Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

Tag: Politics

Voting for a better future

On May 7th in the UK and May 22nd in Ireland voters will get to make a momentous decision. In both cases the choice will be not simply one for a political party or even a Yes or No – the choice facing voters will be a fundamental one, what kind of world do you want to live in?

Both votes are divisive ones. In the UK, this General Election is likely to result in a second consecutive coalition government. With a historically fragmented electorate the choice for voters is far broader than usual. Do they swing to the left or the right. In Ireland the choice, ultimately is the same.  The Marriage Equality referendum which offers a democratically sanctioned equality for same sex marriage has been fought on the old ideological currents that run beneath the fragile veneer of modern Ireland. Ireland is familiar with referenda but it’s been a long time since there was a vote on a subject that went so close to the still beating heart of Holy Catholic Ireland. While it might appear on first glance that the two votes have nothing to do with one another, don’t be fooled. This month voters in both countries are being asked to vote for one of two futures – in very broad terms we are being asked to choose Star Trek or the Hunger Games.

Of course, it’s not quite that simple. If we vote Star Trek in either May vote, we are not suddenly going to discover life on other planets. If we vote the Hunger Games we will not suddenly be divided into zones and forced to fight to the death but if you look behind all the campaign posters and the political point scoring the choice is equally stark. In both votes one result will bring positive change. It will say to a marginalised quarter of society that they are included, they are of value and they will not be left behind. It is saying that principles like equality and compassion are central to society and that the people themselves recognise the need to step forward together into a brighter, fairer future.

Or in either vote the choice could go the opposite way. In both cases a retrograde step. In both cases a closing of ranks, a lowering of heads and a clear message to those on the outside that they are not wanted, they are not cared about, they are not “one of us”.

This is a choice about the future you want for your children. Do you want to look forward or back? Democracy is not something that we can passively expect to happen, it is something we must push forward ourselves. This May we have a chance to make a difference. Don’t vote out of fear, vote to include. At least connect.

On Fishes and Bicycles and Other Hard Concepts

When I was very small I was taught that it was important to know right from wrong. I was told that I was a lucky girl who got to live in a civilised country, in a comfortable house, who got to go to a good school and who didn’t know anything about war or famine other than what the pictures on the little cardboard money boxes I brought home from school showed. I was taught that because I was a lucky girl in all these ways I understood there were those who weren’t as fortunate and who didn’t have what I had. It was important I stood up for what was right, what was fair.

It was a fairly standard liberal middle class indoctrination. But it stuck. Even now the one thing that reduces me to red-faced, fist-clenched, speechless rage is unfairness. I’m not talking sulky, pouty, “but I want it” unfairness here, by the way. Oh no. This is the kind of jaw-dropping, gob-smacking, bone-crunching unfairness that’s like a slap in the face with the sharp edge of a damp smelly towel. It doesn’t compute. It can’t, it’s wrong, spelled out in capital letters that are probably red and flashing.

When I was about five and the world was a far simpler, softer place that fundamental instability was locked in a milk carton. I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t open the side of the carton myself to get at the last drops and instead had to wait with my arm raised, the puddle of milk in the corner of the carton getting warmer and sharper by the second. I couldn’t understand why I got into trouble when I opened it myself and showed my friends how to open theirs. It didn’t compute. It just wasn’t right.

When I was a little older I learnt there were bigger things that weren’t fair too. I remember well the burning cheeks and stinging eyes at being denied Scalectrix or Meccano because I was a girl. I’ve felt them often. Once that stuff starts happening it doesn’t stop. You can’t get lost in a knot of rage every time it happens though. You grow up. You learn to stand your ground.

But this isn’t a trip down memory lane. I’m trying to make a point.  I wouldn’t consider myself madly political but I do believe that I have no right to judge my fellow human beings, that empathy and compassion are evolutionary traits and that everyone deserves dignity and freedom. Every so often, when I’m blunt about the things that matter to me, when I tweet about racism or blog about abortion or atheism, someone will tell me I’m brave for speaking out. What I’m trying to explain is that bravery has absolutely nothing to do with it. I was raised with a particular moral framework, a “sense of fair play”. Why wouldn’t you stand up for that?

Of course, I’m well aware that there will be some reading this who don’t think what I’m saying is reasonable or obvious in the slightest. They will have got as far as the title of this piece and dismissed me as a mouthy feminist, a dissolute member of the liberal meeja, a purveyor of happy clappy bullshit. It’s because of this dismissal of values that I consider fundamental and absolutely bleeding obvious that I have, in the past hesitated about tackling a range of subjects head on – and that’s at the heart of the problem.

