Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Ireland needs ITLG's American optimism

Right smack in the middle of Ireland's jaw-droppingly doom-laden last couple of weeks there were a series of events organized by the Irish Technology Leadership Group. The ITLG is a non-profit organization of Irish and Irish-American Silicon Valley leaders whose objective is to foster links between Ireland and Silicon Valley that will help generate high-tech success stories for Ireland.

To make this happen the ITLG assists Irish companies with marketing, fund-raising, developing strategic partnerships and other key commercial tasks. In addition, the ITLG opened the Irish Innovation Center in San Jose. The IIC, which opened in March, affords Irish start-ups a space in Silicon Valley, from where they can establish links that will provide these Irish companies with access to technology and connections that are vital for technology businesses today.

The other thing the ITLG can provide is optimism. ITLG President John Hartnett, in particular, just oozes optimism. Hartnett bubbles over with excitement when he gets going.

Hartnett's an Irishman who has done well in America, but that's not enough for him. He's keen to bring the rest of his fellow Irish men and women with him. He's all smiles when he is talking about the possibilities for Ireland in the 21st century, which stands in stark contrast to how most people in Ireland feel today.

ITLG's Chariman is Craig Barrett, the former head of Intel. Barrett has a different demeanor, but is no less positive about Ireland's future. Barrett is like a hard-nosed football coach. He lets you know it's going to be a tough game, but he also has that top coach's ability to convince you that you will stop that fullback on the 4th down play at the goal-line.

Both men are inspiring and Ireland sure needs a large dose of that right now.

I also had a chance to sit with a couple of other members of the ITLG. They were also positive about the ITLG's mission, but it wasn't hard to detect some frustration. Too many "redundant conversations" - the same conversation with basically the same officials over and over - is what I heard. I can easily understand. The Irish government is like a fish on a hook - willing to listen, but not really able to do much.

If anything made me uneasy about the ITLG visit it was that they would be sucked into the defeatism and pessimism that just seems to hang on the air here now like a foul-smelling cloud. You can't avoid it. It gets in your lungs and takes over your whole being.

Ireland desperately needs someone to keep hope alive and the ITLG is doing that. I hope the small Irish companies they're dealing with can imbibe the ITLG's upbeat, American can-do attitude and not get dragged down by the all-encompassing negativity that currently stalks Ireland.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thanksgiving at the American Ambassador's residence

My first Thanksgiving in Ireland was in 1986 and I was invited to the American Ambassador's residence on the big day.

Okay, I wasn't invited personally. The Ambassador's invite was for all American students studying at Trinity College, where I was putting in a year. My friend John, a fellow American, and I made our way up there hoping we'd get a decent bit of food. We weren't expecting to sit down to a beautifully laid table with linen table cloth and finest silverware, but we did hope we'd get some form buffet-style turkey dinner served on paper plates. Turkey sandwiches at worse.

Upon arrival we were provided with a can of Budweiser and a bag of potato chips. Not quite traditional, but a pleasant start. We were treated to a short speech by the Ambassador Margaret Heckler {photo}, who seemed to expect us to be in awe because the house was once the residence of Lord Randolph Churchill, Winston's father. "Can't you just image little Winston crawling along these floors." No. All we could imagine was food.

Finally she finished speaking and made her way around the room saying hello to everyone. And that was it. It took a few minutes before the ugly truth dawned on us, but that was it.

No turkey. No mashed potatoes. No turnip (rutabaga!), brocoli, cauliflower. No apple or pumpkin pie. No nothing, nothing but the sad reality that we'd walked an hour up and had another hour back to look forward to for one can of beer and a bag of potato chips. On Thanksgiving. Thanks Madam Ambassador.

There were probably 25 of us or so there and I think each and every one of us was too disappointed to speak. Eventually we sort of shuffled out. I think the cleaning people were sweeping up right behind us as if we were the Thanksgiving Day parade finishing its run down Broadway.

