THE SAVAGE ALTAR by ASA LARSSON a review

THE SAVAGE ALTAR
ASA LARSSON
PENGUIN/VIKING 307 pp

This is the fourth thriller by Asa Larsson which I’ve read, though actually the first in the series introducing Rebecka Martinsson, her heroine. It was first published in Sweden in 2003, in Britain 2007. In January I reviewed, and was tremendously impressed by , her latest, the fifth in the series, The Second Deadly Sin, the second of her novels to win the Best Swedish Crime Novel award.

The Savage Altar won the Best First Crime Novel award. It’s not hard to see why. For a debut novel it is superb, with finely drawn characters great atmosphere and pace, an excellent, dark plot and a unique setting . Kiruna, population 20,000, where Asa Larsson actually grew up, lies in Norbotten County, within the Arctic Circle close to where the borders of Sweden Norway and Finland come together. It is 600 miles north of Stockholm, with an estimated driving time of fourteen hours. Flight time is 1 hour 40 minutes.

Norbotten County itself is bigger than the island of Ireland but has only 250, 000 inhabitants (think the population of Galway in an area over sixteen times the size; for comparison, Sweden is six times larger than Ireland, with a population of 9,500,000). Finnish and Sami are as widely spoken as Swedish and the populace have retained their own customs and culture. The area is rich in natural resources, with Kiruna famous for its iron ore. The town was developed to take advantage of a vast iron ore deposit which makes up much of a mountain towering over Kiruna.

It’s worthwhile pointing out that Asa Larsson’s first two novels were published before Dragon Tattoo Larsson had appeared on the scene. Many of the themes running through the Millenium Trilogy are to be found here – the gloomy religious and biblical obsessions, the brutal ritualistic killings – linked to old testament tales- the savage rape, the hints ( or actuality) of incest. The only major dimension missing is Stieg Larsson’s portrayal of the evil wealthy capitalist family, which is very much in the Southern California tradition of Chandler and Ross MacDonald. There is, however, a theme of exploitative tax fraud, which in part provides if not motive, then certainly catalyst for the first murder.

The novel introduces also two very strong, very appealing and very human female characters, Rebecka and the policewoman Anna-Maria Mella. Whatever qualities Lisbeth Salander – she of the Dragon Tattoo – might have, appealing is not one of them . The Kiruna characters – the two already mentioned and a number of the others – recur in later books and develop, since, like Wallender, the series is set in real time. The only character that grates is the prosecutor von Post. He crops up also in the Second Deadly Sin, where his incompetence, ambition, lack of judgement and self-importance are again demonstrated. Overall, however, he is a caricature and is probably based on some fool the author has encountered.

The plot centres on the murder of a charismatic clergyman from one of the number of fundamentalist churches and factions that seem to abound in Sweden. It’s sobering and somewhat depressing to note that the type of religious fundamentalism and flat earthism we identify with the American south and, internationally, where others of that ilk are to be found, including some of the sects in Northern Ireland, are alive and well and flourishing in twenty-first century Northern Sweden (this book, after all, is set post Nine Eleven, not post – 1945). Our until very recently monocultural and overwhelmingly Catholic society, rarely encountered at first hand people who actually believe – or profess to believe – in the literal truth of the bible.

The dead clergyman, known cynically as “ The Paradise Kid,” has been murdered and mutilated. His sister turns for assistance to Rebecka, an old friend from school, now a tax lawyer in Stockholm. Rebecka returns to her childhood home in a claustrophobic rural society where religion still rules. People not only quote the bible, they believe it! Rebecca’s memories of there are of religious indoctrination, sexual exploitation, seduction and worse. Now, with her friend charged with murder, Rebecca is drawn into help, her only ally, of sorts, a heavily pregnant local policewoman.

A triumvirate of powerful clergymen, and their wives, acquaintances and adversaries of old, seem determined to hide the truth about the murder. Rebecka digs, and discovers why. She is now the quarry and the book builds to a nail biting ( rarely has the phrase suited better) and violent climax.

Asa Larsson has commented that the sixth book in the Rebecka series will be the last. As with Mankel’s Wallender, it will be a great pity if this is the case.

