Thursday, May 24, 2007

Todays National Elections in Ireland

Republican Politics, Irish Style
Published May 24th 2007 in Metro Eireann By Charles Laffiteau

So what is my perspective on Ireland’s political parties? Well to begin with, they are all to the philosophical left of both the Democratic and Republican Parties in the US. I have heard the comparisons some people make between the centrist Fianna Fail (FF) / pro-business Progressive Democrats (PD) coalition and the decidedly pro-business US Republican Party.
While there is some validity to these, the truth is Bertie Ahern’s governing coalition would be lucky to capture 5 seats in the Dail if they ever tried to run on anything resembling the conservative US Republican Party‘s conservative platform here in Ireland. The secret to the US Republican Party’s success since 1980 has been its ability to recruit traditionally Democratic working class voters to join its pro-business base of middle to upper income professionals and social conservative voters.
In contrast with US Republicans, I believe much of FF’s success in past elections has been due to the reverse, its ability to attract more conservative middle and upper income suburban voters to cast ballots for its candidates. Much like the current US Republican Party, I sense that FF/PD’s strength now lies with business interests and constituencies outside of more urban Dublin, with older, and more conservative middle to upper income voters in the rural and suburban areas of the country, in addition to its traditional constituency of working class voters.
This is a different constituency than that of the centrist Fine Gael (FG) / left-leaning Labour Party (LP) coalition, which I believe is more popular with students and workers in Dublin and Leinster as well as among farmers hurt by global economic market forces. I can also more readily envision the leftist Green Party joining in a coalition with the FG/LPs if need be, because they draw their support from somewhat similar constituencies in Dublin and other areas of Ireland.
What I find amazing about Irish politics though, is the fact that leftist Sinn Fein (SF) supporters are more in favour of being in a coalition with Fianna Fail than with the more leftist oriented opposition alternative FG/LP coalition. I guess this is because SF supporters are primarily lower income voters drawn from FF/PD’s traditional working class constituency.
But I have noticed that SF advocates social welfare policies similar to the now defunct Socialist Workers Party in the US. I also sense some support among some FF/PD voters for this coalition possibility as well. But I ask myself, what leftist SF supporters really have in common with the majority of centrist FF/PD voters? I don’t get it. All I can say is coalition politics sure do make for some strange bedfellows
In a recent TV interview, I was asked if I could foresee Sinn Fein becoming a part of a coalition government here in the Republic of Ireland. I said I thought they could under certain conditions. To begin with, I think SF would have to obtain more seats in the Dail by getting more 2nd, 3rd and 4th preference votes, but even then I don't see them being a factor in any coalition government until they first demonstrate that they can be an effective part of a government in Northern Ireland.
I also said that if economic conditions were worse than they currently are here in the Republic, then their social(ist) programs might find a broader appeal among voters. This would increase the number of seats they might win in a national election and give them more leverage to use when the time comes for SF to be considered as part of a future coalition government. But I think that time is still at least another election or two away because of SF’s past links to 40 years of IRA violence
As for which coalition will come out on top in this election, I see very little difference between the positions of both coalitions. Their messages are pretty much the same; cut taxes like stamp duties for first time home buyers, improve Ireland’s transportation infrastructure, cut crime with more Gardai and do a better job of addressing the country’s heath care and hospital concerns.
However, I do think the recent drop in house prices favours the FF/PDs. People tend to vote their pocketbooks in national elections and in times of rising economic uncertainty they will vote for the devil they know, instead of the devil they don’t. Bertie’s work on the Northern Ireland peace agreements is also a point in his favour
But the ruling coalition faces the same dilemma that incumbent parties in the US face. Since World War II, the presidency generally has switched from one party to the other every two terms: eight years of Democrat Harry Truman followed by eight years of Republican Dwight Eisenhower followed by eight years of Democrats John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, and so on.
The exceptions were Jimmy Carter's failure to win re-election in 1980 and the senior George Bush's success in holding the White House for a third straight Republican term in 1988. But Bush won primarily by capitalizing on Reagan's popularity and Democrat Michael Dukakis’ mistakes.
So Bertie Ahern is also bucking history, in much the same way the US Republican Party’s 2008 presidential nominee will be, in his bid for an unprecedented third term as Ireland’s Prime Minister
If FG/LP can make Bertie’s “personal loans” and failure to deliver promised government services in a cost effective way, bigger issues than they currently appear to be, then I would say that Ireland will have its closest election in many years and that there will be a new governing coalition come May 25th when the results are announced tomorrow.
Otherwise, I think you will probably wake up tomorrow morning facing another 5 years of the same governing FF/PD coalition, albeit one with fewer seats in the Dail and maybe even another coalition partner as well.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Republican Politics Irish Style

