These comments from March 2013, following the death of Hugo Chavez:

President Michael D Higgins:

“President Chavez achieved a great deal during his term in office, particularly in the area of social development and poverty reduction”

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams:

“President Chávez worked tirelessly to improve the lives of Venezuelan citizens. He dedicated himself to building a new and radical society in Venezuela.  His progressive social and economic changes took millions out of poverty.”

And this from yesterday’s Washington Post:

“Venezuela is stuck in a doom loop that’s become a death spiral.    Its stores are empty, its people are starving, and its government is to blame. It has tried to repeal the law of supply and demand, and, in the process, eliminated any incentive for businesses to actually sell things. The result is that the country with the largest oil reserves in the world now has to resort to forced labor just to try to feed itself.”

Just sayin’.


And here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson,
Jesus loves you more than you will know.
God bless you, please Mrs. Robinson.
Heaven holds a place for those who pray,
Hey, hey, hey
Hey, hey, hey

So our ex-President Mrs Mary Robinson is to open the State’s first presidential archive and research centre in 2017.  Good for her.

In a touching piece in the Irish Times, Robinson-biographer and acolyte Lorna Siggins tells us that “A quarter of a century after her promise to keep a symbolic candle in the window of Áras an Uachtaráin, former president Mary Robinson has outlined plans to brighten her north Mayo birthplace with the State’s first presidential archive and research centre.  The €8.35 million centre in her former family home – the 19th-century Victoria House, overlooking the river Moy in Ballina – will open in the second quarter of 2017, Mrs Robinson said in Ballina at the weekend.”

€8.35 million!  Wow, that’s very generous of her, isn’t it?  Why, I’m almost ready to forgive her for quitting her pathetic little job as President of Ireland in 1997 two months early so she could nail down a real job with the United Nations as their High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Oh but wait a minute, Mary isn’t paying for the house – you and I are footing most of the bill it seems.  Here’s what Lorna tells us:

  • €1.5 million has been provided by Mayo County Council to buy the house and to provide an adjoining site for construction of an annexe, along with architectural and design services;
  • The State has committed just over €2 million through the Department of the Taoiseach;
  • Mrs Robinson has donated her archive, valued at €2.5 million, to the State, under section 1003 of the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997, which provides that people who donate heritage items can credit the value against certain tax liabilities.

So this vanity project for Mrs Robinson will cost the Irish citizens up to €5.5 million, depending on what is the net effect on the State coffers of the tax foregone as a result of the big fat tax credit she will get.  She may not have thought enough of us to serve her full term as President, but obviously our money is as good as anybody else’s.

It seems that the archive “will house files relating to Mrs Robinson’s legal work, her presidential engagements from December 1990 to September 1997 and her term as UN high commissioner for human rights from 1997 to 2002.”

I am impressed with the prescience she showed in keeping safe all those boxes of files spanning some five decades.  She must have been confident from an early date that history was being created.

However, in my self-appointed role as intrepid defender of the hard-pressed Irish taxpayer, I have to ask two questions: (a) How come the archive is worth €2.5 million and who decided this?  And (b) how come the papers in the archive are Mrs Robinson’s to donate in the first place?

The latter question is interesting.  Mrs Robinson, both as President of Ireland and as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights was effectively employed by and paid for by Ireland and the United Nations respectively.  Under most legal systems and contractual arrangements with which I am familiar, any materials produced in the course of the execution of the paid-for role belong to the employer organisation, not the individual involved.

Why are the files relating to her presidential engagements from December 1990 to September 1997 not already the property of the State?  Why are we effectively paying for them twice – the first time through her salary when she was President and was generating the relevant papers, and now in giving her an 80% tax credit for handing them over to us?   Maybe we need to take a look at the terms of our Presidential “employment contract”.

If Mrs Robinson is anything, she is ethical and law-abiding.  So I’m sure everything is above board.  But somebody has to ask the right questions.  If you are waiting for the Irish Times to ask any challenging questions of her, don’t hold your breath.

PS…. I note that for our money we also will get a research centre that will have “a particular emphasis on the ‘critical area of women’s leadership’, unleashing ‘energy for change’ through women’s empowerment”.   I can’t wait.

We’d like to know a little bit about you for our files
We’d like to help you learn to help yourself.
Look around you all you see are sympathetic eyes,
Stroll around the grounds until you feel at home…..


