Less about the world, more about me.

Month: July 2013

Column: Join a Party

My column in The Kerryman. 31 July, 2013

There’s a joke about we Irish not doing big street protests because of the weather. It’s a joke I thought hid a germ of truth. As I basked in the sun this last month I realised I’d be even less likely to protest in sunshine than in rain. Unless of course, that protest is at the beach.

The reason we don’t do big protests is because we don’t want big changes. We want tomorrow to be a lot like today, but a little better. It’s not easy to make that point in a big angry crowd, waving placards and staring into the faces of geared up gardai. Protests tend to be organised by people who are less invested than the rest of us, in tomorrow being pretty much the same as today.

Does that mean we are satisfied with the state of our country? No. Poll after poll may show the usual suspects still dominating the political landscape, but they also show increasing numbers of people unable to choose anyone they could vote for. In some countries that increasing uncertainty might indicate scope for a radical new party.

In Ireland it shows that the parties who’ve traditionally been trusted by the majority to be competent, are now increasingly thought of as either a bit too soft or a bit too tough or a but too unsure or a bit too certain.

We don’t do radical because we’ve already answered the most important question facing a relatively prosperous European nation. We’ve already decided that yes, we do want to be looked after by the State. The only debate is how much help should my neighbour get and how much must I pay for it. Any party that suggests we stop looking after our neighbours would be greeted with scorn. And parties that suggest we should all be as poor or as rich as our neighbours, tend to be so small they have to form ‘technical groups’ in the Dáil.

With the biggest question answered, what point is there then in getting involved in our political system? If all the main parties differ only in emphasis rather than principle, why get involved? If tomorrow will be same as today, then why even vote?

Do you remember the Fianna Fáil Tent at the Galway Races during the ‘boom’ years? This annual event was where the rich men of Ireland rubbed shoulders with the stout patriots of Fianna Fáil. The rich men of Ireland did this not because they were stout patriots like Bertie and his gang, but because rich people know something a lot of the rest of us have forgotten.

Rich people know that politicians don’t always need bribing to be influenced. Just spending time with them can be enough to make a difference and the rich continue to get richer. Does that make you angry? Then join a party. It doesn’t matter which one, toss a coin if you can’t decide.

If you want to help shape the policies of a party, have a say in the candidates it chooses and the leader it has, join a party. Casting a vote every five years isn’t enough to have one’s voice heard.  If you want tomorrow to be the same as today but a bit better, join a party. Be it Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Labour or Sinn Fein, just join one of them today.

Kerry Column 26


Column: Paying Attention

My column in The Kerryman. 24 July, 2013

I wrote here recently about the lack of useful anger in Ireland. I worried that we didn’t have the energy required to even just keep an eye on the people we’ve gifted power to. Then we had the spectacle of an all night sitting of the Dáil. I thought myself an energised and interested person as I sat up all night to watch our TDs make endless speeches, debate and vote on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill.

165 amendments were proposed. Every last TD was allowed speak. More and more time was allocated, so every little grievance, suggestion, opinion and plea was heard. In the end, not a single amendment, not first proposed by the Minister of Health, was passed. Not one.

Yes, it was a wonderfully entertaining event, if one is a political nerd. It was also a vital piece of legislation, if that is, one identifies as very strongly pro-life or pro-choice. I’m a political nerd and I’m very strongly pro-choice, yet the entire exercise has left me feeling profoundly empty.

There was a debate during the long hours of argument and counter argument about whether a woman, who was pregnant because of being raped should go to jail for five years or 14 years if she procured an abortion in this country. Five years or for fourteen? That was one of the highlights.
There was much talk of principles. Much talk of protecting our most vulnerable. Conscience was mentioned. Conscience? Did you know that the person who won the €93.9m Euromillions jackpot, barely makes it into the top 100 richest people in Ireland? Principles and conscience, when discussing legislation that will only impact on women too poor or too ill to travel to the UK.

Principles and conscience when 40 teenagers in 2011, raped while under 18, were made pregnant by their rapist. Nine of them had abortions. Today, unless they can jump through the hoops laid out by this legislation, they’d still have to travel to a foreign country for a termination.

From a pro-choice point of view this legislation is a step in the right direction, but a step so minuscule, it’d require specialist equipment to measure the distance gained.

