I'm off to Zambia

A couple of months back I was short-listed for the Guardian’s International Development Competition for a feature I wrote on attempts to improve farming practices in Malawi. As a consequence of this, I’m heading to Zambia on Sunday for a week to research a piece on youth unemployment for the paper. I’m going with an NGO called Plan International and will be dividing my time between Lusaka and Chibombo, a rural area about 90km outside the capital.

I’m going to try and blog as much as I can while I’m in Zambia but for now just wanted to flag the trip up. It should be a fascinating country and with an election due on September 20 as well as lots of really big issues I’m sure there’ll be no shortage of stories while I’m out there. Tune into the blog in the coming days for more info.

Review: The Black and Tans

This review of D.M. Leeson’s fascinating The Black and Tans: British Police and Auxiliaries in the Irish War of Independence appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, September 2.

 The Black and Tans ‘have gone down in history as the British equivalent of the Turkish bashi-bazouks or the German Freikorps.’ A 10,000-strong police force scrambled from unemployed, working-class ex-servicemen in urban Britain, the Black and the Tans – a sobriquet taken from the force’s motley uniform of army khaki and police tunics – were notorious for their brutality and violence during the Irish War of Independence.

By early 1920, when the first Black and Tans arrived at Gormanstown outside Dublin for the most cursory of training, the nascent republican offensive had already decimated the morale, not to mention the ranks, of a superannuated Royal Irish Constabulary. What followed – a gruesome litany of extrajudicial killings, political assassinations and punishment beatings – marked the period as among the most emotive in Irish history.

The Black and Tans’ murderous indiscipline is often attributed to the young recruits’ experiences in the Great War, putatively exacerbating an innate propensity towards violence. This interpretation, however, betrays what social psychologists would call a ‘fundamental attribution error’: faced with an invisible enemy in civilian garb conducting clandestine, asymmetric warfare against the Crown, and a growing tally of dead and injured colleagues, the alienated, oft-inebriated force replied with ever more brutal reprisals. The Black and Tans’ situation – not their disposition – explains their behaviour. The infamous sack of Balbriggan was typical: on 20 September 1920, Head Constable Peter Burke was shot dead by an IRA flying column in the County Dublin town, within hours a hosiery factory and 54 houses lay in smouldering ruins.

The overwhelming majority of the Black and Tans and their irregular cousins, the Auxiliary Division, showed no tendency towards criminality or wanton violence prior to their Irish deployment. Yet once exposed to insurgent ambushes and nationwide boycotts, many became willing, anonymous participants in atrocities. Unwittingly the ineffective Unionist-led British government created ‘a large-scale version of the Stanford Prison Experiment, in Ireland.’

While the Black and Tan served for less than two years, their disastrous deployment has lived long in Irish cultural memory. Through dispassionate research and fastidiously marshalled sources, D.M. Leeson undermines many enduring misapprehensions that still surround this most controversial of police forces.


Sellafield will remain a threat to Ireland

This comment piece on the closing of the MOX plant at Sellafield appeared on Guardian.co.uk in August.

Sellafield Mox nuclear fuel plant to close. It’s a headline that generations of Irish environmental activists, and government ministers in Leinster House, never thought they would see. After just 10 years of operation – and at the cost of a vertiginous £1.4bn to the British taxpayer – the mixed-oxide fuel plant nestled on the edge of bucolic west Cumbria is to be decommissioned.

Sellafield has long been an emotive issue in Ireland. At just 128 miles from Dublin, the plant is within spitting distance of Ireland’s densely populated eastern seaboard. The Irish Sea is now the most radioactively contaminated in the world, while in the wake of 9/11 concerns about a terrorist attack on the plant briefly gripped the Irish popular imagination.

Unsurprisingly then, yesterday’s announcement that the Mox plant is to cease operation has been welcomed by Irish activists, many of whom have been involved in decades-long campaigns opposing the facility. However, the closure is anything but the end of Sellafield’s nuclear story.

