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December 25, 2004

12/25/04 - Omagh Police Refuse To Meet Human Rights Chief

Monthly Table of Contents 12/04

SM 12/25/04 Omagh Police Refuse To Meet Human Rights Chief
TO 12/25/04 Opin: Jan may be cruelest month for caring taoiseach
SB 12/26/04 Kenny, The Alternative Taoiseach?
SB 12/26/04 Rabbitte Needs To Reconnect
SB 12/26/04 PDs Still Cracking Down On The Vulnerable
SB 12/26/04 Final Straw For The Wrenboys


Omagh Police Refuse To Meet Human Rights Chief

By Deric Henderson, PA

Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission chief Brice Dickson was
refused a meeting with police to discuss their investigation into
the Omagh bomb atrocity, it was revealed today.

With the British and Irish Governments under increasing pressure to
agree demands for a full public inquiry into the August 1998 attack
which left 29 people dead, outraged victims' relatives hit out at
the decision to turn down Professor Dickson's request for talks.

He has already examined a number of files compiled by the families
and has also been urged to back their campaign for a full-scale
cross-border judicial hearing.

Godfrey Wilson, whose daughter Lorraine, 15, was killed in the Real
IRA car bombing, said: "The investigation team should be willing to
meet with anyone who is looking for justice and who wants to
safeguard the rights of innocent victims.

"It's crazy they couldn't bring themselves to see him and we are
all very disappointed."

Detectives are to question a Special Branch officer in a bid to
trace the source of a anonymous telephone call which warned of a
planned attack which was to take place in Omagh on the day of the

He is likely to be interviewed within the next few weeks.

The call was made on August 4 1998, 11 days before Omagh, but the
information claiming that police were going to be attacked was
never passed on by Special Branch to uniformed officers on the
ground. The source of the call has never been identified.

Mr Wilson said: "It seems to me that a cat and mouse game is being
played out and it is taking a terrible toll on people's emotions.
It stinks."

Prof Dickson has renewed his request for a meeting with the inquiry
team which is being headed by Detective Superintendent Norman

Assistant chief constable Sam Kinkaid is overseeing the

The Dublin-based Irish Human Rights Commission is also likely to be
asked to consider giving its support for the public inquiry.

Prof Dickson said: "At the moment, my inclination would be back the
Omagh relatives. But I need more information and to speak with the
police to establish what progress has been made.

"It wouldn't be until then before I could make a definitive

In the meantime, the families are pressing ahead with an
unprecedented High Court civil action against five men who they
claim were responsible for the bombing. The case, in which they are
seeking £14 million compensation, may go ahead late next year.


Comment: Alan Ruddock: January may be the cruelest month for
'caring' taoiseach

December has been a bad month for the government. Three short weeks
ago Bertie Ahern must have looked forward to the Christmas break
with a spring in his step. Brian Cowen's first budget had been a
media triumph, peace in Northern Ireland was moments away and his
government had been repositioned on the centre-left of Irish
politics. It should have been the month when the taoiseach's
carefully calculated response to the summer beating handed out by
voters in the local and European elections delivered a return and,
for a while, it all worked smoothly.

He had, remember, taken a few gambles. Charlie McCreevy, the
finance minister since Ahern came to power in 1997, had been
ruthlessly jettisoned. Mary Harney, the tanaiste and leader of the
Progressive Democrats, had taken responsibility for the health
service. Seamus Brennan, the minister for transport, had been
shunted to one side to avoid trade union dissent at Dublin airport
and Noel Dempsey, a maverick with the potential to embarrass the
cabinet, had been removed from the front line of education.

Most importantly, Ahern had gambled that by embracing Fr Sean
Healy, the guru of the poverty industry, and by declaring himself
to be a socialist, his party would be seen in a softer light. One
by one, Ahern had put in place a strategy that pandered to the
prejudices of those who dictate editorial policy in RTE, the state-
owned broadcaster, and in The Irish Times, the trust-owned
newspaper that shares its hand-wringing approach to politics. Healy
is their darling, a man above criticism or critique because his
agenda is caring, even if economically destructive and
counterproductive. With Healy on side, Ahern's caring credentials
would go unchallenged.

