Saturday, January 31, 2009

A dog's life?

There's a good , if somewhat poncey, restaurant called La Petite Maison in Nice.

We ate there and the wife was horrified when the "madame", who directs the action like a circus ringmaster, actually kissed the little pooch carried by a regular customer.

The following day, I spotted on the outside corner of the premises this charming little feature - a "dogs-bar". So at least the fondness for dogs appears to be long-standing and genuine.

Reviewers differ and diners scratch their heads.

Today’s Irish Times restaurant review by Tom Doorley features Corrigan’s Mayfair, Richard Corrigan’s new restaurant in London, which was also reviewed by the Sunday Times last December.

I was amused by the following glaring contradiction in their experiences. Reviewers differ and diners scratch their heads.

“linguini cooked in red wine with bone marrow and pecorino, fabulously intense, sharp, salty, savoury, rich, weird but wonderful.”
Tom Doorley Irish Times 31st January 2009.

“Corrigan has occasional moments where the enthusiasm gets the better of him, and there was a fashion disaster. This was the linguine cooked in red wine, pecorino and bone marrow. It looked, smelt and tasted not a little like, not a bit like, not almost like, but precisely and exactly like drunk’s puke. I didn’t finish it. I didn’t want to meet it twice.”

AA Gill, Sunday Times 14th December 2008

I prefer Gill’s prose style – shades of Helen Lucy Burke at her most acerbic.

Footnote: I emailed the above observation to Tom Doorley and got the following reply:

Hi Mollox
Gill is a great writer and can tell you a lot about the overall quality of a restaurant. But his interest in food is limited...
Curiously, Jay Rayner of The Observer adored the linguini but described them in such a way as I wouldn't recognise it.
Yes, indeed. Critics differ and I suppose life would be very dull if we didn't!
Many thanks for letting me have that quote - I see Gill's stuff from time to time. I adore his description of vegetarians as "people who take pleasure in not eating things" (even if it's unfair to a few of them).
AAG, I was told last week by a colleague of his, is paid €1m p.a. I wouldn't mind swapping columns for a few weeks!

Every good wish

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Social Partnership process - will we get real reform?

The current social partnership process is important as a means of reassuring both ourselves and international markets that the country is working constructively to find a way out of the current economic mess.

However, the Social Partnership model is also responsible for many of the compromises which have left us with the burden of an overpaid, oversized and under-delivering public sector and political system. What confidence can we have that the current process will not repeat the mistakes of the past and deliver fudged, temporary solutions which fail to deliver the fundamental long-term reforms required to terms of employment, work practices and organisational structures? This reform challenge applies just as much to the Oireachtas as it does to the wider public sector.

As someone who remembers (and paid) the very high personal tax rates of the 1980s, the prospect of paying more tax now is unwelcome; but it can be endured, if there is equity in how it is applied and if it is coupled with a transparent process which delivers meaningful reform in terms of efficiency, effectiveness and value for money. I do not wish to pay higher taxes simply to maintain the status quo.

This raises the question: who is representing the interests of ordinary taxpayers in the current process? They are not represented by employers, unions or politicians, who all have the agenda of their own vested interests foremost in their minds.

While the Government would claim to represent taxpayers’ interests, the reality is that the primary concern of most politicians is retaining power and preserving political careers. These same politicians have created their own bubble, enjoying high salaries, bizarre pension arrangements and an over-generous suite of tax-free, unvouched perks. And all the while TDs tell us how hard they work, regarding many activities which are solely aimed at their own re-election as the legitimate employment for which they are paid.

Therefore, we must see, within the "Framework for Economic Renewal" currently under discussion by the social partners, the clear commitment of the Government and the public sector unions to meaningful reform and a robust process to get us there.

If we can’t get commitment to fundamental change in the heat of the current crisis, we’ll never get it.

Footnote: Published as a letter in the Irish Times.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Should Queen Elizabeth visit Ireland?

Yesterday’s “Head to Head” in the Irish Times was on the topic of “Should Queen Elizabeth visit Ireland?”