Eventually we made our way back through the damp and the cold to the center of Dublin. A group of us ended up in some second-rate restaurant eating food we couldn't afford, but reassuring one another that it was Thanksgiving.

I've never been back to the residence since, although not for want of trying. Every year between 2003 and 2008 I used my blog to shamelessly plead with Ambassador Foley to invite me up for a bite of food. He declined on each occasion.

So, now it's over to you Ambassador Rooney. I know it's late, but I could rearrange my schedule if you want to enjoy my company over Thanksgiving dinner. Beer and potato chips won't cut it, however.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Irish Government speaks as if the potato famine has returned

I met a friend of mine from America here early last week and he asked me to give him two minutes on the state of Ireland. I told him I didn't need two minutes: The young want out, the old are afraid of cuts and the middle aged are looking at a retirementless, childless future.

That was my assessment of mood of the country before we were forced to accept the IMF/EU bailout over the weekend. I think I can safely say the mood has not improved. In fact, if anything the mood has darkened, grown angrier and the focus of that anger is the government, which is now on its last legs.

There are a million reasons for the Irish people to be disgusted with their leaders, but this past week takes the cake. All week the government denied that the IMF was at the door - even denying what was happening after the IMF man arrived in the country!

Yesterday was even better. Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Brian Cowen and Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan gave a joint press conference at which they admitted that we needed "help" from the IMF and the EU. It was an amazing, mind-boggling performance as they took obfuscation and denial to a new level.

Neither man ever used the word "bailout", but both talked about capital, contingencies, etc. At one point Lenihan referred to the "problems that have beset us."

Beset. My wife was all over that. She turned to me - more in wonder than in anger - and said, "Did you hear that? Beset? He's talking like potato blight is once again wreaking havoc across the land. It's like he believes neither of them had a role in bringing us to this point."

She is totally right. Both the Cowen and Lenihan, especially Lenihan, have frequently spoken of our problems as if a disease arrived on a ship and infected our banks. And, while the credit crunch did sweep the globe after the fall of Lehman, the dead black centers in our banks were made jointly by our greedy wreckless bankers, feckless regulators and (criminally) careless government.

Never during the past two plus years, since the banking crisis blew up, have we had a full, frank admission that mistakes were made. More importantly, never did the government either (a) level with us as to the depth of the banks' problems or (b) learn the full truth themselves. Now the people are furious because they never had the truth nor leadership during the past few years capped off this week with the loss off all pretense of Irish independence. And it wasn't lost in a natural disaster.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Daughter's "fiddling" disrupts Thanksgiving plans

As I'm sure you know, it's Thanksgiving next week. Despite the fact it's not a holiday in Ireland, my family always celebrates. We usually try to have the big feast on the actual day, but there have been times in the past when we've had to do as other Americans here do and move the festivities to Saturday. Unfortunately, this year neither is possible.

This year we will have to have our Thanksgiving Day this coming Wednesday, which means I'll be eating a leftover turkey sandwich for lunch on Thursday before you've even finished watching the big parade on Broadway.

Why do we have to move our holiday? My daughter is in the school musical this year – Fiddler on the Roof – and her school inconsiderately scheduled the show to run for four days starting next Thursday.

Nothing I could do. It's not a holiday here and I can't very well expect the school to reorder its schedule to suit the one girl whose father is from America. {My wife advised me that going down to the school and announcing in my loudest voice that "This is AMERICA you're snubbing!" probably wouldn't make any difference.}

So the big dinner's got to be Wednesday. That's just it with Thanksgiving in Ireland. You have to be flexible. You never know what might interfere with the celebration. I just never expected the problem with my Thanksgiving to be a family of Russian Jews.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Tone deaf embassy missing big picture in Ireland

It's almost impossible to convey how gloomy life in Ireland is this week. Tuesday was the worst because the imminent national economic collapse had to share the headlines with two horrific stories of fathers killing women and children. It was almost as if we were reaching an apocalyptic "end times."

Doom and gloom is everywhere – everywhere except the American embassy in Dublin. Believe me I don't want to make a big deal out of this because it's not a big deal. It's a small deal and it has to do with Twitter.

