Thursday, March 31, 2005

Somebody Got Murdered

From time to time the fate of an individual, their life and/or death, captures the hearts and minds of a nation and even, sometimes the world. Often one could ask "why... and not...". Kenneth Bigley was one such man, his two American colleagues killed and forgotten long before Bigley's tragic story was dragged to its inevitable end. Robert McCartney is another - his memory kept alive by his sisters so tirelessly when so many others murdered by republican scum (I usually think specifically of Newry postal worker Frank Kerr, murdered in cold blood during an IRA robbery AFTER it called its ceasefire) are forgotten in the interests of political expediency.

Now we have Terry Schiavo in the US, a woman whose brain no longer functions (although, apparently, she's not strictly brain dead) and has been in this state for nearly 15 years. Her husband wants her to be allowed to die by removing her feeding tubes, while her parents do not (they must believe that a miracle recovery may take place?...). Personally, I believe in neither the death penalty nor abortion but I do believe people have the right to determine their own fate, if sound of mind, or to have their loved ones make that decision for them if not sound of mind.

However I also believe there's a terrible hypocrisy at play where euthanasia is not allowed but a person is "allowed to die". How on earth can starving someone to death be considered in her own interests? Even drowning would be preferable! (and I don't mean to be flippant). If the US courts have decided that allowing someone to die is acceptable then, really, legalising euthanasia should be debated as a matter of course - and that would stir up some storm.

The thing about this case, though, is that the woman has become a political football and it surely cannot have escaped the American peoples' notice that their president, who signed dozens of death warrants in Texas, got out of bed in the middle of the night to try and enact a federal law to prevent Schiavo's physicians from allowing her to die. It dissapoints me, as a very moderate Catholic, that the church in Rome manages to get itself tarred with the same brush as the fundamentalist right-wing evangelical Christians who still would have us believe creation "theory".

Europeans really don't realise (I don't pretend I totally do either) that Americans pretty much despise the idea of big government (and their version of "big" is a lot smaller than government in a number of European countries) , which is one of the main reasons why the Republicans have held the presidency for a large majority of the time in the last century. Anything resembling what we would consider social justice is virtually brandished "communism" in the States. So when the federal government is seen to so directly interfere in the life of an individual, Americans are up in arms.

American conservatives are clearly in a muddle. They despise Democrat-style "big" government yet their own chosen leadership, which they must have believed would be an extension of Ronald Reagan's theme of big Government being an enemy of the American Way, is seemingly being dominated by a religious right that is now guilty of exactly that which they purport to oppose. Strange times indeed.

Update:
When I'd finished writing this I saw on the BBC that Terry Schiavo had passed away. RIP.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Bullet The Blue Sky

Read the EU Code of Conduct on Arms Exports and then try and work out how anyone (the French, actually) can justify selling arms to the Chinese? While not being a complete peacenik (for example, I abhorred the pig-headed arms embargo on the former Yugoslavia, which allowed the Serbs believe they could achieve a military victory due to their absorption of the old Yugoslav Army), the fact remains that the arms trade, dominated totally by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, is just, well, evil. Self defence is every country's right but where do your enemy's weapons come from in the first place? Not Tuvalu that's for sure.

Update:
Just to make the point that we (the EU) shouldn't be selling arms to China because it just isn't right and not because the Americans are telling us not to. To sell jets to a country like Pakistan is bad enough but to do it while simultaneously trying to make India their local strategic partner in their "War on (Islamic) Terror" just smacks of Cold War chess all over again. Strategic self-interest (and a bit of business for the arms-traders) over principle is the American way. George Bush may say "there is no justice without freedom" well actually he got it the wrong way round - there is no freedom without justice.

R.I.P.

Last week a fella that was in my class in school died, apparently overcome by fumes while printing t-shirts. We always got on but were never great mates or anything. It was still a shock though and reinforced a conversation I'd been having only the day before I found out that life really is easy to extinguish.

