Monday, February 28, 2011

Ireland's difficulty is Enda's opportunity

Incoming Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny might be forgiven a bit of hyperbole when he described the election result as a “democratic revolution”. It was nothing on the bloody scale of what has gone on in the Arab world. Yet Kenny wasn’t too far off the mark either. The scale of the weekend’s defeat of the ruling government is rare in western democracies and unheard of in Ireland where Fianna Fail has been a dominant national institution for 80 years. Everyone expected them to lose this election after the 10-year property bubble burst causing the collapse of Ireland’s banking system and national finances. But no one was game to predict how much the fury of the voters would turn defeat into annihilation. The word landslide barely does justice to what happened. (AP Photo of Enda Kenny by Peter Morrison)

In a time of major economic crisis in Ireland, incumbency stunk to high heaven. Thanks to cronyism and incompetence, Fianna Fail has dropped from 78 seats to a likely 21. Minor governing partners the Greens have been wiped off the map losing all six seats showing what happens when an environmental movement becomes just another political party. FF have plummeted from the biggest party in the land, to a precarious rural rump. They may not even be the official opposition, if the large batch of newly elected left-wing independents manage to cobble together some sort of coalition.

The disaster was most remarkable in Dublin where FF was almost completely wiped out. Outgoing Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan clung on to his seat but he was the only successful candidate as a dozen others fell. FG did well as expected but not as well as Labour and the independents; it was as the Irish Examiner said “a sharp turn to the left in the capital”.

My home town of Waterford was a microcosm of the sea change that infected Irish politics. Mostly working class Waterford would usually elect 2 FF, 1 FG and 1 Labour in a stable and predictable 4-seat constituency that covers the city and county. Seeing the way the wind was blowing, FF only put forward one candidate this time round, experienced TD Brendan Kenneally. Most people, myself included, expected Waterford to end up electing 2 FG, 1 FF and 1 Labour. But FF’s 2007 vote of 46.5 percent in 2007 collapsed to 13.9 percent in 2011. Left wing independent John Halligan (a popular former Mayor) polled 10.3 percent but overcame Kenneally on the 11th count with the help of preferences to join 2 FG and 1 Labour member. For the first time in the history of the party, FF does not have anyone in Dail Eireann from Waterford.

But if FF is receiving last rites, the result is not the death knell of Irish nationalist politics. Sinn Fein may win as many as 10 seats doubling their representation including the election of party leader Gerry Adams who topped the poll in Louth. Their successes were in the northern republican strongholds of Louth, Donegal and Cavan though they also advanced in working class areas of Dublin.

The new government is almost certainly going to be a coalition of Enda Kenny’s Fine Gael and Eamon Gilmore’s Labour Party. As J.G. Byrne put it on Twitter at the weekend, “saying bye-bye FF and hello FG bit like beating cancer only to be told you now have incurable syphilis”. Immense financial and economic issues await the incoming administration. The debt crisis is escalating out of control with the bailout of the Anglo Irish bank expected to cost €34 billion. The strings attached to the €84 billion IMF and EU bailout are severe with government spending to cut by a fifth by 2014 and taxes to rise substantially. FG and Labour have differing views how best this can be achieved though neither suggest defaulting on the debt.

Writer Ruth Dudley Edwards is pessimistic the new coalition will be much better at managing the budget than the regime it replaced. Fine Gael, she said, was no more ideological than Fianna Fail, and is similarly awash with teachers and lawyers with almost no experience of government. Labour, she said, was led and dominated by the trade unions resisting change or cuts in the bloated, secretive and inefficient public services. “It is doubtful if a look at the books will turn its leader into Nick Clegg,” she wrote for her British audience.

A likely trajectory of this government is four years of hardship, bending over to receive its punishment as bankers in Brussels and Frankfurt spank Ireland for its profligacy in the good years. Perhaps the change will act as a placebo and install a badly needed sense of confidence. If that doesn’t work, the electorate will turn on Fine Gael with the same savagery it meted out to Fianna Fail. If the nationalist or socialist parties (or perhaps a nationalist socialist party) ever get hold of the levers of power then there really will be a democratic revolution.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Telling Taiwan from New Zealand: Anatomy of a thoughtless tweet

This is a cautionary tale based on the biggest ever blunder I’ve made in cyberspace.

My mistake happened yesterday because of the photo shown above. The photo is from a landslide which fell on a Taiwanese motorway in 2010. Unbeknown to me until yesterday, a 6.5 magnitude earthquake in the ocean north of the Philippines struck the port city of Keelung in north-east Taiwan on 26 April 2010. My ignorance of this event and photograph of the motorway landslide there would get me in trouble.

Yesterday morning, I was taking a break at work and looking for online images of the deadly Christchurch earthquake which struck a day earlier. I was feeling relieved at the time as a mate of mine from Christchurch had just gotten online to say he and his family were safe. I was now searching the #eqnz hashtag on Twitter for interesting Twitpics of the earthquake. I found some amazing images but one really stood out. It was the picture of the Taiwanese landslide above, but purporting to be from New Zealand.