12/3/14

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A LIFE WORTH LIVING by MICHAEL SMURFIT a review

A LIFE WORTH LIVING

MICHAEL SMURFIT

OAK TREE PRESS, 314pp, hdbk, €32.50

What makes a tycoon? One of the best places to find the secret surely must be the newly published memoir of Michael Smurfit. This gives a fascinating account of how he developed his business over the years and, as an obiter, an equally fascinating insight into the mind of a seriously successful alpha male.

It’s not a catechism on how to become a tycoon, however. There’s not quite enough detail for that. But it should be required reading for any aspiring young business man or woman in Ireland.

What is particularly interesting is how much of his success was down to doing the obvious, like cutting costs, managing stocks, etc, something that other Irish alpha male Michael O Leary is also good at (will he ever write a book, I wonder?). What is also interesting is how Smurfit took a small Irish company to the top of the world in the area of wood and wood products, beating off rivals from countries with significant wood and native paper industries.

The book is not just about Smurfit’s business life, of course. It’s his life story and he certainly has led a full life. The first Irish mega tycoon, he built a small family business into Ireland’s first multinational company and one of the world’s largest paper and packaging companies, particularly spectacular when coming from a country with no indigenous wood industry to speak of.

This autobiography is an account of his life and of the company he built over three decades and is in many ways a primer on how to succeed in business. As well as cataloguing his step by step progress there are revealing insights into his business philosophy, with chapters on the Smurfit culture and the Smurfit system, both bearing his indelible signature.

Michael Smurfit, however, was and is more than just a successful businessman. While building the Smurfit empire he served as Chairman of Telecom Eireann from 1979 to 1991, supervising the transformation of an antiquated national telephone system, an essential foundation for the development of the Celtic Tiger. He also served for six years as Chairman of the Irish Racing Board, where he brought his business acumen and organisational skills to develop an important national industry. Separately, his vision led to the development of the K Club and the bringing of the Ryder Cup to Ireland in 2006. He has been decorated by a number of countries and received a Knighthood from the Queen in 2005. He is Ireland’s Honorary Consul in Monaco, where he resides.

Yet it could have been so different. He was born in 1936 in St Helens, Lancashire, the family moving back to Ireland during the war. His father, a tailor by trade, acquired a small box factory and mill in Dublin through his Belfast in – laws. He was moderately successful and Michael and his brother were sent initially to Clongowes before being taken out when Michael was sixteen and put to work in his father’s Clonskeagh factory to learn the business from the bottom. As time went on he became bored and frustrated and at nineteen was poised to emigrate to Canada with a workmate. At the last minute his visa application was refused – “a bombshell” – on medical grounds.

He was diagnosed with T.B. and entered Peamount Sanitorium the day he had been scheduled to depart for Canada. He spent ten months there, learning that had the condition not been discovered when it was he would have been dead within six months. There he was shocked to learn also that his former workmate had been paralysed in a traffic accident in Toronto; he could have been with him. The brush with mortality proved sobering. He realised how lucky he had been and returned to the family firm determined to succeed, this time to the office rather than the factory floor.

There followed a spell in the USA working with Continental Can, one of Smurfit’s paper suppliers. Here he honed his growing expertise in the practicalities of business, but getting his father to apply his ideas was another matter. It was to be a decade before he was able to put them into practice. Meantime he met Norma during a six month study stay in Richmond. Norma Triesman was a hairdresser, a Jewish girl from London’s East End. They met at a dance where he “asked the owner of the best pair of legs to dance.”

They married after two years, in 1963, moving initially to his Lancashire birthplace, where he set up his own first factory in Wigan. Their sons, Tony and Michael, were born there. Norma he described as “ the perfect partner,” “a wonderful woman” and “a tower of strength.” He gave up his early passion for racing cars and motorbikes ( his first car had been the iconic E-type Jaguar).His Lancashire business began to prosper and in early 1966 his father asked him to return to Ireland to take over the family business. He grasped immediately that, with Ireland’s tariffs coming down after the 1965 Anglo-Irish Free Trade Agreement, Smurfits, worth roughly £1 million, had to expand or die.

