What do TV ads say about us in the time of Covid?

Previously published by The Irish Independent.

Carrot Cannibals.

Has anyone noticed that Aldi’s Christmas ad? It seems to be about Santy delivering a carrot back to his family so they can all be boiled and devoured together in some sort of Tarantinoesque familial masochistic reverse cannibalism? That Kevin the carrot is giddy with excitement at the prospect of being eaten, along with his mum and dad Katie and Jasper, sister Chantenay and the youngest Baby Carrot? 

Maybe I’m overthinking it too much. You bloody well are, screams Aldi’s marketing department. 

Perhaps. I am watching a lot of TV ads. I like TV ads. In fact, as regular readers know, when I’m not shaking an impotent fist at our political system I’m a bit of an amateur TV history junkie, and I find TV ads can be a fascinating insight into a period in time, in that they’re not as rtepeated as TV shows are and so tend to be much more of their time. 

I grew up in an era where it was perfectly normal for a squarejaw in a black poloneck to swim through shark infested waters with a briefcase(A briefcase!) to deliver a box of chocolates, and don’t get me started on the simmering filthfest of coy “wait ‘til mother goes to bed and I’ll show you buttered spuds” looks that was the KerryGold ads. 

Funnily enough, in the time we are living in (“These challenging times” is, I believe, the official description) watching ordinary TV with its ads and the rest brings a strange sort of sociability and connection. 

You can’t go to the pub, or restaurants, or your local car-keys-in-a-bowl party if you live in Enniskerry, but you can feel part of something just that little bit bigger watching terrestrial telly as opposed to binge watching “Suits”. 

By the way, if you haven’t watched “Suits” it’s about a group of beautifully dressed beautiful lawyer people who are constantly too busy to talk because they’re going to a meeting or being unhappy in their beautiful apartments pondering how hard it is to be beautiful all the time. “Suits”? Should be called “Ungrateful Feckers”, but I digress.

We’re getting very accustomed to the Covid take on ads: the lonely piano playing as we are shown someone’s granny looking sadly through a window at her grandchildren. People learning new skills on lockdown, like how to speak Serbo-Croat or dismantle a tactical nuclear weapon. A lot of exercise. And that “we’re all in this together” thing. 

We don’t see much of the granny delighted the little feckers aren’t wrecking her house. Or the couple in their pyjamas hoovering through a box of Celebrations. Or the odd murder. Wait and see: when this is all over we’ll be digging people out from under the rosebushes: You can’t be showing locked down people “Midsomer Murders” on a perpetual loop without consequences. 

But that’s all OK. The Covid ads show us a glimpse of where we are and also our technical abilities, with so many ads now filmed by people in their own homes, showing customers of X or Y talking Christlike about the company if only because they’ve nothing better to do. 

Some ads do get me roaring at the screen, I’ll admit. 

Those ads for men’s and women’s fragrances, which have gotten so po-faced.

Take that one where Thor strolls very handsomely through some city announcing that “Success without integrity means nothing”. What does that even mean? 

If he’d said something like “Slamming your lad in a car door will make your eyes water” I’d at least nod at the accuracy of the statement. The women’s ads are even worse, the montage ones showing her laughing with friends, storming away from a man, driving a car erratically, having a good cry, giving some other fella a good seeing to. You can’t move for sharp cheekbones, and that’s just the men..

Then some vacuous saying, and the bit that makes me explode: where they announce the name of the product in a deadpan matter-of-fact but-of-course voice.  It’s the fake profoundity of it that kills me, that buying a bottle of “Tumescence. Chanel” is some sort of statement about who you are. 

But that’s not where I reserve my leap from the couch in finger-pointing denunciation moment: that’ll be for the bank ads. 

Please. Spare me the “Brave” or the “we’re just like you” from the banks. 

You know we’re not. We know we’re not. 

Just for once I’d love to see a bank ad that tells an unvarnished truth that is at least authentic.

