Nationalism

“Internationalism is the highest form of patriotism,” Christopher Hitchens.

I never liked school. No girls and lots of priests. An abundance of rules, limitations and dreary grey uniforms. The focus was on conforming to Catholic doctrine, memorising poems and theorems, while revering the supreme deity of all - the rugby team. In my penultimate year before release we were offered the chance to participate in an exchange program with a Protestant school in Belfast called RBAI (Royal Belfast Academical Institution). It was 1998, the year of the Good Friday Agreement, the armistice that ended the ‘Troubles’ that had plagued Northern Ireland for 30 years. The warring factions of the Protestant British and Catholic Irish were putting their tribal differences behind them and ending the war. I signed up out of a genuine interest and curiosity, as well as a desire to break the tedium of school life. It was the best thing I did in my 12 years in school.

 photo credit:  www.shereen.co.uk

photo credit: www.shereen.co.uk

I stayed with a lovely family. I forget all their names but Tom was my counterpart. A very tall lad with a shock of bright red hair. After all meeting at the RBAI grounds I headed off with my host family for the weekend. We weren’t in the car long when Tom’s dad pointed to a fish and chip shop and said, “you see that shop there? That’s where the Shankill bombing was.” Only five years earlier the IRA had set off a bomb there killing 10 and wounding over 50 others. I felt a surge of mixed emotions; shock, sickness and guilt. My tribe had inflicted this devastating attack on theirs. I had no idea who the perpetrators were and had never asked anyone to kill anyone else, but I was guilty by association because of where I was born. “The accident of birth” as John Hume described it.

To my horror we pulled up around the corner from the Shankill road in a place called Ballysillan Drive. This is where they lived. The pavement was painted red, white and blue, as were the lamp posts, and pretty much everything that was immobile. I’d never seen as many people wearing Rangers jerseys or drinking cans of Pepsi. I dared not speak until we reached the safety of the house. I was chastened with guilt and conscious my southern accent would stick out like a sore thumb. The intimidation of the symbolism was powerful. All this in times of peace. I shuddered to think what it was like when detente was but a dream.

Much like Scrooge being visited by the ghost of Christmas past, I was being offered a glimpse into a different time. It was one much like the time when Dickens was writing ‘A Christmas Carol’ in the middle of the nineteenth century. A potent and toxic blend of nationalism and religion ruled the minds of men, each believing theirs was superior to the next. In America white people kept black people as slaves. In Ireland and the UK Catholics weren’t allowed in public life or buy property. Pogroms against Jewish people were common throughout Russia and parts of Europe. Fear and suspicion of ‘the other’ or ‘what was different’ prevailed. This is what I was witnessing in an atavistic Northern Ireland.

Exactly 20 years later a lingering resentment remains but the terrorism has been contained. This is not to say it is gone but a relative peace has persevered. The key brokers of the peace agreement, apart from politicians on the island of Ireland, were Washington and Westminster. Instead of learning from Northern Ireland these two countries have reverted to a nativism of their own, retreating from the international stage. Nationalism is ugly, anachronistic and a hangover from Victorian times. It has been replaced by humanism, individualism and globalisation. These forces present their own challenges but throwing stones or petrol bombs at each other is not one of them. The battles now take place in football stadiums and we can all have a pint together after.

 

Citizen of Nowhere

Last month I cast my first vote as an Australian citizen. It was also the first time I was allowed to vote in any country since the Irish general election in 2007. I was unable to have my say in the historic marriage equality referendum here in 2015 so it seems appropriate that my first vote as an Aussie is to try and bring about the same change there as happened here.

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Some people aren’t bothered voting but I always enjoyed exercising my democratic right and engaging in the civic process. I considered it a privilege and it felt empowering. That’s what made the feeling of disenfranchisement so isolating when I moved to Sydney. By emigrating I was deprived of my right to vote in Ireland and unqualified to vote in Australia. A stranger in a new land and a spectator of my home land, I was silenced from having a say anywhere. A citizen of nowhere.

I moved home last year after seven years in Australia and brought with me a new identity. Now I’m a dual citizen so I can vote in all Australian elections, and as a prodigal son, can have my say in the litany of referenda in Ireland next year. One of the issues will be about extending voting rights to citizens living abroad, in Presidential elections only. This is a very Irish answer to an Irish question - give a half assed solution. Emigrants can vote on the symbolic issue but not on the substantive ones.

Australia has a better system. As an Aussie living in Ireland I am allowed vote in all elections for 6 years. If I am still living out of the country after that I have to apply each year to have my overseas electoral status renewed. Or, if I leave indefinitely, I can apply to get taken off the register and do not get to vote but can re-register once I return to live in Australia. This seems sensible and fair to me. People who have gone for 20 years won’t get to have a say in matters but those that have been gone only a few years still have that feeling of attachment and inclusion to their home country.

