Thursday 31 July 2008

Tomaltach ar Saoire: Tomaltach takes a break

Well, Tomaltach is set to head off on holiers with Bean Thomaltaigh agus Mac Thomaltaigh tomorrow!

It feels likes an age since I've had a real holiday, but it's only been two years. Last holiday was a lovely trip around Andalucia in 2006. Last year my annual leave was used for a very different purpose - to take time off for the birth of our son, Mac Thomaltaigh. That was a wonderful experience, but doesn't count as a holiday I'm afraid. I've had a couple of trips abroad since - but they were with work and again, not exactly a holiday.

So I'm really looking forward to our little trip dans la Vendée. I find the sense of excitement and expectation of heading on holiday is a huge part of its value! I'm genuinely excited about setting off tomorrow - though in funny way, since I don't particularly enjoy air travel (who does these days). But still the sense of voyage - even if this one is modest in scope - is always a bit of a thrill. In some ways I hope I don't get more of an adventure than I'd like - this of course is our first time travelling with Mac Thomaltaigh.

And so this week was our first time to pack for going away with a young child. Oh how life has changed. First, no more last minute packing. Worse, no more 'carrying light'. No matter how you compress it, you need bottles and a few toys and lots of clothes and a million bits and pieces. Then there's the push chair. I reckon it at least doubles the load - and almost the cost! But such are the joys!

So while on previous holidays we always liked to travel around, explore and area, do some trekking, check out some monuments, explore the nooks and off-beaten tracks of cities, this time it'll be a more settled affair. A rened house and stay put - perhaps we'll take a couple of 1/2 day trips to look around.

Ok, a change, but I'm kind of looking forward to it. I've packed a couple of books and might buy a few french books while there. And there should be ample time to sit back and read at our leisure. If the weather is bad (and the Vendée is changeable enough) - the book can be washed down with a beer, or if its hot, a nice rosé. And hopefully we'll manage to dine out a few times.

Here's the master plan: for the first week we will be accompanied by my wife's brother and law, his wife, and their one year old. For the second week, my parents arrive. The extra hands should give everyone a chance to break away a bit and do what they like, and I hope that includes a couple of fine meals and a bottle or two of the good stuff.

Cheap mé ar dtús go dtiocfadh liom mo chuid francaise a chleachtadh, ach sílim go mbeidh cuid mhaith béarlóirí thart faoin trá agus faoin tsráidbhaile. Mar sin féin, is cinnte go mbeidh orainn roinnt mhaith rudaí a shocrú agus mar sin de. Is breá liomsa an teanga sin a labhairt mar bhí sí ar bharr mo theanga agam nuair a bhí cónaí orm sa Fhrainc. Tagann meirg ar do chumas labhartha i dteanga nach labhrann tú go minic. Is annamh a fhaighim seans é sin a dhéanamh ar na laetha seo.

An rud is tábhachtaí ar saoire - dó scíth a ligint. Le go nglanfaidh tú imní an tsaoil amach as d'intinn ar fad. Bíonn deis agat macnamh a dhéanamh ar do shaol féin agus breathnú ar an chaoi a bhfuil cúrsaí ag titim amach. Tá súil as Dia agam go n-éireoidh liom na rudaí fíorthábhachtacha seo a dhéanamh.

Rud eile - is deas an rud é roinnt mhaith ama a chaitheamh i gcuideachta do chlainne agus do mhuintire gan aon bhrú ama a bheith ort nó brú intinne. Is iontach an chaoi a gcuireann an obair isteach ar shaol an duine. Cuireann an obair sriain ar do shaol ar fad, agus cuireann sin isteach ort ar an iliomad bealaí. Is deas agus is pleisiúrtha briseadh ón tsriain sin anois agus arís.

Sin a bhfuil, beidh mé ar ais is dócha faoi cheann coicíse nó mar sin.

Friday 25 July 2008

The Right to Whip and be Whipped

I was delighted that Formula One boss, Max Mosley, won his case against the News of the World who paid one of his prostitutes to secretly film one of their orgies. The paper ran the headline "F1 boss has sick Nazi orgy with 5 hookers". Mosley sued the paper for invasion of privacy. The paper argued the exposé was in the public interest.

Mosley had hired 5 prostitutes for a sadomasochistic orgy. But the court found there was no evidence for the allegation of Nazi undertones. More importantly it ruled that the public interest was not served by this severe invasion of the man's private life.

The reason I'm delighted is that this is a slap in the face to the cheap, sordid, kiss and tell sleaze that has become the stock in trade of British tabloids.