I found it from a tweet by Frangii, one David Frangiosa from Brisbane which was then retweeted by Shotz Digital Prints also of Brisbane.
It read “Tragey in #EQNZ but this looks like it could be an add for a 4WD” You can't find that twitpic now, it no longer exists. Te spelling alone should have alerted me to a problem. The bit about “an add” also suggested it might have been photoshopped. Yet I was simply gobsmacked by what I saw. The scale of the landslide was massive and it was all too easy to imagine there might be dead people buried under the immense pile of rubble. For reasons I can barely fathom, I simply wanted this to be true.

I didn’t take a screen grab at the time so I can’t remember what the exact text of the caption was in the twitpic. I do remember it had #eqnz tagged against it but that was too small a token of authenticity and no excuse for what I did next. Without further research and still mesmerised by the photo, I went to twitter and forwarded the twitpic on with this tweet: “this #eqnz motorway damage photo is almost surreal”.

I then went back to my work and thought nothing more about Twitter for another hour or so, though I couldn’t get the image out of my head. While I was gone, I was unaware many others would see my tweet. I had committed two classic mistakes. Firstly I hadn’t taken the time to authenticate the photo and secondly I did take the time to remove the attribution.

The photo was more surreal than I gave it credit for. It took off and would be retweeted a further 90 times with the vast majority quoting me as the source. I would be later notified in a tweet from Trends NZ that my twitter handle was trending in New Zealand. By then I knew I was in trouble.

A quick look at the retweets showed me what had happened. Initially I was followed by six retweets with no comments. Then people started adding “holy hell”, “oh hell”, “WOW" and “Theres a mountain in my hwy”. In turn these people’s tweets were retweeted by their followers. A classic network pattern was emerging where I was the hub of the information. My "almost surreal" tweet was attracting a lot more attention than Frangii's original "add for a 4WD".

Finally some of the re-tweeters started to question its veracity. 18 tweets after mine, came the first question from @CNell_NZ in Wellington saying “You are kidding me”. One tweet later @flukazoid added “o hai photoshop”. But the next 16 settled back into admiration until @jesidres put the record straight with this tweet: “ - It's not actually from #EQNZ- the image is at least 6 months old.”

@Jesidres didn’t mention my name but the next seven did, all retweeting my comments or the additions to them without question. @lukechristensen also knew it was fake and admonished @nzben for retweeting it but not me. @BabetteNOS took the conversation into Dutch while still saying these were images of New Zealand: “Heftige beelden uit NZ, Correspondent @RobertPortier is onderweg, maar twittert even niet omdat hij rijdt. #EQNZ."
There were three more “wow” retweets of my mine when I got the first direct response saying there was a problem. @LMRIQ wrote “This is actually a really old photo pre-2011 RT @derekbarry: this #eqnz motorway damage photo is almost surreal”.

Still the reinforcing retweets came with another seven variants on the “Wow” theme.
Finally Elpie put Frangii straight about where the photo came from. “@Frangii - This image has nothing to do with the #Christchurch #eqnz. Its Taiwan, April 2010:”. Elpie didn't send it to me so I remained in the dark about its provenance. All I kept getting were nine more retweets which maintained the “holy hell” line. A questioning few were changing in tone. @carorolyn asked “only almost?”. A full 28 more tweets maintained the wow factor before @merrolee begged to differ. “I don't think so - this is not Chch..The ChristChurch earthquake buried this highway. Amazing image - #eqnz”. Yet right to the end, people swallowed the NZ line until Franjii deleted the photo.

The level of scepticism was higher among those who responded to me without retweeting the photo. This from @blisterguy: “@vavroom @derekbarry @cjlambert that's not actually anywhere near Christchurch, or New Zealand, for that matter #eqnz”
This from @simongrigor - “@derekbarry is that photo even NZ? Doesn't look familiar??”
And @Nathanealb - “@Sephyre @derekbarry @DDsD That photo is not #eqnz ...”
And @vebbed - “@ViewNewZealand @vavroom @derekbarry @cjlambert that aint NZ”
And @surgeInwelly “@sarahlalor @phoeberuby @derekbarry where is it exactly?... are you sure it's genuine?”
lmsmith - “@derekbarry @cadetdory STOP RTing that, it's not in CHch.”
altwohill - “@derekbarry except it's not exactly #nz, is it?
@mellopuffy - “@derekbarry @nzben that looks like a fake pls check before retweeting #eqnz”
And on it went. Some pointed out the cars were going the wrong way, Others that Canterbury was flat and had few six-lane highways. It was possibly Europe said one, possibly America said another until someone finally gave me the Taiwan link.

Some were angry I had posted it with a #eqnz tag conferring legitimacy (as the vast majority of the retweets seemed to swallow). “Don't know who started it, but it was fear mongering and stupid. Makes me sad,” said one.
I knew then it was time for a retraction. I went back online to post this: “apologies all about the motorway pic. Its a fake. A nano-second of research before sending it would have helped.”

