Saturday, October 31, 2020

Different person, different planet.

I've landed as a new person on a new planet. And it's the best place I've ever been and the best person I've ever been. Welcome. Thank you.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Here now.

Dun Laoghaire pier. Howth. The past. The future. Joy joins them together to create the present.

Monday, August 31, 2020

Golfgate questions

On Thursday 20th August, Aoife Moore and Paul Hosford broke the #golfgate story. The Minister for Agriculture, serving TDs, Senators, a European Commissioner, a Supreme Court judge, a Circuit Court judge, former TDs, former Senators and am Ambassador had been among 81 people who attended a dinner at a hotel in Co Galway organised by the Oireachtas Golf Society. This was appalling for two main reasons.

The first reason is because Ireland, like the rest of the world, is in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic. This golf dinner was a colossal breach of regulations, an immediate public health risk and an insult to what millions of people around the country had gone through during the pandemic. The people of Ireland as a whole had experienced enormous losses and endured months of restrictions to address the pandemic. At the time of the dinner Irish public health and legal restrictions already prohibited indoor gatherings of more than 50 people, and these regulations had been updated just the day before the event to reduce indoor gatherings to six people. It was in a situation where County Kildare was in a local lockdown due to recent high numbers of cases in that county. Most tragically over 1700 people had died due to Covid-19 since March; many more people had been seriously ill and countless others had mild illness with unknown long-term effects. Many people had died alone, without their loved ones with them, due to the restrictions. Others had been able to have a single visitor or brief visits as they died, other family members and friends reduced to a video call or looking through a window as their loved one passed away. People had not been able to attend funerals which were extremely limited in numbers, to as few as 10 attendees; some had not been able to hold funerals at all. For months people had not met or hugged elderly parents or family members or friends. Weddings had had to be cancelled and were currently reduced to a maximum of 50 attendees. Pregnant women had had to give birth alone, without their partners allowed to be with them at all in some hospitals, and it was still the case that partners were only allowed to be present for a limited time during the last stages of labour and the birth itself. Schools had been shut, children separated from their friends, education, social supports and vital services. Healthcare workers had worked tirelessly and without proper protection, support or recognition; many had been ill and some had died due to their work saving others. Businesses had shuttered, many had gone to the wall, thousands of jobs had been lost. Restaurants, hotels, pubs were closed or had recently partially re-opened; having a meal out with a few friends was still a rarity, which was governed by strict regulations and had to be managed with care and strict hygiene. Social distancing was the necessary new normal, which often meant not seeing people at all, and when one did, keeping two metres apart, regular hand-washing, and limited time together indoors. The #golfgate dinner ignored all of this.

The second reason was the type of powerful people who attended and the fact that they were all hanging out socially together, dramatically illustrating the close connections between the political, judicial, business and media elites of Irish society. It was if the pandemic did not exist for these powerful, well-connected people, who were at the top of every area of Irish life. They did not seem to think that the pandemic regulations and laws, which they had in some cases been responsible for drafting and promoting, applied to them in the way that they applied to every ordinary person. And it was clear that none of them saw any problem with politicians and legislators socialising with judges who adjudicated on those laws; or businesspeople attending a social soiree with the people who are meant to regulate their businesses; or media types enjoying entrees with the public figures they are meant to hold to account. The golden circle was clearly intact and glinting as brightly as ever. This was all burnished to a searingly painful shine by the fact that the event was organised by the Oireachtas Golf Society, a still murkily-understood organisation headed by a serving TD and serving Senator who were the organisers of the dinner and had sent out the invite, a society of which many of these people were members, and which seemed to exist for the purposes of, presumably, playing golf but also of bringing together at social events precisely these types of powerful figures.

