Friday, October 28, 2011

Elected: Michael D Higgins - Ireland's most anti-American President

Ireland's 9th president -
Michael D Higgins
Today Ireland elected Michael D Higgins as president. Higgins, who lived and worked in America 40 years ago, is the most anti-American president Ireland has ever had.

As an American living in Ireland it has been clear to me that since the early 1980s Higgins has been among the most outspoken opponents of American policy in Ireland. He's been at the forefront of organized protests and rallies directed at America for 30 years.

In the 1980s it was President Reagan that riled Higgins. During Reagan's short visit in June 1984 Higgins was a keen participant in the protests against Reagan at Shannon Airport, in Galway and then outside the Dáil (parliament) in Dublin when Reagan was speaking there.

During the 90s Higgins was opposed to the Gulf War and  opposed various aspects of America's defense policies during the Clinton years.

Flash-forward to the Bush years. In the run-up to the Iraq war, Higgins was with the majority of Irish people in opposing the war, but he went further than most here when he declared that the American military was going to "wage war on a civilian population." Visions of American war crimes came easily to him. When the fighting started he denounced the Irish government's policy on allowing American troop planes to land and refuel at Shannon.

While he hasn't been a fan of a number of America's presidents, he has allied himself with some of America's enemies. He has been an admirer of Fidel Castro's regime in Cuba, cited Castro favorably in the Dáil and simultaneously demanded that America lift its embargo on trade with Cuba.

He also courted Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega. Higgins was also a supporter of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua and in 1989 he hosted Nicaragua's Sandinista President Daniel Ortega in his own home. In early 2003 he visited Iraq in order to get the Baathist perspective before the war had begun. In 2004 he took part in a candlelight vigil to mourn the death of Yasser Arafat.

Before you worry that Ireland has gone off the deep end with Higgins, there are a few caveats: (1) a majority of people were totally dissatisfied with options on offer during the election and Higgins' win was more a rejection of the others and an embrace of him and his views; (2) Higgins only polled around a third of the electorate, but gained a majority on transfers from the other candidates; and (3) the position he's won is mostly ceremonial with no influence on policy.
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The last factor should mean that if Higgins does his job properly we'll hardly notice that he's in office during the next seven years. Higgins' is entitled to his views, which are to the left of the Irish population, but as President he's not in a position to make or even influence policy so his views shouldn't matter.

Yet, over the past 20 years Presidents Robinson and McAleese have managed to expand the role of the office beyond what was ever imagined when the constitution was first passed in 1937. One of the new roles of the President is leading trade and cultural delegations on trips abroad. Mary McAleese has made many such visits to different parts of America, where she never put a foot wrong.

Will Higgins be able to follow suit? I'm doubtful.

If Higgins were to go on a visit to America he would have to temper his reactions to those who hold opposing views to his. I'm not sure he can do this.

Last year Higgins turned the air blue during what had been a robust, but good-natured live radio debate between himself and Boston talk show host Michael Graham. The discussion ranged over a number of topics and Higgins got more and more wound up. Eventually he went off on Graham, urging him to support a national health care initiative for America and to "be proud to be a decent American rather than just a w****r". Whatever you may think of Graham's views they are not outside the American mainstream and Higgins couldn't cope with them.

The government would do well to take heed of Higgins' contempt for some aspects of the American people. An explosion like the one at Graham during a trade mission might cause the kind of upset that would drive potential jobs away from Ireland. In addition, his views on Israel might cause consternation in other quarters.

Overall, it would probably be a good thing if the next seven years did not include any Irish presidential visit to America.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Americans, like the Irish, should have to provide photo ID to vote

Irish election officials checking voters' registration details

When considering American politics, Irish people almost universally side with the Democrats over the Republicans. However, when it comes to the requirements for actually voting in an election, the Irish demand the sort of proof of identity that would make America's Republicans envious.

Irish people are voting today for a new President. Anyone intending to vote must (a) be on the register, (b) bring the Polling Information Card mailed to them and (c) bring an additional form of photo ID with them.

