BANANA SKINS 1607 XC

BANANA SKINS

First hearty congratulations to my old friend the new Irish Senator, Billy Lawless,  well known to Chicago’s  Irish community. I know you’ll do Ireland and the Irish Community overseas, including the Undocumented, proud.

How long Billy will serve will depend on how long the current government lasts. The jury is very much out on this as the new administration feels its way in its first weeks. What is clear is that there will be frequent “crises” with Dail defeats for the government  on banal populist motions with no legislative or practical effects beyond stoking  unrealistic sentiments of entitlement on  various issues. And, of course, taking up a lot of Dail time and energy as well as generating publicity for the usually leftist advocates.

Whatever about letting off steam ,  none of these  constitute “confidence issues” which could bring the government down. Banana Skins apart, any crunch is most likely to come on issues involving actual allocations of money  especially where there is choice involved or some need either to increase tax or reduce benefits. On this the current outlook is “so far so good.” The economic indicators are all positive  and  tax revenues buoyant, permitting – already – some allocations from the “fiscal space” wiggle room on which the last government , ironically, fought the election.  As long as the money keeps rolling in cuts can be restored and even modest improvements made, though nothing sufficient to meet even a fraction of the official wish list. October’s Budget should prove manageable  and perhaps indicative of the government’s life expectancy.

Yet Banana Skins internal and external remain a constant threat. Indeed by the time you read this one major external banana skin could have arisen, with certainly long term and possibly short term  effects on politics here. This is the June 23 British referendum  on leaving the European Union. As I write it is certainly too close to call, with the polls actually showing a majority in favour of leaving (Brexit). A surge in support for Brexit in recent weeks has caught the Establishment, in Britain, in Brussels and throughout the Union by surprise. What appeared until recently unthinkable could well become reality.

Should Britain  vote to stay in the result is likely to be close but settled for several years at least. Should Britain vote to LEAVE there would  obviously be particular important implications for Ireland. To name but a few: we are the only country sharing a land frontier, hence the resurrection of cross –border issues thought long buried, with possible implications for the Peace Process; Britain is our major trading partner and business connections are many; both countries are home to sizeable numbers of expats from the other and we enjoy a common travel area. There could be immediate currency fluctuations ( Sterling falling) which could sabotage our recovery.

For Britain the process of exiting would  take time (several years ), be complex and complicated and  involve inter alia negotiations  of  sectoral agreements across the spectrum of the EU  internal market, probably resulting in arrangements along the lines of agreements with Switzerland and Norway. There is universal acceptance here, and in Europe, that  Brexit and its aftermath  are likely to be disadvantageous for Ireland, possibly considerably so.

The appeal of Brexit to a sizeable proportion of the British electorate has dumbfounded the chattering classes across Europe. As I write an “Operation Stable Door” is being mounted by the “Stay” campaign even involving Taoiseach Enda Kenny  urging the Irish in Britain to vote to remain. The final week could be decisive.  Momentum has been with the Brexit side; whether the hiatus after the murder of British M.P. Jo Cox could change this remains to be seen.

Little-England nationalism aside, the Brexit movement should perhaps be seen in the context of the sizeable and almost universal Europe-wide popular disenchantment with  the way society is perceived to be evolving, with the existing establishment and party political dominance under threat from populists on both the left and right.

Potential domestic banana skins are beginning to emerge. The government has a date with destiny next year over the  Irish Water issue when the expert commission reports. In the interim there could be further trouble over  pursuing those who haven’t paid for existing water bills –  possibly  half of all households – with the responsible Minister  (Coveney) and the Taoiseach insisting on payment and threatening action on this. And nobody has yet posed the question what happens politically if the commission early next year recommends charging consumers for water.

The last government missed the warning signs over water and political antennae should have been  up. Yet incredibly until very recently the July 1introduction of a new system of charging for garbage removal seemed likely to slip by unnoticed. Anti- garbage- charge protests have a history with over twenty  people jailed in 2003. The protests then petered out,  and most garbage collection services were subsequently privatised, with charges inching up. The new system , based on weight, backed up by an EU directive and dressed up as preferable environmentally, was presented as being no more expensive. Fears that the garbage companies would gouge consumers with  doubling charges or worse have panicked the government. Action is pending to suspend the new regime. Watch this space.  Caving in to populist howls on any issue does not augur well for the government’s long term survival.

