Tuesday, December 19, 2006

No turn unstoned

I'm sorry but I just couldn't let this pass without comment. Loyalist murderer Michael Stone who last month attempted to storm the Stormont Assembly has defended his actions as a piece of 'performance art'. The self-described "freelance dissident loyalist" wrote to Peter Hain and the Northen Ireland Chief Constable Sir Hugh Orde, alleging that his "unfinished work", entitled 'Never Say Never', was aimed at exposing the "futility of the politically-motivated violence created in a political vacuum". Perhaps 'Never Say No Surrender' might have made for a better title for the piece if that's his position. He signed off: "Political conflict is a crossroads for art, the art transcends politics." I always knew that no good would come of letting them Open University folks into the Kesh.

I can imagine the jokes that are already being made in the pubs and clubs of Belfast as I write so I'm not even going to try compete. Even scousers know when they're beaten in the dark humour stakes. But I think mad Mickey might be on to something.

Somebody once described performance art as dance for people who don't know how to dance but for the more open minded a visit to the Sniggle performance art page might prove worthwhile (Sniggle). The possibilities for a whole new genre of Northern Irish locality based pieces is endless.

Instead of painting kerbs stones in sectarian hues or knocking out one more muriel of King Billy crossing the Boyne, the creatively inclined members of the two communities could turn their hands to a whole range of politics-transcending performance pieces.

Actors disguised as Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley meeting for a pint in The Crown and refusing to talk about religion, politics or football. Rousing choruses of The Fields of Athrenry sung to the the tune of the Sash from behind the goal at Windsor Park, or a brick donated in the name of Bobby Sands on the Linfield FC homepage (if there isn't one already). I'm sure you get the drift.

The organisers of Féile an Phobail should be beating a path to Stone's jail cell to book him for next year's festival. I'm sure the NIO would oblige with a brief release under licence in the name of progressive performance art.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Blogged Out

Regular readers (God love you one and all, or possibly just the one of you) may have noticed a gap in my contributions over the past wee while. I’m afraid to report that the amount of blogworthy material emerging from this small island in the past seven days became just too great for one blogger to keep up with.

To provide a pithy and witty summary of the amount of governmental mismanagement, corruption in high places, social injustice and the folie á quatre million that is contemporary Ireland would have turned me into a goggle-eyed RSI sufferer chained to his PC 24-7 for the past week. And that would have just been dealing with Brian Cowan’s budget. As a consequence I suffered the human equivalent of cascade overflow and found myself rendered both speechless and blogless until I could take it all in and put it into some kind of context

So here are the headlines

Cowan puts the trickle into ‘trickle down’

In a budget characterised by its author as ‘well received in most quarters’or most quarters where they drink a lot of Bollinger, that is, our Brian eased the tax burden for his high earning mates and still managed to throw a few scraps to the rest of us.

Brian Cowan reveals a penchant for floral adornment

Well I for one am breaking out the champagne, or perhaps the Tesco economy fizzy plonk, to mark his benificence. But just one question. How come a smoker like me on a meagre scrivener’s pittance is only €6 a month better off when a junior barrister at one of the many corruption tribunals is likely to be €100+ to the good? Thank God the big bollix didn’t put a penny on the porter or I’d be on the next boat out (and not a moment too soon I hear some of you mutter).

Dykes get dunned in marriage decision

Now I know in writing our constitution Dev might had Archbishop McQuaid looking over his shoulder and even sent a copy for Vatican approval. The big fellow in Rome thought it 'too tolerant of other religions', by the way. However, I think even the Long Fellow might have paused at the Mosaic status given to his words by Justice Betty Dunne in the High Court last week. Her Honour ruled that the valid Canadian marriage of Katherine Zappone and Anne Louise Gilligan could not be recognised for tax purposes here on the ould sod.

Dev brings the constitution down
from the mountain

Part of her 138 page justification suggested that the Constitution should not be read as a living instrument, whatever that is, and instead should be interpreted in accordance with its historical context. I've read the relevant sections and I can't see anything there, except by implication, that a marriage has to consist of a man and a woman, but I guess in 1937 when the constitution was written that didn't have to be specified, since to suggest some alternative would involve condemnation from the pulpit and a quick trip to the North Wall.

What I do see is the following:
Article 40
1. All citizens shall, as human persons, be held equal before the law.

Following our Betty's reasoning and applying this in accordance with its context we might find that some folks (e.g. white, male, heterosexuals) are more equal than others, at least in the mind of 1937 Ireland and that's what matters. Try running that argument past the Court of Human Rights, your judgeship.

Now as an old fashioned Marxisante I would be fundamentally opposed to the institution of marriage per se, but while we're stuck with it I don't see why it shouldn't be open to anyone, even if their only motivation for jumping over the stick is the tax breaks. And if the preference of our judges is for a fundamentalist, 1937 reading, then I might draw their attention to Article 41.2.2 which states

The State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.

I didn't see much in Big Brian's budget protecting the right of mothers to stop home all day washing nappies and watching Oprah instead of having to go out and work to pay the 110% mortgage needed to keep a roof over their heads in the inflated housing market of modern Ireland. But I guess Dev didn't envisage that happening, either.

Which brings me to.....

Auctioneers and developers engage in dubious practices shock/yawn

The lads and lasses at Prime Time have been at it again exposing the shoddy, gombeen underside of life on the Emerald Isle. In a story that every dog on the street not only knew but if you conducted a survey of them 95% would respond 'What else would you expect from dem lads, now pass them bones would yeh like a good fellow?'

It seems that property developers and auctioneers have been engaging in unethical, illegal and conspiratorial practices at the expense of ordinary buyers, sellers and occupiers of homes. Call me an old cynic ("Liam, you're an old cynic!") but in present market conditions where everyone and his wife or same sex partner is trying to struggle onto the housing ladder like lemmings climbing up the cliff before throwing themselves off, my question is why wouldn't they? Expecting anything else from these guys would be like expecting a great white shark to turn up his snout at a sniff of fresh blood in the water.

Mature development in convenient location, all mod cons (plus a few you might be unaware of)

It seems the little rascals have been manipulating bids, gazumping, passing confidential financial information between agents and mortgage providers, etc, etc. The only thing that sets the needle slightly quivering on my personal surprisometer is that they didn't uncover a few dodgy solicitors getting in on the act, as well. Or maybe they did, he says with conspiratorial nudge and a wink.

And on a lighter note.....

High court declares open season on uppity knackers

Mayo farmer Pádraig Nally walked free this week 5 years after shooting traveller John ‘Frog’ Ward, beating him several times with a stout ashplant and then shooting him once more for good measure before pitching his body over a wall. At his first trial Nally said "It was like hitting a stone or a badger. You could hit him but you could not kill him" Well somebody did, Paddy me old mucker.

I’ll remember that verdict the next time someone calling me boss knocks at my front door and makes me a cash offer on my ’92 Toyota or offers to tarmac my drive. “But yer honour I shot him because I thought he might come back and thieve it. You know what these knackers are like.” And the sad thing is, on the basis of the Nally decision, I would get away with it, not a bother.

John 'Frog' Ward conducts a social policy seminar

The victim of Nally’s psychopathic nervousness was interviewed by Paul Deering of the Sligo Champion in 2001 when accommodation problems had forced him and his 6 sons to sleep in the Hiace cause there was no room in the caravan. He said at the time

What I find hard to understand is the fact that so many other homeless people can get help straight away. I have nothing against refugees and asylum seekers but as soon as one of them sets foot in this country they get put up in hostels and bed and breakfasts for free.... None of them are asked to sleep in the back of a van. If they were there would be uproar. All I want is fair play and I feel Irish people should be looked after first. I don't know what the problem is with helping the Travelling community.

The late Mr Ward's naivety is almost touching, God rest his soul. What he failed to understand is the following:

1. Irish people like black babies cause the Church told 'em to. Looking after them is part of the image respectable Irish Catholics like to have of themselves. They don't like them personally, you understand, at least not enough to have those hostels next door. They just the idea of being kind to them at a distance.

2. Irish people don't like Travellers, because Travellers just aren't respectable. They let the side down badly in this respect. They don't, as a rule, own shops or houses or have steady jobs and they tend not to pay taxes (But that's only recently been identified as a crime in these parts). What's possibly worse, they've never been in too much of a rush to get on the property ladder, either. If anything, the sight of a campsite at the end of the boreen turns the self-same ladder into a big, slithery downward pointing python and taxes the creative ingenuity of even the most devious of auctioneers.

3. Unlike like the aformentioned black babies, of late Travellers have developed a nasty habit of being ungrateful, demanding their rights, and pointing to the abysmal way they've been treated by sedentary Ireland since the founding of the state. Begob, the buggers have even started demanding ethnic minority status, so they have.

