Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Fianna Fail Green Strategy omission

(A bit of recycling here, but appropriate given the topic, I hope).

There is a major omission from the Fianna Fail “Green Strategy” unveiled today, and I may be inadvertently responsible for that omission.

Rushing down Main St, Bray earlier this week, I bumped, literally, into Environment Minister Dick Roche who was rushing in the opposite direction. I noticed that he dropped something , but by the time I’d managed to pick it up and turn around, he’d vanished into the crowd on the street and I couldn’t locate him.

Subsequent examination of the document showed it to be a joint proposal from the Environment Minister and Transport Minister Martin Cullen to cut the pollution associated with air travel, a topic that is becoming popular with the media who, paradoxically, are probably among the worst offenders.

The debate regarding emissions from air travel is hotting up, the latest development being the UK government imposition of a travel tax for all passengers. The phenomenal growth of low-cost carriers such as Ryanair and Easyjet has meant that such emissions are growing at an unprecedented pace, despite the introduction of more fuel-efficient aircraft. There are moves afoot for the EU to introduce similar measures on a Europe-wide basis.

In light of the open skies agreement between the EU and USA, ending the obligatory Shannon stopover for transatlantic flights and the threat to its historic economic benefits to the Mid-West Region, the Government needs to find a way to incentivise airlines to continue services to the region.

Aircraft burn a significant portion of their fuel load on take-off, and larger long-range aircraft with heavy fuel loads are particularly penalised in this way.

The Proposal
Move Shannon Airport to the Cliffs of Moher and, using a steam catapult system similar to that employed on aircraft carriers, launch aircraft off the cliff top and out over the Atlantic.

This should significantly reduce the amount of fuel burned in take-off with obvious benefits for associated emissions and operating costs. The new visitor centre would make a fine terminal building, while the car park is already big enough.

The US military have agreed, under strictest secrecy, to provide US navy equipment and qualified personnel to manage the launch and retrieval of commercial aircraft, subject to unrestricted access to the facility for their own unmarked aircraft.

The main challenge is the safety of aircraft landing on a much reduced airstrip. USN Special Adviser to the project, Rear Admiral Woody Bearschitz, is confident that his men can stop incoming aircraft short of the perimeter Liscannor-Doolin road and that the experience should not be too frightening for passengers: “About on a par with a standard Ryanair landing” was his assessment.

Attached is the detailed blueprint for the scheme. It’s on official stationery - trust me, there is a harp on the other side of the envelope. It has clearly received at least as much detailed consideration as many other major Government initiatives e.g. decentralisation.

Manchester United v. The Consultants

Watching Manchester United last night making a comeback to beat AC Milan 3-2, it struck me that strikers Rooney & Ronaldo are probably earning several times the annual salary of defenders Wes Brown and Patrice Evra. Not only is this state of affairs accepted as entirely logical and normal by the millions who watched the match, but also by Brown and Evra themselves!

I also watched, through my fingers, some of Monday night’s documentary on the Beaumont Hospital neurosurgeon (brain surgeon to you and me) Prof. Ciaran Bolger. I recalled the recent BBC series on the NHS with Gerry Robinson where orthopaedic surgeons doing hip and knee replacements were seen using hammers, literally, to put the new metal joints in place. The contrast in levels of surgical skill and patient risk is quite striking and raises the following question: why would you pay a neurosurgeon the same rate as a consultant performing much more routine procedures?

Surely the Dept of Health and the IHCA should be negotiating on the basis of skill level of the speciality rather than a blanket package where everyone is rewarded at the level of the top discipline? The HSE seems to be paying all our Browns and Evras at the same rate as our Rooneys & Ronaldos. Surely this is financial madness?

Footnote: Aired by Pat Kenny on his Today programme on RTE, yes today.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Crime & Punishment

Galway’s longest serving councillor Michael 'Stroke' Fahy was in Castlerea jail last night, starting his 12-month sentence for defrauding the County Council by having a fence built around his property at public expense. He was also fined €75,000, even though he had fully re-imbursed the council and made an additional donation to a local charity.

The court had agreed to briefly defer serving the committal warrant in order to allow Cllr Fahy time to make arrangements for his 96-year old mother with whom he shares a home. He has been her sole carer, his duties include getting up during the night to bring heer to the toilet.

The day before he was due to be jailed, Cllr Fahy was rushed to hospital suffering from blood pressure difficulties and later had a stent inserted at University College Hospital in Galway.

On April 11, he was transferred to a nursing home in Clarenbridge where he was later joined as a patient by his elderly mother. He was due to be discharged from the nursing home tomorrow, but yesterday afternoon the gardai arrived at the nursing home and took Cllr Fahy to Castlerea Prison.

