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Saturday, December 12, 2015

Please release us from this silly season of politicians

HE EMERGED into freedom, blinking as the cameras flashed, like someonewho had travelled from Victorian times. His hair was long, unkempt, uncut, all over the shop, whitened from age, as if he’d spent his incarceration in a dungeon, chained to a wall. His beard wasn’t much better.
Yet here he was after 7,200 long seconds, back in the real world — handed a chance to finally get on with his life. So began Mick Wallace’s first moments of freedom after his imprisonment on Wednesday for failing to pay a fine.

The fine arose from a guilty verdict against him and his confederate Clare Daly for breaching security at Shannon Airport in July 2014. Later on that evening, Daly was subjected to an equally gruelling spell in stir, but she did her time with stoic defiance, and also emerged two hours after the key had been turned on her freedom.
The release of the Shannon Two was just one of a number of instances during the week that gave us a glimpse of modern Ireland as we head towards the centenary of the Rising to commemorate who we are. Or something like that.
There was much derision and anger heaped on the Shannon Two over the use of Garda resources to have them brought to Limerick to do their time.

Perhaps resources could have been put to better use, but on the same day a Garda Inspectorate report was published which suggested that garda resources are mismanaged to a chronic extent, what’s the big deal about four officers driving around the country for a day when hundreds are apparently sitting behind desks twiddling their thumbs?

Others grumbled that Wallace and Daly were lawmakers who were breaking the law.
Maybe so, but at least they did so on a matter of principle. Look at the huge cohort of councillors — and a clutch of TDs — who improperly filled out their declarations of interest, as exposed on the RTÉ Investigates programme. They didn’t have much regard for the law either.
Among those who considered the whole incident with distaste was Health Minister Leo Varadkar.
He was doing press on Wednesday for new legislation which will bring in unit pricing for alcohol and restrictions on advertising.

This proposed legislation follows recommendations from an expert group that reported in 2012. Now, with the Dáil on the cusp of dissolving, the Government announces the changes.
There isn’t a hope that the legislation will be passed in time, but at least Leo got some PR and the drinks industry managed to get the whole thing delayed.

Anyway, when Leo was asked about the Shannon Two, at the launch, he had this to say: “I imagine they [Wallace and Daly] will argue they did this as a form of protest and that is a decision for them.
"It does occur to me the instability that might arise from having a government that is dependent on independents for support.

"Because you might come to an agreement with some independents in order to form a government but then you might find those independents are in jail because of a protest and the government falls.”
Did you get that?
Leo Varadkar, the apparently straight- talking minister, is saying that you shouldn’t vote independent because your TD might end up in prison, triggering the collapse of government.
Not just that.

He is hinting that a vote for an independent might clog up the already overcrowded prison system. Cabinet meetings may have to be relocated to Mountjoy or moved to Cork Prison, and take place within visiting hours.
Perhaps Leo is searching for a slogan that echoes with that which informed the infancy of democracy in this State, when senior figures languished in English jails. “Put him in to get him out,” it said on the election poster.

Maybe Leo is going to drum up something like: “Don’t put them in or we’ll have to get them out.” In any event the mask has now slipped on the extent to which Fine Gael will milk the “stability or chaos” tactic in the general election. The “chaos” option is being painted as more chaotic by the day.
While Varadkar was musing on jailbirds, his boss was in Leinster House having a pot at the man who would be president. In a pose that would elicit blushes from the editorial writer of the Skibbereen Eagle, Enda Kenny said he would “unreservedly condemn” the latest outpouring from the ridiculous Donald Trump.

He was reminded by Richard Boyd Barrett that last year The Donald had been met at Shannon Airport by Michael Noonan “with a red carpet, harps and people in traditional Irish dress in what was frankly, even at the time, quite a ludicrous show of deference to this multi-billionaire”.

Word from Trump Towers in New York is that The Donald’s campaign is now on the rocks following this stab in the back from world leader Kenny.
(Before he attended the COP21 in Paris last week, where he managed to talk out of both sides of his mouth, Mr Kenny said he was off to confer with “other world leaders”.)
The smart money says The Donald will now go quietly and retreat to his Doonbeg golf course, where he will instead focus on scaling the rickety ladder of Irish politics, crowned with a new rug.
While there was enough silliness in Irish politics to go around last week, there was also something from dark side of stupid. The RTÉ investigation on Monday exposed, among others, councillor John O’Donnell in Donegal as seeking personal benefit from his public office.

O’Donnell was caught on camera indicating that he expected to be paid through an intermediary for assisting a reporter posing as a company representative.
O’Donnell is 34, was elected at the last election, and an independent. His credentials cast him as a new breed of politician at the frontline of changing times. Then he gets caught at the sleaziest end of the trade, in a manner that was supposed to be behind us.

