Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Vile abuse and the inconvenient truth

How convenient. Just a few days before protest marches against Irish Water are set to take place all around the country, a video is uploaded onto You Tube which shows a small group of activists heaping abuse upon the President of Ireland outside a Dublin school last Friday afternoon.

For the Government, horrified by the sight of 100,000 people on the streets of Dublin late last year, the timing of the video release could not be better. By their reckoning, the abuse reinforces the message that those who oppose this new charge are members of a “sinister fringe”.

And then RTE News, seen by many on the left as nothing better than a propaganda machine for the same Government, makes the video the main item on the main evening news.

The message is simple: those who protest are unreasonable extremists, not to be trusted, incapable of rational debate.

Protesting against Irish Water in Galway city centre
When you view the video, it’s hard to argue. When people use words like “parasite”, “traitor” and “midget” against a President who was democratically elected by the people, they are doing themselves and their cause no favours.

They turn people away from marching, they reinforce the message that it’s only really the “loony left” who attend such things.

They completely damage a righteous cause when people all over Europe should be excited in this of all weeks, when the people of Greece dared to vote against austerity and swept a radical new left-wing party to power.

Syriza, and Podemos in Spain, have shown that change really is possible at a time when left wing activists in Ireland are still fighting among themselves.

It’s a huge pity that the politics of protest in this country have been hijacked by a vocal and abusive minority yet again.

There are some on the left who would rather see 50 than 50,000 at a protest, because they are so keen to hang onto the higher moral ground.

They are always happier on the outside, roaring into loudhailers, than winning people over to their cause.
By refusing to apologise for their despicable behaviour in targeting the President, a symbolic figure with few real powers, they turn a whole swathe of people off attending the kind of mass protests which caused the Government such headaches late last year.

People know it is wrong to make ordinary people pay a new water tax to a private company. People know it’s wrong that executives at the top of Irish Water, or those installing meters on their behalf, are being paid such obscene amounts of money.

Especially at a time when our hospitals are overcrowded and there is a homelessness crisis in our cities.
I used to follow a page called ‘Call For a Revolution in Ireland’ on Facebook. It contained some truly informative posts and updates from the underground, the marginalised, and people who are struggling to keep food on the table all around Ireland.

It portrayed a true picture of how much damage austerity was causing to ordinary, working-class people, who have simply had enough after seven years of bailing out bankers and bondholders at this stage.
But I gave up when I kept reading so many comments which were not only ill-informed, they contained vile personalised abuse against so many politicians.

I hope to attend the protest against Irish Water in Galway city centre this Saturday (Eyre Square, 1pm). But I’m also aware that so many people who saw the RTE News tonight will have been turned off ever attending another protest about this issue.

People should think before they post on Facebook, or before they hurl vile abuse at an elderly politician who has few real powers. 

If they really wanted politicians to stop Irish Water being enacted into law, people should have canvassed their own TDs – many of whom were in terror at the size of the protests – last November and December.
Roaring expletive led abuse at an elderly politician only alienates people who are genuinely fearful at having to pay yet another austerity bill.

At a time when people are waking up to the injustice of seeing so many pay so much for the crimes of so few, it’s terrible that the vile actions of a loud minority are tearing apart a campaign which had so much potential to create change just a few short months ago.

Instead of hurling abuse at Gardai and politicians, or fighting among themselves, Irish protesters still have an awful lot to learn. 

Instead of taking inspiration from Syriza’s success in Greece this week, angry Irish protesters have merely shot themselves in the foot yet again. 

And the happiest people of all are the Irish Government Ministers and the Irish Water executives, conscious that the actions of a few outside a Dublin school last Friday will scare many people away from the protests this weekend.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Perhaps this time, change really is in the air

During last May’s local election count, I interviewed Fianna Fail TD Eamon O Cuiv for the Connacht Tribune. In the midst of a discussion about how the count was going, he told me that there was “no such thing as right and left” in Irish politics.

It struck me as a very odd comment.

In virtually any other country in the world, there is a clear distinction between right wing parties (who favour big business and an open market economy) and those on the left (who feel that the poor should never be penalised for the wrong-doings of the rich).

