Sunday, December 9, 2012

Calling time after the budget

The budget last week has been rightly called the worst austerity budget yet. There are so many odious measures in the proposals that have either not been considered properly from an equality and anti-poverty perspective or the alternative, which is even worse, is that conscious choices were made by Fine Gael and Labour to further punish those on low incomes. I would like to believe the Bonaparte statement applies in this case: "never attribute to malice what can be explained by incompetence" but my fears are that this budget is very much the result of planing by Government.
Top of my list of awful measures is the cut to the carers respite grant. Of all the people society should be supporting, those who look after the sick, disabled and terminally ill are amongst the most important. The measure of a civilized society is in how it looks after the most vulnerable, and if we don't properly support those who care for the most vulnerable with suitable breaks and respite, then we are effectively punishing the recipients of this care. For an overall saving of around €25M this measure can only be seen as cruel and miserly.
Next on my hitlist is the removal of the PRSI allowance. Any measure which impacts identically on people who earn €20k and €200k is not fair by any measure. Lower income earners feel the loss of €5 per week a lot more than higher earners. It can be the difference between putting on the heat in the morning and sending the kids to school from a cold house. For better off people (me included) it is the choice of not having an extra pint on a Friday night in the pub.
The introduction of a property tax is to be welcomed but yet again the government have made the wrong choice in the matter. Instead of a site-value tax which encourages efficient use of zoned land, they have gone for a property-value tax. Now when a homeowner invests in double-glazing, an extension or an attic conversion for their home, the have the dubious benefit of increasing their tax liability for all eternity. The property-value tax also has no impact on zoned but unused land. A site-value tax would encourage this land to be developed or rezoned back to non-development status. Instead we still have massive land bank, zoned for residential use, that sit idle waiting for the next boom. I guess most of those are in the ownership of FG voters.
Other measures that are wrong in my view are the cut to child benefit (should be taxed instead), further increases in DIRT (shouldn't we be encouraging saving?), increase in the student charge at 3rd level (the funding of the whole sector needs to be reviewed) and the reduction in the time period in which jobseekers benefit is given.
I'm no economist, but even I can see that the net effect of this budget is further hardship for those at the bottom with those nearer the top getting away pretty lightly. I'm part of a pretty well paid, double-income, single kid, negative equity household and we could definitely afford to have been squeezed a good bit more. Over the course of the recession our lifestyle has changed (fewer pub nights) and our expenses have increased (child care) but we still have enough to get by on quite comfortably. It is not true to say that everyone is feeling the pain equally. Those at the bottom, whose voices tend not to get heard are being punished the most.
This is something that Labour should not be tolerating, let alone being complicit in. Our leadership has failed the membership and those who voted for them. It is time now for the party to take a long hard look at our continued participation in this government. It is clear that our views and policies are being ignored by Fine Gael and it might be best for everyone if they were let run the place as they see fit. Yes, an election in February/March would destroy the parliamentary party and probably see an FG minority govt propped up by Fianna Fail, but it is about the only honest way forward for a Labour Party that has betrayed so many people.
In the future, voting no to coalition in the O'Reilly Hall will be like having been in the GPO on Easter Monday. Everyone will claim to have been part of that faction. Well I was one and at the time I accepted the will of the majority (85%) of the delegates and adopted a wait and see attitude. Now it is clear that our greatest fears have come to pass and no amount of "It would be worse if we weren't there" can make that better. This has been a massively blue budget, just like the PfG was a blue document. We in Labour should stop deluding ourselves to think we can curb the excesses of FG and actually implement any sort of progressive platform with our coalition "partners".

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The most boring election ever

I have avoided posting anything about the US election for all sorts of reasons. The two main candidates are both awful, the soundbytes are nauseating, the jingoism is unbearable. But mainly I haven't cared that much because this election has pretty much been a foregone conclusion for the last 18 months.
The Republicans spent all of 2011 and most of 2012 tearing strips off each other in the attempt to pick a candidate. They ended up with Romney who ended up taking most of the flak in the endless GOP debates. But given the opposition, especially Cain, Bachmann, Gingrich and Perry, that came as no surprise. On the other side you had a slew of big name Democrats clearly declaring they weren't even going to challenge Obama in the primaries.
So it should come as no surprise, as polling stations open in the US, that Obama is being given somewhere around an 80-85% chance of being re-elected. The crazies in the GOP be they Tea Partiers, Birthers, Religious Right, Creationists and what not have alienated many potential centre-right voters who will either stay at home or vote Obama.
The other key thing to note is the inherent bias in the electoral college system towards the Democrats. The winner takes all system provides a huge head start to Obama in guaranteeing him New York, California and Illinois of the big states (104 votes already) whereas apart from Texas (38 votes) all the guaranteed Red states are pretty small in electoral college votes. The New York Times has a great visualization of just how difficult it is for Romney to win even with 9 swing states in play.
So four more years of Obama. Well it's better than four years of Romney but then what wouldn't be better than a Romney presidency? I guess we can look forward to a few less wars, a few more rights for women and the gay community. But the US is still going to remain a very divided country both along the Red/Blue divide and the 1%/99% divide. Maybe in 2016 when we get a Hilary Clinton v Chris Christie or Marco Rubio contest we might actually have something to watch. Tonight I'll definitely be going to bed early.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Big Phil's latest missed opportunity