Last October, the environment secretary, Chris Huhne – in a volte-face from previous Lib Dem energy policy – announced that eight new nuclear power plants are to be constructed across Britain. Only last month it was confirmed that Sellafield is to be the site of one such new reactor, to be built by 2025. It is widely expected that additional employment at the new facility will at the very least replace the 600 job losses announced yesterday.

The earthquake in Japan – and the crisis at Fukushima – have radically altered nuclear priorities across Europe: Germany is to phase out all its plants by 2022, opposition to nuclear power is increasing in France and Italy. But here the only demonstrable effect is the closing of a reprocessing facility that was, from the off, run on a faulty economic model.

The Mox plant was built to handle plutonium dioxide that was shipped around the world, through the Irish Sea to Cumbria, where it was to be recycled from spent fuel at the Thorp plant at Sellafield. The environmental implications, particularly in the event of a disaster, of shipping highly radioactive cargo around the world are all the obvious; the financial rationale is equally flawed.

Sellafield was designed to process 120 tonnes of Mox a year: in reality it produced barely a fraction of that. In the five years since opening in 2006 just five tonnes were made, and as of yesterday the total output over its lifetime stood at a paltry 13 tonnes . The loss of Japanese contracts in the aftermath of Fukushima sounded the plant’s death knell.

As Irish campaigner Brian Greene, who blogs at Shut Sellafield , noted: “From a business perspective the Mox plant has been a total failure so it’s no great surprise that they are shutting it down. But the legacy is huge. It’ll cost millions to decommission, the land will never be used again.”

Mox or no Mox, Sellafield will still pose an environmental threat. When the famous Calder Hall cooling towers were demolished in 2007 it took 12 weeks to remove all the asbestos from the debris. The site’s radioactive legacy will last significantly longer.

Meanwhile, in May, British authorities backtracked on a commitment given to Irish environment minister Phil Hogan that Sellafield would be included in European-wide stress tests of nuclear installations following Fukushima. That the plant does not generate nuclear power was adduced, rather dubiously, to explain why an examination of Sellafield’s resilience against earthquakes, tsunamis, air crashes and terrorism was unnecessary.

In 1981, the plant’s name was changed from Windscale to Sellafield in an attempt to shift attention away from the plant’s less than impressive safety record. Thirty years on it seems that, with the closing of the Mox plant, another attempted rebranding of Sellafield is underway.

But unless British government policy changes quickly, future generations on both sides of the Irish Sea still face the disquieting prospect a life lived under a nuclear shadow.

Analysis: Catholic Church's power over the state has been broken

From the Scotsman, July 26.

In 1950, Ireland’s then minister for health, Dr Noel Browne, announced his intention to radically reform the former Free State’s ailing health service. For the first time, maternity care for all mothers and healthcare for all children up to the age of 16 would be delivered free of charge.

Dr Browne’s proposals met with fierce resistance, particularly from the Catholic Church, which characterised his scheme as “socialist” medicine and an intrusion by the state into the sanctity of the family.Led by the all-powerful then Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, the Mother and Child scheme’s opponents succeeded in destroying the bill, Dr Browne’s political career and even the coalition government of the time.The experience of Dr Browne was hardly unique: since the foundation of the state almost 90 years ago, the Catholic hierarchy has exerted unparalleled social and political control in Ireland.

Supplicant Irish leaders bowed to the demands of Rome and local bishops. The Church itself was accorded a “special position” in the 1937 Irish constitution.

But Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s recent watershed comments have seriously eroded the once rock-solid relationship between the Vatican and Ireland.

Speaking to the Irish Parliament last week, the Irish premier attacked the “dysfunction, disconnection, elitism, the narcissism” within the upper reaches of the Catholic Church.

In Ireland, the reception to Mr Kenny’s withering remarks – which came after a devastating report criticising the Church’s handling of clerical sex abuse in the diocese of Cloyne, Co Cork, was published – has been nothing short of sensational.

Victims of clerical abuse have bravely spoken out on radio phone-ins, while many ordinary practising Catholics have applauded the intervention as statesmanlike.

Rather predictably, the reaction from the Vatican has been more equivocal. After a period of silence from the hierarchy, yesterday it was announced that Archbishop Giuseppe Leanza, the Papal Nuncio in Ireland, the Church’s equivalent of an ambassador, was being recalled from Dublin.

