Democracy in overdrive: time for a break from the ballots

Will this endless cycle of consultative decision-making ever end? In the league table of fevers, ‘election’ sits a lot closer to ‘scarlet’ than ‘Saturday night’, yet we appear to have found ourselves trapped on an election merry-go-round spinning out of control.

We’ve gone straight from the US primaries into our own general election, Northern Ireland Assembly elections, followed by Brexit, the actual US election, the French election, now a Fine Gael contest and the UK general election.

Our franchise hasn’t just been exercised, it’s been undergoing a series of ultra-marathons and is currently Googling upcoming triathlons.

The second Leo takes control of Fine Gael the countdown will begin to another general election. Fianna Fáil will collapse the government as soon as the national interest dictates – National Interest being the name of a polling company charting their optimum moment for being returned to power.

The frequency of elections is beginning to test us all. Even Mícheál Lahane is staring into his Nealon’s Guide and dreaming of a military intervention.

Arranging a coup in Ireland would present a lot of logistic challenges, however. The soldiers are too deaf to hear the orders, and even if they did the Gardaí would be too busy issuing the tanks with penalty points to join in. According to the latest Garda statistics, they have already foiled 348,941 coups over the last 12 months.

It’s no surprise we’re all a little fatigued with elections given what our cousins across the Atlantic put us through. Even before the result was declared, last year’s US election felt as though it had been running for most of our lifetimes.

It takes two years to elect a person on a four year term. That means that for 50 per cent of a President’s term they are kissing babies in Ohio and reassuring people in North Carolina of their constitutional right to marry their assault rifles. It must be exhausting spending two years criss-crossing America’s vast plains trying to figure out which bland platitude will result in the most miniature flags being waved. It’s no wonder they often mistakenly invade the wrong country.

The thoroughness of the process makes the actual result even more remarkable. For two years the American electorate engage in a forensic examination of their candidates, after which they put the future of the planet in the hands of a man who you wouldn’t trust to keep a Bonsai tree alive.

America’s obsession with elections would be fine if they kept it to themselves, but it severely impacts on the rest of our television schedules. Every two years, our media insist on giving us minute-by-minute updates about what are essentially local selection conventions.

We spend two years in every four – that’s 50 per cent of our entire lives – debating the intentions of voters in Iowa. Not even voters in Iowa put as much thought into it.

Our obsession with their local selection conventions is, disappointingly, not returned. CNN barely mentioned the drama surrounding the most recent Fine Gael Sligo-Leitrim contest. People across America failed in their droves to get out of bed at 3am to see whether John Perry had been added to the ticket.

The two year courting process may have been necessary at a time when candidates would ride on horseback across the country to generate support amongst an electorate whose primary concern was not being relieved of their scalp by the indigenous population. In the era of social media and rolling news coverage, the system could be refined to save us all at least 18 months of monotonous torture. Instead of a two year cycle of campaigning, American elections should be called by Enda Kenny giving candidates until midnight to print their manifestos and secure $400 million in oil and tobacco funding.

Democracy’s habit of constantly flirting with the electorate without ever fully satisfying them has inevitably put the relationship under strain. People don’t necessarily want to split up with democracy but they are interested in spending time with other systems of government. After two years of looking at the batting eyelids of Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush, is it any wonder American voters chose to go to dinner with autocracy?

American and UK voters have highlighted people’s discontent at being asked their opinion every few years only for nothing to ever change. Voters want to believe in something. It doesn’t particularly matter what it is, whether it makes any sense or whether it has a fairly good chance of ending in the apocalypse, they just want something to grab onto. It’s a risky strategy. We should be careful about putting our futures into the hands of anyone who believes anything too passionately. After all, history is just a list of times people believed in something too much and persuaded the rest of us to stand in a field shooting each other.

It looked for a time that French voters were contemplating sending us back to the trenches. The French election was a little like an amusement ride: we climbed on board terrified about what was about to happen, only to end up smiling and laughing, if a little concerned about what labour laws had been broken.

Still, the feeling abounds that we’ve celebrated the result too much. Marine Le Pen may have been defeated but the 34 per cent she secured was almost double the tally her father received in 2002. On these projections, by mid-century 140 per cent of French people will be far-right maniacs.