“We at Consolidated Bailout Bank really like making profits, which we try to make by lending to you for a cost higher than the amount of interest we pay to people to let us mind their money. We like making profits, but we get that if we make too much, you might go to some other bank, so we promise we’ll charge you as much as we can but not enough to make you  go over to those other guys at Unified Golden Parachute Bank. And we won’t try that usual Rubik’s Cube account charges thing where we try to bamboozle you by varying the charges using variables like whether Gemini is in line with Jupiter, Sine and Cosine from your Leaving Cert log tables,  or dividing the fee by the span of an African elephant ear if it’s Tuesday or Thursday. 

Consolidated Bailout Bank: Moneylending, but without ending up in the Sunday World.”

The ad I’m really waiting for is one full of really tired non-cheekboney people with grey hair giving a thumbs up to the camera, then the slogan. 

Vaccine. By Pfizer.

A serious country defends itself seriously.

French Air Force Rafale

Previously published in The Irish Independent.

There’s an ad from the Norwegian Armed Forces currently doing the rounds on social media. It’s a very slick affair, all fighters, submarines, tanks, and good looking Nordic soldiers of both genders looking like they’d give you a good hiding if you as much as looked at their orderly well-run social democratic paradise. 

But what’s really striking about the ad is the message (in English) it conveys. 

That Norway is buying 52 F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters. 

In case you don’t know, the F-35 is probably the most advanced jet fighter in the world, with a price tag of between $90 and $120 million each depending on what bells and whistles you get with them. 

The more expensive ones can take off vertically like a Harrier jump jet. 

Any country that plans to attack you by air knows it will come up against a plane that will almost certainly shoot you down unless you too are flying one. 

They’re not just buying planes. They’re buying submarines, too. 

And standing foursquare behind their membership of NATO.

That’s not the bit that struck me the most though: what really makes you sit up is that the narrator asks a question every Irish viewer asks watching it. 

Why are they doing this? 

Why are they spending money on this? 

Why are they sending their young men and women into the snow and the forests to drill and practice over and over?

What, the ad asks, do we expect to happen having done all this?

The answer is: nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Norway hopes that any aggressor (cue side-eye to the man in the Kremlin) will see that Norway takes its defence seriously. 

That there is a price to threatening Norway. 

That the price of a Russian boot on Norway is a bloody nose and more. 

From an Irish perspective it’s bizarre. 

We simply don’t comprehend the idea that war is something that happens without your consent. 

To us, war is a choice. If you don’t like it, it won’t happen to you. 

The Norwegians have known what it is like to have foriegn troops in your capital executing your own fellow citizens, and have chosen to learn a lesson from it.

Curiously, we too have experienced an occupying force on our streets, and yet have chosen to learn a different lesson. The party that bangs on the most about Irish sovereignty is also the party most opposed to spending any money defending it. 

On one hand, we are right. Norway shares a border with Russia, and has offshore assets that need defending. 

The chances of us being physically invaded by anyone is very slim indeed. 

If Russian troops are coming down O’Connell Street it means they’re probably coming down the Champs Elysee as well and we’re all banjaxed anyway.

But we do have national security issues. We are, as a modern industrialised nation, as vulnerable to cyber attack as any other western nation. We are, thanks to foriegn direct investment, a target-rich environment for terrorists and especially those with access to technology. 

Do we believe we’re as capable of cyber defence as comparable nations? 

Anyone  think we could safely shoot down a suspicious drone over Croke Park?

Or deal with an extortion attempt involving bringing down our air traffic control system?

We don’t even have a dedicated domestic intelligence service, and all these capabilities involve spending money and having someone to sell you the equipment and train you how to use it (PESCO), both of which we have political problems with.

Our response to issues of national security, if we ever consider them, is to regard them as fluffy “thoughts and prayers” issues, with reference to the United Nations and the need for empathy and understanding of all sides, a form of “Nazis have feelings too, you know.”

Most parties don’t even have national security policies, wrapping the subject up in a foriegn policy based on wringing our hands at other countries to do stuff with their resources. 

When the defence forces are mentioned it is inevitably in the context of pay and working conditions for the military (a not unimportant issue, by the way) and the local impact of barracks closures. 

