IRELAND: WHERE WE ARE AT 1611(2) XCV (2)

IRELAND: WHERE WE ARE AT

To recap. Last February’s general election produced no clear winner, with Fine Gael, the largest party, winning less than a third of the seats (FG 50, FF 44, SF 23, Lab 7, Others 34). Taoiseach Enda Kenny was eventually re-elected after concluding a “Confidence and Supply” arrangement with Fianna Fail under which it agreed to abstain on major issues provided its specified interests were taken into account.

While this was criticised at the time as inherently unstable, the Kenny government in early October successfully negotiated its first signposted hurdle – the 2017 budget.  With little change in the opinion polls and no enthusiasm among the major parties for another election, some pundits are talking about the possibility that the government will last the three budgets foreseen in the arrangement.

The arguments in favour, apart from nobody wanting an election, are that the economy is still performing at least as well as could be expected, that there is wide acknowledgement  that there are no magic bullets to solve at a stroke the housing and health issues which dominate domestic politics and that an election is unlikely to change much.

Others are less sanguine. The bookies are giving odds on an election next year with the next government a grand coalition of the two main parties. Certainly there are major issues pending.

The slow burner, which only arose after the May agreement, is the effect of Brexit, now looming ever larger. The first tangible outcome has been the significant fall in the value of sterling, making Irish goods and services more expensive in what is by far the largest market for Irish indigenous industries. And already the-canary-in-the-coal-mine has sounded, with several of Ireland’s mushroom producers, dependent on the UK market, closed down.  There are fears of, if not a tsunami, then substantial job losses and business closures as Irish firms are priced out. Sterling’s fall has also heralded a return of the cross border shopping effect with southern shoppers heading north, as in the past, to take advantage of cheaper prices, and not just on high excise items like alcohol. And Ireland is now more expensive for British visitors, our largest tourist market.

Still unquantifiable, and likely to remain so for some time, is the effect of Brexit on the Common Travel Area between Britain and Ireland, with all the possible implications for relations between the two parts of the island. Given the centrality of the issue of migration into Britain in the Brexit vote, there is increasing concern over where Britain will situate its border controls. It is hardly going to allow unrestricted access from Ireland into the North or via ship or plane to Britain if this provides a back door for third country nationals to enter. The alternatives are to position border controls on the border with the south – which, however organised, will greatly inhibit and discommode cross border movement of Irish people – or require Dublin to impose additional border controls at Irish ports of entry. Neither is very palatable to politicians here, with the additional possibility of a large pool of wannabe migrants to Britain congregating in the south.

It will be mid-2019 at the earliest before Brexit becomes a reality. In the meantime there are more clear and present dangers. Ireland has bounced back well from the Crash. Always a good indicator, registration of new private cars in 2015, at 121,110, was up 30% on 2014 and heading towards the pre-bust record figure. The population is increasing, the economic indicators are generally good and the only damper on house sales are the Central Bank’s restrictions on credit, introduced to prevent  a repetition of the disastrous property bubble of the Noughties. Whether the politicians will continue to hold the line on this in the face of increasing public demand for relaxing the rules remains to be seen. While there is no quick fix to the housing shortage, public opinion is fickle. The government could well be wrong-footed on the issue, particularly if Fianna Fail were to embrace it as an election issue.

As I write, the government is facing a slow revolt over public sector pay, with a winter of discontent expected. Pay in the public sector was cut during the Recession, as a quid pro quo for maintaining existing jobs, but with the fatal promise that the cuts would be restored when the economy recovered. Cue the recovery. A cave-in to the (private sector) Luas tram drivers last summer demanding  a pay increase was followed by another cave-in, this time to the ( arguably more deserving) state sector bus drivers. Predictably the queue of state employees seeking restoration of cuts is mounting, with, as I write, the Government facing an unprecedented strike by the Gardai, with all that that implies, in November.

This is a tricky one. There IS a formula for restoring cuts in full, over time as the economy improves and finances permit.  Most of the public sector unions have bought in, so what to do about those who haven’t?  What about those who want more than just restoration? And where should public sector employees, regarded with resentment as having guaranteed jobs for life, come in the queue for restoring other cuts imposed during the recession, including some of the cruel cuts in health and welfare services? All this is negotiable, given luck and no economic setbacks or another worldwide recession. It could go right, but it could go horribly wrong.

One area where the government will definitely run out of wiggle room is that of Irish Water. The issue of paying for water is politically toxic, yet Fine Gael seem unable to grasp this and have saddled themselves – and the country – with another year of wrangling.  To preserve the government the can was kicked down the road last summer with the establishment of an “Expert Commission” to examine all aspects of water in Ireland and report back to a special committee of parliamentarians early in 2017, with a further delay before definite proposals are put to the Dail in mid-2017!