Brian "Santa" Cowen completed the transformation with a budget that
hit all the right social notes and which, not surprisingly,
received generous applause from the media. Ahern was on a roll.
Domestic policy sorted, economy bounding ahead, electorate and
media mollified and peace beckoning in Northern Ireland.

Then came a series of disasters that have ensured that the
government's Christmas is a troubled one. Instead of preparing for
the new year with joy in his heart, Ahern knows that January and
February promise nothing but heartache.

How did it go so wrong? Hopes for Northern Ireland peace were shot
to pieces by the IRA's refusal to countenance an end to criminality
(hardly a shock after the events of last week). Ahern misjudged the
public mood over the early release of the killers of Garda Jerry
McCabe. Martin Cullen, the minister for the environment, became
entangled in messy allegations of cronyism and then his
government's belated attempt to deal with the costs of paying for
residential care for the elderly exploded in his face.

The result? Santa becomes Scrooge and a policy mess that has been
accumulating for years blows away months of political planning. But
the root cause of Ahern's difficulties is his refusal to take tough
decisions, to plan ahead and to lead his government rather than
just preside over it. He can be ruthless with colleagues, but never
with policy.

There is nothing new about the troubles facing the Department of
Health. Harney has had to rush legislation through the Dail to
legitimise a policy that had been endorsed by her predecessors, but
which was illegal. She knows that the government is wide open to an
expensive legal challenge unless she changes the law, so change it
she must.

At issue is the care of the elderly and the disabled. Until now the
state, without authority, has taken back the money it gives to
people in pensions to defray the costs of their residential care.
It had no right to take the money, and failed to deal with the
problem as soon as it was alerted to the legal problems by the
attorney-general and by the Office of the Ombudsman. It has been
simmering for years, and was made "urgent" by the decision in 2001
to hand out medical cards to anybody over 70 — a move that was
never costed, and which accelerated the crisis.

Harney was handed a problem and, unlike her predecessors, she chose
the tough course of action by resolving to sort out, rather than
ignore, a mess that was not of her making.

So what we get is rushed legislation that has now been referred by
Mary McAleese, the president, to the Supreme Court to test its
constitutionality. Harney wants to prevent mass litigation and
provide a legal basis for future defrayments. Because her bill is
retrospective — in that it seeks to provide legal cover for past
illegal practices — it faces the Supreme Court hurdle. Her decision
has been widely condemned and has prompted howls of outrage about
the government " mugging" the most vulnerable people in society.

McAleese's decision to refer the bill guarantees that it will
remain a live political issue for at least the next two months, and
that is the best thing that could happen. The urgent question is
how we propose to fund the needs of the elderly in a society that
has a rapidly ageing profile. It is a problem we've avoided until
now, preferring skulduggery to policy, but Harney's bill makes
debate unavoidable.

The diagnosis is not complex. Thousands of elderly and disabled
people require long-term care; the numbers are rising and are
expected to double over the next 50 years. Residential care does
not come cheap — private nursing homes range from €25,000 to
€50,000 a year — so the cost to the state of paying for those who
require it is potentially vast.

It is a problem that requires two approaches: one is to reduce the
number of people who need residential care by making it easier for
them to be cared for in their own homes, and the other is to make
the funds available both to subsidise home care and to pick up the
tab for those who need residential care.

Funding is the priority. The basic options are for the state to
pick up the tab by increasing the tax take or for the individuals
to carry responsibility for their own care by imposing a compulsory
insurance premium. In between the extremes, there is a range of
possibilities to claw back money from those who have the means to
pay or who have assets that, when sold after their death, can
release funds to cover their bills.

As a test for Ahern's new caring image, it could not be better. The
challenge for his government is to devise a scheme that first of
all provides certainty and removes worry: there must be absolute
clarity that no matter what happens in life, no matter how rich or
poor, residential care is guaranteed and paid for, if you need it.

