Thursday, February 26, 2015

Thank you, Mr Tubridy

Dear Ryan Tubridy,

I hope this letter finds you well. I know you don’t know me, and you probably don’t want to know me, but I am writing this letter in solidarity as it was brought to my attention this week that austerity has hit you more than most over the past few years.

As a person who took voluntary redundancy late last year, I have some idea of the pain you must be going through. But to hear that the ‘powers that be’ did such damage to your pay-packet . . . I’m truly astounded.

In recent weeks I’ve met old people who spent 24 hours lying on trolleys in an overcrowded Emergency Department and young people on a JobBridge scheme embarrassed because they can’t afford to go for lunch with their co-workers. But, cripes, none of them have suffered like you have.

It’s been brought to my attention that you get paid €495,000 per year. This seems reasonable, you might claim, given all the work you do interviewing “celebrities” and “stars”. But few people understand the impact of cuts quite as much as you do, given that you were earning €723,000 just a few short years ago. That kind of savage cut must be a terrible burden on you and your family.

I guess that’s why you decided to take a trip into the unknown by inviting Paul Murphy TD of the Socialist Party onto the ‘Late Late Show’ last Friday night. You have so much in common. The cruel ‘powers that be’ have slashed your wages by almost 50%, since 2011, while they stripped him to the waist when he sat down in front of a car last November.

The Gardai even dragged him out of his bed before dawn on a Monday morning, for daring to take part in a protest. Austerity truly is a bitch these days.

I thought it was great that you could invite him onto your programme and share tales about the injustice of it all.

It’s not often that representatives of the working class get much airtime on the national broadcaster and, when they do, they are often seen standing in dole queues or running from courthouses with their faces hidden. Or, even worse, making fools of themselves on one of those wannabe “celebrity” shows.

So it was great that you invited this representative of the “underclass” onto your show, even if you were keen to point out his Fine Gael "heritage". At last viewers could get a chance to understand what drives people to sit down in front of a Minister’s car or march through the streets of our cities, protesting against Irish Water, on bitterly cold winter afternoons.

It was truly magnanimous of you to give Deputy Murphy a chance to explain why so many people are angry, why he believes so many have been excluded from the “economic recovery” we hear so much about on our national media these days.

I would not be Deputy Murphy’s biggest fan, but I want to thank you for giving him a platform last Friday night.

More importantly, however, I want to thank you for giving us all a glimpse into the mindset of the privileged few at the very top of Irish society.

I know he came onto your show to talk about the water charges protests, just a day after four protesters were sent to prison. The fifth, the lucky sod, happened to be sunning himself in the Canaries when a Judge decided to send him to jail.

So I want to thank you for interrupting Deputy Murphy at every opportunity, grilling him about protests which had nothing to do with him, and exposing him for the vile threat to life as we know it that he poses.

I want to thank you on behalf of all the people for exposing him for the “sinister” element he represents. He seems to be the kind of man who supports the kind of savage cuts which have affected your pay packet so dearly. The man's virtually a Communist. He'd probably want to see you on the minimum wage.

Your performance was brilliant. Instead of asking him about water charges, you made it so clear that the pesky underclass he represents pose a sinister threat to the status quo in Irish society. You had a right to be indignant. He says he's from the AAA, but we all know he's a member of the Anti-Everything Alliance.

What was the point in questioning him about the damage which seven years of austerity have done to the people he represents in Dublin South West? Not while you and your production team had a lovely video of idiots hurling abuse at President Michael D. Higgins out in Finglas.

I know, I know. Deputy Murphy had no hand, act, or part in that particular protest. But you were so right to interrogate him about it, because it shows that he and his movement truly are part of this “sinister fringe” who undermine everything RTE stands for.

If these loud protesters dare to sit on the ground in front of Ministers' cars, what next? Heck, they might even start trying to let members of the "underclass" inside the RTE studios on a regular basis. And, sure, as D'Unbelievables might say, "we can't have that ... "

These vile revolutionaries have a dangerous influence on people, especially the people of “Middle Ireland” who sit on their couches every Friday night cursing your programme because they can no longer afford to go to the pub.

Thank goodness you didn’t show a video of 100,000 people marching in peace and good humour against Irish Water on the streets of Dublin last October. Sure, that would only have annoyed the Government – and we all know who pays your wages, even if they have been slashed to shreds over the past four years.

