POTPOURRI 2102 CLXII

POTPOURRI

Advice and a Reality Check!  Don’t make any plans for 2021. “Normality” is at least another year away, the Covid Virus so embedded and pernicious that ridding humanity of it will require a major global effort. I write in late January as the Corona Virus saga continues but now with vaccines emerging to combat it.  One grisly way of viewing the situation, in Ireland, In Britain, in the USA and elsewhere is whether enough of the population can be vaccinated in time to achieve if not “herd immunity” then to keep the death toll below that from last Century’s Spanish Flu (Ireland 22,000, Britain 220,000 and the USA 600,000).  The sombre targets are not strictly comparable (given population growth, medical advances and better living standards) but nevertheless offer grim yardsticks. As I write the Virus’ third wave is in full spate with at least twenty countries recording over 1000 deaths per million. By the time you read this the toll in the USA will be well beyond 400,000 deaths (President Biden has suggested 500,000 by the end of February), and Britain (where the Brexiteer clowns now in government have rivalled Trump’s ineptitude in combatting Covid) will be nudging six figures.

 Ireland, meanwhile, having long dodged the third wave bullet, is now awash, having moved in the space of a few weeks from the least infected per head to one with among the most rapid growth of new cases worldwide. With cases climbing towards 200,000 – a doubling since the New Year – and deaths now at 578 per million, we have a way still to go – we remain  among the best  in the EU, with only  the Nordics ( Sweden emphatically excepted) and Estonia doing better, but the public mood now is one tinged with anxiety.  Deaths are still relatively low (below 3000), with our island status continuing to protect us, but with an open border to the North, no strict quarantine and visitors still arriving in considerable numbers, bringing with them newer, more infectious mutations of the virus, this could change. The sombre lesson since we “opened up” is that, as elsewhere, we are as vulnerable as elsewhere, with no sign of the self-discipline or political will to hunker down and defeat the virus. And, as elsewhere, we blunder on, fixated on some vaccine saving us. It probably will eventually but it doesn’t take rocket science to work out how long vaccinating a whole population will take. So – write off 2021.

If there is any collateral good news out of this it is that the Virus almost certainly cost Trump a second term – though a more accurate interpretation would be that even before the election, his total ineptness and unsuitability for political leadership was exposed by his record in failing to grapple with the Virus, a record that probably contributed significantly to the death toll.  While it’s difficult to assess what damage Trump could have inflicted domestically or worldwide with another four years, his behaviour since November suggests the USA and the world have had a narrow escape. America’s democratic structures survived – just about – but have taken quite a battering. His term now seems just a seedy episode yet the events in the Capitol on 6 January – with repercussions ongoing – should be a wake- up call. And the spectacle of the determined assault on the election result has shredded the US’ image around the world, to the manifest glee of the crew of motley dictators worldwide who would never have tolerated an unrigged election like last November’s.

 The question now is whether Trumpism, with its appeal to the “inner swine in human beings” and its success in “ceaselessly mobilising human stupidity”- to quote Kurt Schumacher’s brilliant characterisation of Nazism, will prove an enduring national movement. We should not forget that last November over seventy four million Americans voted for Trump; not all were hillbillies or racists or people disposed to join lynch mobs. There is worry and alienation out there as well as sincerely held conservative views and Joe Biden will have quite a task in healing the country and in combatting deliberate falsehoods in the era of Social Media. Some may see the whole period following Trump’s defeat as a form, ceteris paribus, of the Trump equivalent of the Beer Hall Putsch, with his Arnie-style hints of a return hanging over the future. Yet bear in mind that Hitler was in his mid-thirties when he ran after his coup collapsed. Trump is now seventy four and four years on will be seventy eight. As for his pod-people family – they simply lack his caveman charisma (with apologies to our ancestors).

An ill wind also, arguably, for the Brexiteers. Virtually lost sight of has been another New Year “milestone” – Britain’s final exit from the EU. Few anywhere are sounding trumpets though expect a growing fiction emerging, albeit slowly, about how the Corona Virus did fatal damage to the Brave New World for Britannia (more accurately Albion) envisaged, promised, and lied about by Britain’s Brave Brexiteers.  Britain is now formally – and informally – a “third country” now removed (apart from the north east of Ireland) from the European Union. The divorce would have been accompanied by Brexiteer celebrations worthy of the Rapture and the Second Coming combined, had they not been muted by the reality of the rampant Virus, where Britain’s inept handling has now seen more per capita deaths per million than in the USA.

