Friday, January 28, 2011

Hey New York, send us some snow

It hasn't snowed in Ireland since before Christmas. You might recall that Ireland was frozen solid for weeks before Christmas, with canceled flights, impassable roads and bursting water pipes. Since then, however, there hasn't been so much as a fleeting flurry.

In the same period, the northeast of America has been getting buried. Another big storm the other day; New York got another 19 inches. I know if you live in New York or anywhere in the northeast, you're probably sick of snow. Irish people felt that way in December.

But you know what? (I'm going to whisper this lest I alert a lynch mob...) I'd love a few inches of snow. Not a whole lot, just 3 or 4 inches.

Why? I'll tell you why. During our post-Christmas visit we went shopping at Wal-mart. While we were walking around the store my eye happened to catch sight of the snow shovel supply deep in a far-off corner. There were many snow shovels.

I wandered over that way without telling anyone where I was heading. There were some really nice snow shovels, the kind you'd have for life. (Okay, just go along with me here.) They were $40 or so, but I knew that it was no use because I could never get one home.

I walked further on to the $10 shovels. Not nearly as nice, but still better than any snow shovel I'd find in Ireland. They were the right kind of shovel too - more of snow pushers than a snow lifters, perfect for the showery light amounts we get when it snows here. And best of all, they were held together by easy to remove screws, which meant I could disassemble one.

I grabbed one and headed off to find the family. My wife could tell what I was thinking from 20 feet. Her first words were, "We can't fit that in any of our cases." I already knew she was right, but when I told her it would come apart she said the words I was hoping to hear: "If you can get that apart, I can get it home." {She does all the packing.}

And that's what happened.

Now I have my brand new snow shovel, but I can't go out and show it off to the neighbors (they will be very impressed - NOT) unless we get some snow. That's why I want some snow. I want to use my new shovel. (Okay, stop sniggering.)

So, New York, next time the forecast calls for more snow do you think you could ask it to head on over here? Just remember, don't tell anyone where the request came from.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Ireland is the EU's most pro-Palestinian member

An official in the Israeli Foreign Ministry described Ireland as "the most anti-Israel member state of the European Union." They may well be right, although I doubt most Irish people or the Irish government would like to hear/read that. They'd prefer it to be phrased more positively.

A few years ago I was driving down I-95 from DC to Florida when I entered North Carolina. It was the first time I'd ever been in the state and I was struck by the billboards I saw from the highway declaring North Carolina to be "The most military-friendly state in the union."

Those signs could be the model for how Ireland would like to be known when it comes to its Middle East policy: 'The most Palestinian friendly state in the union.' The European Union, of course.

That Israeli official was commenting following Ireland's recent decision to upgrade the status of the Palestinian delegation to Ireland to a mission. Israel views this decision negatively and fears that other EU states will follow, providing a disincentive for the Palestinians to engage in negotiations.

As was pointed out on Twitter on Wednesday (@jonihle) it took "Ireland 45 yrs to allow UN-recognized Israel to open an embassy in Dublin." Yet the Palestinians will have theirs before they even have any form of UN-recognized state. And I fully expect that before it's appropriate to provide full recognition to any future Palestinian state, Ireland will have already done so.

This week's move is more symbolic than anything else. The most substantive change is that the head of the Palestinian delegation will be known as an Ambassador. He will present his credentials to the President, as all other ambassadors to.

So, it's symbolic, but it's also indicative. At a time when there are "heartening trends" in the always dispiriting Middle East, the Irish government has plunged into the situation to change the balance. Yes Ireland's a small nation, but it is also a member of the European Union, which makes this small nation's actions and words on the situation more weighty than if we were outside one of the key blocs in global politics.

This wasn't just clumsy either. Irking Israel and siding with the Palestinians is part of a long-established pattern for the Irish government.

Last summer when Irish and other pro-Palestinian activists were trying to run Israel's blockade of Gaza, the Irish government abandoned all pretense of its cherished "neutrality" to side with those who consider Israeli sovereignty and security a non-issue. Foreign Minister Micheál Martin was particularly strident in his demands that Israel cave in to the flotilla's blackmail.

