Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Ireland's future: everything's riding on bank bail-out plan

Today is the day that the Irish government unveils the details of the bank rescue. This afternoon after the markets close the Minister for Finance will tell the Dáil (Parliament) and the nation exactly how much it is going to cost to save Ireland's banks.

This day has been coming since the end of September 2008 when the government was forced to guarantee all Irish bank obligations. Since then the government has nationalized the scandalously (possibly criminally) badly run Anglo Irish Bank and provided the two big banks with billions. Those were stop-gap measures designed to get us to today.

Today Brian Lenihan {photo} will give us the details on Nama - the government's 'bad bank' where all the banks' property loans are heading - and the additional billions that Allied Irish Bank and Bank of Ireland need to keep going. The rumor is by the end of today the state will be the majority shareholder in AIB and a 40% owner of BoI.

All of this can be pretty dull, but it's crucial. If everything goes according to the government's plan, this will mark the turning point where the economy starts picking up, unemployment stops rising and actually begins to decline and businesses begin to grow and foreign investment begins to come back to Ireland.

If it doesn't go all that well, the Irish taxpayer will be saddled with a massive debt that will take 20 years to pay off. Unemployment will remain high, government services, welfare, other benefits and public sector pay will remain under severe pressure and emigration will really take off. If it's a complete disaster, we'll have all of that, only more so and the state will, for all intents and purposes, no longer be independent, but rather a German vassal.

I'll be tuning in (here, if you're interested) around 11:30am EDT and then switching to CNBC to see how the plan affects the NASDAQ share prices of AIB and BoI. If those share prices head north after the Minister's speech I'll assume us taxpayers have been suckered into overpaying for the banks' garbage loans and their junk shares.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Ireland should create its own kibbutz system

Your Country Your Call is a national ideas competition launched by Ireland's President Mary McAleese. The two winning entries will each receive a prize of $150,000 to develop their ideas. The primary focus of the campaign is business/economics and the overall winning entry will receive $850,000 to fully develop their idea.

But Your Country Your Call is really more than a competition. It's a national brainstorming exercise where all Irish people can contribute ideas and also offer their views on others' ideas. The ideas can fit into any of 8 broad categories or 'Other', which leaves it wide open. Only two proposals will ultimately be “winners”, but there's every likelihood that many good ideas will emerge from this process. The key will be collating, organizing and prioritizing all this information.

This is a great initiative for many reasons:
  • it encourages positive thinking about the nation's future at a time when despair would be the easy option;
  • it solicits the views of Irish people from all walks of life and not just those who are generally asked “where now?”, namely those who control the levers of business, finance, labor, academia, politics or the media.;
  • it involves people who live outside Ireland, seeking out their views (as noted by Amy Feran here.) This provides a sort of 'lower house' democratic counter to the recent Global Irish Economic Forum for the Irish rich and powerful.
Anyone can register with the site and then add their views to the thousands of suggested projects already listed on the site. As I said, it's a huge information management undertaking.

I registered my own idea yesterday. It's not really a new idea because I've been talking to people about this since the early 90s. Basically what I would like to see is an Irish version of Israel's kibbutzes.

Traditional, self-sufficient farms should be developed where young Irish people – from Ireland and elsewhere – can live simple, basic lives, working hard in a natural environment. I'm not talking about new, permanent homes for people, but places where students will come for a summer or a winter break or a semester or even a full year. No more than that.

Originally I thought of this as a spiritual exercise, one sponsored by the Catholic Church, but right now I'm just as happy that I never pursued that back in the 90s. That could happen, indeed should happen, but not until the Church has put its house in order. Other Christian denominations might also like to try such an approach.

An underlying spiritual theme is only one possibility, however. There should be themes to each of these set-ups. There could be a language, music theme to one 'kibbutz' (really need an old Gaelic word here). There could be one developed around creative writing, where students could be exposed to the culture that inspired Yeats, Synge and others. There could even be an Irish history theme to another.

Just as with the Ireland Homecoming Study Programme, the young men and women who come to Ireland and experience this aspect of Irish folk history and culture will leave Ireland as unofficial ambassadors, promoting Ireland and its culture. So let's send out the call around the world, "Hard work and simple living awaits you in Ireland."