I was recently watching an old episodes of Yes, Prime Minister where the topic of local government reform came up. Hacker initially thinks that it is a great idea, Sir Humphrey obviously takes the opposite point of view. Add a militant socialist councillor and the usual confusion from Bernard and by the end of it Hacker is bamboozled into reversing his position. (Full recap here.). After today's announcement of Local Government reform by Phil Hogan, one has to wonder if a similar scene has played out over the last year or so in the Custom House.
After years of neglect, cuts in funding, cuts in services and cuts in power held by locally elected representatives, local government in Ireland was prime for transformation. Similar to how Telecom Eireann skipped about 3 generations of technology in their modernisation in the late 80s and early 90s, we could have catapulted Ireland's local government regime to the top of the class. We could have skipped various failed models tried in other countries and built a best-of-breed system fit for the 21st Century - local issues being decided by local reps and paid for by locally raised taxes.
Instead we see a continued assault on local democracy in the name of "savings". Sure we currently have too many county, borough and town councils for the activities that they are permitted to carry out. But is putting more and more of that power into the hands of unelected and unaccountable officials in the councils or the Department of Environment really a good idea? We have only recently seen the mess the officials have made of waste in Dublin with both the incinerator and the Greyhound privatization despite the countless votes against both actions by the elected representatives.
In my ideal world local government should have responsibility for the following
  • Commercial and Domestic Waste - service can be part or fully privatized but the terms should be set locally
  • Mains and Waste Water - collective operations with neighbouring councils for economies of scale
  • Primary and Secondary Education - how many, what size, where and what ethos (or preferably secular)
  • Community Policing - big ticket items like fraud, drugs, murders etc dealt with nationally but local authority should be able to "purchase" additional policing above a base line
  • Zoning - drawing up the development plan for the county/city but then leaving the individual planning to the professionals under a certain threshold
  • Local taxation - property, sales, hotel bed whatever. Local funds raised from local community
One good proposal is the power for each local authority to set property taxes in their area. However, we still have to see if the property taxes raised will actually flow in full to the authority in which they are raised. I am still dubious that there won't be a transfer from urban to rural to ensure the continuation of a library in Clare or a fire service in Leitrim. Secondly, no timescale for this devolution has been given - this is a matter for government according to the Minister. But isn't he part of the government? Couldn't he have included a timetable in his major announcement today?
On a practical note, when you exclude the town/borough councillors, the number of councillors will actually increase from 883 to 950. Assuming that there is some rebalancing of councillor numbers in line with population, it means that Dublin City Council is likely to increase in number from the current 52 to somewhere around 70 members, with similar increases in the other Dublin councils. From a very parochial point of view, it means the extended Dublin South East (sorry Bay South) is likely to now return 12 and so we could see the formation of two 6-seaters or three 4-seaters.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

May you live in interesting times

So as one might imagine, the last week has been one of those glued to the coverage week as various storylines were picked up again after the long summer break in the political soap opera that is Ireland.


The major plot twist is of course the resignation of Roisin Shortall from her role as junior minister in the Dept of Health. The truth of the matter is that the wrong minister has been forced out in this instance. James Reilly's shenanigans at getting some extra resources allocated to his constituency is exactly the sort of stuff we used to give out about with Fianna Fail and the Healy-Rae clan. What is even worse is his attempts to cover it up with bluster about Shortall's manipulation of the criteria for selection when the paperwork shows that this is patently false.
But the real failing here is with the leadership of the Labour party. Gilmore and his handlers should have marched down to Hawkins House and gone though Reilly. They had the high moral ground here, had public support (except maybe in Dublin North), and most importantly they would have been in the right. Enda Kenny should have been given an ultimatum of Reilly or no coalition and given 12 hours to mull it over. And then they should have had the backbone to follow through. Instead, the wise heads in Ely Place decided to shaft one of our most able politicians for the sake of not upsetting Fine Gael.
I would advise anyone who hasn't heard it yet to listen back to Shortall on the Marian Finucane show from this morning. She certainly doesn't hold back. Now we have Alex White promoted to the open slot in Health. While I am sure he'll do fine, he was actually a very good chair of the Finance Committee and will most likely have to give up leading the Labour delegation on the constitutional convention. We might have been best served leaving him where he was.

Phil Hogan

I don't even know where to begin on this one. Hogan has been a disaster since the day he took office. Between septic tanks, the household charge and the planning enquiries he has been an inverse Midas, where everything he has touched turned to shit. Now the story comes out that he wrote a pretty offensive letter about a family of travellers to some local constituents promising that they wouldn't be housed by the local authority. Whatever about the problem of the Minister interfering in the activities of local government that reports back to his Department, the contents and tone of the letter and representations are a disgrace. He's another one who should no longer be holding office, but instead his loyalty to Enda during the 2010 heave is still being paid back

March for Choice

The one bright light of the last week was today's successful pro-choice march through the streets of Dublin. Despite some well known commentators saying there were less than 30(!) people there, I estimated about 2000 or so marchers, with the organizers claiming 5000. Hopefully this can be the start of a real campaign to get legislation passed on X and ABC before moving on to a more liberal abortion regime not wrapped up in false claims around mother's health. Congratulations are due to Sinead Redmond and the rest of the pro-choice activists. The ball is now firmly in Ivana Bacik's court once the expert report is released some time in the very near future.

Confucius never had it so right - it is a curse to live in interesting times.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Ich bin ein Hamburger

This past week I've been in Hamburg attending this year's edition of the Digital Humanities conference. In fact this is the first time I have actually spent any length of time in a German city, with all my previous visits to Germany ending up in a field drinking beer and listening to loud music. Well except for the three week stint in a summer camp in the middle of nowhere as a teenager but that's a story for another time.
While wandering around the Free and Hanseatic City, to give Hamburg it's full title, I couldn't help starting to compare what I saw with Dublin. Now as a short term visitor I can't comment on health care, taxation, employment opportunities or any of those sort of longer term issues. However, a couple of things really struck me, mainly on the transportation front.
Firstly, Hamburg is yet another continental city where public transport just works. There's no fuss, it just operates as expected. In fact, if I had been brave enough I could have travelled on the trains all week without buying a ticket as there are no barriers and I have never been stopped by an inspector. But people still buy tickets at the vending machines before boarding. Good luck getting that to work in Dublin. But it's not just the public transport. My hotel is opposite the Hertz Tower which is maybe 2km from the very centre of the city and on a major inbound artery past Dammtor. At no stage during my visit did I ever see a traffic jam, and there have been two very wet mornings which would have seen bumper to bumper back home, even during the school holidays.
Cycling is another thing that is massively different here. It is acceptable, almost encouraged, to cycle on the footpaths. Pedestrians and cyclists have realized that the motor vehicle is the common enemy, not each other. So pedestrians move over when they see an approaching bike or hear a bell from behind. Cyclists for their part don't pretend like they're in a Tour de France time trial and somehow manage to stop at red lights without turning in to pumpkins. It's all very civilized and people seem the better for it.
Hamburg is also spotless. I went for a stroll from my hotel down to the water front and then back up through St Pauli. Every street was litter free. The waterfront itself was actually terribly pleasant with decking right down at river level. Despite the expensive food stalls and tacky merchandise stands the stroll by the river is very enjoyable, right up until the heavens open and you end up having to dive into a bar for a beer to stay dry - such are the trials in life!
So would I live here? Maybe, but not until I had learned more than "ein bier bitte" and "wo ist der bahnhof" and based on my recent language acquisition trend that isn't likely to be any time soon. I'll be hanging out in dirty, dysfunctional Dublin for a little while yet. 

