An Occasional Guide to Irish Politics: The Plank.

Let’s be honest. The suit is wearing him.

“Now, he should be party leader!” They gush. “After all, he’s from a lovely family. And he wears a suit so well.”  All this is true. On top of that, he’s a tall, handsome young man, comes from a family with money, and is by all accounts a kind and decent man with impeccable manners. Woman find him attractive, particularly women of a certain vintage, thrusting their heavily perfumed cleavage at him as he works a room. He’s the sort of guy a nice middle class mother would give herself a hernia pulling her daughter across a hotel reception room by the arm to introduce to him. He will actually get better looking as he gets older, and looks like a cabinet minister.

The problem is that he is actually a nicely finished plank. He struggles to utter even the most bland of statements, and would almost certainly end up the tool of those around him. He has never expressed an original political idea in his life, and maybe it is that which keeps him so popular, allowing people to project on to his attractive blandness that which they want to see themselves. It’s an attractive quality in a mannequin, but in a Taoiseach? When people speak of a candidate being “presidential timber”, the problem is that in his case, he literally is. Solid Irish oak. But it polishes up so well!

An Occasional Guide to Irish Politics: The Political Conspiracy Theorist.

You see him on Twitter declaring that everything, everything, is a wily political chessboard move, and nothing happens that isn’t part of a conspiracy that would give Fox Mulder and Dana Scully a nosebleed.

God love him, but he gives our political masters way too much credit. The PDs, for example, were part of an international ideological conspiracy to destroy the welfare state. He’d never actually met anyone of any significance from the PDs, but then that would have hindered the purity of his beliefs.

Immigration is part of a plot to destroy Irish culture. Apparently there’s a tipping point (he can prove this on an Excel spreadsheet!) whereby one additional Pole tips the balance, and all of a sudden we’re setting fire to GAA clubs and eating cabbage flavoured ice cream.

The Sunday Indo and RTE are the tools of Fianna Fail. Or Fine Gael, depending on the balance of fluid in his brain at any given time.

Everything is part of a plan concocted by people far smarter than him but not smart enough to cover it up from him. He tends to smell of wee a lot, but that’s because every morning they sneak into his bedroom when he is in the toilet, and pour wee on his trousers to discredit him.

The well-organised bastards.

An Occasional Guide to Irish Politics: The Political Biological Clock.

Time's flying. It’s normally a single event which causes the realisation: The moment you realise that the guy two years behind you in college is now a junior minister, or that plump girl you used to pity is now the political editor of a major national newspaper. And it’s not just your peers: Behind you, you see younger, slimmer, prettier and more media savvy types coming up behind you, making you realise that your beer belly or plump tree trunk ankles have now rendered you no longer a threat to their career path. You’re in their way.

What happened? You were going to be a senator at 25 or presenting your own Today FM sunday show at 27. What happened was the curse of our generation, who haven’t quite grasped that our physical age is a good ten years older than our mental ages, and that time is running out to do the great things, learn the guitar, write that novel. Get a fright when you realise that a guy you used to see playing the guitar naked whilst full of soup is now a father?

Tick, tock, tick, tock…

An Occasional Guide to Irish Politics: The Handwringer.

handwringing“What…about…the…children???” She will bellow, head rubbernecking around the studio audience, making eye contact with all to ensure that no one cares more about the issue than her, and that everyone knows it, too. Everything is a simple equation: If we can afford to bale out the banks, then surely we can afford to fund absolutely every single request for spending from every other NGO too? If you even question it, you hate children/animals/basket weavers from North West Kilkenny, and wish they were dead, don’t you?

She has “no problem” paying extra taxes to help the weak, she says. She tends to say that a lot when centre-right governments are in power. When Labour, her party of choice, do get into power, she curiously goes quiet on the issue, not resigning over the u-turn but telling anyone else also recently appointed to the National Bruised Knee Advisory Board that they must be “realistic” and support the party leadership. She rails against low pay, and can’t understand how anyone can get by on less than €75k a year, or indeed pay their own pension. She has never worked in the private sector, save for her sister’s angels, tarots and power crystals shop which surprisingly went bust six weeks after opening.