At the time of his conviction, I was delighted that finally a politician was going to spend some time behind bars for having his fingers in the till. Even his nickname seemed to confirm that he'd been at it for years. However, the actress Jeananne Crowley featured on RTE’s Liveline, making an appeal that his jail sentence be deferred until his 96-year old mother had passed away. The old lady had been taken into a hospice in anticipation of his incarceration. Jeananne pointed out that the old lady might well be dead before Fahy is released and that it's inhumane to deprive her of her son, carer and home at this very advanced stage of her life.

Dammit, he’s an ex-Fianna Failer and it galls me to say it, but I have to agree with Jeananne. And if Mother Fahy dies while her son is in prison, both of them will have been punished in a way that doesn’t seem like proportionate justice.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Space Tourism

RTE Radio 1 news bulletin at 2.00pm today opened with an item about the return to earth of the Soyuz capsule carrying space tourist Charles Simonyi, who paid $25m for the two-week return trip to the International space station.

Simonyi is one of the Microsoft billionaires. To have such an item opening the news, I thought for a moment that something had gone wrong on the re-entry and, god forgive me, I thought “that’ll teach them”.

However, the item merely confirmed a safe landing by the Soyuz in Kazakhstan. There were a number of other domestic political stories which could have led the bulletin, I don’t understand what got this one promoted and caused my hopes to be raised for a couple of seconds.

Who's managing the Health Service?

It’s a basic truism of business that what you can’t measure you can’t manage.

A report by Comptroller & Auditor General John Purcell, resulting from a one-year inquiry as part of the financial audit of the Department of Health, on the contract which currently governs the work of consultants found that there was insufficient evidence to assess to what extent it was being implemented.

Indeed, there is no clarity as to how many hours per week they are obliged to work. The HSE claims 39 hours, the consultants claim 33 hours.

The report says there has been "no meaningful attempt to monitor the level of consultants' private practice for its impact on the fulfilment of the contractual commitment within public hospitals".

It also found that although there was "a belief among hospital managers that many consultants exceed their contractual commitment, this cannot be substantiated in the absence of reliable records". This may well be ass-covering by hospital managers. Who among them would be happy to admit that they have no idea what hours are being worked by the key group of employees supposedly under their command?

The Irish Medical Organisation, which represents 800 consultants, said that it welcomed the report, which "confirmed that serious difficulties are apparent in the management systems within our hospitals". It also said that the report "highlights the need for verification systems, which the IMO supports". Who believes these people?

Who is to blame here? Are the hospital managers completely incompetent or are the consultants completely unmanageable? Is the HSE capable of managing the change that is clearly necessary? Have the politicians the ability or the bottle to fix the problem? Where’s Gerry Robinson when we need him?

Virginia Tech Hero

April 16th 2007 was Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day and a national holiday in Israel.

On that day, Liviu Librescu was one of 32 people murdered at Virginia Tech by Cho Seung-Hui. He was shot through the door of his classroom, holding it shut while Cho was attempting to get in. However, Librescu managed to block the door long enough for his students to escape through the classroom windows

The irony is that Librescu was himself a Holocaust survivor, a Romanian jew, born in 1930, who had been interned in a labour camp and later deported to a ghetto.

You’d think he’d already been through enough shit to last anyone more than one lifetime, without finding himself having to make the ultimate sacrifice in his 77th year. RIP.

Meanwhile, the National Rifle Association has come up with the perfect answer to the lobby calling for greater gun control in the wake of this massacre. They cite the ban on carrying weapons on the Virginia Tech campus as the being real problem. If only the teachers and their students had been carrying weapons they could have stopped Cho earlier in his killing spree.

That answer displays the twisted logic of the NRA, an organisation that has a lot to answer for.

"Mickey Mouse" denial

Published in today’s Irish Times is the following denial that an IHCA representative described the proposed new consultant’s package as “mickey mouse”.

However, the transcript provided repeatedly refers to “a job without a contract or a salary” and seems like an even dafter claim. Perhaps it reveals just how thin is the air on Planet IHCA.