Since Fianna Fail subsequently came out in favour of abolishing charges the issue now is simple: either Fine Gael caves in next year or the government falls. This would be laughable were it not also serious. And waiting in the wings is the issue of increased charges for garbage collection, postponed for a year until July next. Well might a friend remark to me that the country is becoming all but ungovernable, while another friend added more caustically that the country is ungoverned!

As if this were not enough the Abortion issue has slunk back in with increased demands for a referendum to repeal the Eight Amendment outlawing abortion.  A “Citizens’ Assembly” – another delaying device – is to report back on options by mid- 2017. While there is considerable public support for abortion in the case of fatal foetal abnormalities, the small print has yet to be worked out. The battle lines are already drawn and a nasty and emotional debate can be foreseen. One thing is certain. It will not be a shoe-in like last year’s vote on same sex marriage.

All told then, an interesting few months lies ahead.

25/10/16

 

 

 

ONE FOR (NEARLY) EVERYBODY IN THE AUDIENCE 1611 XCV

ONE FOR (NEARLY) EVERYBODY IN THE AUDIENCE

There was very little doubt that the 2017 Budget would pass. Nobody wanted another election. The shaky, unlikely coalition that is Enda Kenny’s government looks set to last at least until the middle of 2017 when a number of issues are scheduled to come to a head.  Kenny himself shows no sign of quitting.

This should not be taken necessarily as a sign that the “new politics” is working, just that neither of the two main parties saw anything to be gained in facing the electors again so soon. It’s been as you were politically since February. While Fianna Fail has been doing relatively well in the polls, consolidating its slight post –election lead over Fine Gael, an opinion poll before the Budget showed both main parties neck and neck with 26% each. These figures were marginally up on the election outcome but fell far short of enough support to govern.  Unless the two parties were to merge – still a favourite with the bookies.

Such a merger may eventually take place, but not before a lot of soul searching by both parties. Not only is it off the table as long as one party – Fianna Fail – thinks it can regain its dominant position in Irish politics, far-fetched but believable by the party faithful, but also because it would replace the current mild ideological party political set up with a more sharply defined Right –Left one. Not surprisingly Sinn Fein and its leftist fellow travellers have been clamouring for this as the obvious beneficiaries. But  between them Sinn Fein and the hard left constitute  less than 20% of the votes and seats;  they have clearly some distance to travel before being serious contenders for power. Any FF-FG merger would give Sinn Fein a major leg up, something neither party seems disposed to do.

There’s no doubt that the Recession and its aftermath severely damaged the neat pre-2008 arrangement of two broadly centrist parties, with a makeweight less-than-radical Labour party . Sinn Fein has been the chief beneficiary, siphoning support from Fianna Fail and Labour, which has also lost out to the Left.  There’s been a major rise in the number of Independents yet it would be premature to write off the major parties yet. Together with Labour they make up roughly 60% of the vote (and seats) and it’s been pointed out that many of the Independents have FF/FG DNA in their veins.

Passage of the Budget was helped enormously by the fact that it was basically uncontroversial and involved no hard choices. Revenue figures were buoyant, no tax increases were imposed beyond the ritual rise in cigarette tax, and no expenditure cuts were necessary. Indeed there was money – not a lot – to spread largesse around the system with a little for most pressure groups. Some progress was made on restoring some of the cruel cuts to welfare services, particularly in health, made during the austerity years and there were very modest cuts in taxation. There was precious little for the squeezed middle, something which may yet return to haunt, but, in the short term at least, economic hardship of itself looks unlikely to bring the Government down.

The Budget had two items of note, apart from the fact that the billion plus handouts were financed by borrowing (still!). A first step was made to introduce childcare subsidies to meet the demands of a particularly vocal lobby group – working parents – and a new income tax rebate scheme of up to €20,000 was announced for first time buyers of new houses. The childcare subsidy has been received with satisfaction by some (a “welcome first step”), demands for more by others and criticism from the much-less-vocal stay at home mothers lobby, demanding parity (watch this space when the subsidies are increased).

The tax rebate scheme has been received with derision and dismay by most economists and a large segment of the public as doing nothing to solve the housing supply logjam. This is an issue that seems likely to run. The government sought to appease the first time buyers lobby who are complaining over the amount of the cash deposit required to get on the housing ladder, thanks in part to the “stable door” lending restrictions imposed by the Central Bank to prevent a repetition of the disastrous property bubble that laid the country low in 2008. With new housing starts stalled or low in volume the sanguine hope is that having more people with money to spend will stimulate supply. Economists argue that it will merely push up the prices of new houses. Public reaction is to complain that the measure applies only to new houses, whereas often older houses are cheaper. There may be pressure to extend the scheme before the Finance Act is passed.