Thursday, March 25, 2010

NY Times goes all tabloid on the Pope

Okay, hold on. I was going to write about the Pope's recent letter to Ireland's Catholics, but instead I want to talk about the story on the front page of the NY Times on March 25. Just because so many of the Bishops have made some grotesque errors in judgment doesn't mean that the NY Times should take leave of its editorial senses and adopt the sensationalist policies of a British tabloid.

The story the Times tells is another one about a priest who violated his vows, the innocence of children and the trust of their parents. Fr. Lawrence Murphy was an Assistant Director, Director and eventually Principal at St. John's School for the Deaf, a residential school in Milwaukee, from 1950 – 1974.

During that time Fr. Murphy sexually molested dozens of boys, perhaps even as many as 200. It's a horrific tale, made worse by the fact that Fr. Murphy preyed on deaf children for whom communicating what was happening to them was that much more difficult.

When in 1974 the Archdiocese of Milwaukee was told by the boys what had happened to them Fr. Murphy was relieved of his duties at St. John's and basically ordered to go back and live with his mother in a different part of Wisconsin, in a different diocese. The Times says at the time the police and prosecutors "ignored reports" from Fr. Murphy's victims, so there doesn't seem to be the same cover-up concerns that are a feature of most of these stories. Murphy's abuse of children seems to have stopped with his removal from St. John's in 1974.

That story, however, has already been told by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel back in March 2006 and is told in detail at BishopAccountability.org. The Times connects the story to Pope Benedict, which is why it was on the front page.

The Times reveals that in January 1998 while the Church was proceeding with the process to laicize Fr. Murphy, he wrote to Cardinal Ratzinger appealing to him to stop this process on the grounds that (a) it was outside the norms of Church law (time limits) and (b) he was in poor health, having just "suffered another stroke." Three months later Ratzinger's secretary asked Milwaukee to drop the case. Four months after that Fr. Murphy was dead.

So there's the crux of the scandal that the Times saw fit to blaze on its front page. No legal cover-up, simply an old sinner's appeal for mercy and, apparently, a positive response from Cardinal Ratzinger.

Now I wish Cardinal Ratzinger hadn't done that. I'd rather have seen Fr. Murphy suffer, but I'm not a priest nor a bishop. I'm not in the business of forgiveness or mercy, but I can accept that this is a core function for a priest.

I'd like to be happy that the Times is so hard-line on the application of justice, but anyone who reads the paper regularly knows that not to be true. I'm still waiting for their editorial condemning the Scots for releasing Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, who was convicted of murdering 270 people over Lockerbie in Scotland in 1988 and who was released last year for dubious medical reasons.

No the truth is the Times picked up on an old, terrible story and used a thin connection to tie it to the Pope in an attempt to discredit him. That's it. The British tabloids would be proud of the Times' efforts.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Honoring the Irishmen who died at Gallipoli

{The waters ran red with the blood of the Dublin and Munster Fusiliers and the 2nd Hampshire Regiment who were slaughtered trying to get ashore at Gallipoli on April 25, 1915.}
I wish I was traveling with President Mary McAleese at the moment.

The President is at Gallipoli in Turkey today and tomorrow where she is honoring those Irishmen who took part in the 1915 campaign there. This is the first time that this state has officially recognized those Irishmen who died there.

Coincidentally, last night I was racing through the channels during an ad break, as one does, when I stumbled onto the 1981 Australian movie "Gallipoli", starring a young Mel Gibson. "Gallipoli" is a good reflection of the Australians' view of the war which definitely fits the old adage of 'lions led by donkeys.'

More than 8,700 Australians died at Gallipoli and because of the ultimate failure and the simple of waste of life there, Gallipoli is a key moment in Australian history. Every Australian knows about Gallipoli.

Somewhere between 3,500 and 4,000 Irishmen also died there, but virtually nobody in Ireland, particularly from south of the border, knows anything about this. I cannot imagine any Irish person making a movie like the Australians' "Gallipoli". Maybe someday.

For the moment I'm just glad that to see that the President has acknowledged the sacrifice of the thousands of Irishmen at Gallipoli and the whole First World War.

Go here for more about the Irish at Gallipoli and you can watch the RTE News report of the President's visit here (fast forward to the 17:58 mark).