Madam, - I refer to the report in last Wednesday's edition of the IHCA press conference, in which I am quoted as describing a proposed salary of up to €205,000 a year as "Mickey Mouse". Mary Rafferty, in her column of April 19th, while not referring to me by name, again credits the IHCA with holding the same view regarding the proposed salaries which, incidentally, range from €160,000 to €205,000.I was surprised to read your report which credited me with a statement which I did not make. For the record, the transcript of the press conference records my contribution as follows:
"Any young person that has spent six years at school slogging to get into medical school, spent six or seven years at medical school, and then gone abroad and trained for seven years to come back to an offer of a job that does not have a contract, that doesn't have a salary, I mean it's laughable.
"No one in this room would take a job without a contract and a salary. They're asking people to take jobs on contracts for that don't exist on salaries that don't exist and it's absurd.
"I've worked abroad, I've worked abroad [ sic] and I know how people think. I've worked in England and I've worked in America and I know how people think and they'll come back and see this as Mickey Mouse. Anyone who's working in a big centre. . ."
I do not expect that this letter will correct the damage that has been done to the reputation of the IHCA and consultants in general as a result of the widespread inaccurate coverage of our press conference, but I do hope that it will set the record straight for future reference
. - Yours, etc,
Dr JOSH KEAVENY, Consultant Anaesthetist, Beaumont Hospital Dublin 9.

I've sent the following response.

Madam - Today you publish a denial by IHCA representative Dr Josh Keaveny that he ever described the proposed salary for the new consultants contract as “mickey mouse“.
However, the transcript provided in support of this shows him to have made repeated references to “a job without a contract or a salary”and this was a situation he considered to be “mickey mouse”.

If these utterances were supposed to represent a mature IHCA understanding of the situation and what would be on offer, then clearly that organisation needs to employ, as a matter of urgency, some professional support to conduct future negotiations. Otherwise, we’ll continue to go nowhere and hard-working, dedicated consultants will continue to wonder how they could have become so universally vilified. Yours etc.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Is Sinn Fein abstentionism a legitimate political strategy?

I sometimes get phone calls or correspondence from fellow cranks, following publication of a letter in one of the newspapers.

My recent go at the Shinners in the Examiner has generated a couple of letters from a Dublin man who claims that Sinn Fein MPs who are elected as abstentionists would violate their electoral mandate if they took their seats in Westminster.

Technically correct perhaps, but I don’t accept that abstentionism is a legitimate political tactic in Northern Ireland since the constitutional position was settled by the Good Friday Agreement in 1997.

The reality of abstentionism is that it totally disenfranchises those electors who voted for another party or didn’t choose to exercise their right to vote.

In the 2005 Westminster elections, Sinn Fein got 24.3% of the total vote in Northern Ireland, winning 5 of the 18 seats in the province.

West Belfast: Gerry Adams won 70% of the votes cast. Turnout was 66%, so he was elected by 46% of the total electorate.

Mid-Ulster: Martin McGuinness won 48% of the votes cast. Turnout was 73%, so he was elected by 35% of the total electorate.

Newry & Armagh: Conor Murphy won 41% of the votes cast. Turnout was 71%, so he was elected by 29% of the total electorate.

West Tyrone: Pat Doherty won 39% of the votes cast. Turnout was 72%, so he was elected by 28% of the total electorate.

Fermanagh & South Tyrone: Michelle Gildernew won 38% of the votes cast. Turnout was 71%, so she was elected by 27% of the total electorate.

In summary, even assuming that everyone voting Sinn Fein supported the policy of abstention (which I personally doubt) , Sinn Fein cannot claim to have received endorsement of this strategy by a majority of the electorate in any of the 5 constituencies above. Indeed, only Gerry Adams comes anywhere close to that position, the other four MPs can only claim support of one-third or less of their constituents. Meanwhile, in each of these constituencies the majority of the electorate now have no representation in Westminster.


Consultants Dispute

Letter published in today's Irish Times

Madam, - In describing as "Mickey Mouse" the new consultants' contract on offer from the HSE, an IHCA representative has finally shown us what this dispute is really about (The Irish Times, April 18th). On Tuesday, RTÉ's Morning Ireland pointed out that the basic salary now on offer was 50 per cent higher than that paid to consultants working in the UK National Health Service, a fact acknowledged by the IHCA representative on the programme.

The justification offered by spokesmen for the medical organisations for such very high salary levels, relative to UK peers, is that we want to attract and retain the best possible medical practitioners.

Are we expected to believe that all Irish consultants are sufficiently superior in quality to their British counterparts to justify such a huge salary differential? The vast majority are no better or worse than the average in the UK or any other European health service. The health service would probably be much better off if it could release the existing expensive consultants into full-time private practice and replace them with a new, more flexible and affordable workforce.

Every €10 million of salary cost will probably get us 25 to 30 existing consultants but would be sufficient to pay 40 to 45 consultants on the new contract, with extended hours and increased flexibility.

Replacing the existing crew would result in the loss of some experience and expertise, leading to some sub-optimal outcomes for patients. However, because we could afford to employ many more consultants, the resultant reduction in waiting lists and early intervention must greatly increase the prospects for those currently waiting months or years to see a consultant. - Yours, etc,

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Mickey Mouse Money

On Thursday, the UK National Audit Office has revealed that NHS consultants there earned an average £110k (c. €162k) per annum for working an average 50.2 hour week in 2006.

