Do we let airline pilots dictate our national aviation policy?  Do we let ESB technicians decide what we as a country should do about renewable energy?   Would we think it reasonable for nurses to take strike action against Minister Reilly’s policy on health insurance?  I think not, in all these cases.

So why does nobody seem to find it unacceptable that teachers should threaten strike action to change government policy on how the examination system (in particular the Junior Certificate) should be organised?

ASTI  General Secretary Pat King said that his union members were “not prepared to implement educationally unsound proposals which are being unilaterally imposed on them. Teachers believe the Minister’s proposals will undermine education standards. They are demanding genuine consultation on their concerns. The Minister has an opportunity to make sure this happens before industrial action begins to impact on schools.”

I have no view as to whether the Minister’s proposals are educationally sound or otherwise (in fact my gut instinct is that they are unsound), but that is not the point.  The teachers are threatening industrial action to influence or dictate what is a government policy decision.  Their jobs or remuneration are, as far as I can see, not under threat.  What we are talking about is what is the best way to organise our examination system.

I agree that the Minister should talk to the teachers and gain the benefit of their experience and views.  But if, having done that, he (and his cabinet colleagues) are still of a mind to carry out the reforms, then that should be the end of it.  The role of the teachers’ unions should be to try to ensure that their members’ pay and conditions are not adversely affected by any changes, and indeed to lobby for what they believe is the best policy; but to take industrial action against legitimate government policies of which they disapprove is a step too far.


Seriously though, the Government must stop throwing vast amounts of citizens’ money at a failed project to resurrect the Irish language.  It also needs to realise the hypocrisy of continuing with coercion as a policy when the Government’s own members can’t be arsed to learn it.  We continue to witness a classic case of “Do as I say, not as I do”

Last week we read in the Irish Independent about “Opposition anger at ‘farce’ of tongue-tied minister” where the Government could not provide a single minister fluent in Irish to take Dail proceedings during Seachtain na Gaeilge.  Jobs Minister Richard Bruton was the most senior minister available to represent the Coalition due to the annual St Patrick’s Day exodus of ministers abroad.  He admitted that he could only respond in English during a debate that was scheduled to be conducted in Irish.

Mr. Bruton was later reported to have defended the Government’s record on promoting Irish.  This is entirely normal; hardly any Irish politicians can speak the language properly, and yet they all promise (threaten?) increased efforts to promote it. This hypocrisy reached its zenith in the 2011 Presidential Election, where only one candidate out of 7 could debate in Irish.  All spoke of their desire to be fluent in the language, and promised to promote Irish if elected.  In plain language: more coercion for us plebs, more taxpayers’ money to be wasted, but I’m too busy and important to take the trouble to learn the language.

We are the only EU country whose first official language is not spoken by the general population. 6 out of 7 candidates for the highest office in our country never thought it necessary or important enough, throughout their entire career, to be sufficiently familiar with the Irish language to carry on a conversation!  This is mind-boggling.  And yet we spend tens of millions of euros annually in maintaining the fiction that Irish is a living language.

This hypocrisy was further highlighted in another newspaper report in the past week, with the Irish Times reporting that

More than 1,000 bemused Irish residents of Amsterdam have received letters impeccably written in Irish – asking them if they would like to vote in the European elections in May.   On headed paper of the Amsterdam City Council, the letters begin “A dhuine uasail”, before going on to explain that as European citizens the recipients are entitled to vote in the Netherlands for Dutch MEPs.

On the other hand, “Má theastaíonn uait votáil i do thír dhúchais le haghaidh Pharlaimint na hEorpa, ní­ gá duit rud ar bith a dhéanamh ach ahmain má tá tú cláraithe cheana féin san Isiltír”, the Irish expats are advised . . . In other words, if they wish to vote in their own countries they need do nothing at all, unless they are already registered to vote in the Netherlands.

With perfect etiquette, the Amsterdam authorities sign off as Gaeilge with, “Le dea-mhein, Bárdas na Cathrach” – “With best wishes, the city corporation.”   ……. City hall spokeswoman Jutta Ravelli told The Irish Times the letters “prompted quite a few calls from Irish people.  Most were delighted they had been translated into Irish, but they also wanted to know if we had an English version – because they couldn’t understand a word of them.”

So here we have some innocent Dutch officials trying to do their duty under the mistaken apprehension that Irish people actually speak Irish.  The embarrassment.  Less than 1% of Dáil and Senate debates are conducted in Irish (Richard Bruton need not feel isolated in this respect), but the last Fianna Fáil government had the brass neck to persuade our European Union partners to have Irish recognised as a working language in the EU.  So Dutch and other European taxpayers have to pay for a small army of translators to be available just in case an Irish MEP wants to use a cúpla focal.