The legislation itself however, being so poor, is less interesting than the actual process of its passage through the Dáil. To watch was to learn a great deal about what is wrong in this country.
When we vote for our TDs, we are electing a committee who are charged with the appointment of a government. We don’t choose the Government; the fellas from whom we beg Medical Cards, demand that potholes be filled and ask if they can speed up passport applications, choose our government.

What do they do with this awesome power? Watch how this legislation was passed. The process began last November when reports of Savita Halappanavar’s death first went national. Dáil Committees sat, experts were questioned, a draft Bill was published. And all these months later? Every TD who wanted to make an amendment was allowed propose one. Every TD who wanted to speak was allowed to do so. The Government sat and listened and then enacted the legislation exactly as it had always intended to do so anyway. That’s worth paying attention to.

Kerry Column 27

Column: MMR Vaccination

My column in The Kerryman. 17 July, 2013

I can’t imagine anything scarier than having and raising a baby. So scary I’ve avoided becoming a parent. Having and raising children is both the most natural thing in the world to do and the most complicated and daunting enterprise one will ever face. Fortunately there are some things a new parent in Kerry will not have to worry about; diseases like smallpox, polio and TB are all but gone.

There was a time when it was thought measles would be added to the list of things parents could stop worrying about. This highly contagious virus was responsible for over half a million deaths worldwide in 2000. By 2010 deaths had fallen to just under 140,000, but an untruth told by a disgraced former doctor, means measles has still not been eliminated from our part of the World.

In 1998, the disgraced former doctor, Andrew Wakefield, claimed there was a link between the MMR vaccination and autism. Within months this nonsense had been dismissed by medical experts all over the world. Too late, as the false claims made by this disgraced former doctor had already found a foothold in too many imaginations. The damage has been done. Doubt has been seeded. As Terry Pratchett said: “A lie can run round the world before the truth has got its boots on.”

Doubt once seeded is almost impossible to remove. Especially when that doubt is on a subject as intensely important as our children and as complicated as medical science. Throw in our new found mistrust of authority and you have a hardy weed indeed.

Our species produces babies that are ridiculously helpless, children who are hopelessly dependent and gloriously hapless adolescents, because it takes all the time between conception and adulthood to learn every little titbit of information and trick, that keeps us at the top of the food chain. In the wildly competitive environment that is Earth, our species bet on being the smartest. And we won. We won big.

What is the price paid for this investment in intelligence? We now have to trust strangers with the care of our children. We have to trust experts we’ve never met, speaking in a jargon we don’t understand, who tell us that vaccinating our children is the safest and most responsible thing we can do for the wholly vulnerable beings in our care.

Measles was on its way out. Now many parents are scared that this disgraced and discredited former doctor may have something worthwhile to say. There have been measles outbreaks in Europe and America, all because one disgraced and discredited former doctor managed to push emotional buttons that all caring parents have.

We live in a rational age. We no longer accept anything on faith. We saw how our parents were treated by those they trusted without question. No longer will we be the gullible and spineless playthings of those who would tell us how to behave, how to think and how to raise our children. So when somebody hints at another lie from the authorities, it’s hard not to take notice.

Would I give my child the MMR vaccination? On one side there is the united opinion of scientists, governments and the UN that the MMR is a safe, lifesaving measure. Opposed is a disgraced former doctor. Would I give my child the MMR vaccination? In a heartbeat.

Kerry Column 28

Column: Being laughed at.

My column in The Kerryman. 10 July, 2013

We were part of the British Empire for a long time, but since leaving it we’ve remained part of a network of former colonies which share a language and similar political systems. This relationship has rarely been to Ireland’s advantage. If there has been a benefit, it’s having English speaking countries to flee to every time our politicians destroy the economy.

Every year since Independence, we’ve been heading to those English speaking countries in our thousands and hundreds of thousands. Emigration is as much a part of the Irish experience as pretending to be a Catholic or pretending to be able to speak Irish are. We’ve a culture of seeing loved ones forced to travel to the other side of the planet in search of work, and it has been spirit crushing.

This experience of Irishness appears to have robbed us of our ability to be angry in a publicly useful way. Those of us who’ve listened to the recordings of the Anglo-Irish executives may be furious with these men for laughing at us as they led us into ruin, but it’s a powerless anger. It’s an aimless fury and I fear it’ll disappear with the next plane load of defeated men and women, leaving in search of work.

