals, the nation comes a poor last.
Who thinks that Brian Cowen is any different? Is he not, and probably the bulk of the shadow cabinet across from him, infected with the same virus?
With a blinkered, inward vision of politics and high office. With the absence of accountaility and integrity. With a lack of transparency and culpability, is it any wonder that the interests of those in power drifted so far from the interest of the nation at large?
This kind of paralysis breeds ineptitude by excluding merit and talent. And it leaves us bereft of the kind of leadership and ability that we so desperately need in the thick of a crisis.
The place to start reform therefore is not the banks or the finances - but the very nature of our political system.
Thursday 26 February 2009
Cowen got off to a wobbly start. After he became Taoiseach, he immediately faced the Lisbon vote. He took an immediate political hit when the referendum proposal failed. It could be argued that Cowen's Lisbon campaign was already badly compromised by Bertie's long good bye and endless tribunal appearances. So Cowen perhaps got the benefit of the doubt. In any case, Cowen was still walking tall after the incredibly turn around in the Fianna Fáil election campaign in 2007 which he is largely credited for. (The campaign looked like it was going to implode over anomalies in Bertie's evidence, but Cowen was senior among those who grabbed the campaign - and Bertie - by the scruff of the neck and hauled it back on track).
It is often said that Cowen's first act was to reshuffle the cabinet and that even there he lacked imagination. That is true - his choice of Tánaiste in particular was astounding and is bound to keep on hurting him. But even so, it could hardly be said that Cowen picked a few dummies for the top jobs from a sea of talent! In reality, he had slim pickings.
When the financial and economic crisis struck, however, Cowen seemed unable to get the measure of it. He seemed cast onto the angry waves and for the most part since has come across as completely adrift. As the crisis deepened, he and his government continued to underestimate the depth of Ireland's financial and economic troubles. It is true that the financial collapse was not their doing and took the international community by surprise. Lenihan, like everyone else had to engage in - and is still in the thick of - a fire fight. But the economic and fiscal crisis is different: that should have been seen earlier.
More to the point: it was seen earlier. Even in July the government saw fit to have the mini-budget. But Cowen set us on a course then which would see the same mistake repeated: doing too little too late.
It is not clear to me whether Cowen was in denial until recently about the extent of he problem in the economy or if he simply lacked the courage and nature to rise to the occasion by taking very bold steps early. In any case, nothing he has done has signalled that he is in command.
Cowen has not shown some of the essential traits of a leader who can take his people through a deep crisis. The first issue, as I mentioned, was that he didn't seem capable of quickly comprehending the nature of the crunch. Great leaders have a sixth sense, a sharp acumen that allows them to feel the nature of the crisis as or before it happens. No so for Cowen. If there was one person in Ireland who should have known that our tax base was chronically unbalanced for a property shock it should have been the man who had just spent three years in charge of finance.
Cowen also fails another test. When he finally did see the crisis for what it was, he lacked the depth to draw up a strategy. When the figures pointed Cowen towards the abyss, he shrunk. He may have felt intimidated by the sheer extent of the problem, or he may have been unable to get the measure of it. Either way, he has not given the impression he is drafting a grand strategy that, while flexible in terms of tactics because circumstances will change, charts a plausible course towards recovery.
There is probably a good reason why Cowen has not come up with such a strategy. In order to think about the kind of things that will get us through the crisis, we need to think about what kind of country we want afterward. That will require a dramatic re-alignment of Irish fiscal life, and Cowen is among those who lead us into the terrible place we are now. He was also in the cabinet which saw Charlie McCreevy devastate our tax base and prime pump the property bubble. Cowen would now need the courage to turn his back on that legacy and call a (hole digging) spade a spade.
On another crucial level Cowen has failed: communication. He simply hasn't been present. Perhaps bereft of a strategy he feels he has nothing to say directly to the people. But that is probably not the reason. He can talk with passion about pulling together and taking action, even if he lacks a plan. Yet he doesn't address the nation. When he talk at all it only happens by chance as it were - at a talk with the Dublin chamber of commerce or the like. He should take a leaf out of Roosevelt's book. Franklin D Roosevelt took over in the Great Depression. Apart from being obsessed about discovering the causes and generating a grand strategy, Roosevelt was determined to make it clear to people what was required and what he was planning to do. In his famous radio broadcasts, called "fireside chats", he spoke directly to the nation about how the process was developing. It is clear that Obama too speaks directly to his people. Cowen however, is only seen bickering in the Dáil or on the steps of some conference when he runs into the press. He needs to be out front in a crisis like this.
And finally Cowen falls on another hurdle. He doesn't display a great sense of political acumen: he completely misread the way the budget would be received, and his credibility was repeatedly damaged by a series of rollbacks such as the over 70s. On the recent levy again he failed to read the anger and failed to ensure that the cut would be equitable. He also failed to give a sense of leadership by example.