The Irish people were incensed and rightly so. In the Irish Examiner newspaper Moore and Hosford had broken a huge story only 24 hours after the event had taken place, and they continued to bring new, damning details to light over the next few days. Other mainstream journalists brought out new information, exposing the brazen behaviour of the elite few to an increasingly angry public. Twitter went wild, the hashtag #golfgate exploding. International outlets picked up the story. The Minister of Agriculture, Dara Calleary, in the job barely a month, had been the main speaker at the event. The EU Commissioner for Trade Phil Hogan at first did not apologise and tried to blame the Station House Hotel in Clifden where the dinner had taken place, but in a drip feed of statements and revelations over five days it was revealed that not only had he attended the dinner, he had not adhered to quarantine requirements for 14 days following his return from Brussels in July, he had broken local lockdown in Kildare staying in and travelling to his apartment at another golf location, the K Club, he had meetings in Dublin and travelled to Limerick and Roscommon, and more. The Dail official responsible for health and safety including overseeing Covid regulations at Dail Eireann had been at the dinner. The hotel had put up a partition dividing the diners into a group of 45 and another of 36, claiming that this met regulations; the partition was removed during the speeches; the expression 'Clifden Partition' entered the Irish political lexicon. Serving Fine Gael and Fianna Fail TDs and Senators had been at the dinner, as well as independent TDs. Independent TD Noel Grealish was Captain of the Oireachtas Golf Society and had sent out the invites; Senator Donie Cassidy was the Society's President. The two page invite itself had not mentioned Covid regulations or protocols that would be in place at the dinner. Brian Hayes, head of the Banking and Payments Federation of Ireland, the principal lobbying organisation for the Irish banking sector, had been present, and had brought along several unnamed guests. Senior NGO and private sector figures had attended. Sean O'Rourke, until recently political correpondent for RTE, had been present. Supreme Court judge Seamus Woulfe was in attendance, having been recently appointed as a Justice immediately following his stint as Attorney General for the government, a position in which he reviewed the Covid-19 regulations. As disgusting details poured out almost hourly, the situation would have become farcical, were it not for the tragedies of death, loss and illness that were so fresh in people's minds. On more than one occasion I found myself crying reading a small sample of these experiences, contrasted so cruelly with the outrageous actions of this champagne-guzzling elite, and I was not the only one so affected. This event and those who organised and attended it in such a pre-meditated and yet offhand manner were grazing and golfing on the graves of 1,775 people who had died of Covid-19 in Ireland.

For once, there were some repercussions. Dara Calleary stepped down from his recent promotion as Minister for Agriculture, but he did not resign as a TD, or even lose the Fianna Fail whip. Phil Hogan resigned his position as EU Commissioner, a much more significant departure, one he was effectively forced into as more and more details emerged and his multiple statements failed to provide the full picture or assuage the increasing public anger in Ireland and the EU. The whip was removed from three Fine Gael and three Fianna Fail Senators. Senator Donie Cassidy stood down from his position as Leas-Cathaoirleach of the Seanad, but he also did not resign as a Senator. Opposition TDs called for the Dail to be recalled early from its six-week summer holiday, which the government eventually agreed to do, although not as early as hoped and not before schools opened; the Dail will reconvene tomorrow. Calls for #golfgate dinner attendees to exit public life went largely unanswered.

Excellent journalism was done, many facts were revealed to the public and many hard questions asked. But I find myself wanting more searching enquiries to be made and fuller responses given. Questions I had a day after the controversy began remain largely unexplored. What exactly is the Oireachtas Golf Society? How is it funded and how are its finances managed? Who leads it, who are the members of it, who can join it (or can't) and what benefits does membership bring with it? What is its history and what has it done in the past? The Ceann Comhairle of the Dail asked for the society to be "wound up as a matter of urgency" - why on earth is any time of any public servant being taken up with that request, and what is the actual relationship of the Oireachtas Golf Society to Dail Eireann, that it would be necessary for official Dail business to be involved in asking for it to be disbanded? Attendees were apparently charged €140 for two days of golfing and a gala dinner - how was this money, amounting to over €11,000 for 81 attendees, managed and accounted for? If some did not pay it, is that a political donation, or benefit in kind? Who were the other attendees at the dinner, apart from the twenty or thirty we know of? How far in advance was this event organised, when were the invites sent out, and when did people respond and plan to attend? How do those timelines relate to the pandemic regulations? How many people over the age of 70 were there, people who are supposed to be following more precautions regarding the pandemic, due to their additional vulnerability? What public health risks were created by this event, to the attendees, to staff at the hotel, and to the wider communities to which these attendees travelled and from which they came? Have any attendees been tested for coronavirus? Have attendees isolated or restricted their movements, following this event? And, most importantly, will any real repercussions happen?

