Monday, October 26, 2009


President Blair? - Not in our name!

It looks like the Czech President Vaclav Klaus is about to sign the Lisbon Treaty. That means the position of the President of the European Council will become available in the very near future.

At the moment one of the most often-mentioned candidates is ex-UK Premier Tony Blair. The Taoiseach Brian Cowen has already intimated that he would be very happy to support a Blair candidacy.

I think we need to sit back and think about things before we offer our support to any candidate.

Our nation has just concluded a national conversation on our role in Europe. As someone who spoke to thousands of citizens during both Lisbon referenda I am very conscious of the importance which people placed on the whole issue of Irish neutrality, and the potential involvement of Irish troops overseas. The presence of the triple-lock mechanism in relation to our overseas involvement (approval of the UN, the Government and the Oireachtas before we engage in any military action) was reassuring to many people. So, if one of the first acts of the new, reformed European Union is to appoint someone who went to war without a UN mandate, then this will be a real kick in the teeth to many of our citizens.

I recognise the many talents of Mr Blair. As a member of the UK Labour Party in the early ‘90s I had the opportunity to vote in the election for Leader of the Labour Party in July 1994. I cast my vote for Blair (and I voted for Brown for Deputy Leadership) and was delighted when both won their respective contests.

I applaud the work he did on Northern Ireland. But let’s not forget that he came into power less than a year before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. Much hard work had already been done by that time. He was like the fourth runner in a relay race. He finished well and never dropped the baton and he is deserving of credit for this.

But I don’t think that he is owed anything by the Irish people because of this. And I would prefer if there was some sort of debate about his suitability as President of the European Council before the Taoiseach goes off anointing him on our behalf.

Already many prominent writers are engaging in a sales pitch for Blair. Frankly some of them should know better. Will Hutton is supporting him, on the basis that “It’s better to back our man, however imperfect, than refuse a prize that may not come our way again for decades”.

Jackie Ashley’s backing is less than wholesome. She says “I think the Iraq war was such a big error that, morally, nobody who led us into it should be able to return to a position of leadership. There should be some mistakes too big to recover from.” But she seems to reassure herself that all will be ok if he becomes president because “He’d have no army. He’d be able to start no wars”. Well that’s alright then.

Blair made a big mistake. A huge mistake. The Iraq War. Politically he should be consigned to the graveyard because of it.

Back in February 2003 I along with millions of others marched from Euston to Hyde Park in London on the day of the worldwide anti-war marches. I remember stopping off for a coffee break along the way in Bar Italia, in Soho, and watching live coverage from other European cities – the millions of people marching in Rome, 100,000 people on the streets of Dublin listening to Michael D Higgins and Christy Moore in Dublin.

We were furious that preparations were being made for war. “Not in our Name” was our cry. Surely, we all thought, Blair will see the strength of opposition across Europe and call a halt to this madness!

But Blair was not for turning. Blair would not listen. He was completely anti-european when he turned his back on us, as well as on the leaders of the rest of Europe. Instead he rushed off to war with his ally George Bush.

Like millions of other, from then on I lost my faith and trust in the man. Now, just six years later, some people are asking us to support him again. We shouldn’t. He is too divisive to be considered for the position.

Even in his homeland people are querying a potential Blair presidency. The Sunday Observer’s lead article this week was entitled “Europe needs a president we can all trust. Blair is not the man for the job”.

What’s more, the past is creeping up on Mr Blair. In the same way that Mahon Tribunal might put a stop to Bertie Ahern’s Presidential ambition here at home, the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War awaits Blair.

The purpose of the inquiry is to consider the UK’s involvement in Iraq, including the way decisions were made and actions taken. It has appointed Dame Rosalyn Higgins, one of the most renowned experts on international law as an adviser, in what is viewed as an indication that the Blair government's legal justification for the invasion is to come under serious scrutiny.

The Inquiry's chairman, Sir John Chilcot, says he will not carry out a "whitewash". He has insisted the committee "will not shy away from making criticism. If we find that mistakes were made... We will say so."

