How Ireland Voted 2011 editors Gallagher & Marsh – Quick Review

how-ireland-voted-2011-the-full-story-of-irelands-earthquake-electionEditors Michael Gallagher & Michael Marsh  300px-Flag_of_Ireland.svg

Palgrave Macmillan (2011), 352 pages

Central Library, Dublin

Irish Politics & History  300px-Flag_of_Ireland.svg

How Ireland Voted 2011: The Full Story of Ireland’s Earthquake Election is a collection of essays on the seismic 2011 general election.  The 2011 election involved the massacre of the two governing parties (Fianna Fáil lost 57 of its 77 seats and the Green Party lost all six of their seats) and a change to the Irish political landscape.  To paraphrase Labour’s Ruairi Quinn, in Greece people hurled Molotov cocktails at the police, in Ireland voters threw them into the ballot box.

This is an in-depth study of the 2011 election and is probably only for those with a deep interest in the Irish political system.  Essays include topics such as candidate selection, the use of online media, the Irish voting system, and women in the election (should gender quotas be introduced?).  Perhaps the most interesting chapter consists of essays by seven candidates detailing their election experiences.  It is also interesting to read “The Final Seanad Election?” with the knowledge that the people, in their wisdom, voted to keep the upper house in a referendum in 2013.

How Ireland Voted 2011 is packed with tables, charts, and statistics to keep any election nerd happy.  It is a comprehensive and scholarly analysis of the amazing 2011 election.

8/10

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Bertie: Power & Money by Colm Keena – Review

9780717150694Colm Keena  300px-Flag_of_Ireland.svg

Gill & Macmillan (2011), 287 pages

Cabra Library

Irish Politics & History  300px-Flag_of_Ireland.svg

Bertie: Power & Money is a forensic of Bertie Ahern‘s evidence to the Mahon Tribunal, Ahern’s rise to political power, and his disgrace and departure as Taoiseach following the Mahon Report.  The impressive level of detail in this book confounds Ahern’s subsequent attempts to dismiss the findings of the Mahon Tribunal (see Ahern’s excuses in the TV3 documentary The Rise and Fall of Fianna Fáil).  Keena’s book makes it clear that Ahern, despite not having a bank account in his own name, received payments in excess of his (already substantial) salary, that he did not reveal all the information requested by the tribunal until he had no other option, and his peculiar attitude to money expressed itself in tightness even over buying a drink for the people who helped him get elected.

In 2006 Ahern admitted to getting a loan totalling £39,000 from 12 people in 1993 and 1994.  Ahern hadn’t paid back the loan or any interest on it.  If it was a gift then he hadn’t declared it for tax.  Ahern said the money was to cover legal costs relating to the break-up with his wife and that no favours were asked or given for the payments he received.  Ahern admitted to receiving £8,000 sterling from friends at a speaking event in Manchester while he was Minister for Finance.  It subsequently emerged that some of the people giving money to Ahern were property developers.  The tribunal requested information from Ahern about all the bank accounts he dealt with.  It emerged that Davy Stockbrokers had made a legitimate £5,000 donation by cheque in 1992.  It was lodged to an account that was not one of the 22 accounts declared by Ahern.  This account was named the B/T Account.  Ahern claimed that this stood for Building Trust and not Bertie/Tim.  Tim Collins was part of the trust that ran Ahern’s St. Luke’s constituency office.  This bank account was in Collins’ sole name and bank statements (which were originally held at the bank) were sent to his home address.  Ahern strenuously denied that the B/T account was some kind of secret account for political donations.  Evidence also emerges of £20,000 sterling in cash being lodged to the B/T account in 1994.  After resigning as Taoiseach Ahern, “gave sworn testimony that some of the sterling in his building society account had been won on the horses.  As soon as he mentioned horses there was loud and derisive laughter from the crowded public gallery.  It was a moment of public humiliation.” (p.79)

Keena charts Ahern’s rapid rise to power following his election in 1977.  Ahern is portrayed as a populist politician who put his own interests ahead of Fianna Fáil’s interests.  His “Drumcondra Mafia” was a highly efficient election machine that ignored party wishes to split his Dublin Central constituency to ensure that at least two Fianna Fáil candidates got elected.  Ahern would canvass the whole constituency and his huge first preference vote was just enough to enable a second candidate to scrape in.  Ahern reshaped his local Fianna Fáil party in his own image (so much so that when he left politics the Fianna Fáil vote completely evaporated in Dublin Central and, the constituency like the rest of Dublin, has no Fianna Fáil TD). Ahern was a hard worker and had a populist charisma that enabled him to alter his message to suit his audience.  He could present himself as the friend of the property developer whilst also claiming to have socialist leanings.  Ironically it was perhaps this lack of core beliefs that enabled Ahern to successfully bring about social partnership deals between unions and employers and also help forge the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland.

