Monday, 9 November 2015

The next election could be the most defining in Fianna Fáil's history; and it doesn't look good.

Receding hairline, receding chance of being in government next year.

The general election of 2011 was supposed to be a game-changer. It was historic. It was unprecedented. It was a 'democratic revolution'. But it was all a bit boring, wasn't it? I mean, the result was more or less a foregone conclusion. We knew Fianna Fáil were going to be routed. We knew the Greens would be pushed to the edge of extinction. We knew Fine Gael would win the most seats but most likely not enough for a majority government and so would have to form a coalition (again) with a newly resurgent Labour party. It was thrilling, alright, but oh so predictable. A bit like watching The Great Escape for the twentieth time and feigning surprise when Steve McQueen fails to make that jump over the barbed wire fence.

But next year's election is anything but a foregone conclusion. It's a feast of unhinged and unimaginable possibilities. Everything could change. Fine Gael are still comfortably the nation's biggest party but they're not likely to match their 2011 numbers. The rise of Sinn Féin has been one of Irish politics' most enduring themes over recent years but their poll numbers seem to have hit a glass ceiling since the dizzying highs of late 2014/early 2015 when they were at Fine Gael's coattails. Still though, they're going to be big players on the Irish political scene for years to come be it in government or, more likely, in opposition. Labour, to put it incredibly mildly, are going to take a big hit. The way things stand, Joan Burton would bite your hand off for 10 Labour TDs to be returned to Leinster House. And she'd probably bite your other hand off for her own reelection which is hanging in the balance. The Independents and smaller parties currently have the support of around 25% of the electorate and they could be the kingmakers when it comes to deciding which party leader will be heading over to politely ask Michael D to convene the 32nd Dáil next March/April/Whenever Enda gets round to it.

But the electoral story with the most intriguing themes and subplots for my money is the fate of Ireland's grand old party, Fianna Fáil. This is an absolutely pivotal election in the history of Fianna Fáil, if not the most pivotal. What makes it so special is that it is uncharted territory for Fianna Fáil; never before have they participated in a general election as the opposition party and not regained power. And that is exactly what could happen in 2016. 

For Micheál Martin is facing a political Catch 22. When the dust has settled on next year's election and there are no Fianna Fáil bums on cabinet seats then he will almost certainly be forced to resign. But entering into Government will be no easy feat, even if they perform well in the polls. The chances of them winning an outright majority are about the same as the chances of the party forming a concrete position on repealing the eighth amendment. The only conceivable way they could be the senior party in a coalition would be if they entered into a coalition with Sinn Féin and/or Labour and a harem of Independents. This is unlikely as Micheál Martin has ruled out ever working with Sinn Féin in government. And the Shinners for their part have also ruled out ever getting into bed with Fianna Fáil (Or Fine Gael for that matter). They do say never say never in politics but given the vitriol both of the party's leaders have been exchanging over the last few months, primarily on issues to do with the 1916 commemmorations and the legitimacy (or lack thereof) of the Provisional IRA's campaign during the Troubles, it would seem highly unlikely that either side would like to hop into bed with each other even if it meant a shot at power and relegating Fine Gael to the opposition bench. Labour, on the other hand, probably won't have the numbers on their own, even if both parties convinced 10 or more Independents to side with a rag tag coalition of conflicting interests. 

So that leaves us with one final possibility; a Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil coalition. It's been talked about in hushed tones for some time now; how it might be Fianna Fáil's only viable attempt to return to some sort of power, how it might be Fine Gael's most viable attempt at retaining power if Labour really do capitulate spectacularly and, how when you step back and inspect it and disregard all that silly historical baggage, it really makes a lot of sense to everyone. The latter point is the gist of what the late Bill O'Herlihy, a Fine Gael party stalwart for many years, said during a speech at Béal na Bláth two years ago. From the Fianna Fáil side, Mary O'Rourke has in the past voiced approval at the prospect of a Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil government.  More pertinently, over two-thirds of county and city councils are controlled by alliances containing both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil councillors. And half of those alliances are contain only Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael councillors. That means that over a third of Ireland's local authorities are controlled by a Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil coalition. So how much of a leap would it take to transport this political synergy these two parties have created to the national stage? 

