28 July 2008

Reflections on the Weekend...

Having been away once more and thus unable to post entries on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, let me reflect briefly on the events that caught my attention and need a few words of comment.

Unbelievable Rise of Gas Prices

After the Electrical Supply Board (ESB), Ireland's largest supplier of electricity, announced a rise of consumer prices by 17.5% for August (see my entry from July 22nd), households and small businesses are now also facing a 20% increase in gas prices this autumn.
The 'Energy Regulator' has given the country's largest gas company Bord Gáis permission to increase their prices by one fifth from September 1st. Together with the rise of electricity prices this is an unbelievable act of daylight robbery, committed against a large number of Irish people and sanctioned quite happily by the government agency that is supposed to control the industry.

The Commission for Energy Regulation, as it is officially called, has also warned that a further increase of energy prices will be needed in January 2009, due to the sharp rise in gas prices on international markets over the past year. The regulator says that Ireland imports 90% of its gas from the UK, where the wholesale price has almost doubled in the past twelve months. The two price rises are apparently "an attempt to cushion the immediate consequences for customers".

How cynical is such a statement, at a time when prices for almost everything are spinning out of control and large companies squeeze consumers more and more, while incomes for ordinary working people are not rising in equal measure and many people are losing their jobs due to the onset of recession in Ireland.

The Society of St. Vincent de Paul says it is "very concerned at the price increase, which will impact hardest on the most vulnerable". As usual the poorest are ripped off by large and weathy companies, whose profits have risen steadily and are passed on to their shareholders, many of which are not Irish.
The society expressed the hope that Bord Gáis will not include the Standing Charge in their price increase. It also called on the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Mary Hanafin, to tackle the issue of fuel poverty among those depending on social welfare payments.

Meanwhile Age Action has called on the government and the energy providers to "take steps to ensure that vulnerable older people are protected from rising fuel costs".
"This increase along with the recent increases in the cost of oil and electricity leaves many older people praying for a mild winter. They know if the winter is hash they will suffer", said Eamon Timmins of Age Action.

As things stand now, it is time for the government to consider active price controls for energy as well as the most basic and common food items. Otherwise we are running the risk to create in a very short time a large class of poverty-stricken people who are no longer able to afford the most basic items needed to survive and live a decent life. Apart from immense hardship this would cause for many, it would also inevitably lead to a rise in crime and disorder and all gains we have made during the 'Celtic Tiger' boom could disappear into thin air in a very short time.

The annual Climbing of Croagh Patrick

Yesterday, on Reek Sunday - the last Sunday in July - more than 25,000 Catholic pilgrims assembled in County Mayo for the annual mass climbing of Croagh Patrick, Ireland's 'holy mountain', which is situated 8 km from Westport.
Despite the drastic decline of the Catholic Church in Ireland, this traditional spectacle, which has its origins in the dark ages, still attracts large numbers of believers, and a good number of them climb the 764 metre high rocky mountain barefoot "to atone for their sins".

Under the leadership of the Catholic Archbishop of Tuam, Michael Neary, eleven Masses were celebrated on the mountain during the day, and hundreds of members of ambulance corps and mountain rescue teams were in attendance to look after people who suffered from exhaustion or injured themselves on the climb.
Thanks to their efforts there have not been any deaths for some years during the event, but in the past numerous people died during the irresponsible religious mass hysteria.

Irishman sentenced in Greece for starting a Brush Fire

Meanwhile a court on the Greek island of Crete has sentenced a 20-year-old Irishman to a suspended sentence of three months in prison for starting a fire by negligence.

The unnamed Irish tourist burned 500 square miles of brush and olive trees in Hersonissos, in the east of the island, on Friday by setting dry brush alight, the local fire department said. He was arrested by firemen soon afterwards.

Hundreds of fires have broken out in Greece this summer, many of them due to negligence and assisted by dry weather conditions. And often tourists, who don't know the country and have no understanding of the local conditions who are responsible.

Last year devastating forest fires left 77 people dead and burned 270,000 hectares of forest and agricultural land in Greece.

The Emerald Islander

24 July 2008

The Blue & Limes strike again

The war between the international oil and gas company Shell and the people of northern Mayo continues steadily, even though most of Ireland's media seem to have lost interest.

At about 8 o'clock this morning more than 40 Gardaí (Irish policemen), who are now stationed inside the Shell compound in northern Mayo, and 70 uniformed thugs of Shell's specialist 'security' unit forced members of the local community from a section of Glengad Beach, so that Shell could erect 10 feet high fencing about 40 feet down onto the beach.

Using the Public Order Act, Garda Superintendent John Gilligan ordered the about 30 assembled people to leave the area. Then Gardaí forcibly removed some of the protesters.

Members of the local community had been gathering on the beach from before 4 a.m., because they feared that Shell would begin work early, as they had done the previous morning, when they tore down the cliff-face to create a causeway down to the beach.

Yesterday there was only Shell 'security' personnel present, which prevented the locals from walking on sections of their public beach. But today the tormented residents experienced a joint Shell & Garda operation. It was very evident who was in charge, as Shell managers told Gardaí where to stand and what to do. And the senior Gardaí were liaising closely with the leaders of the Shell 'security' force.

It all started with one of the most surreal spectacles ever seen in County Mayo: Over a hundred Shell 'security' men and Gardaí - all clad in dark blue and wearing lime-yellow high visibility vests - marched down the causeway in mixed order and streamed out of a narrow gate in the fencing.
Then they formed a cordon around the area where they were planning to put up the fencing. That done, the Gardaí came forward and forcibly removed the people who were caught inside the 'security' ring.

There was little the group of around 30 protesters could do but stand and watch as the fencing was erected down to the water’s edge. It is presumed that Shell will seek to extend the fencing further. But however far it extends, it already cuts the beach in two, which of course means that beach goers do no longer have their right of way through the public beach.

Shell to Sea campaigner Terence Conway said: "The Gardaí have always spoken about keeping the roads open for the public and Shell alike. However, today they are willing to close off a public beach, so that Shell can fence it off".

The legality of the consents given is still an issue of major concern to the people of County Mayo, as it is still unclear what permissions Shell have received and for what exact work.

While Minister for Energy Eamon Ryan (Green Party, right) has claimed that it was "just an oversight" that the latest authorisations for the project were not published (as they should have been), this clouding of what consents have been granted has been a characteristic of the whole Corrib Gas Project right from the start.

Twelve residents, who had staged a peaceful protest to question the authorisations, were arrested by Gardaí on Tuesday, but later released without charge.

P. J. Moran, one of the twelve, said he would "never have participated in the protest" if he had known about the authorisations.

Dr. Mark Garavan, former spokesman for the Rossport Five, was also critical of the dearth of information.
"All information should be made clear, and the fact that this work on Glengad relates to consents originally approved before the 2003 Pollathomas landslide also needs to be questioned," he said.

