Ming’s cannabis campaign is not about Civil Rights. It’s about him getting stoned

The Journal.ie, March 21

Let’s get the obligatory admission out of the way: I have smoked cannabis. The first time was when I was 16 and shared a spliff with a friend in a park near where I live. It wasn’t a pleasant experience. A gust of wind caught the joint (which was made of copybook paper) as I took a drag, and it flared spectacularly. The result was a night spent wandering about a school disco, hacking and spluttering and failing to chat anyone up. When I got home, I discovered why. My eyebrows were missing.

It’s a painful memory.

I’ve smoked it a handful of times since then, always when I’ve had too much to drink. I’ve always felt sick as a poisoned rat afterwards. Weed is not for me.

Some of my middle-aged friends still smoke cannabis. I’ve no problem with that so long as they’re not driving a bus or a plane, or off their heads and holding a shotgun. If you want to poison yourself, go ahead, just be aware of the risks. I’m not going to grass up anyone for smoking grass.

The drugs debate is not something I give much thought too. If pressed, I’d say that I’ve never found the ‘pro’ arguments convincing. Not least the argument I call the ‘Stoner’s Theory of Relativity’ (aka ‘Story’). This is the claim that cannabis is less harmful than alcohol or tobacco and should be legalised. It’s a top-of-the-head non-argument, which is seldom backed up with anything other than “surveys have shown”.

Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan TD is a great exponent of this Stoner’s Theory of Relativity. He trotted it out again to Marc Coleman on Newstalk last week. “The World Health Organisation  says cannabis is less harmful than alcohol and tobacco,” he said, with the conviction of a man who has had the last word on the issue.

The problem was that Ming didn’t specify which WHO report he was referring to. More importantly, he didn’t mention what else the WHO says about cannabis: “The acute effects of cannabis use has been recognised for many years, and recent studies have confirmed and extended earlier findings.”

Here are a few examples: * Cannabis impairs cognitive development. * It affects the memory and prolonged use may lead to greater impairment (which may not recover with cessation of use). * Chronic users are likely to develop a dependence. * It can exacerbate schizophrenia in affected individuals. * Long-term smoking damages the trachea and major bronchi. * Cannabis used during pregnancy is associated with impairment in foetal development. It may also lead to post-natal risk of rare forms of cancer. (http://www.who.int/substance_abuse/facts/cannabis/en/.)

After ‘quoting’ the WHO, Ming went on to make a vague reference to some studies from the 1960s. The ’60s were half a century ago. People thought tobacco was good for you back then. (See http://wn.com/Ad-More_Doctors_Smoke_Camels_Than_Any_Other_Cigarette )

When would you prefer your health research from, the ’60s or today? Or how about the Victorian era? Flanagan also referred to a report that said “masturbation makes you go blind”. What report? What rubbish. If Flanagan wants to engage with people who have an open mind about the legalisation issue, then he needs to stop trivialising it.

He needs to stop weeding out the information he doesn’t like. Stop conflating “less harmful” with “harmless”. This glib approach to cannabis’ side effects short-changes those of us who want to hear a rational, scientific debate on the issue.

Campaigners also need to either cop themselves on to (or stop lying about) the fact that cannabis’ potency has changed dramatically over the years. It’s not a ‘harmless little weed’. According to the UN’s World Drug Report 2009, “of the many people who use cannabis, very few understand the increase in its potency… Cannabis has changed dramatically since the 1970s. New methods of production have increased the potency and negative effects … It is important to understand cannabis potency because of its link to health problems including mental health.”

Ming seems to be an amiable, hard-working family man. He’s a hugely entertaining addition to the Dail. He’s dogged, determined, witty and articulate. However, his glib  approach to Tuesday’s interview did neither him nor his argument any favours.

Here are some questions he could answer: I drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes and I accept the evidence that both are bad for me. Why do stoners have such a problem accepting that dope is bad for your health too?

At what age can you start smoking cannabis? Stoners don’t generally make great students, so do we limit its use to those who have finished secondary school? Age restriction doesn’t work with alcohol, so it won’t work with cannabis. Do we bother with age restriction at all?

