Political columnists and commentators have a new sport – guessing the date of the next General Election and which parties will make up the Government after that election.

This after the results of May’s local and European elections when the Coalition achieved the near impossible. The Government with the largest majority in the history of the state, which did nothing to bring about the economic collapse, for the most part performed credibly in repairing the damage, including seeing off the Troika successfully, was punished so severely in the ballot that its chances of recovery before its term runs out are slight. This regardless of any policy initiatives it may take.

The facts make stark reading, particularly for the junior Coalition partner, Labour. A protest vote was expected, but not on this scale. Its vote fell from 14.5% to 7.2% in the local elections, and from 13.9% to 5.3% in the European elections, both a far cry from the heady 19.4% in the 2011 general election. The party lost all three European seats. On this showing most of the party’s deputies seem set to lose their Dail seats.

Fine Gael also got a shock, dropping from 32.5% to 24% in the local elections and from 29.1% to 22.3% in the European vote, significantly below its 36% general election figure. The party is now neck and neck with a partially revived Fianna Fail. Like Labour, party strategists can take little comfort that some of the fall was probably due to protest by way of abstention (the turnout was just over 50% compared to the 70% in the 2011 General Election). Suddenly a second term in government looks far from certain.

The big winners were Sinn Fein, which continued the upward trends of the 2011 elections (General and Presidential) , doubling its vote in the local elections to 15.2% and increasing its share of the European poll from 11.2% to 19.5%, winning three of the eleven seats. This despite the arrest and lengthy questioning of Gerry Adams by Northern Ireland police just before election day. The other beneficiaries were a slew of Independents and minor parties, chiefly on the Left, who garnered 28% of the vote, three well entrenched personalities winning seats in Europe.

Some pundits have seen Sinn Fein’s continued success as marking a significant shift in the Irish political landscape. Certainly it has muscled its way onto the party scene and, with an efficient dedicated party structure at local level, now appears very much a fourth political force. Having creamed off much of Fianna Fail’s “green” vote in 2011, this time around it added the scalp of the 2011 sans culottes surge to Labour. Not being in office is an additional bonus.

How it, and the other parties, will fare in the looming General Election is another matter. Several pundits have pointed to the current volatility of the electorate, present since 2008 and showing no signs of diminishing. That 28% vote for others – chiefly of the left – reflects this, as do successive opinion polls showing high percentages rejecting both the traditional political parties and the arriviste Sinn Fein. Ominously, the figure for “others” – 15.45% in the 2011 election – lurched above 20% in opinion polls in January and has been rising since.

The message from the voters, however unrealistic, is clear: there has been enough austerity, and people have no more to give. An annual property tax in 2013, doubled in 2014, and the prospect of a savage charge for domestic water commencing in 2015, on top of previous impositions, were steps too far. The Troika is now a memory and the Government’s overhyping of the “achievement” of getting rid of it cut no ice. This year also, with the fig leaf excuse of the Troika’s diktat removed, the ineptitude of the government in mishandling a number of small but sensitive issues has been exposed, compounding its woes. The banana skins proliferated.

The post-mortems have begun. While Sinn Fein is preening, Labour is reeling. Its leader Eamon Gilmore, has quit and, as I write, the succession contest is under way. The irony is that, by any standard, apart from the foolish comments made by Gilmore prior to the 2011 election, Labour in government for the most part delivered for its constituency on its major commitments. Core welfare payments were protected almost in entirely, as was the minimum wage, while those on lower incomes were taken out of the Universal Social Charge net.

It was primarily the small hurdles that tripped Labour up, rendering it vulnerable to sustained attack from Sinn Fein and the left . Core welfare payments WERE protected, but the collateral damage from the alternative – a host of small stealth cuts brought in to achieve the necessary budgetary targets, and which affected disproportionately the old, sick and marginalised – proved too much. Arguably a further ten euros off unemployment and ( non means –tested) child benefit or higher excise charges could have avoided all this and proved more palatable politically.

