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Britain's Queen Elizabeth II has appointed a new senior official responsible for the day-to-day management of the House of Lords, the upper house of the UK Parliament.

The position, popularly known as 'Black Rod' (for the black ceremonial stick he carries as the symbol of his office), has been given to a former senior Army officer, Lieutenant General Sir Frederick Viggers (photo).

Before retiring from the Army, Sir Freddie - as he is known to his friends and to British soldiers - was the Head of the British Army Personnel Department (G-1) and also played a senior role with UK forces in Iraq.

He takes over the position of 'Black Rod' (who is paid £ 81,600 a year - on top of the General's pension) from Sir Michael Willcocks, who has retired after appearing for the last time during the recent State Opening of Parliament.

'Black Rod' is one of Britain's most famous ceremonial positions, whose duties include summoning the MPs from the House of Commons to hear the Queen's Speech in the House of Lords (during a State Opening of Parliament).

The job also involves being the Queen's representative to peers, overseeing budgets and security, and managing a staff of 30 people. The latter should be no problem for a man who was in charge of more than a 100,000 service personnel.

But Sir Freddie is likely to have fewer duties than his predecessors. A recently created new "director general of facilities" (who is paid an annual salary of £ 100,000 ) will be taking over some of the running of the Lords' offices.

Sir Freddie Viggers became a household name in Britain last year, after BBC News exposed the horrible condition of British forces housing estates in the UK. He then came out with a strong statement and said that "defence chiefs must fight their corner... (against the government) ... to get our families what they deserve".

In his new role Sir Freddie is supposed to be un-political and neutral towards all politicians.
Is there anyone in the incompetent Irish government who understands at least the basic rules of Economics, and how markets and societies work? Obviously not.

The latest example of a goat made gardener is Noel Dempsey (right), a pigheaded Fianna Fáil apparatchik from Co. Meath and the Cabinet's bouncer, who has been in charge of too many government departments to keep track of them all.
However, people working in those departments do remember him well, as he left each of them in a real mess when he was moved on to run down and wreck the next one. (They loathe him especially in Education, and among the civil servants in the Customs House - home of the Dept. of the Environment - he has a status only one step removed from the Anti-Christ...)

Currently Dempsey is in charge of Transport, since Martin Cullen (left), who headed the department before him, did not manage to destroy the Irish public transport system quickly enough.
Not for want of trying, mind you, but Cullen is just not very effective, regardless what he does.
Dempsey will do better, and today he moved another step closer to dismantle the already poor structure of public transport in Ireland.

He told Dáil Éireann (Ireland's lower house of parliament) that  Coras Iompair Éireann (CIÉ) - the state-owned holding company that controls Iarnrod Éireann (the Irish railways), Bus Éireann and Dublin Bus - "will make a deficit of € 39 million this year", compared with a deficit of just under € 1.5 million in 2007.

Anyone who knows CIÉ with its arrogant and self-serving attitudes, sluggish and inefficient management, under-qualified but over-paid staff and total lack of regard for its passengers will not be surprised.
Only people who have no other choice ever travel with any of the three CIÉ companies.

To give you an example: Both Iarnrod Éireann and Bus Éireann provide regular services from Waterford to Dublin (and back, if you are lucky). So anyone here who has business in Dublin can get there by either train or bus. The problem is that there are only a few services per day, and none at all in the evening or through the night.
If I want to use a train, I can leave Waterford at about 7.30 a.m. and will be in Dublin by 10 a.m., unless there is "a problem on the line", which happens rather often. By bus it will take me three hours, but the costs are almost the same.
I have to be very quick in Dublin, as the last bus back to Waterford leaves the capital at 6 p.m. and the last train only a few minutes later. This means that anything that extends beyond 5 p.m. cannot be done in Dublin when using CIÉ services. Not even to mention the idea of going to a concert or seeing a play in a Dublin theatre. Impossible for an Irish provincial person depending on public transport.

So if one has a longer day in Dublin, a car is the only way to get there - and back - in a reasonable way. However, there is - at least from Waterford (and several other towns along the route) - an alternative to the CIÉ services. A private bus company runs a regular service to Dublin (city and airport) seven days a week. And guess what? Their fare is half of what CIÉ charges, and they go a lot more often, including at night. It is no surprise that their buses are usually well filled, while CIÉ services drive around the country with their buses often more than half empty.

Irish People are not stupid. But unfortunately our current government (a coalition of Fianna Fáil and the Green Party) is, and the management of CIÉ follows the government closely.

CIÉ's mismanagement has now run up an amazing deficit of over € 39 million. This is a lot for you and me, but only a small sum for a government these days.
Especially one that has just declared it will hand over € 10 billion to save our failing (privately owned) banks.
In many other EU countries public transport operations like CIÉ receive hundreds of millions of state subsidies every year, in order to provide a proper, functional and affordable system of public transport. And there people use their trains, buses and trams all the time, in large numbers and quite happily.

But what is Ireland doing? Our idiot of a Transport Minister has nothing better to offer than an increase of (the already way too expensive) fares by a further 10%, a reduction of the frequency of services, and a withdrawl of some routes altogether.

Is there a doctor in Leinster House? (There are actually a few...)
Because someone qualified needs to certify Noel Dempsey as insane and remove him from his job to a lunatic asylum, where he belongs!

What Noel Dempsey proposed today will make CIÉ even less attractive for potential passengers, and thus create an increase in losses, and nothing else.
But then again, who knows, perhaps this is exactly his intention and brief. If FF's chief wrecker makes CIÉ even more uncompetitive as it is already, the government could justify to break it up and privatise its pieces. I am sure some greedy financial vultures with deep pockets and friendly relations to Fianna Fáil are already waiting in the wings.

In order to flourish - or at least function properly - CIÉ needs to lower its fares (in some cases significantly), increase its frequency of services, improve the technical quality and comfort of its rolling stock, get rid of its incompetent management and its arrogant attitude, and then - under new leaders - train and motivate its staff for the 21st century. It is not difficult to do that, as long as there is a will and competent people. All over Europe it works very well.

Only here in Ireland the government is incapable of creating and maintaining a decent public transport system, available to the majority of the people and affordable for all. Besides Health, Education and the financial sector, public transport and infrastructure is the most seriously underfunded part of our nation and one of the worst managed as well. But it is a vital factor for the economy, and essential in the attempt to get out of recession.
Without proper transport systems, neither goods and materials will flow, nor will people have enough regular mobility.

This is not rocket science. Everyone with common sense and at least some understanding of the economy will grasp this nettle quite easily.
However, when it comes to brains, new ideas, imagination and the ability to solve problems, our current government is an infertile wasteland. And among the intellectually challenged in Leinster House Noel Dempsey is one of the most serious cases. If he ever had a brain, it must have gone AWOL at some stage without anyone noticing.

The sooner he is removed from his current position, the better for CIÉ and public transport in Ireland. In fact, the sooner the whole government goes, the better for everyone and everything on this island.

Official British government figures show that employment in the UK has surpassed 1.8 million – the highest level since 1998.

The figure follows news that major UK firms, including Virgin Media, Yell and GlaxoSmithKline, are planning to axe thousands of jobs over the next few years.

Cable group Virgin Media announced it is to cut 2200 jobs by 2012 as part of an overhaul of the group, with the majority of these expected to go before the end of 2010.

Additionally there are currently nearly 35,000 unemployed people who - until recently - worked in banks and various other firms of the financial sector. Many of these received rather high salaries and are very unlikely to find a similar job again.

I am actually wondering if these people - many of which were at least partly responsible for creating the current financial and economic crisis - will be offered any new jobs at all. I would certainly never employ one of these former city high-flyers, not even as a gardener or shoe-shine boy.

Am I vengeful? No, not at all. I just could and would never trust a person that was part of a criminal conspiracy to destroy the economy of the Western world. And leopards, as we all know, never change their spots.  
Health unions and patient campaign groups in Ireland have raised concerns about plans by the Irish Health Service Executive (HSE) to review full-time Accident & Emergency (A&E) services at eight Dublin hospitals and three in Cork.

The details are contained in the executive's 2009 service plan, which has yet to be published, but has been seen by RTÉ News.

The Irish Hospital Consultants Association (IHCA) says that while 24-hour accident and emergency services can not be provided at every hospital, any replacement services must be "at least as good as what currently exists".

IHCA deputy head Donal Duffy said that given the population of Dublin and the large number of patients on trolleys in A&E each day, more services rather than less were needed.
He accepted that some rationalisation of services was needed and predicted that next year would be a "very difficult one for patients".

Meanwhile the Irish Patients Association says it hopes the HSE's plan is not a resurrection of the 2003 Hanly Report. On its behalf Stephen McMahon said all those affected should be involved in consultation on such a major development.

The Labour Party has called for an immediate publication of the plan. Its health spokesperson Jan O' Sullivan said that closing full-time A&E units, particularly without providing additional resources to other units, would simply "make a bad situation worse".

The 90-page-long HSE service plan for 2009 is already approved by the Minister for Health Mary Harney (left).

Part of its projection for 2009 is the plan to "cut inpatient admissions, the average length of hospital stay, and outpatient numbers", while "increasing day case procedures".
The measures also envisage rationalising A&E services in the mid- west and the provision of 24/7 emergency services by three paediatric hospitals in Dublin.

Around € 530 million in savings is being sought in the Health Service throughout next year.

The plan will see the HSE cutting the number of management and administration grades by 3% and it must stay within a staff ceiling of 111,575 people.
On this day - 105 years ago - the world's first power-driven heavier-than-air machine in which man made free, controlled and sustained flight lifted off its starting block on the beach at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina and stayed in the air for twelve seconds.

Even though this might not be seen as much these days, it is the moment that historians around the world recognise as the first engine-powered flight and therefore the birthday of modern air transport as well as military air power.

The world's first ever pilot on that historic December 17th, 1903 was Orville Wright (photo left), who - together with his older brother Wilbur Wright (photo right) - developed and built the famous flying machine they named the Wright Flyer I (photo above right).

It was not the first flying machine they had developed and constructed, but the first with an engine.
Previously the brothers had built and flown a number of gliders and were among only a handful of people who achieved successful glider flights during the last years of the 19th century.

The most famous of their 'rivals' was the German engineer and flying pioneer Otto Lilienthal, who - after a number of successful short flights - was killed in 1896 when his glider malfunctioned and fell out of the sky.

The news of Lilienthal's death is said to have inspired the Wright brothers to build a more stable and controlable flying machine, one that would be steered and was powered by an engine.

After several failed attempts their Wright Flyer I was eventually ready in December of 1903. (By the way, it still exists and can be seen - well preserved - on display at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. - see photo left)

Within the twelve seconds it stayed airborne, the brothers claimed an everlasting place in world history.

Many good books have been written about the Wrights, and I recommend to read at least one of them. Here I can only mention the fact of their first flight, but not give a full historical account. (If I would attempt that, it would well break the frame of a weblog post... so you better get yourself one of these books.)

