So you’re a Chief Financial Officer or a tax advisor and you see That The Irish Times is trying to sell you tickets to a conference entitled “Corporate Tax. Are we Predator or Prey?”.    I reckon that two things will put you off right from the start.

Firstly, the conference title is provocative, and is very much in line with The Irish Times’ house view (which mirrors ICTU’s view) that a business-oriented low-tax system is in itself suspect.  So if you make your living by advising companies on how to reduce their tax bills, you would have to be prepared, while attending this conference, to be treated as if you were a smear of dog poo on somebody’s shoe.

Secondly, somebody with a sense of humour has lined up Fintan O’Toole as a speaker.  This strikes me as akin to having Donald Trump speak at a feminist conference, or The Iona Institute inviting Richard Dawkins to address their annual conference.  For O’Toole is your typical left-wing bubble-dwelling artsy social warrior, who regards all profit as either undistributed wages or a mortal sin.  That doesn’t prevent him being an excellent writer, by the way; it just means that when he writes about business or economics or taxation, he is completely out of his depth and the result is risible.

This is hardly surprising, as FO’T is literary editor of The Irish Times. Not the business editor, not the economics editor, not a taxation specialist, in fact not anybody with any expertise on these important subjects.  I can think of dozens of left-wingers who know more about economics and taxation that Fintan, any of whom would be capable of offering a useful contribution to this Corporate Tax Summit.  But The Irish Times insider gets the gig.

As I have said previously, The Irish Times wouldn’t habitually commission an economist or an accountant to write controversial articles on, say, literary novels or the theatre, where these are outside their sphere of competence.  So why does it regularly publish economically illiterate articles on finance, economics and taxation matters, written by a social and arts commentator?

Recent typical pronouncements by FO’T on Corporation Tax can be seen here and here. So if you pay good money to attend this conference, don’t say you weren’t warned.


In August 1922 a newspaper publisher named Robert W. Sawyer attempted to define what constitutes “news”.   The nearest he could come, he said, is: “If the paper wants it worse than the person handing it in, it’s news….if the person handing it in wants it published worse than the newspaper, it’s advertising.”

A variant of this has been attributed variously to Lord Northcliffe, William Randolph Hearst and others: “News is what people do not want you to print. All the rest is advertising.”

It helps to keep this principle in mind when reading the “Letters to the Editor” section of one’s newspaper.

The letters page with which I am most familiar is that of the Irish Times, which newspaper I still consume daily — albeit sometimes with gritted teeth, thanks to its over-concentration and preachiness on gender issues, an approach exemplified by (but not limited to) Una Mullally.

If you think that the “Paper of Record” would have the sense to shield its readers from too much propaganda and special pleading in its letters page, think again. Most days, the letters originate from people who have a vested interest in the matter on which they are commentating, and the writers appear to be given free range by the editor to bang their own drum.  Maybe the editor reckons that the readers of the Irish Times are a sophisticated lot who can see through such obviously self-serving contributions.  Or maybe he is fixated with the concept of “balance” and is afraid to close off his columns to all and any hired guns – sorry, lobbyists – sorry, I mean spokespersons.

Today’s letter page is not untypical. A mere 6 letters, so a bit smaller than usual.  But they include letters from:

  • three “masters” of Dublin maternity hospitals, explaining why the mastership system needs to be retained;
  • a senior executive with the International Energy Research Centre, advocating greater stimulation by the government of low-carbon technologies;
  • a representative of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation LGBT Group, voicing concern about how teachers are expected to deal with the recent papal document Amoris Laetitia;
  • a resident of one of Dublin’s most expensive neighbourhoods arguing that the local property tax is unjust and should be the subject of greater agitation (as in water-tax-protests).

Insofar as I can tell, the remaining two letter-writers have no vested interest in the matter about which they are writing.

