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“It is now more dangerous to be a woman than to be a soldier in modern conflict.” Major General Patrick Cammaert, former UN Peacekeeping Operation Commander in DRC.

Margot Wallström, Mary Robinson & Colm O'Gorman at the Royal Irish Academy Yesterday

Yesterday, during a briefing organised by the Joint Consortium on Gender Based Violence, a characteristically calm and measured Mary Robinson spoke movingly of a recent visit to Eastern Chad. She had travelled there with a group of woman leaders specifically to meet with women who had fled the conflict in neighbouring Darfur and to hear from an NGO undertaking trauma counselling with them. All of the women had horrific stories to tell. Mrs. Robinson described the experiences of one in particular whose village was “attacked by men on horseback and planes from the sky”. Without hesitating this woman grabbed her twin babies and ran as far and as fast as she could. Leaving her babies under a tree, she returned to find that her husband had been murdered and her daughter raped. She herself was brutally gang raped on her return. Showing incredible fortitude this woman crawled back to rescue her babies and took them to safety over the border.

Enraged by this, one delegate challenged the NGO to collate this evidence to build a criminal case against the perpetrators and hold them accountable. This would prevent further horrors. The NGOs response was that their funding had been cut to such an extent that this was simply not possible. Mary Robinson and many others are convinced that holding perpetrators accountable for such actions is far more affective in addressing and eradicating gender based violence in conflict than simply fire-fighting and living with the consequences of shattered societies.

According to the Irish Joint Consortium on Gender based Violence, up to 90% of causalities in contemporary conflict are civilians, most of them women and children. Violence against them is often sexualised.  Peace brings scant relief. Crime rates and violence against women and girls soars after war as returning combatants inflict their trauma and frustration on them.  In the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, it is estimated by the UN that over 200,000 women have been raped since the beginning of the war.

Dr. Thelma Awori

Dr. Thelma Awori is a consultant on gender and development and a board member of a number of prominent African civil society organizations. She says, “Women continue to pay a heavy price in both conflicts and post-conflict situations around the world. Too many women have become shocking statistics of one horror or another, be it rape in Eastern Congo; acid thrown in the faces of girls walking to school in Afghanistan; impunity for crimes against women in conflict-affected countries. When women stand up and make their voices heard in peace negotiations and post-conflict reconciliation they often face security risks, they are denied seats at the table, and are excluded from planning and resources that determine their futures.”

Women, so often the victims of conflict, have little input into its resolution. One in forty peace negotiations have a woman present and, according to www.unifem.org, just 2.5% of signatories to peace agreements have been women. Although many post-conflict countries now have much improved female representation in government, unequal participation in parliament, civil society and business means that women’s voices are largely absent.

After listening to the experiences and perspectives of women from conflict zones, the UN unanimously adopted Security Council Resolution 1325 in October 2000. This resolution addresses the disproportionate and unique impact of armed conflict on women and recognizes that the contribution women make to conflict prevention, peacekeeping, conflict resolution and peace-building is significantly undervalued. The UN has called for equal and full participation from women as active agents in achieving peace and security and has officially endorsed the active participation of civil society groups, in particular woman’s organizations, in peace processes and peace talks. A key element is the call for an end to impunity in relation to conflict-related violence against women.

All nation states, including Ireland, whether they are affected by conflict or attempting to resolve it, must now implement the resolution and are legally obliged to take responsibility in four key areas in relation to women, peace and security.

  1. The protection of women and girls during conflict
  2. The participation of women in decision making in relation to prevention, management and resolution of conflict.
  3. The inclusion of gender perspectives in conflict analysis and training of military and civilian personnel in peacekeeping. (Women account for just 5.7% of the Irish permanent defence forces and just 2.5% of peacekeepers serving in conflict regions worldwide are women according to the UN. Yet, these women perform a vital role in winning the trust of local civilian women who are more likely to report gender based violence to them)
  4. Gender mainstreaming in the UN implementation of UNSCR 1325 and related resolutions 1820, 1888 and 1889

A high level task force of UN heads of agencies is progressing the implementation of resolution 1325 along with the Civil Society Advisory Group, co-chaired by Mary Robinson, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and President of Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative and Bineta Drop, Executive Director, Femmes Africa Solidarité.

Mary Robinson was in Dublin in her role as special advisor to the Joint Consortium on Gender Based Violence. The consortium is comprised of 16 bodies, including human rights, humanitarian and development organisations, together with Irish Aid and the Defence Forces and is charged with formulating Ireland’s implementation plan (due by March 2011). In the midst of our deepening crisis it may seem that Ireland has little to offer the rest of the world in any respect. Yet there are areas in which we are still well regarded and one of these is conflict resolution. Ireland has a role to play in a wider EU context as one of a handful of countries developing an implementation plan.

As a northern European nation with a recent history of conflict, a close connection with NGOs operating in the worst conflict zones and a respected peace-keeping role we are uniquely placed to help rebuild some of the most damaged societies on the planet. The focus in achieving this has now been place firmly on the experience and role of women in the process. Joint Consortium Chairperson and Executive Director of Amnesty International Ireland, Colm O’ Gorman, is certain that “Ireland can play a key role in working to eliminate gender-based violence”. Our plan will be the result of a long, complex and “unique globally” process requiring “civil society and the state to work together.” The final stage involves consultations with women living in Ireland who have been affected by conflict and whose experiences and opinions will feed into our final plan.

The Irish plan is not being developed in isolation. We have a unique opportunity to learn from the experiences of others and avoid the pitfall of implementation deficit disorder. Mary Robinson believes that, “Ireland is well positioned to prepare an exemplary plan”. We are in a position to draw on our recent experience of conflict on the island of Ireland.  But, in addition, there is now a strong working relationship between a number of government departments and NGOs on the issue of gender-based violence.  This can be leveraged to produce a strong and effective plan that protects women in conflict and gives them a meaningful role in conflict resolution”, she adds. A strong plan alone is not sufficient. Colm O’Gorman stresses the importance of incorporating an effective mechanism for monitoring and evaluation into the process.