We have heard a lot in Ireland recently about politicians and their consciences.  Famously, Lucinda Creighton broke with Fine Gael as she wouldn’t follow the party whip and support the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill last year.  She asserted the need to follow her conscience, which apparently was telling her that the Catholic Church’s hard-line position on abortion had to be followed.  Many people’s reaction to stances such as that of Lucinda is to say something like: “I don’t necessarily agree with the views of Mr/Ms X, but I admire him/her for taking a stand on a matter of conscience”.

But this is a superficial analysis.  Because the essence of Lucinda’s stance is to deny all Irish women the very thing she insists on having herself, namely freedom of conscience on the issue of abortion.  And abortion is a matter of conscience.  It’s not like murder or theft or arson, matters on which there is a consensus in all civilised societies, regardless of religious beliefs, and against which we properly (and indeed necessarily) legislate.

Lucinda obviously believes that her conscience must be given greater weight than those of hundreds of thousands of women in Ireland who believe that women should be allowed have an abortion in Ireland, whether because of Fatal Foetal Abnormality, because of a pregnancy arising from rape, or for any other reason that their conscience permits.

As Gene Kerrigan has so aptly written,

It’s possible to have a personal position against abortion – which means you will not have an abortion; you hold that abortion is wrong. And at the same time to have a political position – which is that every woman should have the right to make that choice based on her conscience. Not yours or mine.   Otherwise, you’re saying no one has a right to do anything except what my conscience allows….

…There are women who just don’t – for reasons that are not your business or mine – wish to go through with a pregnancy they never wanted.  We may disagree with them, but we do not have a right to speak for their conscience.

Imagine it was the other way around – that people who are in conscience opposed to abortion were required to undergo abortions, because – for instance – the state imposed a policy on the number of children allowable.

Lucinda exiled herself from Fine Gael as she wanted to retain the status quo for our ultra-punitive abortion laws instead of making the marginal relaxation which the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill involved.  Following your conscience cannot be a “get-out clause” for doing bad things or (and this is key) for refusing similar latitude to other people whose reasoned and informed consciences tell them something completely different.

Dr Ryan Walter, a lecturer in politics at the Australian National University, wrote a fascinating article (“Conscience votes corrupt our political system”) on the relationship between politics and public representatives’ consciences.  It was in the context of proposed same-sex-marriage legislation, but it is relevant in this debate.

“Many politicians appreciate the freedom for debate and personal reflection that comes with conscience votes, but this is exactly why they are so dangerous. For conscience votes have the potential to undermine one of the defining principles of secular liberal democracy: the separation of religion and politics….

…We know from empirical research that politicians will tend to hold a mix of these views [on how best to represent their constituents and to serve the public interest], but the point to underline is that all these visions of politics require the politician to fulfil their public office rather than pursue private interests. This includes personal moral and religious interests. We are perfectly comfortable calling politicians corrupt when they steal from the public purse, but we are inconsistent when we do not decry injecting personal religious belief into legislation that will govern the lives of all Australians, regardless of faith.

…. [Conscience] tells us only to look inside ourselves but not what we’ll find there, which could be all sorts of things: university-student ideologies, religious convictions, moral visions. It is the role of political parties and the ritual of parliamentary process to discipline these private enthusiasms by subjecting them to the duties invested in the public office of a politician.”

Ask your actual or potential public representatives this question: “Do you believe that Ireland should be a secular democracy and that we should separate religion and politics?”  If they say no, well at least you know where they stand, and you should commend their honesty.  If they say yes, then tell them that you expect them to act accordingly when performing their duties as a legislator, and not to vote according to their “conscience” where that conscience is informed by religious views that are not universally accepted.

As Bertrand Russell said, “…the infliction of cruelty with a good conscience is a delight to moralists. That is why they invented Hell.”


If you were a senior politician in this decidedly unpopular Government and wanted to promote yourself through the medium of a laudatory and unchallenging newspaper profile, preferably one that takes up almost two whole pages in a weekend edition (which more people have time to read), how would you fancy your chances of achieving same?  Well you might reasonably think that the probability ranked somewhere alongside the chances of winning the Lotto jackpot, even if you have a fleet of handlers and spin-doctors who are paid handsomely to promote your merits on a daily basis.  After all, our newspapers are usually wall-to-wall with caustic and unflattering articles about politicians of all parties, particularly the current Government parties, it would seem.

