Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Some of our best leaders...

There's not much to say about the predictable and seemingly futile exit of Iain Duncan Smith as leader of the Conservative Party. It does seem to read too much into events to see his opposition to gay adoption as contributing to his downfall. But these Tory rumblings have, if nothing else, been useful in getting Britain's religious minorities into high profile positions. Smith is Catholic and and one likely successor, Michael Howard, is Jewish, or at least was born into a Jewish family, as his BBC profile puts it.

In general it seems to be a positive element of English politics that relatively little is made of religious affiliation, although the test of having a Prime Minister who was not Anglican and yet involved in decisions relating to the Anglican church (as PMs are) would be more challenging. In addition, the prospect of Howard as PM could get some of the more wild-eyed Middle Eastern conspiracy theorists going. There is an apparently widespread belief in the Middle East that British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw is Jewish, by virtue of Jack having a Jewish ancestor -- which as you can imagine, all gets knitted into a theory about Britain, Israel, and Iraq. Watch for one of those protest signs with Straw's face against a Star of David background. As far as we can tell, similar revelations about David Beckham don't seem to have hurt his reputation.
Bogmen with attitude

We've had a seemingly accidental theme recently of Irishmen north and south, embracing seemingly odd symbols of their identity: Ulster Unionists seeing significance in a plate of fish and chips, road protestors in Meath bringing in someone from New Mexico to articulate the locals' sense of displacement at the disruption to the historic Hill of Tara. Here's an even odder (and funnier) one, again from the Meath Chronicle: a story about the victory of a county resident in what it repeatedly describes as the prestigious Culchie of the Year contest.

'Culchie' is traditionally a somewhat negative word for a person with characteristics believed to be those of rural Ireland, and therefore a word most likely to be used by people from Dublin about people from anywhere not Dublin -- which given the encroachment of Dublin into surrounding counties in recent years, doesn't cover quite as many people as it used to. But the term is generally heard when sports fans from alleged habitats of the Culchie arrive in Dublin for a big match.

However, following the trend of rehabilitating words for legitimate use, at least by those for whom it was meant to apply, this contest has emerged and apparently thrived. The actual tasks in the contest don't always have much to do with being a good Culchie, which would normally involve arriving at the pub in one's tractor, heading straight for the bar in farm clothes, and ordering a pint of Guinness to accompany one's reading of the Farmers Journal. Or the new Culchie might take out his mobile phone to get cattle prices from the local mart. So we're not exactly sure where the contestants karaoke singing of Glen Campbell's 'Rhinestone Cowboy' fits in.

But aside from the honour, he also gets:
a gold set of cufflinks, a gold tie pin, a new wardrobe courtesy of O'Sullivan's in Listowel and a hamper of toiletries or 'smelly stuff' according to [winner] Owen, sponsored by Lever Brothers.

As Owen says,
[He] expects to be in huge demand "opening silage pits, christening donkeys and performing at wakes, weddings and funerals."

Monday, October 27, 2003

They died so that others might spin

For some time now, we've been waiting for the right opportunity to comment on the disgrace to Irish-Americanism that is Ed Gillespie, chairman of the Republican National Committee, and therefore one of the chief spinners, organisers, and fund-raisers for Dubya. We're not big fans of Dubya's policies to begin with, but to watch Gillespie put an Irish-American populist veneer over reactionary elitist policies is sickening -- but in this regard he merely mirrors his master's voice, who after all, sells his uber-WASP Andover-Yale-Harvard upbringing and his Get-Dad's-Rolodex business career as some kind of hard working blue collar achievement.

And once you've bought the image of Dubya as a hard working man, then for lots of extra money (for others), we'll also include the supposed blue-collar tax cuts as well, and don't bother asking why it is that the budgetary cost of the tax cuts to the very rich could easily pay for things like reconstruction in Iraq, the shortfall in Social Security and Medicare etc.

Gillespie likes to use his father's tale of upward mobility as an argument for the tax cuts -- even though since his dad's upward mobility would have been achieved at the time when the tax burden was rising, we're not sure how that logic works. But it's a paragon of clarity compared to the inference we are supposed to draw from this anecdote [busted link] in one of his recent speeches:

On the boats that sailed from Ireland crammed with people escaping the Famine, the Irish government posted notices in the dismal sleeping quarters with the heading, “Advice for Irish Emigrants.”

It read, in part, “In the remote parts of America an industrious youth may follow any occupation without being looked down upon or sustain loss of character and he may rationally expect to raise himself in the world by his labor. Wealth is not idolized, but there is no degradation connected with labor. On the contrary, it is honorable and held in general estimation."

