23 March 2009

Should the Senate be abolished?

Times of recession and depression often bring significant changes. One reason is a lack of money to pay for things one might well have liked before, or even taken for granted, but can no longer be afforded under the new conditions. And another is the general desire for improvement, reform and even revolution, in order to create new conditions that will give us a better future.

It appears that after only six months of recession and serious political and financial problems in Ireland parts of the chattering classes in Dublin 4 (the posh district of our capital, and also home of RTÉ) have identified a suitable target for a major public sacrifice.

For the past couple of weeks the idea to abolish Seanad Éireann (above) - the 'upper' house of Ireland's parliament, the Oireachtas - has been mooted by different people in a variety of media. There were opinion pieces in some of the newspapers, and then Pat Kenny picked up the idea and rolled it around for a while, first on his daily radio programme and eventually on the Friday evening Late Late Show on RTÉ television.
Columnists for several Sunday newspapers chipped in their twopence-worth of thoughts as well, and that means the matter was also discussed by Marian Finucane and her round table on RTÉ Radio 1 last Sunday morning.
But somehow I cannot see that the subject is moving the hearts and minds of the Irish nation.

The main reason for that is the fact that Seanad Éireann is the least known and least understood part of our political system. While most people, even those who live in perpetual ignorance of politics, know of Dáil Éireann, the 'lower' house of the Oireachtas, many are not even aware of the fact that we actually have a Senate! This, together with the now desperate desire to safe public money, is the root for the idea to abolish it as a cost-cutting measure.

But would it be right, proper, logical and effective? Probably not.

There are several reasons why Seanad Éireann is the 'sleeping beauty' of Irish politics. The main one - and also the reason for being unknown to many people - is the fact that our Senate is not directly elected. Thus very few people have ever any real contact with it.
While there are direct elections to the Dáil, to the European Parliament and to the County, City and Town Councils every five years, the members of the Senate are chosen by a small group of people, all of whom belong to 'the system of state' in one way or another. Every seven years Irish people can even elect a new President, although the position is predominantly ceremonial and has very little political power. But no ordinary person can ever vote for any of our 60 Senators.

This rather odd and unusual procedure goes back to 1937 and the new Constitution that was introduced then by Eamon de Valera.
However, the main thinker and author behind the 1937 Constitution was not the Fianna Fáil leader and Taoiseach, but his close friend and advisor Msgr. John Charles McQuaid, a Holy Ghost Father who was the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin (and Primate of Ireland) from 1940 to 1972.

There has been an Irish Senate since 1920, when the 'Parliament of Southern Ireland' was created under British law with an upper house called Senate. This 'Senate of Southern Ireland' consisted of a mixture of Irish peers and government appointees. It convened in 1921, but was boycotted by Irish nationalists and thus never became fully operational.
It was formally abolished with the establishment of Saorstát Éireann - the Irish Free State - in 1922, but a number of its members were soon re-appointed to a new Free State Senate, which was the first to use the Irish name Seanad Éireann.

Ever since the USA were established in 1776, Irish nationalists were looking across the Atlantic for ideas, inspirations and political models. And as soon as Irish independence became a reality, many of the new state's institutions were modelled on the American system. As there is a Senate besides the 'lower' House (of Representatives) in Washington D.C., Ireland needed one, too.
Considered the 'upper' house of the Oireachtas, the first Seanad consisted of a mixture of people appointed by the President of the Executive Council (government) and other members indirectly elected by the Dáil Éireann.
Prime Minister W. T. Cosgrave also agreed to use his appointment rights to grant extra Senate representation to the small Protestant minority in the new state.

It was intended that eventually the entire membership of the Senate would be directly elected by the people, but after only one such election in 1925 this system was abandoned in favour of a form of indirect election. It has never been explained why, and one wonders if our 'founding fathers' were as much afraid of "too much democracy and power in the hands of ordinary people" as the more famous 'Founding Fathers' of the USA were back in 1776, when they rejected with a clear majority a democratic system in favour of a republic modelled on ancient Rome.

The Free State's Senate was then abolished entirely in 1936, after it delayed some government proposals for constitutional changes. (No sense of Democracy there, and also a precedent on which some of those who now propose the abolition of Seanad Éireann build their case.)

Bunreacht na hÉireann, the new Irish Constitution of 1937, brought Seanad Éireann back into existence, but with clipped wings and very limited powers.
The new electoral system of 'vocational panels' used to nominate candidates for the Senate was inspired by Roman Catholic social teaching of the 1930s, and in particular the Papal encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, published in 1931. In this document Pope Pius XI argued that the Marxist concept of class conflict should be "replaced with a vision of social order, based on the cooperation and interdependence of society's various vocational groups".
These ideas, strongly shared by Eamon de Valera and Msgr. John Charles McQuaid, created the new structure of Seanad Éireann, which still operates under the same rules today.

Under the Irish Constitution an election for the Senate "must occur not later than 90 days after the dissolution of Dáil Éireann". It does under our special system of proportional representation by means of the Single Transferable Vote (STV), but in the panel constituencies each vote counts as 1000, which means that fractions of votes can be transferred. (Sounds complicated to you? Well, it is complicated, and on purpose.)
Membership of the Senate is open to all Irish citizens over the age of 21 and residing within the Republic, but a Senator cannot also be a member of Dáil Éireann.

Of the 60 members of Seanad Éireann 43 are currently elected by the above mentioned 'vocational panels'. There are five such panels, representing various areas of society:
  1. The Cultural & Educational Panel elects five Senators and represents Education, the Arts, the Irish language, Irish culture and Literature.
  2. Eleven Senators are elected by the Agricultural Panel, representing Agriculture and the Fisheries.
  3. Another eleven Senators are elected by the Labour Panel, representing trade unions and various other elements of the working sector, organised or otherwise.
  4. A further nine Senators get their seats through the Industrial & Commercial Panel, representing Ireland's industry, trade and commerce, including the fields of Engineering and Architecture.
  5. The Administrative Panel, which represents Public Administration and Social Services (including the voluntary sector) elects another seven Senators.
Six Senators are elected by the graduates of some (but not all) Irish universities (three each by the University of Dublin and the National University of Ireland, while other - mostly newer - universities are left out for no good reason). This has often been called "an Irish oddity" and I do indeed not know of any other country were university graduates have their own special political representatives.

But at least those 49 Senators are elected, even though not in a direct way by the general public. The real oddity of the system comes with the remaining eleven Senators, who are - every five years - appointed by the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) at his personal choice and pleasure. Apart from Britain, where the Prime Minister can nominate 'Life Peers' and have them appointed to the House of Lords by the monarch, there is - to my knowledge - no other country regarded as free and democratic that allows its political leader such an amount of direct personal power.

