The chart below (click on it to expand) was included in European judicial systems / Efficiency and quality of justice, Edition 2010 (data 2008) published by the European Commission for the Efficiency of Justice (CEPEJ).  See page 210 if it is difficult to read here.  Thanks to Namawinelake for bringing it to my attention via Twitter.  Irish judges’ pay is ridiculously out of line, even before their stupendous pension arrangements are taken into account, and even after the voluntary pay cuts since 2008.

It makes it hard to have any sympathy for those poor souls who are suffering so much, at least according to the Irish Independent this week in this article.

One of my favourite books ever is John Lanchester’s first novel “The Debt to Pleasure”, published some 15 years ago.  John Banville reviewed it in the Guardian (here).  I have it on my list to re-read it, as I am curious as to whether it will stand up well to the passage of time.  I have also read and enjoyed a number of Nabokov books since, and Banville says that Lanchester’s style is “uncomfortably close to late Nabokov, at once brilliant and unfocused, and glutted on its own richness, but of course, this is part of the joke”.  So perhaps I will be disappointed.

Anyway, Lanchester has recently published a book about the financial crisis, called Whoops!, which I haven’t read but which got pretty good reviews (particularly from non-financial reviewers).  Lanchester writes that “I’ve been following the economic crisis for two years now.  I began working on the subject as part of the background to a novel, and soon realized that I had stumbled across the most interesting story I’ve ever found.”

I followed a Twitter link the other day to an article by Lanchester in the London Review of Books, where Lanchester is a contributing editor.  The article, covering the Greek financial mess, the Euro, German attitudes and more, is worth reading.  Here’s a short extract:

From the worm’s-eye perspective which most of us inhabit, the general feeling about this new turn in the economic crisis is one of bewilderment. I’ve encountered this in Iceland and in Ireland and in the UK: a sense of alienation and incomprehension and done-unto-ness. People feel they have very little economic or political agency, very little control over their own lives; during the boom times, nobody told them this was an unsustainable bubble until it was already too late. The Greek people are furious to be told by their deputy prime minister that ‘we ate the money together’; they just don’t agree with that analysis. In the world of money, people are privately outraged by the general unwillingness of electorates to accept the blame for the state they are in. But the general public, it turns out, had very little understanding of the economic mechanisms which were, without their knowing it, ruling their lives. They didn’t vote for the system, and no one explained the system to them, and in any case the rule is that while things are on the way up, no one votes for Cassandra, so no one in public life plays the Cassandra role.

The last sentence is so sadly true.  We needed more Cassandras in Ireland from 2002 to 2005 (after that it was too late anyway).  Voters everywhere, but particularly in Ireland, are not interested in deferred gratification.  As they say, democ­racy is the worst form of gov­ern­ment ……… except for all the oth­ers.

Christopher Hitchens is my favourite celebrity atheist.  He’s also one of my favourite writers  (but note that one of the strange ironies of my literary tastes is that I often disagree with the political views of those whose writing appeals to me most).  In Slate magazine he recently had a go at Michelle Bachmann and what she stands for.  He could have been writing about Ireland:

Where does it come from, this silly and feigned idea that it’s good to be able to claim a small-town background? It was once said that rural America moved to the cities as fast as it could, and then from urban to suburban as fast as it could after that. Every census for decades has confirmed this trend. Overall demographic impulses to one side, there is nothing about a bucolic upbringing that breeds the skills necessary to govern a complex society in an age of globalization and violent unease. We need candidates who know about laboratories, drones, trade cycles, and polychrome conurbations both here and overseas. Yet the media make us complicit in the myth—all politics is yokel?—that the fast-vanishing small-town life is the key to ancient virtues. Wasilla, Alaska, is only the most vivid recent demonstration of the severe limitations of this worldview.

We see the same shibboleth here in Ireland: it’s said or implied that a politician from a big city (for which read Dublin) is somehow less in touch with the realities of Irish life and is somehow less trustworthy, more elitist and more unsympathetic.  This is rubbish, of course, and not just because Irish city-dwellers are usually just one or two generations removed from a rural past.  Bertie Ahern aside, some of the greatest charlatans and crooks in Irish politics were (and still are) from outside Dublin.

Todays Financial Times has an interesting comment piece from Bill Clinton’s former Treasury Secretary, Lawrence Summers.  Here is a small extract.

 ….no country can be expected to generate huge primary surpluses for long periods  for the benefit of foreign creditors. Meeting debt burdens at rates currently  charged by the official sector for credit – let alone the private sector – would  involve burdens on Greece, Ireland and Portugal comparable to the reparations’ burdens Keynes warned about in The Economic Consequences of the Peace ….  The twin realities that Greece, Italy and Ireland need debt relief and that the  creditors have only limited capacity to take immediate losses, mean that all  approaches require increased efforts from the European centre.

