The economy in the north of Ireland is floundering
Next month the British and Irish governments will announce an economic aid package for Northern Ireland, designed to provide a boost to an economy which is suffering from long-term stagnation. Although details have yet to be announced, it is expected that the thrust of the package will focus on boosting the private sector and of increasing harmonisation of businesses North and South. However, no matter what details are contained in the deal it is sure to disappoint the North's politicians, especially the DUP, who are demanding the greatest amount of economic autonomy from the UK of any of Northern Ireland's parties. Finance minister sees stable growthGDP increase of 4.7% and GNP increase of 5.4 % in 2005Going up: It’s all boom as Irish economy races ahead
Since the Good Friday Agreement was signed almost eight years ago, Northern Ireland's moribund economy has been thrown into sharper focus. DUP Deputy Leader Peter Robinson has called for corporation tax to be slashed from 30 per cent to 10 per cent, under-cutting even the South's generous rate of 12.5 per cent.
It is a hopelessly unrealistic demand and one which the British government, particularly Chancellor Gordon Brown, will not take seriously. To extend that privilege to Northern Ireland the British government would be compromising its entire economic strategy in England, Scotland and Wales. However, the idea that Northern Ireland is being held back because of its inclusion in the United Kingdom and that its economic interests would be better served as part of an all-Ireland economy is starting to crystallise.
The two biggest barriers to the economy are the inability to change corporation tax or to join the Euro and better harmonise business with both the South and continental Europe. While Northern Ireland remains in the UK both those policies will be decided in London.
Northern secretary Peter Hain has said in the past that he wants to see the private sector play an increased role in Northern Ireland. He is also aware that any cuts in public spending could result in an unthinkable downturn in the economy.
Public spending by the British government accounts for 63 per cent of Northern Ireland's GDP. Almost 40 per cent of the workforce are employed in the public sector.
A sudden withdrawal of that lifeline in the absence of a robust private sector would reduce the amount of income and could, quite conceivably, lead to a contraction of private enterprise.
There are few bright spots in the Northern Ireland economy.
Although there are 100 US companies employing more than 20,000 people, that figure does not make up for the more than 100,000 people made redundant from Northern Ireland's manufacturing base which has declined year-on-year since 1970.
Furthermore, the jobs offered are all too often low-skilled jobs, such as in call centres which are notoriously vulnerable to competition from the low wage economies of countries such as China. Even that figure masks the fact that direct foreign investment fell in the 1990s, largely a consequence of the South's success.
When compared to the South's economy the disparity between the two is obvious. In the first two months of 2006 more than 3,000 new businesses were registered in the South, but no figures are available for the North, which is telling in itself. While the South relies on migrant workers to sustain its boom and fill low-skilled jobs, the North is able to create barely 10,000 jobs a year. Last year the South created 100,000 new jobs.
In terms of people engaged in entrepreneurial activity, there are almost four times as many in the South as in the North.
Sinn Féin has called for a harmonisation of the corporation tax rate for North and South. Again that is a hopelessly unrealistic ambition.
The natural ally of Northern Ireland would be the South, from whom it could benefit from an economic overspill.
That is something which even Peter Hain has publicly admitted, much to the annoyance of the DUP.
Save us from the well-meaning Englishman
You probably remember Robert Robinson. He was the columnist ‘Atticus’ with the Sunday Times, he chaired TV programmes like Call My Bluff and Ask the Family, he was a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme for a couple of years, and he fronted Radio 4’s Stop the Week for a couple of decades. He was – still is, I suppose – a witty, intelligent Englishman.Widespread opposition to British government's broken promise over Pat Finucane murderGoalposts moved on Hamill murder inquiry
So when I came on his autobiography Skip All That a week ago, I dived into it. He gives a whole chapter to his time on the Today programme, and he’s particularly interesting on how events in the North of Ireland were dealt with by the Radio 4 current affairs programme. What he calls ‘special rules’ operated for BBC presenters such as himself. ‘They were never written down, of course, they never are, for if you leave people to guess what they mustn’t say you have the most effective censorship of all.’ It’s the truth, Robert, the God’s truth.
