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

BEFORE THE VOTE: A SNAPSHOT 2010(II) CLVIII

The US Presidential Election takes place on 3 November 2020. In many ways it is the most important such election for decades, with only one issue – whether Donald Trump can be denied a second term as the 45th President of the USA. If he succeeds there is every chance he will continue his self-appointed task of wrecking what remains of the current international order in Politics, Economics and the Environment, to the world’s detriment. What follows is a snapshot of how things appeared to me on October 28, with an addendum added a day later.

As I write, less than one week out, all the indications are that Biden could, should and will win the Election. Let’s hope it stays that way. Perhaps this time next week we’ll be laughing at the outcome and wondering how did we ever have any doubts.

I don’t want to appear a Doomsayer; however, a few observations follow which give me personally some pause:

1. There are over fifty elections, one in each state in addition to the “National Poll” which is just a head count. No state has less than three electoral “votes “ in the Electoral College and a vote in a smaller state – say the Dakotas or Utah – is “worth” more than a vote in a populous state like California or New York. Most times most of the smaller states vote Republican, shoring up the Republican “Red Wall.” Roughly eighty per cent of the States do not change, except in a landslide year like Reagan in 1984, Nixon in 1972 and Johnson in 1964.

2. The current polls all say Biden, even in the critical swing states (a moveable feast of up to ten states with relatively small majorities which could change hands) where Trump has a lot of ground to make up. Indeed should the polls stay the same Biden could win in a virtual landslide in the Electoral College with perhaps 350 electoral votes (I have no doubt he will win the popular vote nationally and by a sizeable margin). RealClearPolitics, which called it last time, is showing Biden seven points ahead but down from double digits just over two weeks ago

3. Our TV coverage – and that of CNN – has pointed up the volume of early voting, which has broken all previous records. The case presented in most coverage this side of the Atlantic is that the early and postal voting will favour Biden (even though we know of at least of two early votes in Florida which will not!). The footage of the queues of those waiting to vote seems to me to be composed predominantly of people of colour, which again suggests more votes for Biden. Assuming the TV coverage we are getting is representative of what is happening in the swing states then again Biden would appear to have a significant edge. What’s not clear of course is how representative the footage we get to see is of the picture in all potential swing states. Also, most commentators agree that Trump supporters are more likely to vote in person on the day, and hence will not appear in queues to vote in advance. It is also unclear whether there is sizeable pro- Trump support out there which has never voted since they thought there was no point since nobody represented their view (some of this crew may have come out in Florida in 2016, where Trump outpolled Romney by 30,000 votes).

4. Trump and his supporters are doing all they can to outlaw or disqualify postal voting. A recent Supreme Court ruling that postal votes in Wisconsin received AFTER polling day would not be counted is regarded as a significant setback for the Democrats. A Pennsylvania Court ruling that ballots posted in envelopes franked up to and on the day of the election would be counted, provided they were received by Friday November 6, is now being challenged by Republicans. The situation in other close contests is unclear – to me at least – but given the vagaries of the US Postal system – even without Trump’s “man at the helm”- in a worst case scenario many votes could be lost to Biden. This quite apart from any attempts Trump may make to challenge the legitimacy of the whole vote in the Courts. ( A worrying development here was Judge Kavanaugh’s opinion in the Wisconsin case in which he wrote of the impropriety of thousands of absentee ballots flowing “in after election day and (sic)potentially flip the results of the Election.”)

5. I’ve referred separately to “Shattered” the book on Hillary’s 2016 defeat and in particular to the chapter covering the 2016 Democratic Primary in Michigan which Hillary lost narrowly to Bernie Saunders.To my mind at least the book and the chapter provide an excellent insight into the internal workings of a major US political party – in this case the Democrats – during a Presidential campaign, including the chief players and factors at play. Hillary’s campaign manager, Robby Mook, with his reliance on analytic data, is quite reminiscent of Dominic Cummings – except, unlike Cummings he eventually got it wrong. But essentially his modus operandi was devoted to getting the vote out at the macro rather than the micro level – and here arguably he “succeeded”, since Hillary won the popular vote. He didn’t see the shift away from Hillary by the alienated working class whites in the Rust Belt States, whose support had been all but taken for granted after their support for her in 2008 ( against of course, Obama, a black contender for the nomination). Bill Clinton, with his visceral feel for alienated working class whites – and indeed blacks – saw matters differently, as did Congresswoman Debbie Dingell, holder of the Dingle Seat in Michigan, both of whom saw what was happening but were unable to influence the campaign; both favoured old fashioned campaigning including canvassing on a door to door basis.