Registration involves filling in a form and submitting that to the local election officials. Annually someone from that office comes to the door to make sure that the register matches what they find at each household. (This is not tricky. It consists of "Is this you?" and "Does this other person live here?"}

Anyone properly registered will receive a Polling Information Card in the weeks before a vote. A voter must bring that card with him to the polling station along with a photo ID - driver's license, passport, student card,  etc. In some cases bank statements and birth certificates can be used.
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I've never heard anyone complain that these requirements are too steep a hill to climb for any voters. So, what exactly is the problem with implementing similar measures for American elections?

Yet, across America people object when a photo ID is required for voting. That there is little evidence of voter fraud doesn't mean a thing. Until you actually demand that a voter verify they are who they say they are how do you know they're not committing a fraud?

If voter fraud is a non-issue what's the concern with demanding ID? Last time I was home in New York I was asked for proof of age when I wanted to buy a bottle of wine. I was told it was mandatory. I thought it was a little strange because it was the first time I was asked for ID in over 20 years. That's all it was, though. Strange. Nothing more. Not even inconvenient.

It's not just buying alcohol either. These days you're always asked to provide photo ID. Want to enter your workplace, you're likely to be asked to produce a photo ID card. You want to cash a check? Photo ID. You want to buy an Amtrak ticket? Photo ID.

It seems so minor an imposition that the only conclusion I can come to is that those who oppose it do so because they know it's a bigger problem than they're letting on. Get over it. Photo ID for voting should be mandatory.

{Photo from UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office.}

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Smearing Sean Gallagher has propelled him towards Irish presidency

Presidential contender Sean Gallagher
Sean Gallagher has risen from the bottom to favorite to become Ireland's next president when the country goes to the polls on Thursday. A few weeks ago he was so far out of it that some in the media were wondering why he didn't just pack it in. He was a 'no-hoper.'

So what happened?

A couple of the other candidates self-destructed, but in early October Labour's Michael D Higgins seemed to have an insurmountable lead. He hasn't really put a foot wrong since.

So what happened?

A month ago Gallagher was virtually unknown. He had made something of a name for himself on a television program, but politically he was unheard of. There have been many debates - I've lost count - in the interim, but nobody could argue that Gallagher's performances have been so astoundingly good that they're the reason he's gone from last to first. If anything, the more Gallagher appears on television the more 'iffy' his prospects seem.

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So what happened!?

He got 'smeared' that's what happened. The media and the opposition parties went to town on him for ... wait for it ... having been associated with the Fianna Fáil party.

Fianna Fáil, if you don't know, dominated Irish politics from the early 30s until this year's election. In February's election Fianna Fáil got 17% of the vote, easily their worst ever performance. In fact, I don't think Fianna Fáil will ever recover. For a real measure of how damaged the Fianna Fáil brand is watch the results from the by-election also being held on Thursday.

The party may be finished, but that doesn't mean that the 40% of the population that voted for them necessarily believes that anyone who was associated with the party in the past is so damaged that they cannot be President of Ireland.

That's what makes this attack campaign so ridiculous. It's one thing to denounce those who were in charge, who were ultimately responsible for bringing the nation down, but it's another to lump in everyone else who ever touched the party.

Now those people have their backs up and whereas early in the campaign they may not have known who Sean Gallagher was, now they know: "He's one of us and they say we're not fit to be president."

This sort of thing happens regularly in Ireland. You'd think the media and the political elitists would learn. When "one of us" is attacked it doesn't matter what they say about him/her, "we vote for our own."

The dumbest thing the political elitists and the media - and they are almost all entirely in the tank for the Labour candidate - did was to point out to the average Fianna Fáil person that Gallagher was "one of us." When he gets the keys to the Presidential Palace - Áras an Uachtaráin - on Friday he should thank the sneering elitists for all their help.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Unforgettable - a year studying in Ireland

Sitting in front of one 
of Trinity's libraries
I've been enjoying reading Irish Central's new Gaelic Girls series because I love their enthusiasm, their lack of cynicism and their wonder at all the things that are different and surprising and exciting for an American student coming to Ireland to study. I know what it's like because I did it myself (shhh) 25 years ago.

I'd been to Ireland before so it wasn't the scenery or old buildings that struck me, although they still did, but simple everyday things about life here, student life in particular.

