THE CONSTANT SOLDIER by WILLIAM RYAN ; a review.

THE CONSTANT SOLDIER: WILLIAM RYAN

MANTLE 2016

The Second World War was not just another war. It was global, it was ferocious and it killed more than any other war in history. Yet what marks it out also is that during its course, and inextricably mixed with it, a determined attempt was made to wipe out the Jewish race. Roughly half the Jews in the world were murdered over a relatively short period. Some of the consequences remain with us today. This extermination attempt, refined and honed  to increase its effectiveness, went hand in hand with a with a military and political campaign of invasion, murder, ethnic cleansing and exploitation  directed at the peoples and countries of Central Europe on a virtually unprecedented scale.

The only possible rival in recorded history, in terms of scale and effectiveness, was probably the Mongol holocaust in Central Asia and the subsequent aborted but undefeated attack on Central Europe in the Thirteenth Century. Yet the Mongols were essentially a temporary phenomenon, a transient federation of nomadic tribes out of Central Asia, brutally welded together, brilliantly led by the mediaeval equivalent of Napoleon and supported by an officer corps chosen by meritocracy and as a fighting force far superior militarily to the moribund feudal armies which faced them. Twentieth Century Germany by contrast was one of the most advanced European societies with a long and enviable cultural history, embracing, inter alia, music, literature and philosophy, an advanced welfare state – for its time – and, Prussia apart, no particularly strong tradition of militarism. Then the country was hijacked by a madman and his supporters.

Nazi Germany continues to fascinate in all its manifestations. One subset of questions relates  less to the how and more to the why so many Germans  continued to lend support and legitimacy to the regime even though its nature and actions were demonstrably abhorrent and , certainly after Stalingrad,  though it was clear that the regime was driving the whole of Germany into disaster. Debate continues to rage about how much the “ordinary German” knew about the Death Camps, and the mass murders of the Jews and others. H.H. Kirst, author of the Gunner Asch novels and other satirical works about Nazi Germany and its aftermath, commented wryly on his Nazi party membership that he did not really know he “was in a club of murderers”.

An equally pertinent question is, even if they knew or suspected, what could they do about it? Nazi Germany was a brutal and efficient dictatorship, opponents had been liquidated in sequence (remember Niemoller’s poem “First They Came…..”) and the consequences of defiance were likely to prove drastic, not just for the individual but for relatives as well. Those who moralise or pontificate about following your conscience have very rarely had to come to grips with a modern totalitarian dictatorship. Those with loaded guns call the shots. Passive defiance was possible, but unlikely to derail the murder machine. (The same considerations apply, mutatis mutandis, to living in the Soviet Union under Stalin.) And even the 20 July Plot demonstrated how well dug in the regime was.

There was also the aspect of what Joachim Fest, in his memorable study of Hitler, referred to as “widening the circle of criminality.” The more people could be involved in the crimes, the more likely they were to acquiesce and eschew protest. Thus, in the aftermath of the invasion of Russia, as the special teams of murderers followed or accompanied the troops in, the Wermacht was pressurised and compromised to witness, sanction, support logistically and participate in the crimes of what Fest termed the “Third World War.”

These “Einsatzgruppen” were not necessarily just hardened Nazis and SS but included numbers of ordinary and retired police, drawn into the squads as police forces were reorganised and rationalised and as the scale of the mass murders demanded more staff at the killing end. In the stunning novel, “Ostland” (2013) David Thomas tells the true story of how Berlin’s top criminal detective – not a committed Nazi – Georg Heuzer, became the head of the Einsatzgrup operating in Minsk, where he personally supervised the murder of thirty thousand chiefly Austrian Jews, reverting to a police officer after the War and rising to become police chief in the Rhineland Palatinate before eventually being sentenced for war crimes in 1963. There were more like him, individuals led step-by-step into compromise and crime.