God forbid that people like Deputy Murphy would ever get into power. Heck, he would probably even try to slash your wages even further, forcing you to live on the breadline.

Heaven forbid he would ever try to get the message across that ordinary people should not be in jail for protesting while corrupt bankers and developers will never step inside an Irish prison.

So, thanks again. I didn’t learn much about the water charges protesters on Friday night, but I learned an awful lot about you and the people you represent. It’s not often the “establishment” (a word Deputy Murphy seems to love) lets the mask slip to expose such contempt for those who dare to protest.

In a strange way, you have probably done a hell of a lot to revitalise the campaign against the water charges.

Thanks Ryan,
Ciaran Tierney.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Protest has a vital place in a healthy democracy

When I was 16, the President of the United States visited my home town. It was a massive event for Galway and, fuelled by the passion which often drives people at that age, I attended a mass protest against the decision by University College Galway (now NUIG) to award an honorary degree to Ronald Reagan.

By that stage, people knew that his Government had been involved in war crimes in the Middle East and Latin America. His funding of people like Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan and sale of chemical weapons to Saddam Hussein in Iraq was widely known, but that did not stop the city fathers from closing down the city centre and rolling out the red carpet in his honour.

A group of protesters had built a massive paper mache statue of Ronnie ‘Raygun’, with nuclear missiles coming out of his head, and we teenagers were disgusted when they agreed to lower it as the President’s cavalcade passed by in the glare of the world media. Compromise can be hard to understand when you are a teenager.

I remember that three of us from Colaiste Iognaid took time out to attend the protest beside the Cathedral. We were enraged that this perceived war criminal was being feted by our city’s University and among those who objected was the current President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins.

I called myself a ‘Sandinista’, a fan of The Clash and supporter of Nicaragua, even though I had never ventured further away than the west coast of France at that stage in my life.

A bit of humour goes a long way ... 
Almost three decades on, during a wonderful gap year, I finally arrived in Nicaragua to work as a volunteer for three months. In my 40s, I suddenly realised that the teenage version of me was right about so many of the wrongs and injustices in the world way back when Reagan came to town.

I fell in love with Nicaragua, a land that stood up to Uncle Sam and its illegally funded ‘Contras’, even though it took me more than 25 years to get there. I felt so at home in the place, debating politics in the street or with taxi-drivers, especially when I met so many mothers who lost sons in the 1980s in a pointless war.

Suddenly, 26 years later, standing in a museum with these wonderful mothers, I felt a strange glow of satisfaction that the teenage version of me had the guts and wisdom to protest on behalf of the people of Nicaragua so many years before. If it was not for Ronald Reagan, many of their sons would still be alive today.

One of my friends at that Galway protest back in 1984 was active in the youth wing of Sinn Fein. It was quite normal in those days for detectives from Galway Garda Station to pick him up on his way home from school and question him for more than an hour. It was ‘political policing’ before we had heard of the term.

That teenage rebel has since gone on to become a respected academic – we have long since lost touch – and I don’t even think he is a member of Sinn Fein anymore, but his regular harassment by detectives really alarmed some of us who were in school with him at the time. 

Not that we all supported Sinn Fein at the height of the Troubles, but it was scary to think that a 16 year old could be arrested (or at least detained in the back of a police car) just because of his political views or the adults he associated with in the evenings. His parents were horrified when the detectives used to call to their home.

I was reminded of that demonstration against President Reagan this week when I saw a video of a protest meeting against ‘political policing’ in Dublin, which was addressed by a 16-year old.

That young lad was hauled from his bed at dawn last week, on a school day, after ten Gardai called to his front door. Instead of going to school, he spent two hours in a Garda Station answering questions about an Irish Water protest he had attended three months earlier.

He told the meeting that footage from the protest in Jobstown had been supplied to the Gardai by RTE, the national broadcaster. He worried about what the neighbours thought of him after being whisked off to a police station by such a huge force of Gardai.

There is something ‘sinister’ about a 16-year old being taken from his own bed at dawn by a force of ten Gardai, a full three months after he took part in a protest. He said he was baffled that he had to spend two hours in a police cell when he should have been in school.

And yet, according to members of our Government, the people who protest against Irish Water are the ‘sinister fringe’.

There is no excuse for abuse or violence, but people have a right to protest peacefully against what they believe to be an unjust charge. 

