Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: coronavirus

Coronavirus and Cronyism: Ireland

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on September 4 2020


I have often had occasion to chide some Sri Lankans about their masochistic propensity to  tout their homeland as a land like no other when it comes to nepotism, corruption, and venal politicians whose main aim is to feather their own nest rather than to meet the needs of the constituents they are rewarded handsomely to serve. The malign efforts of Sri Lankan politicians are dwarfed by the truly monumental corruption to be witnessed in the US. In the UK, the government is taking advantage of the pandemic to hand out contracts to political supporters who have no experience in epidemiological matters and the prime minister is packing the upper chamber with cronies and donors. He has even given a peerage to his own brother.

My passport is an Irish one. There are many things about Ireland of which I am proud. It has to be said that the amount of political corruption that Ireland has experienced is rather impressive for a nation of only 4.1 million people.

Ireland currently finds itself at a respectable No. 18 in the Corruption Perception Index (CPF) and it has hovered around that position for many years. Since the bad old days of Charles Haughey, there has been a general recognition that to retain its attractiveness to foreign investors, the Irish state needed to tackle a culture of corruption. The ‘brown envelope’ (or bribing of planning officials) has long been a feature of Irish life. Gombeenism describes the kind of parish-pump, pork-barrel politics in which those elected to be legislators devote themselves to cronyism and self-aggrandisement rather than honestly representing their constituents’ interests.

It is a matter of public record what a Taoiseach (or Irish Prime Minister, pronounced ‘tea-shock’) earns. On this fairly modest amount, Charles Haughey enjoyed an opulent lifestyle, including an opulent but unfortunately garrulous mistress, who even more unfortunately, was a sociable and bibulous journalist.

The McCracken Tribunal in 1997 unearthed illegal payments by businessmen into offshore accounts and Haughey faced criminal charges for obstructing the tribunal. It reported that the bribes, “when governments led by Mr Haughey were championing austerity, can only be said to have devalued the quality of a modern democracy”.

The supermarket tycoon Ben Dunne of Dunne’s Stores, on a cocaine-fuelled night in Miami, confessed to hooker about bribes he had paid Charlie as he tried to throw himself out of a hotel window. (A t-shirt popular in Ireland at the time bore the slogan: “Ben there, Dunne that, bought the Taoiseach”).

The tribunal concluded that Haughey had received around GBP 10 million from businessmen. A significant portion of funds donated for a liver-transplant operation for his former colleague Brian Lenihan was misappropriated by Haughey for personal use. Charlie’s protégé and successor Bertie Ahern presided as the youngest-ever Taoiseach over a booming Irish economy and helped bring peace to Northern Ireland. Ahern signed the cheques from the Lenihan account, and this and other matters from the past came back to haunt him, forcing Ahern to set up the Mahon Tribunal which brought about his downfall.

The Haughey case was a tipping point. For a long time, Charlie got away with it even though it was common knowledge what he was up to. There was even a measure of affection for his rascality; he was called “a cute hoor”. It is difficult to sustain this when the people are suffering and the politicians are wallowing in the trough. One definition of corruption is “the misuse of entrusted power for private gain”. For ordinary citizens, it is more up-close and personal than an abstract definition. It means citizens struggling to get what should be their right. ‘Speed money’ to fast-track public services might be seen as being akin to tipping a waiter at a restaurant, but this is part and parcel of a toxic culture.

The Irish tribunals made a difference, in that they undermined the public’s tolerance for unethical behavior, and they destroyed the culture of silence in the process. Senior politicians such as Prime Ministers Haughey (death saved him from criminal conviction) and Ahern, Foreign Minister Ray Burke (who was jailed), and EU Commissioner Padraig Flynn and his daughter, minister Beverley Flynn (who was working for a bank when, in the Hiberno-English phrase, “the firm’s cash got mixed up with their own”) were named and shamed – and they paid the price.

That the arrogance has not departed from the Irish political mindset was demonstrated by recent events. I described in these pages the furor that erupted when the parliament’s golf club decided to hold a shindig in total disregard of the rules ordinary people were trying to follow to control the spread of Covid 19. As usual, Fintan O’Toole nails it: “They didn’t see the obvious because they didn’t think they had any obligation to be aware of where they were and what they were doing.”

