Saturday, March 22, 2014
On the night of the last general election, a victorious Enda Kenny went on TV and set out his strategy for governing.
“Paddy likes to know what the story is,” he said. This was the Taoiseach-elect’s home-spun version of openness, transparency and accountability.
His message was clear; no more would Paddy be ruled by a government of dodgy friends and dodgier values; there was a new sheriff in town, trailing a bag of bright, shiny values.
Since then, Kenny has done the job with precious little reference to Paddy’s reputed fondness for knowing the story. He pointedly avoids the media interviews that are routine for most leaders in the western world. He has emulated Bertie Ahern in moulding the ‘doorstep interview’ into an art form. His government operates largely as its predecessor did. Instead of a jaded Fianna Fáil, punch drunk from being too long in power, we got an arrogant coalition, cock-a-hoop on their huge parliamentary majority.
Instead of leading, however, Kenny has performed other duties.
In the first, he offers a sunny disposition to gee up the populace and lift national spirits off the floor. This strategy has worked to a certain extent. His sound-bytes and demeanour are in sharp contrast to the dour countenance habitually worn by his predecessor, Brian Cowen.
At a time when governing has been completely constrained by global corporate finance, and in this country by the Troika, looking the business has been a large part of the job.
Kenny’s other role has been as salesman-in-chief for the country. Again, in this he has been relatively successful. He’s a great man for the bonhomie, cracking a joke with Angela here, breaking bread with a herd of oily shieks there. He has been willing to pay the price of seeming like a craven Paddy extending a paw for a handout. He has endured the pats on the head from European leaders, who know that the Irish people had the banking debts of the EU shoved down their throats.
Over the St Patrick’s Day weekend, in the USA, he was flogging to beat the band.
Addressing the US chamber of commerce, he sounded like the go-to guy from the best small country in the world in which to do business.
“If you got a problem, you have an issue or anxiety or concern or a proposition or a proposal, I want to hear it,” he said. “My number is a public number. You can call me anytime.”
That went down a bomb with the boys and girls of the US chamber of commerce.
Like all good salespeople, he glides over the specifics, and concentrates on the sell, the big picture, the realisation of dreams.
Sums, for example, are not a strong point.
Last week, he told a business gathering in New York: “If you had 30,000 three-bedroom detached houses, you’d sell them all in a week. That’s the pent-up demand that’s there.”
According to the property people, the actual demand for houses in the forthcoming year is 6,500. But who’s counting when you’re selling a dream? So there’s no doubt but that Mr Kenny is the cat’s pyjamas when it comes to smiling and selling.
But what about leadership? How is he on the tough decisions? He demonstrated some steel, last year, by facing down a small band of rebels who refused to vote for the abortion legislation. That was easy enough.
The tragic death of Savita Halappanavar, and pressure from Europe and the Labour Party, meant that legislation was inevitable. After that, it was just a matter of separating the ‘definitely maybes’ from the ‘definitely nots’ and casting the latter out into the wilderness.
Now, however, he is faced with a really tough political decision. Leo Varadkar’s call for garda commissioner Martin Callinan to withdraw his “disgusting” remarks about the two garda whistleblowers has opened a can of worms. Here, at last, is one way in which the current government does differ from its predecessor.
No Fianna Fáil minister in the last government would have broken ranks in this manner. Quite the opposite. The former TD, Jim Glennon, has spoken publicly about how, at the height of Ahern’s tribunal woes, Glennon raised the issue in a parliamentary party meeting, saying that the whole country was talking about it.
Glennon said that his observation was met with silence.
Until last Thursday, most within the Government were similarly willing to lodge their heads in the sand over the now discredited positions of both Commissioner Callinan and Alan Shatter, in relation to the whistlebowers. Both men had been hostile to Sergeant Maurice McCabe and retired garda John Wilson. Both men attempted to blacken the whistleblowers’ characters in Oireachtas hearings; Callinan at the Public Accounts Committee, and Shatter in the Dail, when he said the whistleblowers had failed to co-operate with the garda inquiry into the penalty points affair. Neither the commissioner nor the minister had offered any protection to two gardaí whose actions Varadkar has hailed as “distinguished”.
