A word to Gormley about his new archaeology code: Tara

Sunday Tribune 28 June

This boys,” said Mr Halpin, “will stay with you forever. I hope it makes a big impact.”
Ordinarily, whenever a teacher spoke of making an ‘impact’ at St Joseph’s National School in Glasthule, you started sweating. It normally involved the crack of a bamboo cane. Not on this occasion though. We were about to see something historic. Besides, Halpin always preferred sarcasm to brutality.
He was a bit of a hero. He played Mungo Jerry records in class and showed us how to make free plectrums out of detergent bottles. He also liked cartoons and had a wit as dry as a pub on Good Friday. He seemed to actually like us.
The historic occasion took place on a trip to the National Library in 1979. Myself and two other 11-year-olds, Cianán and Mick, were to choose books for the school. The four of us clowned the day away with Mr Halpin leading the laughter. Afterwards, he took us to see a part of Dublin he hoped we’d remember forever. He hoped seeing it would make an impact on our young minds. It did.
I can still see, through a gap in the hoarding, the muddy timber steps of Wood Quay. “This is going,” he said. “The council is covering it with concrete.” All the way home we simmered with anger, fuelled by his. He told us how protestors had found swords in the builders’ rubble and how the city walls had been razed. He explained how the quay had been named a national monument but the government destroyed it anyway. He told us the only people who wanted the ugly new buildings were politicians.
I still get angry when I pass Wood Quay. Halpin had given us a mental snapshot of our disappearing history. I’ll always have it in my head. Last week, I saw Wood Quay again when John Gormley announced a new archaeological code of practice to protect our monuments. There was the clang of a rusty gate being bolted and the distant neighing of a horse. This is the man who sold Tara to get into bed with Fianna Fáil – the party which was responsible for Wood Quay.
Despite being ‘Green’, he has done nothing to halt the M3 ploughing through the Tara/Skryne valley. Instead he has concentrated on defending his predecessor’s demolition of the Lismullin national monument which lay in its way.
Dick Roche contravened European law by failing to commission an environmental impact study on the site. The government has now spent huge sums fighting the European Commission over the issue.
Gormley also spent a bundle drafting last week’s Eirgrid Code of Practice. If the European Court finds against Ireland, the National Monuments Act will have to be amended and the code will have to be redrafted. More money flushed away.
The M3 tolls will go out of Meath to a multinational. More waste.
The mishandling of Tara proves, conclusively, that we are being governed by profligate idiots. The M3 should never have been routed through Tara/Skryne. It was always going to throw up monuments like Lismullin and lead to costly court battles. The obvious thing to do was route it west of Tara, avoiding the valley.
The Greens campaigned against the M3. The World Monuments Fund and Smithsonian Institution have placed it on their ‘endangered’ lists. Gormley is still pushing ahead with it, though.
In December, he hired 15 experts to help draft a list of sites, including Tara, to nominate to Unesco for world heritage status at its annual meeting last Tuesday. No list was delivered.
Tarawatch is continuing its campaign to re-route the road with a protest at the Dáil this Wednesday (1pm). They will ask Gormley why the Unesco list wasn’t submitted as it would have tested the M3’s impact on Tara’s heritage status. They will also tell him that his new archaeological code of practice is meaningless while Tara/Skryne is being vandalised.
Gormley’s betrayal of Tara/Skryne is endorsing Fianna Fáil’s traditional approach to the environment – “cover it over with concrete”. That party’s love of unbridled development is the reason why places like Meath became an overspill for Dublin and why its roads desperately need to be improved. They mustn’t be improved at the expense of Tara. It’s bound up with our history. For 800 years it tied our ancestors to a legendary past which was ultimately used to stir up revolution and create our Republic.
The world sees Tara as our spiritual centre. It even features in one of the most popular novels/films of all time. Scarlett O’Hara’s plantation is named after it in Gone With The Wind. Her fictional Tara represents the Irish emigrant’s longing for home. Our real one now stands for longing to get home from work quicker. We need Unesco to protect Tara from ourselves.
Our generation stood by as the government over-developed our country. What will our legacy be? Some Nama-esque hulks of buildings? Some half-built estates? A concrete dagger through the heart of Tara? Is this what we want to leave behind for future schoolchildren and young teachers like the late Mr Halpin?
I can imagine him surveying the M3 and sardonically quoting Scarlett’s famous line: “Is Tara still standing or is it also gone with the wind?”
Scarlet? He’d be crimson with anger.

