Sunday, December 17, 2006

Late on Wednesday, a man was shot dead in the centre of Dublin. His real name was Gerard Byrne: his criminal moniker was Batt. Like the “Marlo” part of Martin “Marlo” Hyland (another underworld boss gunned down this week), the Batt bit told us all we needed to know.

The fact he was the fourth victim of gangland crime in a week, and the 23rd this year, turned a media and political storm into a hurricane.

We got the predictable reactions — it was a crisis; gangland crime was spiralling out of control; people were living in fear; Dublin (like Limerick) was a city under siege.

The opposition called for more resources for gardaí, for harsher sentencing and pilloried Michael McDowell for not getting to grips with the crisis.

McDowell took a swipe at judges for ignoring the people’s wishes for tougher bail and sentencing regimes. A Government backbencher, Senator Cyprian Brady called for the army to be called in. Soon a politician will demand a return of capital punishment, or martial law, or both.

And then later on Thursday, the news came through Mayo farmer Pádraig Nally was acquitted of the manslaughter of John “Frog” Ward.

Anyone who followed this case felt sympathy for Nally. He genuinely feared he was under threat. But it was also clear his fear was obsessive and paranoiac. He admitted spending hours on guard in his shed, his shotgun at the ready.

By Nally’s own account, he shot Ward as he came out the back door after having broken in. When Ward attacked him (an act of self-defence from a badly wounded man), Nally beat him 20 times with a plank. He referred to it as like trying to beat a badger. Anyone who has read Patrick Boyle’s short story about a hunt for a badger, “Meles Vulgares”, will know its resistance to the fiercest blows.

Nally then went to his shed and reloaded the shotgun. Ward at this stage was making a pathetic effort to flee. Nally followed him, shot him in the back as he tried to escape down the road. He then dumped the body over a wall into a field. The salient point was this: The fatal shot was fired while Ward was clearly in retreat. No matter how much sympathy you feel for Nally, that was wrong by any measure. Any measure, that is, except for the one used by leading politicians — and obviously the jury who returned this disturbing judgment.

Even before the trial commenced, the debate had been twisted and perverted. It was no longer about a man being killed. No, it was about the right of property owners to defend their own homes. This was incendiary stuff. Enda Kenny and Jim O’Keeffe backed a Fine Gael bill to afford more protection to homeowners. McDowell introduced his own, using PD Senator Tom Morrissey as a proxy.

And along the way there was some outrageous slurs on Travellers as if their main occupation was marauding the countryside looking for easy prey. Fine Gael MEP Jim Higgins got into the act on Questions & Answers. The media jumped onto the bandwagon. Ward wasn’t a model citizen. Yet in death, Frog was lumped in with Marlo and Batt as another dead criminal, who got what he deserved.

To me, the contrast in reaction to the Nally verdict and this week’s homicides were hypocritical to the core. I’m not trying to play down the horror of the so-called gangland slayings. They were abominable.

But do appalling incidents like this really tell us that we live in a society where violence is endemic? They don’t. The crisis is manufactured. What seems to interest nobody is salient reality. Crime rates in Ireland are low by international standards. Ireland is a safe country compared to most other EU States. Scotland has over three times our homicide rate, at over five per 100,000 population.

But then, you’re not going to get too far making that argument. Stoking up fear is the most powerful political instrument. The Government used it expertly when in opposition. Now it’s reaping its own whirlwind. You will never win a political argument saying crime is at expected levels or that a wasp has delivered its dying sting.

We have bought into a consensus for a generation now that we are in the midst of a continual crisis of violence and crime. Yet, somehow outrage evaporates completely when it comes to empathising with John Ward. For the likes of him, we have a new sui generis classification: the non-criminal homicide.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Wednesday December 13 20.19

The eve of the Dail going into hibernation for Chrismas. The Dail is still sitting. The debate is like one of the minor races at evening's end, a bumper or novice race. Or the undercard at a boxing night. They are debating a Labour party motion on Dublin transport - more buses, less traffic jams, gridlock etc. Not that the main attractions today set the pulse running.

