Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Ógra Fianna Fáil Disgrace Themselves Over Albert Reynolds

The damage their forebears have done to their party’s past doesn’t seem quite enough for the up-and-coming generation of Fianna Fáil. They seem quite determined to destroy their party’s future as well.

Lisa Chambers’ sinking of the stiletto into the increasingly bloody back of Bertie Ahern on Morning Ireland during the week was fair game. The old rogue probably even admired it, in a kind of a way – administering the final kick to the dying is one of the great political arts. Miss Chambers is sure to go far.

But Ógra Fianna Fáil’s decision to call for the grey head of Albert Reynolds suggests that they know nothing about the history of the country that they aspire to lead one day. They are a disgrace.

Membership of Ógra Fianna Fáil is for people aged twenty-five and under. This means the oldest possible member of Ógra Fianna Fáil was born in 1987.

1987 was a memorable year in Ireland. Nine people were killed in Loughgall in May of that year. Twelve died, and over sixty were injured, in the Remembrance Day bombing at Enniskillen. Welcome to Ireland, future Ógra member.

You’re one year old in 1988. You can wriggle, and crawl, and your parents are so proud of you. Meanwhile, the Gibraltar Three are shot by the SAS and Michael Stone goes on the rampage at one of the funerals. Two off-duty British soldiers take a wrong turn down a street in Belfast – they die horrible deaths at the hands of the mob.

Two years old in 1989. You can put two or three words together, you can almost climb stairs, you’ve been able to walk for ages. In the outside world, Pat Finucane is murdered by the UDA and eleven British army bandsmen are murdered in their barracks in Kent.

1990, you’re three years old and you can’t stop asking questions. The IRA bomb the City of London.
1991 – you are freed from the nappy’s cruel shackle. The IRA bomb Downing Street itself.
1992, you can dress yourself. The IRA blow up eight men for “collaboration.”
1993 – you’re a big man now at the age of six. Other children make the news when Warrington is bombed – Jonathan Ball, three years younger than you, and Tim Parry, six years older, are both killed. Dead. Never coming back.

And in 1994, the year of your seventh birthday, when you are old enough to talk and dress and be sent to the shops for bag of Tayto, all that killing ends. And it ended thanks to Albert Reynolds, whose head you will call for on Friday in an attempt to look holier than – whom, exactly?

Peace in the North had many fathers, of course. A confluence of events was necessary. But without the strong relationship between Albert Reynolds and John Major, it never would have happened. And the fact it broke down when the Reynolds Government fell – because the current Minister for Education demanded a head – shows just how big an achievement peace was in the first place.

Major’s and Reynolds’ achievement isn’t remembered as much because both Reynolds’ and Major’s careers were seen to end in failure and Bertie and Blair had better spin doctors – or had up until last week, anyway.

This neglect of Major and Reynolds does both men a grave disservice. They saved a lot of lives. That should count for more than knocking a penny off the income tax or building a new bridge on the river.

Reynolds was never taken seriously here. The country and western Taoiseach. A one-sheet man. A deal-maker. Running a country isn’t the same as running a dancehall in Rooskey, as Fintan O’Toole once sneered. Hard to imagine a dancehall in Rooskey running up this country’s current level of debt but hey – what would I know?

If anyone doubts Reynolds’ role in the peace process, read Fergus Finlay’s book. Finlay despises Fianna Fáil even more than Ógra Fianna Fáil seem to do, but he gives full credit to Reynolds for his achievements in the North.

Albert Reynolds’ closed an eight-hundred-year old wound. Eight hundred years of blood and death and strife and he ended it by sitting at a table and hacking out a deal, like professional politicians are meant to be able to do.

The Ógra members are too young to remember it, of course, but maybe if they read some books instead of throwing shapes they might find something out about the country they live in. Tim Pat Coogan on the Troubles. Seán Duignan’s memoir. Finlay’s memoir. Maybe they’d learn something before making complete and utter eejits of themselves.

This is Father Alec Reid, one of the silent angels of the peace, giving the Last Rites one of those British soldiers whose car was in the wrong place at the wrong time in 1988. This is what Ireland was like. And because of Albert Reynolds, it hasn’t been like that for twenty years.

If the Albert Reynolds motion of expulsion is the best Ógra Fianna Fáil has to offer, they’re not fit to change the kitty litter in one of Reynolds’s pet food factories. God forgive them, for they are far too stupid to know what they do.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Mayo Football - Crisis as Usual

Neither Doctor Jekyll, Mr Hyde nor the Irish weather itself are at the races with Mayo football support when it comes to mercurial mood swings. Last August, we were licking our lips at the return of the county team to the top table after the desolation inflicted by Johnno’s Second Coming; now, the week after St Patrick’s Day, we are in despair once more after two bad losses in the National Football League.

