Is Sinn Fein's Abstention Policy Dying?

Maybe it's because Gerry Adams has had some recent personal setbacks along with his party's electoral hopes, but the call for the voice of the Provos to end their parliamentary abstention is growing louder. The new leader of the SDLP, Margaret Ritchie, has openly suggested to the republicans that it might be time for elected Sinn Fein representatives in the House of Commons to start actively representing their constituents instead of playing hard to get.

In recent years, the Sinn Fein political party has spent roughly a million euros annually renting living quarters and related expenses in London. But they do not sit, their voices are not heard in parliamentary debate, and they offer little or no help to the John Hume's old party holding up the Irish nationalist cause in London. Why the expensive London digs?

Now it seems that uncomfortable facts are surfacing suggesting that in party leader Adams's case the good people of West Belfast, Adams's constituency, have likely been disadvantaged by his absence from the parliamentary political wars. In March the Northern Ireland Statistics & Research Agency (NISRI), a Unionist-bred government agency but usually fact-driven, cited studies the institute had done showing that in a listing of 100 of the most deprived communities in the North, the first four were areas represented (or not) by Adams in parliament. The gap between the better-off, better-served communities and the people represented by Adams in West Belfast (Whiterock 2, Whiterock 3, Falls 2 and Falls 3), along with number 6 Shankill, was enormous the study stated.

It's all good and fair enough that Adams and his parliamentary colleagues try to build their party politically and promote the cause of Irish unity, but surely Sinn Fein can continue those campaigns while joining the floor debates in Commons and the essential internal, back-office politicking to try to upgrade the lot of their working class constituents. Time for change, it says here.

Ireland's Two Economic Big Hitters - The top two exports of the island of Ireland -and among the world's most popular - are Baileys from the Republic and Bushmills in the North. Taken together the two premier Irish-branded products are cash cows, producing lush revenue streams for the island. And while many Irish exports have had their wings clipped during the present global recession, both Baileys and Bushmills are doing famously, thank you.

Another popular icon of branded Ireland known and enjoyed everywhere from its birthplace at Shannon Airport to Singapore, San Francisco, and Boston, is Joe Sheridan's creation, the ubiquitous Irish Coffee. Sheridan, who began his career in the hospitality business in Foynes, Co. Limerick, before settling into Shannon, is credited with first concocting the famed cocktail in 1942 to warm up a rain-chilled customer at the airport bar.

But all is not serene with Shannon's famed drink. The Clare County Council has tabled a motion criticizing the Shannon management for its sloppy Irish Coffees and requesting that staff become better trained in mixing the cocktail. The Shannon management confirmed that it had taken note of the Clare Council's complaints and the matter "had been addressed." The ultimate test, of course, will be the thirsty tourist sipping his hot Gaelic brew while waiting for his Aer Lingus flight home to depart.

Cowen Confident On Obama OK To Ireland - Taoiseach Brian Cowen, who is currently up to his neck in his country's recession era debt and slumping poll figures for his Fianna Fail party, had one piece of good news to report to the shaken faithful. President Obama is not going to punish Ireland or push for tax reforms there on US multinationals, Cowen said recently.

As noted in this space earlier, Ireland, with its minimal corporate tax rate of 12.5 percent, a third of the US corporate levy, has attracted a number of large companies (Microsoft, Google, and many Big Pharma firms) that have parked profits in low-tax Ireland and effectively shielded those substantial revenues from the Internal Revenue Service at home. The president has revved up a campaign to tighten tax rules that would shelter less of those overseas profits but apparently, or so says Cowen, Ireland is not on a list of target countries.

Ireland has been consistent in emphasizing to the US government and Congress that there is substantial cross-investment between Irish-owned companies in the US. There are a reported 227 Irish companies operating in the United States employing more than 80,000 employees in 2,600 locations here. For the immediate future, it seems, the status quo rules.

Did You Know ... that there are 65 islands off the Irish coastline that have been inhabited for the past 50 years? Of those there are 35 islands that have fairly sizable populations and they are mainly off the coasts of Galway, Mayo, Cork, Kerry, and Donegal. The three biggest populations are on Achill with 2,620 people, Gorumna, 1,015, and Aran, 543.

Brian McGrory Exercises His Chops - No more Mister Nice Guy for the Boston Globe's recently re-installed metro columnist, Brian McGrory. In an April 16 column McGrory took Boston College to the woodshed for a number of things, from its humble beginnings to boosterism, but chiefly for not ponying up some LIEU dollars (it's like taxes for non-profits) for Tom Menino's cash-strapped Boston.

