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Dear friends in the Irish Labour Party…

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… I won’t be voting for you. I have voted Labour in every election since I could first vote. I haven’t always given you my first preference – sometimes there were better left candidates – but you’ve always been there in the first two or three, and first more often than not.

Some of my younger friends are amazed that I voted Labour at all, but they weren’t there during the seventies and eighties, when Labour was on the side of divorce and contraception in a Catholic confessional Ireland. In those days Labour seemed to a lot of people to stand on our side in fights that were not easy, given the array of reactionary forces – the Church, the two main political parties, most of the institutions of civil society. In those days the modernisation of Irish social life – still an unaccomplished task of course – seemed of vital importance. We did not notice, or took a long time to notice, that Labour was moving steadily to the right in coalition after coalition. Those with historical blind-spots, like me, didn’t know, or swept aside the fact that Labour had not always been on the side of Labour, and in fact as a trade union member, I was perplexed to discover that Labour was not always on the strikers’ side in industrial disputes. But other forms of struggle seemed so important then, and Labour was by-and large- on our side. What’s more I have always believed in the idea of a broad coalition of the left, hoping that differing parties with differing discourses could or at least should draw together in shared opposition to capital and oppression.

So for a long time I believed that at heart the Labour Party was really a party of labour, of the worker, a left-wing party, and that given the opportunity it would show its true colours.

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What is the Current Phase of Imperialism?

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A new situation requires a new analysis, and each new factor in the situation requires a specific and concrete analysis, placing it and its weight correctly in the overall situation.

In world politics, the new situation is that the US was unable to bomb Syria, it finds itself negotiating with, rather than bombing Iran, and its coup in the Ukraine may not be entirely successful in drawing Russia’s neighbour into NATO’s sphere of influence.

This overturns recent history. The overthrow of the Soviet Union in 1991 was accompanied by the US-led Gulf War. Since that time, the US and its various allies have bombed, invaded or intervened in Somalia (twice), Yugoslavia, Haiti, Afghanistan, the Philippines, Liberia, Iraq, the Maghreb, Yemen, Libya, Pakistan, Libya and South Sudan. The US has also led, organised or outsourced countless other interventions, overthrown governments and destabilised economies in pursuit of its interests. There has also been a series of coups and attempted coups in Latin America with varied success, and the so-called ‘colour revolutions’ in Eastern Europe to install pro-US, pro-NATO governments, as well as the US hijacking of the Arab Spring.

However, the economic rise of China has warranted a strategic ‘pivot’ towards Asia in an attempt to curb the rise of the only economy that could rival US supremacy in the foreseeable future. Given this absolute priority and the reduced circumstances of the US economy, it has been necessary to suspend new large-scale direct military interventions elsewhere.

This curb on US power has had immediate and beneficial consequences for humanity. Syria could not be bombed and neither could Iran. In these, Russian opposition to US plans was a key political obstacle, especially as the US wanted to deploy multilateral and multinational forces to do its bidding and needed the imprimatur of the UN Security Council. The US response to this blockage has been to increase pressure on Russia, most dramatically with its ouster of the elected Ukrainian government in a coup and its attempt to breach the country’s agreed neutrality by bringing it into NATO.

This curb on US power, however limited or temporary, should be welcomed by all socialists, by all democrats and simply by all those who desire peace. Instead, we have the strange spectacle that some on the left have raised the charge that Russia is imperialist, or that China is, or countries such as Brazil, or India or South Africa are ‘sub-imperialist’!

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In Defence of China

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This article originally appeared in Jude Woodward’s new blog, New Cold War on the 2nd of May. NCW deals with the USA’s attempts to launch a new Cold War against China. 

The United States has launched a confrontation with China that it is attempting to project as of Cold War dimensions. Its clear aim is to isolate China diplomatically and politically, threaten it militarily, force it to divert investment from the productive economy to military spending, exclude it from world markets and label it a ‘pariah’ state.

In pursuit of this, the US is decisively stepping up its naval and military presence directed at China – the so-called ‘pivot to the Pacific’. It is encouraging China’s neighbours to step up their own military spending and take a more aggressive stance to China. Initiatives like the Trans Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership are aimed at creating huge preferential trade blocs led by the US that specifically exclude China.

The US is trying to isolate China politically, not just at the level of states, but by confusing and dividing those that might otherwise oppose this offensive, particularly through hypocritical and exaggerated campaigns on China’s record on human rights and labour standards and presenting China as aggressive and expansionist when it responds to legitimate security concerns or local challenges.