Making the “Yes” case was Mary Kenny, while Charles Lysaght took the “No” side.

I found much of Lysaght’s argument to be indicative of someone caught in a time-warp. Here’s a couple of extracts:

“I have grave misgivings about Queen Elizabeth paying us a State visit, with all its panoply of parades and speeches.”

“A parade by the queen through our streets would provide an occasion for displays of enthusiasm by some who are all too likely to provoke the hostility of others.”

“The queen would doubtless be expected to apologise for British misdeeds, including the Famine, but not allowed to mention benefits we derived from the British connection.
She would probably not be allowed to voice British gratitude to the many Irish who served the empire, including those who in Churchill’s memorable words, “hastened to the battlefront to prove their ancient valour” in the second World War.
She would have to walk the tightrope of praising the achievements of modern Ireland without sounding patronising.”

It seems to me that Charles Lysaght envisages such a royal visit as something one would have seen in an old Pathe News black & white newsreel, reporting on the visit of the monarch to the grateful natives of a loyal colony in the 1920s or 1930s.

Can’t you see it - the Queen in a gilded open-top horse-drawn carriage, Prince Philip beside her in full dress naval uniform, chest covered in decorations and topped with a feathered admirals hat. Escorted by household cavalry outriders, all gleaming breastplates & helmets, long leather boots and drawn sabres, with her majesty waving to the happy flag-waving natives. Our Army No. 1 band, in their new Ruritanian uniforms, playing God save the Queen at every opportunity.
Royal Speech: “My husband and I are happy to be here in Eire among our contented former subjects blah blah blah”

If the queen does come, I imagine that it would be kept relatively low-key diplomatic affair with few banquets and set speeches (and none by John Bruton after his cringe-making tribute to Prince Charles). I can’t imagine her apologising for the famine or, indeed, making much reference to our shared history.

I think we should just get it over with.

Footnote: An abbreviated (by me)version published as a letter in the Irish Times.

Gormley finally sees the light on bulbs.

In his “Carbon Budget” on December 6th 2007, Minister John Gormley announced new legislation banning the sale of the normal incandescent light-bulbs from January, 2009.

This caused consternation among manufacturers, builders, householders and retailers.

Light-bulb manufacturers would have to change their equipment and processes as well as manage stock levels and the transition from old to new bulbs. When they sought detailed guidelines it transpired that it was only a light-bulb in the Ministers head, nothing had been planned and he’d be holding a consultation process.

Builders with unfinished houses/apartment blocks were faced with a dilemma. Should they continue to install the downlighters, dimmers etc., or should they change the lighting design altogether – given that no suitable non-incandescent replacements were then available. It’s worth remembering that downlighters and “mood lighting” involving dimmer switches have become popular among the

Householders with existing fittings – dimmer switches, downlighters etc. were worried that, in 12 months time, they would be unable to get replacement bulbs.

Now we’re doing it the way it should have been done from the start – on an EU-wide basis, with a reasonable lead-in time for all interested parties.

The Gormley approach illustrates the extreme danger to the economy posed by allowing the Greens too much influence. The ideas are often worthy, but they are thrown out in a top-of-head way which causes confusion among those who make their living in the real economy. They haven’t been thought through in sufficient detail – which is a clear responsibility of those making Government policy.

The change in the VRT/Road tax regime last year was another good example. By introducing it in mid-year, the initiative effectively killed the motor trade in the first half of the year – when they traditionally achieve over 80% of new car sales.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Spare a thought for the poor bankers.

Out of curiosity, I looked up the last published accounts of the 3 main banks AIB, Anglo & BOI to see how the main men involved there might be suffering financially from the catastrophic collapse of the share prices of their banks.

Anglo - only issued preliminary accounts for y/e 30/9/08, the last published full set of Annual Accounts was for the year ended 30th September 2007
At that date, Chairman Sean Fitzpatrick owned 4.5m shares, which would have been worth €75m+ at their peak price.
Chief Executive David Drumm owned 511k shares, worth €8.5m+ at peak, and had 1.2m share options.
All the above are probably worthless now.