Once the initial cock-a-hoop tabloid headlines and predictable inanities by the likes of Gove about negotiating the mothers of all trade deals with (other) third countries, like the USA, had subsided there was a hiatus. January is a normally a quiet month financially and in trading terms and there was much speculation – and trepidation – about what the effects of Britain leaving would have short term on its trade in terms of ruptured supply lines, food and other shortages both in Britain and in Ireland – the country most at risk  economically over Brexit. The Covid restrictions as hastily intensified in the UK provided a handy get-out-of-jail card for the Brexiteers, a card they will probably use until it disintegrates.  Those delays and hiccups that did occur could be passed off as “teething troubles” or on Covid.

The counter-intuitive dimension of Brexit, involving as it did Britain removing itself from a solid, bedded-in, paperless free trade regime with its EU trading partners, accounting for 40% of its trade, to take its chance in future negotiations , was simply dodged. Indeed to read the British tabloid press the agreement negotiated at Christmas represented Britain putting one over on its former partners. It was not, of course – merely “Fake News” Brexit style. The agreement as negotiated represented a marriage of less-than true-minds aimed at minimising disruption on both sides to important existing trade and laying some foundation for a future relationship, all made necessary by the contrary, illogical and irrational espousal of Brexit  – for the UK a policy switch worthy of Jonathan Swift’s imagination.

Finally, an anniversary. On 6 February 6 1971,  in the course of rioting on Belfast’s New Lodge Road, Gunner Robert Curtis (20) became the first British soldier shot dead in the North .

24/01/21

DIEGO MARADONA 1960-2020 2101 CLXI

DIEGO MARADONA 1960-2020

 Diego Maradona, arguably the finest soccer player of the Twentieth Century, perhaps of all time, is dead.  Maradona’s years of greatness – in the 1980s – preceded today’s saturation TV and Cable coverage of soccer, and while we have certainly the films of his greatest goals and exploits, these are all too few.  Memories fade quickly and there is also the sad flawed spectacle of the man in his declining years to blur his memory. Like most admirers, I never saw him play in person, only on film.

How good was he? He inspired passion for and against. He was subversive; underdogs rooted for him. He was transformative. Other great players played in great teams; Maradona foraged alone, elevating those around him. His exploits were unique. Off the field he had major flaws. He should have been better protected; too late now. Yet read what his footballing peers wrote about him. And watch, please, those films of him in action.

2021 will mark thirty five years since Maradona  in 1986 almost singlehandedly delivered a World Cup to Argentina, scoring in the process the “Goal of the Century,”  and linking his name forever with that World Cup. He very nearly won another World Cup four years later with a far inferior team when by then his greatness was fading. Yet by 1986 his star had been in the ascendant for nearly a decade after he burst on the Argentine scene as a teenager, a mop-headed undersized kid from the Buenos Aires slums. He was omitted inexplicably from the 1978 Argentine World Cup squad, a squad that was strong enough, with the assistance of good luck and home advantage, to capture the trophy. In a fascinating documentary last year Maradona revealed his hurt at being left out and denied the chance to raise the Cup before his countrymen. (Pele, after all, at the same age in 1958, HAD been given his chance.)

By 1982 the world soccer scene had reconfigured. Maradona was now acknowledged as the world’s best player and was already signed up for Barcelona for a record fee. He was also, as befitted his status in the cruder and crueller environment of 1980’s soccer, a marked man, with opponents committed to stopping him by fair means or foul, usually by kicking him around and off the field. Such tactics would not be tolerated today, when some protection at least is provided for creative players, but then it was open season, a time moreover of heavier pitches and balls and more license for the tackler. And given that Maradona did not hide but was proactive, and once in possession of the ball had only one aim, to get forward and score or assist his teammates to score, there were ample opportunities to “get” him in every match.

