I had a 50 minute on camera conversation with Dick Roche, the Irish minister for European Affairs, in the Department of the Taoiseach beside the Dail yesterday, in which he had some strident things to say about Paul Krugman, Vaclav Klaus and Declan Ganley.
He accuses Krugman of not being attentive to Irish economics in his comments and of having bigger fish to fry in the US - “his analysis which compares a stimulus package (in the US) to the Irish situation without taking into account the full range of social supports available in Ireland … is somewhat fatuous for a man with his economic reputation … in real terms the EU and Ireland has a stimulus package … but it would be a very brave person who would suggest spending even more money here when we have such a massive gap between the tax take and current expenditure.” The issue of whether there should be an EU stimulus package as opposed to national stimulus packages is one which might properly be discussed as part of the campaign, but hasn’t really been raised to date.
Roche lambastes Vaclav Klaus for a “gross breach of protocol”; of “interfering in Irish politics”; of amazingly subjugating the right of the Czech people to make their choice on Lisbon to the decision of the Irish people; and of being “an embarrassment to his own country”.
He accused Declan Ganley of attacking Europe for not supporting the invasion of Iraq because he “stood to make a lot of money out of the war in Iraq, through his operations in Guardian Net and Liberty Mobile, and his disgusting involvement with very very corrupt arrangements in Iraq … (where) attempts were made by a discredited US Under secretary of Defense … Mr. Jack Shaw … to skew contracts … when contests were run for telecommunications networks in Iraq and his friends who owned the CDMA technology rights - including the Ganley Consortium - failed to win contests .., Mr. Shaw tried to have those contests overturned and tried to run a contest that was not a contest … a so called contract to install a first responder network … and morphed these into full commercial phone networks without the bother of having any contractual contest and these are the people who talk about openness and transparency…”
The discussion was in three parts:
1. The Irish economic situation and its impact on the European Elections
2. The Irish Political situation
3. The Lisbon Treaty and its potential impact on the development of the EU.
Part 1. The Irish economic situation
In the first segment Roche seeks to put the current economic crisis in the context of unprecedented prior economic growth, substantial reserves in the National Pension Fund, and additional factors such as the decline of Sterling which have disproportionately impacted on Ireland.
But he also notes that people on the doorsteps are spontaneously raising European issues such as Lisbon as being important in the context of Irish economic recovery. He has a swipe at George Lee, a famous Irish television economic commentator and prophet of doom who has just declared for the opposition Fine Gael party as its candidate in the Dublin South Bye-election for the irish Parliament. The reference to George’s taste in blue shirts is a snide reference to Fine Gael’s origins as a party with some links to quasi fascist “blue shirt” politics. (The siren sounding during this section of the interview is the sound of a division bell for a vote in the Irish parliament).
Part 2. The Irish political situation
Unfortunately my inexperience with webcam technology came to haunt me in that I managed to lose the second or middle segment of the interview.
His analysis of the prospects for each party in each of the four Irish Euro constituencies; the proposal for a new crime of Blasphemous Libel by his colleague, the Minister for Justice, Dermot Ahearn; and the “coronation” of Barroso to a new term as President of the Commission by the EPP and PES (to the exclusion of Fianna Fail’s ALDE group).
In this section of the interview he acknowledged that Fianna Fail was in trouble in Dublin where Eoin Ryan is currently trailing Mary Lou McDonald (Sinn Fein) in the polls, but felt that transfers from the second Fianna Fail Candidate, Eibhlin Byrne, The Lord Mayor of Dublin might well see him home for the last seat.
In Ireland East, he noted that Nessa Childers (Lab) comes from a very distinguished line of Republicans and Fianna Fail politicians (her Grandfather, Erskine Childers, was a hero of the fight for Irish independence, and her father was the fourth President of Ireland) and he felt her nomination was a real coup for Labour.
He felt Brian Crowley (Fianna Fail) was safe in Ireland South but that Declan Ganley, despite spending a fortune on his campaign and having a clear run in the Galway end of the Ireland North West Constituency was not going to get elected. He had the greatest of admiration for Marian Harkin (Independent) and expected her to be re-elected to the last seat with Jim Higgins (Fine Gael) and Pat the Cope Gallagher (Fianna Fail).
Roche claimed that he had been a champion of Fianna Fail’s move from the UEN group to the ALDE Group in the European Parliament and said I would have to ask Brian Crowley my question about his alleged opposition to this move. Roche would not be drawn on his views on the “Coronation” of José Manuel Barroso to a second term as President of the Commission by the EPP and PES but noted that the ALDE group had 11 affiliated members on the Commission.
Roche said that no one had mentioned the Blasphemous Libel issue on the doorsteps and thus that it could therefore not be described as an attempt to distract people from the economic issues or consolidate Fianna Fail’s conservative base. (I wasn’t expecting him to criticise a Party and Government colleague, but I suspect the proposal may disappear after the elections).
Part 3. The Lisbon Treaty and its potential impact on the development of the EU.