There were 81 people at the function, plus staff and management. There were other hotel guests who did not attend the function. One of them phoned into a radio programme and said that he had sneaked a look at the table plan for the golf club function. When he went up to his own room, he said to his wife: “There’ll be trouble with this one.”

There were ten tables. At the “captain’s table” was Noel Grealish, Galway West TD (MP) and captain of the golf society; minister for agriculture Dara Calleary and his wife, Siobhán (he resigned); and EU trade commissioner Phil Hogan (he resigned). Former Fianna Fáil minister Noel Dempsey and his wife, Bernadette, were there too.

At other tables were former Fianna Fáil TD and senator Donie Cassidy, president of the golf society. Cassidy resigned as vice-president of Fianna Fáil following the controversy. The society’s 50th anniversary event was a tribute to the late Mark Killilea, a founding member of the group and former Fianna Fáil MEP. Fianna Fáil minister and property developer Frank Fahey was also at this table. Former RTÉ radio presenter Sean O’Rourke was at another table of eight. RTÉ cancelled a number of future projects with O’Rourke, which had included a planned weekend politics show.

Also, at the table were Senator Paddy Burke and councillor Enda McGloin, who both lost the Fine Gael whip as a result of their attendance. Dr Michael Harty, former TD and chair of the Oireachtas health committee, was also at the table. John Flaherty, captain of the guard at Leinster House, who is responsible for health and safety in the Houses of the Oireachtas was there.


Supreme Court Judge and former attorney general Séamus Woulfe, who had until very recently been the State’s chief law officer overseeing the drafting of the regulations was there. He is now  facing a review by former chief justice Susan Denham into whether he should have attended the event.

Guests at Woulfe’s table included Fine Gael Senator Jerry Buttimer, who resigned as Leas Cathaoirleach (deputy speaker) of the Seanad, over the affair. Also at the table was former Independent TD Paudge Connolly,  now a Monaghan county councillor. He had recently been playing golf in Spain so should have been in quarantine.


At Table 9 was former Fianna Fáil minister of state with responsibility for older people Áine Brady and her husband, Gerry, also a former Fianna Fáil TD for Kildare.  Brady is chief executive of Third Age,  an organisation that supports older people in Ireland. Among the guests listed at Table 10 was Loman Dempsey,  a property consultant and brother of former Fianna Fáil government minister Noel Dempsey. His response to enquiries by the Irish Times was: “You are hounding everybody, so no comment and goodbye”. Martin Brett, Deputy chairman of Kilkenny County Council,  who was also at this table said attendees were being wrongly “pilloried” and anyone who resigned over the scandal should be reinstated.

Among those attending were people who had a hand in writing the guidelines they were themselves breaking; there was a doctor, former chair of the parliamentary health committee; there was the CEO of a charity for older people; there was the man responsible for health and safety in parliament; there was an experienced broadcaster known for his incisive questioning of hypocrisy. Fintan O’Toole: “Did they not grasp how profoundly insulting so many people found the idea that someone who set the rules could make an exception for himself? Did that not lodge somewhere in the well-developed part of their brains that deals with self-preservation – I’d better not do that anyhow? “

The Sri Lankan people strongly stated that they were unhappy with what the politicians had done after 2015. There are high expectations of the new government. Politicians should heed the consequences of the arrogance of the great and good in Ireland.

Covid 19 and the UK

This article was published in Ceylon Today on April 16 2020. It has been updated in the light of new information.

Sarah Hulton OBE is UK High Commissioner to Sri Lanka. She recently went on Facebook to advise any British citizens still loitering about in Sr Lanka to hie them hence smartish. She noted that some British passport holders were in Sri Lanka visiting family. She reiterated the UK Government advice that all British nationals who normally live in the UK should return to the UK now. If these people, who probably see themselves as Sri Lankans, want to stay with their families in Sri Lanka in this difficult time, why tell them to go to the UK to add to the UK’s burden? One person wryly asked why she was sending them home to a death sentence. Another asked why she didn’t go home herself and help out over there because she was not much help to us.

I had an exchange on Facebook the other day. Someone was complaining about the heavy-handed approach of the English police in their efforts to stop people spreading the virus by gathering in groups and generally wandering aimlessly about and having virus parties. Exercise was tolerated up to a point but park benches were being made inaccessible to stop people loitering. A virtual friend who has lived in Spain said she was not allowed to go walking.

