Tuesday, March 30, 2004

The flight of the smokers

The Republic of Ireland's ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces has attracted worldwide publicity, enough even to get the attention of the Gauloise-puffing clientele of Le Monde. Your Franglais will get you through the essential points of their article and the even more straightforward cartoon, with the huddled smokers outside the pub saying "I'll breathe inside."
The benefits of short surnames

From a Wall street Journal interview (subs. req'd) with Maureen O'Hara (not to be confused with Mia's mom, Maureen O'Sullivan) at a book signing for her autobiography Tis Herself (not to be confused with Tis, by Frank McCourt):

The book chronicles Ms. O'Hara's happy Dublin childhood, the second of six children in a close-knit artsy family; her years in Hollywood, protege of Charles Laughton, who gave the 18-year-old Maureen her first movie roles and her screen name because her given name, Fitzsimons, wouldn't fit on a marquee;
The land of the little people

Once again we fear that we are entering one of those patches where blog-worthy material is somewhat thin. Here in the USA, the only thing that can be said for certain is that visits to the Washington shrine to St Condi of Palo Alto will probably be down somewhat from the level of the past three years. So of peripheral Irish interest, we refer you to this fascinating article from this week's New Yorker, about trends in height through the centuries.

The motivating puzzle is that the USA's assumed advantage in quality of life is no longer translating into gains in height relative to the rest of the world, with northwestern Europe's more egalitarian healthcare system leading to a concentration of Gullivers in that part of the world. But we couldn't overlook this detail provided by a German professor who has spent years putting this height data together:

He [Professor Komlos] showed me [New Yorker writer Burkhard Bilger] an ad from the Pennsylvania Gazette, dated September 26, 1771. An Irish servant named Nathaniel Anster had run away for the third time. He was thirty years old, with a sandy complexion and short bushy hair. He had on a felt hat and a striped blanket coat, was “much inclined to strong drink,” and had “a natural propensity to steal.” He was also five feet seven inches tall.

We hope that Nathaniel made good on his 3rd escape.

Monday, March 29, 2004

The city that never sleeps challenges the city that never kicks

Sunday's New York Times, in an article about the world of sport's perennial losers:

In Ireland, the national hurling and Gaelic football championships have been contested since 1887, yet five teams have never tasted ultimate victory in either sport's top tier. In the case of Kilkenny, it has won 28 hurling titles over the years, but not a single Gaelic football crown. How a county that produces men who can whack a ball with a stick but who can't kick a bigger ball with their feet is something of a mystery.

Sunday, March 28, 2004

No wonder the Canadians don't want him

The Telegraph newspapers might be slipping out of the control of the Vast Rightwing Conspiracy as its future ownership post Conrad Black is decided. But fellow ex-Canadian Mark Steyn is determined to provide every last ounce of service to the VRWC while he is still there. In his zeal to put together this weekend's Sunday Telegraph column, however, he unintentionally reveals the sources of two of his key spin points for his bash Richard Clarke piece, a genre that has kept the VRWC guys extra busy this week, given that Clarke is such a threat, someone on the inside who dared to criticise the Dear Leader, George W. Bush.

His article betrays a reliance on possibly senile Vice President Dick Cheney and Fox News thug Sean Hannnity, because he uses spin points put forward by these chumps, spin points that have proven so dodgy that few others in the VRWC have been willing to use them. First, he uses the phrase

mid-level bureaucrat called Richard Clarke,

which is just a variant of Cheney's line in an interview last Monday that Clarke was "out of the loop." Here's the problem -- even Condi wouldn't back up that one. As numerous people have pointed out, Clarke wasn't out of the loop on terrorism; he was the loop, as the chief anti-terrorism official in the Bush administration. Economist-blogger Brad DeLong has usefully collected the essential facts in this post, in which he also amusingly describes and acts upon his frustration that the New York Times won't just come out and call Cheney what he is, a liar.

Steyn then tries to rescue the beloved Condi from Clarke's accusation that she'd never heard of al Qaeda upon entering the Bush administration, and here's his proof:

In October the previous year [2000], Dr Rice gave an interview to WJR Radio in Detroit in which she discoursed authoritatively on al-Qa'eda and bin Laden -

Sadly for Mark, this piece of spin had been incomparably debunked by the Daily Howler before he even used it. Thursday's Howler noted the emergence of this spin point on Sean Hannity's show on Fox News; Hannity introduced the tape of this Detroit interview while he had Newt Gingrich on as a guest. We'll let Howler take it from here:

[Howler] But Hannity was eager to make Clarke a liar. So he subjected Newt Gingrich to this:

HANNITY: Mr. Speaker, I want to ask you this. This new book by Mr. Clarke that is out there, he accused Condoleezza Rice, I think he was particularly vicious towards her, of having never heard of al Qaeda until he mentioned it to her in early 2001. Quote, he said, “Her facial expression gave the impression she’d never heard of al Qaeda before.”
Well, I have a tape of Condi Rice. She was on a WJR radio interview in Detroit with David Newman, and I want to play this because it contradicts that frankly mean-spirited lie that’s in this book.

[Howler sarcasm] Wow! Hannity really had the goods! He was going to refute Clarke’s mean-spirited lie! Rubes leaned forward in their chairs. And the rube-runner played this tape:

RICE: Osama bin Laden do two things [sic]. The first is you really have to get the intelligence agencies better organized to deal with the terrorist threat to the United States itself. One of the problems that we have is a kind of split responsibility, of course, between the CIA and foreign intelligence and the FBI and domestic intelligence.
There needs to be better cooperation because we don’t want to wake up one day and find out that Osama bin Laden has been successful on our own territory.