So, things are going to get a lot hotter for Mr Blair. Last week the father of a killed serviceman told the inquiry that "I believe this country has been badly let down and been lied to. I would like to see some accountability... The prime concern I have is over the legality of the war."

A grieving mother told the Inquiry that "Blair had to be held responsible for what he's done, to our children, and to our husbands". Another mother told the hearing that "I lost my son and he was only 18, and I blame Tony Blair.”

Blair himself will be giving evidence to the Inquiry. He will be pushed hard in relation to the evidence for weapons of Mass Destruction. A central issue is whether he took Britain to war on evidence he knew or suspected to be fake.

Blair’s appearance in front of the inquiry will coincide with the first months of the new president’s term. Not the type of attention that a new president needs. And of course, when the report comes out, this will cast further spotlight on him. There’s also the potential of criminal charges afterwards.

Do we really want to run the risk of having such a tarnished and controversial person figure as President of the European Council? I think the answer has to be no more Blair. Not in our name.

Sunday, October 18, 2009


Community Alert Scheme Launched in Ashbourne

The Ceann Comhairle resigned his position on Tuesday. RTE put together a political panel to comment on the proceedings in the Dail and because all of the TDs were needed in the Dail Chamber to vote for his successor, RTE chose three Senators to sit on the panel. Myself, Cecilia Keaveney and Eugene Regan were all plastered in make-up and marched into their Montrose studio for the 2:30pm start.

The programme flew by and it was reasonably enjoyable. I wasn’t hugely surprised that Seamus Kirk got the position. Rumours had been going around to that effect for days and it made a lot of political sense as well. I bumped into ex-Senator Jimmy Mulroy of Fianna Fail Drogheda branch on Tuesday morning in Leinster House and was chatting to him for a while. He said nothing about the Ceann Comhairle position, but I took it from his presence that he was there to celebrate with his party and county colleague. In my dealings to date with Seamus Kirk I have always found him to be very pleasant and I wish him well in his role.

I was surprised by the reaction I got afterwards. It seemed like the whole country must have been watching. I suppose it was the only piece of drama on telly that afternoon and as a result it got a high viewership.

On Wednesday evening I went to the Ashbourne GAA Clubhouse to attend the launch of Ashbourne Community Alert. The event was well attended, even though it clashed with Ireland’s match against Montenegro.

The scheme is part of a town-wide initiative from residents of various estates in Ashbourne (Garden City/Crestwood, Killegland, Huntsgrove/Tudor Grove and Racehill Manor). It was addressed by the local Gardai and by a representative of Muintir na Tire. The aim of the event is to involve local residents in the prevention of crime.

I made a few points to the meeting and updated them on the position in relation to new by-laws on drinking. Cllr Niamh McGowan of the Ashbourne Labour Party is mid-way through introducing new by-laws to prevent drinking a Millennium Park and at Killegland beside Crestwood. The by-laws have already been passed at local level and are now going for debate at the full council. From speaking to local residents over the years I am sure there is huge support for this position.

If anyone would like further information on hoe to get involved then call my office and I will put you in touch with the organisers.

The Irish Exporters Association came before the Foreign Affairs Committee during the week. They believe that one way to get out of the economic crisis is to increase our exports. They are very concerned about the proposals to close missions abroad, as suggested by the McCarthy report. In their view our embassy and trade missions abroad are a huge benefit when it comes to achieving export sales. I asked them if there was any evidence they can provide to support this assertion, because this subject will come up in the coming months and I’d like to be able to argue the case on the basis of evidence available. In my view our embassies give us great value for money and cutting them makes little sense.

Sunday, October 11, 2009


Launch of Youth Attitude Report

The week just finished has been one of the most “full-on” that I’ve had for quite some time. On Monday afternoon I launched our new report on the views of young people in the Commuter Belt. It’s called “Youth Attitude” and is the culmination of quite a lot of work and effort by myself and my team. We held the launch at Labour HQ on Monday afternoon. Paul, Ciara and James were there (they had all worked on the report) as was Liz McManus, who was the joint launcher of the report.