The election of Emmanuel Macron was a huge relief to everybody, especially everybody who isn’t French. He is part of a new generation of sophisticated, articulate and photogenic young leaders. When Emmanuel met Justin Trudeau even Nigel Farrage’s heart started pounding, or at least it would have were it not made from a curious mixture of stone, nationalist myth and Speckled Hen.

When Leo joins the ranks of world leaders, he could fit quite easily into Emmanuel and Justin’s photoshoots. The trio could pass, if not for a boyband, certainly a boyband reunion. Maybe that’s how they’ll finance national debt reductions.

While they are honing their dance routines, there are plenty of other elections out there for anyone suffering withdrawal symptoms.

Between June and December, thirteen elections will be held across Europe. At least nineteen others will be held further afield, and that’s not even counting Brazil where, owing to a cross-party commitment to get impeached on corruption charges within minutes of assuming office, voters are scheduled to go to the polls every second Thursday until at least 2025.

Of course, it won’t be long until our own lampposts are once again grinning with slogans about fiscal space. At least under Leo’s reign elections will have a novelty factor. Polls will open at 3am to reward the nation’s early risers. Given that polling stations will be located exclusively within the M50, this will be spun as an olive branch to the rural electorate.

There is a way to avoid this, of course. We have the opportunity to jump off this merry-go-round once and for all.

As well as a likely general election next year, 2018 will also see a Presidential election in Ireland. Michael D. should move swiftly to cancel both votes and, like the west of Ireland Erdogan we all want him to be, seize ultimate power. Who would object if El Presidente and the central command of Aosdána surrounded Dáil Éireann to rule over us with an iron fist and a copy of Soundings?

That would get my Number One.

Published in The Times, June 6, 2017.

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Music festivals: at what age can we stop pretending this is fun?

All over Ireland, thousands of people are facing into months of anxiety and trauma.

These are people for whom summer is marred by feelings of regret, despair and self-loathing. They are society’s hidden victims: people in their 30s and 40s who have accidentally bought tickets to music festivals.

Forget hay-fever sneezers, Ireland’s most seasonal suffers are the OAPs – Over Aged Picnicers.

They suffer in silence, or at least they do for the fleeting moments in between DJ sets. Most of the time they suffer in a lot of noise, mostly generated by remixes of songs they once liked but no longer understand.

In a matter of weeks I’ll be standing in a field in Kilmainham, dazed, confused and desperately hoping the next DJ is planning an acoustic set.

Forbidden Fruit used to be the ultimate middle aged, middle class festival. It was designed for people who wanted to politely clap the Trinity Orchestra and discuss promissory notes in between acts.

A lengthy queue for the bar was a welcome opportunity to finish the Crosaire.

Peak Forbidden Fruit was reached when I noticed a Fine Gael Minister lying on the grass in front of me. (The Minister in question is actually younger than me – in human years at least – but it still felt like a seminal moment in the death of my youth.)

Two years ago though it changed. The age profile collapsed and suddenly the ECB was a techno duo playing the Undergrowth Stage. I felt like I’d wandered into a house party to collect a nephew who was desperately hiding from me in a cupboard.

An inebriated young woman thrust her phone into my hand and demanded I “take a Snapchat” of her.

My admission of being unfamiliar with the technology caused her jaw to fall lower than her skirt, which, in fairness, was actually fairly high.

trying to be young

“What is a Snapchat?”

Festivals used to generate nervous excitement, now they just generate nerves. Spending three days in a field listening to DJs from Brighton seems like the closest thing to conscription my generation will ever know.

Eventually we have to ask: at what age should we stop pretending this is fun?

Last year, I did one day at the Electric Picnic. There was a time when I could have been described as a Picnic loyalist, if that term didn’t imply eating cucumber sandwiches on a bench in Sandy Row.

Back in 2004, when the Picnic was a one-day event attended by as many people as a Trump administration ethics committee, I arrived at the venue just as the gates were opening. I have a legitimate claim to be the first ever person to have attended the Electric Picnic.