What was interesting was his response. He issued a release to RTÉ, saying that he was a businessman and any payment he would have received would have been as a businessman.
He added: “RTÉ now proposes to reveal my business secrets, style and methods in your programme which could enable other entrepreneurs to copy them.” Far from being caught with his hand moving inexorably towards the till, Mr O’Donnell sees himself as an entrepreneur, straddling business and politics, using unique tactics which he developed himself, and now others will see how well he’s getting on and attempt to copy him.
Young, budding entrepreneurs — are you watching?
Michael Clifford

Friday, December 11, 2015


Russia is a vast country of great resources. It is also as Churchill said: “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”. What is not a mystery about Russia today when facing down a terrorist threat, is that it will not compromise nor give in to those threats. The only language a terrorist understands before he loses a bowel movement is terror itself, and one so great that all those virgins on the other side of his disconnected reality will not do it for him anymore. Churchill at the outset of World War 11 said on taking the reins of power: “All I have to offer you is blood, sweat, toil and tears.” It is the reality of suffering before the rewards of victory.

Here the enemy does not reside.....

....but here and what he stands for

The European federation is not working, formed in part as a military buffer in the imagined threat of an attack from Russia. It is amazing what the politics of fear can achieve. The Soviet Union is also a country that is larger than Europe by millions of  square miles and the largest country in the world, and yet because of that by and large, Europe tries to ignore it and their concerns. It is stupidity in the raw.

Every political leader needs a scapegoat, a pet peeve, in order that the citizen may take their eye off the ball long enough for them to stay in power or get re-elected. And that scapegoating has become standard against Vladimir Putin, even being compared at one time or another to Vlad the Impaler. Yet it is Russia who now brings the fight to ISIS and not the other way round, while Europe and the rest of the other democracies wring their hands in the posturing of crocodile tears and the blame game so they can keep things the way they are. Politicians do this by the long practice of subterfuge and lies. Nothing stays the same or the way they were for very long and now ISIS are the new street thugs around the corner.

It was Russia who were the first to fight alongside France side by side against ISIS. It was Russia that finally stopped Hitler when he went one goose-step too far into their country. Had he defeated Russia he would have defeated the world and all that they believed in, whether it was Communism, socialism, capitalism, and which included all religions whether they were extreme or not.

Europe's fate rests heavily on what is happening now should Russia fail in its task of fighting ISIS or their lesser known cousins. It is Russia again that we should be in support of and not against, for that is in effect fighting against ourselves and a battle we are bound to lose. They are again the buffer for a Europe in distress and under siege from outside and internal forces. 

There is no barrier against Russia that should be allowed to stand in the context of where she stands today on the world’s stage. The metaphors we use for England is the Lion that roars yet we call Russia ‘She.’ There may be more than a kernel of truth in it for she has shown the benevolence and understanding of a very patient woman; she also carries the fury of a real lion unlike the one with no courage in the Wizard Of Oz movie. There is the difference, and like the craven politics that engulfed Europe just before Hitler engulfed them that exist again today, we must not repeat the mistakes of the past. A divided Europe without Russia against ISIS is ripe for more murder and mayhem and it will go on until someone stops the murderers in their tracks with the families and networks that support them. 

We must also be clear on the surface and below it in our support of Russia even if it pains that they are doing what we know we ought to have done a long time ago. Without labouring on the causes of Middle East conflict, Russia did not have a hand in redrawing the borders there that have fostered the constant conflict and infighting without end that now threatens to go global. Churchill did most of that paperwork. The migrant issue that we have today will seem like a day full of butterflies in the future as we look back at the past. 

Russia is not the enemy and she needs to be told that. They are not the ones doing mass beheadings, or radicalising idiots with less brains than a flea; they are not doing hara kari at European football stadiums, nor shooting people in wheelchairs. What’s more, they have the iron and might to put to permanent rest the enemy that is ours too. What better way to start a dialogue of trust when that becomes clear to both sides even if it took only seventy years since the last war to know now that then we were on the same side too. It is not how things began that remains, but how they end for the victor will always get the spoils. Russia is not a mystery anymore and as if it ever really was.

Barry Clifford

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Does anybody really believe ethics in public office will be an election issue?

One of the most revealing details to emerge from Monday’s RTÉ Investigation Unit programme was the modus operandi of politicians who seek personal benefit these days.
Three serving county councillors secretly filmed indicated they would assist what they were led to believe was a company seeking to develop windfarms.
The undercover reporter, going by the name of Nina, claimed to be representing a London-based windfarm firm.