AIB – last published accounts are for year ended 31st December 2007.
At that date, Chief Exec Eugene Sheehy owned 256k shares, worth c. €6m at their peak price. Today they’re worth about €250k.
In addition, Sheehy had 120k share options and a further 251k in a Long Term Incentive Plan scheme – all of these are presumably so far under water that they’re worthless.

BOI – last published accounts are for year ended 31st March 2008.
At that date, Chief Exec Brian Goggin owned 600k shares, worth c. €11m at their peak price. Today they’re worth c. €360k.
In addition, Goggin had 398k share options and a further 402k shares in a Long Term Incentive Plan scheme. All these are now probably worthless.

None of these guys will be on the breadline, but at least they will all have taken a very serious hit to their personal wealth, never mind their reputations.

It’s appropriate that they should be sharing our financial pain.
It may make you feel a little better.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

David Bellamy - Global warming debunker

David Bellamy was on RTE’s Late Late show on Friday night vehemently debutting the threat of global warming. His views were broadly those expressed in this Sunday Express article.

It’s always confusing for those of us in the middle when long-standing and credible environmentalists like David Bellamy are so publicly and trenchantly opposed to the growing scientific and public consensus on global warning.

Ditto when you hear James Lovelock, creator of the Gaia Hypothesis, advocating nuclear energy – an energy source which is anathema to many Greens, particularly the Irish variety.

I’m sure most people would agree that programmes such as recycling, reduction in energy consumption, improving our living environment etc etc are all good and worth doing. Even if Global Warming was scientifically debunked, we should continue to implement such programmes.

What I worry about is a growing bunch of tree-huggers taking us back to an economic stone-age with their zeal for the new green religion. The process of transition to a new model must be achieved without destroying the economy.

The challenge is this: if it is necessary to change the tyres, we have to do it without stopping the car. (How unGreen is that analogy!)

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Reform of Oireachtas allowance/expense regime.

The news from the Green Party conference today is typical Green populist posturing – they’ve heard public reaction on talk radio and they’re leading from the rear. Anything to try to grab back a bit of the high moral ground, having already compromised all their core principles to death.

Now here’s what the new expense regime should really look like.

1. Rev. Comm rules should apply to politicians in exactly the same way as they apply to ordinary Joe Citizen – e.g. BIK, receipts, limits etc etc..
2. State transport should only be supplied for state business – not for personal or party business. No garda drivers – if security deemed necessary for any minister, provide it in an appropriate manner. That should only apply to 2-3 key personnel. State cars subject to the same laws as ordinary motorists – e.g. speed limits, red lights, bus lanes etc etc.
3. No daily allowance, currently €60 per day, for attending at Dail Eireann – what other worker gets paid extra simply for turning up? It’s a bloody disgrace.
4. No overnight allowances – the Board of Works to supply hostel accommodation at a convenient location. Take it or leave it. Much of this hostel accommodation (might be split over several locations) can be let to tourists during the overlong summer recess, to offset some of the costs.
5. Travel Allowance – whatever the appropriate bus or train fare might be. Mileage allowance is only to the nearest train station or bus stop, whichever is appropriate. This should help familiarise our public representatives with the quality of our public transport systems.
6. No additional salary/allowances for work on Dail Committees, other than any genuine, vouched out-of-pocket expenses.
7. Constitutional limit on number of junior ministers (currently 20) e.g. maximum 15, as currently applies for full ministers. Others may be appointed if deemed essential, but with title only – no additional pay, perks or pension rights.
8. Dail to sit during normal office hours e.g. 9-5. This will be a more family friendly regime and might encourage more women to participate in politics. It will also allow our TDs to personally experience rush-hour traffic and might incentivise them to do something about it.

What would you like to add?

Friday, January 16, 2009

Economists - the new media terrorists?

