23 May 2008







19 May 2008

Sinn Féin launches Lisbon Campaign

This morning Sinn Féin has officially launched its campaign for a No vote in the Lisbon Treaty referendum.

At a media presentation in Dublin Sinn Féin MEP Mary Lou McDonald (photo above) said that if the Lisbon Treaty was rejected next month, a new and better deal for Ireland could then be negotiated.

She pointed out that it was vital for Ireland to retain our permanent seat at the European Commission and warned that the treaty was a dangerous document for our economy and the agricultural sector.

Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams (right) accused the Yes camp of scaremongering and said the treaty was not as complex as they were trying to suggest.

Calling for a national debate on the issue, Mr. Adams said the world would not end if the Lisbon Treaty were rejected. But Ireland would then have the chance to be taken more serious in Europe, which was using the treaty to reduce the influence of the smaller countries to a minimum, while the large countries would gain unprecedented power that was not controlled by democratic institutions.

Sinn Féin is the only of Ireland's major parties campaigning for a No vote. A number of smaller parties, the majority of the trade union movement and numerous citizen groups are also campaigning to vote No.

The Emerald Islander

Cluster Bomb Conference opens in Dublin

Today an important international conference, which is aimed at securing a treaty to ban cluster bombs, has opened in Dublin.

Michaél Martin (photo left), Ireland's new Minister for Foreign Affairs, gave the opening address at Croke Park this morning and welcomed delegates from 110 countries. He said that he hopes for an ambitious outcome to the two-week conference that would be widely supported and set the international standard.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon (right) delivered a video message to the conference, emphasising its importance in finding new ways for a more peaceful future.

The international efforts from governments, organisations and individuals to ban the use, manufacture and trade of cluster bombs and ammunitions have gained momentum over the past year. It follows widespread revulsion about the impact of these weapons that open in mid air and randomly scatter dozens of individual bomblets over a large area. They can remain hidden on the ground and kill people even years after a conflict ends.

Various types of cluster ammunitions are regularly used by the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan. (The photo on the left shows an American B-1 strategic bomber dropping a whole load of them.) And one of the most ruthless and atrocious users of cluster bombs is Israel.
During the (unprovoked and illegal) month-long Israeli attack on Lebanon in July and August 2006 more than a million of the bomblets were dropped on Lebanese soil by Israeli aircraft, most of them in highly populated areas of the capital Beirut.
They have caused the death of many Lebanese, injured a great many more, and no one knows how many of them remain still undetected on the ground, as permanent peril for innocent people.

Some countries will lobby to exempt certain weapons, or for a long transition period. But it is most significant that the four countries that are the main users and producers of cluster bombs - the USA, China, Russia and Israel - have decided not to send any delegation to the conference at all.
Well, this boycott of a ground-breaking conference might backfire on them politically in the future. Even though the four abstaining countries are quite powerful, they will not be able to stand against a clear and united action from the rest of the world.

Grethe Ostern, joint head of the international Cluster Munitions Coalition (CMC) umbrella group, said this morning: "Governments have been talking about the dangers of cluster bombs for years. More delays mean more injuries and death for ordinary people. We have a unique opportunity to ban cluster bombs in Dublin. It is now or never."

The conference, which is scheduled to continue for two weeks, is the largest international event of its kind ever hosted by Ireland.

The Emerald Islander

18 May 2008

Morgan Tsvangirai attends Congress in Belfast

The past few days have been very busy and eventful for me, and thus I did not have the chance to write entries on Friday and Saturday. I have just returned from a visit to Belfast, where I had the opportunity to meet Morgan Tsvangirai (photo), the leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in Zimbabwe.

The MDC, Zimbabwe's largest opposition party, has won the parliamentary elections held on March 29th, thus ending a long and dominant majority of ZANU-PF, the party of President Robert Mugabe. In the presidential election, held on the same day, Mr. Tsvangirai also emerged as the clear winner, although it is disputed that he won more than 50% of the popular vote, as the MDC has claimed on the basis of the added-up results from all local polling stations in the country.

After an unprecedented delay of more than four weeks, the Electoral Commission of Zimbabwe, which is in charge of holding elections and declaring the results, has eventually said that
Morgan Tsvangirai did indeed win the presidential election, but that he fell short of an outright majority (of more than 50%). Under the electoral rules of Zimbabwe this requires a second round, where a simple majority will decide who is the next president.

The MDC and many international observers, analysts and commentators - myself included - are certain that the result of the presidential election on March 29th has been manipulated during the month of political limbo. According to reports from inside Zimbabwe the current government printed three million more voting papers than there are voters in the country. During the long and protruded counting process, which was the longest known in any election, it is alleged that ZANU-PF manipulated the result by adding fake ballot papers in favour of Robert Mugabe and ZANU-PF. There were also reports of 'phantom polling stations' in tents on empty fields, to which ZANU-PF was bringing supporters to vote a second time.
As nobody in Zimbabwe would believe a result that declares a win for Robert Mugabe, ZANU-PF have stuffed ballot boxes only to the extent that Morgan Tsvangirai lost his outright win of the presidency in the first round.
Mugabe and his strategists in ZANU-PF have since embarked on a massive campaign of terror and intimidation against politicians and supporters of the MDC, and observers doubt that the second round of the election can be held under fair and democratic conditions.

The government campaign of terror, supported by police and the Zimbabwean army, reached a level of unprecedented intensity in recent weeks. Thus the MDC decided that it was currently not safe for Morgan Tsvangirai to stay in the country. The opposition leader has therefore spent a couple of weeks in neighbouring South Africa (whose President Thabo M'beki has so far - to the anger and annoyance of his own ANC party - taken the side of Mugabe and excused any crime and terror he is responsible for) and also visited Botswana, Namibia and Angola, where he had political consultations with the presidents of those countries and other politicians.

Before he returns home to Zimbabwe and prepares himself for the now once again postponed second round of the presidential election, Morgan Tsvangirai added another surprise visit to his busy schedule. He attended the 55th Congress of Liberal International in Belfast and addressed the gathered delegates from more than 100 liberal parties from around the world.

