Some thoughts on Brexit

Image result for brexitNo doubt the world has been waiting with baited breath for my thoughts on Britain’s tortuous efforts to leave the European Union. All two readers of this blog will now have the chance.

I do not pretend that my thoughts are especially well informed or insightful, but anyway, here goes.

First, I want to start with an unpopular opinion, in Ireland anyway. I can see some reasons why British citizens would want to leave the EU. If you are worried about national sovereignty, it is true that the EU increasingly intrudes upon it. European Law is now superior to national law in many respects. For instance, in Ireland, where it had become common to use, as evidence in court, text messages sent electronically, the European Court of Justice has recently ruled that such evidence is inadmissible.

In the case of Graham Dwyer, who was found guilty of murder in 2015, this may lead to the quashing of his conviction. Now whatever the rights and wrongs of this particular case, this and other examples does show that increasingly European law is being decided at the centre and that this overrides laws made in national parliaments. For those who consider that democracy is vested in national sovereignty, this is a legitimate concern.

Secondly, there are those who are hostile to large scale migration from the poorer parts of Europe to the UK under the EU. Now this is not a particularly attractive idea, but it is, at least, not a fantasy or a lie. There has been extremely large scale migration from eastern Europe to Britain and this has put strain on housing, service and wage rates.

Thirdly, and this is an idea I have very little sympathy with, most of the conservative ‘Brexiteers’ appear to believe that Britain could strike far better trade deals outside of the EU than within it. Frankly this is rather hard to believe. Why would a medium sized European country that no longer has its own manufacturing base to any large degree hold more sway than the largest block of economically developed countries in the world?

And what is more, the neoliberal (I had to use that word at least once) enthusiasts for Brexit surely do not have much sympathy for the working class voters who are concerned about immigration. But I digress, the point here is that such people appear to believe that Brexit would have economic benefits. Let’s assume that this is a sincere belief.

If the above points are worth the massive dislocation in leaving the largest, richest and freest block of countries anywhere is the world is a matter of opinion. I would suggest that they do not. But I want to make another point. To take such a grave decision required a British Prime Minister and cabinet who (a) had a strong electoral mandate to do it, (b) had been working on draft plans on it for years and had a clear agenda and (c) had campaigned and won a general election on this basis. That is how the British parliamentary system is supposed to work.

Instead, David Cameron recklessly called a referendum to try to overcome internal opponents within his own party. The referendum was disfigured by systematic untruths, mostly by the leave side, followed by a very narrow victory for ‘leave’ followed by Cameron, the Prime Minister’s resignation. Instead of there being a strong prime minister leading Brexit, there is no leadership at all.

Referenda are not part of the British constitutional system (unlike Ireland as it happens) but instead of elected representatives leading the country, which is how the British system is supposed to work, they being led by a highly fractious, one time only vote, which gives them no clear guidance on the most fundamental and crucial issues.

There does not even appear to be consensus on matters as basic as whether or not Britain should stay within the EU’s free trade and regulatory area. Theresa May, who I will unkindly, but I think not inaccurately, call the default prime minister, appears not to have a problem with it, but cannot get her scheme approved in parliament.

Naturally, here in Ireland, the preoccupation is with the Border between the two states on the island. Here again, it was quite clear that this would be a hugely problematic issue and the main problem here is not that the British wish ill on us or wish to refortify the border, but rather that there has been no planning at all for this logically inevitable problem.

Perhaps what the whole saga really shows is the rot of the British (and perhaps not just the British) system of representative government. Having been accustomed for far too long to marketing type campaigns in order to try to win votes, its politicians seem incapable of doing what they are in fact supposed to do, which is govern the country, to solve problems and to plan for the future.


Fascism 2.0?

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Back in 1940, George Orwell wrote an essay entitled ‘Inside the Whale’. The basic premise is that, like the Biblical character Jonah, stuck inside a whale, the average person could live through great storms on the outside, terrible wars and great world events, but remain relatively unaffected in their own lives. The ‘whale’ or outside world could swim through the terrific storms and all kinds of tribulations, but deep inside its belly Orwell, like Jonah heard only faint echoes of them.

Now Orwell himself experienced more than most. By the time he wrote ‘Inside the Whale’, he had just come back from the Spanish Civil War, where he had gone to fight fascism, been shot in the throat and then nearly been arrested by his own side for belonging to the ‘wrong’ left wing faction.

But recently, metaphor of living inside the whale, in our cosy western bubble has been recurring in my mind. Our lives go on as before and yet we can see around us, as Orwell did in the 1930s and 40s, our world descending into crisis, with dysfunctional politics, the rise of a new authoritarianism and impending environmental catastrophe.

And even inside our ‘whale’ we are beginning to be buffeted by the storms outside.

Who can go to France or Italy or Spain and not see the thousands of African or middle eastern migrants on the beaches and around the train stations; products of the obscene inequality between Europe and their home countries and the zone of war that stretches from Iraq to Chad?

Who has not seen or heard, just beneath the surface, the anger of European populations at what some regard as an ‘invasion’? Or noticed how the far right; the Front National in France, the AFD in Germany, and others have become mainstream parties? Ireland felt only the faintest echo of this recently in surprisingly large electoral vote of presidential candidate Peter Casey.

Who, who has met any Turks or Russians, can fail to see how they will no longer speak about politics in public, afraid of the consequences of saying the wrong thing? The same does not yet apply to Brazilians or citizens of the United States, but it might in the near future.

And who above all, can fail to notice the radically changing pattern of our weather? Even in Ireland in the last year we have had a hurricane, numerous storms, a freezing winter and a scorching summer all in 2018.

And yet all, apparently goes on as before. The whale is swimming into an oil spill. I will not pretend to have any solutions, but I will suggest some causes.

First, the world we have created is one of unparalleled complexity. The human population has grown to a level never before seen and it is consuming resources faster than ever before. At the same time, the almost instant passage of information makes the poor more aware than ever of their plight and determine to live in the ease to which the rich are accustomed.

This makes the management even of developed countries increasingly complex and difficult. In part, I think, the rise of authoritarianism is due to frustration at a world that is increasingly difficult to understand, increasingly full of uncaring ‘others’ who get in one’s way and full of apparently intractable problems.