Maggie Thatcher, for instance, was right wing. She sold off council houses, privatised as much as she could, and closed down the mines. She attacked the working class. Whereas the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, where I volunteered for three months, were idealistic left-wingers (at least in their early days) after overthrowing a right-wing dictatorship.

O Cuiv, of course, is steeped in Irish political history. His grandfather, Eamon De Valera, was Taoiseach three times and President of Ireland. Fianna Fail is in his blood.

People like him don’t like to be reminded that Ireland has effectively been run by centre-right parties since its foundation. If you took the Civil War out of the equation, can anyone really distinguish between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael?
If they were in Britain, both parties would be labelled as “Conservative”. It has never been a radical move by voters to replace one with the other. Instead, it has always boiled down to family loyalties and friendships. The parish pump has been the real driving force in Irish politics.

The danger is that a certain perception of the Irish political landscape can then somehow be deemed the one and only “reality”. If all the major parties support the ‘bailout’, you can be labelled a lunatic if you question whether there is another way.

The dominant narrative allows people to ridicule those who believe it is absolutely appalling that the low paid should have to bail out unsecured bondholders.

It allows an RTE newsreader to label idealistic protesters as “idiots” live on air.

It allows elements of the media to completely ignore the anger that is so prevalent across the country in the wake of seven years of austerity.

Images of Gardai confronting Irish Water protesters don't make the national airwaves, but those who do protest are labelled as the "sinister fringe".

An academic even claimed recently that people were only protesting over the Irish Water charges because things were getting better. He called it a “revolution of rising expectations”.

When the Troika came to Dublin in 2010, I was working as a volunteer in Central America. Canadians and Germans sympathised with me. Some wondered why there was not a greater spirit of rebellion among the Irish. I could not tell them why people back home were so down, so accepting of the imposition of austerity on ordinary people who had nothing to do with the “crisis” which followed the property crash.

People who never bought a second house or SUV were suddenly lumped with the Universal Social Charge, pay cuts, and the Local Property Tax, for no other reason than to bail out a tiny elite who had been consumed by greed during the Celtic Tiger era.

In 2011, support for the Fianna Fail-led Government imploded, but voters only replaced them with another centre-right coalition. Can anyone really claim that Government policies have changed since the night of the infamous bank guarantee in 2008?

It has been a horrible few years for the Irish, but now there are huge hints of change in the air.
In last year’s European Elections the people of the West, Midlands, and North West voted for two Independents, one Sinn Fein MEP, and one Fine Gael. The most conservative constituency in the country, supposedly, returned three protest (or left wing) candidates out of four – and only one from the ‘traditional’ parties (FF, FG, and Labour).

A protest against Irish Water drew 100,000 people onto the streets of Dublin a few months ago. That would have been unthinkable half a decade ago. These were ordinary people, fed up with austerity, fed up with quangos, and the ‘bonus culture’ and sense of entitlement of those who rise to the top of these kinds of organisations.

For many people, the obscene bonuses and the sight of water meters being installed in their estates came as a final straw. 

All around Europe this week, there were stark warnings from right wing politicians and mainstream media that the Eurozone was about to be plunged into turmoil if the left-wing party, Syriza, won the Greek general election.

Fair play to the people of Greece. They have had enough of austerity, unemployment, and job cuts. They are tired of paying a price for the sins of others. And they were not afraid to defy the stark warnings in Sunday’s elections.

Syriza have pledged to renegotiate the country’s €240 billion bailouts, just as businesses regularly restructure their debts. Greece’s debt is equivalent to 175% of its GDP and the Greeks, like the Irish, need some hope after years of cuts.

Of course, Syriza’s victory has sent “shockwaves” through the markets, with speculation that Greece will default and have to leave the Eurozone.

But, amid all the stark warnings, the Greek people still went out and voted for the hard left.

While our hospitals remain overcrowded, while homelessness continues to be a huge problem, and the jobless rate is disguised through JobBridge and community employment schemes, the rise of Syriza should provide a stark lesson to Enda Kenny and company in the Irish Government.

In the second half of last year, the Irish Water demonstrations all over the country showed that people here are prepared to get out and protest – in one of the least radical countries in Europe. 

It will be interesting to see what happens in Greece now and whether the stark predictions of a Eurozone exit will materialise. 