However, I would like to mention one element in the brothers' lives which is rarely reflected on. Both were brilliant engineers and built printing presses and bicycles before they turned their attention to flying.
But both never married. When asked about this matter by a reporter, Wilbur Wright once replied rather witty that he "could not support a wife and a flying machine".

Somehow I can understand why he preferred the flying machine...

Slave Labour and Exploitation in Ireland

A new report, published today, has found that large numbers of foreign workers in Ireland - in particular in the restaurant and catering industry - are being exploited, many of them seriously and systematically.

The study, which was conducted by the Migrant Rights Centre, shows that more than half of the foreigners working in the Irish restaurant and catering industry are regularly paid less than the national minimum wage and do not receive a pay slip.
According to the report some workers earn as little as just € 2 an hour and work up to 75 hours a week.

This is slave labour, and we should be ashamed of ourselves!

Unfortunately the report does not publish the names of the worst exploiters. I think that Irish customers and consumers have a right to know who is taking short-cuts and behaves illegally with its staff. Many of us might then prefer to eat somewhere else.

However, some recently published independent research has found that most of the fast food outlets in Ireland are systematically underpaying their staff.
Trade unions as well as trading standards officers are also concerned over the high percentage of foreign catering staff with little or no ability to speak and understand English. Many of these workers come from third-world countries where hygiene standards are rather 'casual', if they exist at all.
The only way of communicating with these people is through one of their fellow nationals who speaks and understands at least some English.
Not surprisingly, both communication and hygiene are very poor and these workers are also the most likely to be exploited financially.

Many are not even sure where they are. I encountered African kitchen workers in Dublin who thought that they were living in the USA. They are organised by ruthless gangs - mostly led by Nigerians - who pay them a pittance and pocket the difference from what they receive from employers. (It is actually not the first time that foreign refugees are brought to Ireland but told that they are in America. In the 17th and 18th century this was done on a large scale by English land agents, and the victims then were mostly French Huguenots and Mennonites from various parts of Germany and the Netherlands.)

Amazingly, there are no government inspectors or Gardaí working on these cases, and three government departments that are involved have not a clue how big the problem actually is.

In fact, it is almost impossible these days to find anyone working in catering in Ireland who is actually Irish.
The reason is a combination of two elements: Huge amounts of foreigners - especially from parts of Africa and southern Asia - are smuggled into Ireland and then available as cheap labour, which again suits catering companies who manage to cut their costs that way.
Caught in between are thousands of bewildered people from far-away countries whose existence is not much better than that of slaves.

Bill Abom, the co-ordinator of the Restaurant Workers' Action Group, says the government needs to take action to stop this exploitation.

I agree with Mr. Abom. Government action is needed and in many cases overdue.

However, it is rather unlikely, as the Irish government is fully occupied with trying to survive and saving the big banks' bacon at the same time. The idea that anyone in Dublin would have time now for some poor exploited migrant workers is too much to hope for.
After all, this is 'the season to be jolly' and the Oireachtas are going on their six weeks Winter holidays on Thursday, barely three months after they returned from their even longer Summer holidays.
It is turkey and ham that is on the minds of TDs and Senators now, not those who are exploited while cooking and serving them.

The Irish government has now announced its support for a massive recapitalisation programme of up to € 10 billion for some of the most battered credit institutions in the country.

A statement from the Department of Finance says that its objective is "to ensure the long-term sustainability of the banking sector in Ireland".
The government will support the programme "alongside existing shareholders and private investors", and it will "underpin its contribution through the availability of credit to individuals and businesses in the real economy".

That sounds rather positive and gives some hope for the Irish economy, which is not only in recession, but also mismanaged by an bunch of third-rate people whos - meanwhile only too obvious - incompetence is only matched and even outshon by their self-serving arrogance and greed.

After long meetings with bank executives the Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan (left) confirmed that money from the National Pensions Reserve Fund will be used for the new recapitalisation programme.
State investment will take the form of preference and/or ordinary shares in the institutions receiving funds, which means in fact a part-nationalisation of our major banks.

Lenihan said that State investment would be "assessed on a case-by-case basis" and all the institutions in question were being asked to submit their proposals by early next month.

A spokesperson for the Allied Irish Bank (AIB) said that the bank's board would "discuss the government announcement" when it meets later this week.

There has also been a special Cabinet meeting today, in addition to the regular meeting on Tuesday.

The Irish Business & Employers' Confederation (IBEC) has welcomed the announcement on recapitalisation.
The group's Director General Turlough O'Sullivan (right) said that "the banking sector is vital to the effective functioning of business and the economy generally".

And he is right, of course. But there remains the so far unmentioned large elephant in the room, whom neither the government not IBEC seems willing to tackle.
I am talking about the people who are fully responsible for the crisis, the chief executives and board members of the banks and building societies, who created the huge financial bubble and then let it burst without any concern for their own institutions or the nation as a whole.

If these people remain in their well remunarated - in my opion highly overpaid - positions, we can as well take the € 10 billion to the cliffs of Moher and throw them into the sea. Everyone can see the dimensions of the crisis now, and everyone agrees that only drastic measures will make a difference, save the banks and restart the economy. But it will only mean throwing in a lot of good money after plenty of bad debts if the creators of the problem are allowed to stay in charge.

The Minister for Finance must insist on the resignation of the entire boards and the chief executives of the failing banks. And should they refuse to do so, he must use his authority and remove them by force.
Only with such a clean sweep of the boards the way will be free for new and inspired leadership that can do things differently and give us hope to come out of the crisis in a reasonable time frame.

We need also to remember that the € 10 billion now offered by Brian Lenihan come from the National Pensions Reserve Fund, which is limited in seize and supposed to guarantee our future pensions. This is not money we can freely and easily use for speculations and gambling.
Only two weeks ago it emerged that there could be a deficit of between € 20 and € 30 billion in our pension system (see my entry of November 30th), which is not yet fully investigated. If we now give € 10 billion of pensions money to the banks as recapitalisation fund, we need to be sure that this money will come back - and hopefully with interest and some profit - and not be lost like the many billions the banks and their incompetent executives squandered in recent years.

Only a radical change in management and policy can secure that. No matter how much of our money the government will pump into the financial institutions, it will only do them some good if the lost confidence in the banks is restored.
With all the old duffers who were either too greedy, too ruthless or too incompetent (and in some cases all three combined) staying in their cosy jobs, there cannot be any confidence-building.

One of the main elements of the crisis is that banks are now refusing to give loans to each other.
Have you ever wondered why? Well, the answer is simple enough: Because they don't trust each other. The people who run our financial system make a relatively small group, and they all know each other only too well. And since they don't trust each other any longer - and for very good reason - it is clear that they have to go. How can the government and the general public have confidence into bankers who are no longer trusted by their peers?

Money is only one element of banking. The second - and way more important - is trust. And that is worth a lot more than € 10 billion, it is in fact priceless. I urge Brian Lenihan not to forget this and to make sure that our money is only injected into the banks after they have cleaned up their management structure.

The two leaders of Pakistan's new coalition government have begun urgent talks in Dubai on meeting their election pledge to restore judges sacked by President Pervez Musharraf.

Nawaz Sharif, leader of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N ), and Asif Zardari
(widower of Benazir Bhutto) of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) are meeting over lunch in Dubai today, in order to resolve the matter and end the political stalemate.

After winning the recent elections, both parties agreed to reinstate the 60 sacked judges by the end of April. Failure to resolve differences over the issue has put the month-old coalition under strain.

The PML-N leader was to make a "last-ditch effort to convince Asif Zardari to re-instate judges", party secretary Imran Khwaja told a reporter ahead of the talks. Sharif warned of disastrous consequences for democracy in Pakistan if the judges were not restored. Discussions between the two main governing parties have stalled over important details.

The PML-N wants the unconditional restoration of the sacked judges. It argues that the judges who replaced those that were sacked should lose their jobs, because it says they acted unlawfully in upholding President Musharraf's declaration of emergency rule in 2007.

Asif Zardari wants to link their re-instatement to a comprehensive raft of constitutional reforms, which he argues are needed to prevent abuses that have occurred in the past. However, coalition insiders say Mr. Zadari is also worried that, if restored, the judges could undo an amnesty deal that cleared him of corruption charges.

The judges, including the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, were sacked after
President Pervez Musharraf declared a state of emergency. At the time, the Supreme Court was preparing to rule on whether his re-election earlier that year was legal or not.

Observers and analysts are convinced that Musharraf, then still a General and commander-in-chief of the armed forces, sacked the judges because they were about to declare his re-election as President illegal, based on the rule that serving army personnel is banned from running for political offices in Pakistan.
Ireland's Health Service Executive (HSE) has said it is "actively in negotiations" with the Department of Health "to obtain funds to meet the needs of homeless people in Ireland".
(The language alone rolls up my toe nails and tells me that absolutely nothing is done, except bureaucrats wrapping themselves in their legalistic language.)

This follows a report by RTÉ's Prime Time TV programme, which found that newly built homeless accommodation is not used because the HSE says it "could not afford the staff needed to operate them".

Last night's programme reported that the HSE's decision to cut this year's funding for the homeless services is jeopardising a government plan, aimed at eliminating the problem.

Seven homeless people died in Dublin alone in a two-week period over Easter this year, and at the same time at least five major homeless facilities in Dublin were either lying idle or being totally under-utilised due to a lack of HSE funding!
A 30-bed facility in James Street was due to open earlier this year but remains closed, while in Brunswick Street only seven of 17 family units have been used since January.

Prime Time also reported that a new homeless service in Middle Abbey Street has been denied HSE funding for its running costs, and in Cork Street an emergency accommodation facility for homeless people with special needs remains still under-utilised. And in Bolton Street, the future of a proposed accommodation facility also hangs in the balance. And this is only the situation in Dublin. There are also homeless people in other Irish cities and towns, where there is often no facility for them at all.

While the Taoiseach and his extensive traveling party, which includes old party chums and family members, is staying at one of the most expensive hotels in Washington D.C. - at taxpayers' expense - the homeless of Dublin, who were always one of Bertie Ahern's concerns in the past, are neglected because the HSE claims a lack of funds. Welcome to the new Ireland!
The Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, has criticised City of London banks who reward their staff with huge sums of money for taking risks.

Speaking before the Treasury Committee of the House of Commons, he said that the credit crisis was caused by bankers who were betting on high-risk and complex financial products. King criticised their managers, who he said did not understand the complicated instruments. They would have to do better if they wanted to keep their jobs, he added.

The Governor, who faced criticism for the Bank of England's response to the credit crisis and the collapse of the Northern Rock bank, said managers awarded bonuses that encouraged risk-taking.

Their pay structures were too closely linked to the short-term results of investments rather than long-term results. "Banks have come to realise they are paying the price for having designed compensation packages that provide incentives that are not in the long-run interests of the banks themselves."

Mervyn King (left) said the risky financial instruments were "based on some very poor assumptions". Many of the world's largest banks have lost large amounts on these complex financial products, whose design meant investors underestimated or misunderstood the risks involved.