Expansion meant takeover. The Irish paper and packaging industry consisted of many small businesses and was ripe for rationalisation. Smurfits cut their teeth on this, devising and refining tactics over time. The Irish dominoes tumbled in turn. It was the era of family businesses, with management often dominated by Protestants, many amateurish and hostile. Smurfit fought to take them over. “My motto was I must, I can and I will; and I did.”

The approach involved complete forensic analysis of the targeted company, based on a thorough knowledge of every aspect of the paper and packaging industry, something many competitors and targets lacked. This knowledge was developed all the way back to Michael’s period on the factory floor and his subsequent years of business apprenticeship up to 1966. Meticulous research, full knowledge, and better preparation than the opposition, was the key. The same tactics were repeated over and over again on an ever increasing scale in Ireland, in Britain, in the USA, in Europe. Sometimes there were setbacks, but very few.

The phrase coined for the Smurfit approach was “logical opportunism.” There was never over-reach, something many companies were guilty of, with too much borrowing and over investment. Sometimes the target could be part of a conglomerate, but not part of the core activities, or an adjunct to the main business. Once acquired there was further forensic investigation, of staff and stock levels, of management technique and of how the new acquisition could best be assimilated.

There were six and seven day weeks, long hours, interminable dinners – up to 200 in a year – and much travel, with every mill and plant visited. Yet there was a private life also. His sporting interests are chronicled, including the successes of his racehorses , as well as his interest in skiing and yachting. There is a chapter on the K Club and the 2006 Ryder Cup. The book is generally sparse on personal details, though he does deal with the painful end of his marriage to Norma. When he revealed over dinner on April Fool’s day 1985 that there was someone else, she threw a glass of wine over him and stormed out. He has only kind words to say about Norma.

There is advice, in particular in the chapter on the Smurfit System, with emphasis on cost controls and ensuring up to date information on cash flows and on how each business component is functioning, as well as a section on the anatomy of a deal. And, with a keen eye on the present and future in a changing business environment, advice to any one starting out to master computer skills, find a market niche, and why you must never, ever, give up.

As befits a tidy and organised mind, the contents pages helpfully include separately named sections within chapters, while there is an appendix detailing the staggering History of the Jefferson Smurfit Group.

Insightful. A book worth reading.

5/4/14

SOLO by WILLIAM BOYD a review

SOLO

WILLIAM BOYD

William Boyd is one of my favourite writers. Try “ A Good Man in Africa” – a hilarious book which became an excellent film. Or “ An Ice Cream War,” set in East Africa during World War I . He has now become the latest writer of note to be presented with the potentially poisoned chalice of attempting to write another James Bond novel, following in the footsteps of Kingsley Amis, Sebastian Faulks and Jeffery Deaver.

It’s important to mention here that there is a James Bond Mark One and a James Bond Mark Two. Bond Mark One is the popular Bond of film, portrayed over half a century by a succession of actors, from Sean Connery to the current Bond, Daniel Craig ( not to forget Bob Simmons, the stuntman who featured in the early Connery 007 movies as the figure in the gun barrel sequence at commencement as the Bond theme played). Most people have their own favourite James Bond ( mine is a mixture of Connery and Craig) while the Bond character has become a modern cinema icon.

James Bond Mark Two is the hero of a dozen books written in the fifties and early sixties by Ian Fleming, a journalist and former naval intelligence officer, from an upper-middle class background (Eton, Sandhurst and two universities) who died in 1964. The books inspired the first films and were classics of their genre for their time. I can recall as a schoolboy the impact they had. They provided technicolour images for a generation of schoolkids growing up in the era of limited choice black and white television. Fleming was a master craftsman, writing for his time. The Bond books, their place in British fiction, their style, have been parsed and analysed at length by writers as distinguished as Anthony Burgess and Umberto Eco. There is a particularly informative and incisive Wikipedia article on James Bond and his creator which is well worth a read.