An undoubted looming banana skin relates to the head of steam building up  to repeal  the Eighth Amendment which in 1983 copper-fastened  the legal ban on abortion. Subsequent referenda modified  the total ban – by a very narrow margin in 2002 – by providing for abortion where there was a threat of suicide by the mother. The pro-choice lobby  are calling for the whole amendment to be revisited.  It was an electoral issue, albeit a minor one, and considerable interest has focussed recently on distressing cases involving  carrying non-viable foetuses to term (fatal foetal abnormalities). The Taoiseach’s position is that a “citizen’s assembly” is to examine all aspects of the issue and report to the Dail, for a promised “free vote”, presumably not until well into 2017. As always on this highly emotive issue, the devil will be in the detail of anything  put to the vote, with  differences among politicians already demonstrable, many  too coy to commit and the threat to the government’s survival evident.

There are other known knowns threatening. Following  settlement in a lengthy  dispute involving drivers for LUAS, Dublin’s light rail system, the message to unions is that persistence with unreasonable  wage demands is likely to be rewarded with an eventual  cave in by the official side. Sectoral relativities are prompting a rash of similar claims as well as demands for the restoration of wage cuts in the public sector ( a huge headache for the public finances) and action over  minimum wage levels. While these are unlikely to bring down the government, the political fallout, in terms of a steady drip of accompanying defeats on Dail motions cannot but be demoralising.

Then there are the true Banana Skins – the Unknown Unknowns. What else is out there in the long grass? Irish politics is never boring!

18/06

 

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THE BEAUTIFUL GAME 3: TIME TO PROTECT MESSI

This unpublished piece was written on June 1 2016, prior to the commencement of the two continental competitions mentioned.

TIME TO PROTECT MESSI – AND OTHERS

The coming weeks will see major tournaments in the two geographical powerhouses of world football. The Copa America begins in the United States on 3 June and the European Championships commence in France on June 10. The two events should showcase most of the world’s top players, including the best, Argentinian Lionel Messi, who will celebrate his twenty ninth birthday during the Copa. Let’s hope it will be a celebration.

It has been a good season for Spanish football generally. The all-Madrid Champions’ League final took place on 28 May, underlining the dominance of Spanish club football in Europe as Real beat Atletico in a penalty shootout. Messi, and his club Barcelona, did not feature ( they went out to Atletico) but domestically Barcelona completed the League and Cup double with a 2 – 0 victory over Sevilla in the Spanish Copa Del Rey final on 22 May, a game decided by two inspirational passes in extra time from Messi. The match demonstrated yet again the considerable gulf in standards between La Liga and the Premiership, coming as it did the day after a mediocre English Cup Final and only three days after Sevilla had accounted for Liverpool in the Europa League decider.

Yet there was another, and disturbing, aspect to the Sevilla game. Messi was fouled nine times, quite apart from the lunges and off-target near misses that he rode because of his superb ability. Several of the challenges were crude, meriting yellow cards – two were awarded – and on one occasion Messi unusually made clear his frustration by making the card gesture. In his last game in the Nou Camp, against local rivals, Espanol, where admittedly there is a history, he was fouled six times. The Sevilla game moreover was book-ended with another pairing at the beginning of the season, last August, the Super Cup final, won 5 – 4 by Barcelona in a match where Messi was fouled seven times.

His season statistics make interesting reading. All told Messi had 56 starts – he missed several weeks in late 2015 with a hamstring injury – and scored 46 goals. He was fouled 151 times with opponents picking up 22 yellow cards. While this total may appear moderate – under three per game – a closer look reveals that, in 22 games he was fouled once or never. Well over a third of fouls were committed in just ten games, with, adding to the Sevilla games, 38 fouls in eight competitive internationals (six Copa America, two World Cup qualifiers). In those eight games moreover, he was restricted to one goal. Factor in those tackles he dodged and the message is clear – you stop Messi by kicking him around the park and the more there is at stake the closer the attention from defenders will be.