Although Australia is behind Ireland on marriage equality* it is ahead in social progress on most other issues. It is strange moving from a very secular country back to a country making the transition and still trying to cast aside the vestiges of theocratic tendencies. Next year we’ll also be asked to consider the clause in the constitution that stipulates a woman’s place to be in the home. We’ll contemplate our strict divorce laws and our maintenance of the currently criminal act of blasphemy. Bangladesh where atheists bloggers are murdered in their droves and Saudi Arabia that considers atheism a terrorist activity (no joke!) cite Ireland’s blasphemy laws in the UN as a shining example of a western country that punishes intolerable blasphemers. Some company. Hopefully these archaic ideas will be consigned to the bin of bad ideas that history has been collecting since the Enlightenment.

However, for real change to happen and for us to ever dare to be an enlightened society, religion must be taken out of public life. No more Angelus on the TV and radio, no more having to have your children baptised just so they can go to a good local school, no more allowing religious influence on how we access health care.

We’re getting there but there’s still a way to go.


*This is for purely political reasons. Multiple polls have shown that the majority of Australians want marriage equality but the ruling Liberals feel the need to appease their Christian Right wing faction. That’s also why they have made this a postal vote in the hope that young people will not vote as much as old people. All of this despite the fact the PM Malcolm Turnbull has repeatedly supported and advocated for marriage equality.

 

Playing and Perspective

Last week I returned from France after co-captaining the first ever Ireland Masters ultimate frisbee team at the World Championships of Beach Ultimate (#wcbu2017). There’s lots in that sentence to explain to the uninitiated...

Ultimate frisbee = a sport played with 2 teams, 1 frisbee and 0 refs.

http://wcbu2017.org = a 5 v 5 game played on a beach.

Masters = over 32s.

France = cheese eating surrender monkeys.

Due to a numerical anomaly we were only belatedly accepted to play in the tournament a matter of months before it was to start. All other teams were notified last October. We expedited the selection process and crammed in as much playing time together as our small squad of 11 could manage before heading off to Royan in the west of France. The rush did not detract from the excitement. I’d never pulled on a green jersey before, nevermind taking the joint lead of the national team. This was going to be fun.

My co-captain was my best friend Mark. We took up the game on the same day in UCD during fresher’s week in 2000. Our frisbee careers had taken us in different directions since then (that’s code for him being better than me… and me playing while living in Australia) so this felt like an overdue joint venture.

The tournament started with an opening procession of all the countries, in alphabetical order, gleefully marching through the town before being introduced by the MC into the newly erected stadium on the beach. It’s cheesy but the pageantry of colour and cultures creates an atmosphere that makes you realise you’re representing your country and gets you pumped for games to begin.

My favourite part about playing worlds events is the coming together of the different cultures. You might get a kiss from a French player, a stern handshake from a Russian or an energetic high 5 from a North American all meant with the same sincerity.

We played 12 games during the week in temperatures that reached 38 degrees with sand so hot that blisters blossomed on the feet making sand socks indispensable. We finished 11th out of 14 teams in our division. The spirit for the week was amongst the best I’ve seen and that was reflected in the enjoyability of all the games. We evolved as a team over the course of the week. From the disappointment of a very poor performance against Germany, to great wins against India, Singapore and Russia, as well as the compulsory ‘heroic Irish loss’ which came in our televised match against, the eventual silver medalists, France (you can watch it here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=shHyui1gIbw).    

Our whole team was effusive with excitement about the whole occasion, but for Mark the event took on extra significance. I’ve been playing frisbee in different countries for 17 years and have rarely met anyone more well known or popular than my vice, I mean, co-captain ;) This is another family for him that he felt comfortable enough with to share his recent personal loss. Before the tournament Mark had yellow wristbands made up with the the words ‘be strong and be yourself #LianeUp’ written on them. After every game he took a minute to tell the opposition about Liane and how he derived enormous strength from her. He then gave out a wristband and a hug to all the players on the other team asking them to draw on this should their resolve be tested. He was quick to emphasise the positivity of it, and all the teams we played against took it in the spirit it was meant. Some players knew Mark well, others not at all, but what struck me was that on every occasion along with the positive sentiment there was a sanguine emotional connection. I remember a guy on the Swiss team, who Mark had never met, crying. Everyone has their own things happening in their life. This was a beautiful moment at the end of every hard fought battle in which the game was put into perspective and we came together in solidarity.

Tuesday the 20th was our third day’s play, and more saliently, was Liane’s two month anniversary. No better way to pay tribute to her than to have an international gathering by the sea, play her favourite song (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d-diB65scQU) and have a dip.

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Our final game was against a tough Russian side that had beaten us in our previous encounter. We came from behind to grind out an epic sudden death victory 9-8 that included two marathon points, one that lasted over 10 minutes. It was a fitting finale. We’d developed as a team to be able to beat teams that at the start of the week had our number. It was an incredible privilege to be able to captain the team and I was immensely proud of all our players. Two big nights of partying and watching the finals capped a stellar week. Not a bad way for Ireland to announce itself on the global geriatric ultimate scene.

 

 

Liane

Liane was one of those people you loved to get sat beside at a wedding. She wasn’t the extraverted instigator of the party, but rather that person with a laid back sense of fun who was an excellent conversationalist. Serious topics would be broached but always in a positive manner. Although, at the same time, she wasn’t averse to challenging you where she saw fit. She had a fun way of talking about serious topics that even extended to joking about her epilepsy that would eventually take her life one month ago today.