The American embassy has a twitter account (@usembassydublin). I thought they'd abandoned it because it went silent in June. Silent until it sparked to life again on Tuesday. Since then the embassy has posted four tweets:
  1. Press briefing by President #Obama Aboard Air Force One: "We are going to have to step up our game." {Nov 16}
  2. Americans help rebuild #Haiti #libraries. {Nov 16}
  3. International enrollment in U.S. colleges reaches all-time high. {Nov 17}
  4. Interfaith dialogue strengthens faith and tolerance. {Nov 18}
Obviously there is nothing wrong with those statements. It's the tone that's wrong, wrong for this week (or as the Irish say – "for the week that's in it.")

A friendly nation is facing a dark moment, an existential crisis and the United States embassy in that country is sending out notices about how many Chinese students are opting for the University of Nebraska. It's like walking down the street and running into a neighbor whose wife is deathly ill and bragging about your kid getting 1400 on the SAT's. It was like whoever sent out the tweets from the embassy wasn't even living here.

I know I can be too sensitive to this sort of thing. Any immigrant probably has these feelings: I am an unofficial ambassador for America and the least I expect is that the official representatives will represent the United States with dignity, decorum, respect and sensitivity. At a minimum these tweets are insensitive.

Why not a tweet about President Obama's discussions on the Irish debt crisis, which are scheduled for this weekend. That would have at least demonstrated that the folks in the fortress that doubles as the embassy are not totally unaware of what's happening outside their gates.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Are QE2 fears driving McIlroy home?

Rory McIlroy is quitting the American PGA Tour to return to Europe for his golf in the new year. McIlroy said he was lonely and homesick in America, missed his girlfriend, his house and his dogs are all in Ireland and he missed all of that.

McIlroy is 21 and it's entirely plausible that homesickness is the reason he wants to move back home. I'm sure he really misses his girlfriend and she misses him. Same for his dogs.

However, he's not the only European golfer to spurn the US tour recently. Germany's Martin Kaymer, England's Lee Westwood and Italy's Francesco Molinari have all opted for Europe's tour over America's.

Now maybe they're all homesick, but maybe there's another factor that made it easier to give in to their homesickness. Maybe they're unhappy with QE2.

No, not Queen Elizabeth the second, but the recently announced second round of Quantitative Easing. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has decided that printing an additional $600bn is just what the American economy needs to get things going again.

Maybe he's right, but I have my doubts and I'm not alone. There are many people who believe that QE2 and many of the other measures being pursued by the American government will have little positive effect on the economy, but will seriously undermine the strength of the dollar.

You may scoff at the idea of a 21-year-old professional golfer understanding the ins and outs of the actions of central banks and currency movements, but these guys all have advisers who do understand. If the advice is that the dollar will decline by 15-20% over the next 12 months, then that's a serious hit on the golfer's income, enough to make the European tour more attractive to any "homesick" golfer. Driving down the value of the dollar makes imports more expensive regardless of whether it's a barrel of oil, a bottle of French wine, a Japanese car or an Irish golfer.

Announcing that you're going to play professional golf in Europe because you disagree with the way the custodians of the American dollar - Bernanke and President Obama - are doing their job would not be a winning ploy. It's much better to be seen as a lovesick puppy rather than a mercenary professional athlete.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Edmund Fitzgerald came from a Great Lakes Irish family of shipbuilders and sailors

The first click of the day was on a story that turned out to be about the Edmund Fitzgerald, which sank 35 years ago today. I hadn't thought about that tragedy in years. I hadn't even heard the Gordon Lightfoot song, which is a good one.

For whatever reason I wanted to know who was Edmund Fitzgerald, after whom the steamer was named. I found a nice little summary about Fitzgerald and his family's roots on a site called Lake Huron Lore (overlooking the fact that the Edmund Fitzgerald sank on Lake Superior).

Fitzgerald was the head of the insurance company that owned the ship. However, Edmund Fitzgerald came from a family that was closely connected with shipping.

