The technological frontier at Tyndall: the 3-minute catch-up

A slide I recently presented at a Tyndall Centre PhD Network event attempting to summarise three years’ work in a super short amount of time. I discussed three perspectives on my PhD project, focussing on empirical aspects for a very broad audience. Here’s the outline:

  • First, context counts. 1,000 MW of installed wind capacity on Irish hills are not equivalent to 1,000 MW in Germany.
  • Second, picked with the Tyndall audience in mind was the observation that uncertainty in the UK energy policy landscape has created not insignificant risk, uncertainty and opportunity in the Irish renewables sector over the past 20 years.
  • Third, more theoretically, a brief discussion on the global antecedents and constraints on local agency in a technological innovation system. In plain English, what was the ability of locals to create and shape a local wind industry? And conversely, how did aspects of the global innovation system influence the speed and direction of the nascent Irish wind sector. In short, local agency has been bounded by global constraints such as dominant players, knowledge and policy. Institutions and rules from one country, such as Germany have been translated and transformed by the European Union, and then “planted” in new locations. But the agency and technological momentum of local entrepreneurs and developers have proved powerful factors in creating a local industry, which contributes to a global knowledge pool.

An Irish wedding: The case for growth

Someone else's wedding

Someone else's wedding

Two weeks ago I returned home to Ireland for the wedding of my cousin Stephen. I’m inclined to turn down more wedding invitations than accept, but this was family. And as with Irish family weddings it was large, loud, late and full of, well, family.  The O’Donovan family tree numbers 19 branches at grandchildren level and all but one were in town to welcome Stephen’s bride to our midst. But the gathering, like all the best in life, was a fleeting affair. As  hangovers receded the morning after, we checked out of the hotel and went our  ways,  journeying back to Canada, Spain, Scotland, London, Brighton and beyond. Sometime later this year 11 of 19 will be living abroad. Some won’t ever return to live. Some simply can’t. This is Ireland, 2012.

Two weeks from now Ireland votes on the  European Fiscal Compact. And what  started as a referendum pitched locally as a debate about whether Ireland should repay  boom time lending arrears to German banks, now carries with it political ramifications that stretch across the continent and will last a generation. The Fiscal Compact is not simply about unserviced debts on loans that should never have been made. It’s about our approach to society, jobs and decent living standards for all, and ultimately the relationship we have with our governement, both local and European.

But what’s most striking in this moment, is the incredible opportunity in front of  all of us  right now. If the eurozone is serious about growth, it can have it. That was the headline of my SPRU collegue Mariana Mazzucato’s comment piece in today’s Guardian. Growth, and thus increased prosperity for all of Europe, comes not from “structural reforms”, or cuts, but from investment:

“Companies invest to make profits and grow. Evidence shows those which invest more in new technology, human capital and research and development, and are located in countries where public spending in these areas is high, are able to produce more competitive and better value products.

“Italy has not grown for the last 10 years, mainly because its public and private sector did not make key investments in factors that increase productivity. Its debt-to-GDP ratio rose because its growth rate was so much lower than the interest it paid on its debt. And Greece grew in the 90s not because it was making smart investments but because badly directed European structural funds allowed it to get away with not making them. Once those funds expired, so did the false growth.

All the cuts in the world aren’t going to bring Italy or Greece back to growth they never really had. And if Greece presses the nuclear button and exits the Eurozone entirely, as Martin Wolf puts it in today’s FT, ”the belief that countries can starve themselves back to health, in the absence of economic expansion and probably higher inflation in the core, would have to be abandoned.”

A week ago I was put in touch with a small group of people in Ireland who had had enough of this austerity dogma. Having seen the tide starting to turn following the elections in Greece and France, Ireland is in danger of committing to a treaty which was the wrong medicine for the wrong patient. As Europe starts to turn, slowly, to growth, Ireland is in danger of locking the out of date policies of radical austerity into its constitution.

And yet, other than the extreme left and even extremer right, the political establishment in Ireland follows meekly this single austerity line. The media despite some exceptions is not far behind. Yet more than one third of voter haven’t committed to either side yet. Over 40% of Labour’s supporters are planning to break their party’s line. Clearly, despite coherent leadership, the Irish people are sensing that the time for austerity is gone.

So over the past week, I’ve done what I can to help get this growth message out, building a website at (with some very talented friends) and on it  a voter declaration, where people all over Ireland can give each other the encouragement to stand up against a prevailing orthodoxy and make a responsible decision on May 31st.  Our message is simple, let’s not miss this opportunity. A ‘no’ vote puts Ireland at the centre of the movement for a better Europe.

So if you’re of voting age and Irish, I urge you to sign, and pass the message on the friends and family. If you haven’t been graced with such good fortune as to have a harp on your passport, leave a message of support on the site and on our Facebook page. For the next two weeks the people of Ireland have the opportunity to play the lead in the call for new growth policies in Europe. Together, let’s make sure we get as many as possible out of the wings and onto the stage. And here’s hoping that next time the O’Donovan cousins meet up for a wedding, we don’t all have to travel quite so far.

Ireland’s chance to lead Europe: Can you help?

On May 31st every voter in Ireland has an opportunity few Europeans have been given. Ireland goes to the polls and gets to say yes or no to a referendum on accepting the Fiscal Treaty. In other words, Irish people get to decide whether the Austerity ideology that stretches from Osborne to Merkel to the IMF continues, or whether a line in the sand gets drawn by individual European citizens.

Most progressive Irish people are against this treaty and the austerity trap it would create. After four years of job losses, emigration and negative equitiy there’s a sense of dependence on Europe. No one likes it, but it’s hard to feel responsible opposing it.

BUT, unlike their governments, the people of France and Germany have shown the way. The recent elections there are a game-changer. It’s clear that there’s deep seated opposition to Austerity throughout Europe. That it’s time to put a Growth alternative back on the agenda.
An Irish rejection of the treaty could be an essential boost to this cause and its European allies.

