30 November 2008

Now our Pensions are in Trouble as well...

Two days ago I wrote that a new scandal or outrage appears in Ireland now on a daily basis. Sadly, I have not been wrong and even Sundays are no longer free of bad news.

After the FÁS scandal dominated last week (see my entries of November 25th, 26th & 27th) and on Friday a 'double whammy' from the country's two largest health insurance companies hit us with immense and unaffordable increases in health insurance premiums (see my entry of November 28th), we are learning today that our pensions might be in serious trouble as well.

One cannot help wondering if there is actually anything left here in Ireland that is working well, functioning properly and in good order.

Taoiseach Brian Cowen (left) was quick to react this time and declared that the government would be "engaging the pension industry" to "review funding arrangements".

Once again he only gives us a few empty and meaningless words, despite the seriousness of the matter. What does it mean when the government is "engaging the pension industry"?
Should not the government be in regular contact with and in control of the 'pensions industry'?

(By the way, the use of the word 'industry' in this connection turns my stomach. An 'industry' produces things. Pension funds do not produce anything. They only administer money and shift it around in the hope to make profits, obviously not with much success lately.)

What will happen after the government has "reviewed funding arrangements"? And what exactly is a "funding arrangement" when it is at home?

If the Taoiseach thinks that he can bamboozle us with such hollow language, he is in error.

We demand to know what is really happening, when it is happening, and what the consequences are. And while we are at it, we also like to know why nothing has been done about the problem in the past.

Brian Cowen's empty statement today follows the leaking of a confidential report, which warns that a number of pension schemes "could collapse within the next six months, affecting tens of thousands of Irish workers".

The leaked internal report was prepared for the Cabinet by the Minister for Social and Family Affairs Mary Hanafin (right). So at least she seems to know what is going on.

A memo, seen and made public by Ireland's Sunday Tribune newspaper, warns that "defined-benefit schemes in the private sector and defined-contribution schemes could be under threat as the total pension deficit reaches between € 20 and € 30 billion".

The memo says that in defined contribution schemes, which are directly linked to investment returns and where a worker carries the investment risk, there is "anecdotal evidence that best practice is generally not applied", leaving people "exposed to more risk than they might realise".

"These are turbulent and difficult times for money markets, where most pension funds are invested," Mary Hanafin said in a statement today.
"Pension fund managers have yet to report on their funding standards to the Irish Pension Board, but in public comments they have indicated that funds are subject to market fluctuations."

She added that the government is "continuing to closely monitor the situation and is preparing proposals on the long term strategy on pensions, following the submissions made to the Green Paper on Pensions earlier this year".

Following the example of her master, Mary Hanafin is trying to keep us in the dark. How stupid does she think we are? Does she really believe we need to be told that "these are turbulent and difficult times for money markets"?
And what does it mean that "the government is continuing to closely monitor the situation"?

To 'monitor' something means a passive observation from a distance, in modern times usually via an electronic media screen, or monitor. So this is all the government does. Sitting there and watching numbers running over a computer screen.
No wonder that the country and our economy are in such a shambolic state!

Anyone can look at data on a computer. Even my cat is able to do it. And I am almost certain that she understands them better than our government does.

If incompetence and complacency would make people small, our present government would have a very comfortable existence beneath the floor carpets in Leinster House!

The Irish Business & Employers' Confederation (IBEC) has also repeated its recent expression of concern (see my entry of October 7th) that a number of private sector defined-benefit schemes are in danger and said "this situation could put companies themselves in danger".

Brendan McGinty (left), IBEC's Director of Industrial Relations and Human Resource Services, said he is "concerned that three out of every four providers of private sector defined-benefit schemes" would not be in a position "to meet total pension payments if they were required to do so tomorrow".
"This is the scenario which the government and pensions board use to determine a scheme's liquidity," McGinty explained.

Employers are increasingly seeing defined-benefit provision as a "bottomless pit", he added, stating that IBEC is "calling for the liability to the taxpayer from defined benefit pensions in the public sector to be capped" and urging the government and pensions board to take immediate action.

Meanwhile the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) has called on the government to introduce a State-run mandatory pension scheme.

ICTU General Secretary David Begg (right) said that - given the current market difficulties - it is "almost inevitable that some of the schemes will be in trouble".
Begg also agrees with a recent IBEC suggestion that "funding standards for pension schemes may need to be relaxed".

Having lived in a number of different countries, I am familiar with different systems of government, economy and also pensions.
And it really puzzles me why Ireland has not established a State-controlled universal pensions system a long time ago. Why are we - after 86 years of independence - still copying everything Britain does, while there are much better options and models elsewhere that we could adopt?

In my entry of October 7th - titled "Irish Pensions System in Need of Reform" - I have written about this matter already. So I will not repeat all my points and arguments here and suggest you go to the archive and call up this entry, which includes a detailed plan Ireland could follow.

The Emerald Islander

29 November 2008

Farmers protest against Fianna Fáil in Co. Offaly

While more than 8000 teachers and parents protested in Donegal town today against cuts to the education budget (see my earlier entry below), the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers Association (ICSA) demonstrated outside the Tullamore Court Hotel in Tullamore, Co. Offaly, where Fianna Fáil were holding their National Councillors' Forum Annual Conference.

Around 200 Fianna Fáil county and city councillors from around the country gathered for this meeting and had to pass the gauntlet of the angry farmers, who displayed banners, placards and a small flock of miniature plastic models of cows and sheep in front of the conference hotel.

ICSA's angry protest was directed against recent cuts in the agricultural budget, and especially against a reduction of support schemes for small farms, which affects mostly people farming in the west and north-west of Ireland, where they raise cattle and sheep.

The Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and three other government ministers were addressing the Fianna Fáil meeting, and it has been reported that especially Brian Cowen gave "a rousing speech" to his party members.
This is probably quite necessary, as the current unpopularity of the Irish government worries many Fianna Fáil councillors, particularly in light of the up-coming local elections next year.

The Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade & Employment Mary Coughlan, Transport Minister Noel Dempsey, Education Minister Batt O'Keeffe and Agriculture Minister Brendan Smith also addressed the meeting and then faced the councillors in a questions-and-answers session, especially over the details of the controversial 2009 Budget.

However, in their usual arrogant way neither the Taoiseach nor his ministers had any time for the protesting farmers and showed no concern for their problems. I am sure the farmers - and not only those who were present today in Tullamore - will remember this when they cast their votes in future.

The Emerald Islander

8000 protest in Donegal against Education Cuts

Today over 8000 people took part in a protest march in Donegal town against the government's cuts in the education budget. The protesters included teachers, parents and members of boards of management from schools across the north-west of Ireland and came mainly from counties Sligo, Leitrim and Donegal.

They outnumbered the 2500 inhabitants of Donegal town by more than 3:1, and a good number of local residents also joined the demonstration.