Crime (particulary the terrible double hit job in Dublin yesterday) has dominated this week's agenda in the Dail.

For those not attuned to the niceties and protocol of this august institution, Leaders Questions s is the twice-weekly slot where party leaders have a chance to ask the Taoiseach a question on any subject, without giving him notice. They happen on Tuesdays afternoon and Wednesday mornings. They tend to produce (but not always) the most newsworthy exchanges and (occasionally) some fire-in-the-belly rows. These are the debates that are most likely to be covered on radio and TV and by the newspapers the following morning. And this week, every question has been about gang wars.

(It's now 8.31 and the division bells are ringing, summoning TDs to the chamber to vote on the Labour Party motion. The Government whips ensure there are always sufficient TDs around to ensure a comfortable majority. No vote has been lost since 2002. In Britain though, Government chief whip Hillary Armstrong got the boot earlier this year, as an indirect result of getting the maths wrong and losing a vital Commons vote (on Iraq as far as I recall).

The point I'm slowly getting around to is topic count. While I have not had a chance to tot up the total, I'd guess that crime and health have dominated the discourse during Leaders question almost wholly.

Crime is the handiest weapon of choice in political showdowns. Comparing crime levels in Ireland with that of other countries is very difficult. But as far as I can ascertain, Ireland remains a compartively safe country, albeit with the levels of drug, gang crime, and homicides that one might expect in a developed and largely urbanised society.

But the problem is that is always presented as a crisis, both by politicians and by the media. The best part of Michael Moore's 'Bowling for Columbine' was his section on communal fear, and the cultivation of fear by the American media. And what that gives rise to in an Irish context is politicians outvying each other in the 'tough on crime' stakes. How many clampdowns, crackdowns, draconian measures etc. can be tolerated before it becomes ridiculous? An infinity unfortunately.

Even Bertie Ahern gets in on the act. Miriam Lord has acutely described Ahern in his Bertie the Bystander mode - the man in the anorak who shakes his head in annoyance at the terrible state of chassis.

Being a man of the people, he obviously shares their sense of powerlessness when terrible things happen.

20.58. It's a late sitting tonight. They have moved on to the adjournment debate. Time for this particular debate to be adjourned.

PS. Ciaran Cuffe's blog has a brilliant pic of a Garda traffic corp 4x4 parked on a bicycle lane, while one of the guards pops into a delicatessen. In the debate tonight, the rights of cyclists hardly features. Dublin's cycle lanes doubljob as parking spaces for cars and vans (yes, the hazard lights excuse everything).

Besides the Greens, the only TD I know who regularly uses a bicycle is Dr Dermot Fitzpatrick, the unassuming Fianna Fail representative for Dublin Central.

One of the reasons that cycling is so low on the priority list is that Ministers don't use them. The only time that Martin Cullen has used one recently was for a publicity shot. At least Bertie had the good grace to decline a photo op recently, leaving the honour of wobbling for Ireland to the irrepressible Environment Minister Dick Roche.

I have been cycling in Dublin for 14 years, even though it is beginning to scare the bejasus out of me as I get older. I got 'doored' on the South Quays earlier this year and ended up splayed in the middle of what is a highway with a truck bearing down on me. The lack of roadspace (and respect) for cyclists in Dublin is an abomination.
BERTIE AHERN’S moment of true political genius during this term of Government was realising he had to give Charlie McCreevy the flick.

Ivan Yates found the phrase for it when he reminded us on RTE's The Week in Politics last Sunday week that eaten bread is soon forgotten. And that was McCreevy’s problem. What he had been so right for in 1997, he was so wrong for seven years later.

Was he killed off by the Frankenstein he himself created to ethically cleanse civil servants from the capital? Was he killed off by the lousy by-election, local election and European election results in 2004?

Or was he killed off by a leader whose control of him was as complete as Mick McCarthy’s over Roy Keane? In all likelihood, it was combination of all of the above. With Bertie nothing is ever as neat as a Colonel Plum-type operation with a candlestick in the sonservatory.

