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News Ireland daily BLOG by Donie

Saturday 9th May 20915

The UK Conservative Party’s victory & what it means for Ireland next year?


‘The lesson for Enda Kenny and Joan Burton is that poor poll results may mean nothing when people are faced with choosing a government’

‘Fine Gael will aspire to a similar share of the national vote as the Conservatives but will get nothing like the seat bonus provided by the straight vote system.’ Above, people in London take copies of a free newspaper showing the Conservative Party’s election victory.

David Cameron’s stunning election victory has a number of implications for Ireland and one of them is that the Coalition has every chance winning a second term if the two parties in power hold their nerve and fight a coherent campaign.

Fine Gael TDs in particular were buoyed up by the result in the UK on the basis that it showed that voters are prepared to reward a party in power that has taken some very unpopular decisions in the national interest.

The reaction of Labour TDs in Leinster House was more nuanced. They were all naturally disappointed at the dismal failure of their sister party across the water to do better, but some were also quietly heartened by the lesson that governments can retain power in a time of “austerity”.

The twin planks of the Conservative victory were the promise of stability based on the party’s record in government and the attack on the Scottish nationalists as an insidious force who wanted to hold the rest of the UK to ransom.

“There is an obvious parallel here,” said one excited Fine Gael TD. “We are the only party that can offer the voters stability and Sinn Féin represents the same kind of bogeyman for middle Ireland as the Scots nats do for middle England.”

Of course there are some very important differences between Ireland and the UK and there are no guarantees that the electorate here will view the world in the same terms as British voters.

The difference in the electoral systems is also very important. Fine Gael will aspire to a similar share of the national vote as the Conservatives but will get nothing like the seat bonus provided by the straight vote system.

The converse, though, is that while the Labour Party here is in a position very akin to the Liberal Democrats, proportional representation should ensure that the loss of seats will be on nothing like the same scale.

Another feature of the British outcome that has given both Coalition parties here a shot in the arm is that nobody saw it coming. The polls, the pundits and the politicians all forecast a hung parliament but in the event it was nothing like that.

The lesson for Enda Kenny and Joan Burton is that poor poll results over the past two years may mean nothing when people are faced with the responsibility of choosing a government.

The Conservatives won because the British electorate did not see a viable alternative government on offer. The Irish electorate will be confronted with the same dilemma and if Fine Gael and Labour play their cards right they could win the extra votes needed to get them over the line.

There are no obvious UK parallels with the position Fianna Fáil finds itself in. Making itself relevant to the formation of government is the big challenge facing the main Opposition party given that it has ruled out coalition with either Fine Gael or Sinn Féin.

As for Sinn Féin, the party’s prospects lie somewhere between those of the SNP and UKIP, both of which place nationalism at the heart of their appeal. The straight vote system means that the SNP got far more seats than its vote warranted while UKIP got far fewer. Sinn Féin will certainly improve its position here – the only question is by how much.

The setback for Sinn Féin in Fermanagh South Tyrone and the slight drop in its support on other constituencies was welcome news for the Government parties in Dublin and for Fianna Fáil.

It demonstrated that the rise of Sinn Féin is not as inexorable as is so widely assumed while the performance of the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists showed there is still room for moderate parties on both the nationalist and unionist sides of the sectarian debate.

In terms of its most immediate direct impact on this country, Cameron’s victory means that a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union is now certain to happen in the next couple of years.

The potential damage that a UK exit would have on Ireland has caused considerable unease in this country across the political spectrum as well as among business and trade union leaders.

However, the scale of Mr Cameron’s victory is something of a silver lining from an Irish point of view as it puts him in a strong position to lead the EU referendum debate and fight the campaign on ground of his choosing.

If it had been a hung parliament, as almost all of the polls and pundits were suggesting, Cameron might have retained power but would have been dependent on his own anti-EU right wing or even UKIP.

That would have made it very difficult for him to get an EU reform package strong enough to placate the variety of anti-European forces in the UK and the referendum campaign could have turned into an unwinnable proposition.

“David Cameron wants the UK to remain in the EU. This election victory puts him in a strong position to get a good deal from his EU partners and to convince the British public to stay, so it’s not a bad result at all,” said one senior Government politician.

The Brussels think-tank Open Europe came up with a similar analysis in advance of the British election. In a detailed report last week it argued that in the long term a Labour victory would have made a British exit from the EU more rather than less likely.

That said, real concerns remain in Ireland about the outcome the referendum on EU membership. The Government here will have to do everything in its power to ensure that the British get the kind of deal that will enable Cameron to sell it to the British public.

Taoiseach Kenny heckled by anti-water charge protesters in Sligo


About 100 people turn backs on Enda Kenny and US ambassador at Civil War event

Taoiseach Enda Kenny was heckled by anti-water charges protesters in Sligo on Saturday.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny and US ambassador Kevin O’Malley were heckled and jeered by protesters at a ceremony in Co Sligo on Saturday to honour the Irish who fought in the American Civil War.

About 100 anti-water charges and anti-war protesters turned their backs on speakers including Mr Kenny and the ambassador as a monument was unveiled in Ballymote marking the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War.

Throughout the ceremony the protesters practically drowned out the speakers – who also included local Fine Gael TD John Perry – calling them “traitors”.

They repeatedly shouted “war mongers” and “American troops out of Shannon” throughout the Ambassador’s speech.

Before the ceremony began, those taking part in the rally were urged to turn their backs in silence by one participant who said that otherwise they would be demonised by the media.

Afterwards Mr Kenny said he was well used to peaceful protests which were part of our democracy but “but you would expect in a place like this that respect would be shown for the national anthems and for visitors from the US especially for the ambassador, himself the son of Irish emigrants”. He noted that the protesters did “respectfully” observe a minute’s silence for those who died in the war.