This level of productivity has been criticised by the Commons Public Accounts Committee, to which the National Audit Office reports because NHS consultants were given a 25% salary increase in 2003 on the basis of increased productivity. However, in the interim their average weekly hours worked has actually decreased from 51.6 to 50.2.

Sir John Bourn, the Comptroller and Auditor-General and head of the National Audit Office, said: “Consultants deserve to be paid properly for the work that they do. However, the new contract was introduced to benefit not only consultants but patients and the health service in general".

In Ireland, the new HSE consultants public-only contract has a basic salary of €205k per annum for a 39-hour week, with a €20k on call allowance and a further €40k performance related bonus available. This is the package which has been rejected out of hand by the Irish Hospital Consultants Association and described as “Mickey Mouse”.

It's clearly time to stop playing Goofy and simply tell the IHCA to Donald Duck Off!

Footnote: Published as a letter in the Irish Independent 23/4/07, the Irish Examiner 25/4/07. A variant with a less frivolous ending published in the Irish Times 24/4/07

Alarming news.

Just listening to a radio ad for Eircom Phonewatch Home Alarms which tells me that 70% of burglaries happen when I’m at home doing the ironing (unlikely) or watching tv.

This had me scratching my head. Why would I bother buying an Eircom Phonewatch alarm if the likelihood is that I’ll be burgled while I’m at home with the alarm switched off?

Who’s writing these ads and, more importantly, who in Eircom is paying for them?

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Another victim of the Mad Molecule Theory?

Off to Paris at end of next week with the ball & chain, partly to mark our 21st wedding anniversary. You’d serve a shorter sentence for mass murder - at least that what she claims.

This will entail a lot of walking, central Paris is deceptively large, so last Saturday I bought a new pair of walking shoes in anticipation. They felt fine strolling around inside the shoe shop, but the left shoe began to rub the back of my heel when I went for a real walk. So I adopted the classic strategy - put a band-aid on the part of the foot that’s rubbing and set about breaking in the shoes properly. Three or four 40-minute walking sessions later, the problem is solved and the offending shoe has been broken in.

But then I started wondering was it my foot that had been broken in and the shoe remained unaltered. Or was it a bit of both?

Inevitably this led to consideration of whether, through some strange form of osmosis, the outcome was a practical proof of Flann O'Brien's mad molecule theory, with my shoe now being part human heel and my heel being part shoe. And where are the molecules of the protective band-aid in the mix?

Note to self: wear a different pair of shoes tomorrow. And no band-aid.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Have you nothing smaller?

One service provided by Bank of Ireland constantly annoys me. When you use one of their ATMs it will always make up your withdrawal in the minimum number of notes possible - in other words, in the largest denominations possible. Thus, if you withdraw €200, you’ll get 4 x €50 notes. Not popular when you proffer one to pay €1.60 for a newspaper.

My brother works for that bank and, a couple of months ago, I told him of my irritation, contrasting it with experience in France where a similar €200 withdrawal would typically include some €20 & €10 notes.

Imagine my horror when he confessed that he is the cash management guru who devised and implemented this cash dispenser strategy. I gave him a piece of my mind about how customer-unfocused this strategy is. I could see from his reaction that he had no idea what I was talking about.

Now I’ve discovered that, at the end of March 2007, my brother addressed a European banking conference in London on this very topic, described as follows: “Optimising cash management at ATMs The replenishment of ATMs, and the cost of cash inside each machine, are two of the largest components of deployers’ overall costs. To what extent can cash management software improve operational efficiency?”
I haven’t ruled out fratricide if I find that continental banks start to follow his benighted example.

From stable to betting exchange

Jim Bolger’s Teofilo has been the short-priced ante-post favourite for the Newmarket 2000 Guineas for several months. Typically available at 5/4, his odds on Betfair betting exchange suddenly shot out to 10/1 for a short time yesterday. This was despite telephone confirmation yesterday morning to the Racing Post by Jim Bolger that the horse was fit and well and all systems were go for next month’s first colt’s classic of the season.

Most bookies immediately suspended betting on the Guineas, pending clarification from the stable as to the horse’s well-being.

Later in the day is was confirmed that the horse had suffered a slight setback. Jim Bolger issued a statement in the afternoon which said that "Teofilo has had a training setback. When trotted yesterday afternoon he showed slight discomfort. "As a result, his training will be restricted to walking and swimming for one week. Otherwise, he is fit and well and on target for his 2,000 Guineas tilt on May 5.”
It just shows you how quickly sensitive information gets from the stable to the betting exchanges.