Interestingly, when she lived in Britain, working with the National Council for Balloonist Vertigo Sufferers, she would give out yards about the council tax, and eventually moved to a Tory council where the tax was lower, even if she had to step over drug addicts outside Waitrose.

An Occasional guide to Irish Politics: The Deputy “whose seat is gone.”

Sure, the politically astute dogs in the street know it!You’ll see him about 18 months before the expected election, fidgeting and wild-eyed. Questions about poster quantities to be ordered trigger a manic response: “ Posters? Sure why bother? The dogs in the streets know it. The. Seat. Is. Gone.”

“Everybody” knows that your man, that Shinner, is a dead cert to take the seat.

“A dead cert. Why are we even bothering to have the election? We might as well just award him the seat. Sure, I’m surprised he hasn’t got a running mate for a run at the last seat.”

The deputy can be seen slinking slope-shouldered into old folks homes, sighing and pondering as to how the constituency, whom he has loyally served for twenty years, could vote for a fella who used to blow up people. And what about his running mate? Sure what does he need two quotas for anyway? The old dears console him with a chocolate digestive and a nice sit-down.   

Of course, he runs a full campaign, but not to win, perish the thought, sure that’s impossible. He’s just running to keep the party flag flying, really. Only in Ireland does a candidate brag about how badly he’s doing, but not too badly.

He grudgingly accepts, without anyone actually asking him the question, that he supposes it could be possible that he might squeeze into the fifth seat on the nineteenth count without reaching the quota if it were a nice day, and all the people he’s helped through the years turned out, but that the Shinner probably “ has it all locked up, with military precision,” he says ominously.

The day after polling day, the deputy comfortably takes the second seat on the third count, but assures everyone that it is a dead cert that this is the last time he’ll hold the seat, no doubt about it. His “safe as houses” running mate’s vote collapses and he loses his seat.

 

An occasional guide to Irish Politics: The Amateur Opinion Poll Spinner.

I don't know anything about that but I feel strongly about it!

He’s the bore to beat all bores, the one who extrapolates election results down to the last seat in the Feckerstown ward even though the election is 17 years away.

But it gets worse. Not only is he a moron, he’s a partisan moron. If his party is up a fraction of a percent, he declares as fact that his party could run a rotting headless corpse in a given seat and still have a surplus quota. But if the party drops an iota, the poll is immediately dismissed as an abberation, not comparing like with like, obviously rigged by the pollsters who are of course in the pockets of the other crowd.

He’s on Twitter at the sniff of a poll, cheerleading for his crowd and finger-pointing at the others, racking up posts the way, well, proper political activists rack up first preferences for their candidate.

Still, could be worse. At least he’s at home out of harm’s way, rather than sitting on the bus beside you and overwhelming you with a toxic wave of body odour and Monster Munch as he flicks through Nealon’s Guide to the 1987 general election and sweats.

An Occasional Guide to Irish Politics: The Sincere Local Election Candidate.

The Secretly Honourable Candidate.

The Secretly Honourable Candidate.

She secretly reads EPA reports in the toilet, and ponders elderly care provision whilst on the bus, but never tells anyone ‘lest she be thought some sort of dangerous intellectual, into the books and all that. In the party, she’s regarded as quiet but solid, and loyal to a fault. She’ll always be willing to help out at election time, and when the party is in trouble, she defends the line so calmly that one might think she actually believes it.

Deep down, her conscience keeps kicking, battling with her political nous which tells her to shut up, go with the flow, and when you’re in you can do all the stuff you really believe. Then she sees Noel Dempsey who finally reached the cabinet and decided to try to do the radical stuff and suddenly realised that he was in the wrong party for doing, well, anything other than existing in three dimensions.

But there’s always a chance that just maybe she might make a difference, and lobby to get that extra €100k into the budget that stops some kid going to bed hungry or puts an extra bed into a refuge for some wife getting the tar beaten out of her by a drunken thug of a husband. It’s those tiny victories, those tiny beams of light in the darkness that make her keep pushing against it all, which is lucky, because she is all we have.