Monday, March 22, 2010

Boston Bruins to play in Belfast

I was reading a report in this morning's Boston Herald about the Bruins' 2-1 over the Rangers last night when this caught my eye: "The plans have not been finalized, but it looks like the first of the two stops on the Bruins’ European excursion in September will be Belfast, Northern Ireland."

The Bruins are going to play in Belfast's Odyssey Arena. The Bruins will be playing a pre-season game against a German club, not the Belfast Giants. Did you know that hockey had found a home in Belfast?

The Giants compete in the UK's Elite Ice Hockey League. They played their first game in 2000 (part of the 2000/2001 season) and were an instant success. They've been at or near the top for most of their existence. The 2009/2010 regular season has just ended and the Giants finished in second, one point behind the team from Coventry. Hopefully they can fix that in the playoffs.

I've never been to a Giants game, but from what I hear the locals have really taken to it. Not just going and enjoying the games, but learning the game. The Bruins should enjoy a fairly knowledgeable crowd in Belfast. It would be great to be there, but I'd probably be the only one rooting against Boston (I'm a Rangers fan and old hatreds die hard).

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Irish ancestry? Ireland offers discount on college fees

Yesterday in Washington Taoiseach Brian Cowen (Ireland's Prime Minister) announced a new program that will make 500 college places available at reduced fees to the children of the Irish diaspora. This is a tremendous idea, particularly because in a small way it acknowledges the debt this country owes to those 'lost sons and daughters' and their offspring.

Often, far too often actually, the diaspora is treated as if it's the not-too-bright-but-wealthy cousin who you can tap for a few bucks when you find yourself a little short (through no fault of your own, of course). It's about time that changed and Ireland took an active interest in offering a little something back to the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those emigrants who scrimped and saved to send money home to Ireland even when money was tight.

The idea behind the Ireland Homecoming Study Programme (IHSP) is that students will be able "to take advantage of a high-quality educational experience in a leading EU member state while tapping into their Irish heritage." That sounds good.

The fees for the courses at the various institutions have been reduced by 40% for the IHSP and are €3,000 ($4,081) for a semester or €5,950 ($8,130) for a full year. The institutions taking part in this program are all members of the Institutes of Technology Ireland (IOTI) alliance. It's a pilot scheme and I hope it expands to include the alliance's five non-participating members and even the big universities (Trinity College, etc.), although that will probably require some serious pressure from the overseas alumni.

If this program is a success it will be oversubscribed and the number of available places will have to be increased above the current 500. If this program is a success it will be wildly popular and be a great win-win for the students and for Ireland.

The student will get time in Ireland and a decent education at a reduced rate and Ireland will get a new wave of unofficial ambassadors spread out across America, Canada, Australia, etc. These people will be the focal points for future collaborative business ventures and tourism promotions in our networked world.

The IHSP was launched on St. Patrick's Day and the deadline is the 4th of July. You couldn't bookend this better.

You can learn more and apply for the program here.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A quiet St. Patrick's Day is no bad thing

It was a beautiful day here on the east coast of Ireland, easily the best day of 2010 so far. The good weather brought the crowds out to the parades all over the country. I didn't go to any, however, because my nine-year-old didn't want to go. I didn't argue much.

In fact, other than a mid-afternoon walk I didn't really do much of anything holiday-like today. I'm not sure if I'm unusual here or not, but to me St. Patrick's Day is nice easy day. I don't go for the party-hard St. Patrick's Day.

Many here do, however, which may or may not surprise you. Way back when I was a student I couldn't get over how quiet St. Patrick's Day was here. I can't remember if the pubs were open or not then, but regardless what I remember is how empty and peaceful the streets of Dublin were that night. That's no longer the case.

These days St. Patrick's Day is an excuse not just for excessive drinking, but violence too. I haven't ventured in the city to find out for myself, but the general sense is that Dublin is now a no-go area after dark on St. Patrick's Day.

Pubs aren't the only businesses that open on St. Patrick's Day nowadays. Supermarkets and other big retailers are all open too. That wasn't the case before the Celtic Tiger.

However, while I was out walking today I walked by a large electrical retailer. There were only three cars in the parking lot and I was pretty sure two of those were employees' cars. I found the sight of the empty parking lot heartening, although it's probably partly a result of the recession.

