DEAD PEOPLE by EWART HUTTON : a review

DEAD PEOPLE by EWART HUTTON

The cover describes this as a Glyn Capaldi mystery. It is in fact the second in the series. A friend reviewed the first book, “ Good People” for Writing .ie last year.

It’s not hard to see the series evolving with a common link in the book titles of “people” rather as Peter James has done with “dead” in his Roy Grace series.

Glyn Capaldi is a detective sergeant, exiled from Cardiff to Dinas in rural Wales after a cock-up in the city. The local crime is rural, not too serious until a pilot wind farm project uncovers a skeleton – minus head and hands. Further exploration leads to the discovery of two more skeletons similarly mutilated. The remains are dated to at least eight years earlier.

Then, close to the wind farm, the freshly interred body of a young woman is discovered, similarly mutilated. She is identified as a local teen who ran away from home two years earlier. Where has she been in the interim? Is her body connected to the skeletons.? The answer of course is yes – and the rest of the novel is given over to establishing the link and finding out the identity of the killer. On the way Capaldi has to take orders from his mortal enemy from Cardiff, DCI Kevin Fletcher and has time for a brief romantic interlude.

The book is well written in an easy style with some throwaway humorous lines and at least one neat twist. One reviewer thought the style reminiscent of R.D. Wingfield’s Jack Frost, which was something that had occurred to me after about 20 pages. Yet whereas Frost always seemed to get the better of Horn rimmed Harry, Fletcher seems to be his nemesis.

The only problem I had with the plot was that the later murders seemed pointless in the context of the earlier ones and were certainly less justifiable, even to the twisted mind of the murderer. (There was a somewhat analogous discordance in one of the last Wallender DVDs in which murder and cover –up are carried out to thwart a prosecution for far less serious crimes.)

All in all, though, the author has created a plausible likeable detective who is likely to feature in a number of sequels.

17/7

FEVER by MARY BETH KEANE : review

FEVER
MARY BETH KEANE
SIMON & SHUSTER 306 pages €15.99

Typhoid Mary was a figure in the popular folklore of the USA during the early decades of the Twentieth Century. A carrier of typhoid, to which she was immune, she worked as a cook and infected considerable numbers of people in New York, some of whom died. This novel tells her story, fleshing out the few stark known biographical details about her.

Mary Mallon was born in Cookstown in 1869 and emigrated to the USA in the mid-1880s. From 1900 on she worked as a cook for wealthy families in New York. In 1907, when members of several families for whom she had worked contracted typhoid, investigator George Soper established that typhoid had broken out virtually everywhere she had worked since 1900, with several deaths.

Soper was convinced Mary was a carrier and eventually, despite her angry protestations, she was tested and Soper’s theory confirmed. Using obscure provisions in the Greater New York Charter, the authorities held her in isolation for three years on tiny North Brother Island, off Manhattan, where a special cottage, 10 foot by 12, was built for her. She was released in 1910, on condition that she did not work again as a cook. By then, also, other carriers like Mary had been identified, but not locked up.

However, in 1915, after 27 patients in Sloane Maternity Hospital contracted typhoid, two dying, Mary was discovered there working as a cook under an assumed name. Public sympathy was conspicuous by its absence. “ Before was carelessness; this time it’s criminal.” She was again removed to the island, where, incredibly, she was kept until her death in 1938.

She appears to have been the only typhoid carrier isolated in this fashion without much in the way of due process. That she was a woman, working class, difficult, even that she was Irish are among the reasons popularly advanced for her treatment.

Mary Beth Keane has woven a skilful and largely sympathetic novel around the bare facts of Mary’s life, without pulling any punches about her often difficult personality. She has also painted a vivid portrait of tenement life for New York’s poor at the time. The description of North Brother Island, all 20 acres of it, during Mary’s first confinement is particularly memorable.

The book concentrates on the period 1900 – 1915 with the final 23 years meriting only a few pages. But then what was there to say about those last lonely decades marooned on a tiny island with only a TB hospital, a small leper colony and the medical staff, who commuted, for company.

April 013

CROCODILE TEARS by MARK O SULLIVAN : review

CROCODILE TEARS
MARK O SULLIVAN
TRANSWORLD IRELAND 362 pages €13.99

“Crocodile Tears” is a clever play on the similarly named medical syndrome denoting a constantly weeping eye – an affliction of the book’s hero – and the sentiments expressed over the murder victim in this, the debut crime novel by Mark O’ Sullivan, already well known as an author of children’s books.

