By Harry Keaney
There was a time when motorists crossed the border from the Republic into Northern Ireland to buy cheaper gasoline. Now, because of the weak punt, the situation is reversed, with the Northerners coming South, much to the dismay of filling station owners along the border in the North.
And it’s not just for gasoline. Because of the currency difference, Dublin and border towns in the Republic are reaping a windfall as Northern customers arrive to buy an array of items, including food, cigarettes, cars, computers and clothes. They also come for entertainment.
The irony of it all is that, for decades, it was the North’s violence that often kept visitors away. Now, at a time when peace seems at hand, it’s the exchange rate that’s luring customers already there to cross the border into the Republic. And, of course, because of the difference in currency values, people from the South are not coming North with their punts.
Some business people in the North are now urging that Britain, or at least the North, should become part of the European monetary union. Ireland is already a member and an enthusiastic proponent of the euro, the new European currency.
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Driving costs are still high in Ireland, North and South, a fact that immigrants in the U.S. may have forgotten because of the relatively low — albeit increasing — gas prices here. Now, those thinking of returning to Ireland have not only rocketing house prices to contend with, but insurance costs are also on the increase again.
For many immigrants in the U.S., it was the insurance company PMPA which gave them cover when they began driving in Ireland. Last week, PMPA’s chief executive, John O’Neill, said the company was increasing average premiums by 5 to 7 percent this year because of the increasing cost of claims.
Another sign of the changing times in Ireland: PMPA is now owned by a French company AXA. The Guardian/PMPA group, which has about 30 percent of Ireland’s motor insurance market, became part of the AXA group last year when the French company, the world’s largest insurer, acquired the company GRE in Britain.
More IT training needed
Ireland’s business community is concerned about the shortage of people with required information technology skills but that community is not investing in its own staff, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern told the Dáil last week. Indeed, Ahern also said that Irish business is in danger of "being left behind" in the e-economy because companies are not adequately training staff.
"Small and medium-sized enterprises are at greater risk of being left behind," Ahern said.
The leader of Fine Gael, John Bruton, said that e-commerce may be efficiently used by Irish business for buying but is not so efficiently used for selling.
"Irish businesses have been slow in designing and developing their own websites," he said.
Ahern agreed that the use of web sites for on-line sales was relatively low, according to surveys. Bruton suggested that there may be a degree of complacency with business people thinking "that the economy is so dynamic they do not need to invest in long-term capacity, such as equipping themselves with a good website."
A transAtlantic fiber-optic cable linking Ireland with the U.S. and Canada made its "landing" last week at Sutton Beach in North County Dublin. The $850 million project will enter service early next year and will have landings in Liverpool, Boston and Halifax in Canada.
Arthur Wall dies
The death occurred last week of well-known Irish businessman Arthur Wall. He had been on the board of Clery’s for 30 years and retired as chief executive in 1992. He remained as deputy chairman.
He was also general manager of Aer Lingus and retired after 25 years in the mid-1970s. He was 74.
In Ireland, just like in the U.S., the issue of political contributions is a hot topic.
President Clinton has clinched the record as the most prolific fund-raiser ever for the Democrats. And although he says he is for reform of the system, he insists it should not happen unilaterally.
In Ireland, the issue of political donations has taken on a new urgency because of seemingly never-ending allegations of corruption. But some Irish politicians concerned about reform are taking refuge in . . . the constitution.
The Labor party has demanded that the principle of banning corporate donations to political parties be accepted before an all-party committee examines the matter. But Taoiseach Bertie Ahern has rejected that demand, saying such a ban would conflict with provisions in the constitution. Ahern said if there was no all-party agreement, the government would bring in its own legislation to deal with corruption.
However, Labor’s deputy leader, Brendan Howlin, said his party is not prepared to go into a talking shop unless the principle of breaking the link with corporate donations is established. Ahern, however, said that when Howlin was in government he had done nothing about donations because he had been advised by the then attorney general it was constitutionally impossible.
Sounds like no unilateral movement in Ireland either.
The minister for agriculture, Joe Walsh, has told the Dáil that his
department and the Environmental Protection Agency are working to set up a monitoring and control system to ensure there will not be another accidental planting of genetically modified crops in Ireland. His comments came in the wake of opposition criticism over the revelation that genetically modified rapeseed had been planted in several Department of Agriculture-owned centers around the country.
The week before, however, the Department of the Environment said it was satisfied that genetically modified seeds had not come into Ireland and the Environmental Protection Agency had been asked to confirm this.
The controversy over genetically modified seeds followed a recent alert in Britain over GM food after an agricultural supplier, Advanta Seeds UK, admitted that some of its conventional rapeseed sold and sown in the EU and the UK during the last two years contained genetically modified rapeseed.