In practical terms the 'Taoiseach's Eleven', as the appointees are often called collectively, are mostly hacks of the ruling party in need of a cosy temporary job. TDs who lost their seat, but are still of value to the party are often made Senators. And some younger talents who contested the general election but failed to gain a seat in Dáil Éireann might also end up in the Senate, referred to by cynics as "the Oireachtas' combined nursery and old folks home".

Appointments to the Senate are also used by the Taoiseach to forge coalitions and please smaller parties whose support he needs. To cement his new coalition in 2007, the then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern appointed two members each from both his smaller partners - the Green Party and the (now defunct) Progressive Democrats - to Seanad Éireann.

Occasionally there are some truly personal appointments among the 'Taoiseach's Eleven', which has made Senators of - among others - the writer and playwright Brian Friel, the Northern peace campaigners Seamus Mallon and Gordon Wilson, and several members of the Dublin brewers' dynasty Guinness (some of which also hold aristocratic titles in Britain).

The latest truly personal and quite controversial Taoiseach's appointment to the Senate (by Bertie Ahern in 2007) was the journalist and polemicist Eoghan Harris. Regarded by many as the ultimate and perpetual Irish turn-coat, Harris lately became a strong supporter of Fianna Fáil , after he 'explored' almost all other political tendencies, including the far left and far right in the past. Why Bertie Ahern made him a Senator will probably never be explained. But it shows to what extend the almost princely powers of an Irish Taoiseach can go.

In the past there have been various calls for a reform of the Senate, and since 1928 no less than twelve separate official reports have been published on the matter. But - to no-one's surprise - none of them led to any action.
The outright abolition of the second chamber has been only on very few Irish people's minds so far. One should remember that the (now defunct) Progressive Democrats called in earlier years for the abolition of Seanad Éireann, the only Irish mainstream party to do so. However, those calls fell silent as soon as they joined Fianna Fáil in government and benefited more than any other party from the 'Taoiseach's Eleven'.
Currently the small Socialist Party (led by former TD Joe Higgins) is the only Irish party that has abolition of the Senate on its political manifesto.

One wonders what is now so suddenly motivating a number of well-paid middle-class journalists and public opinionators to join the far-left of the country's political spectrum in that particular demand...

In my humble opinion this sudden urge to get rid of the smaller house of the Oireachtas is not more than a well-constructed smoke screen, created by some politicians and their friends in the media in order to prevent closer looks at the Dáil, which is the one part of Ireland's political system that really needs urgent and drastic reform.

Being a constitutional historian and political philosopher, I have suggested a root-and-branch reform of the entire Irish political system for many years. I did not have to wait for a crisis and recession to see what is going on in Leinster House, and to come up with alternatives.
There are several essays and articles I wrote about this matter since 1995, and having read them again today I noticed that they are still up-to-date and worth taking notice of. But since I began writing this weblog only in January of last year, these texts are not part of the archive here. So I am thinking to re-publish some of my thoughts on political and parliamentary reform in Ireland here over the coming weeks, and I hope they will find your interest.

To prevent this entry from growing too long, I will for today concentrate on the Senate only. It certainly does need a bit of change and reform, but much less than the Dáil (which I will feature here in detail soon).
In order to safe money and increase efficiency, we need to reduce the overall number of Irish politicians and this also has to include the Senate. But since it has only 60 members, reduction potentials are somewhat limited.

I would propose to reduce the total number of Senators by one sixth, from 60 to 50. (As my proposal for the new Dáil is 100 TDs, this would put the Seanad at half the size of the Dáil. A fair proportion in my opinion.)

And I would also change the electoral system for Seanad Éireann. For historical reasons I would keep the five 'vocational panels', but reduce their influence. For example, the Agricultural Panel still elects eleven Senators, as it did when this country was almost completely an agricultural society. This is way too much political power and influence for the farmers, who have a lot of extra privileges anyway.

Under my system four of the panels would elect four Senators each, and the Labour Panel would elect six. This makes 22 (compared with the current number of 43).

As we have ever more graduates from ever more universities, colleges and other third-level institutions, their role in society needs to be strengthened. (It is also a fact that the - currently six - Senators representing the university graduates are clearly among the best and most active members of Seanad Éireann. For example - Senator Shane Ross alone has done more good for the country in recent years than all government ministers combined...)
Thus I propose to increase the number of Senators elected by our university graduates by two thirds - from currently six to ten - but at the same time extend the franchise to all third-level educational institutions in Ireland, without exception. This would not only be fair to all those who are so far excluded because they went to - for example - the University of Limerick, it would also - indirectly - make third-level education itself a lot more attractive.

As new features in a reformed Seanad I would introduce two Senators elected by the country's defence and security forces (the Irish Defence Forces, their active reserves, and the Garda Siochana) and ten Senators - one fifth of the house - representing the general population. They would be elected directly during a general election, but would not represent local constituencies. Each of the four provinces - Leinster (without Dublin), Munster, Connacht and Ulster - would have two Senators (just like each state of the USA), and a further two would be elected in Dublin (City & County), reflecting the large population density in and around the capital. This would bring the total number of Senators to 44.

Although I am in general not in favour of appointed Senators, under certain circumstances the instrument of direct appointment without election can have its befits. I would therefore allow the Taoiseach to keep his right to appoint Senators, but reduce the number from eleven to three. To balance this reduction and make it more acceptable, I would also allow the Taoiseach to dismiss or replace any of the three Senators he has appointed at any time.
Should a Taoiseach resign or lose his office without a previous general election (as it happened when Albert Reynolds was replaced by John Bruton, and - more recently - the succession of Bertie Ahern by Brian Cowen) the three Senators appointed by the Taoiseach will lose their seats with his resignation. Thus the new Taoiseach can appoint his own three choices, as soon as he takes office.

For the remaining three seats I have a completely new and special proposal. These three I would put under the control of the President, who can appoint anyone of her or his choice, just like the Taoiseach. However, as the President has a ceremonial role and stays out of party politics, the idea is that those three Senators would be people of national prominence, like famous writers, artists, scientists or other personalities whom Uachtarán na hÉireann finds worthy and suitable for the position.

This makes a total of 50 Senators and would be the new Senate as I would structure it. I am sure there is still room for improvement, although I have given the matter a lot of thought over quite some time. Feel free to discuss it - here or elsewhere - and leave your comments.

As a kind of after-thought I came up with another novelty that could be beneficial for the whole country and its political system. In addition to the - now 50 - regular Senators I would create a small number of special Life Senators.
As the name says, the position of Senator would be bestowed for life, but without any payments, as a purely honorary title. Eligible for it would be the former Presidents of Ireland, as well as the former Taoisigh, if they are no longer TDs.
Life Senators would have the right to sit and speak in Seanad Éireann, but not the right to vote. Thus the political balance of the Senate as a second chamber of parliament would not be affected, but at the same time elder statesmen and stateswomen would still have a proper platform to air their views and make their remarks and comments. This I would regard as very beneficial for the state and for our political culture.