[Howler] Sean was thrilled. “Pretty amazing, isn’t it, Mr. Speaker?” he asked. Diplomatically, Newt changed the subject.
Why did Speaker Newt move on? Duh. Clarke didn’t say that Rice had never heard of bin Laden; he said she may have been stumped by the term “al Qaeda.” But readers, Rice didn’t use that term in this tape! And trust us: If Rice ever said “al Qaeda” in public before she met Clarke, the tape would be there in Sean’s hands.


Does the archetypal Telegraph reader, the retired colonel in Cheltenham, know that he's getting American VRWC leftovers in his Sunday paper? We think he should be told.

UPDATE: Howler is forced to return to this point about whether Condi had heard of al Qaeda, because the VRWC spinners just keep using it.

Friday, March 26, 2004

The rights of small nations

The Belgians are angry. And you won't like them when they're angry. Well actually, we're not sure about that part, but the land of chocolate and waffles is pretty pissed off, or at least the government thereof. At issue is the allocation of two plum international finance jobs that are effectively the gift of the European Union finance minister collective. The jobs are a slot on the board of the European Central Bank, and the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund. The former had been open for a while and the latter opened up a few weeks ago.

And with the de facto quota system that the EU runs for these jobs, the two vacancies interacted with each other. Since the ECB board slot was being vacated by a Spaniard, there was a presumption that another Spaniard should get it, namely Manuel Gonzalez Paramo. But then the only solid rumour for the IMF job was that departing Partido Popular finance minister Rodrigo Rato would get it, putting the ECB job back in play given that the rest of the EU surely wouldn't want the Spanish to get both jobs.

Enter the Belgians with their ECB candidate Peter Praet, and the Republic of Ireland, flush with the pride of holding the current EU presidency also put up a name. But it was not to be. There was a tied vote amongst the finance ministers between the Belgian and the Spaniard, and since the larger countries wanted the Spaniard, he won. The Irish guy didn't figure in the final decision. It's not clear what went on at the meeting:

[WSJ] Only minutes after saying that they didn't expect to reach agreement, European Finance Ministers chose Spaniard Manuel Gonzalez Paramo to join the European Central Bank's board.

Irish Finance Minister Charlie McCreevy made the announcement at a press conference.

McCreevy did not elaborate.


Which is a bit odd for a chatterbox like McCreevy. It could well be that this spat between suits reflects yet more fallout from the 11-M Madrid bombs -- perhaps the ministers didn't like the idea of handing the IMF job to the "Blame the Basques" crowd as they exit, and hence saw no problem with sticking to the previous plan for the ECB job. Anyway, that decision now moves to the next meeting of the finance ministers, and will be the subject of horse-trading next week in Ireland. And never has a phrase seemed more apt, because the meeting will be held, of all places, at Punchestown racecourse.

UPDATE: The Irish Times on 2nd April nicely explains why the Belgians had good reason to be upset, along with the more stoic McCreevy:

Some of Ecofin's decisions in recent months may have been unwise, however, notably in connection with the appointment to the ECB executive board. Appointments to the board must be made unanimously but the ministers came to what Mr McCreevy described as "a gentleman's agreement" to choose their nominee by qualified majority before formally approving the appointment unanimously.

If this procedure was questionable, its outcome was to set a precedent that can only disadvantage smaller member-states, such as Ireland.

By replacing one Spaniard on the executive board with another, the finance ministers have opened the way for Italy to nominate a successor to Mr Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa next year and for Prof Otmar Issing to be replaced by another German in 2006.

The EU's biggest member-states have intensified their efforts to gain control over European economic policy in recent months and the ECB appointment has strengthened their hand.


In other words, the small countries had a type of veto with the unanimity requirement, which is now seriously diluted by allowing the qualified majority voting.

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

An American import Ireland doesn't want

In the USA, Bob Shrum is a well-known political consultant for Democratic candidates. In the Republic of Ireland, his name is only well known to those who follow national politics relatively closely, because his firm, Shrum, Devine and Donilon, has provided similar services to the Republic's semi-permanent party of government, Fianna Fail. If the American consultants were implementing the kind of "know your customer" rule that US banks are required to follow, it's not clear that this pairing would pass muster. For one thing, there's rarely a day that goes by that doesn't bring some new revelation of past Fianna Fail corruption. But now there's a new angle on just what exact type of services are being provided by Shrum et al.

Labour party leader Pat Rabbitte alleged (link may require subs.) in the Dail (Irish lower house) yesterday that Shrum's firm had done private polling for Fianna Fail which revealed that concerns about immigration were widespread amongst the public and even trumped the similarly widespread concern about the state of the Republic's healthcare system. This polling in turn, Rabbitte suggested, was the basis for the government's sudden proposal for a constitutional referendum in June that would remove the automatic right of citizenship upon birth in Ireland.

This is designed to tackle the problem, much hyped by tabloid style journalism, of "citizenship tourism" in which furrin women are flying into the Republic 9 months pregnant, giving birth to an Irish citizen, and then leaving with babe-in-arms but setting the stage for an arriving citizen-sponger sometime down the road (we're adopting the tabloid tone here).

Following the well-established Rice-Davies principle, Fianna Fail have of course denied this, but there is strong circumstantial evidence to support Rabbitte's contention. First and foremost, the proposed referendum seemed to come from nowhere. It will be an additional ballot with the already planned local and European elections, in which the government is expected to do badly. The new proposal was only aired a couple of weeks ago, and would complicate an already fraught election process in which electronic voting will be in national use for the first time. The government tried to justify the sudden appearance of the proposal by saying that the maternity hospitals had asked for it. But:

Mr McDowell [Minister for Justice] has said the [maternity hospital] masters "pleaded" with him for Government action to do something about the large numbers of foreign nationals presenting late in their pregnancies to give birth in Ireland.

