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.

What on earth is causing Fine Gael to hold back on calling for Michael Lowry to resign, or at least condemning him unreservedly?  Or should that be who is causing Fine Gael to hold back on calling for Michael Lowry to resign?  Is it you, Phil?

A letter in today’s Irish Times sums it up nicely:

Madam, – Mr Justice Moriarty described the actions of Deputy Michael Lowry as a “cynical and venal abuse of office”.   All the major parties in the Oireachtas voted for the establishment of the tribunal and now that it has reported, it behoves the Government to take swift action and censure Deputy Lowry in the strongest terms possible. Failure to do so would be political cowardice of the worst kind. – Yours, etc,   NIALL GUBBINS,  Carrigwell,  Carraig na bhFear,  Co Cork.

What possible gain can there be in any hesitation on Fine Gael’s part in this matter?  Lowry has always been more Fianna Fáil than Fine Gael in spirit, and his recent “deal with the devil” during the Cowen regime only confirms that.  I remember hearing about a Lowry-organised fundraiser in the 1990s in the Burlington at which a number of builders and developers of a definite Fianna Fáil bent were seen strutting their stuff.  There was always a whiff of sulphur around Lowry. 

Enda, this will haunt you for years if you get this wrong.  Don’t wait for Leo or Lucinda to push you stumbling in the right direction.  Show some leadership!

Again we are subjected to Vincent Browne’s regular diatribe in the Irish Times about how income inequality in Ireland (which he believes is due to our uniquely corrupt society) is causing higher death rates among poorer sections of the populace.

This time he really insults our intelligence by poo-pooing the extent to which individuals should take any responsibility for our financial mess.  In a piece with the memorably daft headline  “Society is more corrupt than its scapegoats” he dispenses this piece of bull:  “…the problem is not of personal culpability or guilt, although there has been some of that. The problem is systemic and there is nobody around alone responsible for the system. It is a mindset, a cultural thing, an ideology.  The real corruption here is the nature of our society; it’s a systemic thing, not something particular to some individuals in politics or in banking or in property or whatever….”

So forget about assigning any blame to Bertie Ahern, or Seán Fitzpatrick, or Brian Cowen, or Patrick Neary.  We are all to blame.  We are all corrupt.  We are all sinners.  Everybody is at fault, so our problems are nobody’s fault.

I usually read VB’s columns in the Irish Times, and I do it  for the same reason that I often watch his late-night show on TV3: when he is in attack mode (and he usually is), it provides gruesome entertainment.  I feel a little bit like a spectator in a  ancient Roman arena where gladiators are savaging each other.   It is terrible stuff, and wrong in so many ways, but I can’t tear my eyes away from it.

It seems to me that the logical outcome of VB’s views on income inequality and life expectancy is that either (a) there must be no income inequality (I think that has been tried sufficiently in the last century and found to be spectacularly unsuccessful) and/or (b) that people with discretionary spending power must not be allowed to use it to improve their health and longevity and/or (c) private health facilities must not be available (and it must be made illegal to travel abroad to access same) and/or (d) it is corrupt for anybody who has benefited from good education or a middle-class upbringing to exercise self restraint as regards junk food, alcohol and drugs.

I can agree with him that our medical and social services leave a lot to be desired, and that to be poor in Ireland is considerably worse than being rich in Ireland (although not as bad as being poor in most other countries).    Yes, there are a number of countries where inequality in income levels is lower than in Ireland, but there are many more countries where it is higher.  And to blame the difference in life expectancy mainly on income inequality is a peculiar form of blindness.  For one thing, might both conditions not be a product of an individual’s personality or approach to life generally?  Or might the causal relationship not be the inverse of what VB is suggesting, i.e. that bad health tends to lead to lower incomes rather than the other way round?   It would be surprising if these considerations were not major influences on the statistical outcomes.