In tackling these subjects I’m aware that perhaps I may be painting myself in a less than favourable light. It’s been suggested to me more than once that by being honest about my liberal opinions I could offend people, even jeopardise my career prospects. In my head there’s still a treacherous little voice warning me I could come across as “strident” and no boy will ever want me (well, perhaps not quite). Yup, it’s still there. I live in a Western European country, I’m middle-class, educated. As a woman I’ve benefitted from the ground gained by former generations, by the hard won right to a third level, even second level education, to vote, to have autonomy.  Looking back over my family tree I can watch as they joined the middle classes and benefitted from greater opportunities and wider choices. Over the past century or so the world has changed beyond recognition because people saw that progress lay in these fundamental rights. The right to work for a fair wage, in decent conditions. The right to an education. The right to own property.

These changes have given us the world we live in today. They’ve benefitted the right as much as the left (although the former land owning men who once held all the power must be feeling a wee bit hard done by). Many of the social and religious conservatives seeking to shape the world we live in today wouldn’t have a voice if it wasn’t for these waves of progress. So why does it so often feel that we haven’t moved forward at all?

Last night during the late night sitting over the Protection of Life in Pregnancy Bill Fine Gael TD Tom Barry pulled his colleague Áine Collins TD onto his lap. He’s since apologised but it’s a stark reminder of why that treacherous little voice is still telling me to be quiet. Mr Barry has since apologised and the whole thing is being brushed away and that again is the problem. I know that if a male friend did the same in the pub I’d take exception. I also know that if I did so at least some of the company would tell me not to over react. I know this because over the years this kind of stuff has happened many, many times. I know it’s wrong but in the past I’ve laughed it off myself to play the game.

As I’ve grown older I’ve seen it so many times. I’m out of patience. I fail to see why speaking up should make me mouthy, or militant, or strident. I could be fairly sure that Mr Tom Barry TD would not have grabbed one of his male colleagues and wrestled with him on the benches of the Dáil Chamber. That kind of horse play just wouldn’t have been proper in such solemn circumstances. The fact that he and his colleagues think this is a minor, if insulting, lapse in judgement says it all. It’s not right, it’s not fair and it shouldn’t be an issue to say so.

This isn’t a call to arms, or an incitement to anything. I’m really not that dogmatic. But it’s always important to stick up for what’s right. That will never change.

What’s in a Name?

So Ireland has a new president.  Last Thursday the public hit the polling booths and resoundingly voted for Labour candidate Michael D. Higgins.  When the news broke journalists and bloggers alike tried to find a nice handy soundbite to stick our president elect into.  “Veteran politician”, “humanitarian”, “short”, “elderly”, many labels were bandied about.  The one that seems to have raised most eyebrows however is “poet”.

Now for those not familiar with President Michael D’s literary back catalogue, he’s well known in the west of Ireland, where he’s from, as something of a poet.  He’s not one of Ireland’s Nobel Literature Prize winners and he’s unarguably kept the day job as an academic and politician, but he has also published several collections of poetry with a couple of different publishers.  No one is making anything up when they say the guy is a poet. He’s even done poetry readings.

A couple of days ago The Guardian published an opinion piece by British poet Carol Rumens.  In the piece titled “Michael D. Higgins is No Poet” she dissects a poem of his the Guardian had printed as being apt on the day the result of the vote was announced.  It’s quite a hatchet job and it’s been doing the rounds on Twitter, as you might expect.  A couple of people have asked me what I think of the soon to be presidential verse.  And that’s the thing, the one thing that’s probably most extraordinary about the Guardian piece.

I could understand it if the man had been elected poet laureate or had won some big literary prize but he hasn’t.  His presidency will be memorable or damp squib depending on his political skills rather than his skills with a pen.  Even if he was the poetic peer of the kind of little old lady who rings up a certain kind of radio show to share a certain type of topical doggerel it wouldn’t really affect whether or not he’s any good at the job he’s just been elected to.  The question of whether or not Winston Churchill was a good journalist or writer or whether Ronald Reagan could actually act is only ever going to be of mild academic interest.  Their reputations will rest on something different.