There was about 95 boys in my year (Leaving Cert. of 1994) and I'll always remember a priest we had teaching us saying that within five years he would have attended at least one of our funerals (the conversation wasn't as morbid as that quote sounds - it was more of a "value life" conversation). That moment has stuck with me, and others, over the years. As it happens this guy, Emmet McGorman, is the first of us to pass away, nearly 11 years later.

Emmet was a nice lad and was always up for a chat the rare times we met since school. God rest him.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Unforgettable Fire

Amazingly Eddie Holt's column in today's Irish Times actually addresses the points I raised below. It's couched in journalistic language, but essentially he's done a bit of a volte face and changed his position from anti-incinerator to anti-method of locating incinerators. He also makes no mention of the Cork incinerator - sticking to opposing the Drogheda one on the basis of a large landfill site also being located in the area. There's hope for science and reason yet!

Friday, March 18, 2005

Fire

This is a letter I sent to Eddie Holt of the Irish Times following an opinion piece last Saturday where he rails against politicians imposing incinerators on the people of Meath and Cork. Basically, it pissed me off! I can’t link to it as it’s a subscriber site, but I’ll try and find a link.

Dear Mr. Holt,

I want to write to you to get a few things off my chest in light of your column on incineration and of ongoing protesting on the issue in Cork and Louth/Meath. I apologise in advance for the length of this mail but anyway… The first point I want to raise is regarding the “cheek, hypocrisy and sheer hard neck of Bertie Ahern and his minions” for opposing incinerators in their constituencies. You are, of course, right that this is rank hypocrisy but it is so because they should allow incinerators to be built in any location where there is a waste management issue to be dealt with. So, why the hypocrisy? Maybe comments after the recent Meath by-election give a clue.

Despite the pressure on Sinn Fein in recent months their share of the vote actually, and surely amazingly, increased. Yet the total number of votes they received hardly increased, so Sinn Fein, whose recent tribulations could have led their voter base to at least stay home in apathy, still managed to mobilise their vote while the rest of the county, with two major, local and divisive environmental issues receiving large-scale media coverage, still couldn’t be arsed voting. So how did Sinn Fein in Meath mobilise their vote? Because, as one caller to Matt Cooper’s Last Word stated – “We don’t care about… they get things done”. The fact of the matter is that (whether one thinks it’s a “good thing” or not) Irish people vote short-term and vote local, if they can be bothered to vote at all (and sacrifice principle in the process).

When Irish voters display such complete indifference to national issues then how can you expect any TD to risk political suicide by flying in the face of populist opinion and actually attempt to lead the people on points of principle, to do the right thing even if it’s not popular? Politicians didn’t get populist on their own. We, the people, have made them that way. We, the people, send men and women to the Dáil (to the national seat of government, to debate national issues) who we think will best represent our own, selfish, parochial interests – not because the people of, say, Kildare care that some party’s social policy improves the lot of the disadvantaged throughout the country. So why, Mr. Holt, don’t you have a go at the great Irish people for its rank hypocrisy?

Second, you have stated that Munster ministers have “rightly opposed” locating an incinerator in Ringaskiddy. Well that’s news to me – I’m looking at one outside my window as I type and, actually, it’s called a “thermal oxidiser” without the slightest hint of irony because, at the temperatures at which it operates, there is no flame; no burning as people would typically visualise it. There are a number of Pharmaceutical plants within a very short distance of each other in Ringaskiddy and each has to incinerate Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) processing emissions. Yet the population in nearby Carrigaline is increasing at an exponential rate despite full knowledge of this.

One trip to Douglas, Carrigaline, Crosshaven or Carrigtwohill would give you an idea of the huge incomes being earned in Cork solely because of the pharmaceutical industry. As you wander around these mini-towns seeing traffic clog-ups composed of single-person occupied 04 and 05 registered BMWs, Mercedes and assorted mud-free SUVs, you may wonder if these people are bothered by the cocktail of carcinogenic chemicals that their mini-incinerator engines are releasing into the local airspace. Probably not seeing as we, the great Irish people, seem likely to kill at least 8,000 of our fellow citizens by creaming them with lumps of metal at high speed in the “25 or 30 years” it might take to work out how many of us are suffering the ill effects of “burning garbage”. So who are the hypocrites that object to a waste incinerator? The politicians or the people? Or will the mention of all those in this country who smoke, releasing carcinogenic chemicals (including dioxins) into their local atmosphere for others to breathe, while simultaneously knowingly and deliberately putting a strain on our health services, go further to answering that question?

