Posts from April 2009

A political parable for our time


One of the oldest risqué stories circulating in Ireland  has become a political parable for our time. It concerns a group of Irish explorers whose  guides mislead them so that they unwittingly enter the territory of a dreaded group of cannibalistic pygmies known as the fukarwe tribe. As darkness approaches the Irishmen are surrounded by a horde of fierce little men who leap at them unexpectedly from the long grass, yelling, waving their weapons and jumping up and down continuously.

But, just as the explorers resign themselves to death, the grasses part once more and a bearded Belgian White Father emerges saying: "Relax gentlemen, I will protect you. Despite their reputation these people will not harm you. But as you can see they are very small and the grass is very tall, so they spend their lives jumping up and down calling out, ‘where the f— are we?’"

The similarity between to-day’s Irish electorate and the pygmies is  striking. The outlook is darkening by the moment and the economic grass is very tall. But there is  one unfortunate difference – there is no  Belgian  White Father. It is tempting to simply blame a deeply unpopular  government for the state of anger and  anxiety that pervades the Republic of Ireland  currently as unemployment rises , not merely weekly, but seemingly hourly.

As a historian I would hazard a guess that anti-government feeling is running at something not far off  the levels of the civil war. In my lifetime I have never known such a disconnect between the governed and the governed. And, without a shadow of doubt , the inept government hugely deserves blame  and condemnation. However I fear the  malaise goes deeper than the effects of one bad government.  The question is: Can the Irish political system survive this crisis?

Famously that question was also posed during the 1950s in a cartoon in the Irish humorous journal  Dublin Opinion that showed Kathleen ni Houlihan  asking: “Have I a future?” In my first book, Ireland Since the Rising, published the following decade I included  an interview with the Belgian White Father of the day, the man who was motivated by the cartoon to answer the question in the affirmative, Ken Whittaker, the then Secretary of the Department of Finance. He described to me how, at the head of a group of gifted Civil Servants, he drew up a plan for economic development, that averted what at the time had seemed like inevitable collapse. What Whittaker conceived, Sean Lemass carried through.

But there’s neither a development plan, a Whittaker, nor a Sean Lemass around the Dail to-day. The situation cries out for a national government. But, after  an initial  daring initiative, as the international credit crisis struck, the move to guarantee bank depositors, the government  appears to have frozen in the headlights. It’s political nostrum would appear to be cuts, not development. It has already made an assault on the medical cards issued to over seventies and introduced tax levies. These will certainly be augmented by the findings of a report from a Committee set up to advise on pruning public expenditure, popularly known as An Bord Snip.

Psychologically and economically the people are crying out for leadership, for a plan. What they are getting is party politics and  bickerings across the floor of the Dail.  Part of the problem, like incest, is  relative. The political gene pool needs refreshment. Both the government, and the largest opposition party, Fine Gael, are heavily dependent on the children of earlier politicians. The principal Ministers, the Taoiseach, the Tanaiste, and the Minister for Finance are all children of earlier members of the Dail, as are the Fine Gael leader, Enda Kenny and many of his deputies. Another problem is the fact that the Irish governmental system, both local and national, is too large and too expensive for such a small country.

There are one hundred and sixty six TDs from whose ranks are chosen the Ceann Comhairle, and leas Ceann Comhairle, fifteen Cabinet members, 20 Junior Ministers and 23 Dail, Committees whose chairpersons receive an additional 20,000 Euros. The tax-payers pay 10. 5 million euro for the 215 constituency and office staffs employed by Ministers to help them stay in power.  The 187 staff employed by Junior Ministers cost over eight million euro. There are sixty Senators in  the now superfluous Seanad, which to-day has  virtually no powers, and is merely an expensive hangover from the early days of statehood when the first Free State government approved of an  Upper House as a means of assuaging the fears of the former Unionists.

At Local Government level there are 1,627 County and city councillors, Borough Councillors and Town Councillors. To give an idea of the vast cost of the unwieldy system of Local Government it might be noted that in Mayo alone last year the 31 members of Mayo County Council earned and average of  €32,670 each in salary and expenses.  One gentleman’s dexterous use of the expense account provisions brought his income to over sixty thousand euro in a single year. Not for nothing was the saying coined: "Mayo God help us."

All these men and women have something in common. If you examined their well cushioned bottoms you will not find a single bayonet mark. They all put themselves forward deliberately and will fight viciously to keep their seats. The inducements to do this are great. Before the new levy on public service pay  takes effect this month the following was the basic pay, in Euro, for the Irish legislators.