Keena’s book details too many revelations about Ahern’s finances to list here.  But, perhaps the most extraordinary revelation, was that just before Ahern became Taoiseach, he received a briefcase of cash from developer Michael Wall for the renovation of a house.  The briefcase contained approximately £30,000 sterling but neither Wall nor Ahern actually counted the cash.  Amazingly neither Wall, Ahern, or Celia Larkin (who saw the bundles of cash in St. Luke’s) saw, “anything bizarre or troubling about a prospective Taoiseach being given a briefcase of cash in this way.” (p.123)

Ahern tried to present himself as a working class version of Charles Haughey.  He was everything to all people.  Unlike Haughey, however, Ahern had a chip on his shoulder about his working class roots.  He falsified his CV to claim he had studied at the London School of Economics.  Like Haughey he seemed to envy the wealth that he felt his government policies had created (even if the policies of light-touch financial regulation, cutting taxes, and excessive expenditure overheated the economy, created a property bubble, and resulted in the collapse of Irish banks).  The fact that, as a minister and as Taoiseach, he earned vastly more than his average constituent didn’t seem to cross his mind.  In his interviews since resigning from Fianna Fáil (if he hadn’t resigned the new leadership under Michaél Martin would have expelled him from the party) Ahern has failed to show any remorse or understanding of the huge problems that his leadership saddled the country with.  Like Haughey, if he feels any sorrow at all it is because he believes that he has been misrepresented by the media and that he hasn’t been given credit for his achievements.

8/10

Without Power or Glory by Dan Boyle – Review

Without PowerDan Boyle  300px-Flag_of_Ireland.svg

New Island (2012), 280 pages

Chapters Bookstore, €5

Irish History & Politics  300px-Flag_of_Ireland.svg

Without Power or Glory: The Greens in Government, by the Green Party‘s ex-Senator Dan Boyle, covers the party’s disastrous period in government with Fianna Fáil between 2007 and 2011.  The Green Party won six seats in the 2002 general election and this marked a turning point in the party’s fortunes.  They realised the need to become more professional, to broaden their support base by developing their policies, and to use the media more successfully.  The Green Party had to both maintain their unique appeal as an environmental party and also remove the perception that they were more of a pressure group than a political party.  The Green Party’s attitude to economic growth is crucial to many of their policies.  They, “reject the constant goal of achieving economic growth as being the keystone of economic policy.  For Greens, how growth is defined is flawed as any economic activity, no matter how negative, is seen as contributing to economic growth.” (p.26-27)

The Green Party won six seats in the 2007 general election and voted to become the junior partner in a coalition government with Fianna Fáil.  Dan Boyle lost his Dáil seat but got nominated for a seat in the Senate and was involved in negotiating the programme for government with Fianna Fáil.  Green Party TDs have always come across as fairly honest and plain speaking and they clearly weren’t fully prepared for the machinations of a hugely experienced (and better funded) Fianna Fáil.  Some Fianna Fáil ministers clearly hated working with the Greens and were more concerned with political point scoring and minimising the role of the Green Party instead of recognising the legitimate right of the Greens to have a real input into government.

Boyle is refreshingly open about the shortcomings of the Green Party and its internal divisions.  He feels, at least, that the division between the “fundis” (the more left-wing ecological fundamentalists) and the “realos” (the more pragmatic realists) has been bridged.  Although the Green Party has been unlucky enough to attract more than its fair share of candidates who leave the party once they build up a support base through the party it has a solid core support (Nessa Childers is probably the classic example of a fairweather candidate, she left the Labour Party to join the Greens, then left the Greens to rejoin Labour, and has subsequently left Labour to run as an independent candidate!).  The Green Party were involved in agreeing to the bank guarantee that played a major role in almost bankrupting the country.  Boyle, somewhat disingenuously, tries to blame advice given by economist David McWilliams as a key factor in approving the bank guarantee.  It’s now clear that most of the cabinet were out of their depth and that they made this vital decision too quickly, without fully understanding the consequences of what they were agreeing to.  Such a crucial decision should have been discussed in the Dáil.  While some form of bank guarantee was probably needed to prevent a run on the banks the guarantee given was too broad.  The Green Party must share some of the blame for failing to, at least, delay the giving of the guarantee without it being fully discussed.