Not much of a leap, one would assume, given how many TDs have been wont to proclaim that 'Civil War politics are over'. But it's not quite as simple as that. For Fianna Fáil would almost certainly be the junior partner in any coalition the two parties would form. This would be a problem for Fianna Fáil. At the beginning of the year I remember watching an episode of Claire Byrne Live and one of the topics they discussed was Fianna Fáil's performance under Micheál Martin and their prospects for the future. Niall Collins, Mary O'Rourke, Noel Whelan and another political hack whose name escapes me were on and, I can't quite remember who said it, but somebody remarked that Fianna Fáil "still think and act like they're the biggest party in the state." This sums up the problem Micheál Martin would have forming any sort of coalition with Fine Gael. It would be the bitterest of bitter pills for their supporters to swallow. It would be a moral humiliation to them. 

While many argue that the Civil War created an unnatural political division that has come to define Irish politics for too long, this division came to almost define both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. From an outsider's point of view it makes perfect sense that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael should form a coalition given the vast quantity of common ground they share on economic and social issues but to the grassroots Fianna Fáil die-hard, being a junior partner to Fine Gael would represent something close to political irrelevance. Sharing power with them on a few rural councils is one thing but nationally it would be a whole different kettle of fish.  

From the outside looking in, the Fianna Fáil grassroots supporters and cummans are at a bit of a loss currently. Of all the major parties they seem to be the ones most unsure of their position. For Fianna Fáil's identity in the past was not determined by some specific political dogma or ideology; but on being the great catch-all party, the people's party and by being bigger and more popular than Fine Gael. All that is gone now. They are now, to paraphrase Avon Barksdale, like a man without a country. The party at large is suffering from an identity crisis and no where is this more apparent than at the grassroots level. There seems to be a chasm engulfing Fianna Fáil; one force is pushing towards the New Fianna Fáil we all envisaged would arise from the disaster of 2011 while the other is pulling it back to Old Fianna Fáil. In 2011, I remember being a first year in college when my friend, who was heavily involved in the Ógra Fianna Fáil at UL, told me that the party would now be rebranding itself as a centre-left party in an attempt to counteract Fine Gael's traditional centre-right positioning and to reestablish itself in the hearts and minds of the electorate. Given their historic chameleon-like ability to adapt themselves to whatever political circumstances the party found itself in I didn't put it past them. Whether my friend was embellishing the truth or not, it didn't happen.

What's happening in the constituencies and the selection conventions illustrate what I'm talking about. The return to the fold of politicians whose names are etched onto the collective mind of the Irish electorate as being irrevocably linked with the Celtic Tiger years- Mary Hanafin, Conor Lenihan, Sean Haughey - perhaps best embodies the chasm. The returns of Hanafin and Haughey are particularly noteworthy as they resulted in the marginalisation of two young, liberal politicians who perhaps would have or could have represented New Fianna Fáil - Kate Feeney in the case of Hanafin and, most significantly, Averil Power in the case of Haughey. Power, of course, left the party in the wake of Haughey's return and said Fianna Fáil "doesn’t know what it stands for" in her statement on resigning. The introduction of the gender quotas too have wreaked havoc on Fianna Fáil like no other party. Many constituencies have been in open revolt over the perceived injustice of them. The nomination of Connie Gerety Quinn in Longford recently, who was selected automatically without a popular vote after an order came in from HQ that the running mate of sitting TD Robert Troy would have to be female, caused chaos among party members there. It is but the most recent of countless examples. 

With all this strife, being a junior partner to Fine Gael would be the nail on the coffin of any chance Fianna Fáil have of regaining even a semblance of the power and prestige they once took for granted.  There could be ways of getting around this. It has been suggested that Fianna Fáil could, as an opposition party, support a Fine Gael led minority government in exchange for "concessions on its own manifesto". They'd still be tacitly submissive to Fine Gael but not formally so like they would as junior partner in a coalition, at least. It is probably the least terrible of options on offer.

Perhaps another spell in the opposition benches would serve them well though that would almost certainly mean the departure of Martin as leader. Few tears would be shed in the parliamentary party at least but then they have the problem of choosing a successor. Michael McGrath? Niall Collins? Dara Calleary? None are particularly inspiring choices. And that perhaps best sums up Fianna Fáil's predicament at the moment; the party is at a crossroads and no route seems particularly appealing

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Don't believe the hype: The early general election that wasn't.

Alex Turner with some words of wisdom for Enda.

This time last week the country was abuzz with rumours that a November election was on the horizon. The political parties began oiling their canvassing machines, the media worked themselves into a hot bother over who this early election would favour and the bookies slashed their odds to as short as 1/8. All the while Enda, the man with the power, toyed with the frenzied mobs with the grace of a 16 year old trying it on with Scarlett Joahansson. Before last week,everything was calm. Enda remained true to form and on point regarding any potential early election; it wasn't happening, nuh-uh, no way

But then, something changed. 