I responded that where we live we were not allowed to go out at all and I was happy about that because the death toll in Sri Lanka was seven, whereas the death toll in the UK was 12,868 (more about this later). I was told that this comparison was meaningless because Sri Lanka’s population is only 21.4 million and the UK’s is 66.6 million. I decided to look at another country, one that has been praised for the way it has handled the crisis so far. Ireland, like Sri Lanka, is an island and the land mass is about the same size. The population of the Republic of Ireland is 4.94 million. As of 15 April, the Department of Health has confirmed 12,547 cases and 444 deaths. The population of Northern Ireland, which is, so far, part of the UK, is 1.8 million. The death toll there so far is 140. “The daily death toll here is not reflecting the number of people dying in care homes and that is worrying,” said Dr George O’Neill, chairman of the west Belfast federation of GPs.

There are many factors to be taken into account but I think this conveys a simple picture: in Sri Lanka seven people have died; in the island of Ireland 584 people have died; in the UK, according to official figures, 12,868 have died.

Actually, many more have died in the UK. David Ottewell is head of data journalism at the New Statesman. He writes that every afternoon, “the UK government announces a grim figure: the number of new deaths connected with Covid-19. And every day epidemiologists, journalists and assorted data wranglers add that number to their spreadsheets and use it to try to plot the extent of the disease, and its likely course.”  And, of course, to plan action. The problem is, the figure is not accurate. The government’s daily count doesn’t include people who weren’t in hospital when they died, or were never formally tested. A lot of people who are dying are frail, elderly or very seriously ill, and may have died without being taken to hospital and Covid 19 may not be the cause of death on the death certificate. Deaths in care homes are not counted. The undercounting could amount to 40%.

Care home inspectors only started asking on April 9 if residents were dying from Covid 19, a month after the WHO declared a global pandemic. Until 6 April, the Care Quality Commission did not ask for information on coronavirus deaths and only started doing so when it realised the information coming back was out of line with reports of a rising death toll.

The British High Commissioner to Sri Lanka wrote: “Serious outbreaks of coronavirus are placing a significant strain on health services globally. In the event of a serious outbreak in Sri Lanka, consular services and flights out of the country could be seriously affected. We cannot guarantee what flight options might be available if people choose to leave at a later date.”

Am I being oversensitive here, or is the High Commissioner really saying “get back to Blighty soon because when it really hits the fan these damned colonials won’t be able to cope with it”? It should be noted that many of those doing their best to cope with the crisis in the UK are immigrants. Most of the NHS staff who have died, including a Sri Lankan, Dr Anton Sebastianpillai, were immigrants, immigrants who survived the “hostile environment” created by Theresa May but perished trying to save others. One nurse who died had been photographed with Boris Johnson. He has been highly irresponsible in spreading the virus and has the Galle Face to praise the NHS for saving his life.

Perhaps nobody can be blamed for a lethal virus no-one knew about before. However, the difficulties the UK government is now enduring are down to an unpreparedness and lack of responsible planning that go back many decades and are the result of misconceived policies by Labour as well as Conservative governments. Throughout the hard times of the 1970s, British citizens were exhorted by governments, both Labour and Conservative, to tighten belts and accept wages that did not keep up with inflation. There was no evidence that the austerity was being shared across all classes.

The main onus must fall on the Conservatives with the complicity of the Liberal Democrats. I wonder if David Cameron can sleep at night? He brought in austerity with a vengeance, cutting public services beyond the bone. This meant that there were not enough police to deal with the epidemic of knife crimes. There were not enough community services to prevent vulnerable children falling into the gang culture. Then he unleashed Brexit on the nation, squandering billions of pounds on propaganda and bureaucracy which could have been put to better use by the NHS. Strange how the need for austerity ended so abruptly to allow Johnson to make the promises that won him a landslide. All that suffering was for nothing. There now seem to be limitless amounts of money to throw at the virus but the infrastructure has been sold off, mainly to foreign governments. “Taking back control?” This current unpreparedness is a direct consequence of decades of kowtowing to financial institutions through privatisation, outsourcing and deregulation. The global economy may be going to hell in a handcart but hedge fund managers like Jacob Rees-Mogg are still making a tidy profit from the suffering of others.