Does Archbishp Leanza’s move signal a further deterioration in Rome-Dublin relations or is it a necessary first step in the Catholic Church finally dealing with the reality of endemic clerical children sexual abuse in Ireland?

For now it’s difficult to tell. Yesterday a spokesman for Rome said that recalling the envoy “denoted the seriousness of the situation”, but then went on to express “surprise” and “disappointment” at what he described as “excessive reactions” to the Cloyne Report from the Irish government.

Mr Kenny should not be unduly concerned by the Vatican’s response. To the surprise of many – particularly supporters of the Labour Party, his coalition partners – the Irish prime minister, who hails from the rural west of the country, has shown a willingness to confront the power of the Catholic Church conspicuous by its absence in Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen, his immediate, and more metropolitan, predecessors.

That a leader of the traditionally conservative, pro-Catholic Fine Gael party is calling the Vatican to account attests to how far the Church’s stock has fallen in Ireland.

Whether the Papal Nuncio returns to Dublin or not, one thing is certain: the Catholic Church’s hold over Ireland has been well and truly broken.

On the Money

This feature on Irish comics and the recession appeared in Fest magazine ahead of this year’s Fringe.

“Why have estate agents stopped looking out the window in the morning?” begins a gag that has been doing the rounds in Dublin for the last 18 months or so. “Otherwise they’d have nothing to do in the afternoon.”

In Ireland, a wry, gallows humour about the nation’s financial misfortunes permeates. Across the country people exchange increasingly bizarre real-life tales: the estate where one woman lives surrounded by hundreds of empty houses; the train station in a derelict field near Dublin Airport, built to service a massive development that never happened; the former property magnate who now cleans windows on O’Connell Street.

It’s often said that comedy does well in a recession – and the big ‘R’ is firmly in the sights of a host of Irish comics at this year’s Fringe. “I call this my bailout tour. Last year, I was in Greece, this year I was in Portugal. I pity wherever I go next year,” says Keith Farnan, whose fourth Edinburgh outing Money, Money, Money is billed as an exploration of “Ireland’s brief love affair with vast amounts of money and fiscal meltdown.”

Mementos of this failed romance with global capitalism lie dotted around the country’s capital: ubiquitous for sale signs, unfinished apartment blocks, grandiose pieces of public art. Dublin, of course, is not all Rome after the fall. There are still plenty of salubrious city centre hotels, the kind of places where you find piped jazz music, chintz sofas, ladies who lunch… and, er, amiable Irish comics who bear a passing resemblance to Zach Galifianakis.

“I didn’t realise this place was so fancy,” Keith Farnan admits when we meet, on his suggestion, in Dublin’s upmarket Westin Hotel. In front of him, on a glass-topped table, sit a pair of sunglasses, a plate of biscuits and the business section of The Irish Times. Since he started writing Money, Money, Money back in January, the financial pages have become required reading – and have led the hirsute funnyman to some sobering conclusions. “This is the worst recession we’ve ever had. We’ve been poor in the past, but we’ve never been stressed and poor before. It’s not a good combination.”

Farnan himself is no stranger to straitened circumstances. Back in 2006, at the zenith of Ireland’s Celtic Tiger frenzy, the Cork native swapped a comfortable life as a lawyer for the vagaries of full-time standup. “I went from a secure, well-paid job to literally nothing. While my friends were buying second homes, I was investing in loaves of bread and buying shares in ham and cheese. Making a new company – the sandwich.”

With three successful Fringe shows and a star turn on Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow behind him, Farnan is now well-established on the circuit, but he found writing about Ireland’s economic travails an unexpected challenge. “Last year’s show [Sex Traffic] was about prostitution and rape. After that I thought Money, Money, Money would be easy – but it’s been anything but. It’s been a struggle at times,” he remarks ruefully.

Farnan describes the crash—which began with the global credit crunch in September 2008—as “Ireland’s 9/11”. That might sound a tad melodramatic but the effect on the national psyche of 1,000 people emigrating every week, unemployment at 14 per cent and a whopping $85 billion in bad debts has been catastrophic.

