31 August 2009


Today has been a bad day for me, and I am amazed that I can write this at all. For most of the day I got hardly any work done, and days like this are very frustrating. Fortunately they are a rare occurrence in my life.

But they do happen. The main reason is an old injury I received a long time ago, when I was one of the survivors of a helicopter crash. Since not everyone on this unlucky chopper survived, I should be grateful, and in general I am. But sometimes I do wonder why I came out of it alive, while among those killed were two fathers of small children...

One of the injuries I had was a severe concussion, and ever since I have days ruled by massive headaches. Mostly they occur when the weather is bad, when there is a front of low pressure over Ireland. Then they appear without warning and can last for hours, in extreme cases even a whole day.

Over the years I tried various kinds of tablets and pain killers, but they are of very limited use and not able to eliminate those headaches completely.
So eventually I decided not to take anything any more, and just sit out the pain when it comes.

Last night I could barely sleep, and the headaches stayed with me all day, until late this evening. They disappeared only after darkness had fallen and the heavy rain, which was also with us all day yesterday, had stopped eventually.

I ate some fruit, made myself a pot of strong tea and smoked a pipe of Virginia tobacco. So now I am able again to sit at my desk and type words into the computer.

I don't want to bore you with my little problems, or with too many details. But I thought that I should mention my headaches at least once on this weblog, in case other people suffer from them as well. If you do, then you know now that you are not alone. It might help a little, and I know only too well how alone and isolated one can feel when it seems that someone is sticking needles into one's brain non-stop for hours.

So far I have not found any cure for it, and no real solution either. What does help me a little is resting on a sofa, in a room with reduced light (closed curtains), and listening to the radio. Complete silence makes the headaches worse, at least for me.

Well, I am glad that my tormentors have gone again once more, and I hope they will stay away for a good while. And when I reflect on today's news, I have the impression that I might not be the only one with serious headaches in Ireland.
The country is still in a deep crisis, the government is incapable of dealing with it, and we all have to pick up the bill for the politicians' follies. Plenty of reasons to have a headache any day...

The Emerald Islander

30 August 2009

Key Age Group is undecided on Lisbon Treaty

An opinion poll conducted for the new Pro-Lisbon Treaty campaign group 'We Belong' shows that a large percentage of Irish people under the age of 40 is still undecided on how to vote in the second referendum on the faulty treaty.

Over one third of those surveyed by the Behaviour & Attitudes company said that they were likely to vote Yes, while 23% of the people interviewed are likely to vote No.

The campaign group, which is specifically targeting voters between the ages of 24 and 40 in the weeks leading up to the referendum, says an analysis of the voting patterns that led to last year's rejection of the Lisbon Treaty shows that "the 1.18 million people in this age group will be the key to deciding the final result in the referendum on October 2nd".

Today's poll finds that 36% of them are likely to vote Yes, 23% will vote No, and 37% are still undecided.

The research also shows support for the treaty is holding up among those who voted in favour of the proposals in 2008, while 17% of those who voted against it have now changed their minds.

But since there is still more than a month to go until referendum day, much can happen and the outcome is far from certain.

Railway Safety Commission failed to do its Duty "because it could not employ enough Staff"

Critical safety checks on Ireland's railway system have not been carried out for the past three years, because the official body charged with the inspections did not have enough staff.

According to a report in the Irish Independent newspaper, Iarnród Éireann (Ireland's state-owned railway company) "admitted that its inspection regime - covering more than 1200 bridges - would need to be reviewed after one of the busiest rail lines in the country collapsed into the sea last week". (see my entries of August 22nd, 23rd & 26th)

The Railway Safety Commission (RSC) has revealed that it was "too busy approving new rail projects to carry out planned safety checks on existing lines". It was not employing enough staff and apparently "only able to recruit the full complement of safety inspectors this year".

The RSC is charged with ensuring that Iarnród Éireann and other operators perform to the highest safety standards. But it has emerged that just half of the necessary staff were in place to cope with the huge workload of checking safety systems.

The Irish Independent also reports that:
  • The RSC has warned about a lack of inspectors since it began its operations in 2006.
  • It said this "lack of resources" prevented it from "devoting the time we would wish" to safety checks.
  • It had just four inspectors responsible for almost 2000 km of rail lines and hundreds of bridges until this year.
  • Only in 2009 could it recruit an additional three inspectors, bringing the total employed to seven.
As I have reported here earlier (see my entry of August 22nd), the Broadmeadow viaduct, which crosses open water in North-Dublin, collapsed into the sea despite being passed as "safe" following not one, but - as it has now emerged - two inspections by Iarnród Éireann engineers.

According to the Irish Independent, "the company stands by its inspection regime" and is "defending a decision to pass the structure as safe", despite having been told by members of the Malahide Sea Scouts (referred to originally by an Iarnród Éireann spokesman as "a member of the public") that one of the supporting piers was damaged.

The paper also reports that the collapsed pier that caused the viaduct to fall into the water will not be rebuilt. Instead, rail engineers are planning to "strengthen the line", whatever this means.

Serious questions have been raised over how a supposedly 'safe' bridge could suddenly fall into the sea after two inspections.
As additional details emerge about the incident and the more than lax inspection regime of RSC and Iarnród Éireann, it becomes clear that we are unveiling another major Irish scandal here.

There are further concerns about the general safety on Ireland's rail network, especially as the Railway Safety Programme was extended from five to seven years in an effort to reduce costs in last year's Budget.

Ensuring that bridges, viaducts, railway lines, level crossings and all other pieces of Ireland's rail infrastructure are safe is a key plank of the RSC's brief.
Last year, it also approved 57 infrastructure projects, ranging from construction of new bridges to the approval of new Luas (Dublin's city tram) extensions, which led to the postponement of vital inspections.

"The number of railway projects that required RSC approval meant that we were able to commit less time to performance auditing and monitoring than we would have wished," the inspection body warned in its 2008 report.
"A safety management system is only as effective as its implementation. Assessing the railway undertakings' safety case compliance is an essential part of the RSC's work, but lack of resources has, in the past, prevented us devoting the time we would wish to this task."

Fergus O'Dowd, TD (left), Transport spokesman for the main opposition party Fine Gael, said that the Railway Safety Programme had seen its funding cut, and that there is "a lack of accountability" in relation to the Broadmeadow inquiry.
"They're the regulator of the industry, and the guarantor of safety on the trains. I would be very concerned," he said.

Under the Railway Safety Act 2005, Iarnród Éireann is required to commission an independent audit of its safety management system every four years. The next audit is scheduled for 2010.
It will - among other issues - consider if inspections of the Broadmeadow viaduct were regular enough, and if an underwater survey of the pier should have been conducted.

Iarnród Éireann and the RSC are also expected to appear before the Dáil Transport Committee next month to answer questions about safety.

In my opinion a full and independent inquiry into the incident and into the general safety of the Irish railway network is urgently required. On its own Iarnród Éireann can no longer be trusted.