Sitting alongside Mary Robinson yesterday was Margot Wallström, UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict. She spoke of the role of Resolution 1325 in “establishing a context to put women into the picture for peace and security issues” and views the initiative as an integral part of a wider plan to tackle sexual violence. The adoption of the resolution amounts to a clear admission that not enough was being done to eradicate what is still “a tactic in most areas of conflict”. Margot Wallström stresses that, “this is not a women’s issue rather a security and human rights issue and one relevant to wider society”. She believes that, “It is vitally important that Ireland gets its plan right.  Having a plan would greatly bolster Ireland’s human rights record and, by involving the widest range of stakeholders and putting in place strong monitoring, the plan would be very significant in advancing the protection of women in conflict.”

The five point agenda adopted by the UN in this respect and reflected in any plan focuses on: fighting impunity; empowering and supporting women to move from being victims to becoming agents for change; mobilising leaders; deepening our knowledge of the incidence and effects of sexual violence in conflict; and co-ordinating and harmonising UN efforts to tackle and prevent such actions. Mary Robinson wants to see the Security Council “use all of the tools available to it – naming & shaming, freezing assets, sanctions, visa bans – to implement policy”.

This is a two-way process and Ireland can benefit hugely from participation. As Colm O’Gorman eloquently puts it, “Ireland is very progressive when we are out in the wider world. What is it that stops us translating those values back into our own society?” Mary Robinson emphasises the importance of treating our involvement as a “cross-learning process”. Ireland has already participated in a ground-breaking cross learning initiative on women, peace and security with representatives from Liberia and TimorLeste, chaired by Baroness Nuala O’Loan, first Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf - President of Liberia

Ireland should look to Liberia and other African nations such as Rwanda when it comes to gender representation in government too. Mary Robinson passionately describes a meeting in the Angie Brooks centre in Liberia where she witnessed “the expectant enthusiastic faces of young women who wanted desperately to be involved in the political process”. Their participation makes a difference. Liberian president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has pledged to tackle the scourge of rape using new legislation that came into force the day after her inauguration in 2006. “I know of the struggle because I have been a part of it,” she said. “I recall the inhumanity of confinement, the terror of attempted rape.”

Little value is placed on women in many conflict and post-conflict zones. Rape and sexual violence are often treated as the lowest crime on a scale of war horrors that puts death and torture at the top. There is no link made between the perpetration of these acts and the way in which they impede the building of a working, healthy society. Any economic consequences are disregarded. When soldiers in DRC were asked what they felt the cost of raping a woman was they answered perhaps the loss of a goat or a few days in prison. For this reason Margot Wallström is keen to measure the economic impact of intergenerational rape and sexual violence. Women, often the backbone of an economy, become totally depressed and are impeded from assuming their traditional coping role. Peacekeepers are now advised to assume rape and be watchful for the early warning signals. Although prepared to report the rape of children, many women are still too ashamed or disillusioned to report their own experiences. Resources can also be thin on the ground. Liberia has asked for help in developing an anti-rape campaign. Finally, attitudes have to change. In the past “enticement” was too often considered a legitimate defence.

This shift in focus has already produced results and Margot Wallström attributes the arrests of a number of players on charges of perpetrating and facilitating such crimes to the implementation of UNSCR 1325 and related resolutions. Change is essential. Dr Thelma Awori is adamant that “communities rebuilding after conflict cannot afford to omit more than 50% of their population in these efforts. To do so would mean institutionalizing inequality and that is a recipe for further conflict and instability.” There is still a long road to travel but by developing and implementing a strong, workable and measurable plan Ireland has an opportunity to help create a better and fairer world.

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Once upon a time, during the mid-1980s, I was a fresh-faced and enthusiastic young undergraduate and subsequently post-graduate student at UCD. In 1987 I, along with 300 of my peers, two-thirds of them men, graduated with a Bachelor of Commerce degree. Back then, as now, many graduates from my class entered the big accountancy firms around Dublin and were delighted to have the opportunity to gain experience and carve out a lucrative career as an accountant. I, along with about a hundred others, decided to stay on at UCD and study for a master’s degree, an MBS in marketing in my case.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

We were intelligent and eager and we operated in a perfect meritocracy. Those that worked hardest and proved to be the brightest would graduate with the best degrees and, perhaps more significantly in the midst of a deep recession, would have the best chance of securing employment here in Ireland.

I thrived in this environment. I enjoyed the subjects I was studying and found that the combination of written exam and thesis based research suited me well. I graduated first in my class and was awarded a research fellowship for my thesis on the policies and strategies adopted by financial institutions in attracting lump sum investments. I was for that brief time first among equals and it felt good. I was hired as a business consultant by a small Dublin firm and all was well with the world. Then reality bit hard.

My male bosses were very fair & decent blokes. They treated me very well and if there was a tendency at the end of a working day for “the lads” to head down Leeson Street then I didn’t really mind it. I was happy to go home or meet with my own friends to be honest. However, some of the clients were an entirely different matter. I frequently attended meetings where I was simply ignored. I was criticised for “my” choice of biscuits. I was even complimented on the “typing and presentation” alone of one business plan that I had compiled in its entirety. I was rarely spoken to directly; clients always addressed themselves to my boss or any random male colleague that happened to be in the room. Once when I went on a business trip with my boss, who was at least a decade my senior, our bags were put into the same bedroom. He at least had the grace to look as mortified as I felt.