Ahern and Harney must come up with a policy that solves the funding
gap, that makes home care attractive and rewards those who provide
it, that delivers residential care for people who need it, that
leaves pensioners with some money in their pockets and which does
not insert yet another layer of mind-numbing bureaucracy into the
assessment of elderly people's means.

It is far from simple, because they must do it without resorting to
raising taxes, either through increased income and inheritance
taxes or through PRSI. Resources are not the problem for this
government — it is awash with cash — but effective management of
the vast amounts at its disposal will remain impossible until Ahern
is prepared to lead.

And so the carefully constructed edifice of a socially caring
taoiseach crumbles when faced with the need for action and the day-
to-day problems mount. Northern Ireland, and in particular the
criminality of the republican movement, will continue to stymie his
attempts to deliver a final settlement there. Cullen refuses to
resign and infects the government with allegations of cronyism. The
unions maintain their death-grip on public service reform and all
the while the care of the elderly festers and exposes the
government's fundamental shallowness. December may have been bad,
but it is going to get worse.


The year in politics: Kenny, The Alternative Taoiseach?

26 December 2004 By Pat Leahy

FINE GAEL: The past year has been one of contrasting fortunes for
the opposition. However, there is no doubt that the opposition
party that will feel happiest this Christmas is Fine Gael.

Consider where the party was 12 months ago. While it hovered at
around its disastrous general election level of 22 per cent in the
polls, Enda Kenny's approval rating was lower than that of his
predecessor Michael Noonan. He had failed to make the sort of
impact party supporters and handlers hoped for, and pessimism

Given that Fine Gael had enjoyed quite a successful local election
in 1999 - allied with the abolition of the dual mandate and the
retirement of many councillors - party chiefs were indicating that,
if the party avoided a massacre, they would be happy. Talking down
expectations was the name of the game. Kenny was finishing a
difficult year and facing into a tougher one.

Twelve months later, Kenny has reestablished himself as the leader
of the opposition, and is being touted as the alternative
taoiseach. His party has resuscitated itself with stunning
victories in the local and European elections, and Fine Gaelers
everywhere have a spring in their step not seen in many years.

So what happened? For a start, it's difficult to underestimate the
achievement of Kenny in re-energising his own base. A membership
drive, intensive fundraising on a localised scale and a countrywide
programme of meeting the members all set the stage for the party's

However, this alone doesn't explain the party's dramatic change of
electoral fortunes. Dashing around the country saying you're
electrifying the party won't, in itself, produce a recovery.

Clever campaigning

Fine Gael's achievement was in reinvigorating the faith of its own
supporters, and in moving beyond its base to appeal to newer, less
traditionally-aligned voters.

Its clever, simple and targeted messages about "rip-off Ireland''
tapped into a growing public feeling among supporters of all
parties that living costs were spiralling out of control.

The party spoke about basic public grievances in a clear and simple
way that the electorate could immediately understand, and it will
continue to reap the benefits into the next election.

Similarly, finance spokesman Richard Bruton hammered home the
party's "value for money'' theme with his opposition to the
benchmarking deal.

While Fine Gael's criticism of the deal might have annoyed public
sector workers, party strategists pointed out that many more people
were employed in the private sector than in the public service, and
a hell of a lot of them were annoyed about the deal.

Crucially, Kenny also engineered a situation where some of Fine
Gael's biggest vote-getters were on the ticket for the European
contest. Because the campaign coverage was dominated by the higher-
profile European contests, rather than the more dispersed local
elections, Fine Gael's strength in this contest became an early
campaign story, even though the party's polling numbers for the
locals were still in the neighbourhood of the 22 per cent it won in
the disastrous 2002 general election.

Instead of the coverage of the party's election campaign
concentrating on whether the party would lose dozens and dozens of
local seats, commentators accepted immediately that Gay Mitchell
would hold the Dublin Euro seat and Simon Coveney was a shoo-in on
Munster, and wondered about the fantastic possibility of the cut-
throat rivalry between the two women candidates in Leinster
resulting in two seats for the party.