The mistake made in the Michigan Primary was repeated (incredibly) in the Presidential Campaign and compounded by the same approach – or lack of it – in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. All three states were virtually ignored/taken for granted and effort and resources poured into Florida and North Carolina, where Trump confounded the experts by adding thousands of new and unexpected blue collar and redneck votes. (In Milwaukee, also, one of the Koch brothers apparently financed up to 600 activists to campaign on Trump’s behalf in blue collar areas.)

6. The significance of Michigan in 2016 now is that it is far from clear – to me at any rate – that Joe Biden has done much to cultivate that lost group of alienated blue collar whites, whose lot has improved hardly if at all. If anything the financial circumstances of many have been further undermined by shutdowns to combat the Pandemic. There have been job losses, falls in income – not adequately compensated for – and in many instances the crucial issue of the loss of health insurance since March. While Trump loyalists have not blamed him for how the Virus has been handled, it is unclear how other Republican-leaning blue collars in the Rust belt states feel and that could be a crucial factor. Media coverage here, and what I have read from US sources, suggests that Biden has/will secure that blue collar vote, without providing much evidence to back this assertion up.

7. If Biden and his supporters have done their work, Joe should do considerably better than Hillary in the three Rust Belt states. If not, if there has been a presumption that blue collar support would default to Biden, then there could be trouble. And here the media coverage I have seen has not been too encouraging. The only people out campaigning until now have been Republicans, certainly in Pennsylvania. The Biden campaign apparently took the decision, in the interests of public health and safely in view of the Pandemic , to eschew door-to-door canvassing. There now seems to be some rethink here- could this be panic lest 2016 repeats? Biden appears to have a large war chest, far more than Trump’s, but will expensive TV ads work or could personal barnstorming and door to door canvassing by activists still swing it for Trump?

8. That last Debate. I think like many people I was pleased and relieved at Joe Biden’s performance. He came across as a decent, nice, old man, well versed in the issues and attentive. However, he definitely looked old and frail compared to Trump who looked very much younger and healthy as a butcher’s dog (and, moreover, a dog held on a leash, whose performance on the issues, while substantively rubbish, was more coherent than heretofore). Biden also made a serious tactical error towards the end on global warming and the phasing out of fossil fuels. His position was of course nuanced, but that will not necessarily be taken on board on the ground and could cost him dearly in Pennsylvania , where, e.g. fracking has created many jobs. Jennifer has already pointed out the damage that could have been done to the chances for an upset in Texas. She has also pointed to the visceral truth about many Americans’ attitude to climate change – with China now a bigger polluter and India catching up at a fair pace – why shoot yourself in the foot if they are doing nothing, in particular if your circumstances and expectations are already taking a battering?
In his ”Wake Up to Politics” column today Gabe Fleisher, while gung ho for Biden, sounds a note of caution pointing out that polls can be wrong!

28/10

Addendum: One aspect I have not seen covered or commented on in any detail is what happens after the Votes are counted, and, as appears likely, Biden is the victor.T here has been much speculation about Trump not accepting, resorting to the Courts, etc, but what if the result is clear enough to render any delaying-tactic obviously doomed to failure. Clearly if Trump tries to hang on and not leave there will be a Constitutional crisis. But what if he decides to go, however grudgingly. He is unlikely to “go gentle into…”We are unlikely to see any statesmanlike utterances about facilitating the transition or any practical steps to help or work with his successor. A wounded and vengeful Trump will have seventy (70) plus days left to wreak a good deal of havoc to the system. He can presumably continue to issue Executive Orders and going against them seems from a quick read to be extremely difficult. He remains the possessor of the Executive Power and CoC until 20 January. Not a very pleasant prospect.

29/10

HOSPITAL PASS CONTINUED: EUROPE, IRELAND, CORONA AND POLITICS 2010 CLVII

EUROPE IRELAND CORONA AND POLITICS

A cynic could point out that much of the Corona virus angst currently gripping Europe and North America is essentially First World Angst. The Virus has taken a swipe at the World’s wealthiest countries and their comfortable living standards. Deaths from the Virus have mainly been among the elderly and those with “existing medical conditions” some of which at least, like Diabetes II, are predominantly down to First World diet and lifestyle. Elsewhere, where the Virus is now taking hold, most in those categories would probably have died sooner, one way or another, with the lower life expectancies and inferior health care systems in developing countries.

The restrictions on travel, on holidays, on bars, restaurants, hotels and nightlife, have in practice curbed the lifestyle and spending of disposable income by those fortunate enough to have some, again mainly in the affluent North. The economic “hit” Europeans have taken has been considerably ameliorated by governments in Ireland and elsewhere throwing borrowed money at and to subsidise their populations, something poorer countries cannot afford. What has happened has been horrible but for many worldwide it is worse. These simple facts seem to have passed over the heads of those affected here. And if indeed the Virus is a case of God tapping humanity on the shoulder, then it is but a small foretaste of what lies ahead for us all very soon over Global Warming.