So it was in World Cup 82, where additionally the opposing teams were gunning for Argentina as the holders. Maradona was harried, hacked and pursued in every match, most memorably in the match against the eventual winners, Italy, where he was shadowed closely and neutralised by the inappropriately named Italian defender Gentile. In the next match, against traditional Latin American rivals Brazil, Maradona, who usually took the fouling and punishment stoically, finally snapped, retaliated after a succession of fouls, and was sent off, Argentina’s chances disappearing with him. With eerie prescience, given the shelf life of football superstars, Sean Connery, narrating the official FIFA world Cup film shortly after, commented that Maradona would have to await another occasion to fulfil his potential.

By 1986 Maradona was playing in Italy where he was in process of transforming perpetual losers Napoli  into a championship winning side and instilling pride and self- belief to Naples and the Neapolitans, long looked down upon by much of the rest of Italy. His time in La Liga had not been happy. Frequently fouled, the target for every defender, in 1983 he suffered a savage and potentially career- ending ankle injury at the feet of Goikoetxea, the “Butcher of Bilbao,” which side-lined him for several months. In Naples he was welcomed as a Hero, his impact immediate. What he was to do with an ordinary squad at Napoli over the next six years mirrored what he did for his national team on the world stage.

World Cup 1986 will be remembered, certainly in the English-speaking world, for Maradona’s performance in the quarter final against England, featuring his “Goal of the Century” and the “Hand of God” goal. The latter continues to rankle with sections of the British tabloid media; indeed not too long ago one pundit declared that Maradona had not scored twice, since the first was not a goal! There was history of course, both off and on the field.  In 1982 the UK and Argentina had been at war, over the Falklands, a war won resoundingly by Britain, a humiliation which left the Argentines smarting. Those with memories of 1966 could recall another World Cup quarter final, a nasty foul ridden contest (typical of the tournament itself) where England, on home soil, triumphed 1-0 in a match that saw the Argentine captain sent off and the England manager Alf Ramsey, categorise the Argentines as “Animals.” It was hardly surprising that, after the “Hand of God” goal stood, and was followed by what is generally regarded as the greatest goal of all time, and England were out, the Argentines celebrated. It wasn’t the first, it won’t be the last, controversial moment in a World Cup match.

The difference between the teams, as throughout the competition, was Maradona. There were six roughly equal teams competing, but only one had Maradona. He led a good, but certainly not great, Argentina team to overall victory, scoring, in addition to those against England, a superb  often overlooked goal against Italy, and two against Belgium in a virtuoso semi-final performance where he created, and teammates squandered, several gilt-edged chances.  In the final against Germany, man marked, but fairly, he was subdued but still produced flashes of brilliance including the sublime through pass for the winning goal. Unsurprisingly the official World Cup film was entitled “Hero.”

By 1990 he was clearly past his peak. He had led Napoli to dominate the cauldron of Italian soccer, was lionised in Naples, had logged breath-taking goals and performances but off the field had succumbed to the temptations of drugs, high living and the claustrophobic embrace of local gangsters.  His last effective bow was the foul-ridden World Cup 90. Argentina’s team was mediocre, even compared to that in 1986, with only one other fine player – the striker Caniggia. Argentina’s opponents’ tactics were simple – kick or foul Maradona – something demonstrated initially by surprise packet Cameroon in the opening match. Yet incredibly Maradona dragged his side to the final, eliminating both Brazil and hosts Italy along the way. This time Germany were ready and won 1-0; perhaps the result might have been different had Caniggia not missed the match over a silly technical foul. His appearance at World Cup 94 was brief – he failed a recreational drug test early. From then on it was downhill all the way.

On the field he was sublime. We shall not see his like again.

20/12

A CLOSE RUN THING. A PERSONAL VIEW FROM ACROSS THE POND 2012 CLX

 A CLOSE RUN THING – A PERSONAL VIEW FROM ACROSS THE POND

I write as someone from Ireland with deep affection and admiration for the USA and its people. I have lived and worked enjoyably in the USA over the years. My daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren are US citizens (he with a pedigree going back to the early settlers) and I have many American friends. I am immensely proud of the great Irish American Community and the part the Irish have played in US history. My admiration is not uncritical, particularly regarding some of the obvious flaws and injustices in US society as well as some aspects of US foreign policy.  However, I am also acutely conscious of what we owe to the USA in terms of defence of freedom and human rights and to the gradual improvement in the condition of Mankind. The “American Century” was not perfect but the alternatives which were faced down were worse. The near future, particularly regarding the World’s climate and population looks bleak and, with xenophobia and nationalism rampant, probably never has there been a greater need for responsible and inspiring leadership from the USA. I don’t know how well Joe Biden or his successors will meet the challenge. But nothing could be as bad as Trump. With his defeat the USA has won back its dignity.

