Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Though you might not think it now, this column is about Brian Cowen. For from now on everything in Irish politics is going to revolve around him, even if he fails in his quest to find the holey anorak.
On his first appearance outside Number 10 as British prime minister Gordon Brown used the word "change" at least a dozen times.
The point he wanted to make was as subtle as a riled Michael Ring perorating in the Dáil. Brown's meassage, give or take, was: I AM NOW TAKING THE FOLLOWING THOUGHT AND RAMMING IT DOWN YOUR THROAT. I WILL BE VERY DIFFERENT TO TONY BLAIR.
What Brown is doing is clever but obvious. David Cameron's big message was change. So the son of the Manse was determined to out-change Cameron's change. So instead of sticking an 'under new management' sign outside Number 10, Brown ratcheted up the spin to make it sound like he'd pulled off a palace or bloodless coup (which in a sense he did). If people were looking for an alternative, here it was. All changed. Utterly butterly changed. I can't believe it's not New Labour.
There are salutary lessons there (aren't there always?) for our own permanent government, Fianna Fail. I suspect though that the party has known those bullet points de ghlan mheabhar for a generation or two; the essential need for renewal if continuity is to be guaranteed.
To approach that question we must clamber over a phrase that's become a huge cliché in recent years. No, not the elephant in the room (puleese stop using it; it's so like not cool). No it's the one that explains Fianna Fail success and renewal in terms of the party being able to to be government and opposition at the same time.
Its an enticing little thought but one that has zero merit. Fianna Fáil mutinies are about as real as allocated seats at a Barbara Streisand concert. We political hacks should shoulder most of the blame for hyping up internal FF rebellions when we know their lackluste backbenchers will ultimately do what they are told. Unlike in other countries, anybody in the two big parties (FF and FG) who is capable of independent thought is immediately branded as a weirdo and a bitter thwarted maverick. Consequently their backbench is as insignificant and powerless as the Senate.
Renewal in FF comes from the top. Bertie Ahern is a hunch politician. Often he doesn't (or can't) articulate it but he does have amazing instincts. He made grand announcements on renewable energy targets out of the blue in the autumn of last year, tapping into a growing green consciousness and preparing the ground for the option of a link-up with the Tofu Guys. When you win as big as FF did in the election you can retrospectively point to all the examples of your strategic genius. But you must acknowledge that its Anorak-in-Chief has great powers of prescience.
And so when people say that FF went in with the Greens for numbers, you need to invoke the great philosopher Homer and respond: Doh!
The Greens offer renewal to a government that would have otherwise - after ten years of power - almost seemed as old and tired as a Chinese gerontocracy. You hear football managers talking about injecting youth into a team. Well Fianna Fail didn't have enough of its own so did some heavy trading on the transfer market.
At this moment, you're afraid to open a newspaper or turn on the television or open a drawer for fear of John Gormley or Eamon Ryan jumping out at you. FF will give both a lot of leeway for now, as the Greens' implementing their agenda will win FF kudos with neutrals and act as cover for policies that will be unpopular with the FF base.
And is The Anorak a genius or what? Green Party support may win FF a slim working majority in the Senate. None of us saw that one coming during negotgiations.
Ah Brian Cowen! How could we have forgotten. The star of the election, the anointed one. He will dominate FF's think-in in September as he cements his de facto role of leader in waiting. FF's real tilt at renewal will happen when he takes over. My guess is it will be October 2009. For guidance on what he'll do, read the opening paragraphs on Gordon Brown.

Saturday, July 21, 2007


EARLY next month I will be four years in this job. In all that time, I’ve failed to do one thing for which I have felt not a smidgen of guilt.

Hands up! I have never been in Seanad Éireann. Ever. I’m not even entirely sure where the chamber is, down the end of a musty corridor.

I’d say that perhaps 20 times in those four years, I’ve tuned in to a debate on the internal TV here in Leinster House or read the transcripts of debates. Mostly I catch it on - saddo moment coming up - Oireachtas Report on RTE.

When did the last Seanad wander on to our radar screens? Well, whenever Mary O’Rourke came out with a quirky or eccentric rumination? Or when she had a nasty row with Brian Hayes? Or when the university senators made interesting speeches? Or very occasionally when a minister (Michael McDowell in particular) gave a bill its first reading there?

But at all other times, it was a little like air. It was there, we knew, but you never really got to see it.

