29 April 2009

A Nation of Debtors and Fools

Today the Central Bank of Ireland has stated that "the number of people in personal debt is growing rapidly", and that this is being "driven by mortgage borrowings".

At an Oireachtas Committee meeting in Leinster House this morning John Kelly, the Head of Statistics at the Central Bank, declared that "the number of people in debt in Ireland is rising faster than in any other Eurozone country".

According to Mr. Kelly "the number of people in mortgage debt is three times higher in Ireland, compared to other countries in the Eurozone". He also said that the large number of mortgage holders on variable or tracker rates is positive.

Separately, the number of people presenting themselves at the offices of the Money Advice Budgeting Service (MABS) has increased substantially since 2006.
Ann Marie O'Connor of MABS told the Oireachtas Committee that the amount of debt people are in who attend the service is also increasing. She said that her organisation was also concerned about the tactics of some debt collection agencies.

Mary O'Dea from the Irish Financial Services Regulatory Authority said a code was now in place to offer some protection for people in mortgage arrears. But this code was criticised as not going far enough by the representatives from the Free Legal Advice Centre.

What does all this information tell us?

Well, it presents us - the people of Ireland - with the blunt and uncomfortable truth that we (or at least the majority of us) have been living well beyond our means during the years of the false economic boom dubbed the 'Celtic Tiger', which was - as we now know - nothing but an artificial bubble, created by irresponsible politicians and greedy bankers, property developers, builders and estate agents.

As much as our collective anger is now directed at these people (and with all justification), we have to accept the fact that most of us were not innocent victims of the greedy buggers in suits. The vast majority of Irish people was only too willing to go along, up the metaphorical garden path, leaving all common sense and responsible behaviour behind.
We were carried away by the idea that we - little and long-suffering Ireland that was always poor and exploited by others - had now at long last found the legendary pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. We were rich, really rich, we thought.
And instead of being happy with that and building a nice nest egg for an even better future, we fell collectively for the many temptations a bunch of criminals and gamblers put in front of us.

People on modest incomes, who had been happy living in a normal house, driving a normal car and going on holiday once a year, felt 'entitled' to have a lot more. So they bought a bigger house, or even two. Some even acquired an additional apartment abroad, in places like Spain, Portugal or even Bulgaria. The latter is a country without proper political structures and widely controlled by the local version of the Mafia, a group of gangs recruited mostly from the former Communist security service (Bulgaria's version of the KGB).
How on Earth would anyone even think of buying property in such a place?!

But Irish people did. Quite a lot of them, in fact. They also 'needed' a new and much larger car, preferably one of the most polluting and environmentally unfriendly four-wheel-drives known here by their American name SUV (Sports Utility Vehicle).
And not enough with that, they also had to go on exotic foreign holidays several times a year, and to keep up with the Jones' also on additional luxurious 'city breaks' to various continental places over the weekends.
And if there was not enough money in the bank to pay for all this, then they used their various credit cards. The bank would always offer more loans, new cards and many 'lucrative refinancing packages' if someone got really strapped for cash.

There is an old saying that a fool and his money are easily parted. Ireland is the living proof that this phrase is still correct.
It gives me no pleasure to say this, but the Irish have now been exposed to the whole world as a careless and feckless wannabee nation, made up of irresponsible and greedy fools, gangsters, fraudsters and drunken yahoos.

Some of us - for example David McWilliams, George Lee, a few other people with common sense and even yours truly - warned of the consequences of the financial madness and wrote page after page and column after column, but to no avail.
We were called "spoilsports", "party poopers" and "eternal pessimists" by the punch-drunk financial criminals, and completely ignored by most of the 'ordinary' people.

And even now, that the metaphorical cat is well out of the bag, there are thousands of fools in this country who cannot or will not see and accept reality. Unfortunately this group is led by our government, the worst bunch of wasters and incompetents ever assembled in the history of the state. And since ignorance still rules the roost, things will get much worse throughout this year, next year, and perhaps for many more years to come.

There is only one way Ireland can regain strength and stability: We need a new government, urgently, and a reform of our political and electoral system. Everything else will follow from that. As long as we keep the current lot and our completely broken 19th century system in place, nothing we do and no remedy we offer the economy will be of any use.

The Emerald Islander

Unemployment Figure now close to 400,000

New figures from Ireland's Central Statistics Office (CSO) show that the numbers on the Live Register (of unemployed people) rose sharply again this month.

The headline figure for April 2009 stands now at 384,448, an increase of just over 13,000 from March, and almost double the figure for the same month last year.

The seasonally adjusted figure rose by 15,900 to 388,600 in April. The increase is made up of 9,300 men and 6,600 women.

But things in Ireland are bound to get a lot worse (before they might - hopefully - get better again).