But it’s not just whether or not he’s a good poet.  The headline of the article suggests that because his metaphors are clumsy and his lines don’t flow he is not worthy of the word poet at all.  And that’s not fair.  I’m not writing this to bang the Michael D. drum, it goes beyond whether we’ve elected a bard or a bullshitter.  That phrase sticks in my head because it moves the goal posts. It taps into something that I have a sneaking suspicion goes beyond what convenient soundbite can be applied to a certain politician.

Titles matter.  There are some you win, some you’re appointed, and others you earn after a long grind.  The title of poet falls into this last category, like writer or artist or author or even, perhaps pushing it a bit, journalist.  It’s the kind of title that you only feel comfortable calling yourself when you’ve got to a certain stage. It could be getting that first paid gig as a journalist, a first book for an author, an independent exhibition for an artist.  Everyone has their own level but the bar tends to settle at a fairly average height. To use myself as an example.  I’ve written stories as long as I can remember, even used to make little miniature books as a kid to bind them, but I would never call myself a writer.  I would say I liked writing, or I wanted to be a writer.  When I started work as a journalist I still hesitated to call myself a writer.  Apart from anything else I was working in radio.

Despite the fact that in my weekends and at night I was working on a novel, I would only describe myself as a journalist.  I’m even happy to call myself a hack – I’ve worked to pay the bills rather than serve the art – but, despite the fact the novel was eventually finished and I’d even started on a sequel, the title of writer and especially author just didn’t seem to fit.

These days I’ll call myself a writer and even author, quite happily.  I’ve written two books that were published and sold in bookshops all over the country and all over the web.  I know that whatever I do now I’ve passed that point.  The title is earned. 

There’s a lot of debate these days with the explosion of “independently” published books – covering everything self published down and including what would once have been firmly termed vanity publishing.  It’s so easy for anyone who chooses to publish their work and sell it through Amazon onto Kindles across the planet. A bit more work and expense can produce an actual book that can be ordered online or even stocked in real bricks and mortar bookshops.  The industry is changing and so a lot more people are probably entitled to call themselves author or writer. 

I wonder if this is where the viciousness of the Guardian article comes from.  A poet feeling encroached by any Tom, Dick or Harry hanging their hats on her hatstand and claiming a muse because they wrote a haiku once and published it on their blog.  If that’s the case I’d like to send sympathetic thoughts to Carol Rumens. The market has recently got a lot more crowded and it’s harder than ever to get your voice heard.  Even if you take the route of traditional publishing with it’s long apprenticeship in furtive adolescent notebooks, building the confident to submit to publishers, the eventual dizzying acceptance, even if you take that well travelled route, these days it’s damned crowded when you get there.

That’s why titles matter.  We hit the milestones and want the rewards.  When I was growing up the child of actors I was told that you couldn’t call yourself a pro unless someone not related to you was willing to pay.  If you could get paid for your art you had passed the most important milestone. A certain level of ability and experience was assumed because otherwise you wouldn’t get the gig.  By the time I had hit my 20s I’d worked out that talent and experience weren’t necessarily the only things that could get you paid for acting but that’s another post entirely!  The long and the short of it was that amateurs just aspired to it.  They weren’t willing to put everything on the line to earn a living at it.  Only when you took that step could you earn the title of fully fledged artist…usually with the realisation that the living would be extremely hard won.

Of course it’s not always so black and white.  Over the years there have been plenty of writers who’ve kept the day job.  Chekhov was a doctor, Flann O’Brien a civil servant, the list goes on and on and on.  Of course Michael D. was and is a politician.  It’s easy to be churlish about those who have clung onto the security of a day job don’t have the temperament to be an artist.  We all need to eat. The old milestones are still there.  The bar you have to touch to win the right to call yourself the title.  The president elect published his first collection of poems in 1970.  He’s not part of the internet chatter where everyone you meet online seems to be working on a book.  

It’s easy to assume that this is a new phenomenon brought about by the ubiquity of schemes like NaNoWriMo.  But I’m not convinced in the sudden explosion of wannabe literary activity. In my teens and 20s in Dublin it seemed like everyone I met was writing a book. That might just be an Irish thing but I doubt it somehow.  The only thing that’s changed now is all those people hunched over their bedroom notebooks can see all the other people and wave and talk about their hope and plans for world domination. The thing is that regardless of how someone takes those first few steps to that first and most important milestone, it’s not really changed.  It might be easier than ever before to publish your words and more people might call themselves writers and poets than have necessarily earned the right, but the bar is in the same place.  Whether it’s the self published author who’s sold enough ebooks on Kindle to give up the day job, or the literary effete who’s built a solid reputation through publication in a respected small press and enthusiastic readings there’s still a certain line to cross. We all instinctively know where it is.  It’s not the size of the cheque, it’s the respect it’s given with.