This is presented as supporting evidence for why Americans like Bush's tax cuts. Let's just briefly note the reference to an "Irish government" in a period that covers Ireland's membership in the United Kingdom and move to the apparent analogy between, say, a CEO's monstrous pay package earned by appointing all his buddies to the compensation committee, and the brutal hard work of say, a homesteader in Iowa in the 1850s. And that's assuming that the unfortunate Famine emigrants, racked by starvation and disease, ever got as far as Iowa. Our thesis: Dubya's ultra-rich friends, not happy with all their cash, may soon be putting themselves up for sainthood as well. No wonder the Pope has been getting tributes from some odd places over the last few days.
A bottle of Guinness, neither shaken or stirred please

As the Republic of Ireland repackages itself away from the image of men in cloth caps sitting at the bar with their pints of Guinness, and towards the image of men in baseball caps reaching for a can of Bud in the fridge as they watch Man Utd on Sky TV, sales of the black stuff are in decline. But Guinness, or rather its corporate parent Diageo, has been bailed out by booming sales in Africa. Today's Wall Street Journal analyses the situation:

...African sales have benefited from a hugely successful and multifaceted advertising campaign featuring the fictional Michael Power. Ad agency Saatchi and Saatchi...introduced him in 1999 in a series of five-minute action-thriller ads in which he overcomes obstacles through perseverance and inner strength rather than violence, in the process capturing "the heart and mind of Africans," Guinness says. He became so popular that Guinness backed a feature film, "Critical Assignment," that features the character -- and Guinness. The movie has been shown across Africa.

Guinness makes little attempt to hide the idea that Mr Power is essentially a James Bond who likes Guinness -- and doubtless the near overlap in name with a certain other Bond-type figure doesn't do any harm either. Compared to the Guinness advertising we've seen in the US -- where people say "Brilliant!" all the time and have bottle openers installed next to toilet roll in the bathroom -- we think the Africans are getting the better deal on the ads.
Mad dogs and Englishmen

At the British Embassy in Washington, they are keeping things just like they would be in London, regardless of the weather. From today's Wall Street Journal:

[US Federal Reserve] Committee members then headed for supper at the British Embassy, where they listened to a Bank of England official discuss the euro. The meal was mostly memorable for the sweltering heat inside the embassy, whose air conditioning didn't seem to be on.

Friday, October 24, 2003

Simply Celtic

While some seek symbols of their identity in a plate of fish and chips, disgusted road protestors in County Meath are taking are a different approach. As we posted about a while ago, the Republic's crazed road builders want to pave over the once green county with motorways, or rather, want to give dodgy contracts to construction firms to pave over the county. One of the motorways will go quite close to the historic Hill of Tara, which figures prominently in Irish history and especially in the conversion to Christianity. A protest group has been formed to oppose the route, and they are combining their protest with a somewhat New Agey celebration of Halloween/Samhain -- the latter is the Celtic origin of the former, and now is the modern Irish word for November, and not just the name of a hard rock band. So how to combine Samhain with a road protest? By using globalisation against The Man, as the Meath Chronicle explains:

THE group opposing the proposed M3 motorway passing through the Skryne-Tara Valley has invited a speaker described as the Chief Solicitor for the Navajo nation, New Mexico, to speak during a festival it is hosting in Skryne Hall.

Dr. James W. Zion, Chief Solicitor for the Navajo, is a lawyer in Albuquerque, New Mexico, who specialises in indigenous law, and particularly the law of American Indians.

‘Doctor Z’, as he is referred to, has undertaken research on indigenous healing methods and cautions that part of the healing process for many people is a sense of “place.” That is, healing is largely an exploration of self-identity, and an important part of identity is a sense of place. For that reason, great caution must be taken when sacred sites, such as those in the Tara-Skryne Valley, are developed. If they are destroyed or marred, it is difficult for people to visit them to get a sense of their identity in a sacred place, he believes.

It's far from this we we reared.

Thursday, October 23, 2003

Ireland's great unifying force

Who doesn't love Manchester United? Where would an Irish political crisis be without at least a bit part for MU? And thus we read in the Irish Times, a quote from an anonymous Unionist expressing frustration that the Canadian general overseeing the IRA weapons decommissioning could not describe in detail the weapons inventory:

Back at [Ulster Unionist] HQ, Ulster Unionists were "banging the wall" in anger and frustration. "It was like expecting tickets to see Manchester United and finding that you're going to see Rochdale," said one football type at that meeting.

Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Maybe it's better he hears it from someone else

David Trimble and his party, the Ulster Unionists, have no identity problems. They are Simply British. Like a plate of Fish and Chips, one of the new party symbols. It's odd then that another person whom the Unionists would surely consider British has some problems with the concept. Consider this sentence from Geoffrey Wheatcroft's WSJ review of Peter Ackroyd's exploration of Englishness, Albion:

The name [England] has a potency quite lacking in "The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland," of which my passport tells me I am a citizen, or of "Britain," a journalistic and political usage that, properly speaking, refers to a province of the Roman Empire before the arrival of Germanic tribes some centuries after Christ.

This encapsulates the Unionist dilemma. They could never claim to be "Simply English" and so instead up looking like a person who applies for asylum in a country that no longer exists. We're not aware of groups describing themselves as "Simply Hibernian" or "Simply Caledonian" (except perhaps fans of football teams with those names in Scotland), and even Trimble's beloved Fish and Chips has surely been replaced by Chicken Vindaloo as Britain's most popular take-away meal. Maybe it's no wonder the peace process is proving to be so complicated.

UPDATE: One thing is clear -- the Ulster Unionists are going to regret their choice of slogan. It's just too ripe for mockery, such as this example from Peter Robinson, occupying the more reactionary end of Unionism:

"Their new slogan should not be 'Simply British'. I think it should be replaced by 'Simply Stupid"'.
Truth, information, whatever

There was an unintentionally revealing correction on the Wall Street Journal's online editorial page OpinionJournal (James Taranto) yesterday:

The agency in charge of rewriting history in Orwell's "1984" was the Ministry of Truth, not Information. We got it wrong in an item yesterday.