Where the growth of this kind of society has outpaced the state and its law more rapidly, and where inequality has been sharpest, as in, say Mexico, Brazil, the Phillipines or South Africa, it has also seen an explosion in crime and murder, as well as corruption. The desire for a strongman, a Duterte or a Bolsonaro, or even a Trump to provide simple, violent solutions to such problems is a powerful siren call.

Historian Timothy Snyder describes this phenomenon as ‘sado-populism’ whereby leaders such as for instance Vladimir Putin in Russia or Victor Orban in Hungary or Recep Tayip Erdogan in Turkey, are unable to really solve fundamental problems like massive inequality or corruption, so instead offer their followers consolations in retreating to religious tribalism and nationalism and offering them victories over outside ‘enemies’.

Even in western countries, such is the complexity of a modern economy and so skewed are its rewards that many long for powerful simple solutions to strike at their perceived ‘enemies’ – immigrants, ethnic minorities, the underclass – and solve their problems.

I want to make one more point here, however. The rise of right wing authoritarians, now as in the 1930s is not caused by people becoming more stupid or more prejudiced. It is caused by the objective failure of liberalism – which I will define here as an economic system allowing for free movement of capital and unregulated labour and a political system based on individual rights and freedoms to address these problems.

Brazilians are not wrong to be worried about crime and corruption. Nor are Americans wrong to worry that working class jobs can no longer buy a house or health care. In all probability neither Trump nor Bolsonaro will solve these problems, but and this must be emphasised, neither did Lula or Obama.

Secondly, at the same time as hyper consumption and production has been globalised, the planet simply cannot cope. Humans are consuming and otherwise destroying resources faster than these can be replaced. With an ideology of ‘economic growth’ that actually demands that we increase the level of consumption every year, this is set to continue and if what we used to call the Third World is ‘developed’ the process will accelerate even faster.

While scientists inform us that we have a mere twelve years to avoid catastrophic climate change and that we have killed about 70% of natural wildlife in the last fifty years, nothing changes.

How does this relate to the rise of authoritarianism? One way, is that authoritarianism is western countries is very largely being driven by hostility to mass migration. And that mass migration is in part being caused by rising temperature making parts of the world uninhabitable.

In another way, the new authoritarians are a driver of this impending disaster. Trump has disbanded the Environmental Protection Agency in the USA. Bolsonaro threatens to allow unrestricted logging in the Amazon. These are more complex impediments to ‘our riches’ as Bolsonaro has said that must be removed.

But again, the likes of Angela Merkel, Barrack Obama and Emannuel Macron have also failed to really address this, the central issue of our time. I say this not to relativise the dangers of climate change or the irresponsiblity of the new authoritarians, but to point out that tackling it requires changes much more fundamental than mainstream politics is prepared to carry out.




Air traveller or prisoner?

I do not do much travelling. In fact I have hardly left Ireland at all in the past ten years. This is not because I do not like to see new places. On the contrary, I love seeing new places. Rather, it is because I absolutely loathe the experience of air travel.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not scared of flying. No, what I intensely dislike is the experience of getting an aeroplane. Most likely, any readers will already know exactly what I’m going to say, nevertheless, here’s my story.

In times gone past, a traveller on an aeroplane was treated like royalty. And this is most likely because they were, if not actually members of a royal family then certainly as rich as one.

Today, in the era of mass air transport (and of course random terrorism) the air traveller is actually treated more like a prisoner. Ponder this: in what other feat of endeavour does one have to queue endlessly for several hours, to get into a narrow space, have to pass through a security barrier that requires the removal of all personal possessions and then (in some cases, including mine, on my most recent trip) an invasive body search?

That’s right, the answer is: prison. Then on disembarking more queues, a surly check of one’s passport to make sure one is who one says one is. Once again, in what other area of human activity are you so closely watched, corralled and inconvenienced?

And in between the herding of humans that a modern airport is, you must sit tightly packed with hundreds of other sweating, irritable humans, wiling away the hours in the most uncomfortable of positions.

Next time, I’m taking the boat.


Why the League of Ireland isn’t better than the English Premier League (but it is)


The new League of Ireland season is about to roll around and I approach it with some trepidation.

As a Shamrock Rovers supporter (fan is the wrong word here, you are not generally a ‘fan’ of things that cause you so much frustration, grief and occasionally embarrassment), the prospects for the coming year look mediocre. Probably Dundalk will win the league again, for the fourth time in five years. Cork will probably come second and the Hoops will probably come third. Maybe we’ll do something in the cup (for the first time since 1987).

Around this time of year, LOI fans will generally write things like, ‘the LOI is better than the English Premier League (or whatever it’s called nowadays, I thought it was called the Premiership of something) because of the community, the atmosphere, the realness etc’.

Now I want to introduce a dose of realism here. Just because it’s more honest. In terms of the quality of football, the LoI is not better than the English top flight. Standards here have improved in my time (about 25 years now) of watching the Irish domestic league, but standards in the English top flight have sky rocketed in that period.

Watching (as I very occasionally do) Qatari Manchester City (the original Manchester City, the one Niall Quinn played for, was a very different creature) it’s impossible not to be awed by the technique, the fitness and the athleticism of the players. Let’s not pretend that we can match that, because we can’t.

Don’t get me wrong, you can see some good football in the LoI – Rovers’ battles with Dundalk last year were as full throated and attacking as you could wish to see, but nothing of the standard across the water.

So we might argue also that, ok, technically we inhabit a different planet in the LoI, but at least our games are more exciting; less diving, less defensive play, less cagey football. Sadly this is nor really true either, at least not anymore. The tactics of risk averse football – with one striker (maximum) and endless aimless passing the ball around between the defenders, followed by an aimless ball forward, it doesn’t matter so long as you still have most of the team behind the ball in a defensive posture – have also seeped into the League of Ireland.

Under Trevor Crolly and Pat Fenlon at Rovers, we had to put up with so many excruciating games where basically nothing of any note would happen, that it made you want to scream. Like everywhere else, the football in the LoI is sometimes great, mostly mediocre and sometimes god-awfully dull.

