Veganism Cost Me Dream Job

Veganism Cost Me Dream Job

By 2009 I was ‘tripping the light fantastic’ as a journalist in the UK. I had landed a gig reviewing restaurants for the Spectator Magazine that once involved flying on a four-seater jet to France to sample the full range of Courvoisier’s Cognac. But as much as I reveled in luxurious dining a sense of guilt gnawed at the inequalities all too apparent on the streets of London: leaving the warmth of gastronomic hot spots, human misery was there for anyone to see.

Interrogating the environmental impact of the global food industry gave me further grounds for concern. In particular, Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma opened my eyes to the damage done by industrial farming, especially of livestock. Anyway, beneath a veneer of glamour I was being paid pittance for my writing, and with an increasingly threadbare wardrobe I was looking for a way home to Ireland.

On the back of teaching experience, and articles that were offering a more scholarly angle on food, I was given an opportunity to teach a course in UCD on the history of food. I also managed to get in on reviewing Irish restaurants for a well-known publication. The more I learnt the more my unease grew with the way the Irish food ‘story’ was being communicated through the media.

So six years ago I decided to quit eating meat. But in order to keep going as a restaurant reviewer – arbitrarily I see now – I continued occasionally consuming dairy products. I managed to get through a few reviews by carefully selecting restaurants with plenty of vegetarian options at a time when there were still no exclusively vegan restaurants in Dublin. But my decision came to a head when I visited Aniar in Galway which purports to present a menu based almost exclusively on Irish ingredients. Their head chef J.P. McMahon is a columnist for the meat-promoting Irish Times Magazine.

By then I had almost completely excluded dairy, and after the meal in Aniar I developed a sickness in my body, which reflected the unease of my soul. So I decided to assert the harsh truth: ‘In recent times native chefs have begun to forge an awareness of the best of Irish, but the gastronomic limitations of our agriculture which places focus on a limited number of commodities, mostly for export, is apparent.’ I then let slip that I had already given up meat and fish.

It is fair to say that my review got a bit caustic after that. I said chefs should not confuse vegetarians with ascetics, and that the lesser caloric value of most plants means that portions should, if anything, be larger than their meat and fish alternatives. I complained that I had received sufficient barley to thread a pearl necklace, which at €18.50 seemed pretty steep.

After filing the review I got no reply from the editor, and was saddled with the expenses from the outing. I did later recover them when my sister, a fellow journalist, met the editor of the magazine, still a well-known food writer, and demanded I should be paid.

It was a form of liberation to be able to write without fear of losing that little sinecure, and I was free to adopt a fully Vegan diet, or philosophy to put it more accurately. I could then let fly with a series of articles drawing attention to the grave damage that Irish farming is doing to our environment.

Not long afterwards I lost my job in UCD. I have no idea whether this had anything to do with my increasingly radical critique of Irish food and farming. So I had to develop career alternatives after that.

Over five years have passed since then, and I have passed through a number of stages as a Vegan. First came self-righteousness. The first Christmas I went to war with the rest of my family over having a turkey on the table. I reduced one of my sisters to tears, and even refused to sit down with them for the meal. It wasn’t pretty, and I realised that approach did nothing to advance my cause.

Next came evangelical zeal. I have long been an enthusiastic cook, so having worked out a number of interesting recipes I began hosting concerts in my parent’s home accompanied by suppers. I hope I opened up a few minds to the possibility of making really delicious meals purely from plant-based ingredients. Some incredible Irish musicians performed in the house, including the late great Louis Stewart – a short film was made of his first concernt. I went on to organise national tours for another band the Loafing Heroes who played in the house.

New interests arrived, and I passed into another stage that of Denial. I no longer wanted to be associated with Veganism, even though I maintained the philosophy, and the hours slaving in the kitchen for little reward brought little satisfaction. I had had enough of being the evangelist and moved to Prague for a year to focus on other writing and teaching.

Having returned to Dublin the stage I have entered is a more integrated form I call Acceptance. I no longer see attitudes to Veganism as a moral index – there are many other worthy causes – but I still earnestly wish that more would adopt the abolitionist philosophy, for the sake of the billions of domesticated animals cruelly incarcerated, and the damage animal agriculture does to the environment, not to mention human health.

Not long ago, a friend who recently converted to Veganism said something quite telling to me: ‘I would have gone Vegan ages ago, but I felt like you would have won the argument’. It shows that it is not good enough simply to win an argument. Everyone should hold on to their principles, but we can accept that even close friends and family may need time to adjust their moral lenses. You don’t need to give up the fight, but don’t target individuals for systemic failings.

