The trouble with Northern Ireland

Two recent incidents are emblematic of why so many people switch off when it comes to Northern Ireland.

For a decade until 1998, I was Senator Ted Kennedy’s foreign policy adviser and heavily involved in the Northern Ireland peace process.  One of my jobs was to help him convince President Clinton to grant Gerry Adams a visa to visit the US in 1994 because we believed that could help bring an end to the violence there.

In this blog, (see 21 January entry), I wrote about the 20 year anniversary of that visa which was instrumental in leading the IRA to declare a ceasefire later that year.  In response to that blog, David Hilditch, a DUP member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, wrote to me saying ‘shame on you.’  As I wrote to Mr. Hilditch, we saw an opportunity to do something that could help stop the violence in Northern Ireland.  We did so and were right to do so.  I asked him if he’d rather we hadn’t, perhaps he’d rather people still be killing each other?  As of yet, no reply from Mr. Hilditch.

Both sides equally carry their grudges.  In December 2004, the Northern Bank in Belfast was robbed. In January 2005, Robert McCartney was murdered in Belfast.  Members of the IRA were implicated in both incidents.  Even though I no longer worked for Senator Kennedy, I continued to advise him on all things Irish until his death.  I recommended that he not meet with Gerry Adams when he was in Washington for the St. Patrick’s Day festivities in 2005 because doing so would suggest we had no problem with the robbery and the murder and would send the signal that there would be no repercussions for such things.  Senator Kennedy agreed and declined to meet Adams.  Senator Clinton’s adviser Kris Balderston asked my advice and I gave the same.   Senator Clinton refused to see Adams as well.  President Bush did the same.  Rita O’Hare, the Sinn Fein representative to the US, was furious with me and never spoke to me again.  After not seeing Rita for years, I saw her last night at the Irish Embassy St. Patrick’s Day party and I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to laughingly ask her, “Are you still not speaking to me?”  I caught her off guard but repeated that two more times.  She stared daggers at me, didn’t say a word and marched off in a huff. Kennedy’s snub was widely credited with contributing to the IRA decommissioning within months. As I said to Hilditch, Ms. O’Hare, what am I meant to be apologizing for?

Senator George Mitchell, in writing about his foray into Northern Ireland, recounted that someone said to him “To understand us, Senator, you must realize that we in Northern Ireland will drive 100 miles out of our way to receive an insult.” And he could have added, “and we’ll never get over it.”  Northern Ireland is slow to grasp the future because far too many are mired in the past, with some event resenting what turned out to be good things.

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Who cares if Victoria Nuland uses the F word

Why the kerfuffle that Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland, said “F — k the E.U”?

I have sympathy for her (I don’t know her personally). Many people in the heat of arguments and negotiations let fly with some language our mothers would rather not hear us use. She was having what she thought was a private conversation. I’ve done the same and I’d be fairly confident others have said the same about me. Who cares? When others aren’t doing something you think is so obviously what they should be doing (as appears was the case with Nuland), you get frustrated. I’m sure the Europeans regularly say “f  – k the Americans.”

According to Wikipedia, the word f — k is used 506 times in Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” — I assume mainly by Leonardo DiCaprio. Which makes me think the story about Nuland has a lot to do with her being a woman and it’s just the old double standard. Would anyone even have bothered to leak that if it had been the late Richard Holbrooke saying it?

Unfortunately, we can’t all be the Dalai Lama. And doesn’t medical research suggest it’s better to let it out? Personally, I prefer direct talk as opposed to diplospeak.

The real issue isn’t Nuland’s language but the fact that the Administration really does seem to care less about Europe.

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20 year anniversary of the Adams visa

20 year anniversary of the Adams visa

and the future of the relationship

Twenty years ago this month, Senator Ted Kennedy was at the forefront of an effort to convince President Clinton to grant Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams a visa, so that he might briefly visit the United States.  As leader of the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, Adams had been prohibited from entering.  Senator Kennedy had come to believe that the visit was an important part of a process that could bring an end to decades of bloodshed in Northern Ireland.  Later that month, despite vociferous opposition from the British Government, as well as many in his own Administration, President Clinton granted the visa and within a year the IRA would declare a cease-fire and the Loyalist paramilitaries would follow.