The hype took over. Enda probably had armies of Fine Gael advisors, councillors and TDs whispering salaciously in his ear. "Go to the country early, Enda. The budget, the economy, the tax-take, the rugby, Shane Long's goal against Germany. It's all there. Do it." Enda, as is his custom, dithered. On Monday of that fateful week he was on home turf in Mayo when he was accosted by RTE reporters inquiring about the date of the election. Enda could neither confirm nor deny it. Enda was equally ambivalent in the Dáil a day later. 

Predictably, all hell broke loose. This was almost as good as a confirmation. When the Taoiseach had been so adamant previously there would not be an early election, why would he choose to hesitate just as the gossip was reaching fever pitch? It had to be coming. Somebody in the Fine Gael camp, probably Michael Noonan, was finally after twisting his elbow.

It was anarchy and, at that, the most stupid and banal of anarchies. The Irish media fetishised the date of the election to the extent that the date actually became more important than the election itself. Constant to-ing and fro-ing over how November might suit the government because of the "good feeling" engendered by a presumed giveaway budget or whether February or March might be better because people would start "to feel it in their pockets" by then and, oh, it might be less cold too. 

Nobody knew if any of this held water. There was no historical precedents to back up these assumptions, no statistics presented, no evidence that holding the election on one of these dates would swing the election either way. It was a pantomine of conjecture and bullshit. 

So, what happened? Two things killed this early election; Labour and, more importantly, the hype. On the face of it Labour's role in stopping this election seems pivotal but, in my opinion, the hype is what ultimately put it to bed.

Labour, naturally enough, were aghast at the prospect of an early election as their poll numbers right now are about as healthy as a somebody with stage 3 lung cancer. They can't even break into their historical home of 10%-12%. If an election was called next month, Labour would be very lucky to reach double figures in seats. So they want to wait. Joan Burton had a "long conversation" with Enda (read- She got down on her hands and knees and begged him) and he seemingly listened. Will they fare much better in February or March? Who knows. They certainly can't be sure that any goodwill generated from the budget will spill over to their numbers but it's worth kicking the can down the road just to see. The thing is, Fine Gael would like to have Labour back as coalition partners again. Well, not that they'd particularly love that but it is the least worst option for them. So it's sort of in Fine Gael's interests to see Labour do at least respectfully.

But concern for Labour's potential struggle alone would not have stopped an early election plot. The hype killed it. It reached overload. It became too much. There had been rumblings about an early Autumn election in the papers as early as May but that talk was largely confined to close political circles and the kind of boring, lonely people who lurk on internet comment boards (i.e. me). By last week, every eejit and their dog were talking about it. It was all the newspapers could talk about. It was all the news programmes could talk about. People, to be expected, became sick of it.

Enda's dithering in this regard did him no favours. But here's the catch; for me, by time Enda had reached the beginning of last week with the hype just starting to peak he was fighting a losing battle. He didn't want to carry on denying there would be an election in November (which is what by that stage he presumably preferred) because if he did and he subsequently did call one he would look like an indecisive muppet and the opposition would use it as a stick to batter him with. But, at the same time, he didn't want to confirm it as he was presumably waiting to see how the budget went down before announcing anything. So he was forced into making a series of vague, non-committal statements last week which fed the hype. 

The thing is, if Enda and Fine Gael had been a bit more circumspect, a bit more measured they could have had the Autumn election they so desired. It's clear that in the weeks leading up to the budget, senior Fine Gael figures were hinting to numerous journalists that an election was on the horizon. They were leaking things left, right and centre. The hype became too much and eventually devoured itself. The whole point in a snap election is it's supposed to catch your opponents (and the electorate) off-guard. In the end, Fine Gael were about as composed as an American high-school shooter, spraying bullets of gossip indiscriminately until it all finally caught up with them. 

And so, on Sunday last, Enda Kenny appeared on The Week in Politics on RTE1 and proclaimed to all and sundry that he had not changed his mind, that the election will be in "Spring 2016" and that was always his intention. Ah Enda, innocent, innocent Enda. He's like the lad in a nightclub who's scuppered his chances with the pretty girl by drunkenly spilling four jagerbombs on her dress telling himself "I didn't fancy her anyway". Ah well. In years to come, Taoisigh who find themselves in a similar situation to Enda's last week will look back on it as a guide for How-Not-To-Call-A-Snap-Election.

For now, all the journalists and politicos can do is start taking bets on which month in Spring the election will be; "February? It's too cold but voters might want to share the love with the coalition parties on Valentine's Day. March? The weather is better but the Shinners would ride on the crest of a Republican wave..... Can we just not have it, Enda?"

