Sunday, November 25, 2007

Green Irish Greens in the Soup

Our part-time parliament, which is shuttered for about six months of the year, can resemble a theatre in the rare times that it is in session.

This is the busy season for Santa Claus and his elves in the North Pole and our messenger boy/girl politicians at least can look forward to a six-week break starting next month, barring the odd meetings of most of the do-nothing parliamentary committees. There are 23 of them in a system where there is little or no accountability and the overpaid lobby fodder can continue to top up their expense earnings by signing the attendance books.

In our 1920's era governance system, the country is 15 miles from Leinster House and an overnight allowance can be claimed whether or not our over-taxed (nothing got to do with tax!)legislators, actually stay in Dublin.

In reaction to perceived public displeasure about the Super VIP Benchmarking pay rises, Green Party Ministers Gormley and Ryan who are both getting an extra €25,656 and Trevor Sargent who will get an additional €17,716, announced that the money would be diverted to the Green Party, even though it appears that the plan is in violation of electoral law.

Given their failure to object to the pay bonanza, the belated decision to divert the funds for party use has an air of sleaziness about it.

Irish politicians of courage and conviction are a rare specie and Green politicians are as good at following the crowd as others.

Minister for Energy and Natural Resources Eamon Ryan during the week issued a stark warning of climatic Armageddon unless there is a dramatic reduction in global emissions.

"If we ignore this challenge the threat posed is beyond any catastrophe, war, famine or natural disaster which occurred on the planet for hundreds of millions of years," he told the Dáil during a debate on climate change.

Climate change justifies the Faustian bargain for power with the acceptance of corruption and the zero prospect of reform in areas of governance and land rezoning. However, after almost six months in office, where are the radical proposals on climate change?

There are none of course and we will await what the European Commission will propose.

Green Party leader and Minister for the Environment John Gormley, in true Irish ministerial style, is due to set up a panel to advise him on the mechanical biological treatment (MBT) of waste as an alternative to incineration.

Similar to the way the promotion of biofuels was foolishly seen as a simple risk-free alternative to fossil fuels, MBT is in a similar boat. Gormley needs to get an international scientific panel to advise him and it could well say that incineration is a more practical option.

Gormley opposes incineration because his constituents oppose it. Nevertheless, the planning board approved the building of a plant on Dublin’s Poolbeg peninsula.

“Minister Gormley must be the first politician ever that found on appointment to ministerial office that he has less power than when he was an opposition TD,” Labour Party leader Eamonn Gilmore said.

Fine Gael leader said that the Greens "comment on everything and aren't able to implement anything," like the Muppet Show's Statler and Waldorf.

Green Party Senator Dan Boyle owes his position to political patronage such as the members of the hundreds of Sate quangos that he criticises.

Decisions were being made by independent bodies for political reasons because powers had been abrogated in legislation and politicians could not stand over that, Dan Boyle of the Green Party, deputy leader of the Seanad (Upper House of the Irish parliament), said in relation to an Environment Protection Agency go-ahead for the Poolbeg incinerator.

Senators had recently discussed how an ongoing process of abrogating political responsibility to stand-alone bodies was diminishing political decision-making and democratic accountability.

Dan Boyle like the worthies, do-gooders and party hacks who people all the quangos, also owes his position to political patronage. The dead-man walking Taoiseach Bertie Ahern who the Greens in May said had "lost moral authority," because of a torrent of corruption allegations, appointed Boyle to his current position as a national politician.

Santa Claus will see more glacial change than the Irish political process.

Taoiseach Bertie Ahern has chaired one meeting of a Cabinet sub-committee on climate change since June. Meanwhile, the Greens oppose incineration but do not appear to have a problem with the export of hazardous waste for incineration. They oppose nuclear power but we may well import UK electricity that is generated by nuclear power. Baby-steps and posturing are the responses to climate change.

It all could be termed Irish politics as usual.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Irish Public Sector Biggest and most Powerful Consumer for Private Sector

Dr. John Crown

Self-censorship has been in the news in recent times when it was disclosed that a senior manager in Ireland's public broadcaster RTE had excluded the well-known cancer specialist John Crown from a television panel discussion on the lamentable state of Irish cancer services. RTE wished to create "balance" by excluding the one person who was in a position to speak with direct knowledge on the service.

Crown is on record as a critic of the establishment e.g. “It is a shame that the Department of Health have had to be cajoled, humiliated and bullied in public into doing something about it. The disastrous health service we’ve had over the past ten to twenty years reflected a complete lack of planning on the part of the Department. It wasn’t until certain people started to make very public criticisms of the state of the cancer service that they were shamed into doing something about it. I think it’s an awful pity that that’s the way the public discourse has to work in a democracy.”