The retraction was wrong too; it wasn't a fake. The photo was real but wasn’t New Zealand. I was right about the research though. Particularly as a journalist I should have known better. Too often I’ve laughed at the Richard Wilkins and Kochies of this world whose tweets get them into trouble and now here I was making an ass of myself the same way.

I showed naivety, lack of thoroughness and no care or attention to the consequences of my actions. In one sense it was a minor error, but it may also have helped to spread misinformation about a major tragedy. The death toll is approaching 100 and likely to far exceed that. I apologise to anyone I might have offended with my tweet. The power of Twitter deserves much better.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Soldiers without destiny: Fianna Fail set for Irish election massacre

Age old certainties in Irish politics are about to end on Friday week. Fianna Fail has been the dominant force and the largest party in Dáil Éireann at every general election since 1932. They have have ruled the country for all but 19 of the past 79 years. The party’s leaders and members have become wedded to power and have developed a born to rule mentality over the years. With the aid of coalitions, Fianna Fail has formed government for last 14 years. But all that is about to change on 25 February. Irish voters are angry and are about to deliver a shellacking to the soldiers of destiny. (photo by infomatique)

Junior coalition partners the Greens can also expect to be punished as incumbent parties take the blame for the fall of the Celtic Tiger economy over the last three years. The question is only whether the main opposition Fine Gael will win outright or more likely form a coalition with the Labour Party. The two parties joined together when the voters booted Fianna Fail out of office in 1973, 1981 and 1982. But in none of those elections was Fianna Fail hammered in a way expected on Friday week.

If the latest opinion polls are any guide, Fianna Fail with 17 percent of the vote could end up winning with as few as 25 seats in the 166 seat parliament (26 with the sitting ceann comhairle (speaker) Seamus Kirk who is automatically reelected). Fine Gael on the other hand with twice as much support are favoured to take around 71 seats but could win as many as 80 putting them within striking distance of an unprecedented outright victory.

More realistically they will rely on Eamon Gilmore’s Labour to form a new Government. Some polls have shown Labour as the most popular party and Gilmore’s own profile has occasionally made him the most popular politician in the country. It is almost impossible for them to shrug off their mantle as junior coalition partners and it is difficult to see them becoming the largest party. But they will break another record, as they take more seats than Fianna Fail for the first time since de Valera first took FF to the ballot box in the 1920s.

The parallels with the 1973 election are most stark. By that time Fianna Fail had been in power for 16 years. Under the leadership of economic guru Dr T.K. Whitaker, Ireland had risen out of post war penury during the sixties as standards of living and education rose. Innovative marketing launched the country as a world tourist destination and attractive taxation measures brought foreign capital to Irish shores. But with entry into the EEC, the collapse of the Bretton-Woods agreement and the looming oil crisis, old Irish certainties were changing. Despite (or perhaps because of) the IRA Arms Crisis, Fianna Fail actually increased their vote in that election but lost power 73 seats to 68. Four years of Coalition austerity packages later, the voters forgave Fianna Fail and they won a landslide victory in 1977.

Since Fianna Fail last regained power in 1997, they have also presided over many boom years, perhaps the best yet. Successive tribunals found large-scale corruption was endemic, but voters didn’t punish this behaviour because they were doing well. Personal wealth exploded over the life of the Celtic Tiger, at its peak five years before and after the millennium. But risk taking also increased exponentially. Debts rose to match growing exports. By July 2008, the Irish Independent calculated the average household was borrowing €158 for every €100 earned. In the good times, which were just ending as that article was written, that didn’t matter. Equity was rising rapidly to match the debt and bankers were happy to allow their clients cheap credit to gamble on what seemed like unloseable odds. The banks themselves were equally reckless so weren’t in a position to call the kettle black.

But when the 2007 credit crunch on subprime mortgages became the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, everything suddenly turned toxic. The lines of credit that had sustained a long building boom suddenly dried up. With creditors calling in loans, previous paper-wealth disappeared in a moment as property prices collapsed. Consumer confidence was shot to pieces and nobody was buying.

This was probably bad enough to cost any government its job, but the Irish Government compounded its mistakes with its handling of the financial crisis. Initially their promise to keep the financial institutions solvent was deemed a successful ploy to stop a run on the banks. But when the extent of the debt they had guaranteed for was revealed, it was obvious the Irish were in too deep. Rescue packages from the IMF and the European Central Bank came as they always do – with strings attached. Austerity was the order of the day, leaving average voters with a bad taste in their mouths. Why should they suffer for the excesses of the moneyed class?

It’s tempting to think that history will repeat itself in the way it did after 1973. The new FG/Labour government will be forced to continue austerity programs of the old government and will probably add a few of their own. The Minister for Finance will once again become the Minister for Hardship. But there are obvious differences from 1973 too. In 1973 FF were narrowly beaten, this time they will be smashed to pieces. This time too it may take longer for personal finances to recover to their 2000 highs, if ever.