The annual congress of the world's liberal parties was for the very first time held in the North of Ireland, and the small local liberal party - the non-confessional and cross-community Alliance Party - was the proud host of the event.

In his address to the conference, which welcomed him as their guest of honour with a standing ovation, Morgan Tsvangirai gave a brief report about the catastrophic situation in Zimbabwe (where - due to Mugabe's rule of terror and incompetence - unemployment is now at 80% and inflation has reached the all-time world record of 250,000%) and outlined his own political plans.

"I must return to Zimbabwe to be with our people and to lift them out of the darkness," he said.
"On the 29th of March the people of Zimbabwe voted. Mugabe lost that first round. 57% of the people who cast their vote did not vote for him. I am so confident that in spite of the violence, come the second round they will reconfirm that rejection."

Mr. Tsvangirai denied reports that he was in exile and urged President Mugabe to peacefully accept the verdict of the second round vote.
"I did not run away, and I am not in exile," he emphasised. "It was for strategic reasons that I left the country for some time. We had to engage with all the African leaders about the crisis."

Former Alliance Party leader Lord Alderdice, currently the President of Liberal International, said it was a special honour that Morgan Tsvangirai
attended the congress. The same warm welcome was also extended to the President of Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade.

Alliance Party leader David Ford said: "Getting the chance to host this congress is a massive boost for Belfast. This is the first time that Northern Ireland has ever hosted the prestigious gathering of Liberal International. It gives us the chance of a lifetime to showcase Northern Ireland to politicians and power brokers from across the whole globe."

Even though I am neither a politician nor a power broker, and not member of a liberal party, the congress was very interesting and inspiring for me, too. One does not often have the chance to speak with politicians from so many different countries, among them government ministers and opposition leaders of great significance. However, the highlight of the gathering was without any doubt the presence of Morgan Tsvangirai, his impressive speech and the chance to meet him in person afterwards.

I never had the chance to meet Nelson Mandela, but in the past I was one of the many activists in the long campaign for his release from prison. Time has moved on, history has restored Nelson Mandela to his rightful place and rewarded him with the South African
presidency and many international honours.
But there is still a lot of terror and injustice in Africa. And even though the continent has many decent people who struggle for freedom and democracy, there is currently no-one who is more prominent in this fight for political rights, fairness and true democracy than
Morgan Tsvangirai, who - in my opinion - would be a very deserving candidate for the Nobel Price for Peace. I feel privileged and honoured that I had the chance of a brief meeting with this exceptional man, and I wish him all the best for the future - personally as well as politically.

The Emerald Islander

15 May 2008

Human Rights - a Challenge for us all

There is hardly any politician in the civilised world who will not publicly commit himself (and his party) to respect, uphold and defend Human Rights. This is good, and a great achievement for many campaigning groups and organisations (of whom the most prominent is undoubtedly Amnesty International). After all, only 65 years ago the world's nations were occupied with killing and destroying each other, and two centuries ago slavery was still seen as 'normal' by the majority of political (and religious!) leaders.

However, when it comes to implement the well-spoken words into policies and action, the record of the same politicians is far less impressive. In fact some of the most vociferous supporters of Human Rights are regularly found to be liars and hypocrites, who abuse in practice the same Human Rights they seem to support and uphold in their speeches.

The list of these politicians is long, too long to be published here. But I am sure that most readers will know plenty of the names that come to my mind. So I will concentrate for today - May 15th, the day Bloggers unite in a concerted international action for Human Rights - on some of the worst cases and their words and deeds.

Undoubtedly the worst hypocrite of our time is George W. Bush, who takes every opportunity to speak about "freedom, democracy and human rights". How much would one wish that he actually means what he says. But the most powerful man alive on this planet always speaks - as Native Americans used to put it so fittingly - with a forked tongue.
Occasionally he makes public gestures, such as awarding some medal or accolade to prominent Human Rights' campaigners and sufferers from political oppression and injustice. They include the Dalai Lama (above left) and Aung San Suu Kyi (above right), who are both the legitimate leaders of their nations - Tibet and Burma - and both recipients of the Nobel Prize for Peace.

But the same George W. Bush is responsible for the worst crimes and Human Rights' abuses in modern time. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the ongoing illegal occupation of these countries by US and allied troops (for seven and five years respectively) have killed more than a million people, most of them innocent civilians. Even more were wounded, and further millions - including more than four million Iraqis - were made homeless and driven into exile as refugees: homeless, jobless, penniless and by now almost forgotten by the world. Bush is also responsible for the systematic torture of thousands of political prisoners - at Guantanamo Bay and in secret CIA prisons in foreign countries - and has personally vetoed the banning of the infamous torture technique named 'Waterboarding' by the CIA. In fact it is simulated drowning and was originally invented by the Inquisition of the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages.
The CIA, with Bush's personal approval, re-introduced this barbaric method some years ago. For that alone Bush and every CIA agent involved should be brought to the International Court of Justice. Sadly that is not going to happen, as the USA simply do not recognise the court.

One should also remember that the same George W. Bush, during his time as governor of Texas, had more prisoners executed than all other US states together. Nearly 200 US citizens died in six years on the orders of Governor Bush.
More than 4000 US soldiers have died meanwhile in Iraq, where he sends them as his human killing machines, and nearly 500 in Afghanistan. Additionally the lives of more than 60,000 US soldiers are blighted forever by serious wounds, many of them so severe that they will disable the wounded soldiers for life.

There is no shortage of public criticism of Bush, his henchmen and their criminal actions, but it only comes from ordinary people, including academics, writers, journalists and bloggers. Hardly any fellow politician has the guts to stand up and speak openly against the murderer, torturer and hypocrite in the White House.

As recommendable exceptions one has to mention Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez (right), Bolivia's President Evo Morales and Cuba's new leader Raul Castro - three men whose countries and people have suffered more than enough from US imperialism. They are not only very brave, honest and courageous, but also very popular with the people.
So there is, after all, some hope...