Last September, in the wake of the Govt €100k deposit guarantee, David McWilliams was the first person I saw publicly call for the Government to provide a 100% guarantee of all the liabilities of the Irish banks, not just their deposits.

Then, at end December, he called for nationalisation of Anglo Irish.

However, included in this latter article is the following paragraph: “About a year and a half ago in ‘The Generation Game’, I wrote that “one of the big Irish banks is simply a leveraged hedge fund betting its own and its clients’ money on overvalued property” and “normally when the property market collapses, these type of outfits go bust”.”

Am I alone in finding it difficult to square the thinking behind these two pieces?

If McWilliams was convinced, as early as mid-2007, that Anglo was “simply a leveraged hedge fund betting its own and its clients’ money on overvalued property” and “normally when the property market collapses, these type of outfits go bust”, why, following the collapse of that property market, was he calling in September 2008 for the Government to guarantee all the liabilities of Anglo Irish???

When I listen to the plethora of economists who now seem to fill our media 24/7, there seem to be almost as many potential solutions as there are contributors.

The beauty of being a media talking head is that you don’t have to be consistent in your diagnosis, prognosis or prescription. Hindsight is your crystal ball and you will rarely be challenged on how your previous analysis has actually held up.

Government doesn’t have the same leeway – they have to take decisions and live, or die, with the consequences.

It reminds me of the standard line on terrorism: the security forces have to get it right all the time, the terrorist only has to get it right once.

Are economists our new “media terrorists”?

And who ever would have thought that our universities have so many professors of economics and banking – all budding media performers in recent months. It must be a tidy little earner to supplement their miserable college stipend. Some will be hoping this recession/depression lasts for several years.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Challenges to Public Sector Reform

There are three obvious major obstacles to achieving meaningful public sector reform:

The Government: Their long-standing display of a lack of political will and dearth of management competence gives no confidence in their ability to achieve any meaningful change.
Benchmarking, decentralisation and the creation of the HSE without displacing any existing Heath Board staff, all illustrate the scale of the problem.
Every potential problem in the past decade has been fudged or had money thrown at it. So we can expect a slash & burn “across the board” approach which is likely to leave the end-user, the citizen, as the biggest loser.

The Unions: David Begg, General Secretary of ICTU is the highest ranking representative of the Union movement in Ireland but his public persona is not at all representative of that body’s members in their modus operandi. Begg is a consummate media performer, always coming across as intelligent, articulate, measured, moderate and calm. On the other hand, SIPTU’s Patricia King or the ATGWU’s Brendan Ogle are traditional “not an inch”, “over my dead body” intransigent union reps – where the strike threat is the first rather than the last option put on the table. These are the type of union reps who will be “negotiating” change.

The Management: Senior management tiers within the public service are almost completely untried and untested with regard to executing major strategic change. In the private sector, such management in any large company would have been through a number of major restructurings. In the public sector, the dead hands of Government and the Unions have ensured that no senior manager would even attempt major structural change.

Paradoxically, the one major change attempted in recent decades has also been the one which has most alienated the same senior managers who would be charged with leading such change.
The 2003 Decentralisation political stroke effectively ended the career prospects of many senior civil servants, who were unwilling to move with their departments to locations outside Dublin. Has anyone calculated what impact this has had on motivation these people and what impact that will now have on their appetite to facilitate and lead the necessary change?

Other than the above, it should be a doddle!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The never-ending Middle-East conflict.

The holocaust was an unspeakable atrocity of extraordinary magnitude. In the post-war period, the world salved its conscience for the failure to protect European jews from virtual extermination, but it was at the expense of the Palestinians. The ongoing dispossession of the Palestinians is unconscionable and the world now has a duty to right that wrong.

Israel must treat seriously the threat to wipe it from the face of the world made by some of its neighbours and Hamas. The Jews have, after all, had first hand experience of such an evil enterprise within living memory.

