Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The young and the restless

The votes are counted, the posters are being taken down, and there are a lot of elated and dejected candidates pondering their futures, in and out of the council.

As is the wont of Galway voters, Galway City’s ballot boxes threw up some surprises that we can only wonder at. Like elsewhere in the country, the Labour vote was up, resulting in a gain of two seats for Eamon Gilmore’s party, bringing that party to five councillors.

However, both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael stayed put with three councillors each, counteracting national patterns. Fianna Fáil actually improved on its 2004 vote in Galway, with a 20.7 per cent share, a jump of 1.5 per cent.

Fine Gael’s vote improved by 4.3 per cent but did not result in any seat gains, while Labour’s vote jumped by 2.6 per cent. Since Galway was already a Labour stronghold, the percentage gain is not huge, but clever candidate selection has resulted in a gain of two seats. It must not be forgotten that Catherine Connolly still attracts a strong Labour vote, and the next five years could see her rejoining the party, if a Dáil nomination is forthcoming.

The main feature of this election is the youth of the new candidates – all three of the new candidates in Galway City West are under 40, with Hildegarde Naughton the youngest at 32 and both Peter Keane and Níall McNelis just 36. In Galway City East, Derek Nolan is only 26, and in Galway City Central Ollie Crowe is 33.

Young councillors join restless ones on Galway City Council 2009 – 2014, and the noises emanating from all sides over the weekend suggest that the battle may have been won but the war is not over; all sights are now set on a general election, a contest that could really get interesting, given the formation of the new council.

Looking at the new makeup of the council, there are at least three restless councillors who could be serious Dáil contenders.

Catherine Connolly’s solid performance in Galway City West, her excellent reputation among voters and her personal brand could prove irresistible in any forthcoming general election, given current anti-Government sentiment.

If Labour does not bring her back into the fold, there’s a danger she could cannibalise that party’s vote, as her main competitor for leftwing votes in the city, Níall Ó Brolcháin, is out of the picture. Within the fold, a good vote management strategy could see her accompany Michael D Higgins to Dublin, if the tide really turns against Fianna Fáil.

One Fianna Fáiler against whom the tide definitely has not turned is Michael Crowe. Crowe is now the head honcho among the Fianna Fáil councillors, with brother Ollie and solicitor Peter Keane supporting him all the way. With their respective performances last week, a concerted effort could pose a very serious threat to Frank Fahey, who has lost his allies on the council, Mary Leahy and John Connolly. In 2007, Fahey just held onto his seat, but a strengthened Crowe could see him off.

In Fine Gael, the picture gets even more complicated, with Padraig Conneely hot to trot. Fidelma Healy Eames has been working the ground solidly since her failed bid in 2007, and will not be best pleased to be shunted out of the way in Conneely’s favour. It remains to be seen where Hildegarde Naughton, who surely has Dáil ambitions, will align herself, but long-term, she and Healy Eames could be competing for the same votes, so perhaps she would be better served by settling into the Conneely camp. Meanwhile, sitting TD Padraic McCormack still holds considerable influence within the party (as seen during the European election campaign, with disputes between his camp and Healy Eames’ disturbing the flow).

Between the young and the restless, Galway City Council 2009 – 2014 will have all the makings of a good soap: glamorous young people, controversial personalities, regular cat fights and even family feuds.

And... the actual results...

Galway City Council
The winners, the losers and the old reliables

• The winners
This election was fertile ground for new councillors in Galway City, with the 2009 – 2014 council set to be full of new, fresh faces.

Galway City West elected three new faces in the shape of Fine Gael’s Hildegarde Naughton, Fianna Fáil’s Peter Keane, who swam against the national tide, and Labour’s Níall McNelis, who surfed a tidal wave of Labour support.

Although I predicted the election of Hildegarde Naughton, the defeat of John Mulholland is one of the shocks of this contest, particularly in light of Keane’s sterling performance for Fianna Fáil. I was also rather surprised that McNelis got elected - his previous run for FG could have discredited his Labour credentials but didn't.

