Ireland voted in late May on two proposed constitutional amendments.

One was decisively carried, one even more decisively rejected. The turnout for both referenda was 60.5%.The successful referendum was on same sex marriage, where 62% of those voting approved adding to the constitution the words “ marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.” The rejected proposal (73% voting against) was to lower the minimum age at which a citizen could become President from 35 to 21.

Much has been made of the “youth vote” in pushing through the same sex proposal, with reports of many thousands of young people forced to emigrate by the recession returning to vote. Whether this was critical is doubtful given the margin of victory; moreover this “youth vote” wasn’t prompted to back similarly the other proposal – one which appeared pitched at the young!

A more prosaic interpretation is that the results show on the one hand how Ireland has changed in a generation, on the other that the electorate remains hard headed and realistic enough to identify an attempt to con it. Central to the success of the same sex issue were the twin factors that, for most people, what was involved was the logical extension of equal treatment to a minority group and that voting for this did not affect negatively the rights of the majority.
Central to the defeat of the presidential age proposal was the perception that it was unnecessary, illogical (why not 18, the voting age, rather than 21?) irrelevant and was being presented as significant and fulfilling a commitment to Constitutional reform in the Government’s 2011 programme.

The 1937 Constitution is very much a child of Ireland of the 1930s, reflecting predominantly Catholic ideology, values and social thinking of the time, with a revanchist territorial claim thrown in for good measure. Amending it has in the main aimed at modernising or eliminating some of the provisions ( including that territorial claim!) to reflect social and political change since the 1930’s. Two thirds of the thirty five amendments have been passed (or rejected) in the last twenty five years, covering social issues such as divorce, abortion and now same sex marriage as well as the evolving nature of our relationship with the European Union.

Before 1972 there were only three attempts at change, all proposed by Fianna Fail and all rejected by an electorate which saw them as politically motivated and designed to shore up Fianna Fail’s political fortunes. Two, in 1959 and 1968, were attempts to change the voting system by abolishing proportional representation, something which, in the short term at least, was perceived as favouring the largest party, Fianna Fail. The third, also in 1968, was an attempt to give greater representation to rural constituencies where traditionally Fianna Fail was strongest.

The 1970’s saw five amendments, all carried decisively, including crucially, the decision, very much in Ireland’s national interest, to join Europe in 1972. 83% voted Yes in what was a massive turnout of 70.9%, the highest ever percentage vote since the Constitution was adopted. Another huge majority in 1973 saw the voting age reduced to 18.

The four referenda in the 1980’s were all significant and marked a changing Ireland. In 1982, the “Eighth Amendment” entrenched the statutory prohibition on abortion into the Constitution by acknowledging “ the right to life of the unborn, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother.” As the Irish Supreme Court had been following some decisions of the US Supreme Court on human rights issues, the referendum was an attempt by the right to head off any possible future Irish Supreme Court decision along the lines of Roe v. Wade in the US, which had opened the door to abortion . The issue has remained contentious here, inter alia over what constitutes the equal right to life of the mother, and a further four referenda have been held since. The most recent, in 2002, was a second attempt to prevent the risk of suicide by the mother being invoked as grounds for an abortion, and was defeated by only 10,000 votes. Given the proximity of Britain, where thousands of Irish women travel annually for legal abortions, there is a certain unreality about the debate.

1986 saw a heavy defeat of a proposal to permit divorce. Those opposed proved adept at whipping up fears of destitute first wives and pointed to the lack of support legislation, including financial provision, in the event of marital breakdown. It was 1995 before a divorce proposal – the Fifteenth Amendment – squeaked through by a mere 9,000 votes. Significantly the safeguard support mechanisms had been enacted in the meantime.

Amendments since have involved tidying up, improving governance and dealing with unintended consequences of legislation. Other amendments have included extending the vote to UK citizens (1984), restricting the right to bail (1996) and cementing abolition of the Death Penalty (2002). There was even one in 2011 providing for the reduction in the salaries of judges . An amendment in 2001 permitted Ireland to ratify the Statute of the International Criminal Court.

Abortion and divorce aside, the landmark referenda of recent decades have been regarding Northern Ireland and a succession of plebiscites on the changing nature of Ireland’s relationship with the European Union . The Nineteenth Amendment in May 1998 ratified overwhelmingly (94% Yes) the Peace Treaty on Northern Ireland, known as the Good Friday Agreement. With it Ireland dropped the territorial claim to Northern Ireland.

More problematic have been the eight referenda on Europe held since 1987. As the original European Community has grown and evolved, inter alia making incremental inroads on Irish sovereignty, hard core opposition here has grown. While a solid majority remains supportive of EU membership, recognising there is no realistic alternative, “getting out the vote” has become a factor, particularly with little largesse coming from Brussels compared to a generation ago.

The numbers voting No have risen steadily, from 325,000 in 1987 to some 630,000 in 2012, a percentage increase among those voting from 30% to almost 40% . Mismanagement and complacency by the government during the Nice and Lisbon campaigns actually led to referenda defeats in 2002 and 2008, causing considerable embarrassment and necessitating re-runs, loudly and hotly criticised as undemocratic. The alternatives were unthinkable.

An attempt to abolish the Senate, an initiative of the Taoiseach, which would really have rocked the political system, was narrowly defeated in 2013. This followed an earlier rejection of a proposal to increase the powers of Parliamentary Committees of Enquiry. The lessons here, and over the Europe results, is that the Irish electorate are sceptical of the motives of politicians and should never be taken for granted . Reasonable proposals properly presented will always get a fair hearing.