At the same time, Palestinians cannot be expected to accept a life sentence for a crime they did not commit. At best, they are now second-class citizens, restricted to a small part of their own homeland. The Gaza strip has become little more than a self-administering prison camp.

No resolution of this impasse will come from Israel’s iron-fist approach, in its current military campaign against the Gaza strip and also in its longer term behaviour towards the Palestinians e.g. the wall, the settlements, the restriction on movement etc etc..

Neither will the rabid rhetoric of some of Israel’s neighbours, or the actions of Hamas, help towards a lasting peace.

As long as both sides do what they’ve always done, they’ll continue to get the outcome they’ve always got.

When, eventually, a cease-fire is agreed, a number of distinct steps are essential:

1. The US and the EU must formally guarantee the territorial integrity of both Israel and Palestine, based on a return to the pre-1967 borders of Israel. This will have to include a removal of settlements and the resolution of the status of East Jerusalem – perhaps as a UN protectorate?
2. Israel, the US and the EU must fund a compensation package for the dispossessed Palestinians, which should include some limited right of return.
3. Those three parties and the Arab League members must provide a 10-20 year economic stimulus package to help get the new Palestinian state on its feet.

Incoming President Obama has the opportunity to write on a clean slate. Let’s hope he takes that opportunity and provides the necessary leadership to finally resolve this ongoing injustice.

It is, after all, the great running sore that fosters ill-will between the Muslim/arab and Christian/western worlds. It's in everyone's interest that this confict is resolved and a long-term solution demands fairness and generosity for the Palestinians, as well as security for the Israelis.

Friday, January 09, 2009

A Kiwi view of Munster v. All Blacks

Early January always features a plethora of radio & tv programmes looking back on the highlights of the previous year. A guest on one such radio programme was Irish Times rugby correspondent Gerry Thornley, who singled out the recent Munster v. All Blacks match at the new Thomond Park as one of his major highlights of the year. Thornley talked about an article written by a New Zealand journalist/blogger named Martin Moody as typifying the Kiwi reaction to the match and the character of the Munster support. I googled it and here it is. Apparently, since publication of the article, there’s been a fatwah on stray dogs in the vicinity of Thomond Park.

Munster the (real) victors after epic sporting showdown

The BBC said Joe Rokocoko’s late, late try “spared the All Blacks’ blushes” against Munster last night.

Sorry, no it didn’t. There would have been no blushes in defeat because there would have been no embarrassment in losing to the inspired, electrified, relentless, passionate and ultimately magnificent team of Munster men on this unforgettable autumn night at the legendary Thomond Park.

This was one of those sporting occasions which transcends a game and makes bolder statements about humanity. That sounds perhaps a tad pretentious – but it is not. This match was that special.

As a Kiwi – probably one of only 500 in the 26,000 strong crowd – I was honoured to be present at such an event and deeply moved by the respect the Munster crowd showed for the All Blacks, for my country and for the game of rugby.

Take heed all ye around the world who care about this beautiful game. When ‘Smokin’ Joe’ scored that heartbreaking, game-breaking try in the 87th minute, Stephen Donald’s resultant conversion attempt, if successful, would have put the All Blacks out of reach of defeat by an even later drop goal or penalty.

It was the most crucial of kicks. In almost any other stadium in the world, at least outside Ireland, the booing from the home supporters would have been loud, venomous and prolonged.

Yet as Donald lined up his kick the only sound in the eerily still, and yet monumentally flattened crowd was the occasional “Shhhhh” as spectators reminded their compatriots of their great yet unwritten sporting code.

The kick missed – perhaps it was the silence that undid Donald on that and several other occasions during the evening (to be fair to the crowd at Croke Park last weekend, they did exactly the same when Dan Carter was kicking.

Again, he missed some sitters. Maybe a new weapon, the Sound of Silence, has been discovered that can finally stop the mighty Blacks).

During one of Donald’s earlier, and also crucial, kicks, the silence was broken only by the barking of a dog from outside the stadium.