The Taoiseach was in Ballymote for the unveiling of a monument , a sculpture in bronze, of a solider on horseback, dedicated to the memory of the Irish who served and died during the American Civil War.

The ceremony was attended by a few hundred people including locals who shook hands with Mr Kenny on his arrival, and some of whom expressed disapproval at the nature of the noisy protest.

There were angry scenes when the ceremony ended as gardaí erected a barrier and refused to allow some of those who had been involved in the demonstration to exit the area until the Taoiseach’s entourage left. Some of the protesters sat on the road in protest as Sligo county councillor Seamus O’Boyle (People Before Profit) pleaded with gardaí to let them through.

On arrival Mr Kenny was greeted with placards saying ‘No attachment orders for the bankers’ , ‘US war machine out of Shannon’ and ‘Where’s the monument for one million dead Iraqis’.

Throughout the speeches about a dozen uniformed gardaí and members of the Garda public order unit separated the demonstrators from the podium where singer Eunjoo Goh performed both the Irish and US national anthems.

Members of the Irish UN Veterans association also attended including 72-year-old James Taheny from Riverston Co Sligo who fought at the siege of Jadotville in The Congo in 1961. “Today is very important to me”, he said.

Irish Life’s profits rise 54% to €57m in quarter


Profits at Irish Life shot up 54% in the first three months of the year to €57m.

The insurer was sold by the State to Canada’s Great-West Lifeco for €1.3bn in 2013.

Irish Life contributing profits of €57m (CAD$80m) to the CAD$700m of net earnings at Great West Lifeco in the first three months of the year, the company said.

Irish profits in the quarter were up from €34m in the same quarter in 2014, the company said. “Assets under management at ILIM exceeded €50bn for the first time at the end of Q1 2015 as markets continued to rise,” according to Bill Kyle, chief executive officer, Irish Life Group.

“In addition we achieved strong sales of our Multi-Asset Portfolio Strategies (MAPS) to the institutional and retail markets.” Irish Life MAPS investment funds doubled in size over the last six months, he said.

Dairy consumption increases well in the US 

  1. Consumption of dairy products increased strongly in the united states during March according to statistics from the US Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service and Foreign Agricultural Service.

Cheese consumption was reported at 1 billion lbs (454,545 tonnes), up 3.8% on March 2014. Despite a decline of 5.1% in total cheese exports to 75.6 million lbs (34,363 tonnes), domestic consumption grew by 4.6% to 938.4 million lbs (426,545 tonnes), which supported the overall increase.

Butter consumption increased by 8.5% on March last year. Weaknesses in exports were offset by a 28% jump in US domestic consumption.

Non-fat dry milk consumption was reported at 205.8 million lbs (94,772 tonnes) up 20.2% on March 2014. The overall increase was supported by a 6.6% increase in exports and a 47.1% increase in domestic consumption.

The improvement in the US economy, which has led to more consumers eating out, is the main reason for increased cheese and butter consumption.

If this increase continues, it will have the effect of reducing quantities of dairy produce on the world export market for the remainder of this year. The US exported 16% of their total dairy production in 2014. This amounted to the equivalent of 15 million tonnes of milk production.

The strong US dollar is leaving US dairy exports much less competitive but the increase in home consumption should prevent any collapse in prices.

Can a computer beat one of the world’s best poker players?


Strategy games such as chess have long been considered important ways to measure artificial intelligence. But A.I. researchers at Carnegie Mellon University chose a different method of research, and in some ways, a more challenging game: poker.

Doug Polk, 26, is considered the best heads up, or one on one, no limit Texas hold ’em player in the world. He’s defeated countless opponents and won millions of dollars.

Polk bet his reputation that he could beat Claudico, Carnegie Mellon’s artificial intelligence super computer.

“You’re playing a cold-blooded killer because when he goes all in and you snap him off and win his stack, he’s not scared now, he’s just computing, right?” Polk said.

For the past two weeks, Polk and three other professional poker players each played 20,000 hands against Claudico at Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh.

Viewers from more than 100 countries watched online, but nobody paid closer attention than the man responsible for Claudico, professor Tuomas Sandholm.

“The computer definitely bluffs and does all sorts of other tricks that human poker players know, but the key is that we don’t program in the bluffing,” Sandholm said. “So the algorithms themselves figure out the strategy, how to bluff, when to bluff, in what situations and so forth.*

In 1997, the world watched in wonder when IBM’s Deep Blue, whose research originated at Carnegie Mellon, defeated the world’s best chess player, Garry Kasparov. And again in 2011 when Watson bested “Jeopardy” champion Ken Jennings.

So why is poker a better gauge of A.I. than playing “Jeopardy” or chess?

“In chess it’s a game of complete information, so when it’s your turn to move you know exactly what the state of the world is, what the state of the game is,” Sandholm said. “In poker, you don’t.

“This is really to be able to assist humans and companies in interacting, let’s say in negotiation,” Sandholm said. “Wouldn’t it be nice if you had an agent that helped you strategize in the world when you’re buying a car or buying insurance?”

Jason Les studied computer science in college before becoming an online poker pro. It turns out his education wasn’t much of a help. But he was still happy he signed up to play a computer.

“I thought this was a historic event and a big landmark in poker and artificial intelligence,” he said. “And I’m happy that I came up here and I was able to be a part of the winning team.”

Well, not exactly. According to Carnegie Mellon, the pros’ combined $732,000 lead in fake money makes it a statistical tie. The university plans to rewrite Claudico’s algorithms.