In it we meet Garda Detective Inspector Leo Woods and his assistant Helen Troy, he middle aged and with a facial disfigurement, she on her first assignment as a Detective Sergeant. Together they are investigating the murder in Howth of property tycoon Dermot Brennan.

The murder takes place in November 2010, with the economic recession in full spate. There are no lack of suspects: a disgruntled, and broke, home owner from one of Brennan’s ghost estates, former business associates, an estranged son as well as two unsavoury family acquaintances. The several possible motives make the detectives’ task more difficult.

Leo Woods is a memorable character, permanently disfigured, physically and psychologically, by Bell’s Palsy, who collects face masks as a way of coping with his affliction. He smokes, he snorts, he suffers bouts of malaria – souvenir of a tour of duty with the UN – and has an uneasy relationship with his superintendent, product of a past liaison with the latter’s wife. His methods are unorthodox but he gets results.

Helen Troy for her part has personal complications as she tries to establish herself in her new position, with a waster of a brother desperate to milk his share of their father’s estate, and an ex who won’t stop pestering her. The Garda team is completed by a bright and ambitious young policeman, a constant source of annoyance to Woods, together with an accident prone Garda with a crush on Troy.

Sub plots abound in what becomes an increasingly complicated mystery to unravel, with real and suspected liaisons involving a sculptor, an American gardener and the radical German owner of an animal shelter, all with a possible bearing on the murder. Throw in political interference, a holdall stuffed with cash in the victim’s house and a disappearing Latvian housemaid and there is more than sufficient to test the investigating team’s mettle. The story proceeds at a fast pace and includes several twists, some outside the box thinking and a mounting body count before the final denoument ,all the action compressed into a single week.

The book is well written, gritty, with dark humour and some striking metaphors and is a good addition to the Irish crime fiction corpus. The author’s agent has likened it to “The Killing.” I saw enough to compare it to Mankel’s “Wallender”, in the Henriksson T.V. series. A satisfying read. There should be a sequel. Woods deserves it.

April 2013

TO MOVE THE WORLD by JEFFREY SACHS : review

TO MOVE THE WORLD
JFK’S QUEST FOR PEACE
JEFFREY D. SACHS
THE BODLEY HEAD 250pp €21.45

Fifty years ago today John F. Kennedy left Ireland after a visit regarded by many here as a watershed moment. This book is a timely reminder that the Kennedy Presidency produced another watershed moment which nearly did for civilisation itself.

As the sub-title suggests, the book, written by the renowned economist and JFK admirer Jeffrey Sachs, is a study of Kennedy’s foreign policy initiatives in the wake of the defining moment of his Presidency, the Cuba Crisis of October 1962. It was a year that saw Kennedy extend an olive branch and shift superpower relations onto a more stable footing, highlighted by the successful conclusion of the partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of July 1963.

Kennedy’s Presidency can be divided into the periods before and after October 1962. When Kennedy became President U.S – Soviet relations were already at a low ebb , and JFK, to quote Sachs, came “out swinging… in three provocative ways”. He ordered a major build-up of nuclear weapons, where the US already had vast superiority, he sanctioned what would be a disastrous CIA inspired invasion of Cuba and he went ahead with plans to install nuclear missiles, pointed at the USSR, in Italy and Turkey.

While Kennedy learned from his early mistakes, in particular not to trust the CIA or the generals, the next year saw superpower relations lurch from bad to worse. A disastrous summit, the erection of the Berlin Wall and the resumption of atmospheric nuclear tests by both parties did not augur well, though Kennedy seems to have grasped early on the depth of Russian fears of German rearmament and of a possible German finger on NATO’S nuclear trigger.

Most of this was posturing but in the autumn of 1962 came a game changer. The beleaguered Soviet leader Khrushchev, under political pressure from military hard liners, facing also domestic economic problems, embarked on a plan to install medium range nuclear missiles in Cuba, ninety miles from the US mainland. For Khrushchev it would be a propaganda coup, relatively inexpensive, a response to U.S. aggression against an ally and would also give the U.S. a taste of the sense of encirclement that Russians felt with NATO missiles on their borders.