Well, these are my personal thoughts about Seanad Éireann, which should not be abolished, but reformed and strengthened. At the same time the Dail also needs reform and restructuring, but this I will explain in detail here another time. Meanwhile I would be pleased to hear from you, especially with comments and opinions regarding my proposed Senate reform.

Only if we all think, talk, write and share our views and opinions this country can grow out of the current crisis.

The Emerald Islander

22 March 2009

Dublin gives Rugby Team a Heroes' Welcome

Nearly 20,000 people streamed into Dublin's inner city today to give Ireland's victorious Rugby team a heroes' welcome after they won their first 'Grand Slam' in the Six Nations Championship in 61 years yesterday in Cardiff (see yesterday's entry below).

Supporters from all across Ireland came to the capital and attended a special homecoming celebration for the team at the Mansion House in Dawson Street (the official residence of the Lord Mayor of Dublin), where the victorious players and their coach - now all wearing smart suits - presented their trophy to the cheering public.

Team Manager Declan Kidney (on the photo front row left, with his left hand on the cup) told the enthusiastic fans it had been "a great journey for the team in recent weeks".
And indeed it has. Ireland defeated France and England at home and won away against Scotland and Italy. And then they also beat Wales yesterday, at the most difficult venue to beat them: their own home ground, the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.

"It's a special time to be involved in Rugby," Declan Kidney said in his typical modest way. "And I think the boys are enjoying it."

Ireland's captain Brian O'Driscoll (on the photo front row right, with his right hand on the cup) said that it had taken a while for the victory to sink in.
"It's a fantastic feeling waking up this morning: you're not as sore as you would be if you'd lost," he added.

The amazing series of five great wins in a row, and the confident style with which they were achieved, have not only elated the Irish Rugby team (which is an all-Ireland team with players from both the Republic and the North), their coach and their fans. It uplifted the spirit of the whole nation, and even people with little interest in sports (like myself) feel very happy about it.

Now all we need is a government that can copy the spirit of our Rugby players and match their performance...

The Emerald Islander

21 March 2009

Once every sixty Years...

In contrast to our Western (originally Babylonian) system of Astrology, which uses a cycle of 12 Zodiac signs over 12 months, the even older Chinese Astrology uses a cycle of 12 signs over a time span of 60 years.
While we acknowledge four elements (Fire, Water, Air and Earth) in addition to the principal signs, the Chinese have five (Metal, Wood, Water, Fire and Earth). And since in China each sign reigns for a full year - instead of a month in our system - that makes five sub-cycles of 12 years each, which form a full cycle of 60 years. This means that during the lifetime of an average human being each year offers a different condition, and only the very old will experience a repeat of some astrological years.

Even here in the West, where longevity has increased steadily since the end of World War II, six decades is a very long time. Even more so when it is the time someone has to wait for a certain and much desired achievement, while making a fresh attempt at it every year. And when it does happen eventually, the joy and emotions are enormous.

A couple of hours ago the Irish Rugby team (which is an all-Ireland team with players from both jurisdictions on the Emerald Isle) achieved the highest possible honours available to any team in the Northern hemisphere. They not only won the 'Triple Crown' (which means they have beaten all of the other three 'home nations' England, Scotland and Wales), they also finished this year's series with the rarely achieved 'Grand Slam' (which means that they have won every match they played and thus beaten all other teams in the annual Six Nations Championship).

In fact, in the 107 championship series that took place since 1883 (first among the four 'home nations', then as the Five Nations including France and - after Italy was admitted in 2000 - as the Six Nations Championship) a 'Grand Slam' was achieved only 35 times.
And for Ireland today's total success on the Rugby field is only the second 'Grand Slam' ever in the history of the sport.* The first time they did it was 61 years ago, in 1948!

Every year, during the weeks when late Winter turns into early Spring, this contest grips the full attention of Irish people. As regular readers of this weblog will know, I am neither a sports fan of any kind, nor particularly interested in Rugby. But even I could not help myself but listen to the live coverage of the match today, my ears pricked to attention while the commentators on RTÉ Radio 1 were carried away with free-flowing Celtic emotions.

That this - the last match of the 2009 Six Nations Championship - took place at the magnificent Millennium Stadium in the Welsh capital Cardiff gave it a particularly high tension and special sporting importance. Rugby is - and has been for generations - the main sport in Wales and the Welsh are pretty good at it, too. So it was not just any match that both teams played there today, it was a true clash of the giants. Had Wales won, they would have deprived Ireland of both titles. And during the first half it looked as if they would do exactly that. The half-time score of Wales 6 - Ireland 0 was not received well on the Emerald Isle. Hearts of fans and spectators began slowly to sink, giving rise to this terrible thought again that we Irish are "simply not good enough"...
How often have we heard this during the past six months? Or even thought it ourselves? There are times when one wonders if the Irish can do anything right and proper at all.
We not only missed all the signs of the imminent world economic crisis throughout 2007 & 2008, we had to make things a lot worse by creating our own crisis on top of that, a crisis much more serious than anything that Wall Street and the City of London can throw at us.

We began to get rich during the early 1990s, quite suddenly and totally unexpected. But instead of good housekeeping, prudent behaviour and reluctant pride which would have been in order, we went completely over the top. We got drunk on the sudden wealth, just as we get drunk so often in our pubs on beer and whiskey. Then we staggered out into the night and made mischief, plenty of mischief.
For the past six months we are beginning to wake up from it all, not sure where we actually are, how much we have blown and how much - any - we have left in our pockets. Our banks, which are controlled by a bunch of selfish, greedy and immoral crooks, have behaved even worse than the rest of us and expect in a matter of fact way to be rescued by the government and massively recapitalised with taxpayers' - which means our - money. At the same time they turn nasty on their normal customers, the ordinary people and especially small businesses who have done not a thing wrong. To crown this ecstasy of failure and disaster, we also have the most incompetent government in the history of the state.
Meanwhile wages are reduced and taxes rise and rise, while consumer prices remain high. This is the truly bleak background in front of which one has to see today's great and amazing sporting achievement.

Being six points behind after the first half and having not scored a single point yet, Ireland came back onto the pitch for the second half with a lot of extra ambition. Soon the team showed what they are capable of. In a complete change to the way they played in the first half, now the Irish dominated and within a few minutes their captain Brian O'Driscoll (left) scored the first try. This gave the team a huge emotional boost, and a little later Tommy Bowe scored the second try for Ireland (see large photo below).
Wales, although strong and playing with great skills and energy, did not manage to score any tries at all. Their points came from field goals and penalties.