The visa for Adams was achieved because the right people were in the right places at the right time – the time that the IRA was prepared to end its violent pursuit of a united Ireland.  That same year, 1994, also marked the early stage of the Celtic Tiger, a period of economic growth that would last for more than a decade and transform Ireland before crashing ignominiously in 2008.

In 1998, with the signing of the Northern Ireland peace agreement, I left Senator Kennedy’s employ to create the US-Ireland Alliance which includes a scholarship named in honor of Senator George Mitchell, who deftly achieved a necessarily, constructively ambiguous agreement that required navigating a recent, bloody past, an historical enmity, and unrelenting bitterness that made W.B. Yeats’ reference to Ireland as a place of “great hatred, little room” seem like an understatement.  Our difficulty in securing stable funding for the Mitchell Scholarship reflects a wider complacency that comes with peace and the taking for granted of old relationships about which most Millennials know little.

A nation-wide competition is held annually to select twelve future American leaders who spend a year of post-graduate study on the island of Ireland.  The program has become so popular that several recent applicants have chosen to accept the Mitchell interview rather than interview for the long-established Rhodes Scholarship, which has for a century, sent future leaders like Bill Clinton to Oxford.  Unlike the Rhodes that is funded from Cecil Rhodes’ estate, the Mitchell has yet to find a major benefactor or corporation that sees the value in assuring that future generations of American leaders will have a connection to the island.

For more than a decade, the US Government largely funded the Mitchell Scholarship program but for the last two years, the Department of State, beginning under Secretary Hillary Clinton, has sought to eliminate funding altogether, repeatedly telling us that Europe is no longer a priority.

The island of Ireland has changed, as has America’s relationship with it.  While Northern Ireland is not without continuing problems, the Troubles are fortunately a thing of the past.  While Ireland continues to struggle economically, it is no longer a country to which the vast majority of Irish Americans feel a need to send remittances.  Of the Irish emigrants who do leave Ireland now, fewer head for America than did in previous decades and thus a continuous flow of new immigrants cannot be relied on to maintain the relationship.  Times have changed so much in twenty years that Gerry Adams now sits in the Irish parliament and Sinn Fein is part of a governing coalition in Northern Ireland.

New York financier Stephen Schwarzman with a number of businesses and individuals who care about the future of the US relationship with China (albeit driven largely by their own business interests) recently created a $300 million scholarship intended to rival the Rhodes.  As the Irish would say – fair play to them — there cannot be too many opportunities for young Americans to spend some time abroad.  The Mitchell Scholarship already rivals the Rhodes, but do enough companies and individuals care enough about this relationship to help assure its future?  The jury is still out.

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Seamus Heaney, President Obama, Syria

Sometimes we don’t fully appreciate the moment when we’re in it…. It was January 1998, three months before the Northern Ireland peace agreement was achieved, that I accompanied Senator Ted Kennedy on his first trip to Northern Ireland. St. John’s Country House, ‘in the remote northwest corner of Ireland, situated by the shores of Lough Swilly, on the Inishowen Peninusla’ in Donegal, was the setting of a sort of dream dinner party. Guests included Seamus Heaney, John Hume, Brian Friel, Jennifer Johnston, Senator Ted Kennedy and Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith. The dinner stands out to me now, in part, because of the complete lack of pretension that surrounded it. When I heard about the death of Seamus Heaney, I pulled out a photo from the evening and found his expression encapsulated his personality — warm, kind, accessible, joyous, encouraging and gentle. He wore his genius lightly.

In a time when banal celebrity often trumps the truly newsworthy, it was uplifting to see the New York Times give Seamus Heaney’s death the prominence in deserved — page one, center, above the fold. The photo of Seamus makes it appear as if he is looking at the story to his left, that of President Obama’s “faltering support in foreign capitals and Congress for a strike against Syria.”

After President Obama’s 2008 election win, Bill Shipsey, the founder of Art for Amnesty, a friend of mine and of Seamus, asked if I might shepherd some gifts from Seamus to the new President. One was a parchment scroll of his poem ‘From the Republic of Conscience’.

In discussing the poem six years earlier, Seamus spoke of Dante’s Inferno: “And Ulysses goes on to tell Dante of the courage that was required to initiate and pursue his adventure; I set forth then upon the open sea with just one vessel from my fleet’s remains and those few men who had not deserted me.” Words in Seamus’ 1995 Nobel Prize acceptance speech evoke the reaction to the horrific chemical attacks in Syria: ‘we channel-surf over so much live coverage of contemporary savagery, highly informed but nevertheless in danger of growing immune.’

