Tuesday, December 27, 2011

New Year's with Notre Dame football

Notre Dame plays in the
Champs Sports Bowl  on Thursday
By New Year's Day Notre Dame's season will be over. Again. Yet when I was growing up Notre Dame seasons didn't end until New Year's Day and that was at a time when New Year's Day was the last day on the college football calendar, unlike today when it seems to drag on through half of January.

Like all the best memories, mine are pretty vague. In my mind, Notre Dame played in one of the big four bowl games each year. Of course, it couldn't be the Rose Bowl, but ND played in one of the other three - the Cotton Bowl, Sugar Bowl or Orange Bowl - annually. And, again in my mind, although Notre Dame was never on top of the polls themselves, they were more often than not playing the Number 1 team in the country in the bowl game.

As I said, my happy memories are vague and I'm refusing to allow Google spoil them with facts. That's the trouble with the internet - stats and facts can ruin what you "know to be true."

My memories of New Year's Day with Notre Dame are also tied up in family memories, the kind that can't be ruined by Google, only by other family members with clearer memories. Some of my best memories from childhood are from Christmas time. In our house, not only did we look forward to a visit from Santa, but also from another old man - Father Edmund Murray or, as he was known to us, Father Ed.

Father Ed taught Irish History at Notre Dame. He loved that place and instilled that in each of us. He hoped we would go to college there and we did too, even if when we were young it was because we thought we would get to see even more of Father Ed.

On paper Father Ed would appear to be a distant relative - he was my grandmother's first cousin - but in reality he was like our grandfather and every year he would come to us to spend Christmas with us. For the four of us growing up Father Ed's arrival at Christmas was a very close second to Santa's in terms of excitement and anticipation.

Father Ed didn't lavish us with gifts, but we all had plenty of Notre Dame tee-shirts, sweatshirts and hats. He was a lively, jolly man who loved listening to us, telling us stories, playing cards with us or taking us out for ice creams or whatever. And he liked watching football, especially, of course, Notre Dame.

One game in particular stands out for me - the 1973 Sugar Bowl. The game was actually on New Year's Eve 1973 and not New Year's Day, but it was the biggest game of the year. Alabama was undefeated and Number 1 and Notre Dame was undefeated and Number 2.

My parents were out at a New Year's Eve dance and Father Ed was baby-sitting. I was the oldest in the family and Father Ed let me stay up to watch the game with him. I was only nine. I had never stayed up so late in my life. Although I have only vague memories of the game now, there are a few plays I can still see clearly - in black and white.

I remember being over the moon when Notre Dame had held on for a 24-23 victory. I can't remember anything Father Ed said the whole night, but I can still remember the loud clap of his hands each time Notre Dame scored or made a big play and especially when the game ended. In fact, I think he jumped out of his chair. I'm sure he'd have had more fun watching with a group of alumni or even my father, but he never let on and as far as I'm still concerned that's one of the best nights of my life.

A few weeks after that game a gold Notre Dame National Champions banner arrived at our house. That banner hung in my brother's and my bedroom for years afterwards.

Father Ed is a long time dead, but I still think about him a lot at this time of year. I still root for Notre Dame, although I rarely see them. I'm hoping I can watch the Champs Sports Bowl - whatever that is - this week, although it would be better if ND was playing on New Year's Day where they belong.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Ireland could use more snow magic this Christmas

Satellite picture of Ireland – Dec 2010
What a difference a year makes. Last year at this time most of Ireland was covered in snow and ice. The country slipped and skidded and shivered through the coldest December in half a century.

It was cold, but different. Kind of exciting. This December's been boringly normal.

So far all we've had is the usual chilly, damp and, especially, windy weather that is typical of an Irish winter. This despite the fact that during the fall we had dire warnings of a repeat – more frigid weather was going to make a mess of our airports, roads and sidewalks. Getting around was going to be a chore again come winter time.

The difference this year was that everyone was ready for another terrible blast of ice and snow.

Local governments drew up action plans and bought in enough sand and salt to see them through a winter worse than last. Hats and gloves were in every store, supermarkets and hardware stores were urging us all to get our bags of salt and snow shovels to be ready for the onslaught of another vicious winter. Toy stores were ready with loads of sleds, hoping to convince kids to trade up from the plastic trays and politicians' signs that made do as sleds last December.
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So far the salt, shovels and sleds have been mostly left in storage. There has been some snow in the north and for a couple of hours last week excited Irish tweets were describing 1cm (0.4”) of snow on the ground across a large chunk of the midlands, but the #sneachta (Irish/Gaelic for snow) tweets petered out as quickly as the snow did. It was a desperate attempt to rekindle some of last year's magic.

