DOUBLEDAY IRELAND 449 pp €26.99 e book €17.99

On 21 March 1957, his first day, the new Irish Minister for Finance, James Ryan, received an outspoken and blunt analysis of the Irish Economy written by his Departmental Secretary, T.K. Whitaker. No punches were pulled. “Without a sound and progressive economy political independence would be a crumbling façade.” Policies of protectionism were condemning “the people to a lower standard of living than the rest of Europe.”

Unless there were new policies, Whitaker wrote “it would be better to make an immediate move towards re-incorporation in the United Kingdom rather than wait until our economic decadence became even more apparent.” Strong words from a civil servant to his political master, but words that needed to be said.

Few would dispute his right to be regarded as the greatest living Irishman. Indeed in 2001 Ken Whitaker was voted Irishman of the Twentieth Century. Now rising ninety eight, and happily still with us, the modest and brilliant architect of modern Ireland is the subject of Anne Chambers’ latest absorbing book.

Despite those quotes, T.K. Whitaker was no Sir Humphrey. He defined his approach as giving Ministers the best possible unbiased advice when policy was being considered, and, once decided on, carrying out that policy to the best of his ability, regardless of personal views.

In 1957 he was just forty and already acknowledged as Ireland’s most brilliant civil servant. His advancement through the ranks from clerical officer upwards had been meteoric, culminating in his appointment as the youngest ever Secretary of the Department of Finance. On the way he had found time to acquire a Master’s Degree in Economics from London University as well as the admiration and appreciation of his opposite numbers in other countries.

The state of Ireland’s economy in 1957 was both serious and critical and heading towards becoming terminal unless a new approach was taken. Between 1949 and 1955 Ireland’s GNP increased by just 10.5%, compared to 36.5% in the rest of Europe. In 1957 2% of the population – almost 60,000 people – emigrated. Yet De Valera, still clinging on at seventy five, was on recent record as stating that despite this terrible economic and social situation, the restoration of the Irish language was “Fianna Fail’s greatest national objective.”

Something clearly had to give. And it did. The strong man of the Cabinet, and heretofore leading advocate of protectionism, Tanaiste Sean Lemass, recognising how critical things were, performed a volte face and threw his weight behind Whitaker. The rest is history. Lemass became Taoiseach in 1959 by which time, Whitaker, given the green light, was proceeding with reforms.

First up, in 1958, was the seminal “Economic Development “ document, written by Whitaker and a small dedicated team in Finance, eventually published, unusually, under Whitaker’s name. The paper analysed the principal deficiencies in the economy sector by sector, and was followed soon after by a white paper, the Programme for Economic Expansion, in which the Government endorsed Whitaker’s ideas and proposed policies for growth up to 1963 including export- oriented expansion, the encouragement of inward investment and movement towards free trade. The modest targets were achieved, critically boosting the country’s morale by showing that things could improve. Further programmes followed. The economy, and Ireland, were never the same again.

Chambers’ book is packed with fascinating detail on the political and economic events of the years that followed as Ireland grew economically and, with Ken Whitaker’s sure hand at the tiller, opened up towards Northern Ireland, to international organisations and towards the emerging EEC. He was never afraid to speak his mind and rapidly became the close confidant of both Lemass and his successor, Jack Lynch.

A Northerner from Rostrevor, he developed a close personal relationship with Northern Ireland Premier Terence O’Neill in the course of a number of transatlantic voyages to attend IMF meetings. This led to the ground-breaking O’Neill Lemass meetings in 1965, which initiated a dialogue between the two parts of Ireland and which continued under Lynch. He also fostered the beginnings of official cross border cooperation, some of which have now found institutional expression. He thought long and hard about how relations between the two parts of the island might be improved.

This stood him – and Jack Lynch, and Ireland – in good stead when O’Neill’s reforms withered and the North began to slide towards chaos. A passionate opponent of violence, he presented a thoughtful position paper to Lynch as early as November 1968 pointing clearly to the ruinous costs of any reunification and advocating a long term strategy of good neighbourliness. By then he was clashing with his Minister, Haughey, and shortly afterwards moved to become Governor of the Central Bank. The book describes him as reticent over why he left Finance aged fifty-two, so we can only speculate.