Scrap Bloomsday – give us ‘Dubliners’ Day instead

Sunday Tribune, June 21

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan leaned on the parapet of the Martello tower and examined the snot green sea. Filling his nostrils with salt-tang air, he picked up his shaving bowl and noticed a throng below him.
“Who,” he wondered, “are that shower of w****rs?”
And w****rs they were indeed. Some wore bruised panama hats and novelty spectacles. Others wore bowlers, blazers and deck shoes. Women wore shawls over designer dresses. All about were ad-hoc Edwardians who had half-plundered their wardrobes in an attempt to look ‘period’. A bearded gentleman in a linen suit was high-camping it on a pushbike, cooing “how’s your giblets missus?” Small groups of Japanese, Scandinavians and Americans leapt out of his path, hugging their ragged copies of Ulysses, the book in which Buck was a character.
Sighing, Buck called to a young boy passing by. “You there! What day is this?”
“Why, it’s Bloomsday sir!”
“Bloomsday? Here’s a guinea, buy that goose in the butcher’s window.”
“But sir, you’re confusing Ulysses with A Christmas Carol.”
“That’s not possible,” Buck protested, “I’ve never read Ulysses.”
“Don’t worry,” said the boy, “neither have most of these w****rs.”
And so Buck retreated, leaving the narrative to me.
I live a seven-minute walk from Joyce’s tower and every 16 June my head is done in by the pretentious gobdaws celebrating Bloomsday. Mentally, I moon at them.
My father used to celebrate Bloomsday. Like me, he had never finished Ulysses. He would plump up his cravat and grab someone’s walking cane (even if they were using it) and head off with our pleas of “Don’t! You look a twat!” ringing in his ears. I don’t know if he ever made the tower but he definitely made Fitzie’s pub.
I suppose he enjoyed himself and there’s something to be said for that. Although it’s really irritating, Bloomsday does provide some people with a respite from the prevailing Gloomsday.
What is REALLY annoying is that people confuse Bloomsday with a celebration of Dublin. It isn’t. It’s a middle-class pretence-fest. Dublin should be celebrated, but not in such an exclusive way.
Joyce celebrated the mundane aspects of the city as well as the landmarks. He drew a detailed human map of toilet smells, snot and other body fluids. He hoped that if Dublin was ever razed, it could be rebuilt using Ulysses.
Physically, this would be difficult. Joyce’s short-arsed Dublin now spreads out beyond the pale. Dedalus’s shoreline is now dominated by monolithic office blocks in Booterstown. Monto is gone and Talbot Street is now full of new lowlife.
Mundane, human Dublin is vanishing fast, too. If Joyce set Ulysses in 2004 instead of 1904 he might have walked down Moore Street recalling how Joe Murphy founded Tayto there in 1954 – the year of the inaugural Bloomsday. Fifty years on, they were still being made in the capital. In 2005, the citizens’ crisps, and jobs, were outsourced to Meath.
He might have stopped in Davy Byrne’s and asked for a Jacob’s cracker to go with his gorgonzola. Jacob’s stopped producing biscuits here last month after 156 years. The Fig Rolls we unfurled as kids are no longer made in Dublin.
He might have glugged a Guinness, unaware that two years later Diageo would talk of closing St James’s Gate.
On the way home, he might have stopped for a spice burger. Soon the latter may be gone. Tomorrow the company that invented the burger, Walsh Family Foods, goes into receivership. For more than 50 years, they’ve been made solely in Dublin and are as old as Bloomsday. Unlike Bloomsday, spice burgers are quintessentially Dub. They’re our equivalent of haggis and never caught on outside of Ireland.
Walsh’s passing cuts another tie to Dublin’s pre-boom past. The city is becoming homogenous. Internationally bland. Blow away the froth and it’s as beige as the latte underneath. In its rush to become refined it’s lost a lot of its Dublinness.
Think of the little touches that have gone: the sound of the Premier Dairies milkman rattling and whistling you awake. The shout of “c’mere ye little bollix” and the rasp of the bus conductor’s boot as you jumped off the back step without paying. Someone calling you “love” over a counter. The things we associate with Dublin are being outsourced. The dirty Dublin they represent was the one celebrated by Joyce. Tight-scrotumed Bloomsday isn’t a fitting festival for his city. It’s exclusive and snobby. If you’re going to celebrate his work, celebrate Dubliners. It’s more accessible and is actually read by Dubs.
‘Dubliners Day’ should be held on 16 June every year to commemorate its real citizens, from Joyce through Luke Kelly to Willie Bermingham. We could all dress up as Dublin characters, like Fortycoats and Bang Bang. I’ll dress up as the Faker Baker in memory of Jacob’s Fig Rolls. He’s fictional, but more real to Dubliners than Leopold Bloom.
We could fling Dublin’s false heroes into the sea (Bertie, get your Speedos on). We could throw out the pretence of Bloomsday, but keep the traditional breakfast. With one noble addition: let’s stick a spice burger on with the liver and kidneys. Stick one on for Molly too.
Malone, that is. Mrs Bloom has had her day.


