HOW WAS IT FOR YOU? 2006 CLII

HOW WAS IT FOR YOU?

How was it for you? The Lockdown I mean.

Depending on your point of view we are now at a watershed moment in the struggle with the Virus. The Emergency is not over yet by a long chalk. People are continuing to die and in large numbers. The total number infected is nudging five million, the deaths well over 300,000, 90,000 plus in the USA alone. Both these figures are almost certainly underestimates. More testing throws up more cases and there is no agreed uniform way of counting and categorising the dead, with some stark differences in how individual countries report. (Here Ireland, with 1561 dead to date is among those most transparent and upfront.)

Yet there are signs of falling numbers for infections and new deaths in the countries of the Virus’ second Epicentre, with the figures falling or flattening in those countries most affected – Italy, Spain, France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, the Benelux, Ireland and Portugal, with Britain and Sweden  just behind. The falling figures have prompted the first cautious moves towards relaxing countries’ individual Lockdowns, with shops and businesses beginning to reopen. There are similarities to what is underway in the USA, though the Europeans appear to have more concrete evidence to back up the growing belief that the worst is over. “Festina Lente” is very much the order of the day lest relaxation too soon generates a second wave of infection, as happened a century ago, undoing all the good work, for it is abundantly clear that social isolation and lockdown  was fundamental in halting the progress of the Virus. Ireland’s cautious and  carefully calibrated recovery plan will stretch over several months.

With the cranking up comes the New Reality – Life with the Virus. Whether temporarily, for a year or two, pending a vaccine or some suitable treatment, or far more long term as the Jeremiahs would have it, with wave after wave of Corona 19 and its mutated successors. But in any event a significantly altered lifestyle.  Queues, social distancing, new rules ,regulations, and restrictions in  shops,  restaurants,  bars and pubs when they are once again open, and a new code of conduct with colleagues, neighbours and other people. There’s no doubt we will adjust; we’ve already had a foretaste with the weeks of the Lockdowns; and inconvenient as the experience was, it wasn’t a war, and there were few privations or hardship for those not personally affected.

Now, as we pick ourselves up it is to grasp that many everyday assumptions have been upended. Holidays this year look unachievable and certainly air travel on vacation can be largely written off for 2020. We have not yet grasped fully the economic cost from earnings and jobs lost in whole swathes of our economy (what future for the hospitality sector, for example?), nor how we approach leisure pursuits like spectator sports. Remote working and transition to a cashless economy have been given a huge boost and overall we wait and watch to see whether and how swiftly our economies and lifestyles will/can rebound.

The above predicated of course on the assumption that the worst is over. Certainly if wishes and hopes could come true then a vaccine or suitable treatment must be near. The optimists shout about three to six months, the more cautious somewhat longer, though all are agreed that the likely demand for a vaccine – in billions – when proven,  will outstrip supply for some considerable time. 2020 can be written off; probably also much of 2021 – and that’s taking the optimistic view.

Whatever happens, expect a slew of memoirs and journals of the Corona Year(s). I won’t be writing one but a few brief personal observation. As someone in his seventies, and a Diabetic to boot, I have at least one hefty strike against me faced with a virus that overwhelmingly targets the old and infirm ( even granting that “seventy is the new fifty”). So, together with my wife, we embraced the Lockdown totally and the “cocooning” the Irish doctors recommended. “No going out” did not of course apply to our modest but ample gardens front and rear. This provided some relief and our hearts went out to those less fortunate in cramped city apartments. With Portmarnock’s Velvet Strand a mere 200  metres away, the temptation to  defy advice and venture out was strong but we stuck with it. It was all the more sweet when that first relaxation came and since then we have fulfilled our vows to walk on the beach daily. We talked to the neighbours, but the lack of contact with other family members  proved annoying and upsetting –  the phone, Zoom and Skype no substitute.

Our sons shopped for us , a task they performed heroically, always conscious of the risk of bringing the virus back and taking extreme care accordingly. Thank you boys! Shopping now involves queueing to get access; the supermarkets limit numbers to ensure social distancing, tedious for everybody,  but where up to now bonhomie and good nature has reigned; a factor in this has been the absence of rain itself as April and May here have been unusually dry and sunny.  A twenty or thirty minute wait in damp cold and wet weather might chill that cosy feeling. At least by the autumn appropriate covered waiting areas should be in place.

To minimise risks further we confined shopping to once, perhaps twice, per week. For the moment the luxury of the casual visit daily to the shop for one or two items has gone. Initially there was panic buying and consequent hoarding before restrictions were imposed. Toilet paper and paper towels were early targets for the hoarders (and online comedians), then eggs and flour supplies ran out. .The supply lines kinks have now been sorted though eggs disappear from time to time, less down to the virus and panic buying than to an epidemic of bird flu which has led to the slaughter of around half a million egg producing birds. Some days random items can be unavailable and if this is on the shopping day then….. tant pis for a week! Choice and opportunity are somewhat restricted though it’s a far cry from something akin to the old Soviet “perhaps bag” experience.

The Virus has also changed my reading and writing habits. I’ve rediscovered or caught up with authors after years away ( John Le Carre, Donna Leon, William Boyd  and Martin Cruz Smith among them).  My columns have also been affected: the Virus can hardly be ignored, but how to make writing about it at least readable and relevant?

And finally, personally, the reality of the Virus has stopped my fictional work-in-progress in its tracks. I had a theme, I had a plot, I had good characters and I had 50,000 words written. It was a novel about Ireland in a post- apocalyptic world devastated after a global catastrophe. It promised to be a sure fire success – in my mind anyway. Then came the Corona virus, probably, like the plot in my novel, a cock-up rather than a conspiracy. Clearly reality trumped fiction. I may change and adapt the novel. I hope the Virus does not do likewise!

22/5

IRELAND TODAY: 10 MAY 2020 2005 CLI

IRELAND “TODAY”

The Virus is still with us. The numbers of dead have doubled since 21 April with 1446 dead in the Republic and 430 odd in the North as of 9 May, while worldwide the Virus has infected more than four million and killed 280, 000 plus, including a staggering 80,000 in the USA.

Yet the spread of the Virus here does seem to have peaked or be peaking, albeit at a high level. The R0 Contagion Rate has dropped to 0.5, which portents well. The number of new cases has been decreasing; the daily number of deaths is also dropping. Already the talk is of the next phase, with noises heard criticizing the Government’s slow timetable for easing restrictions (three months plus from 18 May, on top of the restrictions since March), with special pleas being made by interests representing pubs, restaurants and ladies hairdressers, and more no doubt to follow. Particularly good weather for early May prompted more people to venture out, further adding to the pressure on the authorities to lift restrictions on movement.

This is likely to reach a crescendo if other countries are seen to have transited from lockdown quicker than Ireland without generating a fresh wave of infections. Given the fortnight or so incubation period what happens elsewhere over the coming weeks will be studied closely. Should that second wave happen, of course, our cautious approach will have proved itself. But then what? Either way it won’t be too long before the recriminations begin about what should have but wasn’t done. There is likely to be a particular focus on the appalling rate of deaths in retirement and care homes, which account for over 60% of Ireland’s deaths .Already also there are attempts to quantify the economic damage caused. It is bad – undoubtedly – but, as some commentators have pointed out, even a hefty bill of €35 billion or so would be far less than the €64 billion borrowed to bail out the banks a decade ago. And the Economy is not bust like then, interest rates are far lower, and the ECB should ( and had better) be more sympathetic than under the previous regime.

