Fine Gael accused of trying to 'manufacture political crisis' as Martin calls for 'substantive' Confidence and Supply deal review

Fianna Fail leader Micheál Martin has doubled down on his demand for a “substantive” review of the Confidence and Supply arrangement.

Mr Martin said this review must happen before he will consider renewing the deal which underpins the Fine Gael-led Government. Speaking at the Fianna Fail President’s Dinner in Dublin, Mr Martin used the vast majority of his speech to attack Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Fine Gael.

He accused Fine Gael leader of trying to “manufacture a political crisis” after a number of ministers called for the review of the confidence and supply agreement to be expedited.

He said the speeches he heard at Fine Gael’s Ard Fheis showed the objective for Fine Gael “is holding power, not what you do with it”.

“I am saying to Fine Gael, please; don’t give us any lectures about responsible politics or the need for stability,” he said.

“There is an agreed process. It requires a substantive review which should be completed. Stop trying to manufacture a political crisis and start focusing on doing your jobs.”

Mr Martin also accused the Government of “massaging” homelessness figures and said Mr Varadkar does not acknowledge a problem until it is at crisis level.

“The housing emergency is the direct result of a Government which refused to undertake even basic planning, ignored population projections and has failed to deliver on any of the four housing strategies published in the last five years,” he said.

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North Korea's new 'tactical' weapon test highlights military modernisation

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea’s claim last week that it had tested an unidentified “ultramodern tactical weapon” highlighted its desire to upgrade its conventional arms and reassure its military even as talks are under way to end its nuclear programme, analysts said.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un witnessed the test of a newly developed tactical weapon that could serve as a “steel wall”, state media reported on Friday, without giving details of the weapon.

It was Kim’s first observation of a weapons test this year and could complicate already stalled nuclear talks with the United States, although Washington and Seoul downplayed the development in an apparent effort not to derail negotiations.

Experts say the test was part of Kim’s initiative to shift the mainstay of the conventional military power from a nearly 1.3 million-strong army to high-tech weapons.

“This is sort of like the North Korean version of military reform,” said Choi Kang, vice president of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.

“If we have to find an underlying message to the outside world, it’s ‘Don’t underestimate us, we are modernising too.'”

New advanced weapons might be even more crucial if the country were to abandon at least some of its nuclear arsenal.

Although heavily-sanctioned Pyongyang is easily outspent in defence funding by Seoul and Washington, the North’s forward-deployed troops, guns and multiple-launch artillery rocket systems (MLRS) pose a significant threat to the allies.

The North Korean military has nearly 5,500 MLRS, 4,300 tanks, 2,500 armoured vehicles, 810 fighter jets, 430 combatant vessels and 70 submarines, according to a 2016 assessment by the South’s defence ministry.

The Centre for Strategic and International Studies said last week it has identified at least 13 undeclared missile bases inside North Korea.

The Washington-based think tank has also said Pyongyang has been developing hovercraft units for its 200,000-strong special forces as part of the military modernisation drive.

Kim has been pushing to modernise production lines at munitions factories and replace ageing weapons and technology since he took power in late 2011.

“The defence industry should develop and manufacture powerful strategic weapons and military hardware of our style, perfect its Juche-oriented production structure and modernise its production lines on the basis of cutting-edge science and technology,” he said in his 2018 New Year speech, referring to the long-held principle of self-reliance.

The two Koreas agreed during their September summit in Pyongyang to significantly reduce military tensions along the border, and the North has begun deactivating artillery deployed along the skirmish-prone western shore, Seoul’s defence ministry said.

But the pact did not include any removal of MLRS from forward-deployed areas, where some long-range guns and rocket launchers can still reach Seoul.

South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported the newly tested weapon was a new model of MLRS, citing an unnamed military source familiar with intelligence. Other experts suggested it might be a new, short-range missile.

Kim Dong-yub, a military expert at Kyungnam University’s Institute of Far Eastern Studies in Seoul, said by touting a modernised weapon, Kim could seek to reassure hard-line military generals and the public in North Korea who may be worried about a nuclear-free future.

“With Kim having publicly declared the economy a new priority and saying the North would denuclearise, many in the military who saw a decline in interest and support could be doubtful and anxious because he has not secured significant concessions like an end-of-war declaration,” Kim, the professor said.

“It could have been necessary for him to consolidate the nation even though such a field guidance would give a negative signal to the outside.”

