30 September 2008

Vacuum Cleaner caused Cutty Sark Fire

One has not to be a sailor or tall ships enthusiast to know the name Cutty Sark. This world-famous former British tea clipper - and the last existing ship of its type - has entered the realm of general knowledge a long time ago.

Built in 1869 in Dumbarton/Scotland and commissioned in February 1870, she was constructed as a fast three-master for the China tea trade. This trade was at the time intensely competitive and involved a race across the globe from China to London, with immense profits to the ship that arrived with the first tea of the year.

In the most famous race, against the Thermopylae in 1872, both ships left Shanghai together on June 18th, but two weeks later Cutty Sark lost her rudder after passing through the Sunda Strait. She arrived in London on October 18th, a week after Thermopylae, with a total passage time of 122 days. Her legendary reputation comes from the fact that her captain chose to carry on with an improvised rudder instead of putting into a port for a replacement. And though she was seriously disadvantaged, she was only beaten by one week.

Later the ship had a mixed history, carrying wool from Australia to Britain and sailing for some years for a Portuguese owner. Under the respected Captain Richard Woodget she did very well, posting Australia-to-Britain times of as little as 67 days. Her best run, 360 nautical miles (666 km) in 24 hours (an average of 15 kn or 28 km/h), was said to have been the fastest of any ship of her size. In 1916 she was dismasted off the Cape of Good Hope, sold, re-rigged in Cape Town as a barquentine, and re-named Maria do Amparo.

Then - in 1922 - she was bought by Captain Wilfred Dowman, who restored her to her original appearance as a three-masted fully-rigged ship and used her as a stationary training ship. In 1954 she was moved to a custom-built dry-dock at Greenwich and has been there ever since as a museum ship and tourist attraction. Hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world have visited her and admired her exceptional beauty.

Unfortunately this great ambassador from the past was almost destroyed in a fire last year. On the morning of May 21st, 2007 the Cutty Sark, which had been closed and partly dismantled for substantial conservation work, caught fire and burned for several hours before the London Fire Brigade could bring the blaze under control. Initial reports indicated that the damage was extensive, with most of the wooden structure in the centre having been lost.

Richard Doughty, chief executive of the Cutty Sark Trust, revealed the next day that at least half of the "fabric" (timbers, etc.) of the ship had not been on site, as it had been removed during the preservation work. The trust was most worried about the state of iron framework to which the fabric was attached. But at least the ship was not lost after all and could be restored again, although at the price of an additional £ 10 million, which brought the total costs of the ship's restoration to about £ 35 million.

Fortunately the project received a substantial financial boost by winning the 'Museum of the Year' award, and many donations - large and small - came in from private individuals. This included school children who gave £ 1 of their pocket money, and the Israeli shipping magnate Sammy Ofer, who donated £ 3.3 million. A further £ 10 million came from the British Heritage Lottery Fund and the full restoration of the Cutty Sark is now secured. Work is expected to be complete by 2010.

For more than a year the cause of the fire was not clearly established. After initial analysis of CCTV footage from the area suggested the possibility of arson, further investigation over the following days by Scotland Yard failed to find conclusive proof that the fire was set deliberately.

After a long forensic investigation it has now been established that the devastating fire was not caused by human hands directly, but by an overheated industrial vacuum cleaner, which was used by foreign contractors to remove waste from the ship as part of the renovation work.
The vacuum cleaner was left switched on for two days over the weekend, overheated and then caused an electrical fire.

Police said the vacuum cleaner did not have a vital cut-off switch that prevents overheating, because it had been adapted for a lower UK power voltage.
Detective Chief Inspector Dave Garwood, who led the inquiry, said that two private 'security guards' on duty at the site failed to spot the fire in its early stages. They could have reported it sooner and a fire marshal inspection before the weekend could also have helped to prevent it.

The two men, who had been dismissed after the incident, were - according to DCI Garwood - "vague and inconsistent" witnesses.
He also said that (mostly foreign) renovation workmen were responsible for dangerous practices onboard, including electrical equipment often left plugged in, debris not removed immediately and loose electrical connections.
It was also not clear if fire alarm tests were completed properly in the weeks before the blaze.

All this shows once again how dangerous - and in the end for more costly - the modern business practice of cost-cutting, employing cheaper foreign workers and 'out-sourcing' of specialist work to contractors can be. Had the restoration work been done by a dedicated team of UK experts, the wage bill would certainly have been higher, but the devastating fire would most likely never have happened.

The now revealed details of the incident also prove that the use of private 'security guards' does not guarantee or enhance security. Quite the opposite is often the case, as most of these so-called 'guards' have little education, almost no training and usually no experience in the security field. It is evident that the old phrase still stands: If you pay peanuts, you will only get monkeys.

However, the good news after all the trauma and devastation is that in two years' time the Cutty Sark will be on display again, probably more beautiful than ever. And that will be appreciated by many, including

The Emerald Islander

Brian is listening and took David's Advice

In the small hours of last Sunday morning David McWilliams, one of the brightest young analysts and commentators in Ireland, posted a new article on his website.

This article made a bold, but very sensible statement: To get out of the current financial crisis the Irish State should go solo - without waiting for models from other countries - and give a full 100% guarantee for all deposits and loans of Irish banks.

"The only option is to guarantee 100 per cent of all depositors/creditors in the Irish banking system. This guarantee does not extend to shareholders who will have to live with the losses they have suffered. However, it applies to everyone else," McWilliams wrote as the essence of his long and learned article. The complete text can be found on David McWilliams' website under 'Articles' at http://www.davidmcwilliams.ie/

I was probably one of the first people who read this article, right after it was posted online. And I happened also to be the first to leave a comment, at 4:04 am on that Sunday morning.

Then I took the liberty to send a copy of the article to Taoiseach Brian Cowen, Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan and a couple of other ministers who - in my opinion - are able to think for themselves.
Knowing that there was a cabinet meeting scheduled for later that Sunday, I hoped that they might read David’s article beforehand and - maybe - be wise enough to take his advice.

Of course I have no way of knowing if my little initiative helped, if they did read the article before the cabinet meeting, and if it influenced them.