Republican Politics, Irish Style
Published May 17th in Metro Eireann By Charles Laffiteau

In my first very first column for Metro Eireann, I said that while I was here in Dublin “I hope to familiarise myself with the political landscape of Ireland.” Having lived here in Dublin, Ireland since last September, now that it is Election Day in the Republic of Ireland I guess it’s time for me to share an American Republican’s perspective on Irish politics.
But before I discuss Ireland’s political parties and my views about their electoral prospects, I want to weigh in with some opinions on the mechanics of the voting process itself. For starters, I think it is much more difficult to exercise your right to vote here in Ireland than it is back in the States.
What gives with this Irish voting procedure that only gives you 2 days to cast absentee ballots? US citizens, within and outside the US can cast absentee ballots by mail for 30 days prior to Election Day, which for all national elections every 2 years is on the first Tuesday following the first Monday in November.
For reasons of both convenience and cost, the vast majority of state elections are also held that same day in conjunction with the national elections for Congress and (every four years) for the US Presidency. Furthermore, many states (including my home state of Texas) allow voters to visit designated polling places and cast their votes in person during that same 30 day window prior to Election Day.
One of the main reasons for allowing these early voting dates (including Saturdays) and absentee ballot procedures is to encourage more citizens to vote in local, state and national elections. Many states refer to them as “no excuses” voting measures in recognition of US citizens’ explanations for why they don’t vote more often, if at all.
In spite of these as well as other steps to make voter registration easier, in the last national election only 55% of eligible Americans bothered to vote. As dismal as this number is, the percentage drops to around 40-45 % in state and local elections if there isn’t a national election being held simultaneously. Worse yet, local elections for Mayor or city councils may draw as few as 20% of eligible voters to the polls.
The reason I am dwelling on this issue is because I see Ireland following this same path as the US, in terms of declining voter turnout over the last 30 years, from almost 78% in 1970 to under 63% in 2002. What I don’t see are steps by the government to address this issue. Calling for a national election on the Thursday before a bank holiday doesn’t strike me as a tactic designed to encourage voter turnout. In fact if I may be so bold as to make a prediction, I think participation in this year’s national election will probably drop below 60%.
On the other hand, I do like the fact that Ireland allows non-Irish citizens the right to vote in local elections. On this point, the US still has a long way to go, since only US citizens can vote in any local, state or national elections. Many US states go even further and do not allow US citizens who have been convicted of a felony to vote either. I find it shameful that while Ireland may one day allow its non-Irish residents the right to also vote in Dail and national elections, the US still won’t allow all of its own citizens this same privilege
I am also aware that Thursdays are the traditional election days here in Ireland much like the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November is back in the states. But I find it ironic that this same government justified its decision to schedule Ireland’s first ever nation-wide Saturday election in 2002 in order to facilitate voting by students and younger workers in Dublin in a second vote on an EU treaty.
The government said it wanted to give them time to travel to their homes outside of Dublin and vote on a EU treaty. It must have worked since voter turnout was 50% higher in the second election, but apparently Bertie doesn’t feel as strongly about them voting in Ireland’s first national election in 5 years. I wonder why?
Could it be that the government was aware that those students and workers living in Dublin were more likely to vote in favour of this EU Treaty, (which the government was backing), than other voters in rural and western Ireland who had not experienced the same benefits of EU membership? Hmmm, I think it could be.
Is it possible that this same government is also aware that those students and young workers in Dublin do not remember the bad economic times, which makes them more sympathetic to charges that the current government has been wasteful and slow in improving health services and thus more likely to vote in favour of changing the governing coalition? Hmmm, this appears to be quite plausible to me as well.
What I can tell you with a high degree of certainty, is that my own Republican Party in the US, is very wary of high voter turnout in urban areas. Why? Because students and younger workers in urban areas tend to vote for the opposing Democratic Party in addition to the Democrat’s historic constituency of organized labour, lower income minorities and the urban poor.
Up until the 1970’s Democrats also received a majority of the lower to middle income working class votes as well. But that traditional Democratic constituency started to vote Republican in the southern and western parts of the US when Nixon was elected and has been solidly Republican ever since Regan was elected in 1980.
Republicans currently rely on older, middle and upper income constituents who live in suburban and rural areas as well as the working class voters in the western and southern states for most of their voting support. Since a higher percentage of older voters tend to go to the polls than younger and or minority voters, a low voter turnout also gives the Republicans and their constituents an edge in close elections.
Next week I will discuss my perspective on Ireland’s political parties and coalitions in what looks to be a very close and tightly contested national election.