The core of the US’s re-orientation to contain and confront China is a shift to station 60% of the US’s total naval capacity in the Pacific, the first time since 1945 that the majority of US forces will have been out of the Atlantic-Mediterranean arena.

To facilitate this the US has won agreement to a new base in Australia, up-graded its Guam facilities, negotiated with Japan to stay on in Okinawa, is building a major new base in South Korea, and has agreed with the Philippines that its ex-base at Subic Bay is once more at the disposal of the US navy. It has sold a new raft of arms to Taiwan, upped its deal for F-16s with Indonesia, strengthened its military alliance with Japan and encouraged the other countries surrounding China to re-arm.

The fundamental question that this American policy towards China poses is what position should the left, the anti-war movement and progressive forces world-wide take on the confrontation?

The answer should be crystal clear – to defend China against this imperialist offensive.

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Marxists and the National Question

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The recent sharpening of national rivalries between Russia and Ukraine brings to the forefront the national question. This is certainly only an episode in the chain of national rivalries the capitalist globalization stimulates, by widening inequalities between nations and within each nation. It was preceded by national crises in Yugoslavia, in regions of the former USSR and also in many other parts of the globe.

Marxists became intensely interested in the national question in the late 19th and early 20th century, when capitalism was passing to its imperialist stage. Particularly Kautsky, Bauer, Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky dealt extensively with it. Their analyses, which we will briefly summarize here, are quite interesting with regard to contemporary problems.

Kautsky, Bauer, Luxemburg, Trotsky

Kautsky, in a series of articles and in his work Nationality and Transnationality (Nationalität and Internationalität, 1908) analyzed in particular the establishment of European nation states after 1848. While Bauer was emphasizing the common traditions (language, national identity, customs, etc.) to explain ethnogenesis and support his idea of ??national – cultural autonomy, Kautsky stressed that the formation of modern nations and nation states had mainly economic reasons: the need to develop a unified capitalist market, which was certainly facilitated by the existence of common traditions. So the nation state was the norm in the period of free competition, while multi-ethnic states were remnants of feudalism or exceptions. This meant that the creation of new states that characterized European history during this period, through the wars for national independence and self-determination (the national revolutions of 1848, the struggles for national unification of Italy, national revolutions and wars in the Balkans, etc.) had a progressive and historically necessary character.

From this starting point, Kautsky developed a valid polemic against Bauer’s positions, held also by a number of other Austrian Marxists (Adler, Renner, et al). The latter envisioned a peaceful, reformist regulation of national contradictions within existing transnational feudal states such as the Ottoman Empire and the Habsburg Empire, through the central power granting a genuine national autonomy (teaching of national language, freedom of national culture) to their constituent nationalities. In a letter to Victor Adler Kautsky declared such a prospect to be utopian:

“In Austria of all places, a gradual approach to some solution or other is unthinkable. The only cure lies in complete collapse. That Austria still exists is to me not proof of its viability, nor yet evidence that we now have the political basis for a slow and peaceful development; all it proves is that bourgeois society is no longer capable of doing away with even the most rotten structures: the Sultan, Tsarism, Austria”.

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What Planet Are You On?

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Reading Magnum: A Visual Archive of the Modern World by Geoff Dyer and Steven Hoelscher  (University of Texas Press)

City Stages by Matthew Pillsbury (Aperture)

Some of the finest poetry of Wallace Stevens expresses the constant struggle between representing things as they are, capturing moments that accord with something independent of the mind – moments, one might say, of cast-iron existence where no metaphors or tropes attach themselves to this level of material being — and, on the other hand, the alluring inclination to mediate experience with subjective positions of contestable value. In ‘The Auroras of Autumn’ he writes of ‘form gulping after formlessness’, the need to impose some order and pattern on restless, multiplex reality.

Photography is like the late poetry of Wallace Stevens in that it too battles with the conflicting drives of representing what is there, in all its necessary incongruity, and depicting a mediated slice of life that tells us more about the photographer than the photographed. When Magnum first established itself, co-founder Henri Cartier-Bresson spoke of ‘ a respect for what is going on [in the world] and a desire to transcribe it visually’. What was going on was war, first in Spain and then across Europe and the globe, and war begat Magnum with the idea amongst a small group of Left-leaning photographers in 1947 for a cooperative that would allow them to take and disseminate pictures free of control from commercial and military organizations. The experience of conflict  had brought home to the Magnum founders the importance of pictures in conveying to non-combatants what happened when  war was unleashed and two of them (Robert Capa in the First Indochina War and David Seymour in the Suez War) would die in the course of their chosen careers. Another one of the co-founders, George Rodger, gave up war photography after taking pictures at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, appalled that he treated ‘this pitiful human flotsam as it were a gigantic still-life’. What shocked Rodger was that ‘I could look at the horror of Belsen … and think only of a nice photographic composition, I knew something had happened to me and I had to stop. I said this is where I quit.’