An Occasional Guide to Irish Politics: The Anatomy of an Irish Issue.

An issue arises that catches the attention of the nation. Reviews are ordered. Followed by other reviews of the reviews. NGOs demand resources*. The relevant minister, or even the Taoiseach, pledges that the issue will be addressed, and that the govt will work towards ensuring that the issue never occurs again.

No one wishes to address the core issue: That an issue needs resources to resolve, that resources cost money, that money means taxes, and that no one (including the NGO involved, which does not wish to muddy itself with the reality of actually paying for what it wants) is willing to advocate either a specific tax to pay for these resources, or direct the funds for these resources from other areas of spending, thus affecting other NGOs and interest groups.

Instead, the issue is made a priority. Alongside the other priorities helping the old, those with disabilities, the unemployed, the farmers, low paid workers, the mentally ill, the GAA, the banks, the car dealers, the inner cities, the west of Ireland, rural areas, publicans, unemployment blackspots, any constituency with an Independent TD, and anyone who can get organised enough to get a delegation together to visit their TD. All these groups are deemed to be priorities worthy of extra resources*.

There is talk amongst government backbenchers of appointing a minister of state for priorities to take responsibility for making priorities a priority. Backbenchers call for the decision to appoint a minister of state for priorities to be made a priority.

Due to legal reasons, the Attorney General advises that no one can be blamed for the issue. However, early retirement or reassignment to another well remunerated state position would be “appropriate”. Tasty pensions all around for everyone concerned.

The country sits back, to prepare itself for the next issue to erupt.

*Resources: Money raised by taxing other people (certainly not the recipient of the additional resources) more.

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?    

What if…the United Kingdom went to war against Spain.

Let me be very clear: the reason I’m writing this is basically as a response to a certain type of Daily Mail/Daily Express reader and the “Send in the army/navy!” response that seems to appear regularly in those newspapers. In particular, that France and Spain should be careful that the UK doesn’t decide to give Johnny Foreigner what for.

I do not for one moment think the following is likely. It’s purely a piece of speculative fiction.

Just a bit of fun. But what if a far-right government in Madrid decided to take Gibraltar by force…

The news that Spanish forces had taken Gibraltar reached London within an hour of the crossing. The Royal Marine garrison on the rock put up a solid defence of their positions, slowing the Spanish advance, but as the fighting descended into street combat the decision was taken by the marine commander to surrender to avoid further civilian casualties. The Spanish flag flew over the rock within three hours of hostilities commencing.

The Prime Minister and the general military staff met in Downing Street just before the surrender, and the Chief of the Defence Staff outlined their options.

“Firstly, a Falklands-style task force will not succeed. Even if we could get the force down the Atlantic coast we would face serious air opposition as soon as we closed on Gibraltar. Our carrier group would come under attack from the Spanish Air Force, who fly F35s, F18s and Typhoons and would be flying from bases much closer and with air defence support from the ground. They would target our carriers as a priority and have a serious chance of hitting if not sinking them. The Spanish Navy is smaller and less well-equipped than the Royal Navy but still has submarines and frigates with modern NATO equipment, again focussing on our carriers and amphibious landing craft. We could possibly prevail off the Portuguese coast, assuming Portugal stays neutral, but we would take casualties, and if any of our key ships are sunk the operation fails. If we manage to land a force in Gibraltar, or close to it, we’ll be fighting to hold a beachhead against a modern Spanish army with modern NATO armour and support vehicles, with air superiority over us, and that’s without even considering force sizes and supply lines.”

“What do you mean?” the Prime Minister asked.

“We would put a force of less than ten thousand on the ground. Spain has a professional army of 80,000 plus reserves of about 15,000. They also have 80,000 paramilitary Guardia Civil to draw on. But let’s be honest; if Madrid wanted to equip and arm one million volunteers to fight us they could, as could we if foreign forces landed here. Our supply lines would go back through the Straits of Gibraltar where they’d be harried intensely. In short, we’d be fighting a losing battle from day one.”