By the way you don’t need a PhD in any scientific discipline (I have a lowly BSc in Chemistry, with a minor in Statistics) to know that the more data any scientific study requires to make a hypothesis, the more that study can be manipulated to produce the results that those carrying out the study (or those paying for it) desire. A quick glance at the history of the MMR vaccine / autism scare, global warming, population trends, etc. shows that. Just look at how often the Ringaskiddy and Duleek protestors dismiss scientific findings refuting their claims and how often they promote any scientific findings in support of them.

However, you make a claim that “common sense suggests burning… may cause health problems for people living closest”. That’s not common sense, actually. I don’t know that it won’t (I won’t pretend I’m an expert, either) but I do know that the physical properties of gases (rapid expansion to fill available space) and more rapid airflow at increasing altitudes means that the emissions are diluted across a very wide area, not concentrated locally. It’s a simple analogy but reasonably effective – acid rain damage in northern Europe was as a result of gaseous emissions from Britain’s coal-burning industries, while it was the solid particulate matter (soot) that affected the local areas. The line you take that Trim and Dundalk don’t suffer but Drogheda does is just appallingly ignorant of science, regardless of any other point you make.

Speaking of fossil fuel burning, incinerators are designed for efficient burning – the complete decomposition of complex compounds to simple gases (mostly CO2 and water). It would not be in Indaver’s interests to have “dirty” burning as this requires much more fuel and is, therefore, more expensive. This is in stark contrast to home fires, garden fires, agricultural fires etc., which are grossly inefficient and are the true causes of the release of particulate matter, dioxins and other carcinogenic compounds with less memorable names into the local atmosphere (lower or non-existent stacks means the fume-flows are more likely to be localised).

Maybe Indaver’s John Ahern won’t live beside an incinerator but plenty of people, including executive managers and people who have actually been trained on Environmental Management (and even know what they’re talking about) will choose to work in them and, therefore, live in close proximity to them. But you have (wittingly I’m sure) hit the nail on the head – “the value of homes… will suffer”, and what will our rural middle-classes do then? “Won’t somebody please think of the children!” they cry to divert attention from their true motives, while their kids are busy sneaking their first puffs of the tobacco plant behind a bike shed and dreaming of driving Daddy’s new beamer when he’s not looking.

Two weeks ago I witnessed the surreal situation in Cork city-centre where two groups were petitioning passers-by for signatures. One was against the incinerator, the other against bin charges. At our factory (as well as every shopping centre in the area) recycling facilities are provided for paper, glass etc. The other day I watched a bloke, an immigrant worker on minimum wage no doubt, sift through one recycling bin to try and remove ash from a fire and sanitary waste (shitty nappies, actually) dumped by one of the great Cork public refusing to pay bin charges. To his great credit I don’t have to add “his own vomit” to that list.

What, exactly, Mr. Holt, would you propose we do with sanitary waste, rotting meat, ash from fires, batteries, pressurised containers and all the other things that can’t be recycled? Bury them like we have been doing? But then, surely, some other part of Ireland (every part, actually) would be getting dumped on in a far more visible manner, with greater potential to, for example, pollute groundwater and drinking supplies. Maybe we should export such waste to our European neighbours who will… incinerate it. But we already do that without a whimper. Does that not make us, well, hypocrites again?

And so what are the people of Cork actually saying? Effectively “I reserve the right to generate as much waste as I like, choose whether or not I want to try and recycle any of it, have it removed from my door for free and disposed of… where? I neither know nor care as long as it’s nowhere near me”. Yes, actually, Mr. Holt that is NIMBY-ism. So who’re the hypocrites now? Every single one of us. Our politicians’ biggest failing is being too cowardly to give it to us straight.