Indeed, it's tough to keep track of matters Orwellian when one needs to devote so much attention to using Official Vast Right Wing [VRC] Conspiracy Approved words onself. Today's examples:

kerfuffle: used to minimize the importance of something, and therefore applied to things like the 16 dodgy words in the State of the Union, the outing of Valerie Plame, and now the controversy over Gregg Easterbrook's comments about Disney executives and Kill Bill.

semantic: applied in contexts where the issue is clearly not just semantics e.g. whether the bill just passed by Congress actually bans "partial birth abortion." The latest resurgence of this line of argument seems to have originated with the aforementioned Easterbook and holds that whatever Congress thinks it banned is obviously evil and people are just arguing about what the name of it is. And note the slimy insinuation of their concluding sentences:

So the question remains: If only critics and foes call it "partial-birth abortion," what do advocates and enthusiasts call it? One suspects they would simply rather not talk about it.

A question which clearly outs them as advocates and enthusiasts for killing mothers when there are pregancy complications. Their logic, not ours.*

Unraveling : A word reserved by the VRC for attacks on Paul Krugman, drawn from the title of Krugman's best selling demolition of Dubya's lunacy. The word has now appeared in two consecutive attacks by OJ on Krugman, and was also deployed by fellow reactionary neocon hack Instapundit yesterday. By the way, their latest line of attack on Krugman is essentially amounting to saying he is anti-Semetic, basically because he has sometimes referred to the role of George Soros in various currency crises of the 1990s. In which case just about the entire field of international exchange rate analysis has been declared anti-Semetic.

Pro-American: reactionary necon hacks, like OJ and Instapundit. Hence:

Pro-terror hackers have been waging a series of "denial of service" attacks on various pro-American blogs including InstaPundit, Little Green Footballs and Tim Blair.

We'll know we're doomed when they start changing the word nuclear to nucular.

*Update: Two good and sobering articles from Slate on the "partial birth abortion" issue. A doctor writes about the already difficult and tragic situations further complicated by this ban, and a related article notes the profound abuse of language contained within the supposed object of the ban.

Tuesday, October 21, 2003

Irish crony capitalists

From Guinness TV ads we've recently seen in the US, one might get the impression that Ireland is just a place where people say "brilliant" all the time. But we credit the New York Times for doing a carefully phrased report on the Republic's horse-breeding industry, which is indeed in brilliant shape courtesy of some brilliant tax exemptions from the brilliantly cooperative government. We suspect that one reason the Times was so careful in its phrasing is that we can recall a previous article about some cosy linkages between Oirish businessmen and politicians -- in the form of a story about the exceedingly well-connected Cement Roadstone company -- forced a subsequent correction about one minor detail of a land use scandal involving the large but touchy company.

Anyway, the new article is about the increasingly multinational horse breeding industry in the Republic, with strong links to Arab investment cash and similar operations in Kentucky -- but also a beneficiary of highly preferential tax arrangements. The dominant figure in the Irish industry is John Magnier, who we've posted about before -- amongst his other activities, he's a big shareholder in Manchester United. But poor John is publicity shy, or as the Times puts it:

Mr. Magnier, 55, typically shies away from media attention, and declined to elaborate on his business style.

But one part of his style involves cultivating those politicians who are the source of the tax breaks -- how convenient that Taoiseach Bertie Ahern is a Man Utd fan who might like the odd trip to the directors' box at the Theatre of Dreams. Or why not just have those little policy chats at a race meeting? As the NYT concludes:

Racing is so central to cultural life that the country's dominant political party, Fianna Fail, holds its largest fund-raiser in a mammoth tent at the weeklong Galway Races, and a handful of government ministers disappear from Parliament each year during the Cheltenham Races in England.

It's not hard to connect the dots with this. Oirish eyes are smiling.
Save the last dance for me

The word of the day in Northern Ireland today is "choreographed." The New York Times was in on the act:

In a fast-moving series of choreographed events, the Northern Ireland peace process took a potentially big step forward today, with the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair setting a new date for elections in Ulster, and the Irish Republican Army agreeing to get rid of more of its weapons.

Leaving aside the technical matter of how Tony Blair could be planning elections in Cavan, Monaghan, and Donegal (3 of Ulster's 9 counties), the sentence does capture the essential elements of what was meant to emerge from the last few days of negotiations between the Unionists and Sinn Fein: Sinn Fein says that the IRA is on fully on-board with the peace process, the IRA dumps some new weapons under international supervision as a specific gesture of support, and then David Trimble looks up from his plate of fish and chips (official symbol of his Unionist party) to agree that he can participate in new elections for local Assembly.

There were a bunch of little details to sort out, but left mostly undiscussed was the big matter of why exactly Trimble would sign on to an approach that likely meant electoral oblivion for him -- it seemed clear that a significant part of his electoral base would defect and coalesce into a new anti-Agreement bloc, possibly led by Bob Jones University product, Ian Paisley. For this strain of Unionism, any "deal" with the IRA was simply off-limits regardless of how it would be presented by Trimble. And this is no secret to Trimble himself, since his party is already effectively split over precisely this issue.

