President Obama and House Speaker John A. Boehner
Like so many here in Ireland and back in the US, over the Christmas break, I have nervously followed the attempts by the US Congress to reach an agreement to stave off the so-called “fiscal cliff,” and the dramatic tax increases and spending cuts that it would entail on January 1st. 

Fortunately, after no small amount of arm-twisting and deal making, an agreement has been approved by both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Two things are clear to me. First is just how dysfunctional a place Capitol Hill can be. That the US Congress could allow itself to actually miss a deadline set so long ago is astonishing.

Second is just how dedicated the hard-right of the Republican Party is to fighting for the wealthiest Americans. That many Republicans fought to the bitter end against the idea that millionaires should pay a little bit more in taxes, irrespective of the consequences for the country at a very uncertain time, speaks to how out of whack their priorities are.

I believe some will pay a price for their intransigence in the 2014 mid-term election. One thing that’s unclear to me is how lawmakers are going to address the issue of spending and the related debt ceiling some two months from now. While Democrats are right that wealthy Americans should pay their fair share in taxes, they are wrong if they think that entitlement spending needn't be cut. The current level of spending and the level of ongoing borrowing necessary to allow that spending are unsustainable. Some difficult and unpalatable decisions will need to be made. It is now more than ever that a highly polarized Congress badly needs moderates from both parties to get together. And they are in very short supply.

Another daunting issue that looms ahead for elected representatives in Washington, DC is gun control. Specifically, in the wake of the horrific incident in Newtown, Connecticut last month, many observers expect a proposal to ban assault weapons to be reintroduced.

A ban on assault weapons had been in place from 1994 to 2004 when it expired. The National Rifle Association drew a proverbial “line in the sand” and vowed to ensure the defeat of any legislator who dared to speak its name thereafter.

The Newtown massacre, however, changed things. The subsequent statements of a number of generally pro-gun politicians evidence what I believe is a sea change on the issue. Indeed, Senator Dianne Feinstein plans to do so this year. As Senator Feinstein says: “It will be carefully focused on the most dangerous guns that have killed so many people over the years while protecting the rights of gun owners by exempting hundreds of weapons that fall outside the bill’s scope.”

An updated assault weapons ban, therefore, would strike a prudent balance. I think a majority of Americans would support it. I’m fairly certain that Senator Feinstein now has the votes to pass the ban in the upper chamber, but the House remains under Republican control and convincing Congressmen from gun friendly districts could prove a different kettle of fish altogether. After all, the NRA is down, yet it’s far from out.

Back on this side of Atlantic, I was very sorry to hear of the tragic suicide of Shane McEntee TD (member of Irish parliament) just before Christmas. Shane McEntee, by all accounts, was a hard-working and well-liked public representative. My heart goes out to his wife and children and to the rest of his family. After his death, some in his family, most notably his brother, pointed to very negative and probably quite unfair criticism leveled at him anonymously on various websites and through social media as a contributing factor in Shane McEntee’s decision to take his own life. I do not believe that this criticism alone caused his death and

I am opposed to draconian measures to regulate the use of social media. But I do despair at the virulently anti-politician culture that prevails in Ireland. In conversations with relatives, friends, colleagues and acquaintances here, good words about elected officials are few and far between. Far more common are spiteful rhetoric and unwarranted vitriol. While Irish people are absolutely free to criticize their politicians, I believe that they are much too harsh on them in most instances. Two realities that I always stress in my conversations on the topic are that most politicians enter public life for good reasons and that they are “on the clock” 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with absolutely no expectation of privacy. That takes an inevitable toll on them and their families. Given the extraordinary workload that always inhered and the widespread opprobrium that now inheres in Irish public life, I’m just grateful that so many capable and committed men and women are still willing to get involved.

This New Year’s Eve in Dublin served as the official launch of The Gathering, the Tourism Ireland initiative to get Irish emigrants, those of Irish heritage and those who simply have an affinity with Ireland to come “home” in 2013. There are well over 1,000 events planned in cities, towns and villages throughout Ireland.

The Gathering has been extensively marketed in the US and elsewhere around the globe. The government has committed approximately €5 million to The Gathering and hopes it will attract hundreds of thousands of additional tourists in 2013. If organizers reach that target, there would be a phenomenal return on the initial investment. On hearing these details, one would be hard-pressed to find anything to criticize about a seemingly benign endeavor. But there’s been plenty of criticism. Actor Gabriel Byrne warned that it was just another attempt to fleece the diaspora; others complain that it doesn't address the economic difficulties and systemic deficiencies Ireland must remedy; still others’ criticisms are inextricably intertwined with their disdain for Irish America and Irish Americans.

I’ve debated these issues on national radio, on social media and elsewhere with those who oppose The Gathering. In sum, no one should be fleeced and those who do should be named and shamed; Ireland should not be afraid to market its tourism product to its diaspora and to use ethnic identification and/or cultural affinity in so doing – after all, other destinations highlight their unique attractions in their marketing campaigns; The Gathering is not intended to solve the broader problems Ireland undeniably faces, though it can provide a lift; and the snobs who sneer at Irish America and Irish Americans aren't worth listening to.

Very best wishes to all for a healthy, peaceful and prosperous 2013!