31 January 2008

Is the Dáil working well?

Yesterday Dáil Éireann, our national parliament, returned from its long Christmas break. While most Irish people had a few days off work to celebrate Christmas and the incoming of a New Year, but went back to work in the first days of January, our elected representatives gave themselves an extremely generous six-week winter holiday.

Given that they also have a very long summer break, and that last year an extra five weeks were lost due to the general election, the
Dáil did probably not sit for more than 75 days in 2007. Even without an election interrupting procedures, there are on average seldom more than 100 days of parliamentary session in a calendar year.
This means that our parliament has become a part-time institution, while TDs (members of the
Dáil) are getting paid ever more money and generous expenses allowances for less and less work. Since double (and multiple) mandates were abolished and TDs can no longer hold other positions (like seats on city and county councils), one would have thought they would spend more time in the Dáil. But that seems not to be the case.

We hear from various politicians, especially from members of the opposition parties, that "there is never enough time for debates", and ever so often legislation is rushed through the
Dáil in amazing haste. This is often the case with very important laws, pushed through as "emergency legislation". One has to wonder how thorough and proper such legislation can be, when it cannot be probed and checked appropriately by TDs because the government does not allocate enough time for debates.

I am not a legal expert, but I am told that many bills passed by the
Dáil are flawed or have loop holes through which people and companies rich enough to employ expensive lawyers can slip if they so please. Would parliamentarians spend more time in their work place, this might not be the case. So the questions have to be asked: Does the Dáil actually work well? And is it taking enough care of our national interests and representing the people who elected its members?

One also has to question if a country with just over four million people needs a 166-seat parliament. Compared with other much larger nations, the people of Ireland are rather over-represented, at least when it comes to the numbers. For example, the USA, a nation of 300 million, has 400 members in the House of Representatives. Germany, with a population of over 83 million, has 614 seats in the Bundestag, the lower chamber of the federal parliament, while in the British House of Commons 646 members represent around 60 million citizens.

With ever more legislation being decided on European level (and only later introduced into the legal systems of the EU member states through relatively easy procedures), one has to wonder if Ireland can really justify 166 TDs for much longer. Perhaps a parliamentary reform could do a lot to streamline and thus to strengthen both
Houses of the Oireachtas. Strangely enough, most political parties have suggested exactly that - while in opposition - but never gone near the idea when they were in government.

Next time you meet one of your local TDs, it might be a good idea to raise the matter with him or her. Only if we talk with our elected representatives, they will actually know what we think, and especially what we think of them.

The Emerald Islander

30 January 2008

A Day that changed the World

Some days have changed the course of history, and January 30th is such a significant day. Unfortunately the events it is noted for have done much harm to the world and did cost the lives of millions of people.
There were - to the astonishment of most people - many negative events that all happened on this day, including the public beheading of both King Charles I of England (in 1649) and Oliver Cromwell (in 1661). It was also on January 30th, 1835 that the first attempt to assassinate a US President was made, when a mentally ill man tried - but failed - to kill President Andrew Jackson in the Capitol in Washington.

On this day in 1889 Archduke Rudolf of Austria, the only son of Emperor Franz Joseph and heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was found dead at Mayerling, a Royal manor house, together with his young mistress, Baroness Mary Vetsera. Both had been shot and the official version suggested a suicide pact. However, as the documents of the official investigations of the case have never been made public and remain a state secret even today, suggestions have surfaced that it was in fact an assassination, ordered by conservative court officials who strongly disliked the Archduke's liberal and modern ideas, including a major reform plan for the empire.

And, more close to home, the House of Lords in London rejected the Irish Home Rule Bill on January 30th, 1913. This was a major setback for the Liberal government's plan to give the Irish people a fairer role inside the British Empire. This rejection, predominantly with the votes of conservative peers, was a contributing factor to further unrest in Ireland, which culminated in the Easter Rising of 1916.

On this day, 75 years ago, Adolf Hitler was appointed by President Paul von Hindenburg as Reichskanzler (Prime Minister) of Germany.

Ever since the day has been marked as Tag der Machtergreifung (Day of Seizing Power), although this name is actually not quite correct.

Hitler did not seize power, and even if he had wanted to, he did at that time neither have a force strong enough to do it with, nor the opportunity.

What really happened was that Hitler was chosen to be the leader of a new coalition government, formed by various right-of-centre parties, including his own, the NSDAP (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei - National Socialist German Workers Party). All this was completely legal and under the proper rules of the democratic system of the Weimar Republic. (Which only proves that a democracy is no guarantee against the forces of totalitarianism, if they are determined to succeed...)
In fact only three of the eleven members of Hitler's cabinet were from the NSDAP: Wilhelm Frick (Minister of the Interior), Hermann Göring (who had several portfolios for the Reich and the State of Prussia) and Hitler himself. So at the begin of his reign the Führer had not even a majority in his own government.

The main reason for Hitler's appointment was the total collapse of the previous arrangements that had kept the Weimar Republic intact for fifteen turbulent years. Changes of government, of chancellors and ministers, and fluctuating majorities in the Reichstag (national parliament) were the main reasons for the instability of the young German republic. After fundamental disagreements between Hitler and the conservative Franz von Papen which of them should be Reichskanzler, the year 1932 saw two general elections in quick succession: the first on July 31st, and the second on November 6th.

In the first election the NSDAP polled 37.2% of the votes and became the largest party in parliament. On the grounds of this result Hitler demanded to form a government, but was not invited to do so by the President. He was offered to become Deputy Prime Minister in a coalition government, but being determined to make his dream - to rule Germany and make it a great country - come true, he rejected that offer outright. Either he would be leader, or he would stay out of the government. With no one able to form a stable government, another general election was called for November. To everyone's surprise Hitler's party lost about 2 million votes and ended on only 33.1%. However, that was only a mathematical correction and changed nothing in the positions of the parties and their leaders.

The main problem was that Hitler demanded to be Reichskanzler and refused anything less, but the other party leaders and President von Hindenburg tried to prevent exactly that. The result was a constitutional crisis, which led eventually to the appointment of former Defence Minister General Kurt von Schleicher as Reichskanzler. He was the first general in the post since 1890. But he turned out to be a complete disaster, and by the end of January Hitler remained literally the only real alternative, short of a third general election within twelve months.

When he was - reluctantly - appointed to the post, it was actually quite a surprise for him, and even more for his party, as they had mentally already accepted that Hindenburg would never budge. But the old President, already marked by signs of sickness from which he would die 19 months later, was tired of crisis and insecurity. The conservative parties had assured him that they could handle Hitler and would keep the NSDAP in check. Well, the rest - as they say - is history.

60 years ago, in 1948, January 30th was again a sad and tragic day. In the Indian capital Delhi Mohandas K. Gandhi, India's spiritual leader who had gained the rare honorific "Mahatma" (great soul) and led his nation in the long and hard struggle for freedom, independence and true democracy, was assassinated by a Hindu extremist, who disagreed with Gandhi's peaceful attitude towards everyone, including Muslims.
The murder of the world's most peaceful man, whose simple life and philosophy inspired hundreds of millions in India and beyond, shocked the whole world.

It really seems as if January 30th is somehow under a strong negative influence by cosmic forces, as the day has seen even more tragic events in later years. In 1956 the house of the black American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. was bombed (but luckily King survived hat attack). And in 1962 two of the seven Flying Wallendas, the famous high-wire acrobats, were killed in a tragic accident while performing in Detroit, Michigan.

Here in Ireland the 30th of January will always be remember as "Bloody Sunday". On this day in 1972 British paratroopers shot and killed 14 innocent people during a peaceful civil rights march in the city of Derry and wounded many more. Despite several public inquiries since, neither the culprits nor their military leaders and political masters have ever been held responsible for this criminal act which will forever cast a dark shadow over Britain. And certainly no one in Ireland will ever forget it.

In the light of recent events in the USA one should also mention that George H. W. Bush, later to be Vice President under Ronald Reagan and then himself the 41st President of the USA, was appointed the 11th Director of the CIA on January 30th, 1976.
And on this day in the year 2000 a Kenyan airliner crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Ivory Coast, killing all 169 people on board.