US Ambassador Foley discusses Bush's climate change policies

Republican Politics, American Style
Published May 10th in Metro Eireann By Charles Laffiteau

US Ambassador Thomas Foley began his talk at Dublin City University (DCU) by telling the audience what he hoped to accomplish with this appearance. He started out by trying to frame the issue in terms of where the US stood relative to other countries in Europe as regards energy consumption and reducing carbon emissions as suggested in the Kyoto Protocol.
The Ambassador was on pretty firm ground here and some of the facts he referenced may have come as a surprise to some audience members. He got the bad news out of the way early by acknowledging that the US was indeed the world’s biggest polluter in terms of generating green house gases. He duly noted statistics which for example show that on a per person basis, the US generated more than 2 times as much carbon based wastes as the average German, 3 times more than the French and 40% more than the average Irish resident. From this point on, the Ambassador moved into a defensive justification or attack mode.
He said that while the US was the largest polluter in terms of total carbon wastes generated by a single country, it would be overtaken this year by China. While I think this comment was a bit of a stretch since this won’t actually happen until 2009, I will nonetheless concede this point. But the Ambassador also failed to mention that China has over one billion more citizens than the US, which means the Chinese will still only be generating 25% of the carbon wastes that are generated by the average American once it does become the world’s biggest polluting nation.
Ambassador Foley then went on to defend the US decision not to sign the Kyoto Protocol because it assigned mandatory emission limits for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions to each signatory nation. He said that the 30% cuts in carbon emissions demanded of the US would have caused serious economic problems had the US agreed to these limitations. Mr. Foley then noted that Australia, which like the US relies on coal to generate much of its electricity, had also declined to sign the Kyoto Protocol. Ambassador Foley went on to say that the US wanted to ensure that carbon gas emission limits were also applied to countries such as China, which is not required to cut emissions under the current treaty. I must agree with him on this issue.
The Ambassador then pointed out that even though the US had not agreed to the limits, it had nonetheless done a better job of cutting the rate of growth in its carbon gas emissions than the EU countries which had signed the Kyoto Protocol. It may have come as a bit of a surprise to some in the audience that the US had cut this rate of growth to a level that was 40% less than the the EU average. But he also failed to mention that it is much easier to cut one’s rate of growth when you are already generating wastes at a much higher level than nations you are comparing yourself to.
President Bush’s strategy to tackle global warming basically relies on scientific developments and voluntary measures, rather than curbs on greenhouse-gas emissions.As part of his sales pitch to pesuade the audience that the Bush administration is seriously doing something to address the problem of global warming, Ambassador Foley outlined three methods being used to cut US green house gas emissions followed by an assessment of each method’s impact