To be sure, here was a leader who innately knew — without being exactly able to say why — that his unpredictable star player was on the wane and had to go. And that he needed an honest grafter to fill the gap.

Timing was everything. And cometh the hour, cometh the Beast. An early departure for McCreevy allowed his favoured successor Brian Cowen sufficient time to make his mark. On Wednesday, Cowen presented his third Budget speech as if it was part of a continuum, as if he had been there forever… Charlie who?

And his budget speech was some feat. The text was that of a leader-in-waiting. The delivery was that of an altar server who’s just received communion, all downcast eyes and humble piety.

Cowen is such a masterful spinner that he often appears completely unspun. He hit all the right buttons on Wednesday in reaching out to all the key constituencies that Fianna Fáil will need to bring them home next year — and getting there firstest with the mostest was never so easy, what with all the sleáms of money he had sloshing around him.

His greatest trick of all was presenting the biggest giveaway election budget of all time as if it wasn’t an election budget at all.

He didn’t go on and on about all the great things the Government has done since 1997. He didn’t strut, he didn’t showboat, he didn’t patronise people about how well we are doing.

The balancing act was a subtle one. Dropping the top tax rate by 1% is a measure that helps the better off. The semantics for that became “rewarding work”.

But just in case anyone got the notion that it’s Government for the rich by the rich, there was the clever little increase in the health levy for those earning over €100,000.

“This extra money will help fund services such as long-term care initiatives for the elderly. We need to act now to secure such funds and I believe it is only right that those best able to afford it make an increased contribution.”

That sounds great until you realise that they’ll actually be making a decreased contribution, having benefited from tax cuts.

The most resonant phrases though was one that encapsulated the Fianna Fáil approach since Inchydoney and ones that you’d never imagine forming on the lips of McCreevy. They related to the social welfare changes.

“One of the measures of a true republic is the strength of its support for those on low incomes…the Government does not see economic growth as an end in itself.”

It would have been fatuous for any of the opposition parties to quibble with the generous increase in pension and social welfare payments. And, in fairness, none did.

But the main asks from Cowen required action on two conflicting fronts. He had to appeal to the all the voters who demanded what’s in it for me? And he had to appeal to all the voters who demanded what’s in it for the poor, the unemployed and the elderly? The paradox was that in most cases it was the same voters who were asking both questions. With one stroke, he had to satisfy their greed and also salve their consciences.

And the problem with that is that it took up the bulk of spending: some €2.6 billion of an estimated €3.7bn. For everything else, it was a case of cutting the cloth to suit the measure.

The much-trumpeted greening of Fianna Fáil turned out to be tentative and half-assed. The €270 million spend on carbon credits was a roundabout admission of failure on our Kyoto commitment.

Maybe we were missing the point. It was a green budget alright. Plenty of greenbacks.

And in Cowen, Bertie Ahern had the perfect minister for bringing Fianna Fáil to its green and republican roots.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

12.29am Saturday, December 2

First of all, thanks for the comments (shorter paras and spaces between noted). Maybe it was my naivete but before I posted my first (test) blog I spent a while looking through to try to get a sense of who was writing, what they were writing.

It was like looking at the sky on a clear night - an overwhelming infinity of stars. And I thought that tip-toing into a blog would be like shouting into that kind of void.

There are a couple of political sites and politically inclined web sites in Ireland - most of them are good and constantly good. Lots of blogs too. But few by journalists. I suppose the best known is that of the BBC's political editor Nick Robinson.

Because I write for a living, the thought of sitting down at in-between moments to serve up even more words to screen, gives you a slight sense of foreboding. There are a couple of fairly obvious traits that many blogs share. The first is that they tend to be very first-person oriented. Secondly, for a journalist, you tend to mull over our copy (for accuracy and for style) even when you are turning it around. This format is way more informal. I for one feel a reluctance to embrace the notion that my stuff will be published as soon as it is written.

There was an absorbing interview with Jacob Weisberg, the editor of Slate in the Guardian media section last Monday. It's at,,1957600,00.html
The argument he made was compelling. It is one we have heard before, but, coming from him, it glowed with authority. In essence, he was saying newspapers are on the way out. They will not be able to live with the instant and organic nature of internet journalism. Print articles are immutable and final, whereas on the web they are part of a conversation.