The Corona Virus has now got its second wind in Ireland as elsewhere, with new cases rising in a flow that threatens to become a flood. We’re not yet in the basket case category of Israel, which now has 190,929 cases and 1273 dead – up sevenfold fold in cases and four fold in deaths since 1 July. In the same period Ireland, which was roughly on a par with Israel for cases then, has had 8,000 new cases (to 33, 121) and another 33 deaths (to 1792). Nor are we as bad as Romania, again roughly on a par with us on 1 July but which has seen new cases quadruple to 113,589 and deaths more than double to 4458.

All over Europe the Second Wave is under way, worse than in Ireland. Alarms are ringing, with some countries, including the UK, warning of an imminent second lockdown – unless! In Ireland as elsewhere, the only scene that matters is the domestic one and here the perception is often more potent that the reality. While we are still doing well, with new cases far below those of last April, the 3347 odd new cases and 15 deaths since 7 September, combined with the accelerating rate of infections, have been enough to frighten the horses of the NPHED . New restrictions have just been announced, particularly for Dublin, with threats of more to come. However ,after months of restrictions and regulations, a weariness is setting in and there seems little public enthusiasm for more of the same.

Currently there is still – just – public support for the new measures and trust in the medical experts, but if the measures are not seen to work quickly and definitively then this could change. The happy consensus is gone, with doubts now expressed about the efficacy and desirability of more lockdown, given the effects on the economy and public morale generally. There is a growing belief that even another total lockdown, while temporarily effective, will only flatter to deceive, and that the virus will remain, dormant but deadly, returning when restrictions are eased. Questions increasingly being heard are “to what end?” and “how often will this happen? and “when will it end?” The answer to the last is all too obvious – when a safe and effective vaccine is developed and readily available. Don’t hold your breath.

One of Ireland’s top political commentators wrote recently that the Coalition’s honeymoon period was over. And how! The Corona Virus is threatening to take from the one major success of Martin’s government to date – getting the schools back, which even opponents and critics have hailed. GolfGate was a spectacular own goal by the political Establishment, costing the Government its Agriculture Minister, Fianna Fail its deputy leader and Ireland its EU Commissioner. More importantly it did much to erode public trust and the belief that as a community we were “all in it together.“ The consequences of that loss of trust have implications not just for the struggle against the virus but for the fortunes of the Government itself.

Irish politics today has an eerie half-light feel. The Government is based on the results of last February’s election, an election dominated by health and housing and a general feeling of dissatisfaction with the outgoing government’s performance, including its failure finally to put to bed the legacy issues of the 2008 Crash. How remote that now feels. One inglorious remark on the doorstep was from a gentleman who reportedly said he had had all he could take! Has Covid woken him up? February’s stalemated result led to several months of interparty negotiations even as the Covid crisis unfolded, with the outgoing government functioning as a caretaker one, and perceived to have coped relatively well. The cheap shots that usually characterise Opposition attacks on the Government were largely absent, not through altruism, but because even the most blinkered ideologue realised that combatting the Virus was the major priority facing the country.

The new Government, cobbled together from Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and the Greens, took office on June 27. It has a safe enough majority – on paper – though there are already signs of strain with the Greens, something likely to exacerbate over the October budget and beyond as Green policies rub up against those of the two bigger parties. Emerging internal divisions within Fianna Fail are another factor. What may prove the glue holding it together is the Benjamin Franklin principle, and here the major imponderable is the Corona Virus. Can it be contained? How bad will it get, given Ireland’s chronically under resourced health care system with, at the cutting edge, the lowest number of ICU beds in Europe, and a front line work force that has already been under pressure since March? How to react to hundreds more dead? Currently there seems a general optimism throughout Europe that the Second Wave will kill fewer people, since those increasingly infected are younger, fitter, and less likely to succumb, and because countries have learned how better to treat patients as well as how to isolate and protect the most vulnerable. Only time will tell how well founded this optimism is.