“Normal Politics” seem set to resume with substantive talks on a new government underway (Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and the Greens with Sinn Fein side-lined) and the Dreary Steeples of Irish Politics, Housing, Health and Homelessness emerging once again. This time with a difference. The chorus from the Left is that the Crisis emergency measures to house the homeless safely, to merge public and private health systems, and the payments to those temporarily unemployed (well in excess of the usual “jobseeker’s benefit”) should be made permanent, sanctioned in part  by circumstance, in part by the lurch left shown by the recent Election results. Well… we shall see.

The optimistic economic forecasts and assumptions on which February’s election promises (and results) were made, have vanished into history, The name of the game now and for the foreseeable future is survival The tortuously slow pavane around forming a new government reflects this; Parties – and Independents- who rallied to the country’s cause in the decade after 2008 got their comeuppance from the electorate next time around; who now would wish to volunteer? And what are the prospects for any  Government lasting the term, with no loaves, no fishes and a “Green” agenda on issues such as cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, all this in a post – Virus world where money is tight? The Greens have initially been playing extreme hardball, citing a red line issue of a 7% annual cut in emissions, but how rigid this will be come crunch time in the negotiations  is unclear. What IS clear is that Ireland now needs a Government. The current caretaker arrangement can no longer pass new legislation as the new Senate cannot be finalised without the eleven Taoiseach’s nominees.

The final worldwide economic reconstruction required post-Virus may be like that after World War Two on a larger, global scale. Then, some enlightened statesmanship, by enlightened statesmen (!), produced a set of international institutions and a new economic order which, though far from perfect, functioned reasonably well for half a century or so, generating unprecedented global economic prosperity. It would be a supreme optimist indeed who would hope or expect something similar from a world dominated by the likes of Trump, Putin, Ji,  Johnson, Modi Erdogan, Bolsonaro and others of that ilk and with the threat of catastrophic climate change now imminent. Whether the EU, spearheaded by Germany and Merkel, and assisted by France and Macron can achieve very much, even by example, remains to be seen. We are in the Age of the Gung–Ho Populist, who has replaced the Gung-Ho Nationalists and Imperialists who set the world aflame just a century ago.

But first we have to contain and corral the Corona Virus. In the critical area that matters – deaths per million – Ireland, with 293, is the eighth worst worldwide and twelfth worst in deaths among OECD member states. Though spreading worldwide the virus’ major impact up to now has been concentrated in North West Europe and North America.  While Ireland’s record is hardly one on which to take a bow, and while very high compared to Australia, New Zealand (both 4 per million) and several Asian countries, it compares favourably with most of our major trading partners in Europe, Germany and several of the Nordics excepted.

The Irish economy is one of the most open in the world, has a Common Travel Area ( and land border) with Europe’s worst virus- hit country (the UK) and up to now has had less than stringent health and other controls to monitor arrivals by air and sea. This last is currently under review, not before time. The blame game, here and elsewhere is likely to go on for quite some time and to include here important elements such as the creaking health system battered by years of austerity and how to approach health issues and care of the elderly in the future.

Hindsight is easy. Ireland, like the UK, the Benelux, Italy France and Spain – most of the prosperous core of Europe – were too casual, too slow off the mark and too relaxed as the virus was spreading rapidly, lethally and invisibly through their populations. (How the USA, world leader, and most affected country, effectively abdicated that role is not for comment here.) Germany, Austria and the Nordics were quicker to react and it shows, though Sweden is an “outlier”, having doggedly pursued a policy of herd immunity which has so far left it with 3000 plus deaths and a rate (319) above Ireland.

Some grim facts about the dead have been confirmed here in recent days and apparently mirror those in other countries. The elderly and the infirm have borne the brunt.  93% of deaths have been over 65, 67% (956) over 80; less than 1% (15) under 50. 50% had chronic heart conditions, 22% chronic respiratory ailments, 22% had Diabetes, 16% were obese and 10% asthmatic.

The Virus is giving us no end of a lesson. It has shaken our society to the core. Hopefully some good will emerge.

10/5

TAKING STOCK 2004 (3) CL

Taking Stock April 21

What are we to make of it, less than six weeks after the first Irish death on 11 March, particularly as the first tentative moves to re-open Europe’s economies are beginning?

We now have 687 dead in the Republic and 207 in the North – almost 900 dead on the island in forty days, the real total certainly higher since the Northern figure, as in England and Wales, includes only deaths in hospitals. 900 is more than have died on the Republic’s roads since December 2015, more than the worst year of the Troubles; indeed, 1972 excepted, worse than any two years of Conflict deaths combined. All in under six weeks.

The dead were people, who did not ask to be taken so cruelly and precipitately from their lives and from their families and loved ones, very often without a chance for a last goodbye. Each death a tragedy and they should not be forgotten. Think how we respond to terrorist atrocities, like Nine Eleven, or Bataclan,  or  air atrocities, like Teheran or the Western Ukraine, or domestically a disastrous fire, like the Stardust. The virus deaths are not dissimilar, sudden – when the virus takes hold there is isolation, and  death comes in a matter of days – and cataclysmic. The anger, the indignation, the frustration, the loss, of the bereaved expressed eloquently in a poem “My Sister is Not a Statistic,” written by Mayo born Dorothy Duffy about her sister, Rose Mitchell, and broadcast on RTE during the last week; it is impossible to listen to it without being moved.

Yet even as the first hints are appearing that we in Ireland are starting to get on top of the Virus (the “good news” is that the number of new cases appears to be stabilising), a sense of fatalism and acceptance seems to be creeping in. The victims are being categorised and compartmentalised:  90% of those who died were over sixty five; the daily median age of the dead has been over eighty; most suffered “an underlying medical condition;” over half the dead (54%) have been in nursing or retirement homes. And we measure daily whether the death totals have changed over previous days, and compare Ireland’s “deaths per million” ratio with those of other countries. All understandable – we are, after all, caught up in this and anxious for a solution that will bring normality back rapidly (some hope!); plus the information is useful and helpful. Still, the net effect is to reduce the immediate dead to mere statistics.

The magical concept now is the R0 symbol– the measure of how contagious a disease is; less than one is good, indicating that each person will infect less than one other, so eventually the infection will peter out. For Ireland the RO now appears to be below one; last month’s dire forecasts of  thousands dead and tens of thousands hospitalised were based on models using a much higher R0. It may well be that when the major ravaging effects of the Virus have subsided the dead will be much less than feared, perhaps 2000 or 2500 tops; and we will count ourselves lucky. Lucky?  That is a monstrous figure, not one to rejoice but rather to mourn over.

How has Ireland done? A dedicated team of health officials have earned the respect and admiration of the public for providing transparent and comprehensive information on the situation at daily press briefings and have advised the government on how to proceed, advice that the politicians have followed. All standing in favourable contrast to what has happened across the water in Britain. It did no harm that the Taoiseach is a doctor who grasped early on the potential seriousness of the situation. The public, well informed, have responded, taking to heart what was said and asked of them in terms of altering behaviour, social distancing and the lockdown. The compliance rate has been extremely high and the net effect after several weeks has been cautious optimism at official level that the curve has been flattened and that the situation is now stabilised. The lockdown is set for review on 5 May and though few expect it to be lifted, provided the situation holds or improves there is some optimism that it may be loosened or tweaked.

There have been issues, including the shared international ones. Like all other Western countries we were caught unawares and, in the main, unprepared – prosperous societies with health systems predicated (and resourced) on the assumption that most of the population was healthy. Any emergency planning, here and elsewhere, had been to cater for a localised disaster rather than a national pandemic. And, like others, we were and are bedevilled by basic shortages in essential equipment of all sorts including protective gear for front line health workers and the ingredients to process testing – the recognised key component for combatting the virus. This initially hampered the official response and made for insufficient testing early on; indeed, as I write, we have only now disposed of a backlog of tests.