Prof John Ashton, a former regional director of public health for north-west England, strongly criticised the UK government for a lack of preparation and openness in relation to the pandemic. Ashton said: “We have a superficial prime minister who has got no grasp of public health. Our lot are behaving like 19th-century colonialists playing a five-day game of cricket.” The prime minister’s illness revealed what a hopeless team he has. The health secretary, Matt Hancock, is often referred to as Tigger, after Winnie the Pooh’s bouncing, optimistic companion in the AA Milne stories. Some of the bounce went out of him in a recent interview during which he seemed confused and ill-prepared. Dominic Raab will be deputizing for Boris Johnson until the prime minister recovers. Raab often looks sweaty with veins bursting and on the verge of an angry outburst. Home secretary Pritti Patel is giving confusing messages to the police and is refusing to meet the Commons select committee. This is not so much a pool of talent as a very small muddy puddle.

John Ashton accused the government of undermining public services over the past 10 years by cuts in funding of 30% to local authorities. Ashton says: ““It’s a joke when they put up people to say they are really on top of it and if it spreads at a community level the NHS will cope, it’s always coped. The hospitals are full at the moment, A&Es are full, beds are full, intensive care is full.”

The results  of The GRID index are published in a paper titled GRIDTM Index: Tracking the Global Leadership Response in the COVID-19 Crisis by the Institute of Certified Management Accountants (Australia) (ICMA).The index is designed to rank how efficient and effective the leadership of each country was and the preparedness of its health system to tackle  the COVID-19 pandemic. Top of the league is New Zealand. The USA is at number 70. One would have expected the US to rank badly after watching Trump’s clownish performances. It is perhaps a little surprising that the UK fares even worse, coming in at number 89.

Sri Lanka is ranked at number 9.

I know which country I would rather be in during this crisis.

Fragments against the Ruins

A shorter version of this article appeared in Ceylon Today on April 4 2020

Herd Immunity and Herd Stupidity

Just a few weeks ago, I wrote in this column about the dangers of isolation stemming from an addiction to smart phones and social media. Now social isolation is morally essential. Now people are being condemned for moral turpitude if they do gather together. The UK prime minister has pleaded with people to avoid social gatherings but significant numbers have defied him and flocked to pubs, national parks and beaches. Dozens of visitors to Barry Island in Wales were seen standing in close proximity as they queued to buy chips. According to the satellite navigation company Tom Tom, rush-hour traffic in London has dropped by far less than in other big cities.  Rich people are interpreting the injunction to stay at home to be permission to rush off to the second home in the country thereby placing extra strain on services in rural communities. “A national emergency shutdown of businesses and schools is not an excuse for a holiday,” said Andrew Slattery, assistant chief constable of Cumbria, whose fiefdom covers the Lake District.

Will Not Be Dictated To

The bulldog spirit means the Brits will not be dictated to just for the sake of avoiding a few thousand deaths. Analysis published by University College London found that 20 per cent of the population are in at-risk groups.  On current efforts to limit infections to 10 per cent of the UK population, 35,000 to 70,000 are likely to die.

Some are blaming the victims. Donald Trump insists on calling Covid 19 “the Chinese virus” giving permission to his supporters to assault innocent Chinese people. This brings to mind Susan Sontag’s 1978 essay “The Political Language of Disease” in which she writes: “Feelings about evil are projected onto a disease. And the disease (so enriched with meanings) is projected onto the world.”

Better in Sri Lanka

I sense that the crisis is being better managed in Sri Lanka than in the UK. There are many examples of individual cases of potentially lethal irresponsibility but not so much of the herd madness exhibited in the UK. There have been mini-riots outside liquor outlets as hundreds of men scramble to stockpile their fix. It is undoubtedly wearisome to have to stock up with essentials in the small window of opportunity provided by the lifting of the curfew. When the curfew was lifted, we ventured to the local shops and I was surprised to find very long but very orderly queues. All the people were wearing masks, standing two metres apart and quietly, patiently waiting. There have been fears that lifting the curfew for short periods will lead to panic. It does not seem to have done so far but resentment and frustration could develop.

People seem to be stoically accepting the cancelling of sporting events and other occasions for people to gather and spread the virus.  I doubt if many will be mourning the closure of one particular assembly. Parliament was dissolved and a general election announced to choose another set of pestilential rogues. The election has now been postponed indefinitely. Oh dear; how sad; never mind.