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Constituency Commission report

Back around the New Year, between washing bottles and changing nappies, I wrote a series of posts that formed the text of my submission to the Constituency Commission that were reviewing the boundaries of Dáil constituencies. Finally, after the Fiscal Compact referendum was dealt with, the Commission has reported. I'm not going to go over the report in exacting detail, rather I'm going to make a few general observations and then pick out a few interesting details.
Firstly, the Commission has really missed an opportunity to undertake serious reform of the electoral landscape. As my submission showed, it is possible to maximize the number of five seat constituencies without breaching the guidelines much more than the Commission have in their own report. Taking south Dublin as an example, they have butchered an existing five seater into a three seater their attempts to keep a viable Dun Laoghaire and expand Dublin South West. This missed opportunity is even more clear in the European constituencies. As the Commission note themselves, most of the submissions received suggested a move to 3 four seaters but they have plumped for leaving things as is, not withstanding the fact that this leaves Dublin under represented by almost 11%.
The big losers in this redrawing are FG. Most constituencies that have been severely changed seem to hit them the hardest and any improvements are not sufficient to pick up additional seats. While again the Dublin South example springs to mind, the same is true in Donegal where Dinny McGinley's seat could be vulnerable to a small FF bounce in the newly extended five seater. Similarly they are fairly banjaxed around Cork city with the loss of a lot of Jerry Buttimer's natural territory to North Central.
The largest number of submissions to the Commission were on the Swords issue and having ignored the issue last time out, I am glad that Swords has been reunited into a single constituency. Less pleasing to me is the pandering to the upwardly mobile of East Kimmage, or West Terenure as they call themselves, and their inclusion into the stupidly named Dublin Bay South. From a personal point of view it makes it almost impossible to hold two Labour seats in the constituency short of a miracle. Creighton and Murphy must be celebrating this evening with Andrews having a tipple or two as well.
So what's next? The Oireachtas has to now enact an Electoral Act that enshrines these new boundaries into law. It is almost beyond contemplation that the recommendations would be tinkered with by the Oireachtas, thereby undermining the independence of the review. But based on Phil Hogan's recent track record one can never be too sure, even though his own Carlow-Kilkenny constituency is left unchanged.
The local election boundaries will also have to be redrawn now to conform more closely to the D&aacuute;il constituencies. I imagine that process will start over the summer with submissions accepted up until the end of the year. A report in February/March will allow for more than a year's bedding in before the local and European elections in June 2014. Time to crank up the spreadsheets and mapping software again!
P.S. I have been informed by Chris Andrews via Twitter that he does not partake of alcoholic beverages. I apologise for any slur to his good name implied by my above comment!

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Tomorrow's referendum

So the media moratorium has finally arrived. Tomorrow I get to go to the polling station and vote on the fiscal compact/stability treaty/austerity treaty and I am going to tick the No box on the ballot paper. I have stayed out of this campaign for all sorts of reasons, limiting my contributions to a few tweets here and there and arguments in the pub over a few pints.
It feels strange to have a vote and to not have knocked on a single door. Even during the Presidential, despite moving house and having a 7 month pregnant wife to look after, I managed to get out for a few canvassing sessions. But for the compact I couldn't bring myself to doing it. Canvassing on this topic would either be an exercise in 20 second glib soundbites that are inaccurate at best and false at worst, or require spending half an hour at each house explaining the full consequences of a yes or no vote and discussing the actual text of the treaty.
The problem is that the media coverage of the referendum has also descended into the former. Both sides playing the soundbite and the ad-hominem rather than debating the contents of the treaty and the grand picture of the Eurozone we would like to see in the future. Personally, I am quite in favour of the European project, leaning towards the federalist end of the spectrum. But it needs to be full federalism, not the half way house we currently have. But that seems unlikely to happen, or be proposed by any of the current political leadership across the EU, so we need to find another solution to our current crisis but the Compact and the ESM are not the silver bullet we are all waiting for.
I'm assuming the vote will be carried by about a 60-40 margin and in a year's time we'll be right back in another crisis, with Spain having sucked most of the money out of the ESM. I hope I'm wrong.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Farewell to a comrade

One of the things I like most about being involved in politics is the wide range of people you bump into at meetings, leafleting, canvassing and all those other political activities. Some of them you click with immediately, some take time and effort to get to know. In the latter category I would put Paul Duffy, who passed away last week at the age of 72.
On joining the Rathmines branch many years ago, Paul was one of the first people I got talking to. Little did I know what I was getting in to. After half an hour of discussing JFK and how he redefined the attitude of a generation I was almost fit to leave the venue screaming and never to return. But I realized that behind the slightly odd exterior was a very genuine person with a keen interest in politics.
So I came back the next month and we got talking about music. On discovering that I was involved in choral music he immediately divulged his love for the music and life of Count John McCormack. I was pretty sure I had heard my grandmother wax lyrical about McCormack but she was almost of an era with the man and so couldn't have avoided him. Paul on the other hand had chosen to get into this music and was a member of the McCormack society for many years.
Over the course of several election campaigns I spent many leafleting sessions covering the highways and byways of Dublin 6 with Paul. He seemed to have an unending energy for the granite steps up to the large houses on Kenilworth Square and Grosvenor Road. Once I got into the swing of canvassing, our trips together became rarer, as cold-calling people was not something that Paul particularly enjoyed doing. But even in the depths of the cold, wet winter nights of last year's general election, Paul could be found traipsing around Rathmines covering as many letterboxes as possible for Ruairi and Kevin.
I last met Paul at our branch meeting at the end of March. Despite arriving late (as usual) and upscuttling things as he found a seat and dug out his agenda and minutes, he was in good form. We discussed the Fiscal Compact and the mess the City Council had made of the privatization of the bins. And we discussed JFK and John McCormack as always. He sipped his glass of Guinness after the meeting ended and then headed off home. It was with some shock that I saw the email on Thursday that said he had passed away.
While you could never say that we were close or even friends, Paul was a reliable comrade over many years. I was glad to be able to attend his funeral this morning and pay my respects. The torch has been passed to a new generation of Labour activists in Rathmines, but Paul's contribution to our political efforts and his impact on our lives will not be quickly forgotten.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Labour Conference Review

Following on from my preview of the party conference last weekend, it only seems fair that I now review the proceedings.

Mood of conference

The party gave me quite the schizophrenic vibe over the weekend. There is still a lot of personal support for the front bench, especially Eamon Gilmore and Joan Burton. There is also great respect and admiration for the blitz that Ruairi Quinn is carrying out in the Dept of Education. At the same time, people outside the official fold of the PLP such as Pat Nulty were also warmly greeted and were made felt welcome at the event. While I'd be loathe to call it a love-in, it was pretty close to that at times.
On the other hand, there was also an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the role of the party in government. Many of the decisions and policies implemented so far seem to have a far greater blue hue than a red tinge but with the numbers they way they are in the Dail and around the cabinet table that is to be expected. But it still doesn't make it easy for members to remain committed to being in government, especially those that voted against coalition this time last year (I'd be one of them).


