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

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

ABOUT THIS BLOG

PALE OUTLAW

I set up Pale Outlaw in November 2011, but have not used it to any great extent. I intended to sound off more – and on a variety of topics – but soon after that I decided to concentrate on writing fiction and researching and reviewing books.
The blog since has since become primarily a repository and record of published material, though that may change.
The Time Capsule contains the full collection of my Irish American News pieces “ From the Motherland”, which commenced in April 2009 and now comprises fifty three pieces ( listed using Roman Numerals). As the title suggests they offer a time capsule for the period in which my take on what was happening is set out.
As the IAN audience is either ex-pat Irish or Irish American – and reasonably well informed about what’s happening in Ireland – I’ve tried to give a certain slant on what’s been in the news and occasionally point up some significant trend or development. As well as the economy and politics, which predominate, I’ve also covered relations with Europe, Neutrality, the Irish Diaspora, RTE, Demographic Trends and Immigration, the Mortgage Crisis and even the Henri Handball. The pieces are limited to 1200 words, which is a useful discipline in itself.
The Book Reviews are chiefly those published in the Irish Independent or on Writing.ie or ones I produced for the local Murder and Mystery book club. Profound or forensic they are not. Most of my private analyses of books tend to concentrate on some aspect of the work ( plot, structure, etc.) and are not publishable. I might add, by way of obiter, that, having “ been there, done that” in the sense of having written a novel and several other pieces of fiction, I have great respect and empathy for other writers. If you haven’t done it – try it. It’s hard work!
The Published Articles are just that – articles published in Irish newspapers and magazines over the past two years.
The Memoirs consist of several pieces based on my past career. It’s a category I hope to expand in the future. Right now it contains several pieces based on my experiences as a European Community Peace Monitor in Croatia and Bosnia.
The Uncategorised and Current Affairs sections contain a number of pieces, several from the IAN before I hit on the Time Capsule appellation, others in which I attempted to sound off, pieces largely unpublished but longer than the 1200 word limit of the IAN. If I do resume sounding off, it will be here.
Finally, Rated Fiction is a small category ( at present) which I plan to expand containing published short fiction where I have the copyright.

July 13 2013

THE SHAMROCK VETO?

THE SHAMROCK VETO ?

Another EU summit. Are we now entering the Endgame where the Euro is concerned? Or are we again, like the grand old Duke of York, marching the men up only to march them down again? There have been so many “crisis summits” at this stage – and numerous rescue plans – that the wise course for any commentator is to suggest that there will be yet another fudge.

It might be worth recalling a somewhat analogous situation in history (I don’t want to stretch it too far), i.e. that which faced the thirteen American states around 1790, a number of years after independence and just after the Constitution had  been adopted. The situation was  much less complicated than that facing Europe today, but the issues were not totally dissimilar. The new country had no money and faced a huge debt from the revolutionary war. Some of the states had paid off their debts, others had not, could not or would not. There was a North – South division, with up to 80% of the debt owed to Northern bondholders, many of whom had bought the debt at 10 or 15 cents to the dollar.

Alexander Hamilton, First Secretary of the Treasury, proposed that the new nation assume all state debts and fund them by issuing new bonds. There was strong opposition to this, with some states, like Virginia,  objecting to buying out speculators and assuming or writing off the debts of the big borrowers like Massachusetts. Sound familiar? Congress was deadlocked for six months with sectional animosities mounting. Eventually a compromise was hammered out with Hamilton’s plan being adopted at the behest of Jefferson and Madison.  To put it mildly, the plan worked,  even though,  in the early years of the USA, over half of government expenditure went on debt servicing.

Clearly there is a world of difference between the economic problems faced by thirteen pre-industrial states two centuries ago and those currently facing the multi-layered industrial economies of the Eurozone. And there’s not a Hamilton or Jefferson in sight. While there is unlikely to be any clear, sharp, definitive solution embraced by all without qualification at this week’s European Council, all the indications are that we are edging towards a solution that will hold – along the lines of a much closer fiscal and economic union. The alternative is that the Euro will go down the tube, perhaps in weeks, perhaps in months. A two-tier  Euro will not work; who would buy the lower tier? Who would loan on the strength of it?