All this is by way of introduction to William Ryan’s new novel, “The Constant Soldier”. The novel was launched in Dublin on 1 September and has been garnering very favourable reviews in recent weeks, many containing “spoilers” about the plot, which, however, in no way diminishes enjoyment of the book. The author is already well established for his three crime novels with a difference. They are set in Stalinist Russia in the 1930s and feature Alexei Korolev, a Moscow CID Militia captain who is tasked to investigate some high profile murder cases with political connections. Against the background of the Great Terror, when one wrong move can result in a “holiday in Siberia” – Stalin’s jocular remark – or worse, Korolev must walk a moral and political tightrope to make progress. The Korolev books paint vividly and sympathetically the dilemma of the honourable man trying to cope in a totalitarian and mendacious society where values are reversed or non – existent. “The Constant Soldier” is a new departure in theme – a stand-alone novel set during the last year of the Second World War, yet the similarities with Korolev’s moral dilemmas are clear.

The novel’s first twenty pages are particularly memorable, recounting the gradual emergence of consciousness and awareness of a badly wounded soldier being transported by train back to his home. That home is a village in Silesia, in a mixed Polish –German rural community conquered and occupied by the Germans.  Here it is not just the matter of a murder. The whole setting is a crime scene. Most of the Poles have been driven out or murdered, their farms expropriated. Some are Partisans, watching, waiting in the woods as the Red Army advances.  A “work camp” and a mine are nearby – euphemisms for murder camps and a source of forced labour when required.  Could the camp be Auschwitz ? Or another? There were enough of them.  We are never told.  The camp remains in the wings throughout the novel, the horrors hinted at but never explicitly described.

Central to the story, rather, is the Hut, a rest and recreation lodge in the village for SS officers and personnel taking refuge or recuperation from their “toils” in the camp or stresses from the war. (Keeping up the morale of those tasked with mass murder was, apparently a priority for the Nazi leadership. I’ve come across several anecdotes of Himmler and others, and one of Ryan’s characters actually quotes Himmler, comforting those at the coal face of extermination and mass murder –  though at the right end of the gun-  acknowledging the “strain” but promising a better future once the task was complete! Thomas records that at Heuzer’s trial it was revealed that the Minsk murderers were partially anaesthetised with a bottle of vodka per head per day.) The Hut was staffed by SS foot soldiers until, as casualties at the front mounted, they were drafted into active service. Cleaning and cooking in the Hut was carried out by female slave prisoners.

The book’s central character, Paul Brandt, a Wermacht soldier, has returned home a hero, disfigured and mutilated from the Eastern Front. Not a Nazi, he had enlisted under threat. He returns wounded internally as well as externally, haunted by the murders he saw and was ordered to take part in. He knows the war is lost and longs for an opportunity to atone for his crimes. The opportunity comes when he is offered work as the supervisory steward at the SS Hut. Among the female prisoners working there is a girl from his past, Judith, who does not recognise his scarred and burned face and for whom he feels responsibility for her arrest and enslavement. He now has a mission – to protect and look out for Judith and her colleagues as well as doing what he can to protect his father and sister, neither of them Nazis and both well aware of what is happening in the camps.

To survive, let alone carry out his mission, involves living a lie in a fraught environment , where casual murder and brutality are commonplace and where, despite the slight leeway he is accorded as a decorated hero who has made visible sacrifices for “the Reich,” he must constantly be on guard. Ryan conveys very well the fin de siècle atmosphere which abounds, the doublethink and speak about ultimate victory when clearly nemesis is only a matter of time. The characters surrounding him include a committed Nazi, an amoral and foolish local mayor and several SS officers, as well as the Hut Commandant, Obersturmfuhrer Neumann, after Brandt the most interesting character in the story.

Intelligent and perceptive, Neumann from the start is clearly aware of some or most of Brandt’s feelings and demonstrates at several points that, though a Nazi and SS Officer, he has not bought in to the whole package. Indeed the subplot of the story is essentially the personal development and disintegration of Neumann, never quite total, and never fully revealed or even directly hinted at to Brandt. When another SS officer commits suicide Neumann confiscates his records of Mendelssohn, a Jewish, and therefore banned, composer, to play them himself. (And shockingly, Brandt discovers, among the dead man’s possessions, a box containing gold fillings ripped from Jewish victims at the camp.)

Neumann is not alone. There are other Nazis also less enamoured of what they have done, but for Neumann, his own crimes have put him beyond redemption and he remains haunted by images of his victims. A World War One veteran, he broods as to how these things could have happened.  A March Violet (the derisory name given by “old” Nazis to those who joined the Party after Hitler became Chancellor) he hadn’t planned on becoming a murderer. “It had just turned out that way.”  And of the Jews: ”mostly no one had ever imagined it would come to this. Until it had, of course.”

