Ireland and COVID-19

According to the novelist John Green, there is ‘no honour in illness’, likewise there is no honour in a poor response to one. The vastly different approaches to COVID-19 taken in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland put the entire island in danger. It is a stain on Irish politics that a failure to co-ordinate health policy on this issue threatens the efficacy of both approaches.

The Republic has followed a containment approach since the outbreak came into prominence in March. Northern Ireland followed the UK’s ‘ignore’ approach thus rendering the restrictions taken on the rest of the island redundant. Indeed, the Republic’s proactive strategy caused undue panic in the more laissez-faire Northern part of Ireland.

The Republic’s current approach is almost  a carbon copy of the measures taken regarding TB in the 1940’s. At that time provisions were made in legislation to isolate, and even forcefully isolate, TB patients. Indeed, the elimination of TB in Ireland largely came through the creation of the sanatorium.

TB and COVID are, as well publicised, vastly different diseases such that using sanatoriums for the airborne COVID-19 would be ineffective. Regardless, there is a demonstrated history of proactive health policy in the Republic. Thus the Republic will continue to tighten measures as long as the virus persists.

Thankfully, the curve has appeared to flatten in the Republic. New cases have declined from a high of 400 in late April to 20 yesterday. Government policy has worked south of the border but what about on the other side?

According to Dr. Bamford of Queen’s University Belfast, the COVID vaccine is about a year away, plenty of time for the situation to suddenly take a turn and get much worse. There are currently no available death rate figures for the North so it is impossible to gauge how many more, and it is more, people the lackadaisical UK response has killed in Northern Ireland compared to the south.

UK deaths are continuing to rise whilst the Republic’s death rate is falling so it is natural to assume Northern death rates are increasing. The people of Northern Ireland deserve better.

However, some immunologists expect another surge in new cases as the summer warms. Cases in the Republic could therefore shoot up as the North possibly has the herd immunity sought by the UK approach.

This is the best case scenario as the disease would simply ravage one part of the island though this assumes immunity to the current strand of COVID implies immunity, or at least some protection, against subsequent strains which may be wishful thinking.

It therefore seems best to assume, as some doctors already do, that it may be impossible to become immune to COVID. The landscape in a few months time could be one of skyrocketing disease contractions in the south which would increase contractions in an already strained north. Both healthcare regimes are struggling, a little more pressure could cause a collapse. It is no use allowing two states on an island the size of Ireland to follow divergent approaches to a pandemic. The people of Ireland deserve better.

 

Dysfunction in Irish Politics

The following article by Robert Tolan is useful to those in the mainland United Kingdom in an environment here in the UK in which the BBC fails to cover Irish politics (both North and South of the border) effectively. Many of us here do not even know that Ireland is about to have a general election, nor do most of us realise how utterly dysfunctional Irish politics is.

Leo Eric Varadkar is an Irish Fine Gael politician, and is the current Premier or “Taoiseach” of Ireland. Varadkar relied upon the support of Independents and the abstention of Fianna Fáil TDs (i.e. Irish MPs) to support his premiership. On 14 June 2017, he was appointed Taoiseach in a 57–50 vote with 47 abstentions. He became Ireland’s first openly gay Taoiseach, as well as the youngest. However a general election in Ireland is due. Varadkar has called a national election for 8 February. Leo Varadkar’s Fine Gael closely matched with fellow centre-right party, Fianna Fáil, in polls.

In the 1980’s, Ireland’s Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, described the country as a, ‘land of strange happenings’. This was at a time of unprecedented violence and decay in the island’s institutions. At this time, effective Northern Irish politics did not exist, the bloodletting left no time for talk. Politics in the Republic also barely existed in what was effectively a one party state. The modicum of political engagement that did take place resulted in the Mahon Tribunal which exposed endemic corruption across all levels of the political apparatus.