Unfortunately in Ireland right now there’s a huge leadership vacuum. Mainstream progressives have reservations about aligning with Sinn Féin or the United Left Alliance. But if they saw a sensible, independent place to come together to show and build opposition to the treaty, they would jump at the chance.

A new surge of mainstream, independent, domestic opposition is essential to shift the government’s calculation. And if the vote goes ahead as scheduled, a new grassroots surge is the only hope of building enough opposition to defeat it.

Over the next few weeks I will be giving what time I have to try to bring some of these people together, to create the tools and resources needed to get the message out and help hundreds of thousands of people in Ireland give each other the confidence to vote No to the Austerity treaty and help create a Growth agenda which will benefit Europeans everywhere. Can you help? We need a simple website built, some design work, the word spread on social networks and plenty of encouragement. If you have any time over the next few weeks, please, get in touch cian -at- And those not lucky enough to be born of Ireland are all the more welcome!

Ireland v Germany: supply and demand renewables

Time for Ireland to start selling Germans something more than pretty postcard views
Pic (cc) Final Gather

Ireland you messed up. You got greedy and now you owe big banks in Germany lots and lots and lots of money.*

Payback is tough, but maybe today’s Irish Times leader points to a solution. A post-Fukishima Germany is rethinking its energy mix. Ireland, you haven’t even fully thought out yours in the first place, but look west and you’ll see an answer both yourselves and Frau Merkel may find to your liking. What’s more, the interconnectors running energy off the island of Ireland and into mainland Europe are close to coming online which means you get to enter a market formally reserved for big boys and girls only.

Supply and demand, debt for wind. Easy no? Oh, and as an upside, you get to turn your desolate western ports into green jobs incubators. Sorta like Dong Energy is doing in Belfast. Double win, all across the Atlantic coast.

And here’s a bit of advice Ireland. Get this done quick. Because if you don’t, the smart German electricity companies are going to buy up your waters and do this anyway. Who do you think electrified Ireland in the first place?

* Let’s ignore for the sake of simplicity the complicit and profit making motives of German banks in lending money to greedy Irish developers in the first place.


Irish ministers were in London this week discussing renewable energy sales. Very neighbourly of Britain to offer to subsidise (I’m guessing) cap-ex projects. Thanks chaps.

Joyce and paralysis, a national condition

James Joyce
Photo (cc) Laura Appleyard.

From  today’s Guardian. Some things don’t change.

“My intention was to write a chapter of the moral history of my country and I chose Dublin for the scene because that city seemed to me the centre of paralysis.”

For Joyce, “paralysis” represents a moral failure resulting in the inability to live meaningfully. It appears on the first page of the first story, “Two Sisters”, in a sentence that offers a key to the whole book:

“Every night as I gazed up at the window I said softly to myself the word paralysis. It had always sounded strangely in my ears, like the word gnomon in the Euclid and the word Simony in the Catechism.”

From A brief survey of the short story part 32: James Joyce | Books |

Ireland’s Pepsi Challenge Election

Pepsi or Coca-Cola

Coke or Pepsi? Both will rot your teeth, the real choice of course is to choose another game, a point subtlety missed by the Irish electorate this week. Yes the Fianna Fáil incumbency has been well and truly kicked to the curb, but replaced by a solidly right of centre led coalition. The Pepsi challenge moment for the Irish electorate was presented thus; rightwing, homophobic neo-liberalists (Fine Gael) versus the post-Marxist political wing of an alleged terrorist cum-smuggling operation (Sinn Féin). Go on, you choose.  Yes there is an Irish Labour party and they did make gains. Yes there are plenty of independents from all sides. But Ireland has gone with the high fructose corn syrup option when she should have walked right out of the store. In changing one civil war party for another the country is left with a dominant political coalition that now very much resembles the one embodied by Cameron and Clegg on the Downing Street lawn almost a year ago. We may not like to admit it but there is a right wing to Irish politics and it is now in power.

So what next? Sticking out a tongue and taking the Fine Gael / IMF dispensed medicine is the easy option. Not a particularly rosy one, but it is the safe bet. Above all else the Irish are a nation of safe people. But some time over the next 18 months, it’s going to dawn on the population, particularly those on the margins already, that this government can not and is not going to be all things to all voters.  Option two, tougher, involving as it does a little more graft, guile and imagination, three qualities very absent from this election. On the ground Irish society is going to have to stop bemoaning a corrupt government (they’re gone) and start holding the current government to account. This Fine Gael government cannot be allowed make worse Fianna Fáil’s mistakes through either a) ideology or b) stupidity. With a government likely to form by the end of next week and a busy EU schedule over the next month, Ireland better be ready to move fast.

Protest movements don’t come naturally to the Irish, but two recent examples from the UK are worth noting and would seem to be shrink wrapped and ready for an Irish voice-over. UK Uncut’s ingenious creativity and the incredible speed and inclusivity of the Save our Forests campaign. UK Uncut’s triumph is its creative engagement of people who don’t normally do protest. And in Vodafone and the banks, they have picked targets beyond sympathy. SoF exemplified the power of the network, and how massively important it is to put together a coalition of common interest, even if membership is open to those with usually opposed views. And the story was bulletproof, there is nothing more noble than fighting for English heritage.

What are the Irish equivalents? What are the narratives that will spark conversations on Facebook, Twitter and and maybe ignite some action offline. As the bubble moment of ending 80 years of Fianna Fáil dominance implodes and Irish voters are reminded that they’re in negative equity and it’s still raining outside, it’s time for those who have not been listened to in the last month, and will be utterly sidelined by their new government to start a new dialogue. I’d love to hear some ideas how this can be done.

