Friday, December 31, 2010

Good riddance to bad rubbish

So Bertie gives the country a final Christmas present by announcing that he won't run in the upcoming general election. While this comes as no big surprise, given that he would loose all his pensions if he stayed on in the next Dáil as an opposition back bencher. Also given that he'd face a tough battle in Dublin Central to get elected, it is good to have closure on the Ahern era.

While he deserves some credit for the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process in general, on domestic issues history will not look on Bertie so kindly. The tribunals, the digouts and the lack of bank account show the contempt in which he held the position of Taoiseach and the people of Ireland. The social-partnership scam and other buy-offs like benchmarking and SSIAs have been shown up as the folly that they are.

Adding Bertie to the list of other rats deserting the ship such as Dermot Ahern and Noel Dempsey is somewhat satisfying. What would have been better would be for him to have run in the election and let the people of Dublin Central have their say by not re-electing him. Hopefully next up will be Mary Harney.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Ironic or Hypocritical

In the UN yesterday a vote was passed 93-55 (with 27 abstentions) to re-insert a reference to sexual orientation in a resolution about killing minority groups. The resolution mainly focuses on ethnicity and religion, but originally had sexual orientation as one of the grounds for identifying a minority group. This mention had previously been removed at the behest of various Arab and African nations. So far so good. All progressive actions apart from the 55 dissenters.

But then up speaks Zimbabwe with the most outrageous statement effectively equating homosexuality with bestiality and paedophilia. And without even a hint or irony the ambassador continued "n our view, what adult people do in their private capacity, by mutual consent, does not need agreement or rejection by governments" which seems like a pretty open minded statement. But then he closes out the sentence with an extra clause "where such practices are legally proscribed" which pretty much contradicts the entire first half of the sentence.

Surely legally proscribing something is exactly the sort of rejection of an action carried out by consenting adults in their private capacity that he doesn't see the need for. Now either this is stupidity which makes it ironic or hypocrisy which makes it disgusting. Either which way, Zimbabwe has gone even further down in my estimation - not that it was particularly high in the first place.

For those that haven't seen it here's another African country's take on homosexuality. Funny but depressing as hell.

(Hat tip to Bernard Cantillon for the link to the original article.)

Friday, December 17, 2010

ECHR vs Ireland

Yesterday the ECHR returned a judgment against Ireland on that old issue, abortion. Without going into great detail, mainly because I'm not a lawyer, the court upheld the position of the Irish courts where they said that legislation was required to clarify when abortion is legal in Ireland. The problems arose due to the X case in the early 90s and more recently with the C case.

Personally, I am in favour of a pretty open abortion policy, pretty much on demand up to 24 weeks. It's not like abortions will be made compulsory, those who object on moral grounds can choose to have as many children as they want. If a woman who finds herself pregnant really doesn't want to have a child is it better to follow through with the termination or bring an unwanted child into the world? There are already enough children in poverty, neglected or in state care in this country.

The main downside of this decision is that it brings abortion right back to the front of politics in Ireland. With an election looming, the last thing that we need is for SPUC and Youth Defence to hijack the election. The election has to be about financial issues and political reform and so any focus on abortion is just going to be a distraction. Of course attitudes in Ireland on the substantive issue have softened and the Pro Life campaign might find their message not being so warmly received, especially in the under-40 category.

The other issue is that it will bring the anti-EU and anti-Lisbon people back into play pointing out how this is just Europe sticking their nose into an internal matters and that we had guarantees on abortion. This neatly ignores the facts that the ECHR has nothing to do with the EU and that the ECHR is just reinforcing the judgments of Irish courts.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Another call to patriotic duty?

Tomorrow afternoon we get to hear Brian Lenihan's final budget as Minister for Finance. Of course it's not really his budget anymore as the EU/IMF have effectively provided him with some figures to wrap up in English. We already know a reasonable amount of the contents of the Minister's speech, the details on tax credit reductions, tax bands, PRSI reform and some form of property tax are the items I will be most looking out for.

Depending on what Michael Lowry and Jackie Healy-Rae come out with this evening, the most important thing to look out for during the first round of speeches is who exactly is in the chamber. Were Mattie McGrath or John McGuinness to be absent then that sends a strong signal that the election has started. Similarly, Lucinda Creighton's absence can be taken as a sign that the vote will be carried.

It will also be good to hear Michael Noonan giving the budget riposte from the FG benches. One of my favourite memories as a young fella with only a passing interest in politics was Noonan's response to a budget during the 1st Gulf War where he described the various cuts as Scud Missiles fired at the poorest in society. His turn of phrase will be a marked improvement on the humming and hawing of Richard Bruton who despite always homing in on the important figures, never really managed to land proper blows on the Minister.

Finally I hope that RTE do the right thing and finally cover all four of the main speeches rather than cutting away to their panel as soon as Lenihan finishes. The people have a right to see the opposition spokespersons putting their point as one of them is likely to end up being the Minister for Finance in early 2011 who is going to have to implement the mess that the current government leave behind.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Bailout

This EU/IMF bailout stinks for a whole lot of reasons. Our great leaders went into the discussions and seemed to be happy to give away everything as long as corporation tax wasn't touched. I am not at all convinced by the arguments around corporation tax and the reasons for keeping it at 12.5% but I am pretty sure that flushing the country down the toilet isn't one of them. And even after the draconian measures being imposed on us I'm pretty sure that the bailout isn't going to fix Ireland, Irish banks or stop the spread of "contagion" to the rest of the EU.

As I have harped on about before, the entire mess goes back to the disastrous bank guarantee in September 2008. Turning private debt in the banks into sovereign debt owed by the tax payer was the single most stupid thing ever done by Fianna Fáil and it's not like there aren't plenty of other options to choose from. This has left the tax payer on the hook for the banks' massive borrowings still outstanding to European banks. This is where the biggest stink in the bailout comes from.

We are being loaned €22.5B from the IMF and a further €45B from two EU funds. On top of that we have to immediately throw most of the contents of the Pension Reserve Fund into the black hole of the banks. All of this bank funding is required to enable the German, French and UK banks as well as the ECB to be repaid at some point in the future. So the net result of the liability to the Irish tax payer is that other EU banks remain solvent. Seems to me like that's pretty good leverage to have in negotiating terms on these loans. Instead the government played meekly and took whatever was offered without flexing any muscle at all.

Secondly we have to ask, what is the price being paid for this money? We the tax payer are being lumped with an average rate of 5.8% for the €67.5B external bailout. That's just under €4B per year in interest to the EU/IMF. But when you look at long term financing costs for Germany they come in at around 2.67% on their 10 year bonds, so we are being gouged by our EU partners by over 3%. Hardly, seems like a community coming together to help each other out. Again we should have turned around and say that unless the rate was closer to 3% that we would just default and bring the whole Euro house of cards tumbling down.

Finally, how will this bailout actually help Ireland and our deficit in current spending? The fastest way to close the gap between taxation and spending is to get sustainable growth back in the economy and the best way to do that is via targeted stimulus using the NPRF. Having now blown our main avenue for growth on the banks we are now stuck in a zero/low growth scenario with higher and higher interest payments swamping any increase in taxation due to growth. That means we have to raise additional taxes and since corporation tax is sacrosanct, that means extra income tax, PRSI, property taxes, VAT, excise and the like for the ordinary punter.

We are now in a downward spiral from which there appears to be very little hope of exiting. Thanks a bunch Soldiers of Destiny.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Protest time again

This coming Saturday, ICTU are holding a protest march from Wood Quay to the GPO. This comes almost a year after the last major incident where I spent a day in the pub North doing Xmas shopping cold picketing a building site on Pearse Street. The upcoming demonstration, while nominally about Congress' alternative to the austerity measures, is really the best opportunity for the general public to register their disgust with the decisions and plans of the current government.

Over the last 10 years, the Unions, both public and private sector, have not exactly covered themselves in glory. The fiasco of benchmarking and partnership along with lightning strikes and blue flus have not endeared the organisations to the general public. At this point the sight of Jack O'Connor, David Begg and Blair Horan on the TV has most people either reaching for the remote or throwing something at the screen.

However, this protest has to be about more than the Unions. These organisations are the only groups who are able to mobilize large numbers of people to form the core of a protest. Compare this Saturday's events with the Right to Work events last May and June where there was never more than 1,000 people in attendance and in may cases substantially less. The involvement of fringe groups such as SWP, Eirigí and Anarchists only puts people off attending. The Unions, despite all their faults, give some level of legitimacy to the event.

So turn up on Saturday. Bring a sign and feel free to put an anti-Union slogan - you won't be alone. Together the masses can have a say and hopefully put an end to this disastrous government and their failed policies.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Insert coin to continue

I go away for a quick weekend trip to Cork and Galway and I come back to Dublin to discover the country has fallen apart at the seams. Well nothing like playing catchup on about 1000 blog posts, 10,000 tweets and 100,000 posts. This is now the end of the end for this government. Gormley's statement this morning that he wants an election date in late January has given us all a target date to aim for. However, I'm still not convinced that we won't have an election this side of Christmas.