By coincidence, I worked in Duleek for CRH at the cement plant before I worked in Ringaskiddy. There’s an incinerator already there as well. A cement Kiln is an incinerator, burning hundreds of thousands of tons of petroleum coke (effectively “garbage” from the oil industry) annually to make cement. The people of Duleek needn’t worry about the Sulphurous and Nitrous Oxide emissions from that factory, but northern England can. Revenge for Sellafield perhaps? Speaking of which, you mention Dermot Ahern not living beside incinerators either. But he does live about 50 yards from the beach in Blackrock, Dundalk where, apparently, Sellafield is responsible for increased cancer rates in North Louth. You’d think he’d move given the risks, except he probably knows those claims don’t stand up to any genuine scientific enquiry either.

I have two little anecdotes for you. In Duleek I was accosted one particular lunchtime by a woman who saw my uniform and was told how we in the cement factory were deliberately turning off dust-filters at night – she could see the dust cloud on a clear night. I patiently explained that we never turn the filters off as the resulting dust would extinguish the kiln flame and that what she was seeing was steam (the mills boil off tens of tons of water per hour). As this was against her perceived wisdom she simply called me a liar. In Ringaskiddy an American TV crew interviewed locals who insisted that birth-rates (for people and pets!) were up because they were breathing in “fumes from the viagra factory”! It was explained that there is no such thing as pharmaceutical compound fumes. Do you think they were believed?

My point is that, while people may have genuine fears (and in some cases I’d question that), they are often ignorant fears. That’s one thing, but when they have ignorant fears and refuse to be educated on them in case they don’t like what they hear, that’s quite another. As someone who has been on the receiving end of EPA audits and licensing procedures I can assure you their officers are independent, very knowledgeable, and dogmatic and stick rigidly to the rule of law. In fact they strike the fear of God into executives in Irish corporations and we have jumped through hoops to ensure compliance.

Mr. Holt, the incinerator plan is not “vile” and is, currently, the only logical solution to what is a crisis of waste. Recycle what we can and incinerate what we can’t is the only logical and honest approach in a country where “dump everything in a hole in the ground (for free) and hang the consequences” is the prevailing attitude. Have you seen the Simpsons episode satirising public attitudes to waste management in the US, complete with musical routine “Can’t someone else do it?!”? It should be shown all day every day here for a month.

As a post-script, just to clear it up - I am from Dundalk, which has no bearing on anything. I’ve never voted Fianna Fáil, Green the last time (hilariously). My job is very junior and I’m no spokesman for either company I’ve worked for (neither would they want me to be) and I have no particular vested interest in whether an incinerator is built or not. And I do recycle. All I can say is I hope those who “turn up the heat” have their ignorance and selfishness blasted into the atmosphere with the rest of their emissions.

Regards,

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Stay Free

This month’s Prospect has a review of Stephen Pollard’s book about David Blunkett, the former British Home Secretary, by David Marquand who (I believe) is a former Labour Party member who defected to the Social Democratic Party, since merged into the Liberal Democrats. While not overly interested in the subject matter – only to the extent that Blunkett’s assault on civil liberties, if successful, would very likely be followed in Ireland – I was taken by the contrast Marquand has drawn between New Labour (Blair and Blunkett) and the Labour government of the late ‘60s (Harold Wilson and Roy Jenkins).

The basic point made is that Jenkins (in particular) and Wilson used their electoral mandate to make progressive societal improvements, despite the objection of populists. These were politicians whom the British people had elected to run the country and who, therefore, implemented social policies that they were convinced were for the betterment of the Nation yet who could have been accused of acting against the wishes of “the people” or being “liberal elitists” or of even being “against democracy” by the populists. In contrast, Marquand says, New Labour (i.e. Blair and Blunkett) would never have stood up to the populists of those days and thus prisoners would still be flogged, homosexuality would still be outlawed and legislation against racial discrimination would be muted.