June 21, 2009

Sinn Féin: a lot done, more to do if it wants our respect

Sunday Tribune, 14 June

Mrs Smith had dusted the parcel every day for two weeks and kept it on her telephone stand in the hall. Not many people dust their next-door neighbour’s post, but she wanted it pristine for their arrival home from holiday. It would also show that there had been no sneaked preview of its contents.
Mrs Smith was Protestant, middle-class and well-liked on her ‘mixed’ road. Her neighbour, Mr Murphy, was a well-known Republican with a brother who still makes the news occasionally. On the other side of her lived a Catholic family whose uncle was an outspoken cleric who constantly angered the IRA. A few doors down lived another Protestant, a Second World War RAF man. Across the road from him lived a German family. By today’s standards, the road was hardly multicultural, but in 1978 Ireland it was an Olympic village.
When she heard the tyres on the Murphys’ driveway, Mrs Smith grabbed the parcel and hurried out. Curiosity was killing her.
She saw the colour drain from Mr Murphy’s face as he watched her approaching. He waved her away. His family ran indoors. She stared at the parcel in the same disbelieving way soldiers stare at a wound before the reality of pain rushes in.
The explosion lifted everyone off their feet.
Fortunately for Mrs Smith, it happened several hours after her drama on the driveway. Mr Murphy had helped the terrified woman place the letter bomb on the ground. The army later detonated it before an excited crowd of rubber-necking kids.
Mrs Smith wasn’t her real name and Murphy is an alias too. Their story is a forgotten episode from the Troubles. It didn’t happen in the north. It happened on my road in leafy Glenageary, south Dublin when I was 11. Things like this didn’t happen in Glenageary. The memory took root.
In 1981, the green shoots appeared. The older kids sat in their gardens talking about the hunger strikes and recalling the bomb which nearly killed Mrs Smith. A friend wore a ‘Bobby Sands MP’ badge which was replaced by a ‘Bobby Sands RIP’ badge when summer arrived. A world away from Belfast, the Troubles had spread down the clipped lawns of Glenageary again.
The hunger strikes politicised a generation of middle-class Irish youth. Some went on to become notorious. They had their heroes and you didn’t dare disrespect them. They weren’t my heroes. They were too blood-stained. Bobby Sands’ death was heroic, but his poster was never on my wall. I have never supported Sinn Féin.
A quarter of a century on, they are sharing power in the north. The last I heard of my friend with the Bobby Sands badge was he had settled down with a Protestant girl. Times change. People change. Not everyone though.
Last week there was braying from the usual quarters about Sinn Féin’s demise here. One paper called them ‘revolting’. Enda Kenny sacked Fine Gael’s director of elections for linking his party with them in a possible coalition. Some people refuse to acknowledge change.
Some perspective wouldn’t go amiss. Everything Sinn Féin does must be measured against how much they have changed. Nobody in the 1980s would ever have envisaged them saying the war was over. They have said it.
In the South, we conveniently forget how our democracy was born out of radicalism. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael’s founders fought a savage civil war. They are now ‘respectable’.
In Brussels, Dublin is represented by a man who was interned in the Curragh for IRA membership. Former Official Sinn Féiner, Proinsias De Rossa, is now a Labour party statesman.
Eamon Gilmore first ran for the Dáil in 1982 for the Workers Party. That party had links to Official IRA/Sinn Féin. He, too, is a respected statesman.
Change is always possible. History proves that, with every turning of the democratic tide, radicals are either rinsed, reshaped and polished or washed away. Sinn Féin should be encouraged to fully immerse themselves.
That said, it’s not easy to like them. On Tuesday they disgraced themselves with their reaction to councillor Christy Burke’s resignation from the party. He claims it under-funded his by-election campaign as they concentrated on Mary Lou McDonald’s. Despite being a former IRA prisoner, Burke is widely respected for championing Dublin’s underprivileged. Not by Sinn Féin, though. In the North, they paint murals of their heroes; in Dublin they let them go to the wall. Aengus Ó Snodaigh demanded he resign his newly retained city council seat and “return what is a Sinn Féin seat to the party”.
A “Sinn Fein seat”? Do they think they own a place on the council? Are direct elections meaningless? The sense of entitlement was worthy of Fianna Fáil. The spat revealed, again, that they still don’t fully understand democracy. Burke has served his fellow citizens for 25 years. The seat belongs to them and they chose him – not Sinn Féin – to occupy it. They are free to choose their own heroes.
Sinn Féin has come a long way since the bloody 1980s. That should be constantly acknowledged. However, it still has a long way to go. It still has to earn our respect. It can start by accepting the wishes of the people of Dublin.
It also needs to learn that if you don’t respect your own heroes, you can hardly expect others to respect you.


