Monthly Archives: July 2011

Thoughts on Cloyne report and Clerical Child Abuse

I have been out of the country the last few weeks, in italy, so have only been really following the situation from afar on the appalling responses to the Cloyne revelations. However, the speech by Enda Kenny to the Dail (Irish Parliament) is one that I wholeheartedly welcome. However, its clear to my non legal mind that there has been a concerted and longrunning perversion at the heart of much of Irish catholic clerical and religious interaction with children, and to their institutional response to the state as it tried, haltingly and late in the day though it might have been, to investigate and deal with same.

There have been calls for the government to ‘get tough’ with the church. How would this work in practice? Can I suggest a few things that would be (in my view) appropriate and proportionate in making it clear that the church should, as someone said ‘render unto caesar (or enda) that which is caesar’s’…’

  • First, its astonishing that while teachers need to be vetted for working with children non teaching religious , such as the parish priest who is usually the chairman of the school board or the bishop who is usually the patron of the school are not. Lets start there and require that…it would be interesting to see the extent of non certification. Lets have all priests and all religious, whose works of necessity takes them into regular and close contact with children, be vetted. Its heartening that the present Bishop in charge of cloyne diocese has started this process for all priests.
  • Second, lets grasp the bull by the horns and take control of the schools from religious. All of them. Of all religions. If people want their children to have religious instruction thats great, but lets consider if that should be part of the STATE system or better done by the religious themselves. The state pays for the system, so let it call the tune now. The many religious that wish to deploy their talents and skills in teaching can do so on the same basis and on the same conditions as lay teachers, and the state take over the land and buildings of all the schools. If the church wishes to run the schools, let them find the money..
  • Third, I am not a lawyer…but, its interesting that recently a man was jailed for six months for impeding a police investigation into a case of manslaughter. There seems to me to be compelling circumstantial evidence that the irish and vatican hierarchy were actively impeding the state investigations, and were described as at best ‘unsupportive‘ in the words of the investigating judge. Might a garda investigation into this not be warranted, or even perhaps an investigation to ascertain if there was conspiracy to pervert the course of justice?
  • Fourth, do we really need an ambassador to both Italy and the Vatican? Can one not do both? After all, were broke…
  • Fifth, the catholic church is great at keeping records. Lets send in the Gardai to all bishops palaces and record repositories, seize all documents, pc’s etc and launch a forensic investigation of who knew what when where. And while we are at it we might want the Garda Ombudsman Commission to launch an investigation into the way that the Gardai handled or not complaints over the years…
Until the catholic church in ireland truly demonstrates that it takes seriously the abuse of children, until it agrees to hand over all information, until it agrees to respect the law of the land as its superior, they are on a road to nowhere

What Italian holidays tell me about ireland

I have just returned from a couple of weeks in Italy, where we usually holiday.   I like food,  and I like cooking, and I have to say that in 10 years travelling in Italy I have never had a bad meal.  I’ve had a few things that I wouldn’t particularly care to have again,  but that’s a matter of taste.

We usually travel in the North/Centre region, stretching from Lombardy, through Veneto, to Emilia-Romagna, Tuscany (although not recently), Le Marche especially, Umbria and occasionally northern Lazio, an interesting region from a culinary perspective as it combines sea and mountain in a diversity of cuisine that is hard to find elsewhere. We mostly stay in agritourismo lodgings, which are typically beautiful, and can be found all over the place. Take for instance the Antica Torre, near Salsomaggiore Terme, €45 per night bed and breakfast, wonderful pool in the most wonderful silence but only 3km from a bustling town, a great small restaurant on site if needed…paradise.


The thing that usually strikes me when eating out initially is the value. You can spend enormous amounts of money on Italian food and drink, Britain spend very little. But it’s been my invariant experience that the quality/price reseal is such that all levels one gets enormous value for money. Part of this is probably just set them on holiday, part is due to the fact I’m sure that where possible we try to eat outside and everybody knows that food eaten outside (especially with a couple of glass of wine) always tend to taste nicer. Nonetheless when one finds for example that one can get a cup of coffee, and by this I mean a proper Italian espresso, and a croissant or brioche in the main railway station in Rome, Termini station, for €1.30  then you have to conclude that the value for money is going to be high.