However, the government announcement Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan (left) has made today is exactly what McWilliams advised to do and asked for.

So one could well come to the conclusion that one of the Brians (Lenihan & Cowen) - or someone else in the government - is listening to sound advice. Which means there is some hope after all for Ireland and our economy

Following the biggest drop in share prices the Irish market has ever seen - the ISEQ fell by 13% in one day yesterday, and the especially troubled bank shares dropped between 30% and 45% - this morning's announcement has brought some confidence and stability back to the Dublin stock exchange.

It is early days yet, and the massive financial crisis of the western world is far from over. It will probably even get worse, in particular for the USA, which are now caught in the fast downward spiral all collapsing empires in history have encountered after they overreached themselves and overspent on military adventures and senseless luxuries.

But Ireland might this time get away with only one black eye - metaphorically speaking - if nothing else in our country goes badly wrong.

Following David McWilliams' advice, the government has shown a strong position of leadership and the guarantee of our money by the State is good news for all of us, regardless of wealth and position.

In contrast to programmes initiated elsewhere, this is neither a nationalisation (like the British government's take-over of Northern Rock) nor a bail-out (as attempted by the US administration for Wall Street and rejected by the US Congress yesterday).

This is indeed - as David suggested - an Irish solution for an Irish problem.

The government guarantees the money we have in the banks 100%, but only for two years and not for free. The banks will be charged a fee for this high grade of security (the amount of which is not known yet), so the government creates some extra income for itself. That's rather clever.

And the guarantee is not given willy-nilly to just everyone who happens to have a branch office on the Emerald Isle. Only the six Irish-owned banks will receive the full guarantee, and that is not more than fair. They are: Allied Irish Bank, Bank of Ireland, Anglo-Irish Bank, Irish Life & Permanent, which owns permanent tsb, Irish Nationwide Building Society and the EBS (Educational Building Society).

For all details of the new guarantee rules, and how it affects all banks operating in Ireland, have a look here: http://www.itsyourmoney.ie/index.jsp?1nID=93&2nID=100&nID=153&aID=620

Specific subsidiaries that may be approved by the government following consultations with the Central Bank and the Financial Regulator are also covered under the guarantee.
It also includes all money borrowed by Irish banks from other financial institutions and the statement from the Department of Finance says that all deposits, bonds and debts will now be covered by the State.

Pessimists are already crying 'blue murder' from the roof tops and predict the eventual end of the Republic of Ireland in total state bankruptcy and under a cloud of shame and chaos. Well, in a theoretical way this is quite possible, as much as it is possible that an asteroid falls onto Ireland and makes us all perish in a giant puff of smoke. But realistically you have a better chance to win the Lotto jackpot or even the top prize in the Euro-Millions lottery.

Our bankers - and a lot more so those in the USA - might have been reckless and very greedy in recent years, but they are neither complete fools nor suicidal. So they will recognise what a great and rare gift Brian Lenihan - on the advice of David McWilliams and with backing of Brian Cowen - has bestowed on them. By now they have also realised that they made terrible mistakes, and that they will not have a third chance should they blow this one. So I am with David McWilliams on this, and confident that it will work.

With a little bit luck (of the Irish) thrown in, it might even attract extra money from abroad and perhaps lead to another period of growth and prosperity. By this evening the government will have introduced the necessary legislation in Dáil Éireann, and I can say that I will sleep a lot more sound and confident tonight.

A well-known proverb advises that one should stop digging when finding oneself in a hole. This is - translated into financial terms - exactly what David McWilliams advised on Sunday and Brian Lenihan did today. In fact, it is even a bit more than that. The government is not only telling the banks to stop digging, it is declaring the hole to be a building site.

If we all keep a cool head and use common sense, look out for each other and stick together at all times - hard and easy - the future will be bright again for Ireland in years to come. I am not the kind of person who bestows praise easily, and I have very few heroes. But I want to say today that there is always hope and a future as long as we have people like David McWilliams on the Emerald Isle.

The Emerald Islander

Funchal 500 Regatta reaches Madeira

The Funchal 500 Tall Ships' Regatta, organised by Sail Training International (STI), is coming to its end, three days earlier than expected.

Having been scheduled to arrive at Funchal, the capital of Madeira, on October 2nd, good winds have sped up the fleet's progress in the second race (from Ílhavo/Port of Aveiro to Funchal) and so most of the tall ships and vessels have meanwhile crossed the finishing line near the island.

The regatta was started on the 13th off the English port of Falmouth (see my entry of September 13th) and the first race was set from the south-west coast of England to Ílhavo and the Port of Aveiro in northern Portugal, where the fleet arrived before and on the 20th.

After the usual days of rest, recreation and celebrations in port, they left for the second race to Funchal. But a lack of wind delayed the start several times and the fleet had to motor towards their destination for a while, until eventually a good breeze came up and made it a true sailing event again. (see my entry of September 25th)

As I write this, eight vessels are already in the port of Funchal. They are the class A vessels Kaliakra (Bulgaria), Pogoria (Poland) and Shabab Oman (Oman), accompanied by five Class B vessels.

Four other of the large class A vessels - Creoula (Portugal), Cuauhtemoc (Mexico), Mir and Sedov (both Russia) - have finished the race, but not yet entered the port. They stayed outside at anchor overnight and will be arriving in Funchal this morning in half-hourly intervals between 0800 and 1000 hrs. Other vessels are expected in port today as well, but their arrival times have not been specified yet.

Yesterday evening the Gedania (Poland) and Astrid (Netherlands) had not yet crossed the finishing line, but were well under way towards Madeira.

In the port and city of Funchal the preparations for the shore celebrations are in full swing. The city's organising team has been working hard to be ready for the earlier than expected arrival of the fleet, and they have already arranged an island tour for the crews of the Class B vessels.

Madeira is celebrating this year the 500th anniversary of Funchal's elevation to city status by King Manuel I of Portugal in 1508. It was founded in 1421 as an initially small settlement by the explorer and sea captain João Gonçalves Zarco.