Edmund Fitzgerald {photo} was born in 1895 in Milwaukee, WI. Edmund's great grandparents – William and Juilianna – had immigrated from Ireland in 1837 and settled on a farm in Michigan, along the St. Clair river. Six of William and Julianna's sons were more taken by life on the river and lakes than life on the farm.

Three of those sons moved to Milwaukee in the 1850s and each took up different roles in sailing and shipping. John, Edmund's grandfather, became a shipbuilder. John's son William took over the business in the 1890s. Young Edmund believed he'd also work in shipbuilding, but his father died when he was only 6 years old and life took him in a different direction, although he never lost his love for and interest in shipping and the lakes.

Although Edmund didn't want the freighter named after him, his wife and the board of the insurance company made it happen because they knew what it would mean to a man with such a strong family connection to shipping on the Great Lakes. Edmund declared that the launch of the Edmund Fitzgerald was a great day for all the Fitzgeralds.

Edmund Fitzgerald died in 1986 "still deeply saddened by the wreck of the ship named for him."

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Ireland has a new Chief Secretary

The position of Chief Secretary for Ireland was abolished following the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922. From that moment Ireland has had varying degrees of independence, but it was basically independent. Until now.

There can be no more argument on the matter. Many people have claimed with each new European Union treaty that Ireland was no longer an independent nation, that we were just a state in a vast European federal union. Others argued otherwise and it is, or was, a complex matter.

However, this week all pretense of independence evaporated as the Irish people got to meet our new Chief Secretary, Olli Rehn {photo}. Unlike the last Chief Secretary, Canadian Hamar Greenwood, Rehn is not a member of the British Government, but is the European Union's Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs. However, the roles are similar enough because the Chief Secretary's role was to see that British policy was enforced in Ireland as Mr. Rehn's is to see that the EU's policy is followed by this state.

Rehn dropped in for a visit this week. With the budget due in only a few weeks, Rehn's presence is a signal to all in the parliament that the real power here demands that Ireland toe the line on deficits, spending and taxation. Rehn reiterated his view that Ireland can no longer be a "low tax country" but must move towards being a "normal tax country," which means overall taxation rates should be similar to what applies in other EU countries.

Rehn helpfully offered the support of the European Commission to "Ireland and its citizens as they faced into the challenges ahead," but he offered nothing else other than "thou shalt comply" and get the deficit under 3% by 2014.

This is the price of being the good Europeans, the English-speaking country that was enthusiastic about the European project. We adopted the euro, unlike the bad Europeans across the Irish Sea. We opened our borders to the work‑hungry Latvians and Poles, unlike the Dutch, French and others. We showered love on all that was European, blindly ignoring that the powers that be were eying us coldly the whole time, waiting for an opportunity to punish us for our foibles and weaknesses.

For a while we thought we were rich, but it was a mirage. No, it was a trip, like we were on LSD. We were the debt addicts and we thought our wealth was real, but it was illusory.

Now it's not just cold turkey for us, but punishment. The EU is punishing us for our addiction, but the pushers, the German and French (& others') banks and investment funds who threw money at our banks and property developers, who fed our addiction, are not only getting away with it, but are being protected by the same people who are now dictating how Ireland is to run its affairs.

So we're stuck with stern-faced Olli, accepting his lectures like the bad children the EU always knew we were and, it seems, people here are taking it. The only question is how much longer before the people decide to send Olli to join Hamar Greenwood.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The British are keen to start 'shellacking'

I never thought about it on Wednesday, but apparently using the word "shellacking" as President Obama did on Wednesday is an Americanism. There's been a lot of comment about it England.

Like most commentators, the Daily Telegraph's Jenny McCartney is taken by the word and wants to use it more herself. However, she doesn't have the right meaning, at least to my ear. I know the word from sports broadcasts, but also (I think) from old war movies.