Given the comparison used by Summers, it’s ironic that it is the Germans that are in the vanguard of attempts to avoid sensible burden-sharing among the wealthier Eurozone nations.  Current ECB policy is trying to impose a “Carthaginian Peace” on the Eurozone, which will have severe consequences for all, not just the bailed-out countries.

As an aside, I wonder does German Chancellor Angela Merkel (a highly-qualified physicist) agree with Summers’ controversial remarks in a 2005 speech where he suggested that the under-representation of women in science and engineering could be due to a “different availability of aptitude at the high end,” and less to patterns of discrimination and socialization?  His remarks are believed to have contributed to his resigning his position as president of Harvard University the following year.

This article  in yesterday’s Telegraph is the most interesting and effective summary (so far, and to my eyes) of the infection of British politics by the Murdoch virus.  The relegation of the role of Westminster to a bit player in policy formation, and an afterthought in policy announcement, has echoes in the Irish political scene.

Here are a couple of extracts from a fascinating article.

During the Blair years, News International executives, Mrs Brooks among them, would attend the annual Labour Party conference, but they were scarcely treated as journalists. When Tony Blair gave his leadership speech, they would be awarded seats just behind the cabinet, as if they had been co-opted into the Government. Arguably they had. The first telephone call that Blair made after he had escaped from the conference hall was routinely to Rupert Murdoch himself….

…There was a very sinister element to these relationships. At exactly the same time that Mrs Brooks was getting on so famously with the most powerful men and women in Britain, the employees of her newspapers (as we now know) were listening in to their voicemails and illicitly gaining access to deeply personal information.

One News of the World journalist once told me how this information would be gathered into dossiers; sometimes these dossiers were published, sometimes not. The knowledge that News International held such destructive power must have been at the back of everyone’s minds at the apparently cheerful social events where the company’s executives mingled with their client politicians.

Let’s take the case of Tessa Jowell. When she was Culture Secretary five years ago, News International hacked into her phone and spied on her in other ways. What was going on amounted to industrial espionage, since Ms Jowell was then charged with the regulation and supervision of News International,  and the media group can scarcely have avoided discovering commercially sensitive information, even though its primary purpose was to discover details about Ms Jowell’s private life.

Couldn’t happen here, of course.  Irish politicians traditionally don’t have a great fear of what newspapers might reveal: the thicker the envelope, the thicker the skin.

Conrad Black does a job on Rupert Murdoch in yesterday’s Financial Times – worth reading.  Link here.

The punchline is that “There must be a reckoning with decades of establishment cowardice towards  someone whose nature has been well known throughout that time. The fault is the  British establishment’s and it must not be seduced and intimidated, so  profoundly and durably, again.”

According to the FT, Black is  “the former chairman of the Telegraph Newspapers and of many  other newspapers. He was convicted on four counts of fraud and obstruction of  justice in 2007. He served 29 months in prison until the Supreme Court vacated  the convictions. An appeal court restored two counts. He will return to prison  for 7½ months. He continues to assert his innocence.”

Seems to me that Black would never get a job writing for Murdoch’s newspapers.  He writes too well.

The discretionary powers of the President of Ireland are said to be very limited.  In fact, our President does have important powers, and our lack of appreciation of this is attributable to the fact that (thankfully) we have enjoyed relative political, economic and social stability since the Constitution was enacted.  Accordingly, the constitutional “safeguards” of which the President is guardian have only rarely been used, if at all.

These safeguards  include:   referring a bill to the Supreme Court under Article 26 to test its constitutionality; convening a meeting of either or both of the Houses of the Oireachtas (after consultation with the Council of State); deciding whether to accede to a request under Article 27 (joint petition by a majority of the members of Seanad and not less than one-third of the members of Dáil requesting the President to decline to sign into law a Bill before a referendum or election is held).

But there is one additional power which I feel may become relevant at some time in the near future.  I refer to the right of the President (under Article 13.2.2) to refuse to dissolve the Dáil when requested to do so by the Taoiseach of the day.  This request would arise where that Taoiseach has ceased to retain the support of a majority in Dáil Éireann, usually evidenced by the loss of a vote of confidence.  The President can refuse the request if she believes it to be in the interests of the State that the Taoiseach instead goes back to the Dáil and attempts to form a different government.

In the economically and politically stressful months that lie ahead, it may well become appropriate for the next President to exercise her  (or his) discretion in this manner.  I can readily foresee a breakdown in relations between the Fine Gael and Labour partners in the current coalition government.  In a situation where the next budget is set to make cuts of, and/or increase taxes by, a total of €3.6 billion or more, there is plenty of scope for the two parties to fall out.  In particular, it is yet to be seen whether Labour have the stomach for the sort of cuts that are necessary for our economic recovery.  The signs are not good.