Snow made a mess of Dublin's roads
but it looked great.
That's the funny thing. The snow was magical. Yes it was disastrous economically - the constantly closed airport kept exports home and tourists away, the impassable roads kept people from getting to work or the stores to shop - but the snow had a magical effect on last Christmas.

As a lot of people found out when last year's snowy Christmas arrived, not being able to go anywhere actually made Christmas better, more relaxing. It's a sentiment I've heard a number of times the past few days. I suspect that there's more to it than just the bit about Christmas being more relaxing. A lot of people - adults as well as children - really liked the snow. Not just shirkers, happy to use the snow as an excuse not to turn up at work. The snow made for a nice change.

Ireland looked fantastic last December. The beauty of the snow-covered Irish landscape, urban as well as rural, relieved the gloom caused by the country's money problems.

Many Irish people would love to have the snow back this year, only with a functioning transport system and shoveled sidewalks so that old people wouldn't again be trapped at home for weeks. This December Ireland is dull and dark.

What last year's snow hid that this year's weather cannot is that far fewer people are lighting up their houses with colored lights and Santas and snowmen and the like. Too expensive to buy or light up, I suppose. Some town centers are going without Christmas lighting this year due to teh cost.

There are houses around us that used to be lit up like Times Square that are now pitch black. From some you can see the faint glow of a television coming through the blinds. From others not even that.

This was true last year too, but the assumption - hope is probably better - was that the cold and the ice stopped people decorating outside. Now it can't be denied - the dismal economy has made our Christmas darker. We could use some natural decoration.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Ireland's Prime Minister Enda Kenny – the wrong man at the wrong time

Enda Kenny addressing the nation
on December 4
The past ten days have shown that Ireland's Prime Minister is not really up to the job of leading the country through the current crisis.

Kenny might have been fine as Prime Minister, or Taoiseach, in less turbulent times, but unfortunately for him Ireland is being tossed about in a perfect storm of national economic calamity and tremendous uncertainty surrounding the European Union and the euro. Kenny gives the impression of having memorized his copy of "How to be Prime Minister for Dummies," but he's demonstrated no instinct for real leadership. He knows he needs to act Prime Ministerial, but does so at the wrong time and goes to ground when the country really needs to be reassured that it's being properly led.

Two weeks ago Kenny announced to great fanfare that he was going to address the nation, live on national television. Initially one of the two national networks balked at preempting their normal Sunday night programming – the X Factor – and announced instead that they would air Kenny's speech on Monday night. Pressure was brought to bear, however, and they agreed to show Kenny's speech on Sunday night, albeit on a delay of half an hour or so.

The news media were all of aflutter. After all it had been 30 years since the last such "State of the Nation" speech. What would he say?

We all knew Ireland is in dire straits economically and financially - was there something about this Kenny needed to address? We also knew the government was due to announce its budget for 2012 the following Monday and Tuesday – perhaps he was going to deliver a bombshell headline item from the budget?

And then there is the EU and the euro. By that weekend there were all sorts of rumors about what might happen with the euro and the EU and what might be the outcome of the crunch EU leaders' summit the following Friday. I convinced myself that Kenny was going to say something big on this topic.
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In the end Kenny said nothing. Nothing new, anyway. The speech was an utter flop. Kenny gave us was nothing more than a summary of what had been in every news bulletin and in every newspaper for weeks. The government 'must cut spending and raise taxes' was the gist of it and there's “uncertainty” surrounding the euro. Oh, and the economic disaster is "not your fault." Gee, thanks.

Fast forward a few days to the EU leaders' summit.

Everyone in Ireland knows the score. We all know that (a) Ireland is one of the smallest members of the EU and (b) our position is made even weaker by the fact we had to be bailed out. We're in a tough spot. We didn't expect Kenny to work any miracles in Brussels.

However the summit was a disaster for Ireland, although there was little Kenny or any Irish person could have done to stave off this disaster. The summit was a disaster because Ireland, as a eurozone nation, is compelled to join the EU's new fiscal union yet our primary trading partner, Britain, rejected the Franco-German deal and will not cede any fiscal controls. We'll be competing with Britain with one hand tied behind our back by the Germans and French. When it comes to EU affairs, Ireland is generally pretty tight with Britain, but Britain now stands at a great remove from the center of EU decision-making. We'll be largely on our own in the EU.