Fortunately this year the dark day has not caused any further tragedy, and the only bad thing right now is the cold and very stormy weather. But we should take a moment to think, to reflect and to remember all the sad and terrible events that happened over centuries on this day.

The Emerald Islander

29 January 2008

My Mornings will never be the same again

Spending most of my days behind a desk, I have acquired the habit to go for a run around the town early in the morning. It is the only time I have for doing it, and I usually start quite early, between 4.30 and 5 a.m. At this early hour the town is quiet, unpolluted and almost empty. Few people in Ireland get up that early, and only if they have to. So apart from the odd taxi and an occasional Garda patrol I encounter only three kinds of people: the few who make early morning deliveries to shops, the very few who might be heading for the first bus to Dublin, and a handful of men from the city council who clean our streets every day.

They are always there, like the cats, the seagulls, the rooks and jackdaws, going about their work quiet and efficiently. I know that most people would not give them a thought or even a second look, but as I am slightly different, I always say "good morning" when I pass them, and sometimes even stop for a brief conversation. You might think that there would not be much to talk about with dustmen, but there you would be wrong. The idea that they are those who have to get such a "dirty" job because they could not get a better one is a very out-dated view of the world. These days, in the 21st century, dustmen are well paid public employees who receive the best civil service bonuses, since they work at the most unusual times (starting between 3 and 4 a.m.) and under every weather condition. So the job attracts a whole range of different people, including a university graduate, an evangelical lay preacher and a poet. When they are on the early shift, they are finished with work and can go home, free to do what they like, by the time I finish lunch and begin the second third of my working day.

When I lived in Cork, I actually became so friendly with one of the city's street sweepers (who is engaged in much local charity work) that we are still in contact now, years later, and when I have work in Cork, we might meet in a nice little tea shop in the city, have breakfast together and a really good talk.

Of the dustmen here in town, the most gentle and friendly, is called Jim, and we have spent many a morning talking for a few minutes about almost everything, from the weather to business and politics, from the strange behaviour of people (and what they throw away) to favourite books and philosophy. He would be one of the "old guard", having been in the job for most of his life, and coming close to retirement age. And he would always have a smile for me.
Sadly this will be no more, and my early mornings will never be the same again, as Jim has died, suddenly and unexpected, at the age of 57. Today, on a cold, miserable morning with pouring rain, he was laid to rest, mourned by his family, his colleagues and many more, myself included.

The Emerald Islander

28 January 2008

Beauty and the Beast

This morning someone from abroad told me that Ireland is a beautiful country. I was very pleased to hear that, since it certainly is. As I was not born here and chose the country as my homeland a long time ago, I can probably see it even more strongly than those who have never been anywhere else.

But, as the poet has it, where there is beauty, there is also usually some kind of a beast about. In Ireland's case this part is currently played by Mary Harney, our Minister for Health. She must be the most unpopular politician in the country, and this has nothing to do with her being a woman. It is a combination of her abrasive personality and her disastrous policies that has put her in the emerald doghouse for a long time.

Like many bad politicians she had a good start by being rewarded for failure. When she made a bit of academic history by becoming the first female auditor of the then male-dominated Historical Society at Dublin's Trinity College, she came to the attention of Jack Lynch, then leader of the Fianna Fáil (FF) party. In the 1977 general election she stood as a FF candidate, but was not elected. Instead of going home and doing what most unelected political candidates do - be disappointed for a while, then pick themselves up and try again next time - Mary Harney, then an inexperienced young teacher, got a taste for power and cronyism. Jack Lynch, who had won the election and become Taoiseach, made his protégée a Senator (as one of the eleven appointed by An Taoiseach). At the age of 24 she was the youngest person ever to become a member of Seanad Éireann (the upper house of our parliament) and still holds this record.

In 1981, with some experience and a lot more support from her party, she was elected to
Dáil Éireann (the lower house of our parliament) in the Dublin South-West constituency, having had her first electoral success already two years earlier, when she won a seat on Dublin City Council.
After only four years on the back benches, she became a leading member of the so-called "Gang of 22" who voted in favour of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 and was expelled from
Fianna Fáil. The following year she became founder member of a new party, called Progressive Democrats (PD), under the leadership of former FF minister Desmond O'Malley. Almost all of the early PD members were disgruntled ex-FF politicians who had issues with the abrasive and authoritarian style of the then party leader and Taoiseach Charles Haughey.

It came therefore as a surprise to many when in 1989 the Progressive Democrats joined FF in a coalition government under Haughey's leadership. This move brought Mary Harney her first bit of real power, as she was appointed Minister of State with responsibility for Environmental Protection. In this capacity she banned the sale of bituminous coal and thus can claim the credit for having eliminated the capital city's infamous smog.
But the coalition with Haughey was not an easy one, and in late 1992 the PDs withdrew from the government, which also marked the end of Haughey's political career. (After the following general election FF, under their new leader Albert Reynolds, formed a new coalition with the Labour Party.)

In February 1993 Mary Harney was appointed deputy leader of the Progressive Democrats and succeeded Desmond O'Malley as party leader in October. This was probably the turning point in her personal and political attitudes. Like many women with political power, she began to show a certain toughness and became more and more abrasive, as if she had to prove that she was even harder than the men.
Following the hard fought 1997 general election and lengthy negotiations, the PDs entered once again into coalition government with Fianna Fáil, now led by the former Finance Minister Bertie Ahern. Harney was appointed as the first female Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister) and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment.

In this new role she began rapidly to make political enemies and to become highly unpopular in large parts of the Irish population, mainly because of her extreme capitalist ideology and anti-union attitudes. She became the main champion of privatisation of public services and utility companies and is responsible for much of the turmoil these measures caused (and still cause) in contemporary Ireland. At the same time she substantially reduced government support for the community employment scheme and various social support networks, forcing many of them to close due to lack of funding.
There were many occasions when she showed a preference for private over national interests. In December 2001, to name just one significant example, she used a government aircraft (50% funded by the EU Commission and meant to be used exclusively for maritime surveillance) to fly to County Leitrim (in the far north-west of Ireland) to officially open a friend's off-licence (alcohol shop). When the story surfaced, she was forced to apologise and admit that she had abused her position, but that was it and no further consequences followed.

In the 2002 general election, riding on the unexpected economic boom Ireland had enjoyed since 1995 (when both FF and PD were in opposition), the Progressive Democrats doubled their parliamentary seats from four to eight and the ruling coalition continued, with Harney retaining her previous positions. However, a year later she was reported to "seek new challenges" and looking for a new department. In the cabinet reshuffle of September 2004 she was appointed Minister for Health and Children, while remaining Tánaiste. (Ireland must be the only country in the world where a clinically obese person can become responsible for the health service. In all other countries I know this would be seen as very bad PR, to say the least.)
Soon it became clear why she had sought this change, when she embarked on a ruthless policy of privatisation in the health sector, just as she had done in the field of other public services before. This has led to a disastrous two-tier system, which critics call quite fittingly an apartheid health service. And while waiting lists for treatment grow ever longer and patients have to wait long hours on hospital trolleys before being seen by a doctor, Mary Harney is unrepentant and keeps attending numerous opening ceremonies for new private hospitals and health facilities.

In March 2006, 16 months after Harney took office as Minister for Health, the Irish Nurses Organisation (INO) announced that a record number of 455 people were waiting on hospital trolleys in Ireland on one single day. Two months later the INO unanimously passed a motion of no confidence in Mary Harney, accusing her of being negative and antagonistic towards nurses.
In June 2006 an official statistic ranked the Irish health service as the second least "consumer-friendly" in Europe, coming 25th out of 26 countries, ahead only of Lithuania.
And in July the Ireland on Sunday newspaper reported that Harney's mother, Mrs. Sarah Harney, jumped a queue of two emergency cases to receive hip surgery at the Adelaide and Meath Hospital in Tallaght (a suburb of Dublin).