Many of the motions debated were of the mom and apple pie variety. Yes, we're all in favour of jobs and improving the health service. As predicted the Saturday morning TV session was completely stage managed with banal contribution after banal contribution on non-controversial topics just to get the three minutes of fame. I would be much more in favour of some real debate being shown to the few viewers that tune in. Pick some suitably juicy motions on the property taxes, fracking and Corrib gas, 3rd level fees, water charges and leaving government and let rip. At least it would show the public that the party isn't afraid of real debate and difference of opinion.
There were also far too many motions on the agenda. Several sessions were guillotined without even time for a proposer to make a contribution. I think I saw about 15 contributions supporting or opposing motions over the weekend and a majority of them were on the abortion and Vatican motions on Sunday morning. The party needs to come up with a way of reducing the size of the agenda - at times I felt that many motions could have been composited together and many others were merely reaffirming existing policy. Perhaps two motions per constituency or section would be better than the current one per branch, constituency and section.
There was also a lot of attempts to refer controversial motions back to the party executive to avoid a vote by the members. Over the weekend several speeches from the leadership reminded us that we the ordinary members were the party. Well if that is true then the leadership should be willing to accept the democratic decision of the delegates at conference. On two occasions votes to refer had to be shouted down and tellers called for to show to the top table that the members didn't want to follow that course of action. One hopes, but doesn't expect, that the new party chair Colm Keaveney will not follow this railroading at next year's event.

Saturday's Protest

The protest on Saturday certainly added something to the conference. I'm all in favour of protesting and have been on more marches than I care to remember. Having seen various videos of Saturday's protest, and specifically the breaching of the garda cordon to gain access to the plaza outside the conference hall, I would have to say the use of pepper spray seems unjustified. Sure, there were the usual few eejits who insist on wearing their hoods up and putting bandanas over their face but I always think that's more to avoid being recognized by their mothers' than by the authorities. Unless someone gets seriously injured or major damage is done, the Guards will never push for prosecution. But a bit of pushing and shoving, about as violent as the 10 seconds before the ref throws in the ball in Croke Park, should be easily managed by the Gardai without resorting to sprays, water cannon or horse charges (as were used against the USI demo a couple of years ago).
I know that some of the more elderly delegates were quite frightened by the events but one really has to wonder what would have happened had the protest gained access to the hall. I doubt that a riot would have broken out. A bit like the Jehovah's Witnesses, I'd almost be tempted to ask them in for a cuppa. Lets see what words of wisdom beyond "They say cutback, we say fightback" and "No way, we won't pay" they could have added to the debate on increasing income taxes on high earners, banning the sale of any state assets, wealth and asset taxes and demanding clarity on IBRC bonds and promissory notes. I'm pretty sure that there is a lot of common ground between those who were inside the hall and those outside with the flags and banners.

Where next?

So what happens next? Well to be honest not an awful lot. Motions passed will be forgotten, those referred back will sit on a shelf and the government will continue implementing the PFG irrespective of the wishes of the conference delegates. And that's a bit of a shame. The members' forum probably provides a much better way to debate and develop policy so hopefully that process will continue. The party membership will be somewhat split over the upcoming Fiscal Compact referendum so that will keep things interesting for the next 6 weeks or so. But unless something drastic happens I imagine we'll be back to conference in April 2013 debating the same old topics and having an awful lot of beer in some location as yet to be determined.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Labour Conference preview

Tomorrow I head to Galway for the Labour Party Conference. It promises to be an interesting event as it is the first conference I will have attended with Labour being a party of government and also the first conference where Michael D Higgins will not be in attendance and giving a masterclass in oratory.
Friday evening's session covers the administrative tasks and then debate on Communications, Social, Protection and Political Reform. Of these, the most interesting motion is one from Harold's Cross branch (#25) demanding the restoration of the FOI act and ensuring that NAMA comes under its remit. After all of Gavin Sheridan's efforts to get information from NAMA it would be great to see such a move actually happening.
Saturday morning features Education, Health and Jobs. The first two will be covered before 11 when the RTE cameras will start rolling and a stream of councillors and TDs will most likely be lined up to have their 3 minutes of fame. These motions look to have been carefully selected to avoid any controversy as they almost all state support for creating jobs - who could possibly be against that?
The afternoon session is a whole other kettle of fish. The economy takes centre stage and there are over 30 motions up for debate. There are at least a few that I feel I may end up speaking against, mainly to do with the IBRC promissory notes. There will also be motions taken on internal party organization which are often the most entertaining. One that Dublin South East members may be keenly interested in is #112 supporting the abolition of the Candidate Selection Boards which ended up splitting DSE in two for the selection of candidates for the last general election.
After a break for workshops, the conference reconvenes for the Leader's Speech which this year features David Begg from ICTU as the warm up act. How aligned ICTU and the party still are is a matter for some debate so it will be interesting to see if contradictory positions are taken by the speakers on any topic. Leader's Speech is also televised so the body language and positioning of Eamon vis-a-vis other TDs and Senators will show how united or divided the parliamentary party is to the public. The amount of cheering and clapping (or lack thereof) will also been seen as endorsement (or not) of the party's performance in government by the membership.
Conference winds up on Sunday morning for the hangover sufferers with debate on International, Justice and Environmental issues. The DSE motion that was proposed by the Rathmines Branch (#155) will be taken almost at the end of the session. Rathmines' amendment to the abortion motion (#138) is also scheduled for debate on Sunday morning. The local clergy must be up in arms about our defiling of the Sabbath day! Following the singing of the Red Flag, we'll all pack up and head back home content or disgruntled with the weekend's events.
Of course, the most important part of conference is what happens in the bars, restaurants, corridors and nightclubs. It is a great chance to meet other like-minded people, catch up with old friends and comrades and let one's hair down in a vaguely safe environment. But to take a phrase from another part of my life, what happens on tour stays on tour and so those secrets will be taken to the grave.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The household charge

