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.

Worrying reports in today’s newspapers about opposition politicians combining to prevent Government views being expressed at a public meeting, and about physical and verbal abuse of Government deputies.  One expects no better from Sinn Féin, of course, but it’s disappointing to see Fianna Fáil brazenly displaying their bully-boy DNA so soon after they destroyed the country’s economy and reputation.

A FINE Gael deputy has claimed he was “physically assaulted,” by a woman as he left the stage at a rally in support of retaining services for the elderly at a local hospital.

Peter Fitzpatrick was one of three government deputies who were not allowed address a crowd of 700 who took part in a march on Saturday afternoon in support of retaining long-term care for the elderly at the Cottage Hospital in Drogheda.

The alleged assault took place as they were leaving the stage after being prevented from using the microphone.

The crowd was told by a member of the Save Drogheda Cottage Hospital committee that it had been agreed that any TD who did not sign a pledge would not be allowed the microphone.

….. Both of the opposition TDs in Louth — Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams and Fianna Fail’s Seamus Kirk — signed it and addressed the crowd.

All this reminds me of a time long ago (the 1930s to be precise), when Fianna Fáil and assorted other gangsters attempted to prevent Cumann na nGaedheal politicians from speaking at public meetings.  As a result, the Army Comrades Association (better known as the “Blueshirts”) found a role for themselves, and helped keep Ireland safe for democracy.

Maurice Manning, who wrote a book on the Blueshirts, said in 2001 that

“the fundamental question as to why the movement appeared in the first place …..  at least to those involved, was straightforward to protect freedom of speech and to ensure that those opposed to Fianna Fáil and the IRA were able to get a fair hearing and hold their public meetings

…..   The only meetings being broken up were those of Cumann na nGaedheal and the new Centre Party. Not a single Fianna Fáil meeting was disrupted during this entire period.

The disruption was organised. The IRA made it clear that there would be no free speech for traitors, and openly set about putting this into practice. In this they had the backing of many Fianna Fáil supporters.

It is significant, for example, that James Dillon, then deputy leader of the Centre Party, and as hostile then to Cumann na nGaedheal as he was to Fianna Fáil, was emphatic that had it not been for the Blueshirts, freedom of speech would have disappeared in 1933.

So while the fascist-like trappings of the Blueshirts (and the possibly true fascist leanings of a minority of members) have rightly come to be regarded as suspicious, I cannot help but feel that their transient success was simply a reaction to Fianna Fáil’s innately violent and anti-democratic nature.

If things go on like this, with democratically-elected politicians being refused the right to express their views, we may need a 21st century version of the Blueshirts!

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.

Sometimes one comes across a set of circumstances which are, to put it mildly, eyebrow-raising.   The awarding in 2007 of the contract to construct and operate Dublin’s new Convention Centre is an example.

Last September, the Irish Independent reported as follows:-

A PROPOSAL to build the newly opened national convention centre for half of its eventual cost was rejected by a government-appointed committee, a report by the Comptroller & Auditor General (C&AG) reveals.

Spencer Dock Convention Centre Dublin (SDCCD), part of businessman Johnny Ronan’s ailing Treasury Holdings group, won the public private partnership contract to build and run the centre after bidding €390m in 2007.

However, it has now emerged that the rival Anna Livia consortium, which was backed by Bennett Construction, had three bids between €203m and €224m rejected by a government steering group.

Convention Centre Dublin, located in the Dublin docklands, was officially opened earlier this month.

The Sunday Tribune used the headline “Taxpayers’ €47m-a-year bill leaves a bad smell” when it ran a report last July (the reference to a bad smell is a pun, as the Convention Centre was also revealed to be without proper sewage facilities, despite the high spend):

Under the multi-million euro deal worked out between the government and Spencer Dock Convention Company Ltd (SDCCL), the state will pay €47m a year for the next five years and €23.9m a year for the following 20 years to the company for building and running the controversial centre.

This works out at a total outlay of €713m, making it one of the most expensive state projects, on a par with the Luas and the Port Tunnel. The first monthly instalment of just under €4m is due next month and these will continue until 2015 after which the payments will drop down to just under €2m a month until 2035. The centre will then revert to state ownership…..

Responding to criticism of such a massive spend on a conference centre in such straitened times, a spokesman for the OPW said the total payment of €713m over 25 years is equivalent to €350m at today’s prices.

The capital costs of both the winning and the losing bids were apparently much the same and the huge difference arose in the tendered cost of  operating and maintaining the centre.

Amazingly, in the tender assessment process only 25% of the available marks was originally allocated to financial factors, far too little,  and this was mysteriously reduced to 20% during the process.  The C&AG points out that “In a meeting of the Steering Group in 2004, the Department of Finance had concerns when the financial criteria weighting was lowered from 25% to 20%, and the design and construction weighting increased to 40%.”    Furthermore, within the financial criterion, only 13 of the 20 marks allocated were assigned to an assessment of the cost of the deal. Most of the remainder were awarded based on evaluating the revenue sharing mechanism proposed and the financial robustness of the deal.