All the indicators had been that FF would receive a serious bashing in Galway City West but Keane managed to beat all the odds and win a much-needed seat for his party there. The victory of Níall McNelis follows the national Labour trend, and also shows the strength of a campaign that started well before Christmas.

In Galway City Central, Ollie Crowe managed to beat the anti-Fianna Fáil sentiment to storm home with the third seat, but at the expense of his party colleague, John Connolly. Crowe’s campaign had targeted Connolly from day one and the win, while bucking the national trend, was not altogether surprising.

Galway City East held onto its stalwarts but elected one new face, Derek Nolan of Labour. Nolan ran a strong campaign in 2004, just missing out on the final seat, and used the intervening time to consolidate his support. He managed to outpoll party colleague Tom Costello, almost unseating him, but the party’s clever strategy of running a third candidate ensured that Costello’s transfers brought him ahead of sitting councillor Mary Leahy. Leahy was also targeted by the Crowe campaign, which reportedly told residents of Ballybane that she would move Travellers into their area.

• The losers
In Galway City West, an unexpected surge for Peter Keane and a very strong first preference vote for Hildegarde Naughton managed to see off both Níall Ó Brolcháin and John Mulholland.

While Ó Brolcháin had been acknowledged as vulnerable due to his party’s current unpopularity, the unseating of John Mulholland was completely unexpected.

Speaking on Sunday, a dejected Ó Brolcháin said his party, which has lost all but three council seats nationally, would have to re-examine its future in Government. His day job is with the Green Party, so it's a fair guess he won't be itching for a general election despite his comments.

Former Mayor Mulholland was just 20 first preferences behind Labour’s Níall McNelis. He has been a long-time councillor and there had been suggestions that he would not re-run this time, as he had clearly been growing frustrated with the petty politics of the 04 – 09 council. He didn't run a massive campaign and has been lacklustre in council meetings, not attending a fair amount of them.

Daniel Callanan, who ran in Galway City West after moving from his previous seat in Galway City East, was always an outside chance to win. Hoping to capitalise on an anti-government vote and an extra seat being added to GCW, Callanan was blown out of the water by a surprisingly strong vote for both Peter Keane and Val Hanley. Callanan's abrasive style of politics also wouldn't go down well in what he calls "the leafy suburbs". However, he is now threatening to blow the whistle on what he says is widespread wrongdoing within City Hall, so the most recent mayor, among others, would really want to watch out.

In Galway City Central, Bohermore stood behind local publican Ollie Crowe at the expense of John Connolly, one of Fianna Fáil’s great white hopes for future general elections in the Galway West constituency after he topped the poll in 2004, getting elected on the first count and unseating former Mayor Martin Quinn. The Crowe machine which had served sitting councillor Michael so well, saw off John Connolly, although he did come fourth on first preferences, losing out to Labour Councillor Colette Connolly on transfers.

In Galway City East, the biggest constituency, the only sitting councillor to lose out was Fianna Fáil’s Mary Leahy. This was Leahy’s first election as she was co-opted following the death of her father, Michael Leahy, and it was always going to be tight. Despite running a strong campaign, she just narrowly missed out on the sixth seat to Labour’s Tom Costello, and the failure of Michael Crowe to transfer adequately to her will no doubt be a bone of contention within the party.

Crowe now controls all three FF seats on the City Council and is looking like a very strong candidate for the next General Election - no doubt Frank Fahey is already looking over his shoulder.

• The old reliables

In Galway City West, the old reliables got a shake-up, although King of Knocknacarra, Donal Lyons and former Labour Mayor Catherine Connolly proved more durable than both John Mulholland and Níall Ó Brolcháin. Donal Lyons hasn’t put a foot wrong yet and even the demise of the PDs and the lack of any facilities in Knocknacarra hasn’t dented his popularity. Topping the poll yet again, he proved that posters are not the only way to get elected. Catherine Connolly was also a shoo-in, polling particularly well in her home turf of the Claddagh.

