31 August 2008

Highway Robbery - now online in Ireland

I am sure you are familiar with the phrase: Having your cake and eat it. It is used when any person in a situation of choosing would like to have both options simultaneously, even though only one of them is available. Well, as Ned Kelly put it so nicely a long time ago: Such is life. You cannot have it all and must make your choice or decision.

Except if you are the private company that runs the tolling system on the M 50 motorway around Dublin. Then you seem to have 'the right' to collect money from anyone using that road, without setting up collection stations any longer.

Yes, fellow victims of corporate extortion and legalised highway robbery, as hard as it is to believe, since yesterday midnight the toll plaza (pictured left) one had to feed with coins every time one passed it, stands now empty and has apparently no longer any purpose in the toll-road system.

Motorists are now controlled - or some might say spied on - with a system of video cameras and high-tech electronic. Even though the barriers have disappeared, the company expects to make even more money with 'barrier-free tolling', also known by the snappy name eFlow.

In order to be properly milked by the toll-road company that still wants to take our money, even though the government has bought out the contract, one is expected to register on the website of eFlow, which means of course giving a lot of very sensitive personal data to some faceless and in a way even nameless private company whose security level, qualifications and ethical standards we do not know.
Neither do we have any control or influence over it. Motorists are given the choice of carrying a permanent 'tag', which means that someone somewhere - without a name or face - can know any position of any participating car at any given time. Big Brother says Hello!

Alternatively one can 'open an account' (the 'Terms & Conditions' of which run to 28 paragraphs, all with many sub-paragraphs, which of course each motorist will read and understand to the very last t...) with them online and pay each time one's number plate is registered on the M 50 by their spy cameras. In order to comply with their rules one can pay in advance - in case one does know beforehand that one is traveling in the area and using the toll road - or afterwards. In the latter case one has one day to pay, as one "must pay by 8 pm on the following day". Must... well, one does wonder what the actual legal situation is.

What about tourists, as well as cars, buses and lorries from foreign countries? If they decide not to pay, how will eFlow get money from them? And how would foreigners know about this very odd system, not used anywhere else, in the first place? I have the strong feeling that we have been - once again - led up a very long garden path by people who grow rich and fat on the money earned by everyone else. And now they are not even prepared to make the slightest effort to get it from us any longer. Now Irish turkeys are supposed to vote happily for Christmas.

In case someone does not pay his € 3 (for once passing a 'toll point') within that set period, there will be a 'penalty' of € 3 extra. "If you fail to pay the toll and this € 3 penalty within the next 14 days, a further penalty of € 40 will be levied." So says the eFlow website. But it gets better. "Failure to pay the full amount due within a further 56 days will result in an additional € 100 penalty. Then, if you still have not paid the total amount due, legal proceedings will be initiated."

Which means that at some stage someone might end up in prison, simply because the toll-road company is too mean to pay any longer the wages of the people who operated the toll plaza in the past. What kind of Mickey-Mouse-State and Banana Republic do we actually live in? And why do we have toll roads in the first place? Don't we pay enough taxes?

It is interesting to notice that the toll road - then with money collecting plaza - was actually built at a time when money was available aplenty in Ireland, including in the government coffers. Why did we not just build the roads (and motorways) needed, like they do it in other countries? Well, I am sure some old pals of FF or PD were in need of extra perks. And good old Bertie - as we well know by now - could of course never say no. Not when someone gave him money, and not when those people then came for their compensation.

I wonder what kind of bureaucratic 'brain giant' came up with the eFlow idea in the first place. And I am waiting to read and hear of cases where false number plates are used on the M 50 and then unsuspecting people receive huge toll bills they have not run up themselves...
How would one proof this? And what would be one's rights in relation to a private company that feels entitled to our money and would certainly not shy away from making threats and using a heavy-handed approach?

Personally I have a very simple solution for the problem. I will never use the M 50, so therefore I will never be asked to pay those lazy and invisible fat cats of the toll-road 'industry' any of my hard earned money. There is also another and perfectly legal alternative to paying tolls: Just use a motorcycle on the M 50, since - for reasons unknown and not explained - they are toll-free. Well, maybe the bosses of eFlow are a bunch of wild bikers...

The Emerald Islander

For further information how eFlow works - or rather not works - have a look at my entry from September 12th and at the blogs of Eoin Brazil and John Browne. You find the links to their blogs in my entry from September 12th.

The Failure of Fáilte Ireland

Elements among the Irish population are obviously of the opinion that as long as they can follow and understand certain things - regardless how unusual, complicated or weird they might be - everyone else will be able to do so, too.
This opinion is especially prevalent in the offices of various organisations in Dublin, and rarely do they make an effort to see things from anywhere further away than Dun Laoghaire (a nearby suburb on the Irish Sea).

Such attitude leads - to give just one prominent example - to the fact that Ireland's national tourism development authority, whose purpose is to attract new and more foreign visitors to the country, is named Fáilte Ireland. The word fáilte is Irish (Gaelic) and means 'welcome'. But how many foreigners, who of course do not speak any Irish, know this?

Despite being the republic's first official language and as such compulsory for the pupils in every school, Irish is even in Ireland used only by a tiny minority of people, most of which live in very remote parts on the west coast. Apart from a handful of specialist academics, no-one outside the island even knows of Irish and assumes that the national language is English. Which, in fact, is the case.

So when foreigners, most of whom do speak English, see the name Fáilte Ireland, they try to understand it through English. The nearest word they will come-up with in English is 'fail', and at that stage they usually give up on the matter.

In my humble opinion it is an absolutely daft idea to use a language no-one abroad understands or speaks to promote a nation's tourism. And the results, especially from last year and this year, speak for themselves. There is a drastic drop in tourist numbers in Ireland. As today is August 31st - traditionally seen as 'the last day of summer' - it is appropriate to draw a little balance.

The reasons for the drop in tourists are manifold, and not entirely linked to the enigmatic name of the agency. It is quite obvious that the extremely low value of the US Dollar has a major effect. In the past it was quite affordable - and at times even cheap - for Americans to come for a holiday in Ireland.
Not anymore. With the US Dollar at the lowest exchange rate to our Euro any European holiday is now an expensive luxury for US citizens.

