Niall O’Dowd’s Irish tabloid misrepresents the Mitchell Scholarship program yet again

If you are someone who reads Irish American newspapers, the Irish Echo tends to report facts, including the full story on the Northern Ireland funding cut for the George J. Mitchell Scholarship program.

The casual reader should take with a grain of salt reports on the Mitchell Scholarship in the tabloid Irish Central. Many are well aware of Niall O’Dowd’s great hope that the Mitchell Scholarship program will end.  We’re not sorry to disappoint him.  His tabloid’s most recent article is yet another example of half-truths and outright errors.

First, as Mr. O’Dowd is very well aware, it was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, not John Kerry, who eliminated funding for the Mitchell Scholarship program.

The piece also says that I told the BBC that the Mitchell Scholarship would not likely continue past 2015 unless some funding is restored or more private donors are found.”  That is untrue.  What I said, if one actually reads the article, was that Scholars would not be sent to Northern Ireland if funding is not found from those who might hope to see Northern Ireland universities remain a part of the program.

In the fall, the Mitchell Scholarship program will send the 2015-2016 class to Ireland and Northern Ireland.  In the fall, we also will select a full cohort of Scholars to study in Ireland in 2016-2017 and we will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.   With the support of many, including Sean O’Sullivan of SOSventures, Morgan Stanley, CRH, Marcy Carsey, our alums and especially the ongoing support of the Irish Government’s Department of Education, the Mitchell program is no longer under immediate threat.

Unlike programs like the Rhodes and Schwarzman, the Mitchell began with an idea, not with a wealthy person’s money.  Unlike the Marshall Scholarship program, which is funded by the British Government, we do not have the annual support of the US Government (it was Secretary Clinton’s State Department officials who told us they were eliminating funding because they didn’t care about Europe any more).  We do care about our relations with Europe and particularly the island of Ireland.  We are constantly working to raise an endowment so that America’s best and brightest can continue to study on the island of Ireland.   I have always been quite honest about the fact that the long-term viability of the program will come down to whether or not there is a critical mass of people who care to build the relationship for the future.

The casual reader should understand the real background to Irish Central’s repeated criticisms.  Nearly a decade ago, I wrote a piece in the Irish Times in which I told the truth, that there would not be a special deal for the Irish who were illegally in the US – that they would be legalized as part of a larger effort.  I was honest and correct, and it enraged O’Dowd.   His personal dislike for me has resulted in him and has tabloid regularly attempting to trash the Mitchell and the US-Ireland Alliance.

In the past three years, of the 10 individuals lucky enough to be offered both a Rhodes and Mitchell interview, 8 have opted for the Mitchell, making it the most sought after prestigious scholarship of its kind.  There are nearly 300 applicants every year for the Mitchell.  One would think this is something Mr. O’Dowd would fully encourage and support.   Fortunately, there are others who are recognizing the value of providing a tie to the Ireland for America’s future leaders.  Hopefully others will join us.  If you would like to support our work, it is easy to do so.

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Ben Trachtenberg continuing to build ties

This is the kind of story about giving back that I love! Ben Trachtenberg was a Mitchell Scholar who attended the University of Limerick (Class of 2002). He went to Columbia Law School when he returned to the US and is now an Associate Professor at the University of Missouri School of Law. Ever since he returned to the US, Ben has maintained ties to the island of Ireland and has gone back for things like giving lectures in law.

Ben knows that there are so many deserving students and not nearly enough opportunities to study abroad. He pitched a great idea to the University of Missouri — that it should award its own scholarship to students and recent alumni who applied for prestigious national scholarships like the Mitchell, Rhodes and Marshall but did not win. And the Mark Twain Fellowship was created.

This year, Jessica Anania, a University of Missouri student, was a very deserving finalist in the Mitchell Scholarship program. We hate that not everyone can receive a Mitchell and we’re delighted when many of our finalists are selected for other awards. Jessica was recently selected to receive the Mark Twain Fellowship and so will study at Queen’s University of Belfast after all. http://fellowships.missouri.edu/news/2015/anania.php

Not only is Ben’s idea helping American students, it is helping strengthen ties between the US and the island of Ireland. Congrats Jessica.

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Enough Already

This week was so seven years ago.