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Bus Éireann and Irish Rail: The Neville brothers of public transport

A visual representation of the state of Irish transport. Trains > buses.

I have often tried calculating how many bus journeys I have enjoyed/endured with Bus Éireann. I spent six years being ferried back and forth between Killarney and Tralee for secondary school. So, let's see; Every school year has a minimum of 167 days. Say I missed an average of a week of school each year (I don't think I did), that'd be 160 days. Two buses a day at 160 days means 320 bus journeys every year for six years which works out at 1920 bus journeys. Phew. When you factor in that I used to visit Tralee very regularly during the summer and winter holidays as well to visit friends, I'm easily breaking 2000 bus journeys with Bus Éireann. What an ignominious honour. 

And you know what those 2000 odd journeys have given me? A burning, seething hatred for Bus Éireann. I hate Bus Éireann so much that I, someone who when they were in first year of college was quite literally a card-carrying socialist, actually wishes they were privatised. Everything that reminds me of Bus Éireann, from that prick of a red setter to the once amusing "Stand Clear, Luggage doors operate" soundbite, makes my skin crawl. The poor service, the punctuality (or lack thereof), the exponential rise in prices every couple of years. It's now €17.50 for a single student ticket from Cork to Killarney. €17.50!

Particularly when it comes to punctuality I trust them about as much as you'd trust an alcoholic guarding a wine cellar. Two weeks ago, I needed to get a bus from Cork to Limerick. I needed to be in Limerick for 5 but I took the 2.25 bus that was scheduled to arrive into Limerick at 4. I did this because I knew, I knew, that the 3.25 bus that was scheduled to arrive in at 5  would not get me into Limerick on time. Sure enough we arrived into Limerick 45 minutes late at 4.45 but thanks to my earlier presence of mind I still made it to my appointment on time. I didn't even think this was strange initially. It was instinctive. It was only when I was on the bus, pondering ruefully the philosophy class I had missed in order to catch the earlier bus, that i thought to myself, "Hang on, this can't be normal. They don't do this in other countries, do they?" 

Now, I don't place all of the blame on the drivers and the staff at the stations, they generally do their best given the circumstances. One of the reasons the buses are always late is because our roads are so terrible. I mean, that bus from Cork to Limerick would only be 40 minutes if we had a motorway between the two cities but instead we have to travel through that triumvirate of North Cork shitholes; Mallow, Buttevant and Charleville. 

Like so many things in Ireland, our poor bus service is just symptomatic of larger problems. Lack of investment in roads. Lack of investment in motorways that don't just lead to Dublin. Lack of investment in human resources. Poor planning. There is no one reason why our bus service is so terrible; it's a veritable menagerie of cock-ups. 

Because my only real experience with public transport was Bus Éireann, I remember being absolutely blown away by the Tube and the buses the first (and only) time I was in London when I was 15. What an experience that was. If you missed one tube there was another one following it in two minutes. Sure, you were packed like sardines into them but you'd get used to that. I had never imagined them to be that good as the supposed poor quality of British public transport was a frequent punchline for British comedians on panel shows. Christ, I thought, I'd love to take them on a bus journey from Killarney to Tralee. They'd have enough material to last them for months. 

Since starting college in Cork recently I have been using Irish Rail a lot more frequently. Trains are quantifiably, undeniably nicer than buses. Leg room, toilets, tables, they've got the lot. Even Irish Rail's wi-fi is better than Bus Éireann's. One thing which caught my eye about Irish Rail is that at a lot of train stations they have posters up documenting statistically their punctuality and reliability. For instance, in Killarney Train Station, there is a poster up stating that the Killarney-Mallow train is on time 94.4% of the time while it has a 99% reliability (what 'reliability' actually means I can't remember but I presume that means that it turns up and has enough room for all passengers). Can you imagine if Bus Éireann were to publish such posters? It would be hilarious. The punctuality statistics would be an absolute rout. Would they even break 50%? I do wonder. 

But, disregarding Bus Éireann's ineptitude, rail transport is naturally superior, isn't it? As an experience, I mean. Its only letdown is it generally costs more (Though with some online offers you can get with Irish Rail that is up for debate). That and they seem to have a slightly higher proportion of mentalist passengers than buses, in my experience. But, like buses, our rail network has fallen victim to poor planning and short-term thinking too. 