Perhaps in these moments, when the President must feel he is going it alone, he might take down that poem and heed Seamus’ admonition that, “We must not forget the call of conscience and we must endeavour to keep others awake to it.”

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The ‘Ireland-as-tax-haven’ issue

May 24, 2013

I’ve been in Ireland this week seeing the Irish take on the US Senate hearing regarding taxes paid, or not paid, by Apple. The Government here has objected, as it has in the past, to Ireland being described as a tax haven.

I wrote a piece in the Irish Times four years ago (June 2009) entitled “Obama’s Tax Plan Need Not Spell Doom for Ireland”. You can have a fast look at that so I won’t restate all of it here.

Putting aside the complexities of tax laws and just looking at the big picture ….

– The US Senate hearing on Apple’s tax avoidance is a result of US politicians’ and taxpayers’ frustration during difficult economic times – the US corporate tax rate is 35%, Ireland’s is 12.5%. Americans want what they feel is the tax due the country from multinationals.

– Apple is a business and businesses are all about making profits for their shareholders. I take it as a given that most businesses seek to pay the least amount of tax possible, hence availing of all these complicated mechanisms that require armies of accountants and lawyers. Is it fair that I pay more than 25% in tax while Apple pays 2%? No.

– This however doesn’t mean that Apple is doing anything illegal. Therefore, to the extent there is a problem, instead of grousing about what Apple, Google and others are doing, and complaining that Ireland is a ‘tax haven’, it is up to the Congress to change US laws. Blaming Apple, Google and Ireland is misplacing the blame.

– But Apple and other companies might consider the reputational damage of their choices. They should think of their corporations as citizens and act accordingly.  Apple under Steve Jobs had a reputation of not being philanthropic. We at the US-Ireland Alliance have been reaching out to Apple, Google and other multinationals in hopes that they might support our Mitchell Scholarship program so I have been reading a bit about Tim Cook. I note his recent visits to China to address labor issues and that he has instituted a new policy whereby any donation given by an employee, up to $10,000, will be matched by Apple. These suggest a culture change may be underway.

– Legalities aside, Ireland has to deal with perception. UCC Economics professor Seamus Coffey, wrote a piece worth reading because it simplifies the matter for those of us who aren’t economists.  I accept that Ireland is not technically a tax haven but it cannot be surprised if it is, in a sound bite era, perceived as such. Ireland therefore has to expect that the US and others may seek to close loopholes or better the Irish corporate tax rate (I’d be against a race to the bottom in terms of corporate tax rates). I’ve long argued that Ireland should assume the worst and wean itself from the over-reliance on the corporate tax rate.

– For all the fear about what the US might do, I’d be cynical enough to maintain my view that, Senate hearings notwithstanding, there is little chance that American politicians will make any quick changes due to the strength of the US business lobby and the slowness of political action in general (look at how long immigration reform is taking). As presidential candidates, McCain, Obama, and Clinton all told the electorate what they wanted to hear, that they’d close loopholes. However, once elections are over, this issue always seems to fade away. I’d be surprised if it doesn’t again.

– Wouldn’t it be great if everyone would just seek to be good citizens who are willing to pay their fair share as opposed to trying to avoid doing so? Governments should collect reasonable taxes to provide good services. We can’t expect services and not expect to pay for them. Governments have a responsibility to be efficient so taxpayers feel their taxes are well spent. Corporations, like citizens, should pay their fair share – it’s fine to generate a reasonable profit but there’s no need to be greedy.

– Corporations need to be more philanthropic, even more so when they’re avoiding taxes, even if legally.

* In the interest of full disclosure, I own a few shares in Apple but nothing I’ll be able to retire on, no matter how well Apple does!

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Rapist on the run

Many of you may recall that Mitchell Scholar Winnie Li was raped in Belfast when we all gathered there in 2008 to mark the 10th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement. (If you scroll down, I wrote an earlier blog on this which gives you the background.)

Winnie’s rapist was recently released after serving four years of an eight-year sentence. He is on the run again thanks to being given bail by a Dublin judge.

A photo of the rapist is at this link. Anyone with information regarding his whereabouts should contact the Police Service of Northern Ireland on 0845 600 8000 or your local Garda station.

