I AM ANGRY – AGAIN

I am writing this on the 26thof June; an auspicious date in Irish history.  It was on the 26th of June in 1963 that John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States of America touched down in Dublin Airport to begin his four day visit to Ireland.  It was also on the 26th of June (1996) that journalist Veronica Guerin was murdered on the Naas Road. A less well known event occurred on the 26th of June 1920 when my maternal grandfather, George Power was involved in the kidnap of a British General who was fishing on the banks of the River Blackwater just outside Fermoy in North Cork. 
All of these events are playing on my mind as I attempt to formulate my thoughts on the revelations contained in the Anglo Tapes which were made public by the Irish Independent last week.  Let me begin by saying that I am angry…. again.
Over the last five years there have been many times I have been angry.  I have watched from my corner of suburbia, without the benefit of a university degree or even much understanding of economics, as this country was brought to her knees and I was angry.  I watched as the previous Government stumbled along through their last days as if punch drunk from the events that seemed to be overwhelming them and I was angry.
Each so called ‘austerity budget’ since has renewed my anger as I witness some of the most vulnerable in our society being stripped of allowances to which they are entitled and which they need in order to live.  I have been angry at how women seem to have borne an unfair portion of this austerity through cuts to carer’s allowance, child benefit, lone parent allowance, tax on maternity benefit etc. 
Almost five years of anger and this week I am angry all over again.  I have spoken to my neighbours, my friends and colleagues and without exception all are furious.  All found listening to the cavalier conversations of some very well paid senior bankers in Anglo Irish Bank as they discussed pulling a master stroke on our Government to be truly nauseating. 
The truth is that they pulled a master stroke on US, the people of this country.  What kind of schools, I wonder, produce this type of caricature of a man – overly macho, arrogant, insensitives who seem to be so removed (or perhaps insulated) from the effects of their irresponsible banking practices.  Their supercilious, self important guffawing turned my stomach. 
As I wrestled to make sense of how Ireland has come to this point in her history I thought of my grandfather, George Power and the ordinary men and women who almost a century ago managed to secure freedom from what was then probably the most powerful empire on earth.  I think of their bravery, of the risks they took in the years leading up to 1922.
I think of the women who ran messages, who operated as undercover agents within the British administration securing vital information for Collins, I think of the people of towns such as Fermoy who were subjected to looting and rioting by British Troops in retaliation for IRA activity.  I think of the families who risked their lives by providing safe houses for men on the run and of how they hid and smuggled arms to keep the push for freedom going forward. 
Last week has also brought the visit of JFK to Ireland in 1963 back into focus with the 50thanniversary celebrations last weekend in New Ross.  President Kennedy made a wonderful speech when he addressed the joint houses of the Oireachtas.  In it he referenced George Bernard Shaw when he said
“It is that quality of the Irish, the remarkable combination of hope, confidence and imagination that is needed more than ever today. The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by sceptics or cynics whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need men who can dream of things that never were and ask, why not?”
These words are only 50 years old but where the hell is that combination of hope, confidence and imagination now?  Where are these men and women who can dream of things that never were and ask, why not?  The men and women who were to the forefront of Ireland’s fight for independence were certainly capable of dreaming of things that never were and must have seemed impossible.  They were surely very antithesis to the lily livered bankers we are hearing on the Anglo tapes.
So how has Ireland gone from a being a nation of courage, imagination and action to a passive place where a cohort of greedy immoral bankers can break us and suffer very little consequences for doing so?  And more importantly why has the anger I sense in the community not translated into action?
Just 17 years ago this country got very angry at the murder in broad daylight of journalist Veronica Guerin.  We got angry and we let the heat of that anger be felt by Government.  Within days action had been taken to seize assets of the criminals and the breaking of criminal gangs began in earnest.  Arrests were made and the search for Veronica’s killers was relentless. 
Veronica Guerin, President Kennedy and George Power and his comrades all knew that (to quote Kennedy again) “problems… cannot be solved by sceptics or cynics of those whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities.” 

