It’s interesting to see that Frances Fitzgerald is still talked about as a potential new leader of Fine Gael, although most commentators continue to have Leo Varadkar or Simon Coveney as favourite.

No doubt the Irish Times and its cohort of battle-hardened female journalists will do all in their power to keep her name in the frame. They must feel that this is the least they owe to somebody who was Chair of the Council for the Status of Women from 1988 to 1992.  You may recall the embarrassingly obsequious profile that the IT’s Kathy Sheridan produced in November 2014 and on which I commented less than favourably in this piece.

Now Frances Fitzgerald is certainly not the least capable of the Government frontbenchers, and I don’t think we need to feel unsafe in our beds at night just because she’s Minister for Justice and Equality. But she doesn’t strike me as having the energy or drive which a real reforming Minister would need for tackling (for example) the corruption and dysfunction that currently seems to infect An Garda Síochána.  She certainly doesn’t seem to have done much about it in the 3 years for which she has been responsible for them.

Incidentally, a wicked friend of mine went so far as to suggest that if either our Minister for Justice or our Garda Commissioner were a man, then the latter would have been pushed aside ages ago as a result of the whistle-blower controversy, but (his outrageous theory goes) the sisterhood values loyalty so highly that Frances Fitzgerald will give Noirín O’Sullivan whatever space she needs.

Her 3-year tenure as Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, from 2011 to 2014, didn’t seem to be a resounding success either, although in fairness it did coincide with the depths of the recession. At the time of the aforementioned flattering Irish Times article I wrote: “… she, as Minister for Children for the past 3 years, might have been slightly embarrassed by the proximity in the Weekend Review of another article, this one about child poverty, which starts with the words ‘Before the recession, Unicef ranked the State as one of the 10 best places to be a child.  Now it is one of the worst, ranked 37 out of 41 countries.’”

Now that I think of it, she was Minister for Children and Youth Affairs when Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, was established with much fanfare in 2014. Yes, that’s the same Tusla that has been so much in the news recently as a result of their “administrative error” which led to spurious child-abuse allegations being created against whistle-blower Garda Maurice McCabe.  Small world, isn’t it?

This is the same Tusla which, on its launch 3 years ago, asserted boldly that “This Agency will tell it as it is”.  A bit unfortunate, that claim.

That’s also the same Tusla which, like all State agencies, believes it needs more resources if it is to do its job properly. Now I don’t know enough about the details of their work to know if 4,000 employees and an annual budget of €600 million is skeleton-level funding or otherwise.  But it seems like a lot of resources in a country having a total population of 4.8 million, of whom maybe 1.2 million are aged under 18.

The promotional brochure for its launch has further hostages to fortune, all sounding hollow in the light of the Garda McCabe embarrassment:

Respect – We will always treat everyone — children, families and colleagues — with dignity and consideration.

Integrity – We will be reliable and trustworthy in the way we carry out our work by: Adhering to the highest standards of professionalism, ethics and personal responsibility. Placing a high value on the importance of confidentiality. Acting with conviction and taking responsibility for our decisions.

I don’t particularly want to knock Tusla, as it is doing a lot of fine work, and any failings it has are probably replicated in most other State agencies. I cite all the above merely to suggest that actions, or lack of action, by Ministers should have consequences in the real world.  And anybody who wishes to be considered as a potential Taoiseach should expect that their past record and achievements will be held up to the light for the public to judge their ability fairly.

That goes for women, too.

 

It’s a commonplace that the Celtic Tiger died in the early noughties, when real growth was replaced by false growth based on inappropriately low interest rates, an over-stimulated construction sector, and excessive pay increases for all sectors.  At the same time, the public sector and its various agencies grew stale and bloated.  Proper management skills withered on the vine, as the solution to every problem became the throwing of money at it.  Those who shouted loudest, or who had an inside track, got an even greater share of the spoils.  Welfare benefits began to outstrip those available almost anywhere else.

