Wednesday, January 31, 2007

I had loads of intentions of writing about stuff outside politics when I started this blog but Bertie Ahern's anorak casts a shadow over us all, allowing us to to think nothing but anorak things in our waking hours.

I am on a bit of a break at the moment and did get a chance to go to a talk and slide show given last night by an amazing American climber, Mike Reardon.

Reardon is a garrulous former lawyer with long blond tresses ( a time warp kind of style half from California 1970s; half from St. Elmo's Fire). As befits his appearance - and his livewire personality - he's a maverick, and revels in that role.

What he does is stunning. He climbs solo, ie without ropes. And some of the stuff he does is at at the most extreme grades and very sustained - a couple of hundred metres all told. Check out his website, freesoloist. The picture here is of him soloing in Ailladie, Co. Clare on a sea-cliff route called Blockhead. The piece of video is taken from one of his own films.

A maverick, definitely. He is also very controversial. Some criticise his methods and foolhardiness - others have questioned some of the grand solo climbs he has done (a dragon slayed is how he describes a horrendously difficult route that he has ticked off).

That debate can be read elsewhere on the web. That said, even when doing rock climbing with the (metaphorical) safety net of a harness and rope I'm often petrified. The idea of soloing something seems insane. Even the tiniest of mistakes will rip you from the face, and R.I.P. you from the face of the universe.

But what is impressive about Reardon is his incredible powers of focus and concentration; as well as his very relaxed outlook cum philosophy on climbing and life.

Of course there's an extraordinary danger in what he does. Events outside his control could also determine his fate. Last night, he spoke of being surprised by an owl on one of his climbs, feeling its talons skirt the top of his head.

But what sets him apart is his ability to maintain and sustain concentration at all times. And also another innate safety valve. He says that he has never felt unable to down-climb any route he has done. Down climbing can often be more difficult that going up. But he has retreated on a couple of occasions at a crux or near the top when he felt that it was not right for him.

He's also a great friend of Ireland. He came here for an extended stay last summer and soloed many routes in the Gap of Dunlo; the Burren, Glendalough (the bouldering rocks) and the sea cliffs at Ailladie in Co Clare and on Inis Mór, the biggest of the Aran Island.

His gear for most of the Irish climbs? Rock shoes. A chalk-bag. Long blond tresses. A pair of Levis. And the piece de resistance - the Cork O2 GAA geansaí.

Would still be no match for Seán Óg Ó hAilpín though!

The talk was organised by the Irish adventure sports magazine, Outsider. It has a good feature on Reardon on its excellent web-site.

Monday, January 29, 2007

INSIDE POLITICS -Ali G in Northern Ireland

Haven't looked at this for a long time. Still brilliant! Especially his remark when Sammy Wilson says he is British.


"THE higher they build their barriers, the stronger we become.”

Gerry Adam’s final words on a strange and — yes, that overused word — historic day.

And for Sinn Féin, there was never going to be a higher barrier than policing, and what will be its ultimate endorsement and backing of the PSNI and the rule of law in the North.

Or, in another sense, a greater act of humble pie.

Viewed from some quarters — and even within Sinn Féin itself — this was the greatest compromise of republicanism, bigger than

decommissioning, bigger than the standing down of the IRA, bigger than all the other concessions and sacrifices Sinn Féin and the IRA have made — and have been forced to make — in the past decade.

The taunts of ‘sell-out’ that came from the small group of Republican Sinn Féin supporters at the gates could not be fully erased, and still echoed faintly in the hall. And for the most part, all the justifications, all the arguments, were addressed to those and others like them outside the hall, not to the convinced and signed-up at the RDS.

It’s symptomatic of the complete command and hold that Adams has on republicanism that yesterday’s vote was portrayed as a victory, as a breakthrough, as putting one up on its enemies and detractors — the British government, unionism, the SDLP (which came in for dog’s abuse) and the Irish government (which fared hardly better).

Adams contributions book-ended the seven hours of debate. Not so much debate but almost a procession. From the moment the conference began at 10am, everybody knew it was already in the bag and that the motion would be overwhelmingly endorsed.

The day panned out into a day in which the party and its members could have their say. Yes, there were a couple of dissenting voices. But it seemed to me that most delegates wanted to put the imminent and inevitable decision that was going to be made later in the day into some context — into a personal context as some did, or as a means of repeating republican credos.

And inevitably it became an event where the debate seemed as symbolic as it was real. The symbolism was increased by the presence of republican icons like Martin Meehan, Rose Dugdale and the likes of James Monaghan and Niall Connolly of the Colombia Three.

This was not a fig leaf or window-dressing for any humiliating climb-down, they argued trenchantly. But the more they argued that line, the more they gave out about the SDLP and the governments and unionism, the more you kind of thought: compromise.

There’s no doubting the gravity of the decision and its bravery. There’s no doubting that this was historic. But there was also no doubting the compromise it involved.

In the end, it happened quickly. As 5.30pm approached, there was still a long queue of delegates waiting to speak. It looked like it could go on for several hours. But then somebody demanded that the vote take place now as many people had long distances to travel.

Within five minutes, the vote had been taken and it was all over. Of the 2,000 or more delegates, hardly 100 dissented.

“It was over 90%,” said Martin McGuinness afterwards.

“That is an achievement after several weeks and months of a very difficult and emotional debate.

“For the delegates to make such a brave and mature decision is very gratifying for us.”

Having said that, the argument employed by the leadership was quite convoluted and was not altogether convincing.

The question that it had to grapple with was what made signing up to policing so wrong in the past and what made it so right now.

Gerry Adams used a strange combination of words when explaining this in his speech.

“Sinn Féin stayed out of policing until now because that was the best way to bring about the necessary threshold,” he said.

He was suggesting a Malcolm Gladwell type “tipping point”. What supported that? Police ombudsman Nuala O’Loan’s report on the Raymond McCord investigation; SF’s own claims that the Irish Government and the SDLP have failed to make policing accountable; the concessions SF won in relation to devolved policing and the removal of MI5 from civic policing.

“That’s where SF comes in,” he said. “We have to ensure that those dreadful events (collusion) never happen again.

“… We cannot leave policing to the unionist parties or the SDLP or the Irish government.”

McGuinness advanced the argument in more trenchant terms. In one of the only covert references to any sense of a climb-down for SF, he acknowledged the hurt it would cause.

But in equal measure, he laid out the quid pro quo that would follow, the payback for this compromise.

“I make it clear to Ian Paisley that the 28th of January 2007 is a big day for Sinn Féin but that Monday, the 29th January is an even bigger day for Ian Paisley,” he said to thunderous applause.

The SDLP have hardly been cheerleaders for policing but the SF leadership portrayed them as such, to try to argue (not altogether convincingly) that the SDLP capitulated on policing but not so SF.

“We have to boss policing. We are the bosses,” argued McGuinness.

“The PSNI is going to have to earn our trust. They are not going to get our trust tomorrow morning or after this vote.”

And a little later: “I want the police to watch MI5, to spy on MI5, to arrest MI5.”

And that faint echo came from the dissenters outside, about all this being a ‘sell-out’. McGuinness delivered the definitive line here:

“We come from an IRA tradition that fought the British army and the RUC to a standstill.

“We are being criticised by groups who have yet to fight them to a start.”

How many times in the past 13 years has it been categorically stated that the war is over? And how many times has it emerged that it was yet another false dawn?

Yesterday we did see a piece of history being made, with SF’s acceptance of policing and the PSNI.

With it came an acceptance that it was all over as far as the IRA was concerned. Bar the shouting, of course. And be assured, with Ian Paisley and the DUP involved, there will be plenty of that over the next few months.

from the Irish Examiner

Sunday, January 28, 2007


5.05pm. At the Sinn Féin speical ard fheis in the RDS. It's been on since 10am this morning and it looks like it will be at least another hours before the vote is taken. There's still a big queue of people waiting to speak. Of course, the outcome is a certainty and was dictated by the speeches of the leadership triumvirate - Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and Gerry Kelly this morning.
There have been a couple of dissenting voices. But it's almost been pro forma. The SDLP, the Irish Government and the British have unsurprisingly come in for a huge amount of criticism. But a lot of it is disingenuous. For no matter how much SF condemns the SDLP for signing up to policing in 2001, it cannot escape the fact that what it is doing is exactly the same five or six years later.