But, and it’s a big but, the novels were written over half a century ago, pitched at an audience eager for escapism and glamour as Britain and Europe slowly emerged from the devastation and relative poverty of the post war world. Part of the challenge faced by any writer tasked or invited to write “ another Bond” is whether to situate it back in the 60’s – before most of the current reading public were born – or update it to the present or more recent past. The past is very much another country, and, given the speed of technological change, the farther back the more alien that country. An era before the Internet, no mobile phones, no personal computers. And either way, the additional shadow cast by the Cinema Bond will be long and deep.

Boyd has chosen the sixties, and has made a very commendable job of it, but has cautioned readers also to remember it is the book Bond, not the film one, that they should keep in mind. “Solo” is a very good, very well written and entertaining thriller. It has been well received critically with more than one commentator observing that the book is better written than were the original James Bond novels. And it is; it’s by William Boyd rather than Ian Fleming.
It portrays a somewhat softer, more socially aware Bond, now 45, with something of a conscience, shocked at his own savagery when he eventually does snap. That aside, he smokes drinks and womanises like the Bond we know, though he has swopped his Aston Martin for a Jensen Interceptor ( Anyone remember them? An in-law of mine drove one). The novel is set in Africa and the USA in the late Sixties. Boyd knows West Africa well. He was born and grew up there and it is the setting for several of his best novels.

The plot of “Solo” is interwoven with one of the major tragic events of the second half of the 20th Century – the Biafran War in which the oil rich province of Biafra sought to break away from Nigeria. The secession was crushed over several years, and featured a severe economic blockade of the breakaway province, with images of starving and malnourished children pricking the conscience of the world. The Irish Aid agency Concern was born out of the conflict, founded on the initiative of Irish missionaries moved by the Biafrans’ plight.

Without giving too much away, in the book Biafra is thinly disguised as Dahum, Nigeria as Zanzarim. 007’s role is to get close to the secessionist leader of Dahum and kill him ( Britain backs the Federal Government). When he fails and is almost killed himself, he resolves to pursue his assailants, who have surfaced in the USA after the collapse of Dahum. Bond acts alone, without official sanction – hence “Solo.” This is vintage Bond, but interwoven with the usual escapist heroics are thoughtful and disturbing portrayals of the bloody conflict with images of massacres and starving children, as well as the involvement of mercenaries, including East European pilots hired to drop napalm on villages.

Furthermore there is no evil international organisation or master criminal with which Bond must do battle on behalf of the forces of good. His task is more prosaic, the reason clear and not particularly edifying. Bond is to kill “ the African Napoleon” because Britain wants the civil war ended to ensure the future safety of Zanzarim’s oil. So too do the Americans, confirmed to Bond late on by his old CIA friend Felix, who speaks of an apparently limitless subterranean ocean of oil in the country . Felix refers to the West’s need for security of supply and the desirability of steering away from dependence on Middle Eastern oil.

There are echoes of the present day here though it is unlikely that CIA (and MI6) strategists were all that prescient in 1969. OPEC had yet to flex its muscles, Gaddafi had just come to power and the Middle East, though definitely a powder keg, was nothing like it has become. Realpolitik, however, just as the crushing of Biafra was real. An unsavoury touch, though one that adds spice to the novel and prompts reflection.

A satisfying read and well recommended.

4/4/14

INNOCENCE by DEAN KOONTZ a review

INNOCENCE by DEAN KOONTZ

HARPERCOLLINS 338 pages

Dean Koontz is one of writing’s heavy hitters, in or just outside the top ten dollar earners ( $ 20 million or so last year). He writes suspense, horror and supernatural thrillers. His output is prodigious, at least sixty five novels under his own name and a further canon from the past, including some disputed ones, under a variety of pennames. He is sixty eight and continues to churn out novels, fourteen of which have topped the New York Times bestseller lists. Most people will have read at least one of his books; I’ve read quite a few, though none recently before I tackled his latest, “Innocence.”

Koontz is very much a “what you see is what you get” writer. His books are good, attention holding, page turners, well plotted. Some critics have pointed to an underlying moral tone in his works in which right normally triumphs, suggesting that links can be traced to Koontz’ personal life. He and his mother were abused by his father, an alcoholic, which undoubtedly influenced his writing, as did his admiration for his mother and his early conversion to Catholicism. Yet despite his very considerable financial success, Koontz has never really received the critical acclaim accorded to his contemporary, Stephen King, with whom he is often compared. I’m not sure if “Innocence” will do much to redress the balance.