Just as the Gaelic Girls I sampled the student "nightlife." I'd come from New York and we never went out before 11, but here all the pubs closed at 11. I quickly got used to the fact that students in Dublin went out a lot earlier than they did in New York.

If you want to any sort of function, a dance - "disco" - or a party in a function room or whatever, the night always ended with Frank Sinatra's New York, New York followed by the national anthem. Why? I don't know, but Frank was the cue to pack up, find your jacket or whatever and get ready to go. Then the lights would come on and the anthem would start and everyone would stand still. Many would sing. I always found that odd, but I liked it too. I have no idea if they still do that here now.

I lived in "flatland" in Dublin, which owed its name not to the topography, but to the prevalence of flats rented by 'impoverished students.' These flats were, without fail, dirty, dark, damp, and drafty. The flats were far worse than the student accommodation I'd experienced in the Bronx, but I was now a student in Dublin and I adapted.

I shared a flat with another American student. It was two rooms, but it was very small. The bedroom was an extension added to the house, built out of cardboard I suspect.

Our heater looked like this,
only less safe

The flat was unheated other than a small electric bar heater we had. It could only heat one of the two rooms. One night I was studying late and had the heater. It was ice cold outside and basically the same in the bedroom. When I went in I noticed my friend was curled up in his bed in a strange position. I was afraid he was dead or dying. I decided to wake him to make sure he was all right and noticed that he was sleeping with his toes in his hands. How we laughed about that one.

My flatmate and I "went native" in order to save money. We learned to eat cheese and cole slaw sandwiches - often. We rented a TV. Who knew such things were possible? £2 per week. We later learned that we were supposed to have a license if we had a TV, but our ignorance was rewarded because no one ever came looking for the license we never bought.
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In order to get electricity we had to put 50 pence coins into the meter in our flat. Of course it always ran out at the worst possible moment.

Although we did go native somewhat, we didn't fully embrace Irish student traditions. For example, my flatmate and I showered daily. Most of the Irish guys we knew tried to keep that to a minimum. There were a couple of guys on our basketball team who eschewed the shower even after playing.

Yes, I played on Trinity College's basketball team. Heck, I was a starter, which was a shock because, believe me, when God made me he did not have basketball in mind. I was slight and not what you'd call tall and I was no great shakes at the game. In college in New York I played intramural basketball - B League. Didn't matter in Ireland, however, the B League intramural standard was good enough to start on Trinity's top team. Basketball was very much a minor sport here then.

I also had no internet, of course. I used to write and receive letters. What a concept, huh? I couldn't get American news or sports results for days, which was a real tribulation for me, although in an emergency I could get the scores from Sportsphone in New York (212-976-1313). It was free, too, thanks to the fact that Irish payphones didn't require payment until you wanted to speak.

Even 25 years from now the Gaelic Girls will remember their year studying in Ireland. They'll have all sorts of memories of the sights and sounds of their year here. Smells too and not just the unwashed 20-year-olds. Even today after living here for so many years when I smell a coal fire - a rarity these days - or I get a whiff of Guinness's I remember back to that year. It's like everything's new again.

The Gaelic Girls are just starting out on a great year.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

America's Irish immigrants - not Irish enough to be President of Ireland

Irish Presidential candidate
Dana Rosemary Scallon
Irish Presidential candidate Dana Rosemary Scallon found herself at the center of a controversy she clearly never anticipated when she decided to put her name forward for Ireland's top job. Although it was couched in a variety of ways, the accusation essentially was that Scallon was an American.

It's true too. She is. Scallon became an American citizen during the 1990s. The Irish Times said she'd become American in 1997 before her last bid to become President of Ireland. Scallon said it was 1999 and it seems to probably be the case as the source for the Irish Times' story has rowed back somewhat on her testimony.

As the story unfolded on Friday I got more and more annoyed as Scallon's American citizenship took on the aura of a social disease. Twitter and talk radio were ablaze with people indignant that this woman who had taken out American citizenship should want to be President of Ireland.

It is vaguely amusing because the Irish Constitution doesn't actually disallow an Irish citizen from the Presidency simply because they happen to also be a citizen of another country. You may well think that's a bit lax, but the Irish Constitution was "written"* by American-born Eamon De Valera. He somehow failed to exclude himself from any governmental role, including President when the Constitution was being drafted.

