Tag Archives: politicians

What might radical politics look like in an Irish context?

So Renua has been born, a new Irish political party. New ideas and new blood are always good ideas in democracy, and even if there is not a whole pile of it evident so far the principle should be applauded.Their website and documents are full of rhetoric on a new kind of politics and a new set of ideas. Reading them I am not at all convinced that they are anything but a weakly brewed tea party lite, pro business and anti state, with what seem like parroted quasi-libertarian phrases at every turn. Maybe I am wrong.

What would, to my mind, a set of radical ideas look like? Here are some, very few of which I would imagine would be to the liking of the Renualistas. I’m sure that I could think of another 20 or 30 given time but these will do for a start.  A party that stood for these and which wasn’t tainted with decades of reneging on promises at the first whiff of the interior of a government Mercedes would be attractive to me. I have no idea to whom else they would be attractive but…

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Baa Baa Baaackbenchers and IrishWater

I support, broadly, the idea of water charges. I am aghast at how badly structured, managed, organised etc is Irish Water.

When the Seanad resumes, Fergal Quinn, a man not normally associated with common causes for the hard left, will introduce a bill to take the PPS issue off the table. He will require IW to delete existing databases and to stop collection of same. And, he is 100% right in this. There are other perfectly acceptable and just as good ways to prove the existence of a child. This may pass the Seanad but is likely to die in the Dail.

It will die in the Dail because the Baa Baa Baaackbenchers, pictured above carefully and independently making up their mind on how to vote, will vote as the government determines. These same buckos will however decry that fact, will tell us that they are on our side and agree 100% with Senator Quinn. Some will, without doubt or shame, parade their tattermedallion consciences and brass necks at the various parades and marches against Irish Water today.

If you spot a Baa Baa Baackbencher, the thing to do is …nothing.  Dont engage. Dont acknowledge. Dont ask questions, dont do anything. When they rediscover their moral compass, packed carefully away in February 2011, then they can talk. Until then they can bleat on.

Anglo, Politicians and the bogs…

I kinda like Joan Burton. No, not in strange way, but she always seemed (at least in 2008-9-10) to have a good solid handle on the banking calamity. It’s a pity she got the smeared end of the stick when labour went into government. Actually, when you think of it – labour got the ‘go away out foreign and don’t bother us’ Foreign Ministry post for its leader, the ‘minister for hardship’ for Howlin, the ‘minister for rolling back the welfare state’ for Burton and all for what?

Anyhow, I kinda like her.

I have no animus towards Billy Kelleher TD either. I have met the man once, over a coffee at a summer school and he seemed an affable enough version of FF V2.03, Haughey free and not too infected with the Bert virus.

That said, the interplay between the two of them on the RTE Saturday news show “Saturday with Claire Byrne”  (what used to be Saturday view when Rodney Rice ran it) was enough to cause me to begin to lose the will to live. In fact there were two episodes, either of which would cause one to lose hope in the ability of the Irish political system to take any form of action.

The first interplay was around the Anglo tapes. Claire Byrne asked both of them their reaction and also about  the allegations (which I note here) by the Taoiseach that the main thing from any inquiry was to uncover collaboration between FF and the bankers (because we didn’t know that they were close….). All round the country people are outraged at the arrogance and petulance of the anglo dudes and still, for we are a charmingly naieve people, look to the political class for leadership and some indication that there will be justice or even vengeance. Instead of a measured reaction from two intelligent people about the tapes, about the constitutional problems of the dail holding inquiries that apportion decisions and blame, about the nature of banking and finance, we got…squabbling. Political point scoring, squabbling, polite point scoring and name calling, and a degree of disconnect from the issues that was dispiriting. It’s a game. What we have in politics bears as much resemblance to the concerns of the ordinary world as Kabuki theatre does to the realities of modern day Japanese life.

The second spirit sapping discussion came at the end, neatly bookmarking a show that resembled a political sandwich with a policy vacuum as filling. We heard about the turf cutting standoff. Farmers had moved heavy machinery onto protected peat bogs and were engaging in strip-mining it.  Lets be clear – this wasn’t a few auld lads with sleans and bottles of tae but commercial contractors, doing to protected boglands the same as illegal mahogany loggers do in the rainforest .  This was being done on boglands that were designated special conservation areas under EU and Irish law. There were police present including a superintendent, a senior officer. The reporter noted that they were leaning over a ditch observing the law-breaking…observing it mind, not stopping it, not arresting those engaging in it, looking on at it. Again here was an opportunity for our political leaders to show leadership. During the show we had talked about the need for the Anglo issues to be dealt with, in criminal court if needed. We had talked about the legal aspects of the dail inquiry and on the need for forensic and detailed examinations of what happened when where and how. Then we moved onto flagrant, public, mass law-breaking in front of police….the two politicians hemmed and hawed, admitting that yes it was a breach of the law but there were circumstances, issues, complications etc.  I asked how many of those breaking the law on the bog would that evening be supping stout in the pub decrying the anglo chaps and urging the full rigor of the law to be applied, to silence.