And over the course of the next week we will begin to see the shape of the new Seanad, which was Ireland’s quasi-democratic version of the House of Lords at the time of the foundation of the State. Of the 60 seats, 43 are indirectly elected (by county councillors, TDs and senators); six are elected in the most elite fashion by the graduates of two third-level institutions (TCD and the NUI); while 11 are handpicked by the Taoiseach. And for the most part, with the exception of the third-level toffs and a couple of career senators, it has become a half-way house for those who either lost Dáil seats or want to win one.

Sure, you get a high quality of debate from time to time. But it reminds you of the old saying that it’s like a lighthouse in a bog — brilliant but useless.

Sure, there were lofty aspirations when the House was first founded, to allow for a diversity and plurality of voices. But as early as 1928, the first report on its reform was published. In all, a staggering 12 reports suggesting reform have been published, the most recent in 1997, 2002 and 2004. And what reform has actually taken place during all those years — the square root of damn all. It has been long-fingered and ignored.

The last report by the Seanad itself identifies its “two main problems” at an early juncture. I quote:

“1. It has no distinctive role in the Irish political system; and 2. Its arcane and outdated system of nomination and election diminishes senators’ public legitimacy.”

They are big problems all right. Put another way, the Seanad is a useless talking shop which is only slightly democratic and has no real powers.

Am I being overly cynical? Not a bit. Here’s what the report goes on to say: “The legislative process set out in the Constitution gives the Dáil the final say in everything. Therefore, in the eyes of many members of the public, the Seanad is seen as weak, ineffective and of questionable value. These difficulties are compounded by the fact that the Seanad is dominated by the Government.”

But the reforms suggested by the Seanad itself weren’t exactly radical. No conflict with the Government. No more formal powers over the legislative process. More scrutiny of EU affairs (God!). Allowing MEPs a to speak in the Seanad (guaranteeing them anonymity in two separate fora).

True, there were some genuine recommendations in relation to electoral reform. But then you see that the committee of senators want their numbers increased from 60 to 65. What poppycock! If truth be told, we have the highest number of parliamentarians pro rata anywhere in Europe bar tiny Luxembourg. The Netherlands, three times our size, has the exact same number as we do — 220 in total.

And if our politicians were honest about it they would admit there are few arguments for retaining the Seanad. But our political system is too intimate and we don’t have the stomach for an impersonal “all or nothing” system in Britain. So it’s there as a consolation prize for TDs who have lost out (the PDs and Greens were both opposed to the Seanad but have successively bought into it). And as layers of dust have gathered over a dozen reports in the past 80 years, one feature has remained consistent — there is no appetite to reform it.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007