In the 20th century, our railway network was superseded by the primacy of the car and of the motorway. At the beginning of the last century there were 54 train stations/stops in Kerry covering all four corners of the county. Yes, 54. Today there are four. This map will give you a good idea of just how much Ireland's rail network has receded in the last 100 years. Dublin's tramways stretched the length and breadth of the city and beyond long before most Dubs knew what the word Luas even meant. They were dug up and covered over to make way for roads, cars and buses.Maybe that's progress. The replacing of railways with cars and motorways happened in just about every other developed country in the world too. But, in my eyes, it's still a shame.

So, to finally address the point I make in the title, how exactly are Bus Éireann and Irish Rail like the Neville brothers? Well, Irish Rail is like Gary. Reliable, sturdy, consistent. Not spectacular by any means but a 7/10 performance every time. Bus Éireann is Phil. They do their best but they're limited and indecisive. You're never quite sure if they'll actually turn up. It's a bit of a ham-fisted analogy (I think I'm being very harsh on Phil Neville if I'm honest) I'll admit but, while this isn't saying much, it makes some sense in my head. 

*Disclaimer: While in parts this may read like an ad for Irish Rail it is worth remembering that both Irish Rail and Bus Éireann are subsidiaries of the statutory corporation CIE (Córas Iompar Éireann) which is itself, of course, owned by the government. So by shitting one and praising the other I'm playing a delicate balancing act.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

The death of the Irish nightclub? Not if they get their act together.

It's all about product.

I can think of few jobs more difficult than running a nightclub on a busy night. From shrieking, hormonal girls with a naggin of vodka surreptitiously strapped to their thighs to herds of howling idiot lads doused in Calvin Klein and chanting incessantly, it seems exceptionally awful. With that in mind it might seem a bit cheeky for me, somebody with no experience owning, operating or indeed working in a nightclub, to lecture nightclub owners on how to improve their apparently ailing business. It'd be a bit like me giving Eamon Fitzmaurice a ring talking through where I think he went wrong tactically in the final and giving him a few tips for next year. But having spent enough time awkwardly loafing my way through nightclub corridors and attempting to dance on their dancefloors, I do feel I have some pearls of wisdom to impart.

Back in August, you may or may not remember, an article appeared online written by DJ and writer Dave Haslam documenting the precipitous increase in British nightclubs closing in the last decade. Even though his article was actually quite upbeat (he was celebrating the emergence of alternative nightlife spots like music bars and underground clubs) it led to widespread analysis of the decline in nightclubs and possible explanations as to why it was occurring. Since the popular Twisted Pepper nightclub in Dublin closed its doors shortly after Haslam's article was written, Irish journalists decided to extrapolate his analysis on UK nightclubs to Ireland and ask a question nobody was really asking before that; are Irish nightclubs dying?

A number of these articles popped up in the newspapers within a couple of days and they broadly all came to the same conclusion; yes, Irish nightclubs were dying a death. Why? Well no one could really agree but it had something to do with younger Irish people enjoying pre-drinking and Tinder a bit too much and older Irish people enjoying craft beer a bit too much (And by older I mean people in their mid-20s). These articles all seemed to be written by people who last set foot in a nightclub when corduroy trousers were in vogue and Maniac 2000 was in the charts. So why do I, somebody who has some experience in modern nightclubs, think they're struggling? As Stringer Bell would put it, it's all about the product.

To my mind, most nightclubs seem about as innovative and creative as a 15 year old drawing dicks on his friend's pencil case. Yeah, they're a deft hand at marketing on social media but when it comes to actually improving the product they have to offer they hit a bum note. Nightclubs have a tried and tested formula and they very rarely change their style. The biggest issue, more than music, vibe, anything, for most people when it comes to nightclubs is cost. Nightclubs have to show more innovation when it comes to pricing. Look, we know nightclubs need to make money but they can sometimes take the proverbial. You'd be hard pushed to find a night club that charges less than €5 on the door and many places charge upwards of €10. We all know nightclubs make most of their money off the sale of alcohol so there's no reason why they can't show more flexibility when it comes to entrance fees. Sure, if a nightclub has a special event on, maybe a popular DJ will be playing or it's New Year's Eve, then people are more willing to splash out on a ticket but on a bog-standard Saturday night people are looking for value for money. 

Late bars, which thanks to our strange liquor laws, are allowed to stay open till the same time as nightclubs (unless a nightclubs applies for a license to open later) have started popping up more and more recently and, when given a choice, I would always pick the late bar. There's usually some sort of a dancefloor, bars have better seating arrangements and outdoor facilities and, most importantly, it's rare you'll be charged more than a fiver for entry. Win-win-win!