€100,190 – TD

€70,133  – Senator

€202,678   – Minister and Ceann Comhairle (Dail Chairman)

€139,266   – Minister of State (Junior Minister) and Leas Ceann Comhairle (Deputy Chairman)

€257,024  – Taoiseach

€220,290  – Tanaiste

I stress basic. Veteran political correspondents assure me that some TDs have made close on a quarter of a million euro a year through claiming expenses. I am inclined to believe them.

The figures I have given do not include huge expense account items such as the fact  that Ministers are provided with free Mercedes and state paid drivers. The Irish Taoiseach is paid more than Barack Obama. The Prime Minister of oil rich Norway drives himself to work, but Irish Ministers  can massage their egos by leaving their cars at Dublin Airport and having themselves flown about the country in helicopters at tax-payers’ expense. Symbolically the door of one such helicopter fell off recently as it was taking a Minister, Martin Cullen, back to Dublin from Kerry.

It later emerged that the combined cost of the helicopter ride and of his Mercedes for the day was 8,000 euro,  roughly three quarters of  the amount paid annually to an old age pensioner. As can well be imagined the exhortations of Mr. Cullen and his colleagues to the less well off in Irish society to accept sacrifice in a spirit of patriotism do not fall on  sympathetic ears.

The number of TDs should be cut by approximately a third, the number of  Councillors by half and the Seanad should be abolished altogether, along with at least a third of the Junior Ministers. These steps would not of themselves solve the woes of The Mouse that Roared (once facetiously known as the Celtic Tiger) but they would demonstrate that the Republic possessed what it now lacks – leadership.


The Budget from hell


Shortly before the Minister for Finance, Brian Lenihan, entered the Dail to deliver his budget speech on April 7th I witnessed three dramas which more eloquently described the state of Irish society than did the budget debate.

In one, a man in a business suit standing beside me in a Dublin bar with three friends proffered a laser card to pay for three pints he had just ordered and when asked did he want cash back after paying for the pints replied “Yes – twenty euro”. The machine declined his card. In the second, a wealthy friend, who intended taking his wife to dinner was told by the exclusive restaurant which he had chosen that it was booked up for almost five weeks ahead. In the third, over the course of a single day, another friend, Brother Kevin, a Capuchin monk, and his helpers, dispensed several hundred free meals at his drop in centre at the friary in Dublin’s Church St, and in addition oversaw the distribution of over eight hundred food parcels.

What effect is Brian Lenihan’s budget likely to have on the actors in those three incidents?

The most likely answer is that Brother Kevin’s customers will increase, the restaurant’s will decrease and the man in the business suit will do what he can to forget pint drinking for the foreseeable future.

For, we are told, the budget, which was immediately dubbed “The Budget from Hell”, by Labour Party spokesperson, Joan Burton, is going to be followed in December by another budget, which will contain further taxes and levies including, it is speculated, a property and a carbon tax. Thereafter, be it in yearly instalments, or six monthly, as seems increasingly possible, over the course of the next three or four years, we are promised more blood, sweat and tears.

The number of billions which the Government has to make up for the shortfall in revenue, caused both by the global recession and by its own folly in putting all the nation’s eggs into the baskets of builders and developers, is like any other mountain. It gets bigger as it is approached .

In order to get over the mountain the government stated intent—made known more by leaks than by direct policy announcements— was to follow two tracks: Taxation and cutting public services. So far both paths have followed the well known route of services to single parents, women, children and the elderly first—for the chop. Though to be fair it has to be admitted that in their zeal to make sure that the misery is evenly spread the government has also done its best through its levies and the cutting of child benefits to ensure that life also becomes an appropriate hell for a middle income couple engaging in self-indulgent forms of activity such as paying a mortage and providing an education for their children. What all this has to do with the reduction of unemployment and the creation of jobs God only knows. However, in doing all this the Government faced both serious problems and a serious purpose, which, tragically, may not have been met.

The problems, apart from the fall in revenue, and the need to bring the public finances under control, included the fact that the growth in cross-border shopping has meant that it dared not touch assured revenue spinners of the past, “the old reliables” of alcohol and petrol. The serious purpose was to reassure foreign investors that Ireland Inc was worth investing in.

But, during the few minutes during which they remained open for business after the Minister for Finance had unveiled his budget strategy in the late afternoon of April 7th, European stock exchanges recorded heavy selling of Irish Government bonds. Was it that the traders wanted the cuts to be even deeper? The levies and taxes to go higher? Knowing such people, the answer is probably “yes”. But was there another reason? Regrettably it appears that there may well be: The toxic debts of the Irish banking system. The banking system, apart from running up astronomical debts also spawned a culture of greed and corruption, that seriously damaged Ireland’s reputation in the international financial community.