June 14, 2009

Greens have sacrificed principles for the illusion of power

Sunday Tribune 10 May

What’s that sound? Is it the thunder of hooves just over the next ridge? Hurray! It’s George Lee leading the cavalry (he’s the one on a Segway) to rescue us from the dole queue. Hip, hip, hurray etc, etc.
No matter how you look at it, Fine Gael has floored Fianna Fáil with its choice of candidate for the Dublin South by-election on 5 June. George ticks all the boxes: he’s sincere, popular and knowledgable. With the exception of FF, the announcement was loudly applauded. Too loudly. The reaction bordered on mild hysteria. George, while being very, very good at maths, has no political track record. He might be rubbish. Still, it said a lot about where we, the electorate, are at emotionally.
Lee’s decision may turn out to be a missed opportunity. Many would like to see a new party enter the fray. With George’s financial acumen bolstered by a couple of seasoned dissidents, we could have seen the birth of the George Lee Party. (‘George Lee’ and ‘party’: there’s three words you don’t see together too often.) In time, it might have become known as the Glee Party – ‘Spreading the message of gloom with Glee’. Now we’ll never know.
While George was throwing shapes over the economy, another man of principle, Eddie Hobbs, reminded us of Fianna Fáil’s culture of hard-necked cronyism. Hobbs resigned in protest from the National Consumer Association on Thursday. He had called for Bertie Ahern’s ‘ex’, Celia Larkin, to step down over the revelation that she was fast-tracked for a mortgage by Michael Fingleton. True to FF form, she refused.
The two ‘people’s economists’ aren’t the only men of principle taking pot-shots at Fianna Fáil. The Greens are at it too. The first rumblings between the Saviours of the Earth and Fianna Fáil came over the TDs’ bonuses debacle. Then John Gormley announced the scrapping of electronic voting, despite a Cabinet decision to defer it. Last Wednesday, Eamon Ryan really stuck the boot in. He told Newstalk’s Eamon Keane that he wouldn’t recommend Green voters give their transfers to Fianna Fáil in the upcoming local elections. He also said the Greens would be open to doing business with Fine Gael/Labour in a possible National Government. Principled Ryan spoke of “values”. He didn’t mention loyalty to his government partners, though.
FF played down Ryan’s disloyalty and revealed its grand by-election plan to defeat George Lee. It has chosen the late Seamus Brennan’s son, Shay, to run against him. Fine Gael is putting up a trusted economist, while FF is relying on sentiment. Economies are not saved by sentiment.
To compound the impression that Fianna Fáil is entirely clueless, Brian Lenihan said, disingenuously, that the three sets of elections on 5 June don’t constitute “a referendum”. This is rubbish. Fianna Fáil will be tested across the entire voting spectrum: local, by-elections and European. The outcome will reflect the public mood: 384,000 unemployed people are looking forward to letting him and his colleagues know how we feel. You only have to look at the election posters to see FF is really worried: the words ‘Fianna Fáil’ are microscopic. It’s like they’re trying to distance themselves from themselves.
Ryan’s comments, too, were designed to distance the Greens from them in the run-up to the elections. The question is: What will the Greens do when the elections are over? If Ryan was disloyal last week, imagine what he’ll be like when FF is really down.
There’s revolution in the air. The public is subconsciously preparing for a new government. As Seán O’Rourke was grilling Lee on Tuesday’s News at One, the speculation wasn’t whether he would win the seat, but what portfolio he would get in the next cabinet. Lee had leaped that hurdle and was already in a new Fine Gael-led government in the public’s mind.
The Greens realise this and that they face annihilation in a general election. They need to start building bridges, which may be why Ryan spoke about doing business with Fine Gael on Newstalk. This double talk, however, is giving weight to ex-Green Patricia McKenna’s assertion that they are hypocrites who have sold out.
George Lee has sacrificed his power as a commentator to follow his principles. The Greens have sacrificed their principles for the illusion of power. Their weasly behaviour is at odds with the image of a party with lofty ideals. They used to stand for integrity and plain-speaking. It’s taken them just two years to learn how to speak like Fianna Fáil. They are still politically immature though. Trying to be Machiavellian doesn’t suit them and is, frankly, a bit embarassing. It’s like watching the class nerd trying to act tough.
The response to Lee’s candidacy has shown that, psychologically, we are already on a general election footing. By failing to strongly endorse their partners now, the Greens are effectively undermining them. They are hinting that they’re having doubts. If they don’t act upon these doubts, they are finished as a party. It’s a dangerous game they’re playing.
The Greens can still show they have some principles left. They should jump ship now, before it’s too late, and nail their colours to a National Government mast.
It’s either that, or get nailed by a seething electorate.