Like most of the rest of the country I was disgusted, angry, upset and fascinated by the #golfgate controversy as it unfolded. But I am also hopeful. This kind of thing has been going on in Ireland for decades, known about, tolerated, complained about, laughed about, with little ever changing. The elites hobnob together, ignoring the suffering of the majority of people which they have been central in creating, an untouchable golden circle of the powerful, to whom both laws and the norms of ordinary decent behaviour simply do not apply. The leaders of sectors of Irish society that are meant to be independent and meant to regulate each other and keep each other in check, such as politics, the judiciary, the media, business and civil society, instead socialise and collaborate together to the detriment of the majority. And usually they get away with it, even when it's well-known and caustically criticised. The pandemic has exposed this egregious example of toxic business-as-usual to bright sunlight at the end of a lost summer and it has opened people's eyes. The curtain has been ripped away. People are seeing clearly, through lenses sharpened by the real loss and grief of their suffering in the pandemic over the past six months. People see, because it is impossible not to see, that in a supposedly changed corona world the existing powers want to continue as they always have. And I am hopeful because for once I think people are not going to accept that. They see this is not about a few individuals, and it cannot be rectified with a few small changes, or a few people apologising 'unreservedly', or a few well-paid positions or promotions temporarily foregone. They see more clearly than before that this is a deeply problematic system. The problems exemplified by #golfgate are systemic ones. And that means system change is required. Amid the pain and the farce and the anger, I am hopeful that this time we will break that system and begin to build a better one.

Friday, July 31, 2020

Cometh the comet?


The Plough and the stars over Portobello, in Dublin, Ireland.


Is the Comet NEOWISE there too?


Am I just staring into blackness?


Or are the stars enough?

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Pandemic priorities.

Today is six months since the WHO were informed about the novel coronavirus outbreak that would become known as COVID-19. The pandemic is not over. It is still raging in Brazil and the US, among many other places, and has re-surged in countries that had managed to contain it and begun to re-open, leading to new lockdowns in parts of China, Germany and the UK. Ireland is moving rapidly along its 'roadmap' of re-opening, and entered Phase 3 yesterday. Media attention has centred on the pubs, hairdressers and barbers that re-opened yesterday. Miles of column inches have been devoted to the pubs which are only allowed to re-open in this phase if they serve a substantial meal, costing €9, to every customer. Otherwise the bars have to wait three whole weeks to re-open normally, without the food requirement. Meanwhile cancer screening has yet to re-start. Cervical cancer screening will hopefully restart next month, and breast cancer and bowel cancer screening will not begin until September, another three months wait. It's clear what the priorities of the Irish government and the country are.

It's estimated that just from the breast cancer screening that wasn't done in April 2020, 548 abnormalities have been missed, with 103 of them likely to require treatment. What has been missed in May and June we don't yet have estimated figures for. Let alone the numbers missed in cervical and bowel cancer screening. Instead of over 21,000 cervical smear tests done in April 2019, there were just under 1,000 smear tests processed by CervicalCheck in April 2020, all of which were from colposcopy clinics. Meanwhile symptomatic referrals from GPs for breast, prostate, lung and skin cancers are down 25% compared to March-May last year. These are the more worrying indicators, because rather than the screening programmes for healthy people, these are people with symptoms who have seen their GP and been referred by their doctors for further assessment. There doesn't seem to be any suggestion that screening or cancer services will be massively ramped up now and in the next few months, to incorporate the new distancing and hygiene requirements, compensate for what hasn't been done, and attempt to catch the hundreds or thousands of people with cancer symptoms who could benefit, some of whom would have their lives saved, by early cancer detection and treatment. What will be the ultimate results of our response to this pandemic, in terms of other health problems, other causes of death? I fear in the next year we will see the next wave of deaths, but they won't be due to coronavirus. They will be because of what we chose to focus on, and what we are prioritising now. As usual Waterford Whispers News have captured the brutal reality perfectly: Breast Cancer Checks To Restart If Carried Out Alongside Lasagne And Chips.