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CUPW requests mediator as deadline for Canada Post offer expires without deal

The Canadian Union of Postal Workers issued a request Saturday for the federal government to appoint a mediator in its contract talks with Canada Post, as it rejected the Crown corporation’s latest offers.

Canada Post issued new, time sensitive, proposals last week aimed at reaching agreements with its approximately 42,000 urban employees and 8,000 rural and suburban carriers.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau weighed in Saturday night with a last-minute plea to the two sides, just hours before the midnight deadline on the Crown corporation’s offers expired.

In a Twitter post, Trudeau cited the arrival of the holiday shopping season and urged both sides “To resolve their differences quickly and reach a deal.”

But as the deadline on the offers passed, CUPW issued a statement that said it had responded “By presenting the Corporation with our own global offers that address our needs and demands.”

The union also said that it had asked the government to appoint a mediator to help the two sides reach an accord after nearly a year of talks, adding “We believe that our proposals can be the basis of collective agreements.”

CUPW had said on Friday that the new proposals from Canada Post made positive steps, but not enough to end the rotating strikes that have shut down postal operations in more than 200 communities, creating a huge backlog of undelivered mail.

It said it would not bring the offers to a vote of its members, although both sides remained at the bargaining table.

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Beijing says no developing country will fall into debt trap by cooperating with China

BEIJING (REUTERS) – China’s foreign ministry said on Sunday (Nov 18) that no developing country would fall into a debt trap simply because of its cooperation with Beijing.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying made the comment in an online statement responding to remarks made by US Vice-President Mike Pence.

“No developing country will fall into debt difficulties because of cooperation with China,” Hua said.

“On the contrary, cooperating with China helps these countries raise independent development capabilities and levels, and improves the lives of the local people.” Speaking at the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation (Apec) summit on Saturday, Pence took aim at China’s Belt and Road initiative, saying countries should not accept debt that compromised their sovereignty.

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China-U.S. rivalry casts shadow over APEC meeting in PNG

PORT MORESBY (Reuters) – Wide differences between China and the United States dominated an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Papua New Guinea on Sunday, with little evidence of consensus as officials struggled to frame a closing statement acceptable to all.

Competition between the United States and China over the Pacific was also thrown into focus with Western allies launching a coordinated response to China’s Belt and Road program, promising to jointly fund a $1.7 billion electrification and internet project in Papua New Guinea (PNG).

Tonga, on the other hand, signed up to the Belt and Road and won deferment on a Chinese loan, a Tongan official said.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, as he left the PNG capital of Port Moresby, listed U.S. differences with China, a day after he directly criticized its Belt and Road program.

“They begin with trade practices, with tariffs and quotas, forced technology transfers, the theft of intellectual property. It goes beyond that to freedom of navigation in the seas, concerns about human rights,” Pence told reporters traveling with him.

Differences over trade were making it difficult to draft a summit communique that members would sign, with Chinese officials rebuffed in an attempt to meet PNG Foreign Minister Rimbink Pato on the issue.

Pato confirmed to Reuters that Chinese officials had wanted to see him, adding they had not made “necessary arrangements” for a meeting.

He said the multilateral trade system was the sticking point in drafting the communique.

“If there are last minute issues then, like what we’re doing now, we will talk through them and try and reach a compromise,” he said.

At a Pacific Islands Forum in September, there was a similar dispute when China’s envoy demanded to be allowed to address the forum before the prime minister of Tuvalu.

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  • China says no developing country will fall into debt trap by cooperating with China

PNG ELECTRICITY PROJECT

APEC host PNG is home to 8 million people, four-fifths of whom live outside urban areas and with poor infrastructure.

The United States, Japan, Australia and New Zealand unveiled a $1.7 billion plan to provide electricity and internet to much of PNG, the first step of a plan that will counter China’s Belt and Road spending and political influence in the region.

The Western allies’ plan would see 70 percent of PNG’s population getting electricity by 2030, from 13 percent now, and was showcased as a demonstration of commitment to the strategically important Pacific region.

China had its success, with Tonga signing up to the Belt and Road and getting a five-year deferral on a concessional loan just before it was due to commence principal repayments.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, who arrived in Port Moresby on Thursday, has been feted by PNG officials and stoked Western concern on Friday when he held a meeting with Pacific island leaders in which he pitched the Belt and Road initiative.