“What about landing a force somewhere else? Maybe northern Spain? Capture some town to use as a bargaining chip to trade?” the Foreign Secretary suggested, listing her head slightly towards the official photographer who seemed to magically appear every time she entered a room. For the historical record, she said.

The CDS opened another file.

“We have considered that. It would certainly be logistically easier. Shorter supply lines, and our carriers and the UK mainland could provide better air cover without getting too close to the Spanish coast. But the core problems would remain. Our fleet would be under constant attack, and our assault force would face a Spanish counter attack made up of a bigger but equally professionally trained and NATO standardised force. I need to stress this: we are not dealing with Argentine reservists sent on an adventure here. This will be Spanish professional soldiers, as well equipped as we are, who have trained alongside us in NATO, fighting to retake their own soil. Or at least, in Gibraltar’s case, that is their perception.”

“Are you honestly telling us that this country, despite being the world’s fifth military power, is essentially powerless to do anything?” the Chancellor asked, looking slightly out of place in his branded hoodie.

The CDS shook his head.

“No sir, what I’m saying is that whilst we can inflict serious damage upon the invading force, we simply do not have the resources to fight a sustained conflict against an economically comparable country. Not on their home soil.”

“What about Trident? I mean, we are a nuclear power. Spain is not,” the Home Secretary said, jutting her jaw out to underline the statement.

The CDS looked at the fleet admiral.

“We can’t nuke Madrid.”

“We can threaten to,” the Home Secretary said.

“No one will believe us. We’ll look ridiculous,” the Chancellor said, eager to shut down his rival out Johnny Foreigner bashing him.

“What is the point having all this equipment paid for by the hard-working families in my constituency if…”

“The Home Secretary has a point,” the prime minister’s chief advisor suggested quietly. The room went silent. He was not known as being a fan of the Home Secretary. Not only had he voted Remain, but he still defended it.

“You’re not suggesting I incinerate Madrid, surely? That would be very uncentrist of you,” the PM suggested, running a hand through his unusually tidy hair.

“Tell us about Prompt Global Strike, admiral,” the Chief Advisor said. All heads turned.

The admiral shifted uncomfortably in his seat.

“PGS is a part of the Trident programme that allows us to use a Trident D5 missile to deliver a non-nuclear payload to a target globally.”

“Could we use it to destroy a designated target in Spain?”

“In theory, yes, but I must advise caution. PGS is not something we use lightly because no country can tell whether a launched ICBM is carrying a nuclear warhead or not. This will show up on Russian and Chinese early warning systems as an ICBM launch.”

“Ok, I understand that admiral. But let me clarify: do we have, at this moment, the capability to launch a non-nuclear Trident missile at a specific target in Spain, and can the Spanish shoot it down?”

“Each Vanguard submarine currently carries 16 ICBMs. Two of them have conventional warheads. No, Spain cannot shoot it down. Nobody can. ”

The room broke into disarray.

“So if we were to identify a key symbolic or economic target in Spain we could destroy it. Say Madrid airport, or the Cortes or the Royal Palace? We could announce this publicly in advance to allow for them to be cleared of people so there needs to be no casualties, and give a ninety minute warning to launch. We’ll inform the Russians and Chinese beforehand, indeed we’ll even surface the submarine just before the launch so that they can verify it. In fact, we could issue a list of key economic targets, power stations, airports, ports, and tell the Spanish we’ll keep hitting them until they withdraw from Gibraltar. That’s global power.”

“The empire strikes back,” the Home Secretary said, slightly breathlessly.

The admiral interrupted the chief advisor.

“We only have two current PGS capable missiles.”

“Can’t we prepare others? I mean we do have four Vanguards, and only one is needed to maintain deterrence patrol. If we hit, say, ten targets in Spain that would do enough damage. I mean, imagine if someone hit all four London airports, Buckingham Palace, the Stock Exchange, and a couple of power stations and railway terminals. We’d be in chaos.”

“That would take a while, to remove and refit the warheads.”

“In fairness, once we did it the first time, provided we picked the right target, Madrid would know we were serious. We probably would not have to do it again,” the Prime Minister said.