We hardly ever talk about what a military is for. 

Indeed, there are many in Ireland who would in fact be horrified on learning that this year alone we’ll spend around €869 million on defence, regarding it as “toys for the boys” in a way we never regard much greater expenditure on MRI machines or social housing. 

As if giving our soldiers the best equipment we can is some sort of male ego stroking. 

We spend that amount with a population of around 4.6 million. 

Norway, with a population of 5.3 million, will spend around €6 billion, and that’s an increase on previous years. 

We obsess with the idea of our young people being conscripted to fight in some foriegn colonial adventure, whereas there are only two issues that will really confront us. 

Do we have the capability to deal with actual threats that may occur here, be they terrorist or otherwise, physical or virtual? 

And what do we do if the rest of Europe actually has to fight an invasion? 

Imagine how our support in the EU will look as British (Yes, Brexit Britain!), French, Polish and Estonian troops die defending Talinn as we do a Pontius Pilate? 

Can we live being the slíbhín nation, that runs for the door when trouble starts? 

Perhaps. It’s the easy way out, and will certainly save Irish lives. 

I suspect our teeth will start to grind, however, as our near neighbours remind the rest of Europe that IRA stands for Irish Ran Away.

Personal safety matters.

Previously published in the Irish Independent.

It’s very easy to understand the recent calls for hate crime legislation that came from many decent people, rightly outraged at the racist attack on a Chinese woman near Dublin’s Royal Canal. 

But would it have helped her if such a law was already on the statute book? 

Would those who attacked her have paused because they would have feared crossing some legal rubicon? 

It’s all well and good having laws in statute books, but what anyone under physical criminal attack needs is help, primarily from either police capable of delivering a speedy and robust defence, or the attackers fearing that continuing the attack will reduce their chance of escape. 

What comes after, how society deals with the crime through its judicial system, is a different matter. 

But for now, we need to focus on rapid response to the crime-in-progress, and it’s simply not logical to expect the Garda to be everywhere. 

Even if we doubled the number of Guards it would have only a limited impact and almost less in public perception than the cost of doing it. 

But I can’t help thinking technology and some imagination might give a better return.

Perhaps highly visible Garda drones should be commonplace, hovering over high-risk areas and connected to a command centre that can automatically feed images into facial recognition software. They can be used to rush quickly to reported incidents, and whilst they can’t physically intervene they can assist in the apprehension of criminal suspects by ground units. 

Indeed, a group of criminals engaged in, say, a mugging, have an incentive to desist and flee because the drone can only track a few of them at a time.

Would putting more Garda on motorbikes (guided by Drone Central) allow for a more rapid deployment?

Should those convicted be required to register their mobile phones with the Garda, and carrying an unregistered device be made a criminal offence for convicted criminals? A sort of digital ASBO?

I can’t claim to have any expertise in law enforcement of course, and there will almost certainly be problems with the above suggestions, but surely some experimentation might help. 

The NYPD cracking down on illegal street windscreen cleaners resulted in loads of warrant jumpers being accidentally located. Many old-guard cops in New York City sneered when the ComStat crime tracking system was first mooted, but it became an important aid in identifying crime patterns and allowing for the better targeting of resources. It played a significant role in the reduction of crime in New York  in the 1990s. 

One interesting point would be that such use of technology would possibly lead to an increase in reported crime, as citizens who currently may not bother to report crime because they have no faith in it being investigated might then do so. Imagine an app where one could report “low level” crime like graffiti or vandalism or flytipping, knowing that every report adds to a better picture of where crime is or more importantly might occur, and allow for better deployment of resources. 

The suggested use of much greater surveillance, through recognition software, data collection and eyes-in-the-sky certainly warrants a debate about what sort of society do we want? 

Do we want to live in a country like that?

What if the choice is between the nominal freedom of less surveillance, where some gang of gurriers can kick your teeth in with both your and their privacy being respected, or a Garda drone either frightening them into stopping or guiding Gardai to your location?