A little luck

The party's ratings climbed during the campaign, but didn't pick up
the surge that might well have come only in the last week. In this,
the party might have been a little lucky, too - there were a few
things working in its favour through no fault of its own, such as
the incredible crassness of the campaign run by Fianna Fáil Euro
candidate Royston Brady.

Subsequent research by Michael Marsh in Trinity College Dublin
showed that a surprising number of Fine Gael's votes had been
poached from Fianna Fáil. Fine Gael's achievement in capturing
these votes late in the day shows that the party is ideally placed
to realise the benefits of the electorate's irritation with the
government. It also means that it's unlikely to have a lock on
those votes that only came at the last minute when they were
looking for a home.

Above all, Fine Gael will have to give voters more good solid
reasons to vote for it at the next general election. It will have
to show that it's capable of good government and, above all, that
it can be trusted to run the economy. That job is just beginning.

Nevertheless, from the party that gave you the Celtic Snail,
"Vision, with purpose'' and plans to compensate taxi drivers, this
year represents a quantum leap in the cleverness and
professionalism of its politics.

Later in the year, the party showed its willingness to learn
further when it engaged leading US political consultant Stan
Greenberg in its preparations for the next general election,
although its efforts last year were certainly influenced by
intelligent reading of what worked politically elsewhere.

2004 was the year Fine Gael started to show it wasn't afraid of the


Rise and rise

For the rest of the opposition, 2004 brought similarly mixed
fortunes. Sinn Féin had a thunderous local and European campaign,
more than doubling its local authority seat numbers from 22 to 54,
and winning its first ever European seat through Mary Lou McDonald.

Increasingly, the southern political and media establishment is
realising that accommodating Sinn Féin through the peace process is
having very real political effects in the Republic - principally
the seemingly inexorable rise in support for that party. This
realisation is fuelling Dáil assaults and media hostility, but the
Sinn Féin leadership knows that it'll just have to get used to

And yet, the characterisation of the other parties being stuck like
rabbits in the headlights of the Sinn Féin juggernaut still has an
element of truth about it.

Sinn Féin ate up Fianna Fáil seats in Dublin at the local
elections. In some areas, Fianna Fáil lost 20 per cent of its vote
which practically all went to Sinn Féin.

Battle will be joined across the three-seat and four-seat
constituencies of the north side of Dublin in which Fianna Fáil
currently holds two seats.

But Labour also regards many of these constituencies as heartlands.
That three-way fight across the north side will be one of the
deciding factors of the next general election, and the events of
2004 gave a fair indication of how the battle lines will be drawn.

The challenge for Sinn Féin in the coming 12months will be to
establish its newly elected councillors as credible Dáil


Green with envy

For the Green Party, it was a pretty miserable year. The party lost
both its MEP seats, several local authority seats (including
vulnerable constituencies like Dublin South East) and then called
off Eamon Ryan's putative bid for the presidency.

That latter bout of windiness - or was it reluctance by the
leadership to let Ryan take centre-stage for two months? - missed
an opportunity for the Greens to speak about their agenda as the
sole opposition voice. It would have been a tonic for the troops
battered after June disappointments.

The party has excellent Dáil and media performers in Ryan and Dan
Boyle, but the spotlight is often directed at Trevor Sargent - who
lacks the oomph of the younger generation. The party looks to be at
risk of losing seats, rather than being poised to win more, and it
needs to take steps to fix this in 2005.

In addition, the party will need to decide if it wants to be part
of an opposition platform for an alternative rainbow coalition.
Given Fine Gael's farming support, this is going to be a difficult
match to make, but the Greens need to decide soon and then define
in the public space what their deal-breakers are.

Right now, time is on their side to fix a few things that are
broken. In 12 months, it won't be.


The year in politics: Rabbitte Needs To Reconnect

26 December 2004

LABOUR: If 2004 was the year that Enda Kenny's fortunes suddenly
turned for the better, the reverse could be said for Labour leader
Pat Rabbitte.

Rabbitte and the Labour Party started this year in pretty buoyant
form. The government was enormously unpopular, according to all
opinion polls, having failed to recover from the nosedive in its
numbers following the autumn of 2002.