Anyone with access to Amazon and a taste for escapism could do worse than take a look at the “Man in the High Castle” TV series. It’s alternative history hokum set in the 1960s in which the USA had “lost” World War Two and is now occupied and partitioned between the Nazis and the Japanese. Nonsense? Of course. The plot gifts the Nazis the Atomic Bomb (shown detonating over Washington D.C.) while the Red Army and Churchill never get a mention.

In real history the seventy ninth anniversary of Pearl Harbour takes place this month. The months that followed were the grimmest of the war. The Japanese swiftly overran most of Asia, inflicting humiliating defeats on the USA and Britain. In Europe, despite being repulsed before Moscow, the Nazis consolidated their hold, launched major new offensives on the Eastern Front and in North Africa and, only weeks after Pearl Harbour, at Wannsee devised the Final Solution to murder all Europe’s Jews .

The USA, Europe, and the World, were fortunate that Roosevelt was the US President at the time. He gave leadership, galvanised and mobilised the US nation against the existential threat that the Axis powers represented in a war that saw 400,000 plus Americans die. What if someone else had been President, someone who had listened to the loud isolationist voices urging against US involvement in the War, or had listened to Ambassador Joe Kennedy in London, who was sure Britain would be defeated, or had listened to those cheering on the Nazi campaign against the Communist Soviet Union?  Or had even played footsie with the Dictators? What if the President in 1941 had been his inept predecessor Hoover, or somebody just as bad, incapable of giving national leadership, strengthening morale and inspiring the country to organise and win?

I was reflecting on this as the 2020 Presidential Results saga unfolded. Trump is now gone – for the moment at least – but the movement that gave him, warts and all, over seventy million votes has not gone away and is likely to be a factor in future US politics. As an aside I note that the division in US society – more or less fifty-fifty – is eerily similar to the divide in Britain over Brexit, with the difference that in Brexit the Bad Guys are still triumphant! The lesson there, btw, is that a fractured society does not mend easily; and President –Elect Biden takes office with two strikes against him – the Virus running rampant and the Economy in tatters.

Moreover, it turns out that “the Economy, stupid” very nearly won Trump a second term. Exit polls identified the Economy rather than the Corona Virus as the dominant issue for voters. Here Trump had been on a winner, inheriting an economy in good condition, which he pump- primed energetically through tax cuts breaks for the wealthy and the removal of restraints, including environmental restraints, on US business. With most of the economic indicators positive, on paper at least, as 2020 dawned Trump stood a reasonable chance of being re-elected on economic grounds alone, despite many having to hold their noses to vote for him.

This also despite Trump’s foreign “policy.” To the outside observer it has seemed that since 2017 US foreign policy has careened without coherence, subject to Trump’s whims.  Hiis apologists will argue that it was about time other NATO countries stumped up more of the Alliance’s costs, and that it was time also  a (metaphorical) warning shot was fired across China’s economic bows  before the entire North American and European manufacturing base was damaged beyond repair by the tightly controlled and regimented  Chinese behemoth. “Bringing the troops home” was also popular with the isolationist lobby. Yet against this who cannot have cringed at Trump’s antics over North Korea, his infatuated pursuit of friendships with the leading gangster autocrats of the world like Putin, Bolsonaro, Erdogan and others (Xi Jinping would be there also were it not for the Corona Virus) and his insulting treatment of his North American neighbours and his traditional Western European (democratic) allies, Boris Johnson excepted?

There is a defining moment or circumstance for every US President, by which ultimately they will be judged. FDR had several. For Truman it was the Bomb and the Berlin Airlift, for JFK it was the Cuba Crisis, for LBJ it was Vietnam, for Nixon Watergate, for Jimmy Carter the Hostages, for Reagan victory in the Cold war, for Bush 41 the Gulf War, for Clinton Bosnia, for Bush 43 Nine Eleven and Iraq , for Obama, Bin Laden.