The same senior RTE manager apparently had no qualms about balance on the same programme before the general election when two leading apologists for Taoiseach Bertie Ahern appeared on a panel of three. Ahern subsequently appointed one of them to the Upper House of the parliament at a cost of €150,000 annually in a redundant role. Small change, some might think but add all the rest of the featherbedding - e.g. the Green Party office manager likely trebled his salary to €161,000 when be became aide-de-camp/gofor for Minister for the Environment John Gormley. The Cabinet and Ministers of State have nearly 130 civil servants and privately-recruited staff working solely on constituency queries, costing the Exchequer at least €4 million annually. Gormley has seven staff working in his private office on ministerial duties and four more in his constituency office.

Senior RTE managers are working in the public sector and compared with an SME manager in the tradable goods/services sector, they have well-paid cushy numbers and why would they wish to rattle the cages of their political masters?

So why would IBEC, the principal representative organisation for Irish business also behave with a level of timidity that is a welcome bonus for politicians?

One obvious explanation is that it doesn't want to get listed on Bertie Ahern's "little black book."

Politicians, in common with adults can have thin skins and act in infantile ways. Look at our history and De Valera's jealousy of Michael Collins. Last May, the Bagehot columnist in the Economist wrote in relation to current British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's petty reaction to Tony Blair's chief of staff Jonathan Powell: According to those in a position to know, Mr Brown has not spoken to Mr Powell since soon after Mr Blair became leader of the Labour Party in 1994, even though he is forced to pass his desk every time he visits the prime minister. Mr Powell's transgression was to laugh when Mr Brown suggested that some of the money he was raising to run the new leader's private office should be handed over to the shadow chancellor.

Many Irish business firms also have a pertinent reason to resist rocking the boat of the permanent government.

The Irish public sector has huge power over the private sector because it is the biggest consumer of goods and services in the State. That power simply buys silence despite the incompetence, waste, lack of accountability and failure to match a modern economy with a credible system of governance.

Last September, the Tánaiste and Minister for Finance confirmed that Budget Day 2008 would include "a major innovation" with the change that “all new spending measures, as well as tax changes, will be brought together and announced as one in a unified way on Budget Day, instead of on a piecemeal basis, as at present”.

Given the glacial pace of change at governance level in Ireland, the "major innovation" is in reality a baby-step.

There is no detail provided on spending across government in say up to 20 categories e.g what is spent on energy, marketing, consultants, information technology etc.

I was advised by the Department of Finance earlier this year, that I would have to go to each Department via Freedom of Information requests to get information on the top 100-200 suppliers to the State. The catch is that each Department can charge the cost, at its discretion, of providing the information.

Senior RTE managers are not the only ones who find it expedient to toe the line (btw that is the correct spelling for the phrase!)

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Irish Politics, Brass Necks and Donkeys

An Taoiseach Bertie Ahern canvassing in Dublin South Central in May 2007

I recall as a youth reading a number of American journalist John Gunther's (1901-1970) series of "Inside" books that I had got from the Bandon library.

There are two items I remember from Inside Latin America, which was first published in 1939. Gunther recounted how the drunken Bolivian president General Mariano Melgarejo had in 1870 thought that the new British ambassador could be brought down to earth by ordering that he be strapped naked, facing backwards, on a donkey and paraded around La Paz.

The other story also involved a donkey. Politicians in some Brazilian town were so discredited that some citizens nominated a donkey for mayor and the ass won.

It's said that the camel seldom sees his own hump and when it comes to Irish politics it is not always easy to discern who are the donkeys - - the politicians or the voters?

When free education at secondary level was introduced in 1968, there was a concern as to who would do all the "dirty" jobs given that most people would henceforward be "educated." The term brings to mind writer Frank O'Connor's cutting reference to "Mr De Valera's educated government," in a forward to the Eric Cross book The Tailor and Ansty, which was banned in the early 1940's.

Still on the subject of donkeys, writer Seán O Faoláin in a letter to the Irish Times, said in reference to the moral guardians of the Censorship Board that they had made “fools of themselves and an ass of the Minister”—or “a fool of the Minister and asses of themselves.”

Fast-forward to modern Ireland and the expected call for pay restraint came two weeks after the Super VIP Benchmarking awards - it was a decent interval - and was a day before the conferring of honorary doctorates on three "distinguished public servants" at Dublin Castle.

