Friendship, theocracies and heroes…things I learned as a rail commuter

It chugged and splattered along for a while but the noises worsened until finally we had to accept defeat. The car had driven itself to an early grave.

Deprived of independent transport, I was temporarily thrust into the arms of the rail network. My three-week spell as a rail commuter taught me lots about life, humanity and myself. Here are five of those lessons.

  1. The trains mostly do run on time

Trains, famously, run on time only in theocracies and brutal one-party systems. This is due to a design flaw. It is also a well-known fact that nothing works particularly well – or, indeed, at all – in Ireland. This is also due to a design flaw. Armed with these two truths, on my first morning as a rail commuter I arrived at the station at 08.28 for the 08.22 train and was shocked – outraged, even – to find that it had departed. I made a formal complaint to the station master, who informed me that he did not care for my complaint, nor was he called the station master.

The Irish are pre-programmed to assume fecklessness on behalf of others. We aren’t quite sure how to react when it fails to materialise. We begin to question everything we think we know about ourselves. If this train is on time, did Brian Boru even exist?

The longest delay to my service was five minutes. Culturally this is regarded as early. I can only presume that Irish Rail’s punctuality stems from a cruel Fine Gael edict. I imagine that under Fianna Fail it was a far more lax arrangement, with developers changing the routes overnight and running all new tracks through flood plains. Leo, one imagines, demands more, particularly on the early morning routes. It may also be from the residual influence of the IMF. Either way, these are glorious times to be alive.


The 09.32 to Sligo under Fianna Fail.

  1. Train friends are a thing. Sort of.

After a few days on the train you begin to recognise faces. By day four you have to stop yourself from saying hello. Train friends are like real friends only you don’t speak and see each other only briefly and always dependent on someone else’s timetable. When you reach your mid-30s, this makes them almost exactly like real friends.

Train friends are often better than real friends because you can invent everything about them and don’t have to listen to their views about Islam. My best train friend is Louise (I named her after Leixlip Louisa Bridge, the curiously-named station she commutes to that was presumably named after something that happened in Gone With the Wind). Every morning she arrives into Pearse station at the exact same time and stands directly in front of where I sit. We often share a carriage. On days she doesn’t appear, I worry for her. I sit alone in the carriage, bouncing my knee up and down, terrified that she is going to miss her 9am tele-con.

(I should clarify that I am not stalking Louise. The relationship between us is purely platonic. In any case, she is happily married to Ruairi, a barrister who is currently working on a big case in the Four Courts. He’s very good fun and admirably athletic. That said, I don’t care much for his politics).

Sometimes I worry that the predictability of myself and Louise’s routine has left us vulnerable to kidnap. When this happens, she tells me not to worry, buys me a hot chocolate and assures me that Ruairi comes from money so we’d be fine.

  1. Newspapers are the new disrupters

Back in the old days people on trains loved newspapers. They read them front-to-back and as a result were educated and knew things about the world. We’ve moved on from those dark days now. Today, people are more enlightened so they spend their commute looking at cat videos and silently seething at that guy Dave from school who keeps posting inspirational quote memes.

Buying a newspaper is today regarded as an act of rebellion. Other commuters disapprove. It calls their life choices into question and distracts them from the cats. People stare at you as they walk, their feet inadvertently drifting to the wrong side of the yellow line.

Usually I am the only person on the train reading a newspaper. One day, emboldened by my stance, another man produced an Irish Times from his bag. We smirked and nodded at each other. The other passengers were fuming. Briefly, we were in a gang. When he departed the train at Ashtown, I spilled some of my tea on the ground in recognition of my departed homie. This further angered the other passengers and also made my feet wet.


People used to read newspapers to learn things about the world but thankfully that’s all finished now.

  1. It is possible to become a hero on Westland Row

Between 8am and 9.30am, Westland Row is transformed into a stormy river of humans flowing from Pearse Station to Merrion Square. It is a tsunami of commuters. They walk very fast. They are angry about being back in the city. Life has betrayed them. They walk four abreast along the inappropriately narrow footpath in solidarity with each other’s plight. You are forced onto the road, where cyclists and motorists offer gentle expletive-ridden encouragement to return to the overcrowded footpath.