What would you prefer? It probably depends on whether your mouth is filled with the slight metallic taste of your own blood. 

To paraphrase one of fiction’s most hardline lawmen, who do you want to see arriving when you’re being mugged? A policeman or your attacker’s human rights advocate?

Of course we must have human rights. 

We have to be very careful about not accidentally stumbling into a police state. 

I’m also very much a sceptic about throwing anyone in prison and throwing away the key. 

It’s incredibly expensive and for the most part it doesn’t work. 

Nor am I certain what the alternative is.

But I do know one thing for certain. 

My personal safety, my liberty and right to walk this country without fear of assault is at least as equal as the rights of the people who might assault me, and if the defence of those rights involves living in a society with a greater level of public surveillance, I can live with that.

I get that putting young people into a brutal prison system is almost guaranteed to make them criminals. 

We should not see prison as primarily some sort of old testament form of revenge. We should also recognise that the likes of Norway has had great success in reducing juvenile crime by taking a more liberal and enlightened approach to incarceration. 

I’m willing to look at all that and yes, if necessary, fund it with my taxes.

But what I’m not willing to tolerate is that I have to sacrifice my physical safety to reach that point. 

Yes, prison should be about rehabilitation, but primarily it should be about keeping violent people physically away from the rest of us, and yes, that should be its primary function. 

As part of that debate, there’s much talk in recent times about the phrase Defund the Police. 

As slogans go, it’s hard to imagine one which is so damaging to the cause it purports to advance. In fairness, for many of its advocates, Defund the Police isn’t about abandoning our law enforcement-free streets to thugs, but proactively spending on things that might prevent crime in the first place.

It’s a perfectly noble aim. 

I just prefer the slogan in its original form: Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime.   

How can small parties protect themselves in government?


Previously published in The Irish Independent.

As a former Progressive Democrat I’m familiar with the propensity of Irish voters to give smaller government parties an almighty kicking. As a result, I must admit to having a certain sympathy for the reluctance of the Greens and Labour Party to act as the left testicle of the spectacle that is the mating act between the two bull elephants of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael. 

I’ve somewhat less sympathy for the Social Democrats who give the impression of becoming the fresh pesto and ciabatta wing of the Alphabet Left, happy to adopt many political yoga positions but not so hot on getting into the mucking in and compromise of actually making governing decisions. 

All three parties face a reality that must be acknowledged. 

Small parties tend to have more ideological voters with much more elaborate expectations and are therefore more prone to disappointment. It’s not unique to Ireland: the Liberal Democrats suffered the same in the UK after five years of coalition, with actual achievements counting for nothing when a section of your electorate who bizarrely support proportional representation nevertheless get miffed when you enter coalition. 

The big mistake small parties often make is to assume that their voters will reward them for solid policy delivery, a lesson Labour learnt to its cost in 1997. Despite having delivered a balanced budget, a growing economy, lower unemployment, increases in public spending and welfare, tax reductions for the low paid and nearly the entire social liberal agenda, half their voters deserted them and with that half their seats evaporated. The Greens in 2011 and Labour again in 2016 suffered repeat fates, this time both parties being taken to the edge of annihilation.

The awkward fact is that losing votes is inevitable for small parties in government, and instead those parties should start thinking about minimising those losses.

One of the big secrets about our Single Transferable Voting system is that it can magnify how voters feel about your party. If you are popular, you can often end up with a seat bonus in excess of what your first preference merits as your party is transfer friendly and allows your candidates hold on until final counts, scraping in without reaching the quota.

That’s if you’re popular.

If the feeling of the country is agin’ you, STV can be like giving the average voter a roll of pennies to hold in their hand before they start giving you digs, giving their blows extra weight. Not only is your first preference down, but other parties’ preferences are flying around to add to your opponents and keep you out. As the Greens experienced in 2011, you can lose every seat despite being proportionately entitled to some.

With that horrific experience in mind, and aware that they have the two bigger parties in a position of leverage, the small party entering government should be demanding certain things to give them a better chance of surviving the inevitable drop in vote support.