Then, a small hurdle that became big. While the water charges remain an accident waiting to happen – particularly next year when they have to be paid – another accident, though well signposted in advance, has already occurred. The Discretionary Medical Card fiasco hung the Government out to dry – Labour in particular – and offered a perfect example of a government out of touch.

Irish medical cards are issued, not on medical need, but on a means tested basis, under legislation dating from 1970 – the Stone Age in terms of Irish social policy. They provide free medical care, are a gateway to certain other welfare benefits, and are much sought after. Roughly half the population have them – around two million – including those, healthy or not, on the dole or the state pension. The total in January 2013 included around 60,000 people(3% ) with discretionary medical cards, awarded case by case on the basis of individual need, and by definition, all with real medical needs.

As part of the cost cutting measures to tackle Ireland’s enormous health budget of €14 billion, this year’s budget targeted savings of €113 million from medical cards, through reviews of eligibility, including strict means testing of discretionary card holders. Thousands lost them, or were “ under review”, including many highly publicised distressing cases. The media had a field day. It became THE issue on the doorsteps. Government reaction was to parrot that legally its hands were tied. Voters were not impressed, and remain unimpressed in the most recent polls as the Government, in panic, has, post-election, suddenly found a way to reverse policy.

Such is the level of popular disenchantment with the main parties that what happens next is anybody’s guess. The new Labour leader may try to be more assertive, though the scope is limited. A government reshuffle is on the cards. There is speculation of more policy change. But time is running out. The summer beckons. After it, October’s budget. Few would wager on the Government now lasting until 2016. Even Benjamin Franklin’s rationale for hanging together is wearing thin. And then what? Political alliances thought unthinkable are now being contemplated. At least among journalists. For now.




Irish citizens living abroad may have an opportunity to vote in the election for the next Irish President, due in 2018. A recommendation to that effect was proposed by the Irish Constitutional Convention last September. Two major hurdles have to be negotiated before anything happens. Firstly the recommendation has to be approved by the Government . Secondly any proposal has to be passed by referendum.

The artificial deadline for a Government decision has passed. There may be more time to wait. We are now at a key moment politically, with parties absorbing the recent results of local and European elections. An issue pertaining to a possible vote in four years’ time is hardly likely to seize the Government’s attention with a general election less than two years off. Moreover, the Convention’s recommendation is just slightly contentious enough to give politicians pause, unlike some others, uncontroversial and which have been nodded through. In the end the Government may well accept the proposal. But then the referendum has to be carried.

The Irish Constitution came into force at the end of 1937. Though on the whole it has served the people well, at this stage it is showing signs of its age. Of the thirty six referenda proposing amendments, two thirds have taken place since 1992, reflecting both changing lifestyles and attitudes among the electorate and Ireland’s changing position in the world. While it is difficult to generalise, one thread evident from the referenda results has been the reluctance of voters to be swayed by arguments advanced by politicians. Some proposals which seemed reasonable, including those regarding the EU, have come a cropper at the ballot box.

A number of parliamentary and officially sponsored Constitutional reviews have taken place since the sixties but it has become clear that the Irish political establishment has no appetite for any radical reform of the document. We have been left with some useful analytical reports, suggested alternatives and amendments but very little else, the reviews on occasion serving merely to kick the can on an issue down the road.

The current government, elected in 2011 on a tide of “ a plague a both your houses,” had another bash, announcing in its programme for government the setting up of a “Constitutional Convention to consider comprehensive constitutional reform.” The areas identified hardly lived up to the rhetoric They included a review of the Dáil electoral system, reducing the presidential term to five years, providing for same-sex marriage, removing blasphemy from the Constitution and a possible reduction in the voting age. The first threatened to be a non-runner from the off, the rest were at best non-controversial, at worse irrelevant. Two other areas mentioned promised more – amending the wording on women in the home and encouraging greater participation of women in public life, as well as “other relevant constitutional amendments that may be recommended by the Convention.”

The Convention was duly launched in 2012, holding its first meeting on December 1st. It consisted of 100 members, two thirds randomly selected members of the public, and with terms of reference expanded to include, as well as those mentioned, consideration of “giving citizens resident outside the state the right to vote in Presidential elections.” Hence the current recommendation. The Convention completed its deliberations in March 2014.