I watched John Snow interview a legal guy from the News of the World. The guy from the paper was seething at this judgement. It was just so beautitful and satisfying to see him frothing at the mouth. He kept on repeating that the public ought to know about Mosley's "Dark Secret Vice". Really? Snow asked that, since the court found that there were no Nazi overtones, why should the public know about this mans sex life? Again, the answer was, when it comes to the "rich, the influential, or the powerful" we ought to know if they have a "Dark Secret Vice". Well, snow asked, if we ought to know about the sex life of the rich and influential, should we know what the editor of the News of the World gets up to? Pause. Or it's senior legals? Pause, and then "the editor perhaps, but not me" (Ooops, I hope that hooker last night wasn't filming). You could hear the scratches from the bottom of the barrel.

The News of the World guy went on then to complain about the curtailment of freedom of speech creeping into Britain from Strasbourg. He was referring to the protection of privacy which is enshrined in the European convention on Human rights, which Britain signed in 1998. The convention doesn't provide an absolute right to privacy, but, basically, specifies that privacy should be protected unless there are genuine public interest concerns.

Let's be clear: freedom of speech is vital, and the function of the press in investigating matters of public interest is essential to democracy. But the interesting thing here is that the British court looked at the various provisions, took into account the European convention and made a judgement that is both fair and sensible. And the court explicitly stated that it believes its ruling will not curb the power of the press to conduct its work in matters of genuine public interest.

All said, a sound ruling. And just so great to see the vile, despicable, and debased rubbish that is the British tabloid, getting what it deserves: a whipping.

Friday 18 July 2008

No to Lisbon .. or something

I just took a brief look at the eurobarometer surveys taken after the referenda on the constitutional Treaty in France, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Spain. The first thing I noticed was the difference between their reasons for voting No and the reasons Ireland voted down Lisbon. The top reasons in the Irish case, according to the eurobarometer, were:

Ireland ( No 54 % / Yes 46%)
1. Not enough info
2. Protect Irish Identity
3. Protect Neutrality
4. Do not trust our politicians
5. Retain commissioner
6. Protect our low tax

For France (No 54% / Yes 46% )
1.Economic situation in France / Jobs / Relocation
2.High unemployment in France
3.Economically, the text is too liberal
4.Opposes the President and Parliament of France
5.Not social enough

For Luxembourg (Yes 56.5% / No 43.5%)
1.Employment / Relocation
2.Economic situation in Luxembourg
3.Not social enough
4.Goes too far too quickly
5.I oppose Turkish entry
6.Too complex
7.lack of info

I added 5 and 6 here because the percentages of respondants who mentioned these remained high, at 17% for both.

Netherlands ( No 61.6% / Yes 38.4% )
1.Lack of information
2.Loss of sovereignty
3.Opposes national government and parties
4.EU too expensive
5.I am against integration

Spain ( Yes 77% / No 23% )
Unfortunately the eurobarometer on Spain didn't give the reasons for voting No.

One thing that stands out is the predominance of economic issues in the French and Luxembourg results. Obviously the backdrop there was critical. The social / liberal issue came up in both of these countries as well. The social option wasn't presented to Irish voters, though there was an 'other' option and it was hit in 14% of all No responses. However, it is to be presumed that the drafters of the poll listed the 15 or so issues that were to the fore in the campaign. The Irish results stands out too for the importance of the lack of information. These polls are only a snapshot and of course other surveys with different methodology produce a different take. Nevertheless, it is safe to say that economic issues were highly important in France and the Luxembourg while they weren't in Ireland. The Commissioner issue became big in our campaign and it gets a mention - though both this and the tax were each only mentioned in 6% of responses. Commissioner aside, institutional issues don't feature that much anywhere.

You can go through as many permutations as you like, but the main reason I checked was to see if there was any commonality between the Irish No and the others. More specifically, I wondered if the other No voters were raising similar concerns to the Irish voters. And basically, the answer is no. The only real commonality I see is between the Irish and the Dutch case - where the top reason was lack of information. This was also significant in the spanish campaign in the sense that the low turnout (42%) was mainly due to lack of information.

The fact that economics was behind the French and Luxembourg votes too was interesting. Certainly in the French case their economic malaise was very hard to pin on the EU. Much of their problems are home grown.

Clearly there is a huge communication gap. The workings of the EU and its contribution to the plus and minus side in each country are poorly communicated and as a consequence poorly understood. True, bridging this gap won't be easy, but the issue needs to be addressed.

Incidentally the eurobarometer survey summary after Nice I had this to say about knowledge of the EU amoung Irish people :

"an index of knowledge of the European Union and its institutions shows a rather sorry
picture - 63 per cent score zero, 25 per cent score 1, 10 per cent score 2 and a mere 2
per cent score 3"

I wonder how much that is change!