When chaos became widespread violence, his support for Jack Lynch in facing down Haughey, Blaney et al was crucial – another reason for his country to thank him. And, for a generation, he continued to provide thoughtful and reasoned contributions to the search for peace. The sections on Northern Ireland in the book are among the most fascinating. Yet there are chapters also on his family, including his personal bereavements, which affected him deeply, and on his love for and work on the Irish language. There are plenty of passing references to our economic debacle of recent years. There’s a catch-all chapter also, entitled “A Man for All Seasons” which is clearly one image the author has of her subject.

Ken Whitaker was born in the Year of the Rising. It would be fitting if he were there to celebrate its centenary. No one deserves the Centenarian Bounty more. A book worth reading.







FABER & FABER 442 pp, €23.99, e book€12.53

Last week Paris celebrated the seventieth anniversary of its liberation, largely intact, from the Nazis. How and why this occurred is one of the themes explored in this book on the resistance, at various levels, by Germans to Hitler during the last year of World War Two.

Hitler, “a maniac of ferocious genius” in Churchill words, continues to fascinate, with hundreds of new books on his era appearing annually. The Second World War – his war – was the most destructive in world history. By its close, at least sixty million were dead, millions more displaced, the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe obliterated, and hundreds of European cities destroyed.

Could it have been even worse? Taking the failed July 20 Assassination Plot as a starting point, Randall Hansen explores some of the legends about the last months of the War. Did Prussian General von Choltitz “save” Paris? Did Albert Speer (as he claimed) almost singlehandedly frustrate Hitler’s instructions to destroy Germany’s industry and infrastructure as its enemies closed in? Did the German armies in the west “give up”, concentrating instead on fighting the Soviets?

As Hansen notes, it could all have been different. Had the stock market not crashed in 1929 the Nazis would have been a footnote. Had Hitler lingered longer in a Munich pub in 1939 the war would have been over swiftly. And, had the July 20 meeting taken place underground, as originally intended, Stauffenberg’s bomb would have killed Hitler, possibly sparing – even then – millions of lives, and Eastern Europe from Soviet domination.

Hitler survived, wreaking a savage vengeance on the plotters and purging the Wermacht. Yet by then the writing was on the wall, with all but the most fanatical Nazis realising that defeat was inevitable. For the German generals, as their armies retreated the issue became increasingly whether and how to surrender, a dilemma that would become more acute as they were pushed back into Germany itself. Any compromise, any withdrawal, ran contrary to the insane instructions from Berlin to fight to the end and destroy everything in the enemy’s path, and, moreover risked death also for family members.

Many commanders chose to fight. In the remaining nine months a brutal defensive war saw more Germans killed and more German cities destroyed than in the previous five years. But many also chose compromise, by different methods, sometimes by surrender, sometimes by rapid withdrawal, sometimes citing lack of men or equipment to carry out any scorched- earth policy. Their varied reasons included calculated self-interest, growing disenchantment with the regime’s brutalities and a wish to limit Germany’s destruction. Increasingly also, within Germany itself, they cooperated with local civilians to frustrate Hitler’s designs, with cities like Hamburg, Dusseldorf and Heidelberg surrendering easily, even as Nuremberg and other cities were destroyed.

The major test of this approach came in occupied France. Liberating Paris was very much an Allied priority, and Hitler was well aware of its symbolic and strategic significance. His instructions to the new military governor were clear: Paris was to be a fortress, defended to the end “from the rubble.” The governor, Dietrich Von Choltitz, came with good credentials, his actions in Rotterdam in 1940, and later in Sevastopol, suggesting a penchant for brutality and blind obedience, whatever the orders.

The role of Von Choltitz in saving the city has been disputed since, with the 1960s book and film “ Is Paris Burning?” painting him as saviour, a claim rejected strongly by members of the resistance. Hansen suggests the truth was somewhere in between and more complicated.

Paris was, after all, a jewel of a city, liked and admired by many German officers. Von Choltitz lacked the capability and resources to carry out Hitler’s instructions. Equally importantly he lacked the will, seeing no military purpose in destruction per se and accordingly made only token attempts to fight. Later, in captivity, he condemned the destruction of Brest by its defenders as a war crime – hardly the words of a diehard. Marseilles and Toulon, with their vital ports, similarly fell to the Allies after minor resistance.

On the domestic front Hitler issued a number of orders culminating in the infamous Nero Decree calling for total destruction of Germany’s non-military industry and infrastructure, as part of his nightmare vision of a Gotterdammerung to engulf Germany. The intervention of Albert Speer, Hitler’s former architect and later Minister for Production, was key in heading off much of the threatened catastrophe.