That same government that was so smug in its condemnation of Israel last June is now at death's door, although their current troubles have nothing to do with foreign policy. The new government coming at the end of February will not mean change in Ireland's attitude to Israel, which it rates just below North Korea in rogue status.

I'd like to say that the government is out of step with the people on this matter, but I don't think they are. The usual protest groups and activists {Photo} are more strident, but probably reflecting a majority view. There is a great sympathy with the Palestinian people, which I can understand to a great extent. They have it very hard.

Yet the prevailing view - among the people, the media and the government - of 'Israelis bad, Palestinians good' is too simplistic and far from accurate. The Israelis would dearly love to live in peace with all their neighbors. Israel would like peace, trust, cooperation and trade with all the neighbors.

Yet some of those neighbors are still hell bent on seeing Israel destroyed. Many Palestinians would like to see Israel destroyed. Yet in Ireland there seems to be almost no understanding of the Israelis' predicament, their fears and their demand that they be treated as every other UN member state is treated.

For the Irish, unfortunately, being the Palestinians' best friend is more important than taking seriously the rights of a fellow small member of the United Nations.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

New Yorkers take snow personally

I see that the Northeast of America is getting some more wintry weather. The latest forecast has upgraded the coming storm, but it won't, apparently, be anything like the storm that dumped a couple of feet of snow just after Christmas.

I happened to arrive the day after that storm. As my flight landed at Newark Airport the plows were still clearing some of the 20" or so that fell the day before. It was a complete contrast to what we'd seen in Ireland before Christmas where snow-showers of an inch or two closed the airport for long stretches.

I don't want to be too critical of the Irish airport and roads authorities. They're simply not used to snow and there was an awful lot by normal standards (basically zero).

Still, despite the fact I knew the roads would be fine, it was impressive to see the massive snowbanks along the NJ Turnpike and other roads I traveled that day. The roads were completely dry and black. In Ireland it seemed like each half an inch of snow would still be there plaguing drivers days after it fell.

Still, it wasn't all plain sailing in the area and New York City in particular was still a mess when I arrived there 5 days later. People were annoyed. Actually, they were angry.

Kind of made me laugh because, as my wife said, people were taking the snow personally. It was as if the snow's presence was a personal affront. I know there were streets in the outer boroughs that were still unplowed days later, but that wasn't the case in the Manhattan neighborhood where I staying.

These people were mad, at the snow, but at the city too. They were mad because there were huge piles of snow along the parked cars and sidewalks. Just made me laugh because, well, what did they expect the city to do? It takes a long time for a 3½ft snow-bank to melt when the temperature is hovering around freezing.

All I could think about is how the people of Dublin would have loved those problems during our snowy weeks. Some of our roads were almost impassable days after 4 inches of snow fell and the walking on the sidewalks was literally like walking on a skating rink.

Yet, despite some understandable frustration, very few here got anywhere near as upset as what I heard in New York. People just weren't experienced enough to realize they should take it personally and be angry at the snow.

Friday, January 21, 2011

St. Patrick's Day can't be lost to Irish government's election focus

Chaos and turmoil are two of the words used regularly to describe the Irish government the past few days. Muppets* is getting a lot of use too. Following a weekend of upset after an unsuccessful internal party move against the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Brian Cowen, six cabinet ministers resigned triggering a new crisis.

Cowen tried to replace them, but his coalition partners wouldn't wear that one and forced Cowen to back down and name the date for the general election. Finally. March 11 is the date on everyone's calendar here, the day when the people of Ireland can throw off the yoke of the failures we saddled ourselves with back in 2007.

There is only one problem with this date: it's only a few days before St. Patrick's Day.

As I wrote last year, St. Patrick's Day is a unique opportunity for Ireland. No other country so small can can make such a big splash on an annual basis. Traditionally the President of the United States sets aside some of his time to entertain the Taoiseach of the day and accept a bowl of shamrocks.