The masters subsequently denied that they had sought any constitutional or legislative change.


So it looks instead that the government, advised by Shrum's firm, thought it incredibly useful to plant a hot-button immigrant issue on the ballot and force the Opposition parties into an awkward position of either dilution by following the government line or taking the side of those damn furriners.

Bob Shrum doubtless likes to see himself on the "liberal/populist" side of issues in his US consulting. But here's a case where it looks like his populism is manifesting itself, literally, as nativism.

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Straight outta Gweedore

So in last night's channel surfing, we came across possibly the most bizarre musical ensemble ever. MTV Jams was playing a video with the credits Mario Winans featuring P. Diddy and Enya. We listened and watched for a couple of minutes to confirm that there was indeed some actual Enya content to the song -- her trademark haunting Celtic sound was evident. There is no mention of the song on Enya's official site and this news story provides more insight into how the song was put together -- it's based on a sample from one of her songs, so it would appear that she asked for, and got, a full "featuring" credit on the song, and not just the usual name buried in small print in the liner notes that samples usually get. There's not much else to say other than point to the obvious bizarreness of the Donegal lass teamed up with the bad boy impresario of East Coast hip-hop, P. Diddy, whose strongest connection to Ireland would be his actual first name, Sean. Can a low-riding craze in Letterkenny be far behind?

Monday, March 22, 2004

The War on Language

Our readers will have noticed that we have been quiet for the last few days, one of those occasional lulls in finding things to blog about. We did find this Frank Rich piece in the Sunday New York Times to be of some interest. Rich describes in appropriately mocking terms the new crusade of the US Federal Communications Commission against on-air obscenities, and as part of the get-tough policy, they reopened a seemingly shut case in which Bono was judged not to have been obscene with his exclamation of "f*cking brilliant" upon winning a Golden Globe award -- the exuberance and apparent lack of intent to offend being the mitigating factors. Or so FCC staff had said. However FCC chairman Michael Powell -- perhaps anxious to show that he is in the job for some reason other than being Colin's son -- reopened the case and found that the usage was obscene. No direct penalty flows from this to either Bono or the TV network that carried the show, but the latter is clearly being put on notice about future conduct. Rich did the obvious thing and asked Bono what he thought of the whole affair:

"I guess I don't speak American, but I thought I did," he said. "There are some obscenities in our culture, and this is nowhere near the top of the list. I never meant to be offensive. That language was genuine exuberance. It was a great moment for our band. If you're Irish, you love language, and if you do, you're going to fall on the occasional expletive; it's the percussive side of language. For me, it is preposterous to have good, conservative people whom I like and respect taking on an expletive while the right to pack heavy ammo goes by. It says something eloquent, if not pretty, about where we are."

Other than the implicit equation of Larry Mullen with foul language, there's not much to argue with there. Indeed Bono could easily have fallen back on the Irish word feck, a related but more sugar-coated version of the banned f-word, and the FCC wouldn't have had much to do. He'll know the next time. Meanwhile, just to help along the contrast with European TV, Johnny Rotten and Britain's ITV will face no penalty as a result of Johnny's live exclamation of "f*cking c*nts," with reference to the British reality TV voting public which had just failed to vote him off the celebrity reality show I'm a Celebrity, Get me out of here. Or maybe there's something about Irish family connections that allows us to generally get away with bad language. Perhaps Taoiseach Bertie Ahern will try pushing the envelope on his 2005 St Patrick's Day tour of the US.

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Dublin

Yes, it's St Patrick's Day, but who would know on what day it actually falls with it now being marketed as an Oirish week-long "festival." And to mark the occasion, the high-class end of the Vast Rightwing Conspiracy -- the print editorial page of the Wall Street Journal -- provides us with a "humour" piece with an Irish theme. It's by someone named Patrick Cooke, whose VRWC credentials seem to be impeccable -- executive editor of Forbes FYI, not coincidentally related to Steve Forbes, major bankroller of the VRWC. And based on this piece, he's also contender for the title of Ard Ri of Comedy.

It's vaguely weather-related so, warning: there's a 30 percent chance of laughter upon reading it. Which requires subscription and there's no point in disseminating its crashing unfunniness any further, so we'll provide the er...highlights. It's built around an alleged scientific finding that the Irish shoreline is shrinking and so at some point in the distant future the island will be submerged completely. Cooke's only real goal as the projected timeline of laughs piles up is to get in some slams at the UN (which sets up a committee to investigate the problem) and the Irish Times e.g.
23672 A.D. -- The Irish Times publishes its final edition. Headline: U.N. REPORT DELAYED. Forecast: Showers.

29089 A.D. -- Yer man Michael Francis X. Fitzdavin Dooley, the last Irishman, rests atop the summit of Mt. Carrauntoohil (at one time the highest mountain in Ireland) sipping a final pint in the moonlight as waves lap gently at his wellies. Proving once and for all that there is no limit to Irish pessimism, the one-time Kerryman concludes that the country's going straight to hell.


The VRWC -- it's not just for wars anymore.