Then one day he found himself confronted with a report where he felt the Beeb’s ‘special rules’ simply couldn’t apply. It was the early 1970s and a report had just been produced which found that the authorities in the North of Ireland , when they made detainees lean on their hands against walls for hours, with their heads encased in dustbin bags and with white sounds playing continuously, had not used torture. “It was just something called sensory dprivation”. Robinson was enraged by the report’s hypocrisy and wrote a few words for delivery on air as he introduced the item.
“1984 is at hand and Newspeak is upon us” he wrote. “Torture is a word that from this morning is no longer acceptable usage, it has been replaced by the officially approved phrase ‘sensory deprivation’. We remember that Orwell warned us – those who wish to distort reality first distort the language.”
Thrilling, defiant stuff. Speaking up against the perversion of truth being offered by the authorities. But alas, on the next page Robinson reveals that the Today editor refused to allow him to use the intro he had written; he, Robinson, spoke indignantly of resigning over such censorship; but then thought again. “Supposing my words were in some way subversive of endeavours to bring order to the situation in Northern Ireland, supposing their effect were in some way to promote the violence we were trying to contain? I didn’t want to hand out propaganda to be used by a bunch of murdering thugs who killed at random”. Robinson backed down.
Oh dear. As my opinion of the broadcaster plummeted, I remembered an evening years ago spent in the company of, among others, Professor John A Murphy. In the after-glow of an excellent dinner served with wine, the Professor of History at UCC informed a liberal-minded Englishman at the table that when it came to Ireland, decent Englishmen were almost worse than bloody-minded ones. For the first and probably the last time in my life, I found myself agreeing with an opinion coming from Professor Murphy.
Robert Robinson is a prime example of Murphy’s decent Englishman. In other areas he is sensitive and independent, responding to people and situations with a charm and understanding that’s completely winning. At the same time he has a keen eye for cant and balderdash, as his initial reaction to the ‘sensory deprivation’ case shows. Then just when you’re ready to applaud him, he falls back on a caricature of the Troubles that might find space in a British tabloid editorial: Britain is doing her best to ‘bring order’ to native antagonisms, the IRA are a bunch of psychopaths who murder at random. One moment Robinson is in revolt against officialdom’s attempts to misrepresent torture, the next he himself is misreprenting the Irish as mad, bad and dangerous natives in need of Britain’s civilising influence.
As John A Murphy implied, this decent-but-clueless-on-Ireland Englishman is a type that’s commonly found. If you were feeling in a charitable mood, you might say that several of British prime ministers and Secretaries of State here (with the obvious exceptions of Maggie Thatcher and Roy Mason) fell into that category. The tradition continues. Next week a British prime minister is coming over here, and if you could forget for a moment the bloody fiasco that is Iraq, you might credit him with being decent in his intentions for this island, but even if you managed to give him credit for good intentions, you’d still be depressed by his statements and assumptions.
Like British prime ministers for centuries, Tony Blair presents the situation here as two sets of adversaries he is duty-bound to try cajoling into co-operation. Back in the 1880s, Prime Minister Gladstone spoke of being ‘chained to the oar’ of the Irish question – tied to this country by a sense of duty and moral obligation. If you were cynical you might see this as perfidious Albion at work, positioning herself outside the problem, casting Ireland as the source of its own woes. Or, more charitably, you might feel sad that even decent Englishmen suffer from myopia the minute they look across the Irish Sea. Don’t forget : the British prime minister won’t be addressing the state of the North on his own. By his side, as is by now customary, will be the Taoiseach, and while we might - MIGHT – give Tony Blair an Englishman’s pardon for seeing the Troubles as mass criminality and the present impasse as equally-poised obstructiveness by the DUP and Sinn Fein, no such excuse is available for Bertie Ahern.
The Fianna Fail leader isn’t English, he’s Irish. He knows the source of the 30 years’ violence - discrimination and repression - and he knows what’s needed for progress - an end to the DUP’s excuses for non-engagement.
If Bertie isn’t prepared to face the facts and press Tony to see them too, he should fess up and say so. It’s one thing to be politically short-sighted, as so many English politicians appear to be. It’s another to be an Irish politician who misses the big picture because he’s got his eyes tight shut.