The Emerald Islander

29 August 2009

Dublin Protests over Hospital Cutbacks

Angry protests over health cutbacks have taken place outside two hospitals in Dublin today.

More than fifty people have demonstrated outside Our Lady's Children's Hospital in Crumlin this afternoon, while a separate protest took place at the Mater Misericordiae University Hospital (commonly better known as the 'Mater Hospital').

The protesters, most of them current and former patients of the hospital and their relatives, demanded the reopening of a closed operating theatre and a ward at Crumlin (right). They also called for the reversal of other cuts at Ireland's best-known children's hospital.

Meanwhile, the Labour Party said that 120 beds in the Mater Hospital are now occupied by patients whose treatment has ended.
During a party protest at the hospital, Dublin Labour TD Joe Costello said that "60 of those beds have been occupied for 100 days or more".

He explained that "a lack of step-down facilities means patients cannot be discharged" and that this is having "a knock-on effect on the hospital's Accident & Emergency department".

Deputy Costello said his information was based on an official reply to a parliamentary question he had asked recently.

Motorways by Name only

Many countries in Europe, as well as on other continents, have an excellent system of roads. But Ireland does not. Many countries also have a network of motorways, and - again - Ireland is not among them. What we have on this island of ours is a patchwork of national, regional and local roads, interspersed with roadlets and paths that have not changed much over the past two or three centuries.

When most of Ireland's roads were designed and built, it was predominantly the (then British) military that was doing it, and for obvious reasons.
Thousands of years ago the ancient Egyptians, the Persians and other great empires had built roads to move their soldiers around faster, and the Romans became the true masters of strategic road building. Every major country in the world has learned from them and given attention to important roads.

However, Ireland is not a major country, and it was never touched by Roman civilisation.

This one can still notice here today. Most of our roads were built between the late 18th and early 20th century, and they were built for the usual traffic of the time: people on horseback, horse-drawn coaches and carriages, carts drawn by horses, oxen or donkeys, and people on foot.
And even though most of Irish roads are meanwhile covered with tarmac, they are still winded, quite narrow (especially when one compares them with roads in other countries) and often in need of maintenance we cannot afford.

Until about 30 years ago Ireland did not have any motorway at all. And it did not need one. Then some of the wider national roads around Dublin were designated as 'motorways', in order to give us a more modern look and impress a number of foreign visitors. We still had no real motorways, but pretence is a great thing for the Irish. And if one does it well here and pretends things long enough, people will actually believe that they exist. (Just think of leprechauns and the faireys...)

During the years of pretended economic boom, the period of the - once worshipped and now cursed - 'Celtic Tiger', a few new motorways have been constructed in Ireland. Most of them are in and around Dublin, and some of them were built with private money and are now operated as toll roads. They have the same traffic jams and congestions as all other roads, but their greedy operators charge motorists an arm and a leg for the privilege to crawl over their piece of tarmac instead of some other, a mile or two away.

But even with the new additions to the system, Ireland still has a very bad road network, and almost no motorways. If you want to see the real thing, you have to travel to Germany, where the motorway was invented in the 1930s. There most of them have six lanes as a rule, with some major sections being even wider and providing eight or even ten lanes.

What we have here in Ireland are mostly modernised national roads, in some sections widened to four lanes. But to make us look a little bigger and more important than we actually are, Noel Dempsey (right), currently Minister for Transport, has now "re-classified" 294.3 km of national roads as "motorways".

They are really motorways by name only, and nothing has changed on these roads, except that the speed limit has been increased from 100 km/h (the standard for national roads) to 120 km/h.
Under general traffic laws the new 'motorways' cannot be used by any learner-drivers, motorcycles and "certain types of agricultural vehicles".

One can understand the ban of agricultural vehicles. It makes sense and is the same in most other countries. As there are no 'learner-drivers' elsewhere - with exception of the UK - the question of them using motorways does not arise in other nations. But why ban motorcycles from our 'motorways'? Motorcyclists can use all roads in other countries, and there seem to be no problems with them, as long as they obey the rules of the road like everyone else.

This whole 're-classification' of roads is another example for the confusion and incomptence of our government in general, and for the specific incompetence of Noel Dempsey in particular. The man is useless and clueless, and has demonstrated this in several government departments he was in charge of. And Transport makes no difference to 'the bouncer' from Co. Meath.

The real joke - unfortunately not a good one - is the list of roads that are now 're-classified' as 'motorways'. If you expect a number of lengthy and well-developed sections of overland roads, you will be disappointed.

But then again, this is Ireland, so what can you really expect?

To begin with, of the 294.3 km of national roads that Noel Dempsey has pompously "re-classified as motorways" yesterday, less than half actually exist at present!
Only 42.6% (125.5 km) exist and are 'open for traffic', while 47.9% (140.8 km) are still 'under construction' and 9.5% (the 28 km section of the N 18 from Oranmore to Gort in Co. Galway) is only 'in planning'.

The longest part of newly re-classified 'motorway' that is actually open for traffic is a 21 km section of the N 11 between Arklow in Co. Wicklow and Gorey in Co. Wexford.
The rest is nothing but a higgledy-piggledy patchwork of small to medium-sized pieces all over the country, with the shortest being a section of the N 3 (from Dublin to Cavan) between Littlepace and Loughsallagh, which is just 2.1 km long.

This means that motorists driving on Ireland's national roads in future will constantly have to watch if they are on a stretch of official 'motorway' with 120 km/h speed limit, or on a normal national road with only 100 km/h limit. It will lead to even more confusion than there is now, and most likely to more speeding tickets for drivers who think that they are still on a 'motorway', while they have in fact passed it already.

The whole thing is nothing but a farce, another sick joke from an utterly clueless minister in an incompetent government that is simply not capable of doing anything right.

The Emerald Islander

28 August 2009

Building in Cork City collapsed

While Ireland's government is crumbling at the edges and the coalition is close to collapse (see my entry of August 25th), the country itself is already collapsing and falling to pieces bit by bit.

No, I am not referring to the banks this time. They are holed below the waterline and sinking slowly, but steadily. And no adult alive today who has a working brain and seen and experienced the absolute crazy, irresponsible and ruthless attitude and behaviour of our banks will ever trust them again. (Any old box or mattress is a much better and safer place for your money than the ugly temples of silly greed and certain doom...)

But as I said, I am not writing about the banks today. When I say that the country is falling to pieces, I mean it literally.

The latest episode in this new series of contemporary Irish 'entertainment' did happen in Cork, Ireland's second-largest city, where a complete multi-story city building has suddenly and unexpectedly collapsed yesterday (photo left).

The incident happened in Castle Street, right in the city, and it is a miracle that no one was killed or seriously injured when the house collapsed into the street without warning.

The only 'casualty' was a small silver-coloured car that was parked right in front of the house, which collapsed on top of it and made it a complete insurance write-off. (see photo right)

The building, which was in a row of houses and connected to two other buildings to the left and right, was undergoing renovation for some time.