The latest report from Dublin's Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) forecasts the loss of a further 300,000 jobs in Ireland before the end of next year. The ESRI also expects that the rate of unemployment will average 17% in 2010, a rate already reached now in Spain.

In its most downbeat economic assessment ever, the ESRI also expects that by the end of next year living standards in Ireland will be 15% lower than in 2007.

The ESRI report also predicts that our economic output will shrink by 9.2% this year. This contraction in the economy is significantly bigger than the government assumed in the 2009 Budget.
The report forecasts that the government will lose an additional € 1.3 billion in tax receipts this year.

The ESRI says it is fearful that any further increase in income taxes will make it even harder for employers to achieve wage cuts, which it says are vital to restoring the overall competitiveness of our economy.

28 April 2009

Dublin Bus Drivers return to Work

Drivers at Dublin Bus who have been on unofficial strike since Sunday have decided to return to work.

Eugene McDonagh, a member of the National Bus & Rail Union, told the media that a reduced service would operate for the remainder of the day, and a full schedule will operate again from tomorrow.

Earlier today Dublin Bus rejected a settlement proposal from drivers engaged in the unofficial strike at its Harristown depot (photo).

The dispute began on Sunday after a driver from the Harristown bus depot was suspended when he refused to work a new schedule. (see my entry of yesterday)
It is understood that the company has now lifted the suspension of this driver.

Dublin Bus declared that yesterday's strike action disrupted the movement of up to 150,000 passengers.

Another Taxi Drivers' Protest in Waterford

Motorists in Waterford City experienced severe traffic disruption today as most of the local taxi drivers took part in a work stoppage, organised in protest over the number of taxi licences being issued.

Taxi drivers carried out a 'go-slow' along the city's quays and across the Rice Bridge from 12 o'clock noon until 3 pm this afternoon.

Members of the Waterford Taxi Drivers' Association say that "the market is swamped, due to endless licences being issued".
Some of the local drivers with many years of service expressed special anger over "a strange group of newcomers", which includes "a significant number of Africans with no roots in the community".

It appears that "Nigerians based in England" acquired Irish taxi licences and now operate taxis in various parts of Ireland - including Waterford - with "other African drivers they bring into the country as they please".

The main anger of the drivers is however directed against the Dublin-based 'Commission for Taxi Regulation', a useless 'Quango' established by Bertie Ahern, and against the current Minister for Transport, Fianna Fáil's Noel Dempsey.

The Emerald Islander

Nuclear Substances leaked into the Sea again at Britain's Faslane Submarine Base in Scotland

A number of serious breaches of safety regulations, including leaking of radioactive waste, has been reported from the main submarine base of Britain's Royal Navy (RN).

In a confidential report, which had to be released under the British Freedom of Information Act, the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) described safety failings at HM Naval Base Clyde at Faslane, on the Gare Loch near Glasgow (photo), as "a recurring theme".

The worst breaches include three leaks of radioactive coolant from nuclear submarines into the Firth of Clyde, which happened in 2004, 2007 and 2008 .

A spokesman for the UK MoD said: "The discharges into the Gare Loch had no environmental consequences. The MoD is a responsible nuclear operator, and we have informed the appropriate regulatory authorities. We commissioned an independent study into the facilities and practices at HM Naval Base Clyde. An improvement plan is under way to ensure modern standards and best practice at the base."

How responsible as a nuclear operator the UK MoD really is has come to light last year, when a radioactive waste plant manager at the base had to be replaced, because it emerged that he had no qualifications at all in radioactive waste management!

This is not the only case of total mismanagement under the roof of the UK MoD. For the past three centuries the armed forces of England and Britain have always - and constantly - been hampered by underfunding, wrong or bad equipment, incompetent leadership and permanent mismanagement on all levels. And the nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed Royal Navy of today is still the same barely working conglomerate of excellence and failure it was under Nelson more than two centuries ago.

The documents, which were released to Channel 4 News, show that the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) warned that it would consider closing the Faslane base if it had the power to do so.

Civil radioactive safety regulations do not apply to MoD sites, but the department has previously said it would "volunteer to uphold them at the base".

The documents also suggest that Faslane will be the UK's only nuclear submarine base by 2015. Three RN submarines currently based at Devonport in Plymouth (in the Southwest of England) are earmarked for transfer to Scotland.

From an Irish perspective the ongoing series of accidents at the Faslane base, and in particular the leaking of radioactive substances into the water, are reasons for concern. Sooner or later these substances end up in the Irish Sea, whose coastline is shared by Britain and Ireland.

In the past there have been more than enough cases of accidentally released radioactivity from British sites which then caused pollution and serious problems on the East coast of Ireland. This has to stop!

