Government Probe into Banking Crisis May Examine Media Collusion

In what is becoming a far-reaching examination of the disastrous events of 2008 to 2010 in Ireland the Irish Government committee set up to examine the issues has suggested that Newspaper editors and other media commentators may be called upon to give evidence.

This is something quite new in Ireland. Rarely has the Irish media been examined for its role in creating and fuelling news stories. And this is the news story about the single biggest economic event in the history of the country.

Broken ATM

The collapse of the Irish banks was directly tied to the bursting of the property bubble, leaving the banks with huge debts. Unable to pay, the banks went cap-in-hand to the Government who effectively underwrote the debts, transforming private debt into public debt, and forcing years of austerity onto the shoulders of Irish citizens who had to re-pay the loans.

And to whom exactly were the loans repaid? To German, French and European bondholders who the EU/IMF/ECB ‘troika’ insisted be repaid or else they would declare the country bankrupt. The only option facing the Fianna Fail Government of the time was to agree to the European bullying, or else the lights would be turned off, ATM machines would stop working and within a few days the rioting and looting would begin.

This was the stark situation facing the Irish Government who were severely criticized and turfed out of office at the next election, to be replaced by Fine Gael and Labour (who pledged to ‘burn the bondholders’). The new coalition Government did not change the policies of their predecessors and instead reneged on their election promises and continued to cow-tow to Europe.

Recent attempts to have the EU/IMF/ECB include Ireland in new financial arrangements that would reduce the Irish debt burden have so far failed. And why should they allow Ireland a break? The Irish have already committed to repay the debt over the next two decades. The bondholders in Germany have already been repaid!

It is against this backdrop that the banking probe is being operated. The fact that several media outlets invested heavily in property and property-related websites may have caused a conflict of interest for them. The Irish Times famously and disastrously paid 50 Million Euro for the myhome.ie property web site at the height of the property bubble. The website is now worth a fraction of that amount.

The degree to which media editors drove the story, shaped public opinion and actually reported facts is certain to be of great interest to observers once the probe gets going.

Potentially this is political dynamite.

US Governor Appeals to Ireland over Cigarette Packaging

It is not often that events in Ireland register among the political fraternity in North Carolina but news that Ireland is planning to force cigarette companies to use plain packaging on their products has prompted Governor Pat McCrory to act.

Smoking in Ireland

Writing to the Irish Ambassador to the United States, Anne Anderson, the Governor requested that his concerns be forwarded to the Irish Government for consideration in what is becoming an international assault on the Irish proposals. Ireland it will be remembered was the first country in the world to introduce a blanket ban on smoking in the workplace. The legislation was presented as a health-care issue for workers rather than an attack on cigarettes per se, but of course the effect was the same. No-one can really argue that an individual does have the right to damage the health of another person by smoking in an enclosed work environment and thus the new laws were widely accepted and implemented.

The smoking ban in Ireland badly hit the revenues of pubs and hotels especially, both of which are businesses crucial to Ireland’s tourist economy. Despite this the laws remain, with prospects of their reach being extended.

The Irish war on tobacco continues and the latest proposals involve compelling cigarette manufacturers to have brand-free blank labelling on all of their tobacco products. Ireland already forces manufacturers to print extreme and graphic photographs of the effects of cigarettes on its packaging – a policy that neuro-science fMRI research suggests is counter-productive. Now the focus is on removing all branding and slogans such as ‘low tar’ from the packaging in a bid to stop the use of cigarettes in Ireland, especially among women.

One in three Irish women now smoke regularly with lung cancer now overtaking breast cancer as the main cause of cancer death among women in Ireland. In poorer areas the rate of smoking among women is over 50%. A recent study by an Australian research group revealed the following rates of smoking internationally:

Afghanistan 50%
Greece 39%
Russia 35%
India 32%
Ireland 27%
UK 24%
Australia 18%
Canada 17%
USA 17%
Iran 11%

North Carolina is home to the second-largest tobacco firm in the US, RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company who manufacture the Camel brand of cigarettes. Three of that States top five employers are tobacco companies. So while it is not surprising that the Governor of North Carolina should take such an interest in anything likely to effect the employment of his constituents, it is perhaps a little surprising that his reach should extend to Ireland.