Professor of Economics at University College Dublin Morgan Kelly predicts the crisis will mean the end of Fianna Fail / Fine Gael civil war politics and the rise of hard right parties looking for someone to blame. Sinn Fein may also provide an attractive nationalist alternative to voters that is not laden in xenophobia. No one knows what they really stand for beyond the Taiwanese impossibility of getting a 32-county republic. But Fianna Fail survived that handicap for 80 years so there is no reason that might not work for Sinn Fein too.

Monday, February 14, 2011

NBN Corporate Plan review tells government to watch assumptions

Greenhill Caliburn have completed their review of the NBN Co business plan and say it is as good as could be expected from “an Australian blue chip company.” Federal Communications Minister Stephen Conroy said the report confirmed NBN Co's key assumptions underlying revenue and cost projections which provided the Government with a reasonable basis on which to make commercial decisions about the broadband network. "As with any infrastructure project, there are always risks, contingencies and external factors and the Government will work closely with NBN Co to put in place agreed performance indicators to track its performance and adjust strategies or operations as needed,” Conroy said today. (photo: ABC News Damien Larkins)

The government asked Greenhill Caliburn to review the corporate plan and provide a commercial assessment, identifying and analysing the plan's key assumptions and potential risks. The company released its executive summary of the review today. In 2009, the Government formed the NBN Co to run the broadband network to bring superfast broadband to 93 percent of the population and a mix of satellite and wireless for the rest. The NBN Co released the final version of its corporate plan in December to provide a detailed overview of the expected technological, operational and financial framework for the development of the NBN expecting to commence large-scale construction by the middle of this year.

The government asked Greenhill Caliburn to review NBN Co Limited's Corporate Plan and provide a commercial assessment, identifying and analysing the plan's key assumptions and potential risks. Greenhill Caliburn is an independent firm listed in the New York Stock Exchange specialising in the provision of financial and strategic advice. Their baseline position having reviewed the plan was that “taken as a whole, the Corporate Plan for the development of the NBN is reasonable.” They said key assumptions underlying revenue and cost projections appeared be in line with a range of available domestic and international benchmarks, and were consistent with the stated policy objectives of the Government with respect to the NBN.

The key assumptions in the plan are network design, regulatory considerations and completion of agreements with third parties. Variation to these assumptions could affect NBN Co’s business strategy and return profile. Similarly NBN Co’s long term revenue forecast contain “inherent uncertainties” and are subject to shifting technologies and consumer preferences. Nor did the review conduct an in-depth analysis of NBN Co’s future funding requirements. However, Greenhill did say NBN Co is likely to be able to obtain debt funding over time with government support.

The Corporate Plan provides a detailed overview of the expected development and operation of the NBN, including a 30-year business forecast. The principle objectives are providing 93 per cent fibre network coverage by the end of 2020, delivering a wholesale-only open access platform, and providing an entry-level mass market product peak information rate of 12 Mbps with the potential to deliver up to 1 Gbps in the future. Recent Government decisions affecting the NBN include the increase of points of interconnect to premises from 14 to 120 and new requirements for Greenfield developments.

But decisions still need to be made to stop market participants from "cherry picking" the most commercially attractive areas ahead of the NBN build, passage of enabling legislation to grant powers and immunities to facilitate the rollout of overhead cabling, passage of greenfields legislation to mandate corporate developers install fibre-ready equipment and execution and performance of the agreements with Telstra hatched out in June last year.

The Corporate Plan estimates it will cost a massive $35.9 billion to build the NBN fibre network and its total funding requirements will be $37.1 billion. To generate the revenues necessary to repay this high build price, it is important a high number of users can be attracted to and retained on the NBN to a total of 13 million homes, schools and workplaces by 2020. They will also need to provide higher value products and services and keep the costs down to what is planned. Trends towards “mobile centric” broadband networks and consumer pushback on the usage-based pricing model could have negative impact on plans. Greenhill Caliburn has recommended a close monitoring of the Telstra customer migration and initial release phases relative to plan and the establishment of NBN Co monitoring arrangements particularly during the early stages of the project when key decisions are made.

Predictably, the Opposition has said the Greenhill report backs up their arguments against the NBN. Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull said the report’s support for the NBN was “grudging” and lacked answers for a range of critical areas. “This report, like the other multi-million dollar consultants' reports the Government has commissioned, fails to address the single most important issue,” said Turnbull. “What is the most cost-effective way to ensure that all Australians have access to high speed and affordable broadband?” Conroy’s rather glib response is that the plan showed taxpayers would get their investment back, with a return. “The NBN will provide a rate of return significantly higher than the government bond rate and all Australians will gain access to this world class network,” he said.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Algeria's disaffected find their voice

“Acts of violence don't win wars. Neither wars nor revolutions. Terrorism is useful as a start. But then, the people themselves must act. That's the rationale behind this strike: to mobilise all Algerians, to assess our strength,” Larbi Ben M’hidi The Battle of Algiers (1966)

To no one’s great surprise, the wave of people power revolutions that have shaken North Africa to the core has now washed over Algeria. There is something circular in this too, as Algeria was the scene of the first protests this year which spread to Tunisia and then to Egypt. Yesterday 2,000 protesters marched in the capital Algier’s May First Square where the overcame a security cordon to meet up with other protesters despite being vastly outnumbered by 30,000 riot police. Protesters want greater democratic freedoms, a change of government and more jobs. They are determined to remain peaceful and not react to police provocation as they march despite being banned by a nervous government.