The household charge of €100 was introduced in the last budget as an intermediary step towards a property/council tax being introduced in the coming years. Based on there being about 1.5M houses in Ireland, some of which will be eligible for waivers, the measure will bring in about €100M or so in this year. That is, if everybody pays it and that is looking less and less likely.
What is surprising is the massive campaign against the household charge, while hundreds of other measures that have had a much greater impact (USC, Tax Credits, Social Welfare payments, health and education cuts) have been accepted fairly easily. One of the biggest scams of all was the setting up of NAMA and only about 400 people turned out at the rally against it.
What is even more surprising is that it is the left groups who are objecting most strongly. One of the key ideals of socialism is taxation of assets and wealth rather than labour. So how can people like Joe Higgins and Richard Boyd Barrett honestly stand up and say the household charge is bad? Sure, in its current form as a flat charge it is not equitable, but they are arguing against charges on property as a whole. "No tax on the family home" seems to be the mantra. But if most houses in Ireland are family homes then any property tax will not be deemed acceptable to them which flies in the face of socialism.
This is similar to the problem I have with the anti bin-tax campaign. Due to it's "success" Dublin City Council ended up having to privatise the service and we're now left with the mess of Greyhound not doing the job properly. Parties of the left should be in favour of proper public services, but that campaign ended up displacing quality jobs in the council into poorer conditions with a private operator. And I don't see the SWP or SP orchestrating campaigns against payments to Greyhound and Panda now that the easy target of the City Council has been defeated.
Another current red herring is the exemption for property owned by Ministers. Like lots of other legislation, the state is exempted from paying itself taxes as it just turns into an accounting exercise. These properties are things like social housing, hospitals and army barracks. Personal, private residences owned by people who happen to be Ministers are just as liable for the charge as every other home.
One thing that I am not sure about is whether NAMA will have to pay the household charge on all the residential properties it has sitting on its books. While NAMA is effectively a state agency, it was set up with only 49% state ownership to avoid various issues surrounding state support and also to dodge the FOI act. Will the charge eat into any potential profits or will it just increase the losses incurred NAMA which then have to be born by the tax payer anyway?
To me it's simple - a property tax (site based or house based) is a good thing in that it provides a sustainable and almost guaranteed income stream either to local or central government. The alternative, if property taxes are ditched, is to increase income tax across the board (but mainly in the soft middle 50-80k territory) or cut spending in health, education and welfare. As a Labour person, I'm enjoying seeing Phil Hogan make an eejit of himself and having to hide behind Fergus O'Dowd. I'm also somewhat cynical that the closing date for the charge just happens to coincide with the €3.1B card monte. However, if property taxes are good enough for every other western country then they're good enough for Ireland too.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A scan of the fiscal compact

Yesterday, following advice from the AG, the government has decided that it needs to hold a referendum to ratify the Fiscal Compact, or to give it the more correct name the Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance in the Economic and Monetary Union. That is quite the mouthful so I'm going to stick with the Compact from here on.
As I have repeatedly pointed out, I am no economist. In fact I'm fairly economically illiterate. But it came as a bit of a surprise to me that the Compact itself only runs to about 24 pages, mostly whitespace, written in fairly straightforward English. I would recommend that everyone grab a copy of the treaty and have a read of it. I'll hang on while you do that .... ok, are we done downloading? If so let's have a quick skim through.
Like all good documents, there are a lot of pre-amble qualifying clauses before we even get to Article 1. They set the scene for the treaty and also, like all good overtures, give us hints of the main themes that will crop up in the main text. For example page 1 mentions the "balanced budget rule" and at the top of page 2 we get the key point, the 3% limit of deficit and overall debt limit of 60% of GDP. Many of the "NOTING" and "RECALLING" clauses provide pointers to the legislation and treaties already in place that permit the implementation of the Compact. On page 6, we get an explicit statement that the Compact will have no impact on existing funding arrangements in place for Ireland and Portugal through the ESF, so our current bailout will remain in place.
Eventually, on page 11, we get to Article 3 which is the first important stopping point on our tour. Here we are told that by default countries will have to run balanced or surplus budgets or at most run a deficit of 0.5%. That's pretty stringent by any stretch of the imagination and it almost immediately rules out any Keynesian activity of spending money to make money. Section 1.c provides some respite, where due to external influences an economy is in shock, it can temporarily go beyond a 0.5% deficit. Of course, no definition is given of what temporary means - is it on a quantum or geological timescale?
The second major part of the Compact appears in section 1.d which defines the long term goal of a debt to GDP ratio of less than 60%. Dangling in front of us as a carrot to reach this goal, is the permission to run a 1% deficit if our ratio is below the target, so assuming growth of 2% we would still be reducing our ratio even in carrying out this deficit spending. Then the stick of section 1.e kicks in and forces automatic corrections if we deviate much from the plan outlined in sections 1.a through 1.d.
Section 2 is obviously the one that scared the AG into recommending the referendum. It forces countries to enact legislation "of binding an permanent character, preferably constitutional" enabling the terms of the Compact. Now to my mind the word constitutional can only be in there to force a vote in Ireland. After desperately trying for months to come up with a wording that wouldn't invoke a referendum, you'd think the smart people in the EU would have managed to avoid that phrase. But there it is in black and white and so we're having a vote.
Article 4 is our next port of call. This short little paragraph provides the timescale for reaching the requirements of 3.1.d (60% debt-GDP ratio). It says it should be reduced by 5% per year. Given that Irish debt is about €170B (and expected to reach €200B by 2015)  and our GDP is about €150B, our current ratio is about 115% and even allowing for some economic growth (say 2.5% pa) will top out about 120%. Reducing this by 5% per annum to the magic 60% will take a further 12 years, bringing us right the way out to 2027. That's 15 years of austerity and cuts ahead of us, unless the state discovers huge quantities of gold or oil somewhere in Laois.
Article 7 is a real doozy. Articles 5 and 6 outline how the Commission shall have oversight and the power to recommend actions for countries who break the pact. Then in Article 7 we have the get out of jail free card for the big four - Germany, France, Spain and Italy. Any recommendation can be rejected by a qualified majority vote and considering the big four pretty much have a qualified majority between them that effectively turns the Compact into a stick for the large countries to beat the little ones. So much for a union of equal sovereign states! We only have to think back to who were the first two countries to breach the previous attempt at a financial stability pact to see how this will play out.
In Article 8, the countries agree that the Court of Justice will be the final arbiter in disputes concerning the Compact which is probably a good thing. This article also quantifies the size of fines that can be issued to countries for breaking the Compact, putting an upper limit of 0.1% of GDP. It is not clear how often a country can be fined because sometimes it might just be easier to break the rules and be fined than to have to slash welfare or raise taxes.
The next few articles are somewhat housekeeping in nature as the put in place terms of reference for co-ordination of economic policy between the countries and how the Euro will be governed. These make sense if you agree that signing up to the Compact is a good idea - if you are tied to each other then you had best make sure you're all pulling in the same direction.
The treaty comes in to effect under terms outlined in article 14. This is 1st January 2013 assuming more than 12 countries have ratified it. Otherwise it will come in to effect as soon as the 12th country ratifies it. This means that Ireland's referendum does not hold a veto over the Compact so we can't do our usual Nice/Lisbon trick of demanding extra concessions. The core of the Eurozone can continue leaving up to five periphery countries behind. However, with only Ireland holding a referendum, it is most likely to be 16 countries driving ahead with the Compact if we vote no.
So that's it. We've covered the entire Compact. Where's the downside in voting no I hear you ask. Well that's hidden away in a different treaty that we've already signed up to covering the operation of the ESM. That is a very murky document that I might go through some other time, but the key point for now is that any state that doesn't sign up to the Compact will not be allowed access new funds from the ESM. If you believe the government that we are meeting all the troika's requirements and that we'll be back in the bond markets in 2014 then we shouldn't care about the ESM. But it would be a precarious position to be in without the ESM safety net below us.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The abortion post