Buildings and offices on Castle Street have been evacuated and traffic diversions are in place in the area.

Gardaí in Cork are puzzled by the incident, and a full investigation is expected to take place.

This is the second time within one week that a substantial construction in Ireland has collapsed suddenly and without any apparent reason.
Last Friday evening a 20-metre-long section of the railway viaduct across the Broadmeadow estuary near Malahide station in the North of Dublin also collapsed without warning. (see my entries of August 22nd, 23rd & 26th)

In contrast to many other countries, Ireland does not have a national Department for Buildings and Construction. This leads to the ridiculous situation that there are hundreds of different rules and regulations for different kinds of buildings and structures, often very different from one local authority to the next.
At the same time Ireland's planning law and planning process is among the most complicated and bureaucratic in the world.

If we want to see some progress eventually, this has to stop. We have to streamline planning and building regulations on a national level, with the same rules applying equally to everyone. And when it comes to buildings and other structures, the element of safety and solidity has to come above all other concerns.

Even though I am not much involved with the construction industry or property business, I have seen over the years too many houses and other buildings that I - as a layman - would regard as unsafe or at least critical. They are still in place, and unchanged, and perhaps other collapse cases waiting to happen.

There is no inspection of buildings in Ireland, but such takes place in most continental countries, where buildings do not suddenly collapse. Where and when people take care, things work well, are functioning and satisfactory for all.
But in ridiculous banana republics like Ireland no one seems to care any more, especially not for the common good. Most people are just looking after 'No. 1' (themselves), and an incompetent government, hand-in-glove with a sluggish and self-absorbed bureaucracy, has no interest in the common good either. As long as our ministers, TDs and civil servants receive their exorbitant salaries, 'allowances' and - eventually - pensions, they don't care for anything else.

One of the recommendations of 'An Bord Snip (Nua)' is the complete abolition of the Department of the Gaeltacht, Rural & Community Affairs, whose few responsibilities could easily be taken over by other existing government departments.
This is one of the few recommendations of Colm McCarthy's four-men commission I applaude and fully agree with.
It also means that we could fill a soon empty space in the cabinet with something new and more useful than the Gaeltacht. Why not create a new Department of Construction and Housing and give it responsibility for every house, building and structure in the country?
Many other countries have such a department, and it is more than time for Ireland to follow suit, unless we want to hear of ever more collapsing buildings on a regular basis.

The Emerald Islander

Outlook for Aer Lingus is "highly uncertain" as the Company reports increasing Losses

The management of Ireland's national 'flag carrier' Aer Lingus says that "the outlook for the airline is highly uncertain" in light of the latest financial results. Their losses have tripled to now € 93 million in the first half of this year.

After taxes the net loss in the first six months of 2009 more than tripled to now € 73.9 million (compared with a net loss of € 21.6 million for the same period of last year), while revenues were down over 12% on the back of lower passenger fares and cargo fees.

In a company statement Aer Lingus said that it is "not in a position to give guidance for the full year at this time".

The company also announced that it can no longer afford to pay what is described as 'legacy-style' rates to its staff.

Aer Lingus' Chief Financial Officer Sean Coyle stated that the company's board has "a tough job, but believes the airline can be made successful as an independent entity as it undertakes an exhaustive and wide-ranging examination of its operations and commercial focus".

This is nice boardroom lingo, the new language big companies and their representatives use these days to confuse the rest of us, the normal people who speak proper English.

But what does it actually mean?

"Clearly we can't sustain operating losses of these levels, we can't sustain the kind of cash burn we've had in the first half of the year, and we need to rebase our cost structure to live with the lower fares that our passengers are prepared to pay," Sean Coyle explained in a second attempt.

Well, this is a lot clearer, although I still wonder what it means "to rebase our cost structure"...

Perhaps it means just to spend less money, and maybe Aer Lingus should start doing that from the top down. Their directors are still overpaid, and even more so in light of the now revealed disastrous company results.

No bank is prepared to lend money to an airline that is burning about € 400 million of net cash in a 12-month period. Not even the Irish banks that brought us the 'credit crunch', recession and national finance crisis.

"We have to come up with a cost plan to stabilise our position. Nothing is ruled out at this time," Sean Coyle emphasised.

I wonder if he and his fellow directors have thought of reducing the number of their flights and aeroplanes, to match an obviously shrinking market. The idea that anyone can fly to anywhere for next to nothing and for no particular reason is ludicrous. It ruins the rest of the ozon layer that is left by now, and does further damage to our planet.

Education has to do its part to bring the message home, and governments - not only the Irish - have to play their part as well, first of all by imposing normal fuel taxation on aircraft fuel, which is still - and for no good reason - tax-free.

Too many people still fly to too many destinations, for no real reason. Holidays can be spent in one's own country as well as abroad, and if someone really feels the need to go to other countries, we still have very good and reliable ferry services.

The financial crisis of Aer Lingus is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. It shows that airlines and air travel as most people know them are no longer viable and sustainable. I have seen this a long time ago and not used any airline or commercial flight for more than 20 years.
It is time now for everyone to wake up, see the light and accept reality.

If we allow ourselves - and the airlines - to stay in cloud-cuckoo-land, the crash that will happen in due course will be at least of the same dimension as the recent collapse of the banks.

Good Morning, Ireland! Good Morning, World!

The Emerald Islander

27 August 2009

Eamon Gilmore calls again for the temporary Nationalisation of Ireland's major Banks

Eamon Gilmore (photo), leader of Ireland's Labour Party, has again called for the temporary nationalisation of the country's main banks "as an alternative to the setting up of the government-proposed National Asset Management Agency (NAMA)".

Speaking on RTÉ News, Gilmore said that "a mechanism should be established to write down bad debts, before returning the banks to the market when they are restored to good order".

The Labour Party leader also emphasised that "it is a necessity to get the banks lending to businesses again".

His proposal was not without cost, Gilmore added, but he claimed it would mean a lot less risk for the taxpayer than the government's plan.

Under the government's proposed legislation, NAMA would be taking over € 90 billion worth of debt away from Irish banks, so that they can start lending again.

The amount NAMA would pay for the debt has yet to be decided. But in an article, published in yesterday's edition of The Irish Times, 46 economists warned that NAMA might pay too much and thus create an extra burden for Ireland's taxpayers. (see yesterday's entry below)

Fine Gael has already stated that it will oppose the government's NAMA plan when the Dáil debates the legislation next month. Since Sinn Féin, which demands a referendum on NAMA, is against it as well, this means that all opposition parties in parliament are united on the matter, even though they do not agree on the details of possible alternatives.

The Green Party, who is the junior partner in the government coalition, will hold a special conference to debate the plan. (see my entry of August 25th)
The outcome of this conference is far from certain, and neither is the continuous support of the Green Party for the current government.

As things stand at present, anything is possible. A temporary nationalisation of our major banks - as demanded today and previously by Eamon Gilmore and his party, as well as by Sinn Féin and the Socialist Party in separate statements - would in my opinion be the safest and least costly option.