For 14 years, a protest at a small rural community in North Mayo received scant publicity. Incidents of police brutality were documented at the Shell to Sea protests in Rossport and the way in which the gas pipeline tore the community apart is brilliantly documented in Richard O’Donnell’s film, The Pipe (2010).

Time after time, people were arrested at the Shell protests only to be later released without charge.
Seven years ago, the British newspaper The Guardian reported that Shell delivered €35,000 worth of alcohol to Belmullet Garda Station as a Christmas present for the officers. The protesters in Rossport felt that the Gardai were not ‘neutral’ and that the national media almost ignored a shocking dispute which saw five local men spend months in jail.

People have a right to protest peacefully and if they were engaged in criminal activity in Rossport or Jobstown then of course the Gardai have a right to arrest and question them.

But protest has a vital place in a healthy democracy, which is why last week’s spate of arrests in the capital - and today's imprisonment of five water charges protesters - have caused so much concern. People are genuinely outraged that those who brought Ireland to its knees, leading to this 'crisis', have largely gone unpunished for their crimes.

The message seems to be that protesting against a form of "triple taxation" is more of a crime than corrupt banking or political practices.

I wonder will that 16-year old who was hauled out of his bed in Dublin, Jason Lester, look back in 30 years and say he was dead right to protest against the Irish Water ‘quango’. 

Just as I can now say that the thousands of us who protested against President Reagan in Galway way back in 1984 were perfectly justified in doing so, given what we now know about his murky and downright criminal dealings at the time. 

Sometimes a teenager can have as good a grasp of political realities as any mature adult, even or especially if he is labelled as a member of the “sinister fringe”.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The death of Irish journalism?

Maybe it’s the circles I move in or some of the events I happen to attend, but I keep hearing people denounce the current state of Irish journalism in the midst of an undercurrent of anger and frustration over recent weeks and months.

You might argue that it’s very unlikely you would hear anything good about the mainstream media or the Government at a protest march against Irish Water on a Saturday afternoon or a meeting about the same issue in a hotel room two nights later.

What surprised me in Eyre Square last Saturday week, though, was how few journalists attended a march which attracted hundreds of protesters on a bitterly cold afternoon. Despite all the demonization, hundreds marched through the city centre to show their opposition to the Irish Water ‘quango’.

Journalists have lives, and need their free time, but when newsrooms cut up to a third of their staff it’s inevitable they will have fewer reporters on the ground.

Working for one of the country’s largest provincial papers, I always took some pride in how much coverage the Connacht Tribune would give to protest campaigns and groups. 

If I attended a demonstration in solidarity with the people of Gaza, a march for women’s rights, for turf-cutters, or against austerity, it was heartening to know that the news editor would be happy to take a few hundred words for the following week’s paper.

If a paper lets a third of its editorial staff go, however, it becomes inevitable that there will be fewer bodies available to give publicity to those whose voices may not otherwise be heard. Throughout the country, many newspapers have let staff go over the past couple of years.

During November, as I recovered from surgery, a friend gave me a box set of The Wire, one of the best TV series ever made. The final season of the programme focuses on the city’s newspaper, the Baltimore Sun, and so many issues facing the US journalists a few years ago have since gripped the newspaper industry on this side of the big pond.
How can you cover two courts if one of the two staff court reporters has taken a ‘buyout' (the US equivalent of a voluntary redundancy)? How can fewer people produce more, which became a mantra for senior management at the Baltimore Sun? 

And how can morale remain upbeat if you watch a third of your work-mates leave by the exit door, leaving empty desks and unfilled specialities in their wake?
Marching in the cold in Galway

I was lucky enough to be paid to write for a newspaper for over 22 years and I hope to do so again, but in the age of the Internet, social media, and so many cutbacks across the industry it seems that many readers have lost trust in the mainstream media.
This week’s arrests of anti-water charges protesters were a case in point. If people found it objectionable that so many Garda resources were put into arresting a few politicians in dawn raids, then how come their voices were hardly being heard on the national airwaves?

If people see Gardai being heavy-handed with protesters on social media, only for the protesters to be labelled by members of the Government as the “sinister fringe”, then why would people not trust their Facebook feed more than the information they are fed from the national media?