Here again the truth was complicated. Speer could not have done it all on his own as he later claimed. Nevertheless he acted bravely in countermanding or delaying orders, often substituting “paralysis” for “destruction” in re-interpreting the Fuhrer’s commands. He argued successfully to Hitler, who continued to babble on or believe in ultimate victory, that it made no sense, therefore, to destroy utterly what would be needed again when Germany drove the Allies out! Speer’s role, however positive in terms of German recovery after 1945, did not save him from a twenty year sentence at Nuremberg for war crimes.

On the eastern front, what Joachim Fest has called the Third World War, the fighting remained intense to the end. Breslau fell after a mighty siege while Greifsfeld, which surrendered peacefully, endured the usual orgy of rape and murder by the Red Army.

Did this resistance matter? The author is in no doubt. The July 20 resisters provided “ a moral framework of reference for post-war political life in Germany. The post-20 July disobeyers helped ensure that there was a Germany that could be economically, physically and morally rebuilt.”






Veteran journalist and accomplished author Joe Joyce has written another winner.

Echobeat, a compelling and evocative thriller set in neutral Dublin as the Second World War rages, is the sequel to last year’s widely acclaimed Echoland. Paul Duggan, now a captain in G2, Irish Army Intelligence, is back, together with his Special Branch sidekick, Peter Gifford.

The time is the end of 1940 and the stakes have rarely been higher. The world is at war, and Ireland is maintaining a precarious neutrality. Britain has its back to the wall, battered by the Blitz and in danger of being starved into submission as U Boats sink large numbers of its ships. Britain is demanding use of the Irish ports and threatening to cut off vital supplies if refused, with the ultimate sanction of invasion. There are no easy options. With German bombs falling on Dublin and Carlow as 1941 dawns, the choice appears increasingly stark – not whether to fight but who.

A dangerous political tightrope has to be walked if Ireland is to stay neutral and the task of Army Intelligence is to provide the best information it can so that “ whatever happens doesn’t happen by accident,” as his boss tells Duggan. This involves tracking the source and evaluating certain highly sensitive documents about Britain’s predicaments and intentions which have become available, as well as finding Germany’s most active agent in Ireland, Hermann Goertz, on the run and protected by republican and Nazi sympathisers.

Duggan’s duties include monitoring the Liffey Street café frequented by German POWs on day parole. His life gets complicated when he becomes romantically involved with his intermediary, a Jewish refugee, Gerda, who waitresses incognito in the café. Her role becomes central when she is approached by a young Englishman, source of some of the documents. Is he a pacifist, an agent provocateur or a Nazi sympathiser?

The other documents have been supplied through Duggan’s uncle, Timmy, a scheming Fianna Fail T.D., who romances about the war of independence and Ireland’s ability to see off the Germans as they did the British, but who could be the key to finding Goertz. Timmy’s naïveté is pointed up by Gerda when she declares to Duggan that the Nazis would “ put a stop to your guerrilla war very quickly” by shooting twenty or fifty Irishmen every time a German was attacked.

Echobeat is an exciting read and more than just a page turner. The Dublin of the period is portrayed superbly. It was a time of severe petrol rationing, few private cars as a result with people relying on bikes or public transport. Shortages abounded. There was a thriving black market for coal, tea and other rationed items . Smoking was universal, the aroma of cigarettes and burning peat ubiquitous.

Yet life went on. For Ireland was at peace – “ Neutral with a certain consideration for Britain,” to quote Dev. Maintaining that neutrality was akin to a diplomatic chess game. Echobeat shows just how difficult that game was.






HACHETTE BOOKS 437 pp €14.99 e book €8.99

A man’s body is found in a luxury Dublin hotel, stabbed repeatedly and posed in a ritualistic way. The victim is tied similar to the image on the Hangman Card from the Tarot Cards, and with traces of lipstick on his mouth, suggesting a bizarre last kiss.

Called in to help, criminal psychologist Dr Kate Pearson profiles the killer as highly intelligent, suffused with anger and, unusually, female. The organised nature of the murder suggests the killer has struck before, but when, and where, and why. The victim, a shady art dealer, used escorts and frequented a bondage club. Are there clues in his background to the killer? Or is the answer to be found in the Tarot?