It came to a head one evening when I arrived at a client meeting and the male client handed accounts spreadsheets out to everybody in the room – except me; I was the lead consultant on the account and it was not an accidental oversight. I walked out. I didn’t care about the consequences and I fully expected to be fired the next day. I was called to the boardroom – and given a pay rise. The guys I worked for were genuinely decent and valued my input. However, I needed more varied experience and left to work for a major multinational. There, I was on the receiving end of a disguising, filthy phone call from a male colleague in relation to something I was wearing one day, I had to campaign to have a “girly” calendar taken down from the wall of the warehouse – a place I had to visit every day, and on one memorable occasion I found myself alone with a male business associate in what I believed to be a very compromising, dangerous situation, one  in which I felt the need to beg to be taken back to my place of work.

After a couple of years I applied for a job in the female dominated market research industry and there I thrived. I rose to the position of Client Service Director in the London office and my success there took the sting out of the occasional casual incident of sexism perpetrated by older male clients. I can honestly say that Irish men were far more prone to this behaviour than their very professional UK counterparts in my experience. One particular star in the Irish business community used to refer to myself and my female colleagues as “the spice girls” and reply to his emails during our presentations. As I progressed I was responsible for many younger male members of staff and I was always conscious of treating them with respect. I strived to never make a casually sexist remark or pass them over in favour of my female co-workers.

Therefore, and bearing these experiences and many more like them in mind, you will perhaps forgive me if I just can’t see the “funny side” or “bit of craic” in the treatment of these 13 unfortunate women working for PWC in Dublin. It’s tough out there in the testosterone fuelled business world. In my experience by merely being young and female (yes ageism is alive and well too) these women will start out at a disadvantage and will need to strive to be taken as seriously as their male counterparts. This horrible, undermining, casually sexist behaviour must be taken seriously and cannot be condoned. I am perfectly prepared to be accused of being a humourless old harridan if that’s what it takes to raise awareness of this issue and eradicate such inappropriate behaviour from the workplace. I really hope we succeed but we’ve not come very far in the past twenty-five years sadly.

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On Thursday night I accompanied a pal to a debate at Trinity College just as the government announced free cheese for its citizen mice and Met Éireann breezed on about an approaching hurricane. Most definitely the start of winter: clouds skirted by much too fast, cobbles were drenched in drool, the wind did its Kate Bush thing and the LaDiDa of prospective academia darted about in dickie-bows and rough silk dresses. I met a young woman applying quantum physics to the mechanics of decision-making on the Iraq War and a guy who belittled as foolish, all forms of modern poetry. In the Commons Dining Hall – with tables of free Guinness, wigged men on walls and prayers bellowed out in Latin – Terry Pratchett sat with a tall hat surrounded by a Praetorian Guard of cloaked Professors. It was time to breathe deep and carry on blinking.

A Canadian student put forward a few general pointers to get the, errrr, mud throwing. The United States, she said, is probably the world’s most successful democratic experiment. Its political system has been allowed to luxuriate in discourse, a party system laced in freedom of expression, political processes that allow for pragmatic policy making, etc., all hugely successful. However, when a party subverts that balance through the abuse of this political system, it undermines the very principles it claims to defend. The Republican Party (RP) has constructed a system that can only lead to systematic disadvantage for America’s working class…it is guilty of bringing class back into politics. Uncontrolled trade with China, reckless borrowing, low wages, mortgage debt, are also laid squarely at its door. The speakers on the night included politics students, visiting academics, journalist, human rights campaigner, political activist, and several fuzzy heads with strong opinions. Below is a much abridged version of what the gobs had to say:

Gob One: It’s not about where the Republican Party (RP) say they were at the time of Abraham Lincoln or even 15 years ago, it’s about where they are now. They are trying to turn back the clock, it has become a party of incessant “no no no”. You need more than ‘no’ to run a country. You need to put forward viable ideas, to show that you’re willing to work with the other side, etc. The party’s policy on illegal immigrants is grotesque, its members have openly said gays are an abomination, it is riddled with hypocrisy and is sinking America further and further into the abyss.

Gob Two: The Republican Party’s tactics are necessary, it is a party of genuine principles trying hard to simply bring those forward. However, as an opposition party, they don’t have the Presidency, the Senate or the House this time, which means it has not been able to put forward any policies in practice. It is also a party of widely varying views, a huge coalition of business people, crazy Evangelicals, and people who just pathologically hate Democrats. A Republican in Maine will probably have more in common with a Democrat in Maine than he would with a Republican in Alabama. This is what makes the current state of play so complex. America is a large enough country to accommodate such diverse viewpoints. This debate is also not about the Democrats. Barack Obama is not a Republican, he can’t control what the Republicans do and don’t do, and vice versa. What this debate is about: the main criticism of the party in the last two years is directed at their instruction. The RP had to shout and shout and shout in order to stop the Democrats bringing forward certain ridiculous legislation. Democrats did the exact same thing when they were in the driving seat too, for instance, speaking out against Bush. No-one had a problem with how the political system [speaking out in opposition] worked then.

Gob Three: One of the salient facts about the Democratic Party is that we beat the alternative. Let’s remember what the RP has done in history: it opposed Medicare, the highering of the minimum wage, social security, the Clean Water Act, basically any piece of progressive legislation. It’s not a pretty legacy. What do they favour? This idea of ‘freedom’, the rugged individual. It sounds great, but let’s look at the downside of that so-called freedom and limited government. You lose your job and you need an extension of unemployment benefits: tough luck, that’s freedom. You don’t have health insurance but you get sick and incur huge medical bills: tough luck, that’s freedom. You get over your head in credit card debt, tough luck, that’s freedom. On the plus side, if you earn over $200,000 a year and you want more tax cuts, sure the RP can help, that’s freedom. If that’s their version of freedom, I’d rather be a slave. The second theme that runs through a lot of  the RP’s invective is Jesus Christ. At a debate when George Bush was seeking RP nomination, he was asked who his idol was and he said “Jesus Christ”. A man who hasn’t lived on the planet for 2,000 years. Very useful. Such a Christian man, allegedly, but Bush’s war doctrine has done huge damage to America. Thousands and thousands of lives lost and trillions of dollars in debt. The American people turned against Bush due to their frustrations with incessant war and the dire state of the economy. They took a chance on someone new − Barack Obama − who came to office with ideas of hope and change, exciting people not just in US but around the world. In the past two years, what’s happened? Unfortunately the US is in grave difficulty, it looks like for the first time in America’s history, kids are destined not to have a debt-free progressive life that their parents enjoyed. People are frustrated and scared. What do the Republicans do in response? They play to people’s worst fears and expectations. They destroy Obama’s record on spending, and also his reputation on healthcare. They are calling him a socialist, saying he wasn’t even born in US, and so on. When you have a prominent Republican who will constantly give succour and comfort to the ridiculous allegations that Obama is not a true American, it starts to catch hold. It’s a hate campaign that’s going on 24 hours a day. A disgusting dangerous senseless tactic.