Thus far it has been the Government of Easy Options, with anything remotely controversial kicked into 2017. One Minister has been reported as stating that there was no point in attempting to introduce any measure that involved an additional charge or tax as it would not get through the Dail. But even prevarication has its limits. The water charge fiasco remains unresolved with an expert committee due to report next March. With Fianna Fail now committed to abolishing charges, either the diehards in Fine Gael agree or the Government will collapse. Bin charges, a lesser fiasco, will also heat up next year when the Government moratorium lapses in July.

Right now the sands are running out on another major headache for the Government – Public Sector Pay. This was cut during the Recession, as a quid pro quo for maintaining existing jobs, but with the fatal promise that the cuts would be restored when the economy recovered. Cue the recovery. A cave in to the (private sector) Luas tram drivers last summer was followed by another cave in, this time to the ( arguably more deserving) state sector bus drivers. Predictably the queue of state employees demanding restoration of cuts is mounting, with, as I write, the Government facing an unprecedented strike by the Gardai , with all that that implies, in November. The careful construct of public sector pay controls, essential to continued economic recovery and control of public spending , appears close to collapse. One friend has remarked that the country is becoming all but ungovernable. Another friend added more caustically that the country is ungoverned!

In 2017, also, the Brexit process will get under way. Already it has dawned on politicians here that the effects could be very serious for Ireland. The first jobs have been lost in the food sector as Irish producers struggle to cope with the slump in sterling. More will follow as Irish business tries to compete with suddenly cheaper British rivals. The North threatens to become again  a Mecca for southern shoppers,  and not just for  high excise items like alcohol, with the knock –on effect felt throughout the economy.

Even worse as a political headache, the Abortion issue is slinking back. The battle lines are being drawn (”Repeal the Eighth”), and, again, the “Citizens Assembly “will report on the issue in 2017.

2017: Chinese Year of the Rooster – when the chickens come home!

18/10/16

 

 

ROTTEN TO THE CORE 1610 XCIV

ROTTEN TO THE CORE

In recent weeks the ordinary Irish punter has received a crash course in corporate taxation courtesy of the European Commission and the Apple Corporation.

This lesson has underlined the reality that taxes, like death, may be inevitable, but who pays them and how much varies greatly.  In Ireland, as in every country, a complicated structure of rates, allowances and exemptions provides lucrative careers for armies of accountants, tax specialists and lawyers employed expressly to minimise the amount of tax paid. And the general conclusion, here as elsewhere, is that the wealthier the client, the better help can be hired and the smaller the resultant tax bill.

There’s nothing fair or equitable about the Irish tax system, notwithstanding official claims that it is among the most “progressive” tax regimes in Europe. Possibly it is, in the narrow sense that once an individual’s income for tax purposes has been determined, taxation at a rapidly increasing rate is applied, so the more you “earn” the more you pay. The devil however is very much in the detail of determining just what you “earn” for tax purposes, with the legislation a mishmash covering personal and company tax law as it has evolved over the last century.  The lines between tax avoidance – permissible – and tax evasion – illegal – can be blurred, and tax defaulters rarely if ever face jail, which hardly encourages compliance.

The elements parcelled together in Irish tax law reflect a mixture of government policy and the fruits of special interest lobbying over decades. Inter alia there are provisions governing non residence, policies of disregarding certain income entirely and others favouring certain groups of taxpayers. Much of the legislation and provisions (or exemptions!) were drafted initially in tandem with and with an eye on other government laws and policy objectives.

The result, on the personal tax side, has been something to annoy everybody. Why should certain people receive a $50,000 plus exemption on income received for writing a book or selling a painting? Why should people receiving one payment from the state pay tax on it while people receiving a different payment do not? Why should some people charge the cost for travelling to work while others cannot? Why should those caught in the PAYE net alone have tax deducted right away?  And why should persons – invariably wealthy – pay no tax in Ireland if they are deemed “non-resident for tax purposes” which is liberally interpreted to apply to anyone not proven to reside here for 184 days in any one year?

One question rarely asked is about Ireland’s low rate of corporation tax. At 12.5% – much lower than that on individuals – the CPT rate has become one of Ireland’s sacred cows, to be defended as fiercely as the level of the Old Age Pension. The reason is simple. That low rate has been identified as one of the major factors in successfully attracting and keeping foreign industrial investment here. And, while other factors making Ireland attractive can be cited, few doubt the importance of the low tax rate. It had its origins half a century ago when Ireland was struggling to establish a manufacturing export oriented industrial base and was attempting to attract inward industrial investment.

We have come a long way since then but the tax rate continues to matter. Any doubts on that score can be dispelled quickly by viewing the various attempts and pressures put on Ireland by the Commission and individual EU states to force a change. Under sustained pressure from the Commission the Government increased the rate to 12.5% some decades ago amid allegations from several EU states that Ireland was poaching jobs and investment.  When we were on our uppers several years ago, requiring a bail out from Europe, concerted and determined pressure to change was again exerted by the Commission and several member States, including France. We held firm on the grounds that national taxation was a matter for member states and not within Commission competency.