Brandt plots and schemes, finding allies among the Ukrainian SS guards, who know only too well what fate awaits them when the Soviets arrive. But ostensibly he must maintain the façade of normalcy, even as the Nazi world collapses. There are Christmas festivities, an incongruous New Year’s hunt, photographs to be taken, drunken SS to be humoured, while the news gets worse on an almost daily basis. Paris has fallen. Warsaw has fallen; and Krakow. The sound of Russian artillery can be heard. The exodus of German refugees begins. The final drama is about to be played out.

There is a counterpoint to all of this – Polya, a feisty young Russian, driver of a T34 tank for two years, a battle hardened veteran who has nevertheless retained her joie de vivre and femininity. She longs to get the job done and is enamoured of her tank commander Lapshin. At interludes in the main story her exploits intrude as her tank, and the Red Army, gets ever closer to Brandt’s village. There are some vivid and savage action scenes featuring Polya’s tank. There’s no doubt where the author’s sympathies lie. Polya, and the advance of the Red Army, crushing and obliterating their opponents, are very much a terrible swift sword, wreaking vengeance for what was done after 1941. The tension is built excellently as the reader wonders what will happen when Polya and her tanks encounter Brandt and a rag tag collection of boys, drafted as the last line of defence.

“The Constant Soldier” is a compelling read. I finished it in two days. Nor is it easily forgotten.  In an Afterword the author points to an album of photographs taken in 1944/5 by a senior SS officer at Auschwitz as providing inspiration for his book. The photos show members of the SS relaxing and chilling out in an R and R hut located several kilometres from the camp just weeks before the Red Army liberated it. If ever Arendt’s “banality of evil” categorisation of Eichmann seems appropriate it is here. Anyone interested in morality tales and looking also for a damn good story should read the novel, surely one of the year’s best. Highly recommended.

Reviewed for Writing.ie.

S.F.

8/9/16

 

VOTES CAST IN U.K. ELECTIONS SINCE 1945

VOTES CAST IN U.K. ELECTIONS SINCE 1945

 

See accompanying post for the table and apologies for the formatting  for 2010 and 2015.

Some fascinating material here. Something to pore over for hours, if not weeks with “what if?” musings. A more complete picture would  detail seats won and include also European election results.

Just a few points to whet the appetite:

  1. One central underlying fact to keep in mind is the growth in population, from fifty million in 1951 to sixty three million odd in 2011.

 

  1. This makes the second highest ever vote, 13,948, 605, secured by Labour in 1951, even more remarkable . It was an election in which, thanks to the quirks in the first-past-the-post system, they actually lost.

 

  1. The highest ever vote, 14,093,007, was for the Tories under John Major in 1992.

 

  1. No party since 1945 has polled more than 50%. The closest was in 1955, when the Tories, under Eden, actually received 49.7% of the votes cast. (Labour, in 1945, got 47.7%).

 

  1. The first-past-the-post system has severely inhibited the chances of a of a third party – any third party – from challenging the dominance of the Tories and Labour, even when the Liberals and later the LibDems, won twenty percent or more of the votes. The most dramatic example of the quirks were in last year’s election, where UKIP, with almost four million votes, won one seat, while the Scottish Nationalists (admittedly a special case) won 56 seats with less than one and a half million votes while the LibDems, with a million more votes got only 8 seats.

 

  1. Support for Thatcher was remarkably consistent across three elections, with 1983 actually the lowest, challenging the Falklands factor theory. Would she have won had Labour not been led by Michael Foot?

 

  1. Elections in the New Millennium have shown a marked drop in voter turnout, from above 70% to the mid-60s. Voter apathy, or disillusionment ? The BREXIT turnout was 72%.