By the time the match went into its final phase, Ireland was leading 14-12 and many people here started already celebrating. Then Wales scored 3 points with another goal, giving them a narrow one-point lead with the score standing now at 15-14. And time was running out.

Was it all going to end in tears for Ireland? Had their fight-back come too late? Or were they just not meant to win this match, to fail once again and fall at the final hurdle of the contest?
These were the thoughts going through the minds of thousands of Irish people, Rugby fans and ordinary folk alike.
But then - with less than three minutes left to play - the Irish were in the lead again. The team's top goal kicker Ronan O'Gara (right) sent the oval ball straight down the line between the Welsh posts, which meant the score changed to Wales 15 - Ireland 17. And at that it remained until the referee blew the final whistle.

Within seconds Ireland was transformed into 'Happyland' and everywhere the celebrations and cheering began.

Nobody expects the Irish economy to be saved by Rugby, and everyone knows that our deep sorrows and serious problems will be there tomorrow morning unchanged, as they were here yesterday. But for a few hours tonight and tomorrow the whole of Ireland will be in a state of great joy, happiness and celebration. It's the way we are, and we so desperately need something to cheer us up during this period of political and economical depression...

The nation has waited 61 years for this day, longer than a complete cycle of Chinese Astrology, and only the most senior of senior citizen will have experienced this before.

For the victorious Irish team, which has played very well now for several years, it is a truly great and historic achievement. And as it happens, today's match was the last for Ireland's steadfast and magnificent team captain Brian O'Driscoll. What a way to say good-bye, what a way to enter the annals of history!

Today's success is of course also an enormous achievement for the team manager Declan Kidney (left), who took charge of the Irish Rugby team less than a year ago. For him 2009 was the first Six Nations Championship and he achieved the absolute maximum possible right away.

But of course Kidney is not a novice. The 48-year-old Corkman was coach of
Munster, the most successful of the Irish provincial teams, for many years and is now bringing all the experience he gathered there to the national side.

I like to take this opportunity to congratulate our team, the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) and the whole nation on this special day that saw even me cheering for a sports team.

The Emerald Islander

* England won 12 'Grand Slams', Wales 10, France 8 and Scotland 3. Ireland - with now 2 - is the second last in that ranking list, as Italy (which only joined the competition in the year 2000 and has clearly the weakest of the six teams) has not won any (yet).

11 March 2009

Aer Lingus reports a € 120 Million Loss

Aer Lingus has reported a pre-tax loss of almost € 120 million for last year, compared with a profit of € 124.8 million a year earlier.
The profit of Ireland's main commercial airline is particularly affected by a once-off € 140.9 million charge for its controversial cost-cutting and saving programme.

When the restructuring charge is taken out, pre-tax profits fell by almost 84% to € 21.2 million, as fuel costs rose by almost 60%. There was an overall operating loss of € 17.6 million.

Aer Lingus has also lowered its outlook for this year, saying it is "unlikely to make a profit". It states that the weakening economy has reduced its cargo business, while consumer demand has also weakened.

Apparently passengers are increasingly booking later, and lower fares are needed to keep the aeroplanes full. Aer Lingus expects average fares to fall by 10% in 2009.

The 2008 results show that the airline's total revenue grew by 5.6% to € 1.357 billion, while passenger numbers rose by 7.5% to 10 million.

Aer Lingus Chief Executive Dermot Mannion has described last year as "extremely challenging".
"Falling consumer demand in key markets, a weakening of the Dollar and Pound Sterling, and increased competition across the network combined to put sustained and significant pressure on our business throughout the year," he said.

He also stated that while Ireland would "always be a core element of Aer Lingus", diversifying out of the Irish market was key to its success in the long-term.

My personal Comment: It appears that Aer Lingus - like almost all commercial airlines - are still expecting to grow and expand in the future. What they have not yet realised is that the current recession and the rethinking and restructuring of global businesses will actually further reduce air travel. This is also a positive aspect for the environment.

The Emerald Islander

Mass Demostrations for Peace in Ireland

The first terrorist murder of a PSNI officer has led to an unprecedented wave of condemnation and a widespread rejection of the terror that criminal splinter groups are trying to bring to the British-ruled Six Counties of Ulster once again.

Tens of thousands of people have joined peace rallies in the North of Ireland today, in protest against the brutal killings of a local policeman in Co. Armagh on Monday and two British soldiers in Co. Antrim last Saturday.

Separate rallies were held in Belfast, Lisburn, Newry, Downpatrick and Derry, showing solidarity for peace in Ireland and condemnation of the two deadly attacks for which two terrorist splinter groups have claimed responsibility.

In Belfast traffic in the streets around the City Hall was brought to a standstill as thousands of people gathered for a rally organised by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU).
The protesters observed a couple of minutes' silence and a lone piper played 'Amazing Grace' and 'Abide with me'.

"The callous attacks of the last few days were an assault on every citizen who supports peace," ICTU's assistant general secretary Peter Bunting told the crowd.
“This show of strength from civil society will send a clear message to the killers who do not deserve the monopoly of the word ‘dissident’. The word is too good for them. They are nothing but delinquents.”

Several speakers from the Irish Trade Union movement addressed the gatherings in the other cities.

Meanwhile this afternoon in London about two dozen British MPs from various parties stood in silence outside the Houses of Parliament in solidarity with those who have been taking part in protest marches and silent vigils against the killings in the North of Ireland .
The Republic of Ireland was represented at this event by the Charge d'Affaires at our London embassy, Mr. Kevin Conmy.

Tonight more than 500 local people gathered for a silent vigil in Craigavon, Co. Armagh close to the spot where PSNI Constable Stephen Carroll was shot dead by terrorists on Monday evening.

Earlier today Pope Benedict XVI also condemned the recent violence in Ireland in a speech at the Vatican.
"I condemn in the strongest terms these abominable acts of terrorism which, apart from desecrating human life, seriously endanger the ongoing peace process in Northern Ireland," the Pontiff said during his weekly general audience.
"I ask the Lord that no one will again give in to the horrendous temptation of violence," he added.

In a separate development, the historian and senior Sinn Féin politician Tom Hartley (right), currently the Lord Mayor of Belfast, is having talks with members of the Unionist Ulster Political Research Group, which has links to loyalist paramilitary groups in the Ulster Defence Association (UDA).

10 March 2009

Back to the 'Bad Old Days'?