Andy Wilson of the Mayo branch of the Green Party said the work at Glengad in advance of approval for the pipeline made "a complete mockery" of the planning process.
Speaking in a personal capacity, he called on Minister Ryan to support the recommendations of the recent Green Party national council motion, which called for the establishment of an independent review body to examine alternative refinery sites in northern Mayo.

Pobal Chill Chomáin, a local community group, has called on the two Green Party Ministers (John Gormley and Eamon Ryan) to "cease all civil engineering works by Shell E&P Ireland in the Pollathomas and Glengad area until a rigorous geological survey and examination is conducted".

On its website the Green Party claims that it stands for "open government" and "more decision-making at community level". But the reality is quite different and the Green Ministers' contribution is abysmal. They are accomplices to the attempts of hiding information from the affected community, and they are not listening and respecting the local opposition to the project. It seems that the Departments of Environment and Energy - both headed by a Minister from the Green Party - only give out information to journalists and ignore any other requests for information, especially if they come from the local residents of the effected area.

Shell is now attempting to construct the first 200 metres of the onshore section of the gas pipeline, without going through planning permission at all. Although the remaining 9.2 km of the onshore pipeline is presently before An Bord Pleanala (Ireland's national planning authority), this first 200 metres are due to be laid already, before a decision on the rest of the onshore section has been made.

"The fact is that this first onshore section is the most dangerous part of the whole project," says Terence Conway. "The pressure could be as high as 345 bar, and still it will not have gone through any planning process if it is constructed."

Further destruction of the Special Area of Conservation (SAC) has continued unabated, even under the eyes of the National Parks & Wildlife ranger, who monitored the local sand martin colony from inside the Shell compound yesterday. (Sand martins are a protected bird species, nesting in the area.)

It is also significant that RTE news bulletins and reports of the ongoing conflict between Shell and the residents of northern Mayo are distorted and fail to mention the regular intimidation of the local people by Shell 'security' personnel and Gardaí.
However, some RTE programmes, such as "Today with Pat Kenny" (currently presented by Miles Dungan) did highlight aspects of the intimidation. The repeated filming of local people - including children - who were walking on the beach or swimming in the sea by Shell 'security' personnel was discussed and publicly condemned on the programme only a few days ago.

A Shell spokesman, trying to downplay these clearly illegal incidents, was neither convincing nor believable and one has to ask what kind of people are willing to distort the truth in public as long as they are paid well enough by Shell...

County Mayo was the scene of the first boycott (against the cruel land agent Capt. Boycott), and ever since the word is used in the way we know it now. Perhaps it is time for the people of Mayo to think of this option again. After all, the employees of Shell and the hired 'security' thugs have to live, eat and shop somewhere and are surely known by now to the local community...

There is another reminiscence from the past that comes to my mind when I look at the pictures of this morning's spectacle and listen to the reports of the Mayo people.
Ninety years ago large groups of hired thugs were brought into Ireland by Winston Churchill, in order to intimidate, harass and torment the native population. Wearing mixed outfits, cobbled together from brown items of the British Army field garb and the dark uniform of the Royal Irish Constabulary, their strange appearance gave them the name "Black & Tans".

Today's hired thugs, sent into Mayo to intimidate the local people, wear lime-yellow vests over dark blue outfits, which looks even more ridiculous than the uniform of the "Black & Tans". They might not (yet) be as ruthless and brutal as the feared British thugs were ninety years ago, but for me they have clearly inherited their dishonest mantle and tradition. Officially they are called 'security guards', but as they neither provide or enhance security, nor have the status of guards, I think we should call them the "Blue & Limes" and treat them with the same disgust that our ancestors had for the "Black & Tans".

The Emerald Islander

Bus Route Dispute brought to the High Court

Some people must have too much time, too much money, or both. And lawyers grow rich and fat on such people.

Today Swords Express, a private bus company, has begun proceedings in the High Court in Dublin against the Minister for Transport over what it says was "a decision allowing unfair competition".
According to the claim, "the Dept. of Transport allowed Dublin Bus [the capital's municipal bus operator] to change one of its routes to compete with the private Swords Express service".

So what? Competition is a good thing and the yeast of the economy. The more, the better, as long as it is fair for everyone. Why should a specific bus route be given exclusively to one private operator?

The company claims it is being "put out of business" because of the competition, which affects a route from Swords (in the north of Co. Dublin) to the city centre, using the Port Tunnel.
Swords Express seeks a judicial review in the High Court and says that it cannot compete with a state-subsidised service, as it is provided by Dublin Bus.

Well, again I have to ask - so what? If Dublin Bus can do it better and cheaper, then let them do it. We don't have enough public transport routes in Ireland as it is, so we should be grateful for everyone that does exist.

But there is another point I don't understand in the argument of Swords Express. They must be the only private bus company in the country that cannot take on a state-subsidised competitor. Around here we have plenty of bus routes, operated by the also state-subsidised Bus Eireann. But nevertheless there are several private bus companies in business, giving Bus Eireann a good run for their money.

In Waterford City a private bus service operates parallel to Bus Eireann, and the same private company also provides a route to Dublin. And guess what?
The private company runs a lot more services to and from Dublin than Bus Eireann, even during the night, when the state-company sleeps. And the private company's fare is cheaper than the state-subsidised fare of Bus Eireann!

Not knowing the local details, I am not sure what Swords Express is doing wrong. Maybe their directors should come done south for a day or two and see how it is done here.
There is a solution for every problem. But in my opinion and experience courts are very rarely it. They do their own things, and the main one is to provide the exceptionally high income of the legal profession.

The Emerald Islander

23 July 2008

When Emer met Emer Jane

A rather bizarre incident has been reported from the Irish coast and is now making the round in the local fishing and seafaring community in our area. Yesterday at around 12 noon the L.É. Emer (photo below), one of eight patrol vessels operated by the Irish Naval Service, approached and stopped the local fishing boat Emer Jane (the strange similarity of both names is a pure coincidence) off Hook Head in Co. Wexford, a few dozen miles from here.

L.É. Emer sent a boarding party across to her almost namesake, with orders to inspect the vessel and check for 'illegal catches'. The naval personnel discovered an amount of about 200 scallops on the deck of the Emer Jane, which the vessel had obtained as so-called 'by-catch', which is fish that is found in the nets even though a different species had been fished for.
According to current EU regulations, 'by-catches' are supposed to be thrown back overboard and not used for commercial purposes. Most 'by-caught' fish is dead by the time it is discovered in the nets. If sold, it could do some good, feeding people and keeping fishermen alive. But throwing dead fish back into the water helps no-one and does no good at all.
Whoever came up with such a totally senseless and impractical rule should be shipped out on a vessel and thrown overboard himself!