But there is one class of politician, and one particular newspaper, to which this does not seem to apply.  They are, respectively, well-educated women and The Irish Times.

On Saturday 1st November, the wimmin who pull most of the strings in our Paper of Record excelled themselves by according our new Minister for Justice a lavish and soft profile on the lead page (and most of the second page) of its Weekend Review section.  You will get a flavour from the heading “Minister with a Mission to Deliver”, and even more so from the sub-heading “Practical, tireless, sharp and fast-moving, Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald is showing she has a flair for the feasible”.  Enough to make even a politician blush, I would have thought.

The writer, Kathy Sheridan, also makes sure to provide space in the article to promote Ms Fitzgerald’s suitability as our next Taoiseach:

She could yet make it to Taoiseach. Does she want it? “I’ve had a chequered political career, so I don’t even go there,” she says.  True. But surely she would say yes, if offered?  “There’s no question of the Taoiseach going anywhere.”   But supposing it opened up? “You’d have to examine the circumstances . . . I don’t think a woman should say no to anything.” So she would take it? “Of course,” she says, with some exasperation.

I can picture other senior Government members, and potential successors to Enda Kenny, gnashing their teeth and shaking their head in disbelief as they read the article.  But there’s more:

Many doubted her ability for justice – why is not clear, since she had been a resounding success elsewhere. In a glowing reference, Fergus Finlay, chief executive of Barnardos Ireland, said she had “worked tirelessly” as minister for children. “She wasn’t afraid to listen, learn and debate with those working directly with children . . . Her commitment to the role is evident from her long list of achievements, accomplished in an impressively short tenure.”

Now Ms Fitzgerald is probably one of our more capable politicians, despite her less than stellar electoral record, but it’s a bit tiresome to have to continually witness the gender bias of the Irish Times, particularly in its coverage of politics (see here for another example).

And even 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.”  No mention of that in Kathy Sheridan’s article.

Ms Fitzgerald, a former head of the National Women’s Council of Ireland, can be confident that the sisterhood, and particularly its many representatives in the Irish Times, will be looking after her interests in the months and years ahead.



Seriously though, the Government must stop throwing vast amounts of citizens’ money at a failed project to resurrect the Irish language.  It also needs to realise the hypocrisy of continuing with coercion as a policy when the Government’s own members can’t be arsed to learn it.  We continue to witness a classic case of “Do as I say, not as I do”

Last week we read in the Irish Independent about “Opposition anger at ‘farce’ of tongue-tied minister” where the Government could not provide a single minister fluent in Irish to take Dail proceedings during Seachtain na Gaeilge.  Jobs Minister Richard Bruton was the most senior minister available to represent the Coalition due to the annual St Patrick’s Day exodus of ministers abroad.  He admitted that he could only respond in English during a debate that was scheduled to be conducted in Irish.

Mr. Bruton was later reported to have defended the Government’s record on promoting Irish.  This is entirely normal; hardly any Irish politicians can speak the language properly, and yet they all promise (threaten?) increased efforts to promote it. This hypocrisy reached its zenith in the 2011 Presidential Election, where only one candidate out of 7 could debate in Irish.  All spoke of their desire to be fluent in the language, and promised to promote Irish if elected.  In plain language: more coercion for us plebs, more taxpayers’ money to be wasted, but I’m too busy and important to take the trouble to learn the language.

We are the only EU country whose first official language is not spoken by the general population. 6 out of 7 candidates for the highest office in our country never thought it necessary or important enough, throughout their entire career, to be sufficiently familiar with the Irish language to carry on a conversation!  This is mind-boggling.  And yet we spend tens of millions of euros annually in maintaining the fiction that Irish is a living language.

This hypocrisy was further highlighted in another newspaper report in the past week, with the Irish Times reporting that

More than 1,000 bemused Irish residents of Amsterdam have received letters impeccably written in Irish – asking them if they would like to vote in the European elections in May.   On headed paper of the Amsterdam City Council, the letters begin “A dhuine uasail”, before going on to explain that as European citizens the recipients are entitled to vote in the Netherlands for Dutch MEPs.

