The Restless Republic, by Anna Keay

Summary: a fine and elegantly written, though overwhelmingly Anglo-centric, account of Cromwell’s dictatorship

In the 2001 film, Rat Race, one family participating in the race stumble upon a “Barbie Museum”. It turns out this does not house a collection of the beloved children’s toy, but rather is a homage to the Nazi war criminal, Klaus Barbie. As one of the deranged guides tell them, “People don’t remember just what a wonderful ballroom dancer he was.”

I thought of that movie while reading Anna Keay’s rather affectionate portrait of Oliver Cromwell in the Restless Republic. He may have overseen the massacres of thousands of people, soldiers and civilians alike, children, women and men, in his racist campaigning in Ireland – something that is mentioned rather than described in any detail in this book. But “Oliver” loved music and could be moved to tears at the accomplishments of his beloved children.

The planned wholesale theft of Irish land by the Cromwellian government and the planned complete ethnic cleansing of Catholics from eastern Ireland required remarkable technical organisation and unprecedented accomplishments in land surveying. This Keay does describe in admiring detail. But eventually, before it could reach its genocidal climax, this “ugly episode in Irish history” was brought to an end. Obviously, as Irish history, it is not something that the English need feel too much responsibility for.

Keay choses to tell the story of the short-lived English republic through the eyes of a range of characters, almost exclusively English, but including both Royalist and Parliamentarian perspectives. It is an imaginative approach and engagingly done, with a strong narrative drive. For example, towards the end, her account of Monck and Fairfax’s machinations to bring about the restoration of the monarchy is quite gripping.

Overall, the Restless Republic is an illuminating and elegantly written work of history. But, appropriate to the theocratic monstrosity of which Keay writes, and to the spirit of Brexit Britain too, I suppose, it is written with negligible empathy for the aspirations and experiences of those non-English people who bore, and continue to bear, the brunt of the English Parliament’s ignorance and crass prejudices.

Artificial Intelligence and Ethical Leadership

The warning on 30 May 2023 by industry experts that Artificial Intelligence (AI) might lead to human extinction was a sobering moment. Given this, I wondered again what are the ethical leadership challenges – relating to the protection of human rights and restoration of the environment – this new technology poses?

I started by asking a “Large Language Model” (LLM) AI system ChatGPT:

“1. Ensuring data privacy: …; 2. Promoting responsible use of AI: Leaders should ensure that AI systems are being used in a responsible way, free from bias and discrimination. 3. Developing AI systems ethically: Leaders should ensure that AI systems are developed with ethical considerations in mind, including avoiding the use of algorithms that have the potential to cause harm. 4. Addressing job displacement: ….; 5. Ensuring accountability: Leaders should ensure that AI systems are held accountable for their actions, and that any mistakes made by AI systems are addressed. 6. Encouraging responsible innovation: Leaders should encourage the responsible use of AI and the development of ethical AI systems.”

It’s okay in so far as it goes, and a bit more candid about risks associated with AI than, for example, Microsoft’s happy-clappy advertising for “Co-pilot”, the AI that it is embedding into its Office suite. This focuses on the undeniable promise of productivity that AI brings, for some
professionals at least.

But the ethical choice-making that ChatGPT asserts is so important in AI is dependent on
morality, and it is not at all clear what is the moral basis upon which AI algorithms are being

In the April 2023 edition of the Economist, the paper noted that some AI systems “produced
strange results. Bing Chat suggested to a journalist that he should leave his wife. ChatGPT
has been accused of defamation by a law professor. LLMs produce answers that have the
patina of truth, but often contain factual errors or outright fabrications.
” I found that when I
asked ChatGPT about myself: some biographical details were correct, such as that I have
written two books, but it could not find anything close to their correct names and so just
made stuff up. I think that may be the sort of thing that Microsoft, euphemistically, calls
“usefully wrong.”

But these are trivial enough errors: they are not going to cause an existential crisis for
humanity. But, as leading experts have already warned, AI itself might yet. In April 2023 the Economist reported that, “The degree of existential risk posed by AI has been hotly debated. Experts are divided. In a survey of AI researchers carried out in 2022, 48% thought there was at least a 10% chance that AI’s impact would be “extremely bad (eg, human extinction)”. But 25% said the risk was 0%; the median researcher put the risk at 5%. … researchers worry that future AIs may have goals that do not align with those of their human creators.”