It may argue that it has wrung concessions on getting policing powers devolved from government, of getting MI5 out of civic policing etc. But there is an element of window dressing to this. The core is that SF have had to grasp this nettle (and it's exactly the same nettle as the SDLP grasped).

Still, it's an historic day and there's a sense of history being made, of a Rubicon being crossed. There have been strong emotional overtones all day. And some legendary IRA icons have been conspicuous, including Martin Meehan, Jim Monaghan of the Colombia Three, and Rose Dugdale.

A legion of conspiracy theories have mushroomed setting out questionable theories as to why SF are doing all this. One is they were caught bang-to-rights by both governments over the Northern Bank and over the McCartney murder and were forced into this. The second is that they are scared that there are other Steak-knives and Denis Donaldsons in the rank. The third is that all this was agreed a long time ago and all the 'event's since then - like the handy coincidence of Nuala O'Loan's report - were choreographed to suit the purposes.

All are impossible to prove or disprove. In a climate of secrecy - and that's what Northern politics has been about for the past three decades - everything, including the worst, is possible.

5.30pm A speaker has just got up and said that the vote should be taken now as a lot of the delegates have a long distance to travel. Was put to a vote and carried by a huge majority.
It means that they are now going to the main vote...

Saturday, January 27, 2007


my Examiner column, Saturday January 27

For Sale. Going cheap. Soul of a political party. High mileage but still running like new. A few dents and scrapes suffered along the way but no major structural damage. Comes with highly experienced driver. Good for another five years. No tyre-kickers.

With all the bickering and bartering of the past couple of weeks, a tiny little detail may have escaped your attention.

The election is still about four months away.

But already most of the parties are acting like the race is run, that they have slung their hooks.

Everybody has ruled out Sinn Fein.
Fine Gael has ruled out the PDs.
Fine Gael has obviously also ruled out Fianna Fail.
Fianna Fail has obviously also ruled out Fine Gael.
The PDs have ruled out Fine Gael.
Labour has ruled out the PDs.
The Greens have ruled out the PDs.
The PDs have ruled out the Greens.
The PDs have ruled out Labour.
Labour Party ruled out/not ruled out Fianna Fail (delete where applicable).
Sinn Fein says its TDs will be the “king-makers”.
So do the independents.

Many months before a single citizen has cast a single ballot paper, the musical chairs game is nearly over. We are left with only three or four spots still available to plonk political backsides on. They are: the current coalition with or without independents; the Mullingar Accord with the Greens; FF and Labour; or FF and the Greens.

All of that is based on the evidence delivered by the one great nostrum in between elections – opinion polls. One of the working definitions of nostrum is quack medicine. Okay an opinion poll is hardly as fake as snake oil or as big a charlatan as a psychic or astrologer. But it’s amazing how they are taken for granted, as they contain all the great truths.

All of this horseplay is all very well but it’s leading nowhere. It’s all based on a misconception that somehow the polls are going to pan out magically just as the opinion polls predict.

Lonely Hearts. SWM. Dynamic leader. Mid 50s. Recently split from partner. Looking for a long-term link up with view to political marriage. Will pass on photo if requested (have hundreds of billboard size portraits to spare). Genuine suitors only. No beards need apply.

Five years ago, the polls told us a couple of things that were right and a lot of things that were wrong. They told us that Fianna Fail would do well. But the party didn’t win the overall majority that was predicted. They also told us that the PDs would be obliterated; that Fine Gael would flatline or lose a little and the Greens and Sinn Fein would stay static.
To assess all five propositions. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.
Trawling through the cuttings from 2002, I came across the confident prediction of a very esteemed political pundit who said that FF would win 74, the Greens would win 3 seats, Sinn Fein would come back with only two, Labour would be as you were, and that hell would freeze over before FG fell below 40.
And when the real poll takes place and we realise just how off kilter the other polls were, we all say we have learned a lesson. And indeed we have. Until the next election comes five years later. And we proceed to make the same mistaken assumptions. And we learn the lesson all over again.

Missing. Since May 17 2002. 20 Dáil seats, formerly the property of Fine Gael. Anyone with any information on how they can be returned, please write in confidence to Enda Kenny, Leinster House, Dublin 2. Reward offered.

What we have had are lots of posters, billboards, hot air, furies, speculation and twaddle about coalition partners. Along with the usual scare tactics about rivals jumping into bed with the scary Shinners, the barmy Greens and the Labour pinkoes.
What we have not had are any really decent ideas. From any of them. Fine Gael’s major contributions on the Irish language, on Padraig Nally and on immigration have smacked of populism. In fact, one FF backroom person told me this week that his ‘Christian and Celtic’ reference was the classic use of the ‘dog whistle’ tactic – a message that is lost on most of the population but pricks up the ears of a key sector of the electorate who aren’t too enamoured of having too many foreigners here. In fairness, Fine Gael has hotly denied that it had any such intention.

Labour have unveiled two of its five commitments – commendable as they are, neither childcare nor community policing will be election-clinchers.

And Fianna Fail and the PDs? As John Lennon slagged off Paul McCartney for writing only one good song, Yesterday, the coalition have been living off the royalties of its one hit wonder – the low taxes it introduced in 1997. No new ideas since then. Nothing radical. Nothing.

Friday, January 26, 2007

The best moments of the week. Funnily enough the Bert didn't make it, besides his starring role in the propaganda film on the National Development plan.

I loved the quote Raymond McCord senior gave the Sunday Tribune's Suzanne Breen about his meeting with Mr Smoothie himself, Northern Secretary Peter Hain. Raymond McCord senior is build like a big concret block by the way - he used to be a bouncer.

What Raymond McCord snr said about Peter Hain: “He fell asleep at one meeting. That showed an utter lack of respect for my son. I should have chinned him. He’d be worth doing three months in jail for.

Talk about a quote with plenty of punch.

Highlight Number two came courtesy of, the new site with which the prince of the zeitgeist, John Ryan, is involved.

When I was labouring away at Magill, we used to do a questionnaire every month with a well-known personality.

By far and away the best answer of the year was the one given by the playwright and director Gerry Stembridge.
Q: What do you think of post-modernism?
A: I view it with an air or ironic detachment.

That kind of sums up this site, which is sometimes a bit silly, but so often hits the spots other sites fail to reach.

And this week they have discovered that Jerry Buttimer, the Fine Gael candidate in Cork South Central has a his own bebo site.

Jerry obviously hopes to recurit the yoof vote in his efforts to get ahead of running mates Simon Coveney and Deirdre Clune in what will be an, ahem, competitive (i.e. savage) election south of the Lee.

Strangely, along with Cold Play and Snow Patrol, Jerry lists the Wolfe Tones as one of his favourites. Come again? The Wolfe Tones? Going against the grain a week bit there, isn't he.

The other best quote of the week wasn't a new one. But Eamon McCann's description of the SDLP and Sinn Fein squabbling over policing in Derry was delicously apt.
"It was like watching two bald men fight over a comb," he said.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

John Deasy. A conundrum. A scrambled egg. A maze. A jumble. An enigma.
Earlier this month we saw him being stubborn bad when he challenged Enda Kenny and rained (there's a less polite verb that could go here) all over Fine Gael's New Year campaign.
And before all that, we saw him being stubborn very very bad when he lit up the famour fag in the Dáil bar, costing him his front bench position, and rendering as a still-birth his glorious future ministerial career.
But yesterday we saw him being stubborn very very good indeed. He followed up Carl O'Brien's scoop in the Irish Times (and we're still very sore about that today) with a superlative performance on Morning Ireland this morning.
Perhaps it's his schooling in the tough brutish and partisan world of Capitol Hill poltics. But Deasy railroaded his way through all the guff this morning and cut for the chase. With a complete rejection of the HSE's wan excuse that it doesn't comment on individual cases, he asked the direct, pertinent questions that needed to be asked.
Why was this young girl not put in care? Why did did this vulnerable girl die? Did the HSE did all it could have done to prevent this awful tragedy?
It was commendable. Like an extreme athlete, the Waterford politician doesn't seem to engage publicly unless he's putting his neck on the block.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Things you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy.
1. Chinese torture
2. Five years in a Soviet gulag circa 1949
3. Sitting through an entire Oireachtas committee meeting.

