Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Judging Ferriter

There’s nothing as entertaining as a scrap between historians, the ego usually being
the largest denomination note in the average academic historian’s wallet.

There’s a debate underway in the letter’s page of the Irish Times regarding Dermot Ferriter’s “Judging Dev”.

In summary, Anthony Jordan discovered that RTE had a financial interest in the success of “Judging Dev”, which they actively promoted through an associated programme. This profit-sharing deal with the publishers was never revealed by RTE or Ferriter.

Copies of the book were distributed to all schools by FF Education Minister Mary Hanafin. To counter charges that this was a blatantly partisan move on her part to communicate a more sympathetic portrait of her party’s founder, Minister Hanafin offered to also distribute a suitable book from the other side to schools. However, an offer by Mr Jordan to provide copies of his biography of W.T.Cosgrave was rejected by the Dept of Education on grounds of “cost” – which seems a bit far-fetched for a free book.

Tim Pat Coogan then rowed in to complain that he had participated in RTE’s “Judging Dev” programme without realising the level of the station’s financial interest in promoting the book.

Ferriter had not been attacked personally or professionally by either Jordan of Coogan, but he has now launched an attack on both in a letter to the Irish Times – particularly directed at Tim Pat. Not a wise move, I suspect!


Some Quotes from Ferriter’s letter:

“Both Mr Jordan and Mr Coogan’s complaints, I believe, are motivated by other factors. Mr Coogan wrote two critical reviews of the Judging Dev book which, in my view, were fuelled by his personal antipathy to de Valera and because my book dared to challenge the conclusions of his own biography of de Valera. Mr Jordan, as he states in his letter, offered his own biography of William Cosgrave to the Department of Education for distribution to schools and he is annoyed it was rejected.”

“In my view, Mr Coogan’s assertion that the Judging Dev project was one “with an obvious . . . beneficial knock-on effect for Fianna Fáil” makes it clear he is incapable of distinguishing between past and present. He should not assume the same is true of others who are interested in Irish history.”

However, the bit that annoys me and treats IT readers as naïve fools is the following:
“the Judging Dev book was deemed to be suitable for schools because of its inclusion of original documents, the study of which forms a part of the Leaving Certificate history curriculum. His biography of Cosgrave contains no such documents.”

Judging Dev was distributed to schools by a FF Minister SOLELY because it was a much more sympathetic portrait of Dev than any previously published. If Ferriter is deluding himself that there was any other reason, then it puts a serious question-mark over his judgement in “Judging Dev”.

When are FF distributing the free copies of “The Wind that Shook the Barley”?

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Has a succession of FF-led Govts deliberately misled the Moriarty Tribunal?

According to today's Sunday Business Post, former FG minister Michael Lowry was advised ‘‘not to drag his feet’’ in issuing the state’s second mobile phone licence to Denis O’Brien’s Esat consortium, according to a confidential Govt memo, which has remained undisclosed for more than a decade, came to light after communications minister Eamon Ryan told the Moriarty Tribunal that his department was withdrawing a claim of privilege over legal advice his predecessor received on the issue. It is not clear why the department claimed privilege over the letter in the first place, nor why this position has now been reversed.


However, given the importance of the contents of the memo, it seems highly suspicious and strongly suggests that
(a) a succession of FF-led Govts have deliberately withheld crucial information from the Tribunal in order to keep a prominent former FG politician in the “corruption frame”, to counterbalance the rogues gallery of very prominent FFers already there and
(b) that withholding this document has probably extended the work of the tribunal, and its large associated costs, by several years.

The memo in question detailed the advice given by Senior Counsel Richard Nesbitt in May 1996 to the Attorney General after he was asked to assess the implications of businessman Dermot Desmond taking a share in the Esat consortium. In the letter, written to communications department secretary John Loughrey, Nesbitt advised that delaying the issuing of the licence would ‘‘not achieve any end’’.

Nesbitt wrote that Lowry was caught ‘‘between two competing interests’’ - claims by Esat that it had fairly won preferred bidder status on merit, and Persona, a rival bidder, which argued that the licence should not be awarded to Esat. Nesbitt advised the minister that if the Motorola-backed Persona group took legal action against his ultimate decision to grant the licence to Esat, ‘‘so be it’’.

‘‘I remain of the view that the minister should not drag his feet in issuing the licence. If there was to be any litigation, so be it, but delaying does not achieve any end,” he wrote.

He went on to say that delaying would ‘‘clearly damage Esat’’ and, if Persona wanted to stop Esat getting the licence, it would have to take appropriate legal action.

‘‘They will then be required to give undertakings to the parties affected, particularly Esat. This will concentrate their minds, particularly in circumstances where the commission are likely to be making unsympathetic noises in relation to their complaint.”