I like and admire BC and believe - LIEU payments aside for now - that two of its many community-enriching activities are among the very best on offer from Beantown's university elite. We can all be proud that unlike many athletically successful schools, BC has a performance record of graduating (not using and discarding degree-less) its athletes of all shades and races. Sadly, not so common a practice for most big school sports programs, but continuing at BC long after Doug's miraculous pass to Gerard Phalen.

Secondly, the widely acclaimed Boston College Irish Studies program reflects the fact that the maroon and gold have not forgotten where their students came from or what the school's multi-mission agenda should be with regard to the community. BC is widely recognized as a national leader in Irish related studies and boasts one of the richest array of courses and instructors ranging from Irish music to history, art and culture, and a Burns Library that has quietly amassed under Bob O'Neill one of the world's finest Irish collections of rare books and manuscripts to backstop its innovative programs connecting the best of Ireland and Boston.

I think Brian was simply having a bad traffic day and that, like most true-believing Irish Catholics, he loves the school on the Heights and is simply trying to balance his personal books. Yes, objective reporting!  Go on, Brian, tell ‘em that you didn't mean it.

Hung Elections And Shining moments - The pundits in Britain are predicting that the May 6 British election could well be a hung event with neither of the two main traditional parties, Labour or Conservatives, headed respectively by Prime Minister Gordon Brown and  David Cameron, winning a majority. The flies in the ointment are a relatively fresh face, Nick Clegg, and his "Big Mo" Liberal Democrats. Going into the final ten days after two widely watched debates, the three men and their parties are within a few polling percentage points of each other. The prospect of a hung election, of course, rouses the fantasy-filled daydreams of the Members of Parliament from Northern Ireland, eighteen in number out of a total House membership of 650. Aside from the slim possibility that Reg Empey and his Ulster Unionists might grab a seat, most MPs from the North are up for grabs ideologically and not strictly copper-fastened to any of the three British parties in contention.

So on May 6 or a few days after that, we could see one or more of the main party leaders shuttling over to Belfast in search of a nod or a wink from one or more of the province's electoral elite. It's the stuff of dreams.

UFOs And Ancient History - The facts are bullet-proof. County Derry and the grand old walled city of Derry have reported seeing more unidentified flying objects (UFOs) than any other area in Ireland north or south. Why is that? Inquiring minds want to know. Well, Betty Meyler, president of the UFO Society of Ireland, a 32-county sky watchdog, claims that it's all a matter of energy levels derived from megalithic sites around Derry.

In the past two months, the Derry Journal newspaper has been flooded with tales of strange phenomena across the northwest and Ms. Meyler says that places like the ancient burial fort at Grianan or other recently discovered Derry sites may hold the answer as the main attraction reaching out to celestial objects in the skies. Who knows? UFO capital Roswell, New Mexico, may have to share its laurels with the city on the Foyle.

Bad Times, Bad Law - When times are tough, jobs are scarce, and problems surface with a different look and sometimes scant credentials, the outcome is often bad law. And that is exactly what we are seeing in Arizona with the new law intended to crack down hard on the immigrant-crowded southwestern state.

The main problem with the new law that was signed by a governor facing a tight reelection bid is that it places every Hispanic in Arizona, documented or otherwise, in a special, quasi-criminal profile category and makes a hash of their civil rights. A stiff price to pay for "walking while Brown" as HBO's Bill Maher describes the new state law.

That's the human rights aspect of the new legislation, but there are also practical elements that strongly mitigate against this discriminatory measure. The Inspector General of Homeland Security is highly critical of the law, painting it as "a portrait of a motley posse of deputies who don't know Spanish," and, "who don't care about the dangers of racial profiling." [as quoted in the NY Times]. A leading police association and Boston's own Bill Bratton have argued strenuously that the Arizona law "undermines public safety." Some Irish may think of the new Arizona law as from an alien world far beyond their realm, but next it could be accents, or unusual attire, or just a telltale brogue. In any event, we are all one and that's the simple truth.

Bertie The Needy - Former Taoiseach, and for a brief end game still a paid, sitting TD in the Irish parliament, Bertie Ahern has once again stupefied both his detractors and supporters. His accomplishment: He has become the first person in modern Irish history who has sought and been granted an "artists tax exemption" for a ghost-written autobiography. Seriously.

As many know, Ireland encourages the creative accomplishments of writers, artists, composers, playwrights, et al, by forgiving certain taxes (up to roughly $300,000) for income derived from such artistic work. It not only rewards struggling Irish artists but also has, over the years, attracted many top flight creative people to live or settle in Ireland.