Walking against the tide is not easy. One way to survive this bruising stretch is to pretend you are a fireman attempting to enter a burning building from which everyone is fleeing. This makes me feel heroic and brave instead of scared and sore. I slap people’s backs as they pass and shout “KEEP GOING”. This causes both annoyance and admiration. One man thanked me for my service. He knew.

  1. Announcements can cause confusion

Train announcements are like political promises: you hope they’re right but you never really trust them. On one memorable journey the robot voice over the intercom proudly declared at each stop that we had reached Grand Canal Dock. Briefly I worried that an estate agent had seized control of the train. After seven stops, the driver’s voice instructed the passengers to ignore the announcements. I spent the rest of the journey worrying about the brutal physical battle taking place between the driver and the robot for control of the microphone.

Even when announcements are correct, the voice is often accompanied by a strange and unexplained Chewbacca-like sound. Presumably this is the sound of inner demons, although whose I am not quite sure.

Goodbye, train

There is lots I will miss about the train. I will miss the introverts who walk to the very end of the platform, standing in the wind and the rain in order to secure the carriage with the fewest other humans; I’ll miss the extroverts who hold private phone conversations at full voice, blissfully not caring that nobody else on the carriage cares if Julie really is a bitch because of what she said about Emma even though Emma totally doesn’t care.

I’ll miss Louise, obviously.

You’ve been good to me, Irish Rail. I wish your Chewbacca noises, your robot voices and your angry station masters nothing but increased capital investment and diminishing deficits.


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Can Shane Ross deliver the Olympics to Ireland? Of course…with a few adjustments

Summer is grinding towards its inevitable autumnal end and still nobody has thought to stage a World Cup, European Championships or Olympics. For shame. We should set up a tribunal, or at least an Oireachtas committee, to investigate. You can have your Wimbledons, Irish Opens and endless series of Lions’ friendly matches, but nothing beats the Big Three. A summer without one is like a summer without a Seanad debate on aggressive seagulls. It leaves us feeling cheated and empty inside.

Anyone suffering from withdrawal symptoms should spare a thought for Shane Ross. The Sports Minister was recently overcome with such panic that he blurted a plea for Ireland to host the Olympics. Ross’s giddy suggestion that Ireland launch an audacious coup to bring the world’s oldest games – the Olympics, that is, not political judicial appointments – to Ireland sank faster than a Spanish footballer in the penalty box. Rather than being given a gold medal for initiative, the poor Minister was slapped with the wooden spoon.

Cynical pundits were not giving Ross the credit he deserves. After all, we have enough TDs who want to bring the Greek economy to Ireland, so it’s a welcome change to have one determined to import their games. If anyone can do it, it is surely Ross, for whom the Olympics is a natural fit. The original Games were established during a time of widespread societal upheaval and have since soared to the status of global phenomenon, a fitting metaphor for his political career. Indeed, Heracles, the mythological founder of the Games, was regarded as a demi-God among his people for instilling security in Ancient Greece, which is precisely how Ross is viewed in Stepaside.


Heracles, moments after the reopening of the Stepaside Garda station

Ross’s Olympic kite was sunk by spoilsports who pointed out Ireland’s infrastructure deficit. These were the protestations of people trying to hold this country back from greatness – the same sort of people who wanted building regulations and a sustainable tax base. Ireland could easily host the Olympic Games, so long as our official bid was allowed to suggest minor alterations to each sport to match the world class infrastructure we have to offer.

For example, instead of taking place on its traditional track, the hurdles could be hosted by forcing athletes to try to escape a political protest in Jobstown. Gymnastics could be rebranded as ‘mental gymnastics’ as competitors stand perfectly still while trying to figure out what the hell is going on in An Garda Síochana. The cycling event will be one of the most exciting as elite cyclists from around the world attempt to make it from College Green to Parnell Square without being killed. They can even stop off at the boardwalk to refuel on illegal substances.