A New O’Reilly?

A New O’Reilly?

2017 has been an annus mirabilis for shock jocks around the world. Stateside, their doyenne, Bill O’Reilly was given his marching orders by Fox News, after claims of sexual harassment.

In Ireland George Hook was given an extended stay in the Sin Bin by Newstalk for laying a degree of blame on rape victims. Only months earlier his kindred provocateur Kevin Myers was also shown the door by the Sunday Times for comments perceived to be anti-Semitic.

The art of the shock jock is to shock but not to breaking point. As a character from a Woody Allen film puts it: “if it bends it’s comedy, if it breaks it’s tragedy.” The shock-jock skirts the boundaries of taboo, but can easily fall off the precipice.

Ultimately it seems to be the advertisers who decide where the red lines lie. During the Hook affair, in what was a masterstroke of public relations, Tescos let it be known they would no longer be advertising on Newstalk, getting a good splash on the front cover of the Irish Times in return. The following day the mighty Hook had fallen.

With so many heads rolling it begs the question: who will fill that angry space? One candidate might be RTE’s Damien O’Reilly who recently came to public attention for receiving a payment of €1,500, plus expenses, from An Bord Bia – Origin Green junket to Dubai.

RTE authorities were apparently aware of the payment, but O’Reilly has earned the enmity of leading environmentalists who see him as being to the fore in ‘greenwashing’ the role of agriculture in Climate Change.

On a recent Countrywide show he described anyone who advocated a reduction in beef and dairy production in Ireland as “critics on the extreme”; precisely the kind of imbalance we expect from a shock jock, who subtly shifts the political ground towards approval of de-regulated markets and personal responsibility; though not necessarily what we should expect from an employee of the national broadcaster.

O’Reilly has also taken aim at the tried and trusted target of cyclists in his Farmers Journal column, claiming the average Irish cyclist looks like he is heading off to compete in the Tour de France dressed from head to toe like Bradley Wiggins, before (he) “arrogantly screams to the rest of us: ‘Get out of my way”. There follows the standard, “I’m not really a racist” apology: “I am sorry if this sounds flippant, and of course there are law-abiding cyclists out there.” Again, the cyclist is the extremist.

But our own O’Reilly is unlikely to move on from his Montrose meal ticket, and sure why would he when he can moonlight as he pleases, and build up enough goodwill from agri-business for a lifetime of guest appearances and endorsements.

Then again he might find life increasingly uncomfortable in RTE as the cold winds of austerity blow through the campus, and media attention begins to focus more closely on the farming sector with the state facing hundreds of millions in fines from the European Commission. Already the Citizens’ Assembly have called on farmers to pay their share of the emissions bill after listening to expert evidence. But who listens to experts anymore?

Oh Really O’Reilly

Oh Really O’Reilly

A Freedom of Information (FOI) request has revealed Damien O’Reilly, the presenter of RTE’s Countrywide and occasionally Liveline, received a payment of €1,500 to act as Master of Ceremonies at An Bord Bia-Origin Green trade event in Dubai earlier this year. This casts serious doubt over O’Reilly’s objectivity in regard to that controversial campaign.

Origin Green projects an image of Irish agriculture as sustainable and harmonious with nature, but greenhouse gas emissions from the sector remain at 33% of the national total. The programme includes 90% of all Irish beef produced, and 85% of all dairy farms in the country. A mere 0.5% of applicants have been refused admission.

This has brought accusations of greenwashing. The Irish Wildlife Trust recently called on the Government to scrap the Origin Green certification scheme on the basis that “some of the country’s worst polluters are among those certified.” The IWT’s campaigns officer Padraig Fogarty claimed it was a marketing label promoted by An Bord Bia, which should be “exposed for the sham that it is”, and scrapped. Fogarty’s recent book Whittled Away: Ireland’s Vanishing Nature reveals how an unprecedented range of species native to the island are facing extinction, including the legendary curlew.

A submission by An Taisce to An Bord Bia on Origin Green, from October 2016, stated: “Judging the sustainability of Irish agriculture under the three key environmental headings targeted by Origin Green, namely Climate, Water and Biodiversity reveals that, far from being sustainable, Irish agriculture is actually a major environmental pressure and threat”.

Origin Green has emerged during a period of expansion and intensification in Irish agriculture under Food Harvest 2020 and Foodwise 2025, which are at odds with a carefully cultivated image that has seen celebrities such as Saoirse Ronan feature in its advertising campaign.