The fact that Ireland is also one of the most expensive countries in Europe, with extra rip-off for tourists who don't know any better and have not much of a choice once they are here, Ireland's tourism industry has entered a state of self-destruction. According to statistics a third of all hotel beds in the country were permanently empty, even during the main season. But nevertheless it did not occur to our hoteliers that by reducing their prices they might actually get more people in and make more money. Logic, as it happens, is not one of the strongest traits of the Irish...

While the US Dollar is extremely low, Britain's Pound Sterling has also fallen quite significantly in relation to the Euro. This reduces the influx of tourists from the UK, who were traditionally still the main group of visitors to Ireland.

Combine that with bad service in the hospitality industry, extremely high prices for - at best - mediocre accommodation and often quite simple food (unless one goes to one of the hyper-posh food temples in Dublin where they charge easily a week's wages for one fancy meal) and you will have the reasons why less and less people coming to visit Ireland. The bad weather, which gave us totally washed-out summers for two years in a row now, does not help either, of course.

Fáilte Ireland, despite expensive analysis of the situation, has not developed new ideas. They still concentrate their main efforts on the UK and - most of all - the American market. Little to no ideas have been put into place to attract new visitors from the European continent or even from further afield, such as the now increasingly wealthy countries of Asia.

So perhaps the national tourism development authority carries her name rightfully. But I would suggest to make a small adjustment to the spelling and call it Fail thee, Ireland.

Or, perhaps Brian Lenihan, our new Minister for Finance, who is at present desperately seeking ways of saving government money in order to survive the recession we are in, could go a step further. He might as well close down the national tourism development authority, as it does nothing the name suggests, except fail. Nor deserves it any further public money just to produce ever more failure.

All hotels and tourist attractions have their own advertisement, promotional material and - by now - their own websites anyway. So what is the point in having a public body doing exactly the same, except that they are not really doing anything but sending out material with a misleading name on it to countries who don't understand it. Be sensible, Brian, and save us a lot of money!

The Emerald Islander

P.S. Looking at it from a purely linguistic point of view, the name does not even make sense as a statement. What it says is "Welcome Ireland", which would make sense if one would greet the Irish nation arriving somewhere abroad. (With concessions one could also use it to welcome the Irish national team of any sport - including our Olympic team - at any place, including in this case in Ireland.)
"Welcome Ireland" does not address any foreigners. If we would want to do that, it would need to be "Welcome to Ireland". I do wonder how many owners of empty brains in
Fáilte Ireland take home a full pay cheque every week, the money for which comes out of taxpayers' pockets...

30 August 2008

John McCain's unexpected Choice

Senator John McCain, candidate of the Republican Party in this year's US presidential election, has surprised most people with the choice of his so-called 'running mate'. However, as misleading as this word - used by American politicians and media - might be, it is not for a sporting event he chose his partner, but for the White House.
'Running mate' is a popular - even though daft - substitute for the word 'Vice President'. Whoever is chosen for this position will undergo the same media scrutiny and unfair attacks from opponents as the person chosen to 'run' for President. (It is rather telling that here in Europe people 'stand' for elections, while in the USA they are 'running', as if they have to get away from something...)

Well, this entry is not really about linguistic fineries, even though language always plays a role in politics, often in various and significant ways. (Maybe I will write about the use of language in the modern political landscape at another time...)

This is about a woman called Sarah Palin. Sarah who? Yes, I did ask myself exactly that, too, when I heard the news. Even as a rather active and well-informed political analyst I had never come across the woman before, nor heard her name mentioned at all. No surprise really, as Sarah Louise Heath Palin (right), to give her full name at least once for the record, became the governor of Alaska only in December 2006.

Even though Alaska is the largest of the fifty US states by size, it only has a population of about 683,000 (a little more than Dublin City and half of the Dublin Urban Area) and hardly anything important ever happens in this remote part of the world with its subarctic climate. Most of the state is a vastness of uninhabited forests, mountain ranges and island, covered in ice and snow for many months of each year. And as about 65% of the land belongs to the federal government and is managed through its agencies, the governor has real responsibility for only a third of the state.

So, without wanting to diminish the position of the governor of Alaska, it is certainly not the most important or challenging job one could find within the political landscape of the USA. And as such also not the one that would qualify its holder easily for the overall leadership of the nation, which includes more than ever huge international responsibilities.

One has therefore to wonder why John McCain, a very experienced politician and a truly 'old hand' in Washington, chose Sarah Palin, a virtually unknown woman with extremely limited experience, as his 'running mate'. Nobody really knows, and it is not even certain if McCain made the selection himself.
Anyone 'running' for political office in the USA is now surrounded and supported by large teams of advisers, consultants and pollsters, each of which has some influence on the decisions made. It is therefore all teamwork these days, no matter who the person in front is.

During the past two months various names have been circulated within the Republican Party for the position of presumptive Vice President. John McCain met all the potential candidates and a number of them spent a weekend with him at one of his houses in Arizona. Political observers in the USA - as they do - speculated over the person most likely to be selected, but not once did the name of Sarah Palin come up. In fact, McCain only met her once before announcing his surprising choice of 'running mate'.

So why is she now the second name on the Republican ticket? What qualifies her for such a high and difficult office? And what makes her more suitable than the about a dozen people previously mentioned, most of them Republican state governors with a lot more experience?

Well, nothing really. In fact, on the basis of education, personal clout and development, political stature and the real experience of legislation, administration and leadership she is about the least qualified person I could think of. All she achieved educationally before eloping with a blue-collar oil-rig worker and part-time fisherman is a Bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Idaho (the state Sarah was born in before her parents moved to Alaska). She worked a short while as a sports reporter for local TV stations, but stopped that in favour of having four children and helping her husband on a fishing boat. And yes, of course, there were the beauty pageants. I almost forgot.

In 1984 the then 20-year-old Sarah Heath (pictured left) became 'Miss Wasilla', the beauty queen of her small, cold and boring home town, then a minor settlement with less than 2000 inhabitants. She moved on from that to become second in the state-wide Alaska beauty contest of the same year.
Not knowing the other contestants, it is hard to comment on this element of Sarah's career. True beauty is a rare commodity, and even more so in small communities. 'Among the blind the one-eyed is king' is a saying that comes to mind. And even the most remote places just want to have their bit of fun as well...
However, by becoming runner-up in the 'Miss Alaska' pageant, Sarah won her scholarship to the University of Idaho, also rather second-rate in the greater educational structure of the USA.