He said those banks which decided not to invest in these instruments - which were being described as "innovative, exciting activities" - were "often pilloried for being boring".
"We must make sure it doesn't happen again," Mr. King said. "I think all of us - and I do not exclude the Bank [of England] in this - have learned a lot of lessons from the last nine months."

Earlier this month, the Bank of England announced a plan to enable banks to swap potentially risky mortgage debts for secure government bonds in order to relieve a credit squeeze. Mr. King said the most recent crisis was not down to a lack of funds in the market - so-called liquidity - but was a result of a lack of confidence that meant banks were unwilling to lend to each other. As a result, banks have been restricting lending to homeowners.

But the Governor was keen to stress that the Bank of England's plan to loan £ 50 billion was "not a bail-out of the banks" and was not designed to stimulate mortgage lending. King said it would be a mistake to go back to where the mortgage market was a year ago, when loans were cheaper and easier to get.
ZANU-PF, the party of Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe (right), has failed to regain its parliamentary majority after a partial recount of votes from polls that took place last month. Zimbabwe's Electoral Commission (ZEC) said the results were unchanged in 18 of 23 seats where recounts had taken place. Opposition activists and many neutral observers had feared the recount would be used to rig the results in favour of ZANU-PF.

ZANU-PF needed to win nine seats to regain its majority, which it lost for the first time since 1980.

The opposition MDC (Movement for Democratic Change) says it also won the presidential polls, although those results remain still unreleased, a month after the elections. The ZEC said that the presidential results could be announced after the completion of the recounts.

But ZEC Chairman George Chiweshe said a "verification and collation" process would take place with agents of the presidential candidates before the long-awaited results were released.
MDC spokesman Nqobizitha Mlilo said the recount results "only serve to confirm what we've always said in the past, that... we won this election hands down".
For ZANU-PF the Deputy Information Minister Bright Matonga meanwhile told a reporter that the recount results showed the electoral system was "transparent".

The protracted recount of votes has given ZANU-PF a lot of extra time in which to decide how to deal with what the opposition says is a defeat for Robert Mugabe.

The MDC says its leader, Morgan Tsvangirai (left), won the presidential election outright, while some of the independent monitors say he fell just short of the 50% threshold to avoid a run-off. ZANU-PF also says there is likely to be a run-off, as no candidate gained more than 50% of the vote.

The government has been accused of inciting an increasing campaign of violence against opposition supporters. Lawyers have told the BBC they have been denied access to about 185 MDC supporters, still held in custody after raids on the opposition party's Harare office and the headquarters of an independent monitoring network last week.

Police said they had initially arrested 215 people "suspected of involvement in political violence". But the MDC says that some of those detained had been taking refuge from attacks by ruling party activists in other parts of the country. They included pregnant women and men with broken bones. Reports said that none of those arrested had been charged.

The US-based group Human Rights Watch has said ZANU-PF and state security forces had "sharply intensified a campaign of organised terror and torture against opposition activists and ordinary Zimbabweans". And the MDC says at least 15 of its activists have been killed around the country in the past couple of days.

Meanwhile the US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Dr. Jendayi E. Frazer (left), who is touring the region to tackle the post-election crisis, said the level of government intimidation in Zimbabwe was "now so high that a fair run-off would not be possible". She added that the only realistic solution was an inclusive government, led by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. Questioned by journalists, she expressed the personal opinion that Robert Mugabe has lost the presidential election.

Zimbabwe's current Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa (right) called her comments "patently false, inflammatory, irresponsible and uncalled-for".
Well, this is not a surprising comment from Mr. Chinamasa, who is a deeply corrupt cleptocrat and human rights abuser who should be in prison instead of being Minister for Justice.

"Whoever wins the presidential election will have to form a government of national unity," Zimbabwe's UN ambassador Boniface Chidyausiku (left) has told the BBC. "There is no way anybody can do without the other," he said, arguing that neither side could really control parliament, the army or the country.
He is meanwhile the second government source to make this suggestion in a week.

A report on the situation in Zimbabwe is to be presented to the UN Security Council later on today.

The Movement for Democratic Change has called on the UN to send a special envoy and to warn President Robert Mugabe that increasing violence against opposition activists amounts to "crimes against humanity".

Foreign ministers in the European Union, which has a ban on the sale of arms to Zimbabwe, have called on other countries to impose a similar policy. The ministers urged to introduce "a de facto moratorium on all such sales".

Meanwhile, the two MDC factions said that they have reunited and would therefore have a clear majority in the Zimbabwean Parliament, while in the Senate there is a clear split down the middle, with both MDC and ZANU-PF having won 30 of the 60 seats. Morgan Tsvangirai and Arthur Mutambara, the leaders of the previous two opposition factions, said they would work together against ZANU-PF. With this decision the MDC has regained its old strength, which rules out any minority deals between ZANU-PF and the smaller and more intellectual faction, led Arthur Mutambara.

However, ZANU-PF governed Zimbabwe without a parliamentary majority between 2000 and 2005, and it is still possible that the combined forces of party, army and police will try to carry on with their regime of terror and intimidation.

Last week the Herald newspaper, seen as a government and ZANU-PF mouthpiece, ran an opinion piece calling for a government of national unity. MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai has said that he would be prepared to form an inclusive government.

Elections officials said again that the process of verifying presidential results "will start after final parliamentary results are announced". But they warn that it could take as long as another week, as they will only be released after both sides agree.

"It's definitely a world record and it's not something to be proud of," said Zimbabwean independent MP and former Mugabe ally Jonathan Moyo. "And, when it comes, its credibility will be irretrievably compromised."
A recent study suggests that anti-depressant drugs - such as the widely used Prozac - could be largely ineffective.

The Public Library of Science Medicine journal examined all available data on the drugs, which are prescribed to millions of people around the world.

Researchers from Britain, the USA and Canada obtained the data under US freedom of information laws, including the results of clinical trials the drug manufacturers choose not to publish.

Anti-depressant medications appear to help only very severely depressed people and work no better than placebos in many patients, British researchers said.
Researchers reviewed a series of studies on four anti-depressants examining the question of whether a person's response to these drugs hinged on how depressed they were before getting treatment. The drugs are all so-called "selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors" (SSRI).

The researchers found that compared with a placebo, these new-generation anti-depressant medications did not yield clinically significant improvements in depression in patients who initially had moderate or even very severe depression. The study found that significant benefits occurred only in the most severely depressed patients.

"Although patients get better when they take anti-depressants, they also get better when they take a placebo, and the difference in improvement is not very great," the lead researcher said.

However, drugs manufacturers say their products have been "highly effective" since their introduction and that the new study's findings "fly in the face of clinical evidence". Well, they would say that, wouldn't they?
After all, the pharmaceutical industry makes billions in profits from ever more people taking ever more pills. The research continues, and soon we will know even more about this matter.

In the meantime we all can use our common sense and make sure we are not stuffed with useless pills.
On a Sunday morning between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. I listen usually to Marian Finucane on RTÉ Radio 1, in order to hear what the Irish nation is talking about. But yesterday I had an outside appointment and thus missed my usual two hours in front of the wireless.

Thankfully RTÉ repeats the first half of Marian Finucane's programme on Monday morning at 2 a.m., for all those who missed it live. So I only heard early this morning what Marian was discussing with her guests this Sunday. And I am glad that I had the chance to hear it.

One of the subjects discussed was - not surprisingly - the Lisbon Treaty, the up-coming referendum on it, and the latest Red C poll that showed a clear increase in people who said they would vote 'No'. (for details see my entry from yesterday)

Representing the 'Yes' campaign in the studio were two TDs from Co. Mayo, who both represent Dublin seats. There was the former leader of the Irish Labour Party, Pat Rabbitte (left), who is now speaking for his party on Justice. Despite the fact that Labour is in favour of the Lisbon Treaty, he kept his personal statements on the matter to an absolute minimum, saying that he hopes people would vote 'Yes' and that he would advise them to do so. But this is all he really said. No enthusiastic appeals or gloomy warnings, as one hears them now from both
Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.
Maybe Pat Rabbitte is listening to some of his old friends. The former ITGWU official and TD for the Workers' Party and Democratic Left (before they merged with the Labour Party) will have noticed that his former comrades in the UNITE trade union (formerly ITGWU) have meanwhile joined the 'No' campaign. As have all parties and most organisations of Ireland's political Left, with the sole exception of the Labour Party...

There was also - way more vociferous and beating every available drum for the Lisbon Treaty - Fine Gael's spokesperson on European Affairs, another Mayo-born Dubliner called Lucinda Creighton (right) who won a seat in Dublin South-East in the last general election and is now one of the youngest TDs in Dáil Éireann.
I had never before even heard her name, left alone anything she stands for. So I followed her words and arguments with special interest, in order to find out how Fine Gael sees the future of Ireland and Europe.

I have to admit that I was disappointed by her approach of the subject, her line of argument and especially by her diction and way of speaking. Having the appearance of a happy-go-lucky girl that enjoyed the benefits of the "Celtic Tiger", her voice could not be more contrasting. When one hears her speaking on the radio - without the benefit of a picture or knowing her - the voice of the 30-year-old sounds more like that of an old political "warhorse", well past the fifties and slightly on the rough side. And at times one also wonders if she is trying to impersonate senior Fianna Fáil TD and former minister Mary O'Rourke. There is definitely a strong resemblance, in the voice itself as well as in the way Lucinda Creighton speaks.

But as much as the way Lucinda Creighton spoke was of interest to me, what she actually said about the Lisbon Treaty was almost unbelievable. Either she is extremely naïve (in which case she is neither suitable as a TD, nor to speak on Europe), or devious and misleading (which is not a rare trait among lawyers).

When questioned by Marian Finucane (left) over the really hair-raising text of the Lisbon Treaty and the impossibility to make any sense of it, Lucinda Creighton reacted with legalistic arrogance and said that the treaty was "a legal document" and as such it had to be written in this way, so that "the courts could understand and interpret it in the right way".
Well, I have seldom heard such a complete nonsense. Any text can be written in a clear and understandable way, or - as the Lisbon Treaty - in a form that is unintelligible. And while the government advises us ever so often in sponsored ads "never to sign any contract you don't understand", it expects us to do exactly that with a far more important document: the Lisbon Treaty.

What I don't understand is why Fine Gael, the largest Irish opposition party, is not only supporting the current government on the Lisbon Treaty, but is actually doing a great deal of its ground work in the well organised and financed 'Yes' campaign. It appears that Fine Gael is actually even more enthusiastic in support of the treaty than Fianna Fáil. At the same time it is strange that they cannot come up with any proper arguments for it. All they tell us is that the treaty is "good for Europe and good for us", that we - the great unwashed people of Ireland - are too stupid to understand it, and that "nothing really changes for Ireland anyway".