Governor McCrory suggested that the ban on branding would be a ‘direct assault’ on intellectual property and trademark rights. He wrote that there was ‘little evidence that plain packaging measures are anything more than symbolism’. Perhaps missing the point that all branding is a form of symbolism.

The Republican politician said the Irish plans threatened to ‘divert attention and resources from more effective actions that could achieve Ireland’s greater goal of being smoke-free during the next decade’. He declined to offer suggestions as to how the country might become smoke-free.

He suggested that retaliatory action in the US could hit Irish businesses:

Imagine if the United States required Guinness to be stripped of its universally recognised brand and be marketed solely as ‘beer’ or Jameson to be labelled simply as ‘whiskey’ and Baileys as ‘liqueur’. These outstanding Irish companies would be outraged and would argue that the quality and distinction of their products, as conveyed through their brand packaging, were being stolen – and they would be right.’

Presumably any such alcohol labelling ban would apply to US beer companies and not just Irish companies but nevertheless this is a fair point. The focus in Ireland is currently very much on cigarettes while it can be argued that alcohol advertising is also very damaging.

The letter to the Irish Ambassador concludes by saying that he respects Ireland’s ‘sovereign prerogative to govern’.

The issue is clearly divisive in the US also with the US Chamber of Commerce joining the North Carolina Governor in his objections to plain packaging while the American Cancer Society and the American Lung Association have both written to Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny supporting the proposed new laws.

Pressure against the initiative is building. Within Europe Italy became the ninth EU state to object to the anti-smoking packaging, joining the Czech Republic, Greece, Poland, Bulgaria, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia and Spain.

It remains to be seen if the Irish Government has the will to proceed.

by Michael Green
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It’s Official: Ireland Is The Best Country In The World

The results from the very first ‘Good Country Index’ have been announced.
And the winner is………….(drumroll)……. Ireland !!

Forget the never-ending Dublin traffic jams, the mediocre health care system, the high unemployment rate or the often abysmal weather. Using 35 indicators from the UN and the World Bank Ireland has topped the league table of ‘contribution to humanity’ by finishing near the top in four of the seven categories:

Planet & Climate: 45th place
Prosperity & Equality: 1st place
Health & Wellbeing: 9th place
Science & Technology: 20th place
Culture: 7th place
International Peace & Security: 33rd place
World Order: 4th place

One of the creators of the report is Simon Anholt:

(the intention is to…) ‘measure what each country on earth contributes to the common good of humanity, and what it takes away. Using a wide range of data from the UN and other international organisations, we’ve given each country a balance-sheet to show at a glance whether it’s a net creditor to mankind, a burden on the planet, or something in between. Do (countries) exist purely to serve the interests of their own politicians, businesses and citizens, or are they actively working for all of humanity and the whole planet?

The message to the Irish people is that they can hold their heads up high. No matter how much they are suffering in the last number of years, they haven’t forgotten their international obligations and neither has the Government. They still can feel proud of where they come from.’

The author of the report was not at all surprised to receive a deluge of emails from amazed Irish people unhappy with the findings of his study.

‘I have advised 53 countries in my career and I’ve only come across three that do not suffer from low self-esteem – Sweden, the United States and Kazakhstan.’

The UK was ranked 7th while the USA was ranked 21st. Iraq, Libya and Vietnam propped up the bottom of the league table.

Back in Ireland, the citizenry of the country have been advised not to get too carried away with their status as the best on the planet.