I wish I remembered more of the content of our conversations, but what I do remember is the pervasive feeling of gratification after chatting with Liane. This may have been helped by the fact you were always doing something active, fun or challenging with her. Swimming in Baltic conditions in the 40ft, hiking up some mountain, playing board games, going to gigs or road tripping to Galway were common pursuits. She enjoyed quality time with friends, and I was lucky enough to be one of her friends.

It’s the conversations I’ll remember most though. As we’d delve into another meaningful topic of life she was incessantly encouraging. When Ali and I moved home to Ireland after living in Australia everyone was great in making Ali feel at home, but no one better than Liane. She may have been doing it as a kind act of friendship to me at first, but that was not the case for long at all, as theirs rapidly blossomed into a close friendship. She became Ali’s best bud this side of Devon. Nothing could have pleased me more.

I love how different yet complimentary she and Mark were together. Mark being organised and busy as a blue arsed fly while Liane was chilled and happy reading a book on the couch in her PJs. Liane got Mark into yoga, and could, on ocassion, be found watching a rugby match - although she was really just there for the chats. They challenged each other. They were also great at finding activities they liked doing together. As our friend Cian observed recently, “at the time I thought it curious how they toured the saunas of Finland, but it was just what sums them up as a couple, find something you like, keep doing it.”

Liane was thoughtful, considerate and caring. I, like everyone who knew her, find her loss irreconcilable. Liane never liked a fuss and couldn’t stand people who took themselves too seriously. However she’d have loved the natural simplicity of her ashes being spread around some of her favourite places. She’d also have been immensely proud of the send off she got at her funeral, especially from Mark. He was nothing short of heroic. His loving words were delivered in a way that helped sooth the suffering everyone was, and still is, feeling. I always thought I knew how great my best friend was, turns out he’s even more courageous than I’d realised.

Losing Liane was a heart breaking tragedy, but it wouldn’t be appropriate to remember her with sadness. Her can do attitude and indefatiguable positivity are what will endure as an influence on all who knew her. We’ll miss you Liane but you’ll always be with us.

 

Photo Credit: Ruthless Imagery
 

Free Speech

“Of course women must earn less than men, because they are weaker, they are smaller, they are less intelligent, they must earn less that’s all.” Those were the words the Polish MEP Janusz Korwin-Mikke spoke in the European Parliament on March 2nd. This week he was suspended and lost his allowances for 30 days. He has form too. Last year he called Syrian refugees “human garbage” and in 2015 he was suspended for making the Nazi salute. He reminds me of  a more sinister version of the old major in Fawlty Towers with his derogatory anachronistic sentiments. But should he be censored for voicing his views? No. As repugnant as his opinions are he should not be prevented from expressing them.

I remember the first day of my politics undergrad course in UCD. Our lecturer asked the class a hypothetical question about whether or not a book should be published. It contained horribly discriminatory statements about women, minorities, gays and others. Highly offensive material. A poll was taken and a little over half the class sanctioned the publication of this fictional work. It was a close call. I voted for its publication but I could certainly see the other side of the argument. I remember weighing up the merits of both sides considerably. What seemed like a trivial exercise clearly contained a more germain lesson. Since that day, and helped by studying my other university major of history, I’ve come to realise the importance of protecting free speech.

Last month the former Breitbart News contributor and flamboyant contrarian Milo Yiannopoulos was prevented from speaking at Berkeley University by violent protesters who disagreed with his right wing views. The irony of this incident was that it was on the very same Californian campus in the 1960s where those on the left scored a victory for free speech by speaking out against the Vietnam war. Now, 50 years later, the left has regressed to the point of shutting down the right to speak of those they disagree with. As the great British philosopher Bertrand Russell said when he was being prevented from teaching at another US university, “In a democracy it is necessary that people should learn to endure having their sentiments outraged.”

Anti-democratic right wing authoritarians are renowned for shutting down dissent. Current skilled proponents include President Erdogan of Turkey who has locked up over 3,000 people since last year including judges and journalists, and of course, Vladimir Putin in Russia who goes so far as to have his political opponents assassinated. What’s striking now is to observe the common ground that the far right and the far left inhabit. The political spectrum has curved to a more circular rather than linear shape with the extremists uniting at the opposite end to the moderates. The bond that betroths them most saliently of all is their disdain for free speech.

I find this meeting of right and left fascinating and perplexing. It seems to be more sincere than the Nazi Soviet pact of 1939, which was more practical than ideological. How is it that Wikileaks now serves to propagate Putin’s agenda and put Trump into power? Why do others on the hard left like Jeremy Corbyn defend Putin and Hamas? Somewhere along the way the left has lost its mind. They now serve to enable an emboldened and ascendant right.   

In 1996 the inimitable Christopher Hitchens came to the aid of the Holocaust denying historian David Irving after St Martin’s Press cancelled plans to publish Irving’s book about Joseph Goebbels. Hitchens described Irving as his “political polar opposite” and some of his views as “repugnant,” but believed so strongly in his right to be heard as to defend him. The Austrian government took a different view and had Irving locked up because his view of history differed from theirs.    

