Wednesday, December 31, 2003

You'll never beat the Oirish

It's a fitting end to 2003 for those in the Irish Republic who'd rather think of the place as nicely socio-culturally integrated with our friends and neighbours in if the Republic was really just Shamrockshire. We assemble three pieces of evidence:

1. Most perniciously, take leading Oirish property developer Owen O'Callaghan. Owen likes to give some of his rather substantial loose change to Oirland's soi-disant nationalist politicians in the governing Fianna Fail (the institutional revolutionary party of Ireland). So having paid off the politicians, Owen gets upset when the local councils and regulators try to revisit some of the mysterious planning permissions which his development companies were granted, such as for the hideously Oirish Liffey Valley mall in Lucan, Co. Dublin.

So what does Owen do? He teams up with his good friend and well known Irish nationalist, the Duke of Westminster, to block planning regulators from considering the claims of a rival development company which wants to build a mall quite close to Owen's.

2. The new Ireland continues to operate as playground of the rich and famous, with the wedding of Ozzy Osbourne's son Louis in County Offaly. Note: Louis is the one who rarely if ever appears in the TV show. But to be fair to Louis, his wedding seems a good deal less trashy than some of the other Oirish marital spectacles in recent years, and the dude actually seems to be half-serious about maybe living in Ireland:

[Louis Osbourne] said the prices of houses in the capital at the moment are "absolutely ridiculous".
Louise [the fiance] has family in Meath. We might consider Bettystown," he said.

We can only say that the Royal County is an excellent choice. Sadly, Ozzy and Sharon can't attend given Ozzy's spill from a quad bike a few weeks ago.

3. And finally, the Irish fans of Glasgow Celtic football club are in the tricky position of reacting to the news that the club's excellent manager, Martin O'Neill, has received an Order of the British Empire honour from the Queen. O'Neill is from Northern Ireland, so no citizenship issue arises in his acceptance of the honour, although of course in principle he could have refused it anyway. But he has accepted it, in effect as an honour to the club. We suspect some of the fans have to bite their tongues, but it will be interesting to see how boosterish the coverage is in the Oirish media over the next couple of days.

Tuesday, December 30, 2003

A pint of cola and a glass of pure malt whiskey, please

It looks like 2003 will end on a relatively happy note for the Scottish whiskey industry. Feelings have been running high for most of the year because multi-national booze company Diageo -- who also own Guinness -- had pulled the wheeze of subtly changing the description of their Scottish Cardhu whiskey from single malt to pure malt -- meaning that it still had no grain alcohol but that it was a mixture of several barley malts, and not just one, as the single malt designation would require. Diageo had the problem that Spanish yuppies were falling over themselves in the rush to the bar for more of the stuff, to the point where they were running low on enough malt from the source distillery -- the necessary 12 years of ageing means that responding to increased demand is not just a matter of speeding up the assembly line.

Now, we're not huge fans of Diageo, not least because of those periodic rumours that Guinness operations in Ireland could be scaled down in a cost-cutting move. But in this case, it's hard to see how any company could resist the temptation to increase supply of such a lucrative product. And the uproar from single malt distillers, worried about brand dilution, has resulted in Diageo doing the sensible thing and changing the packaging of the whiskey as well the designation, so that anyone remotely serious about their whiskey purchases can tell that the pure malt is a different product. And what of the potential taste difference between single and pure malt? Well, as the Wall Street Journal reports (subs. req'd), it would require quite a lot from the taste buds of the average Cardhu drinker to distinguish them because:

In particular, Cardhu has become an enormous hit in Spain, where young club goers mix it with -- purists, avert your eyes -- Coke.

Sunday, December 28, 2003

Mad Cow II: The Farce

The close cooperation between Britain and the US on military matters clearly does not extend to agriculture policy -- because, if it did, the US would surely not be methodically working its way through every mistake that Britain made in dealing with Mad Cow Disease.

As with all historical events, it will happen the first time as tragedy and the second as farce. We will make it a recurring feature to track the repitition of each blunder. But let's open with the spectacle of the respective Agriculture Minister volunteering themselves, and their families, to be the nation's food testers, as with the person who would eat potentially poisoned food for the king.

US Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman told us all that despite the scare, she was keeping with the plan to serve beef for the Christmas dinner; it's a wonder she didn't invite the cameras around just to verify that no-one dropped dead as they ate the stuff.

The parallel here: UK Agriculture Minister John Gummer's disastrous 1990 photo-op featuring the consumption of a burger by him and his reluctant daughter, with, as it turned out, the worse of the Mad Cow epidemic and its human equivalent, variant CJD, yet to come.

Look at the picture of Gummer and his daughter -- all you need to imagine the scene at the Veneman family table.

Saturday, December 27, 2003

Hitch forgets his English history

Christopher Hitchens in the January 2004 Vanity Fair writes (can't find a link yet, alas):
[Discussion of Indonesia] Imagine being colonized by the Dutch, incidentally; imprisoned in a European language that nobody spoke outside the Low Countries and white South Africa

Now leave aside Hitch's seeming claim that the Dutch imposed their useless language on Indonesia...he also seems to think being colonized by the Dutch is something rare and exotic. But DUDE! England, 1689, William of Orange, sailing from the Netherlands to usurp James II, his father-in-law, eventually removing the Stuarts from the royal succession completely? Let's get your native land's history right before we start writing about somewhere half-way across the ocean, OK?

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

And so it begins

We had hoped to keep up a reasonable blogging schedule over Christmas, but to be honest, there's just not that much to blog about the next couple of days. Our attention was only caught by the apparent case of Mad Cow Disease in the Pacific Northwest, and especially the weird disclaimer that was included in the Agriculture Secretary's news conference:

I have been in contact with [Homeland Security] Secretary Ridge and I would emphasize that based on the information available this incident is not terrorist related nor is it related in any way to our nation's heightened alert status. I cannot stress this point strongly enough.

No, Osama has not gone further than the world's best scientists and conclusively constructed a link between the rogue bovine protein and the corresponding disease in humans. In this case, it's lax regulation and short-sighted cattle industry resistance to reforms that will do us in, not the terrorists. But hopefully it won't come to that.

We hope to be back blogging early next week. Enjoy the holidays.

Monday, December 22, 2003

Ian Paisley's head explodes

Or rather it would if he saw this headline in Monday's New York Times:

A Voice for the Irish Aggrieved vs. the Irish Police

It's a story about Nuala O'Loan, the ombudsman for the Police Service of Northern Ireland -- closer scrutiny of policing on both sides of the border being a part of the peace process, as we noted in the context of the Republic three posts ago. And of course, to Paisley and his fellow travellers, the PSNI and its clients are Simply British. Can a letter to the New York Times editor, or even the paper's own ombudsman, be far behind?
Now losing its identity

A pronounced mist seems to be sharply reducing visibility across the Atlantic Ocean today, judging from Andrew Sullivan's blog:

LE MONDE IS PISSED: [about the Libyan deal]

So for the purposes of this post, he's American, because otherwise he would have said pissed off. But then in a post about famous people who have refused awards under the British government's honours system:

I'm impressed. the British honors system, whereby ordinary people of extraordinary ability or achievement are turned into pseudo-lords and ladies or given some medal of honor by the "British Empire" is a horrifying instance of the hold that class snobbery still has on Britain. In my view, the whole system should be abolished...The refuseniks are the true British heroes; not the establishment toadies.

Now he's a British Republican...and what must he think of someone so pathetically chasing status as to renounce his citizenship just to be able to collect one of these honours. Poor Conrad, dumped by the Vast Rightwing Conspiracy with such indecent haste. But then as Sullywatch notes, Sullivan may have too good an understanding of the dilemma of those who have to go abroad when the natives are insufficiently appreciative.

This charming man

Two moments in the career of well-coiffed Clinton hater and Dubya spinner, Washington Post syndicated columnist, George Will:

1. When asked by a New York Times reporter whether he should be disclosing his financial ties to Vast Rightwing Conspiracy bankroller Conrad Black when writing columns in praise of Black:

"My business is my business," [Will] said. "Got it?"