The vast majority of the world's political leaders, ministers and parliamentarians are cowardly bowing before Bush and his regime of systematic Human Rights' abusers. I suppose that some countries are simply too small and too weak to even raise their voice against the USA. But what about the strong nations?
When has one ever heard a critical word from Japan, still the second-largest economy on the planet? And how does Europe fare? The mighty European Union (EU) with meanwhile 27 member states is sadly also a gathering of hypocrites and lickspittles, following eagerly the lead provided by the White House. No-one seems to have learned any lessons from history, as if Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini and a dozen other dictators of the 20th century had never existed.
In our schools children learn little enough about them and their crimes, and what they learn there are usually stereotypes and twisted half-truths. Those in power are not really interested in well-educated and informed people. Tranquil and half-witted consumers, addicted to alcohol and various other drugs, are much easier to rule and control than enlightened and active citizens.

Subsequently there is little awareness - and even less open criticism - of the world's modern dictators and oppressive regimes. Since Russia is supposed to be our friend now, we close our eyes completely on its dark sides. There are no reports in our media about the brutal war in Chechnya, where Russian troops kill civilians at will and behave even worse than the Americans in Iraq. No mentioning
either of the crimes against humanity that go on inside Russia, where power is now shared between ex-KGB officers (like Prime Minister and ex-President Vladimir Putin) and a mafia of common criminals which is well-organised, well-armed and absolutely ruthless. Anyone who dares to stand in their way, or even to speak about them in public, is in mortal danger. The number of journalists, writers and Human Rights' activists that have been murdered in Russia since 1991 is growing ever larger. If it were not for Amnesty International, we would never hear and know about them.

An even crueller and more cynical regime rules China, which has become a truly hybrid country: A totalitarian Communist state with absolute power, exercised by the one existing party, but with a more and more capitalist and consumerist mentality and society. Having enough manpower, available at very low cost, China has turned itself into the biggest workshop on the planet, manufacturing now about 85% of all basic consumer goods for the industrialised countries of the West. Many
western books are also printed there, by people who cannot read English, while China is still blocking and filtering news from the free world, especially online.

Currently the country is in Olympic fever, preparing for this year's games in the capital Beijing. In a very Confucianist way the Chinese leadership is using the event also to humiliate the West (and the rest of the world) and make them bow before China's new industrial power. Protesters against the brutal occupation of Tibet (since 1952) are arrested, beaten up or simply shot in the streets, while at the same time the Olympic flame is paraded around the world by the Chinese in an unprecedented way. Showing off their newly gained strength, the Chinese leadership demanded that a stick with a flame would be treated by the world's major nations like a head of state, with 2000 policemen out on duty in London, and a similar sad spectacle in Paris.
In the past the flame travelled around a host country, carried by numerous athletes. There has never been any need for police or security, and everyone along the way cheered happily. But this year things are different. China managed to turn the Olympic flame - once a symbol of free sporting contest between the youth of the world - into a symbol of hypocrisy and oppression. The fact alone that it is surrounded at all times by ten burly 'flame attendants' (a job and word that did not exist until the Chinese government created it) says enough. It is a spectacle for political reasons, and like Hitler in 1936 the Chinese leaders use the Olympic Games to show off their newly gained strength.

What is the reaction of the 'free' world? Silence, ignorance and complacency. Having a few hundred hours of sports on TV this summer seems more important to most of us than the political conditions in China, and the freedom and well-being of the people of Tibet plays almost no role in most Westerners mind. Bestowing the odd honour on the Dalai Lama now and then is nothing but poor window dressing and no help for the Tibetans at all.
Being in economical hock to China now, the West is caught in its own trap. The capitalist demand for ever cheaper products, manufactured for less and less cost, has lead to the outsourcing of our manufacturing industry. Most brands you can think of as famous, fashionable and stylish in the West have their goods produced in Chinese sweatshops for years. People still pay high western prices for them, while a pittance is paid to Chinese workers. The balance fills the pockets of the super-rich in the USA, Japan and Europe.

In order to produce all the things the world wants to buy, China is in need of huge amounts of resources and raw materials. This has lead to a new form of neo-colonialism, especially in Africa, where now China call the shots in many of the 'independent' African countries. This suits many African leaders a lot better than co-operation with the West, because China never makes any comments or demands on them regarding Human Rights. Thus China is very happy to be the main supporter and arms supplier of the militant Islamic regime in Sudan, which commits genocide on a large scale in their western province of Darfur. The western world stands stunned and gapes, shouts and makes demands. The result: no change.
If our politicians would really be interested in Human Rights and the protection of innocent people from all kinds of harm and oppression, the US Army would be in Sudan instead of Iraq. (And there is even oil in Sudan...)

Africa is a subject one could - and should - write books about. It is a vast continent, with vast resources and riches. It could be feeding itself easily, produce plenty of food for export and give its people a live of great wealth and comfort. So why is it that Africa is the poorest, least developed and most suffering of all the continents?
Once again it comes down to the will of political leaders to act or not, to uphold Human Rights or to prefer shady deals with warlords and cleptocrats instead. Due to western hypocrisy and the selfish greed and brutal methods of Africa's tribal leaders the continent is experiencing now four decades of war, instability, turmoil and economic collapse. The obvious results are famine, genocide, destruction and the complete decline of culture and society, in the absence of law, order and proper administration.
Western countries, and especially the former colonial powers, carry a lot of the responsibility for this. But like the Thirty-Years War that devastated central Europe and especially Germany in the 17th century in a similar fashion, the catastrophe has many fathers and could not happen without the co-operation of the willing soldiers on the ground. The Thirty-Years War only ended when both sides ran out of people, food and other resources, after destroying and depopulating vast areas of Germany. If no alternatives are offered by the world's leaders - and especially the leaders of powerful nations - this is most likely the fate of Africa, too. They will carry on killing each other, destroying their infrastructure and devastating their fertile lands until no one has enough power and resources left to carry on.

One cannot write about Africa at present without mentioning Zimbabwe, where President Robert Gabriel Mugabe - a Jesuit-educated Catholic - has declared total war on the entire population. Having destroyed the economy of this once rich, prosperous and very fertile country, Mugabe is now bullying his people with brute force into submission, trying to make them elect him again as President. With over 80% unemployment and meanwhile 250,000% inflation (which is a sad all-time world record, making even the massive inflation that blighted Germany in the 1920s look insignificant) Zimbabwe is on its knees. Most people spend all their time with nothing else but searching for a little bit of food, in order to survive another day.

