Thursday, May 31, 2007

Inappropriate Speed Limits

I recently spent a few days in Mayo, driving around the Newport/Westport area. Although many of the roads there are narrow, winding, undulating and with uneven surfaces in many places, the speed limit is 100kmh. I rarely felt it appropriate to exceed 80kmh.

I was puzzled by the fact that the County Council could paint the instruction “Slow” or “Very Slow” on the road without any reduction in the legal speed limit. Similarly, there was no reduction in speed limit where yellow warning signs, e.g. “Dangerous Corner Ahead“, “Road Narrows” (particularly for small bridges) etc., were displayed. I assume that this situation is replicated in other counties too.

I understand that the local authority must pass a resolution for each local variation from the official speed limits as set down by the Dept of the Environment, and this clearly could be a huge exercise for a county the size of Mayo.

Surely the logical solution is for the national rules to be changed so that, where it is deemed appropriate to put up certain warning signs, the speed limit should also be automatically reduced.

The corollary is that, on national roads where there is no justification for a warning sign (e.g. stretches of the N11), local authorities should have their wings clipped with regard to the imposition of unreasonably low speed limits.

Footnote: Published as a letter in the Irish Independent 9th June 2007 & the Irish Examiner 11th June 2007.

Postscript: I filled the tank before leaving Dublin, drove to Mulranny observing the speed limit and spent some time touring locally, as described above. I refilled the tank after 520 miles, the warning light hadn't come on yet. It took 53.5 litres (11.8 gallons) and that translates into 44mpg. That's some performance for a 2-litre petrol engined, 8 year old car. Clearly, slowing down makes economic and ecological sense.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

McDowell leads PDs down the road to perdition

The following is a straight lift from an article in today's Sunday Independent. Some comments about McDowell seemed entirely apt.

The coalition partners lost six of their eight seats, including party stalwarts such as deputy leader Liz O'Donnell in Dublin South, Tim O'Malley in Limerick and Fiona O'Malley in Dun Laoghaire.

Mary Harney, in Dublin Mid West, and Noel Grealish, in Galway, were the only two members of the PDs to be re-elected to the Dail.

Ms Harney was unavailable for comment last night.

Michael McDowell told the Sunday Independent last night: "I won't go back. I will be a private citizen again. I won't be a politician, a journalist or a controversialist. The guillotine has come down."

But Mr Grealish, who won the last seat in Galway West, said he would be meeting Mary Harney in the next few days to discuss the future of the party.

"Mary Harney has spent the guts of 30 years building up this party. Is she going to spend the next 10 years rebuilding it? I'm not so sure. It's a tough battle," he said.

Mr Grealish said the PDs got squeezed by the two bigger parties.

"Now we are just two. It is hard to run a party with just two deputies. It is very hard for the party to survive with just two members in the house," he said.

"Hopefully we will survive and rebuild but we will have to think seriously about all options, including about whether we will disband," he added.

Mr Minihan, who failed in his bid for a seat in Cork South Central, said last night that Bertie Ahern should appoint Mary Harney as health minister in the national interest.

He said he was not suggesting that the Progressive Democrats go back into government, just Mary Harney.

"I think that the Taoiseach should invite her to continue as minister for health and the mechanics of the rest to be worked out," he said.

"I believe the Taoiseach is big enough to invite her to take the portfolio of minister for health. The Taoiseach should invite her in his own interests and most of all, in the interest of the Irish people. Mary Harney is bigger and better than the entity of the Progressive Democrats at this moment in time.

"Mary Harney should feel absolutely no responsibility for the PDs at this moment in time. That responsibility is a responsibility of Michael McDowell," he said.

It seemed increasingly likely that Mary Harney will resume leadership of the party in the coming days. Party trustees are expected to meet today to schedule meetings to decide on the party's leadership and its future.

Tom Parlon, the outgoing Minister of State, said that the Progressive Democrats could remain in government in their own right, with Ms Harney and Mr Grealish helping Fianna Fail make up the numbers in a new government.

As shock over the scale of the losses sank in, recriminations over Mr McDowell's leadership began to surface. One party source likened his departure to a general walking away from battle, leaving wounded and leaderless troops to fend for themselves.

Post-Election Tranquility - for the moment

In the post-election tranquillity of the doldrum period as we wait for Bertie’s political wind to blow, I’m off today to Enda Country with the two current “Mrs.M”s.

A few days in Blueshirt Heaven, savouring the memory of the PD meltdown, will restore the equilibrium to my blood pressure, raised by episodes like Simon Coveney’s performances on Q&A and Morning Ireland.

A minor upward blip again this morning when I see that, once again, John Deasy, gobshite of the year, is suggesting that Enda Kenny be replaced as FG leader.

Pat Rabbitte may be in trouble with his Labour colleagues - several querying the strategy now that they haven’t gained any seats - but FG have. As a fellow Mayo man, I think he’s the best they have and I hope he survives any heave.

Hopefully, by the time we come back on Thursday, the PDs will have rejoined FF.

Time to fire John Deasy

It seems that John Deasy has been on Waterford local radio again - calling for a new leader in Fine Gael.

I believe Enda Kenny did enough to prove his capabilities as a leader - between reviving a Fine Gael party that was DOA after the 2002 meltdown, to mounting a credible campaign (look at the seat numbers!) , even to debating with Bertie - which he lost but wasn’t knocked out.

This despite an uphill struggle with the media - undermined by his own people with the Deasy/English intervention and then almost every interview opening with the question-mark over his ability/experience from a hostile/sceptical media.

I think the real problem for Fine Gael was the question in voters minds of the dubious quality of the FG team behind Kenny. Who are the FG front bench and where were they during the debates?

Richard Bruton (knee-high to what now?) performed well - but isn’t a natural street-fighter. Olwyn Enright gave Mary Hanafin a hard time, soundly rebutting her claims without ever getting shrill. Who else performed well for FG in the national media?

Simon Coveney is nice but not assertive enough when faced with Brian Cowan or Dermot Ahern. Indeed, FGs decision to put Coveney on Q&A and Morning Ireland in the final days of the campaign was a big mistake.

Meanwhile, FF has an array of seasoned heavyweight street brawlers and used them to good effect on a daily basis, at their own press conferences and in media debates. Incidentally, RTE did FG no favours during many of the bouts, the referee was noticeably absent when many low (and loud) blows were thrown.

If FG are serious about getting into power, they need to forget the Queensberry rules when they’re in the ring with FF heavyweights.

The first step for Kenny should be a review of the front-bench talent and potential in the new intake. They really need to start now, sending these people to political boot-camp, sharpening up their Dail and media performances.

Kenny should remain the leader, at least for the next 2-3 years, unless and until a credible replacement has the opportunity to show him/herself. One thing I’m sure of - it shouldn’t be John Deasy.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

McDowell's missed opportunity

As he exits public life following the loss of his dail seat and the decimation of the PDs, I found this old letter of mine, published in the Irish Times in February 2001 (pre-Madam era) under the heading "Fine Gael Leadership"

It's difficult to see either of the coup leaders as visionaries who will succeed where John Bruton failed - in motivating and mobilising a fairly jaded party.
I suggest Fine Gael take the opportunity to look outside the party for possible leadership candidates.
Let me start the list: Pat Cox and Michael McDowell.
Yours, etc.,

How could I have got it so wrong (about Michael McDowell)?????

Clouds, Silver Linings etc..

Disappointment at the failure of the alternative coalition to win the election has been tempered somewhat by the destruction inflicted on the PDs.

I’d have been happy if McDowell and Parlon got the chop, but they’ve been joined by 4 others, leaving only Mary Harney and Noel Grealish. Apparently these two don’t particularly like each other, he was a McDowell supporter and they're both gene-pool FFers. So will the PDs continue to exist in a couple of months time?

Now that the political smoke is clearing, it looks like a FF-Green coalition is the most likely pairing, based on the numbers required for a stable government.

This scenario throws up some interesting possible crunch points in the negotiation of the final deal between those two parties.

A core principle for the Greens, oft repeated during the campaign whenever the possibility of coalition was discussed, is the banning of corporate donations to the political parties. That would really hit FF finances very hard, as the largest beneficiaries of corporate largesse. It would surely mean the end of the infamous Galway tent - unthinkable!

Then imagine the consternation when it comes to the use of Government transport. The ministerial Merc would be replaced by the Ministerial bicycle. Recognising the occasional need for motorised transport, Merc-pooling would be introduced, solely for state or government business and banned for personal or party use. Who would take the kids to school, the wife shopping or the Minister to the races?

The Government jet would be sold or moth-balled, Ministers and their garda minders would be routinely seen on buses, trains and, as infrequently as possible, in the economy section of commercial aircraft.

And just imagine having to listen to John Gormley at cabinet meetings!

Plenty to smile about just thinking about the upcoming negotiation process.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Michael McDowell - No Thanks

This is a straight lift from today's (sat) Irish Examiner. Not enough people buy de paper.

THE hard man of Irish politics held it together just long enough to make it back to his Mercedes, then the magnitude of the previous six minutes broke over him and his eyes filled with tears. A career born in bombast had collapsed in personal agony.