Most bookies have now restored Teofilo to race favouritism, slightly lengthening his odds to between 6/4 & 2/1.

Hopefully someone snapped up that 10/1 on Betfair and will make a killing on race day. ’Cos I’ve backed Teofilo @ 16/1 for the Guineas - great odds but worth nothing if he doesn’t run.

The cost of Health

On RTE’s Morning Ireland today it was pointed out that the basic salary in the proposed new consultant contract, reported to be €205,000 plus up to 20% performance-related annual bonus, is 50% higher than the basic salary for consultants in the UK NHS, a figure that was not disputed by the IHCA representative.

However, later this morning the talks between HSE and the IHCA have broken down, with the IHCA reported by RTE as describing the contract and money of offer as “Mickey Mouse”.

Some weeks ago, RTE’s Fergal Bowers, an authoritative source on medical industrial relations, opined that existing consultants would be looking for a salary of nearer to €400k in order to agree the pay element of a new contract. The IHCA response today suggests that Mr Bowers is probably not too far off the mark.

The justification offered by spokesmen for the medical organisations for such very high salary levels, relative to UK peers, is that we want to attract and retain the best possible medical practitioners.

Are we, the ultimate paymasters of the consultants, expected to believe that the Irish consultants are superior in quality to their British counterparts? There might be 5% - 10% who genuinely are, but the vast majority will be no better or no worse than the average in UK or any other European health service.

The IHCA and the IMO are now undertaking a proactive campaign to discourage doctors in Ireland and abroad from applying for any of the new consultant posts, due to be advertised later this week.

Such activity should be classified as industrial action by these organisations on behalf of their members. Any refusal by existing consultants to cooperate with the new recruits should be used treated as a breach of existing contract and used as grounds for dismissal.

The reality is that we should be better off if we could shed the existing expensive consultants and replace them with a new, more flexible and affordable workforce.

Think of it this way: Every €10m in annual salary cost probably gets you 25 existing consultants but would pay for 50 new ones. The system will lose some experience and expertise in shedding the existing lot, leading to some sub-optimal outcomes from patients who are currently at the top of the queue. However, doubling the number of consultants, for the same money, means that the outcomes for a huge number of patients further down the queue will be significantly better.

Put simply, we could afford to employ many more consultants and the resulting reduction in waiting times means that patients will be seen much sooner and this early intervention must greatly increase the prospects for those currently waiting months or years to see a consultant. Naturally, this would have to be done as part of a much wider reform of the hospital service.

Footnote: Aired on RTE's Today with Pat Kenny show 18th April.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Those benefits of EBS mutuality

Although not a shareholder, I’ve been watching the EBS boardroom battle with a little added interest, as I worked for a couple of years with Ted McGovern, EBS Chief Executive, during his time with Bank of Ireland.

One item on Eithne Tinney’s protest agenda is Ted’s very generous remuneration and pension package. This aspect amused me because I always felt that Ted had something in common with Oscar Wilde: two men of simple taste - they only like the best. That’s an expensive habit, best if you can find someone else to fund it.

Press reports of the prolonged and contentious EGM, at which Tinney narrowly lost her bid to retain her board seat, include an attack from the floor on Senator Shane Ross, who has been orchestrating a “save Tinney” campaign, by one Mary Caffrey. She accurately described Senator Ross as “a self-serving, publicity-seeking individual, both as a journalist and a politician".

While the press reports correctly identify Mary as Ted McGovern’s wife, it’s not clear that this was revealed to the assembled members when she made her attack on Ross.

Expect to hear as little as possible from EBS for an extended period. Ted will batten down the hatches and wait for the storm to pass. Don’t expect any resignations, justifications or contrition.

Mother & Child rights

Aine Lawlor has been filling Marian Finucane’s RTE Radio 1 chair for the past two Saturdays. Last Saturday, one of the topics under discussion was the Natalie Evans/Howard Johnston case regarding the use of frozen embryos, recently decided by the European Court of Human Rights in favour of Mr Johnston’s request that the embryos be destroyed rather than implanted in Ms Evans.

In the course of the discussion Aine Lawlor made what seemed like an impassioned plea on behalf of Ms Evans. She talked of the natural yearning for a child of women in their mid-30s whose biological clock is ticking but who haven’t found any Mr Right as a long-term partner. Surely these women could be allowed to “adopt” those frozen embryos and give birth themselves?

Then, in yesterday’s Sunday Times, Brenda Power argued that the court decision is tantamount to allowing a man insist on an abortion where he has changed his mind about becoming a father. She clearly believes that Johnston should not have the right to prevent the implantation of the embryos by Ms Evans, allowing her the chance to become a single parent.