In 1992 Sarah Palin entered local politics for the Republican Party. She served four years on the town council of Wasilla, which had meanwhile doubled its size due to the oil boom. In 1996, when she was elected Mayor after a pushy and quite controversial campaign, Wasilla had almost 5000 inhabitants. (Currently the number of Wasillans is officially listed as 6715.)

After six years as Mayor, Sarah's ambitions grew and she wanted to leave small-town politics for the richer pickings of the state. In 2002 she 'ran' for the office of Lieutenant Governor of Alaska, but was beaten already in the Republican primary. Old party hands thought that she lacked the experience necessary for the job.
Four years later, after a couple of years on the Alaska Oil & Gas Conservation Commission, Sarah came back with a vengeance and went right for the top job this time. In an unexpected and still controversial move she unseated the incumbent Republican governor (and ex-Senator) Frank Murowski and began to fight the massive corruption which her own party created over many years in Alaska and its rich oil and gas industry.

With less than two years in office, this work is far from finished. So if cleaning up Alaska and its corrupt and narrow-minded political landscape is really what Sarah Palin wants, she should have refused the offer made to her by John McCain. But - in all fairness - few would say 'no' to such an offer coming their way...

For the Republican Party the announcement came as much as a surprise as for the rest of us. It remains to be seen if it will do them any good in the main campaign and - more crucially - in the election in November.
So far a main argument of the McCain campaign was that their candidate was a vastly experienced and seasoned politician who could be trusted as leader and commander-in-chief. They portrayed Democratic candidate Barack Obama often as "too young and lacking experience", especially when it comes to foreign affairs.

Well, such argument will be a lot more difficult to use, now that McCain chose a "hockey mum" as his deputy and presumptive successor as head of state and commander-in-chief.
Compared with Sarah Palin the experience of Barack Obama is massive and clear for everyone to see. In contrast to her, he is also a highly educated man and has many years of practical work in a large and difficult community under his belt. And by choosing veteran Senator Joe Biden (of Delaware), the most experienced foreign affairs expert in Washington, as his 'running mate', Obama made up far more than necessary for his relative youth and lack of foreign experience.

Adding the fact that John McCain celebrated his 72nd birthday yesterday and would - if elected - be the oldest person ever to become President of the USA, the choice of Vice President is even more crucial than usually. Given that under the US Constitution the Vice President automatically succeeds the President on his death, anyone who would be Vice President to a President McCain would have to be able to step into his shoes at any time, should the situation arise.

John McCain had been looking for a proper second-in-command very carefully and for a long time. Before yesterday's surprise announcement, McCain's own personal preference was a man who is as much a maverick as he is himself. It was widely expected that the 'running mate' position might go to the veteran Senator Joseph Lieberman (right), a former Democrat and now - after being dropped by his own party for his support of the Iraq War - an 'Independent Democrat'. This could well have upset a number of staunch Republicans, many of which see McCain as a 'liberal' (whatever that means in an overall liberal country). But the two men are friends across the political divide for a long time and have in the US Senate worked together at various occasions with great success.

So why then the sudden change of mind and the surprise announcement Senator McCain made yesterday? Well, as mentioned above, nobody knows for sure. But what I hear from my personal contacts in the USA, the main reason is a man whose name you will not have heard before either.

He is Steve Schmidt, who on July 2nd, 2008 took over as the principal manager of the McCain campaign. Unknown to the general public, Schmidt is quite a familiar name in the fraternity of political consultants and analysts. He worked for years very closely with the demonic Republican spin doctor Karl Rove, who secured the White House for George W. Bush twice, the second time actually through a real election, which he won with massive lies and scare-mongering, shocking a large amount of right-wing 'Christian' fundamentalist with the prospect of 'gay marriages' if the Democrats would win the election. That was of course complete rubbish, but it scared enough of the rednecks and hill billies and made them vote for Bush.
Schmidt also worked as Counselor and spokesman for Bush's Vice President 'Dick' Cheney, who was - and still is - the most hard line war monger in the current administration and one of the main architects of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. (If things had gone Cheney's way, there would by now also be a war in Iran...)

It is pretty obvious that John McCain - back in 2004 - sold his political soul to the Bush camp. In exchange for stopping his maverick attacks against his own party and government, McCain was promised a free run for the presidency in 2008 (when Bush cannot 'run' any more himself). The likes of Cheney and Rove might have hoped that McCain - suffering from skin cancer and getting quite old - would probably never be able to go all the way, but now that he does, they made sure that the former free-thinker and maverick from Arizona, who was more than once on the brink of leaving the Republican Party (the last two times in 2001 and 2004), is surrounded by enough right-wing minders and advisers.

After they failed to push the Democrats to select Hillary Clinton as their presidential candidate (which would have been a great bonus for the Republicans) and Barack Obama was wise enough not to choose her as 'running mate', the right-wing strategists panicked and forced John McCain to make a clear gesture towards the fundamentalist 'Christians', rednecks, hill billies and all the other people of little brain and education who secured the election of George W. Bush in 2004.

Instead of his old friend and colleague Joe Lieberman, who is an orthodox Jew from the Eastern seaboard, McCain was cajoled by Schmidt to go for the exact opposite: a redneck woman of little brain and experience, but one who fulfills most of the requirements to appeal to that particular part of the electorate. She has no academic clout, lives 'in the wild', loves shooting, is therefore a member of the ultra-reactionary National Rifle Association, eats 'mooseburgers' (made from the meat of the moose she kills) and has a son in the Army and on the way to serve in Iraq. This is the sort of people America's brain-dead morons just love. But wait, there is more. Sarah Palin "does not believe that global warming is the result of human activity" and has vetoed that the polar bear should be put on the list of endangered (and therefore protected) species. This alone, the unbelievable amount of arrogant ignorance when it comes to the important matters of the environment, makes her a female version of George W. Bush!
Sarah Palin is - of course - also a brainwashed right-wing 'Christian' and supports the teaching of the so-called 'Intelligent Design' theory, which denies the facts of evolution and is based on the literal interpretation of the Bible as the only acceptable source for everything, including science.