The Green Party, despite attempt by Fianna Fáil to marginalise them, did have several achievements in government.  They helped reform the planning laws, they pushed Fianna Fáil to introduce civil partnership legislation, they introduced the Bike to Work Scheme, they improved animal welfare laws, placed an annual tax on second homes, insisted that any water charges be metered instead of using a flat rate, and improved various environmental laws.  However, in hindsight, it’s obvious that the Green Party propped up Fianna Fáil for too long.  They should have left government once the Mahon Report illustrated Bertie Ahern‘s dodgy financial dealings.  Ahern’s replacement, Brian Cowen, was clearly an Ahern supporter when what was needed was a clean sweep which could only have been provided by a general election.

The Green Party lost all of their six seats in the 2011 general election.  They will survive, unlike the Progressive Democrats, but it remains to be seen if they can be viewed as a credible political party or will revert to being seen more as a pressure group than a party of government.  The upcoming local and European elections will be the first real test of Green Party support since their obliteration in 2011.  Without Power or Glory is interesting in parts but is probably only of real interest to the more politically minded reader.

7/10

Related Links

sendboyle – Dan Boyle’s twitter account

Green Party – Official website

The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien – Quick Review

ImageJRR Tolkien  England

Grafton (1991, first published 1937), 287 pages

Borrowed

The Hobbit is a masterpiece of children’s literature.  Like Biblo Baggins, The Hobbit is perfectly formed and packs quite a punch.  The book has all the ingredients necessary to capture the childhood imagination, magical lands, a quest, detailed descriptions of food, scary monsters, good and evil characters.

Tolkien’s language is rich and evocative.  The Hobbit is perfectly paced and the simple illustrations enlighten the text.  It is amazing that Peter Jackson will manage (when the final part of his Hobbit trilogy is released) to turn a 300 page book into nine hours of cinema footage!  While the films are well made there is still nothing quite like the childlike excitement of disappearing into the imaginary worlds created by ink on paper.

10/10

Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy – Quick Review

outer-darkCormac McCarthy  USA

Picador (2011, first published 1968), 252 pages

Chapters Bookstore €5

I’m currently reading faster than I can post reviews!  I’ve decided to write some shorter “quick reviews” when I don’t have the time to write a full review.

Cormac McCarthy is one of my favourite authors and Outer Dark didn’t let me down.  Outer Dark is a parable about the consequences of evil.  The book starts with Rinthy Holme’s childbirth.  She was impregnated by her brother, Culla, who refuses to call a midwife and then leaves the baby to die.  Culla tells Rinthy that her child died but she knows that he is lying.  Culla deserts his sister while Rinthy sets off in search of a tinker who she believes took her child.

Like much of McCarthy’s work Outer Dark is a meditation on the natures of good and evil.  The book explores the role of fate in the lives of the characters, the choices they make, and the intersection between luck and choice.  The baby, borne of an incestuous relationship, has no choice over its fate or even its physical movement.  The fate of the baby, though preying on the mind of his mother throughout the novel, is only revealed at the end.  Culla’s choice to, effectively, run away from his crimes and responsibilities is seen to have its own effects.  McCarthy, as always, is superb at capturing the fear and danger of being a man who is trying to survive in an ultra-macho society (perhaps the greatest chase scene in cinema history, in No Country for Old Men, illustrates this terror).

Although society, and nature itself, can be brutal and terrifying, McCarthy’s tales are also parables.  Culla’s original sins come back to haunt him as he becomes viewed as a suspect figure in almost every area he enters.  The outsider male can be both a potential threat and a potential scapegoat.  On the other hand Rinthy, as a sickly female, elicits sympathy and she brings out the good side of people she encounters.

Amazingly Outer Dark was originally published in 1968.  I find this amazing as McCarthy’s trademark cadence is fully formed in only his second novel.  Whilst this story is not quite as compelling as some of his later work it is still a heady combination of page turner and literary excellence.