So what can nightclubs do? They have to show more innovation. I know that sounds overly-simplistic and I'm beginning to sound like Steve Jobs but here's what I basically mean; nightclubs have to show that what they can offer is unique to what bars can offer. They have to introduce new ways of enticing customers. Drinks offers are an obvious avenue. Something which has caught my eye in recent months is stock exchange. Stock exchange is something which I've heard a number of nightclubs, including Voodoo Rooms in Cork and Queens in Ennis, introduce. What happens is this; the drinks counter has a ticker running across it showing the price of drinks. The prices go up and go down. Every so often the 'market' crashes and you could be getting something like a shot of Sambuca for €2. The possibility of a stampede which it creates notwithstanding, this is a rather brilliant idea. I'm not sure who came up with it, if it's an Irish invention or not, but this is what nightclubs need more of. Give people a reason to want to go clubbing.

As Haslam and many Irish commentators pointed out, there has been a growth in what you would term "alternative venues". Craft bars, raves, underground clubs and everything in between. Basically, the last 10 years have seen an exponential growth in establishments which cater for more alternative taste which didn't really exist previously. But I believe there is still a market for middle-of-the-road, catch-all nightclubs as long as they evolve. The onus is on them, not on the consumer, to change.

There are other, less obvious things nightclubs can do. The smoking ban has been in effect for over a decade now yet many nightclubs are remarkably behind the curve when it comes to accommodating smokers. Even though most owners understandably want their patrons inside, next to the dancefloor and, more importantly, next to the bar counter so they'll spend €6 on a knock-off Jagerbomb, the reality is many people are going to spend most of the night in the smoking area. 

So, with that in mind, why is that the majority of nightclubs have smoking areas that you wouldn't let a cow calve in? They're almost always dank, cramped and miserable with very little in the way of seating arrangements. Now, I don't mean to namedrop (but I'm going to) but the Tralee nightclub formerly known as Fabric now known as Quarters which recently reopened, newly refurbished, after a four year hiatus is an example of how to get a smoking area right. The old smoking area in Fabric was pretty grim. The new one in Quarters is bright, spacious and even has plenty in the way of seating arrangements. It's a really lovely spot. Now, I know it's difficult. Not every nightclub has that kind of money to play around with but I would urge nightclub owners to be more accommodating. You may not see the results immediately on the balance sheet but it will make your club more attractive to a whole range of people, I guarantee it. 

Look, it's no easy road but I don't see this as some great generational shift brought about by tinder and low-priced alcohol available in supermarkets which has resulted in young people shunning nightclubs. Nightclubs need to prove that they're value for money. They need to be smarter in their pricing, more ambitious with new initiatives and more accommodating. It's tough. And it's probably not as simple as I'm making out but, I reiterate, it's on the nightclubs not the consumers to change.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Marriage equality, young Presidents and Taylor Swift

Marriage Equality: Against all odds, rural Ireland votes Yes.

Last year in a blog I wrote on a same-sex marriage referendum being held in Ireland, I said that much, if not most, of rural Ireland would reject it and its passing would be dependent on a strong urban vote, much like the divorce referendum in 1995. Well, I was wrong. Very wrong. 

Though Dublin posted the most impressive numbers, with constituencies like Dublin Central boasting a 72.3% Yes vote, rural Ireland's endorsement of the amendment was what impressed me the most. Some constituencies, like Donegal South-West and Cavan-Monaghan were exceptionally tight, many had a turnout which was below the national average and of course one constituency, Roscommon-South Leitrim, rejected it. But that doesn't matter. What matters is rural Ireland proved it is not the social and cultural backwater it is so often portrayed to be. As Una Mullally succinctly put it, the referendum was ratified from "the cliffs of Donegal, the lakes of Cavan, the farmyards of Kildare, the lanes of Kerry."

Why was this? Two things. One; the young. Rural Ireland, like everywhere else, saw an upsurge in young voters for this referendum and it showed.  Polling station officials remarked on how they had never seen so many young people voting. Two; the apathy of the old. A bit ironic, eh? Us young guns are often portrayed as politically illiterate nogoodniks but, to my mind, it was the middle-aged and the elderly who let the side down this time out. While I haven't got figures to back this rather controversial claim up, I'm merely going by what I heard anecdotally. I heard about plenty of middle aged and older folks who didn't bother voting. What were their reasons? Generally, they said they were failed to be fully convinced by either side. 