Something else I saw today that I definitely didn't anticipate was a garbage truck. And I saw two. There are many private operators that collect trash in our area and these two made their Wednesday rounds as normal. None of the guys working those trucks was Irish, which might explain why they were out today.

I hope they got the message and stay home next year because from what I could see there were no trash cans out for them to empty. Besides, these eastern European immigrants need to become full citizens here. They should enjoy the biggest national holiday too.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

St. Patrick's Day is a unique opportunity for a small country

St. Patrick's Day is tomorrow, which means that half the elected representatives of Ireland are outside the country today.

Government ministers have been dispatched to the four corners of the globe to meet and greet members of the Irish diaspora as well the political and business elite at each destination. This annual exodus of our government always elicits comments from the press about the waste of money, that these trips are all about the minsters' own pleasure and there's precious little in it for us taxpayers. They're on "jaunts" or "junkets", what have you. {Read this for an example of what I'm talking about.}

I'm all in favor of fiscal rectitude in government, especially because they're spending my money. To that end, the luxuries that the various cabinet ministers and their entourages have lavished upon themselves during these trips in previous years have rightly been reined in by Brian Cowen. However, to put an end to these trips as some would like would be wrong. It seems pretty obvious to me that overall that these trips are important and that this is money that should be spent.

St. Patrick's Day is unique. What other nation's national holiday is celebrated with such fervor around the world? What other nation of five million people can command the attention of the world's most powerful man and literally dozens and dozens of political, financial and industrial power-brokers? None.

Sure a lot of what our elected officials do at this time is schmoozing and, yes, boozing, but so what? That's what works. The attachment to Ireland among the tens of millions of Irish descent around the world is not built on the cold hard figures of economics or political calculation, but on the shared stories and cultural bonds that are more likely to be renewed over an after dinner drink than at a conference table.

Of course it isn't just government ministers who fan out around the world. Many TD's (parliamentarians) and local officials are also traveling to represent their towns and counties and Ireland, if unofficially, at smaller events.

These trips too are important, as I'm sure many of you appreciate. If only more people in Ireland could understand this.

Is every penny spent a penny spent wisely? Who knows? But the advertising world's old saying that "half of my advertising budget is wasted, but the problem is I don't know which half" equally applies to this outlay at St. Patrick's Day. Actually I would guess that far less than half is wasted, but again who can be sure?

So long as our elected representatives show restraint they should be out there strengthening the links that ties us all together, selling Ireland and ensuring that this small nation takes full advantage of this annual, but unique opportunity.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Don't follow the rainbow to Dublin's Leprechaun Museum

When I first heard that a Leprechaun Museum was opening in Dublin my first reaction was "oh no." I was sure it was going to be nothing more than a tacky attempt to con Americans and other tourists out of their money.

Then I thought about it and I figured that if they did this right it would provide some information on the legend of leprechauns, the people who told such tales and the world they lived in. And, I thought, if they do a great job it will be a magical experience for children and something special for adults.

As it turns out it's none of those, although at least the aspirations are more towards the informative/magical experience than to simply part Americans from their dollars.

There are many, many things wrong with the new museum, but basically there's nothing to it. It's simply not worth the time or the money - $14 per adult & $9.50 per child.

I went alone and spent about 30 minutes in the exhibit, but I could easily have been out of there in 15 or less. The exhibit consists of nine (maybe ten) sparsely decorated rooms. I'm sure if I was a designer or interior decorator or an art student I could use all sorts of explanations for the manner in which this museum is decorated, but I'm just an average Joe.

Sparse is the best word for it. Lifeless would suffice. Obtuse might also do, but that would be stretching my vocabulary. However, there were no leprechauns in the exhibit. None. Figurine or painted there wasn't one.

The best room was the one with the pot of gold. A pot of gold in the middle of a fairly big circle of hard wood. That was the best room.

The most interesting room - potentially - had a large relief map of Ireland which lit up as the history of ancient Ireland was told. The voice was too quiet to hear above the music, the names and the story were raced through so quickly that you left none-the wiser. Children lasted about 30 seconds in the map room, but you needed four minutes for the full audio clip.