And now that the tide has gone out, we see that the State’s finances are in ruins because we have an inflated public sector cost base and welfare budget, but our tax revenues have shrunk dramatically (the bank bailout is not the main reason we are bust).  The fiscal gap will have to be closed by higher taxes, lower public sector costs and decreased welfare benefits, and the process has started.  It is a condition of the bailout deal that we travel down this road, but most of what we are going to do would have to have happened even without the bailout.

We need to look back to a time before things went pear-shaped, to a time when tax rates and yields were sensible, when we got reasonable value for money from our public sector, and when welfare benefit levels were appropriate to our real standard of living as a country.

Realistically, this would be sometime around 2002.  At that time, we hadn’t yet experienced a prolonged period of low Euro interest rates which was to prove such a part of our problem; we hadn’t seen the worst of the crazy pro-cyclical property incentives and unnecessary tax cuts; and the three-card-trick of public sector bench-marking lay in the future.

Did we feel poor as a country in 2002?  Were welfare recipients marching in the streets at the low level of benefits available?  Were civil servants and politicians noticeably underpaid?  Were there PAYE marches as there were in the 1970s?

No, no, no and no.

So let us turn back the clock, fiscally speaking, and revert to a position that is acceptably fair and is affordable.  This will involve further big cuts in pay, pensions and benefits, combined with additional tax increases for all taxpayers, including a substantial annual property tax.  Let’s do it, and do it quickly.   While we are at it, we need to get smart with our policy on the statutory minimum wage by re-setting it every 6 or 12 months at the average of the currently prevailing minimum wage in a “basket” of competitor countries.

And let us be prepared to resist the shouts and roars from politicians, the media, NGOs and commentators that we are being savage in our treatment of this sector or that sector.  After all, all we are doing is trying to reconstitute the sort of economic and fiscal conditions that applied in 2002.  We thought we were doing all right then, and we were.  The social fabric was certainly not collapsing then, in fact we had a bright future ahead of us and, in contrast to the present national mood, optimism was the order of the day.

At the cinema the other day, I again saw the expensive advertisement created by Dublin Airport Authority for their new Terminal 2.  You have probably seen it several times.  If not, you can see it on YouTube here.

My reactions were the same as it was the first time I saw it.  Firstly, that it’s smug, self-regarding and creepy.  Secondly, that only a state-owned body with an effective monopoly in its sector could and would produce such an expensive, gold-plated offering.

Thirdly, and the main question that puzzles me: from a business perspective, what’s the point of the advertisement, beyond using up the DAA’s advertising budget for the new terminal?  Are we all going to rush out and book flights through the new terminal on the strength of seeing the ad?  Will it add a single Euro to DAA’s bottom line?  I don’t think so. 

While you are working out this conundrum, have a look at the spoof version of the ad here.  It’s terrific.

 This nugget is too good to do any fact-checking on – I want to pass it on even if should ultimately prove to be exaggerated.  I will do the validation when I get time, or maybe wait for my loyal band of followers (all three of them) to do the spadework for me instead.

One of the results of the barmy and corrupt Bertie Ahern regime is, as we all know, that our senior public sector employees (including our politicians) are ridiculously overpaid compared to their counterparts in any reasonably equivalent country. 

The most egregious and commonly quoted example is that our Taoiseach (even with his recently reduced salary of €200,000) is paid a lot more than the UK Prime Minister (€172,000).  See here for the figures.

But how about this?  I am told that the head of the Irish Navy – more formally known as  The Flag Officer Commanding the Naval Service (FOCNS) – earns more than the head of the US Navy!

What a great little country.  Now if only those bloody foreigners in the Eurozone and elsewhere would charge less interest on all the money they lend us to keep on paying ourselves these highly-deserved salaries.  They have a cheek.  Next thing you know, they’ll be asking Enda and Eamonn and all our other public servants to accept the sort of chickenfeed salaries they seem to be happy with in their under-privileged countries.