I wasn't going to write this post. But then I watched Vincent Browne last night and followed the #vinb twitter feed. And it was ugly. Both of them. So here I am writing a post that I don't really want to because I feel I have to.
Yesterday evening a meeting was held in the Gresham marking the 20th anniversary of the X Case which has lead to the abortion laws, or lack thereof, in Ireland at the moment. I've mentioned this before, but the Irish Supreme Court, the ECHR and two failed referenda have made it pretty clear that the Oireachtas has to legislate in line with the X Case and the more recent C case as well. Following the meeting, Vincent Browne hosted a debate on his TV3 show on the topic, featuring two panelists from each side of the issue.
I'm never going to (can't) have an abortion, I'm not going to have to carry out an abortion, I'm not going to have to professionally council a women before or after having an abortion. But I do know people who have traveled abroad to have them and have understood their reasons for doing so.
I am firmly pro-choice. And that's the key word - choice. Nobody is looking to make abortion compulsory. If you don't want to avail of the service then don't have one. But people have the right to chose and the choice shouldn't have to be shrouded in some faux-medical emergency. We need to move away from the "I was going to kill myself" line of thinking and be open and honest about it. If a woman wants to terminate the embryo in her womb then that's her prerogative and neither the state nor conservative pressure groups should not be allowed control her uterus.
The argument is made that the other half of the equation isn't given a choice - ie the embryo, or baby depending on how emotive you want to make the discussion. this is true. But neither is the embryo when the morning after pill is dispensed. Or the potential embryo when a woman is prescribe the regular pill. Or the potential embryo when every teenage boy spends half an hour in the bathroom. So in having legislated for the contraception and the morning after, society has accepted that a chemical and biological reaction does not a legal person make.
Now all that's left to do is determine where the line is between a clump of cells and a fully fledged person. That change happens, by definition somewhere in the 40 weeks between the initial fertilization and birth and I don't know when that is. However, I would think that the line is somewhere around the time where the embryo becomes somewhat (say 30% survival) viable outside the womb with modern technology to help and I guess that's somewhere around week 20-25. If some knowledgeable medic has the figures I'd be only too happy to change my timetable.
The current scare mongering, to which I was repeatedly exposed last night, was that the X case could allow for full term abortion to occur. Now, having just gone along the pregnancy journey with my wife, there is no way that a woman would last 39 weeks and then say "Fuck it, I've had enough. Let's abort this thing." That is just an asinine statement and exposes the anti-choice campaign for the nutters they are.
The hypocrisy of the Irish abortion regime has to stop. All it is doing is keeping Ryanair and Stena in profits as we export the problem to another jurisdiction. I applaud Clare Daly for introducing her Termination of Pregnancy bill today and hope that the Labour backbenchers support her as they promised to do in both the Election Manifesto and the Programme for Government in introducing legislation for the X case. I will be writing to my local TDs asking them to do so.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Labour members forum

Over the weekend I attended a meeting organized by Labour grassroots members entitled "What can Labour do in Government". With two panel sessions and a lot of time allocated for contributions from the floor, the event promised to allow a lot of disgruntled members to get things off their chest. Over the course of the day I would estimate that about 80-100 people attended, mainly from the Dublin area but with some from as far as Leitrim and Galway.
I was somewhat wary of attending for several reasons. Firstly, events like this can often turn into a forum for people to rant without being constructive. Secondly, specific issues (eg local hospital, septic tanks) can hijack the event and send if off on a tangent. Thirdly, there is the fear that those attending are seen as being seditious and trying to split the party or worse, join the SWP or Socialists. A couple of McCarthy-esque jokes were cracked at the event about spying on ourselves. Finally, there is the perverse situation at these sorts of events where everyone wants to watch and listen, but nobody wants to contribute. I was at such a meeting once and it was one of the most painful hours of my life.
The morning panel was badged as a "descriptive session" where the current state of play would be outlined. Speakers from Unite, ICTU and the Women's Council set the scene with brief presentations and then the debate was opened up. The key theme was obviously the economy and the failure of the austerity regime being implemented. Other topics included youth unemployment, IBRC promissory notes and the demise of the JLC system. I'm always a bit wary of the Trade Unions preaching at the Labour Party after their continued sucking up to Bertie throughout the boom and the farce of social partnership. But unions and the party are working towards the same ends and so we have to learn to get along again.
After a quick break for tea and sandwiches (no champagne or prawns!) we settled in for the afternoon's "proscriptive" session. It featured a panel of Mags Murphy from SIPTU, Michael Taft from Unite and Mary Murphy from NUIM. Between them the presented an alternative strategy to austerity, based on targeted state investment and a re-balancing of the tax burden. A long discussion followed with many detailed and comprehensive contributions from party members.
Towards the end, the debate moved towards what could be done to bring these ideas forward. The big problem is that if, like at the Irish Economy Conference, no policy makers are there to listen, what is the point in having a discussion. Unless a concrete proposal can be drafted and then accepted by the party leadership then the effort may be in vain. Several backbench TDs attended various parts of the day, and to be fair to them, they sat quietly and listened rather than dominating the discourse. Perhaps they will report at the next PLP meeting and a constructive dialogue can begin between the top and the bottom of the party. There are plans to hold further such events and I will certainly attend if at all possible.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

It's the economy, stupid!

One of Bill Clinton's greatest contributions to language, apart from defining what sexual relations may or may not mean, was the phrase "it's the economy, stupid!". So as a stupid person, I spent last Friday in the conference centre in Croke Park being educated on all things economic and fiscal. The conference was organized by Stephen Kinsella, Liam Delaney and Colm Harmon and had in excess of 200 people attending over the course of the day. What follows is a rundown on the sessions I attended and what nuggets of information I picked up from them. I understand that videos of the day will be posted on the Irish Economy blog.