So what was his game? A belief that he could keep his dissidents onside with a Blair-esque display of determination? A Gladstonian pursuit of an inevitable split for the greater good of pacifying Ireland? Or just a cunning game of brinkmanship in which the choreography might suddenly have everyone on different pages? The last possibility looks increasingly relevant. After a nice two-step between Gerry Adams and IRA, Trimble has this afternoon suddenly pulled the plug on his part of the process. As the RTE story puts it:

[Trimble] said it was not clear that the IRA had carried out a transparent and significant act of decommissioning. He said he was putting today's sequence of planned announcements on hold and that the Ulster Unionists would hold a special meeting.

There is a basic problem with Trimble's position that already infuriates nationalists and will doubtless continue to do so: one basic pillar of the peace agreement was to have an independent international commission oversee the putting of arms beyond use. If it's good enough for its head, Canadian General John de Chastelain, it's supposed to be good enough for everyone else.

Trimble could still be engaged in a flanking movement within his own party, in which he tries to smoke out a few of the diehards who are essentially against the entire agreement, versus a group who could be won over with another round of concessions from the IRA. But the latter will be a tall order, especially now that Trimble will be perceived as having reneged on the previous understanding. We hope they break the news to Tony Blair gently.

Monday, October 20, 2003

What about the steak and kidney pie?

There are days when Northern Ireland Unionism is dysfunctional. And then there are days when it is comically dysfunctional. Today fits the latter.

The context is negotiations between the er...constructive wing of the Ulster Unionist Party, led by David Trimble, with Sinn Fein, about how to get the Northern Ireland Assembly up and running again. Trimble must keep at least some of his hardcore Unionist supporters onside while inevitably making some concessions to Sinn Fein. But of course Ian Paisley won't be happy, regardless. Here's how it's playing out, from the Irish Times news update:

As [Trimble's party] launched a poster depicting fish and chips and their new slogan "Simply British", Dr Paisley said the electorate would not be "fooled" by the image.

"When the votes are cast, it will be easy to see who has taken the battering," he said.

Friday, October 17, 2003

Black, watch your back

Is Conrad Black in danger of getting the boot from the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy? We've posted before about some of the financial problems at his multi-layered newspaper group Hollinger. And for the last few days, the lead in reporting gossip about the turmoil has been taken by fellow VRC member, the New York Post. Even as the Post was asleep at the editorial wheel on baseball, extending its sympathies to the New York Yankees on their Game 7 loss, they seem to have excellent insider sourcing for a claim that Mrs Henry Kravis (i.e. the Kohlberg, Kravis, Roberts dude) has quit the Hollinger board in dismay at Black's legal and financial problems.

Mrs Kravis and husband feature prominently in other operations of the VRC (e.g. the Hudson Institute) so a contretemps with them would be serious news for Conrad. Meanwhile, his London Telegraph has seemed a bit subdued on the political front recently, as another Tory leader heads for the exits. Only the devotion to Liz Hurley remains a constant. It may suggest that Conrad is preparing his publications for life after the VRC. Perhaps he has just enough trace of normality left to be embarrassed by what the VRC has been reduced to these days; wouldn't anyone normal find this sentence from the VRC charter members at OpinionJournal today just a tad weird?

The serene masculinity of the president and the governor-elect [Arnie] is especially appealing when compared with the other party, which is desperate to prove its manhood by fielding a presidential candidate who's served in uniform.

Thursday, October 16, 2003

Send this guy to 1950s Ireland

Gregg Easterbrook likes to keep things simple -- he doesn't like it when John Kerry has multiple lines of ancestry (much easier for Gregg just to think of him as Jewish); he doesn't like to blame all Hollywood executives for the plague of violent movies (much easier to blame the Jewish ones), and now he doesn't like it when people get in the way of banning late-term abortions, it's just those pesky doctors and lawyers who make it complicated:

[US Congressional] debate over the [ban on late term abortions] has hung up on the side issue of whether third-term abortions should be called "partial-birth" procedures. Terminology ought to make no difference; what matters is whether third-term abortions are right or wrong. In most instances, they are wrong.

So it's all just a matter of terminology, the underlying issue is really quite simple, he says. This is a world in which "pregnancy complications" do not exist. But of course in practice doctors are trusted to make the very difficult judgement calls in late-term pregnancies, and may end up deciding on an abortion as the least bad way out. So any attempted ban involves politicians trying to remove the discretion from doctors, regardless of the scenario -- a task that is either impossibly complicated (if they try to deal with every type of case), or just a threat to the life of the mother (if they go for a blanket ban).

1950s Ireland provides a disturbing example of what happens when this "right/wrong" approach to pregnancy complications works its way into the hospital. A standard option in difficult births is Caesarean section. But the Irish Catholic church was not keen on C-sections, for reasons that are not clear, but seem to reflect a belief that C-sections make birth too easy. So what did the church propose as an alternative? A sickening procedure called symphysiotomy, essentially the breaking of the mother's pelvis. Cowed doctors went along with this, and the procedure leaves permanent damage. Check out this 1955 tirade from the head of the Republic's national maternity hospital at Holles Street; bear in mind that this person is a doctor:

It is unnecessary to stress to Catholic doctors that the practices of contraception, sterilisation and therapeutic abortion are contrary to the moral law," he thundered. "But what we must all guard against and especially is this so in the teaching centres, is the unwarranted and unnecessary employment of Caesarean section."