The Algerian Government has much to be nervous about as it attempts to keep power it stole two decades ago. In December 1991, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) stunned the FLN which had ruled Algeria since independence from France in 1962 by smashing them in an election with a slogan of “No Constitution and no laws. The only rule is the Koran and the law of God.” A month later the army declared a state of emergency, overturned the result and formed a collective presidency known as the High State Council. The FIS was stripped of its victory, declared illegal and its leaders jailed.

The move sparked a civil war which lasted ten years and cost 200,000 lives. The army cemented power as the standard of living slowly lifted with new oil finds. Algeria has estimated oil reserves of nearly 12 billion barrels, attracting strong interest from foreign oil firms. Although political violence in Algeria has declined in recent year, the country has been shaken by campaign of bombings carried out by a group calling itself Al-Qaeda in the Land of Islamic Maghreb. Poverty remains widespread and unemployment high, with 30 percent of Algeria's youth without work.

On 9 January, major protests broke out over food prices and unemployment, with three people being killed in clashes with security forces. The demonstrations started in the poor westerns suburbs of Algiers. They grew in intensity spreading to the country's second largest city, Oran. Then the unrest spread to the working-class district of Bab El Oued in central Algiers. One by one, the other working-class districts of the capital followed suit as well as the cities of Tipaza, Annaba, Tizi-Ouzou.

The Algerian cabinet responded by agreeing to lower the custom duties and taxes on sugar and other food stuffs by two-fifths as a temporary act to cut prices. President Abdelaziz Bouteflika also promised the imminent repeal of the hated 1992 state of emergency law. The decision was greeted with cautious optimism but rejuvenated opposition groups vowed to keep the pressure up on the government. The Rally for Culture and Democracy said they would proceed with a protest on 12 February as originally planned. In a statement last week they said authorities chose to resort to political manoeuvres and to sow discord rather than respond to “legitimate aspirations and demands for changing the political regime that destroyed the country and enslaved the people.”

RCD leader Said Sadi claim that Saturday’s demonstrations were spontaneous and not organised seems a bit far-fetched. However it is true the decision of Hosni Mubarak to flee Egypt on Friday has further galvanised the Algerian opposition movement. On Saturday demonstrators waved front pages of newspapers showing the Egyptian news and shouted "Bouteflika out!" Latest reports say 400 protesters including four MPs have been arrested. The government claimed it banned the march for public order reasons not to stifle dissent. But as other regional leaders have found to their cost, dissent has a strong mind of its own.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Billy Costine's Flight of a Magpie

I stumbled across this great story in the English Newcastle Chronicle this evening about a man from my home town of Waterford. His name is Billy Costine, he’s 58 years old and his autobiographical book called The Flight of a Magpie is about to be published in the next few months. The reference to Magpies is about Newcastle United Football Club, a side Costine has had a near-lifetime association with. (photo via Newcastle Chronicle of Billy Costine and Peter Beardsley)

Costine has been a Newcastle fan for 50 years. With little cultural affiliation between Waterford and Newcastle, the reason a boy in the south-east of Ireland becomes a fan of a club in the north-east of England takes a bit of explaining. In 1961 aged 8, Costine played the table top football game Subbuteo with his brothers. The game was created 16 years earlier, by British game designer and RAF veteran Peter Adolph who had an interest in both football and ornithology. Adolph wanted to call his creation “hobby” for the Eurasian hobby, a type of falcon. His request was turned down by patent officers because of the wider meaning of hobby so instead he called it by a part of the bird’s Latin name “falco subbuteo”.

The etymology would have been unknown to most boys of Costine's generation, but the game itself was legendary. It was a rite of passage for many boys growing up in Ireland and Britain - including myself about ten years later. Costine played endless games with his brothers until they tired of the standard red and blue colours of the two playing teams. “My brother David said we could send away for other teams,” Costine told the Newcastle Chronicle. “I looked at the small brochure, which featured all the teams in the first division, and saw this team with black-and-white stripes".
The Magpie, he said, was born there and then.

In 1961 it wasn’t easy for a boy in Waterford to become a Magpie. There was no Internet in those days and no access to English television. There were English newspapers available but they tended to concentrate on the big London, Manchester and Liverpool clubs. Instead, Costine became addicted listening to the BBC on short wave radio. Every Saturday afternoon, he would tune in to hear about the progress of Newcastle’s games and listen to the final results read out at 5pm. He became a passionate fan and soaked up every scrap of information he could find about his heroes.

