Thursday, March 31, 2011

Radio Ga Ga

This morning Pat Kenny hosted a full two hour hustings with as many of the University Senate candidates as he could squeeze into a small room in Buswells Hotel. About 35 candidates attended so we were arranged into six sub-panels of between five and seven people and each group was given about 10-15 minutes. I ended up being placed on the 4th panel that was on just after 11AM with the rest of the "young" candidates.

Apart from being flattered by still being considered young, I ended up not being overly happy with the outcome of the panel. Pat decided to take me to task on being a member of the Labour party rather than focus on what I stand for or might bring to the Seanad in terms of expertise and knowledge. While I can see why this might be of interest, it seems odd that other candidates who are also declared members of parties just had the issue noted and then asked their opinions on issues.

I guess the easiest way out would have been for me to ignore Pat's line of questioning and just go into the zone about the platform on which I am standing. But that just isn't my style. If asked a question I'll give a straight answer even if it doesn't necessarily do me any favours. But that's something that I'm actually proud of - I have principles and I'm happy to stick by them rather than fudge around any issue.

Still it was worth doing if for no other reason than to meet up with many of the other candidates. Some of them I had never met before, others I haven't seen in several years. I guess we'll all meet up in the Exam Hall just after Easter to watch the votes being counted.

Later this evening I ended up back on the airwaves again, this time in my old haunt of Raidio na Life, filling in for Muiris on Scrios agus Ár. That was a far more satisfactory event where I got to blast some of my favourite tunes across the city interspersed with the odd cúpla focal. Its a lot easier to enjoy being on the radio when you're the person in charge of the agenda.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

ECF - the Minister responds

At the outset I have to declare an interest here. As a member of Dublin South East Labour for many years, I know Ruairi Quinn personally. I have campaigned on his behalf on many issues and argued with him on all sorts of topics at constituency meetings. We have shared more than one pint over the years but you would never call us best friends or anything like that.

So when the Employment Control Framework was announced I sent him an email pointing out my concerns, a few links to blog posts from Stephen Kinsella, Ferdinand Von Prondzynski and Eoin O'Dell and suggested to him that it might be an issue to get on top of sooner rather than later. Now obviously he had only been appointed Minister for Education and Skills a few days before so I was not expecting a reply in any great hurry so I was pleasantly surprised to receive a letter from him on the issue.

Stretching to three pages, the letter is far too long to reproduce here, but it is fair to say that Minister Quinn is aware of the problems that the newly drawn up ECF may cause in the sector. He acknowledges that the sector delivered the required savings under the original ECF despite increasing student numbers and that there are now additional requirements on employing non-core staff. This he attributes to the rules set down by the EU/IMF deal. He finished off by saying that he is open to constructive suggestions as to how the ECF can be improved while staying within the financial constraints imposed upon the sector by the current financial situation.

So what's next for the ECF? The HEA released a "clarification" document last week that not only contradicted the new ECF document but contradicted itself in places. If the brains trust of the 3rd level sector can get its act together there is an opportunity to make changes to the ECF that benefit both the state and higher education in Ireland. But we have to act quick - damage is already being done to our international reputation and the longer this drags on the further our status will diminish.

One issue that I would like to see resolved it the issue of contract staff, especially in research. The ECF states that these staff are subject to it because they create a potential deferred pension cost to the state. But it is hard to see how this is the case - they already make a pension contribution, pay PRSI A1 stamp and pay the pension levy as well as the employer paying additional PRSI and pension contributions. This totals to at least 20% if not closer to 25% of their pensionable salary to get a pension of maybe 4/80ths of their salary less the state pension they would get due to their PRSI anyway. That means the net reward from their non-PRSI contributions is zero. Hardly seems like a fair system but then again, is any pension scheme really fair or are they all just Ponzis?

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Comparing Conferrings

Conferrings are the formal end of a persons course of study in a University where the Chancellor or other shakes hands with the graduate and hands over the piece of paper with the magic words written on it. As a TCD graduate and staff member I have attended a good few such ceremonies in the Exam Hall. Way back when I also attended my sister's graduation from St. Patrick's Drumcondra and another when she attended NUI Galway. Then in the last month or so I have attended the DIT ceremony where my mother was awarded an MA and then yesterday I was in the Helix for the DCU conferring where my wife earned her MSc.