The Captain of the L.É. Emer ordered the Emer Jane to proceed under escort to the fishing port of Dunmore East in Co. Waterford, just a few miles down river from where I am now. The skipper of the Irish-owned vessel refused to follow these orders and set instead course for his home port Kilmore Quay in Co. Wexford, telling the L.É. Emer over ship-to-ship radio that they "could arrest him there" if they so wished.
Not certain what the fisherman's intention were, and concerned for the safety of his men, the CO of the L.É. Emer ordered his boarding party off the Emer Jane and let her sail on to Kilmore Quay. So - the way it looked at the moment is: L.É. Emer 0 - Emer Jane 1.

But this was not the end of it, although from now on the sequence of events is disputed between the crews of both vessels. The skipper of the Emer Jane claims that he was threatened by the naval vessel, which was apparently prepared to fire warning shots across her bow.
The crew of the L.É. Emer denies that, and Lieutenant Commander Terry Ward, spokesman for the Naval Service, stated categorically that no order to open fire was given by the CO of L.É. Emer. (Please keep in mind that all this is still about nothing more than a couple of boxes of Scallop...)

But this minor and for the world, Europe and even Ireland unimportant incident highlights a much larger and really serious problem. Our own Naval Service, as small as it is, has the purpose to defend the country in case of any attack from the sea, and to protect Irish interests in all coastal waters and anywhere else at sea. And it does usually a very good and professional job.

It should never be the purpose of the Naval Service to threaten the livelihood of our fishermen and to harass them at sea with silly inspections and the narrow interpretation of senseless EU rules. Nevertheless, the ever and ever more bureaucratic and inhumane way EU laws and regulations are formulated, interpreted and enforced makes a mockery of the idea of a free Ireland as part of a Europe of the Fatherlands, with space for everyone, his culture, lifestyle and existence.

Tensions within the Irish fishing community remain high, due to concerns over fuel prices and the continuing uncertainty over possible emergency aid from Brussels. A protest, organised by Munster MEP Kathy Sinnott (Independent) to mark the visit of French President Nicolas Sarkozy to Dublin, involved a number of the most seriously effected fishing families.
They handed out free fish to Dubliners on O'Connell Bridge, thus making themselves seen and heard to the usually indifferent general public of the capital and the political leaders of both Ireland and France.

The Federation of Irish Fishermen (FIF), which was not part of the protest, made instead a submission to Monsieur Sarkozy in which it called for "root and branch reform" of the EU's Common Fisheries Policy.

FIF chairman Gerard O'Flynn told the French President that despite the extensive benefits to the Irish economy from EU membership, these "did not extend to the fishing industry".
Recent significant increases in fuel costs had "brought the Irish fleet to the brink of ruin", he said.

As I am writing this, there is an angry and defiant mood in the local fishing community. Normally the relationship between Irish fishermen and the nation's maritime defence arm is quite good and friendly. But if any naval vessel would enter the port of Kilmore Quay tonight, it might not receive a very warm welcome there.
Fishermen say that the constantly rising cost of fuel makes it ever harder for them to earn a living, and they also complain that the Irish Naval Service apparently controls and inspects their boats more often and more thoroughly than French, Spanish and other foreign vessels fishing in Irish waters. If this is indeed the case, it is very hard to understand and does not make sense. If the Naval Service is to control our waters and to police the fishing activities under EU rules, the same law and regulations should apply to everyone, and in equal measures.

Once again the ignorance of our government and its lack of interest in vital elements of our rural society and economy creates problems where there should be none.
Abolishing the long-established and traditional Department of the Marine after the last general election was a major mistake. Things became even worse by handing its portfolio over to the Department of Transport under the landlubber Noel Dempsey, who comes from the southwest of county Meath and has no sense for anything maritime.

And with regards to the Defence Forces (including the Naval Service) it would help if they were to have a decent minister in charge of their department.
One still wonders if it was a practical joke by Bertie Ahern or the former Taoiseach's plain incompetence in all matters military that led to the appointment of the political comedian and Fianna Fáil hyper-loyalist Willie O'Dea to the post of Minister for Defence.

When things are going wrong, a fish begins to smell from the head downwards. Not only the Irish fishermen know what this piece of wisdom means...

The Emerald Islander

22 July 2008

The Biffo & Sarko Show in Dublin

Originally scheduled already for July 11th, a brief official visit of French President Nicolas Sarkozy (left) to Dublin took place yesterday. In contrast to a state visit, where Sarkozy would come as the French head of state and then be primarily the guest of our President Mary McAleese, this was a short working visit, a political fact-finding mission of the current EU President in the aftermath of Ireland's rejection of the Lisbon Treaty.
So the host was Taoiseach Brian Cowen, who welcomed Nicolas Sarkozy at Government Buildings in Dublin for a conference with selected ministers of his own cabinet. Later Nicolas Sarkozy also met the leaders of the two main opposition parties, Enda Kenny of Fine Gael and Eamon Gilmore of the Labour Party. Despite the fact that both politicians and their parties supported the Lisbon Treaty, they had over the weekend contemplated to snub the French leader, as it was originally planned to give them only a few minutes each with Nicolas Sarkozy.
After a re-arrangement of the time table both were then quite happy to attend the scheduled meeting at Government Buildings.

Even before Sarkozy's arrival in our capital, the visit was overshadowed by various remarks the French President was supposed to have made - though not officially in public - in recent days in Paris. He was alleged to have said that Ireland would have to vote again, which caused a stir and some resentment within the Irish population and especially in the victorious Irish NO camp.

On the other hand, there was an unexpected step forward by Nicolas Sarkozy, who expressed a specific wish to meet not only the leaders of Ireland's largest political parties, who had all been calling for a YES vote in the defeated referendum, but also selected representatives of the Irish NO campaign. As the most significant exponents of the various groups that opposed the Lisbon Treaty, Declan Ganley of the think tank Libertas, former Green Party MEP Patricia McKenna of the People's Alliance, and Richard Boyd Barrett of the People before Profit movement had the opportunity to put their views directly to Nicolas Sarkozy.

It was quite significant that this meeting took place in the French embassy, and thus under strict diplomatic terms on French territory, where Nicolas Sarkozy and not Brian Cowen was the host. Whatever one might think about the French, they are still the masters of diplomacy, whose rules and regulations they developed and shaped way back in the 18th and 19th century.
Besides the three main leaders of the NO campaign, a number of other representatives from the NO camp were present as well. And I have to say that I was rather impressed by the energetic, open and friendly attitude of Nicolas Sarkozy. This was not the French bogeyman, whose mind was set on forcing the Irish into another unpopular vote. Sarkozy came across as a statesman who was willing to listen and learn why Ireland had rejected the Lisbon Treaty.