4. As I've said before, Irish society isn't very handy with the concept of rights. They just don't sit easily with our MOPE (most oppressed people ever) cultural self-concept. In the social pyramid of the Irish Republic you get what you're given and be thankful for it if you're at the bottom and you take what you can as long as you can get away with it if you're at the top. Any changes in this perspective usually involve the state being dragged by the ear to the European Court like a schoolboy caught smoking behind the bike sheds.

5.One right that is cherished, however, is the one that says that if you don't like this arrangement then you're free to push off to somewhere your rights are worth something, like anywhere else in the developed world, and don't be giving me any of that old Provo shite about cherishing the children of the nation equally.

And so to the summary
As Gil Scott-Heron once sang
Civil rights, women's rights, gay rights…it's all wrong. Call in the cavalry to disrupt this perception of freedom gone wild. God damn it…first one wants freedom, then the whole damn world wants freedom.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Better RED(TM)than dead?

Ok I'm listening to U2 on my ipod nano (TM) while strolling down the street in my Converse Hi-Tops(TM) and Gap(TM) t-shirt, texting my mates on my Motorola(TM) phone. I've just paid for dinner by Amex and my Armani watch would tell me it's midnight in Johannesburg if I could see it from beneath my Bono-alike Armani shades. I should be feeling good, but I don't. I don't feel red at all, in fact I feel distinctly blue.

My Google search engine tells me today is World Aids Day and that my conspicuous consumption of these commodities is making a difference to the lives of HIV/Aids sufferers in Africa. So does Bono and his mate Bobby Shriver who founded the Product Red campaign.

But in all the warm fuzziness surrounding the message of corporate compassion that Bono and Bobby are promoting I feel definitely uneasy, not to say queasy. If you actually look at the partners in this scheme it's clear that Bono and Bobby aren't too fussy about the company they keep.

Let's just go through them alphabetically:

American Express
Annual revenue about $24 billion. On the board of Amex we find such notables as Daniel Akerson MD of the Carlyle group one the largest private equity firms in Washington. Carlyle has had strong links with the Bush family and previous investors included the Bin Ladens. They were also involved in significant defense contracts.

Could this be the reason it's not available stateside?

Sitting along side Don we find Richard McGinn former CEO of Lucent Technologies. Lucent was in its day a darling of Wall Street until it was discovered that it had used dubious accounting and sales practices to generate some of its sales figures. In 2002 the company instituted cuts to the health care and retirement benefits its 125,000 retirees.

Next to Dicky sits Frank Popoff. Frank is the chairman of Chemical Financial Corporation, a bank holding company, but before that he was Chairman and CEO of the Dow Chemical Company. Dow manufactured napalm and Agent Orange for use in Vietnam. More recently it has stonewalled attempts to force it to pay for the environmental clean-up at the site of the Bhopal chemical disaster which it took over from Union Carbide when the later fled India following the disaster(www.studentsforbhopal.org).

In September this year Dow launched a major campaign designed, in the words of GolinHarris their PR company, "to leverage and deflect the influence of activists on issues ranging from the environment to animal welfare." Nice folks, but a bit sneaky, what?

Incidentally, on its release, the Red Amex card wasn't made available in the USA. I wonder if the colour has something to do with that?

Apple Computers
Annual revenue about $2.1 billion. Everybody loves Apple, except Greenpeace it would seem. Since 2004 they have been running a campaign to persuade Apple to be a bit more eco-conscious in its manufacturing and recycling procedures. In its campaign Greenpeace identifies cadmium, beryllium, lead, brominated flame retardants, hexavalent chromium, and mercury amongst the toxic substances in your Apple product.

According to their website (www.greenpeace.org/apple/about.html)
Right now, poison Apples full of chemicals (like toxic flame retardants, and polyvinyl chloride) are being sold worldwide. When they're tossed, they usually end up at the fingertips of children in China, India and other developing-world countries. They dismantle them for parts, and are exposed to a dangerous toxic cocktail that threatens their health and the environment.

With an annual revenue of $1692 million last year, the designer to dictators, coke barons and Hollywood movie moguls, our Georgio is also a convicted tax fraudster. In a 1996 plea bargain arrangement he was fined $64,000 and received a suspended sentence for attempting to bribe tax inspectors.


Now owned by Nike (need I say more) after its 2001 bankruptcy Converse shifted its manufacturing outside the United States to China, Indonesia and Vietnam (No sweatshop labour there, I would think). In addition to the famous Hi-Tops, the company also manufactures a range of 'tactical' footwear and it you can bet it ain't basket-ball players and fey singer-songwriters who form the market for those booties.

Annual Revenue around $16 billion. Having had a long history of, shall we say, unfortunate sourcing of its products, GAP has recently begun greening its image and taking a lead in the growing area of corporate social responsibility. So its involvement with a cause like Product Red is not surprising. Nonetheless, it is still the subject of campaigns resultng from the use of union bashing subcontractors like Paxar in Turkey and Western Factory in Jordan. According to the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), the Gap's clothing products are manufactured with genetically engineered and pesticide laden cotton. Additionally, the company is not thoroughly implementing a code of conduct for its suppliers to ensure that no sweatshop labor is employed.

In 2002 BusinessWeek named Gap as having one of the worst corporate boards. The company was cited for inside deals including contracts with the chairman's brother to build and remodel stores and a consulting arrangement with the chairman's wife. The magazine also pointed out the interlocking directorship with the Gap's CEO sitting on Apple's board, while Apple's CEO sits on Gap's. (Responsible Shopper).

And last, but not least, Motorola

Annual revenue about $41.2 billion. Outside of the world of corporate capital, Motorola's CEO Edward J Zander is probably best known for his prescient comment of 2005 "Screw the nano. What the hell does the nano do? Who listens to 1,000 songs?"

The company, which describes itself as a global corporate citizen (what be that?) presumably took its equal opportunities, affirmative action stance seriously while slashing its workforce from 160,000 to about 55,000 since 2001.

It has also become a significant player in the US Defence market of late. In 2003 it received a contract for the purchase, delivery and distribution of 3,000 portable and vehicular-mounted mobile radios, base stations, repeaters and towers, spare parts and installation to support the Baghdad Police Force.

To be fair to Motorola, of the bunch Bono and Bobby have gathered around them they appear to have the most proactive and longstanding commitment to corporate responsibility. Moreover, it does not appear to have emerged as a result of scandals surrounding sweatshops and child labour, so fair play to Moto.

The point about all this is that, as any Marxist knows, you can't separate consumption from production. Encouraging people to engage in conspicuous consumption won't change the social relationships that are the root cause of the under-development that leads to diseases like HIV/AIDS, malaria and TB shortening lives across the world. Holidaying in other people's misery is one thing but encouraging us to buy products which indirectly contribute to that misery is nothing more than an act of bad faith and self-mystification.

Helping a handful of corporations to present themselves as caring and compassionate instead of the rapacious barbarians they collectively are and giving affluent kids in the west the sense that shopping can make the world a better place, doesn't just miss the point, it just confuses the issue further. It won't stop the exploitation and it won't fundamentally change the nature of capitalism. It just becomes another tool in their armoury and they know it. As the PR company GolinHarris noted recently:

But it isn’t big brother that is watching. It’s the people. Every activist group, no matter how small, has the weapons in hand to attack a major corporation and sometimes bring it to its knees. Insight and experience dealing with NGOs will be a valuable asset in the protection of corporate reputation.

Thanks for giving them a helping hand, Paul.

Monday, November 27, 2006

What sort of message is this sending out?

The decision of the Ulster bank to issue a commemorative fiver bearing the image of revered soccer idol, and slightly less revered liver transplantee, George Best has set me wondering what's going on up above there in the North. The notes are available from Ulster Bank from November 27th.

Announcing the issue last month on BBC Northern Ireland, Ulster bank chief executive Cormac McCarthy said, apparently without a hint of irony,
"...we wanted to ensure that...we paid fitting tribute to his contribution to football in Northern Ireland and beyond. We wanted to make it possible for fans throughout Northern Ireland and further afield to own their very own piece of unique George Best memorabilia. By selecting the most affordable note denomination, five pounds, we have tried to make the notes as widely accessible as possible."

It would be pedantic of me to point out that if you have a million of something they can't be unique but, mere pedantry aside, the idea of Georgie (they call him) the Belfast boy on a note of the realm I find deeply ironic and not a little bit, how shall we say, uncharacteristic of the image of thrift and sobriety normally fostered by an austere financial institution like Ulster Bank. I wonder what Dr Paisley has to say about this?

Our Georgie was never averse to spending fivers (like a docker on payday, some unkind souls might say) and doubtless used one or two to light the odd havana in his time after a good night at the casino with a former Miss World or three on his arm. Sporting icon and national hero he might have been but a model of the Protestant work ethic, thrift and sobriety much favoured in Belfast, so I've heard, he most certainly was not.