It seems to me that the conferring ceremony is a good indicator of the ethos and style of the university. The TCD one, for example, is completely in Latin and formal black-tie is required for all graduands. This matches up with the university's sense of history and pomp. DIT hold their graduations in St Patrick's Cathedral which immediately gives a sense of gravitas but the ceremony itself is held at a fast pace. I also liked that each PhD had a brief synopses of their research read out by their supervisor before receiving their award.

However, of all the events I've attended I think I enjoyed the one in DCU the most. The venue, as a modern concert hall, can't be matched for comfort or sightlines - there isn't a bad seat in the house. There were two interesting speeches during the event from the Chancellor and the President of the university and the post ceremony reception was of the highest quality. The only downside of the DCU graduation is the DCU anthem which was blasted out during the two academic processions - wouldn't be high on my list of favourite songs.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Campaign Costs

In response to Daniel Sullivan's excellent suggestion to put all donations and expenditure in the public domain, here is the breakdown for my campaign.


  • Litir Um Thoghchan - 1500
  • Envelopes, paper, printer toner - 70
  • Stamps - 200
  • Website hosting and domain - 80


  • Time spent on website design and implementation (6 hours) - 300

Thats it. All expenses have been met from my own meagre savings. No cash donations have been sought or accepted.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Risk versus Reward

Fintan O'Toole, a man for whom I have a lot of time, has an interesting article in today's Irish Times. His opening statement reads "Economic and scientific elites are prey to delusions that the unlikely will not happen. The rest of us pick up the pieces when it does."Fintan then proceeds to dazzle us with some armchair mathematics about million to one chances coming true. The main thrust of his argument is that because rare events don't occur often enough for us to classify them we can't make estimations on the likelihood of them occurring in the future.

He mentions the odds of six specific horses winning at Cheltenham as being 1.5 million to one. Fair enough. But the odds of any six specific horses winning would also be quite high. Not following horse racing I can't comment on the specifics, but lets say there were 10 horses in each race and each horse is exactly identical then each set of six winners is equally likely. In my scenario there are exactly 1 million outcomes so no matter which set of six winners occurred that's a one in a million chance. But one of those outcomes has to occur so why do we draw any special inference on that particular outcome? Because we're human and like to see patterns in chaos.

The other thing to note is that Fintan falls into another common trap by selectively picking his data points. Lets say Cheltenham ran for 5 days, 8 races per day, 10 horses per race, 3 Irish horses per race, all horses equally likely to win. Then the odds of there being a day where there were six Irish winners is given by our good old friend the binomial distribution and works out around 2% per day or about 9% over the course of the festival. All of a sudden that's pretty far away from the million to one odds that were being quoted earlier on.

EDIT: Just looked at my spreadsheet again - the 2% and 9% figures are for 1/3 horses being Irish. If there are 3/10 Irish horses then the figures are 1% and 5.5% respectively but they are still orders of magnitude greater than a million to one.

Later in the article he state the design of the Fukushima reactors "did not take account of the possibility of an earthquake beyond what had ever been experienced before being combined with a tsunami." If that is so, and I have seen nothing elsewhere that backs this statement up, it is a damning indictment of Japanese engineering practices 40 years ago. But I seriously doubt this is actually true when one considers the amount of effort that Japan invests into earthquake and tsunami defense.

The biggest failing of Fintan's article is that he ends up saying we should be subservient to Sods Law and that to challenge the status quo is in some way hubris. This I emphatically object to. The path of progress has always been risky. The Wright Brothers were not the first people to try to fly and many died before them trying. Many have died since in aviation accidents but we don't think twice about jumping on a Ryanair flight to see a football match in a foreign country.

Similarly nuclear power is not without its risks. The specter of a reactor meltdown or a dirty bomb immediately sends shivers up the spine. However, when compared to other sources of energy it has a pretty good track record. Despite the good news story of the Chilean Miners last year, coal mining and pollution from coal burning power plants still kill thousands every year. The Gulf Oil spill caused massive ecological damage and lets not even touch the whole Iraq issue in terms of lives lost.