In a month's time the Good Friday Agreement, which was signed in Belfast on April 10th, 1998 (Good Friday), will be eleven years old. It is probably a typically Irish thing that politicians have wasted most of these years with quarrelling over the details of implementation.
Eventually we have seen the power-sharing government at Stormont established - less than two years ago - after the British and Irish governments had brought all political parties from the North to the Scottish university town of St. Andrews, where a second agreement was hammered out under strong pressure from both the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister.

No-one expected things to be perfect, or to be without plenty of 'teething problems'. But after the strongest exponents from both Northern communities - the former arch enemies DUP and Sinn Féin - managed to bury the hatchet and work together constructively in the Stormont administration, even the most serious sceptics began to think that there could be a peaceful future for the Six Counties.

The dream lasted for 22 months, and with every day the hopes for normality and prosperity grew a little larger.

But then came last weekend, and with it the return of guns - and the nutters who use them - to the North of Ireland.
I can understand that even now - despite all peace declarations, power-sharing and cross-community initiatives - some people are angry with Britain and deeply resent the centuries of oppression, exploitation and cruelties the British Crown, its governments, soldiers and civil servants forced upon this island and its native inhabitants. In fact, I am not a fan of the UK myself.

But this does not mean that I get myself a gun and go out at night shooting British soldiers or policemen. It makes no sense at all to behave in such a way. And anyone who claims that the cruel murders committed by a number of Irishmen on Saturday evening at the gate of the British Army's Massereene Barracks (home base of the 38th Regiment, Royal Engineers) in Co. Antrim (north of Belfast) have anything whatsoever to do with politics or the Irish desire for self-determination and a united Irish nation is both a fool and a liar.

What happened on Saturday night under the shady banner of the so-called 'Real IRA' was a crime. A cruel and terrible crime that made no sense, but no more and no less.

The same goes for the cowardly killing of 48-year-old Constable Stephen Carroll (left) - a man with more than 20 years of service as a policeman - which happened yesterday evening in Craigavon, Co. Armagh and was claimed earlier today by another criminal splinter group, the so-called 'Continuity IRA'.
Constable Carroll is the first policeman killed in the North in more than ten years, and the first member of the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) who was murdered on duty. More than 300 policemen were killed in the Six Counties during the 30 years of the 'Troubles', when the police was organised differently and known as the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC).

According to security experts, both groups that claimed responsibility for the murders of the past three days are "small in numbers, and very limited in their capacity". It appears that they represent the most bitter and fanatical hard-liners who separated from the 'Provisional IRA' (PIRA), which conducted nearly three decades of guerilla warfare against Britain at the end of last century, after the IRA Army Council decided to join the peace process, disband their units and decommission their arms.
Who these people are is unknown. Otherwise they would most likely be in prison. But two things are clear: they are neither Irish patriots, nor representatives of anyone but themselves.

It is also significant - and once again quite typically Irish - that the small group of IRA dissenters did not form one single force of opposition, but at least two. It shows that we can rarely agree on anything, and that we are truly a very tribal people. So it would be wrong to call these people 'republicans' or 'nationalists'. They do neither know nor understand what a nation and a republic is, and would lack the discipline to form either. They are nothing but tribal warriors of the worst kind, without any philosophy, political target or proper command structure.
However, this lack of structure and control makes them quite dangerous.

In fact, there are actually more than two radical splinter groups. There could be as many as a dozen groups of disgruntled ex-IRA people or radical extremists who are determined to carry on regardless. But most of them are so tiny - some maybe not more than four or five people - that they are not able for active operations. Most of them are - thankfully - also lacking weapons and explosives at this time. This limits their anger and action to speeches, poems and articles in small newspapers.
And there is also the possibility that the British intelligence agencies MI-5 and MI-6 still operate a few of their rogue agents provocateur in Ireland. They were amazingly successful during the 'Troubles' and managed to infiltrate almost all of the republican organisations, from Sinn Féin to the IRA Army Council. In some cases those agents rose to astonishingly high positions within the organisations they spied on, perhaps because they were a little more efficient and motivated than the average Irish rebel.

The two groups one has heard of over the years - 'Real IRA' (RIRA) and 'Continuity IRA' (CIRA) - have somehow managed to arm and equip themselves.
It is not clear if they still use former PIRA stocks which they brought under their control before the decommissioning process began or if they have obtained new weapons, perhaps from abroad.

On Saturday evening the so-called 'Real IRA' ambushed four off-duty British soldiers in Antrim. They had come to the gate of their garrison to collect some pizza, which they had ordered to celebrate their departure from Belfast. They were already dressed in khaki-coloured battle fatigues, and hours later they would have been on an aeroplane to Kabul, for a tour of duty in Afghanistan.
The gunmen who had - it appears - followed the pizza delivery man (who is a Polish citizen working here) were shooting indiscriminately, firing more than 60 rounds in about 30 seconds. When they fled the scene, they left behind two soldiers dead, two others wounded, and two civilians also seriously injured.

For the past ten years such horrors were absent from the streets of the Six Counties, and if we heard or read about that kind of thing, it would be news from Iraq or Afghanistan. Now, it seems, the monster of terror has returned to our island.

Why now? And why at all?

This is difficult to answer, and only the perpetrators could really do it. But they remain silent and in the shadows, as one would expect it from the cowards they are.

In Co. Armagh, where the murder of Constable Carroll took place last night, the situation is slightly different than in Co. Antrim. Even during the thirty years of the 'Troubles' Armagh - traditionally the religious capital of all Ireland - and the surrounding county were a special case. There are feuds that run for centuries, and terrorist activities were always concentrated in a few small communities.
The sudden and - for most people - unexpected escalation of violent crime is only the latest act in a long-running series of local rebellion, rural thuggery and organised crime.
Unless the authorities in the North are willing and determined to drain the social swamp that keeps producing generation after generation of thugs and criminals, there will be no end to this problem.

There are, however, two silver linings around the dark clouds that have gathered over the Six Counties since Saturday evening.
In the late afternoon and early evening of today the PSNI arrested two men in Co. Armagh, close to the scene of last night's murder. According to a police spokesman they are "a man aged 37 and a 17-year-old youth, living locally". It is of course too early to draw conclusions, but it appears that the PSNI in Co. Armagh have at least a good idea who their opposition is. (So far no arrests have been made in Co. Antrim.)

The second positive, and probably even more significant, aspect is the rarely seen unity with which politicians of all parties - in the North, in the Republic and in Britain - have condemned the two latest acts of savagery and left no doubt that they will not derail - not even touch - the peace process and the determination for a decent political structure of fairness and co-operation in Ireland, North and South.

It would be easy for the Unionists to cry foul and point fingers, as they have done many times in the past. But nearly two years in government have taught even the most fundamentalist 'black Protestant' followers of Ian Paisley that shouting from the roof tops is no answer to political challenges, and that even in the North of Ireland the world is not just black and white.

