independent

Thursday 17 April 2014

Sarah Caden: A few moments of pure gold in a year in which hope was near abandoned and too many young lives lost

Suicide, murder and the tragic death of a young woman dominated the headlines in 2012, while Katie Taylor and our Olympians and Paralympians lifted our spirits in the summer, bringing us pride and joy with their exploits, and our soccer fans provided the entertainment.

THIS year was the year that we saw close up the dangers of losing hope. Teenagers, quite literally, lost the will to live. Adults threw up their hands in despair and declined to pay their household charge or to vote in any great numbers in two elections. Sean Dunne gave up his D4 dream, but others gave up much more, though on a less grand scale. They gave up paying their mortgages, they gave up believing in a government that increasingly seemed to have stopped believing in itself, they gave up hoping that the change for the good was within Ireland's grasp. We gave up a little, this year, but not entirely.

Despite the football team's poor performance at the Euros, we cranked some craic out of the occasion and didn't care who considered us foolish as we just kept singing. We had our hearts lifted by Katie Taylor and her clean, God-fearing, family-focused drive, and the Paralympians, people who would once been consigned to living limited lives, showed us what determination and drive and can-do spirit really are. And we needed examples like that more than ever in 2012.

It was not the year of the homeowner, and most certainly not the year of the homeowner with more than one mortgage. The year began with the prospect of the banks starting to move in on investment properties in mortgage arrears and drew to a close with the troika insisting that the loophole that prevents repossession of homes be closed. The worry that these repossessions will work to the advantage of those who don't want to pay, and not those who cannot pay, remains, as, if we've learned anything, it's that the duckers and divers tend to keep coming out on top.

And yet, as many commented, while the screw of austerity tightened this year, we were not out on the streets in force, as in Greece, or even in a more peaceful way. We seemed to take our punishment and simply moan about it, which is bad for the national soul and wears down the will to live. And, in a way, our exasperated, exhausted spirit seemed to suffuse the Government, too, as they slowly fractured before our eyes and yet stayed together, like a dysfunctional couple who believes they're sticking it out for the sake of children who are made miserable by their misery.

The year began with word that ministers Joan Burton and James Reilly were at loggerheads, but it continued with a sort of death by a thousand cuts. Reilly, who, while out of government, seemed like the man with all the answers for health, cut back and back, without really explaining how he was going to improve anything.

And his image as a man with a plan crumbled further as he was hit by controversy over his appearance in Stubbs Gazette and, later, his inclusion of two primary-care centres in his own constituency, which led to the resignation of Roisin Shortall from Health, the Government and the Labour parliamentary party. And she is one of five Labour TDs who have come into serious confrontation with the party in the past two years, with reports of huge disharmony in the party over how it is reneging on its core mandate, reminiscent of what happened to the Greens in government with Fianna Fail. None of which helps to improve the national soul-destroying mood of plus ca change.

The action in Poland and London provided welcome distraction, however. The Irish fans won a special award for their hope in the face of adversity at the Euros, even if Roy Keane was no fan of their relentless roaring out of The Fields of Athenry. We could see that he had a point about celebrating mediocrity, but if that's all we have to celebrate, then what can we do? At some point, you have to seize the joy in life and the world got caught up in that spirit as photos of a gang of lads with their ' Angela Merkel Thinks We're at Work' banner went viral on the internet. Yeah, we were a bit like the bold kids of the world, but better than feeling like the dunce, surely?

And there was genuine gold at the London Olympics, as Katie Taylor and the band of boxers did us proud, followed by the Paralympians and their 16 medals. They were something to be proud of, and we rode the wave of their success for a while.

The frontline public service struggled as hard as anyone else, as they lost a wealth of knowledge and experience – as well as just hands on deck – with the the early retirement scheme that saw almost 9,000 nurses, doctors, high-ranking gardai and teachers wind up their careers with pensions and tax-free lump sums based on their pre-pay-cut salaries. And pensions loomed large in many minds as most private pensions slowly became valueless, disposable income that could be saved for a rainy day dwindled and reports of big bankers and high-ranking public servants on massive, mortgage-clearing annual pensions made ordinary people sick to their stomachs. But not quite as much as the Government's inability to do anything about it.

Suicides among our teenagers seemed unstoppable and unfathomable, and while allegations of online bullying were real, they were also ratings-grabbers, and distracted, perhaps, from the fact that our kids believe that death is an option when times get bad. When we stop raging against the internet, maybe we have to ask if this is what we are teaching them?

Life had little value on the small screen, as Love/Hate dominated the winter. Viewers were shocked by the rape scene of the opening episode, but the scenes of gangsters cold-bloodedly killing each other barely drew a gasp. It was happening far too often in real life, with three men shot in front of their kids in a single month and OAP gang boss Eamon Kelly shot dead while out walking.

In November, the death of Savita Halappanavar mobil- ised us to take to the streets and to take part in debate in a way we had done about little else this year. We had turned out in dismal numbers to vote on the year's two referendums, to decide on our position in Europe and to decide on the future of our children, but we mobilised for Savita Halappanavar, whose death from septicemia after she endured a three-day miscarriage in a Galway hospital was truly shocking.