Also in 2006 Harney introduced "risk equalisation" into the Irish healthcare market, which was hugely resisted by the private British health insurer BUPA . Despite High Court proceedings, the controversial law was upheld and this has forced BUPA out of the Irish healthcare market (BUPA Ireland has since been bought by the private Irish owned Quinn Group). In January 2007 a leaked memo from Harney stated that the planned Cancer Care Strategy, due for completion in 2011, would not be delivered on time. The list could go on and on, but I don't want to make this entry a never-ending story.
In an Irish Times poll in December 2006 60% of the respondents said that the appointment of Ms. Harney to the position of Minister for Health had not led to any improvement in the health service.

Having meanwhile come under pressure from inside her own party, Mary Harney resigned as PD leader and Tánaiste on September 7th, 2006. She was succeeded in both positions by her deputy, the then Minister for Justice Michael McDowell, a man even more abrasive and arrogant than Harney herself, but like her a died-in-the-wool supporter of plain capitalism, privatisation and social service cuts.

Subsequently the Progressive Democrats got the voters' answer in the 2007 general election. Of their eight TDs (members of parliament) only two were re-elected (and with drastically reduced voter numbers). Unfortunately Harney was one of the two, just about scraping back into the Dáil, while McDowell and all other leading party officials lost their seats.
Nevertheless the decimated and almost wiped out PDs, now again with Harney as the "acting" leader (because no one else wants the job), were once again brought back into the government by Bertie Ahern and Mary Harney retains her portfolio as Minister for Health. Of all the many scandals the current government has produced, this is probably the largest and most significant, and a clear slap in the face of the Irish electorate.

It is unlikely that Bertie Ahern will ever sack his strange
protégée and former deputy, but given the trouble he is in himself in recent months it might not be his decision for too much longer. If Mary Harney has any common sense and decency left in herself, she might well consider her position and gently jump before she might be pushed by the next Taoiseach. In six weeks she will be celebrating her 55th birthday, and perhaps this might be an appropriate occasion to step down after more than three decades in politics. If nothing else, the Irish people - myself included - would be grateful to her.

The Emerald Islander

27 January 2008

The Big Swiss Talking Shop

Every year in late January the great and the good, but especially the rich and very rich gather in a small Swiss Alpine resort called Davos for the "World Economic Forum" (WEF). Every year it makes the news, and we learn from an ever increasing media coverage the names of all the famous people who are well-known and wealthy enough to be invited. But what we don't learn from our newspapers and electronic media is what actually goes on in Davos.

Well, we are told that there are many "discussion forums" and "workshops", as well as "project group meetings", and each of them is sporting a bunch of names we know from politics, big business or other areas, like the arts, culture, entertainment or NGOs. But what are they actually doing and discussing in Davos? And is there ever anything real coming from it? Anything that has a positive impact on the world?

If one looks at the WEF website, one can well get the impression that this is the forum that does have all the answers to all the questions, and therefore all the power to make the world a better place. How come than that there are still wars and oppression, poverty, under-development, hunger and starvation on this planet? If all the great and good meet in Davos every year to see the light and get things right, why is so much going wrong?

The answer is really quite simple. Despite all the power and money that is assembled every year in Davos, the "World Economic Forum" is really not more than a very exclusive and expensive big Swiss talking shop. It gives participants a few days off their regular job, be it prime minister, pop star or CEO of a bank or large multi-national company, and gives the rest of us the impression that they care and that - in the remoteness of the snowy Alpine landscape - "something is done" to solve the world's problems.

But even though the WEF is meeting every year since 1971, with hundreds of leaders talking for thousands of hours and producing large piles of studies and position papers, the state of our planet has gradually worsened since, politically as well as economically. However, the worst decline is that of the environment. Despite clear warnings from scientists and many serious studies, global warming was allowed to happen, because the great and good, powerful and mighty leaders of the world do not care. They are more concerned with short-term profits than with the long-term survival of the human race and the state of the planet.

Between them the political leaders and business executives who meet annually in Davos are well able to change the world. And they have done so. The globalisation of trade and industry is a direct result of the WEF, and so is the ever increasing domination of our lives by electronic media and the tons of uncontrolled advertisment they dump on us. Most of the rich people who meet in Davos "to solve the problems of the world" are the very same who create them, by flooding the globe with all what is bad for us, from junk food and alcohol to polluting cars, and from mindless entertainment to senseless global tourism. The political leaders who attend the annual gathering are those who are happy to allow all this to happen, in the name of the free flow of capital, free trade and rich men's rules.

And you would need to be a rich man - or a very wealthy company or organisation - to be part of the WEF. Each member pays a basic annual membership fee of $ 12,500 and a $ 6,250 Annual Meeting fee. However, to take part in deciding the agendas of the Annual Meeting and the regional meetings, a member must pay $ 250,000 a year to be an Institutional Partner and/or Knowledge Partner, and
$ 78,000 to be an Annual Meeting Partner. So there is no shortage of money at the WEF, which has an annual income of more than $ 100 million (about a third from membership fees), even though it is supposed to be a not-for-profit organisation.

Founded in 1971 by the German-born Swiss economist Prof. Klaus Martin Schwab (right), the WEF did start with relatively small meetings in Davos, but has meanwhile become the world's largest international networking organisation. Besides the Annual Meeting in Davos in January there are now also regular regional meetings for Africa, East Asia, Europe & Central Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and Russia, as well as an Annual Meeting of the "New Champions", which are companies from China, India and various developing countries.

The main 1000 companies in the world are invited to the WEF, based on annual revenues of more than $ 1 billion. This leads inevitably to under-representation of companies from poorer countries. The WEF claims that now 200 new companies, mainly from the developing world, are invited to join the WEF membership and events, but they have not made much of an impact yet. At the Annual Meeting, each January in Davos, 39% are from Europe and 36% from the USA, which gives the developed countries of the West a 75% majority. However, these 75% of WEF members represent only about 17% of the world's population.

Even though the WEF is anxious to give the impression of transparency, openness and general benevolence, there are plenty of critics who question those intentions.
Meanwhile the usually very quiet resort of Davos has seen protests against the WEF, organised by anti-globalisation campaigners. Due to the cold temperatures and the efficiency of the Swiss police and army they are however relatively small and peaceful (as the picture of this year's "Mooning against Mammom" in Davos shows), compared with the protests that accompany now for many years the annual G-7/G-8 summits.

A main point of criticism are the so-called "informal" meetings and workshops that take place in and around Davos during the week-long Annual Meeting. While all the official WEF lectures and debates are public and open to the media, all "informal" events are strictly private. And those are the meetings that really matter, where politicians and business executives forge friendships and close deals with far-reaching consequences. It is said that Bill Clinton was endorsed by the WEF before he ran for President, and another politician long linked with the WEF is Britain's ex Prime Minister Tony Blair, now one of the 23 members of the WEF Foundation Board (where he rubs shoulders with people like former UN secretary general Kofi Anan, Queen Rani of Jordan and Irish politician turned businessman Peter Sutherland).

Every year in January millions of words are written and broadcasted about the WEF, and the paparazzi have a field day with so many famous faces gathered in a small town like Davos. For a week we all hear about the "World Economic Forum", and then follows another year of absolute silence, during which we are left wondering what is going on. Maybe it is time to face the facts and realise that not much is going on at all. The world is spinning out of control fast, while greedy businessmen and politicians are sharing the spoils as long as there is time. And then - in late January - they all meet in Davos for a week. If one would need to put the essence of this annual meeting into a brief statement or headline, it would only need two words to be described: Money talks.

The Emerald Islander

26 January 2008

The Flight into Egypt

When I was a little boy, two of my favourite stories from the New Testament were the Visitation of the Magi (three wise men) and the Flight into Egypt, perhaps because they both involved animals (which I always liked), travel and exotic people and places (which always interested me very much). I suppose my upbringing as the child of a much traveled father, who worked for the Foreign Office, has opened my eyes towards the wider world at a very young age.