We were supported back then by several smaller member states which themselves were applying low rates, again to encourage inward investment. I recall in 2002 Estonian Prime Minister Kallas discussing Estonia’s low tax rate and asking me, rhetorically, what else a small country on Europe’s periphery had to offer. Indeed. The peripherality argument is one that has never been teased out fully within the EU, where there are massive cost savings and advantages to companies (and countries) close to the EU’s centre. And, very importantly, one of the EU’s heavy hitters, Britain, was firmly and resolutely opposed to any encroachment by the Commission into the area of national taxation.

Cue August 30, Apple, and the European Commission, which found under the EU’s “state aid” rules, that Apple, one of the world’s major corporations, had paid little or no tax on billions of earnings through channelling huge sums in complicated fashion through Ireland. There is no doubt that this took place and the Commission called the Irish government complicit in facilitating Apple’s arrangements, instructing it to claw back €13 billion plus interest in taxes dodged by Apple since 2003. The government is appealing the ruling and the matter is likely to drag on for several years.

There are a number of dogs in this particular complicated fight. There is the multi- layered issue of EU – US trade relations, affecting both sides, and involving the relationships between both tax systems and multinational companies, with agreement for once between the USA and Europe that the multinationals need to have their wings clipped – and their profits taxed. There is, internally in Europe, the complicated issue of what constitutes state aids. There is the separate issue of whether the Commission is trying by subterfuge to extend its competence into national tax policy.  Despite Commission denials, given the history on this one, there cannot but be suspicions that this ruling, if left unchallenged, could prove to be the thin end of a long term wedge.

Then there is the domestic Irish dimension. For decades the long suffering Irish taxpayer has put up with a Faustian –type pact under which it was accepted that multinationals paid less tax in exchange for bringing the jobs, and certainly they have. But this episode has revealed that Apple – and probably other multinationals – has been paying substantially less than the accepted 12.5% rate; indeed creative accounting on a worldwide basis has involved Apple “paying” at less than 1%. The Irish left has been shouting for years that something like this was the case and has constructed marvellous economic plans factoring in missing billions which they allege should be due.

For a cash-strapped economy and taxpayers punch drunk after years of austerity, the prospect of a windfall infusion of up to €19 billion with interest, was, briefly, tempting. But enthusiasm faded quickly as it became clear that other countries could well demand a share. And who, after all, would want to rock the boat of Ireland’s relationship with the multinational sector?  Factor in that this could well have been a glowing and gilded Trojan Horse planted by the Commission and surely the government was right to reject the money and appeal. “Timeo Daneos” indeed.

19/09/16

THE MIDNIGHT SWIMMER by EDWARD WILSON ; a review

THE MIDNIGHT SWIMMER by EDWARD WILSON

This is the first novel I’ve read by Edward Wilson. It won’t be the last. Written in 2011 it is a stylish spy thriller set in the early 1960s and focuses on the build up to the Cuba Crisis.

As this was part of my master’s dissertation – way back in 1969 – I was immediately interested. I’ve always maintained a keen interest in the Crisis, particularly as fresh material became available after the Soviet Union collapsed and as Western documents were declassified . This book answers at least one of the questions that long puzzled observers – why did Kruschev take the gamble to seek to install nukes in Cuba. Back in the Sixties the assumption was that he was by nature a gambler and that his rhetoric about “burying” the West necessitated him taking risks. His great agricultural plan – the “virgin lands” – had flopped and, faced with growing economic problems at home, the reality of the Missile Gap in the USA’s favour, and the growing disapproval of the Politburo, the common assumption was that he felt he had no option but to gamble.

The novel has an interesting slant on this based on actual events which were only finally confirmed in the Glasnost era of the late Eighties. I won’t reveal it as it would be too much of a spoiler to do so but it certainly casts Kruschev’s actions in a different light .The book also advances a completely fictitious answer (I think) to another of the questions, but again I will not spoil the enjoyment of readers by revealing it. There’s a fascinating interweaving of known fact and real personalities of the era in the story which hang together well and, for me at any rate, at least pose the question “Could it have been like this?” No more can be asked of any work of historical fiction or “faction.”

The book is the third of a series (five to date) featuring a British intelligence agent, Catesby, who, together with his boss, Bone, must tread a delicate line between double dealing and betrayal at a time when suspicions abounded between the CIA and MI6 about possible traitors even as the international situation teetered on the very brink of nuclear conflict. One critic has commented on an earlier Wilson novel as showing governments and their secret services as “cynically exploitative and utterly ruthless.” The same is certainly true here. The action moves between Britain, the USA, East Germany, and Cuba as tension mounts. There are conflicts of conscience. The book’s blurb notes: “The author poses the fundamental question that few spy novelists answer: What is the greater crime? Betraying your country or betraying the person you love?” The blurb could have chosen to add: “Betraying your country or acting as you saw fit to help save humanity?”

