Lá Fhéile Pádraig Shona Daoibh!

A chairde,

I’m sorry.

I’m going to resume a much more regular posting schedule soon. Expect some half-baked musings for the “Big ideas” section,an update on preparations for Frau B’s 96th birthday and hopefully some anecdotes about an upcoming trip to the island of Rügen. pat

In the meantime though, I’d like to wish you all a wonderful St Patrick’s Day. I was lucky enough to attend not one but two  events here in Berlin to mark the occasion. One took place at the top of the television tower on Alexander Platz, the other in a Kreuzberg club which defied its dingy exterior to reveal a glorious Irish haven inside. With tea and biscuits on sale, bowls of potatoes on display and a spectacular performance by Jigs and Reels, an Irish dancing school in Berlin (run by a friend of mine) I felt as if I’d been transported right back to the homeland.

As you can see from the picture, LSB and I are fully embracing our Irishness for the day that’s in it.

Slán go fóill,


#Occupydamestreet exposes what’s good about Ireland

I admire the Occupy Dame Street protesters. On a night like this, as the wind pounds on my window panes and the rain pours down, I imagine them huddled together discussing the agenda for the day ahead. They are a peaceful bunch, who have spent their days postering trees with quotes from Fight Club rather than hurling abuse at the workers whose premises they occupy.

In spite of my self-confessed lack of understanding of the economy, I don’t share their belief that bankers represent the evil 1% of the population and that 99% (the “rest of us”) are their unequivocal victims. It can’t be as simple as that. I’m also not sure whether the protest has any concrete aim but it is certainly drawing attention to the displeasure of many as a result of the actions of few.

What really interests me about this protest is how it exposes the Good in our society.

Here are a group of people occupying a central location and plastering around it slogans determined to undermine the country’s main financial institution.

And yet, it’s peaceful. No aggressive guard has entered the scene, and yelled “Hey, you angry hippy, move it or I’ll shoot”. No protester has screamed abuse at the passing bankers to which they attribute a decline in society’s moral code.

Instead, the public casts a glance, takes a look around, enjoys a talk with a protester about the meaning of life and ambles on, equipped to make its own mind up.

The Occupydamestreet movement tells me a lot about what’s right with this country; the assurances that we take for granted are those for which so many of the Arab Spring protesters have died for.

So inspired have I been by #occupydamestreet that I’m off to #occupywallstreet in the morning. I’m visiting my sister in Philadelphia. She emigrated there two years ago, but not before hosting an “emigrate-like-its-a-recession-party”. When I ask her about her job she tells me that she analyses butt samples but I have a funny feeling there might be a little more to the job of geneticist than that. I’m gutted to be missing the election. If there’s anybody apathetic enough to vote for my first choice I’d be most obliged. Mail me privately for my politics.

I intend to update you on my travels in the Free World but should that not be possible, I will record my thoughts in my little blue copy book and transcribe them at a later date. See you on the other side of the Atlantic!

Irish judges above the law? Objection!

A small and silent rebellion is taking place on our shores. Though they remain anonymous, the twenty-two dissenters are known to carry hammers. A number among them are purported to disguise themselves with a mass of white curls, which they pin to their heads. They are protected by Article 35 of the Constitution and the extent of that defence will be put to the Irish people in a referendum next September. Should it be passed, the band of twenty-two judges who have elected not to make a voluntary contribution to the revenue in lieu of the levies imposed upon all other public sector workers will be forced to take a cut in pay as their 126 colleagues have already seen fit to do.

The judiciary must remain independent, so for that reason Article 35.5 of Bunreacht na hEireann states simply that The remuneration of a judge shall not be reduced during his continuance in office. From a political, psychological and economic perspective such reasoning is utterly non sequential.

Given that the aim of such a clause appears to be to prevent judges from state influence, that purpose is itself contradicted by a notable omission. Judges’ pay may not be reduced but it may be increased at the whim of a minister looking for a favour, for example. The possibility of a salary rise is the principle behind performance-related pay, which employers use as an incentive in order to encourage workers to perform in line with their expectations and desires.