So two-thirds of the letters appear to be from people expressing views which they are paid to propagate or which are in their own personal interest. This is not to say that the views being expressed are wrong, or that they are not genuinely held; however it is helpful (nay, vital) to understand the context in which the letter-writers operate, and how that context might be influencing or accentuating their views, or making it much more likely that they will feel the need to publicly advocate them in the letters pages of our newspapers.

So I have adopted an invariable practice when reading these letters: start at the end of the letter, and take note of what role the writer performs or is representing. Not only will this help to put the content of the letter in its proper context (as Upton Sinclair said: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it”), but it also allows me to forego reading the letter completely on some occasions, on the grounds that my store of objective truth will not be thereby enhanced, and life is too short to waste on mere propaganda.

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…..


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.



… when I find myself heartily agreeing with this letter in the Irish Times today:

Sir, – Can I assure the compiler of “What’s Hot/What’s Not” (Magazine, May 5th) that many of us who are over 60 are more than capable of navigating the intricacies of the Ryanair website.     Believe it or not, we actually also know how to boot up our computers, open a web browser, send an e-mail, and we even know that a mouse is not just a furry little creature you might find running around the house from time to time. – Yours, etc,  Finian Matthews,  St Margaret’s Road, Malahide, Co Dublin.

It was in response to a crass bit of “journalism” in the Irish Times magazine last Saturday (see picture).  It confirms my suspicion that editorial content in the magazine has been surrendered to a bevy of 20- and 30-year old women who have more in common with Ross O’Carroll Kelly than Kathleen Ni Houlihan.

Dan O’Brien had a good piece in Saturday’s Irish Times about house prices in Ireland.  But a couple of comments should be made.

Firstly, Dan (or the sub-editor) gave the piece the title “How low can house prices go?”  While the article was interesting in many respects, I don’t recall him answering that particular question.  OK, so headlines are always making false promises which the actual article fails to deliver;  not exactly Man Bites Dog.  Also, if you read the article expecting to see Dan’s own view, you would have been disappointed.

In fairness he does say “If the 2011 rate of decline in residential property prices continues for another 12 months, prices will fall by about 15 per cent from their current level. Given the headwinds facing the market, that is more likely than not.”  And he also notes that the Banks’ Stress Tests had a baseline assumption “that prices will fall by a further 20 per cent before the market hits bottom. In their worst-case scenario, the decline would be almost 30 per cent. That would bring the fall from the 2007 peak to 59 per cent.”

But it would have been nice to have the personal view of the Economics Editor of the Irish Times on the matter.

Secondly, and more surprisingly, Dan doesn’t seem too hot on the calculation of percentages.  Two sentences in the article offer contrasting views on the extent of the rise in Irish house prices during the bubble phase:

Compare “In the decade from the index’s start date, in early 1997, Irish property prices quadrupled” with “Although the US did not look out of the ordinary in the property-price rises it experienced from 1997 to 2006 (130 per cent compared with Ireland’s 400 per cent), it has suffered the second-worst rich-world crash (after Ireland)…”

Surely Dan doesn’t think that if a number quadruples, it has risen by 400%?  Surely he knows that it has only risen by 300%?  Must be an error by the pesky sub-editor again.

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.

From today’s Irish Times, another eggcorn:

Forget what the ads for cleaning products would have us believe, bacterial micro-organisms are crucial for our wellbeing …… The human body is a busy place teaming [sic] with alien life. Right now there are about 100 trillion micro-organisms inside you, tiny creatures that are living, dying, feeding, fighting, multiplying and happily occupying your inner space.

Not as classic an eggcorn as the last one I flagged, but yet another howler from Tara Street.  And they got the spelling right later in the article, which almost makes it more annoying.

I know, I know, I have become a grumpy old man banging on about declining standards in the print (and all other) media.  The Irish Times is a particular bugbear, on the basis that we are (we were?) entitled to expect reasonable grammar, punctuation and editing standards from the so-called Paper of Record.