It was the final twist of the rollercoaster election campaign, and the deep irony could not be ignored that after twice going to the brink of exiting government in disgust at the Taoiseach’s evasions over the payments saga, the voters had finally tipped the Tánaiste into history while at the same moment rewarding Bertie Ahern with a stunning landslide.
Mr McDowell arrived at the RDS count downcast but dignified. As the media swirled around him — surely the final time they would orbit this dark sun of political divisiveness and dynamism in such numbers — he could only progress just inside the main doors before being immobilised by the sheer weight of attention surrounding him.

There, just yards from where the ballot papers had flowed onto the tables to be tallied — damning him as they did so — the Tánaiste delivered the totemic moment in an already extraordinary day of political theatre.

His voice at times breaking with the momentum of the occasion, Mr McDowell spoke of his love for Ireland, responsibility for his own destiny and his seemingly snap decision to leave public life for good.

He ignored the Labour supporters barracking him with joyous chants of “Cheerio! Cheerio! Cheerio!” as he turned to leave, almost overcome by the body blow delivered by his own electorate.

But for an ideological street fighter who delivered so many bruisings down the years, he showed he could take them too.

As supporters moved in to try and comfort him after his shock announcement, the Tánaiste first came close to tears, within seconds he was in the relative privacy of his government car and could no longer deny his true feelings as the reality of personal defeat and party near-annihilation amid government triumph washed over him.

Mr McDowell had finally been laid low by Green avenger John Gormley who blew him out of office on the fifth count for the bitterly fought seat of Dublin South East.

Not content with delivering a happy slapping to Mr McDowell in the street in Ranelagh, the Green TD had now given the Tánaiste severe stress at the RDS.

It had been obvious calamity was in the air for several hours.

You knew Mr McDowell was twisting in the wind when he got more transfers from the eliminated Sinn Féin candidate than the poll-topping Fianna Fáil one.

The voters of Dublin South East had the final say on this most combative and commanding of Dáil giants : They said: “Michael McDowell — No Thanks."

Thursday, May 24, 2007

A Vote for Roche is a Vote for.......

Some slogans are just too honest. The sad thing is that Dickhead will probably top the poll in Wicklow.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Going for Chelsea Gold

The 2007 Chelsea Flower Show has 20 entries in the Show Garden category.

The following is the breakdown of Medal winners:

Gold medals: 7
Silver Gilt: 5
Silver: 5
Bronze: 3

In other words, every Show Garden was awarded a medal of some sort and over one-third of the gardens earned a Gold Medal, which must somewhat devalue the actual achievement.

Creating a garden for the show and winning a medal is obviously a great was of promoting a gardening/landscaping business. Diarmuid Gavin has undoubtedly gained huge publicity from his involvement at Chelsea on a number of occasions - he won a Silver Gilt medal this year - which means he finished in the range 8-12 out of 20.

There are persistent media reports that Fitzpatrick Gardening & Gambling Inc. has recognised the possibilities and is actively considering submitting an entry for next year’s Chelsea show. One can readily envisage areas of lawn set out as roulette or blackjack tables. I'm reliably informed that employees are not looking forward to this project, particularly the noisy and dirty job of using an angle-grinder to cut square paving slabs, in different colours, into circular chips.

Footnote: Today's Indo carries a report by Anne-Marie Walsh in which it states: "Gavin revealed that one of the Royal Horticultural Society judges told him the wrong garden had taken the gold medal". Which one of the seven gold medals awarded would that be, Diarmuid? Chancer!

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

McDowell's credentials in question

Letter published today (Wednesday) in the Irish Independent under the heading "The Minister's accusations"

Sir, On radio today, Justice Minister Michael McDowell defended his action, during last Wednesday's Leader's debate, in challenging Gerry Adams with accusations regarding the Colombia Three and FARC.

This accusation has potentially serious ramifications for all of us, not just Sinn Fein. It raises fundamental questions about the underlying principles of justice and democratic accountability.

Let's suppose that Michael McDowell genuinely believes his latest red scare election tactic and decides that the alternative coalition must be stopped in the national interest. As Minister for Justice he has access to Garda, Revenue and Welfare files on his political opponents and their families and could presumably leak a variety of stories to journalists, at national and local level, which would damage those opponents.

Is this acceptable, based on Mr McDowell's judgement of the national interest?

He has, at very least, created the precedent for future office holders to abuse their sources of information for political purposes. This is a highly dangerous state of affairs and one which should not be tolerated in a democracy.
Yours etc.

Footnote: Also published by the Irish Examiner on election day itself. I'm disappointed that the Irish Times hasn't chosen to publish this letter.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Latest election betting

Current (Sunday) Paddy Power odds

Next Taoiseach
Kenny 10/11
Ahern 1/1

Next Govt
FG/Lab/Green 1/1
FF/Lab 5/2
FG/Lab 6/1
FF/PD 7/1

Most likely Party totals
FF 63-66 6/4
FG 52 or over 10/11
Lab 23 or over 11/10
SF 9-10 11/10
Green 9-10 7/4
PD 1-2 11/10

Still all to play for. However, Mayo truly hammered by Galway today in the first round of the football championship. This result won't do much to help Mayo team manager John O'Mahoney's (FG) chances next Thursday.

What Bertie won't tell you.


Saturday, May 19, 2007

Hung Dail in prospect

An interesting exercise on RTE’s Saturday View, extended to 2 hours today. Using local and national media sources, supported in most cases by opinion poll findings, they did a constituency by constituency analysis of likely outcomes in all 43 to arrive at a projected national result for next Thursday’s election.

This was how the 166 seats panned out:

FF: 65 (-14)
FG: 47 (+15)
Lab: 21 (NC)
SF: 11 (+6)
Green: 9 (+3)
PD: 2 (-6)
Independent: 11 (-4)

If this is the actual outcome, the PDs are toast. However, a combination of FG/Lab/Green only totals 77 seats, which is still 6 short of the bare minimum required for an overall majority (allowing for non-voting Cathaoirleach).

Other than FF/Lab whose combined total is 86, it’s hard to see what sort of coalition Government could be put together, particularly as every other party has ruled out Sinn Fein in advance.

Needless to say, Mary Harney rejected the PD result, while Eamon Gilmore reckoned that Labour would be several seats better. Gilmore pointed out that, in the analysis, Labour were supposedly in the hunt for the last seat in 17 of the 43 constituencies but were never declared the likely winner. Phil Hogan predicted that FG would pick up several more seats than the 47 projected.

Tomorrow's News Today!

The latest RedC tracking poll to be published tomorrow in the Sunday Business Post

FF 36% (+1)
FG 27% (-2)
LAB 11% (-1)
Greens 8% (+2)
SF 10% (+3)
PD 2% (-1)
Ind 6% (-2)

From the Sunday Independent, their latest IMS poll

FF 37% (+2)
FG 25% (-1)
LAB 12% (-1)
Greens 5% (no change)
SF 9% (-1)
PD 3% (no change)
Ind 9% (+1)

Fieldwork for Sindo poll was done on Mon/Tues and RedC on Weds/Thurs/Fri this week. FF party political broadcast featuring endorsements of Bertie by Blair, Clinton & Mitchell was aired on Monday night. Tuesday saw Bertie Ahern’s televised Westminster address and we had the Leaders tv debate on Thursday night. The consensus is that Bertie won the debate by a modest enough margin.

Are PD Chickens coming home to FF roost?

Friday's Irish Times headline "Kenny scores on confidence and Ahern on detail" tends to support Fianna Fail's assertion that Bertie Ahern’s greater command of the detail in the "Leader’s TV Debate" is evidence that he’s the more suited to the role of Taoiseach after next Thursday’s election.

However, on inspection, this may prove to be something of a double-edged sword, for it also puts him squarely in the dock for the many deficiencies and failures of his government over the past 10 years in office, at a time of unprecedented national wealth. The defence of “I didn’t understand the implications or shortcomings of the policy, M’Lord” is now firmly denied him.

Attempts to distance FF from their partner PD efforts in the areas of Health and Justice are now well and truly defused. Indeed, it would be hard to find the FF DNA in either of these policy areas. You can be sure that FF would be much more comfortable with Labour as a coalition partner in matters of policy (though less happy about the number of cabinets seats they‘d have to yield to a much bigger coalition partner).

This point was at the core of Eamon Dunphy’s robust rejection of a sympathy vote for Bertie Ahern on RTE’s Late late show last night. Bertie Ahern has presided over the disproportionate imposition of PD right-wing policies over the past 10 years and he and his party should now be made face the consequences, for good or ill.

Are the skies now darkening with the wings of chickens coming home to roost?

Friday, May 18, 2007

Latest odds on Election Outcomes

Today’s betting from Paddy Power:

Next Taoiseach:
Enda Kenny - 4/5
Bertie Ahern - 5/4

Next Government:
FG/Lab/Green - 1/1
FF/Lab - 5/2
FG/Lab - 6/1
FF/PD - 7/1
FF/SF - 10/1

Those odds would seem to rule out a return of the existing Government coalition or, indeed, Fine Gael & Labour getting sufficient seats to form a Government without the Greens. Nevertheless, I've €10 @ 10/1 on a FG/Lab outcome.
It'll be interesting to see how these odds may change over the final week of the campaign.

