Setbacks Send Sinn Féin Reeling
Having been at the center of the peace process and made huge electoral gains north and south of the border, the year has begun disastrously for Sinn Féin. A series of unrelated events has put the party under intense scrutiny for its policy and attitude towards crime and paramilitary violence.
Public interest in the case of the so-called `Colombia Three’ simply evaporated when it was learned that three Irish Republicans facing long sentences for allegedly assisting left-wing FARC rebels in Colombia were no longer in custody. Their whereabouts are still unknown. The case had created an international headache for Sinn Féin, particularly in Washington, where the Bush Administration shows little enthusiasm for associates of FARC.
If the party needed to move on, much worse was to follow. Police investigations into criminal operations run by the IRA are underway and various discoveries have tainted Sinn Féin by association. Minister for Justice Michael McDowell, an outspoken adversary of Sinn Féin, accused its Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and Martin Ferris TD (parliamentary deputy) of being members of the IRA Army Council. All three refute this allegation.
In December the peace process stalled on decommissioning and crime issues. Shortly afterwards the Northern Bank in Belfast was cleared out in a £27 million heist. Without presenting any evidence Hugh Orde, chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), claimed the robbery was an IRA operation.
Relations between the Dublin government and Sinn Féin deteriorated when Taoiseach Bertie Ahem intimated that Sinn Féin leadership knew in advance about the raid. He added that IRA punishment beatings, held in check during negotiations, had since resumed in Belfast.
Adams and McGuinness reacted angrily to Ahern’s intimation that they knew anything about the IRA robbery. Sinn Féin might have been able to counter the PSNI but the brutal murder of Robert McCartney in a Belfast bar added significantly to their difficulties. McCartney, a father of two from a family of Sinn Féin supporters, was knifed to death following an argument with local IRA men. Witnesses were intimidated from giving evidence but sisters of the dead man have courageously spoken out to demand justice. The IRA denies involvement.
Days later a major money laundering operation was cracked open by the Criminal Assets Bureau. Some £2 million, possibly part of the Northern Bank haul, was recovered from a farmhouse in Cork. Significant amounts of cash were seized in other raids around the country with suspects arrested on charges of IRA membership. At the same time the Special Criminal Court in Dublin jailed five men for four years for IRA membership after being caught in possession of weapons, fake gardai uniforms and Sinn Féin promotional material.
Sinn Féin has tried to distance itself from IRA activity in general and these events in particular. However as we go to press, its response to so many charges of criminality has not satisfied political parties, north or south. Until the party’s stance on criminality and violence is credibly clarified, the peace process is bound to stay on hold for some time.
McAleese Makes Public Apology
President of Ireland Mary McAleese apologized to Ulster Unionists for remarks she made during a radio interview. Speaking on the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp, McAleese suggested that Nazis had cultivated hatred of Jews by promoting sectarianism at an early age.
She said the Nazis had given “to their children an irrational hatred of Jews in the same way that people in Northern Ireland transmitted to their children an irrational hatred, for example, of Catholics; in the same way that people give to their children an outrageous and irrational hatred of those who are of different color and all of those things.”
Her comments provoked outrage among Unionists, and the Orange Order canceled a scheduled meeting with McAleese. Realizing her faux pas the President attempted to make a full apology. “What I said I undoubtedly said clumsily,” she admitted. “I should have finished out the example…It was never my intention to simply blame one side of the community in Northern Ireland.” She accepted criticism that she should have referred to both Catholics and Protestants on the matter of sectarian prejudice. “That is what I should have done if my head had been screwed on properly and clearly I made a mistake for which I am desperately sorry.”
Burke Sent to Jail
Ray Burke, left, once a leading figure in the Fianna Féil party, was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment for tax offenses. The north Dublin politician, formerly a close associate of Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, failed to make tax returns on undeclared income of more than 100,000 euros over a ten-year period from 1982-91.
Burke’s fall from grace began when he appeared before a state tribunal investigating illegal payments-to-politicians. He was found to have received a number of illicit payments, although prior to the tribunal he persistently denied any wrongdoing, even when he vehemently resigned his Dáil (Irish parliament) seat in October 1997.