My previous post referred to an article published recently in the Irish Times which was critical of celebrity economists.  That article had this howler:

On a faithful [sic] night in September 2008, the then minister for finance urgently needed advice. Astonishingly, he knocked on David McWilliams’s door….

What are editors/sub-editors for? 

 Coincidentally, I had recently been reading about this particular solecism, which has been bestowed with the useful name “eggcorn”.  Wikipedia tells us that, in linguistics, an eggcorn is an idiosyncratic substitution of a word or phrase for a word or words that sound similar or identical in the speaker’s dialect. The new phrase introduces a meaning that is different from the original, but plausible in the same context, such as “old-timers’ disease” for “Alzheimer’s disease”.

There is even an online database of such eggcorns here (I like damp squidthrows of passion).  Enjoy.

From the Irish Times a few days ago:

GERMANY’S MOST influential economist has said the Irish economy is “in rude health” and the incoming government should increase income taxes before demanding a cut in interest rates on Ireland’s EU-IMF loans.

Prof Hans-Werner Sinn, head of Munich’s Ifo economic institute, insisted yesterday that Ireland doesn’t need any EU bailout because there was “huge room to manoeuvre” on tax.

The German tax ratio is 40 per cent and the Irish is 29 per cent, 11 percentage points lie in between,” he said. “If you take just three points from the 11 you still have a huge difference to Germany and would have all the money you need.”

He said the Irish desire to renegotiate an interest rate cut was understandable, but that it should not be considered “if Ireland isn’t prepared to increase its taxes”.

“Ireland is a country in rude health, in no way comparable to Greece and I cannot understand any of these insolvency stories, there’s no reason to place Ireland under the rescue shield,” said Prof Sinn, head of the Ifo institute which is behind Germany’s closely watched monthly business confidence index.

His pronouncements on our tax take are rubbish, and I’m surprised not to see the figures being challenged.  It is very important, given the continuing debate as to whether we should place the emphasis on cutting public sector costs or on raising taxes further, that we at least use correct figures when referencing our existing tax burden.

It would appear that Prof Sinn is basing his diatribe on Taxation trends in the European Union, 2010 edition which uses outdated 2008 numbers and, moreover,  bases the comparative ratios on Gross Domestic Product (GDP), not on Gross National Product (GNP).  Ireland’s GDP figure is distorted by multinational profits and their repatriation, and is some 20% higher than our GNP (in most countries the figures are effectively the same).  It is therefore misleading where Ireland is concerned to compare our tax burden based on % of GDP.   

In addition, as anybody who lives in Ireland can tell you, Irish taxes have risen sharply since 2008  and GDP/GNP has fallen significantly.  Therefore, I would be surprised if our tax take wasn’t now higher than the German tax take in percentage of GNP terms.

The other factor which may be at play here (and I would be grateful if some reader would confirm this) is that sometimes elements of PRSI are excluded from reported tax take and netted in our statistics against certain social welfare costs.  This naturally has the effect of understating the tax burden ratio.

I have a horrible feeling that we will see Prof Sinn’s comments regurgitated by the usual suspects (Vincent Browne / Fintan O’Toole / Social Justice Ireland / ICTU etc), not because his pronouncements are accurate, but because they assist a particular agenda.  And if as a result policy is skewed excessively towards higher taxes, or our case for lower EU/IMF interest rates is damaged, we will ultimately all be the poorer.

Great coverage in yesterday’s Irish Times of the General Election results.  Over 12 inside pages, there are stories and statistics from around the constituencies, plus plenty of photographs of successful and unsuccessful candidates at the various count centres.

Now only 15% of the total candidates in the election were women, and the same proportion of the successful candidates were women.

However, the Irish Times seemed to be adhering to a 40% quota rule, as 10 of the 24 candidates it featured in photographs from count centres were women (including all 4 on page 15).   This is nearly three times the number one would expect, if the photographs chosen for publication were selected randomly and accurately reflected the gender divide among candidates.

