I’m about to sit down with M to watch the final of Britain’s Got Talent and just wanted to write my thoughts on “THE SUSAN BOYLE PHENOMENON”. I haven’t actually followed the series and so have only seen clips of the lady herself sing but that doesn’t really matter as the story of the Susan Boyle Saga is the crazy attitudes of both supporters and detractors in a typical example of overreaction to a “celebrity” story in Modern Britain.

The reaction to her initial appearance on the show was obviously manipulated to play on the audience’s preconceived notions of what a pop singer should look like and, perhaps more importantly, our notion of what somebody who looks like Susan plays on modern reality talent shows. So when she opened her mouth to sing, everybody was shocked at how good she was (because as everybody knows, there is an scientifically proven correlation between vocal chords and looks).

So then Susan Boyle became some sort of inspirational elixir to the current ills of society – and that she was able to do all this in spite of her looks made her story all the more inspirational. But even in her triumph, her looks were always considered central to her being – she gained the horrifically patronising moniker “The Hairy Angel”. And stories about what would be done to “fix her up” abounded in the tabloid press.

And then the worm turned fully (as it always does when the British Tabloid Media is involved) as she was accused of a four-letter rant backstage, although this was apparently aimed at a British Tabloid Journalist (something which should be compulsory) and was subjected to scathing criticism by Strictly Come Dancing judge Craig Revell Horwood, who said “I think Susan Boyle sucks and I’ll tell you why – she can’t sing and that really bugs me. [She] sings as bad as she looks.” There were rumours that she might quit.

So let’s get this straight – Susan Boyle is not The Second Coming, but neither is she a talentless freak – she’s a regular woman who, from what I have heard, has a very good voice and I wish her well tonight and in the future.

Democracy is sometimes described as an inherently European and American ideal, that can’t work in places like the Middle East. This view is peddled mainly two groups – firstly by those who believe in inherent Western superiority over a supposedly inherently backwards East; secondly by those in the Mid-East who gain from maintaining the status quo of Religious Theocracy or Absolute Monarchy. However a brief look at history shows that the idea that Democracy is inherent to and only applicable to Europe and North America is a myth and this provides hope for the spread of Democracy to places where it doesn’t exist.

Firstly, Democracy in the Western World is still a relatively recent development. A little over twenty years ago, all of Eastern Europe was under the yoke of Totalitarian Communism, whereas since the fall of the Berlin Wall, eight of these countries have progressed enough to join the European Union, while another handful have functioning democracies, waiting to accede. In the early ’70s, Spain and Portugal were Fascist Dictatorships and of course the Fascism of Hitler and Mussolini removed democracy all over Europe in the 30s and 40s.

Even in countries who would be seen as having a long unbroken history of democracy, the Universal Suffrage we take for granted nowadays only came in gradually: Universal Male Suffrage only occurred widely in the late nineteenth century; Female Suffrage followed in first half of the twentieth; and of course African-American Suffrage was shamefully delayed until 1964.

And as regards the belief that Democracy is solely a European or American construct, this can be dismissed simply by answering the question: which country is the largest democracy in the world? The answer is, of course, India. And there are numerous other non-Western countries with solid democracies – Japan and South Korea to name two. South America has made a reasonably successful transition from the Military Juntas of the seventies to multi-party elections. Africa’s experience has been more difficult, yet even here there is hope, notably in Liberia where the inspirational Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has overseen her country’s transition from war-torn nation to burgeoning democracy.

I believe that Democracy is a universal ideal, which should be spread across the globe. It gives people the right to choose their own destiny and the opportunity to dismiss leaders who let them down. I feel that we, who live in democratic countries, should support its spread. However, I would warn that the military imposition of “democracy” such as what happened in Iraq, where it is carried out for selfish geo-strategic reasons rather than genuine support for the spread of democratic values, can in the long-term lead to devastating consequences (even here I was moved and encouraged by the Iraqi people’s enthusiasm for voting). The movement towards democracy must originate within a country, if it is to take hold.

And so to today: the next significant battle for democracy is being waged in the Iranian presidential election taking place on June 12th, where the government has removed Facebook from the internet there, after reformist candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi set up his own page there. So it’s now up to the people of Iran to send a message to their theocratic leaders that this is not acceptable. I hope that you, he good people of Iran (if any of you happen upon this blog, assuming WordPress hasn’t also been removed) to reciprocate America’s choice of a leader willing to talk by electing a president wishing to do likewise, so that the world can move well away from the brink of self-destruction.