Mugabe (pictured here in one of his Rolls Royce state cars at an official function) and his clique of criminal henchmen still live a life in luxury, while ordinary people have two choices: death by starvation or fleeing into neighbouring countries. There are now nearly four million Zimbabweans living in South Africa alone. Nevertheless, South Africa's spineless President Thabo M'beki sees "no crisis in Zimbabwe". His lack of leadership, action and humanity makes him one of the worst of the political hypocrites alive, and even his own people have now lost confidence in him and elected Jacob Zuma as the new leader of their ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC).

The list of Human Rights' abuses and hypocritical politicians is long, and so is
meanwhile this text. There is so much more one could say and write, but I will draw to a close, to keep this article to a readable length. One could, however, not end a post about Human Rights without mentioning Burma. This poor and long-suffering country, almost unknown to most Westerners, is currently experiencing its probably worst period in centuries.
Devastated by the forces of cyclone 'Nargis', which wiped out whole communities and killed a very large, but still unknown number of people (the early estimates are between 70,000 and 250,000), the south-western part of Burma, including the largest city (and former capital) Rangoon, is a disater area for the past two weeks.
Despite that, and the inability to deal with a catastrophe of that dimension alone, the Burmese military junta is still refusing foreign aid workers visas and entry to their country. In an act of cruel cynicism, matched only by Stalin and Hitler, the Burmese generals went ahead with a nationwide referendum on a new constitution (which will keep them in power for the foreseeable future) while people died of injuries and starvation unattended on the roads outside the polling stations!
Once again western politicians made speeches and demands, and than backed down and left it at that. France is the only western country that suggested to invoke a special clause in the UN Charta which allows foreign intervention under exceptional circumstances, even without co-operation from the target country's government. But since no-one else picked up the idea, it died even faster than the victims of cyclone 'Nargis' in Burma.

If the leaders of the western world were serious in their many verbal commitments to freedom, democracy and Human Rights, American and international troops would not be in Afghanistan and Iraq, but in Burma, Chad, Congo, Somalia, Sudan and Zimbabwe. There would be no jovial business deals with the Russians, and no bowing down before the cruelties of the Chinese.
But as long as the majority of people in the western countries does not care, keeps electing the wrong people to positions of power and prefers getting drunk to taking an active part in politics, there will be no change.

No-one can change the world single-handed, but every single hand put to a good cause will help to make the world a little bit better. The challenge is there, for you, me and everyone. Let's see who takes it up, let's see if we want a decent future for this planet and the human race!

The Emerald Islander

DUP and Sinn Féin disagree on Education Reform

Sinn Féin and its partner in the North's power-sharing government, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), are in serious disagreement over the proposed - and long overdue - reform of the education service in the Six Counties.

The First Minister and (for a few more days) DUP leader Ian Paisley described the proposals of the Education Minister, Sinn Féin's Caitríona Ruane (left) as "totally unacceptable". In his opinion the minister's plan did "not form a basis for moving forward".

It is - and has been for some time - Sinn Féin policy to end the existing test, known as the 'Eleven plus', which is still taken by all primary school pupils in the North before they transfer to secondary level. The test determines which pupils will go to grammar schools, and which will be educated in less academic secondary schools.

The DUP wants to keep some form of academic streaming, and a group of grammar schools has already declared that it will introduce its own form of testing if the 'Eleven plus' should be officially abolished in the Six Counties.

Education Minister Ruane wants to end the 'Eleven plus' (also known as the Transfer Test) this year, and she has warned there could be huge uncertainty for the education service if there was no agreement for new arrangements.

Tonight Ian Paisley (right) - in a last roar before his political retirement - said that schools "must be able to select pupils on the basis of ability". His party would accept nothing less.

Before the last power-sharing administration collapsed, the then Education Minister and current Deputy First Minister, Martin Mc Guinness (Sinn Féin) had already promised to end the 'Eleven plus' system in the North of Ireland.
The test had been established for the whole UK in 1944. But in England, Scotland and Wales it was abolished as the standard procedure in 1976. It has remained in operation only in the North of Ireland, three English counties (Buckinghamshire, Essex and Kent) and in the London Borough of Bexley.

The Emerald Islander

IMPACT sees Benchmarking "dead in the Water"

IMPACT, Ireland's largest public service union, may reject any new national pay agreement unless the 'Benchmarking' pay determination system is radically reformed. Speaking at the IMPACT conference in Kilkenny, the union's General Secretary Peter McLoone (photo) said that as far as his members were concerned, 'Benchmarking' was "dead in the water", after not delivering pay increases to most of them.

McLoone said that voting on the next proposed pay agreement, which is currently negotiated, would be the first opportunity to vent the trade unions' frustration about what they saw as "a flawed mechanism".
But he warned if the outcome of the current pay negotiations included provision for another similar 'Benchmarking' process, he did not think his members would accept it. He also stressed that public servants should not and did not want to lead private sector pay in the labour market. The gap between higher and lower paid workers in the public service should not be getting wider and the same standards of fairness must be used to assess the pay of all, regardless of their place in the hierarchy.

Delegates at the conference endorsed a motion calling for a genuine review of the public service pay determination system to ensure that future pay comparisons are "made with good private sector employers", that genuine reforms of public services are rewarded and that individual pay anomalies can be addressed.

Earlier, Peter McLoone said that a new pay deal could well be achieved, but it must include progress on social objectives and public services. Despite big challenges "a deal is doable if all the social partners have enough ambition".

The Emerald Islander

14 May 2008

IMPACT President criticises Irish Employers

The President of Ireland's largest public sector union, IMPACT, has openly accused Irish employers of "reaching new standards of double standards" by calling for wage restraint for workers, while top people's pay is soaring.

Finbarr O'Driscoll, who took over the leadership of IMPACT from Stephen Lyons earlier this year, called on business leaders "to show some glimmer of understanding of the rage and frustration felt by ordinary people", particularly when top earners award themselves huge pay increases, while telling the little people to tighten their belts.