Somewhere around Enfield I switched over to the radio, having been listening to Grand Magus' awesome Hammer of the North up until then, to catch the end of the news and some of Liveline. Firstly Mammy O'Rourke, who's constituency I had just zipped through at 120km/h, was blathering on about the Fianna Fáil leadership issue and how they would take stock in the New Year after the budget had been passed. Talk about not getting it - the people don't care about internal FF shenanigans anymore and with the Greens having put a sunset clause on this Dáil sticking to her timetable would leave them dealing with a leadership heave right in the middle of an election campaign.

Then Sean Power came on Joe Duffy and suggested that Cowen resign with almost immediate effect, the parties all come together and pass a budget to appease the IMF and then we have our election next year. The problem with that is if Cowen is gone then so too will be support from Lowry and Healy-Rae. Thus after the by-election in DSE spells the game is up with 82 opposition (51FG, 20L, 5SF, McGrath, O'Sullivan, Behan, Grealish, Lowry, JHR) and only 80 government.

Later on this week I'll get around to the IMF issue but at the pace things are moving right now that will be very old news by then.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Green Flags and Crocodile Tears

I really don't know where to start on this one. Yes, the EU-IMF bailout that we all thought was going to happen has come to pass. Yes, the banks and our governments (mis)handling of them over the last 3 years or so has dug us into a hole. Yes, people are emigrating in droves not seen since the 1980s and it government policy seems to rely on this continuing. In short, Ireland is banjaxed.

But would people ever give up with the maudlin appeals to Yeats, 1916, Wolfe Tone, Brian Boru and Diarmuid Ua Duibhne. Wrapping the green flag around you, while somewhat cathartic, does nothing for you, for Ireland or in fact pretty much anyone. We the people have landed the country in its current state through a decade or more of gorging on the supply of cheap credit made available since the introduction of the Euro. Government policy encouraged this mass orgy of financial decadence through various tax breaks, hair-brained schemes such as the SSIA and Decentralization, and pro-cyclical spending but we have to also take some level of personal responsibility.

It is a disgrace that a relatively wealthy, 1st world country such as Ireland has need of the services of an organization such as the IMF. It is a disgrace that such an organization needs to exist at all in the first place. But people are people and greed is greed and the world keeps turning. The crocodile tears of the booms greatest cheerleaders should not make us loose sight of the fact that we are still in a far better place than probably 90%+ of the worlds population.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The End

In 1967 The Doors released their debut album featuring the hits "Break on Through" and "Light My Fire". During the late 80s and early 90s I went through my Doors phase and became quite the fan of the album and especially the final track, the epic "The End". On the bus into work today the song popped back into my head and I noticed how prophetic Jim Morrison had been in that song with regard to the Irish economy in 2010 and it could be interpreted as a lament being sung by Lenihan and his Fianna Fáil comrades.

This is the end, beautiful friend
Fairly obvious opening line on the current state of chassis.

This is the end, my only friend, the end
So who is this only friend? At this point the public have turned on FF as have the bond markets. Who is left? The EU, the ECB, the IMF? Or is it just the Irish bankers and developers?

Of our elaborate plans, the end
Plans to dump €60B+ of additional debt on the shoulders of the Irish tax payers without a whimper from the coping classes.

Of everything that stands, the end
From a FF point of view, the only thing that counts is being in charge. Here Morrison/Lenihan is lamenting the imminent destruction of the party. The trappings of power will come crumbling down as the deFFification of society begins starting at the top with the TDs.

No safety or surprise, the end
No surprise, we've known for a long time how banjaxed the country is but we've decided to keep the populace in the dark and there is no safe route back to prosperity. It's the EU, the IMF or default and darkness.

I'll never look into your eyes again
Cowardice from those FF TDs who will decide to retire before the next election rather than face the wrath of the electorate.

Can you picture what will be
So limitless and free

Limitless national debt as billions are pumped into banks while schools and hospitals are left rotting. Perhaps a touch of irony with the use of the word free.

Desperately in need of some stranger's hand
In a desperate land

Again a reference to the strangers of the IMF coming in to this desperate land to sort out the mess left behind.

After this point, the song meanders into various psychedelic images of Roman wildernesses, highways, snakes and a blue bus. Not really sure how this fits with my chosen narrative so I'll just skip on ahead. The Oedipal section is even more open to interpretation but I'm just going to say the role of the Father is played by the Irish economy and the Mother is the Irish people. Morrison/Lenihan winds up the song with a return to the main theme - this is the end of the Republic of Ireland in its current state.

The end of laughter and soft lies
The end of nights we tried to die
This is the end

This analysis probably makes it clear that I wasn't so good at the old English poetry for the Leaving Cert. Best stick to facts and figures in future!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Little old Louth

Once upon a time I would have considered Louth, the smallest county in Ireland, to be quite the boring place electorally. From 1982 to 2002 there were 2FF, 1FG and 1Lab returned (in various orders) over the course of the 5 elections. Despite being on the border the SF vote never materialized into a serious challenge for a seat since the heady days of the civil war.

Then in 2002, Arthur Morgan made the breakthrough for Sinn Fein and ousted Michael Bell, to take a seat which he held in the 2007 election. Following the boundary review, the Louth constituency was extended to a 5 seater with some sections of Co Meath near Drogheda transferred to the constituency. The excitement continued when the resignation of John O'Donoghue resulted in the appointment of "Captain" Seamus Kirk as Ceann Comhairle, effectively turning Louth back into a 4 seater. At the time, this would have been seen by FF as a way to try and return 3 deputies from the constituency as they would have hoped to get two elected on preferences. Obviously with the further decline in FF support in the polls, it is still highly likely that Dermot Ahern will be re-elected thereby returning two FF TDs in Louth.

Last week, Morgan announced that he would not be seeking a nomination for the next general election, citing his desire to get back into the family business. To most that was seen as a passing of the torch to the next generation in Louth SF, with Tomás Sharkey most likely to win the nomination. Having won a seat on the council in 2004 and then almost doubling his vote in 2009, along with his exposure during the European elections he would have been seen as a fairly safe selection to replace Morgan. However, yesterday, Gerry Adams threw a massive cat amongst the pigeons by announcing that he was going to seek a nomination in Louth, resign as an MLA and then abdicate his seat in Westminster should he be elected to the Dáil.

So looking at the next election we have the following possibilities
  • FF - Kirk automatically re-elected. Ahern and AN Other on the ballot paper. It would be a massive admission of defeat not to run two candidates
  • FG - Fergus O'Dowd and AN Other. Mairead McGuinness ran here before, but I don't see her giving up the MEP role that easily.
  • Lab - Ger Nash - with the additional commuter votes in the Drogheda area, Nash should be in the running this time out.
  • Green - Mark Dearey, recently appointed to the Seanad
  • SF - Gerry Adams. The big question is whether SF will play it safe and have Adams romp home topping the poll or will he try to capitalize on his personal vote and bring in Sharkey as a running mate.

At this stage, based on a two North, two South split I'm calling it Ahern and Adams as the Dundalkites and O'Dowd and Nash getting the nod in Drogheda with Kirk as #5. However, as always, candidate selection will make all the difference and you could easily see Nash loosing out to a 2nd SF or a strong 2nd FG candidate. Watch this space with interest.

In terms of Adams' political future in the south, it is somewhat odd that he chose to land in one of the safest SF seats rather than try to win a seat that would have been considered un-winnable for the party up until now. Places like Dublin West, Dublin Central and Cork North Central would all be potential gains. I guess the long game is getting above 7 TDs elected and then having Adams act as de-facto leader of the opposition against an FG/L government since FF won't really be in a position to say much, due to the mess they will have left behind. Running Adams in a place where he might not have won would scupper this strategy. Who'd have ever thought that SF can play it safe at times?!

Monday, November 8, 2010

We're all doomed!

As a kid I probably watched a few more episodes of Dad's Army than I should have. One of the characters had a catchphrase of "we're all doomed" every time a crisis of some sort arose. Well Prof. Morgan Kelly from UCD is a bit like Private Fraser except that in most cases Kelly is right when he utters the magical phrase. He is the person who has been proven most accurate in his forecasting of the downfall of the Irish economy in the last number of years. So when I read his article in today's Irish Times I was half tempted to just give up trying and emigrate. In it he reveals a few items that I had not noticed before and paints an extremely bleak outlook for the country for the next decade.

For instance, I hadn't realized that €55B in bank bonds were repaid in September with cash from the ECB. This item of news seems to have been kept fairly quiet for as Kelly says, now that the investors have been repaid we have no leverage over them any more. No wonder they feel they can get away with demanding 7%+ yields on our debt when they see what a pushover the Irish government is.

The most damning part of the article is where Kelly states: "every cent of income tax that you pay for the next two to three years will go to repay Anglo’s losses, every cent for the following two years will go on AIB, and every cent for the next year and a half on the others". That's six years of blood, sweat and tears by Irish workers being flushed down the toilet to rescue banks from the folly of their actions. It really does make you weep.

His future of an extremist right-wing party rising from the ashes of FF and FG is worrying. An Irish Tea Party movement, or worse an equivalent to the BNP, would not leave us in a nice place. The ongoing alienation of the poor through frontline cutbacks and high levels on long term unemployment will only speed this process up. As has been shown time and again throughout Europe and beyond, hordes of disillusioned young males will end up taking extreme positions.