Now, don't get me wrong, I loved the bones of George even though he played for the forces of darkness (i.e. United as seen from Liverpool). To me, like thousands of working class kids of my generation, George Best was a major inspiration in more fields than the soccer variety. George showed us that class barriers could be broken down (preferably in an E-Type Jag), that you could party into the wee small hours, drink copious amounts of champers and still break Don Revie's heart with a hat trick later the same day. A man who retired at the age of 26, for heaven's sake. What kid from inner city Liverpool, Belfast, or Birmingham looking at a future in a factory wouldn't see that as an aspiration?

Who could not admire a man who once said "I spent a lot of my money on booze, birds and fast cars - the rest I just squandered." Well no one whose moral and social values were shaped in those heady days of the late 60s and early 70s when women were women and men wore flares.

Those values of innocent hedonism and devil may care decadence that George embodied are perhaps best summed up in his admission, on the Jonathon Ross show, I think, that after his liver transplant he felt for a while that the new liver had wiped the slate clean and the partying could resume as per usual. What a man for even owning up to having had such a thought!

The sad thing is that most of the million fivers won't be used in a way George would appreciate. You won't see many being passed across pub counters,lost on the turn of a croupier's wheel or soundly invested in a sure thing running at Kempton Park. They'll be up on ebay and turning a nice profit for some dull micro-capitalist exploiting the acquisitive desires of the type of anorak who can tell you who scored the winning goal for Altrincham Town in the 1st round of the 1972 FA Trophy but who wouldn't recognise the pure and redeeming beauty of great football if it nutmegged them on the edge of the 6 yard box. How times change.

Anyway, always one to think ahead me, any takers for a commemorative nicotine patch for Alex Higgins then?

Sunday, November 26, 2006

All in the family

NEPOTISM, n. Appointing your grandmother to office for the good of the party.

From The Devil's Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce.

Something which has always struck me as odd about the Irish political system is the way in which seats in the Dáil often seem to be passed on in families like some weird recessive gene.

I did a bit of research recently and discovered that of the current 166 sitting above in the Oireachtas, over 20 percent of them (that's 35 for you non-arithmeticians) had been preceded in the house by a close relative of some sort or, like our own dear Taoiseach, had a sibling or other close relative working in the (family) business of state. Of that 35, at least 17 appeared to have directly inherited their seat from an immediate family member. And that's just Dáil Éireann. I didn't look at the Senate or the European Parliament.

As a page devoted to the topic on wikipedia tactfully puts it: 'There is a tradition in Irish politics of having family members suceed each other in the same parliamentary seat.' As we all know, I hope, just because something is a tradition, it doesn't make it right.

Moreover, it is a tradition that appears to be set to extend itself for another generation and beyond, if the biographies of the current Dáil Éireann crowd can be relied on (Not always a sure thing, just ask Bertie about his academic qualifications, for example). I stopped counting after I ran out of fingers, toes and other numberable body parts, but a recurring phrase in many of their bios seemed to be 'XXX'S son/daughter/younger brother serves on Dublin/Cork/Limerick/Galway Council'. Which it seems to me is code for 'will inherit the seat when the old man buys the farm/moves up to the Senate/gets a nice little earner in the EU'.

Now I don't know about you, but I would find such a high proportion of legacies in any democratic society to be something of a worry, but in Ireland it makes me very nervous indeed. Apart from serious stuff about the formation of oligarchies which stifle the democratic process and concentrate power and influence in the hands of a ruling elite, the potential conflicts of interest that can arise and the possibility of producing a lineage like that of the Bush family, what really scares the bejabbers out of me is that the institution that appears to be producing a significant proportion our political masters is the Irish family.

You don't need to be a social historian or a sociologist to know that the Irish family is a unique class of a beast. Ask anyone who ever grew up in one. A product of the Great Hunger and a particularly rigourous form of 19th Century European Catholicism, its principal products over the past 150 years have been emigrants, schizophrenics, priests, parochialism and a brand of internecine disharmony unparalled for its stubborn persistence. It is not an institution I for one would rely on to produce politicians of vision and statesmanlike abilities.

In other countries, the selection of political representatives is usually a quite rigorous process involving committees and panels and the assessment of candidates' character and abilities. In Ireland the process of selection probably goes on like this (With apologies to Synge and Keane):-

Interior night, a peasant cottage somewhere in rural Ireland. Dan 'the Bull' Aherne sits at a scrubbed pine kitchen table sipping tea loudly from a chipped enamel mug. He is a large man with a thick white beard and a fine mane of silver hair. Though old his eyes have lost none of their peasant craftiness and are set deep in his weather beaten face. Behind him, his wife, a small women of middle years attends a large pan simmering on the kitchen range.

BULL: What's to become of that son of ours, that Bertie? Tis a hard story the way I'm left to-day, when it was I did tend him from his hour of birth, and he a dunce never reached his second book, the way he'd come from school, many's the day, with his legs lamed under him, and he blackened with his beatings like a tinker's ass.

The woman ignores him and continues to stir the contents of the pot on the range

BULL: The wrack and ruin of three score years; and it's a terror to live that length, I tell you, and to have a son going to the dogs against you, and you wore out scolding him, and skelping him, and God knows what. I never till this
day confused that dribbling idiot with a likely man. I'm destroyed surely.

The silence from the kitchen range continues, broken only by the sound of spoon against pot

BULL: [turning on the silent woman with a roar of rage.] -- Didn't you hear me say he was the fool of men, the way from this out he'll know the orphan's lot. He has me killed, so he does. Why couldn't he be like his brothers and sisters, keeping the slates on the roof with the remittance money from Amerikay? Married into land in the town below or doling out the penances to the sinners above in Dublin? What's to become of him and us. I'll tell ye now, woman, 'twas cursed the day we sent that eejit Noel off to the building sites of London and kept Bertie here to inherit the land my parents broke their hearts and backs defending from the Tans.

The Bull and Bertie discuss election strategies

He bangs the chipped mug down on the table spilling its contents, cradles his head in his hands and begins weeping softly. His wife continues to stir the pot silently. Suddenly she turns away from the range and speaks, her voice tremulous with passion

WIFE: Bull, tis 18 long years since I last opened me mouth to speak to ye. Aye 18 years since ye walked the light of me life down to the emigrant boat with naught but the fare in his pocket and a few phone numbers in Cricklewood. I begged you to send Bertie in the place of the other one, but ye'd have none of it, would ye? Too stupid you said, too lazy, too feckless and conniving to make the friends a man would need to last on the streets of London. Well Bull, me darling, there's only one thing for it now. If he's no good for the land, too much of sinner to take the cloth and no girl in the district would after be taking him for a husband, then there's nothing else but it's up to the Dáil he'll have to go.

The Bull looks up and around him, an expression of wonder on his face like a prisoner emerging into the light of day.

BULL: Let him take his father's seat, is that what your're saying woman? Let him take responsibility for the budget estimates,the health service, the town planning, the infrastructural development, the taxation, the brown envelopes?

WIFE: I am indeed Bull, me darling. Where else could we be placing the wee ommadawn if he's to have half a chance in this world or the next?

BULL: Woman, that's pure brilliant, so it is. I'll resign me seat in the morning and have him on the hustings before the week is out. Sure, why I didn't think of it meself I don't know. He'll not be out of his depth in the Dáil, to be sure, to be sure.

WIFE: And we can retire to the villa in Malaga to see out our days in a bit of sunshine for once.

BULL: [taking her in his arms] That we can, me darling, that we can.


Friday, November 24, 2006

Stone Cold Stone Storms Stormont

What is the 6 counties coming to? A former loyalist gunman and leader of the UFF(Long Kesh branch) today tried to blow up that bastion of Unionist ascendancy, Stormont Castle, apparently in protest against the resumption of talks on devolution.

20 minutes into the proceedings shouting "No Surrender, No Surrender, No Surrender", murderer of six and father of nine (at the last count) Michael Stone Cold Stone burst into the assembly with a knife, a gun and a bagful of bangers left over from Guy Fawkes' night. Did no one tell him that old Guy was a Taig, for heavens sake? He was overpowered by unarmed security staff and taken away by the police.

Chief constable Sir Hugh Orde branded the action "a sad publicity act by a very sad individual". I hope they don't take those comments into account when they revoke his licence and send him back to the pokey for the rest of the century.

Stone was sentenced in 1989 to 684 years for six murders and five attempted murders including the notorious Milltown cemetary massacre. He was released in 2000 under the terms of the Good Friday agreement. Stone was much criticised in Loyaist circles for his support for the agreement which got him off the porridge just a few years shy of serving his full sentence.

Smacks a bit of cherry picking that, Mickaleen, me old mate: "Release me 674 years early, excellent! Proceed with the democratic process, I don't think so!"

I guess Johnny Adair wasn't the only mad dog in loyalist ranks.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Sod ‘em they’re only spas, anyway

I can imagine the conversation that took place in 2001 in the State Examination Commission office.

Civil servant 1: Don’t forget to attach those notes to that load of leaving certs in the pile over there

Civil servant No 2: What, you mean those yokes to do with the exam accommodations?