In those days our life was much less hectic than it is now, and within the family there were many traditions we kept and observed. For example, there was never ever meat eaten on a Friday, and on Saturdays we always had a vegetable stew. On Saturday morning my mother would bake a cake (which would never be touched before Sunday afternoon), and on Saturday evening the whole family would sit together and play a nice and interesting board game. We did not have a television set then (the first one only arrived in 1966, to follow the Football World Cup) and everything was a lot more gentle and sensible.

Part of the daily life and the traditions was also that the two coldest months of the year - December and January - were very special. They were packed with events and celebrations, culminating of course at Christmas. But there were so many smaller events around Christmas, and all tied in with the great story of Mary, Joseph and their baby Jesus. It started with Mary's journey to her cousin Elizabeth (in early December) and ended with the baby Jesus being "presented in the Temple" (Christians did not use the word circumcised then) on February 2nd.
This was also the day we packed up the family crib and stored it away in the attic, until it would be brought down again on the first day of Advent.

January 6th, Epiphany, was the day when we placed the three wise men inside the stable, after we had put them already on the periphery of the crib landscape, and shortly afterwards we did celebrate the Flight into Egypt (as shown on the Russian icon above), for which my mother would bake special biscuits with almonds and honey. Even though I do no longer observe all these traditions and have not had any of the special foods for many years, at the back of my mind they are still present as distant memories, connected with the winter time.

So when I heard a few days ago that the Palestinian people of Gaza, under blockade by Israel and ignored by the West (for all too obvious political reasons), have demolished elements of the "security barrier" that partitions the Gaza Strip from the Sinai peninsula and started to flock onto Egyptian territory, I was instantly reminded of the biblical Flight into Egypt two thousand years ago.

On foot and bicycle, by donkey cart and pickup truck, tens of thousands of Palestinians stream into northern Egypt, mainly to buy goods no longer available in Gaza, especially in recent days during a complete blockade by Israel, which also shut down the electricity supply for the city.
After some hours most of the Gazans return home again, laden with medicine, food and drinks, soap, cigarettes, petrol, cement and countless other supplies. Even sheep, goats and cattle are brought back to Gaza, as well as household goods, television sets and satellite dishes.
For most of the Palestinians it is only a short trip, as they cross from Rafah in Gaza to Rafah in Egypt. The city has been divided by the border in 1982, when Egypt accepted the return of Sinai from Israel, but declined to take back the Gaza Strip as well. And all the goods and things no longer obtainable in Gaza are freely available in shops on the Egyptian side of the barrier.

The scenes of desperate people, breaking down the border wall in search of freedom and the basic food and goods they need for their survival, also reminded me of a very similar event I witnessed myself in November 1989, when the people of East-Berlin began to demolish the wall that had divided the German capital for more than 28 years.

It is amazing that politicians all around the world never learn the lessons of History. No power, regardless how strong, can divide people if they want to be together, and no wall will ever keep people from following their destiny. At first such barriers have always a negative effect, as they frustrate the people and dampen their political ambitions. But once the dividing line becomes a fact of daily life, something children grow up with and adults learn to hate, it also loses its power as a deterrent. And sooner or later the people will then find the courage to stand up against it and break it down.

For Egypt's political leadership - allied to and strongly influenced by the USA - the recent development in and around Gaza creates a dilemma. “If we prevent Palestinian civilians from crossing and confront them with force, we open ourself to unlimited public scrutiny at home. And if we let the Palestinians through, we face the risk of not knowing who or what is coming in, and also strong criticism from Israel and the United States,” told me a fellow analyst from Cairo.
Egyptian police units, at first attempting to stop the Palestinians and close the barrier again, have meanwhile given up on that idea and decided to do nothing for the time being.

However, the breaching of the barrier at Rafah could well lead to a re-start of the Palestinian peace process. Being no longer isolated and blockaded like a medieval city under siege, Gaza and its people have seen a glimpse of hope and found a way out of their dilemma. It will now depend on the political leaders of Egypt, Israel, the USA and the EU countries (on whose financial donations the Palestinian administration depends heavily for survival) as well as the leadership of the two Palestinian parties - Fatah and Hamaz - to find a practical solution for the Gaza Strip. The people on the ground have shown unmistakably that they are no longer willing to be used as the political football for rival factions and nebulous strategic plans. Short of destroying Gaza and wiping out its population - a deed so dastardly that not even George W. Bush would contemplate it - there is no way back to the situation before last Wednesday and the Gaza Strip will once again be connected to the outside world, one way or another.

Unconnected to the political development, there is another thought that crossed my mind when I began writing this entry. In the New Testament there is only one single reference to The Flight into Egypt, a very short passage in Matthew's Gospel. No other gospel or biblical text mentions it and some scholars even suggest that Matthew made it up, as a reverse reference to Moses, who fled from Egypt into Palestine.
But there is another aspect to it. On ancient maps the name of Gaza is spelled in various ways, including as Naza and Nazarat. As there is absolutely no historical or archaeological evidence for the existence of a town called "Nazareth" in Galilee in ancient times (including the first century CE), it is quite possible that the biblical Flight into Egypt was actually a flight to Gaza, which is in easy reach from Bethlehem. This would give a whole new dimension to the severe suffering the people of the Gaza Strip have to endure in modern times.

The Emerald Islander

25 January 2008

When God made Time . . .

The weather around Ireland and the British Isles is once again atrocious. Over the past 24 hours a new low front closed in on us, and as I write this, storms of force 10 are blowing in most sea areas. There are even some hurricanes (force 12) reported, but fortunately not in our areas. They are raging further up North, around the Shetland Islands, towards the Faeroes, and all the way to Norway. Tonight my special thoughts go out again to the skippers and sailors who have to master these conditions in order to keep us all supplied with the things we need.

Here on dry land the weather was actually surprisingly pleasant today. We still got some rain and wind, but not a lot. And for a few hours it felt quite mild. Now, that the wind has picked up speed again, it feels more colder and I have lit the fire to keep the house warm. This afternoon the farmer who sells us fire wood called again, so I am well stocked up.
It is never really certain if he comes on Thursdays or Fridays, and sometimes he even appears on a Saturday, after we have been already wondering if something has happened to him. But somehow he always comes, at his own time and pace, and this is so typical for the traditional way of life in Ireland.
When God made time, he made a lot of it - an old saying here - shows the generous attitude the average Irishman has to time in general and appointments in particular. Never expect people to be on time in Ireland, and if they are, they are most likely foreigners or were educated abroad.

It is not unusual that certain people forget appointments altogether, and sometimes a meeting that was set for a particular day and time is moved, postponed and moved again until a really suitable and agreeable time has been found. Or until the matter that was to be discussed is no longer of any relevance.

Subsequently the Irish have a reputation of being lazy, and - in all fairness - there is some real substance for seeing us that way. But the rather liberal attitude Irish people have towards time has several reasons. One is our Celtic heritage. Celts lived close to Nature, in small communities, connected with the traditional way of the seasons, of sowing and planting, growth and harvest, celebration and rest. In those days there were no clocks and watches, and the only "maker" of time was Nature, or God.

Another reason for the Irish reluctance to hurry is the time of occupation and colonialism forced upon the Celtic clans of Ireland. While the initially hostile encounters with the Vikings led soon to a fair co-existence between the two on the Emerald Isle, the Norman conquest in the late 12th century created a two-tier society which has been with us ever since.
Little is there in common between the haves and have-nots, the masters and their servants. So the only way of showing opposition - short of violence and rebellion - was to slow things down in all areas. In their arrogance the Normans and English thought not much about it, as they saw us as inferior beings anyway.

A third reason for the slow pace of life here was - and still is - the strong influence of the Church. Organised Christianity, and especially the Catholic variety of it, puts much emphasis on the "next world", the "life after death" when everything will be much better and we all will be rewarded for our suffering and shortfalls in this life. For the Church this is an easy promise, but it gives many people also the excuse to take this life not so serious.