Gob Four: The proposition here is that the RP is hurting America. Firstly, we have ‘primaries’ which is a very open democratic process and out of that comes a mix of people who are umbrella’d under the RP. Opinions differ on almost everything from state to state, as do opinions on the current Tea Party malarkey for instance, which is being solely associated with the RP and not as an entity on its own right. So this is all important. Secondly, what have we done? We’re responsible for virtually every boom era since the 1950s, the internet revolution, technological advancement, etc. OK, so 9/11 happened on Bush’s watch and that was dealt with as he saw fit, with a huge surge of support from the American people at the time. He also managed to avoid a repetition of those events, whether you agree or not! The current breakdown in social programmes, infrastructure, and so on, is directly related to how the Democrats are handling and implementing policy. Thanks to last Tuesday’s results, the Republicans can now have a lot more say in the shaping of these policies. We need to start agreeing on our real problems. We need to put a halt on the political logger-heading and get the important work done to restore faith in America for Americans and in our reputation worldwide.

Gob Five: When Barack Obama took the presidency in the middle of global meltdown and a budget deficit that was spiralling out of control, he said one thing to the opposition: “I will shake your hand if you will unclench your fist.” That call which was made after Bush’s many failed policies, has still not been met. Instead of helping to clean up the mess caused by the RP, the opposition continues to exploit the pain, anxiety and fear of the American people. Every ounce of energy goes on opposing absolutely everything, some pieces of legislation argued against up to 112 times. The damage is the likes of my father’s job, which he lost earlier this year. Ordinary citizens like him are finding themselves in unimaginable situations at a time in life when things would’ve been secure. The vitriol that they spout, making politics an arena for the angry mind, a place where hatred can incubate. This is an apt description of RP’s contribution in recent times to political dialogue. Bigotry, hatred, prejudice, scaring Americans into thinking that the country is under attack. The leader of the Tea Party called Obama a ‘Indonesian turned Muslim welfare thug!’ The party, hideous and hilarious as it seems at first, has managed to raise tens of millions of dollars to support its hateful outcry. We need to stop this type of hatefulness if we’re going to move forward. The stakes are too high, the problems are too big, the divides are too great. Abraham Lincoln once said: “We’re not enemies but friends”. So why is it that my country is now a house divided? The RP stands in the way of progress.

Gob Six: What have the RP done I hear you ask? We ended slavery, opposed segregation, founded the environmental movement…oh God, do I really need to stand here and list off all that the RP have achieved or can I assume that you all know it already, even begrudgingly? Yes we did oppose Medicare as it was an intensely flawed piece of legislation. We believe that the RP serves a real purpose, it represents the real views of the American people, such as freedom, yes, even unpopular rights like guns and religion! It’s the Democrats who stoke the fires of class war and racism constantly accusing RP members of being anti-black and anti-hispanic, and so on. They are obsessed with race! When Democrats were in opposition they talked endlessly about war mongering too and fear, and yet we are being accused of the same thing now. We don’t think the government should be telling you what to do, taking your hard-earned cash and spending it on what they want to do. We believe that you should be able to hold onto your money and so what if that means reducing taxes!

Gob Seven: The media in America is very anti George Bush. They quoted him! A couple of those quotes are worth mentioning again. ‘The problem with the French is they do not have a word for entrepreneur.’ Another one: ‘I think we ought to raise the age at which juveniles can have a gun.’  Or how about: ‘I know how hard it is for you to put food on your family’. These folks, were real statements. They are a symbol of the RP, of idiocy, division, hatred. When I started in politics in 1965, the Democrats supported gay, lesbian & transgender rights, the farm workers of Central Valley, environmentalism, multi-cultural society…we were the first to talk about a global village with Robert F Kennedy. It was the Democrats that took leadership on domestic issues. But I am ashamed to admit that we sold ourselves short with Republicans on foreign policy, engaging in several illegal wars. Yet I’m proud to be a Democrat, they at least have a look into the future. By contrast the RP is concerned with promoting division, hatred and anger. When will we learn that US foreign policy cut the world into units from sub Saharan Africa to new nations in Eastern Europe that we now control: a bully policeman mentality, the world has stood by idly. Shame on the EU and Ireland, for not speaking up. America has invaded a sovereign nation every nine months since its 200 year history. Republicans and Democrats are both responsible. But I do think that at least the Democrats represent passion, hope, cohesion, not constantly dividing by class, bank account or education. The RP victory of last Tuesday is worrying, yet they can no longer blame the Democrats when it comes to the next general election.