But testing HAS been ramped up and has become focussed on where problems have been identified particularly now on the staff in all Ireland’s nursing and care homes including those where clusters of infected have been identified and where many residents have died. This will not bring back those who have died but it should protect the large majority of untouched homes and residents. And, again as I write, the numbers hospitalised requiring intensive care seem to be declining. The good and bad in the Irish health system are well known: excellent care once in the system but delays and long waits for those relying on the underfunded, under resourced public health system which has been under continual pressure with a steadily rising (and aging) population, the whole bedevilled by a two tier system under which those with private insurance jumped the queue. There were fears that the system would be overwhelmed and buckle over the Virus. This has not happened, with public self-discipline helping greatly.

Arguably there were a couple of Irish “own goals” early on. There was a failure to impose an early ban on flights and visitors from outside and especially Italy as the extent of the crisis there became known; an international Rugby match with Italy was cancelled but the supporters came anyway. Thousands of Irish on vacation in Italy and Spain flew home. The Common Travel Area with Britain remains, with the Ferries still operating – and there is the open Border with the North. There was also the usual heavy attendance (thousands) of the Irish at the Cheltenham horse racing festival and also the usual weekly attendance by Irish fans at soccer matches in England, all before St Patrick’s Day. Ireland has many contacts at all levels with Britain and does not have the luxury of New Zealand’s remoteness and ability to seal its borders.

There are now questions being asked about the slowness of reactions on this and to the developing horror story in retirement and care homes. Here a factor to bear in mind. Ireland had a general election on 8 February, with a surprising outcome (Sinn Fein getting the most votes) and an ensuing and ongoing political stalemate.  The current government is the former one continuing in a caretaker capacity.  Few would question its performance and measures taken to combat the virus (indeed a refrain heard often is that it’s a pity it hadn’t governed the country as well before the election and virus crisis!)

Measured internationally Ireland is not doing too badly. Looking at the mortality rate, Ireland is currently placed ninth (the feast is very moveable) in terms of deaths per million, with 139, and behind all the major Western European nations except Germany (56) Austria (52) and Portugal (72). We are well behind Belgium (503) Spain (446), Italy (399) France (310), the Netherlands (219) and Switzerland (165) The UK figure, currently 16,509 dead, or  243 per million, is too low by a margin since it includes only hospital deaths.  We are, however, ahead of the USA, which already has over 780,000 cases and 42,000 dead and rising but which is averaging currently  127 per million  because of its enormous population.

We are ahead also of most of the Nordics, several of which have roughly similar populations, Norway at 33, Denmark at 63 and Finland at 18. Sweden however has 1580 deaths, or 156 per million, having postponed effective action and now paying the price.  The key here, and for Germany and Austria was to take effective measures very early on. The Central Europeans have currently significantly fewer cases and very much fewer deaths. Is it too simplistic to link the heaviest incidences of European cases, deaths and locations to the more prosperous populations of the pre-Enlargement EU countries, who can afford winter holidays and their preferred destinations?

The situation is still very uncertain. Ireland has not dodged the bullet but we seem to have dodged the artillery shell.

21/4

YEAR OF THE VIRUS: AN EASTER SNAPSHOT 2004 (2) CXLIX

Year of the Virus: An Easter Snapshot

What follows is not my regular column, but a snapshot on Easter Monday 2020.

Three months into the new decade and all bets are off. Perhaps the Doomsayers are satisfied at getting it right. Most of us are just hoping not to get it wrong! To borrow a phrase – our societies are in a medically induced coma, with no indication of when we will wake up or to what. This is the Year of the Virus; hopefully it will not turn out to be the “Decade of…” The most prosperous economies in the world are stalled, marking time as they combat a major health threat. Even after the pandemic subsides, the prospects for the world economy look bleak. We could be heading for Great Depression territory and the current crop of international politicians will be judged not only on  how they handled the virus, but also how they picked up the pieces afterwards.

Ireland’s first case of the Corona Virus was confirmed on February 29; the first death was on March 11.  Today, Easter Monday, 104 years after the Rising, the current count in Ireland is 10,647 confirmed cases  with 3365 deaths, already well over the combined total of road deaths for 2018 and 2019 (290). In the North there have been 1882 confirmed cases with 124 deaths. On St Patrick’s Day, when the Taoiseach addressed the nation, Ireland had 292 cases and two deaths. Since then Ireland has ramped up efforts to contain the virus, culminating in effectively a lockdown introduced from March 28, which is set to continue until May 5 at the earliest. Few expect more than a modest “tweaking” then and that’s only if the signs are favourable – a situation mirrored to a greater or lesser extent throughout most of Europe and North America.

The current (shifting) count worldwide is 1,929,633 reported cases (the true figure is almost certainly a multiple given the inadequate and inconsistent national monitoring and testing mechanisms) and 119,785 deaths. In the USA, the country worst hit, reported cases are 587,173 and deaths 23,644. The UK today saw the number infected rise to 88,621 and the death toll reach 11,239.  The death toll in Italy is now 19,468, in Spain 17,489 and in France 14,393. Of the major states only Germany, with 127, 916 cases has a significantly lower figure for deaths of 3022. Japan, has 7370 cases but only 123 deaths. While research for a vaccine or suitable treatment is ongoing at a frantic pace in a number of countries, there is no cure in sight.

It’s difficult to find silver linings but there are some grounds for optimism. First, as a reality check, for perspective consider the great Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918-19, which killed up to 50 million worldwide including 22,000 in Ireland, 228,000 in Britain and 675,000 in the USA , and these from significantly lower populations! The fatality rate among those infected was estimated as at least 10%. The fatality rate among confirmed cases for the Corona virus is panning out at roughly two per cent. The Corona virus is also assuredly not as lethal as the Black Death, which may have wiped out over a third of the world’s population in the Fourteenth Century. Compared to 1918, the First World generally is more prosperous, developed and educated with vastly improved medical, societal and hygienic conditions and a more sophisticated and holistic awareness of human health.  Many of the diseases which a century ago might have seriously weakened or even killed significant elements of the population have been controlled or even eliminated by antibiotics and advances in medical knowledge and treatment.

What we face now is a nasty virus, highly contagious and serious to a minority of those infected, particularly the elderly and those with existing medical conditions. How those infected react does not appear predictable, with a low percentage becoming seriously ill – Boris Johnson being the textbook example – but most people recover swiftly after just a light dose. This last should be incentive enough for people to take the recommended precautions. Prolonged exposure to the infected increases the chances of catching it considerably and one particularly disturbing development has been the high number of health workers who have contracted the virus and died in Italy, Spain, the USA and the UK; in Ireland roughly a quarter of the confirmed cases  are among health workers.

Given the urgency, the state of research already into the virus, and the track record of scientists and researchers in tackling previous viruses, including the far more deadly SARS (plus the money being thrown at it),  some form of vaccine or treatment should be developed sooner rather than later. The expectation is that a vaccine could be available in about a year. This is of no consolation to those struck down in the meantime, of course, but, properly applied there IS a Roadmap for dealing with the Virus and hunkering down until a vaccine arrives.

The Roadmap for successfully containing, neutralising and then conquering the Virus (in so far as it can) seems quite clear and has worked in several Asian countries. The measures aim at “flattening the curve” in the exponential rise in the numbers infected, eventually achieving a plateau and then a reduction in new cases.  On the micro level,  washing hands frequently, practicing social distancing ( two meters away from other people), avoiding contacts with strangers , however defined, venturing out from home only to buy necessities, watching  for symptoms, and practicing personal quarantine where necessary  – in short acting  as if you already have the virus. On the macro level the authorities should test ,test, and test – to quote the WTO – to ascertain who has the virus and mount  exhaustive contact work to identify and screen their third party contacts. Movements in and out of the country should be monitored and controlled, travel to and from countries or areas of high infection prohibited, and, where hospitalisation is necessary for the seriously infected, provision made for adequate hospital accommodation, including properly equipped intensive care units, with ventilators as necessary.