If the Royal Navy cannot keep their nuclear submarines safe, they should decommission them. In fact, there is quite a strong lobby in Britain to do exactly that.
The currently used 'Trident' system is soon due to be replaced with the next generation of submarine-based intercontinental missiles, and ever since this was first debated in the British House of Commons, there has been a growing opposition to it, with people from all political parties arguing against the replacement of 'Trident'.

18 years after the end of the 'Cold War' the world has changed completely, and Britain's potential enemies of today are not big states with nuclear weapons against whom one would need to have the option of nuclear retaliation.
Today's potential enemies are groups of low-level insurgents and irregular forces in the 'third world', people armed with nothing more than AK-47 Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. Against them a nuclear deterrent is neither necessary nor in any way useful.

Would the UK end her submarine-based nuclear weapons programme instead of commissioning a replacement system, it could save the British tax payer more than £ 200 billion, a vast amount of money, especially in the current times of global recession.
It is still possible that the British government might see the light and follow the advice to abolish nuclear submarines. But going by past experience, it is rather unlikely. And this means that the accidental leaking of radioactive material into the waters around these island, especially into the Irish Sea, will continue for a long time.

The Irish government, and in particular Taoiseach Brian Cowen and Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin, should make strong representation about this in London and explain Ireland's position as clear as possible. No Irish civilian should suffer or die because Britain wants to play in the big league, but is incapable of keeping her equipment safe.

The Emerald Islander

27 April 2009

Dublin in Traffic Chaos over Bus Drivers' Strike

Dublin Bus services are in disarray and many city routes face severe disruption as a result of an unofficial work stoppage by numerous drivers at the company's bus depots.

The strike action began already yesterday morning, when drivers stopped working in sympathy with a colleague on route 128. This driver was suspended by the management "for refusing to work to a new schedule".

Trade unions had accepted Labour Court recommendations on the bus company's € 31 million cost-cutting measures that included a reduction of the fleet by 120 buses.
Most of the drivers are unhappy with new schedules which were coming into effect yesterday and had been recommended by the Labour Court.

Dublin Bus routes that will have no service at all are the numbers 4 and 4A, 13 and 13A, 17A, 33B, 40, 102, 128, 140, 142, 237, 238, 239 and 270.
There is also disruption to at least ten routes, partly serviced by drivers and buses from the Harristown depot. These are the numbers 37 and 37X, 38 and 38C, 39 and 39X, 41 and 41X, 43 and 70.

The drivers claim that while the broad proposals had been accepted by their unions over a week ago, the working arrangements for drivers on each of the routes affected by the cuts had to be worked out locally before the implementation of the cuts.
They said agreement had been reached on all but one of the routes due to be cut or changed. And when the first driver turned up to work that one route - the 128 - yesterday morning, he refused to operate the new schedule and was suspended, prompting the action by the other drivers at the depot.

There were already serious implications and traffic disruptions all throughout Dublin yesterday. But today, on a normal working day, things are a lot worse. Tens of thousands of commuters who rely on the services of Dublin Bus to get from their homes to their places of work are affected by the bus drivers' dispute. Many did not manage to reach work at all, and many more arrived late, in cases up to four hours late.
Others, who - in anticipation of the bus strike - decided to come into the city by car, had not much joy either. The increase in private cars coming in, together with some bus routes operating irregular intervals, while others operate normal as always and some are shut down completely, is causing a massive traffic chaos, with long tailbacks and traffic jams on all major city streets and ringroads.

But while hundreds of thousands of Dubliners (and the visitors to our capital) are suffering from the various elements of this complete chaos and breakdown of organised inner city traffic, the man responsible is enjoying himself on a day out in the country. Transport Minister Noel Dempsey (right) decided not to bother at all with Dublin today and to stay for another fine day in his rural constituency of Co. Meath, which is not so far from the capital, but far enough to escape the traffic chaos and the angry bus drivers.

Noel Dempsey, one of the most pigheaded and incompetent of Fianna Fáil's politicians, is now in his fourth ministerial job at cabinet level. After being a junior minister and the government 'chief whip' from 1992 to 1994, Dempsey was promoted to the cabinet in 1997 as Minister for the Environment, Heritage & Local Government. After the 2002 election Bertie Ahern moved him to Education & Science, and in September 2004 Dempsey moved again, this time to Communications, Natural Resources and the Marine. In each of these three positions he proved to be a complete disaster. He dreamed up the introduction of electronic voting machines for Ireland in his first cabinet job, and it took more than ten years to decide to get rid of them eventually.
As Education Minister he upset the Curriculum and many teachers, and after his spell in charge of the Marine the department was so wrecked and depleated of resources that it was abolished in 2007 and incorporated into the Department of Transport, to which Dempsey was moved subsequently.