P.S.: For anybody who thinks an Irishman living in the UK has no right to tell Iranians how to vote please read my earlier post: Why Election ’08 Matters to Non-Americans as my reasons are similar

OK, everybody else has being doing their reviews of the first 100 days of Obama’s presidency, so why can’t I? No responses to that question please, it’s rhetorical and I’m going to do this anyway. So here goes…

Overall I think Obama has done well, with important steps being taken on a number of fronts. However, there have also been a number of dumb (albeit ultimately inconsequential) missteps:

Important Step#1: The economy – as the banking crisis developed in late last year, Obama must have thought to himself “Damn, why didn’t I wait until 2012/2016 to run?”. But he’s handled the crisis admirably with the passage of his stimulus package. I know Paul Krugman believes that it should have been larger and I understand where he’s coming from but I also acknowledge that quick passage of the bill was an important factor and to get bogged down by trenchant Republican opposition could have been more disastrous for the economy than the package’s imperfections and omissions. So he compromised just enough to appease just enough Republican senators to pass it. As regards Republicans who say there was no compromise, well there’s a significant proportion of tax cuts, which is enough compromise to those who lost and lost badly. The likely Republican solution, 100% tax cuts focused on the rich (If Plan A fails, fall back on Plan A), would have condemned us to years of Depression.

Dumb Misstep #1: Whoever chooses gifts for foreign dignitaries really needs to do better. Seriously, Gordon Brown gives Obama a pen-holder carved from the wood of a nineteenth-century anti-slavery ship and Obama responds by giving him a selection of DVDs! Come on, a little thought please – Gordon Brown could have ordered them to 10 Downing Street from Amazon.com! There is no ban on American movies in the UK! And then Hillary Clinton gives her Russian counterpart a cheap button with the Russian word for “Reset” on it. Could it BE any more embarrassing…Oh yeah, it didn’t actually have the word for “Reset” on it, it had the Russian word for “Overcharge”!

Important Step #2: Repairing America’s relationship with the rest of the world: Obama has worked overtime to signal a change from the arrogance of the Bush Era. He played his part, but wasn’t overbearing at the G20 conference, he explicitly said that America was not at war with the Muslim World in Turkey, he signalled a willingness to use negotiation to deal with Iran, the Taliban, Cuba, Venezuela (not getting fazed by Chavez’ grandstanding) and, possibly most significantly, went over the heads of Iran’s leaders to appeal directly to it’s people. (note-Iranian election coming up on June 12th – come on bloggers – it’s a chance to get rid of Ahmadinejad)

Dumb Misstep #2: Bowing to the Saudi King – The Leader of The Free World should not be seen to be grovelling to an oppressive, unelected absolute monarch. If he wants to show respect for other people’s customs, that’s normally a good thing – for example, a quick bow to the Japanese PM, who in turn bows as a show of mutual respect, is fine. However, this deep bow while King Abdullah looks all smug¬† was a craven and unnecessary act of deference.

Important Step #3: Signalling the beginning of the end of the worst abuses of the Bush Administration: explicitly saying that America will no longer torture, arranging the closure of Guantanamo Bay, and setting a timetable for withdrawal of American troops from Iraq – I’m a little disappointed that it’s slower than he had pledged, but if he sticks to it I won’t be too unhappy.

Dumb Misstep #3: The low-flying “Photo Op” over New York – that was incredibly stupid and insensitive and whoever came up with it should immediately own up and resign.

There are many other aspects of Obama’s first 100 that I could go into because a)the results won’t be known for a while (eg response to Swine Flu outbreak and b) to do so would upset the symmetry of this blog and make it interminable. But overall based on what we’ve seen, I still think there’s plenty of reason to believe that Barack Obama will be a very good, possibly even a great, president. And I’m sure as hell glad we’re not facing this time of crises with John McCain and Sarah Palin leading us.


The day all of Ireland has been waiting for has arrived. In about ten minutes Irish rugby’s Golden Generation kick off their attempt to cement a place in history and become the second Irish team to complete a Grand Slam in the Five/Six Nations Championship, the first since 1948, by beating Wales. If they do beat Wales, or even lose by less than 13 points, they will win the Championship since 1985, the earliest one I have a decent memory of. I remember fondly Trevor Ringland’s late winning try against Scotland; I didn’t see the 15-15 draw against France but read that it was a brutally physical contest; I watched Ringland chasing Michael Bradley’s precision crossfield kick to the corner to get the ball down a millisecond before a Welsh defender and Keith Crossan scampering over the try-line to seal our first win at Cardiff Arms Park in over 20 years; and of course the finale against the Old Enemy, England, at Lansdowne Road: I missed the first-half as I was en-route to visit cousins and didn’t see Brendan Mullin’s chargedown, leading to his own try. Just after I started watching Keith Underwood went over in the corner to give England the lead and put them in pole position. A Michael Kiernan penalty brought us level before the pivotal moment. Ireland had a line-out in the English half and captain Ciaran Fitzgerald turned to his tired players and screamed “COME ON, WHERE’S YOUR F**KING PRIDE?”. The giant Donal Lenihan claimed the lineout and charged into the English “22”. From the resultant ruck, Michael Bradley whipped a pass to Kiernan, who set himself before kicking a beautiful drop goal, clinching the championship and sending Lansdowne Road wild with joy.