The Convention’s recommendations can be divided roughly into three: those immediately acceptable politically, those requiring further consideration and those likely to prove unacceptable. In the first category, recommendations to reduce the voting age to sixteen and to legalize same-sex marriages have been accepted by the government and will be put to the people in 2015, together with a recommendation to reduce the age for presidential candidates from 35 to 21. In the second category are the Votes for Expats issue , the recommendation to replace the blasphemy provision with a ban on incitement to religious hatred, proposals to alter the current wording regarding women, reform of Dail procedures and the recommendation to include references to certain economic social and cultural rights.

In the final category is the most contentious recommendation by far – that proposing changes in the Dail electoral system. This calls for constituencies to have a minimum of five seats; at present (the next election) only eleven out of the forty constituencies will have the current maximum of five seats. The recommendation, if accepted, threatens to alter dramatically the composition of the Dail, giving greater opportunities to smaller parties and independents at the expense of the larger parties.

Currently, while second preference transfers can and do provide spice and uncertainty to election results, the general rule of thumb is that, in a multi-seat constituency, to get elected a candidate requires a certain percentage of the first preference votes, represented by 100 divided by the number of seats plus one . So in a three seat constituency a candidate requires 25% of the vote( 100 divided by four) , in a four seat constituency 20% ( 100 divided by five), in a five seater 16% (100 divided by six), and so on.

It is not hard to see how the current arrangements, under which two thirds of Dail seats are in three and four seat constituencies, favour the larger parties. In the three- seaters in particular the prospects for an independent or a small party seeking to break through are bleak. The big picture is whether larger constituencies ( five or five plus) would lead to a proliferation of smaller parties and independents and what effect this would have on the functioning of Irish parliamentary democracy.

In the early years of the state there were a number of constituencies with more than five seats, including one (Galway) with nine, without any earth-shattering splintering of the vote. And, to take the current Dail, there are six identifiable party groupings, plus independents, while after the 2002 election there were seven. The jury is still out, but the best guess is that the larger parties, with one eye on the increasing volatility of the electorate, and the other on their own political skins, will opt to hunker down and stick with the status quo pending further consideration of the issue. It is one, incidentally, on which the Constitution says nothing beyond declaring that any constituency must have a minimum of three seats.

What are the chances, then, for yet another referendum before 2016, permitting citizens resident abroad to vote in presidential elections? The issue is not straightforward. Extending the franchise to non-resident citizens is complicated, politically, legally and administratively. An argument in favour is that it would constitute a positive gesture towards the diaspora, suitably topping off a decade of increased official engagement with that diaspora.

The recommendation comes at a time also when the issue has built up a moderate head of steam with lobbying from some of the recent economic emigrants for a say in how the country has been and should be run. Their argument is that their emigration was involuntary, is temporary , and that having a vote would enable them to keep in touch. Whether this will cut any ice with domestic politicians fearing a backlash remains to be seen.



A landmark event in modern Irish history took place last month – President Michael D Higgins’ State Visit to Britain. This, the first by an Irish President in the history of the state, was in return for the Queen’s 2011 visit here. Both have been applauded as great successes and important steps in the process of reconciliation between Ireland and Britain. Particular and deserved praise has been given to the President and his wife; the visit was one which instilled a sense of pride. President Higgins will visit Chicago in early May. Get to see him if you can.

Parking the symbolism and diplomatic niceties, the Visit was particularly important in the formal recognition it accorded to the Irish community in Britain, both in terms of social acceptance within Britain and in terms of official recognition from Ireland . To a community which has often been taken for granted, and on occasion faced hostility or indifference, this formal acknowledgement is important in a country where so many have found a home. President Higgins, like many others a onetime Irish emigrant to Britain, could empathise easily with our people there, who enjoy generally excellent relations with the host nation, which has welcomed and given a livelihood to several million Irish over the centuries.