Separately, Sandra, a Dublin housewife, becomes convinced her husband is having an affair and that the other woman is stalking her. Her friends offer her sympathy, but little else. She resolves to track and confront her stalker. But Sandra has a past also, as does one of her friends. The murder investigation, and that past, come together in this fine psychological chiller, the third to feature Kate Pearson and her collaborator, Garda Detective Inspector O’Connor.

The pair are thrown together again, and their developing love interest is clear, though very much secondary as the trail leads them to two similar cold case killings nearly a decade earlier, in Paris and Rome. The link identified by Kate is the Tarot, together with the sexual inclinations of the other victims, promiscuous and into S&M, as well as the luxurious staged settings for the murders. When it emerges the Parisian victim was known to Sandra and her friends, the investigation begins to focus.

The case uncovers dark secrets in the past, rooted in a small Wicklow town, with hints of incest and paedophilia haunting the memories of childhood friends. Meanwhile the killer, stalking her next victim, is comfortable and assured as she narrates tracking down her prey and describes her previous murders. As the book builds towards the climax, it becomes a race to see whether Kate, O’Connor and the Gardai can prevent another murder, with the Tarot Death card the motivator.

Louise Phillips goes from strength to strength. “The Doll’s House” won the 2013 BGE Crime Book of the Year. “Last Kiss” is superior and takes her writing to another, more intense level. The pace is excellent, the characters, familiar and new, well drawn and believable. The author explores the powerful effects early contact with evil can have on a child and how a personality can be shaped or perverted by its environment. The book flows well and airs skilfully some of the disturbing themes laid bare in Ireland in recent years.

Highly recommended.




ORBIT BOOKS 405 pp €14.99 e book €9.99

Reincarnation has been “done “ before , many times, but not like this. Harry August is a Kalachakra, born on New Year’s Eve 1918 in the washroom of a railway station in Northern England. He lives a normal life, but when he dies he is reborn, on the same date and in the same place. His fate is to repeat this forever but with the complete memories of all his previous lives, so he can build on and change each later existence.

This is a superb novel, part thriller, part science fiction involving time travel and part a serious and reflective look at our times. Harry August is a wonderful character, easy to empathise with. In his various incarnations and using his accumulated knowledge, Harry becomes a doctor, a weapons scientist, a lecturer, a multimillionaire and a master criminal. He dies prematurely, commits suicide, murders ( albeit a serial killer), is murdered, and, where he lives a normal span, normally succumbs to cancer in his late sixties.

He is not unique; there are others, like him fated to be reborn with prior knowledge, but unable to alter history. Their self-regulated role is to be passive spectators of the “lineal” lives and events of their times. To interfere would risk collapsing the whole of existence. Hitler cannot be killed in 1932, JFK cannot be persuaded to cancel Dallas, Hiroshima cannot be saved. There can be some tinkering at the margins – the odd forecast on the horses – but nothing to make waves – no Euromillions mega win.

Harry’s lives, their highs, their lows, his loves, his friendships, his righting of wrongs where he can, are recounted sympathetically and make for an extraordinary story. But then a game changer which threatens his very existence. Near the end of his eleventh life a little girl visits his bedside. She delivers a message “from a thousand years forward in time.” The message is that the world is ending and only Harry can prevent it because only Harry can reach back far enough in time to eliminate the problem.

The threat is real. Harry discovers that many of his fellow Kalachakras are being eliminated permanently or their prior memories wiped. Harry must respond and the novel develops into an enthralling page turning thriller as he chases down his quarry, not just across the world but through several lifetimes before the shattering climax in his fifteenth life.

Claire North is a pseudonym for an acclaimed British author with several successful novels published, all completely different to Harry August. No further information on the writer is available but judging by this many will want to know North’s identity. A really different book which will get people talking. Highly recommended.


P.S. I wrote this review for the Irish Independent last April. I learned subsequently that Claire North is actually Catherine Webb, author of a number of novels for young adults and fantasy novels for adults under the name Kate Griffin.
Still under thirty. What talent!



Ireland’s ninth Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, died recently after a cruel battle with Alzheimer’s, only days before the twentieth anniversary of the event that will forever define his political career – the 1994 IRA Ceasefire. His death brought to mind the, perhaps apocryphal, remark of his predecessor, Charlie Haughey that, while nobody would go down in history for fixing Ireland’s economy, whoever solved the Northern Ireland problem WOULD be remembered.