On the other hand, “Má theastaíonn uait votáil i do thír dhúchais le haghaidh Pharlaimint na hEorpa, ní­ gá duit rud ar bith a dhéanamh ach ahmain má tá tú cláraithe cheana féin san Isiltír”, the Irish expats are advised . . . In other words, if they wish to vote in their own countries they need do nothing at all, unless they are already registered to vote in the Netherlands.

With perfect etiquette, the Amsterdam authorities sign off as Gaeilge with, “Le dea-mhein, Bárdas na Cathrach” – “With best wishes, the city corporation.”   ……. City hall spokeswoman Jutta Ravelli told The Irish Times the letters “prompted quite a few calls from Irish people.  Most were delighted they had been translated into Irish, but they also wanted to know if we had an English version – because they couldn’t understand a word of them.”

So here we have some innocent Dutch officials trying to do their duty under the mistaken apprehension that Irish people actually speak Irish.  The embarrassment.  Less than 1% of Dáil and Senate debates are conducted in Irish (Richard Bruton need not feel isolated in this respect), but the last Fianna Fáil government had the brass neck to persuade our European Union partners to have Irish recognised as a working language in the EU.  So Dutch and other European taxpayers have to pay for a small army of translators to be available just in case an Irish MEP wants to use a cúpla focal.

This again brought to mind the 2011 Vanity Fair article by Michael Lewis (“When Irish Eyes Are Crying”), which highlighted our hypocrisy on what we laughingly call our “First National Language”.

…… The first thing you notice when you watch the Irish Parliament at work is that the politicians say everything twice, once in English and once in Gaelic. As there is no one in Ireland who does not speak English and a vast majority who do not speak Gaelic, this comes across as a forced gesture that wastes a great deal of time. I ask several Irish politicians if they speak Gaelic, and all offer the same uneasy look and hedgy reply: “Enough to get by.” The politicians in Ireland speak Gaelic the way the Real Housewives of Orange County speak French. To ask “Why bother to speak it at all?” is of course to miss the point. Everywhere you turn you see both emulation of the English and a desire, sometimes desperate, for distinction. The Irish insistence on their Irishness—their conceit that they’re more devoted to their homeland than the typical citizen of the world is—has an element of bluster about it, from top to bottom…..

It’s time we stood up to the Irish language lobby.  Blogger Jason O’Mahony has likened them to the Israeli lobby in the United States, because “many people don’t share their views, but are afraid of being called anti-Irish, and so we let them have a position of power and influence in our society out of all proportion to their numbers.”  He might also have likened them to the Neutrality obsessives, or the anti-nuclear nutters.  A herd of sacred cows is being maintained, and proper debate is being stifled.

The current policy has failed miserably.  Generations of schoolchildren have suffered endlessly under the yoke of compulsory Irish, for little evident benefit to them or society generally.  Hundreds of millions of Euros have been largely wasted

So what should the Government do instead?   That’s for another day.  But there may be lessons to be learnt in a country far, far away…..

So, coincidentally or otherwise, we have elected as President the only candidate who actually can converse in our first official language (that’s the Irish language by the way).

From Irish Times on 19th October, reporting on the televised presidential debate held on our national Irish-language TV station, TG4.:

Only one of the seven, Mr [Michael D.] Higgins, is fluent in Irish. The format of the debate had each of the candidates read a short prepared statement in Irish. The debate, chaired by current affairs presenter Páidí Ó Lionáird, was conducted mostly in English, with Mr Higgins speaking in Irish.

The other candidates (surprise, surprise) all spoke of their desire to be fluent in the language, and promised to promote Irish if elected.  Translation: more coercion for the plebs, more taxpayers’ money to be wasted, but I can’t be bothered myself to learn the language.  Such hypocrisy.

This is both revealing and embarrassing.  We are the only EU country whose first official language is not spoken by the general  population.  6 out of 7 candidates for the highest office in our country never thought it necessary or important enough, throughout their entire career, to be sufficiently familiar with the Irish language to carry on a conversation.  And yet we spend tens of millions of euros annually in maintaining the fiction that Irish is a living language.

Fewer than 1% of Dáil and Senate debates are conducted in Irish, but Fianna Fáil succeeded (sic) in getting Irish recognised as a working language in the European Union.  So taxpayers have to pay for a small army of translators to be available just in case an MEP wants to use a cúpla focal.