S.F. 19/8/16

 

BRITISH GENERAL ELECTIONS SINCE 1945

BRITISH GENERAL ELECTIONS SINCE THE WAR

 

YEAR      LABOUR                               TORIES                   OTHERS                   POLL

1945       11,967,746                           8,716,211                  2,864,590                72.8%

1950       13,226,176                           12,494,404                 2,621,487              83.9%

1951       13,948,605                           13,717,538                      730,546              82.6%

1955       12,405,254                           13,310,891                       722,402             76.8%

1959       12,216,172                           13,750,875                     1,640,760            78.7%

1964       12,205,808                           12,002,642                   3,099,283            77.1%

1966       13,096,951                           11,418,433                      2,327,533             75.8%

1970       12,208,758                           13,145,123                      2,117,035             72.0%

1974       11,457,079                           11,872,180                      6,059,519             78.8%

1974       11,457,079                           10,462,565                      5,346,704             72.8%

1979       11,532,218                           13,697,923                       4,314,804             76.0%

1983       8,456,934                             13,012,316                       7,780,949             72.7%

1987       10,029,270                           13,760,935                      7,341,651             75.3%

1992       11,560,484                           14,093,007                       5,999,384             77.7%

1997       13,518,167                           9,600,943                           5,242,947             71.3%

2001       10,724,953                           8,367,615                           4,814,321             59.4%

2005       9,552,436                             8,784,915                           5,985,454             61.4%

2010       8,606,517                             10,703,654                        6,836,248             65.1%

919,471

2015       9,347,324                             11,334,576                           2,415,862             66.4%

3,881,129                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         1,454,436

A CENTENARY CELEBRATED 1605 LXXXVIII

A CENTENARY CELEBRATED

“Glorious Madness” The O’Rahilly called it. In military terms the Easter Rising was objectively doomed from the start. Even had the Volunteers risen throughout Ireland – which they didn’t – for how long could a semi-trained militia have held out against a determined professional army, superior in men and armaments?

A hundred years ago this month fifteen of the Rising’s leaders were executed soon after surrender ( The O’Rahilly died in the fighting). General Maxwell, the buffoon who organised the “field general” court martials, i.e. trials without defence, jury, qualified judges or public access, thought a short sharp shock was required.  183 civilians were put on trial, of whom ninety were sentenced to death. The executions were only stopped by the hasty intervention of  the British Prime Minister , Asquith,  after he arrived in Dublin on May 12. By then the damage had been done and the slow fuse of a sea-change in Irish public opinion, very much mixed beforehand, lit.

The Centenary of the Rising was celebrated (early) this Easter. The major commemorative events, including solemn ceremonies honouring the leaders and the others who fell, as well as the largest military parade ever staged in Dublin, were sober and dignified and with an evident sense of national pride. Events were well attended and blessed with good weather.

The Celebrations were more restrained  and  less gung-ho than in 1966, the last landmark anniversary. The country has moved on in so many ways in half a century  – and it shows. In 1966 Ireland was a different country, economically, socially, culturally and  in the national mind-set. Many survivors of 1916 were still around fifty years later. The last surviving 1916 Commander, De Valera, was Irish President, while  Taoiseach Sean Lemass had fought in the GPO aged 16. Memories of the  War of Independence and the subsequent Civil War were still fresh. The country was just emerging from a lengthy period of national stagnation in which the chief political obsessions were Partition and relations with Britain.

THAT Ireland also had been at peace since 1923, had avoided the Second World War – unthinkable without the national independence which had its gestation in the events of 1916 – and had no recent experience of what bloodshed and armed conflict entailed. Fifty years on Ireland has fresh and ghastly memories of a generation of violence in the North that claimed close to four thousand lives and injured many more, and has overwhelmingly embraced a peace that promises reconciliation. This has led to a more mature and realistic appraisal of 1916.

The Rising changed matters – utterly – setting in train a chain of events that led to an independent Irish state. It’s worth noting that the recent celebrations took place against a background of political wrangling here over how and by whom the next sovereign ( I emphasize sovereign) Irish government will be formed following February’s inconclusive general election.

Would that be the case had there been no Easter Rising? Would we be like Scotland today – or, indeed, Northern Ireland? And what else would/could  have happened in the interim? “ What –Ifs?”  are fascinating – for example, would Britain have faced down the Ulster Unionists had there been no Rising? – but ultimately just speculation. Whatever else one can say, as an end result of the process that began in 1916 we Irish are now masters of our own destiny and the issues with which we are seized, like health, housing, welfare and water, are First World Issues  which we brought about and on ourselves.