The concentration camp, its dead and its survivors were there before Rodger’s eyes but so was his camera and when he put one up against the other something else came into play.  What Wallace Stevens said, in the same year that saw the formation of Magnum Photos, is as true of the photograph as it is of a poem: ‘What our eyes behold may well be the text of life but one’s meditations on the text and the disclosures of these meditations are no less a part of the structure of reality.’ The tension between the photographer as a reporter and as an artist lies at the core of the best work residing in the Magnum archives for as Philip Jones Griffiths put it, ‘There is no point in pressing the shutter unless you are making some caustic comment on the incongruities of life’.

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Chris de Burgh Notes our Opinions – and Suppresses Them

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This article originally appeared on Raymond’s blog, The Deanery today, the 31st of March.

In 1979 Chris de Burgh chose to tour Apartheid South Africa, in violation of the boycott call from the African National Congress. In justification, he pleaded that “I’m not singing for the government… I hope to make a difference…”

It is arguable that by ignoring the boycott call from the democratic opposition to South Africa’s anti-democratic regime de Burgh was indeed “singing for the government”, and that, far from “making a difference”, he was in fact helping to reinforce the status quo more than a decade before the release of Nelson Mandela from Robben Island.

In 1984 “12 Dunnes [Stores] workers went on strike [in Dublin] for two and a half years for the right not to handle goods from Apartheid South Africa. The strikers were feted by Bishop Desmond Tutu and international human rights groups. Nelson Mandela said that their stand helped keep him going during his imprisonment.”

Almost exactly thirty years after this, Chris de Burgh announced that he would perform in Tel Aviv on 29th March 2014, ignoring the Palestinian call for a cultural boycott of the Israeli state. The Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign learned only two weeks before the event of de Burgh’s plan to cross the picket line, upon which the usual procedures were followed. A letterwas posted via his website, followed by a telephone call to his management – or, more precisely, to an anonymous answering-machine in London. Neither approach having received a reply, the letter was made public. A Facebook page was set up and supporters of Palestinian rights posted pleas on de Burgh’s own Facebook page.

At this point, things turned nasty. It would appear that defenders of the Israeli state set particular store by de Burgh’s imminent visit, perhaps bearing in mind his 1979 performance in the other Apartheid state that was Israel’s most intimate ally. Veterans of internet campaigning reported that they had never encountered such an outpouring of Zionist propaganda as flooded de Burgh’s page, replete with the usual venomous and mendacious defamation of anyone with a track record of support for Palestinian rights. Abuse ranged from “hater” and “old fart” to “anti-Semite” and “Nazi”; in my own case, hoary canards about my visits to Hong Kong and Iran and my supposedly having “intimidated a cancer victim” (the latter rebutted here) were dredged up and recycled shamelessly.

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Enough of Apps

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I was at a poetry reading not so long ago when one of the poets made a great point of displaying the phone screen on which he had composed a poem and from which he was now going to read. I have to admit that the poem doesn’t stick in my mind though I’m not sure that is any reflection upon the quality of the work. I was simply too distracted. It felt a bit like finding a great pub with a decent counter and a fine pint when the barman suddenly flings on Sky Sports above your head and the whole space takes on a different dimension. Here too the technology worship, I thought. The acceptable bling. The cool consumerism. Not, I’ll admit, that my mind was on the truly nagging issues behind these Apple and Google sects, ‘the chaos that lies beneath’ them as one Observer journalist recently put it, the mined and rare materials neodymium and europium, the cobalt and coltan from the Congo over which people are killed, those factory camps in China with their nettings to prevent suicide. The hidden costs behind the latest must-have phone or laptop. No, to my shame I was merely lost in suggesting to myself that poetry is, perhaps, the ultimate in insecure arts. Damien Hirst and David Hockney are two widely known and acclaimed artists but I have spoken to quite a few artists, painters and sculptors who have freely admitted that, for all their acclaim, Hurst is widely recognised as at worst a charlatan and at best a mere salesman. Hockney is admired for his paintings but giggled at for his I-Pad creations. They don’t shy away. They know. Yet, as the poet Laureate in Britain launched a poetry App recently, among such true poets as Harry Enfield and David Cameron’s friend Helena Bonham-Carter, the one of whom the Irish actress Kathy Burke was so profoundly descriptive, how many of us wanted to, I don’t know, shout enough. Enough of this nonsense. Enough of the Emperor’s New Clothes.