In 2006, when my now wife wouldn’t let Day Two begin until she’d queued for ninety minutes to use a communal hair-straightener, I knew the jig was up.

After a gap of a decade, driving to last year’s festival was almost a festival in itself. Even being greeted by a downpour so intense that Noah would have given up did not – to use the appalling cliché of festival colour writers everywhere – dampen the spirits.

By 1pm I was lost in a magical world of artisan food stalls. By 5pm I was cursing the lost years and texting Herself to start planning for unstraightened hair in 2017. By 9pm I was so delighted that I could go home to bed that the Lions backline couldn’t have kept me from my car.

But still I find myself nervously counting down the days until this year’s offerings.

After buying tickets to this year’s festivals I can sympathise for people who voted for Brexit. We all bought into dreams of a better tomorrow, only to now spend our days sweating and blaming bus advertisements. Both decisions will end up costing millions.

Come June 3rd myself and the Brexiteers will be suffering largely the same fate – both standing in lonely fields facing a world we don’t understand and wondering why young people are looking at us with such contempt.

I know how this will end. I’ll wander around the field, pointing at young girls’ skirts and muttering “I hope they get the weather they hoped for”. At that point, if there was any justice in the world, burly security men would eject me forever back to the world of mortgage payments and wondering about Emmanuel Macron’s choice of Prime Minister.

But there is no justice in the world, so I’ll spend each day mispronouncing the names of German electro artists, before slinking home at 10pm to squeeze in an episode of Broadchurch before bed.

I don’t deserve your pity. None of us do.

But if I spot you wandering lonely as a cloud through fields of millennials this summer, I’ll be there for you.

And I’ll have a nice cup of tea.

Originally published in The Times, May 23rd 2017.

 

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I’m a vegetarian, not a small child

This time two years ago I stayed in a B&B in Co. Mayo that I will always remember for two reasons: firstly, the framed picture on the wall gifted to the owners without explanation by the US Air Force Special Operations Unit; and secondly because it was the venue for my last ever burger.

As of Tuesday, it is 760 days since I last ate meat. For most of my life, a decimal point inserted before the seven would have been as long as I could have lasted. I was an overly enthusiastic meat eater to the point that I could barely walk by a cow without licking it. Had I been on Noah’s Ark, the planet would look very different right now.

But two years ago, I turned my back on meat eating in favour of what is often somewhat sanctimoniously described as a plant-based diet, a term which ignores the frankly inhumane quantities of pasta that keep me alive.

Going vegetarian was a big decision that was easy to implement. I picked a relatively easy time in human development to decide that animals were for petting not frying. You wouldn’t quite say that it’s accepted but it’s not frowned upon in the way it once was. Like taking photographs of your dinner or voting Sinn Fein, most people think you shouldn’t do it but just aren’t arsed giving out to you about it.

It’s still not without its problems, however. Restaurants are, by and large, accommodating but often reluctantly. The belief among a minority of chefs remains that what consenting adults do in the privacy of their own home is a matter for themselves – even if it involves an over-reliance on the courgette and a point-blank refusal to spear a pig – but at no point should polite society be exposed to their perversions.

For some chefs, this manifests itself in simply refusing to publish vegetarian options on their menus. Non-meat eaters are reduced to asking the waiter in hushed tones whether there is anything in the kitchen that hasn’t been skinned and had its flesh seared. It’s a fun way to pretend you’re ordering contraband when actually you just want broccoli. You realise that the scene when Edward Norton was giving knowing looks and covert nods of the head to waiters had nothing to do with the first rule of Fight Club. He just wanted steamed vegetables.

vegetarian menu

The vegetarian menu: smuggled into restaurants underneath rat poison.

Other chefs try to appease the plant-eaters but tragically still confuse the words “I would like the vegetarian option” with “I have the appetite and stomach-capacity of an 11-year-old girl”. If at some stage I chose to live my life as a body-conscious 11-year-old female (and don’t you dare oppress me by saying I can’t) I will be sure to make this widely known. Until such a time, please continue to regard me as a fully-grown adult with associated energy needs.

It’s not only chefs who are the culprits here. We’ve all experienced hearing a friend lavish praise on a restaurant and then utter the reassuring words, “I’m sure there’ll be something for you”.