The summit was also a disaster for Ireland because (a) EU leaders didn't come up with a credible plan to end the uncertainty about the euro and (b) Ireland may have to impose a new financial transactions tax that could drive tens of thousands of jobs out of Ireland to Britain, which won't be imposing the tax. There's that competition thing again.

Things are very bad now, but thanks to last week's summit they could get a heckuva lot worse. If there was a moment when the nation needed to hear from Kenny this was it. He should have addressed the nation this past Sunday on what happened at the summit, what it all means for us and what he plans to do now.

Yet we've heard very little. On Friday evening we heard Kenny say that he had told the summit that we are going to "pay back every cent" of Ireland's massive bank debts - even though it's "not your fault" we owe all that money - and that he had "placed that firmly on the table" that we have gone through "exceptional difficulty" borrowing to pay back all those banks debts. That'll show 'em. He also said the Attorney General will determine whether we need a referendum on the EU deal, but even that we won't know for months.

He has said nothing to allay anyone's concerns or clarify what the government's position is with regards to all those financial services jobs that now may be at risk. He's insisted that Ireland's "economic security has been defended and protected," although there's no evidence that any of that is true - whatever it means - and he's offered nothing to back that up.

Ireland's situation is serious and it looks like it may get a lot worse. Thanks to the proposed fiscal union we won't have the flexibility to adopt the type of policies that worked during the late 80s and 90s to get Ireland out of the last recession.

Ireland needs its leaders, especially the Taoiseach, to rise to the occasion. Grandstanding and placing things "firmly on the table" is not going to cut it.

Kenny needs to show that he's out front on these matters. He needs to explain what we may have to accept and what we will not accept. He needs to lead.

Friday, December 9, 2011

France and Germany now calling the shots in Ireland

The EU's power brokers
Germany's Angela Merkel and France's Nicolas Sarkozy
They started yesterday and they're still talking in Brussels. Well, 26 European Union leaders are still talking because Britain's David Cameron sort of excused himself early this morning when he basically said, "out, out, out" to everything that was being discussed.

Of course, among the 26, two are doing nearly all the talking and each of the others is nodding vacantly or looking into their coffee cup wondering why they didn't take that university job they could have had.

Sure some of the others are less unhappy than others, but they all know they're being told to take it or leave it. That's how the European Union works. Nobody officially says that, but there's a reason why Germany's Angela Merkel and France's Nicolas Sarkozy had their own pre-summit summit earlier this week. They were hammering out what is to be done and now they're telling everyone else.

The answer to Europe's troubles, according to current rumors, is what they're calling a "fiscal compact," which is basically centralized control over each state's budgetary process. In short-hand this means each EU state remains a free country ... so long as they do exactly as the Germans and French want.
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And what of Ireland? Well, to coin a phrase, we are between a rock, a hard place and the deep blue sea. All options look extremely unfavorable. Right now it looks like we'll swallow hard, look back longingly at all those nice sentiments and the long, historical struggle for independence and say good-bye to all that. Almost certainly Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny will come home from Brussles and try to put a brave face on what is a surrender, even if it's a surrender to reality in the eyes of many people.

The other options include turning away from the rest of the EU and asking if Britain will take us under its wing. This might be preferable to a Franco-German domination, but Irish people are not ready to accept that.

The last option is to - as much as possible - go it alone. "Ourselves alone" (Sinn Féin) again. This option will have a lot of appeal to the more hard core nationalists and could even carry the day if we get a vote on the new deal. It would mean severe financial hardship. Yet, Irish people are pretty stubborn when someone tries to tell them what to do and if we have a referendum any attempt by the Germans or French to bully us into a 'Yes' could well back-fire. We may well spurn the money if the mood is determined enough.

Oh, but that's the other rumor: we won't be getting a referendum on this new treaty to amend the rules of the European Union. We have had referendums for every EU Treaty until now, but this time, when the issue is fundamentally about Ireland remaining an independent state or becoming part of a United States of Europe we may not have a say. It's a rumor coming from Brussels.

There's a lot of gallows humor and jokes about German rule here at the moment. Irish people excel in laughing in the face of utter disaster, which is where we are now. I've indulged in it myself, calling the proposed new treaty the Anschluss Treaty.