This year as we have done for the last three years we returned to Gubbio.  It’s a wonderful Umbrian hill town, reasonably well visited during the day, but at night almost deserted by tourists.  That’s their loss, as are some fantastic restaurants in town.  Again in terms of value for money, but also in terms of sheer quality of the food, Locanda del Cantiniere   wins hands down.

It’s no surprise that this restaurant is consistently rated by tripadvisor  as being the number one restaurant in Gubbio.  They offer, for €28, a five course gourmet tasting Menu which is one of the best eating experiences that  I believe one can have.    Two starters are provided, the first a mixture of local mountain cheese with wild honey served with side of salami from Norcia ( which in addition to being the birthplace of St  Benedict is also generally believed to be the home of the best salami and dried sausages in Italy) ,  followed by scamorza affumicata , a smoked mozzarella style cheese which was served having been baked gently with some pancetta.

Of course, the courses were excellent, as one might expect, we ate there two nights, on one night I had their saffron and prawn risotto,

on the other night I had a wonderful   flat pasta, similar to papardelle, served with beans and anchovies in a magnificent powerful aromatic pasta and sweet pepper sauce.

I had sweet wine for dessert one night, and Macedonia della fruita , or fruit cocktail as we would call it.  What was most interesting was their beef – they were very proud of their beef, which they proudly told us was the best in the world, and despairing of my massacring the italian language , then came out bearing a booklet, and lo and behold it  came from ….Ireland. So the agrifood export sector has one success at least!

Its when you consider the relative cost of the eating and general tourist experience in Ireland versus Italy that you realize how much more expensive we are. I know there are fantastic bargains to be had in Ireland but consider…

  • From Vignola to Bologna by train, €6.40, a distance of 33km each way, versus say Sallins to Heuston, some €12 or so 
  •  the most delicious pizza, with queues out the door, right behind the Piazza dei Priori in Perugia and in the height of the world famous Perigia Jazz festival for €6-7 versus  €9-13 for similar sized at the excellent Ballymore Inn
  •  the most sublime café macchiato for €1  within sight of the duomo in Orvieto versus €2 or more 
  •  a large plate of  prosciutto outside Parma, where else, for €6 versus at least €10 for any sort of same and I think one will agree the chances of getting something like the below are slim, a single serving doing two hungry travellers.
  •  a (half liter) beer, small pizza, large cheese and porchetta sandwich, two coffees and a liter of chilled san Pellegrino for €11 versus a respondent to my text outlining same paying €11 for a soup and sandwich in cork the previous day…

I could go on and on, but I think you get the message. Oh, and no, its probably not the high wages we (don’t) pay in the Irish tourism and hospitality sector…Eurostat data suggest that as of 2008 the hourly wage rate for Ireland and italy in the hospitality and restaurants sector was pretty much identical. While tourism is a major industry in this country and in Italy,  we cannot compete with them on weather so must compete elsewhere. As of now, its not clear to me that costwise we are doing what we can. 

(FWIW, I come from a family background in tourism, have family members involved in same breaking their a$$es trying to compete with NAMA zombie hotels, and have spent manys the happy shortbreak in Ennis, Galway and the west, so its not that we dont have the product…its the relative cost especially of eating out…) 

A league of their own

Universities are complicated beasts, with multiple products and multiple stakeholders. It is folly to think that any one metric can ever completely or even adequately capture what goes on. That said, there is a large and booming business in metrics. And a large and booming industry in debunking them for good or evil. But, there they are and there they will stay. Rankings are not cardinally useful perhaps : what does 8th best mean?  They are and should be seen as ordinal with 8th better (whatever that means) than 80th, but the degree of ordinality might be one to ponder (what is the difference between 8th and 10th anyhow?)

For what its worth, the QS rankings are a decent attempt to move the issues along, relying on a mix of academic peer review (asking in essence other academics to say what schools and universities they think are good), employer feedback (would you hire someone with a degree from this school) and citations (a flawed but ‘acceptable’ measure of research impact). Not only do they do this for universities as a whole, but perhaps more intriguingly they do so for subject areas. Their methodology is well described and complex.

