"I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort, we may get nearer to the truth." (Karl Popper)

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Provos and British intelligence

In recent days several reports have claimed that Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein's lead negotiator and (according to several studies, including those by Ed Moloney and Peter Taylor) a central figure in the leadership of the Provisional IRA during its terrorist campaign, was in fact a spy for British intelligence. McGuinness yesterday stridently denied the suggestion; he said he was "a million per cent sure" that the stories were false. Whilst not suggesting that we should necessarily take his denial at face value, nothing has yet been proved.

But let's consider what is known. The claim seems to have emanated from a figure who calls himself Martin Ingram, a former British intelligence operative in Northern Ireland. The same ran other IRA spies, including Frank Hegarty and Freddie Scappaticci. As Ingram pointed out on the radio yesterday, McGuinness promoted Hegarty within the IRA over the suspicions of others; he personally vouched for Hegarty's trustworthiness at a time when the latter was an informant. Scappaticci was close to McGuinness in the organisation. At no time has any criminal or terrorist charge been brought against McGuinness in Northern Ireland, or Britain; several loyalist plots to kill him were foiled, it is claimed, by security forces. There has long been a fear in the highest levels of the Provisional organisation that a very senior member was an informer, dating back to the betrayal in 1987 of the Eksund, a boat from Libya laden with arms. Recalling this suspicion, I wrote recently, after Denis Donaldson (a Sinn Fein administrator) was murdered shortly after admitting publicly that he had been a spy for British intelligence:
One theory at the time was that he [Donaldson] was "outed" so as to prevent another British spy farther up in Sinn Fein/IRA from being exposed. If one reads
Ed Moloney's Secret History of the IRA, it becomes clear that during the IRA's armed campaign, there was a British agent in a high position in the Provisional organisation. That much has been suspected by the leadership since at least 1987 when the Eksund, a ship carrying weaponry from Libya, was betrayed and intercepted. What if that agent is still in place and sanctioned a unilateral operation (i.e. without the sanction of British intelligence or of the Provisional leadership) to get rid of Donaldson, in order to avoid himself being exposed. I admit this suggestion can be criticised as being a conspiracy theory. And I admit I'm only hypothesising. But there is, I bet, a lot we don't know - and may never know - about the extent and consequences of British intelligence successes against the Provisional IRA.
The recent claims may or may not be true, but I think it's safe to say that when it comes to the Provos and British intelligence, we don't know the half of it yet. Expect more revelations.

Munster and the holy grail

I haven't posted in a while and although it's late, I thought I'd post a few thoughts on Munster's Heinken Cup triumph.

May 20th 2006, Munster 23 Biarritz 19. It was a long time coming. I was late up that day, having been up studying til two or three in the morning. (While I was studying for my finals I got into strange habits of sleep. By the end, I seemed not to function before midday.) I wanted to get a few hours in before the match. The house was pretty quiet. I had an exam in Jurisprudence on the Monday. So I settled down with The Problem of Social Cost by Ronald Coase and tried to focus. To little avail. I think I managed 20 minutes. It was pointless. All I could think of was this match; it loomed large as perhaps the last best hope of achieving what had so often been reached and strived for, and of fulfilling hopes so often dashed.

I've followed this team for about seven years now. I know that doesn't equip me with the tales of olden times regularly recited by George Hook on RTE's excellent coverage, but I didn't just jump on the final/victory bandwagon, unlike some perhaps. I played rugby for a few years in school. Not to any great level mind and not with anything approaching what commentators have taken to calling "physicality" - the heavyweight collisions that mark the union game in its professional era, particularly in the dour Zurich premiership in England. All I had was a turn of pace and some basic hand-eye co-ordination. But it was enough. I learned to appreciate the (often unspoken) code of civility and sportsmanship that trickles down from the practical example of the sport's greatest exemplars, and is enforced, quite apart from sharp referees, by a sort of social sanction. You don't talk back to the ref, or you stay and clap off your opponents if you have lost because this is rugby. That sort of spirit often feeds accusations that the game is elitist, that it is the preserve of the wealthy. Maybe historically it has been, but one must not forget that the dominant sporting organisation in this country banned its members from playing any other sport, including rugby league, until the 1970's.