The difference between loss aversion; working to avoid a drop in salary and performance-related pay is trivial from a psychological perspective. As a motivating factor, the distinction lies in personality type: some people are more encouraged by risk avoidance and others by self-advancement. There is no reason why judges should be disproportionately oriented toward the former.

There is another principle that has been overlooked in the omission in Article 35.5 however, which is psychologically universal. You see, if somebody does you a good turn, you like to return the favour. If the Minister decides to increase pay, there’s a niggling, self-imposed obligation to display gratitude by performing in accordance with his desires. Social theorists have called it Reciprocal Determinism and in everyday parlance we say: I scratch your back; you scratch mine.

Of course, all of this speculation treats the individual as a machine: you put this in and you get that out. The prospect that judges will carry out their duties in relation to their salary is akin to considering that teachers will write report cards for students in accordance to their pay slip and that a nurse’s bedside manner fluctuates in tandem with his or her remuneration. It’s well known that poor conditions lead to sloppy work but in the case of judges, sloppy work results in poor decision making generally rather than in partiality.

Furthermore, where an entire class of workers is in question, an individual is less likely to respond with venom than in a case where their pay alone has been cut.

Where the issue of judicial partiality arises glaringly obviously is in the appointment procedure. Since candidates need to be selected by the Oireachtas and favoured by the president, the hope of a justice system independent of political influence is thwarted before it has any hope of being established.

This Septermber, when the people cast their votes to elect their president they are by extension influencing the selection of their future judges. It is this cosy relationship between politics and judicial administration which Article 35.5 sustains rather than prevents.

The measures taken by the new government to curb these relationships have so far been encouraging. Leo Varadkar’s threat not to reappoint all seven of the board members of the DAA should the bonus allotted to Chief Executive Brendan Collier not be reversed is a sign that a new era of political responsibility might be upon us. Brendan Howlin’s plan to cap salaries of future Chief Executives of Commercial state companies is also a signal that politics is moving away from its traditional links with largescale enterprise.

As they beat their hammers on their oak writing tables and whisper “Objection” in advance of September’s Referendum, the twenty-two dissenters will inevitably privately concede that the scrapping of Article 35.5 represents good riddance to bad rubbish. Objection over-ruled.

Enda Kenny: The teacher that Ireland needs?

If Ireland loves an underdog story, it has all it could wish for in Taoiseach Enda Kenny. In less than a year, he has gone from leader of an opposition party whom nine members of his front bench did not support to heading a government party with an approval rating of 41%.

Resilience, tenacity and no small amount of luck have been the hallmarks of his success.

Though his entry into the Dáil at age 24 may have been facilitated by the vacancy of his late father’s seat, his rise in that chamber came gradually and faced its fair share of setbacks.

He spent nearly 10 years on the opposition benches and failed to be promoted when Garret Fitzgerald became Taoiseach in 1981 and 1982. In 2001 when John Bruton resigned leadership of the party following a vote of no confidence, Kenny contested the leadership unsuccessfully. The following year, when Fine Gael suffered its worst ever electoral performance, he was reported to have prepared a concession speech in anticipation of losing his seat, though he did in fact manage to take the third of five seats in his constituency.

Enda Kenny’s strength lies considerably less in his rhetoric than in its tone. He can inject equal measures of passion into expressing indignation at Fianna Fáil’s “crippling government” and pride at Ireland’s “performance” on the world stage during the recent state visits.

And of course he’s had serendipity on his side too. Not only did he replace the least popular government in Ireland’s history but he has also hosted impeccably staged visits from the two most important heads of state, from Ireland’s perspective.

Kenny himself describes his leadership as teacherish. In fact the four years he spent working as a primary school teacher (before he was elected to Dáil Eireann at only 24) would have entitled him to draw a pension of €100,000 in April of this year, having in his own words “simply being paying into it” since his excedingly premature retirement.

Though it has been thirty-six years since Enda Kenny taught the times tables, his performance in office thus far indicates that his politico-teaching strategy may well be amounting to quite a success.