A 5% risk is not a trivial one. This sort of risk was a matter that Isaac Asimov famously pondered when he developed his laws of robotics in the 1940s. Having formulated three laws, including his first, that, “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.” Asimov realised, as any viewer of the movie, I Robot, will remember, that something was missing. So, he formulated his “Zeroth Law”: “A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.”

There is an argument that you cannot, and some would say should not, build morality into
For example, Asimov’s first law would incapacitate some of the lethal hardware
so beloved of armchair militarists. But it seems incontestable, indeed inconceivable, that
any AI should be permitted without some robust moral systems to constrain its most dangerous excesses.

There may be better moral systems to guide AI than Asimov’s laws. But if AI is trying to
break up marriages on a whim or defaming a law professor, or anyone else for that matter,
it appears that it does not yet have any moral guidance at all.

So, here’s the rub. If programmed from the outset with some key moral principles, computers will not forget to remember them, as they write increasingly advanced programs for future AI generations. However, it seems that many of the human beings initiating these AI processes have sometimes eschewed moral principles in the rush to technological advance.

This should not, perhaps, be surprising. In recent years we have seen a number of controversies in relation to the use of information technology: In the UK, for example, a group of wealthy ideologues convinced a plurality of British voters, in part through the manipulation of information systems, to vote for Brexit unconcerned with the damage it would do to the economy, to Irish peace, and to the fragile bonds that hold their own country together. Similar information manipulation was at play in the election of Donald Trump in 2016. Yet more seriously still, the manipulation of information systems was also a major factor in instigating the genocide against the Rohingya people in Myanmar that same year.

When confronted with the issues arising from these events, some of the leading industry
figures involved have proven themselves moral vacuums. And these are the people who will
be leading much of the industrial development of AI. Will they be as concerned as Asimov
was about any potential threats to humanity arising from their work?

In spite of the information industry’s warning about the risk of human extinction, I would not want to bet my life on this. The leaders of so many other industries are already overseeing an environmental collapse with no discernible concern for a future that will threaten the lives and livelihoods of their children and grandchildren. The 30 May 2023 warning of the perils of AI aside, tech leaders have so far proven themselves no more concerned with the consequences of the moral choices that they are making for their businesses. For some, the scientific innovation associated with it will be just too fascinating to eschew. Others will not be concerned with the future if they can make lots of money now.

The Economist reports that the EU is considering robust regulation on the development of
AI, and the Biden administration has started a consultation on the same thing. These are
positive moves, but no one should rest easy yet. Unsurprisingly, for a government (and
opposition) that lacks the moral courage to tell the truth about the realities of Brexit, the UK
has until now been proposing a “light touch” approach to AI regulation. This is in the hope of attracting some unregulated tech businesses to compensate somewhat for the industries that their Brexit has already devastated.

In the face of such a pusillanimous abrogation of responsibilities, ethical leaders in business
and the citizenry alike need to respond: to make different professional choices that ensure
that the preservation of life and the restoration of the environment are at the heart of their
organisational strategies, and, through protest and political engagement, to demand that
politicians do the right thing not the easy one.

Protest is, and always has been leadership. But, given the crises facing humanity currently, it
has never been so urgent. And, given the rapidity of AI’s development, the moment at which
it can be constrained by law, regulation and morality may be receding as quickly as the opportunity to stave off ecological collapse.

“A (hu)man must have a code”: ethical leadership and saving the world.

The recent People Management article, “Codes of ethics: does every company need one?” raised a number of interesting questions.

The article revealed that only 54% of FTSE 250 have published codes of ethics, according to research by the Institute of Business Ethics. Of these only 57% are considered as “good”.

As Ms McConville, my English teacher at school in Newry, used to regularly ask in her efforts to coax more lucid writing from even her most inarticulate pupils, “What does ‘good’ even mean?”

Milton Friedman would have said that “good” meant making a profit for shareholders within the law. This is a moral perspective that is still widely prevalent in government and business. I have met more than one business executive who has been admiring of such guidance as an amoral underpinning to their strategic approaches. But such amorality is also wholly inadequate for dealing with the existential challenges facing humanity in the 21st Century. Each of those challenges – from climate change to contemporary slavery – is already a product of thousands of business and political leaders thinking that such things are somebody else’s problem.

The People Management article quotes Ian Peters, director of the Institute of Business Ethics, with another perspective on “good”. He says, “A code of ethics should be the cornerstone for any organisation, ensuring it’s doing the right thing for the right reasons.”