To the church, C-sections were just the "partial birth abortions" of the 1950s -- always wrong, always a better alternative available. The fact that the alternative resulted in greater mortality risk for the infant, and permanent disability for the mother is irrelevant. By the way, the unspoken but common response amongst sensible Irish doctors to the more bizarre elements of Catholic doctrine on giving birth was to refer their difficult pregnancy cases to Protestant hospitals, where medical discretion as trusted, and who knows, where the dreaded "partial birth abortion" might have been performed to save the mother. Not Gregg's kind of world.

UPDATE: Gregg, perhaps too busy working on his impending "Hitler had good ideas, he just went too far" post, even has his facts wrong: he discusses the abortion issue in terms of whether or not third-term abortions should be banned. But the actual legislation seeks to ban abortions after 12 weeks i.e. including 2nd term. Third term abortions are already nearly always illegal, except to save the life of the mother.

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

It's so obvious once you point it out

This morning brought the tragic news of a bomb attack on a US diplomatic convoy in Gaza in which the victims were engaged in the Great Satanic activity of...interviewing Palestinian candidates for the Fulbright scholar program. It's not easy to rank acts of terrorism along any dimension, since it's all the same to the bereaved, but this one seems especially pointless. We did however find ourselves wondering how far the blame would spread, from the perpetrators of course, perhaps to the Palestinian Authority for failing to prevent it, maybe even to the Israelis -- leaving aside the inevitable paranoid attribution of them as being behind everything bad, we assume that the Americans had to travel to Gaza to meet the Palestinians because the Palestinians can't get to Tel Aviv with the Israeli blockade.

We're not subscribing to these explanations, but they are bound to be out there. But the Wall Street Journal online editorial page, OpinionJournal, managed to extend even that chain of blame -- in their view, it's all Rachel Corrie's fault. We have referred before to this woman's case: she got in the way of an Israeli bulldozer via her role in an activist group protesting against Israeli demolitions of Palestinian homes. OJ notes the theory, not yet proven, that the explosives came from Egypt via one of the Gaza tunnels that the Israelis demolished this week, and making the link to opponents of the demolitions, says:

And it appears terror advocates like Rachel Corrie now have American as well as Israeli blood on their hands.

Let's be clear that on the Israeli-Palestinian question, we sit somewhere in the increasingly awkward middle of opinions on the conflict, and definitely not with the knee-jerk Israel-bashing Hamas scarf-wearing European "intelligentsia." The unfortunate Ms. Corrie was perhaps naive to engage in a game of who'll blink first with the Israelis, and maybe also naive about the fraught nerves produced by living with terrorism every day. But note the complete lack of any logical linkage between her actions and the Gaza bomb: there's not a shred of evidence that her fatally unsuccessful protest allowed in these particular explosives.

We don't want to encourage the OJ crowd too much, but here's an angle they might want to look at: Fulbright scholarships. Senator Fulbright. A senator from Arkansas. Bill Clinton. It's his fault!
Charlemagne would be proud

There's been recent talk in the US that their diplomatic strategy towards the Moscow-Berlin-Paris alliance that created so much trouble for them at the UN before the Iraq war was to continue to cultivate Pootie-Poot while forgiving the Germans and therefore isolating those annoying French as the US's only enemy in Europe. Now comes a sign that this is going to be rather difficult, because the Paris-Berlin love-in is moving faster than many would have believed.

There is an EU summit in Brussels this week, but Chancellor Gerhard and his ex-hippy Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer are needed in Berlin for a close parliamentary vote on Friday. So who will represent Germany on the Friday in Brussels? -- Jacques Chirac. As the London Times puts it:

In his absence, Herr Schröder will entrust the defence of Germany's national interests to M Chirac.

One assumes that Chirac won't do anything rash, like giving Alsace-Lorraine back to the Germans, or alternatively decide that it really is time that France got back Charlemagne's powerbase at Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle). Maybe the US will decide to up the ante by entrusting its affairs to Britain at the next G7 summit. A surprising number of Americans might actually support that.
The playboy of the northwestern world

We think it's fair to say that there's been a significant churlish element to the Republic of Ireland's reaction to its recent status as a country experiencing net immigration. Some of our favourite insults (dosser, sponger, whinger) have been redeployed with speed to target our recent arrivals. So we need a feelgood story -- like an immigrant who settles down, preferably someplace where no-one else wants to live, and goes on to international acclaim in his chosen field.

And so it is with Peter Finlay, winner of this year's Booker Prize. Finlay lives in Leitrim, a county that became a long-lived microcosm of Ireland's post-Famine demography -- while the population of the 26 counties was finally growing again a mere 60 years after the Famine, Leitrim's population decline persisted for most of the 20th century. It was a place that people left. So doubtless they'll be delighted with the success of one of their blow-ins.

Finlay won the prize for his novel Vernon God Little, about a high school massacre in Texas -- a genre that is proving fertile ground for quasi-fiction these days (personally we think of Heathers as the definitive analysis of the phenomenon). But it's reasonable to suspect that there's an element of fiction of his own life-story. It's not like the Booker is contingent on exactly what he's done with his life -- once he meets the Commonwealth/Republic of Ireland citizenship requirement, he can proclaim, like Dr Evil, that "the details of my life are inconsequential."

