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The week in Finnish politics (1-6 July)

This week in Finnish politics was dominated by the results of last week’s Euro summit in Brussels (26-29/06) and the appointment of a new defence minister.

The week in began with a visit of Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen to Parliament’s Grand Committee, which deals with European affairs. In contrast with the optimism the outcome of last week’s Euro summit produced in Ireland, the mood was tense: the PM was accused of overstepping his authority in agreeing to such a deal, the legality of the direct recapitalisation of Spanish banks was questioned, and the possibility that Parliament may have to cut short its summer break was raised. Timo Soini, leader of the right-wing, nationalist Finns Party remarked to news cameras on the way into the meeting: “Spain took the football, and then the money as well”.

Many will see this comment as cheap populism, but popular patience is beginning to wear thin with how much Finland is – or is going to – pay to bail out indebted fellow EU member-states. The official line of the centre-right/socialist coalition has been one of solidarity, but with conditions – finance minister Jutta Urpilainen famously demanded collateral from Greece in exchange for Finland’s contribution to its bailout fund last year.

Mauri Pekkarinen, an opposition Centre Party MP, was one voice of dissatisfaction at Monday’s Grand Committee meeting. In his view, direct capitalisation of a nation’s banks from the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) is not in line with the Lisbon Treaty. When I spoke to him, he explained the thinking behind this provision: when governments, rather than banks, receive cash injections, it is easier to monitor how the money is spent, and to retrieve it. In his opinion, the option of helping Greece to leave the Eurozone in an organised way should be looked at. He thought that this summit deal could be another step on the road to a federal Europe. In that case, he would like matters concerning sovereignty to be decided by referendum in Finland. Finland has held just two referenda since independence in 1917, the most recent being on EU membership in 1994.

On Thursday it was Urpilainen’s turn to visit the Grand Committee. Speaking to reporters, she said that she predicted “long and difficult” discussions on the question of obtaining collateral from distressed eurozone countries, but that the government’s aim was to reach a collateral agreement before Parliament discusses the summit deal in detail. She said that obtaining collateral was a legal requirement if the indebted banks were to receive money directly from the ESM (because it does not give its creditors “preferred” status).

So that’s a cautious “yes” for aiding Europe, but with some very big “ifs”. It is my personal view that anti-European sentiment is on the rise in Finland, at least towards “southern” countries such as Greece and Portugal. This is surely something on Katainen and Urpilainen’s minds as they try to advance Finland’s views in Europe.

In home news, Carl Haglund (leader of the Swedish People’s Party, RKP) took up office as the new defence minister on Thursday. This is the first ministerial change in the Katainen government since it was formed last June. He replaces his party colleague Stefan Wallin, who resigned as party leader after he allegedly abused his position to keep the country’s only Swedish-speaking army base open among sweeping defence cuts. Haglund has previously served as an MEP (since 2009). At 33, he is the youngest member of Katainen’s cabinet (but, impressively, one of five aged under 40). One of his first statements as defence minister was on NATO and Iceland’s air space. He raised the possibility of Finland patrolling Icelandic air space in cooperation with Sweden, and described his personal attitude to NATO as “pragmatic” and free from “passion”. In his view, the current government is far more concerned with Nordic cooperation. 

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Ограничение количества митингующих

Кто-нибудь знает, по какой статье законодательства РФ можно ограничивать количества участников в акциях протеста? Ведь бред какой-то - разрешить митинг и одновременно сказать, что туда может прийти лишь столько-то людей.
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Book review: "Sunset Park" by Paul Auster

While many critics have focused on this book as either a tale of the credit crunch or an analysis of loss, for me the most striking feature of this novel was its structure. (Therefore, I have not discussed the plot here, but included a brief summary of it separately below.) I feel that this novel’s composition held back the plot and kept the characters in isolation from each other for too long. Whatever message the author had to give, its transmission was jammed by long passages of reflection and summary in which events were not shown to us directly but rather related in retrospect.

Of this book’s 305 pages, very few of them are occupied with the characters’ interactions with each other. The first part, which exposes Miles Heller and presents the conflict which drives the story forward, rightly concentrates solely on the novel’s hero, but in the next part, all 65 pages of it, that is, a fifth of the book, everything stalls and we are in turn presented to each of Miles’ housemates-to-be in a startlingly boring fashion: their past experiences and present inner selves are distilled into what are essentially fifteen-page essays. The result is reader asphyxiation: these characters are all caught in a narrative vacuum, without the ‘oxygen’ of interaction with others. The third part, devoted to Miles’ father, Morris, is similarly steeped in the past, with little action or dialogue to bring the story forward. We then return to a repeat of part two, the same Lazy Susan of individuals and their inner lives, with a maddening scattering of conflict that could have catalysed the plot. Even though one chapter here bears the name of two characters, this is misleading: their (wooden) dialogue is relegated to the last two pages, and does nothing for the story. It was at this point that I had to force myself to finish the book: knowing that there were only thirty pages left, I had serious doubts about the author’s ability to resolve all of the many storylines he had exposed.