All this has nothing to do ability.  It’s more about a solid commitment to your craft (at the risk of sounding hopelessly pretentious).  I don’t know Michael D. Higgins as a poet. I do remember him as a Minister for the Arts.  Back then he showed his commitment to the arts and was damn good at his job.  I’m delighted that, for once, the person we’ve elected President is going to champion Ireland’s artistic heritage.  For that alone I wouldn’t fling pot shots at his own literary endeavours. I’m sure the debate about whether or not Michael D. is a good or bad poet will continue for years to come. I hope though that no one else will be silly enough to question whether he’s a poet at all.  That’s a goalpost that doesn’t need to be moved.

New Leaves for Spring

You would have to have been living in a hole, and a hole with no internet access or phone signal, to have missed the fact that Ireland has been in a bit of trouble lately.  The economy’s screwed, the government banjaxed and there’s talk of revolution (just talk mind you.)  Well finally there’s been a change and on Friday the Irish people took to the polling booths and voted in a new Government.

I was one of the few journalists in the country who wasn’t deployed to a count centre to watch the implosion of Fianna Fail play out in real time.  My job’s a little on the specialised side so I watched the election unfold along with the rest on the country, on TV, radio and Twitter.  They’re still counting the final votes today and in a week or so we’ll be watching different talking heads explaining why everything’s shagged on the nightly news.

It would be nice to believe that something will change, that this will be a much needed new beginning for a country on it’s knees, but I don’t believe in Santa Claus either.  For the next few weeks ambitious noises will be made and great plans will be discussed but it remains to be seen what actual, real change takes place.

For very pertinent reasons, everyone’s focused on the economy at the moment but I’m not a political hack or a business journalist.  I watch the cases that come through the courts, usually the criminal ones.  The Dáil circus doesn’t often encroach on my daily work.  That’ll continue to be the case with the new lot for the most part.

But there are exceptions.  Every now and then I find myself writing about things that have happened over there.  In recently years that’s usually been down to knee jerk pieces of legislation that need their rough corners smoothed by passage through the courts.  Most recently there was the case of Rebecca French, a young mother of two, whose badly beaten body was found in the boot of her burning car.  Four men were convicted of disposing of and trying to destroy her body but no one will ever be tried and convicted of her murder.  Two men, Ricardas Dilys and Ruslanas Mineikas stood trial, but the charges against them were withdrawn.  The trial judge ruled that they had been held unlawfully when gardai and a doctor became confused about the meaning of a clause in the 2009 Criminal Justice (Amendment) Bill, brought in to tackle gang land violence to much criticism. 

There were quite a few bits of legislation with rough edges during Fianna Fail’s tenure, but quite a few more things were simply not done.  The new government is going to have a lot of nuts and bolts governing to attend to, stuff that languished in the perennial to-do pile under the previous administration.  There’s the situation that prospective adoptive parents find themselves in for a start.  It took the last government years to get round to ratifying the Hague Convention, which rather sensibly ruled that intercountry adoptions could only take place where a bilateral agreement exists between Ireland and the country were the adoption is to take place.  The problem is that they didn’t actually put in place any new bilateral agreements with the countries people were adopting from so people going through the arduous process are now in a legal limbo waiting for something to be done.  The only country currently open for adoption is Bulgaria and domestic adoption isn’t an option, for reasons I’ll go into another time.

It would be nice to think that the new government will actually do some governing, rather than reacting to every hysterical front page with a piece of shoddy knee jerk legislation and putting everything else on the long finger but I’ll believe it when I see it.  Until then I’ll expect to see the fallout passing through the courts, which aren’t so very far from Leinster House after all.

I’m Not Leaving Either

It’s been a grim week for Ireland but the dissenting voices are growing.  Yes the government and the bankers have brought the country to their knees and thousands will flee to warmer more solvent countries but more and more people are saying why they will be staying.

Staying to see the worst through, to see the government fall, the economy collapse but staying because now there is a genuine opportunity to change.  It started small a few days ago.  A Twitter meme under the hashtag imnotleaving started to spread through the midday babble.

Then Deirdre O’Shaughnessy, editor of the Cork Independent wrote this on The Antiroom blog.  Inspired by her words author Charlie Connelly, whose latest book Our Man in Hibernia details his first year in Ireland at the end of the boom wrote this.