CS1 : Them’s the lads.

CS2: Might we not upset them a bit, like we’re after suggesting how they got it easy in the exams, an all?

CS1: Don’t be after worrying your head about that. They’re dyslexics they’ll not be able to read ‘em anyway. Bleedin’ spas.

It surprises me not one iota that the Department of Education here intends to appeal the Equality Authority decision that they had discriminated against two students because annotations regarding the support they were given to enable them to take their Leaving Cert examinations were appended to their results.

Nor does it surprise me that someone came up with the crackpot idea of attaching such a codicil in the first place.

In my opinion, the approach to disability issues in general in Ireland stinks to high heaven. While we regard ourselves as a caring and compassionate nation, unstinting in our support for those less fortunate than ourselves, the reality, particularly in the case of the disabled, is quite different.

I worked for 5 years in a college here which, if its glossy brochures were to be believed, had an active and welcoming policy towards disabled students. Unfortunately, had a wheelchair using student decided to take up the céad míle fáilte, s/he would have found him or herself unable to have independent access to lecture theatres, the library, my office for tutorials or the student cafeteria. Not much of a learning environment left after that really, is there?

Even at Trinity, a much bigger institution which did at least make some accommodation to the needs of disabled people, there were problems. A student using a wheelchair could pretty much get unaided access into the sociology department (but not to my office). Had there been a fire during their visit, however, their chances of survival would depend very much on the willingness of some hero to carry them bodily out of the building.

Out on the streets it’s as bad if not worse. Getting around means negotiating bags of rubbish and wheely bins awaiting collection scattered randomly along the main streets, little or no ramping of kerbs and cars parked on pavements. Only the other day I watched an elderly man in a motorised chair dice with death on one of our busiest roads due to inconsiderate parking by not one but several motorists

Few buses and almost no taxis are wheelchair friendly, something I imagine breaches EU regulations these days. Our Georgian city might be the delight of visiting tourists, but only for the physically able. For the disabled it must possess the charms of an army assault course.

Most ludicrous, but entirely symptomatic of the general attitude towards disability came last year when Dublin Corporation removed the beepers which enable blind people to know when it is safe to cross from a number of pedestrian crossings on O’Connell St. The reason for this was that the Corpo had been informed that the sounds were distracting for sighted pedestrians!

The Irish State ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) in 1989 but the first attempt to introduce disability legislation in 2002 ended in a shambles amid an outcry from disability groups because of its inadequacy. In the same year the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), noted “persistence of discrimination against persons with physical and mental disabilities, especially in the fields of employment, social security benefits, education and health”.

The second attempt, this time in consultation with disability groups, ended again in disarray. As the Disability Legislation Consultation Group, the consultative body set up to advise on the re-drafting, stated in May 2005:
This is now a totally flawed and fundamentally inadequate piece of legislation. It fails to meet the needs of the disability sector and we are appalled that the Government is determined to ram it through the Oireachtas in the face of opposition from the very people it was originally designed to benefit

Sean Love, the executive director of Amnesty’s Irish section, sees the cause of these problems arising from the unwillingness of the state to frame adequate ‘rights-based’ legislation in accordance with the ICESCR in case they should find themselves the subject of very costly litigation for non-compliance with their own laws. The preference is, in Bertie Ahern’s words, for a strategy which is ‘rights based, but not lawyer driven.’

But the problem lies not with a fear on Bertie’s part that the state will find itself besieged in the Four Courts by mobs of angry wheel-chair users and barking guide dogs, assuming they could get up the steps and into the court in the first place. Nor even does it lie with penny-pinching politicians who’d rather support the big wheels rather than the users of smaller wheels.

Needs & Rights in Ireland 2006 And why would a cripple be after wanting to go to the shops on his own, Willie?

The problem, it seems to me, goes very much deeper and is rooted in the nature of Irish society itself. Unlike almost every other European society, the Irish state and the culture accompanying it is not at heart easy with the notion of rights, human or otherwise. In its dealings with the disabled, the homeless, the mentally ill, the poor or almost any other marginalised group the approach taken is primarily needs based, rather than rights based. It is not intended to encourage civic participation, but rather to stifle it.

Part of the reason for this lies with the kind of catholic social teaching which dominated the state for most of its history, a form of 19th Century social interventionism which divides the disadvantaged into the ‘deserving’ and the ‘undeserving’. The marginalised are required to bear the predestined stigma of their marginalisation in a quiet and becoming manner. In such a context the privileged offer their beneficence to the less privileged in the form of ‘good works’, in return for which the latter should be thankful for what is offered. In the meantime we despatched our stigmatised to places out of sight and out of mind.

The other element derives from the colonial legacy in which citizenship is understood in terms of access to social privilege and influence and not embodied in the person at all. We inherited this and successive administrations have done bugger all to change the legacy. Anyone threatening to rock the boat was traditionally encouraged to get on one if they didn’t like things the way they were.

The fact is that Ireland is not a rights-based society, it is a privilege based one, where the privilege is based on a mixture of wealth, birth and position in the social hierarchy. It is a society of peculiar moral judgement in which the deviant of any kind lacks standing, often literally.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Street crime in Dublin claims another victim

Last Sunday afternoon I became another statistic in the growing wave of crime sweeping tsunami-like through this fair city. I was mugged.

Now the amount was small, a mere 60 cents, and I suffered no injuries except to my pride, thanks be to God, but it was the brazen and blatant manner in which I was parted from my hard earned spondulicks that concerns me.

Not a care in the world, I was heading into town to claim a seat in my favourite hostelry for the Liverpool Arsenal game. I waited for my bus and when it arrived I jumped on board, my one and half Euro fare clenched in my hot little hand. "1.55, please" I said politely to the driver. He smiled back at me and issued my ticket.

My suspicions should have been raised on the spot, since smiling amongst Dublin bus drivers is something that occurs about as often as Halley's comet and is usually only occasioned by some dark and preferably painful misfortune befalling a passenger or other road user.

As I proceeded to my seat, I noticed a tattered black and white notice sellotaped just to the rear of the driver's cab. It announced the institution of a flat fare rate of 95 cents for all journeys made on Sundays in November. I knew nothing about this act of beneficence on the part of Bus Átha Cliath but the driver should have. I looked at my ticket. Instead of the 1.55 I had paid, it showed the flat fare of 95 cents. Clearly he did know and in the interests of reducing next year's subvention decided not to share the secret with me.

A Dublin highwayman makes good his escape

Now for those of you unfamiliar with the system on Dublin buses, all fares are deposited in a strongbox attached to the driver's cab. The drivers themselves do not handle cash or give change. If you don't have the exact fare and you're lucky enough to have a driver who can be arsed, the excess will be marked on your ticket and you can redeem the few cents you've overpaid by waiting for 3 days in the queue that snakes along O'Connell St out of the doors of Dublin Bus Headquarters.

Nor do they accept notes. This a source of much amusement to bus crews and native passengers alike at Dublin airport when a gang of Italian language students laden with handmade leather cases and designer rucksacks attempt to pay their collective fare in paper Euros on the number 16 to Harold's Cross. They get on in a playful and noisy flurry of bag stacking and then, having been peremptorily dismissed by their putative chauffeur, they slink off in a symptomatically Latin sulk, muttering about omerta and vendetta and such like. Céad Míle Fáilte, me arse. That'll teach 'em to be more stylish and better footballers than us, wha?

Anyway, like most victims of crime, my traumatic experience has left me with certain questions apart from 'why me,Lord?' I can't have been the only one who didn't know about the reduction and paid the normal fare nor can I be the only one whose refund stubs never get redeemed because by the time I get off the bus my ticket looks like it has been ill-used in a group orgy of origami practitioners.

So what happens to the dosh, boss? Does it go into some secret slush fund used to train bus drivers in advanced techniques of sullenness, stunt driving and general misanthropy? Are Dublin Bus executives dining out in expensive restaurants and leaving their tips on the table in neatly stacked piles of 5 and 10 cent coins? Does it pay for the fine tuning of braking systems which can bounce a pensioner the length of the lower deck with the merest twitch of driver's right foot?

The public should be told.....

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Who benefits? No guessing there

While, like many Dublin residents, I would rarely be averse to the belabouring of culchies with big sticks, the recent activities of the Garda up above in Mayo gave me pause for thought. The men in blue were out and about the Mayo countryside this weekend taking a breath of air and making the country safe for Big Oil. Or, as Chief Inspector Tony McNamara put it, they were defending 2 constitutional rights 'the right of peaceful protest and the right of people to access their place of work.'

Chief Inspector McNamara, doubtless a keen scholar of the Irish Constitution appears to be referring to Articles 40.6 and 45.2.i of this hallowed document. It's a shame his reading didn't extend to the bit that says

All natural resources, including the air and all forms of potential energy, within the jurisdiction of the Parliament and Government established by this Constitution and all royalties and franchises within that jurisdiction belong to the State subject to all estates and interests therein for the time being lawfully vested in any person or body.