No one knows this better than Brian Lenihan, and in his budget speech he was, , not alone extraordinarily honest and outspoken on the issue (for a Fianna Fail minister) he also outlined very specific plans to bring in new personalities and structures. The new Irish financial regulator for example will be a person of international standing, chosen with the help of international expertise. But, in his speech, Lenihan also finally bit on the bullet of dealing with debt mountain which Irish bankers built up in their lendings to property developers and announced the setting up of an agency to take over the bad debts.

The idea is that over time the new agency would get value from them for the Irish tax-payer while allowing the thus relieved banks to get back to lending and stirring the stagnant economy back to normal healthy commercial life. However it was also revealed that the toxic debts could be as high as ninety billions. This figure is of course disputed by government sources who say that this is only the notional value of the assets against which money was lent and that in fact the debts will be less than 30% of the so called assets book value. Some put the true debt at around 20 millions—still a hell of a lot for a small nation.

But on top of this, for some time government agencies, such as the Department of Foreign Affairs, have been picking up disturbing rumours that there was a belief abroad that the Irish government’s controversial deposits guarantee scheme for the banks, introduced last year to stem a run on the banks, may also have included a guarantee of the banks’ debts. In some right wing financial bibles, such as the Financial Times and the Economist, the word about Ireland has not been kind recently, to say the least of it. The fact that Ireland had the temerity to introduce its own guarantee scheme without consulting London, or anyone else, went down badly. Not for the first time English financial figures muttered about the Irish behaving as though they were a sovereign nation. Now the announcement about taking over bank debts has awakened fears that Dublin has let itself in not merely for guarantees on deposits, but on debts as well. The miseries inflicted on the little people by the budget, could yet prove, not alone only a foretaste of things to come, but futile into the bargain.


The disaster that is the Irish fishing industry


For reasons rooted in a conversation I had 45 years ago, with the then Junior Minister for Fisheries, Brian Lenihan, to which I will return shortly in this blog, I recently had occasion to speculate once again that in all probability the bullock did more harm to the Irish economy than did the late Oliver Cromwell.

My musing was prompted by yet another sorry personal experience involving the Irish political system and the disaster area known as the Irish fishing industry.

The saga began last October when I made a suggestion to Minister A) Eamon O’Cuiv, who is Chairman of the Irish National Famine Committee, that the Famine should be commemorated, not merely by a State Commemoration ceremony, but by sending to a particularly impoverished African country, Sierra Leone, which has rich, but unexploited fishing grounds, some of the  trawlers which were about to be decommissioned from the Irish fishing fleet under EU rules.

I argued that the destruction of the up-to-date trawlers was wasteful and wrong both for itself, our carbon footprint, and the related fact that we would obviously be cutting our Aid budget because of the economic crisis, and that therefore here was a golden opportunity to both demonstrate our concern for the third world, and the truth of the old aid adage: Feed a man you feed a person. Teach a man to fish and you feed a village.

A handful of the now unemployed Irish fishermen traveling with the trawlers could very easily have translated axiom into action, a fact recognized by the FAO representative in Freetown who was enthusiastic about the idea, as was a senior EU official stationed there.

Without taking up further space by discussing other ancillary steps based on Irish experience, which could easily have been undertaken taken also, such as providing basic freezing facilities and some elementary transport, suffice it to say that by January of this year my promptings had eventually resulted in O’Cuiv’s sending my proposal to  Minister B) in charge of fishing, Brendan Smith.

The reaction showed all the drive and initiative of a dead mackerel. Following further prompting from me O’Cuiv finally prised another letter from Smith in March promising to come back to me when he had “further information” on the matter. As Smith had yet to provide any information whatever that “further” reminded me of the apocryphal story of the RTE flash which stated that “A large hole has opened on the Naas dual carriageway and the Gardai are looking into it.”

At this stage a senior figure in the Department of Foreign Affairs’ Irish Aid section took up my cause and within 48 hours had discovered what was happening – while I was being kept at bay for almost six months with “send the fool further” letters, the trawlers were being broken up. The last of them was being destroyed as my DFA friend e-mailed me.

On the same day that I was made aware of this codology (is there a more appropriate term?) the regular fish auction was taking place at Rosseveal on the Connemara coast. Here, the shambolic nature of the Irish fishing industry was underscored for the millionth time. Prices were such that 300 boxes of haddock sold for one, repeat one, euro each.