A crucial element is the protection of the front line health care workers, through adequate and high quality protective clothing and equipment.

That’s the theory. The reality has proved somewhat different. It worked in China, but China is a dictatorship which can order its citizens as necessary and which has a command and controlled economy which could bring its vast resources rapidly to bear to control the virus geographically. The separate democracies of Europe and North America have no such luxury and are struggling to cope. The vital “hardware” – everything from protective masks, clothing and equipment for the front line health workers to ventilators and adequate hospital accommodation – is in limited supply, or not immediately available, such has been the speed with which the virus has spread.

Our societies are still grappling with the situation. Yet what HAS been evident so far has been the high degree of cooperation and compliance from ordinary people who have rallied and made sacrifices that should bring about the desired results. The health workers are the heroes; ordinary people’s role should not be overlooked.

12/4/2020

SAINT PATRICK’S DAY 2020: LETHAL GAME CHANGER 2004 CXLVIII

SAINT PATRICK’S DAY 2020: LETHAL GAME CHANGER

How strange and surreal it is to be writing this. Two weeks ago it would have been inconceivable. A week ago, hopefully, unlikely. That was then and this is now. The Corona Virus has struck with all the immediacy of an asteroid impacting. It’s not in China, like SARS, nor in Central Africa, like Ebola. It’s here in Ireland, in Europe, in North America, in the prosperous First World.

Again, pursuing the asteroid metaphor, the dust and debris have not yet settled so we have no idea, other than a pessimistic inkling of the damage wrought. It promises to be fearsome. Western Europe, now deemed to be the Epicentre, has five hundred million people, North America three hundred and sixty. If left unchecked up to seventy percent could be infected; repeat 70% or 600 million. For most, perhaps up to ninety per cent, it will be mild, for ten percent more serious, requiring hospitalisation, and for the unfortunate minority – fatal. Based on the evidence from China, the death rate could be 2% or higher; and 2 % of 600 million comes to 12 million deaths. For the island of Ireland, with 6.9 million, this works out at around 100,000 dead. For Britain, with ten times the population, the estimate is around one million. Even an infection rate of 10% would yield figures of  fifteen and one hundred and fifty thousand dead. Do the math for North American deaths.

These are wartime figures. For make no mistake. Our societies are at war. The casualties have begun to mount, the infection rate appears to be doubling perhaps every three or four days and if we do nothing will continue at that pace. The collateral damage will be colossal; already the Western economies are taking severe hits with a downturn and recession now a virtual certainly. But the societal damage is even worse, again akin to that in war. Italy, the country outside China worst hit so far has seen its health system buckle under the strain and has even begun to triage patients in need of the limited supply of respirators. That on the basis of casualties, as I write, of 31,000 infected, half of one percent of Italy’s population. And as the system buckles, as the earlier experience in Wuhan demonstrated, the mortality rate rises; in Italy with 2,500 deaths, it is already well over 5%, culling brutally and disproportionately the elderly and the already sick.

The first case was diagnosed in Italy on 21 February, less than four weeks ago, and it is the sheer speed with which the virus has spread which has thrown Western politicians and populations off balance. They – we – had watched with  fascination as the virus picked up tempo from its still murky origin in Wuhan, China last December. We watched as the Chinese government, authoritarian and therefore able to mobilise, control and direct its population had gradually fought against the virus, effectively locking down hundreds of millions of people for lengthy periods. We marvelled, but were complacent enough to think it could never strike in Europe, and, moreover, that it would be unthinkable to contemplate, yet alone introduce, similar curbs on personal freedoms into western democracies.  A comforting sub – text to this thinking was that by the time it DID strike, a vaccine would have been developed, and/or like SARS or some of the other flu like viruses that originate in China it would be self-limiting or would weaken and attenuate.

The vital lessons which the Asians had learned from combatting SARS and were relearning and applying to control the current virus, were noted but not applied in time, particularly the essential devices of adequate testing and then contacting and isolating the wider pool of those third parties potentially infected. Even as the horrific developments in Italy were played out on the European media, politicians and governments seemed content to concentrate what testing there was on people who had visited Northern Italy, completely underestimating the virulent contagion rate of the virus.

Now it’s a massive “Operation Stable Door” throughout Europe to emulate the Asian success in slowing down the rate of infection (“flattening the curve”) and it is clear that the reputations of the current crop of governing politicians will be determined by how they handle this crisis.  Sport has been cancelled, even not-so- large gatherings banned. Pubs and restaurants are being closed in more and more countries. People, the elderly especially, encouraged to stay home. Italy is in lockdown, as are Spain and France – Macron yesterday declaring that France was at war. Borders have been closed, States of Emergency have been declared throughout Europe as the figures for infections have rocketed – and will continue to increase dramatically as more people are tested.

The other grim lesson from Italy is that where a society is mainly healthy and prosperous, a country’s health system is likely to be tailored and resourced to reflect this, with an embedded assumption that it will never have to face a massive and immediate existential threat. Italy is running short of essential equipment to cater for the ever increasing numbers of seriously ill. It is doubtful whether any other European country is much better equipped. With catastrophe threatening and doctors facing the prospect of who to save or not, the avowed aim of the measures taken thus far is to try to slow down and flatten the rising curve of infection. Even some flattening would relieve pressure on Europe’s national health systems.

Ireland had its first confirmed case on 29 February. The current figure for the island is 354 (69 new today), including 62 in the North and is increasing sharply. According to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, a doctor, the daily figure is expected to increase by 30% and the total infected could reach 10-15,000 by the end of March, two weeks today. The vast majority will not require hospital treatment, but at 2%, 2-300 could die. The Chief Medical Officer, Dr Tony Holohan, has stressed that the next seven days will be vital in flattening the curve and partially heading off disaster. The economy is shattered and further emergency measures seem likely. No one can even speculate what the final outcome will be.

Thus far our nearest neighbour, Britain, has marched to a different drum, initially downplaying the threat (though not on the scale of Trump), while eschewing the more drastic measures taken by other major European countries. Perhaps there was an illusion that, as an island, Britain would be spared the worst (which may well turn out to be partially the case, and for Ireland also). Perhaps also through adherence to the notion of “herd immunity,” which might eventually prove valid, but which constitutes a hell of a risky policy bet. As the figures mount British policy is now changing, perhaps too late.

For us all this is a war. And even if we succeed in “flattening the curve” this will not constitute victory. It will not constitute a Stalingrad, a Midway, a Kursk, a D-Day. At best, to quote Churchill, a Johnson favourite, it will constitute an “end of the beginning.” And even that will require “Blood, Sweat, Toil and Tears.”

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!

END

17/3/2020

THAT ELECTION RESULT 2003 (2) CXLVII

THAT ELECTION RESULT

Ireland is still coming to terms with the General Election outcome. Is it a sign that populism is alive and well and thriving in Ireland?  After all results across Europe have shown a rise in support for populist parties, so why not in Ireland? Has populism here, honed on the Water Charge issue several years back,  now found wider expression. Or is it a sign that Sinn Fein has definitely “arrived” as a political force, signalling, as well as the party coming in from the cold, a giant stride towards a left/right alignment in Irish politics?  More prosaically is it just the latest example of a mood swing in Irish politics with yet another rejection of the government of the day for failing to deliver at a time when the need for some form of radical action to tackle the housing and homeless situation and do something to improve the quality of delivery in the health area has rarely been greater. The answer probably is a mixture of all three with only one clearly evident conclusion  so far –  rejection of the outgoing government which ran on its record, and that record was found wanting.