That’s right – you could hear a dog barking in a backstreet of Limerick, such was the silence inside Thomond Park. You almost expected the crowd to collectively look in the direction of the dog, raise their fingers to their lips, and whisper “Shhhhh” in the direction of the hapless hound.

Every word, every gesture of the All Blacks Haka was met with similar silence, immense appreciation and total respect.

How different that is from the braying you will hear from the Barbour jacket brigade two weeks hence at Twickenham, who will no doubt successfully drown out the Haka with their symphony of boorish booing, thus denying themselves and all other spectators of one of the great moments in world sport.

Remember too that a goodly proportion of the folks of Munster had taken up occupation in the pubs of Limerick throughout the afternoon in the build-up to the 7.30 kick-off.

Some might have been four sheets and quite a few more pints of Guinness to the wind but that didn’t have the slightest impact on the levels of respect they showed and which, quite frankly, put any rugby crowd in New Zealand to shame.

So here’s a plea to all fellow Kiwis. Let’s learn from the dignity and grace of the Irish. When Ireland (especially, but also any other international side) play our teams back home, let’s banish the booing too.

Let’s take up the alternative cry of “Shhhhh” and show that at the rugby table of manners, the Irish are not the only diners.

And another thing. If any Kiwis reading this bump into a Munster man or woman in 2011
during the next Rugby World Cup in New Zealand, invite them back into your home.

Tell them you were moved by the respect they showed your nation, your culture, your rugby team. Tell them that the Munster class of 2008 – a supposedly ‘second string’ team – was every bit as heroic as their proud predecessors of 1978.

Tell them that Munster lost only on the scoreboard but won everywhere that it mattered most – in the hearts, minds and affections of all those privileged enough to be present, including crazily patriotic Kiwis like me who (almost impossibly) would not have been downcast at losing to such a side.

Tell them how you heard about those Munster men who hit rucks like there was no tomorrow (and for anyone standing in their way there might not have been).

Tell them how their own brand of passion somehow inspired several of the younger All Blacks – notably the magnificent young athlete that is number 8 Liam Messam – to reach deep, deep inside themselves to a place they perhaps did not recognise and play like men possessed in those final, pulsating 20 minutes, when bodies were strewn like corpses across the glorious battlefield that was Thomond Park.

Tell them that you heard about the ‘Munster Four’ – Howlett, Tupoki, Manning and Mafi – and how they, backed to a man by the rest of the team, laid down their own heroic Haka challenge to the Blacks.

And tell them so much more. Tell them it from me. Tell them how the crowd to a man and a woman stood and applauded the All Blacks after the game, despite having just swallowed the bitter, bitter pill of unexpected, agonising, death knell defeat.

Tell them how ruddied-looking Munster men came up and shook my hand after the game and said “Well done, you deserved it”, when in truth perhaps we didn’t.

Tell them most of all, that the name of Munster, even in defeat, is synonymous not only with the great rugby victory of 1978 but also the magnificence of the players and the crowd who graced the rebuilt Thomond Park some three decades later.

Martin Moody

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The Indo subverting the Oireachtas?

If one is to believe today’s Irish Times, Sir Anthony may now have his own political party!
Reporting on an ESB refund for overcharging following a review of customer accounts, the IT said that it arose “as a result of a complaint made in 2007 by Independent Senator Shane Ross”.

The report makes no mention of the other Independent Senator, Eoghan Harris.

This means O’Reilly’s Independent Party now matches the Greens and the (soon to be defunct) PDs in the Seanad and exceeds the Shinners. O’Reilly can claim a greater democratic mandate than either the Greens or the PDS as 50% of his members were actually elected!

Mind you, (old joke coming) that’s where Trinity College has surpassed ancient Rome. For while it’s only a myth that the emperor Caligula made his horse a Roman Consul, it’s a fact that Trinity College sent a complete horse’s arse to the Irish Senate.

Where will O’Reilly’s political ambitions end – President Sir Anthony O’Reilly in 2011? I know I said I’ve vote for ABBA (anyone but Bertie Ahern), but this would be a stretch too far, much too far.