The new doctors had all won considerable pay hikes in the benchmarking bonanza. Secretary General at the Department of the Taoiseach Dermot McCarthy, got a 25% pay rise and his retired predecessor Frank Murray, also got the corresponding increase, in his pension. John Fitzgerald got a 36% pension rise as his successor as Dublin City Manager, received a 36% hike in what can be termed Super VIP Benchmarking. Former Taoiseach, Dr Garret FitzGerald, who presented the awards, also received a 14% pension rise to correspond with Taoiseach Bertie Ahern's benchmarking rise.

The Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and Tánaiste Brian Cowen, on Thursday displaying brass necks, lectured union leaders about wage restraint following their own salary hikes worth €38,000 and €36,000 respectively.

In the Sunday Independent issue of Nov 4, 2007, senior journalist Willie Kealy wrote on the bleak future facing Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, who will get compensation of one year's salary of €310,000 on leaving office and a pension of about €200,000 annually together with a State car for the rest of his life. As for providing for this two children, there is nothing to worry about either. As far back as 1994, Ahern's children were listed as potential beneficiaries of his landlord's will. In the interval, one of them has become a millionaire through a contract with one of Rupert Murdoch's publishing companies while the other is married to a millionaire member of the Westlife boy-band.

And what does the future hold? He has already said he will step down before the next election. So a few more years in office as Taoiseach -- if all goes well -- and after that, what?

A well paid job as President of Europe? There was a time when that seemed a shoo-in. Now with all this muck flying around, all this dirt from the tribunal which shows no sign of abating. Well, they are pragmatic if nothing else in Europe. And they are not going to put themselves offside to do Bertie a favour.

So nothing is guaranteed, except that by the time Bertie Ahern reaches 60, he will probably be out of a job and his best chance of employment will be to try to retain his seat in the next election.

He currently has no woman in his life that we know of. He dotes on his daughters and the grandchildren, but lives alone in Drumcondra. If that job in Brussels is lost, he has probably lost it already. And he does not have to fight another election as Taoiseach. He is that dangerous animal, a man with little left to lose.

In those circumstances, as he looks forward into an old age that could be lonely and unfulfilling, compared to the career and family highs he has tasted in the past, he must be tempted to say to himself, "I can at least make sure it is not a penniless old age." He has four more years of a Taoiseach's salary to collect, at best, and after that a pension. There will be no more dig-outs.

He is now facing into the prospect of being a fixed-income pensioner with no independent source of income and no real assets except his home.

In those circumstances, is it any wonder he said that he would take the €38,000 a year extra salary he has just been granted and the corresponding increase in his pension.

The way he is feeling right now, to turn it down would not only be monumentally foolish, but personally irresponsible. Des O'Malley and Bobby Molloy made such a gesture before, refusing to accept an increase for two years, and they each reckoned that it didn't earn them a single vote in the subsequent election.
And, as for postponing it for a few years ... well he only has a few years left at the highest level of public life.

Forget the old Bertie, the man who hadn't a clue where the next pint would come from and didn't care. The man whose care of his career was fanatical. The man whose fine political judgement was unrivalled. Now he can sometimes be distant, those close to him say. His sense of persecution is fuelled when a favourable poll gets a brief mention on the nine o'clock news, but one showing him on the slide is a big story.

Today's Bertie Ahern is a man on a mission. He's pretty sure his legacy is secured already with the North and the Celtic Tiger and that all the tribunal stuff will eventually fade, probably after he's gone.

No, Bertie Ahern's mission today is to secure his old age.

One can well wonder who think's whom are the donkeys? Bertie Ahern's mission today is to secure his old age - - and 900,000 workers have no occupational pension never mind the gold-plated pension that awaits plain old Bass man himself.

Also revealing this week was the news that climate change is hardly a big priority for Bertie Ahern.

The professed raison d'être/excuse for Green Party leader John Gormley's Faustian bargain for power has also been undermined since June. Bertie delivered on a Cabinet sub-committee on climate change (big, big addition to the laundry list of Green "achievements" to keep the idealists in tune!) and he even attended its only meeting to date!

Impressive indeed !

The polar ice caps melt faster than change in Bertie's Ireland; Gormley's moral compass tarnishes by the day and we sit idly by awaiting for direction from Brussels on climate change.

Who was it that strongly condemned gombeenism in February 2007?

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques meets the Pope

The meeting in Rome on Tuesday between Pope Benedict XVI and Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah was a surprise given that it is illegal to publicly practice Christianity in the desert kingdom. Saudi Arabia has existing strong links with the Eternal City having funded the building of its main mosque.

At the first meeting between a Pope and a Saudi monarch, the two discussed the need for greater collaboration between Christians, Muslims and Jews and prospects for a Middle East peace. A Vatican statement said “the presence and hard work of Christians (in Saudi Arabia) was discussed” – seen as a clear reference to the Vatican’s concern over the Christian minority.