The Madeira archipelago - some 650 km west of the North African coast and some 955 km south-west of Portugal's mainland - is considered to be the first new discovery of the Portuguese main exploratory period, initiated by Prince Henry the Navigator (right). It was discovered - almost by accident after a heavy storm - by Portuguese sailors under the command of João Gonçalves Zarco and Tristão Vaz Teixeira between 1418 and 1420.

Funchal's celebrations have been going on already throughout the whole year, but the Funchal 500 Tall Ships' Regatta is certainly the high point of the festivities. The arrival of the fleet will start the Festival do Mar 2008, and even though I am not there now myself, I know that the tall ships' crews will enjoy the experience, participate in their usual great style and bring with them the true spirit of the sea, which is still the same today as it has been in the ships and vessels Prince Henry sent out to explore the world in the early 15th century.

The Emerald Islander

Bad Tap Water - It's not just Galway

Last week we heard a lot about the problems with contaminated water supplies in Galway City, and especially about the high lead content in the communal tap water. (see my entries of September 23rd, 24th and 27th)

It now emerges that Galway is not the only place in Ireland with such problems of water quality.

Eleven local authorities from all over the country have now officially contacted the Irish Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) because they have also detected lead levels above the acceptable limit in a total of 23 public water supply systems across the country.

According to the EPA, so far four public health notices have been issued. The affected areas are: Old Mervue in Galway City, Mallow in Co. Cork, Ballintra in Co. Donegal and Bruff in Co. Limerick.

The other local authorities that have contacted the agency revealing higher than acceptable levels of lead in their water supplies are Co. Carlow, Co. Kerry, Co. Leitrim, Co. Longford, Co. Tipperary (North Riding) and Co. Wicklow.

Somehow I have the strange feeling that this represents only the tip of the proverbial iceberg...

The EPA says it is to liaise with the Health Service Executive (HSE) over the coming days to establish the true extent of the problem.
It advises as "best practice" for local authorities that detect levels of lead higher than the safe standard that follow-up tests should be carried out to establish the true extent of the problem.

That's not more than common sense, and it is somehow alarming that the EPA has to point it out to the local authorities.

It is not yet known if secondary tests have been conducted in the 23 identified water supply areas, but the EPA hopes that a more detailed picture will emerge over the coming days.

Meanwhile Cork County Council says that work on replacing a lead-lined water pipe in Mallow should begin before the end of this week.
It comes after it emerged that some residents have been told not to drink their water after more than three times the safe amount of lead was detected in supplies in the town.

The local authority is in the process of arranging for 450 metres of pipeline, and connections to some 60 premises, to be replaced.
Last Friday residents in the Beecher Street area of Mallow were notified that - following routine testing - "elevated levels of lead" were found in the drinking water in one house in the street. Follow-up tests by the HSE identified two other premises.
As a precaution, Cork County Council has advised all people in Beecher Street not to drink, boil or use the water supply in food preparation until further notice. The water is apparently safe for bathing, washing dishes and clothes.
Two temporary safe drinking water supply taps have been put in place at the northern end of the street for residents' use.

One wonders how long the various County Councils have known about the lead contamination in their area, but said nothing. Only after the recent scandal in Galway City made national headlines, they came out of their cosy cocoons and made their problems known to the EPA.

I think there are way too many incompetent and complacent people in responsible positions in local government, and the up-coming local elections next year should be used to make serious changes.

The Emerald Islander

29 September 2008

Financial Markets in Freefall and Meltdown

Today the ISEQ share index in Dublin has suffered a record one-day fall, ending down 13% and closing at 3292.

Especially shares in Irish banks plummeted, as a series of US and European bank failures sparked further fears that the massive bailout plan in the USA may not be enough to deal with the problems in the sector.
Shares in Anglo Irish Bank (AIB) were down more than 45% at one stage, while Irish Life & Permanent (who own the permanent tsb bank in Ireland) fell by more than 30%.

Other European shares dropped to a three-and-a-half year closing low. London's FTSE ended down 5.3% - at 4819 - after it was announced that the British government decided to partly nationalise another bank (and former building society), Bradford & Bingley.

Falls in Belgium and the Netherlands were especially steep, following the announcement that their governments, together with Luxembourg, had agreed to nationalise one of Europe's biggest banks - Fortis - in a € 11.2 billion bailout.

Later the US House of Representatives voted against the proposed $ 700 billion rescue package for the financial sector and especially Wall Street, put together by George W. Bush, his Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank, Ben Bernanke. The House rejected the bill with a clear majority of 228 votes to 205, with some conservative Republicans being the most vociferous opponents of a deal.

Subsequently the Dow Jones industrial average in New York plunged more than 600 points as the news reached Wall Street, closing eventually 778 points - 6.9% - lower. This is the biggest one-day drop ever for the Dow Jones.

The massive economic crisis, created by the greed and stupidity of reckless millionaire bankers and stock brokers, is far from over. And two things are becoming ever more evident:
1) Money is not everything, cannot solve every problem, and is actually becoming a big problem itself.
2) Uncontrolled capitalism, praised for decades as the solution for everything and the reason for our wealth and well-being, does not work!

The sooner we find a sensible alternative, the sooner the crisis will ease and a way out of recession will be found. I hope that Brian Cowen and Brian Lenihan have what it takes to lead this nation...

The Emerald Islander

Laughing all the Way to the Bank

The Department of Finance has confirmed that former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern (right) is now receiving approximately € 68,000 in 'severance pay' following his resignation earlier this year.

When Ahern stepped down in May eventually, he lost of course - along with other things - his Taoiseach's allowance, which amounts to around € 185,000 per annum. So now Irish taxpayers are giving him (through the Dept. of Finance) 'severance money' for having resigned - and not a day too soon.

Did you know that members of the government who lose their job or resign are entitled to severance pay? I did not, and I would regard myself as rather well informed about politics.

Apparently this is based on legislation from 1992. I presume it is called the "Take the Money and Run Act", or perhaps the "Last Chance Saloon Payout Act"...

Well, whatever it is called, I think it is a scandal. TDs and ministers are not employees in a private firm who are made redundant at some stage. They are our elected representatives, sent by us to Dáil Éireann. And when we decide to send someone else, so be it. No TD or minister should be entitled to any extra payment, because he (or she) has done a bad job (which is usually the reason for losing a seat).