By contrast, Rabbitte's Dail performances were the showpiece of the
opposition's hounding of the government. Rabbitte had scored points
off the government on a range of issues, particularly with his
relentless probing of the deal between the government and the
religious orders on compensation for child abuse.

More significantly, his Dail and media strength was matched by a
similar impression with the public.

According to the polls, Labour's support had surged, taking them to
the neighbourhood of 22 per cent in the wake of the party
conference and then 19 per cent a few months later; only a few
percentage points separated them from Fine Gael. Talk of a Rabbitte
premiership was premature, but no wilder than a Kenny one.

In addition, Rabbitte had begun to speak of a fundamental change in
the party's message. He addressed businessmen, telling them that
the Labour Party supported enterprise. He warned public sector
workers that Labour would not in future be solely concerned with
those who provided public services, but needed to pay heed to the
consumers of those services.

He began to draw the outlines of a plan for a society where
everyone had an interest in quality public services and where
everyone, through invested pension funds, had a stake in the
markets. Rabbitte called it "the Fair Society''; it sounded a lot
like the Blair Society.

To come, the party faced local and European elections and possibly
a presidential contest in November.

The party promised an aggressive local and Euro campaign, and
looked to the Mary Robinson example of how a presidential campaign
could work for the party.

Senior party sources sniffed at Fine Gael's decision to leave the
field and, while everyone acknowledged the electoral strength of
President McAleese, Labour seemed to be gagging for the fight.

"Presidential elections in Ireland have a way of throwing up the
result least expected at the start," wrote Labour's chief
strategist Fergus Finlay in the Irish Examiner. "The only thing
they have in common is that, when the people get the right to
choose, the people win in the end."

Michael D Higgins indicated his interest and, although no one was
giving firm commitments, the message was clear: we're bringing it

The Michael D affair Instead, the European elections were a
disappointment, the locals an underperformance albeit with some
very bright spots and the presidential election turned into a
damaging non-event for Rabbitte.

From the mid-2003 highs, Labour's opinion poll support slipped
before the June elections and resolutely refused to return towards
where it had been 12 months previously during the course of the

Several opinion polls again overstated the party's likely support
on polling day (16 per cent in the Irish Times two weeks before
polling day) and, when the votes were counted in the locals,
Labour's share of the vote had only crept up from the 2002

Clever electioneering meant that the small increase produced a
notable seat gain, particularly in Dublin, and the party has
succeeded in positioning several potential general election
candidates who will be well placed to challenge for a Dail seat
next time out.

But unless the party can appeal to a broader section of the
electorate, those candidates will have a difficult job getting

Labour was also disappointed in the European elections.

While Ivana Bacik performed extremely well as the second candidate
in Dublin, Peter Cassells' failure to take a seat in Leinster,
allied to underwhelming performances in Munster and Connacht, meant
that Proinsias De Rossa returned alone to Strasbourg.

For Labour, the election results were disappointing in themselves;
that they should come at a time when the government had never been
more unpopular and when Fianna Fail collapsed to the worst result
in its history is more worrying for the party.

Certainly, it would indicate that Rabbitte's strategy of attracting
those voters who "think Labour but vote Fianna Fail'', is not
working now.

Critics within his own party have suggested that a strategy based
on the assumption that there's something wrong with the voters will
always be difficult to sell.

The subsequent decision not to sponsor Michael D Higgins's run for
the presidency may have owed much to the June disappointments.

Whatever the reasons, Rabbitte's tetchy handling of Michael D's
supporters led to several autumn stories about internal troubles in
the Labour Party, particularly at National Executive Council level.

Party management difficulties have been exacerbated by a
dissatisfaction, increasingly ventilated, with Rabbitte's decision
categorically to rule out coalition with Fianna Fail after the next
general election and to tie the party instead to a pre-election
pact with Fine Gael, and possibly the Green Party.

Rabbitte's leadership is not under any threat, but even his
strongest supporters would admit that it has been an unhappy year.

He faces two immediate challenges in 2005 to convince his own party
to back him unconditionally and to reconnect with the wider public.

Rabbitte has big problems, and he needs to figure out how to fix
them next year.