Steve Schmidt and his right-wing Republican strategists are pretty certain that a woman like Sarah Palin can gain them the moron votes that John McCain would not mobilise. They also hope that by choosing a woman they might scoop up some of the radical feminist vote that supported Hillary Clinton for the sole reason of being a woman, as well as some of the Democrat blue-collar support that is not quite happy with a non-white candidate. Yes, racism in the USA is alive and kicking, and nowhere more than in the very same party that started the Civil War 147 years ago, apparently to free the negroes...

In 1984, the year young Sarah Heath became 'Miss Wasilla', the first ever woman was nominated as the vice-presidential 'running mate' of any US presidential candidate. She was Geraldine Ferraro (right), a highly intelligent, educated and experienced lawyer and politician from New York.
Walter Mondale, the Democrats' nominee, made this inspired and courageous selection, but in November of that year they lost heavily to the incumbent President Ronald Reagan (and his Vice President, the ex-CIA director George H. W. Bush, father of the current incumbent).

Now Sarah Palin (nee Heath) is heralded by right-wing media as the second woman selected as a 'running mate'. They sing her praise - even though there is little to sing - and build her up to look like a giant, just because she is a woman, unknown and a right-wing trollop. Sarah Palin is no giant. With her ignorance and her aggressive and violent lifestyle she is rather unattractive as a woman, and she is certainly no second Geraldine Ferraro!
Portraying Sarah Palin as a positive role model for women is an insult to everyone's intelligence, and in particular an affront to every feminist who fought and fights for women's rights and true equality.

Well, I am obviously no American, and thus I have no vote in November. But of course one does have opinions and preferences, even from the outside. Eight years ago, in the year 2000, when John McCain 'ran' in the Republican primaries against George W. Bush and the incumbent Vice President Al Gore - long before his rebirth as an environmentalist - tried to succeed Bill Clinton as President, I would have supported John McCain and voted for him. He was then still the clear maverick for whom decency and common sense had priority over party politics and imperialistic attitudes.
In 2004 McCain was close to start a third party, or even defect to the Democrats. There was for a while even a chance he might become John Kerry's 'running mate' on the Democratic ticket. However, something happened around this time, and John McCain was never the same again. It looks to me that he sold his political soul to Bush (as I mentioned above) and ever since he drifts more and more towards the conservative right, even supporting now positions of Bush's policy he openly attacked between 2000 and 2004.

For me the selection of Sarah Palin as his 'running mate' shows that John McCain finally has lost his maverick spirit and his independence. He is now nothing more than a willing puppet, whose strings are pulled by Steve Schmidt, just as the strings of George W. Bush were pulled by Karl Rove. So if I were American, I could no longer support McCain or vote for him. Most certainly not now, after he has hitched his wagon to a woman like Sarah Palin.
I sincerely hope that the American voters will have the right answer to the short-sighted and in many ways idiotic selection of Sarah Palin. If not, then no 'God' or anything else will help America when the inevitable downfall and disintegration comes. Let the silly woman go back to her snow, ice and wilderness, where she can play the gun-totting dominatrix. But let the USA be once again governed by people with dignity, morals, education and common sense!

The Emerald Islander

28 August 2008

Barack Obama - a Chance and a Challenge

I would never ever call myself a 'prophet', but some have used the word 'prophetic' recently with regards to my analysis of and comments on the US presidential election campaign.

Well, to make this quite clear: I have neither a 'sixth sense' nor any special insider connections to the political parties in the USA and their activists. All I did at the begin of the year was to look at the situation, the people involved (at that time there were still 26 different individuals seeking the nomination in either the Democratic or the Republican Party) and then I analysed their potential chances of being elected, first inside their own party, and then in November by the US voters.

In entries from January 4th, January 9th and February 1st I predicted - correctly, as it turned out - that this year's presidential election would be contested by Senator Barack Obama (right) for the Democrats and Senator John McCain (below left) for the Republicans.

Despite strong initial support for Senator Hillary Clinton, especially from Irish Americans and from a lot of groups and institutions here in Ireland, I could not see her being successful in the quest for the White House. Right from the start her campaign was too arrogant, aggressive and simplistic. The message that came across was basically: I was already in the White House for eight years as a wife, so now I am entitled to another eight years there as President.

Well, if the USA would like to install a hereditary system of government, they could do so openly and through legislation. But doing it through the back door is neither fair nor clever. Actually, had Hillary Clinton been nominated and won the election in November, the USA would have had a spell of 24 (and perhaps even 28) years under the rule of either a member of the Bush family or the Clinton family. This is not what the Founding Fathers had in mind in 1776.

In fact, in the more than two centuries the USA had an elected President, George W. Bush is only the second case of a President's son being elected President as well. (The first was John Quincy Adams, the 6th President and son of the 2nd President John Adams.)

Hillary Clinton also failed to realise that her support for the illegal war against Iraq and the still ongoing and equally illegal occupation of this country by US troops was a huge negative burden for her campaign. She and her advisers made further a crucial mistake by underestimating the potential of Barack Obama, in particular his great appeal to young people and ordinary citizens who are fed-up with the Bush administration and the right-wing Republicans.

So it was clear for me from the outset that only Barack Obama could be a true alternative to the current administration. Even though I have neither a vote nor any influence in the USA, I did support his candidacy from day one. And I am glad that, despite all attempts by Bill and Hillary Clinton to throw political mud at him, the junior Senator from Illinois has now taken the first and very important hurdle and received the official nomination of his party.

It will now depend on the maturity and common sense of the American people if he can go all the way to Washington and become the 44th President of the USA. Personally I hope he will, as he is - in my opinion - at present the only person in US politics who could stop the rapid decline of the USA in political as well as economical terms. And he is also the only one who could - with at least some chance of success - try to repair the extremely damaged image his country has now in the world, thanks to eight years of arrogance, ignorance, blunder, crimes and war crimes under George W. Bush and his cronies.

For both the USA and the rest of the world a President Obama would be a chance as well as a great challenge. Without drastic changes of policy, attitude and behaviour the USA are doomed to complete failure, which would subsequently - and probably quite speedily - lead to a collapse of the USA as we know her. The example of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire stands as a clear writing on the walls of the White House already...