Gob Eight: Quite a few people here tonight have made reference to RP’s so-called woeful foreign policy. And yet I think back to moments such as Ronnie Reagan standing at the Berlin Wall and insisting it be torn down years before it was. George W Bush liberated Iraq too, however unpopular you may feel that is. But in any case, this proposition put forward tonight is unfair because it questions democracy. It’s arrogant. The people have voted, there is also now a huge surge of RP support. There are vital issues ahead too. The Obama administration is fundamentally naive re: global security issues. We now face the most serious global threat we’ve ever faced: Iran’s nuclear capability. The leader of Iran is the most dangerous politician the world has ever seen. That regime has a maniacal drive towards arming itself with nuclear weapons. We need more Republican might in Capitol Hill to inject some reality into this issue. I believe the alternative is far too dangerous. On domestic issues, let’s just look something closer to home: the Northern Ireland power-sharing coalition − it would not exist without the RP. In 2006, it was the Bush administration and Mitchel Reece’s (US Special Envoy to Northern Ireland) hard-headed realism that brought our country forward into a new era of workable peace. They insisted that the agreement would not be signed without the important issue of policing being included. The DUP would never have got into government with Sinn Féin unless these issues were thrashed out. The RP played a very important benign part in this process and that shows me what they can do. The RP is an integral part of America, it complements the Democrats, and should be taken more seriously.

The night’s essayist concluded by saying: “I don’t think it’s arrogant to question a party’s right to exist: that’s how democracy works. I question if a party is really upholding the principles they defend. The democratic process is a great thing and in the US it’s starting to break down. The summation of this debate has been an awful lot of mud throw. We’ve basically concluded that Democrats and Republicans have screwed up at least five times. However, it’s not about proving one another wrong. The strength of a political system comes from the idea that most successful legislation that has ever gone to the American house or senate, has been put in place by compromise. An idea being put forward by one party and supported by another. I take issue with the Republican Party because it is undermining this very process by creating policies that are manipulative.”

The motion was carried. We drank a rake of Bavaria beer, crawled home.

June Caldwell is a writer, who after 13 years of journalism, is finally writing a novel. She has a MA in Creative Writing and was winner of ‘Best Blog Post’ award at the 2011 Irish Blog Awards. You can read this post on her own blog here:

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I have tried to picture the child estate agent to be: pasty and sulky, selling on satchel-warmed lemon curd sandwiches or a half-eaten Mars bar in the school playground for a stupidly inflated price. Failing English grammar and spelling tests…dreaming of a commission-loaded life with a leatherette clipboard and a Smart car. A life of ‘gently urging’ people to buy poorly constructed plywood homes without gardens, not far from a motorway, but still managing to share the same sewerage pipe as a once-famous now-dead Irish person of vague literary worth who managed to pen a novella drunk.

Now after a decade of unprecedented smarminess, the grown-up estate agent is no longer nestled in a good place at all. “Rare as hen’s teeth!” s/he hollers out about a dormer bungalow for sale in Dublin 15 – one of the capital’s slowest selling enclaves. ‘Rare’ opportunities abound, a chance to snatch up a bungalow, for instance, even though there’s 5,570 bungalows for sale nationwide at the moment. In an attempt to ambush the flimsy heartstrings of hapless arty types, there’s a deluge of property specs marketed at the budding poet, artist or fisherman ‘where you can also enjoy the panoramic views over lush green surrounds’, in the middle of nowhere. The desperation is quite staggering. ‘One of the last opportunities to purchase a “raw” house on this salubrious road’. What exactly is a ‘raw’ house? One with its walls removed? If we’re not permitted to lie about the contents of food, why is it admissable for a house purchase? In essence, do we need to read such brainless turgid crap three years into bust?

Irish history continues to infect the bijou mind of our more-than-happy-to-help estate agent as well. You can nab a semi-derelict cottage in Leitrim that’s handily positioned ‘near’ Sean McDermott’s Cottage, a well-known tourist attraction and the birth place of the 1916 leader, but nothing whatsoever to do with the house for sale. The sales hunger for famine cottages hasn’t abated either – perfect for a ‘lifestyle change’ the estate agent assures us. Or how about Gordwin Swift IV’s gaff? Never heard of him? That’s OK. Another spec reads: ‘Behind its funky facade…the lavish and stylish art deco foyer provides a unique atmosphere that perfectly complements the building’s history.’ Yeah, how so? It’s an apartment refurb in Dublin 3 that’s not selling and is being flogged for half price. ‘Hurry hurry hurry, before it’s too late’, the man with the white towelling socks says.

Then there’s the almost generically applied *** WOW *** WOW *** WOW *** category which some estate agents are using for every house sale: a 3-bed in the heart of Poppintree Ballymun or a terrace in deep downtown Finglas. ‘Wow what a stunner!’ the agent says about this Tyrrelstown house in a hideously inglorious part of Dublin no-one wants to live in. Wilson Moore is one such estate agent that uses this ‘wow wow wow’ insignia on almost all its sales briefs, regardless. Let’s not forget too the estate agent’s excruciating post-boom rewrites…houses like 19A Long Lane dubbed the perfect bachelor’s bolthole at €425,000 in the grip of boom. This week it’s eventually ‘sale agreed’ after being unashamedly flogged as a ‘low maintenance home’ for €155,000. The reason why it suits a single gent or a sociopath is because the house is only two metres wide (around 7ft), being an old laneway that was filled in to create a uniquely anorexic house that has nose-dived in price by at least 68%. You absolutely could not swing a cat and you’d definitely have trouble energetically shagging your Mrs.

19A Long Lane: originally a laneway

From the peak of the market in 2006, Dublin house prices have fallen in real terms by 45.7%, while nationally, prices are down by 40.2%. This and a whole host of other stats we’re already laboriously aware of. But where and how did we lose our minds so utterly? There’s an apartment block in Parnell Street with a ‘putting green for the golf enthusiast’ – directly opposite alleyways where the city’s crack cocaine dealers do a roaring trade. Wyckham Point in Dundrum is an apartment complex which offers an ‘on-site gym, sauna, steam room, cardiovascular & resistance gym equipment and heated relaxation zone’. Tullyvale in Cabinteely has a resident’s swimming pool on site although a lot of the apartments are now being sold at a substantially reduced price. I imagine the swimming pool is fast draining of chlorine and charm. Did they really think the luxurious gimmickery could last forever?