It is of course natural for teams, whether club or country, to seek to neutralise the opponent’s best player, but there are legitimate ways of doing this, as Atletico demonstrated with Messi in the Champions’ League. And, with the Copa America imminent, the issue arises whether more should be or could be done by the football authorities to protect Messi. Currently he is recovering after a back injury sustained in a recent friendly against Honduras (in a 2014 pre – World Cup “friendly” England were kicked repeatedly at the same venue). Messi is expected to be fit for Argentina’s opening game against Chile on June 6 – a repeat of last year’s final which saw Messi fouled nine times including one brutal kick to his midriff (watch it on YouTube) as Argentina were held scoreless, eventually losing on penalties.

The case for introducing stricter refereeing to protect Messi and other creative players now is a strong one. Messi is not getting any younger and is arguably more vulnerable and slightly slower than before while defenders are better drilled on how to neutralise him. The Chilean coach reportedly studied many hours of video footage of Barcelona to work out how best to stop him; the nine fouls speak volumes. Yet Messi, Ronaldo, and other creative players are the lifeblood of the game, not the thugs who scythe them down. People pay to see them play, not to see them hacked down.

Whether any action will be taken – including the ultimate sanction of a red card – is unclear. There’s much nonsense talked and written about “destroying the match as a spectacle” by early ejections or even worse, that fouls are unavoidable in what is a physical contact sport. All of which leaves a bad taste. Of course there will be fouls but not as part of a strategic plan. There are still memories of how Pele – the greatest footballer of his era – was kicked savagely as Brazil were eliminated from the 1966 World Cup, or how Maradona was hounded and provoked by Italy in 1982. For whatever reason, in both follow up tournaments creativity was preserved. Pele had his crowning hour in 1970 and Maradona in 1986 (though one English writer posed the question about Maradona’s wonder goal as to why he wasn’t simply fouled going through!).

Some form of edict may well have been issued in 1986. An Uruguayan was red carded in the first minute for a crude foul on Scotland’s most creative player, Gordon Strachan, while folk legend in Belgium has it that the reason Maradona was allowed to embark on those mesmerising runs in the semi-final (scoring two and just missing another pair) was that the Belgian defenders feared a red card – thus missing the Final – if they were to tackle him. Enough said on the deterrent effect.

It’s surely time for FIFA and the regional bodies to monitor the situation and take action as necessary. The two pending tournaments should tell us a lot. Hopefully what we learn will be positive. But I wouldn’t count on it.

1/6

ENDA’S GOVERNMENT 1606 LXXXIX

ENDA’S GOVERNMENT

Enda Kenny is assured of his place in history. Despite a disastrous election, which saw his party slump to 25% of the popular vote and win less than one third of the seats, he has become the first Fine Gael Taoiseach to secure re-election. He was elected Taoiseach with just over a third of the House supporting him (59 to 49) courtesy of an abstention agreement with Fianna Fail. Should his government, a fragile minority coalition including several independents, last a year Enda Kenny will become Fine Gael’s longest serving Taoiseach.

The agreement and the accompanying legislative parameters have been hailed as a signal victory for Fianna Fail and its leader Micheal Martin, since theoretically the plug on the Kenny government could be pulled at any time . However, without good cause this could backfire. There is, after all, a country to be governed and not wrecked. How long the new government will actually survive remains to be seen – the bookies and the early opinion polls favour one or two years. But with little appetite for a fresh election right now, in or out of the Dail, and barring a major banana skin like Irish Water or some unexpected economic upheaval, it could last until the end of the three –budget gentleman’s agreement with Fianna Fail.

The negotiations between the two main parties were hard and heavy, with most of the time and effort over what to do about Irish Water. This was hardly surprising. Without a solution, any future minority or coalition government would be hamstrung on the issue – toxic to legislators and a significant proportion of the electorate. Yet positions were entrenched, chiefly over the principle of consumers paying something, with a wide gap between what was regarded as reasonable. One commentator quipped that the Fianna Fail position appeared to be that only someone who had an elephant to wash daily in the back garden would be liable to pay.