A few days ago US police and FBI discovered a plot by right-wing extremists to assassinate Senator Obama. I sincerely hope that the United States have learned the lessons of the past 45 years and are now able to prevent such crime and tragedy. With the murder of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and his brother Robert in 1968 the USA took large steps back into the Dark Ages. Subsequently the country fell into the hands of the crook Richard Nixon, the cynical war monger (and ex-CIA boss) George H. W. Bush and then - most tragically - into the lap of the by far worst leader the USA ever had: George W. Bush, a lazy and uneducated criminal and war criminal who came to power through a coup d'etat and destroyed all trust and credibility the United States had left in the world.

Should Barack Obama be murdered like the Kennedy brothers, the USA would rightfully be seen as a nest of vipers and killers by all the world. So I really hope that the vast security apparatus for which the US tax payers spend billions of Dollars every year, will do its job properly this time.

However, I do not expect miracles from a President Obama. Should he win in November and get to the White House, he will still be an American politician, bound into a long-established system of powers and vested interests. No-one, regardless how ambitious or alternative he might be, is able to change the whole system completely.
President John F. Kennedy - ably assisted by his brother Robert (then Attorney General), Dean Rusk (Secretary of State) and Robert McNamara (Secretary of Defense) - made honest attempts and managed to achieve quite a lot, before he was murdered by the forces of reaction.

Barack Obama would run into the same political mine fields and barriers that vested interests in Washington have created around the White House. Those obstacles are well guarded, no matter who is President. However, if anyone at this point in time could make a difference and bring back some degree of dignity to US politics, it would be Barack H. Obama.

With his choice of Senator Joseph "Joe" Biden (right) for the position of Vice President he made a shrewd move. It not only brought vast amounts of tradional Hillary Clinton supporters into the Obama camp, it also bolstered the campaign substantially where it was weak: in the areas of foreign and defence policies.
Joe Biden, a solid and sincere working-class American of Irish stock, is probably the most senior and most experienced US politician in these areas. Being also a man who does not shy back from an argument, he is the ideal match for Barack Obama, whose strength is more the bigger picture and the principal direction of politics.

In my analysis in January I suggested John Edwards as a possible running mate for Obama, and I still think that this combination would also have been a very powerful Democratic ticket. But in the selection of Joe Biden the Obama campaign has gone even further than they would have with a selection of John Edwards. I do hope that the majority of US voters will see the light and elect Obama and Biden in November. If not, no "God bless America" and no shoring-up of the vast damage done to the ship of state by the current administration, will help to save the USA.

As things are, we are currently witnessing once again history in the making. The future of the USA and with that the future of the civilised world will be decided within the next ten weeks. So, watch this space and keep watching the USA.

The Emerald Islander

P.S. There is one thing I find very strange in regard to the reporting about Barack Obama. Many journalists speak of him as the potentially "first black President of the USA". This is not a correct description, as Senator Obama is of mixed race, the son of a black Kenyan father and a white American mother from Kansas. So why is he then always called "black"? What is wrong with being of mixed ethnic background?
By calling Barack Obama "black" the people who do it ignore completely his white mother, who brought him up alone after his father had left the USA.
In US 'politically correct' public speak the word black is no longer used (except by black people) and instead the currently fashionable version is 'African-American'. In Barack Obama's case this is probably the most correct description, since he is indeed the child of an African father and an American mother.

A few Hours of Summer at last...

Even though I had almost given up hope to see any kind of 'summer' here in Ireland for the rest of the year, today has positively surprised me (and surely many more on the Emerald Isle). After a grey and overcast morning the Sun decided to make an appearance at about lunchtime, and as I am writing this it is still warm and sunny. Thus we have a few hours of proper summer after all before August turns into September.

And, as often when the weather improves, I am feeling a lot better as well. It really makes quite a difference. Still coping with a few technical problems of the domestic kind after the flooding, I am in a lighter mood today, even though I have not seen my counselor yet.
Well, I am really rather easy to please: Give me a few rays of sunshine, a bit of birdsong and a cup of tea and I am generally content. Add a good idea or two, and I am happy.

I even wrote a new poem - out of the blue - about an hour ago. It just appeared in my mind in the middle of some historical research, and it appeared almost perfect, well-shaped and worded, in a nice format of six verses with four lines each. This really has made my day.

In the past I used to write a lot more poetry, in two different languages (and sometimes even experimenting in a third, in which I am not fully fluent). But for years now the quantity of poems that come to my mind (one cannot plan a poem and write it like an article, story or letter) has been reduced due to a lot of other work and commitments.
But ever so often I still have an inspiration and write some poetry, these days mostly in English. Usually it happens unexpected and almost accidentally. But that is the nature of true poetry. Like a cat one can never control it fully...

Well, I just thought I should share the good news with the world, especially since I had rather a gloomy entry yesterday and not much happiness to report for some time. I intend to post a few more thoughts of the political and analytical kind later as well. But now I will go and make a new pot of tea.

The Emerald Islander

27 August 2008

Slightly depressed

I know that I should be grateful that things are improving, and that I am almost there with making my little house properly inhabitable and comfortable again. And I know that things could be a lot worse. After all, there are people in this country who lost everything this summer due to the floods, their homes and all that was in them.

But I cannot help it, I still find myself somehow slightly depressed. Not that I am easily shaken by things, and I have been through a lot in my life. So I should not be touched by something so 'trivial' as a leaking roof on an old cottage and what comes from it.

Well, it appears that there is something inside me that I might have overlooked for a good while. A certain amount of sadness, ignored for some time, combined with a generally pessimistic outlook on the world as it presents itself at present, makes me feel strange and awkward.
Perhaps this has been with me for some time, or even for much longer. But I did not take notice of it. So it appears that it needed the added experience of water in the house to become aware of it.

Since I am not able to make complete sense of my current feelings, I will have to consult a fellow consultant. No, this is not a joke. It is quite normal that one cannot see and solve one's own very personal problems by oneself, even though one has the proper training for it. It always needs an outsider to look inside a person's soul. So I better make an appointment in the morning...

The Emerald Islander

26 August 2008

When we are shown our Place in the World...

There is a widespread idea, especially among the followers of Christian religions, that the human race has been chosen to rule the world. After all, in Genesis - the first book of the Old Testament - 'God' is saying so to Adam. Well, we all have heard and read better stories meanwhile...

Nevertheless, there is this underlaying thought that we are the most superior of all the species on Earth, because we are (so far) the only one that developed certain physical, mental and intellectual skills and abilities that put us above the other animals. But ever so often Nature, the true ruler of this planet, shows us humans our actual weakness and puts us into our place.