But it suits VB’s Weltanschauung to believe that everybody (presumably except himself) is corrupt or irredeemably capitalistic, just as he clings to his romantic, paternalistic view of less fortunate social classes – that they are being ground down by evil capitalists and politicians and are helpless in the face of inequity.  I don’t expect him to change his outlook, however; like most barristers, his views are stubbornly held and are impervious to reason.

Once more, one is inclined to question what exactly one has to do in Ireland for the courts to consider that a jail sentence is warranted.  According to the Irish Times last Saturday,

A Louth woman who defrauded her employer of €475,000 over a three-year period has been given a six-year suspended sentence at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court.   Lorraine Gregory (37), used the €475,000 in forged company cheques to buy a house and fund the purchase of other luxury items such as an Audi A4 car and a foreign holiday.  The court heard the defrauded company has since stopped trading after years of operating successfully.  Gregory …. pleaded guilty to 23 sample charges of theft and forgery on dates unknown between August 2001 and March 2004 …..

No wonder Ms Gregory appears to be laughing in the photograph published alongside the article.

Lots of questions arise:

  • would she have been jailed if she stole a higher amount, say €1 million?  (Where exactly is the cut-off point for a custodial sentence?)
  • would a man have been jailed in a similar case?
  • is it any wonder we have so few people in jail?  See this post. (England and Wales have proportionately twice as many people in jail.)
  • is it any wonder that there is a culture of impunity towards white-collar crime in Ireland?

I have commented on this issue more than once before, so there is a real danger I will be thought a crank.   It’s a risk I am prepared to take.  To repeat myself : “I’m sure there is an argument that the convicted parties will probably not re-offend.  I’m equally sure that unless people are occasionally put in jail for fraud and theft, more people will be tempted to take a chance on perpetrating such crimes.  These are not victimless crimes: they affect us all by increasing the operating costs of businesses and by costing the Exchequer (ie taxpayers) millions in enforcement costs.”

FF and “high moral ground”

21 September, 2010

A bitter laugh was to be had from a remark on Eamon Dunphy’s radio show on Newstalk last Sunday.

A panel member (I think it was Ger Colleran of the Irish Daily Star), contrary to the rule that dog does not eat dog,  was giving out about Kathy Sheridan’s Irish Times’ article about Garglegate, and about its coverage of Fianna Fáil generally.  The words he chose to condemn the Irish Times were so revealing: he said that they were always taking “the high moral ground”.

These particular words are usually heard from Fianna Fáil politicians or their apologists and, you no doubt realise, they are intended to be a severe criticism

That sums up the ethical morass that passes for public discourse in Ireland and in Fianna Fáil in particular.  To adopt the high moral ground is to be deviant, elitist, priggish and judgemental (the last being used in its now-normal pejorative sense, although of course the continuation of civilisation depends on people making value judgements, and acting upon them, every day of their lives).

I don’t know about you, but I prefer to be sitting (standing?) on the high moral ground.  In most parts of the world, that would signify that one is taking the side of the good guys, and not the sinners and criminals.  Obviously we do things differently in Ireland.  Or at least they do in Fianna Fáil.

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.

Below is an extract from today’s Irish Times, under the heading “Tory peer faces theft charges over expense claims”.

Conservative peer John Taylor was accused yesterday of dishonestly claiming £11,000 (€13,000) of parliamentary expenses, the latest politician to face criminal proceedings in a scandal that shocked Britain……Lord Taylor faces six charges under the theft act for false accounting, prosecutors said. He will appear in court on August 13th. Disclosure last year of taxpayer-funded claims submitted by politicians provoked public anger at a time of economic retrenchment………..Director of public prosecutions Keir Starmer said Lord Taylor had dishonestly submitted claims for overnight subsistence and car mileage on six occasions in 2006 and 2007, falsely stating that he lived outside London when he was actually resident in the capital…………..“Having thoroughly reviewed the eighth file of evidence we have received from the Metropolitan Police in relation to parliamentary expenses, we concluded that there is sufficient evidence and it is in the public interest to bring criminal charges against Lord Taylor,” said Mr Starmer.