Today, the situation is not much better. The Republic’s latest government, under Premier Leo Varadkar, was a minority one led by Fine Gael and supported by Fianna Fáil, and it collapsed as a no-confidence vote in the Health Minister, Simon Harris, appeared on the horizon (the government has failed to cure a dysfunctional health service that consumes huge resources but produces poor results). The latest Sunday Times poll places Fine Gael 12 points behind Fianna Fáil amidst widespread outrage at their inability to address the housing and health crises.  However, voters will be aware of Fianna Fail’s partial responsibility for the inaction of the last four years. They propped Fine Gael up with their confidence and supply agreement. Fianna Fáil’s leader, Michael Martin, will struggle to convince much of the electorate that things will change under his leadership. Martin’s challenge points to the wider problem of Irish politics, the two main parties are almost identical. They both enact conservative fiscal policies and mostly liberal social policies once in power. This means Ireland has really been a one party state since independence as all of its governments have been either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael led.

In a democracy, it would be typical to assume voters could choose the next largest party, Sinn Féin, but as ever, things are not that simple in Ireland. Sinn Féin is not yet free of its associations with dissident Republicanism and, to a populace that appears to favour low tax and low spend policies, their extremely left-wing economics may be too much to countenance. The national broadcaster, RTÉ, has decided to leave Sinn Féin, out of its leader debate which typifies the view that the party are fit for opposition but not for government. Due to Ireland’s system of proportional democracy, it is extremely difficult to gain an outright majority so this means haggling must be done after the election. Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael will have to negotiate with a litany of independents, a resurgent Green party and a Labour party whose flame is dying.

An unintended consequence of this quirk is the support of certain independents may be dependent upon resurfacing a by-road in a parish very few people have heard of, something that rankles with those committed to a modern Ireland.  It seems as if the major Irish parties are out of big ideas that can energise the country the same way independence did a century ago. Hopefully,  Ireland still is the land where what Haughey called ‘happy endings’ are possible.

Picture: the Cliffs of Moher

 

 

The Dysfunction of Irish Politics

In the 1980’s, Ireland’s Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, described the country as a, “land of strange happenings”. This was at a time of unprecedented violence and decay in the island’s institutions. At this time, Northern Irish politics did not exist, the bloodletting left no time for talk. Politics in the Republic barely existed in what was effectively a one party state. The modicum of politics that took place resulted in the Mahon Tribunal which exposed endemic corruption across all levels of the political apparatus.

Today, the situation is not much better. The Republic’s last government, a minority one led by Fine Gael and supported by Fianna Fáil, collapsed as a no-confidence vote in the Health Minister, Simon Harris, appeared on the horizon. The latest Sunday Times poll places Fine Gael 12 points behind Fianna Fáil amidst the widespread outrage against their inability to address the housing and health crises.  However, voters will be aware of Fianna Fail’s partial responsibility for the inaction of the last four years, they propped Fine Gael up with their confidence and supply agreement. Fianna Fáil’s leader, Michael Martin, will struggle to convince much of the electorate that things will change under his leadership.

Martin’s challenge points to the wider problem of Irish politics, the two main parties are almost identical. They both enact conservative fiscal policies and mostly liberal social policies once in power. This means Ireland has really been a one party state since independence as all of its governments have been either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael led. In a typical democracy, it would be typical to assume voters could choose the next largest party, Sinn Fein, but as ever, things are not that simple in Ireland. Sinn Féin is not yet free of its associations with dissident Republicanism and, to a populace that appears to favour low tax and low spend policies, their extremely left-wing economics may be too much to countenance. The national broadcaster, RTÉ, has decided to leave Sinn Féin, out of its leader debate which typifies the view the party are fit for opposition but not for government.

Due to Ireland’s system of proportional democracy, it is extremely difficult to gain an outright majority so this means haggling must be done after the election. Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael will have to negotiate with a litany of independents, a resurgent Green party and a Labour party whose flame is dying. An unintended consequence of this quirk is the support of certain independents may be dependent upon resurfacing a by-road in a parish very few people have heard of, something that does not rankle well with those committed to an ever modern Ireland.  It seems as if the major Irish parties are spent of big ideas that can energise the country the same way independence did a century ago. Hopefully,  Ireland still is the land where what Haughey called “happy endings” are possible.