There are no exact figures for the numbers who came or their descendants. The British Ambassador to Ireland, Dominic Chilcott, suggested recently that as many as twenty five percent of the British population could claim some Irish ancestry A rough rule of thumb used by many has been the number of Catholics plus 10% – reflecting the fact that Britain’s Roman Catholic Church , roughly seven million, was overwhelmingly an Irish immigrant church, and adding in a percentage for those who “lapsed.”

This may be a considerable underestimation . The obvious examples aside, there are people of recognisable Irish descent to be found at every level of British society. While it is widely known that Tony Blair’s mother was born in Donegal, making him , incidentally, an Irish citizen by right, it came as a revelation that Mrs Thatcher’s great-grandmother was a Sullivan from Kerry! And that could be just the tip of a very large iceberg. Though not as visible or as talked about as the Irish Americans, the Irish in Britain have made a significant, sometimes unrecognised, contribution to British society.

While there are roughly 34 million persons claiming Irish descent in the USA , reflecting the phenomenal numbers who arrived during the Nineteenth Century, those of Irish birth living in Britain today – at least half a million – constitute by far the largest grouping of Irish-born now living outside Ireland and greatly exceed the number in the USA. The 2010 US Census gave just under 145,000 Irish-born naturalised US residents; throw in those with or awaiting green cards and the undocumented and the total figure is probably around 250,000.

Irish immigrant experiences in the USA and Britain have been markedly different . While the USA has celebrated diversity, acknowledging the contribution of different immigrant groups, including especially the Irish, to developing the country, Britain has until recently historically taken the different path of assimilation. This has changed in recent decades, with the arrival of large numbers of culturally and ethnically different immigrants which has seen British society become more pluralist, diverse and multicultural.

Until the sixties, however, immigrants to England, even from other parts of Britain, were steered towards assimilation and absorption into the dominant culture. There were reasons. Like immigrants everywhere, most arrivals were poor, entering society at or near the bottom. It was a long slow march up the social ladder in a society more closed and class ridden than in the USA. Assimilation helped.

You were here, you worked, you were accepted, on the host’s terms. And, to a large extent, it
worked, certainly on the surface.

There were many exceptions, of course, and it is to their credit that Irish culture, and Irish identity
were preserved and championed among emigrants. Yet within a generation or two many had become
British, with usually just a nod to an Irish or Scottish grandparent. Hence the Thatchers, and many
more like them ( three of the Beatles). Remember some members of the legendary Irish soccer team
of a generation ago – qualifying through a grandparent.

Historically there have always been many Irish in Britain. Irish-born immigrants constituted until
very recently the largest “foreign” community in Britain; Indians and Poles have now passed them
out. ( The same, incidentally, is true in reverse of the British in Ireland ). There was considerable
migration even pre-Famine and steady, increased, flows thereafter, with spikes in the numbers
arriving corresponding to economic downturns at home . During the 1950s the numbers surged, as
the Irish economy hit the bottom, with up to half of each year’s school leavers emigrating, most to
Britain. As an example, in 1960, of my mother’s siblings three of four were living ( and working) in
Britain, while in my father’s case the figure was seven out of fourteen.

It was a time of mixed experience. Generally Irish immigrants were well received and fitted in. But
increased immigration after 1950 included many single men, generating a flurry of “ No Irish” notices
from landlords. While most thrived, indeed prospered , for the few at the margin life was hard, with
alcohol, loneliness and impoverished lifestyles taking a toll. Remnants of these “forgotten Irish”
remain, and one of the main thrusts of official Irish policy towards emigrants in recent years has been
to provide assistance to them. In the 70s also the impact of the Northern Ireland “Troubles” was
overwhelmingly negative, with widespread anti –Irish feeling after numerous people were murdered
in IRA bombings and shootings. The hysteria spilled over into a number of miscarriages of justice,
with ordinary innocent Irish people wrongly convicted of terrorist crimes. It was not a good time to be
Irish and most immigrants kept their heads down.