This organisational focus on ethics is one that I am strongly in agreement with, though this also begs the question, “What is ‘right’?” It is further striking that others quoted in the article instead emphasise only personal conduct in the workplace and whistle-blowing duties and protections.

These are, of course, important issues. No one should have to endure fear and bullying in any workplace. But in my view ethics is a yet more fundamental thing. It is, at heart, a strategic question and, consequently a leadership one.

In my book, Ethical Leadership: moral decision making under pressure, I define ethical leadership as the effort “to optimize life-affirming choices that seek to protect human rights and advance ecological restoration irrespective of how inhospitable the political, social or professional environment.

Sometimes this requires dissent or “whistle-blowing”: protest is often, after all, just another name for leadership.

But ethical leadership is also about strategic choice making. For example, a business executive who, decides to source from a textile, electronics or fisheries supply chain in Asia or Africa that they know to be highly destructive of the environment and rife with exploitative labour practices, will often be behaving completely legally. They may also be acting in the spirit of a code of conduct that emphasises legal compliance. But there is, nevertheless, the sulphurous whiff of the banality of evil in such choices.

A recent leading article in the Economist reported that researchers estimate a 5% risk that the current development of Artificial Intelligence systems may result in something “extremely bad (eg, human extinction).” So, I for one am concerned that the executives leading the development of this technology are thinking about ethical standards beyond mere compliance with law, particularly given that so much of the necessary law to constrain dangerous AI development does not yet exist.

Perhaps they are actively thinking about these risks. But as some of them at least also seem untroubled with the manipulation of information systems that was a major factor in instigating the genocide against the Rohingya people in Myanmar in 2016, I would not want to bet my life on it.

But, like the rest of us, I may be forced to. The current precariousness of continued human existence on this planet is a result of so many political and business leaders not looking beyond the short-term questions of immediate profit rather than the long-term question of sustainability or, for that matter, human survival.

For humanity to have a chance requires now that business executives and politicians focus on promoting choices that protect human rights and restore the environment, not just those that comply with the law and obtain short-term financial gains.

So, all businesses, indeed all leaders, need ethical codes of conduct that will compel them to make life-affirming choices the core of their business and economic strategies.

Rome, by Robert Hughes

Summary: a shoddy swan song

You pick up a book by as renowned an art historian as Robert Hughes you think you can be confident in his erudition. With Rome, you will be disappointed.

I would not class myself as an expert on ancient Rome, but I have read a few books by proper authorities. Which seems to be more than can be said for Hughes. Perhaps he did once. But if he did, he did not bother checking any details and instead consigned his misrememberings to the page with gay abandon.

Rome was Hughes last published book. It put me in mind of John Keegan’s The American Civil War, and Christopher Hibbert’s The Borgias: shoddy final books by authors who had quite properly earned distinguished reputations for earlier work.

I read a review of this book by Mary Beard who suggested skipping the first five chapters – the ones that deal with her area of specialism, ancient Rome – so riddled with errors are they. But even if he is less slapdash with the facts in later chapters, presumably the ones that were closer to his professional specialism, I still found it is difficult to trust an author who doesn’t know the difference between architecture and engineering, and despite being a product of Australian Catholic schools, doesn’t seem to understand some of the most basic tenets of Christianity either.

Caesar, by JFC Fuller

Summary: a concise biography, particularly insightful on the military aspects of Caesar’s career.

JFC Fuller was a military theorist, highly influential, in particular, on the Wehrmacht’s use of armoured warfare. However, as a man with pronounced fascist leanings he was excluded from allied military command during the Second World War.

So, instead he wrote.

Among his oeuvre then is this biography of Caesar. Perhaps Fuller was drawn to the subject because of his far-Right leanings: Mussolini also loved Caesar and thought himself his bloated successor.

Given Fuller’s professional interests there is a strong focus on the military aspects of Caesar’s career. But additional entertainment is to be had from Fuller’s waspish sense of humour: how terrible it would be, Fuller muses, if some newly discovered piece of papyrus were to suggest that one of history’s most erotic scenes – the delivery of Cleopatra to Caesar’s bedchamber in a laundry basket – was a myth? Or, discussing Caesar’s prospects in his unrealised plans to invade Parthia, Fuller reckons that Caesar would likely have been routed by the arrows of the Parthians, just as Crassus had been earlier, and Antony would be later: So the Ides of March was probably the luckiest thing that could have happened to Caesar: at least his military reputation survived.