Certainly, it is very hard to have a debate about changes to EU institutions and policies if you don't know much about them to begin with.

Wednesday 16 July 2008

Aid in Africa

Kevin Myres has written another article which has caused a bit of stir. This time on Africa. Myres laments that aid to Africa has only allowed its population of miserables to multiply and propped up several vile regimes in the process. The Indo letters page was bombarded. Then in today’s Irish Times Bryan Mukandi from Zimbabwe expresses his shock and horror at what Myers had written.

The reaction on the Indo letters page to Myres’ piece tells us two things. First, people still care about Africa. And second, many share Mr. Myres frustration and despair.

Given the overall record in Sub-saharan Africa since the withdrawal of the colonial powers between the 50s and the 80s, it is understandable that many people have given up hope. People in rich countries can feel betrayed too, when a country they have supported and was making progress is suddenly swept back to square one by another coup d’état. Sometimes it all seems so futile.

Yet I find it disheartening that the debate on Africa has taken on a kind of fatalism. Ah, sure it’s the Dark Continent, a basket case. This attitude misses the fact that Africa is huge and varied and that some parts are making progress while others are not. Last month, for example, a World Bank report found than democracy in Botswana continues to mature and that its political leaders have led it from being one of the poorest in Africa at independence to being at the top end of middle income countries now. Botswana proves that Africa is not condemned to deplorable governance and endless misery.

We often hear about African countries closing ranks. Sadly that is often the case. But nuances are emerging. For example, Kenya’s prime minister Raila Odinga recently spoke out against Mugabe, but there too internal political games might well be at play. The reality behind this is complex. The African experience of Western colonialism – which was so recent and brutal – has shaped a particular world view. Whether we like it or not, the world looks very different to African leaders. There is a fundamental ideological spit which prevents any real dialogue from taking place. Having said that, it seems undeniable that a gradual willingness on the part of moderate African leaders to crticise brutal regimes would be a vital step forward for the continent.

Aid too is a complex issue and it appears that many economists doubt its long term value in terms of development. That said, in a situation of crisis, such as war, famine or epidemc, aid is nothing less than essential and those who would deny it for some ideological position do not possess a human heart. The other point about aid is that nowadays no-one is under the illusion that aid alone can bring Africa’s worst performers, or nations elsewhere for that matter, to where they need to be. In tandem with aid other measures are required – a consistent and agenda free diplomatic approach, strict management and oversight of aid programs, close co-operation with local initiatives on the ground, fairer international trade regimes, and perhaps, in worst case scenarios military intervention. Unfortunately these latter components are often missing or applied for the wrong reasons in the wrong way.

Before we explode in anger at Myers’ uncompromising and seemingly heartless words, we need to appreciate that his piece comes from the pen of seasoned polemicist. He has honed his arsenal – and when he fires the results can be devastating. But his job is not to educate or enlighten – merely to provoke. In that he succeeds brilliantly. I welcome his opening of the debate on Africa, though it’s unfortunate that Irish media remain silent on Africa until a controversial shot is fired. It would be a regrettable side effect of Myer’s piece if some readers swallowed his arguments to re-inforce their own prejudices. But that is the price of freedom of expression. In any case, this is an eddy of a breath of a puff, and doubtless the Irish media will let the subject of Afica drop as suddenly as it picked it up.

I digress, and I’d like to return to a few points in the article. Mr. Myres inadvertantly raises a crucial point. He pointed out that Japan, China, Poland, Germany, and others suffered horrendous catastophes, yet they found their way back to the path towards progress and prosperity. True, but here is the nub: these countries have a history and culture which is better adjusted to the requirements of a functioning, central government geared for progress. No system is a guarantee against calamity, but the absence of certain values and norms invite leaders to view the apparatus of state as a set of tools for personal advancement. This is a controversial view – and I would emphasise that my point about Africa having an unfortunate starting point is historico-cultural not racial. That should not need to be said, but unfortunately it does. Africa’s horrific experience of colonialism and its own cultural baggage left it poorly equiped to deal with the nightmare of the modernity it faced. Not only that, but it wasn’t even left alone to sort things out – the Cold war first, and a form of neo-colonial meddling now is anything but helpful. Darfur is one case, so too are the seeds of the ugly and shameful genocide in Rwanda. At home in the west so to speak, we are obsessed about the harsh effects of globalisation – farmers marching about WTO deals, credit crunch flowing across the face of the financial world like dominoes, outsourcing, offshoring and so on. Globalisation is harsh and volatile even for rich, robust democracies. Imagine how it is effecting the weakest players who are so poorly equiped to deal with it and who have little power in the global institutions to make any difference and where their interests are often bulldozen by those of the West.