The most amazing thing ever for me about the Irish Green Party was that it survived for two decades without having a leader. When it was starting out in the early 1980s it followed the example of other green and ecological movements in Europe which eschewed traditional party structures in favour of collectivism when it came to decision-making.
However, a decade later, most of the others had abandoned the experiment for the simple reason that, ehm, it didn’t work. When you had no leader and made all decisions, it led to only two outcomes – a lack of personality and sclerosis. Consensus meant that decisions often took many months to be made and, when they were made, they were watered down. In politics, ideas and ideology can never be fully decoupled from personality. And very late in the day – after a couple of bad electoral set-backs – the party realised that they would need to follow the lead of other Green parties in Europe and elect its very own leader.
But you always sensed that the party was uncomfortable embracing leadership. When Trevor Sargent was elected, it came by way of a ‘preferendum’. Who else would come up with such a system? And you always sensed that Sargent himself was a slightly reluctant leader. And when the arch presidential-style moment presented itself earlier this year – when his leadership address was carried live on TV for the first time – he flunked it with a poor address. But at the same time Sargent carried huge moral authority within the party. And his follow-through on his promise to quit the leadership if the party entered coalition with Fianna Fail was symptomatic of his outlook – that the party and its ideas was always bigger than the individual.
An argument that the Greens have made over the past decade is that others have moved towards them, rather than the party mainstreaming itself. However, as it has prepared to become involved in government in the past two years, the party has itself made a fair few compromises, has become less anti-establishment, and mainstreamed itself in the important vote-enticing areas. By entering government, the Greens are having to come to terms with another reality and that is, that they are now de facto THE establishment. That will mean many more painful concessions over the next few years. And the most severe and bitter criticism of those compromises and capitulations will come from within the party itself.
Sure those who voted against the party entering government amounted to only 13% - but the political leadership will quickly find that this most ideological of parties will have the most vocal and active of awkward squads – and on some key issues it will be much bigger than a small disgruntled rump of the disaffected.
The challenge facing John Gormley is immense. He will be the personification of the success or failure of the Greens in government. He is its most senior minister. In addition, as the party matures, the party needs a more conventional party leader – a figure who can be the personification and who can provide the intellectual and communication ballast.
Soon the honeymoon period will wear off. At the moment there is a huge novelty factor to the Greens in government, and to the fact that they have ministers. But already the two green ministers have been given a taste of the political castor oil that must be swallowed over the next five years. The M3, Rossport, the Ringsend incinerator… they are only the first of many issues for which the party’s leadership will be accused of selling out.
The Greens got very little out of Fianna Fail when it came to the programme for government. They argued – and there was a merit to what they said – that the train had left the station for many of the controversial issues…like the roads programme; Rossport; the use of Shannon by the US military.
All their eggs went into one basket. And it was this. That they had wrung two ministries out of FF and both were highly influential ones when it came to implementing the party’s agenda – environment; and communications, energy and natural resources.
And so Gormley as leader will have to deliver qua leader and as Minister for the Environment, as will the other minister Eamon Ryan. It was good to see Patricia McKenna running as a candidate. Even though she was in the minority that opposed coalition, she has accepted the decision. She is a radical who brings energy and conviction to her politics and it would be good to see her return to elected office. But realistically, in a period when the party was entering government, a defeat in the leadership contest for Gormley would have seriously undermined his authority and created the first serious crisis in government.
The message from other Green parties in Europe is that they can survive government. But Bertie Ahern has in the past pointed out to the Greens getting destroyed in elections after being in office.
The challenge facing Gormley is that he will have to prove as leader and as minister that the Greens can make a difference, that their presence in government has genuinely tilted the balance, has swayed influence, and has resulted in reverses of policy or a tangible change in direction.
Anything less and the fate that awaits the party will be a mini version of what happened to the PDs this time around. The Greens did not do well in the election. It gained no seats overall. To be sure, the party’s overall percentage increased but only marginally. That was accounted by the fact that it ran extra candidates and that many of its candidates – like Neil O Brolchain and Deirdre de Burca - had built up higher profiles.
If truth be told, it was a flatline performance, verging on a reverse. When the time came, the electorate went for the parties that got there fastest with the mostest. Health and the environment and climate change and crime and value for money all played second fiddle to the Stradivarius of elections – the economy.
But Gormley, like Sargent, embodies the progressive wing of the party, which brought it from a well-meaning but ineffective amateur organisation to a modern and professional party that was capable of sustained electoral success, and of entering government.
He is able, combative, intelligent, pragmatic, politically astute, and has a shortish fuse. All of those have served him well in his various roles with the party down through the years. Leadership qualities are difficult to quantify. It will take time to see how he grows into the role, and whether he is capable of bringing sustainability to the top of the agenda – the sustainability of the economy and, as importantly, the sustainability of his own party.