An additional interesting and perhaps significant pointer to how the Irish see themselves in the world and how they see others was the 2004 vote on Irish Nationality where, in a 60% poll, 79% voted to remove the automatic right to Irish citizenship to anyone born in Ireland. Henceforth one parent must be, or be entitled to be, an Irish citizen.





In 1990 BBC TV broadcast a film entitled “ The March”. It recounted a fictional march on Western Europe by thousands of poor African migrants led by a charismatic figure from Sudan, El Mahdi. The tone was set from the outset when a senior European politician asked him what Europe could do to help: “You could come and live here; I could go and live in your house.” The slogan of the marchers was simple “ We are poor because you are rich.” In the film, which can be viewed on You Tube, what starts out as a trickle becomes a flood of humanity heading for Europe, with, at the end, quarter of a million gathering opposite Gibraltar preparing to cross.

Fiction? Fanciful? A generation later, there are currently estimated to be half a million people waiting in Libya, poised to embark for Italy, Malta and the EU. The Mediterranean – the northern shores at least – is one of Europe’s favourite playgrounds, from the haunts of the rich around Monte Carlo and the French Riviera, to the mass tourist destinations of Spain and Greece. Yet the Mediterranean is also the border between First World Europe and Third World Africa, and like the Rio Grande, it has become the route of entry for illegal migrants. It has also, increasingly, become a graveyard for those who don’t make it.

With per capita income in Southern Europe six times that in Morocco or Tunisia, and up to fifteen times higher than in Sub-Saharan Africa, the attraction of Europe is obvious ( the corresponding ratio for the USA and Mexico is four to one). The poverty, the misery these people are seeking to leave behind hasn’t changed since. Population pressure has compounded matters while new sources of conflict have made some situations worse and added more reasons for more people from more countries to try to get to Europe. There are several million alone displaced from Syria and Iraq on Europe’s threshold.

Some things HAVE changed. A crackdown by Spain has seen the numbers attempting to enter drop dramatically from the peak of 17,000 in 2000, though considerable numbers continue to make the longer voyage to the Canary Islands . The main focus for African migrants, and the people traffickers who transport them, has become Italy and its islands adjacent to the Libyan coast. A steady stream of migrants had been crossing from Libya for several decades, something Gaddafi cleverly exploited for his own ends, being able and ruthless enough to turn the flow on and off to extract concessions from Europe, threatening otherwise to flood the EU with millions of migrants.

With Gaddafi’s overthrow, and the near anarchy that has engulfed Libya since, the stream of refugees has become a torrent. The scale is now staggering . 170,000 refugees are estimated to have landed in Italy alone in 2014, 140,000 from Libya, and already this year over 40,000 have arrived during the winter months, when the sea is particularly inhospitable. With 500,000 waiting for boats these numbers are expected to increase sharply during the summer months. Italian sources estimate that up to 200,000 immigrants might arrive in2015. (As I write, four thousand were landed over the second weekend in May.)

It’s a lucrative business. The boats are supplied by traffickers who charge up to $1,000 per passenger. They are often old, unsafe vessels, sometimes only dinghies, overcrowded and without facilities. Many carry several hundred, which works out at very big bucks. The voyages can be perilous, up to 100 miles (Lampedusa, the nearest Italian island, is 70 miles from the African shore), with the optimum expectation, at the end, of being rescued by the Italian navy and transported to holding centres in Sicily and an uncertain future in a continent that shows little signs of welcome.

Until recently, this silent migration, with accidents, shipwrecks and deaths commonplace, passed largely unheeded outside Italy and Malta beyond brief news reports and media comments . Over 3000 are estimated to have drowned in 2014. In 2014 Italy actually mounted a special naval rescue operation in response to the rising toll of drownings, while diplomatically the Italian government appealed to its EU partners for more burden sharing – current internal EU agreements stipulate that migrants remain the responsibility of the first country receiving them.

There was little response. Immigration, particularly of poor economic migrants from different cultures, is a sensitive political issue throughout Europe, with considerable support for anti-immigration parties in a number of countries. Those countries willing to admit more asylum seekers – Germany and Sweden – concentrated on refugees from the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, and even here the numbers admitted merely scratched the surface. The African problem was seen as primarily an Italian one, though, with unrestricted movement among Schengen countries ( the EU except Britain and Ireland) there are obvious implications for all.

Then events last April catapulted the issue onto Europe’s front pages and prompted an emergency summit of Europe’s leaders. A boat capsized, within sight of rescuers, drowning 800. The death toll for 2015 was reported to have already topped 1,600 – more than the Titanic, as one aid worker commented. 10,000 were picked up from other boats in the same week. There was public outcry and outrage, with lobbyists calling the tragedy a stain on Europe’s conscience.

The emergency summit on April 23, together with subsequent Ministerial meetings, agreed on some measures to address the problem but there is little likelihood that they will produce significant results. Funding to combat traffickers and to enhance the EU’s existing “Triton” search and rescue mission was tripled, allowing increased naval patrolling (Ireland is among those sending a ship to participate), the use of force against traffickers was mooted (but how, where and with what authority ?) and discussions on sharing out some of those rescued and admitting more refugees generally have begun. More fanciful and unworkable ideas – establishing “transit camps” in North Africa for would-be migrants, allowing temporary stays in Europe, followed by repatriation – have been floated.