We need to have a sensible, rational discussion about the issues surrounding nuclear power but articles like this should be called out for what they are - FUD.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Its all about the balls

Last night I got to see one of the truly great bands perform in Dublin. Accept, the German dinosaurs, rolled into town and blew the roof off the Village. For a band that started out almost 35 years ago they still know how to rock. Below the fold is a video of one of their most famous songs, Princess of the Dawn, but to get the full effect of last night you need to treble the volume and then add some more.

Accept's other main classic is the tune Balls to the Wall which was brought to every teenager's attention in the early 90s by Beavis and Butthead. I know I've mentioned the dynamic dunces before but I guess I'm just a product of my time. Anyway, the reason why I bring it up is that I also thought that was going to be the theme tune for the earlier part of the day when Ireland took on England in Lansdowne Road in the last round of the 6 Nations.

But how wrong was I in that prediction? For the first time this season everything clicked. The opening 40 minutes was incredible to watch and but for a few tight calls and loose passes we could have had another 15-20 points on the board. Maybe it just is the Old Enemy, 800 Years of Oppression stuff that fires up the team, but in the modern game, played by professionals that should not make the difference. All of a sudden I'm beginning to regret my decision not to go to New Zealand for the World Cup, but I guess if the Seanad is in session then it'd be a bit rich for me to be skiving off for a month or more.

Also being held last night was the annual Irish Blog Awards. The only link to the title is that it was held in a function room that could also double up as a Ballroom - tenuous, I know, but cut me a little slack! Glad to see that the Cedar Lounge Revolution picked up the best political blog award. I don't always agree with what they're saying but they are always thought provoking and their two repeat columns Meanwhile, back at the Seanad and Sunday Independent Stupid Statement of the Week always entertain. Good job comrades!

Back to normality tomorrow, when I'm going to have a look at some more of the crazy stuff related to 3rd level that has been coming out over the last few days.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

ECF - Letter to the Editor

Here is the text of a letter I sent to Madame l'Editoir yesterday. James McInerney from NUI Maynooth has an excellent letter on the subject published today.


The third-level sector, unlike primary and secondary education, competes on a global stage. We need high quality teaching and research to attract the best students and staff from around the world. It is therefore with some dismay that I read about the extended Employment Control Framework that was introduced in the dying hours of the Fianna Fail government (Sean Flynn 15/3/11).

This framework plans to ban all promotions and make all employment subject to temporary or fixed-term contracts even in cases where the funding is not from the exchequer. These other funding sources include industrial contracts, EU partnerships and fees from overseas students. We will lose existing staff to foreign universities where promotion and academic freedom are allowed and encouraged. Who in their right mind would take up a post in an Irish university under these conditions? The knock on effect is that we will also lose our best students to foreign universities and they will not be here to contribute to Ireland's economic recovery.

If we truly values our education system and the benefits that derive from it, then the newly elected government would do well to rescind the ECF in its current form and work with the universities rather than impose draconian measures that do not address the core issues that face the sector.

Yours, etc,

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Employment Control Framework

Over the last few years, the public sector has been working under what is called the Employment Control Framework. This document put in place strict rules about appointments and promotions in the sector where exchequer funding was being spent. This was an attempt to control the public wage bill from continuing to grow. In 3rd level this has been difficult to deal with as it made academic promotion almost impossible, hiring of research staff took forever to be approved even for fixed term hires and all contract staff in support sections were let go.

Now it transpires that in the dying moments of the last government a new framework was announced that will last from 2011-2014. This version puts even further restrictions on the freedom of the universities to manage their own employment matters even where the funding is not from the exchequer - EU funding, philanthropic donations or postgraduate and overseas student fees. This is extremely worrying for the third level sector in Ireland.

This new document is an attack on the autonomy of the institutions covered by the Universities act. It is using the economic situation as an excuse for the HEA and by extension the Dept of Education to take control of third level. They are looking to put in place a system not unlike the teachers panels that operate at primary and secondary level where staff can be redeployed between schools. So if a position is funded in UCD say, they have to ask all the other institutions if they have spare staff who can be transferred before being allowed to take on new people. This is the complete antithesis of the academic way where all appointments should be made on the back of an open competition to hire the best person for the job.