The Irish economy enjoyed the strongest rate of growth in the euro area in 2005
Minister for Finance Brian Cowen welcomed the Central Statistics Office’s finding that the total value of all goods and services produced in the country rose by 4.7% in 2005.Irish GDP increase of 4.7% and GNP increase of 5.4 % in 2005
Mr Cowen said the actual growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was in line with the estimates produced by his department on Budget day.
The corresponding increase in Gross National Product (GNP), or the amount of GDP which accrues to the country, was 5.4%.
“These figures confirm that the Irish economy continues to perform well, with the strongest rate of growth in the euro area last year,” Mr Cowen said.
“This economic growth is broadly in line with the economy’s medium-term sustainable growth rate. It confirms that this Government’s budgetary policy continues to facilitate sustained economic growth.”
The minister also said that he expects the economy to expand by 4.8% in GDP terms this year and insisted that while the outlook is broadly favourable, as a small open economy Ireland must be aware of the risks to the global economic environment and the need to maintain its competitiveness.
Misplaced outrage of the British colonists
Irish unionists expressed their outrage this week when British prime minister Tony Blair referred in a speech to "Protestant bigots." Politicians complained and unionist newspapers railed against Blair for not condemning the Catholic community while he was at it. British guns still pointed one wayBook shows British army strategy in ‘70s bears an uncanny parallel to Tan War propagandaEquality subverted for political expediencyGFA dying and no one really caresMemorial for Rosemary seven years after her murder
It would be easy to dismiss this reaction as the usual whining. In fact, it is more dangerous. It represents another indication that the unionist community is still not ready to embrace the future.
At the root of the "outrage" is a desperate need to keep alive the unionist community narrative. In the minds of most Protestants, their community is made up mainly of God-fearing Christians, earned its collective wealth and position in Ireland, proved loyal to Britain through centuries, and suffered terribly and unjustly at the hands of IRA bigots.
Alas, this myth is as false as it is self-serving.
In reality, Irish unionists today suffer a sense of guilt and paranoia because of the "original sin" of their forbearers, who stole vast tracts of land and wealth from Irish Catholics in the 17th century plantations. Generations of Protestants down the years have maintained this wealth by force, or the threat of it. Most Irish Protestants were indeed loyal to the British, who supported their complete domination of the country, by force when necessary.
When in the early part of the 20th century it finally became impossible to maintain control, Protestants armed themselves -- in many cases illegally -- and clamored for their wealth and privileges to be protected. The British duly invented the state of Northern Ireland, with the border being determined purely by a sectarian headcount.
Protestants ruling the North systematically discriminated against Catholics, refusing them even the right to vote.
Unlike loyalist paramilitary organizations for whom "any Catholic will do," the IRA had some Protestant members, and targeted all members of the British forces, regardless of their religion.
It is time for Irish unionists to admit their distasteful past, root out remaining bigotry from their midst, and move forward finally to share power with their Catholic neighbors.
Youthful Irish economy to further outpace the European Union
A young, fast-growing labour force means Ireland's economy can far outpace its European neighbours for another 15 years with growth rates of about 5 percent a year, according to a report published on Wednesday.NCB report forecasts 6% growth for 15 yearsCeltic Tiger II: experts predict 15-year boom
In a 184-page study of demographic trends, economists at NCB Stockbrokers forecast that projected population declines across much of Europe meant Ireland's already strong economy would look even more attractive in a European context over the next decade.
"The more vibrant Irish economy will stand in stark contrast to developments elsewhere in the EU for a prolonged period," economists Dermot O'Brien and Eunan King wrote.
The former Central Bank of Ireland economists believe natural growth and immigration could boost Ireland's population from 4.1 million now to 5 million by 2015 and 6 million in 2050.
By contrast, broader EU population growth, which is currently only rising about 0.25 percent a year, is expected to continue slowing before going into decline after 2015.
More significantly, based on current trends and United Nations forecasts, the size of Europe's working age population could begin declining as early as 2010.
"Ireland's prospects are much better than Europe where active populations are on the verge of declining," O'Brien told journalists at a briefing in Dublin.
In Ireland, NCB expects the number of people aged between 15 and 64 to grow by 25 percent between now and 2020 and not begin declining until at least 2030.
O'Brien and King reckon that means Ireland's potential rate of gross domestic product (GDP) growth should be 5.75 percent a year between now and 2010, cooling to an annual 5 percent rate over the next five years and 4 percent between 2016 and 2020.