Lucinda Creighton also insisted several times that "this is a treaty, and not a constitution", despite the fact that one of its main authors - former French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing (right) - has declared many times that more than 90% of the text of the Lisbon Treaty is "still the same as it was in the Constitution", which the people of France and the Netherlands defeated in referenda.
Who do you think knows and understands the treaty better: the man who wrote most of it, or a very arrogant and very junior TD who is so full of herself that she cannot even see reality?
Ms. Creighton also failed to explain what - in her opinion - is the difference between a treaty and a constitution, despite the fact that she is a law graduate from Trinity College, Dublin.

But Lucinda Creighton, whose short record on Dublin City Council (before she won her Dáil seat) is rather mixed and far from distinguished, went further in her zealous work to sell out Irish freedom and democracy. She launched a completely uncalled-for attack on Irish businessman Ulick McEvaddy (left), who recently joined Libertas in the 'No' camp, accusing him of doing it on the orders - or at least at the behest - of US interests "who are opposed to a stronger EU".

It is correct that the former Irish army officer and airline tycoon has based his company Omega Air in Washington and does a lot of business with the US government, but it is also important to know that he is a staunch Fine Gael supporter and a very close friend of the Bruton and Mitchell families (who are still the most influential in the party). Being one of Ireland's wealthiest men, his donations to the 'No' campaign will surely be missed by his friends in Fine Gael. This is the real reason for Lucinda's anger.

Apart from that, look who is the pot that calls the kettle black! Lucinda Creighton herself is registered as an attorney-at-law in the state of New York and has worked in the USA as a campaigner for the Democratic Party, despite being a Councillor - and now a TD - for Fine Gael in Ireland and also heavily involved on several levels of Young Fine Gael and YEPP (Young European People's Party). One wonders how she is dealing with her own conflict of interests on both sides of the Atlantic...

For Ireland and the Irish people she is certainly doing a poor job, and one wonders why she - a very junior TD - was appointed to the important European portfolio, especially at a time when Europe is one of the main elements in Irish politics. But that is for Fine Gael to answer. It is, however, clear that Fine Gael is taking the Irish people for complete fools.

I remember the speech their MEP Gay Mitchell gave in Liberty Hall in Dublin (photo right) on March 4th, during the meeting of the National Forum on Europe (NFOE).
His arguments for a 'Yes' vote in the up-coming referendum included World War II and "the good things Ireland has received from Europe". In other words: Ireland was given a lot of gifts by the EU, and now is time to pay for them with our freedom and the right to properly participate in the democratic process.

I really wonder if people like Gay Mitchell and Lucinda Creighton actually believe themselves what they are telling us. But while Mr. Mitchell was preaching at us with his well-known silver tongue, trying to persuade us to just follow him and his party down the river (and in the process bringing Maurice Hayes, the experienced chairman of the NFOE, to despair), Ms. Creighton is more a "straight into your face" person, accusing all those who campaign for a 'No' vote as being part of an "anti-European conspiracy" and warning us of unspecified "consequences" if Ireland should vote the treaty down.

Well, the only consequences Ireland can expect after rejecting the Lisbon Treaty in the referendum is an increase in political power in Europe and being taken seriously by large EU member states. Right now Ireland is seen as a push-over and a little country at the fringe that does not really matter. Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Labour and the Green Party want to keep it that way, and in fact make it even worse. It is time to call their bluff, be independent and vote 'No'.

And to Fine Gael one should send the clear message: Stop taking the people for fools! And while you are at it, stop Lucinda Creighton from making an even bigger fool of herself. She might well have her qualities as a trained lawyer, but she has not a clue about the EU and certainly no skills at all when it comes to public speaking. A course in oratory might help her performance, but given her lines of argument, some extra education - especially in the areas of history, philosophy and common sense - are also advisable.

In the meantime, the people should forget the big parties who want to sell out Irish democracy, get behind the 'No' campaign and help to defeat the Lisbon Treaty, which is unintelligible, dangerous and full of undemocratic measures.
If the treaty is accepted, this might well be the last time ever Ireland had any say in European affairs.

Use your own common sense on this, and send a clear message to those who take us for fools!
A Japanese communications company is currently working on a strange new "aromatherapy phone service", which is expected to be available to customers sometime next year.

According to the company's research director, users can then "use their mobile phone or Wi-Fi connection to send fragrance recipes to the device via infrared or a home gateway unit".

A standalone device, resembling a small pot, has 16 scented cartridges that can mix basic fragrances to create 200 different aromas. Once mixed, the unique scents are released into the air to create a relaxing atmosphere for the user. A number of recipes are already available through a website, but users can also create their own specially customised scents.

What is the point of all this? Well, money of course.
What other reason would a Japanese company have to develop a new and entirely unnecessary gadget? The device itself is expected to cost about $ 200, and cartridge refills will be sold for about $ 16.

The Japanese company believes that fragrance is the next big thing in communications. It envisions a future where users can send each other scented e-mail attachments, or watch music and video clips on their phone that will be enhanced by smell. However, these wider uses of the so far rather basic device are more dreams of the future (and perhaps just science fiction).

The Lisbon Treaty can be defeated

The latest nation-wide opinion poll in Ireland shows a dramatic swing against the Lisbon Treaty, with the 'Yes' side leading by only 6% when undecided voters are excluded.

The Red C poll in today's edition of the Sunday Business Post has been welcomed by anti-Lisbon campaigners, while the Irish government has described the result as "disappointing, but not entirely surprising". Up to now, opinion polls had suggested a two-to-one majority in favour of the treaty.

The poll for the Sunday Business Post says that among those entitled to vote, 35% back the Lisbon Treaty, a fall of 8% since the last poll two months ago. 31% are opposed to the treaty, an increase of 7%, while 34% - more than one third of voters - do not know what to make of it and are yet undecided.

When those undecideds are excluded, the 'Yes' side leads by 53% to 47%, a very narrow margin with seven weeks to go to polling.
Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Bertie Ahern had confirmed during the week that the Referendum on the Lisbon Treaty will be held on Thursday, June 12th.

Today, after hearing of the new Red C poll, he said that it "would be disastrous" if the Lisbon Treaty would be defeated. Well, yes, it would be - but only for him, since that would end his hopes of ever becoming the new permanent President of the EU. For Ireland as a country, and for every Irish person, it would be positive and give us in fact more influence in the political process if the treaty is defeated..

The new Red C poll reflects clearly the growing unease of many Irish people with the way the new treaty is being pushed and almost forced on Irish people by the major parties and their politicians, with no proper explanations and with the full text of the very important document not available to every voter in the country.

Not long ago the Irish government sent a copy of the "Rules of the Road" to every household in Ireland, including all houses where there is no car and no-one who drives. Now the government is sending a second booklet to every house, in order to inform the people about national "Emergency Planning", with scenarios which will never happen and some of them so unrealistic that they can only be described as pure fiction, or even science fiction.

However, the government does not send a copy of the Lisbon Treaty to every household in Ireland, and for a good reason. Taoiseach Bertie Ahern has given the President of the EU Commission, José Manuel Barroso (left, with his friend Bertie), the promise that "Ireland will deliver", so the last thing the government wants is that people will read - and perhaps even understand - the Lisbon Treaty. If they would read and understand the treaty, it would be clear to them that Ireland is losing out in every part of it, giving up rights and entitlements that the nation has had so far. But in order to please the large member states - especially Germany, France and Britain, whose share of influence will grow over-proportionally - our government and the two largest opposition parties are willing to sell out the little share Ireland still has in the EU.

At present, the voting power of Ireland in the European Council (where the 27 member states meet and discuss all important matters) is 2%, which is not much, but simply reflects our size in comparison to the other members. Under the Lisbon Treaty the voting power of Ireland would be reduced by almost two-thirds to a mere 0.8%, which means that we would in future have really no say at all and just sit in the Council as a kind of superflous room decoration.

The Lisbon Treaty would also take away Ireland's right to have a permanent EU Commissioner, and we would agree to have no Commissioner for five years within a cycle of fifteen years. And to shrink our already meager influence even further, we would also lose one of our MEPs, reducing the number of people we elect to the European Parliament from currently 13 (in the Republic) to 12. (There are also two Irish MEPs elected in the North.)

And these are only the most significant points of the treaty. There are a lot more, way too many to list them all here. But having read the text of the Lisbon Treaty - as far as it is available to ordinary people without paying the extortionist sum of € 42 that is charged for a complete copy - I have found not one positive change for Ireland. In fact, the whole treaty is geared to increase the power of the large member states, while the smaller ones - and not only Ireland - are reduced in their influence and participation. It also opens the doors of the union wide for all sorts of privatisation, including in the areas of health, public services and education.

According to the Red C poll, the change in opinion is particularly marked among Ireland's farmers, who seem to have woken up just in time to recognise the damage that the Lisbon Treaty (and various options it gives the - unelected - EU Commission in regards to international negotiations) will do to them and their businesses.

Padraig Walshe,
President of the Irish Farmers' Association (IFA), said that this was not surprising, as his members are very worried about the position being taken in the World Trade talks by British EU Commissioner (for Trade) Peter Mandelson (right).
Well, at present Mr. Mandelson can talk as much as he likes, the decisions are still made by all member states together.
If a majority of Irish people would vote for the Lisbon Treaty, these safeguards are no longer in place and the EU Commission could do whatever they like, with no democratic control or any mechanism to stop them.

In history it has so far happened only once that a whole nation voted voluntarily and willingly for the total abolition of a democratic republic (as they had it between 1919 and 1933) and the introduction of a dictatorship with absolute powers. This nation was Germany, and the year was 1933. The rest, as they say, is history. The German nation has been paying for their mistake ever since, still is, and will be most likely for several more centuries.

We Irish have lived under foreign rule for 750 years, and partly because we were too divided into tribes in the late 12th century, so we were not able to offer proper armed resistance against the invading Normans. And again - the rest is history.
After centuries of suffering and struggle, we achieved limited autonomy 86 years ago. And only 59 years ago we became a fully independent sovereign republic. Has that been too much for the Irish nation? Too much freedom and decision-making? Well, if you want to go back into a state of national hibernation with others deciding what happens and telling us what we can do and what not, then vote for the Lisbon Treaty.

If you, however, like Ireland's freedom, independence and opportunities, and want to keep them also for the future, then there is only one way to vote in the up-coming referendum: No.

Dick Roche (left), wrecker of the Skryne Valley, the fool of Beijing and now Minister for European Affairs, said a political campaign will get underway once the referendum bill is through the Oireachtas, and that it is all "very much to play for".
Oh yes, Mr. Roche, there is very much to play for. Our all future and happiness, to start with. And as things are looking now, it is possible to defeat you and the Lisbon Treaty (and with it all the selfish and arrogant politicians who want to talk us into voting for it). Let's do it!

Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai has escaped unhurt after an assassination attempt on him took place earlier today during a military parade in Kabul.

A source inside the presidential palace said that President Karzai was safe and well.

In the meantime the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban movement, which claimed responsibility for the attack, said three of its fighters were killed in the attempt.

Afghan government ministers, along with leaders of other political factions, were seen ducking down on the dais, decked with Afghan flags, after loud automatic gunfire sounded during the great military parade in Kabul, which was held to mark the 16th anniversary of the fall of the communist government and the victory of the Mujahideen.