The gathering in Donegal was addressed by John Carr (right), General Secretary of the Irish National Teachers' Organisation (INTO).
Representatives of other teaching unions were also present.

INTO, which has already organised a number of protests around the country (see my entries of October 29th and November 22nd) since the 2009 Budget was introduced by Finance Minister Brian Lenihan on October 14th (see my entry of that day), is planning further demonstrations in the near future.

The largest of them is a national rally, which will be held in Dublin next Saturday.

INTO's courageous President Declan Kelleher (left) said that there is strong political support for the campaign, and from my own observations I can second this statement.

I would also urge anyone who has the time and opportunity to be in Dublin next Saturday to join the protest march. Education is the key to our future, and we should do everything in our power to prevent the damaging cuts the government has proposed for the education budget.

The Emerald Islander

28 November 2008

Irish Health Insurance becomes unaffordable

Another day, another outrage or scandal. This is the life now in modern Ireland, under the most careless and incompetent government imaginable.

Today's outrage is that the two main health insurance companies in Ireland, VHI and Quinn Healthcare, announced substantial price increases, to take effect in the New Year.

VHI has announced it is increasing its prices by 23% (!!!) from January 2009, while Quinn Healthcare said that it is to raise its insurance premiums by an average of 16% and in some cases up to 19%!

The announcements came out of the blue and have hit the people of Ireland unprepared, at a time of severe economic recession and a serious financial crisis that affects everyone, from the largest companies to the last unemployed youngster.

In case of the VHI it also follows a long chain of continuous price hikes over the past few years. Last year their premium went up by 8.5%, and in 2005 and 2006 by 12.5% per annum. This is an increase in health insurance costs of one third over three years, and - adding today's price rise to it - of 56.5% over four years.
Although many things have become more expensive over the years, there is no evidence that in fact the costs for providing health care have risen by more than eleven times the inflation rate in the short period of four years. So what we see here from VHI is nothing but plain extortion.

Both companies are trying to excuse the announced price increase with the new health insurance levy, which - they claim - "is twice its intended rise of 8%".

Anyone who has the slightest bit of common sense and at least some knowledge of mathematics will know that this is hogwash.

The real reason for this scandalous - and for most people unaffordable - increase in premiums is that the insurance companies want to streamline their membership. Their main target is to push many older and poor people, who are more likely to need medical and hospital treatment, off their books. Thus they will become more profitable, which will please their share holders.

On the Live Line programme on RTÉ Radio 1 there were already many calls today, all from distressed and outraged Irish people, who realised that they can no longer afford their health insurance. Some have been cancelling their policies already today, others are in despair, not knowing what to do.

Thank you, Mary Harney, for making Ireland's health service even more American, unfair and unaffordable as it is already!

For an average family the price rise will mean about € 400 extra payment for health insurance per annum. For people on low incomes, and for recipients of ordinary state pensions, this is simply impossible.
And there are even a lot of the younger people who - now that we are in a recession - will find it extremely difficult to afford the additional payment, which is more than four times the inflation rate with VHI and three times with Quinn.

The Minister for Health Mary Harney (left) came out today rather fast and said sheepishly that she was "very concerned about the rise", describing it as a "major burden for families".

Of course this is an immense burden for families, and for everyone who is single as well. We don't need 'Miss Piggy' to tell us so.

In fact, her statement adds insult to injury, as it was Mary Harney herself who removed the ministerial regulation from the health insurers. Thus they can now raise their prices as they please, no longer controlled or restricted by the government. (Under the old rules any increase in health insurance would have to be approved by the Minister, who could object to it within 28 days after it was announced.)

Mary Harney has no concerns for the Irish people, their health and well-being, and least of all for their financial problems. She lives in the cosy cocoon of another world, perhaps even another planet. She never sees sick people and is only concerned with the ever more radical privatisation of hospitals and health services, so her friends in the private health industry can rake in ever more and ever larger profits.

On the Live Line programme today it was mentioned that an ordinary (public) general hospital in Ireland is now charging a patient the outrageous sum of € 4,300 per day, just for the bed and the little food that is served. Operations and other medical treatments are charged extra (but surprisingly often less costly than just the bed, which is there all the time anyway).

And if that were not scandalous enough, one caller reported that his sick wife was charged the princely sum of € 12,000 per day for a bed in a private hospital in Dublin.
This is even beyond the level of a scandal. This is criminal extortion!

It is also another example of the utterly corrupt culture Fianna Fáil and the PDs have created in Ireland over the past eleven years they have been in government. Under their leadership ever more money is given to their rich and super-rich friends, while the ordinary and hard-working people of Ireland are ever more squeezed and robbed of the little they have.

As regular readers of this weblog will know, I am no friend of the British and their 750 years of colonial rule over this island. But in all fairness one has to acknowledge that even under British rule conditions were not as scandalous, unfair and corrupt as they are now, after eleven years of continuous rule by the incompetent and cleptocratic regime of Fianna Fáil and their coalition partners.

While ministers, senior civil servants and self-serving spongers like Rody Molloy are living the life of Reilly at our expense, the majority of Irish people are robbed left, right and centre by an unholy coalition of the government, the banks, the insurance companies and many other private businesses.

Life in general, and everything connected with it, is on average at least twice as expensive in Ireland than it is in other EU countries. And I am not even talking about the newer members of the union in the east and south-east of Europe. Anywhere in Europe - from Austria to the UK - people have a better quality of life, at half of the costs (or even less) than people in Ireland have to pay.

We have the highest insurance rates - for people, houses, cars and everything else - as well as the most expensive food, drinks, supplies, fuels and utility services. Our infrastructure is of 19th century standard, but we are charged more than twice for public transport, electricity, gas and communication services than anyone else in Europe.

Even with house prices falling now, the purchase of a home here is still between two and three times more costly than on the Continent. And rents, although falling as well now, are twice as high as in most of the other EU countries. Not to mention that tenants on the Continent have plenty of rights and protection from exploitation and rogue landlords, while there are still no proper tenant rights in Ireland.

In 86 years of running our own affairs no Irish government has made the slightest effort to improve the living and general conditions for our people. However, since a majority of Irish voters keeps electing the same incompetent and corrupt people - many from the same 'political' families - and the same old parties over and over again, we probably deserve nothing better.

"Every country has the government it deserves," a wise old philosopher wrote a very long time ago. And his words are still correct.

If we want change, we have to stop being lazy fools, get up from our chairs and do something about it. The Americans have just elected a new President, whose main message is "Hope and Change". If we want to see some new hope for a better future, and a change of our political and social conditions, we have to do the same and elect new people with fresh ideas, people who are capable of change and untarnished by the corrupt and cumbersome system that drags us down, but makes politicians rich and complacent.

We don't know when the next general election will be called. Theoretically the government has still 3 1/2 years of leeway, although I very much doubt that they will last that long.