2. A Seinfeld reference:

Kramer: I'll tell ya who's an attractive man: George Will.
Elaine: Well, he's smart.
Kramer: No, I don't find him all that bright.

(quote 252)

[PS Tracking down the Seinfeld quote was an education in the weaknesses of Google, or perhaps in the blandness of George "Got It?" Will's name; Google does not search for a generic word like "will" and of course in a TV show with a character named George who, like, does stuff, and therefore earns sentences like "George will....", there is indeed a problem. We eventually solved it by having Google find the above huge page of Kramer quotes (since we knew Kramer had said the priceless remark), and having Explorer's Find function search the page. Bill Gates would be happy]
Romantic Ireland is dead and gone

Last week was a tough one for two of the Republic's treasured national institutions. First, our police force had to watch their prime suspect in a high-profile murder case do a better job of implicating himself during his deeply ill-advised libel case than their investigative work had managed to do. And that same week, the island's peace process continued its reliance on Canadians to handle delicate law enforcement issues, when Judge Peter Cory completed his report on alleged collusion between security forces on both sides of the border and outlawed paramilitary groups.

The Republic was much quicker to make the judge's report public than their counterparts in Britain -- which probably says more about their zeal to embarrass Sinn Fein than any genuine committment to openness. One of the cases the judge looked into was a suspiciously well-timed attack on two senior police officers from Northern Ireland, which occurred almost immediately after they crossed the border on the return trip from a meeting in the Republic -- a meeting which had only been arranged a few hours beforehand and known only to a select few in each police force. In other words, speculates the judge, it looks like someone in the Republic's police force tipped off the IRA about some "High Value Targets" (as the American military would say). Further investigation is planned.

And what of this other treasured Irish institution that had a tough week? We speak of course of Manchester United Football Club, which from the First Fan (Taoiseach Bertie Ahern) on down, form an object of almost religious veneration for the Irish public. It made world headlines when star defender Rio Ferdinand was suspended for eight months for failing to appear for a drug test. But Saturday's Irish Times compounded the shame for the club by revealing just how money-grubbing things can get at the World's Biggest Football Club:

Sir Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United manager, has confirmed he received [Irish Pounds] 97,973 from the John Durkan Leukaemia Trust after appearing with four players at a function it organised in the Berkeley Hotel, Dublin, in the autumn of 1999. This was half the money raised on the night.

The four MUFC players who appeared didn't get any cash -- but because they believed themselves to be attending a fund-raiser for "Sir" Alex, not the Irish charity! The players considered the event to be a "testimonial" for their manager -- testimonials are a holdover from the days when football salaries were truly terrible, and retiring players and managers would have some fund-raisers in their farewell seasons to get them a retirement fund. But the tradition continues even as salaries have gone through the roof -- and in this case, even when "Sir" Alex later changed his mind about retiring. The affair has only now come to light because the charity was trying to squelch the details of the event. It looks to us like this little event was co-opted by some MUFC fans, who saw a way to leverage their donors' money into a chance for them to spend the evening with their heroes. And given that we've blogged before about the Republic's Oirish tax-dodging upper classes, can this detail be any surprise?

Around 500 people drawn from the racing and bloodstock industries attended the function. The guests included the National Hunt racing owner, Mr J.P. McManus.

Check the blog GUBU for a well-timed rant about Mr McManus and his ilk.

Friday, December 19, 2003

The Italian job

So if you're a large European company trying to convince your creditors that you're not about to go bust, don't you think that whatever story they cook up would have least been checked to make sure it's not a complete crock? Apparently not, if the company in question is Italian dairy giant Parmalat (which our thousands of readers will know mostly for that long-lasting milk). The company has been the subject of bankruptcy rumours for a couple of weeks, and their latest attempt to put things to rest involved claiming that they had $5 billion in ready cash, sitting in a bank account at Bank of America. Just one problem, as the Wall Street Journal reports today:

In fact, [Bank of America] said that on Dec. 17 it told accountants for [Parmalat] that it doesn't have a Bank of America account...It is unclear who prepared the document contested by Bank of America, or where the [$5 billion] might be located.