The Good Apple in a Rotten Barrel: Michael D. Higgins

Michael D. true European that he is, pops up in Brittany
Michael D. true European that he is, pops up in Brittany (cc) The Irish Labour Party

Today the 3oth Dáil Éireann was disolved, TDs will be elected to the 31st Dáil on February 25th. This Dáil has lasted since May of 2007. It is unlikely in this time that it has ever borne witness to as fine a speech as that delivered by Michael D. Higgens during the second reading of the Finance Bill last week. In fact, if anyone can point me to a better speech in the past 50 years I will be very grateful. Higgins is not seeking re-election as TD, he will however run for president later in the year, if the Labour Party do the right thing and make him their candidate. He has departed daily politics with one of the very few political speeches that I agree with entirely, he has rekindled my own faith in Irish politics, and has surely contributed 20 minutes of mandatory viewing for future students of politics in Ireland and beyond.

Higgins takes in the wide view. He traces Ireland’s current failings as a sovereign state to institutional and administrative failings of historic magnitude, from the founding of Saorstát Éireann in 1922 to the present international monetary fuck-up. And in this I think there are some important lessons at home and abroad.

Both proponents and opponents of David Cameron’s Big Society project would do well to study the history of a country in which legislation and society are ultimately divorced by an administration that either is not there or does not work. For this to me seems a central weakness of Cameron’s project, a proposition that would devolve power of legsislative carry-through from the polity to civil society. That this has occurred in Ireland is the  result of a century of localism and small-time political ambition. Cameron’s project is surely much more intellectually rigorous in its own way, but possibly all the more dangerous for that. Higgins’ view on this is as considered as it is straight-forward:

People imagined that when we had got the equality legislation we had arrived at a particular point, but the political science would have indicated that that political power was useless without administrative power. It was only when the equality legislation was followed through with the Equality Authority and Combat Poverty Agency that it was possible to administer the benefit that had been won politically. That is the meaning of administrative power and is why we lost Combat Poverty Agency and the Equality Agency to the right and had all the cuts. That is what citizens in a republic want; they want more political power and want administrative power. They want to communicate their vulnerability and want to be able to respond to each other’s independency. The very last thing they want is more of that terrible saying that has brought us to this point now. That is why I am proud to be president of the Labour Party. If we have failed from time to time, what was never in doubt is that we were speaking about a real republic that has yet to be built in this State.

Higgins echoes thoughts expressed here a few months ago on Ireland having never been sovereign. But Higgins is not content to moan about our lot, he takes the point to a level few Irish politicians have the ability to climb to, beyond parochialism into a vision that places Ireland in a European, even global context.

People wonder why poverty has to reproduce itself in the same family from one generation to another or from one area to another and wonder why there is a difference between the quality of schools in one place and the quality of those in another. God did not make it like that. Nature did not make it like that. The people in the so-called Irish republic made it like that and they maintained it like that…

…I hope the new Government realises that the model which is broken should not be repaired and that there is a discourse now which is wider and which is not only in Ireland but in Europe, where citizens are wondering what institutions might best express that which we wish to share with each other, where the concept of interdependency is accepted and where it would be regarded as obscene to state that radical individualism is what is important and what must drive us. All that radical individualism with its privileged view of professions and its side of the mouth politics with regard to benefit and privilege is what must be rejected….

…This has a practical expression in Europe. If we create here a radical inclusive republic we will place it in a social Europe which accepts the interdependency of peoples rather than the aspirations of the elite property owning classes and individual countries. We would then be able to be a region in the global sense that offered guarantees about labour, security and peace. It would be a powerful moral voice in the world with regard to having alternatives to war and allowing people their own paths to development which would be very attractive.

Intelligent political discourse in the Dáil, if it can happen once it can happen again. Life affirming stuff.

Local Organising, National Change: Irish Rural Electrification

"I'm telling yis, the electric's in here somewhere"
Pic from

The Shannon scheme of the 1920s was Ireland’s great leap forward. With its completion, the lights went on up and down the country. Or at least in the cities and bigger towns they did. But by the end of the second world war fully two thirds of a 3 million population were still without power to the home, the reason, good clean country living.

Rural electrification was very much down the list of political priorities. Significant forces opposed electrification, and even supporters of the scheme often had motives that were less than inclusive. A number of forces were at play here

  • The Catholic Social Movement (rural fundamentalists)
  • The Gaelic League (cultural fundamentalists)
  • De Velera’s discourse legacy of self-sufficiency (never, ever realised IMO)
  • Catholic fear of socialism and individualism (a fear not confined to the shores of Ireland).

Many of these forces, certainly during the first half of the 20th century, presented cities in Ireland as being of “foreign” culture, a local Other to be shunned. Yet despite these interests, despite a country with less than zero budget following WWII, despite the requirement of one million wooden poles (surely more wood than there were trees in the country), the job of the Rural Electrification Scheme (RES) got the go-ahead. To study how is a fascinating examination of social, technical and cultural change. Ultimately 1.75m people were served by the scheme, 2% in towns and villages, the rest in open country, illustrating just how scattered the population at the time was.

The Structure of Change

Let’s examine the organisational and geographical makeup of the the Rural Electrification Organisation (REO). Significant from the start is the fact that the REO was almost a totally independent organisation from the national electrical utility (the ESB), which itself was a semi-state profit making (in theory) enterprise. The toughest initial hurdle to overcome was the granting of subsidy from central government, but once achieved, the REO was at the races. And because it was hived off from its parent, it could make big ambitious decisions quickly. The first of these was to decentralise as much of the design and implementation process as possible. There was some central procurement, such as wood from Finland, and knowledge sharing, but little else.

Ireland was broken into ten regional hubs.