Many books have been written about the Crisis blaming either or both parties. That Khrushchev never intended war was irrelevant. That the move did not alter the strategic balance did not matter. There was an awful political reality. Kennedy could not ignore Khrushchev’s action. The military and the US right called for air strikes or invasion. To do nothing invited rapid impeachment, with unforeseeable consequences. It was, in Kennedy’s rueful words, “ the week I earn my salary”.

The superpowers were suddenly toe to toe . Kennedy, aware how the European powers had blundered into war in 1914 through miscalculation or misunderstanding was determined that this would not happen. He grounded U2 spy planes. He dismissed demands for military action ( the generals could not guarantee complete success) and opted instead for a naval blockade of Cuba, a strategy that bought some time for negotiations. The world watched, in horrified fascination, as numbers of Soviet ships neared Cuba. Nuclear war seemed inevitable.

At the nadir a U2 plane from Alaska strayed into Soviet air space. Soviet fighters were scrambled; the US planes sent to escort it back were authorised under their high alert status to fire nuclear warheads. As Sachs notes, “ by dumb luck the world survived. JFK’s comment: “ There’s always some dumb SOB who doesn’t get the word.” The glimpse of catastrophe proved sobering. Khrushchev, shaken, backed down and withdrew the missiles. Kennedy, shaken, gave a quid pro quo (on Turkey) and determined there would be no repetition.

The Crisis changed Kennedy fundamentally. Sachs focuses on JFK’s attempts during 1963 to forge a lasting détente. He reproduces four major speeches , including the address to the Dail, concentrating in particular on the seminal “Peace Speech” of June 10 to Columbia University, in which Kennedy challenged the US to re-examine its view of the Soviet Union.

Sensing a growing rapport with Khrushchev, he prepared to cut the Gordian knot on nuclear testing by suggesting a partial rather than full treaty ( excluding underground tests). The treaty banning atmospheric nuclear tests was concluded in July and successfully shepherded through the US Senate by 81 votes to 17 – a considerable feat – in September. It proved negotiation and agreement were possible. By then Kennedy, in his final UN speech, had attempted to prescribe further steps towards improving relations and eventually ending the Cold War. A “hot line” was agreed, as well as cultural exchanges and the sale of wheat to the USSR.

A new era beckoned. Then came Dallas. It was to be decades before the Cold War ended, a period that included nasty proxy wars, a continuing nuclear arms race and spells of superpower hostility and tension. Wasted years. Yet nothing ever approached those thirteen days when the fate of mankind was truly in the balance. Kennedy showed leadership when it mattered during and after October 1962. A lesson there for politicians today.

June27 2013

ABOUT THIS BLOG

PALE OUTLAW

I set up Pale Outlaw in November 2011, but have not used it to any great extent. I intended to sound off more – and on a variety of topics – but soon after that I decided to concentrate on writing fiction and researching and reviewing books.
The blog since has since become primarily a repository and record of published material, though that may change.
The Time Capsule contains the full collection of my Irish American News pieces “ From the Motherland”, which commenced in April 2009 and now comprises fifty three pieces ( listed using Roman Numerals). As the title suggests they offer a time capsule for the period in which my take on what was happening is set out.
As the IAN audience is either ex-pat Irish or Irish American – and reasonably well informed about what’s happening in Ireland – I’ve tried to give a certain slant on what’s been in the news and occasionally point up some significant trend or development. As well as the economy and politics, which predominate, I’ve also covered relations with Europe, Neutrality, the Irish Diaspora, RTE, Demographic Trends and Immigration, the Mortgage Crisis and even the Henri Handball. The pieces are limited to 1200 words, which is a useful discipline in itself.
The Book Reviews are chiefly those published in the Irish Independent or on Writing.ie or ones I produced for the local Murder and Mystery book club. Profound or forensic they are not. Most of my private analyses of books tend to concentrate on some aspect of the work ( plot, structure, etc.) and are not publishable. I might add, by way of obiter, that, having “ been there, done that” in the sense of having written a novel and several other pieces of fiction, I have great respect and empathy for other writers. If you haven’t done it – try it. It’s hard work!
The Published Articles are just that – articles published in Irish newspapers and magazines over the past two years.
The Memoirs consist of several pieces based on my past career. It’s a category I hope to expand in the future. Right now it contains several pieces based on my experiences as a European Community Peace Monitor in Croatia and Bosnia.
The Uncategorised and Current Affairs sections contain a number of pieces, several from the IAN before I hit on the Time Capsule appellation, others in which I attempted to sound off, pieces largely unpublished but longer than the 1200 word limit of the IAN. If I do resume sounding off, it will be here.
Finally, Rated Fiction is a small category ( at present) which I plan to expand containing published short fiction where I have the copyright.