‘Loo with a View’ may revert to a Public Convenience

This is perhaps one of the strangest headlines we have ever penned but bear with us – it will make sense. At the very height of the property boom in Ireland a decade ago even the most obscure, tiny, or ridiculous piece of land was fetching equally ridiculous prices. The huge punt on the old ‘Glass Bottle’ factory site in Ringsend is perhaps the most infamous of these property gambles, tumbling as it did in value from 411 Million Euro to an estimated 40 Million Euro today. It is currently an unused field.

But perhaps the full extent of our collective madness was demonstrated by the purchase of a tiny plot of land that was home to a toilet, overlooking the promenade at Lahinch. 400,000 euro was paid (over US$550,000) for what became known as ‘the Loo with a View’. Plans to develop the site came to nothing and it looks like the Council may buy back the plot to provide restroom facilities for visitors to the popular Lahinch beach.

Obviously the situation is getting critical with local politicians getting ever more agitated by the lack of action:

Councillor Bill Slattery:
I am very frustrated with the situation. Nothing has been done by Clare County Council or Fáilte Ireland. The criticism that we are getting in Lahinch because of the lack of toilets is unreal. We can’t walk down the promenade without being criticised. We have no public toilets in Lahinch and I think that is an absolute disgrace.

Rise of the ‘DONT GIVE A FECK’ Party

It is becoming apparent that not all politicians are taking the upcoming elections in Ireland seriously. A launderette-owner from Duleek in County Meath named Dave Keaveney cant have guessed how popular his campaign would become after he placed a poster in the window of his local business: ‘Vote Dave no 1 for a cleaner Duleek’.

Dont Give a Feck Party

It started off as a joke. I made up the poster because I’m fed up listening to the same bull from politicians and the same electioneering promises that aren’t kept.

He now intends to run for election as a non-party candidate in the Laytown-Bettystown Area. His campaign promotes a number of positions including the provision of Viagra to the Over-90s and to:

‘Give Ireland back to England and apologise for the state it’s in. It’s fecked!’

If I get elected, I’ll shake up the whole Council Chamber.

Irish Among The Happiest People In Europe

A study by the European Union has revealed that Irish people are a pretty happy bunch.

Irish People are among the happiest in the World

With a score of 7.4 out of 10 in the ‘experience of life ranking’ Ireland trails only behind Denmark (the perennial winner) with 8.4, Sweden and Finland with a score of 8, Luxembourg (7.8), Malta (7.7) and the Netherlands (7.7).

Surprisingly, given the recent economic devastation, the report found that Ireland was the third richest country in the EU, behind Luxembourg and Austria in terms of gross domestic product (GDP) per capita in purchasing power.

This study mirrors other recent reports including the UNICEF report that ranked Ireland tenth best in the world for kids and the OECD Better Life index that revealed that Ireland had higher levels of education and longer life expectancy that most OECD countries. Similarly the World Happiness Report ranked Ireland as the 18th happiest country in the world!

Commenting on the apparent contradiction in Irish happiness given the severe economic setbacks the country has endured since 2008, the co-author of the World Happiness Report, John Helliwell remarked:

This is just one more illustration that people’s happiness depends to a much smaller extent on their income than they think it does

The Report is based upon several variables:

– GDP per capita
– Life expectancy
– Perceived national corruption
– Freedom to make life choices
– Generosity of fellow citizens
– Having someone to rely on in times of trouble

These surveys are a surprise if you consider the media portrayal of Irish society. Certainly the economy has taken a hammering over the last few years but it is not as if the entire gains of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ era have been wiped out. Infrastructure has improved greatly, quality of lifestyle has improved, social safety-nets are relatively well funded although the Irish health care system still leaves a lot to be desired.

If the news and television media are to be believed though, the country is awash with criminality, desperation, ‘ghost estates’, and unemployment.

Ireland does have all of these problems, just like many countries in the world, but the repeated proof of Irish happiness and good ‘quality of life’ from several international sources simply does not reflect the malaise portrayed by the Irish news media.