The C&AG said that this weighting system was not enough to distinguish between bids with widely varying costs.

And here’s the really stupid part:  the costs of the proposed bids were assessed not relative to each other but by comparison with a level of 90% of a pre-established public sector benchmark (PSB) cost.  The Office of Public Works, which oversaw the awarding of the contract, was required to develop a PSB against which tenders from the private sector could be assessed. It estimated the cost of the project at €422m in net present value terms.

Bids costing 90%, or less, of this estimate were to be awarded full marks irrespective of how much cheaper than the 90% they were. The  C&AG notes that “This had the effect of awarding relatively high marks to proposals that were much more costly in absolute terms”.

The report includes a comparison with the financial assessment of the PPP project in relation to the Criminal Courts Complex.  This differed in two key ways from that used in the assessment of the tenders in the Convention Centre project: (a) a total of 30% of the overall marks were allocated to financial criteria as compared to 20% for the Convention Centre, with 27% of the overall marks based on the cost of the bids as compared with 13% in relation to the Convention Centre; (b) the assessment of the cost of the bids in relation to the Criminal Courts Complex  compared the cost of the bids relative to each other rather than by reference to the cost as identified in the PSB.

Not surprisingly, the C&AG said that there needs to be a change in how future bids for public-private partnerships are assessed.  His report can be found here.

This looks like a giant financial cock-up, and wicked people could postulate a more sinister interpretation.  I’m told that conspiracy theorists have been wondering what Richard Barrett (Johnny Ronan’s partner in Treasury Holdings) meant when, at the official opening of the Convention Centre,  he was caught on camera jovially remarking to former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern “keep pulling for us”.   Sheer begrudgery, no doubt.

The now famous Vanity Fair article by Michael Lewis  (“When Irish Eyes Are Crying”)  is worth reading. The writing is well up to Lewis’s usual standards, as seen in The Big Short and Liar’s Poker.  Here are a few excerpts that caught my eye.

On Patrick Neary:

….. A banking system is an act of faith: it survives only for as long as people believe it will. Two weeks earlier the collapse of Lehman Brothers had cast doubt on banks everywhere. Ireland’s banks had not been managed to withstand doubt; they had been managed to exploit blind faith. Now the Irish people finally caught a glimpse of the guy meant to be safeguarding them: the crazy uncle had been sprung from the family cellar. Here he was, on their televisions, insisting that the Irish banks were “resilient” and “more than adequately capitalized” … when everyone in Ireland could see, in the vacant skyscrapers and empty housing developments around them, evidence of bank loans that were not merely bad but insane. “What happened was that everyone in Ireland had the idea that somewhere in Ireland there was a little wise old man who was in charge of the money, and this was the first time they’d ever seen this little man,” says [Colm] McCarthy. “And then they saw him and said, Who the fuck was that??? Is that the fucking guy who is in charge of the money???  That’s when everyone panicked.” ….

On our obsession with property ownership:

….. There’s no such thing as a non-recourse home mortgage in Ireland. The guy who pays too much for his house is not allowed to simply hand the keys to the bank and walk away. He’s on the hook, personally, for whatever he borrowed. Across Ireland, people are unable to extract themselves from their houses or their bank loans. 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. And their leaders helped them to do it….

On Brian Cowen and his drinking:

…. (Four different Irish people told me, on great authority, that Cowen had faxed Ireland’s 440-billion-euro bank guarantee into the European Central Bank from a pub.) And the truth is, if you were to design a human being to maximize the likelihood that people would assume he drank too much, you’d have a hard time doing better than the Irish prime minister…..

On AIB:

…. A.I.B. even opened a unit dedicated to poaching Anglo’s biggest property-developer clients—the very people who would become the most spectacular busts in Irish history. In October 2008, the Irish Independent published a list of the five biggest real-estate deals in each of the past three years. A.I.B. lent the money for 6 of the 15, Anglo Irish for just 1, as a co-lender with A.I.B.  On Irish national radio recently, the insolvent property developer Simon Kelly, whose family’s real-estate portfolio has run up bad debts of 2 billion euros, confessed that the only time in his career a banker became upset with him was when he repaid a loan, to Anglo Irish, with money borrowed from A.I.B. The former Anglo Irish executives I interviewed (off the record, as they are all in hiding) speak of their older, more respectable imitators with a kind of amazement. “Yes, we were out of control,” they say, in so many words. “But those guys were fucking nuts.”

Mary Hanafin, supposedly one of the front-runners in any battle to take over leadership of Fianna Fáil, has revealed in comments to the Irish Times not only that she is unsuited to a leadership role,  but also the dismal state of our national politics.

Ms Hanafin said she had taught in Blackrock for 17 years and had a very strong base there.  In her 13 years as a TD she had “absolutely worked every day of it, with every group, every school, every community, every church fair, every everything. I mean, this has been my life”.