Also, latest Betting for Dun Laoghaire constituency (5 seats).

Anyone who fancies PD Fiona O’Malley (in the political sense) should get on now. I won’t be backing her. If the bookies are right, it looks like a Fine Gael gain from the PDs.

Mary Hanafin* FF - 1/100
Eamon Gilmore* Lab - 1/33
Ciaran Cuffe* Green - 1/25
Barry Andrews* FF - 1/5
Sean Barrett FG - 4/11
John Bailey FG - Evens
Eugene Regan FG - 9/4
Oisin Quinn Lab - 5/2
Fiona O’Malley* PD - 7/2
R.Boyd Barrett PBP - 11/1
Eoin O’Broin SF - 20/1

* sitting TD

The Great Election Debate

Last night was the much-heralded “great TV debate” between party leaders and candidates for Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern and Enda Kenny. RTE reported that average audience for the 80-minute debate averaged almost 1m viewers.

While both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael both claimed victory for their own man, the general media concensus was that Bertie won the debate by a relatively narrow margin, as captured by the headlines in the three Irish broadsheets this morning:

Irish Times
“Kenny scores on confidence and Ahern on detail

Irish Independent
Ahern shades it but fails to land knockout

Irish Examiner
No killer punch line means a messy draw

But Enda Kenny may well have been the real winner. Expectations of Kenny were pretty low, given his often wooden performances in the Dail. The greatest fear of the alternative coalition partners was that Kenny would blow it last night in the head-to-head with the seasoned campaigner that is Bertie Ahern.

So there must have been great relief that his demeanour and performance were quite good, although he was caught a couple of times by challenges on policy detail.

Six of us sat down to watch the debate, which started at 9.40pm, in my living-room, lubricated by a little wine. After paying some attention for the first 10-15 minutes, we found that no-one was listening to the debate as we all discussed the election, Bertie house, how the two boys looked like they’d been togged out by the same tailor (which turned out to be the case - the ubiquitous Louis Copeland) etc etc.. After about 40 minutes, 4 of us decamped to the pub, where the debate was showing on the big screen tv. However, we couldn’t hear it from where we were sitting - indeed only 2 or 3 customers were standing near the tv actually following the debate. Mind you, the pub itself was very quiet last night, so perhaps people were staying at home to watch it.

So I saw the great debate, but I heard very little of what was said. Only one week to go till the election, it’ll be interesting to see what, if any, impact it has on the opinion polls. I suspect only the “undecided” are up for grabs, existing supporters of either man will have seen him as the winner. Certainly, nothing emerged which is likely to change voting intentions.

There are two polls to be published this weekend, but the fieldwork was completed before the Thursday night debate. I think the Irish Times plan to publish a poll on Monday which will have been taken after the debate.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Is Michael McDowell a democrat?

I’ve always got mixed emotions when I hear Michael McDowell ripping into Gerry Adams and Sinn Féin.

On the one hand, I'm delighted to have the Shinners challenged on criminality and the Colombia escapade. On the other hand, I can’t accept that a Minister for Justice is justified in making charges on the basis that “I know what I know.” The precedent being set is highly dangerous. What’s to stop him, or a successor in office, from trailing information, to which he has privileged access, in order to blacken a political activist or opponent who is pursuing the government on a legitimate basis?

This type of activity is compounded by other disquieting activities which one shouldn’t expect from a serving Justice Minister:
(a) leaking the contents of a confidential garda file to a pet journalist regarding Frank Connolly and the Colombia 3 and
(b) contacting Jody Corcoran of the Sunday Independent in order to get access to leaked tribunal documents which should not have been in the possession of the journalist in question.

Are these the actions of a real democrat, particularly one who is both Minister for Justice and a senior counsel? Surely such a man should be upholding the law and the rights of every individual citizen, understanding the need to do so even when it does not suit his political purposes?

Bertie's latest digout from friends

Has Blair‘s “Cash for Honours” now morphed into “Political Endorsement for Legacy”?

Last night, a week before Ireland’s general election, Fianna Fail, the largest party in the state and leader of the current two-party coalition government, aired its latest party political broadcast featuring warm endorsements of Taoiseach Bertie Ahern by Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and George Mitchell. While the tributes centred on Ahern’s role in the northern Ireland peace process, both Blair and Clinton also praised Ireland’s economic performance. Clinton just stopped short of adding “it’s the economy, stupid!”

The screening of this party political broadcast on Wednesday night raises inevitably questions about the timing of the Taoiseach’s Westminster address the previous day and the very warm and glowing personalised introduction he received from Tony Blair on that occasion, which was televised live in Ireland.

Is this Tony Blair's "thank you" for Bertie Ahern's help in securing agreement in Northern Ireland, by far the most prominent positive achievement for the Blair legacy?

The following extract from today’s Irish Times makes it clear that the participants in last night’s party political broadcast were well aware of the exercise in which they were engaged. It inevitably raises the question: is it appropriate for a serving British Prime Minister to involve himself so directly in a foreign election campaign?
Irish Times Thursday 17th May 2007
Opposition parties were last night playing down the significance of contributions from former US president Bill Clinton, British prime minister Tony Blair and former US senator George Mitchell, all of whom pay warm tribute to the Taoiseach in the latest party political broadcast from Fianna Fáil. Deaglán de Bréadún , Political Correspondent, reports.
In the four-minute election broadcast, Mr Blair says: "We would never have had the peace process in Northern Ireland without Bertie Ahern."
A similar point is made by former president Clinton who says: "If it hadn't been for Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair we would never have had the Good Friday agreement."
Mr Mitchell, who chaired the talks at Stormont which led to the Belfast Agreement, says the Taoiseach's role was "crucial" to the success of the negotiations.
Mr Blair also praises Mr Ahern for his "immeasurable" contribution to Ireland's economic success, both as Taoiseach and minister for finance.
A Fianna Fáil spokeswoman told The Irish Times: "They were all asked to participate. They knew they were participating in a party political broadcast."
All three recordings were made last month: "They were shown the finished version and they cleared it before it went ahead. All three approved them, and they saw the final version. They were all cleared personally."


Footnote: I’ve emailed the above item to BBC radio’s flagship radio news programme Today, to BBC2’s Newsnight & Daily Politics, to Sky News and to Channel 4 News. I’ll be very disappointed if this doesn’t generate some media heat for Mr Blair and his friend.

An edited version of this published as a letter in the Irish Times.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Last sting of a dying B?

In the run-up to the general election in 2002, with the opinion polls predicting an overall majority for Fianna Fail and wipe-out for the Progressive Democrats, Michael McDowell went up a pole in Ranelagh with a new poster bearing the slogan “One-party Government? NO thanks.”

It was a brilliant political stroke which succeeded in frightening the electorate from letting FF rule alone and it saved the Pds, who not only doubled their seats from 4 to 8, but also ended up as government coalition partners for a second 5-year term.

Now in 2007, all the opinion polls are showing that the combined FF/PD coalition group will not win enough seats to be returned to power on May 24th. Rather, the polls suggest that the alternative Fine Gael/Labour coalition of offer may well win enough seats between them to form a government. With the addition of the Greens, the polls suggest that an alternative government is definitely on the cards.

So today, Michael McDowell tried to repeat the trick with a new scare unveiled at the same lamp post in Ranelagh, illustrated above. His message is that, in an alternative coalition government, Labour leader Pat Rabbitte will be Minister for Finance and McDowell claims this will be a disaster for the economy.

It will be interesting to see what level of traction his attempted “red scare” will achieve. After all, Labour’s Ruairi Quinn was Finance Minister in the last Rainbow Government and demonstrated a degree of fiscal prudence that was widely respected in the business community. However, that was in the period 1994-97 so many younger voters may be unaware of it.

However, it all smacks of the last sting of a dying wasp, or B (as in b*st*rd) in the case of McDowell.

Clinton, Blair & Mitchell endorse Bertie Ahern

According to media reports today, the Fianna Fail Party Political Broadcast to be transmitted tonight will feature clips of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and George Mitchell extolling the virtues of Bertie Ahern.

All these endorsements will have emanated from the interactions with respect to Northern Ireland, though Fianna Fail claimed today that the various individuals have consented to their use in this broadcast. In the context of the "Cash for Honours" scandal overhanging Tony Blair's last months in office, this smacks of a "quid pro quo" arrangement - Bertie has helped secure the only major achievement in the Blair legacy to date and Tony is repaying the debt. Every honour has its price.

No one can deny Bertie credit for his key role in resolving the Northern Ireland political impasse, though Albert Reynolds deserves much of the credit for the 1997 Good Friday Agreement itself.

However, Bertie’s triumphs on the international stage have not been confined to Northern Ireland. He has been a key player in the EU, most recently during Ireland’s presidency of the European Council (Jan-June 2004) when he succeeded in getting agreement on the text for the proposed EU Constitution and finding a successor to Romano Prodi as President of the Commission.

Decisions: My Life in Politics, published in 2006, is the 544 page memoir of Gerhard Schroder who was Chancellor of Germany from October 1998 to November 2005.