The ‘pros’ say legalising will take drug dealing out of the hands of criminals. Will it? Or will they just undercut the legal suppliers, in the same way cigarette smugglers do?

Or sell cheaper synthetic alternatives? Should we legalise all drugs?

Ming points out that there is a difference between abuse and use. He’s absolutely right.

Not all cannabis smokers will become psychotic or graduate to heroin. The fact remains, however, that some will. What constitutes ‘abuse’ in Ming’s view?

One of the more annoying aspects of Ming’s campaign is his repeated use of Senator David Norris’ ‘example’. Ming cites him whenever he’s challenged about his-law-breaking. Senator Norris was openly gay when homosexuality was illegal here. He fought a cruel and unjust law.

Ming is suggesting cannabis legalisation is a Civil Rights issue. It’s not. It’s a health issue. One of his supporters said on this website two weeks ago that Ming was engaging in “civil disobedience”. It would have been funny if it hadn’t been an affront to Norris, Rosa Parks, the early Sinn Fein movement, Ghandi, the Civil Rights protestors in the North etc.

Ming may get his martyrdom yet. Kilkenny councillor, John Coonan, is writing to the gardai about his drug use. Coonan is a former psychiatric nurse who has seen his share of young people suffering from cannabis-related depression. Coonan’s complaint will increase pressure on the gardai to investigate Flanagan.

Perhaps a court case will  lead to a definitive drugs debate which won’t resort to stupid comments about masturbation or 1960s surveys. If afterwards, Ireland decides that – despite the obvious health risks – it wants to decriminalise cannabis, then so be it.

Ming is, potentially, one of our brightest new political stars. He is also the first politician of this new Dail to be publicly disingenuous to the electorate. He needs to come clean about the effects of cannabis use. His crusade is not a Civil Rights issue like Norris’s. It’s about Luke wanting to get stoned, that’s all. It’s about personal gain.

And we’ve had enough of politicians lying and spinning for personal gain. Haven’t we Deputy Flanagan?


I would have told him that the darkness doesn’t last forever…

The Journal.ie,  February 18

An article in the news last week reminded me of an old friend. I told his story once before – it feels like a lifetime ago. I’d like to tell it again here.

Brian and I were 13 the first time we met. I wasn’t impressed. He looked a bit of a shaper as he marched around the schoolyard, clicking the studded heels of his George Webbs, with his hands in the pockets of an oversized Eskimo anorak.

We fought – I can’t remember why. It was one of those ‘hold-me-back’ affairs, with a flurry of missed groin-kicks and the loser ending up in a headlock. Brian, as it turned out, was no hard-man: he was rubbish at fighting. It was something we had in common.

The scrap was a sort of pathetic, pubescent, bonding ritual. We became best friends, constantly messing about to disguise our terror at being weedy First Years, surrounded by giant, moody Older Lads. We slagged everything off – as all insecure 13-year-olds do to deflect attention from themselves. Clothes, hairstyles, even bikes were fair game.

Brian had a 20-gear Asahi racer, while I had a crock of crap masquerading as a Chopper. He never let me forget it was crap – especially as it didn’t have a crossbar.

“It’s a girl’s bike.”

“It’s not. It’s just… streamlined. It’s a streamlined Chopper.”

“But it folds in half.”

“It’s a Chopper.”

“It’s a girl’s bike and you’re a girl.” The bike was eventually ‘stolen’.

Our afternoons were spent listening to records or cycling around ‘scoping out the talent’. At night we’d slip through back gardens, avoiding fathers filling coal scuttles, to steal apples which we never ate. We whispered instructions to each other on a shared set of Walkie Talkies. Their range was about 20 feet. There was no need for them: we could have spoken normally and still have heard each other.

Brian and I learned how to smoke together. We could only afford cheap tipped cigars. They were disgusting and tasted like burning doc leaves (I once smoked a doc leaf). I accidentally stubbed one out on my arm while swinging from a tree, making monkey noises to annoy the lawn bowlers at Moran Park. The scar lasted for a year. I told my mother that it was a result of two wasps stinging me on the same spot, one after the other. She didn’t buy it.