Even though he did not change his mind visibly and openly there and then in Dublin, there were moments when one could see clearly that he was thinking while listening to the arguments.
It is unlikely that in the remaining five months of the French EU presidency a solution can be found, and even more unlikely that there will be another referendum in Ireland on the Lisbon Treaty. Certainly not before the next elections to the European Parliament, due in a year's time.

In my opinion the most likely offer that might come from Nicolas Sarkozy and the EU is a change to the idea of reducing the size of the EU Commission, which would leave one commissioner from each member state in place as it is now. If this is indeed offered, the whole of Europe will have to thank the Irish voters for preserving everyone's permanent representation in the highest and most powerful organ of the EU structure.
There might also be a new and more acceptable formula for the voting system in the EU Council.

After all the official talks were over, the joint news conference of President Nicolas Sarkozy and Taoiseach Brian Cowen at Government Buildings turned into a deliberately happy demonstration of Franco-Irish friendship and unity. The event was the first episode of a tightly stage-managed "Biffo & Sarko Show", with some elements of the well-remembered "two Ronnies" coming to mind. I am sure there will be more of the same in the future, as both politicians have no choice but to respect each other - as well as the will of the voters - and work together if they want to bring the current stalemate in the EU to an end without offending the people of Ireland and Europe any further.
Sarkozy said that there was "no magic wand available to resolve the Lisbon impasse". He also denied saying that Ireland should hold a second referendum on the treaty. This was important to clarify, and it seems that the French President has now formally and officially accepted what the leaders of the NO campaign told him: After Ireland's NO vote the Lisbon Treaty is dead.

This is also in line with a statement by Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams, who said that "there can be no re-run of the Lisbon Treaty Referendum" and a new deal must be negotiated. Sinn Féin was the only party represented in Dáil Éireann to support the NO campaign, a fact that will not be forgotten by Ireland's voters in coming elections.

Despite being a very short visit that lasted only a few hours, the element of security was very high. Both Irish Gardai and a significant contingent of French security personnel were deployed in quite unusual strength for what was after all only a brief working visit in the capital of a friendly country. It was obvious that the Irish government was not taking any risks, and that French officials had probably overestimated the anger of the Irish people.
There were several demonstrations in Dublin yesterday, both in favour of Nicolas Sarkozy and against him and the EU.

The Irish Farmers' Association (IFA), which had earlier this year filled the streets of Dublin with more than ten thousand angry demonstrators against the WTO talks and decided to support the Lisbon Treaty after all very late in the campaign, was all pro-EU again. As a clear sign of their support for Nicolas Sarkozy they brought a number of tractors - painted in the blue, white and red colours of the French flag - into Dublin's inner city. (No great surprise here, as no-one received and still receives more money and support from the EU than Irish farmers...)

On the other hand, more than 200 fishermen, many of them from Ireland's southern coastlands, were protesting against the ever more restrictive EU regulations for their industry. Highlighting their plight in a peaceful way, they handed out free fish to passers-by on O'Connell Bridge, right in the very centre of Dublin.

A third, and by far the largest demonstration was organised by the Campaign against the EU Constitution (CATEC) on Dublin's Kildare Street, right outside of the Government Buildings.
CATEC, which was very active in the NO campaign, is made up of 15 different groups and organisations, including the Socialist Party and the Peace and Neutrality Alliance. In a news conference their leaders made the clear statement that after rejections by the voters of France, the Netherlands and Ireland the treaty is dead. They said CATEC would "not accept any deals or buy-offs to revive it".

The CATEC demonstration was joined by people from all parts of Ireland who travelled for the day to Dublin to make their point heard and seen by Nicolas Sarkozy and our own politicians. One of the more angry protesters shortened his lunch by throwing two eggs in the direction of Nicolas Sarkozy. Even though he missed the French President, he was immediately lead away by Gardai. But this was the only real "incident" in an otherwise peaceful and well-organised demonstration.

An old friend of mine, Kermit (the frog), who wrote for many years a regular column in Centre Focus, a magazine published by the Council of Trade Unions in Cork, decided to make his point even more visible than most. Dressed appropriately he joined the demonstration and told Nicolas Sarkozy in his usual and poignant way where to go. Despite the well-known French practice of eating frogs' legs, no harm was done to him and while Nicolas Sarkozy returned with deep thoughts to Paris, Kermit is now happily back at the Lough in Cork, where he lives.

And after a long and eventful day (at whose end I was frankly too tired to write this entry right away) I am home again, too. Waterford, for long spells of this 'summer' covered with grey clouds and rather cool, wet and windy, welcomed me with bright and unexpected sunshine. Maybe this is a little omen, a sign that after all the darkness that the Lisbon Treaty was threatening us with, there is new hope on the horizon. For that one has to thank the Irish people, and this we cannot do often enough. However, the struggle for the retention of proper democracy in the EU is far from over. The referendum of June 12th was only the first of many battles. The victory we achieved was great and welcome, but it should not make us complacent. It should wake us up and make us ready for more. Only with good preparation and by keeping up the right spirit will we succeed and keep Europe the homeland of Democracy, the great gift ancient Athens gave to the world.

The Emerald Islander

Looking back over the past few Days...

No, I did not get lost at Dublin Airport, after I wrote so openly about its problems and enormous mismanagement. In fact, I rarely go near the place, and when, then only to collect someone who is still submitting to the ridiculous regime of present-day air travel.

But those who follow developments here and read my weblog regularly will have noticed another dry spell of eleven days without a word from me. I am sorry about that, but even I can only be in one place at one time and do one thing at a time. A rather important project with a very short and tight deadline took all my attention, energy, time and inspiration. And in the wee small hours of each night, when I put down work for a few short hours of sleep, there was sadly no time and brain power left to make an entry here.

When I started this weblog, back on January 1st, I made a commitment to write at least one piece each day. And most days I have fulfilled this task. Many days I write more than one entry, and thus there are still more entries here than have been days in this year so far. Which means that I do not have any bad feelings as such.
But I do know that there are regular readers - some of them quite well known to me by now - who are not happy when there is a pause in the flow of my thoughts and comments here. I very much appreciate their - and indeed everyone's - interest and so try to post at least once a day.
However, as this is an entirely voluntary and unpaid undertaking, it has at times to stand aside when my work as consultant and analyst reaches an amount far greater than any man could manage alone. Strangely enough, I somehow do it nevertheless from time to time...

Well, the past eleven days have not been without events worth mentioning and commenting on, but I cannot catch up with everything, of course. So below I will - in a kind of summary - look at some of the events from the very recent past.

Outrageous Rise of Electricity Prices

As if things were not already bad enough and prices for everything in Ireland rising faster than one can look, the Irish people will be hit even further with a massive rise in electricity prices, which will come into effect next month.
A state agency called 'The Energy Regulator' - one of many such offices on the mezzanine level between government departments and the real world - has decided that Ireland's by far largest electricity supplier ESB (Electricity Supply Board) can raise its prices by a staggering 17.5% in a single step. And not enough with that, a further price rise for electricity is expected in January.