Diving, which you almost never saw in the LoI when I started going to games has also crept in, indeed it’s as routine here now as it is everywhere else. I always remember seeing Matt Britton, a Rovers fullback, in around 1998 (today he sells carpets and has successful chain of shops), nearly breaking a Dundalk player in half in an over the ball tackle on the main stand side of Tolka Park, in reprisal for some previous tackle.

And the Dundalk player ( I forget who it was), just got up, limped for a bit until the pain went away and got on with it. That would never happen now. The player would roll around on the ground long enough to try to make sure Britton was sent off and his manager would go ballistic on the touchline demanding the same.

So we can’t really claim moral superiority in that regard either.

But here is where I get to the rub. Despite not being terribly excited about the new LoI season, I will still go to most Rovers home games and some away ones in the Dublin area, whereas I do not plan to watch any English football, either live or highlights, in the immediate future.

And the same basically goes for the Champions League. I might watch it if it’s on, but I feel no attraction towards it anymore. None at all. (And, just to be clear, Rovers-supporting notwithstanding, I used to watch both religiously).

Why is this?

Because top level football today is an utter circus, to the extent that it is demeaning to the viewer. Competitive football is in a sense, absurd anyway – putting so much energy and emotion into the efforts of a group of young men trying to kick or otherwise propel a ball between two sets of posts.

But we invest it with meaning because it embodies so many of the things that are, rightly, very important to us; teamwork, hard work, dedication, mastery of a skill, belonging. And, importantly, it also gives us clear, easy to understand, measures of victory and defeat, which are so difficult to mark out in day to day life, and which, psychologically, I think we need. But all of this depends to an extent on the sincerity of those engaged in the spectacle.

Today in the English Premier League it is impossible to believe in this sincerity. A player, before he even kicks a ball, will likely be paid far more in a single week than an average spectator could earn in a year. I am not exaggerating. The average weekly wage of a player in the top flight of the English game is £44,0000 or about 60,000 euro. While average yearly wage in England is £27,000 and in Ireland 35,000 euro.

And the top players in England are paid far more than this.

In these circumstances it’s impossible to believe that the players actually really care about the results or the clubs they are playing for. Why would they? Regardless of what they do, they will be massively rewarded. Nor in any case, do the players assembled expensively from every country in the world in a club like Manchester City or Chelsea, or even Manchester United – a much diminished club – have any emotional connection with the club they are playing for.

Now maybe there is no connection between these facts and the fact that most English games today seem to be listless pallid affairs, but I think that there is.

So if English or indeed Irish fans of English teams want to pretend to get excited about a bunch of apathetic millionaires pretending to care about winning games for ‘their’ club, or worse, paying their own money to pay such a cadre of overpaid spoilt children, well that is up to them. But personally I find the idea of investing any emotion, let alone money, in such a farce offensive.

It wasn’t always like this, I look back on clips of English football of my youth in the late 1980s early 1990s and even up to about 2000 and it can still make me smile. But not anymore.

So here’s my point. The League of Ireland for all its many faults, is still part of the real world, not just a scam to take money away from ordinary people and give it to millionaires. The players cannot be doing it just for the money because there simply isn’t enough to make it worthwhile. The annual average LoI wage is about 16,000 euros and even the best paid players only make about 40,000 a year from football. Oddly this makes them seem to care far more.

I can cycle to Tallaght, lock my bike outside, pay 15 euro for a ticket, watch games with people from all walks of life (the LoI is a predominantly working class sport, but supporters actually come from all social backgrounds) and watch young men who have trained hard and who want to win and who, for the most part, seem proud to play for the club. (Thank you, by the way, to Stephen Bradley, who restored my faith in Rovers teams doing this after the aforementioned Crolly and Fenlon era.)

So there it is. I can’t argue that our league is better than the English Premier League by any objective standard, but I will be consuming 100% more of one than of the other.


Of Squirrels, Chinese and Nigerians

stephen hendron
Photo Courtesy of Stephen Hendron.

One of the more pleasant ways to spend an afternoon is walking around the little wood along the river Dodder near my home.

Whether in the summer when the broad lead trees provide a green roof over the path, or in the winter, when the sky peeks through the bare branches, or the autumn when everything turns to a shade or orange and red.

Until about the year 2000, it was very rare to see a mammal or any kind there, apart from a pet dog. But around that time, a new inhabitant appeared, the grey squirrel. Around the trees they would run when you approached, circling up and up into the branches, bickering with each other over food. Where there had been none in a few years there were dozens.

The media noticed this across the country. For some reason in this period the American grey (or ‘gray’ I suppose in its native dialect) squirrel exploded in numbers across the country, displacing, or so it was said, the native red squirrel. The only defence apparently, of the native was the line of the Shannon, where once Irish Catholics had been banished by Cromwell, so now the native squirrel stood cowering from the foreign invader.

As this piece is purely anecdotal, I should note that I never in my life saw a red squirrel and that grey squirrels were the first of that species I ever saw in my corner of Dublin.

But then, at some time in the late 2000s, suddenly the grey squirrel too disappeared abruptly from the park along the Dodder. You can still catch a glimpse of one or two occasionally in the trees, but they are much shyer than before and the days where they seemed to colonise the woodland are long gone.

Apparently, this was noted all over Ireland. The grey squirrel’s numbers crashed at some time after 2007. The red is, reportedly making a comeback. A researcher named Emma Sheehy has apparently linked this to the resurgence of the pine martin, a native predator that developed a taste for the new, larger breed of squirrel, which being less nimble was easier to hunt, and presumably, a more satisfying lunch, than the more elusive smaller red.

I cannot comment except that as far as I know, in the little wood near me, the pine martin has not been spotted. Not by me at any rate. Perhaps the local foxes, who have indeed increased in number in the years in question, took to preying on the squirrels. In any case, I can say that the grey squirrel, though still occasionally visible, is now a rarity. I cannot say that the red squirrel has made a comeback, because, as far as I know they were not there in the first place, but elsewhere, apparently this has indeed happened.