Here is a snatch of Weisberg's fascinaing take on the phenomenon.
He says: "Anyone who really wants to participate in that conversation has to have a presence on the web now - not necessarily a blog, but they have to have a website or write for an online publication. Within half an hour of posting a piece on Slate, I get a direct, often hostile and personal, response from readers.

"That's part of what I think has been so frustrating for the columnists on the New York Times, like Thomas Friedman, Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd, who are online but are behind a 'pay-wall' - you have to be a subscriber to the paper or subscribe separately to the website before you can get them. That effectively cuts them out of the political conversation."

Surely that is every journalist's nightmare, a pedants' charter? He disagrees. "It's great. I think part of the reason anyone goes into journalism is to get a response to what they write. The fact that it's frequently very negative is the least important part of it. You get habituated to the instantaneity."

Fianna Fail held its annual Cairde Fail dinner dance in the tundra territory of City West tonight (Friday Dec 1). It's one of those things that as a political correspondent you feel you have to go to but you're always amazed at the turnout. It was Hill 16 with tables. I have written before in the Irish Examiner about Fianna Fail being a cult but this dinner is not quite like the Ard Fheis, because many of the tables are taken up by corporates paying their political dues (what was the tag line from the ad for Trócaire - Give a little, it will help a lot).

Bertie gave a speech which I missed. It had actually had funny moments, which for Bertie is almost miraculous. BERTIE SHOCKER - TAOISEACH CRACKS A JOKE THAT'S FUNNY.


He had a cut at the media, and the 42 journalists on the political gallery (I didn't know there were so many of us there). I believe he came out with the notion that we come in to work, get a couple of knocking quotes, take a couple of pot-shots at the political target du jour and we're all done and dusted after a couple of hours, ready to hold forth at at Doheny and Nesbitts or some other drinking establishment.

We may be accused of a lot of things - beng manipulative, sly, janus-faced, cynical, cruel etc. But unfortunately we have yet to master the skill of automatic and instantaneous reports jst yet. We may not put in so many hours as Bertie (120 per week, or is it 130, according to himself). But we work long long days, which isn't helped by the knack of the political class to releasing the juicier stuff at a convenient time like 7.30pm at night.

Anyway, some guy stood up to announce the raffle. We want a silent collection, he implored to the faithful. This of course is a fundraiser. And how much does the party make from it? God knows! The ethics and standards legislation that came in in the mid 1990s seemed foolproof. But the drafters were fiendshly clever.

They set limits for personal and corporate/company loans that seemed comparatively low, some E600 for a personal one, and E1,270 for a corporate. If your donation exceeded the limit, it had to be declared. Ok, so it stopped the big E100,000 donations from big business. But nstead of getting a couple of big wads of greenbacks, the parties got loads of little ones, all below the limit.

When you look at the official declaratons, you are always struck at how few donations there are. But then you are missing the hundreds of smaller ones that flew under the radar of declaration. In the States, everything has to be declared from the $500,000 corporate donaton to the ten bucks given by a widow. But here, we still have no idea how much parties raise, especially FF whose glut of publicity over the next six months suggests it has been funded by hundreds of similar silent collectons.

5pm - Government releases White Paper on its projections for the performance of the Exchequer for this year. The figures are stunning. A €2 billion surplus. Everything has been above projection, especially stamp duty and capital gains tax. Doesn't it make Brian Cowen look great. There he was at the Budget last year, predicting a deficit of €2.9 million. And hasn't the genius produced figures that are an amazing €5 billion better than that.

Wait a minute. A €5 billion difference. How could they have got their projections so badly wrong? Why didn't they do their sums better? Hasn't someone told them the economy has been doing really well and we're all drinking lattes these days? Why didn't they consult Fergus Gibson, who would have told them that Venus descending over Mars is bling time?