According to information from the Department of Finance, the former Taoiseach has been receiving these payments since May, and they will amount to around € 68,000 by November. This money comes of course on top of Bertie's normal TD payment of over € 100,000 a year.

For more than a decade he and his ministers have governed this country, during the time of the largest economic boom ever seen in modern times (which was not of their making). They had plenty of money available - billions and billions of surplus taxes - but instead of bringing Ireland forward into the 21st century, giving us a decent infrastructure and making us internationally competitive, they managed to waste and squander the money with not much to show for.
Their strong links with the construction industry created a housing bubble and an irrational property price inflation, both of which are now mill stones around the necks of our banks.

Bertie's private finances are under several clouds, to say the least, and he is still questioned about that element of his life by the Mahon Tribunal.
Having jumped ship in May before someone could push him - and just in time to be not in charge of a lost referendum and the worst economic crisis since 1929 - he is now given more 'severance money' in six months than most of us earn in a year, or many even in two years!
And it's all legal, since TDs have made it law to look after themselves very generously. Just look at Bertie's face and you know: He is laughing all the way to the bank.

In addition to Bertie Ahern, two other sitting Fianna Fáil TDs are paid € 53,218.99 'severance money' each in installments over the next 24 months, after they lost their jobs as junior ministers in May.

The Dept. of Finance has confirmed that it is paying these sums to Wexford TD John Browne (far left) and Cork-East TD Michael Ahern (left). Both were dropped from the government after Brian Cowen took over as the new Taoiseach.
This money comes - like for Bertie Ahern - on top of their normal TD salary "and does not affect their pension entitlements".

However, the third junior minister sacked by Brian Cowen in May - Donegal TD Pat 'The Cope' Gallagher (right), "did not opt for the 'severance pay' scheme".
That is quite interesting. It tells us that these payments are not coming to TDs automatically, but must be applied for. And while Bertie Ahern, John Browne and Michael Ahern obviously decided to get as much as possible out of the state system, Pat 'The Cope' Gallagher did not.
It is a small relief to see that there is still the odd Fianna Fáil TD who is not greedy and selfish. Good on you, Pat! I will remember this, and so should other people.

After the matter became public knowledge today, John Browne and Michael Ahern said that they "are entitled to the payments, are doing nothing wrong and are operating under legislation as laid down by the Oireachtas (both Houses of Parliament)".

Yes, that's quite correct. And it is the even bigger scandal than paying ex-ministers executive bonuses long after they have left office (for whatever reason). Doing so is wrong, but that it is 'legal' after TDs made it a law... well, that really stinks!
And it shows that most of our TDs see parliament still as their private financial self-service supermarket, where they can award themselves as much money as they like, without anyone else being asked for their opinions, and no-one being able to stop them.

By the way, the three cases that came to light today are not unique. More than € 3 million of 'severance money' were paid to former Oireachtas members who failed to get re-elected at the last general election.

While almost everyone in Ireland is now struggling to make ends meet, prices for everything are rising steadily and Finance Minister Brian Lenihan is desperately looking for extra money to plug the ever more and ever larger wholes in his budget, it is a scandal that such an amount of money is wasted on failed politicians!

If Brian Lenihan is really serious with his intention to tighten the government's belt, this is a very good point to start. He could stop these payments, end the practice for good and get plenty of money from it for his coffers. Additionally, it would show that he has guts and give him a good boost in popularity around the country.

The Emerald Islander

28 September 2008

Co. Leitrim remembers Anthony Trollope

You probably have never heard of the Irish village of Drumsna, and had I not lived in Co. Leitrim for a while, I would not be aware of it either. It has currently 173 inhabitants, and a further 532 live in the surrounding countryside. Like in most small communities in the rural west of Ireland, not much happens there usually.

However, last Friday Drumsna was for one day a very busy place and the centre of much attention, especially from readers and enthusiasts of the English 19th century novelist Anthony Trollope (archive photo left). Members of the Trollope Society, which is dedicated to the study of his life and work, travelled specially from England and the USA to visit Drumsna and Carrick-on-Shannon, the county town of Co. Leitrim, which is only 6 km away from Drumsna.

The reason for this special gathering was the official opening of the Carrick-on-Shannon & Drumsna Anthony Trollope Trail, created by local people to commemorate the fact that the now famous novelist lived in Drumsna in the 1840s, while working as an inspector for the British Post Office. And while there, he was inspired by local events to write the very first of his 47 novels, titled The MacDermots of Ballycloran and published in 1847.

Ireland's President Mary McAleese (photo right) came up from Dublin to attend the celebrations and perform the official opening ceremony.
Several politicians and local dignitaries attended as well, and it was certainly the most important day ever for the small village of Drumsna.

Anthony Trollope was quintessentially an English writer, whose best-known works are the six novels known collectively as the Chronicles of Barsetshire (a fictional English county), which were published between 1855 and 1867. He is also well remembered for the six Palliser novels, published between 1864 and 1879, which focus on the life and career of the (fictional) Victorian politician Plantagenet Palliser and his capricious wife, Lady Glencora.

However, he began his career as a lowly postal clerk and might never have started writing novels if he had not been sent as a postal inspector to Ireland, where he encountered the highly inspirational atmosphere of the Emerald Isle, which has produced so many great writers for centuries.
His first novel is set in the village of Drumsna, and several landmarks in the area are mentioned. Most of these landmarks and places are still there and almost unchanged since the 19th century, so it is understandable why this remote corner of Co. Leitrim - Ireland's least populated county - attracts the interest of Trollope scholars and enthusiasts.

The newly created Trollope Trail will bring more of them to the area, and the local people are fully behind the project.
For the opening day many people dressed up in period costumes and recreated the spirit and atmosphere that Anthony Trollope encountered during the 1840s.

At a time of economic recession and falling tourist numbers in Ireland, local initiatives like this are very welcome editions to the cultural scene, and especially in rural areas like Co. Leitrim.