He has absolutely no idea about traffic and transport, and his only real involvement in that matter was the fact that he and his brother bought up most of the land in Co. Meath that was later allocated - and thus bought by the government for a much higher price - to the route of the controversial M 3 motorway.
Since last December Dempsey has been working hard to undermine the already weak system of public transport in Ireland (see my entries of December 17th, 2008 and January 20th, 2009). Part of that process are fare increases and budget cuts for the state-owned transport company Coras Iompair Éireann (CIÉ) and its component parts Iarnród Éireann (Irish Railways), Bus Éireann and Dublin Bus. The most severe measures, including the cuts of bus routes and decommissioning of 120 buses, Dempsey applied to Dublin Bus.

He is the one man solely responsible for today's traffic chaos, and for a lot more damage to this country's transport system. Every day he remains in the cabinet and in charge of Transport, things can only get worse.

The Emerald Islander

Stay away from Ireland!

According to a survey, one in five foreign tourists coming to Ireland are dissatisfied with the cost of living here.

New research from Fáilte Ireland (our strangely named national agency for tourism) shows that 22% of tourists view the general cost of living in Ireland as a disadvantage.

This is no surprise to me. In fact, if anything does surprise me in relation to this matter, it is that only 22% of our foreign visitors are dissatisfied with the cost of living in this overpriced rip-off country. Perhaps the rest are too polite or too embarrassed to complain, or maybe too disgusted to say anything to an Irish person doing a survey on tourism.

Almost everything in Ireland is on average twice as expensive as in the other EU countries in Western Europe. And the differences with the newer EU members in Eastern Europe are even larger.
Irish customers - the natives as much as the tourists - are ripped-off systematically by those who control the means of production (as Karl Marx put it). Industrialists as well as traders are growing rich and fat on this small nation, and it has always been that way in Ireland.
When the founding fathers of our autonomous Free State (that later became our independent Republic) began to create our own national structures, they only concentrated on the State and the (Catholic) Church, but left the Economy to those who had always controlled it: the English, the Anglo-Irish ascendency and some wealthy locals who managed to fit into a few niches left by them.

Meanwhile most of our Economy is controlled by foreign interests, predominantly American and British. And those who control the plants, shops, hotels and restaurants are the ones who set the prices. There is no price control in Ireland, and hardly any consumer affairs agency worth the name.

So we pay through the nose, and anyone sentimental or stupid enough to come here as a tourist has to do the same. In fact, some cruel Irish fleece foreigners even more than the locals, on the basis that they don't know the ropes and have no choice but to accept what they are given and charged in a foreign place.

Last year I had to stay for some days in Dublin. When I was looking for suitable accommodation, I was truly shocked by the arrogance and greed most of our capital's hotels displayed. Not only were most of the rooms over-priced, the hotels were actually charging a further increased price for the same rooms on Fridays and Saturdays.

I have been to many countries and many hotels over the span of my life, but never experienced such blatant greed as in Dublin. Anywhere else one gets a fixed price when booking a hotel for a week. Seven days are seven days in any place and country. Only in Dublin could one not book a week in a hotel, because the Fridays and Saturdays were charged separately at a much higher price.

I did eventually find a suitable hotel for a - relatively - acceptable price. It is a family-owned business that also offers an excellent breakfast buffet (included in the room price) and the free use of a fitness centre attached to the hotel. (In all the large hotels which belong to big hotel chains there was nothing extra on offer and all one could get was rip-off and exploitation.) But I did swear to stay away from Dublin in future as much as possible and never to recommend it to my friends.

This year, as we are in economic depression and financial crisis, the Dublin hotels are falling over themselves with special offers. There are radio ads almost every day, with prices as low as € 39 for a room in a top hotel in Dublin. But don't be fooled or trapped by such obvious bait. They still find ways to make people pay more than they should and charge all sorts of things extra that one would have included in the basic price in any decent country.

As it is, I have the misfortune to live here, and thus I have little choice but pay the prices we are charged. But if I were a tourist, Ireland would be the last country on this planet (or perhaps the second-last after the USA) where I would go on holiday.
If you have any common sense and want to avoid being robbed and ripped-off by a greedy hotel and tourist industry, then stay away from Ireland!

The Emerald Islander

26 April 2009

Mill Stones around the Taoiseach's Neck

Today the Taoiseach Brian Cowen (right) addressed his party's usual annual Easter Rising Commemoration at Arbour Hill in Dublin.
As usual it was a sombre occasion, and perhaps even a bit more so this year, with all the dark clouds and bad news hanging over both Fianna Fáil and the government. But, robust as always, Cowen did not show any signs of weakness. Boldly he linked the battle for Dublin in 1916 with the current challenges facing this country in his first Arbour Hill speech as party leader and Taoiseach.

"The present battle for Ireland's economic stability and security will be won," Cowen told the gathering.
"I firmly believe that history will show that we were among the first countries to recognise the scale of the crisis and to put in place a comprehensive framework for recovery."