The case of Ms Evans is a particularly tough one, as she has made sterile by radiation treatment for cancer and will be unable to reproduce with another partner at a later stage.

However, in the whole media debate on this, I haven’t heard anyone question the automatic right of single women to bring children into the world without any sign of a long-term partner as father for the child. The assumption is that this is an unquestionable “woman’s right to choose”. What about the rights of the child?

The Government proposes to amend the constitution to specifically express the rights of the child. How will these rights intersect with “a woman’s right to choose” to have a baby in any circumstances that suit herself? In these politically times, who will represent the rights of the child in such debates?

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Remember, remember

The current radio ad for Alzheimer’s Tea Day begins with the instruction to “Remember…”.

How appropriate. What was that about again?

Bertiegate revisited

The Sunday Independent is running a story this morning which claims that, in 1994, then Finance Minister Bertie Ahern carried a briefcase full of cash on a flight to the UK. The cash had been withdrawn from a Dublin bank the previous day by Celia larkin. The source of the story is supposedly a retired garda Martin Farrell who was Ahern’s driver in 1994. It’s claimed that he first approached Fine Gael’s Jim Higgins and Enda kenny in 2000, and subsequently repeated the accusations in a phone conversation with Higgins which was also heard by Jody Corcoran of the Sindo.

Higgins reported the conversations to the then Flood Tribunal but retired garda Fallon is refusing to make any statement to the Planning Tribunal.

This “exclusive” has all the hallmarks of a belated attempt by Fine Gael to sink Bertie in a sea of sleaze in the weeks before the election, having failed to nail him late last year over his loan/gift dig-out from a group of friends.

However, if the Criminal Assets Bureau was investigating this matter, they would have a hard time believing that the Minister for Finance operated on a cash basis for several years in the early 1990s and had no bank account of any sort at that time. Indeed, they would recognise this as possibly being a clever way of removing any risk of creating a money trail which might subsequently be used to expose corrupt payments and their source. In The Sopranos, Tony Soprano routinely kept large quantities of cash concealed in his garden compost container.

I don’t know what Bertie may or may not have been up to, but I personally don’t believe that the money he acknowledges receiving in mid 1990s was anything other than a gift. Eleven years later to categorise it as a series of small loans defies belief, but was an essential fig-leaf to explain why no tax had been paid on the gift. Indeed, Bertie’s PR people talked of his attitude that these were debts of honour which he had always wanted to repay.

This reminded me of Charlie Haughey under interrogation at the tribunal regarding his unpaid bad debt with AIB. He categorised it as a debt of honour but was challenged by the tribunal’s counsel as to why, in that case, he hadn’t paid it off after all these years. “I haven’t dishonoured it” retorted Haughey.

Clearly Fianna Failers take a Chinese view of appropriate timeframes.

Marketing in action

An exclusive photo from my bathroom. Spot the apparent contradiction on the Dove deodorant. Another marketing genius at work.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Shinners fight back

In response to my letter proposing that Sinn Féin Mps should now take their seats in Westminster (see blog of 6th April), the following Sinn Féin response is published today in the Irish Examiner, under the heading Foreign parliament? No thanks

ON the off-chance that Peter Molloy was actually trying to make a serious argument (Irish Examiner letters, April 11), I would like to point out the following: Sinn Féin has agreed to enter a power-sharing government with unionists and others in order to deliver equal representation for Irish people in an Irish parliament. It has no desire or need to sit in a foreign imperialist parliament that goes to war at the drop of a hat, and which has never served the interests of the Irish people.

As abstentionist MPs from Westminster, Sinn Féin representatives have served their constituents well. Both the nationalist electorate and the failed SDLP candidates who desire the grandeur of Westminster are testimony to this. While Sinn Féin would never take its lead from what Mr de Valera did or did not do in the past, Mr Molloy should be aware that Dev’s hollow oath was taken as a means to take his party into an Irish parliament to serve Irish people, albeit a parliament that represented only part of the nation.

Far from Sinn Féin sitting in a foreign parliament which caused centuries of pain, destruction and division in Ireland, it is about to serve in the two existing Irish assemblies. From there, it will work to establish one true Irish parliament, which will serve all the people on this island equally. If Mr Molloy really wants to make a link between de Valera’s past and Sinn Féin today, then he should consider this: the one seat Dev could not capture in the past — West Belfast — is now a Sinn Féin stronghold. Mr Molloy can rest assured that Sinn Féin will succeed where Dev failed, when he abandoned the outstanding national issue in the past.

Finally, as a well-meaning gesture to Mr Paisley and unionism in general, is Mr Molloy prepared to ask his local TD to switch allegiance to the House of Commons as an act of good faith?