The issue has exposed deep flaws in the EU’s policy, such as it is, on asylum and refugees, with countries like Britain flatly refusing to take any more refugees and others baulking at taking large numbers. To absorb 500,000 would mean a distribution of one tenth of one per cent of Europe’s population among twenty eight countries. The chances of this happening are remote.

But something else has changed also since 1990. In “The March” a European official comments that Africans too have televisions and asks for how long the world’s poor will be willing to put up with their situation. Today the poor have the Internet, mobile phones and global communications. Europe and the rich North have been brought closer to the poor South. They can see how well the rich minority on the planet live and they want some of it. The Arab Spring was one manifestation of this. Perhaps in a perverted sense Islamic State is also. Most assuredly the multitudes waiting to take a risky boat journey for the chance of a better life is as well, whether in the Mediterranean or East Asia. And they’re not going away anytime soon.




Benjamin Franklin remarked that taxes and death were the only two certainties. A century earlier French Finance Minister Colbert defined the art of taxation as “so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest amount of feathers with the least possible amount of hissing”. And we all know what befell the woman who said only little people paid taxes.

Whatever else can be said about tax there’s almost universal agreement that current systems are basically unfair. Every country employs a system of levies, reliefs and exemptions that have evolved out of a mix ranging from political beliefs, expert advice to foster desirable social and economic developments, a vague commitment to equitable treatment ( at least among OECD states), down to special pleading and cronyism, the latter two normally carefully disguised. Once legislated for (in or out!), particular provisions regarding tax tend to be regarded as holy writ, with any change assuming a zero sum status. Those who benefit hunker down; those who don’t howl for change.

We in Ireland have had several fairly unique tax exemptions. Back in the era of real hardship – synonymous with the pre-Lemass/Whitaker era before 1960, when the country was literally bleeding to death – farmers, the chief bred-in-the-bone source of the country’s modest wealth, were by and large free from tax. It was meagre income/ meagre capital allowances, rather than any special treatment. Nevertheless, after EU membership, when farmers at last had some income thanks to Europe’s CAP, the perceived favourable tax treatment of farmers generated some resentment and criticism from urban taxpayers.

When at last the country began to develop a significant manufacturing base, via for the most part FDI, exported manufactured goods earned a tax exemption. This survived and morphed into a generalised zero taxation rate for manufactures, making Ireland a desirable place for foreign investment. There is little doubt that this favourable tax regime, ably promoted by Ireland’s Industrial Development Authority, helped the successful development of the Irish economy from the mid – seventies on.

This very success eventually prompted attacks from the European Commission and several member states, seeking to end the exemption on the grounds that it gave Ireland an unfair advantage in attracting foreign investment. Perhaps, but then Ireland already has significant strikes against, in the form of geographical peripherality and the extra costs of bringing goods to market.

The battle with the Commission is ongoing and has seen grudging acceptance – on both sides – of a modified tax rate of 12.5% on manufactures. When Ireland went broke several years ago there were fears that Europe would keep the plug pulled unless the favourable rate was abandoned but this threat did not materialise. The pressure, however, continues, with the strongest argument for abolition the fact that many large multinationals use their Irish branch to launder profits to avail of the preferential tax rate. The counter argument is that the multinationals will simply find somewhere else equally or more accommodating.

One unique and enduring Irish taxation measure HAS captured the imagination and attracted much international interest. In introducing the Irish budget in 1969 the then Irish Finance Minister, Charlie Haughey drew “particular attention to Section 2 which deals with the exemption from income tax of earnings of writers, composers, sculptors and painters”. Whatever else he will be remembered for, Haughey will be forever associated with this measure. As anyone with experience in government will testify, most legislation, particularly involving changes in taxation, emerges after a gestation period of debate and consideration, sometimes public, sometimes internal. Section Two of 1969, however, appears to have come out of left field and indeed it’s difficult to conceive of another Irish politician coming up with the idea.

How to treat income generated from artistic endeavour has long been a problem everywhere. Aside from the handful of mega successes who earn millions, most of the artistic community in any society live and earn modestly. Financial success, where it comes, is often concentrated in one or two years with fallow periods before and after. Prior to 1969 the artistic community in Ireland had been lobbying for a change in the system to allow royalties or revenue to be spread across several years; this at a time of low incomes, low tax thresholds and very high rates of marginal tax ( dubbed surtax). Not surprisingly the bureaucrats found enough practical objections (chiefly involving relativities) to do nothing. Haughey’s measure cut that particular Gordian Knot.

The scheme was broadly, though not universally, welcomed. One crusty revenue official remarked to me, with sage perspicacity, that Haughey was seeking to create another group of people who would pay no tax! This at a time when Ireland’s retarded economic development was finally speeding up, with fortunes being made particularly in building and property development, where tax breaks and loopholes abounded. Yet such riches did not touch much on the artistic community at the time nor for long afterwards, despite Haughey’s initiative.

The terms of the scheme were quite clear: earnings from an original book, play or other writing, a musical composition, painting or sculpture, deemed by the Revenue Commissioners to have artistic merit, were exempted from tax. So first there had to be earnings! The expressed aims were to foster and encourage the arts generally and artists to remain in Ireland ( 1969 was the year the Nobel Prize for Literature went to one famous Irish exile – Samuel Beckett). Irish residence (including for tax purposes) was, and is required. Claims could not be made retrospectively, thus ensuring that there was a stream rather than a flood of writers and artists into the country, as some critics had feared.