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Olympic cyclists will revel in the easy access to illegal substances on Dublin’s boardwalk

Other events are perfectly suited to Ireland. Synchronised swimming is already based on the concept of ‘new politics’, with competitors desperately trying to stay afloat while mimicking each other’s every movement. How graceful Leo and Micheal will look pirouetting in the shallow end as Trotskyist judges hold aloft zero signs. Ireland would also have a good shot at landing a medal in the modern pentathlon, albeit with some adjustments: instead of the traditional mix of five sports, athletes will have to introduce a water charge, then partially implement it, before establishing a committee, dismantling the charge and in the final act disburse wads of fifties to bemused customers.

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Government Ministers engage in a bout of new politics with their Fianna Fail counterparts

On second thoughts, maybe this isn’t going to work. Perhaps yet another half-baked suggestion to bring a major sporting event to Ireland is simply illustrative of how Ireland expects international sporting success without wanting to do any of the hard work needed to earn it. That is, after all, our real national game. Every four years individual athletes who have received minimal public funding and, in most cases, no public support compete for medals. When they are successful we celebrate as though it was a collective effort for which we all deserve credit. So what if boxing stadia sit empty year-round and one of our greatest ever athletes is forced to change in public toilets because there are no female facilities? A little bit of those golds belong to us all, no?

Ireland’s Olympic bid would be even less successful than our ill-fated attempt to lure the 2008 European Championships to these shores. That bid was rejected after UEFA officials travelled to Ireland to be shown the three stadia where matches would be held: one which wasn’t built, one which was falling down and another from which football was still banned. It was the first official UEFA bid to be rejected using the LOL emoji.

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UEFA enjoyed Ireland’s application to host the 2008 European Championship

When it comes to sporting expectations versus our willingness to actually invest in earning those rewards, no sport in Ireland can compete with football. Shortly after Minister Ross’s Olympic gaffe, Dundalk F.C. was narrowly defeated by Rosenborg of Norway in the qualifying rounds of the Champions League. It was a disappointment for Dundalk, although given the vastly differing resources of the two clubs, not exactly a huge shock. Despite this, one newspaper claimed the result illustrated the “terminal decline of [the] destitute League of Ireland”.

Over the last 25 years, Irish people have invested tens of millions of euro annually into football. The only problem is that it has been into English football. Our investment in the domestic game – both financial and cultural – is minimal yet we remain convinced that overcoming countries with established leagues and gold-plated youth academies should not be beyond our capabilities.

When League of Ireland clubs stumble against European opposition with vastly superior resources, defeat is deemed illustrative of a deep genetic failure and not simple economics. Defeat for the national team to countries with far more advanced infrastructure and embedded football culture is met by collective eye-rolling.

Our inability to achieve substantial success on the football pitch has become a source of national shame. The sport is judged harshly against Gaelic games, where the absence of any international opposition protects the players from comparative scrutiny, and rugby, a sport which a handful of nations in the northern hemisphere play.

Against such benchmarks, football is regarded like the drunk uncle at a family wedding: we know he’s good for a laugh every once and a while but generally we cover our eyes and hope the neighbours aren’t looking. Despite all this, an objective analysis suggests we are actually a lot better at football than we like to think. Football is a sport played by almost every nation on earth. Ireland is the 124th most populous country in the world yet stands 29th in the FIFA world rankings. By any definition, that’s punching above your weight. We’re not going to achieve the sort of consistent international success we demand, but we’re probably over-achieving based on what we actually deserve.

Ireland often expects sporting success despite having done little or nothing to achieve it. Like any good captain, Minister Ross is simply leading from the front.

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Trump and the Paris Agreement: how we conveniently forgot about our outrage

For a moment it really seemed like we cared. Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement united us in disbelief. People in newly registered jeeps shook their heads solemnly as they sat marooned in suburban traffic. They knew it was serious because journalists and governments who had spent decades ignoring the issue all told them it was. People stopped just short of changing their Facebook profiles to photos of sad polar bears.

It passed though. The news cycle moved on. Trump did other crazy stuff and we complained about that instead. We all reverted back to thinking the Paris Agreement is the name of a new Ben Affleck movie. The end of the world has been relegated back to its traditional ‘special interest’ category.

Trump’s catapulting of the Paris Agreement into global headlines grabbed my attention because, back in 2015, I attended the UN Climate Summit at which it was negotiated. The few days spent on the fringes of the summit were illuminating. The experience emphasised the extent to which the debate has failed to engage the middle ground. The civil society hub (not exactly a Mecca for Joe Public at the best of times) was dominated by two groups: scientists who walked around muttering about atmospheric carbon levels, and activists reluctant to admit that wearing sandals on a Parisian November day had been a mistake.