The terrible toll of this pandemic on the elderly in care homes is horrendous and the scale of their deaths and suffering is still not being fully acknowledged. People are still dying even as we have not been able to properly grieve the lost loved ones who have died since March. The impact on migrant workers in meat-packing plants, and migrants in Direct Provision centres, needs to be more fully recognised too. The regressive impact of the pandemic on women is enormous but again not fully acknowledged, let alone compensated for. It is women who make up the majority of health and care workers, women who are more likely to have lost their jobs in the retail and service sectors, women who have seen their already disproportionate burden of housework, care work and childcare massively increase over the past three months. I suspect that the poor and more socio-economically disadvantaged groups and areas of the country have suffered disproportionately too. The pandemic has made these long-standing inequalities and injustices in Irish society more starkly clear than ever before. We have a chance to recognise these inequities and more importantly we have the opportunity now to act to do things differently in future. There should be no going back to 'normal'. Normal didn't work for the majority of people. We have suffered, and we have been warned. We could make a better world now. I hope we will.

Sunday, May 31, 2020


You'd only been gone a day when I took this photo. A rainbow at sunset. I'd never seen this sight before. Created by unique juxtaposition, time, place, conditions, person, only this, only now. Something ending that contains a beginning, with a moment of beauty and sadness marking the time. I will miss you. In memoriam.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

How many people died today?

Around 160,000 people died today.

Did you know that?

That's from all causes. For all of humanity. Around the world.

That's working off 2019 figures, estimating the daily numbers of human deaths, based on the total for the year. For the first four months of 2020, we could estimate that a little under 19.5 million people have died, across the globe. Does that figure ring any bells? Does it easily spring to mind? Have you seen it emblazoned every day across whatever source you get your news from? No?

In about the same time frame, since late December 2019, there have been just over 217,000 confirmed deaths from Covid-19, the disease caused by novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. You probably had a better idea of that figure, didn't you?

The world is doing a great deal to prevent further deaths due to Covid-19, and to treat those who have the disease. That's as it should be, and I am happy that the world, or most countries at least, are taking action to save lives from this global health problem. I hope we can save a lot of lives.

For the other 19.5 million people who have died so far this year, the large majority of those deaths were preventable. When prevention failed, many more of those people could have been saved with treatment, with adequate healthcare. Most of those people did not have to die, at all. Or they did not have to die now. We could have stopped those deaths. We, global humanity, could have saved those lives. We could have saved many millions of those people. But we didn't. We still don't. And we don't pay attention. We try, and the WHO and others do as good a job as they can, of keeping track of them, and of taking action to save people. But generally, we don't. You don't see those numbers updated daily on your news feeds. You don't see the causes of death listed. You don't see the numbers of cases of the diseases that led to the majority those deaths, or the injuries that caused the rest. You are not told about the healthcare systems that cannot treat or care for these millions of people or stop their easily-preventable deaths. The lack of doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers needed to treat and save those millions of people. The lack of medicine. The lack of public health education. The lack of economic and social supports. We don't know. We aren't told. And we don't act. And millions of people die, who don't have to die, every month.

I want us to save lives when it comes to Covid-19. I want us to treat and save everyone possible from this disease, around the world. But I want us to remember too all the other people who have died of other causes. And I want us to do more, much more, to prevent human deaths. All human deaths. Everywhere. With Covid-19 we have seen what can be done. Incredible, impossible, previously-dismissed-out-of-hand things have been done, are being done, to address Covid-19. I hope we can take what is happening for Covid-19 and apply it for all of humanity, for all of human health. We can decide that no-one should die needlessly. This experience of this disease at this time can help us see the reality of human health, and human death, worldwide. Tens of millions of human lives and deaths. I hope this experience can help us realise that there are many other pandemics happening right now. Many other health problems that deserve attention, funding, radical action. Many, many more lives that can be saved. We can do it. We can end unnecessary death. It's not simple. But it is possible. Let's do it.

United Nations (UN), World Mortality 2019 [pdf]

World Health Organisation (WHO), Global Health Observatory