Ireland's central bank forecasts 4.75 percent GDP growth this year.
In the rest of Europe, failure to improve productivity or prevent a decline in the labour force will mean potential annual GDP growth falls from 2 percent at present to less than 1.5 percent by 2010 and less than 1 percent by 2020.
"The implications of that for pensions are huge," said O'Brien. "The only good thing is that we have plenty of time to prepare for that unlike most European countries."
Ultimately Ireland will face the same problems, with close to four times as many people over 65 by 2050 as at present.
The country has a delayed baby-boom generation from the 1970s and early 1980s, when over 900,000 people were born, who are only just starting to have children of their own.
Even without current high rates of immigration Ireland's population is increasing by about 1 percent a year.
Foreign labour, already rising rapidly thanks to Ireland's thriving economy and an expanded EU, is also expected to make a major contribution to Ireland's future prosperity however.
Such growth rates should also help ensure a soft landing for Ireland's thriving property market, NCB forecast, with demand for new housing at about 65,000 a year until 2015 and 55,000 until 2020. Almost 81,000 new houses were built in 2005.
O'Brien said strong population growth and a maturing Irish economy also made it more resilient to external shocks while the presence of foreign multinationals was no longer as important as it had been during the Celtic Tiger boom of the 1990s.
Get yer hands dirty in Norn Irn politics
There's no corruption in the British administration in the north of Ireland. There can't be, can there? Take Adams off airport watch list, say congress membersBarmy logic of US Homeland Security officialsBail for leading loyalist paramilitaries criticisedRacist attacks blamed on UVFAhern 'always' suspected British collusion
After all, it's not like the Republic, with all those tribunals sending politicians to jail and fining them for trousering bribes to make the 'right' planning decisions.
Then there's the gardai inventing tales of derring-do against the IRA in Donegal to get themselves promoted.
So we have the Mahon, Moriarty (formerly Flood), Morris and Barr tribunals, at least two of which have sat for well over 3,000 days, all costing a mint. Isn't it lucky everything is so clean and above board here?
Do you believe that? Do you believe it when the British government won't even allow an independent inquiry into the murder of Pat Finucane because the whole world knows the result would expose the intimate involvement of British security services and RUC Special Branch?
Do you believe there has been no jiggery-pokery about planning in the north? Isn't it remarkable that the only scandal that has come to light in recent years is the incompetence of local assembly politicians flouting EU rules about waste disposal?
Doubly remarkable when hardly a week goes by without allegations of racketeering and money-laundering by paramilitaries. Does anyone believe they restrict their activities to the owners of corner shops?
Isn't it extraordinary that, for example, no-one has called for an inquiry into UVF involvement in intimidation and extortion to corrupt planning in parts of Belfast since the late 1970s? Could you build anything in a location the UVF dominates? What do you think?
Again, the public accounts committee (PAC), the National Audit Office and the Northern Ireland Audit Office regularly publish reports sharply critical of local civil servants.
Most recently a report complained that the Department of Social Development here had given 'irregular payments' to a loyalist white elephant: £98,000 just like that.
A couple of months ago a permanent secretary apologised for the mess at Invest NI, formerly Ledu. The PAC told him there had been "a serious dereliction of responsibilities" and that Ledu had been operating "outside the public code of conduct".
In due course the PAC will issue a harsh report. So heads will roll? Don't be daft. That's not the way the north works.
There were similar nasty reports about other government departments in the 1990s and most of those concerned slid away unscathed into luxurious retirement.
Mentioning quangos raises another type of corruption. Nothing to do with cash or incompetence. More to do with arrogance and contempt. Contempt for the public that is.
Our present proconsul is one of the worst examples of this condescension.
He couldn't care less what people here think about him.
No votes you see.
Anyway, he has a neck of solid brass. Has to have, after swinging from being a Young Liberal to the radical side of the Labour Party making anti-unionist statements, then over to the Blairite wing of the party.
He's made a number of questionable appointments to quangos, perhaps the worst being Orangeman Donald MacKay to the Parades Commission at a fee of more than £30,000 a year.
Incredibly, our proconsul announced that he believed he had "the best people for the job". Okay, not incredibly.
Last week he appointed a member of the PUP to the Policing Board. Media outlets coyly said the PUP has links to the UVF.