I was reminded at the outset of “Innocence” of the great H.P. Lovecraft short story about a ghoul which lives deep underground, surfacing at last, craving human company only to be shunned in horror by humans, so dreadful is its appearance. The book’s hero, Addison Goodheart, is a freak, a young man with a facial appearance so terrible that any person who sees him reacts with horror and violence, seeking to kill him. Goodheart lives in a secret windowless apartment deep in the bowels of a large city ( taken to be Manhattan) from where he ventures forth only in the dead of night, masked and muffled, to forage for food and, occasionally to explore the city library.

One winter’s night in the library he encounters a beautiful young woman, Gwyneth, fleeing a malevolent evil man, the murderer of her father, intent on raping her. Addison befriends her and together they set out to frustrate the villain, their pact being that she does not look and he does not touch. On the way they encounter strange, supernatural, or at any rate non-human, entities: Clears, positive or good spirits, but nonetheless not to be approached, and Fogs, evil and malevolent wraiths which feed and interact on humans’ basest desires.

The story is obviously allegorical, with echoes of Beauty and the Beast, but with exquisitely written passages which make for easy reading. The book appears to be grinding along towards the inevitable conclusion – the triumph of good, after much travail – until, with about seventy pages left, there is a gear-change. A philosophical interlude on the nature of time in the universe is followed by quite a breath-taking build up to the novel’s climax. It would spoil it for the reader to reveal too much. Suffice to say that there is an all too plausible scenario suggested towards the end, something that gave me food for some uncomfortable thought, something I’m pretty sure other readers will share.

11/3

THE ALMOST NEARLY PERFECT PEOPLE by MICHAEL BOOTH a review

THE ALMOST NEARLY PERFECT PEOPLE
The Truth about the Nordic Miracle

MICHAEL BOOTH
JONATHAN CAPE 406 PAGES €18.60

Think Finland and chances are you’ll think “ Nokia.” Think Sweden and it’s “IKEA.” Norway? Oil . Think Nordic? Five countries, advanced, prosperous, peaceful, tolerant, egalitarian, progressive and educated. From whom Ireland can possibly learn a lot. In this book, English travel and food writer Michael Booth takes an affectionate and perceptive look at all five.

The picture which emerges is more nuanced. Much to admire, certainly, but with darker corners and significant flaws. Yes there are lessons for Ireland. The main one is that we beat up on ourselves too much. The second that there is no simple Nordic template we can lift and apply here. Each of the Nordics comes with its own baggage and we can learn best by studying these less than nearly perfect societies.

With the exception of Norway, with its oil, the other Nordics in recent years have all experienced severe economic downturns, similar to Ireland’s. We are all familiar with the banking collapse in Iceland, where the three main banks borrowed ten times the country’s GDP before total collapse. We are less familiar with the Finnish economic collapse of the early 1990s, when a property bubble burst, GDP declined by 13% and unemployment rose from 3% to 18%. This in Finland, a country often held up as an example for Ireland to follow.

Sweden had a major banking crisis and recession in the early 90s also , after ITS building bubble burst, though it has successfully, and painfully, restructured since. Denmark’s household debt, at 310%, is the world’s highest, well above Ireland’s, following the 2008 collapse of a property boom fuelled by cheap credit and the introduction of interest only mortgages in 2003 ( sound familiar?). Indebtedness and negative equity are rampant, particularly among those aged thirty to forty, a generation the author describes as “screwed.”

Finland has recovered, and today is one of the EU’s most prosperous states, boasts very significant gender equality and has a superb free state education system, a world leader. Finland has Nokia, a native manufacturing industry and more electronics besides, though critics fear the country is over reliant on this sector (again, sound familiar?). Finland has the fewest immigrants, but also has the highest murder rate in Western Europe, consumes anti-depressants and anti-psychotic drugs in large quantities, and has a major problem with binge drinking.