In Galway City Central, there was a surprise as Padraig Conneely failed to top the poll, garnering 19.6 per cent of the vote. This was just behind Labour’s Billy Cameron, with 20.6 per cent. Cameron’s 1,065 first preferences brought him in on the first count as he was over the quota. Both have performed well on the last council and their re-election was not surprising, even after a well-timed leak in relation to Cameron’s expenses claims last week. The source of the leak is thought to have been Conneely, so there will be scores to settle in the next council.

Labour’s Colette Connolly was in some danger, polling fewer first preferences than newcomer Ollie Crowe (777) and John Connolly (599), with just 541 first preferences. However, she took the fourth seat nonetheless, showing the strong left wing preferences in the area as she benefited from the transfers of the Greens’ Mairéad Ní Chroinín and Sinn Féin’s Anna Marley.

In Galway City East, former PD stalwarts Terry O’Flaherty and Declan McDonnell both came in just shy of the quota, proving that their popularity lies in personal votes and not in party loyalty.

Third in was Fianna Fáil’s Michael J Crowe, whose solid vote of 1,045 was proof that not everyone hates the main government party. His continued success and the election of his brother Ollie in his first election threaten to take over Fianna Fáil in the city.

Tom Costello of Labour had a battle on his hands to keep hold of his seat, after being outpolled by party colleague Derek Nolan, but was elected on the tenth count along with Michael Crowe.

Brian Walsh of Fine Gael, despite increasing his vote, should have done better, considering his party’s current popularity. Failing to bring in a second seat in this six seater – especially given that Barra Nevin polled 622 first preferences, impressive for a first-time candidate – will not go down well with head office, which could have rightly expected to gain at least one seat in Galway, and didn't.

My predictions for Galway City

And now, the end is near… With two days left to polling day, I figured it was time to put my money where its mouth is and make a few predictions for the week’s showdown.

Contrary to popular opinion, I believe Fianna Fáil will not suffer the predicted drubbing in the local elections, largely because FF has very few seats on Galway City Council anyway and what’s there is mostly a personal vote.

At the moment Fianna Fáil holds no seat in Galway City West, just one in Galway City Central, and two in Galway City East. Any reduction in that would be surprising, but it is possible that the party could lose a seat in Galway City East, purely due to the cut in that area’s seat allocation.

Changes in boundary have resulted in Galway City East losing one of its seven seats, while Galway City West gains one. Galway City Central remains the same.

Galway City West: 5 seats
Galway City West’s sitting councillors are four of the city’s highest profile politicians. King of Knocknacarra, Donal Lyons, who topped the poll last time out, with over 20 per cent of votes, should do the same again.

The other three sitting councillors – Green Cllr Niall O Brolcháin, Independent Cllr Catherine Connolly and Fine Gael’s John Mulholland – should also be safe. Connolly has performed very well and being an Independent should not dent her strong left-wing vote. Mulholland will probably improve on his 2004 performance as part of a Fine Gael bounce. O Brolcháin could suffer from the Greens’ bad press since they entered Government, but being in Government has its advantages and it has given him a much stronger voice since his last run out.

As for the new fifth seat, added to reflect the area’s growing population and the addition of Taylor’s Hill, it’s tough to call. Cllr Daniel Callanan’s high profile will be of help to him but his Sinn Féin roots could prove a no-no in Galway City West, where SF candidates have never done well.

Of the new candidates in that area, Independent AJ Cahill has some sound ideas and is being well received, particularly due to his business background and modern outlook. However, his lack of party machine and attraction of transfers could see him losing out to Hildegarde Naughton. Naughton is well known already from her voluntary work and her solid FG credentials see her in with a real chance of accompanying John Mulholland onto the council for Fine Gael. She should also transfer well from Donal Lyons.

Fianna Fáil’s two candidates in the area, former Mayor Val Hanley and newcomer Peter Keane, have been getting a tough time on the doors and their chances are limited by the FF backlash, as well as the difficulty of attracting transfers in an area with such large personalities. While Hanley has a long track record and Keane’s youthful enthusiasm would normally stand him in good stead, this is not their election to shine, given public sentiment.

Niall McNelis of the Labour Party has run a very high profile campaign, but his previous run for Fine Gael in Galway City East calls his leftwing credentials into question, so he may not transfer well from O Brolcháin and Connolly.