The major consequence of excluding Sinn Fein, marginally the largest party, from government has been to gift them the status of Main Opposition, the balance being a rag bag of small left wing parties and independents. Given that all the election issues “haven’t gone away, you know,” but are on hold and may fester, Sinn Fein have an unparalleled opportunity to criticise “constructively” and assume the mantle of the Government-in-Waiting. With the Virus, with the plethora of issues to be handled, with interparty strains and internal problems among the Coalition partners, it will take some form of Houdini act by Martin and Varadkar to rescue this.
24/9

JOHN HUME 2009 CLVI

JOHN HUME

John Hume was not the only person I know to die last month. Some days later one of my closest friends in Chicago, Pat Martin, wife of my BEST friend, Jim Martin, passed away after a stroke. She was a lovely woman, generous and hospitable and a loving companion of Jim, her husband of over half a century, she from England, he originally from Monaghan. I knew them from back in the Seventies, when Pat showed many kindnesses to my wife and me from the moment we first arrived in Chicago in 1973. She will be sorely missed by Jim, her three children and her grandchildren. May she rest in peace.

John Hume’s passing has been rightly commemorated and there is little I can add that has not already been written by people who worked with and knew John far better than I did. The tributes and assessment by former Irish Ambassador to the USA, Sean Donlon, and his fellow diplomat Michael Lillis, are particularly important since both worked extensively with him and became close personal friends, as did Sean O’Huiginn, another former Irish Ambassador to the USA. The Irish Times produced a comprehensive souvenir supplement summarising his life and career which is well worth reading.

“By their Fruits Ye shall know them,” applies very much to John Hume. His “Fruits,” his enduring monument, is the Peace which reigns in Northern Ireland which he did so much to bring about. (Regular readers may recall I used the same quote in my December 2014 column on Paisley – the very antithesis of John Hume. Enough said.)Two years ago at the celebrations to mark the twentieth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, which cemented the Peace he had striven for, the only major figure missing from the occasion was John Hume, by then sadly already in the dementia twilight. It is equally sad too that the Corona Virus restrictions recently robbed him in death of a fitting funeral.

On that anniversary I wrote of John’s role over the decades as a monumental and tireless worker for peace and reconciliation. He was there at the outset of the Civil Rights campaign in 1968. He was there through Sunningdale. He it was who conceived and worked at bringing in the benign involvement of Irish American politicians whose role and influence proved so important. He was there during the dark days in the aftermath of the Hunger Strikes and the relentless violence of the mid and late Eighties. He was the vital element in helping to bring Sinn Fein in from the cold when he undertook the dialogue with Gerry Adams, for which he was widely and unfairly criticised at the time. The Hume Adams Dialogue eventually found fruition in the Downing Street Declaration of December 1993 with its crucial reference to Britain having “no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland,” a declaration that led some months later to the IRA Ceasefire and all that subsequently flowed from it.

Throughout he was consistent. The Irish Times has reprinted an article a young Hume wrote in 1964 – well before the “Troubles”- in which he criticised existing traditional nationalist attitudes, called for more involvement in the political process and an acknowledgement that the Unionist tradition in the North was as strong and legitimate as the nationalist one, arguing that the only alternative to accepting the Constitutional position was that of Sinn Fein. He suggested also that for progress to be made Unionists had to accept and respond to olive branches the nationalist side might make. Failure to do so and end discrimination could only exacerbate and harden attitudes. Adherence to non-violence and to the recognition of the legitimacy of both traditions was and remained the central tenets of his approach. It was a short step to the concept of the Agreed Ireland that he saw begin to emerge as the violence ceased.

He was persistent; he never gave up, despite setbacks. After decades of peace, younger people have little concept of just how grim the situation in the North was during the Troubles era. Tribal loyalties were entrenched and strong, particularly on the Unionist side, which produced no major political figure for decades except Paisley, who wielded a wrecking ball through the various attempts at political settlement and compromise. And inevitably violence begat a steadily escalating violence. Marches generated counter demonstrations – and violence. Nationalist rioting provoked a weaponised RUC and drew in the British Army. Rioting intensified. The Provos emerged. The first Army casualty was in February 1971. The violence ground on reaching new heights after the Internment of Nationalists in August 1971.

The killings on Bloody Sunday during a peaceful Civil Rights March in Derry were a new low. Bloody Sunday galvanised Nationalists and further polarised the communities. Britain, now directly involved politically, sought, together with the Irish government, a political settlement along the principles advocated by John Hume. The result was the 1973 Sunningdale Agreement and the first attempt at power sharing. It was brought down by a Loyalist strike in 1974.
Violence, alienation and polarisation were now chronic and the next decade was to feature nothing beyond a continuing grisly cycle of violence, with landmark atrocities, ten IRA hunger strikers starving to death, and an effective military stalemate. It was not a period for optimism. Yet through all this John Hume campaigned on as a voice of moderation, by now the dominant Nationalist politician, an MEP and one continually exploring new possible initiatives to find a solution including international and specifically US involvement.