Reynolds did not end the violence but he certainly introduced a game – changer. After 31 August 1994 things were never the same. Certainly the pieces had been on the board for some time, but without the dedication, effort – and courage – of Reynolds and a small number of officials, the ceasefire would not have occurred when and how it did. Put bluntly, there are people today who would not be alive but for Albert Reynolds. His otherwise controversial reign as Taoiseach was unremarkable set against this achievement.

Reynolds’ legacy is secure. What of his fellow Taoisigh? He had eight predecessors, and, in the two decades since he resigned, four successors. This in almost a century of uninterrupted parliamentary democracy, something Ireland shares in Europe only with Britain, Sweden, Switzerland and Finland and of which we can justifiably be proud.

The jury is still largely “out” on his four successors, particularly the last two. John Bruton, the shortest serving, Reynolds’ successor, will probably best be remembered as a safe pair of hands who helped further embed the Peace Process. His government also took the first major steps to combat organised crime by sanctioning the seizure of criminals’ assets.

Bertie Ahearn, Ireland’s second longest serving Taoiseach, is still a figure of controversy. What is not in dispute is the sterling work he put in on the Peace Process, a hands on involvement culminating in the current political settlement.

The towering figure of De Valera has to some degree overshadowed his predecessor, W.T. Cosgrave, the first head of government of an independent Ireland ( not, technically a Taoiseach, but included in the pantheon). Cosgrave’s achievements were considerable. He shepherded the state through its first years, including a bitter civil war, in which his government executed, controversially, without trial, seventy seven republicans arrested under emergency legislation.

His government went on to establish the institutions of the new state, including, crucially, a universally accepted and respected unarmed police force, in tandem with the downsizing of a large army. Economically he pursued prudent policies while diplomatically he sought to broaden the scope of Irish independence by pushing the limits of the “ dominion status” accorded to Ireland by the peace treaty with Britain. Under Cosgrave Ireland remained a democratic state even as countries elsewhere were sliding into autocracy or dictatorship.

Cosgrave was succeeded in 1932 by De Valera, who was Taoiseach for twenty one of the next twenty eight years and who has been the dominant Irish political figure of the Twentieth Century. For better or worse, love him or loathe him, we live in an Ireland largely shaped, institutionally, by him. We live by his Constitution, some elements of which are well past their sell by date, but which still, overall, commands a high level of legitimacy and acceptance among the electorate.

Whether he would necessarily have approved the changes made in it since 1937 is moot; the important point is that the Constitution contained sufficient provisions for organic change and amendment to have lasted. The Constitution, making Ireland a republic in all but name, was the culmination of De Valera’s policy after 1932 of using the available constitutional and legislative levers to diminish the remaining trappings of British rule.

His other vital, and defining, achievement was to maintain Ireland’s neutrality – and territorial integrity – during World War Two. The fact that Ireland was not directly in a major theatre of war undoubtedly helped, but it could have gone differently in the context of the Battle of the Atlantic. Britain invaded Iceland in 1941 and Churchill cast covetous eyes at, and made noises about, seizing Ireland’s ports, inexplicably ceded by Chamberlain in 1938 ( but then that was the year of Munich!).

De Valera’s adroit political and diplomatic footwork in the first years of the War was crucial. Ireland would be “ neutral with a certain consideration for Britain,” a Dev quote contained in Joe Joyce’s fascinating recent novel “ Echobeat” about Ireland in the winter of 1940, which I commend strongly. And Ireland remained neutral. De Valera’s one rush of blood came with signing the Book of Condolences for Hitler. Yet he bounced back weeks later with a memorable response to a Churchill tirade against Irish neutrality, his radio broadcast of May 1945 unforgettable.

De Valera stopped short of declaring Ireland a republic. That was done in 1948 in Canada by his successor, Fine Gael’s John A Costello. The declaration appears to have been a solo run but once made there was no going back. This was about his only contribution in two terms as Taoiseach. His first government collapsed in 1951 soon after a capitulation to the Catholic Church over proposals to provide limited free medical care to mothers and children, Costello declaring he was an Irishman second and a Catholic first. The 50s were a dreadful decade for Ireland economically and Costello did nothing to help.