China has poured investment into development projects in the region, including plans to build a large hydropower generation plant in PNG.

The Western plan for PNG comes as diplomatic sources told Reuters that Australia and the United States were concerned about the debt burden that the Chinese plant could have on it.

Belt and Road was first proposed in 2013 to expand land and sea links between Asia, Africa and Europe, with billions of dollars in infrastructure investment from China.

Australia, a staunch U.S. ally, has for decades enjoyed largely unrivalled influence among Pacific island nations. China has only recently turned its attention to the region with a raft of bilateral financing agreements to often distressed economies.

On Saturday, Pence took direct aim at Belt and Road, saying countries should not accept debt that compromised their sovereignty.

China’s foreign ministry responded by saying no developing country would fall into a debt trap simply because of its cooperation with Beijing.

“On the contrary, cooperating with China helps these countries raise independent development capabilities and levels, and improves the lives of the local people,” ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in a statement.

In Port Moresby, Foreign Minister Pato said his country did not need to pick sides.

“For us, we welcome Chinese investment, we welcome U.S. investment. Our foreign policy is to be friends of all, enemies of none.”

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Australia surf lesson turns bloody after shark attack

SYDNEY (AFP) – A man taking part in a surf lesson off Australia’s east coast suffered serious cuts after a shark attack on Saturday (Nov 17)- the latest in a spate of recent encounters.

The attack is a sixth off Australia’s beaches in two months, amid public debate about how to reduce the risk of encounters between sharks and the growing number of people using the ocean for leisure.

The 24-year-old was wading waist-deep in waters off Seven Mile Beach some 130 kilometres (81 miles) south of Sydney when he “felt a forceful lashing motion against his legs”, New South Wales (NSW) Ambulance said.

He had “significant cuts and haemorrhage as well as several puncture wounds to his wetsuit and right leg… and cuts to his hand”, NSW Ambulance duty operations manager Inspector Jordan Emery told reporters on Saturday.

The beach was closed and authorities sought to identify the shark breed involved.

Australia has one of the world’s highest incidences of shark attacks, but fatalities remain rare.

There have been 13 shark attacks off the vast continent’s coast this year, including one death after a swimmer was mauled by a shark in the Whitsunday Islands in early November, according to data from Sydney’s Taronga Zoo.

There were 15 attacks – one fatal – last year, and 17 encounters and two deaths in 2016, the data showed.

NSW hosted an international conference with marine experts in 2015 after a sharp increase in attacks across Australia that year to 22, including the death of a Japanese surfer after his legs were torn off by a shark.

Most recently, the Queensland government held meetings with tourism operators and experts this month after the Whitsundays incident.

State officials had captured six sharks using baited lines and killed them in the wake of two other attacks at the Whitsundays in September.

But conservationists are critical of the use of such drum lines, saying they are a blunt instrument often catches other marine creatures as well.

New South Wales, Australia’s most populous state, has trialled non-lethal measures such as aerial drones to track shark movements and “smart” drum lines that alert authorities to their presence.

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In devastated California, President Donald Trump pledges federal help – and delivers blame

CHICO, CALIFORNIA (WASHINGTON POST) – President Donald Trump toured a scene of surreal devastation on Saturday (Nov 17), picking his way around burned trees and the hulking skeletons of vehicles as he pledged federal resources to help Californians recover from the most deadly and destructive wildfire in state history.

“This is very sad to see, but we’re all going to work together,” Mr Trump said after a walking tour of a burned-out RV park and housing tract in Paradise.

As he spoke, a thick haze of smoke hung in the air. Stone and brick chimneys – all that remained of some homes – were visible from Mr Trump’s motorcade.

The president also criticised forest-management decisions that he suggested are at least partly to blame for the disaster, even though the fires are considered to be more related to a record drought, high winds and a changing climate.

But unlike earlier comments in which he threatened to withhold federal funding if changes were not made, Mr Trump provided a reassuring note.

“You’ve got the federal government”, at the ready, he promised.

Referring to the staggering loss of life – more than 70 deaths have been recorded so far, and that number is expected to rise – Mr Trump sounded shaken.

“As far as the lives are concerned, nobody knows quite yet. We’re up to a certain number, but we have got a lot of people that aren’t accounted for yet. Right now, we want to take care of the people who are so badly hurt,” Mr Trump said.

California Govenor Jerry Brown walked with Mr Trump and told reporters that the state’s requests are being answered.