Bad as that is, the cost is probably small compared to the millions wasted as a result of the Official Languages Act 2003.  For instance, Section 9(3) says that “The public has the right to expect that public bodies will send information …. to the public in general or to a class of the public in general in Irish or bilingually”.  So every piece of official bumph is 100% larger than it needs to be because it’s printed in both English and Irish.  You don’t get to choose which language you want your copy of a particular booklet to be written in; instead you get a jumbo version printed in both languages, which is wasteful beyond belief.

Our new President claims credit for establishing TG4 fifteen years ago.  It costs €33 million annually to run, and has an audience share of under 3%, basically a rounding error.  Indeed I suspect many of those viewers are watching subtitled programming in the second national language, or catching up on televised sport (for instance, Wimbledon tennis,  which bizarrely is transmitted live by TG4 with an Irish language commentary).

Previous Puckstownlane posts on this topic:  here and here.  And Michael Lewis exposed the folly of our Irish language posturing in his Vanity fair article, referenced here.  Ouch.

Ahern remains delusional

19 October, 2011

Apparently the press is to blame for the collapse of the Irish economy.  At least that appears to be the latest line being spun by Bertie Ahern.  Unbelievable. You couldn’t make it up.  See details of an interview with our dodgy, delusional, and disgraced former Taoiseach here.

A flavour of his ramblings:-

Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern has called for an investigation into the media for what he said were failures to follow the economy because journalists were more concerned with following his dealings with the Mahon tribunal.

Mr Ahern said that from the time he began evidence to the tribunal, the media “just stopped following the economy”.

In an interview on Dublin City University’s radio station DCU FM, he said: “There should be an investigation into it. They should have been following the economy from August 2007, but they weren’t, they were following me. I think a lot of these guys really should have looked at themselves.

“The government were following the economy but the media weren’t. It was a very poor job by the media really. They were shown to be incompetent and that was the trouble – everything was on me.”

When will he ever recognise that the ultimate responsibility for the well-being of citizens came with the job of being Taoiseach, and it wasn’t just about lining his own pocket and being nice to his developer pals?  Trying to deflect responsibility to the media for our economic problems is beyond a joke.

Please, Bertie, get off the stage.

It’s an established part of the Irish economic and political cycle.  Just when we are starting to see Christmas goods appear in the shops (in October, damn it), then we also start to hear the plaintive and deceptive tones of the special-interest groups trying to bend the ear of the Minister for Finance, and promote their own causes at the expense of everybody else’s.

There is a pattern to these transparently self-serving submissions.  Reduce (or more likely these days, don’t increase) the tax on this activity or that product, they say, and the effect will be a wonderful growth in jobs and prosperity, which will more than offset the tax foregone.  Alternatively, NGOs and quangos fire off a fusillade of demands that this allowance or that subvention should not only not be reduced but that, because their constituents are uniquely vulnerable, it should be increased (with wholly beneficial effects on the economy, of course).

And newspapers and other media blandly regurgitate the related press release without adding some proper analysis.

I am reminded of the famous candlestick makers’ petition revealed to us by Frédéric Bastiat (1801-1850) wherein they asked the French government “to pass a law requiring the closing of all windows, dormers, skylights, inside and outside shutters, curtains, casements, bull’s-eyes, deadlights, and blinds — in short, all openings, holes, chinks, and fissures through which the light of the sun is wont to enter houses, to the detriment of the fair industries with which, we are proud to say, we have endowed the country, a country that cannot, without betraying ingratitude, abandon us today to so unequal a combat”.

And how did our resourceful candlestick makers justify their demands? By pointing to the wonderful effects such a law would have on economic activity:

First, if you shut off as much as possible all access to natural light, and thereby create a need for artificial light, what industry in France will not ultimately be encouraged?

If France consumes more tallow, there will have to be more cattle and sheep, and, consequently, we shall see an increase in cleared fields, meat, wool, leather, and especially manure, the basis of all agricultural wealth.

If France consumes more oil, we shall see an expansion in the cultivation of the poppy, the olive, and rapeseed. These rich yet soil-exhausting plants will come at just the right time to enable us to put to profitable use the increased fertility that the breeding of cattle will impart to the land.