But there is another aspect. Any closer fiscal union will ultimately involve treaty change. However, some observers have noted that the survival of the Euro cannot await the several years needed to effect this. Some mechanism will have to be devised to short circuit the procedure. The forthcoming European Council may come up with something here. If it does there will presumably be some form of intergovernmental conference in the very short term either to negotiate (possible) or to accept a definite proposal from the countries needed to make the solution work (more likely).  Given the emerging time pressure to save the Euro the issue for Ireland is what position will we adopt on anything that emerges against the background that any treaty change will involve us in a referendum.

Consider our options. And forget about the bank bailout. In the three years since the infamous guarantee was given, we have borrowed around €45 billion – just to keep our inflated and bloated economy and welfare system ticking over – and that’s without a cent for the banks. Our  recent so-called harsh budgets have hardly made a dent in this structural deficit.  It’s already matching what we will, over time, pay for the banks, and it’s increasing by €50 million every day. The cause of the deficit is clear and, again, has nothing to do with the banks, but seems to be ignored by most of the media and the prevailing public culture of entitlement.

Government revenues collapsed as the air escaped from the Celtic Tiger. The fatal and inexcusable narrowing of the tax base during the years of plenty coupled with an equally inexcusable spree of increase in welfare payments left the economy beached, and obliged to borrow heavily. Masochists can google the website www.budget.ie  and read the disaster as it unfolded from the column on the left – previous budgets. Read McCreevy’s boast in the 2002 budget speech that  “after this budget there will be over 690,000 income earners outside the tax net, or  37% of all those on Revenue’s records”.

It gets worse. Cowen, speaking on the 2007 budget boasted “ that nearly two out of every five earners (or 846,000 persons) will be outside the tax net in 2007 compared to one third (or 677,000 persons) in 2004 and one quarter (or 380,000 persons) in 1997. This is a highly significant development.” It was – it was a disaster. What modern economy, with aspirations towards good governance can sustain a situation where 40% of the workforce pay no tax? Meanwhile welfare benefits were  jacked up disproportionately – one commentator has calculated that  child benefit increased under Fianna fail by 330%, the dole by 130% and the standard old age pension by 120%, over a period when inflation amounted to  40%. Even half that largesse applied elsewhere would have been enough for a universal  single tier health service and more besides.

The piper was calling for payment even before the bank guarantee; remember the October 2008 budget to try to deal with the collapse in revenue? Indeed the two budgets in 2009 (April and December – which introduced  a new word for reductions in pay and benefits  – “adjustments”)  were calculated with the bank bailout almost as a side issue. The full extent of bailing out the banks when known gave us a hefty  shove over the precipice for which we were heading; could we have avoided it without the banks? Take a moment to reflect.

So. We have “lost our economic sovereignty”. A disaster? Since no one would lend to us , except at unsustainable interest rates, we are now relying ion Europe and the IMF? How exactly would we function without them? Renege on our debts? Who would  give us credit? Burn the unsecured bondholders? Who then would secure our credit? Leave the Eurozone? What level would the “Punt Nua” settle at  and where would our welfare system be then? And what has been demanded of us? A property tax? Virtually every other country in Europe has one. A water tax? Ditto. Increases in taxes and cuts in spending to help bridge the fiscal gap? Is this so unreasonable – particularly when  we are left to decide on the detail ourselves?

There’s a further level of myth to be faced. Underpinning it, something which has been gaining currency (a dreadful pun!) in recent months,  is that Germany in particular, and also France, have been acting as bullies towards the rest of the Eurozone. “To protect their banks”. Maybe. To protect their economies, and the Eurozone. Certainly.  Had we not had our national economic tsunami would we have expected any less of them? How would we perform in their position? And, specifically, what solutions would we have, were we to be suddenly the major  player, rather than a very minor one, to the  whole Eurozone crisis. Again, take a moment to reflect. Big boys games; big boys rules.

Reflect also on Greece. The whole Greek drama has yet to play out fully. We still don’t know if it will end up a comedy,  a tragedy, or a farce. When Merkel and Sarkozy called time, it was to remind the Greeks that the issue in any referendum was not whether the rescue package should be approved, but rather that it was the only package available and that, if Greece wanted to continue to be assisted, it should vote on the only issue that mattered, whether it wanted to remain within the Eurozone. Where else would Greece get the money to continue to function?  What will happen to Greece remains to be seen. The write-down of Greek debt was because Greece’s borrowing had put it in the economic basket case category. Ireland is not in that situation;  do we want to go there?