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Madrid

Here's one unintended byproduct of the Madrid bombings and the furious VRWC spinning that it has generated. We Irish are usually the reliable "excitable" and "emotional" occupants of The Islands when it comes to the stereotypes, especially sporting ones. But not any more, at least if Mark Steyn is to be believed. In his Daily Telegraph column (which is just the same Karl Rove approved garbage that he peddles everywhere else, except with a UK spell-check and some little local colour added), he says:

Europe's home-grown terrorism problems take place among notably static populations, such as Ulster and the Basque country. One could make generally safe extrapolations about the likelihood of holding Northern Ireland to what HMG used to call an "acceptable level of violence".

That's right: bombs to the left of us, bombs to the right of us, but things don't get out of control, not like with the Arabs. Even the Basques are allowed into this select group of stoics, which certainly ups their Aznar-designated status from a few days ago of being mass murderers.

But more seriously, let's be clear on one thing: the PP lost the election because they lied about national security. Today's New York Times recounts the high level at which the lies were disseminated:

On Thursday, the day of the bombings, at Spain's insistence, the [UN] Security Council passed a resolution attributing responsibility to ETA.

Also on Thursday, Javier Solana, a Spaniard who is the European Union's top foreign policy official, gave television interviews in three languages saying it seemed certain that militant Basque separatists were responsible because the type of explosives and the tactics used were those of ETA. Mr. Solana made his remarks at the request of the Spanish government, one senior European official in Brussels said....

[Foreign Minister] Ms. Palacio sent directives to all Spanish embassies around the world urging her country's diplomats to stress the ETA connection, European officials said....
...
"We just sent what we knew," she said. "It would have been so stupid for us to manipulate. When the minister of the interior came out with additional information, we were as bewildered as everyone else."


All those hours sitting next to Colin Powell for the UN Iraq debates last year have clearly affected her sense of what she could get away with.
Madrid

It's Saint Patrick's week in Ireland -- it's a week now, not just a day (the 17th). And that means that all Irish politicians, North and South, are not in Ireland. Most of them are in the USA, although some of the Oirish VIPs will be carefully working their schedules to ensure that they make it to Cheltenham for the race meeting. But amongst the Irish suits in the USA for the week is Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble. And he spent a good portion of Monday making a shameless pitch to the Vast Rightwing Conspiracy that he's their man in Northern Ireland. He was at the research nerve centre of the VRWC, the Heritage Foundation -- we're waiting for a transcript to appear. But based on what we're seeing on TV, here are the key points:

1. He's sticking to the Aznar-PP line that there's an ETA angle to the Madrid bombs. He needs that to fit his slams of the IRA into Dubya's War on Terror, because there are some historical linkages between the IRA and ETA. But keeping his "to be sure" options open, he read verbatim a Sunday Independent article that we linked to previously alleging that the IRA disseminated the mobile phone bomb technology that was used in the Madrid attacks, whether by ETA or al Qaeda.

2. He bent the statistics to show that the IRA has remained the most active terrorist group in NI. Here how's he did it -- the IRA have murdered at least one person in every year of the peace process (6 years in total). Nice choice of indicator for most active -- because it steps around the simpler indicator of total deaths during this time, which would point to the Real IRA or loyalist groups as more active.

3. He threw some red meat to his VRWC hosts, bashing Bill Clinton's approach to NI and saying that Dubya has been better, which was billed as a critique of John Kerry as well, who had said as much. The only supporting argument provided was that Clinton had told the Unionists to work within the peace process institutions in 1999 even in the absence of full weapons decommissioning; Bill noted that there was always an option to walk out if the decommissioning did not happen. We were lead to believe that Dubya would have advised something different. But even if it was bad advice, no-one made Trimble follow it, and of course the option that Bill described remains on the table.

So Trimble has clearly picked his horse in the November US elections. Given that he's still on the Aznar horse in the Spanish elections, we think that's a good sign for John Kerry.

Monday, March 15, 2004

Madrid

Our weekend posts contained one incorrect prediction, that the despicable PP would win the Spanish election, and one correct one, that the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy would seek to package the terrorist attack as a worthy sacrifice for the worthy war in Iraq. However, the PP defeat has upped the required level of rhetoric for the VRWC, who now must label the Socialists and their voters as terrorist sympathisers. There are examples all over Blogistan today of this line of reasoning but perhaps predictably, a perfect storm of lunacy is attained by Opinionjournal:

The Terrorists Win One
The war on terror suffered a setback yesterday when Spain elected a Socialist government, apparently in response to last week's terror attacks in Madrid.

The Socialists and the terrorists are on the same side, at least as far as the liberation of Iraq goes.


The rest of tirade shows, amongst other things, the risk of getting one's accounts of the world solely from fellow VRWC spinners. There is, as we predicted, the lame reference to "3/11," not the correct "11-M." One report is weirdly sourced to an obscure Australian newspaper:

The Weekend Australian reports that some 1,000 antigovernment demonstrators gathered in Madrid Saturday "to blame [last] week's bombs in the capital on the government's unpopular decision to support the US war on Iraq."

No, as any respectable news accounts would show, those protests were sparked by a belief that the PP government was covering up the investigation. Then there's the whole assumption that the European "weasel" countries have been sitting on the sidelines, not cooperating in the War on Terror. But from today's New York Times, we learn that:

France's senior military officer said today that Osama bin Laden had on several occasions narrowly escaped capture by French troops working alongside American forces in Afghanistan, although he conceded that Mr. bin Laden's capture would not in itself suffice to dismantle Al Qaeda.

Dubya is doubtless hoping for an election season surprise of capturing Osama, but how will the VRWC handle it if Osama is captured by French troops?