Cllr Kieran McCarthy, Sinn Féin, 89 Russell Heights, Cobh, Co Cork

My response, emailed today to the Examiner.

Sinn Fein Cllr Kieran McCarthy (Examiner Letters 14th April) dismisses my proposal that his party should take up their seats at Westminster. He asserts that Sinn Fein “has no desire or need to sit in a foreign imperialist parliament” and that “as abstentionist MPs from Westminster, Sinn Féin representatives have served their constituents well”. It seems that the “no surrender” mentality is alive and well in Cobh.

The Good Friday Agreement, democratically endorsed by the populations of both parts of this island, settled the constitutional status of Northern Ireland: it will remain part of the United Kingdom unless and until a majority of the people there vote to change that status. How then could Westminster be legitimately be described as a “foreign parliament” by elected Northern Ireland MPs? As for abstentionist Sinn Fein MPs serving their constituents well, how exactly are they serving their unionist constituents?

Representation is an essential ingredient of any democracy and elected representatives are supposed to serve all their constituents, not just the ones who voted for them. This is particularly important in the single-seat, first-past-the-post Westminster system. How are the interests of Northern Ireland farmers, business, fisheries etc represented by abstentionist MPs? In the Republic, we see how active are the lobby groups representing such interests when key ministerial decisions are being made in Brussels.

Cllr McCarthy asks if, as a well-meaning gesture to Mr Paisley and unionism in general, I’d be prepared to ask my local TD to switch allegiance to the House of Commons as an act of good faith? Happily, in the case of the 3 sitting Government TDs.

However, the proposal to grant Dail Eireann speaking rights to elected Northern Ireland MPs should not even be under consideration for MPs who refuse to exercise their speaking rights, on behalf of all their constituents, in the Parliament to which they have actually been elected.

Footnote: My respone published by the Irish Examiner 19th April.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

What's sauce for the honkey...

Phone-in radio is the cheapest and lowest form of entertainment and one which demonstrates an absence of broadcasting imagination. If I had the power I’d close down RTE’s Liveline and ban the phone-in, other than for gardening queries. In the USA this format had created a number of so-called shock-jocks who get cranks and bigots calling in on all sorts of dodgy and sensitive topics.

One currently in the news, and I’d never heard of him until now, is Don Imus, whose CBS radio show is syndicated across the USA. His show is a major revenue generator for CBS and Imus himself earns about $10 million a year, according to the New York Times. He has recently signed a five-year contract extension.

Last week, watching a women’s college basketball game on TV, Imus referred to Rutgers University coloured players as "nappy-headed hos", a racial reference to whores.
Leading members of the black community including Rev. Al Sharpton and Rev Jesse Jackson have demanded that Imus be fired by CBS. "The comments of Don Imus were divisive, hurtful and offensive to Americans of all backgrounds," said presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama who recently promoted his book on Imus's show.

So far, CBS has resisted those demands for dismissal, but they have suspended the Imus show for two weeks.

I’d be happy if they fired Imus and any other shock-jocks out there stirring up rednecks, bigots and cranks. However, I’d be more impressed by black community leadership - Sharpton, Jackson, Obama & Co - if they were also calling for the dismissal of radio & TV executives and DJs who routinely play black gangsta rap which is dominated by the language of violence and misogyny e.g. women are routinely referred to as “bitches” and “hos”. What’s sauce for the honkey……

Friday, April 06, 2007

Time for Sinn Féin MPs to take their seats

Today is Good Friday and it’s exactly nine years, ecclesiastically speaking, since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement on 10th April 1998, a process that was boycotted by the DUP and Ian Paisley was heckled by loyalists at Stormont after the agreement was signed.

Who, then, would have envisaged a situation where the DUP would emerge as the leading Unionist party, where Ian Paisley would be First Minister-designate or, most spectacularly, he would be having last Wednesday's very publicly cordial meeting the Taoiseach at Farmleigh and delivering that extraordinary statement?

If the nationalist community in the North, and we in the South, needed a confidence-building measure from the DUP then surely Ian Paisley's visit last Wednesday was it in spades.
Let's hope that Gregory Campbell and Nigel Dodds start singing from the same hymn sheet as their party leader.

Much of the long delay in implementing the Good Friday agreement has been caused by the tactics of Sinn Fein and the IRA who sought to avoid meeting key obligations at every turn. They have been forced, slowly but surely, to decommission IRA weapons and latterly to recognise the legitimacy of the PSNI.

Republicans abandoned the armed struggle, not because of moral considerations or a dawning abhorrence of violence and murder. Rather it was a pragmatic decision taken after calm and measured analysis which convinced them that they were more likely to achieve their ultimate goal of a united Ireland through political rather than military means, and that the armed struggle was now retarding their advancement on the political front.