He told Ryan Tubridy on the Late Late Show that he intended handing over report cards to his minsiters and made a point of expressing pride in his people’s performance during the state visits. He even went as far as explictly pointing out that not one person had “shamed him” – as if he were a trainee teacher and Ireland his trophy class performing for an inspector. In this way, Kenny espoused the essential quailities of a conscientous teacher: a tendency toward supervision, evauluation and praise when merited. At the same time he let slip the less popular characteristics of didacticism and condescension.

It will take immense ambition and steadiness to reawaken the disillusioned pupil that Ireland has become. But as somebody who has suffered his own setbacks and flings with public opinion, a teacher that genuinely cares could just be what Ireland needs at this time. After a long hiatus, Enda Kenny’s teaching career has now begun in earnest.

A blast from the past: Bertie Ahern’s Irish legacy

Bertie Ahern’s blend of endearing naivety and wily opportunism is representative of a peculiarly Irish mindset, which has dominated the body politic for at least the last decade.

Bertie Ahern is grinning up at me with scrunched up nose and open-topped shirt. I find him perched comfortably at the top of page 70 of the July 4 edition of the Irish News of the World, where he has conceded that “there are questions to be answered and issues to be resolved” and that “all of the players should realise that it is time to hold their hands up and then move on.” In his capacity as sports columnist for the aforementioned publication, he is of course referring to England’s dismal performance in the world cup. His blend of endearing naivety and wily opportunism is representative of a peculiarly Irish mindset, which has dominated the body politic for at least the last decade.

As its most successful exponent, Bertie Ahern stood smiling over the country throughout its period of extraordinary prosperity and glided to a swift resignation conveniently in advance of its crippling economic demise. At the launch of his autobiography last year, he told David Frost that accusations that he had received bribes from property developers were unfounded and based on nothing more than that ‘one guy said that the other fellow told him he did’. A polished Cleggeron he may not be, but his colloquial circumlocution renders him a similarly slick smooth – speaker.

The Irish gift of the gab is not just about sliding through the nets though. Our eager benevolence and uncomplicated approachability represent the ideal of a mobilised community spirit. When Joe Duffy spoke recently to a woman living in the west of Ireland who confessed to feeling lonely and depressed in her surroundings, within minutes calls flooded in from strangers offering chats over cups of tea and spare rooms in Dublin, where she was on a housing waiting list. With similar vehemence, homeless charities have launched an impressive campaign against the demolition of empty houses in the outskirts, suggesting instead that they be made available to shelter the homeless.

I was born an invincible Celtic tiger cub and have developed lately into a scavenging graduate, competing to take on unpaid work so that some day a philanthropist will discover an archive of my eclectic and unpublished scribblings and plead with me if they may not immortalise them in serialisation – at any price. Like Ireland’s dream of winning the world cup, it is a goal worth striving towards in the strangely reassuring certainty that it will never be achieved. It is this paradoxical conviction of both success and failure, which makes possible the symbiotic relationship between self-deprecation and delusion, which has contributed to Ireland’s staggering economic rise and fall.

Bertie Ahern’s curious decision to keep his money under his mattress rather than in a bank account is the mark of both madman and genius, each masquerading as the quietly quotidian everyman, drinking still as Taoiseach in his local pub and insisting on going to Mass every week in spite of his cohabiting relationship with a woman not his wife. Paradox and irony thrive in a culture where emotion is self-consciously privileged over intellect. When Ireland rejected the Lisbon treaty, it did so with an impish ‘let’s see what happens’ attitude. The ‘No’ vote was not an indictment of Europe, but rather a concentrated attempt to get on the government’s nerves. After all, they had burst our bubble. Having wedged ourselves between Scylla and Charybdis, we grinned and voted ourselves out second-time round, much to the annoyance of the UKIP.

In a televised debate about head shops, it was claimed by a frustrated liberal that Ireland is a country where laws are set “not by experts but by Joe Duffy”. Indeed, when our former Taoiseach concludes as sports expert from the pages of a tabloid that “no one person should be made to be the scapegoat for what was a collective failure” one can only smile at the audacious success of his opportunism and shake one’s head at the grave irony of his accompanying naivety.