It would take 15 years before he could see them in the flesh. The cost of a flight in those pre-Ryan Air days was prohibitive and getting there by train and ferry was an enormous and time-consuming undertaking. By 1976 however, Costine was making money. He was a glass cutter at Waterford Crystal during a time when the workers there were acquiring significant union muscle. In 1976 A friend from the factory pulled some strings to get tickets to a Liverpool-Newcastle clash at Anfield. Billy hoped to see his heroes get revenge for their cup final defeat to Liverpool two years earlier but he was to be disappointed. His first Newcastle match ended in a 2-0 loss to the Magpies.

Billy went home undeterred, delighted he had finally seen the team he loved and dreaming of when he could finally watch them at home in Newcastle. It would take another 11 years for this wish to become a reality. Costine finally got to see St James Park in 1987. The Newcastle manager at the time was another Irishman with a long and loyal association with the club. Iam “Willy” McFaul arrived as a player in 1966 from Northern Irish football and served as coach, assistant manager and then manager until he was sacked 22 years later. Costine arrived a year before McFaul was ousted and had laid the groundwork with a letter to the manager. McFaul arranged for Costine to meet the team.

As Costine he left the dressing room, Billy spotted his heroes – Joe Harvey and Jackie Milburn. Both men had played football for Newcastle in a golden era in the 1950s. This was before Costine’s time but it didn’t stop him from absorbing either the mythology or the moment. “I remember like it was only yesterday,” he said. “There I was, stood between two of the greatest names ever to play for the Magpies, while Willie McFaul took the most prized picture I own.”

Since then, Billy travelled to Newcastle for the last home game of every season. He has become a well-known figure around the ground and has forged friendships with several ex-players such as John Anderson and Bob Moncur. Over the years he met most of the Newcastle greats including Alan Shearer, Paul Gascoigne, Malcolm McDonald, Peter Beardsley, Kevin Keegan and Bobby Robson. His connections got him a job with the club as a talent scout with a brief to cover Ireland hunting for promising young players for the Newcastle United Academy. “To do a scouting job for the club I have supported since I was eight years old was a dream come true,” Billy said. “Most of the boys I helped send over on trial have been capped at schoolboy level and up for Ireland.”

Costine has turned his story into a book but it hasn’t been an easy path to publication. Costine was made redundant as the state of Waterford Crystal deteriorated and he got a job driving buses for Bus Eireann. In 2005 he was involved in an accident in Cork and accused of careless driving. Costine blamed the accident on the poor quality of the bus and he was vindicated after an inquiry found other drivers too had experienced power surges in Bus Eireann buses.

Then Costine got into a row with his former publisher Francis de Roelman, also of Waterford. Costine claimed he had given de Roelman €5,000 in a contract to publish the book and he provided the publisher with a manuscript as well as photos and memorabilia to illustrate the book. De Roelman said he had not been paid and kept the manuscript and memorabilia. The District Court awarded the case to Costine but de Roelman appealed to the Circuit Court. In February last year, Circuit Judge Olive Buttimer affirmed the decision to grant €5,000 and costs to Costine for breach of contract for failing to publish his life story. The Court also ordered de Roelman to return the manuscript and memorabilia. The Flight of a Magpie is now due out in May, fittingly at the end of the football season.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Yemenis throng to another Tahrir

The world has gotten used to hearing about democracy protests in Tahrir Square, Cairo in the last few weeks. But a square of the same name (Tahrir is Arabic for liberation) is also the focus of protests in the Yemeni capital Sanaa. But in this Tahrir Square the protesters are demonstrating in favour of the current government not against it. They were there to profess their support to President Ali Abdullah Saleh who announced last week he would not be seeking re-election in 2013. The protesters came from pro-Government parts of the country in a move the opposition has labelled political manoeuvring to make it appear as if pro-Saleh regime sentiment is still strong. (photo:EPA)

The pro-Government protests are a backlash to a major opposition demonstration widely known as the Day of Wrath. Inspired by events across the Red Sea in Egypt and Tunisia, 20,000 demonstrators came out last week to Sanaa University to protest Saleh’s regime which has ruled Yemen for over three decades. People of all ages chanted and held signs with messages against poverty and the government. Many expressed solidarity with the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and demanded Saleh step down.

The regime insists it is not in trouble. Prime Minister Ali Mujawar defended the government yesterday saying there was no reason Egypt-style protests should take off in the country. Mujawar accused opposition parties trying to duplicate what happened in Tunisia and Egypt and acting “as if it should be imposed on the people here in Yemen." "Yemen is not Tunisia or Egypt," Mujawar said. "Yemen has its own different situation... Yemen is a democratic country. Through all the stages, elections took place. And therefore this is a democratic regime."

However one person’s democratic regime is another’s dictatorship. Army strongman Saleh took power in a coup in what was then North Yemen in 1978. When the North and South united in 1990 the South accepted Saleh as Head of State of the unified country. He first stood for presidential election in 1999 but the candidate list was whittled down from 31 to 2 by virtue of the strict approvals needed to run. Saleh won with 96.3 percent of the vote. Saleh initially said he would not run in the second election in 2006 but changed his mind. The EU declared the election valid though with “significant shortcomings”. Saleh was re-elected for seven years with 77.2 percent of the vote.