Or are we too frightened of being seen as reactionary, of being in opposition, as if the purchase of a phone was now the signifier of an open and adventurous mind. After all, despite those noises a few years back about the arts being the saviour of the economy we know deep down that market economics treats us with a deep indifference. We know that the School of Chicago economics, the reduction of everything to its market value, which is essentially the belief system we live under, leaves next to no room for poetry. Might that then explain Seamus Heaney’s praising of Eminem, or Carol Ann Duffy’s equating of poetry with texting or tweeting. I even read recently where one poet claimed that texts and tweets meant we were thinking harder about our writing than ever before. I tell you I LOL about that one. It’s all a bit desperate. It’s all a little bit like trying to get down with the kids. I mean I’m no spring chicken but even I cringed when Carol Ann Duffy praised the verbal dexterity of rapping by citing the Arctic Monkeys.

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Chewing the Bullet: Henry James & A Portrait of His Novel

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Even if The Portrait of a Lady has not been read, viewers of the rather fine Jane Campion film with Nicole Kidman —  a movie mercifully free of period-drama trumpery — will be familiar with the story. An inexperienced but likeable young American woman, earnestly in love with her own liberty, journeys toEurope; there she rejects two proposals of marriage, sensing that either of them would curtail the adventure of setting out on life’s exciting odyssey. Freedom, she feels, becomes her. All very Emersonian, until in Italy she meets and pledges her soul to a man whom she thinks singularly complements her own exceptionalism; but from this high point, where she had fondly hoped they could together look down generously on the world, she falls to ground and comes to realise she has married not just a hollow and mercenary dilettante but a malevolent narcissist who demands the sacrifice of her life spirit. She had thought she was free but the sordid truth that her husband married her for her money puts paid to her imaginative idealism and she confronts the truth of her marriage and the catastrophic collapse of her American Dream.

Michael Gorra’s enjoyable account of The Portrait of a Lady is very reader-friendly given his easy-going and often personal tone, and his gloss on the novel is interspersed with a mini-biography of the writer. Gorra calls the structure of his own book ‘dialectical’, using the term loosely to capture the way he focuses on key incidents in the novel before bouncing off these moments to acquaint us with episodes in the life of James as well as the history of the novel’s publication, from its initial serialization in magazines to its first book publication in 1881 and the author’s revisions in 1906. Addressing the style of The Portrait of a Lady, Gorra contrasts its series of dramatic scenes, pregnant with meaning, with the multi-plotted, knotted style of a novelist like Dickens and in the course of Portrait of a Novel there are neat commentaries on key moments from James’s text. He draws attention, for example, to the Godless universe that comes to the fore in the scene between the dying Daniel Touchett and his son Ralph:

There are many deathbeds in Victorian fiction, some full of prayers…. Many of them show us characters sunk in fear, and others hit a high note of hope. But I have read no such scene so entirely untroubled by the hereafter as this one; its originality lies in what James feels himself free to leave out. Neither Ralph nor his father speaks of God, and they do not call a clergyman at the last.

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Cathechism: This is a Catholic Country

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Cathechism: This is a Catholic Country

Q: Why were a hundred thousand children abused?
A: Because this is a catholic country.

Q: Why did the abusers get away with it?
A: Because this is a catholic country.

Q: Why did the people of the country, to their as yet unpurged disgrace, let the
abusers get away with it?
A: Because this is a catholic country.

Q: Why are LBGT’s still beaten up on our streets, and why are they still afraid
to hold hands on most of our streets, and why are so many young LBGT’s driven to self-hatred and suicide, and why do LBGT’s still not have their equal rights?
A: Because this is a catholic country.

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Treasure Ireland

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We are constantly assured (warned) that ‘everything is on the table’.  All manner of tax increases and spending cuts are being considered, and none are ruled out in principle.  So, goes the script. There is one issue, however, that is not on the table.  It is not even in the room.  It is not even in the house or lurking around the grounds.  And that issue is the corporate tax rate.  Why?

If we increased the corporate tax rate, this would undermine our ability to attract foreign direct investment.  This, in turn, would result in fewer jobs being created and put current jobs at risk; further, it would lower exports which would skewer our balance of payments.  All that value-added and economic activity would be jeopardised.

Before we confront this argument, let’s first look at how successful multi-nationals (MNCs) are in racking up profits in Ireland (also, this analysis from Michael Burke is also worth a read).  From this, we might get a sense of how sensitive they would be to an increase in the corporate tax rate. For, in truth, they are really really racking up the profits.