Donegal councillor John O’Donnell indicated that he would not be taking any personal benefit for his assistance. Instead, it would come through an intermediary.
He told Nina that a third party would be involved in assisting Nina’s “company”.
“Would we pay him for doing the work?” Nina asked in the secretly-filmed meeting.
“Yeah, you’d be paying him, I don’t want to be seen…” Mr O’Donnell replied.
“But, you’d get paid through him?” Nina asked.
“I’d get paid through him,” Mr O’Donnell confirmed, with a wink.

For Sligo councillor Joe Queenan, the benefit would take a more circuitous route. He suggested that at a future date Nina’s company might consider investing in one of his businesses.
Only Monaghan councillor of 40 years standing Hugh McElvaney was straight up: He wanted “loadsa money” if the venture was successful.
Just like the late TD Liam Lawlor, one of the great beneficiaries of Irish politics, Mr McElvaney offered to be a conduit between a company and the political system.

How far we’ve come. Back in 1973, when reporter Joe McAnthony first investigated planning corruption, he found a payment of £15,000 to Ray Burke was entered in the company accounts of a firm owned by builders Tom Brennan and Joe McGowan.

In the times that existed, the scandal was brushed over, and Mr McAnthony was forced to leave the country.
During the halcyon days of demented rezoning in the Dublin of the 1990s, Frank Dunlop had a system whereby political donations were paid to obliging councillors by cheque, while personal benefit was handed over in cash.

From Monday’s programme, it would seem that the only difference to emerge as a result of the likes of the Planning Tribunal is that benefit is conferred in a more opaque manner to ensure it is kept far from prying eyes.

That was one of the most shocking features of Monday’s revelations. Despite all that was uncovered through inquiries, such as the Planning Tribunal, some politicians — no doubt, a small minority — still feel that they can behave in the manner portrayed with complete impunity, once a few precautions are taken.
That assumption is rooted in the fact that there is a decades-old absence of the political will required to root out corruption or white-collar crime. In 1993, then environment minister Michael Smith declared that rezoning had become a “debased currency”.

At the same time, a series of articles in The Irish Times pointed to a corrupt culture of rezoning. Yet, the cabinet did not appear eager to find out why this was the case.
There was no commission set up to investigate whether this debased currency was as a result of personal inducements for votes. It was as if the national government preferred to turn a blind eye, lest they might upset either their own local representatives or the powerful landowners and developers.
The only reason there was a planning tribunal was the emergence of a whistleblower in the form of James Gogarty, who, for his own reasons, had a beef with some of the parties involved in making payments to Ray Burke.

The tribunals have resulted in a whole raft of laws being enacted, but, crucially, the commensurate powers or resources required to make the laws effective have been withheld.
The Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO) was set up in 2001, just as evidence from the Planning Tribunal was exposing wholesale corruption. Despite years of pleading for the right to independently investigate politicians, SIPO has for the last 15 years not been give the powers.
In 2007, when the smell was overpowering, the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement pleaded that he simply did not have the resources to do the job properly. Then taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, told the director Paul Appleby to get in the queue, despite the State being awash with money at the time.

A key recommendation of the Planning Tribunal was the establishment of an independent planning regulator. The current government severely watered down the proposed regulator’s powers and the legislation required won’t even be passed this side of the general election.

Just last year, senior counsel Remy Farrell told a conference that the regulatory agencies were so stretched by an “endemic” lack of resources that many reports into white-collar crime were not even being read by the authorities.
Political funding was another area where corruption found a space in which to rear its head.
Successive governments have brought in various laws that restrict funding.
Yet, the rules remain opaque. For instance, the main parties now declare little or no funding, because they ensure that it is all done below the limit at which declarations have to be made.

That is the background against which 40% of councillors were found in the RTÉ programme to have made incomplete declarations. If the national politicians are not taking corruption seriously, then why would these councillors take seriously their obligation to declare all interests that could potentially impact on their public duties? The culture of impunity will ensure that all those who have, in the last few weeks, rushed to correct the record, will not be subjected to sanction.
Most politicians are honest, certainly to the extent that honesty is interpreted in this society. Many of them are hyperactively careful as a result of the revelations over the last 15 years. It was notable on Monday’s programme that two councillors approached by Nina for a “confidential meeting” rebuffed the approach on the basis that confidentiality was requested.

Yet, the culture of “make us pure, Lord, but not yet” persists, and the political class are not acting in a vacuum in that regard. Two of the councillors fingered on the programme have resigned from their respective parties, Mr Queenan from Fianna Fáil and Mr McElvaney from Fine Gael.
The latter did so a fortnight ago, claiming that he couldn’t support his party’s stance on an energy matter in his native county, though he knew by then that the programme exposing his “loadsa money” request was in the offing.