How can this be? Why does it always have to be either/or?

It all stems from the long wait for the All-Ireland – what else? It isn’t just that Mayo haven’t won an All-Ireland since 1951, sixty-one years ago. It’s that they’ve been so close so often in recent years that the county has become demented as a result.

Everyone in Mayo wants the county team to win Sam, but nobody knows how this can be achieved. And between these twins rocks the good ship Mayo crashes over and back, year after year, summer after summer.

While nobody knows how it can be done, everyone has an opinion on the path to glory. The difference in these opinions is absolute. Even when it comes to evaluating players, something you would think a fundamental question, nobody seems to know what a good footballer is.

Kieran McDonald was a godlike genius with a football. Kieran McDonald held up play to the detriment of the team. David Clarke is the best goalkeeper in the county. David Clarke can’t direct his kickouts. The Mort is fire. The Mort is ice.

All good crack, of course. Football isn’t just for the seventy minutes the game lasts; it’s about the pre-match banter and the post-match forensics as well. The banter is all part of the crack, and there wouldn’t be much to talk about if everything were obvious.

What might be a bit more worrying, from a Mayo point of view, is that the banter is so unfocussed that it’s got to the stage where understanding is lost in the shouting and the roaring. And there is a huge and untapped resource there that may hold the secret to why Mayo always lose.

While nobody in Mayo knows how to win an All-Ireland, there is a fair population there now who know how to lose one. Mayo have lost five senior finals since 1989. That’s a lot of people with legimate views from inside the whitewash on what went right, what went wrong, and what the team can do to make sure that doesn’t happen again.

Is that knowledge being tapped? Seán Óg de Paor was fulsome in his praise of John O’Mahony in his excellent autobiography, Lá an Phaoraigh, but he was also at pains to remember what one of O’Mahony’s predecessors, Bosco McDermott, told his Galway team about what it was like to play in an All-Ireland. Bosco ran them hard in training one night and, as they sat there puking, told them to remember the pain, because that pain is what it feels like to play in the All-Ireland final.

A few years later they were in the final and, when they felt the pain, they knew they weren’t beaten. They knew that this is just what it’s like on the greatest stage of all. And they were able to accept the pain and go on to beat Kildare. That knowledge of what the big stage is like can’t be bought, and Mayo have it. Lots of it. Are they using it?

John Maughan was a guest on the Newstalk Sports Saturday show the day before Mayo played Kerry last summer, live from Rouse’s Pub in Ballina. Maughan opined that Mayo couldn’t have won in 2004 and 2006 because Kerry were just too good for them.

If that opinion is general in Mayo GAA then we might all just as well fold up our tents and watch cricket instead. Mayo got to two finals in three years, and four in eleven. They can’t all have been poxed.

For Mayo to push on, they must understand why they have fallen when they fell. They must understand it absolutely, in order not to fall again. Once more and more ways to lose are eliminated, more and more ways to win appear.

Is this what’s going on currently? Who knows? What is of concern is the way seasons are evaluated at the highest level, and whether or not the county is chasing its own tail.

After the trauma of 2006, one County Board delegate thought Mayo lost because they were “like ladeens” against Kerry. Another was proud of the fact that Mayo would always play in the Mayo way. Those opinions are mutually exclusive; they can’t both be right.

Other counties don’t seem to have this division. If there is a substantial body of opinion in Tyrone who don’t rate Brian Dooher, or Kerrymen sick with worry about Colm Cooper still being in the squad, they keep it pretty much to themselves. Whereas in Mayo it’s all sackcloth and rendered garments.

To early to tell for 2012 yet, of course. It is, after all, only the League.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

No Minister - There Must be an Enquiry into the Frontline

Atticus Finch, that wisest of men, tells Scout at one stage that sometimes, to understand a man, you have to walk around in his skin a little, to try to see the world as he sees it.

As the RTÉ-twitter row bubbles along – it is a mistake to call it Gallaghergate because Seán Gallagher is only a bit player in this; the totality of the story is greater – it is interesting to flush bias from the system by changing the names of the characters.

So let’s imagine that the Presidential Election had gone differently. Let’s presume that Gallagher had never taken off, and that the original front-runner had not been derailed. We then have a Frontline where David Norris is four days from the Park, and the rest are doing their best to nobble him.

Let’s say the story that broke in the summer, about David Norris’s non-mainsteam attitude to under-age sex has broken the weekend before the Fronline, and the waters have become choppy for the front-runner. Norris must face the music on the Frontline on Monday evening with the entire show on the line.