I experienced some of rugby's spirit and history first hand at Musgrave Park, 20 minutes by car from my home without traffic, beyond Turner's Cross. My memories of that place are of wet Friday nights or Saturday afternoons (it seems always to be raining; like McCourt's Angela's Ashes) and seeing upclose red clad Southern legends like Clohessy, Galwey and Keith Wood. There were imports, like Langford and Mullins, and more latterly Payne and Cullen, but the beating heart of the team in red was from the province itself, disproportionately from Limerick and Cork, although the Kerryman they called Gaillimh was a prominent exception to that generalisation. French, Scottish, Welsh and English teams came, saw and were (usually, though not with the same legendary constancy as the 11 year Heineken Cup record at Thomond Park) conquered and sent on their way. Other times it was the rival provinces, or the occasional A international. (The inter-provincials have disappeared to be replaced by the Celtic League.)

Since the inception of the Heineken Cup in the mid 1990's, Munster have been perhaps the most consistent side. They reached the final in 2000, losing by a short head to Northampton. I remember like it was yesterday the reaction of RTE's Jim Sherwin when O'Gara kicked that fateful late penalty and the sense of deflation as it slid by the left hand upright by the metaphorical hair's breadth. Two years later, in Cardiff, Munster fell again at the final hurdle. Folk memory in this part of Ireland recalls only Neil Back's cheating (when he knocked the ball from Peter Stringer's hands as the latter prepared to put in to a late scrum in an attackking position), but, much as with England's defeat to Argentina in the 1986 football World Cup, when looked at objectively, Leicester's win that day probably had in the last analysis more to do with technical superiority - and to an extent selectorial errors - than one well-remembered braizen illegal manouevre. Then in 2003 there was the heartbreaking semi-final defeat to Toulouse in the south of France, when O'Gara three times in stoppage time attempted drop goals that would not go over. In 2004, a teak tough London Wasps side (with Lawrence Dallaglio to the fore) had overturned a two-score deficit in the final ten minutes at Landsdowne Road and last year the Munster challenge had met another immovable object, this time Les Basques of Biarritz. In between there had been some of the great victories of modern Irish sport, not least an unexpected triumph away to Toulouse, and, of course, the Miracle Match at Thomond Park in 2003, when Munster needed to win and score four tries against Gloucester, who at the time were flying high in England. This was achieved in a style next to which Roy of the Rovers paled and displaying a courage, professionalism and determination that seemed to mark out these men as champions whose time would come.

But it was not to be that year, not just yet. The 2005 defeat against Biarritz seemed to show that when Munster faced a pack of forwards formidable to match their own, they lacked the guile and pace to switch the point of attack; in short, their backs were inferior to all other top teams when forced to play a running offensive game. The 10 man game plan seemed tired; the Holy Grail seemed further out of sight that for a number of years. Heroic failure might have suited earlier generations of Irish sportsmen, but neither professional rugby nor confident post-Tiger Ireland thought this was not enough.

Sure enough the 2006 campaign got off to a bad start. Sale Sharks saw off Munster with something bordering on ease. The doubts grew. But not where it mattered most. The maestro who had overseen their previous greatest exploits in Europe, Declan Kidney, had returned and set about overseeing what became almost from the off a rescue operation. The rescue boiled down to another January meeting at Thomond Park with a faniced English team. From O'Gara's kick-off, Paul O'Connell and Donncha O'Callaghan led a charged of men possessed and O'Connell clattered Sebastian Chabal and drove the French number 8 back. The shaken Sharks talisman seemed not to recover and Munster drove themselves on to another epic victory. Just as in '03 a bonus point for four tries was needed. And again it took until near the end for the final act. This time David Wallace picked from a ruck and went the few steps over the line, to rapturous applause. Relief and elation in equal measures. The dream was back on.