I’m at a complete loss as to why Judge John Lindsay granted bail to this guy who has repeatedly proven to be a flight risk.  According to this Irish Independent story, the Garda officer at the hearing urged that he not be released.  Why was he?

Winnie plans to write an op-ed about this.  She previously wrote an essay about her experience, which was included in a book.  Winnie recently was in Singapore to launch the book.  By speaking about her experience, others have come forward and told her of their own experiences.  This is Winnie’s blog and you can purchase her book via the blog.

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The Queen’s Jubilee and another Jubilee

I’ll be in London in early June, which is coincidentally the time of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. As jubilee is not a word that comes up in daily conversation, I was reminded of another jubilee – Jubilee Hall at Fisk University in Nashville.

I recently visited Fisk as part of our ongoing efforts to make universities aware of the Mitchell Scholarship and opportunities to study in Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Fisk opened in 1866, just months after the end of the Civil War, to educate newly freed slaves. The university was always a tough economic proposition and a music professor created a choral ensemble of students who toured to earn money for the school. The group was called The Jubilee Singers, a Biblical reference to the year of Jubilee in the Book of Leviticus, Chapter 25 (“It shall be a jubilee unto you – and you shall return every man unto his own clan, you shall return every man to his family.”)

In 1873, the singers performed before Queen Victoria when they toured Europe to raise funds for the school’s Jubilee Hall, now a National Historic Landmark. The imposing Victorian Gothic building has a life-size floor-to-ceiling portrait of the Jubilee Singers, commissioned by Queen Victoria and given as a gift from England to Fisk.

In 1949, Georgia O’Keeffe donated the art collection of her husband Alfred Stieglitz to Fisk with the condition that the university not divide it up or sell it. The collection of 101 works includes paintings by Picasso, Cezanne, Renoir, Diego Rivera, Toulouse-Lautrec and O’Keeffe herself, to name a few.

Fisk’s current economic situation is so dire that the very existence of the university is in question and it wants to sell some or all of the collection. The Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation filed suit to prevent the sale and this has been part of an ongoing court case. The matter now appears to be settled, with Fisk being allowed to sell a half-share of its collection to Alice Walton’s Crystal Bridges Museum, in Bentonville, Arkansas.

All of which reminds me a bit of the O.Henry story many of us learned in elementary school. “The Gift of the Magi” is the story of a couple with very little money. The wife cuts her hair to buy her husband a chain for his treasured watch, and he sells his watch to buy combs for her beautiful hair. Fisk and the O’Keeffe Foundation dilemma: sell the paintings to save the university or keep the paintings and lose the university.

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Happy St. Patrick’s Day

Whose idea was it to have the Taoiseach give President Obama a ‘certificate of Irishness’? The Department of Foreign Affairs will use even their own Taoiseach to flog those things. The shop in Shannon Airport must have been out of leprechaun dolls and chunks of the auld sod. (Guess who will be off the Irish Embassy guest list, again!)

The Taoiseach joked that the certificate is ‘rare’ –  that’s because no one wants them.  I know the country’s saving money, but I’m sure one of Ireland’s great writers would have been only to happy to sign a book for the President.

Obama did say the certificate would be in a place of honor, ‘next to my birth certificate.’ That was a great line. Maybe he meant no one will ever see the thing. ☺ (For Birthers and those lacking a sense of humor, that’s a joke.)

Irish America can be just as bad. During this week it is always people from Ireland and Northern Ireland who tell me how horrified they are by the shamrockery, and they’re right, it’s embarrassing.  The Irish are just so grateful for the attention that they grit their teeth, take it, and then laugh at the Yanks at the end of the night. Ireland gives us what they think we want and clearly some still do.

Recent pieces in the Irish Times show that at least Donald Clarke and Paul Cullen get it:

Will we ever have a mature relationship?

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Fantastic Hollywood event, despite the begrudgers!

Smashing Oscar Wilde party at Bad Robot last night despite of the Irish Film Board, Culture Ireland and Northern Ireland Screen (and where is EI, IDA and Tourism Ireland?). Steven Spielberg, JJ Abrams, Dick Cook, execs from HBO, Disney, Focus Features, and that’s the tip of the iceberg. But the Irish Film Board can’t be bothered because, in the words of Chairman James Morris, ‘they know where we are if they want to make a movie here.’

