Cities are for people, not cars

Two Mondays ago, as I rummaged in the kitchen for something that could be passed off as dinner, a man lost his life 100 yards from my front door. He was crossing the road on foot when a vehicle struck him. I do not know the precise details of how his life came to end. The fact that man and vehicle collided at a pedestrian crossing suggests that one of them broke a light but I don’t know which.

Three months earlier, my walk through the Phoenix Park was diverted by Garda tape. A cyclist had been knocked down and killed. Again, I don’t know the finer details, other than a young man had gone out for a Sunday cycle and ended up in the morgue.

These grim stories are becoming all too common. At the half-way point in the year, 2017 has already matched 2016’s total for cycling fatalities. This year is on course to be the worst year for cycling deaths this century. Pedestrian deaths – 16 so far this year – look set to match last year’s total.

At current rates, fatalities involving car users will fall by somewhere in the region of 25 per cent, while cyclist deaths will rise by 100 per cent. Cyclists and pedestrians will account for more than one-in-three deaths on Irish roads in 2017, as opposed to one-in-four in 2016. While overall 2017 is shaping-up to be a safer year for people travelling by four wheels, the opposite is the case for those on two wheels or none.

Debate around road behaviour is becoming increasingly polarised. There is a tendency for cyclists to portray motorists as uncaring psychopaths, while those in cars speak about bike users as though they are nihilistic maniacs. It is identity politics transposed onto commuting preferences.

Motorists and cyclists are the same people. And I don’t mean that in the anthropological sense of saying that the Hutus and the Tutsis were really the same people – I mean: they are literally the same people. Most cyclists also drive and an increasingly high percentage of motorists enjoy a pedal. I identify as both cyclist and motorist. Commuter-fluid, you could say.

The problem isn’t with motorists or cyclists, it’s with people. I firmly believe that most people are very nice, but practical experience shows that a small percentage are not. Every bunch of roses has a few pricks, as the saying goes. I estimate the percentage of pricks to roses as being around 10:90 in any large group. It’s probably more than ten per cent in some groups – ISIS or a Premiership football team, for example – but by and large that’s the figure life has led me to believe.

As a cyclist, I reckon around 10 per cent of motorists turn without checking their side mirror, drive too fast and continue to regard bike lanes as convenient places to park. As a motorist, I estimate that 10 per cent of cyclists swerve without looking, ignore red lights and think that imitating Johnny Cash’s famous black wardrobe is an appropriate way to prepare for night excursions. Inexplicably, the percentage of cyclists who refuse to wear helmets remains even higher.

Regardless of the mode of transport, people have behavioural problems that put other people’s lives – and their own – at risk. The complete power imbalance between motorist and cyclist, however, means that the onus has to be on protecting the latter. Sadly, that is not the way our cities – or, indeed, our towns, villages or rural roads – have developed. Instead, we have built infrastructure to accommodate those least at risk, while forcing the most vulnerable to simply attempt to survive. It’s probably a parable for our fascination with centre-right government, but that’s for another column.

Anybody who doubts the sheer terror experienced by cyclists in our capital city should attempt to cycle down the quays at rush hour. Evel Knievel wouldn’t have tried it. Likewise, trying to cross lanes on Westmoreland Street. You’d face fewer risks crossing the Sinai desert.

Two summers ago, some friends from Belgium hired Dublin Bikes to explore the city. When I met them an hour later, they were pale. The rest of the evening was spent trading war stories involving large yellow buses.

With more people taking to two wheels, we need to redesign our urban environments to prioritise their needs over and above people in cars. The recent decision to experiment with protected cycle lanes in Dublin – placing car parking spaces in between the cyclist and the road – is very welcome. Cork has already rolled this initiative out in some areas.

Ultimately, the redesign will have to go much further, however. The goal must be to significantly reduce vehicular traffic in our cities. There is a carrot and stick approach needed: the carrot being significantly improved public transport, the stick being simply closing roads to private cars.

Declogging our cities’ arteries of private cars would enormously benefit everybody. Aside from the environmental and aesthetic gains, there would also be an improvement in the only measurement people seem to put any value on: money. Shops will benefit from cities that prioritise human beings over large metal boxes for the simple reason that human beings are more impulsive shoppers than large metal boxes are. That’s an economic rule that even Leo Varadkar and Paul Murphy could agree on.

Despite the ludicrous claims – mostly from car park owners – that pedestrianizing streets would return us to the economic Stone Age, people will buy more when we give them access to the entire street as opposed to a four-foot sliver on its margins. Open plazas will lure more shoppers than crowded footpaths will. There are two words for anybody who thinks otherwise: Grafton Street. Back in the 1970s, retailers objected to plans to ban cars from Dublin’s main shopping street, claiming it would harm trade. Today, Grafton Street is the beating heart which drives consumerism in the capital.

Pedestrianisation should now continue in the immediate environs of Grafton Street: from Drury Street to Dawson Street, including College Green, the city should be handed back to people.

Whether car park owners like it or not, this is how our cities are moving. Cork, Dublin, Limerick, Waterford, Galway and Kilkenny all have schemes aimed at increasing the number of people living within the city boundaries. People living in cities will want space. They will want a cleaner environment. They will commute to work using their legs. We’re going to have to build cities to suit their needs, rather than those of people simply passing through.

Our infrastructure, behaviour and culture will all have to shift to adopt to this new reality. There are bunches of flowers tied to lampposts all over the country telling us what will happen if we don’t.

Originally published in The Times on July 12, 2017.

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The People’s Republic of Splitting – can Corbyn finally teach the Irish to get along?