Sinn Féin’s candidate Tom Hanly has run a somewhat low-profile campaign, and the lack of party support will be a problem for him, despite his youth and solid policy ideas.

Mystery man Aidan McCabe’s campaign has been conducted below the radar, and his impact will be minimal.

Predictions: Lyons to top the poll, followed closely by Connolly and Mulholland. O Brolcháin and Naughton to take the last two seats, although Naughton could face a battle with AJ Cahill for the last seat.

Galway City Central: 4 seats
Galway City Central is another tough area for newcomers and unseating any of the incumbents is going to be a tough job

They say the worst enemies are always to be found within a party and that has proven true, with a behind-the-scenes war between 2004 poll-topper John Connolly and the Crowe machine.

Looking at the 2004 results, it’s arguable that not much will change apart from the order in which the candidates get elected. With Fianna Fáil’s current woes, John Connolly is unlikely to top the poll. That honour will probably go to Fine Gael’s Padraig Conneely, on the back of a strong performance as Mayor. Meanwhile, Colette Connolly and Billy Cameron’s strong records should see them both home and dry.

That leaves the last seat to a battle, probably between John Connolly and Ollie Crowe. Although Crowe is a first-time candidate, he has serious weight behind him in Bohermore and could pull in a lot of ‘old Galway’ votes, as well as his brother’s supporters. There’s a possibility that good vote management (unlikely) between these two could get both elected and shunt out a sitting councillor, but that possibility is remote as neither seems inclined to share and they have not been seen to divide the constituency.

Independent candidates Mike Geraghty and Mike Cubbard have both run decent grassroots campaigns but will find it very difficult to break into this very straight-laced constituency. The Greens’ Mairéad Ní Chroinín has not been very visible, while Sinn Féin’s Anna Marley is also running in Oranmore and probably won’t poll very well.

Predictions: Conneely to top the poll, followed by Cameron and Colette Connolly. Last seat a fight between John Connolly and Ollie Crowe, which Connolly should – just – win.

Galway City East 6 seats

Galway City East is geographically massive and home to a very diverse population. Although it’s geographically the largest, it has just lost one seat in the boundary changes. Luckily for the sitting councillors, Daniel Callanan decided to move with the times and is now running in Galway City West, which has gained a seat. This should leave them safe enough but for the threat from new candidates.

Mike Crowe, who topped the poll as an Independent in 2004, would have been better off remaining independent, given the current anti-Fianna Fáil sentiment. While Backroom doubts he will top the poll this time – anger over his joining FF and also the loss of Bohermore – he should be safe enough unless there is a total meltdown.

Fine Gael’s Brian Walsh came in second in 2004 and there’s no reason he wouldn’t top the poll this time round. Although he is not the most vocal councillor, being the only sitting FGer will do him the world of good. If he had a more prominent running mate, he could even bring someone in with him, but the three-candidate strategy has only succeeded in muddying the waters in a large constituency like Galway City East.

Former Progressive Democrats Declan McDonnell and Terry O’Flaherty should see no change in their vote following their party’s collapse. Both of their votes have always been intensely personal, and there is no reason for this to change. Both are good workers on the ground and well known.

Labour’s Tom Costello also has the advantage of being the only sitting Labour candidate. He should do better than last time round, following a high profile year as Mayor and with a Labour bounce. His most promising running mate is Derek Nolan, who just missed out on the last seat in 2004, and should be in with a real chance this time if Costello can transfer. In fact, it’s possible that Nolan would take some votes from Costello and the transfers could be working vice-versa.

The fact that Labour is also running Nuala Nolan and the presence of Green James Hope and SF’s Martin Concannon on the ballot mean there should be ample left wing transfers when they are eliminated, although Hope should poll fairly well given his good profile and effective campaign.

Fianna Fáil’s Mary Leahy has a real battle on her hands to keep her late father’s seat. Between anti-Fianna Fáil sentiment and the fact that this is her first election, she will have to work hard to hold her ground. Since she took the seat, there has also been a backlash against candidates with family members in politics. However, she has been a formidable worker on the ground and has been aware from day one of the commitment involved, so, unless Fianna Fáil suffers a meltdown, she should scrape in.