Ireland has already one of the highest electricity prices in the world, and ESB tariffs have risen in a steady process over the past few years. As everyone needs electricity these days and no house or business could function without it, people have no choice and are ripped off by ESB in a really very bad and outrageous way.
Even though a certain opening of the electricity market for competition has taken place (and the 'Energy Regulator' was established to keep an eye on things) in Ireland, this only effects business customers. Private households have still no other option but to take their supply from ESB, the long-established and formerly state-owned company which is still extremely bureaucratic and inflexible.
In recent years ESB has cut almost all communication links with their customers (the only way to get in touch with them now is by phoning a call centre where underpaid foreign wage slaves pretend to solve customers' problems) while increasing their prices more and more. So the ever worse service is costing people ever more money.

ESB is regarded by analysts as one of the worst managed companies in Ireland, wasting millions on work schemes that could be done better and less expensive, if anyone would make an effort. But why should they? In their boundless arrogance they can literally do whatever they want and charge us whatever they like, since we all need electricity.

I am not the only one who is utterly annoyed about this behaviour, and fed up with the highway robbery of the ESB. But alone I cannot do more than speak, write and highlight the matter. What we should do is to form an energy users' group and protest against the price rises. We might not stop them altogether, but if we lobby the right politicians and other influential people, I am sure that we could get a better result and lower electricity costs.

Orange Triumphalism as usual

On July 12th Ireland, and especially the six counties in the North, saw of course the annual spectacle of Orange Protestant Triumphalism. Celebrating the victory of (the Protestant) King William III in the Battle of the Boyne - which took place on July 12th, 1690 - the members of the Orange Order and many other Protestant and Loyalist organisations parade around on this day every year, to nowadays strange sounding 17th century tunes, played by uniformed bands on flutes and lambeg drums.

For a long time these parades were high points of sectarian provocation for the large Catholic and nationalist population in the North, but since the Peace Process has delivered a power-sharing government backed equally by DUP and Sinn Féin, things have calmed down a bit.
The Orange bigots still march, wearing their saches and bowler hats and carrying umbrellas (as substitutes for swords). But less people take them for serious, which is probably the best way of dealing with such obsolete remnants of a time long gone for most of us.

Bastille Day

Two days later, on July 14th, France celebrated of course its national day, Bastille Day, which commemorates the storm of the infamous Paris prison by rebellious citizens on July 14th, 1789. This was the beginning of the French Revolution. 219 years, five monarchies and five republics later they day is still celebrated in great style, with a large military parade being the main focus point in Paris every year.
In recent years French Presidents have introduced the participation of contingents of foreign troops in this parade, as a sign of harmony and integration in Europe. So once again the many thousands of French soldiers parading down the Champs Elysee in Paris were joined by a few hundred comrades in arms from Germany, Belgium and Poland, and one platoon from the tiny army of Luxembourg. Despite decades of political frictions, the spirit of NATO is probably most alive today in France, the one member state that dared to be awkward and independent-minded during the times of Presidents Charles de Gaulle and George Pompidou.

France's new President Nicolas Sarkozy was using the day for a well-appreciated walk in the sunshine of national glory. In a week's time he will be on a less glorious mission, visiting Dublin in order to learn why Ireland has rejected the Lisbon Treaty.

The Pope down under

Meanwhile Pope Benedict XVI was in Australia, combining a pastoral visit with his attendance of the large annual international Catholic youth gathering. Hundreds of thousands of young believers from more than 140 countries had come to Australia to celebrate new Catholic spirituality, which had been sparked by Benedict's predecessor, Pope John Paul II.
Besides all the celebrations, masses and official ceremonies, the Pope once again surprised many with his frank words and open mind. Still seen widely as a staunch conservative, which he certainly is in many ways of Theology and doctrine, Benedict XVI is also - and always has been - a genuine philosopher in his own right. And as such he has the strength to speak out the truth, even if it hurts.
So when he openly and unreservedly apologised on behalf of the Church to the victims of child abuse committed by Catholic priests, he showed the world once again that he is the most serious, fair-minded and consequent Pontiff the Catholic Church has had in more than a century.

Africa still in Turmoil

And once again Africa is in the news for all the wrong reasons. After a lengthy investigation into the genocide against the people in the Sudanese province of Darfur, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), has officially accused the President of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. While this step has been welcomed by many Human Rights organisations in the West, it was received with anger and defiance in Sudan and some other parts of Africa and the Islamic world. Only time will tell if the long-running and still unsolved problems of Sudan can be solved with legal and peaceful means, or if eventually an international military operation will be needed to stop the killing of innocent people by the government-sponsored Islamic Janjaweed militia.

Here in Ireland the charity GOAL is once again looking for massive donations to finance their aid operations in Ethiopia, which - according to GOAL - is "once again facing a terrible famine".
In reply to this appeal Kevin Myers (right), one of Ireland's most prominent journalists, who - after many years with the Irish Times now writes his regular column for the Irish Independent - wrote a refreshingly frank and provocative article, highlighting the truth and facts of Africa and refusing to give any further money to a perpetual cycle of political and economical failure. Myers pointed out that despite all the famines in Ethiopia during the past three decades the population of this country has more than doubled, thanks to the massive aid delivered from Ireland and many other western countries. However, the feeding of people seems to be all we have done, and this leads to continued problems, wars and violence in the region.

Personally I have been involved in various charities for many years, and done as much as one single person with a limited income can do. But I have to agree with Kevin Myers on the points he made and have in fact written articles with a similar tenor myself. (See in particular my piece Out of Africa from January 28th, written in my second weblog COME ON SENSE, at: http://come-on-sense.livejournal.com/8570.html)

Dublin Community TV

After some lengthy preparations, a new television channel has started broadcasting from Dublin. It is called Dublin Community TV (DCTV) and is the first true non-commercial alternative to our well- established and over-commercialised TV stations. Its programmes are made by groups and not-for-profit companies who aim predominantly at information and education of the Irish people.
As a person who does not watch television and does not even own a TV set, it will take me some time to get an idea and impression of this new station and I will write more about it when I have seen some of their output and can comment on it with knowledge and experience.

Padraig Harrington

But whatever happened in the world and in our own country, the biggest news item for many days has been the Irish golfer Padraig Harrington (left). There was not one news bulletin and not one magazine programme on Irish radio and TV that did not feature this man for days and days. First the news was that he had injured the wrist of his right hand in an "self-inflicted incident" while training at a gym. So it was doubtful if he would be able to play in the hyped-up "British Open" in England, which he had won last year.
When the competition started eventually, he was there after all, played well and - guess what? - won it again, making him the only European to do so in a century.