Paul Auster has created a set of very intriguing characters who, presented in the right way, could have set off fireworks. Most of them are well-developed and have depth; the problem is that we are drawn in too deep too soon, rather than being shown a little of them at first, and then more and more as the story progresses. Similarly, he raises a wide range of themes, all rich in potential; sadly, none of them is explored to the full. Of course, Auster is an experienced writer (this is his sixteenth novel), and can bend the rules, but in this book he would have been better off with a more conventional approach to structure and characterisation. One major change I would make, if I could, would be to shift the whole storyline back to a point where the characters’ life stories, related to us retrospectively, could be played out before us. Conversely, at the other end of the timeline, I would have made the characters interact with each other much more, allowing them to talk so that we could judge them for ourselves. (And I would have enclosed that dialogue in quotation marks as per standard English – but maybe their omission is Faber and Faber’s house style.)
My overall image of this novel’s structure, while I read it, was that of a scarf knitted from strands of wool that remained separate until almost the end: while each of the strands may have been rich and colourful, they remained too far apart and failed to form a unified whole.

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Sunset Park by Paul Auster. Faber and Faber, London, 2010. 308pp. ISBN: 978-0-571-25880-2
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"You say you'll change the constitution..."

Many of you may by now have read Fintan O'Toole's article in Tuesday's Irish Times. In a nutshell, he writes that our system of government, the cabinet system, has been bypassed three times in the past three years (the blanket bank guarantee in 2008; the bailout of 2010; Budget 2012, 'leaked' to other EU states). That is, the body that should have been making collective decisions on these three issues, the cabinet, did not make them (see the article for the evidence). This violates article 28 of the Constitution of Ireland, which affirms the cabinet's exclusive role as the government of Ireland and the collective nature of its workings.

Until yesterday, I was lukewarm about radical constitutional reform in Ireland. I always felt that a mere new constitution would not be the answer to so many sub-legal problems our politics has: clientelism, tokenism, passing the buck, tribalism. I still feel this way, but am now coming round to the idea of constitutional reform as one of many engines of reform. The three breaches of articles 28 listed by O'Toole show that it doesn't matter what kind of constitution we have: it can still, apparently, be dispensed with if needs be. Reform needs to be not just of the constitution, but about how that constitution is used in public life.

A lot of commentators' venom has recently been directed against the very religious nature of the Preamble and the numerous other references to God in the current constitution. While I am for a purely secular text, I think these commentators' energy is misplaced. There is no point in merely rewriting the constitution if we still tolerate a political culture which can ignore it at will. Political reform must be a much more painful and complicated process, involving both our laws and the way we treat them. What parts of our political system reflect us as a people? Which serve the common good? Can some of the 'rot' in the system (as I see it), for example our perception of our TDs as personal string-pullers, the more local, the better, be legislated away, or is just part of our psyche and futile to try and change? 

O'Toole's article has nudged me towards supporting constant constitutional renewal, perhaps even every 19 years, as Thomas Jefferson suggested (but let's not forget that figure is based on an 18th-century life expectancy of 55). More than that, it has shown me just how removed from reality, how worn-out and hackneyed the current system is. I feel that now, after all the financial, banking and governmental scandals of the first decade of this century, Ireland has an exciting opportunity to renew itself and make itself work for all its people. To do that, we need to ask uncomfortable questions of ourselves, and not just pat ourselves on the back with a new basic law.  
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Meanwhile, in Russia [Duma '11]

Communists in Samara allegedly try to hijack a Russian Post van. In the run-up to the State Duma elections on the 4th of next month some contenders are getting a little paranoid. According to the general director of RP, Aleksandr Kiselyov, writing to the Russian Director of Public Prosecutions Yuri Chaika, at 6.30pm on Sunday a group of Communist Party members, armed with letters from Samara oblast duma deputy Aleksey Leskin, halted a van carrying international post and, despite the "postal workers' objections"*, managed to have the sealed van opened for their inspection (which can only be done, according to federal law, upon court order). They were, writes Kiselyov, looking for "black PR" - materials relating to smear campaign against the Communist Party. RP says this isn't the first incident of its kind. Aleksey Leskin himself said he knows nothing of the incident and added that it such tales were surprising in November: "the 1st of April is, it seems, a long way off". He refused, however, to say what he was doing at 6.30pm on Sunday. But he did ask that we wait "just a few days - events in Samara are going to get very interesting".

*Kommersant's diplomatic way of putting "cursing the air blue around them", I say.

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On listening to sean-nós

Listening to sean-nós singing forces you to do a lot of things differently. It’s a real re-education. First of all, if you really want to understand the words, you have to sit still and listen very hard, especially if you are not a native speaker of Irish. A few seconds of doing something else – like typing this blog post, for example – and not only have you lost the thread, but you’re out of the ‘zone’, that special state of mind in which everything else stops and you listen only to the singing. As I type, I am listening to Liam Ó Raghallaigh, sung by Caitlín Maude (1941-82), for the twelfth time. I had to listen to it: it was vaguely going around in my head about an hour ago, and now I am trying to piece it together, layer by layer, replay by replay.

Nowadays, with iPod, the more songs you have, the better, it seems. People have thousands of songs with them at any one time, but how often do they sit down to listen and re-listen to just one of them with the aim of understanding it? To be sure, most people listen to songs in their native language, sung in an easily understood fashion, but even so, I think listening to sean-nós is another way of listening to music. It’s about concentrating on less, rather than more, and appreciating and getting to know each work as fully as possible. In short, it is ‘intensive’ music consumption, rather than extensive.

Before I bought this CD, I had a notion of listening to these songs and trying to transcribe them line by line, by pausing and replaying. Now I realise that would have been murder: these songs and their texts are nothing if not taken as a whole. I’m going to have to learn the words of Liam Ó Raghallaigh the hard way: by listening, listening and listening again. This is a real meal for the senses, one that needs serious digestion.