How different to that Easter a century ago and to the setting – a somewhat backwater city, impoverished,  riven by class and privilege and teeming with some of Europe’s worst slums. Politically the cauldron was simmering , with every week bringing a roll call of dead and injured from the charnel house of the Great War, where as many as one thousand Irishmen of every hue died in each month of the conflict. Gallipoli had been a few short months before. And indeed, in the week of the Rising, which saw a total of 485 fatalities,  532 Irishmen were slaughtered in three days in the Hulloch gas attacks  near Loos. There was crossover in death. Dublin Fusilier Private John Naylor died on April 29, the same day his  wife  Margaret was shot in Dublin crossing a bridge to buy bread for her children; she died two days later.

Until quite recently the Irish in the First World War were treated as invisible, official policy being to ignore or discount the huge numbers of Irish who had fought and died. The  recognition of the sacrifice of those many thousands has been one of the signal achievements of reconciliation of the last decades. The dead Irish of the War certainly informed the Centenary celebrations as never before, reflecting the  more thoughtful and inclusive approach of the present day.  There is greater appreciation of the circumstances of the Volunteer split in 1914, with the majority following Redmond to enlist in what nobody thought would be a lengthy carnage, in the expectation that Britain would deliver  Home Rule at war’s end, while the minority  set about organising a Rising.

Today’s more inclusive approach generated a focus on attendant aspects of the Rising heretofore somewhat overlooked.  Tom Clarke has now emerged from the shadows to vie with Pearse and Connolly as leaders. The 40 dead children of Easter Week – among the “collateral damage” of  the 260 civilian dead  ( 54% of the total casualties)  – received  much attention and were the subject of a best-selling book written by  popular Irish broadcaster Joe Duffy. So also the nature and scale of the civilian casualties and destruction of central Dublin during Easter Week.

The role of women has now been accorded appropriate recognition. Some  fought; others  nursed the wounded,  or cooked for and tended to the insurgents.  Some brave women acted as despatch couriers. After the surrender 77 women were among those imprisoned in Richmond Barracks. To the well acknowledged role of Countess Markievicz has been added, among others, Connolly’s political secretary Winifred Carney,  couriers Julia Grenan and Leslie Price, sniper Margaret Skinnider and Elizabeth O’Farrell, the nurse who accompanied Pearse when he surrendered, and who was for long airbrushed out of the famous surrender  photo. Some thought was even given to the “other side,” i.e. British soldiers and RIC casualties, who have been included ( not without controversy)in a Remembrance Wall listing all the victims of 1916 and unveiled in Glasnevin Cemetery.

The motives and aims of those who fought varied. There was a general sense of idealism and patriotism and an undoubted hope that the Rising in Dublin would inspire a general revolt. This happened eventually – and decisively. Out of defeat came ultimate victory. In his superb “Easter 1916” Yeats asked of the Rising  “Was it needless death after all? For England may keep faith.” That England already HAD was the judgement of the Irish people. Not by granting Home Rule but rather by executing the 1916 Leaders, thus keeping faith with its long and bloody involvement in Ireland. As a nation today “we are where we are.” But we ARE a nation – thanks to the men and women of 1916.

19/04/16

ECHOBEAT by JOE JOYCE a review

ECHOBEAT

JOE JOYCE

LIBERTIES PRESS 343PP €14.99

Veteran journalist and accomplished author Joe Joyce has written another winner.

Echobeat, a compelling and evocative thriller set in neutral Dublin as the Second World War rages, is the sequel to last year’s widely acclaimed Echoland. Paul Duggan, now a captain in G2, Irish Army Intelligence, is back, together with his Special Branch sidekick, Peter Gifford.

The time is the end of 1940 and the stakes have rarely been higher. The world is at war, and Ireland is maintaining a precarious neutrality. Britain has its back to the wall, battered by the Blitz and in danger of being starved into submission as U Boats sink large numbers of its ships. Britain is demanding use of the Irish ports and threatening to cut off vital supplies if refused, with the ultimate sanction of invasion. There are no easy options. With German bombs falling on Dublin and Carlow as 1941 dawns, the choice appears increasingly stark – not whether to fight but who.

A dangerous political tightrope has to be walked if Ireland is to stay neutral and the task of Army Intelligence is to provide the best information it can so that “ whatever happens doesn’t happen by accident,” as his boss tells Duggan. This involves tracking the source and evaluating certain highly sensitive documents about Britain’s predicaments and intentions which have become available, as well as finding Germany’s most active agent in Ireland, Hermann Goertz, on the run and protected by republican and Nazi sympathisers.

