MICHAEL CLIFFORD: The ultimate A-Z of 2016

Michael Clifford takes a look back at the past 12 months and all the ups and downs that came with it.

Axel. Anthony Foley

The word began to seep through in the early afternoon of October 16. Axel Foley had died. The 42-year-old former Munster captain and coach had been found dead in his hotel bedroom in Paris, on the morning of another big Munster match.

The ultimate A-Z of 2016

The shock that usually informs such occasions was greatly amplified in this case. Foley was, in many ways, bigger than himself. The reaction was probably best put by former Irish rugby international Hugo McNeill, who had only observed from afar Foley and the Munster team he had led through the 2000s.

“I genuinely think that what made them (Munster) special was the values they championed,” wrote McNeill. “Not values they would talk or write about but just practiced. Integrity, honesty, humility, hard work, focus on the team and not the individual, extraordinary connection with and responsibility to their native place and the people they represented.

“The profound sense of loss goes well beyond those who would normally be touched by the passing of a sportsman so young — his family, his friends, his teammates, his supporters, and broad circle of acquaintances.

“Anthony Foley built something special through harnessing the qualities and values of people at their very best.” Amen to that.

Brexit

Everybody said it couldn’t happen and then it did. On June 23, voters in the UK opted to leave the EU by a margin of 51.9% to 48.1%. The opinion polls, once again, were proved wrong as a narrow win for the ‘Remain’ side had been predicted.

“The Eurosceptic genie is out of the bottle and it will not now be put back,” said Ukip leader Nigel Farage on the day of the result. “EU’s finished. EU’s dead.”

The result delivered a political earthquake.

The next morning, Prime Minister David Cameron, who had been returned to office with an overall majority just one year previously, resigned.

The ultimate A-Z of 2016

The immediate favourite to replace him was Boris Johnson, who had led the ‘Leave’ campaign, although many believed he would have been just as at home among the ‘remains’.

His hopes were scuppered by his Leave buddy Michael Gove and Theresa May stepped into the breach to take the mantle.

Beyond the UK, the vote was greeted with shock and trepidation, nowhere more so than in this country with its long standing links — most obviously in trade — to our nearest neighbours.

An even bigger consideration and the subject of much debate since is the future of Northern Ireland and in particular the status of the border.

Over six months on, nobody really knows how big a blow — if any — Brexit will deliver to this country. Will it be a hard Brexit or a soft Brexit? May had stated that she will kick the exit mechanism off by March at the latest.

Hang onto your hat.

Centenary

Was it for this? At the dawning of the year, there was must trepidation about the forthcoming celebrations, and whether or not we could, as a nation, get through it without too much grief.

It turned out UK. We did not, as WB Yeats might have feared, “disgrace ourselves once again”. The celebrations retained a modicum of dignity, with rancour kept to a minimum. Sinn Féin was the only party to attempt to hijack the occasion for its own ends, but even that inevitable effort was half-hearted. What was highly unusual was the Shinners’ attempt to hide behind another entity in advertising its own exhibition in Dublin’s Ambassador Theatre. What were they afraid of?

The centrepiece of the commemorations was on Easter Sunday at the GPO and to be fair it showed the country and its armed forces at their dignified best. A sigh of relief all round. Leading the commemorations was Michael D Higgins who, it has to be said, represented the country only massive. At an event for relatives on Easter Saturday, he set out a nation once again.

“Our nation has journeyed many miles from the shell shocked and burning Dublin of 1916,” he said. “We can see that in many respects we have not fully achieved the dreams and ideals for which our forebears gave so much.

“A democracy is always and must always be a work in progress and how we use the independence we have ben gifted will continue to challenge us, morally and ethically.”

Dublin

The county won back-to-back football All-Irelands in 2016. Whatever, as the young people say these days.

Election, general

The country went to the polls on February 26 and returned a Dáil that heralded a new form of parliamentary arithmetic for the first time in the history of the State.

“I think we have seen a political earthquake,” said Paul Murphy of the Anti Austerity Alliance on the day of the count. “The end of the two-and-a-half party system.”

No longer would it be a case of Tweedledum Fianna Fáil and Tweedledee Fine Gael. Not quite anyway.

Fine Gael saw its representation fall from 66 to 50 seats, while Fianna Fáil came back with a bang, its compliment rising from 21 to 44. Signifi

cantly, their combined representation hit a new low, prompting calls for a “grand coalition” between the two parties.