First he mentioned greater energy efficiency being derived from the use of low wattage flourescent light bulbs and better home insulation. He then noted that even if this method was broadly utilized it would, at best, result in a 20-30% increase in energy efficiency which would be equivalent to the growth of energy consumption.
Secondly, he referred to the use of alternative sources of energy such as wind, hydro, solar and nuclear. He mentioned France as a country which emits less green house gases per person, largely because it derives 70% of its electricity from nuclear energy. The Ambassador then stated that while the US obtains about 18% of its electricity from such sources currently, their contribution was likely to drop in the near future due to the long lead times involved in bringing these types of power generation on line. In fact it has been almost thirty years since the US ordered its last nuclear plant, due to the US public’s fears about nuclear accidents after the near meltdown at Three Mile Island and the subsequent release of the anti-nuclear plant movie “The China Syndrome”.
Finally, the Ambassador alluded to the recapture of carbon emissions and sequestration of green house gases through the use of rapid reforestration, which involves planting new forests of trees on land which is no longer being used for agriculture. The impact of this program is hard to quantify, but suffice to say it is not going to result in major reductions in green house gas emissions.
By outlining all of the available “voluntary” measures for reducing green house gas emissions, Ambassador Foley had thus set the stage for what President Bush touts as the ultimate solution, new technologies. The Ambassador cited the need for technological breakthroughs in the development of fuel cells and nuclear fusion as sources of clean energy which could then be used to replace carbon based energy sources. But to realize this goal entails continuing to grow economically so that money can be generated to invest in these new technology solutions.
Noticeably absent from Ambassador Foley’s discussion of President Bush’s proposals to reduce green house gases are federal government regulations to increase automobile fuel economy standards and reduce carbon dioxide emissions. The Ambassador noted that individual states like California had always led the way in this area and that the US government would follow once a consensus had emerged at the state level. However, as I mentioned in my previous column, the US Supreme Court recently chastized Bush appointees at the EPA for refusing to regulate automobile emissions of green house gases as mandated by existing federal laws.
Nor was any mention made of a separate and unanimous Supreme Court ruling which said that the EPA also had authority over factories and power plants that add generating capacity or make renovations that increase emissions of air pollutants. One must therefore conclude that the Bush administration’s refusal to uphold existing federal laws governing green house gas emissions by automobiles and power plants is seriously at odds with the Ambassador’s contention that President Bush is very concerned about this problem and is actively working to address it.
While I believe the US Ambassador was being sincere and honest in discussing what he believes the Bush administration is doing to address climate change, the actions of the Bush administration thus far speak much louder than Ambassador Foley’s words.

Monday, May 7, 2007

My Chat with US Ambassador about Climate change

Republican Politics, American Style
Published on May 3rd 2007 in Metro Eireann
By Charles Laffiteau