But next year we have local government elections coming up, and the election of the members of the European Parliament. These are the first opportunities to show what we really want. We can kick the incompetent Councillors from the old parties out and fill our county and city councils with new people of different parties, or - even better - Independents.

Waterford has done this already in 2004. Of the 15 Councillors on Waterford City Council four are now Independents, while there is only one man from Fianna Fáil left. The Council shows a healthy mix of people's views, with four seats for Fine Gael, three for the Labour Party, two for Sinn Féin and one for the Workers' Party.
I very much hope that the rest of Ireland will follow Waterford's example and make sure that Fianna Fáil and the Green Party are told where to go: home, and out of business.

But this will of course not solve the problem of the criminal increase in health insurance. I would advise to make your anger felt and heard as much as it is possible. Write letters to newspapers, call Live Line and your local radio stations, and speak with your constituency TDs, regardless of their party.
Express your anger, your thoughts and feelings, and let the TDs know that you will hold them responsible for what happens.

It might not make the rises disappear, but perhaps one can bring them down to an affordable level.
Even though Mary Harney has relinquished her intervention right, a simple act of government could reinstate it, or introduce other measures.

VHI is a large, solid and wealthy organisation, which has extorted more than enough money from the Irish people over the past years.
And Quinn Healthcare (formerly BUPA Ireland) is part of the Quinn Insurance Group, privately owned by Sean Quinn (above) from Co. Fermanagh, Ireland's richest man with a personal fortune of over € 4 billion.
He became a billionaire on the backs and with the money of Ireland's sick people. And he still rakes in massive profits. So he can well afford to show some generosity to our sick and elderly, especially at a time when the country is in a serious recession that makes most of us poorer.

And you can of course always switch your insurance to another company. Even though VHI and Quinn are the two largest in Ireland, there are others as well.

For example, Hibernian Health has said today that it has "no plans to increase its health insurance premiums at this time". That is a piece of good news at last, in this sea of scandals.

This is still a free country with a free market, so shop around and select the best option available. One of the worst traits of Irish people is inflexibility, which leads to the ridiculous attitude of preferring "the devil you know" to anyone else.
If we stick to that sort of thinking, we can as well hand over all our money to those who are out to rob the poor for the benefit of the rich.

And as under EU laws the insurance markets are deregulated, you could even obtain insurance cover from a company outside of Ireland. Look and shop around, search on-line and talk to an independent advisor. There are better ways than just resigning yourself to the apparent 'powers to be'.

Ireland is in general a great little country, full of decent people. If they all combine their will, initiative and power as citizens, consumers and voters, we can and will see a change for the good. If not, we can as well pronounce Brian Cowen Taoiseach for life, swallow 40 sleeping tablets and jump into the next deep river.

The Emerald Islander

27 November 2008

PAC begins Investigation of FÁS Scandal

Today a member of the Board of FÁS has appeared before a Dáil committee in Leinster House in Dublin and said that "the approval of some expenses" at the State's training agency was "fundamentally wrong".

Niall Saul (left), who is one of the four employers' representatives on the 17-member board, told the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of Dáil Éireann that "a root and branch investigation is required".
He said that following last night's board meeting, it was clear that there was "a failure of control and oversight of expenditure".

Mr. Saul is the HR Director of McNamara Constructions and held similar positions before with Irish Life & Permanent (owners of the permanent tsb bank) and - until 1997 - with Waterford Crystal. He is also the chairman of the Audit Committee of the FÁS Board.
Amazingly Mr. Saul was the only member of the entire FÁS Board prepared to attend today's hearing, and one has to wonder what a bunch of spineless cowards the other 16 members must be.

Former FÁS Director General Rody Molloy (right), who has resigned two days ago after coming under severe pressure from the media and public outrage, refused stubbornly to appear before the PAC (saying he was "no longer in office") and to account for his agency's affairs and his own eccentricities.
This is the man who was praised by Taoiseach Brian Cowen twice in the past four days. (see my entries of November 25th & 26th)

PAC Chairman Bernard Allen (Fine Gael) said that he finds it "incredible that members of FÁS can just ride into the sunset without holding themselves accountable".

Deputy Allen (left), who represents the Cork North Central constituency, stated that it was "regrettable that Mr. Molloy is not in attendance", but he said other members of FÁS would be able to address issues, as they were also in the organisation during the time being examined.

He added that he was "inviting" Mr. Molloy to come before the committee next week. There were also speculations in Leinster House if Rody Molloy could be forced by law to attend the next PAC meeting.

Bernard Allen also sent a formal invitation to FÁS Chairman Peter McLoone, who in his main job is Secretary General of IMPACT, the (with about 55,000 members) largest public service trade union in Ireland.

McLoone (right) was appointed as Chairman of FÁS on December 23rd, 2005, succeeding Brian Geoghegan, the husband of Health Minister Mary Harney. (When the two got married in 2001, Harney - then the Minister for Enterprise, Trade & Employment - was in fact Geoghegan's boss and supervisor, as her then Department controls FÁS.)

Appointed for a five-year period, Peter McLoone could remain as FÁS Chairman until the end of 2010, unless he has the decency to step down from his position. In the light of the recent revelations, McLoone has certainly not done a good and proper job in overseeing the running of the agency.

The PAC also heard today statements from civil servants from the Department of Enterprise, Trade & Employment and the Department of Finance.

In a further development of the affair, Fine Gael TD Jim O'Keeffe (left) told the PAC that he has established that State travel policy did not include any entitlement to first class travel. (On Monday Rody Molloy said live on air - in an interview with Pat Kenny on RTÉ Radio 1 - that he was "entitled to first class flights".)

Deputy O'Keeffe, who represents the Cork South West constituency, was questioning FÁS Assistant Director General Christy Cooney - one of the seven people who hold this title, and thus a member of the FÁS Executive Board - about the organisation's travel policy.
Besides his senior job with FÁS, Christy Cooney (on the photo - with Sean McCague - right, holding a book) is also the incoming new president of the Gaelic Athletics Association (GAA), the organisation in charge of Ireland's popular national sports Hurling, Camogie and Gaelic Football.
The 52-year-old from Youghal, Co. Cork has long been involved with the GAA, especially in the southern province of Munster, and was elected in April to succeed the current GAA boss Nickey Brennan next year.

Meanwhile FÁS has located credit receipts for the € 32,000 worth of flights to Florida, which the organisation earlier told the Committee it had failed to get refunds for. It said that "the credit notes were incorrectly coded, due to an administrative error". Which means that sloppy work at the FÁS head office is costing the taxpayers of Ireland € 32,000 for absolutely nothing in return.
This amount should be deducted from the generous salary of the FÁS director responsible and returned to the Department of Finance.

In a separate statement the Taoiseach declared that the Board of FÁS "now needs to get back to work and appoint an interim Director General soon, following the resignation of Mr. Molloy".
Brian Cowen (left) said that "it is important the Board of FÁS continues to operate". Instability should not be re-created and a sustainable and credible way forward needed to be found.