Afghanistan's national anthem was being played when the attack started. Live television showed President Karzai standing on the huge stage, surrounded by a crowd of politicians, cabinet members, military commanders and foreign diplomats.
The US and UK ambassadors and the senior NATO military commander in Afghanistan were among dignitaries bundled away from the stand by Afghani security forces.

The British ambassador to Kabul, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, who stood in the front row, told a reporter later what happened.
"It was coming to the end of the 21-gun salute," he said. "I saw an explosion and a puff of dust to the left of the parade, and then I heard the crackle of small arms fire from all directions. After some hesitation my bodyguard frog-marched me away."

At least one person (apart from the three dead Talibs) was killed and eleven were hurt in the attack. Security forces whisked President Karzai and other dignitaries away and hundreds of guests fled the scene when automatic gunfire could be heard and panic engulfed even the parading troops (photo left).
Two members of parliament were reported to be among the wounded.

The Afghani state television cut off their live transmission of the event and the celebration and parade, which had been organised under tight security for days, was canceled.

A Taliban spokesman claimed that its insurgents were behind the firing at President Karzai. He said  that six of his militants had been deployed near the parade, armed with suicide vests and guns. Three of them were killed and the other three arrested, he added.

In a live television address hours after the incident, President Hamid Karzai confirmed that he was unharmed and that there had been arrests.
"Fortunately Afghan security forces quickly surrounded them," he said. "Some of them were captured and now everything is calm and safe, rest assured."

This has not been the first violent attempt on the President's life. Hamid Karzai has in fact been quite frequently the target of assassination attempts in recent years. In September 2002 an Islamic militant, dressed in Afghan army uniform, fired at the President's car in Kandahar, wounding the province's governor and a bodyguard. Two years later a rocket was fired at the landing site of a helicopter taking Karzai to Gardez in the south-east of the country. No-one was hurt in this attempt. And last June Taliban units fired rockets at a school in Ghazni province, where the President was speaking at the time. Again no-one was hurt, but the incident led to a shake-up in the upper ranks of the Afghani security police.

It is possible that the Taliban were inspired to their action by a successful assassination that took place more than 26 years ago. On October 6th, 1981, Egypt's President Anwar al-Sadat was killed by Islamic militants during a large military parade in Cairo, commemorating the 8th anniversary of the Yom-Kippur-War.

It has meanwhile been confirmed in Kabul that during the attempted assassination of President Hamid Karzai three of the Taliban assassins were killed by Afghani security forces and three more were captured alive. A total of three other people were killed by gunfire, including a member of the Afghani parliament who was at first reported as wounded, but died later in hospital. Among the dead is also a little girl aged ten. The number of wounded has been adjusted to ten, including a further member of the Afghani parliament. It is expected that all ten will be able to leave hospital in a few days.
The United States' Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Gary Roughead, has announced the re-establishment of the US 4th Fleet and assigned Rear Admiral Joseph D. Kernan (right), currently commander of the Naval Special Warfare Command, as its new commander with effect from July 1st. The new Fleet will be responsible for US Navy ships, submarines and aircraft operating in the Caribbean and in Central and South America.

"Re-establishing the 4th Fleet recognises the immense importance of maritime security in the southern part of the Western Hemisphere, and signals our support and interest in the civil and military maritime services in Central and South America," said Admiral Gary Roughead (left).
"Our maritime strategy raises the importance of working with international partners as the basis for global maritime security. This change increases our emphasis in the region on employing United States naval forces to build confidence and trust among friendly nations through collective maritime security efforts that focus on the common threats and mutual interests."

Effective from July 1st, 2008 the command will have operational responsibility for US Navy assets assigned from east and west coast fleets to operate in the US Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) area (see map below right).
There is no planned increase in forces assigned to the naval base at Mayport, Florida, home of NAVSO, the naval component of Southern Command.
US 4th Fleet will conduct varying missions including a range of contingency operations, counter narco-terrorism, and theater security cooperation (TSC) activities. TSC includes military-to-military interaction and bilateral training opportunities as well as humanitarian assistance and in-country partnerships with other nations.

It is interesting to notice that - with less than nine months left in office - the Bush administration is now flexing its muscles more strongly in a sudden urge towards South and Central America and the Caribbean.
There are several reasons for this. The ever growing strength and popularity of Venezuela's socialist President Hugo Chavez is a real concern in Washington. Ever since the US attempts to overthrow his government with the help of local right-wing businessmen failed, he has gone from strength to strength and is meanwhile the clear leader of a newly confident group of South American nations that are no longer willing to be subjects of US domination.
Venezuela is a main producer of oil and as such wealthy and independent enough to stand up against the long-established US bullying policies in the region that Washington still sees as its "Southern Command". With Brazil and Bolivia already governed by left-wing Presidents, and a liberation theologian just being elected the new President of Paraguay (which was for more than 60 years the most right-wing country in South America and thus a staunch US ally and playground for the CIA), the political winds are changing in the region.

At the same time the situation in Colombia, currently the one remaining South American country that is still a close ally of the USA, is deteriorating. Guerrilleros of the left-wing movement FARC are gaining strength, while President Alvaro Uribe is not only under political pressure, but also has to face the fact that his cousin and close ally was just arrested by the police for alleged corruption and conspiracy with right-wing paramilitary death squads. In the meantime the production of cocaine and its export to the USA has reached a new record level, despite billions of dollars being spent by the US administration on the training of the Colombian military and police, and on their own anti-narcotic operations (partly involving US special forces) in the region and at sea.

And there is of course still the old adversary Cuba, the USA's favourite enemy of choice. For a short period of time earlier this year it looked as if the Communist system established by Fidel Castro in 1959 would collapse with his retirement as President of Cuba. But this small window of opportunity - if it actually ever really existed - closed quickly with the election of Fidel's brother Raul as the new President. (see my entries from February 19th and 24th) 
With that the stability in Cuba was quickly restored, and since Raul took over on February 24th, he has introduced a number of internal reforms welcomed by the people, while remaining strict on ideological and political lines. Nevertheless, the USA and especially the large community of right-wing Cubans in US exile - most of them in Florida, where they have created a state within the state, controlled by the Cuban mafia and its criminal operation - still hope to regain control over Cuba in the future. Until 1959, when Fidel Castro's revolution drove off the old regime, Cuba was ruled by a corrupt right-wing junta and de facto controlled by the US mafia from New York and Florida.
There are also various unsolved problems in almost all countries of Central America, and armed conflicts - internally as well as between countries - could break out at any time. The re-establishment of the US 4th Fleet and its deployment to the area is certainly inspired by all these elements. It also shows that despite the concentration of US power in South and Southwest Asia for the past seven years, the administration is now re-focusing somehow on the Western Hemisphere again. This might well be too little too late, but nevertheless better than the way in which George W. Bush has neglected the region so far.

The US 4th Fleet was first established in 1943 under the command of Vice Admiral Jonas H. Ingram, as the US Navy's main force in the South Atlantic during the Second World War. In 1948 the Fourth was absorbed into the Second Fleet in the process of post-war downscaling and re-organisation.

Rear Admiral Joseph D. Kernan will be the first US Navy SEAL (Sea-Air-Land special forces member) ever to serve as the commander of a numbered fleet.
There are meanwhile more mobile phones in Ireland than people. According to one statistic the 4.25 million people living in the Republic of Ireland own a total of more than six million mobiles. Quite a large number, but then again, Irish people always like a good chat. And the big mobile phone companies make very good profits from this national trait.

Personally I use my mobile phone wisely. Most of the time I text, which is not only a lot cheaper than talking, but also less intrusive. While a voice call interrupts one at any time or situation, a SMS text message announces its arrival with a beep and can then be read whenever one has the time for it.

But yesterday an unexpected situation required me to use the voice option, and for longer than I would do normally. I spoke nearly half an hour on my mobile, but it was a local call, from one part of the city to another. Guess how much this phone call has cost me?

When I checked, I noticed with a little shock that I was charged more than € 20 (!) for about 28 minutes of conversation. Further investigation of the matter established that my call would have cost a lot less if the person I called would have been using the same network I use. But since it was a call from Vodafone to O2, apparently a much higher tariff applies, even for local call within the same small community. This is in my opinion outrageous and an absolute rip-off!

Some months ago the European Parliament forced the large mobile phone companies to reduce their costs for "roaming" (calls from one EU country to another) and for international calls in general.
They did follow the parliamentary order eventually, as they had really no other choice, but not very happily. It appears that they have found a way of compensating themselves for the loss of extra revenue on the international calls by increasing the cost of local calls between different networks.

I think everyone should be aware of this and watch the costs of local calls in the future. I certainly will.
Lithuania has rejected the proposed compromise which would have paved the way for further talks on a partnership between the European Union (EU) and Russia. Lithuania insists that any EU mandate for talks must include assurances on energy supplies and other issues.

Any EU member state can prevent talks between the entire union of 27 nations and third countries taking place. The EU hopes that discussions on the pact with Russia, blocked since October 2006, can be launched again at a summit in June. The pact is due to involve energy, migration and other issues.
EU foreign ministers may return to the partnership issue when they meet in Luxembourg on Tuesday.

Lithuania, a former (involuntary) member of the Soviet bloc, complained that not all of its concerns had been addressed by the EU presidency, currently held by Slovenia.
"We believe that not all our remarks were taken into account, and not all our concerns addressed,"
said Violeta Gaizauskaite, a spokeswoman for Lithuania's foreign ministry. "So negotiations have to continue within the EU and we cannot accept this proposal."

Diplomats reportedly attempted to meet Lithuania's demands, which centre on safeguards over a pipeline which transports oil from Russia through Ukraine and Belarus to Europe. Lithuania has also expressed concern about Russian policies towards Georgia and Moldova. The EU-Russia negotiations have been stalled since late 2006, when Poland blocked the mandate after Russia had banned meat imports from Poland.

It is good to see that some of the newer member states of the EU, who know Russia and Russian attitudes only too well from the 45 years when they were forced to be members of COMECON (the eastern "Common Economic Zone", dominated by the USSR), stand up against the constant Russian bullying tactics and demand fair conditions - for themselves as well as for the whole of the European Union.

(The shield above is the national Coat of Arms of Lithuania.)
An American cargo ship contracted by the US Navy has fired warning shots in the direction of two unidentified speedboats in the Persian Gulf today.
According to US military officials, the incident took place in international waters, dozens of miles from the Iranian coast.

The civilian cargo vessel - the Westward Venture (photo) - is currently working for the US Navy's Military Sealift Command (MSC) under a 65-day charter.

US officials say that the crew of the Westward Venture "used the correct measures prior to firing the shots". The US ship apparently sounded its horn, and gave the boats a verbal warning, before firing flares, 50-caliber machine guns and M-16 assault rifles.