Cowen could have made great gains in terms of support if he had made some radical announcements, perhaps cutting the number of junior ministers, deeper cuts in TD and ministerial salaries, a direct promise to the people that we would pursue all wrong doing or illegal acts in the banks and build a world class culture of corporate governance (he left this to the Greens to say, why?), he could have announced in parallel with the public sector levy that, while the commission in taxation has not yet finished, the government promises to rebalance the whole tax base, and he could have said that during the celtic tiger we strayed off the path in terms of equality and fairness and that for the lower paid, any gains were ephemeral, but that now we will start afresh and create a fair society. But Cowen could never bring himself to say that.
He left those grand statements to others, such as Eamon Gilmore, who has scored exceptionally well in the latest poll while Cowen flounders. No, definitely not rising to the occasion Mr Cowen; not the leader we need now in a time of crisis.
Friday 13 February 2009
Here now in the middle of the storm, everyone is shouting about Lenihan's shortcomings. He didn't capitalise first off; he didn't wind up Anglo; he didn't fold the two big banks into one good big bank and dump the bad loans in a financial landfill. But actually, must of the commentary is just people letting off steam (the remainder is mainly just political game playing). People are frustrated because they still expect some kind of quick fix or rapid conclusion. The nation hasn't settled into the reality yet that the Irish economy is small raft which has just entered a long canyon with a series of rapids along its length. We don't know how long the canyon is, nor how many rapids there are, and we have no idea whether a little raft like ours can make it to the end without overturning.
In general there has been little effort to understand the situation in which Lenihan finds himself. He is not a financial expert and even if he were, it wouldn't guarantee success for we have entered completely unknown territory. Lenihan is faced with a set of circumstances which are rapidly changing and for which there is no agreed or known formula for making things better. Even the most powerful nations have been badly shaken by the global crisis and are to a large degree are making it up as we go along. How could any Irish minister expect to be any different?
True, we can disagree about specific measures : the distribution of taxes or the percentage of board members which should be replaced, but in general there is no over arching template which will lead us to safety.
We do need an opposition now - for all measures taken now need careful scrutiny. But the general public should also scrutinise the scrutiny. It is very easy for Richard Bruton for example to list off what the minister is doing wrong. "it's very simple" said Bruton "we need to set up a new bank with a clean balance sheet". But no actually it's not that simple. This route has not yet been chosen by any other country. It is by no means tried and tested. It may carry considerable risk. For example, much of the present banks function perfectly well - they have systemic knowledge of the Irish economy, they know Irish customers, they use methods which have been honed for years, they have division which functions well. It seems reasonable to me to try to resuscitate them. Yes, we need immediate changes of personnel, and medium term we need to build a brand new regulatory framework and to try to create a new banking culture. But much of this will take time and considerable thought, debate and agreement in order to make it work.
Overall, I think Lenihan has tried pretty hard and as proved agile and courageous when necessary. He also comes across as quite commanding and determined. And I would be tempted to give him the benefit of the doubt. That is to say, I would see no prospect of better performance by any of his potential replacements, from within FF or without. ( By the way, this is not the same as saying I would be opposed to a change of government. I think that while Lenihan deserves a certain understanding, FF senior ranks and its power fattened, arrogant culture, is way out of touch and there needs to be a far broader rebalancing in society between the very wealthy, the merely well off, and the ordinary working people).
True, Lenihan should have read the entirety of the report that mentioned the IL&P loans. It was a mistake not to have done so. But I'm not convinced it meant that he wasn't taking the whole Anglo thing seriously nor that he wasn't dedicated to getting past that particular hurdle. But everyone makes a mistake and that one wasn't catastrophic. With our without that revelation Anglo was a basket case. But of course Lenihan cannot get away with many similar errors. He will have to be hyper diligent now.
Nevertheless, I think it is far too easy to say what Lenihan should do and what he shouldn't. For every second day he has to take (and has taken) enormous decisions which will affect this country for a long time. And there is no easy way. As economist Dan O'Brien said the other night "this is a process". And it is unprecedented and so it is like fire fighting. It's about keeping going and there are no easy answers.
Sunday 25 January 2009
Numbers for those who have suffered pay cuts or who fear their jobs will be lost soon are impossible to guess, but multiplied across the country it is easy to see why people are annoyed. Then there is the sense of impending doom - huge public sector cuts are about to be announced. And people know where this leads - for public sector workers it affects their standard of living, perhaps very sharply if you happen to be on contract and face the dole cue. The general public know it means longer queues for services and a likely decline in the quality of service when it does get delivered.
So much to be angry about. Yet who should be the object of this anger. It seems that bankers are getting a very hard time. I've heard people curse them. "They should be locked up". Others blame the government. And of course, the builders get it too.