Every Friday, the schedule of committee meetings for the following week is published. The committees roughly group themselves along the lines of Government Departments - justice, communications, arts, finance, foreign affairs, etc.

As you flick through the diary, you think, well, that one looks vaguely interesting. And then you start thinking that it might be worth covering. And in a moment of headrush madness you go ahead and volunteer to go down to the committee rooms for a morning or an afternoon.

On the face of it, many of the issues are important - and some have the potential to be absorbing. Sure, they discuss legislation. But so much more. The usual format is this. A person or group - civil servants, experts, lobbyists, industry representatives etc - come in and make a presentation. That is always fine.

The problem only starts when the TDs start asking questions. Their problem is that as politicians, they have been hard-wired to make statements, and very long ones at that. And ergo, we get a long series of pronouncements from every teedee and stentorian senatorian that meander on forever. And then they just add a question mark at the end.

It wouldn't be so bad if this only afflicted one or two but, tragically, it's a contagious condition for the political class.

It is always a mistake to cover them. When you are stuck in there you have an Epiphany moment, when you realise the monumental blunder you have made. It usually comes just after you realise that at least half a dozen TDs and Senators have still to ask questions. It usually comes just before you lose the will to live.
Oireachtas returns today after six week break. Would have been seven weeks only for decision to rush through nursing home legislation. I am tired of argument that TDs work very hard etc. Some do. Others don't. It's partly their own fault, insisting on persevering with dual mandate of being county councillors despite that mandate being abolished. Sure, some of it comes down to the massive insecurity of multi-seat constituencies.
But they have been getting it too soft for years. Over~paid. Under-worked. Too many expenses. Too many of them. Too much holidays. A deeply anomolous Seanad that's in dire need of reform. Lack of legislation. Dumbing down of parliament and debate. Government and opposition by press launches and billboard.
Why the indolence? Why the inertia? As the former Fine Gael TD Alice Glenn once said: it's like asking a turkey to vote for Christmas!

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Like Soviet leaders announcing to the comrades that the mines and collective farms had achieved record productions for the tenth year in a row, the Irish politburo hailed the triumph and prosperity that the country will enjoy over the next seven years.

There was something a little bit too controlled, a little bit too controlling, about the unveiling of the 2007-2013 National Development Plan (NDP).

It wasn’t so much the bit of flare and the bit of scare that comes with a mammoth E184 billion spending programme over seven years.

It was more to do with all the optics that surrounded the event in Dublin Castle. There was the huge fleet of shiny ministerial limousines lined up like an army guard of honour. There was all the slickness of the presentation, a big-spend PR endeavour. There was the promotional video where Bertie Ahern did a decent impression of Brezhnev at his most wooden as he read his answers from an autocue.

And then there was the blithe optimism. Growth rates will continue at four or four and a half per cent each year. We will build 60,000 social housing units; we will build 40,000 affordable homes. Our capitalist enemies will tell us that inflation will go out of control and that competitiveness will bottom. Reject their lies and propaganda comrades. Hail the glorious transformation.

Perhaps the key target date here wasn’t December 2013 but sometime in May or June in 2007. Are you implying that this is an electoral stunt? Don’t be so cynical! This has nothing to do with the election in, oh, four months time, or five at the most.
Despite all the pomp yesterday, the announcement of this NDP just didn’t carry in the imagination like the one announced in 2000; though this one envisages a whopping multiple of three in spending.

One of the downsides of being a much richer country is that nobody raises an eyebrow anymore when spending plans are announced. Sure the Government is occasionally guilty of pompous self-importance and serial bragging. But Transport 21, Towards 2016 (remember that: it’s social partnership silly) and now the NDP were all significant programmes by any measure. But in the media and public consciousness they soared like dead turkeys.

Still, politically, the Government is still thinking big. None of the initiatives announced were new – most are contained in previous initiatives like the ones mentioned in the last paragraph.

But the numbers are surprising. The Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) were called in to evaluate the project. The independent think-tank said, yes, the NDP was a good idea but recommended a total spend of E86 billion over seven years.

The Government went for broke and its proposed investment is a whopping E183.7 billion, though it includes a couple of big areas not covered by the ESRI evaluation. That said, the Government proposes to spend some E2 billion per annum than the figure recommended by the ESRI.

The Institute was concerned about the inflationary pressures that would be generated by such substantial increases in capital spending. It was also worried that it might lead to a further erosion in competitiveness.

The Minister for Finance Brian Cowen accepted that it would involve a major acceleration of capital investment, up from 4.7% of Gross National Product in 2006 to almost 6% in 2009 and that it is all predicated on a (relatively optimistic) growth rate of 4-4.5% each year.

But he argues that it’s necessary – this is the only window he says in which Ireland can address its infrastructure deficits.

He also contends that the construction industry will have the capacity to deliver the increased investment without causing an inflationary impact.

Admitting that that’s exactly what happened when the last NDP was delivered in 2000, Cowen promises it will be different this time. He points out that construction inflation had remained steady at less than 4% per annum. The Government and its agencies like the National Roads Authority and the Railway Procurement Agency now get full bang for their buck, he says, with most projects being delivered on budget and on time.

Acceding that the population of the Republic will have bypassed five million, there is a welcome tilting back to the National Spatial Strategy after the headrush that was Government decentralisation all but ignored it. Each of the regional gateways is mentioned by name. And the political imperative that development be regionalised and be balanced (and take place outside Dublin) is included in a stronger fashion than ever before.

As it is the six-year national plan after all, it includes the divvil and all, from broadband roll-out, to prison development, to schools, to courthouses, to childcare, to care for the elderly, to social and affordable housing, to all motorways being complete by 2010, to the new transport initiatives for the Dublin area.

Cowen uses a couple of key phrases to describe this 300-page documents (which by the way isn’t as specific as you would imagine – not by a long shot). “Coherence” is one of them. “Comprehensive Blueprint” is another. As are “infrastructure deficit”; “regional imbalance” and “value for money”.

Two phrases that are not used are “ambitious” and “highly aspirational. It will involve a huge spend, way more than recommended by the cautious ESRI. It is also based on consistent and high levels of growth, without interruption. It is also predicated on the absence of any increase in inflationary pressures or of any sudden jolts to the economy. The more you blow the bubble, the more you realise it is one that will never ever burst.

Of course, there is no such thing as a free NDP. And Richard Bruton of Fine Gael quickly reminded us it will cost E120,000 to every family or over E40,000 to every man, woman and child in the country.

Yes, Comrades. There will be another announcement later this year, when an evaluation will be released of the NDP that’s just finished. And when will that great occasion be? In June. And funnily enough, it will fall just after the elections.

But no matter. We have already seen the future and it works.

from the Irish Examiner

Garda Prank by Ian Benjamin Kenny

So what's happening. This is the best bit of cartoon creativity since 'Give Up your Auld Sins'. The "wha'aats happenin'" part is brilliant. Fair play to ye!

What more is needed to prove endemic, systematic and engrained collusion between loyalist paramilitaries and the security forces in the North?

Yesterday, Northern police ombudsman Nuala O’Loan published a report of her inquiry into the police investigation of Raymond McCord junior in November 1997. Ostensibly, it was that.

But what was uncovered was a larger, bleaker, truth that brought us to a place that is venal, visceral and truly truly awful. She found that police had colluded with loyalist terrorists who were responsible for at least 10 murders. This was in a tiny area of North Belfast over a limited period of years. When you extrapolate it to the entire island over a period of three decades, the implications are appalling, frightening. For once, when Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin speaks of ‘state terrorism’, you think that he’s not going too far.