The Emerald Islander

Last Section of Shannon Tunnel laid

Early this morning the last concrete section of the planned Shannon Tunnel was laid beneath the river Shannon in Limerick.

The massive concrete structure, weighing more than 20,000 tonnes, was slowly sunk beneath the river in a pre-dredged channel. This marks a significant step in the construction of the prestigious € 500 million infrastructure improvement.

When finished, the tunnel will be 915 metres long and one of the largest projects in the west of Ireland.

It will also complete the Limerick south ring road project, which will give Limerick its fourth river crossing, linking the city's dock road with the dual carriageway leading to Shannon and Ennis.

The four-year project is due to be completed in 2010.

Robinson and McGuinness to talk this Week

Peter Robinson (right), the First Minister of the Northern power-sharing government, and his deputy Martin McGuinness (below left) are to hold face-to-face talks this week.

The move is an attempt to break the deadlock which has prevented the power-sharing Executive from meeting for more than three months. The political impasse centres on Sinn Féin demands for policing and justice powers to be devolved, while the DUP still oppose the move at this time.

DUP leader Peter Robinson said it was vital an executive meeting, planned for Thursday, did go ahead. If it does not, it could result in the cancellation of a North-South ministerial council meeting on Friday.

Meanwhile Martin McGuinness (Sinn Féin) accused the DUP of failing to show true partnership in government and he said they had to live up to their obligations under the St. Andrews Agreement (of 2006).

Relations between the two main parties in the North have become so bad that they could not even agree to issue a joint message of congratulation to the Tyrone senior team on winning the All-Ireland Football Championship and the coveted Sam Maguire Cup. (see my entry from September 21st) Sinn Féin says that the DUP vetoed the sending of a message.

It is no secret that Unionist dislike Gaelic Football and all Gaelic sports administered by the GAA, as they see them as 'nationalist Irish' sports. They themselves are more supporters of Soccer and Rugby.

Let us hope the three months of silence between the Northern government partners will soon be over and constructive policies, guided by common sense, will prevail. Anything else would be extremely foolish and not help anyone. It would not even score political points.

The Emerald Islander

Talks in Christ Church Cathedral, Waterford

Christ Church Cathedral (Church of Ireland / Anglican) in Waterford City is holding a series of three late morning talks this coming week. They take place in the cathedral (photo) and begin at 11 a.m.

The speakers are three well-known local historians, and the first is Waterford City Archivist Donal Moore, who will talk tomorrow - Monday, September 29th - about the photographer Annie Brophy.

On Tuesday, September 30th, Julian Walton (known for the 'On this Day" slot on local radio WLRfm) will give a talk on the History of Christ Church Cathedral.

There will be no talks on Wednesday and Thursday, but on Friday, October 3rd, Eamonn McEneaney, Director of the Waterford Museum of Treasures, will speak about a recent pilgrimage from Waterford to Santiago de Compostela.

Admission is free, all are welcome, and there will also be tea and coffee served afterwards.

27 September 2008

My own little private Oktoberfest

In Munich, capital of the Bavarian Free State in Germany, this is the second weekend of the annual Oktoberfest, the world's oldest and largest beer festival, which is celebrated this year for the 175th time. (see my entry from September 21st)

It is a long time now that I lived there, but I still have good memories of those years.
Even though I have never been a fan of crowds, noise and large celebrations, I did visit the Oktoberfest while I was living literally on its doorstep. There were always friends who would go anyway, and so I went along with them, drinking a few beers, eating traditional food and then having a congenial Virginier cigar with another beer or a coffee.

I haven't been back since I moved to Ireland, and I really don't miss it. But even a serious man like me who is not very emotional has his sentimental moments. I am a human being after all...

So when I encountered - quite unexpectedly - the stall of a traditional German bakery on the annual French Market here in Waterford today (see my earlier entry below), I was touched in a rare and positive way. For the first time in nearly two decades I saw Brezn and Salzweckerln (traditional Bavarian glazed bread roles, sprinkled with large salt crystals) right in front of me, and I could hardly believe my eyes and my luck.

There was no possibility to pass the stall without buying some of them. Sentimental feelings and old memories were much too strong. So I bought a couple of each and went home a happy man.
But on the way it dawned on me that this was only one element of the traditional Bavarian meal, known as a Brotzeit. To make it complete, I would also need some Weisswurst (white sausage), a Radi (large white radish, also known as Muli, as depicted here) and some Bavarian beer, preferrably from Munich. Sweet Bavarian mustard, which is the final ingredient to make it perfect, I have at home anyway.

So I made a little detour and stopped at ALDI, a German supermarket nearby, which has all the traditonal German food, as well as the usual Irish items. I found what I was looking for, including original Spaten beer from Munich, the very same that is served in the Schottenhamel beer hall at the Oktoberfest. (The Schottenhamel is traditionally the place where the Mayor of Munich declares the festival open by tapping the very first keg of beer himself.)

I should mention that I am a vegetarian for more than ten years now, and that I seldom drink alcoholic beverages. But I am not a fanatic and there is no ideology behind my choice to live on a vegetarian diet. And as much as I abstain from meat and meat products normally, an authentic Munich Brotzeit simply needs Weisswurst. It wouldn't be the same without it.

So this is a very special day for me, and earlier this evening I sat down and had my Brotzeit with everything one would have in Munich. I even put a CD with traditional Bavarian music into my player, to make it a perfect experience and celebrate my very own little private Oktoberfest here in the heart of Waterford, the oldest city in Ireland.

The Emerald Islander

French Market in Waterford

Waterford, Ireland's oldest city and my home now for nearly two decades, is twinned with the town of Saint-Herblain, the largest suburb of the city of Nantes in France.

Usually one does not see a lot of evidence of this relationship, except that there is a housing estate in Waterford named St. Herblain Park. But once a year the twinning brings a traditional French street market to Waterford, occupying the Jenkins Lane area close to the western end of the old city wall.

This weekend - Friday, Saturday and Sunday - the market is here again, and of course I went for a strole and a good look today. Even though the availability of foreign - including French - food in the Republic of Ireland has much increased during the past ten years, there are still certain kinds of food and special delicacies one cannot find in Irish shops.