In modern Ireland there is also an ever-present fourth reason for being late. The ever-growing number of cars on our roads - most of which were designed in the 19th century for a society of less mobile people who used horses, donkeys, carts and coaches - causes massive traffic jams in Ireland every day. It is bad enough on normal days, but let there be foul weather, heavy rain or storm, and things get much worse. This morning thousands of commuters around Dublin spent hours in their cars, waiting for the participant vehicles of a traffic accident to be removed from the M 50 motorway. One of the reasons for taking so long was that the tow-trucks, on their way to the accident, were themselves caught in another traffic jam (until they got a motorcycle escort form the Garda Siochana, our national police).

In all fairness, there are improvements on the way, and especially around Dublin a massive and futuristic looking network of roads and highways is constructed. But some of this construction work leads - inevitably - to more congestion and traffic jams. That Dublin's workers arrived in the city at all this morning is due to the wit and quick reaction of a Superintendent in the Garda Traffic Corps. When he heard of the problems, he literally got on his (motor)bike, went to the scene of the accident and personally organised the removal of the damaged cars from the lanes of the motorway. A couple of patrol cars came to his assistance, and eventually all was well again: the sheer endless motorised columns rolled into the city. However, such unbureaucratic personal initiative by an individual civil servant is rare. So rare in fact, that it landed the Superintendent on "Today with Pat Kenny", the nation's favourite late-morning radio programme.

From the safety of my little house, warmed by the crackling fire in the hearth, I salute the Superintendent for his spirit and initiative, and Pat Kenny for letting us know about it. More of the same is needed, and every good example inspires others. And to those still on the roads and highways of Ireland now I say a gentle Slan abhaile (Safe way home).

The Emerald Islander

24 January 2008

The largest Bank Fraud in History

While the world's rich and famous and the masters of global finance and industry gather in the Swiss Alpine resort of Davos for their annual "World Economic Forum", Société Générale, the second-largest bank in France, has just uncovered a massive fraud by one of its own traders which will cost it € 4.9 billion (which is equivalent to $ 7.1 billion or £ 3.7 billion). It also announced new write-downs of € 2.05 billion, related to the "sub-prime" mortgage crisis in the USA. Trading in the bank's shares, which have fallen by nearly 50% over the past six months, was suspended in Paris after the announcements.

Société Générale's chief executive Daniel Bouton offered his resignation, but it was rejected by the bank's board. It appears that he will have to stay and face the unpleasant facts a "very junior trader" could create, apparently unchecked and unsupervised, right under his eyes in the Paris head office.
The bank will need to seek € 5.5 billion in new capital to offset the losses, but it said it would still make a profit of € 600 to 800 million for 2007, despite the blows to its balance sheet.

"One of our traders," a spokesman announced, "has taken massive fraudulent directional positions in 2007 and 2008, beyond his limited authority." He added that the trader in question, whose current whereabouts seem to be unknown, had confessed to the fraud and was being dismissed. His managers will have to leave the bank as well.
Frederic Hamm, fund manager at Agilis Gestion, believes that this fraud "impacts the reputation of the bank", and it would be more than odd if it did not.
Richard Fuld, chairman of Lehman Brothers, took the news more coolly and said that "nothing stuns me, nothing really surprises me these days." Well, perhaps the boss of such a large bank can allow himself this degree of aloofness and cynicism. But for the rest of us, those whose money has been squandered once again by a rogue and foolish insider of the international financial system, it is outrageous. In fact, it is the largest ever recorded single case of fraud against a bank in the world, and it cries out loud for consequences - in economical as well as legal and political terms.

Ion-Marc Valhi of Amas Bank is one of the more critical insiders and said this morning: "I am sorry, but I have a hard time buying the fact that a single trader was able to set up a 'secret trade' of 4.9 billion without anybody finding out." I agree. What bank would allow a fairly minor employee the uncontrolled access to her entire financial assets? Well, one would think none, but reality tells us a different story today.

In my opinion the biggest scandal in this is not the actual fraud as such and the unprecedented loss it has caused, but the fact that the banks, supposed to look after our money and keep it safe, are allowed to use it for betting and gambling operations on the international markets. It is important to realise that the losses Société Générale is facing now are not the result of bad loans or imprudent investment. They are the result of gambling, of losing bets on the future development of shares. These so-called "future markets", as they are misleadingly named (since there is really no market), are just enormous bookies' dens and its operation is in no way different from betting on a horse or predicting the outcome of any sporting match. These days betting seems to be ever more popular, but it should be left to individuals, who do it with their own money. Banks, on whose stability and services everyone depends in a modern economy, should not be allowed to gamble, and especially not with their customers' money. It is more than time to lay down the law on this, in clear terms and backed up by international agreements (like those we have in the meantime on "money laundering"). Otherwise we could as well just take all our money and throw it into the sea.

The Emerald Islander

P.S. Only three days ago - in the face of the turmoil on the world's stock markets, but not knowing anything about the scandal at Société Générale - I did ask if we can trust the banks. I think that my question has been answered much clearer and quicker than I ever expected.

23 January 2008

No one dares to challenge China

Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown has just returned from his first official visit to China. The main reason for the trip - and main subject of his talks with Chinese officials - was, to no one's surprise, trade.
We (the developed countries of the West) have meanwhile reached a point where about 85% of our normal consumer goods are manufactured in China. Most toys are produced there, too, and a large proportion of books published in the English language are printed and bound in China.

This has led to the strange situation that we are more and more dependent on China, while the Chinese government swims in billions of Dollars, Pounds and Euros, not really knowing what to do with it. Recently a new economic development office was opened by China's President Hu, and the director of this office was given the sum of $ 200 billion as starting capital. More might be at his disposal later, and he has the task to invest this money in suitable projects and industries in the West.
In a few years we might find ourselves in the situation that we are not only completely dependent on China for our household goods, books and toys, but that China also holds and controls significant stakes in our remaining industries and institutions. Not one person in political power in the West today seems to see the potential danger this entails.

And none of our political leaders dares to raise his (or her) voice to challenge China on the issue of Human Rights. It is no secret that - despite a complete turn-around in economic policy - the People's Republic is still a Communist state with severe restrictions on freedom of speech, expression and many other human rights. China's prisons are full of various kinds of dissidents, and many of them are forced to provide slave labour for factories that produce goods for the Western market. None of our politicians and leading businessmen takes any notice of that, despite regular and meanwhile numerous reports compiled by Amnesty International. We are deliberately closing our eyes and minds to the facts of modern China and her human rights' abuses, just as the West closed eyes and minds to the (well known) facts of the Third Reich and its treatment of Jews and political prisoners.

We are sleep-walking into a massive spider's web and enable the building of an economic monster even Dr. Frankenstein would not have dared to create. And this does not even take into account the position of Taiwan, which could well be the trigger for a massive war between China and the USA in the foreseeable future. It amazes me how little our leaders have learned from History.
So far any free and democratic society that has tolerated and supported an oppressive and totalitarian regime had eventually to pay for that mistake in blood, gold and many other commodities. There is still time to re-think our policies towards China, but with every day, every ship full of goods made in China, and every trade delegation visiting Beijing the room for free movement and decisions is getting smaller.

The Emerald Islander

22 January 2008

Global Warming threatens Ireland

Alarming news have reached Ireland today. The Giant's Causeway, a UN World Heritage Site and Northern Ireland's biggest tourist attraction, could soon be suffering from the effects of Global Warming. According to the National Trust the amazing natural site is threatened by rising water levels and coastal erosion.
A report, compiled by scientist from the Queen's University in Belfast and the University of Ulster, warns that part of the Middle and Little Causeway could be under water for much of the winter by the end of the century. The Grand Causeway could also suffer serious erosion by about 2080, and new approach routes for visitors would probably have to be built.
In the shorter term, predicted stormier weather at the site over the next decade would require greater safety measures to be introduced to stop people falling from the cliff next to the famous octagonal basalt stones.
In the medium term – from 2050 to 2080 – many more of the stones will be under the waves.

But the Giant's Causeway is only one of three National Trust properties in Northern Ireland that are threatened by rising water levels, expected to change by about a metre by the end of the century. Murlough national nature reserve and Strangford Lough, both in County Down, are also at risk from coastal erosion and flooding.