With his long blond tresses, and his habit of wearing jeans and the Cork O2 GAA jersey when performing his magic in Ireland, Michael Reardon didn’t exactly fit the conventional image of a rock climber. How he presented himself was more in keeping with conventional image of a rock musician maybe. Whice he was once. Twenty years ago and more he was in a glam rock band – his longtime friend and climbing buddie Mark Niles said yesterday that when he first met him he wore more make-up than his wife.
Brought up on the east coast of America Reardon had long made California his home. There were lots of earlier period. His time as an aspiring rock star. The time he spent as a lawyer. A later short but very lucrative foray into movie production. And his lifelong love and obsession with rock climbing. There wasn’t too much that was conventional about Reardon. The long hair and the Cork jersey were fitting to a man that never courted convention. He was outspoken, controversial and loud-mouthed. Once, when somebody doubted a climb he had soloed, he did the route for a second time, placing underwear along the way in a Hansel and Grettel trail that proved the route that he had taken.
Above most other things, Reardon was one of the world’s elite freesoloists. When he made his first visit to Ireland in the recent past, he gave a scintillating demonstration of what that meant. He soloed (rock climbed by himself with no ropes or protection of any kind) many of the most extraordinarily difficult sea cliffs and inland crags in Ireland. Most he did on sight, without giving himself the opportunity of doing a full move-by-move recce of the climb beforehand.
I was lucky enough to be at a slide show he gave last January in Dublin where he reprised his climbing career, including some of his extraordinary firsts. As Mark Houseman said yesterday, he always climbed within his ability but was always testing what his limits were. At the talk, Reardon said that he never climbed up anything he could not downclimb. And what marked him out as phenomenal was his stamina and durability – he could do dozens and dozens of routes in a day and do complex multi-pitched climbs without tiring. He trained remarkably hard and added it to it an unbridled enthusiasm for the sport that did not diminish over two decades.
Reardon was on his third visit to Ireland and was drawn not only for the climbing but because of his growing emotional connection with the land of his father – in one of his last blog entries he said he felt as if he was coming home. He had forged strong friendships with Irish climbers, especially the Kerry mountaineer Con Moriarty.
In fact, when speaking last January, you were convinced that Reardon was nigh invincible on rock, despite eschewing all safety nets. And in the end, though he died on a cliff, it wasn’t from a fall. He had finished the day’s climbing, indeed was just about to wrap up the trip (he was due to fly home to Los Angeles the following day).
Standing on a ledge just about the sea, a freak wave came in and swept him into the surf. Within seconds he had been swept out 150 metres. His friend Damon Corso, who had accompanied him to Ireland, tried to throw him a rope and watched helplessly as he struggled in vain against the huge sell. And though the Valentia lifeboat was on the scene within 20 minutes it was too late.
Yesterday, on the cliff, about 300 people attended a simple and poignant ceremony to mark the tragedy. His wife and teenage daughter, Marci and Nikki, had flown from California as had some close friends from the States. There was music and prayers, poetry and prose, above the last cliff where he had climbed. At the end, two members of the coastguard, placed a wreath in the sea. On an otherwise heavenly and peaceable day, the crashing waves were a reminder of the force that carried him way.
Another American, Michael Sullivan, an Episcopalian minister from Virginia, met Reardon for the first time a fortnight ago. In an email he wrote:
“I do not know if Michael often talked of his death. But the day I met him on the Skelligs last month, dangling from a small outcrop of stones on a wall laid by monks some 1,500 years ago, he told me he did not fear death.
“Why, I asked. He said quite simply: I know who I am and I’ve been lucky enough to be Michael Reardon.”

Visit the late Michael Reardon's own website on www.freesoloist.com

Monday, July 16, 2007

OUTSIDE POLITICS - Michael Reardon

I arrived back from holidays yesterday evening to learn the shocking news that Michael Reardon, the American free climber was missing, presumed dead, after being swept off a rock on Valentia Island in Kerry.

I went to Reardon's slide show in Dublin early this year (see my posting on that event here). Despite his outré and flamboyant image, he was actually quiet-spoken, self-deprecating even. My climbing friends in Kerry, especially Con Moriarty, had struck up very strong friendships with him, as had Damian from Outsider magazine.

Many great mountaineers died in simple accidents, including the great French climber Lionel Terray. Reardon climbed without any protection. One of the things that impressed me about him was that he said he never climbed up anything that he could not back-climb down. In the end, it was a force majeur (a freak wave that swept him out to sea) rather than a fall or a climbing error. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

Postscript following Red Mum's comments:

His own site freesoloist has his blog entries from Ireland which make for very poignant reading. You need to go to the link for his pro blog for Climber magazine to find it. But here's a little taste of what he wrote:

Michael Reardon - Pro Blog 5

Blog #5 – Ireland, Pt. One

Chaos follows me everywhere. I arrived in Killarney, Ireland, barely rested from the ten-hour plane flight, and surprised my friend Con Moriarty by showing up two days early. Big smiles and bigger hugs came from everyone at his outdoor shop. It had been too long since I last shared a pint with everyone, and Con suggested I spend an evening camping in a beautiful location before crashing at his house. Reacquainting myself with the land of my ancestors, is something I cherish every chance I get.

Three hours later, I’m wandering the hills of the Macgillycuddy Reeks in a gentle breeze, following a babbling brook to a lake at the base of Corran Tuathail and reminded at how green everything is! A slight shower kicks in, making everything glow with the moistness and by 9:00 pm I’m at the campsite. Two hours later the sky darkens into night, allowing the gentle breeze and slight shower to change into one of the worst storms I’ve ever experienced. My tent, made for Patagonia winds, thrashes about and threatens to tumble me into the lake frothing the shoreline. Lambs bleating sound like women in pain in that darkness as they mix with the howl of the winds. I should be scared, but instead I smile at the memory of my father telling me of the Banshees that howl among the hills of Ireland. I now believe those stories more than I ever could as a child, and sleep soundly with the knowledge that not all things are myths.

I wake with the morning mists and spend the next hours finding my path out, that includes wading waist deep in the former babbling brook, with my backpack over my head. By the time I made it to Con’s house, and grabbed a much-needed shower, the weather completely changed with the sun streaming out between the thick clouds. The next two days were spent climbing at the Gap of Dunloe.