Not on your life, came the repost from Micheál Martin. He had seen the smaller parties in various coalitions wither and die and he wasn’t going to risk that for his outfit.

The outcome was the “confidence and supply” arrangement in which Martin’s party allowed Enda Kenny’s to govern as long as they behaved themselves.

Elsewhere, Labour was devastated, returning just seven seats from 33 and Sinn Féin made modest gains increasing from 14 to 23. The big winners were the mushrooming independents.

At the time of writing, it doesn’t look as if there will be an election in the coming year. Such are the times though that at the time of reading this may well have changed.

Fatal changes in the climate

For the first time in 400 million years Antarctica reached the milestone of 400 pieces per million of carbon dioxide. This means that even the most remote part of the world has now been affected by the man made contribution to what looks like fatal climate change.

The reading was registered on May 23 and brings this outpost closer into line with the populated areas of the planet.

Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been rising since the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the Nineteenth Century, but this is really a new low for anybody who gives as much as a fig about the state of the place we’re passing onto our children.

Back home, newly minted Kerry TD Danny Healy-Rae made his contribution to the climate change debate in the Dail when he made the startling declaration on May 4: “God above is in charge of the weather and we here can’t do anything about it.”

Healy Rae further expanded on his theories later in the year when he invoked Noah’s Ark as evidence that climate change is in the hands of neither man nor beast.

His views resonated around the world, and, to be fair to him, at least he had the courage of his convictions by declaring where he stood. Unfortunately, the year gone by was another in which the body politic in general — or at least that element of it that accepts climate changes — tried best to ignore the phenomenon.

Garda

They haven’t gone away, you know. Garda controversies that is. In May, following the publication of the O’Higgins report into Garda malpractice, this newspaper revealed that behind the closed doors of the commission there had been an attempt to discredit Garda whistle-blower Maurice McCabe.

The commission had been told that evidence would be heard to the effect that McCabe was motivated by a grudge against a superintendent.

Following the production by McCabe of a tape recording of a meeting, that line of attack was discontinued. The incident did not feature in the final report of retired judge Kevin O’Higgins. GSOC is investigating the matter.

Then in early October, this newspaper revealed that two protected disclosures had been made to the justice minister alleging that a campaign “to bury” McCabe had been conducted by senior gardaí.

One of the disclosures was from former head of the Garda press office, Superintendent David Taylor, who admitted his role in such a campaign. That is also being investigated.

What emerged from the two incidents during the year is that despite alleged changes and new structures, much seems to remain as it always was within the force.

Also in October, the country came within 24 hours of a Garda strike, with both the GRA and ASTI threatening to down batons over pay. The Government caved in at a cost of €50m and a longer term levy of further unrest in the public sector.

Housing crisis

By February, the numbers on local authority housing waiting lists had topped 140,000. This figure, while shocking, was dwarfed by the real human stories that tumbled into the public domain during the year of people living in temporary accommodation.

In Dublin alone the numbers rose to 4,000 during the year, including nearly 1,000 children being forced to grow up in a restricted environment where ordinary developmental aspects to their lives are highly restricted.

In July, the Government announced an action plan to tackle the crisis, with pledges to greatly increase supply of housing and to ensure nobody is sleeping in temporary accommodation by the middle of next year.

Skyrocketing rents remains one of the main drivers of homelessness. In December, the Government announced a plan to tackle the problems of renting, including measures to arrest rising rents to apply exclusively to Dublin and Cork. The New Year is unlikely to see an easing on homelessness but if the plans are not shown to be working, further pressure will mount on the Government.

Ireland, the rugby team

God be with the days when Irish rugby was summed up by Mick Doyle thus: “The situation is desperate but not serious.”

In 2016, the national side achieved that which none of their predecessors managed in 111 years: Beat the All Blacks.

The historic victory was achieved in the novel venue of Soldier Field in Chicago on November 5, with a clear scoreline of 40-29.

Grown men were apparently weeping in the stadium when the final whistle sounded in front of 63,000 fans. Back in the old country, the news was received mainly on Twitter as the historic occasion was confined televisually to one of the cable channels. T’would never have happened in Dolyer’s time, but that’s professional sport for you.

Meanwhile, there was further evidence it wasn’t all a flash in the pan with a victory over Australia weeks later to complete the Autumn series. Irish rugby is no longer desperate but it’s getting more serious by the day.