Ireland is not just a league-leader, it is off the chart.  MNCs here make more than four times the profit per employees than the average of the other EU-15 countries reporting (no data for Belgium or Greece). No wonder more and more multi-nationals are making Ireland their home.  It should be noted that this Eurostat data does not include the financial sector so the massive profits being made in the IFSC are not included.  Nor does the above include taxation – we’ll come to this later.

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It’s Called Hunger

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A new report is out – Constructing a Food Poverty Indicator for Ireland.  It estimates that one in ten people experienced ‘food poverty’ in 2010.  In other words, hunger. I know the phrase ‘must-read’ is sometimes over-used, but this is truly a must-read report. The very idea that one-in-ten of our neighbours suffer from food poverty is truly frightening.  Maybe you won’t be guaranteed a job, maybe you won’t be guaranteed free medical care regardless of your need, but surely in a civilised society we can ensure that no one goes without food.  That we can’t, that we don’t, says something about the kind of society that is being created for us.

This estimate produced by Caroline Carney (General Council of the Bar of England and Wales) and Bertrand Maître (ESRI) is based on a careful methodology.  It uses deprivation indicators that relate to food in the EU’s Survey of Income and Living Conditions:

  • Inability to afford a meal with meat or vegetarian equivalent every second day
  • Inability to afford a roast or vegetarian equivalent once a week
  • Whether during the last fortnight, there was at least one day (i.e. from getting up to going to bed) when the respondent did not have a substantial meal due to lack of money
  • Inability to have family or friends for a meal or drink once a month

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Eurozone Crisis: What Next?

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Recently engaged in a round of backslapping, the leaders of Europe suggested that we were turning the corner out of the crisis. In Ireland despite all the evidence to the contrary, the government is still trying to talk up the prospect of a 'deal' on the bank debt. But on the ground, the crisis is worsening, austerity is destroying people's lives and the economies of Europe. In the first of two articles on the future of the EU, Paul Murphy MEP examines the immediate prospects for the eurozone crisis in the next months.

Once more, the markets were temporarily calmed in September. The road forward to a stable eurozone was pronounced to be nearer than ever. The relatively tranquil summer for the eurozone was followed by a series of declared victories – the new European Central Bank (ECB) bond-buying programme; the German constitutional court positive ruling on the European Stability Mechanism; the announcement of the European Commission's proposal for common supervision of Europe's banks by the ECB; and the victory of the Liberals and Social-Democrats in the Dutch elections, despite the earlier good showing for the Socialist Party. The bond yields for the crisis-ridden states fell to relative lows and Commission President Barroso took the opportunity to spell out a longer-term vision of a move to a “federation of nation states” in Europe.

That this was simply the calm before the unleashing of a mighty storm of crisis in autumn and winter across Europe has already become evident. The measures announced represent new sticking plasters on the crisis. Yet again, the fundamental contradictions facing the eurozone have not been addressed. A series of deep crises in different states are likely to emerge in the coming weeks and months, putting into question the continued existence of the eurozone as is once more.

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The Left Overs of Social Partnership

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In Ireland, after four years of an austerity program we now find the economy is getting worse and not better. Most of society is asking where it all went wrong and what the solutions are. The trade union movement in Ireland appears to be divided on the approach we should take on the economy. Citizens of countries with austerity programs like Spain, Italy and Portugal are protesting and it’s mostly organised and led by the trade unions. But in Ireland there appears to be no will on behalf of some trade unions to take this approach. So why is this?

Did the trade union movement lose its way during social partnership and now finds it very difficult to cut the umbilical cord from the corporatist approach? Some people may even argue the trade union movement were complicit in the financial crisis, in that they had gone a step too far in their relationships with the Government and no one from the trade union spoke out at the time, on the economic and social policies implemented by the government.

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The Failed Experiment: Public Private Partnerships in Ireland

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The recent Comptroller and Auditor’s report on the 2011 public service accounts reveals the continuing cost of Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) in Ireland. It provides further evidence that the transfer of risk has been exaggerated and overpriced.

The National Roads Authority (NRA) agreed to traffic-related guarantee payments for the M3 Clonee/Kells and Limerick Tunnel PPPs. The NRA has to pay the PPP company additional money if average traffic levels in any half-year period do not exceed the level of guaranteed traffic in the contract. The Comptroller and Auditor reported significant shortfalls in traffic volumes relative to the guaranteed thresholds in 2010 and 2011 and forecast the additional payment of €6.7m for 2012. Even if traffic continues to increase at an average 2.5% per annum, the government will be paying traffic guaranteed payments for the M3 Clonee/Kells PPP until 2025 and the Limerick Tunnel until 2041! Additional payment could exceed €140m at current prices.

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