The year in politics: Is voters' FF bloodlust over?

26 December 2004

Fianna Fail: Taoiseach Bertie Ahern will be happier than most to
have reached the sanctuary of a few days' break this Christmas.

It was predicted hereabouts last year that 2004 would be one of
Ahern's toughest years ever, and so it has come to pass.

Tougher than 1981 and 1982, when he helped fend off the Haughey
heaves? More complicated. Tougher than 1994, when the Taoiseach's
job was snatched from his grasp at the last minute? Longer. Tougher
than 1999,when the Sheedy affair almost brought down his government
and the full extent of the money-bagging of Pee Flynn and the rest
of them emerged? More damaging.

2004 was dominated by two events for the government. The first was
the European presidency during the six months of which the
government - even its harshest critics agree - conducted itself
professionally, progressively and successfully. The second was
June's local and European elections.

The presidency took six months, millions of euros, countless man-
hours and had no political effect whatsoever.

The mid-term elections, on the other hand, have changed the
political landscape entirely. On this point, the Taoiseach is
entitled to his oft-felt complaint: achievements are not recorded,
mistakes never go away.

Nobody likes us

First, the local election shock for Fianna Fáil - losing nearly 100
seats and almost a quarter of its vote - prompted the departure of
Charlie McCreevy in the cabinet reshuffle, a self-proclaimed change
of direction and a budget directed towards lower earners and
increased social provision.

Secondly, it reminded everyone in Fianna Fáil of the electoral
costs of being perceived as arrogant, out-of-touch with the
concerns of ordinary people and of the consequences of failing - or
not bothering - to define a message and communicate it.

Tracking opinion polls (they are all available online) shows that,
generally speaking, the process of politics - charges of
malfeasance of various kinds, tribunals and multifarious "crises''
- appears to have had little lasting impact on the government's
standing with the public.

There are two exceptions since the formation of the Fianna Fáil-
Progressive Democrat coalition in 1997: the Philip Sheedy affair,
which coincided with a serious midterm dip in support for the
coalition, and the autumn after the 2002 general election when a
range of cutbacks in public expenditure convinced the public that
Fianna Fáil had lied to by them during the campaign. That
perception has since hardened into concrete conventional wisdom.

The question for the future is whether the electorate has satisfied
its Fianna Fáil bloodlust or whether enough voters have made up
their minds that Fianna Fáil can never be trusted, making a
recovery to 2002 levels of support impossible.

The polling evidence on this question is inconclusive. However, the
results of academic research conducted after the local elections by
Professor Michael Marsh of Trinity College suggests that there is a
much greater degree of what he terms "vote-switching'' in Irish
elections than had previously been thought.

Previously, campaigners and analysts had thought in terms of large
blocs of traditionally-aligned voters.

But the picture Marsh paints is of an increasingly promiscuous
electorate, prepared to flit between parties in different

This is probably good news for the government, but it also has
obvious implications for campaigning. Parties will move more
towards the idea of a "constant campaign''.

Next year will see more of this in Irish politics, especially with
two by-elections to come and the beginning of parties' selection
conventions to pick candidates for the next general election.

Expect to see more of Ahern and his ministers on the road in
2005.The plans for the election campaign and Fianna Fáil's slate of
candidates will be substantially advanced by this time next year.

Give somebody else a try

But difficulties abound. Apart from the unpopularity of the
government - much of which it brought on itself - a powerful
dynamic in the next campaign will be the sense that Fianna Fáil has
been in office for too long. The reshuffle was obviously a
conscious effort to rejuvenate the cabinet, but it's hardly a team
of all the talents.

Starting 2005 - as many of the party expect - with the resignation
from cabinet of transport minister Martin Cullen (heretofore one of
their hardest working members) will be a poor start to a year that
will see two by-elections coming round very quickly.

Filling a vacancy will do what all such exercises do: make one guy
happy and several unhappy. Ahern has no real problems in the
management of his parliamentary party, but if the polling numbers
haven't shifted in 12 months' time, worried TDs will loosen their
tongues. The news cycles that are hardly brimming with the
government's message would accommodate them only too readily.

