Garbhan Downey

Derry writer explains why truth is stranger than fiction ahead of the release of his latest political comedy, War of the Blue Roses. Click Play Audio for a podcast interview

From the outside 2009 looks like a vintage year for political satirists: expenses scandals rumbling on in Westminster, our own MLAs claims coming under ever greater press and public scrutiny, economic meltdown after years of hubris. ‘But I’d say it’s the opposite - there has never been a harder time to be a satirist’, says Garbhan Downey, a writer who has spent the best part of a decade ripping it out of the political classes on both sides of the border. ‘All these revelations just prove that the real world is so much stranger than anything a novelist could come up with.’

In fairness to Downey, his novels have never wanted for imagination. From the Derry judge running for the Irish presidency in revenge for her fiancé's stag night misdemeanours (in 2006’s Running Mates) to the wannabe MP enlisting the services of a known gangster to further his political aims (2008’s Yours Confidentially) Downey’s provocative dissections of modern politics have been consistently inventive and revealing.

War of the Blue Roses, his latest offering, is no exception. A gardening competition in rural Ireland might not sound like the stuff of great political comedy but throw in a unique flower that could save the global economy, tetchy relations between a new US president and his British counterpart and lashings of spying, killing and romance and you have a thrilling – and intelligent – send up of global politics.

‘The book shows how something relatively harmless, a small diversion like a gardening contest, can end up exercising the top minds in the world. For me that’s how real-life and politics works,’ the author explains.

A journalist in his native Derry for many years, Downey is a seasoned pro in the political dark arts - ‘I’ve seen the way really huge, weighty economic issues never take over and dominate in the same way as a re-routed march or some wee fella blocking a development in his backyard.’

War of the Blue Roses
also allowed Downey free rein with one of his favourite subjects – the United States. Having covered the 1994 World Cup for the Irish News (‘the best experience of my life’) and lived in Boston for a year not long after, Downey brings considerable Stateside experience to bear on his latest work. ‘America is very important in all our lives, much more so than most people would care to admit,’ he says.

Ireland’s relationship with Britain and the US holds particular fascination – ‘It is almost like Britain is the old wife and the US the new one,’ he comments. In War of the Blue Roses it is the UK that is left firmly in the cold, unable to compete with the 30-year friendship between Irish premier, ‘Rubber’ John Blake, and his American counterpart, Barney O’Brian, that dates back to their time together in Trinity.

The new novel’s focus on international affairs represents a shift away from the comic eviscerations of the northern political scene that typified earlier work like Private Diary of a Suspended MLA and Yours Confidentially. ‘At the moment I don’t think the agenda in the north is as interesting as it was,’ explains Downey. ‘Now that it is all business-like in the Assembly it seems less compelling.’

In politics truth may indeed be stranger than fiction, but as War of the Blue Roses shows this need not spell the death knell of political comedy. For Garbhan Downey the secret is simple - a good story. ‘It is not just matter of taking pot shots at politicians. It is all about the small, seemingly parochial issues that all of a sudden become crucially important.’

War of the Blue Roses is out in June, published by Guildhall Press.