Denmark has a comprehensive welfare state but also punitive tax rates. These exist in tandem with a massive black economy, which is tolerated semi – officially as part of an unvirtuous circle under which the private sector is sustained by the black economy, enabling it to fund, in taxes, the cost of the public sector and welfare benefits. Denmark tops the world cancer rates and has a significant carbon footprint, wind energy notwithstanding. Denmark’s third largest party, with 12% of votes and seats, espouses an anti –immigration platform.

Sweden, the Jewel in the Crown of the Nordics, has the largest economy and population, is front runner in gender and class equality, and is renowned for a comprehensive cradle to grave welfare state. Sweden boasts native multinational giants like IKEA, H&M, Tetra Pak, Eriksson and Volvo. It is, moreover, at the cutting edge of a huge multicultural experiment – 15% of the population was born elsewhere and with their children comprise almost one third of the population ( though, curiously, relatively few migrated from the new EU states after 2004).

Sweden was never conquered and has long pursued a policy of neutrality. It actually prospered during World War Two, supplying vital strategic materials to Germany until quite late in the war. The Swedish economy and society developed steadily during the Twentieth Century, thanks largely to a unique social partnership between big business, the Social Democrats and the unions. Yet in this Stepford Wife of a country, youth unemployment is pushing 30%, despite its neutrality Sweden is the world’s eighth largest arms exporter and it also faces rising anti-immigration sentiment.

Norway has oil in abundance, and continues to discover more. The Dubai of the North, it pumps it out at pace, belying its clean, green image. The revenues have been invested wisely, but cracks are starting to show, with Norway having proportionately the highest number of welfare claimants in Europe and a worsening trend in educational standards. Norway also has a worrying strain of right wing extremism, epitomised not only by Anders Breivik, but also by the rising support for the anti-immigrant Progress Party (16% in last year’s election). Not surprisingly the integration of non-Western immigrants has become the current major challenge facing the Nordic democracies.

Despite these and other “fissures and flaws” Booth (a Denmark resident) is an unashamed admirer of the Nordics. He points up the countries’ shared positive aspects, the trust and social cohesion, the economic and gender equality, the well balanced political and economic systems, the enduring high levels of social mobility. For him the alternative to the rampant capitalism which has ravaged the West in recent years, is not Brazil, Russia, or China. “ The Nordic countries have the answer Even when they get it wrong, they soon figure out how to get it right without any blood being spilled.” Another lesson here.

A satisfying and informative book.

March 3 2014

BANANA SKINS? 1404 LXII

BANANA SKINS?

Year Four of the Government and several recent developments, none catastrophic individually but taken together having the potential to do serious political damage, have begun to cast ripples on the domestic political scene as the Coalition enters its penultimate year.

The general assumption up to now has been that Fine Gael will remain as the largest political party after the next election and will probably form the next government. It’s a measure of how far – and fast – we have travelled since the Troika Era that, at a time when the corner appears to have been turned economically, with the latest indicators all now firmly positive and the government loudly claiming all the credit, the first sprouting of political doubts about this scenario have appeared.

Fine Gael is still the firm favourite and speculation has been and remains whether it will achieve an absolute majority (unlikely), continue in coalition with a much smaller Labour party (most likely), or, in the event of significant reductions in support for both parties, form part of some wider, rainbow-style coalition. With eight fewer seats next time round, and given the likelihood of some pendulum swing, it’s going to be a lot tighter in any event.

The role of independents could become a factor here. With “ Don’t Knows” and undecided polling consistently above 20% since the 2011 election, the actual number of independent deputies was boosted significantly when a group of T.D.s who opposed last year’s abortion legislation were expelled from Fine Gael. Taoiseach Enda Kenny has eschewed the common practice of allowing the dissidents back before the next general election by making clear that the dissidents are out – period. There have been rumours and media speculation that the dissidents might join with others to form a new political party but nothing concrete has emerged – hardly surprising given the fate of most Irish splinter or dissident parties.