There are signs that much of this is understood in Government
Buildings. Amid the brouhaha surrounding a series of interviews
last month during which the Taoiseach famously claimed to be a
socialist - attempting to rebrand his government as caring, sharing
and inclusive - another element was largely missed: the humble tone
adopted by the country's leader.


Bertie's "fear an phobal'' image has been political white gold;
those who know him best also say it's utterly genuine. For a
government widely accused of arrogance - many of the most damaging
attacks of the Star newspaper have centred on this charge -
projecting the leader's ordinariness is likely to become
increasingly commonplace over the coming two years.

Ahern's strength has always been his ability to speak to the
people; whether he can get that back will be the question of
2005.Answering it will go a long way towards predicting the shape
of the next government.

Progressive Democrats

Despite serious jitters about the Taoiseach's socialist conversion,
the government partners are like a comfortable married couple,
aware of each other's idiosyncracies and tolerant of them.

He goes to the pub on Friday nights and arrives home a few hours
late and she doesn't complain. She orders new curtains and he goes
along with it (even though the old ones look fine to him).

So the Taoiseach warbles the Red Flag from time to time and Mary
Harney, even if she doesn't sing along, won't bar him for singing.
Justice minister Michael McDowell announces that inequality is good
for a society and, despite the ululations of the left (where the
Taoiseach, remember, sees himself), Ahern chooses not to make a

There will be difficulties over Aer Lingus in the new year. The
transport sector as a whole is one of the potential triggers for
marital discord in 2005.

The fate of Séamus Brennan - who was shuffled away from the
transport portfolio earlier this year after two years of PD-like
shape-throwing - is testament to Ahern's attachment to the unions
and his reluctance to annoy them.

There'll be movement on Aer Lingus, but the PDs will have to
compromise on much of the rest of their transport agenda.

They'll manage. Really, even allowing for Fianna Fáil's more
statist tendencies, both parties believe in more or less the same
things, outlined in the Programme for Government.

Lowish tax, especially for business; partnership in the public
sector (which means strong unions, whatever the PDs would like to
happen); substantial social provision; sustaining strong growth;
promoting our trading interests overseas.

And staying in power.

This last imperative is more of a challenge for a party of eight
compared to a party of 81. Indeed, it's difficult to find a PD who
expects the party to be in government after the next general

From this fact springs one central proposition: PD ministers have
two years left to do whatever it is they see themselves in
government to do.

So Tánaiste Mary Harney has taken the health portfolio, perhaps as
her last great office of state, promising to do her damnedest to
fix a system that satisfies nobody. The forest of legislation
emanating from McDowell's justice department will reach maturity
before the next election.

So it will only be for the most serious breach of the cohabitation
regulations that the PDs will leave government before the term of
office expires.

Then they'll take their chances as the doers and problem-solvers
who kept manners on Fianna Fáil.

After the election, there will be the small matter of the
leadership of the party, but for next year, that's likely to remain
another day's work.


PDs Still Cracking Down On The Vulnerable

26 December 2004 By Vincent Browne

It is appropriate that the year should end with the Progressive
Democrats and the rest of the Government targeting yet another
vulnerable group: this time the elderly.

The government is going through the catalogue of vulnerable groups
one-by-one: single mothers, the poor in general, asylum seekers,
Travellers and now the elderly.

There are not many left, so who's next? The mentally ill, the

Much done, not much more to do. The brazenness of the attempt
retrospectively to legalise the theft of the pension entitlements
of older people in long-term care (longer than 30 weeks) is
breathtaking, even for this government.

It will cost €100 million, protested health minister Mary Harney -
€100 million which, if not taken off old people, will have to be
found elsewhere, she pleaded. Well, why not find it elsewhere?

Close a few outrageous tax loopholes, for instance. Increase the
top rate of tax by a single percentage point. Introduce a minimum
flat tax rate for everybody getting income from Ireland, wherever
they pretend they live.

The government could always reverse its cynical election stunt of
2001, when it made everybody over 70 years of age eligible for a
medical card. That alone would cover the costs of those long-term
older patients.

