The disgraceful NIMBY-ism of John Gormley in relation to the proposed incinerator in his constituency (see this article for instance) brings to mind, once again, the problems caused by having ministers who are appointed from the ranks of Dáil members. 

Among the problems this causes are: that national interests are subjugated to local issues when a minister’s constituency is involved; that ministers spent too much time ensuring their re-election and thus never properly master their brief; and that we scandalously limit the pool of talent for ministerial appointments to people who are good at constituency-massaging but often little else.

Dan O’Brien wrote an excellent piece last November in the Irish Times  (before his appointment as that newspaper’s economics editor), in which he dealt with

the very unusual insistence that ministers are members of the Oireachtas. As most democracies believe that separating powers is a cornerstone of good governance, their parliamentarians are usually barred from simultaneously holding ministerial office, either by law or by convention.

The benefits of this separation are obvious. It means that ministers devote themselves fully to their ministries – emphatically not the case in Ireland where most ministers spend as much time on near-permanent re-election campaigns in their constituencies as they do formulating and executing policy.

Separating those who sit in parliament from those who sit around the cabinet table also allows prime ministers to recruit beyond a necessarily tiny pool of professional politicians.

In most democracies, people with no links to politics, but with real expertise, management skills and records of achievement are made ministers. Their primary function is to get things done, not get themselves re-elected. In Ireland, appointing non-TDs to ministerial office is looked down upon as “undemocratic” by many. Anyone who believes Ireland’s way is more democratic should observe how politics works in the country’s closest comparable peers where ministers are never MPs: Austria, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland. Delusions of Irish democratic superiority would quickly be dispelled.

I have little doubt that if a talented and constituency-independent minister were in charge of this issue, the incinerator would be up and running without delay.  But I’ve been told by wiser heads that expecting Irish politicians to initiate such a change in the way ministers are appointed is akin to asking turkeys to vote for Christmas. 

So we wallow in a constitutional trap, a political vicious circle: the present arrangements have led to politicians and ministers of inferior quality, but they are the very people who have to promote the necessary constitutional changes; and they know that to do so, although very much in the national interest, is against their own selfish interests.

We are stuck with second-rate gombeens when we need disinterested patriots.

This from Reuters two weeks ago:

Hewlett-Packard Co CEO Mark Hurd resigned on Friday after an investigation found that he had falsified expense reports to conceal a “close personal relationship” with a female contractor.

What a loser.  Resigning for falsifying a mere 20k in expenses?!  Ivor Callely could teach him a thing or two. 

This just shows the incredible divergence between standards enforced in publicly quoted companies (in the USA at least) and what Fianna Fáil politicians seem to believe is acceptable behaviour from public representatives.

Brian Cowen needs to stand up and state loudly and unequivocally: IVOR CALLELY’S BEHAVIOUR IS UNACCEPTABLE AND HE MUST RESIGN AS A SENATOR.  Anything short of this is totally and utterly shameful.  Just because neither Cowen nor the Government can force Callely’s resignation doesn’t mean our Taoiseach-in-hiding shouldn’t make his position clear.  Oh God, can we just have some proper leadership, before we sink below the moral and economic plimsoll line?

People no longer expect ethical behavior from our Government, and Fianna Fáil has been an ethical slum for decades.  But proper leadership is absolutely essential if people are to accept the hardship which is going to be necessary if our national finances are to be put on a sound footing.  The pain of higher taxes and cuts in benefits has really only just begun. 

Cowen is not capable of providing the strong leadership that is needed if Ireland is to retain its economic independence.  Come on, Brian, resign, for the sake of the country.

I was persuaded by reports of a new exhibition at The Hugh Lane Gallery (or to give it its revamped, clumsy, title the Dublin City Gallery, The Hugh Lane) to cross the Liffey and investigate.

The exhibition, “Sir John Lavery: Passion and Politics” is probably worth a visit if you are interested in 20th Century Irish history, although, with very few exceptions, the paintings on display are not among the greatest works executed by Lavery.

My trip had a twofold purpose: as well as seeing the special Lavery exhibition, I wanted to re-acquaint myself with the gallery’s permanent collection. I was keen to do this as I hadn’t been there for many years, and a revamp had been carried out in the meantime, including the installation of Francis Bacon’s Studio.

I was bitterly disappointed to discover that large chunks of the permanent collection were closed to the public. It seems that the Hugh Lane Gallery can’t afford sufficient staff to open all the rooms. Foreign visitors were perplexed to find that their journey to Parnell Square was largely in vain (most of them were, after all, only slightly interested in Sir John Lavery).

This is a pretty disgraceful state of affairs, particularly at the height of the tourist season, and seems to me to be another example of public sector torpor and mismanagement. For instance, why cannot the gallery’s management re-arrange the opening hours and staff rosters, so that the full collection can be on show, albeit for a reduced number of hours in the week?  Or why don’t they take on volunteers or students for the summer months to allow our foreign visitors full access to what the guide books promise them? Or even, dare I say it, charge a modest admission fee to the gallery to pay for the necessary additional staff?

These are not insuperable problems. The present “solution” to staff shortages is the worst outcome for everybody.

In the most recent edition of the Sunday Tribune, I found some extremely useful information. Their travel correspondent Lizzie Gore-Grimes was “smitten” with the Villa Feltrinelli  (or to give it its proper title, the Grand Hotel Villa Feltrinelli) which apparently “is the perfect base for loved-up couples to explore stunning Lake Garda”.