A few of the other rooms were way too dark and the whole thing just left me wondering, "What was that?"

As I said, I went alone, but conversations at the end of the visit with adults and children told me I wasn't wrong. Some of them felt like they'd been duped out of their money.

Oh yeah, it's also about as easy to find the Leprechaun Museum as it is to find a Leprechaun's pot of gold. There was no sign or even a banner to let you know when you'd walked by it. I had an address and I still couldn't find it. It was only a chance glimpse of a woman in a green shirt that showed me the way.

I could go into endless detail on all sorts of other things that were wrong, but I'd rather finish with a few positives. First, I liked the fact that it was intended to attract Irish people as well as tourists. That was reassuring actually.

The best thing about the Leprechaun Museum, however, is the people who work there. They seem to love it.

From the girl who took my money to the woman who spoke to us by way of introduction - easily the best part of the exhibit - to the people we met at the end who wanted our views, everyone is enthusiastic. They also assured me that there would be a sign hanging out front by today. I hope so.

Most hopeful was a conversation our tour group had with the man behind the museum. We gave it to him with both barrels - waste of time, waste of money, incomprehensible, too dark, too much like the work of a designer, etc. - he didn't get all defensive.

He took notes on our criticisms and then our suggestions. He genuinely seemed keen to get this right. He promised he would change it and make it great. He took our contact details and asked us to come back again after he'd improved it. I told him I would.

Like I said at the top, with the right presentation it could provide the story adults want and the fantasy children require. With the right changes it could still provide all that. So we'll see. It may yet be a worthwhile experience for both Irish people and tourists.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Irish missionaries served God & Ireland

I had intended to mention this earlier, but it slipped my mind. RTE showed a two part documentary on the 20th century history of Irish missionaries.

There were some political and religious views that caused me a little disquiet and there were a few, sort of, 'National Geographic-like' images that I wasn't sure about, but overall it was a story worth telling and it was well told.

As well as spreading the faith, the missionaries were, as President Mary McAleese says, ambassadors who "have done Ireland no end of service." Unfortunately it's a service that's winding down now as there are virtually no young missionaries these days. What they accomplished and the trials they endured (or didn't - many died before reaching age 40) is a story all Irish people should know.

RTE has made the two parts available to view (until the March 23) for people outside Ireland. Each episode is 50 minutes, but it's worth while. Part I is here and Part II here.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Ireland's health care example

On Monday the New York Times published a column by Paul Krugman that compared Ireland's and America's economic problems. Krugman is an economist and should know better than to omit the role played by the fact Ireland is in a monetary union with countries whose economies are not really in synch with our own. He should also know that comparing Ireland (GDP around $250bn) and the United States (GDP $14 trillion) is really of little value.

I didn't think much of Krugman's column, but he got me thinking, thinking about health care and if Ireland's experience was of any value to the American debate on the topic.

I haven't been following the ins and outs of America's health care debate. In fact, I don't really understand all that well how the Irish system works, even though I've lived here for nearly 20 years. Having said that, I can offer a couple of observations of the Irish system that may be of some use to you.

First, having the government run your health care system is no panacea. I don't know if we'd be better off with less government involvement, but based on the volume of media coverage of all that's wrong with the Irish health care system, I can't imagine it could be much worse.

For what seems like the 10th time in the last two years a major scandal in one (maybe more) of our hospitals is unfolding. This scandal is totally dominating the news here. {Nobody seems to care much about the Jihad-Jane-Irish-al-Qaeda-cell story that broke on Tuesday.}

All three major broadsheets are full of coverage of this latest fiasco in the health system and are calling on the Minister for Health, Mary Harney {photo}, to resign.

That brings up a related point. Problems in the health care system have the potential to generate such emotion among the population and provide so much fodder for the opposition parties that the normal functioning of the government seems to grind to a halt every time health hits the headlines. Maybe something to bear in mind?

Ireland is a small country and maybe the health care issues here have nothing to do with the fact that the state is so heavily involved in running it. Maybe things will be completely different in whatever form an American state-funded / state-run system takes. Maybe.

Or maybe it will be a bureaucratic, systematic mess like we have here now.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Open the pubs on Good Friday

Part of the way we celebrate Easter in Ireland is that a certain percentage of the population suffers unduly on Good Friday because the sale of alcoholic beverages is banned. These people lead the annual moan about the pubs being closed for the day.