July 13 2013

LIVE BY NIGHT by DENNIS LEHANE: review

Dennis Lehane goes from strength to strength. He is best known for the film adaptation of his novel “Mystic River,” the Oscar – award winning and thought provoking film of several years back, and of the more recent “Shutter Island.” He has also won awards for his part in script writing for the cult HBO series “The Wire.”

The son of Irish parents from the last great wave of 50’s emigrants, he shot to fame in 1994 with “A Drink Before the War” the first of five highly acclaimed detective novels based in Boston, one of which, “Gone Baby gone” became yet another successful film .

Lehane has now embarked on a series of novels set around the Prohibition Era and after, of which “Live by Night” is the second; a third is promised. The earlier novel, “The Given Day” featured the Boston Police Strike of 1919 and events in Tulsa Oklahoma prior to the infamous race riots there in 1921 and was described by the New York Times as a majestic fiery epic. The story revolved around Boston police captain Thomas Coughlin and his family.

“ Live by Night” again features the Coughlins, with the third son Joseph as the central character. Joseph is a career gangster, surviving hard time in jail, to emerge and work with members of the Italian and Irish mobs in Boston and then in Tampa during Prohibition, where he masterminds the supply of liquor, including Cuban rum, north to New England. His first Irish gangster boss sets the scene early on, telling Joseph in his casino that “the people we serve…they visit the night. But we live in it. They rent what we own.”

Later, post Prohibition, Joe relocates to Cuba, where much hope is being invested in a reforming Colonel Batista who kicked out the previous dictator (that same Batista whose corrupt regime was ousted in 1959 by Castro).

There’s violence in plenty, but this is counterbalanced by love stories, one unrequited, a complex father-son relationship and an emerging different dimension to Joseph, that of local philanthropy, both in Tampa and Cuba.

The work transcends the mere gangster or crime novel and has been receiving rapturous reviews, some critics comparing Lehane with Steinbeck and Chandler and describing him as among the most accomplished and versatile American novelists. The characters are finely drawn, the era is superbly recreated with great attention paid to the historical detail.

The broader social issues of the time are explored, particularly in the portrayal of 1920’s Tampa and the impact of the Great Depression, with ten thousand bank failures and thirteen million jobs lost in less time than our own recession. Race relations loom large, particularly in Tampa’s mixed ghetto of Ybor City, where Cubans, African –Americans, and Italians, rich and poor, are thrown together, while outside, the local whites and the Klan ( providing muscle) stare balefully on.

The book is a great read and can stand alone or as part of what is shaping up to be a major historical saga

MIXED BLESSINGS by PETER SOMERVILLE-LARGE :review

MIXED BLESSINGS

Peter Somerville-Large is best known for his non-fiction books on Ireland, including “Dublin, Irish Eccentrics, The Grand Irish Tour, The Coast of West Cork.” He is now in his eighties and lives in Kilkenny. In this elegant novel he charts the life of Paul Blake-Willoughby, born into the Anglo-Irish Ascendency in 1929, product of a mixed marriage, with an aristocratic Catholic soldier father and an eccentric staunchly Protestant mother.

Surprisingly, in the era of Ne Temere, the parents agree to let Paul choose his faith. Much of the early part of the story centres on the sometimes hilarious pitches made by both churches to recruit him. At one point a priest ponders bringing in the heavy artillery of John Charles McQuaid. Enough said. Here, as elsewhere, there is a serious side to the author’s whimsical and gentle approach.

Take elements of ”The Irish R.M.”, “Brideshead Revisited” and P.G. Wodehouse and set them against the background of De Valera’s Ireland. It is all there, the 1940s and 50s, in evocative detail, or just hinted at. Ireland during World War Two; the rationing, the lack of basics, the mounds of turf in the Phoenix Park, cars modified to run on charcoal. Paul’s boarding school, with its privations, bullying and caste system will strike a chord with many. There are intimations too of sexual abuse, while the Magdalen homes are treated as a source of cheap domestic labour.