Speaking at the opening of the union's biennial national delegate conference in Kilkenny, O'Driscoll said that unions needed to see evidence that employers still see partnership as a two-way street where all the parties make gains and sacrifices.

He claimed that in recent months they had witnessed what he called "emboldened employers, determined to row back on the rights, pensions and living standards of working people" and accused employers of "seeking to cut living standards with below-inflation pay rises, even as they awarded themselves big increases in their already huge salaries".

In the current national pay talks the unions needed increases that matched the rate of inflation, simply to maintain living standards.

"Most of the lectures on partnership and performance given to trade unions ahead of the national pay talks come from those who have done exceptionally well out of boardroom pay hikes or the report of the review body on top-level pay in the public sector", O'Driscoll said.

He accused profitable banks of increasing interest rates and leaving hardworking young couples to pay for the mess in the international money markets, which is of the banks' own making. He also slated retailers who hiked up prices for years on the basis of the high cost of the Pound Sterling, but who refused to reduce them when the value of that currency fell, as it currently does.

The powerful speech of the new IMPACT President shows that Ireland's largest public sector union (and second-largest union after SIPTU) is in good and strong hands and will not back down in the national pay negotiations.

The more than 55,000 members of IMPACT work in hundreds of public service occupations, grades and professions in health, local government and education, the civil service, and in many voluntary and community organisations.

The Emerald Islander

ESRI predicts good Future for the Irish Economy

The Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) in Dublin has announced that the Irish economy "remains resilient" and that it will eventually rebound to grow at about 3.75% per year in the medium term. The institute warns that there is a danger that Irish society could "become transfixed by the very real economic difficulties" and miss the opportunity to plan for a better future in the next decade. It insisted that the current downturn in the economy will not inflict any lasting damage to the country's long-term growth potential.

ESRI makes it clear that it remains upbeat about the country's economic prospects despite the current slowdown.
It has conducted its latest two-yearly medium-term review of the economy and taken all issues into account, including the downturn in the housing market, the global financial turmoil, the potential recession in the USA, and the state of Ireland's public finances. It says that it still believes the Irish economy remains fundamentally sound, and is well placed to bounce back when the global situation improves.

Ireland has become very good at selling services abroad, and this is the key reason why it is well placed to recover when the global downturn is over. The institute's findings show that Ireland has developed a comparative advantage in the supply of financial services, computer and IT services and other business services and it expects almost 240,000 additional service sector jobs by 2015, provided competitiveness is maintained.
It says these jobs will more than compensate for about 70,000 expected job losses between agriculture, manufacturing, construction and public utilities.

It also says that demand for housing will remain strong with 48,000 new houses per year still required until 2020. The review warns, however, that although greenhouse gas emissions will be reduced substantially as a result of a new carbon tax, Ireland will still miss its emissions targets by a considerable margin.

The researchers also point out that it is "important for the government to move fairly rapidly to introduce some form of congestion charging" if good value is to be obtained from the huge investment in infrastructure that is now taking place.

13 May 2008

Five new Junior Ministers appointed

This afternoon Taoiseach Brian Cowen has appointed five new faces to his junior ministerial team and dismissed three previous Ministers of State.

The newcomers to ministerial responsibility are:
  • John Curran (Dublin Mid-West) for Drug Policy,
  • Michael Finneran (Roscommon South & Leitrim) for Housing,
  • Martin Mansergh (Tipperary South) for the Office of Public Works,
  • John Moloney (Laois-Offaly) for Equality and Disability,
  • Peter Power (Limerick East) for Overseas Aid.
The three departees from the administration are:
  • Michael Ahern (Cork East),
  • John Browne (Wexford),
  • Pat "the Cope" Gallagher (Donegal South-West).
Last week Barry Andrews (Dún Laoghaire) was promoted to Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, with a seat at the cabinet table, as was Chief Whip Pat Carey (Dublin North-West), replacing Tom Kitt, who has returned to the backbenches.

Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny stated that the number of junior ministries should be cut. In a comment on the new appointments he said the number of Ministers of State had risen from seven to ten, then to 15 and is now more than 20.
Some Ministers of State did not have areas of responsibility they could act independently on, the opposition leader added.

Despite some speculation that the new Taoiseach might reduce the number of Ministers of State, he opted to retain the existing number (enlarged by his predecessor Bertie Ahern).

A full analysis of the whole new administration - cabinet and junior ministers - will be posted here within the next couple of days.

Hospital Protesters oppose Lisbon Treaty

Campaigners for the retention of hospital services in the West of Ireland are linking their protest to the debate on the Lisbon Treaty referendum. Yesterday evening in Roscommon about 600 people attended a local protest meeting (above) over the proposed downgrading of the county's hospital.
A motion calling for opposition to the Lisbon Treaty was passed by a clear majority.

Today a campaign is being launched to merge the support of other community hospital action committees into a united bid to oppose the treaty in the referendum on June 12th.

The planned downgrading of Roscommon County Hospital (right) has historically been a hot political issue. Health Service Executive (HSE) proposals to recommend the closure of in-patient surgical beds and the transfer of services to Ballinasloe have been bitterly opposed. Consultants in Roscommon have warned the move is a prelude to the downgrading and eventual closure of the hospital.

Last night's meeting proposed a 'No' vote to the Lisbon Treaty and the organisers are now seeking the support of 23 other hospital protest groups around the country in an anti-Lisbon stance.
A member of the Roscommon Hospital Action Committee spoke earlier today on RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland programme.
He said that the committee is a in principal "a non-political organisation", but it has been "forced to go political to get the government's attention".

The famous Irish-American politician Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill,
formerly Speaker of the US House of Representatives, used to say: "All politics is local."
And I might add to that my own thought: Everything is somehow connected to two things - politics and education.

The Emerald Islander

Loyalist Killer on Trial for attempted Murder

The convicted "loyalist" killer Michael Stone (photo) went on trial in Belfast yesterday, charged with attempting to murder Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams and the North's Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.

The former Ulster Defence Association (UDA) gunman faces a total of 14 charges at Belfast Crown Court, related to his violent storming into the Northern Ireland Assembly in November of 2006.