So here we are 24 years later. As I said earlier, this is Ireland’s Golden Generation, the best rugby team we have ever had. However, in spite of a number of near-misses (and three very creditable Triple Crowns), they have they have not won a championship. A number of this team are in the twilight of their careers so this may be their last chance at glory. In this endeavour, the mental attitude of the team is paramount, as I believe beating Wales is well within their playing abilities, however sometimes they tend to let nerves get to them and this could be their downfall. When I think of what’s required today from the Irish team in terms of that attitude I think back to the 2002 football World Cup game against Cameroon and what Mick McCarthy wrote on a board after a jittery first-half performance: “NO REGRETS”. The team must not be afraid to perform to their best by the enormity of the occasion and must leave everything on the pitch because this is their time.

COME ON IRELAND!!!!

Iraqi journalist Muntazer al-Zaidi was sentenced to three years in prison today for throwing his shoes at George W Bush on the 15th of December. This to my mind is a disgracefully harsh sentence. If Iraq wants to be seen as a mature democracy, this overreaction to a very mildly violent political protest is not going to help its cause. Protests in this vein happen regularly in democratic societies: in the 1970s Richard Nixon was egged in Ireland by an anti-war protestor; a few years back here in the UK,  John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister at the time, had an egg thrown at him by a farmer. His response? He punched the protestor and got into a scuffle. Prescott also got soaked by a jug of iced water thrown over him by a member of the band Chumbawumba, in support of striking Liverpool dockers, at the 1998 Brit Awards; only last week an environmental protestor threw green custard over Peter Mandelson, the Business Secretary, to express opposition to his support for a third runway at Heathrow Airport.

Now I understand that it’s open to debate whether this type of action is effective or appropriate, however I cannot see of any argument that could justify a prison sentence of three years, in what is likely to be a very harsh environment, being doled out to a journalist, who had been a law-abiding citizen up to this point. He has even been a victim of kidnapping himself and family members were arrested under Saddam Hussein’s regime. His weapon of choice, his shoes, show that his primary intent was to deliver an Iraqi insult, not to seriously injure Bush. Even if he had connected, he would have done no more damage to Bush than the President had done to himself with a pretzel. Bush himself was able to joke about the “attack” in the immediate aftermath and we have all had a good laugh since.

But the joke is now over – al-Zaidi’s lawyer’s plan to appeal and I hope they succeed in getting his sentence reduced significantly. In truth the time he has already served has been too harsh. In genuinely free societies, which Bush has claimed Iraq is now, people must feel free to express political opinion in a sometimes fiery manner, without fearing disproportionate reprisals from the authorities. Otherwise the country starts to look more like a police state.

PS – do you know of an incident of something non-lethal being thrown at a politician? Leave a comment and we can build a dossier.

I feel sorry for football/soccer fans in the United States – competing with American Football, Basketball, Baseball and Ice Hockey, their sport is treated as an afterthought in the American media, their league is treated as a joke by other major footballing nations, some are forced to groundshare in cavernous stadia where any efforts to create atmosphere is lost to a great extent and where you’re not sure where, exactly, the pitch perimeter is because there are American Football markings on the field of play.

And yet they turn out in their tens of thousands every week to support the sport they love. Over the past decade or so they have developed a stable league with a future seemingly assured, in the absence of major stars – even rising American stars are quickly snapped up by the major European clubs. A league-wide salary cap ensured financial stability. And then two years ago, one of their constituent clubs, the appropriately titled LA Galaxy, reached for the stars. Under new “designated player” rules, they announced a blockbuster deal to bring one of the world’s stars, David Beckham, to play in the MLS.

It seemed like a mutually beneficial deal. Out of favour with Fabio Capello at Real Madrid and with his international career seemingly over, it gave Beckham a lucrative opportunity to extend his career. In return, as one of the world game’s most marketable stars, he would draw attention to the Galaxy and, by extension, the league. He made a lot of positive (although somewhat squeaky noises) about what a great challenge this was for him and how he was looking forward to promoting the league.

