Ireland’s Garth Brooks crisis

Garth Brooks in the White House, 2010 (White House/Public Domain)
Garth Brooks in the White House in 2010 (White House/Public Domain)

Garth Brooks, who pulled out of the music business in 2001, is planning a new world tour. This was to start with five dates in Ireland, where he would play to 400,000 fans. However, local authorities in Dublin granted permission for only three of the five dates, leading Brooks to announce that he was cancelling all of them. This has created a genuine political crisis in Ireland, with the main opposition party calling for emergency legislation and an intervention by Ireland’s prime minister. Below are three questions and answers about the politics behind the crisis.

Why did only three of the concerts get permission?

Local politics. The concerts were to take place in a sports stadium that was substantially renovated in the 1990s. When it was renovated, authorities required that a maximum of three “special events,” above and beyond sports fixtures, be allowed every year, to minimize disruption for local residents. This condition was breached some years ago when four concerts were held in a year, leading to local protests and a reported deal under which it was to never happen again. The proposed Garth Brooks concerts would have trashed these conditions, especially as three concerts by a different band have already taken place this year.

In deciding to grant permission for only three of the five concerts, Dublin authorities cited the widespread disruption that the concerts would cause for residents. If they hadn’t done so, they would have faced possible legal action by residents seeking an emergency injunction against all the concerts.

And why did Garth Brooks cancel all the concerts?

Brooks has stated that he would do “five shows or none at all,” explaining that “[t]o choose which shows to do and which shows not to do would be like asking to choose one child over another.” This may be a little disingenuous — Brooks was originally scheduled to play two shows and added the others only as it became clear that there was enormous demand. The actual reasons very likely have more to do with money than sentiment — in the words of his concert promoter, Brooks stood to lose “millions” from the cancellation of the two dates. Brooks is threatening to cancel the remaining three dates in the hope that Irish authorities will back down and reinstate all the dates — a ship is carrying the concert equipment to Ireland, and he has said that “if the ‘powers that be’ in Ireland can fix this,” he will play all five concerts.

So what happens now?

In the language of deterrence theory (and of 1960s movies about reckless teenagers with automobiles), Brooks has challenged Irish authorities to a game of “chicken.” He wants the planning authorities to back down — and is threatening mutual catastrophe if they don’t. Neither Brooks nor Irish politicians want to see 400,000 unhappy fans losing their tickets, but the singer is signaling that he’s prepared to take the loss if need be. Irish politicians aren’t nearly as resolute in public as Brooks is and are signaling that they are desperate for some compromise.

The problem is that it isn’t entirely clear how a compromise could work. There isn’t any legal means to appeal the original decision to grant permission for only three concerts. The government has apparently ruled out emergency legislation to change the planning laws to introduce an appeal process. There may be some room in principle for a deal that would buy off the residents (perhaps with a bigger pot of money and a binding promise to limit the number of shows at the stadium in future), but the legal mechanics of the deal are very, very tricky.

Put differently, Brooks is signaling his resolve much better than Irish authorities. But the Irish authorities may not be able to change the decision, given existing laws. They may be playing chicken in a car without brakes or a working steering wheel. Perhaps they can figure out some way to jimmy the steering wheel and get it working again in the next several days (they certainly want to). Even so, there’s a real risk that they won’t be able to, leading to a crash in which everyone gets hurt.

Henry Farrell is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. He works on a variety of topics, including trust, the politics of the Internet and international and comparative political economy.
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