For a start, they should insist on making Dail constituencies more proportional, which means making them bigger than five seaters. We’ve had nine seaters in the past, and it would give them a better chance of survival if their polls collapse by at least ensuring their party vote isn’t dissipated between constituencies but corralled into larger constituencies where they might just help save a seat. The enlargement of local council wards for the 2014 local elections saved a load of Labour seats when the party’s vote fell sharply. 

Or they could do something really radical. The constitution means that we must have STV in geographical constituencies, and that really can’t be changed. But what about moving the voters instead? What about giving voters the option of registering to vote by post in whatever constituency they wish? That way, small parties could have a small number of target constituencies and basically ask their voters to come to them.

This particular idea seems to send FF and FG supporters into apoplexy, but not for any real reason. Every voter would still have a single vote, and so what if you as a voter decide that a TD on the far side of the country represents your values more? It’s your vote, and if someone in leafy (we only have leaves in nice areas, apparently) south Dublin decides that Mattie McGrath is the man for them, so be it. It’s their vote. 

Secondly, they need to get real about local government reform, Aside from elected mayors, which could help deplete the opposition of leading candidates by banning sitting mayors from running for the Oireachtas, they could take advantage of the fact that the electoral system for local government is not outlined in the constitution, and go for something more radical. 

Instead of electing them by STV wards, you could elect say 25 of them in single seat wards as full-time full-paid “super councillors” to ensure local area voices, and the balance by a proportional list system, which would allow for the smaller parties to pool their citywide vote together and hopefully take some seats. It would also allow for city-wide issues like cycling and homelessness to come to the fore as the cyclist/homeless vote would be able to vote as a bloc as opposed to being dissipated across wards.

This isn’t pie-in-the-sky stuff. 

This can be all done by legislation, and could be part of the price for coalition, with the small party insisting on the cabinet responsibility to implement it. It’s happened before: small parties have managed to impose reform on bigger parties, as the PDs did on Fianna Fail by banning the dual mandate. 

It requires small parties to be as ruthless in protecting their own interests as FF and FG are in defending the status quo to suit themselves. 

In short, Eamonn Ryan needs to find his inner Frank Underwood. 

I suspect Alan Kelly might have less difficulty.

Do voters expectations now exceed what a democratic government can reasonably deliver?

Previously published in The Irish Independent:

Congratulations. You’ve just been whizzed back to Leinster House accompanied by speeding Garda outriders. You were just in Arás an Uachtaran where the wealthiest communist sympathiser in the country gave you your seal of office as the new minister for finance. Within hours you’ll be sitting at your desk in the Department of Finance, looking at a list.
Go on, try it. 
Put the following groups in order of who is most deserving of more resources (what we used to call taxpayer cash), with you saying that the ones near the top are more deserving, and the ones further down less deserving. 

Nurses.

Other HSE staff.

The rest of the public service.

Mental health services.

Cancer support services.

Capital expenditure.

University funding.

Childcare.

Jobseekers benefits.

Pandemic payments.

Children’s Allowance.

Care home services.

Social housing.

Homeless services.

Reform of Direct Provision.

Defence Forces pay.

Garda numbers.

Flood relief.

Water services.

Pandemic preparation.

Overseas Aid.

Arts funding.

RTE funding.

Irish language funding.

EU budget contribution (CAP).

Rainy day fund.

United Ireland fund.

SME support.

Regional and rural development support.

IDA grants.

Old Age pensions.

Servicing the national debt.

Public service pensions.

It’s some list, and I’m sure I’ve missed lots of worthy causes and sectors. 