Well, there was a method to their bad maths (I know, it's not a very good pun). If you look back over the four year's of this Government's term, you can always rely on the Department of Finance for making the Minister look good. That's done by predicting a sizeable deficit each year. And then, lo and behold, the Minister announced at the end of the year that he's marshalled the economy so well, and being so faithful to his true love, Prudence, that we're not in deficit after all, but, gosh, we are swimming in it. Last year, they said we'd have a deficit of €2.8 billion and - yes - we cancelled it out and then some. And in 2004, and in 2003, and in 2002 also.

To me, there is a degree of politicisation here that's unhealthy. If you set your targets really modestly and conservatively, you are going to surpass them easily. The political effect of that is that the Miniser looks good; really good; master-of-the-universe good. And we're all fooled by it. Wait for the headlines in Saturday's papers which will read along these lines: Brian's war chest, Brian's budget bonanza, cut in top rate of interest rates on Wednesday.

a.m. I took the day off because I was giving a short speech on the Freedom of Information Act in a city centre hotel as part of a seminar. Emily O'Reilly, the Informaton Commissioner, spoke earlier. Had a right go at the Fianna Fail members of the backbench Finance Committee who seemed to back proposals to drop some of the many non-disclosure clauses in legislation (that makes a body or information exempt from the FOI Act) but then did a mealy-mouthed U-turn when the party bosses imposed the whip.
Raced through my own script because they were seriously behind time. I thought I had a couple of half-decent lines. Because I was talking at the speed of a racing commentator galloping along with the horses on the final furlong, I think that comic timing was a bit of an issue and my witty bits bellyflopped.

6pm. Launch of the Green Party's Book 'A Journey to Change'. It marks the 25th anniversary of the party. It was held in the Central Hotel where the first ever meeting took place. I wrote the preface and John Bowman, who launched it, praised my piece. Too much actually. Of course, I was dying to get a name check for him. But when he mentioned my piece for about the sixth time, even I was getting embarrassed. I read the piece again a little later to rediscover my outrageous talent. It's a piece I'm proud of, I must admit, but it's not world beating. And much of it leans heavily for its detail from Dan Boyle's fine account of the party.