Put simply it was the third post-Crash election and the third “Throw the Bums Out” election. In 2011 Fianna Fail were emphatically rejected. In 2016 a dissatisfied electorate took out its anger by savaging Labour, which was destroyed as a political force, and also less severely Fine Gael, which managed to cling on in power through an unprecedented arrangement which saw it propped up by Fianna Fail. This time around both the main parties were rejected and Labour’s vote declined still further. Between them the three parties mustered less than 50% of the votes cast, a far cry from the 79% secured in 2007. With the main Bums rejected, left were Sinn Fein, demanding to be given its chance, and promising goodies for which someone else would pay , the Greens  who wittered on about Climate Change but had obviously only restricted appeal, the hard left,  with even less , and a collection of favourite sons and daughters with strictly local appeal.

Sinn Fein launched “ Giving Workers and Families a Break”, an unashamedly populist (and dubiously costed) manifesto somewhat reminiscent of Fianna Fail’s in 1977, advocating tax cuts, including abolition of property tax (deja vue anyone?) with miscellaneous other proposals on housing and health, to be financed by taxation hikes on the wealthy and companies. The party ran a brilliant campaign, targeting successfully sections of the public dissatisfied with the Housing and Health situations in particular. (Find one person who ISN’T dissatisfied with both though most not directly affected recognise there is no quick fix for either.) Check out pages three to six of their manifesto and compare it with the results of an exit poll asking voters why they voted as they did. That poll, incidentally should be writ in stone for the other parties’ negotiating teams; the poll results should certainly concentrate minds.

Two issues dominated, with almost 60% citing health (32%) and housing (26%). Next (8%) was the pension age issue, followed at 6% by jobs ( there is virtually full employment) and climate change, about which only the Greens seem concerned. 4% cited taxation, 3% crime and childcare, and one per cent (1% !) Brexit and Immigration. So much for the various lobby and pressure groups and for the outgoing government’s “achievement” on Brexit. So much also for Sinn Fein’s “core political objective” of achieving Irish unity through a referendum. It may be buried among the “something else” cited by 6% but it certainly did not feature as a major issue for the voters. The Sinn Fein surge was down to domestic internal Irish issues.

The inept campaigns of the Big Two, both forced to defend the record of the outgoing government and  promising only gradual improvement  offered nothing new. There was obvious appeal  in the notion that, after years of frustration and austerity, the party dangling  change, action and improvement should be given a chance ( again, deja vue?). This, rarely stated explicitly, is Sinn Fein’s strongest card for being part of the next government. The downside, as I pointed out last time, based on previous electoral history, is that parties who promise much and fail to deliver, get unceremoniously dumped next time around; not even the whinge that the party in coalition was not free to implement fully its policies on account of its partners cuts much mustard.

The result, an effective stalemate, means that, barring some sudden unexpected development, it will take some time – and negotiation – for the next Irish government to emerge.  Even any two of the Big Three together will not hack it, hence the courting by all of the Greens (who should and could extract a heavy and cast-iron policy guarantee – last time up they were merely voting fodder for Fianna Fail and suffered accordingly).  The alternatives are some patched up arrangement involving very minor parties and/or some Independents ( of which there are 21), a Grand Coalition involving all the Big Three ( which nobody is talking about), some form of minority government propped up by a variant of the last “confidence and supply arrangement” or another general election which nobody wants.

Crucial to what is eventually hammered out as a programme for government are the priorities. Compromise will be necessary all round and, therefore, there are no “red lines,” however party spokesmen may huff and puff.  While the result conveyed a demand for change from a section of the electorate, it was far from a majority, whatever Sinn Fein, and some loud voices on the left may assert. 70% of the votes cast (and over 70% of the seats) did not go to Sinn Fein and the hard left. Sinn Fein apologists have pointed to the fact that, with more candidates their surpluses could have racked up perhaps a dozen more seats. It can equally be argued that it was only the vagaries of the later counts of the PR system that hindered some of the 16 runner-up Fianna Fail candidates from being elected. The result is as it is –stalemate- and now the voters expect the politicians to sort something out.

Despite the clear evidence to the contrary there has been much speculation and comment that the Sinn Fein vote in some way brought Irish unity nearer, and indeed their manifesto calls for a referendum “North and South for a united Ireland”. Good luck with that. Scrutiny of the many elections held in the North over the past decade show little evidence of shifts in tribal loyalties and even the prospect of a Catholic majority carries no guarantee that  all would vote for unity. A recent very comprehensive poll in the North gave 52% opposed to unity and 29% in favour; equally tellingly 73% of those who declared themselves neither nationalist or unionist, would oppose unity.

There is just one imponderable: what happens to and in post-Brexit Britain. Already there are hints that the trade and future relationship negotiations between Brussels and English-Nationalist London will turn very nasty very quickly. And then: who knows?

Author’s Note

I circulated on 12 February my initial reaction to and report on the recent General Election. There follows some further analysis on the WHY  and the HOW it happened.

It is likely to be some time before a government emerges. What is beyond dispute is that in any agreed Programme for Government the first priority will have to be the Housing Crisis and its Siamese twin  – the Homeless problem. Whichever parties make up the next government, its success, and therefore their reelectibility, will depend on the government’s record on housing. It will not be easy, and, indeed, media comment since the election has been good at  itemising what’s wrong but being fairly light and non – specific on the small print of solutions. Some form of holistic and integrated approach to address the multiple interrelated issues is called for.

Perhaps a start might be to declare a “Housing Emergency” and establish a Cabinet sub-committee to meet weekly, to be chaired by the Taoiseach and including inter alia  a senior politician of a different party as Minister for Housing plus the Attorney General and the Minister for Finance; the sub- committee to draw up a plan of action and report on its implementation on a monthly basis. Toes will be trodden on clearly, but the fate of previous governments which have failed to deliver on promises should be kept firmly in mind.

I touch on the united Ireland and the Border poll issue. Suffice to say that whatever impelled the surge in the vote for Sinn Fein, support for the party’s stance on a united Ireland, was not a major factor. In view of media speculation and the comments of some politicians, it is worth taking note of the results of the many elections in the North over the past decade. Last December’s General Election saw the DUP gain 30.6% and the UUP 11.7% i.e. a solid pro-Union vote of 42.3. Sinn Fein got 22.8 and the SDLP 14.9, a Nationalist vote of 37.1. In 2017 the blocs secured 46.3 (unionist) and 41.1 (nationalist). In 2015 the figures were 41.7 to 38.4 and in 2010 44 to 41. The Assembly elections over the same period demonstrated the same overall picture The waters are muddied somewhat by the intrusion of independents, usually Unionist, and the  yoyo performance of Alliance, currently on the up – 16.8% in 2019 – a party  generally reckoned to be moderately  Unionist and to include numbers of middle class Catholics. The vote on Brexit muddies matters further, but it’s reasonable to assume that those Unionists who voted Remain did not do so on the basis that it was also a plebiscite on Irish unity. The most recent, fairly reliable poll, showed 52% to 29% opposed to Irish unity were a border poll to take place, with over 70% of those not affiliated opposed to unification ( the details of the poll are well worth studying). The demographics are shifting certainly, albeit slowly, and who knows what horrors may be forced on both parts of the island by the gung ho English nationalists running Britain in the impending negotiations with Brussels, but Irish politicians should keep in mind Tip O’Neill’s dictum that “All Politics is Local.” The new Dail faces enough challenges in the present jurisdiction.

4/3/2020

THE 2020 IRISH ELECTION 2003 (1) CXLVI

THE 2020 ELECTION

Sinn Fein 24.5%; Fianna Fail 22.2%; Fine Gael 20.9%

Sinn Fein 37; Fianna Fail 38; Fine Gael 35; Greens 12.