He seems however completely unconcerned with the massive scandal that brought down Rody Molloy and might yet claim more heads from the senior staff of FÁS, as ever more details emerge about the self-indulgent and irresponsible lifestyle the agency's executives enjoyed for years at taxpayers' expense.

With his cavalier attitude and - even worse - his praise for the main culprit of the scandal, Brian Cowen associates himself with the corrupt spongers and thus becomes co-responsible, by deed and by association, even if he himself might not have directly benefited from the colossal misuse of public money. As the Taoiseach he is responsible for the whole government, including all its agencies, anyway. And as the Minister for Finance until May of this year he was also directly responsible for the nation's money, in particular what is spent in any part of the public sector.

So, either Brian Cowen knows a lot more about the FÁS scandal - and perhaps many more like it in other government agencies - than he is willing to admit in public, or he is immensely stupid. In either case he is not the right man to be Taoiseach and should resign immediately.

The Emerald Islander

Harney entangled in hairy FÁS 'Florida Gate'

One of the - recently revealed - spurious expenses paid for with a FÁS credit card was for $ 410, spent at a Florida beauty parlour, which was said to relate to a time when Minister Mary Harney (right) was in the Department of Health.

Last night her office said that she "might have been responsible for part of a bill incurred when she led a FÁS delegation to Florida as Enterprise, Trade & Employment Minister".
But her spokesman vigorously denied that what had amounted to "a wash and blow-dry" could have accounted for the entire bill.

It was also being suggested that "some others" on the delegation could have contributed to the controversial bill.

The Taoiseach, supporting spongers as usual, said he accepts the explanation given by Minister Harney about the hair dressing treatments, and that she has his "full confidence".
He also rejected vehemently calls from the opposition, especially from Fine Gael's spokesman on Enterprise, Trade & Employment Dr. Leo Varadkar, for Mary Harney's resignation.

Speaking on RTÉ Radio 1, independent Senator - and Business Editor of the Sunday Independent - Shane Ross (left), who investigated the misuse of FÁS money and published his findings in last Sunday's edition of his newspaper, explained that the invoice relating to a bill for $ 410 in a beauty salon in Florida is dated from 2004.
He said that there was a misprint by a year in the newspaper article on Sunday, which stated that the bill was from 2005.
He went on to say that the amount of $ 410 is correct, but that it was unclear how many people were responsible for the bill.

There is no question about the need for people in official positions to look proper in public, especially when they are representing the country abroad. However, one should remember that Ministers, TDs and Senators receive not only a very generous salary, but also have an equally generous allowance for their expenses.
This should be more than enough to cover any costs for clothes and shoes, as well as for personal hair and beauty treatments. And the same goes for senior civil servants and employees of state agencies.

Anyone working in the private sector has to pay for all these things from private funds and does usually not receive any allowance for it. So why should the taxpayers foot the bill for these private matters when it comes to public representatives and civil servants, whose income is much higher than that of anyone working in private business?!

The whole concept and attitude is wrong, and it is more than time that we end this self-indulgent culture, where those we elect to represent us believe they are entitled to the life of a king, at our expense.

Meanwhile the Board of FÁS has met last night to consider the circumstances that led to Rody Molloy's resignation and how the organisation should best move forward. (see also my entries of November 25th & 26th)
In a statement, the board said it was "gravely concerned about these matters", but that - in deference to the hearing of the Dáil's Public Accounts Committee (PAC) - it would not be making a detailed statement.

Silence is golden at FÁS, it seems, as golden as the lifestyle its senior staff enjoyed for many years at taxpayers' expense, and perhaps also as golden as the good-bye handshake for Rody Molloy will be.

We have really become a fine example of a banana republic, with the twist that we don't even have the climate to grow bananas.

The Emerald Islander

26 November 2008

Cowen praises disgraced former FÁS Boss

Taoiseach Brian Cowen (left) has commended the former FÁS Director General Rody Molloy, who resigned in disgrace late last night (see yesterday's entry), "on his decision to step down".

Cowen said that Molloy, a fellow Offaly man, had "made a valuable contribution to FÁS" and that "his resignation showed that confidence in him was justified because he has proved himself to be accountable".

When I heard these words, I first feared that there was something wrong with my ears.

But no, Cowen did indeed praise Rody Molloy (right), an unrepentant and arrogant sponger and selfish waster of taxpayers' money, who was forced to step down after eight years as Director General of the state's employment and training authority, after the brave independent Senator Shane Ross exposed the corrupt practices in the senior echelons of FÁS and the colossal amounts of money Molloy and some of his fellow directors had spent on themselves and on lavish corporate entertainment and foreign travel.

One has to pause here for a moment, let this sink in and reflect.

Molloy is a man who - as a public servant - wasted huge amounts of our money on things that were neither necessary nor justifiable. A man whose attitude was - and still is - that, as a large pig at the state's through, he was "entitled" to only the best and took uncontrolled advantage of every possible perk he could get.
And then there is the country's Prime Minister (and former Minister for Finance), who not only gave this man his "full support" when the scandal broke, saying that he was "a very good public servant", but who now - after his forced resignation - still praises him in the highest possible way, as if Molloy had just found the cure for cancer.

This is outrageous, and a scandal in itself! And adding his insult to the immense injury Molloy has caused the nation, Cowen describes him as "accountable". Has the Taoiseach now lost his mind completely?!
Accountable? If there is anything specifically Rody Molloy was not, then it is accountable.
He would still sit in his comfortable chair and enjoy the lifestyle of a king, had Senator Shane Ross not exposed the scandal.

Over the now six months as Taoiseach, Brian Cowen has shown no leadership qualities, but instead demonstrated on many occasions his incompetence, arrogance and lack of judgement. He has also again and again exposed his short-sighted and narrow-minded views on major policies, and in all this also been extremely rude, foul-mouthed and ill-mannered. In short, he is by far the worst Taoiseach this country has ever had.

But today's statement has added a new dimension to Brian Cowen. He has now publicly stated that he approves of corruption, spongers and the massive waste of taxpayers' money on a luxury lifestyle for the senior civil servants of this country. And all this at a time when we are in deep recession and face the worst financial crisis in living memory.

Anyone who can tolerate Brian Cowen any longer as the leader of our government and country must be completely blind, deaf and totally without moral fibre. The man is an utter disgrace and should resign as Taoiseach - and as TD - immediately!

However, he is still muddling on and pretends nothing has happened. And even the opposition is not (yet) willing to attack him in the way he deserves.

During Leaders' Questions in the Dáil today Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny (left) only said that "the entire board of FÁS should also consider their positions". Quite right, and well put!
But Kenny should have called for the resignation of Brian Cowen and his Tánaiste Mary Coughlan - who, as Minister for Enterprise, Trade & Employment, is directly responsible for FÁS - as well.