Irish America publisher Niall O’Dowd may be loud, but that doesn’t make him right, or representative of most Irish Americans. In his never-ending need to ingratiate himself with the Clintons, he inducted Hillary Clinton into his Irish America Hall of Fame this week. All that did was to remind everyone that when Clinton ran against Obama in 2008, she and her camp falsely claimed she played an instrumental role in the Northern Ireland peace process leading up to the 1998 Belfast Agreement. As Senator Ted Kennedy’s foreign policy adviser, I was directly involved in that process, as was O’Dowd, and he would know full well that the First Lady’s role was far from instrumental. He keeps trying to suggest more than was there with vague but grandiose-sounding comments like, “Hillary Clinton played a leading role in creating the links between the White House and leaders on the ground that would become so important during crunch time when negotiations came.” That’s as specific as he can get, and as non-specific as he has to be, because there’s no there there.

In 1997, Irish Times journalist Conor O’Clery wrote the first detailed book on the US role in Northern Ireland as it related to obtaining that first visa for Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams to visit the US and that period leading up to the Belfast Agreement. As O’Dowd was one of O’Clery’s primary sources, one would think that if the First Lady had played any significant role, he would have credited her, as would anyone else O’Clery interviewed. But in O’Clery’s, Daring Diplomacy: Clinton’s Secret Search for Peace in Ireland, Hillary Clinton is mentioned five times but there are no references to her playing any role, she is referred to merely as accompanying her husband.

Most tellingly, if her contributions to the Northern Ireland peace process were so significant, why didn’t she mention that herself in her 2003 book Living History? In the 500-page autobiography she mentions Northern Ireland on several occasions but never suggests she played an instrumental role in ending the conflict. As Maureen Dowd wrote in the New York Times in 2008, “Having a first lady tea in Belfast is not equivalent to bringing peace to Northern Ireland.”

And O’Dowd was also at it again with his futile demands to separate the Irish from everyone else who is illegally in the US. The Irish Times reported that O’Dowd told the Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny) that he might want to take a page from the Israeli Government, which “did well in the US because they were prepared to ‘kick down doors’.” The Taoiseach responded by correctly recognizing that he is “not in a position to dictate to the American administration on the issue of immigration reform.”

Underlying all this are O’Dowd’s delusions about an Irish American vote and political power that simply don’t exist. He would like the Clintons, and everyone else, to believe that there’s an Irish vote and he’s the man to get it for them. But as the former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley told the late Irish Times journalist Seán Flynn in 2010, “Irishness per se does not deliver a huge political dividend.” Aside from how one feels about the influence of money in politics, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s revenues in 2013 were nearly $72 million. There is no equivalent Irish/Irish American organization and thus no serious clout in elections or policy. When journalist Niall Stanage looked at the Federal Election Commission records from the 2007-2008 election cycle, he found that the Irish American Democrats’ PAC raised $35,840 and most of that miniscule amount was from just a few people. One reason there is no such Irish war chest is because there are no galvanizing issues around which most Irish Americans feel a need to lobby.

I wrote in the Irish Times in 2007 that there would be no special deal for the Irish illegally in the US. It was simply a statement of fact. Personally, I’m all for immigration reform but a special deal was never going to happen and saying otherwise to those living in the shadows is to mislead them. American politicians are not going to irritate millions of Latinos by bumping a couple thousand Irish to the front of the line (incidentally, there is no evidence to support that the number of Irish illegally in the US is 50,000, O’Dowd created that figure).

O’Dowd is certainly entitled to lobby for Hillary Clinton and the Irish who are illegally in the US – but he’s helping neither.

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20th Anniversary of the IRA Ceasefire

August 31st marks the 20th anniversary of the IRA cease-fire in Northern Ireland.  August 25th marks the fifth anniversary of Senator Ted Kennedy’s death and I’ve been thinking about our work when I served as his foreign policy adviser.  Precise language and choreography were critical in the processes.

I had been serving as the go-between for Sinn Fein and the Clinton White House.  Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams talked with Niall O’Dowd, the New York publisher of the Irish Voice, O’Dowd talked with me and I talked with the White House – mainly with my former Kennedy office colleague Nancy Soderberg, along with National Security Advisor Tony Lake and Jane Holl who handled Europe on the National Security staff.

