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.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Unions Capitulate

Well it was always going to end this way. Despite the early results from the frontline groups such as teachers and the lower paid clerical staff, the vast swathes of mid-grade pen-pushers in the larger unions carried the Croke Park deal. So now we're in for a few years of the reform agenda with the promise of no further cuts (subject to national finances).

The gap in the public finances should be tackled from both ends - costs need to be reduced, but at the same time putting more people back to work reduces Welfare costs and increases tax revenues. Agreeing to hold public sector pay static until 2014 and rely on natural wastage in the system is not going to help close the gap much. It is also landing the next government with a time-bomb. By 2012/13 the agreement will more than likely need to be broken and FF will start playing politics again blaming FG/Lab/whoever for stabbing the public sector workers.

Of course the really interesting part is what will happen with the teachers and other groups that rejected the deal. Will they go along with the majority vote in ICTU or will they continue their actions against the cutbacks? If the disputes continue, will the government declare the unions as rogue and start implementing forced redundancies and cuts on their members? There will be some heated debates within the teachers' unions over the summer break to come up with a workable strategy that protects their and the students' interests without alienating an already hostile private sector.

Just for the record, as a SIPTU member in higher education, I voted against the deal.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The old heave ho

All the talk of the last few days has been about the results of Friday's opinion poll in the Irish Times that put Labour as the most supported party in the state. Even allowing for IPSOS/MRBI's probably flawed method of allocating undecideds, the core vote for each party still puts Labour top of the heap by a point. But the most interesting outcome has been the inevitable talk of replacing the leaders of both FF and FG.

Enda Kenny, for all his organisational skills, has not sold himself to the floating voter. In a time period where FF's vote has collapsed to less than half their election result only two years ago, FG have not made the required inroads and a lot of that is down to Kenny's performance. He gets a lot of credit for bringing FG back from the brink in 2002 but his time is up. The difficulties come up when you try to figure out who should take over at the helm.

The obvious candidate is Richard Bruton. As deputy leader and finance spokesman has been a good performer in the Dáil, jointly attacking Brian Lenihan with Labour's Joan Burton on all things economic. As a Dublin based candidate he might also help revive the party in the capital and push them back up towards Labour's level of support. The downside is that a Dublin leader will not attract the rural vote, but his name and his brother John's farming background might reduce that effect. Were Bruton to take the top job, FG's biggest problem is who to put into the finance role - it is unclear that there is an obvious candidate for that position.

After that it is hard to come up with potential candidates. The right-wing section of the party would love to put Leo Varadkar in charge but that would alienate large swathes of the voters. The rural section would be very against a Dublin leader and so might look to someone like Simon Coveney or Phil Hogan. Of the Dublin TDs, Alan Shatter has been very vocal on the Children's Rights issues and Brian Hayes has built up good support in a traditionally FG unfriendly area in Tallaght but neither of them at the moment have a national profile that would be required to lead FG into a general election.

So really it all points to Bruton. The next week will be interesting. If the motion of no confidence in Cowen passes then Kenny becomes Taoiseach after an election and the heave never happens. If the motion is defeated, and it probably will be, then Enda Kenny will have to fight hard for his political career.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

School's out

No more pencils, no more books, no more teacher's dirty looks.

Thus sang Alice Cooper back in 1972 and it is also the tune being sung by thousands of teenagers as the second level school year comes to an end. Those who are starting the Leaving Certificate today are probably too busy panicking to be humming 40 year old ditties but they are facing into a tough few weeks followed by a period of uncertainty until the CAO offers come out in August.

The real issue with the Leaving is whether it is still fit for purpose. There are between 50k and 60k students sitting the exam every year and the results of the exam are used to place these students into assorted college and PLC courses. Is it right that someone's entire life and career is based on how they handled the stress of two weeks in one June? Probably not. But there is no open and transparent alternative. Either we bring back interviews for college places which will push 3rd level institutions passed breaking point with the increased workload or else we scrap the exams and introduce in-class, continuous assessment by teachers which will be wide open to accusations of bias.

The other issue that always crops up at this time of year is grade inflation. Looking at the results each year there is an inexorable trend to higher marks, but the rate is slow. So for most students it doesn't make a difference. You only need to benchmark yourself against your own year, and possibly the year ahead or behind you depending on circumstances. How many CAO applicants are going to be using a set of results from 2000 against this years class? Somewhere in double digits at most I would reckon.

So good luck to those sitting the exams. They'll be over soon and you can get on with the rest of your life. With luck you can be finishing the song come August. School's out forever, school's been blow to pieces.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Farmers milking it

There is a brief report in the Irish Times today outlining the payments made to various landowners in respect of the Gort bypass on the N18. The payout for land was €37.7M for a road scheme approximately 23km in length. With the overall cost of the road being €207.5M, this means that the land cost came in at approximately 18% which initially doesn't look like an outrageous cut of the costs.

In standard EU motorway construction each lane is 3.65m in width. Therefore, it is safe to assume that the mainline of the route is about 50m in width (2 lanes + hard shoulder in each direction comes to 22m, then allow for central median and edging). This makes the total area of land covered by the purchase just over 1.1M m2 or around 280 acres of agricultural land. When the amount paid for the land is divided evenly by this area, it puts the price at around €135k per acre.

This is a complete rip off as the average price for agricultural land in Ireland is somewhere between €10k and €15k per acre. Why do the NRA continue to pay massive premiums on land required for vital infrastructure? It can't be argued that split land becomes unusable since as part of the scheme, multiple access roads, bridges, underpasses and culverts will be provided to allow the continued agricultural use of the land as part of the remaining €170M. It's plain and simple, the farmers are yet again taking the tax payer for a ride and we're just letting them away with it.

If only there was some sort of report, say by someone called Kenny, which could be implemented to limit the massive windfalls on land prices. The state should not continue to line the pockets of a small few who happen to live in the right place at the right time.