Brian and I rode around Dun Laoghaire with our cigars clamped between our teeth, thinking we looked like Clint Eastwood. We didn’t see ourselves as two short-arses playing at being adults from the safety of childhood.

We went to our first disco together, herky-jerk dancing like mad to Bad Manners to impress the girls. The more we ran on the spot, the more they liked it – so local stud, Macker, told us. What he didn’t tell us was that he had spread the word among the girls that we were “special needs boys” from a care home.

“We’re ‘in’ there,” I said, as one waved sympathetically at us. We ran faster on the spot to impress her even more.

Brian went on my first date with me. Not ‘as’ my date, obviously – he came along to act as witness in the event that I ‘scored’. When you’re 14, ‘scoring’ is everything.

He cycled behind me to the venue, Sandycove train station.

“What’s that smell?” he shouted at the back of my head. “It’s like oil and cat piss.”

“Don’t know what you’re talking about,” I cycled faster, knowing full-well what the smell was. It was the contents of a bottle of my dad’s Eclipsol hair tonic. We skidded into the lane overlooking the tracks.

“What’s up with your hair?” Brian was examining my forehead. A mixture of sweat and hair restorer was trickling down my nose.

“I haven’t washed it for a week,” I said. “…and I used Ted’s hair stuff. It helps to keep the bounce down.” Bouncy hair was for girls. My mother always said my freshly-washed hair reminded her of her own.

“You’ve got my hair.”

“No I don’t.”

“Yes you do.” My father ran the palm of his hand over his bald head. “Don’t worry, you’ll be like me some day. Then you won’t have to worry about having bouncy hair and looking like … Barry Manilow.” Bullseye.

Brian leaned his bike against the wall. “Go on, then.” I could hear him chuckling as I nervously approached my ‘girlfriend’.

“What’s that smell?” asked one of her friends. “It’s like pee.”

“Why’s your hair greased up like that? Are you trying to look like Elvis?” I had hoped I looked like Elvis.

“Did Elvis ever work as a toilet cleaner in a Pet Shop?”

“Or an old folk’s home?” Brian fell over his bike laughing.

I didn’t score. The love affair ended soon afterwards.

The day Brian moved down the country was the bleakest of my young life. I couldn’t tell him I was going to miss him. You didn’t say that to your mates. We played ‘Baggy Trousers’ on my Lloytron tape recorder over and over again as he unsuccessfully attempted to blow up his tree house with bangers. “I’m not leaving it for the next family,” he said, despite my protests. Looking back, he was scorching the earth of his childhood.

Before he left, he handed me his half of our Walkie Talkie set. I traded it for some now-forgotten item. I couldn’t share it with anyone else.

Years passed and Brian and I lost touch. We picked up our friendship again when he eventually moved back. Then we both got night jobs and lost touch again. We orbited the same crowds, but never managed to meet up.

In November 1992, Brian walked into his local pub and settled a few small debts. He was in good form. He was 25.

Later that night, Brian turned the exhaust pipe in on his car. He killed himself. No one had seen it coming.

I try not to think of his final moments. How alone he must have felt. How his family felt when they heard the news. How whoever found him felt. The 14-year-old who shared my growing pains was gone. The reason why is not important now. I have other questions. What would his children have been like? Would he have enjoyed my wedding? Would we still be friends, tilting at the bar in Finnegan’s?

Brian’s death went unreported. Newspapers don’t generally carry details of suicide stories because of the ‘Werther effect’ – where reporting can lead to ‘copycat’ cases. Suicide is contagious.

The article in last week’s paper that prompted me to revisit Brian’s life concerned euthanasia exponent, Dr Philip Nitschke. On Thursday, he held an assisted suicide ‘workshop’ in Dublin, where he demonstrated a device he calls the ‘Deliverance Machine’. It bears the slogan ‘I’d rather die like a dog’. He has ‘Exit Bags’ and refers to death as the ‘preferable option’. I thought of Brian. I thought of the Werther effect and all the depressed young people who will be influenced by Nitschke’s catchy suicide slogans.

I thought of the 10 Irish people a week who kill themselves.

I thought of myself in my early 20s. Two years before Brian’s death, I suffered a prolonged period of depression. I was luckier than him: I survived and learned from it. I think of what I could have said to him had I known what he was going through.