As the title implies, it focuses on his political career, including international dealings with the EU, USA etc..

Strangely, the Schroder memoirs contain not a single reference to Bertie Ahern who, we are constantly told by our domestic media, has bestrode the EU like a colossus during his 10 years as Taoiseach.

Where are the Alternative Rottweilers?

When FG's Nora Owen was Justice Minister in the last Rainbow Coalition Government, she was attacked on an almost daily basis by her FF counterpart, John O’Donoghue. He would roar and rant across the chamber, holding her personally responsible for every bicycle theft and sweet-shop break-in. However boorish and despicable his behaviour was, it did succeed in rattling Minister Owen.

Now, however, we have a situation where a search of the country's maximum security jail, Portlaoise prison, has turned up 17 illegal mobile phones, five Sim cards, eleven chargers, eight batteries, three plasma TV sets, a DVD player, ecstasy tablets and two budgies.

Where are the rottweiler attacks on McDowell and the current administration from the opposition parties? The Bull O’Donoghue would, by now, have eviscerated the Minister for Justice if he was sitting on the opposing benches.

Which brings us round to the current election campaign and the uber-aggressive style being adopted by the selected Fianna Fail attack-dogs put up for media “debates”.

On Monday (RTE News at One) last we had Finance Minister Brian Cowen ranting at FG's Richard Bruton. On Tuesday (RTE Drivetime) Foreign Affairs Minister Dermot Ahern barracked FG's Dr Liam Twomey while, on Prime Time, Defence Minister Willie O’Dea initiated the shouting match with FG's Brian Hayes.

The common FF strategy in these “debates” seems to be full frontal attack, throw mud, make them deny it, shout them down, rubbish their record, or the lack of it. If they’re making a solid contribution, interrupt, barrack them, throw in any accusation that comes to mind, there’s never sufficient space to get out a coherent rebuttal. Something negative will stick.

Things must be getting fairly tense in the Fuhrer Bunker (aka FF election HQ in Treasury buildings). I’ve seen something similar in the movie Downfall. I wonder who’s playing FF's Bruno Ganz? Hardly Bertie, he doesn’t seem to have the hysterical bit in his make up - could it be the Bull O’Donoghue? I haven’t seen much of him so far, though they may be saving him for the last leg next week. Scary thought.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Get ready for musical chairs

(click on image to enlarge)
The political musical chairs after the election will be fascinating and probably highly convoluted.

Martyn Turner’s cartoon in today’s Irish Times beautifully illustrates the problem for the incumbent coalition partners, if the latest opinion polls prove to be in any way accurate. They simply won’t be anywhere near the numbers required to form a government.

To date, all other parties have repeatedly ruled out Sinn Féin as potential coalition partners.
Both Pat Rabbitte of Labour and Trevor Sargent , leader of the Greens, had already ruled out the option of personally leading their respective parties into coalition with Fianna Fail.
Today, the PDs have ruled out participating in government with Labour.
Also today, Trevor Sargent has, based on the latest polls, now ruled out the Greens going into coalition with Fianna Fail, while expressing a desire to go into government with the Fine Gael/Labour alternative.

However, Sargent then proceeded to rub Fine Gael up the wrong way by saying that he wouldn’t go into coalition with them if what was on offer was “Fianna Fail Lite”. The Greens further pissed off Labour as well by claiming that all the larger parties are in hock to big business because they take corporate donations.

Bertie does Sisyphus

Bertie’s well crafted speech at Westminster was better delivered than I had expected from him. There was a brief loss of sound on the RTE coverage shortly after Bertie had begun to speak, and the inclusion by the script writer of a reference to the myth of Sisyphus and his rock somewhat taxed Bertie’s “nortside” diction, but otherwise it was well delivered and well received.

And no-one could have received a more generous introduction than that accorded to him by Tony Blair. It is ironic that the genuine diplomatic triumph in Northern Ireland achieved by both men may well prove to be their shared swan-song. Tony Blair will be gone from Downing St by the end of June. Bertie may be gone as Taoiseach, and leader of FF, even before that.

Someone on radio today was quoting Enoch Powell’s famous dictum that all political careers end in failure.

The latest polls suggest that a change of government later this month is a real possibility, but there’s still time for FF to recover and/or for the alternative coalition to blow it. I’ll be hoping for Bertie’s political demise on 24th May, but it would be churlish not to accord him due credit for his achievements in the northern peace process.

Lets’ s hope that, like Sisyphus, FF efforts to recover the situation will be akin to rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, only to have it roll back down again.

Beresfordgate will rumble on.

Betie Ahern released a detailed statement on Sunday concerning the various expenditures on the house in Beresford Avenue, Drumcondra. The statement was accompanied by a multitude of receipts, many relating to furnishings rather than structural changes to the property.

The detail was sufficient to satisfy The Progressive Democrats and most commentators. It didn’t clear up the conflict between the evidence of Padraic O’Connor of NCB and the Taoiseach regarding the nature of his £5,000 contribution, but Bertie can refer that to Des Richardson for explanation.

The media have subsequently picked up on the possible tax liability arising from the loans/gifts, but that doesn’t seem to be as serious a potential issue of probity as some other aspects of the case.

Assuming one accepts all the explanations as to why Bertie was operating on a cash-only basis, for me two key questions remain unanswered. Both are questions to which Bertie can respond with a shrug and a referral to Michael Wall, though one suspects that Bertie may have the answers.

(1) The will made by Michael wall leaving the house to Bertie, and in favour of his children should Bertie predecease Michael Wall. Whatever about Michael Wall leaving the house to Bertie, rather than his own family, because of the esteem and affection in which he held him, leaving it to Bertie’s children seems to be stretching that particular explanation to breaking point. This latter aspect of the will seems deeply suspicious to me.

(2) The fact that Wall appears to have lost c £15k on the transaction, allowing for his additional investment in the property and associated costs in buying and selling. This despite owning the house for 2.5 years between March 1995 and October 1997, a time of at least double-digit annual house price inflation.

To my mind, the evidence still seems to point in the direction of Bertie being the beneficial owner of the house all the time. Which, of course would then reopen all the questions about whose cash was actually flowing around the system, in sterling and punts, and where is came from originally. It will be interesting to see what conclusion, if any , the Mahon Tribunal ultimately arrives at on this matter.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Bruton mugged by Biffo on RTE

RTE radio’s lunchtime news featured a “debate” between Finance Minister Brian Cowen and FG Finance spokesman Richard Bruton. You could hardly find two men of more contrasting physical stature or personality.

Biffo was in the RTE studio with Sean O’Rourke, Richard Bruton was somewhere out of sight, elsewhere in Dublin. Biffo launched into a withering attack on the FG & Labour election manifestoes, claiming that they hadn’t been properly costed and couldn’t be delivered. It was a very aggressive rant directed at the mild-mannered Bruton, who was clearly at a disadvantage by not being in the studio.

Added to this was the fact that an almost silent Sean O'Rourke allowed Biffo to "chair" the debate, thus giving him added advantages he hardly needed, as he’s much louder and more aggressive than Bruton.

Sean O’Rourke and RTE failed dismally to provide a level playing pitch for this political debate.

Biffo will clearly be FFs main attack dog in the coming week and Fine Gael should learn the lesson and simply refuse to debate in this format again.

New poll boost for alternative coalition

Here are the headline results of an IMS opinion poll to be published in tomorrow’s Irish Independent. These particular polls have, for some reason in past elections, tended to overstate the support for Fianna Fail and understate Fine Gael support.

The trends evidenced by this poll, confirming trends in other recent polls by other research companies, are bad news the current FF/PD coalition and continue the good news for the FG/Lab alternative.

It’s also good news for Sinn Fein, even though every other party has effectively ruled them out as potential coalition partners after the election. Only time will tell.

FF 35% (-3%)
FG 26% (+3%)
Lab 13% (+1%)
PD 3% (-1%)
SF 10% (+2%)
Green 5% (-1%)
Other 8% (-1%)

Coalition Combinations based on the above outcomes

FF/PD 38%
FG/Lab 39%
FG/Lab/Green 44%
FF/Lab 48%
FF/SF 45%

Charlie's Epitaph

Today’s papers report that the headstone of Charlie Haughey has finally been inscribed with the epitaph which he chose for himself: “Be my epitaph writ on my country’s mind, he served his country and loved his kind”.

Unfortunately that epitaph is only writ on his headstone, what’s writ on his country’s mind is more likely to be something along the lines of “he served himself and he loved his wine”.

Eurovision kettle calls pot black

In his Irish Times column today, John Waters, writer of the lyrics for Ireland’s Eurovision entry, reflects on the crushing experience of finishing last in the competition last Saturday night.

He went into the competition hoping to win, having witnessed the other entries at rehearsal, which he describes as follows: “What I saw as having emerged from Thursday night was a collection of reasonably good songs, varied, a bit time-warped,…”

Time-warped? Talk about the kettle calling the pot black!

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Public Probity has many facets.

It seems that the Taoiseach has successfully passed the probity exam set for him by the Tanaiste, who now sees no reason why the electorate should not return the current coalition to Government on 24th May.