Had the Chief Inspector been a bit more familiar with Article 10 of the Constitution, he might have been directing his men to knock a few heads in the environs of Leinster House this week.

Garda Siochána dressed for stroll on the bog

For interested readers the details of the ongoing campaign of eco-resistance towards the siting of the gas plant can be found at the Shell to Sea site on http://www.corribsos.com but what appears to have slipped off the page in coverage of the current controversy is the shoddy brokering of the deal which granted the rights and royalties associated with the Corrib gas field to Shell, Statoil and Marathon Oil for free, gratis and for nothing.

Fadó, fadó
Back in the 1970s before the tigers stalked the land, Ireland had a halfway decent policy with regards to the activities of companies who wanted to exploit our off-shore resources of gas and oil. Under the direction of the then Minister of Industry and Commerce, Justin Keating, a plan was put in place to ensure that the State would receive significant financial benefits from any commercial energy finds.

Based on the Norwegian model, Keating's plan envisaged a set-up whereby the State would hold a 50% stake in any commercial find, together with royalties of between 8% and 16% and Corporation Tax at the then standard 50% rate. The Irish government was also offered help from the Norwegian Government in setting up a state oil company with involvement in the North Sea fields as a means of gaining experience in the exploitation of off-shore resources.

The state oil company envisaged in Keating's plan was eventually set up reluctantly by his successor, Des O'Malley, in 1979 but was never given the resources to function effectively. O'Malley, founder of the PDs and last heard of as director of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, was the man who sold the rights in perpetuity of Irish offshore gas and oil to Marathon for £500 in 1967.

Jump cut to 1987. Ray 'Rambo' Burke, well known jailbird and recipient of the odd brown envelope, is now in charge at Energy. For some inexplicable reason (libel laws prevent me from speculating) Rambo exempts prospectors from royalties and prohibits state participation in the business of exploration. If that were not enough, he offers 100% tax write-offs on capital expenditure against profits for the next 25 years. It must have been a good day in the Fianna Fáil tent at the Galway Races the year he came up with those concessions.

Morecambe and Wise give the oil companies a hell of a Christmas special

Five years on in 1992, if the oil companies hadn't already had their cake and were readying to eat it, Rambo's mucker Bertie Ahern, then Finance Minister without a bank account, adds some icing to an already sweet deal by reducing Corporation Tax for oil and gas companies down to 25%, making it the perhaps the lowest taxation rate for such ventures in the world at the time. Not of course that they'd be stumping up a brass farthing in the foreseeable future due to Burke's earlier acts of generosity. In the same year, the bulk discount scheme for supplies negotiated with Marathon was rescinded allowing producers to sell our gas back to us at the full market rate.

The licences issued around this time were what were known as 'frontier licences'. In addition to being remarkably lacking in any vestige of state control over the activities of prospectors, they also prevented the state from auctioning off rights to areas adjacent to any discoveries to the highest bidder, apparently a common practice in this business.

An interesting and often overlooked factette about the activities of Irish politicians in their dealings with the oil business during this period was the use of consultants to provide advice on how best to manage our resources. Citing national security as a reason, successive Ministers have refused to name the consultants engaged in the vital task of shedding national assets for the price of a spot in the Fianna Fail tent at the Galway Races. National security? More likely job security for a brother-in-law or two needing a leg up in the oil business.

Along came Frank
If you think it couldn't get any worse from the point of view of the plain people of Ireland, then you didn't reckon with the appointment of Frank Fahey, dodgy builder and alleged erstwhile Russian hairdressing entrepeneur. When Fahey was made Minister of the Marine it was widely rumoured that this was one post where he would find it hard to do any damage. The rumours were wrong.

According to The Village magazine, Fahey was lobbied heavily by Enterprise Oil executive John McGoldrick before the company and the gas field was sold on to Shell E&P Ireland Ltd. Fahey then ordered compulsory acquisition of lands for the gas pipeline and, wearing his Coillte hat, flogged off the land at Bellanaboy to build the cleaning plant for the gas as it comes ashore for a sum that journalists call 'undisclosed' and the rest of us would probably call bargain basement if we were let in on the secret.

I know that relations between Galway and Mayo are often bumpy,especially around the time of the Connacht Championship, but the boy from Menlo really seems to have had it in for his neighbours in the next county. For an encore he granted the foreshore license to land the pipeline and consented to the laying of the pipeline within 70m of people's homes in breach of international pipeline safety standards and best codes of practice. You can bet your life the smoking ban won't need much enforcing in those parts for many years to come.

I could go on, but you get the drift, I'm sure. I could, for example, mention the risk assessment exercise done on behalf of the state by a company which, purely by coincidence I'm sure, was partly owned by Shell or the way in which the state systematically blackened the name of Frank Connolly the director of the Centre for Public Inquiry, which published a report highly critical of the Corrib scheme in 2005, causing the CPI to lose its funding from Atlantic Philanthropies.

What really chills me to the bone is Energy Minister Noel Dempsey's recent announcement that his department has engaged the services of Indecon International Economic Consultants to assist it in its review of future licensing agreements. Indecon's chairman is Paddy Mullarkey, former General Secretary at the Department of Finance.

Mr Mullarkey was, amongst other things, chairman of the assessment panel for the Dublin Airport Terminal, a member of the committee on public sector benchmarking, and is clearly a chum of Malcolm McDowell if his appointment to the wee sinecure he holds on the Rememberance Commission is anything to go by.

He should best be remembered, however, as the see no evil hear no evil monkey who told the Public Accounts Committee in 1999 that he did not consider the problem of non-resident accounts a 'live issue' during the 1980s and 1990s and whose department in 1997 actually loosened the requirements and made it easier to set up bogus non-resident acounts.

Our Paddy is also a non-executive director of IIB Bank, the Irish subsidiary of a Belgian based banking group. In 2004 IIB underwrote a E350 million credit facility to Tynagh Energy to build, wait for it, a gas fired power station in Co Galway. Tynagh was at the time owned by Gama Construction (yes, them lads) and the beef baron Blake brothers, one of the EPA's favourite environmental defaulters.

Unless he has some kind of hidden agenda, perish the thought, Mr Dempsey must be a singlarly trusting soul if he thinks he's going to get an objective assessment or advice from Indecon.

The sad thing is that despite the well organised campaign and the justified and determined objections of the people of Erris to this project, it's not going to be stopped. Bord Gáis already have the bulk pipeline in place to carry the gas across country and any opposition will be bought or batoned off or simply have the spotlight of the media removed from them. They may not go away, but they will appear to have done so. And the banana republic of Ireland will carry on being run by the monkeys for the foreseeable future......

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Another nail in the coffin of ould Ireland

Two stories in the news this morning made me wish that we had a satirist as funny and sharp as Myles na Gopaleen/Flann O'Brien/Brian O'Nolan still with us on this wee island.

The first concerned Tipperary FG councillor Michael Fitzgerald who claimed yesterday that the current Garda campaign against drink driving was bringing about the demise of traditional rural Irish culture. He defended the rights of rural drinkers to climb into their SUVs and swerve their way home after a half a gallon or so of porter on them. People, he contended, were being confined to their homes by the campaign and could not even drink there as they could be breath-tested the next morning.

Mr Fitzgerald publicly admitted he drives with "three or four pints" even though he has previously been breathalysed and banned from driving. "I've never killed anyone. I feel the wrong people are being targeted," he said. He has, however, been previously been banned for drink driving but the lack of fatalities in his wake seems to justify his defence of traditional customs.

The second item concerned a report on suicidal thoughts which showed that Irish people were more likely to contemplate suicide than even the Norwegians, a well known shower of gloomy bastards who currently top the European suicide league table.

Were Myles still with us, I have no doubt that he would find something of a correlation between these two snippets, for it is surely the stuff that an Ibsen play is made of (Apologies to Ibsen and Myles).

The Wild Goose

At Whelan's house. A richly and comfortably furnished study; bookcases and upholstered furniture; an HD TV and home cinema system dominates the room. At the back, open folding-doors with curtains drawn back. Within is seen a large and handsome room, brilliantly lighted with lamps and branching candle-sticks. On the left, in front, a fireplace with a glowing peat effect fire, and farther back a double door leading into the combined kitchen-dining-room.

Whelan is a stout, ruddy faced man of middle years. He stands before the UVPC window of his study mournfully contemplating the sodden vista stretching down to the lough. The sound of an SUV in low gear is heard coming up the gravel drive.

Shortly afterwards the door is heard to open. Enter Nora, humming a tune and in high spirits. She is in outdoor dress and carries a number of parcels; these she lays on the table to the right.

NORA: What a day. There was such a rush down below at Brady's in the village. He had some fresh truffles in from Italy and sure wasn't every old biddy in the place after getting their paws on them. We'll have them with the osso bucco and the sun-dried tomatoes for tea tonight. Odd-bins had some Frascati on offer that'll go lovely with the veal.