We can expect that the government will not listen and stick to its original plan. So I suggest that now is a good time to contact your local TDs, especially those from Fianna Fáil, and tell them in no uncertain terms what you think of NAMA. It might also be helpful to mention that their own seat will be in serious danger if they ram through a legislation that no one in the country really wants, but for which everyone would have to pay severely over decades to come.

The Emerald Islander

26 August 2009

Economists warn Ireland's Government of the "economic folly" to create NAMA as planned

A group of senior economists has urged the Irish government to reconsider its approach to the planned National Asset Management Agency (NAMA), saying that "not to do so would be economic folly".

The 46 academics, including ten professors, have entered the debate on the future of Ireland's economy in general and NAMA in particular with an article that is published in today's edition of The Irish Times.

The group of economists argues in the article that "alternatives to NAMA are possible" and there are "a number of other ways to lay the ground for a healthy banking system".

The experts say that - in its current form - NAMA "commits the State to overpay for troubled bank assets". Instead only the current market value for assets (ca. € 30 billion) should be paid, and not 'optimistic' higher values envisaged under NAMA. This would leave the banks in need of more capital, and more of it should come from bondholders and shareholders of the banks.

The government's advisor Dr. Alan Ahearne has disputed a number of the group's claims and criticised its arguments. But when one has the choice between the arguments and 'expertise' of the current government, which created the crisis and has nothing to offer but incompetence on one side, and a group of 46 well-known, established and experienced economists on the other, I know whom I trust and listen to.

The Emerald Islander

"Cosmetic, rather than structural..." - indeed

A spokesman for Iarnród Éireann (Ireland's state-owned railways) has declared that an underwater inspection of the railway viaduct that collapsed last Friday close to Malahide in Co. Dublin (see my entries of August 22nd & 23rd) was "carried out in line with regulations" three years ago.

Barry Kenny explained that underwater inspections on all rail bridges and related structures are carried out every six years, apparently in line with the recommendations of the Railway Safety Commission.

As reported, last Friday evening a 20-metre-long section of the rail viaduct across the Broadmeadow estuary (photo), north of Malahide station, collapsed into the water shortly after a passing train driver had noticed damage on the line.

Iarnród Éireann confirmed today that concern had been expressed by "a member of the public" on Monday, August 17th about "erosion on the viaduct".

In response an engineer (the one mentioned and referred to in my entry of August 23rd) carried out an inspection the following day - Tuesday, August 18th - on the basis of the reported concern.
"He found that the markings were cosmetic, rather than structural," says Barry Kenny.

He emphasises that "the individual who contacted the company referred to markings on the pier, but did not refer to a change in the water flow". (A report telling a different story has appeared in today's edition of The Irish Times.)

Once again Iarnród Éireann is trying to re-assure Ireland's rail passengers and the general population that there is no reason to be worried.
The company provides all sorts of detailed information, but does not answer the main questions that are on everyone's mind.

It is simply not believable that a solid concrete structure could be fine and in perfect order on a Tuesday, and then collapse on the following Friday, only three days later.

One has to ask oneself if one can in future believe anything that Iarnród Éireann is saying.

The state-owned, run-down and loss-making Irish railway company has long been neglected by successive Irish governments (of various party structure), while its employees enjoy their safe and cosy jobs and think that the railway is simply there to provide them with a good living.

Would anyone in Iarnród Éireann have a look at other countries, where railways are doing well and are run for the benefit of passengers instead of its staff, they could learn a thing or two and begin to operate a decent railway system in Ireland once again.

But as things are at present, Iarnród Éireann is a sad and typical example of the state Ireland, its economy and its political system are in.
The collapsed viaduct in Co. Dublin speaks for itself and is a monument for the company's total ignorance and failure.
And the weak attempts of explanation offered by Mr. Barry Kenny only add insult to injury. The people of Ireland might be in general a bit gullible, but most of them are not stupid.
And certainly not yours truly,

The Emerald Islander
(a regular user of Iarnród Éireann)

25 August 2009

Ireland's Government is crumbling at the Edges

Since both Houses of the Oireachtas (Ireland's parliament) are on their long summer holidays, August is usually a month with few political news and events. However, as we are in the deepest economic and political crisis since the foundation of the State, the political matters have not gone away this year as they normally do when Leinster House is empty for months.

There are too many dark clouds hanging over Ireland at present, and in particular over the current government, which is slowly but steadily crumbling at the edges of its coalition.

Only recently two Fianna Fáil backbench TDs resigned the 'party whip', which means that they are no longer members of FF's parliamentary party group. They did not (yet) go as far as their former colleague Joe Behan from Wicklow, who left Fianna Fáil for good last year and now sits as an independent TD. But they might well follow Behan if things are getting any worse.
And there are more Fianna Fáil backbenchers who feel increasingly isolated and uncomfortable in their party. It only needs a few more of them to have the courage and guts to leave, and the government will be without a majority.

And there is of course the always present 'Green factor'. Ever since the Green Party made its fatal decision to join Fianna Fáil in a government coalition two years ago, a significant minority of party members are very unhappy with their leadership.
Many have meanwhile left the Green Party altogether, while others - like Brendan McCann, who was the Green candidate in Waterford in several local and general elections - remain nominally party members, but have gone into political hibernation.

In the recent local government elections the Green Party was almost wiped out completely and lost most of their previously 18 local councillors, while one of their former councillors - Nessa Childers - was elected to the European Parliament for the Labour Party on the same day.

So it is no surprise that the mood in the Green Party is pretty foul at present, and even within their small parliamentary group (of six TDs and two unelected Senators) there is a constant rumbling and grumbling, combined with great uncertainty where to go from here and how to proceed.

The government's plan to establish a National Asset Management Agency (NAMA) is the most controversial subject at present, and Taoiseach Brian Cowen is facing renewed pressure from the Green Party over it.
To make things worse for the Fianna Fáil leader, Mattie McGrath, one of his backbenchers from Co. Tipperary, has expressed strong doubts about NAMA as well.

Senator Dan Boyle (left), the chairman of the Green Party, has again warned that his party's support for the NAMA legislation "cannot be taken for granted".
In an interview with RTÉ News, Senator Boyle said that the Greens had "an internal process to complete" and that their members would ultimately make the decision.

This is the grass roots democracy for which the Green Party has been rightly famous over the past 25 years. But much of its actual people power has evaporated since many key people who opposed the Green's participation in government have left the party. It will be interesting to see in which direction the remaining Green Party grass roots will turn when they vote on NAMA.

In recent days, both Taoiseach Brian Cowen and Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan have expressed strong confidence that the Greens will back their NAMA legislation, if not outright then perhaps with some amendments. But I would not put a bet on that, if I were a betting man.

Meanwhile another Fianna Fáil backbench TD came out of the proverbial woodwork and said he would "require many more assurances from the Minister for Finance" before he could vote in favour of the proposed NAMA legislation.