The scheme ground on without amendment for a generation, despite several efforts by Revenue to have it reined in. Most of those covered benefitted modestly. To counter “administrative creep,” guidelines were introduced in 1995 and revised in 2013. By then there had been change. For as Ireland boomed, and incomes rose, so too did the incomes of artists and writers. When the Freedom of Information Act was deemed to cover those benefitting, the information revealed caused some surprise, particularly the revelation that a small handful of individuals, including some rock stars (on royalties from musical compositions) were saving millions in tax.

In 2007, thirteen of the 2,427 availing of the scheme were earning in excess of €500,000.The exemption was capped in 2006 at a generous €250,000 (roughly $300,000) and further reduced to stand now at €50,000, as well as being enmeshed in the high earners’ tax restrictions. The latest figures available, for 2012, show that roughly 64% of those benefitting had incomes below the exemption, with many having less than half that amount.

Section 2, now Section 195 of a 1997 act, is again under attack, on the usual grounds of equity, with Revenue again leading the charge. In a perfect world the case for abolition would be unchallengeable. But, given the gaps, loopholes, deficiencies and blatant unfairness, which characterise the way in which income (including welfare payments) and wealth are treated in Irish legislation, why single out this? In the broad scheme of things the measure costs little. To end it would be a victory for the bean counters, no one else.



Year Five of the Government, still lagging in the polls but with ratings for both parties beginning to improve. It’s less a case of an increase in popularity, more the avoidance of banana skins recently. Ministers have also demonstrated a willingness to be proactive on some issues – something noticeably lacking last year.

There are other factors. With the election campaign in almost full swing some minds at least are concentrating on what alternatives are on offer. They’re not great. Fianna Fail, anchored at a low level of support, can scarcely criticise a government which has largely implemented its own blueprint for recovery. Sinn Fein comes with legacy baggage and a fanciful populist economic programme which seems unlikely to stand up to any serious forensic scrutiny. Ditto for anti-austerity groups and individuals on the left; it is difficult to envisage any coherent electoral threat emerging from them or other independents articulating dissatisfaction over sectional and local grievances. Disenchantment with the political system, yes; more independents yes; an alternative government no. The appeal of the newly launched Renua party is difficult to gauge at this stage; its first priority will be to establish itself.

Externally, the failure of the new Greek government to make much headway in writing down its debts has also helped. Any deal it might manage to secure spells trouble for the government here, so the deafening silence from the left over its lack of progress so far has spoken volumes. This may change – Greece might get its deal, but on the evidence so far it is unlikely to be a radical one. The saga is providing a lesson in basic economics as well as one in realpolitik. The Greeks have four months from end February to negotiate something.

By then some domestic issues here may be either resolved or coming to the boil. Irish Water remains a running sore. By June the impact of the first water bills will have registered and the level of the “can’t pay, won’t pay” movement become clearer. Will the bills fuel more mass street protests? Or will the middle classes back off, uncomfortable with the aggressive tactics of a minority of activists? The issue is too close to call and has huge potential to bury the government. Mishandled from the start, can the current structure survive a non-compliance figure of 40%? And how will the 60% compliant feel about paying for the water of the other lot?

Perhaps, like the Poll Tax in Britain a generation ago, the politically best solution would be to fudge, dump, and start again. There appears to be enough buoyancy in rising government revenues to carry the cost until the issue has been thrashed out comprehensively. Given that this is the second largest infrastructural project in the history of the State it surely merits this. Irish Water has proved a quango too far and this message, which has resonated from the public in letters of red, should be taken on board politically. Despite protestations this has simply not yet happened.

Poised for take- off also is the problem of Repossessions/Evictions. Readers of this column will know I have been pointing up for several years the political impossibility for any Irish government to countenance thirty thousand plus evictions, period. Following several bouts of can kicking over the years, a) we’ve now run out of road, b) the banks – what’s left – have exited zombie status and are again profit making, and c) property prices are once more on the rise. The banks, holding all the cards, scent an opportunity to repair balance sheets and maybe even make a profit. The result has been a dramatic surge – to one thousand a month – in applications to the Courts for repossession orders.

It has been a slow process – but, like melting ice, at a certain point the pace begins to pick up. Which is where we are at. Presumably the Government hoped the issue would not become toxic this side of the election. And, indeed, it may well be that the number of ACTUAL evictions (as opposed to court orders issued but not executed) in the year to come will be few, with court delays and adjournments. However, the issue is now out there and the sticking –plaster attempts to deal with private insolvencies thus far have been exposed as totally inadequate.

Government at last appears seized of the issue but what to do? In a nutshell, the problem is the thirty seven thousand plus mortgages over two years in arrears (around one-in-twenty of the total). Realistically these mortgages are dead and will never be redeemed. These are not mortgages on properties to let – for which there is no public sympathy – these are on the family homes of ordinary people.

Writing down – or off – the debt raises the issue of “moral hazard” – admittedly a dubious concept in view of our bailout of the banks – and bankers – and the emergence, phoenix-like and relatively unscathed, of many of the major figures and developers who stoked the boom. But there are obvious difficulties in justifying debt forgiveness for the next-door-neighbour to someone who has dutifully paid often crippling mortgage repayments, and suffered the increased taxes and levies since 2008. Perhaps a new NAMA can be devised, one with a mandate to sort out and rein in the banks and deal on a case by case basis. The issue merits this. Government strategists should be wary lest a series of hard luck cases emerge, replicating the political damage of the medical cards fiasco last year. Like Irish Water it’s a political problem requiring a political solution. Both require action.