Nor did De Valera, who continued to idealise a pastoral rural based economy before being finally kicked upstairs to the ceremonial role of President in 1959. His successor was the pragmatic Sean Lemass, by then almost sixty, who had been an able and pragmatic Minister for decades. Once in power, he set about reorganising and restructuring Ireland’s economy to drag it into the second half of the Twentieth century. He encouraged FDI, cut tariffs and began attempts to join Europe, as well as commencing a dialogue with his Northern counterpart. He is generally regarded as the father of modern Ireland and perhaps the best manager to hold the office of Taoiseach, partly giving the lie to son –in –law Haughey’s remark about fixing Ireland’s economy.

Lemass was succeeded in 1966 by Jack Lynch, a former GAA star and essentially a compromise candidate. Mild mannered Lynch was in power when the North boiled over. His defining moments came in 1969 and 1970 when he saw off a major threat to our democratic institutions by resisting calls to intervene in the North and later firing several Ministers, including Haughey , over a plot to smuggle arms to republicans. For that we should be grateful. Less so for his tactic of buying the 1977 election, generating a culture of expectation and entitlement which dogs us still.
Lynch’s tenure was interrupted from 1973-1977 by Liam Cosgrave, son of W.T., still happily with us at 94. Cosgrave, a devout Catholic, voted against his government’s legislation on contraception, but will also be remembered for a fearless and no nonsense approach to upholding law and order in the face of threats by subversives.

Charlie Haughey and Garret Fitzgerald continue to stoke public interest and debate sufficiently to merit a second column between them. There will be space also for some thoughts on Brian Cowen and the performance to date of Taoiseach Enda Kenny.




The twentieth World Cup finals were played in Brazil June and July. The tournament was memorable, vying with the greatest, thoroughly entertaining throughout and topped off by an excellent final featuring undoubtedly the two best teams in the tournament. Few of the matches were dull, few were vicious and goals were abundant. The competition was marked by two extraordinary results, one in the early stages, one in the semi-finals, which will reverberate around world football for some time to come.

Ireland was not there but we followed the event enthusiastically on T.V. We can take some solace from the fact that our early elimination in the qualifying stages was from the group won by Germany, the eventual winners, and the drubbings we sustained from them look less bad after seeing what they did to Portugal and Brazil in the finals. We must now face Germany again, in the qualifying groups for the 2016 European Championships.

The tournament included all previous winners. Brazil entered as slim favourites, given their tradition and position as host nation. Their arch-rivals, Argentina, however, had the world’s greatest player, Messi, which many felt would cancel out home advantage. Third favourites were Spain, World Cup holders and European champions, though no European nation had ever won in Latin America. The only other country rated by the bookies was Germany, which actually had the shortest odds pre-tournament to reach the last four.

A number of countries had something to prove. England, perennial under achievers, had brought along a group of young guns and were optimistic. France hoped to cast off the miserable memories of four years earlier, and Holland, runners up in the 2010 final, had a disgraceful and cynical performance on that occasion to live down as well as a rapid, winless exit from the 2012 European Championships. Belgium, one of the dark horses, with a formidable squad, hoped to gel as a unit and achieve their greatest success since 1986. Italy, marshalled by the ageing Pierlo, hoped to repeat their surprise showing in Europe 2012.

The Latin American contingent was strong overall, and looked set to emulate 2010 when all had battled through to the knockout stage, with Uruguay reaching the last four. The Africans also hoped to do better than last time out; many fancied Algeria to spring a surprise with an experienced squad, chiefly French born.

The group matches produced several upsets, setting the scene for some rapid exits by several of the fancied teams. The seismic shock was the 5 – 1 defeat of Spain by a Dutch team playing flowing football in a style reminiscent of the great “total football” side of the 1970s. The rout was started by a superb looping header by striker Van Persie. Spain followed this up with another dismal display against Chile and suddenly the holders were out, their beautiful football vanquished. Xavier Alonso, who played Gaelic football in Ireland as a youth, suggested that the Spanish players were tired after an arduous season in which, in addition to the domestic scene, Spanish teams had dominated European club competitions.

England also made an early exit, the young guns failing to fire. Italy joined them, after a bad tempered match against Uruguay which generated worldwide publicity when the Uruguayan striker Suarez bit an Italian defender. Suarez, the most on-form striker in the world, had previous form for biting and was summarily ejected from the competition, carrying with him Uruguay’s hopes. Brazil limped through, crude, disjointed, a shadow of the great teams of the past and over – dependent on Neymar. Argentina were winning but looked less than impressive, relying heavily on the genius of Messi. Germany overwhelmed Portugal, even with Ronaldo, a hint of things to come. The surprise qualifiers were the USA, joining most of the Latin Americans, Algeria, France and Belgium.