Ahern’s get-out-of-jail card will not solve prison crisis

Sunday Tribune 26 April

Gary Douche should not have died in Mountjoy. Those are the words of the man who beat him to death there in 2006. Nobody should die in Mountjoy, but they do, as in other prisons across our state.
Douche was in a holding cell to protect him from other prisoners. His killer, Stephen Egan, was there because the jail was overcrowded. He had been transferred from the Central Mental Hospital without his anti-psychotic drugs. I’ll spare you the details of what happened.
We only ever hear what passes as life in Irish jails when someone like Gary Douche is killed. Attacks happen every day. As of 9 March, we had 3,790 prisoners and only 3,611 beds in our powder-keg prisons. They are operating at 105% of their capacity. While Douche lay dying in Mountjoy, there were 526 other inmates sleeping in the jail which had a capacity for just 470. There are now 633.
Four thousand prisoners doesn’t seem like an overwhelming number to deal with. So why do we have overcrowding? It costs the state an average of €97,700 a year to house a prisoner. Do the maths: we have overcrowding because we’re strapped for cash.
Justice minister Dermot Ahern made two announcements last week. The first was the publication of the Fines Bill 2009. At any given time, there are about 15 people in prison for non-payment of fines. The Bill allows defaulters pay by instalment as an alternative to jail.
The second heralded a plan to rehabilitate sex offenders. Prisoners who volunteer for therapy will be released early and electronically tagged. This will incentivise serious offenders to undergo treatment.
Both plans have merits and while I agree with the first, I don’t with the second. Sex offenders are notorious recidivists and should do their time. Out of 578 released since 2003, only 42 had completed the Sex Offender Programme.
The optics are fine: TV licence fee defaulters stay out of jail and offenders get treatment. Look closer and you’ll notice something both plans have in common: they free up prison space. Does the government believe releasing paedophiles is the answer to overcrowding? Or releasing short-term prisoners? Last year, anyone serving less than 20 months in Mountjoy’s women’s unit was released to make room for more serious offenders.
Or how about letting potential killers out on bail?
On 8 April, Ahern said that our bail laws can’t be tightened because of prison overcrowding. There’s no room for suspects who might not be granted bail. That’s an admission of defeat.
Ahern knows that 25% of all serious crime is committed by people on bail (CSO, 2008). This includes rape and murder. Between 2004 and mid-2008, 90,000 serious crimes were committed by bailed suspects.
In 2007, despite garda objections, Tipperary man Jerry McGrath was granted bail after being arrested for assaulting a five-year-old girl. A month later, McGrath murdered mother-of-two Sylvia Roche Kelly. Her husband has accused the state of giving McGrath freedom which he used to carry out the killing.
Ahern has linked reform of the bail laws to overcrowding. His solution is early release. This will, inevitably, breed more crime. Our penal system is a revolving door which will soon be spinning faster than a government press secretary.
Every time the overcrowding issue comes up, the standard answer is ‘Thornton Hall’. This 2,200-bed super-prison will solve everything. The problem is, Thornton Hall isn’t being built. It’s been “in the pipeline” for the past three years due to negotiation problems with the builders. There’s a first: disharmony between the government and the construction industry.
The Prison Service can move quickly when it needs to, though. It’s currently being investigated for awarding €100m of contracts to one building company – Glenbeigh Construction – without putting them out to public tender. The justice department secretary general, Sean Aylward, has defended the service saying it had to move quickly due to… overcrowding. Where there’s a will there’s a way.
Last week the government scrapped the unused electronic voting system that has cost us over €51m. Then there’s the pay-offs to junior ministers and bonuses to ‘veteran’ TDs. All the money it has wasted could have been put towards Thornton Hall or some interim solution, like reopening Spike Island or the Curragh detention centre.
The former military camps at Rockhill House, Lifford, Monaghan and Longford could be used as ‘boot camps’ for young offenders, like Thorn Cross centre in Warrington. This is a voluntary scheme where prisoners sign up to learn respect and self-esteem. They are given construction courses leading to placements with local builders. If we had an Irish version, an offender could end up building Thornton Hall rather than residing in it.
The crime rate is rising and the government must protect us, inside and – more importantly – outside prison. Opening the gates is not the solution, minister. Stop wringing your hands about the bail laws and dreaming of Thornton Hall. Use the idle facilities we already have. Continuing to pack prisoners in will result in more Gary Douches. Continuing to let them out will result in more Sylvia Roche Kellys.
We don’t want any more like them on our conscience. Find the space now.