At Strangford Lough, sea levels are predicted to rise by 25cm by 2050 with a "worst case scenario" prediction of a one-metre rise by the turn of the century. The lough, which is internationally important for its birds and other wildlife, is designated a marine nature reserve and a special area of conservation. The greater the sea level rise, the greater the loss of its important tidal mud flats. This would have a significant impact on the availability of food for the tens of thousands of Brent geese and other birds that winter there. As more of the lough's islands disappear under water, there would also be a detrimental impact on the summer breeding of seabirds, including terns, ringed plovers and cormorants, and the population of seals.

The Murlough reserve could see 50-400 metres of the existing dune frontage eroded away, together with a serious loss of vegetation.

The report also highlights general climate changes to be expected in Ireland. Within the next fifty years we will experience warmer annual temperatures, wetter winters and drier summers, and increased frequency of extreme storm surges and extreme waves. By the year 2100 the sea levels on Ireland's coasts will also have risen by an estimated 85 to 100 centimetres, compared with the current levels.

Many years ago, when the first warnings of Global Warming appeared in scientific studies, hardly anyone took notice of them. No one in Ireland thought then that it could effect us. But after decades of ignorance the planet's ecological clock is now ticking faster. The rising sea levels are not only a threat to the existence of many island nations in the Pacific (such as Tuvalu), they will change every coastline on Earth and the lives of millions of people (including the Irish).

The world's big polluting nations and their industries, and especially the USA, have wasted decades that could have been used to reduce the carbon output and slow down Global Warming. Instead they have been burning fossil fuels without any thoughts of the future and the rest of us. Now we all have to face the consequences and pay the price. Thank you, Mr. Bush!

The Emerald Islander (looking for his Wellington boots)

21 January 2008

Can we trust the Banks?

Today has seen a massive collapse of share prices on all European stock markets, after a similar plunge was recorded over night on the stock markets of Japan, Hong Kong and India. Tokyo's Nikkei index closed down 3.86%, reaching its lowest level for more than two years, while Hong Kong's Hang Sang fell by 5.5%. Many investors around the world sold shares in panic, because of serious concerns that the US economy is about to fall into recession. This led to spectacular losses of up to 7% in some markets.

In London the FTSE 100 index tumbled by 324 points (or 5.5%) to 5578, taking £ 84 billion off the value of its listed shares. In Paris the CAC lost 6.8% and closed at 4744, and in Frankfurt the DAX plunged a massive 7% to a final position of 6790. Most stock exchanges, including London, Paris and Frankfurt, recorded their biggest single-day losses since the attacks of September 11th, 2001. In Dublin € 3 billion were wiped off the value of Irish shares as the ISEQ index closed down 273 points (or 4%) at 6261, its lowest level in two and a half years.
Wall Street is closed for the annual Martin Luther King holiday, but analysts expect that tomorrow the US markets will suffer losses as well, especially since the ailing US economy is the main reason for today's sharp reactions.

The world-wide stock market panic is a direct reaction to George W. Bush's announcement of plans to revive the faltering US economy through large injections of extra money. There are new worries that many US consumers, facing difficulties paying their mortgages, are also beginning to default on credit cards. That increases already existing fears about the effect this will have on banks' willingness to lend.

So once again the world's economic stability and our all livelihood depends on the banks. These are the very same banks that have been gambling with our money for decades, creating large profits for themselves, while inventing ever more and higher fees for providing normal financial services to the majority of businesses and individual customers. In their never-ending greed the major financial institutions - including Citi Bank, the world's largest bank - went even further and created financial products that make no sense at all and were bound to fail.
They deliberately sold - through a network of shady agencies - mortgages to people whose income was never large enough to pay them back. The so-called "sub-prime" mortgages were then bundled by the banks and sold on to other banks and investors around the world as a separate financial product.

These dubious financial machinations created a house of cards that has meanwhile collapsed with a massive crash. The world's financial markets are subsequently in turmoil and the signals of recession are visible everywhere. All this has an even worse effect on the US economy, which has been already weakened by George W. Bush's concentration on war rather than economic and social stability. Hundreds of billions of Dollars are pumped into the Military-Industrial Complex, while many ordinary Americans are struggling to survive, often on the breadline or even below it.

For decades the USA have lived on borrowed time and even more borrowed money. Few people are aware of the fact that more than 80% of loans taken out in the USA are financed with money from abroad, often by banks and institutions in countries much poorer than the United States.

Now the financial chicken are coming home to roost, but one should not expect that the banks will bear the brunt of the crisis. They have already written off tens of billions of Dollars, even before today's massive drop of share prices, and some of the top bankers resigned in disgrace. However, there is no need to feel sorry for them, since they are not feeling sorry for us either. And they retired with large pay-offs and even larger pensions, all paid for in the end by people like you and me. And make no mistake: the banks will find ways and means to slip out of the disaster and make us - the ordinary people - pay for all their greedy follies.

This makes me wonder if we can actually trust the banks. We all need them, of course, since in the modern world of the "global village" financial transactions without banks are difficult and in many cases impossible. Thus the banks have established a hold over us, and ever more it leads to shameless exploitation of normal and poor people, for the benefit of the rich and wealthy as well as the banks themselves. While banks are not shy to take great risks with our money, gambling it away daily on the world's stock and commodity markets, they still treat ordinary people with harshness and arrogance. This will continue to be the case, as long as the customers do not stand up against the banks, apply the same standards to them that they apply to us, and make them stop losing our money in senseless US loans and reckless gambling around the globe.

Personally I have reduced my dealings with banks to the absolute unavoidable minimum. I also shop around for the best conditions and most decent service, and all for the better of everyone. Though I will not tell you what to do and how to behave, you are welcome to follow my humble example.

The Emerald Islander

20 January 2008

Green Party divided over Europe

Ireland's Green Party, for seven months now the junior partner in the new government, is divided over the future of the European Union. Party delegates met yesterday in Dublin and voted in favour of supporting the Lisbon Treaty in the forthcoming referendum, but fell just short of the required two thirds majority. Of the 318 delegates eligible to vote at the conference, 195 (63%) supported the Treaty, while 117 (27%) opposed it.

This means that the party itself will not take a clear position on the matter, and that individual members will be free to support whichever side they wish. Even though leading party members try to play down the division, it appears that the Green Party is now split into two factions.

Party leader and Environment Minister John Gormley, himself strongly in favour of the Lisbon Treaty, accepted the result and congratulated all those who had spoken on both sides.
But former MEP Patricia McKenna, a leading opponent of the Treaty, said she was "over the moon", as she had feared the party leadership might secure a two thirds majority. The result of the vote, she stated, meant that the party membership would not be "pushed around", and claimed that it would strengthen the hands of the two Green Party ministers in government as it showed that "there were some things the members would not stand for".

These are optimistic words, but I doubt that they have much weight in the forthcoming debate. Despite her role as one of the pioneers of the Green Party and the environmental movement in Ireland, Patricia McKenna has lost a lot of her once strong political clout and influence since she lost her seat in the European Parliament in 2004. She failed to win a seat in the 2007 general elections and was side-lined in the party's leadership contest that followed soon after. By now she represents little more than her own personal position and opinion.

The current decision makers in the party are the three men who brought the Greens into the coalition with the main government party Fianna Fail (and were handsomely rewarded for doing so). They are John Gormley, the new Green Party leader and Minister for Environment, Heritage and Local Government (left), Eamon Ryan, Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources (right) and former party leader Trevor Sargent, now junior minister in the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (below right).

By joining Fianna Fail, the party they fought most vehemently in opposition, the Greens have not only crossed a big political rift, but nailed their colours firmly to the mast of the coalition.
For many Irish people, including Green Party members, this was a betrayal of traditional Green values and positions.
I tend to share this view myself and will not support the Greens in future. For me they have abandoned their principals and gone over to the other side, without need or being forced to do so. After nearly 25 years of clean, moral and progressive policies in opposition the change to a supporter and junior partner of the most corrupt force in Irish politics is simply too much to bear. But what I personally will never forget and forgive the Greens is that by joining Fianna Fail in the current coalition they kept the defeated and decimated remnants of the right-wing ultra-capitalist Progressive Democrats in power as well, and - most tragically - their leader Mary Harney in her position as Minister for Health. More than anything else this is doing enormous damage to our health service, and thousands of sick and elderly people are suffering as a consequence.