As much as I can understand the pride of Mr. Harrington and Irish golf enthusiasts over this success, the amount of time and media coverage that is given to him and to the matter of Golf is frankly obscene and totally unwarranted. Why are the Irish so obsessed with this strange sport? And why do we pay so much attention to the highly-overpaid individuals who play it, while the country is in a deep recession, prices for everything are spinning out of control and the whole world around us is stumbling from one crisis into the next?

It appears that we have learned absolutely nothing from history and from our own experience, and that we continue to run like a bunch of lemmings towards the cliffs, blinded by trivialities and insensible to the reality around us.
So, dear compatriots, when you find yourself in free-fall pretty soon, don't be surprised and don't expect miracles to happen. There won't be any. You will be crushed and perish. And I wonder if you will be missed...

The Emerald Islander

10 July 2008

Total Chaos at Dublin Airport

The problems with the radar system at Dublin Airport (see my entry from yesterday) are not "fully resolved yet" and continued to disrupt and delay air traffic to and from Dublin all day today.

The Irish Aviation Authority (IAA), which is in charge of air traffic control, also said it is "unlikely that the air traffic control radar system (right) will be fully operational until after the weekend".

In fact, the faulty radar at Ireland's largest airport was only the trigger for a whole series of major problems which created a total chaos at Dublin Airport today. Nothing seems to work properly, no-one seems to know why, and no-one seems to take any responsibility for the mess.

Thousands of airline passengers spent many hours at the airport, waiting in uncertainty for flights or even proper information about them. Many flights were cancelled, others were delayed for hours.
Hundreds of passengers who were supposed to leave Dublin on various flights yesterday after 5 p.m. were left stranded at the airport overnight, without information when they could expect to depart and without any care and attention from anyone.

Neither the airlines, nor the IAA or the
Dublin Airport Authority (DAA) - now a private company - provided them with anything. There was no overnight accommodation, no food or drink, and no care for personal needs.

Many of the abandoned passengers gave up eventually and left Dublin Airport in disgust and anger, but several hundred, most of them from distant parts of Ireland and looking forward to their annual holidays, remained inside the airport all night. No-one tended to their needs, and they had no other choice but to sleep on the floor of the departure hall.
To make things even worse, at 4 a.m. this morning they were woken up by so-called "security guards" - uncivilised thugs in ill-fitting uniforms - who told them rudely that they had to get up and could not sleep on the airport's floor.

All day long more disruptions and delays blighted the operation of Dublin Airport, and none of the many employees of airlines, DAA and IAA knew really what was going on. Total chaos was the theme of the day. There was also no-one to be found who took any responsibility, as the DAA pointed to the IAA, who blamed the faulty radar. And the airlines pointed to both DAA and IAA, without any clue what was happening and without any efforts to make the life of their paying passengers easier.

This morning a group of Irish passengers were told that a flight to the French city of Nice, on which they were booked, was delayed "for several hours". They were told by airline ground staff to "go away and come back later" for further information. Following the advice, they went to the airport's restaurant area upstairs and had breakfast. When they returned to the airline counter about an hour later, they found out that their flight had left already, with their luggage on board.
Their (very understandable) anger and outrage caused a further disturbance of the already very tense situation, and instead of proper care and attempts to solve the problem, all the ignorant and incompetent airline staff did was to call "security" men.

If it were not so tragic for many hard-working people whose journey to their annual holiday is blighted by incompetence, mismanagement and a lack of interpersonal communication skills at Dublin Airport, one could sit back and laugh out loud. What a farce, what a shambolic and almost satirical situation!
Welcome to first world Ireland with third world technology and bronze age attitudes!

In a panic reaction to the chaos at its premises, the DAA doubled today its staff numbers "to deal with the increased passenger numbers" and the manifold problems at the airport. This can of course only be done by employing part-time personnel from agencies on short-term contracts, which means more untrained and inexperienced staff is populating the already chaotic mess that is the arrival point for most visitors to Ireland. DAA is also advising passengers to "check their flight details before flying". Well, that will be a great help, when even the ground staff of airlines is left widely in the dark and clueless.

Cautious as always and determined not to have any opinion at all, Dermot Mannion, the Chief Executive Officer of Ireland's flag carrier Aer Lingus, said today it would be "premature to apportion blame for the disruption".
I often wonder how whimps and yes-men get top jobs in our major industries and institutions...

Michael O'Leary (left), maverick Irish entrepreneur and boss of the most popular "low fare" airline Ryanair, is of a different calibre. He never minces his words and always calls a spade a spade. And good on him for that!
In an interview with the Morning Ireland programme on RTÉ Radio 1, O'Leary accused the IAA of being "not fit for purpose". He also predicted that the radar system would collapse again.

Later in the day the Minister for Transport, Noel Dempsey (right), was forced to comment on the matter. He told the Dáil that the air traffic control radar system at Dublin Airport was "now operating at 70% capacity" and that "testing" continued on the network. He added that it was "not practical to maintain a back-up radar system", which exists at many other major airports in the developed world.
Dempsey also made clear that the IAA is fully responsible for the matter of air traffic control and air safety. He stopped short of blaming it for the complete chaos that engulfed Dublin Airport yesterday and today (and which is expected to continue until "after the weekend").

Although the blame does obviously rest with the operators of Dublin Airport - in particular IAA and DAA - I cannot refrain from some critical remarks of a more general kind.
Too many people seem to think that flying around the world, or flying to some far-away place where it is warmer than in Ireland, is a good idea and more or less "normal". I disagree.

The massive increase in air traffic, much of it created by many so-called "low fare" airlines and widely supported by numerous travel agencies and holiday companies, is a serious anomaly and one of the main reasons for the drastic change of the global climate. The selfish desire to spend a couple of weeks on some far-away beach, where the massive sunshine burns the pale northern skins and creates more cases of skin cancer, is frankly idiotic, as well as self-destructive - for those individuals who do it, and for the whole planet.

Having become aware of the problems of air traffic and the huge pollution it creates already in the late 1980s, I decided to do my personal bit towards a cleaner planet, no matter how small it might be.
During the 1970s and 1980s I used aeroplanes regularly and flew to many destinations all around the world. All these flights were undertaken in the line of my service in the Navy, and for many of them I used military aircraft. But I have never been a tourist or holidaymaker, not even for a single day in all my life.
When I retired from the Navy and my personal circumstances changed, I decided to live a more environmentally friendly life.
I have not used an aeroplane for more than 17 years, and will never fly again. All destinations I have to travel to can easily be reached by other means, even though it does take a bit more time to get there without flying.

I have no right to tell other people how to behave, what to do and what not. And I don't. All I can do is to live my own life according to principals of logic and sensibility. If anyone wishes to do the same, it would be very easy, very welcome and very helpful for the planet.

The Emerald Islander

09 July 2008

Radar Fault disrupts Dublin Air Traffic - again

Today the air traffic to and from Dublin Airport (right) has been seriously disrupted - once again - due to faults in the radar of Dublin air control.

The Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) said this afternoon that Dublin Airport was working at half capacity with twelve flights arriving and twelve departing per hour. But this is subject to change.

According to an IAA spokeswoman, at around 11.45 a.m. this morning "a problem occurred with the air traffic management system". Due to a technical fault, air traffic controllers were unable to identify aircraft on their radar.

This problem lasted for approximately ten minutes, before the system returned to normal functionality. During the time of the fault all departures were held on the ground and some aircraft in the air were asked to remain where they were.

Now - as a result of this incident and in the interests of safety - restrictions have been put on the number of flights.
Air traffic controllers want to satisfy themselves that the system is stable again. This now causes delays, and passengers are advised to check with their airlines regarding their booked flights.

It is not for the first time that this has happened. Malfunctions and technical faults on the radar of Dublin Airport have occurred several times since a new system was installed in 2003 by a French company.

During my time in the Navy I used radar regularly, and thus I know a thing or two about it. For me it is hard to understand how a large and expensive radar like the one in Dublin can have so many technical faults. In my experience this points more at shoddy maintenance than at a manufacturing fault.

It is however not more than right and sensible to put safety first. But that again raises the simple question no-one dares to ask: Is there too much air traffic passing through Dublin already?

If so, then something has to be done about it, on a political and strategic level. Maybe we should, as ironic it might sound, be grateful for the radar faults if they highlight a bigger problem.

The Emerald Islander

Additional Information on Aer Lingus flights:

Aer Lingus says it had to cancel 23 flights to and from Dublin today because of the malfunction of the airport radar. Ten flights were diverted to Shannon, Belfast and Cork, and a bus service has been provided for those passengers to get them to Dublin.

All but five Aer Lingus flights after 5 p.m. this afternoon have now been canceled. The flights still scheduled to start from Dublin are: EI 109 Dublin to New York, EI 137 Dublin to Boston, EI 125 Dublin to Chicago via Shannon, EI 678 Dublin to Budapest, and EI 166 Dublin to London Heathrow.

A spokeswoman for Aer Lingus says it is too early to say whether today's disruption will have an effect on flights tomorrow, but she said the airline hopes to restore a full schedule in the morning.

Affected passengers can rebook their flights free of charge, via the website, www.aerlingus.com, or by calling reservations on 0818-365044. Passengers choosing not to travel may avail of a refund.

The fault has also caused delays to flights on other airlines.

In memoriam Séamus Brennan

Ireland mourns the death of the leading Fianna Fáil politician and former government minister Séamus Brennan, who died at the age of 60 at his Dublin home in the early hours of this morning. He had been seriously ill for some time and resigned from the Cabinet for health reasons exactly two months ago, when Taoiseach Brian Cowen took over from Bertie Ahern.

Séamus Brennan was born in Galway on February 16th, 1948 and educated at St. Joseph's Secondary School. He later went to University College Galway (UCG) and University College Dublin (UCD), where he studied Economics and Commerce and qualified as an accountant.

His interest in politics started early and already as a teenager he supported Fianna Fáil and canvassed for the party during election campaigns. In 1973, at the young age of 25, Brennan was appointed secretary general of Fianna Fáil at a critical time for the party, which had just gone into opposition, after having been in government since 1957. With enormous energy Brennan modernised the party and improved its organisation within seven years. One of his probably most historically important decisions in that time was to put the then relatively unknown young Dubliner Bertie Ahern on the 1977 list of candidates for the Dáil. He was elected, to the surprise of his own party, and the rest is history. After the large election win Fianna Fáil and Jack Lynch were back in power with a 20-seat majority. Séamus Brennan was rewarded with a Taoiseach's appointment to the Seanad.

In 1979, after the resignation of Jack Lynch, he supported George Colley, but when Charles Haughey narrowly won the party's leadership contest, Brennan lost his position and a new secretary general of the Haughey faction was appointed in his place in 1980.

The following year Brennan was elected to Dáil Éireann himself, standing in the Dublin South constituency, where he had made his home after moving to the capital from his native Galway. He was re-elected there at every election since, and his death will now cause a by-election at a difficult time for Fianna Fáil and the government.

During the 1980s Séamus Brennan was a prominent member of the "Gang of 22", who tried unsuccessfully to wrestle control of Fianna Fáil from the controversial Charles Haughey.
Brennan supported the reformer Desmond O'Malley, and for some time it was expected that he would join the Progressive Democrats (PDs) when they were founded by O'Malley in 1985 as a new break-away party from FF. But instead - for reasons that will probably never be known - he remained loyal to his party.

In 1987, after Fianna Fáil returned to power, Séamus Brennan was appointed Minister of State with responsibility for Trade and Marketing. In 1989 he joined the Cabinet as Minister for Tourism & Transport, and two years later he was also given responsibility for Communications.
When Albert Reynolds succeeded Charles Haughey as Taoiseach in 1992, Brennan was one of the few ministers who remained in government and was appointed Minister for Education. In 1993 a Fianna Fáil–Labour Party coalition was formed and - together with some other FF ministers - Brennan was demoted to Minister of State, in order to make room for new Labour Party ministers.

Fianna Fáil went into opposition in 1995, and the new party leader Bertie Ahern (his former protégée) made Brennan FF spokesman for Transport, Energy & Communications.
In 1997 Fianna Fáil returned to power with Bertie Ahern as Taoiseach and Séamus Brennan as Government Chief Whip and Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach and the Department of Defence. After another successful election in 2002, Brennan became Minister for Transport. In this post he is probably best remembered for his privatisation initiatives of public transport systems, including the change of the state airline Aer Lingus into a private company.

But after only two years, in the 2004 cabinet reshuffle, Brennan was moved to the Department of Social & Family Affairs. It is well-known in political circles that this was not Brennan's wish.
It has also been said that Brennan would have been sacked from the government by Bertie Ahern, if the then Tánaiste, Mary Harney (another former member of the old "Gang of 22") had not intervened on his behalf.

In May 2007, after yet another - even though narrow - election victory, Séamus Brennan was moved once more, this time taking charge of Arts, Tourism & Sport. It was to be his last political post. When Brian Cowen succeeded Bertie Ahern as Taoiseach on May 9th, Brennan said that he did not seek any position in Cowen's cabinet and resigned for health reasons, returning to the backbenches as a normal TD.

Some people said that he had jumped, before he was pushed, but political observers knew that Séamus Brennan was indeed battling with a serious illness for quite some time. Obviously it was even more serious than most thought, and Séamus Brennan died this morning at the relatively young age of 60 at his Dublin home, to the day two months after he resigned his last ministerial post.