As for the soon-to-be-defunct PD senators Cannon & O’Malley, presumably they’ll follow the honourable example of Bev and stop taking their easy “walking around money” from the state?
I presume it’ll have to be voluntary, as someone said of Cannon – you couldn’t fire that man.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Shane Ross to lead bank shareholder revolt

In today's Sunday Independent, Shane Ross is hoping to reprise his Eircom success by leading a shareholder revolt at AGMs of the various banks.

Would there be any chance the bould Shane would lead a shareholders revolt in Waterford Wedgewood and Independent News & Media.

Both companies, chaired by Sir Anthony – and he’s also the largest shareholder – have suffered a huge decline in value in recent years.
Waterford Wedgewood shares now trade at one-tenth of a cent per share! They were valued at over €1 within the past decade.
Indo shares trade at 42c, down about 90% from their 2006 high.

Shane will surely urge shareholders in both those companies to go to the AGMs and demand a boardroom clear-out, as Sir Anthony's enterprises now rival the banks when it comes to lousy share performance.

For some reason, I’m not holding my breath on this one.

Footnote: Aired by Marian Finucane on her RTE radio programme.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Launching the Corkage campaign

Tom Doorley's first Irish Times restaurant column of the new year looks forward to a very tough time for the industry in the coming months. There will be many casualties and Doorley "thinks aloud" about some measures that might help restaurants survive.

One aspect he comments specifically on is the price of wine in restaurants. For some time I'd been thinking about writing to him to see if he'd promote the concept of corkage - to give diners more choice and better value - so I've grabbed the opening offered by his column today and sent him the following email:


As we lurch into recession and a New Year bloodbath for restaurants, you've finally decided it’s time to make a sensible comment about the price of restaurant wine: “We don’t want to be reminded, every time we go to the supermarket, how much we are paying for drinking such wines while eating out.”

The league of restaurant reviewers has been happy to report a 300% mark-up regime, to which we diners are expected to add a 10%-15% tip, without any adverse comment on this long-standing rip-off.

Routinely, the most expensive item, by some distance, on my bill is the item which has had the least “added-value” provided by the restaurant. (I dislike having my glass refilled by the waiting staff, I tell them [pleasantly] that I’ll take care of it myself).

Now that you’ve acknowledged the wine mark-up problem, what about starting a campaign to promote a reasonably priced corkage regime? It might help some restaurants get through the next 6 months, it would certainly encourage me to eat out more often (currently once a week with the missus).


Email response received from Tom Doorley on Sunday 4th Jan.

Dear Mollox

Good point! We (i.e the critics) have been too ready to accept the restaurateurs' arguments about wine. I have tended to object to wine prices when they go beyond the norm but the norm is too bloody much anyway! I have long argued that people should be rewarded for trading up, i.e. by way of a standard mark-up on all but the cheapest wines. In other words, if you pay, say €40 for a bottle in a restaurant this should be pretty well at parity with retail price while €20 could represent a hefty mark-up. Surely we would all be happy, occasionally at least, to buy Volnay rather than Wolf-Blass Yellow Label. And the restaurant would still make more out of the Volnay...

In an ideal world, a standard mark-up should apply to all wines but the cost of running a restaurant in Dublin is so much higher than in any other capital city in the EU (a situation that has to change and change rapidly).

The other thing that gets my goat is the way we tend to be penalised for drinking wine by the glass. Such has been the greed of restaurateurs that if you add up the number of glasses in a bottle it comes to way more than the cost of the actual bottle. I know that there are additional costs but I think the attitude is short-sighted.

Having said all this, I have to say that I'm glad I don't have to run a restaurant for living!

All the best


PS - watch out for a lunch campaign which will, I hope, offer two courses and a glass of decent wine for €20 - and all from very serious restaurants. I'm working like a demon on this at the moment!

Friday, January 02, 2009

David Begg is General Secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU). He is a consummate media performer, always coming across as intelligent, articulate, measured, moderate and calm.