Remnants of boom-based mentalness still exist in some high end properties too. ‘Things only happen when we dream’ the intro reads, for a multi-million euro apartment overlooking the River Liffey. The 2-bed [plus guest accommodation as extra] apartment is decked out by a ‘revolutionary stylist’ we’re told, to include none other than a three and a half carat andrée putman lacquered oak coffee table, floors custom-made from antique oak cobbles, a “Vous de Jouer” mirror [one of only 20 in the world], ‘cupboards concealed behind felt-coated doors whose colour and texture mimic the heather and granite tones of the Irish countryside’, a hammam steam room, and a Gien Polka tea set that the designer ‘noticed’ during an official trip to Soviet Russia…It was on originally for excess of €4 million in April 2007, but later dropped to €3.74m and now it’s a straight forward ‘price on application’, though you might nab it for a bit less if you ask for some of the 45 bespoke designer items to be taken out of the loop.

Perhaps the most annoying aspect of the current estate agent invective is the ‘Reduced To Sell’ signs flung up in gardens all around Ireland over the last year or more. We’re expected to believe prices are reduced only as a favour to us and not as a result of a totally impacted market. An ‘exceptional opportunity has arisen to acquire a unique and attractive property’. Except there’s nothing exceptional or unique about it at all. Where were the equivalent ‘Inflated To Sell’ signs during the boom?

June Caldwell is a writer, who after 13 years of journalism, is finally writing a novel. She has a MA in Creative Writing and was winner of ‘Best Blog Post’ award at the 2011 Irish Blog Awards. You can read this post on her own blog here:

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Forlorn Celtic Tiger

Where are they? Who are they? You know; the women bankers, auditors, property developers, stockbrokers, industry regulators, etc., responsible for pricking the Oirish bubble with a sharpened golf club. The ruthless go-getting millionairesses who cleared the way for spiralling unemployment, a kaput banking system, demolished property sector, an albatross of debt and all the rest of the yack you’ve been hearing all over the telly for the last year. It’s not a facetious question, I’m genuinely curious. I asked a male journo friend a while ago, who makes a living writing ‘business’ articles: “How come we haven’t witnessed the usual media ‘witch-hunt’ of women (semi)responsible for the bust?” *pause* “Eh, they were probably caught up writing memos or getting their nails done at the time,” he quipped. [He considers himself awfully gas altogether].

From the off it was big-boy names being flung on the turbo charged execution cart: Bertie Ahern, Brian Cowen, Brian Lenihan, Pat Neary, Lehman Brothers, Liam Carroll, Seanie Fitzpatrick, Brian Goggin, Padraig Walshe, Sean Quinn, John Hurley, Sean Dunne, Dermot Gleeson and so on. Newspapers were keen to pinpoint the perpetrators in articles throughout this OMG awakening. With the exception of hearing Mary Harney dubbed a deregulation fetishist or the likes of Anne Heraty, former bank director and stock broker, I cannot locate the ‘wimmin’ in this sordid tale. Even when it came to the Yellow Brick Road venture of NAMA, the cock-stock was made up of high-ranking banking officials, men in the pinstriped wink, nod and know: Frank Daly, public interest director at Anglo Irish Bank, the bank that likes to say a multi-orgasmic “yes yes yes yes yes yes!”, until there’s nothing left; along with colleagues Michael Connolly, Peter Stewart, Brian McEnery, Willie Soffe and some other guys…Aside from Eilish Finan − an independent Consultant and Director in various Financial Services Industry sectors − appointees to the board of NAMA are men.

I’m not an economist (if I was I’d have nice clothes, a car, a holiday home and an Irish wolfhound) or even a business journalist (if I was I’d have nice clothes, a car, a holiday home and a Yorkshire Terrier), but to my mind the entire environment in which the Celtic Tiger blackguards operated was exceptionally macho. There was a testosterone-fuelled air to the whole enfant terrible. Even the media language deployed: ‘Celtic Tiger Man’ or ‘Breakfast Roll Man’ etc. was ever so vigorous and potent. There was a real sense of aggression in the urban professional Irish male, particularly in Dublin. Places like Baggot Street were full of young geezers guffawing over caramelised scallops in the Unicorn during ‘very important’ business lunches. Down at the financial services district there was a real swagger in the way the men used to walk, talk, and conduct themselves. I remember Googling: ‘why do men wear ties?’ because there seemed to be a pandemic of scorching power-colour ties, more than usual. Red: excitement, desire, speed, strength, power, aggression, danger, war, a sprawling economy. Purple: flamboyant, wise, arrogant. The ritual wearing of ties, by the way, dates back to 17th Century wars. It’s not just a cloth arrow pointing to his wotsit. I found it all very unpleasant at the time.

It chimed too with a sense of national smugness…that we were the new masters of the universe and the Brits were down at heel, and that soon we would be so rich that even the stupid unionists would give up the ghost and accept a united Ireland. The gorilla chest-beating was strewn across all jungle paths of Irish life: politics, economics, the retail sector. At the height of boom (2005-2006) Ireland had proportionately the highest number of sports cars (yes, penis extensions) in Europe and the highest number of year-in registrations. I lived in Smithfield then and almost all of the top-quality penthouses were rented by young single business men who snorted cocaine and watched Fashion TV in-between making Ireland great. “Hi my name’s Paedar, I work in the IFSC, I rent the glass penthouse over there…” Penthouses riddled with Bang & Olufsen and every wall-hanging gadget imaginable. I knew quite a few sassy career women too, but for some reason they didn’t have the same chutzpah or cockiness towards themselves or their jobs.