The annual French Market brings those rare treats to the city, and many local people go there and take the opportunity to buy good French wines and cheeses, nice home-made biscuits and sweets, meats and sausages of high quality and many other continental delicacies. Or they might try one of the enticing crepes that are made there fresh to order.

I had a good look around this afternoon, and once again encountered a number of the traditional stalls with food we don't see here normally. This is always a great experience.

However, I have to admit that I am a little disappointed. There are a lot less traditional French stalls here this year, and I wonder why. The gaps have been filled with plenty of market traders from all parts of Ireland, who of course do not offer French food and delicacies. There are instead plenty of stalls selling clothes, fashion items, jewellery, children's toys and all sorts of nick-nack.
As much as there is certainly a time and place for such as well, it changes the character of the market, which is no longer what it once was - a traditional French food market.

What surprised me most was to see not one, but two so-called 'bouncy castles' at the western end of the market. These strange contraptions of inflated plastic are one of the many bad things we have adopted from the USA. In my opinion they have no place on a traditional street market, and parents who bring their small children should well be able to look after them and show them the lovely things the market offers, instead of parking them at the 'castles' where they hop up and down in a rather senseless way. It is also worth mentioning that these 'bouncy castles' need a permanent supply of compressed air, provided by a generator that uses up energy and creates noise and pollution.

So I went home today slightly disappointed, and with a lot less goods than I had bought there in previous years. Sad really, that a good idea has been altered in this way, and I hope that next year the traditional French market stalls will be back with all their rare and delicious treats.

However, there was one unexpected positive encounter, which compensated me for the missing French stalls and really made my day. Among the many market traders I found a stall from a traditional German bakery, offering breads, bread rolls and numerous cakes and pastries I have never seen offered in Ireland before.

Having lived in Germany for quite some time, I am familiar with these delicious bakery products and seeing them suddenly right in front of me here in Ireland almost transported me back in time and space to the many traditional bakeries one can find all over Germany. For reasons I do not know there are very few such bakeries in Ireland, and most Irish people eat fluffy soft white 'bread' that I would not call by that name. It is produced in large factories, sold in all shops and supermarkets, and it is totally tasteless as well as unhealthy.

What a difference between two countries and cultures! But today I saw this German bakery stall and bought traditional bread and pastries I have not eaten for nearly twenty years. So despite a lack of French delicacies I anticipated to buy, I went home with a bag full of lovely German bread and pastries. That made me very happy, and as I write this, there is a pot of tea to my right and a nice round German pastry with plums, crumble and icing sugar to my left. What more does one need to have a good weekend...

The Emerald Islander

All is privatised now, says Eamon Gilmore

Ireland's Labour Party has accused the government of privatising debate on the economy after it emerged that senior ministers are to appear at a round table discussion next month for which each normal attendee is being charged the amazing sum of € 1950.

Labour Party leader Eamon Gilmore (photo) said that the Taoiseach Brian Cowen, the Tánaiste Mary Coughlan, the Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan (all Fianna Fáil) and the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources Eamon Ryan (Green Party) are all due to appear at this seminar, organised by the Economist Intelligence Unit.

The Labour Party has strong reservations about so many government ministers taking part in a commercial enterprise, dressed up as a public forum, especially at a time when the government is refusing a Dáil debate on the economy.

With slight irony Eamon Gilmore asked whether Brian Cowen was now intent on privatising discussions on the national finances as well.

Personally I don't see really a big change in direction here. Irish ministers have always found time to mix and mingle with the rich and powerful, in particular when they get paid for it. This has become even more common since Bertie Ahern became Taoiseach. And Brian Cowen just carries on where Bertie left things in May...
I am however surprised that the Economist Intelligence Unit is interested in the Tánaiste. Even though she is also Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, intelligence is certainly not one of Mary Coughlan's strong sides.

The Emerald Islander

"Appalling and totally unacceptable"

Emergency water supplies being provided for residents in the Old Mervue area of Galway city had to be suspended because high levels of lead were found in it overnight.

Galway City Council says it is "disappointed" at this latest development and is making arrangements to provide an alternative supply for containers.

The Mayor of Galway, Pádraig Conneely (Fine Gael), says the situation is "appalling and totally unacceptable".

The street taps (photo) at the centre of this latest scare were installed on Wednesday and Galway Corporation assured the about 1000 residents who live in Old Mervue that the water was safe to drink.
However, last night one of two tests carried out on the water showed that it contained over four times the acceptable level of lead.

The City Council says it immediately suspended this emergency service and is awaiting the result of further analysis which will be available on Monday.
In the meantime it is arranging to have safe drinking water provided from containers which will be located around the estate.
A spokesman said the city administration was "disappointed" with the result of the test and it apologised to the residents.

Mayor Pádraig Connelly admitted that he was "shocked" by the news. He said it was now time for Environment Minister John Gormley (Green Party) to come to Galway and appoint a senior official from his department to take charge of the city's water services.
He said the most worrying thing was the effect drinking the water might have had on residents.

Councillors in Galway met for almost five hours last night to discuss lead contamination in part of the city's water supply. They were told that short and long term solutions were being examined in an effort to resolve the issue. But the city's Mayor said that not enough was being done to restore public confidence.

There were heated exchanges at the meeting between officials and elected representatives, with Padráig Conneely describing an action plan to deal with the latest problem as "pathetic".
The Mayor told the meeting that he had "no confidence in the City Manager and the Council's Director of Services".

He said the way the authorities had dealt with lead contamination in the water supply was not acceptable. The city management was "trying to spread the blame for the contamination of the water supply with excessive lead content". But, he said, that blame lay squarely with those responsible for water services at Galway City Council.

City Manager Joe McGrath said he was "shocked and horrified" by the allegations made against his management team. He had always treated the Council with respect and was endeavouring to answer all questions relating to the lead contamination.
He said that it was "a load of nonsense to suggest that the authorities were operating under a veil of secrecy" and added that the problem with the water supply had been identified because of action by Galway City Council and the HSE.
He was trying to provide leadership to solve the latest crisis, but he needed the backing of Council members to achieve this.