But imagine being the minister looking at that list with a finite amount of money and every single vested interest behind each one of those areas not just demanding existing funds but looking for more. 
Not just demanding more but not giving the slightest toss about all the other competing groups. Their message is that they want less than the total budget as a whole and you don’t want to give it to them because you are one of history’s most uncaring monsters. And the next one will say the exact same. And the next one. 
That’s not even counting the people (often from the exact same groups demanding more cash) demanding that income tax, VAT, property tax or commercial rates be reduced, each one reducing your revenue and ability to meet the above demands.  
What would you do? The sensible thing to do is to prioritise on some, but even that is full of dangers. Favour business in the hope of generating more tax revenue from economic growth and you’ll be told you’re favouring the rich. Favour welfare and you will never ever hear its lobby group say “Actually, that’s enough, thanks very much.” 
Every one you favour will result in howls of anguish from every other group that they The Vulnerable are being neglected and you just don’t care. A good section of the country will say you’re hurting them deliberately. 
You’ll probably end up doing what every Irish finance minister does: try and spread the money as thinly as possible in a nearly always failed attempt to pacify as many as possible and instead unite a huge chunk of the country against you. Each group pretends that it is operating in a vacuum. No problem ever gets enough resources to close the file, if that is even possible. 
What you almost certainly won’t do is start an honest debate about the nature of public spending in Ireland. That we now live in a society where a majority of the population expect far more from their government than it can actually hope to deliver, and resent having to pay taxes for what they are currently getting. 
That our political culture is permeated by politicians who make vague promises that cannot even be measured, never mind delivered, and voters who essentially ask to be lied to. 
Even Irish governments that do quite well, which is most of them by international standards, become rapidly loathed by their voters because they can’t meet the overhyped expectations that got them elected in the first place. 
We’re currently reduced to the spectacle of Willie O’Dea and Mary Lou McDonald furiously competing to see who can ram more free money down the throats of voters with little regard for the long-time financing of our public finances. Compassion, wellness, solidarity and social justice are deemed valued assets in public finance debates, although not when actual public spending is being decided. Tell an NGO they’re getting a 10% increase in solidarity and they’ll tell you to shove it, hands grabbing for the greasy till just like the rest of us. 
Politicians promising the moon on a stick is not surprising. It’s been going on since Willicus Odeaicus Publicus Spendicus promised more free bread and bloodier Circus Maximuses (“You’ve seen humans eaten by lions! Well, I promise lions trampled by elephants!”). The complete unwillingness of politicians to even attempt to educate the public as to the rod they’ve made for their own backs is surreal. They literally keep secret the huge and undeliverable pressure they put themselves under from the public for no good reason I can muster, instead letting nonsense about how the rich or business pay no taxes ferment and help their populist opponents promise yet more and bigger elephants.
Here’s a thought: if it’s impossible for Irish centrist politicians to educate their voters, is it time someone else do it? Is it time for ISME, IBEC and the SFA to take on the task of running a public campaign to confront voters not with a campaign to convince but the simple realities about public spending and taxation. Given our reluctance to cut the €5 billion a year that goes to NGOs and charities in Ireland to lobby government, would it be the worst thing in the world to set up an NGO to put simple economic facts in front of voters? 

In fairness, there’s probably a grant available.     

The EU is doing pretty much what it says on the tin.

Previously published in The Irish Independent.

As with so many people, I’ve been spending time watching various boxsets, and recently finished “Star Trek: Picard” which tells the story of the further adventures of now retired Admiral Jean-Luc Picard, late of the USS Enterprise-E. (The fact I put E there is to confirm my Trekkie knowledge status, by the way.) In one episode, there’s a scene where Picard remonstrates with another admiral about the failure of the Federation (Think the EU with starships) to rescue millions of refugees from their former superpower rivals the Romulan Empire. The admiral (coincidentally resembling EU President Von Der Leyen) lays out the cool hard realpolitik of the situation: the Romulans were the enemy until very recently and that members of the Federation were threatening to leave the alliance (FedXit?) if the Romulans were taken in. 

In short, she said, the preservation of the Federation was more important.   

It was an unusual moment for “Star Trek”, which is usually (but not always) more comfortable with a straight goodies/baddies narrative.

It was also a timely scene, given the current travails that another multi-member political alliance (also with prominent French leadership) is going through, where principle meets pragmatism.  