Now that the truth has been laid bare, Shatter and Callinan are between rock and hard place.
Both could apologise for their respective remarks, admitting that they got it wrong. However, the remarks were only symptomatic of a wider hostility both displayed towards the whistleblowers.
Within ‘the force’, Sergeant McCabe, and former garda Wilson, prior to his retirement, received no protection and were subjected to what they believe was constant harassment.
In the public domain, Shatter has, since late 2012, repeatedly framed statements about the whistleblowers, and their allegations, in tones ranging from scepticism to hostility. Never once did he offer any protection to them.
Are their positions sustainable? Apart from Varadkar, Simon Coveney offered implicit criticism of the treatment of the two whistleblowers, in the Sunday Independent last week. The Labour Party members are quite obviously at one with Varadkar.
Prior to recent months, Shatter was a close confidante of Kenny’s, one of the few party heavyweights in Dublin who stuck by the Taoiseach during the attempted leadership heave in 2010. Shatter has also been a hardworking and progressive minister outside of the travails he has brought on himself through blind loyalty to the judgement of the commissioner.
Telling Shatter to repent or go won’t be easy for Kenny, but that’s the stuff of leadership. Paddy, as the Taoiseach said, likes to know the story. And if things are let stand as they are, Paddy will be kept in the dark, because openness and transparency require men and women of courage to stand up and call out malpractice and wrongs, where they see them.
Will anybody so inclined actually follow through on their instincts, when two of the most powerful office-holders in the country are allowed to attack whistleblowers with impunity? It’s high time for the Taosieach to man up and do what’s right by the country, rather than give regard to narrow political considerations.
The time for smiling and selling is past. Proper leadership requires no less.
By Michael Clifford
I met Mad Bob in New York in 1994 on a building site. He had earned his title by his schizophrenic and deeply paranoid personality. He looked the part then as well: 6’ 5” tall, blond haired with broad shoulders and bulging muscles from working in the gym, while taking steroids with a little coke on top to keep it all looking good. His first touch with infamy was 10 years before that.
He was riding on the subway after a long day working as a labourer in Manhattan when a slightly built African American, suffering the affects of too much drugs as well, menaced Bob for money by holding a screwdriver to his neck. He may not have seen too well either for one long studious look at Bob would tell most people to stay away. Not this man. Bob pulled out his long serrated knife that he kept in his leg holster hidden by his pants and swiftly set to work on his would be mugger before he knew it was too late. Twenty seven stab wounds later the man was dead long before Bob tried to remove his head from his shoulders. Bob was sentenced to ten years in prison with the chance of parole for simple overkill. The judge noted in his judgement that the first two stabs wounds meted out by Bob might be classed as self defence but the other twenty five along with the attempted decapitation was murder. And so it was that Bob went to prison for the first time; it would not be his last.
To be continued..........
By Barry Clifford
Thursday, March 20, 2014
“Critics are like eunuchs in a harem; they know how it's done, they've seen it done every day, but they're unable to do it themselves.”
“When I came back to Dublin I was court-martialled in my absence, and sentenced to death in my absence, so I said they could shoot me in my absence.”
“What the hell difference does it make, left or right? There were good men lost on both sides.”
“I have a total irreverence for anything connected with society except that which makes the roads safer, the beer stronger, the food cheaper and the old men and old women warmer in the winter and happier in the summer.”
“The big difference between sex for money and sex for free is that sex for money usually costs a lot less.”
“Shakespeare said pretty well everything about life and what he left out, James Joyce, put in.”
LIKE Oscar Wilde before him, Brendan Behan arrived in America with the Irish writer’s license to be different. Like Wilde, Behan arrived with a quip. When it was observed at Idlewild Airport (now JFK) in New York in 1960 that, being so famous, he would be used to the police escort, Behan reported that his reply was, “Yes, though usually in handcuffs”.