Edward Wilson was born in the USA and served with US Special Forces in Vietnam where he was decorated. He subsequently wrote what has been described as the best novel about the Vietnam War, “A River in May” published in 2002, when he was in his mid -50s. He left the USA for Europe in the seventies, eventually settling in Britain in 1976, renounced his US citizenship in 1983, becoming a teacher and full time writer. He is a socialist. The fifth book featuring Catesby, “A Very British Ending,” was published in April 2016.
I would highly recommend the book, and, on this evidence, the writer.

S.F.
25/9

THE FORTY FIFTH U.S. PRESIDENT

THE FORTY FIFTH U.S. PRESIDENT

I was asked,at short notice, to write a piece for the PSEU Review magazine on the prospects for the forthcoming U.S. Presidential Election and any likely implications for Ireland from the outcome.

“Like most people this side of the Atlantic, I’ve watched with fascination the developing race for the U.S. Presidency.

The emergence of Donald Trump as Republican candidate has been astonishing. The only person now standing between him and the White House is Hilary Clinton, who if elected will make history as the USA’s first female President. Trump’s candidacy seemed initially bizarre and unlikely, but, as I write, with less than seven weeks to polling day, the outcome is currently too close to call, with Trump having reeled in Hilary’s lead in dramatic fashion in recent weeks.

There is still a long way to go, and, with the caveat that a major terrorist attack could prove a game changer, much may hinge on the outcome of the televised debates, or the emergence of some currently unknown unknown – two weeks ago who could have forecast Hilary’s pneumonia? Or again, one candidate (which most pundits assume will be Clinton) may start to pull ahead in the final few weeks as the undecided make up their minds. But right now in terms of secured states Clinton has a far from decisive lead, with Trump ahead or level in a number of crucial states including Ohio, Iowa, Florida and North Carolina, while the Clinton lead in Pennsylvania is diminishing. Either way one of them will be the next President. What can we forecast about the new administration’s policies and does who wins matter for Ireland?

Taking the easy one, Hilary Clinton, first. She is a Democrat, succeeding another Democrat, for whom she worked as Secretary of State. She is widely experienced in what can and cannot be achieved in terms of getting things done domestically and internationally. Expect therefore more of the same as we have seen from Obama. The main domestic issues are likely to be consolidating the improving economy as well as the healthcare system and attempting again to sort out some form of immigration reform, perhaps helped by a stronger Democratic presence on Capitol Hill.

In the foreign policy area she will push on with closing Guantanamo, and continuing the thawing of relations with Cuba. Outside the hemisphere she will continue with current US policy in the Middle East, attempting to sort out the mess that is Iraq and Syria and further pressing on ISIS. Her options are limited. Much will depend on the relationship with Putin. Ireland is unlikely to figure largely unless there is action to curb “corporate inversion”, where US companies have their headquarters overseas to avoid US taxes, something both Clinton and Trump have called for. She could be involved were there to be an impasse on negotiations over the open Border issue in the context of Brexit; a role here for Bill, perhaps? We could well be in for a Presidential visit.

Trump is another story, and at this stage very difficult to predict. He captured the Republican nomination by being outrageous and stoking passions which appealed to an inchoate coalition of right wingers, Tea Party members and disillusioned blue collar elements. In so doing he alienated many traditional moderate Republicans and his chances of winning rest on how many of them will trickle back. He has recently changed his campaign team, hiring Steve Bannon to intensify attacks on Clinton, but also giving some hints of toning down his rhetoric, perhaps in an attempt to broaden his appeal.The run-in to the actual vote will be interesting.

Should he win, bear in mind that everyone loves a winner! An early indication of how he will proceed will be in Cabinet formation, particularly who he nominates for Secretaries of State, Defence and Homeland Security. But several things can be predicted with some confidence. There will be no deportation of millions to Mexico or anywhere else. Quite simply the US administration does not have the resources to undertake the process. Tens of thousands of additional staff would have to be recruited, vetted and trained, from border patrol officers to judges and clerks to run the new courts required, to detention centre staff to hold the throngs awaiting deportation. Former head of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff commented that without suspending the Constitution and the police acting like North Koreans “it ain’t happening.” Even targeting only criminals would require an exponential ramping up of resources.

Similarly impractical are suggestions to ban Muslims from entering the USA, while the physical problems and costs associated with the Wall idea, including managing the water flows, rule this out except as a long term aspirational project. In Foreign Policy, Trump, for all the rhetoric, will be tied largely by where the USA is “at” currently in the Middle East. A close examination of recent remarks suggests that, stripped of rhetoric, he will adhere to current policy in broadest terms; there are few options to do more. Trump’s unpredictability is legend but whether, faced by reality, his loud mouth threats will come to anything is questionable.