I had occasion to visit The Coombe Maternity Hospital last Thursday.  The hospital was renamed The Coombe Women & Infants University Hospital in 2008.  According to its website, the reason for the name change is “to reflect the breadth, depth and complexity of clinical and academic activity on the hospital campus…..The Coombe Women & Infants University Hospital is one of the largest providers of women and infant’s healthcare in Europe. Last year, over 8,500 babies were born here. The hospital also provides the largest gynaecological service in the Republic of Ireland.”

I suppose it’s too much to expect that such a major and august institution would would have made arrangements for its car park and access routes to be clear of ice for its patients, staff and visitors.  In particular, most of the patients would be in various stages of pregnancy and icy conditions underfoot would be unwelcome, to put it at its mildest.  But there we were, two weeks into our big freeze, and you were taking your life into your hands to walk around the car park in the Coombe Hospital.  A sample photo illustrates this, I think.

At a time when every two-bit shopping centre makes an effort to clear ice and snow from its public areas, it’s disgraceful that our largest maternity hospital cannot organise for its car park to be similarly cleared.  Another example of public sector malaise and incompetence.

Who is the hospital chief executive?  How much does he/she earn?  Where are the maintenance staff for the past two weeks?  I do not believe that nobody had the time to organise a clear-up, so that pregnant women were not exposed to this unnecessary danger.  And I noticed that parking at the Coombe, for which visitors are normally charged, was suddenly available at no cost;  methinks there was a guilty conscience at play (or lawyers).  Instead of wasting time erecting signs about temporary free parking, or running off and consulting their lawyers, the Coombe employees and management should have got their shovels out and done the honest thing.

That’s Ireland in 2010: shoddy public sector standards, and nobody is responsible, nobody is accountable.

Fr Sean Healy, the knows-enough-to-be-dangerous-but-not-enough-to-talk-sense spokesman for Conference of Religious of Ireland Social Justice Ireland, has claimed that €1.4bn could be saved by reducing the pension income tax relief to 20pc.  But as usual he has the numbers wrong.

Would employees be taxed (as a BIK – Benefit in Kind) on the value of company contributions to pension scheme on their behalf?  If not, then I can see that as being a major source of leakage which would depress the tax yield from the proposal.

But if private sector employees are to be taxed on employer contributions, then surely state employees should be taxed on the imputed value of the state’s contribution to their pensions?  Now that would be interesting.

In a paper presented to the recent Dublin Economic Workshop, a leading pensions expert said the only way to get savings of €1bn by cutting the pension tax relief to 20pc was to also tax the value of the contributions made to pensions by employers. This would hit public servants hardest, he said.  The value of an index-linked pension is massive.  I could see a public servant earning €50,000 having to pay an extra €4,000 or so in BIK.  Would that breach the Croke Park Agreement?

Fr Healy also fails to understand that employee pension contributions do not benefit from a permanent tax saving;  on the contrary, they are put into a fund and are later taxed when the employee retires and draws them down as a pension.  By and large, the tax is just deferred.

So if I only get 20% tax relief when I put the money into the scheme, but am taxed at up to 41% when I withdraw it, then why on earth would I continue to make such contributions?

The real impact of Healy’s proposal would be to make it even harder for the State to persuade private sector workers to fund an adequate pension for when they retire.  And ultimately such under-funded workers would fall back on the State’s coffers for assistance.

Another example of the law of unintended consequences.

Reports of a recent conference to mark the 100th anniversary of Florence Nightingale (!) caught my eye.

A one-day conference to mark the centennial year of the death of Florence Nightingale and the International Year of Nursing took place in Dublin Castle today, September 7th. 

The event, organised by the Department of Health and Children, the HSE and the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) gave nurses and midwives from throughout Ireland the opportunity to celebrate the valuable contribution of Irish nurse and midwives to health care over the past century.

I’m happy for all those public servants and union activists who had a great day out wholly or largely at the taxpayers’ expense.  I’m also sure that the mileage allowances were generous.  And don’t worry that the health service can ill afford its employees taking a day off (for that’s effectively what it was).

What on earth is going on here?  Who signed off on this waste of time and money?  I wonder how many employers in the private sector would give staff a paid day off to attend such a junket?  (Actually, I don’t wonder any such thing, as I know the answer…..)