But here's what he says: born in Australia, moved to Mexico when very young, somehow was an heir to a Mexican banking fortune, but was disinherited by Mexican banking nationalisation, then bounced around the world, doing drugs and losing friends, until he winds up in Leitrim and the creative output starts to flow under the pseudonym DBC Pierre. He does confess to be worried that the creditors will show up now that the word is out he has money. He shouldn't worry so much: we doubt these international creditors would last very long on those Irish roads.
The sporting wing of the Bush-Blair agenda

Our regular readers will have noted that we like to use support for Man Utd as at least a symptom of the creeping Oirishness of the Republic of Ireland, mediated through our VIP culture in government and business. But we've come across evidence that it's not just the Republic that has gleefully admitted the Mancunian Trojan Horse. An interesting Wall St Journal article [subs. req'd] looks at how the USA, without much explicit effort, has attained growing influence in French West Africa, driven by a perception that France has repeatedly been on the "wrong" side in the region's internal problems. But note the description of one pro-US hardliner in the Ivory Coast (or, as they'd say in Paris, Cote D'Ivoire):

"We want Ivory Coast to become an English-speaking country," Mr. Ble-Goude says bluntly, wearing a cap of Manchester United, the British soccer team. "So I'm telling my people: Learn English."

Friday, October 10, 2003

We don't have that in Ireland

As we mentioned a few days ago, Dublin is shutting the almost the entire southern portion of its rapid rail system, the DART, for 9 months on weekends. Then they'll shut the entire northern portion for the following 9 months on weekends. One element of the "compromise" for affected passengers is that buses will be provided. Except that:

[Irish Times] Additional Dublin Bus services to be provided during weekend rail closures will not be dedicated services calling at DART stations and "will not attempt to replicate the DART service", it has emerged...[Dublin] Bus has warned all intending passengers to ascertain their nearest bus routes and not to expect to be brought back to the places they were used to arriving at on the DART service...The company said DART tickets would not be valid for use on the buses.

So: for the next 9 months, forget that the DART even exists on weekends, and start looking for your nearest bus stop. That's not what happens in other cities. Consider Washington DC:

[Washington Post, Friday] Tonight at 10, Metro will shut down a section of its most heavily traveled track, the Red Line, and begin a round-the-clock, three-day operation to excise a stretch of old rail, hoist it off the track bed and replace it with new steel.

About 25 Metrobuses will operate free of charge throughout the [Columbus] holiday weekend in place of normal train service, running between Fort Totten and Union Station with stops at Brookland-CUA and Rhode Island Avenue stations.

We'd like to think that Dublin looks around to see how other cities get things done, but there's clearly a preference instead to find an Irish solution to an Irish problem.

Thursday, October 09, 2003

A pint of Guinness and a packet of anything to get rid of this awful taste, please

Here's a new entry in the dictionary of corporate euphemisms, courtesy of Diageo subsidiary Guinness. They brew the precious nectar in Ireland and ship the kegs to bars in Europe and the US. Guinness traditionalists have always been suspicious that the stout does not hold up well in shipping, and as a result there are Irish people who when abroad do not see the need to join the mob falling over themselves to pay $7 for a suspiciously quickly pulled pint of suspicious tasting Guinness. Guinness of course denies that there's a problem and in fact relies on the cachet of having the beer brewed in Ireland to get Americans to fork over the $7. A similar ploy works to the advantage of Stella Artois, sold in the US at prices the average Belgian Stella drinker would laugh at; on the other hand, Carlsberg, which goes to the trouble of having Labatt's brew its North American version -- and therefore can't command the "It's not a beer, it's European" premium. But we digress. Guinness has now being forced to acknowledge a specific case where the shipped beer simply didn't measure up.

[from Irish Times story] Thousands of kegs of Guinness which could have left customers with a nasty taste in their mouths have been recalled en route to Europe and the US.
The spokeswoman would not reveal how many kegs had been recalled, but one source estimated it could be as many as 178,000.
"We can confirm that our quality-control assurance checks have identified a potential risk in some kegs of Guinness which might not meet our standards for flavour stability," the spokeswoman said. She said Guinness always tried to maintain high standards.

So there's the euphemism: flavour stability. American translation: nursty. They claim that the dubious kegs were caught in testing before distribution, but we recommend being wary on your next few trips to Fado. Or, God forbid, get a pint of Bare Knuckle instead.
Bermuda, with better food

In the face of the kind of government incompetence that we chronicled yesterday, what is it that allows Ireland to function as the rich country that statistics show it to be? Partly it's the fact that like in any country, public sector incompetence tends to produce some offsetting behavior from the private sector. This fact is the generally accepted explanation for why mobile phone usage rates are low in the US relative to other countries -- Americans could get by without mobile phones, because the landline service was so good. Ireland by necessity has spawned similar adaptations. Those horrendously long commutes: great for the roadside billboard industry. Today's Irish Times reports that [subs. req'd]:

Outdoor advertising expenditure between January and June 2003 increased by 17 per cent on 2002 levels. A staggering [for Ireland] €35.8 million was spent in the first half of this year...
The addition of 100,000 cars to Dublin roads in the pre-Christmas period could push the figures for the second half of the year even higher...
Traffic gridlock has been helping outdoor companies for some time.