There is an interesting duality to Caesar’s military career: throughout his life, from the Cataline conspiracy to the civil wars, Caesar showed a marked reluctance to shed Roman blood. By contrast Caesar’s conduct of the Gallic Wars, and his later campaigns in Spain, were practically genocidal in their ferocity, and they provided the slaves whose trafficking ensured Caesar’s fortune. For Caesar, it seems, like the British and French imperialists of later centuries, war was merely the logical extension of racism.

A sub theme in this book is Caesar’s relationship with Decimus Brutus, cousin of the more famous, Marcus. It was Decimus Brutus, who convinced Caesar to attend the Senate on the Ides of March. He has been a close lieutenant to Caesar during the Gallic and Civil Wars, and Caesar adopted him alongside Octavian in his will. And yet as every reader of Shakespeare will know Decimus also put a knife into Caesar on the Ides. So, it seems likely, as Robert Harris suggested in his Cicero novels, that Caesar’s last, plaintive cry, “You too, my son?” related to Decimus rather than Marcus.

Overall, not as good as Adrian Goldsworthy’s account of Caesar’s life, but not without merit.

My Father’s House, by Joseph O’Connor

Summary: an outstanding historical thriller of Europeans united against the Nazis

Philippe Sands once wrote a very fine book on the origins of the international law on crimes against humanity and genocide, East-West Street. This does not in my mind absolve him of writing The Ratline: a pointless, rambling wastrel of a book, undertaken, it seems at the behest of the son of a Nazi, who believed his father was, nevertheless, a good man.

He wasn’t.

The Ratline in question in the book’s title was a bit of a Godot character. It never really shows up. The Nazi in question could not stump up the cash to pay the venal and corrupt Vatican officials who were offering Nazis a way of escape from the allies’ dragnet to South America and Southern Africa.

Despite his high profile role in the Vatican Hugh O’Flaherty doesn’t show up in Sands’ Ratline either. Not that this committed anti-Nazi Irishman would have had anything to do with it. But he is an altogether more interesting character, with a much more interesting story to tell of a single night than Sands found to tell in the years he covers before, during and after the war in The Ratline.

O’Flaherty was the head of one of the key Italian resistance networks of the Second World War, run vastly more effectively and altruistically out of the Vatican than the later Ratline. With his pan-European group of Irish, Italian, Dutch and British friends he kept thousands of Jews and escaped prisoners safe as the Gestapo grip on the city tightened.

My Father’s House is a wonderful historical thriller that, by focussing on a single mission by the group introduces us to its various personalities. These take turns narrating the events of the mission. This is an elegant and compelling way to explain to the readers their previous lives before the horrors of the Nazi occupation forced heroism upon them. One scene, in which the British ambassador to Rome, a member of O’Flaherty’s group, encounters O’Flaherty and his deputy, British officer Sam Derry, in the Vatican gardens is particularly chilling. Derry is rehearsing the false names and addresses he will give up under torture if captured.

It is a wholly gripping and deeply moving story of love and friendship in the face of adversity, and asserts a position for O’Flaherty’s alongside Casement as one of the great Irish humanitarians of the Twentieth Century.

Hitler, by Ian Kershaw

Summary: an exceptional work of historical biography

With the instincts of a high-stakes gambler, and a remarkable gift for public speaking – but with absolutely no other discernible gifts or redeeming qualities – Hitler managed in the chaotic aftermath of the First World War to parlay his modest skills into the dictatorship of Germany, and then from that office to unleash the most cataclysmic conflict that Europe has yet seen.

Kershaw’s account of this career was widely praised when first published and rightly so. It remains a gripping, elegantly written portrait of the pathetic monster and a succinct account of much of the suffering he caused.

For me the piece de resistance of this remarkable book is, appropriately enough, the account of Operation Valkyrie, Staffenberg’s doomed attempt to overthrow the monster and grasp some flicker of redemption for Germany. The chapter is as gripping as the best thriller and a reminder that, in the midst of the horror, heroism was still possible.

Like so many of his minions, Hitler was a study in the banality of evil. But, as we have already seen in the 21st Century, sad, narcissistic little men with delusions of grandeur can still wreak terrible devastation.

Consequently this book deserves continued study, so that humanity never completely forgets that.