The evidence at this stage is incontrovertible. This is only the latest in a series of reports from different quarters all pointing to the same overwhelming conclusion that collusion was rampant. Most notable have been the reports by Canadian judge Peter Cory into six murders North and South including that of Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane; and Judge Henry Barron’s investigation into the Dublin-Monaghan bombings and other appalling loyalist attack in the south.

And the ombudsman’s report into the McCord murder has everything. What are you looking for? Corruption? Perjury? Perverting the course of justice? Protecting a man involved in ten murders? Deliberately creating false documents? Conducting sham interviews? “Babysitting” favoured informants through difficult interrogations? Withholding evidence from police colleagues? Proving the DPP and Courts with misleading and inaccurate document? Allowing murder, racketeering, drug-dealing and sectarian attacks to continue unpunished. And for what? To protect “the most important intelligence asset in this UVF grouping”.

Unforgivably, this report is likely to meet the fate of Cory and of Barron – becoming part of a vast dust-gathering exercise carried out by the British government. Notwithsanding his promises yesterday that prosecutions will follow.
Northern secretary Peter Hain’s response to it would have been laughable if it wasn’t all so serious.

He started off by saying that “the police ombudsman has today shone a light on a dark and murky period in the history of Northern Ireland.”

Fair enough. But when it came to the crunch, there was the usual knee-buckling, the defence of the Realm stuff, the blank stonewalling of any notion of public accountability.

“I have heard calls for the setting up of a public inquiry to look into these terrible events,” he said.

“There is nothing at all to suggest that such an inquiry will uncover any new or additional evidence…”

Early on in its investigation, Ms O’Loan realised that the investigation into Raymond McCord’s murder would be intricate, wide-ranging, complex and time-consuming. On that basis, she made an official request for more resources from the Northern Secretary which was refused, though some £250,000 was made available at a later date. Did that suggest a culture of change? Or did the long delays in PSNI responses to specific questions from the ombudsman’s office (some replies took up to two and a half years).

There are some deeply unsettling questions that still need to be answered. Why, for example, did so many senior police officers refuse to cooperate – including two Assistant Commissioners and seven Detective Chief Superintendents? Why did Special Branch informants got away with multiple murders? Why will nobody ever be prosecuted for any of the litany of crimes exposed by the O’Loan inquiry, or for the cover-ups, or for the perjuries and cover-up.

Special Branch described Informant One, now known to be Mark Haddock, as its most important intelligence asset in the UVF in North Belfast. But other police officers, both uniformed and Criminal Investigations Department (CID), described Haddock as a “well-known terrorist and criminal” involved in racketeering, drug dealing and feuding.

The unmistakable tenor of the report is that the “worth” and “value” of Haddock as an informant could never conceivably outweigh the horrendous litany of crimes in which he was involved.

Like the enquiry into Garda corruption in Donegal, this major wide-ranging inquiry had a relatively humble beginning.

In May 2002, Raymond McCord senior was walking through the centre of Belfast when he decided to visit the police ombudsman’s office. McCord, a burly ex-bouncer from a loyalist area, was extraordinarily driven – he said that police had begun to portray him as a crank.

But his 22-year-old son, also Raymond McCord, was beaten to death in a disused quarry in 1997 on the orders of a UVF man and police informant, known as Informant 1. His son was no saint. Raymond junior was a UVF member who was facing charges for possession of a large batch of cannabis, probably controlled by Informant 1.
McCord senior alleged that police had been aware this was going to happen, had done nothing to prevent his son’s murder, and subsequently protected his killers from justice.

The findings of the investigation that stemmed from have wormed their way to the core of policing in Northern Ireland. There can be no pat excuses about a few “rogue” policemen, about a couple of “bad apples”. It was clear that this was institutional, engrained, and went a very long way up the hierarchy.

Some of the details benefit from retelling. In terms of evasiveness and dissembling, O’Loan finds that some serving police officers gave evidence that was “evasive, contradictory and on occasion farcical”.

That, she said, was either a significant failure to understand the law or contempt for law. On occasion, police officers said things that were proven to be “completely untrue”.

Or the shocking details of the killings. One of the ten people murdered by Informant 1’s gang was Sharon McKenna, a Catholic woman visiting a Protestant friend. Informant 1 (Haddock) admitted he had being involved.
When Informant 1 was hauled in for questioning, his two Special Branch handlers sat in and “babysat” him during the interrogation to ensure that he did not admit to murder.

Around that time, Special Branch actually increased his payment from £100 to £160 a week, despite the fact that he had fresh blood on his hands. In all, Informant 1 was paid nearly £80,000 by the police, despite the overwhelming evidence of very serious criminality.

Another epiphany of the extent of collusion was evident when two Catholic construction workers, Eamon Fox and Gary Convie, were murdered in North Belfast. They were eating their lunch in a car at Tiger’s Bay in North Belfast when a lone gunman opened fire on the car. Witnesses said that the gunman wore a “goatee” beard.
When Informant 1 was arrested, he was sporting a goatee beard. But he requested a razor blade and was supplied with one. The custody photography showed a clean-shaven man without a goatee. No identity parade was ever held.

It’s unbelievable stuff. Sure, the world of intelligence, of touts, of informants is shadowy, murky and full of moral contradictions. The second-in-command of the IRA’s punishment squad was left in place for many years, despite carrying out the most heinous crimes. A multiple killer like Informant 1 was allowed kill and commit serious crimes at will because he was judged to be a strong “intelligence asset”. Justice and truth become just relative values in the perverse mind-set that underlay all this.

The publication of this report in the week that Sinn Fein decides on policing will be problematic for its leadership, despite Martin McGuinness’s claim yesterday that it “bolsters our argument”.

It’s ironic that one of the strongest exposes of police collusion with loyalist terrorist has been uncovered by a man from an unashamedly loyalist background. Now he is advising Sinn Fein not to jump hastily into policing arrangements.

Taoiseach Bertie Ahern describes it ll as “despicable past behaviour”. He will discuss the matter further with the British Government, he says. But he did just that with the Barron report and the report into the deaths of Pat Finucane and Rosemary Nelson. He did that with all of Cory. And nothing came of those either. What more can be discussed? There should be no more skirting around. Bertie Ahern should be loudly demanding a proper public inquiry.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

So, Pat told John Bowman on Questions and Answers that he wouldn't put Fianna Fáil back in Government.
"Now is there any part of that you don't understand?" he asked rhetorically.
Well, umm. Yes, there was in fact, Pat. The part you told Gerald Barry the following Sunday.
"The Labour Party can't decide after an election to go into government without a motion to annual conference from the leader, and I have no intention of putting such a motion, unless I think the circumstances are right."
We didn't understand that, Pat. And while we're at it, we weren't all that sure about the written answer you gave the following morning to the Indo.

"I have no intention of convening a special conference to recommend going into government with Fianna Fáil."

It was the equivocation of 'I have no intention" that got to us, as well as that qualifying clause: "unless I think the circumstances are right".

Why did you not just say "I won't" or "I won't go into government with them under any circumstances".

And then following your interview with Pat Kenny on Thursday morning, there were whole swatches, whole acres, whole prairies of words that we didn't understand.

For the funny thin was that the more you clarified your position, the more confused we all became.

To employ the phrase that George Bush's chief strategist Karl Rove loves to use: "If you are explaining, you are losing."

Of course, who was lurking in the long grass all week only Michael McDowell, waiting for the chance to come out and shout "Gotcha" at Pat.

Labour were trying to do the same con now as Dick Spring did in 1992. he trumpeted. Gotcha.

Rabbitte is trying to do a 'back door' deal, he tromboned. Gotcha

How amazing my debating points are, he bassooned. Gotcha.