Yesterday Kenny highlighted a € 410 bill from a nail and beauty salon in Florida, which was paid with an official FÁS credit card. He asked if this was what taxpayers' money should be spent on, and again he was spot on.
This one outrageous example is, however, only the tip of the iceberg. Kenny could and should have been a lot more forceful on the matter, and we all would have applauded him.
But one of the problems with Fine Gael is that they are way too soft on the government and let Cowen and his cronies get away with too much incompetence, arrogance and blunder.

Meanwhile FÁS says that it will "announce the appointment of an acting Director General for an interim period, pending the recruitment of a full-time successor to Mr. Molloy".
It does not surprise me that they are very fast in shoring up the damage, as they are still hoping to get away with their scandalous culture of self-serving perks. What happened over years was not only done by Rody Molloy, although he was in charge, set the example and approved of everything. There were and still are many more culprits in the organisation, and they should go as well. How could we ever again trust FÁS if they remained in their positions?

Fine Gael TD Bernard Allen, the chairman of the Dáil's Public Accounts Committee (PAC), said that Rody Molloy had "no choice but to resign".
He told RTÉ that he had hoped to have him before the committee tomorrow, to ask him to explain his € 5.7 million expenditure for 2007. But with his resignation Molloy escaped this planned grilling by TDs.

Rody Molloy's resignation is unlikely to end questions about financial controls at FÁS, especially as the PAC and the Comptroller and Auditor General were already investigating spending at the organisation for quite some time. (see my entries of September 22nd & 23rd)
In a statement FÁS has said it will "continue to co-operate with the investigations", which will now want to know more about financial controls in the organisation, and how closely spending by senior management was supervised by the board and the government.

Well, they don't really have a choice, have they? The cat is out of the bag now, and everyone in the country knows about the scandalous practices at FÁS. People are rightfully outraged, and they want to see this quagmire of corruption and self-serving arrogance drained and sorted out once and for all.
In my opinion the best solution would be to abolish the whole organisation and replace it with a smaller, better and more efficient agency, directly controlled by the Department of Enterprise, Trade & Employment. But in order to get that, we first need a new minister in charge of this department.

The Emerald Islander

239 Job Losses in three US-owned Irish Firms

Ireland is really in the grip of a serious recession now, and almost every day one hears of more companies closing or reducing the size of their workforce. And - according to analysts - we are only at the beginning. A lot more and worse is expected to come next year.

In today's news we have learned that another 239 jobs are going to be lost in the Irish operations of three US companies in counties Galway, Limerick and Kilkenny.

The Galway-based Thermo King factory is laying off 110 of its staff as part of a 'restructuring programme'.
The company, which is part of the US Ingersoll Rand Company Ltd., manufactures 'transport temperature control systems' for a variety of mobile applications, including trailers, truck bodies, buses, shipboard containers and railway cars.
On October 15th Thermo King admitted that it was "the latest victim of the credit crunch" and decided to reduce production on one of its assembly lines.

Meanwhile the manufacturing company Filtertek in Newcastle West, Co. Limerick, announced it is to cut its almost 100-strong workforce by 59, which is a reduction of more than 60%. The Irish plant, which specialises in the production of modern filter technology, is the manufacturing part of a Dutch-registered subsidiary of the US company Filtertek Inc., based in Hebron/Illinois.

And, as certain things seem always to appear in units of three, there is more bad news from a place not very far from here.
The ball-bearing manufacturer NN Euroball, a US-owned company with its head office in the state of Tennessee, is going to close its production plant in Kilkenny with the loss of 70 jobs. The company produces high precision metal bearing components and has come to Kilkenny with IDA support in 1997.

This is normally the busiest time of the year for the firm, but there has been a steady decline in demand for its product since October. Production at the facility will cease early next year when the majority of staff will lose their jobs.
The workers at the IDA-supported company have been on 'short time' since last month and the company says the closure is "due to the global downturn in the automotive industry".

This might well be, and the current economic crisis is affecting many businesses all around the globe.
However, one cannot avoid to notice that NN Euroball is another of the many US companies that were brought into Ireland by the IDA (Industrial Development Authority) with a lucrative package of tax breaks and favourable conditions. These special conditions are usually granted for a period of ten years. And guess what...? More than 90% of the - predominantly US - companies who avail of it close their Irish operation between one and two years after the perks have ended and they have to face normal market conditions and pay taxes as everyone else.

In the case of NN Euroball the global recession might well be the main reason for closure, but it does not take the company off the long list of IDA short-term successes that turned into long-term failures.

The Emerald Islander

25 November 2008

Rody Molloy resigns as Director General of FÁS, the National Money Wasting Authority

This evening Rody Molloy (right) has resigned as the Director General of the Irish training and employment authority FÁS.
It appears that the former career civil servant, who had been in charge of FÁS for the past eight years, jumped before he could be pushed by his political masters.

Since the publication (in the Sunday Independent) of a detailed investigation into FÁS and its lavish and extravagant spending of public money on the senior executives, Molloy had come under severe pressure from the media and from various opposition politicians, in particular the Fine Gael spokesman of Enterprise and Trade, Dr. Leo Varadkar, TD.

Only yesterday morning Rody Molloy appeared on the Today programme with Pat Kenny on RTÉ Radio 1 and defended in a very grandeur manner his extraordinary spending spree. Charlie Haughey could not have done it any better.
Being confronted by Pat Kenny with the findings of the investigation, Molloy showed not a bit of regret or remorse. He had no specific answers to the allegations and only repeated the mantra that he had "done nothing wrong". With amazing arrogance he stated that he was "entitled" to first class flights to the USA, and then admitted that he had "traded them in for business class tickets", so he could take his wife along on official trips - at the taxpayers' expense.
He also said that the over $ 900 of FÁS money he spent on a single game of golf and a $ 400 bill from a 'beauty and nail bar' in Florida "was just chicken feed" compared with the overall budget of his organisation. Well, this showed clearly the man's attitude as a shameless sponger who was habitually spending taxpayers' money on his lavish personal lifestyle.

Molloy's resignation is not more than right, but he is only the proverbial tip of the wasteful and outrageous iceberg that is FÁS. And this is only one of the many state agencies, which might well have practiced the same lavish lifestyle as FÁS has.

Officially Foras Áiseanna Saothair (FÁS) is the national training and employment authority of the Republic of Ireland. It was established by the government in January 1988 under the Labour Services Act 1987.

But - as the investigation by the independent Senator Shane Ross (left) under the Freedom of Information Act has revealed - FÁS is really the national money wasting authority.

And with a weekly budget of more than € 20 million there is a lot of money to waste. Much, it appears, is spent on lavish corporate entertainment for senior staff of the state agency, as well as on frequent luxury trips to the USA.