Rightly or wrongly, RTE are seen to 'massage' the figures of those attending protests against Irish Water across the country. They highlight abuse by a vocal minority of protesters, but video footage of Gardai being heavy-handed with the same protesters in housing estates (widely circulated on YouTube and Facebook) rarely makes it onto the TV screens.
If the role of a journalist is to keep a check on those who wield power, then no wonder so many people have lost trust in the media. Much of what passes for journalism is little more than pro-Government propaganda.

People know that 2,200 people were needlessly murdered in Gaza last Summer – and yet they only saw anger being expressed at protests and through social media, rather than on our national TV station or in the national papers. Hundreds upon hundreds marching for the people of Palestine was not deemed an important news story.

Over 100,000 marched against water charges last October, but all some Government Ministers and national journalists wanted was a chance to demonise them. The vocal protests against President Higgins provided perfect ammunition for their ‘spin’ and took all the focus off the ridiculous salaries and bonuses being paid to senior executives at Irish Water.

Readers find it hard to trust journalists if they feel their bosses have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, or a financial interest in installing the water meters in estates throughout the country.

Those who wield power have an interest in stifling protest movements, as Paul Murphy TD (Socialist Party) discovered when he was hauled from his bed at 6.55am on a Monday morning.

Did it really take six Gardai to arrest the diminutive Mr Murphy for a protest which took place three months earlier? It’s not as though he had been in hiding since November, so the Gardai were well aware of where he lived and worked. He can usually be found in the Dail on a weekday.

And how many journalists questioned this use of State resources at a time when our hospitals are overcrowded and there is a homelessness crisis in our major towns and cities?

I spent four hours in a crowded A&E yesterday and could not help thinking about how many resources were wasted on arresting and detaining four protesters the previous morning. No wonder people are cynical when we never see six Gardai calling to the house of a disgraced banker, politician, or developer.

Of course there are honourable exceptions in the media. Fintan O’Toole in The Irish Times and Gene Kerrigan in the Sunday Independent are never afraid of questioning or challenging the powerful in Irish society.

But many people have told me in recent weeks that too many journalists view Irish society through the same prism as the Government Ministers they write about each day. 

They drink with them in the Dail Bar and meet at functions where they rail about the “sinister fringe” who dare to wield placards outside. When Sinn Fein bring a Dail motion in solidarity with the people of Gaza, they are labelled as cynical opportunists.

Meanwhile, frighteningly, if papers like my former employers continue to let staff go there will be fewer journalists around to witness what’s really happening at protests, marches, and campaigns in cities and towns throughout the country.

If the Gardai or RTE underestimate the numbers at protests, who is going to challenge them if there are no ‘neutral’ people available to report the facts on the ground?

When a news editor decides that a five day old video of an idiot hurling abuse at the President should be the main item on the national evening news, where are the voices who can object to such a blatant abuse of power?

And where are the journalists who challenge why anti-austerity protesters are being arrested while corrupt bankers and politicians (who bankrupt Ireland almost five years ago) are still allowed to operate with impunity?

Of course Irish journalism is not dead yet. But this perception that double standards abound (allied to the clear difference between what people see on social and mainstream media) has added to the anger and cynicism across the land.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Good news at a time of renewal and change

On the first day of Spring, with a longer stretch evident in the evenings, renowned Shaman Midie Corcoran asked a group of us to pass through a giant St Bridget’s Belt to mark the passing of Winter and the hope of renewal which comes with this time of year.

As I left the weekly meditation class, I realised the depression which had gripped me through much of the Winter had all but disappeared. My health was improving and it was great to share my hopes for better fortune with a wonderful group of people as we marked the start of February.

Sometimes life works in mysterious ways. Since taking voluntary redundancy from the Connacht Tribune I have had surgery twice on a serious shoulder injury, had to visit the public health nurses about 70 times since Halloween, and found myself gripped by fear through the dark winter months.

Instead of taking up a job I had been promised, but which subsequently fell through, or helping out the poor of Nicaragua – where I found such fulfilment four years ago – I found myself facing my demons in wintry Galway with a lot of time on my hands.

People had read my blog and said I was too hard on myself, which I definitely was. And sometimes, in the midst of pain and suffering, it really is hard to believe that everything happens for a reason.

But now I’m convinced of it. The start of a new life after 22 years in the same job did not mean I had to run away to the other side of the world, much as I love travelling and experiencing different cultures. Not straight away, anyways. Perhaps I needed time to face the fears I had avoided by being busy for so long. 