Of the new candidates, James Hope is the most visible, as mentioned above. Fianna Fáil’s Sheila Mangan would ordinarily do well but will probably fail to register – more FF candidates will be elected through personal than party votes in this election. Labour’s Nuala Nolan will catch some of the Labour boost but in reality is unlikely to get elected. While Fine Gael’s Frank G Fahy has run a decent campaign, it’s hard to see where there is room for him in the line-up, while Barra Nevin doesn’t appear to have the highest profile.

Sinn Féin has a strong vote in the area and Martin Concannon should poll well, but lack of a running mate or enough sitting left wing councillors could see him out of the running due to failure to attract transfers.

Predictions: Walsh to top the poll. O’Flaherty and McDonnell to stay where they are. Crowe safe but his vote will be down. Leahy, Costello and Derek Nolan too close to call for the last two spots.


Oh dear, apologies for the lack of posting. My significant other was running so between that and actually having to do real election coverage for work, I've been pretty slack. For your information (and so you can laugh at how inaccurate my predictions were) I will post both my predictions and the actual results for Galway city. Tut tut. I have a lot to learn!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Abandon all hope, ye Fianna Fáilers

Galway City West at the moment is a constituency where even angels (of the green variety) fear to tread. From a variety of sources I have heard of Fianna Fáil canvassers being chased from doors, signs saying ‘No Fianna Fáilers wanted here’ and houses where every approaching step is growled at from behind a firmly shut front door. Even Danté didn’t have to put up with that.

Funnily enough, this reaction seems to be confined to Galway City West, a hugely middle class, middle income constituency. From no other constituency are such widespread reports coming of candidates being almost mauled as they seek a vote.

18.3 per cent of those living in the constituency are managers or employers, with a further 14 per cent classed as higher professional. At the time of the census in 2006, there were just 137 unskilled workers in the area. Galway City West is a solidly well-off area. Or was, at least, until the recession began to bite; today’s results might be somewhat different.

And there lies the rub. Fianna Fáil canvassers are currently finding, as Danté did, that there are three types of beast: the self-indulgent, the violent, and the malicious. And all of them have an axe to grind, be it the general state of the economy, the pension levy, or job losses.

The irony of it all is that the area doesn’t currently have a Fianna Fáil councillor, so much of the ire is being misdirected. Voters showed the party, in the shape of Tom Cox and Val Hanley, the door, in 2004. Previously, businesswoman Margaret Cox topped the poll for the party, but did not seek re-election on a local level.

So the problems of Bearna, Knocknacarra, Salthill, Taylor’s Hill, Rockbarton, and the Claddagh are not attributable to Fianna Fáil – at least on a local level. Lack of infrastructure in the Knocknacarra area, in particular, is attributable both to the council and to central government, but on the council, at least, Fianna Fáil can’t really be blamed for it.

So what we are seeing in the area is the much-vaunted venting of anger against Government being manifested in the local elections. This can be productive, but, as a friend of mine on the opposing side remarked recently, “I think it’s a good plan to get crucified in local and European and win general elections myself…”

Punishing local candidates in mid-term local elections might come straight from Danté’s eighth circle, in which those guilty of “conscious fraud or treachery” are tortured, but in reality, it’s not the best way to go about things.

Because, once a voter’s lust for revenge is sated by condemning some local election candidate to the refuse bin of history, repeated elections have shown that said voter’s memory is wiped clean, and they remember that Eamon, or Frank, or whoever, was always good to Mammy. Leaving the country, like Danté’s pal Virgil, in Limbo. Abandon hope, indeed.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

George Lee eh? Putting your money where your mouth is, and why our system doesn't let it happen

Fair play to the guy.

Putting your money where your mouth happens to be is an unusual occurrence in Irish public life and you really have to commend George Lee for doing so.

There has been a lot of comment recently about the deficiencies of our political system. Along with the usual old chestnuts of Seanad reform and the number of junior ministers, more serious questions are now being asked about our political structures, not least the holy cow of PRSTV.

