WHERE ARE WE AT?
Albert Reynolds reflected ruefully after his downfall that it was the small hurdles rather than the major ones which tripped you up. Leo Varadkar would do well to keep those words in mind as well as Harold Macmillan’s dictum that the best laid plans could be negated by “events, dear boy, events.” Several occurrences over the last month demonstrate that unknown unknowns can suddenly materialise with potential to wreak unexpected damage. One in particular, still very much current, could have profound ramifications.
First up was the latest Irish postage stamp featuring a famous person. Not normally something to generate controversy, but in this case the image was of Che Guevara, a gentleman with, to say the least, a chequered reputation, and who still generates strong feelings for and against fifty years after his death ( the excuse for the timing of the stamp’s launch). The initial print run of the stamp – 122,000 – sold out rapidly. Apart from the usual stamp collectors, who buy every new issue, one can assume that purchasers included some admirers of Che, together with others hoping that the stamp might one day acquire scarcity value because of its potential notoriety. There were the expected squeaks from the Irish right, some protests and complaints from circles in the USA – especially among Cubans in Florida – and matching sounds of pleasure from the Irish left.
It wasn’t of course just an image of Guevara. It was THE image – the iconic portrait by Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick which has adorned millions of T-shirts and wall posters worldwide over the decades since Fitzpatrick put it into the public domain in the late Sixties. When Castro died I wrote in my column that, for most people “the image of the Cuban revolution that comes first to mind is Jim Fitzpatrick’s iconic rendering of the 1960 Korda photo of Che.” It conferred a type of romantic immortality on Guevara and the Cuban revolution, making it possible to ignore the fading and aging Castro (not to mention the dubious and mixed record of the revolution) while cherishing that preserved sanitised image of Che.
The choice of Guevara was justified as meeting the criteria of showcasing some aspect of Irish life, culture or history, having a subject and design with international appeal and of contributing an outreach to the Irish diaspora of Latin America. Amen to the design; indeed Jim Fitzpatrick could well merit a set of Irish stamps for his Celtic artwork alone. The diaspora argument is less convincing – Guevara’s Irish connection goes back to an emigrant of the mid 1700s, posing the question of how many other people of the 80 million Irish diaspora are likely to feature on future Irish stamps. The question might also be asked as to the relevance to Ireland of a stamp issued a week after the Guevara one commemorating the centenary of the supposed Apparition at Fatima. All proposed new stamps are routinely run past the Government for approval; expect future lists to be scrutinised more closely.
More seriously came the revelation last week that three Irish T.D.s propose to visit North Korea early in the New Year to seek to engage in talks with Kim Jong Il. And not just T.D.s but the three Government Ministers from the loose –knit Independent Alliance grouping who, together with Fianna Fail, are essentially keeping the Fine Gael Government in power after the painstaking Coalition –cobbling by Enda Kenny last year. The announcement has been greeted with derision in some quarters, dismay in others and plenty of uncomplimentary comment in the social media. The Taoiseach, with limited room for manoeuvre, while not banning the visit, has voiced disapproval, as has the Minister for Foreign Affairs. Whether the visit will go ahead remains to be seen. The trio are to be briefed this week by Foreign Affairs and have apparently been invited to discuss the visit by the North Korean Embassy in London.
The potential for any such visit to go wrong is clear. This is, to put it mildly, a fraught period in relations between North Korea and the international community, spearheaded by the USA, with Trump and Kim not far away from an eyeball to eyeball confrontation. Indeed some of the more pessimistic observers rate the possibility of war as upwards of 50%, with each bellicose exchange between the two presidents ratcheting the tension up further and increasing the chances for a miscalculation. Observers are unanimously agreed that a military conflict would be disastrous, with even a conventional war generating tens of thousands of casualties and a nuclear exchange very many more. Much hope is being pinned on the Koreans acting rationally – which is fine as long as Trump does likewise.
A visit by Irish Government Ministers, even by members of the Independent Alliance, and even if described as private and not official, is open to immediate misinterpretation, coming as it would at a time when the major players – who do NOT include Ireland – are seeking to exert pressure on North Korea and the international community is being exhorted to isolate the regime. At the very least any visit would hand Pyongyang a propaganda boost which Kim and Co might seek to exploit as proof both to their unfortunate citizenry and to the rest of the world that their policy has international support. Worse would be were Pyongyang actually to BELIEVE their own propaganda. Right now the stakes are very high and the role for Irish politicians is surely to avoid fanning the embers.
Finally on November 2 Apple refused to confirm that it would go ahead with a planned data centre in Athenry Co Galway, after a two year planning process. What was particularly galling was that the refusal to confirm was made by Tim Cook, Apple’s Chief Executive, in a face to face meeting with the Taoiseach in California. The Taoiseach’s response, to announce that henceforth data centres would be designated as strategic infrastructure on a par with motorways and railways indicates just how worried the Government is.
The Athenry project was stalled, inter alia over public objections and appeals. There were audible sighs of relief (and local rejoicing) when the appeals were rejected several weeks ago and again when the Irish High Court refused leave for further appeals. Yet the worry for the Government is that Apple, in tandem with announcing the Athenry project, announced a similar one in Denmark. Two years on, while Athenry has been mired in the planning process, the data centre in Denmark has been built and is about to go into operation. A decision is to be announced shortly regarding a further data facility. It would be a supreme optimist who would put money on the new project going to Ireland.
Whatever ultimately happens over Athenry (and Apple could still say yes) the worry right now is that Apple could decide that the planning process here is not worth the candle and opt for elsewhere (there will be no shortage of candidates), and that this would sway other companies planning future or further investment. Nobody disputes the need for planning, but a way must be found to streamline and speed up the process. Big Boys Rules, Leo.