Mattie McGrath (right), Fianna Fáil TD for Tipperary-South, stated that he has received "a huge amount of calls from people worried about the NAMA legislation". Some of them, he said, were "demanding a referendum on the NAMA plan".

This would not be a bad idea, and if adopted by the government, a NAMA referendum could easily be held together with the second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty on October 2nd.

"It appears that a few hundred bankers have brought the country to its knees, and that the tax payer will have to pick up the bill," Deputy McGrath said, demanding that "the minister [for Finance] must provide detailed assurances to TDs at the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party meeting in Athlone next month".

Mattie McGrath, who was elected in 2007 for the first time and is therefore a 'new face' in the Dáil, added that he could "not trust the Department of Finance", given its record in dealing with the banking crisis to date.

Such clear and open words from a Fianna Fáil TD are rare, and very welcome. They show that not everyone in Fianna Fáil has lost the plot, and that there are still some government politicians with a portion of common sense left intact.

The question is how many of them are there, will their number be large enough to make a difference, and will they have the courage to stand firm, even if it could mean bringing down the government.
Should they do that, indeed, coming generations of Irish people will remember them fondly, and most of the Irish people alive would be most grateful.

Perhaps the Greens will beat the unhappy Fianna Fáil backbenchers to the post and pull the political emergency break. They will be punished by the voters for their support of Fianna Fáil anyway, if they stay in government or walk out. But if they could see their mistake of 2007 and have the guts to admit it, they might have a chance to survive as a party and - over some years - regroup and regrow again. (If they stick to Brian Cowen and Fianna Fáil until the bitter end, the Greens will most likely join the PDs as a sad footnote in political history.)

As much as the parliamentary holiday period is usually regarded as 'quiet', it is full of tensions and possibilities this year. Watch this space, and stay informed.
The Irish government is crumbling, and its days are numbered. I predict that it will not last until 2012, when the next regular general election is due to happen.

There are various elements that could end Brian Cowen's rule, from the Greens walking out to a backbench revolt in his own party.
And we should not forget the second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. If the people of Ireland have the courage to follow their hearts, minds and conviction and say 'No' to Lisbon for a second time (on October 2nd), the government could collapse like a house of cards.

This would be the best thing that could happen to Ireland, and the first real step on the way out of recession and crisis.

The Emerald Islander

24 August 2009

Port Workers protest in Dublin Docks

Today striking Dublin port workers have been holding protest marches in the docks area of the capital over job cuts, redundancy terms and planned changes to pay and conditions.

Marches organised by port and dock workers, their families and supporters have taken place on both sides of the East Link Bridge, proceeding to the Marine Terminals Company offices at the port.

The workers, who are members of SIPTU (Ireland's largest trade union), are striking to show their opposition to attempts to de-unionise the port company, and their dispute with the management is now in its eighth week.

Motorists had been warned to expect delays until this afternoon, but AA Roadwatch - the Automobile Association's monitoring service - says that traffic in Dublin is "moving well".

Joe Mooney, spokesman for the Dublin Port Workers Support Group, has called on the Dublin Port Company to intervene in the dispute and to come to a "satisfactory settlement" with the workers. But for the time being the strike continues.

23 August 2009

Dublin Rail Line Collapse raises many Questions

Iarnród Éireann, Ireland's state-owned national railway company, has announced that an official investigation into the collapse of a part of the main Dublin to Belfast railway line near Malahide in Co. Dublin (see yesterday's entry) is going to take place.

Well, this is the least one could and should expect after such a disastrous and embarrassing incident.
In fact, this investigation should not be held just by Iarnród Éireann's own staff, but augmented by Gardai and specialists from the Health & Safety Executive.
After all, lives could easily have been lost and much further damage could have been done had the collapsed segment of the viaduct across the Broadmeadow estuary not been spotted and reported by a train driver.
As operator of the line, Iarnród Éireann has a vested interest in the matter, as well as the full and sole responsibility for the maintenance of track, structures, engines and rolling stock.
So a public investigation, or one with participation of experts from outside the railway company, would make a big difference and could prevent an internal cover-up.

A spokesperson for Iarnród Éireann said that "the collapsed section of the railway bridge has undergone a structural examination" only a few days ago. This inspection was "carried out on the line by an engineer on Tuesday, and no issues were identified".

According to Iarnród Éireann all its railway lines are "inspected three times a week by a patrol man, and given a structural assessment by an engineer every two years".

These statements are not satisfactory at all and raise a number of further questions:
  • Was the inspecting engineer qualified for his job?
  • Did he do his job well? And if he did, why did the railway bridge collapse three days later?
  • Was it the regular two-year structural assessment?
  • Or was it a special inspection because a patrol man had noticed something unusual? If so, what was it?
  • Did Iarnród Éireann's management know that there was something wrong with this part of the line? Or that it was in a bad state of maintenance?
  • What exactly did the engineer find and report on Tuesday?
  • Did he spot a problem, but was overruled or ignored by his superiors in the company?
Concrete is a solid substance and does not crumble easily. There is, however, even for concrete an element of wear and tear (like for everything), and it can be particularly prone to deterioration or erosion when it is in close proximity to water. In the case of the collapsed segment of railway line this is certainly the case.
It is very hard to believe that the structure was in perfect order when inspected on Tuesday, and then collapsed completely on Friday, only three days later.

Iarnród Éireann states that it will take at least three months before the damage is repaired.

In the meantime trains will only operate between Drogheda and Skerries, and Iarnród Éireann has advised customers travelling between Dublin city and all stations north of Malahide to use Dublin Bus or Bus Éireann services.

Belfast Enterprise services will operate trains between Belfast and Drogheda, and organise bus transfers between Drogheda and Connolly station in Dublin.
But DART (Dublin area railway) services between Malahide and Howth Junction are operating normally.
Up to 10,000 passengers per day are facing disruption and inconvenience for at least three months. Commuters who normally use the Belfast to Dublin trains have been told to add around 30 minutes to their usual journey time.

The passengers' lobby organisation Rail Users Ireland has said it is "extremely concerned" following the collapse, which "raises serious questions of Irish Rail's maintenance and inspection regime".
It also called for cash refunds for all holders of weekly, monthly and annual tickets that are now unable to travel.

Although I am not a member of Rail Users Ireland, I wholeheartedly agree with their statement and demands. The overall state of Ireland's railway system is pretty bad for a long time. It is a run-down service, unloved by the government, which would like to privatise it, if it could find someone mad enough to buy it.

For a long time both the government and Iarnród Éireann completely overlook the great potential rail travel could have here, if it was done the right way. Not even to mention how much more we could do for the environment if major transports of large-size items and goods in bulk would be shifted from Ireland's narrow roads to the railways.

A hundred years ago Ireland had one of the most impressive and effective railway systems in Europe, and even fifty years ago there was still plenty of it around. But due to deliberate State vandalism and extreme ignorance during the 1950s and 1960s the once splendid network was savaged and ripped to pieces. What we are left with is a broken skeleton structure of what we had when railways were en vogue. But instead of improving the situation and making Ireland's railways fit for the 21st century, the people in charge close their eyes, don't want to know about the various problems inside the system, and some are even permanently asleep on the job.