John Carney, writer/ director of ‘Sing Street’

Irish film continued to thrive this year and just as the curtain came down on 2016 it was announced that Sing Street was in the frame for a Golden Globe.

Carney, who kicked off his big-time career with the hit Once, wrote and directed this comedy-musical, drawing on his own adolescence in Dublin town in the 1980s.

The movie pings along on a feel-good wave and utilises some of the best young native talent around. A minor criticism would be the accent deployed by Jack Reynor, which only came into use about 20 years after the movie’s setting.

Still, it was a good outing which won at the box office and received a clutch of positive reviews, the latter best summed up by the trade magazine Variety: “Perched on a tricky precipice between chippy kitchen-sink realism and lush wish-fulfilment fantasy, this mini-Commitments gets away with even its cutesiest indulgences thanks to a woolly lovable ensemble of young Irish talent and the tightest pop tunes — riffing on Duran Duran and the Cure with equal abandon and affection.”

Kardashian, Kim

Soon after midnight on October 3, armed robbers entered the Paris apartment where Kim Kardashian was staying, tied her up, and robbed her of €8m worth of jewels.

Kardashian is famous for being famous. She became famous through social media, where, a few days before the robbery, she displayed some of her jewellery. In terms of celebrity news, this was out of the ballpark, out of this world, out of, like, the stratosphere. Totally.

The ultimate A-Z of 2016

While the event was traumatic for the star — that word is used loosely these days — commensurate sympathy was in relatively short supply. If you’re going to advertise your jewellery and give your bodyguard a night off to go on the town, what do you expect?

The event prompted Kardashian to declare she “wanted to be alone”. Her life on social media died. Six weeks later it was resurrected and a celebrity media industry breathed a sigh of relief.

Loach, Ken

It is quite possible that Ken Loach thinks Kim Kardashian is a newly discovered planet in the outer reaches of the galaxy. Loach, a director of long-standing repute, made I, Daniel Blake in his 80th year.

The ultimate A-Z of 2016

The movie documents the plight of a middle-aged man who, following a heart attack, finds himself at the mercy of the benefits system in the UK.

What unfolds is a Kafkaesque journey through modern Britain as lived by those on the margins. It makes for riveting viewing and depressing reflection.

This was the second time that Loach won the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes — the other occasion was for his west Cork Civil War movie, The Wind That Shakes The Barley.

Migration

This continued, throughout the year, to be the world issue that is only whispered within the border of the Irish Republic. In 2016, the final figure for migration to OECD countries is expected to well exceed the 4.8m for the previous year.

During the year, thousands more fled war-ravaged Syria and other trouble spots, but the long-term trends are likely to show far greater numbers leaving sub Sahara Africa fleeing climate change.

The ultimate A-Z of 2016

In October, the French authorities moved to break up the refugee camp that had grown up in Calais over the previous decade. The break-up resulted in up to 1,500 unaccompanied minors being scattered throughout France.

Here, Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald pledged that this country would take in 200 of these minors and a motion to that effect was passed in the Dail on November 10.

On the basis of the snail-like pace in the take-up of refugee quotas from Syria it remains to be seen whether or when these children will receive sanctuary here.

For the most part, this country has remained removed from the upheaval that is occurring throughout Europe in relation to thousands fleeing war in search of a better life.

Nobel prize for literature

Oh where have you been my blue eyed son? The question was on the lips of the great and good who gathered in Stockholm on December 10 for the ceremony to award the Nobel prize for literature to Bob Dylan.

It was as he didn’t really care.

Sometimes no one wants what you got, sometimes you can give it away. In fact, they say that vanity got the best of him but he sure left here in style. When the announcement was made on October 13 they couldn’t find the man to let him know he was in the bigtime. Dylan must have thought it was all a cod, or, as he pointed out on another occasion: “Someone’s got it in for me, they’re planting stories in the press.”

He could have shown up and told the august gathering that you’ve got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend. But instead, he sent his messenger on Earth, Patti Smith. And if you’re going to send somebody in the place of Bob Dylan, who better than Patti Smith?

Dylan hit 75 in 2016, but he’s still on the road, headin’ for anther joint. Maybe he just stared from a different point of view. Maybe he’s just tangled up in blue.

Olympic Games

Rio de Janerio was the spot for this year’s jamboree, and it turned out to be a notable Games for this country.

The bad news emanated from an alleged ticket scandal which ended with the arrest of the Irish Olympic supremo, Pat Hickey. Home for Christmas after spending weeks in a Rio prison, Hickey has vowed to clear his name.