Recently the odds on a new party may have shortened slightly. The clear election tactics of both government parties next time round– whether they contest individually or in tandem – will be to claim to have saved the nation economically, combining this with a few careful sweeteners in the next two budgets and promises of more to come. A cautionary note: as several previous governments have learned to their cost, campaigning on a platform of having taken tough resolute action “ in the national interest” can backfire, particularly if the actions taken have hit the electorate hard in their pockets, certainly the case this time round.

The other clear if unstated tactic should be to avoid banana skins. 2014 has already seen this particular aspiration fail several times. Albert Reynolds’ wry observation that the small hurdles trip politicians up may well get another airing. The latest of several banana skins, involving the Rehab charity, is potentially the most harmful to Fine Gael, not just because of the effect on the party’s image, but also because Fine Gael’s most important political strategist, Frank Flannery, the Karl Rove of Irish politics, has become a political casualty.

Flannery, whose Fine Gael roots go back to the 1980s, when, with Garret Fitzgerald, he sought to instil professionalism into the party, is credited with rescuing and reorganising Fine Gael after the debacle in 2002. He was the party’s Director of Elections, a Trustee and a close adviser to Taoiseach Enda Kenny. On March 10 he resigned his posts. He also resigned from the board of Rehab, the organisation of which he had been chief executive for twenty five years until 2006.

The Rehab affair has been simmering away since late last year. The Dail Public Accounts Committee (PAC), tasked with scrutinising how taxpayers money is spent, revealed before Christmas that a number of high profile charities, most notably the largely state – funded Central Remedial Clinic, had been drawing on accumulated reserves to top up significantly the salaries and pensions of their already well paid leading executives. In the case of the CRC the top up more than doubled the Chief Executive’s $150,000 salary. There was public outrage at the thought that charitable donations and taxpayers’ money were involved. Public donations to many charities plummeted and attention focussed on top salary levels throughout the voluntary sector.

Most chief executives published their incomes but the chief executive of the Rehab group demurred, on the grounds that Rehab, though in receipt of considerable state funding, had a significant commercial arm as well and that her salary had been paid from commercially generated income rather than by the taxpayer. Predictably this did not wash with the public, and eventually Rehab disclosed that its chief executive was paid roughly $330,000, more than the Taoiseach ( and Barack Obama!). Rehab further revealed that eleven of her colleagues are paid over $130,000 each.

Exchanges between the PAC and Rehab continue. The only head to roll thus far has been that of Frank Flannery, who built up the Rehab group from relatively small beginnings to a charitable business with annual turnover of $250 million. The details of his successor’s salary, his continued involvement as a director, and revelations of his lobbying activities on Rehabs behalf, proved too much political baggage for Enda Kenny, prompting Flannery’s resignation. The Taoiseach’s ruthlessness has been noted, but the general verdict has been that, politically, Flannery will be very difficult to replace. Astute move or tactical error? Time will tell.

The Flannery affair came hard on the heels of several other banana skins – enmeshed controversies which also simmer on and which could yet bring down Justice Minister Alan Shatter and /or Garda Commissioner Callinan. First up were allegations that the offices of the Garda Ombudsman ( which investigates all complaints about the Gardai) had been bugged with suggestions that the bugging could only have been done by some major or official agency. It was not long before rumours began and accusations were bandied about. Minister and Commissioner were adamant in denying that the Gardai had anything to do with bugging. A retired high court judge is to investigate and report before Easter.

Then came the Garda Whistle-blower controversy and the reigniting of the so-called penalty points for drivers issue ( points are cumulative and can lead to loss of licence). Allegations surfaced last year that the Gardai’s discretionary powers to review and cancel points had, in a small percentage of cases, been abused. The recent recommendations made by the Garda Inspectorate, to eliminate any possible abuse, have been fully accepted by the Government. However, the suspicion that in some cases at least the rules could or might be bent without due cause has left a sour taste with the public and has done nothing for the reputation of the Gardai as a whole.

The penalty point revelations were part of the material made public by two Garda whistle-blowers, one still in the force. Whatever about whistle blowing in the private sector, it is a different matter when the national police force is involved. The controversy rumbles on with Minister and Commissioner eye-balling the two whistle blowers. More sour taste. More heads to roll?

Normal politics is back – with a vengeance.