I just had such an experience, which is still causing me some inconvenience and lots of problems. It is also the reason for my two weeks of absence from the internet and in particular from this weblog. Naturally, to access the internet one needs electricity.
During the past couple of weeks it actually came to me how much we - the human race in general and the inhabitants of the developed and industrialised world in particular - depend meanwhile totally on electricity for almost every element of our lives.

But let me explain: As I had mentioned here earlier, I had been away for some time. Not unusual during the summer, although for me it was, as I never have holidays and do not take time off like most people do.
My absence from home was for a good and creative reason, but while I was away, the extremely bad weather that has messed up the Irish 'summer' (as it did already last year) chose to turn on me as well. The rain, which was often torrential for hours and from time to time interspersed with hail and thunderstorms, caused the flooding of many houses here. Entire villages suffered severe floods, most of which came without any warning and built up within a very short span of time.

In my case it was - fortunately - not so serious, although the trouble I had (and still have to a certain extent) is bad enough. The massive rain found a way through the roof of my very small and very old house. Once it had done that, streams of water flowed freely around as much as it was architecturally possible, and when I came home from my assignment, I found the cottage not only water-logged and with a damaged roof, but the walls were wet, water covered the floor and in some places mold was beginning to spread. The smell was very strange, too, and it was in more than one way quite a shock for me.

I am not a rich man, and monetary wealth has never played a major role in my life. But since I am rather a 'home bird' who prefers sitting in front of the fire place with a book and a cup of tea to going out to a pub for a drink, the sudden unavailability of my modest comforts did effect me in various ways.
First of all there was a lot of physical work, naturally. The rooms had to be emptied, furniture had to be cleaned and dried, and the water that had entered the house had to be put out again.
Then I started the drying process for the building, by having a blazing fire for many hours each day in the open fire place (which is the only way of heating the house). Slowly but steadily there was some success visible. And by now - after two weeks of struggle - I am almost reaching the state of normality again.

Certain items were damaged beyond repair and further use, but those are only material losses. What turned out to be the much greater loss for me was the time I was forced to spend on the salvage and repair operation. Much of my work was left undone, I had to cancel appointments and meetings and pass on certain projects to a colleague.
The whole experience has shown me in a very personal way how small we humans are in the vast structure of the Universe; how helpless we are against the elements of Nature.

In a very particular way I realised how much I depend on the availability of electricity. Without it - and I had of course to switch off everything for days until the house was dry again, in order to avoid more trouble - there was very little left one could do. Yes, I could heat the cottage, as I still use wood and peat for that. And I could cook, as for that purpose I use bottled gas. So all was not completely lost and I was not entirely dependent on others.
But all my work these days is done with the help of computers. They, of course, need electricity and - in order to communicate and write the weblog - also the internet connection. And here the experience has taught me a very interesting and special lesson. By basing everything on systems that will not work without the 'invisible stuff that comes out of a socket in the wall' I am in fact no longer truly independent. I am - as so many millions of others - a slave of modernity and for all my professional progress totally dependent on electricity, a substance that is not only invisible to the eye, but also far removed from every individual in this country.

A friend of mine in Germany is in a quite different situation. He took advantage of a government grant some years ago and installed his own small wind turbine, which now produces more than enough electricity for his and his family's needs.
In fact, for most of the year the rotor in his garden produces a surplus of electricity, which he sells to the national grid of Germany's commercial electricity companies, and they pay him handsomely for this environmentally friendly contribution to energy security.
This is the way forward, making everyone not only aware of energy, but involving thousands of individual citizens in the production of the national energy. It is a win-win situation with no-one losing out or being ripped off.

Here in Ireland things are not that progressive. In fact, when it comes to energy policy, we are still in the Dark Ages. Due to an incompetent and widely uncaring government, private energy projects - as they are meanwhile quite common in Germany, Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands and a number of other European countries - are non-existent. Instead we - the people of Ireland - are still completely dependent on the old ESB (Electricity Supply Board), a once entirely state-controlled body which has meanwhile undergone some changes and part-privatisation. But this has not improved the situation. Quite the opposite. Since there are private interests involved now, the greed of the company has risen to new heights, while the traditional incompetence and lack of management skills are still the most significant hallmark of the ESB.

The cost for electricity in Ireland has just gone up by 17.5% in one step, with a further rise already announced for January. Ireland has not only one of the highest energy prices in the world, it has also one of the most rigid and inflexible systems. Thus millions of citizens are in the constant stranglehold of the energy companies, whose existence alone is already a license to print money. (Not to mention that our incompetent government has given away Ireland's only reserves of natural gas practically for free to the international giant Shell...)

What we need is a complete rethinking and restructuring of the energy supply system. Individual citizens should not only be allowed, but encouraged to contribute to the national grid (as they do very successfully on the continent). And the monopoly of greedy city slickers who do not give a damn for their customers needs to be broken.

I have no problem with the state controlling the supply of electricity. This is better than leaving the matter to the squabbeling of the market place. But it also includes a general responsibility a state and government has for the population as a whole.
If necessary, then the price for electricity - at least for a certain amount that is needed by people to survive and conduct basic domestic operations - will have to be subsidised by the government as a matter of social care. As long as we are not able to create our own electricity - which would be the preferred option for me - we should not be held over a barrel by the energy companies and ripped off left, right and centre as they please.

Fortunately my little house was not destroyed and will remain inhabitable. But the unpleasant experience of the past two weeks has made me think even more deeply and be even more determined to live an alternative and sustainable lifestyle.

The Emerald Islander

08 August 2008

No Money for dedicated Services for Children

A dedicated out-of-hours service for children will not be set up this year, due to a lack of government funding.
In a statement the Health Service Executive (HSE) said that it is "finalising plans to ensure that children can access emergency accommodation out of hours" and it "expects to bring proposals to the Minister for Children shortly".

Once again we are told straight into our faces that the government and its national health service has no money for the most vulnerable members of our society, while it seems not short of funds when it comes to internal corporate events and the payment of massive salaries for its managers.

Three weeks ago it emerged that a 15-year-old boy had to spend a night in a makeshift bed at Mallow garda station because HSE personnel were "not contactable".
What sort of a third-world banana republic are we, that social workers only work 9 to 5 Monday to Friday? Have we lost all sense for priorities and what it means to provide help and care for all those in need of it?