Last year I would have identified Trump’s defining issue as the brazen, indefensible, irrational and delusional decision to pull the USA out of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. The Paris Agreement is toothless, inadequate and already wrong footed by five years of continued global growth in emissions and population, but at least it has provided a framework and targets for action and a wakeup call that the world was in peril. The scientific evidence is overwhelming and there can be few outside those actually paid by the fossil fuel lobby who doubt the reality. Yet Trump, with a grisly Luddite consistency remains a denier and has abdicated on behalf of his country the leading position the USA should be taking. This while the growing numbers and seriousness of forest fires and the increased annual battering from hurricanes taking place before his eyes bear testimony to what is happening .

But then, in 2020 came the Corona Virus. Yes it came from China, yes it is global and has hit many countries hard. Yes everywhere people are dying. Deaths are currently over 1.3 million – that we know of – and identified cases well over 50 million and climbing. Some countries have worse mortality rates than the USA ( which is currently at 756 per million), Belgium and Spain among them, while a clutch of seven Latin American countries , together with Britain, have roughly similar rates. All true. Yet Canada’s rate is 287, Germany’s 150, the Nordics, even Sweden, very significantly lower; Ireland’s rate is 398 – roughly half that of Trump’s America. The bald unadulterated truth is that the USA, the world’s wealthiest, most advanced and developed  country, a leader in medicine and medical research, with 4.25% of the world’s population, has 20% of the dead (250,000) and  recorded cases,  with infections spreading exponentially.

The Virus has been Trump’s Pearl Harbour – and his Nemesis. From Woodward we know he knew early on how serious it was – indeed the swift and decisive actions of his erstwhile friend Xi offered proof if it were needed. He downplayed it; he denied it, fully in the knowledge of the mega consequences. He ignored and belittled a constant stream of medical advice. He provided no leadership. He ducked reality; he ducked responsibility. He is bequeathing a mess from which it will be difficult for the USA to emerge with casualty figures less than World War Two. America deserves better.

For Joe Biden the task of restoring the USA, internally and externally, to its rightful place in the world will not be easy.

END.

15/11/20

GOLDEN OCTOBER, SOMBER NOVEMBER, GRIM JANUARY 2011 CLIX

GOLDEN OCTOBER, SOMBER NOVEMBER, GRIM JANUARY

 “Since Golden October declined into Sombre November…”

The opening lines of Eliot’s “Murder in the Cathedral” strike a particular chord this year.  Not that October has been particularly golden here, apart from a pleasant Indian summer. But there is little doubt that Sombre November is set to strike.  Big time, as Ireland like a number of other European countries, struggles to combat the Second Wave of the Virus. With cases rising at over 1000 per day (now 54,476, almost double that on September 1)) we are in (virtually) Total Lockdown – until November 30.  After that we revert to partial lockdown. And then: Who knows?  Even the experts seem to accept that six weeks will not be sufficient to “kill” the virus. Pent up demand, frustration, shopping for Christmas, all threaten to generate another spike in cases with further lockdowns to come, this to continue until a vaccine arrives.

 As if that were not enough, in the New Year “Destiny waits” ((Eliot again). There had been a pious hope that there would be a welcome start to 2021 when Ireland joins the UN Security Council. Any celebration of this is likely to be overshadowed by the situation on the ground as Britain finally severs its EU links. There are two possible scenarios,  an optimistic one should the EU and Britain successfully negotiate a Free Trade Exit Agreement, a pessimistic one should Britain crash out in a No Deal departure. It’s a serious situation for the EU, but particularly so for Ireland, the most exposed Member State by far to the effects of Brexit.

Even an optimistic outcome will pose serious logistical supply and bureaucratic problems for Irish exporters and importers alike. A No Deal outcome would be a nightmare with WTO tariffs and quotas suddenly falling due on a range of Irish agricultural and other exports. Where before there was a relatively seamless corridor for Irish exports into and through the UK (and vice versa) a new quasi-Luddite system of physical and financial barriers would be erected. Currently negotiations are proceeding with the inevitable posturing on both sides; so we shall have to see.