Property Market

After a very welcome cup of tea and having my name ticked off on the attendance list, I plumped for the Property Market session as I felt I might at least understand the topic compared to the meta-debate on how to make good policy that went on in the parallel session. First up was Ronan Lyons who presented his proposal for a site-valuation tax to replace the current property taxes and, perhaps eventually rates. In principle it seems like a good idea to encourage productive, high density use of land zoned for residential use. However, based on his plan I still don't see how the tax would work and provide a sustainable base of taxation for local government spending without large financial transfers from urban to rural dwellers. I tackled him on this in the Q&A session and at lunchtime and we agreed that the plan could do with some refinement.
Next up was Michelle Norris from UCD who presented a paper on the realities of mortgage arrears in Ireland. Despite the low number of repossessions, the stresses that many mortgage holders are put under by both prime and sub-prime lenders is huge. Her presentation really put a human face on the current mortgage crisis. The session finished with Rob Kitchen from NUIM outlining his thoughts on the future of the property market. A lot of his material has already been posted on his Ireland After NAMA blog but it was good to put it all in the one place. He doesn't see a recovery to peak prices for a long time to come yet.


Following a brief coffee-break, and the arrival of Minister Joan Burton with RTE in tow, I headed in to the session that she was chairing on unemployment. Not surprisingly, this was very well attended with standing room only at the back of the hall for a time during the session. First up was unemployment expert David Bell, from Scotland, who outlined the nature of our unemployment problem and compared out situation to that of other European countries. Next to speak was Aedin Doris from NUIM who gave one of the two best presentations of the day. Her mantra was that unemployment was a demand side problem and that no amount of badgering the unemployed can make them get jobs that don't exist. Finally Philip O'Connell from the ERSI examined all the data on state training and concluded that most of the budget was being targeted in the wrong areas. Just as well FAS is being restructured/closed! Due to the interest in the subject this session ran over by about half an hour, and so a much shortened lunch-break followed.

Banking and the Euro

On reading the conference programme, this session immediately jumped out as the headline acts. Brian Lucey, Karl Whelan and Frank Barry speaking with Constantin Gurdgiev chairing was just like an episode of Vincent Browne but without the haranguing and pointless government spokesperson (Coveney and Donohue I'm looking at you!). And it did not disappoint.
After a brief introduction from Constantin where he outlined the topics and the ground rules, the floor was yielded to Brian. During his half hour presentation he discussed the implications of the impending duopoly in the Irish banking system and touched on the likelyhood of co-operative or mutual banks (just like the old building societies) setting up and the possibility of a foreign bank entering the market. From what I took from the talk, we are unlikely to see much in the way of innovation in Irish banking for the foreseeable future with BOI and AIB continuing to dominated the market.
Following Brian was Karl who gave the best talk of the day. He explained in words of one syllable the funding mechanism for the rump of Anglo, why burning bondholders is now old hat, why the interest rate on the Prommissory Notes is a red herring and how the Central Bank could just write off the notes if it could convince 2/3 of the other central banks in the Eurozone that doing so is a good idea. This is a talk that should be watched by every back-bencher who comes out with the "there is no other way" mantra.
After Karl's magnum opus, Frank was always going to have a tough act to follow but he coped admirably and gave a very interesting talk on the problems with the Euro. His premise that unless there is some sort of federal funding mechanism to buffer the impact, the peripheral Euro countries will be at risk of external shock to their economy. Ireland due to it's reliance on the US and UK is particularly susceptible. Another talk that I look forward to watching again once posted online.

Fiscal Policy

I will have to admit that either due to the subject matter or my lack of mental stamina, both Philip Lane's and John McHale's papers went over my head. They seemed to be suggesting that in the new Euro deal that may or may not require a referendum there will be stricter controls over deficit spending and overall debt to GDP ratios than are currently in place. I'm not sure how the Eurozone countries will get to the target 60% in any reasonably time-frame but the plan seems like a reasonable one.
The final two talks by Seamus Coffey (UCC) and Colm McCarthy (UCD) tackled the issue of capital vs recurrent spending. The first presentation was right up my street with a relentless series of graphs outlining the collapse in capital spending through the recession. The implication was that we are now underspending on capital and that future cuts should come from the recurrent side of the budget. The pertinent question is this: Is the 94th euro spent on recurrent providing a better return on investment than a potential 7th euro spent on capital.
The master of Bord Snip then promptly stood up and demolished all of what had gone before. He suggested that we had splurged on capital during the boom, often driving up prices on ourselves, and that having built one motorway to Cork there was no need to build another. Of course this neatly sidestepped the fact that we still have schools housed in prefabs, Dickensian conditions in hospitals and even in a huge recession, gridlock in Dublin on a daily basis. However, his presentation brought the conference to an end in a lighthearted manner and was just what was required after a heavy day's thinking.

General Thoughts

Overall the day was very enjoyable and very enlightening. From an organizational perspective some of the major positives were the free entry cost, working wifi, good chat on the conference hashtag (#ieconf), roughly sticking to schedule and a large turnout. The downsides include some issues with microphones, spam overload on twitter during the afternoon, running out of sandwiches at lunchtime and the lack of attendance by politicians and senior policy makers with a few notable exceptions. If, as has been suggested, these conferences become a regular event I will certainly try to attend. Congratulations to all involved in the event as I would deem it a great success.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Back in bonds!

Not quite as catchy as an AC/DC song with a similar name, the Irish Times reports that Ireland was back in bonds yesterday.The NTMA managed to swap about €3.5B of bonds that were due for repayment in 2014 into new bonds that are due in 2015. This is a good thing, as it reduced the amount of refinancing that will need to be done by NTMA in 2014, the first year of Ireland's post Troika existence.
However, to call it a massive success and claim that it shows an "appetite for Irish Government paper" is stretching things a bit. As opposed to you or I getting a term extension on our mortgage which reduces our monthly repayment, we have actually increased the cost of this borrowing from a 4% coupon to a 4.5% coupon. So this postponement of a year will cost us an additional €35M in 2012 and 2013. That crafty bond market doesn't give stuff away for nothing.
I am sure that it is just coincidence that the NTMA carried out this bond swap on the exact same day as yet another huge, un-guaranteed Anglo bond was repaid. Likewise I'm sure that the arrest of Ivor Callely yesterday was also just another coincidence, just like the arrests of Sean Fitzpatrick were in the past. I wonder what poor unfortunate will be perpwalked the next time the Rothschilds come looking for their cash back.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Gender Quotas

