News Eoghan Harris

Sunday 21 September 2014

I'm watching the World Cup to learn more about life

Published 22/06/2014 | 02:30

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Mario Balotelli of Italy holds the ball and gestures towards Giancarlo Gonzalez and Michael Umana of Costa Rica during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Group D match between Italy and Costa Rica
Mario Balotelli of Italy holds the ball and gestures towards Giancarlo Gonzalez and Michael Umana of Costa Rica during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Group D match between Italy and Costa Rica
Illustration by Jim Cogan

WATCHING the World Cup late into the night, woken by the dawn chorus a few hours after my head hits the pillow – last week's binge has left my brain in benign but mushy mode. So apologies in advance for any mellow aura around my column.

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Let me start by admitting I don't watch the World Cup just for the football. Because football bores me, despite the DNA of a father who was a player, a referee and later a fanatical fan of soccer, as the game was then generally called.

My father played Cork club soccer at centre-forward, with a Rooney-like ability to literally rise to the occasion and clinch a goal from a corner. Behind the bouncing net, I did my best to look loyal. But I never found football as riveting as rugby and never as hypnotic as hurling.

In recent years, my apathy has morphed into alienation and then antipathy. No matter how skilled, I cannot overlook the fact that European teams are composed of overpaid mercenaries tapping a ball around with no great passion. But the World Cup breaks down my barrier.

For a few magic weeks, players stop worrying about their pay packets and break their hearts for their country. Watching gallant giant-slayers like Costa Rica and Chile we see the potentially dark power of nationalism transformed into the purest kind of patriotism.

For me, however, the best part of the World Cup is provided by Bill O'Herlihy's A-team. Age has not withered nor custom staled the compelling attraction of Giles, Brady and Dunphy. Other stations have former-footballer pundits, but they are merely anoraks stuffed with statistics and chock full of cliches.

But O'Herlihy's three golden oldies are able to turn their bank of football memories into metaphors for life – and given great players' comparatively short span of glory – a kind of death. Significantly, England's terminal agonies brought out the best in O'Herlihy's panel, which tells us something about complex relations between our two countries.

But there were other lessons. Dunphy rightly re-iterated his incisive insight that there are times when skill must be supplemented by the will to win and that John Terry was the type of lethal leader England lacked. And then he was off.

Giles's grin grew feral and Brady's eyes hardened in memory, when Dunphy expanded his verbal essay to point out that unlike Roy Hodgson, the Uruguyan coach Oscar Tavarez looked like he had been down some back alleys. This prompted Giles to recall an old, cold question: would he kill his granny?

Every political party needs a front-line player with the same murderous passion. Phil Hogan supplies it to Fine Gael, Pat Rabbitte supplied it to Labour before he became best buddies with Phil Hogan, Mary Lou McDonald supplies it to Sinn Fein and Niall Collins to Fianna Fail.

That is why Enda Kenny singled Collins out for special treatment last week – and why Micheal Martin stood by his man. But Collins is smarter than Shatter when it comes to survival. After an initial hesitation he abandoned the kind of macho stand that annoys both public and media.

Collins cogently argued the circumstances of the case proved he was acting from compassionate rather than political motives. And he followed up with what was for him the meek admission that he had made a mistake. So the media had to reluctantly put the red card back in its pocket.

* * *

Neither Joe Higgins nor Alex White are granny killers. More like grannies themselves. And pretty grabby grannies too.

Given their willingness to replace principled politicians like Roisin Shortall and Stephen Donnelly at short notice, maybe White and Higgins should think of setting up a political replacement agency. After all, neither the media nor the public seem to have a problem with such shoe-filling.

Stephen Donnelly is not the first politician to find that the Irish people shrug when someone is foolish enough to resign on principle. But I was still taken aback by the speed with which socialist Joe Higgins passed the political picket which Stephen Donnelly had placed on the Banking Inquiry. And by the muted response of the media.

Typical of that response was that of the normally sceptical Mary Minihan in The Irish Times. She told us that Higgins "will bring passion, old-school socialist rhetoric and the occasional witty soundbite to the banking inquiry". But on past performance it's more likely he will bring incantatory indignation, orotund oratory and well-masticated metaphors which will further deaden its dull deliberations.

What Higgins will not bring is wit. Because wit is not the kind of heavy-handed humourous meals that Higgins likes to prepare in advance. It is a rapier response to a real-life moment. And in my three years in the Seanad I only once heard what I would call true wit.

Senator Larry Butler, making a speech, got lost along the way. Paddy Burke, gave him a good extension on his allotted 10 minutes, but finally called on him to finish up. Larry looked at him in polite surprise: "Sorry, the last 10 minutes seemed to fly." David Norris was there. "Not for us they didn't."

* * *

But the minutes did fly on TV3 for the last few weeks, where Tom McGurk and Ivan Yates have been standing in for Vincent Browne. Suddenly the show has structure. Much as I admire Browne's stamina, I welcome the break from the bees in his bonnet.

Two of them were buzzing madly around the studio during his last show. The first was his delusion that despite the recent experience of France and Belgium, the wealthy will sit still while you tax them to death to pay opulent public sector salaries and pensions. The second was his belief that public sector and welfare payments are not the main cause of our budget deficit.

But in spite of his barracking, Donal Donovan of the Irish Fiscal Advisory Centre politely but firmly made the politically unpopular point that the banks were only one-third of our debt burden.

Most of our burden comes from borrowing to service public sector pay and pensions as well as the welfare sector.

Donovan pointed out that even before 2008, spending on public pay and welfare sectors was creating a deficit of 20 per cent in our national budget.

"Everybody who worked in the public sector was receiving a level of salaries and benefits which was the highest in Europe."

This may be good for the public sector unions. But it is not good for Irish society. Nor the United States, as we learn from Jake Rosenfelds book What Unions No Longer Do, which shows what happened in the past 60 years as private sector unions declined and public sector unions rose in their place.

The retreat of private sector unions has had reactionary results. America lost a progressive force for social change. Society has now no active agent for raising wages, integrating immigrants, or promoting political equality by turning out the blue-collar vote.

The rise of public sector unions has had a further reactionary effect. People with college degrees benefited most. But it did little for those with high school diplomas or those who lacked skills. It's the same story in Ireland.

Sunday Independent

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