Finally, Opinionjournal's opening tirade on 11-M lacks any reference to the casualties of last Thursday's attack, until right at the end:

The election outcome has had a demoralizing effect on pro-war bloggers. "It's a spectacular result for Islamist terrorism, and a chilling portent of Europe's future," writes Andrew Sullivan. John Ellis calls it "the most depressing political development since 9/11, bar none," and says his "assertion that 3/11 would engage the EU in the War on Terror as never before was proven wrong in record time."

Buck up, guys. Every war has casualties and setbacks, and this isn't the end of the world.


So who are the casualties here, the dead and injured, or the truly devastated Andrew Sullivan and John Ellis?

Sunday, March 14, 2004

Madrid

Sunday media watch.

1. Condi tells the Spaniards how to vote:

[NBC Meet the Press host] MR. RUSSERT: ...Are you concerned that the Spanish government and today's election may fall as a result of embracing the president's policy on Iraq and this attack?

DR. RICE: I believe that the Spanish people understand that they've had strong and good leadership in President Jose Maria Aznar and his government, that fighting terrorism cannot allow one to be intimidated.


2. Condi covers 200 deaths with the "Stuff Happens" doctrine:

MR. RUSSERT: But if this was al-Qaeda and they successfully killed 200 Spaniards and wounded 1,500, they're far from being decapitated. Al-Qaeda is alive and well.

DR. RICE: They are going to win skirmishes in the war on terrorism


3. The New York Times forgets about one of the IRA's theatres of operation:

Since the 1970's, Germany and Greece have known leftist terrorism, while Italy has suffered both leftist and rightist violence: in 1980, Italian neo-Fascists killed 84 people and wounded 200 in a bombing in Bologna. Until the peace agreement in Northern Ireland six years ago, the Irish Republican Army also sponsored separatist violence in Britain, while France still struggles against nationalist extremism in Corsica.
Madrid

So by stalling for 48 hours with the Blame the Basques strategy, the Partido Popular may sneak through in Sunday's election, and provide valuable time for the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy to cook up some spin about these attacks. Part of this will involve a simple cut-and-paste of their 9/11 rhetoric, with the 9 changed to a 3, but as Sullywatch notes, this puts them out of step with European practice, which is to put the date first. If the VRWC was watching CNN en Espanol like us, instead of getting their news nuggets from Fox News, they would know that the correct designation along date lines is 11-M.

But let's not them frame the issue as follows: the 200 deaths are a worthy sacrifice for a worthy war in Iraq, of which Spain was justified in being a part. No. Those 200 people died because the Iraq war was stupid. Remember how it was sold -- it was part of the War on Terror. Saddam was habouring terrorists. And even the subsequent insurgency generated a new rationale -- the flypaper theory. The insurgency would attract terrorists from around the world to fight against the overwhelming force of the US military in Iraq, saving the rest of the world from their activities. Anyone who tried to make opposing points -- that Iraq was a problem but not a terrorist problem, that the war in Iraq would distract from the pursuit of al Qaeda -- was shouted down as a traitor, or worse still, as a French-lover.

A few months ago, the rumour in Washington was that Dubya would seek to appoint the now retired Jose Maria Aznar to succeed Kofi Annan. 11-M shows that Aznar is a buffoon who liked to play global statesman one year ago in the Azores, and now 200 people from Madrid have paid the price for his neglect of real threats to Spain. Maybe putting him in Annan's position would be part of Dubya's brilliant plan to destroy the UN entirely.

Meanwhile, in the Irish satellite operation of the VRWC, the news of al Qaeda involvement came too late for the Sunday papers. Because the Sunday Independent, David "Simply British" Trimble, and the Republic's Justice Minister Michael McDowell, are all hooked on the ETA theory because it's a way to flog the IRA:

...the Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble, who is in Washington for the annual St Patrick's Day political gathering, called on Sinn Fein and the IRA to end its close links with ETA and other foreign terrorist groups.

Mr Trimble said: "It's not absolutely clear yet who perpetrated these terrible deeds in Spain but ETA is still the prime suspect for it. I say to Mr Adams and Sinn Fein that they must end all links with ETA and terminate the party's globe-trotting around the world to fraternise with similar revolutionary elements."
....Meanwhile, the Minister for Justice, Michael McDowell has stepped up his attack on Sinn Fein/IRA.

He said: "Let me say clearly that republicanism does not speak in muffled voice through a balaclava...No true Republican movement in modern Ireland would make common cause with the narco-terrorists of the Communist FARC in Colombia; or with the repressive Castro regime of Cuba; or with the murderous zealots of ETA."

Friday, March 12, 2004

Madrid

Two quick things. First, reenforcing our praise of yesterday for CNN en Espanol. They just let the cameras roll all day with today's events in Spain. Meanwhile, over on their Anglophone counterparts, terrorism "experts" fill the screen to explain what ETA wants and that simultaneous attacks are a hallmark of al Qaeda. But second, consider the vacuousness of the supposed War on Terror. Suppose it emerges that it really was ETA who carried out the bombing. Does the WoT then call for F-15s in the air over Guernica by the end of the day?

Thursday, March 11, 2004

Moments in insularity

In our attempts to get the latest news on the Madrid bombings via the "all news" channels on our US cable TV, we encountered very brief descriptions of what had happened, with nearly as much time devoted to what the initials ETA stand for, and emphasis on the fact that they are listed as a terrorist group by Europe and the US -- that'll learn 'em! But more to the point, from these channels' perspective, was covering the really important stories of the day, of which the following are merely the ones we can remember; all of CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC are equally implicated in this litany of insularity:

Should your dog be on the Atkins diet?
One year since Elizabeth Smart returned home [maybe/maybe not had been kidnapped]
Suspended Vancouver Canucks [ice] hockey player
Impending government action against performance-enhancing drugs in sport
Advice for dealing with breakups
The Bill O'Reilly--Frank Rich feud [Fox News blowhard and NYT critic battle over The Passion


To its credit, CNN en Espanol (basically, CNN for Latin America), was doing non-stop coverage of the bombings. But forget all that talk you might have heard about a new seriousness after 9/11.