The ultimate A-Z of 2016

The good news was the medal winners. Annalise Murphy came back from a disappointment at the London Games to win a silver medal in sailing.

But the main event was Paul and Gary O’Donovan from Skibbereen who became overnight national heroes following their second place in the men’s lightweight double skulls.

“Mick Conlon said he’d box the head off us if we didn’t get gold,” Gary told TV viewers on the day of their success.

The ultimate A-Z of 2016

When asked what strategy they employed, Paul laid it out in simple terms.

“It isn’t too complex really,” he said. “Just A to B as fast as you can go. Close your eyes and pull like a dog.”

Panama papers

Through the first week in April, a number of European and world media organisations published details of the ‘Panama papers’, which gave a glimpse of how the other half lives.

The 11.5m leaked documents originated in a Panamanian law firm, Mossack Fonseca, and showed how the wealthiest people in the world squirrelled away their money. Most of it was entirely legal, but the detail was shocking in that it demonstrated how the wealthiest people in the world managed to avoid the taxes that the rest of us are forced to pay.

The leaker, known only as John Doe, issued a statement on May 6 saying his motivation in disseminating the information was the growing income inequality across the world.

Naturally, there were Irish names among the list of the great and the good who felt it necessary to use the Panamian firm. A number of Irish individuals and companies were among those exposed, although there was nothing to suggest anything illegal about their offshore activities.

The one involvement that did raise eyebrows was that of Frank Flannery, a former leading stratagist for Fine Gael and frequent media contributor on matters political.

The papers suggested Flannery received a loan of £250,000 to buy a house in London in the 1990s backed up by a letter of security from an off-shore company based in Jersey. Effectively, this company was letting the bank know that Frank was good for the money if anything went sour. Frank revealed he knew nothing of this security, it was all a mystery to him. That wasn’t good enough for Fine Gael’s political opponents who wanted to know some more. As of yet, nothing has been forthcoming.

Meanwhile, the Green Party’s Eamon Ryan suggested that Irish legal and accountancy firms should be brought before a Dáil committee to examine whether they have any role in major tax avoidance.

“It would be really useful to hear from Irish law firms to see if they’ve had any dealings with this firm,” he said. “There’s a trillion euro lost in corporate taxes through very questionable tax-avoidance measures. Everyone is beginning to realise the game is up.”

Quotas

Firstly, there were gender quotas applied to the general election. Parties that did not have 30% female candidates lost half of their state funding. As it turned out, there were ten extra women elected in February, the compliment rising from 25 to 35 in the 168-seat Dáil. Only four of the extra ten came from parties subjected to gender quotas.

In December, it was announced that the boards of sporting bodies would now be subjected to gender quotas. The jury is still out on the effectiveness of the measure.

Republic of Ireland

It was a good year, not a great year for the Irish soccer team. Ah well, OK, it was as good a year as could ever have been expected, which is close enough to great.

The draw for the summer’s Euro 2016 tournament was tough as nails with the Republic thrown in Group E with Italy, Sweden, and Belgium.

Things started off fair to middling with a draw with Sweden but it all went downhill four days later when we were driven from the game in a 3-0 defeat to Belgium.

Glorious exit awaited once more in Lille, but up popped Robbie Brady to head a sublime cross from Wes Hoolahan to the Italian net and the whole country was into the COYBIG (come on you Boys in Green).

The last-16 loss to hosts France on June 26 was inevitable, but it had been a fine tournament for Martin O’Neill’s side. The only downer was the constant banging on about being the best fans in the world. Time to move on from that canard.

Better was to come. On November 12 in a magical night in Vienna, the Boys in Green beat Austria to go top of the World Cup qualifying group. Things are looking up for the first time in a long time. Steady as she goes.

So

So, this is how we all begin sentences these days as if talking to a child. The year just past saw the proliferation of ‘so’ as a prefix to most sentences. Ask a politician what he is going to do about the country. “So, we’re going to…” Ask your friend what they did last night. “So, we started off by…” And on it goes.

This abomination on modern discourse was traced by the journalist Michael Lewis to Silicon Valley in California where geeks first began using it to explain their latest discoveries on how to exploit d’internet. As in, “So, I’ll just explain this to you as if you’re a six-year-old.”