The net result of the extended framework will be the continued erosion of our standing in the international academic community. We will lose existing staff to foreign universities where promotion and academic freedom are allowed and encouraged. We will also not be in a position to attract the best lecturers and researchers to our universities. The knock on effect of this is that we will also lose our best students to foreign universities and they will not be here to take up positions in the Smart Economy.

The university sector as a whole needs to stand up against the extension of the framework. I call on the new Minister for Education to make a statement on the matter as soon as possible. If this is the last sting of a dying Fianna Fáil wasp then it can be overturned. However, if it is retained as government policy in its current state then it shows that the new administration is, as the previous one did, only paying lip-service to the notion of a high quality education system.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Progressive and in the Seanad!?

The question was asked, "how can you be a progressive if you want to be in the Seanad?" The implication of course is that only boring, old, conservatives would want to be in the Seanad. Based on the current inhabitants, with notable exceptions, that may be a fairly accurate description but that is more down to the way the chamber is currently filled rather than the type of people who might want to be involved.

What do I mean when I claim to be progressive? Progressivism is the acceptance that the world is changing and that politics needs to keep up. It is the happy medium between conservative inertia and reactionary zeal. It is the path that leads to Now, more than ever, we need to be forward looking and willing to take hold of the opportunities that present themselves. Society will march forward with out without politics. It is the responsibility of politics to keep up with this change and create policy and legislation that enables and facilitates this progress.

Progressivism is often co-aligned with liberalism but it doesn't need to be. However, I have no qualms about also firmly identifying myself as a social liberal and will fight for equality and social justice if elected to the Seanad. On the economic front I am not a free-marketeer. While I accept the right of the marketplace to determine the levels of supply and demand for, and hence the costs of, goods and services, it needs to be properly regulated and supervised to protect the interests of the population at large rather than the interests of the few.

Hopefully this at least partially addresses the original question. As always, comments welcome either here or via twitter!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Habemus Taoiseach

It should come as no surprise to people that both Fine Gael and Labour have accepted the draft programme for government and that the parties will now elect Enda Kenny as Taoiseach on Wednesday when the 31st Dáil assembles. Once the dust settled at the count centres on Saturday week last this was the inevitable result. The negotiations between the parties may have been difficult but there was no doubt that a joint platform would be agreed.

The real question is whether it is a blue document with red input or vice-versa. Both sides, at their respective ratification events yesterday, claimed that the Programme for Government was implementing the majority of their election manifesto. Considering the acrimonious campaigning between FG and Lab in the run up to the election it seems surprising that both manifestos can be equally accommodated in the agreed PfG.

While obviously the document is a compromise from both sides here are a few of the key items I am disappointed in
  • Healthcare - although claimed as a Labour victory, having competing, for-profit insurers is the key difference between the parties. Not happy with that at all.
  • Water Charges - like bin charges, this will start off with the promise of more than enough for everyone and waivers for the poor but will slowly be eroded over time to raise additional revenue.
  • Reform - the headlong charge into reform continues without actually describing the problems and what we want to solve. Solutions without definition usually cause more problems in the end.
  • Sale of State Assets - I guess it comes down to what is deemed strategic, but I do worry about the privatization agenda.

While I voted against accepting the document, I am happy to give both sides the benefit of the doubt for the moment. Let's see what happens over the next few months as the parties settle themselves down to putting the country back on track.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Too legit to quit

Ah MC Hammer, where are you now? Apart from his awesome (?!) "U Can't Touch This" song with the video featuring super baggy pants, "Too legit to quit" is probably one of his most famous songs. Well as and from now that has become my catchphrase as I have been successfully nominated as one of 20 candidates for the 3 Seanad seats in the Dublin University constituency. Maybe I should take the song on as my campaign tune!

Anyhow, yesterday was a day of mixed emotions. Having signed up all my nominators and assentors I delivered the paperwork to the deputy returning officer at 10am in the Arts Building conference room. They took my email and phone number and said they'd be in contact. Then nothing happened. For ages. And ages. The deadline came and went without a sound from anyone. Luckily I had a couple of meetings to attend and so I wasn't left watching the clock.

At about 3 or so I saw some tweets indicating that 20 candidates had been nominated for the DU election. Surprisingly, or maybe not, various media outlets had been sent a release with the candidate names before the candidates themselves were informed. Luckily within the hour I received an official notification of my successful nomination.