The eventual fudge – to kick the can down the road by setting up an expert commission to ponder all aspects of water in Ireland and report back in about nine months to another committee, this time in the Dail, and then the Dail to vote after solemn deliberation – could have been sorted months ago instead of becoming a self-inflicted wound for the last government. Indeed the solution begs the question of why this detailed examination of what has been billed as the second greatest infrastructural project in Ireland’s history was not carried out in the first place.

While the disaster quango is effectively dead and buried with a stake through its heart, legacy and related issues remain. There is the ticklish issue of how to reward the 60% sheep who paid some or all of their water bills and also deal effectively with the 40% goats who didn’t ( one new government Minister has belatedly paid up). Watch the politicians tie themselves in knots over this one. There’s also the “me too” chorus being heard from the 120,000 rural dwellers who have paid for water for decades through local water schemes. There are the implications for the existing organisation and staff of any root and branch overhaul. And finally what everyone accepts to be the case – the need for major infrastructural investment to bring Ireland’s nineteenth century water supply system into the twenty first century and how the several billions required are to be raised in the absence of charging consumers.

Which brings us neatly to the issue of the new Programme for Government and how its aspirations and hostages to fortune are to be financed. It’s a weighty document – 156 pages, 16 chapters and an executive summary – but is conspicuously lacking in how its lengthy wish list could be financed. The document was drawn up having regard in the first instance to the prior Fine Gael /Fianna Fail agreement and then after negotiations with and attempts to bring on board various groups of independents, only some of whom seem to have bitten. The result is academically interesting as a lengthy check list of first world issues which we would all like to see addressed on the assumption of virtually unlimited resources and an ability to “freeze” certain issues while action is taken on others.

There are vague commitments to soak the high earners (who else?) – in order to “ensure the tax system remains fair and progressive” – an aim somewhat undermined by “not indexing personal tax credits and bands”. It promises further crackdowns and sanctions on cigarette smuggling and fuel laundering, and a commitment to improve “tax compliance.” There are also measures, parcelled up as altruistic “key public health interventions,” to increase duty on alcohol and cigarettes ( we are to be “tobacco free” by 2025, surely a fiscal oxymoron) and to tax “sugar sweetened drinks.”

All this is hardly the stuff to bring in the extra €6.75 billion promised for public services by 2021, let alone suffice to phase out the detested USC. And this is before investment in water and the many small print undertakings in the programme are factored in. Some hope is attached to an extra €4 billion available for capital investment apparently following a “redefinition” by the European Commission of Ireland’s “structural balance” which may help on the investment side. With fiscal limits now set by Brussels, it’s going to take particularly favourable economic developments over the coming years to generate the fiscal space just to tread water.

There’s a reality here that requires addressing. While health, housing, homelessness, crime and the curate’s egg nature of the extent of economic recovery were the main issues in the election, Irish Water was indicative, indirectly, of what is becoming a chronic issue in politics here – the unwillingness of the public to pay for the services they demand. The Left (5.5% of the vote) and Sinn Fein (13.8%) have cleverly stoked resentment about austerity while demanding more and better welfare payments and services to be financed from some limitless pot of gold accessed by punitive income and wealth taxes on those defined as wealthy as well as hiking corporation taxes. While this is manifestly unrealistic, the Programme has bought into some of this at least in its wish list.

Quite how the first Hundred Days of the government – in which much has been promised – will pan out is unclear and it’s as well to remember how the original Hundred Days ended. The housing and homeless morass will require years to sort out and a banana skin may be in the offing here as the number of house repossessions seems set to rise dramatically. Ditto the structural problems in the health service.

Overall, given budgetary constraints the scope for any initiative is limited and the government would seem fated for however long it lasts to continue the general approach of its predecessor, with effectively the independents who have bought in replacing Labour. Its duration will depend on its ability to negotiate some minor matters to keep the Dail happy and on having enough political nous and antennae to avoid calamities like Irish Water. Yet Enda Kenny remains as Taoiseach and may well prove as difficult to dislodge as Haughey. Remarkable.

17/05