It's all photo op stuff, but behind all that is a chance for Irish politicians and others to meet their American counterparts. It's not just Washington either. All over America St. Patrick's celebrations are an opportunity for Irish political and business leaders to make the case for closer links between Ireland and America and to emphasize the business opportunities open to those who are willing to invest here.

It's not just America, either. The chance to schmooze and do a bit of business because it's St. Patrick's Day is now a global phenomenon: Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand - of course, but also China, Russia and many other places now include some official recognition of St. Patrick's Day.

As I said, this is unique to Ireland and it's vital that the election not interfere with this. A spurned invite this year may well result in no invite next year.

Yet there's every chance that our elected officials will blow this because they will be single-mindedly pursuing election. By mid-February the politicians' will be under constant media pressure and out canvassing around the clock. It would be easy to forget about important matters that arise after the election.

Therefore this has to be sorted now.

The first thing that has to happen is that the Taoiseach has to announce that President McAleese will be the one to travel to Washington should an invite from the White House be received. She is the only figure of stature who will not be distracted by the election. She is the only one who can definitely plan on being in Washington now.

However, the other engagements across America - and across the globe - have to be sorted now, before the election really heats up. The government has to work with those who will probably be replacing them to come up with a plan that is in the nation's interest. Party affiliation hardly matters at a time like this.

For the good of the country, the Taoiseach and other party leaders need to figure out how they're going to handle St. Patrick's Day. It's a day of celebration and fun, but of serious importance to Ireland. Too important to be ignored this year just because the election is the week before.
* Muppets is slang for morons, basically.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

JFK's inauguration was revolutionary in Ireland

John F. Kennedy was sworn in as President 50 years ago today. It was 50 years ago today that the Irish in America and in Ireland celebrated one of their own taking the oath of the most powerful position in the most powerful country on Earth. They celebrated the fact that Catholicism and roots in the severe poverty of Ireland's past were no longer a bar to the most powerful positions in American society.

Kennedy's election wasn't revolutionary so much as evolutionary. Irish Catholics had been steadily rising from their lowly, poor, hungry position as immigrants in America following the famine of the 1840s. By the 1950s there were many leading Irish-American politicians, businessmen, war heroes and generals, actors and so on.

In other words, Irish Catholics had achieved great success and the Presidency was just the last remaining prize to be won. With hindsight it's clear that by the 1950s Irish-America was too successful, too interwoven into American society to be denied that aspiration.

The Presidency was almost inevitable, even though for many older Irish-Americans Kennedy's inauguration was something they thought they would never see. I doubt younger Irish-Americans felt so distant from the American mainstream that they thought the Presidency was off-limits to them.

In Ireland, Kennedy's inauguration was revolutionary. Shocking. It had more impact on the people of Ireland than on Irish-Americans.

Although Irish-Americans were achieving great things in the 1950s, Ireland was still a poor and insular country. A large percentage of the population was still subsistence farming. Television was almost non-existent. Even electricity wasn't yet universal. The post-war boom had passed Ireland by.

Then on January 20, 1961 one of Ireland's sons, a 'cousin' of theirs, was sworn in as President of the United States. It's almost as if at that moment, Kennedy accepting the duties of the Presidency, a veil was removed from Irish people's eyes and a weight was lifted from their shoulders. A whole nation suddenly stood upright and saw clearly that anything was possible.

Two years later when Kennedy visited Ireland in June of 1963 the reception was rapturous. People lined the streets to cheer him. It was as if Kennedy were all four Beatles wrapped up in one man and everyone in Ireland was a teenage fan. Kennedy was living proof of what they could achieve.

Six months later Kennedy was dead. Yet, Kennedy's death didn't signal the end of Ireland's new found self-belief. Instead the country enjoyed economic success and for the first time imagined that people wouldn't have to leave Ireland to find opportunities elsewhere. The 60s were the first truly successful post-independence years in Ireland.