Tuesday, March 09, 2004

When Oirish eyes are weeping

What a rollercoaster ride for Ireland. Just days after the high of beating "the Brits" in rugby, Tuesday was truly calamitous. Let's work from the end. The Republic's favourite soccer team, Manchester United, was eliminated from the Champions League this evening by Portugese side Porto. That exit will rob Taoiseach Bertie Ahern of valuable campaign appearances at the Theatre of Dreams between now and the local elections in June.

But this cruel blow merely followed up the news that homegrown boy band Westlife is breaking up, or is at least losing a member, Bryan McFadden, leaving the four remaining members to claim that they will carry on. Bryan is leaving with the very politician-like excuse of "spending more time with the family," which is sort of right because as with other famous bands (e.g. The Beatles, Spinal Tap), to explain the breakup, cherchez la femme. In this case la femme would be wife Kerry, former member of English girl band Atomic Kitten and vanquisher of Johnny Rotten (amongst others) in the most recent verion of the reality show I'm a Celebrity..Get Me Out of Here.

The assumption of most observers is that Bryan sees a bigger future working in a duo with his once-again high-profile wife, whereas the pipeline in Westlife may not have that much left -- after you've had UK #1 hits with covers of Mandy and Seasons in the Sun, where else can you go?

Monday, March 08, 2004

Brownshirts, Blueshirts, and Greenshirts

While the impartial observer would be justified in concluding that politics in the Irish Republic has spent most of the last 10 years in a deep slumber, those ten years do seem to have set the stage for a new round of rhetoric about Irish nationalism. The governing Fianna Fail-Progressive Democrat coalition is displaying every sign of panic about the electoral potential of Sinn Fein in this June's local and European elections, and the longer-term trend worries the government even more. The government is implementing its onslaught via a transparent Mr Nasty -- Mr Nice routine, in which Justice Minister Michael McDowell administers a good "tune-up" (as the NYPD would say), and then genial Taoiseach Bertie Ahern steps in to hold back his crazy colleague.

McDowell has been working his Mr Nasty bit for several weeks -- to the point where he's earning the approval the Ulster Unionists. He stepped it up again this weekend, comparing the Shinners to the Nazis:

It's [Sinn Fein -- IRA relationship] just like the Nazis and the Brownshirts - looking at them and saying they are two separate organisations and saying there's no connection - there's a very close connection.

An incidental advantage of this line of attack is that for the more historically minded, it also recalls the now inconsequential debate about the linkages between Fine Gael and the Republic's comical flirtation with fascism, the Blueshirts.

But McDowell didn't stop at the historical analogies -- he also accused the IRA of being involved in corruption at Dublin port, and he said that the names of the people on the IRA Army Council are household names associated with Sinn Fein.

Enter Bertie with his usual hands-off style of management:

When asked about Mr McDowell's view that some of the household names from Sinn Fein were on the IRA Army Council, Mr Ahern said he was not aware of this and that he personally did not know.

He also said he was not sure if the Minister for Justice was aware who was on the army council.


One wonders what Bertie and McDowell do talk about around the Cabinet table. But in any event, the Shinners, with their, shall we say, robust nationalism do pose problems for the FFers, for whom Irish nationalism was always mainly about shouting and roaring at their Ard Fheis. They showed that they can move with the times, by working in Ireland's big weekend win over England in rugby:

A local election candidate won cheers by suggesting Ireland had defeated "the Brits" at Twickenham.

Who knew that Scotland and Wales were on the field along with England? And while it was fun for the lads to contemplate the Irish victory over England at Twickenham, don't push them too hard on whether such a spectacle might be witnessed at Croke Park in the future, because the governing body is sticking to its position that there'll be no debate on hosting furrin games there for a while, a decision from which Bertie can conveniently detach himself. But the Shinners have too much other good material to work with to even bother forcing Bertie to adopt a specific position on soccer and rugby at Croke Park: voter disgust with the endless revelations of corruption and the rise of the Oirish VIP culture.
Her business is her business, got it?

Here's a good example of the difference in standards between the British and American media, and in particular the greater attention to reporting conflicts of interest and the checking of facts in the latter. A day after the Vast Rightwing Conspiracy had used the Sunday Telegraph to peddle a dubious John Kerry story, today's Telegraph features an impassioned tirade by columnist Barbara Amiel.

Barbara is upset about the way that corporate titans are now the targets of government investigators and "little guy" jurors who find them guilty at the first available opportunity. She specifically cites the Martha Stewart case, which is indeed an excellent example of where the jurors seem to have convicted Martha of something she wasn't charged with. But, knowing who Barbara Amiel is, one keeps waiting for the acknowledgement of who she is, as the complaints tumble out:

Stewart fell victim to the tall poppy syndrome sweeping the business world of the United States. America is a splendid country determined to better itself - sometimes by overkill. Corporate scandals have created an atmosphere where all public companies are potential wearers of the scarlet letter...But Revolution has been sweeping the boardrooms of corporate America and the Terror is well under way....The revolution that [Disney CEO] Eisner and American business face comes from the once-silent partner of American public companies - the minority and institutional shareholder...Companies found their boards being second-guessed by activists...
In checking greed in the managerial class, America seems to be instituting a system that legitimises the greed of minority shareholders. This New Revolution validates short-term profit and penalises vision.