A No Deal crash out also has the potential for damage to the Good Friday Agreement settlement in the North.  By passing legislation to come into play should there be no FTA deal, Britain has already shown brazen disregard for the international agreement it had freely entered into to ensure there would be no hard border in Ireland. Currently British spokemen brush the issue aside as hypothetical and irrelevant should there be a deal. A negotiating tactic? Again, we shall see.

It’s worth reflecting  that Brexit, essentially an assertion of English nationalism against the wishes of clear majorities in Scotland and the North, by its very nature cast at the least a spanner in the smooth functioning of the Good Friday Agreement.   There was a clear tribal split in the vote in the North, as shown in the Constituency results, with the minority who voted for Brexit predominantly working class Unionist –  a stark reminder that the division between the Communities remained, despite almost two decades of peace and lowering of tension. As in every vote in the North, the Border was an issue, but it seems clear that the same impulse to vote “leave” evident in working class England applied to some in the North also – alienation, a feeling that they were losing out and an aspiration to “take back control,” a feeling perhaps given added spice by the evidently more comfortable and satisfied minority community.

That spanner will be exacerbated by the effects even a benign Brexit will have on the flourishing and growing economic and social links between the two parts of the island. The food industry especially has developed strong cross border links and integrated production while thousands commute to work daily in both directions.  Whatever happens in the negotiations, there will be a shake-up, the extent yet to be determined. And here dovetailing, not at all neatly, with the Brexit event, Covid 19 intrudes.

There is simply no getting away from the ubiquitous Covid 19. The history of the Virus in the North was for long very similar to that on the rest of the island. Indeed for quite a time the North seemed to be doing dramatically better than its counterpart. During the first wave, from March to the end of May 2020, the North (with roughly 40% of the population) reported 4716 cases and 523 deaths, compared to 24,990 cases and 1649 deaths in the Republic, a substantially lower figure proportionately, even allowing for differences in reporting and recording. Indeed Northern Ireland’s death rate from the virus, then and now, remains the lowest in the UK and below that in the Republic.  For the next three months the numbers of cases and deaths in both parts of the island grew only slightly, as it appeared that the measures taken were working. At the end of August Northern Ireland had 7245 reported cases and 560 deaths while the Republic reported 28,811 cases and 1777 deaths.

Then effectively the wheels came off, particularly in the North, as restrictions were eased and the second wave began to kick in – a pattern common to most other European countries (Nordics and Baltics and several others excepted).  On 24 September the North had 9950 cases; just over four weeks later that figure has trebled to 31,034, while the Republic has also recorded sharp increases, though less severe, from 33,444 ( 24 September) to 54,476 yesterday. The North’s rate of increase is now the highest in the UK and far outstrips that in the Republic. Thus far deaths have not kept pace – 634 and 1871 respectively – reflecting the trend elsewhere in Europe as the disease is now hitting younger and less vulnerable sectors of the population – though whether deaths will continue relatively low as the numbers infected grow remains to be seen.

The surge in the North has not developed asymmetrically. For whatever reason Derry and Strabane, closest to the Border ,have seen the highest rise in cases, followed by Belfast , Mid Ulster, Newry and Mourne, all, interestingly, predominantly Nationalist areas. Significantly also, and proof that the Virus does not recognise borders, the areas worst hit in the South include the three adjacent Ulster Border counties, Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan. Clearly there has been spill-over, a reflection of the  increased cross border contacts on the ground since 1998. This has led, naturally to calls for an all-island, all-Ireland approach to Covid control measures.

 While there is close cooperation there is no sign at present of a single integrated approach.  Indeed the DUP Agriculture Minister, Edwin Poots, has dragged Covid into the political arena by observing several days ago that infection rates in Nationalist areas were six times those in Unionist ones. Poots denied his remarks were sectarian citing “poor political leadership” by Sinn Fein, including attendance at the Bobby Storey funeral , had helped bring this about. Clearly community relations in the North have some distance still to travel. Poots, incidentally, is a “young earth creationist”, rejecting evolution and believing the world was created around 4000 B.C.

23/10/20