The fiscal cauldron was brimming over with ‘fabulous’ men who couldn’t shut up about our endless wealth and the part they were playing in rainbow-nabbing it. Our GDP per capita rose from 60% of the EU average to 120%. Women with similar Tigerish jobs were just too busy to brag, it seems. But they were definitely out there: we were told over and over of uptakes of women on third level business courses throughout the boom, women studying economics, a sharp rise in female entrepeneurs, organisations like WITS began to appear…equal opportunities at the highest levels of power in the land, even in the civil service for God’s sake! There must’ve been women property developers who squandered millions in rice-paper transactions? Women who took part in dirty deals, secured multi-million euro loans over the phone in the dead of night from beaches in Donegal, sanctioned nonsensical far-off investments, who later took part in hiding it all with the help of politically connected mates, who now owe more than they’ll ever be able to pay back in several lifetimes.

What part did Irish women play in the catastrophic decision making, at business level, that flung us into financial decay for decades? I’m wondering why these women didn’t appear on Late Late slots like Harry Crosbie or Mick Wallace did. I’m wondering why I hear of ‘developer’s wives’ in the abstract, and not women who surely snapped up glass towers in Dubai or beach villas in Cape Verde when it was trendy and apt to do so. Boy journalists are spinning out reams of books on the bust, so perhaps I’ll start my research there. Maybe even a Diarmaid Ferriter of the future will answer my question: where are the women who helped ruin Ireland? I promise to have my nails done and I’ll listen intently…I might even write a memo on it if I can put my cocktail down for long enough.

June Caldwell is a writer, who after 13 years of journalism, is finally writing a novel. She has a MA in Creative Writing and was winner of ‘Best Blog Post’ award at the 2011 Irish Blog Awards. You can read this post on her own blog here:

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Deirdre Collins of Dee's Whole Foods in Ballincollig

Thwarted by the lack of promotional opportunities available in traditional corporate entities many venturesome Irish women have turned entrepreneur instead. For talented women denied the flexibility required to combine family life and a decent career by the linear nature of hierarchical progression, the establishment of a businesses offers the possibility of successfully doing both. Deirdre Collins, a food science graduate from Cork, recently developed her own range of whole food burgers and has now hooked up with Dragon’s Den entrepreneur Niall Farrell. Redundancy prompted Una Griffiths to establish a business selling beautiful silver jewellery from her living room. They are just two of many. 

Women in the US launch new enterprises at twice the rate of men and employment and revenue growth in these has outpaced the rest of the economy. Yet success certainly doesn’t come easy. The US-based “Center for Women’s Business Research” has discovered that for women persistance is a key factor when trying to secure start-up or expansion capital. Successful applicants made an average of four attempts to obtain bank loans or lines of credit and 22 attempts to obtain equity capital. Many female-owned start-ups are forced to remain small due to this difficulty in accessing credit or capital. Again US research suggests that female owners of rapidly expanding firms are far more likely to rely on business earnings as their primary funding source than their male counterparts (72% vs. 56%). 

Despite the downturn, some new start-ups like those highlighted above are doing very well. The problems tend to arise when expansion is mooted and these enterprising women go in search of new capital to facilitate this. On average, female-owned business are still small compared with businesses owned by men. In the US the average revenue of majority female-owned businesses is approximately one-quarter the magnitude of the average revenue for majority male-owned businesses. Women tend to come to entrepreneurship with fewer resources available to them and are therefore more likely to operate in sectors such as retail or personal services where the cost of entry is low. The difficulty is that so is the growth potential. Research shows that women, despite our reputation as serial credit card abusers, are more debt averse than men when it comes to their business dealings. Yet banks have consistently demonstrated a tendency to treat their proposals with skepticism. 

In the light of our recent experience of a systematic failure of the established banking sector in Ireland perhaps there is now an opportunity for entrepreneurial women to argue that they represent a safer risk than alpha male property moguls. Securing capital from financial institutions is particularly difficult at the moment yet it would seem unjust if women entrepreneurs were still faring worse than the bullish men who got us into this mire? There is some suggestion that capital will free up somewhat in the coming months. We can only hope that a more rigorous assessment of risk sees more of it channelled towards the many entrepreneurial woman keen to create employment and rebuild our economy.

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As  Mosney residents continue to protest against the transfer of 111 people to different hostels across Ireland, an Irish Facebook group is migrating its own brand of racist invective. [Atrocious grammar in the following is not my own]:

Stop scaming the State, GET THEM ALL OUT, And reopen it for the Irish! – Janice Smith, Baldoyle.

There money grabbing foreıgners tat are responsıble for mst of the problems in tis country – Ray Kelly.

A fat arse politıon open the gates gve them houses for FREE money FREE taxis FREE dıd ya see the cars at mosney i dıd my mate lives near it oh and childrens allowance for theır NONE irish brats – Janice Smith (again).

They will be relocated to somewere else with beds, water, cooker, food, clothes. The homeless Irish in Dublin do not have it this good…They should be forced out, Its not their land – Shane Donnelly, Dublin.

The country barely has a pot to piss in yet they are probably spending millions of taxpayers money on this group of people to be shacked up in mosney – John Clarke, Artane.

The Irish Government gave away a great amenity when they gave Mosney Holiday Camp to asylum seekers without any consultation with the Irish people – Anne Donnelly.

What about the normal irish person out of work now with kids that need a summer holiday we should have it back to ourselfs now and let them look after themselfs – Michael Murphy, Limerick.

What started out as a ‘happy memories’ lament to the traditional Irish holiday of the 1970s/80s, soon turned to racist rants from some of the 5,000-strong Support The Reopening of Mosney group. Since news broke about the Monsey residents last week, a dangerous herd mentality began stomping and tail-swishing in the Irish breeze. Back in 2000, when Mosney’s doors shut for good, hardly anyone ranted and raved or protested at all. They were too busy sunning themselves on cheap package holidays in Majorca, Ayia Napa, Turkey and Bundoran. Of course there were the odd few…like Alderman Frank Godfrey, Mayor of Drogheda, who expressed ‘concerns’ about the local area turning into a ‘ghetto’, and a couple of letters from locals were published in the Irish press.