Also on the same day haddock, one of the choicest fish in the sea, were selling for five euro each in Dublin. That weekend I was taken to dinner in one of Dublin’s top fish restaurants. Haddock was 17 euro fifty cent  a fillet and the “Dublin Bay prawns” which accompanied it on the menu were in fact imported from Thailand.

So what caused the difficulties I encountered in trying to salvage the trawlers.? Inefficiency? Arrogance? Wastefulness? The fact that some cute hoor deal had been done by someone, somewhere, somehow so that it became lucrative to destroy good fishing boats?

One answer might well be: “All of the above.” But a more fundamental cause goes back to that conversation I had with Brian Lenihan (the present Minister for Finance’s father) back in the 60s when Ireland was planning to enter the European Economic Community ( EEC) as it was then known. The conversation occurred during an interview I was conducting with the junior Minister – that status should have given me a clue – on the prospects for developing the vast untapped fisheries potential of the Irish coastline.

Brian, a pleasant man, interrupted me suddenly to ask “Tim Pat! Do you know how many whole time and part time farmers there are in this country?”

I did not know exactly but he rattled off the answer correct to a decimal point (around a quarter million, as I remember). Then he asked me did I know how many whole time and part time fishermen there were in the country. “including lobster men, currachmen, and the teacher who goes out in the summer night with a net after a few salmon?”

Again I could not reply with certainty but Brian could again answer with pin point accuracy, something just over 9,000 as I recall. “That”, he continued, “would hardly elect one Fianna Fail TD on the first count in a five seater. Now do you get me?.”

I did. What he was telling me in effect was that the farming lobby had political clout, the fishermen did not and that in the forthcoming Brussels EEC negotiations the mackerel would be traded off against the bullock.

And so it proved. Negotiations stalled for a time, because General de Gaulle vetoed the British entry, but  eventually, in 1973 Ireland joined the club  The farmers prospered mightily, but the fishing industry was never became a great deal more than a means of subsidising the Irish language, which it was at the time of entry.

Development within the fishing industry was more or less governed by its scale at the time of joining the EEC. A handful of fishermen made fortunes around traditional fishing centers such as Killybegs. But fishing limits were restricted and overall Irish quotas were fixed at low levels.

Landings continued to be irregular, boats repossessed, vital infrastructure, such as transportation and freezing facilities neglected. Above all little money was devoted to the education of fishermen – a trawler is after all a small, sea-going factory, part of a complex process in which a business training is as necessary as a course in navigation. In many cases Paddy learned too late that if you drink last week’s catch, you may not have boat to catch anything next week..

It was as though the fact that the Apaches did not develop gold mines meant that it was OK for the white man to take them.

From a vantage point on the Aran Islands one windy night, I looked out at the Atlantic. There was nothing between me and Boston and the night should have been black and howling. It howled all right but the sea was lit up as if  magically a town had appeared. The “town” was an armada of French trawlers from L’Orient, fishing the rich prawn grounds off  Aran’s western cliffs. And it wasn’t only European Union nations which profited from the denudation of Irish fishing grounds.

Another time, on the South East Coast, off Wexford, returning from France, our ferry sailed though a flotilla of  forty two Russian trawlers, accompanied by two huge factory vessels which were also towing nets.

And so the rape of the Irish coastal waters has meant, as it meant world wide, that fish stocks must be conserved, resulting in wasteful side-effects such as the destruction of the trawlers I was interested in. Brian Lenihan certainly  knew what he was talking about. I only hope his son Brian, can manage the nation’s finances rather better than his ministerial colleagues dealt with my interest in their fate.

- First published 2nd April 2009 at IrishCentral.com


Border shopping will end partition!


A veteran republican friend of mine sighed sadly to me recently and said: “You know I’ve worked for Irish unity all my life and now it looks as though the supreme irony is that the Border will be removed by cross-border shopping!”

My friend was concerned at the prospect that the loss to the Irish Exchequer, caused by  the flood northwards of  bargain hunters from the 26 Counties, coming on top of the present catastrophic state of the public finances, would collapse the Irish economy and  force the Republic back into the United Kingdom.

Hopefully his vision will prove to be unduly apocalyptic but the point he makes  is unquestionably serious.  It’s not just revenue which is being lost but jobs. From Newry to Derry shops are thronged with southern shoppers. But in Dundalk, for example,  a few miles from Newry the biggest supermarket, SuperQuinn, has closed down. The Republic’s retail trade is suffering badly. The Irish liquor trade reckons that its sales are down 46% on the same period last year.