Why was this? I think it was because both sides of the debate understandably fought narrow, targeted campaigns. They knew they both had a core base of voters they needed to exploit for this referendum if they wanted to get their preferred result. The Yes side knew if they could get young people engaged for this referendum it would be a cakewalk. The Yes side’s online campaign was excellent. The slogans, the hashtags, the images worked a treat. In urban areas too, they were omnipresent. TDs, musicians, journalists canvassed door-to-door in Dublin while #YesEquality artwork and murals appeared in many cities and towns. 

Their campaign, however, was never as extensive in rural Ireland as it was in the cities. For young rural people this was fine as they were still influenced by and could participate in the online campaign. But for the older rural people, the Yes Equality campaign largely passed them by. There was very little political will to campaign for this referendum among a lot of the rural politicians. As Averil Power remarked in her scathing attack on Fianna Fáil on Monday, the party, whose voting base is largely rural and older, never took a clear position on the referendum and many of their TDs refused to openly endorse it. Many Independent politicians too side-stepped it and, in some cases (Michael Healy-Rae, Mattie McGrath), advocated for its rejection.  

By the same token, the No side’s campaign was fought with their target voter market in mind. If the Yes side needed to get the precocious young voting, the No side needed the concerned middle-aged voting. The bases they were targeting were the rural and the over 40. And so rural Ireland was peppered with their posters and overrun with their leaflets. They used the fate of children to frame their debate and exploited well-worn gender norms to instil a sense of uncertainty. “Two men can’t replace a mother’s love”, they claimed and their insidious Youtube videos had children talk about how much they loved their mommy. But it only partly worked. They were always fighting a losing battle and they never truly captured the imagination of rural voters in the same way the Yes side did with their base. It was a campaign based on misdirection and falsehoods and, in the end, most voters saw through it. 

While the referendum was passed comfortably, I felt if the Yes side extended fully their campaign to rural Ireland and engaged the concerns of undecided voters properly it could have been much more comfortable. You might ask, "Why does this matter?" Well, I think it does. If the noises emanating from the Labour party in recent days are anything to go by we should be facing a referendum to repeal the eighth amendment and legalise abortion, possibly within the next five and almost certainly within the next 10 years. The battle lines for that will be very similar to the ones for same-sex marriage but with one salient difference; it's going to be much closer.

The undecideds are going to play a much bigger role in determining the outcome of that referendum and among them will be many of the voters the Yes side seemed to ignore during this referendum campaign; the middle-aged and the rural. Because both the same-sex marriage referendum and the abortion referendum require quite a leap of faith for many people of a certain age. Growing up in the 60s, 70s or even 80s, an Ireland with legalised same-sex marriage and abortion would be as unthinkable as an Ireland with a tropical climate. It was alien. But those people are not hopeless cases, bound eternally to a patriarchal, Catholic ideology which their children overwhelmingly reject.

If they had been engaged properly by the Government and the Yes side throughout this referendum campaign, many of them might have had their worldview turned on its head. Instead, they were largely ignored by an urban-centric campaign and allowed to have their basest concerns exploited by a lecherous No side. In the end, thankfully, it didn't work but this was more to do with the failings of the No side. We need to learn from this campaign and those of us who want to see Ireland finally, and totally, remove the cloak of a pervasive, theocratic ideology need to, paradoxically some might say, broaden our horizons.

Talkin' Bout My Generation: The rejection of the Presidential age referendum might not mean much but it says a lot about our attitude towards young people and politics.

Like a meeting of the Seanad, the referendum on lowering the age to be president of Ireland to 21 was almost entirely ignored by the general populace. In fact, I can’t think of a plebiscite which has ever gotten less attention in Ireland. It made the Children’s Referendum of 2012 got seem like a World Cup Final. Why was this? Largely because it was a pathetic and haphazard attempt at ‘political reform’, which was very much in vogue when the current Fine Gael-Labour government took office in 2011 but is now forgotten among all the hullaballoo about ‘stability’ and our ‘recovery’. The voter turnout for it was inordinately high, of course, due to it being held on the same day as the same-sex marriage referendum. 

Now, I voted yes out of a sense of duty to my age group but I didn’t give a hoot in hell whether it passed or not. I object to the office of president as a point of principle so Bosco could be president for all I care. But I found the (little) debate surrounding the referendum to be very intriguing and very indicative of the general attitude there is to young people and politics. 

The few opinion pieces and columns that I saw devoted to this referendum were overwhelmingly in favour of rejecting this referendum. They were almost deliriously against the proposal in fact, as if by passing this silly referendum it would be compulsory to have a 21 year old president. Why was this? Because it would be preposterous to have somebody so young be our figurehead, apparently. The president needs to be a nation’s patriarch/matriarch, a paternal figure. What interested me about this line of argument was that it reminded me of much the same logic people use when dismissing young people for other political offices.