The problem with such pragmatism is that in five, ten or 20 years time, should this analysis become discredited, there is no "moral" barrier to prevent republicans taking another pragmatic decision to return to the bomb and bullet.

Sinn Fein must take another confidence-building step to reassure the unionist community of their bona fides as committed democrats. Elected Sinn Fein MPs must take their seats in the House of Commons and represent all their constituents properly. Currently, unionists electors in Sinn Fein seats have been deprived of their constitutional rights to representation in Parliament by this ongoing Sinn Fein boycott.

If de Valera could take the oath of allegiance, then so can Messrs Adams and Co. It will certainly expose Sinn Fein to some abuse from both sides of the political divide in Northern Ireland. That is a price Mr Paisley has clearly been willing to pay.

Footnote: The section in italics published as a letter in the Irish Independent. & the Irish Examiner.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Is it me?

What a laugh to hear that 6 Govt ministers were stuck in a lift at Government Buildings for about 40 minutes yesterday. Those involved were Mary Harney, Mary Coughlan, Mary Hanafin, Brian Cowan, Noel Dempsey and Dermot Ahern.

Messrs Hanafin, Dempsey and Ahern are all fairly slim, Mary Coughlan is fairly large and Mary Harney and Biffo Cowan could both be described as Heavyweights - perhaps even qualifying for the super-heavyweight division.

Being overweight (ok, fat) myself and having been caught in lift situations - either it refuses to leave the level you boarded at or gets stuck between floors - I know what goes through the mind of the heavier occupants in those circumstances. A sneaky look at the wall plate, installed in every lift, which details the maximum occupancy - expressed both in number of people and total weight e.g. 12 people, 1,000 Kg.

You then do a quick, silent count of the number of bodies with you in the lift and whether they look light, average or heavy. Then your mind forms the question that you don’t want to consider: “is it me?”

Poor Mary Harney must have had an embarrassing time in that lift yesterday. For she certainly wasn’t the only one in there wondering if it was her.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

What's a "work to rule" in 21st century?

Madam, - So the INO thinks that refusing to take patient-related phone calls or input patient information into a computer system constitutes a "work to rule"? What century is the INO living in? The union appears to be working on the assumption that the public purse is bottomless, that the politicians will buckle with the election looming and that patients make excellent hostages.

Nurses certainly have a right to refuse to work overtime, but the HSE should make it clear to the INO that the current actions go well beyond a "work to rule" and that salary penalties may be applied to staff who refuse to carry out normal daily activities. Any patient deaths which result from the current "work to rule" should be the subject of proceedings for criminal negligence. - Yours, etc,

Footnote: Published as a letter in the Irish Times.

Boston, Berlin or Paris?

Is the Government sending a signal to the nursing organisations that, if they take their claim through bench-marking, a “nod & wink” way will be found to finesse it through the process? “You’ll get your money but we have to be seen to do it through agreed channels”.

This must not be allowed to happen. Bench-marking has already proved to be an expensive waste of public money, with large salary increases paid out for little, if any, reform of public services or added value for money delivered to the public. It is now widely accepted that the public service is overpaid, relative to those working in equivalent private employments. Those public service salary and pension commitments will be a severe financial burden on the state whenever the economy suffers a downturn.

Former PD leader Mary Harney suggested we should adopt the Boston rather than the Berlin economic model? Instead, on her coalition watch, we seem to have ended up with some of the most expensive parts of the Paris model. There the “fonctionnaires”, the public sector employees, really do rule the roost. Their large numbers, relatively high salaries, short working weeks, long holidays, early retirement options and generous pensions are bankrupting France. That country will also need to implement a bench-marking process, but this one will inevitably mean painful cutbacks in public sector conditions of employment.

We need to stop bench-marking being simply a gravy train before further damage is done here. Doubtless there are groups within the nursing population who merit salary increases or allowances above the norm, but there should be no blanket settlement simply to buy industrial peace, or allay the fears of nervous Government TDs in the run-up to the election.

Footnote: Aired on RTE's Today with Pat Kenny programme (minus the french paragraph). Published as a a letter by the Irish Examiner & the Irish Independent. A variant, which included politicians as recipients of bench-marking but left out specific reference to the nurses dispute, published by the Irish Times.

Monday, April 02, 2007

What's Ireland in french?

Irish Times correspondent Lara Marlowe was recently the guest of Eamon Dunphy on his Saturday morning radio show.

When he asked her how Ireland was viewed by the French, she provided the wonderfully apt and descriptive response: “capitalisme sauvage”.

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