This year we got a head-start on the annual moan thanks to the fact that the authorities in charge of rugby have scheduled a big game between Leinster and Munster in Limerick on Good Friday night. The pub owners of Limerick, worried about the trade they might miss out on, are leading the campaign to be allowed to open for business on Good Friday.

Those for whom the DT's kick in at the very thought of Good Friday have joined the publicans in the bombardment of the airwaves with their plaintive cries asking us to feel their pain, their need.

This goes on annually. Every year the cries grow stronger and the sympathy for the sufferers greater. There is only one obstacle to the change needed by these poor people - the Catholic Church.

Or so they imagine. The airwaves are full of "this is not a theocracy" or "in this day and age the Church should not ..." and so on.

Well here's one Catholic that has heard their cry and is now joining the chorus: 'open the pubs.' Honestly, I've got no problems with pubs being open on Good Friday.

I'm no theologian by a long shot, but my little bit of research turned up no Church law requiring Catholics to abstain from alcoholic beverages and certainly nothing requiring that the civil law mandate that public houses be closed on Good Friday.

It's not a Church law. It's a government law based on an Irish custom. Maybe this custom is rooted in the traditional folk practices of Irish Catholics, but still it's an Irish custom and not a Church law. And like I said, as a Catholic I couldn't care less whether people buy a pint or ten on Good Friday.

However, as a resident and taxpayer and the father of impressionable youngsters living in this country I worry about it. I worry that as a nation we seem to need alcohol.

I'm not a teetotaler and enjoy being in the pub on occasion, but still I worry that the old customs are being replaced by new customs, such as celebrating the vomit, vice and violence that comes with too much drinking. The whole tone of city and town centers late at night is much more menacing than it was in the past.

Stereotypes notwithstanding, Ireland used to have one of the lowest per capita alcohol consumption rates in the EU. However, over the past 20 years Ireland has gone from being near the bottom to the top of the table. In 1990 the average Irish person consumed 6% more alcohol than the average American. By 2006 that gap was 40%.

Pubs used to be closed on Saint Patrick's Day too, but I don't feel less Catholic for that change having been made. The subsequent street violence and rioting have no impact on my faith. Same will be true on Good Friday. So go ahead and open the pubs on Good Friday.

Friday, March 5, 2010

An American in the Irish government?

Rumors are rife that an American - a citizen of the United States of America - is about to be elevated to a position in the Irish government. I'm not sure what you might think about that, but I'm not comfortable with it.

American citizen and Green Party member Ciaran Cuffe is the man in question. Cuffe is a member of the Dáil (Irish parliament), but now he is supposedly about to become a minister in the government, probably later this month.

Cuffe's in the same position as me and all those who hold dual citizenship between America and any other country. We all walk a line that can seem pretty fuzzy at times. I've always figured that there's little chance of an actual war between Ireland and America* so my true loyalties will never be called into question**.

I pay my taxes here, I vote here, I live here, my wife and children live here. Yet, I feel incredible loyalty to America. I still vote there. I do my utmost to defend America in conversations, arguments, debates, whatever. Occasionally I've done so in the media. Living outside of America has helped me appreciate it a lot more than I probably would have had I remained at home.

Where Cuffe's and my situations differ is that he's an elected member of parliament, which is not something I've ever seriously considered pursuing, partially because I wasn't sure it was entirely legal in American law. Legal or not it strikes me as not really right, although I could accept an argument saying it's okay to be an American citizen serving in another country's parliament.

However, I definitely think it's wrong for an American to take a seat in another country's government, even the Irish government. The law, however, does not offer me clear-cut support for my position.

A person who is a national of the United States whether by birth or naturalization, shall lose his nationality by voluntarily performing any of the following acts with the intention of relinquishing United States nationality — ... accepting, serving in, or performing the duties of any office, post, or employment under the government of a foreign state or a political subdivision thereof, after attaining the age of eighteen years if he has or acquires the nationality of such foreign state

Note that "with the intention of relinquishing United States nationality," which I imagine would offer a legal out for Cuffe.