The back and forth had been going on for more than a year. There had been a major row in January 1994 in the lead up to President Clinton deciding to grant Gerry Adams a visa to visit the US for less than 48 hours.

By July 1994, we were getting antsy about how long it was taking the IRA to declare a cease-fire.  We were anxious for Sinn Fein/IRA to accept the historic opportunity offered by the Irish Prime Minister Albert Reynolds and British Prime Minister John Major with their Joint Declaration the previous December.

In mid-July, O’Dowd and the small group he’d been working with — former Congressman Bruce Morrison, businessman Bill Flynn and quiet philanthropist Chuck Feeney — headed to Belfast in advance of a special Sinn Fein conference at which Sinn Fein would respond to the Joint Declaration.  O’Dowd told me of various options Sinn Fein was considering and he wanted to know how the US would react to them.  After discussing the options with Soderberg, she wanted me to tell O’Dowd that Sinn Fein’s response needed to reflect a philosophical rejection of violence and that any mention of a limited time-frame for a cease-fire would not be acceptable.

A week later, O’Dowd rang from Belfast where he had met with Adams.  He was optimistic that the upcoming Sinn Fein announcement would not refer to a time limited cease-fire. There had apparently been discussion of a three-month ceasefire but it was made clear that that would not cut it in the US.  He didn’t know if Sinn Fein would make it clear that they were now philosophically opposed to the use of violence. He expected they would endorse some aspects of the Joint Declaration and say that there were some aspects they have problems with.  He thought the  IRA would announce a ceasefire about two weeks later.  By this stage, having made our views clear, we would just have to wait and watch and we hoped that the Sinn Fein statement would not be wishy-washy.   Throughout the period I was also in constant conversations with Irish Government officials as well as Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith and her team in Dublin.  There was nervousness about reports that Adams said he doubted the IRA was about to call a truce.  O’Dowd wasn’t concerned, he saw that as an effort to lower expectations.

Sinn Fein met in Letterkenny, County Donegal on Sunday, 24 July.  We were not happy with the outcome.  Sinn Fein was seen to have rejected the Declaration, which Adams said did “not deal adequately with some of the core issues.”  Kennedy called Sinn Fein’s response “extremely disappointing” noting that the Joint Declaration was “fair to all sides in Northern Ireland, and Sinn Fein should have joined it long ago.”  Kennedy took a harder line than Reynolds.  We thought carefully and consulted widely before Kennedy chose those words.  The White House and Reynolds’ coalition partner Dick Spring also expressed disappointment.  Sinn Fein provided none of what Soderberg had been seeking.

On 3 August, Soderberg, O’Dowd and I had a conference call and while Soderberg and I  argued that Adams had said nothing new, O’Dowd found significance in the unanimous endorsement of the Sinn Fein leadership, i.e. Adams.  O’Dowd told us he believed that Adams would go to the IRA Army Council in two weeks with a proposition for a ceasefire of an indeterminate time period and that Sinn Fein was already briefing its supporters in the US on an open-ended cessation.

It was a typical occurrence that Sinn Fein and their supporters would consider statements monumental that were lost on everyone else.  Soderberg told O’Dowd that she and I followed this issue very closely and if the significance of the minutiae of Sinn Fein pronouncements was lost on us, how could they expect anyone else to get it?  A philosophical shift of thinking in Gerry Adams’ own mind was not enough.

O’Dowd was convinced, and we had come to agree over the past year, that Sinn Fein/IRA had concluded that they had nothing to gain by continued violence and could only hope to achieve their goals through politics.  Once again we could do little but wait a little longer.  By now, O’Dowd thought the actual announcement might not come until Labor Day. Soderberg was heading off on vacation and I would be in Ireland from the 14th through the 28th, but we stayed in contact throughout.

O’Dowd, Flynn, Feeney and Morrision decided to return to Belfast on 24 August to meet with Sinn Fein and to commit their support if the IRA would agree to halt the violence. O’Dowd and company planned to hold a press conference as O’Dowd said Sinn Fein wanted to be seen as responding to America.  There was some concern in various quarters that some in the delegation loved press attention and that that could put at efforts at risk.  My view was that O’Dowd was unlikely to do or say anything publicly that Adams hadn’t greenlit and if the optics of a press conference helped bring a ceasefire, I didn’t care.