My limited direct contacts with John were at this stage. As First Secretary in the Irish Embassy in Washington D.C. from 1975 to 1977 I got to know John at the beginning of his odyssey to win over top Irish American politicians to influence official US policy on Northern Ireland towards the non-violent approach he was advocating. Indeed he and his wife Pat stayed with us during one of his first visits. He was from the start determined and focussed. He cut an impressive figure to all who met him. Yet it was a formidable task. The IRA had vocal supporters and advocates among the Irish American community and politicians were initially leery about getting involved. Official US policy was to avoid involvement in the internal affairs of their closest ally – the UK – and institutionally the USA was unsympathetic to Irish nationalism. Yet John persevered, working closely with the Irish Embassy and Irish diplomats. He was extraordinarily successful. Anyone interested should read Maurice Fitzpatrick’s book “John Hume in America.”

By the late 1980’s the Anglo-Irish Agreement had signalled a new departure and era of cooperation between London and Dublin. Yet the violence and polarisation persisted. So too John Hume’s quest for peace. Hence his dialogue with Gerry Adams. He was widely criticised, criticism which hurt. Yet as historian Ronan Fanning remarked to me at the time “Somebody has to talk to them.” Those talks contributed vitally to the hard won Peace in the North that eventually emerged. While it involved many people and elements for John Hume above all it was a signal and crowning success.

The debt we owe him is enormous.
22/8

HOSPITAL PASS; WHO WOULD WANT TO BE TAOISEACH? 2008 CLV

HOSPITAL PASS?

CORONA VIRUS CASES AS OF JULY 22 2020
ISRAEL IRELAND
15 April 12,762 (139) 12,136 (444)
31 May 17,192 (287) 24,990 (1649)
1 July 26,462 (325) 25,477 (1738)
22 July 56,085 (430) 25,819 (1754)

Who would want to be Taoiseach?

Micheal Martin for one, though just a month in he may be having second thoughts. He has already fired Minister for Agriculture Barry Cowen, for a legacy DUI offence from 2016, has had to quell backbench resentment over appointments, has had to balance reopening the Economy against a possible resurgence in COVID 19 infections and has had to supervise the bedding down of Ireland’s unlikely Coalition Government. All this as the goodwill, consensus and solidarity generated in the public response to the Virus has ebbed, the perennial issues on which last February’s election was fought have re-surfaced and the slow simmering Brexit is beginning to come to the boil. Moreover the terms of the coalition agreement, by obliging him to step aside after thirty months, deprive him of the props which normally sustain a head of government – control of the timetable and expectation of sufficient time to get the job done.

Parking for a moment the possibility that “events dear boy” – Harold Macmillan’s phrase – may intervene to upset his now twenty nine month tenure, with the ever present threat that one of the his coalition partners may walk over policy or scandal, there is no doubt which should be Martin’s priority for his legacy – how he handles the Corona Virus, now a clear, immediate and present danger. We do not know how the Virus Crisis will evolve, but any perceived mishandling will be laid at Martin’s door. The Varadkar Government performance on the Virus met with wide approval and restored his – and Fine Gael’s – fortunes after an abysmal election campaign, fought primarily on how the Government handled Brexit, an issue still in the abstract for most and not high on the electorate’s priorities.

And, ironically, the Brexit example has analogous relevance for Martin also. If he gets it right on the Corona Virus, he won’t necessarily win any brownie points, but will then be judged on housing, the economy and whatever other issue surfaces in the meantime The Cowen affair was one that happens in politics, the message has now got through to his aggrieved backbenchers that this time around the plum appointments are of necessity few, and Cowen’s replacement, Fianna Fail deputy leader Dara Calleary, has righted the major omission from Martin’s original team. The new government appears to be settling down and while most of the aspirations in the Programme for Government are likely to remain just that, given the pressure on resources, it will have at least a brief honeymoon to advance some of its priorities on Housing, the Environment and Health. A hard Brexit at year’s end remains a looming danger.

But first there is the Corona Virus, which is not going, and will not go, away until a vaccine or some treatment magic bullet is both developed and readily available. Until then we are essentially at war, and, as during World War Two, we cannot ignore what is happening around us. And here currently Ireland is very much at a crossroads. As the economy was reopened, even cautiously, in recent weeks we have noticed, as elsewhere, that the number of new cases has begun to increase again. The numbers are still minute (350 since the beginning of July with 16 deaths), but so infectious is the Virus that the rate of spread can rapidly become geometric. Right now the nightmare scenario is Israel. Consider the figures (apologies) heading this article for Ireland and Israel on four dates; they are of reported cases with deaths in brackets; they make for chilling reading. Israel had been early into locking down and very successful in minimising the number of deaths. Then from mid- June the country began to relax….