The one vague positive, and it really depends on how you look at the issue, is that he predicts a complete collapse in property prices in the next few years as mortgages dry up entirely and we are left with a cash only market. As someone who owes the guts of a quarter million on an ex corpo house in Dublin 5 that is not good, but at the same time with the few shekels I have managed to put aside since purchasing about 7 years ago, I'm looking good for buying a mansion in Foxrock by 2013.

I'm currently reading Animal Spirits by George Akerlof (who shared the Nobel Prize with Joseph Stiglitz, friend of NAMA developers, in 2001) and Robert Shiller about psychology and the economy. So far I'm only a couple of chapters in but they focus on fairness and confidence as being two key traits to economic recovery. Kelly's article certainly outlines how unfair the system has been to many people, and will continue to be into the future. Unfortunately the article is low on the confidence generating stakes as well but in a basket case like the Irish economy at present, that is actually fair as well.

I wonder if Morgan Kelly sings an updated "Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Trichet?" on his way to work every morning.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

What a week

It really has been one of those weeks. Lets just take a minute to review


The week started with the dousing of Mary Harney with red paint at a sod-turning in West Dublin. I can't really condone Cllr Louise Minihan's shenanigans at the event, especially seeing as she was there in an official capacity representing the city council. However, considering most people wouldn't have heard of Minihan and Eirigí before this week, the publicity stunt seems to have worked and I am not sure that the Lord Mayor has any sanction he can impose on the unruly Councillor.


Tuesday saw the unexpected resignation of Dr Jim McDaid, FF deputy from Donegal North East. Having been an outspoken opponent of many of the policies of the current government and being long of the opinion that a general election was required, it was surprising to see him leave rather than vote against the budget and precipitate an election.


USI managed to organize their largest march in years with around 20,000 students taking to the streets protesting against education cut backs and the recently announced plans to increase registration charges by up to €1,500 from next year. The entire event was overshadowed by the occupation of the Dept of Finance by a small number of protesters and the heavy handed Garda response featuring the riot squad as well as mounted and canine units. This video on YouTube does not show the boys in blue in a terribly positive light. One wonders if they decided to use the students as practice in case a more aggressive protest against the budget happens in a few weeks.


Thursday brought the passing of the DSW by-election writ while the other three vacancies were all voted down. All along the government have used the excuse that a by-election would distract from the current important business and had nothing at all to do with FF hanging on to power at all costs. Now with the distraction of having one by-election, what's the harm in having all of them at once? Oh yes, the spectre of the government falling and all the FF deputies having to face the music.


Like the main evening news, the week ended with a light hearted "and finally" story with the let them eat cheese fiasco. Considering that this is an event that happens every year under the radar it seems a bit stupid for a Minister to announce it in a Marie Antoinette moment. Brought a smile to my face and about a million bad puns to the Twitterverse.

I wonder if next week can match up to the excitement of the last few days. I hope not as there is almost too much going on to keep track of!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Passing the Budget

This is not a post on specific measure that may or may not be in the budget. That will happen shortly. What I want to think about today is the politics and numbers of getting the budget passed in December as any loss of supply on a finance bill requires immediate dissolution of the Dáil and a General Election.

At present things are finely balanced in the Dáil. Jim McDaid's resignation this morning means the government have an 82-79 majority which relies on the 3 un-whipped FFers (Devins, Scanlon and McGrath) and two independents (Lowry and Healy-Rae). When it comes to the budget none of these votes can be counted on by the government side. The two Sligo deputies are the most likely to back Lenihan as they are only outside the party on health issues. McGrath is a complete wild card and unless something specific is promised to Tipperary South in terms of health or investment he could well jump ship. Lowry, with his half billion Tipperary Venue green lighted, is now good to face the electorate. Only Healy-Rae is likely to cling to FF as his seat is seen as the most vulnerable to a Labour bounce in Kerry South.

From the opposition point of view they should all be voting against the budget on a matter of principle and to pile the pressure on the above named wobblers. But a small part of me wonders whether it is in the best interests of FG and Lab to have the budget fail. Say the first vote fails on 7th December then the last possible date for the subsequent general election is Thursday 6th January. With Christmas and the New Year intervening I'm pretty sure the public at large or the foot soldiers doing the canvassing won't thank them.

Secondly, and more importantly, if a harsh budget is pushed through, we then move into by-election mode where the government are going to loose at least 3 of them. If they were to loose all 4 then it is all over straight away as the maths moves to 82-83. So facing this possibility the government may just cut its losses in March before holding the by-elections. Having a spring general election would allow the opposition to campaign on the unfair cuts and taxes imposed by the outgoing government, propose alternatives and still benefit from the savings made for 2011, or at least a period in 2011 before an emergency budget was put in place by whatever grouping takes charge.

Of course, if the High Court come back tomorrow and order the by-elections before the budget then we could be facing an general election sooner than we think.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Crossing the Floor

In most modern parliaments there are examples of members crossing the floor to join a rival party on some point of principle. In Ireland, due to strict party discipline, this is a rare occurance. In fact apart from the political wanderings of Conor Cruise O'Brien and Michael O'Leary bailing from Labour to Fine Gael, I can't think of any other changes that didn't involve whole parties splitting, forming or merging.

So it was with some shock that I read some of Chris Andrews' tweets from last night
  • FG are not getting the traction in the polls because people see little difference between FF and FG. A merger makes sense to me
  • If people were serious it shouldn't take long. I believe there is as much difference within FF as there is between FF and FG
  • It's all pretty much speculation because it's unlikely to happen. Maybe after next election is would be considered.It's a big leap
Here is an elected FF politician finally admitting something that we have all known for a long time - that there is no fundamental difference between the two centre-right, Civil War parties. Sure, the personnel in FG might be a bit more straight edged and FF a bit more rough around the edges, but from a policy and ethos point of view they're not that far apart. Of course Chris, as a Dublin South East TD, is facing a tough battle to retain his seat whenever the next election comes around. As I posted over a year ago DSE is going to be tough for the government parties. Based on the most recent poll with FF on 18% nationally, they must be somewhere near 10% and transfer toxic in DSE. At the moment I'm going to stick with my prediction of 2Lab, 1FG and 1FF but that is now extremely shaky - could be a second FG.

If Chris does cross the floor it will make for an interesting FG selection convention. With Lucinda Creighton as a sitting deputy, Eoghan Murphy pushing hard with seemingly endless resources behind him and the specter of Michael McDowell's return to electoral politics looming over them, this four way battle would put the Labour DSE in-fighting of earlier in the year in the ha'penny place. I'm sure Phoenix magazine would have a field day.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

UPC versus the Music Industry

While I'm no legal eagle, I have dipped in and out of Justice Charleton's ruling in the UPC vs the music industry case. A lot of it went way over my head in terms of references to specific laws, EU directives and the like. However, from reading his description of various technical matters about which I know a fair bit, I think a lot of those went way over the Judge's head.

The story of Willie Kavangh and his visit to that "well-known site for facilitating music piracy called ‘The Pirate Bay’" is quite funny. He recalled looking for the Dark Knight. I wonder if he tried looking for any Linux ISOs or other legitimate material on the site? While TPB isn't necessarily always in the right, they provide a valuable service in hosting stable, reliable trackers for any material. The Aslan story, which has already been shown to be rubbish, is treated like gospel. In all honesty, does Christy Dignam really think that 28,000 people want to steal his badly written tunes?

The round the clock nature of the internet obviously hasn't hit the Justice Charelton's radar either when he states "another careful international survey indicated that between 49% and 83% of all internet traffic, with a night time peak of 95%, is accounted for by peer-to-peer communications." Pity that legal judgement don't have references like academic papers require so we could see exactly who carried out this "careful" study and on behalf of what vested interest. Of course the experts from DtecNet could never be considered vested interests since they have absolutely no relationship to RIAA and IFPI. However it is worth remembering that these would be the same experts who tried to confuse a court in Australia on the use of bit-torrent by targeting a single ISP, the one they happened to be in court against.

At least in point 30 of the judgement, the court did recognize the legitimacy of P2P as a means of content distribution. It also noted in point 32 that any attempt to impose a technological block on P2P will be pointless as users and developers will quickly find workarounds. However, by point 134 this point has been forgotten where a 20 minute delay in coming up with a work around was considered worthwhile. I don't get the Aran Islands analogy, but if he thinks having to phone the operator for find torrents is going to slow people down, when the operator is Google, then he may just have missed the point.

This judgment is the right decision for all the wrong reasons. We should have strong protection of network operators against the actions of purchasers of their service. If I buy a knife in Arnotts and then proceed to stab someone with it, does Alan Dukes (now kind of running Arnotts) get a 20 year jail term? We also need due process and the presumption of innocence. For one corporate entity to be judge, jury and executioner is not acceptable. If EMI or whoever suspect me of filesharing, then go to court, get a warrant and then talk to my solicitor. To be able to disconnect me from the internet on their say alone is not acceptable.

The biggest fear is that on the back of this judgement, emergency legislation will be pushed through the Dáil to close the loophole. Perhaps the easiest solution is for EMI to set themselves up as a religion and then declare P2P to be abhorent in the eyes of their god. Dermot Ahern could then sleep easy knowing that he doesn't need to come up with yet more bad legislation.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Political tweetup

After Brian Cowen's "hoarse" performance perhaps it was proven that politics and alcohol shouldn't mix. However, tonight we're going to have another go by having a tweetup* with a political slant in the Market Bar from about 8pm. Kudos to Johnny Fallon and Jennifer Kavanagh for sorting it out. I'll report back over the weekend on how "congested" we all get.