To begin with, we need a Minister for Transport who likes and understands railways. As long as Noel Dempsey, the government's bouncer from Co. Meath, is in charge, things can - and will - only go from bad to worse.

The Emerald Islander

22 August 2009

Main Dublin Railway Line collapsed

We are in a very deep recession, financial crisis and governed by the most ludicrous bunch of incompetents that has ever been assembled in an Irish cabinet. They have no clue how to get us out of the mess they created, waste time with their senseless waffling and procrastination, and in the meantime dream up ever more and higher taxes and severe cuts to the social welfare and education budgets, thus making the poor pay for the mistakes of the rich.

And while the government fiddles, all around it Ireland crumbles and falls to pieces.

The latest example - and indeed a most visible and symbolic one - is the sudden collapse of a segment of rail track in the northern part of Dublin.

Yesterday evening, at around 6.20 pm, a 20-metre-long section of the main Dublin to Belfast railway line on the viaduct across the Broadmeadow estuary - between Malahide and Donabate, just north of Malahide station - has crumbled and collapsed into the water.

The damaged line was noticed by the driver of the 6.07 pm train travelling from Balbriggan to Pearse station. He drove his train to Malahide station and reported what he had seen. There were about 50 people on the train, but no one was injured.

After the driver's report all other trains were immediately stopped from using the line.

Iarnród Éireann (Ireland's state-owned national railway company) has said that the collapse had "the potential to be a serious tragedy" and that they will be investigating the incident fully.

According to Iarnród Éireann, "the railway lines are inspected regularly and viaducts have a maintenance regime". But, as with almost everything here in Ireland, things are often not done right, not often enough, and not thoroughly.

There will be shuttle bus services between Drogheda and Skerries for northern commuter services for the foreseeable time.

The Emerald Islander

20 August 2009

Coloured Pencils for the Blind

Today the people of Afghanistan were called to elect a new President. This is the second time such an election takes place under the general rules of a 'democratic' system.

The first time, in October 2004, the incumbent Hamid Karzai (photo below, inspecting a guard of honour in Kabul) was elected President. He is hopeful to be elected for a second term, but he is not popular with everyone.

Karzai is a Pashtun (or Pathan) and son of a wealthy and influential tribal leader from the south of the country. With close to 40% of the population the Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan and have provided the ruling elite ever since the establishment of the first singular state called 'Afghanistan' in 1747. Their territories are predominantly in the south, and they also make up a significant minority in neighbouring Pakistan.

There are more than a dozen other distinctive nations and ethnic groups in Afghanistan, of which the Tajiks - with ca. 37% of the total population - are the largest (and the second-largest in the country). Their territories are all in the north, and over centuries there has been a balance of power between the southern Pashtuns and the northern Tajiks.
All other ethnic groups are much smaller and less well represented in the political structure and make-up of Afghanistan. The two most visible of these minorities are the Hazara and the Uzbeks, each with about 9% of the overall population.

Politics in Afghanistan is based on strict tribal loyalties and age-old alliances between leaders of various clans. Even though there have been political parties for some time, they too reflect only too clearly the tribal structure of the country. The idea of an 'Afghan nation' has not arrived yet in the high and rugged mountains that control the links between the North and South of Asia, as well as the links between the West (Iran) and the East (China) of the continent.

Since the overthrow of the monarchy in 1973, some Afghan politicians have tried to establish some form of nationalism, but it has never worked or lasted for long. All their efforts ended in even more tribal conflict, which is still the predominant situation in Afghanistan.

Only a complete fool like George W. Bush, with no idea of history and ethnic structures outside the USA, could ever even think of invading Afghanistan and hoping to control it. Many nations and military leaders have tried - and failed - in such enterprises before.
Even Alexander the Great, perhaps the best army commander of all times, failed in his effort to control the mountains of the area that is now Afghanistan. And he was wise enough to realise that and withdrew his forces gracefully, after having founded a city that bore his name.

During the 19th century Britain tried - and failed - twice to occupy and rule Afghanistan and took massive casualties in the process. One of their expeditions entered the country with 42,000 men, of which only one single officer - an army surgeon - returned alive to tell the tale of total defeat.
More recently the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan from the north - at Christmas 1979 - with more than 120,000 troops. After nine years of fierce and bloody guerrilla war that helped to bring the USSR to her knees and end her existence, the Russians withdrew again - with a very bloody nose and tails between their legs - in 1988.

It has always amazed me that no-one in the political and military leadership of the USA warned George W. Bush of the dangers any military action in and against Afghanistan would bring to the invading force. Especially since they should have known what was waiting for them, after they had supported massively - but in a covert operation - the Afghan Mujahiddin (freedom fighters) in their struggle against the Soviet occupation force.
Perhaps they did warn him, but Bush - in his usual combination of ignorance and self-importance - did not listen. He just made one of his arogant and bellicose statements and sent his troops into war against a people who have not been defeated by anyone in more than 3000 years.
Like a blinded bear he just walked into the unknown, into the largest bear trap on Earth.

This was in the Autumn of 2001, and ever since Afghanistan has been - once again - an occupied country. The difference is that the current occupiers - the USA, the UK, NATO and a mixed bag of smaller contingents from various countries - claim that they are there 'to establish Democracy' in Afghanistan.

For the people of Afghanistan that means nothing. They remember only too well that the USSR was there not so long ago in order 'to establish Socialism', another idea with no value or meaning for tradional Muslims who live on the technological level of the Middle Ages.

- more to follow -
(I have to get some sleep first, sorry)

19 August 2009

My Limits of Charity

People who know me will be aware of my involvement with Amnesty International, the ISPCA and various other charities.
And since I spent some time of my life in the so-called 'Third World', I am perhaps also more acutely aware of people in real need, and of the places where they live.

This has led me to organise - in my own small way - some direct help over the years, and I know that every Euro and cent I transfer reaches the people for whom my help is meant. There are no administrative costs, no overheads for staff, and certainly no cut-offs or kick-backs for corrupt local officials in the receiving countries.

So when it comes to charity and making donations, I think that my contributions are well above average for a man with a modest income. Nevertheless I still donate ever so often money to numerous Irish charities when their members and supporters approach me in the street and push a collection box or bucket - rattling with coins - into my face.

There is literally not one week - and perhaps not even a single day - without someone collecting money for some 'good cause'. Besides the major charities there are countless smaller organisations, and even local bands and sports clubs are meanwhile asking for donations in the streets. If one would give money to all of them every time they ask, there would be not much left for oneself.

So one has to be disciplined and say 'no' sometimes, even if one might feel awkward about it. But there is one kind of charities that will never get a single cent from me, and for good reasons.