The tournament pointed up certain trends and traits in the modern game, not all positive. The gap between the very best nations and the next echelon has narrowed even further, with better coaching and well drilled defences able to offset, in part or totally, superior skill. There were few easy matches and in others the superior team just squeaked a late result when skill finally triumphed; Messi’s goal against Iran, Ronaldo’s cross to frustrate the USA, both deep in injury time, just two examples.

Diving remained a problem, though most matches were played in a sporting spirit. The offence has now become chronic, with referees forced to make rapid decisions under pressure; it is surely time for FIFA to take some action. Mostly the charades were of little consequence but this time Mexico were eliminated by Holland through the award of a dubious last minute penalty. Referees overall were in an invidious position, under constant pressure of one sort or another, and it showed. There were several blatantly bad decisions.

The Round of Sixteen produced, in the end, few surprises but some exciting and exhilarating matches, none more than that which saw a gallant never-say-die USA go out to Belgium in extra time. The USA brought honesty and endeavour and their success may well ignite the game there. So also did Chile, eliminated cruelly in a penalty shootout against Brazil, after a game they deserved to win. The question marks over Brazil were mounting, while for Argentina Messi seemed jaded and had ceased to inspire. Yet when the dust settled, the quarter finalists were the eight group winners, including surprise packets Colombia and Costa Rica.

The quarter final between a floundering Brazil and Colombia saw Brazil’s crude tactics of kicking their more skilful opponents around the field pay off in victory but at great cost. As the match degenerated into an unsavoury contest, Neymar suffered a cracked vertebrae after an innocuous looking tackle. Without their diamond, Brazil were just rough. Argentina and Germany advanced efficiently, while Holland needed penalties to see off Costa Rica.

Belo Horizonte, scene of USA’s famous 1950 victory over hot favourites England, saw Brazil get their comeuppance against Germany, who scored four goals in nine minutes, led 5 – 0 at half time and ran out winners 7 – 1. The demolition was swift and clinical. Germany played like Brazil of old, like the great Brazilian teams of the past crushing a hapless opponent. The myth of Brazilian superiority was shattered – and on home soil. It’s reasonable to assume that next time around Brazil will no longer intimidate Chile, Colombia, Mexico and the others. World soccer will never be the same. Meanwhile, in Sao Paulo in the other semi-final, Argentina overcame Holland on penalties.

The Final COULD have been anticlimactic. It was, rather, an excellent game between two evenly matched teams. The question was less whether Germany could repeat their heroics, more whether Messi would rise to his greatest player tag and repeat Maradona’s feat of 1986. He couldn’t, appearing just a shadow of his best, seeming to carry heavy weights on his legs, as his father put it – perhaps another victim of Alonso’s arduous Spanish season. Germany won 1 – 0 in extra time with a fine goal by Gotze, a rising star. A final worthy of a great tournament.

On October 14 next Ireland face Germany in Gelsenkirchen. Some prospect!



Operation Stable Door has begun. The last few weeks have seen the Government  attempt to rebrand itself in the wake of dismal local election results in May. The Government hopes for some “bounce” from its attempted makeover as a first step in recovery. Two hard questions arise:  is it realistic and  will it work.

First up was Labour, the major loser in May, which, as expected, elected Joan Burton as its new leader. There followed  a week of negotiations between Taoiseach Enda Kenny and  Burton, now installed as Tanaiste (Deputy Leader) , following which a major Cabinet reshuffle was announced. Out went three of the five Labour old guard while Fine Gael for its part promoted two newcomers as well as effecting a round of musical chairs among  surviving Ministers.

The chief move of interest was the kicking sideways of the accident prone Health Minister James  Reilly, who is succeeded  by one of the party’s Young Turks, Leo Varadkar. What Varadkar will do with the poisoned chalice of Health remains to be seen. He will not have much time but the popular view is that he can scarcely do any worse than his predecessor. The other  feature of the new cabinet is that four of its fifteen members are women, though Fine Gael failed to follow up, and has been criticised,  when appointing ten male only junior ministers several days later.