The Headlines say it all. A storm blew through the Irish political scene on February just as  Atlantic storm Ciara was battering Ireland. In the General Election Sinn Fein polled more votes (535,595) than any other Irish political party. The final seat tally late Monday shows them one seat only behind Fianna Fail. This as a result of the vagaries of Ireland’s PR system, plus the tactical decision of Sinn Fein to run only one candidate in most constituencies.  All but five of their forty two candidates were elected, with a number of them racking up surpluses large enough to have delivered a second seat, surpluses that in some instances helped elect left wing candidates, giving the next Dail a distinctive left-of-centre hue, with for the first time the combined seats and votes for the traditional big two centre parties falling below 50%.

The country, the politicians and the pundits are drawing breath and wondering what happens next. Some excited commentators are describing the results as seismic and as heralding the definitive end of the old two-party system based on civil war politics which has dominated Irish politics since the early days of the state.  Maybe.That system’s decline, which had been gradual, was given impetus by the 2008 Crash and has now been given a hefty shove. The People have spoken, hardly definitively, with no party garnering even a quarter of the popular vote, but with a certain emphasis – change. The policies and politics of austerity, the steady-as-she-goes cautious approach, the handwringing official tolerance of the intolerable in terms of Housing, Homelessness and the creaking Health System have taken a battering. The task now is for the elected politicians to cobble together a government and an action programme for that government; not easy tasks.

In the end the opinion polls got it close to right. Sinn Fein actually managed to better its high standing – just – while the dismal showings for Fine Gael and Fianna Fail were replicated in the one poll that mattered – the actual vote on Election Day. This less than nine months after Sinn Fein had been routed in Ireland’s local elections, losing half its seats and seeing its vote share drop by a third to less than 10% and being badly mauled simultaneously in the European Parliamentary Elections. On 8 February several candidates who had polled a few hundred votes last May stormed home as poll toppers. Sinn Fein as a whole saw its share of the vote increase by 10.7%, while Fine Gael saw it’s vote drop by 4.7% and Fianna Fail by 2.1%.

It’s clear that something dramatic happened to boost Sinn Fein. Its election manifesto was ambitious and populist, advocating inter alia cuts in personal and property taxes, a massive housebuilding programme and increased taxes on companies and the better off in a programme which was way above the potential available spending envelope adhered to by its rivals. This, combined with the fact that it was untainted by any of the blame for the 2008 Crash and the subsequent years of austerity presided over by Fine Gael (and Labour for five years) and shored up by Fianna Fail in the Confidence and Supply arrangement, was sufficient to convince enough  voters to cause the swing. Promises from the other parties of jam tomorrow, amid cautionary tones about Brexit and economic uncertainty, signally failed to excite the electorate which saw only the worsening housing crisis, with a young generation unable to aspire to own their own property, the homeless sleeping in the streets of the major cities and towns and the scandalous condition of the Irish health service.

Sinn Fein promised change and it worked.  It ran a superb campaign focussed on leader Mary Lou McDonald, who at fifty is short –odds to become Ireland’s first female Taoiseach. It survived a potential hiccup in the campaign’s final days over reminders of its chequered past and links with the IRA, but here too an interesting development to note. The Good Friday Agreement was over twenty years ago and a whole generation has grown up with no memory of the violent decades that preceded it. For this generation there were the boom years of the Celtic Tiger, then the Crash, followed by the decade of austerity, with clear political scapegoats in the form of the main political parties, who now appear to threaten a future with little improvement and apparent inability to tackle the serious problems  the country faces. Is this generation going to ponder overmuch on Sinn Fein’s past, or indeed examine the small print in their election manifesto?

A word of caution lest Mary Lou’s success be regarded as akin to the Second Coming. . There have been somewhat similar surges before in support for one or other political party. And the pendulum has always swung back – with a vengeance. Fianna Fail bought the election in 1977 with a blatant populist programme, which, after implementation, undermined the country’s finances for decades; this to counter an austerity government as the country adjusted to EC membership. Fianna Fail gained 19 seats and actually won 50.6% of the vote; it subsequently never achieved an overall majority. In 1992, Labour saw its vote increase by 9.8% and gain 18 seats after a particularly injudicious performance by the Fianna Fail Taoiseach. Five years later, having abandoned Fianna Fail and installed a Fine Gael Taoiseach, Labour saw its vote decline by 8.9% and lose almost all those seats gained. In 2011, as Fianna Fail saw its vote drop by 24% and lose 51 seats, dropping to 20, Fine Gael saw its vote increase by 8.8% and gain25 seats, while Labour achieved an increase of 9.3% and an extra 17 seats. Five years later those chickens came home to roost; in 2016 Fine Gael lost 16 seats and saw its vote drop by 10.6%, while for Labour the election was a catastrophe. Labour dropped from 19.4% to 6.6% of the vote and lost 26 of its 33 seats.

The message should be clear. The Irish electorate does not respond well to promises made and not delivered. Sinn Fein now has its chance; but it had better perform.  But first a government has got to be formed and a programme agreed.  No party can do it alone. The magic number is 80. Short of an unlikely left leaning coalition involving Sinn Fen (37), the Greens (12), Labour (6), the Social Democrats (6), SPBP(5) and 15 of the 21 Independents, the only other choices for government involve some coalition between Sinn Fein and either Fianna Fail or Fine Gael plus a minor party (the Greens?) or some form of Grand Coalition between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, thus excluding Sinn Fein. There are other permutations involving a minority government shored up by some form of Confidence and Supply arrangement.

In 2016 it took 63 days of negotiations for a new government to emerge. Given some of the public utterances to date, it could be much the same this time. “Hard pounding Gentlemen.”

11/2/2020

 

GENERAL ELECTION DAY : A SCREENSHOT 2002 CXLV

GENERAL ELECTION DAY SATURDAY 8 FEBRUARY 2020: A SCREENSHOT

As I write we are well into the second week of the General Election campaign; the vote to take place on Saturday 8 February.  Though the early opinion polls show the two main parties neck and neck, as they have been virtually since 2016, it has not been a good start for Leo Varadkar and Fine Gael. They have lost that vital early momentum which governments generally have and will have to strive to recover it, particularly as there is a tendency for incumbents running on their record to underestimate their unpopularity and to forget that eaten bread is soon forgotten.

No party appears likely to win an absolute majority so the end results for the minor parties and the Independents are likely to determine the makeup of the next (coalition) government. How the Greens will fare, given the hot topic of the moment – Climate Change – and whether Labour can recover from the meltdown of 2016 will therefore be watched with interest. So also whether Sinn Fein, currently riding high in the polls at around 20%, can hold on to this or whether, as has happened recently, their support will fall away.  A big question also is whether either of the major parties will be willing to strike a deal with Sinn Fein, and under what conditions, current positions notwithstanding.

In the end, after all the talking around dates, the Taoiseach’s hand was forced when it became clear that his government could no longer command enough support in the Dail to win a threatened No Confidence vote  on Health Minister Simon Harris. Though many in his party were pushing for an early date, he would probably have preferred to delay for several months – February is not the best time to be canvassing and a severe winter or a surge in winter sickness levels could both adversely affect his party’s chances, and who knew what other banana skins might be lying around.

One huge banana skin has already been trodden on, with an ill- conceived scheduling for late January of an event to commemorate those Irishmen who served in the RIC and the DMP before independence. We are currently in a decade of what have been hailed as commemorations of anniversaries and centenaries, with the Treaty, the Foundation of the Free State and the Civil War to come. The script was written – peace, reconciliation, inclusiveness and parity of esteem.  It was after all the construct on which the Good Friday Agreement was based and to which the great and the good had signed up.