The executive summary of the Harvest 2020 document lays bare the strategy: “Green. Capitalising on Ireland’s association with the colour ‘green’ is pivotal to developing the marketing opportunity for Irish agri-food. This will build on our historic association with the colour and highlight the environmental credentials associated with our extensive, low-input, grass-based production systems… consumers in key markets will learn to recognise implicitly that, by buying Irish, they are choosing to value and respect the natural environment”.

However, what is happening across the country is “completely incompatible with the purported aspirations of Origin Green” according to An Taisce. In terms of climate change they dismiss it as “a glossy PR campaign supporting Irish agriculture’s “sustainability illusion.”

The country faces up to €610 million in fines from the European Commission unless emissions targets are met by 2020. Revelation of this cash payment call into question O’Reilly’s capacity to interrogate Origin Green and An Bord Bia meaningfully, as his role on Countrywide reporting on agriculture should entail.

On March 2nd of this year Irish Food UAE (@irishfoodinuae) tweeted a picture of a beaming O’Reilly arm-in-arm with lovely ladies in green dresses. The tweet read: ‘Damien O’Reilly assisting in the promotion of Irish food in the Middle East @RTERadio1 @RTECountryWide @BordBiaMENA.’ Clearly there was no attempt to conceal his involvement, but the payment of €1,500, and the cost of the trip which came to €2,600, apart from calling into question his objectivity, and may be in breach of RTE’s Staff Code of Conduct.

An Bord Bia stated that O’Reilly acted as Master of Ceremonies at the event: ‘which included a panel discussion on Ireland’s sustainability story and Origin Green.’ This coincided with a Ministerial Trade Mission to the Middle East bringing together regional buyers, importers and distributors.

In a statement An Bord Bia sought to distance themselves from involvement claiming the Irish Business Network in Dubai invited O’Reilly, and paid for his flights, and that it was a ‘Taste of Ireland’ event, and that they were only one among a number of sponsors. But why then would An Bord Bia make a payment to O’Reilly and take care of many of his expenses? It should also be noted that An Bord Bia’s response to the Freedom of Information request described it as an ‘Bord Bia Origin Green trade event’, not a ‘Taste of Ireland’ event.

The payment and costs may seem small beer, but RTE’s Code of Conduct for Employees states: ‘Staff are responsible for ensuring that they maintain the highest standards while involved in dealings with outside agencies’; and that ‘staff should never solicit or accept personal advantages or gifts of material value from firms or persons as a result of the staff member’s association with RTE.’ At the very least O’Reilly does not appear to have exhibited the “highest standards” in dealing with An Bord Bia – Origin Green.

When contacted a spokesperson for RTE said: “this was a paid engagement which falls under the Personal and Public Activities Guidance”, and that permission had been sought and granted.

When pressed the spokesperson said the manual containing these guidelines was not a public document. It seems unusual that RTE would have one document open to public scrutiny regarding the relationship of their employees with external businesses, and another entirely for internal consumption.

The spokesperson further rejected the idea that Damien’s journalistic objectivity was either undermined or affected by this engagement

Especially in the wake of Hurricane Ophelia, we should be wary of any greenwashing by the agricultural sector as we confront the unique challenge of Climate Change, and the prospect of hefty fines from the European Commission.

The national broadcaster must engage in a full, frank and transparent assessment of the Origin Green programme. Ultimately this will be to the advantage of farmers who confront adverse weather conditions, especially those seeking alternatives to the dominant use of land for grazing livestock. This makes Ireland’s agriculture sector the least efficient in the EU in terms of revenue per ton of CO2 produced.

When RTE’s leading journalist covering agriculture receives payment, however construed, from an organisation promoting a misleading picture of Irish agriculture’s sustainability, it stretches credulity that an objective analysis of that campaign will be undertaken.

Countrywide has already offered an outlet for outright denial of human responsibility for Climate Change when Michael O’Leary appeared on the show in April. O’Reilly is too polished a performer not to have challenged O’Leary’s barmy assertions, but it is inappropriate that a platform to ventilate these views should have been offered in the first place. Such debates only serve to confound the public, and delay action.

A few months later in July, in another of his moonlighting roles as a columnist in the Irish Farmers Journal, O’Reilly expressed admiration for Ryanair and its managing director saying: ‘It’s become a bit of a national pastime to criticise Michael O’Leary and his airline but I’m a fan of how they do business’.