Well roared, for a wounded lion. And quite optimistic as well. But what about the reality?

Only hours before the event the Sunday Business Post published the latest Red C poll which shows Fianna Fáil at an all-time low point of 23% of public support and approval (see my earlier entry below).

And there is still the matter of John McGuinness (left), who lost his position as the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade & Employment in this weeks reshuffle that reduced the number of junior ministers from 20 to 15.
All twenty office holders collectively resigned, and then it was up to the
Taoiseach whom he would re-appoint or perhaps shift to another position. Seven of the 20 lost their ministerial jobs, 13 were re-appointed, and two new junior ministers were brought into government from the Fianna Fáil backbenches.

One of the seven losers was John McGuinness. The TD for Carlow & Kilkenny is undoubtedly the biggest surprise on the list of Brian Cowen's demotions.
Agile, bright and still quite popular (a rarety for a Fianna Fáil politician these days), McGuinness is one of the few people in his party with an understanding of business and the economy. Thus he was well-placed in the Department of Enterprise, Trade & Employment, and in the two years he was there he actually came up with new ideas and new approaches. He also listened to critics and experts from outside the party, including the economist and columnist David McWilliams, who had warned the government over its economic follies for more than a decade.

But unfortunately McGuinness had a boss with absolutely no understanding of business and the economy. When Brian Cowen, after being elected Taoiseach less than a year ago, appointed Donegal TD Mary Coughlan (right) not only as his Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister), but also moved her from Agriculture to Enterprise, Trade and Employment, many observers and commentators - myself included - raised eyebrows and wrote that it was not a good decision.

Coughlan, who is Ireland's version of Sarah Palin, gained her nickname 'the Cow' more for her personal attitudes and behaviour than for the reason that - during her time as Minister for Agriculture - she was often photographed in the company of cattle. She is now the second-least popular member of the cabinet, beaten to the bottom only by Health Minister Mary Harney (nicknamed 'Miss Piggy').
This has nothing to do with being female, but is a result of Coughlan's (and Harney's) complete imcompetence, combined with enormous arrogance.

It appears that John McGuinness made the mistake to speak his mind. He told Mary Coughlan that she was "not up to her job" and "better suited to her previous position in Agriculture".

'The Cow', who has no sense of humour, did not like this and urged the Taoiseach to sack her competent but inconvenient internal critic. If McGuinness remained in the department, she is reported to have said, she herself would "consider her position".
Brian Cowen obliged and returned John McGuinness to the backbenches, while stating that he has "full confidence" in his Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment.

This was quite typical for Cowen and shows once more that he is still putting the interests of the Fianna Fáil top brass way ahead of the interests of the country and nation.

The Irish (Gaelic) word Taoiseach means 'chieftain' or 'leader'. With his decision to keep Coughlan happy and sack McGuinness, Brian Cowen has demonstrated that he is - at best - a tribal chieftain (of the Fianna Fáil tribe), but not a true national leader. (A clever leader would have jumped at the chance to get rid of Mary Coughlan so easily and - instead of sacking John McGuinness - would have promoted him into her place, while giving the Tánaiste position to his hard-working Finance Minister Brian Lenihan.)

After losing his ministerial position, John McGuinness had some very effective appearances on various radio programmes and eventually - last Friday - on the popular Late Late Show on RTÉ television. This made him within a few days the unofficial spokesman of the so far ignored internal Fianna Fáil opposition, which is growing slowly but steadily.

In a statement to the media Brian Cowen said that he was "not aware of any discontent in the Fianna Fáil party". This is either a blatant lie, or a further example that he is completely out of touch with the realities in his own party and the country as a whole.

If he cannot see it for himself, someone should tell Brian Cowen that he is currently the most unpopular Taoiseach Ireland ever had. There are five heavy mill stones hanging around his neck, and if he does not get rid of them soon, they will drag him - and his party - down into disaster and eternal damnation.
The five mill stones are the Irish economy, Ireland's banks, Mary Coughlan, Mary Harney and Noel Dempsey (the Minister for Transport). Removing the three most incompetent ministers from his cabinet would not be difficult and could actually give him some desperately needed time to deal with the banks and the economy, the two really big problems. But will Brian Cowen listen, learn and open himself to reality? I somehow doubt it.

The Emerald Islander

Greetings to Malaysia

A few minutes ago the special software attached to this weblog has proudly registered the 1000th individual visitor from Malaysia.

I like to take this opportunity to send special greetings to Malaysia, combined with my thanks for your continuous high interest in this humble weblog from Ireland.