Rising prosperity at home from the early 1960s on saw emigration gradually reduce, though thousands
continued to move annually in both directions. A further spike in Irish arrivals in Britain followed
Ireland’s economic collapse of the 80s and the meltdown since 2008 has seen yet another surge.
Unlike the earlier emigrants, many of whom were poorly educated and doomed to menial jobs, the
latest arrivals have been better qualified and have slotted in at every level of British society.

The two decades of peace since 1994 have helped enormously. There has been quicker acceptance
of the Irish against a background of heightened awareness generally about ethnicity and cultural
identity. It has been a period which has seen a steady rise in profile of and regard for the Irish in
Britain. Events like Riverdance, groups like U2 , the arrival in Britain of talented and high profile
Irish artists and entertainers, fashion designers and professionals generally, have combined to generate
a welcome change in attitude. Ireland and Irishness have become trendy, almost chic. The State Visit
topped this off nicely. For the Irish in Britain, the Visit was a signal triumph.



The 2014 World Cup is approaching its final exciting stages. Yet spare a thought for a great player of an earlier era. Alfredo Di Stefano died yesterday at the age of eighty eight.

He never played in a World Cup yet is very clearly in the pantheon of all time football greats. Last week Maradona hailed him as an equal, together with Messi, at the summit of Argentine football. Elsewhere he was voted fourth greatest player of the Twentieth Century. He enjoyed success playing in leagues in his native Argentina and Colombia, yet it was after his move to Real Madrid in 1953 that his career took off. He spent eleven seasons with Real, scoring 216 goals in 282 appearances, as well as scoring twenty three goals in thirty one games for Spain.

It was his European Cup exploits with Real for which he will be most remembered. He was fortunate, of course, in that he was involved with the competition from the start at a time when the television age was beginning. He was the first television football super star, just as his team, Real Madrid, was the first television wunderteam. The Hungarians were pre-television, even the 1958 Brazilians only a passing phenomenon. For a number of years Real WERE football, thrilling a growing international audience on T.V. and establishing the European Cup – their cup(!) – as the premier club competition in the world.

Real dominated the early years of the competition, appearing in six of the first seven finals and winning the first five. Di Stefano was at the heart of the team, dominating a squad that contained several fine, indeed great players, Puskas, Kopa, Gento and Santamaria. In 58 European matches he scored 49 goals, including, incredibly, a goal in each of Real’s five winning finals. In 1962, when Real were beaten by Benfica, Di Stefano, by then thirty six, though failing to score in the final, was joint top scorer in the competition with seven goals.

If the 1962 final will be remembered as signalling the eclipse of Real and Di Sefano and the emergence of Eusebio, the game for which Di Sefano and Real will be most remembered took place two years earlier – the 1960 European Cup Final, regarded universally as one of the greatest football matches of all time. It was surely the greatest display by Real, who defeated the German champions , Eintracht Frankfurt, 7 – 3. Seven – Three! Puskas scored four – still a record for a final, Di Stefano scored three, including a memorable solo goal, running from the half way line. Watch it on You Tube!
Football is poorer for Di Stefano’s passing. As a tribute there follows an article I wrote for the Irish Times in May 2010, to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of that memorable 1960 final. Fittingly it was headlined “Real Magic.”



When Christian Ronaldo was introduced by Real Madrid last July, the figure beside him, old, and on a stick, needed no introduction. Whatever Ronaldo may or may not achieve in his career, it is a reasonably safe bet he will never equal Alfredo Di Stefano’s achievement of scoring in five (5) successive European finals.

It is just 50 years, more than half a lifetime, since he and the mighty Puskas demolished the German champions, Eintracht Frankfurt in what some have called the greatest ever footballing display, the 1960 European Cup final. Real ran out winners 7-3, showing skill and style which has set a standard rarely equalled. The game, watched by 135,000 in Glasgow, and by millions more throughout Europe on television, enthralled all who viewed it and remained long in the memory.