PRSTV is the system left to us by the British (who have since changed it) and inserted into the Constitution by deValera, that means we vote for candidates on a transfer-based ballot paper. Thus, the success of candidates such as Cyprian Brady, who have little personal appeal but can be carried by insanely popular constituency colleagues.

The system does have its benefits. More of the population gets a say in who represents them, because if our first choice doesn't get elected, our second, or third, might. This is directly in contrast to the English first-past-the-post system, in which, theoretically, 49% of the population could end up dissatisfied with the choice of the other 51%.

However, the drawbacks have become increasingly obvious over the past fifteen years, say some commentators - mainly the ones with an axe to grind with Fianna Fáil, which has learned to play the PRSTV system very skilfully indeed. These days, of course, most people have an axe to grind with Fianna Fáil.

One candidate's superhuman popularity levels - see above example - should not result in the election of a colleague simply because they belong to the same party. Usually constituency colleages profoundly dislike each other and transferring is last thing on their agenda (see Willie O'Dea's electoral record - he refuses to note transfer options on his election posters).

Also, the system means we put the small, local, picture ahead of national considerations. We are not a great nation for looking at the bigger picture and this is exemplified in the way many of us vote. There must be thousands of people in Ireland who "hate" Fianna Fáil, but always vote for Johnny FF down the road because of that time he got Mammy into the nursing home.

It also means that "sweeper" candidates with no real interest in the job (or hope of getting it, in many cases) are chosen to help strategically "better" candidates make the cut, and "strategy" can overcome talent and common sense. This is clearly not a feature of a healthy democracy.

And it brings us back to George Lee in Dublin South (not suggesting for a moment that he fits into the above category). Few people doubt that he will get elected. He is a genuinely good and capable candidate with a record of hard work and a solid knowledge of the economy, which is more than you can say for the vast majority of our TDs.

However, George Lee would be very unlikely to do well in a General Election in the same constituency. Why? The constituency is already home to Alan Shatter and Olivia Mitchell, two very respected and secure FG TDs.

To put Lee in the running in a GE environment, when Fianna Fáil would soak up votes with two, three or even four candidates, would be a terrible strategy for FG, and could even lose them two of their three seats by splitting the vote. Because of transfers, and despite the fact that I am pretty sure everyone in the country would like to be voting in Dublin South on 5 June, purely so they could vote for George Lee.

While we continue to use PRSTV, people like Lee (but who lack a timely bye election) will stay disengaged and uninvolved, because party strategies, and the vagaries of the system, will mean they would have to spend hours attending meetings and funerals just to become known by every Tom, Dick and Harry in the constituency.

The way transfers work means TDs (and councillors) spend the vast majority of their time "making representations" to disinterested civil servants who reply by rote, and attending funerals of people they met once at a match, and writing letters to people who rang every TD in the country about the pothole outside their front door. Any sane individual would realise that this is a scandalous waste of public money and time. But we allow it to go on.

TDs, quite understandably, are reluctant to be voted out, so even the best and brightest of them carry on this charade. If you look back over the electoral records of some of our more productive TDs and Ministers you will find them patchy. They might be churning out reforms and legislation, and making thousands of peoples' lives better in quantifiable ways, but if they don't respond to constituency letters within a week and send representations asking for constituents in prison to be moved to their local jail, they are dead meat.

So George, the best of luck to you.

But until the system changes, we will not see any improvement in our political system, no matter who's in Government.

News fatigue

Is it any wonder people are sick of us? Journalists, that is. We regularly come at the top of lists of the least-trusted professions, and people have taken to switching their TV channel the minute the news comes on, lest they hear more doom and gloom.

An interesting trend has emerged over the past few months. ABE syndrome, it’s called; Anything But the Economy. Journalists are prepared to cover almost anything to avoid writing (or talking, or filming) about anything to do with the economy and the sorry state we find ourselves in.

One national paper went so far as to print a photo of a football-playing dog on its front page during January, purely to lift the gloom. And we can hardly blame them.