I’m not complaining about this, as nothing much turns on it.  Just pointing it out.  I suppose that if I were a sub-editor in the Tara Street gynecocracy, I too would be keen to show my awareness of gender issues by including as many photos of our TD sisters as is possible.  The fact that 85% of voters actually choose to elect men is neither here nor there.

Sarah Carey has a useful piece in today’s Irish Times.  She deals with (and comes out against) the suggestion that emigrants should (even if they don’t pay Irish taxes) have a vote in Irish elections. I find it incredible that votes for emigrants is being seriously suggested, given that (a) the Irish diaspora is very large relative to the size of the resident population and (b) non-residents wouldn’t have to live with the fiscal consequences of decisions made by the politicians they would help to elect – a basic unfairness.

Votes for non-tax-paying emigrants is another example of woolly thinking by the chattering classes, based on sentiment rather than practical reality.    If we are going to make changes to our electoral laws, then we should instead focus our energies on changing our system to one that will help reduce the impact of clientelism and parish pump politics – such as the one suggested recently by former Attorney-General John Rogers.

An extract from Sarah Carey’s article:

There has to be a mechanism whereby those who vote have to consider the personal consequences of that vote. Living here means you have to live with your decision. Sadly, you have to live with other people’s decisions too but that’s another day’s work.

I like too the guiding principle of “no taxation without representation”. It’s not reasonable that people who don’t pay taxes to the State should be allowed to have a say in how those taxes are collected and distributed. Those living in Ireland, no matter how poor, will pay tax, directly or indirectly.

If we are to change this system and insist that citizenship and not residency is the basis of the franchise, the right to vote must come with some corresponding obligations. Paying tax is the obvious choice.

We know of course that in the American War of Independence, the rallying cry “no taxation without representation” helped to bind together the insurgent forces.  However, thinking about the words quoted above, I wonder did the sub-editors mistakenly amend what I suspect Sarah intended to write in the second paragraph.  If she had written “no representation without taxation”  instead of “no taxation without representation”, it would have made more sense!

In passing, I note that a wicked friend of mine opposed the election of Mary McAleese as President of the Republic of Ireland: his reasoning was that the principle of “no representation without taxation” should apply and, as Mrs McAleese was tax-resident in a “different jurisdiction” (ie the United Kingdom), she should not be our most exalted representative.

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.

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.

Today’s Irish Times has an interesting (but not particularly unusual) juxtaposition of stories from around the world.

On page 11, the aftermath of an earthquake in New Zealand is given extensive coverage, amounting to almost half a page.   Number of fatalities incurred: zero.

On page 8, details of a riverboat fire in Congo are (barely) given – three column inches I would estimate. Estimated number of fatalities incurred:  200.

So to sum up, it’s big news if there is a non-fatal earthquake in a small white, rich, country on the other side of the world.  But it barely justifies a mention if 200 poor black people are killed in an accident in a country which is a lot closer to home.

This is not a criticism of the Irish Times (for once), as I am confident that they are accurately reflecting the news demands of their readers. 

But it starkly shows how we regard Africa generally: a place so full of death, disease, famine and downright brutality that we don’t really want (or need?) to know  about the latest disaster, even if 200 deaths are involved.  There are just so many horror stories one can be exposed to, before fatigue and numbness sets in. (A lesser, domestic, example is the fact that many Irish people have stopped reading to and listening to the domestic news because it is so unrelentingly gloomy on the financial and political front.)

Sub-Saharan Africa is such a dreadful mess (with one or two honourable exceptions) that the Western world is in danger of losing interest.  Maybe the Chinese can sort it out.

The disgraceful NIMBY-ism of John Gormley in relation to the proposed incinerator in his constituency (see this article for instance) brings to mind, once again, the problems caused by having ministers who are appointed from the ranks of Dáil members. 