The grainy black and white TV images of the game on U Tube could almost be a metaphor for the Britain of the time. The 1950s had been a grey decade, and even if the Tories had won the 1959 election with the slogan “You’ve never had it so good”, prosperity was hardly evident. Britain’s heavy industry was in terminal decline. In Lancashire, where I lived, men still wore clogs to work. National Service was just ending.. The first motorway, the M I had only opened in late 1959. The era of mass car ownership was just beginning. Lady Chatterley’s Lover was still banned. One of the highlights of the cricket season was a game between the “Gentlemen”, i.e. amateurs, and the “Players”, i.e the professionals. Around the turn of the decade a radio commentator at the Isle of Man TT races poked fun at the first appearance of a Japanese motor bike with a funny name – Honda.

I was a football mad 13 year old in 1960, living just a few miles from Burnley and Blackburn, where I went to school. Every Saturday I trekked in turn to Turf Moor or Ewood Park. That season there was cause to support them both. Burnley, there or thereabouts for several seasons, won the League Championship in their last game, away to Manchester City 2-1, pipping Wolves (champions in 1958 and 1959) for the title by a point, with the much fancied Spurs a further point behind. Rovers meanwhile had battled through to Wembley, where they lost the Cup Final disappointingly 3-0 to Wolves, who were thus within a whisker of becoming the first club in the 20th century to win the league and cup double (Spurs would do so the following year).

My interest went beyond domestic. I had watched, fascinated, on T.V. ,the European Cup quarter final second leg at Molyneaux between Wolves and Barcelona, one of the first European Cup matches televised live in Britain. Wolves were down 4 – 0 from the first leg. On a rain-soaked quagmire of a pitch, they were overwhelmed 5-2 at home in an exhibition which left me awe-struck. Burnley played good football – probably the best in England at the time – but this was something else.

Barcelona included two of the great Hungarian side of the early 50s – accorded sainthood status in our household – and seemed to me invincible. Yet they were defeated by Real in the semi-final, 3-1 in both legs. I knew nothing then of the complicated political and historical rivalry between the two clubs, only that Real must have been mighty indeed to have won so comprehensively.

Real Madrid were well known. They had won the European Cup every year since its inception and had seen off the Busby Babes 5-3 on aggregate in the 1957 semi-final. Money was no object ; they could buy the best and pay the best. Real were marshalled by the Argentinian superstar, Di Stefano and also fielded another of the anointed Magyars – the most famous of all, Ferenc Puskas. Eintracht Frankfurt were virtually unknown – certainly to schoolboys like me – until their semi-final against Rangers. They won the first leg in Germany 6-1; in the second leg, at Ibrox, they again put six past Rangers for a total aggregate of 12-4.

The story of the final is well known. Real came from a goal down to score six in half an hour, winning comprehensively and unlucky not to score more. Di Stefano scored three, the third after a marvellous solo run. Puskas got the other four. The game ended as a contest early in the second half when Real were awarded a dubious penalty to go 4 -1 up. As a spectacle it endured, long after the finish.

There was more to it than just a game, of course, particularly in Britain, home of football. It was the era of the maximum wage, under which players’ wages were capped at a level roughly equivalent to the average industrial wage – £20 per week. The players, almost universally working class and with no freedom to break their contracts, put up or shut up. The decade had been dominated by Manchester United, cruelly destroyed at Munich, and Wolves, with three championships each. There was, however general acceptance that, in world terms, English soccer was second-rate, following poor World Cup performances and defeats by 6 -3 and 7 – 1 to the Hungarians, defeats which had entered the realm of legend. Real’s victory, following on the demolitions of Wolves and Rangers, emphasized just how far British football was behind the best.

Was the game a watershed? There’s always a danger that nostalgia lends a rosy hue. At school next day my history teacher declared flatly “No English team could ever play like that!” Certainly it was a wake-up call, and football, in England and elsewhere, was never quite the same. A new bar had been set. More thoughtful, skilful (and successful) football gradually became the norm. Wolves, exponents of the “powerhouse” game fell rapidly from grace and were never again a major force. Many successful coaches and pundits subsequently pointed to inspiration from Real’s display. Yet Real were gone, almost as quickly as Wolves. There was one other epic match, the 1962 final which they lost 5- 3 to Benfica. May 18 1960 was a pinnacle they never reached again. In the words of a newspaper headline next day, it was “Real Magic”.