Set against the unfolding disaster of the Virus’ progress in the USA, Ireland has been relatively successful in combatting it. The country was in the first epicentre, Western Europe, fortunately after Italy and Spain, but clearly by the end of May had a sizeable number of deaths, over half in retirement homes, and a rising number of cases. Then the effects of the lockdown began to be felt fully, with gratifying results, apparent during June. The curve was virtually flattened totally and some experts and commentators suggested that the Virus could be all but wiped out, taking a cue from New Zealand and some of the East Asian countries, were the lockdown to be continued. The dilemma was that every day of lockdown further damaged the economy, particularly in the seasonal tourist and hospitality sectors.

Ireland could have done better, certainly, like the Scandinavians, Sweden apart, or Austria, but it could also have done horribly worse, as in Britain, for several reasons. Ireland is an EU Member State with a small open society and economy. As an island it is heavily reliant on air and sea traffic for trade and contact; it has also a very much open border with Northern Ireland, which applies British Corona Virus regulations. Ireland has a significant Tourist industry with the largest numbers of tourists coming from Britain and the USA and has up to now applied a relaxed attitude to visitors at its borders. Moreover very high numbers of Irish residents holiday abroad with Spain, Italy, Greece, Portugal, Britain and the USA the favourite destinations. The often made comparison with New Zealand does not really apply.

As Ireland saw other European countries begin to re-open, without apparently precipitating any cataclysmic second wave (cases surging in places but without any surge in deaths – yet), domestic pressure told and a cautious re-opening began. Which is where we are at. Already there have been problems mirroring happenings elsewhere in Europe and the USA – little social distancing, particularly among the young, who account for many of the new cases – and some expressions of resentment over regulations to control what is widely perceived to be an ailment easily shrugged off by younger people who are impatient to see “normality” restored. Again, the wartime analogy has relevance here; “Normality” is a long way away and indeed is likely to be superseded by a newer altered version as we learn to live with the disease.

The first critical issue to arise for the new government has been over Border Controls. Should we close our borders totally? Should we impose strict quarantine on those arriving – instead of just an unenforceable and largely unverifiable “honour” system of self-quarantine? What about visitors from and tourists arriving via Northern Ireland? How to cope with visitors, including some from the USA, who anecdotally thought the Virus crisis over exaggerated? And what about the two million or so who holiday abroad annually; how to treat them on return? The first attempts at constructing a list of “safe” countries have been ridiculed; the list of fifteen includes Monaco, San Marino, Gibraltar and Greenland, not to mention Italy. Hardly an auspicious start. The Taoiseach will have to do better; but can he win either way Who’d be a Taoiseach?
23/7

THE GOVERNMENT’S FIRST TEN DAYS 2007(II) CLIV

THE GOVERNMENT’S FIRST TEN DAYS

The new and different Irish Coalition Government has presided over the first significant relaxation of Lock down, but it will be a considerable time before the economy scrambles back to any semblance of normality. Indeed the pace of recovery will partly depend on whether or not the relaxation backfires and the virus re-surges. The jury is still out on that one, but judging by the first weekend of pub openings the omens, in Ireland as elsewhere, are not good.

Hopefully it was just pent-up demand and matters will settle down. Hopefully. Next up a major stimulus package has been promised for mid-July. It had better be ambitious and considerable, with unemployment over 20% and whole sectors like leisure and tourism barely functioning.

The Government is on a steep learning curve with time running out. The traditional dreary steeples of Housing and Homelessness have emerged once more and this time Health has the added kick of the Corona Virus. Currently there is pressure for relaxation of travel restrictions, but with many of the – admittedly few – new daily cases linked to foreign travel, for the moment the new Government is holding firm. Re-introducing a lock down could be difficult, would test public support and would certainly hold back attempts at economic recovery. Moreover, now that there IS a government, the public consensus that sustained the country during the Lockdown is fast disappearing, aggravated by the feeling of disgruntlement from that section of the electorate which did not support the Coalition. Sinn Fein, now spearheading the Opposition, has vowed to present the strongest opposition any Irish government has faced.

Already there has been trouble, The Coalition agreement provides for a “Rotating Taoiseach” with Martin scheduled to step aside for Varadkar in November 2022. Whether this will ever happen remains to be seen; whatever about a week, thirty months is a very long time in politics! The net effect was to leave no honeymoon period and the new Taoiseach was obliged to hit the ground running. Which he did. First up was picking the Cabinet, which provoked howls of disappointment from Fianna Fail back benchers – and a few front benchers – who failed to grasp that there were very few loaves and fishes to distribute as Fianna Fail’s share (five Cabinet posts plus seven junior Ministers). Most surprising was that Fianna Fail’s Deputy Leader, Dara Calleary, did not get a Cabinet post, becoming instead an unhappy Chief Whip.