Tribune readers now know, thanks to Lizzie, that “the hotel boasts so many exquisite details you could never list them all….. imagine an octagonal bathroom’s deep purple marble bath, the kaleidoscope effect of the tower room’s round windows, chandeliers dripping with Murano glass, hand-painted ceilings (crafted by the Lieti brothers in 1890), gleaming gilt mirrors and wonderfully friendly staff all gliding about in their starched whites.…. We settled in with a white peach bellini out by the water before retiring to the pergola for dinner.”

I’m glad to see that The Sunday Tribune, in these days of hardship and cutbacks, is still prepared to treat its correspondents properly. In the Villa Feltrinelli, the cheapest room (if that’s your thing) between May and September is a snip at €1,200 per night, and seeing as how that includes breakfast, a selection of house wines, free soft drinks and beers in the room bar, personal laundry, valet service and use of their on-site recreational facilities, you have to admit it is exceptional value.   I lost no time in booking a week in one of their Premium Junior Suites for Lady Puckstownlane and me, at the really very reasonable rate of €2,650 per night.

Tribune Newspapers plc, which publishes the Sunday Tribune, incurred a loss of over €5 million in 2008; its revenues shrank by 15.7 per cent.

Memo to Sunday tribune editor: I am available to undertake similar arduous assignments, in the event that Ms Gore-Grimes is indisposed.

John Kay’s article this week in the FT (“A good economist knows the true value of the arts”) was up to his usual high standard. 

Many people underestimate the contribution disease makes to the economy. In Britain, more than a million people are employed to diagnose and treat disease and care for the ill. Thousands of people build hospitals and surgeries, and many small and medium-size enterprises manufacture hospital supplies. Illness contributes about 10 per cent of the UK’s economy: the government does not do enough to promote disease.

Such reasoning is identical to that of studies sitting on my desk that purport to measure the economic contribution of sport, tourism and the arts. These studies point to the number of jobs created, and the ancillary activities needed to make the activities possible. They add up the incomes that result. Reporting the total with pride, the sponsors hope to persuade us not just that sport, tourism and the arts make life better, but that they contribute to something called “the economy”.

The analogy illustrates the obvious fallacy. What the exercises measure is not the benefits of the activities they applaud, but their cost; and the value of an activity is not what it costs, but the amount by which its benefit exceeds its costs. The economic contribution of sport is in the pleasure participants and spectators derive, and the resulting gains in health and longevity. That value is diminished, not increased, by the resources that need to be diverted from other purposes.

We are used to seeing self-serving economic studies in this country, in which the alleged job-creation effects of particular activities are used to argue for special treatment or subsidies.  I have commented on a particular example of this already, where the Irish Insurance Federation tried to argue that up to 2,000 jobs in the life and pensions industry could be lost due to the Government’s planned changes to pension tax relief.  Self-serving claims that a sector needs special treatment to avoid job losses are rarely valid;  in fact, such claims should by definition lead to the particular cause that expresses them being treated with greater suspicion.

David McWilliams blogged this week about Middle class dying a slow death

“This is the central dilemma for all of us: we need to ‘lock in’ cheap property as a competitive advantage for the country, but that means trapping the property-owning middle class in a brace, where their debts remain static but the value of their assets falls……

……Whether we like it or not, with the balance sheet shattered, some form of debt restructuring for Ireland’s private sector is a given.”

This must not happen.  If middle class means anything, surely it means taking responsibility for one’s own actions. Bailing out former property junkies would be a scandal. I don’t want to pay taxes, and have my children pay taxes, so that Fianna Fáil can pander to imprudent fellow travellers.

Lost in fog (part 73)

7 August, 2010

I note that the Irish Times obtains its weather forecasts from, whoever they are.  As I have already observed, they seem to think that we are an incredibly foggy country.  Almost every day, we are led to believe, starts with Ireland shrouded in fog.  Today is typical.


“It is not the clear-sighted who rule the world.

Great achievements are accomplished in a blessed,

warm fog.”    –  Joseph Conrad


My hopes were cruelly raised yesterday by the headline on the main Irish Times editorial (“Our crowded planet”).  Aha, I thought, Madam is going to speak out about the awful impact which population growth is having on the environment and on quality of life and on prospects for peace and stability, and call for concerted action to deal with this impending self-inflicted tragedy.

So I read on, noting the extensive references to new and worrying projections from the Population Reference Bureau, and waiting for the call to arms (metaphorically, of course) which would surely bring the editorial to a conclusion with a flourish.  But no, the whole editorial consisted of a bland regurgitation of population-related facts from the PRB  and elsewhere, with some mention of what the implications of unchecked population growth are for age demographics in the developed world.  You will look in vain for any trace of what is the actual opinion of the editor (or editorial staff) of the Irish Times.

In fact, now that I think about it, I can’t remember the last time this newspaper published an editorial which expressed a view that was even mildly controversial.  It’s all motherhood and apple pie, as the saying goes. This is in contrast to leading newspapers in say the United Kingdom, whose editors do appear to have real and interesting views on important matters, and are not afraid to publish them.

Maybe my expectations are too high.  Maybe our Newspaper of Record has decided it doesn’t need to have any editorial opinions any more, preferring to play it safe by letting its hired-gun columnists express definitive views on matters of importance. Or maybe it has gone the way of almost all our politicians, who are afraid of offending any potential voter and so express no real opinions on any difficult subject (or maybe they are such gombeens that they actually hold no such opinions?).

Yes, the Irish Times does give space to writers who take all sorts of positions on controversial topics – see for example this article on the population issue – but I don’t think this is adequate.  Readers are entitled to expect that the editor of the Newspaper of Record will present a real opinion in her editorial column on matters of great importance such as world overpopulation (just as the Financial Times did in this editorial last September).

So, madam, please start to earn your (over) generous salary, which is paid for by us readers, and give us some editorials of substance.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
(William Butler Yeats )