There's only so much irresistable force an unmovable object can take. So Pat came back with a couple of Gotchas of his own, telling McDowell that there wasn't a peep out of him when the PDs struck their Mepistophelean deal with Charlie Haughey in 1989.

And then woke up yesterday morning to hear Caroline Murphy telling us on '"What it Says in the Papers' that the Irish Times had led with that 'pomp meets circumstance' story, the verbal spat and hot air between Rabbitte and McDowell. For an awful moment, I thought to myself 'bad political correspondent, bad political correspondent'. You have missed a trick by secreting the story well inside the paper. But the momentary panic passed quickly. Rabbitte and McDowell are the ultimate media luvvies. Maybe we downplayed it too much. But the Irish Times overplayed its importance, seriously so.

So what can we make of all this? Well, Pat Rabbitte is keeping his options open. He's not totally ruling out Fianna Fail. Problem is he can't say that, given that he's sworn his fealty to Enda Kenny in his own blood. So by using all kinds of verbal dexterity and elasticity and lubrication he has tried to parlay his way out of it. But each increasingly elaborate defence has failed to prevent him from being check-mated.

Now we come to the really weird part. Remember BertieGate and Bertie Ahern's abject performance as he muttered his way out of the problem. And didn't Fianna Fail bounce out of that like a frog wearing springs. Ditto for Enda Kenny last week when John Deasy rained on his parade. A two-point leap in the opinion polls. And so, all the trouble Rabbitte made for himself this week has also kept him at the centre of things. I'd say that's worth a point or two in the next opinion poll.

And what of Bertie Ahern this week? Inside a Saudi tent peeing out. His pitiable comments on human rights show how much Mammon has ecliplsed morals in Irish society. Micheal Martin made an abject defence of the trade mission on Thursday saying he would always choose engagement over isolation, and said we can't go round the world judging people. So, it's okay then for Ireland to deal with any regime, irrespective of how despotic it is.

This week, I rang the press offices of the three ministers - Micheal Martin, Mary Hanafin and Mary Coughlan - who accompanied the Taoiseach yesterday to see if any of them had raised Saudi Arabia's horrific abuses of human rights. None bothered to get back. Who cares when there's money to be made?
My Irish Examiner column, Saturday January 20

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Bertie Ahern has been at his fearless best during his trip to Saudi Arabia.

The country has been visiting in the past two days is one of the most repressive, backward and corrupt in the world. It is also – unfortunately – one of the richest.

Here follows a small expression of its repression: Eighty four people were executed in Saudi Arabia last year, many of them beheaded in public. Public floggings are also commonplace. In August 2005, a court in Mekka confirmed the sentence of 8,000lashes for a woman who was convicted of abducting a child.

The majority of those who feel the brunt of Saudi’s idiosyncratic and cruel justice system are foreign workers who enjoy absolutely no meaningful rights there. More than 50% of executions are immigrants, though they comprise less than a third of the population.

Dissidents, journalists, even very modest reformers have been arbitrarily jailed, sometimes for tortuously long periods, for criticising the absolute monarchy or the all-powerful and fundamentalist Wahhabi form of Sunni Islam.

As for the sanctity of childhood, forget about it. Some 126 children under the age of 18 were on death row in January last year. A young boy, Admad D, was sentenced to death in July 2005 for killing another child when he was 13.

Though Saudi Arabia is a signatory of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (which forbids the death penalty for under 18s), Ahmad D was tried by the Court as an adult “based on its assessment of the coarseness of hi9s voice and the appearance of pubic hair.”

In another case a Saudi Court ordered the gouging out of the eye of an Indian Migrant worker, after he became involved with a fracas with a Saudi man at a garage. The punishment was the Sharia law equivalent of the Biblical ‘an eye for an eye’.

As for women? Zero rights. Banned from running from election. NO right to leave their homes without a male relative or written permission from their guardian. No right to education or to open a bank account without male permission.

No better politician to give it to them straight than Bertie Ahern. This is how he confronted the thorny issues of human rights and freedom of expression.

“More broadly, I am convinced that the principle of mutual respect must underpin all aspects of relations between our two regions, Europe and the Middle East, which are inextricably linked by geography, by history and by millennia of cultural and religious interchange.

“Ireland is a modern and pluralist State. We believe that fundamental human rights are inalienable. At the same time, we accept that it is most effectively through dialogue and co-operation that all States can over time meet the standards to which they have committed themselves as members of the United Nations.”

What? Come again? Yes, you have guessed it. A mixture of waffle and moral cowardice. The same kind of fudge he used when leading a similar trade mission to China two years ago. Then he said in a roundabout way that it would be dangerous for a Government of a country of one billion people to uphold human rights overnight because that might lead to a loss of control. The same scaredy-cat stuff that characterised Fianna Fail ministers, including Ahern and Brian Cowen, prostrating themselves to America’s every whim during the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

No this trip is all about trade. The only thing that money shares with morality is that they both start with the letter ‘m’. One indistinct subclause of four speeches has been devoted to Saudi Arabia’s appalling human rights records and its inexcusable repression and cattle-prodding of human beings. And then phrased in such an opaque way that he would have been just as brave uttering it in Fagans of Drumcondara as he was in Riyadh. One thing for sure: he was never going to offend his hosts.

These trips all boil down mammon and lucre. Okay the places are dodgy and dicky, but hey, everybody else is dealing with them so pass me that long spoon.

There are acres and acres of words in which the Taoiseach extols the strong cultural and commercial ties between Ireland and Saudi Arabia as if they were the world’s best buddies.

“In the Gulf region, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia remains Ireland's strongest market and here with us tonight are representatives of Irish companies who are determined to make that market even stronger.

The robust performance of Saudi Arabia's economy in recent years - which

looks set to continue well into the future - has brought fresh opportunities for collaboration between our two countries. These opportunities have not only been for enterprises but also for education providers, as shown by the large numbers from our education sector that have travelled here this week.”

OK. All European countries sup with the devil and we all depend on the Saudis oil. But the absence of any criticism of substance demonstrates a galling lack of backbone and sends out a message that condones rather than condemns the terrible things that happen there.

Jim Loughran, the Communications Manager of Amnesty International in Ireland describes Saudi Arabia’s regime as one of the most repressive in the Middle East.

Referring to the only references to human rights and to freedom of expression in Mr Ahern’s speech, he criticizes it and says it could have been stated in more robust terms.

The tenor of the visit seems to be economic development to the exclusion of everything else, he argues.

“Human rights are at the heart of Irish foreign policy,” he said. “These issues are firmly on our agenda.

“The Taoiseach should not be focusing solely on access to valuable economic markets while being silent in relation to (Saudi Arabia’s) terrible human rights record,” he said.

from the Irish Examiner

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

So we finally got the attack poster featuring Michael McDowell yesterday. But it was one issued by the PDs and not by Fine Gael. The FGers lost confidence and went for a wan poster showing an idyllic scene with the same message. I spotted the new FG poster driving in this morning. Because the concept is a 'poster within a poster', the size of the slogans and writing is smaller, and very hard to read. It really lacks impact.

Meanwhile, the PDs one is simple, direct, does what it says on the tin. Judge for yourselves.

And what is it with the Irish Independent and Pat Rabbitte? This morning the Indo suggested that Labour deputy leader Liz McManus's oppostion to her party joining a FF-led coalition was kind of conditional and that she too was beginning to waver. The newspaper had based its assertion on her reference in a radio interview to unforeseen circumstances that can give rise to extraordinary responses.
But in a quote that the Indo itself used yesterday, she made it clear what she meant by those.
"I spoke at one point on radio about the possibility of extraordinary circumstances arising which might change the situation. But I was literally talking about something like a national state of emergency or something like a third world war. That might alter my views but it is about the only thing that would do so.
"My position has been clear and consistent. There is no change from what I said in the Irish Independent last week."
Well, now we know. Labour will have no difficulty going into coaliton with FF in the event of a nuclear fall-out.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

This is the nearest Bertie Ahern came to making a direct criticism during trade trip to one of the world's most repressive countries, Saudi Arabia.