But not a mention of another tall poppy cut down by activist shareholders, a case with which Mrs Amiel is very familiar via her other persona, Lady Black of Crossharbour. Perhaps the Telegraph takes the view that everyone knows Mrs Amiel is also Lady Black, so that we should treat the article as if, say, Imelda Marcos was to pen a defense of East Asian dictators without making any specific mention of hubbie Ferdinand.

Indeed, the more we think about it, Barbara's multiple references to a "Revolution" and a "Terror" reveal quite a bit about her own self-image at this point, the type of situation and person of which a great Irishman once said:

But the age of chivalry is gone; that of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded, and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever. Never, never more, shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom!

Friday, March 05, 2004

Ireland through the looking glass

It's been a particularly interesting week for tracking the mixture of pomp and circumstance with grubby corruption and cynicism that seems to especially characterise the current incarnation of the Irish Republic. On the one hand, in a sign that the world economy must be quite a resilient beast, check out European Central Bank President Jean-Claude Trichet's description of a recent meeting of the world's two biggest economic blocs, the US and the Euro area:

We have an organised system, and when we were together in the United States for the [G7 largest economies] Boca Raton meeting I was, if you like, the equivalent, the friendly partner, of Alan Greenspan, and Charlie McCreevy was opposite [US Treasury] Secretary Snow. That's the organisation of Europe, and I believe that it is a good organisation.

This is by virtue of the rotating presidency of the European Union, which puts Charlie at the head of the EU finance ministers group. This is the same Chaarlie McCreevy who doubtless a couple of days after this event, was hearing complaints from constituents about potholes in the road between Sallins and Naas.

However, the home news in the Republic this week was paying less attention to what exactly Greenspan and McCreevy might have talked about, but rather the not-so-distant stink of corruption around many of Charlie's current Cabinet colleagues. The Republic has many active tribunals of inquiry looking into its recent history. Sadly, most of these tribunals are concerning themselves with matters such as threatening to lock up rogue bloggers. One is actually important, because it pertains to high-level corruption which ultimately explains why much of Dublin is ugly and mismanaged -- because the planning process was for sale, lock, stock, and barrel.

The government had managed to stall for five years on hearing the allegations of UK-based property developer Tom Gilmartin, but he is finally getting his many words in. It's a stunning catalogue of how, by the end of the 1980s, senior figures in the Fianna Fail party had entirely lost sight of the distinction between personal, party, and public interest, a culture that spawned a genre of character whom other countries would refer to as "Mr 10 percent" -- the person, or people, who had to get a cut of every project.

Besides the insights into this utterly corrupt culture, Gilmartin's testimony also reveals a gulf in vision between two ways of getting ahead in the old backward Ireland -- the go abroad and make your fortune with hard work method, and the stay at home and just skim off the top of everyone else's hard work method. Tom Gilmartin, meet Fianna Fail TD Liam Lawlor [Dublin governing party politician]:

But Mr Lawlor had his sights set on other riches - a planned development in [Dublin], backed by a publicity-shy British outfit Arlington.

"He wanted to meet Arlington," Mr Gilmartin recalled. "I said I would have to ask Arlington." Two days later, Mr Lawlor turned up unannounced at an Arlington meeting in London, and Mr Gilmartin realised what exactly he had on his hands.

"The man is a f****** hustler," the Sligo-born businessman told a colleague at the meeting when Mr Lawlor demanded "in" on the project.

Mr Gilmartin then, as now, got on his high-horse and rode out of the meeting to avoid the scenario of "two Paddies in a room going to start an argument". He only got as far as the tea-rooms of the Buckingham Gate Hotel, however, before Mr Lawlor tracked him down, demanding a slice of Mr Gilmartin's piece of the action. "I said, 'You know what you can do mate'." Only he said it, "a bit more strongly".


None of Lawlor's political colleagues would get around to such words with him, nor could they, being in league with the corruption themselves.

Here's one final thing. Lawlor was eventually given his cut by the shocked Brits via a no-work "consulting" job, in which:

The documents sent by Mr Lawlor to Arlington, including census and economic reports, were already available to the company. They also included a speech drafted by Mr Lawlor entitled 'Dublin - A City of Opportunity - Address by Liam Lawlor MP

We'll suppress our laughter about the "city of opportunity" part and draw your attention only to Lawlor's description of his title: MP, and not the appropriate Irish, TD. Perhaps this fine Oirishman also agreed to meet his English victims off the ferry in Dunleary.

Thursday, March 04, 2004

The Irish cultural exception

So we Irish are going to get swelled heads -- for the second time in a week, Blogistan is alive with discussions of the relevance of the much-amended Irish constitution for the Bush proposal to ban gay marriage. This time it's Atrios pointing to a discussion by Irish sociologist (it's a dirty job, but someone's got to do it) Kieran Healy of the Republic's very reluctant introduction of divorce in the mid 1990s. Healy notes the incredibly tight margin of victory for the amendment and argues that if there is a slippery slope with liberalising marriage laws, then the Irish No voters were operating much closer to where that slope begins than the opponents of gay marriage. Which is sort of like saying that if one is against nuclear power, it would have useful to have spoken up in opposition the first time that man rubbed two sticks together.

But indeed one of the interesting things about the introduction of divorce in Ireland was the closeness of the vote. Some of which clearly reflects the innate conservatism of Irish society. But there are two other factors that deserve mention.