“It’s just the big, massive cleanup after a terrible tragedy,” said Mr Brown, a frequent Trump critic. “The federal government can provide some help, and a lot of money and some expertise. We’ll all pull through it together.”

Mr Trump toured fire-damaged areas in both Northern and Southern California, making a rare visit to a state he has often demonised as a “sanctuary” for immigrants who are in the country illegally.

Mr Trump’s one-day visit to the state thrust him into a role of uniter and consoler that he has never occupied comfortably. The president seemed moved by the scale of the loss around him and was solicitous of Mr Brown and govenor-elect Gavin Newsom. But he said more about the firefighters and other rescuers deployed to the fire than about the victims.

At an incident command centre in Chico, Mr Trump called the fire “a monster” and praised rescuers.”They’re out there fighting, and they’re fighting like hell,” Mr Trump said. “It’s like total devastation.”

The Camp Fire covers an area north of Sacramento that is the size of Chicago. Firefighters said on Saturday that it is slightly more than 50 per cent contained.

As of Saturday morning, there were 71 deaths and 9,700 homes destroyed as a result of the 150,000-acre fire, which started on Nov 8, according to the Butte County Sheriff’s Office.

Mr Trump said other countries, including Sweden, do a better job “cleaning the floor” of the forest, to reduce forest fires. He said he hopes the Camp Fire will be the last one of such size and devastation because of changes to forest-management practices.

“I don’t think we’ll have this again to this extent,” Mr Trump said. “Hopefully, this is going to be the last of these because this was a really, really bad one.”

All of California is in some stage of drought or abnormally dry conditions, with much of the burned area of Butte County in moderate drought.

As Mr Trump drove from Paradise to a meeting with rescuers, local and law enforcement officials, supporters and a few protesters lined the road. One protester held aloft a sign reading, “Moron, we are in a drought.”

Governor Brown and Mr Newsom flew with Mr Trump and stood with him as he spoke to reporters aboard Air Force One.

“Yes, yes,” Mr Brown responded when asked whether the fires are linked to climate change. “We’ll let science determine this over a longer period of time,” he said. “Right now we’re collaborating on the most immediate response, and that’s very important.”

Mr Trump jumped in a few moments later: “We have different views but maybe not as different as people think.”

Mr Trump has called climate change “a hoax”, but has also said it is real.

“Trump is basically ducking the fact that climate change has to be taken in account in understanding the conditions that set the stage for the fires,” said environmentalist and former State Department official Rafe Pomerance.

“I think what he needs to do is get his facts first, then open his mouth,” said Ms Natalie Smith, 51, who evacuated her rented Paradise home. “We’ve got people up there we don’t even know if they’re alive, and he’s worried about cleaning up our forests? We’ve got thousands of people with no homes sleeping on the ground, and he’s worried about us cleaning up our forests? Really?”

On top of that, she said, Mr Trump’s visit to see the devastation tied up traffic on Saturday. “Fly over it!” Ms Smith said.

Of all the possessions she lost, she was most upset about never seeing her wedding ring and great-grandmother’s china again. “I got out with the clothes on my back and my cat in a box,” she said.

Mr Trump drew wide criticism for a tweet last week blaming the wildfires on “gross mismanagement” of California timberlands and threatening to hold back federal funding from the Democrat-led state.

“There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor,” he wrote. “Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!”

Mr Brian Rice, president of California Professional Firefighters, called Mr Trump’s words “ill-informed, ill-timed and demeaning to those who are suffering as well as the men and women on the front lines”.

No wildfire in California history has done more damage than the Camp Fire. It burned down the forest town of Paradise, Mr Trump’s first stop after landing at a military base north of Sacramento.

The Woolsey Fire started northwest of Los Angeles the same day and has been moving toward the Pacific Coast. It has killed at least two people and destroyed 483 structures. Among the areas threatened by the fire is Thousand Oaks, which is still grieving after 12 people were killed in the Nov 7 mass shooting at Borderline Bar and Grill.

The list of people unaccounted for in the Camp Fire exceeded 1,000 last Friday, after officials released more than 600 names in an effort to identify those found by friends and relatives.

Signs of the wildfires were everywhere in the region Mr Trump toured.

In the morning, trucks carried modular homes north on the highway toward Chico. Local weather reports deemed the air quality “dangerous for everyone” 100 miles south of Paradise.