In most developed democracies, the resignations would not have been from a party, but from public office. In most developed democracies, Monday’s programme might have involved a sense of shame, not to mention pressure from the general public to go.
Not so here. Instead of shame, we got bluster from Mr McElvaney, and a retreat into victimhood from Mr O’Donnell. Who knows, maybe either or both men believe, based on form, that their political careers can continue unabated.

After all, at a national level, does anybody really believe that ethics in public office will be a major issue at the next election?
Michael Clifford

Photo Minute: Guinness and after the night before......

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

In praise of Natalie" Dolly Sinatra

Crooner’s mother was one a of generation of strong, unafraid women without whom the world would be a less enlightened place

Frank Sinatra with his mother Natalie “Dolly” Sinatra in 1976. “Dolly was a doughty campaigner for women’s rights. She was an open advocate of the right to choose and, free of charge, helped organise illegal abortions for women in desperate straits.”

A hundred years ago this Saturday, on the kitchen table of a two-room apartment in a tenement building in Hoboken, New Jersey, Dolly Sinatra gave birth to a boy. It was not an easy delivery. Dolly was 19, tiny, under five feet, weighed 95 pounds. The labour lasted 30 hours. The doctor, when he came, clamped forceps on the baby’s head and, in Dolly’s words years later, “yanked him out”. He weighed in at 13.5lb. The forceps left severe scarring on his left cheek, his neck and ear.

The infant – “huge and blue, bleeding from his wounds and apparently dead,” according to a recent biography – was put down on the draining board beside the sink while the doctor frantically attended to Dolly’s ravaged body. She would never be able to have another child. A neighbour held the baby under cold water and began vigorously slapping its back. It coughed, snuffled and bawled.

Born in Genoa
Natalie Maria Garaventa had been born in Genoa in northern Italy on December 26th, 1896. It is said she was dubbed “Dolly” because she was such a pretty baby. The family emigrated to the United States when she was two. At 16, she met Antonio Martin Sinatra, two years older, who was intermittently employed as a shoemaker’s assistant and boxed as a bantamweight with middling success as Marty Irish O’Brien. (The Irish provided a better market for fighters than the Italians.) The Garaventa family was not happy. He was the illiterate son of Sicilian peasants. They were Genovese.

His family seemed to share a sense of the inappropriateness of the relationship and ordered Marty to end it. On St Valentine’s Day 1914 the couple eloped and got married in Jersey City without benefit of church blessing. Back in Hoboken, they found their tenement flat in Little Italy and moved in. For a considerable time, neither side spoke to them. To devout Catholics, the couple was not properly married at all, but living in sin.

The fact that Frank was to be an only child in a community of extended families teeming with children added to the oddness of the Sinatras’ situation. But Dolly was a go-getter and took nothing lying down. She was endlessly energetic, full of confidence and a natural organiser.

Speaking a number of Italian dialects as well as English fluently, she was regularly called on by Italian groups as translator between new immigrants and the agencies and statutory bodies with which they had to liaise.

She was a constant presence at hearings of citizenship applications. The connections which came with these roles were to make her a valuable recruit for the NewJersey Democrats.

The party machine was dominated by the Irish. But the Irish bosses needed Italian votes, too, to maintain control. Dolly was soon a “ward boss”, tasked with delivering a specific 800-1,000 votes every election, which she did. She was the first immigrant woman to hold such a position in New Jersey. Son Frank was regularly left all day with Jewish neighbours. She used the bit of political clout she now had to get Marty a job as a fireman, even though the position demanded a written examination and he could neither read nor write.

This was the era of Tammany Hall, when buying votes and bartering for jobs and preferment was just the way things were done. Since the Irish establishment owed her, Dolly was in a position to deliver jobs, favours, access to officials, etc, to the Italians whose votes she would later be coming for. She was close to successive Hoboken mayors.

But she was always more than a mere fixer. From her earliest tip-toe into the political arena, Dolly was a doughty campaigner for women’s rights. She was arrested with six others in 1919 for chaining themselves to the railings outside Hoboken town hall in support of votes for women. She was an open advocate of the right to choose and, free of charge, helped organise illegal abortions for women in desperate straits.
Dolly and Marty remained married for more than 50 years. He died in 1969. Not even the most assiduous dirt-diggers who have sifted through the Sinatra story have unearthed a sliver of personal scandal.

This is not to say Dolly was any sort of angel. She drank and she smoked and she swore. In later years, when Frank had become a successful entertainer and she had money to burn, she took to the gaming rooms of Las Vegas with considerable panache but, as always in Vegas, little sense. Many’s the night she measured her losses in thousands, and shrugged. Some would say she had earned the right.

She was one of a generation of strong, unafraid women without whom the world would be a less enlightened place. She was the little thing that meant a lot. She deserves to be remembered in her own right.
Eamon MCCann