According to the (Junior) Minister for Children Barry Andrews (FF) the situation is "wholly unacceptable". Quite right, Mr. Andrews. But what are you - and your boss Mary Harney - doing about it? Obviously not much, if anything at all.
Since the government outsourced the health service by creating the HSE, many politicians seem to think that they can wash their hands over those problems and delegate them to the HSE, where they end unattended in a filing cabinet.

The HSE has confirmed reports that a dedicated out-of-hours service is - apparently - "not achievable in the current economic environment".

While plans are prepared to ensure that children have access to out-of-hours accommodation, the respected Association of Garda Sergeants & Inspectors (AGSI) described the situation as "an absolute disgrace" and called on the government to take control of the matter.

Meanwhile the trade union IMPACT, which represents social workers, said it is disappointed that the government does not seem prepared to fund a dedicated service for children.

Once again it appears as if Ireland's children have no lobby and no one in politics who really cares for them. Well, in a country that has substantially more golf courses than children's play grounds one should not be too surprised about that.

The Emerald Islander

Meat Products withdrawn over Salmonella Scare

Dawn Farm Foods, an Irish food production company that supplies - among others - the fast food franchise group Subway, has withdrawn some of its cooked meat products, due to a scare of salmonella.
The company says that "as a precaution" it has withdrawn batches of beef, chicken and bacon from the made-to-order sandwich trade.

Potentially contaminated meat had been supplied to Subway, which has confirmed that specific batches of its 'Philly Style Steak' and 'Chicken Fajita' products were also withdrawn from sale.

One of Dawn Farm Foods' production lines will remain closed until an investigation by the Food Safety Authority (FSAI) is completed.

While salmonella is not a life-threatening illness for most people, the FSAI warns that it can have "serious complications for older people, young children, pregnant women and people with already weakened immune systems".

Symptoms of the food poisoning through salmonella can include diarrhoea, stomach cramps, vomiting and fever.

The FSAI is working to identify the exact source of the salmonella outbreak and a list of affected products is available (and updated) on the FSAI's website www.fsai.ie.

05 August 2008

Views differ after National Pay Talks collapsed

Tánaiste Mary Coughlan (left) is still "very hopeful" that an agreement between Irish trade unions and employers can be reached when pay talks reconvene in Dublin in three weeks time. The negotiations of the Social Partners over a new national wage agreement had collapsed without a result last weekend.

Mary Coughlan said there was "absolutely no acrimony between the sides" and it was "appropriate for Jack O'Connor of SIPTU to reflect that he was taken aback by headlines over the weekend". What happened in the breakdown should not be heightened in any way.

Meanwhile SIPTU president Jack O'Connor (right), head of the country's largest trade union, warned that employers who fail to address pay claims could face industrial action. He said that there had been "no indication that employers would adopt more reasonable approaches" if partnership talks were to resume.

However, Irish employers insist that excessive pay increases would "damage competitiveness" and trigger even more job losses.

The Tánaiste's comments came as bank workers were expected to press ahead with their claim for an increase of 10% in their pay over the next two years. The Irish Bank Officials Association is to meet in two weeks' time to discuss this claim.
The Association's general secretary, Larry Broderick, said that his union lodged its pay claim six months ago and that workers could not afford a pay pause.

The collapse of partnership talks has triggered a new push on pay, with private sector unions set to lodge pay claims this week on an employer-by-employer basis.
Unions say they must protect the interests of their members, whose pay has been eroded by inflation over the last two years.

The nation's employers' lobby group IBEC (Irish Business and Employers Confederation) is advising its member companies not to engage in local bargaining, at least until after the Taoiseach meets the Social Partners to review the situation at the end of the month. They fear excessive pay hikes would damage their competitiveness.

However, the SIPTU president warned that any direction by employers to refuse to engage with unions would contravene most collective agreements and could raise the prospect of industrial unrest. Jack O'Connor said there had been no indication that employers would adopt a more reasonable stance if talks resume - and in those circumstances unions have no alternative but to press ahead with claims against individual employers.

The Emerald Islander

Ancient Irish Royalty Meeting

As a historian I have studied and researched Ireland's past for many years, with specific interest in the ancient Celts, who dominated the island unchallenged for a thousand years and whose influence is still the strongest in a now mixed bag of cultures we have in modern Ireland.

In the process I have met (and still meet) many interesting people from various countries, but it is very rare and exceptional even for me what happened in Waterford today. It was my honour and pleasure to arrange a meeting between the descendants of two of Ireland's ancient royal families.

Right in the centre of Ireland's oldest city a great Celtic lady from Spain, whose ancestors were the Kings of Ulster (and also High Kings of Ireland at times) before they were forced to leave the island four centuries ago, sat happily and peacefully over a cup of tea with direct descendants of Diarmuid McMurrough, King of Leinster (yes, the one who brought the Normans into Ireland in 1169), who live for generations in Waterford, the city Norman mercenaries besieged and eventually took in a bloody battle on behalf of their infamous ancestor.

McMurrough's joy was short-lived. After he had kept his part of the bargain with the Normans and given his young daughter Aoife in marriage to the invaders' leader, Richard FitzGilbert de Clare, Earl of Pembroke (better known by his nickname "Strongbow"), he soon lost more and more influence and the Normans gained control over much of Ireland.
What was originally an adventure of war and the private undertaking of several Norman nobles in support of Diarmuid McMurrough became part of official Norman expansion policy when the Norman King of England - Henry II - arrived in the port of Waterford in 1171 and took control of all operations in Ireland.

The rest, as they say, is history (and well-known to most). So I won't go into further details now. But it is in my humble opinion a good thing that 839 years after the occupation of Waterford by the Normans and four centuries after the 'Flight of the Earls' the living members of two Celtic royal families can be friends and enjoy a lively conversation over a cup of tea.

The Emerald Islander

04 August 2008

A truly wet Lughnasa

As I have mentioned in several previous entries already, the weather in Ireland during this year's 'summer' has been rather poor. During the weeks and months that were bringing us warmth and sunshine in the past, we are now experiencing cooler temperatures, plenty of clouds and heavy rain fall. We had the same pattern already last year, and this 'summer' seems to be a repeat.