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All of which got me thinking about the eerie parallels between the migration of animals, in this age of unprecedented mobility, and humans. It is of course entirely illogical to think that the fortunes of squirrels are linked to that of humans, but because we have an unavoidable instinct to reduce all matters to those of our own species, we inevitably do so. So here goes.

When I was growing up in the 1990s, Dublin was a grey city, full of white, Irish people. The joke was that if you saw a black man either it was Paul McGrath (the Irish international footballer) or an African medical student. And while this was somewhat flippant, because Paul McGrath lived in England at the time (he’s back now), it wasn’t too far from the truth.

At around the same time as the Grey Squirrel began appearing in Dublin’s parks, so suddenly, in around the year 2000, the city and the country saw the arrival of thousands of new people from around the world; the result of Ireland’s then booming economy.


Some came on student visas, as did thousands of Chinese young people, who attended language schools but who in reality mostly wanted to work. I cannot put a figure on it, but in the period from about 2000 to 2005 almost every Spar or other convenience store or petrol station was manned by young Chinese staff. The number was certainly in the tens of thousands. Apparently, most came from a province north of Bejing.

In about 2001, coming down a hill on my bike, a young Chinese man, on another bike, crashed into me from behind (I don’t think his brakes were working). No one was hurt, he didn’t speak English, nor I Chinese, so I just patted him consolingly on the elbow and went on my way.

Others came as refugees or asylum seekers, as did many from Nigeria. Like the Chinese, as far as I can gather, this was a localised phenomenon, most of the incomers being from the Yoruba-speaking, Christian, south of Nigeria.Nigeria is a chaotic and often violent country, but, in the absence of a formal war, many of the Nigerians in Ireland’s asylum requests were refused by the Irish judiciary, who judged most of them to be economic migrants.

Up to 2004, many received residency permits as as result of having children born in Ireland, who automatically became Irish citizens. In 2004, this was cut off after a referendum in which the constitution was changed, so that children of residents without legal residence were no longer automatically citizens.

Still more people came from eastern Europe. In the days before the eastern countries became EU members, some were recruited by Irish Irish companies to fill labour shortages. I remember in the summer of 2000 working with young people from Latvia and Lithuania in a petrol station, who had been brought to Ireland by a recruitment agency. One women I recall said to me one first meeting, ‘hello, I am from Latvia. There are too many Russians in Latvia’.

Later, when the east of Europe joined the EU, in 2004, there was another wave of migrants, mostly from Poland, who had full rights as EU citizens to live and work in Ireland.

Just north of the woods were the grey squirrel has his brief reign, up a steep slope, are a series of playing pitches. On Sundays I used to go down there to play in informal games of football, where teams were selected on the day from whoever turned up. And here, all of the groups mentioned above, native and newcomers, used to come across each other.

Generally speaking there were more Chinese than anyone else, so usually they selected one team and organised their own substitutes so that everyone got a game. I sometimes played with the Chinese team, but more often for the ‘everybody else’ team. This comprised of a group of Irish lads, Nigerians with an informal leader named ‘Larry’ ( I think), a a group of Albanian builders who at the time were busy building the port tunnel under Dublin Bay and the odd Russian, Pole and Spaniard.

It was certainly interesting. The Chinese were quick and skillful, but light weight. The Nigerians were physical and powerful players. The Albanians were more stolid, calmer, usually like me, defenders. The Irish? Well, we worked hard.

I’d like to say that all of these groups got along harmoniously, but they didn’t. The Chinese, for instance expected the game to start on time. Anyone who showed up late could not play unless they could persuade someone else to come off as a substitute. The Nigerians, on the other hand, figured that if one of their friends came down late allowances should be made. So let’s say there were often arguments. Heated arguments, with the Chinese and an Irish guy named Neil on one side and the Nigerians on the other.As far as I can gather, derogatory comments were made on both sides in mutually unintelligible languages.

Generally I used to sit out these arguments on the grass until they sorted themselves out. But not always. One time I remember getting annoyed and putting in a few too many hard tackles. One of the other Irish guys told me to ‘stop kicking Chinese’. I told him to fuck off. ‘You fuck off’, he said. Another thing that used to frustrate me was that the Nigerians would never voluntarily accept (as you need to do in games without a formal referee) that a decision did not go their way. When a ball went out of play, they would always shout ‘our ball’, even when it clearly wasn’t. I recall getting heated with them on one occasion about this.

But anyway, to round out my story, today most of these groups have vanished, to where I do not know. Like the grey squirrel, you will no longer find them around the park in any great numbers.

It is rare enough today to find Nigerians in Dublin. Some have moved elsewhere in Ireland to avoid Dublin’s high house prices and rents. Others have presumably, had their asylum requests turned down. The loophole opened by the children citizenship clause in the constitution was closed in 2004.

Similarly, in around 2006, the Irish government stopped granting so many student visas to Chinese students. Some of the wave of people from the north of China who came here in around 200 are still here, now in their 30s or 40s, others went home. But there is nowhere near the number, in Dublin anyway, that there were 10 or 15 years ago.

Similarly, many Poles went home during the economic slump of 2008 to 2013.

Dublin is more multicultural than ever though. But now the latest incoming population is a bewildering mixture of Brazilians, Poles, Pakistanis, Arabs, Europeans of every stripe and more besides. Like the grey squirrel, some will probably leave, a small number will remain for good.

So what’s my point? None really, more of an observation that we will live in a world of huge and rapid changes, that beyond the control of the individual person.

Bike Racing, December 2004.

Some of the participants, pictured over ten years later on a much nicer day.

[I wrote this in 2004 when I was younger and stupider. Try not to judge me too harshly. This turned out to be my only formal bike race. Also we were all working as couriers at the time so we sometimes referred to each other by our radio numbers, 55, 60 etc.]

Its cold and dark at seven o’clock on a December morning. I wrap up in three layers of cycling jersies, eat my breakfast and head out. Lizard’s house is in town. The streets are mainly empty and I glide into O’Connell street. The odd drunken person staggers around, presumably trying to get home. Tired looking Chinese people look like they’re walking home after an all night shift in a drinking barn. I stop on O’Connell bridge to wait for 55, getting funny looks, as befits a man in tights. John arrives, we head up to Lizard’s on Gardiner Place. There’s one problem though. Lizard has no back wheel for his bike. Fucks sake.