The mistaken belief that vegetarians can survive on three leaves of lettuce and a single cherry tomato (and enjoy paying €16 for the privilege) is reflective of a lack of understanding that still exists. It is also reflective of the fact that some people believe ‘vegetarian’ is derived from the Latin ‘vege’, meaning ‘the appetite of a small child’, and ‘tarian’, meaning ‘to enjoy the financial management practices of Sean Fitzpatrick’.

Some people still view vegetarians with the level of curious wonderment once reserved for circus performers and people from Louth. Really it should be us who view them with suspicion.

I eat things that grew from seeds in the earth, whereas you rear animals in compounds, slit their throats, bleed them dry, skin them, fry their muscle tissue and then dollop it in tomato ketchup. We should be clear about this: I’m not the weirdo.

vegetarian special

‘Tonight’s vegetarian option is priced €16.99’

The wide range of natural products available has never been so readily accessible. Humans once ate meat to survive but a little known fact is that this was before the advent of shops. If you find yourself craving the flesh of a living animal, it would be worthwhile to experiment with going to the shop where you will be pleasantly surprised by the range of alternatives. This lesson can be applied to anybody carrying out other pre-historic activities, such as cave-dwelling, grunting as a means of communication or painting buffalo on public walls

The fact is that, two years into this experiment, I’ve never felt so healthy. Don’t get me wrong: I still couldn’t run more than 10 yards without the need for medical intervention, but that’s probably around three yards further than my previous personal best.
I’ve managed to write an entire article only falling asleep twice.

My descent into vegetarianism was no doubt helped by a wife who has shunned meat since she was 11. Since my decision of two years ago, she has gone the full hog and turned vegan. For me, that remains a step too far. Veganism still strikes me as being the ISIS of the vegetarian world. I suspect she was radicalised at the local fruit and veg shop.

The number of vegans is rocketing, however, meaning that vegetarians are now coming under pressure from two fronts: those who fetishise meat and those who reject all diary. Waiters these days are almost as likely to point to a giant mural of a cows edible bits as they are to run away crying if you ask for a milk in your coffee.

Views are hardening on all sides. Like most moderates, we are increasingly looked down on by people on either extreme as weak, lily-livered sell-outs. Vegetarianism is essentially the culinary equivalent of the Labour Party.

As a group, we are tolerated but not respected by either the meat-eaters or the vegans. As the extremes grow, the middle-of-the-roaders are being squeezed.

I’m holding firm though. Sometimes it’s good to be a middle-of-the-roader, especially when the road has no roadkill.

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Star Wars: Can we really trust this well-funded Rebel Alliance?

If you find the nightly news a bit too depressing these days, why not pop down to the cinema and watch the new Star Wars film, Rogue One?

The latest instalment of the blockbuster series sees a well-funded rebel army, fuelled by religious dogma and a willingness for self-sacrifice, take on an authoritarian regime that is slowly losing its grip on a vast and multi-ethnic territory.

Where do these script writers get their ideas?

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story(Donnie Yen) Ph: Film Frame ©Lucasfilm LFL

Rebel fighters shouting about being guided by ‘the force’ take on soldiers of an authoritarian regime. Nothing like this has ever happened in real life.

Thankfully we can go to the cinema and lose ourselves in this escapism safe in the knowledge that nothing as far-fetched could ever happen in real life.

If it did happen – let’s just throw caution to the wind here – Star Wars would clearly precondition us to support the rebels.

For a start, we are assured that they are fighting a cruel and tyrannical regime. The precise details are never elaborated on, and there isn’t a whole lot in the way of evidence aside from some over-zealous policing and a bit of loose talk about wanting to engage in a genocide.

star-wars-rogue-one

Jyn Erso: She leads a good insurrection but few question her politics.

Still, we believe the rebel’s narrative, mostly because their two leaders look like they have just stepped off a Benetton ad. Here, the rebel alliance displays a masterly understanding of the value of propaganda. Jyn Erso and Cassian Andor are a modern day Fidel and Ché. Cassian even has that Latin American brogue that is so hard to resist, even when it’s scolding you for stepping outside its rigid centrally planned economic model.