However, not everybody was in favour of honouring former policemen, most of whom had been conscientious and dutiful, but some of whom had been active on the British side in the War of Independence. (They were clearly seen as different to those Irishmen who had served – and died in great numbers – in the World War, and who have recently been given recognition after decades of being airbrushed out of history.) There was uproar from the public, academics and in the media, with allegations of RIC brutality and atrocities and even the involvement of some Irishmen in the ranks of the infamous Black and Tans recalled. Justice Minister Flanagan quickly postponed the planned event (will it ever take place?) but both he and the Taoiseach ex pressed regret at the public reaction with the Taoiseach stating “we should respect all traditions on our island and be mature enough as a State to acknowledge all aspects of our past.”

Whether any lasting electoral damage was done to Fine Gael is unclear; an immediate early opinion poll hinted that it had, but a subsequent poll showed the party had recovered. However, Fine Gael was definitely wrong-footed by this and by two further events which dominated the week’s news, just as the election was called, siphoning off any positive headlines the Government might have expected.

First the grisly murder and dismemberment of a seventeen year old youth, a minor foot-soldier in one of the feuding drug gangs in Drogheda; then a tragic accident in which one of Dublin’s homeless, sleeping in a tent by the Grand Canal, in preference apparently to accepting hostel accommodation (too dangerous) was critically injured by heavy machinery employed to remove his tent to “clean up” the canal bank, not too far from Patrick Kavanagh’s bench.  Manna for the headline writers and opposition politicians, hitting at two of the areas where the government is at its weakest – Crime and Homelessness.  The apparent impunity with which a criminal gang could operate has shocked public opinion while the unfortunate accident at the canal has thrown into sharp focus the harsh reality of life for the homeless.

The Taoiseach and other Ministers were noticeably uncomfortable at having to comment on specifics instead of the usual waffle on generalities and the promises in party manifestos. They will be hoping for a better fortnight to come and no more nasty surprises. Their election strategy seems to be the combination of a safe pair of hands on the Economy and a “much done, more to do” low key approach generally.  This may well work.  And in fact Fianna Fail  are adopting a somewhat similar approach, both parties working on the assumption that after the ups and downs since 2008, the public are  sceptical about instant solutions or panaceas.  It could make for a fairly dull election campaign; even if promises are made most will be tinkering rather than game changing. The grim spires of Housing and the Health Service on top of the Homeless are not susceptible to quick fixes. Fine Gael can declare that on all fronts progress has been made; Fianna Fail may argue that more needs to be done. And that will be that.

It will nevertheless be an important election, not just a decision on which person will have the dubious honour of shaking Trump’s hand in the White House come St. Patrick’s Day. Apart from other domestic issues the electorate will also be voting for a government to deal with the still unclear aftermath of Brexit (it hasn’t gone away, you know!). We now face into the transition period in which the future relationship between the EU and the fifth largest economy in the world is worked out. One certainty continues to be that there will be collateral damage to Ireland, though how much is unclear.

There will be a new balance of power within the Union, something rarely commented on (Imagine how the balance in the USA might shift were California, or New York, or both, to leave). There will also be the issue of how the EU reacts to Britain’s departure – a major contributor to the EU budget. We  face into a full financial seven year period in which Ireland will be a growing net contributor to the EU budget, and where the significant requirements of combatting climate change will have to be financed nationally , with an end to shadow boxing and rhetoric.

In Irish politics personalities count, and ultimately too many  Fine Gael stalwarts  are set to retire.So, it’s early days, but if I had to give a punt it will be that Micheal Martin will be the next Taoiseach.

21/1/2020

 

THE VINTAGE KITCHEN 2001 CXLIV

“THE VINTAGE KITCHEN” AND SOME END OF DECADE RANDOM THOUGHTS

It was quite a decade. So many things happened. Even to list those of more than marginal significance would occupy several columns. Consider them read. Several points stand out.

But first a recommendation.  At the prompting of your intrepid Editor and Publisher Cliff Carlson, I offer a suggestion for a must visit restaurant for anyone planning a trip to Dublin. Recommendations are always subjective but one restaurant I DO recommend unequivocally is the” Vintage Kitchen,” where Cliff and I had a very pleasant meal during his recent visit. The restaurant is centrally located  a short walk from O’Connell Bridge and has the added advantage of being right beside one of Dublin’s most famous bars – and a special favourite of mine – Mulligans of Poolbeg Street. A DART station and Luas stop are nearby.

The Vintage Kitchen (VK) is small (max 30 at a squeeze), unpretentious and crowded – always. Decor is basic, with walls lined with an eclectic collection of art and photos. Reservations are a must, particularly in the evening where several weeks advance booking is normally required. The chances of getting a table on a walk-in basis are slim, though some can be available for the 2.15 second lunch sitting. It’s not cheap, dinner runs to €35 and lunch to somewhat less, but that’s not overly expensive in a city with many pricier easting houses. The VK, moreover does have the signal advantage of allowing patrons to bring their own wine for a modest corkage fee.

If they haven’t already, Michelin inspectors should pay a visit. What the restaurant offers is good food, fresh and sourced overwhelmingly in Ireland, well cooked and served by a friendly cosmopolitan staff under the supervision of amiable chef/proprietor Sean Drugan and regular maitre d Andy. A varied menu includes vegetarian options, daily specials and some delicious desserts. Check out the menu on the VK website; and the reviews, virtually all overwhelmingly positive.

The trademark starter is a delicious and award winning Cajun Chowder for which Mr Carlson can vouch. But be warned. The quantity is huge, the dish a meal in itself and anyone taking it (and you should) may struggle to finish the main course. Other starters include a Wicklow duck liver pate and a much praised risotto featuring roasted red pepper and prawns.

Main courses offer a range of meat and fish options with an excellent fillet steak on the evening menu. My favourite is the Slaney river slow roasted lamb shank which melts off the bone while the hake is also always good. The desserts are to die for but will do little for your diet, particularly the half- baked chocolate cake. All in all the VK experience is one not to be missed, assuming you can get a reservation. If not you can always drown your sorrows next door in Mulligans.

Now the decade just ended.

The overarching events of the decade may well prove to be not politics, wars, the refugee crisis, or any other conventional topic, but rather the rise of the Social Media in tandem with the explosion in Smart Phone use, both underpinned by the Internet. It is less than a generation since the “Information Superhighway” of the Internet became a reality. Whatever about information it is now the malleable base of a genuine communications revolution which is having profound implications for societies around the world. There are currently an estimated 3.3 billion smart phones operational, covering a good proportion of the world population of 7.7 billion, with almost saturation coverage ( and usage) in many countries.

Billions use the various Social Media daily. Twitter has revolutionised social contact and the almost instantaneous harnessing of opinion with all that that implies in terms of bringing pressure and influence to bear on any topic or occurrence. From the tweets of Trump, through the “Me Too” hashtag, to the platforms provided to pressure groups and like-minded followers of every hue , the advantages – and limitations – of the new social communication order are everywhere apparent. A learned article on Global Warming from a Nobel Prize Winner counts for no more on Facebook than the rant of some ignoramus. (That without even entering the areas of fake news, fake websites and misleading and manipulative on line discourses.)

Barack Obama commented at the end of his term that he was fortunate to have been elected prior to the emergence of this new social media reality, implying that it was a reality all his successors would have to take cognizance of and be shaped by. And indeed it has been a game changer, bringing instant attention and focus locally, nationally, and internationally on events as they develop. Trump’s tweets and the resulting “dialogues” are a prime example. A mundane Irish example is the way in which populist opposition to paying water charges was coordinated and consolidated into a (successful) mass pressure group. Internationally the plight of refugees has been highlighted in dramatic photo footage published on the Web, while a downside to this has been the populist manipulation in Britain and elsewhere of images of the streams of refugees crossing the Balkans in 2015. Arguably also the images posted and circulated worldwide by the protesters in Hong Kong have been a factor moderating the reaction of the Chinese authorities.