The rankings are made up with different weightings – some areas have a higher weight on one of the areas above than other, reflecting an attempt to , for example, recognize that citations are more relevant for science than humanities, and for some areas longer histories will give secularly higher ‘peer review’ simply from visibility. Is this perfect? By no means. Is it better than nothing? I suggest so. Here are the weights by subject area: it makes little sense to count citations in Performance art, while it makes a lot more sense in Medicine say.

Approx 2500 institutions were  ranked in some way in the mix, of the c 20,000 universities and third/fourth level institutions estimated to exist, which suggests that appearing in the top 200 is quite an achievement in and of itself.

Where do we find ourselves: below are some overall rankings by subject for 2011 (details of rankings below 50 not given except by broad category e.g. 51-100).

There is good news for irish higher education in the rankings but its not perhaps the news that the government would hear. Smart green nanobots are all well and good but we do not have massive evidenced university strength in these areas. We do have strength in some social and humanities areas, as well as emergent clusters. For what they are worth, see below. I have bolded the areas in which an Irish university (ok, ok, TCD the only one) appears in the top 50 worldwide

  • Sociology:  TCD 48; UCD 51-100
  • Statistics and OR: no Irish university in top 200, which is worrying as this is a key business analytics function and one that has great job opportunities.
  • Politics and International Relations: TCD 50, UCD 51-100
  • Law: TCD, QUB, UCD and UCC all in the 51-100 ranking, indicating a massive strength in legal scholarship on the island. We rarely hear of law as an area in which the government is going to invest, but clearly we have strength and it would make sense to build on this.
  • Economics and Econometrics: TCD and UCD are both ranked in the 51-100 area, and it is interesting that there is in place a jointly taught PhD programme in this area. Again it shows a cluster, Dublin based, of world ranked excellence in this area, which if one were to take the ESRI into account is even stronger
  • Accounting and Finance: TCD 51-100, QUB and UCD 100-151; some potential here it would seem especially when one considers the close linkages with economics. I might also modestly note, being in that area, that there are significant size differences between the three schools – TCD has 4 finance faculty and 3 accounting, the others have…more 🙂
  • English: TCD 32, UCD 51-100
  • Modern Languages TCD 51-100
  • History: TCD 39, QUB and UCD 51-100
  • Philosophy: TCD and UCD both 51-100
  • Geography: TCD and UCD 51-100, QUB 151-200
  • Linguistics: no Irish university was ranked in the top 200 here
  • Computer Science and Engineering: UCD 51-100, TCD 101-150,
  • Civil and Structural Engineering: TCD and UCD 100-151, QUB 151-200
  • Chemical Engineering: TCD QUB and UCD 51-100, NUIG 101-150, UCC 151-200
  • Electrical/Electronic Engineering: TCD and QUB 51-100, UCC 100-150, DIT (its only entry in a subject in the top 200) 151-200, also NUIG and UCD here
  • Mechanical Engineering: TCD and UCC 51-100, NUIG 101-150, UCD and QUB 151-200, again another engineering cluster of excellence
  • Medicine: TCD 51-100, UCD 101-150, UCC and QUB 151-200. Interesting that there is no mention of the RCSI here…
  • Biological Science: TCD 51-100, UCD and UCC 101-150, NUIG 151-200,
  • Psychology: TCD 48, UCD 51-100, QUB 151-200
  • Chemistry: TCD 36, QUB 51-100, UCD 101-150, UCC 151-200, which when combined with the chemical engineering rankings suggests that this is an area in which as an island we punch heavily worldwide
  • Physics: TCD 49, UCC QUB and UCD 151-200
  • Metallurgy and Material Science: UCD 151-200
  • Mathematics: TCD 15, a fantastic achievement indeed…UCD 101-150, UCC and QUB 151-200
  • Environmental Sciences: TCD, UCD and UCC all 101-150, QUB 151-200
  • Earth Science: TCD 101-150, NUIG, UCC and UCD 151-200

Very obviously, on these data anyhow, there is a clear distinction between TCD and UCD on the one hand (and I would suggest that TCD have an edge there as they alone gain rankings in the top 50 worldwide on a number of subjects) and the other universities and institutes on the other hand. Neither NUIM nor UL nor DCU   feature which might suggest that they form a separate pool, with the remaining universities in the middle.