Lizard’s riding technique could be characterised as kamikaze, but without the caution. As a result, he’s busted both of his wheels. I had given him a spare front wheel the day before, but now I discover the dickhead has smashed the rear one as well. 9 Dave is supposed to be fixing it, but Dave has shown up neither yesterday nor today. Nor is Dave answering his phone at this early hour.

This is typical Lizard behaviour. He had the whole of the previous day to get this sorted out, but instead he’s leaving it till the last minute. I just sit there, sulking. Then we hear a car beep its horn outside the window. Maybe that’s Dave. Its not, but Dave is nevertheless standing outside with his mountain bike and the missing wheel. “How long were you waiting out there?” I ask. “About 15 minutes, but I didn’t want to wake anyone up”. Jesus. It turns out that Dave was out drinking all night and lost his phone. Apparently he came straight here without going to bed. He fits the wheel. All’s well that ends well I suppose.

So Dave heads home to Howth. Me Lizard and 55 John head out into the cold air. But now we have a new problem. Its now well past nine am. The race is at 10am. The race is in Batterstown, which is 30 km away. So now we’ll have to speed it out there. We skirt Phibsborough and head out to Blanchardstown, through miles of concrete housing and industrial estates.

Lizard is putting the hammer down as they say. But we keep dropping John. Me  and Lizard are just spinning but we hear his breathing becoming laboured and he drops behind. Fucks sake, we’re not even going fast! I’m getting very intolerant. All these delays and problems are wrecking my head. I start bitching to Lizard about 55 and his weakness. “Just sit on the wheel”, we tell him. Its ok though, we eventually leave the greyness of Blanch behind and get out onto the Navan road. Lizard gets into the slipstream of a lorry and zips away. Me and John eventually catch him, “SIXTY KPH” Lizard shouts. I shake my head wearily.

So we turn off the main road and arrive in Batterstown. There’s no one fucking there! I stop a rotund local. “Sorry, did you see a big group of cyclists around?” Negative. Ok, “well, do you know the GAA club?” Useless bastard. We head to the GAA club which we’ve been told to go to. Nothing. Fuck anyway. So we get John to ring Noel. Noel tells us to go to a disused garage. “Alrightee then” says John. Spa. The roadies finally surface at the garage. My mood improves a bit. We’re lucky, I tell Lizard, that nothing in this country ever starts on time. We have to register. They ask what category we are. We say we don’t have licenses. The roadies give us pitying looks. Lizard refuses to give his real name. Then crosses himself.

The race is handicapped, that is, split into four groups. The weakest starts first, the strongest last, at intervals of about five minutes. We’re in the second group. We’re told there’s strong and experienced riders in our group. We should listen to their instructions. It turns out there’s plenty of these. The course is about 40 km long, two laps of a 20k circuit. It is mainly flat, but with a few small drags.

We’re off, I start peddling cautiously, spinning the small ring. I wait for the group to form properly before I put it into the big ring. Behind, someone is barking orders. “Up and over” when they want you to pass someone. “Keep it tight”, when they think there’s too much road between you and the wheel in front of you. They get quite tetchy about this, “Jesus Christ, keep it tight!”. Ok, its their game. I just settle in to the middle of the group. Lizard, characteristically, does something they don’t like. I hear squawks of outrage from the bunch. “Sit at the back”, he gets told. “That fucking Cyclone!” (he’s wearing his Cyclone jersey). Never mind. But worse is to follow for Lizard. The bunch turns a tight corner and his chain comes off. The last I see of him is cursing and fumbling with his chain at the side of the road.

We’re now in a narrow road, covered on both sides by high hedgerows. The bunch is riding two abreast. The riders on the right keep overtaking the raiders on the left. This makes it hard to maintain your position. I decide I’m going to stay near the front, because if you try and sit in the middle, you’ll inevitably drop to the back. From this position, you have to react to what everyone else does and can’t set your own pace. Towards the front of the bunch, the peleton thins out into single file.

The pace is quite high, but I think I’m going quite well. The only problem is I’m a little stretched out, which makes using the drops uncomfortable. John is tucked in behind me. He’s much happier pushing a big gear around like this than spinning and reacting to sudden accelerations.

The riders around me are mainly from the Swords CC. One of them goes off the front. I follow him, getting out of the saddle. I presume the rest of the group is just going to follow me, but fuck it. Why let him get away and trust his clubmates to bring him back. So I sprint up to him and then rest on his wheel. Sure enough, there’s still voices behind me, but I look around and see there’s only five or six, mainly Swords men. John’s nowhere to be seen.

Our little group guns it away. The order-givers are still around however. “Come on lads, we’ve got a gap”. I just concentrate on following the wheel in front of me, which is rotating up to the front. I’m reluctant to face the wind however, much to others disgust, “if you’re not going to take a turn then sit at the back”. I just nod. So then I take a turn at the front. Several in fact.

But apparently I’m over too far to the left. “Get out!” the roadies scream at me. I comply. By this stage, we’ve caught the riders from the first group and overtaken them. We finish the first lap and get nearly half way around the second, still out in the lead. By this stage I am sitting at the back, puffing a bit. We’re not too far from the end when we get overtaken by a massive bunch of over a hundred riders. Bollox, all that effort for nothing.

The strongest two groups have closed the gap and dragged the rest of the field up to us. The head of this new bunch zips by us. Then I get caught in the tail end of the group. The crotchety old bastards I’d dropped early in the race. All them seem to be trying to elbow in, in front of me. I swerve. Shouts of indignation. “Jaysus lads, I have kids, I want to see Christmas!”. “You, blue, [that’s me] sit at the back”. I raise my hand in incomprehension. “You’re over-reacting”. Fuckers. But its doesn’t really matter now anyway because the bunch is altogether and I’m spent. I’m happy to just sit at the back and roll in home.

John is now somewhere near the head of the group. Lizard rolls up beside me, “alright mate”. But then he just drops behind. Puncture. Being near the back of big group is extremely frustrating. Its called the “concertina effect”. What happens is that you’re belting along, but then, somewhere at the front, the pace slows down. You have to break hard to avoid  smashing into the people in front of you. Then it speeds up and you have to sprint just to keep in contact.