This again brought to mind the 2011 Vanity Fair article by Michael Lewis (“When Irish Eyes Are Crying”), which highlighted our hypocrisy on what we laughingly call our “First National Language”.

…… The first thing you notice when you watch the Irish Parliament at work is that the politicians say everything twice, once in English and once in Gaelic. As there is no one in Ireland who does not speak English and a vast majority who do not speak Gaelic, this comes across as a forced gesture that wastes a great deal of time. I ask several Irish politicians if they speak Gaelic, and all offer the same uneasy look and hedgy reply: “Enough to get by.” The politicians in Ireland speak Gaelic the way the Real Housewives of Orange County speak French. To ask “Why bother to speak it at all?” is of course to miss the point. Everywhere you turn you see both emulation of the English and a desire, sometimes desperate, for distinction. The Irish insistence on their Irishness—their conceit that they’re more devoted to their homeland than the typical citizen of the world is—has an element of bluster about it, from top to bottom…..

It’s time we stood up to the Irish language lobby.  Blogger Jason O’Mahony has likened them to the Israeli lobby in the United States, because “many people don’t share their views, but are afraid of being called anti-Irish, and so we let them have a position of power and influence in our society out of all proportion to their numbers.”  He might also have likened them to the Neutrality obsessives, or the anti-nuclear nutters.  A herd of sacred cows is being maintained, and proper debate is being stifled.

The current policy has failed miserably.  Generations of schoolchildren have suffered endlessly under the yoke of compulsory Irish, for little evident benefit to them or society generally.  Hundreds of millions of Euros have been largely wasted

So what should the Government do instead?   That’s for another day.  But there may be lessons to be learnt in a country far, far away…..

Some of the best letters in the Irish Times are short and sharp.  This gem appeared the other day.

Sir, – Brendan O’Donnell (August 13th) reminds us that on entering the Dáil in 1927, Éamon de Valera dismissed the oath of allegiance as an “empty formula”.

But what if he had regarded it as such in 1922? – Yours, etc, IAN SCOTT, Silchester Park, Glenageary, Co Dublin.

Yes, indeed. Remember that the main issue which gave rise to the “split”, and from which the catastrophic civil war arose, was not partition, but the oath of allegiance.  So much death and destruction might have been avoided if Éamon de Valera had not been such a slow learner.

He repeated the slow-learning trick in the 1930s when he led Ireland into a crippling and unwinnable 6-year economic war with Britain over the land annuities, only to find a face-saving solution in 1938, which basically meant that Britain got fully paid.

To have nearly destroyed the country twice in barely more than a decade takes some beating, particularly when the main perpetrator, having come to his senses late in the day, blithely does an about-face on the supposedly inviolable underlying principle.

It is indeed depressing to think that Éamon de Valera is still so highly revered in some circles.

The profile of Irish investment preferences discovered by Barclays Bank in preparing their latest issue of Wealth Insights is depressing.  According to press reports, their research shows that Irish high-net-worth individuals (HNWIs) hold an amazing 55 per cent of their wealth in property, despite the collapse in property values in the past 5 years.  This is a higher proportion than any other nationality.  Irish HNWIs also hold 18 per cent in cash, 16 per cent in financial investments and 7 per cent in assets such as collectables.  And just how much private wealth do you think is invested in enterprise or business, the sector which is arguably the most vital to our economic future?  A pitiful 2 per cent.

A long legacy of under-taxation of property assets and transactions, only partly being addressed now, is an important factor in this mis-allocation of investment funds.  We all continue to pay a price for past policy failings in this area.

Historic factors are often also quoted as an explanation for our obsession with property. There is a pithy phrase in the famous Vanity Fair article by Michael Lewis (“When Irish Eyes Are Crying”) about how we crashed our economy:

Irish people will tell you that, because of their sad history of dispossession, owning a home is not just a way to avoid paying rent but a mark of freedom. In their rush to freedom, the Irish built their own prisons.

That sums it up nicely.

More economic nonsense from the Society of the Irish Motor Industry, reported in the Irish Times:

The motor trade is seeking a new incentive scheme, based on trade-ins rather than scrapped cars, to boost new-car sales next year. Work is under way on a submission to the Government seeking the introduction of a “swappage scheme”, in which motorists who trade in cars more than five years old would receive rebates of the order of €2,000 on the vehicle-registration tax due on the new cars.

The aim, according to Alan Nolan director general of the Society of the Irish Motor Industry, is to kick-start new-car sales and so increase the Government’s tax income.

“The Government’s tax take from the motor sector in 2007 was close to €1.8 billion. This has slipped to about €500 million. Meanwhile, employment in the sector has fallen from 50,000 to roughly 34,000. By boosting the sale of new cars we not only reduce the average age of the fleet but increase the tax take for the Government and secure thousands of jobs,” he says.