Last Friday there was an all-day conference held in Dublin Castle on the topic of how to get more women elected in Ireland. Unfortunately I wasn't able to attend due to work commitments but from what I heard it was extremely well attended with good contributions from all participants. Of course, we won't mention the fact that less than 10% of those at the conference were male - so much for equality!
Anyway, the main strategy being pursued by this government is the introduction of gender quotas at candidate selection for political parties. The target is currently set to 30% at the next general election and this figure rises to 40% after a further seven years. The stick which which the parties will be hit is a 50% cut in funding from the public purse.
I am all for improving the representative nature of politics, not just women, but across income, education, age and ethnic divides, so I am generally in favour of the proposals. I certainly wouldn't go as far as Dan Sullivan's article in Friday's paper calling them boneheaded. However, there are a few items that I want to comment on.
No sunset clause
The use of gender quotas was sold during the last general election as a temporary measure to increase women's participation. Once a critical mass of women were elected there would be no further need for quotas as the number would be self-sustaining. Therefore rather than increase the target after seven years the measures should be rescinded.
Effect on small parties
The large parties (namely FG, Labour, FF and SF) should have no difficulty in reaching the mandated target. However, for smaller groups like the Socialists or a brand new party, who only have resources to run a few candidates and only a few people willing to stand, a cut in half their state funding could be fatal. There should be a minimum threshold of candidates below which the quota does not apply.
Only applying at General Elections
The quotas, and resultant cut in public funding, will only apply at general elections. Local elections are the training ground for new politicians and there are few candidates for larger parties in generals who have not already fought, if not won, a local election. If we were serious about increasing the number of women elected to the Dáil then the locals should have been included in the quota.
Selection convention chaos
There is going to be all out war at selection conventions across the country as local organizations have their decisions overturned and/or additional candidates imposed from Head Office as the party machine tries to ensure meeting the quota to ensure continued funding. This is going to be especially difficult for FG as they only managed to field about 15% women last time and have a lot of incumbents to accommodate.
One report I did hear from the meeting last Friday was repeated tales of women "being asked" to stand for election and of women not standing because "they weren't asked". This I don't understand, especially coming from the group of intelligent and capable women that spoke at the conference. Surely in this day and age you should just choose to stand and then build a campaign and a team around you. Not everything can be delivered on a plate you know!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Music Industry back in court

A bit over a year ago I wrote about the Charleton ruling in the Music Industry vs UPC case. In that, the judge said he'd like to allow the Music Industry run roughshod over our civil rights but that there just wasn't legislation to allow it. Ok I'm paraphrasing a bit, but basically that's what he said. So it is with some interest that I notice the merry-go-round is starting up again.

This time the industry is taking the state to court over the fact that the relevant statutory instrument hasn't been enacted yet to make three-strikes legal. This SI has been promised for this month so it does make you wonder what has brought on this fit of pique. Is it sabre-rattling to ensure that the SI is issued quickly or do they have a genuine case of lost revenue caused by the absence of the SI?

Of course this court case and the SI will yet again fail to take account of the fact that any technical method used to root out fileshares will be quickly worked around. Despite the huge investment in things like the Chinese and Iranian firewalls they are unable to successfully block access to the internet. I doubt EMI and their friends will make any similar investment and it would seem to be unfair to put the burden of cost on ISPs like UPC.

EMI's other great claim is that their profits halved in 2011 and blamed it mainly on piracy. How ludicrous is that? Don't they realize that there is a recession going on and that demand in the domestic economy has tanked by up to 30%. Recorded music is a luxury compared to essentials such as food, heating and clothing and so will obviously be further up the list for chopping in households. Personally I have gone from being a 100 CD/year person to purchasing about 20 in 2011 and I don't think I'm alone in this reduction.

I'll be keeping an eye on the case and the SI over the next few weeks.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

One tiny leap for Dublin

Integrated public transport ticketing, like the Oyster Card in London, has been on the agenda here for about a decade. I recall Mary O'Rourke announcing that it would be operational within a year, just after destroying the LUAS project by ordering the two lines to not join up. Then, as with all things in Ireland, time passed, nothing happened and we all just muddled along with multiple travel tickets and cards or just paid cash.

So it was with some surprise to me that the Leap Card was announced last year and came into operation a couple of weeks before Christmas. This new pre-pay card allows you to use bus, rail and LUAS services in Dublin using a single card. Seems like an awesome improvement over the current situation.

For LUAS and Dart users the smart cards are great. The existing LUAS and Rail smart cards will now be phased out and the existing savings available by using smart cards will continue. These work out at about 10% to 20% over single journey cash fares with greater savings on longer journeys. You tag on before boarding and tag off when you alight and the appropriate fare is taken off the card.

However, for Dublin Bus users the Leap Card isn't up to much. Unless you are going on a very long journey, you still have to queue up, tell the driver your destination and then present your card to the ticket machine. The driver will then deduct the relevant fare from your card. Sure the fare is a bit cheaper than the cash price, but there is no improvement in boarding times or reduced queuing. This seems to defeat the purpose of having the smart card in the first place.

There is so much wrong with this way of doing things I really don't know where to begin. But here's a few ideas that Dublin Bus could have implemented to improve the user experience and their bottom line.
  • Introduce flat fares for smart card users. This would hugely increase the uptake of Leap Card usage.
  • Ditch the crazy stage scheme that harks back to the days of conductors on trams and buses. Introduce zones as used in most other cities and currently used on the LUAS.
  • Tag on/tag off for bus users. Using the inbuilt GPS in the bus, the system can know exactly how far the card traveled.
  • With the roll-out of the RTPI system there is now electronics at each bus stop. The tag on/tag off could happen before boarding and after disembarking thereby further reducing boarding times.
With companies like IBM providing a lot of the technology for the Leap Card, it is hard to believe that such options were not provided to Dublin Bus. So the only conclusion that can be drawn is that Dublin Bus aren't really that interesting in working in the customers' interest. The Network Direct project certainly suggests that the customer is fairly far down the list of priorities.

One other annoying issue with the Leap Card is that it isn't a truly integrated ticket system. If I want to use a combination of transport modes I pay individual fares for each of them. In most other cities, if I transfer from train to bus or from tram to train I just pay a single fare for the end to end journey assuming it is completed within a reasonable time frame. I'm assuming that at some stage in the future the system will be enhanced to provide this functionality, but again it seems like a really basic idea that should have been required as part of the initial implementation plan.

As a user of the annual tax-saver ticket, the Leap Card won't massively impact me for the next few months. However, come June when my current ticket expires I'll have to do some sums to see if the annual ticket still comes out better. I'm assuming it will but you never know!