    Picture: the Cliffs of Moher

Moving Beyond the Good Friday Agreement

Northern Ireland stands at a crossroads; one road leads to a future in an ever more precarious United Kingdom, the other charts the path to a united Ireland. In a parallel universe, one where the UK opted to remain in the European Union, this choice could be delayed, perhaps for a few decades; alas the choice must be made now.

The Good Friday Agreement was predicated on the UK remaining within the EU meaning upon its departure, parliament will have to decide whether to uphold the agreement. Failing to do so will leave Northern Ireland in the wilderness as Stormont has been, as of this writing, closed for 1,079 days. The Conservatives will want to avoid creating such a power vacuum as they paint, in broad brush strokes; the country’s trading relationship with the rest of the world. Failing to pass the necessary laws will cause the easel to collapse leaving Northern Ireland in uncharted territory particularly as the Nationalists hold the majority of seats in Stormont for the first time in its history and the Unionists are sharply divided on how to deal with this sudden change in fortunes. This change in the topography is not merely due to the growing Catholic, normally Nationalist, community bolstering Sinn Féin and the SDLP support but the advent of growing dissatisfaction within the Unionist movement as a whole with their traditional parties.

The DUP and UUP’s base largely voted in favour of remaining in the EU and they are far more socially liberal than the Arlene Fosters of this world indicating a growing disconnect between Unionist politicos and their erstwhile supporters. This scene is eerily similar to that which hung like a scepter over the Labour heartlands in the last election and could indicate a similar implosion in Unionist support is yet to come.

Perhaps it is time to take Frost’s “road less travelled by” and make plans for the border poll necessary for reunification as it appears unification is more inevitable than ever. However, the finished painting will be more Picasso than Rembrandt.

Picture: Stormont, the Northern Ireland Assembly

 

Don’t Forget Me

And, sir, it is no little thing to make mine eyes to sweat compassion”, (William Shakespeare, Coriolanus).

This is my last blog post for The Next Century Foundation. During my time at the NCF, I addressed several hot issues, speaking about different situations and topics, even very controversial ones, which have sometimes generated harsh reactions. I suppose it is inevitable if you are speaking about politics, human rights, dictators, victims or perpetrators. These social fabrications give us a social identity and lead us to often take on conflicting and controversial positions, dictated by interests, simple visions or specific goals. In such circumstances, the “political animal” inside each of us reveals itself trying to impose its own point of view.

However, in spite of the ideas and values that humans can have, every person is made up of feelings and emotions. Before being classified as political animals, humans are sentient beings, with emotions and feelings which define us and make us unique. The same sort of emotions and feelings that are gradually being extinguished with the frenetic and uncontrolled evolution of this world. And today, I want to talk about this. Today I want to talk about who we are. Today, I want to write about the emotions, hopes and feelings that define us and how this world is changing them. And I will do it by speaking through the lense of one of the generations that, more than any other, is experiencing this change in full; a generation that particularly expresses the contradictions of our society but also the dreams and the betrayed hopes: my generation, that of the Millennials.

We live in strange times. Times of great uncertainties, immense fears, incessant and fast changes. I am the son of a generation that has been living through the golden years of development, where entrepreneurs would invest in the job market and believed in the value of their employees. Years where politicians would constantly strive to find new ways to improve people’s lives. The high level of births, the prolific job market, the certainty of the future, the first and the second car, big savings, the summer holidays by the sea or in the mountains. And then the great investments, the incentives to progress, research and development, the high general morale, the man on the moon, the hope for a future of well-being for everyone.

But sometimes expectations about the future are bigger than what reality has to offer and, just like a bubble that swells excessively, sooner or later reality explodes right in your face. And here, all of a sudden, we have a system where the excessive well-being and the immeasurable potential of the third industrial revolution clashes with the individual economic interest. The big industries and multinationals come into play and alter the balance. Human greed grows stronger and stronger while the big multinationals knock on the doors of politics for some “boosts”. And there you go; the first agreements born to maximize profits by damaging workers’ rights; national factories shutting down to re-open in those countries where labor costs 1$ a day, or renegotiating workers’ union achievements with politicians in exchange for a few bribes or support during election campaigns; the high transnational finance getting hold of large company shares and becoming the main protagonist of a new global perverse game. The cost of labor for multinational companies drops dramatically while working hours increase. As a consequence, the price of produced goods decreases. Small and medium-sized businesses close or fail for they cannot compete with similar standards, whereas those able to make it through are the big names of industry or those entrepreneurs who, through criminal support, have managed to reach out to and influence politicians to get some extra procurement contracts or personal favors. The West becomes the center of unbridled capitalism, with no rules, with no ethics or respect. Everyone for themselves. It is against this backdrop that my generation, the Millennials, is born. The first true generation without any clue about its future.