  • Athlone
  • Cork (rural)
  • Dublin (rural)
  • Dundalk
  • Galway
  • Limerick
  • Portlaoise
  • Sligo
  • Tralee
  • Waterford

Each of the district REO offices had three divisions, materials, technical and development The latter was essentially a consumer outreach/care department, which was to play a hugely important role on the ground. Located in each district REO office was a Rural Organisation Engineer (ROE) who supervised three to five crews. The crews were the teams of skilled workers, linesmen, engineers and between forty and one hundred hyper local casual labourers, the men who got their hands dirty. At its peak the scheme had ongoing simultaneous operations in up to fifty locations around the country.

The parish was the granular unit of geography each crew worked on, typically 25-30 square miles, containing 300-500 premises. A crew would move into a parish to start the electrification work, opening a local office, bringing with it 40 REO staff, and hiring 40-100 locals. This movement of labour, knowledge and culture for Ireland at the time was unprecedented. Not only did the crews bring with them light, heat and the ability for shops to sell ice-cream for the first time, they brought employment, an influx of men from around the country (with obvious consequences) and a power structure that up until now had centred around the local parish priest.

Typically it would take six months to wire up a parish, or at least those who had opted in. Prior to a crew moving in, advance survey work would be done to ascertain which premises in the parish wanted to be connected. Parishes with a large number of potential customers were connected first, or at least that was how it was meant to work, petty local and national corruption had a part to play too. Séan Lemass for example pushed many Gaelteacht (Irish speaking) areas to the head of the queue. And even with favours, local parish refusniks could hold up work for years creating pockets of darkness in an ever increasing quilt of light over Ireland’s landscape.

Culture and impacts

I hope to see the day that when a girl gets a proposal from a farmer, she will enquire not so much about the number of cows but rather concerning the electrical appliances she will require before she gives her consent including not merely electric light, but a water heater, an electric clothes boiler, a vacuum cleaner and even a refrigerator.

Seán Lemass, Dáil debate, March 7th 1945.

Rural Ireland was not a cash society. Farmers didn’t have bills to pay, for anything. They didn’t make money, they didn’t spend it. Electricity was the cultural intervention that was to change that forever, for the first time, farmers were being asked to make a regular payment for something initially they thought they did not need. Perhaps this shift, more than any other single impact, drew rural and urban Ireland closer together, the socio-technical co-prodution of society plain to see.

But the biggest impact overall was probably on Mná na hÉireann, the women of Ireland. No longer did they have the drudgery of fetching dozens of buckets of water from the well (Ireland at the time was renowned for its small bucket size), electricity allowed for the widespread introduction of motor powered pumps, thus water straight to the kitchen. Which meant of course that all of a sudden, women had some free time on their hands. To listen to the wireless and even, in the 60s, to watch TV.

The BBC and RTÉ broadcast their first radio services within four years during the 1920s. The BBC was churning out television by the mid thirties, yet it was not until after the bulk of the RES’s work was done, 1961, that Ireland’s first TV service was launched. And anyone who has spent time watching RTÉ’s subsequent output will admit that the state broadcaster is still someway behind its Anglo Saxon neighbour.

In 1951 73% of Ireland’s 200,000 male farmers were over 45. A quarter of these were unmarried and less than 5% had attended secondary school. There were no socio-economic development agencies for these people and outward rural migration was huge. It was these people, generally subsistence farmers who didn’t make money, but similarly had next to no outgoing costs, that the folk from the RES had to convince. And it was the bringing into the electrical fold of these farmers that was to allow Ireland enter the EEC in 1973, and finally, by the 1980s, start questioning societies power structures, that had for so long kept Ireland a small, dank, inward looking place.

Lesson 1: Organising for a new modernity

Some lessons. In my piece on capital projects at a time of empty treasuries I sought to make the point that big ambitious projects . Classic New Deal territory. I think the lessons of Irish rural electrification are slightly more subtle, but perhaps more important, certainly for campaigners. The organisation and execution of the REO was at this 66 year juncture, simply phenomenal.

  1. Follow a vision, and you can affect real societal change.
  2. Local counts. Change does not have to come from the centre. It can and often does come from the dispersed bottom. The REO harnessed this in hundreds of Irish communities, it showed off a better tomorrow individually at local level and millions bought in. There was no nationwide advertising campaign, or celebrity endorsements. The work was done on the ground, parish by parish.
  3. Be incessant, go where change is actually wanted first, then return to the neigh-sayers.
  4. This future probably exists somewhere right now. Find it, bring it home.
  5. This is going to take a while. So what. Arguments at the time that this would be a 70-80 year project. These weren’t actually ridiculous, the final offshore island to be turned on finally got the electrics only as recently as 2002. But the majority of the work was done in a 15 time scale. But 15 years seems like an eternity in the lifecycle of a campaign, but if we’re to think big, we’re going to have to start thinking long.
  6. Values, beliefs and getting the job done. If someone has some MSc or PhD time to spare maybe they could go find out whether it was Common Cause type belief interventions or Maslovian needs selling that did it for the REO. The rest of us can just get on with getting the job done.

Lesson 2: The history of cities

Maybe its time we looked again at distributed dwelling patterns in rural communities. This deserves a full post but here’s the quick overview. The telling of the story of the flight to the city is for the most part painted as a straight forward march of progress. Since the industrial revolution all roads have led to the metropolis. That billions have walked this road is presented as a fait acompli. It’s not. Three articles over the last month give some insight.

So maybe, the lessons of rural electrification need to be retold, maybe this race to urbanity that we are running is treadmill going nowhere. It certainly cannot be any harm in exploring the alternatives, which may well begin with a new form of electrification.

Electricity and the Building of Irish Modernity

Ardnacrusha: The 1920's biggest Irish tourist attraction

The country can’t afford it, it will take too long and what is more, there simply is not the demand. All excuses used to knock back, initially, Ireland’s first national power generation scheme, Ardnacrusha, in the 1920s and then the Rural Electrification Scheme in the forties.