As I have noted before, this is the siren song of special-interest groups trying to derail proper financial governance, and promote their own causes at the expense of everybody else’s, just like Bastiat’s candlestick makers.

To quote Colm McCarthy from June 2011:

A good example of the futility of this line of thinking was the car scrappage scheme, recently phased out. This scheme directly subsidised imports, doubtless saved a few jobs in car showrooms temporarily but would have had its greatest impact in France, Germany and Italy, where they make the cars. A subsidy on foreign holidays would stimulate a few extra jobs in travel agencies too, but is hardly the most promising job-creation strategy. The car scrappage scheme was a similar mistake.

And here he is again from March 2010

Car Scrappage: Car sales have collapsed and some car dealers have gone out of business. The same has happened with €1,000 handbags, and some handbag retailers are struggling. Ireland manufactures neither cars nor handbags. The Car Scrappage Scheme will spend taxpayer money to sustain, temporarily, the retail distribution network for an imported consumer durable. Why not a Handbag Scrappage Scheme? This scheme is plain daft for Ireland. …… These ‘Something Must be Done’ schemes provide harmless entertainment for economists, fodder for the 24-hour news cycle and a playpen for lobbyists. But they contribute nothing to sustainable employment, cost the Exchequer money and hinder the necessary post-Bubble adjustment.   In contrast, the Economics of Doing Nothing is that this is often the best policy, and the cheapest.

SIMI’s proposed new incentive scheme is a blatant and brazen attempt to feather their own nest at the expense of everybody else’s.  The trouble is that few politicians are clued in enough to see this reality.

Just whose side is ICTU on?

6 December, 2012

A letter was published in today’s (London) Financial Times from Paul Sweeney, Chief Economist with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.  Ostensibly it was an attempted rebuttal of a provocative opinion piece called “the best reform of Corporation Tax would be its abolition” which the FT had the temerity to publish last Tuesday.  The writer of the article was Michael Devereux of the Oxford University Centre for Business Taxation.

If Sweeney had restricted himself to the central issue dealt with by Devereux, that would have been fine.  But he goes on to say “Ireland, Luxembourg and Holland, which exploit so-called “tax competition” to reduce taxes for corporations and rich people, must be persuaded to co-operate with other states in the EU if the single market is ever to be a level playing field for all businesses…..The dividing line between “business friendly” and “the public  good” was crossed years ago in the area of corporation tax. The imbalance of taxation, which weighs heavily on citizens and lightly on multinationals,  has been set by the agents of multinationals, their professional advisers and, in turn, their professional bodies, taxation “institutes” and commissioned “research” ”.

It is (to put it mildly) disappointing to find ICTU trying to undermine our 12.5% Corporation Tax rate in such a manner.  At a time of crisis in our national finances, some might even call it treasonable.

A Property Tax for Ireland

30 August, 2012

Incredibly, the Government has not yet decided how the looming domestic property tax (to be levied in 2013) is to be calculated.  Talk about sticking one’s head in the sand. It’s not going away, you know.

One of the big issues is that a straight value-based tax on the whole property would impact severely on urban residents, particularly those in Dublin.  I can imagine a heated urban-rural divide in the cabinet on this point, and that government TDs for Dublin constituencies are scared silly of the retribution that would follow on doorsteps and in the next election.

Back in 2010, I suggested  that the best way to structure a self-assessed annual property tax would be to use the aggregate of two measures:  (a)  based on house size, at a rate of €5 per square metre plus  (b) based on site value, at a rate of 0.2%; against the total calculated in this manner allow a credit for each property of €500.

This theme has been taken up by a letter-writer in today’s Irish Times.  A Mr Neil McDonnell writes that “Assuming the last Central Statistics Office national average house price of €247,000, the average property tax would be €1,235 per year. Reducing the valuation element of the tax to a quarter of a per cent, and levying a tax of three to four euro per square metre of floor area, would yield roughly the same revenue, without discrimination between rural and urban housing”

This approach has the advantage of not disproportionately taxing urban dwellers while, as another letter-writer today points out, discouraging “the building of houses larger than needed by normal families at a time when we are being pressured to reduce our carbon footprints”.

My suggestion of a credit of €500 against the calculated aggregate tax reflects my feeling that a high degree of progressivity is required to make the tax politically and socially acceptable.  It also recognises that people are already paying waste and water charges which are (or will be) largely fixed.  The credit can always be whittled away over the course of time, yielding extra revenue.

I just wish the government would show itself capable of making a decision and getting on with it.   It’s over three years since John McManus wrote the following (about the Government’s reaction to the publication of the McCarthy Report): “… despite the hard lessons of the recent past, we are engaging in the same sort of gutless dysfunction politics that got us into this mess….We still have a political class that is by and large congenitally unwilling and unable to devise and implement policy, and bizarrely doesn’t really think that such is the job of Government.”

Plus ça change….


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