Well at the risk of jumping on the bandwagon, I’m not leaving either.  I moved to Ireland with my family more than 20 years ago.  This is my home, where I really grew up and where I always come back to.  I met my husband here, made a home here, got the opportunity to do what I always dreamed of doing here.  I have dear friends, valued colleagues and a country and a way of life I love.  This is my country now and there is no way in hell I’m leaving now.

Ireland has the capacity to be such an incredible country.  There seem to be two dominant personality types here perennially fighting for the upper hand.  There’s the brilliant, stubborn, creative, impossible bollox who can charm and infuriate in equal parts but has the capacity to really change the way people think.  The great egalitarian, the one who will refuse to bow to anyone and whose attitude when their back is against the wall and the chips are down is “Ah Feck It”, a refusal to be beaten.  This is the character that has brought so many Irish to the tops of their fields, that creates those flashes of brilliance, an ability to create new ways of thinking and to buck the trends.

Then there’s the other one.  The sleeveen, the cute hoor.  A character identified by a slavish obsequiousness, a blind assimilation of a set of ideas and values.  This is the character of the middle manager, the combination of a lack of real ability and a ruthless ambition to feather their own nest.  These two characters have appeared throughout Irish history.  There were the free thinkers who could have built a shining new republic, and the priest ridden, conservatives who wanted nothing more than jobs for the boys.

We’ve allowed the sleeveen free reign for far too long.  It’s time now for a new start with the better character.  We need those flashes of brilliance, that lateral thinking, the guts, the drive and the creativity to raise Ireland up out of the mess it’s got itself into.  It’s here.  It never went away.  I just hope people will realise that it’s not change that’s the scary thing, it’s staying with the status quo that got us into this mess.  It’s time to see the best of the Irish.  I’m going to be sticking around to see that happen.

Welcome to the Asylum

I’m going to step away from my normal subject matter for once today.  You’d have to have been living in a hole on the dark side of an utterly deserted island to have missed the fact that Ireland is, not to put too fine a point on it, financially up the creek.

Photo by Michael Stamp

It’s hard to avoid the news that the IMF have hit town and are not even going to lay a wreath on the grave of the Celtic Tiger.  We’ve had the boom times and are now facing the bust.

I don’t write about the economy.  The only stories I cover tend to be the ones that are sparked by the money running out.  Even though both my books are about millionaires, when you’re writing about murder, even a farcical quasi attempt at one, money is never anything more than set dressing.  Death is the same whether it takes place in leafy suburbia or in a squat. It’s egalitarian that way.

But it’s hard to ignore what’s going on in Ireland at the moment.  Ireland’s party is over and the hangover has hit.  We’re left with a shambles of a government and a lot of lessons still to be learnt.  Ireland is the teenager with Europe, caught running up the phone bill and about to be denied car privileges for the foreseeable future.  The recession we’re in the middle of has hit the world but it’s knocked us for six.  Suddenly we discover that when the money was there the bills weren’t paid and the debt collectors are knocking on the door.

But what brought us to this point after so many years of prosperity? Why were the health and education systems left to fall into disrepair while the population bought holiday homes in far flung places and patio heaters bristled in every back yard?  When I think about the situation this beautiful country has got itself into my heart bleeds.  The situation we’ve found ourselves in has a feeling of inevitability and that’s not just because the party went on too long and we all succumbed to a national orgy of excess.  The problems have been there for almost as long as the republic.

Right from the start the writing was perhaps on the wall.  A health service funded by an illegal gambling operation for example.  The Irish Hospital Sweepstakes were famous for a flutter across the world and Ireland ended up with an enviable network of hospitals across the country.  Now those hospitals are closing or scaled down one by one.  The Sweepstakes themselves ended up in a sad little scandal as it was discovered that even when the cause was a noble one corruption wasn’t far behind.

I remember listening to an episode of the old BBC radio comedy show I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again.  The show starred John Cleese and The Goodies, Bill Oddie, Graham Garden and Tim Brooke Taylor. In an episode from the 60s which involved a skit about a trip to Ireland they made a crack about finding the Irish Government sitting in a woodland glade with brown paper bags full of money.  Now before all my Irish readers jump on me for referencing an Irish joke by a British show I’ll point out that it’s the subject matter of the joke I’m interested in here. The brown paper envelopes in the 60s…so reminiscent of the one businessman Ben Dunne handed former Taoiseach Charles Haughey, eliciting the now immortal response “Thanks a million big fella” back in 1991.