What options then do we have? The myth, and it’s a dangerous one, is that we have a power of veto, that we can tell off those nasty Germans and French, tell them we will not wear their solution and that they had better come up with another plan. Mickawber-like we await a solution which will lift our burden of debt so that we can continue on regardless. Any solution will require treaty change and they know our record in that regard. It will not be too long before someone latches on to the 1790 solution in the US, which would suit us –the ECB becoming a type of Federal Reserve, and underwriting all Europe’s debts, including our own. With one bound the Irish hero would be free!  And if we don’t like the small print – more outside control over our economy – we can threaten our veto until we get our way.

It is true we cannot be thrown out of the EU. That would require unanimity and we are unlikely to vote for that ourselves. But we could be frozen out and left behind. There was talk in Europe some years ago – faced with British foot-dragging – that  a central core of countries might proceed to a deeper and closer union. Arguably the Eurozone represented a manifestation of this, though hardly a successful one. Schengen is another  example in operation, even if reluctance by some countries to admit immigrants has wiped the gloss off.  However, these examples show that it is possible for a group of member states to act together without the rest.

What then would happen were a solution acceptable to all except Ireland rejected by an Irish veto? This would not be a Nice, or a Lisbon. The stakes would be much higher. The alternative would be economic meltdown. We might get a second chance. Or Europe might decide to move forward – without us. Forget the veto. What is  to prevent a new and identically worded  treaty being put forward, identical except that it excluded references to Ireland? And Europe moved on without us – and perhaps one or two others. Unlikely? Probably. Improbable? Yes.

Impossible? The European Union would continue, but a new body would function alongside it. We should recall that the League of Nations continued to function throughout the Second World War. Indeed an Irishman, Sean Lester, became its last Secretary General in 1940. But by then the League had ceased to function in any meaningful sense; the major players had departed. Since 2008 we have seen developments until then thought unthinkable become reality. These are uncertain times. Do we want to be left on the field on our own?

2011

IRELAND 2011

“Nothing odd will do long” – Samuel Johnson

New hollow shells silhouette the landscape,

From houses half built to multi-storey frames.

The vista mirroring a decade’s progress.

Hope and hubris like weed and shrub commixed;

The mirage of easy wealth for most dispelled

As realism takes hold. Change comes but slowly

To reject, replace, beliefs found wanting,

The worship of property, the siren of cheap credit,

The trust in men who lead and men who lend.

Measured against our past, is now then bad?

There is no famine, hunger or disease,

No racking poverty, no emigrant ships

No quiet rural emptying out; no despair.

What can we place to balance in the scales?

Ephemeral prosperity? Folly and fancy?

Our ancestors would laugh could we commune,

And offer to change places if they could,

And bid us to face forward and not back,

And take to heart Doctor Johnson’s words

That nothing odd lasts.

TO CLOSE AN EMBASSY

Ireland is to close three diplomatic missions, including the Embassy to the Vatican. The
announcement last week has been received with gung ho  enthusiasm by the Catholic –bashers and mixed
feelings by many others I have no mixed feelings. Closing two of the three is a
mistake.

Take the Vatican first. Whatever the faults and failings of the Vatican’s
reaction to the child abuse issue, which is a horizontal one affecting the
Catholic Church in a number of countries, and is something that  Rome will have to work out satisfactorily,
there are other issues. Nationally, the majority of the Irish population remain
Catholic, with all that that implies. Like it or not, they have views.  While all have been shocked by the clerical
sexual abuse saga (still very much a small part – though high profile – of
those accused and/or convicted of sexual abuse of children)  poking the Pope in the eye, metaphorically,
will  not necessarily sit well with them.

Internationally, the Vatican provides a focal point for the
world’s one billion plus Catholics, the second largest religious grouping in
the world, and one which  includes powerful and numerous communities across the globe. It can tap into
missionaries, locally based churches and lay communities. It appoints all
Catholic bishops worldwide, including the Irish ones. Internationally also the
Vatican’s diplomatic network is extensive and highly regarded. The net result
is that the Vatican is a storehouse of information and analysis and is regarded
as an important ”listening post” and  a very useful resource to tap into, something diplomats on the ground can avail
of. As a country with a small diplomatic service, and limited resources,
Ireland should be looking to foster links of this type, not walk away from
them.