However, a lot of the anger being directed at the Germans is not fair either. They're owed a lot of money and they want it back. They have a culture of saving and not borrowing and they're an old and aging population. They're fearful.

All of which is understandable, but that doesn't mean it's necessarily the right move for Ireland to be part of this new revised EU, this United States of Europe. In fact, with the United Kingdom outside our life inside the EU - the new tighter euro in particular - might easily leave us with the same boom/bust existence we've had since the euro was born.

Our peculiar place inside the euro, but trading mostly to non-euro countries leaves us exactly where we were before all these changes. As of now we still owe far more than we can pay back. I've seen nothing that says in exchange for agreeing to this new treaty that the EU powers will write off our over-sized debts. Without a big pay-off in terms of debt forgiveness it seems we may have opted for the worst least option available to us.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Sophie Toscan du Plantier and Ian Bailey - Irish crime demands Irish justice

Sophie Toscan du Plantier
In December 1996 Sophie Toscan du Plantier was found murdered outside her County Cork holiday home, but thus far no one has been brought before an Irish court in connection with this crime. Although the gardaí (police) have a  'prime suspect' - Ian Bailey - so far they have been unable to produce enough evidence for the public prosecutor to charge him.

Now, however, there's a good chance he will be brought before a court only it won't be an Irish court but a French one. France has requested Bailey's extradition in order to prosecute him there. Next month Ireland's Supreme Court will hear Bailey's appeal against his extradition. If he loses he will stand trial in France for a murder committed in Ireland.

My detestation for the murderer, whether it's Bailey or someone else, and my sympathy for Toscan du Plantier's family does not change the fact that this is wrong, wrong, wrong.

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Toscan du Plantier's family have been tireless in their pursuit of justice for their wife/daughter/mother these past 15 years. During all this time they have also been graceful, but understandably their patience has been severely tested. They're very easy to root for in their campaign for justice.

Bailey has twice been arrested and questioned by the gardaí about Toscan du Plantier's murder, but he has never been charged. Last year he was arrested for a third time when the French extradition request was received.

At the time of the murder Bailey, originally from Manchester in England, was living in near Toscan du Plantier's holiday home and making a living as a freelance journalist. It wasn't long after the murder that a neighbor made a statement to the gardaí, which she later retracted, that she had seen Bailey in the area around Toscan du Plantier's house on the night of the murder.

I don't know any of the people associated with this case. I don't know the town or whether the locals believe Bailey is the killer or not. I don't even know anyone from that area.

I don't understand why there isn't more upset in Ireland at the prospect of Bailey's extradition to France. Maybe it's a reflection of the public's sympathy with Toscan du Plantier's family. Maybe it's because Bailey isn't all that likable? Maybe it's because he's English? (I don't believe that one.}

I don't know why, but there's no uproar about this.

What I do know is Toscan du Plantier's French citizenship is irrelevant. France's belief that it can investigate crimes against its citizens that happen outside France should also be irrelevant. There is no suggestion that Toscan du Plantier was targeted because she was French. There is not even a hint of any international consipracy behind the crime. This is not France's call.

If I were found murdered outside my home I would not expect the American government to involve itself in the search for justice unless I was killed by al Qaeda or killed as part of some international criminal conspiracy or killed just for being American. Even at that, I wouldn't expect any trial to take place outside Ireland, unless my murder was part of some conspiracy born in America.

Legally (but not culturally) France and Ireland are more tightly connected through the EU than are Ireland and the United States, but that doesn't alter the fact that France has no role in this case. If a Californian woman was killed in New Jersey and the chief suspect was from Connecticut, he would not be extradited to California to stand trial.

As the years pass the chances of any Irish court hearing a case connected with Toscan du Plantier's murder grow more and more remote. Toscan du Plantier's family is frustrated. They want someone brought before a court, tried and convicted. I'm sure they're frustrated with the way our legal system works and they could easily be of the opinion that the gardaí are not very good at policing.

And they might be right. This case does seem to be an indictment of Ireland's policing and judicial systems. If it is, then we have to fix those problems and not paper over them by exporting our most high-profile failures. How many other victims are not getting the justice they deserve and will never get because they're not French?

There is no justification for extraditing Bailey to France to face French justice. Toscan du Plantier's murder was an Irish crime. It demands Irish justice.

{Photograph from Cork-Guide.ie}