The US Ambassador to Ireland, Thomas Foley recently spoke to students at Dublin City University (DCU) about what the United States is doing to address concerns about climate change due to global warming. I must say that I admire the Ambassador for his willingness to discuss this issue and field questions about Bush administration policies from an audience that he knew would be less than sympathetic.
While I think Ambassador Foley did a good job of framing the problem, I don’t think he made as much headway in terms of persuading the audience that the Bush administration was very concerned about this issue. It isn’t easy to defend the steps the Bush administration has taken to reduce US green house gas emissions when these proposals simply do not square with the view that President Bush sees this as a serious problem.
To find out precisely what those steps are, you can access President Bush’s environmental proposals on the web at Be forewarned that you will have to do a bit of searching once you get there though. On the White House home page you will have to click on “other issues” at the end of an IN FOCUS issues column of 15 categories including Immigration, Iraq, Pandemic Flu and the Patriot Act. Mind you, these are also important issues, but you nonetheless get a sense that the environment isn’t exactly a top Bush administration priority.
This feeling is reinforced when you get to the “other issues” page which highlights President Bush’s judicial nominations and efforts to strengthen social security. But if you will ignore this and look in the right hand column under “Policies and Initiatives” there is an alphabetical listing which includes one on Environment. Click on this and the next page will highlight the President’s US National Parks Centennial Initiative.
Now don’t get discouraged. If you will look very carefully in the right hand column under the “Documents” heading, in the smallest print on the page, you will find a listing for “Global Climate Change Policy Book”. Click on this and you will find out exactly what the Bush administration proposes to do to address global climate change. In the Executive Summary President Bush says: "Addressing global climate change will require a sustained effort, over many generations. My approach recognizes that sustained economic growth is the solution, not the problem – because a nation that grows its economy is a nation that can afford investments in efficiency, new technologies, and a cleaner environment." In other words, the solution to solving the problem of global warming is to keep consuming energy and growing economically, while we wait for new affordable technologies to be developed.
President Bush goes on to state that: “The policy challenge is to act in a serious and sensible way, given the limits of our knowledge. While scientific uncertainties remain, we can begin now to address the factors that contribute to climate change." Note the President’s use of the phrase: “While scientific uncertainties remain” as regards the effects of green house gas emissions on climate change.
This statement underlines Bush administration officials’ efforts to censor statements and scientific reports by the US Government’s own climate scientists regarding the reality of global warming and what is causing it. Unfortunately, the Bush administration has a track record of removing “uncertainties” (as it did with highly questionable rumours and intelligence reports of WMDs and al-Qaeda’s pre-war presence in Iraq) or injecting them (as Philip Cooney did in his editing of government scientists’ climate reports over several years) to justify the Bush administration’s actions or inaction on various issues.
Mr. Cooney, the former chief of staff of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, was the “climate team leader” for the American Petroleum Institute (the main oil industry lobby) before he joined the White House staff. He was subsequently hired by Exxon Mobil after he resigned his White House position in 2005. Mr. Cooney, who has no scientific background, said he had based his changes to climate science reports on the “most authoritative and current views of the state of scientific knowledge”, yet was unable to identify who these authoritative sources of scientific knowledge were. Oil company scientists no doubt.
On the other hand, the US space agency, NASA’s top climate scientist, Dr. James Hansen protested this editing by Mr. Cooney, calling it censorship of US government scientific reports. He cited this and efforts by other Bush political appointees to limit scientists access to the news media as attempts to “muddy the waters” of the US public debate about global warming and climate change issues.
While Ambassador Foley privately acknowledged that this may have been true a couple of years ago, he truly seems to believe that this is no longer the case. I think the Ambassador honestly feels that no one in the Bush administration is still questioning whether or not climate change due to global warming is really happening. I hope his assessment is accurate even though one might still doubt this given the fact that the Global Climate Change Policy Book still references “scientific uncertainties”.
There is also other evidence to suggest that the Bush administration still doesn’t get it. Just last month the US Supreme Court ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has the authority to regulate heat-trapping gases in automobile emissions. This decision represented a strong reprimand to the Bush administration, which had argued that it does not have the right to regulate carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases under the Clean Air Act, and that even if it did, it would not use the authority.
Justice John Paul Stevens wrote the majority opinion which stated that; “The statutory text forecloses EPA’s reading,” adding that “greenhouse gases fit well within the Clean Air Act’s capacious definition of air pollutant.” Even more damning was the Supreme Court’s assessment of the Bush administration’s justification for not regulating such pollutants. The Justices were very critical of the Bush administration’s defence of its position, stating that it amounted to nothing more than a “laundry list of reasons not to regulate.” The Court went on to state that Bush’s political appointees running the EPA had defied the Clean Air Act’s “clear statutory command,” to regulate green house gas emissions.
Given all of the aforementioned examples, one cannot help but question President Bush’s “real” concerns about climate change and the Bush administration’s position that it is actively working to address this issue. If the US Supreme Court doesn’t buy these contentions, why should I?
Next week I will discuss some of the specific issues Ambassador Foley highlighted during his attempt to make a case for President Bush’s proposals on what the US is doing to address the problem of climate change.