Meanwhile, the opposition continues to highlight Government waste and mismanagement, with PPARS and Electronic Voting singled out for special mention.

However, the Association of Higher Civil & Public Servants (AHCPS) annual conference earlier this week serves to remind us that both coalition parties are actually in the dock when it comes to probity in public office. This Government’s 2003 Decentralisation Plan was one of the most shameless political strokes in living memory, constituting a massive abuse of public office for naked political gain in selected constituencies.

The plan completely ignored the same Government's National Spatial Strategy, published just a year earlier, and it’s attempted implementation has bordered on the farcical. It would be funny if the implications for the country were not so serious.

The AHCPS conference was told that less than 10% of Dublin based civil servants would be prepared to move with their jobs to decentralised locations. The cost involved in disruption of service, loss of experience, staff recruitment, retraining and redeployment etc will mean that the public money wasted on this political exercise will make PPARS and Electronic Voting look like very small beer indeed.

A further consequence of this botched exercise does not appear to have been sufficiently highlighted by the media. All political parties are agreed that widespread reform of the public sector is necessary in order to deliver better value for money through enhanced services to the public. The decentralisation stroke has alienated and demotivated large swathes of management within the public services, the very personnel whose knowledge and support would be crucial to achieving that meaningful reform.

The 2003 decentralisation plan is a probity exam which both the Taoiseach and the Tanaiste have to pass. I know how I'll be marking their performance.

Footnote: Published as a letter in the Irish Independent

Ireland winner at Eurovision High-Low

Ireland finished last in Saturday's Eurovision Song Contest in Helsinki. Although only 24 countries were allowed compete in the finals, about 40 actually voted on the result. Of those, only one country awarded any votes to Ireland - Albania gave us 5 points. We were lucky to get last!

My prediction posted on Wednesday 9th May:

"You can back Ireland @ 50/1 with William Hill, 33/1 with Ladbrokes and 25/1 with Paddy Power.

I suspect that 100/1 would be more appropriate odds for this Titanic effort. I think it's embarrassing rubbish that will sink without trace."

I loved the Ukraine entry which just made me laugh.

It was definitely Mrs Doubtfire on speed. If Ukraine had won, would Robin Williams have revealed himself?

McDowell pardons Ahern

Taoiseach Bertie Ahern this afternoon released his promised statement on the circumstances surrounding his 1997 house purchase. This had been largely superseded by his extensive “interview” on the topic, published in this morning’s Sunday Independent, but the later statement served to flesh out some of the details.

However, on RTE’s “This Week” news review at 1.00pm today, Michael McDowell, in advance of the issue of the more detailed Ahern statement, was already confirming that he was now satisfied with the Taoiseach’s explanation and would be happy to serve in a new coalition with Bertie and Fianna Fail after the election.

In fact, McDowell was anxious to discuss the “real issues“, rather than Bertie’s personal finances, as if the latter had merely been a dastardly opposition plot to distract the electorate from those real issues. You’d never have guessed that it was McDowell himself who, last weekend, was issuing dire warnings and demanding a full and frank explanation from the Taoiseach, who was required to prove to the electorate that he was worthy of their trust.

Indeed, if the entire media is to be believed, McDowell had planned to quit the Government at that point in time and was only dissuaded by the rural PD TDs, who need Fianna Fail transfers if they’re to have any chance of retaining their seats.

Are we now to believe that McDowell might well have been satisfied by the explanation available if he had simply chosen to phone Ahern, rather than first setting out to bring down the Government but then settling for that crisis press conference last Sunday?

Just what does this all say about the political judgement of a man who holds one of the most sensitive portfolios in the Government?

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Dun Laoghaire - gone to hell.

What have they done to the town I loved so well? No, not Derry , Dun Laoghaire.

The town’s main shopping street, George’s St., has been in decline for many years. It wasn’t helped by the “improvements” carried out a couple of years back when large sections of the street were dug up for about 12 months (new sewage system?) and the section between Marine Road and Bloomfields was subsequently closed to all traffic except buses operating a one-way system.

Out of curiosity I did a small survey today, counting the number of retail premises which are now closed on George’s St, between the People’s Park and the junction with York Road.

Would you believe that there are 25 such premises, including the Adelphi Centre office block and the former Iceland supermarket. Many of these premises have been closed for more than a year, with no sign of any activity - lacking even a “For Sale” sign. In addition, I counted 15 empty units in the Marine Road Shopping Centre, plus two more which are currently holding “closing down” sales. There are also 3 large units empty in the Bloomfield’s centre, out of a total of about 10 units there.

Then there’s the quality of the shops on George’s St to consider. The main clothing retailers are Dunnes, Penneys and Shaws, hardly a list of top-flight outlets for a town which is surrounded by some of the most affluent suburbs in the entire country. There are also 8 charity shops, 4 “pound"-type shops, 8 fast-food outlets including McDonalds & BurgerKing, and 6 pubs. Many of the remaining of the shops could be described as relatively low quality. There isn’t a single high quality restaurant on the entire strip. It’s also notable that there are no representatives of the UK high street boutique chains on the street. M&S has opened an outlet in recent years, but it’s limited to food only and without room to expand.

The number of pubs is interesting as, in the 1960’s,there was a George’s St pub-crawl known as “the stations of the cross” (that’s 14!). Two pubs, Smyth’s and Nemo, are still there but listed among the closed premises. Even if they reopen at some stage in the future, it still tells the tale of a town in serious decline. Even the arrival of the multi-screen cinema several years ago seems to have done little or nothing to revive the nightlife in the town centre.

It’s hard to see what can now be done to revive the commercial activity on George's St.. There are major developments underway at the Harbourmasters Yard and planned for the old CBS premises and the Golf Club. However, these may simply add to the traffic congestion and actually put even more people off shopping in the town.

Political Probity comes at a price.

Des O’Malley was expelled from Fianna Fail in 1985 for “conduct unbecoming” which, with hindsight, is truly laughable, knowing what we now know about the endemic corruption in FF under Charlie Haughey.

O’Malley promptly founded the Progressive Democrat Party, whose primary raison d’etre was to uphold standards in public office. While O’Malley has always enjoyed a high reputation for personal probity, he also carries a reputation as being somewhat difficult to get on with.

A tale related at a recent function in my local pub, Charlie Fitzgerald‘s in Sandycove. The teller swore that it’s true.

Back in the early 1970’s, when the troubles in Northern Ireland were front page news on a daily basis, Des O’Malley was Minister for Justice in the Fianna Fail Government. Because of the Northern troubles and his highly sensitive portfolio, he was always provided with a 24-hour Special Branch bodyguard.

At the time his mother lived in the suburbs of Dun Laoghaire and he visited her one evening every week. He developed the habit of dropping into Fitzgeralds after each visit, accompanied by two Special Branch men. While Des took a seat at the bar, the two policemen sat at a discreet distance in a corner and had some soft drinks. Meanwhile, Des lit up a cigarette, ordered his drink and engaged in conversation with the locals sitting along the bar. This was all very fine, but Des quickly revealed his garrulous streak, starting arguments with the regulars.

This went on for several weeks, Des arriving on the same night each week, which happened to be Charlie's night off. Pat, the young barman from Tipperary, didn’t recognise his new customer who was now annoying his regular customers on a weekly basis. He talked to his boss, Charlie Fitzgerald, about the problem. Charlie never did brook any nonsense in his pub. “If he’s causing trouble, Pat, just bar him the next time he’s in.”

So the following week, when O’Malley arrived with his two bodyguards, the same routine unfolded. It wasn’t too long before Des had started to argue with and annoy the regulars. “Right” said Pat the barman, “that’s it! You’re barred. Out!” as he rounded the bar and frog-marched Justice Minister Des O’Malley out the door and into the street. The two Special Branch men made no move to intervene or identify themselves or their master. They simply sat and waited till O’Malley was outside and then they quietly left the pub.

The following day, Charlie Fitzgerald got a phone call from a national newspaper: “Is there any truth in the rumour that you barred the Minister for Justice last night?”. Charlie, of course denied everything.

It's getting bitchy out there!

Bertie Ahern yesterday derided Enda Kenny’s suggestion that an independent arbitrator be appointed to try to resolve the nurse’s strike. In a wonderful put-down, Bertie gave Enda a fool’s pardon: “I accept he has no experience in industrial relations and never had.”

Having given Enda’s idea the boot, he then trotted out his own proposal which sounds suspiciously similar the one he had just dismissed with contempt: "I'm prepared to appoint an independent eminent person to oversee the process and give him or her the brief to ensure that every possible option [is examined] to facilitate the achievement of a 35-hour week for nurses within the framework of social partnership."

What is curious about the current industrial relations problems in the health system is the absence of intervention by the Taoiseach. He had achieved an enviable reputation as a fixer in such high profile disputes in the past. I suspect that if the Health portfolio was held by a Fianna Fail minister we’d have seen a Bertie intervention long ago. However, as the relevant minister is a member of the hyper-sensitive PD coalition partners, he’s probably felt obliged to operate at arms length.