As a sign that attitudinal change “comes dropping slow”, there was resentment across the board in the West, among politicians and the general public alike, that there was no cabinet post for anyone West of the Shannon and some surprise at the new Minister for Health, Stephen Donnelly, who only joined Fianna Fail in 2016. However Donnelly was Opposition Spokesman on Health, knows the brief thoroughly and Martin was taking no chances with the Corona Crisis far from over. Interestingly, three Cabinet members are from the one Cork constituency, while two more are from Wicklow. Interesting also is that little dissatisfaction was heard from Fine Gael ranks though they suffered the greatest hemorrhage of former senior and junior Ministers. The Greens, who did best in terms of posts, have been quietest.

Most commentators consider that Sinn Fein, though excluded, stand to gain most. Not only will their un-costed populist election manifesto not be put to the test, but their exclusion has absolved them of any responsibility for what are likely to be difficult decisions for the Government. Circumstances would appear to have gifted them an unparalleled opportunity. Since it became clear the Government would be formed without them, they have been parroting two themes. The first was that the country had “voted for change” and this was being denied them. The second was that their vote (535,595) was greater than any other party and that those who voted for them were entitled to have their voices heard –i.e. to be in government. This was of course straight out of the old Sinn Fein play book in the North a generation ago when Gerry Adams spoke of the “mandate “Sinn Fein had from those who voted for them. And, in the particular circumstances of the North, where there was no political consensus and every election a zero-sum game over national identity, it had validity. The Good Friday Agreement and all that has flowed from it, inter alia acknowledged that “mandate” by enshrining cross-community power sharing as central to devolved government (by then Sinn Fein had in any event muscled its Nationalist rival the SDLP out of the way).

The argument has little validity in the South, where there is no tribal division in politics. Last February Sinn Fein got 24.5% of the vote – hardly a mandate for inclusion in government. The three party Coalition has 50.2%, without the Greens 43.1%. When Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald complained in a radio interview on 28 June that the other parties had conspired to exclude Sinn Fein ,she had no answer when the interviewer pointed out that every coalition government in the State without Fianna Fail had effectively shut out Fianna Fail, the largest party and poll getter by far.

For the record, Fianna Fail were shut out after five elections in which they secured by far the largest percentages of votes and seats: in 1948, 41.9% and 77 seats; in 1954 43.4% and 65 seats; in 1973 46.2% and 74 seats; in 1981 45.3% and 78 seats and in 1982 46.2% and 75 seats.

Well, did the Electorate “vote for change”? The call for “change” underpinned Sinn Fein’s election campaign, one which saw their support hold up over the final months leading into last February, in contrast to previous elections where it had fallen away as polling day approached. It’s a powerful argument, particularly given the size of the actual Sinn Fein vote. The theme that “the people voted for change” and that the popular will has been frustrated by the other main parties, is a new page in the playbook, one which Sinn Fein are likely to push at every opportunity. This has become a popular refrain, trotted out regularly by all those dissatisfied with the election result for whatever reason (it was relayed to me just last week by a cab driver) and one that is likely to be heard more and more if the new Government fails to deliver.

There has of course, as one columnist pointed out last week, been one very major “change” in that the two old Civil War parties are now in government together, something unthinkable only a few years ago. But this was hardly what those voting “for change” had in mind. However, it’s not quite the vote for change yet. As I mentioned last time, the votes for the two traditional parties and the aggregate identifiable Leftist vote, are virtually identical at 43% each, with the balance made up of the Greens and the various Independents, many of whom can hardly be described as radical.

Right now the future is uncertain; indeed who could have predicted 2020 thus far? So. Will Sinn Fein exploit their good fortune? Or will this unique Coalition actually succeed?
8/7/2020

WHAT A YEAR! 2007 CLIII

WHAT A YEAR.

2020 – What a Year! And we’re only half way through.

In January we had – finally – Brexit, with the finale to come at year’s end. February saw that General Election with the inconclusive result, of which more below. March to June 2020 will be forever identified with the Virus – still very much with us and something which has coloured every aspect of our lives. Even as it rages through the Americas, the Middle East and the Sub- Continent, for the moment here in Ireland, as elsewhere in those Western European countries first attacked, the Corona Virus is held in check and the cautious opening up of the countrywide lockdown is now well under way. Ireland’s all-island death toll is nudging 2,300 and the magic R figure is well below one. We are no longer in the world top twenty for deaths ( now 27th) but remain ninth in terms of deaths per million, behind the USA and seven of our EU partners. And, as elsewhere, Irish deaths are overwhelmingly among the old (many in retirement homes), the sick and the infirm.