I hope Ivor Callelly reads this.  I also hope the Irish Director of Public Prosecution reads it and, as I’ve said before, the Gardaí.  If John Taylor MP has his collar fingered by the peelers for a mere £11,000 then our own lovely Ivan is surely deserving of attention for a sum that is about six times larger. 

However, my doctor advises me not to hold my breath.

During my living memory, I have seen a succession of financial/commercial scandals or controversies played out in Ireland.  Some involved suspected corruption or illegality, some were the fruits of disastrous business decisions, and some were attributable to poor regulation.  I suspect that, per capita, we have far more such issues than other countries.  I also believe that the main reason for this is that the protagonists in Ireland seem to be able largely to escape the consequences of their actions, thus creating a climate where history repeats itself.

As an exercise, I sat down the other day and tried to recall all the main scandals or controversies which have blighted our commercial, financial or regulatory reputation.  I have limited this to the past 30 years or so, and thus excluded classics such as the mysterious origins of Charlie Haughey’s wealth, and the Shanahans Stamp Auctions scam. 

  • PMPA – a Ponzi type insurance bubble?
  • GPA – spectacular rise and spectacular fall
  • Goodman Group collapse (and dodgy export credit insurance claims)
  • Patrick Gallagher / Merchant Banking Limited
  • AIB/ICI and the State bailout
  • AIB/Rusnak
  • DIRT scandal
  • Bogus non-resident accounts scandal
  • Baltimore Technologies’ crash
  • Anglo-Irish Bank (and all its myriad subplots)
  • Quinn/Anglo debacle
  • DCC / Fyffes insider trading scandal
  • Bertie Ahern and his tribunal evidence
  • etc etc etc

I invite readers to add to the above depressing list, and comment upon whether it confirms that we are particularly accident-prone or corrupt.

If , as some people are asserting,  Senator Callely fiddled his expenses and claimed tens of thousands of euros from the public purse to which he was not legally entitled, then surely this would go beyond “cute hoorism” and “stroke politics”?

Would we not be in the F-word territory? Fraud, that is to say.

And fraud is a criminal offense, requiring investigation by the Gardaí.

Just asking.

Quote of the Year

25 April, 2010

Miriam Lord had a piece on Saturday in the Irish Times which is partly funny, partly tragic, and wholly revealing about the disfunctional nature of our electoral system.

The new clocking-in regime for TDs and Senators has been causing great angst for many in Leinster House, but a new twist in the saga has left critics of the system absolutely seething.    On Thursday, they got a letter informing them that request number 403 under the Freedom of Information Act has been granted to an unnamed petitioner. The information sought is to be released on April 30th.    The request is for the attendance records of TDs and Senators during the first two weeks of the new system, overall figures relating to the attendance and non-attendance for TDs and Senators in that period and a breakdown of who was, and was not, in attendance.

“This fobbing thing is causing blue murder,” a rural deputy tells us, referring to the small device they must use to register attendance…. “Nobody envisaged this happening, but now that our attendance is computerised it’s going to provide a whole new area for journalists to examine. It’s pure daft – how will anyone get re-elected if they have to spend so much time above in Leinster House? They won’t be able to get away for as much as a dog-fight or a funeral.”

There you have it.   In 30-odd words, this anonymous rural deputy has unwittingly told a profound and depressing truth about how TDs get elected.  Forget about Leinster House, forget about intelligent debate in the Dáil chamber, forget about valuable legislative and committee work.  To get elected you have to be seen at every dog-fight and funeral in your constituency.

You also, incidentally, have to spend almost all your time getting two types of things done for your constituents: (a) things they are entitled to, and for which an appropriate system is in place at great taxpayer expense,  but for which they are too lazy or corrupt to wait their turn in the queue; and (b) things they aren’t entitled to, but want you to bend or break the rules to ensure that they get them anyway, usually at the expense of more deserving cases.

Electoral reform can’t come too soon.