Jyn and Cassian are heroes we can believe in, primarily because they’d look really good hanging from the walls of student bedsits. The film makes clear that among their tactics are suicide bombing, kidnapping and a ruthless shoot-to-kill policy directed against all regime collaborators, but they’re the compromises you make for the sake of inter-galactic geo-politics.

star-wars-cassian-andor-rogue-one-news

Cassian Andor: Never revealed to the rebel fighters his dogmatic belief in centrally-planned economies.

The regime, on the other hand, is led by a tight band of elderly men who look a bit like the Rolling Stones after a particularly heavy night on the sauce. They aren’t going to capture the Millennials wearing those robes.

The rebels have won the propaganda battle long before a shot is fired. But many questions go unasked.

For example, the rebels have no shortage of fighter jets but who exactly is funding them? Saudi, probably.

There are also many aspects of the story that aren’t shown at all. Scenes filmed in the markets in Jedha show the extent of the civilian population, yet when the markets are destroyed by warring factions the film completely ignores the bureaucratic challenges of resettling them elsewhere.

Many people on Planet Jedha have legitimate concerns about the need to look after their own homeless first, but this is completely ignored by the film. That’s the corporate media for you.

Also missing was a thorough analysis of the internal conflict within Jedha’s left-wing community as they struggle to define a policy position due to a lack of clarity about what America’s role in the slaughter is.

rogue-one-teaser-trailer-tall

Sure, they’ve got giant walking tanks that roam civilian areas firing lasers at anything that moves, but we have a homeless problem and charity does begin at home.

The film also makes little attempt to understand the challenges and constraints facing the regime. Sure, not everything they have done has been perfect but since when was government easy?

An alternative telling of the story would see Darth Vadar and the Emperor struggle to maintain a broad alliance of disparate ethnic and religious groups, all the while being undermined by fundamentalists who attempts to fly planes directly into their headquarters.

As it happens, that’s what’s being shown in cinemas in Moscow this Christmas.

sith-are-shady

The regime leadership: Nobody said it would be easy to maintain order in such a vast and multi-ethnic territory but they’re doing their best.

It could be, of course, that Star Wars is based on real events. In fact, there is a distinct possibility that the George Lucas creation has been foretelling Middle Eastern politics for the best part of 40 years.

The Empire Strikes Back was a clear reference to the upcoming Iran-Iraq war, which began four months after the film’s release.

Likewise, Return of the Jedi clearly foretold the release of captured US pilot Bobby Goodman, who was released back to America from captivity in Lebanon within months of the film hitting cinema screens.

It has long been considered that 1979 – the year of the Iran revolution and the Russian invasion of Afghanistan – was the pivotal year in modern Middle Eastern politics, but could it be that 1977, with the release of the first Lucas instalment, was the actual turning point?

The next Star Wars film is due for release in 2018. It is due to focus on Han Solo and, according to its website, will document how a “thieve, smuggler and scoundrel” can rise to prominence.

Thankfully nothing as far-fetched could ever happen in real life.

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The serene madness of Gaza

The horse leaps into the air, obediently following the young woman’s command to jump the fence. Every so often the dull thud of his hoofs hitting the ground coincides with an air strike. Nobody aside from me seems to notice when it does, but, then again, nobody else seems to be paying any attention to the air strikes at all, least of all the horse.

Gaza feels normal, and that’s the strangest thing about it. People are going about their days – buying clothes, playing football on the beach, eating ice-cream with friends. Car horns honk relentlessly. At the Faisal Equestrian Centre young girls in jodhpurs ride horses while their parents sip coffee.

In the distance is the war. Mortars, rockets and missiles fly overhead; from Gaza into Israel, from Israel into Gaza. Below, the people get on with their lives.

The peppering of the afternoon sky with artillery fire is so unremarkable that nobody appears to notice it. The young girl on horseback doesn’t miss a single step. When I ask our driver about it, he appears not yet to have registered that it is happening.

This is just a regular Thursday.