When you have a crazy, busy life, like I had, you may never have time to really look at yourself in the mirror. Rushing from job to gym to social event, which is the life of a busy journalist, can mean there is little time for taking stock or recognising what’s really important in life.

Over Christmas, I was delighted to meet old friends, but I also wallowed in self-pity over the troublesome shoulder and the fact that I no longer had a job. It was probably a good thing that all the antibiotics kept me off the demon drink!

I almost had to reach rock bottom to realise the importance of living for today, right here, right now, rather than worrying about what life will be like in six months or a year.

I hit a low point when I applied for a job which was far too similar to the one I’d left, simply because I wanted to stay in the comfort zone. As the wind howled and the rain poured down two weeks ago, I began to feel sorry for myself.

At times like that, it’s hard to reach out and engage with the world. Friends and family might not even realise how much they helped to lift me out of the Winter blues.

Then I remembered the dignity of friends like Karl and Liam, friends who have tackled far more serious health issues than I have with far more bravery than me over a much longer period of time.

Over the past few days, since the start of Spring, I have come to realise that leaving the ‘safe harbour’ could yet become the best decision I ever made. It’s a chance for growth, for change, and there is nothing fulfilling about staying in the same place for too long, even if being unemployed or self-employed can be scary at times.

On the second day of Spring, I jumped out of bed. The Public Health Nurse who had seen me most over the past three months had made an appointment for me, even though there was no onus on her to see me since the second operation two weeks ago.

After knocking me out cold, the surgeon had given me the kind of stitches which dissolve by themselves. But she wanted to make sure everything was ok after seeing me wallow in despair for a few weeks.

On a bright Monday morning, she had great news. It looked as though the injured cyst, which caused a serious infection, had finally healed. Two more weeks and I might even be back in the swimming pool for the first time since Halloween. As I left the clinic, I was on Cloud Nine.

Then I went for an interview for a ten week course, which is all about starting an online business. It will give me skills in Search Engine Optimisation, pay per click, and website design, exactly the kind of skills I will need after leaving the regional newspaper behind. 

And the course is allowing me to meet a wonderful mixture of people from a variety of backgrounds, all seeking to change their lives and careers. Looking at them, seeing how keen they all are to learn, has brought it home to me that there should be no stigma attached to being unemployed.

One lady told me she had been made redundant three times. Change, and how we cope with it, is fundamental to all our lives.

I now know that I will be in Galway for the next 12 weeks and the course has given me just the focus I need as I start to move on with my life. Nicaragua can wait, while I sort myself out and come to terms with how much anxiety the redundancy and shoulder injury brought up in me over the past few months.

On the same afternoon, a person I had admired from a distance for years met me for coffee to talk about changing careers. He gave me so much wonderful advice and wanted nothing in return. He, like nurse Joanne, reminded me that there is so much goodness in people if you only ask them for a helping hand.

Afterwards, I walked the fabulous Salthill promenade, revelling in the extra bit of sunlight and the flat calm sea. Suddenly, it didn’t matter that I was not in Nicaragua or Thailand this winter. I was enjoying a wonderful walk in my home town and filled with gratitude for the uncertain life and new adventures which lie ahead.

Yes, three months of pain, antibiotics, and daily visits to the clinic were not part of the post-redundancy plan. But they taught me so much about my own fears and frustrations that they may really stand to me in the long-term. 

They also taught me to never, ever forget that good health should never be taken for granted. It’s far more important than a job or career.

We all have magic inside us, but it’s hard to find the magic if you spend your life rushing from job to gym to gig, or flying off to escape in the sun.

Spring is in the air and, instead of rushing off to save the world in Central America (much as I’d love to yet), the freak shoulder accident and subsequent surgery have taught me so much about appreciating what I already have in my life.

I might never get a chance to spend wintry Wednesday afternoons hanging out with my elderly parents or two year old nephew again. I might never get a chance to hook up with unemployed friends for leisurely coffees and chats down by the sea.

So January has come to an end. It is hard to imagine how dark and bleak Winter in Ireland was for our ancestors in the days before the electrification of the countryside. No wonder they used to dance with joy when St Bridget’s Day arrived.

Happy Springtime . . . the Winter was long enough this year, but dark days are necessary in order to appreciate the light.

After three months of pain and self-pity, this was a very good week.