I have already noted that Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan, at the time of the banking crisis in 2008, leading up to the now notorious Government guarantee, was still devoting a very large amount of time to constituency clinics, and to local dinners and other functions.  Could he not have given full priority to the complexities of his brief at that vital and dangerous time?  If ever there was a time when one’s own re-election should have been subordinated to the national interest, this was it.  We will never know if it would have made a difference, but when the stakes are so high, he should not have taken a chance.

It’s well known that the presence on the board of the Dublin Docklands Development Authority (DDDA) of Anglo Irish Bank chairman Sean FitzPatrick, together with Anglo director Lar Bradshaw, was influential in the DDDA’s disastrous course of action in becoming a property speculator.

As long ago as 2004, independent TD Tony Gregory raised concerns about a conflict of interest between members of the DDDA and Anglo Irish Bank.  The then environment minister Dick Roche gave assurances that no conflict of interest could arise (!)  Subsequently, Fine Gael environment spokesman Phil Hogan claimed in the Dáil that the DDDA was “run like a downtown branch office of Anglo Irish Bank”.

A key factor in the story of the DDDA and Anglo is the ability of the former to grant planning permission to proposed developments in its area of influence, without the normal checks and balances of the mainstream planning system. And guess what?  If you were a developer with a project which needed planning approval from the DDDA, and you had carelessly obtained finance from a bank or banks other than Anglo-Irish,  you might find yourself confronting various delays and obstacles in obtaining said permission.  Or you might find that inspections of your development for compliance with the planning permission were surprisingly scrupulous.

Yes, truly the poisonous tentacles (or testicles, per Bertie Ahern) of Anglo-Irish Bank extended almost everywhere in Irish corporate life.  We can look forward to years of additional revelations as the scandalous goings-on are gradually revealed.  The inevitable collapse of the current government will lead to an even greater flow of such revelations, as key files are opened to scrutiny by Fine Gael and Labour, and those with stories to tell lose their fear of retribution for breaking omertà.

Two separate, but similar, stories appeared on the same page of the Irish Times recently.

Financial controller given suspended sentence.  An Australian woman who defrauded her lover’s company of €77,000 after she was appointed as financial controller has been given a suspended sentence at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court”

Suspended term for two over fraud.  Two sisters who fraudulently claimed more than €55,000 in social welfare over a number of years have each received suspended sentences at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court.” 

These are two clear-cut examples of large-scale fraud, pursued at great expense by the authorities and resulting in successful prosecutions.  And yet the judges, respectively Judge Tony Hunt and Judge Delahunt, let the fraudsters walk free from the court in both cases.

Read the rest of this entry »

In the UK, a Treasury Committee has published a series of reports into the banking crisis.

In Iceland, the report of a parliamentary committee on the banking collapse is due in a few weeks.  The report will apportion blame for the crisis.

In the United States, the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission will tomorrow “hold its first public hearing, in which the Commission will begin its thorough examination of the root causes of the crisis…”    The Commission has the ability to subpoena documents and witnesses for testimony.

In Ireland, the Government does nothing. 

Read the rest of this entry »

Bertie’s Buke

7 January, 2010

I see lots of comment in the media and the blogosphere about Bertie getting artists’ tax exemption for his autobiography (sic) – Bertie Ahern: The Autobiography.

Something else: the cover photograph on the buke. Is Bertie normally tie-less? What is this mode of (un)dress saying? I’m a cool guy who doesn’t have to wear a tie any more? I’m a regular Dub who wouldn’t wear a tie unless he had to? I’m a rich geezer now so I’ll dress as I damn well like?

Just wondering. I don’t often wear a tie myself, but Bertie looks odd in this particular photo without one.

Maybe he’s getting used to this style – they don’t allow prisoners to wear ties in jail as far as I know.

Fianna Furbo

1 January, 2010

Charlemagne, the Economist’s European Union blog, was interesting last Wednesday.  Extract below.  It introduced me to the Italian concepts of “furbo” and “fesso”.