"More broadly, I am convinced that the principle of mutual respect must underpin all aspects of relations between our two regions, Europe and the Middle East, which are inextricably linked by geography, by history and by millennia of cultural and religious interchange.

"Ireland is a modern and pluralist State. We believe that fundamental human rights are inalienable. At the same time, we accept that it is most effectively through dialogue and co-operation that all States can over time meet the standards to which they have committed themselves as members of the United Nations."

Fearless stuff, ha! I'm sure King Abdullah is quaking in his gold-lined boots.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Actually, within a couple of hours of publishing yesterday's post, BertieGate erupted again with Albert Reynolds's bit of pot-stirring on Marian Finucane's programme yesterday (see my colleague Shaun Connolly's story in today's Examiner.)

I firmly believe that despite the alleged poll boost FF got from BertieGate in September and October, the affair is going to inflict some damage on his reputation and will have a negative rather than positive effect.

There's a strange voodoo that happens in the world of newspapers which is called random synchronicity. You might be sitting on a story waiting for a clinching line or quote to come in. It might be on a very obscure topic that no other newspaperperson has bothered their heads about for months. And suddenly, without warning, a rival breaks your story in a rival newspaper without warning, just a day before your planned publication. Occasionally, somebody has given them a heads-up. But usually it's a case of great minds thinking alike or fools never differing.

Poor old Pat Rabbitte is also caught. Questions about Labour and FF will recur during the campaign like an unclaimed suitcase on an airport carousel. The problem about ruling somehting out is best summed up by the title of Sean Connery's comeback 007 movie, Never Say Never Again. Pat need look no further than Tony Blair (retirement) or George Bush Senior (read my lips, I will not raise taxes).

Sunday, January 14, 2007

This morning's poll in the Sunday Tribune is being billed as a claw-back for the Rainbow but neither Fine Gael nor Labour can exactly crow about a miserly three point gain from an unbelievably low base. FG at 22% is a disaster and Labour can't seem ever to nest itself in the teens support-wise.

What about FF and the PDs? The new reality is that all those mid- and low-30s results from last year are in the past as previously wavering supporters nail their colours to the mast. Five per cent is a good result for the PDs, given its spotty distribution around the country. I still maintain that the party will struggle.

One of the myths that grew up after BertieGate was that FF's bounce back in the polls was due to the inept performance of the oppostion and The Bert coming out to show the stuff he is made off.

That is piffle. On radio last week, Fintan O'Toole was more or less saying that, when a lot of people were looking at live Dail coverage for the first time, Kenny jammed both of his feet into his mouth by attacking Dick Roche in the Dail rather than Bertie. And ergo his stock fell.

The fact was that The Bert's perfromance was abysmal throughout the whole thing. The Frank Luntz exercise for RTE showed that few believed his excuses, that the cow eyes routine didn't wash with the public.

The polls were already showing Fianna Fail at a very high mark after the summer. An Irish Examiner poll in September showed FF at 39 per cent but it was mocked as a 'rogue poll' by Pat Rabbitte. I believe that one of the Oirish papers also ran a poll at the time that showed FF at 40 but they didn't run its results because it seemed such an aberration compared to the summer.

Sure, the opposition failed to make hay during BertieGate. But this notion that they shot themselves in the foot is incorrect. I think the underlying trends since the summer were already favoring FF. Yes, it is surprising that The Bert's abject explanation of the payments he got didn't affect him more.

But maybe people were hedging their bets, giving him a marginal benefit of the doubt for now.

But don't believe them when they tell you the moment the election was won or lost was the moment the leaders were asked to stand up and be counted during BertieGate. Because that vessel holds little water.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Examiner column January 13th

It started life as a once-off musical collaboration, an eclectic group of artists came together to record a legendary concept album.

In a marathon session in an isolated castle they laid down the tracks of a recording that would go down in history, The Long Good Friday: Eternity and a Day. It was an immediate and soaraway success for Northern Shower and was lapped up by millions of fans in Ireland, North and South in the coming months. But like a lot of new bands, the gigs and the touring and lifestyle eventually wore all the hope and optimism down.

Now a decade later, the Northern Shower has returned to try that difficult second album. As it happens, they hope to finish recording it by the end of March, just in time for Easter. And its working title? What else but The Long Good Friday II: From Here to Eternity.

Like the first, it is high risk though somehow in our bones we feel they can pull it off.

There have been some changes in the band’s line-up since then. Creative differences led to David Trimble walking out several years ago and he is now pursuing a solo career. The Clancy Brothers sound of the SDLP sounded a bit dated so they drafted in The Beards, former punk traditionalists who have been experimenting with a more mellow sound over the past few years.

And just to give it a bit of Northern soul fizzle, the producers went looking for the Reverend Righteous, a cult figure who has been doing the rounds of the Northern circuit for decades. His controversial all-action stage show has made him into one of those figures who you either love or hate, but you just can’t ignore him. The producers got very excited when he arrived. Though he can no longer belt them out like he used to, his booming voice, hip-hop lyrics and complete unpredictability gave the Northern Shower the edge the producers were looking for.

But will it work? They’ve certainly come up with a strong list of ditties.

Children of the Devolution. A couple of numbers from the Police. I Fought the Law and the Law won. Power to the People. Stuck in the Middle With You. Come Out Ye Black and Tans. And a reworking of the Beatles LP, Devolver.

Yes, it would be fatuous to suggest there has been no creative tension between the stars, and yes, there have been a few stand-up rows over lyrics.

But at least there has been some links to the past for you nostalgics out there. Unbelievably, the Bert and Mr Tony are still there a decade later and still providing the same chorus line. They may have both lost their youthful boyband vigour since then and we may have all tired of their voices. But there’s no doubting their ability when it comes to a song and dance routine, especially the Bert’s tried and trusted ‘man in the anorak’ cameo which goes down a treat every time.

And now we come to a critical phase of the project. They have been working hard on the choreography aspects, with Mr Tony and Hugh Orde both coming in to do pre-planned star-turns during the week on MI5 and plastic bullets.

But despite the efforts to keep the whole creative project going, it’s sometimes hard when you are dealing with such a collection of massive egos, oh, I’m sorry I lost the run of myself, sensitive souls.

And The Beards meet today to decide whether they’ll continue with the project or call it a day.

“It’s just the chemistry, man,” an insider told us. “These cats. They just ain’t gelling. The vibes are not good.”

But you must remember that The Beards survived the worst excesses that went with their punk traditionalist lifestyle. Unfortunately, a hell of a lot of others weren’t so lucky.

Unlike the Reverend who still has weekly residencies in venues throughout the North, The Beards have sacrificed everything for this one project.

Having taken at least two years longer than they thought, and having gone woefully over budget, they had to take a short break around Christmas 2004.

Then they did a quick money-making album, Beards and Balaclavas: The Greatest Hits, which did wonders for their bank balance (€40 million reputedly) but led to accusations that they had sold out creatively.

Anyway, they are now back on track, and rehearsing furiously to get this project finished on time. Yes, it is difficult when they and the Reverend do separate rehearsals. Nobody is even sure if they’re singing out of the same hymn sheet.

Friday, January 12, 2007

My colleague over in the Times, Miriam Donohoe had good pick-up on Jim Higgins interview by Sean O'Rourke on RTE yesterday.

But for 87 votes in 2002 he might now be leader of Fine Gael and Enda Kenny would be an MEP in Europe. In fact, Higgins was some 400 votes north of Kenny going into the 8th count but Kenny got a bounty (for geographical reasons) of 600 votes from FF's Frank Chambers, narrowly squeezing Higgins out.

Small mercies. Yes, Higgins was brave on the Donegal garda scandal. But some of his offerings since then have been of the worst reactionary 'hang them. flog them' kind. He sullied all travellers with his comments during the Padraig Nally case.

Now, he's at it again saying that child welfare should be withdrawn from the parents of errant and out-of-control teenagers and kids. When he was challenged by Sean O'Rourke that children would go hungry, Higgins made a spurious argument that in Limerick when child benefit is paid it's known as karaoke week. The evidence? One caller to a local radio station.