Duggan’s duties include monitoring the Liffey Street café frequented by German POWs on day parole. His life gets complicated when he becomes romantically involved with his intermediary, a Jewish refugee, Gerda, who waitresses incognito in the café. Her role becomes central when she is approached by a young Englishman, source of some of the documents. Is he a pacifist, an agent provocateur or a Nazi sympathiser?

The other documents have been supplied through Duggan’s uncle, Timmy, a scheming Fianna Fail T.D., who romances about the war of independence and Ireland’s ability to see off the Germans as they did the British, but who could be the key to finding Goertz. Timmy’s naïveté is pointed up by Gerda when she declares to Duggan that the Nazis would “ put a stop to your guerrilla war very quickly” by shooting twenty or fifty Irishmen every time a German was attacked.

Echobeat is an exciting read and more than just a page turner. The Dublin of the period is portrayed superbly. It was a time of severe petrol rationing, few private cars as a result with people relying on bikes or public transport. Shortages abounded. There was a thriving black market for coal, tea and other rationed items . Smoking was universal, the aroma of cigarettes and burning peat ubiquitous.

Yet life went on. For Ireland was at peace – “ Neutral with a certain consideration for Britain,” to quote Dev. Maintaining that neutrality was akin to a diplomatic chess game. Echobeat shows just how difficult that game was.

Excellent.

10/8

VOTES FOR EMIGRANTS 1406 LXIV

VOTES FOR EMIGRANTS?

Irish citizens living abroad may have an opportunity to vote in the election for the next Irish President, due in 2018. A recommendation to that effect was proposed by the Irish Constitutional Convention last September. Two major hurdles have to be negotiated before anything happens. Firstly the recommendation has to be approved by the Government . Secondly any proposal has to be passed by referendum.

The artificial deadline for a Government decision has passed. There may be more time to wait. We are now at a key moment politically, with parties absorbing the recent results of local and European elections. An issue pertaining to a possible vote in four years’ time is hardly likely to seize the Government’s attention with a general election less than two years off. Moreover, the Convention’s recommendation is just slightly contentious enough to give politicians pause, unlike some others, uncontroversial and which have been nodded through. In the end the Government may well accept the proposal. But then the referendum has to be carried.

The Irish Constitution came into force at the end of 1937. Though on the whole it has served the people well, at this stage it is showing signs of its age. Of the thirty six referenda proposing amendments, two thirds have taken place since 1992, reflecting both changing lifestyles and attitudes among the electorate and Ireland’s changing position in the world. While it is difficult to generalise, one thread evident from the referenda results has been the reluctance of voters to be swayed by arguments advanced by politicians. Some proposals which seemed reasonable, including those regarding the EU, have come a cropper at the ballot box.

A number of parliamentary and officially sponsored Constitutional reviews have taken place since the sixties but it has become clear that the Irish political establishment has no appetite for any radical reform of the document. We have been left with some useful analytical reports, suggested alternatives and amendments but very little else, the reviews on occasion serving merely to kick the can on an issue down the road.

The current government, elected in 2011 on a tide of “ a plague a both your houses,” had another bash, announcing in its programme for government the setting up of a “Constitutional Convention to consider comprehensive constitutional reform.” The areas identified hardly lived up to the rhetoric They included a review of the Dáil electoral system, reducing the presidential term to five years, providing for same-sex marriage, removing blasphemy from the Constitution and a possible reduction in the voting age. The first threatened to be a non-runner from the off, the rest were at best non-controversial, at worse irrelevant. Two other areas mentioned promised more – amending the wording on women in the home and encouraging greater participation of women in public life, as well as “other relevant constitutional amendments that may be recommended by the Convention.”

The Convention was duly launched in 2012, holding its first meeting on December 1st. It consisted of 100 members, two thirds randomly selected members of the public, and with terms of reference expanded to include, as well as those mentioned, consideration of “giving citizens resident outside the state the right to vote in Presidential elections.” Hence the current recommendation. The Convention completed its deliberations in March 2014.