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A horse parades on the beach in Gaza. (Photo: Eoghan Rice)

There is a serene madness to Gaza. It is simultaneously the most normal and the most dysfunctional place you’ve ever been. People smile in the streets but you sense that inside they are crying or screaming, or probably both. That is Gaza’s great trick: masking its madness behind a veneer of normality.

There are two realities to Gaza: the one you see, and the one that actually is.

The illusion begins at the Erez border crossing. Erez is spacious, modern and designed to accommodate large volumes of commuter traffic. It’s also completely deserted, because while Erez was built to facilitate large numbers of people, the blockade of Gaza ensures that it does not.

The illusion and the reality.

Inside Gaza, the pretence continues. The streets are vibrant. For a moment you’re embarrassed that you thought they would be anything else. At first, only the little things give it away.

You notice that there are no planes in the sky and you remember that there is a blockade on Gaza’s airspace, as well as its sea and land ports.

You see people sitting on steps staring into the distance and you remember that Gaza has the highest unemployment rate in the world.

You spot the bags of maize resting outside warehouses and you remember that 80 per cent of Gaza’s population receives humanitarian aid.

You realise that in Gaza all is not what it seems.

gaza-pier

People try to get on with their lives as best as possible in Gaza but it does not take long to sense their frustrations. (Photo: Eoghan Rice)

Under the shade down at the pier a young man sits under a sky where no planes can fly and stares out to a sea where no ships can sail. Behind him, the far side of Gaza’s narrow sliver, stand eight metre high walls that form a semi-circle, locking him and his 1.8 million fellow inhabitants into this tiny parcel of land.

Our presence peeks his interest. He walks over and tells us his problems.

He is 22. He has no job, no income and no possibility of leaving. His wife gave birth to twins last year but one of them died. He doesn’t elaborate, although it’s not hard to wonder whether given a functioning health service this would have been the outcome.

“My life here is like a prison,” he says. “There is nothing for me here.”

He says that sometimes he wants to die, and I believe him.

gaza-sea-blockade

A young woman stares out to sea on the beach in Gaza. Boats are only allowed to travel six nautical miles out from the coast. (Photo: Eoghan Rice)

Less than two kilometres away, Sr. Bridget Tighe stands in a narrowly lane. Doorways line her path. Behind each doorway is a family, each one packed into one or two rooms. Sr. Bridget is from Sligo but for 18 months has called Gaza home.

She runs a health centre for children. Many young people here are severely traumatised. Any child in Gaza over the age of 8 has already survived three major wars. The last one, in 2014, saw 2,200 people killed over the space of 54 days.

But the trauma here runs deeper than the mental scars of war. This is a trauma borne from being trapped.

Gaza is less than one quarter the size of Leitrim but is home to a population equivalent to that of Northern Ireland. Very few of them are eligible for permits to leave. The vast majority are trapped into a tiny strip of land that is crumbling at the seams.

Sr. Bridget says that people aren’t angry any more, they are just depressed. Speak with people and that becomes evident. You mention that you are returning to Jerusalem in the morning and their eyes fill with sadness. It is an hour up the road but it may as well be another world.

We meet one young man, a Christian, who was granted a temporary visa to visit Bethlehem during Easter. He diverted to Tel Aviv. What did he do there? “Drank beer on the beach,” he says with just about the biggest grin you can imagine.

A black sense of humour prevails. We tell one young man that we hope to meet him again next time we are in Gaza. “Don’t worry,” he said, “I’m not going anywhere”.

Gaza Parkour Club.jpg

Gaza Parkour Club entertain crowds at the beach in Gaza. (Photo: Eoghan Rice)

Back on the beach, a group of young people jump from walls, performing elaborate somersaults as they fall into the sand. This is Gaza’s Parkour Club; the strip’s chapter of the urban sport which sees people leap across buildings unaided by safety equipment. During the war they did it from rubble but these days the beach is their playground.

It’s a dangerous hobby – one of their friends was recently evacuated to hospital in Israel after breaking virtually every bone in his body – but it’s not hard to see why they do it. Sport is an escape. Each jump and each twist is cheered by an enthusiastic crowd. For a moment, at least, they are normal teenagers on a regular beach enjoying themselves.