The effect of this memo is to say that Lowry and his Dept officials were acting on best vailable legal advice when they granted the mobile phone licence to Esat. It's hard to believe that, had this memo, along with the supporting legal opinion from Nesbitt, been revealed to the tribunal at the earliest opportunity, this whole expensive saga would have ended many years ago.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

More budget U-Turns - these ones favour the politicians

The ink was hardly dry on the emergency budget before the u-turns began. The vested interests, in this case the politicians themselves, appear to have prevailed again.

The result is that the credibility of the Government’s efforts to devise and execute a coherent plan to get the economy out of the current mess is further undermined.

This post-budget confusion only serves to confirm their inability to face down vested interests.

The country can no longer afford to simply throw money at problems, it’s time we had some firm and decisive political leadership.

Footnote: Published as a letter in the Irish Independent & the Irish Examiner.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Shamus Heeney replies to Paul Krugman

Nobel-prize winning economist Paul Krugman punned 'Erin Go Broke' to headline his recent article in the New York Times.

Perhaps we could get our own Nobel Laureate to draft a suitable riposte on behalf of the nation, to let Mr Krugman know that, while we may be down, we're certainly not out.

In the interim here's a piece of doggerel, written by Shamus Heeney rather than Seamus Heaney

'Erin Go Broke
An igNobel joke
Consigns us to the trash can
But we'll laugh last
And, crisis passed,
Refill our glass with Krug, man!'

Footnote: Published as a letter in the Irish Independent

I've also added the "poem" as a a comment to one of Krugman's blogs. Unfortunately not the infamous "Erin Go Broke" blog where it would have been most appropriate, as the NYT had already closed that one to further comments.

Titanic change to the junior ministerial ranks.

Was it just my imagination or did I hear, as the Taoiseach reshuffled the junior ministerial deckchairs, the strains of “Nearer, my God, to thee” playing quietly on the national broadcaster?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

What constitutes an academic exercise?

What exactly constitutes “an academic exercise”?

Last Friday’s Irish Times Opinion piece signed by 20 academics should be a classic “academic exercise” in that
(a) the authors have no power to implement their recommendations and
(b) there will be no adverse consequences for them even if their recommendations are adopted and ultimately prove to be fatal.

The key conclusion of their published position paper is that they “see nationalisation as being the inevitable consequence of a required recapitalisation of the banks done on terms that are fair for the taxpayer.”


The academics arrive at this conclusion because “Analysts have repeatedly estimated the extent of bad loans at these banks (AIB & BOI) to be of the order of at least €20billion.”

As a consequence of asserting the reliability of the analysis of these 3rd party Analysts, the academics conclude that the Government’s stated goals for NAMA and the banking system cannot be achieved.

The academics summarise the Government plan as follows:
(a) purchase the bad loans at a discount reflecting their true market value;
(b) keep the banks well or adequately capitalised;
(c) keep them out of State ownership.

And their great fear is: “These three outcomes are simply mutually incompatible, and we are greatly concerned that the Nama process may operate to maintain the appearance that all three objectives have been achieved by failing to meet the first requirement. This would arise if Nama purchases the bad loans at a discount – but still well above market value.”

But there’s something here that’s fundamentally at odds with “normal academic standards” in this foray into public affairs by the 20 academics, and it is this:
Neither the analyst community nor this group of academics have had any direct access to the loan books of those banks, whereas the Government, through its agents, has been able to conduct a detailed inspection over a period of several months.

Is it not highly “unacademic” that, without any access to the available “hard evidence”, a large group of academics, representing some of our most prestigious 3rd-level institutions, should choose to publicly proffer such a definitive contradiction of the analysis made by Dr. Bacon & Co., who have had direct access to that "hard evidence".

And here’s an associated take on “academic exercises”: The cynics in the political opposition, the media and the academic commentariat have all loudly asserted that the Govt inspection of the loan books of AIB & BOI, and the stress-testing of these, in advance of injecting the €3.5bn preference share capital, is an “academic exercise” – a purely cosmetic due diligence to fool the public that they were not just throwing money at the banks.

Yesterdays about-turn by AIB – by some distance the more hardball, brass-necked of the pair of major banks – who were forced to accept that they needed to raise an additional €1.5bn in share capital, suggests that the due diligence and stress testing processes have been robustly conducted. Not just an academic exercise after all, perhaps?

The economic and banking crises have been a godsend for publicity-seeking academics, previously unknown faces are now familiar & their names are now on the lips of pub-goers in all parts of the country.
I suspect I’m not alone in being surprised at just how many “experts” there are on the payrolls of our publicly-funded 3rd-level institutions.

An Bórd Snip Nua please take note.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

It's baNAMArama time!

