May I wish all readers a belated happy, healthy and peaceful New Year. All the indications are that it will be a very testing twelve months, a period that could well chart the course for a great many people for years to come. Sadly, we woke up on Monday morning to the news that Waterford Wedgwood had been placed in receivership, a major story that is dealt with elsewhere in this edition.

Next to health, people worry about their families, their jobs, their pensions and their futures and, without being too pessimistic, there would appear to be no shortage of things presenting themselves to make us anxious.

Of course, everything is relative to something else and a lot of nonsense has been spoken and written about the hardships endured in the 1970s and 1980s. There were serious problems then but, for older people, the real fear is a return to the hopelessness of the 1950s and 1960s. Nobody would wish that time and its circumstances on the present generation because, in those days, having nothing really did mean having nothing.

If it hadn’t been for the pressure-valve that was emigration to Britain, the United States, Canada and Australia, there may well have been a revolution in this country.

At the end of the day, it is the present government that must take the initiative and the most responsibility for getting us out of the current recession. Regardless of political preference, most people will wish the government well and fervently hope that they will succeed.

But, to be honest, surely we have been badly let down by successive governments over the years. This is a small, relatively wealthy country with a very manageable population but look at the circumstances in which we find ourselves after almost one-hundred years of self-rule.

Much of the countryside is polluted to varying degrees, many of our roads are still Third-World standard and, appallingly in my opinion, we are largely at the mercy of others for our energy. As well as that, our health, housing and education systems leave a lot to be desired and many of our most vulnerable citizens, young and old, are not being cared for in an acceptable manner by the State.

The people to blame have to be the people who were in charge for all those years but we should also remember that this is a democratic country and we, and our parents, the general public, were the ones who elected the successive governments. We have to share the blame because we never shouted ‘Stop’ in sufficient numbers and, despite us being an intelligent group of people, we were fobbed off all too easily.

Realistically speaking, there do not appear to be too many credible political alternatives out there but we have to start somewhere and we can do that by looking afresh at candidates in future elections. It’s time to forget Civil War politics and to leave behind voting traditions simply for the sake of tradition. We may well come to the conclusion that the present government represents our best hope for the future or we may decide on a change. That is our democratic right but, for all our sakes, we should take it very seriously and make it clear that our votes will be much harder to win in future.

An upside to the downside

The exciting mish-mash of humanity, traditions and cultures that comprises the United States of America has always fascinated me and I have almost always enjoyed the company of any American people I have been fortunate enough to meet over the years. Of course, you can’t generalise about an entire country and its people but my perception of the average US citizen is of a decent, fair-minded, humorous person who is proud and patriotic about their country.

Because of that I have always been mystified by the harshness and savagery of the US penal system, especially the practice of putting people to death. I could never equate the imposed spectre and horrors of death rows in State after State with the geniality and politeness of the American people. To me it never made sense and still doesn’t.

However, the number of executions is going down and, last year, only (only!) 37 prisoners were executed across nine States, the lowest number in 14 years. In the courts last year, a total of 111 death sentences were handed down, the lowest number since 1976 although to condemn 111 people to death is still quite mind-boggling. In the notorious San Quentin prison, there are now 677 people on death row.

The reason for the fall in the number of executions is mainly two-fold. Firstly, a whole raft of court appeals is seriously slowing progress of the entire legal killing process and secondly, it is getting too expensive. At a time when many States are seriously cutting back on police recruitment, teachers, medical care and a whole range of other services, the tide is turning against executions which, because of all the red-tape and conditions involved, are estimated to cost about €26m each!

At long last, there is an upside to the downside of the economy. On death rows across the United States, men and women are down on their knees every night thanking God for the recession.

The importance of a single word

After a long illness, a woman died and arrived at the gates of Heaven. While she was waiting for Saint Peter to greet her, she peeked through the gates and saw a beautiful banquet table. Sitting around it were her parents and all the other people she had loved and who had died before her. They saw her and began smiling and calling out greetings. “We’ve been waiting for you. You are welcome”, they cried out happily.

When Saint Peter came to the gates, the woman told him that Heaven was indeed a wonderful place and asked to be allowed in to join her loved ones. “First, you have to spell a word”, replied Saint Peter. Concentrating with every ounce at her disposal, she asked Saint Peter to give her the test. “I want you”, said Saint Peter with a smile, “to spell the word Love.” Seconds later the woman was welcomed into Heaven.

After a while, one of her jobs in paradise was to mind the gates when Saint Peter was called away for a meeting with God and one day, about six years later, she was on duty when her husband arrived.

“I’m surprised to see you”, said the woman, “I thought it would be a lot longer before you joined me here. How have you been?”

“Well”, replied her husband, “I’ve been doing pretty well since you died. I eventually married the beautiful young nurse who took care of you while you were ill. And then I won the Lottery. I sold the little house you and I lived in and bought a big mansion. My beautiful, young wife and I had great fun travelling the world but I went water skiing in the Mediterranean today and, when I tumbled, the ski hit my head and here I am.”

“Anyway”, said the man with a shrug, “that’s in the past. So, how do I get into heaven.”

“You have to spell a word and, if you don’t get it right first time, you have to go to hell”, replied his wife. “What word must I spell”, said her husband nervously. “Czechoslovakia”, replied his wife.