However, right from the start, his commitment seemed to be less than 100%. Still contracted to Real Madrid, he wouldn’t arrive for the Galaxy until months into the new US season, and then after a long, hard Spanish season where he had picked up various knocks and would not appear on the field immediately. After recovering from these he finally started playing and, while he did contribute to some victories for the Galaxy and attracted big crowds to games in Boston and New York, he had arrived too late to salvage his team’s season. And then England came calling. After playing pretty much non-stop for over a year he suddenly flew from LA to London to play in a pretty meaningless international friendly and picked up another injury. So his first season was pretty much a washout.

Last year he had a more uneventful season at the Galaxy (again failing to make the playoffs) but his eye seemed to be always on extending his international career. So when Fabio Capello intimated that he would have to be playing regularly over the MLS close season to keep fit for the Spring internationals, a loan deal was set up to take Beckham to AC Milan. But of course he would be returning for the start of the new MLS season in March, he said. Then after a few games his tone changed…he was really enjoying his time in Milan and how great it would be if he could stay. And then the club got involved…and then the agents…and the whole saga took on an air of inevitability.

The Galaxy tried to put up a fight: first they insisted that Beckham would be returning in time for the MLS kick-off; then they slapped a $10 million price on his head. But of course it was a losing battle for them. At the time of writing the new deal sounds something like this: Beckham will play in Italy until the end of the season, will return to the Galaxy in July, before rejoining Milan next winter. So what’s the betting that he will either a) stay in Milan throughout the summer or b) will return to the US briefly only to return to Europe in time for the new Italian season.

Basically Beckham has treated the MLS and its fans with utter contempt, seeing them only as a cash cow vehicle for his own career rehabilitation and running off as soon as a more glamorous suitor arrived on the scene. This will be a big blow for the league as those who came through the turnstiles, curious to see a big footballing star, will drift away from the sport, leaving only a hardcore of passionate fans. It may survive, it may not. But if Beckham does come back in the summer, I suggest that wherever he goes to play, he is roundly booed as a form of protest at this blatant display of disloyalty and disrespect towards fans of the game that gave him so much.

I nearly tore my hair out watching Ireland play England in rugby yesterday. Ireland were victorious, 14-13, in a performance that the phrase “winning ugly” could have been invented for. Beating the “old enemy” is normally a cause for wild celebration, but on this occasion my major reaction at the final whistle was a big-ass sigh of relief.

This is not how it should have been. The current Irish squad is almost definitely THE best Irish rugby side ever. We have a wealth of talent in all areas of the team – a pack capable of dominating the impact areas and lineouts, an out-half (Ronan O’Gara) who is capable of pinning opponents back again and again with raking kicks to the corner and punishing their indiscipline by racking up penalty points, and talented runners throughout the backs including, of course, a world-class centre and leader in Brian O’Driscoll. They were on a high after defeating France (our bogey team for as long as I’ve been watching the Five/Six Nations) and are on course for only our second ever Grand Slam. The current English team is relatively weak and played poorly yesterday – they gave away numerous penalties and had two players sent to the sin bin for ten minutes. And yet we were only clinging on at the end. Our performance was tepid and one-dimensional and O’Gara missed four kicks, which would have put the result beyond doubt much earlier.

The reason? In my opinion, there’s a problem that has afflicted Irish sports stars for decades – we aren’t comfortable with being considered favourites, being far more comfortable with the tag of underdogs, happier with “doing our best and seeing how it goes” than aiming for victory. Now the Irish rugby team have made big strides in their approach to games – in previous years they relied on disrupting opponents’ gameplans in the hope of snatching a win here and there. Now there is a genuine pattern to our play and an aim to win on our own merits. But the team still doesn’t seem to accept that they are better than other teams and that they should be able to brush opponents aside with contempt. They have won three Triple Crowns in recent years but haven’t won the championship or Grand Slam. On the BBC after the game even Keith Wood, the former Irish captain (who himself railed against the attitude of accepting “moral victories”), was predicting that Declan Kidney, the Irish manager, would downplay our chances against Scotland to such an extent that, by the time the game starts, Scotland would be favourites! And Scotland are currently worse than England!

Seriously, if the Irish rugby team doesn’t have a sports psychologist (and I can’t find one on their website), they need to get one immediately to salvage our best chance at a Grand Slam and Six Nations Championship in years, if not ever. They need to get their heads around the fact that they are a great team who are not just capable of defeating anybody else, but SHOULD beat almost any other team comfortably. They should go to Scotland accepting the favourites tags and ready to play up to it, not become paralysed by nerves from being associated with the title and the enormity of what they could well achieve. After all, the most successful Irish sports stars last year, namely Padraig Harrington and the Olympic Boxing Team, used sports psychologists. So come on lads, get on that couch, close your eyes and start to visualise victory.