Stone has denied any intention to harm anyone at Stormont and described his attack as "performance art". If this line of defence would be accepted by the court, in principal any crime could be in future made legal by such a ridiculous excuse. However, there are actually experts in 'performance art' who have been called to give evidence in Stone's defence. (We should take notice of the names of those 'experts' and of what they say.)

In 1988 Michael Stone was convicted of killing three mourners who were attending a funeral of IRA members - shot dead in Gibraltar by British SAS soldiers - at Milltown Cemetery.
After serving years in prison he was released early under the reconciliation provisions of the Good Friday Agreement. But in contrast to most of the released prisoners, Stone seems to be still living in the olden days of senseless adversity and violence.

The Emerald Islander

Brian Cowen elected Taoiseach

Well, while I was in hospital for a few days the expected change at the head of the government took place.
I did manage to report the official resignation of Bertie Ahern as Taoiseach on the 6th, but unfortunately I was back in an HSE bed for another few days by the time Dáil Éireann elected the Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister) and Minister for Finance Brian Cowen (above) as our new Taoiseach (Prime Minister) in the afternoon of May 7th. So this entry is basically "old news" for most of you, but as it is a very significant event, I decided to mention it here, even though it happened already six days ago.

After being elected with an eight vote majority of in the Dáil, the new Taoiseach went to Aras an Uachtarán (the President's Residence) in Phoenix Park, to present himself to President Mary McAleese and receive from her his seal of office.

Breaking with tradition, Brian Cowen is the first incoming Taoiseach who brought his family along to this important moment. On local level new mayors and county councillors often bring their whole families to their inauguration, but it is a new development on national level. Previously the new Taoiseach always cut a rather lonely figure when he was "going to the Park".
It shows Brian Cowen not only as a family man, but also as a man of rural values. Under his leadership the style of Dublin politics will certainly change.
Unlike his jovial and easy-going predecessor and mentor Bertie Ahern, the new leader is a more serious man who does not suffer fools gladly. Even though he is known for a good sense of humour, he keeps that for more private moments and is a tough man in the corridors of power.

Having not won an election and taking over the ship of state in midstream, he will have to show to the
Dáil and to the whole country that he has the right qualities to lead the government and the country. Only time will tell.

Analysing Cowen's career so far, it is clear that he is a true green party animal, probably even a lot more so than his predecessor, who united Fianna Fáil after the quarrelsome years under the leadership of Haughey and Reynolds. There seem to be two basic camps when it comes to Brian Cowen: those who think he is a 'Biffo' (big ignorant f..... from Offaly), and those who see him - like Dick Roche - as "the biggest brain in
Fianna Fáil".

Well, for Dick Roche almost anyone must seem as intellectually superior, and personally I believe that the brightest mind in contemporary FF belongs to the often overlooked Dr. Martin Mansergh, now a TD for Tipperary and previously a diplomat, special adviser to Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and a Senator. But there is a lot of truth in the rumours of Brian Cowen's intellectual capacity. In his years as Minister for Foreign Affairs hard work and persistence won him a lot of respect from foreign politicians and officials, especially inside the EU. During a major conference in Dublin - at the time when Ireland last had the EU presidency - I remember a very senior European political figure referring to Brian Cowen as "the fellow who looks like cider, but is really champagne".

Cowen's first cabinet is almost the same as Bertie Ahern's last, which indicates his preference for the devil you know.
Promoting Mary Coughlan (right) - the youngest woman in cabinet - to be his Tánaiste did surprise quite a lot of people, myself included. But since she is not in charge of one of the three senior departments - Finance, Justice and Foreign Affairs - it is questionable if this really means that she would be in serious contention for Cowen's succession, whenever that will become relevant. It is more likely that it is a shrewd move to please feminists, a populist media culture and the "politically correct".

As Mary Coughlan comes from Co. Donegal, it is also strengthening rural Ireland's representation in the cabinet further.
To compensate for that, Cowen appointed Brian Lenihan (left) as the new Minister for Finance, less than a year after he joined the cabinet as Minister for Justice.
By moving Dermot Ahern from Foreign Affairs to Justice and replacing him with Micheál Martin, whose portfolio of Trade and Enterprise is now held by Mary Coughlan, Cowen has left the question of succession wide open, with at least four possible and acceptable candidates in waiting. However, as Cowen is only 48 and seems to be in good health, this could well be a very long wait.

There were some other changes to the cabinet, but I will analyse them in detail after the new junior ministers are announced later today. I will provide you with a complete review of the new Cowen administration. Until then I hope you are enjoying the sunshine and make the best of life in a country that had it so good for a dozen years and managed to squander most of that wealth. Now a period of difficult years lies ahead, and one can only hope that the new Taoiseach is as strong and determined as his physique suggests.

The Emerald Islander

12 May 2008

Another foreign Problem Ship docks in Cork

Another foreign cargo vessel with unacceptable conditions aboard has been found in an Irish port. The ship, which arrived at Ringaskiddy ferryport of Cork harbour Saturday morning, is the Lady Chiara, a 16,282 tonne tanker registered in Liberia, which makes her a ship under a 'flag of convenience' (and that often means trouble and the absence of proper rules). After an inspection the International Transport Federation (ITF) has described conditions aboard as "appalling".

The ITF inspector in Ireland, Ken Fleming (right, with Filipino crew members of the Lady Chiara), went aboard with SIPTU officials from Cork and said that there was insufficient food for the Filipino crew. The situation was in fact so dire that the union had to take crew members off the ship and provide them with a meal in a local restaurant.
The ITF inspector has called on the Department of the Marine port control authorities to inspect the ship. Ken Fleming said the Filipino seafarers had not been provided with adequate food for a fortnight, but the officers seemed to be looking quite well after themselves.

Port workers in Cork have agreed to discharge the ship's cargo of molasses (a cane sugar product, used in Ireland predominantly to feed animals), provided that the crew is properly provisioned and that wage and payment problems aboard are resolved.

However, the cargo itself has also raised some eyebrows in maritime circles. According to her registration papers the Lady Chiara is classified as a "tanker for chemicals and oil", and not as a transporter of any food stuffs. That alone calls for an extra inspection, especially with regards to food safety standards and general hygiene.