I could have told him we all crash emotionally, but it’s possible to walk away from the wreckage. I would have told him that he didn’t really want to leave, he just wanted the pain to stop. I would have told him that the darkness passes.

I would have told him that he will always be my friend.

I would have told him that he was never really alone.



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I wonder how often the horse must stumble before you realise the race is over

http://www.thejournal.ie  11/02/11


I THREW MY father in a skip last week. Bit by bit we dismembered him, stuffed him into bin bags and hauled him outside.

The amount of times I wanted to do that to him when he was alive …

The old man died 12 years ago. It’s taken that long to mentally prepare for the task of going through his belongings. That may seem odd, but throwing your parent’s life into a skip is one of the hardest things you’ll ever do.

Ted was a journalist for 50 years and the day my mother and I sifted through his past was the same day the paper I write for, the Sunday Tribune, went into receivership. The timing seemed strangely appropriate.

His scent still clung to his room: the musty odour of old age and illness. We picked our way through the debris of his wrecked health: tubes, medicines, his nebuliser. Mundane items, like a box of unused lancets, pricked my memory. I recalled the night, when I was 10, that we discovered Ted had diabetes. He went hypoglycaemic after dinner and began to hallucinate.

He excused himself from the table, where he was entertaining an RTE colleague, and went upstairs. Half an hour later, he returned to inform us that he had had a vision of Our Lady. He announced this with all the gravitas of an Archbishop saying High Mass at Knock. He was quite convincing. His encounter with Mary might even have seemed plausible had it not been for one thing: he was wearing nothing but his underpants. Before anyone could stop him, Ted raced out of the house in his jocks to spread the good news.

Our neighbour, Mr Butler, was a deeply religious man. He was holding a set of beads when he answered the door.

“What in the name of…”

“Halleluiah!!!” Ted pushed past him and plonked himself down between Mrs Butler and her brother.

If there was one thing dad was good at, it was timing. (He edited the TV news with a stopwatch.) On this occasion, he surpassed himself. Mrs Butler’s brother was home from the States for his very first visit in 20 years. That coincidence, in itself, was noteworthy. What was more noteworthy, however, was the fact that he happened to be a priest. He was on his second decade of the rosary when the Underpants Messiah came calling.

“Halleluiah,” dad said, beatifically.

The doctor arrived just as Ted was about to embark on a naked Marion mission around the neighbourhood. He always claimed not to remember the incident. I frequently – and enthusiastically – reminded him.

“Hey dad, remember the night you went to Mass in your Y-fronts?”

“Eff off.”

“How’s that hymn go again? Oh… ‘The BALLS of the An-ge-lus, are chiming fo-or thee…’”

Everything I touched, from Clinistix to a prehistoric Tayto packet, had a memory attached to it. There were his precious golf clubs. I remembered that I used to hide fried eggs in his golf bag (it’s a long story).

There were odd socks, but no jocks. I recalled how my mum used to (pointlessly) iron his underpants.

“Are you ironing his jocks again?” I would shout through the kitchen door.


“Well, at least let him take them off this time, will you?”

I found part of our ancient, temperamental Qualcast motor-mower behind his desk. Whenever it broke down, he would accuse me of “sabotaging” it to get out of mowing the lawn. My paltry pocket money would be withheld and a public screaming match would ensue.

“I’ll never end up like you,” I vowed.

When you sift through a parent’s past, with the power to discard evidence of their existence, you realise how much time you’ve wasted. My father and I wasted most of our time together fighting. We couldn’t help it.

I uncovered a pile of Irish Presses he had kept. They contained articles I had written. My mother found a school portrait of me, aged 12. I always wondered where it had disappeared to.

There were letters and clothes to be sorted: a sheepskin coat that once carried me on its shoulders and a saggy cardigan. There were shoes, widened by fallen arches, and sober neck ties jumbled up with old cheque books and mementos of his parents. I found his father’s tortoise-shell hairbrushes behind a trunk. Despite being balder than a cue ball with alopecia, he always refused to give them to me. Now he’s gone, I understand why he wouldn’t part with them.