And it would be equally easy for Republicans to wash their hands of radical and uncontrollable elements which are, after all, the product of the systematic unfairness, discrimination and 'Irish apartheid' that were the pillars of political philosophy in British-ruled Northern Ireland for 80 years.

But this time there is a strong united front standing against crime and terror. In a joint press conference with PSNI Chief Constable Sir Hugh Orde (centre) in Belfast the North's First Minister (and DUP leader) Peter Robinson (left) and his Deputy, the senior Sinn Féin politician Martin McGuinness (right), made it clear that those who threatened stability and violated the peace are the enemies of them all.

McGuinness, in his youth himself an active member of the Provisional IRA who rose to command the Derry Brigade of that guerilla force, used the strongest words of all the politicians.
"In the past," he said, "there were people fighting for a united Ireland and against British rule. After three decades they decided that peaceful means are the better way to pursue their aims. Now we have a small group of self-appointed avengers who claim to act on behalf of Ireland. These people are traitors to the whole of Ireland. What they do betrays everything Irish nationalists and republicans stand for. They are scum and deserve to be treated as such. They deserve no support from anyone, and I urge the people to co-operate with the police in every possible way and form."

Such a tough statement has rarely been heard from an Irish Republican in the past, and it demonstrates clearly that Sinn Féin - in the past often seen as the 'political wing of the IRA' - is now a normal democratic party like any other in Ireland or Britain.

There is no nation on this planet without crime, and no society without social problems. They vary from one country to the next, and even from town to town things can be different. But the common factor of all crime is that it is directed against the common good, as well as against certain individuals.

In many Irish and British newspapers and on radio stations in both countries journalists and commentators have asked yesterday and today if the North of our beautiful island is "on the way back to the bad old days" of wide-spread violence, terror and the deployment of British troops on the streets of Irish towns and cities.
While some might have contemplated that seriously for a while, I do not expect it to happen. The Irish - and even more so the British - have in the past been slow learners of history and political wisdom. But now a new generation of politicians is in charge, a generation able to look forward and see a future, instead of burying their heads in the quarrels of the past.

There will be no turn-about, no return to guerilla fighting and civil war. As serious and shocking the murders of three uniformed members of the British security forces are, they will not create a new division of the Irish people. One can only hope that the PSNI will deal with the two acts of terror as quickly and professionally as possible, and that those responsible will be brought to Justice in due course.

But we all - Irish people in both jurisdictions - should also be aware of the new threats, as minor as they may be compared with the past, and be vigilant against people whose anti-social attitude would be a danger to any nation, state and society. They include thugs and common criminals, violent gangs and drug dealers as much as those who are trying to hide their brutal murders under a false flag of nationalism and political opposition.
It is high time that tribalism - a typical Irish trait for more than 2000 years - makes way for a new form of positive and true nationalism. Unless the people of Ireland - North and South - realise that our future is linked, and that we can only live peaceful and prosper if everyone co-operates on the basis of common sense and equal standards, we will never get rid of minority violence against the will and aims of the vast majority.

In a welcome change from the past all our politicians - and those in Britain as well - have left bickering and party politics behind. They have united against a common enemy - the enemy of the common people - and shown us the way. It is now for us - every person on this island - to follow their example and move forward into better times. Being people deeply rooted in history, we will never forget the 'bad old days' of violence, but we will never turn back. Even thinking of doing that would be nothing short of collective national suicide.

The Emerald Islander

05 March 2009

Taxi Drivers protest against idiotic Regulation

More than 1500 taxi drivers have protested in Dublin this afternoon over the issue of taxi licences.

The protesting drivers assembled at Merrion Square, after making their way from three separate meeting points at the Liffey Valley Shopping Centre, the Stillorgan Shopping Centre and the Airside Retail Park

This was the fifth public protest by the pressure group Taxi Drivers for Change.

The drivers claim that - since the deregulation of licensing in the year 2000 - the number of taxis in Dublin has risen from originally 2000 to now 25000 (!) and say that too many taxis are currently in operation. As a result it is impossible for drivers to make a decent living.

Taxi Drivers for Change wants the taxi industry to be restructured and the issuing of new licences to be suspended.

The Department of Transport acknowledged that "taxi drivers are facing genuine difficulties". However, a spokesperson said that the Minister for Transport is "waiting for the Commission on Taxi Regulation to report before he makes any further comment".

This is another typical example of the government dragging its feet while a serious problem is appearing on their doorstep. Noel Dempsey (right), the Minister for Transport, has no interest in doing anything, as he has not a clue about the situation on the streets. He also has the reputation of being one of the most messy and least efficient Fianna Fáil ministers.

Neither he nor anyone else in government is willing to acknowledge that the whole idea of 'independent' regulation is a complete failure and responsible for the shambles we can see now every day.

Ireland is a small country with only about 4 million population. But it has a 'Commission on Taxi Regulation' which is "an independent public body, the principal function of which is the development and maintenance of a regulatory framework for the control and operation of small public service vehicles (SPSVs) which comprise taxis, wheelchair accessible taxis, hackneys and limousines". (The author of this definition should be nominated for a hogwash jargon award...)
It is housed in a splendid office building in Dublin and employs 22 people full-time (and some more part-time).
The 22 permanent staff are the Commissioner Kathleen Doyle, and under her two directors, three department heads and a technical advisor. Below management level there are
  • one 'customer services manager',
  • two 'customer services administrators',
  • one 'information officer',
  • one 'enforcement executive',
  • one 'enforcement administrator'
  • and nine 'enforcement officers'.
What all these people with their pompous and meaningless job titles are actually doing all day is anyone's guess. But they are very well paid, for sure.
I asked many taxi drivers about them, and the overwhelming opinion is that they are "a total nuisance", "completely useless", "a waste of space" and "a waste of taxpayers' money".

But that is not enough. The 'Commission on Taxi Regulation' has also a part-time 'Advisory Council' with no less than 17 members! What they do is even more nebulous than the purpose of the commission itself.

In contrast to the Irish situation let's have a brief look at Germany, the largest of the 27 EU countries, with a population of over 82 million (more than twenty times the size of Ireland) and many more taxis than we have.
Germany has neither a commission on taxi regulation, nor any advisory council. The legislation on how to operate a taxi is very clear, and anything that needs to be changed or regulated is done by two civil servants in the German Federal Ministry of Transport. That is it. Two people, for a population of over 82 million, while we have a total of at least 39 people for a population of little more than 4 million.

I think that speaks for itself and needs no further comment.

If the government were really serious with their plans to save money, they would simply abolish the whole bureaucratic apparatus and let the matter of taxis be handled by a civil servant in the Department of Transport. That was good enough until the year 2000, and it worked fine.
But then Bertie Ahern began his mad and irresponsible spending spree, which coincided with a massive programme to create cosy public service jobs for his friends and supporters.