Too many times we had asked rhetorically Will this be there year? It didn't seem to work that way. In the quarter-final, Perpignan (with a set of forwards about as physically intimidating as could be rememebered) came very close to repeating the trick of dumping an Irish side out of the Cup at Landsdowne Road, but Paul O'Connell seemed to drag a disoriented Munster side through by the force of his will, his relentless driving determination. The red haired colossus was immense. The semi-final was against Leinster. Munster had usually provided the bulk of the Irish team from 1-10, while Leinster provided most of the outside backs. Certainly there can scarcely have been an occasion like it in modern Irish sporting history, let alone rugby. It was like an All-Ireland, except far more than two counties were engaged in the excitement, the build-up, the expectation. The match day was a beautiful spring day. The president met the players and the old Dublin 4 ground (which, apart from internationals in the autumn) was hosting its last match before its redevelopmemt, was bathed in sunshine. The crowd predominantly roared on the men of Munster. Leinster's eclipse was all but total. Their forwards had no answer to the zeal, the ferocious thunder and the burning tenacity of O'Connell, Flannery, Foley, Leamy and the rest. The old adage that forwards win games and backs decide by how much came true, but it wasn't until O'Gara's late line-breaking try that the result was secured. A third final was on the horizon.

And so we came to the final in Cardiff 11 days ago. Biarritz were a fearsome side, who had beaten Munster before. Key Munster players, including Horan, O'Connell and Kelly, were carrying injuries. The crowd was predominantly made up, once more, of Munster followers - French insouciance and the zeal of Munster's fans accounted for this fact. The match itself was every inch the classic encounter it had been thought might unfold, even if the quality of play inevitably eteriorated as energy sapped. Munster gave perhaps the greatest performance of all in their long history of defiance and passion on the rugby pitch. One of the greatest stories of Irish sport came to the most thrilling conclusion imaginable. I had sat and watched the dreams ofprevious campaigns being broken. Now as I watched, scarcely believing that victory was at hand, grown men could hardly contain the joy, the tears, the utter release that came with achieving a goal so highly and dearly prized. The journey had had its special moments, but none sweeter than that May day in Cardiff.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Political lobbying and the growth of government

Joe Klein of Time magazine has a new book out, called Politics Lost, with the striking subtitle "How politics was trivialised by people who think you're stupid." George Will today has a piece commenting on the book. I probably wouldn't do justice to Will's piece by summarising it, so I won't go into any detail here. Klein makes some familiar points about how (American) politics has become "dumbed down" and how a system of lobbying and influence-peddling has encrusted onto the mechanics of modern politics. That side of politics was illustrated with the allegations against Jack Abramoff recently. We saw it at work in this country when the cafe bar proposals went by the wayside. One thought I would leave you with is Will's argument that "big government begets bad politics". In other words, if government hadn't expanded so much since the 1960's there would have been no opportunity for the emergence of such widespread influence-peddling and lobbying. Of course a causal relationship doesn't excuse polticians acting in ways that benefit particular interest groups rather than the society in general. But it's a connection worth pondering nonetheless.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Economics of cows

Two exams down, three to go. I can't justify spending time creating blog posts. This post, however, required virtually no effort, since I've just cut and pasted it from an e-mail I got today. I found it hilarious. The last one made me think of the 80 votes that Bertie Ahern recently said were cast by the residents of one house of which he was aware.

You have 2 cows and you give one to your neighbour.

You have 2 cows. The Government takes both and gives you some milk.

You have 2 cows. The Government takes both and sells you some milk.

You have 2 cows. The Government takes both and shoots you.

You have 2 cows. The Government takes both, shoots one, milks the other and throws the milk away.

You have two cows. You sell one and buy a bull. Your herd multiplies, and the economy grows. You sell them and retire on the income.

You have two cows. You sell one, and force the other to produce the milk of four cows. Later, you hire a consultant to analyze why the cow dropped dead.

You have two cows. You go on strike because you want three cows.

You have two cows. You redesign them so they are one-tenth the size of an ordinary cow and produce twenty times the milk. You then create a clever cow cartoon image called Cowkimon and market them World-Wide.

You have two cows. You re-engineer them so they live for 100 years, eat once a month, and milk themselves.

You have two cows. But you don't know where they are. You break for lunch.

You have two cows. You count them and learn you have five cows. You count them again and learn you have 42 cows. You count them again and learn you have 2 cows. You stop counting cows and open another bottle of vodka.

You have 5000 cows. None of which belong to you. You charge others for storing them.

You have two cows. You have 300 people milking them. You claim full employment, high bovine productivity, and arrest the newsman who reported the numbers.

You have two cows. You worship them.

You have two cows. Both are mad.

You have two cows. You claim government subsidies for eight cows.