On internal and economic affairs Trump is standard right wing Republican. His “magical thinking” tax plans will reward the rich by cuts, without spending cuts to balance. As well as corporate inversion, of interest to Ireland is his proposal to cut US corporate tax from 35% to 15%. Whether any of this, or renegotiation of NAFTA , will pass Congress is doubtful, while “getting tough with China” and backing out of the TPP could backfire and will probably just amount to empty rhetoric.

One point to interest over-taxed Irish readers. Trump proposes a top tax rate of 33% for those earning over $154,000 pa. Clinton’s sliding scale reaches 33% at $190,150, remains at that up to $ 413,350 and includes a 39% band from $415,050 to $5 million pa!

S.F.
22/9

THE HUMAN FLIES by HANS OLAV LAHLUM

THE HUMAN FLIES by HANS OLAV LAHLUM

This is the first novel in a series by Lahlum a young (43) Norwegian writer, with several biographies already to his name. Lahlum is a National Chess master (rating 2204) in the country that boasts world champion Magnus Carlsen. Published in English in 2014, it was the recent choice of my local Murder and Mystery book club.

In some ways this quirky novel is structured like a chess puzzle. Not just “White to play and mate in three,” but rather the totally artificial construct of most chess puzzles, which postulate positions rarely if ever arising on the chessboard.

The setting is Oslo in 1968 when a hero of the Norwegian Resistance during World War Two is found murdered in an apartment building. All the residents of the building are suspects. The narrator, Detective Inspector Kristiansen, is lost for inspiration and is prevailed upon to seek assistance from an intellectually brilliant wheelchair bound woman, daughter of an influential wealthy family friend. He provides her with details of the case and she points him in the directions to go. There follows a painstaking sequence of interviews, repeated as necessary, with the building residents and other people the investigation turns up, to narrow down the search for the killer, including a gathering together of the suspects for the reading of the murdered man’s will.

If all of this sounds familiar, it’s because it is. This is classic Agatha Christie, with a good dose of Conan Doyle thrown in for good measure. And intentionally so, with both quoted several times in the novel. They’re all there: the thick policeman, the brilliant and wealthy amateur sleuth (who’s also quite a nasty snob), the near country house setting with all the suspects conveniently located together, the dash of romance and skeletons abounding in the various cupboards of the suspects. Even the title itself reflects some of this; human flies are people whose life is forever altered by one event – or non-event – and who are forever defining themselves with reference to that event, like flies forever circling over a carcase.

Given the subject matter we get some insights and information on the occupation of Norway during the Second World War, in particular concerning the hiding of fugitives from the Nazis and smuggling them across the border with Sweden.  The Second World War continues to haunt certain memories in Scandinavia and the Baltics and is a constant in fiction across the region, hardly surprising in the light of collaboration, armed resistance, cooperation, and the participation of volunteers from all countries fighting with the Nazis on the Eastern Front. All outside the scope of this novel except in so far as one of the suspects had a Nazi past while the victim was a Resistance hero.

Does the construct work? Yes if you can suspend belief and transport yourself back to the genteel circumstances and lifestyle of the middle classes of Agatha Christie’s heyday and if you believe that murders can be solved by the application of brainpower alone. This plus the total omission of any reference to normal police work or involvement of other policemen, no mention of forensics,  scene of crime preservation, or how and by whom other lines of enquiry are carried out. Plus the involvement in and the transmission of case details to an untrained member of the public.

No, otherwise. As noted earlier it’s like a chess problem but with at best a tenuous relationship with the real world. Aficionados of Jo Nesbo, Karin Fossum, Anne Holt and others will not be impressed.

S.F. 19/9

 

 

THE CONSTANT SOLDIER by WILLIAM RYAN ; a review.

THE CONSTANT SOLDIER: WILLIAM RYAN

MANTLE 2016

The Second World War was not just another war. It was global, it was ferocious and it killed more than any other war in history. Yet what marks it out also is that during its course, and inextricably mixed with it, a determined attempt was made to wipe out the Jewish race. Roughly half the Jews in the world were murdered over a relatively short period. Some of the consequences remain with us today. This extermination attempt, refined and honed  to increase its effectiveness, went hand in hand with a with a military and political campaign of invasion, murder, ethnic cleansing and exploitation  directed at the peoples and countries of Central Europe on a virtually unprecedented scale.