* For those who are wondering, a tweetup is where people who know each other from (The) Twitter meet up in real life and have awkward interactions as people you previously flamed unmercifully now turn out to be normal humans.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Metro North

Over the weekend just gone, Eamon Gilmore was interviewed on Marian Finucane's show on RTE radio. By all accounts it was quite a good interview but one item which he mentioned was possibly postponing the building of Metro North. Following on from a brief discussion of MN last week on Twitter with various people I feel the need to put my views on MN on paper.

Firstly, it is not just a link to Dublin Airport. MN is the key north-south spine of the integrated transport system planned for Dublin since the DRRTS report written in the mid 70s. In its current form it joins the city centre with the Interconnector, both Luas lines, and the Maynooth (and Navan whenever it gets re-built) line as well as hitting the Mater Hospital (site of the new children's hospital), DCU, Ballymun, Swords and a park and ride facility near the M1. The entire corridor is earmarked for denser residential development with high-tech and light industry as well as commercial in the mix.

Secondly, we can't just build a spur from Dublin Airport to say Portmarnock and then run trains into town along the existing alignment. This route is already suffering from congestion with the mix of DART, Suburban and Enterprise services and cannot be quad-tracked due to the width of the cuttings from Clontarf through to Kilbarrack.

Thirdly, while it will cost money to build MN, it won't cost money now. It is being built as a PPP, a model that I don't like but in this case it works in our favour. When the line opens in 2017 or thereabouts, we will start paying for it over the next 30 years or so. The expected cost of construction is about €2B so we are effectively taking out a mortgage on the infrastructure. Once paid off we will be able to reap the benefits for years to come. Admittedly rail has a high capital cost, but the return on investment is huge. Consider the line from Pearse to Dun Laoghaire. It was laid in 1834 and with two major changes, 1840s converting from standard to Irish gauge, and 1980s electrification for DART, it is still transporting tens of thousands of passengers a day.

Finally, if we don't build it now, when will we build it? Since DRRTS we have been dragging our heels on bringing Dublin up to 20th century levels. With construction costs substantially down and large numbers of construction workers unemployed this is the perfect project to undertake in the downturn. It is estimated that between 3,000 and 4,000 people will be directly employed on the scheme with an additional 7,000 or so contractors, suppliers, hauliers etc required as well not to mention the infinite number of breakfast roll makers to keep all the above fed.

Between them Metro North and the Interconnector are vital to Dublin's future as a viable city. As projects they are far more important to the nation than many of vanity schemes such as the Western Rail Corridor, Atlantic Road Corridor and the M9 that have already been built or are still on the agenda. Some of those are more like this ...

Monday, October 4, 2010

Burning Anglo

One of my favorite tunes of recent times is Doomsword's Heathen Assault. It is a song about the onslaught of the Danes through medieval England and features a very simple refrain that gets the crowd singing.
Burn! England to the ground
Burn! Jorvik to the ground
To my mind this is currently the best option for Anglo Irish and their bond holders as well. And unlike what various ministers might like to portray (Mary Hanafin I'm looking at you) it wouldn't be the end of the world or some sort of treason to suggest it as a course of action.

If the government pulled the plug on the blanket guarantee of Anglo the the company becomes insolvent. At some point the creditors would get together and insist a liquidator is appointed to wind up the company as a going concern. This leaves three groups looking for money back - depositors, senior debt holders and subordinated debt holders. Remember the equity holders have already been written off when the bank was nationalized. The first two have primary call on the assets of the bank and it is unlikely that these assets would cover the liabilities to them. This leaves nothing for the subordinated holders so they get burned.

This leaves the assets of the company to be divided between the seniors and depositors. I would imagine that the assets would be split pro-rata between the two groups. So if there were say €10B in deposits, €30B in bonds and only €20B in assets then the depositors would get 25% or €5B and the bond holders the remaining €15B with each bond getting effectively a 50% hair cut. On the deposit side again the €5B would be split pro-rata amongst the depositors. All deposits would be covered up to €100k by the old fashioned deposit guarantee, but beyond that the big depositors would also end up being burned as well.

To my mind, that seems the most straight forward solution to the Anglo problem. We've had enough dumping of good money after bad into this corpse. Of course it doesn't suit those who are invested in Anglo compared to the current policy, but to be honest I don't care. They invested in a flaky company, took their high rewards and so now should have to face some of the consequences. You can't have the tax payer on the hook for all of this.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Polls Apart

What a difference a few days makes. On Thursday evening TV3 released the results of an opinion poll that it commissioned from Millward-Browne which showed Labour as the best supported party in the state. Then on Saturday evening the regular RedC poll in the Sunday Business Post was released and it showed that FG were back in the driving seat.

Fianna Fáil22242
Fine Gael30311
Sinn Féin4106

Both polls were carried out by phone early in the week and no major incidents had occurred during the polling period. Both polls also had a sample size of around 1000, giving a margin of error of ±3. So what can one read into these figures?

Obviously, the major discussion point is the 12% difference in recorded support for Labour. While I think it is fair to say that nobody actually believed 35% to be the actual figure, certainly a figure of 31% or 32% could have been believed. The last MRBI poll had Labour around there and the previous RedC had 27%. Sinking back to 23%, while still over twice support won in the last general election, will be seen as a bit of a disappointment. Similarly, Sinn Féin's figures seem a bit off. Based on previous polls I would have expected a result around 8%-10% and so again the TV3 figures seem to underestimate their support.

Otherwise the polls track each other fairly closely. FF is somewhere in the low to mid 20s, FG in the low to mid 30s and the Greens are struggling along at the bottom. Perhaps the explanation comes from a fight for left leaning voters with Labour and SF dipping into the same pool of around 35%-40% of the population. In the run up to an election, if the Gilmore for Taoiseach proposition looks like becoming a reality, SF could find itself squeezed as the left collectively jumps on the bandwagon to ensure this outcome. However, if Labour stall in the low 20s and will be the junior partner in an FG/L coalition then SF, and indeed PBP and Socialists, may do well as the vote of choice for angry working class voters. Its all down to momentum.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Bond blues

I don't really know a huge amount about the financial markets. I sometimes feel like the guy on the Financial Regulator ad who doesn't know what a tracker mortgage is. Well maybe I'm slightly further along the learning curve than he is but probably not by much.

I have been doing some research into bond yields over the last few days, trying to understand what is currently going on with regard to Irish Government bonds. Today, NTMA issued €1.5B in two sets of bonds - €500M of 4 year bonds at 4.767% and €1B of 8 year bonds at 6.023%. Both of these bonds have a coupon of 4% so plugging the figures into one of many online yield calculators I reckon that only €875M was paid into NTMA's bank account for the longer bond and about €485M for the shorter one.

So while it is correct to say NTMA shipped €1.5B in bonds, we the people only have €1.36B in cash and an annual interest bill of €60M to show for it as well as the requirement to pay back or roll over the €1.5B principal in the future. Of course the spin will be the over subscription to the issue, but you'd be mad not to grab a 6% return that is effectively guaranteed by the EU.

The other question of interest is who is actually buying these bonds. I strongly believe that a large portion of them are being purchased by Irish banks looking to bolster up their balance sheets. This source of this money is the bail out that the banks are getting from the Irish state and ECB at rates far lower than we are paying to borrow it back off them. Somehow it seems wrong that the public are being screwed repeatedly in this process. What is also galling is that part of this borrowing at 6% is being lent to Greece as part of their EU bailout at 5%. Again the Irish taxpayer is being taken for a ride.

Smarter economists are welcome to correct my maths and show me where I am getting this completely wrong.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The cost of money

Ireland is massively in debt - I think we can all agree on that. The state currently spends somewhere around 50% more than it brings in through taxation. That money is raised on the international bond markets by the National Treasury Management Agency (NTMA). Over the last few weeks the cost of Irish Govt bonds on the secondary market has risen substantially, with rates having risen to 6.459% at close of business today. However, that is not the rate that the state is currently paying for its bonds as those rates are fixed when each bond is issued.

You can see from the graph (from Bloomberg), that in the last month Irish bonds have risen to record highs. The previous spike in May coincided with the Greek financial meltdown and the knock-on effects for the rest of the Euro zone. This month's moves are entirely of our own making.

The big test comes tomorrow (21st September) when the NTMA is holding an auction for between €1B and €1.5B of 4 and 8 year bonds. In the past the spin from NTMA and the Minister for Finance has been how over-subscribed each bond issue has been, while ignoring the rate that is being paid. I have no doubt that tomorrow's auction will also be oversubscribed but with many offers being in the 7%+ range. If the issue comes out with an average cost of 5% or thereabouts then we won't have done too badly. Yes that is still a huge amount more than the Germans pay, but it is still 1.5% less than the market currently thinks we should be paying.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Congestion charges

No, not the central London traffic reduction measure. More the accusation that the Taoiseach was suffering from congestion when giving a radio interview on Morning Ireland on Tuesday. Now I'm all on for having a bit of a session even on a school night. I'm pretty sure there have been times when I've been somewhere between hungover and drunk going to work, probably closer to the latter than the former. But I make sure of three things:
  • I plan my work so as the morning after the night before I do all the easy tasks that I have been putting off for ages like cleaning the office or returning the stack of overdue library books.
  • I am not Taoiseach
  • I do not have an interview with national media

Now obviously the last two are unlikely to crop up in my life, but Brian Cowen could have taken a leaf from my book and arranged his schedule to not do media until Pat Kenny or even Sean O'Rourke at lunchtime. As the great Falstaff said, the better part of valour is discretion and missing one interview would have saved an awful lot of uproar about essentially nothing.