There is nothing one can do about. Too many people, including politicians and industrialists, have in the past ignored the ever stronger warnings of global warming and climate change. For them it was more important to have short-term gains and quick profits, and the future of the planet and of the human race as a whole was of little concern. Now we have to live with the consequences.

As a country that depends for a significant part of its income on tourism, Ireland is suffering a great deal from this climate change. Bulletins from all over the island report of a drastic fall in the tourist numbers, and even the most famous and most popular hotels in the country are half empty.
Sadly, that has not led to a reduction of their high prices, so one could say that the bad tourist season is at least partly their own fault. As a large percentage of visitors to Ireland still come from the USA, the drastic decline of the US Dollar (which has recently reached its lowest value to the Euro) plays also a significant role.

For those of us who are not involved in tourism and just live and work here, the bad news from the Irish Tourist Board are more bearable, but of course indirectly it effects us all in one way or another.
More relevant, however, are the ever rising prices for food, fuel and many other essentials. This is especially hard for the poorest people (particularly pensioners and recipients of social welfare) and those on low incomes.

And the bad weather makes everything even worse and less bearable. Unfortunately many of us had a bad Lughnasa this year, and some people in the counties of Limerick and Cork were even forced to leave their houses because of severe flooding, caused by massive rainfall. Subsequently there were also power cuts, road closures and disruptions to public transport.

Worst effected by the floods was County Limerick, and in particular the community of Newcastle West. In a few hours the rainfall reached the level that is normally recorded in a whole month!

Limerick County Council had to issue a public drinking water notice, advising the people of Newcastle West, Coolcappagh and Rathcahill, as well as the users of the Ballyine, Dually, Reens, Kilscannell, Old Mill Road, Killoughteen and Killeline Group Water Supply Schemes to boil their water before using it.

This has never before happened in living memory, and one does wonder if we will have to brace ourselves for more of the same to come. Politicians and public administrators should better get ready for it and prepare themselves and our public services for ever more natural catastrophes.

As this coincides with a recession in our economy, rising unemployment and exploding prices for food, energy and most other essentials, we are facing difficult times on the Emerald Isle. In times of such crisis our Celtic ancestors used to try to please and pacify the obviously angry gods with a series of special ceremonies, including even human sacrifices. When things were extremely bleak and hopeless, a Celtic Prince or senior leader would volunteer to be sacrificed for the good of the people.
With the arrival of Christianity this practice disappeared, together with many other traditions. And today we are ruled by a cast of leaders who have absolutely no intentions to even step down from their positions when times are bad and obviously they have failed to perform their duties well.

Nevertheless, for our new Taoiseach Brian Cowen the dark clouds are gathering seriously. Well, he is of course not responsible for the bad weather, but the weakening of the economy, the rapid increase of inflation and the general feeling of despair can be - and is - rightfully put on the blame list of the man who has as Minister for Finance and Tanaiste failed to prepare the country for the harder times ahead. Now that he has the full responsibility for the whole government, he has to perform exceptionally well, otherwise he will fall from the heights of power even faster than he was lifted onto the shield of leadership by his party.

So far he had not much luck, nor has he shown much sensibility and leadership quality. Ireland's people will watch with growing interest if he can do better when he returns from the overly long holidays our politicians have given themselves once again.

The Emerald Islander

01 August 2008

Lughnasa Shona

I am still away from home and busy with a special project, so my posting of entries is less frequent than usual. But whenever it is possible, I sit down and write a piece or two.

Today, August 1st, is a very special day we call Lughnasa. It is one of the four traditional high feasts in the old calendar and marks the beginning of the Celtic harvest season, which brings us the ripening of the fruits in the fields. The autumnal season that now starts is traditionally also a time of community gatherings, market festivals, horse races and reunions with distant family and friends.
And in Waterford, Ireland's oldest city (which is my home town), this is the time of the Spraoi, the largest public street festival on the Emerald Isle, which is celebrated each year on the first weekend in August.

In Celtic mythology Lughnasa is said to have been begun by the god Lugh, as a funeral feast with games, commemorating his foster-mother Tailtiu, who died of exhaustion after clearing the plains of Ireland for agriculture.
The first location of the Áenach Tailteann was at the site of modern Teltown, located between Navan and Kells in County Meath. Historically, the Áenach Tailteann gathering was a time for contests of strength and skill, and a favored time for contracting marriages and winter lodgings. A peace was declared at the festival, and religious celebrations were held.

In Ireland Lughnasa is a favored time for handfastings - traditional marriages that last a year and a day, with the option of ending it before the new year or making it more permanent later.

A festival corresponding to our Lughnasa was also held by the Celts of Gaul (now France) at least up to the first century. On the Coligny calendar the eighth day of the first half of the month Edrinios is marked with the inscription TIOCOBREXTIO that identifies major feasts. The same date was later adopted for the meeting of all the representatives of Gaul at the Condate Altar in Gallo-Roman times.
During the reign of Augustus Caesar, the Romans instituted a celebration to the genius of the emperor on August 1st in Lyon, capital of Roman Gaul, which was named after the Celtic god Lugh. (The modern French word Lyon derives from Lugdunum, the latinised Gaulish word Lugodunon, which literally means Lugh's fortress.)

In a similar fashion we named here in Ireland the coastal town of Dun Laoghaire (the fort of Lóegaire mac Néill, a fifth century High King of Ireland, who was a son of Niall of the Nine Hostages - and thus a main ancestor of the O'Neill clan - and resided at Tara). The town, 12 km south of Dublin, was founded as a key naval base for the Celtic ruler of Ireland and used for operations against Britain. Nowadays it is a very popular seaside resort and residential town, as well as the seat of the county council and administration for Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown County.

Lóegaire mac Néill, who died in 462, is believed to have been the first Ard Rí na hÉireann (High King of Ireland) who accepted the new faith of Christianity, after he met Saint Patrick.

As it happens, a descendant of this king (and many other great O'Neills) is currently here, exploring and enjoying modern Ireland and also visiting the old sites. We had the pleasure to celebrate Lughnasa together with a special ceremony that will remain in our memories and perhaps mark the beginning of a new development for Celtic Ireland as well.

Let me take this opportunity to wish you all - wherever you are - Lughnasa Shona (a happy Autumn with a rich harvest), together with a pleasant weekend, joy, happiness and sunshine.

The Emerald Islander