Paul’s big house, a decaying mansion too expensive to repair and renovate, is portrayed in all its awfulness: too cold to heat, a leaking roof and infested with vermin. The family share it with servants and a melange of dogs, cats and a parrot. The servants come and go, knowing their place, for class distinctions are paramount, with one hilarious exception. Friendships are confined to persons of similar class, which in the book’s case include some memorable and eccentric personalities, none more so than Paul’s mother.

The story explores themes of snobbery, bigotry and infidelity and is peppered with outrageous jokes, remarks and occurrences. The author’s eye is sympathetic but incisive. Splendid and highly recommended.

A SENSE OF PERSPECTIVE 1307 LIII

A SENSE OF PERSPECTIVE

I write from Spain.

Being out of Ireland, even temporarily, offers the chance for some perspective. Spain, the fifth economy in Europe, the twelfth in the world, is in trouble. And one figure leaps out from the many: over 50% of those under twenty five are unemployed, almost 40% with a third level qualification. Moreover, what jobs there are on offer are for the most part temporary or part time.

Greece is in a worse situation. The economy is virtually a basket case with figures for youth unemployment a staggering 60 plus %. The Greek government recently shut down the State Television service overnight to save money. Both countries, incidentally, have welfare systems and benefits at the lower end of the EU scale. In Italy youth unemployment has touched 40%.

Seen from here, then, Ireland is actually doing quite well, with “only” around 30% of youth unemployed. Given the different interpretations of what constitutes “youth unemployment” it can be difficult to draw any definite conclusions, beyond the fact that these percentages are frightening. Even when the better performing European economies are included, the overall unemployment figure for those in the 15-24 age group is 22.9% – almost one in four. The figure for Ireland, of course, does not factor in emigration, the traditional safely valve, now returned with a vengeance. In the last four years an estimated 300,000 have left the country, 40% of them aged between 15 and 24.

Some other indicators show the economy here to be holding up well, given the cross of austerity it has been bearing. Irish exports have done well, despite the slowdown in the global economy and the hiccups in the pharmaceutical sector as some very lucrative patents expired. Irish business is markedly more competitive than several years ago. Employment has actually risen and the overall unemployment rate, though stuck stubbornly at around 14%, is not too far off the EU average of 12.2%, though here again the emigration effect probably flatters the figures.

Politically the targets set by the Bailout Troika have for the most part been met and the country seems on target to exit the austerity programme on schedule. This also without the wholesale dismantling of an idiosyncratic but still generous welfare system.
The welfare cuts have undoubtedly caused distress at the margins but this could have been avoided had the government not ducked some of the harder political choices. We still, remember, pay generous child benefit irrespective of means and pay the unemployed roughly $230 per week without any cut off date. And here it is worth pointing out that, in one respect at least, Ireland is not doing well. Once unemployed in Ireland it appears difficult to secure employment again. Irish long term unemployment (a minimum of twelve months) is 61% of the total – the second worst in the EU; this despite the emigration effect.

The overall European figures, which show little indication of improvement in the short term, do not augur well. How can Spain or the others in trouble generate the growth required to dent these frightening percentages (overall Spanish unemployment is 26.2%) ? Long term unemployment seems set to rise significantly over the next year in Spain, Greece and Italy unless something happens. But what? The debate on austerity in Europe is now finely balanced, with political opposition to current fiscal policies mounting, certainly among the PIGS. However there is unlikely to be any marked shift in overall policy this side of the German elections due in September. Then we shall see.

For consideration is whether the European institutions, in particular the ECB, as currently structured, are capable of effecting significant sufficient changes in policy. In the USA the Federal Reserve has engaged in quantitative easing – a euphemism for printing money – since 2009, and most commentators credit that policy with preventing a world recession morphing into a depression. The ECB has done some tinkering, and printing money, under a different name in the last two years, but remains subject to a more restrictive mandate and a political climate strongly influence by fears of inflation among the fiscal conservatives of Germany and the Netherlands.

A second consideration, not always addressed, is just where the desperately needed new employment is to be found. Time was there were export opportunities in new markets or new sectors. The Celtic Tiger offered a prime example. It was followed by a domestic building boom which reached unsustainable levels and eventually collapsed. A somewhat similar boom (and collapse) occurred in Spain. Can the boom be repeated? Certainly not for the foreseeable future in the domestic construction area. Yes, there are new emerging markets as the BRICs and the economies emerging behind them become more prosperous. However, there are now more competitors, spearheaded by China.