During the Frontline, Norris is under attack from Martin McGuinness, who is unhappy with Norris’s response to an interview with Helen Lucy Burke some years ago in Magill – about the time Seán Gallagher was passing around the hat for Fianna Fáil, as it happens. McGuinness sensationally alleges that Norris has written a letter of clemency on behalf of his former partner over allegations of statutory rape.

Norris is flustered, just as he was in the summer. Although a Senator, he is not match for McGuinness the cut and thrust of big time politics and is floundering badly.

And then a tweet appears from the McGuinness4Pres account, alleging the man at the centre of the Israeli trial will be at a press conference tomorrow. Reader, do you think The Frontline would have broadcast that tweet as they did the Gallagher one? Just like that?

All this hinges around whether or not the Frontline editorial team knew that the McGuinness4Pres account was not an official Sinn Féin account. It’s rather hard to believe that, so deep into the election campaign, they didn’t know what the official Sinn Féin account was.

Think about the David Norris scenario outlined above. The only difference is the order in which facts were revealed. Last Easter, David Norris was the nation’s darling. If the story had broken later than it did, maybe he would have held on to win the Park in the end.

But if the story had broken later, and his house was caving around his ears, would RTÉ have polished him off the way they polished off Gallagher if the circumstances were the same, as outline above? There is a defence of RTÉ story saying that it wasn’t the story but Gallagher’s reaction to the story that did for him. Norris’s reaction would have been no better.

It’s important to distance Gallagher from this. It’s not about Gallagher. Gallagher is an opportunist who almost pulled off the biggest coup of his entrepreneurial career, by offering the people what they wanted even though he was running for a job that couldn’t possibly deliver on that want.

What this scandal is about is how elections are run, and whether or not Ireland is a democracy or an oligarchy, where the state broadcaster plays its vital role in ensuring that only the right kind of people are elected.

The editorial team of the Frontline decided the last election. That is a power that they are not entitled to hold, and that is why there should be an inquiry into what happened, in order to ensure that it does not happen again. Why Minister Rabbitte can’t see that is a mystery, but then the Pat Rabbitte that is driven around in his ministerial Merc is quite a different bunny from the fire and brimstone prophet of the opposition benches. God help Ireland.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

The Future is Now - O'Connell Injury the End of the Golden Generation

Who remembers Ireland beating Romania at Lansdowne Road on November 26th, 2005? Jerry Flannery does; it was his first cap. Andrew Trimble might, as he got two tries that day.

But what makes the game stand out now, as news breaks that a knee injury sees Paul O’Connell ruled out for the rest of the Six Nations, is that routine autumn international was was the last home competitive match that neither Brian O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell nor Ronan O’Gara started in the Emerald Green of Ireland.

There were summer tours to Argentina, Japan and the States that didn’t feature either BOD, ROG or POC, the Initials Gang of the Golden Generation, but generally whenever Ireland played in the last thirteen years one of those three was there to build the team around. One of those three played in 133 out of 146 international test matches. All three started in fifty of them, and they shared a pitch 68 times, counting appearances from the bench.

The last Six Nations game in which Ireland did not start at least one of the Initials Gang is so long ago the Championship was still played among Five Nations. Ireland lost by seventeen points to Scotland in Murrayfield on March 6th, 1999, the final game of that year’s Championship, and exactly thirteen years ago today to the day. The co-incidence is so great it makes you feel the Awesome Hand of Destiny, and shudder at your chances against All-Seeing Providence.

The final fixture of that 1999 season was a home game against Italy, who were due to make the Five Nations Six the following year. Brian O’Driscoll was on the bench that day, and stayed there. O’Driscoll won his first cap at Brisbane on the summer tour of Australia that year. Ireland got pasted but a legend was born.

O’Gara won his first cap the following year, against Scotland in Lansdowne Road on February 19th, 2000, and Paul O’Connell made his debut against Wales in the 2002 Championship. O’Gara tussled with David Humphreys for the outhalf’s jersey in the early part of his career while, Superman pyjamas or no, it took Paul O’Connell a while also to claim his pace in the second row.

Both O’Gara and O’Connell started on the bench when Martin Johnson punked the IRFU in the Grand Slam Game at Lansdowne Road in 2003. Humphreys played ten, and the locks were Malcolm O’Kelly and Gary Longwell. O’Driscoll had no challengers, and still doesn’t.

That 2003 Grand Slam game provides a good benchmark for judging when what’s commonly known as the Golden Generation began. Keith Wood was at the end of his career, raging at the dying of the light. Wood was a true great of Irish rugby, but his career was half and half amateur and professional. The alchemy happened to late for him.