That’s what free speech is. It’s supposed to make you feel uncomfortable at times, challenge your way of thinking and demand that you - through your own right to free speech - undermine and ridicule outlandish views with sustained logic and argument. The only time free speech should be curtailed is if it incites violence. This can be difficult to define. There’s no doubt people like Ian Paisley encouraged people to act violently, but as far as I know he never explicitly called for violence or for people to join violent groups. This is also why it took British authorities so long to lock up Anjem Choudary, the Islamic State and jihadi supporting Muslim preacher. Choudary, a London lawyer, for a long time was careful in the language he used not to directly encourage terrorist acts, though his statements appealed to those enticed by violent extremism.

At a time when liberalism appears besieged from anti-democratic forces it is vital that its fundamental pillar of free speech be defended. As one of liberalism's founding founders, John Stuart Mill, wrote in ‘On Liberty,’ “If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.” It’s non-negotiable.

More media on this topic:

Photo Credit: The Independent

 

What to Expect from Trump's Inauguration: Conciliation, Recrimination or Assassination?

The pageantry of the the US presidential election process provides many moments of note. There are the conventions where candidates are formally selected, the TV debates where they square off against each other, and the struggle to grasp the strange system of electoral college votes before polling day on the first Tuesday in November. None of the vestiges of the democratic procedure however are as old and and as solemn as the inauguration. Ever since George Washington spoke of democracy as “the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people,” in his inauguration in April 1789, the event has been seen as a moment to try and unify the country after divisive campaigns.

Although this has been a hostile campaign, there have been worse times. Lincoln’s second inauguration in 1865 came in the final days of the bloody civil war. Some memorable lines have been delivered over the years too. FDR in taking the reins of power in 1933, in the depths of the great depression, proclaimed, “the only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.” Nearly 30 years later JFK bequeathed a nation to, “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Brevity is the soul of wit, and a fine way to get a message across, but no one told this to William Henry Harrison. On becoming the ninth US president in 1841 he took an hour and fourty five minutes to deliver his speech, by far the longest ever, in a snowstorm and without an overcoat or hat on. He died of pneumonia 31 days later making his the shortest presidency.

So what to expect on Friday when agent Orange takes over the airwaves of Capitol Hill? Will Trump, like most of his predecessors, try to strike a conciliatory tone and attempt to unite people? Or will he, much like Fr Ted upon winning his Golden Cleric award, fill the occasion with spite, bombast and recrimination?

Assassination is one outcome that often crosses my mind when watching these events. Maybe it’s because there are so many people in one place gazing up at such a powerful and divisive figure. That’s certainly what I was thinking eight years ago when 1.8 million people showed up to see Obama take office. Thankfully it has never happened and hopefully it won’t this week either. I’ve seen some people on social media, possibly in jest, hoping for this to happen to Trump. Apart from being a deplorable act of violence the outcome from assassinations is almost always the opposite to what the assailant intended. Lincoln’s work was continued by Ulysses S Grant and slavery never returned. LBJ pursued JFK’s work on civil rights and, lamentably, in Vietnam. MLK’s work and legacy survive. There’s always an exception to the rule though and that is the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the fifth Prime Minister of Israel. His killer wanted no deal or compromise with the Palestinians, believing it to be the right of the Jews to continue settlements and deny the Palestinians a state. He got his wish.

I don’t think even Trump’s speech writer knows what exactly will be said on Friday. I imagine there’ll be an element of conciliation as well as trademark truculence. More interestingly will be to see how it is received. Massive protests of support and opposition are expected in Washington DC and I’m sure around the globe. So let the reign of the 45th president of the USA begin. Much like it will continue.


 

 

Uncomfortable bedfellows: Agreeing with Nigel Farage

Today the odious Nigel Farage tweeted, “Terrible news from Berlin but no surprise. Events like these will be the Merkel legacy.” The echo chamber of my liberal left Twitter feed screamed with indignation condemning him for trying to make political capital over such a horrible incident. I strongly dislike the pompous Farage and his consistent political opportunism, but here he has a point.

It is perfectly reasonable to question what the impact of admitting over a million Muslim refugees to a European country, and therefore the EU, will be. On the one hand it has to be seen as a wonderful act of compassion and humanitarianism that is to be rightfully applauded. So much suffering for so many people will be alleviated as a result. On the other hand this is a huge number of people who come from very different cultures to be absorbed. It will be very difficult to do comprehensive background checks or monitor new arrivals. This year has seen a wave of attacks in Germany and throughout Europe perpetrated by immigrants from countries like Syria, Pakistan and Afghanistan. There were four fatal attacks in Germany in July alone, but the most deadly one that month was in Nice.

As the former extremist and now counter extremist consultant Maajid Nawaz points out, these people all have several traits in common: they have a grievance, an ideology, an identity and recruiters. Yesterday a Turkish police officer murdered the Russian ambassador. Video that emerged after the killing shows the assassin chanting in Arabic, “Allahu Akbar, we are the ones who pledged allegiance to Muhammad for Jihad, Allahu Akbar” and then in Turkish “Don’t forget Aleppo, Don’t forget Syria, I will not leave here alive.” He was kind enough to leave no ambiguity about his motivating grievance and ideology.