I had plans to be in Ireland during the Congressional recess for a mix of work and pleasure in August.  I flew to Ireland on 12 August, and spent several days in Dublin before heading west.  My trip was not uneventful.  A house I was staying at in Dublin was robbed one night and police thought I surprised the robbers because they had left through an upstairs window. I was in contact with the Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy because the robbers had sliced open my suitcases and we wondered briefly if it was just a simple robbery or was in some way related to my work.  The police and the owner of the house (who was away on vacation) told me that several other houses on the street had been robbed and it was a matter of time until they hit that one.   We concluded it was an “ordinary” robbery.  Then, on 18 August, Irish gangster Martin ‘The General’ Cahill was assassinated in a street nearby in what would be the last IRA murder before the ceasefire.

While I was in Ireland, a visa was granted to veteran IRA leader Joe Cahill to visit the US.  Cahill had cred with the rank and file supporters of the IRA in the US and he came to prepare the ground for the impending ceasefire.  Ambassador Smith supported the visa and Senator Kennedy told the President he supported granting the visa and hoped it marked the final hurdle before the IRA announced a ceasefire.

I was in Heathrow on my way home when O’Dowd rang me to say the announcement was imminent and suggested I turn around and fly back to Ireland for the celebration.  It had been a long month, a long year, and thrilled as I was, I opted to return home and celebrate there.

On 31 August, the IRA declared a complete cessation.  Senator Kennedy who had been tireless in his commitment to aiding the process called it “a joyous and hopeful day for all of Ireland and for all the Irish people.”

On 24 September, I was with Senator Kennedy and his wife Vicki in Boston when Kennedy met Adams for the first time. Within weeks, the Loyalists would call their own ceasefire and the rest is history.

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Calvary

CALVARY

Don’t miss this John Michael McDonagh film starring Brendan Gleeson

see photos from the New York screening: https://www.flickr.com/photos/usirelandalliance/sets/72157645615197918

I just saw the film Calvary for the third time — it’s one of those films you can see several times and catch something you missed before.

Brendan Gleeson plays a priest living in the west of Ireland.   A parishioner, who was molested by a priest as child, tells this ‘good’ priest in the confessional that he’s going to kill him in one week because, sure there’s no news in killing a bad priest.  The story is of the priest’s interactions with the disillusioned locals.

Gleeson gives an outstanding performance and its strength is often in the subtlety.  There are many great scenes, like the one where Father James is having an innocent conversation with a little girl when her father drives up and freaks out when he sees a priest talking to his child. Gleeson’s painful expression at the recognition that he can’t even talk to child is a sad reflection of the world we find ourselves in today and is just one example of Gleeson’s impressive talent for conveying emotion by expression alone.

John Michael McDonagh (The Guard) is the writer/director and his film is full of well-written, thought-provoking dialogue.  He directs an outstanding ensemble cast that includes Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Aiden Gillen, Dylan Moran, Isaach de Bankole, M. Emmet Walsh, Marie-Josee Croze, Domhnall Gleeson, David Wilmot, Pat Short, Gary Lydon, Killian Scott and Orla O’Rourke.  As Gleeson has noted in interviews, each character that has an issue with the priest/church has a legitimate grievance.

And the film is beautifully shot with Ben Bulben in County Sligo coldly casting an eye over all.   There are several references to the current and recent history of Ireland, the disappointment with clergy, bankers and politicians.  But as McDonagh has noted, it’s not an ‘Irish’ film, as much as it is a universal film.  This smart dark comedy is about disillusionment and cynicism but it is also about our desire to see our cynicism proven wrong.  It speaks to our yearning for even just a few authentic, honest leaders.

I hope the Academy voters remember this film and Gleeson’s performance come January, as both are award-worthy.

The US-Ireland Alliance has been working with Fox Searchlight on some advance screenings — I attended the Washington, DC and New York City screenings and audiences love the film.  Thanks John Michael and Brendan for being so generous with your time and sharing your insights on the film with audiences.

The film will be released in the US on Friday, 1 August.  Don’t miss it.  These are some reviews:

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/08/04/big-men-2

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/29/movies/john-michael-mcdonagh-carves-his-own-niche-with-calvary.html?src=dayp

http://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/apr/13/calvary-review-terrific-black-comedy

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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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