The speedboats withdrew as they came under fire, which is the normal reaction any vessel would take under such circumstances.  There is, however, no evidence that the two boats were armed or posed any kind of threat. They were in international waters and had the same right to be there as the American cargo ship that fired upon them. As a matter of fact, speedboats are a regular sight in the Persian Gulf, as they conduct a large part of the regular trade between the United Arab Emirates on the western side of the Gulf and Iran and Pakistan to the East. Shortly after the incident a routine inquiry was made of the Westward Venture by the Iranian authorities and Tehran said its vessels did have no confrontations with any US ship.

In January, the US Navy claimed that speedboats from Iran had "harassed US Navy ships in the Gulf", but Iran denied issuing any threats. (for details see my entries from January 8th and January 15th)

Only a month ago the Global Patriot, another civilian US cargo ship under charter to the MSC, opened fire on a number of Egyptian trading boats in the approach to the Suez Canal, killing one Egyptian trader and wounding two more. (for details see my entry from March 25th)

It appears that civilian American cargo ships working for the MSC are not only heavily armed, but also quite careless with their weapons and trigger-happy. As incidents like this occur more often now, an independent international inquiry under the auspices of the United Nations might be appropriate.
The United Nation's nuclear control authority has said that it will investigate recent American claims that Syria was building a secret nuclear reactor with North Korean help.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) criticised the USA for the withholding of its apparent intelligence until seven months after the Israeli Air Force bombed and destroyed the site.

The USA claim that the alleged Syrian reactor "was not for peaceful purposes", while Syria has said the American accusation is "ridiculous" and has denied any nuclear links to North Korea.

The director general of the IAEA, Muhammad al-Baradai (right), who was
joint winner (together with his organisation) of the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2005, has now been briefed by US officials on their claims but "deplores" the delay.

"The agency will treat this information with the seriousness it deserves and will investigate the veracity of the information," the IAEA says in an official statement which is critical of both the US delay in releasing the information and of Israel's bombing of the site before the IAEA could inspect it.

"The director general views the unilateral use of force by Israel as undermining the due process of verification that is at the heart of the non-proliferation regime," the statement reads. It is a clear indication that Mr. al-Baradai is not accepting the US claims at face value and wants his own first-hand information.

Syrian officials have said the site that was bombed by Israel on September 6th, 2007 was "an unused military facility under construction". Building on the site (photo left) had - according to the Syrian government - stopped some time before the air strike.

On Thursday, US security officials showed members of Congress "evidence" they said proved Syria was building a nuclear reactor with North Korean assistance. Among the information they displayed were pictures - said to have been obtained from Israel - allegedly taken inside the facility and showing a reactor core being built.

The images showed striking similarities between the Syrian facility and the North Korean reactor at Yongbyon, the US officials said. However, the facility was not yet operational and there was no fuel for the reactor, CIA agents admitted.

The White House said that Syria's "cover-up" operation after the Israeli air strike reinforced its belief that the alleged reactor "was not intended for peaceful activities".
In late October 2007, an American research organisation, the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), released pre- and post-strike satellite images of the site which indicated it had been bulldozed flat after the bombing.

"Until September 6th, 2007, the Syrian regime was building a covert nuclear reactor in its eastern desert, capable of producing plutonium," the White House statement said. "The Syrian regime must come clean before the world regarding its illicit nuclear activities."
The statement added that the USA had long been "seriously concerned about North Korea's nuclear weapons programme and its proliferation activities".

Syrian officials have denied any North Korean involvement in their country.

"These allegations are ridiculous," Sami Khiyami, Syria's ambassador to Britain, said. "We are used to such allegations now, since the day the United States has invaded Iraq - you remember all the theatrical presentations concerning the WMDs [weapons of mass destruction] in Iraq."

Ambassador Khiyami said the facility was "a deserted military building that had nothing to do with a reactor".

Syria is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which gives it the right to enrich its own fuel for civil nuclear power, under inspection from the IAEA. North Korea has previously denied transferring nuclear technology to Syria.

The White House insists it is committed to the ongoing six-nation diplomacy, between North Korea and the USA, China, Japan, South Korea and Russia that led to a deal with Pyongyang in February 2007.
North Korea agreed to give up its nuclear weapons in return for aid and its removal from a blacklist of state sponsors of terrorism. But the USA has accused Pyongyang of missing the deadline to make a full nuclear declaration as promised.

The CIA briefing and statement coincided with the end of a two-day meeting between US and North Korean officials on Pyongyang's nuclear programme, which both sides say went well - fueling speculation that a deal may be imminent. But questions are being asked whether the reactor claim is designed to reinforce those diplomatic efforts or an attempt by some in the administration to undermine them.  

The USA have used lies and elaborately constructed hoaxes before in order to discredit other countries and to accuse them especially of "the production of nuclear weapons". We all remember only too well the well-staged show the then US Secretary of State Colin Powell gave at the United Nations, not only claiming that Iraq had "weapons of mass destruction", but showing drawings and photos to prove it. All that was, as it turned out, an elaborate hoax, constructed by the CIA. There never were any WMDs in Iraq.
And since the Bush administration has set its greedy and power-hungry eyes also on Iran and Syria, a similar
propaganda and smear campaign is conducted against these two countries. The White House is constantly accusing Iran of having a "nuclear programme for military purposes", while recently revealed US intelligence reports clearly state that "Iran has no relevant nuclear capacity, and has not had any for the past four years".

With this fox shot, the USA are now trying to intimidate Syria and make it look bad in the international media. It is indeed - as Muhammad al-Baradai says - very suspicious that the USA should have waited seven months before such sensitive information was brought to the attention of the IAEA. If it is indeed sensitive information, ad not again another hoax. The building that is shown on the presented photo does in no way look like a nuclear reactor, and by now there is nothing left of it but pieces of rubble anyway.
Israel, the USA's mercenary force for special operations in the Middle East, has bombed numerous sites in Syria over the years. So why is this one suddenly picked out as being so special? There is no reason, except that it is another attempt by the USA to sell a big fat lie that suits its own political purposes to the world and the wold's media.
The embalmed body of the mystic monk Padre Pio (right), one of the Catholic world's most popular saints of modern times, has gone on display in the Madonna delle Grazie Church in San Giovanni Rotondo, in the Italian province of Foggia.
The physical remains of the Capuchin friar, who was said to have had stigmata resembling the wounds of Jesus Christ's crucifixion on his hands and feet, had been exhumed last month, on the 40th anniversary of his death at the Capuchin monastery in San Giovanni Rotondo.

He is to be conserved and shown to the public in a part-glass coffin for at least several months, starting today. An official Church statement said the body was in a "fair condition". Particularly the hands "looked like they had just undergone a manicure", according to Archbishop Domenico D'Ambrosio, who witnessed the exhumation in the southern Italian town. There are now no longer any signs of stigmata.

About 15,000 pilgrims came to the small town today (below left) to attend a special Mass for St. Pio and to see the displayed body. More than a million people, including thousands from Ireland, are expected to travel to the small town of San Giovanni Rotondo between now and December, in order to gape at the embalmed body of the saint.

A Catholic magazine found that far more Italian Catholics pray to Padre Pio than to any other saint, including the "Virgin Mary" or Jesus himself. Some 7 million people visit his tomb every year and there are about 3000 "Padre Pio Prayer Groups" around the world, with a membership of around 3 million in total.

The friar, born Francesco Forgione, died in 1968 aged 81. Among the stories that surround him is one that he wrestled with the devil in his monastery cell. Padre Pio is also said to have predicted future events, to have been seen in two places at the same time, and to have been able to tell people their sins before they confessed them to him. Pope John Paul II made him a saint in 2002 at a ceremony that drew one of the biggest crowds ever seen in the Vatican, after the Church said it had found evidence that the miraculous cure of a sick woman was due to the dead monk's intercession.

During his lifetime, however, he was far less popular with the Church hierarchy, even though he had always a special appeal to a large number of ordinary Catholics. It has been alleged that Padre Pio inflicted the famous stigmata wounds on himself, using sulphuric acid, and for years he was officially banned by his superiors from saying Mass in public.

Even the whole idea of the "stigmata", which apparently also appeared on some other people (though Padre Pio is certainly the most well-known and exploited case), is flawed and based entirely on fiction and imagination, and not on facts. It is well known how the Romans did their crucifixions, as they used this particularly cruel form of capital punishment for centuries and all over their empire. A condemned man (there are no records of women being crucified) would be bound to the cross by ropes, and there is no evidence that they ever used nails for a crucifixion. Roman nails were valuable iron tools and used for the building of houses and ships. They would not be wasted on any condemned man. And they would not have worked either. Experiments have shown clearly that Roman nails would not have been capable to fix a man to a cross and keep him there for the long time it took to die from crucifixion. So the whole concept of having "stigmata" has no base in reality. If Jesus was crucified as the New Testament tells us, he would have died, but certainly not have shown any wound marks on his hands and feet. This is one of the many inventions added to the story during the Middle Ages, when people - and especially Catholic priests - were obsessed with cruelties to the human body. (The many forms of physical torture invented during the medieval period - and used predominantly by the "Christian" churches - gives plenty of evidence for that.)

It always amazes me when I hear and read about morbid show events in the Catholic Church. If one believes in God - as Christians say they do - then God should be the one and only to concentrate on, either in a singular form (as worshipped by Jews, Muslims and some Christians) or in a trinitarian form as worshipped by Catholics and many other Christian faith communities. Why is the Catholic Church so obsessed with "saints" (which are nothing but the Christian equivalent of the minor gods and demi-gods in the Graeco-Roman Pagan pantheon) and all the strange and goolish mumbo-jumbo that goes with it? It does not make any sense and actually contradicts the belief in one superior and allmighty God, when more people pray to the dead body of a human being than to God himself.

This morbid obsession with the display of the dead bodies of "saints" goes back to the early Middle Ages and has its roots not in Christianity, but in ancient Pagan cults from the Middle East, dating back as far as the Bronze Age. They crept into Christianity together with many other Pagan traditions over centuries, and in fact they made the Catholic Church far more Pagan than Christian. Even the Mass, the core element of the Catholic worship, reflects only about 5% of true Christian tradition and the belief in Jesus. The rest is a conglomerate of Jewish teachings, various Pagan traditions from all over the ancient world, and the largest element of the Mass is actually taken from the Pagan Roman state ceremonials, performed to celebrate the deified emperors.

I know that it is unlikely to happen, but it would be far more honest if the Catholic Church would acknowledge that it is a Pagan faith and has very little to do with the person and teachings of Joshua ben Joseph, usually known by the name of Jesus. But the actions of the Catholic hierarchy, especially the morbid display of dead bodies in order to attract pilgrims and their money, speaks for itself. It also demonstrates clearly that most Catholics are certainly no Christians in the sense of Jesus' teachings, but sensationalist fools and voyeurs who follow the most goolish and morbid faith that exists on this planet, with the exception of Voodoo, which has an even more morbid and sordid obsession with death and dead bodies.
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates has recommended the top US military commander in Iraq, General David H. Petraeus, as the next head of US Central Command (CENTCOM), which covers an area from the Horn of Africa into central Asia and includes all operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The appointment of General Petraeus (right) to this high-profile post is subject to the approval of the US Senate.