Is this the best these Italian execs can do? At least the Enron scam was complicated.
The world has changed

Remember when the preferred description of attaching extremely precise meanings to words was Clintonian? Finally, we have moved on. Example: Chief International Monetary Fund spokesman Tom Dawson, on the IMF's current strained relations with Argentina:

QUESTIONER: Tom, is—you know, let us get some facts straight here. Is there a delay in the review of Argentina?

MR. DAWSON: I do not want to do a Rumsfeldian parsing of words here.

Thursday, December 18, 2003

Telegraph editorial secrets revealed!

There should be no scarier words to a fact-checker than "London's Daily/Sunday Telegraph is reporting that..." This opening line has been a staple of the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy from the time Bill Clinton became president, used as the opening shout in an echo chamber of slander and political sabotage (when Clinton was the target) and of bogus "intelligence" about Saddam/9-11/WMDs (when Saddam was the target). Of course, "London's Daily/Sunday Telegraph" had already perfected the technique of the planted and slanted story in their coverage of Ireland long before it was adapted for VRC purposes.

But there is a positive development, because it looks like the latest transparently bogus Telegraph story, relying on a supposed "Dear Saddam...yours ever, Mohammad Atta" memo, is getting more negative attention than usual. Blogger Roger Ailes (not the bald repulsive one) provides the links and his own appropriate commentary, noting in particular this gem from the Telegraph journalist who wrote the story, Con Coughlin:

[Coughlin] said that while he got the memo about Mohammed Atta and Baghdad from a "senior" member of the Iraqi Governing Council who insisted it was "genuine," he and his newspaper had "no way of verifying it. It's our job as journalists to air these things and see what happens," he said.

That's quite a definition of a journalist's job: just get the dodgy memo from your MI5/MI6 buddies at the pub and rush it into print that evening. Fact-checkers, schmact-checkers.
A topic that never gets boring

Brad DeLong assembles some links and provides his own analysis of the Irish potato famine.

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Be careful for what you wish for

Here's an interesting story from the Daily Telegraph. And no, we don't mean one of those stories where the paper claims to have its hands on one of those "Dear Saddam...Yours Ever, Osama" memos that pop up every so often. The Telegraph reports on a new BBC policy that will bar its reporters from having newspaper columns. By doing this, the BBC hopes to pre-empt some of the likely criticism of bias that will emerge from the inquiry into David Kelly's death. But amongst those very unhappy about the new policy is none other than the Sunday Telegraph, which now fears that they will have to buy the BBC's John Simpson out of his long contract to write a column for them. And the Daily Telegraph story provides another interesting detail:

The ban will not apply to non-journalists such as the motoring presenter Jeremy Clarkson or to freelance journalists "whose main profile and income is not through the BBC".

The latter stipulation will exempt Andrew Neil, who presents the BBC's Westminster programme Daily Politics but is also the publisher of The Scotsman and The Business.

"It's absurd. Neil is as much a BBC face as anyone and he has been let off," said a BBC colleague.

That would be Andrew Neil, the Executive Editor of the Fox News Channel in its formative years, and thus a pioneer of the multiple-outlet biased reporting of the Vast Right-wing Conspiracy. Is there ever a downside for these guys?
Uzis or international plane tickets...

...Which is a bigger threat to US national security? Plane tickets, apparently. Because:

Length of time that information about passengers on European flights to the US will be retained by US government -- 3.5 years

Length of time that information about gun purchasers in US is retained under current legislation -- 90 days

Length of time it would be retained under pending legislation (reg. req'd) -- 24 hours.

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Coming soon as a Law and Order episode

Yesterday we mentioned the odd libel trial concerning the west Cork murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier. The police's "person of interest" (as John Ashcroft would say), Ian Bailey, is suing several media organisations for implying that he is the murderer. It's becoming apparent that this is the most ill-advised libel case since Oscar Wilde -- he'll be lucky to get out of the courtroom without blurting out a confession at this rate. Because he certainly seems to have done some confessing already:

Malachi Reid [a 14 year old boy who knew Bailey] said that Mr Bailey told him he 'bashed her brains in'.