Having made the initial error, FF then went into overdrive trying to spin the story by claiming various medical excuses, blaming Simon Coveney and eventually the Taoiseach apologizing to the public on TV news. All these action have just compounded the problem. Like an itch, they couldn't just leave it alone and their actions, and especially Noel Whelan's performance on Pat Kenny the following day, haven't helped at all.

Finally a special award to Batt O'Keefe in the "that doesn't necessarily mean what you think it does" category. Fulsome has several negative connotations with definitions like "offensive to good taste" and "insincerely lavish". Now I'm sure the Deputy didn't mean to stick the knife in, but sometimes you have to wonder.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Ireland v Darwin

First up it was the Minister for Education giving credit to Albert Einstein for coming up with the Theory of Evolution. Now it is the (Junior) Minister for Science launching a book that calls evolution a hoax. What is it with this country and poor old Charles Darwin?

Science is based on discussion and debate and so I would whole heartedly welcome a rational, fact based discussion on the merits of evolution. However, the huge preponderance of evidence points to the fact that evolution through crossover and mutation is the method by which order has been created from disorder in the natural world. The Minister for Science should not be seen lending his support to a polemic against a theory that has withstood the challenges of the scientific method. Having attended events where John May, the author, spoke (ranted would be a more accurate description) against the evils of teaching evolution I am certain that his book will add nothing to the debate on the origins of life.

Fortunately, following substantial pressure yesterday, the Minister has withdrawn from the event.

Monday, September 13, 2010

PLP's 1st Birthday

Today Pass Level Politics turns one. So what have I spent the last year blathering about? Well according to the tagging
  • 20 - Elections made up of future predictions, by elections and UK general
  • 16 - Comments about proceedings in the Dail
  • 11 - Thoughts on all modes of transport
  • 9 - The general catch all of politics
  • 8 - NAMA, Dublin City Council and Public Sector vs Private Sector

In the next 12 months there will be a lot more about elections with by elections, Dublin Mayor and the start of the presidential campaign. There is also the possibility of a general looming. I will also try and understand more about finance and economics and so there will hopefully be more on that too - Deeter, Kinsella and Gurdgiev watch out! Finally with the Dáil coming back into session there will be more regular updates as stupid people say stupid things on the record.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Dividing Anglo

I was always under the impression1 that all the toxic bad debt in the Irish banks was being sucked into NAMA and that once completed the banks would be hale and hearty. There would be credit flowing, share prices would rise and dividends would be paid out to deserving pensioners.
Therefore Richard Bruton's good bank/bad bank suggestion was deemed completely unnecessary and the proposal was mocked and jeered by the government, Alan Dukes in Anglo Irish and the commentariat in the main stream media.

So how is it that 12 months on this is almost exactly the solution now being proposed for Anglo? Surely having had the poison sucked out into NAMA they should only have performing loans left in the bank? What is left to put into the Bad Bank? How many of the sub €5M loans still on their books are now classified as impaired? If it is a lot, then why are we continuing to bank roll this basketcase? If it isn't very many, then why do we need an extra entity to handle them? Won't this just create another expensive set of directors and senior management to run the hulk?

  1. Not really but this has been the official position.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Thoughts on Denmark

I spent the week before last in Copenhagen seeing the sights while my better half was attending a conference. Before going the only things I knew about Denmark were 1) King Canute came from there, 2) in the past they owned Greenland, 3) they make Carlsberg, 4) it is easy to play in Medieval Total War and 5) it is really hard to play in Hearts of Iron. Obviously I had a lot to learn.

Firstly it turns out that Denmark is still a constitutional monarchy, with Queen Margaret II on the throne for almost the last 40 years. They have a terrible tradition that male heirs are either called Frederik or Christian so you would have thought being the first queen in almost 600 years she would have taken the opportunity to change that. However, her first son was named Frederik and his son is called Christian so normal service will be resumed whenever she dies. The tour of the Amalienborg palace where her majesty lives is more a retrospective on her life and could be skipped. However the Rosenborg castle up the road where her ancestors lived is well worth a visit.

When walking around Copenhagen the two things I noticed most was the general cleanliness of the place and the complete lack of homeless people and beggars compared to Dublin. During the course of the week I saw precisely one person begging at about 1:30AM on Friday night. It appears as though there is a much higher level of social cohesion in Denmark and that those less well off are taken care of. Alternatively, it could just be that central Copenhagen is taken well managed to keep tourists happy and that in the suburbs and other cities things are far more like at home. That seems like a rather large conspiracy theory so I'm going to go with the previous theory that the welfare state in Denmark just works.

In terms of transport, Copenhagen is well served by commuter trains and a new metro system that opened in 2002 and was extended to the airport recently. Once you discover that the automatic ticket machines have an English language option, buying a 10 journey ticket is quite simple and set me back about €18 which covered the downtown area and out to the convention centre. Actually the whole zone system for public transport seems quite convoluted and you would want to have your wits about you to avoid purchasing the wrong ticket. It was also quite cheap to get over to Malmö for a day trip over the Oresund Bridge on the train. With a group ticket it ended up costing less than €20 a head return and Malmö was well worth a visit.

The other transport item of note is the huge number of cyclists in Copenhagen. The city is pretty much flat as a pancake and so lends itself nicely to cycling. Most major roads have separated cycle lanes in each direction and the users obey traffic lights and give proper hand signals at junctions, quite a shock to the system! This does mean that you need to be extra careful when crossing the road at junctions as a silent but deadly bike may be about to run you over when you start jay-walking.

My only complaint about Copenhagen was the cost of food and drink. Meals out were expensive even compared to Dublin prices and in most bars a 500ml beer cost over &euro6;. I guess the government has to raise taxes to pay for the high standard of living and alcohol is always a good place to start. Luckily the conference had arranged its own special beer that was distributed free each evening thanks to generous sponsors. After a few bottles of Awesome Sauce everything about Copenhagen became Awesome!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Short break

This blog is going on a short break for the next few weeks as I am off on my summer holidays. Firstly I've to go to a wedding in west Galway. Then  I am hitting  the Summer Breeze festival in Germany. Finally I'll be swinging up to Copenhagen to partake of the social activities at DrupalCon. Think I'll need a break to recover from it all. Doubt there'll be new post this side of September.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Large Constituencies

The Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution recently published the findings of its review of the electoral system. Running to 220 pages, it is quite the in-depth review and analysis of electoral systems in general, PR-STV in particular and various other matters relating to how we run elections in this country. Of particular interest to me were two sections towards the end - 5.62 about the boundaries of constituencies and 5.67 recommending at least 4 TDs per constituency.

Currently the constitution only puts a lower bound on the number of TDs per constituency at 3. Therefore all that is needed to have nice large, proportional constituencies is some legislation amending the schedule that describes the various Dáil constituencies. The report suggests that boundaries should respect natural and county boundaries as much as possible and also not artificially divide towns, like has happened to Swords in the last review. Putting these two rules together and you can come up with some entertaining constituencies.

Firstly I have based these divisions on the results of the 2006 census and keeping the number of TDs at 166. Secondly I have kept counties intact as opposed to the current method of moving odd electoral districts across county boundaries so the ratios are not as consistent as they should be.

Dublin1,187,17647Split into 6 constituencies
Cork481,292519Split into 3 constituencies
Galway231,6709Largest single county constituency
Wexford131,7495Largest current existing constituency
Louth111,2674Merge with Monaghan
Waterford107,9614Smallest single county constituency
Kilkenny87,5584Merge with Carlow
Westmeath79,3463Merge with Laois and Offaly
Offaly70,8683Merge with Westmeath and Laois
Laois67,0593Merge with Westmeath and Offaly
Cavan64,0033Merge with Longford and Leitrim
Sligo60,8942Merge with Roscommon
Roscommon58,7682Merge with Sligo
Monaghan55,8162Merge with Louth
Carlow50,3492Merge with Kilkenny
Longford34,3911Merge with Cavan and Leitrim
Leitrim28,9501Merge with Cavan and Longford

The Dublin split would need some re-jigging of existing constituencies but basically you could pair up North and West(8), North East and North Central(6), Central and North West(7), South East and South Central(9), Mid West and South West(8), South and Dún Laoghaire(9).

Cork is a bit more problematic - you would want a City constituency with 7 seats and then two county constituencies East and West each with 6. The current layout is not particularly amenable to this arrangement and so substantial changes would be required.

In this scheme all constituencies return at least 4 members (Clare and Waterford both having this size along with the new Sligo/Roscommon) and range up to 9 in Galway and the Midlands (Westmeath, Offaly and Laois). Kerry turns out to be the biggest winner by being over-represented by just over 0.5 of a TD with Sligo/Roscommon loosing out on 0.68 of a TD. I can already hear the "No taxation for under-representation" chants beginning.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Divided Ireland

To paraphrase Julius Caesar, Hibernia est omnis divisa in tres partes. There's the well known north/south divide that has split the island since 1922 or thereabouts. But another division also exists between the greater Dublin area and the rest of the Republic. While it's origins can be dated back to the 14th Century, it is a long standing division that is unlikely to disappear any time soon.