The City Manager stated that the Council was not trying to spread the blame and would not hand over management of the water services to any individual. He accepted that confidence in the water supply had been damaged, but stressed that the Council was "doing everything it could to solve the problems caused by excessive lead content" and that "a number of potential solutions are being looked at". These include an adjustment of ph levels in the water, additional treatment measures and - eventually - the replacement of a lead distribution pipe in the Old Mervue part of the city. However, this could take up to two years to complete.

Earlier, the Council's Director of Services, Ciaran Hayes, told the meeting that the water in Galway was "of the highest quality" and that the latest problems stemmed from the use of lead piping in some parts of the city. He added that short, medium and long term solutions were being initiated to address the issue.

In the meantime, residents in the areas affected by the contamination will meet Council officials over the next fortnight. It was agreed that free bottled water will be provided to elderly residents in the affected areas with two-for-one promotions available to other residents in those areas.

Well, here we are, eight years into the 21st century, and after a decade of unprecedented social and economic boom that brought Ireland massive wealth. And we cannot even give the people of the country's fourth-largest city decent drinking water. It beggars belief and only shows the high level of incompetence present in the 'city of tribes'.

Instead of being "shocked" and making a spectacle of themselves in public, both the Mayor and the City Manager should resign, together with all the other Councillors and directors of the city's administration (and they would, if they had any decency).

And next summer, when we have local elections, the good citizens of Galway - or at least those who are still alive by then - will surely give the current Council and administration a suitable answer for their series of blunders.

The Emerald Islander

1000 Job Cuts for HSE Back-Room Staff

The Chief Executive of the Health Service Executive (HSE), Professor Brendan Drumm (photo), has said that there will probably be approximately a thousand redundancies in the next year among the HSE's back-room staff.

Speaking this morning on Marian Finucane's Saturday programme on RTÉ Radio 1, he said this would be about 25% of the total.

One wonders if this is good or bad news for the sick in this country and for the Irish taxpayers...

Harney says HSE cares 'for a Majority'

The Minister for Health, Mary Harney (photo), has said that "the vast majority of cancer patients have nothing to fear from the health service".

Now, that is a really reassuring statement, isn't it? And it leads to three questions:
1) How large is a 'vast majority' in the definition of Ms. Harney?
2) How many Irish people do not belong to this 'vast majority'?
3) And what is it they have to fear from the health service?

Should the health service not care for all people in the country? After all, everyone pays taxes and is supposed to have the same rights. But well, in Harney's PD world of a privatised and American-style Ireland the poor are marginalised and forgotten. They have a lot to fear from the two-tier health service she created.
And when it comes to numbers, well, I am not so sure that it is not the other way round, that in reality the majority of Irish people are suffering, while the rich and famous get first class service.

Speaking at a conference on breast cancer in Dublin, the Minister said that the greatest reassurance she could give women was that the State was putting a designated service in place to improve breast cancer treatment.

She forgot to mention that most of the new health facilities put in place under her reign are private enterprises and thus only available for the rich that get sick.

At the same conference Christine Murphy-Whyte from the breast cancer charity Europa Donna Ireland said that recent revelations about breast cancer services highlighted the urgent need for specialised breast centres to be resourced.

Nice thought, and a very valuable point. But with money running out fast after all the years of riches and mismanagement, who is going to finance such specialised centres?
If they are established, they will once again be private and for the rich only.

The conference was also addressed by Professor Tom Keane, the HSE's cancer strategy director. He had been due to appear on last night's Late Late Show (on RTÉ 1 television), but pulled out of the broadcast at the last minute without giving an explanation.

Perhaps he was told to do so by his superiors, in order not to embarrass the HSE any further. Their blunder in the field of breast cancer is only one of the many dark blots on their sad performance record. Yesterday the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) called the HSE "incompetent and acting irresponsibly".

The Emerald Islander

HSE endangers the Lives of 200,000 People

The Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) has accused the Health Service Executive (HSE) of incompetence and acting irresponsibly.

This comes after the HSE told Irish doctors that they can no longer make the strongly recommended flu vaccine available free of charge to all people over the age of 50.

Last month, an expert group advised the Department of Health that everyone over 50 should receive it this winter.
But up to now, the vaccine has only been provided to people aged 65 years and older who have a medical card.

The IMO says that it has now discovered that the extension of the programme was scrapped quietly.
This means that the free vaccination of all people over 50, which has been strongly advised by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and which was announced by HSE and government with some pride, is not going to happen.

In a letter to all Irish GPs, the HSE said the extension of the scheme, which was already advised to doctors in distributed information, will not proceed this year! This decision is connected to Ireland's worsening financial circumstances.

IMO President Dr. Martin Daly said that he believes the HSE did not do its homework on the budget required to administer the scheme. The costs should have been foreseen, he said, and accused the HSE of acting irresponsibly.

Dr. Daly is quite right. The HSE is indeed incompetent and acts irresponsibly. And I would go even further and accuse them of potential manslaughter through gross negligence!

I am over 50, so I am personally affected by this blunder. And I am angry about it. Very angry, and very concerned. If you are over 50 and live in Ireland, you should be angry and concerned, too.

Should we have a bad winter this year and flu is spreading, more than 200,000 people - 5% of Ireland's population, including me - will be without adequate medical protection!
Welcome to Mary Harney's Apartheid-style third world health service!

What are we supposed to do? Is this perhaps a subtle attempt to kill a significant portion of those who are over 50 and slowly but surely approaching retirement age? One wonders... and can only hope to survive until the age of 65, when one is regarded again as worthy to receive proper flu protection.

This is a major medical and political scandal, and I urge every TD, regardless of party, to intervene on behalf of Ireland's most experienced and qualified workforce, the people over 50.

Beyond that I also take this very personal, as a deliberate attempt on my life by the HSE, Mary Harney and the State.
I will thus seek legal advise and explore if my natural right to life - and that of 200,000 others in the same situation - has been violated by the HSE.