In fact the PUP represents the UVF. The UVF is up to its neck in violence and gangsterism. The police have failed to make any inroads into it. Now we know why: the UVF has replaced the UDA as the NIO's favourite terrorist organisation.
You see our proconsul wouldn't appoint any of these people to quangos if he wasn't so advised by NIO officials. How could he?
Do you think he would know the name of a suitable Orangeman or PUP member or DUP supporter to appoint to quangos? Nope. It's NIO civil servants who recommend them. He just signs.
Sure Norn Irn's a great wee place. Clean as a whistle.
Ireland has jumped three places in the latest international super growth index published by business group Grant Thornton
The organisation has ranked Ireland at fifth place in the 2006 index, which is based on surveys carried out among 7,000 firms in 30 countries worldwide.Ireland tops eurozone super growth companies
The index measures the proportion of companies operating in any one country that are enjoying growth that is considerably higher than average.
Grant Thornton said Ireland had the highest proportion of such companies among eurozone countries, with only the US, Hong Kong, India and Sweden listed higher in the index.
Questions of collusion need to be addressed
What kind of government kills the citizens it has a duty to protect? No stomach for facing down DUPAllegations Shoukri stole £20k from UDASDLP councillor defends his vote against unityNot facing the truth but dodging the questionConcerns as PSNI plans to use Taser stun gunsSinn Féin urges joint decision making if DUP continues to refuse power sharingFailed NIO notion keeps north polarisedCouncil votes to support Irish unityFacing the truthAll-island body 'would benefit north's economy'
What kind of government covers up these killings?
What kind of government protects those involved in the killings?
What kind of government does all of this in the name of defending democracy against terrorism?
These are just some of the questions the British government needs to address following a series of recent articles in local newspapers exposing the links between loyalists and state agencies and the use of those loyalists in a murder campaign against nationalists.
Over the last month former security correspondent with the BBC in Belfast, Brian Rowan, has written about the war waged by Britain's intelligence agencies.
Rowan is well placed to write on this subject. For 20 years his work brought him into regular contact with the higher echelons of the RUC/PSNI's Special Branch and the leadership of loyalism.
For years nationalists and republicans have highlighted the organic link between the crown forces and loyalist death squads.
Their assertions have been backed by some very senior people.
In his last report into the killing of Pat Finucane, Sir John Stephens, former head of London's Metropolitan Police, confirmed collusion. In a special investigation Canadian Judge, Peter Cory, concluded similarly.
In his report into those behind the Dublin and Monaghan bombings Judge Barron connects loyalists and British intelligence agencies to the outrage. In their attempt to frustrate Barron's investigation the British government refused to hand over their intelligence files to assist him.
A few weeks ago an article in this newspaper claimed that Torrens Knight, sentenced in 1993 for killing 12 Catholics in two gun attacks, was working with the Special Branch and was paid £50,000 a year.
Last week the family of David McIlwaine, killed with his friend Andrew Robb in Tandragee in February 2000 by the UVF, said they believed one of those involved in killing the two teenagers was an agent being protected by the police.
In an article in the Irish Times in February, Rowan stated that a report complied by the Ombudsman, Nuala O'Loan – yet to be published – says that the Special Branch ran a 'series of agents' who were involved in a 'series of murders'.
He described a briefing he received from an intelligence source which identified former and current loyalist agents. One of these men is at the centre of O'Loan's report, another a senior figure in the UVF and a third sits on the UDA's Inner Council.
In a Belfast paper Rowan named John White as the Special Branch agent under scrutiny by O'Loan.
White operated at the highest level of the UDA, their 'Inner Council'.
There was no-one closer to Johnny Adair. During their reign of terror on the Shankill Road in charge of the UDA's 'C' company many Catholics and Protestants were killed.
Following the INLA's killing of the notorious Catholic killer, Billy Wright, the Red Hand Defenders, a cover name for the UDA, killed many Catholics. It is widely believed that 'C' company carried out the killings in Belfast.
The catalogue of death contained in these newspaper articles is a small sample of the murder campaign by loyalists.
And right at the heart of this activity is the hand of the RUC/PSNI Special Branch and military intelligence.