When news is your bread and butter, and your passion, it’s very hard to acknowledge that news fatigue has hit. That you, too, like almost every rational person in the country, hits the off button the minute poor George Lee appears on the TV or Brian Cowen speaks on the radio.

When you have lived your life online, constantly checking news sites for updates and needing, craving the newspaper every morning, news fatigue hits as rather a shock.

So, when something happened last week to distract from the economy – although it was equally negative and underlined the sense of doom pervading media at the moment – it was leapt on by journalists across the world.

Swine flu. What can’t it do? Never mind that we have been assured by the HSE that swine flu hasn’t reached Ireland yet. Never mind that we have been stockpiling anti-viral drugs for years (since the avian flu epidemic that never was) and never mind that we are an island nation and thus probably the easiest to protect from the point of view of quarantine.

This could be serious!

TV images of masks being handed out on the street in Mexico City (one of the poorest and most densely populated places in the world) gave a thrilling sense of an emergency that, for once, had absolutely nothing to do with the credit crunch or the economy or unemployment or, God help him, Brian Cowen.

True - if it does come here, swine flu could affect a lot of people, although it does not appear to be spreading as quickly as initially thought. It could create a lot of sick days and thus another burden for the (sorry, here’s that word again) economy.

True – like other strains of the flu, swine flu could develop into pneumonia in the particularly vulnerable. Elderly people, young children and those with weakened immune systems should all be monitored especially carefully.

But this holds true for these groups at this time of year every year – when ordinary, seasonal flu, kills people whose systems are not equipped to fight the onset of pneumonia.

Unfortunately, while the economy remains the only other show in town, we are going to sit through months of coverage of a “global pandemic” that might never happen, while ignoring the one that has already affected most of us; ABE syndrome.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Europe calling

It’s that time again – the time when Europe comes calling for our ‘best and brightest’. No, not the Eurovision (although that’s coming soon too), but the European elections.

Forgive a note of sarcasm in ‘the best and brightest’, but it’s difficult to avoid. In Irish politics, Brussels has traditionally been a dumping ground for those who just don’t cut the mustard at national level. While it’s not easy to get elected in a European election (the sheer amount of votes required is hard to comprehend even for successful general election veterans – Sean O Neachtain polled over 62,000 votes in 2004), the contest is generally not reserved for the cream that has risen to the top of various parties.

Usually, promising candidates who could do well in national politics are lured to Brussels by some kind of carrot. Or are exiled because of a disagreement with the current party leadership – Munster MEP Brian Crowly has famously been at odds with party HQ for years, but is holding onto his Fianna Fáil seat in the hopes of a Presidential nomination.

Often, people are dragged out of semi-retirement to fly the flag, or high flyers with even higher profiles (former GAA President Sean Kelly, again in Munster, and the courting of Packie Bonner by Fianna Fáil this time round) are lured onto the ticket, often with promises of future General Election ticket spots.

And so it is, too, in the North West. Independents like Marian Harkin (and Dana before her, and Kathy Sinnott in Munster) do better in European elections, partly because most people have no idea, or much interest, in what MEPs actually do. And the political party system is not so important in Brussels – Harkin has allied herself with the ALDE, soon to become home to FF, for years, and receives all the support she needs from them.

The current crisis within Fianna Fáil, following the surprise resignation of Sean O Neachtain, is a telling one, because the facts are that nobody really wants a seat in Brussels. This, despite the fact that MEPs have more real power than TDs, with the same salary. They pass reams of legislation, some of which then has to be passed by the Dáil, and have a voice where it really counts in a lot of issues that can matter at local level (see Marian Harkin’s involvement in the Eyrecourt sludge case, in which a European body forced
the EPA to act after years of inaction by Galway County Council).

Speaking to the Galway Independent on Sunday, Aer Arann CEO Padraig O Ceidigh, who is by any measure a perfect fit for O Neachtain’s shoes, and would easily get douze points from the North Western jury, was still doubtful.

Not because he doesn’t fancy politics; not at all. Because he doesn’t fancy the European Parliament.