I attended an NGO press conference where the top table spontaneously burst into chant. Outside, a group of demonstrators performed a synchronised dance to highlight the need to strengthen human rights language in the heads of state agreement as per the recommendations of the inter-constituency proposal. God bless them, they even tried to make that rhyme.

Inside, the actual negotiation was a festival of technocrats. The President of the Polynesian island of Tuvalu got on stage and tearfully warned that failure to reach an agreement would mean that his country would disappear forever, to which delegates responded with the dead eyes of a sales team at a 9am meeting at the Red Cow Hotel.

Like the President of Tuvalu, scientists are united in their belief that we are sprinting headfirst to a fiery apocalypse. Yes, there is a handful of scientists who disagree, but there is a handful of economists who think Stalin’s five year plan was a model of fiscal efficiency. There are always outliers. The trick is not to pay any attention to them, and certainly not to give them equal media space in a bizarre attempt at balance.

Just over two years ago, the world’s leading experts on planetary health produced this assessment: “Climate change is projected to increase…heat stress, storms and extreme precipitation, inland and coastal flooding, landslides, air pollution, drought, water scarcity, sea-level rise and storm surge…The risks [include] substantial species extinction, global and regional food insecurity, consequential constraints on human activities and limited potential for adaptation.”

Dr. James Hansen, who has spent the last 20 years trying to generate public interest in our own impending doom, has described the current levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – unprecedented in 800,000 years – as being no longer compatible with the planet “on which civilisation developed and to which life on Earth is adapted”.

The apocalyptic warnings stand in contrast to public interest in the issue. For most people, climate change warnings occupy a mental space usually reserved for advertisements about shopping around for utility providers: we know we should listen, we just don’t.

Public lethargy is reflected in the Dáil. TDs don’t act because their constituency clinics aren’t being beaten down by people demanding a clean energy revolution. Societal doom does not come up on the doorsteps. Politicians have built the society we have demanded: one of derelict cities, thriving housing estates, and long lines of traffic as people move from one to the other.

Some of the problem is semantics. “Climate change” is isn’t a term that inspires concern. “Change” isn’t always a bad thing. South Africa underwent “Apartheid Change” and everyone was happy about that. It’s far too understated a word to describe “substantial species extinction”. Maybe if UN Climate Summits were renamed ‘UN What The F*ck Have We Done Summits’ they might get more buy-in.

The science is also a turn-off. Yes, the finer details of climate change are complex, challenging and a little bit boring but so were the Star Wars prequels and people still flocked to them.

It’s not the seriousness that puts people off, either. People are worried about a whole host of serious things but climate change isn’t seen as an immediate threat. This, of course, is nonsense. If ISIS ever figured out how to kill as many people each year as climate change does they’d celebrate by kicking back with one of their famous joyless 6th century themed parties. There are currently 25 million people facing severe food shortages in east Africa because of drought. Temperatures there have risen by up to three degrees. It goes years without raining. Millions of people starving to death isn’t an accident: it is the logical inevitability of the society we have created.

Generally, people don’t engage because of a vague hope that, somehow, it will all be grand. We’ll figure it out. Someone will invent an app. And yet, experts continue to remind us of how high the stakes are in this insane game of poker. Last week, one such group warned that we have just three years to stop runaway climate change taking hold. A few days later, a study warned that climate change could lead to a global economic recession the scale of which would make 2008-2012 seem like a hedonistic period of wild consumerism.

While these warnings were being made, the Irish government was busy continuing its row with the EU over its emission reduction targets. They wants them reduced, a position entirely in keeping with their persistent attempts to wriggle their way out of their international obligations.

The Irish government has largely summed-up society’s attitude to climate change: impassioned words at key moments, followed by complete amnesia about what they were upset about. That attitude, we are now told, has led to us having only three years left to fix this. We’re going to have to start backing-up indignation with action because sooner or later we’re not going to be able to just conveniently forget.

Originally published in The Times on July 4th, 2017.

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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.


Posted in Dublin, Ireland, Music, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment