Author Archives: Heber Rowan

From top: Taoiseach Micheál Martin in the Dáil last night; the legal powers used to remove Barry Cowen; Heber Rowan

Two weeks into his role, Barry Cowen has been sacked from his brief as Minister for Agriculture and the Marine. A request to resign was apparently refused and the nuclear option was taken. A few hours after his colleagues defended him, he was persona non grata. Out.

Yesterday, Barry Cowen shared the details of a Garda Pulse report with Micheál Martin and in the evening he defended Cowen publicly saying questions remained. Cowen refused to answer further questions and Martin asked him to resign, he refused and thus sacked him.

Not since Brian Lenihan Senior has a minster been removed from office by article 28.9.4 of the constitution, normally the clout of a Taoiseach is enough internally to request a resignation. Not this time.

While former Minister for Justice Alan Shatter previously claimed he was sacked in recent years, the reality is that the time no one questioned Enda Kenny’s leadership. Now that’s happening to Micheál Martin over this sudden move.

All of this has been taken in light of a Garda Pulse report describing the events leading up to Cowen’s failed alcohol breathalyser test in 2016 as being more serious than initially claimed by the deputy in his contrite public apology last week.

The questions abound about this entire story.

Did Barry Cowen lie to Taoiseach Michael Martin initially about the details of his arrest four years ago?

If so, why would deputy Cowen have provided the Taoiseach with the copy of his Pulse report before defending him in the Dáil?

Furthermore, why did the Taoiseach defend him after seeing the contents of that report? Either he believed him that it was incorrect or he didn’t.

There was some public ire at the commencement of the investigation into the leaking of the Pulse in the past few days however, Mr Cowen, like any citizen, is due fair process.

Unfortunately, politics is cruel and unfair. Cowen’s refusal to answer further questions about the matter may well have been due to his reluctance to impinge on the active investigation taking place into the leaking of the confidential Garda report.

Public opinion arguably was more aghast last week at the bitterness some deputies who aired their dirty laundry at the reality that they weren’t as favoured or as powerful as they thought they were by not receiving cabinet positions.

Mistakes, criminal mistakes were indeed made by Barry Cowen and he paid the price under the letter of the law. Now he has paid a political price by becoming the second shortest minister ever to serve in an Irish Government.

Some may speculate that other deputies who were offered cabinet roles but turned them down were doing so strategically akin to Boris Johnson leaving Theresa May’s government after she announced her Brexit policies, but that could be thinking too deeply into things. Even in this analysis.

At the very start of Micheál Martin’s national leadership, he hit a political test and was immediately firefighting with disappointed deputies and the leak of Barry’s Cowen’s conviction to the press. After fighting with resilience to rebuild Fianna Fáil and its grassroots after the 2011 election, it looked like he’d built his house of cards.

Martin clearly wants to have his party unblemished by the misdeeds of the past. Yet what matters is that some sins are worse than others given the context of the times both in which they happen and in terms of when they are uncovered.

While some members of Dáil Éireann have criminal convictions against them, they can still hold on to their seats and in some cases, top their polls locally.

Indeed, we need to ask if we as the Irish public are OK with the prospect of former lawbreakers entering government?

Micheál Martin as the lawful leader of Ireland has to uphold the rule of law within Ireland and the central tenant of his decision is that to promote Fianna Fáil as a lawful party of governance, he decided on zero tolerance. None. Even when the legal price has been paid.

One might further ask if there were policy victories dealing with the housing crisis, COVID-19, Brexit or the many other matters in need of urgent attention, his political opponents would have always had a political stick to beat him with that would have drowned out any achievements.

The problem in politics is the changing nature of what matters to the electorate. Some elections are fought over the integrity of the leadership and others are decided by belief in the competency of the government to bring about the change that matters most to the electorate of the day.

So Martin invariably was asking himself yesterday evening, “would the electorate remember my defence of Barry Cowen as a reason not to vote for my party?”.

Cowen was arguably politically wrong to use the phrase ‘regularise’ relating to his use of a learner’s permit unaccompanied at age 47 did not help his situation. That said, thousands at the time drove unaccompanied on learner permits for years and it wasn’t a serious offence until the introduction of the Clancy amendment in 2018. Times change.

These events also raise the question; to enter public life do we have to completely unblemished, free from sin or mistakes in our past? We are of course all human and we do make mistakes.

Some law-breaking invariably can leaders of political causes that in time have their day as they overturn laws and redefine national attitudes to particular behaviours. Yet, that’s a distraction.

The real question is: has this made Michael Martin look stronger or weaker?

Heber Rowan is a Sligo native with a passion for politics. He works in public affairs and enjoys listening to and narrating audiobooks. He can be found on Twitter and occasionally blogs on Medium.com.

Barry Cowen sacked and questions raised (Heber Rowan, Medium)

Last night: “Surprised And Disappointed’

Brown Brick by James Lawless

Heard any good books lately?

No?

Read on.

Writer and voice artist Heber Rowan writes:

A short audiobook called ‘Brown Brick’, I narrated for Dublin author James Lawless, is now on sale and I would like to offer Broadsheet readers a number of FREE UK promotion codes…

AF7SRG3PZ6FAR
EERF7DDRWCQCA
FBZN3SCZ5JB7B
FDAPPEG7SGKEP
FR9JTRZH3SSYG

This is a story about an elderly man from the LGBT community in Dublin at the end of his life and a strange desire to break down a brick wall piece by piece….

Brown Brick by James Lawless (Audible)

From left at top: Keith McErlean, Simon Delaney and Don Wycherly in Bachelor’s Walk (2001-2003): Heber Rowan

What Bachelors Walk, an Irish television series from the 00s, does better than many other shows is its ability to present the awkwardness of contemporary life. Recently, I stumbled upon the entire boxset available online via the RTÉ player and felt compelled to write about it.

Nearly two decades ago, the show came out and even looking back at it now, it bristles with relatability and a lightness of tone unfamiliar amid the pessimism of many contemporary Irish dramas.

Certainty its not the ‘pull your teeth’ out awkwardness of the likes of ‘Peep Show’, a London near equivalent comedy show about co-dependent housemates. Bachelors Walk paints a living scene of Dublin in the summertime with a simple use of light jazz and some cracking tunes from the time that make Dublin, Paris. No longer is Dublin the dirty auld town but a place with actual sunshine and people falling in love.

As a millennial watching it, there is an overload of the distant familiar, a nostalgic orgy. The VRC computer screens, the ashtrays on the tables, the cans of Dutch Gold and the haunting ‘bleep bleep’ of a text message received by a Nokia 3410.

Time has passed, and much of Dublin has remained the same. All over the city, there are familiar characters we all know and love in our own communities who bear significant similarities to the trio of unmarried men living in Dublin.

Bar the extraordinary situation of their low rent in the middle of Dublin just as the economy was revving up…. Complaints in the show about an apartment for rent being €800 are laughable today, with average rents being nearly double that. We all know it.

That is why watching the series once again you feel that Paris-like idealism reinforced. A fantasy of what Dublin could be and for the most part actually is.

We might ask ourselves, why is Dublin considered so idealistic in it and even from the days of Joyce meandering around Dublin on a June summer’s day.

A sense of home you might suppose. An uncomfortable love for the mélange that uniquely Dublin creates. A barrister, a journalist and an unemployed guy living together: if that could happen anywhere, it would be in Dublin.

That is what the writers of the show perhaps consciously did. They gave us that sense of comfortable incongruity that we have in so many neighbourhoods in Dublin.

A fancy coffee shop might neighbour a drug treatment centre just down the road, or a chipper will have a little gallery just next door. It’s all part of what Dublin is. Cosmopolitan.

From the Greeks, the idea of a city-state is one that is a comfortable mix of the populous, a blend of many flavours of humanity all within the one place they call home. Cosmopolitan.

In Bachelors Walk, living in number 49, our three lads give us a sense of happy leisure. Sure they have their problems, from romances to nagging parents but tthey give us a sense of a life less hurried. A life more filled with random encounters from three lads living together beginning their day with coffee on their front steps looking out at the Liffey.

The buses are yellow, and the acting is a little awkward but the characters in the portrait of Dublin from the early 00’s we call Bachelor’s Walk cannot help but make one stop and marvel at the idealism it brings to a city consistently portrayed as dirty and ‘auld’, with three lads awkwardly figuring out their lives.

Here’s the first episode, take a look.

Heber Rowan is a Sligo native with a passion for politics. He works in public affairs and enjoys listening to and narrating audiobooks. He can be found on Twitter and occasionally blogs on Medium.com.

Looking back on Bachelor’s Walk (Heber Rowan, Medium)

From top: Ireland’s rail network, 100 years ago vs now; Heber Rowan

Not so long ago, in the pre-virus days, Slugger O’Toole discussed building a rail line to Donegal, the far North-West of Ireland. Fair play. It is time to discuss generational public transport needs in Ireland.

There are some, this author included, who regard a working rail network, as civilisation manifest. A well run, speedy networks are something a country can be proud.They show that urban developments are made to meet needs long-term. That matters.

The Irish rail network includes 2,400km of track, of which 1,660km is used. As one of the most developed countries in the world, it’s not enough and not fit for purpose to discourage private car use. We work best together collectively, not alone.

In all public discussions around the development of our infrastructure, the business case against developing rail links is primarily one of population density. Namely, that there aren’t enough people living along the routes to justify further investment.

The Irish rail network was once a vibrant one into rural areas off the back of British development of the lines. There was even extensive planning done on the development of a Dublin metro system but the events of the Irish Easter Rising stopped it. Events!

The “Rail Review” of 2016, was the most recent public discussion about the health and future of the Irish rail network. It became a clarion call to many.

The head of Irish Rail and the Irish National Transport Authority stated that “there is no such a thing as a free lunch — the rail network is in financial jeopardy”. A funding gap of half a billion proved to be an inconvenient financial reality.

The political and public discussions at the time focused on maintaining the existing lines amid threatened closures, not improvements.

Then the €550 per passenger subvention that occurs annually for Limerick-Ballybrophy line was a hot point of political debate with the likes of Labour TD Alan Kelly at war with then Minister for Transport, Shane Ross. Ultimately no lines were closed and the panic subsided.

In fact, since then due to the growth of the Irish economy and an expansion of Dublin commuter services passenger numbers are up, however, their money is down.

The car is king.

The car remains king in Irish transport and despite some encouragement featured within the government’s Ireland 2040 infrastructure plans highlighting plans for the development of Metro-North (to Dublin airport and beyond), there is little in the way of serious ambition put forward.

In the last fifty years, Ireland has entered into what urban developers call a ‘land transport spiral’ whereby the chicken or the egg situation exacerbates congestion and a poor quality of living.

Cities grow wide with low densities and in areas dependent on having cars and away from other forms of services. It has been argued that increased private cars usage has been the death of rural towns. We don’t live or shop locally within our physical vicinity, that matters.

It is worth pondering if the lockdown will impact how both our behaviours within and perceptions of our localities will change. Transport and supporting local business matters.

Just as Galway city has been held up in decades of congestion over the potential for an outer ring road to be built with the acknowledgement that ‘if you build it, they will drive’ and not actually make matters better, development continues without developing Ireland regionally.

Economically, it’s a stark contrast with average incomes in the West of Ireland lower than €5,000 per year on average compared to Dublin. Yet there is no serious discussion about bringing Ireland together with high-speed rail even from the likes of Dublin to Belfast (arguably the most economically expedient) or to Cork.

This matters when we consider the long-term improvement of living standards in Dublin too, given that limited land and high population density ultimately decrease the standard of living for all if the majority of public transport investment is done within the greater Dublin area.

The problem for the government and the politicians that constitute it, is time. The difficulty of getting everything you need for your constituency within the short space of a five-year term. Yes, to all of those campaigning against the problems in health and housing, transport can appear to be a less important matter to go email your local TD about.

The political reality also, is that Dublin has 45 seats in the Dáil or 28% of the total. That’s power. It is no wonder that recent discussions around transport development focused on the BusConnects system and little attention was put on national infrastructure development.

Why spend money with a high-speed interlink between Dublin and Cork when you could win more Dublin voters within a lifetime of a government? Moreover, ask any Irish politician and they will say that a majority of their time is spent assisting constituents on housing or health-related matters.

When examining the problem, we often forget the time scales involved in rail developments, for instance, the Luas was initially first proposed back in 1990. Politicians need quick wins to get re-elected, and the people who proposed an idea are often forgotten amid all of the fanfare that accompanies the eventual ribbon-cutting ceremony.

The sad reality is that the narrative nationally has shifted to propel the creation of ‘Greenways’ or cycle routes along the former tracks of rural rail lines, as a good long term development.

While there are still campaigners for keeping the dream of the Western rail corridor alive (a train linking Sligo and Galway), with the smaller budget needed for construction and less time, politicians have it in their interest to back the creation of Greenways as it could save their seats.

TDs ultimately have to serve the interests of those who they elect them, a fact reflected in Green party leader Eamonn Ryan’s comments on the ‘advantage’ given to rural Ireland over the creation of the National Broadband Plan.

He and every other TD in Dáil Éireann, serve those who elected them first and foremost, national politics is a luxury only the properly powerful can do. Senior hurling.

Given that Ireland did sign up to a 7% reduction in greenhouse emissions with the Paris Climate Accord, the roll-out of an ambitious rail network (high speed or electrified) could be part of an overall solution to do just that.

Amid all of the political negotiations going on right now to form a government, how the urban-rural divide plays out with transport policy will contribute to influence the lifestyles and work of all. Maybe it is time we all get on board with a national rail network and a sense of ambition to match.

PS: Let’s remember there is a lot to celebrate about Irish Rail as a charming English couple experienced recently!

Heber Rowan is a Sligo native with a passion for politics. He works in public affairs and enjoys listening to and narrating audiobooks. He can be found on Twitter and occasionally blogs on Medium.com.

Maps via Dr Shaun O’Boyle

From top: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs; Heber Rowan

Stories. We love to hear them. We love to watch them, digest them and get enthralled by them in whatever format they present themselves to us.

Some are fictions we are able to discern as real or not. Say Harry Potter or a Stephen King novel. Some are the kind that makes us question our very reality. In some ways, that’s good.

Art is all about expressions of the world differently, it can teach you a new way of reconciling a problem in your life or dealing with emotional pain. Great. Good.

Stories are a currency that defines our behaviours. The ones you believe are the ones that you often find close to your own sense of comfort or cynism about the wider world.

In a sense, you believe in the logic of them and get attracted to the characters going against the conflict that they find themselves within. You are compelled to find out more, you want to find out what happens in the end.

A powerful story takes us away from reality.

In an era of information from the internet, those stories can make our understanding of what is real and what is not, harder. It can become easy to forget what is in need of further questioning or probing because the story you read or the facts that present themselves in a particular pattern are compelling.

We can lose track of our own systematic doubt or the application of Occam’s razor to the issue or story. That matters.

When we find something that makes us think we are empowered and respected for having our opinions, we feel validated and empowered. That matters for society as a whole as fundamentally we want to feel esteemed by our community.

It is how, in a sense, laws are upheld by public consensus or how we agree that the sky is, in fact, blue and not green. It is one of the higher needs in Maslow’s hierarchy.

When our emotions are high, we will often let go of our critique of the stories we find every day and allow ourselves to get taken in by them. It could be to rationalise, ‘despite him beating me, I know he still loves me’ in an abusive marriage or to entertain a snake oil cure as an answer to an acute illness you can’t cure.

Fear and love are powerful forces on the spectrum of human emotions. They drive what information we accept or not.

The power of fear?

When our world becomes enraptured by a ubiquitous state of fear from a global pandemic, we are more at risk of believing an exotic explanation for it because we are in a state of fear.

Emotions aside, it is also because we as human beings we have a natural ability to spot patterns in nature. That is great for understanding that prints in a forest may lead you to the deer you hunt but it is not a great ability to reconcile the overload of information in a world where we are saturated with information online daily.

Many have said that and it will be said again. So, forever bar the human race becoming emotionless like Vulcans as depicted in the science fiction series, Star Trek. Our emotions will make us believe in extraordinary things.

Rational irrationality ?

That being said, it is important to consume stories, they are entertaining and informative for us all. We like the escapism of Lord of the Rings or the thought that a magical world not unfamiliar to our own, could exist such as in Harry Potter. The boy living under the stairs could indeed, be magical.

Yet, the important thing is that when we look at those stories, we hold them in context. That we suspend our disbelief appropriately for the right amount of time to enjoy the flow of the story. Sometimes that doesn’t happen in quotidian life.

Emotions are pesky things that make us different individuals and behave differently.

Within the context of the Covid19 crisis, there is a lot of conspiracy talk circulating online. Many are compelling in a way the end of a thriller of a John Grisham novel can be. International espionage, manipulation of information, social engineering and the movement of trillions of dollars globally. Dam interesting and compelling.

We like figuring out puzzles in the world around us, to account for the whys and hows of forces in our lives that we can’t easily rationalise. For millennia, we were unable to figure out why the winds came one day and the rain the next.

We created stories to understand them to bridge the gap between our emotional reactions to the trauma of experiencing a flood or famine with our ability to logically understand something. It’s in our nature.

Life will change in the post Covid19 world. No doubt. There are many aspects of that forthcoming change we can reasonably predict like increased remote working among office workers or a medium-term decrease in demand for leisure cruises internationally.

How we trust our sources of information and maintain a healthy level of critique when death becomes less of an abstraction going forward, is the change that really matters.

The information floodgates are open.

Journalism is changing, advertisements for publications are down dramatically as the marketplace for information has become more competitive from the internet. How do people balance their fears and maintain a healthy level of disbelief will determine how the future manifests.

To believe that the Covid19 virus was created in a lab by the Chinese or some cabal of the world’s pharmaceutical companies is a compelling story. It tells us what we fear or want to know, that some people are making money and that there is a greater explanation for why terrible and dramatic things are happening.

As emotional beings, we might overlook uncomfortable facts in the process that those who ‘let us in’ on these great truths are doing so for want of power and validation in the wider world.

Also money. Heavens let’s not forget the money.

Yes, pharmaceutical companies make enormous profits and have vested interests in maintaining their businesses but they also provide benefits to the world by eradicating different diseases.

We look at stories of profiteering companies starting lawsuits after people in Italy 3D printed ventilator valves and think, ‘that’s plain wrong’.

Yes, there are unethical companies out there and yes there is a lot we can be genuinely resentful of such as expensive drugs only having a marginal benefit of 2–3% over a placebo.

However, in becoming angry at those situations, we can lose sight of the bigger picture. That the 2–3% of those drugs can make a world of a difference to those who need it and that scientific progress is incremental at best.

Rarely do we find cures or solutions to issues within one attempt. It can take years, decades of ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ for science to deliver results we universally respect and accept without question. Continue reading

From top: Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin  and Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald  on the plinth at Leinster House this afternoon; Heber Rowan

The quote familiar to us all right now is the classic “Events, dear boy, events!”. The concern over, and response to, the Covid19 pandemic has become a proverbial cat among the pigeons of Irish political discourse.

Here’s why it may shift the balance of power.

Before the response to the virus became unavoidable by Leo Varadkar’s caretaker government, it was largely expected that government formation talks between the dead heat of Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael would continue for months.

Yet the recent passing of emergency legislation to bolster quarantine powers and approve a financial aid package in response to the Covid19 crisis was an indication of the need to have a working government in place as soon as possible.

There are bound to be more challenges faced by the Irish government over the coming months that will determine the efficacy of the mitigation efforts in place.

Though the Seanad clock is ticking.

The Irish constitution sets out a time limit for the Seanad elections to take place within 90 days after the dissolution of the Dáil. While the election of the senators continues at present, the Taoiseach’s 11 nominated senators are a big question mark hanging over the 33rd Dáil.

Constitutionally, the current Taoiseach and his cabinet remain in office with full powers until the election of a new Taoiseach who would then go on to select his or her ministers and thus appoint the 11 new senators to the Seanad. New laws and a new government simply can’t happen without a Taoiseach.

This could be a problem.

Despite the calls for the creation of a ‘national government’, or more technically a consensus government with a rotating Taoiseach, it is not a workable solution.

Particularly given the prerogative of the Taoiseach to request the dissolution of the Dáil at any time provided he/she gets the consent of the President. The Taoiseach holds considerable sway on national discourse and authority of government. If that authority isn’t there, the Taoiseach isn’t a Taoiseach.

Moreover, if there is fear about using cash at present from the risk of spreading the Coronavirus, there certainly will be fear about handling paper ballot papers if a new election is called. So it just won’t happen.

What may happen is that the Supreme Court might issue a writ to force the appointment of the Taoiseach’s nominees after the conclusion of the Seanad elections. In the same way that the six-month time limit was imposed on bye-elections after the high court case by Pearse Doherty a number of years ago.

New senators could be appointed in a D’hondt method allocating seats to different parties based on their share of the national first preference vote.

However, given the collapse of the ‘Independent Alliance’ there would be many non-party politicians up in arms and threatening to stymy or block such a proposal. Wearing the ‘Green jersey’ may only go so far.

What could happen is the continuation of Leo Vardakar’s caretaker minority government for the next two months until there appears to be a perceivable drop in new Covid19 cases. On the back of widespread political praise of his address to the nation, it is still a possibility that he is not yet politically finished.

Realistically though, Sinn Féin is on 35% in the opinion polls and have a lot to gain by entering government with Fianna Fáil.

Micheál Martin, the stubborn leader, won’t and claims he can’t break his promise to the electorate that he would never enter government with Sinn Féin. Extraordinary times may make for extraordinary politics.

The political wind is out of the sails of Sinn Féin, who have little to add to the national conversation at present. Health is the bigger priority now and housing appears to be improving as thousands of empty Airbnbs enter the now affordable rental market as the prices for rents plummet with thousands becoming unemployed at the same time and the collapse of the tourist industry.

How this crisis gets used to tackle the persistent problems of housing, social welfare and an under-resourced health service, are the main things people will be wondering about beyond the short term. Not who is the Taoiseach, just what gets action done.

The proposals for a rotating Taoiseach, in my opinion, are moot. To reiterate, once appointed by the President, there is no one but the President, who has the power to stop a Taoiseach from calling a new election.

The idea of three-month shifts shared between Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael is laughable against the political opportunity that taking off the ‘green jersey’ presents and claiming a ‘need’ to call an immediate election once the worst of the Covid19 crisis is over.

Recent proposals by Leo Vardakar to limit a ‘unity government’ to not include Sinn Féin are indicative of how unworkable a rotating Taoiseach would be and the limited extent that the Covid19 crisis has actually shifted power. As for instance at the time of writing, there are three deaths in Ireland compared to over 4,000 in Italy.

The Supreme Court could hold out the creation of a new working Dáil on the basis of a lack of a Taoiseach (thus risking public ire) or they could expedite a quick interpretation on the nature of the Taoiseach’s nominees and have the 11 appointed proportionally.

While the Irish constitution has many provisions for the continuation of government during a national emergency, it doesn’t provide many options for persistent political deadlock like the one we face now.

A national government could be appointed temporarily but the junior partners of any government would bear the risk with little potential political gain.

It is arguable that if the crisis gets severe enough, that the hand off all political leaders may be forced for the short term, but they all know that eventually, this crisis will be over and that there will be a political and economic cost to account for at the end.

Brexit is still happening and funds, which were set aside to deal with it, are being used for the Covid19 response. Though that is a problem to face in nine months time.

Tragically the refrain of economist JM Keynes comes to mind that “in the long run we are dead”. Unfortunately for many in the short term that is not an abstract concept of economic management anymore.

As a positive note, unlike the ‘Great Recession’ of 2010, there is not an underlying problem of excess credit within the Irish economy like then and the economy has diversified significantly from an over reliance on construction.

This means that while the costs of Covid19 will be colossal, they could be short-lived. Ireland as a globalised economy traditionally recovers faster on the basis of the diversity of its industries that rely on global trade.

The swift market interventions by governments internationally may result in (merely) a short and sharp recession. There is much hope to have.

For Leo and indeed Micheál, they’re perhaps hoping that the response will be good enough to earn the trust of the electorate again. Meaning that when the cards are up, people will trust those who they know already.

Extraordinary times do call for extraordinary politics indeed.

An Extraordinary Virus For Extraordinary Times In Irish Politics (Heber Rowan, Medium)

Heber Rowan is a Sligo native with a passion for politics. He works in public affairs and enjoys listening to and narrating audiobooks. He can be found on Twitter and occasionally blogs on Medium.com.

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