There is a near-obsession with age when it comes to holding political office, not just with presidents but with actually important positions. Young people don’t have enough ‘life experience’ to deal with complicated matters which TDs and ministers deal with. Young people aren’t ‘mature’ enough to make political decisions. But this is bollocks. There is no section of society which has been as poorly served by politicians in Ireland in the last decade than young people. Thousands of Ireland’s ‘brightest and best’ have emigrated, thousands more that stayed are stuck in unemployment purgatory, many of them forced into employment programmes like Jobridge which often amount to nothing more than legalised free labour. Those who graduate from college are no longer guaranteed a secure job. The role of a politician is to represent the interests of his/her constituents. For too long the interests of the young in Ireland have been ignored because it’s more politically expedient to prioritise the interests of the old and middle-aged. The so-called ‘grey vote’ strikes fear in the bellies of politicians while young people, by and large, don’t vote so they’re easy targets for cuts and hikes.

But while the political apathy of young people is unfortunate, it’s hardly surprising and partially understandable. Young people don’t see the system as working for them. Their concerns are held to be of lesser importance. We’re often told that for the politics to start working for young people they need to vote. The political engagement among young people for the same-sex marriage referendum was unprecedented and hopefully many who registered to vote especially for it will remain politically active. 

But we need more than that. We need to see more young people being elected and being given a chance in political office; rather than being patronised for their age. Having a 21 year old president would never happen even if the referendum had passed but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that we see young people in meaningful positions of power so our voice isn’t lost amid the cacophony of desperate wailing the next time the government’s axe comes swinging.

REVIEW: Taylor Swift's latest track Bad Blood

Begrudgers and naysayers bedamned! The last 12 months has been a great time for fresh, enjoyable pop records. From Uptown Funk to Trouble, from Shake it Off to King, from Problem to Chandelier, there’s been plenty of songs I’ve heard on radio, in nightclubs and in pubs which haven’t made me want to pour acid down my ear canals. And, judging by the regard most people hold for the charts these days, that’s quite the achievement.

The star of the last 12 months has undoubtedly been Taylor Swift. Before, she was known as a cutesie country-cum-pop star who specialised in writing songs about her jilted ex loves. In the last 12 months, however, she’s released a string of hits which have been more daring, more exploratory and, most importantly, more fun. I don’t care who you are or how cynical you are about modern music but I’m willing to bet a substantial sum of money that you found yourself body-popping to Shake it Off at least once over the last year.

Now, with her newest single Bad Blood, Swift is foraying into the strange hybrid world of hip-hop/electropop. Bad Blood is not a hip-hop song nor is it an electropop song but it does feature verses from rapper Kendrick Lamar (his song King Kunta, by the way, is possibly the best song of the last year) and the pounding electro-beat which courses through the song like a particularly funky lightning bolt from start to end. Whatever genre you want to give it, it is certainly a  departure from Swift’s previous releases.

The song originally appeared on Swift’s album 1989 without Lamar’s verses but the addition of his vocals certainly gives the song a new dimension. Kitty Empire in The Guardian likened it to a Charli XCX song which I think is quite an accurate comparison. Intriguingly, Bad Blood is supposedly written about a disagreement she had with a fellow popstar last year who is strongly rumoured to be Katy Perry. 

While I, like many others, enjoyed the song it was the video for it which received the most attention online. A video featuring a smattering of the most famous female musicians and actresses in the world today, including Selena Gomez, Hayley Williams, Cara Delevigne and Ellie Goulding, preparing Swift for war and occasionally beating the living shit out of each other sounds like it would be at least moderately popular and so it turned out.

The video begins with Swift and Gomez fighting a group of faceless henchmen in a London skyscraper together but when the men are finished with, Gomez betrays Swift and kicks her out of the building. Miraculously, she survives the fall and she is then resurrected and her power restored with help of a weird, space-age machine and training from her pals. At the end of the video, Swift and Co. head out to battle Gomez and her henchwomen in a firey blaze of violence as London burns in the background. Why they had export their violence to Britain I'm not really sure. Words don’t really do it justice so you’re just going to have to watch it.

It caused a mini-sensation on social media when it was released last week and it broke the Vevo record for most views in 24 hours with a mind-boggling 20.1m hits in its first day of release. Swift is here to stay and she has become pop's most savvy shapeshifter in the last 12 months. She has a very loyal cabal of online fans who call themselves Swifties and their numbers will be swelling if she keeps releasing exciting pop records like Bad Blood.