The scale of their involvement with loyalists is endemic. It is institutional. Words like 'agent', 'informer' and indeed 'collusion' do not accurately reflect the relationship. It goes beyond these descriptions.
The Special Branch and military intelligence created a space for loyalists to act where they could not.
They organised loyalists as an 'unofficial', 'undeclared' arm of the British government.
They were a deadly extension of state repression.
The purpose behind their murder campaign was to demoralise the nationalist population, to divert a democratic struggle into a sectarian 'tit-for-tat' war.
Loyalists are not informers or agents but servants of a British government strategy.
The political crisis at the heart of this issue, for the British government, is the linkage between the loyalist killers, the intelligence agencies and those in government who set the policy which led to hundreds of people being killed.
One of the world's leading venture capital policy advisers says he is sympathetic to the practicality of having an all-Ireland economic outlook
Size really does matter when it comes to getting venture capital backing, a major conference in Belfast will be told this week.British see benefit of all-Ireland economyAn 'all-Ireland economy'Top economist backs all-Ireland economyIt's the economy, stupid
Professor Gordon Murray, the keynote speaker at the all-island Private Equity Conference, will urge entrepreneurs to think on an all-Ireland basis.
One of the world's leading venture capital policy advisers to government, Professor Murray says he is sympathetic to the practicality of having an all-island economic outlook.
"We have to be realistic in our expectations of what private equity investors are looking for, and they are most effective if they are dealing with large scale numbers," he said before Thursday's conference in the Waterfront Hall.
"The more networking and co-operation between early stage companies, venture capitalists and policy makers the better the scale you can offer over the whole island."
He said most people look to the US when they think of a vibrant venture capital culture, but the island of Ireland should be benchmarking against countries like Finland.
"As a similar-sized economy they rigorously review what has been achieved in other countries and, as a result, are one of the most informed in setting realistic targets.
"Ten small non-optimal funds are not as good a prospect as one good flourishing fund. The fact is that in a recent survey of over 600 hi-tech start-ups it was just 16 months before a competitor came along with a similar or even better product."
Professor Murray urged more training for entrepreneurs.
"Many are out there seeking funding and they are not ready to pitch properly for funding. We have to train them to do it better and in that respect the policy makers, the academics and the private equity funds need to be talking to each other."
The employers' body IBEC has welcomed an OECD call for tighter public spending and a tougher approach to public-sector pay in Ireland
In a report published yesterday, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development said high public spending was putting the economy at risk in the event of a loss of foreign investment or a slump in house prices.Bring back college fees, report urges€2.4 billion surplus as spending falls shortOver 60% of Donegal school leavers going to college
Responding to the report today, IBEC spokesman Danny McCoy said he hoped the Government would take the OECD's recommendations on board.
"The public sector pay bill now is nearly €16bn, before any social partnership agreement is put in place," he said.
"It's the taxpayers who fund this pay bill and it's imperative that we receive value for money and full transparency as to what's being delivered."
What were the British and Irish governments, the SDLP and the DUP doing when they tried to exclude Sinn Féin from negotiations?
Where did this silly proposal come from? Who suggested it? Was it the British government, the Irish government, the SDLP, the DUP? Blair 'sees no value' in meeting McBridesNew line of inquiry in 1974 UVF bomb probe
What did those behind the exclusion proposal think would happen? Did they think Gerry Adams would accept such an undemocratic suggestion?
Did they think he would meekly withdraw Sinn Féin's negotiators from the room and allow those opposed to Sinn Féin free reign?
The proposal was not only unworkable it was undemocratic and insulting to Sinn Féin and the tens of thousands of people who vote for the party across this island.
The proposal raises questions about the intellectual capacity of Britain's secretary of state Peter Hain and the Irish government's foreign affairs minister Dermot Ahern.
Sinn Féin had no prior warning of the proposal nor were they aware the governments were thinking along these lines.
The first Sinn Féin knew about it was when Peter Hain proposed to exclude Sinn Féin.
Gerry Adams's swift response was as you would expect. He accused the two governments of ambushing Sinn Féin and trying to turn back the clock 10 years to an earlier period when both governments excluded Sinn Féin from negotiations at Dublin Castle.
It did not work then when Sinn Féin had less political strength. It had no chance now with Sinn Féin's enhanced mandate.
So what is it all about?