One way to solve the economic crisis – get Blottoed

Sunday Tribune, 12 April

It is Easter Sunday and I bring you tidings of great joy. That’s right, ‘great joy’, for tomorrow night there will arise from our midst two new millionaires. Hallelujah. On Tuesday morning, when everyone else is glumly listening to Mourning Ireland, two lucky people will be chuckling away under their respective duvets thanks to the National Lottery’s Millionaire draw.
Have you bought a ticket? Don’t worry if you haven’t as I’ve even better news for you: I have a plan to make us all a few bob and rescue the country from the knacker’s yard. It’s this: we hold a big raffle. A VERY BIG raffle. The WORLD’S BIGGEST RAFFLE EVER, in fact.
Last Tuesday, Brian Lenihan announced that he’s buying a load of useless land and half-finished buildings on our behalf. He calls them “toxic assets”. Every day, their value is getting smaller, but someday, someone, somewhere may buy them. That’s what he’s hoping for, at any rate. My plan is, instead of leaving these “toxic assets” lying idle, we (drum roll, please)… raffle them. As this brilliant idea came to me after a few budget-free scoops, I propose to call this land Lotto, the ‘Blotto’.
Here’s how it works: Brian is blindfolded (nothing new there) and chooses one toxic deed from the pile in his office. Let’s say it’s for an unfinished street. This is then put up for the Blotto. Tickets are sold worldwide, priced at €50 each. As there are 80 million people who claim Irish ancestry, that’s a guaranteed €4bn already. Then there’s the Chinese – they love a gamble and there’s a billion of them. There’s loads of Africans too. See the potential? Some lucky Blotto player will win a (half-finished) street for €50. They can then sell it back to the developer at a reasonable price and he can finish it off using cheap Irish labour. The state, the winner and the developer all make a profit. The houses are then sold at pre-boom prices. ‘Blotto! It could be you!!’
There’s even a precedent for Blotto. In 1984, horse trainer Barney Curley raffled his Middleton Park mansion, selling 9,000 tickets at £200 each. Last October, Tony Browne from Corbally, Co Limerick, decided to do the same with his €352,000 home (he reckoned 800 tickets at €500 each would do the trick).
The authorities have played Blotto before as well. In November 2002, Cork City Council raffled 40 homes to 600 people. The pathetic state of the affordable housing scheme was highlighted when the council put the applicants’ names in a hat and offered to sell a cut-price house to the first 40 out.
But why stop with toxic assets? We could Blotto places we don’t like and are costing us money. Like the gang-ridden ‘Island’ area of Limerick where the cost of policing is outrageous. We could market it as “a disarming corner of the Shannon estuary with abundant wild life”.
Once a month, we could buy special ‘Madonna Blotto’ tickets, with the winner getting adopted by that nice old lady. Well, what’s Malawi got that Ireland hasn’t? Apart from more money, of course.
Why not Blotto the entire country? Maybe not – the Germans might win us. Any road, that’s my rescue plan. Now consider the government’s plan.
The plan is to bleed us dry with new levies and rescue their wealthy friends by buying up their “toxic” land for €90bn. Some of this land may never be eligible for planning permission. What then? Does the government plan to force permission through?
The government believes it’s “fair” to spend €90bn cleaning up their friends’ mess and then levy people on the minimum wage. That’s €18,000 a year. To put that figure in context, during the first 10 months of 2008, €23,000 was spent on serviettes and crockery at Leinster House’s catering facilities.
While we are being screwed, the drinks and racing industries are left unscathed. You can’t get a job or pay your mortgage, but you can drink yourself to death or gamble your house on the horses. That’s an interesting message to send the electorate.
Where were the incentives in this
budget? Why wasn’t VAT lowered? If even 1% was chipped off, it might have encouraged those who have money to spend it. As for jobs, if the government manages to dispose of “toxic” land, the only employment generated will be in the construction industry – the same industry that got us into this mess.
Social problems are rising and last week the gardaí said that cutbacks are hampering their ability to respond to calls for help. The government that failed to protect us from the bankers is now failing to protect us from criminals.
Brian Lenihan’s bludget is brutal in every sense of the word and, like the regime that spawned it, is utterly devoid of any original ideas. It’s the final proof that we need a National Government – fast. It makes the Blotto Plan look positively inspired.
Here’s an idea: let’s Blotto Lenihan and see how many tickets we sell. I bet we’d shift more if we Blottoed one of those paintings of bare-chested Brian Cowen.
Either way, you’re looking at the ultimate booby prize.

A gag that’s not funny… and is a threat to democracy

Sunday Tribune, April 5

Picture this: Bertie Ahern picks up the Sunday Tribune, sees a portrait of himself in the nude on page one and immediately despatches his art dealer with a brown envelope to buy it. Bertie doesn’t want an unflattering picture of himself in the public domain. The only aras he wants the public to connect him with is the one in the Park.
Plausible? Highly. True? Unfortunately not. The preceding scenario formed a newspaper’s April Fool’s gag last week and I’m not ashamed to admit that I fell for it. That’s the thing about Bertie – you wouldn’t put anything past him. For a man who loves the limelight, he’s fiercely protective of his privacy. He doesn’t like the papers showing him up. That is probably why, under his stewardship, the VAT on newspapers rose to 13.5% – the highest in Europe (Britain has zero VAT). It probably also explains why his administration published a Privacy Bill in 2006 to curb the power of the press. Naughty press, Fianna Fáil will learn youse.
That bill was subsequently ‘parked’ to give the now year-old Press Council time to prove itself effective at dealing with media complaints. Last week, another Ahern – Dermot – announced that he is going to introduce the legislation. Why? Because “there seems to be a growing disregard for the privacy of the individual”. Note the word “seems”. According to who? Who has been calling for a privacy law? Was it Dermot Ahern himself?
Ahern knows the value of privacy. For example, the equality minister now knows it’s better to keep his views on homosexuals private. Back in 1993 he agreed with Fine Gael’s Brendan McGahon that gays were deviants. Once the press highlighted this, he was branded homophobic.
His dealings with the family of terror chief Michael McKevitt might have been kept private if the press hadn’t reported that he forwarded an email on his behalf to Michael McDowell. The press hasn’t done Ahern any favours. Could this be personal?
The new law forbids “surveillance”, “stalking/harassment” and “disclosure of documentation” – all legitimate weapons in the journalist’s armoury. Documents that can’t be published will include publicly available material from, among others, county council planning files and the Land Registry Office. Without the disclosure of such documents, the extent of planning corruption in north Dublin may never have come to light.
Without “stalking”, the documentary that led to the beef tribunal might not have been made. In that programme, journalist Susan O’Keeffe approaches beef baron Larry Goodman for a comment as he is leaving mass and pursues him until he drives off. Under the new rules, Goodman could have got an injunction and halted production. Similarily, Brendan O’Brien’s legendary “stalking” of Martin ‘The General’ Cahill might not have been aired. The print labours of Veronica Guerin would have been hampered too.
With the new restrictions, Seanie Fitz might be able to get an injunction against a newspaper revealing that he’s enjoying a nice holiday in Spain.
The new law states that invasions of privacy are justified when they’re in good faith, the public interest and fair. Sounds reasonable? It isn’t. It’s ‘Catch 22’: for an invasion of privacy to be justified, you must invade someone’s privacy to prove it. However, you can’t invade someone’s privacy because that’s not justified without proof. A reporter who is stymied by an injunction can be found to have broken the rules just because he was unable to finish his investigation.
So, again, who has asked for this privacy law? Take a guess. Last year, Dublin City University released a study which revealed that two-thirds of all privacy complaints over the past 25 years had come from public figures, chiefly politicians.
The hypocrisy at the heart of this law is staggering. In February, minister Ahern was forced to introduce new European legislation requiring telephone operators to store details of all calls made for two years. Under Irish law, they had to store them for three years. All your calls, emails and internet usage are logged by the government. How about a privacy law against that?
Ahern’s announcement last week was all the more telling because of its timing. It came just weeks after this newspaper broke the Brian Cowen portraits story. This was a clear threat to the press. It was a slap on the wrist for getting uppity and a direct attack on the fundamental right to freedom of information.
We don’t need this law. The press ombudsman is doing a good job of correcting rogue journalism. It’s independent, fast and binding. As it’s free, the public aren’t put off complaining by legal costs. That’s good for democracy, unlike privacy laws and VAT on newspapers.
This brings us back to Bertie, as it was his administration that dreamed up this nonsense. When I read the April Fool’s portrait gag about him last week, it struck me that the words ‘Ahern’ and ‘gag’ were entirely appropriate given the decision to silence the press.
Forget about Cowen: Bertie deserves to be hung in the National Gallery.
I’ll start building the scaffold…