Simply put the Irish people are being told that things are desperate but those who have not emigrated, have a job, have a home and have access to health-care, just do not agree.

Those without a job or home certainly feel differently and while the current economic problems will certainly pass it will leave behind a society that has a much greater imbalance between the rich and those who are less well-off.

Happiness therefore is very much viewed through a personal lens.

As Oscar Wilde put it:
Ah, on what little things does happiness depend!
I have read all that the wise men have written,
and all the secrets of philosophy are mine,
yet for want of a red rose is my life made wretched.

by Michael Green
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Irish Government Reaps Reward for Exiting the EU/IMF/ECB ‘Bailout’

Calling it a bailout was never a good idea as it was anything but a bailout.

Loans to Ireland

The loans provided by the European Union, European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund to the Irish Government had two main purposes: to keep the Euro currency alive and to allow Ireland to repay French and German banks and bond-holders who were owed billions by the bankrupt Irish banks. The fact that the Irish Government needed the cash to meet the wage-bill of the ridiculous numbers of public and civil servants employed by this tiny country was very much incidental. The EU/EBC/IMF had their own agenda.

But now they are gone.

Ireland has again taken control of raising its own finances and regained its ‘economic sovereignty’ amid much fanfare and self-congratulation. Ratings Agency Moody’s has added to the positive tone in Ireland by upgrading Irish 10-year debt bonds to ‘investment grade’ and as a result the cost of borrowing by the Irish Government has dropped dramatically from over 12% at the depth of the financial crisis to a much healthier 3.3% today. By comparison the US and UK borrow at about 2.8% while Germany borrows at 1.65%, Portugal at 5% and Greece at 8.5%.

Should the Irish economy recover and unemployment fall then this will be seen as a very significant turning point in recent Irish history. Fine Gael will claim the credit for steering the country through its darkest ever economic moments having implemented the Fianna Fail plan for recovery that they inherited, despite lambasting that same plan in the run up to the last General Election.

With the economy pointed in the right direction Fine Gael will expect to be rewarded by the Irish people with a second term in office. Despite being not quite half way through its five year term with the next General Election not due until 2016, the analysts in Fine Gael will surely be eyeing up the very best moment to ‘go to the people’, likely next year in 2015.

Of course a year is an eternity in politics and it is not out of the question that a fickle Irish electorate could yet punish Fine Gael for its failures, perceived or otherwise. Lack of political reform, controversial social policies and the never-ending implementation of the economics of austerity may yet come back to haunt the party.

For the time being Fine Gael are enjoying their time in office with the latest numbers from the opinion polls supporting their optimism:

Fine Gael: 30%
Fianna Fail: 26%
Sinn Fein: 16%
Labour: 12%
Others/Independents: 16%

This survey suggests a return by vast groups of voters to the more mainstream political parties and away from independents and fringe groups. Even the Labour Party managed to increase its support although it is still in a very poor position. Looking at the numbers above, surely a grand coalition of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail is only a matter of time?

by Michael Green
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Canadian Astronaut Sings ‘Ride On’ to Lord Mayor Of Dublin

Colonel Chris Hadfield is perhaps the most famous Canadian Astronaut in history. Not only was he the first Canadian to walk in space but he also tweeted some marvellous images of Ireland and the world while serving aboard the International Space Station. His images became an Internet sensation.

Chris Hadfield in Ireland

Now retired from active service he visited Ireland recently as a ‘tourism ambassador’ and regaled the Lord Mayor of Dublin with his version of ‘Ride On’, performed before a packed hall at the Mansion House, the Mayor’s residence in the city.

The Colonel is also especially admired in Ireland for sending the first ever tweet from space in the Irish language:

Tá Éire fíorálainn! Land of green hills dark beer. With Dublin glowing in the Irish night.

He commented later that while in space he had a particular interest in keeping on eye on Ireland as his daughter is attending Trinity College in Dublin.

Proving himself to be an accomplished guitar player it looks like the sky is still the limit for the multi-talented Canadian.