WHELAN (gloomily): Truffles, is it? Frascati, is it? Sun dried tomatoes, is it? What's wrong with cruibeens and a rake of spuds just dug from the soil me grandfather fought the Tans for? And some cabbage with the life boiled out of it running with butter fresh from the churn and washed down with milk still warm from the cow?

NORA: Seamus, me darlin', are you after mourning the decline of traditional Irish culture again? You know what the doctor said about your hypertension. Put the Sky on. There's bound to be something about the Manchester United that'll cheer you up. I'll get you some Xanax and a glass of water.

WHELAN: Would you not hold your whisht now, woman? You know I can't enjoy the United without a pint of porter before me, its fine cream head settling like the first snows of winter.

NORA: Well why don't you take a spin up to O'Hennessey's Bistro and Wine Bar at the crossroads for a drink before your tea's ready?

WHELAN (angrily): A spin up to O'Hennessey's? Woman, have you lost your mind altogether? The boreen is crawling with Garda with their breathlysers and radar guns, laying in wait for dacent citizens with a couple of scoops on them to cross their path, the blackguards. It's a sorry state that has befallen us when a man can't drive his Range Rover down to the pub for a few beers and a chorus of Kevin Barry with his friends. Them jackeens up above in Dublin with their laws don't seem to understand what they're doing to rural culture. They're after destroying us, so they are. Six pints of stout and a quick spin home, sure where's the harm in that? Do they want us back on the bicycles again? Another nail in the coffin of the true Irish way of life, so it is. Between that and the planning regulations, they'll be after withdrawing the farmer's dole next and then where will be?

NORA: Seamus, mo chroi, don't take on so. We survived Cromwell, the Famine and the emigrant boats, did we not? Sure it'll take more than a few Garda with breathalyser kits to crush the life from rural Ireland. Pull yourself together and I'll bring you a wee can of stout from the kitchen.

WHELAN: A can of stout in front of me own fireside. And I can't even enjoy that for the fear they'll have me on the way to town in the morning. Is that all me compensation is to be for the years of tax avoidance and careful investment in prime building land? Is that what the apartments in Bulgaria are paying for? All that struggle and sacrifice and GAA for nothing more than a can of beer by me own fireside. I'll tell you now, Nora,you can bring me the shotgun for that's the only thing will save me from the despair that's fallen on the land since they stopped the drink driving.

NORA: Do you mean that I can't be after having a few vodkas while I watch the Eastenders and America's top model on the satellite for fear I'll be stopped the next day on me way to the tanning salon?

WHELAN: I do indeed, Nora, me darling.

NORA: Is the shotgun still in the cold press and the shells on the shelf above?

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

From the In-box

Berta Hern bishopbertie@gmail.com to me
More options 28-Oct (3 days ago)

Ehh! I was takin to me dauter Cecilia and her mates Paul and Art last night and they were tellin me dat you put dis ting about me up on da net. Dey were surprised cause dey said dat they tought I had ehh crossed my bridge over troubled water last month, Da liffey

But now ya bleedin scoucer are draggin it all up again. Ehh do you know dat I can talk about the church from an informed basins! I have a parish of me own, ehh its called Saint Luck's. In fact ehh I'm the bishop of it! Do ya know wat I mean? I look after the lucre, I mean the money de ehh people give me for my de parish pension election fund.

So my don't ya keep yer own beak out of my business! I don't go ehh riten about yur bleedin lecters in watever school yeh bleedin sleep in!

Get on yer boat and paddle home, were yer belong!


Dear Bertie, or should I say ‘your grace’?

Glad to see the elocution lessons are paying off at last. Now all you need to do is invest in some spelling classes. It’s S-C-O-U-S-E-R, you divvy!

Anyway, I’ll do a deal with you. I won’t write about you anymore if you won’t lie to the turnip heads on the opposition benches anymore. I know a man of your undoubted intellect will appreciate a deal like that.

I know it would probably be wiser of me to make a discrete donation to the parish poor-box, but funds are a bit tight right now around Greenslade mansions what with the cost of the Port Tunnel, the PPARS system and all these tribunals we’re after having. They ain’t likely to improve much now you’ve put yer man Cullen in charge of the new Metro system, either.

Anyway I’m saving up to buy a paddle but in the meantime, best regards to you and the rest of the extended family.


Sunday, October 29, 2006

Death of an 'Englishman'

This week in the criminal court a troubled young man from Tallaght was found guilty of the manslaughter of 'Englishman', James Burke, in a drunken argument after a bout of drinking. The Central Criminal Court heard that the two had a row and that the accused’s girlfriend claimed it was because the deceased was English.

James, described by his uncle Michael Sheehan, as ‘happy go-lucky guy,’ who had moved to Ireland ‘to be near family and to make a change in his life. It turns out it was the wrong turn to take.' Uncle Michael wasn't kidding about that.

The thing that struck me most about the tragic and brutal killing of one young man by another was the constant reference to the victim's Englishness. Even the normally PC Irish Times succumbed, captioning a picture of the accused leaving court 'after being found guilty of killing an Englishman'.

Call me paranoid, if you like, but the connotations of killing an Englishman in this country are quite different than say those of killing an Arab or a Frenchman or an African, or almost any other national group you can think of. Connotations of Kevin Barry or Sean South, of the valiant struggle for the emancipation of the four green fields from beneath the Saxon jackboot. They might be our nearest neighbours in the EU, but in our heart of hearts, they are still the Tans and we love to see them bate at soccer or rugby.

Now I don't know how James Burke labelled himself, but I'm guessing like many children of the Irish in Britain, he probably thought of himself as Irish. I expect he supported the Republic of Ireland in soccer and had more than couple of verses of The Fields of Athenry and Whiskey in the Jar in his repetoire. I also suspect that the row which led to his death began with some chance remark about him being English rather than Irish.

I claim to know these things because, like James and I'd guess many other 2nd generation Irish returnees to the motherland, I've been in situations like the one that led to his death.

My first week living here I went for a drink after work with a Polish colleague. We were discussing some recently released Irish film when we were joined by a former student of his, a Dubliner. After about five minutes I noticed him staring at me silently but aggressively. I didn't like it. He kept it up and I could see the aggression in his eyes was turning into outright hatred. Being from Liverpool I decided to make an intervention. The conversation went something like this:

Me: Where I come from, if you look at someone like that it means you want to fuck them or fight them.

Him: Silence and more staring.

Me: Well I've never fancied the strong silent type, so I guess we better step outside and get this over with now.

Him: What gives an Englishman the right to talk about my country like that?

Me: Search me boss, Ní Sasanach mise, is Éireannach, agus tu féin? Cad as duit?

I could see the switch into Irish confused him. It was supposed to. As he struggled to come up with a reply in his own language, I pressed home the psychological advantage.

Me: Are we going to sort this nonsense outside now or are you going to stop sulking like a páiste mor?

At that point my colleague changed the subject to more drinks, and me and yer man began an earnest, if not altogether amicable, discussion of the consequences of emigration on Irish identity.

I had so many encounters like that in my first couple of years here. They ranged from the deeply patronising ("You're not Irish, you poor thing you wouldn't understand"), the mildly patronising ("Ah now, you're from Liverpool, that's almost as good as being one of our own") to the outright aggressive ("Who the fuck do you think are, you Tan bastard?").

Working mainly in the Irish community, I'd had them in England too. One of my favourite moments of the first type came when I was giving the journalist Tim Pat Coogan a guided tour of Irish Liverpool. As we left the Roman Catholic Cathedral he turned to me, quite unprompted, and said "You can tell you're not Irish, Liam. You lowered your voice when we were in that place." At the time and since, I'd never have thought of talking loudly in church as a marker of ethnic or national identity for the Irish or anyone else.

Not being English myself, I have no problem with Irish people giving the Brits a hard time what with 800 years of oppression and all that. What I do object to is the oft jumped to conclusion that everyone with an English accent is just that: English.

A friend of mine once said that the problem with the children of Irish migrants was that they were too Irish for the English and too English for the Irish. He was right.

If you were of my generation, growing up Irish in Britain presented its own set of identity problems. Apart from having to live with the inevitable stereotypes about being mad, or stupid, or both, we also were part of a suspect community. People were regularly disappeared under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (which at the time only applied to the Irish) and everytime a bomb went off our community centres and pubs were attacked or vandalised. We were told that we should be ashamed to be Irish and some of us were deeply affected by such things.

Unlike our parents, we couldn't just keep our heads down behind the parapet of the church or the Irish centre. We were part of British society for better or for worse and they had earned the right for us to be there. Equal but different and entitled to the same right to respect as any other citizen.