Begg’s role makes him the highest ranking representative of the Union movement in Ireland but, in reality, his public persona is not at all representative of that body’s members in their modus operandi.

For a real insight into the mindset of Union activists, think SIPTU’s Patricia King or the ATGWU’s Brendan Ogle. These are traditional “not an inch”, “over my dead body” intransigent union reps – where the strike threat is the first rather than the last option put on the table. Change only comes when the business is about to close or a very large compensation payment is forthcoming.

It’s this bloody-minded approach, abetted by a supine Government approach to “social partnership”, which has ensured that the public services and semi-state companies are models of 1930s-style socialism in action – over-staffed, over-paid and under-delivering.

As long as David Begg continues to front the ICTU PR machine, the general public may well be fooled into thinking that the scope exists for real reform in the public services.

In reality, nothing will change unless the Government is prepared to tackle head-on the many deeply entrenched work practices (what an oxymoron that is) in the public sector and be willing to face a year or more of industrial unrest. Make no mistake - this will be politically difficult – disruption in hospitals, ESB, Bord Gais etc. will hit the general public hard.

Such action will require much more political will and staying power than has been evident to date from any FF-led government. In any organisation, major reform is most easily achieved in a time of crisis. When business is good it’s almost impossible to achieve major strategic change.

So the Government must grasp the opportunity which the current painful recession presents and force through the necessary reforms (always assuming that they have actually thought out what needs to change – which I doubt).

The first step should be to lock up (or banish) David Begg so that the “reasonable” mask is removed from the union movement. The public should be allowed to see the true face of trade unionism in order to galvanise public opinion behind the necessary, though temporarily disruptive, reform programme. SIPTU president Jack O’Connor, Patricia King or Brendan Ogle on the box every night will help convince the general public that the reform is worth the temporary pain and inconvenience of strikes, work-to-rules etc..

Israel's objective in current Gaza conflict?

A very interesting insight into the current conflict in Gaza today on RTE’s Morning Ireland.

David Landau of Haaretz, a credible journalist and commentator (well at least by RTE standards), was presented with a series of loaded questions which reflected the anti-Israeli preconceptions which are common in RTE, and the Irish media and population in general. (many of which I share when Israel is clearly heavy handed – with often fatal consequences for Palestinians).

Landau’s analysis of what Israel’s actual objective might be was very interesting.

The 2006 IDF invasion of Lebanon has been widely regarded as a military defeat for Israel and a victory for Hezbollah. However, that conflict ended with the insertion of an international monitoring force which has created an effective buffer zone. As Landau put it, since that particular conflict ended “not even a bow & arrow has been fired at Israel from Lebanon”. So the actual outcome was, however unexpectedly, quite favourable for Israel.

If Landau is correct, Israel is seeking to create a post-conflict situation in Gaza which mirrors that which now pertains on its Lebanon border. So the sooner the UN and/or EU puts such a proposal on the table the better.

Leadership - not always alpha

In the Irish Times of 31st December, under the headline “We are stuck with inept trio and a dismal alternative”, Vincent Browne disparages the credentials of the current troika leading the government (Cowen, Coughlan & Lenihan) and Enda Kenny as the alternative Taoiseach.

I would, in the past, have agreed with Browne, but Kenny’s performance as leader of Fine Gael, both electorally (e.g. +20 seats at the last general election) and in his ability to put together and lead an increasingly credible front bench, must surely suggest that he should not be so easily dismissed as a political lightweight.

Vincent Browne is (at least in Ireland) the ultimate alpha male commentator, and Brian Cowen is the ultimate alpha male politician.

As Taoiseach, Cowen routinely demonstrates that this isn’t always the most productive or effective way of providing leadership, while Browne’s career as a publisher and editor should surely, by now, have taught him a basic lesson about the successful building and leadership of a team-based enterprise: the brightest boy in the class does not always make the best leader.

Footnote: Published as a letter in the Irish Times 5/1/09

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