Certainly the Irish Embassy to the Vatican “yields no
economic return”. It never did. This presumably applies also to the large
number of states which maintain resident embassies to the Holy See, but there
is no sign that they are rushing to close their missions. Yet the Vatican IS
important to Ireland, as witness the curious decision to seek to appoint the
Secretary General of the Department, i.e. Ireland’s most senior diplomat, as
non-resident Ambassador, with the implication that he/she will have the full
resources of the Department available should the need arise.

Normally a non-resident accreditation is of an existing, usually adjacent,  ambassador, whose
functions are confined to at most several visits per annum and who receives
little or no extra resources for the secondary accreditation. Since Rome, one
of our relatively large Embassies (i.e. more than one person and a dog) is not
acceptable to the Vatican, the judgement has been made that none of the other
diplomatic missions nearby, which are stretched in any event, would have the resources
– time or personnel – to handle the Vatican. Clearly the thinking is that
another brouhaha like the recent one would need to be handled seriously. Yet
that begs the question why close the Embassy. Surely a more subtle approach,
such as leaving the post of Ambassador vacant
for a year or two, could have been tried. The cost of keeping the
mission open would hardly break a broke nation.

Timor-Leste was never more than a development aid office in
any event and it appears that sufficient progress has taken place there to
judge than this office can be closed.

That leaves Iran. The decision to close our Embassy there is
mystifying. So, trade has not lived up to expectations. Surely the answer,
shouted from politicians and officialdom in respect of everything else, is to
try harder and work harder. And if Iran is indeed a tough nut from the trade
point of view, it will hardly prove easier without some local knowledge and
presence on the ground. Last year, incidentally, we exported €81 million plus
to Iran; it was the fifth year in a row in which exports increased and they are
now significantly higher than the lows of a decade ago. Our total exports to
eight of the twelve post-2004 EU accession states over the past three years
have averaged €300 million per year; do the maths.

Iran has a proud history. It was and is a significant player
in the region. It is, moreover, the nineteenth largest economy in the world,
roughly the size, in GDP terms, of Australia and Poland and has an estimated
GDP per head of $13,000. It has a population close to 80 million, is
strategically and geopolitically important and, inter alia with its energy
reserves, is a potential regional superpower. It is also fast developing a nuclear
capability which could see it become the second Islamic nuclear power with
possible  profound  ramifications for the whole Middle East. From
what one can judge there is considerable social ferment within the country
which could presage change sooner rather than later. By closing the embassy
Ireland will be shutting herself off from monitoring developments there and
will certainly be unable to interact, influence or mediate, even to a limited
degree.

These closures have been justified by  the declared necessity
to implement cuts across the board in view of the current woeful financial situation.
The Department of Foreign Affairs, minus the development cooperation element, is one of the smaller government
departments. Most of its budget is spent on the upkeep of missions abroad,
rents salaries and allowances. Savings can only be made, therefore, by closing
overseas  missions. The McCarthy Report
actually recommended that Ireland should reduce the number of its overseas
missions from 76 to 55, without, as far as I can see, specifying which or why.
If three is the extent of the closures, we should be relieved. Ireland has a
relatively small, relatively inexpensive foreign service. Most of the missions
are tiny – one or two diplomats with limited clerical back-up – and are
expected to deliver on a varied range of duties, including helping Irish
citizens in distress. It should be noted that most criticisms of this
“consular” role either misrepresent what embassies can and should do in
situations or occur in countries where Ireland has no direct representation on
the ground – as was the case in Libya earlier this year.

It seems illogical to me to close any of Ireland’s  missions at a time when the message from the
politicians seems to be “Export or Perish”. Indeed look at where we are NOT
represented directly. In South and Central America we have three (3!) resident
embassies, Mexico, Brazil and Argentina; Mexico, with three diplomats, is
doubly accredited to Cuba, Colombia, El Salvador, Peru and Venezuela! We have
one embassy in North Africa (Egypt). We have no one on the ground in six of the
world’s 35 largest economies, including Indonesia (15), Thailand (25), Pakistan
(27), Colombia (28), the Philippines(32) and Venezuela (34). Strategically
placed embassies have multiple secondary accreditations (Saudi Arabia,
Singapore, Moscow), which they try to service with two or three diplomats. Canada, with three diplomats, also
covers Jamaica! And now we are to close Iran.