To be told, then, on your return home by smug little islanders that you aren't Irish goes beyond the merely offensive. It can be positively disabling in some cases and fatal in others as it was for poor James Burke. If we wouldn't lie down and take it over there then there's even more reason why we shouldn't put up with it in our homeland. No one, anywhere, at anytime, has the right to define someone's identity for them and even if they did, the possession of a brogue is not a useful criterion, to be sure, to be sure.

Over my years here I've watched many 2nd generation returnees go through this kind of treatment and I've witnessed it come to blows on a number of occasions. These days, I no longer take it on board. If someone has a problem with my identity, as a social psychologist I know it's because they have more of a problem with their own and unless they're paying 60 Euros an hour for a therapy session, it's not my job to take it on. I know this might be a spoilsport attitude to take but it works for me and saves bruises all round.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

De man who put the D (for duplicity) in Drumcondra

He might sound funny, with his quaint Nortside blas, but as Charlie Haughey once described him "He's the most clever, the most cunning, the most devious of them all". De Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern has been up to his own style of duplicity again this week.

Having successfully deflected recent accusations of improper conduct in accepting a financial dig-out from his mates while he was Minister of Finance back in the day, Bertie managed to pull off another victory for his particular brand of Drumcondra double-speak this week. In a response to questions in the Dail regarding the case of Louise O'Keeffe (more of her later) he managed to mislead (a euphemism for baldly lie to) the house on no less than 3 occasions.

Ms O'Keeffe is currently being pursued for court costs of half a million Euro resulting from her failed attempt to sue the state for the systematic sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her teacher in a Cork primary school in the 1970s. The High Court found that the state was not responsible for the actions of her teacher and awarded costs against her. The 300,000 Euro she won in an action taken against her abuser was effectively a 'paper award' since he has no resources to pay her. Unfortunately, for Ms O'Keeffe, the same is not the true of her situation vis-a-vis the state. She could lose her house.

Ever de man of de people, champeen of de plain folk of Oirland, and de country's last socialist (someone inform Joe Higgins of his own demise, please) Bertie assured the Dail that there was no question of Ms O'Keeffe having to sell her home to pay the costs of the case. Well no question right now since there is a stay on costs pending her appeal to the Supreme court. If I was her I'd start planning to move my assets somewhere warmer. The Cayman Isles is an old favourite amongst the fiscal cognoscenti in these parts.

But back to Bertie's weasel words.

A couple of years ago the Government negotiated a deal with the Catholic church to cap the congegations' liabilities for compensation in the thousands of cases of abuse suffered by children placed in institutions under their control. The Church's liability was limited to 128 million Euro.

How this figure was arrived at I'm not quite sure, but I think the formula might have been based on the following principle: What's the least we can get away paying without looking like begrudgers and still keep a few bob in the kitty for the robes and the incense and the odd trip to the Vatican,lads? 128 miliion? Not a bother. God bless you, my son and have an indulgence. You'll need it later for shaking on this deal.

Current costs of compensation are now up to 1.3 billion Euro (the price of a couple of LUAS systems, one and a half Dublin port tunnels, or 10 percent of this year's health spend). They are likely to rise further because only about half of people eligible have applied under the compensation scheme. Meanwhile the clerical cashbox has coughed up as much as it ever will. An amount, ironically, almost precisely a tithe of the present bill.

Now I'm not suggesting that any other administration would have handled it differently. The fact is it probably wouldn't. Despite the current rush to secularisation in Ireland, the gap between Church and the minds of the current generation of politicians isn't that wide. The waters might be a bit choppy these days, but the alliance between priesteens and politicians which has guided the ship of state since the establishment of the Free State still has a hand on the tiller to a large extent.

This week in the Dail, Bertie defended the arrangement on the grounds that the Church couldn't afford anymore. He couldn't possibly know that because no-one ever asked the brothers in black what they were worth. This is what us plain folk call a porky pie, a whopper, a huge big fib, a lie.

Pausing only to extinguish his trousers, he then went to suggest that the precise cost of compensation couldn't be calculated because no-one knew how many people had been in these institutions of abuse. This was another porky. Precise details of the fees paid to the religious orders for the upkeep of their unfortunate victims have been maintained since the 1930s. Unless, of course, he's suggesting that the orders were guilty of padding the numbers in their flocks like a Monaghan sheep farmer come EU subsidy time.

Finally, he stated that the State would have been jointly liable for compensation had cases come to court. This is opposed to being 90 percent liable as it seems to be at present. Not only is this a poor defence of the arrangement, it's patently untrue. A decision in 2003 found that the State was not liable because it merely paid the bills and didn't manage the schools.

I wonder how many people in currently jail for hiring a contract killer wished they'd been up before a beak like the one that thunk that defence up. The irony is that Ms O'Keefe is living in fear of homelessness precisely because this judgment was applied in her case against the State.

Apart from me and Mary Raftery in yesterday's Irish Times, no-one seems to be making much of a fuss about this. It speaks volumes for the standard of politician we get in this country. I don't wonder how they can't sleep at night. It's because they do all their dozing in the Dail.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Life in the fast lane....

I've decided not to write anymore about XXX for a while. I imagine the point has been made and as therapy it wasn't really working for me. As a form of anger management, it was about as effective as a 1 legged man at an arse kicking contest. I've decided to turn to matters less self-centred, but no less symptomatic of modern Ireland, from now on.

This weekend another 7 people lost their lives on Irish roads bringing the total of road deaths so far this year here to over 300. Every time there is a cluster of deaths on the roads, and it occurs with sickening monotony, breasts are beaten, solemn ministers promise stricter legislation and the media people ask what the garda are doing.

When I first came to live in Dublin I realised that being a road user here in any form carried with it certain hazards not typical of other European societies. The most apparent thing was that there seemed to be two kinds of red lights on traffic signals. The first kind said 'Stamp on the accelerator and plough right through. Go on yeh boy yeh' the other kind said 'What? You mean I'm supposed to bring the car to a halt here? That's cat that is. Are you sure I have to stop? Reeeealllly?'.

The other was that most people, pedestrians or drivers, seemed to be so lost in thought on our highways and by-ways that mere questions of personal survival paled into insignificance beside what Ciaran texted to Cliona on the mobile.

They say that for a healthy heart, you should do something that scares you at least once a day. After eight years of cycling around Dublin I expect my heart to keep beating long after the rest of me has been reduced to the dust that is the fate of all things mortal. Survival as a cyclist or a pedestrian here requires, as they say in Liverpool, eyes in the back of your arse, not to mention the clairvoyant powers of a seventh son of a seventh son from a long line of gypsy fortune tellers.

It's not so much that Irish drivers are bad (They are, though) it's just that they are relatively unregulated and as a consequence many drive with the gay abandon and devil may care of a teenaged joyrider auditioning for the next Mad Max movie. A lot of the others seem to have unresolved issues with their vehicle about who is actually driving whom. Is the car in control here or am I? Oh bollix, now look what you made me drive into....

A large part of the problem lies with the failure of the state to tackle the problem of driving tests. Ireland is the only country in the EU where, to my knowledge a learner driver can drive him or herself unaccompanied to a driving test, fail it and then drive away. I know people who only have a full licence because the Government declared an amnesty due to waiting lists of such magnitude that they wouldn't be reduced before internal combustion was replaced by cold fusion as a means of vehicular propulsion.

Something like 20 percent of all full licence holders here have never taken a test and a huge number of provisional licence holders have no intention of ever doing so if they can get away with it. The current waiting list for tests is 137,000 and grows by 1500 a month. It can take 62 weeks to get a test in some parts of the country. In the fast moving, I want it yesterday culture that is modern Ireland, no politician worth the title of gombeen man is going to render him/herself unelectable by restricting the driving habits of that many voters.

Another factor that renders life on the roads here as exciting as a game of russian roulette in a fall of Saigon late bar is the absence of adequate traffic policing on both major or minor roads. I have driven from Dublin to Cork on numerous occasions and failed to clap eyes on a single blue uniform on the lookout for moving violations. Last year I drove to Donegal. The only police presence I saw was on the road into Letterkenny where the Comhaltas National Fleadh was taking place. They appeared to be stopping and searching vehicles on the way into the town lest they might be carrying non-traditional musical instruments, like banjos or, God forbid, didgeridoos.

Unlike many people here I don't actually blame the Garda Siochana for their laxness in this respect. They might be overpaid but they're certainly under-resourced when it comes to traffic enforcement. And when they do enforce matters, the judiciary tends to let the side down. In a recent case a man stopped for travelling at 127 kph in an 80kph zone had his case thrown out because the judge didn't think a charge of dangerous driving was merited. Where is the encouragement to drive responsibly if you know that even if you do get caught the likelihood of conviction is minimal? Moreover, even if you are convicted and banned, short of a prison sentence there's nothing to stop you just driving yourself home from court.