We tend to immerse ourselves so often in rhetoric that reaffirms our views that people on the left will focus more on the “Don’t forget Aleppo” line, highlighting the complacency and failed actions of the West. While those on the right will point to his use of “Allahu Akbar,” to vilify Islam. Both need to be acknowledged if we are to understand how these acts of terror keep happening and how we can figure out a way of addressing them.

This is how I find myself - and I shudder to say this - sympathising with Nigel Farage. In the same way as I agreed with Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama when he called the massacres at San Bernardino and in Orlando acts of Islamic terrorism. [Here I have to point out that I find almost all of Trump’s views reprehensible. I refer you to my previous blog post.] Clinton and Obama refused to acknowledge any link to the religion. Islamism wasn’t the only reason these acts occurred but it was definitely one of them. I don’t know what the political answer will be to stopping acts like this but I do know that talking about them honestly and objectively is the only way towards a better understanding and resolution.

Angela Merkel has saved the lives of so many, as well as the floundering European project and is an enlightened voice on the world stage. Nigel Farage has done, and is, the exact opposite. In many respects she is the new leader of the free world with the mendacious Trump ready to take over in the US. In the absence of much competition she is arguably the strongest liberally progressive national leader. Her legacy will be more than these acts of terror that Germany has suffered this year, but they, and how the face of Europe changes because of them will be part of it.

Photo Credit: Facebook/Anas Modamani

 

 

 

 

 

The Republicans Strike Back

The New Hope is over and it’s very difficult to see where the Jedi is going to return from.

I grew up animated and fascinated by the laboratory of democracy that was the United States. Emerging out of enlightenment thinking the US offered hope and freedom from the despotism of a constantly conflicted Europe. Like any experiment no one knew exactly what was to come and there were many internal and external ructions. Whenever there was major strife though progressive pluralistic policies tended to triumph. Great leaders emboldened by the principals of the constitution vanquished autocratic efforts that challenged their liberal democratic values. Lincoln united the Republic as the long overdue war against slavery was won, FDR put the country on a more equal footing and stared down the violent extremism of the Nazis, and Reagan played his part in defeating the totalitarianism of the Soviets.

Despite my admiration for the successes of the American story I was quick to criticise the excesses that existed. The neglect of the poor and the enormous concentration of wealth in so few hands were, and still are, grossly unfair and a direct threat to democracy. Violent imperial tendencies like the Vietnam War, destabilising Cambodia, funding Nicaraguan terrorists or overthrowing democratically elected governments like Allende in Chile in 1973 were all repugnant events. Every now and then the world would be dismayed by a badly chosen leader, be it the mendacious paranoid Nixon or the bumbling buffoon Bush. But you knew they were still better than the alternative. You knew they were better than a Chairman Mao or a Nikita Khrushchev or a Pinochet. You knew that. However reckless and damaging their policies were, they would respect the constitution and the separation of powers. They could be trusted to smoothly transfer power when democratically defeated. This cannot be said anymore.

Donald Trump represents a direct threat to the quarter of a millennium young experiment of liberal democracy. He treats women like a character out of Mad Men jocularly describing how he sexually assaults them. Not since Hitler has a Western world leader promised to ban a whole religion from a country. He’s threatened to forcibly deport 6% of Americas workforce destroying families in the process. He has tried to interfere in the judicial process by questioning the integrity of judges based on their heritage. He believes climate change is a hoax and is likely reverse the decision of the Keystone pipeline amongst other positive environmental policies. His bellicose rhetoric towards China and any international trade deals that have been struck are sure to throw the US economy into a recession with the world to follow suit. Once he appoints a hard core conservative to the Supreme Court he will hold the balance of power there enabling him to reverse many progressive policies such as marriage equality and abortion rights. He has threatened to pull out of NATO, leaving the Kremlin and Assad purring with delight, while Kiev and the Baltic states look on, anxious of any Russian advancement. His election surpasses Brexit in galvanising the European hard right as Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen rejoice and look to capitalise in the Dutch and French elections next year, which would precipitate the full scale break up of the European Union plunging the continent back into the 1930s.

He will be the first president in 90 years to have control of both Houses of Congress as well as a Supreme Court majority. America has handed the reigns of power to a despotic demagogue and cleared the way for him act with impunity and dismantle the centuries of good work that they have worked to achieve. I hope that none of the aforementioned events occur. It could be that the sociopathic narcissistic Trump will take little interest in enacting any of those catastrophic policies. He’s proved to be bombastic and reckless with his promises throughout this campaign. Maybe he will acquiesce to voices of reason around him (although where they will come from I don’t know; Giuliani? Chris Christie? Sarah Palin?). For now that’s the best we can hope for. The alternative is the destruction of the liberal democratic experiment.

For further reading:

  • David Remnick in the New Yorker. Brilliant long read about Obama's point of view during the week Trump won the White House 
  • Great piece by Joshua Foust on how none of this is normal, and don't forget that! 