If we ARE to close missions how about a radical approach by thinking
outside the box a little? It has been argued that the Vatican embassy was a
sort of sacred cow (pun not intended), which has now been slain. In the context
of examining Ireland’s diplomatic representation, and in particular getting
more for the buck, another sacred cow might be looked at. This is the mantra
that Ireland should have an embassy in every EU member state. And we have. This
was ok when the EU was Twelve, or even Fifteen, but it is now Twenty Seven,
with Croatia poised to join and a queue from the Balkans round the corner. IF
yielding economic return is to be the criterion for an embassy on the ground,
take those trade figures I mentioned above. Do we need three embassies in the
Baltics? Do we need embassies in those of the Central European member states
included in the eight bracketed together in our trade statistics? Five or six
of these missions could be closed or consolidated freeing up the diplomatic
staff for redeployment elsewhere, either in new posts or to beef up missions
such as China, India or Russia, whereextra staff dedicated to commercial activity would not go amiss and
where we have some way to go before the law of diminishing returns kicks in.

Another avenue to be looked at might be to pursue the
Vatican option and cover certain posts from HQ. We already cover a number of
small states from our UN Mission in New York. In the era of Internet and emails,
and in view of the additional layers of frequent  meetings of officials across all areas of EU
competence and in areas of political and judicial cooperation, do we really
need Irish embassies on the ground in e.g. Scandinavia? Sweden closed its
embassy in Dublin several years ago, without any dire consequences. Why should
we not follow suit? An officer of appropriate rank sitting at H.Q. – where
there is already a regional desk system in operation – could surely function as
efficiently, and at far less cost, than an officer en poste. The Nordic posts
could be closed , with the exception of one, to provide consular assistance as required.
We can probably suppress one or two other EU missions, like Belgium and
Luxembourg since the our mission to the EU in Brussels can cover; ditto Switzerland
, with our UN mission in Geneva to cover. But No! Shock, Horror! Last year
Belgium was our second largest export market in the EU after Britain, and Switzerland
was our second largest non-EU market. If economic return is to be the criterion
then these missions, small as they are, definitely justify their existence.

The last two paragraphs were tongue-in-cheek. I hope the
point is taken up.. Ireland’s diplomatic service has a job to do. One element
of this is trade promotion in the broadest sense. But this cannot be allowed to
degenerate into hucksterism. Our diplomats represent Ireland and are required
to maintain appropriate levels of dignity and behaviour. Few would have it any
other way. The immediate financial savings in closing Tehran and the Vatican are
miniscule and may cost us more in the longer run. Let us hope there will be a more
critical and public scrutiny of any proposals for further closures.

CRYSTAL BALL GAZING

A favourite story of mine occurs in various forms but is usually attributed to
a character in Islamic folklore, Nasruddin. The story concerns a man who has
offended or outraged a king and is ordered to be put to death. He pleads for
his life and tells the king that, if spared for a year he will teach the king’s
horse to talk. The king accepts the offer but promises a worse death one year
on if the man fails to deliver.

The man is upbraided by his friends for his foolishness. He responds: “I have
gained a year. In that year I might die. The king might die. The horse might
die. The king might change his mind. And who knows….I might even teach the
horse to talk.” The moral being that much can happen in a year. The corollary
is that forecasting what will happen can be difficult.

Take the Irish Presidential election. By the time you read this Ireland will
have a new President. With seven candidates and given our quirky electoral
system, the race at this stage is too close to call . It has been fascinating.
The last two Presidents have, with style and energy, transformed a role that is
largely ceremonial, raising the stakes for all candidates this time round. The
attempt by Sinn Fein to supplant Fianna Fail as the major opposition force by
running its strongest candidate , Martin McGuinness, has added to the contest.