The (very angry) Emerald Islander

26 September 2008

British-Irish Council Meeting in Edinburgh

Brian Cowen (photo right) has held talks with the North's First and Deputy First Ministers in Edinburgh today.
Arriving in the Scottish capital after an overnight flight from New York, where he attended the UN General Assembly yesterday, the Taoiseach said he is confident that scheduled meetings of the Northern Ireland Executive and of the North-South Ministerial Council will go ahead next week as planned.

The meetings had been in doubt due to the ongoing dispute between Sinn Féin and the DUP over the transfer of policing and justice powers from Westminster to Stormont. (see my entry from September 21st) This dispute has seen Sinn Féin ministers refuse to attend meetings of the Northern Executive, which has not met for three months.

Attendance of Peter Robinson (left) and Martin McGuinness (below right) at today's meeting of the British-Irish Council had also been under a cloud of uncertainty for some time.
However, giving a positive signal of common sense, both Northern Irish politicians arrived in the same car for the Edinburgh meeting.

Deputy First Minister McGuinness (Sinn Féin) said his working relationship with Peter Robinson (DUP) remained good.
However, the First Minister said it would be difficult for Sinn Féin to explain why they can sit around the table in Edinburgh, but not in Northern Ireland.
Robinson emphasised that he is "ready to do business" and hopes the Stormont Executive will meet next Thursday.

The British-Irish Council was set up under the Good Friday Agreement to facilitate East-West ministerial links, and today's session was hosted by Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond of the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP).

Paisley clashes with Ahern over Policing Powers

Ian Paisley Sr. (left), the former First Minister in the North and leader of the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party), has clashed with the former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern over the devolution of policing and justice powers to the Northern government at Stormont.

Paisley, who retired from frontline politics in June, spoke out after Bertie Ahern said that Unionists were "stepping outside the terms of the St. Andrews Agreement" of 2006.

The row between Sinn Féin and the DUP over policing and justice threatens the future of their power-sharing government. (see my entry from September 21st) Now Ian Paisley ignores his retirement and criticises the former Taoiseach for effectively blaming Unionists for the deadlock.

The two men had helped to negotiate the St. Andrews Agreement that paved the way for power-sharing, and more recently had become very friendly with each other. This culminated in a joint appearance of both leaders on the site of the historic Battle of the Boyne (see my entry from May 6th), where both treated each other with the utmost courtesy and even signs of friendship.

But now Bertie Ahern (right) has commented on the current Northern stalemate and said that the recent DUP demands for the disbandment of the Provisional IRA's ruling Army Council were not part of the St. Andrews deal.

"I have to restate it again, because it was part of these discussions and talks, the devolution of policing was not predicated on the Army Council doing this, that or the other," Bertie Ahern said.
"It was not on that. It was a solemn agreement that the Irish Government and the British Government were engaged and involved in. It said we would have the devolution of policing, that was the effect of it."

The Provisional IRA has long now decommissioned its weapons and ended its violent campaign, but the DUP is still seeking a formal disbandment of its ruling Army Council. This is nothing new, as the DUP have always been very good at shifting political goal posts, thus changing the sense and meaning of the agreements they signed, at least from their point of view. It appears that after all those years of talks and negotiations they still can't or won't grasp the nettle of true power-sharing. So one has to wonder how serious they can be taken as a political party and how trustworthy they are as a partner in any agreement.

After the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC) recently ruled the Provisional IRA to be 'redundant' and said that their Army Council was not meeting, the DUP called once again for Republicans to pledge that the IRA was 'gone for good'.
This is just another of the DUP's triumphalist attitudes, as their minds are so deeply occupied with conflict and controversy that a time of real peace and growing prosperity appears strange to them.

It came however as a surprise that Ian Paisley spoke out over the former Taoiseach's suggestion that Unionists were stalling on the transfer of policing powers from Westminster to Stormont.

"We are not time-bound by any commitment," the former First Minister and long-time DUP leader said. "And Mr. Ahern is well aware of that."

"The party (DUP) has correctly judged that the devolution of policing and justice powers can only occur at such a time as when there is sufficient confidence within the community that allows for the unlocking of the triple lock. That is the position that I and my colleagues negotiated at St. Andrews and it remains the DUP position today," he added.

Paisley stated that after the 2006 negotiations he had publicly proclaimed his party's success in achieving a 'triple-lock', giving the DUP effective control over when the policing powers would be devolved.
"The DUP position is totally unchanged from the time of St. Andrews. No commentary from Bertie Ahern after the event will ever alter that," he said.

The St. Andrews Agreement set May of this year as a target date for the devolution of policing powers and the prospect was key to persuading Sinn Féin to accept Northern policing structures.

After the publication of the IMC report, its spokesman, the former Alliance Party leader Lord Alderdice, said the IRA had "left the stage", but he speculated it would not formally announce its final disappearance, for fear of rival Republicans opposed to the peace process taking on its mantle.

The whole dispute is fruitless and will help no-one, including the DUP. As May 2008 was agreed as the time for the transfer of policing powers and control of the Justice Department (which are both in the hands of the UK Northern Ireland Office), the power-sharing executive should have proceeded to do it.
However, May saw a change of leadership in the Republic and in the North, with both Bertie Ahern and Ian Paisley Sr. stepping down as the leaders of government and leaders of their parties. So the matter of transferring policing and justice powers was quietly pushed into the background. Then came the long summer recess of both parliaments, a time that is traditionally void of major political decisions.

So the DUP has managed to postpone this important matter for four months and was hoping it might be forgotten for some more, as the world - including the two parts of Ireland - is shaking under the largest economic crisis since 1929.
However, this is not going to happen, as Sinn Féin, the main partners of the DUP in government, are determined to get those powers transferred to Stormont. For Republicans it is not more than a final step of normalisation and a further reduction of direct British influence on the affairs of the Six Counties.

I am sure that a solution will be found, and that - despite ongoing DUP blocking attempts - the agreement of St. Andrews will eventually be implemented completely. Even though they are the most intolerant and sectarian hard-liners in the North, the DUP must know and understand that the alternative would be the fall of their joint government and the end of the power-sharing agreement. Having grown fond of power and actually running real government departments by now, they will not risk to loose all that over one matter they have agreed on already in principle.

The Emerald Islander