Within a couple of years countless 'regulators' were created out of nothing, and they all got lavish offices with plenty of staff. None of these 'regulators' - from the 'Financial Regulator' over the 'Energy Regulator' and the 'Communications Regulator' to the 'Commission on Taxi Regulation' - has done anything worth doing. In fact, they have made the situation in Ireland a lot worse and cost the taxpayers vast sums of money.

We should scrap the whole lot at once. It would save us hundreds of millions immediately and make life in many areas a lot less complicated.
But going by previous experience, I do not expect this to happen. The cosy cartel of government, TDs, civil servants and corporate bosses is not willing to make the sacrifices the Taoiseach and his Minister for Finance have in mind for the rest of us.

Perhaps some more, and some more direct action is called for to wake them up. I salute the 1500 taxi drivers who made their fifth contribution to this process today, and I was myself among the 120,000 who recently demonstrated in Dublin. We will have to keep this up, and - if necessary - increase the pressure. Otherwise we are settled with this incompetent government for another three years, and by then Ireland would certainly be bankrupt and a failed state.

The Emerald Islander

04 March 2009

Bausch & Lomb seeks 195 Redundancies

Trade union representatives at Bausch & Lomb (photo) in Waterford have been told that the company seeks 195 redundancies, if possible on a voluntary basis.
Negotiations over severance packages will take place in the coming weeks.

The US-owned multinational company, which makes eye care products, employs currently 1400 people at its Waterford factory and is one of the main employers in Ireland's oldest city.

Despite the redundancies, the company has said it is "committed to continuing manufacturing in Waterford".

Most of the staff are currently working three weeks out of every four as part of short-time working arrangements.

The Government is really a travelling Circus

Since Monday's strange incident, when a door fell off an Aer Corps helicopter in mid-flight over Co. Kerry (see my entries of March 2nd & 3rd), the eyes of many Irish people have been opened to the strange and scandalous travel habits of our government ministers.

It appears that Martin Cullen's extravagant helicopter trip from Waterford to Dublin via Killarney, which cost the taxpayers at least € 8130 and created additional costs of around € 35,000, was not at all unusual. Most of our ministers are using the Aer Corps' aircraft regularly for all sorts of trips and don't mind what it costs, because for them it is all free.
In fact, our government has become a real travelling circus, with each minister trying to out-do the others in extravagancy and waste of taxpayers' money.

But since Monday the nation is aware of that and has shown remarkable feats of vigilance and observation.

It has been reported - and meanwhile confirmed by a government spokesperson - that the Tánaiste (Ireland's Deputy Prime Minister) Mary Coughlan (photo), who is also Minister for Enterprise, Trade & Employment, took a flight in one of the government's two main jet aircraft from Dublin to Shannon last Friday.
There she was met by her ministerial Mercedes car, which her Garda chauffeur had brought empty from the capital to Shannon earlier.
Coughlan, who is Ireland's answer to Sarah Palin and nicknamed 'The Cow', was driven over a very short distance from the airport to a nearby industrial estate, where she officially announced the creation of a few new jobs.

Not that this will make any difference to our current recession, as unemployment in Ireland has just risen to a record 10.2%. But the government is now so beleaguered and desperate that every single new job is announced with pomp and circumstances (while job losses are treated rather with a deafening silence).

After a brief stay at the industrial estate, and having performed her PR job as bland as usual, the Tánaiste was driven back to Shannon airport, where she boarded the government jet again and returned to Dublin Airport. There presumably a second state Mercedes was waiting for her, and the one used at Shannon was driven back to the capital, once again empty.

What this bizarre escapade has cost the taxpayers could not be specified at this time, but using the government jet alone for a single flight creates expenses in the range of € 25,000 to 30,000.
At least that was the information received when the same jet was used last year to transport the Taoiseach and three of his ministers - Willie O'Dea (Defence), Batt O'Keeffe (Education) and the ever-present Martin Cullen (Arts, Sport & Tourism) - from Dublin to Shannon. They were then driven in two state cars to Limerick, to watch a Rugby match.

If the government, which keeps telling us now on a daily basis that "we have no money" and that "we all will have to make sacrifices", would be serious, these extravagant journeys would cease. As Ireland is a small country, most places can be reached by car in acceptable times. And when a flight is really necessary, local transport at the airport of arrival could and should be used.

But there is an even better - and much cheaper - way to handle ministerial addresses, speeches and announcements. After all, we live in the 21st century and modern communication technology is available to every government department.
Instead of having ministers rushing around the country like a travelling circus in order to give a string of usually boring speeches to equally boring gatherings of all kinds, these addresses could be given by video link from the minister's office.
This would cost a small fraction of the amount clocked up each year by ministerial journeys. The same message would get across, and the government would also be seen as being serious when it comes to saving money. On top of that it would also show the government as a modern entity that can and does use the latest available technology.

There is no need to provide a separate state car - each with a Garda as full-time chauffeur - for every minister and junior minister. In most of the other EU countries - many much larger than Ireland - there is a government motor pool with a limited amount of cars, which are shared by all ministers. Ireland should follow those examples.

But so far there seems to be no will to reduce the lavish travelling circus. While ordinary people are going to face ever higher taxes and levies, the government continues to behave like a bunch of medieval princes.

Meanwhile another - and even more bizarre - case has been reported. According to information received by Ireland's national broadcaster RTÉ a ministerial car and its driver were used for the purpose of transporting a minister's private dog over a distance of 250 miles. This apparently occured "during the Christmas holidays" and it has not yet been established which minister was responsible. (But given the current political climate and public mood, it might well be revealed soon. If so, I will of course tell you.)

However, the attitude alone speaks for itself. And so does an official statement, issued today by the Department of Justice. It says plainly that "any minister is free to do with the official state car whatever he - or she - likes".
On that basis one has to presume that the government's official fox is in charge of the nation's hen houses...

The Emerald Islander

03 March 2009

The Aer Corps - Fianna Fáil's Air Taxi Service

Yesterday we learned that a large side door had fallen off a new Aer Corps helicopter (above) in mid-flight over Co. Kerry. (see yesterday's entry below)
On its own this would be a rather minor news item, of real interest only to military experts and aircraft enthusiasts. But there is a lot more to this incident than the eye meets at first glance.