Early last month the EU imposed sanctions against Chinese exports of solar panels, initially for a two month period, to allow for negotiation. The EU argument, led by France and Italy, was that China, by dumping billions of euros of panels, had captured 80% of the EU market. China has threatened retaliation against European wine exports. The European hawks contend that virtually everything China produces is subsidised, either directly or through exchange rate manipulation. The European doves fear a trade war, with exports to China threatened.

Déjà vu anyone? Consider what happened to traditional industries in Europe and the USA during the sixties and after as first Japan and then Korea systematically targeted sectors. Shipbuilding, cameras, motor bikes, cars, televisions, electrical goods were among the areas to succumb.

A compromise of sorts was reached, with essentially Asian management methods and techniques accompanying increased Asian investment in Europe and the USA. European and American manufacturers found enough in new, niche or luxury markets to replace some of what was lost. Rising world prosperity, increased global demand and the information revolution meant there was enough cake to go round. Then.
It is by no means certain that this is the case any more. The comparative advantages that the EU (and the West) enjoyed, in terms of education, intellectual capital, levels of capital investment and an international trading environment skewed in its favour have all been eroded.

I remember a decade ago addressing a women’s symposium in Estonia on the subject of “Security.” Estonia was in the process of joining NATO and the European Union, and inter alia the Estonians were interested in how Ireland had managed to maintain military neutrality. In the Q and A which followed I was asked what I regarded as the biggest threat to the security of the West. In response I pointed to my silk tie: “You may not like the tie, Ladies, but the salient point is that similar ties in Europe sell for $ 30 or more; I bought this in China for $1 last year.” I suggested that, in the years to come, the willingness of those in poorer economies to produce similar goods much cheaper than us would pose a stern test for the West. That time may now be here. Where will the jobs Europe needs come from? Our moment in the sun may be past.

2011 – 2016, HALFWAY THERE 1306 LII

2011- 2016: HALFWAY THERE

The Government is now over 800 days in office and is either at or past its half-way point , with an election scheduled, at the latest, for the spring of 2016. While nothing is certain in politics, the history of Irish governments, particularly coalitions, would suggest that a full five year term is unlikely. However, this time may be different. Provided the coalition does not implode, a full or nearly full term seems in its best interests.

Only three governments have actually lasted the full five years, roughly 1800 days plus – De Valera’s administration 1938 – 1943, and the two Fianna Fail governments headed by Bertie Ahern from 1997-2007. Some other governments were terminated early, by decision of the Taoiseach – for it is his call – with De Valera, in particular, either tactically astute or just lucky by calling snap elections on three occasions and returning with enhanced majorities each time.

The fate of coalitions involving Fine Gael and Labour have been less than stellar with some collapsing after defeats in the Dail, and none securing re-election. It could be argued that the defeats in 1977 and 1987 were against the background of particularly difficult economic circumstances home and abroad, and that the opposition on both occasions, Fianna Fail, bought the elections, most extravagantly in 1977, undermining public finances for a generation through tinkering with the tax base to win votes.

What chance then for re-election on or before 2016, after the enforced austerity of the present administration, grappling with the disaster inherited from its predecessor? Blaming the last lot will not suffice for an increasingly fickle electorate, with opinion polls demonstrating one consistent trend – the high level of “ undecided “ voters. The government now “owns” the economic situation and will be judged above all on how it copes with that situation. It is also likely to be taken to task on its record in fulfilling its election manifesto, where its brave talk of reform will be scrutinised. In either scenario, hanging on offers the best chance.

The first political priority of the government has been to wriggle out from under the Troika, and chalk up that achievement. Indeed at the moment the progress made in this regard represents one of the few fig leaves proffered by Labour over the austerity measures taken to carry out the Troika’s ukase. On the present course, if government claims are to be believed, and barring something unforeseen, the Troika’s requirements will be met some time next year, whatever about the state of the economy, and Ireland will “regain its economic independence” – code for continuing to borrow to fund the state, but this time on the financial markets.

There are a lot of ifs and pious hopes in this. Last time I commented on the current woes of Labour, getting it in the neck for the necessary but unpopular measures taken to tackle the problem of the current budget deficit. How matters will pan out in the next few months remains to be seen, with a number of factors, not just economic, coming into play. First up will be the showdown with the public sector unions, where the government seems determined to hold firm on securing cuts from July in the public sector pay bill. At best there will be residual resentment, at worst some industrial unrest, including possible work stoppages.