Many years ago, when I was based in South East Asia, I spent quite some time in your country and learned a lot about its nature, history, people and culture.
In those days I did not notice much interest in Ireland among my Malaysian acquaintances, and of course I did not mind. One did not expect to be noticed much or seen as important when one came from Ireland. The fact that one spoke English made things easier, and there was this invisible but ever-present bond between people who had once been part of the British Empire but then fought for their freedom and independence and achieved both.

There are about 28 million people in Malaysia - seven times the population of Ireland - and after recovering from a twelve-year-long civil war (1948-1960) Malaysia became one of the original Asian 'Tiger' economies, developing fast into a modern industrial nation.
The 'Tiger' image was borrowed by the Irish some years ago and thus gave us the 'Celtic Tiger', even though - in contrast to Asia - tigers are not native to our part of the world. (Maybe this is one of the reasons why it did not work out for us...)

But Malaysia, even in these difficult economic times of global recession, is still going strong and it suffers a lot less than Ireland, because it did not make the mistakes we made. And the Malaysian people - especially the younger generation - are very open-minded and participate actively in the ongoing and increasing communication around the global village.

Right from the start of this weblog Malaysians were the fourth-largest national group of readers and visitors (after people from the USA, Ireland and the UK), and this has not changed in the 16 months Views from the Emerald Isle has been in existence.

I am delighted to have such a strong readership in South East Asia, and especially in Malaysia, and hope you will keep reading in the future and share the news and views with your families, friends and acquaintances. Feel also free to leave comments or to ask questions. My door and my inbox are open to all sensible suggestions.

The Emerald Islander

Latest Poll shows Fianna Fáil in Melt-Down

Every month the Red C polling organisation produces a nationwide political poll for the Sunday Business Post, Ireland's leading economical weekly.
The latest of these polls, published in today's edition of the paper, must make grim reading for the Irish government and especially for its majority party Fianna Fáil.

Being in power (with support from the Progressive Democrats and - since 2007 - the Green Party) since her rather surprising election win in 1997, Fianna Fáil enjoyed an unprecedented decade of widespread public support, riding on the wave of the unexpected economic boom known commonly as the 'Celtic Tiger'.
This boom was - as we now know - nothing but an artificial bubble, created by a relaxed and incompetent government, irresponsible banking, criminal speculations and a mad drive to build ever more houses and apartments without having a real demand for them.
When the bubble eventually burst last year, we found ourselves close to national bankruptcy and the unbelievable incompetence of both our government and our banks was exposed for everyone to see.

Although unrelated, the burst of the bubble happened shortly after the Irish electorate defeated the government - and all opposition parties except Sinn Féin - by rejecting the Lisbon Treaty.

Bertie Ahern, who was Taoiseach (Prime Minister) since 1997 and must surely have known only too well what was coming down the political and economical road, had jumped ship just in time to leave his successor (and previously deputy) Brian Cowen in complete charge of the developing political crisis and financial melt-down.

Ever since the once high popularity of Fianna Fáil has been in freefall. The government's 2009 Budget - brought forward to October 2008 - did further damage to the party, and the various forced additions to it made things even worse. The latest - the 'supplementary' or 'emergency' Budget presented by Finance Minister Brian Lenihan less than three weeks ago - seems to have delivered the final devastating blow to Fianna Fáil and its political future.

Today's Red C poll shows the party in complete melt-down, with only 23% of the electorate still supporting the faltering Fianna Fáil, whose incompetence and arrogance are creating ever more and ever widespread anger in all sections of the Irish population. This is the lowest rating of public support for Fianna Fáil in the party's history.

Not surprisingly the biggest winner is Fine Gael, Ireland's largest opposition party, which has been on the rise since last Autumn and gained a further two points this month, bringing it to an unprecedented 33%, ten percentage points ahead of Fianna Fáil.

The Labour Party, second-largest force in opposition and the potential coalition partner for Fine Gael, also improved her rising support by another two points to now 19%. This is clearly a reaction to the excellent parliamentary performance of party leader Eamon Gilmore and his deputy (and spokesperson on Finance) Joan Burton.

The Green Party, in coalition with Fianna Fáil since 2007 and facing internal opposition from a growing group of its traditional members and supporters ever since, seems so far unscaved by the government's massive unpopularity and remains unchanged on 7%. But this figure could be deceptive. The party has no chance to win a seat in the European election in June, and it is more than doubtful that it can perform well in the Local Government elections held on the same day. In recent months the Greens have lost two of their most prominent local councillors, and in some constituencies their previous candidates have decided not to stand for the party this year.

Sinn Féin, the smallest of the three opposition parties in parliament, gained one point in this month's poll and now stands on 8%, moving slightly ahead of the Green Party. It is perhaps a surprise that Ireland's oldest political party (and the only one active in the North as well as in the Republic) is not receiving more public support in the wake of the Fianna Fáil melt-down. There are several reasons for this, but the most significant is that - despite its now totally peaceful and democratic approach and its leading participation in the power-sharing government in the North - Sinn Féin is still not making inroads into Ireland's middle classes. This could change if the party can win stronger support from younger people, especially the growing student population, which is so far still predominantly non-political and more interested in 'fun' and an easy life. Increasing hardship and the expected re-introduction of fees for third-level education could change that.