The launch itself went well. We made our points about young people needing more Youth Cafes and that NAMA should be giving us a social dividend such as this. The point was picked up by a few radio stations, such as 2FM and INN and it went out on the airwaves for the rest of the day. It was also picked up by The Six One News on RTE, who showed a clip of the launch on their show.

Survey into Youth Attitudes
Here’s a photo of myself and Ciara at the launch

The next morning we got a good write up in The Irish Times and the Irish Examiner. I was also asked onto LMFM and Kildare FM to discuss the report.

Once the interviews were over I headed into Leinster House for the Audit Committee Meeting. The Audit Committee reviews issues in relation to the running of Leinster House (such as the payroll system, the upkeep of the building itself, the IT system etc.). It feeds into the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission. There are three politicians on the Audit Committee. Myself, Senator Jim Walsh and Deputy Tom Hayes. They are both also on the Commission, although I am not. Whilst a member of the Commission gets €16,000 a year for membership, audit committee members do not receive remuneration.

At the meeting the Chairman of the Committee, Mr Tom O’Higgins, announced that he had tendered his resignation. He passed around a copy of his resignation letter, which was duly subjected to a Freedom of Information request from the Irish Times and ended up in Thursday’s Irish Times.

I spoke about the matter on Wednesday and was contacted by several journalists on the matter. Subsequently, I was quoted on the front page of Thursday’s Irish Times and was asked to go on Morning Ireland, 4Fm, INN, Country FM and LMFM. I also spoke about the matter again in the House; my contribution was played on Oireachtas Report that evening. Basically my key message was that in order to restore some credibility to the parliament the Minister needs to introduce a new system of expenses immediately.

It appears that the message got through. The new Programme for Government has got a section in there promising that a new system of expenses will be introduced shortly.

Sunday, October 04, 2009


Time to move on from Lisbon

I spent the week on the Lisbon trail again, talking to people about Friday's Referendum. It was a pleasant time. People were very eager to listen and wanted to know what it was about. That was a huge difference to Lisbon 1.

Our campaign involved several different strands.

1. Posters - but without the local names and faces as per Lisbon 1.
2. Canvassing outside supermarkets - myself and Nessa Childers MEP did a number of these across Meath.
3. Leaflet delivery - we sent out about 15,000 to houses in Meath.
4. Door calls. Myself and my team called in person to thousands of doors in the county.

Separately to this I also attended a walkabout on Grafton Street with Eamon Gilmore on Wednesday, which went very well. The day before we had been in Dundalk where we met with Mark Durkan of the SDLP to hold a joint press conference advocating a "Yes" vote. It was at this press conference that some local Sinn Feiners decided to hijack the press conference. We let them into the conference but they wouldn't afford Eamon or Mark the opportunity to speak without interruption. They kept shouting every time they tried to answer a question. The television cameras were there to catch it all and the subsequent coverage probably swayed a numbers of undecided voters onto the "Yes" side.

All of our senses told us that the "Yes" side would win. When the results came in I was a bit surprised by the results. I had predicted 63 / 37, which turned out to be an underestimate.

Now it's time to move on. The next big issues for us will be the NAMA legislation, the McCarthy Report("An Bord Snip Nua") recommendations on cutbacks and the forthcoming budget. Of course, there's also the possibility that some other unpredicted issue of importance comes along as well.

On Friday I visited the People's Resource Centre in Kells town. The centre is the first point of call for many Kells residents who want to access a number of services, such as Money Advice, Citizens Advice, shelter from Domestic Abuse, etc. With the downturn in the economy they are busier than ever. However, one of the recommendations within the McCarthy Report could have significant implications on their funding. I was fully briefed about the impact that this would have. It's something that I expect to speak on in the Seanad over the coming weeks.