He is survived by his wife Anne, two sons and four daughters. And he will be sadly missed by many in Ireland, not only the members of Fianna Fáil, the party he lived and worked for almost all his life.
Brennan was one of the few senior FF politicians with the ability to see the larger picture and make compromises and agreements across ideological and party lines.
During his time as Government Chief Whip one of his main tasks was to liaise with four independent TDs who supported the government at the time. This was probably one of the most difficult jobs ever given to any Irish politician, but Séamus Brennan handled it well and succeeded.

President Mary McAleese expressed her sadness at the passing of the former minister and paid tribute to his contribution to the country.
"Séamus played a major role in the building of modern Ireland," she said. "His many talents were such that he could have been successful in several fields, yet it was a mark of the man that he chose to devote those gifts to public service and the public good. His achievements and contribution will leave a lasting mark on our country."

Taoiseach Brian Cowen described Séamus Brennan as an astute and capable minister, who was interested in getting things done, while Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin paid tribute to his extraordinary contribution to Irish politics.

Mary Harney, his former Cabinet colleague and friend of many years, praised Brennan's political skill. "He ran one of the most professional constituency organisations in the country and won the confidence of the electorate of Dublin South time and time again, without fail," the Minister for Health and former leader of the Progressive Democrats said this morning.

On behalf of the opposition, Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny said: "Séamus brought a deep human understanding to all aspects of politics and could always be relied upon to respond in a calm and measured way to any crisis."

As Ireland is now in recession and facing a severe economic downturn and an uncertain future, a man like Séamus Brennan will be missed even more.

The Emerald Islander

08 July 2008

Lenihan's Plan to save € 440 million

The Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan (photo) has outlined his first package of measures which are aimed at saving € 440 million in public spending this year.

Lenihan says that all government departments - with the exception of Health and Education - will be required to reduce their departmental payroll by 3% by the end of 2009.

The Minister also put on hold further acquisitions of property for the controversial government decentralisation programme, which was one of the favourite ideas of the former Minister for Finance and current Irish EU Commissioner Charlie McCreevy.

Planned pay increases for ministers, senior judges and civil servants will not go ahead, but the matter will be reviewed in September 2010.

The costs of our never-ending tribunals will also be reviewed, so that expenditure is minimised.

Brian Lenihan says that with these steps the government is hoping to save € 440 million in 2008, and a further € 1 billion in 2009.

He also announced that spending on consultancy, advertising and public relations would be cut by at least 50% in 2009, and significantly curtailed for the rest of this year.

State agencies will be reviewed, to see if they can share services, amalgamate or be abolished. The review's outcome is to be considered in the autumn.

Further savings of € 45 million will come from a cut in this year's Overseas Development Aid budget.

The Departments of Finance and Health & Children are to draw up a scheme to reduce surplus staff in the Health Servide Executive (HSE) as soon as possible.

All departments have also been told to stay within their annual budget.

The Cabinet has met today to agree on these measures. On his way into the meeting, Brian Lenihan said that he had "very constructive talks" regarding his cost-cutting measures. More cuts and savings are expected in December, when the new minister will present his first Budget.

Micheál Martin leaves for Middle East Tour

This afternoon the Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin (photo) has left Dublin for his first diplomatic visits abroad since taking over at the Department of Foreign Affairs.

He is on a three-day tour to the Middle East which will focus on regional and international efforts to restore momentum to the Middle East peace process.

Martin's first destination is Cairo, where he will meet the Secretary General of the Arab League and the Egyptian Minister for Foreign Affairs.
Their discussions are expected to centre on the two-week-old ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas movement in Gaza, which was brokered by Egypt. Regional security issues and strengthening economic ties with Ireland will also be on the agenda.

On Thursday the minister will visit a Palestinian refugee camp in the West Bank area and meet UN and local representatives to discuss the humanitarian and security situation there.
He is also expected to meet senior members of the Israeli government and of the Palestinian Authority for talks on the latest developments in the Middle East peace process.

On Friday, before returning to Ireland, Micheál Martin will lay a wreath at the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem.

Irish Shares at lowest Level since 2003

Dublin's ISEQ index of Irish shares has closed today at its lowest level since November 2003, losing more than 4% of its total value. Especially Irish bank shares continued to take a severe beating and were the main cause for the massive fall.

By the close of business ISEQ was down 199 points at 4660, wiping a total of € 2.5 billion off the value of Irish shares.
The drastic decline in values was centred on financial stocks and follows concerns that US banks will reveal further significant losses in the near future.

Bank of Ireland shares lost 11% today, falling to € 4.51, after warning shareholders that the current economic slowdown would hurt its profits this year. It also said there was "too much uncertainty" to give a profits forecast at the moment.
The bank's chairman Richard Burrows conceded that "share performance has been abysmal", but insisted that the bank had been run "prudently".

Irish Life & Permanent, owner of the permanent tsb bank and Irish Life insurance, were recently hit by downgrades from credit rating agencies. Today their shares tumbled more than 13% to € 4.65.

Allied Irish Bank (AIB) shares also fell sharply, ending the day down almost 10% at € 8.10.

Thus Bank of Ireland shares have now lost more than 75% of its value since they reached their peak last year, while Irish Life & Permanent has dropped almost 80%.

Even for people with little or no experience in the financial markets it is quite obvious now that our amazing economic boom is over. And not only that. It is over with a heavy crush, a fall from great height.
One cannot but wonder why hardly anyone saw this coming over the past two years, and why it seems that no-one is prepared for it.

The banks, who for the past ten to twelve years were handing out money to almost everyone, as if there were an endless supply of it somewhere, have to carry the main responsibility for our overblown and out-of-control spending spree during the good years, with no provisions made for possible bad years to come.
During the boom not one Irish bank offered any decent interest rates on their savings accounts, so even people who wished to save money - and some actually did - had absolutely no incentive to do so. In fact, saving money was punished by ridiculously low interest rates that did hardly deserve the name.

In most other European countries banks have always encouraged saving, but not so in Ireland. Here the banks - most of them in foreign (and predominantly British) ownership - prefer to have people in debt to them.

It does not make much commercial or economical sense, and I often wonder if there is a deeper political and philosophical reason behind it. We did achieve national independence in 1922, but so far we are still not really independent financially and treated by international banks like serfs.

In times of major growth and economic boom the banks have made huge profits. Now, that they are in trouble - and most of it due to their own doing - they are crying out for help from various governments. Well, you cannot have it both ways! So if there is any government intervention to bail out the banks, the only logical and sensible consequence has to be nationalisation of the bank (or banks) in question.

On days like today it is visible and must be clear to everyone that uncontrolled capitalism of the western kind does not work! What we need is a proper alternative, and there are several models we could adopt. However, our politicians - in hock to big finance and not the sharpest minds even on good days - will not find a solution on their own. Once again it will be down to the people - to the likes of you and me - to come up with new ideas. So start thinking, don't be afraid of having a brainwave, and when you do, talk to your local politicians!

The Emerald Islander