For me it is therefore not very important if the Green Party supports the Lisbon Treaty or not. Being the only of the 27 EU countries whose constitution requires a referendum on any new EU treaty, it will be the Irish people who decide the matter, and not political parties.
Since the government will be pressing for a "yes" vote, the Green ministers will have no choice but to do the same, unless they wish to resign from their only recently acquired positions. This is most unlikely. Among the ordinary party members and supporters around the country there is already a clear division of minds, and not only over the Lisbon Treaty.
The referendum debate only shows more clearly that the Green leaders left many long-standing supporters behind when they joined Fianna Fail in government. It does not help that Taoiseach Bertie Ahern is coming under ever more pressure to reveal and clarify his muddled financial affairs, and it will be more important and of more interest to voters what position the Greens take in this matter. It was no secret that Mr. Ahern has serious question to answer when the Green Party decided to support him as Taoiseach. They could have supported a "rainbow" coalition with Fine Gael and the Labour Party, which would not only have been much closer to their own political principles, but also given Ireland a new political start, much needed after more than ten years of Fianna Fail dominated governments.

Having sold their political soul to Bertie Ahern, the Green Party will now have to live with the consequences. Observers predict that the division over the Lisbon Treaty is only the beginning of their problems, and that the cracks in the once fairly united environmental movement are widening.
Green ministers in government might well bring us more restrictions and bureaucracy, higher taxes and an already unpopular ban of traditional light bulbs. But they will not change the structure and direction of Fianna Fail and might well have to pay the price for their decision in the next elections, in the same way as Labour Party and Progressive Democrats did after being in coalition with Fianna Fail.

The Emerald Islander

19 January 2008

Peril on the Sea

Today the weather in and around Ireland is quite bad again. As I write this, a storm is blowing over my little house and heavy rain is falling on the roof. But even though it is an old house, it is stable and I have nothing to worry, while I sit in front of a blazing fire that keeps us (the cat and myself) warm.
However, not everyone is so lucky today. A while ago I heard on the radio that once again a fishing trawler is in distress off the coast of Ireland, this time about 40 miles north-west off the coast of Donegal (in the far North-West of the island).
She is the 33m long British registered "The Shark" from Scotland, but commanded by a Spanish Master and crewed entirely with Spanish sailors. According to the reports a serious fire has broken out in the vessel's galley and she has difficulties bringing it under control in the rough sea conditions of the area.
The Irish Coastguard helicopter from Sligo was called out and already airlifted nine non-essential crew members to Carrickfin Airport in Donegal. Seven other crew members remained on board to fight the fire, while a lifeboat from Arranmore was standing by at the scene.
For further assistance the LE Eithne, flagship of the Irish Naval Service (and the largest of her 8 patrol vessels), was dispatched as well.

After reaching "The Shark" at about 1800 h local time, LE Eithne sent a seven-men strong naval fire-fighting team across, while five more crew members of the fishing vessel were transferred to the lifeboat. The Naval Service reported later that the fire has been extinguished and a naval fire watch will remain on board over night. No one was injured in the incident.
This is good news and will please everyone on the island tonight. There is certainly material damage to the trawler, and it might well have to be towed to the nearest port for assessment and repairs. But the most important thing is that no lives were lost and no one was hurt.

Such is not always the case. Despite a well-organised system of Coastguard and RNLI lifeboat stations around Ireland, there is hardly a year without lives and vessels being lost at sea. Only a year ago two well-known local fishing boats from our area (on the southern coast of Ireland) sank in heavy weather on the same day, with a total loss of seven lives. This was - and still is - a great shock for the close-knit communities of fishermen along the coast. One of them was a new and very modern vessel, and it is still not clear why it sank so suddenly and without sending a distress call over the radio.

We live now in a highly sophisticated world with much modern technology, and many walks of life have become quite safe and almost risk-free. But the sea is still the most powerful and uncontrollable part of our planet, covering 71% of the Earth's surface (a fact so often forgotten by most people). Anyone who has ever been at sea will know how difficult it can be to keep a ship afloat and steady, especially in rough weather conditions.
During my active service in the Navy I experienced many such situations, including a severe gale (force 11) in a destroyer and several gales (force 10) in frigates and smaller vessels. This was not easy and required all our wits and skills. But compared with most fishing boats our naval vessels were giants. So my heart goes out every time I hear of sailors in distress, and I always hope that they will return safe and sound.

I am not a church-goer and do not belong to any organised religion, but on days like this the tune and words of our traditional Navy hymn come to me, as clear as they sound in every church and chapel around the coast of our islands:
Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
Who bidd'st the mighty ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep;
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!
With good wishes for all people, but especially those who are at sea tonight, I remain

The Emerald Islander

18 January 2008

Charlie Wilson's War

As the matter of Afghanistan has come up yesterday, this might be a good time to add a little film review related to the subject. (I hope you do not mind that I use this weblog also to review books, films or even computer games now and then.)

Like most films I watch, the one I want to talk about today reflects on real events. It is called Charlie Wilson's War and based on George Crile's book with the same title (first published in 2003).
Both book and film tell the most unbelievable - but entirely true - background story to one of the most secret and successful intelligence operations in modern times, Operation Cyclone. This was the code name for Americas covert operations in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan during the 1980s, a secret war against Communism the CIA directed through various channels, including Israeli defence industries, Egypt's Ministry of Defence, Pakistan's government, army and inter-service intelligence agency (ISI), the Saudi Royal Family, and various other individuals, organisations and groups. Many of these groups, at the time known under the collective name "Mujahideen" (Arabic for strugglers), have meanwhile disappeared into history, but some of the names on the CIA's "list of friends" are still of relevance. They are Hezbi Islami (lead by the fanatic Gulbuddin Hekmatyar), Al-Qaeda (lead by the scholar Abdullah Yusuf Azzam) and Maktab al-Khadamat - or "MAK", as the Americans called them - (lead by Osama bin Laden). *

But even though the film is about Afghanistan and shows plenty of it, some with original footage from reconnaissance and news reports of the time, its main focus is the title hero Charlie Wilson, a member of the US House of Representatives from East Texas. A Democrat with very liberal views and a gregarious personal lifestyle, Charles Nesbitt Wilson (left, and not to be confused with the now sitting Congressman Charlie Wilson, a Democrat representing Ohio) was not the kind of politician one would find centre-stage in the limelight of national politics. Quite the opposite, in fact. But Wilson, a former naval officer, had some unusual friends, among them the colourful Houston socialite Joanne King Herring, a woman endowed equally with great wealth and great beauty. Her special concern for the plight of Afghani refugees who fled to Pakistan in their millions after the Soviets had invaded and occupied their country led to Wilson becoming interested as well. And even though a rather small fish in the great pond of Washington D.C., the Texan Congressman sat on the right committees, among them the one that appropriates secret funding for the CIA and other US intelligence agencies. With a combination of persuasion, political horse trading and using every trick in the book Wilson (played by Tom Hanks, who also produced the film) manages to increase the CIA's covert operations budget for Afghanistan from an original $ 5 million per annum to more than $ 600 million each year!
Hanks, who is an amazingly authentic look-alike of the real Charlie Wilson, does not only create a well-deserved memory for all those who were involved, he also shows us how Congress really works and how easy it is in fact to manipulate massive amounts of money without the public ever having the slightest idea of it. Had there been ever any doubt about it, this film demonstrates how very similar the modern US Congress is to the Senate of ancient Rome.

Not surprisingly, this is a very American film, which means that messages are coming straight at you and miss the subtlety one might find in some European productions. But it is a very good and informative film, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in current affairs.