Our moors will be covered with resinous trees. Numerous swarms of bees will gather from our mountains the perfumed treasures that today waste their fragrance, like the flowers from which they emanate. Thus, there is not one branch of agriculture that would not undergo a great expansion.

The same holds true of shipping. Thousands of vessels will engage in whaling, and in a short time we shall have a fleet capable of upholding the honour of France and of gratifying the patriotic aspirations of the undersigned petitioners, chandlers, etc.

But what shall we say of the specialities of Parisian manufacture? Henceforth you will behold gilding, bronze, and crystal in candlesticks, in lamps, in chandeliers, in candelabra sparkling in spacious emporia compared with which those of today are but stalls.

There is no needy resin-collector on the heights of his sand dunes, no poor miner in the depths of his black pit, who will not receive higher wages and enjoy increased prosperity.

It needs but a little reflection, gentlemen, to be convinced that there is perhaps not one Frenchman, from the wealthy stockholder of the Anzin Company to the humblest vendor of matches, whose condition would not be improved by the success of our petition.

A wily bunch, these French candlestick makers.  But our own special-interest groups are more than a match for them.  I can already hear the thundering hooves as they launch their cavalry at the poor Minister, armed with blustering press releases and practised in tugging at our heart-strings.  Pass the popcorn.

Mike Godwin observed that, given enough time, in any online discussion—regardless of topic or scope—someone inevitably criticizes some point made in the discussion by comparing it to beliefs held by Hitler and/or the Nazis.  His law has become an established part of modern media and Internet culture.

I would like to propose a new law which states that, given enough time, in any discussion about Irish nationalist or Republican issues, someone inevitably criticizes some point made in the discussion by calling its proponent a “West Brit”. And just as with Godwin’s Law, the use of this term means (a) the discussion has come to a conclusion and (b) the person who uses it has ipso facto lost the argument.

You OK with that, Martin McGuinness?  No, I didn’t think so.  (See this report.)

Lowry should read Bastiat

27 September, 2011

So former Fine Gaeler Michael Lowry is miffed that the Government has turned down the plan he was promoting for a super-casino in Tipperary. That’s not a surprise, nor is it a surprise that the present incumbents have taken the first available opportunity to stick it to Michael, given his disgraceful and self-serving support of the last Government.  Of course it’s always possible that the fact that Lowry (whom Matt Cooper described as the most disreputable politician he’d ever met) was involved had nothing to do with the decision, and that it was made entirely on its merits. Anyway, the decision was undoubtedly the right one, whatever the reasons for it.

The Irish Times reported that

Mr Lowry …. said he wanted to support plans that would bring an economic boost and up to 2,000 jobs to his Tipperary North constituency….Thurles Chamber of Commerce president Austin Broderick said the area was “totally devastated” by the Government’s refusal to allow a large casino. “It’s unreal. One thousand jobs gone down the Swanee…”

Here we go again, with alleged job creation/saving potential being used to justify everything from continuance of dodgy tax breaks to loss-making capital investments, to opening yet more shops.  John Kay has neatly disposed of similar fallacies (see here), but to see the rebuttal done elegantly and forcefully, one needs to travel far back in time and read the works of Frédéric Bastiat (1801-1850), particularly his famous Parable of the Broken Window.

In Bastiat’s tale, a man’s son breaks a pane of glass, meaning the man will have  to pay to replace it. The onlookers consider the situation and decide that the  boy has actually done the community a service because his father will have to  pay the glazier to replace the broken pane.  The glazier will then presumably spend the extra money on something else,  thus helping the local economy. The onlookers come to believe that breaking  windows stimulates the economy, but Bastiat exposes the fallacy. By breaking the window, the man’s son has reduced his  father’s disposable  income, meaning his father will not be able purchase new shoes or some  other luxury good. Thus, the broken window might help the glazier, but at the  same time, it robs other industries and reduces the amount being spent on  other goods. Net result: a loss to the economy overall.

Building a super-casino in Tipperary may create jobs, but overall it will have a negative effect on the economy as it will divert limited investment capacity from more sensible (and more socially responsible?) projects which, as it happens, would also create jobs.

You may have read about a report prepared by Amárach Research which said that if consumers were to spend as little as €4 extra a week on Irish-produced goods then over 6,000 new jobs could be created. Minister for Enterprise and Jobs Richard Bruton formally launched the research in Dublin last Monday.