People used to use so in its proper context. The difference is clear to students of the most basic linguistics. The old so went like this: “So, how are you.” The new, objectionable so goes like this: “So, this is how I am…” The whole world is now subservient to the language that emanates from a collection of geeks whose only contribution to modern culture is how to exploit global communication. The year just gone has seen an explosion in this “so” business to an extent that things can’t possibly get worse in the year to come, so they can’t.

Trump, Donald

He started out as a joke and ended up as Time magazine’s Person of the Year. Oh yeah, and along the way he was elected to be the next president of the US.

They said it couldn’t happen and then it did. On November 8, Donald Trump, a businessman with a dodgy record and reality TV persona, won the US presidential election.

His victory came in the face of polls that largely plumped for a narrow win for his opponent, Hillary Clinton, but opinion polls are so yesterday right now.

The ultimate A-Z of 2016

Along the way, Trump managed to abuse and demean women, various nationalities, minorities, the odd person with a disability, and anybody whom he regarded as worthy of targeting in pursuit of votes in the nearest gutter.

On the night of his election, he proclaimed: “America will no longer settle for anything less than the best. We must reclaim our country’s destiny and reclaim our bold and daring. I want to tell the world community that while we will always put America’s interest first we will deal fairly with anyone.”

The inference that the outgoing US administration didn’t put America first played into his campaign rhetoric, which was slick and largely bogus but did hit a chord with those who feel left behind.

Now he is the man. Since his election he has put together a team of billionaires for a cabinet and is destined to generate huge news in the months and years ahead. Whether that news will all be bad and sour remains to be seen.

United Nations Year of the Pulses

Bet you didn’t know that about 2016? Yes, it was the designated Year of the Pulses, in order to raise awareness of the nutritional benefits of pulses.

This is largely to ensure that this basic and nutritious food is appreciated for its value in terms of ease of production as well as food safety. At a time of food shortages and global upheaval, the reasoning behind it is obvious.

As it happens the year of the pulses largely passed most of you by, but if you recall at any stage during the year tucking into lentils, beans, peas, or chickpeas you can give yourself a retrospective pat on the back.

Vulture Funds

One of the more enraging — and totally accurate — headlines during the year read: “Vulture funds are feasting tax free on carcass of our property crash”. During the year it emerged that a host of these vulture funds had arrived in the country, bought property on the cheap from Nana and set up vehicles that ensured they paid little or no tax.

Independent TD Stephen Donnelly made much of the running on this story, illuminating the detail of the unfolding scandal by giving the example of Mars Capital.

“In spite of annual revenues in year one of over €14m, Mars Capital paid a total corporation tax to the Irish State of €250,” he said.

This contrasts with a worker on the minimum wage who might be serving you burgers or cleaning toilets who hands over €887 in tax every year. Belatedly, the Government moved to sort the thing out, but the whole affair showed how skewed is the pitch in favour of those with major wealth.

Wogan, Terry

Britain’s favourite Irishman died on January 31 at the age of 77. He had enjoyed a long career in radio and television, which began in RTÉ but flourished on emigrating across the Irish Sea.

The ultimate A-Z of 2016

While he was admired and respected in his native country, he was regarded as a “national treasure” in his adopted one.

Xenophobia

Where do you start? The two biggest political events of the year, Brexit and Trump, were laden with xenophobia, although there was more involved in both.

It was, however, the year when the fear, and in some cases, hatred, of “the other” really came to the fore.

Year the music died

By any standards, it was a savage year for the taking of musical talent from this world. David Bowie and Leonard Cohen, who had reached the ages of 69 and 82, respectively, were legendary, and both created bodies of work in the months before their deaths. Both are haunting testimonies to the dying of the light.

Others who departed the stage included country music’s legendary outlaw Merle Haggard at the age of 79; one of the two driving forces behind The Eagles, Glen Frey, at 67; Maurice White, founder of Earth, Wind & Fire at 54, George Michael just last week at age 53, and Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane who was 74.

Possibly the most tragic, the most needless death, was that of Prince who died alone at home after an apparent overdose of prescription drugs. He had been taking drugs for some time to combat the pain in his aging bones from decades of on-stage exertions. He was only 57 when he died, with plenty of music still inside him.

Zebo, Simon

See, got you again. You thought the Z would have me flummoxed, but no, Mr Zebo has come to the rescue.

The ultimate A-Z of 2016

The year saw Simon Zebo play some rugby and get injured and play some more. He’s a good player rather than a great player, and while 2016 was not his best year, neither was it his worst.

But the main thing in this piece is that his surname begins with a Z. And for that we are eternally grateful.


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