There were two old Amstrad PCs we both used – me to write my column for the Evening Press, him to write ‘special reports’ for the Irish Times. It must have tortured him to have to write ad features to supplement his pension. As a young reporter, he had interviewed Laurel and Hardy and had breakfast with Hemingway in Gibraltar. He wrote his first book when he was 19.

He was head-hunted into RTE in 1962 and left 30 years later with broken health and a bitterness that ate away at him. Somewhere along the line he had had a row with an unforgiving personnel manager. He was passed over for promotion for 15 years.

“Don’t go into journalism,” he warned me. His vocation had betrayed him.

Twenty five years on, I wonder if he was right. The Tribune is in receivership. It’s a newspaper that’s widely respected, but has always struggled to survive. In journalism,  high standards are no guarantee of success. My old man was a great journalist, but didn’t get the success he deserved.

I’m in my 40s. That’s relatively young and yet, like thousands of other unemployed middle-agers, I’m looking back on a career that may be finished for me. I’ve been made redundant three times. I’m wondering how often the horse must stumble beneath you before you finally realise your race is over.

Everyone hopes the Trib will find a buyer, but the odds aren’t great. The sad reality is that its ‘death’ will quickly become old news. That’s the newspaper business.

That’s life, I thought as I walked home from my mother’s last week, with Ted still writing copy in my head. I called around to finish helping her clear his room the next day. There was no sign of dad when I got there.

The skip was gone.


Time to stop being angry. Think about what you want to vote ‘for’, not ‘against’

Sunday Tribune, 30 January

Bertie Ahern stood at the school gates. “Oh, dem was the days inannyways, boys,” he sighed to the Radio One reporter. It was his last full day in Dail Eireann.

“Thirty four years,” he said, brimful of wist. “Me only regret is dat I’m leaving an’ everyting isn’t as great as it was on my watch. Dat dare’s no Bertie Bowl and dat de banks are all poxed up. No-one told me nuttin about de banks …”

I’ll stop here. I can’t do this any more. It’s become the norm in recent years to transcribe everything Bertie says in phonetic Dub-speak. It harks back to a time when he was a likeable embarrassment: a twonk in an anorak who had our best interests at heart. That was a long, long time ago. Bertie-speak isn’t funny any more.

Last week, he stood outside Leinster House and patronisingly ‘thanked’ an angry councillor for lambasting him over the economy. He may have thought he was being funny. If he did, it was the worst-judged political ‘joke’ ever captured on national radio.

When he dismissed Councillor Joan Collins as someone who just wanted to get on TV, there was an audible ‘snap’ across the land.  She may only have been looking for publicity, but she still spoke for all of us. This was one insult too many. This was Bertie’s defining moment, when he revealed himself to be a bitter man who thinks we’re a shower of ungrateful proles.

The electorate – and the media – was incandescent. One paper dismissed him as ‘delusional’. After Thursday, I’ve come to another conclusion about Bertie: he’s trying to wind us up. He is a crap-stirring gouger who is goading us for our ingratitude. He has as much class as a rat with a gold tooth.

It isn’t fair that Bertie is swanning off with a €150,000 pension pot. You know what? Life isn’t fair, full stop. Sometimes the bad guy gets away. That’s what I’ve been telling myself lately as I contemplate the forthcoming elections. It’s strangely consoling. The best way to deal with pond-life like Bertie is to stop being angry. An angry person has no peripheral vision, no finesse, no judgement.

I’ve realised that being angry all the time has left me devoid of beliefs. I don’t know what I’m ‘for’ any more. I only know what I’m ‘against’. It’s a dangerous way to feel when you’re about to vote in the most important election of your life.

I ask myself: do I vote for Fine Gael? I see Enda running away from a three-way debate and yet he’s talking to David Cameron about the North, as if he’s already in office. Do I want to be treated like a Sure Thing even before campaigning begins? Do I want a party in power that’s further right than my liberal-lefty leanings? Do I want Leo ‘Tebbit’ Varadkar as a minister?

Do I vote for Fine Gael because I remember the days of Gareth The Good? Do I give Enda a nostalgia vote?

Or do I vote for Labour? I gave my first ever Number One to Barry Desmond. Do I vote for a party that will squeeze the bone-dry middle classes? Do I want higher taxes?