The Convention’s recommendations can be divided roughly into three: those immediately acceptable politically, those requiring further consideration and those likely to prove unacceptable. In the first category, recommendations to reduce the voting age to sixteen and to legalize same-sex marriages have been accepted by the government and will be put to the people in 2015, together with a recommendation to reduce the age for presidential candidates from 35 to 21. In the second category are the Votes for Expats issue , the recommendation to replace the blasphemy provision with a ban on incitement to religious hatred, proposals to alter the current wording regarding women, reform of Dail procedures and the recommendation to include references to certain economic social and cultural rights.

In the final category is the most contentious recommendation by far – that proposing changes in the Dail electoral system. This calls for constituencies to have a minimum of five seats; at present (the next election) only eleven out of the forty constituencies will have the current maximum of five seats. The recommendation, if accepted, threatens to alter dramatically the composition of the Dail, giving greater opportunities to smaller parties and independents at the expense of the larger parties.

Currently, while second preference transfers can and do provide spice and uncertainty to election results, the general rule of thumb is that, in a multi-seat constituency, to get elected a candidate requires a certain percentage of the first preference votes, represented by 100 divided by the number of seats plus one . So in a three seat constituency a candidate requires 25% of the vote( 100 divided by four) , in a four seat constituency 20% ( 100 divided by five), in a five seater 16% (100 divided by six), and so on.

It is not hard to see how the current arrangements, under which two thirds of Dail seats are in three and four seat constituencies, favour the larger parties. In the three- seaters in particular the prospects for an independent or a small party seeking to break through are bleak. The big picture is whether larger constituencies ( five or five plus) would lead to a proliferation of smaller parties and independents and what effect this would have on the functioning of Irish parliamentary democracy.

In the early years of the state there were a number of constituencies with more than five seats, including one (Galway) with nine, without any earth-shattering splintering of the vote. And, to take the current Dail, there are six identifiable party groupings, plus independents, while after the 2002 election there were seven. The jury is still out, but the best guess is that the larger parties, with one eye on the increasing volatility of the electorate, and the other on their own political skins, will opt to hunker down and stick with the status quo pending further consideration of the issue. It is one, incidentally, on which the Constitution says nothing beyond declaring that any constituency must have a minimum of three seats.

What are the chances, then, for yet another referendum before 2016, permitting citizens resident abroad to vote in presidential elections? The issue is not straightforward. Extending the franchise to non-resident citizens is complicated, politically, legally and administratively. An argument in favour is that it would constitute a positive gesture towards the diaspora, suitably topping off a decade of increased official engagement with that diaspora.

The recommendation comes at a time also when the issue has built up a moderate head of steam with lobbying from some of the recent economic emigrants for a say in how the country has been and should be run. Their argument is that their emigration was involuntary, is temporary , and that having a vote would enable them to keep in touch. Whether this will cut any ice with domestic politicians fearing a backlash remains to be seen.

WRITING AGAINST THE TIDE

I wrote the following short piece (300 words) for a competition. It was shortlisted. The exercise was interesting in that it challenged me to consider WHY I write. It’s a theme to which I’ll return.

WRITING AGAINST THE TIDE

“Midwinter spring is its own season.”

That line from “ Little Gidding “ haunts and defines me. I’m an old man in a young person’s game. Writing is not for one my age.

This is the P.C. Era, the era of Inclusiveness, Empowerment, Equality, Entitlement.

Balderdash! Tell that to the over-50s seeking jobs. Tell that to the over-60s wishing to do anything! Colonel Sanders, Grandma Moses, a Chinese politician or two; the list of new achievers over 60 is a short one.

I see it in their faces at the writing groups, kind but bemused. Young enough to be my children, even grandchildren. “ Why is he here? What is he doing? Who or what does he think he is?” Always polite, never patronising but their puzzlement is manifest.

It’s easy to see why. The legions emerging from the contemporary proliferation of degrees and qualifications in every aspect of writing, from creative to short story to novel , and more besides, have little time or room for the unorthodox, the outsider.

Ageism is soft, intangible, ephemeral and deniable. But no less true or formidable for that.
I write against the tide that is very much of and with the young , which regards my insights and experience uncomfortably and with some embarrassment. Always the unposed but ever present questions. “ Why Now? What was so valuable in your life that you did not write before? And what makes you think you have anything worthwhile to utter now?”

Reversible questions!

I write without hubris. I write because I am, to affirm who I am, what I am and what I think. I write for me and for anyone who cares to follow. Above all I write so that no one will ask later “ Why did he not write?”

August 28 2013