Apart from the mortgage crisis, where the next six months will show whether the latest sticking plaster approach will work, there remains the possibility of a banana skin on the issue of Abortion, which, in Ireland as elsewhere, continues to generate strong emotions at either extreme, coupled with a more general sense of unease. While there is tacit acceptance in Ireland of abortion as a reality, in the sense that at least 90 women per week giving Irish addresses receive abortions in England, the issue of legislating for abortion domestically, in whatever limited circumstances, is a different matter.

The government is determined to legislate to regularise the constitutional position laid down in the Supreme Court decision in the X case of 1992 which provided for abortion in limited circumstances where there was a real threat to the life of the mother. The battleground is over the inclusion of the threat of suicide, with the Pro-Life lobby arguing strongly against.

As I write, there is a significant clamour for a “ free vote” on the issue, as opposed to the strict discipline of the party whip which the government is advocating. A “free vote” would, of course, leave T.D.s prey to heavy pressure from the Pro-Life lobby in particular. Fianna Fail, which has been making a recovery of sorts in the polls, has thus far stayed its hand on the issue. At the very least there will be a number of defections from Fine Gael on the issue. Could the outcome prove worse?

The next economic milestone for the government is the 2014 Budget, set to be announced on October 15. The talk heretofore has been of two more austerity budgets, for 2014 and 2015, but past half way and with the next election already in view, expect some nuancing on this. There are already hints that, following the deal on debt restructuring secured earlier in the year, and references to better than expected fiscal returns, the government will have some “flexibility” in October, with the figure of one billion euro being bandied about.

The government has been at pains to stress that first call for any spare cash will be job creation or further movement towards plugging the unsustainable level of day to day borrowing, so little relief can be expected for 2014. 2015, however, should present differently. For a start the election will be firmly in everyone’s sights, with backbenchers, already worried enough, demanding something positive to offer . To maximise its chances of getting back in the government will have to introduce some sweeteners sufficiently far in advance of any poll for their effects to be felt and to negate the imminent and pending property and water taxes.

There is another factor also. The Centenary of the 1916 Rising will be on 24 April 2016, i.e. just or close after the next election. There are already articles in the media pointing to that anniversary and posing questions as to how far the ideals of 1916 have been or will be achieved. Even allowing for hyperbole, 2016 will be a watershed, a time for taking stock, and no government will want to be criticised for shortcomings in achieving these ideals.

This “Centenary Factor” – though little talked about now – will certainly come into play in terms of the government’s plans as the date nears. On top of the natural desire to secure re-election, there will clearly be a strong desire on the part of the current incumbents to be in power to bask in whatever reflected glory the Rising Centenary generates. It would be bitter sweet indeed to have steered the country out of the economic tsunami only to see a new government strut the stage of the Centenary celebrations. Let us hope, however, that there are no extravagant promises or hostages given to fortune in the process.

THE SCORPION, THE FROG, AND THE SUCCESSFUL OPERATION 1305 LI

THE SCORPION THE FROG AND THE SUCCESSFUL OPERATION

Political pundits here studying the current socio-political situation might consider the relevance of two stories, one a joke, one a fable. The joke is the old medical one about the operation being a success but the patient dying. The fable is the well-known one about a scorpion hitching a ride across a river from a frog. Despite giving assurances for the frog’s safely, the scorpion stings and kills the frog in midstream, dooming them both, telling the frog, “because it’s my nature.”

The current patient is the Irish Economy and its Siamese twin – the government. The operation, or rather the medical team carrying it out, is the Troika and the procedure itself the Troika Rescue Plan. As I write, the Plan is largely on target and collateral political successes within Europe on the pace and scale of Irish borrowing , with hope of more to come, have raised the prospect of an early Troika departure. But this is only part of the story.

The Troika came to Ireland in late 2010 to provide life support, i.e. cheap credit, to an economy which could no longer borrow money elsewhere to sustain itself. The price extracted from reluctant Irish politicians has been the, on paper, not unreasonable one that the country should seek to live roughly within its means, or at least get down borrowing to an annual 3% by 2015. This to be achieved by a combination of spending cuts and tax increases, within broad parameters, including the widening of the tax base.