Again to Myers’ comparison. China’s presence on the list signals that even where progress and prosperity are possible, democracy doesn’t necessarily follow. Africa teaches a similar lesson as the ongoing adventure in Iraq: nation building and democracy are not some kind of default settings that kick in when all else is cleared away. Like vulnerable seeds in the perpetually volatile soil of human nature, they require patience and constant care. When they wither, the only response is to replant, and replant again if necessary. And democracy is that peculiarly delicate plant that can only be grown and not transplanted.

If we work with Africans to help them build functioning societies and if we fail, they cannot walk away, and neither should we. We just replant, and try harder next time.

Tuesday 15 July 2008

We keep our Commissioner and Revote

The following is my translation of an article in today's Le Monde about proposals to get another Irish referendum. It is quite interesting in the kind of manoevering it reveals and also there is an interesting little comment at the end about the way the commission is evolving into something less than desireable. The article was written by Arnaud Leparmentier

The reform of the European Commission is to be sacrificed on the altar of the Irish No to the Lisbon Treaty. It’s the likely direction for Europe, as Nicolas Sarkozy, incumbent president of the EU, meets the Irish prime minister, Brian Cowen in Dublin on Monday the 21st July.

For some weeks now, the experts have been seeking an avenue to secure and Irish revote after the No on the 12th June. The aim is to modify the text, without legal implications, to assure the Irish that their vote has been taken into account: it is out of the question to start the negotiations on a new treaty from scratch and to restart the ratification process in 27 other (sic) countries.

By careful rereading the legal experts have found a single avenue: the commission, even if it wasn’t central to the referendum campaign. As the No camp pointed out, the Irish will lose, like everyone else, their automatic right to appoint a commissioner in Brussels. The Nice Treaty, currently in effect, provides for a reduction of the number of commissioners once the total number reaches 27. That applies from 2009.

The Lisbon Treaty, however, offers an escape route: the reduction is postponed until 2014. Moreover, the treaty provides that the commission be composed of a number equal to two thirds the number of member states in the EU “unless the European Council unanimously agrees to modify this number

The latter provides the margin for manoevre: the 27 can decide that the Commission will continue to be composed of one commissioner per country. The Irish will have the choice to make: it’s Lisbon and keep the Commissioner, or Nice will apply.

The Commission is Overcrowded

The No camp have always indicated they would oppose this kind of concession. To make the package more attractive, it is envisaged to issue a new declaration of the European Council which will restate the guarantees already given to Ireland in the entirety of the treaties: assurance that the EU will not be inolved in abortion, given in Maastricht in 1991; a guarantee of Irish neutrality, re-iterated as it happens after the first Irish No in 2001 to the treaty of Nice; a guarantee that fiscal matters will remain under unanimity.

These proposals could be debated at the Council in October and adopted in December. The Irish could therefore run another referendum, on the same day as the European elections in 2009 at the latest.

The Commission would be weakened by this compromise. It has now become overcrowded, especially since the commission president, José Manuel Barroso, has made “legislate less”* his motto. The commissioners have reduced responsibility, sometimes of a derisory nature, and less than those of the directors general over whom they have authority.

These measures, combined with the centralised management of Mr. Barroso, have eroded the special nature of the commission: the collegial character of its decisions. Gradually the commission is becoming a secretariat of the European Council of ministers, beset by haggling among nations instead of seeking a European optimum.

* Barroso adopted the theme "Légiférer moins pour légiférer mieux (Legislate less to legislate better)"

Wednesday 2 July 2008

Emergency Care in Ireland - a Sham and a Disgrace

Last night I had the misfortune of having to go to an A&E room in a Dublin children's hospital. Happily my 10 month old wasn't terribly ill - but an out-of-hours GP had recommended that he be seen by a pediatrician. "Go to Tallaght" the GP advised "you should be seen fairly quickly. Crumlin is straight from Dante's inferno, and entering Temple street is like arriving on the Western Front". Ok, we thought, let's give Tallaght a try. We agreed in the car on the way over that we would sign in, take our chances and if the queue seemed impossibly long, we'd simply leave, keep and eye on the young fella and reassess in the morning (thankfully in our case that was an option).

So we arrive at Tallaght Hospital and head to the adult A&E, which is the starting point for finding the Children's A&E nearby. In we go and ask directions."You need the children's A&E?" a security guard asked helpfully "just follow the steps on the floor". And sure enough there were little red (unhappy choice of colour in an A&E?) paw marks on the floor that led to the children's A&E.