Unless of course Pat Rabbitte’s assessment is correct. Reacting yesterday to the Taoiseach’s comments and defending Enda Kenny’s proposed approach, Rabbitte reminded the media of Ahern’s reputation as a fixer, “especially when advised in advance that the outcome was likely to be successful”.

Ouch! It’s getting bitchy out there.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Are our nurses over-qualified or under-paid?

Following the appearance of senior representatives of all the political parties at the INO (nurses) conference yesterday, it’s not surprising that this ongoing dispute got considerable coverage on Pat Kenny’s RTE Today programme this morning.

Kenny aired an email from a nurse who complained that she had an honours degree in nursing but didn't get an increased salary for this. She didn't know of any other situation where this would happen.

Why didn’t he tell her that she only needs to look at the entire private sector? Many employers in the private sector do provide support and one-off financial rewards to employees to pursue qualifications which are relevant to their employment. However, it would be hard to find any who automatically promote employees or grant ongoing salary increases simply because of such qualifications.

Is the Health System ending up with too many over-qualified nurses, who now want more money but feel themselves too qualified to do the basic tasks that were traditionally done in hospitals? We constantly hear of dirty wards, toilets etc. and the absence of basic hygiene procedures among nurses and care assistants.

Then on his “Friday panel” of journalists and other prominent commentators, Pat Kenny had Caroline Kennedy of Kennedy PR. She cited some income comparisons to show how poorly graduate nurses are paid.

She claimed
(1) a graduate in the hotel business would earn about €45k after 3-4 years and
(2) that a waiter in a Dublin restaurant could earn €60-70k including tips.

However, I suggest that she too should have been challenged on both those points:

(1) Hotel junior managers (graduates) would only be recruited in numbers required by a particular hotel or hotel group. Simply turning up with professional qualifications won't create a vacancy for a junior manager.

I know one such person, a graduate of Cathal Brugha St who trained in a Marriott hotel in USA. She now has 3-4 years experience in Irish hotels and earns, I think, about €35k pa., but manages staff, works long hours and unsocial shifts.

Doubtless the Shelbourne, the Four Seasons or the Merrion might pay higher rates, but they would only represent a tiny proportion of employment in the industry.

(2) Ms Kennedy probably eats in Dublin’s Michelin starred restaurants e.g. L'Ecrivan, Guilbauds and Thorntons. I suggest a small minority of waiters, working in those top restaurants, may earn such money - but the vast majority would be earning much more modest money.
Also, a high proportion of this income is dependent on tips, which are neither permanent or pensionable. Their jobs, and their income, are not guaranteed for the next year, never mind for life. How many restaurants open and close each year? It’s one of the most precarious enterprises, not for the faint-hearted investor.

Battle of the Boyne revisited

Today is another excellent election photo opportunity for Taoiseach Bertie Ahern as he hosts a visit by Ian Paisley to the site of the Battle of the Boyne (1690), which is celebrated every 12th July by the Orange Order in Northern Ireland

Dr Paisley will be invited to plant a tree at the site of the battle. There’s no truth in the rumour that the taigs will provide him with an orange tree sapling for the planting ceremony. In the Irish climate, an orange tree wouldn’t survive its first winter in the Boyne valley.

Which links to another story about the diplomacy and love-bombing by the Irish Government of the same Dr Paisley during the tortuous negotiations with the DUP over the past few years. Dr Paisley’s 50th wedding anniversary occurred during one of those negotiating sessions at St Andrews last year and both the Irish & British governments decided that they should give him and his wife a present to mark the occasion.

“What are you giving him, Bertie?” Blair asked Ahern. “A wooden bowl” replied Bertie. “A wooden what?” came the perplexed response. “It’s very symbolic, Tony” explained Bertie, “it’s carved from a fallen walnut tree at the site of the Battle of the Boyne”.

“What are we giving him?” Blair asked an aide. “A photograph album” replied the aide. “F***!” said Blair, “Bertie, can we present that bowl of yours as a joint gift?”.

“F*** off, Tony” came the instant reply.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Tony Blair's Political Legacy

Tony Blair is due to announce today the date for his resignation as Prime Minister.

There’s a story told about a journalist asking Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai for his thoughts on the impact of the French Revolution. “It’s too early to tell” was the response.

Yet our 24-hour Western media, with the attention span of a goldfish, is already assessing Tony Blair’s premiership, as if sufficient time has already passed to determine how history will ultimately judge him. The media will be filled with talking heads on the topic for the next month or so.

I'm not looking forward to a similar discussion in the pub tonight, but at least I'll have a couple of pints to deaden the senses.

What's left of McDowell & PD credibility?

Courtesy of today’s Irish Independent, here’s a photo of best friends Tánaiste Michael McDowell and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern at yesterday's annual 1916 State commemoration ceremony at Arbour Hill, Dublin.

Only last weekend, there was media certainty that McDowell was recommending to his Oireachtas colleagues that the Progressive Democrats pull out of Government with Fianna Fail. It is widely believed that this position was supported by former PD leader Mary Harney. In the event, the PDs decided instead to deliver an ultimatum to Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.

On Sunday, this was done by Michael McDowell at a press conference where, without detailing what new information had arisen regarding the Ahern housing situation of the early 1990s, McDowell laid it on the line for Ahern: if he was to put himself before the people as a suitable candidate for Taoiseach, he had to explain the circumstances surrounding the purchase of the house and certain, seemingly related, foreign exchange transactions.

On Tuesday, McDowell accompanied the Taoiseach to the restoration of the Nortern Ireland Assembly at Stormont and described their meeting as cordial.

On Wednesday, Mary Harney was expressing confidence in Bertie Ahern and looking forward to being back in Government with him after the election. Meanwhile, McDowell was socialising with the Taoiseach at the Arbour Hill ceremony and suggesting that Ahern should be allowed take as much time as he wants to prepare the statement on his personal financial affairs.

So, in the space of just 4 days, the Tanaiste has gone from almost leaving the Government to one where he and his party are attempting to cosy up once again to Fianna Fail.

Do Michael McDowell or the Progressive Democrat Party have any political or ethical credibility left?

FF Election Tactics and a compliant media

It’s clear that one of the main Fianna Fail election campaign tactics is to throw constant accusations at the opposition of being a threat to the economy or having divergent policy positions, in order to simply make them deny it. Clearly the hope is that some mud will stick, given the short attention span of many people.

They’re being aided and abetted in this strategy by the media, particularly RTE.

Yesterday provided an excellent illustration of this. At the Fianna Fail morning press briefing, all three ministers charged that the opposition parties were likely to agree to EU tax harmonisation proposals and thus put at risk existing inward investment and associated jobs by increasing our corporation tax rates. Brian Cowen even went so far as to say he wanted to hear the opposition deny it.

Since neither Fine Gael or Labour have ever indicated the slightest wobble on this issue, indeed their last coalition was responsible for setting the 12.5% Corporation Tax target, this charge was patently a red herring from the moment it was uttered.

Yet RTE put together a TV news package giving full coverage to this nonsense at the FF press briefing and subsequent denials by Enda Kenny for FG and Ruari Quinn for Labour. This news package was run prominently on all RTE TV news bulletins throughout the day, even though the piece ended with RTE political correspondent David McCullagh telling us that this particular FF “attack misfired”, a sentiment that was repeated on the 9.00pm RTE news by David Davin-Power, after the same package had been run - again.

In other words, RTE gave it prominence but then actually confirmed it to be a non-story.

Similarly, FF or the PDs routinely seek to find and highlight some area of policy difference between FG & Labour. But who are FF or PD policies aligned with? Certainly not each other or, indeed, with any other party. If FF gets back into power they'll have to negotiate changes to their own current election manifesto.

Why do media commentators so blatantly fail to point out this very obvious fact when FF or PD spokesmen are trying to make mischief for FG/Labour?

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Ireland's Titanic Eurovision song

Yes, next Saturday we'll all be watching it but denying that we've done so - it's the annual Eurovision song fest, this year from Helsinki.

Ireland's Eurovision song is a throwback to the 60s or 70s, an era that John Waters has never quite managed to leave. Even down to the long (thinning) hair and Clint Eastwood style wardrobe.

Whoever in RTE chose Dervish, who are an excellent traditional group, as performers of this supposedly modern song should be asked to publish the logic behind the choice.

You can back Ireland @ 50/1 with William Hill, 33/1 with Ladbrokes and 25/1 with Paddy Power. I suspect that 100/1 would be more appropriate odds for this Titanic effort.

I think it's embarrassing rubbish that will sink without trace.

Footnote: I hate to say "I told you so", but Ireland finished last of the 24 entries in the Eurovision. Only one country cast any vote for Ireland - 5 points from Albania.

Monday, May 07, 2007

McDowell throws toys out of the pram!

Perhaps the only thing left to admire about Michael McDowell is his brass neck.

In the past week PD party president Tom Parlon has accused Fine Gael of being behind the tribunal leaks to media, citing Enda Kenny as the author of a diabolical plot due to climax on day 21 of the election campaign.

There was not a word of censure, regret or retraction from PD party leader Michael McDowell on that very paranoid interpretation of events. But when Enda Kenny points the finger at McDowell himself as the likely leaker, the toys go straight out of the pram and the charge is deemed to be "beneath contempt".