Any sense of relief is tempered by awareness of the bereavements suffered and those voices predicting a second more vicious wave of infection. This may well happen, but at all levels the general opinion seems to be that this time we will not be caught unawares, that we know more about the virus now and that importantly we know how to contain it. Indeed renewed limited infections of a disease where the mortality rate hovers around two per cent may prove to be a lesser task than economic recovery. Getting the toothpaste back in the tube in terms of undoing the economic and social havoc wrought by the Virus will be a monumental task and one for the long haul; there was full employment and a booming economy before the Virus struck, whatever about deficiencies in housing and health.

But first off we need a government. We now have one – a historic three party coalition, just agreed after months of negotiation, not helped by the stultifying omnipresent Virus, with the hatchet buried between the two old Civil War parties Fianna Fail and Fine Gael as they enter coalition with the Greens. Agreement was a close run thing with the two thirds majority required by the Greens barely achieved and some sceptics convinced therefore that it will not last.

The February election had been historic. Not only had Sinn Fein broken through big time but it actually garnered more votes than either Fianna Fail or Fine Gael. In terms of seats Fianna Fail just edged it with 38, Sinn Fein got 37 and Fine Gael 35, out of 160. With eighty plus seats required to form a government what was clear was that the process was going to be long and arduous, matching if not exceeding that of 2016, with the Greens, (12 seats) and a slew of small parties and Independents featuring also in the mix.

Sinn Fein had campaigned on a shamelessly populist and dubiously costed platform tailored to public demands for action on housing and health (overwhelmingly identified in polls as the two issues most of public concern), packaged and presented as a “mandate for change.” Was its result a flash In the pan, just a temporary surge born of dissatisfaction with the other parties and therefore part of the periodical “throw the bums out” rushes of blood to the head which grips the Irish electorate at intervals? Or did it represent the start of a seismic shift to the Left in Irish politics as Sinn Fein and others proclaimed? And was it a “mandate for change?” Sinn Fein and the other identifiable Leftist parties clocked up around 36% of the votes with the Greens winning another 7%, the 43% total matching almost exactly the combined vote for Fianna Fail and Fine Gael. With many of the Independents carrying FF or FG sentiments “in their DNA” the jury remains out on that one.

What WAS abundantly clear was that no two parties could together form a government. The necessary numbers could be achieved only by coalition with a third party or a significant number of Independents. After Sinn Fein’s Initial attempt to form a left of centre government failed, the options for Fianna Fail and Fine Gael were clear – either involve Sinn Fein or shut them out.

Right away the decision was to shut them out even though a three party grand coalition would easily have the numbers. This before the Virus struck. Clearly Sinn Fein were seen as having too much historical baggage for both the other parties and were potentially also an existential threat to Fianna Fail in particular. The major argument in favour of inclusion – that Sinn Fein would thus have to get off the fence, participate in and share responsibility for some tough decisions – was discounted. Shutting them out narrowed the possibilities down to opting for a second election – for which there was no enthusiasm – or for the two parties to agree to form a historic coalition, suspending, however temporarily, traditional enmities and then court the Greens and/ or others to get the necessary numbers. There had been informal arrangements in the past – after 1987 and again in the “Confidence and Supply “arrangement after 2016, but formal coalition would be something else. For better or worse this was the option chosen.

Would the two parties have decided similarly only weeks later when the extent of the economic and social carnage wrought by the Virus became known? And, a rhetorical question, how much does Leo Varadkar, now riding high in the polls for his government’s handling of the Virus emergency, regret calling the election in February and not waiting? Whatever, the pressing need to form a government by bringing in the Greens (vastly preferable to handling a gaggle of independents) gave them enormous leverage, something the Greens have not been slow to exploit. The result has been a wordy, lengthy (137 pages) Programme for Government with the imprint of the Greens all over it, despite the low priority the public have given to fighting climate change. Whether it will survive the first months’ brush with reality remains to be seen.

The Programme is largely aspirational and not costed – but what aspirations! It commits the Government, inter alia, to an average 7% annual reduction in overall greenhouse gas emissions from 2021 to 2030 (51% over the decade) – the Red Line issue for Green participation. Moreover a 2050 target for net zero emissions will be included in a Climate Action Bill to be introduced in the government’s first 100 days. This, and the other measures to combat global warming, if implemented, would put Ireland among the global leaders in saving the planet. There’s plenty of waffle on housing targets and just about everything else with nothing stated on where the money will come from.

The new government will see Micheal Martin as Taoiseach swop with Leo Varadkar after 30 months. The Greens (twelve seats) will have three Cabinet Minsters (out of fifteen) and four Junior Ministers ( out of twenty) . Not a bad haul. More next time.
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