Cuffe has publicly acknowledged that he is an American citizen and even described in a blog-post how he had voted for Barak Obama in the 2008 election. He was a member of the Dáil at the time. {In the comments on his blog post, Cuffe demonstrates he's aware of the American laws on citizenship and serving in another country's government.}

Irish citizens should probably object more than Americans, but either way if Cuffe does become a government minister while retaining his American citizenship he'll be riding two horses at the same time. Even though the relationship between Ireland and the United States is more about cooperation than competition, Irish government ministers have a role in the EU's Council of Ministers. And the EU-US relationship definitely has a competitive edge.

Cuffe should not have any say in the composition of the American government or influence over its policies while serving in the cabinet of another country. There's a clear conflict of interest. He should either refuse the position or relinquish his American citizenship.

* If a war between Ireland and America was looking inevitable I'd suggest to the United States Army that they choose a Wednesday afternoon to begin proceedings - the Irish army takes a half day on Wednesdays.

** The only time my loyalties are strained is on the sporting field and there I tend to make up my mind as to which side I'll root for. Generally speaking I root for America in rugby (always the underdog, never a chance of winning) and Ireland at the Olympics (you have to appreciate how much one Olympic medal means here). Soccer is the only place where the two nations' athletes meet as more or less equals. I root for America, but if it was the World Cup Final I'd root for Ireland. Again, such a win would mean far less to Americans than it would to people here.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Pension reform has me feeling youthful

Oh yeah! I'm feeling three years younger today. Just like that - I'm feeling that little bit more limber, my mind a touch sharper.

And to what, I hear you ask, do I attribute this burst of youthfulness? Well it's all thanks to the Irish government, actually.

You see, yesterday the Irish government decreed that no longer would those of us born after 1960 be retiring at 65 as is currently the law, but at 68. So you see, the government clearly feel I don't have enough wear and tear on me at this age. I can go on working for three more years!

The change will actually be phased in with retirement age rising to 66 in 2014 and to 67 in 2021. And you know what? I agree with the government.

The population of Ireland is aging fast and the so-called 'pensions time bomb' is ticking loudly. As Brian Cowen {photo} said when he announced the change, currently there are six workers for every pensioner, but by 2050 that ratio falls to two workers for every pensioner.

That's simply not sustainable. So now we're all a little younger than we were and that doesn't happen every day.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Irish Catholics must pay for Irish Church's sins

There's a lot of hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth here in Ireland today thanks to the announcement by Bishop Brennan of Ferns that he would be asking Catholics in the diocese to help pay compensation and legal costs arising out of sex abuse scandals. {Read more here.}

Thus far, the Diocese of Ferns has paid out $10.9m in compensation on 48 cases with a further 13 actions pending. The diocese's insurance covered only about $1.5m of these claims, which means the diocese to raise money to meet these obligations.

A column by documentary producer Mary Raftery in today's Irish Times captures the mood of those who are outraged by the bishop's request. Rafferty says the parishioners of the Ferns diocese should not be asked to pay because the "parishioners damaged no child, transferred no pedophiles from parish to parish, covered up no abuse, hid no shameful secrets." That's all true, but if the money doesn't come voluntarily from Catholics in the diocese of Ferns, where will it come from?

The general answer to this question is 'the Vatican.' This answer misses the point: the Catholic Church - whether at diocesan level or at the Vatican level - exists on contributions from its members.

If the people of Ferns balk at subscribing the needed $80,000 per year for 20 years - and I suspect the bishop will be sorely disappointed - then where will the money come from? Sure the Vatican could pay, but then all that would mean is that Catholics in America, Canada, India, Nigeria, Brazil, etc. will be paying for the problems in the Diocese of Ferns. Is that more just?

Of course not and in fairness that's not what Rafferty and others want. They want the Vatican to pay out of its 'vast wealth.' What exactly that wealth is does not feature in their arguments, but I doubt if the people who throw their money in the basket each week and annually subscribe to Peter's Pence really want the Church to call in Christie's to help it off-load a Michaelangelo or two.

So one way or another the money will come from the members of the Church. The only question is which members. Although I don't blame Ireland's Catholics for being angry, there's no denying that we subscribe to an organization from which we accept(ed) too little accountability. In many ways we're not much different than the shareholders in the banks: we didn't sufficiently care about what the management was doing until it was too late.