And there's all kinds of stuff that keeps those TV investigators in business -- the details of the crime he couldn't have known, the timelines that don't add up. West Cork is full of writers, local and expatriate, who now have some choices to make: to pitch it as a New Yorker article, or write the movie script, or both? Where is Talk magazine when you need it?

Monday, December 15, 2003

Carry on up the Khyber

We don't have much interesting or original to say about the capture of Saddam. Aside from the basic factual information, digested in about one minute, virtually all the discussion is simply speculation about the likely impact of his capture and what happens next. And of course, the speculation varies widely in terms of its degree of its informativeness. But surely there has to be a standard that such speculation should at least have its basic facts right. Gregg Easterbrook's ruminations on the implications of Saddam's capture on the chase for Osama fail this test. A typical sentence is as follows:
Generally it is assumed, though, of course, the assumption could be wrong, that bin Laden is hiding in the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) of Pakistan, a "tribal area"--Pakistanis themselves call it that--where the Islamabad government has little influence.

Then follows a fairly standard discourse on how the topography of the region makes military operations difficult, how tribal loyalties undercut any government influence etc etc, all in terms of describing this wild place called NWFP. The problem: Easterbrook has confused his Pakistani acronyms, revealing a basic misunderstanding of Pakistan's political structure -- all the more surprising since he claims to have been there. So here's the correct version: Pakistan, like Ireland, has four provinces -- though unlike the Irish case, we haven't encountered any Pakistani pubs calling themselves the Four Provinces in tribute to the homeland. These provinces are Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan, and the aforementioned NWFP. Bin Laden is NOT assumed to be in any of these provinces.

Pakistan's territory also covers areas that are not within the provincial structure -- these mainly consist of tribal areas that were within British India but where the British never sought to exert control; the same semi-autonomous deal was continued after independence in 1947. Bin Laden IS believed to be in one of these, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. FATA, not NWFP. This map shows the difference.
Zero tolerance, Irish style

It's been an uncomfortable week for the reputation of the Republic's police force. Two unsolved crimes, one from 1974 and the other from a few years ago, have worked their way back into the public attention. To the latter first, the murder in west Cork of Sophie Toscan du Plantier, wife of the famous French film producer. The locals always had a prime suspect in mind but the police couldn't prove anything. Now the said suspect is suing various media outlets for libel, on the ground that they clearly insinuated he was the murderer. The blog GUBU provides the bottom line -- even if he wins, the evidence that has come out in the case will destroy his reputation.

Maybe in that case we owe the French a bad turn because of the way they botched a case involving an Irish murder victim. More damaging for the police is the 1974 case: this refers to the coordinated quadruple bomb attacks in Dublin and Monaghan that left 34 people dead. The proximate suspects are loyalist extremists -- none of whom was ever charged -- but there has always been a suspicion of involvement of high-level British security officials as well. There is no lack of motive for such involvement, as the British government could have felt that the Republic needed to stiffen its resolve in the War on Terra (as Dubya would say); relatedly, an influential loyalist element within the Northern Ireland security forces could have felt that the Republic needed a taste of large scale bomb attacks on its home ground.

Anyway, a new report into the bombings released last week hedged its bets on the question of official involvement, but did provide insights into the extremely sloppy investigative techniques of the time. Two lowlights: much of the key forensic evidence was washed away by the firehoses, and the forensic lab of the time was a shared facility with the Department of Agriculture. Certainly we can do a chemical analysis of that bomb fragment, lads, but first I need to test this tissue sample for brucellosis.

We'll leave it to the Shamrockshire Eagle to hash out the political significance of the botched investigation. For us, it's disturbing enough to wonder whether, given the general mismanagement of the public sector in the Republic today, if the bombings were to happen again tomorrow, would the investigation be any better?

