The World Today for October 24, 2018

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A Poet, A Mood

The office of the president of Ireland is largely ceremonial. “But as the country’s first citizen, the president is often looked upon to capture and reflect the national mood, and as a diplomat, represents the country and the Irish diaspora abroad,” wrote the Independent.

So when Irish voters go to the polls on Friday, they’re making a statement about how they feel about the country. Since incumbent Michael Higgins is likely to win, according to polls, one would think the Irish don’t want much change.

But it might be more accurate to say the Irish want the comfort of keeping an old poet – Higgins, 77, engages in that most Celtic pastime of writing verse – during a time of otherwise great change.

Ten years ago, the worldwide financial crisis rocked Ireland, bringing an end to a remarkable run of prosperity that turned a backwater into the economic powerhouse known as the Celtic Tiger. In 2015, voters approved a referendum to permit same-sex marriage over the objection of the once near-omnipotent Catholic Church.

On Friday, a similar question to decriminalize blasphemy will be on the ballot. Government officials in the ruling Fine Gael political party support a yes vote, the Irish Mirror reported, a sign of the continued decline in the church’s grasp on Irish public life.

But the biggest issue facing the Irish is the question of Northern Ireland after Brexit, an issue where Higgins could exercise significant influence given the history between the largely Catholic republic and the Protestant-dominated North, which is part of the United Kingdom. The issue is not only political. It goes to the heart of Irish identity.

As writer Fintan O’Toole explained in the Guardian, nobody knows what to do with the border between Ireland and British Northern Ireland after Brexit.

Currently, because both countries are in the European Union, people, goods and services move between them without impediment. It’s a system that helped suppress violence in Northern Ireland in recent years because Protestants could rest assured that they remained British while Catholics weren’t cut off from the South.

If Britain leaves the EU without an agreement – an increasingly difficult task because European leaders understandably can’t abide Britain quitting the EU but retaining its benefits – the divisions could return and, with them, violence.

EU leaders – including Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s Taoiseach, or prime minister – have proposed customs barriers between Northern Ireland and Britain, Reuters wrote. But Unionists in Northern Ireland reject that idea.

Many Irish must dislike how the future of their island once again depends on English politicians in Westminster. Their vote on Friday should remind them that they ultimately are the captains of their fate.



The Cost of Austerity

The European Commission directed Italy to revise its budget Tuesday, reducing spending with an eye to its high level of debt, in an unprecedented move that could well precipitate a showdown with Rome.

Italy now has three weeks to submit a new, draft budget to Brussels, the BBC reported. But its populist coalition government has vowed to push ahead with campaign promises including a minimum income for the unemployed.

“This is the first Italian budget that the EU doesn’t like,” wrote Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio on Facebook, according to the news channel. “No surprise: This is the first Italian budget written in Rome and not in Brussels!”

“This doesn’t change anything,” said Di Maio’s fellow deputy, Matteo Salvini.

Italy has targeted a budget deficit of 2.4 percent, which is lower than the EU’s general spending limits. Brussels says Italy’s massive debt – more than double its annual GDP – means it needs to cut spending more aggressively. But Rome argues paring spending to the bone would strangle growth and be too damaging for ordinary Italians.

With Brexit still unresolved, it’s unclear how the fight might affect the future of the EU.


No Good Cop Here

The Fatah-led Palestinian Authority in the occupied West Bank and its chief rival, Hamas, in the Gaza Strip routinely arrest and torture peaceful critics and opponents in what may amount to crimes against humanity, a new report from Human Rights Watch said, according to CNN.

“We documented dozens of cases of people detained for a Facebook post, for writing a critical article in a mainstream publication, for protesting, for being involved with the wrong group or movement,” said Omar Shakir, Israel-Palestine director for the watchdog group. “In detention, detainees routinely are threatened, beaten, subjected to foot whipping, in many cases subjected to torture.”

Two years in the making, the report draws on 86 cases and 147 interviews, many with ex-detainees, the watchdog group said.

The simultaneous criticism of both Palestinian organizations is notable, as the international community broadly views the Palestinian Authority as a legitimate supporter of Palestinian rights, while the US and European Union consider Hamas a terrorist group.


Bad Times, Good Timing

Under fire for its alleged role in the apparent death of a dissident writer in its Turkish consulate, Saudi Arabia agreed Tuesday to give Pakistan $3 billion in foreign currency support and an added loan of up to $3 billion in deferred payments for oil imports.

For beleaguered Islamabad, the largesse could help avert a current account crisis and could reduce the bailout package Pakistan needs to negotiate from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Reuters reported.

As one of the few foreign dignitaries to attend a Saudi investment conference boycotted by the US and many world leaders, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan may well have found an especially receptive audience, following a trip to Riyadh that failed to generate any results last month.

Khan is keen to reduce the sum he needs from the IMF – which will visit Pakistan to open negotiations for its second bailout in five years on Nov. 7 – so as to avoid harsh conditions on his economic policies.


Let There Be Light

The Belt and Road Initiative is an ambitious plan, but a technology tycoon in the Chinese city of Chengdu is planning something bigger.

By 2020, entrepreneur Wu Chunfeng aims to launch a fake moon into space to illuminate the city’s streets, the Guardian reported.

At an entrepreneurship event in Chengdu, Chunfeng said he would launch an illuminated satellite into space “designed to complement the moon at night.”

Using the glow of the Earth’s natural satellite, the fake moon will illuminate an area with a diameter of six to 50 miles, replacing streetlights in the process.

It’s unclear, however, if the city of Chengdu or even the Chinese government are in line with his bizarre idea. Some were concerned that the artificial light might disrupt the lives of nocturnal animals.

Nevertheless, the prospect of a fake moon is not entirely without precedent.

In 2013, the Norwegian town of Rjukan – in the shadow of mountains – installed large computer-controlled mirrors on a mountain peak to track the sun and reflect its rays on the town’s square.

Before that, the Russians launched the Znamya experiment, a satellite that deflected sunlight to Earth. Their first attempts proved successful, but their last one misfired and they gave up on the idea.

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