Ardnacrusha was a monument to modernity, a huge concrete hydro plant built on Ireland’s largest waterway, the Shannon. And this in a country that had barely emerged from the fogs of Victorian colonialism. In fact, even that seems far too grand a concept for Saorstát Éireann in 1925, a newly forged country run by “young men standing amongst the ruins of one administration with the foundations of another not yet laid and with wild men screaming through the key-hole” to re-hash Kevin O’Higgins famous description of early government.

Ireland was a country with zero industry, zero money and outside of Dublin, zero electricity. And yet with the help of some vorsprung durch Siemens, it had the imagination and the willpower to sign off a nation changing capital project. The cost, £5m, 20% of the government’s annual budget at the time. What’s more, the project came in on time and went over-budget by a mere £150,000.

With memories of Ardnacrusha still alive, the Rural Electrification Scheme was conceived in 1945 to bring light to the majority of Ireland’s two million rural dwellers. Again, the scheme was described as madness. It took already 2,000 miles of line to supply Ireland’s towns and cities, it would take a further 75,000 miles to reach the parts other electricity schemes could not. 1,200 transformers existed in the country in 1945. Another 100,000 would be required to finish the job. And roughly one million wooden poles would have to be found somewhere (Finland!). Ireland was still an agrarian nation, the war had destroyed trade with its only market, the UK, and as in the 20s, it had not a pot to piss in. Yet 15 years later the scheme was nearly done, Ireland’s dispersed population had at last running water in their kitchens, lightbulbs in their hallways and the ability to serve Guinness Extra Cold in the local.

I recall all of this for two reasons, the first, I’ve spend the week reading the history of electricity in Ireland. It makes for a tidy case study of local and national identity, technology and politics. But more than that, it illustrates how the identity of Ireland was produced (indeed reflexively co-produced) in the mix of nationalism, ambition, engineering feat and civic pride that went into these crazy big projects. And maybe that pot needs to be stirred again.

The second reason, the week begun with a pair of regressive statements from leading members of Ireland’s commentariat, Myers and O’Toole. Myers produced an unusually il-informed libertarian monolgoue on the foolishness of investment in wind energy in light of this harshest of winters. O’Toole meanwhile would be the Hugo Chavez of Western Europe, bemoaning foreign ownership and low extraction taxes of hydrocarbons beneath Irish waters. Nationalise them all he didn’t quite say but was certainly well on the road. But in that he missed the big point, as did Myers. Ireland is in a position not entirely dissimilar to that of the 1920s. A tired old administration hasn’t even bothered ordering 2011 diaries, its work is done. The new government is going to be faced with some big choices, propping up banks, endorsing the EU-IMF deal, and as O’Toole alludes to, the hegemonic kowtowing to Big Oil engaged by their predecessors.

They will likely claim, as will governments elsewhere in Europe, that big capital projects are off the table for now. The rules of our new austerity prevent such dreaming. But that’s the thing about dreams, they’re usually the events of our histories re-imagined. And as oil heads back to $100 per barrel, if we were to bring out our pencil and squared paper, what would an energy-secure Ireland (or UK for that matter) look like now I wonder. Maybe, if their number can be found, it’s time to call back those nice men from Siemens.

Ireland: We Have Never Been Sovereign

Irish donkeys
Photo (cc) jmulot.

On June 11th 2004 a referendum was held in Ireland. Should a child born on the island have an automatic right to citizenship the nation was asked. A constitutional right that had existed since the foundation of the state in 1922  was overturned by an incredible 79% of the voting public. Children now born in Ireland’s hospitals to non-national parents had a fight on their hands if they wanted a harp emblazoned passport.

At this juncture it is fair to ask if any child now born in Ireland would want citizenship of that sorry republic, but that’s a cheap shot and beside the point. Which is this, at a moment when national hubris, property speculation, and all-round back slapping were reaching their apex, Ireland turned her gaze inward and essentially told the world “right lads, we’ve finally made it, and we’re sharing the spoils with no one“. I think that was the first time I’ve really been embarrassed and ashamed to be admit to being Irish. Funny how some things change and some things don’t.

A week of prevaricating and straightforward lies by those that would claim to be Ireland’s leaders ended last night with Cowen and Lenihan admitting that yes, a bail out is coming, yes the IMF and EU are involved, and yes, this is going to hurt. I want to focus on one theme that has been running through the press coverage all week and perhaps applies not only to Ireland, but to the every other EU member state, both those inside and outside the Eurozone (and btw, am I the only person who thinks there’s a Crystal Maze comeback in here somewhere?). The issue, the misconstruction and misconception of sovereignty.

The notion of sovereignty as we understand it hinges almost entirely on the autonomy of the nation state. Of course the nation state itself is a construct devised by Germans at Westphalia in 1648 and improved upon at various junctures ever since. And the simple fact is, I contend here, the notion of the nation state is well past its sell-by date. Reasons being:

  • Globalisation – Aspects of the social contract now being fulfilled by private corporations and civil society organisations, particularly in least developed countries (Ireland circa 2011). Add to that the super-politics of transnational institutions such as the IMF and EU.
  • Information society – linked but distinct from globalisation. Technology and information society frees us from a top-down knowlege/power hierarchy, and this knowledge/power recognises national borders in extreme cases (e.g. the great firewall of China). To boot, the Marxist relationship between production and capital is arguably severed irreparably in places, not altogether a bad thing.
  • Risk society – Pervasive global risks (climate change, GM etc.) have led to the cosmopolitization of global society. Risk has been democratised across borders and time and negated the global ‘other’. At least that’s the theory. In other words, be it in Belfast, Berlin or Belize, the same big planet ending issues are faced by all.
  • Reflexive modernity – the very forces in society that unleashed modernity have undermined it. An example, our economic ingenuity has in theory allowed wealth creation and ownership through multiple layers of society, but really, quants in Goldman Sachs have led us on a merry dance, and at times its debatable if even they knew the havoc their credit default swaps and other assorted financial devices would cause.