The only possible rival in recorded history, in terms of scale and effectiveness, was probably the Mongol holocaust in Central Asia and the subsequent aborted but undefeated attack on Central Europe in the Thirteenth Century. Yet the Mongols were essentially a temporary phenomenon, a transient federation of nomadic tribes out of Central Asia, brutally welded together, brilliantly led by the mediaeval equivalent of Napoleon and supported by an officer corps chosen by meritocracy and as a fighting force far superior militarily to the moribund feudal armies which faced them. Twentieth Century Germany by contrast was one of the most advanced European societies with a long and enviable cultural history, embracing, inter alia, music, literature and philosophy, an advanced welfare state – for its time – and, Prussia apart, no particularly strong tradition of militarism. Then the country was hijacked by a madman and his supporters.

Nazi Germany continues to fascinate in all its manifestations. One subset of questions relates  less to the how and more to the why so many Germans  continued to lend support and legitimacy to the regime even though its nature and actions were demonstrably abhorrent and , certainly after Stalingrad,  though it was clear that the regime was driving the whole of Germany into disaster. Debate continues to rage about how much the “ordinary German” knew about the Death Camps, and the mass murders of the Jews and others. H.H. Kirst, author of the Gunner Asch novels and other satirical works about Nazi Germany and its aftermath, commented wryly on his Nazi party membership that he did not really know he “was in a club of murderers”.

An equally pertinent question is, even if they knew or suspected, what could they do about it? Nazi Germany was a brutal and efficient dictatorship, opponents had been liquidated in sequence (remember Niemoller’s poem “First They Came…..”) and the consequences of defiance were likely to prove drastic, not just for the individual but for relatives as well. Those who moralise or pontificate about following your conscience have very rarely had to come to grips with a modern totalitarian dictatorship. Those with loaded guns call the shots. Passive defiance was possible, but unlikely to derail the murder machine. (The same considerations apply, mutatis mutandis, to living in the Soviet Union under Stalin.) And even the 20 July Plot demonstrated how well dug in the regime was.

There was also the aspect of what Joachim Fest, in his memorable study of Hitler, referred to as “widening the circle of criminality.” The more people could be involved in the crimes, the more likely they were to acquiesce and eschew protest. Thus, in the aftermath of the invasion of Russia, as the special teams of murderers followed or accompanied the troops in, the Wermacht was pressurised and compromised to witness, sanction, support logistically and participate in the crimes of what Fest termed the “Third World War.”

These “Einsatzgruppen” were not necessarily just hardened Nazis and SS but included numbers of ordinary and retired police, drawn into the squads as police forces were reorganised and rationalised and as the scale of the mass murders demanded more staff at the killing end. In the stunning novel, “Ostland” (2013) David Thomas tells the true story of how Berlin’s top criminal detective – not a committed Nazi – Georg Heuzer, became the head of the Einsatzgrup operating in Minsk, where he personally supervised the murder of thirty thousand chiefly Austrian Jews, reverting to a police officer after the War and rising to become police chief in the Rhineland Palatinate before eventually being sentenced for war crimes in 1963. There were more like him, individuals led step-by-step into compromise and crime.

All this is by way of introduction to William Ryan’s new novel, “The Constant Soldier”. The novel was launched in Dublin on 1 September and has been garnering very favourable reviews in recent weeks, many containing “spoilers” about the plot, which, however, in no way diminishes enjoyment of the book. The author is already well established for his three crime novels with a difference. They are set in Stalinist Russia in the 1930s and feature Alexei Korolev, a Moscow CID Militia captain who is tasked to investigate some high profile murder cases with political connections. Against the background of the Great Terror, when one wrong move can result in a “holiday in Siberia” – Stalin’s jocular remark – or worse, Korolev must walk a moral and political tightrope to make progress. The Korolev books paint vividly and sympathetically the dilemma of the honourable man trying to cope in a totalitarian and mendacious society where values are reversed or non – existent. “The Constant Soldier” is a new departure in theme – a stand-alone novel set during the last year of the Second World War, yet the similarities with Korolev’s moral dilemmas are clear.

The novel’s first twenty pages are particularly memorable, recounting the gradual emergence of consciousness and awareness of a badly wounded soldier being transported by train back to his home. That home is a village in Silesia, in a mixed Polish –German rural community conquered and occupied by the Germans.  Here it is not just the matter of a murder. The whole setting is a crime scene. Most of the Poles have been driven out or murdered, their farms expropriated. Some are Partisans, watching, waiting in the woods as the Red Army advances.  A “work camp” and a mine are nearby – euphemisms for murder camps and a source of forced labour when required.  Could the camp be Auschwitz ? Or another? There were enough of them.  We are never told.  The camp remains in the wings throughout the novel, the horrors hinted at but never explicitly described.