If we don’t get leadership, if we cant get leadership, from two intelligent thoughtful politicians, if we cannot get them to urge on national radio that the law be respected fully and it be challenged by legal peaceful means only as we are a mature and peaceable democracy, then we wont be always. People will rightly despair that a state which allows open defiance of a senior police officer who is not then supported 100% by politicians, that that state can ever come to grips with as complex a catastrophe as the banking crisis that has engulfed us.


Why we should keep and abolish the Seanad ; Sean(s), Science and Senators

Sometimes a debate comes along in the upper house that is worth listening to. Usually, and this is I think, down to the (limited) franchise, this comes from the university senators.

Last week Senator Sean Barrett (TCD) moved a series of amendments to the Industrial Development (Science Foundation Ireland)(Amendment) Bill 2012. This bill is in essence to extend the remit of Science Foundation Ireland to allow it to fund not just basic but also applied research. Now, lets leave aside the research on how hard it is for government to “pick winners” (actually, lets not…see this very balanced research paper) the bill like all bills goes through the process of the Seanad reviewing it. Bear in mind that the bill is for a multibillion euro process which will convey enormous power and clout on a quango. No matter how good a quango or how optimal its solutions may emerge as being, its surely a good idea to have many views on the design.

Sean Barret proposed a series of amendments. They are as below. Not one got to be incorporated in the bill. Not one. In many cases (See the debate here)  the minister , Sean Sherlock, agreed with the spirit or the wording of the amendment but in essence told the upper house to trust him/his advisors/SFI. Apart from Sean of the total 60 senators only three others spoke, all to praise Sean B, but not to actually offer any insight or views.

Sean asked for nothing wild : to have SFI take on the views of external professional bodies, to have SFI grant holders not be allowed to buy out of teaching students, to ensure that a value for money element was enshrined into the grant review, to make provision for new areas to be brought into the ambit of SFI if science dictated, to curtail the power of the minister to overrule science in favour of politics.  Mention was made of the exclusion of botany and mathematics from the priorities. His remarks were learned, witty, historically informed and cogent. They were exactly what you would expect from a member of an upper house, agree with them or no, and were there more like this then there would be a case solid as a rock for keeping the Seanad.

This set of amendments is hardly scientific Jacobism, but as these amendments were “not invented here” Sean Sherlock didnt take them on board.   Mathematicians can jolly well find some project to support, as can botanists. Teaching is not his concern its an SEP (someone elses problem).  Everything we do is subject to the ruthless rapier scrutiny of ….the Department of Finance…We have a priority list and that is a list of priorities we chose as priorities. We cant ask the Chartered Engineers for their views on a scientific project as then we would have to ask the divil and all, maybe even the Irish Texts Society. And so on. By turns dismissive, patronising  supportive without actioning, Sean S did his duty which was to steer the bill through.

If we are to have an upper house then both the members of same and the government must respect it. That means that they dont automatically not accept amendments from uppity outsiders, and that when the future of the scientific underpinnings of the state are being discussed people bother to turn up and debate the issues (even if like Sean B they know that the government will not bother their barney with paying the blindest bit of attention). If the government wont take on even motions that they agree with and if senators cant be bothered, then we should dispense with the pretence and drop the Seanad.  In the meantime, trust Sean.


Hall v Ireland (even though Ireland is on his side)

The essence of democracy is under question in the case taken by David Hall against the minster for finance which starts in the high court Tuesday January. 22nd. Hall is challenging the legality of the wretched Anglo promissory note . He is saying as I understand it that the constitution requires that all expenditure be approved by the Dail. That is where the power is. People elect TD' s who then in a democratic way vote on various matters including expenditure. The dail gives the government the money to spend . In 2010 the finance bill allowed the minister for finance to provide funds to the banks. Hall maintains that the dail can not give its constitutional powers to anyone else. Although not a lawyer my understanding is that one cannot alienate ones rights, not you, nor I nor the Dail.

The minister for finance on the strength of the 2010 bill created the now infamous promissory note. Halls constitutional challenge questions weather the promissory note was created legally as it was never approved by the Dail. It's hardly a small sum so it does seem odd that this was never subjected to a Dail vote.

A lot is riding on this case which will ultimately end up in the Supreme Court. If Hall succeeds then the Government will be faced with a very difficult situation of having to vote in the Dail and this might cause some issues for TD'S. this might be a chance to really negotiate with our European “friends. The government has put in place a high powered legal team to defend that which it is saying in Europe is indefensible. Expect these lawyers to do a super job, and expect the government to then face these arguments it is relaying to be used in evidence against it (and us) in Europe. This case won't be just about the constitutional niceties, but will inevitably raise issues of economics and bank solvency.