The Golden Generation of the Initials Gang were the front of house players during the rugby boom in this country that coincided with the Tiger. There were other players there, of whom people would have fond memories – John Hayes weeping at every Amhrán na bhFiann, David Wallace, Gordon D’Arcy, Shaggy. The bitterly unlucky Peter Stringer, the man whose career suffered the most from the 2007 World Cup nightmare and who was among the least to blame. But the Initials Gang were the difference makers and one stood head and shoulders above the others.

Brian Moore made the point in the Telegraph that Ireland could have won on Sunday if Brian O’Driscoll had been there. Ireland could have won the Grand Slam in 2007 if Brian O’Driscoll had started against France. And if he’d been around in 1641 maybe the great man would even have given Cromwell a run for his money.

The Golden Generation should have won more, but we are grateful for the Slam they did win, and for the provincial success they enjoyed. Neither is likely to come this way again.

The game is evolving as quickly as ever, and the advantages Ireland enjoyed in the span of the golden generation, from the presence of one of the greatest ever to run with the ball to the way the international club competitions fell right for us, are unlikely to last. We are lucky to have seen the days of glory when we did.

FOCAL SCOIR: Player stats from Stats Guru at ESPN Scrum, a genuinely outstanding resource.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Lost for the Want of a Ref?

How many GAA games are played in Ireland in a year? Everybody knows about the inter-county games, but they only represent a tiny, tiny fraction of the totality of games.

The vast majority of games are played well away from spotlights or TV cameras. These aren’t games that echo in eternity. These are games that are played because playing them is better than being in school, or because we’ll all be soon enough old, or because it’s so much better than sitting like a slug in front of the telly.

Thousands and thousands of games, all across the country. From little kids who couldn’t reach the crossbar without standing on a ladder, to the teenagers who think they have a shot with the minors this year, to the drinkers and crack-merchants who turn out groggy and bleary-eyed for the Junior-Bs, all the way up to the serious club men and the inter-county elite.

Thousands and thousands of games. And there isn’t one single ball that could be kicked or sliothar pucked without a referee to turn up and run the whole show.

Everybody hates referees. Listen to the crowd sometime. The ref can’t do anything right. He should have blown it up, he should have let the game flow. He should do this, he should do that.

Our psychotic aversion to making rules and sticking by them make Gaelic games extremely difficult to referee even at the highest level. Imagine what that’s like when you percolate down the grades. Imagine just what a thankless job it is, trying to referee thirty men with only a passing suggestion of athleticism between the lot of them in a game played on the side of a mountain somewhere in the sheeting spring rain.

The continued existence of the GAA, an amateur sporting organisation, is one of the continuing miracles of the country. The GAA and the music are the only truly Gaelic things that have survived the first ninety years of the State – every other dream has been quietly laid to rest, and not spoken of again.

And still the GAA marches on in an Ireland unrecognisable from that in which it was born. For ten years we worshipped money; now we fight among ourselves in the bitter mourning of its loss. And still the games continue, Sunday after Sunday, year after year.

There’s an heroic timelessness to the GAA. Where everything else in the country is so bitter and mean-spirited in the mourning of the Tiger, the volunteerism of the GAA continues to drive the Association. The GAA is the Leaning Tower of Pisa of Irish public life – it should come toppling over, but it hasn’t. Yet.

Is the referee payment issue the tipping point that will see the tower come crashing down? It has all the signs of it. People expect the end of great institutions to be heralded, after Shakespeare, by the heavens blazing forth. Instead, the ship is often sunk before the crew even know the hull is breeched, and by the time the disaster is discovered the ship is past saving.
Thousands and thousands of games. Thousands and thousands of referees. Some good, most bad. But a bad ref is still better than no ref at all and if there are no refs at all there will be no games at all.

Not everyone is motivated by altruism. If a fifty Euro sweetener to one man is what it takes to facilitate the altruism of thirty others, then it’s a small price to pay. If the fifty Euro makes the difference between thousands of matches being played, matches that make no difference to anyone except the participants themselves, it’s a small price to pay.

The Revenue’s chief problem is with the existence of a black economy and they are right to be concerned about that. But the Government and GAA must act swiftly and in unison to ensure that the GAA can still provide referees for the thousands and thousands of games is overseas, only a tiny percentage of which will be immortalised by the Fourth Estate.

Charlie McCreevy introduced a player grant scheme – Michael Noonan can do the same, on the basis that GAA referees provide a service to the community that is unlike any other in the country. The figures are there to make the case.

Whatever the solution, it must be found quickly, before the momentum turns and the altruism that keeps the GAA going slows down and stops, to the extent where no defibrillator in the world can bring it back to life again.

This is not a trivial issue. This cuts right to the heart of the GAA whose fundamental remit, above all others, is to allow as many people as possible to play Gaelic games. For want of a ref the fixture was lost; for want of a fixture the competition was lost; for want of competition the Association was lost, and all for the want of a ref.