The only shortfall in this otherwise well-made film is the casting of Julia Roberts as the wealthy Texan socialite Joanne King Herring.
No disrespect to Ms. Roberts, who has appeared in many films and is certainly a very talented actress, but she did not bring across the personality and spirit of Joanne Herring, and most significantly not her exceptional beauty. The real Joanne (pictured here with Julia Roberts) is like a mixture of Marilyn Monroe and Margaret Thatcher all in one, and also not very tall (while the real Charlie Wilson is). As Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts are almost of the same height, the great physical difference and the element of Charlie towering over Joanne are entirely missed. And - again with no disrespect - Ms. Roberts' mouth and nose are just too large to be really beautiful, while Joanne Herring has a really classic porcelain doll's face.

As it happens, this is the second time that Julia Roberts was chosen to play a woman of historical significance which she neither resembles physically nor fits in any way. The other was Kitty Kiernan, the girlfriend of Ireland's revolution hero Michael Collins, played in the film of the same title by Liam Neeson.
It appears that certain Hollywood studios insist on particular "stars" appearing in their films, regardless if they fit the character or not. And being one of the highest paid actresses in the USA, I suppose that Julia Roberts just gets as many major roles as possible. Sadly, it does not always work. But nevertheless, she is a vivacious woman and fits at least the bill in this way, even though she looks not a bit like the real Joanne King Herring (who even now, as an elderly woman, has still one of the most beautiful faces in the western world...)

In contrast to Julia Roberts, the casting of Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the unconventional Greek-American CIA agent Gust Avrakotos makes the film not only more realistic, but also adds a lot of quite funny elements to it. Rough diamonds like the real Avrakotos are rare, but without them most intelligence services could not function.

Even though the director, Mike Nichols, has made a number of films before, the German-born son of Russian Jews is better known for his theatre work. With Charlie Wilson's War he does move into new artistic territory, and it seems he feels quite at home there already.

The Emerald Islander

* After Azzam's death in 1989 Osama bin Laden merged MAK with Al-Qaeda and became its new leader.

17 January 2008

Afghanistan is not our Job

Robert Gates, US Secretary of Defense and formerly Director of the CIA under President George H. W. Bush (who himself is a former Director of the CIA), is not happy with NATO. In a statement, published yesterday in the Los Angeles Times, the current Master of the Pentagon complains that "NATO forces in southern Afghanistan do not know how to properly combat a guerilla insurgency". And that, Gates suggests, could be "contributing to rising violence in the country".

Having spent a third of my life on active service with NATO, and having been on the ground in the Pakistan/Afghanistan area during the 1980s, I claim a personal right of reply to Mr. Gates, who is himself no expert on guerrilla warfare and insurgency. (He is, like Condoleezza Rice, an expert on the former USSR and was repeatedly criticised for concocting evidence to show that the Soviet Union was stronger than it actually was.)

The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) was established with the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty in Washington, D.C. on April 4th, 1949. This document was again based on (and an extension of) the Treaty of Brussels, signed in the Belgian capital on March 17th, 1948. Both treaties have the same purpose: to establish a strong defence and security structure for Europe and the North Atlantic region (including the USA and Canada). In the text of the treaties it says quite clearly:
The Parties of NATO agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all. Consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence, will assist the Party or Parties being attacked, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.
There is no mention of Asia or other continents and areas in the North Atlantic Treaty and also no passage that declares NATO an auxiliary force of the USA, earmarked to support her in her dubious foreign adventures.
Afghanistan happens to be part of Asia, and therefore is not part of NATO's area of action. It is also a fact that Afghanistan has never committed a single act of aggression against any of the 26 member states of NATO. So why are NATO troops fighting in the South of Afghanistan and are functioning as occupation and garrison forces in the North of that country?

Like so many things in recent years it all is a result of "9/11" and the irrational and aggressive policy on which the Bush administration embarked ever since that day. George W. Bush blamed the terror acts of September 11th, 2001 - without giving so far any evidence whatsoever - on a group called "Al-Qaeda" (which means in Arabic the base) of which hardly anyone outside the professional intelligence community had ever even heard of before.
Those familiar with the matter knew that this group had been formed by the CIA in the 1980s as an Islamic frontline organisation for its own covert operations against the Soviets in Afghanistan. (The recently released film Charlie Wilson's War gives an interesting insight how this came all about.)
When Al-Qaeda's leader Abdullah Yusuf Azzam died in November 1989, he was replaced by the 42-year-old economist and CIA agent Osama bin Muhammad bin 'Awad bin Laden, son of a rich Saudi trader with close ties to the Saudi Royal Family. (The Bin Laden family has also long-established oil business contacts with the Bush family of Texas.)

As George W. Bush claimed that Afghanistan, by then freed from Russian occupation and ruled by the radical Islamic Taliban regime (which has its origins in a Pakistani education movement, formed also to strengthen the fight against the Soviets and partly financed by Saudi Arabia and the USA), was "sheltering Al-Qaeda on its territory" he held the poor and underdeveloped Asian country - known in ancient times as Bactria - responsible for the events of "9/11". Once again no evidence was provided by the White House, but massive US pressure bullied the NATO council to interpret "9/11" as "an attack on a member state". With this political carte blanche in his pocket, George W. Bush decided to invade Afghanistan and, as the attacked party, the USA asked NATO for political and military assistance.
Subsequently troops from many European NATO states joined the US forces in Afghanistan, the more cautious ones as garrison troops in the relatively pacified North, others (especially British, Canadian and Dutch units) in actively fighting the remnants of the Taliban in the South, close to the border with Pakistan (which is still the homeland and main base of the Taliban movement).

During the 40 years of the "Cold War" the specific structure of NATO as the world's only real and true defence alliance saved the peace in Europe and prevented any Soviet aggression against the member states. Everyone - in the West, in the East and anywhere else - knew that NATO would never start a war with anyone, nor support any aggression, but it would in the strongest and fiercest ways possible defend its members (marked blue on the map) against any offensive act, no matter which nation(s) would be the aggressor(s).
NATO's unique position not only gave her enormous power and stability, it positioned her on the moral highground and made her a respected player on the international stage, trusted by others and admired for her sincerity.
When I was on active service, we were proud to be NATO soldiers, who would never attack anyone, but be the staunch defenders of freedom, our homelands and their liberal way of life.

This is all in the past now. By allowing the USA to hijack NATO and turn it into an auxiliary force for the Bush administration's political and military adventures in the Middle East, the other member states have given up the principles of the North Atlantic Treaty. Today NATO is no longer an independent, trusted and respected multi-national defence organisation, but merely a convenient military tool, freely used and mis-used by the White House.
So when Robert Gates, the only career CIA agent ever to reach the position of Director and a man with much political mud on his boots, claims that NATO is not suited for fighting a guerrilla war in Afghanistan, he is probably right. Never mind that some of the European forces there - in particular Britain's SAS and Royal Marines - are much better trained than any US forces in the theatre, they should not be there at all, as Afghanistan is clearly "out of area" for NATO.

If Mr. Gates feels the need to fight a guerrilla war in Southern Afghanistan, maybe he should send more of his own troops to do it. However, his suggestion that the NATO troops' apparent lack of enthusiasm to kill Afghan civilians "contributes to rising violence in the country" is a most ridiculous statement. Ever since 2001 it has been the incompetence of the US leadership, their unwillingness to commit enough ground troops, and their careless use of US air power against innocent Afghan civilians that created growing instability and violent resistance in Afghanistan.
It was the USA that created Al-Qaeda and financed the Taliban, the USA that attacked, invaded and occupied Afghanistan, and the USA that established the current puppet regime of President Hamid Karzai (another former CIA agent and close friend of the Bush family), during whose time in office the production of Afghani opium has reached record amounts never seen before.

Afghanistan in its current state of insecurity and crisis is therefore entirely an American problem and not a job for NATO. The sooner European leaders realise that and withdraw their military support for the futile and dangerous US neo-colonialism, the sooner NATO might try to regain some of her previous good reputation, if that is still possible at all. With an ever more bellicose Russia, recovering her old political and military strength thanks to massive gains from oil and gas sales to the West, NATO might still be needed in the role for which it was originally created.

The Emerald Islander