Indeed who wins is just one of the interesting aspects of the campaign. The
results, including the voting transfers between the candidates, will be studied
closely to see whether the remarkable outcome of the general election last
February was a once-off or whether it marked a sea-change in Irish politics.
Together with the accompanying by-election – to fill the seat vacated by Brian
Lenihan’s death (what had been Fianna Fail’s only seat left in Dublin) – the
Presidential poll gives the first opportunity to stocktake.There are signs that
the Teflon coating on the new government is starting to crack with its room for
manoeuvre circumscribed by the IMF as the first painful budget approaches.

Certainly there is a new volatility among a large section of the Irish
electorate, a willingness to be ultra – critical and to “throw the bums out” if
they are perceived to have failed to deliver. In February this led to a
collapse in the Fianna Fail vote, with much of its traditional support seceding
along class lines, middle class to Fine Gael, working class to Labour,
republicans to Sinn Fein.

Since then Fianna Fail has signally failed to recover and has seen its support
decline further in the polls, culminating in its decision not to contest the
Presidential election. In vain has the party leadership pointed out that the
new government is doing little beyond following the Fianna Fail blueprint for
economic recovery. So far the electorate has seen through that one – the
programme for recovery, negotiated with EU and IMF guns to the head, would
never have been necessary in the first place had Fianna Fail not wrecked the
economy.

Fianna Fail now faces a challenge for its self-proclaimed Republican soul, this
time in a head to head with Sinn Fein, which is also stealing what is left of
its populist quasi left-wing appeal. It can do nothing about it as it still
tarred with the brush of economic mismanagement as well as the harsh programme
of recovery. The omens do not appear good. Already some analysts are drawing
analogies with what happened in Northern Ireland, where Sinn Fein has
shouldered aside the SDLP.

Sinn Fein has a formidable party machine and a hard –headed leadership. And, it
should not be forgotten, two decades ago a sizeable rump of the political wing
of the Official IRA began the odyssey that led to membership of a government
coalition (as the Democratic Left), before eventually merging with the Labour
Party, where it soon took over leadership. Could this process be about to be
repeated, ceteris paribus?

Lest we forget, however, these events in Ireland have a slightly “phoney war”
feel to them They are taking place against the background of on-going
uncertainty in the international economy We have our own problems, and we are grappling
with them. Indeed we’ve earned brownie points for being the good guys and
taking our medicine within the EU, unlike the Greeks. The current popular line
is that Ireland will be well placed to take advantage of the world economic
recovery, when it comes. In one form or another all the political parties buy
into this line.

Whether we can deal with the debt mountain tends to be glossed over, or, in a
classic example of doublethink, our debt is dismissed as being something that
will be subsumed in the new arrangements to follow a realignment of the world
financial situation.This may well be, but there seems little or no appreciation
of, and certainly no informed debate on, the collateral damage for Ireland that
any such realignment would entail or, indeed of the type of catastrophic global
economic situation which would necessitate such a realignment.

The Left, with Sinn Fein as cheerleader in chief, has embraced with enthusiasm
the localised alternative of a national debt default. This tends to be viewed
through Micawberish spectacles, an approach reinforced, up to now, by the
perceived pussyfooting approach of the EU heavy hitters to the struggles of
Greece actually to implement a rolling programme of austerity. The grim reality
of what was involved for ordinary people when Argentina defaulted, or when the
Russian economy collapsed, has had little airing here. What happened in a
remote country far away could never happen to Ireland! Sadly, it could.

Here again crystal ball gazing can prove difficult. The international economy
may well go into meltdown. As the cliché would have it we are now in uncharted
waters.And if the world economy does collapse the next generation of economic
commentators and pundits will point to the events of the last three years-
since Lehman collapsed – and will conclude that the signs were there for all to
see, that there was a sequence of events almost teleological in nature which
brought about the collapse.Frankly the only things clear at the moment are that
the future is a hidden book and that the major political leaders worldwide are
agreed only on their fear of the unknown and what the future may bring.

Much can happen in a year. Greece may well default over the next twelve months,
in a process that began earlier and with consequences that will long persist.
Ireland seems to have bottomed out economically in some respects but the when
and how of recovery is contingent on many factors. We may get a helping hand –
Eurobonds or a common Eurozone debt have been talked about. So has a
fundamental restructuring of the Euro and the EU constitution itself.There are
even references to how the young USA launched the Dollar in 1790. What will
happen? Who can tell? The political obstacles to surmount seem almost as
formidable as teaching a horse to talk.”