All of these groups deserve a certain amount of opprobrium. The top bankers in particular did us no favours - though they were keen enough to do themselves plenty of favours. The government though - and this essentially means FF and the PDs - bear a far larger share of responsibility. They are ultimately the group who have wielded power. It was even they who failed to create adequate regulation for banking. And of course it was our government, under Ahern, who fueled the train wreck that was the Irish property fantasy.
But as far as I can see, very few people, however angry they are, have been willing to mention the other group who bear responsibility: the electorate. As an electorate, collectively, we chose the FF- PD arrangement. Not only did we choose it in 97 (at that stage perhaps we could be forgiven for taking a chance with a new regime) , but after 5 years we returned them, reinforcing the direction they were taking. Five years later, at a time when we all knew that our property fueled splurge was a fantasy and doomed for a sad end, what did we do? Their leader was mired in an unsavoury mess of unbelievable tales related to uncountable sums of cash. So what did we do? We returned them to power.
True, the opposition was weak. Perhaps they were even pathetic, but the fact that they too offered us the same brand of fantasy is as much a reflection of us as them. We kept buying in to the fantasy that income taxes could keep on being lowered and expenditure keep on growing, because the coffers were flush. Even Pat Rabbit of Labour felt it necessary to satiate our appetite for lower taxes by offering to cut the lower rate. The Unions -- who profress to protect public services -- bought in fully and signed up to over a decade of seemingly endless tax cuts.
So FF-PD and Labour and FG alike, each and all, failed us by not offering us the leadership and courage to tell us we were tying ourselves in to an unsustainable strategy. SO yes, our political class failed us. But they did what the political system to a certain extent guarantees - they gave us what we wanted, even if that meant setting us on a path to destruction.
But we bought it. We kept on clinging to the impossible promise of ever lower taxes and ever more public spending. We heard the phrase that we wanted the public service of Sweden with the taxes of Texas, yes we heard it, and we turned the other way. As a nation we fully bought in - literally and figuratively - to the property and low tax nightmare. It seemed so good - we couldn't make a rationally sound decision to reject it.
In the end we are all to blame. No, not equally, and our elected leaders did us a massive disservice. Bar his extraordinary commitment and achievement in Northern Ireland, Bertie Ahern's legacy has now suddenly gone from questionable to disastrous. His successor, who was at the centre of the Ahern regime, is now struggling to save his own legacy.
But we as a nation failed ourselves too. We walked ourselves into this nightmare. We were either terribly easy to fool, or, no one fooled us, and we were heedless and greedy. Neither answer is particularly glorious.
That we to some extent share the blame is one good reason why we are wrong if we indulge in a further fantasy that one small group of people - the cabinet - can take us out of this. Leaving aside their dubious talent, it is simply not possible for government of fix even most of the economic problem facing the country. It will be fixed by working its way through the system and forcing individuals to take tough decisions -- managers, business leaders, trade unionists, workers private and public. It will be a deeply unedifying way to celebrate the 90th anniversary of our first Dáil if we collapse into a mire of blame and counter blame or retreat into the fantasy that it was all the government's fault so they should fix it. Time to start shouldering a little bit of individual responsibility.
Thursday 15 January 2009
But then today I was thinking about the number of trips abroad the Irish make and the amount they spend. In 2007 for the first time the Irish made more trips abroad than visitors came to the Emerald Isle. And the Irish spent more abroad than tourists spent here. In fact, we spent 4 billion abroad in 2007 on holiday trips (according to the CSO). This excludes business trips which was in the region of 400 million. So the Irish spent over 2% of GDP abroad that year.
Without question overall spending on holidays this year will be down dramatically. Yet a huge chunk of the population will take to the skies this year for foreign lands. Even if spending fell by 50%, it would represent well over 1% of GDP.
That would be in the region of say 2 billion euro. If Irish residents were to turn patriotic and spend this at home, it would be a huge injection into an economy where every billion counts. There will be a massive battle very soon to narrow the gap in the public finances by 2 billion this year. So an extra 1 billion in the overall economy would certainly mean a great deal.
But in the end of course this is purely a mental exercise. If people are cutting the heels of one another to get across the border to hand their taxes to he Crown, they are hardly going to forgo their tans for the sake of the greater good.
The notion I have outlined would have some practical issues, but in theory it is possible. But on reading it, you just wince at its naivety. And the reason of course is that you know that in reality people are willing to sacrifice precious little even if they knew it would make a difference to the overall state of the country. In short, people are governed by very powerful self interest, and there is no doubt we will see that in its rawest form very soon when various groups start screaming about why they are special and shouldn't have to make sacrifices for the greater good. It will be terribly interesting - though I predict unsightly - to watch how this plays out over the coming months and years and how it will reflect on what solidarity means in this country.