It is hard not to believe that those advocating exclusion are doing so to suit the current needs of the DUP.
The DUP are trapped in a situation of their own making. On the one hand they know they have to share power with nationalists and republicans yet they have not prepared their party for what they consider is a seismic shift on their part.
Whereas in the past David Trimble was looking fearfully over his shoulder at a menacing DUP, the DUP leadership is now looking fearfully over its shoulder at the menacing rebels in its own ranks.
Instead of pandering to the DUP the two governments should be confronting them with the reality that the days of unionist majority rule are over.
They foolishly think they can deal with the DUP's tactics by appeasing them. They are preoccupied with locking the DUP into some sort, any sort, of negotiating process, even one which is flawed and undemocratic.
In their desperation they are floundering around testing absurd ideas, like last week's.
It is easy to understand why the British government would side with the DUP. They do after all swim in the same unionist tide.
But why are the Irish government and the SDLP swimming alongside them? The Irish government have a national responsibility to safeguard and promote the interests of all the people of this nation.
The nation includes the people who live in the six as well as the 26 counties. After deluding themselves for decades that the nation stops at the border this might be difficult for the Irish government to accept.
But it is one of the new realities they face as a result of the peace process.
At all times but especially when times are difficult, like now, the democratic imperative for the Irish government is to think and act in the national interest.
They might think it is in their sectional or indeed electoral interest to exclude Sinn Féin, or make them look unreasonable but this is putting the interests of Fianna Fail and the PDs above the national interest.
Serving the national interest means upholding the peace process, opposing parties like the DUP or anyone else, including the British government, who seek to undermine it.
Serving the national interest also means being on the side of northern nationalists against whom a great wrong has been and is being committed.
The SDLP also need to publicly explain their support to exclude Sinn Féin.
Partition and the society which emerged from it was purposely designed to exclude nationalists.
The Irish government and the SDLP know this well. Exclusion is the politics of failure and the past.
Under no guise should it be advocated.
Online retailer Amazon is to move its European customer service center from Britain to Ireland, to take advantage of better language skills
The new operation will answer queries from the UK and French websites and German version during peak times. 450 new jobs at Amazon Cork operation
The centre will move from Slough to Cork, creating up to 450 jobs there.
"Cork offers the ability to provide our customers with multilingual support," said Jim Adkins, director of European customer services for Amazon.com.
The internet giant said it often needed to increase its customer service numbers especially around Christmas and found it hard to hire part-time employees with the requisite skills, reported the Financial Times.
In a 2005 European Commission poll conducted by Eurobarometer, 30% of UK inhabitants surveyed said they could speak a second language at conversational level.
In Ireland, this figure was about a third higher at 41%.
Amazon's customer service employees at Slough will be given the opportunity to relocate to the Cork operation, which will be based at the city's Airport Business Park.
The company's UK and Europe corporate operations will remain in Slough.
Amazon, based in Seattle, is one of the internet's largest retailers, posting revenues of over $8.4 billion (£4.8 billion) in 2005 selling CDs, DVDs, books and a range of electronic goods.
In the latest OECD economic survey on Ireland, the global think tank says that house prices are more likely to level out rather than crash
In the past decade, house prices have risen faster than in any other OECD country, and average prices have roughly tripled in real terms. Economic Survey of Ireland 2006OECD rules out housing market crashOECD Economic Survey of Ireland 2006: Too many sectors where producers are shielded from competition
The OECD said that most of this increase is justified by the economic and demographic driving forces such as surging incomes, a rising population and changing living habits, with an additional fillip from low interest rates.
“House prices may have overshot fundamentals to some extent, although this does not imply that they will fall significantly; and house building will eventually ease,” the OECD said.
The OECD said that while the most likely outcome is that there will be a soft landing for house prices, there are alternative scenarios on the upside and downside that could have significant macro-economic implications.
The first is that the housing boom may not run out of steam of its own accord, leading to serious overvaluation and imbalances throughout the economy. The eventual fall-out in this scenario could be severe, according to the OECD.
With monetary policy now set by the European Central Bank, taxation is the main policy lever to influence the housing market.
The OECD said that Ireland’s tax system is significantly more favourable to housing than in most other OECD countries and the government should avoid any tax changes that make housing more attractive.