I think cynicism is often a corrosive force in Europe, especially in France and the countries of southern Europe that I know reasonably well. And I think there is a link between European cynicism and that sense of enfranchisement I found in America. Put rather harshly, bits of Europe are held back by something like the cynicism of the disenfranchised: the natural suspicion, caution and bleakness of those with no real stake in or power over their societies. Such cynicism sees the world as a zero sum game. In the past, this was pejoratively labelled “peasant cunning”. Giuseppe di Lampedusa wrote about the 19th century Sicilian peasants who, in plain view of their home village on the very next hilltop, would deny any knowledge of its whereabouts if asked for directions by a stranger—just to be on the safe side.

Read the rest of this entry »

Another Fás Tale

11 October, 2009

A friend of mine is in the restaurant business and swears the following is true.   I believe him.

One night last year, he was phoned  by his restaurant manager to get clearance on a strange request a valuable customer had made.  The customer was an executive in Fás, who had just hosted a lavish dinner for about 25 people in the restaurant, all paid for by Fás, and presumably validly so.

However at the end of the evening, when the bill (which was for about €2,500) was being settled, the executive asked asked the manager to add an extra €500 to the bill, and to give the exceutive a voucher for this amount in return, for his personal use.

Read the rest of this entry »

This week the Public Enquiry Blog asked the question: How long before Ireland reaches accountability standards of Nigeria?   The reason for the question was that “Nigeria, one of the most corrupt countries in the world, has arrested fifteen top bankers on charges of conspiracy and money laundering.  The head of Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission said that the bankers were taken into custody to make sure they didn’t leave the country as officials examined banks that have piled up billions in bad debts.”

So when will we in Ireland see a representative (or two) of our own dastardly bankers do the perp walk?  To me, the answer’s clear.  I will not be at all surprised if we see action (or something that has the appearance of action) against former Anglo-Irish executives just in time to help the Government in the run-up to the Lisbon referendum. 

So mark the last week of September in your diaries.

 We shouldn’t be overly surprised at the revelations of flagrant abuse of taxpayers’ money by the Ceann Comhairle, John O’Donoghue.   There is a pattern and a context.

For instance, cast your mind back to the year 2000, and the alleged speeding of O’Donoghue’s state car (he was then Minister for Justice).   After the incident, O’Donoghue told the Dáil the car had been stopped for travelling at 86mph (138km/h), but he was not in it at the time. (Reports at the time suggested speeds of up to 115 mph were involved.)  He said the car had been carrying his wife, children and a family friend who were returning from the All-Ireland hurling final. 

The focus at the time was rightly on the alleged breaking of the speed limit, but a subsidiary issue is the taxpayer rip-off involved in this “jolly” for the Minister’s family.  Most politicians in most normal democratic countries wouldn’t dream of doing this, but for some reason Fianna Fáil don’t see anything wrong with such behaviour.  And our collective failure to keep them honest, whether through the media or through the ballot box, ensures that such behaviour will persist.

klep·toc·ra·cy  (Pronunciation: \klep-ˈtä-krə-sē\ ) : government by those who seek chiefly status and personal gain at the expense of the governed ; also : a particular government of this kind

In last Friday’s Irish Times, Paddy Agnew drew attention to a piece in the Italian news weekly, L’Espresso, by Umberto Eco, the academic, philosopher and novelist who is best known for his medieval “whodunnit”, The Name of the Rose.  Eco, according to Agnew, “sounds a strident alarm about what he perceives as the threat posed to media freedom in Italy by proposed new legislation from the Berlusconi government”

Eco wrote: “The Italian problem is not Silvio Berlusconi. History is full of enterprising figures who had a very low sense of the state Read the rest of this entry »

I Give Up

20 June, 2009

So you think that the enormous economic and social problems we are facing will lead to a new era where voters will reject the old politics of croneyism and strokes?    You sincerely believe that anybody convicted of stealing money from the hard-pressed taxpayer would be shunned by the voters in the unlikely event that they have the temerity to put themselves up for election?   Hah!

The following snippets from the coverage of the recent local elections are almost too depressing for words.   Read the rest of this entry »