A Christmas pause

It was a challenging year on both sides of the Atlantic but as 2011 nears its end there is cause for at least a little optimism on this side, and reason to pause on both for a Christmas holiday that offers its traditional message of hope.

In Ireland, the year almost done has witnessed a continuation of the post-Celtic Tiger slump, a general election, a bailout, a euro crisis, rising unemployment and the return of large scale emigration.

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That said, there is the hope that perhaps the crisis affecting the Irish economy has bottomed out though the situation within the European Union on the eve of Christmas is a highly unpredictable one and it is hard not to think of the Republic as being very much a hostage to the fortunes, or misfortunes, of others.

Despite the unpredictable nature of the current situation, it is incumbent on all of us to hang on to the tattered shreds of an optimism that was sky high just a few years ago.

With Christmas, we are acutely conscious of the material. But that aspect of life is under extreme pressure of late and this is especially the case with the unemployed, far too many of whom have passed through all of 2011 without a job, or even real hope of getting one.

So a Christmas wish that we all can share is for a more vigorous degree of cooperation in Washington between the two main parties on behalf of those Americans who need help now and for the foreseeable future.

As we go to press, however, the headlines do not make for comforting reading on that front.

Political brinkmanship apart, Christmas is a time when we think of the needy and this year there are more people, at home and around the world, who fall into this unwelcome category. We can only hope that the spirit of Christmas is yet at work on their behalf.

We also think of our men and women in uniform, particularly those overseas and especially those still in Afghanistan.

One clear difference between this Christmas and that of last year is that the troops in Iraq are coming home.

Whatever about differing opinions on the conclusion of U.S. military involvement in Iraq, this homecoming is not just a reason for joyous celebration on the part of the immediate families of those who have been serving in Iraq, but for all of us.

As the same time, the homecoming gives us particular pause because we are reminded of those who gave their lives in the more than eight years of the Iraq war.

As the year runs to a close, the Northern Ireland political process can point to another twelve months in which, despite continuing differences and difficulties, the fundamental building blocs of a new society continue to emerge. We can only hope for continued progress and community reconciliation in the coming twelve months.

In the Republic, where economic trauma is affecting even those who flew highest during the boom years, Christmas brings a chance for some pause and reflection on the enduring values in life, some of them having been shoved aside in the rush for fool's gold that was the Celtic Tiger property madness.

On the surface, many of the more positive results of the Tiger decade as are still readily apparent, along, for sure, with some of the more negative ones, not least the "ghost estates" dotting the landscape.

The full picture, however, can only be gleaned by listening to what people have to say about their daily lives. The Irish, historically, have faced into catastrophes in varying forms and have always managed to come through.

Well, they are facing into an economic one right now and while we can be certain that they will come through again we also know that not all the coming through will occur in Ireland itself, but in other countries including the U.S. where, at year's end, there is finally a sign that the 45-year near total restriction on legal Irish migration to the United States might be lifted, at least by a degree.

2012, an election year of course, will tell the tale.

Still in 2011, we wish all our readers, a merry, peaceful and spiritual Christmas. Nollaig Shona Daoibh.