The next election is scheduled for 2013 and Saleh is barred under the Yemeni constitution from seeking a third term of office. However, discussions on prolonging his time in power started last year. Congress, which is dominated by Saleh’s General People's Congress party, is discussing a proposed constitutional amendment to cancel the limit of two consecutive terms for which a president can be elected. The proposed amendment will be submitted to a referendum which will be held simultaneously with parliamentary elections on 27 April.

But after the Day of Rage protest last Wednesday, Saleh apparently had second thoughts. He announced on state TV that April elections would be cancelled along with the constitutional amendment. "I will not extend my mandate and I am against hereditary rule," Saleh said. The hereditary rule comment was a response to suspicion he was grooming his eldest son, Ahmed Saleh, who commands an elite unit of the Yemeni army, to succeed him as president.

Given that Saleh made similar comments prior to the 2006 election, there is widespread doubt he is now serious. The current problems in Yemeni politics started when the mandate of the current parliament was extended by two years to April 2011 following the February 2009 agreement between the GPC and opposition parties to allow dialogue on political reform. There is also need for structural reform. Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the Arab region. Poverty is widespread with 45 per cent of its 21.1 million people living on less than $2 a day, according to the UN Development Programme.

Political analysts in Yemen feel that tension will only rise in the next 10 years, fearing that Saleh will never bow down from rule. One Opposition leader said Saleh will eventually be brushed aside. “For the same reason Yemenis revolted against the Imamate regime nearly 50 years ago,” he said. “Saleh will push Yemenis to the extent that they feel the only option left for them is a new revolution, therefore, forcing Yemen to start again from scratch.”

Friday, February 04, 2011

Mauritania looks anxiously over its shoulder

Al Qaeda have claimed responsibility for an attempted overnight attack near n the Mauritanian capital of Nouakchott. Army forces shot at a car containing 1.3 tonnes of explosives killing all three occupants, and injuring eight soldiers in the process. Security forces tracked the vehicle from the border with Mali after a tip-off and made the intercept 12km south of the capital, shelling the car causing a massive explosion.

In a a phone call to an Islamic website, North African Al Qaeda said they were targeting President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz. Mauritania’s Defense Minister Hamadi Ould Hamadi said the dead men were plotting an attack on military barracks as well as the French embassy. Security forces had earlier stopped a second car arresting an al-Qaida militant who confessed the plot including the target and the direction of travel.

The group known as Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb has claimed responsibility for several attacks in Mauritania. These include the 2009 killing of 39-year-old American Christopher Ervin Leggett and the 2007 shooting of four French tourists picnicking on the side of a rural road. As a result President Aziz has created specialised army units to deal with AQIM which launched a cross-border raid into northern Mali to destroy an AQIM base last year.

But while Aziz’s vigorous pursuit of Islamists has led to international support, the endorsement is not so ringing at home. Yacoub Ould Dahoud was certainly not a fan. The 41-year-old businessman had been following events in Tunisia closely and decided to carry out his own protest in the manner of Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi. On 17 January Dahoud set himself alight in front of the presidential palace in Nouakchott. Dahoud’s Facebook message before he set himself on fire read “Enough corruption! Enough injustice in Mauritania! For fifty years we have suffered from corruption and injustice.”

Dahoud wanted an end to army power and the end of duties and taxes on rice, wheat, cooking oil, sugar and dairy products. His message to Aziz was “if you do not accept these demands, you will face the wrath of the People who will come out just like they came out against Ben Ali.” Dahoud said he wanted “our children to live in a country with social justice, freedom and democracy.” After setting himself alight, his family sent him to Morocco for treatment but he died six days later of his wounds. His death fuelled anger in a country that overcame its ancient aversion towards suicide. Mauritania’s Taqadoumy news website showed a growing outrage over a smear campaign launched by the president. Aziz described Dahoud’s action as “desperate because of [General Aziz's] war on corruption as [Dahoud] hails from a wealthy family.”

Aziz has plenty of his own problems to worry about. Prices have soared in recent times, particularly sugar, oil and milk powder. His Government has been casting an anxious glance over its shoulder at Algeria where similar price rises of basic commodities left five people dead and 800 wounded in riots in early January. Through a statement issued by Mauritanian News Agency, Aziz asked his Government to consider urgent action to resolve the problem “Given the evolution of prices of certain foodstuffs, the President instructed the Government to take urgent measures likely to help keep prices down to levels more accessible to people throughout the territory,” the statement read.

Aziz is an ex-general who led coups in 2005 and 2008 but who won power in his own right in a 2009 presidential election, which was widely deemed fair. But he remains vulnerable with many in Mauritania seeing him still as a military strongman not as an elected representative. The recent people power riots across the Maghreb has also made the administration nervous and given strength to claims by opposition his regime is illegitimate.