Having married a country lass (Tipperary to be exact) I'm occasionally on the receiving end of statements like "Dublin is no place to bring up a family" or "Dublin is grand when you're young but you couldn't settle there" to which I just nod and smile. I know that I like living in the city and in fact I'm pretty content with my choice of Dublin as a place to live. It's big enough that you can find new and interesting people but not so big that you end up living an anonymous life not knowing anyone. For all its flaws I wouldn't move anywhere else bar some remote cliff top in Kerry or Donegal that was still able to get a decent DSL link.

On a political stage this bias is even more pronounced. Every few weeks you see a story from a Jackie Healy Rae, Michael Lowry or General O'Dea about how they have delivered great services for their local area. This championing is never done on behalf of a constituency in Dublin. Perhaps it is because the areas are relatively compact and that large infrastructure like hospitals and bridges in Dublin benefit all 12 constituencies so for one TD to claim responsibility would be laughed at. In fact when projects such as Metro North and the Interconnector were announced there was more moaning from rural TDs about Dublin getting all the goodies than column inches given to Dublin TDs applauding the decision.

Most recently the proposal to take water from the Shannon to be used in the greater Dublin area has been met with the same sort of reaction. Local interest groups appeared out of the woodwork insisting that their water should not be given to Dublin. Instead the multi nationals should come to Offaly or Leitrim and set up shop there. In theory that's great, until you realize that large companies need the economies of scale and transport links that only come with a reasonable sized city and unfortunately there are only 2.5 of them on the island.

If the people outside the Pale want Dublin to keep it's paws off their natural and human resources then that is fine. They just have to accept that the flip side of that is no longer receiving tax transfers from the million or so people who choose to live and work in the capital. That ought to shut them up for at least a few weeks. And don't get me started on the sporting (GAA and rugby) bias - that post would end up as long as War and Peace.

(Full disclosure, I was born in Cork but like the A-Team I promptly escaped to the Dublin underground)

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Anglo Irish bailout equivalents

Brian Lucey (Professor of Finance in TCD) posted a Anglo Irish challenge on Twitter this afternoon. He is looking for things that we could have spent the €25B that Anglo has cost the tax payer. These items might be useful or might be ridiculous. Here are some of my suggestions (some of these are a bit back of the envelope)
  • A Maglev rail system from Belfast to Cork via Dublin. Based on the costs for the Shanghai one it would cost about €11B but lets assume Ireland is twice as expensive as Shanghai.
  • The Porto metro system that has been built in the last decade or so cost about €4B and has about 70 stations over 60km of track. Therefore we could have a 400 station system with about 250km of track
  • A round the world plane ticket costs about €1,500. So we could send every man, woman and child on three trips and still have money for some duty free on the way home.
  • Canada is in the process of purchasing 65 F35 fighter jets for about €7B. Our Anglo money could get us 250 allowing for some bulk purchase discounting.
  • The 200km long proposed Japan-Korea tunnel is estimated to cost about €60B. Dublin to Holyhead is about 100km so the Anglo money could almost bankroll a tunnel joining Ireland to the UK.
  • We could buy for full cost all the external debt of Bangladesh. This is all the money owed by the country and its residents to outsiders.
  • Pigs cost about €1.50 per kilo and weigh on average say 100kg. So that's €150 per pig or about 160 million pigs per Anglo which is about 5% of the world's total pig population.
  • Gold currently trades at about €1000 per oz. One Anglo turns into 25M oz or around 700 tonnes of shiny metal.
  • The construction of nuclear power plants comes in at around €1Bn per GW. Eirgrid's website suggests that Ireland's peak consumption is about 5GW in winter. This means we could power Ireland 5 times over for the cost of the Anglo bail out.
  • It costs about €100k per annum to employ an academic between wages, PRSI, pensions etc. and there are about 2000 of them employed in TCD. Anglo's lump sum would cover TCD's academic staff costs for 125 years assuming no inflation. Given inflation that might come down to 40 years.
  • My mortgage (not with Anglo) could be paid off about 100,000 times over. Instead it'll take me another 20 years to do it just once.
There is almost an infinite number of possibilities. I look forward to seeing Lucey's final list.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Dempsey's grand tour

Seems like Minister Dempsey has gotten himself into a spot of bother. You'd think after eVoting and going to Malta during the snow that he'd keep a low profile. But no, instead he clocked up either €13,000 or €100,000, depending on the source, in the government jet in a way that was completely unnecessary.

The Minister had a speaking slot at the MacGill summer school in Donegal mid afternoon. So he took the government jet up to Derry and then had his Garda driver take him the rest of the way to Glenties. After speaking he hightailed it back to Derry and flew to London. The following morning he had a top secret meeting in London and then came home again on the jet.

This jaunt raises some interesting questions about his routing
  • Since the Garda driver had to go from Dublin to Derry anyway, why didn't the Minister just take the car directly from Dublin/Navan to Glenties?
  • If he had to fly, why not take Aer Arann to Donegal? There is an early afternoon flight most days of the week and I'm sure that there would have been no shortage of FF volunteers to drive him down to Glenties.
  • Why not travel back to Dublin and get the last commercial flight to Heathrow or Gatwick instead of flying from Derry to London?
  • Why was the meeting the next morning arranged so early? If it had been delay by about 90 minutes he could have taken the early morning flight to Heathrow and made it?
It's not like the Minister's speech in Glenties said anything new. Dempsey has gone on record many times about his love of electoral list systems. Also was his participation in MacGill part of official government business or in a personal capacity? It's not like he is a member of the committee that has been looking into electoral reform or the minister with responsibility for the matter. Why wasn't Sean Ardagh the government representative?

This entire escapade just heaps more fuel on the FF funeral pyre. The sooner these chancers are out of office the better at this stage.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Probability of women TDs

Part of the reform agenda of the last year or so has been the promotion of women in politics and lengthy debates about the introduction of quotas of female TDs or at least quotas of female candidates for election. Those in favour of the status quo usually state that there is nothing wrong with the current system as it elects the best candidates. But does it really?

The Law of Large Numbers describes the result of repeated performance of an experiment. It is the thing that suggests if you flip a coin 100 times about 50 of them should turn up heads. If your sample size is too small, say 10, then the law doesn't hold and results of 2/8 or 3/7 should be expected on a fairly regular basis. Using the binomial distribution you can actually calculate these probabilities. In the 10 flip case a 3/7 split comes up about 12% (120/1024) of the time. This can be figured out on paper using Pascal's Triangle and some basic arithmetic. For larger experiments use of a computer program such as R or using WolframAlpha is recommended.

So back to the Dáil. We start with the assumption that men and women are equally likely to be the best candidate. If the system is fair then each seat should have an equal change of being filled by a female as a male. With 166 seats to be filled, there should be on average 83 of each. However, the sums show that this exact solution will occur only about 6% of the time. So what is the distribution of the rest of the results? Well a 80/86 split is about 5.5%, a 75/91 split is 3%. At a 95% confidence level the result should be between 70 and 96 deputies of each gender. This means that if the result is outside this range there is only a 5% chance of it being due to random factors.

As you reduce the number of female deputies the odds become even longer. 60 or fewer females should only occur 0.02% of the time. 50 or fewer and you are at 1.6x10-7 or about 1 in six million elections. So where does our measly 23 female TDs come in on the scale? Crunching the numbers reveals a figure of 1.1x10-22 which is so far beyond random chance that it isn't funny. So the figures indicate a rejection of the hypotheses and we must conclude that either the system is unfair between the sexes or that women are not up to the task of being politicians. Somehow I'm putting my money on the former.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Bridge to Nowhere

Throughout the world, bridges are some of the most iconic landmarks that man has built. Think of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, Venice's Ponte Vecchio and the Pont Neuf in Paris. Add to that our own Ha'penny Bridge in Dublin, the Barrow Rail Bridge and the Boyne Bridge on the M1 and you can see that even in Ireland we have some fantastic constructions. Each of these bridges has a purpose of connecting communities, enabling safer and faster passage or even to make money through tolls.

Unfortunately not all bridges are built with such noble purposes. There is a history of bridges to nowhere - expensive, pork barrel projects that serve no purpose except for politicians to claim that they have delivered infrastructure for their voters, even if the infrastructure is unwanted. The most famous of these edifices was never actually built - the Gravina Island bridge in Alaska. This project was to cost almost $500M and connect an island with 50 inhabitants to the mainland and shot to fame during the last US presidential election when it turned out that Sarah Palin was strongly in favour of the project.

With that in mind, it came as a surprise to me last week on holidays in Donegal to discover the Harry Blaney bridge that joins Fanad to Carrigart across Mulroy Bay. A little research determined that the bridge was opened in 2008 by Brian Cowen at a cost of about €20M, quite reasonable when compared to Gravina Island.