Mr Tony Terrano, a 47-year-old welder and fabricator from Magalia, near Paradise, thought he could defend his home with a water hose. Six days later, the water ran out, and he and his three-year-old pit bull Mo Mo fled on foot.

Firefighters spotted him, he said, and took him to a sheriff’s command centre, where he got a ride to the Red Cross shelter at the Neighbourhood Church in Chico. There, a half-dozen evacuees sat outside and watched TV news coverage of Mr Trump’s visit.

“We’re happy he’s here because we need the funding,” said Ms Allison Bazan, a 24-year-old criminal-justice student, who lost the Paradise home she and her husband had moved into three months ago. “We’d like our town to be rebuilt. People need to put political points of view aside right now if they want their town rebuilt. We need to look at this from a financial standpoint more so than personal opinion.”

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China defers Tonga's loan payments as Pacific nation signs up to Belt and Road

PORT MORESBY (Reuters) – Tonga has signed up to China’s Belt and Road initiative and has received a reprieve from Beijing on the timing of debt payments shortly before an onerous schedule to repay loans was due to start.

Lopeti Senituli, political advisor to Tongan Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pōhiva, told Reuters by email on Sunday that Tonga had signed a Belt and Road memorandum of understanding, and that the concessional loan had been deferred for five years.

Tonga is one of eight island nations in the South Pacific that owe significant debt to China. The deferment came just as Tonga was set to commence principal repayments on the debt, which is expected to put severe strain on its finances.

China’s ministry of foreign affairs did not immediately respond to request for comment on Sunday.

Tonga’s financial reliance on China dates back just over a decade after deadly riots in the capital of Tonga, Nuku’alofa, destroyed much of the small Pacific nation’s central business and government districts.

The government rebuilt the city with Chinese financing, and the roughly $65 million in China’s initial loans to the island now exceeds $115 million, due to interest and additional borrowings. This represents almost one-third of Tonga’s annual gross domestic product, budget papers show

The issue of Chinese-issued debt has been at the forefront of the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation summit, held in Papua New Guinea (PNG). On Saturday, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence criticized President Xi Jinping’s flagship programme, saying countries should not accept debt that compromised their sovereignty.

While most Pacific island nations are not APEC members, their representatives were invited to attend events, and have been engaged in talks with larger regional neighbors such as China and Australia.

China’s official Belt and Road website reported last week that Fiji had made a commitment to Belt and Road, joining the likes of Samoa and PNG.

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U.S. allies counter China with alternative electricity plan for PNG

PORT MORESBY (Reuters) – The United States and three of its Pacific allies said on Sunday they would work with Papua New Guinea to ensure most of the country had access to electricity by 2030, as Western powers seek to contain China’s economic influence in the region.

Leaders of the United States, Japan, Australia and New Zealand met in PNG’s capital, Port Moresby, at the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) summit to unveil the plan, which seeks to boost the power grid’s reach to 70 percent of the population from 13 percent currently.

PNG is home to 8 million people, four-fifths of whom live outside urban areas and with poor infrastructure. The developing nation has emerged as a flashpoint in Washington’s and Beijing’s competing strategic efforts to lock-in alliances in the region.

“This initiative will also be open to other partners that support principles and values which help maintain and promote a free, open, prosperous and rules based region,” a White House statement said.

The four nations did not specify what kind of power-generation would be used, or the cost of the plan. However, an Australian government spokeswoman told Reuters it would contribute A$25 million ($18.3 million) in the first year of the initiative.

China has poured investment into development projects in the region, including plans to build a large hydropower generation plant in PNG under President Xi Jinping’s flagship Belt and Road initiative.

Belt and Road was first proposed in 2013 to expand land and sea links between Asia, Africa and Europe, with billions of dollars in infrastructure investment from Beijing.

On Saturday, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence took direct aim at Belt and Road at an APEC address, saying countries should not accept debt that compromised their sovereignty.

Australia, a staunch U.S. ally, has for decades enjoyed largely unrivalled influence among Pacific island nations. China has only recently turned its attention to the region with a raft of bilateral financing agreements to often distressed economies.

($1 = 1.3633 Australian dollars)

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Why 85 is the new 65 in an ageing Irish workforce

Working past the traditional retirement age of 65 is becoming a growing trend in Ireland.

Almost 60,000 people aged 65 and over were listed as working in 2016, an increase of a third since 2011.

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