Among the problems this causes are: that national interests are subjugated to local issues when a minister’s constituency is involved; that ministers spent too much time ensuring their re-election and thus never properly master their brief; and that we scandalously limit the pool of talent for ministerial appointments to people who are good at constituency-massaging but often little else.

Dan O’Brien wrote an excellent piece last November in the Irish Times  (before his appointment as that newspaper’s economics editor), in which he dealt with

the very unusual insistence that ministers are members of the Oireachtas. As most democracies believe that separating powers is a cornerstone of good governance, their parliamentarians are usually barred from simultaneously holding ministerial office, either by law or by convention.

The benefits of this separation are obvious. It means that ministers devote themselves fully to their ministries – emphatically not the case in Ireland where most ministers spend as much time on near-permanent re-election campaigns in their constituencies as they do formulating and executing policy.

Separating those who sit in parliament from those who sit around the cabinet table also allows prime ministers to recruit beyond a necessarily tiny pool of professional politicians.

In most democracies, people with no links to politics, but with real expertise, management skills and records of achievement are made ministers. Their primary function is to get things done, not get themselves re-elected. In Ireland, appointing non-TDs to ministerial office is looked down upon as “undemocratic” by many. Anyone who believes Ireland’s way is more democratic should observe how politics works in the country’s closest comparable peers where ministers are never MPs: Austria, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland. Delusions of Irish democratic superiority would quickly be dispelled.

I have little doubt that if a talented and constituency-independent minister were in charge of this issue, the incinerator would be up and running without delay.  But I’ve been told by wiser heads that expecting Irish politicians to initiate such a change in the way ministers are appointed is akin to asking turkeys to vote for Christmas. 

So we wallow in a constitutional trap, a political vicious circle: the present arrangements have led to politicians and ministers of inferior quality, but they are the very people who have to promote the necessary constitutional changes; and they know that to do so, although very much in the national interest, is against their own selfish interests.

We are stuck with second-rate gombeens when we need disinterested patriots.

Lost in fog (part 73)

7 August, 2010

I note that the Irish Times obtains its weather forecasts from, whoever they are.  As I have already observed, they seem to think that we are an incredibly foggy country.  Almost every day, we are led to believe, starts with Ireland shrouded in fog.  Today is typical.


“It is not the clear-sighted who rule the world.

Great achievements are accomplished in a blessed,

warm fog.”    –  Joseph Conrad


My hopes were cruelly raised yesterday by the headline on the main Irish Times editorial (“Our crowded planet”).  Aha, I thought, Madam is going to speak out about the awful impact which population growth is having on the environment and on quality of life and on prospects for peace and stability, and call for concerted action to deal with this impending self-inflicted tragedy.

So I read on, noting the extensive references to new and worrying projections from the Population Reference Bureau, and waiting for the call to arms (metaphorically, of course) which would surely bring the editorial to a conclusion with a flourish.  But no, the whole editorial consisted of a bland regurgitation of population-related facts from the PRB  and elsewhere, with some mention of what the implications of unchecked population growth are for age demographics in the developed world.  You will look in vain for any trace of what is the actual opinion of the editor (or editorial staff) of the Irish Times.

In fact, now that I think about it, I can’t remember the last time this newspaper published an editorial which expressed a view that was even mildly controversial.  It’s all motherhood and apple pie, as the saying goes. This is in contrast to leading newspapers in say the United Kingdom, whose editors do appear to have real and interesting views on important matters, and are not afraid to publish them.

Maybe my expectations are too high.  Maybe our Newspaper of Record has decided it doesn’t need to have any editorial opinions any more, preferring to play it safe by letting its hired-gun columnists express definitive views on matters of importance. Or maybe it has gone the way of almost all our politicians, who are afraid of offending any potential voter and so express no real opinions on any difficult subject (or maybe they are such gombeens that they actually hold no such opinions?).