I was reminded of this again today. While going about my business in the city, I was approached in three different locations, within a radius of not more than 500 metres, by three different men, asking me to buy a scratch card in support of their charity, whose name was not familiar to me.

When I asked the men what it was for, I was told that they did "rehabilitation programmes for alcoholics and drug addicts". As soon as I heard that, the proverbial shutters came down in front of me and my purse. And I told them so.

There is no way that I will ever donate any money for this cause. Some people might regard me as cruel, perhaps, or as cold-hearted. And they are entitled to their opinion. But those who know me would strongly object to such a view.

My refusal to finance rehab programmes for alcoholics and drug addicts is based on logic, on life experience and on common sense. I do not drink alcohol and have never taken any hallucinating drugs, legal or illegal. Not even when I was in places like Pakistan, Afghanistan or Nepal, where they are freely available in the markets like potatoes and cabbages here.
As I know that drugs do damage to a person and can lead to addiction and destruction of body and mind, there is no need for me to test them and their effects. And the same goes for alcohol, the most popular and most destructive drug sold and used in Ireland.

I know plenty of people who go to pubs two or three times a week and spend large amounts of money getting drunk. Alcohol is quite expensive in Ireland, but that seems not to deter the vast majority of our people. And I have heard many times of drug addicts who waste several hundred Euros a day 'to feed their habit'.

This is bad and sad enough, and I deplore it. But the fact remains that people who drink alcohol excessively, or take illegal drugs, spend freely and voluntarily huge amounts of money on their choice of self-destruction.
Some of them die young, others lead a miserable life - of their own making - for many years. And some see the light eventually and try to get out of their madness. This is to be welcomed, and I wish everyone who steps out of addiction and returns to the real world all the best.

However, I see no reason to pay for that. People who wasted plenty of money on the idiotic ways that lead to addiction can well be expected to spend some more to get out of the mess into which they have brought themselves. Why should a teetotaller finance the rehabilitation of an alcoholic who wasted his time and money on destructive and expensive drinks? And why should a person that never took drugs pay for the detoxification of idiots who do?

We all are the masters of our own destiny and responsible for what we do. There is no action in life without consequences, and we will reap in Autumn what we have sown in Spring. On this line of thought and philosophy I have built my own life, and I think I am entitled to apply it as well when I am asked for charitable donations.

Apart from that I find it rather strange that any charity that fights two addictions is using a third - gambling - to finance its operations.
Do people actually think before they make decisions? We would have a much better world if they did.

The Emerald Islander

18 August 2009

New Anti-Lisbon Alliance formed

An informal alliance of fifteen different groups have jointly launched their campaign for a 'No' vote in the up-coming second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, which will take place on October 2nd.

Among others, the new alliance includes three well-established smaller political parties: Sinn Féin, the Socialist Party and the People before Profit Alliance.

At the official launch of their campaign (photo above), Socialist Party leader Joe Higgins, MEP (in the foreground, right) described the Lisbon Treaty as "profoundly undemocratic". He also rejected claims that the guarantees obtained by the Irish government would protect workers' rights.

More than 53% of the Irish electorate rejected the treaty in the first referendum last year, and many people feel very annoyed that the government is now forcing them to vote a second time on the same document, without any major changes made to it.

In fact, the only change is the retention of our Irish EU Commissioner, which was a key demand of the NO campaign last year. Because the treaty was rejected by the Irish, each member state - including Ireland - will now keep its EU Commissioner. (Had we votes 'yes', we would now no longer have a permanent Irish representative in the EU Commission.)

Apart from this one point, nothing has changed. The treaty put in front of us again on October 2nd is the very same we have rejected on June 12th, 2008.
And if the people of Ireland have any common sense left, they will reject if for a second time and send the government the message it deserves and needs to hear.

We all know only too well that the current Irish government is utterly incompetent. It is responsible for our economic decline, the financial crisis and the ever deeper recession.
And instead of coming up with initiatives to stimulate the Irish economy and support especially small businesses, who provide the majority of jobs in the country, all the government does now is talking, waiting for Godot and raising taxes ever further. Meanwhile billions of taxpayers' money are pumped into the sinking wrecks that are our banks, and if Cowen & Co. get away with their plans, many more billions of our money will be committed to NAMA.
This would mean that our children and even grandchildren would still have to pay off the debts that were created by banksters and useless politicians of our generation!

Do you really want to support this government and help it to cling to power at all costs (which we will have to pay)? Then you should vote 'yes' on October 2nd.

But if you want change for the better, want to see Ireland recover and gain strength again, and show the EU bureaucrats that we cannot be bullied into accepting nonsense, then you have to do what 53% of the Irish electorate did already last year: Vote NO and reject the Lisbon Treaty for good.

The Emerald Islander

No new Hospital for the Northeast by 2015

Today the Health Service Executive (HSE) has confirmed that the planned new regional hospital for the Northeast of Ireland is "unlikely to be built for several years".

It had been expected that a new 750-bed hospital would be up and running in Navan, Co. Meath by 2015. But this target will now not be met.

When the HSE published a report in 2006 on the provision of hospital services for the Northeast of Ireland, one of its core recommendations was the construction of a new regional hospital, which the HSE had included in its National Development Plan for 2009 to 2013.

In the meantime, many services were to be moved from smaller hospitals to the larger medical institutions in the area.

However, "given the current economic climate", the HSE says now that it will "not go ahead during the lifetime of this plan", but is "likely to be included in the next plan after 2013".

A spokesperson for the HSE said its current focus is to advance the controversial plan to move all acute services into Cavan General Hospital and Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda, Co. Louth. It has already moved services from Monaghan General Hospital to Cavan.

Does Ireland need an Army?

Ever since Colm McCarthy's 'Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure Programmes' - commonly referred to as 'An Bord Snip (Nua)' - suggested to cut the Defence Budget by € 53 million and to reduce the strength of the Irish Defence Forces (IDF) by 520 (see my entry of July 16th), a debate about the structure and duties of our military is going on.

The Naval Service, which has a total strength of 1144 and currently operates eight corvettes of various sizes and ages, is getting a relatively easy time of it. Everyone realises that - as an island nation - we really need it. In fact, we could well do with some additional vessels, but during a recession this is obviously not going to happen.

In contrast, the Aer Corps, with 939 serving members the smallest part of the IDF, is getting a lot of flak. The main criticism is that there is no longer any airborne defence system in operation and the Aer Corps is now "reduced to be the air taxi service for the government".
There is little one can offer in argument against that. Indeed, the Irish Aer Corps has not a single fighter, fighter-bomber or bomber aircraft in service. There is a handful of helicopters, a couple of fixed-wing aircraft, and the two government jets (which are operated by military pilots).

One has indeed to ask if this organisation, which once operated a complete squadron of fighters, is still fit for purpose.
Perhaps not, and one should seriously contemplate a merger of Naval Service and Aer Corps into an efficient Coast Guard.