Central to the story, rather, is the Hut, a rest and recreation lodge in the village for SS officers and personnel taking refuge or recuperation from their “toils” in the camp or stresses from the war. (Keeping up the morale of those tasked with mass murder was, apparently a priority for the Nazi leadership. I’ve come across several anecdotes of Himmler and others, and one of Ryan’s characters actually quotes Himmler, comforting those at the coal face of extermination and mass murder –  though at the right end of the gun-  acknowledging the “strain” but promising a better future once the task was complete! Thomas records that at Heuzer’s trial it was revealed that the Minsk murderers were partially anaesthetised with a bottle of vodka per head per day.) The Hut was staffed by SS foot soldiers until, as casualties at the front mounted, they were drafted into active service. Cleaning and cooking in the Hut was carried out by female slave prisoners.

The book’s central character, Paul Brandt, a Wermacht soldier, has returned home a hero, disfigured and mutilated from the Eastern Front. Not a Nazi, he had enlisted under threat. He returns wounded internally as well as externally, haunted by the murders he saw and was ordered to take part in. He knows the war is lost and longs for an opportunity to atone for his crimes. The opportunity comes when he is offered work as the supervisory steward at the SS Hut. Among the female prisoners working there is a girl from his past, Judith, who does not recognise his scarred and burned face and for whom he feels responsibility for her arrest and enslavement. He now has a mission – to protect and look out for Judith and her colleagues as well as doing what he can to protect his father and sister, neither of them Nazis and both well aware of what is happening in the camps.

To survive, let alone carry out his mission, involves living a lie in a fraught environment , where casual murder and brutality are commonplace and where, despite the slight leeway he is accorded as a decorated hero who has made visible sacrifices for “the Reich,” he must constantly be on guard. Ryan conveys very well the fin de siècle atmosphere which abounds, the doublethink and speak about ultimate victory when clearly nemesis is only a matter of time. The characters surrounding him include a committed Nazi, an amoral and foolish local mayor and several SS officers, as well as the Hut Commandant, Obersturmfuhrer Neumann, after Brandt the most interesting character in the story.

Intelligent and perceptive, Neumann from the start is clearly aware of some or most of Brandt’s feelings and demonstrates at several points that, though a Nazi and SS Officer, he has not bought in to the whole package. Indeed the subplot of the story is essentially the personal development and disintegration of Neumann, never quite total, and never fully revealed or even directly hinted at to Brandt. When another SS officer commits suicide Neumann confiscates his records of Mendelssohn, a Jewish, and therefore banned, composer, to play them himself. (And shockingly, Brandt discovers, among the dead man’s possessions, a box containing gold fillings ripped from Jewish victims at the camp.)

Neumann is not alone. There are other Nazis also less enamoured of what they have done, but for Neumann, his own crimes have put him beyond redemption and he remains haunted by images of his victims. A World War One veteran, he broods as to how these things could have happened.  A March Violet (the derisory name given by “old” Nazis to those who joined the Party after Hitler became Chancellor) he hadn’t planned on becoming a murderer. “It had just turned out that way.”  And of the Jews: ”mostly no one had ever imagined it would come to this. Until it had, of course.”

Brandt plots and schemes, finding allies among the Ukrainian SS guards, who know only too well what fate awaits them when the Soviets arrive. But ostensibly he must maintain the façade of normalcy, even as the Nazi world collapses. There are Christmas festivities, an incongruous New Year’s hunt, photographs to be taken, drunken SS to be humoured, while the news gets worse on an almost daily basis. Paris has fallen. Warsaw has fallen; and Krakow. The sound of Russian artillery can be heard. The exodus of German refugees begins. The final drama is about to be played out.

There is a counterpoint to all of this – Polya, a feisty young Russian, driver of a T34 tank for two years, a battle hardened veteran who has nevertheless retained her joie de vivre and femininity. She longs to get the job done and is enamoured of her tank commander Lapshin. At interludes in the main story her exploits intrude as her tank, and the Red Army, gets ever closer to Brandt’s village. There are some vivid and savage action scenes featuring Polya’s tank. There’s no doubt where the author’s sympathies lie. Polya, and the advance of the Red Army, crushing and obliterating their opponents, are very much a terrible swift sword, wreaking vengeance for what was done after 1941. The tension is built excellently as the reader wonders what will happen when Polya and her tanks encounter Brandt and a rag tag collection of boys, drafted as the last line of defence.

“The Constant Soldier” is a compelling read. I finished it in two days. Nor is it easily forgotten.  In an Afterword the author points to an album of photographs taken in 1944/5 by a senior SS officer at Auschwitz as providing inspiration for his book. The photos show members of the SS relaxing and chilling out in an R and R hut located several kilometres from the camp just weeks before the Red Army liberated it. If ever Arendt’s “banality of evil” categorisation of Eichmann seems appropriate it is here. Anyone interested in morality tales and looking also for a damn good story should read the novel, surely one of the year’s best. Highly recommended.

Reviewed for Writing.ie.

S.F.

8/9/16