These revealing remarks again demonstrate that we are electing messenger boys/girls to Dáil Éireann, who love the feeling of power that being a TD entails, but have no guiding principles as to what should be done with that power.  Have you any idea, dear reader, what Ms Hanafin stands for politically, other than getting elected and helping her party retain power? 

I am more than ever convinced that our current electoral system is unfit for purpose, in that it produces TDs who are good at local stroke-pulling to win votes, but have little grasp of vital macro issues.  The standard of debate in Dáil Éireann is as a result execrable, and it is futile to expect such politicians to carry out their role as legislators with any degree of competence or any degree of independence from the Executive.  It is not stretching things too far to say that the genesis of our recent economic collapse lies in our persistent unwillingness or inability to elect serious, intelligent politicians.

In the same Irish Times article, fearing she may have given the game away, Ms Hanafin tries to recover ground with her parting comments, which seem to contradict her above assertion of parish-pump primacy:

“The next election is about the future of the country and the economy.    It’s not about the Dún Laoghaire baths or the 46A [bus],” Ms Hanafin said.

Too late, Mary.

Well done, Diarmuid Doyle.  Your comment piece in last Sunday’s Tribune was badly needed (although it was a bit unfair to pick on John McGuinness, one of the few FF TDs who recognises what a useless shower most of his fellow party members are). 

The piece was entitled “In Fianna Fáil the individual comes first, then the party, then the country…” and I hope you don’t mind if I quote extensively from it.

 …… Anything more than 30 seats for Fianna Fáil in the next election would be yet another blow to Ireland’s hopes of long-term recovery as it would raise the possibility of the party regrouping over the next 10 years, returning to power, and destroying us again.

Because that’s what Fianna Fáil does, that’s what Fianna Fáil is……… While Fianna Fáil was winning three elections in a row during the boom period, posing as the guardian of a modern, wealthy, thrusting Ireland, many people – this columnist included – were banging a silent drum, articulating a widely ignored message: Fianna Fáil almost destroyed Ireland in the 1980s and would finish the job if it wasn’t removed from power. We warned that Bertie Ahern was dodgy, that Charlie McCreevy was a feckless spendthrift, that Brian Cowen was an empty canvas on which others could write whatever plan they wished, and that Fianna Fáil backbenchers were a bunch of preening wideboys who couldn’t be trusted with an éclair never mind an economy.

But we were the spoilsports, we were told, the left-wing pinkos; we should have gone off somewhere and killed ourselves.

Fine Gael and Labour would have done the same things, I was told on the radio. They would have made the same mistakes had John Bruton been able to win the 1997 general election and keep Bertie Ahern from power. We’d be exactly where we are now, broken, hopeless, unsure whether we have reached the bottom or whether there is still a long way to fall.

There’s no way of ever proving or disproving that contention, of course, which is a pretty handy situation for the people articulating it. All you can say to them is that the economy was in decent shape when Bruton handed it over and that while people do go on sometimes about Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael being Tweedledum and Tweedledee – the great cliché of Irish politics – the personalities who make up both parties are entirely different. There is a reckless, risktaking, selfish, win-at-all-costs mentality in the Fianna Fáil DNA that simply isn’t there in Fine Gael, whose exuberant dullness would have been ideal in managing an economic boom. In Fianna Fáil, the individual TD comes first, then the party, then the country. The result over the last 13 years has been a bunch of individuals high on their own power and sense of self-importance, swaggering around Ireland and the world, hoovering up champagne and compliments in the Galway tent, making sure that their developer pals and financial providers were looked after. The result of that we see all around us.

This is no time for the blame game, we are often told these days. We must look ahead. The point, of course, is that looking ahead without identifying the culprits and making them pay would be an entirely short-sighted exercise. We can only confidently embrace the future if we come to terms with the past. The destruction of Fianna Fáil is part of that reckoning. With the IMF and others in charge of the country for the next few years, that’s what the February general election will be all about….

Well said.    Bringing those chancers to book must start with the ballot box.  But what continues to puzzle me is that about 1 in 5 voters will, it seems, vote for the very people who caused all of our problems.  My expectations about FF being adequately punished are tempered by these sample reports from the coverage of the 2009 local elections:

‘Stroke’ sweeps to victory in Loughrea

Fianna Fail member, Cllr Michael ‘Stroke’ Fahy swept the boards ….  with 2247 first preference votes, or 12.3 per cent of all votes cast.   Cllr Fahy was convicted of fraudulently benefiting from €7,055 from Galway County Council but has appealed the conviction, jail sentence and fine of €30,000.

Farmer sentenced to two years’ jail a surprise winner

A FARMER who was sentenced to two years in prison in 2002 for conspiring to steal a Department of Agriculture cheque worth over €20,000 pulled off one of the surprise victories of the election after he topped his local poll.   Michael Clarke, of Beltra, polled 1,408 first preferences in the Dromore area of Co Sligo, getting elected on the first count.   Mr Clarke (47), a former Fianna Fail candidate, said after his election that he had made mistakes in the past “and I acknowledge that”, but added that the “real jury of my peers” had now spoken.