Although the official investigation by Aer Corps experts is still under way and I would not want to jump to conclusions from a distance, an incident like this can have in principal three possible reasons:
  1. It could be a construction fault;
  2. It could be caused by wear and tear or metal fatigue;
  3. It could be the result of shoddy maintenance.
The first option could be blamed on the helicopter's Italian manufacturer, Augusta-Westland. It would be the least embarrassing for Ireland, and faults can happen anywhere, even though they should not.
Option two is the least likely. The AW 139 is a new helicopter and regarded as reliable and solid .
The third possibility looks like the most plausible to me. During my own long service in the Navy I had plenty of experience with helicopters, including as a crew member of one for some time. It is very easy to overlook a small maintenance detail, especially during the routine conditions any military organisation developes in peace time.

But the real scandal is not the falling off of a helicopter door, as inconvenient and embarrassing it might be for the Aer Corps. No, the outrage is the use of this helicopter - and others operated by the Irish Aer Corps - for unnecessary ministerial journeys.

It has emerged that the AW 139, a modern medium-sized aircraft that can transport 15 people at one time, was used yesterday as the private air taxi for Martin Cullen (right), Ireland's Minister for the Arts, Sport & Tourism. It collected the Fianna Fáil TD in the morning in Waterford, his home city and constituency, and flew him and one assistant to Killarney, Co. Kerry. There the minister gave a short speech to the about 250 members of the Irish Hotels' Federation, which were holding their annual conference in the Malton Hotel.

There was nothing urgent in the minister's address, and nothing new either. What he said to the hoteliers was just what they expected to hear: Tourist numbers are down significantly (they fell by 3% last year, and the predictions for 2009 are much worse), prices for hotel accomodation - and everything else in Ireland - are way too high, and we all will have to suffer, pull together and do our bit to get out of recession.

What was so important in this speech, and in the minister's visit to the conference in Killarney, that it justified the use of an AW 139 helicopter, at a cost - for Ireland's taxpayers - of € 8130?
Like every Irish minister Martin Cullen has a large Mercedes government car, with a Garda as permanent chauffeur. As his address to the hoteliers began at 2.15 pm, there was plenty of time to drive from Waterford to Killarney. Cullen had no appointments in Waterford on Monday, so if he had left in the morning, he would have arrived in Killarney well in time for lunch. This would have cost a fraction of the helicopter ride.
And while the minister was in the air, his chauffeur drove the empty black Mercedes to Dublin, with orders to meet his boss in the afternoon after the helicopter had brought him to the capital.

After giving his speech, Martin Cullen - apparently in a hurry - left the Malton Hotel in Killarney and boarded the AW 139 waiting for him outside. (During the minister's address the helicopter was spotted by local people flying circles over the nearby National Park. Was that waste of fuel necessary as well?) Once again there were only two passengers - Cullen and his assistant - in the 15-seater aircraft.
Shortly after take-off the left side door suddenly detached itself and crashed into the National Park from a height of 150 metres. (It has meanwhile been located and removed by Aer Corps personnel.) As reported yesterday already, the helicopter then made an emergency landing at the Killarney Golf & Fishing Club.

Martin Cullen emerged "visibly shaken", but determined to be flown to Dublin. He was brought by car to Co. Kerry's regional airport at nearby Farranfore, where another Aer Corps AW 139 picked him up later and flew him and his assistant to the capital.
This second helicopter had been over Co. Cork, as part of a combined exercise involving the Aer Corps and the Naval Service. It was ordered to abandon its operation and became the second air taxi for Martin Cullen in one day, which raised the costs for the minister's travel from Waterford to Dublin via Killarney to a staggering € 16,260!!!

The fact that a third AW 139 was used to fly the Aer Corps' investigation team from Baldonnel to Killarney added a further € 8130 to the expenses, though the minister can of course not be held responsible for that, or the incident itself.
However, his inflated ego and sense of self-importance, which made him travel in an Aer Corps helicopter rather than in his ministerial car, has cost the Irish taxpayers dearly. Three of the Aer Corps' six AW 139 had to be used, which is one third of Ireland's entire military helicopter fleet. The cost of the whole affair, including the aftermath, investigation and recovery of the fallen-off door, will be in the area of € 35,000, not counting the costs for repairing the damaged AW 139. How such a sum could ever be justified for a minor domestic appearance and short speech by one of the lesser cabinet ministers is beyond my capacity of understanding.

But it is not even the worst misuse of Aer Corps aircraft by an Irish government minister. A few years ago (the then Tánaiste) Mary Harney (left) - now the widely hated Minister for Health - used the main government jet to fly from Dublin to Sligo, for the sole purpose of being present at the opening of a personal friend's new off-licence (shop for alcoholic drinks).
Such was the political culture in our 'Celtic Tiger' banana republic...

This afternoon a caller to the Live Line programme (with Joe Duffy) on RTÉ Radio 1 pointed out that Martin Cullen could have easily taken a regular Ryan Air flight from Kerry to Dublin.
But Ireland's most popular tourist airline seemed to be not good enough for the cabinet minister with responsibility for the country's Tourism.

Slice by slice and day by day the true dimensions of our scandalous banana republic become ever more visible, even though - to quote a song popular in the 1930s - "No, we grow no bananas". In a state of unprecedented arrogance and ignorance our incompetent government ministers - and in particular those belonging to Fianna Fáil - behave almost like French aristocrats before 1789 or medieval princes with feudal powers. They have forgotten that they were elected by the Irish people, in order to represent them. Instead they live in a world of their own, on a little golden planet that only exists in their imagination. Unfortunately they make the rest of us, all those who live in the real world, pay for their extravagant lifestyle of luxury and pretence.

In two weeks' time - on St. Patrick's Day - it will even be worse, as almost every Irish minister will use the occasion to fly off - always first class - to faraway places at taxpayers' expense. The Taoiseach will fly to Washington, to present a bowl of shamrock to President Barack Obama, if he likes it or not.
This 'tradition', only invented in the late 20th century, reminds me of medieval vassals, who had once a year to pay tribute to their overlord and humour him with presents.
We must be the only nation in the world where the whole government leaves the country on the National Day!

There is nothing wrong with presenting foreign leaders with a special gift of Irish shamrock on the 17th of March. But such friendly gestures fall into the portfolio of ambassadors. And we have plenty of them abroad. What is the point in having them, if they are not even entrusted with the handing over of a bunch of shamrock...?

I am begining to wonder if yesterday's falling-off of the helicopter's door was a kind of omen, a special sign for the situation we are in. It is somehow telling that by now even Irish aircraft are losing parts in mid-air, after the wheels fell off our banks first, and then off our entire economy.

The fighters of 1916, whose blood was the final price for our eventual independence, must be rotating in their graves when they see Fianna Fáil turning our Aer Corps into the party's private air transport service. On Liveline today one of the many angry callers suggested that we need a real revolution in Ireland, and that some heads need to roll...
It would not surprise me if views like his are gaining more momentum, thanks to self-serving arrogant wasters like Martin Cullen. His ilk has sparked revolutions before...

The Emerald Islander