So no evidence for his humbug. Only the populist top-of-the-head stuff on no more karaokes to be replaced by children having to sing for their supper.

Makes Enda always seem like a wet and soppy liberal!

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Mairead McGuinness must have recorded the longest parachute flight in world history before she alighted in Louth on Wednesday. Since becoming the MEP for the East constituency in 2004, there has been one project that she has pursued relentlessly - the further elevation of Mairéad McGuinness.

For months now, there has been an artificial 'will she, won't she?' debate in the media that has kept them all guessing.

First off, fair play to Brian Dowling for breaking the story as his first scoop after moving from the Indo to RTE.

But judging by some of the coverage, you'd swear we had just witnessed the arrival of the Queen of Sheeba.

The extraordinary thing about Mairead McGuinness is that despite the panoply of people she employs - and her ultra smooth PR - there is not one idea of hers that I can recall. Ok, being in Europe is a little isolating and Leinster House hacks are guilty of neglect when it comes to MEPs. But Simon Coveney and Avril Doyle and Kathy Sinnott and even Sean O Neachtain have crept onto our radar from time to time, championing causes (sometimes obscure ones, but causes all the same).

But what of Mairead's crusades? Well, Mairead is on the rural and agricultural committee. I had a look at her website today as well as her winter newsletter. Loads of small items of McGuinness pledging herself to worthy causes, being seen with worthy and famous people. Lots of pix too. But was there anything that stood out or that was in any way memorable or original?Zilcho.

She's got a great image (see Sam Smyth's loving profile of her in the Indo for proof). She's an old pro at communications (last big gig in TV was the weighty Celebrity Farm, if memory serves me correctly). I've seen her in action at first hand and if perception is reality, she may prove to be our very own Segolene Royal. And with that there is monstrous ambition.

Michael McDowell wasn't entirely joking when he said she would come home to challenge for the leadership of the party after Fine Gael lost the election. Okay, she's still relatively new. But we should be careful about too much hype. There is still a lot of the relatively empty vessel about Mairead McGuinness.

I'm also sure that she will coast home in Louth.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Two minutes of Questions and Answers last night. And it happened to be Ian Paisley junior pontificating (yes, that's a slightly inappropriate verb to use with him) about the death of Saddam Hussein. He was coming to some point about the dictator that I didn't wait around to hear. The bit I heard was his wanting to qualify it by condemning the manner of his death.

The day after the mobile phone footage of Saddam's hanging came available (and we heard for the first time the hoodlum haunts from the goons in that dark dank hanging chamber) Christopher Hitchens wrote an amazing piece in the online magazine, Slate, that was the last word on the hanging.

Hitchens has been way off beam on Iraq and has persisted in the face of the overwhelming evidence against his argument.

But here his account was impeccable, especially the observation that the only person who retained any shred of dignity in that awful place was the tyrant.

Of course, us humans being hard-wired as we are, it is inevitable that others would draw the same conclusions using more or less the same words. But the Hitchens observation gave a neat demonstration of how quickly everything moves nowadays.

Take the phrase: Nobody has a monopoly on suffering. Somebody coined that in the North once upon a time. Freshly minted it was an effective arguing point. But over a period of a year or two, it spread out among the population, and after a while evereybody was using it. By that time, any profundity the phrase had had been hacked out of it.

Paisley junior repeated the Hitchens line on Q and A last night and with faux basso profundo gravity reeled out the "only person with dignity" line. How quickly things move! Hardly a week after Hitchens first wrote the words, they had already become hopelessly cliched.
There were many tributes paid to David Ervine yesterday. The PUP leader had a great deep-burr voice for oratory and a gift for phrase-making and for fancy metaphor. In the end, he was the party's only representative in the Assembly. But where he came from, where he wanted to bring loyalism to, were both pivotal in allowing us in the South understand the layers that lay behind the 'not an inch' rhetoric.
The most poignant tribute, in my estimation, was the simple statement issued by his own party: “Unionism has lost the most progressive voice of this generation. Politics has lost a statesman. Our peace process has lost its most optimistic advocate and Ulster has lost a devoted son."
Concise. Spot on. Wonderful.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Enda Kenny learned how secure being a Fine Gael leader was this week.
But Bertie Ahern is already shaping out, longetivty wise, to be like one of those leaders of post-Soviet countries in Central Asia.
He was at his 'The Bert' best when being interviewed by Gerry Barry on RTÉ Radio's This Week .
Barry asked him when he was going to retire and The Bert came out with his usual spiel that he will be 60 just before the 2012 election is called, and God willing, he will continue until then... and no longer.
But did not Tony Blair who also wanted to see out a third term but was muscled out of office by Gordon Brown two years earlier.
Quite reasonably, Barry - who is still scalpel-sharp in questioning - put it to him that he couldn't expect to see out three terms and then hand it over to his successor just before a General Election. Sure, what could a new leader do with only a couple of months to go to an election.
Naturally, Ahern must know that he can't stay until the end but he probably very keen to avoid the mistake Blair made. By stating categorically that he would stand down, the questions kept coming at Blair like suitcases on a carousel.
There was no escape.
If Ahern wins a third term, the journalists will first report on his coronation and then quickly turn to his abdication, whenver that will be. It will dog him. Maybe not as much as it did Blair who had also Gordon Brown breathing down his neck.
And what of the possible FF successors. Well Brian Cowen looks like he's happy to wait until he's sixty before taking over the reins. Micheál Martin's chances have ebbed. Dermot Ahern is making more shapes than anybody else but will he get support, from his colleagues or have that populist appeal that is the sine qua non of FF leader? Ahern may falter on the electabilility test. The same doubts surround the stretchability of Mary Hanafin's appeal.
With that kind of inertia in the ranks below him, no wonder Ahern is so secure in his position. But if none of the indolent kids show any interest in taking over the family business, whatever about 2007, FF will get wallopped in 2012. Too far away? Not at all. Sinn Fein - the long term strategists par excellence - are already looking at 2017.
PS. Despite all his experience, The Bert still uses scripts for the more tricky questions in one-on-one interviews. Seasoned Bert watchers could hear the script talking it in the first answer he gave to Gerry Barry in that RTE interview until Barry interjected and did some real probing.

Friday, January 05, 2007

My political column from the Examiner, January 6th 2007

ENDA KENNY started 2007 like a man who had thrown off all the shackles of last autumn and winter. “This year will be different,” he seemed to say. All those reverses in opinion polls will be overcome. I will also forget the haymes I made of taking on Bertie over his Manchester payments.

Onwards and upwards! And what better way than taking a good old swipe at an even more unpopular figure in Irish politics, Michael McDowell?

The first two days of January were great for Kenny. Fine Gael’s new “attack” poster campaign got great coverage, as did Kenny’s planned series of nationwide rallies to rally the troops and up his profile. On yer bike, Enda, go out and win it.

But like all new year’s resolutions, the feel-good glow lasted all of 24 hours.

This time the guy who put the broom handle in the spokes was John Deasy. The party’s toddler, Damien English, also gave Kenny a kick as he tumbled to the ground — but young Damien can’t be blamed because he didn’t have a clue about what he was doing when he agreeing to have his comments quoted publicly. The effect of it all was that Fine Gael and Kenny got totally flattened.

In an “Enda Kenny, My Part in his Downfall” moment, the latest mini-crisis had its beginnings in my interview with the Fine Gael leader in the Irish Examiner.
I asked him at the end of the interview would he continue as leader should he narrowly fail to win the election?

It was a throwaway question, the kind that’s been often asked before.
Kenny’s reply was general and unspecific.
“To go to the cusp and not achieve, it would be sore, very sore,” he said.

And then he added: “I am an optimist and we are in here to win it.”

Nothing too dramatic. But significantly, he sidestepped the question about stepping down — or at least he didn’t baldly state that this was his one and only shot at the prize.