Take Stock, Don’t Stockpile

There has been a great deal of anger on social media against what some people see as smugness. Those who advocate mindfulness and mediation as a way of coping with the crisis have been roundly excoriated as being boastful about their privilege. There are heart-rending stories of people fearful of losing their livelihood and possibly homes because the virus has made employment impossible. They should not be blaming meditators for this. The virus is an “Act of God” or whatever but blame can be laid at the feet governments which over many decades cut public services to such an extent that they are too fragile to deal with such an emergency.

I recognise my own extreme good fortune in that I do not have to work for a living. I am not boasting when I just say how the crisis is affecting me. I am quite happy to impose self-quarantine without the compulsion of a curfew. The lack of opportunity to venture out leaves more space for mindfulness. I am finding that I am thinking about my actions within a concentrated and concentrating scope rather than flailing around all over the place and fooling myself that I am ‘multi-tasking’. A lot of jobs around the house are getting done after being postponed for a long time. Washing up gets done and put away in case An Inspector Calls. That pile of clothes has been ironed and put away even though I will not be going anywhere for a long time. Thoreau warned: “Beware of any enterprise that requires the purchase of new clothes”. I might adapt that and say “beware of any enterprise that requires ironed clothes”.

Make Do with What You’ve Got

There was a wartime propaganda poster that asked: “Is your journey really necessary?” One might ask today: “Is your purchase really necessary?” Before the situation became as scary as it now is, I contemplated a trip to Colombo. Then I realised that there was no real purpose to my journey. What I usually do is buy some DVDs (last time I ventured out, I noticed that my dealer was enterprising enough to have large stocks of the Steven Soderbergh movie Contagion) buy some books, have lunch. Why not stay home? I have enough books and DVDs and CDs to keep me going for several lifetimes. The curfew is giving me the opportunity to attack this backlog.

This can be transposed to a larger canvas. The god of growth has plagued the world for decades. People have worked long hours to borrow money to pay for things they don’t need to impress people they don’t like and who don’t care anyway. The dominion of the neocons brought deregulation, privatisation and outsourcing which enabled casino capitalism to bring the global economy to the edge of ruin only to be saved by renationalization and pumping in of taxpayers’ money.

Testing Positive

Anastasia Edel, writing to the New York Review of Books from Oakland: “The one thing that’s worth stockpiling is decency… Decency won’t save us, but it will make our altered lives more tolerable, come what may.” It is heartbreaking to think that as if the arbitrary suffering of a pandemic is not punishment enough there are some people who act with unreasoning malice. One English paramedic said: “Just when you thought this country couldn’t get any worse, someone comes along and drills holes in our ambulance tires. So, we’re now all off the road.” Supermarket delivery vans have been set on fire. A friend was loudly abused in a supermarket when she politely asked a man to keep the recommended distance from her. Crooks are calling on elderly people offering ‘virus testing’ so that they can steal from them. People in England are being imprisoned for spitting in the faces of police and care workers.

Against this must be balanced many acts of kindness all over the world. These are bringing the good people together in spite of the social distancing imposed by the pandemic.

Here are some inspiring and practical words by an American Buddhist priest Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi.–8cQovOc  “By taking care of ourselves we are performing an act of compassion and protecting others”. Maintain tranquility through sorrow and performing good deeds.

Shored against the Ruins

Time for reflection has spurred me to consider all those poems and books I have gestating within. I should have the time and space to contemplate how to leave something of permanent value. However, this may be a further futility. I am sobered by the prospect of the wine running out and by the thought that there is no future. Humans have driven the world to physical destruction. Global capitalism is struggling to cope with a globalized disease. We are all very frail against powerful forces but we must do our humble best even if it just means being careful and being kind to each other.

A prose poem by Kitty O’Meara has given hope to many.

“And the people stayed home. And read books, and listened, and rested, and exercised, and made art, and played games, and learned new ways of being, and were still. And listened more deeply. Some meditated, some prayed, some danced. Some met their shadows. And the people began to think differently.

And the people healed. And, in the absence of people living in ignorant, dangerous, mindless, and heartless ways, the earth began to heal.

And when the danger passed, and the people joined together again, they grieved their losses, and made new choices, and dreamed new images, and created new ways to live and heal the earth fully, as they had been healed.”


Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

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