Just to set the record straight on some cute hoor spin being put out by the Irish Film Board … the US-Ireland Alliance applied for funding for this annual event, for which we were to receive a response by the end of last June (according to the government agencies own stated deadlines). No response came and despite several emails from me seeking a response, it never came. In August, when I’d had it with all the nonsense, I told them what they could do with their money, knowing that in fact, that they had already decided not to support the event, but just weren’t telling us.

Also, at the same time we applied for funding for the LA event, we applied for funding for a high school education program (to get more American tourists to Ireland). Again, we were to have received a response by the end of June. To this date, we have yet to receive a response.

No response and no contribution is a rejection, pure and simple. For James Morris to suggest we ‘turned down’ what they had already rejected is being completely dishonest.

The related Irish agencies have been begrudging about this event since we started it in 2006. At that time, Enterprise Ireland told the Irish Film Board, “this is a great idea, it should have been our idea, let’s let it die and we’ll steal it from her.” They should be supporting and embracing this unique opportunity and bringing home jobs for Ireland. This is entirely personal – they’re annoyed that I speak up when they don’t follow up on introductions to top producers in Hollywood. I’m clearly mistaken, I thought Ireland was looking for business?

I realize times are tough. I also know that it is easy for the populists to focus on ‘Hollywood party’. But everyone who is in that room knows the massive opportunities that have come, and can come, from it. But to quote someone I recently heard talking about something else, I can’t put this thing together with chicken wire and bubble gum. This is one of those things where you have to spend money to make money, and you also have to turn up and work the room and then follow up.

I should have seen the writing on the wall when last February, a couple of months before we applied, the Assistant Secretary of the Department of Arts, Niall O Donnchu emailed me (when I complained they don’t follow up) saying, ‘you shouldn’t be so snippy with the people who give you money.’ Mr. O Donnchu seems to forget that he is not giving ‘me’ money, it’s sponsorship for an event; and it’s not ‘his’ money, it’s the Irish taxpayers’ money. I have worked in and with Ireland for more than 20 years and my personal experiences leave me feeling the Irish taxpayer is too often ill-served by too many (not all) civil servants. I intend to write a book about this and the Irish taxpayer can decide for themselves.

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On the Death of Vaclav Havel

Two days before Vaclav Havel died, I gave a talk about ethics to 200 high school students in Pennsylvania. Ironically, I talked about Havel who I’d had the honor of meeting when I worked as Senator Kennedy’s foreign policy adviser. Havel was someone I admired and I recommended to the students that they read his book Summer Meditations. All politicians should read it. Some of my favorite quotes from the book:

“Political intrigue is not really politics, and, although you can get away with superficial politics for a time, it does not bring much hope of lasting success. Through intrigue one may easily become prime minister, but that will be the extent of one’s success; one can hardly improve the world that way. I am happy to leave political intrigue to others; I will not compete with them, certainly not by using their weapons.”

“As in everything else, I must start with myself. That is: in all circumstances try to be decent, just, tolerant, and understanding, and at the same time try to resist corruption and deception. In other words, I must do my utmost to act in harmony with my conscience and my better self. For instance, I am frequently advised to be more “tactical”, not to say everything right away, to dissimulate gently, not to fear wooing someone more than my nature commands, or to distance myself from someone against my real will in the matter. In the interests of strengthening my hand, I am advised at times to assent to someone’s ambition for power, to flatter someone merely because it pleases him, or to reject someone even though it goes against my convictions, because he does not enjoy favour with others.”

“In other words, if there is to be any chance at all of success, there is only one way to strive for decency, reason, responsibility, sincerity, civility, and tolerance, and that is decently, reasonably, responsibly, sincerely, civilly, and tolerantly. I’m aware that, in everyday politics, this is not seen as the most practical way of going about it. But I have one advantage: Among my many bad qualities there is one that happens to be missing – a longing or a love for power. Not being bound by that, I am essentially freer than those who cling to their power or position, and this allows me to indulge in the luxury of behaving untactically.”

“A person who is sure of the values he believes in and struggles for, and who knows he simply cannot betray them, is usually able to recognize the degree of compromise permissible in the practical application of his ideals, and to know when a risk becomes more than he can take upon himself.”

“I have been blamed for being a dreamer or an idealist for quite some time, and I don’t mind. There are enough pragmatists and opportunists. The more it’s said that somebody is an idealist or a dreamer, the more it seems there is a need for such a voice.”

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