Each time they jump, they leap into the illusion of what Gaza could be. Each time they land, they crash back into the reality of what it is.

Sometimes they land just as the air strikes hit. But they don’t seem to notice. Or perhaps they just no longer care.

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Brexit and borders: why Europe badly needs Euro 2016

Football fans can be tedious at the best of times, but we’re rarely as sanctimonious as when discussing the social, cultural and political importance of our game.

You thought that 22-year-old’s inability to clear the first man with a corner kick was down to poor training? I’m sure we can find somebody to tell you it’s symbolic of the colonisation his ancestors faced. Somebody, somewhere, is writing a blog about how the Syrian conflict could be ended through a robust game of three-and-in.

American Football has the Superbowl but Association Football has the Hyperbole.

All that notwithstanding, it really does feel that Europe badly needs Euro 2016. Not since the RAF was the main airliner in German skies has the continent been quite so dysfunctional.

Britain wants to leave. Austria and Slovakia are building borders. Poland and Hungary’s democracies look about as legitimate as a Fifa expenses claim. Greece is collapsing under EU-imposed austerity and a union-wide belief that a country’s obligation to protect refugees is entirely dependent on its geographical proximity to them. Across the continent, political forces are rising that are so archaic they make Martin O’Neill’s sense of humour seem forward-looking and progressive.

These are relatively grim times to be European. Opinion polls in Britain suggest that by the time we reach the knockout stages only 15 of the 24 countries taking part in Euro 2016 will be members of the EU. The fact that the Brexit vote is scheduled for just the day after the group stages end leaves open the tantalising prospect of England crashing out of Europe twice in a week. Those campaigning to remain in the EU will be hoping the count doesn’t go to penalties as that would surely seal their fate.

brexit-poll-leave-is-now-level-with-remain-and-its-support-is-growing

For once many in England will be relishing an early exit from Europe.

Of course, the EU and the European Championship are not linked — one is a temporary coming together of independent nations which critics argue has grown too commercial and too large and the other is a sports competition — but the situation does highlight the extent of European disunity. Two countries taking part in Euro 2016 — Russia and Ukraine — are essentially at war with each other and could meet in a second round match in the Paris stadium where militants from one of the other competing countries — Belgium — attempted to massacre supporters of two others — France and Germany.

In the midst of all of this, football can play a positive role. Twenty-four countries, with a combined population of about 720 million people, will take part in a sporting celebration over the coming weeks. A significant number of the participating countries — including the hosts, France — are increasingly internally divided. It is difficult to think of anything with a greater unifying potential than an international football tournament simply because football is the one thing that people from all backgrounds and cultures participate in. That may sound like a line from the sanctimonious football fan playbook, but it’s the truth.

According to the online NetBet Multicultural Championship tool, Romania is the only country in Euro 2016 whose squad is entirely comprised of players neither born outside of the country nor born to immigrants. Thirty-one players in the competition are representing a country other than their country of birth, while a further 96 are sons of immigrants. The website calculates that 65 per cent of the French squad have non-French backgrounds, while the figure for Belgium is 57 per cent.

Having both recently been victim of appalling acts of terror that have brought religious and ethnic differences to the fore, the streets of Belgium and France will, over the coming weeks, see immigrants and natives rally under one flag. The lasting impact that this will have is debatable — the feel-good factor generated by the multicultural French team who lifted the World Cup in 1998 did not appear to last — but it does give an opportunity, at least in the short-term, to foster a sense of unity.

On a wider level, Euro 2016 may just rekindle that sense of European identity that has always seemed a bit vague but over recent times has begun to vanish entirely.

Of course, there is always the chance that the sporting rivalry will serve only to remind us how much we hate each other — that Austria’s clash with Iceland will reopen old wounds over the awful war of 1235 we’d all forgotten about, or that by Wednesday evening the streets of Tirana will be thronged with people burning croissants after another Gallic handball. Stranger things have happened. Greece won the bloody thing in 2004.

euro-2004-greece

Euro 2004: the most unlikely event in European history, and arguably the most tragic.

But maybe this can be a tournament to bring us together. Maybe this can be a tournament where a Belgian of Arab descent, an Austrian forward born in Pakistan and a Muslim midfielder wearing the blue of France can make people realise that diversity is strength.