We don’t have terribly high expectations for British politics these days. Ever since our nearest neighbour opted to jump from the EU life boat wearing nothing but Union Jack speedos and a quivering upper lip, nothing they do comes as a surprise. There is, however, one achievement for which the British political system deserves credit. Despite a fractured and bitter political environment, British politics remains relatively unaffected by that old Irish curse: the split.

The British Labour party is a shared home to all shades of red, from rosé to merlot, while the Conservative Party shelters a wide range of people, from those focused on globalising their economy to those determined to restrict it to north of Dover. While MPs spend most of their lives engaged in coup plotting against party comrades, when it comes to election time they all stand under one banner.

In Ireland, people with such differing ideologies as Jeremy Corbyn and Tony Blair would never stay on the same pitch together. We Irish love a good split. From residents’ associations to children’s sports clubs, we’re just waiting for the first disagreement to up sticks and set up a rival entity. If the Corbynites and Blairites existed in Ireland, they would long since have divided into 13 parties, seven alliances, 36 Independents and eight armies.

Throughout the years, Dáil Éireann has provided seats to a variety of people who could have sat in larger parties but decided that it was a lot more fun – not to mention fleeting – if you got to be your own boss.

Since 1919, Irish voters have sent 35 separate political parties and 242 Independent TDs into Dáil Éireann. We have had cameos from groups such as the Businessman’s Party, the Farmer’s Party and the National Centre Party, all of whom offered a voice for people concerned that a Dáil chamber already filled exclusively with pro-business, centrist farmers wasn’t representing them adequately.

Since then, we’ve had the National Labour Party and the National Progressive Democrats, neither of whom should be confused with the Labour Party or the Progressive Democrats.

Once influential parties who have long since faded from memory include Clann na Talmhan, which sounds like an Irish language tense Leaving Cert students have spent the last month trying to master, and Clann na Poblachta, which was originally a code name for late-night lock-ins in the members’ bar.

Even in its current fractured state, the United Kingdom – a complex multi-national entity made up of 65 million people spread over four countries – has returned eight political parties to Westminster. Ireland – a single country with almost 15 times fewer people – has nine groupings in Dáil Éireann, and that’s only if you count the 19 Independents as a unified political block.

Our determination to split is ingrained in our DNA. Going back to the day Cúchulainn knifed Ferdia, we have been pre-dispositioned to break alliances. Despite Ireland’s small size, our ancestors conspired to divide the island into four kingdoms, all of whom hated each other with such intensity that one of them thought it would be a good idea to invite the Normans over to help. The hired hands proceeded to play the factions off each other until all four kingdoms found themselves humming Rule Britannia and wondering what time Bake Off was on.

Not only did political infighting lead directly to Ireland’s colonisation, it has continued unabated ever since. The defining political events of 20th century Ireland were the dividing of the island into two, followed by people on both sides descending into separate civil wars.

Political parties in the south of Ireland stem from the one broad family which was more or less united on a single issue. Following the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921, they split into four camps: those who thought the national question was mostly solved, those who thought the national question was unsatisfactorily solved, those who thought the national question wasn’t solved at all, and those who thought the national question was irrelevant unless it was governed by workers on rotating 35 hour weeks.

Sinn Féin split to eventually become Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. The two groups initially fell out to the extent that they would sometimes tie each other to lampposts and detonate explosives. Today, they argue about things like which months hedgerows should be cut. This is remarkable progress but has led to it becoming increasingly difficult to justify not having the same postal address. They have morphed into Irish politics’ version of Ross and Rachel from Friends – soulmates unable to rise above a series of relatively minor misunderstandings.

In the absence of anything major to fight about, the Big Two of Irish politics came to a gentleman’s agreement to simply trade power every few years. This worked so seamlessly that eventually they went into government together and nobody noticed, not even themselves.

In recent years the dominant parties have been challenged by Sinn Féin, who are a split from Official Sinn Féin who went on to become the Workers’ Party, before some of them became Democratic Left before finally deciding to join Labour. Sinn Féin is leading the surge of the left on both sides of the border. They have outpaced the three social democratic parties who challenge them: the Social Democrats, the Labour Party, and the Social Democratic and Labour Party. There is also the British Labour party, which despite not contesting elections in Northern Ireland has still managed to recruit 3,000 members.

The various left wing parties in Ireland share much in common but still contrive to make Christmas dinner with Liam and Noel Gallagher seem cordial. The left continues to draw inspiration from Jim Larkin’s famous quote, “the great appear great only because we are on our knees, let us endlessly divide into small sub-sections and attack each other viciously”. While British politics is stuck in an endless episode of Yes, Minister, Irish politics is re-enacting the best bits of Game of Thrones.

British parties are constrained against splitting due to the First Past the Post system. Like Cliff Richard and Brexit, this system makes no sense to anybody outside of Britain, but it encourages forced unity by making it virtually impossible for small parties to reach Westminster. The Blairites and the Corbynites are the parliamentary equivalent of a Guns n’ Roses reunion tour – deeply hostile to each other, clinging to decades worth of personal grievances, but sticking together because it’s the only way either of them can achieve success.

Despite the contrived alliances and endless bickering, Britain’s unified party structure has reaped dividends. Had Jeremy Corbyn split to form an alternative to New Labour, he would in all likelihood be preparing to take minutes at Islington Town Council. Instead, he is knocking at the door of what is still – despite the best efforts of recent inhabitants – one of the most powerful political offices in the world.

There are currently five left leaning political parties in Dáil Éireann, along with a smattering of various left wing Independents. If they bit their lips and came together under one broad banner they would command somewhere in the region of 50 seats, making them potentially the single largest political entity in Dáil Éireann.

Perhaps, amid all the madness, British politics has a lesson for us?

Published in The Times, June 21, 2017.

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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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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”.

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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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