If confirmed, he would replace Admiral William J. Fallon, who resigned on March 31st after a reported split with the Bush administration over his policy on Iran. (For details see my entries from March 12th and April 2nd.)

An article in Esquire magazine, titled "The Man between War and Peace", said he was opposed to the use of force against the Islamic Republic over its nuclear activities. Admiral Fallon said the report, while not true, had become a distraction.
At present Admiral Fallon's former deputy, Lieutenant General Martin Dempsey of the US Army, is the acting commander of US Central Command.

At a news conference in the Pentagon Robert Gates said the Joint Chiefs of Staff  had agreed that General Petraeus should be nominated as the new head of CENTCOM. "I am absolutely confident he is the best man for the job," the Defense Secretary declared.
"The kinds of conflicts that we're dealing with, not just in Iraq, but in Afghanistan and some of the challenges that we face elsewhere in the region, and the Central Command area, are very much characterised by asymmetric warfare," he added. "I don't know anybody in the United States military better qualified to lead that effort."

The 55-year-old General David Howell Petraeus has since the autumn of last year
overseen the massive "surge" of an additional 30,000 US troops in Iraq, which has been credited with improving security and helping to reduce violence.
Since his graduation from the US Military Academy at West Point in 1974, he had a distinguished army career as an infantry officer, serving predominantly in light infantry and airborne units. Petraeus has also achieved various academic honours, including a PhD from Princeton University, and is regarded as a fighting scholar.
He is currently the leading US military expert on counter-insurgency and co-authored the official field manual on counter-insurgency for the US armed forces.

Mr. Gates said that General Petraeus would not leave Iraq "until late summer or early autumn", if his appointment is confirmed, in order to ensure he had enough time for a proper handover.

Lieutenant General Raymond T. Odierno (left),
General Petraeus' deputy in Iraq and currently commander of the US Army's 3rd Corps, has been nominated to replace him in as the commander of US forces in Iraq.

Secretary Gates said that General Odierno had "gained plenty of experience as General Petraeus's right-hand man in Iraq over the past year". He hopes both appointments would be approved by the Senate by Memorial Day, which is this year on May 26th.

In a brief statement from Baghdad, General Petraeus said he was "honoured to be nominated for this position and to have an opportunity to continue to serve with America's soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, coastguardsmen and civilians".
A directly elected regional Mayor for Dublin, as well as elected Mayors for all Irish cities and counties, are among the many new proposals for the reform of local government published today by Ireland's Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.

John Gormley (photo) said he favoured the London model, where a Mayor is directly elected for the city and has executive powers. Speaking on Ireland's national radio RTÉ, Gormley also said that any Irish Mayor should have the power to impose a congestion charge if necessary.

The new Green Paper presented by the minister today proposes the introduction of a regional Mayor for Dublin, elected directly by the people, with strategic functions including planning, housing, waste, water provision and waste water disposal.
The paper, titled "Stronger Local Democracy", proposes that the Mayor would also act as chairperson of the Dublin Transport Authority.

The Green Paper also makes a case that greater local leadership, accountability and connection with the citizens can be achieved through the provision of directly elected Mayors for all counties and cities. The possibility of introducing revised structures for the local governance of key gateways, such as Limerick, Waterford and Sligo, is also considered.
Examples of revised structures include unitary authorities for county and city, a single elected Mayor to lead both county and city, or cross-boundary metropolitan Mayors.

It proposes that town government could be strengthened by allowing for greater devolution of local decisions from county to town level, within overall county level strategies.

A range of initiatives are also discussed, to allow people to play a greater role in local decision making, including local plebiscites, petition rights, participatory budgeting and town meetings. "Stronger Local Democracy" stresses the need for continuous change, flexibility and imagination in service delivery. Greater movement towards the sharing of services between local authorities is also advocated.

The paper sets out further the issues for debate on the financing of local government, which will feed into the work of the recently established Irish Commission on Taxation. Options for the introduction of local election spending limits are proposed, as is greater oversight of local government ethics compliance by the Irish Standards in Public Office Commission.

In my opinion all these suggestions are very welcome, and in fact long overdue in Ireland. I even think that the ideas set out in the Green Paper are not going far enough. Why is it that more than 86 years after achieving autonomy from Britain, and nearly 60 years after the declaration of full independence as sovereign republic, Ireland is still copying the old English system of local government?

In contrast to Britain and Ireland, all other European countries have a much more developed and by far more democratic, representative and efficient system of local government.
In most EU countries every city, town and village - no matter how small - has a directly elected Mayor with executive powers and a local council that controls him. Apart from that, counties, regions and provinces have extra councils as well, all directly elected and responsible to their people.

So why is it not possible to introduce the same system in Ireland? Well, it is possible and should be done rather sooner than later. It is only the lack of will and imagination on the side of politicians that prevents it. So as much as one should welcome John Gormley's new proposals, they are only a first step to real local Democracy.
There are hundreds of Irish communities with a population of several thousand that have never had any local government at all. There are urban councils in a number of towns of course, but their powers are very limited. And any village, regardless of size, has absolutely no representative structure and is entirely dependent on the decisions of the County Council. This is a medieval system in urgent need of reform.

Next summer there will be local elections again in Ireland, and there is plenty of time to put new structures into place beforehand. So now is the time to talk to local councillors and TDs and tell them your demands for more democratic representation in your local community. If you don't stand up now and make your voice heard, all we will get is the generally positive, but still only half-baked concept that John Gormley presented today in his Green Paper.
"Stronger Local Democracy" is a nice title, but unless we urge the government to go the extra mile and make it as strong and accountable as local government is on the European Continent, we will end up with a few more nice jobs for the boys in power, but no real local Democracy that deserves the name.
Among the more than 200 heads of state we have now on this planet, there are only a few who stand out from the crowd, as individuals as well as through their words and deeds. One of them, and an only recent addition to this illustrious club, is Bolivia's popular President Evo Morales (photo). In a memorable speech he has told a forum of the United Nations that capitalism should be scrapped if the planet is to be saved from the effects of climate change.

"If we want to save our planet Earth, to save life, to save mankind, we have a duty to put an end to the capitalist system," he said and added that unbridled industrial development was responsible for the pillaging of natural resources. President Morales also argued against biofuels, crops which are used to produce alternative energy rather than food. Biofuels resulted in poverty and hunger he said, and were very harmful to the poorest people in the world.
In a side swipe at Brazil, currently the major manufacturer of the biofuel Ethanol, he said that some presidents were putting cars ahead of people.

Evo Morales was giving the opening address at the seventh session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York, which will continue until May 2nd and is this year dedicated to "The global impact of Climate Change on native people".

As a descendant of the Aymara people from the Andes, Evo Morales is Bolivia's first ever indigenous president and therefore especially qualified to open the forum and speak on the matters it is concerned with.
There is a saying that one scandal comes seldom alone. Well, after the immense blunder at Our Lady's Hospital for Sick Children in Crumlin (see entry below) that came to light earlier today, a second one emerged tonight, involving the Bank of Ireland.

According to Ireland's Data Protection Commissioner Billy Hawkes (photo) very sensitive information concerning about 10,000 customers of the Bank of Ireland has been stolen.

Mr. Hawkes told Ireland's national broadcaster RTÉ that he is investigating the disappearance of four laptop computers which were stolen already last year. But for reasons yet unknown the Commissioner was only informed about the theft on Friday.

The missing laptops were being used by staff working for the Bank of Ireland's life assurance division. They contained information about medical backgrounds, life assurance details, bank account details, names and addresses of about 10,000 customers. Apparently there was software security on the stolen computers, but the sensitive information was not encrypted.

Mr. Hawkes said he was "investigating the case as a matter of urgency", which is not more than can be expected. The Commissioner added that his inquiry will focus on the security measures in relation to the computers and on the information they contained.

The Bank of Ireland, which has confirmed the theft, is planning to inform customers. Well, is this not very kind of them? If I were one of their customers (which I am not), I would ring them first thing in the morning and raise merry hell. What the heck are they playing at?
Sensitive customer information is stolen, and they just sit and sleep on the matter for months, before they even do their basic duty and inform the Data Protection Commissioner. And how is it possible that this happened in the first place? What about internal security? If one computer is stolen, one might see that as an unfortunate matter. But four?! This looks more like an organised job.

And only now, after months of doing nothing, they will inform the effected customers. This is the real scandal in this case! We have seen in recent months a lot of reports about the malfunctioning of major banks, who lost hundreds of billions due to imprudent investments and outright idiotic speculations. Who is footing the bill for all that? The banks and their shareholders? Oh no. They only take the big profits in good years. Now that there is a crisis, it is you and me and everyone who will pay for it, through higher interest rates, higher mortgage costs and, first and foremost, through our taxes, since the governments have to bail out the banks and saving them from going bust.

Even though I am not a Bank of Ireland customer, I am extremely annoyed by this news and urge anyone effected by the case to make strong representations to the bank, to your local TD, and also to the Financial Regulator, whose job it is to keep control of the banking sector.
King Gyanendra of Nepal has dismissed reports that he will go into exile after the unexpectedly clear election success of the country's former Maoist rebels. The Maoists say that their main concern is that the king steps down from the throne voluntarily, rather than being forced out of office.

The Maoists have emerged from the recent election clearly as the biggest party, but its looks like they will fall short of gaining an overall majority. Latest results give the Maoists 120 of the 240 seats chosen by the first-past-the-post system. One seat has still not been declared. A further 335 seats are allocated by proportional representation. The Maoists now have about 30% of votes counted for those seats.

Reports in Indian newspapers have been suggesting for some time that King Gyanendra
(right) would go into exile there after stepping down as ruler. But a statement issued by the royal palace in Kathmandu said that foreign press reports were "totally fabricated and unfounded". It gave however no indication as to whether or when the king would step down voluntarily.
India is also concerned in general that the change of system and regime in neighbouring Nepal might have negative effects on rebellious mountain tribes in northeast India.

The Maoists have made it clear that they will make the abolition of the monarchy one of the first priorities of the new constituent assembly.
"It does not matter whether Gyanendra lives in India or Nepal," Maoist spokesman Krishna Bahadur Mahara said today. "We have already decided with the interim constitution what will be done. We are going to declare Nepal a republic, and he will have to accept it."

Last week the powerful and popular Maoist leader Prachanda (likely to become Nepal's first president) urged King Gyanendra to step down from office of his own accord. "In history, monarchs have been beheaded and also had to flee. Let that not be repeated in Nepal," Prachanda
(left) said on Nepali television.

Another key demand of the Maoists is that former guerrilla fighters be integrated into the country's army and they show no signs of wanting to compromise on the issue.
"We have already decided that the two armies will be integrated and a new security force will be created," Maoist deputy leader Baburam Bhattarai (likely to be the next prime minister) said. "A new political leadership has come. The army should follow this political leadership."