It’s a long shot, but sometimes in football that’s all you have.

First published on TheTimes.ie on June 9th, 2016.

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This isn’t a revolution. It’s a mess.

Richard Boyd-Barrett says it’s a political earthquake.

He made the claim having just been elected to the new Dáil in the Dun Laoghaire constituency, a constituency which saw the combined vote for centre-right parties rise from 28,223 in 2011 to 34,261 in 2016 and the combined vote for left-wing parties fall from 25,579 to 21,612 over the same timeframe.

Even taking Labour out of the equation – for he would doubtless claim that Labour are not a left-wing party – the combined vote of the Anti-Austerity Alliance and Sinn Fein was 12,942, roughly one-third that of the two conservative giants of Irish politics.

Boyd-Barrett’s own result was exceptional – he increased his vote by almost 50% – but that doesn’t disguise the fact that Dun Laoghaire is in no danger of being declared a Soviet. That is perhaps something he can reflect over when sharing a taxi to the Dáil with his three constituency colleagues, all of whom are members of Fine Gael.

Filipino student protesters wearing masks raise their clenched f

Voters in Kildare North do their part for the revolution by putting two Fianna Fail TDs back in the Dáil.

He wasn’t the only person losing the run of themselves. Fintan O’Toole declared the election a victory for social democracy – yes, that’s right, the same election which saw the loss of 31 social democrat seats – while Twitter was ablaze with people hailing it as a victory for the Repeal the 8th campaign, despite the fact that the only party to commit itself to that campaign was almost completely wiped out.

I wrote recently about how people look back at the 1916 Rising and see only what they want to see. It seems that the same is also true of current affairs. People look at the election results and see a complete vindication of whatever agenda they are trying to push.

The truth is that this was not a very good election for the Irish left.

Let’s look at the figures.

In the 2011 general election, Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and the deputies who would later form Renua attracted 1,188,986 votes. This time around, that figure was almost identical: 1,110,148.

Meanwhile, the number of people who voted for left wing parties (Labour, Sinn Fein, Green Party and the deputies who would go on to form the AAA/PBP and Social Democrats) over the two elections fell quite significantly from 741,817 to 642,478.

(The hard left will argue that Labour is not a left-wing party but they have also spent the last five years arguing that the people who voted for them in 2011 were, so no matter which way you look at it their voting figures should be included in this summary.)

While Sinn Fein and the AAA/PBP can be reasonably happy with their returns, overall the picture is quite grim for the left.

Following the 2011 election the left-wing parties had 55 seats. Today, they have 41.

Compare that with the other side of the ideological fence and you see that in 2011 the centre-right parties had 96 seats whereas today they have 94.

Sinn Féin has over 20 Dáil seats but the rest is divided between Labour, Social Democrats, AAA/PBP and the Greens. Between these groups there is an almost total lack of trust, which in many cases boarders on sheer hatred. The stated goal of the AAA/PBP is to destroy Labour, not Fine Gael, which is why their supporters spent the weekend celebrating as though they’d just taken down Ceausescu and not, in fact, secured the possibility of an Enda Kenny / Micheal Martin rotating Taoiseach.

Like a group of bald men fighting over a comb, the Irish left is entirely subsumed in pointless internal bickering. Nowhere was this highlighted more than in the Dublin Bay North constituency, where a collection of left-wing candidates fought each other for the spoils while Richard Bruton and Sean Haughey sailed into the sunset like newly weds.

I have previously written about how ridiculous all of this is.

couple-fighting-on-couch

Date night was going so well until Rory told Sinead he believed in a state interventions to fund social justice but not necessarily a full workers’ republic.

The only logical way forward is for this squabbling to be put to one side and for the parties to work together. Sadly, however, the open hostility which exists between some of the people involved means it is probably more likely for Basher al-Assad and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to go for Sunday lunch together.

The end result is that we have a centre-right block enjoying sustained levels of support and a left block who can’t agree on what time of day it is, let alone an economic platform.

This isn’t a revolution. This isn’t a victory for social democracy. This isn’t a win for feminism.

This is a mess.

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