Photo Credit: The Big Lead 

Moving Home

I have a busy couple of weeks. I’ve got my Australian citizenship test, I’m getting married, quitting my job and moving home. Of all these big events, moving home is the hardest.

I left Dublin in November 2009 at the age of 27 not ready for my optimism with life to be dampened by the bleakness that was engulfing the country at the time. I had no idea if I’d be working in bars on beaches or trying to further my career in journalism. I didn’t really care. It was an adventure, one that could end in months, or carry on for years. I knew what I was leaving but had no idea what lay in store.

Nearly seven years later I’m returning to what I used to know and leaving what I currently know. There’s no leap of faith like there was before but the decision to return is harder to make than the decision to leave was. Roots grew gradually over the years in sunny Sydney and I settled into a great lifestyle. My time was spent on the beaches of the eastern suburbs, learning what decent coffee tasted like or hanging out in bars and breweries. Paradoxically the deeper the roots grew the more I became nostalgic for home and the familiar faces I missed so much.  

I used to think my friends who had no wish to travel or live abroad were narrow minded. Didn’t they know there’s a whole world out there to see and explore? Ironically I now envy them to a certain extent as they only know one way. They don’t have to weigh up the pros and cons that come with having lived in different countries. The angst of the emigrant I suppose.

Having passed my citizenship test this week I am now an impending Australian. All that stands between me and my new identity is the formality of the ceremony which I’ll have to return for at the end of the year. Although I’ll always consider myself Irish, it will be nice to have the second passport to represent my investment in Australia, and it’s in me. It’ll also come in handy should the shit hit the fan again with another European meltdown.

I’m excited about coming home to live. There’s lots I’ll miss about Australia and my first winter at home will be tough. January is a dismal month. As well as the weather I have the usual concerns of the returning emigrant. I hope I find a job I like. I hope Dublin has that charismatic friendly small town feel I remember, and not that claustrophobic over familiar small town feel that I remember too. Time to close the chapter on Australia, but that doesn’t mean I’ve heard the last of it.   

 

Photo Credit: Darren MacKenna

Irish People Voting as Australians

The last time John Clifford went to vote was when the Irish people endorsed Bertie Ahern for a second term in May 2002. He was an Arts student in UCD then still living at home in Dublin with his family. Today, he’ll leave his house in Manly and walk along the beach to the polling station in town hall, to vote for the first time as an Australian. 

John is one of over 4,000 Irish born people who have become Australian citizens since the last Federal election here in September 2010. They may not all have embarked on their journey down under imagining they would take on a new nationality, but by circumstance or intent they’ll be voting today. If they don’t they’ll be fined, as voting is compulsory for Australia’s more than 14 million registered voters. At 32 John has spent nearly a third of his life living in Sydney having moved over after finishing his politics and social policy degree. For John, and for most other Irish people, the path to citizenship begins with a working holiday visa before graduating on to a work sponsorship visa known as the 457. “The really complex and difficult thing is getting your permanent residency (PR),” John muses in his mostly maintained Terenure lilt “after that citizenship is relatively straightforward.”

Although the citizenship test was “alarmingly simple” and “you’d want to be doing something monumentally stupid not to get it” as John puts it, events conspired to make the process far from straightforward. Around about the time he sat the exam in September last year, he found out that his dad had cancer. Then the week before he was due to attend his citizenship ceremony in February his dad took a turn for the worse and John had to hop on a plane with his brother Patrick, who also lives in Manly, to be with their dad in his final hours. John and Patrick returned to Sydney and in April John became a citizen. It had been a traumatic year and “I remembered how family members had encouraged me to stay in Australia. It suddenly hit me that over the years my folks had been encouraging me to stay in Australia, and it was such good advice in many respects, that I had missed a lot of time spent at home with my dad, but that ultimately this is what he wanted me to do.” John found himself welling up as the cathartic nature of the event took on extra significance. “Voting on Saturday will be probably be like that too” he says.

The Labor party has been in power since 2007 but is widely expected to lose to the Liberal & National coalition today. Internal party bickering and a high profile leadership tug of war between Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard has largely led to its political demise. Rudd was elected with a landslide victory in 2007 but his popularity quickly deteriorated culminating in a coup led by Gillard in June 2010. The first female prime minister narrowly won the election that September but suffered an almost identical fate with the party losing faith in her this June voting ‘Kevin ’07’ back in. The conflict has ameliorated Labor support paving the way for conservative Opposition leader, and one time Catholic priest trainee, Tony Abbott to take over the reins of power.

The Prime Minister in waiting is John’s local member. “He’s often around the beaches of Manly wearing his sluggos” John caustically comments. ‘Sluggos’ is a colloquial Australian term for speedos, often referred to as ‘budgie smugglers’ as well. What strikes me about talking to Johnny is that the Irish accent and mannerisms that he possesses are mirrored by their Australian counterparts. He casually slides between Irish and Australian terms, vacillating his vernacular from ‘Jaysus’ to ‘fair dinkum’. I ask if he’ll be voting for Abbott and how that makes him feel being able to, in a sense, directly elect the next Prime Minister. He seems ambivalent to the former seminarian, but concedes “having my local member being the PM will make me feel that little bit more Australian.”