Then there’s the offshore gas deposits that would provide enough money to give Ireland a very nice little nest egg indeed.  But they were sold off to Shell by Minister Ray Burke (who’s since been jailed for corruption in other, unrelated, matters) in the late 1980s.

A casual observer could be forgiven for thinking that the government (who for most of the independence of the State have comprised of Fianna Fail, with or without a minor coalition partner) have plundered the country for every cent they could get while investing as little as possible of the country’s money into the services that make a functioning economy.  The observer could very well have a mental image of a robbery interrupted.  As the lights come on in a bare wood panelled room the black clad robbers are stuffing as much loot into their pockets as they can before the cops arrive.  There’s a filing cabinet overflowing with rifled papers, some of which are smouldering in the empty grate.  When the cops do arrive our robbers fall back on tried and tested denials.  “It wasn’t me Gov, no one saw me do it.  You can’t prove nothing.”

Of course I’m not the casual observer.  I live here and work here.  It’s hard to build a fantasy scenario when you’re afraid of how much the looming budget is going to dig into your pay packet.  Something really fundamental’s going to have to change here if things are going to get better and stay better.  Ireland is a wonderful country, and don’t let anyone tell you different.  But it’s been run into the ground by a load of people who shouldn’t have been let near a business let alone a whole country. For a republic that was born out of so much idealism it’s heartbreaking to see it brought so low.  Greed and ineptitude has won out and now all that’s left is to pick up the shattered pieces.  Let’s hope something better rises out of the wreckage and Ireland can learn from past mistakes.

A Matter of Credibility

If you’re Irish the last 24 hours will have had you cringing.  Not one but two government ministers have made international headlines in ways that can only bring embarrassment to the country as a whole.  One of them would have been bad enough but two in such quick succession does nothing to disprove any stereotypes that Ireland has been trying to escape for years.

If you haven’t been following the news or if you’re not Irish and are wondering what the hell I’m talking about it all started yesterday evening when the news broke that Minister for Science Conor Lenihan was to launch a self published book by a constituent which aims to debunk the theory of evolution.

The story had been buzzing around cyberspace for a couple of months but as the launch neared it gained critical mass and went well and truly viral.  The subject was being discussed on two popular Irish forums, Politics.ie and Boards.ie then it found it’s way onto Twitter.  As tends to happen, this sent the story into the stratosphere.  Before long the story had been picked up by high profile tweeters like Ben Goldacre, the science writer and Guardian columnist.

[tweeted]http://twitter.com/bengoldacre/status/24424753852[/tweeted]

Dara O’Briain, the comedian and broadcaster also chimed in.

[tweeted]http://twitter.com/daraobriain/status/24415254156[/tweeted]

Then the story got picked up by the traditional media appearing on the evening news on both RTE and the BBC.  Conor Lenihan appeared on RTE’s 9 o’clock news completely unrepentant.  He said he didn’t see a problem with the launch as the author, John J. May, was a constituent and a friend.  His name disappeared off the launch flyer on Mr May’s website.  Then this morning the Irish Times announced that Lenihan had pulled out of the launch.

This is John J. May.  This is the man who Conor Lenihan was willing to hold himself up to public ridicule for.  Many, many years ago I worked for John May.  He ran a company called The Day You Were Born.  The name kind of gives it away.  For a small fee you could get a piece of paper with information about the day you were born.  You know the kind of thing – that day’s headlines, sports results, what was in the chart.  You can still get that kind of thing now but back then, in the early 90s it was a reasonably new idea.

My job was to get the headlines.  I spent some very happy weeks in the Reading Room of the National Library going through microfilms picking headlines for each day in a certain year.  I still remember some of the news stories I found during that time.  The broadcast of Orson Welles’ War of the World, as covered by the Irish Times, or the reading in the Abbey of one of Yeat’s plays when he had engaged with a heckler about the merits of his writing.  I was there the day Charlie Haughey walked out of Leinster House for the last time.  I had been listening to the radio knowing something was imminent and lead a mass walkout as we all left our books and ran downstairs to watch the doleful procession leave Leinster House, ignoring our pale faces pressed up against the wire that separates the Dail from the Library.

There were a group of us working for May. Every couple of weeks, it might have been once a month, we all met up in a pub in Clondalkin where he would brief us and hand out the pay cheques.  We all thought him a little odd but we all needed the work  so no one wanted to rock the boat.  It was definitely one of the odder jobs I have had.