What Wilde said about his own career is also true of Behan’s: he put merely his talent into his work, but his genius into his life. Sadly, Behan’s genius was for shirking the responsibilities of his talent, and for creating a persona that allowed him to do so in a way that played up to the expected national stereotypes.
Of course, being an artist and making art are very different things, and as Behan’s indulgence of the role of drunken Irish writer took over, his days of an artist came to an end. A powerful and original writer failed to live up to his potential and ended up dictating dull, pretentious name-dropping accounts of his sad adventures among the famous names of his day: Elizabeth Taylor, Jackie Gleeson, Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller, Groucho Marx, Bob Dylan, and so on.
Behan in this later period of his life was cementing his legacy in sound bites. It is they that live on now, plastered on cards and the walls of pubs; he is an advert for drinking culture, when he should be a warning against it. To watch him in his Faustian pomp, on US chat shows of the early 1960s, is to see a boring drunk. He left New York for the last time in 1963, and was dead mere months later, at 41.
It is difficult to detect in this declining Behan the subtleties of Anthony Cronin’s portrait in his memoir Dead as Doornails, from the early years when Behan was still an occasional tradesman: “You could not in fact have a better companion in a day’s idleness than Brendan. He was a kaleidoscopic entertainment, but he was also fecund in serious ideas. He had a line in bemused wonderment about the activities of the world which was only partly an affectation, for he was genuinely naive in certain ways and genuinely full of questioning.”
Cronin’s portrait is of a “sensitive, intelligent and over-imaginative” person; someone “bound to make a hames” of his development. In Behan, that “hames” was the irreconcilable difference between a know-all public persona, and a private self that struggled with what Cronin calls “difficulties and bewilderments”. With the benefit of hindsight, Cronin pinpoints the core of Behan’s dilemma. Writing, he says, “as a way of sorting himself out through the rigours, honesties and ironies of art, was largely useless to him”.
But whether or not Behan’s art was useless to him, his talent did produce one masterpiece, Borstal Boy. It was typical of Ireland at the time that, while the drunken caricature of Behan was deemed acceptable, the book, which charted his development from IRA reactionary to independent thinker, was duly banned. The Behan who wrote that book sorely needed his country’s embrace, but did not get it; his country sorely needed to follow him down the same road, but did not — with deadly consequences.
Official Ireland has now literally given Behan the stamp of approval, via An Post, but it turned its back on him as a playwright as well as a memoirist. His first play, 1954’s The Quare Fellow, was rejected by the Abbey Theatre and the Gate. It was staged by the brave couple Alan Simpson and Carolyn Swift, at the Pike Theatre in Dublin.
The Quare Fellow paved the way for Behan’s exit from Ireland. He followed it with his Irish play, An Giall, which he eventually adapted as the successful The Hostage, which opened in Stratford in 1958. In the play, a Cockney soldier is held by IRA men above a boarding house, his fate to be determined by that of an IRA prisoner set to be hanged. The English version of the play is long and loose and self-reflexive, full of bar-room garrulousness, rowdy choruses and bad jokes. Behan said of it: “The music hall is the thing to aim for to amuse people and any time they get bored divert them with a song or a dance.” Yet all the vaudeville mugging and capering cannot fully mask a dear-held political morality. Behan takes neither the English nor the Irish side. For him, political extremism is inhumanity; “liberators” can soon turn oppressors. If anything, he takes the part of the Cockney in The Hostage, his Border-campaign republicans cast as a Gestapo in green.
Both An Giall and The Hostage have their flaws, but in them, and in Borstal Boy, Behan became one of the most important things a writer can be — an intelligent, informed critic of his society’s received wisdom, a slayer of its sacred cows.
We would do well to heed Behan’s hard-won scepticism of political violence as we approach the centenary of this state’s deeply problematic foundation myth. And, while his plays may not have the lingering power of O’Casey, there is surely something for an enterprising director to approach between An Giall and The Hostage — two imperfect works that, with some judicious editing, could offer much potential for revival. Now that would be a fitting tribute on the 50th anniversary of his passing.
By Alan O’Riordan