Since Senator Ross has done all the work and research, he deserves the full credit for it and I will not repeat his findings here in detail. If you want to read them - and I would highly recommend that you do - go to > http://www.shane-ross.ie/archives/422/fas-chiefs-enjoy-a-good-life/

The article makes definitely very interesting reading and opens one's eyes to the appalling and scandalous way in which the top brass of FÁS, which is supposed to create new jobs and train Irish people who are out of work, spends taxpayers' money on themselves.

It is quite unbelievable that during the boom times of the 'Celtic Tiger', when there was virtually full employment in Ireland, the annual budget of FÁS has risen to one billion Euros. Obviously there were very few people who needed jobs then, so the FÁS management decide to spend the money on themselves.

According to its own website, FÁS has provided services for an average of 89,000 people per annum in the past few years. This means that - statistically - they spent € 11,235.95 on each of these job seekers and trainees. One does not have to be a mathematical genius to work out that they would never spend so much money on one unemployed individual.
as it appears, the 'clients' were only an inconvenient burden for FÁS. Its real purpose was and perhaps still is to have a safe and well-paid public service job with plenty of lavish perks, all at the taxpayers' expense.
The few times I had dealings with them I always felt that they saw 'clients' as an inconvenient interruption of their internal meetings, coffee breaks and other things that went on behind closed doors. FÁS is not really interested in the general public of Ireland. It is far more concerned with its own little world, planet FÁS.

I wonder how much Molloy will receive now as a 'golden handshake'. In my opinion he should be receiving nothing at all! In fact, the Department of Finance should go through his expenses with a very fine comb and claw back all the money he wasted on private entertainment.

Rody Molloy had been scheduled to appear before the Oireachtas' Public Accounts Committee, which will be sitting on Thursday. I wonder if he will still turn up, or if he will use his resignation as an excuse for not accounting for his wasteful and scandalous behaviour.

However, people like Rody Molloy, who comes from the Taoiseach's home county Offaly and has a cosy relationship with Brian Cowen for a long time, are - as I mentioned above - only the tips of the iceberg of waste that has been built up in the Irish civil and public service under the rule of Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, himself a man with a cavalier attitude to money.

I bet that there are plenty of people like Rody Molloy, who have spent taxpayers' money with both hands, but without any concern or prudency, over the past ten years of boom. Their lavish lifestyle was of course inspired by the late Charles J. Haughey, and further encouraged by Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen.
Haughey is dead now, and thus has escaped the unravelling of this scandal. But both Ahern and Cowen are still with us and should be held accountable as well for their share of the waste and mis-spending of public funds.

Responsibility also falls on the shoulders of the 15 members of the Board of FÁS, who have done nothing to prevent or stop the misuse of public money by the agency's senior executives. Either they were asleep for the past eight years, or they are not up to their job. So the least they could and should do now is to resign and make the way free for a complete overhaul and reorganisation of FÁS.
Some analysts have already suggested that the agency cannot survive in its present form, and I would support the idea of scrapping it, in favour of a more streamlined and target-orientated new national employment agency.

It will be quite interesting to see how many more skeletons will be found in the cupboards of the numerous Irish state agencies. Many of these organisations, for which there is really no need in a small country like Ireland, were created by Bertie Ahern to create extra jobs 'for the boys (and girls)' of Fianna Fáil. The best way to deal with them - and their wasteful behaviour - would be to abolish them again. But before that can happen, we will need a new government.

Only yesterday Taoiseach Brian Cowen (right) has stated publicly that "he knows Rody Molloy" (of course he does, as they come from the same county) and that he is "a very good public servant".
Such demonstrative loyalty and support for an exposed sponger and systematic waster of taxpayers' money shows that Cowen is completely out of touch with reality and certainly not fit to lead the government and the country.

For him the loyalty to an old pal might be a question of rural principles, but it is not the behaviour we expect from the Taoiseach, especially at a time when he and his Finance Minister Brian Lenihan are making us all suffer for the economic failures and financial imprudence of his - and his preecessor's - government.

When he realised that time was up, Rody Molloy had at least the sensitivity to resign quickly, in order to avoid more damaging exposure. Brian Cowen seems to lack such sensitivity. Otherwise he would have stepped down already and made the way free for either a new government, or - which would be better - a general election.

The Emerald Islander

24 November 2008

Irish Customers are fleeced by the ESB to finance new Power Plants in Britain

The Electricity Supply Board (ESB), the Republic of Ireland's largest producer and supplier of electricity, is "planning to expand its operations in the British energy market significantly, with a € 4 billion investment drive to build new power plants in the UK".

ESBI, the ESB's international arm, has "acquired an interest in a number of British power companies" and plans to build "over 3000 megawatts of gas-fired and renewable energy plants before the year 2020".

ESBI currently has operations and projects in more than 35 countries including the UK, and the ESB says this initiative will rank them "in the top ten energy companies in the British electricity market".

"The investment opportunity comes because of a projected shortfall in generating capacity in Britain over the next few years", an ESB statement says.
"ESB will build and operate a gas-fired power station near Manchester, which will generate electricity for 1 million homes by 2013, while another gas-fired station near Southampton will be operational by this time next year. ESB's plans in Britain also include wind-power projects."

I don't know about you, but I was very surprised - and almost stunned - when I read this. The ESB is an Irish company, originally established in the 1920s by the government to produce and provide the energy needed for this country, its development and industrialisation.

Until recently it has been a state company, concentrated on the needs of Ireland and our population and industry. That is how it should be.
Then - following the general trend in capitalist countries - Fianna Fáil part-privatised the ESB. Since then we have experienced several significant changes in their work and relationship with customers.

1) Prices for electricity in Ireland went up several times, without real need and explanations.

2) ESB closed its nation-wide network of shops, thus cutting off the normal way for a customer to contact the company and interact with it.

3) Most of the former shops' premises were sold to a large UK bank, at the height of the Irish property boom, for a massive profit.

4) So-called 'customer relations' are now reduced to contacts by telephone only. If a customer is lucky and skilled enough to get through the system of automated messages and electronic barriers, designed to minimise the number of calls, he is connected to a 'call centre', where predominantly young and very clueless 'operators' are trying to tell him that everything is in order, even if it is not.

5) Letters of complaint written to the ESB, even those addressed to senior management, are never answered.

6) ESB, now a commercial company and no longer a national service provider, is engaging more and more in other countries, while neglecting the Irish market.

7) Nevertheless it is predominantly the money created in Ireland that finances these foreign operations.

I did not know before that the ESB is now active in 35 foreign countries. And I did not know that all the money extracted from Irish customers at exorbitant rates is now going into the financing of the electricity supply of other countries. Did you?

As things stand, Ireland has one of the highest energy prices in the world, with ESB being at the top of the league table.
Whenever we are hit by another price hike for electricity - a utility which is now needed by everyone, so we have not really any choice - the ESB tells us that it is "because of the rising prices of oil, gas and coal on the international markets".