The group listed in the Red C poll as 'Independents and others', which includes a number of smaller parties without parliamentary representation, remains - again - unchanged on 10% of public support. It is not clear if the poll has taken into account a number of newly formed groups, many of which have nominated candidates for the Local Government elections in June. They are so far a widely unknown quantity, but could attract a significant percentage of protest votes.

For the first time the poll features the new pan-european party Libertas, which emerged out of the prominent Anti-Lisbon campaign group with the same name and intends to have candidates for the European Parliament in all 27 member states of the EU. The poll registers so far only 2% of public support for Libertas in Ireland, which seems a very low figure, given the strong and effective campaign the organisation mounted in their successful defeat of the Lisbon Treaty.
But it is not unusual that polling organisations need a certain amount of time to assess the true strength of new parties.

Based on today's figures one can however be certain that Fianna Fáil will suffer serious losses in both the European and Local Government elections on June 5th. There is also no doubt that the two up-coming Dublin by-elections for the Dail will not produce any new Fianna Fáil TD.

Depending on the severity of their losses in June, Fianna Fáil could well face a leadership crisis or even an internal rebellion during the summer. The position of Brian Cowen, who was elected as party leader and Taoiseach without contest last May, is far from secure now. There is still the traditional and rather stubborn loyalty to a leader for which Fianna Fáil has always been known, but ever since the (now independent) Wicklow TD Joe Behan left the party last year, there is a slowly but steadily widening crack developing between the cabinet and the backbenches.
An even wider gap exists now between most Fianna Fáil politicians and the people of Ireland, and the future of our main government party is very bleak, to put it mildly.

The Emerald Islander

23 April 2009

Erin Go Broke

Guest Column by PAUL KRUGMAN

"What," asked my interlocutor, "is the worst-case outlook for the world economy?" It wasn't until the next day that I came up with the right answer: America could turn Irish.

What's so bad about that? Well, the Irish government now predicts that this year G.D.P. will fall more than 10 percent from its peak, crossing the line that is sometimes used to distinguish between a recession and a depression.

But there's more to it than that: to satisfy nervous lenders, Ireland is being forced to raise taxes and slash government spending in the face of an economic slump - policies that will further deepen the slump.
And it's that closing off of policy options that I'm afraid might happen to the rest of us. The slogan "Erin go bragh", usually translated as "Ireland forever", is traditionally used as a declaration of Irish identity. But it could also, I fear, be read as a prediction for the world economy.

How did Ireland get into its current bind? By being just like us [the USA], only more so. Like its near-namesake Iceland, Ireland jumped with both feet into the brave new world of unsupervised global markets. Last year the Heritage Foundation declared Ireland the third-freest economy in the world, behind only Hong Kong and Singapore.

One part of the Irish economy that became especially free was the banking sector, which used its freedom to finance a monstrous housing bubble. Ireland became in effect a cool, snake-free version of coastal Florida.

Then the bubble burst. The collapse of construction sent the economy into a tailspin, while plunging home prices left many people owing more than their houses were worth. The result, as in the United States, has been a rising tide of defaults and heavy losses for the banks.

And the troubles of the banks are largely responsible for putting the Irish government in a policy straitjacket.

On the eve of the crisis Ireland seemed to be in good shape, fiscally speaking, with a balanced budget and a low level of public debt. But the government's revenue - which had become strongly dependent on the housing boom - collapsed along with the bubble.

Even more important, the Irish government found itself having to take responsibility for the mistakes of private bankers. Last September Ireland moved to shore up confidence in its banks by offering a government guarantee on their liabilities - thereby putting taxpayers on the hook for potential losses of more than twice the country's G.D.P., equivalent to $ 30 trillion for the United States.

The combination of deficits and exposure to bank losses raised doubts about Ireland's long-run solvency, reflected in a rising risk premium on Irish debt and warnings about possible downgrades from ratings agencies.

Hence the harsh new policies. Earlier this month the Irish government simultaneously announced a plan to purchase many of the banks' bad assets - putting taxpayers even further on the hook - while raising taxes and cutting spending, to reassure lenders.

Is Ireland's government doing the right thing? As I read the debate among Irish experts, there's widespread criticism of the bank plan, with many of the country's leading economists calling for temporary nationalization instead. (Ireland has already nationalized one major bank.) The arguments of these Irish economists are very similar to those of a number of American economists, myself included, about how to deal with our own banking mess.