Although both Irish, Ruth Golden met her boyfriend Ronan in Sydney. Ruth moved over as a qualified accountant while Ronan came over to do a Masters. Still in their mid 20s enjoying the temperature and temperament of Sydney they decided to stay for a while longer. They negotiated the bureaucratic red tape and spent $6,000 on getting their PR in 2010. After that Ruth says “having come this far, we thought we might as well get our citizenship - it’s the final step.” As I talk to Ruth and Ronan in their comfortable newly built Surry Hills town apartment what becomes very apparent is the pragmatic nature of their mission to become Australian. I ask them if it has changed their identity at all, “absolutely not” Ruth abruptly replies “I’m still Irish.” Ruth explains “there were people at our citizenship ceremony that you could tell it meant a huge amount to them to be there, they had their family and friends there and were very emotional. We turned up after work, invited no one, got our certificate and left.” “It was a strategic thing for us to give us options” Ronan adds “versus the emotional thing that it was for other people. That said we’re not bludgers. We are still here working, paying taxes and voting.”

Ruth has exploited her good financial situation, which has been buoyed by the 21 years of uninterrupted economic growth in Australia, to buy a house back in Dublin. “She’s really taken advantage of the situation” says Ronan “and I’m hoping to do the same. It’d be great if we could go home in a few years making money off two properties, it would set us up nicely.” I ask them if they’ll be voting at the next Australian federal election in 3 years time and they say no. The plan is to return home.

John ponders over the question of where he thinks home is. Unlike Ruth and Ronan being Australian is very much part of Johns new identity. He hasn’t exactly been proselytized it’s more that he shares a belonging to two countries now. He’ll still be cheering for Ireland when they play the Wallabies in November but he acknowledges that going into that polling booth today “will be another little moment that crystallises in my mind the fact that I’m not going to move back to Ireland ever. With each moment that passes like this you become further integrated into Australian society. That’s said I know there’ll always be a bed for me in Terenure.”

 

Photo Credit: The Conversation

Hyeonseo's Surprise

This was written while I was a producer on the Insight program on SBS in Australia.

Work can throw up some interesting moments. I had one such moment working on the North Korea show. You can watch it here: http://www.sbs.com.au/insight/episode/webextra/538/North-Korea#.Uja0O6wWI4k

It was always going to be tricky finding a North Korean who escaped their country and was willing to come on our show. A little trickier still to find one who spoke English, and maybe I was being a little bit delusional thinking I could top that off with having an Australian angle to it as well. The prospect of any of this happening was only ever a fantasy until I spoke with Sokeel Park from an organisation called Liberty in North Korea. They are an organisation that help resettle North Koreans and he told me about Hyeonseo who was saved by an Aussie backpacker in Laos who gave her $1000 that ultimately helped her get her Mum and brother out of a detention centre and on a plane to safety in Seoul. Unfortunately she had lost contact with him and had been trying desperately to find him again. I had myself a challenge.

Checking the news on the bigpond web site from his home on a tropical island in the Gulf of Thailand Dick spotted what seemed like a very familiar story. Hyeonseo had given a TED talk on her experience of twice escaping North Korea and had acquired some global media attention off the back of it. Recognising ‘the mysterious Australian who gave her money’ to be him, he resurrected her email address and re-established contact. Word of this reconnection quickly made its way to me and before long I was talking to the nomadic Dick about the possibility of flying him back to Australia to meet Hyeonseo. He was interested.

But what to tell Hyeonseo? A surprise would work best but that would mean lying to her by saying Dick was not coming. We also had to strike the balance of keeping her interested enough to come over. Her main motivation for doing a show in Australia was to meet Dick again. Heck, every time I spoke to her that was the first question she’d ask me. And the second. And the third. After a couple of these conversations, like a cool poker player, she raised the stakes by casually mentioning that both BSKY and CNN had been in touch with her about setting up the reunion in Seoul with Dick. Far from being the only player at the table I now had some serious competition.

I still had a card or two up my sleeve though. I took the bold move of contacting her fiancé in order to bring him in on this ever developing conspiracy. Brian loved the plan and assured us that he would make sure she was on the plane. Meanwhile Dick emailed her saying he had a meeting in Bangkok and was hoping to fly out to us after, depending on the success of his meeting. The stage was set.

There’s a nervous excitement on any show day that is ramped up if it’s a live broadcast like ours was. Throw in an exclusive internationally sought after reunion and we were reaching fever pitch. Well, at least that’s how I felt. 

I had never done anything like this in my career before. The whole operation was fraught with difficulty and was almost foiled by her reluctance to come without knowing he was coming. Convincing management that it was a good idea to fly them both in was no mean feat and then the plot was almost scuppered by a chance encounter at the airport (as their flights arrived in at around the same time), but it was worth it to see her face when she met Dick in the SBS foyer. It was worth it to realise that I could play a small role in reuniting her with him. After all, not only did his money get Hyeonseo, her mother and her brother to safety, it was also an act of kindness that restored her faith in humanity.