8/10

River of White Nights by Jeffrey Tayler – Review

ImageJeffrey Tayler  USA

Robson Book (2006), 261 pages

Russian History  Image

I’ve never visited Russia but hope to make it there someday.  Once, on the way to Japan, I flew over Siberia and I spent over an hour staring, spellbound, at the gleaming white landscape below.  Rivers and roads cut through the whiteness and joined the dots of small settlements and larger towns.  The Trans-Siberian Railway is perhaps the most famous, and most attractive, rail route in the world.  I occasionally fantasise about taking the train to Vladivostok and then boarding a ship to Japan.

River of White Nights: A Siberian River Odyssey charts Jeffrey Tayler’s boat trip from Irkutsk up the Lena River and into the Arctic Circle.  Tayler employs a river guide called Vadim to help in his expedition up the river.  However Tayler and Vadim seem to spend most of the trip irritating each other.  The failure of their relationship is one of a number of issues I have with this book.  The hostility between Tayler and Vadim (although it seems this is mostly fuelled by Vadim’s machismo) results in the reader beginning to dislike the pair of them.

Tayler is on firmer ground when he explores the towns that dot the riverbank.  Tayler’s interactions with the locals provide an illuminating insight into the decline post-Soviet Russia.  This is especially true of Siberian towns that depended on subsidised industries for their survival.  Tayler paints a largely bleak picture of towns mired in alcoholism, corruption, and an indifferent central government.  The author is married to a Russian woman and speaks fluent Russian so he is better able to find out the details of Siberian life.  However some of the interactions are too brief and their content too flimsy to justify inclusion in the book.

Perhaps the most irritating aspect of the book is the author’s regular ogling of young women.  Maybe he is just being honest but the constant references to the toned bodies of young women begins to grate quite rapidly.  For example, Tayler refers to a bargirl, “in her midteens leaned on her elbows, smiling, beatifically, her chin on her palms.  Raven bangs curled over an alabaster forehead and topaz eyes, longer locks fell astride dimpled cheeks; her cutoff T-shirt exposed a taut belly.  She looked as innocent as she was delectable.” (p.73-74)  Less than a page later he describes, “three Russian girls in their midteens chatted…their breasts shoved up high in their low-cut blouses by turbo bras, their slacks clinging to long slender legs, their makeup caked and glistening in the heat.” (p.74-75)  That such lines could have been written less than a decade ago in a book trying to be taken seriously is incredible.

River of White Nights has moments of insight but Colin Thubron’s In Siberia and Jonathan Dimbleby’s Russia are far superior.

5/10

The Battle for Saudi Arabia by As’ad AbuKhalil – Review

SaudiArabiaAs’ad AbuKhalil  أسعد أبو خليل  Lebanon

Seven Stories Press (2004), 248 pages

Borrowed

Saudi Arabian History & Politics  Saudi_Arabia

My brother has lived in Dubai for the past eight years.  As a result he has quite a large selection of excellent books on the region.  Thankfully he’s moving back to Ireland soon.  When I was over visiting him a couple of weeks ago I very kindly offered to bring some of his books back to Dublin!  This is my first review from the haul of books on the Middle East I dragged back from Dubai.  Although the term Middle East is obviously eurocentric there hasn’t been a better alternative coined to encompass the region.  The Middle East definitely contains Arab nations but does it also include African countries west of Egypt such as Libya, Algeria, and Morocco?  Do non-Arab countries such as Turkey and Iran form part of the Middle East?  Israel and Palestine are the places most associated with the Middle East by westerners but it is perhaps Saudi Arabia which is the true heart of the so-called Middle East.

The Battle for Saudi Arabia: Royalty, Fundamentalism, and Global Power is a brilliant book.  AbuKhalil is neither in favour of the Saudi regime nor it’s Islamist opponents.  He also shines a harsh light on the hypocrisy of Western powers backing a regime which regularly tortures opponents, denies women basic freedoms, and is completely undemocratic.  Saudi Arabia’s huge oil wealth and guardianship of the two holiest sites in Islam has given the country of 29 million people an influence far greater than it deserves.  Saudi Arabia’s wealth has been used to control large parts of the Arab press (including in the West, such as The Arab News newspaper) and stifle dissent.  This book explains the roots of the ultra-conservative Wahhabi form of Islam that was adopted by the Saudi rulers (even if these same rulers were often mired in corruption and immoral behaviour that were forbidden by Wahhabism).  AbuKhalil shows how the obvious hypocrisy of the Saudi rulers could be exploited by Islamist opponents of the regime (such as al-Qaeda) and how the extremism of Wahhabism provided the perfect breeding ground for extremism in the first place.  It was no coincidence that 15 of the 19 hijackers involved in the 9-11 Attacks were Saudi Arabians.