It is beyond time for clear and imaginative leadership.  I am very unconvinced that such is possible in the current government but the very least we, the people of Ireland, can do is to make our anger felt.  We owe it to ourselves and more importantly to our children to insist that action is taken now to prosecute those who gambled our entire country.  I am not sure of how this can best be achieved, no more than those who protested Ms Guerin’s murder dreamed of the Criminal Assets Bureau  .. but that is what we elect and pay our TDs for.  It is our job to ensure it happens.

BACK TO THE FUTURE 1963

The 26th of June 1963 was my mothers 28th birthday. On that evening she stood in the front garden of our house on the Swords Road in Santry with her 18 month old daughter in her arms and together they watched as one of the most glamorous and charismatic leaders the world had ever seen, swept past in his motorcade on the way to Aras an Uachtarain.

I don’t know if the fact that I saw President Kennedy from my mother’s arms explains my fascination with his story. I think most people, particularly us Irish, find the story of JFK compelling. It has it all – power, glamour, wealth, success, Hollywood legends, conspiracy and the ultimate tragedy of a life cut short. To this day and no doubt into the future, JFK is the President many leaders, particularly American Presidents aspire to. Clinton and Obama made no secret of their admiration for the 35th President of the United States and the Kennedy family’s endorsement of their campaigns, was a key element in both their elections to office.

What was it that made John Fitzgerald Kennedy so special? Watch old film of this attractive man, who was 43 when elected, and his charisma is still evident today. Charisma, no matter what your role in life is, is a very useful commodity. JFK had it in buckets. He was by all accounts very charming and had the ability to make people like him. His self deprecating sense of humour also won people over. He was a leader whose two most powerful tools were charm and charisma. Coupled, no doubt, with a sharp intellect and innate understanding that politics is all about people, combined to make him a very effective statesman.

He understood that to connect with people, be they your countrymen or not, was essential. He arrived in Dublin on that June evening in 1963, straight from Berlin where he had made his famous ‘Ich bein ein Berliner’speech. JFK knew how to connect with people alright.

But connecting alone is not enough. Kennedy also knew how to communicate very effectively his vision of the world. He used big broad brush strokes when painting that vision. Many years later, African American poet Maya Angelou said “… people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” And when he came to visit us in Ireland, Kennedy made us feel good, good about ourselves and good about this country we live in. What a precious gift.

When he addressed the Joint Houses of the Oireachtas on the 28th of June, he delivered one of his trademark, powerful orations. It was full of references to Ireland’s proud literary tradition, stressing our relatively new independence, and the role he saw for Ireland in working towards World Peace. Probably the best known passage from the speech that day was when he quoted George Bernard Shaw’s approach to life :”other peoples see things and say ‘Why?…. but I dream things that never were – and I say: Why not?”

Kennedy went on to say
“It is that quality of the Irish, the remarkable combination of hope, confidence and imagination that is needed more than ever today. The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by skeptics or cynics whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need men who can dream of things that never were and ask, why not?”

These words, delivered directly here to us in Ireland, inspired our country almost 50 years ago. We listened and we believed. Why? Because they were delivered by a charismatic leader, who had a vision to communicate to us and who ultimately made us feel good about ourselves. To me, this is the very essence of leadership.

We should be grateful to Ryan Tubridy for putting the spotlight back on those momentous days of 1963. Because buried among the newsreel footage, the anecdotes and the sheer excitement, is Kennedy’s speech to the Joint Houses of the Oireachtas. It is a speech that is as relevant today as it was on the day it was delivered. Almost half a century later, his words are still a wonderful gift to us. As we flounder from one financial crisis to the next, in a vacuum devoid of leadership and of vision, let us remember that the 35th President of the United States of America, John Fitzgerald Kennedy told us we possessed a remarkable combination of hope, confidence and imagination. And let us hope that he was right!