There’s so many bodies that I can’t see the finish line. I see people sprinting at the front, then its over. John finishes near the front. I’m happy enough. I was in a break for most of the race. The roadies certainly justified their cranky reputation among other cyclists., but I’m still buzzing with adrenaline, so I don’t care. Lizard is another story though. He punctured about two km from the end.

After about five minutes he rolls in slowly on a flat tyre. Dead fucking last. He’s bulling. “I am never racing with old scumbags again”, he tells me. “One of them tried to grab my jersey and tells me to sit at the back. I tell him, no, I won’t, now let go of my fucking jersey”. He is not a happy bunny. But he improves a little bit when I give him a replacement tube. “I owed the devil for this race”, he tells the guy at the track pump.

We get coffee and snacks at a petrol station and then head for home. Its bitterly cold and the sweat from the races chills me. Lizard wants to race home. I tell him to sort his head out. But we’re relaxed now as we weave through the Sunday afternoon traffic in Blanchardstown. Lizard decides he’s going to break all the traffic lights. Even though there’s a Garda car right behind him. He gets away with it though. “I’m going to get a monk to bless my bike”, he tells me. I sigh.

Trump and the end of history

trumpismThese are frightening times. The world order we thought we knew after the Cold War is gone and so are many of its certainties.

For twenty plus years, the western world was driven by an ideology that favoured free trade, that privileged open borders and (relatively) free travel of both people and of capital across the world.

It was an ideology driven by what Francis Fukyama famously called ‘the end of history’. Liberal democratic capitalism had triumphed. It only remained to watch its spread approvingly across the world.

This ideology, combined with massive jumps in technology, allowing near instant communication and quick and cheap transport across the globe, really has transformed the world. The world economy today generates massive amounts of profit by locating manufacturing wherever labour is cheapest and selling where prices are high. Where operations cannot be moved, such as the service sector of developed countries, it favours large scale immigration to ensure a continual supply of cheap labour.

This has revolutionised the world in profound ways. Today London is majority ethnic minority and about 40% non-English born.  Britain’s old industrial heartlands – the north of England, the Welsh mining country, cities like Belfast and Glasgow, are economic husks, relying almost entirely on redistribution from the centre at London, that international city state, where finance; the storing, loaning and speculating on capital, represents Britain’s main remaining viable industry.

I use Britain as a nearby example, but the same is true across much of the western world. An economy driven by an internationalised, knowledge-based sector and supported at the bottom by continual waves of migrant labour from poorer countries. The same is true in Ireland, though since we never properly had an industrial revolution, we missed much of the pain of the transition. The same is certainly true in the United States, of which more later.

The above is driven by conviction – that the goal of any society should be to maximise economic growth – and also by interest. By dispensing with nationally protected, unionised jobs, by locating anywhere and everywhere across the world and by ensuring a cheap supply of labour where it cannot move, big business, shareholders and financiers have made enormous profits over the past 20 years. Most businesses of any size are now multinational.

The ideology of liberal multi-culturalism then, should really be seen in this context. It is a strategy to manage increasingly diverse populations that have been created by the needs of capital. Similarly, the advancement of women’s equality has not been driven primarily by idealism, but by a desire for access to an expanded workforce. Those liberals who talk about hypocrisy in not fully implementing racial and gender equality are missing the point. Equality was never the goal.

So here’s my central point. We are seeing a backlash against globalisation in developed countries. We have seen this is in Brexit in the UK. We have seen it the rise of the nationalist far right in Europe – in Poland, in in Hungary in France, in Germany. And now we have seen it in the election of Donald Trump in the US.

The reasons are not hard to find for those who wish to look. These are revolts by those who do not wish to live in societies are constantly being revolutionised by the free movement of capital and the influx of diverse and often alien cultures. Those who profess horror at Trumpism fail to understand its appeal. Trump has promised to ‘tear up’ deals such as NAFTA which allow American companies to relocate to Mexico and promised to ‘round up’ illegal immigrants from south of the border.

Why is it difficult to understand why this would appeal to voters from the so called ‘rust belt’, the centre of deindustrialisation? At the same time as the well-paying unionised jobs have vanished, they now have to compete with very poor immigrants for the remaining low-skilled, low paid, service jobs.

Nor is the revolt simply economic. While the end-of-history school of thought surmised that all cultural and ideological differences would fade away, this has not happened. Particularly in Europe with migrants from majority Muslim countries, immigrants have not integrated. Fueled by Saudi and Qatari-funded Mosques and schools (another product of the free movement of capital) resentful second generations, no longer satisfied with serving as cheap labour, have turned increasingly towards radical Islam.

These are real issues. The turn towards ‘anti-establishment’ right wingers such as Trump, Farage, Le Pen and Orban is the direct result. And throwing up one’s hands and shouting ‘racism’, ‘misogyny’ etc. will not make these issues go away. Globalisation and its benefactors want a globalised society. The voters do not.

So far I have talked mainly about economics. But there is also a political dimension. At the same time that liberal, i.e. free trade, capitalism triumphed economically, liberal democracy was thought to have triumphed politically. Indeed the two were commonly presented as the same thing. We now know that this is false. There can be fast growth, low wage, free trade capitalism in increasingly authoritarian countries. China makes no pretence at being a democracy, Russia and increasingly Turkey are now ‘managed’ democracies, without genuinely free elections, free political parties and a free press. And such examples are spreading.

They are spreading because, when Russia, for instance, in the immediate post-Soviet era, allowed the markets and the ‘oligarchs’ to operate unhindered, the country’s economy, the citizens’ welfare and the integrity of the political system all but collapsed. Putin’s rise is about re-establishing state control and for this most citizens tolerate authoritarianism, control over the media and the occasional assassination.

The national-populist politicians in the West such as Trump may wish to go down these lines, but the systems they inhabit have much more rigorous traditions of the rule of law.

There is one final point here. Riding along on the back of liberal universalism was a desire or stated desire to spread it all over the world. At is crudest, this meant ‘regime change’ as occurred in Iraq in 2003 and in Syria as the US has been trying to engineer since 2011. Without entering into the swamps of middle eastern internal politics, it is fair to say that such interventions suffered both from fantasy and from rank hypocrisy.