A senior spokesman for the Nepali army said that new soldiers should only be recruited by normal methods. "The army is an apolitical organisation," he declared. However, in the past the army has been - and has been seen as - the strongest support element of the monarchy and the establishment. The Maoists had declared an end to ten years of insurgency in 2006. Both rebels (like those pictured right) and the military were regularly accused of gross human rights violations during the war, so there is a lot of tension. But it seems that any serious conflict between the old enemies is out of the question now. One of the army's most senior officers has made it clear a few days ago that "the army will be loyal to any legal government", regardless of which parties are in power.

The USA, however, still officially classifies the Nepali Maoists as "terrorists". This shows once again how much out of touch Washington is with the realities on the ground all over Asia. The US State Department has meanwhile "congratulated the Nepalese people for holding elections", but that is just a meaningless and empty phrase. The USA are notorious for not accepting the results of democratic elections in foreign countries (e.g. Austria, Cuba, Palestine and Venezuela, to mention only four), especially if the winning party is not to their own liking. But as things stand, the USA have lost their face in Asia a long time ago, when they abandoned their South Vietnamese allies in 1973. The more recent events in Afghanistan and Iraq are not helping either, and most Asian countries are simply no longer interested in anything the USA says.
This will be even more the case with a new Maoist-led government in Nepal, which borders China and is expected to develop strong anti-capitalist policies. 
A young child has had the wrong kidney removed, following a medical error at Our Lady's Hospital for Sick Children in Crumlin, one of Ireland's leading children's hospitals. The "mistake" that led to a healthy kidney being removed has been described by the hospital as "an unprecedented error", and it says it has "given its sincere apologies to the family".

Well, leaving modern PR-speak, in which the hospital robed itself immediately, aside, we can call this as what it really is: another unacceptable scandal and blunder in the Irish Health Service. The under-staffed, under-funded and badly managed Health Service, one needs to add.

What good does an apology do in such a case? The young child now faces regular dialysis unless a donor kidney can be found!
These days we always hear quick verbal apologies from companies, public services, institutions and organisations when someone fails to function properly or something goes wrong. "We apologise for any inconvenience caused" is now one of the most common phrases heard every day and everywhere in Ireland. But it is not good enough! Not in most cases, and certainly not in this one!

I am outraged and I wonder how many other Irish people feel like I do when they hear about this. How many more scandals and disasters does it need for Mary Harney to resign or being sacked? And how many more outrages will we take quietly before we turn out en masse for a real demonstration for the improvement of the Irish Health Service?

On March 29th a mere 4000 people supported our march through Dublin. That was more than a disappointment. Where are all those people who claim to be unhappy with the HSE? Not to be found when it is the time to stand up and be counted. Take a leaf out of the book of the IFA. Last Thursday more than 10,000 farmers marched through Dublin, for nothing more than money. But when it comes to people's lives and health, all we had was 4000. Shame on you, Ireland!!!

And even more shame on the HSE, which presides with arrogance and ignorance over scandals like the one that just occurred in Crumlin.

According to the hospital "an internal review is under way" and they say that its board of directors "will consider the detail of the review and act where appropriate".
Well, another nice mouthful of meaningless PR-waffle. When will people with responsibility in this country ever stand up and acknowledge that they made a mistake and will take the consequences?

The hospital also pointed out that "the family was and continues to be given full support by the hospital staff". Now that is really the crown of it! What else would one expect? To be chucked out and abandoned by the very hospital that just removed the wrong kidney from your sick little child?!

I am not a very emotional person, and usually I try to see everything from a distance and with a cool glance of objectivity. But this afternoon, after hearing of this case, I am outraged and very angry. Modern Ireland is not only a corrupt banana republic where incompetence ruins almost everything, no, we are meanwhile so far down the line that little children are mutilated in hospital by incompetent doctors as well. And all we get offered as a remedy is a verbal apology, an "internal review" and a "consideration of action where it is appropriate".

Well, my fellow Irish people, this is the kind of country you get from Fianna Fáil. And I am sorry to say that you deserve it, after electing the same old dodgers again and again, despite better knowledge. I am only even more sorry for the poor little child and its family who suffer at the hands of incompetent doctors. They have all my empathy and my best wishes.

If you think that Christianity has anything to do with peace and peaceful behaviour, and also call Palestine "the Holy Land", this is a good time to start afresh and think again. There is probably no piece of land on Earth more unholy than the one called "holy" by so many, and it can be seen every single day. There is also a complete absence of peace and good will. Most of the time it is the Israeli security forces that take care of the violent part, but yesterday another element was added to the permanent powder keg that is Palestine.

Israeli police had to break up a fist fight that erupted between Greek and Armenian Orthodox clergymen at one of Christianity's holiest sites. The scuffles broke out at the "Church of the Holy Sepulchre" in Jerusalem on Orthodox Palm Sunday.

Brawls are not uncommon at the church, which is uneasily shared by various Christian denominations. In this case, witnesses say an Armenian priest forcibly ejected a Greek priest from an area close to the "tomb of Jesus". They say the attacker felt the Greek priest had "spent too long at the tomb".

When (Jewish) Israeli police arrived to break up the fight, some were reportedly beaten back by worshippers using palm fronds. Two Armenians were detained by the police, prompting supporters to stage a rally in protest outside the police station.

The fierce rivalry between the six different churches which grudgingly share the "Holy Sepulchre" dates back to the aftermath of the crusades, and to the great schism between Eastern and Western Christianity in the 11th century. Each denomination controls, and jealously guards, its own section of the labyrinthine site. The primary custodians are the Eastern Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, and Roman Catholic Churches, with the Greek Orthodox Church having the lion's share. In the 19th century, the Coptic Orthodox, the Ethiopian Orthodox and the Syriac Orthodox acquired lesser responsibilities, which include shrines and other structures within and around the building. Times and places of worship for each community are strictly regulated in common areas, and the keys to the church are kept for generations now by a local Muslim family, being seen as "neutral" by all the Christian fractions.

But the establishment of a status quo does not halt violence, which continues to break out every so often between different churches and their followers, even in modern times. On a hot summer day in 2002, a Coptic monk who is stationed on the roof to express Coptic claims to the Ethiopian territory there, moved his chair from an agreed spot into the shade. This was interpreted as a hostile move by the Ethiopians, and eleven people were hospitalized after the resulting fracas.
In another incident in 2004 - during Orthodox celebrations of the "Exaltation of the Holy Cross" - a door to the Franciscan chapel was left open. This was taken as a sign of disrespect by the Orthodox and a fistfight broke out. Some people were arrested, but no one was seriously injured.

If anyone needs proof that organised religion, and especially Christianity, is a shambolic set of lies, swindles and struggle for power and the control of people's minds, here you have it. While Jesus was preaching peace, his modern day followers bring conflict and petty squabbles even to the place they regard as his sacred burial site. What a farce! And if it were not so sad, it would be quite a joke.

A sad Mistake is ten Years old

I do listen a lot to BBC radio programmes, on the World Service and the Home Service, which is now (since 1967) called Radio 4. But for me it will always be the Home Service, as it was when I first listened to it. However, in recent years I listen less and less to Radio 4, as several good and long-established programmes have been dropped from the schedule and replaced by weird and outright bad programmes. I have no influence on that, even though I have written to the BBC about it several times, and the only thing that is left for me - and every other listener - is to switch to another station or to switch off completely. And this is what I do more and more often, and especially over the weekend.

I don't know if there was at some stage a group of people in the BBC that made the strategic decision that it would be better to have fewer listeners over the weekend. Probably not. Most of things like this happen by chance or accident, or through corporate incompetence, which is rampant in many large companies and organisations. But I distinctly remember that the worst and most annoying time for Radio 4 listeners was the period from 1996 to 2000, among insiders also known as the "boyling blood years".
These were the four unfortunate years our most favourate radio station was headed by James Boyle (right), a dour, humourless, widely ignorant and clearly incompetent Scotsman who was brought in by the BBC's worst ever director general, John Birt.

Birt and Boyle (nicknamed "MacBirt" and seen by many as a smaller Scottish version of his master) made a devastating pair and were responsible for a lot of cultural and intellectual damage done to the BBC, and especially to Radio 4. Before making a real mess of Radio 4, Boyle had done the very same to the BBC's Radio Scotland, which he also headed for four years. In both cases he slashed funds, sacked popular presenters and replaced long-established and popular programmes with mediocre dribble and outright rubbish not worth listening to. Why? Only he and John Birt might really know, if anyone knows it at all. It is quite possible that Birt and Boyle - in their personality combination of complete ignorance, inflated ego and great arrogance - have no idea why they did what they did, and did not really give a toss, as long as they were payed enough for doing it. And that, be sure, they were.

One of the sad mistakes that James Boyle foisted on the listeners of Radio 4 is today celebrating its tenth birthday and - to no one's surprise - marking the event with a special edition of the programme that was all self-praising and slapping each other on the back, never mind the stupid listeners out there in the real world.
The programme I refer to is called "Broadcasting House" (a truly strange name for a radio programme to begin with) and on the air every Sunday morning between 9 and 10 o'clock. It is supposed to be a news and current affairs programme, a kind of Sunday supplement to the daily "Today" programme, without being a copy of it.
Well, as a concept that is quite good and it would be a great idea to have actually such a programme.

But sadly "Broadcasting House" (often abbreviated to BH, which in German means also a bra) is no such thing. It is a weird and wildly mixed conglomerate of items, many related to news and current affairs, but none of them really of any relevance or great interest. Some have dubbed BH "the toddlers' edition of the Today programme", but in my opinion that would be unfair to toddlers.
While the "Today" programme is
, just like a good daily newspaper, a balanced and sophisticated mix of news and comment, current affairs, opinions, culture and a good view on the world, "Broadcasting House" is a poor radio copy of a bad Sunday paper, filled with much hot air and dribble, because nothing really important happened over the weekend, but the space is still there to be filled with something. For that reason most Sunday newspapers are massive paper mountain with very little content worth reading, and I have stopped buying and reading them for years. And soon after it appeared on Radio 4 and began spoiling my Sunday morning, I also stopped listening to "Broadcasting House".

In fact, I hardly listen to Radio 4 at all over the weekend now, thanks to many more programmes that are not worth my time and have nothing that interests me. But
"Broadcasting House" was the first that drove me off the station for a certain amount of time. I hope the obnoxious James Boyle, who never responded to a four-page letter I sent him in 1998, is happy about this.
In the olden days, when common sense had still a place in public life, men like Mr. Boyle would at best have been dustmen or janitors. Sadly, nowadays the likes of his are given responsibility for all areas of culture, the arts and broadcasting - with a range of predictable results.

So, while James Boyle and a few staunch inmates of Radio 4 were celebrating the creation of their shambolic Sunday show this morning, I did what I do now for nearly ten years on a Sunday morning: I switched from BBC Radio 4 to RTÉ Radio 1, whose Sunday mornings are filled with a good balance of programmes, worth listening to and often also very enjoyable.


You are most welcome to this weblog, to which I post my views, thoughts and opinions. Often the entries will be inspired by events and news from Ireland or abroad. Having lived in various countries, I take note of many things that happen on the planet.
And I have clear views and strong opinions.
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