And it would do something else as well - the little caper of giving
everybody over 70, irrespective of means, an entitlement to a
medical card, greatly benefited GPs.

They are paid between 2.7 and five times more for treating "newly
eligible'' medical card holders than for treating "regular'' card

They were paid about €480.65 (at December 31 last) per capita for
treating richer medical card holders over 70, compared with €99.25
and €178.19 for "ordinary'' medical card holders. It beggars

Being experts on market forces, what did the PDs and their friends
think the result of this choice piece of incentivising would be?
Quite right.

Most GPs prefer to treat the rich medical card holders.

How this came about was very simple. The government thought up this
stunt at the last minute.

There was no time to consult the doctors or pharmacists. Having
announced the wheeze, they were over a barrel with the Irish
Medical Organisation, and had to agree to pay way over the odds for
the extension of the scheme.

Did it bother anybody? No.

Were there complaints about the extra costs - like the whining now
about the extra €100 million? No.

It was a good card to play coming up to an election. And that
cynical ploy is the proximate cause of the practice of robbing
older people's purses.

Suddenly, more older people were getting free long-term care than
previously. Or at least they thought they were.

The thieving began.

Now the state, having robbed the older people of their money
(except for those older people who had the confidence and toughness
to complain) wants to give retrospective legal sanction to this

One might be tempted to change one's mind about Mary McAleese
because of her intervention on this frolic.

There are good grounds why a President should be very careful about
referring a bill to the Supreme Court to test its

Once it is "cleared'' under Article 26 of the Constitution, the
resultant act can never be challenged subsequently, even though
entirely unforeseen consequences may flow from it. But this is
surely an exception.

McAleese was absolutely right to make the referral, because the
people most affected may not be in a position to challenge this

It is by no means clear-cut whether the retrospective element of
the bill is necessarily unconstitutional. But surely giving legal
sanction to a practice of illegally charging older people for
services that they were entitled to receive free is an issue of

This year will be remembered in part for another cynical ploy of
the Progressive Democrats - the citizenship referendum. Of all the
ugly, despicable acts of politicians over the years that have
disgraced politics, this is right down there with the worst of

The targets in the citizenship referendum were not citizenship
tourists, abusers of our "liberal'' citizenship laws, or
opportunist immigrants falsely claiming refugee status to avail of
our "generous'' social provisions. The sole targets were the
innocent babies who have been (since the law has been changed) and
will be born here among us.

The purpose of the referendum was to deprive these babies - and no
one else - of the right to Irish citizenship. It was to deny these
infants whatever protection and solace Ireland may be able to
afford them some time in their lives.

Justice minister Michael McDowell offered several justifications
for the citizenship change, almost all of them false.

Among the most cynical was the claim that the Chen case in the
European Court of Justice showed how our "liberal'' citizenship
arrangements were open to abuse by foreigners, in this instance a
Chinese woman and her Belfast-born child.

At no stage did McDowell acknowledge that this was an entirely
exceptional case, with no relevance to the issues arising in the
citizenship debate.

The European Court decreed that Chen and other mothers could remain
with their Irish citizen child in a European country, but only if
they were not a burden on that country.

The targeting of children whose parents had no entitlement to
remain here - and were therefore unlikely to remain here, but who
might later find their entitlement to Irish citizenship a support -
was a base act. Worse still, the playing of that card in the
context of a campaign for the local and European elections amounted
to a racist ploy.

For that, there should be no forgiveness for the PDs, now or ever.


Final Straw For The Wrenboys

26 December 2004

Dressed in motley clothing and straw masks, five Wrenboys prepare
for today's annual Wren parade in Tralee, Co Kerry (pictured on
page one of our print edition).

More than 200 Wrenboys will congregate outside O'Flaherty's pub,
before embarking on the traditional parade in the town. Led by
local musicians, the Wrenboys collect money for charity.

The Wrenboys have been parading in Tralee for more than 200 years.

The festival stems from pagan mythology and pre-dates the feast of

Monthly Table of Contents 12/04
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