The thinking was that overthrowing the dictators Saddam Hussein and Bashar al Assad would natural result in a liberal democratic order settling peacefully on these countries. And this is false. History was not over. The vengeful Shia majority took power in Iraq, the resentful Sunnis took up arms against them. The end result was ISIS. Similarly in Syria, the opposition to Assad is not democratic, it is Sunni Islamist, increasingly, radically so.

Where the hypocrisy comes in is that US allies – the autocratic, fundamentalist monarchies of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and others – have not alone not been targets of regime change but have apparently been allies in overthrowing authoritarian secular regimes in the region. The outcome of these wars has not been the spread of democracy but the spread of chaos, religious fanaticism and terrorism.

The citizens of western countries no longer see why they should support such allies and fight such wars – something that again, Trump and the other populists have in common. Once again, I must ask; are they wrong?

Do not take this essay to mean I am a supporter of the likes of Farage, Trump or Le Pen. I am not. I am a supporter of the EU (though not perhaps of its current structures). I am not in favour of racial or sexual discrimination. I am not, as Trump and Farage in particular profess to be, a supporter of deregulation of big business. On the contrary, I think this is the source of the problem.

I believe that climate change is real and even if it were not I think that economic growth should take second place to protecting the environment.

But the post-Cold War fantasy of the peaceful triumph of globalised liberal capitalism is over. What will replace it will be more statist, more nationalistic and perhaps more authoritarian. If we want to prevent its worst excesses we must acknowledge this reality.

Commemoration fatigue and fatigue in general

republic flagI write this post as a kind of Easter Rising therapy.

Why? You may ask. My other website The Irish Story today, Easter Sunday has got around 10,000 hits, by far its best ever. I was on national television, commentating (intermittently) on the state’s 1916 commemorations. I’ve had a series of articles in the national press (ok online only, but still)

I organised a series of talks on the Rising for the People’s College and am down to give two more talks this spring on 1916. All good, no? This is what you wanted isn’t it?

Interest in early 20th century Irish has never and probably never will be greater than now on the centenary of the 1916 insurrection.

So what’s wrong with me? One problem is that I very foolishly decided to write a book on an unrelated subject at he same time. Another problem with trying to get swept along by the tide of Rising mania is that you get sucked into to its poisonous debates. One of the article I wrote for the newspaper featured comment calling me a ‘mendacious revisionist’.

The problem with national myths is that you’re not supposed to question them. Or if you want to question them at least align yourself with a substantial other faction. I’ve never been very good at this. With the result that my every utterance on the Rising is accompanied by a sense of dread. I have not actually been very controversial nor received much abuse. And yet I find myself worrying about this every time I type a sentence on the Rising or open my mouth on it in public.

The 2016 commemorations are a good thing if you’re interested in Irish history. Not for the great new insights, centenaries are not great for that, but for the public interest which allows those of us who do care to get our research and our thoughts across.

But right now I just feel tired. I feel stressed with having to mediate the public’s mood and put across the right messages. And I want to sleep.


Some thoughts on St Patrick’s Day


These are my memories of St Patrick’s Day when I was a kid ;

My Dad (and possibly my Mum but I mostly remember my Dad) would take me into the parade. We would park somewhere near the quays but it wasn’t too much of a problem as there wouldn’t be all that many people in town anyway.

It would always (but always) be freezing cold. Normally a freezing wind would sweep up the Liffey and scour you to the bone. Your fingers would turn slowly blue as you clutched your little Irish flag.

And then the parade. First would come the Irish Army band – which for a young boy was exciting enough – some of the soldiers had real guns! – with the big drums whose sound would reverberate in your belly in a satisfying way.

Then the American majorettes, – girls in swimming costume types outfits twirling batons and, like your fingers, turning blue in the cold and then some other Irish-Americans, who having made the pilgrimage to the old sod, would actually just be walking along slapping each others backs in congratulation. I remember feeling vaguely pitying towards them all.

But what really sticks in my mind about those Dublin St Patrick’s days of the 1980s and 90s was not the above. No what I really remember was the essential dullness of the parade. This was summed up in roughly every fourth float, which was a plain truck with a loudspeaker. ‘A.D.A (pause) SECURITY’ it would drone on a loop. Over and over. ‘A.D.A – SECURITY’. This wasn’t just one year, this was every year.  For several years.

What was ADA security? I have no idea. Why was it in the St Patrick’s Day parade? Don’t know.

Just to check I didn’t hallucinate this, I asked my sister, who remembers the same thing. And my Dad who tells me it was intended as an exposition of Irish industry (stop that laughing).

It seems symptomatic of the half-assed way we did things in Ireland at that time. We used to secretly snigger at the few tourists (usually Irish American) who were suckers enough to fall for it. We used to also marvel at the St Patrick’s Day parades they apparently had in America itself. With rivers turned green, green beer and assorted other random green bullshit. I remember gazing in wonder at the film The Fugitive in around 1993 and wondering at the massive St Patrick’s Day parade in Chicago that takes place in the background of several scenes.

Anyway at some point people worked out that what St Patrick’s day needed in Dublin was to be ‘festival’. As Rio had the Carnival we would St Patrick’s Day. So some time in the late 1990s – I’m tempted to say 1998 but I’m too lazy to look it up – Paddy’s Day became a kind of extravaganza with fireworks, dancers and bongo drums. ADA Security whoever they were, were sent packing to whence they came.

For me this marks an important cultural shift in Ireland. From really not caring and going through the motions regarding our culture to making it all up from scratch to make extra money out of tourists.

Now in or around the same time, whether connected or not, St Patrick’s Day in Dublin became an absolute orgy of drink fuelled mayhem. Maybe it was always like this and I didn’t realise. But from about 2000 onwards, St Patrick’s Day grew to be an annual hunting season for gangs of feral drunk teenagers. I remember one such day around 2009  I was cycling around the Royal Canal, somewhere near Finglas when I encountered a friendly Garda. Was this, I innocently asked him a busy day for him? He merely looked at me sagely. That night the news reported the riot squad had been called out in Finglas.