While these and other issues make for general uncertainty over the next twelve months, the Government’s prospects have definitely improved, underpinned by Ireland’s economic recovery. It’s patchy, it’s partial, but it is undoubtedly real – as the employment figures and improved tax revenues demonstrate. It’s not rocket science, nor is it the result of brilliant stewardship by the Government, whatever politicians may claim. By and large the Government stuck to the Troika programme it inherited and is beginning to reap the benefits, the Irish Water farce aside.

The international climate has helped considerably. Favourable economic conditions in our biggest non-Eurozone markets (Britain and the USA), the sharp decline in world oil prices and the drift downward of the Euro against the dollar and sterling have each played a part in stimulating the economy. Factor in unprecedented low levels of interest rates in the Eurozone, and the embracing by the European Central Bank of quantitative easing and the Government could hardly have better conditions to work around. The annual burden of financing the public debt has been reduced, and, combined with some debt restructuring, this has enabled it to claim that, overall, it has (just about) protected the levels of basic social welfare payments, collateral damage at the margins notwithstanding.

Will it be enough? There are precedents, Truman in 48, Major in 92. Both faced inept opposition. Given a continued favourable economic climate, no major banana skins and in the absence of a coherent plausible political and economic alternative, the Government might just squeak it. If so it would be a comeback worthy of Lazarus.




1. The End of the Party; Bruce Arnold and Jason O’Toole November 2011

2. Phantom; Jo Nesbo March 2012

3. Mixed Blessings; Peter Somerville-Large June 2012

4. In the Darkness; Karin Fossum June 2012

5. Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power; Robert Caro July 2012

6. Yankee Doodles; Dennis Kennedy August 2012

7. Books to Die For; John Connolly and Declan Burke September 2012

8. Live by Night; Dennis Lehane October 2012

9. Searching For Ami; John O’Keeffe November 2012

10. A Recipe for Disaster; John Henry December 2012

11. The City of Shadows; Michael Russell February 2013

12. Suddenly While Abroad: Hitler’s Irish Slaves David Blake Knox March 2013

13. What in the World; Peadar King March 2013

14. Fever: Typhoid Mary; Mary Beth Keane April 2013

15. Crocodile Tears; Mark O Sullivan May 2013

16. To Move the World: JFK’s Quest for Peace; Jeffrey Sachs June 2013

17. Echoland; Joe Joyce July 2013

18. JFK’s Last Hundred Days; Thurston Clarke August 2013

19. One Summer: America 1927: Bill Bryson October 2013

20. A Cruel and Shocking Act; Philip Shenon November 2013

21. The City of Strangers; Michael Russell December 2013

22. Cockroaches; Jo Nesbo December 2013

23. The Second Deadly Sin; Asa Larsson January 2014

24. The Farm; Tom Rob Smith February 2014

25. The Almost Nearly Perfect People; Michael Booth March 2014

26. A Life Worth Living; Michael Smurfit

27. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August; Claire North

28. Obama Power; Jeffrey Alexander and Bernadette Jaworsky July 2014

29. Last Kiss; Louise Phillips August 2014

30. Echobeat; Joe Joyce August 2014

31 Disobeying Hitler; Randall Hansen September 2014

32. T.K. Whitaker: Portrait of a Patriot; Anne Chambers November 2014

33. Ireland’s Great War: The Glorious Madness December 2014

34. Aengus Finucane ; Deirdre Purcell January 2015

35. Ireland and the End of the British Empire; Helen O’Shea February 2015

36. Marked Off; Don Cameron March 2015


2011 : 1
2012 : 9
2013 : 12
2014 : 11
2015 : 3



Critics come in many varieties. Everyone has an opinion, and, with blogging, more and more people are getting that opinion out there. Even for those who DON’T blog, there are many opportunities to say what you think. My local Murder and Mystery Book Club meets monthly to dissect a crime novel. And boy do they criticise! Every author ( and wannabe) should join their local book circle. It’s free, usually, the critiques and analysis to be gained are invaluable; and, remember, this audience is potentially and actually your market.

I’ve been reviewing books seriously (i.e. reading, writing and getting paid by national media) for several years. And I’ve evolved my own personal approach. It’s my firm belief that a good critic should have written something, preferably, though not necessarily, in the discipline of the book to be reviewed. In my own case I’ve written a novel and even though it hasn’t been published – yet – the writing experience has proved invaluable in terms of understanding just where a book’s author is coming from . It’s no mean achievement to write a novel and the very least the author should receive is an honest appraisal doing justice to the work and the effort put into it. When you have put in that effort yourself you can empathise better with the author.

So. The book arrives. My first step is to establish the basics: the deadline for filing the review, the word count required, the length and subject matter of the book. Then I do some basic research on the author and any previous works. Obviously with a Jo Nesbo , a Val McDermid or any other established author, what you see is pretty much what you get, but with a new author it’s different. Websites and on line interviews are important here for getting inside the author’s head and finding out what she (he)has in mind for the book as well as its context.

After that I read the book – fully, and at a pace sufficient to absorb it and give it appropriate attention. Here, a reality check. Very few novels – and fewer nonfiction works – can be read at a session. Even the greatest critics have limited attention span. A 200 page novel just might be read in a day – and that over several sessions; longer books take longer. I take notes – sparingly, and only on specifics I wish to recall. Too many notes diminishes appreciation of the book as a whole.

