Ken Early: Saipan-style division takes hold as Ireland contest group of death

The urge to “get behind the team” appears to others the historic Irish weakness of green jersey groupthink

Last week, the Taoiseach told the Dáil that it’s difficult to compare the handling of the coronavirus crisis across different countries because they all use different methods of compiling their statistics, then added: “In any case, it’s not a competition.”

There is, however, an inescapable sense in which the crisis is experienced as a kind of international competition, as each country grapples with the problem in its own way, and nightly graphs and tallies invite the comparison of results and analysis of relative performance. Like a macabre mockery of the postponed Euro 2020, except instead of finding out which country has the best football team this competition will expose who has the most incompetent government.

For some weeks now there has been a football-like partisanship to the social media comment surrounding the Irish Government’s pandemic management. Are we doing reasonably well in the circumstances, or are we living through a historic disgrace? Both views find passionate adherents, and the sense of building anger may have prompted the Irish Examiner’s decision to publish an editorial entitled “Criticism is best left until crisis is over”.

The piece suggested that now was not the time to “chastise” the Government for various alleged failures of pandemic management, but the Examiner quickly found itself being vigorously chastised by readers who argued this was a strange attitude for a newspaper whose mission is supposedly to hold power to account. The headline soon became “Anger adds to pandemic response challenge”.


It's not just critics of the Government who are angry. Another weird flashpoint came on Friday when the comedian Oliver Callan likened Leo Varadkar to a robot after his latest televised lockdown update. There was nothing unusual or especially notable about Callan's comments. The unusual part was that Callan quickly found himself being attacked by hundreds of angry . . . it seems natural at this point to say "fans", but surely Varadkar is not Cristiano Ronaldo, whose online legions stand ever ready to spring into battle on his behalf.

If you insult a cherished football player, if you go on Twitter and announce that Steven Gerrard is the most overrated player of the Premier League era, you know you can expect some angry responses from Liverpool fans. But you wouldn't have expected that sort of reaction to criticism of Irish Government politicians. At least, not until now.

Callan noted that nobody had complained when he had made the same joke in December. But back then, Varadkar was just a not-very-popular Taoiseach heading an unpopular minority Government. Now he is commander-in-chief in our war on Covid-19 and the person charged with ensuring Ireland does better than the UK in the international pandemic league of death.

People who previously didn’t care about him now feel protective of him because they’re desperate for the national effort to succeed. Invested in the outcome, they have a fan’s desire to believe in the team, they want to believe the players love the club and that the manager is doing a great job. When fans hear someone say the players are greedy and soulless and the manager a clueless idiot, they feel personally attacked because this is a threat to the hopes they hold dear. So a comedian’s jibe nobody would have noticed before can now provoke a general eruption of rage.

The urge to “get behind the team”, which to some seems a natural and healthy instinct at a time of crisis, appears to others like the fatal manifestation of the historic Irish weakness of green jersey groupthink, the blind and meek subservience that has allowed blatant corruption and incompetence to rule the State since its foundation.

The clash of worldviews was prefigured in the national sports epic of Saipan, which also hinged on accusations of institutional ineptitude. A row between footballers came to dramatise eternal conflicts between fundamental values – the tension between loyalty and integrity, between duty and pride, between the collective and the individual, between knowing your place and knowing your worth. "Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven," said Milton's Satan after his fall from grace. "Fail to prepare, prepare to fail," said Roy Keane as he headed for the plane home.

An abiding memory of that time is the mutual incomprehension and contempt with which the two tribes regarded each other. To those who were against Keane, it could not have been more plain that he was in the wrong. What kind of a captain blows up in a tantrum and walks out on his team-mates, on his country, the week before the World Cup? What arrogance, what weakness, what brazen, brattish, shameless self-indulgence – what an utter, absolute and obvious disgrace.

To Keane’s supporters it was equally obvious. The great one – O Captain my Captain – had been driven into the wilderness by the sheer unbearable stink of mediocrity emanating from the rotten failed management structure of Irish football. Before the final insult in the form of that mad accusation about faking injury, he had endured so many insults and indignities – the insult of the training pitch, which was like a car park, the insult of the missing training kits and balls, the insult of the stupid schmoozing media barbecue. . . The whole set-up was a shambles, redolent of the kind of failed State Ireland had often been in the past, and anyone who condoned the dysfunction was part of the problem.

Did we ever figure out who was right? Let’s see . . . the war raged on for months after the World Cup, finally ending in apparent victory for the Keane side when McCarthy lost the next two qualifiers, got booed off in Dublin and decided to quit. The victory proved hollow, as Keane announced he would not be returning to the team, leaving both sides to stew in exhaustion and disillusionment.

It would be nice to say that the principals at least seemed to learn and grow with the experience, but if anything they doubled down on their faults. Keane never lost his fascination with self-sabotage, and as for the FAI, the Saipan upheaval and subsequent Genesis report cleared the way for the rise of a brash young reformer by the name of John Delaney. No, the story of Saipan offers little comfort. But hope springs eternal. Maybe this time, anger will take us closer to where we all want to get.