So it looks like the nation state has more than a few chinks. Let’s take a looks so at the issue of Ireland in particular.

A genuine challenge that can be played with you and yours this holiday season, stick the sovereignty tail on the Irish nation state donkey below. And then just for kicks, stick another tail on the poor beleaguered beast to represent the moment sovereignty left town. Do let me know how you get on.

  • Dublin’s largest post office trashed in failed rebellion (1916)
  • Irish state formed (1922)
  • Oath of allegiance to Westminster/Windsors dropped (1937)
  • Irish republic declared (1949)
  • Entry into the EEC/EU (1973)
  • One to one link between Irish punt and sterling broken (1979)
  • Belfast Agreement (1998)
  • Euro becomes currency (1999)
  • Maastricht/Nice/Lisbon treaties (various)
  • Irish government commits over €50bn to banking/property sector (2008)
  • IMF assumes control of state budget (2010)

All well and good you say, so what, we have never been sovereign and Ireland in particular is in some sort of national state, or not. I make the points above to illustrate some of the reasons Ireland, and plenty of other Europeans states, are in this mess. And perhaps to being to explore ways out. It may actually suit the Irish government and indeed the populace of that country to suggest some sovereignty has been devolved to the IMF/ECB/EC/EU/KLF/whoever. Why? Well let us examine the social contract as it exists in Ireland. Around the same time the Germans, Spanish and Dutch were roasting hog in Westphalia, Hobbes was attempting to defined the duty of care a state owed to her citizens, a concept Rousseau later nailed. The citizen gives the sovereign (lawmakers) legitimacy and in return, the citizen is given protection from a life “nasty, brutish and short“. And here is where it gets interesting in relation to Ireland.

The social contract in Ireland, like those contracts for ghost hotels and bogland housing developments signed over the past 15 years, was never a document fully validated by the state. Yes the constitution asserted independence from non-state power-institutions, but even to this day the church in the republic is the legal owner of the majority of schools and hospitals. And make no mistake, this was complicit. Ireland could in the 1950s have taken the UK’s example and followed leading theories on the practise of health and social science (leading to the NHS in Britain) but instead allowed those institutions to remain in the hands of the clerics.

So we see there is a history of the Irish government reneging on its side of the the deal. This is likely to continue. During the last 20 years Ireland has not saved for a rainy days and its social services are at breaking point. If ever in the history of the state Fianna Fail have been aware of a social contract between the polity and the people, then that’s a piece of paper that has been lost down the back of the couch some time ago. It was found last week but I fear it has been dusted off and given to Oli Rehn of the EC, Ajai Chopra of the IMF and the “Others” to which Ireland is now in hock.

“Now the old system of industrialized society is breaking down in the course of its own success. Are not new social contracts waiting to be born?”
-Ulrich Beck, Reflexive Modernization

And yet in all of this Ireland has perhaps the greatest opportunity since the inception of the state in 1922 to redefine itself. To shape a society that is not a hangover from stale civil war politics, led not by “Soldiers of Destiny” or “the Tribe of Irish“. A society whose most important assets are not in the hands of a morally bankrupt church. A country whose leaders have a vision, some sort of vision.

Institutional reform is a must. There will be an election in January, the incoming Taoiseach must be elected with a mandate to tear down and rebuild the institutions of state. Whether the Dáil works or not is irrelevant, its legitimacy as a parliament has, like a bloodied sponge, been slowly wrung dry. Only total reform of the upper and lower houses, as well as the electoral system will do.

And Ireland, like most other western nations, must address those that walk the corridors of these institutions. It is time to call out the soothsayers of our time, the economists, and recognise their nakedness. These are the most powerful policy gatekeeprs of the modern age, all political decisions run through them. Yet, in a sense, economists are no different from the other discrete experts of modernity, the chemists, the physicists, the engineers. Experts in their fields yes, but capable of proscribing wide solutions for a better, fairer, happier society? Capable of the imagination needed to knock down and rebuild? Absolutely not. So why should all political decision run through them.

But perhaps in reforming the levers of the nation state we are looking for solutions and looking for “the political in the wrong place, on the wrong floors and on the wrong pages of the newspapers” to quote Beck (Reflexive Modernization). We have seen the great European and Bretton Woods institutions wrest power from above the nation state. It is time to create the sub politics that will also attack it from below. How might this look like? Well Hermann Scheer, in one of the last interviews given before he died this year painted a quite astonishing picture of how community energy projects in Germany were finally taking hold and transforming communities.

It is a fight. This is a structural fight. It is a fight between centralization and decentralization, between energy dictatorship and energy participation in the energy democracy. And because nothing works without energy, it’s a fight between democratic value and technocratical values. And therefore, the mobilization of the society is the most important thing. And as soon as the society, most people, have recognized that the alternative are renewable energies and we must not wait for others, we can do it by our own, in our own sphere, together in cooperatives or in the cities or individually. As soon as they recognize this, they will become supporters. Other—this is the reason why we have now a 90 percent support against all the disinformation campaigns. They have much more money and possibilities to influence the public opinion, but they lost this. They lost this conflict. In the eyes of the people, they lost the conflict. They are the losers already.

Energy is just one example, albeit an important one, where Ireland needs to look not at a Big Society model espoused by its neighbour, but a small society, one in which there is a common currency of values between those at the top and bottom, and one in which those values are illustrated and made real by projects such as Scheer’s in every community. Is this pie in the sky? No, there are tens of thousands of half finished developments, roads and houses dotted around the country, waiting to be used for something far more worthy than property speculation. Surely in these lies the infrastructure for a better society. And far better to spend resources on this sustainable (economically, socially and environmentally) endeavour than keep alive the banking institutions that have so utterly failed the country.