By choosing to vote for Syriza, Greek voters have dared to question the perceived “reality” in which it is perfectly acceptable for ordinary people to bail out bankers and bondholders. 

The people have spoken. All across Europe, in Spain, Ireland, and Portugal, change is in the air.
And perhaps people here are beginning to realise that replacing FF with FG, or vice-versa, is not the only answer come election time.

Nobody wants to see a host of Independents bring instability to the Dail. But, equally, voters want to express their anger at the establishment parties after putting up with austerity for so long.

The next year or two could be very exciting indeed in Irish politics as a “wind of change” brings an end, finally, to the politics of the Civil War. It has only taken us just under a century to fall in line with the rest of the world!

Monday, January 19, 2015

Destroying the present with irrational fears

Fear is such a strange thing.

It can grip virtually all of us in different ways and different settings - and it's truly amazing to note the different ways in which people react to day-to-day situations.

When I worked as a volunteer in Nicaragua, I was amazed by the irrational fears of many North Americans. They didn't trust the local people, because they lived in such poverty, so they would do whatever they could to avoid them on travels around the country.

They would pay $25 to get a 'gringo shuttle', a minibus which was only for foreigners, for a two hour trip to the coast, whereas I had no problems spending €2 to travel the same route on the 'chicken buses' favoured by the locals.

If anything, I found the local buses to be much better fun, watching people haul chickens or bags of cement or half a dozen children on board. They would pass the children around among strangers, because Nicaraguans don't really understand the concept of 'strangers'. Their community spirit reminded me of my Granny's home village in East Galway. And it seemed so alien to the irrational concerns of the American expats.

It helped that I spoke Spanish, but the truth was that interacting with the locals was half the fun during weekends away. If I'd listened to many Americans, and their fears, I would have missed out on such adventures. People had warned of car-jackings or tourists being forced to withdraw cash from ATMs after taking 'collectivo' taxis.

Nicaraguans themselves have a fear of silence. Which is why bus drivers get to install huge sound systems and you can have salsa and reggaeton blaring for the entire journey between two provincial cities. Even 70- and 80-year olds prefer loud music to total silence on their journeys around their land.

I was amazed, too, by the irrational fear many Americans in Central America had of Muslims. I lost count of the amount of North Americans who would ask me how many Muslims there were in my country. Most of them had never been to Ireland and I found it really strange that it was one of the first questions they would ask about my native land.

It seems that, post-9/11, Muslims have become some sort of new enemy. Or we've regressed to the era of the Crusades.

When I told people from Texas or New Mexico that I had been to Egypt a dozen times, and loved the place, they would be shocked at my perceived bravery. They would not believe me when I said it was a very safe country (at the time) or that the locals were lovely people.

People would also be shocked that I had scuba dived over 300 times. Some people simply have an irrational fear of water, others of anything that involves change. I myself was gripped by fear before I went to Central America and all my fears were completely unfounded. Despite travelling alone to many parts of Nicaragua, and staying out late in Granada, I was never robbed or held up at gunpoint.

There seems to be a fear of Muslims gripping the people of Europe now, in the wake of the horrible attack on the Charlie Hebdo staff in Paris.

At the weekend, I heard one old friend say that she "didn't like Muslims" ... as though she meets many of them in her day-to-day life in Galway. She would not rent out an apartment to them, for example, she told me.

Yet blaming all Muslims for the crimes of a tiny group of terrorists is completely irrational, just as it was wrong for the leaders of the world to march in solidarity in Paris while ignoring a horrific attack by extremists which left 2,000 people dead in Nigeria on the same day.

That sent out a terrible signal: that some lives are more important than others. But I guess we have all known that if you contrast the reaction of the western world to 2,200 deaths in Gaza or 2,000 in Nigeria to those of less than 20 in Paris.

When leaders from Egypt (where Al Jazeera journalists are in jail), Israel (which murdered 17 journalists last summer) and Saudi Arabia (where a man has been flogged because of what he wrote in a blog) march in Paris for "freedom of expression", you know there is something terribly wrong.

Muslims are not the enemy, fear of the unknown is.

The reason why the conflict went on for so long in Northern Ireland is because Catholic and Protestant people never mixed at work, school, or in terms of the games they played. It's far easier to hate when you don't know the people living on the other side of the street.