So, there is no restriction on an American citizen becoming President of Ireland.

Fortunately the matter of the Oath of Allegiance provided an out for those who prefer their political assassinations to be less obviously based on bigotry. The Irish Times got the ball rolling by "helpfully" reproducing the oath Scallon had to take when she became American. They pontificated on the fact that she had declared that she does "entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty ..." when she became a citizen.

That's true too. She said those words, or some form of them, when she became an American citizen. However, Ireland, like the United Kingdom and other countries, doesn't accept the renunciation in the American oath. She retained all rights of citizenship after taking the oath that she had before she did so. There is absolutely no legal impediment to her becoming President of Ireland.
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There is nothing legally preventing Scallon from becoming President, but the Irish Times and others are keen to prevent someone of that type from becoming President. What type is that? Irish immigrants to America.

Niall O'Dowd ran into the same bigoted nonsense earlier this year when he was only exploring a possible run for the Presidency.

And, yes I am convinced it really is only Irish immigrants to America who would be targeted in this way. If one of the candidates had spent years living in France, speaking French and living as an immigrant in France we'd be told over and over how great it would be to have such a sophisticate in the post. If the person had lived in Indonesia, we'd hear about how the candidate could help us renew our ties to the third world.

However, if you go to America and live as immigrants to America live you're told you are no longer Irish. Not really. You're sort of tainted Irish. Good enough for us to woo if you're successful in business or to invite to a "homecoming," but don't for one minute think you're still one of us.

One thing O'Dowd got right that Scallon got wrong was that he didn't apologize or run away from his decision to become an American. Millions have made the same journey over the past two centuries and to give into this bigotry would have been an insult to all those who went to America, many because they were driven there by poverty and political ineptitude, but who nonetheless remained proud to be Irish and passed that pride down to their American born children, grandchildren and so on.

Scallon, unfortunately, said she "would have no problem giving up my US citizenship if that was the wish of the Irish people." How craven.

She should have spit in their eye and told them that she was proud to have become an American and saw no conflict between being an American citizen and serving as President of Ireland. She could have just said she would abstain from participating in the American political process while serving as President. That would have been fine.

The President of Ireland has limited constitutional responsibilities. The role of the President these days is one of national cheerleader and promoter. An American, whether an immigrant from Ireland or of Irish descent, would be a great idea. It would demonstrate that all this talk about harnessing the diaspora's potential isn't just guff or a cash call. Even in a losing effort Scallon could have been that candidate, but instead she chose to accept the Irish Times' denigration of America's Irish immigrants.

* The Constitution is often said to have been "written by Dev," but in fact he closely oversaw the drafting process.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

In Cork Steve Jobs found the perfect match for Apple

Parking lot at Apple's Irish HQ
Apple in Cork since 1981
The death of Steve Jobs reminds me of a thought I had not that long ago, that is it's so appropriate that Apple is based in Cork and Microsoft is in Dublin. Jobs chose well when he chose Cork.

Apple first set up shop in Cork back in 1981. I don't know what the locals thought at the time, but I've more than once detected a hint of pride in Cork people that Apple's European base is in Cork. As well as being one of the largest employers in the area, the people of Cork seem to feel that Apple's stylish image reflects well on them. They're 'Apple people.'

I'm not. I have never bought an Apple product. In fact, I've only had minimal contact with Apple products since I left the Apple IIe behind in high school. I guess you could say that I don't really get the whole Apple thing.

I never owned or even held an iPhone. I hate iTunes. My daughters' iPods? I prefer my MP3 player. My wife's iPad? It's nice and all, but I prefer my netbook. Those MacBooks? Well, I've never owned one or even really tried one. Always too costly. Microsoft Windows and Dell are more my speed. Clunky, probably more unreliable, but I can always get them going again when something goes wrong.

Of course 'Apple people' don't agree with me. 'Apple people' love their MacBooks, their iPods, their iPhones and the whole Apple thing, which of course, included Steve Jobs.
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'Apple people' are devoted to Apple. They've got something of a chip on their shoulder. They also like to think they're a bit different. They're rebellious. Just like Cork people.