For the first time since 2004 I’m tempted, just a little, to go home.

4 Links: Bonnie Climate Sociology

Some things I’ve been looking at this week…


Two good round-ups on what’s gone down in the world of climate science this year. Climate Progress has a top-10 rundown of natural science stories.  Mike Hulme does some framing analysis. Neither mentions their favourite YouTube video from the past year. It’s very obviously this from the Bonnie Prince and his Hot Chip friends:


Some of these themes are picked up well in a ClimateWire piece in the NY Times. The thesis: it’s time for a few more university sociology departments to open up research groups on climate science and just as importantly, climate scepticism. Obvs!


I came across during my travels this week. Action Town is a super serious pan-European resource for civil society organisations promoting sustainable consumption and production that seems to take its outreach cues from the Teletubbies. See it. Believe it.


Last thing: fancy your very own Northwest European Island? €900bn ono.

Full planning permission for 300,000 homes, 8 prisons, 5 public hospitals, one city metro system, 10,000 schools with extensions as well as hundreds of unfinished road developments ranging in size from national primary roads to larger motorway systems.
In need of some refurbishing, is quite dated but lies to the north west of continental Europe and is surrounded by hundreds of stunning islands and islets.
Neighbours are ****s but can be quite helpful. Generally a nice area. Also comes with a variety of weather, nationalities and political opinions.

Politically motivated change: No hope

[Sweeping away the old (by flashbak)]
Sweeping away the old (by flashbak)

Nine times out of ten if I was asked to pick between an parliamentary and presidential democracy as an ideal way to govern a country I’d chose the former. From what I can see it establishes a closer bond between the electorate/community and the parliamentarian who represents them. It allows for a more representative government and cabinet. And the party in power acts as a natural ego check for the prime minister. In theory.

But yesterday was a great example of how a presidential style system can and should work. Out with the old and in with the new. The breath and breadth of fresh air rolling down the Mall was absolutely tangible. In one fell swoop America gets the clean start it is crying out for. And so does the world.

Looking at the parliamentary systems in the UK and Ireland leaves me with little hope for a clean out or clean up. Labour lose the next election and we get the Tories. Hardly something that will bring the spring clean fresh smell to Westminster and the country. And there’s no hope now I think of reviving New Labour, with or without Brown.

And in Ireland the situation is even more depressing. The Fine Gael as the main opposition offer no alternative vision for the country. Fintan O’Toole in yesterday’s Irish Times suggests they simply merge and get on with it leaving Labour as a proper opposition.

On the anniversary of the first Dáil, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, who share an analysis of the crisis, need to form a unified government, leaving Labour, which does not share that analysis, to lead a coherent opposition.

That’s as sensible a suggestion as any other I suppose but not like likely to happen leaving voters in the British Isles with no hope of Obama-like change being led by our politicians. We’ll just have to implement the change we need without them.

Irish Pork Recall


As you can see the TrashBlanc team are back in action. Likewise big international food crises have kicked navel gazing Irish finance reporters off the front pages of Ireland’s finest journals. It may be fun and games in the TB kitchen but right now a half billion Euro pork industry is going down the shithole in Ireland. And the industry in question has only itself to blame.

The has a good chronology of events here.

The basic problem: bad chemicals that have found their way into some feed that has come through an agri/bio recycler. The feed of course is centralized and has distributed the contaminated contents to farms throughout Ireland. Any good journalist would ask what else is in the feed? What is being recycled? But maybe the public isn’t quite ready to hear how their sausages are bred and fed right now. Though one can only ask if not now, then when?

It’s time the entire European Union started questioning a system that can turn one incident at one feed/recycling/rendering plant into a continent wide hunt for contaminated Irish Pork.

When one link in the production chain can effect every other downstream link in an entire industry, there’s deep deep problems.

Even if we ignore the gross environmental and sustainability issues at play here, there’s a simple economic argument. Farmers and agri-business throughout the EU and the US are massively subsidized through grants, tax breaks and artificially inflated food prices. This subsidization is directly responsible for the upkeep of agricultural poverty cycles in developing countries. And even with all that in play our farmers have still managed to waste those grants on a system that has utterly failed.

The economies of scale that big-farming claim necessitate centralized feeding and distribution have been been proved utterly false once again. The big supermarkets, Tesco, Carrefour and Asda/Walmart are equally guilty. But it’s our finance and agriculture ministers who we elect us to save us from ourselves and ourthirst for low prices. It’s time they started doing just that.

The Pursuit of Happiness

(image courtesy of DJ Show)

(image courtesy of DJ Show)

Bottom of the ninth, 2-2 count, men on first and second. One Mitch Williams fastball later and the only teenager in Ireland watching baseball at 4.30 am is heading for bed. With a walk off home run Joe Carter and the Toronto Blue Jays had the 1993 World Series in the bag. The Philadelphia Phillies, losers, again. The Phils haven’t been back to the Series since but I’ve spent a whole heap of late nights making lodgements at the Bank of American sport. 

The third week in September for me doesn’t involve muscling through throngs of Kerrymen on the way to the bar in Quinns. It’s about who’s on the schedule for the Eagles in Week 3 of the NFL season.  Sure I read the back pages as much as the next man but like a not insignificant number of Europeans, I save my sporting passion for the ballpark

For the outsider there are three primary reasons to engage with American Sports at an intimate level. There is the liberation of choosing one’s path as a sports fan. There’s the intrinsic optimism of America and through her, her sports. And of course there is the sheer spectacle, theatre and greatness of sport played out on a stage so large.