He turned to the admiral.

“I want options on this within the hour.”

That night, the Prime Minister addressed the country, with a special Spanish language edition being transmitted directly to the Spanish media. The ultimatum was clear: if Spanish forces were not withdrawn in total in 24 hours, the UK would hit Adolfo Suarez Madrid airport. The PM carefully explained that although a non-nuclear warhead would be used, and therefore there would be no radioactivity, the power of the warhead combined with the kinetic energy of a direct missile impact would destroy a large part of the airport, and so a 10km evacuation zone should be declared around the target.

The PM was inundated with almost universal condemnation from other NATO leaders. The US President was in contact within 30 minutes of the broadcast.

“Whilst we have great sympathy with the Gibraltar situation, mr Prime Minister, the United States cannot condone the use of ballistic weaponry in this way. We strongly advise that you accept the offer of the European Union to broker a diplomatic solution. The spectacle of a NATO member bombing another is grotesque.”

“I would remind you, mr President, that they invaded our territory!”

“Yes, I understand that, but nevertheless this is upping the ante. It’s bad enough that you have isolated yourselves by withdrawing from Europe, and now this…”

“We were invaded!”

“Yes, I get that. Now look, the EU is proposing a joint authority…”

The PM slammed the phone down in a temper.

The calls with the German and French leaders were not very different: it was obvious all three had agreed a joint NATO line.

“Do you know, I think they’d prefer us to invade Spain and go down to a bloody but honourable defeat,” the PM said, as they gather in a Cabinet Office Briefing Room to watch the launch.

All day, scenes from Madrid showed the airport being evacuated, and now it stood empty, its halls eerily displaying hundreds of cancelled flights. The Spanish Parliament openly debated the idea of Spanish fighters bombing Penzance and Falmouth. One over-eager local government official had tested the air raid siren in Truro and caused mass panic.

Despite officially protesting, both Russia and China had accepted the invitation to send naval officers to inspect the missile before launch, and observe its launch from the submarine. France had not been offered as the Royal Navy feared the French, although officially neutral, might tip off their EU allies as to the location of the UK submarine.

As per the agreement with Russia and China, the submarine surfaced off the coast of Scotland five minutes before launching, giving Russian and Chinese satellites time to verify the launch and ensure the trajectory was not a threat to their countries. It then dived beneath the surface to permit launch of the missile.

Across the world, millions watched as the countdown began, a satellite feed from the submarine being directed by military satellite to global media.

When it reached zero, nothing happened.

The admiral listened intently through headphones as the room sat in silence.

“Those fucking bastards,” he said, before pulling off the headphones.

“The Americans have turned off the guidance software. We can’t launch.”

“What?” The PM asked.

“They are American missiles, and they seem to be able to remotely deactivate the guidance system. The chaps on the submarine have never seen anything like this before.”

“But it’s an independent deterrent. Surely we can launch without US permission?” The Home Secretary asked.

The admiral looked at her.

“We can launch alright, but the targeting won’t be accurate. I can’t guarantee we’ll hit our precise…”

“Oh for fuck’s sake: does it matter which part of the airport we hit?” She said, in exasperation.

“Madam, I can just about guarantee we will hit Spain and then maybe Madrid.”

An aide stepped in, holding a phone.

“The president, sir.” The PM put it to his ear.

“I’m sorry we had to do that. You left us no choice.”

“You bastard. We have followed you fuckers through thick and thin, and now you humiliate us like this.”

“Look, my people are briefing that you delayed at the last minute because I asked you as a personal favour. I’m flying to Brussels on Monday, and Paris and Berlin will be there to sit down with you and Madrid to work this out. We had to do this. Madrid has been talking to the Russians since you announced. There’s talk of Russian ABMs in Spain in return for a Russian naval base in the Med and on the Atlantic coast. The Chinese are sniffing around too. We can’t allow it, it’s as simple as that. Paris and Berlin are with me on this. So is the rest of NATO except for Hungary and Turkey. Hungary and Turkey, man. This is simply too important. See you in Brussels.”

The phone clicked dead.

END.