My books of the year for 2022

Summary: For what it is worth, particularly if you are looking for gift or reading ideas, these are my top 10 reads for 2022, with links to longer reviews, in chronological reading order:

The Devil that Danced on the Water, by Aminitta Forna: Forna’s remarkable memoir of Sierra Leone and her father, a former finance minister for Sierra Leone, judicially assassinated by the country’s corrupt government.

Shadow Cast by Mountains, by Patrick Howse: a powerful collection of poetry by an Irish journalist who has seen the horrific face of war up close.

The Sunken Road, by Ciaran McMenamin: a very fine novel of war, alternating between the Western Front in France, and the Battle of Beleeks and Pettigo in 1922.

Country, by Michael Hughes: a brilliantly original retelling of the Iliad, transposed to the mountains of South Armagh during the Troubles.

Do Not Disturb: the story of a political murder and an African regime gone bad, by Michael Wrong: Wrong’s furious expose of the violence and corruption at the heart of the UK government’s favourite dictatorship, modern Rwanda.

Great Hatred; the assassination of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson MP, by Ronan McGreevy: not only a gripping account of the assassination, but a insightful history of the Irish diaspora in London and the London IRA’s involvement in the struggle for Irish Freedom.

Fake Law, by the Secret Barrister: a justly angry account of how the very concept of rule of law is under assault in the contemporary UK by its corrupt and venal government.

Apeirogon, by Colum McCann – a desperately sad perspective on the illegal occupation of Palestine viewed through the eyes of two bereaved friends, one Palestinian, the other Israeli.

Act of Oblivion, by Robert Harris – a fine historical thriller set in the aftermath of the English Civil war, that shows how the maxim of an eye for an eye tends to leave everyone blind.

Small Things Like These, by Claire Keegan – an intense, exquisite meditation on the heroism of an ordinary man in the Ireland of 1985.

Small Things Like These, by Claire Keegan

Summary: already a modern classic

In the middle 1980s, Bill Furlong is a fuel merchant in the town of New Ross in the South-East of Ireland. He is doing alright in difficult financial times. But on the verge of middle age, this father of five daughters is beset with the usual worries, about money, about the future of this daughters, about getting them into the good school in town. Perhaps, he feels these worries more keenly than others because, this is the only family he has, his mother having died when he was a child and never knowing his father.

In the run up to Christmas, Furlong’s work brings him all sorts of places, including to the laundry that the nuns run, where they take care of girls who have become pregnant out of wedlock. This was a fate Bill’s mother avoided because of the kindness of her employer, a Protestant woman farmer who made sure this didn’t happen.

Small Things Like These is a very small book about an enormous thing. It is a beautifully written and intensely moving story of an ordinary man in an ordinary place, finding the courage to do something properly heroic. There are books fifty times the length of this one that have less to say, less memorably.

This book is sure to achieve the status of a modern classic and justly so. It is an outstanding piece of work, utterly exquisite.

The Man Who Died Twice, by Richard Osman

Summary: Highly entertaining soft-core Brexity fantasy

The second book in Richard Osman’s Thursday Murder Club series, The Man Who Died Twice returns to the genteel environs of its predecessor.

Like many second books in series, from Denis Lehane to JK Rowling, one can feel Osman getting into his stride, having established his universe and now able to concentrate more on the evolving story rather than scene-setting.

The Man Who Died Twice is a more overtly right-wing work than its predecessor. In it roughish-diamond coppers think nothing of fitting up suspects they just know are guilty, and the book’s pensioner heroes take the law into their own hands with the casual disdain for due process of the most knuckle headed of authoritarians.

Doubtless this will play well with the Daily Mail readers who are a core demographic in this book’s audience. But even so, it would have been nice if Osman showed the slightest knowledge of the brutal realities of child slavery in “county lines” and the operation of the British drugs economy if he is going to include such things in his books.

But that would probably upset the soft-core fantasy for Brexity readers. Instead this is a world with few complexities and no bad language, in which foreigns know their place, and plucky have-a-go British heroes with bulldog spirit always triumph over the baddies and are home in time for cocoa.

In spite of its politics, The Man Who Died Twice is a highly entertaining affair, with plenty of good jokes and a twisty plot. Even without the unicorns, it’s a vision of sunlit uplands that is as close as the English are ever going to get to the Brexit they thought they voted for. So it’s hard to grudge them their fairytales, particularly when they are as elegantly written as this.