But of course, a private sector seeing opportunities in public incompetence can't be the whole story; Africa has lots of that phenomenon too but it isn't rich. The Irish tourist board likes to market Ireland by claiming "There's something of Ireland in all of us." A more accurate marketing pitch would be that "There's something of the tax-dodger in all of us -- so why not stop by and locate a few quid of your taxable income in our land of rabid Manchester United fans?" Ireland has lost some multinational investments because of the tech bust, but the tax attraction is still there. An article in today's Wall Street Journal reports that Ireland and Switzerland are now capturing an increasing share of corporate HQs, for tax reasons, to the consternation of our EU neighbours.

A number of large multinationals -- mostly American -- have moved their European headquarters and finance operations out of traditional European Union locales to Switzerland and Ireland, aiming to avoid costs associated with so-called tax harmonization. That's the EU's term for its effort to end competitive tax breaks among member states, a practice Brussels regards as harmful.

In other words, the European Union has been forcing countries to remove differential tax treatments of corporate income within each country -- notably the special tax breaks countries used to attract footloose foreign investment. So Ireland's response has been: Fine, we'll tax all corporate income at 12.5%. Luckily for Ireland, an American company announcing that it is moving its European HQ to Ireland doesn't attract the kind of oppobrium in the US as when the same company announces that it is moving its US HQ to Bermuda. Maybe cultivating such goodwill is the real purpose of Irish tourism marketing campaigns.

Wednesday, October 08, 2003

The world's richest banana republic

Surprisingly, our title does not refer to California, but to the Republic of Ireland. Ireland has done a pretty slick job over the last ten years of changing its image from scenic green fields to scenic green fields with high-tech computer plants in the middle. And one can definitely find such vistas, although our tourist board still prefers to market us to Americans as a land of castles, flowing streams, mist, and Guinness -- while asserting that there's a little bit of Ireland in all of us. But such issues are beside the point for the average Irish resident these days, who instead is confronted with day-to-day evidence of the utter incompetence and corruption of the Irish government.

A quick look at any day's headlines would make the case so let's just offer some recent highlights. Rail rapid transit: other cities have it. Dublin has one such line, the DART, that hugs the coastline and provides service north and south of the city. It's a good service for the areas that have it. But the railroad company announced, with 4 days notice to the average passengers, that it wants to close virtually the entirely southside stretch (i.e. half the line) at weekends for nine months. Sure where would anyone be going on a weekend seems to be the attitude.

In the face of predictable uproar, the government has produced the er... "compromise" that the weekend closures will be suspended for December, so that everyone can get their Christmas shopping done. But otherwise, don't plan on being able to get around Dublin by any means other than foot for the next 9 months at weekends -- it's not like all the people who used to ride the train on weekends will now disappear.

The bigger issue here is that the government has neglected rail investment for years at the expense of a road building mania, and now a lot of work needs to be done.

We said above that the DART is the only rapid transit line in the city. Plans are underway to change this by providing a light rail service to the southwest suburbs. This would be called, in a play on Irish, LUAS. LUAS was supposed to be one line that would begin in one suburb, loop into the city, and then come back out to another one. But somewhere along the way, the cost trebled and the ambition halved. Specifically it's now two separate spurs from the suburbs into the city -- and not to the same point in the city. And one of the lines is being engineered to cross, at street level, the busiest intersection in the country.

The above might just reflect incompetence, although there is a repeat offender element to the contractors involved in these debacles so one wonders why they keep being selected. But then there's the outright corruption. Somehow Ireland managed to rank a relatively good 18 (tied with the US) in the latest corruption rankings (low = good) by Transparency International. But knowing what we know about Ireland, this just makes us not believe the rankings.

Some of this corruption made some people very rich, and contributed to that phenomenon of the Oirish Businessman, trading on the brogue (or at least what foreigners take for a brogue) while being just another sleazeball in a suit. A RTE story today captures an incident that provided mere pocket money for a member of this class:

A builder has said that he paid the former [ruling party MP], Liam Lawlor, £40,000 to get a better postal address for a housing development in west Dublin.

Seamus Ross, of Menolly Homes, said the money was paid in two instalments so the houses would be listed in Lucan rather than Clondalkin.

[Note: in Dublin, Lucan has survived the association with the errant Lord to be considered a more desirable address than Clondalkin.] Lawlor provided full service, since he would rig the zoning approvals as well, although of course for a lot more money. Hey, being in the corporate box at Man Utd games is an expensive business!

The only efficient part of the government is a very slick spin machine that has kept the easily distracted media focused on celebrity feuds, sightings and weddings while exploiting a strangely passive attitude of the public towards various symptoms of our governance malaise -- the symptoms go undiagnosed. Instead, we're all supposed to be proud that two Oirish suits now own 20 percent of Man Utd. It makes that 3 hour commute so much easier.

Tuesday, October 07, 2003

Bono and Mrs Slocombe

It's another of those days when we simply can't reconcile the seriousness of recent events (Baghdad in chaos, Israel attacks Syria) with the relatively relaxed mood of our news sources (preoccupied with whether someone with no actual policies whatsoever can get elected governor of California) So instead our eyes were caught by this story from the BBC -- Bono is doing some charity art work. It will raise money for a hospice in Dublin. Specifically:

The works by Bono and his two daughters Jordan, 14, and Eve, 12, on massive white canvasses with large black brush strokes, are designed to accompany a new interpretation of Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf by another of Bono's chums, Gavin Friday.

The character of Peter in this children's favourite, is based on the young Bono while the singer's wife, Ali, an environmentalist who campaigns for children affected by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, is caricatured as Pussy, an erotic cartoon cat.