The kingdom of Saudi Arabia was founded in 1932.  As AbuKhalil explains it was a marriage of convenience between two leading tribes, “The House of Shaykh represents the kingdom’s clerical establishment and takes care of the Wahhabiyyah indoctrination and propagation, while the House of Saud rules politically so long as it upholds Wahhabisim’s fundamentalist Islamic norms.” (p. 36)  The founder of Wahhabism was Muhammad Ibn ‘Abdul-Wahab (1703-92).  His version of Islam is a fundamentalist doctrine of you’re either with us or against us, “Muslims who did not accept his doctrine were no longer to be considered Muslims but rather mushrikun [polythesists]”, (p.59) and therefore could be murdered.  Variations of this extremist doctrine have been used to justify attacks on Shi’ites in Iraq, Alawites in Syria, Ahmadis and Shi’ites in Pakistan, Sufi shrines in Mali, and anyone who the Wahhabis judged as being un-Islamic.

The Saudi rulers, knowing that they were disliked by much of the population (for their corruption if not also their religious extremism), used their guardianship of Mecca and Medina to bolster their legitimacy.  The Saudis worked hard to combat the Arab nationalism spearheaded by Egypt’s President Nasser in the 1950s and 1960s.  This Arab nationalism was largely secular (after all there are many Christian Arabs too) and it’s populism posed a direct threat to Saudi Arabia.  Arab nationalism although populist (and, in theory, socialist) was not inclined towards democracy as can be seen by the Ba’athist regimes in Iraq (under Saddam Hussein) and Syria and the rejuvenated military regime in Egypt (although this carries some of the trappings of Islamism as General Sisi and his wife are devout Muslims).  Saudi Arabia’s response to Arab nationalism was to use its wealth to fund preachers and media outlets that espoused its worldview.  As The Battle for Saudi Arabia illustrates, Osama Bin Ladin practices the Wahhabi version of Islam.  He opposed the Saudi regime’s laxness in their own practices but, more importantly, he broke from the Saudi government over their foreign policy of allowing U.S. troops to be based in the country and Saudi Arabia’s secret talks with Israel.  Saudi Arabia’s failure to follow its own religious doctrines, combined with rising social tensions (especially increasing poverty in a wealthy nation), and the increasing freedoms of other Arabs, would result in Saudi Arabia becoming a hotbed for extremism.

The U.S.A.’s ability to turn a blind eye to Saudi Arabia’s appalling human rights record has a number of causes (the U.S.A. is not the only culprit here but they are the biggest one and this book is primarily written for a U.S. audience).  Saudi Arabia’s massive oil wealth and the desire to prevent a repeat of the 1973 Oil Crisis is the primary driver of U.S. support.  Saudi Arabia were also seen as an important counterweight to Iranian aggression (even though democracy and women’s rights are much more developed in Iran).  This same attitude resulted in the U.S. supporting Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War which gave him the confidence to invade Kuwait and launch missiles at Israel.  The Saudis also spend huge amounts on U.S. weapons, between 1987 and 1997 the Saudi’s spent up to $11 billion a year on U.S. arms.  Despite all this weaponry the Saudi’s still needed U.S. soldiers to defend the country during the 1990 Gulf War.  It was clear from the Battle of Khafji that the Saudi’s couldn’t defend their own borders on their own.  I’m not being overly critical of the Saudis as they had a big border to defend but when they’d spent over $25 billion in the three years before the war (based on 1997 prices) the average Saudi could wonder why they government still needed 100,000 U.S. troops to help defend the country.  To many Islamic extremists it was at this point that the Saudi regime lost their legitimacy to rule Saudi Arabia and control Mecca and Medina.

The Battle for Saudi Arabia is a great book for anybody wanting to understand Saudi Arabia’s history from its formative years in the present time.

9/10

Related Links

The Angry Arab News Service – As’ad AbuKhalil’s personal blog

Challenging the Red Lines: Stories of Rights Activists in Saudi Arabia (2013) – Human Rights Watch Report

Muslim World League – Saudi sponsored group that aims to spread Wahhabism