The devil, of course, has been in the detail, aggravated by the shadows cast on Ireland’s cave wall by changing and evolving external circumstances within the Eurozone and the EU and exacerbated still further by the red herring of the bank bailout. Arguably the most relevant of these images has been the recent spectacle of the banks closure in Cyprus, something that could have been sprung on us had the infamous bank guarantee not been given in 2008. Arguably also the Eurozone is lurching slowly towards an eventual US – style system with the ECB a type of Federal Reserve, shouldering the debt burdens of member states, solving, inter alia, Ireland’s problems.

The snag with any “ with one bound our hero was free” solution is that, in the real world this does not happen overnight (we may be talking five years) and in the meantime politicians have to face angry and disillusioned electorates ( witness Greece and Italy).

Ireland is not immune to this, as the recent Meath by- election showed. It was nemesis of a sort for Labour which was beaten into fifth place, securing less than 5% of the vote. Whether the damage will be temporary or fatal remains to be seen, but with the double whammy of a property tax and water charges to come within a year, public disaffection seems likely to grow in the short term.

Certainly also Labour did not help its own cause by focussing on issues such as same sex marriage in a constituency where the electorate (as elsewhere) were concerned with jobs, the cost of living and the mortgage crisis.

As spending cuts and tax increases have been introduced there have been predictable howls from every interest group affected. Given that cuts in welfare spending are more likely to hit Labour supporters, these have proved particularly damaging for the junior government partner, Labour, which gained votes and seats in 2011 on a completely unsustainable and unrealistic election platform. Fine Gael was more realistic, promised less, vacuumed up the floating (and decisive) middle class vote, and has at least managed to hang on to its core vote and more.

Labour’s survival, and that of the government in its present form, now seem to rest on Fine Gael agreeing to raise more direct taxes from the better off in the October budget. This was resisted last time and there have been well flagged statements from Fine Gael that the direct taxation limit has been reached. With two new indirect taxes pending, which will squeeze disposable income further, as well as cuts to public sector salaries and pensions from July, most family budgets are delicately balanced, making the scope for any tax increase extremely limited in October.

By then, however, there could be preoccupation with another major issue. Long brewing, long signalled ( I wrote about it in October 2010), the Mortgage Crisis is now firmly centre stage, with 94,488 mortgages (12% of the total) now 90 days plus in arrears, including almost 20% of buy-to-let mortgages. What has changed in recent months has been that the government now at last seems seized of the issue – having managed to do deals in the macroeconomic areas – but its reaction seems to be one of sleepwalking towards potential disaster.

The main elements of the new official approach all heavily favour the banks. These involve the plugging (through legislation) of the loophole that has blocked bank repossessions, a change in the terms of the “ code of conduct” under which the banks have been obliged to conduct negotiations with those in arrears, the introduction of new insolvency legislation, reducing the period of bankruptcy from a horrendous twelve years to a still awful three years, and the “ setting of targets” by the Central Bank for the commercial banks – most of which the taxpayer owns and funds – to “solve” the problem of mortgages in arrears, beginning with the buy-to-lets, all this to be achieved over the next twelve months or so.

As I write, also, “guidelines” are being drawn up under which, in the case of those deemed hopeless debtors ( most of that 94,488), personal and family budgets for up to five years will be dictated by the banks to the debtors as quid pro quo for relief ranging from partial debt write off to “parking” the capital sum owing for a number of years.

Some elements of the guidelines have already been leaked. These include severe restrictions on all spending, including holidays, cars, consumer goods, casual entertainment, children’s education, private health insurance, satellite television, expenditure on clothes and even on food, where $7.00 per person per day is the suggested maximum. For those taking the insolvency route, i.e. accepting immediate bankruptcy, which means losing the family home, jewellery items above a certain value are among those proscribed during the three year purdah period.

This is not some gigantic leg pull. Mixing metaphors, the resuscitated and unrepentant banks, like the scorpion, are to be let off the leash to pursue those who owe them money. Those without sin in the community are quoting that odious concept of “ moral hazard” as justification for supporting/advocating a regime that is not far off some form of indentured servitude. Those potentially affected range from first time buyers through small investors to a handful of (once) well off speculators. There was no talk of “moral hazard” when the banks – and bankers – were being bailed out. Those in difficulties represent collateral damage for the national economic mismanagement spearheaded by the banks.

If this regime goes ahead along the lines currently envisaged the government would do well to remember the fate of the frog. Bankers will be bankers.