That is a lie. In fact the most barefaced and outrageous lie we have been given by an Irish company for a long time.
And it is about time to stand up to these liars and scoundrels and tell then what we think of them!

Fleecing the Irish public ever more drastically, in order to spend € 4 billion on new power stations in the UK - for the supply of British customers and the benefit of international share holders - is not acceptable in general, and especially not now, in a time of economic recession and financial crisis.
Not to mention the other 34 foreign countries, which have not been named. (I am trying to obtain a list, and if I get it, I will share the information with you here.)

We should not take this quietly, and begin to voice our protest.

Write letters to the chairman and CEO of the ESB!

Write to your TDs and to newspapers!

Talk with your TDs when you see them, and express your anger and disgust.

And use any other form of communication as well, to make your family, friends and neighbours aware of this scandal. They might not have heard of it yet.

The ESB was created by the Irish government, using taxpayers' money, to work for the Irish nation and provide us with enough electricity at affordable prices. Its purpose does not include to fill the gap in the energy market of our former colonial rulers, whose failure to plan properly for their own needs created a shortage of energy in Britain in the first place.

At a time when every single Euro and cent make a difference, we - the Irish nation - should not be robbed of € 4 billion, which then leave the country to help those who oppressed us for 750 years. No, I say, and once again - NO!!!

If you care for your country and the money in your pocket, then follow my example and make yourself heard. There is still time to stop the ESB from this blunder, but every day counts.

Éirinn go Brágh!

The Emerald Islander

Would Fine Gael provide a better Government?

Over the past weekend Ireland's largest opposition party Fine Gael (FG) held a national conference in Wexford. It was not, as some people had thought, their annual Ard Fheis (what people outside Ireland would call AGM), which is still to come.

No, this was a special national conference, a confidence-boosting event for party members and the public alike, and set at the time when Fine Gael passed Fianna Fáil in the opinion polls for the second consecutive month.

One can understand that Fine Gael members are excited, as it is the first time in living memory that their national popularity rating is above that of their arch rivals Fianna Fáil. But one has to be realistic and analyse the reasons for this sudden increase in public support.

At the Wexford conference there was no shortage of speakers - TDs, Senators and ordinary delegates - who praised again and again the strength and performance of their party, and in particular the "great and wise leadership" of Enda Kenny.
This is no surprise and can be expected from Fine Gael as well as from any other party. Those inside the pen are always confident and sure that their flock is so much better than all the others 'out there'.

But how much of this self-assuring noise is based on real facts? Let's have a closer look.

Fine Gael's recent jump in popularity is not a result of new political ideas, new people or a fundamental change in public opinion. In fact, since they narrowly lost the 2007 general election, Fine Gael have been rather a tame and timid party, offering only the most basic opposition to the government and being silent on many important issues.

Party leader Enda Kenny (right), now praised by his party delegates like some Messiah, has not been very vociferous or aggressive as head of the main opposition in parliament.
He is undoubtedly a very decent and honest man, which sets him worlds apart from most
Fianna Fáil TDs.
He is also a hard worker and does not dodge difficult subjects. One has to give him that.
But he is not - and never has been - a charismatic leader or particularly inspiring speaker.

In fact, very few members of the Oireachtas are gifted public speakers, so one could say that Kenny is in a company of equals there. So, despite the praise now heaped upon him by happy party members, it cannot be he - or his performance - that led to the rise in popularity for Fine Gael.

What is it then? The answer is not difficult to find for outsiders, even though FG members refuse to accept it in their euphoric mood.

The only reason for the increase in public support for Fine Gael is the dismal performance and utter failure of the present government.
While Fianna Fáil and the - now defunct - PDs got away with a lot of their mismanagement and incompetence during the boom times of the so-called 'Celtic Tiger', it is a different situation now in economic recession. There is no longer a bag with endless supply of money one could throw around to cover up mistakes and failure.
Now the proverbial wolf is at almost every door, including the doors of Government Buildings, every government department and state agency, and money is extremely hard to come by, especially since the ten-year-long mismanagement of our economy has also damaged our banks, probably beyond repair.

Instead of being prudent, humble and constructive, the government decided to remain aloof, arrogant and insensible and produced an appalling budget, which annoyed most of us and outraged significant elements in our society.
Since the budget was presented in the Dáil by Finance Minister Brian Lenihan on October 14th (for detailed budget analysis see my entry of that day), there have been dozens of public protest meetings and demonstrations against the government and its policies, both in Dublin and around the country. Elderly people, students, teachers, parents and farmers have so far been the most active in showing their anger and disappointment, but other interest groups are likely to follow as well.

In such a political climate it is no surprise that the government is becoming unpopular. This is a normal reaction and would happen to any government that behaves in this way, regardless which party or parties are in power.

Had Enda Kenny not run an American-style campaign in 2007 - which was designed and managed for him by US consultants who were unfamiliar with Irish and European politics and only knew the presidential campaign mode they do at home - he would most likely have become Taoiseach in June 2007, with the then Labour Party leader Pat Rabbitte (left) as Tánaiste.
Would they be in office now, they would face the same problems and might have to encounter the same drop in popularity Brian Cowen is experiencing now. Although - to be fair - Enda Kenny and Pat Rabbitte - both from Co. Mayo - are much more kind, pleasant and serious than Cowen and might have handled the crisis more sensibly. Nevertheless the fact of a recession alone will diminish the popularity of whoever is in government at the time.

People in most western countries have little personal interest in politics and think that it is enough to go once every four or five years into a booth and make a cross on a ballot paper. The rest they leave to the people they elect, and expect them to do a good job with the country and the economy.
All the average voter really wants is to live in peace, security, stability and prosperity. People want jobs, enough money and liberties to spend it, a proper house, a car perhaps, and nowadays also a good holiday. As long as they get that, they do not care much who is in government. This is not a shining example of Democracy, but sadly it is the reality.

When the popularity of a government shrinks, it is normal that the opposition party (or parties) will see an increase in public support. One team has failed to deliver what we want, so we no longer like them and hope the other lot will be and do better. One can see this happening all over the world, and it is the same here in Ireland.

The rise in public esteem Fine Gael is now celebrating is not at all based on anything they have done or said.
It is the natural gain they receive from the decline in confidence in the present government. Thus it is a dangerously thin sheet of ice to walk or skate on, and no matter what opinion polls might say, they are only snapshots of public views, taken from a small group of people. The only poll that really matters is the one on election day.

The understandably happy FG members should be a little bit more cautious and not start counting their chicken before they have hatched. Their party is far from perfect and - if roles were reversed - would most likely not perform much better than Fianna Fáil is doing now. (They would be somewhat better, though, as it is virtually impossible to beat the incompetence of Fianna Fáil and the arrogant and otherworldly attitude of the Green Party.)

Nevertheless the predominant opinion in Fine Gael after this weekend is that they are "ready for government" and cannot wait to form one. This is dangerous thinking.