A smart government would not fight this case with rigour, but would let it lose, and then note that there was no way it could get something through the parliament. In reality they migh be hoping that the case, won or lost in the High Court, would result in a delaying of the need to pay the €3.1b in end march. That would put it up to the ECB. But Michael Noonan is not a man to eschew legal advice as the family of Bridget MCCole. Expect this one to run and run…..


Pork, fixins and Professional Politicians

fixinsIn the Sunday Independent today (I know, I know…) theres a most interesting piece. It notes that the offices of TDs are exempt from local authority rates while charity shops are not.  This prompted me to think about the nature of politics. The exemption from rates applies not to their offices in the Oireachtas, but to the politician shops, for that is what they are, that are now a feature of the main street of many towns. Time was when politicians held their clinics in the back room of a pub. Now they have plush offices with their names emblazoned in lurid neon. These serve to advertise the wares of Timmy O’Hooligan or whomever, and are basically invitations to come ask him to intervene on their behalf (fixins) or to provide information (which the citizens information bureau down the road has anyhow). So its selling pork, fixins, info and so on.

Under the Valuation Act 2001 the basis is set for the levying of  commercial rates. These same are a huge bubbear for many companies, and the debate on what exactly one gets for these rates paid to the local government is ongoing. Whatever it is its fair to say that a bookies office, a dentists surgery, a politician shop, all cheek by jowl on a street get the same. But the politician shop is exempt from commercial rates by virtue of Schedule 4 Section 19 of the Valuation Act 2001.

Along with politician shops also exempt are a whole clatter of other things : mainly they fall in to three categories – agricultural land, social good ( non profit museums, care centers, hospitals, colleges etc) and public works (lighthouses etc). Now, politicians have offices. These are located in and around the parliament. Thats where they work. They are not compelled to have a shop on the main street. They choose to do that. Politiicians get very sniffy when their professionalism is called into question. If they are operating from the shop as professional pork pullers, fixin merchants, information mongers and so on, they should surely be treated the same way as the other personal services on the street? If they are saying they are exempt, it must be because they want to be seen doing this as a public good (see citizens information) or else they are claiming they are doing this as a charity (why then get paid pretty well). The other alternative is that its a form of amateur dramatics….

In the USA fixins refer to the bits and pieces that go with food – pickle, biscuit, coleslaw, gravy etc. Like politician shops they are optional. One can have pork or whatever without the fixins. Theyre supplemental, not essential. So too are politician shops – they have offices in the parliament in which they have secretarial staff and where they are contactable, we have citizens information and other local bureau to give us advice on how to get a pothole fixed or a pension form filled in, and we have no need of these shops. Politicians elect to have them, at our expense, to show their wares, to sell themselves, to increase their income earning potential. In other words, they are commercial activities.

If they  want to be treated like professionals, then act like same. Pay the rates the other professionals pay and expense them against tax. If they wont do so then they are amateurs. And we dont need amateurs running the place.

Ireland is, probably, not Greece….

This is an expanded version of an oped published in the Irish Examiner 12/January/2013

So, we are back in the bond market, which must mean that every thing is great, and the recession is over….. three cheers….no? really?

Well, one cheer for the NTMA anyhow is due, they did a solid professional job of tapping the existing bond base for additional money. What a lot of commentators fail to realize is that it’s a very long time indeed, back in the late 1970s, when we actually paid off debt. National debt, the stuff that plugs the still yawning gap between government income and expenditure, doesn’t any more get paid off but instead gets rolled over. Absent any banking crisis we still have that gap and it has to be filled. The concerns of Dr Honohan, that the markets don’t get it and demand a risk premium over Germany, are I fear misplaced. We are nowhere near out of the woods. As Van Rumpoy noted, we would have to take much the same corrective action as we are now doing, absent a banking crisis, to fix the broken government finances. And broken they remain

Between this year and next we need to redeem over 13b of government bonds, monies previously borrowed. Between now and the end of 2016 the sum is closer to 27b. So this modest sum is a useful step towards the funding of that repayment, which must be made before a single penny is borrowed to fill the 20b or more that will be spent by government in excess of its income.

Governor Honohan, and to some extent the Taoiseach in his talk to the CDU have expressed concern that the markets are not recognizing fully the efforts that have been made. The NTMA have expressed their concern also. However, the reality is that the markets are only vaguely efficient, if even that. Bond investors are concerned with getting their money back: in the pre crisis period the assumption was that within a union there was, somehow, equalization of risk and that lending to Greece or Ireland was no riskier than to Germany. Of course, we know now that that was completely untrue – it relied on an unspoken and untested assumption that the richer nations would bail out the poorer in a manner that would not scorch the economic earth. That this equalization is not going to return was noted by the Governor. But it then becomes clear that for the very long term we are going to pay much more than Germany or Austria for our debt.