On the south side, the bridge is connected to the Carrigart to Milford road by a new sweeping stretch of tarmac. The road then rises high into the air over Mulroy Bay and lands in Fanad in the middle of nowhere. There is a good stretch of road up the hill from the bridge for perhaps 300m at which point the road turns into a rural backroad, no more than 3m in width all the way to the R246 about 10km away. I had the pleasure of sitting by the bridge on a nice sunny morning for an hour while I read the newspaper. During this time about 30 cars crossed the bridge along with 3 German tourists on bicycles. The only other traffic was 4 lorries carrying materials for the road widening that is currently underway.

Certainly a more picturesque location or bridge you couldn't imagine. At times I felt like I was in a scene from Sim City where someone had just started laying out their city with a crossing point. I'm sure the bridge is of benefit to the community. It brings people in that part of Fanad close to the shops, post office and Garda station in Carrigart and substantially shortens the distance from the beaches in the north and east of the Fanad peninsula to holiday makers based in Downings and Dunfanaghy but you really have to wonder was this just another example of parish pump politics in action or was there a real demand for the link to be built.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Reform, What could we do tomorrow?

I'm stealing the title of this post from Johnny Fallon's blog, which everyone should read. In his post today, he put together a list of 17 items that could change in the morning that would improve politics in this country without requiring legislation. I'm going to comment on a few of them and hopefully add some more.

From Johnny's list
  1. Return the Dáil to centre of debate and News.
    The relentless press conferences by government ministers announcing (or re-announcing for the 3rd time) various projects without questioning from opposition spokespersons is bad for politics. Bringing these events back to the Dáil is good for democracy. Sure, have a press conference afterwards, but make the initial announcement in the chamber.
  2. Full review of Dáil Standing Orders
    This is one of my pet projects. Standing Orders currently make a mockery of parliament by restricting the number and type of questions that can be put to the executive. The rules about technical groupings for speaking rights is also a farce that silences legitimately elected TDs from participating fully.
  3. Oireachtas Committees to meet in public
    I was at the meeting of the Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution that met in Trinity College earlier in the year. Even though it was a somewhat staged event with prepared presentations from students and pro-forma responses from the members it was a step in the right direction. The Committees are now where most of the review of legislation and policy happens and they should be more open to the public.
  4. Monthly Town Hall style meetings for Ministers
    YAWN It would just turn into a stage managed event only watched by political anoraks. We just got rid of Questions and Answers from RTE, don't bring it back in an online version.
  5. Tie voting into the PPS system
    Fully agree as I posted last October.
  6. State of the nation address
    I still shudder when I see re-runs of the "living away beyond our means" speech that Charlie Haughey made. So I don't want to see this. We already have the budget which is a proxy state of the nation address anyway.

Some other changes I would throw out there include
  1. Default to yes in FOI requests
    While FOI has been butchered by legislation there is still a lot of information that should be in the public domain but is hidden away behind layers of bureaucracy. FOI requests are often rejected for spurious reasons or the key information is redacted to protect the innocent. By default any information asked for should be given. In fact it should go one step further and all Govt departmental memos should be published unless containing commercially sensitive, security/defence information or the like.
  2. Full accounting for political accounts
    This ties into Johnny's point on donations, but I would go further and say every politician's political account should be open to full scrutiny. This should also be extended to central parties, constituency organisations and even branches. Most people won't care, but scrutiny by opposing forces will keep each side honest.
  3. Engage with young people
    That almost sounds patronizing, but if you consider the massive influence that the grey vote has compared to the under 25s contrasted to the massive impact that current policies are having on young people while leaving pensioners relatively unscathed, there is a massive disconnect between politics and young people. And by this I don't mean create a Facebook page and post some cool links on Twitter. Find out what they want and come up with better ways for them to contribute to society.

I'm sure there are loads more but that will do for starters. Any other ideas?

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Reilly ups the ante

In Friday's paper, Mary Minihan reports that Fine Gael are aiming for at least 70 seats in the next general election, with 20 of those in Dublin. With the party already on 51 seats, that means finding an additional 19 seats throughout the county with a doubling of their Dublin representation from the 2007 election. To my mind the first part is plausible but the second is ludicrous.

With a target of only 9 seats outside Dublin, it seems to me that Fine Gael have already capitulated to a Fianna Fáil recovery of sorts in the rest of the country. There are 31 constituencies beyond the Pale most of which have two FF TDs at present. FG should be drawing up a list of 15-20 of these 2nd FFers and targeting them. With Labour's world renowned poor organisation outside of Dublin, FG should be sweeping all before them in its traditional heartland.

In Dublin the position is the opposite. At the moment, Lab is polling way ahead of FG and have the members on the ground to take advantage of the anti-FF swing. In 2007, FG got about 20% of the vote and about 21% of the seats. However, in most constituencies they only ran a single candidate and so in order to win a second seat, additional candidates will need to be added. After the local elections, FG now have a smattering of new faces such as Eoghan Murphy in Dublin South East, but you can be sure that sitting TDs who relied on transfers to get elected in 2007 will be fighting tooth and nail against a strong running mate.

In terms of gains in Dublin, currently FG have no seat in Dublin Central, Dublin Mid West and Dublin North West. Paschal O'Donohue and Frances Fitzgerald should pick up seats in the next election but Bill Tormey will find it hard in Dublin North West. In the locals he polled close to 13% but was outgunned by SF and Lab. It is hard to see both FFs losing their seats so seeing FG gain at the expense of SF or a 2nd Lab seat. Reilly will not bring in a running mate in Dublin North as Lab will retake the seat and Sargent will hold on despite a tough challenge from the Socialists. North Central and North East as two small 3 seaters do not have enough FG votes to win a second. Although Dublin West gains an extra seat it will be taken by Joe Higgins.

On the southside of the city things don't look much better. Had George Lee hung around, Dublin South could have returned three FG seats, but with his departure that now looks unlikely. Dun Laoghaoire going to 4, facing two ministers, another party leader and a strong PBP candidate is not going to work either. South Central will comfortably return Catherine Byrne with the votes from the leafy Terenure end of the constituency but will otherwise be hostile territory with Lab, SF and PBP all looking to mop up the working class vote in Crumlin, Ballyfermot and Drimnagh. It is impossible to see 2 quotas or anything close in South West and as I previously posted I don't see FG winning a 2nd in South East either.

That gives a grand total of 2 gains. Lets be generous and say that they grab another 3 that I have ruled out (say DS, DSE and DNW). That is still only half the target Reilly set which must be seen as either a failure of his deputy leadership or else that an impossible target was set for him by the party strategists. Either way I'd rather not be in his shoes on the day after the count, having failed to deliver the required seats in the capital to allow Enda sweep to power.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Fantasy All Ireland Dail

Seeing as the glorious twelfth has just passed, I thought it might be time to have a little cross-border shenanigans. At some point in the future, 10 years or maybe 100 years, the Good Friday agreement will bring about a united Ireland. When that happens we will have an all-island parliament in the Dáil in which parties from North and South will have to come to some sort of arrangement. So I thought I'd have a look at what a combined parliament would look like.

Firstly, the constitution states that there should be a TD for between every 20k and 30k people. With about 4.2M people in the Republic being represented by 166 TDs that gives a rate of just over 25k per TD, right in the middle of the required limits. Given there are about 1.8M people in the 6 counties, on that ratio there would be 72 northern TDs bringing the total Dáil size to 238 and meaning a coalition would need 119 deputies to take power.

Based on the results of the recent general election results in the north, the 72 seats might be distributed something like the following
  • Sinn Fein, 25.5%, 19 seats
  • DUP, 25%, 18 seats
  • SDLP, 16.5%, 12 seats
  • Conservatives/Unionists, 15.2%, 11 seats
  • Alliance, 6.3%, 4 seats
  • Traditional Unionists, 3.9%, 2 seats
  • Others, 7.6%, 6 seats
Of course, in a unified Ireland it would be expected that the SF/SDLP vote would be higher as a majority would have voted for unification already. But lets just stick with these numbers.

The next question is with which southern parties would these groups align themselves? Sinn Fein are the most obvious as they would join their existing 4 deputies. SDLP are members of the PES like Labour and so would most likely join them, but at the same time they have had links with FF in the past and would be heavily courted. We'll place the Others (which might include an extra Green) with the existing independents and leave the Alliance as a stand alone unit for now.

That leaves the 31 seats representing the Unionist parties. All three would be somewhat aligned with FG on the christian democrat front, but are actually more hostile to each other than most of the other parties, therefore it is impossible to see a situation where they all join with one southern grouping. Therefore I'm going to add the Con/U to FG and then merge the Traditionals with the DUP and leave them as another new grouping. I'm also assigning the by-elections as 1FG, 1Lab, 1SF. This would leave the Dáil looking as follows
  • Fianna Fáil - 72
  • Fine Gael - 63
  • Labour - 32
  • Sinn Féin - 24
  • DUP/TradU - 20
  • Green - 6
  • Alliance - 4
  • Others - 17

Now to look at the horse-trading to form a coalition. Lets assume that FF and FG will still avoid each other and that the DUP will not join with SF (even though they work together in Stormont) but that any other combination is fair game. The simplest option for FF is to rope in Lab and SF and run with a 9 person majority. Alternatively swapping SF for DUP still gives a comfortable majority and has the benefit of being inclusive of the unionist community. FG on the other hand need to cobble together a rainbow of some sort. FG/Lab/SF scrapes in at 119 and so would need to rope in the Greens, Alliance or a smattering of Others to provide stable government. No other combinations get close to the magic figure.