Enda Kenny was voted European of the year and made the once-off green cover of Time magazine. Out there, outside Ireland, they seemed to love him, so how come we felt so apathetic about him at home? Because his own government seemed to have lost heart. Because the better deal on our debt as promised by his government before the election still hasn't materialised. Because, for the most part, it all felt like more of the same, until the December Budget, at least.

After the Budget, for most Irish families, it didn't feel the same at all as low-income families took the same cut as everyone else, in the knowledge that it was they who would feel it most.

Child benefit, maternity benefit, property tax on properties worth half the mortgage on them, respite benefit cuts, for many Irish families this felt very different from what they expected from the 2011 General Election's "democratic revolution". Where did the charging-ahead life force of that revolution go? We need it back. And soon.

JANUARY

As the year began, Eamon Gilmore promised that the Croke Park Agreement would be honoured, no matter how bad the crisis in Europe might get, which caused one to wonder how bad was Eamon's bad compared to everyone else's?

Meanwhile, in Davos, the proposed EU Fiscal Compact was drawn up to give them power to sign off on the budgets of heavily indebted countries, a move that caused US treasury secretary Tim Geithner to suggest that austerity wasn't working and provoked Ukrainian poverty activists to campaign topless in the Swiss snow.

On January 17, the Sunday Independent editor of 28 years, Aengus Fanning, died at the age of 69. At his funeral, Anne Harris, his wife and this paper's then deputy editor said, "He died at his post because he loved it."

FEBRUARY

In this paper, in February, Labour Minister Brendan Howlin expressed concern over the exodus of experience from the health sector due to the government early retirement scheme. He worried how the sector would cope, but wasn't half as worried as the health sector workers or anyone feeling a bit sick.

Meanwhile, the Government refused to go back on its decision to close the Irish embassy in the Vatican and Nama put in jeopardy 800 new jobs, by attempting to insist that the employers, Sky, should unburden them of far more empty office space than required. Syrian General al-Sheikh, from his new home in Turkey, predicted that without a solution in his homeland within a fortnight, "the whole region will flare up".

MARCH

In the week of the feast day of our national saint, the Mahon Report published its findings, confirming corruption in the planning process. Most significantly, it found that former taoiseach Bertie Ahern gave "untrue' evidence to the tribunal. Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin accepted the findings against members of his party, while accusing other parties of turning a blind eye to matters within their own ranks and called for the expulsion of Bertie from Fianna Fail. Bertie quit instead and wrote in this paper: "The tribunal is not a court of law. And it is not infallible."

The Taoiseach Enda Kenny's St Patrick's Day appearance on the balcony of the New York Stock Exchange and assertion that "Ireland's back in business" caused a stir, not least because he was joined there by, among others, Denis O'Brien. Meanwhile, Michael Noonan said that a deal was virtually done to replace the 2012 €3.1bn payment to IBRC with a long-term bond.

APRIL

It was no April Fool – or no joke, anyway – when the Sunday Independent published on April 1 comments from Phil Hogan on service charges which he reportedly refused to pay on his penthouse holiday apartment in Portugal. With the deadline for payment of the €100 household charge a month past and with only half the eligible population paid up, the letters demanding payment and outlining penalties began arriving soon after, many addressed to previous owners of properties or the deceased. "Would you pay the charge if you were unhappy with the service?" the man behind the household charge asked, and it nearly sounded like he was on our side.

In Syria, a UN-backed ceasefire was put into place. Within days, government forces attacked Homs. Within a week, the UN Secretary General told the Security Council that the ceasefire had not been implemented.

MAY

Almost exactly a year after the transmission of the Prime Time Investigates programme, Mission to Prey, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland published its report on the broadcast. It found that Mission to Prey was "not fair in that it broadcast serious, damaging and untrue allegations about Fr Kevin Reynolds" and found that its means of investigating "unreasonably encroached" on the priest's privacy. It fined RTE €200,000. In response to the report, Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte called Mission to Prey a "shoddy, unprofessional, cavalier, damaging piece of work". And the damage was not just to the defamed Fr Reynolds but to the broadcaster, who would have to work hard to regain public trust, said Rabbitte.

Meanwhile France lost trust in Nicholas Sarkozy and put its faith in a new socialist president, Francois Hollande. As France's first Socialist president since Mitterrand in 1995, the country anticipated a less cosy and acquiescent relationship with Germany.

JUNE

Soccer, and the hope of decent soccer, in Poland and Ukraine kept up many spirits through spring and even the poor performance of the Irish at the Euros couldn't dampen them. In June, Mick Wallace TD admitted that he owed over €2m to the Revenue in relation to under-paid VAT. He further admitted that he had knowingly made false VAT returns to the Revenue. Calls on him to resign from the Dail came to nothing, though he quit the loose alliance that is the Technical Group.

As a standalone TD, he qualifies for the untaxed and unvouched €41,000 leaders' allowance, which Wallace has said he uses to fund research into "different issues that concern the Irish people".