One is partisan political cycnicism. There were two attempts to introduce divorce in the Republic, the failed amendment of 1986 and the successful one of 1995. It is not a coincidence that both occurred during rare periods of opposition for the Republic's Institutional Revolutionary Party, Fianna Fail. Fianna Fail always takes their periods away from their rightful place in power very badly, and opposition quickly crosses the line into obstructionism. Notwithstanding the usefulness of divorce to some senior FF politicians, they opposed the amendment outright in 1986. And while supporting it in 1995, their campaign featured those two Fianna Fail stalwarts, Nod and Wink, in which an amendment defeat would have been a useful black eye for the government.

The other factor in the close vote has reflected a general contrarian tendency of the Irish electorate in recent years, if anything a refreshing tendency to say that if a bunch of guys in suits are for it, we're agin it. This was definitely the case with the referenda on closer European integration -- the Republic is unusual in that many of our fellow EU members simply present the latest steps towards a more perfect union as a fait accompli to the public, while in the Republic, there's actually, like, a popular vote on it. This was the source of some chaos a few years ago (since resolved).

As for whatever slippery slope the country got on by allowing divorce, the only apparent evidence is that Irish weddings have gotten way more trashy.

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

Waiter, there's a shamrock in my Georgia Coffee

There's a little bit of Ireland in all of us, say the Irish tourism promotion ads in the USA. And a lot of our taxable profits in the Republic of Ireland, says Coca-Cola. In fact, so much of their profits that it's attracted the attention of US investigators. Today's Irish Times (subs. supposedly not req'd) picks up on a story in yesterday's Wall Street Journal (subs. req'd) that the US Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating a practice called "channel stuffing" in which Coca-Cola's Irish bottling plants appear to have sold unusually large amounts of concentrate to a Japanese drinks firm. Especially suspicious is that that the Japanese firm is itself in the Coca-Cola chain of production, in that it distributes the concentrate to Coke's Japanese bottlers.

To the US investigators, it looks like Coke was temporarily trying to pump up its sales numbers to meet sales targets (which perhaps in turn were linked to executive bonuses). There can't be any long-term gain to Coke from doing this, because it doesn't of itself boost the final sales of any Coke drinks.

There are some side details of the transactions which reveal quite a bit about the Republic's place in the globalised economy:

Coke has consolidated a considerable amount of its concentrate production in countries with lower corporate taxes, such as Ireland. Coke's two plants in Ireland produce most of the concentrate for Georgia coffee, a popular line of drinks in Japan.

So we have Japanese consumers buying a drink clearly marketed as "American" but for which the key ingredient is actually made in the Irish Republic, and not because the Republic has any comparative advantage in things linked to Georgia (Scarlett O'Hara's father excepted), but because of a tax angle. Indeed, it's likely that the alleged goal of meeting a sales target was secondary for Coke with these transactions, the primary goal being to pump up the sales of the Irish subsidiary so as to locate as much of Coke's profits as possible in Ireland. Good for Coke shareholders and the Celtic Tiger boosters, bad for US and Japanese taxpayers.

Finally, in foisting an Irish "Georgia Coffee" on the Japanese, the nation is at least extracting revenge for the outrage of Guinness Surger, a method of serving the brew in Japan in which a special bottle is zapped with soundwaves to produce the fabled head.
Not quiet on the Northern front

We've been finding ourselves stuck for blog-worthy material the last few days, notwithstanding the odd story here and there such as whether or not an elected head of state was spirited off to another continent and removed from his position in the process. To fill the Irish interest, we refer you to a couple of recent New York Times stories. Yesterday's NYT reported on the only really new twist in the seemingly perpetual impasse in Northern Ireland's peace process, namely the increased exasperation shown by the government in the Republic towards Sinn Fein and the IRA. In what Gerry Adams is trying to pass off as a par for the course event in say, the Temple Bar, four individuals removed an IRA dissident from a Belfast pub and were rudely interrupted by the police in the course of beating the dissident.

By the IRA's usual standards of deniability, their handiwork seemed somewhat visible in this case and the already creative interpretation of their ceasefire was stretched further. Hence the torrent of criticism in the Republic. But there's also an opportunistic element to the criticism, with the government belatedly realising that Sinn Fein stands to do quite well in elections in June. Incidentally the NYT describes these as municipal elections but also up for grabs are seats to the European Parliament, a mostly powerless but high-profile gravy train. Another sign that the peace process is going out of fashion was provided in the NYT's Sunday Book review, which contains this aside by reviewer Geoffrey Wheatcroft on Philip Stephens' book about Tony Blair:

In one chapter alone does Stephens himself lapse into something like uncritical approbation. He describes the 1998 agreement in Northern Ireland as a ''historic achievement,'' and implies that it was wholly admirable. To be sure, that is the conventional wisdom, but there is another view. When John Banville was asked about the ''peace process,'' the most distinguished Irish novelist and critic of his generation replied that ''those of us who have always thought of the I.R.A., and indeed Sinn Fein, as neofascist, are deeply worried by the kind of respectability they have won now in Dublin, London and Washington.''...

Stephens cites the complacent phrase British officials used about the ''constructive ambiguity'' behind the agreement, but what that really meant was that the position was misrepresented to both sides -- all too characteristically on Blair's part, his critics would say.


While this "constructive ambiguity" refers to things like the timeline for disarmament and the exact linkages between political parties and armed groups, it could also apply to the ever-present geographical ambiguity about Northern Ireland. Such as this line from yesterday's NYT article:

The cease-fires in Northern Ireland, whether of the republican paramilitaries who want Ulster to join the Irish Republic or their loyalist rivals who want to stay part of Britain, are notoriously flexible.

Get out your atlases and see whether you can make much sense of that sentence.