 

Photo Credit: Insight SBS

The Greatest Irish Australian

Jim Stynes will be remembered as probably the greatest ever Irish Australian. The Dubliner lost his three year battle with cancer today at the age of 45. Despite his relative anonymity at home, Gentleman Jim as he’s affectionately known down under, is a household name in Australia and is a legend of Aussie Rules Football (AFL). The big ruckman broke all sorts of records on the field but will be equally remembered for his philanthropic work off it. He is the only overseas player to have won the coveted player of the year award (Brownlow medal) and still holds the record for most consecutive games played – 244. This remarkable record is unlikely to be broken in such a physically demanding game. Not missing a game from 1987 – 1998 Stynes played through torn ligaments and a fractured rib on separate occasions. He was inducted into the AFL Hall of Fame in 2003.

But it is off the field that his legacy will most endure. Appalled at the level of racism he encountered in the game (towards him and especially to non white players) he became the game’s anti racism officer. He also set up the organisation “Reach” which helped provide support services for young people. In a statement from the Melbourne Demons president Don McLardy , he said, “hundreds of young kids openly say Jim Stynes 'changed my life'. Can there be a greater accolade than that?” Stynes was named Victorian of the Year in 2001, 2003 & 2011, and he was named by the Queen as a recipient of the Order of Australia in 2007. Kevin Sheedy, who coached Australia in the last international rules series, believes Jim Stynes is the greatest story in the history of the AFL, a view that is shared by many in the game. 



At a time of Irish exodus to Australia Stynes stands out as the shining example of a successful immigrant. He was part of a previous wave of emigration from Ireland during the tough economic times of the 1980s. Stynes played for Ballyboden St Endas and won an All Ireland Minor title with Dublin in 1984. That year he was picked up by the Melbourne Demons AFL club as part of the so called ‘Irish Experiement’ and made his debut for the under 19s a year later. Like most Irish players that have changed countries and codes, he didn’t excel immediately but learned the ropes and went on to play 264 games for his beloved Demons becoming a legend of the game. He then went on to become the chairman of the Melbourne Demons in 2008, until his battle with cancer forced him to step down a month ago.

Stynes will be given a state funeral by the Victorian government and was honoured at the opening of Federal parliament question time today. The Prime Minister Julia Gillard described Stynes, “as a great courageous Irishman.” The Opposition leader Tony Abbott said, “Jim Stynes was an Irishman who became one of the very great Australians.” Jim is survived by his wife Sam, son Tiernan and daughter Matisse.

 

Photo credit: The Jim Stynes Foundation

An Emigrants Experience: Prelude to an Adventure

Listening to the news on Newstalk on the morning I left the country, not knowing when I was to return, I had to laugh as I heard the minister for finance, Brian Lenihan, talk of how pleased he was that the numbers of people signing on the live register had decreased in the month of October. A net rate of jobs weren’t being created, people were deciding to emigrate! I am one of them.


I chose to go to Sydney. On a short term, superficial basis it was an obvious choice with Summer arriving there and the prospect of barbeques, a beach life and festivals all very appealing in the warm weather. More substantial reasons existed as I have family and friends over there, English is the spoken language and the economy has not entered recession. This does not mean that everyone will be lucky enough to get a job of course. Of the 22,000 Irish people who went to Australia last year many found it difficult and were unable to secure work having to return home. However, once you begin to look for jobs on line in Australia you will be struck by something immediately – there are jobs.  

Once you have made the difficult decision to emigrate you will have to take care of the administrative work that comes with it. Much of this is not as difficult as you would think. The standard work and travel (417) visa for Australia, for instance, can be completed on line and takes a week to process at a cost of €160. Your one way flight will then cost between €600- €800 depending on whether or not you want to stop off somewhere along the way. After that it’s a case of sorting insurance, CV (or resume as it’s known in the new world), drivers licence and many other bits of bureaucracy that I’ve probably forgotten to do. Once that is out of the way it’s time to say your good byes.

The CSO reports that from January – April of this year over 65,000 people emigrated from Ireland. Many of these were foreign nationals returning home, but around 20,000 were Irish. Much like the generation before us many Irish people are looking abroad for hope and opportunity. Deciding to emigrate is still tough though, as it is not easy leaving your family or social and professional foundations that you have established over the years and that you will have to rebuild afresh in your new home. However, once you have booked your flights and announced your plans, you enter a surreal couple of months of preparing to leave. This prelude to your adventure is full of good bye parties and lunches, farewell visits to older relatives who may not be around whenever you return and many deep and meaningful conversations about life with those closest to you. These are to be savoured as the memories of the last times you spend with your family and friends will endure throughout your time away. 

I also found myself having the same conversation repeatedly about where I was going and why. This is perfectly natural but I ended up talking so frequently about my plans that come the date of departure I was eager to get on the road, or in the air as it were. As enthusiastic as I was to get going it was excruciatingly difficult to say good bye to mum at the airport and I apprehensively started to wonder then if I was making the right decision. I imagine this is normal though and my apprehension gradually gave way to excitement as I contemplated all the adventures that lay in store. It was with these mixed emotions conflicting inside of me, as the airplane took off into the overcast autumnal sky, that I said slán to my native land. Good bye Ireland, hello new life.

 

Photo Credit: Luan McKenna