Naturally, there was no mention of O’Leary’s views on Climate Change which goes some way to explaining why that criticism has become a “national pastime”.
A bizarre coda to this story comes from another debate on the role of agriculture in Climate Change on Countrywide in August in which O’Reilly welcomed John Sweeney as ‘Emirates’ Professor in Maynooth. Could it be that flying to Dubai was still on his mind?

Time for Varadkar to Confront O’Brien

Time for Varadkar to Confront O’Brien

Having been found guilty of corrupting Athenian youth, Socrates awaited execution with blissful disregard, declaring: ‘You are sadly mistaken, fellow, if you suppose that a man with even a grain of self-respect should reckon up the risks of living or dying, rather than simply consider, whenever he does something, whether his actions are just or unjust, the deeds of a good man or a bad one.’

Likewise, those of the Fine Gael tradition – or tribe – see defence of the rule of law as a sacred duty. This self-anointed role found its purest expression in the 1932 democratic handover of power to the ‘slightly constitutional’ Fianna Fail party. Like Socrates, Cumann na nGaedheal – the precursor to Fine Gael – chose political hemlock over abandonment of principle, and spent sixteen years in the political wilderness.

In the ideological stew that is Irish politics, and in an era in many respects post-historical and distractedly global, a commitment to the institutions of the state – emphasised by the late Liam Cosgrave – flickers in Fine Gael.

As a Minister for Transport Taoiseach Leo Varadkar displayed those instincts – with guts – in his public support for the Garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe, against then Commissioner Martin Callinan in 2014. His intervention came at a crucial point in that sordid affair that has prised open the security forces of the state to highly unedifying scrutiny, leading to the resignation of two Commissioners.

But in becoming the natural party of government after the bail-out – for the first time since 1932 – Fine Gael also decisively shifted its appeal to the commercial classes, and departed from the 1960s generations’ social democratic leanings.

This re-alignment poses an existential threat to a party that has been a bastion of constitutionalism. In particular, questions remain over its relationship to billionaire Denis O’Brien, whose media interests extend to the newspaper with the widest circulation in the state, a host of local publications and two national radio stations.

We cannot be allowed to forget the corruption revealed by the Moriarty Tribunal in 2011, and that no criminal prosecution was brought in response.
O’Brien now dispenses writs of defamation against journalists with the abandon of a card dealer whose fortune is so great he has nothing to lose. The joke is that no Irish journalist worth his salt has not received such a threatening letter.

Press freedom is a crucial measure of democratisation and the rule of law. This is maintained, especially, by guarding against monopolistic practices. Arguably, it also requires state investment – via a licence fee or out of taxation revenue – and oversight of offensive content, such as hate speech.

All media is, to some extent, compromised by the demands of the market, with survival made more challenging with the arrival of the Internet. As George Orwell wrote: ‘The striped-trousered ones will rule, but so long as they are forced to maintain an intelligentsia, the intelligentsia will have a certain autonomy.’ Maintaining an adequate forum for the ventilation of ideas in that commercial space is crucial.

As much as we may bemoan the Irish Time’s coverage of various issues – and freelancers gnash their teeth at a perceived journalistic establishment – as the main outlet for the Irish intelligentsia the paper is an important democratic pillar. Thus, for Communicorp, the parent company of Newstalk and Today FM, to prohibit radio stations from interviewing Irish Times journalists is a challenge to the integrity of the state itself. For O’Brien to wash his hands of responsibility for that black-listing lacks credibility.

O’Brien’s media outlets coarsen debate, feed a culture of celebrity, and like Rupert Murdoch’s, use extensive sports coverage as a ‘battering ram’, drawing attention away from more important issues. The media space available to the intelligentsia declines with each glossy picture of a scantily clad model.

The question is whether during the Kenny years of drift and incoherence the Fine Gael party has been compromised by its relationships with O’Brien. Kenny even shared a podium with O’Brien at the New York Stock Exchange in 2011.

If Fine Gael remain a guardian of the rule of law it must confront O’Brien. The Criminal Assets Bureau seems the appropriate means of moving in on his extensive assets, starting with media holdings that insulate him from public censor. White collar crime is another form of gangsterism. In how he deals with O’Brien we will see if Leo Varadkar really is a good and just man.

An increasingly number of countries, both rich and poor, are beset by oligarchs who exercise undue influence, and restrain the capacity of the intelligentsia to contribute to debates. The rule of law and democracy in Ireland faces a similar challenge in the shape of Denis O’Brien