The 61-year-old Dubliner held a number of key posts in government, including portfolios at the Departments of Finance and Foreign Affairs. In his circuit court ruling, Judge Desmond Hogan noted that Burke had been a legislator involved in passing the 1983 Finance Act “under whose provisions he is now prosecuted.”
The maximum sentence for tax offenses is five years. But Judge Hogan deemed a six-month verdict was sufficient. He indicated that Burke is now tax compliant, has already paid penalties to the Revenue Commissioners, and was reported to be in ill health. The first ex-government minister to be jailed on criminal charges, Burke was taken to Arbour Hill Prison. An application for the state to pay his tribunal legal costs was refused, leaving the once powerful politician owing fees in the region of 10 million euros.
Kenny Addresses Student Shortfall
James C. Kenny, U.S. Ambassador to Ireland, spoke at several Irish universities to promote the J-1 summer visa program. J-1 was a traditional favorite for Irish students as it permitted visa holders to live and work legally in the U.S. for up to four months. However, a combination of factors has prompted a spectacular decline in numbers. USIT student travel agency in Dublin reported a drop in applications from 6,500 to 2,800 last year.
“By the end of the J-1 season [last year] we were pretty disappointed,” said Ambassador Kenny. “What we hope to do is get the numbers back up to where they were. I hope that we can make it easier and more welcoming for people to come experience [the U.S.] because I’m telling you it is a hugely important issue for us in America.”
Students cite a variety of reasons for turning away from the program.
Ireland’s improved economy means it is just as easy to find summer work at home. Other destinations, such as Australia and continental Europe, are also attracting students in greater numbers. Significantly, some students have opted out because of U.S. foreign policy in Iraq and Afghanistan, and because of stringent new security measures for applicants. J-1 students must have an interview at the U.S. embassy in Dublin (for which they are charged 100 euros) even though they are only applying for a summer visa. Mandatory fingerprinting at airports has discouraged others, while restrictions on final-year students also reduced the number.
As part of a recruitment drive, Ambassador Kenny conducted a series of seminars at leading third-level colleges in Dublin and Cork. The seminars were well attended, but the ambassador’s success in reversing such a strong decline will not be measurable until later this year.
Save the TARA-SKRYNE Valley
The Hill of Tara in Co. Meath, dates back over 5000 years to the Neolithic age and is acknowledged as the traditional seat of the High Kings of Ireland. However, its immeasurable importance seems lost on the Irish government which has approved a scheme to divide the Tara/Skryne valley with the M3 motorway. Members of the Save Tara/Skryne Valley Campaign, pictured above, are calling on the government to re-examine the decision. To sign a petition opposing the M3, log on to www.taraskryne.org
Possible End to Artists’ Tax Haven
A review of tax legislation for artists living in Ireland has been called for by an inter-party finance committee. Oireachtas committee chairman Sean Fleming highlighted figures from the Revenue Commissioners showing that 28 artists who earned 62 million euros between them in 2001 claimed tax exemption for that year.
Tax breaks were introduced by former Taoiseach (prime minister) Charles Haughey in an effort to assist artists on low incomes. Some 1,323 artists currently benefit from the scheme, the majority of whom exist on modest means. However, the finance committee suggests that the scheme is open to abuse when highly successful artists, such as rock stars or bestselling novelists, remain out of the tax net even when living as millionaires. “This must stop,” warned the chairman. Based on the committee’s recommendations, a cap will be placed on earnings, so that artists whose incomes exceed that limit will be subject to tax.
ESAT Young Scientist
Patrick Collison, pictured left, from Nenagh, Co. Tipperary was named the ESAT Young Scientist of the Year. Runner-up last year, the 16-year-old Collison, studying at Castletroy College, Limerick, developed CROMA, a new computer programming language particularly suited for use on the web. As part of his prize Collison will represent Ireland at the European Union Contest for Young Scientists in Moscow in September. Patrick’s younger brother, John, placed third in the junior section of the contest.
Irish Times to Move
The Irish Times is set to relocate from D’Olier Street in Dubin city center to a more modern eight-story glass building on nearby Tara Street. It will be a big change to the city’s landscape, as the Times has occupied its triangular brick premises since 1895. The newspaper moved its printing facility to Citywest on the outskirts of Dublin a couple of years ago. ♦