Years later I ran into May again.  I was getting work experience in special interest station Anna Livia FM and May turned up as a funding guru with radio experience.  Rumour had it he had run a pirate station in the 80s that had been based around where the Stephen’s Green Shopping Centre is now.

John May always seemed in those days to be a bit of a Flash Harry character.  I’m not by any means suggesting that he did anything untoward, just that he was a man who always had an eye for a fast buck and was enthusiastic and diligent in getting it.  I had heard something about affiliations with some kind of Christian group but don’t know any details about that.

The way he is pushing this book of his is no deviation from type.  He’s a pushy, fast talking person and it doesn’t surprise me that he would manage to pull off a coup like this, guaranteeing his tome will get world wide publicity and will undoubtedly sell more than it would otherwise.

It doesn’t surprise me that he would end up in the middle of something like this but what does surprise me is why a government minister would get involved.  It doesn’t really matter if Conor Lenihan goes along to tomorrow’s Gorillas and Girls launch party in Buswells Hotel.  What does matter is the fact that he agreed to it in the first place.

He might think that he was going in a personal capacity but he is a government minister with special responsibility for science and the book is anti evolution.  What exactly did he think was going to happen.  Surely if John May is a friend of his he would know that May would make sure the launch got as much publicity as possible.  It’s years since I’ve seen the man and even I could figure that one out.  The problem the minister doesn’t seem to understand is that in cases like this there is no “personal capacity”.  If in his personal life he is a rabid creationist, say, he should not be the man standing as a figurehead to promote and champion Irish science. If he can’t understand this surely at the very least his political acumen should be severely in doubt?

The Lenihan debacle was bad enough but this morning another embarrassing story broke, this time centring around the Taoiseach himself, Brian Cowen. This morning Brian Cowen appeared on Morning Ireland, the main breakfast news programme in the country.  It was a pre arranged interview.  The Fianna Fail party, his party, were having their yearly think in down in Galway before the Dail resumes sitting next month after the summer break.

You would have to have spent the last year or so on another planet not to have heard of the spectacular crash and burn that has been the Irish economy.  Things have been bad for a while now and this December’s Budget is likely to be a particularly tough one.  You always know things are bad when the media start over using the word “swingeing” when talking about funding.

Cowen’s appearance on radio to talk about the economy isn’t so very unusual in these trying times but this morning something about his voice on air and the way he bumbled through some of his answers provoked a fairly speedy response.  Opposition politician, Fine Gael’s Simon Coveney got the ball rolling.

[tweeted]http://twitter.com/simoncoveney/status/24458595143[/tweeted]

When Cowen got off air he was approached by the waiting media in Galway.  TV3’s Ursula Halligan asked him if he was in fact hung over after a late night, a fact he spiritedly denied.  But by then it was too late.  Once again the story had leapt from Twitter into the waiting arms of the International media.  As I write this the story of the question and Cowen’s denial has made it onto the BBC news.  It’s also been picked up by the New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today and has been picked up websites in South Africa and India.  It’ll probably keep growing.

Throughout the day those who were in the bar of the Ardilaun Hotel near Salthill in Galway last night, where the Fianna Fail party and attendant political correspondents are staying, came forward with stories of what went on last night.  Stories of late night sessions abounded, but whether or not anyone breaks ranks to give a full blow by blow account remains to be seen.  In the end only those who were there on the night will know exactly who was there and what went on but again, it’s not really important.

On Liveline this afternoon, members of the public were queuing up to give their support to the beleaguered leader.  Everybody deserves time to unwind, they said.  Give the guy a break.  We all like to think our politicians are human, Ireland perhaps embraces such displays of human frailty more than most.  Maybe this was why Bill Clinton decided to wait until he was on a visit to Dublin to apologise from his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky.  But there’s a big difference between Brian Cowen and Bill Clinton in this regard.  Clinton was leading another country.  He was a visitor and his admission put us in the glare of international media.

Brian Cowen is leading this country and he’s not accused of playing around with an intern.  The suggestion is that he was unprofessional enough to stay up so late he was groggy and hoarse the next morning when he knew he had an interview on one of the most listened to shows in the country, his country.  He’s the guy in charge.  He doesn’t get to play with the rank and file.  He has the ultimate responsiblity for steering this sinking ship and, at a time when decisions are being made about how much the country is going to suffer in the forthcoming Budget, surely coming on air sounding, at best tired and disinterested, at worst hung over, is not the way to instill confidence.