The think tank said that aside from not fuelling the housing market, there are efficiency and equity reasons for reducing the tax advantages.
“A property tax could be introduced to help fund local infrastructure. This would also redistribute some of the windfall gains that accrue to people living close to new roads and public transport links and shift the cost for local services such as water and sewerage facilities so that businesses and households each pay their fair share,” the OECD recommended.
“While this makes economic sense, in an Irish context where over 80% of the population own their own homes, it is currently seen as a non-starter. The second scenario is that house prices fall sharply, either because they are more overvalued than they appear or because a negative shock hits the economy. The impact on activity and the budget could be large.”
The global think-tank said a sharper fall could not be ruled out so the Government ought to take steps to ensure the health of the public finances.
”The government needs to leave plenty of breathing space by balancing the budget or running a surplus, curtailing tax breaks and pushing ahead with public management reforms to get better value for money from public expenditure,” it said.
Everything has a shelf life, even proconsuls
You would have thought that our proconsul and his boss in Downing Street might have learned something from the last few weeks' debacle. Bush criticized as Adams visa still up in airBush's Irish Double StandardLoyalist threat more sinisterDamien and Philip were happy and their killers couldn't bear itImmortalised on the lips of old and young
Certainly the poisonous atmosphere between the DUP and Sinn Féin, which even NIO officials detected, led Blair to cancel his planned presidential visit here.
The parties were not going to be knocked into shape by anything Blair could say.
Deeply discredited, he's now long past his sell-by date.
Our proconsul can't even get all the parties round a table because the Paisleyites won't play ball, yet he's still pressing on with the notion that talks on the future of Northern Ireland are about to begin, or so he claimed on Sunday.
His approach seems to be to wave what he imagines is a big stick.
He might abolish assembly members' salaries. He might close the assembly. He could set up a shadow assembly. He is taking new powers to enable him to call an election before May 2007.
Why does he think, or – to put it more accurately – why do his advisers think any of this will have the slightest effect on any of the northern parties? It won't.
First, he should close the assembly and abolish members' salaries because it's right, not because it threatens MLAs.
To suggest doing it for political reasons is absurd.
Which parties would suffer most?
It would hasten the inevitable demise of the SDLP and UUP and reinforce the dominance of SF and the DUP who have between them 14 of the north's 18 MPs with all the parliamentary cash aid that brings.
Would that make the DUP more likely to cooperate in talks with SF? The DUP has thrived on victimhood and exclusion for 30 years. So has Sinn Féin. They're well used to it.
Suppose he sets up a shadow assembly. Why should SF cooperate with it? They could abstain or they could turn up and vote everything down because they control the nationalist vote in the assembly.
Why would a shadow assembly make the DUP any more likely to talk to SF?
Yes, there could be a time limit on it. So what? At the end of the prescribed period it collapses and he's back to square one.
If, in his dreams, our proconsul harbours delusions that the electorate will punish either the DUP or Sinn Féin for the current impasse, then he needs a dose of reality.
The simple fact is that the polarised electorate here will go out and vote for people who represent their own side regardless of what some carpet-bagging politician from Britain says.
It's true that fewer people are voting in recent years but, sadly for our proconsul, the people who are staying at home are former UUP and SDLP voters.
It may be they are occupying a place or state of grace in electoral limbo for a couple of years before they make the jump to SF or the DUP, depending which tribe they belong to. Whichever it is, it won't change the result of an election.
The truth is that people who vote here believe what their political leaders tell them, especially when they tell them who to blame.
On the nationalist side it's much easier. It's all the fault of the British, and indeed the more meddlesome each proconsul becomes in the north's affairs, the simpler the task for nationalist politicians. In the absence of any change, the default position for the north is unionism, so the proconsul naturally must support that position.
On the unionist side, the bogeyman of the IRA is indispensable. That's why in the last couple of weeks the DUP has again trotted out a ridiculous series of lies – decommissioning never happened; the IRA is ready to use its weapons; the NIO is destroying the north's education system at the behest of republicans; republicans have convinced the British government to agree to an all-Ireland economy. So therefore they can't go into talks. Do you follow that?
HL Mencken, the ferocious American columnist who died exactly 50 years ago, knew how important such lies are. They are comforting and powerful.
He said: "The truth that survives is the lie it is pleasantest to believe."