A moderate Islamist opposition party the National Rally for Reform and Development (RNRD-Tawassoul) has publicly expressed support for the Egyptians protesters. Tawassoul hailed "the revolt of Egyptian youths committed to freedom in a bid to end the repression and hegemony of the Mubarak regime." The party said the protests were "a decisive moment, which calls for a much greater solidarity among all the forces of change, to deal with a dictatorship and defeat all the manoeuvres likely to slow the momentum of a revolution whose claims to freedom and reform meet people's aspirations.”

While ostensibly speaking about Egypt, this was really code for the situation at home in Mauritania. Poverty is widespread, 45 percent of adults are illiterate and a similar percentage live on less than $2 a day. Lying in the drought-prone Sahel, the long-term prognosis for the country is not good even if Aziz is forced out. The country owes $1.2 billion in debt, the vast majority to oil-rich Kuwait. Mauritania is no different in many respects to other countries in northern Africa, a fact not lost on Aziz as he ponders the wrath of people power. The fact the protesters and Al Qaeda are misdirecting their anger is little comfort in a world given to easy slogans for difficult problems.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

The US and Mubarak: Our sonofabitch

“The day is coming when the promise of a fully free and democratic world, once thought impossible, will also seem inevitable. The people of Egypt should be at the forefront of this great journey, just as you have led this region through the great journeys of the past.”

This extract from a stirring speech was not made in the last few days by Mohamed ElBaredi or Ayman Nour in an attempt to rouse the crowds to overthrow Mubarak. It was in fact spoken in 2005 by the then American Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at the American University of Cairo. Rice told her audience this call for democracy marked a change from long-standing American policy. “For 60 years, my country pursued stability at the expense of democracy in the Middle East -- and we achieved neither,” she said. “Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.”

Rice’s public demand for Hosni Mubarak to call elections was as startling as it was embarrassing for one of the US’s greatest allies. But in the end pragmatic priorities triumphed over promises. The US glossed over Mubarak’s sham poll victory later that year and the true state of affairs was shown by George W Bush when he met Mubarak at Sharm el Sheikh in January 2008. Bush spoke about building a “democratic future” in Egypt but problems elsewhere meant he had to rely on Mubarak’s support. “It's important for the people of Egypt to understand our nation respects you, respects your history, respects your traditions and respects your culture,” Bush said. “Our friendship is strong. It's one of the main cornerstones of our policy in this region, and it's based on our shared commitment to peace, security and prosperity.”

Bush’s blarney may have boosted Mubarak’s ego but did not fool ordinary Egyptians. Despite financial largesse of up to $33 billion in military aid in the last 25 years, opinion polls show anti-Americanism to be higher in Egypt than in any other Middle Eastern country. Egyptians are all too aware of the dirty work their government does on behalf of the US. Egypt was home to many American cases of extraordinary rendition.

Al Qaida camp commander Ibn-al Shaykh al-Libi, was captured by US forces in late 2001 and taken to a prison in Cairo where he was repeatedly tortured by Egyptian officials. Mamduh Habib, an Egyptian-born Australian citizen was apprehended in October 2001 in Pakistan and taken to a prison in Cairo where he was repeatedly tortured by Egyptian officials. Habib was beaten frequently with blunt instruments, including an object similar to an “electric prod.” His jailers told him if he did not confess to belonging to al-Qaida he would be anally raped by specially trained dogs. Habib was returned to later sent to Guantanamo after his stint in an Egyptian prison. The Mubarak regime’s contempt for due process was an ideal fit with Bush’s “war on terror”.

Condoleezza Rice’s own tune was changed just two years after she attempt to rouse the nation to democracy. As the New York Times noted, underground media were full of state-sanctioned atrocities in the weeks before Rice arrived in the country again in 2007. “Cellphone videos posted on the Internet showed the police sodomising a bus driver with a broomstick. Another showed the police hanging a woman by her knees and wrists from a pole for questioning. A company partly owned by a member of the governing party distributed tens of thousands of bags of contaminated blood to hospitals around the country,” the Times said. But faced with chaos in Iraq, rising Iranian influence and the escalating Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the US decided stability was a more important priority than encouraging freedoms for everyday Egyptians.

The Obama administration has shown an equal unwillingness to rock the boat. Obama did show Rice-like signs of bucking the trend when he went to Egypt in June 2009 and made a historic speech in Cairo about US-Muslim relations. He told his audience no system of government should be imposed by one nation by another. “That does not lessen my commitment, however, to governments that reflect the will of the people,” he continued. “Each nation gives life to this principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people. America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose.”

The crowd enthusiastically applauded Obama for his lesson on freedom but may not have been so happy with what he told Mubarak when they met at the White House two months later. “I want to thank the government of Egypt for being an Arab country that has moved forward to try to strengthen Iraq as it emerges from a wartime footing and a transition to a more stable democracy.” Once again, the needs of Egyptians played second fiddle to the Great Game of American oil security in the Middle East. As FDR said of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza in the 1930s, “he may be a sonofabitch, but he's our sonofabitch." The now powerless Americans are now watching Al Jazeera like everyone else wondering whose sonofabitch will emerge victorious from Tahrir Square in the coming weeks.