How to run a household on less than €4,000 a week

Sunday Tribune, 29 March

It was one of the great comic performances of the Celtic Tiger era. Pee Flynn on The Late Late Show, grinning like he had a coathanger in his gob after telling the audience how he ran three households on £100,000 a year. Poor out-of-touch Pee, the poster boy for gombeen politics. Who else would claim to spend so much on housekeeping?
Another Fianna Fáil man, perhaps?
Zip forward 10 years and Offaly councillor Ger Killally is bemoaning the high cost of housekeeping. Killally, a former running mate of Brian Cowen, sobbed as he told a judge he needs €4,000 a week to meet household expenses. FOUR GRAND A WEEK. That’s €192,000 a year – six times the average industrial wage.
Councillor/auctioneer Killally, who has admitted he made secret profits from land deals and resigned his party’s whip, was ordered by the Commercial Court not to reduce his assets below €8m in February. Last Tuesday, he pleaded to have those assets unfrozen to make ends meet. He wept as he detailed his outgoings, which included problems with his underfloor heating and the expense of raising two small children, with another on the way. He was “in between” cars, as his 2008 Audi SUV had been damaged in a road accident. He can’t afford to repair it. Oh, and his mobile phone has been cut off.
Killally is actually a victim of the Celtic Tiger. If it wasn’t for the boom, he wouldn’t be living in a nine-bedroom castellated monster-mansion with all those bills to pay. He deserves our sympathy. Imagine having to struggle with a €4,000-a-week housekeeping bill. There aren’t many of us who have faced that kind of challenge. With the exception of Fiona Nagle, of course.
Remember Fiona? She’s the socialite wife of Breifne O’Brien, the Dublin tycoon who has been ordered to pay €16m to investors in his alleged ‘pyramid scheme’.
Fiona is a former receptionist and party organiser who told Image magazine in 2006 that she never “sticks to one designer”. A few Chanel pieces “always rise to the top of the pile”, she said, adding that Roland Mouret makes her “feel like a woman”. Her “diamond butterfly ring from Van Cleef & Arpels goes with jeans or evening wear”. Well it would, wouldn’t it?
In January, Nagle – who is not accused of any wrongdoing – also pleaded with a judge to unfreeze the family’s assets. She said she needed money to cover her household expenses. Coincidentally, like Killally, she also needed €4,000 a week to pay her bills. Diamond polish obviously isn’t cheap (not that I’d know).
Nagle must really be short of a few bob as, last month, a judge had to instruct gardaí to bring her to court for non-payment of parking fines. The warrant was withdrawn and she has since ponied up. Still, at least she had a car to park illegally, unlike poor Ger Killally.
A week later, Nagle pleaded with the media to respect her privacy. There’s an irony in that: a PR person asking the press to stay away. It was not as ironic, however, as hearing a Fianna Fáil man blaming the crash for his ruination. It was Fianna Fáil, after all, that sowed the seeds of it with the property boom, from which he profited. It was his former running mate that was at the financial helm when everything went belly-up.
It was Fianna Fáil that refinanced the banks and then let an old-age pensioner give it two fingers over a €1m bonus. Only a hard-necked Tiger stalwart like Michael Fingleton could believe he deserves that and a €28m pension. Is he mad? He’s in his 70s – it’s not like he has a lot of time left to spend it all. Does he have housekeeping bills like Killally and Nagle? Does his house cost €4,000 a week to run?
You really have to marvel at how out of touch these people are. They just don’t get it: the party’s over. The rest of us have known this for months. No one, except perhaps Fingleton, is running up housekeeping bills of €4,000 a week any more. We’re drawing the dole or taking pay cuts.
On Friday, Judge Peter Kelly said Killally must come to his sense and reduce his living expenses. So the councillor will just have to stop crying and get on with life. He’ll have to learn how to shop with an eye for a bargain, just like us. (Eurospar has a €3.49 deal on a cabbage/turnip/carrots combo.) He may even have to use public transport and wear slippers now that the underfloor heating is shot.
Here’s an offer for you, Ger. Why don’t you hire me as your housekeeper? I know how to run a household on less than €4,000 a week. Come on, give me a call. I’ve a load of mince in the freezer and can be at your place, making your dinner, by tomorrow evening.
I have to admit that when I read about your housekeeping plight last week, the tears ran down my face as well.
Well, where would we be without our sense of humour?