The 170-metre-long vessel, which was built in 1986 by Odense Staalskibsværft A/S in Denmark, is managed by Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement (Cyprus) Company Ltd., based in Cyprus (another of the 'flag of convenience' countries).
Her apparent owners are Amju International Tanker Ltd. of Monrovia, the capital and main port of Liberia. But there was some speculation in Cork over the correct ownership of the vessel.

Less than three weeks ago Ken Fleming settled the problems of another foreign cargo ship held in Cork, the Latvian-owned MV Defender, sailing under the flag (of convenience) of Cambodia. (for details of that case see my entry from April 22nd) And as things are in international shipping, we should expect more of the same in the future. Sadly greed rules many of the shipping businesses, and most national governments are still not willing to regulate the conditions for working at sea. So it is down to the commendable efforts of the ITF and men like Ken Fleming to fight for fair working conditions on the world's oceans.

The Emerald Islander

Angry Hospital Protest in Waterford

A group of angry protesters gathered this morning outside the gates of Waterford Regional Hospital. The peaceful protest was being held in frustration over the long waiting lists many of the patients experience at this hospital.

The father of an 11-year-old girl, who was among the protesters, said that his daughter has now already been waiting for more than two-and-a-half years to get her tonsils removed. This is not a particularly difficult or unusual operation. It is done many times every day without fuss in most European countries. (I remember very well to have had the operation in Germany, more than 40 years ago, when I was a child myself. It was all over in a few days and I never had any problems with my throat since.)

The 11-year-old Waterford girl is currently in the hospital, where she receives treatment for severe tonsillitis, which could be relieved if her tonsils were removed. She has asked for Mary Harney, Minister for Health and Children (right) to come to her bedside and explain to her why she must wait another possible two to three years to have her operation.
Sadly Mary Harney will not oblige, as she is too busy ruining the Irish Health Service even further and opening a whole string of private hospitals at the same time.

Today's local protest in Waterford is only the latest in a long line of public demonstrations against the HSE and a completely incompetent and cynical minister, who was unfortunately kept in her position when the new Taoiseach Brian Cowen announced his first cabinet.
Recently there have been even larger demonstrations of angry patients and disappointed doctors and nurses in
Portlaoise, Sligo, Castlebar and - on March 29th - the protest march through Dublin, organised by the Dublin Council of Trade Unions.

One wonders how many more protests and demonstrations it needs to make the government listen and understand, and the Health Service Executive (HSE) do what they were created for:
to act in the interest of Ireland's sick people.

The Emerald Islander

A personal Note of Apology

Regular readers of this weblog will have noticed that there have not been any entries over the past several days. I like to apologise for my temporary absence, which was beyond my control. Unfortunately I have experienced some physical problems and needed medical attention for a few days. Due to that I was not able to post any entries in that time.

I am glad to report that my physical condition has improved now, so I will be able to continue the work here with at least one entry a day.
And since I was not able to comment on various important Irish events that happened during my illness, I will cover them over the next days (even with a slight delay).

Thank you to all who sent me messages and good wishes. They are most appreciated.

The Emerald Islander

Light Aircraft crashed in Co. Mayo

A small private aeroplane has crashed in County Mayo yesterday evening.
The single-engine Beech 77 with two men on board came down in a field in Kilmovee, Co. Mayo.
One man was pronounced dead at the scene. Gardaí have named him as Markus Casey from Salthill, Co. Galway. The second man on board was seriously injured and has been taken to Mayo General Hospital in Castlebar.

The two-seater light aircraft had earlier left Ireland West Airport at Knock and was bound for Weston Airport in Dublin. Shortly after take-off the pilot then tried to turn back and make an emergency landing at Knock, but failed to reach the airport.

Preliminary investigations suggest that the aircraft suffered a technical failure. The wreckage of the plane is being removed to Gormanstown, Co. Meath for a more detailed examination by the Air Accident Investigation Unit.

The Emerald Islander

06 May 2008

Bertie Ahern resigns as Taoiseach

Early this evening Bertie Ahern has formally tendered his resignation as Taoiseach to President Mary McAleese at Áras an Uachtaráin (the President's official residence in the Phoenix Park).

After opening the refurbished visitors' centre at Oldbridge - the site of the 1690 Battle of the Boyne - this morning together with the North's First Minister Ian Paisley and creating a remarkable closing ceremony for his era (see my entry from earlier today), Mr. Ahern had spent the afternoon clearing his desk and bidding a final farewell to his staff in Government Buildings, where some senior members of his team will be stepping down with him.

He arrived at Áras an Uachtaráin just after 6 p.m. (shortly after the last sound of the Angelus bell) to formally tell the President of his intention to resign as the country's political leader. He had announced his intention to do so already in public on April 2nd (one day after I suggested on this weblog that it was the only sensible option left to him).

Patrick Bartholomew "Bertie" Ahern, TD - originally an accountant from the working-class "North Side" of Dublin - was the 10th Prime Minister of the Republic of Ireland and leader of the majority government party Fianna Fáil for more than a decade. He won the general elections in 1997, 2002 and 2007 and led coalition governments supported by the Progressive Democrats, several independent TDs and - since last year - also by the Green Party.

Dáil Éireann (the House of Deputies) will meet tomorrow to elect Bertie Ahern's successor. It is almost certain that the current Tánaiste and Minister for Finance, Brian Cowen, will become the next Taoiseach.

The Emerald Islander

There is Peace now at the Boyne

This morning Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and the North's First Minister Ian Paisley have officially opened the re-designed and newly refurbished visitors' centre on the site of the historic Battle of the Boyne in County Meath. Hundreds of invited guests gathered at the Oldbridge Estate for the festive event, which was also the last public appearance of Bertie Ahern as Taoiseach and one of the last official engagements for Ian Paisley as First Minister of Northern Ireland.