It’s always entertaining to watch many in the now departed UK are still banging on about the EU and how doomed it apparently is. The Covid19 crisis is being used, in particular, as proof that the European ideal is some sort of gossamer-like substance that blows away at the first sign of a storm. One can’t help suspecting there’s a hint of the protesting ex-boyfriend about the Brexiteers, over their former girlfriend yet constantly hovering around Facebook seeing who she is now dating whilst adamant that they don’t care. 

Their criticism would be true if the EU were the cartoon superstate that Brexiteers always either believed it to be (through the wearing of an assortment of kitchen-foil based self-assembled headwear) or simply hoped it to be so that they could rail against it. 

The reality is that the EU is exactly what those of us supporting it always said it was: closely integrated but still a union of sovereign independent states. In a crisis, the EU is doing what it is supposed to do, clearing obstacles like relaxing state aid rules and negotiating “green lanes” through closed borders to get vital supplies through, whilst staying out of the way and letting member states do what they have to do to fight the virus at the most appropriate level, which in this case is mostly nationally.

The complaint that EU countries are putting their national interests first and foremost is a contrived one because that’s what EU countries invented the EU for: not to abolish sovereignty but to act as a de facto bionic enhancement of it, by giving national governments more tools to pursue the interests of their people. I’m a believer in freedom of movement but I also believe in the sovereign right of nations to control their borders and yes, close them in an emergency. 

Yet, even as they have done that, EU countries have been helping each other where they can, with medical resources where they can, caring for each others’ citizens, and helping to get each other’s citizens back to Europe.

The EU is not a federal government. Personally, I wish it was, but it ain’t. Instead it is a mechanism to assist cooperation. Nobody, including the Commission, wanted Brussels to be deciding who gets how many ventilators. 

Euroskeptics (and some pro-Europeans, it must be said) are complaining that the EU is not a top-down federalist superstate because, well, it isn’t. The robust debate over whether to have “Coronabonds” to fund our now eye-watering crisis debts is a healthy one, with all points of view being voiced. The EU will undoubtedly have failures during the crisis, but almost all will be because the EU institutions don’t have the power or resources to do what people now demand of them. 

That’s not a rupture in the union. That’s what a healthy democratic alliance does. 

By the way, there is one union of states where the central government has imposed orders upon the democratically elected heads of the national governments, and that would be the United Kingdom. 

I, for one, would be totally opposed to the EU being run in a manner similar to the centralised diktat of the UK, where the largest nation in the union can overrule all other members of that union. But that’s another day’s debate.  

It’s not that there aren’t lessons to be learned. The debate about a European army, or perhaps better named European Crisis Force, to be able to mobilise transport aircraft and rapidly build emergency field hospitals is a debate that has to be had. As is one about Europe’s seeming inability to rapidly manufacture emergency medical supplies.      

Then there’s Hungary, where the Orban regime is using the crisis to effectively create a dictatorship. Yes, every government has voted itself emergency powers, but Orban has form on this sort of thing, and has now suspended parliament and elections indefinitely, and there’s no place for that in the EU. 

There’s no system for expelling a country from the EU, but if the EU is anything it’s creative and it is time to call Orban’s bluff. I’m not paying my taxes for them to be used as some sort of Fidesz (Orban’s party) slush fund to keep a dodgy outfit in power.

Either Orban backs down, or Hungary has to go, by whatever means. Orban uses EU criticism as a means of bolstering power in Hungary. Maybe it’s now time for ordinary Hungarians to realize that Orban has created a Hungary that the rest of Europe does not want to be associated with, and act accordingly. 

Hungary is a sovereign nation entitled to respect. But so are the rest of us. 

For all the criticisms, Europe isn’t going away. It can’t.  

Irish Independent: Love, Sex & Murder in the time of Covid-19.

Previously published in the Irish Independent.

But what about the adulterers? Nobody seems to give a damn about the chaos that the Coronavirus crisis will cause to all those people having illicit affairs? Where’s their grant? And before you get all upset about me taking the mickey out of this crisis, just remember one thing. We all own this crisis. It can take away any one of us, and as a forty seven year old ashmatic I’m on the higher-than-others risk list so yes, I do think I have a right to take the mickey.