Now we're faced with the choice of either paying for that 'sin of omission' or telling the Church to dispose of assets - schools, for example - to cover the bills, which will be a sure sign of the Church's decline. For some of those who have left the Church this will be more than satisfactory, but for many Irish Catholics the idea that we could soon have no Catholic schools is unthinkable.

Somehow the disconnect between the members' reluctance to pay the sex abuse bill and their desire to keep the Church functioning, including Catholic schools, has to be overcome. Given the Church's decline a disposal of some assets is inevitable. There are too many half empty churches and too few priests, many of whom don't want to be involved in running schools.

Ireland's Catholics are going to have to accept that for some the church where they made their 1st Holy Communion, were married, had their children baptized and buried their parents is going to be sold and used for a different purpose or demolished. Even some of those who have left the Church might shed a tear at that development.

But there's no escaping the problem. One way or another Irish Catholics are going to have to pay for the sins of the Irish Catholic Church. Simply calling on the Vatican to pay up is nothing more than an attempt to push the problem onto others.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Credit card choice is important for your Irish vacation

Back in May I advised any prospective visitors to Ireland that they should use their debit and credit cards rather than come with the traditional traveler's checks. That advice still stands, but it may have to be revised if the fears of NY Times columnist Ron Lieber are realized.

Lieber says that bank charges on foreign credit card transactions could rise following a change in American law that has restricted credit cards from charging/raising other fees. Lieber says that 2009 Credit Card Act, which only came into effect last month, stops banks from charging a fee when customers exceed their credit limit. The new law also restricts any application or annual fees the banks levy on customers with "poor credit histories."

One area untouched by the new rules is foreign currency exchanges. Currently these charges can be as high as 3% on top of every foreign purchase, but, Lieber says, there is no reason that banks couldn't raise those charges even further.

Lieber recommends (as do I) that customers should shop around for a credit card before they travel. Some big banks - Capital One, for example - and many smaller banks and credit unions are only adding the 1% Visa/MasterCard charge on foreign purchases.

I don't know if or how this new law might affect debit/bank card withdrawals. Depending on how much money you need and what your bank charges for ATM withdrawals that is probably still the best way to change your money in Ireland. Irish banks don't charge people with American bank cards for using their ATMs.

Of course, there's one more consideration before you choose that credit card for your trip to Ireland. If you're planning to rent a car, you should look for a card that covers the insurance on your rental car.

That's easier said than done because very few cards will cover renting a car in Ireland. However, the cost of the insurance can be astronomical - around $20-25 per day - which makes spending a bit of time researching worthwhile if you can find a card that allows you to waive the rental company's CDW.

So, shop around. Get a good card for your car rental. Get a good card for all your other foreign currency transactions. Use your debit card. There is no good reason to make your Irish vacation more expensive than it has to be.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Time to pack away my Olympic decorations

Just like that it's all over. You wait, you wait and you wait and when it comes it's great. But then it only lasts two short weeks and then nothing again. Not for another four years.

The Winter Olympics are like Christmas - only without gifts. As soon as the 'festive season' is upon us I unpack all my verbal decorations. The 'salchows', the 'prone shoots', the 'Back Full-Double Full-Fulls', the 'lying shot', the 'backside wall', etc. all get taken down, dusted off and proudly displayed.

I talk like I know what I'm talking about. Of course every Olympics I pick a few new words to add to my collection. You can't fool me on a Wu-Tang now.

Within a day or two of the games opening I'm talking about sports I haven't thought about in four years. I'm hearing athletes' names that I never heard before or that I heard and forgot all about. Those ones are like old friends dropping in after a long time away.

Over the two weeks the excitement and the momentum keep building. There's a lot of talk of silver and gold (& bronze too) adding to my verbal decorations. By Wednesday of the second week I'm no longer just going upstairs, but going up 'classic style'.

But it all finishes up so quickly. After a tremendous gold medal hockey game (with the wrong result), it was all over. No more biathlon, no more curling, no more speed skating. No more giant slalom. Nothing.

Nothing left now other than the sad task of packing away all the 'triple axels', 'Gundersen equations', 'sliders', etc. until Sochi 2014. Only 1438 days to go.