Part  of this fall of course lies in the fact that the worst wounds are self-inflicted. Some Irish publicans have lowered their prices to meet the recession. Others however continue to advertise their descent from The Un-Repentant Thief. One of my local watering holes for instance charges eight euro fifty cent for a  glass of wine.

But, apart from  the rip off tendencies of  Irish pubs, shops  and supermarkets, on the overall retail front (and that of exports) things got worse this week. The Federal Reserve’s announcement about pump priming the US economy with trillions of tax dollars, while welcome in an overall global economy context, means that the pound has weakened still further against the euro thereby creating  yet more incentive for shoppers to head north.

The Irish Minister for Finance, Brian Lenihan has estimated that since Budget time last October when the British lowered their VAT (Value Added Tax) rate  to  15% and the Republic’s increased by a half per cent to 21.5%, that this, coupled with the fall in sterling, meant that the Republic has lost Euro 700 millions in revenue. Over a full year this is heading for Euro 1,500 millions.

It is feared that the further, drastic, emergency budget which the nation is anticipating with dread on April 7th, can be expected to worsen, not improve this situation.

Since the Border was first drawn it has created an industry for smugglers .My mother’s father had a brother whose farm was discovered to be straddling the newly created Border when Partition was took effect back in the 1920s, I remember as a child hearing  family members discuss how this circumstance was taken advantage of by “Uncle Harry” to grow rich.

One image, amongst many, which abided with me was how at Christmas time my great Uncle metamorphosed “Six County” turkeys  into “Free State” turkeys by the simple expedient of opening  a gate on his farm from one field into another.

Over the years the Border remained a constant source of illicit income.  The  then head of the Irish Special Branch told me once, during the early sixties when I was researching the first edition of my IRA book,: “If you see anyone suddenly getting rich in Dublin, buying hotels and so on, you can be sure the money comes from smuggling.”

At different time, the ebb and flow of trade meant that different product became more valuable on each side of the Border. Nylon stockings, cattle, tea, sugar, razor blades, alcohol, butter. I remember one IRA leader who had been a smuggler – an activity which taught many a guerrilla the art of elusivity, especially around Crossmaglen – telling me that he often travelled in the South for 48 hours at a time selling  northern butter from his van.

When I remarked that his margin of profit, six pence a pound, hardly justified such effort he replied: “It does if you’re selling five tons at a time.”

Southern cattle going north were also a hot item, both at that time and for many years later. One big time cattle smuggler’s greed unpicked a valuable deal he had with the RUC.

He paid £1 a head to a District Inspector and in years of ever growing  cattle movements, never even saw a Border patrol, never mind being stopped by one.  One night he decided that, in the face of such in-activity, that, as he was moving 750 cattle, he would  say nothing and keep his bullock bounty.

Unsurprisingly he was intercepted and later charged before Belfast Assizes where he suffered a hefty fine and the seizure of his cattle. Traumatised, he was reeling away from the Assizes when he was stopped by his old RUC District Inspector contact and taken for a drink, over which the policemen told the smuggler that he evidently had not realised the importance of the £1 pound levy.

It had not merely meant the absence of patrols. According to the cop: “Ten shillings went to the Lord (Lord Brookeborough, the then Six County Prime Minister. Five shillings went to the District Inspector, Two and six went  to the Sergeant and the rest was divided amongst the patrol.” The pound was paid thereafter.

Prior to the comparatively recent VAT reductions and the fall in sterling, the Irish  Government seeming operated a variant of the Bullock Bounty policy. A huge trade was allowed to grow up on the southern side of the border in selling petrol and diesel  which meant the Republic gained as the British Exchequer lost revenue.

Much of the Six Counties mushroom growing industry was based on the Republic’s cheaper diesel. Sometimes the diesel was rendered cheaper still by illicit “laundering” of agricultural fuel. This removed the dyes which would have proved that the diesel had been sold at subsidised prices solely for  use in tractors.

Apart from revenue loss, all of this activity has had the wholly undesirable side effect of  creating a tradition of  criminality on both sides of the Border. If one took a  strip of land  some ten kilometres wide on either side of the border from Carlingford Lough to the Foyle they would be excellently placed to conduct research into the theory and practice of warlordism.

But nowadays it is not warlordism that is the problem, It is the fact that Dublin housewives, and their counterparts from even further south, are shopping north of the border, not just for one or two items, that happen to be temporarily cheaper than in the Republic, but for all the contents of the entire weekly trolley from babies nappies to their partner’s six packs.

The nationalist slogan of “Hands across the border” has been translated into reality as – hands across the counter.

- First published 22nd March 2009 at IrishCentral.com