Yes, the Irish Times does give space to writers who take all sorts of positions on controversial topics – see for example this article on the population issue – but I don’t think this is adequate.  Readers are entitled to expect that the editor of the Newspaper of Record will present a real opinion in her editorial column on matters of great importance such as world overpopulation (just as the Financial Times did in this editorial last September).

So, madam, please start to earn your (over) generous salary, which is paid for by us readers, and give us some editorials of substance.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
(William Butler Yeats )

I’m usually a fan of Sarah Carey.  But I am having second thoughts after she wrote a most unfair (bitchy?) article about Richard Bruton in Wednesday’s Irish Times.  Fittingly for a piece in which she played the man instead of the ball, she headlined and introduced it with World Cup references.  The first paragraph gives a foretaste of the quality of what’s to follow:

Ladies, have you checked out the German manager with the porn-star good looks? Thick, shiny black hair, a chiselled jawline and that steel-blue T-shirt and jacket ensemble showcasing a well-toned torso.

But the really dodgy bit comes later when she discloses details of a one-on-one meeting she had with Richard Bruton.

It was so odd. He was as pleasant as you’d expect, but his body language was really disconcerting. He couldn’t look me in the eye. He shrank away from me. He rocked and fidgeted. When I say he adopted a defensive pose I don’t mean that he simply crossed his arms but he was actually hugging his knee, drawing it up to protect himself. From what? He knows who I am for heaven’s sake.

This is objectionable stuff, even if she thinks it’s an accurate portrayal of what she perceived (and I suspect some artistic license was used).  It’s also irrelevant, as her meeting was arranged to discuss Bruton’s policies in relation to banking issues, and not his schmoozing ability.  Maybe he didn’t fawn over her as much as she expected?  Maybe he was impervious to her (undoubted) charms?  Give me somebody of intellect and integrity any day, rather than a chancer who can effortlessly work a room and charm the pants off women;  we had enough of that with Charlie Haughey.

The meeting also presumably happened some time ago.  Moreover, Bruton’s demeanour on the day in question might have been caused by any number of factors, and he was entitled to assume that Carey was interested in the substance of the issues rather than presentation.  To some extent, the Kenny/Bruton battle was about this very issue,  substance over style.

The timing of Carey’s piece seemed calculated to hurt Bruton at a critical juncture in the run-up to yesterday’s parliamentary party confidence vote.  If somebody in the Kenny camp had wanted to plant an article to damage their opponent, they couldn’t have done much better than this.  However I have no doubt that Sarah Carey would not allow herself to be used in this manner, no matter who asked her, so I assume that she really does believe that Kenny is a better choice than Bruton as leader of the party she (presumably) supports.

Still, I’m struggling to explain why Carey was compelled to write such a personalised and damaging article about Kenny’s opponent.  Is there something I don’t know?

Forty shades of fog

24 January, 2010

The Irish Times is considered by many, including itself presumably, to be the Paper of Record.  I suppose the standard of journalism in the IT is the least worst of all the Irish newspapers (although its business coverage is often not as good as that of the Irish/Sunday Independent).

But where on earth does the Irish Times get its 5-day weather forecast for Ireland?

Below is typical of what is on offer.  Almost every day, we are led to believe, starts with the country shrouded in fog. 

Now I’m prepared to admit that early morning fog can occasionally be experienced in Ireland, although I suspect that its incidence is less than a couple of days per month on average.  The Irish Times would have us believe that it happens at least 4 days out of 5.

This is so daft that I have to assume that it’s part of a cunning plan on the part of the IT to entice sentimental foreigners to visit Ireland.  After all, the sort of thing that many of them expect to come across, besides freckled red-haired children running barefoot through the countryside, are mist-shrouded castles, and the plaintive moos of cattle as they gather in foggy fields.

I wonder if the plan is working….

No pipe did hum, no battle drum
Did sound its dread tattoo
But the Angelus bell o’er the Liffey’s swell
Rang out in the foggy dew.