It’s a hugely liberating experience to choose ones own sports team to follow. Much like the promise of a better life that drew in the Pilgrim Fathers from an intolerant Europe in the 17th Century, crossing the Atlantic in search of sporting salvation is an escape from a certain type oflocal persecution. A fan of any football team other than Liverpool in the classrooms of Eighties Ireland knows in great detail the persecution I write of here. 

For thousands then in Europe Wrigley Field, Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium are their Plymouth colonies. Within their friendly confines takes place a sport whose language we understand. And in a manner masonic we seek out each other and offer safe harbour, understanding and a support group on those dark February days after the Super Bowl when baseball hasn’t yet begun.

But wait, “My father’s a Man Utd fan, I don’t have a choice” goes the refrain. Well heart disease and a predilection for Scotch eggs run deeply through the male bloodlines of my family. I’m rather keen for both of those to skip a generation, so you better believe we all have a choice. 

If a need for sporting liberation is a strong push factor for international fans of American sport, the optimism inherent in these sports is the strongest of pull factors. US sport, and I think baseball in particular is fundamentally wrapped up in the American myth.

The quest for Liberty, Egality and Fraternity framed the French revolution. Noble sentiments but not ones you’d expect to produce a sporting heritage. 13 years earlier however Thomas Jefferson and company not only signaled their intent to cut ties with the Empire, but by placing Life, Liberty and crucially the pursuit of Happiness as central tenets at the heart of their fledging nation they made playing ball a constitutional right.

America is a human construct. To different people the world over it  means many different things, the worst of which are strong arm foreign diplomacy and the globalization of neo-liberal economics. But at its very best America stands for freedom and opportunity. This is summed up neatly in one simple package; the American Dream. Nowhere is the American Dream more alive than on the playing fields and hockey rinks of the nation. An American childhood is incomplete without Little League Baseball. And everyone can play Little League Baseball. 

Like life, sport is not about winning, it’s about failure, and overcoming that failure. Getting back up the next year, turning round the franchise and being in with a shout. Competitive balance to some in the US is a dirty phrase but it is a reality. Over the past 10 years eight different teams have won the Super Bowl. Seven different teams have collected World Series titles. If your team has a losing record in 2008, a good draft pick, a couple of trades and some money down on one superstar may be all it takes to bring home some gold in 2009. 

In 2007 the Philadelphia Phillies accomplished a first for any professional franchise in the history of organized sport. They lost their 10,000th game. To endure that level of failure year after year over a century, and as a fan to keep coming back, to keep the candle of hope ever lit sums up what American sport is all about.  John Elway and the Denver Broncos won back-to-back Super Bowls in the Nineties. That’s not important, the fact that everyone remembers is they lost three Super Bowls in the Eighties. 

US sport facilitates optimism and fairy tale endings like nowhere else on earth. The great boxers were and are greater in America. The quarterback, an alpha role in a sport that allows only alpha humans is a position that could exist nowhere else. Truly the modern incarnation of ancient Roman gladiatorial combat. 

The batter in baseball looks out onto the field and sees all bar one of his opponents staring him down, trying to stop him doing his job. He is left to confront the opposition on his own, isolated from the rest of his team. He takes a pitch fouls it off. He takes a pitch and swings for a strike. He takes a pitch and 70% of the time he’s out. Failure. But there is redemption. In the bottom of the ninth with his team down he swings, and only in America, makes contact with the shot heard around the world. 

The greats wrote baseball and boxing. Hemingway uses the baseball and it’s greatest icon, Joe DiMaggio, as a metronome in the Old Man and the Sea, perhaps his greatest work. Don De Lillo turns Bobby Thompson’s “Shot Heard Round the World” into a modern day American tapestry in Underworld. The meanderings of Nick Hornby in Fever Pitch don’t belong on the same shelf. 

David Halberstam, who wrote definitive books on Vietnam and the politics of the third quarter of the American 20th centuary saved his best work for baseball and basketball. I’m not sure any self-penned book by an ex-pro is as brutally honest, and funny, as Jim Bouton’s Ball Four. Norman Mailer was maybe the world’s first method sports journalist, though bringing his knowledge of boxing into the boudoir is something we shouldn’t celebrate him for.

Constraints of space and time prevent me from discussing the great American sports movies, I can only comment that The Natural, Hoosiers and Raging Bull are peerless examples of how to get sport on a big screen right. 

If American sports fans in Europe are latter day Pilgrims, then for  much of this decade and last the vessels of escape we’ve sailed in have been NASN and, our digital Mayflowers.

But sport can’t be fully appreciated from the wrong side of an ocean. My US sports baptism happened age 12 in Ireland’s first Little League team. My schooling took place during college summers in the bars of South (New) Jersey and my apprenticeship was served out in NASN, the North American Sports Network. 

At times in the world of sports broadcasting we forget that our job is a very simple one. To connect people with their passion, their needs and their community. Whether that community is spread wide over a continent or localised to a rural parish is beside the point.  For that’s what sport ultimately is, a community binding agent. Getting that connection right isn’t  easy, but achieve it and you have at least some hope of success. 

The greatest sports TV moment I’ve experienced didn’t involve Ireland, Munster or any team from the Premier League. It didn’t involve a team I support or even like for that matter. It took place in a packed sports bar in London, lasted past 4 am and consisted of one of the great come backs of all time. It took the Red Sox 14 innings to overcome the Yankees in Game 5 of the ALCS. 

The dislocation to London was irrelevant, what was great about that night was that by the final out every one of the Red Sox fans present were feeling exactly what their Boston brethren in New England were feeling. Nearly 80 years after the Bambino this was gonna be their year. Those that were American were crying into mobiles at fathers and grandfathers. Those that weren’t were wondering just how to explain the feeling to their families, friends and workmates later that morning. 

*The above is an edit version of an piece contributed to Setanta Sports Ireland’s first Christmas Annual due to be published later this year. I’ll be in Philadelphia this weekend trying to make up for 1993. Joe Carter won’t be.