In many constituencies the local grass root organisation of FG is shambolic, and sometimes even non-existent between election campaigns. There are faction fights over some petty issues and personalities, and overall there is a lack of proper organisation and vision.

Fine Gael might be officially Ireland's second-largest party, as well as the largest party in opposition, but it still has not learned how to mobilise the masses and provide new ideas that inspire people.

One should also not forget that only six months ago Fine Gael was very happy to stand shoulder to shoulder with Fianna Fáil and the government in the YES camp during the Lisbon Treaty campaign. In fact, for most of this campaign FG was far more visible, vociferous an pro-treaty than FF (or the Labour Party, who also stood with them and promoted the treaty).

Fine Gael's present spokesperson on Europe, the Mayo-born lawyer and Dublin TD Lucinda Creighton (right), was so arrogant, aggressive and even rude during various debates over the Lisbon Treaty that she and her attitude alone would have been enough reason to vote NO, had there not been a lot more and even better reasons to do so.

And the FG spokesman on Foreign Affairs, Wicklow TD Billy Godfrey Timmins (left), is not only a strong supporter of the Lisbon Treaty, he is also very much in favour of Turkey (a country in Asia) becoming a member of the EU.
That alone I find personally very alarming, and one should be aware of seemingly little details like this, as they can - and often do - become major policies once a party is in government.

However, during the Wexford conference there was not much discussion over the future of Europe and the EU. The dominant theme was - to no one's surprise - the economy and how to overcome the now ever more obvious recession.

Richard Bruton (left), the party's deputy leader and spokesman on Finance, had a field day and was hailed by delegates as much as Enda Kenny.
In fact, since the budget was presented in October, he has been in the frontline of the political battle every day and done most of the arguing on behalf of FG. Knowing how good his deputy is on financial and economic matters, Enda Kenny took deliberately a back seat role in many debates and let Bruton stand up as
Fine Gael's champion. (One has to acknowledge that Richard Bruton is indeed one of Ireland's best and most experienced experts on financial and economic policies.)

Dr. Leo Varadkar (right), a young first-time TD and already Fine Gael's Business & Enterprise spokesman, also received a lot of support from the delegates as he outlined his views on the economy and how to improve it. Although it is early days yet for him, some political analysts see in the 29-year-old a potential future leader of his party.

Another natural contender for the party leadership in years to come is undoubtedly Brian Hayes (left), who - after five years as the FG leader in the Seanad - is now Fine Gael's Education spokesman in the Dáil.
With the scandalous cuts to the education budget, ever rising class sizes and reduced resources for schools and teachers, Education was the second major subject in Wexford.

Fine Gael is committed to undo the current government's cuts in Education, should they form a government of their own (or - more likely - with the help of a coalition partner, which at this stage could only be the Labour Party).

Everything went well for Fine Gael in Wexford, and the special national conference coincided conveniently with another anti-government demonstration in Cork on Saturday (see my entry of November 22nd) and a very favourable new opinion poll published yesterday (see my entry of November 23rd).
So all was really hunky-dory for the opposition and would have remained so, but then FG leader Enda Kenny decided to lob the ball into his own party's goal only minutes before the end of the game.

In his leader's address he demanded that the new National Wage Agreement - signed by the Social Partners on September 17th and accepted by the trade unions only a week ago - should be "suspended for one year" to help the economy. (for details see also my entries of September 17th and November 15th & 17th)

This statement was not only the wrong one at this time, it has also destroyed Enda Kenny's chances to become Taoiseach any time soon. With these few words he offended almost every working class person, and certainly every trade unionist in Ireland.

Jack O'Connor (right), President of the country's largest union SIPTU, did not wait long with his reply to Enda Kenny and the newest Fine Gael position, also defended this morning - once again - by Richard Bruton.

“Apart from the implications for the living standards of ordinary working people, suspending the pay agreement is about the worst possible approach imaginable at this point in time,” O’Connor said.
“It would further depress consumer confidence and exacerbate the recession, when what is needed are means to stimulate demand.”

Quite right, and it is amazing that seasoned politicians like the FG leadership do not agree. But then again, one has to look a bit deeper into the party's structure and tradition.
Fine Gael is still a capitalist right-of-centre party which depends for a lot of its support on big business and very rich people. And ever so often these sponsors and lobbyists demand their proverbial 'pound of flesh'. They have little regards for FG's general policies, appearances and popularity, and only care for what matters most to them: the amount of money in their pockets and bank accounts.

So, ironically, a whole weekend that had gone so well for Fine Gael was blighted in the end by a policy statement from its revered leader. It exposed FG for what they really are: Just another of the old and worn-out parties on the Right of Irish politics, with no new ideas, but ever more appetite for power.

In that regard there is not much difference between FG and FF. Their party manifestos (and I read them both very thoroughly) have the same principles and almost identical lines on most policies. They both are establishment parties with little flexibility and are more than happy with the status quo. Which should not really surprise anyone, as they are the two sides of the same coin.
Both emerged as political 'children' of the original Sinn Féin, but fought each other during the Civil War of 1923. When peace was restored, they stood on opposite sides of the trench and there they still stand today, inflexible, self-centred and incapable to develop new ideas and political concepts.

Reflecting on all this, including the Wexford conference, one has to wonder if Fine Gael would actually provide us with a much better and more capable government, if we gave them the chance.

There is no doubt that anyone would be better than the current government coalition, and could do a better job simply by being less incompetent, corrupt and arrogant.
But after listening to many speeches and statements made in Wexford over the weekend, I am not sure that I would like to see a Fine Gael (or FG-led) government in Leinster House.

I am fully aware that the options are rather limited at the present time. Going by current numbers, there can be no Irish government without either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael.
The Labour Party, the Green Party and Sinn Féin would be available as junior partners in a coalition. So most analysts expect that - in case the current government loses more of its TDs and is forced to step down - a new coalition of FG and Labour Party, supported by some Independents and - perhaps - even by Sinn Féin, would take over.

But should it come to an early general election, things could turn out quite different. Although the PDs are gone (to everyone's joy) and the Green Party will probably receive the same treatment as the PDs got in 2007, there is a strong possibility that Ireland will see some new political parties emerging.

Declan Ganley (left), the chairman of the Euro-sceptic think tank Libertas, which was very much engaged in the Lisbon Treaty campaign, has meanwhile registered his organisation as a political party. Even though his main interests are the EU and the up-coming elections to the European Parliament, I would not rule out the possibility that he also enters national and local politics in Ireland.

And there are some other people as well, most of them not members of established parties, who are wondering if we need some new faces, ideas, skills and leadership qualities in Irish politics.
It would not surprise me if there were several new parties in the next general election, and perhaps even already in the local elections next year.

Thus the idea of Fine Gael that they have a natural right to take over from Fianna Fáil when they eventually collapse, is a very old one, at a time when new ideas are needed to save the nation and revive our ailing economy.

The Emerald Islander