There is also a significant question mark hanging over the Army, with about 8,500 personnel the largest of the three IDF branches. People usually know that several units of the Irish Army are serving with UN peacekeeping forces in various parts of the world. They have been doing this since 1960, when a large Irish contingent (from the 32nd Battalion, commanded by Lt.Col. Murt Buckley) was sent to the newly established African state (and former Belgian colony) of Congo (Leopoldville)*.
Over the decades Irish troops, serving with the UN and wearing its blue helmets and berets, have become very popular and respected in the areas they policed. This goes especially for Cyprus and South Lebanon, where IDF contingents served under UN command for many years.

More recently Irish peacekeepers were sent to the newly independent East Timor (1999-2000) and to Liberia (2003-2006). In both deployments the Army Ranger Wing - Ireland's 50-strong special forces unit - played a significant role in operations.

And for the past two years up to 500 Irish soldiers - 17% of the entire army - have been the core unit of EUFOR Chad/CAR, the EU peacekeeping and peace-enforcing command based in Chad, which is controlled directly by the European Union and in support of multi-national humanitarian operations in both Chad and Darfur (a large province of Sudan). Until his recent retirement, Lt.Gen. Pat Nash (above) - formerly GOC of the 1 Southern Brigade in Cork - was the overall commander of this force.

But as much as Irish troops have established a good name for themselves and for Ireland in far-away places, one has to ask if the only duty of our Army is to provide soldiers for the UN? Or is there a further and deeper purpose for the Army, much closer to home?

Well, as far as the general public knows, the only visible duty our Army performs inside the country is armed escort for private money transports (aka 'cash in transit'). One can see the olive-green range-rovers packed with armed men in battledress almost everywhere in Ireland when a bank receives a delivery of money.
Apart from that the Army is pretty invisible and absent from most people's minds. Unless one lives in a garrison town and close to the barracks, one has hardly ever any contact with the military.

Like most countries without a national service, Ireland has a small professional defence force, entirely staffed by volunteers, for whom this is a job like any other. Well, perhaps not like any other, but the attitude here is that it is a job, and not a national duty.

The only people who know what is going on inside the IDF are those who belong to the service, plus their families and relatives, who usually get at least some idea. For the rest of the country, the vast majority of the Irish nation, the IDF, its structure, mission and duties are a complete enigma.

There are even people who wonder if Ireland needs an army at all. Well, the questions makes some sense, since we are an island nation with - at present - no hostile neighbours and no main threat against us from anywhere. We are simply much too nice a people to become targets for wars or invasions now.

This was of course not always so. During the 9th and 10th centuries the Vikings raided the island regularly, before deciding that it is actually a great place to settle. In the late 12th century the Normans invaded us and took over the country. Their control led to the rule of the English, and thus to 750 years of foreign occupation and oppression.

And it is only 40 years that 'the Troubles' in the North began, leading to massive deployments of British troops and to more than 3000 people killed on both sides of the conflict.

Nowadays we don't think of that much longer. Now we have the 'peace process' and a power-sharing administration in Belfast.
Well, I often wondered what a 'peace process' actually is, apart from a nice sounding word. It is a bit of a contradiction, because either there is peace, or not. In the latter case we are at war. But a 'peace process'? That's neither fish nor flesh, not here nor there, and as impossible as being 'a little bit pregnant'.

Personally I think and believe that there is little chance for a return of widespread violence to the Six Counties. The period of ceasefires and power-sharing has lasted too long now, and too many people from both communities are too much involved. They, and many more, would have to pay a price much too high to contemplate if they would return to civil war and street fighting.

So, what is the Army of the Republic for? We have no longer any enemies, and no-one is planning to invade us. Maybe the pacifists are right, and we could as well abolish our Army under these circumstances?

Well, if the current government and its advisors keep going along the road they have been travelling on for nearly two decades, the Irish Army will eventually disappear quietly.
20 years ago its strength was roundabout 16,500. Then a 'defence review' reduced it to first 14,000 and eventually 12,500.
Not long after that the then Minister for Defence Michael Smith (Fianna Fáil) had the idea of employing a company of civilian consultants to 're-structure and reform' the Army. The result was a White Paper which insulted every serving Irish soldier, and which cut the Army's strength even further, to 9,500 (and thus for the first time below the crucial 10,000-mark).

Meanwhile we stand at a grand total of 8,500. In practical terms this means that at any given time less than 5,000 soldiers would be available to defend the country or deal with a major emergency, if it occurred. (The rest of the Army is either serving abroad, in transit, in training for a foreign mission, on special courses, on holidays or on sick leave.)

If the government follows the recommendations of 'An Bord Snip (Nua)', then we will soon be below 8,000 active Army personnel, which means that just a little over 4,000 soldiers would be on stand-by in Ireland, in case they are needed. This is slightly more than one brigade. (The current Army structure has three brigades.)

Most people may think that this is still more than enough in a country with no threat or enemy, but in fact it is not. Armies have a peculiar structure, which means that their efficiency depends on a 'critical mass' of soldiers in a state of permanent readiness. The larger the overall force is, the easier this 'critical mass' can be achieved. But when the strength of an army falls below the 'natural defence level', which is a quarter of one percent of the population, it is very difficult and almost impossible to achieve efficient defence readiness.
With Ireland's population - not counting foreigners for this purpose - at about 4 million, the 'natural defence level' of our Army is 10,000. For more than a decade we are already 15% below this level, and now it is supposed to be cut even further.

Which means that the Irish Army is now only useful for UN operations abroad, for which the relevant units undergo a special training. But at home we have an Army only by name, but not a force that could act and react with efficiency and expectation of success.
For the past twenty years successive Fianna Fáil governments have reduced the Irish Army more and more, to the point that it is becoming useless. Perhaps not quite as useless as the government, but coming close.

Since our soldiers and officers are better paid than their comrades in many other countries, and our Chief of Staff gets more money than his counterpart in the UK, the Army would indeed be a great cost-cutting chance in a recession. If the government indeed does not want an army - and all the indications point in this direction - then it would be only fair to say so openly.

Costa Rica and Iceland, two other neutral countries with small populations, have not had an army for decades and are doing fine. They have not been attacked, invaded or drawn into a war.

We could save a large amount of money if we would abolish the Army - and the Department of Defence with it - and be as peaceful and neutral as we always pretend to be. Naval Service and Aer Corps could be amalgamated into a new and strengthened Coast Guard, which could also have some land-based units. It should be governed by a restored Dept. of the Marine, which should also get responsibility for Fishing and Natural Resources.

I bet a good sum of money that - if we would go ahead and abolished the Army - hardly anyone in Ireland would miss it. The places where it would be missed are the UN HQ in New York and the deserts and refugee camps of Chad and Sudan.

The Emerald Islander

* After being renamed Zaire (by President Mobuto) for some time, the country has changed its name again and is now known as the 'Democratic Republic of Congo' (DRC).
After nearly 50 years of nominal independence, it is still one of the most unstable and war-torn countries on Earth, and still has a large UN force stationed there. However, at present Ireland is not contributing to this force.