We followed the red paws down a series of corridors through the adult section. That trip alone was enough to tell you all you need to know about the state of Irish emergency care. The entire network of corridors was lined with adult patients on trollys. Some of these patients were visibly distressed. You could tell that apart from privacy and facilities, these people were not getting what any sick patient requires: rest.

One man sat on his trolly looking into the distance. He had obviously gone on the emotional odyssey that a visit to an Irish A&E typically entails: you arrive in expectation which the atmosphere alone, together with he obvious chaos, grinds down to mere hope. Then you enter a chasm of uncertainy. The passage of time and the feeling of invisibility begin to lead to doubt. A few false dawns, sometimes in the form of pure lies, give despair. Another few non-productive interactions mixed with a sense of being ignored sends you in the direction of anger. The sheer absence of the notions of care and dignity compounds the anger. But a realisation that the staff are overburdened and working in a vast chaotic morass, soon defeats even anger. Resignation is next. That is where the man on the trolly was. He'd been through the cycle - we were just beginning.

So we sign in and wait for triage. A very pleasant but hurried nurse took basic readings and information. Then we joined the real queue. We were still in the hope stage. The queue didn't seem that long - perhaps a dozen patients. But when three quarters of an hour elapsed without a single patient being called, hope began to evaporate. We were asked for a urine sample from the wee man. (Not easy from a 10 month old - the timing always seems wrong!) Eventually he obliged!

Half hour later we were asked for a second sample. They needed two. Great. This time it was harder. But finally, we get a good cupful! Maith an gasúr!

By this stage the young man is not only unwell, but very very tired, and also overexcited by the other children and the general husstle busstle. Frustration is setting in all round. But here is the key. I asked if there was a list or if the staff could tell me if the young man was anywhere near being seen. Good news. Only two patients before him.

Sadly another long cranky hour passed before two more patients were seen. But at last our chance was imminent. Then hang on! Another patient is called, then another. Oh no. Here we go. I approached and asked again about our status. I was assured we were next. But then another patient and another are seen. Anger is setting in. Not anger that we are not being prioritised: anger that we are being fucked around.

Why is there not a modicum of concern for distressed patients? Not a shred of honesty? Not even a hint of treating people professionally and with dignity? Why no automatic communication? Where have all these basics gone among the hideous, mess that is A&E here? These questions well up in anger time and again as you get fobbed off and lied to or just ignored.

I make a final attempt - citing politely how our curious progress on this list is hard to understand. But if there was an explanation, none was given. Just an interuption "Child's name". I answer. Ok, his chart "seems to" have been taken by a doctor. You'll be called soon. We wait again. Nothing happens. More patients called. I wonder if the chart exists. Another paitent is called. We grab our coats and head off: resignation.

But my heart went out to those who could not leave, yet had to suffer in this shameful, appalling, and chillingly inhumane system. It's a sham and a disgrace. And this is what's on offer after a decade and a half of abundance. It seems this is as good as it gets. We're heading into to cuts now. Sad. Terribly sad.

Tuesday 1 July 2008

What will McKenna say about Polish No?

If Ireland took the most democratic route to ratification, arguably Poland did the opposite. The parliament elected by the people voted to ratify the Lisbon Treaty. But ratification could not procede because a single person was against it - their President. The President says he won't sign because the Irish voted No. That cannot be true - there is nothing in Lisbon which says that the ratification process should stop if a single voice says No. Instead the text simply says that if after a certain period of time only four fifths of the states have ratified then there is a Council meeting to discuss etc. True, ratification cannot be completed without assent form all. But that is not the same as saying ratification should stop. And the precedent is that if the thing has enough momentum ratification should continue (Maastricht, Nice) after rejection and then discuss how to procede in a way acceptable to all.

So Patricia McKenna bemoaned that we were the only people asked to voice directly. A broad based demoractic mandate was required for the Treaty. So she must be horrified that a single person in Poland can decide. I'm sure she will say as much and say that the Polish outcome should be ignored because of the thinness of the democratic mandate.

Worse still, unlike the Irish broad based rejection for a variety of reasons, it is clear that President Kaczynski is playing politics with the future of the Union. His party has been suffering and his twin lost power in Parliament. He is now playing to the eurosceptic gallery of his conservative party. This kind of opportunism is a huge reason in favour of abolishing the notion of veto at the heart of the Union. There are genuine reasons why unanity should be preserved - but the Polish antics are a strong reason against. The Irish No is legimate at least. (Despite the issues with campaigns being influenced by misleading information or being skewed by money - these are factors in any democracy and of course we should strive to eliminate them).

I am looking forward to hearing the main voices in the No camp on this issue.