Or do I protest and vote for Sinn Fein with its impressive young gun, Pearse Doherty? Do I vote for a party that hasn’t a clue about the economy and will put a rocket up soft targets like myself? No, I don’t think so. Besides, Gerry Adams has sold out. Isn’t he The Baroness of Cheam these days?

When I look at my pay packet and hear Bertie eulogising about himself, I fight my anger. When I calm down, I begin to see what I’m ‘for’ – and it’s not a nebulous New Era or Eire Nua. I’m ‘for’ having money back in my pocket. I’m ‘against’ being broke. I am going to vote on that basis alone, not because I want to ‘send a message’ to anyone.

I remind myself that when I go to vote, I must be cold and calculating. I must vote for what I want – not what I DON’T want. Don’t be swayed by demagogues in Doc Martin’s making fine speeches. Don’t let Bertie wind you up so much you cast a protest vote instead of a strategic one.

Vote as your head directs you, not as your heart does. Don’t run canvassers from your door. Drag them inside and present them with a wish list of things you WANT and demand they sign it. Pay at least as much attention to candidates’ form as you would if you were backing a horse. We need politicians who are going to duck, dive and be devious with Europe on our behalf – not well-meaning ‘protest’ TDs.

This is what I keep telling myself whenever Bertie gets my anger rising. Don’t let your emotions sway your judgement. Don’t let him screw you a second time. Just get even.


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.


Why I am not ashamed to be drawing the dole again

Sunday Tribune, 8 March, 2008

June 1995, the sun is shining, the economy is recovering, people are smiling… and there’s a cloud over my head. I am redundant and staring at the dole office in Dún Laoghaire. I’m 28 and about to sign on for the first time.
The dole office is located beside the ‘Tech’ college. I always thought this was a strange juxtaposition that sent out the message: “We know you’re going to fail your Leaving so we conveniently plonked the dole queue a few feet away.”
I wound up repeating my Leaving there in 1985 because I’d cocked up my application to journalism college.
After an all-boys private school, this was heaven. I got to sit beside girls. (GIRLS!) This concentration-drain guaranteed that I was never going to see the inside of journalism college.
Luck loves a chancer, however, and during my stint at the Tech I had my first article published in the Evening Press and landed a job as a ‘junior’. Two years later I was a staffer with money in my pocket and a false sense of pride and security.
Ten years on, in June 1995, the Press collapsed and I walked out of the sunlight and into the dole office. All my grafting amounted to nothing and I was a failure. People from Middle Ireland didn’t draw the dole. I was a pariah, in my own eyes at least.
It was hard to see the back of the dole queue through the cloud of Major smoke. I’d like to say I smelt the scent of defeat in the air, but I don’t recall it. Just my own shame, magnified by the drabness of the surroundings. This was something some of my peers picked up on.
Although it wasn’t said, drawing the dole was the final resort. It carried a stigma that ranked somewhere between banging on the poorhouse door and being named in Stubbs Gazette. You were a dosser.
The man who paid me my dole each week clearly thought this as he flung my money through the hatch. His eyes said: “Sponger.”
Thursday 5 March, 2009, and the sun is shining. I’m redundant and at the dole office, signing on again. This time I have Jarlath from RTÉ’s Mooney Show at my elbow, recording my thoughts.
Production journalism, from which I made 80% of my living, is being universally pared back and it was inevitable that my job as associate editor would come to an end. Last in, first out, and there are, genuinely, no hard feelings.
I am worried though: my wife has taken a 10% pay cut and this column is my only income. I am worried – but I’m not embarrassed. I have asked the Mooneys along because I want to go public about being made redundant. I am not ashamed of this. Middle Ireland still is though.
In the dole office, I spot a former neighbour who was a legal secretary. The man to my left tells me he’s in IT and to my right is a luxury car salesman. There are two graduates in front of me. No one will go on the record.
Outside, Jarlath speaks to an architect who agrees that the stigma persists. So does the lady who deals with my claim. She was very sympathetic, by the way.
I tick all the Middle Ireland boxes: I have a semi-d with a crippling boomtime mortgage and a formerly comfortable life. Now I am looking for help from the state.
I went public on the Mooney Show last week to say that there is no shame in this. This is a democratic recession and everyone is being hit, from lawyers to labourers. We are all in freefall and it’s vital to remember that it’s nothing personal and your own worth hasn’t been diminished. If you’re reading this and are unemployed, don’t be afraid to admit it. There are 350,000 others like us.
I hope I didn’t come across as a twat on the radio, whingeing about my own situation. I don’t want sympathy: there are people out there much worse off than I am. However, I am very grateful for all the kind messages I’ve received.
Anyway, enough of all this gloom.
Normal service will resume in this column next week. Brian Cowen, your arse is in my crosshairs.