Simultaneously the Government  launched a ten page “ Statement of Priorities” as a road map for its remaining (maximum) 21 months in office. This in an attempt to redefine priorities, building on the (64 page) Programme for National Recovery published when it took office in 2011. The new document is modest on specific deliverables, concentrating  on  refining and re-targeting many of the elements in the 2011 document.

The main 2014 deliverables announced are promises to begin reducing the tax burden on low and middle income taxpayers ( a process to be spread over several years), some help with water charges for those on lower incomes, a programme of social housing and another tinkering with medical entitlements – this time extending free GP care to those over 70 not already in receipt of it. There is also  a stated commitment “ to the full retention of the Free Travel Scheme” – an inclusion which tells volumes about the Coalition’s apprehensions about next facing the electorate.

For the rest the Priorities Statement is a less than inspiring brochure of aspiration. It consists for the most part of announcements to follow through on previous commitments,  with projected targets in many areas to be achieved later in or at the end of the decade, well after the looming general election. There is renewed emphasis on “rebuilding trust  in politics and public institutions” which seems designed to counter criticism of the slow rate of reform to date in areas such as public appointments, local government funding and transparency and accountability in the public sector.

The Statement is gung ho on the economy and future economic growth, with little reference to the still parlous state of the public finances, mentioning only that “significant challenges remain” to achieve the 2015 budget deficit target of 3%.  There is the first rub. Whatever about the recent upturn in the economy, and however the figures are interpreted, some adjustment – for which read spending cuts or tax increases – will be necessary in October’s budget to hit the 3%. It may be a billion rather than two but even that figure will be hard achieved, given what has been taken in recent years. Factoring in even a modest amount for the promised tax cuts and hand-outs will further complicate the issue. From here the budget seems likely to be an exercise with mirrors, cuts in capital spending, more increases in excise on alcohol, fuel, and cigarettes and a balancing figure based on pious hopes for “ revenue buoyancy.”

There is considerable doubt whether the  new strategy is economically realistic. It has been excoriated by Colm McCarthy, one of the country’s leading economists, with a reputation for plain speaking. As he put it, succinctly, no sooner was the Troika gone than it was back to “ the core business of Irish politics” – buying votes. He described the new measures as “ominous,” and threatening to worsen the state’s finances by using what could be  a temporary rise in tax revenues to finance a permanent reduction in direct taxes. Meanwhile, of course, government  borrowing goes on, adding to the national debt.

Ominous also  is the prospect that  the once-off ( or twice-off, if the Coalition survives that long) “ soft”  budget, with giveaways, coming from the Government which preached and practiced prudent economic management to restore the country’s finances, will open the floodgates to  a general election bidding war, with the main parties striving to outdo each other with unrealistic election promises.  Forget for a moment the 2011 election, fought against the sombre background of the Troika presence, and think back to 2007, before the deluge, when the then opposition parties made ever more extravagant promises in an attempt to dislodge Fianna Fail. Sobering.

Whether the rebranding will work politically is also doubtful. Labour has fallen a long way and will be hard put even to regain its traditional core support of around 10%. Fine Gael also has much ground to make up. And time is short. From 1 August the current Dail will have a maximum of less than 600 days left; it must adjourn no later than 9 March 2016, with an election to follow by 3 April. If the trend for banana skins shown over the past year were to continue apace, the chances of  the government lasting that long cannot be great. The whole health area is a morass, with both the medical card issue, now well and truly thrown open, and the need to exert some form of meaningful control over health spending, carrying potential for further trouble.

One  major trouble  looming  is water. The issue has been badly handled from the outset, and even this late in the day the cost to be levied for what was once free is still not known. The government appears to be pinning its hopes on  the benign scenario of an average annual charge of $350 per household proving palatable. But if the government thinks its problems over what many feel has been the tipping point are in the past, wait till the water bills arrive in voters’ houses from January next.

Hard pounding, Gentlemen!

As a footnote, I’ve just finished reviewing “ Obama Power” about Obama’s 2012 re-election, something that appeared improbable after the 2010 Congressional election results. The authors attribute Obama’s victory  to his success in rebranding himself and in succeeding in stretching the “narrative arc” of his message so that, instead of being judged on his first term his stated goals would be stretched to encompass achievement before the end of his second term. Such a strategy would have appeal to the beleaguered Government here. But then this Government does not  have the witless Tea Party or the gaffe-prone Mitch Romney to help restore its fortunes.