And this is what seems to have got up John Deasy’s gander the next day when he threw down the gauntlet during his interview on local Waterford station, WLR, .
Deasy is the antithesis of spin. He is more than unspun. He is unspinnable, completely so. When asked a direct question, he will give a direct answer. More than that, it’s likely to be blunt. He tends to go against the grain of a carefully choreographed party line. He is honest of opinion, forthright and outspoken. He can also be stubborn, contrary and one-sided.

And when this question came up, Deasy said the leadership issue was always decided by the parliamentary party after a general election (fair enough). But he went further than that, saying that Enda Kenny should step down after the next election. Deasy also let it be known that he’d put himself up as a candidate if necessary (on the off chance that nobody else challenged Kenny).

Yes, Deasy can argue that he just restated party policy. But there was a sting in the tail, a bit of subliminal stuff going on. The message I took from what he said was that Kenny has one shot at the leadership. And a strong strain of pessimism about Fine Gael’s chances in the next election.

I have no problem with what Deasy said. None at all. Why shouldn’t we have some dissenting voices within our parties? It would be good to see a little of it within Fianna Fáil, where the Politburo controlled by Comrades Ahern and Cowen brooks no dissent whatsoever. All FF backbenchers ever seem to do is to mutter privately. Fat lot of good that does. And all we get is the party line, as stale and limp as old lettuce.

Where I do have a problem is the timing of Deasy’s intervention. There’s uncertainty in all parties about how they will fare this summer. Fine Gael is no exception.
A year ago, it would have been tolerable for Deasy to ventilate his view on the leadership (though it still would have drawn criticism). Immediately after the election, ditto (and would have happened anyway, if FG lost).

Strategically, now is not the time to plant any seeds of doubt, either inside or outside the party. What you can’t do is send out messages three or four months before an election that the party under Enda Kenny is a beaten docket.

Deasy may say that’s not what he was saying. That’s very true. But that’s the scent FG’s most vulpine opponents (FF and the PDs) are picking up. And knowing them, they are now sensing blood and wounded quarries and self-fulfilling prophecies.
Damian Enlgish, the fast-talking TD for Meath East, told RTE
this morning that he's skiing in Andorra. Any snow? asked Cathal Mac Coille. No, said Damian. Just the artificial stuff.
Unexepectedly, and unpleasantly, Damian found wading around knee-deep in some other nasty stuff today. But this was entirely of his own making and Damo, who should have known better, walked right into it.

Sure English is the youngest TD in the Dail. But anyone who knows him will also know that there are no flies on him, that he will be more than able to see off any rivals in his own Meath patch. He would have dispatched Mairead McGuinness, had she interloped in his territory. He will dispatch Graham Geraghty too, and far more subtly that that Aussie Rules bully. But he will dispatch him all the same.

Now Damian can give out about being misquoted in the Indo this morning. But the fact is that he restated exactly what John Deasy said earlier this week: Enda Kenny's leadership would be challenged if Fine Gael did not get into government.
This all stemmed from an interview that Kenny did with the Examiner.
I asked him about his leadership should FG narrowly lose. He gave an answer that was really a demurral. Deasy was asked about the interview on local radio in Waterford and basicaly cited party policy.

But of course there are undertones. Citing party policy is all very well but it also infers conditionality of support. What both Deasy and English raised was the prospect of a FG loss. Does a public airing of the leadership issue before a General Election, undermine confidence and lead to an erosion of public support? Possibly, probably, say FG strategists.

What Deasy and English have said, the will argue, is naive at best, bordering on disloayal at worst.

It didn't help the party one little bit that the person who went on Morning Ireland to defend the party was Shane McEntee, its TD for Meath East. Cathal Mac Coille rightly cut him short the second time he came out with the ludicrous cliche that he was a Meath men and Meath men always think about winning.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

John Deasy is certainly a chip of the old block. His father Austin put down at least one motion of no confidence in a Fine Gael leader. His comments today that Enda Kenny will face a leadership challenge if he loses the election - even narrowly - will infuriate the backroom people in FG. They have spent four years trying to build up Enda as credible Taoiseach material and feel that that could now be scuppered by an enemy within. What's surprising is that they were a bolt out of the blue, were apropos nothing at all. In his Examiner interview this week, Kenny demurred when asked would he continue to lead the party if it suffered a narrow loss. Maybe it came out of that.

Deasy is an individualist, sometimes stubbornly so, and does not hold back on venting his forthright views. Thus, the rebel and maverick tags he has acquired. His warning that Kenny will only have one shot at the prize has more or less done for any ambitions Deasy may have under a Kenny readership. He told RTE tonight that he would offer himself as a candidate. But realistically, Deasy knows that he couldn't hope to command much support. The most likely leading candidate is Simon Coveney, who will be moulded into the Fine Gael version of David Cameron, should the party lose a third term of office in a row.
We in the Irish Examiner published a story yesterday about the new Fine Gael billboard campaign that employs the módh díreach with a direct attack on Michael McDowell. It's not the first time that FG have used negative type campaigns since 2002 and most of it seems to be directed at the PDs - obviously, they will be fishing for votes out of the same pool.

Just over a year ago, they used a great image of Bertie Ahern and Mary Harney. The scene looked like a restarant or a bar. Both of them were looking away from each other, like a married couple who were drifting apart. I think the slogan referred to the spark being gone.

They also had a couple of cartoonish type posters zeroing in on Harney, McDowell and Tom Parlon... the Parlon one portrayed Mr Delivery as a cowboy in the Marlboro man/TJ Dallas mode.

The previous ones were humourous. But the McDowell poster is more cutting, more direct. The story has sparked off a huge debate about the benefits or otherwise of negative campaigns and attack advertising in politics.

It has long been a standard feature of the stumps in the US and has also been used to mixed effect in Britain - the one that comes to mind is the Tony Blair 'Demon Eyes' posters used by the Tories in the 1997 election campaign (it didn't get them very far). Negativity can work despite what focus groups say, but only in the following contexts.

1. Best for leader to stay above the fray
2. Must be counterbalanced by positive messages and vision
3. There must be some basis to justify the fears that are being raised.

Will it be a dirty campaign? They are all dirty in their own ways. The Queensbury Rules of politics are only really observed in that moratorium period in the last 24 hours. In a way I hope it is. Because boy, have we hit the doldrums in the past year.

This was taken in the Gorges du Verdon in France in October. I was over rock climbing with a crowd from Kerry and taking what was the last long break for the election. (To be honest, I was looking for an excuse to post a pic!)

Political journalism in Ireland is very desk-bound... Leinster House contains the North Pole and the South Pole of what we write about (though it will change in the next few months). There's a famous polish climber who came up with a delicious quote about his sense of religion. It's better to be in the mountains thinking of God, than to be in church thinking of the mountains. Ditto for politics.

Of course, our TDs and Senators are on the usual six week Christmas break. They are coming back a week early. Big deal! They will be back for six weeks before they are off for St Patrick's Week. Then it's a week (or maybe two) back before Easter. And at that stage, the election will be called.

Every term, the Government chief whip published a list of priority legislation. And every term, they are lucky to get through half of what's promised.
Every time a new Government is elected, there's always brave talk about Dail and Seanad reform. Papers are published. Committees are formed. Grandiose promises are made. And invariably it all comes to nothing. The thing that captures the public imagination is the unconsciably long holidays they take. But the Seanad really needs to be reformed. The Second House is just about democratic, and deeply by proxy at that. The only proper election that takes place is for the university seats. And they are deeply unrepresentative - three for the NUI and three for TCD. And with eleven nominees by the Taoiseach, the Government will always have an inbuilt majority. Yes, the Seanad does have a legislative role, but in reality it is powerless to stall or amend legislation in the manner of the House of Lords in Britain.

It is a talking shop though, to be fair, the quality of debate is often vastly superior to the dirges we get in the Dail.

Bertie Ahern's new year resolution told us a lot of what a great welcome he makes for himself. His resolution: I'll work even harder, if that's possible.
Perhaps he could have added something like: I'll try to be even more modest, if that's possible.