At least the price of drowning our sorrows is staying the same

Question: What’s the difference between a pint of Guinness and a Dublin city councillor? (The answer’s at the end, now please read on…)
Last week, the nation’s publicans announced their new initiative to battle the economic crisis.
The price of a pint (cue drumroll) will be… FROZEN for 12 months. Ta-dah!
This announcement was greeted with derision by most tipplers who saw it as a cynical PR ploy by the vintners’ associations.
People don’t have sympathy for publicans. Drink is too expensive in pubs, the mark-up on soft drinks is outrageous and don’t get me started about crisps.
Publicans blame the smoking ban, drink-driving laws, energy costs and Diageo (Guinness) for hiking up prices. Everybody, except themselves.
Since 2001, 10% of Ireland’s pubs (1,500) have closed. The Thomas Read group last week became the latest casualty. In isolated rural areas these closures are causing serious hardship.
In 2001, pubs held 68% of the drinks market. Last year, this figure dropped to 48% as off-licences benefited from more people drinking at home.
Why is this? Price is obviously a factor. Dublin’s city-centre drinkers are well used to being fleeced. One pub near the Dáil actually hikes up its prices after 11pm.
Then there’s the drink driving. And the new work practices; earlier starts, later arrivals home from work.
There’s the cheaper off-licences too: if you can buy a bottle of wine for the price of two pints why go to the pub?
In September, the ESRI pointed out one good reason for not doing your drinking at home. It revealed that the number of cases of women in their mid-30s presenting with liver disease more than doubled from 18 in 2002 to 39 in 2006. The figure for men in this age category had risen from 45 to 47. The HSE’s Dr Joe Barry blamed the rise on increased consumption of wine at home.
The temptation to open that second bottle is definitely greater at home where we can let our hair down in private.
And there’ll be a lot more drinking done at home this Christmas due to the bargains in Newry. Sainsbury’s up there, by the way, sells more alcohol than any other branch in the UK.
This is not good for the nation’s livers – or locals.
The pub isn’t just about getting jarred. It’s the nation’s parlour. It’s the home of debate, banter, people-watching. We romance there, we cheer our teams there, we wake our loved ones there: as Charlie Chawke was being interviewed by RTÉ outside The Goat pub on Monday, there were three funeral lunches taking place inside.
The Consumer Agency last week correctly said prices must come down if pubs are to survive. In October, the Evening Herald reported that many Dublin publicans were doing the opposite and raising prices before the budget. They did the same in August prior to a rise by Diageo.
That hike by Diageo had been criticised by the Irish Farmers Association, who said that while the company was blaming high raw material costs, its main supplier of barley was cutting the price paid to growers by more than 20%. Was this barley saving ultimately passed on to customers? No.
Despite their transgressions, the vintners deserve credit for their price freeze. Diageo should follow their lead and not raise prices next March as it have said it will.
The publicans effectively took a price cut last Monday when they absorbed the VAT hike and will do so again if Diageo doesn’t play ball. It’s small change, but it’s a start. Instead of being accused of cynicism, they should be encouraged to continue along this road.
Save your derision, instead, for Dublin City Council. Unlike the publicans, these clowns are still raising their prices. Last week, they hiked parking charges up 20 cents an hour, claiming it would free up space for Christmas shoppers.
If that’s so, will they lower the charges after Christmas? Don’t hold your breath.
And so, finally: what’s the difference between a pint of Guinness and a city councillor?
One’s famous for its big, thick head… and the other’s a pint of stout.