Friday, December 12, 2003

We don't want the smoking Armalite to be a mushroom cloud

One of the many mysteries about the rationality of Dubya's foreign policy is the seeming perverse incentive it sends to rogue states: if we think you might be developing weapons of mass destruction, we'll invade, but if we know for sure that you have WMDs, we'll negotiate. Case 1 is Iraq and Case 2 is North Korea. Hence the incentive to develop those WMDs as quickly as possible. Well, the IRA seems to have managed to get itself into the treasured category 2 without much effort, to judge by the biographical details of the new White House Northern Ireland envoy:

The new United States envoy to Northern Ireland has been named as Mitchell B Reiss. Mr Reiss replaces Richard Haass and will take up the post early in the New Year.
He was described as a US government official with extensive experience on nuclear disarmament.
Mr Reiss has spent time working with the North Korean government on nuclear disarmament, and will focus on the issues of IRA decommissioning and attempts to restore the power-sharing administration at Stormont.

Yes folks, the IRA must have nukes.
I'm sorry sir, you are on the list

Trust Taoiseach Bertie Ahern to always look on the bright side. While international political commentators contemplate the discomfort of Duyba's begging phone calls to Jacques, Gerhard, and Pootie-Poot for Iraq debt relief on the same day the Pentagon was leaving them off the list of acceptable contracting countries for Iraq, it has now emerged that the Republic would have seen its own inclusion on the precious list as a great dishonour. Because Bertie is now spinning the Republic's exclusion as proof that he really was against the war. Specifically:

Speaking on [national] radio this morning, Mr Ahern said that Ireland's exclusion from a list of 63 countries drawn up by the US that could compete for contracts to rebuild Iraq was "a proof that at least the rest of the world understood" that Ireland was against the war.

And God forbid the world think the Republic was in favour of the war -- it could have jeopardised our entrant in the Miss World contest, for one thing. But seriously, Bertie should have kept his mouth shut. Because, within the constraints of being a neutral country, the Republic was as pro-war as one could get. Besides our rhetorical silence in key debates, there was the very practical matter of the use of Shannon as a stopover for hundreds of thousands of US troops en route to and from Iraq. Even Rummy stopped over the odd time.

As it happens, the Republic is one of those countries owed money by Iraq -- courtesy of some corrupt export credit deals for beef in the late 1980s. So Dubya can safely phone Bertie for help on that one, knowing that Bertie doesn't want to be on the list anyway. What are friends for?

Thursday, December 11, 2003

It must have been the IRA's fault

Apologies to our readers for the prolonged absence, due to our travels visiting the glorious utopia created by the magisterial President Ben-Ali in Tunisia, followed by a severe case of vomiting induced by the spectacle of the England rugby team victory parade (and associated hype) in London. Or maybe the sickness happened in Tunisia -- it all seemed to roll into one. But anyway, we were in a bit of a news cocoon -- the newspaper we read in Tunis one day only had time for one prominent news story besides recounting the latest achievements of the President, namely the victory of Miss Ireland in the Miss World contest. This tops our Eurovision wins many times over.

We will just quickly note how the poor old New York Times got bitten by doing something that they never would have done were they reading our blog -- they believed a story in the Daily Telegraph! As they now should realise, this paper has been simply too weakened by its subjugation to multiple agendas -- bashing Ireland, promoting the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy, and advancing the social ambitions of Lord and Lady Black -- to maintain reliable factual standards in any of its reporting. In this case, the NYT used a Telegraph obit as a basis for its own obit for their same person, and therefore bought into the Telegraph's assumption that the subject was in fact, like, dead. But No. As the New York Post reports (showing again that the weakened Telegraph is now considered fair game for the other VRC mouthpieces):

Times officials refused to discuss why it published the obituary, written by freelance dance writer Jack Anderson. But Anderson told The Post last night he first read Sergava's obit in the Daily Telegraph of London, which referred him to alleged Sergava publicist Shirley Hanner.
Hanner has become unreachable, said Anderson, whose article cited no sources.
The Telegraph's obituary was still posted on its Web site last night.

Something to keep in mind the next time you see the telltale opening clause "as reported in London's Daily Telegraph."