What do I look for? On the macro front, the basic requirements are a good story, with well -developed characters and plot, and, ideally some original element or twist. On the micro front, clearly I look for style, pace and the absence of bad writing practices ( it’s amazing how they slip through). Then, taking the book holistically, I examine whether the author has successfully delivered what I perceive to be the book’s aim. This determines whether the review will be favourable or not.

Then, I draft the review – in rough at first, and about one third longer than the final version. After that it’s a case of editing, paring down and polishing up what I want to say. Quite a bit like the story writing process, in fact. And, always a ticklish point: what to do about other reviews which have already appeared. You can’t ignore them. As far as possible I make a point of never reading what anyone else has written about a book until that final draft and then only to verify I’m not overlooking something major. It is, after all, my review, not somebody else’s.





NEW ISLAND 252 pp €13.99 e book €2.99

A killer is operating in Dublin, targeting blond women in the comfortable suburbs around Blackrock. Two are murdered in rapid succession, with the same unusual and shocking modus operandi. The Gardai are baffled. There’s nothing to link the women, the murders were well planned and there are no clues. Inspector Danny O’Neill, fighting demons from his own past, must find the killer before he strikes again. Yet lead after lead prove to be dead ends as O’Neill and his team struggle to deal with false clues, lies and corruption in the efforts to track down a troubled and evil man, one who revels in frustrating the Gardai and follows closely the detectives’ efforts to find him.

Public hysteria mounts with media revelations that the killings are linked. The killer is even given a nickname by journalists. Then, the separate gruesome murder of a junior Minister. The Minister had a past as a ladies man and as a Celtic Tiger businessman with many enemies. There are no lack of suspects and the murder appears totally separate from those of the two women. Yet the leads in this murder also dry up despite intense political pressure to solve the crime. Some are asking whether the murders could be linked, or is Dublin now stalked by two vicious killers?

When another woman is attacked pieces of a complex jigsaw puzzle begin to fall into place and O’Neill realises he is confronted with an unprecedented situation. His team must delve into the seamy life of the Dublin underworld and apply wit, imagination and lateral thinking to locate their quarry as he targets another victim.

This novel won last year’s “ Get Your Book Published” competition jointly organised by RTE’s Today Show and New Island Books. It’s the first by author Don Cameron, a Dubliner who has published over forty short stories since he began writing in the mid-nineties. In an extensive interview on the author gives an interesting account of writing the novel, winning the competition and the process of getting it ready for publication – a process he describes as “tough, exciting, interesting, sometimes frustrating, rewarding and, above all, fun.”




Charlie Haughey merits more than one column. A recent TV mini-series,” Charlie,” with Aidan Gillen (“The Wire”) in the title role, topped the ratings here, demonstrating how Haughey continues to fascinate over two decades since he was in power.

He was Ireland’s seventh Taoiseach and held the office for a total of seven years and three months. Together with Garret Fitzgerald he dominated politics in Ireland for a generation, but, while Fitzgerald is generally regarded with respect and affection, Haughey continues to provoke strong feelings for and against. His whole political career attracts attention. Indeed arguably his achievements before becoming Taoiseach outweigh what he did in the top job.

Mention Haughey and a myriad of images come to mind. $500 Charvet shirts (each!).The 1970 Arms Trial. The bungs from rich businessmen. The “ Irish solution to an Irish problem.” Teapot Diplomacy.” The failed heaves against him. The “We are Living Away beyond our Means” speech. McCracken. Moriarty. And many more.

His administrations included the disastrous short lived GUBU government of 1982 and the much more successful one after 1987, which at last took the harsh but necessary steps to begin fixing a broke economy ( firm actions he had ducked eight years before). His legacy includes populist features now woven into the fabric of society, such as free travel for the elderly, together with programmes to assist the Arts (and artists), including a tax exempt scheme and the establishment of Aosdana. Whether there is anything more enduring must await the verdict of history.

Ireland in the Sixties was a time of opportunity for some, with Ireland experiencing her first (mild) economic boom. Haughey, an accountant, prospered, becoming a rich man with a circle of influential and wealthy friends among builders, speculators and businessmen. His odyssey in a few short years from a semi-detached in a north Dublin suburb to first one, then a second mansion, with extensive lands, was already becoming the stuff of legend and attracting attention. He was also making his mark in politics, with a clear ambition to become Taoiseach.

He was not alone. He was one of a group of ambitious, brash, relatively youthful politicians who came to the fore in Fianna Fail in the sixties, displacing the party’s geriatric old guard as the country finally emerged from decades of stagnation. The issue was who would succeed Taoiseach Sean Lemass, Haughey’s father –in-law. In the event, in 1966, the party opted for a compromise candidate, Jack Lynch, leaving the leadership ambitions of several , including Haughey, unfulfilled but undiminished.

Haughey had already proved an able, competent and modernising Minister for Justice; Lynch appointed him Minister for Finance in 1966. His tenure in Finance, when he was in effect in control of the Government’s finances, saw the emergence of a distinct Haughey style. It was, above all, high profile. Where there was substance, there was style in abundance, something that morphed later into a tendency to talk up and oversell achievements. It was clear also who was the boss. Ken Whitaker, Departmental Secretary and architect of Ireland’s economic revival, was shunted sideways into the Central Bank.