Cork, the Rebel County, inspires a similar loyalty and devotion. They also share that mindset of being a breed apart.

And just as Apple had Microsoft to aim at, to direct their ire at, so Cork has Dublin. It's all too fitting that Microsoft chose Dublin for its European headquarters. Perfect symmetry.

Far less loyalty and devotion among Dubliners for their home city/county. For many it's simply the most practical choice of home. Nothing to get excited about.

Similarly with 'Microsoft people.' They don't profess any loyalty or love for Microsoft, but it's functional and it's cheap so they stick with it.

That's me. Perhaps if I'd opted for Cork rather than Dublin when I first came to Ireland I'd be one of the 'Apple people' - an iPhone-iPad-MacBook-owning man, firmly committed to good design and stylish looks. I'd probably dress better too.

{Photo from}

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Israel gets no love from Ireland

Irish Presidential candidate David Norris can count himself lucky that letters he wrote seeking clemency for his lover, who was convicted of statutory rape, were to an Israeli court and members of the Israeli government. If he'd written such letters to just about any other country the Irish media would be full of worry about electing a President who had attempted to meddle in the legal system of a 'friendly nation.'

Fortunately for Norris, very few people in Ireland consider Israel a 'friendly nation.' In fact, Israel may well be the least loved nation among people here, and that includes the "auld enemy." It's a perspective I have trouble understanding.

Okay, sure, yes, I understand: the Irish love 'the underdog' and to many Irish people observing the Middle East the Palestinians are 'the underdog.' Israel is the nasty bully. Even if you buy that argument, and I don't, it's not the only conflict situation like it.

The Kurds? The Chechens? Barely a whisper here. Dagestan? Nagorno-Karabakh? What? Where? Who? Exactly.

Yet each of those situations is similar in terms of cultural conflict and distance from Ireland. What is it about Israel that Irish people find so repellent?
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Last week the Minister for Foreign Affairs Eamon Gilmore declared Ireland's support for the Palestinians' bid for statehood. That statement put Ireland out in front of the European Union, which was supposed to be forging a common EU policy on the matter. Being out in front of the European Union was not new for Ireland however, as Ireland first officially declared support for a Palestinian state 30 years ago ahead of all the other members of what was then the EEC.

Irish support for the Palestinians is matched by the Irish state's willingness to irk Israel and the people's lack of sympathy for the Israeli people. So complete is that lack of sympathy that other nations' backing for Israel is generally perceived to be the result of actions by sinister forces.

People here love to talk about the Israeli lobby's power in America. The Irish media refers to this often and to the "importance of the Jewish vote." I'm not naive, I know the score, but no matter how you slice it the Jewish population is still less than 2% of the total population of America. I'm sure most Irish people assume that figure is closer to 20%, given how often they hear about the strength and importance of "the Jewish vote."

Last month, during a debate on Palestinian statehood, a member of the Seanad (Senate - upper house of Ireland's parliament) said that Minister for Justice Alan Shatter, the only Jewish member of Ireland's parliament, exercised "undue influence" over government policy. He then went on to declare, "The massive Jewish vote in the United States of America influences government policy and Obama is now a tool of the Israeli State."

Almost in the next breath Leyden said he hoped "the 40 million Irish Americans" would not forget President Obama's speech at the United Nations. So in one breath Leyden denigrates Jewish-Americans for influencing American policy and practically in the next breath calls on Irish-Americans to do exactly that, while demonstrating an incredible ignorance of Irish-America, Jewish-America, and ... America.

In most western countries Leyden's remarks would have gotten him into a whole lot of hot water, but there was barely a peep here. He was mildly rebuked later in the same debate, but others essentially supported him, with one talking about "power politics and domestic elections" to explain the Obama administration's actions.

Four days after that debate Senator Leyden got his wish when Eamon Gilmore stood at the dais in the hall of the United Nations General Assembly and - again - announced that Ireland wanted to see a Palestinian state. The Irish Times couldn't find a single Irish politician to dissent from the government's position, including Alan Shatter. His "undue influence" finally overcome, the last glimmer of official sympathy for Israel extinguished.