We’ve half a million unemployed people in this country. We should have closer to a million. Imagine that. One million people without jobs and without any investment in keeping things exactly as they are, exactly as they have always been. Look at the social strife in Greece and the street protests that took place in Iceland. Or the Catalan and Scottish independence movements in Spain and Britain. The ominous reinvigoration of extreme right-wing parties in some European countries.

And more recently, the spontaneous anti-government protests in Turkey, Brazil and Egypt.

What do we have? We have emigration and when we’re really annoyed, we call Joe Duffy. Ireland wasn’t uniquely screwed over by a class of rich men, who remain better off than the rest of us. It’s not as if taxpayers all over the western world aren’t right now paying for the mistakes of their bankers, just like here. What’s different is that we either leave or ever so slightly change how we vote.

One could argue that this isn’t a bad thing. Despite our economy being destroyed, despite rising poverty and the attacks on our public services and public sector workers, despite families being broken up by emigration or buckling under the horrible stress of debt, despite the incompetence and our thwarted desire for revenge. Despite all this, the only difference a foreign visitor would see in Ireland today from ten years ago, would be the number of vacant commercial properties.

I am not saying that only the best of us are leaving or that only those who can cure the institutional corruption and stupidity of this nation have left. No, but we do have to recognise that anger requires energy. Action requires energy. Change requires energy. And most importantly, just paying attention requires energy.

And everyday as more people leave this floundering nation, we lose more of that vital energy. So we have a choice. Be angry enough for both ourselves and for those who’ve left, or accept that of course the bankers and pensioned politicians have no need to fear us. That they are even free to laugh at us.

Kerry Column 29

Column: Being spied on is not OK

My column in The Kerryman. 3 July, 2013

Sometimes you have to applaud the hilarious levels of paranoia of some people. Did you know there’s conspiracy theory called Chemtrails, which believes the vapour trails left by airplanes are full of chemicals? Worse, the chemicals are put there by governments to; sterilise us or pacify us with mind-control or halt our continued evolution or something equally terrible. That’s what some people believe.

It’s such an embarrassingly silly belief, that no one really discusses it. Except those who believe it of course. It does bear a quick look though as it highlights both a problem and, despite the stupidity, a necessary skepticism.

The problem is that it’s so ridiculous it can discredit anyone who wishes to ask serious questions of those in power. Now that we have discovered that the US and UK governments have been spying on everyone, we require like never before, recourse to question the power we give politicians and the organs of State.

Our private phone calls and emails to our friends and families in America have become the property of American politicians, spies, soldiers, judges and even worse, the property of multi-billion dollar hedge-funds that run the whole snooping business for the American government. We know they are doing this, they’ve admitted it, yet it is still difficult to not come across as anything more than a paranoid conspiracy theory freak, when expressing alarm at such intrusions.

I’m alarmed, but just like the chemtrail fools, the only other people who share my alarm are on the internet. The majority of people appear to be wholly unconcerned that politicians have given themselves such power. Most people appear to think that because of 9/11, it’s perfectly acceptable to let the politicians who allowed the world economy to be destroyed, to eavesdrop and peep into our lives.

This can seem to be a wholly irrelevant issue to someone struggling with unemployment, mired in mortgage debt and slowly losing self-confidence to encroaching poverty. My mortgage is OK at the moment, so perhaps I can afford priorities that are less immediate, less real. Would I care as much about people accessing my emails and phone calls, if those phone calls were from my bank manager looking for his money?

I honestly don’t know. Am I as bad as those idiots who genuinely believe in the Chemtrail nonsense? No doubt some people may think I am. I will however ask you to consider one thing. The German sociologist, Max Weber, defined the State as having “the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force in the enforcement of its order.” In short, the State owns all the lawful violence.

Who runs the State? The civil service, the judges and the government. Who hires the civil servants, appoints the judges and elects the government? Politicians, politicians, politicians.

The only thing that restrains the politicians is us, the people who choose the politicians. Now we can be ever vigilant of these people or we can trust them to always have our best interests at heart. Call me paranoid then, because I can’t think of anything scarier than trusting a politician to not only have my best interests at heart, but to even know what my best interests are or how to meet them. And I’ve yet to meet a politician, judge or garda, I’d share my private phone calls with.

Kerry Column 30

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