The party's six TDs are all dapper enough in their own way, though only Trevor Sargent and Dan Boyle, stick rigidly to the Dail uniform of suit and tie. The launch reminded you of what a roots party the Greens still is. Lots of tweed, and fleeces, and tousled hair. It would be unimaginable to have young kids at a do by another party. But a scatter of very young children played happily on the floor while the speeches were being made. The adults were as oblivious of them as they were of the adults. It made for a nice change. Reminded you of how family unfriendly so much of social life (ie restaurants and pubs) is in Ireland.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Saturday November 25
PANTOMIME season is in full swing and clearly this year’s most spectacular (and longest running) show was the one that opened in Stormont yesterday. The performance had everything — farce, exaggeration, elaborate song and dance routines and unexpected plot twists. We had the usual show-stoppers. Ian Paisley historically agreed to share power with Sinn Féin (‘Oh no I didn’t,’ roared the Reverend). There was Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern saying that when Ian Paisley said ‘no’, he really said ‘yes’ (‘Oh no I didn’t’).
There was the rare sight of the most ambiguous politicians in the universe, Bertie Ahern, fuming about the lack of clarity displayed by one of the most unambiguous politicians in the universe. And yes, to top it all, we had a cameo turn from the arch villain. Loyalist killer Michael Stone gave a grisly reminder of his murderous attack on Milltown Cemetery in March 1988 with his brazen storming of Stormont yesterday. The police later discovered six crude devices that needed to be defused — it brought a chill to the spine, reminding us all of the dark place where we could all return. This was an embarrassment that overshadowed the farce that preceded it. It being Christmas, we were treated to fudge. Loads of it. All year, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern were saying that November 24 was the final deadline, that the two major parties would have to formally nominate their choices as first minister and deputy first minister designate on that date. Even after St Andrew’s, this strong line was being maintained. If there wasn’t a breakthrough, there would be dismantling, with both governments moving to Plan B. Peter Hain might not have a huge legion of admirers in the North but he coined a phrase last week that will worm its way into analysis pieces for years to come. “Belfast is Procrastination City,” he proclaimed, in frustration at the DUP’s antics all week. And being the North, there was the usual exhausting marathon of verbiage. In Dublin, Bertie Ahern described being up to the early hours of the morning working on an agreed sequence. Then he woke up yesterday to hear Paisley say a lot of things but nothing remotely connected to what he was supposed to say. “It would be nice today if we got clarity. Dr Paisley says he’s a man of simple words and today, he wasn’t,” he said. Ahern was as visibly frustrated as he has ever been about yesterday’s charade, and he made no effort to hide it. Blair, being Blair, desperately accentuated the positive. If Sinn Féin agreed to support policing, the DUP would share power, he said. The project is still on track was the message. The problem is that nobody is sure where the track is going. The strange thing is that the sequencing proceeded as if Paisley had committed himself to eventual powersharing. The speaker Eileen Bell deemed his speech an acceptance even though he clearly said the circumstances had not been reached where there could be a nomination or designation by his party on this day. He could have sang a couple of hymns in the chamber yesterday and it would have passed the unbelievably low threshold set by both governments. And this is the danger. Instead of the strong ultimatum we have been hearing all year, the two governments allowed the process to just about limp over the line yesterday, with absolutely no firm prospect that Sinn Féin and the DUP will ever share power. And for once, the roles were reversed. The SDLP, and the UUP in particular, have been the convenient whipping boys for years for the more hardline Sinn Féin and the DUP. Yesterday, they could indulge in some glorious verbal retaliation. Mark Durkan suggested deliciously that Sinn Féin and the DUP should “synchronise their U-turns”. For UUP leader, Reg Empey, there was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to gloat at Paisley’s discomfort. Had he witnessed a marriage or an engagement? he asked before berating the Governments for accepting as a commitment the “codology that went on today”. Empey said that both Sinn Féin and the DUP had lost their separate arguments over policing and power-sharing but that none had the guts to make the statements that were required of them.And the Governments have lost a huge deal of credibility by tolerating all this tomfoolery, by not threatening to bring the curtains down on this farce.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Tuesday 21 November 2007
It's 6.40pm on Tuesday evening in Leinster House. In our perch in the crow's nest at the top of the building, life is moving as slowly as a sloth whose drink has been spiked with rohypnol.
Out there beyond the lawns, beyond the city, beyond Dublin Bay, beyond the shores, there's a wider world. An anti-Syrian poltician in Lebanon has been assassinated. A Russian spy, cum refusenik, is fighting for his life in London after being poisoned by thalium. The situation in Darfur is depressing. And Iraq is Iraq - we seem innured to it nowadays unless hundreds are killed.
Here, though, there are more important fish to fry. In the television in the corner of the room, a live feed from the Dail chamber is busily churning out mostly useless verbiage. TDS are debating the Book of Estimates (Government spending plans for 2007) which was published last week. Someone is talking about AA Roadwatch and the westlink. I'm pretty sure that soon Charlie O'Connor will rise to his feet and make a long speech about Tallaght. When Tip O'Neill coined the phrase 'All politics is local', I'm sure he had the Irish parliament in mind.
When Albert Reynolds finally fell on his sword as Taoiseach, he complained that it was the little things that trip you up. That shouldn't have been any surprise. Because the little things dominate political and media discourse here to an inordinate extent. We sometimes forget how small Ireland is. The population of the entire country is less than that of many medium size cities in the US. And going back to AA Roadwatch, when you hear references to 'Hanlon's Corner' and the Red Cow Roundabout on national radio, you know about how, erm, intimate a place Ireland is.
Yep, it's as dead as vaudeville, to employ the glorious Raymond Chandler line.
A very brief introduction. I am the political editor of the Irish Examiner.
A very brief brief for this blog: Running commentary on politics.
A very brief summary of the choice of day to start it: inauspicious.
It will improve though. There is, despite the general sense of indolence here, an election in six month's time. And next week's Budget will provide - as we hacks love to write - the opening volleys etc etc.