Once again if he can’t understand why appearances are important now, why having credibility as someone who’s holding the reigns is vital.  If you were working in a company and had heard rumours of redundancies and pay cuts how would you feel if you came into work to a boss who was unshaven, sweating and looked like they were wearing last night’s clothes.  I’ve no idea what Cowen was wearing on the radio this morning, he could have even been in his pyjamas, but he sounded as if he was wearing last night’s suit.

What both incidents in the past 24 hours have shown is that there are people in Fianna Fail, who are the majority partner in our coalition government, who do not understand that the job they are doing has a lot to do with appearances.  You keep up appearances to keep people’s confidence – not just the voters but also the world outside.  All these two stories have done is give a picture of a country that is floundering, one that is a joke.  A country that has no leadership.

It’s that that makes me embarrassed to be Irish today.  I hope it embarrasses those at the centre of the stories as much.

Hard Not to Feel Just a Little Excited…

I wasn’t going to post about Obama’s inauguration today but it’s a bit hard to ignore.  I’ve watched a couple of inaugurations over the years but none of them quite like today’s.

I remember watching Bill Clinton being sworn, on an old 1960s black & white telly that was all I could afford at the time.  The Rainbow Coalition had just been voted in here, a combination of Fine Gael, Labour and Democratic Left elected after Labour walked away from previous partners in government, Fianna Fail after a string of scandals, most notably the mishandling of prosecutions against paedophile priests.

Back then I was skint and on the dole but it all seemed so optimistic, finally walking away from conservatism, cronyism and corruption into a bright new future.  I remember watching Clinton’s inauguration from the big old iron bed I’d bought in a junk shop and, with the help of my boyfriend at the time sanded down and painted with Hammerite.

It was a particularly cold January that year and bed was usually the warmest place to sit to watch anything longer than half an hour.  It was a lovely flat, a big basement one bedroom with sole access to a rambling over grown garden but I remember it being very cold!

Fast forward eight years and it was all change; Democratic Left merged with Labour and Fine Gael seemed to have lost the knack of getting elected.  Over the course of Clinton’s two terms I had completed two college courses in journalism, split with both the boyfriend and the iron bed (I regret the loss of the bed) and met and married the Husband.

I remember arriving into work to write Internet news updates in the weeks after George W Bush had been elected to yet another story about hanging chads.  The whole election process in the States seemed murky and sordid.  Mind you things here had changed considerably as well.  The Celtic Tiger had been spawned and the centre right dream team of Fianna Fail and the PDs were slaves to Mammon.

Financially I could afford to put the fire on by the time Dubya came to power but the policies on either side of the Atlantic didn’t sit easily with me.  These were the days of the Teflon Taoiseach (Bertie Ahern) whose grinning face we seemed doomed to put up with for many years to come.  In a post 9/11 world the bogeyman seemed to lurk under every bed and dark shadows lurked behind all the glitz.

But today it’s all change again. After 8 years of wars and suspicion in the US and scandal and corruption in Ireland something really had to give.  Bertie jumped just before anyone could push and before the failing economy totally scuppered what little reputation he had left and Barack Hussein Obama has been sworn in today as the first black president of the United States.

Life is a little more scary these days with more responsibilities and less money.  After eight years I’m back at the freelancing, even if there have been a few steps up the ladder.  I don’t work in commercial radio anymore for a start!

Watching the ceremony it was hard not to be moved by the sense of optimism and hope that was being welcomed in.  Back when Clinton got the job I was in my twenties and optimism came so easily. These days I’m a lot more cynical. It’ll take more than a single day to right the harm done over the past eight years.

But today’s not the day for talking about that.  I’ll join with the general consensus today in wishing President Obama well and hoping he can live up to the task he has before him…listening to his inauguration speech it sounds like he’s going to have a pretty good stab at it.

Here in Ireland we’ve a way to go yet but today it feels like a return to more caring, socially responsible way of life may, just may be possible. I’m not belittling the economic mess we find ourselves in but we couldn’t go on the way we were.  Ireland was in danger of losing any soul or sense of self it had for a crazy chase after crass commercialism and greed.

Today I’m just very glad to have witnessed a piece of history and remembered the past.  Quite frankly I’d much rather live in a world where America is a benevolent patrician force rather than a hulking bully wielding a big stick.  Now we seem to have got that one sorted maybe we can get Ireland to cop on as well.

By the way, if you missed the inauguration you can find the text of Obama’s speech here.  I’m off to make dinner now safe in the knowledge that tonight the world seems like a nicer, warmer place for once.  Long may it continue.

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