If we examine Ireland and Greece over the last decade or so we can see why. The government have done an excellent job of making clear that Ireland is not Greece. But from a high-level financial analysis perspective its not that clear that we are in fact so very different. Take debt/GDP ratios; for Greece that has risen by 80% from the 2000 base while for us it has gone up by 350%. The difference was that Greece started at a high level, while the banking crisis has dragged us up. EU forecasts are now for debt GDP ratios in 2014 in Ireland to be 120% (140% vs GNP, which given we are unwilling or unable to tax MNC’s at any higher rate is the more appropriate level) versus a Greek level of 188%. Over the period we have run cumulative primary deficits equivalent to 40% of GDP while Greece ran at 25% ; Greece will be paying 6% of GDP in interest payments on debt in 2014, we will be paying 5.6% ( 6.7% of GNP) ; the implicit interst rate on Greek debt is forecast to be 3.2% while we will be paying 4.8%. What distinguishes us from Greece is a) a perception, broadly correct, that we as a nation have played “straight” in terms of making public our problems and in terms of having an effective and efficient tax collection system, b) a perception, again broadly correct, that we have better midterm economic prospects. Thus Ireland is able to contemplate returning to “normal” borrowing while Greece is still in deep trouble. But normal borrowing, even at what the powers that be consider to be inflated prices, is contingent on several stars coming into alignment

First, we must continue to get our basic financial position in order. Despite all the pain that we have taken the reality is we still face deficits of 7% and 5% for 2013 and 2014. Little radical change has been done or will be contemplated in many areas of the economy. Second, and related to that, we continue to pin our hopes on export led growth, into a challenging world economy. Third, government trust (even if ratings agencies and the Troika and independent analysts disagree) that the banks are sorted, in that the slow erosion of capital by the slower writing down of mortgage loans will not ersult in a need for more capital. And fourth, the market perception is that a meaningful deal will be done on the bank debt. The latter is getting more and more unlikely. Noonan has signalled that he is keen to exit the banks, selling the ownership stakes valued at 8b. These represent the NTMA valuaton of the 20b injected. The only large chunk of debt on which meaningful (setting to zero) action is the anglo note, and Brian Hayes stated last Wednesday that it will be paid back in full. So no meaningful deal will emerge – nor should it, if we are back in the markets, out of the banks and singing that we are all ok. Meanwhile, with industrial production slumping, exports (patent income washing excepted) flat, consumer confidence falling, house lrices remaining under lressure, incomes falling , health costs rising as service provision declines, and bank mortgage lending back somewhere last seen in the 1970s, singing that all is well to the international markets will merely sound cacophonously surreal to the domestic audience. But for six months we can be ignored as the government scurry about in fleets of shiny new cars “running Europe”. Running indeed…


Wrestling with conscience and winning

So Dev Og wrestled with his conscience and won. What a strange and faintly nauseating sight it was , also somewhat pathetic to see his dreams of importance fade. I guess however Irish history would have been brighter had his grandad had the same degree of intestinal fortitude as he had.

On another level however it’s deeply worrying. Here is a man who, whatever one might think, at least had some courage, to say “I’m not sure”. All right he has now decided to toe the party line but we know him to be hypocritical. Clarity is good. How many other Irish messengers of the people, Teachta Dail, have deep qualms of conscience on an issue but who keep said qualms firmly out of the gaze of the very people they represent? How many troop through lobbies, baa-ing piteously about the whip system, voting in exact opposition to how they feel? How many make a cold calculation that the prospect of advancement up the greasy pole of the cursus honorium is more important than their conscience? How many are going slowly mad from the cognitive dissonance that such causes, or from the drink needed to calm the still inner voice that insists “but you don’t believe that do you..”
A very large number I would imagine.
On the flip side when was the last time a senior politician took a stand of personal principle, any principle, to his or her own detriment? Resigned because they didn’t believe in a policy? A long time ago

Proponents of the whip system suggest that freedom to vote how TDs would will would cause chaos (or at least a different flavor of what we have at present). Maybe but the reductio ad absurdum of that is to have no parliament for fear of dissenting voices and for fear of a government not getting its way on all issues no matter how trivial. It’s the same attitude that castigated the Greeks for the temerity tone publicly confused about how where and under whose whose guidance they wish to proceed.

Let’s try something: let’s have some free votes in the dail. Let’s see what TDs really believe. We might be horrified or delighted but we would at least see them as less a set of interchangeable Lego figures endlessly mutable and interchangeable and more a reflection of the protean nature of Irish society.