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.