The third segment of the interview is contained in part 2 of the video below. The controversial comments about Klaus and Ganley come towards the end of the interview
For the seriously nerdy, I enclose my interview plan and questions below. You will note that I had to chop and change quite a bit during the interview to allow topics to be raised as part of the natural ebb and flow of the conversation. I also had to keep the questions much shorter and didn’t manage to cover the full range of questions before the division bells rang and Dick was called into the Dail for a vote. However I am very grateful to those of you who suggested questions, and I hope you will feel you got some value from the interview.
Hello, I’m Frank Schnittger, and I’m an independent blogger who publishes on the European Tribune, Booman Tribune, Daily Kos and on the Thinkaboutit blogging campaign which is run by the European Journalism Centre and funded by the European Commission in an effort to stoke up interest in the European Parliamentary Elections. The readership of my blogs is mostly European and American and so this interview will be conducted largely from an international rather than from a domestic Irish perspective.
The European Parliamentary Elections are often characterised as 27 distinct national elections which happen to take place in the same week but which are generally dominated by local and national issues because that is what seems to animate the Mainstream media and local electorates the most. Most of the media coverage in Ireland has been dominated by the trouncing everyone expects Fianna Fail, the main Governing Party, to get because of the parlous state of the Irish economy.
When I was preparing for this interview I published a list of 10 questions I proposed to ask the Minister on my blogs by way of getting some advice and feedback from you, my readers and fellow bloggers out there. Most of my questions were from an Irish perspective but it soon became pretty clear from your comments that you were also interested in hearing more about the Irish Government’s views on Lisbon, the development of the European Union, and our larger and longer term vision for the future of Europe as a whole. So I’ve ended up with a list of 25 questions which may take more time than we have, but I’ll do my best to cover as much ground as possible.
So I will start this interview with a few questions about the Irish domestic political and economic situation and then gradually move on to the broader European Policy issues.
1. Minister, let’s start with the easy question: There is an old joke that the difference between Ireland and Iceland is one letter and about 6 months. In recent weeks we seem to have been making strenuous efforts to catch up with Iceland. The Irish Economy is expected to decline by 6% both this year and next, having already declined by 4% last year; unemployment is expected to rise to 17% next year; the current budget deficit is expected to come in at over 10% of GDP both this year and next - over 3 times the Maastricht Growth and Stability Pact limit – and that’s before we bail out the Irish Banks to the tune of anything up to €90 Billion which is equivalent to almost the whole of Ireland’s GDP. How do you think the Irish Government has been doing in managing the economy, and how do you expect the Irish electorate to react at the polls in a couple of weeks time?
2. Have you been doing much campaigning on behalf of your candidates, what issues are people raising on the doorsteps? I see your wife Eleanor is campaigning for a seat in the local elections in Greystones – does this mean that Irish politics is still a cosy club where the same people keep it in the family?
3. The recent Sunday Business Post Red C poll put Fianna Fail at 24% of the vote - a historic low - which compares to the 42% you received in the last general election in 2007. If that poll turns out to be accurate, do you think Fianna Fail might even lose a seat in one or more constituencies?
4. There are 4 sitting MEPs in the Dublin Constituency which is being reduced to 3 seats for this election. This means at least one sitting MEP has to lose out, and the polls seem to be predicting that the last seat could be between Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein. Wouldn’t it be extraordinarily embarrassing for Fianna Fail to lose to Sinn Feinno one wins an election as of rigtht and have no seat in the Nation’s Capital? Could such a defeat not threaten Brian Cowen’s credibility and leadership of the Party and the Irish Government?
5. Labour have nominated Nessa Childers, a daughter of a former Fianna Fail cabinet minister and President of Ireland, and also a former Green Party Councillor, for the Ireland East Constituency. Do you think her name recognition and association with both Fianna Fail and the Greens puts her in the ideal position to take the third and last seat their from Fine Gael?
6. Fine Gael (the main opposition party) have nominated a very strong second candidate in Ireland South in Sean Kelly, a former high profile President of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA). Does that give Fine Gael a chance of a second seat in Ireland South or will the last seat go to Labour or the sitting Independent MEP Kathy Synnott?
7. The fact that Sean O Neachtain, Fianna Fail sitting MEP in Ireland North West has withdrawn due to ill-health means that Declan Ganley of Libertas is now the only candidate based in Galway, the main city in the region. Given the tendency of people to cross party lines to support local candidates, do you think Ganley now has a realistic chance of being elected?
8. Fine Gael and Labour make much of their membership of the two largest groups in the European parliament, the EPP and PES respectively, whereas Fianna Fail has been a member of the much more marginal UEN group and has just joined the liberal ALDE group. Does this not undermine Fianna Fail’s credibility as the leading Irish party in Europe particularly as Fine Gael got 5 seats to your 4 at the last election?