Other than in rap lyrics, we'd gotten used to the idea of any wordplay on that feline word involving either Goldfinger or that staple of PBS Pledge Drives, Are You Being Served. Every so often we are reminded that Bono is a child of the 1970s.

Monday, October 06, 2003

Revenge for the Freedom Fries

We knew those French would get their revenge for losing their appellation on those fried potato chips: today's Wall Street Journal reports that:

ConocoPhillips agreed to sell Circle K to Canadian convenience-store operator Alimentation Couche-Tard as part of its longstanding plan to focus on its wholesale business.

How can any self-respecting American head to someplace called Alimentation Couche-Tard for their late night snacks? Will Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure have to be redubbed to now have the line "Strange Things Are Afoot at the Alimentation Couche-Tard?"

Friday, October 03, 2003

Maybe it's the IRA's fault

More trouble at the London branch of the Vast Right Conspiracy [VRC] -- and the Chicago and Toronto branches too. We've noted before how Conrad Black, the newspaper publisher formerly known to be Canadian, has put his papers at the service of the VRC, although with each paper allowed to have some idiosyncratic obsessions so that the VRC spin-points aren't quite so transparent. Hence the Daily Telegraph's recurring slams of Irish nationalism and pictures of Liz Hurley.

But there have been continuing news accounts, prompted by complaints from the Angry Left on Wall Street, that all is not well on the corporate governance side of Black's media empire. In fact, there seems to be a three level corporate structure, in which Black owns a company called Ravelston, which owns a company called Hollinger, which has a controlling stake in Hollinger International, which actually runs the Telegraph, the Chicago Sun-Times, and many other papers -- and put up some of the money to start the widely read New York Sun.

The company that produces stuff is Hollinger International, and it has other shareholders besides Black. And they are most unhappy. As today's Wall Street Journal [subs. req'd] reports (doubtless to the embarrassment of the editorial side of the Journal), the shareholders have succeeded in getting Black's London house and car off the company tab, but there are still mysterious fees and one-time payments to Black and cronies [via the holding companies] from the operating company. In particular, Black seems to have arranged deals where the company "sold" some of its newspaper operations to other companies, and then paid himself big fees not to defect to those companies. These "non-compete fees" are a standard, if somewhat dubious, corporate practice, and they sort of make sense where there is a realistic prospect that the execs could bolt to the other company. Except that in this case, the other companies seem to have been closely associated with Black. In other words, he paid himself lots of money not to leave to another enterprise that he had set up.

Black, supported by board members such as Henry Kissinger and Richard Perle, has little patience with these criticisms:

"This evidence of moral turpitude has been conjured out of thin air"

We suppose we should be thankful that he didn't directly blame the BBC, or the IRA.

Thursday, October 02, 2003

We'd like our opinion polls a la carte

Amid the recycled spin points on Opinionjournal today, there's an easy catch of a very basic inconsistency. They have to deal with the damage being done to Dubya by the CIA NOC list affair, and there's that messy opinion poll in the Washington Post:

81% of those polled think this is a "serious" matter.
72% think it is "likely" that someone in the White House "leaked this classified information"
69% favor the appointment of a special counsel

How to spin around this one? It's just a poll, and people who respond to polls are often uninformed:

Only 68% of those polled--less than all the percentages cited above--had heard or read anything about the situation, and one suspects comparatively few of those are following the story closely enough to have a well-informed opinion.

DUDES! There's this thing called Google, where we can do a specific search of your site to see your past comments on the validity of polls, and knowing that you love that theory that Saddam was involved in 9/11, what do we find?

The [Washington] Post reports that 80% of Republicans, 67% of independents and 62% of Democrats answered "somewhat" or "very" likely [that Saddam was involved in 9-11]. And the paper doesn't think much of this view, calling it an "apparently groundless belief" and interviewing an assortment of "experts" who, while acknowledging that President Bush has never actually asserted such a link, he has used devious mind-control techniques to fool Americans into believing it exists.

In truth, however, "somewhat likely" is the correct answer to the Post's question.

Now of course there are uninformed people in the world, for example, people who think that Donovan McNabb is the first black quarterback in the NFL, foisted there by a liberal media conspiracy as their guinea pig for showing that blacks can play that position. In the Opinionjournal world, such people are in the first poll, but mysteriously absent from the second. With such vagaries of finding out what people think, it's a wonder we trust elections at all!

Wednesday, October 01, 2003

Spending more time with the family

Trouble at the London branch of the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy -- Daily Telegraph editor Charles Moore is "retiring" to work on a biography of Maggie Thatcher. Retiring at age 46? Did England become like France all of a sudden?

If there's any doubt about what's going on, it's settled by this:

He will be succeeded by Martin Newland, 41, formerly Deputy Editor of the National Post of Canada.

In other words, Lord Black of Crossharbour, one-time Canadian citizen, is moving in one of his former hacks from the Toronto branch of the VRC to beef up Black's pursuit of a Dubya-loving, BBC-hating agenda. Although if this agenda gets much more beefed up, the Telegraph will be looking at a bad case of gout.

UPDATE 20 NOV 2005: Newland, despite the inevitable tag as a last-gasp Black appointee, did manage to last two years before getting pushed out; multiple factors seemingly at work including the new owners' desire to have their own man, and disagreement about who, if anyone, to back in the Tory leadership contest.