On another occasion in or around the same period I happened to be drinking in a pub in Phibsborough on the day. It was the one and only occasion when, like the western saloons of the movies, the entire pub became embroiled in a drunken fist fight after a disagreement between two men. This was at about 4 pm.

The modern St Patricks’ Day in Dublin is a strange hybrid, the odd moment whereby thousands and thousands of young people come to the city from across the world for what they think it is the beer-fueled party to end all beer fueled parties. Unaware that the sensible citizen stays at home for the day and they share the city streets with that portion of the population that has been gagging all year for a spot of drunken mayhem.

The following is my facebook entry from March 18, 2012.

Went into the city centre for a while yesterday but it’s all just too mental. Garda riot squad pursuing a mob down O’Connell Street, your shoes sticking to the ground because of all the spilt drink, broken glass everywhere, packs of drunk teenagers. All the pubs and streets absolutely rammed with people. And half the people at least seemed to be Brazilian or Spanish. I like Brazilians and Spaniards but it’s just weird to hear so many people wrapped in tricolours talking away in Portuguese and Spanish, especially on Paddy’s day. Decided I was getting too old for this and needed a good strong cup of tea. The police are virtually under siege all day. However I also want to report seeing a garda bringing a case full of beer bottles into a certain station yesterday evening, just so they wouldn’t feel left out I suppose.

In the end all the participants get something out of it after all…

World Cups

wc 1970

You can, they say, measure out your life in world cups. This now frightens me quite a lot as I have 7 under my belt. I’m now 34.

In 1990 I was 9 going on ten. For Ireland it was perhaps the best world cup ever. But for me it was not only that. It was a party and festival of football. Far off teams from far off countries. Johnny Giles explaining it all in his perm. How disappointed I ultimately was with the final – an utterly cynical spectacle. So indeed were many of the knockout games. It seemed a violation of the spirit of the game. The death of idealism somehow. And the weirdest thing is that my nine year old self could feel this as a betrayal and yet know also that in the scheme of things it didn’t matter.

But in 1994 there was still a sense of fractured idealism that had to be recovered. 1990 had seen the fewest ever goals. Everybody myself included willed it to be ‘the best tournament since 1970’. It wasn’t really but Brazil did win it, their first triumph since that fabled team of Pele and co. They even played Italy in the final, as in 1970.

But whereas the 1970 team had swept away the azzurri 4-1, Brazil of 1994 vintage stuttered to a 0-0 draw followed by penalties. Again at the end a strange sense of betrayal for me. As if the reality that you wanted to believe in wasn’t real at all. There was only sterility and negativity out there. And genocide in Rwanda which broke out around the time the World Cup was ending. The news that reported the World Cup Final led with thousands of bodies floating down rivers in the heart of Africa.

Writing this it’s interesting that I felt and to some degree still feel, with a deeply irrational conviction that the ills of the world, even of human nature could be set at nought if only the best teams, playing free flowing football could win and win in style and without bad grace. Why do I think this? What does it mean?

By contrast, 1998 seemed strangely dead. For the first week the main story was continuous rioting by English fans in Marseilles. No Ireland, which removed a degree of emotional involvement. But also many of the games seemed anaemic, many of the stadiums half empty. Brazil had great players at this time – Ronaldo, Rivaldo etc but strolled into the final with such little effort that they hardly seemed to deserve it. France also had a great team –Zidane, Deschamps, Desailly and co. Zidane then and later was probably the best all round player I’ve ever seen.

They did have a more epic run to the final – including a surging come back against Croatia (and Suker one of my favourite players of that era). And the final itself had a kind of epic feel about it, with the Marseillais crashing out and the French tricolour everywhere. Zidane’s two goals decided it but what I most remember is Petti’s breakaway goal which had that gorgeous quality of the inevitable that the best counter- attacking goals have.

2002 was a real low point. Brazil had some excellent players but never needed to really play well to win the tournament, though I was glad they did. The final was really a stroll, though I was pleased for Ronaldo who scored two goals. Ireland had the Roy Keane affair and spirited game against Spain early in the morning, going out on penalties, after which, here in Ireland, the heavens opened. The odd thing is that none of these things are my abiding memory, which is just of the poor football and the extremely irritating success of poor but hard working teams such as South Korea, Turkey and God help us, the USA. There was no glorious football, no sublime triumph of the excellent. No titanic matches. It was not the first time I realised it but the clearest example of my distaste for the plucky underdog.

2006 had at least one classic game – Germany and Italy but the final was a dour affair, to be mainly remembered for Zidane’s sad swansong. And then penalties. Italy, as far as I was concerned, were champions in name only. The same, strange cheated feeling as back when I was 9. Betrayal almost. The cheats like Matterazzi would always win. The talented, the creative would lose.

It is notable that as the numbers of participants has gone up, the quality of world cups has fallen sharply. Since 2002, the better teams have indeed generally come out on top. In 2010 Spain started slowly, but playing remorseless possession football ploughed their way through to the final. Their victory in a bad tempered final did soften the old feeling of betrayal, Iniesta’s excellent winner in particular but it did feel as if they were only temporarily staving off the forces of darkness. None of this stopped me watching almost every game, as usual of course.

And 2014? Well, there was good and bad. One of the main plus points was that it was in a real football heartland, Brazil and thousands of South Americans followed their team there. The atmosphere was somewhat less contrived than in South Africa, where armed police kept the locals a safe distance away from the stadiums.

The football? Again it had its upsides. Germany had a team of genuine quality. Messi produced just enough moments of magic to keep us interested. There was the drama of Spain’s decline and Brazil’s rather fortunate run to the semi-finals and dramatic implosion against Germany. And yet. Brazil – the country that somehow used to be the guardian of football’s soul – has lost that title forever. Their 7-1 rout at Germany’s hands was slightly sad to see but no one could say it was undeserved.

And again, there was just a lack of ‘epicness’ about it all.

The naïve joy of the World Cup seems to have gone a little, dissipated by too many games of inferior but well organised teams set up to defend. And, in fairness, too much cynical and world weary lethargy from the stronger nations. But maybe I’m just getting old.