Yet his ability was also clear. As Minister, with little fiscal room for manoeuvre, he championed a number of populist measures, costing little but proving immensely popular. These included free travel and other subsidies for the elderly and the 1969 tax exemption scheme for writers, artists, and composers. (The scheme wasn’t perfect – to benefit one had to earn money first and few did – but it established Haughey firmly as a patron of the arts. That it helped create, in effect, a class of people who paid no tax at the expense of those who did was conveniently overlooked.) In the leadership stakes he appeared to have the edge over his chief rivals, former schoolmate George Colley, who had actually run against Lynch in 1966, and Neil Blaney, a militant republican from Donegal.

Then Northern Ireland exploded . The Fianna Fail cabinet was split. Haughey, not previously known for strong republican views, became involved in 1970, together with Blaney, in an attempt to import arms destined for republicans in Northern Ireland. There are still unanswered questions about the whole affair, including Haughey’s motive. Was it simply political, to avoid being outflanked on the Fianna Fail right by Blaney, in a move aimed at undermining the low-key Lynch? If so it was a miscalculation. The 1970 Arms Crisis did for Blaney and almost did for Haughey. A galvanised Lynch fired both; Haughey was acquitted in the subsequent court case.

Haughey’s political career seemed over, but, unlike Blaney, he was clever enough to avoid expulsion from Fianna Fail, which would have consigned him also to the permanent political wilderness. He ate humble pie from Lynch, while garnering support among the party rank and file over several years. Restored to the front bench (in opposition) in 1975, he joined the Cabinet as Health Minister in 1977. He was handed the perceived political hot potato of introducing measures to legalise the sale of contraceptives, required by a Supreme Court decision, and did so (the “Irish Solution”). He also introduced Ireland’s first serious anti-smoking measures. But these were sideshows.

Fianna Fail had bought the 1977 election, securing a huge majority (their last), by undermining the tax base with frivolous giveaways including the abolition of road tax and property taxes on private dwellings. The second oil crisis in 1978 stopped the economy in its tracks and was followed by a series of damaging industrial disputes, culminating in a postal strike lasting over four months in 1979. Disastrous European election results, as well as the murder of Lord Mountbatten by the IRA, fatally damaged Lynch. In December 1979 Haughey mounted a successful coup against a jaded Lynch, edging out Colley in a close contest among Fianna Fail parliamentarians (forty two to thirty six) and becoming Taoiseach without an election.

Despite reservations from Garret Fitzgerald ( who spoke of Haughey’s “flawed pedigree” in the Dail), and George Colley (“ low standards in high places”) Haughey took over with considerable benefit of the doubt from the public after the preceding two years of disastrous government. He was known, or believed, to have disapproved of Fianna Fail’s economic policy and in fact one of his first actions as Taoiseach was to drop the architect of that policy, O’Donoghue, and abolish his Department. And, while he had arguably received a hospital pass– an economy in poor shape halfway through the government’s term of office – it was certainly no worse than the one his father-in-law had inherited in 1959.

Initially he made all the right noises and appeared hands on and proactive. At his first press conference he condemned the Provos unreservedly. Several weeks later, in a televised address to the nation he spelled out the serious state of the economy and the need to reduce the national debt. He called for economies and the curbing of borrowing , stating flatly that “we are living away beyond our means.” It was a phrase that was to come back to haunt him. But right then the question was, having lusted for power – and got it – how would Haughey use it.





I.B.TAURIS 288 pp €89.00

Cyprus, an island slightly larger than Co. Cork, and with a population of just over half a million, became independent in 1960 after a short, nasty, guerrilla campaign. In four years several hundred British soldiers and locally employed Cypriots were killed, nine EOKA ( Cypriot Resistance) fighters were hanged with many more dying fighting up to 40,000 British soldiers.

A bad situation was made worse by British blunders and ineptitude. They sought initially to crush EOKA by savage repression (enforced by a military Governor), deported the inspirational Cypriot leader Archbishop Makarios to the Seychelles and flew the EOKA leaders to British prisons, where they teamed up with IRA prisoners. EOKA were even gifted their own Kevin Barry, 22 year old Michalis Karaolis, hanged amid protests in May 1956. As with Barry, the hanging of Karaolis proved a watershed, enflaming passions and compromising possibilities of a political solution.

The Cypriot insurgents drew inspiration from Ireland’s earlier struggle. The similarities are obvious, even if the ultimate aim of many was not independence but Enosis – union with Greece. Fears over this among the 20% Turkish minority led to bloody clashes with the Greek majority before and after independence and eventually to partition of the island and Turkey occupying the northern half.

Public sympathy in Ireland for the rebels was, unsurprisingly, considerable, particularly as Britain seemed to be repeating in Cyprus the mistakes made in Ireland a generation earlier. Yet ,as Dr O’Shea shows ,Irish involvement was not one-sided, the complicated situation reflecting Ireland’s relatively recent separation from Britain.

The British Empire may have been in decline but its bureaucracy and military still held many high ranking Irish, including the head of the Foreign Office, Sir Ivone Kirkpatrick, an early advocate of the partition of Cyprus. On Cyprus, Chief Justice Hallinan, who sentenced Karaolis to death, was from Cork, while the Attorney-General, James Henry, who refused clemency to all nine who were hanged, was the son of Denis Henry, Irish Attorney –General when twenty four IRA members were executed between 1919 and 1921.

Many other Irish were involved at various levels in the British judiciary and administration plus hundreds in the army. These included Brigadier Butler from Rathgar, and a number of other senior officers , while several Irish regiments served tours of duty during the “Emergency.” Not surprisingly many Irish ordinary soldiers served, having emigrated during the decade after 1945; some were casualties, some were decorated.