It has been a roller-coaster ride since then with great boom times and shockingly hard times, as we have now. These hard times are not, however, due to a lack of self-belief or a sense that Ireland will always be a poor country as was the case before 1960. No, despite today's great hardships and upheaval, Irish people know full well what they're capable of. JFK demonstrated that to them in 1961.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Carbon taxes driving Irish car owners off the road

You can keep your climate change bill and all the extra costs associated with it. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know. The climate's changing and it's a calamity. Well, count me as a skeptic.

I'm not really a climate change skeptic, but I am a skeptic that it will be a calamity. I'm skeptical that getting rid of cars, planes, cows, washing machines, etc. is actually going to be for our betterment.

The climate has always changed. People adapt. That's what we - the human race - have always done.

Back when Newgrange was built in County Meath - 5,000 years ago - Ireland was warmer than it is today. The average Irish person today is pretty fair-skinned, but if we have to endure summer temperatures in the 80s as 'we' did when Newgrange was built, we'll adapt. Same goes if we get colder winters.

I'm a lot more worried about the price of gasoline (petrol) in Ireland today than I am about what the climate will be 2111. You want to say I'm selfish or stupid, I don't care. I'll adapt to your hot temper or cold stare too.

As you know, gas prices have been climbing steadily. I was in America for a 12 days after Christmas. I paid around $3.25 per gallon in upstate New York, which is by no means cheap. However, it doesn't come close to the price we're paying for gas here in Ireland.

At the current exchange rate a gallon of gas here is around $7.25 (€1.44/l). That's up from around $4.93 per gallon (€0.98/l) on this date two years ago.

Obviously, a big chunk of that increase is due to the huge rise in oil prices over that period. However, in Ireland only about a third of the price of a gallon of gas is accounted for by the price of oil. The rest is tax, and the taxes the Irish government levies on gasoline have also been rising steadily.

Over the past 18 months the government has added 18c in tax to the price of each liter of gasoline. That's nearly an extra $1 per gallon in taxes. There would be uproar in America if the government imposed such a tax on a gallon of gas at a time of skyrocketing oil prices.

Here, however, drivers have simply taken it because we're all aware that the government is bankrupt and taxes are rapidly being raised to try to close the budget gap. Nobody's happy about it, but we're grumbling and putting up with it.

That doesn't apply to the government's proposed climate change bill, however. This is a pet project of the government's minority party, the Greens. Not only is the government going to propose meeting the EU's ridiculous carbon emissions targets, but thanks to the Green Party's influence we're going to have the tightest emissions goals in the EU. We'll go far beyond what the EU demands of us!

You don't have to be a genius to work out that this is going to mean more tax on gas. A lot more tax. Money taken out of the pockets of Irish drivers to provide essentially zero benefit to anyone in Ireland. It should never happen - especially in the current climate.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Turn Ireland's foghorns back on

I am frequently out of step with the modern times, but I suspect I'm in a majority of people living on this small island who regret the decision of the Commissioners of Irish Lights to discontinue using foghorns.

The Commissioners say foghorns are no longer necessary as those who ply the seas today have ample electronic equipment to help them navigate; foghorns are no longer necessary.

I can't argue that point because I don't captain a freighter nor even a small sailboat. In fact I never go out to sea at all. {Although there are some who do sail the waters around Ireland who are opposed to the silencing of the foghorns.}

I say rational argument and new technologies be damned. I want the foghorns turned back on.

I love the sound of a foghorn on a murky Irish day. Do I need to hear it? No, of course not, but that sound is one of the things I enjoy about living near the sea. It's a wonderful sound on a day when vision is limited and everything seems so still. Sentimentality demands that the foghorns be turned back on.

I can accept that the foghorns may no longer be needed as a navigational aid, but does that mean they should be turned off? The foghorn was a way for us on land to call out to those who are at sea; a warning that they should take care.

Okay maybe they don't need to hear from us any longer, but that doesn't mean we should stop calling. I'd wager that sailors would still appreciate hearing from us, hearing the foghorn, even if some mechanical voice is telling them, "In two nautical miles, turn to starboard."