Over the course of the evening I received various messages of support by phone, email, facebook and twitter, some from old friends, some from people I have never met before. It is heartening to feel that the efforts I am making are resonating with at least part of the electorate. I realize that I don't have the high profile of some of the other candidates, but I hope that people will take the time to read about the candidates and vote for candidates that share their viewpoint.

The campaign website is almost ready to go. I just need to find time to take a few photographs and then we'll be in business. Over the weekend I also need to finalize the Litir Um Thoghchan as it needs to be delivered to An Post before the end of next week. Whatever else happens, I'm not going to be kept idle for the foreseeable future.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Review of election prediction

Just before the Dáil was dissolved I had a go at predicting the results of the general election. It seems only fair to review how I got on.

Fine Gael

Predicted 63, won 76. Well that was pretty far out. They did far better in both rural and urban areas than I thought. Four seats in Mayo and three in places like Wicklow, Cavan/Monaghan and Dublin South helped the cause. Pretty much everything that could have gone right did go right. A huge seat bonus over their 1st preference vote.


Predicted 42, won 37. Not too far off. With some better vote management there could have been another three or four seats. Looked like being closer to 30 a week before polling so a good recovery.

Fianna Fáil

Predicted 32, won 20. I had them holding 6 in Dublin when they only landed one. Elsewhere the swing to FG and gene-pool independents cost them dearly.

Sinn Féin

Predicted 14, won 14. Bang on! Except I went for two in Cavan/Monaghan and one in Wexford before the Wallace appearance and didn't see the Cork East or Sligo/North Leitrim ones.


Predicted 1, won 0. I thought they would hold Sargent's seat but they didn't. With less than 2% of the national vote the also lost state funding. Sad day for them.


Predicted 4, won 4. Woohoo! Exactly right.


Predicted 10, won 15. The hardest group to call right as in most places I have no local knowledge. Didn't think Ming would do it and Wallace hadn't declared when I did this.

Overall I'd have to give myself about a C on this. Did ok on the minor groupings but didn't see the big swing to FG or think that FF would have been so toxic on the day.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011


On first glance the process of getting on the ballot paper for the Seanad election seems pretty trivial. All you need are a nominator, a seconder and then eight assentors all of whom are on the register of electors. Compared to the large number of signatures (or cash payment) required for the General Election or the even more restrictive rules for the Presidency, that seems fairly straight forward.

That is until you actually try to get all the names on a single sheet of paper in a short period of time. Of course the blame for that lies fairly squarely on my shoulders for not having organized this months ago but people do seem to have the most annoying habit of being out of town at exactly the wrong time. Secondly the 10 people all have to remember at which address they have registered their vote for the Seanad election. With most of my supporters being around my age people have moved house several times since registering. Unless they have registered their parents house or equivalent then their name may have been struck off the register without them even realizing.

So the plan is to head into the nomination office at 10am tomorrow when it opens. If I discover that someone is not on the register or has given the incorrect address then it gives me two hours to solve the problem. Hopefully it won't come to that though. Next up I have to have to traditional mug-shot taken for the ballot paper. Wonder if its more a hair up or a hair down type of a day ...

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Moving up to Honours

The name of this blog is a throw back to my school days when students who weren't particularly good at the subject at hand took the pass level paper. In more politically correct times this has become the ordinary level paper but to people of my vintage it'll always be "doing pass". As someone who isn't very good at it, pass level politics seemed like a good name to have.

However, now I have decided to throw my hat in the ring for the DU Seanad election which is the equivalent of moving up to the honours class. At the moment the country is crying out for new faces, new names and new ideas. I want to be able to say that I did my part by putting myself in front of the TCD Alumni and asking for their vote. Readers of the blog will know my stance on most issues but I will be putting formal policy statements together over the next few days.

I am under no illusions that this is going to be an simple election. There will be many other fine candidates putting their names forward each with their own unique take on things. I feel that I have the ideas and drive to follow through and be a strong voice for a more rational, progressive Ireland. At the moment I am finalizing my paperwork and getting the campaign website together which should be ready for launching by the weekend. If anyone feels like lending a hand please let me know - the more the merrier as they say!