This prompted an Irish Times editorial urging us to Buy Irish, and the editorial was in turn criticised by a letter to the editor of 8th September .

The letter-writer was 100% correct in his scepticism about these developments, for such campaigns constitute a form of “soft” protectionism: if we are consistently willing to favour Irish products which are either more expensive or of lesser quality than the equivalent import, then we allow Irish producers to be less efficient than foreign competitors, and thereby almost ensure that they will not be able to compete with them in overseas markets.  This condemns Irish firms to being small-scale domestic producers.

Any campaign to Buy Irish is against the spirit (if not the letter) of the law governing the Single Market, and we have more to lose than to gain if other EU countries follow suit.

The Irish Times editorial did admit that “long-term prosperity depends on winning in world markets” but asserted that “a shot in the arm for the domestic economy is desperately needed in the short term”.  But what constitutes the short term?  Irish firms cannot postpone the achievement of greater efficiencies for even a short period, and I have no doubt that firms (under pressure from their workforce and the trade unions) will see any indulgence by the Irish consumer as an opportunity to postpone hard decisions.

More importantly, many of the inefficiencies and cost burdens under which Irish businesses toil are directly as a result of Government policy or inaction.  Whether it’s electricity costs, local government charges, unrealistic pay rates, gold-plating of EU directives or monopolistic legal fees, it is the government that is to blame for imposing high costs on Irish businesses, or allowing others to do so.

The “Buy Irish” campaign is a potential distraction from the meaningful reform that is needed to make Ireland competitive once again in the world marketplace; it should be regarded with suspicion, and treated as a red herring.

In Britain, Labour MP Frank Field and Conservative MP Nadine Dorries have tabled amendments to the Health and Social Care Bill which, if accepted, could result in a delay to women seeking an abortion.

The amendment will require GPs to refer women with  “crisis pregnancies” to independent organisations who do not themselves carry out the abortions, rather than refer them directly to an abortion provider. The proposal’s alleged aim is to ensure that advice and counselling is not carried out by organisations which may have a  “vested financial interest” in women going ahead with abortions, and to ensure that women are presented with  “all the information” by unbiased organisations.

However, Marie Stopes International believe that the proposed amendments risk limiting women’s access to expert counsellors who are trained in sexual and reproductive health.  They reminded politicians that the critical point was that women have rapid access to impartial, non-directive and expert advice from trained counsellors, if they decide they want it.

Last week, Suzanne Moore in The Guardian wrote an angry (and very frank) piece about the proposed changes and what she sees as their sinister motivation (It’s the same old game. Get your rosaries off my ovaries, as we used to say.)  Below is an extract.

This whole debate around counselling pivots on the idea of deep and private shame, positing the idea of counselling being used to sell an evil procedure. Women are always “vulnerable” dupes, never simply adults who have made decisions. Some weird pension analogy has been brought in, though health care is nothing like it as advice and services do often come from the same people  ie: doctors.

The truth is that, in theory, the argument about abortion is won. Most people, however uncomfortably, support a woman’s right to choose.  We feel that pushing a woman to give birth to a child she does not want is heartless. We know the lengths women go to. The moral cowardice of the Irish polity results in those women, often alone and shivery, whom you see on Ryanair flights.

There is little point trying to persuade those who are religiously opposed to abortion (though I am intrigued at the Catholic attitude to the foetus – miscarried babies are not buried as they are not baptised) but we can simply remind ourselves we are living in a largely secular democracy.

The secular democracy she refers to is, of course, Britain and not Ireland.  Irish politicians have dodged this issue for decades, leaving the Supreme Court to make all the running, and leaving gaps in the process.

As I commented previously, even in Ireland we implicitly, and necessarily,  recognise that the death of a foetus does not warrant the same legal protection as the death of a child or adult.  For otherwise our law would require that, every time a woman becomes pregnant but fails to deliver a live baby in due course, there would be a full and formal legal Inquest into the “death” of the “person” .   Under Irish law, an Inquest must be held if a coroner has reasonable cause to believe that a death occurred suddenly and/or from unknown causes.  That we don’t subject women to such a ridiculous process every time there is a miscarriage during a pregnancy demonstrates that even in Ireland we are prepared to accept that in practice a foetus does not warrant the same legal due process and protection as a fully formed human being.