That unusual and richly undeserved gift that Bertie asked for and got from a pliant state arts assembly group, however, is, unsurprisingly not the only self-enrichment program that Bold Bertie has enrolled in. Former taoiseachs, much beloved by their former Leinster House allies, are each provided with a lifetime chauffeur-driven car. Bertie's Mercedes S350 and driver cost the struggling Irish exchequer $235,000 last year. His was the biggest bill of all the former Irish leaders but it is understandable because Bertie, God love him, needed the car and driver for travel to promote his autobiography. And who amongst us would deny him?

Summertime Tourist Tips - After what all agree was a fierce winter in Ireland, a cousin in Kerry tells me that the temps were balmy and early summer looks to be making up for the grim months just finished there. Here are several things to look for while on the island of Ireland, which even the cautiously slow-footed, mellowing Orange Order now consider -and rightfully so - an All-Ireland tourist spot:

Limerick has had its share of woes but it is a proud old city, full of history and a robust citizenry. On May 13 Limerick City will unveil a bronze bust in the city centre honoring one of its most celebrated sons, the Pulitzer Prize winning author Frank McCourt, who died last July.

McCourt's bust will join another world-famous Limerick native, the actor Richard Harris, who is remembered with a life-size statue there. The sculptor of the McCourt bust is Seamus Connolly of West Clare. Connolly also created a life-size statue of John B. Keane, the poet of the people, which salutes visitors in Keane's native Listowel in Kerry.

When in Dublin this summer be sure to avail of one of the capital city's more interesting bus tours. This one, which opened in early April, will run all summer; it shuttles back and forth between a Croke Park stadium tour (site of the All-Ireland finals) and then on to Glasnevin Museum, where all the late greats reside. The tours to and from these venerable landmarks leave daily from Dublin City Centre on Tuesdays through Saturdays. A rare opportunity to combine tour visits in a single jaunt to two truly memorable venues.

Belfast this summer will feature for the first time a mode of transportation familiar to most Bostonians -Duck Tours. People have been talking about getting the amphibious ducks that can operate on land and water into Belfast and other Irish cities, especially in areas where adjacent waterways can take full advantage of the Duck's unique capabilities. And Belfast will lead the way. Belfast is a historic and colorful city and its urban waterways, including the River Lagan, provide a fresh approach to view the North's sometimes underrated capital city.

News Media Role - Quote from the highly respected international religious periodical, "The Tablet," on the Media and the Catholic Church: "Two other things need to be acknowledged. The first is that while ecclesiastical and even civil authorities refused at first to listen to what the victims of sexual abuse had to say, the only people to give them a hearing were in the media. If the voice of the victims seems unduly amplified now - and it is by no means easy to say how much volume is too much -- this is some compensation for the silence that reigned before. The second point is that the Nolan inquiry would never have happened without investigative journalism, initially on the part of the BBC. It opposed the grave mistakes made by Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor ... which he quickly admitted with deep regret. He did not blame the press, or claim a media conspiracy, and he eventually emerged with his reputation restored."


Guinness is test marketing in 400 Northern Irish bars a new brew called Guinness Black Lager. Early returns suggest it tastes great but cost is a bit dear at US $4.60 a bottle. ... Greece is in terrible shape financially but Ireland's debt dwarfs its Euro neighbor, yet Ireland, because of strong remedial measures, will not have to go to the European Union and the IMF to bail out. ... Mass. Treasurer Tim Cahill (ambition is his middle name) is finding some rugged going as he was 0 for 2 in saying that Mass. Health plan "was nearly bankrupting" the state (untrue) and his description of the two party system as "broken." (Equally untrue). ... Kathryn Bigelow won an Oscar for directing the hit movie, "The Hurt Locker," and a decade or more ago Galway Druid Theatre's Garry Hynes won a Tony Award for directing "Beauty Queen of Leenane."  Both were the first women ever to win those prestigious directing honors. ... Howie Carr was suspended from his radio show for biting the hand that feeds him, namely bad mouthing his own WRKO. Howie the Destructive, in an April 7 broadcast, said, "No one of course expects Barack Obama to really know anything. We understand, all too well, exactly how he got through Columbia and Harvard Law. He had certain ... intangibles, shall we say." (Ugh!) ... Finally, a tip of the hat to the Eire Society of Boston's Gold Medal winner, our own Ed Forry. A dream of a publisher for a writer, I can attest, and a friend to cherish. Slante'