The final blow comes with 2000 and all its technological capacity. It started with the first mobile phones and laptops on a large scale, up to smartphones and tablets. Technology moves; the great giants of Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Amazon develop; technological power becomes incredibly significant. And here’s Black Friday, the purchases with a click, the ads in every corner of the city, superfast transportation and trains in the underground every minute. The illusion of a world as a global, super-technological and limitless village is born. A sense that all this frantic lifestyle is necessary and inevitable emerges.

The savings of our parents are spent in this super-technological world while employment becomes more and more an urban legend. The new contemporary frontier of slavery 2.0 is born. Jobs poorly paid with meal vouchers; fixed-term contracts; easier layoffs; unbearable working hours. The prediction of Charlie Chaplin in his movie, Modern Times, comes true. Man becomes a productive factor with no rights, little money and a need to spend money without worrying too much about the future. It is the betrayal of the dream of a global Californication that we all expected: a happy world with more freedom and less problems to think about; a world where everyone can work and build a better and sustainable future.

But man’s greediness has shattered this dream. The betrayal from a global political class of spineless servants of high finance and powerful world lobbies has sanctioned the end of this dream. And while constitutions drown in an ocean of decay, my question is, what is left of all this?

On the one hand, there is an army of clueless kids, educated in the best prep schools which are financed by international magnates, who repeat as robots notions of economic and political theories aired on televisions and published in newspapers by those same people responsible for such a global delirium. Those same theories that legitimized the unbridled capitalism that is crushing us; theories such as those of the great industrialization or those that ultimately justified the plundering of the marvelous African countries or wars of interest such as those in Iraq or Libya.

On the other hand, there are people who live in the moment, who believe in what the World tells them to believe, only able to find their own identity in the television culture of the Big Brother, phony talk shows or in the trashy pop-porn culture spread throughout the day by MTV. George Orwell’s predictions have never been so true, huh?

And then, what remains is a people of perfect strangers.

I turn around every day, in the train, on the bus, down the street, and I see hundreds of people far away. People with a blank look on their face, lost in the void or on the screen of their smartphones. Lonely, sad, aloof people, with not much of humanity left; people walking quickly through the streets remorselessly hitting whomever is in their path because they are too intent on continuing their virtual conversation with someone miles away; people unable to express emotions or feelings; people too busy masking their loneliness behind the perfect image of their virtually perfect life on Instagram; depressed people no longer connected to reality; people who get together and break up through a telephone because they are incapable and afraid of meeting or knowing each other in a normal, real, natural way. And finally, people unable to associate, to connect, to unite and resist the power, or to oppose unjust decisions.

So what is left of feelings, of humanity, of us being people? For some reason, I’ve always been afraid to answer this question. Particularly, in the last period of my life.

During my time at The Next Century Foundation, I have been able to reflect a lot on politics, religion, people and the complicated relationships that bind us to each other and that bind us to society. I have not really ever considered anything I am writing right now. Not because I did not think about it but rather because this complex machine of intertwined relations, politics, economy, religion and power is difficult to fully understand and, above all, to make it work. And in this sense, in the end you end up accepting it because you understand that things are almost always impossible to change, peace will always be difficult to establish, power will always preserve itself and religion will always be used as a political tool to manipulate the masses. So, almost passively, you end up accepting the status quo of things. Almost like a condition of the universe, immovable and immanent. Everything has always been this way and it will always be this way.