But too many people continue to pretend otherwise.  For them, I finish with Suzanne Moore’s bitter comment:  “Loving the unborn more than the born is politically convenient, as the unborn do not have to be housed or educated or parented.”

Patrick Kennedy, the chief executive of bookmaker Paddy Power, has been invited to address the upcoming Fine Gael think-in to be held in Galway.  Mr Kennedy is a very fine fellow and a first-rate businessman, but the invitation to him should be politely withdrawn.

Firstly, a new betting tax regime is to be the subject of legislation in the near future. Kennedy has been vocal (in letters to the Irish Times and elsewhere) in setting out his views of how best this should work.  Betting tax has been reduced over the years from 10 per cent in stages down to 1 per cent, mainly on the initiative of former finance minister Charles McCreevy.  The government is reviewing a possible increase, and the extension of betting tax to online betting.  This is still all up for grabs, so it seems wrong that a major industry player should be given a platform at a sensitive time.  A hostage to fortune is being given, and FG may regret the perceived “contamination” if the legislation is judged to be soft on the betting industry.

Secondly, without being unduly po-faced or prim about it, gambling is still a controversial business, and causes a lot of hardship and unhappiness in many homes around the country.  I am not in favour of a general prohibition on gambling (I enjoy a flutter myself), although I do not believe that casinos should be legalised as they attract criminals and other undesirables like bees to honey.

Thirdly,  betting and gambling do not add value to society in an economic sense in the way agriculture, manufacturing or certain service industries do.  It is a zero-sum game.  The lure of riches through gambling is as illusory as the delusion we suffered during the boom that we could become rich by selling houses to each other; both are economically worthless.

There are many other chief executives that could have been invited to speak to FG members next month, so it seems a pity that the person chosen represents an industry which, while at best providing harmless amusement, is usually never far from controversy and which should , with legislation imminent,  be treated as a bit of a hot potato at this time.

Peter Mair, who died recently, was a leading political scientist, well known in Ireland and Europe. The Irish Times last Saturday published an edited version of his recent address to the MacGill Summer School. Part of it dealt with the Irish electorate’s attitude to the State and with our dysfunctional voting system.

The problem here is that we don’t respect our State. We have never respected our State. We have never had a sense of belonging for our State. If anything we have viewed the State as the enemy, as an oppressor, as something not to be trusted but to be taken advantage of.

That’s the culture of the cute hoors, the strokes, you get away with it and getting away with it against the State is getting away with something which is not us and doesn’t belong to us but belongs somewhere out there and it is not ours . . . We have in Ireland an electoral system that you might call amoral localism – which is that you do anything you can to benefit your locality and your constituency and your district, and your TD will do anything he can to benefit your locality and your district and your constituency and, in a sense, damn everything else…..

We have been so busy as citizens in ensuring the representation of our own interests and those of our constituencies that we have lost sight of the broader, collective interest, we have lost sight of that a long time ago. We exert great control over our TDs [but] have never sought to exert any control over our governments.

And the result is a huge vacuum in terms of responsibility and in terms of authority right at the centre of the stage of government. As citizens, we never held our governments accountable for their policies – we are too busy holding our TDs accountable for their local activities.

Mair said the first change that was needed is a change in our electoral system (which of course is one of my hobby horses).

From my point of view there are at least three things which should be done. These are small things and relatively easy to do but if you look across Europe, maybe important things to do.

The first is we need to reform our electoral system. What sort of electoral system we get instead is more open to question but we need to get away from this multiseat constituency competition which ensures great representation of Irish voters but also leads to amoral localism and this aggregates our voices. Michael D Higgins once said that Irish politics disaggregates the poor – it doesn’t just disaggregate the poor, it disaggregates everybody except the special interests.

I’m not sure that I agree that changing our electoral system is a small thing and relatively easy to do: firstly, turkeys are not accustomed to voting for Christmas so the present incumbents are likely to oppose change in a system which has worked well for them; and secondly, when alternative systems are proposed we find that they are shot down as not being perfectly suited to Irish conditions – as Voltaire supposedly said, “the best is the enemy of the good”.

I have posted on this subject a number of times, for instance here and here.  Good to see that the late Peter Mair was of the same mind.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.