But there isn't much disagreement about the need for fiscal austerity. As far as responding to the recession goes, Ireland appears to be really, truly without options, other than to hope for an export-led recovery if and when the rest of the world bounces back.

So what does all this say about those of us who aren't Irish?

For now, the United States isn't confined by an Irish-type fiscal straitjacket: the financial markets still consider U.S. government debt safer than anything else.
But we can't assume that this will always be true. Unfortunately, we didn't save for a rainy day: thanks to tax cuts and the war in Iraq, America came out of the "Bush boom" with a higher ratio of government debt to G.D.P. than it had going in. And if we push that ratio another 30 or 40 points higher - not out of the question if economic policy is mishandled over the next few years - we might start facing our own problems with the bond market.

Not to put too fine a point on it, that's one reason I'm so concerned about the Obama administration's bank plan. If, as some of us fear, taxpayer funds end up providing windfalls to financial operators instead of fixing what needs to be fixed, we might not have the money to go back and do it right.

And the lesson of Ireland is that you really, really don't want to put yourself in a position where you have to punish your economy in order to save your banks.

* * *

Prof. Paul Krugman is one of the best-known US economists, a professor at Princeton University in New Jersey and a regular columnist with the New York Times. Last year he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics (see my entry of December 13th, 2008). The above column was first published in the New York Times three days ago.

14 April 2009

Batt O'Keeffe faced INTO 'Wall of Silence'

Irish primary school teachers are to call on the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) to hold a day of action before June, in order to defend public services and jobs.

During their annual conference in Letterkenny, Co. Donegal, delegates of the Irish National Teachers' Organisation (INTO) backed a motion on a 'day of action' and condemned what they call "a campaign of vilification against the pay and conditions of public service employees".
They also support the withdrawal of support for modernisation measures in schools in the event of an extended pay freeze.

Earlier today there was a very frosty reception for Batt O'Keeffe (right) from the teachers at the conference.
The Minister for Education was greeted with a 'wall of silence' as he arrived, and his speech was punctuated by loud moans and derisive laughter at times.

Around thirty of the INTO delegates walked out of the conference room when Batt O'Keeffe began speaking, while many others held up posters highlighting some of the issues that have provoked their anger: the pensions levy, the loss of teaching posts and the abolition of special needs classes (left).

When the Minister ended, there was almost no applause. Only a few of the invited guests, seated in the front row, felt obliged to clap mildly.

Later the delegates gave a long standing ovation to INTO General Secretary John Carr (right) when he spoke of the bitter resentment felt by teachers as their pockets were picked to bail-out bankers, speculators and developers.

To loud and frequent applause, Carr said that Ireland's children were "paying the price for a few capitalist criminals".

Yesterday evening INTO's President Declan Kelleher (left) accused the government of being dictated to by the employers' group IBEC and the right-wing of Fianna Fáil, at the expense of ordinary workers. Declan Kelleher also got a long standing ovation when he warned that "the government would reap its reward". He said that teachers were prepared to pay their fair share, but in the meantime, the rich were getting off scot-free.

The strongly expressed anger of INTO members gathered in Letterkenny reflects the current feelings among Ireland's primary school teachers, as well as the general mood in the public sector as a whole.

No government, regardless of system or political party, can rule or govern a country without the full support of Civil Service and administration.
And usually public service employees - the people with the safest jobs and best pensions in the country - are the slowest to anger when it comes to industrial disputes.

The fact that in the Republic of Ireland it is now exactly this group of people that spearheads the anger and protest against the government and its austerity programme is quite significant.

If - as we expect - the two government parties are hammered in the Local & European Elections in June and the pressure from public sector workers continues (while the number of unemployed in the private sector rises further), it is quite possible that Brian Cowan will have no other choice but call an early General Election for early Autumn.

Our government is by now only a shadow of what it was when formed by Bertie Ahern in the Summer of 2007 with confidence and aspirations. Less than a year after Ahern handed over to Brian Cowan, his own party Fianna Fáil is in tatters, the Greens are completely confused and 'lost in time', while the administration around them is cracking and crumbling at the edges.

The sooner the people of Ireland have a chance to elect a new parliament and government, the better.
Greeting a cabinet minister with a 'wall of silence' is only one step away from taking a wall apart and throwing stones at the government...

The Emerald Islander

01 April 2009

Galway Taxi Drivers stage Protest

Taxi drivers in Galway City have staged an hour-long lunchtime protest today as part of the ongoing national campaign to halt the granting of any more new licences.

Between midday and 1 pm drivers at the city's two main taxi ranks refused to take passengers.

The Galway Taxi Association says that people were able to get taxis during the one-hour strike by hailing them on other streets or by calling taxi companies.
The association emphasizes that it wanted to demonstrate its strong support for the national campaign, but did not want to cause unnecessary hardship to the general public.