The growing international awareness of the climate crisis we face has been facilitated and enhanced through the social media, though without any demonstrated willingness by politicians to take the radical remedial measures needed.  This may come as images of extreme climate occurrences circulate but right now halfway measures seem about the best to be hoped for. Climate change will probably  be the dominant theme of the next  decade as we move closer to the limits of sustainability. The world population has grown over the decade by 11% to an estimated 7.7 billion, the extra 800 million, even with minimum carbon footprints per head, negating virtually all attempts to reduce man’s global carbon footprint. It should be obvious to all that unchecked population growth is just aggravating the situation. Ireland’s population has kept pace with the global trend, rising by around 400,000 (slightly under 10%) over the decade to an estimated 4,906,000 and continues to grow, though the rise has been more from significant inward migration than any natural increase.

The decade was not one of enhanced international cooperation and has actually been marked by an uncomfortable realignment among the major powers, reflecting shifts in the economic and political balance between them. Everywhere liberal values are in retreat with the emergence of populist movements on virtually every continent, the whole starkly demonstrated by the election of Donald Trump, who has set about tearing up seventy years of US policies. Authoritarian leaders are pushing through; China and Russia are now firmly established as major players in an uneasy and potentially unstable geopolitical situation where nationalism is now undermining such international cooperation as exists. The Climate stalemate says it all. No country or grouping, with the possible exception of the EU, seems willing to shout “Stop”.

2020 promises to be interesting, Can anyone beat Trump? Who will win Ireland’s General Election? And how will the Brexit own goal pan out?

4/1/2020

GUESTS OF THE NATION 1912 CXLIII

GUESTS OF THE NATION

Direct provision, central to Ireland’s treatment of refugees seeking international protection and asylum here, has become a significant political issue. Opposition has emerged in several rural communities over plans to set up new asylum centres, with pickets on designated premises. Two mothballed hotels in Moville and Roosky earmarked for asylum centres were subjected to arson attacks. More serious was the burning, outside his house, of Sinn Fein TD Martin Kenny’s car , after he publicly supported a proposed centre in Ballinamore, Co Leitrim. The attack was widely condemned and could serve as a wake -up call. A round-the-clock picket of the proposed centre was removed in mid- November after a High Court injunction. How enduring local opposition will be remains to be seen.

The demonstrations and pickets have been directed, not at the notion of asylum seekers per se, but at a perceived lack of consultation and information from Government agencies, seen as less than transparent. There are objections also, not without substance, that there are inadequate infrastructures locally to meet refugee needs; Ballinamore, for example, with a population of 914, and an infrastructure to match, is set to receive 130 asylum seekers. The protests and placards have also called for the scrapping of the Direct Provision system, condemning it as inhumane and demanding that asylum seekers receive better treatment. These last have been dismissed as disingenuous by counter demonstrators in support of refugees who have made accusations of racism – strenuously denied – and of manipulation by right wing outsiders.

Direct Provision was established as an “emergency measure” in 1999, and arguably in recent years there have been improvements to many (though certainly not all) of its more objectionable features. Many local communities have welcomed asylum seekers over the years. So do recent events show Ireland becoming more racist or anti – immigrant, after actually receiving proportionately more EU migrants after the 2004 Enlargement than any other country, including Britain, where the post -2004 influx is believed to have been a major factor in the 2016 “Leave” vote? Was Casey’s showing in last year’s Presidential election, where 10% of the whole electorate voted for him after he made anti-Traveller remarks, a portent for the future? Is Ireland, which takes much inspiration from the Nordic model, about to experience an anti- immigrant backlash similar to that which has fuelled the emergence of right wing political parties throughout Scandinavia? Will the issue of Immigration, as some assert, become an issue in the next General Election?

Answers to the questions posed need to be teased out in some detail, though in short the answers are negative. The Irish people have welcomed, settled and integrated relatively large numbers of immigrants in the last two decades without much friction or prejudice in a period which spanned the 2008 economic crash, despite being a society frankly unused to immigration. There is little interest in or support for any anti-immigration political party and the firm consensus among politicians against one is clear. A recent attempt by an independent rural TD to attack Nigerian immigrants in particular for sending money home was firmly dismissed by the Taoiseach and the President, both of whom referred to the vital assistance provided by remittances home from Irish emigrants in the quite recent past.

Direct Provision, which nobody likes and few defend, is” live” now for a particular reason.. It was introduced to cope with what was for Ireland in 1999 an unprecedented influx of asylum seekers annually – 7224 in 1999, up from 4626 in 1998 and 424 in 1995. The number peaked in 2002 at 11,634, gradually declining to under 1000 in 2013 but since then has risen steadily to 3673 in 2018 and is expected to reach well over 4000 by year’s end, pushing an already creaking system to breaking point.

There are currently roughly 6,000 people in Direct Provision, including 1,672 minors, plus 778 persons who have received refugee status but cannot afford outside accommodation. They are housed in several dozen Direct Provision Centres scattered around Ireland (significantly only two in Dublin), all of which are full, while a further 1531 persons, including 290 children, are housed in temporary emergency accommodation centres opened over the last year. Some 8,700 applicants are currently awaiting asylum decisions (the balance applicants not requiring Direct Provision).

Under the system, after processing, newly arrived asylum seekers are accommodated in a regional centre, theoretically suited to their circumstances, while their cases are considered. There are currently thirty eight centres (the number fluctuates), with plans to set up more to cope with recent increases in applications. Most are contracted out and privately run, and provide full board to residents, about a third of whom have access to their own cooking facilities ( a major issue). The centres range in size and type; the largest, the former holiday camp at Mosney in Meath, holds 900, while many are small hotels or purpose built hostels. A much liked centre in Dublin’s Hatch Street was closed last year amid plans to become a five star hotel.

Asylum seekers are paid a weekly allowance of €38.80 (€29.80 for children), are entitled to free medical screening on arrival and qualify for a medical card, giving free access to medical care. School education is free. Since July 2018 asylum seekers can apply for work (a major improvement, long sought and lobbied for) after nine months in Ireland, though those appealing an initial rejection of their case are excluded. As of November, 3350 applications to work out of 5000 had been approved.

There are obviously problems lumping people of different cultures, language and beliefs together, with little privacy and few individual needs and requirements catered for. However, the system, which on paper looks fine, and after all provides safety and security for refugees who have fled persecution, probably would have and could have worked well if only the asylum process from start to finish could have been compressed and streamlined into a few months. This has manifestly not proven to be the case. Most asylum seekers, once turned down, appealed the decision, with, over time, an elaborate appeals procedure evolving, which in many cases has dragged on for years, institutionalising and isolating individuals and whole families in asylum centres, with all the attendant pressures and strains this brings.

The current surge in demand for Direct Provision accommodation could not have come at a worse time, with Ireland still very much in its post- crash hangover where the building industry is concerned. Not enough houses and apartments are being built to meet the current housing shortage let alone cater for both a rising population and existing pent up demand. Local authorities have had to grapple with an unprecedented situation that has left 10,000, including many families, homeless and in emergency accommodation. With new asylum seekers arriving at close to 100 a week, and no available accommodation, there has been no option but to source new premises and locations. Hence the current problem and hence the stoking of local fears.

There is general agreement that Direct Provision, after twenty years, is a flawed system which needs a radical overhaul. But how to proceed? Is there a magic bullet, and if so what is it?
18/11/19