This is of course deeply unfashionable, flies in the face of the rush towards ‘one size fits all’ , has implications for the idea of spreading the loot to all and sundry (which in a resource constrained environment means relative starving of the top at the expense of others) and would suggest that we already have two world class universities across a broad range of fields. If Ireland really wants to thrive in the knowledge economy, the findings here might suggest some clusters, both of areas and of universities, towards which funding and resources might flow disproportionally.

We might also wonder if it is a good way of aligning incentives to have the Prof of an area that is ranked by employers, academics and peers as being of the top class worldwide paid essentially the same as one that is to the same stakeholders all but invisible. Where is the incentive there?

This is not to say that we close or do not fund or downplay the other universities or areas ; it is to say that we reinforce success and hold it out as an example and challenge to the others. And no, we shouldn’t chase the rankings : we should chase excellence in research, in fitting employer needs, and in teaching, and that will cause higher rankings to emerge. Whether the present third level system of funding, resourcing and reward does this is another question.

competition and the banking boom – Terms and conditions apply

One of the by now accepted memes of the irish boom and bust is that left to their own devices the banks (well, AIB and BOI anyhow) would have toddled along as the staid institutions we all knew and loved, but that the dastardly forces of competition (with the finger pointing usually to either Anglo or to “foreigners“) made them engage in a race to the bottom of the standards market.

Every quarter Irish and indeed eurozone banks complete a survey on credit conditions. For whatever reason this (to me anyhow) fascinating survey doesnt get near enough attention when its released. The Central Bank do publish some commentary on it: see here for the page where it now lives, here for a description of the survey, and here for an analysis (as of 2007) and discussion. In essence the survey asks the chief lending officers to respond on the reasons behind the tightening or loosening of credit over the previous quarter. Some ad-hoc questions are also added but for the most part the questions are fixed across the eurozone. 5 banks (as of the april 2011 survey) are surveyed in Ireland. Although these are not named one can surmise that they would include AIB, Bank of Ireland, ILP and Anglo.

What do we see from the survey? I concentrate on the following questions :

Over the past three months, how have the following factors affected your bank’s credit standards as applied to the approval of loans or credit lines to enterprises (as described in question 1).

A) Price

* Your bank’s margin on average loans (wider margin = tightened, narrower margin = eased)

* Your bank’s margin on riskier loans

B) Other conditions and terms

* Non-interest rate charges

* Size of the loan or credit line

* Collateral requirements

* Loan covenants

* Maturity



Over the past three months, how have the following factors affected your bank’s credit standards as applied to the approval of loans or credit lines to enterprises (as described in question 1)

A) Cost of funds and balance sheet constraints

* Costs related to your bank’s capital position (1)

* Your bank’s ability to access market financing (e.g. money or bond market financing, incl. true- sale securitisation (2))

* Your bank’s liquidity position

B) Pressure from competition

* Competition from other banks

* Competition from non-banks

* Competition from market financing

C) Perception of risk

Expectations regarding general economic activity *Industry or firm-specific outlook

* Risk on the collateral demanded


Analogous questions, on the terms and conditions applied by the bank and on the credit standards applied are posed for loans for house purchase. Questions are ranked 1-5 where 3 is unchanged, 1 is tightened significantly and 5 loosened.

So what do we find?

First, lets look at the terms and conditions for house purchases

and for commercial (not just commercial property) loans

As we might expect on most issues, over the last couple of years, the terms and conditions that the banks were imposing on themselves or on customers, were acting to tighten lending standards. However, while some were acting to loosen standards in the 2003-07 period these were not massively so. Albeit self reported, there is no smoking gun on for example slacker LTV ratios or longer mortgages.

If we look at the factors acting to tighten or loosen credit standards, first for residential mortgages

and then on commercial (again not just commercial property) lending

we also see some myths debunked (or at least, they would be if we took the reports at face value). There is no significant evidence from these survey data that banks loosened credit standards consequent to competition. Mind you, the question is whether or not the data are accurate… While all survey data which ask qualitative information are only as good as the respondent is accurate, we have to take them as such absent any other information. Either the banks were engaged in the lending habits they were engaged in for reasons other than competition, or the respondents over the years honestly did not see the competitive issue as a major force.