No-one questioned Fianna Fail’s decision, for instance, to award Mosney owner Phelim McCloskey £15 million [Irish pounds] for leasing the 300 acres and its facilities to the Department of Justice for a five year period. The most pressing concern was where to accommodate the much-loved Community Games that had always been held at Mosney. Bertie came to the rescue and ordered alternative venues in case the housing of ‘refugees’ meant the holiday camp was not available for the games. Apart from that, the transition to a holding camp for asylum seekers barely lasted the month as a news or feature item.

The dour relationship between recession and racism is not new or even news. Since the recession has cosied down like an evil-smelling blanket over Ireland in the last two years, racist incidents (and attacks) have increased at an alarming rate. Just yesterday a new Racist Incidents Support and Referral Service was announced. One of the founders, Sr Stanislaus Kennedy told the Irish Examiner: “For too long, Ireland has been in denial about the racist incidents occurring in our communities and our collective responsibility to combat racism. We know from our experience working with migrants who have experienced racism that people are subjected to violence and threats of violence, have their property damaged and are subjected to racist taunts and discrimination”.

It is the usual yack, that when recession worsens, those who feel most vulnerable look for people to blame and immigrants, foreigners, asylum seekers, basically anyone marginalised, become easy targets. The result is a virulent undercurrent of social unrest and tension, leading to the type of brain-dead rants found on the Mosney Facebook group. Interestingly, there is a total absence of cussed comments towards the real originators of the bust: property developers, banks, politicians. Let’s also be fair here: the Facebook group’s admin are folk with good intention whose message is quite simple: ‘please join this group to share happy memories of the camp and let’s hope one day it [Mosney] reopens’.

Recently, through its membership, the Irish section of the European Network against Racism had cause to insist that Facebook remove a similar group that was using the platform to racially abuse members of the Travelling Community. “Eventually Facebook complied and deleted the group,” explains Ken McCue, International Officer of Sport against Racism Ireland (SARI). “We’ve asked the Gardaí to investigate the Mosney group on Facebook but their powers are limited as it’s published in the US. However, I have reported this hate attack to the Gardaí and ENAR.”

Yesterday after reading the comments on the site I phoned a journalist pal who’d recently been to Mosney to interview some of the residents for a UK paper. He was incensed as I read out some of the malevolent messages splattered all over the group’s wall. “While I was at Mosney I met doctors, engineers, all kinds of professionals that would do anything to work and contribute to Irish society but are not being put to good use because the bureaucratic process is a mess,” he said.

He also talked about a footballer from Africa who coaches young Irish kids for free, using his own pittance to get out and train them. “I was also hugely impressed at how clean the Mosney flats were, even the stairwells were spotless unlike native Irish ones which are reeking of piss, covered in graffiti and strewn with used needles.”

The fact that the Mosney residents are not allowed rent or own property, they are only allowed stay in these hostels…that they live on €19 per week, and cannot work, or that the money to accommodate them stems from EU funds, seems to have alluded most of the ranters on the Mosney site. And let’s be clear on this €19 for the plelthora of ignorami out there who’ve never bothered asking how the payment is chopped up or made. On an asylum seeker’s social welfare receipt, there’s the full whack of €196 per week allocated that any Irish unemployed person gets…minus €177 that goes direct to the landlord on behalf of the State. And guess who’s in bed with the state when it comes to choosing/allocating landlords and accommodation? Very good, you’ve guessed right: property developers, investors, business folk, etc., the real ‘money grabbers’ who made handy lucrative deals with government to provide this much needed shelter. Make no mistake, the asylum process here is an enormous business machine and one of the few going concerns in Ireland right now in a constant state of profit.

By contrast to the reams of racist tripe we’ve been hearing of late, a letter in today’s Irish Times mirrors what a lot of ordinary Irish people feel about the plight of the residents: ‘It is bad enough that these most vulnerable of people must put their lives on hold for up to seven years while the Department of Justice decides their fate, but to herd them around like cattle from one holding pen to another is an outrage. Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern and his officials should hang their heads in shame,’ it read.

Mags Treanor, a poet from Galway, who has worked with asylum seekers, has reported the Facebook page to the authorities for incitement to hatred. “To hear that people [on this site] actually think asylum seekers are the cause of the current economic situation and not the greedy Irish business people who creamed money from the state for using it as an accommodation facility is absolutely ridiculous,” she said.

Around 96% of refugees in Ireland have their initial asylum applications rejected under a system human rights campaigners have denounced as “inhumane”. Only Greece has a lower rate of accepting asylum seekers in the EU, taking in just 1.2% of refugees, according to the European commission body Eurostat. In the UK, 26.9% of asylum applications were accepted upon application last year. On appeal, those numbers rose to an estimated 30% for the UK, but to only 7.8% in Ireland, Eurostat said. [Source: The Guardian]

While the people of Mosney have yet to find out their fate, the racist underclass in Ireland continues to lobby for the return of their holiday camp, which in my memory at least, was famed for its floating turds in the glass-encasaed swimming pool, karaoke (before karaoke machines) and greasy chips in polystyrene cones. In all reality this latest round of Facebook ‘comments’ is nothing to do with feeling sentimental about a budget holiday destination or about expressing how broke and marginalised, frightened and powerless, people feel during recession. It is about blame and ignorance and stupidity and how the moral impunity of social networking allows hate to thrive.

“The five years given to house asylum seekers is up and that’s that,” writes Sarah Heavey. Her opinion is fairly typical of many who have left messages so far: “Either re-house them like planned or send them home. I am not racist and I truly sympathise with them, but Ireland is in financial ruin now and reopening Mosney will provide much-needed employment, as well as providing holidays for people.”

Please take the time to register your distaste for the racist voices on the Facebook page here

June Caldwell is a writer, who after 13 years of journalism, is finally writing a novel. She has a MA in Creative Writing and was winner of ‘Best Blog Post’ award at the 2011 Irish Blog Awards. You can read this post on her own blog here:

 

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