Moreover, this was the 1950’s, the Cold War at its most frigid, with Cyprus regarded as key to Britain’s defence of the eastern Mediterranean. Ireland, staunchly Catholic and anti-Communist, while not in NATO, was firmly in the western camp. This led to a certain wariness , for example from the Catholic Church, in support for the Cypriot cause. At the political level also there were factors at play. While committed to supporting the principle of self-determination at the UN, Ireland, a new member, was still preoccupied with Irish Partition ( the “sore thumb ”policy). There was caution about attacking Britain’s State of Emergency in Cyprus and alleged human rights abuses , when Ireland herself had a State of Emergency (including internment) to deal with the IRA border campaign. There was a delicate balance to be struck. “ Sympathy was free but a UN vote could be costly.”




In the heart of Concern


NEW ISLAND 358 pp. For publication early February; e book €9.99

Aengus Finucane was a big man, not just physically. For decades a towering figure in Ireland’s aid and assistance efforts for the poor of the developing world, he died of cancer aged 76 in 2009. His name will forever be synonymous with Concern, the Irish aid organisation he headed for sixteen years.

This is his story, interwoven with that of his forty year association with Concern. Deirdre Purcell, prolific journalist and author, has compiled it from scores of interviews with those who knew and worked with Aengus, including many prominent political and business figures. Sadly, most of his personal papers and correspondence, painstakingly assembled and sorted by his brother and fellow priest, Jack, were destroyed by accident soon after Aengus passed away.

The story is remarkable. Aengus Finucane was ordained in 1959 in a different Ireland, where the Church was supreme and where hundreds of young Irish men and women flocked to the religious life and, within that life, to serve overseas in the “Missions.” Aengus and brother Jack were among around 900 Holy Ghost (now Spiritan) priests sent out as Missionaries, mostly to Africa, and Nigeria in particular, spending eight years in pastoral work. The job was learned on the hoof, nothing in their training having prepared the young Irish priests for their new life.

Then, in 1967 Nigeria’s oil –rich province of Biafra, where most of the estimated 300 Spiritans were located, attempted to secede. It proved a defining moment. The resulting civil war saw an increasingly severe encirclement and blockade of Biafra, leading to widespread malnutrition and starvation, particularly among children. The television images of starving Biafran children struck a chord in Ireland, with several ad hoc groups formed to supply aid. One such was “Africa Concern” formed in early 1968 by Fr Raymond Kennedy, another Spiritan priest, and members of his family.

A heroic aid operation was mounted by several Irish relief organisations , a ship acquired and supplies flown in to the embattled province. There to receive them at Uli airstrip were the Finucanes. The first legends about Aengus began. But it was to no avail. Despite international aid, after almost three years and a million civilians dead, chiefly from starvation, Biafra surrendered. The Spiritans were imprisoned briefly and then expelled.

Internationally, part of Biafra’s legacy was the formation of Medecins sans Frontieres. In Ireland Biafra proved a catalyst in terms of public awareness, via TV and the other media, of the poverty and suffering of hundreds of millions of their fellow humans elsewhere, whether from natural or man-made catastrophe. Concern widened its net, dropping “African” as it got involved elsewhere. Trocaire, Goal and an impressive Irish government development cooperation programme emerged as the years passed. In terms of total assistance Ireland moved steadily up the league table of donors.

Concern in particular has grown. It now has 3,000 staff deployed in twenty eight countries. Aengus Finucane was involved at every strategic moment. He spent the Seventies in Bangladesh, a new country wracked by war damage and natural catastrophe, moving on in 1978 to the Thai-Cambodian border where the refugees from Pol Pot had fled. His philosophy was simple: “Do as much as you can, as well as you can, for as many as you can, for as long as you can.”

The question he asked in debates about immediate welfare relief or sustainable development programmes was equally simple: How could the poorest, the most unfortunate, be assisted, a helpful reality check in terms of achieving results. He became the logical choice to succeed as Concern’s chief executive in 1981. Shortly afterwards his predecessor was found to have embezzled funds. Aengus Finucane went on the road, staking his personal reputation in a host of public appearances to regenerate belief in Concern. It worked. Trust was restored. The funds were ultimately recovered .

The Eighties and Nineties saw a succession of horrific international humanitarian crises – Ethiopia, Somalia, Rwanda. Concern and Aengus Finucane were to the fore throughout. There are harrowing chapters reliving the horrors of each one, recounted by those who were there. His acumen and awareness that publicity was the key to persuading the public to donate was reflected in his message, hammered home to visiting Irish journalists in Ethiopia in 1984: report back what is happening. In Somalia he seized upon the tremendous publicity value of a visit by President Robinson and worked with her to secure government approval for the trip.

Energetic, committed and gregarious, he was excellent at making friends in the right places. Under his stewardship, Concern acquired an international fund raising and leveraging capability. But his hectic lifestyle began to take its toll on his health. Bizarrely, it was a simple accident with a pen , which infected his arm with a necrotising water-borne bug , which caused most damage and enforced extended sick leave.

This proved a turning point. Methods and attitudes were changing and Aengus, at retirement age, moved on to become honorary president of Concern US. The role gave him a new lease of life as he mingled with, and opened the wallets of , numerous wealthy Americans. His final odyssey was to Haiti, where Concern is now heavily involved.

Purcell’s book is packed with fascinating anecdotes and extracts from interviews with journalists and others, including his successors in the job. Some are amusing, some make for grim reading but overall they contribute to a well-rounded portrait of someone who strove to make the world a better place.