If you go to different schools, play different sports, work in different places, and live on different streets then it's easy to build up irrational fears about the other side.

As for me, the scuba diver who has travelled through so many parts of the world, I still have plenty of fears of my own. I have ridden through Phnom Penh on a motorbike at 4am or walked the back streets of Granada, alone, at 3am. I have done so many of the things foreigners are told not to do in poor countries such as Cambodia or Nicaragua.

And yet I have fears about the future after leaving my job. I have fears about my health after being told I need surgery on my shoulder for a second time, 11 weeks after spending four days in hospital.

Post-redundancy, my life has not gone to plan. It's no fun to have to get a wound dressed every day for almost three months, while wondering where this crazy adventure called life is going to take me next. Sometimes the 'comfort zone' or the safe harbour can be the scariest place of all.

And yet my recent set-backs have taught me a few lessons and maybe given me a real resolution for 2015. It's time to conquer my fears ... or at least take a look at why worries over the future can take away from enjoying life in the here and now.

Life should always be seen as an adventure because, ultimately, none of us knows what's next to come around the corner. Who can really guarantee where they will be 12 months from now?

And yet we can destroy the present with worries and irrational fears.

Monday, January 12, 2015

United by the desire to be happy

It was a strange Irish Christmas for me as the long recovery from my surgery in November and two rounds of antibiotics curtailed my socialising at what can be a hectic time of year.

It was important to get out and hook up with old friends, though, and to realise, no matter what’s going on in our lives, we all have so much in common in terms of our desire to be happy and free from suffering.

I had some fantastic nights out, despite health and job worries. And I gained fresh insights into how alcohol can play too much of a role in Irish life as I went through the entire holiday period without a drop to drink.

Meeting up with old friends can be emotional at this time of year. Now in our 40s, it doesn’t take long to reconnect and find the spark with people you once drank too much with or shared crazy adventures with back in your teens or early 20s.

Self-pity tends to evaporate, too, when you realise that dear friends can be going through troubles of their own in their lives.

The singles are still looking for partners, some of those who have been married a long time confide that their marriages are a sham or they are only staying together for the sake of the children. People who seem to have it all can confide that they are desperately unhappy.
Walking the Camino ... one of the highlights of 2014 for me

You wonder if it’s better to be lonely, or more precisely alone, than trapped in a loveless union.
I spent New Year’s Eve in bed, worn down by strong antibioticis and worries over why my shoulder is taking so long to heal. Even though I had been invited to parties at the houses of two old, dear friends. I know I should have made the effort, but it’s important not to be too hard on yourself in the ‘down’ times.

But it was good to get out and about, to meet people who have played a big part in my life at varying stages.
Whereas I can tend to look at redundancy as a negative thing, people who have known me for years were full of enthusiasm about the possibilities inherent in an uncertain future and the adventures that hopefully lie ahead.

In my 20s, I thought that life would be a lot less complicated by the time I reached my 40s. I realise now that it doesn’t matter what age you are, you have to face the same fears, emotions, demons, and frustrations at any stage. It’s how you deal with the drama that counts.

It was great to dance to Kila in Monroe’s and to meet friends home from the USA, UK, and Australia who have built new lives far from home. For us 40-something Galway people, emigration  has always been part of our lives.

It was great to sit in a pub and chat with one of my best friends, who lives in America, as we only meet up for one night in the year. We see so little of each other, and yet we connect in an instant thanks to many years of friendship.

It was great to see so many ‘oldies’ dancing in the Blue Note as DJ Foz blasted out the old 1980s indie tunes (The Cult, The Smiths, The Clash) that you never get to hear when you go out any more.
Most importantly, it was great to share the honesty of people who were willing to open up about what’s wrong, and right, in their lives.

After entering the holiday season with a dose of self-pity (newly redundant, with an injury, and unsure about the future) I realised that virtually everyone I know has some sort of ‘issue’ to deal with right now in their lives – be it the loss of a job, frustration with a job, tension, or unhappiness in a marriage.

Thanks to everyone who shared their truth with me over the holidays, and those who dragged me out of my own little negative world. Ultimately, every single one of us just wants to be happy – simply sharing our fears  with total honesty can do wonders at times.

Happy New Year 2015.