JULY

The wettest summer on record made a mudbath of the Phoenix Park for the Swedish House Mafia gig that descended into chaos and violence, with scenes of men fighting in the mud spreading like wildfire across the internet. Nine people were stabbed, while three drug-related deaths were also connected with the concert. Dance music, poor security, lack of garda control, drugs and a knife-carrying culture were all blamed.

James Reilly was named in Stubbs Gazette, along with three others, for owing €1.9m on a nursing-home purchase that turned sour. In a statement to the Dail, the Health Minister said he had acted with "full propriety", though his man-of-the-people image was further tarnished the following month when his house in Offaly was opened up to the public during national Heritage Week, as part of a tax-break scheme.

AUGUST

The manner in which the nation stopped to watch Katie Taylor feint and jab her way to Olympic gold was reminiscent of the empty streets of Ireland during the key matches of Italia '90. Her pluck and her persistence impressed us and her religious devotion was almost of equal interest. The boxers at the London Olympics did us proud and brought home the medals, along with Cian O'Connor's equestrian bronze. A greater, more broad-ranging yield of medals came home from the Paralympics, where Ireland won 16 medals, eight of them gold, with Michael McKillop, Mark Rohan and Jason Smyth seizing two golds apiece. At a government reception for the Paralympians, Sports Minister Leo Varadkar said how glad the Government had been to offer increased support to them recently and pledged continued assistance. "It hasn't been easy in these difficult times, but it has been worth it." Earlier in the summer, it had taken a donation from a Monaghan butcher to finally finance a toilet and shower at Katie Taylor's gym.

SEPTEMBER

In the space of a single week in September, three men were shot dead in front of their children. One was killed while walking along the street with his son, another was shot in his home, in front of his children, the last was shot as he ran away from the car in which his kids sat after being collected by him from school. Earlier in the month, RIRA member Alan Ryan was shot in broad daylight in Dublin, having allegedly run foul of local organised criminals. Accounts of his life and death were shocking, while the shots fired by men in balaclavas at his funeral were chilling. A motion of no confidence was called by Sinn Fein over James Reilly and health cuts.

OCTOBER

In Donegal, Erin Gallagher, who was only a few weeks short of her 14th birthday, killed herself in the family home. Her death came only weeks after the suicide of Leitrim teenager Ciara Pugsley, and on the heels of both girls' deaths came the claims of online bullying and intimidation. The internet was also where her peers came to grieve, while adult experts attempted to explain this scary alternate universe to terrified parents. Two months later, Erin Gallagher's older sister, Shannon, who would have turned 16 on Christmas Day, also committed suicide.

In the UK, allegations of sexual abuse perpetrated by the late kids' TV presenter Jimmy Savile surfaced, along with accounts of blind eyes being turned within the BBC and a group of sexual predators that revolved around him and was reported to include many other household names.

And Felix Baumgartner plummeted to earth 120,000ft from a balloon above Roswell, New Mexico, and broke the sound barrier with his body,

NOVEMBER

Mid-month, it was reported that a woman had died in Galway University Hospital after developing septicemia in the course of a three-day miscarriage. This woman was Savita Halappanavar, who had been told, it was alleged by her husband, that she could not terminate the pregnancy, despite the inevitability of miscarriage, because Ireland is a Catholic country.

The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland found that there was no basis for a statutory enquiry into the RTE Frontline presidential debate. It later asked RTE to publish the working paper on which the RTE internal report had been based, stating that the internal report, published publicly, failed to shed full light on the proceedings that night.

In the last minutes of the US presidential election campaign, we took it personally when it seemed that Romney might have it. When Obama was victorious, all we wanted to know was when he'd be back in Moneygall.

DECEMBER

The Budget brought the property tax, a cut in child benefit, tax on maternity benefit and a euro increase on a bottle of wine. Supermarkets, pubs and off-licences trumpeted the fact that they wouldn't increase drink prices until the new year.

In London, David Cameron made an apology to the family of murdered solicitor Pat Finucane, which they accepted as sincere while questioning the extent of his apology.

The announcement that the Duchess of Cambridge was expecting a baby came unusually early in her pregnancy, as she was admitted to hospital with severe morning sickness. A hoax call from an Australian radio show to the hospital was blamed for the suicide of the nurse who transferred the call to the Duchess's ward.

In the US, a gunman burst into an elementary school in Sandy Hook, Newtown, Connecticut, and shot dead 20 children and 6 adults, before killing himself.

In England, an Irishman died at his office party after dancing Gangnam style, prompting a warning from a UK cardiologist to middle-age men tempted to over-exert themselves during the festive season.

The country was shocked by the suicide of popular Fine Gael TD and Minister of State Shane McEntee. He was described by all who knew him from across the political spectrum as a genuinely caring and diligent politician. He was said to have been deeply affected by internet abuse following the Budget cuts and remarks he made over cuts to the respite care grant. One fellow politician said that days before taking his life, Mr McEntee had said, "this respite thing, they are destroying me."

Sunday Independent

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