So how about this for a scenario:  Enda Kenny’s government falls apart after Labour withdraw their support for certain cutbacks; Enda goes to the Park to look for a dissolution and a general election; President McAleese (or her successor) says “Hang on a minute, we don’t need an election, and in fact it would be bad for the country to hold an election given the prevailing economic crisis.  There are 19 Fianna Fáil TDs on the opposition benches and you should go and talk to them.  With FG and FF combined, there is a comfortable majority, and FF under Micháel Martin can surely be persuaded to do the right thing by the country and allow the economy to be sorted out, however difficult the short-term pain might be. So, on your bike, Enda”

And with that, civil war politics might just come to an end.

If David Norris does succeed in being nominated to run for President of Ireland, he can expect a great deal of focus on two aspects of his personality.
The first, his homosexuality, is of course a matter of great interest and debate. Ultimately, I don’t see a problem here, unless there is highly unusual stuff in his past life which has yet to surface, and which would be used in an attempt to derail his campaign. There would be some protocol issues if President Norris started a new relationship or particularly if he concluded a “gay marriage”, but these protocol issues have to be worked out sometime, somewhere, so why not now, for an Irish President?
There might be some difficulties if President Norris needed to represent Ireland vis-a-vis Middle Eastern or Muslim states, and it is said that he would not be welcome in many such countries. This could be a problem insofar as the President needs to be a trade ambassador for Ireland (as well as every other type of ambassador) and some of these countries are important actual or potential customers. My first reaction to this is to say that we shouldn’t let oppressive tyrants with medieval mindsets dictate who can be our elected President. But my second reaction is that we are a small country that is highly dependent on trade for our survival, and perhaps it would be better to let bigger and stronger countries fight this battle first?
The second aspect of Norris’ personality that will get a lot of attention, and the one that worries me more, is that he has a history of intemperate statements on various subjects, particularly the Middle East conflict.
For instance, in a 2006 Senate debate on the Palestinian conflict he said: “I know the level of degradation to which the Israeli Government is trying to drive these people by destroying sewerage facilities, water supplies and health clinics through measures such as planning permissions and judicial restrictions in an area over which it has no legitimate control. However, nobody in Europe utters a squeak. Why is this happening? It is because of the dark shadow of the criminal regime entrenched in Washington which has spread its plague all over the world, tearing up the Geneva Convention, rubbishing human rights and claiming might is right. Of course, we lickspittle to that regime because we only have dollar signs in our eyes.”
Whatever one thinks of the US during the George W. Bush era, it is bonkers to call it a “criminal regime entrenched in Washington” and Norris will have plenty of time to regret this and other over-the-top statements.
The bottom line is that I don’t see David Norris as a suitable President for Ireland, not because he is gay, but because he is a volatile attention-seeker who will cause us no end of problems.

Now here’s a story to give you a warm glow, especially if you are a taxpayer in the European Union.

The European Union’s highest court officially reprimanded France on Thursday (9 June) for not doing enough to care for hamsters.

Ruling on a case brought by the European Commission three years ago, the  European Court of Justice determined that the French republic had shown a lack  of due care towards its dwindling population of the black-bellied rodents.

Wild European hamsters, which can live for four years and grow to more than  20 cm in length, are considered farmland pests, but are threatened with  extinction in their small habitat in Alsace, eastern France.

The court found France had allowed harmful crops and unchecked urbanisation  to destroy nearly 1,000 hamster burrows between 2001 and 2007.

“The court holds that the measures to protect the  European hamster in Alsace, implemented by France, were not adequate” to protect  the species, it said a statement,  adding that France needed to address the situation immediately.

Under the ruling, France must adjust its agriculture and urbanisation  practices or face daily fines from the European Union. As the European Court of  Justice is the EU’s highest court, France has no further right of appeal.

There are an estimated 800 wild European hamsters left in France, although  there are plentiful populations elsewhere on the continent.

Hamsters are protected under the EU Habitats Directive, which requires  countries to protect animal species “of Community interest,” including the  European hamster, the court recalled.

The mind boggles at the cost of this exercise, involving highly-paid Commission officials and armies of lawyers and officials.  No wonder that the European Union’s annual budget for administering its institutions, including the Commission and the European Court of Justice, is €8 billion (out of a total EU budget of about €140 billion) and rising.

I concede that there is some price that we should be willing to pay for biodiversity, and I acknowledge that the Commission has a mandate to take action against a Member State which has failed to comply with its obligations under European Union law.  But surely, when it comes to allocating resources to this role, there are greater priorities for the Commission than looking after a few hamsters?