In Saudi, December is the busiest month for the religious police , the muttawa - officially known as the Committee for Preventing Vice and Enforcing Virtue. The muttawa try to ensure that traders do not sell anything that could be regarded as a Christmas decoration. Filipinos are particular targets during the Christmas period.

While religions other than Islam are viewed with suspicion, it's preferable to have one for visa purposes.

On one occasion, the Saudi embassy in Brussels rejected a business visa application, as the applicant had entered "none" in the religion box.

Credit is due to King Abdullah for taking a step that can only be viewed as positive.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Remarkable Decades of Change in World but Irish System of Governance Immutable to Reform

On June 12, 1987, US President Ronald Reagan delivered a historic speech by the then Berlin Wall, with the Brandenburg Gate in the background, at the other side of the Wall in East Berlin: Behind me stands a wall that encircles the free sectors of this city, part of a vast system of barriers that divides the entire continent of Europe. From the Baltic, south, those barriers cut across Germany in a gash of barbed wire, concrete, dog runs, and guard towers. Farther south, there may be no visible, no obvious wall. But there remain armed guards and checkpoints all the same--still a restriction on the right to travel, still an instrument to impose upon ordinary men and women the will of a totalitarian state. Yet it is here in Berlin where the wall emerges most clearly; here, cutting across your city, where the news photo and the television screen have imprinted this brutal division of a continent upon the mind of the world. Standing before the Brandenburg Gate, every man is a German, separated from his fellow men. Every man is a Berliner, forced to look upon a scar....General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!....As I looked out a moment ago from the Reichstag, that embodiment of German unity, I noticed words crudely spray-painted upon the wall, perhaps by a young Berliner: "This wall will fall. Beliefs become reality." Yes, across Europe, this wall will fall. For it cannot withstand faith; it cannot withstand truth. The wall cannot withstand freedom.

Just over two years after President Reagan's address in Berlin, the Wall had fallen in a decade when Reagan himself and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, were rare politicians, in challenging conventional economic orthodoxy.

The end of the Iron Curtain in Europe and the adoption by the Chinese Communist Party of a capitalist model, gave a significant acceleration to globalisation together with low inflation and interest rates as prices of Asian manufactured goods fell over a sustained period and Eastern Europe provided the economies of Western Europe with a new source of labour.

People easily take for granted the remarkable decades of change for the better in the world in recent decades.

Just consider that on Jan 1, 1974, Spain, Portugal and Greece were run by dictatorships; Eastern Europe was under the jackboot of a Soviet tyranny as was Russia and Central Asia; Most of Latin America was run by dictatorships; a small number of Asian countries were making remarkable economic advances but most of the region's population was living in extreme poverty; life for most people in the Arabian peninsula hadn't changed in more than a thousand years and most of Africa remained in a cycle of despair including the majority of the population of the advanced economy of the region - South Africa.

In Ireland, we've had tremendous success through becoming an important base for US multinationals and having our farming industry hugely subsidised by other European countries but we should be cautious about self-congratulation in claiming some uniqueness when our current level of prosperity has been so tied to the acceleration of trade and globalisation. There have been huge advances elsewhere.

As we look ahead, globalisation will bring new challenges. The benefit of Chinese goods price deflation will disappear; food prices and other commodities are surging. The era of very low interest rates is behind us, bar a severe recession.

In Ireland, do we need some bad economic times before we confront some serious questions?

How can a country that has taken so long to even introduce a credible broadband system, become a "world-class knowledge economy" in 5 years? Why does it take 29 years to complete the building of a motorway between the two principal cites - Dublin and Cork -, on a small island, when countries like Malaysia have already built a comprehensive infrastructural network in a much shorter time?

In 1955, the Irish Minister for Finance Gerard Sweetnam appointed the 39-year old Thomas Kenneth Whitaker as Secretary of the Department of Finance and in the 1956 budget Sweetnam exempted profits derived from exports, from taxation. The imprint of Whitkaker was clearly to be seen. In 1958, Whitaker's Economic Development white paper became the basis for the First Programme for Economic Expansion.

That was the genesis of the Celtic Tiger and today, almost a half century later, there is not one senior civil servant who is known to the Irish public.

Ireland today is in need of another Whitaker who can get the attention of the school teachers, farmers and small-town solicitors that the our old Ireland system of cronyism and gombeenism produces.

I'm an optimist, which by definition every entrepreneur is but it is realistic to ask, how low do our economic fortunes have to fall before attention is given to reforming a paralysed political system of 1920's/30's vintage with its limited accountability and responsibility?

Where is the Outrage? Gombeenism thrives at home while in Paris, OECD staff work on proposals for Irish public service reform