The review has set my mind racing on a number of fronts – is there any hope in Ireland for a government that isn’t populist, a government that would actually implement a fair, civilised and just social programme without fear or prejudice (and, of course, without fear of electoral defeat)? Also, could the likes of Jenkins have survived today in our media cesspit, assaulted by the right-wing Murdoch press and fear-mongering Daily Mail? Lastly, as I ticked off Marquand’s list of civilising legislation, I inevitably reached abortion. Now, I’ve wrestled with my own conscience on abortion before, and qualified my opinion, but I just can’t understand how abortion can be considered civilised.

Yet again this one issue puts the skids on my social democratic, liberal feelings and intuition. I’ll repeat, for the sake of the point, that contraception should be freely available to all – condoms, the pill, morning-after pill – and all women should be in complete control of their own fertility at all times, regardless of cost. But I just have a gut intuition that abortion is simply wrong and uncivilised. Like murder, robbery, slavery and rape; the killing of unwanted young is uncivilised.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Dirty Day

What a day! I went home to Dundalk for the weekend and yesterday had to bring my mother to the Lourdes hospital in Drogheda to get a plaster cast from a broken ankle removed. I never talk about the health service much even though it's the one political topic absolutely everyone has an opinion on (and usually a negative one at that). The way I look at it I'm a lucky boy to be in good health and to have not needed to go near a doctor or a hospital in years. As my parents get older, particularly, that will start to change so I'll stay out of them as long as I can.

Being in good health probably makes it easier for me to say this in harsh terms, but I did wonder yesterday looking at the crowds in the hospital how many of them were there because their bodies have let them down and they require medical care and how many were there because of self-inflicted stupidity (like the obvious injured-while-drunk). My mother was in and out in two hours, which I thought was pretty good.

While my mother was in being X-Rayed and with physio etc., I went into Drogheda town centre (if it can be considered to have a centre). I worked in Drogheda between '98 and '01 before moving to Cork and I grew quite fond of Shelbyville - particularly a pub called Mc Phail's. They're doing a lot of development in the town, lots of new buildings I hadn't seen before, although the shopping and light-eating options still seem to be as poor as ever. Dundalk would be a lot better and it's certainly no Mecca.

Speaking of which, I later made my way to Dublin for a Doves gig in the Olympia. I went to college in Dublin so I still know it pretty well but every time I wander around the city I'm reminded just how ridiculously far ahead of the rest of Ireland it is in terms of consumer choice. I'll buy a paper and wander around Cork on a Saturday and I honestly struggle to find a place that seems inviting for a coffee and a light snack. It's either pubs (which I really try to avoid on an afternoon) or restaurants or places like O'Brien's. The choice in Dublin is so refreshing in comparison.

Listening to drive-time radio on the way up to Dublin I heard that Elan shares had dropped 70% after a patient taking one of their drugs had died. I don't mind admitting that my first thought was "Oh f#ck, that's just cost me... ... ... ... 500 quid!" I bought 35 shares at about 30 Euro three years ago after they had dropped from E70+. I forgot one golden rule of shareholding - even if shares lose 90% of their value, there's always another 90% to go. That's how it turned out because they ended up swimming around 1 Euro. But they have been a star performer for the last year, getting back up to near E24 again. However it's back to the sick bed because, right now, they're worth E5.83 and my shareholding is a grand total of E205. Pathetic.

After all that the Doves gig was absolutely CLASS! I'll post the set list when I find out exactly what it was. They absolutely nailed every song and finished the set with the crowd-pleasing "There Goes the Fear" - the place erupted. It's kind of funny but a lot of the blokes at the gig looked like the sort of lads I used to see giving it socks on the dance floor in places like the POD and The Kitchen in the late '90s (and sort of like what you might see in Ibiza, if you don't know these places) - all bouncy legs, clapping hands and pointing in the air. The Olympia is a great spot for a gig. I'll be back in about 5 weeks for Interpol.

I drove back to Cork after that, I got back at about 2:30 a.m. I'm pretty shattered today.

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