In Ireland our rulers pass legislation at the drop of a hat (or preferably a brown envelope stuffed with Euros) and I have no doubt that before long, newer more draconian laws will be passed targeting the speed freaks and the boy racers at the centre of this week's moral panic. It won't, however, make a blind bit of difference. There's no point in passing laws which, a few weeks after the dust has settled and the knees have stopped jerking, will be not so much unenforceable as merely unenforced.

You see we don't care too much for any old legislation in this country. In terms of compliance the most succesful laws in the last few years have been the smoking ban in pubs and the plastic carrier bag tax which imposed a levy on the supply of carrier bags by shops to customers. What both of these had in common was the onus they placed on bar owners and shopkeepers to enforce them. The old rebel spirit was quashed overnight when the pockets of the petit-bourgeois were threatened, no question. And not for the first time in the history of this country.

There's a bank holiday weekend coming up soon and these are normally an occasion for mass carnage on our roads. The events this past weekend will probably induce some calm and possibly a reduction in the number of deaths. But that will be it. A few weeks will pass and then it will all start again as the national characteristic of comfortable complacency resumes its course back on the road to God knows where....

Sunday, October 22, 2006

More adventures from the whiteboard face

Earlier this week, having failed conspicuously in my attempt to obtain a library card I decided to try for a computer username.

After reciving the now familiar set of instructions from yet another kind fairy on the recepton desk in my department I duly set off to acquire my password etc., and walked the 3/4 mile to hunt out the secret grotto that is Computer Services. I knew of course, on the basis of prior experience with the library and human resources, that it was a fool's errand and I was right. I will have many miles to walk before the holy grail of a college computer account comes my way.

I presented my staff card, which seems to have no function other than to bear my photo and the college logo. The smiling techno-gnome at the desk looked at it and spoke words I could have scripted before trekking across the many windswept concrete piazzas of the campus. "We can only process a request that comes from the school. You need to go back and ask them to send an email on your behalf." I muttered something about Kafka. He, I and his gnome-clone colleague at the next terminal shared a nervous giggle.

I turned back and walked another 3/4 mile back through cloisters of concrete, reflective glass and red-brick cladding to find a different kind fairy (they are all kind fairies on the reception desks here, except the gnomes at computing and the troll maidens of the Library). She was busy conducting an impromptu inventory of the stationary supplies and studuiously ignored me for what seemed like hours. I coughed politely and shuffled my feet but she was intent on the brightly coloured forms and continued to ignore me. Eventually after an outburst of coughing that almost deposited my right lung on the counter, she acknowledged my presence.

Inevitably, she had no idea who I was or what I was talking about.

I produced my Staff card and she looked at it and then at me as if my photo had suddenly developed 2 heads. I realised that a kind of reverse Dorian Grey effect had taken place in the 7 days between the photo being taken and today. The face on the card was dark haired, confident, healthy and smiling. The face that she saw on the punter's side of the glass was an old man's; pinch cheeked, sallow and grey-haired with stress.

She dutifully copied down all my details onto a post-it note and said she would pass it on to someone. Who, she wasn't quite sure but she would ask. Another someone possibly might know. I didn't ask whether the someone who might know might be the same someone who might send the email, or just someone who knew someone who might accomplish that task. Or even what it was. It was, she explained apologetically her first day on the job. I consoled her by saying that she was being as helpful as any of her colleagues who had many more years service than she did.I'm not certain but I think she recogised the ironic tone in my voice.

This is the 3rd or possibly 7th time my details have been recorded on a post-it note by a kind fairy at the School office in the past 3 weeks. I stopped counting some time ago. In a perverse way I'm looking forward to the next time which no doubt will come when I request a new white board marker or possibly a pencil. They are kind fairies indeed, but their magic powers seem somewhat limited in scope.

2 days later I received the following email:-

"Dear Liam

You will need to contact the relevant faculty office to arrange this - if you don't know what office you are attached to, please get in touch with any other admin. person you have been dealing with thus far. The reception area where you made your initial query is for the School only.

I hope this is of assistance to you."

Not really.

I indulged myself in a small outburst of intemperance by way of reply. I presume my response was passed up whatever bureaucratic chain exists in the fairy glen and the following day I received a slightly apologetic email from another kind fairy inviting me to phone her to discuss my needs. Needless to say I have been conned by the 'phone me' stratagem before so I restricted my response to emails. Within two days I received a college computer user name and a password. Progress indeed. I haven't tried it yet, but I imagine I will have to undergo some esoteric initiation
ritual before I can make use of its technological bounties.

Meanwhile I received an email from the library. Apparently I had made the mistake of putting my staff number on the pink form. I should have put another number on it. With the aid of a magnifying glass powerful enough to meet the demands of Sherlock Holmes I located this other number and duly emailed it back. The following day I received an email from my department informing me that there was some post being held for me in the school office. I collected said post on my next visit. There were 2 items: A small white card liberally covered in barcodes and no explanation as to what it is or might be for. The second was my pink library application form which was returned to me because I had put my staff number on it not the other, microscopic one.

I resisted the tempatation to tear up the form and instead tugged out a few strands of my now thinning hair. I'll deal with it on Monday perhaps if by Monday I haven't given up the ghost and taken a job delivering pizzas.....

Friday, October 20, 2006

Life at the whiteboard face.

One present I received for my recent oh-no-not-another-one-already-birthday was the offer of some teaching work at a college here. Like all colleges in this country it is known by its initials, which can be pretty confusing for the outsider, particularly in Dublin where the 't's and the 'd's can often sound the same in the local accent.

Discretion being the better part of valour and to avoid confusion with other institutions using similar permutations of the same three letters I will not name my current employer. We shall know it merely as 'XXX'.

I want to write about it for a number of reasons. First because it typifies the 'fur coat and no knickers' ethos of much of life in modern Ireland and second because my anger management counsellor suggested that writing might be a more adult response than arson.

I am now about to enter my 5th week of teaching and to date I have yet to receive a library card (always useful for compiling reading lists etc) or access to the college computer system (again often useful for teaching purposes). These lacunae in my academic toolbox have not occurred for a lack of effort or interest on my part. Quite the contrary. I have tried on a number of occasions to procure said items but have been faced with responses ranging from the baffled that I should be after asking to 'I don't know who you are, but it's not my job anyway'. These responses have invariably delivered by smiling faced colleens, hereafter referred to as kind fairies or troll-maidens, depending upon my mood at the time of writing.

In the second week of term my contract of employment arrived. On the strength of this I was able to procure a staff card, although the kind fairy in the office of people who possibly work here, maybe (otherwise known as HR) wasn't sure if I could be trusted with a token so powerful (it opens the portals of Car Park No2 apparently). I asked about library and computer facilities. 'That's for your department to arrange' she said and dismissed me with a wave of her wand.

I went back to the department and asked another kind fairy about library facilities. 'You have to arrange that with the library' she said and she too dismissed me with a wave of her wand.

I have worked in lots of different places of learning over the years and a good guide to how suinstitutionsons see themselves is in the location of their libraries. In colleges which regard themselves as vested in education and the transmission of knowledge the library is nearly always at the heart of things. Right in the middle and as near to everything as it's possible for one building to be without breaching the laws of physics. In places which see themselves as in the business of producing duly certificated young people for the white collar labour market, libraries tend to be pushed out of the limelight and tucked as far down one end of the campus as it is possible to go. No prizes for guessing which kind of establishment XXX is.

As the crow flies, from my department to the library is about 300 metres. Unfortunately, the XXX campus was not designed by crows but by some coked-up bastard off-spring of Richard Rodgers and the eejit who designed the new Port Tunnel 4 inches too low for most of the lorries that will use it. What should be a short stroll becomes a major trek past grey steel and reflective glass edifices the size of aircraft carriers which cannot be cut through and have to be walked around.

These are the kind of modernist 'statements' which would induce apoplexy in Charlie Windsor in two shakes of an architect's tail. What the statement might be I'm not sure, possibly something like "Be humbled before us, feeble human' or words to that effect.

Some hours later I arrived at the library and was greeted by another kind fairy. No my staff card wasn't any use. I had to fill in a pink form and carry it back to my department where someone would have to sign it. I could then return it to the library. Its forbidding portals would open before me and I would be granted the awesome power to borrow books!

I retraced my now weary steps back through the architectural graveyard to my department. I handed over the pink form to yet another kind fairy who looked at it, looked at me and then disappeared into the back office. She returned with another, less than kind, fairy, who interrogated me regarding my purpose and my lineage as if asking for library facilities was an attempt to inveigle her into a criminal conspiracy. Eventually after all my details had been confirmed, I was allowed to return to the library, pink form in hot pink hand.

The first kind fairy at the gate of the library had been replaced by another, who definitely had more than a hint of the troll-maiden about her. She looked at the form and said 'The elf who takes care of this has left for the day. I'll pass it on to her and you should hear in a year or two.' (or at least that's what I think she said)

I left sore of foot and heavy of heart and abandoned my planned quest to the far reaches of the campus where lies the enchanted kingdom of Computer Services.