At least until this World decides you are the next target and this status quo affects you in person, lashing out at you with all its strength. And then everything changes. You withdraw, let yourself down, look for explanations, seek yourself and your role in the world. You frantically turn around to find yourself, unsuccessfully. And you cannot help but compare your situation to that of the contemporary world, that of a world that perhaps will never change; and that of the Millennials, that of a simple person surrounded by lonely individuals, unable to sense or feel emotions in one of the largest cities in the world. You wonder if maybe it is just the natural order of things that you eventually have to accept, because perhaps that is how it works, because it has always been and will always be like this. In the last few months of my life, I have been looking for an answer to this question, without luck.

Until something happens; that deus ex machina you need to get you out of trouble. And here comes the answer to your questions. Something that helps you to understand; something like a trip to Holland, a beer with a trusted friend, an exhibition of an artist or walking in the rain in the streets of London without a destination. And it is at that precise moment that when you look into people’s eyes – those you’ve been so reluctant about or that you’ve lost hope in – you suddenly see something different, something you’ve never seen before, something that changes your perspective. And you can suddenly feel a vibe, a feeling, a sparkle that leads you through their eyes. And, like a flash in a pan, you are able to feel all the power and the emotions that each of them has locked within and that can be conveyed through their story or personality. Pure energy, pure emotions, pure humanity. The people’s smiling faces at the Tulip market in Amsterdam; the encouraging wink of a friend down at the pub that – around a pint and some good indie-rock in the background – shows you the right way of looking at things; the power of humanity in the symbolic life scenes of Banksy’s works that lead you to reflect on the true nature of people and humanity; the feeling of the rain falling on your skin in the gray of London’s streets that brings you back to life and connects you to reality again. Your prospects start to change and now you can see things differently. Suddenly you can find an answer to that question in that stream of people and things around you.

And, like a flashback, everything suddenly made sense.

During my time at the Next Century Foundation, I met ambassadors, Lords, religious leaders; I even spoke to the World for 2 minutes before the UN Human Rights Council. All exceptional experiences. However, I now understand that none of these experiences would have made sense without a particular detail that each of them has in common, the confrontation with people. Before the NCF I had not realized how even simply talking with people is essential; how much people can express through their words, their looks or their smiles. And, above all, I had not realized how effective it is to be able to talk with them to try to solve problems.

This is exactly what humanity is. Humanity is talking, confronting each other, solving problems together, uniting different and opposite perspectives. When you can achieve that; when you can take your eyes off your smartphone for a moment and you turn around; when you abandon the social and political fabrications for a moment and drop the mask they gave you, it is only then that you see potential and opportunities in those stranger’s faces rather than indifference and solitude. In that precise moment, you can hear the flow I was talking about earlier. And you understand that that potential is unimaginable and terrifies governments and institutions, and shakes the establishment. Just like the stories I tried to tell you about so far in my articles. And whether it is the Christmas truce or the international mass mobilization for the death of a young man in Egypt, you realise it is all about looking at the world from another perspective. If some people managed to refuse to fight, to kill and be killed, on European soil a little less than a century ago, destroying the socio-political fabrication of wars; if some people managed to get together to protest against a fierce dictator in Egypt without being afraid of the consequences; if one man could revolutionize his country after being imprisoned for 27 years, upsetting the entire institutional set-up based on violence, lies and terror; if other great men like Martin Luther King or Gandhi or so many others have managed to mobilize millions of people around an idea of peace, justice or freedom, then we too can change this mad world.

It is all about being able to channel those vibes into positive, collective paths. And you can only do it through dialogue, confrontation and associationism. Talking and dealing with people, precisely. Alexis de Tocqueville once said that the only way to resist power in a positive and constructive way is through the democratic instrument that starts from the bottom, by means of associationism from the municipal level, from small realities.

People are the solution to the world’s illnesses. And the positive dialogue that you can have with them. Social Capital. It is so simple. The greatest evils of our generation come from this absurd lifestyle that is offered to us in the form of well-being, technology and comfort. Loneliness, depression, indifference, hatred and division are all the fruit of a society that tends to divide us and speculate on our collective incapacity to react, associate and confront each other. It is that simple, and we are the cure.

