Next to Muammar Gaddafi, Ivory Coast’s Laurent Gbagbo probably is one of the most vilified men on the planet, which makes it all the harder to remember he once was a shining hope for his country, and for Africa.
That was more than two decades ago, in the late 1980s, when the French-educated, leftist history lecturer, cinema buff and mate of the late French Socialist leader Francois Mitterrand, returned to his native Ivory Coast to challenge the octogenarian post-colonial leader Felix Houphouet-Boigny.
Irish literature and legend is full of boasts, like the claim by Christy Mahon in Synge’s “Playboy of the Western World” that he has killed his da with a loy (Irish for spade), only to have the old man track him down in another town.
Perhaps that’s the way to view Irish Finance Minister Brian Lenihan’s announcement two years ago that the state-backed guarantee scheme to rescue the country’s troubled banks, hit hard by the collapse of the property market, was “the cheapest bailout in the world so far”.
It seemed too good to be true. And it was.
On Thursday, Lenihan, who has spent the last two years scrambling from one fiscal crisis to another, announced that, actually, the cost for cleaning up years of reckless lending was “horrendous” and in a worst-case scenario the price tag would be over 50 billion euros ($68 billion).
The bill will shackle Ireland, once the EU’s fastest growing economy, with a public debt burden of nearly 99 percent of gross domestic product.
Ireland’s now crippled economy, meanwhile, has done everything but recover. Unemployment is stubbornly high, property prices remain depressed, taxpayers face years of cutbacks and, in the second quarter, growth again went into reverse.
Maybe what Lenihan said two years ago was wishful thinking, or perhaps it has taken this long for Ireland to wake up to just how colossal a hole its one-time high flying property tycoons have dug for themselves, and for every Irish taxpayer, even though much of what they were up to is so big as to be unmissable.
Take, for example, the Battersea Power Station in London, which is Europe’s largest brick building and has been derelict since it was decommissioned as a coal-burning power plant about a quarter century ago.
In 2006, a firm controlled by two Irish property magnates, Johnny Ronan and Richard Barrett, bought the building and land surrounding it for a staggering 400 million pounds ($750 million) — even though previous plans to develop it had all come to nought.
The boys, as they are referred to in some of the Irish press, had ambitious plans for a new, exclusive, “Knightsbridge”-class development for office, commercial and residential space, including an extension of the Northern Line branch of the London Underground.
Four years later, the site is still derelict, promoted, perhaps a bit desperately, as a location for lavish weddings held inside a marquee, and most recently as the venue for a Red Bull-sponsored high-jinx, daredevil motorcycle show.
Ronan and Barrett’s property empire, meanwhile, has seen some of its loans earmarked for the Irish government’s National Assets Management Agency (NAMA) — Ireland’s “bad bank scheme”, which was established to purge lenders of commercial property loans, many of them non-performing.
Battersea is at the top end of the scale of Irish property investment during the decade of the Celtic Tiger boom, but replicate it at a lesser level all the way from Eastern Europe to the holiday beaches of Spain and out to Asia, and it becomes clear why Lenihan has had to change his tune.
A historical footnote: a Reuters feature informs us that the Battersea Power Station was used during World War Two to burn 120 million pounds worth of banknotes that had to be disposed of to stop enemy forgeries.
Something to boast about then. Comparatively small change now.
It’s an age-old conundrum. Should members of an audience move from the cheap seats to the better ones if those with the prime view remain empty during the performance? You didn’t pay for them, so bums off. They’re empty, so why not?
What if they gave a concert for peace and nobody heard it?That twist on the old peace slogan – “What if they gave a war and nobody came?” – came to mind after the World Orchestra for Peace -– an occasional ensemble of some of the world’s best classical musicians –- played a concert in Krakow on September 1 to mark the Nazi invasion of Poland 70 years ago that started World War Two.With Russian conductor Valery Gergiev on the podium, the orchestra played a “Prelude for Peace” by composer and Krakow native Krzysztof Penderecki, and a rousing account of Gustav Mahler’s gargantuan Fifth Symphony – but for whom?Several hundred invited guests in a Krakow church, anyone who cared to look at a big screen on Krakow’s enormous main square, and listeners on Polish television and radio and over the Internet – world, were you listening?It’s hard to judge the value of such efforts. For example, the New York Philharmonic was the first major Western orchestra to visit North Korea, but the audience for the 2008 concert in the almost walled-off communist state consisted largely of the party faithful. The orchestra was playing for the unconvertible.Then there are the campaigns by globe-trotting celebrities like Bono, Bob Geldof, Angelina Jolie or Sting, to stamp out poverty, save the rain forests or stop the spread of AIDS. Is it all in a good cause, or is it part of the publicity machinery?Music columnist Tom Service, who covered the Krakow concert for The Guardian, quotes the Krakow musicians being disarmingly blunt about music’s power for peace – they don’t think it is.And yet, the world has always needed grand, intensely human gestures to mark the significant moments in history -– like Leonard Bernstein 20 years ago r leading a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Berlin on Christmas Day in 1989 to mark the fall of the Berlin Wall.Ever the man with a sense of occasion, Bernstein changed the first word of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” in the final movement from “freude”, the German for “joy”, to “freiheit” –- “freedom” -– and moved the world.And who would argue that John Lennon didn’t do his bit with the lyric that became the motto of the Vietnam anti-war movement: “All we are saying, is give peace a chance.”So some might say that the 300,000 euros or so it cost for Gergiev and the World Orchestra for Peace to play in Krakow might have been better spent on food for the poor, textbooks or to help Darfur refugees.But if it made a few people remember what happened on Sept 1, 1939, and what the Nazis did in their death camps, including Auschwitz just outside Krakow, or, as Gergiev put it, if it dissuades just one suicide bomber perhaps it was worth it.