All I can do is keep washing my hands, distance myself from others, and just hope that the bastard thing doesn’t somehow sneak in through my letterbox and do me in whilst I’m sleeping.

So, back to the adulterers. Imagine the stress they’re under, sneaking off to the bathroom for illicit contacts over Facetime, sexting each other whilst pretending to watch the “Line of Duty” boxset, and wondering what’ll happen with their lover trapped in the house with Him/Her?

On the one hand, it could confirm to each why exactly they’re having an affair in the first place, trapped in the house with Him snoring loudly in front of “The Eagle has Landed” having put away half a Marks and Sparks shepherd’s pie, or Her going on endlessly about what a cow her sister is and the way your one at the school looks down her nose at her because she drives a Range Rover. 

There’ll be erotic pictures too, both sides making a huge effort to get the lighting just right (again a struggle in the bathroom, using the one hundred and forty eight rolls of toilet paper to provide shade) and being extra careful when sending it because accidentally sending Tony in accounts a picture of you with your gentlemen’s ahem hanging out could lead to all sorts of disciplinary avenues if we all get back to work someday.

Phone sex whispered whilst out in the garden shed “fixing the lawnmower” is also a possibility, although there’s a whole etiquette at play here. Do you just charge in like some sort of gynecological checklist or do you set some sort of fantasy tone first, all the while peering through a half closed shed door in case one of the kids suddenly remembers there’s a Swingball buried in here somewhere. It’s a fraught business. 

But what if it goes the other way? What if she, trapped with her husband, starts to remember why she fell for him in the first place? What if he does? It’s unlikely because if we have learned one thing about human relationships is that once it passes the point of irritation for one side it is rare that it comes back. Just look at the number of stunningly beautiful people who divorced other stunningly beautiful people. But it could happen. 

Still, on the plus side, think of the economic stimulus when the crisis is over and the mid-priced hotels of the country are overwhelmed with Mr & Mrs Smiths staying “just the one night, thank you”, away at “business conferences”.

All that assumes that there won’t be a load of murders, of course. 

Estranged couples trapped in close proximity for weeks, and her finally beating him over the head with that leg of cured Lidl Jamon Serrano that he mocked her for buying. When you think about it, the timing is excellent. Nobody is coming to the house, or expects to see him, and she can always reply to any texts from his mates if any get suspicious. As for the body: well, there’s always the back garden, and although the neighbours might be surprised to see her giving the rose bed so much attention she won’t be the first to have discovered a passion for greenfingery in a lockdown. You can already see the curtains twitching.

“The husband left her after the virus. Ran away with some floozy, they say. Probably cracked up after two months of putting up with her and her Lady Muck ways. I saw her buying one of those giant legs of ham, sure what would you use that for? Who does she think she’s fooling? Although she has those roses coming up lovely. I wonder what she uses to feed the soil?”

But let’s not be too morbid, sure there’s enough of that. 

Just consider that somewhere out there in lockdown land will be some couple having an online date. Initially as something to fight the boredom, somewhere two people have been set up by friends, and there’ll be a mad effort to tidy themselves up (despite both protesting that they didn’t make an effort). His hair will be too long, making him look like an extra from “Game of Thrones” (or “The Streets of San Francisco” to an older vintage) and she’ll be angling to make sure her roots don’t show. Both will be trying to make sure the background sends the right message, her removing the entire “Fifty Shades of Gray” series from the bookshelf, him his entire “Star Wars” DVD collection. For most, it won’t work, a means of distraction for a half hour as they struggle through an awkward conversation and a promise (lie) to meet after normality or something close to it returns. 

But for one couple out there, the awkwardness will turn into easy conversation, then mutual interests, then their own vocabulary and in-jokes and both watching a Netflix movie at the same time across the country and texting each other quips and remarks and questions about “Wasn’t he in “The West Wing?”. And maybe, just maybe, a story in a best man’s speech. 

Wouldn’t it be lovely if something nice came out of this awful time?