It should be noted, of course, that on current opinion polls, the representation in the South would be drastically different to what is currently in place. Perhaps in another post I'll have a look at how a united Dáil in 2012 would look.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Alternative method of running by-elections

It seems that a large part of the problem with by-elections is that by their nature they go against the principle of proportionality that we like in our politics in Ireland. PR-STV is all well and good when there are loads of seats, but with only a single seat like in by-elections or presidential elections it degenerates into the AV system currently being proposed in the UK. Of course, with only one seat, you can't come up with a proportional election short of electing body parts instead of complete humans.

Is there a reason for holding by-elections at all? At general elections we elect TDs to represent our constituencies roughly in line with the wishes of the electorate. Sometimes quirks of PR-STV throw up odd results but by and large at least on of the group of TDs will represent the party preference of most of the votes cast. Therefore it can be argued that any casual vacancy should be filled by co-option to retain the same party representation. This system operates at City/County Council level and for the EU parliament and seems to function fairly well.

The more radical solution is to start from the premise that we elect TDs as a representative set. Therefore if one goes, they should all go and a full election for the constituency should be run again. This would allow for a change in personnel within parties as well as a change of party strength within the constituency reflecting the whims of the voters. Unfortunately this system would just result in even more parish-pump activity from TDs as there would be an increased chance of being booted from office for dealing with national rather than local issues.

Looking at the three outstanding by-elections under the radical solution you could face the following situation
  • Donegal South West - McGinley and Doherty safely elected with Coughlan facing a challenge from a returning Gallagher. Having the Tánaiste losing her seat would be a huge embarrassment for the government.
  • Waterford - Deasy, O'Shea and one FF seat would be returned. The final seat would be a big scrap between the second FG and Halligan (WP/Ind/PBP depending on the day of the week).
  • Dublin South - this could go anywhere. Two FG, 1 Lab and 1 FF seems likely but after that the final seat is wide open. On the previous by-election figures you'd say FG should get a third, recent opinion polls suggest a second Labour but Eamon Ryan could hang on. There is also an outside chance of a second FF depending on candidate selection.

Regardless of the method used, timing of by-elections should be regulated by either legislation or in the constitution. It is now over a year since the European elections and 4-5 months since the resignations of Lee and Cullen. It is a disgrace that the government can hold the people in contempt for this length of time.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Whip it!

One of my best memories of watching Beavis and Butthead in the early 90's was when Devo's Whip It came on. The poor lads didn't know what to make of the song or the video and the term bumsnoidial buttsnoid was invented. Anyway the relevance of that useful snippet of nostalgia to this blog is the aftermath of the stag hunting bill last week.

The bill, which to my non-expert eye didn't really do that much, ended up being passed in the Dáil despite defections from various quarters. Mattie McGrath (FF) from South Tipperary voted against the bill in the electronic vote and then abstained from the walkthrough that was called. Tommy Broughan (Lab) from Dublin North-East refused to attend the session for either vote and Arthur Morgan (SF) from Louth managed to get himself suspended from the chamber so as not to have to vote against the bill. Then in the Seanad, Labour Senator Ivana Bacik also abstained from the vote on the bill.

After these events, both McGrath and Broughan lost the whip of their respective parties and Bacik found a strongly worded letter in her mail warning her of the consequences of any further non compliance with PLP wishes. Add to these the existing FF outcasts (Butler and Callely in the Seanad with Devins, Scanlon and McDaid in the Dáil) and potential future rebels (Máire Hoctor and Christy O'Sullivan downstairs and Senators Walsh, Hanafin and Ó Murchú upstairs) and all of a sudden there are quite a number of public reps operating outside the party system.

Having lost the whip, these members have to relocate their office to the independents penthouse floor and must resign any seats on committees that they held on behalf of the party. Most importantly, under the D´il Standing Orders they lose speaking rights in the Dáil as they are not a member of a party or technical group with 7 or more members. The goverment will not share time with its own rebels, but at the same time whipless FF TDs are unlikely to join forces with the "real" independents such as Jackie Healy Rae, Finian McGrath or Maureen O'Sullivan and give them a platform from which to attack their erstwhile colleagues in goverment.

The real problem stems from the strict enforcement of the whip system in the Dáil, due to our preference for a minimal sized coalition and lack of large majorities. In the UK there are three levels of whip along with free votes on certain issues. In the Dáil there is always a two line whip in operation with a three line enforced for votes of confidence, finance bills etc. This leads to the daft situation that occurred with the Stag Hunting bill where at least six FF back benchers spoke against the bill but only McGrath followed through on the threat of not supporting. For a bill of this nature that would not collapse the government, surely those who oppose it, whether for moral or political pressures, should be allowed to go with their conscience.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Matter of inches

Last weekend I came within inches and milliseconds of killing someone. I was driving to Sligo and somewhere around Boyle, on the last good stretch of road, I saw a person stopped with a bicycle in the hard shoulder at a junction. Having already passed several groups out cycling in the good weather along the route I guessed that he was part of another set of fundraisers or keep fit enthusiasts. He was well in to the side and the road was wide so I determined that we were no threat to each other.

However, as we got close to the junction (maybe 30m) a young teenager on a bicycle came flying out of a side road heading straight across the N4. I slammed on the brakes leaving a long skid mark along the main road. Luckily the ABS worked fine and I was able to turn towards the hard shoulder. As we passed each other, I was probably still travelling at 80km/h. At that speed, had he traveled 1m less across the road we would have collided and he would be dead. Luckily for him we missed and there was nothing coming the other direction so he lived to tell the tale. I pulled in and stopped, spent five minutes shaking with a huge adrenaline rush and then drove very cautiously for the remaining 20 minutes of the journey.

From my point of view it reinforced several rules of driving
  • Always keep an eye on side roads - if I had just been watching the main carriageway he'd have been flung over my bonnet.
  • Always keep a good distance between you and other vehicles - there was about 40m between me and the car behind so she had plenty of time to react to my immediate braking.
  • Don't drive when tired or after drinking - with slower reaction times I would have spent today at a funeral in Co Roscommon and possibly be facing a court appearance
  • Don't drive a banger - good brakes and functioning ABS were key to the kid's survival

This hasn't put me off driving or made me a more timid driver. I enjoy being on the open road too much. But it does make me wonder a little bit more about road design, especially where minor roads enter a major through route at right angles. Depending on access requirements, a slight curve in the minor road to align it with the major route would avoid direct access to the main carriageway and the runaway bicycle would have ended up either on an embankment or else belting up the hard shoulder. Of course, were cost not an issue, all inter-urban routes should only have grade separated junctions but that's in the realms of fantasy for the foreseeable future.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

New Political Party

I guess it is symptomatic of the silly season, but over the last few weeks, blogs and twitter have been abuzz about the idea of a new political party being formed or a massive revamp of Fianna Fáil from within. Following various articles from left leaning commentators (VinB and FOT) about the possibility of a Labour led government, it comes as no surprise that a letter proposing a new liberal party was published in today's Irish Times.

what is needed is a truly liberal party which would provide a real alternative to the social democratic Labour Party and the centre-right conservatism of both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, now indistinguishable from each other?

Sounds great in principle, a third way, free from historical baggage of the civil war, purely focusing on the liberal agenda and with a strong libertarian streak. In fact, in a way, it is the type of political party that this country has been crying out for. With almost 90 years of uninterrupted, centre-right, conservative rule, politics in Ireland could benefit from a conservative/liberal/socialist split with a smattering of smaller parties like you have in most modern democracies.

The problem is that any new party will struggle, as has most recently been shown by the PDs. Their relatively brief existence certainly shook up the political system for a while, but they never made the major breakthrough and eventually faded to irrelevance for several reasons: their agenda was absorbed by FF and FG, internal fighting between Cox, Harney and McDowell, punishment for acting as the FF mudguard.

A new party has two ways to form, either a disgruntled section of an existing party jump ship or else a grassroots movement eventually evolves into a fully formed party. The former is where the PDs came from, the latter the source of the Greens. There is no great groundswell of support from the general public to a new movement, therefore the only realistic route is through a splinter group from an existing party. Currently it is conceivable that some of the anti-Enda section of FG could bail and be joined by some of the disgruntled FF backbenchers. There are several problems with this scenario though
  1. Neither FG nor FF or its members would be particularly aligned to the liberal movement. Sure FF sit with them in the European Parliament, but that is just to avoid having to sit with the nutjob right group they were in before.
  2. The most likely FF to jump are the likes of Mattie McGrath and John McGuinness, neither of whom have a particularly strong national profile. From the FG benches you might get some of the heavers of last week but probably not Bruton, Varadkar or Kieran O'Donnell. Having no heavy hitter to lead the party would be a problem.
  3. Were even a couple of FF deputies jump ship an election would quickly follow. Running a general election campaign takes between €10k and €30k per candidate. Were the party to contest every constituency they would need around €1 million. No fundraising that is within the SIPO rules could come close to that in the timescale required.
  4. In an election any FF jumpers are still likely to be punished by the electorate for the financial meltdown of the last few years. A wolf in sheep's clothing is still a wolf.

It seems unlikely that we are on the verge of seeing a new political force appear. A long summer recess for FG to heal its wounds, for FF to pray for some economic recovery and for Labour to recharge the batteries for another year of increasing support levels across the country.