Ireland’s writers, poets and playwrights have struggled to make sense of the desolate, post-collapse landscape. Indeed the task of reflecting the nation back to itself, warts and all, has largely been ceded to comedians, at least temporarily.

“Comedy is the most immediate medium. What’s in the news will often influence your act,” suggests Farnan. “You can also gauge where something sits with people. If you stand up and make a gag that’s too close to the bone, that hits too hard, you’ll get boos. A novelist can’t get that kind of immediate feedback.”

Another Irish comedian with the financial meltdown firmly in his sights, Abie Philbin Bowman, agrees: “In comedy you know if something is shit or self-indulgent pretty much immediately. If you become preachy or start lecturing, people switch off, they stop laughing.”

Philbin Bowman, a garrulous, fresh-faced Dubliner on the “geeky, philosophical end of comedy”, caused a minor sensation at his first Fringe, in 2006, with his sell-out show Jesus: The Guantanamo Years. He returns to Edinburgh this year with Pope Benedict: Bond Villain, an extended riff on why the Protestant countries of northern Europe are bailing out their Catholic neighbours – with Ireland as Exhibit A.

Sitting in the verdant grounds of his alma mater Trinity College—once a seat of Protestant power in Ireland—Philbin Bowman sketches out the rationale behind his latest offering: “In Protestant countries, you get into heaven by reading the Bible, following your conscience and asking questions. In Catholic countries, you get into heaven by feeling guilty, following orders, and repeating the magic words. Once, powerful people bullied us in the name of ‘God’. Today, they bully us in the name of ‘The Economy’.”

Credit default swaps, sub-prime mortgages, asset-backed securities: hardly the argot of comedy gold. Is it difficult to get a laugh out of a financial crash? “Absolutely. It’s horrible – it’s much easier to do jokes about sex,” laughs Philbin Bowman.

“Essentially what happened [in Ireland] is a really boring story. This is a bunch of bald, white, middle-aged bankers making terrible financial decisions. They didn’t even shag their secretaries! So it’s not a natural subject for comedy. But it’s something we urgently need to talk—and joke—about.”

Philbin Bowman has strong words too for the IMF, which led last autumn’s bailout of Ireland’s toxic banking system. “The whole Dominique Strauss-Kahn thing tells you so much about the culture of the IMF,” he says, referring to the allegations that its former director sexually assaulted a chambermaid in his $3,000-a-night hotel suite.

“If you think about it, he could have stayed in a Holiday Inn, paid for a really expensive call-girl and still saved money. This is the guy who was lecturing us on ‘austerity’, ‘fiscal responsibility’ and ‘painful economic choices’.”

The Irish public aren’t the only ones facing up to “austerity” and “painful economic choices” in the wake of the downturn. Like many on the country’s comedy circuit, Colm O’Regan has found it increasingly difficult to sell shows to cash-strapped punters. “Now if people are going to spend money on comedy it’s on the big names that they absolutely trust like Tommy Tiernan and Des Bishop,” says O’Regan, whose second Fringe effort, Dislike: A Facebook Guide to Crisis, has received critical acclaim since debuting in Ireland earlier this year.

Speaking from his Dublin home, now worth half of what he paid for it a few years ago, O’Regan complains that the “arse has fallen out” of the corporate market, once a serious money-spinner for Irish comics. But the recession isn’t all doom and gloom. After years of demanding safe, cheap thrills, audiences are becoming increasingly open to topical, edgy gags.

“For years all most people wanted to hear were jokes about, ‘isn’t it funny how the light switches off in the fridge when you close the door’,” recalls Colm O’Regan. “Now there’s a lot more interest in topical comedy, not just being ranty for the sake of it but proper, measured political satire. That’s making a big comeback.”

Fringe-goers are perfectly placed to profit from Ireland’s boom in recession humour. With so many quality comics in the market, don’t be surprised if there’s a run on sharply observed jokes about macroeconomics, the IMF and idle Irish estate agents, in Edinburgh this August.