Pope vs Messiah: the conflict that will define modern Ireland

Sunday Tribune, 22 March

There he was, the little Taoiseach: bassett-hound cheeks blushing, trying to stop his tongue flopping out the side of his mouth as it does when he’s happy. If he had a tail, he’d have wagged it.
After all the flak at home, Brian Cowen was finally enjoying himself. He had come bearing gifts (a begging bowl of Irish weeds) and got a pat on the head and a good aul’ feed at the White House. More important, he’d got Obama to promise to visit Offaly.
Nice one.
When Gordon Brown visited Washington, he only got a few manky DVDs – and he’s blind in one eye, lads.
“Jaze, but tha’ was some craic,” said Cowen the next morning, as he popped a Panadol and changed his socks for the flight home. “Hould on a sec though, who’re them lads?” he asked, pointing at the four rows of bearded gentlemen waving at him from across the aisle.
“Guantanamo Bay, boss,” replied his aide. “You adopted them last night.”
“Wha’? How did tha’ happen?”
The aide raised an imaginary glass to his lips and tilted it a couple of times. Jaze, thought the Taoiseach, Obama spiked my pint.
“Don’t worry,” said the aide, “we’ll shave them and stick them in Carlow along with the 48 other lads we have coming over from Burma. No one will notice.”
Before take-off, Cowen checked his voicemail. “Jaze lads,” he sighed, “looks like the Pope’s coming to Ireland too.”

And so, Ireland is now facing visits from the world’s two most powerful men: one bringing a message of hope, the other bringing a boot to kick our pagan backsides. One represents the material world, the other the spiritual. One is liberal, the other ultra-conservative. Cowen must be hoping they don’t want to come on the same day.
Last week, the Telegraph newspaper reported that Pope Benedict will tour Britain next year and is considering coming here as well. Unlike the euphoria over Obama, there’s been no great rejoicing at the prospect of him visiting us.
What kind of reception will each man get? Sociologists will be watching closely, because the Pope’s welcome will, inevitably, be measured against Obama’s. The result will define post-Celtic Tiger Ireland.
If the public had to choose between both visits, it would probably pick Obama. It’s easy to see why. He is handsome, healthy and young. The Pope is stern, stooped and ancient. Barack says “Yes, we can”, Benedict says “No, you can’t”. The former sees stem-cell research as a boon to mankind, the latter sees it as dooming mankind. Obama stands for hope, Benedict says hell really exists.
Then there’s the Hitler Youth thing. Oh, and the condoms. Benedict visited Cameroon last week and said the church still opposes the use of condoms, even in a country with an Aids epidemic. Cameroon, by the way, has the world’s fastest-growing Catholic population. Well it would, wouldn’t it, considering he won’t let them wear condoms.
So how would Ireland benefit from a visit by Benedict? Would it yank us back in line? Probably not. When John Paul II visited he was given a hero’s welcome, but his trip didn’t halt social change. Since then, we’ve introduced divorce, contraception, exposed church scandals, etc.
We now prefer sound bites to sermons, so if Benedict’s visit is to bring hope, he’s on a loser compared to Obama. When the civil-rights hero comes, the multitudes will hang on every word. The Pope’s visit, on the other hand, will probably be marked by civil-rights protests. It would be disastrous for Catholicism if the Irish booed Benedict and greeted Obama like the Messiah. It would deal the ailing church here yet another sucker punch.
For this reason, Benedict should not come to Ireland. Obama’s popularity would only highlight his lack of it. Besides, he’d be better off at home rethinking the rules on condoms.
Unlike the Pope, Brian Cowen is benefiting from the Obama effect. Yes, the visuals at the White House were awful: at one stage he looked like a bullfrog trying to catch a fly with his tongue. That said, he actually did a good job, even if Obama spiked his pint and made him adopt some Guantanamo lads. The word is, however, that Cowen’s having the last laugh on the president.
Apparently, he’s asked them to do security for his visit.

March 22, 2009