According to last Monday’s Irish Times
“certain senior figures in Government circles believe a 50 per cent discount should apply” to the value of assets to be transferred from the banks to NAMA.
“Government sources said that the new agency was unlikely to employ any Irish estate agencies for the purposes of valuing the properties”


The IT only names Dan Boyle but says that other unnamed senior politicians have also expressed the same view re 50% discount.

Apart the ongoing feeding of populist anger and using the banks as a lightning rod to deflect criticism for the state of the public finances away from the Oireachtas, on what basis would “certain senior figures in Government” arrive at a 50% number, never mind feel it appropriate to offer a view on the likely valuation of the loan books of individual banks at this point in the exercise?

The whole thing smacks of a tainted political exercise in hand-wringing, hand-washing, bank-bashing. Add the above to Lenihan’s declared intention of covering any long-term shortfall through a levy on the banks, but if the exercise ultimately produces a profit this will not be shared with the banks. Is it any wonder that market analysts – here and abroad – are taking a negative view?

If the Irish Times report is accurate, a “smash & grab” raid on the banks is planned – which would also help to explain the weakness in the share prices this week and the views of domestic and foreign analysts.

The scope of the banks to resist is limited, but they should use every means possible to block any Govt attempt to effectively expropriate their assets.
The primary duty of bank boards and executives is to protect what remains of shareholders value, rather than concern themselves with the public interest. The latter is the responsibility of the Govt & the Oireachtas, though they haven’t shown much skill in that regard over the past decade.

The interests of Bank shareholders would be better served by severely slimmed-down Zombie banks, with some long-term hope of recovery, than by nationalisation, which will extinguish entirely their investment interest. Zombie banks won’t serve "the national interest", but that’s not the concern of the banks or their shareholders.

I presume bank managements are actively working on such alternative strategies, in the event that NAMA is perceived to be acting in the manner suggested by the IT report. If the political, media and popular view is “fcuk the shareholders”, then shareholders can justifiably adopt a “fcuk the national interest” stance.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Legal problems getting snouts out of public finance trough!

It seems there are a number of loopholes and possible legal issues arising from those recent budget measures which were supposed to apply to members of the Oireachtas - in particular, the payment of the annual €6,400 long-service bonus to existing recipients and the legality of changing the rules regarding the payment of ministerial pensions to sitting politicians.

Similar legal concerns emerged regarding the imposition of the public service pension levy on the judiciary, which resulted in this group of highly paid individuals finding themselves exempted from that levy.

Are we to find ourselves legally hamstrung on every initiative aimed at addressing the excessive salaries and perks enjoyed by the upper echelons of the public service and members of the Oireachtas?

We have been promised a second Lisbon Referendum before the end of the year. The Government should use the opportunity to hold a simultaneous referendum which would confer on the Oireachtas the power to legislate for cuts in public service pay and benefits, as may be deemed necessary in these financially troubled times.

There’s little doubt that such a proposition would be approved by the vast majority of the electorate. Indeed, the strong urge to vote “Yes” might well transfer itself to Lisbon II as well!

Footnote: Published as a letter in the Irish Independent & the Irish Examiner

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

A "Smoke & Daggers" budget!

When Bertie Ahern added the phrase “smoke and daggers” to the English language we all smiled. Little did we suspect it would become the perfect metaphor for Minister Lenihan’s latest Budget.

While middle- and lower- income workers were peering into the smoke surrounding the income levy, perhaps breathing a sigh of relief that, for most of them, it had only increased by 1%, the Minister slipped his health levy stiletto, almost unnoticed, between their ribs.

This health levy increase is effectively a 2% hike in personal tax rates for everyone. Why not simply increase the income levy by the equivalent amount and face the music? If our political leaders want to gain public confidence, they’ll have to learn how to practise transparency and honesty in their dealings with us.

Footnote: Published as a letter in the Irish Times & Irish Independent

Sunday, April 05, 2009

First Ladies jointly promote Charity Shops

Frumpy frocks will be all the rage after this joint appearance. I can see women rummaging in attics and/or phoning their mothers to see if everything in this style has been thrown out.

And the best place to buy them immediately will be your local charity shop.

But do hurry, as they won’t be long on the rails!

Michelle Obama's advice: Marry the right guy!

Much has been made of First Lady Michelle Obama’s visit to the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Language School in London on April 2, 2009 and her motivational address to the girls there.

"Nothing in my life's path would have predicted that I would be standing here," she told the girls. "I am an example of what is possible when girls, from the very beginning of their lives, are loved and nurtured by the people around them."

The reality is that if she hadn’t married Barack Obama, Michelle would not have been standing there.

She might well have pursued a very successful career as a lawyer, which would also merit acclaim, but to be "First Lady" you have to be married to the right guy. A blonde bimbo might equally well achieve that distinction.

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