9. Is it not a little surprising, just when you are joining the Liberal ALDE group in the European Parliament, that the Fianna Fail Minister for Justice should bring in an amendment to the Criminal Justice Act in which he proposes to bring in a new crime of Blasphemous Libel? Is this not bringing us back to the 1950’s, or the divisive referendum campaigns on Divorce and Abortion in the 1980’s? Some people (myself included) have suggested that Fianna Fail might be trying to distract attention from the economic situation, and that you tried a similar diversionary tactic ahead of the last European Elections when you proposed controversial reforms of immigration and asylum laws?
10. Many people deride the European parliament as a home for retired national politicians or people who couldn’t otherwise make it in national politics. What distinctive contribution did the Fianna Fail members of the last Parliament make, and how would you see them influencing policy and legislation in the next parliament? What are your main policy priorities in the EU? Why was their no EU Stimulus plan to tackle the global recession?
11. Is a new term for Barroso a wise decision for Europe? Why? Isn’t that the sort of thing which should be decided by an active political campaign during these elections rather than agreed by the EPP and PES behind closed doors? How does Fianna Fail, as a member of the ALDE group, feel about being left out of the loop on this? And “Do you agree with Labour that the next Irish Commissioner should be selected by the Dáil?”
12. Turning to a question on the Lisbon Treaty. I know it’s not directly an issue in this election, but a second referendum is widely expected to be held next October. Indeed Czech European affairs minister Stefan Fule, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the EU has said he thought the Government should announce the date of a second Lisbon referendum at the June council, provided the necessary guarantees were in place. When will you be announcing the date of the next referendum?
13. Why do you think people who voted NO the last time around, or indeed didn’t vote at all, should vote YES this time around? What do you say to those who complain that Ireland is being bullied by the European Elite to keep voting until it produces the “right” answer?
14. What are the Irish Lisbon guarantees over tax, defence and ethical issues such as abortion and family life going to look like and how are they going to be made legally binding? Why are we going for a declaration – which does not have the same legal standing as the guarantees – on the importance of workers’ rights. I thought the Charter of Fundamental European Rights was the one part of the Lisbon Treaty which was exceptionally well drafted. Why was the rest of the Treaty made so unintelligible?
15. Eurosceptics make much of the fact that the Constitutional Treaty and Lisbon were rejected by French Dutch and Irish Voters. They forget that if you add in the massive vote in favour of the Constitution by Spanish voters, then a majority of European citizens who did get the chance to vote actually voted in favour of the Constitution. Is not the real problem not majority vote style democracy, but the requirement for unanimity before any fundamental changes can be made?
16. What steps are you undertaking to ensure that the next Government Lisbon campaign will be a more effective one?
17. Fianna Fail and the your Green Party government coalition colleagues appear to be at odds over whether Ireland should play a part in the European Defence agency as required by the Lisbon Treaty. Are they asking you to renegotiate that part of the Treaty?
18. What difference do you think the Lisbon Treaty, if ratified, would make for Europe?
19. Despite the economic crisis, how does Ireland see the future of EU spending with regard to much poorer member states? The meaning of solidarity?
20. I interviewed the Libertas candidate for Ireland East, Raymond O’Malley last week and he was arguing that he was opposed to Lisbon because it didn’t go far enough in making the EU more democratically accountable. He felt that all Commissioners, including the President of the EU Commission should be directly elected by the voters. What is the Irish Government’s position on this?
21. Do you support Libertas’ proposal for a “blue card” scheme to limit the mobility of works in the EU to two years within another member state and to make them ineligible for social welfare benefits in another member state?
22. Does Ireland support the further enlargement of the EU with additional members such a Turkey, Croatia, Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia, Montenegro, and Iceland? Why is Iceland being given fast track priority? Does further enlargement require further institutional reform? Is there an Irish vision of the European Union beyond the Lisbon Treaty? (Ralf Grahn) Is Ireland comfortable with Sarkozy’s view of an EU of two or three big member states (through their heads of state or government) setting the pace for the EU?
23. Should there be a European regulator for financial institutions?
24. Looking at past major controversies in Europe – Kosovo, Iraq, Extraordinary Rendition, the role of NATO in eastern Europe – what difference would Lisbon have made? We were complicit in extraordinary renditions in Ireland – with many flights passing through Shannon on their way to Bagram airport and other dark sites where torture is known to have taken place. Does the Irish Government now regret this? Given that dark sites and black operations are so secretive even the US congress doesn’t seem to have been kept fully informed, were we not naive to accept US assurances that no “torture flights” were taking place? Isn’t it ironic that the term “Enhanced interrogation techniques” used as a euphemism for torture is a direct translation of the German “Verschärfte Vernehmung” which the Gestapo invented for forms of torture that would leave no marks? And those Nazi interrogators were executed for war crimes after the war. Will the Irish Government support the prosecution of torturers and those who authorised torture by an international Court?
25. The evidence shows that the “enhanced interrogation techniques” were specifically authorised by Rumsfeld and Cheny in an attempt to find evidence of links between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein in an attempt to justify the war on Iraq and that they resulted in false confessions useful only for propaganda purposes. Isn’t it ironic that the US ended up using the same techniques as used by the Vietcong in Vietnam to illicit false confessions for propaganda purposes?