However, as mentioned above, Fianna Fáil in particular is well known for it’s carrot-based approach to European elections; for O Ceidigh, who would clearly relish an economic portfolio, there would be ample reward later on. He is someone who would almost certainly get elected in Galway, probably presenting a danger to Eamon O Cuív (who might not be so happy to see him embraced by Fianna Fáil), and would be competent in an economic portfolio, providing he could be taught to toe party line.

Within Fianna Fáil he is seen as a great white hope to retain O Neachtain’s seat, but it’s possible that his candidacy may cost more than Fianna Fáil can offer. Time will tell.

Public vs Private

In Brian Friel’s acclaimed play, Philadelphia, Here I Come, the conflict between public and private is central to the play.

Gar O’Donnell, the central personality, is a dual character. Gar Public is “the Gar that people see, talk to, talk about”, while Gar Private is “the unseen man, the man within, the conscience”.

There is always conflict between public and private, and none more so than in the world of employment. When news broke last week that employees at Leitrim County Council were to continue getting a half-day off (outside their annual leave) in recognition of a traditional local festival that no longer takes place, that conflict heightened just another notch.

When Dublin Bus drivers decided to strike unofficially because of collectively agreed changed work practices, inconveniencing most people who live and work in the capital, private sector outrage at the public service jumped yet again.

As one colleague said, “I think I hear the sound of my suitcases packing themselves”.

Just like Gar Public, public sector workers are the ones being scrutinised and talked about.

Local election candidates out canvassing at the moment are reporting a strange phenomenon; civil, almost friendly welcomes from many of the newly unemployed who have been dropped in their droves from the private sector workforce… and doors in the face from their public sector neighbours who still have their jobs.

Public sector workers have suffered an unfair pension levy. Private sector workers have suffered either the loss of their jobs, or equally unfair pay cuts.

While there’s a huge divide, there’s one simple uniting factor. We might be in the soup, but we are all in it together, and whingeing is not going to help us.

For Gar, the answer to his conflicts (with himself, his father and his life in Ballybeg) is simple: Philadelphia. Unfortunately, emigration isn’t currently an option for either private or public sector workers.

While our solution may not be so clear-cut, one thing is clear. Like Gar, we are fighting ourselves. So maybe it’s time to pull together and act, not like two dogs with a bone, but like one society facing the biggest threat to our common interests in generations.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Fussy finances

Last week news broke of a survey conducted by online dating company Parship, which found that Irish women are the fussiest in Europe.

Money was a big issue for most, with 55 per cent of women saying they wouldn’t date an unemployed man and almost one-third saying they could ‘barely accept it’. Eighty-four per cent of women don’t want their partner to be financially dependent on them, while just 46.4 per cent of men say this is an important issue.

What the survey completely fails to mention is that a fairly high proportion of men in their twenties and thirties are now unemployed. During the Celtic Tiger, being unemployed was pretty unusual and in a lot of cases, it showed nothing more than a lack of motivation, but we ain’t in Kansas any more.

This leaves us in something of a quandary; do these ‘fussy’ women lower their standards in order to acknowledge the prevailing realities, or will they just have to take a vow of chastity until the recession ends and all the former young up-and-coming professionals regain their jobs along with their eligibility?

Women were fussier than men about almost everything in this survey, and men were only more choosy in two categories; the importance of good looks and ‘a toned body’.

With some experts predicting that the recession could last more than five years, a lot of women could reach age barriers they haven’t yet considered. By the time the recession is over, they could have a whole new set of worries – ticking biological clocks, wrinkles and even, as Celia Holman Lee is currently advising us from a pharmacy window near you, thinning hair!

So here’s the equation. With 55 per cent of women refusing to date someone who’s unemployed, five years to wait before the 10 per cent of unemployed people see a rise in the jobs market, and 60 per cent of men, in the same survey, saying good looks are very important to them… how do you add it all up?

They say quality is one of the first casualties of a recession – cutbacks are resulting in poorer products and fewer options in every sector, but has anyone thought of how it’s impacting on our love lives? It’ll be interesting to see if next year’s survey has the same results.