Oldbridge in Co. Meath - close to Drogheda in neighbouring Co. Louth - is the location of the main action in the Battle of the Boyne, which took place on July 12th, 1690 (July 1st in the Julian calendar, which was used at the time) between the armies of the recently deposed Catholic King James (VII of Scotland & II of England) and his Protestant son-in-law King William III. Even though the fight was for the throne of England and involved mercenaries from many European countries, it has become one of the most important battles in Irish history.
With 36,000 men in the army of William and 25,000 in the army of James it was also the largest known battle ever to take place on Irish soil.

After the victory of the Williamite forces the battle also changed the life of Irish people, and in particular the Catholic majority, which was subjected to drastic penal laws as well as religious and social discrimination of the worst possible kind for the next 140 years. A century after the event, the battle and its victor became the main inspiration of the sectarian and supremacist Protestant "Orange Order" and have been ever since.

But today there was a new, softer tone between North and South, Protestants and Catholics. It was not only a peaceful gathering, but a highly symbolic one which will be remembered in Ireland for a long time. The 500-acre site in Co. Meath, which borders Co. Louth and was bought by the Irish State in 1999, became the stage for the final act in the northern Peace Process.
After the massive refurbishment, which cost the Irish taxpayers € 10 million, the visitors' centre at Oldbridge House was officially opened by the political leaders of South and North, who also delivered speeches that marked the end of their time in power. And they could not have been more different.

While Bertie Ahern, never the most gifted of orators, kept his speech short and focused mainly on the northern Peace Process, the new friendship between North and South, and the historic implications it all has, Ian Paisley used the occasion for an - unexpected - lengthy history lecture, which ended in a principal political statement that made it clear to everyone that peace has indeed taken over the reigns in all of Ireland, even on the Boyne.

Having observed and analysed Paisley and his political speeches for more than three decades, I would never have expected to hear him say what he stated today. The firebrand preacher cum politician, who was in the olden days dubbed 'Dr. No' and would never, never, never agree to any compromise that involved the Republic, Nationalists or Catholics, has become in his old age a man of peace whose words not only make sense for the first time in 50 years, but are also worth to be remembered. (I hope that someone has the full text of the speech, so everyone can read it eventually.)

Paisley, the panther turned pussy cat, presented Bertie Ahern with a King James edition of the New Testament, which the Taoiseach can certainly use as inspirational reading after he steps down this evening. Then the two leaders used historic swords to cut the ribbon outside the door to the visitors' centre (pictured above - notice the New Testament in Bertie's right breast pocket).
Both were then given a guided tour around the building, the walled garden and the extensive battlefield site on a bright and sunny Irish May day. There were hundreds of invited guests, mostly from the political parties of the two entities, and they included all the main players of the long and difficult process, people who were working hard for peace in the North at a time when all Ian Paisley was contributing were the words "No!" and "Never!". So it is a bit ironic and was taken not without cynicism by some that it is now Paisley, the biggest and most persistent blocker of progress, who is hailed as the new prince of peace.

In support of their leader there were official delegations of the "Orange Order", various loyalist lodges and the "Apprentice Boys" from Derry. Not a very common line-up in the Republic...
But then again, today was a special day, and they were only one of many deputations. In fact, if one would not know them, they would have just blended into the colourful mix of various groups of re-enactment teams, dressed in 17th century uniforms of the regiments participating in the battle.
There was even a contingent of French soldiers - just as in 1690 and wearing the same uniform - in commemoration of the 6,500 troops King Louis XIV of France had sent King James. But for James it was too little too late, and he had really no chance to win.
So he left eventually the battlefield and traveled south to Waterford, where he stood for a while on the roof of Reginald's Tower, for a last look over his kingdom. Then he boarded a ship in the port and sailed for France, never to return to either Ireland or England.

Today also marks a departure - that of Bertie Ahern - and we are not yet sure if he will try a come-back at a later time. In his very remarkable speech Ian Paisley nominated him publicly for the position of President. But astute as the old Belfast fox is, he did not specify if he was talking of Bertie as a possible successor to President Mary McAleese, or if he wants to see him as the new permanent President of the EU (a post that would be created under the Lisbon Treaty). Both is of course a possibility, even though not a desirable one.

The Office of Public Works (OPW), which - among other things - is responsible for the national monuments and historical sites of Ireland, had a happy day today, too. Everything went well, as smoothly as they had planned it. (As a former employee of that office I know how important and difficult it is to get big events right...) With their new settings and attractions the Battle of the Boyne site at Oldbridge hopes to triple their number of visitors in the future. Last years only about 30,000 people came to see the historic battlefield, an average of 82 a day.

The Emerald Islander

TEEU and CPSU take opposite Views on Lisbon

Two of Ireland's largest trade unions have announced their official positions on the Lisbon Treaty, where they support opposite sides of the argument and advise their member to vote accordingly.
The Technical Engineering and Electrical Union (TEEU) has said it is advising members to vote 'No', while the Civil and Public Service Union (CPSU) has said it will be calling for a 'Yes' vote.

The national executive of the TEEU, which is the country's largest craft union, has joined the 'No' camp and advises its 45,000 members to reject the Lisbon Treaty on June 12th.
It says it favours a social Europe, but points out that recent key judgments by the European Court of Justice show that the pendulum has swung clearly against workers' rights and in favour of big business.

The CPSU, which has about 13,000 members, has said it will be calling for a 'Yes' vote.
This is not such a surprise, as most members of the CPSU are employees of government departments and state agencies, and as such not entirely free and objective in their views on a treaty that is so heavily promoted by the government they serve.

Of course the official advise of the trade unions is not binding for their members, and everyone is free to vote according to their own views and decision.

The UNITE trade union (formerly called ATGWU) has already declared its opposition to the Lisbon Treaty some time ago, predominantly on the same grounds as the TEEU, and joined the 'No' campaign.
And while SIPTU is still weighing the pros and cons of the treaty internally, many SIPTU members - including local organisers and shop stewards - are already actively campaigning against the acceptance of the Lisbon Treaty.

The two recent judgments in the European Court, based on the new positions the Lisbon Treaty has created, are indeed alarming for workers in Ireland and all over Europe, as well as for trade unions.
As a spokesman of the Swedish trade union council put it quite clearly after the first judgment: "A few more decisions like this, and the European trade union movement will be dead and workers' rights will be the playing ball of big industry."

The Emerald Islander