When you give the enemy a good "shellacking" you're not just winning, you're pounding him - hard, so he begs for mercy. You can't use the word (again, to my ear) as McCartney wants to, describing her malfunctioning computer as "completely shellacked" or to describing yourself as "shellacked by the flu."

Friday, November 5, 2010

Like a movie scene - Irish government declares "Let them eat cheese!"

Some headlines write themselves. This morning the Irish government's Agriculture Minister Brendan Smith announced that the government will soon be distributing 58 tons of cheese to poor people. It was only yesterday that Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Brian Cowen told the nation that the budget due December 7 – a date that already lives in infamy – will include massive cuts in government spending and significant new taxes.

To say that the cheese announcement from our tone-deaf, out-of-touch government was badly timed is understating things. Every radio station, news web site and especially twitter ran wild with puns and cheese-inspired slights aimed at the government. Of course, poor ol maligned (& slandered) Marie Antoinette didn't have a prayer as "Let Them Eat Cheese" was the cry heard throughout the land.

The fact that this is an EU-wide scheme made no difference. The government's reputation is in tatters and a slice of cheddar is not about to change anyone's views. They ceaselessly peddle the story that they're only victims of a storm that started elsewhere, but there's ample evidence that the abominable mismanagement in government and corruption among many of Ireland's wealthy elites were going to be a big problem even if the global financial crisis had not occurred.

If someone were to make a movie about Ireland in this era, it would likely start with a scene inspired by today's events:

The government is gathered late at night trying to figure out how to appease the masses after the Taoiseach's pre-budget speech. They're seated in comfortable chairs in a well-appointed conference/meeting/dining room in government buildings. They're enjoying wine and cheese.

Suddenly one of the ministers has a eureka moment and stands up with his glass and says, "I know, let's give them free wine." Some murmuring of approval, but the Taoiseach puts his glass down, pauses and says, "No, they drink more than enough already. Let's give them free cheese instead. Smith, you'll make the announcement in the morning. That'll make them feel better; buy us some time too."

Of course, this story could be better told in a cartoon using fat cats and scavenging mice. What we don't know is how it will end. Will it be the uprising and guillotine that did for Marie Antoinette or the desolate landscape so popular in apocalyptic nuclear holocaust movies. The government is betting on the latter.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Goal difference is no way to decide the league champions

The Airtricity League is Ireland's domestic soccer league and it just doesn't get a lot of love. Although soccer may well be the most popular sport in Ireland, most soccer fans devote their attentions to the goings on in the English Premier League, not the local league.

There probably isn't a whole lot the people who run the Airtricity League can do about this state of affairs, but they aren't above trying different things to generate interest. A few years ago they changed the season from one that ran basically from through the winter to one that runs through the summer. The idea was that Irish soccer would attract more fans to games on warm summer evenings than on cold, wet winter nights.

Here's another idea that the league should adopt immediately: have a one game playoff for the league title if two teams are tied at the end of the season. Last week's exciting conclusion to the season was only marred by the fact that Shamrock Rovers claimed the title by virtue of a better goal difference than the runners-up, Bohemians. That is just plain wrong. And dumb.

Soccer in Europe is structured differently than any American sports league. Here the team that as the best regular season record wins the league. End of story. That's how it should be really. There are no playoffs, no one-off championship to decide who the best is, but rather it's decided over the long season. The team with the most points (or wins) is the league champion.

They don't have loads of division champions, wild card teams, etc. playing a tournament to decide what's already been decided.

However, where soccer could learn something from America is when two teams are tied at the end of the season. Sure, I understand the goal difference, but it doesn't really say much about which of the two tied teams is best.

Last Friday night Shamrock Rovers could only manage a 2-2 tie with lowly Bray while Bohemians were winning their game. Both games were live on tv simultaneously. It was exciting. I'm sure a lot of non-fans tuned in. It was a great ad for the Airtricity League.

It would have been an even better ad for the league if rather than conceding the title to Rovers, the two teams had met for a one game playoff to decide the championship. Maybe it's too American an idea for the league, but they should consider it because goal difference is really a poor way to decide who's best after a long season.