As serving Minister for Justice, McDowell personally leaked confidential Garda files to a pet journalist in pursuit of his own political objectives. Indeed, he has stooped to the use of damaging innuendo on the basis that "I know what I know". He therefore has a history of engaging in this type of "dirty tricks" activity.

Like all bullies, he can hand it out but he can't take it.

Published as a letter in the Irish Times & the Irish Examiner

The "Fourth Way"

Francois Bayrou, the centrist candidate, finished in a creditable third place with 19% of the vote in the first round of this year’s Presidential Election in France. He was duly eliminated, leaving the field to the eventual second round winner Nicolas Sarkozy and runner-up Segolene Royal.

After the first round eliminations, Bayrou was naturally courted by both Sarkozy and Royal in the hope that he would encourage his considerable support from the first round to switch their allegiance in the second round. Interestingly, this courtship included participation by Royal in a TV debate with Bayrou about a week before the second round vote. Sarkozy turned down an invitation to a similar debate: “the team finishing third doesn’t get to play in the final” was his response.

What was interesting about Bayrou’s position following his elimination was his inability to fully endorse either candidate. It was quite clear that he didn’t like Sarkozy, regarding him as a divisive right-wing figure, although he would have supported many of that candidate’s policy proposals to reform work practices and the public services in France. Bayrou ultimately confirmed that he wouldn’t be voting for Sarkozy. On the other hand, while Bayrou appeared to get on well personally with Royal, he pointed out that many of her proposed policies were exactly what France did not need, both in terms of protective employment policies and expansion of France’s already over-burdensome public sector.

One Royal proposal was to make the state responsible for provision of creche facilities to enable parents to work. Bayrou pointed out that this would require the setting up of a whole new bureaucracy employing many thousands of civil servants and increasing the reach of the nanny state, with associated increased costs for the public purse.

Ultimately, Bayrou made no recommendation to his supporters who seem to have split reasonably evenly between the remaining two contenders. Bayrou is forming a new centrist political party, Le Mouvement Démocrate, so may well be a significant force in French domestic politics in the future.

Bayrou’s dilemma in choosing between two candidates is typical of what we’re faced often with in elections; the leftist parties promote caring social policies which include state monopolies, employment protections etc - policies that are now proven to be economically unsustainable (unless you‘ve got massive oil reserves or some other form of inherited wealth), while right-wing free-market economics have been proven to be successful but seem to come attached to parties and politicians who are somewhat short of the mark when it comes to societal and social considerations. It’s that clash between whether you live in a society or an economy when, in fact, you want the best elements of both.

Here’s my proposal as to how to tackle the dilemma.
Among the main functions of government are (a) how you raise money (b) how you spend money and (c) how you determine the amount of money you need to raise.

You allocate to the right-wingers all those cabinet seats associated with Finance, Business/Trade regulation, Employment Law, Infrastructure etc and you allocate to the left-wingers the major social spending departments e.g. Health, Education and Welfare.

The only real negotiation that needs to take place annually between the two sides is “How big is the pot of money required?”

Once this is agreed, it’s up to the right-wingers to regulate the marketplace anyway they like in order to raise the required finance, without interference from the left-wingers.

The left-wingers can then decide how they will prioritise the spend between and within their respective Departments, without interference from the right-wingers.

This system does away with the need for “collective cabinet responsibility”, which requires every minister to express support for every government policy. The situation would be made quite clear to the public and the media.

Thus a left-wing minister would be able to express criticism of some employment or taxation law, but point out that, under the agreed rules, this was beyond his/her control. Likewise, a right-wing minister could criticise some new welfare or health programme but point out the same limitations.

Naturally, one would hope that a strong leader of such a government would ensure some level of cohesion between the members of the team, whether left or right wing, and that measures would be debated and enjoy somewhat wider cross-cabinet support than might be implied above. But it would allow individual ministers to dodge more media bullets than is currently the case. And that just might allow them to get on with their jobs in a more productive and effective manner.

Bertiegate and the silence of the opposition

Last October, Michael McDowell assured the country that he had seen the relevant documentation and was satisfied as to Bertie Ahern’s personal finance bona fides.

This assurance from our Minister for Justice shot the horse out from under the opposition and probably contributed to the rise in support for FF in the polls and the corresponding demise in the fortunes of the opposition in those same polls.

Who would blame Messrs Kenny & Rabbitte from treading very carefully this time - they have no idea when McDowell will suddenly make another declaration of faith in Bertie, based on files and documents which only the great man himself has seen. “I know what I know” is a very hard claim to rebut in any forensic way and McDowell and his PDs have done so many about-turns that you never know what’s coming next.

The opposition are far wiser to let the media and, for the moment, the PDs, do the running on Bertiegate. McDowell and Ahern are currently on the BBQ, why would anyone need to join them there?

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

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Sauve qui peut!

“Sauve qui peut” is the French expression that means “every man for himself”. Its literal translation is an order to “save (yourself) who(ever) can”.

On the day of the second round of the French elections, this seems an appropriate description for what emerged from the Progressive Democrats in Dublin today. They seem to have discovered on the doorsteps that the founding rationale for the Progressive Democrat party was probity in public life, rather than a commitment to right wing economics. While their public representatives appear to have long forgotten this in their lust for power, many of their supporters clearly haven’t.

There is a dawning realisation in the PD parliamentary party that a return to power seems highly unlikely for the current FF/PD coalition, based on all the recent opinion poll findings. Fianna Fail may well have a number of coalition options after the elections, but the PDs simply won’t be able to supply sufficient seats to make up the other part of a coalition with an overall majority. This realisation, combined with the fact that McDowell’s sustained “slump coalition” jibes have effectively ruled out participation in any alternative coalition, has finally convinced the sitting PD TDs that saving their own individual skins is now the only electoral objective on 24th May.

The party’s only real consideration this weekend has been to decide on the course of action which is likely to inflict on themselves the least incremental damage. Hence, the decision to stay in Government but demand that the Taoiseach provide a full explanation with regard to his housing transaction. The split between PD Dublin and rural TDs was also highlighted by the very different presentation from Michael McDowell and Tom Parlon. The former said that a full explanation was required if the Taoiseach expected to present himself to the electorate in three weeks time, while the latter was merely inviting the Taoiseach, if he felt like it, to clarify matters.

At a press PD press conference before the 2002 general election, when the opinion polls were predicting meltdown for that party, a comedy TV programme planted a “journalist” who asked Micheal McDowell if they would be changing the name of the party after the election. A clearly puzzled McDowell asked the journalist to clarify what she meant. “ To the Progressive Democrat” replied the journalist - a title which would indicate that they’d been reduced to a single TD. In fairness to McDowell, he got the joke and laughed loudly and genuinely.

I retain the hope that they will have cause to change the name of the party after May 24th 2007.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Retrospective Legislation

Whenever a loophole in the law is discovered and closed, we are routinely assured that it is not possible to change the law retrospectively.

Thus chancers and tax dodgers who have availed of such loopholes get to keep the benefits they’ve managed to extract from the system - whether that gets them off a drink-driving charge or avail of huge but unintended tax reliefs.

However, when it comes to political bribes, there seems to be no such problem with making legislation retrospectively effective. Thus Fianna Fail can finally unveil their stamp duty proposals and increased mortgage interest reliefs for first time buyers, both backdated. Fianna Fail promises that both these measures will be given retrospective effect if the party is returned to power.

This isn’t the first time that FF has pulled such a stunt on behalf of its supporters. Back when Bertie was Finance Minister in the early 1990s, the Revenue Commissioners were pursuing Ken Rohan for a BIK tax assessment of over £1m. Not only did Bertie introduce an amendment in the Finance Bill which removed the particular BIK liability, he also backdated the effect of that amendment for a period of 12 years.

Rohan was able to tear up the Revenue bill, and it was later confirmed that Rohan was the only person in the country to apply for relief under that tax provision. No one should assume that regular political donations had anything to do with the then Minister for Finance’s consideration in this case.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

The bookies win again.

The bookies were cracking open the champagne tonight as they calculated their ante post gains on the withdrawal of longtime short-odds favourite Teofilo from the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket next Saturday.

I, on the other hand, was crying in my beer as I calculated my lost winnings on this racing certainty. I had €35 @ 16/1 on Jim Bolger’s colt to win the Guineas, the bet placed before he won the Group 1 National Stakes at the Curragh last year. After that victory his ante-post odds were cut to as little as 7/4.

Bolger had reported that the horse suffered a minor training setback in recent weeks, but had expressed confidence, until today, that the horse would be right for the big race.

Not my week with the long-term bets, I had €10 @ 15/1 on Man Utd to win the Champions League, but they were unceremoniously dumped out last night by a much better team. That was another good night's work for the bookies, I suspect.

Just as well I never expected to make my fortune at the bookies expense.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

AC Milan 3 - Man UTD 0

Here endeth the lesson! All the hype about the quality of English football with three of the four semi-final qualifiers in the Champions League was blown away by the contrast between AC Milan and Man Utd.