It is possible. And you can find the proof around you. Turn off the TV, put down your smartphone for a moment. Go down the street, talk to people, listen to what they have to say. Take a hike in the park, maybe in the pouring rain. Try to feel something. Go to the pub, read a newspaper and comment on the news with bystanders. Have a coffee or a beer with them. Ask them how they are and give them a smile. Everything will change, everything will be different.

And speaking of smiles.

Once, a bearded man told me that if you try to smile while walking down the street, this will positively influence your attitude towards others and, above all, your self-confidence. I will never forget those words. I recently tried to do it often and, I’ll tell you something, it worked. If you try to walk down the street smiling at the people you meet, most of them will reply with a smile. And you will feel different as well, more secure, more positive towards others and the world. It’s all about that. Those emotions and feelings I was talking about before. They can come out, if triggered.

We only have to reconsider our values, our priorities for a moment. What we want from life and what we are looking for. And above all, remember who we are and where we come from, always. Love every single rise and fall and take them as an opportunity to grow and improve yourself and the world around you. I think this is the solution, the cure for the ills of mankind. Creating a community of people based on diversity and dialogue. Only then can we overcome all this. And we, Millennials, have boundless potential to do so.

By the way, I have gone too far. And now it’s time to conclude this post.

My time at the NCF gave me a lot. I grew up a lot professionally but mostly as a person. I owe you a lot, William and Veronica, to your kindness and warm welcome. I was welcomed and treated like a son. You gave me a lot to think about and work on. You gave me a smile in tough times and support when needed. And for this, thank you.

Then there is you, Rory, William and Yousef. Some young minds full of passion and desire to change things. You are fantastic. Every day, I saw in your eyes that power and passion of which I spoke about right above, waiting just to be fully exploited. And I know you’ll find a way to do it, it’s just a matter of time.

You were my second family here, in this gigantic crazy world of sharks. I’ll never forget that. And I’d like to conclude this blog post with this thought, while sipping my double espresso in some coffee shop somewhere in London and listening to these fantastic notes of Redemption Song, one of Marley’s masterpieces. He succeeded! He succeeded in uniting people around words of peace and hope. Like Hendrix’s solo or Mercury’s unique voice or even the Boss playing a piano version of Thunder Road. This is the right time, the perfect moment.

Ciao NCF, a presto!

Luctor et Emergo ex Flammis Orior, Per Aspera ad Astra

#lastblogpost #peoplehavethepower #believe #change #ciaoncf

 

Northern Ireland – the Economy becomes a political issue

Many of us believe in the vision of the Lebanese poet, Khalil Gibran, that of a world without frontiers. I have always disliked nationalism. My creed is all for one and one for all in a brotherhood and sisterhood of mankind.

But I understand nationalism in all its dimensions. I dislike it but I understand it. Irish nationalism, like its cousins in other nations, is an impassioned crucible of love. So it is easy to understand why Sinn Fein wishes to retain its status as a pan-Irish movement. Just as it is easy to understand why so many want an open border between North and South for the free movement of goods.

That’s fine. So why are the Brexit negotiations so pedantically framed that the Irish Border issue comes up for resolution before the trade deal is signed? If there is a successful trade deal there will be no need for a border agreement because goods can and will flow freely regardless. The cart has been put before the horse.

The Brexit vote forced on the British people because of David Cameron’s fear of an emergent UKIP was divisive at best. But it is done. The sooner we get on with life and put it behind us the better. The European Union should be more considerate and less obstreperous.

More considerate because outside the Oxbridge-London-Sussex bubble that remains comfortably isolated from the nation at large, many simply do not care whether there’s a no-deal Brexit. Do your own straw poll if you like. The results may astound you. Many outside of London are more than happy to see the UK crash out of Europe without a deal.

Cutting off your nose to spite your face? Maybe. But Britain imports more from Europe than it sells to Europe, so it’s not the end of the world. But for Ireland and the spirit of the Northern Ireland agreement, the consequences could be dire. Because once you slap in that border, even if only for goods traffic, Irish nationalists may perhaps be enraged.