All the hype about the brilliance of Man Utd, following their quarter-final 7-1 defeat of Roma and their resilient comeback in the first leg of the semi-finals to win it 3-2, seemed totally misplaced.

Last night Man Utd was given a lesson in football by AC Milan who totally outclassed their English opponents. The final 3-0 result could have been worse for United who hardly looked like scoring, while Milan oozed class and might have had several more goals. It wasn’t just football skills, Milan’s “aging squad” worked harder individually and gelled better as a team than their english counterparts.

This was a completely one-sided match and the winners must be long odds-on to beat Liverpool in the final.

Eamon Dunphy and John Giles on the RTE panel could hardly hide their delight at being proven right in their assessment of Ronaldo’s honesty and commitment.

Is the Health System defrauding the VHI?

On Thursday last, the Irish Independent reported that hospital consultants earned €237m from VHI alone in the past year.

The previous week, the Comptroller & Auditor General reported that private patients occupy more than the stipulated 20% of beds in public hospitals. On RTE radio, a spokeswoman for the IHCA offered one possible explanation for the excess private patients: it appears to be the practice in some hospitals to ask patients in A&E if they had private health insurance. If the answer is yes, the patient is asked to sign a claim form and is then categorised as private rather than public patient.

Presumably the purpose and result of this practice is to allow both the hospital and a consultant to bill the health insurer for accommodation and medical services provided.

I have been a PSRI payer and a VHI subscriber for over 30 years. I am entitled to a wide range of medical services as a public patient. If I present to A&E with a problem and am subsequently admitted to a public ward, I expect that this will be covered by my PRSI entitlements. If all I receive is public patient treatment, I should not be expected to use my VHI cover to pay for this. If I opt for a private or semi-private room, the hospital itself may justify seeking payment from VHI, but why should VHI pay the consultant who would be treating me regardless of which bed option I choose?

If hospitals and consultants are operating the system in this manner, then surely it may constitute a fraud against the VHI and its premium paying members? The nursing home fraud is currently being resolved, will VHI members soon be getting refund cheques courtesy of the Dept of Health?

Clearly if both hospitals and consultants were only paid by VHI for genuinely private treatment, the cost of health insurance would fall dramatically, the cost of risk equalisation would greatly reduce and the health insurance market could be opened up for real competition and product innovation.

VHI needs to clarify exactly what it pays on its members behalf and advise us on how to treat claim forms presented for signature in hospitals.

What would old Mr Brennan say?

Trevor Brennan has been banned for life from playing rugby after being found guilty of assaulting an Ulster supporter at a Heineken Cup game last January.
Brennan was also been fined €25,000 by the European Rugby Cup (ERC), ordered to pay €5,000 compensation to the fan and to pay the costs of convening the hearing. Brennan also received lifetime ban on participation in any capacity in tournaments organised by ERC.

Western society has systematically demonised physical violence of any sort while, at the same time, invoking the right to free speech to permit verbal abuse of an increasingly offensive nature, confined only by certain racist or sexist limitations. What's deemed mere "Vulgar Abuse" is not amenable to any remedy through law of slander.

Trevor Brennan has received a very heavy penalty for assaulting an Ulster fan, Patrick Bamford, at a rugby match last January. Brennan claims that the fan insulted his mother, Bamford claims that he only insulted Brennan’s pub. What’s interesting is that Bamford regards this as completely normal and acceptable within the confines of a sports ground, but wouldn’t dare offer the same abuse to Brennan face-to-face in the street or in a bar. He would fear the consequences that his actions were clearly inviting.

Where is the natural justice in a situation where someone with a quick mouth can verbally assault another person without fear of retribution? Nature has it’s own way of balancing talents and allowance should be made for the circumstances in each individual case. I’ve no doubt that Brennan did hear his mother being called a whore, but perhaps he ended up hitting the wrong Ulster supporter.

Trevor Brennan should have exercised more restraint in the situation, but he can also claim, in mitigation, that he was provoked. His punishment, including a lifetime ban from involvement in any capacity in ERC competitions, seems excessive.

Mr Bamford will probably be a bit more circumspect in offering his opinions at future matches. It may be no harm if he, and the myriad other fans of all sports who feel free to hurl abuse at players and rival fans, remembers the old Irish adage: “Is minic a bhris béal duine a shrón”. (a man's mouth often broke his nose)

Bertiegate & CAB

What would the Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB) make of the emerging facts and allegations concerning the sequence of events which are now being generically referred to as “Bertiegate”?

The claim that our then Minister for Finance was operating on a cash-only basis for several years in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
CAB would identify this as a standard ploy to remove 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. Bertie supposedly kept his in a safe somewhere an claims to have saved £50k in cash which ultimately went to the purchase of his house.

Michael Wall was the owner of the house.
Wall was accompanied by Celia Larkin in viewing the house before he bought it.
In December 1994, he gave Celia Larkin Stg£30k for refurbishment expenses (on a 3 year-old house) and stamp duty(?).
Then Michael Wall made a will leaving the house to Bertie Ahern, even though he himself was married with a family.
CAB might conclude that Michael Wall was, in fact, acting as agent for Bertie Ahern who may have always been the beneficial owner of the house, even though it was purchased in Wall’s name. The making of the will in favour of Ahern would seem to be a significant pointer in this direction.
Purchasing assets with hot cash using a third party to front the transaction and then buying the asset back in the name of the real owner, using a legitimate mortgage is also a standard mechanism for covering the expenditure of hot money.

That Bertie’s dig-out was a whip-round among personal friends.
NCB MD Padraig O’Connor, who contributed £5k, has denied this version of events. According to O’Connor he was asked by Des Richardson for a political contribution towards the running costs of Ahern’s constituency office. Yet this money turns up as part of Bertie’s own personal cash hoard.
CAB might point out that confusing party funds with personal monies appears to have been a trait among senior members of Fianna Fail at that time - Charles Haughey, Ray Burke, Padraig Flynn to name but a few.

The claim attributed to Garda Fallon that Bertie Ahern carried a briefcase full of cash, earlier withdrawn from a Dublin bank by Celia Larkin, to Manchester in 1994.
CAB might point out that sending cash round in circles is a classic part of the money laundering cycle. You give money to an offshore third party, sometimes a bank, who then lends it back to you. If queried, you have an explanation as to where the money came from, but the lender is outside the jurisdiction and not amenable to questioning by the authorities.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Clamping in Dun Laoghaire

Last sunday we bought a copy of the Sunday Independent on the Champs Elysees, it just shows how desperate you get for news from home even though you’ve only been away for a few days.

My blood pressure was raised by a report of Cllr Eugene Regan, Cathaoirleach of Dun Laoghaire Rathdown Co Co , defending the decision of County Manager Owen Keegan to introduce car clamping to the borough. Cllr Regan claims that the application of the clamping will be limited to persistent offenders and is quoted as saying that “this is entirely different to most systems of clamping, such as that applied in Dublin City, where one is clamped for every type of parking offence including overstaying or parking on double yellow lines.”

Dublin City clamping was introduced by the same Owen Keegan and, at the time, the public was assured that it would only be applied to cars which were illegally parked and causing an actual obstruction to traffic or access to premises. Cllr Regan may have forgotten, but the rest of us haven’t, just how quickly and completely that promise was dishonoured.

Residents of Dun Laoghaire have little confidence in the good intentions of either County Manager Keegan or Cathaoirleach Regan with regard to clamping, but only the latter is seeking election in three weeks time. He should bear that in mind.

Regan will get a piece of my mind if he calls canvassing before the election. He’s just moved himself right down the preference list on my voting paper.

I've blasted off a protest letter to the Sindo.

Footnote: Although the Sunday Independent failed to publish my excellent letter on the subject, their edition of 13th May reports that Councillor Regan has now done a complete about turn and is calling for a halt to the proposed introduction of clamping on June 1st. It's amazing what a little abuse on the doorsteps can achieve as he seeks votes in the upcoming election. Scary to think that this revolving man is Cathaoirleach of DLRCoCo.

Lamb of God

About a year ago I was watching an RTE fly-on-the-wall documentary about a variety of carers with their individual challenges and circumstances.

One situation was a single Cork man of about 60 who was looking after his physically disabled but reasonably mentally alert father. It was quite touching. but not without its moments of humour, some perhaps accidental.

In telling the story of the carer, the film-maker used a technique of having him talk to third parties about his father, rather than speaking direct to camera. One such scene had him in his local barbershop getting a haircut. The barber asks him questions about his father, including “and has he got a good appetite?”. “Oh yes”, replies the son, “he’d eat the hind leg of the Lamb of God”.
It was delivered and received in a completely deadpan way, suggesting that it’s a common expression in that part of Cork, though I’d never heard it before and thought it hilarious.

So when I saw this “Baby Jesus” saucisson on a recent visit to Paris, I had to buy it. I’d have bought more than one, but the wife was adamant that it would stink everything in the suitcase and I was lucky to get away with one. With the new security regulations, items such as this can’t be taken through in hand luggage.

I’m still on the lookout for a butcher brave enough to advertise “lamb of god”. I'll be stocking the freezer when I find one!

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