Funeral Directors Aim Daggers At Irish Minister

The recent decision by the Irish Government to scrap the ‘Bereavement Grant’ has less than impressed those involved in the Funeral business in Ireland.

Funeral Expenses Grant abolished in Ireland

The 850 Euro grant was previously paid to families of the recently deceased to assist with funeral expenses. In an attempt to deflect from criticism of the grant’s abolition Ruairi Quinn, the Irish Education Minister, suggested that there is ‘insufficient competition’ in the funeral business in Ireland. Clearly he thinks that the cost of funerals is being inflated by the bereavement grant and thus has no problem disposing of it.

It is estimated that the cost of a Funeral in Ireland is about 5000 euro (just under 7000 US$). Welfare Minister Joan Burton pointed out that there is still a generous allowance in the event of the pensioner’s death:

“If one partner of a pensioner couple dies, their spouse continues to get the social welfare payment of the deceased spouse for six months. That is worth roughly 1,200 to 1,400 Euro.”

Apart from the Bereavement Grant the Telephone Allowance for Pensioners has also been scrapped while Welfare for those aged under 26 years has been reduced. The Fine Gael and Labour Party Government made much of the fact that they have not increased the rates of taxation in their most recent annual budgets. Nevertheless their tenure in office has seen a whole host of new ‘stealth’ taxes introduced in tandem with some pretty savage cuts to services.

These latest cutbacks are just one of a number of measures in the recent annual Budgets that have attempted to roll back some of the largesse offered to Irish citizens during the Celtic Tiger years.

Times are very different now.

With the country effectively bankrupt the last five years has seen some very severe so-called ‘austerity’ measures implemented by successive Irish Governments. It would be expected then that a people who enjoy their reputation as being ‘The Fighting Irish’ would hit back and hard.

Not so.

Opposition from the Irish population has been relatively minimal. No Greek or French style riots. No imprisoning of Bankers and Government officials as happened in Iceland. The Irish have taken the economic downturn pretty much in their stride.

Or Emigrated.

by Michael Green
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Alcohol Abuse in Ireland Targeted by Irish Government

A new Public Health Bill is to introduce minimum pricing for alcohol products based on the alcohol content of the drink.

Irish Government is trying to reduce Alcohol consumption

The new laws are an effort to reduce the consumption of cheaper high-alcohol beers, wines and spirits. For the first time products will be targeted based on the actual amount of alcohol they contain.

Other new measures include:

* From 2016 alcohol advertising on TV and Radio is to be confined to evening time.

* Advertising of alcohol in Cinemas will be confined to over-18 movies only.

* Outdoor advertising of alcohol will also be restricted.

* Supermarkets and other outlets will have to relocate alcohol products to their own separate location within a premises.

* All alcohol products will in future carry health warnings (but significantly not with the kind of graphic pictures used on cigarette packets).

The President of the Irish Medical Organisation, Dr Matthew Sadlier, welcomed the new regulations:

“In Ireland, despite high excise duties alcohol has become increasingly more affordable. Under a minimum pricing structure, the price per unit becomes more expensive particularly affecting demand by younger binge drinkers and excessive harmful drinkers. Thus minimum pricing can reduce alcohol-related harm without necessarily penalising moderate drinkers.”

The new laws have been criticized for not going far enough and especially for not banning the sponsorship of sporting events by alcohol companies. In a surprising ‘pact with the devil’ the Irish sports lobby successfully persuaded Government that the withdrawal of sponsorship by the alcohol companies would severely impact on funding for sporting activities.

Pat Hickey, the President of the Olympic Council of Ireland, clearly disagreed with some of his colleagues in the Irish sporting community and responded by launching a scathing attack on the drinks industry in Ireland and particularly on the veiled threats by Diageo to reduce its investment in Ireland should a ban on drinks-industry sponsorship of sporting events be implemented:

I thought it was an absolute disgrace to read a report of an international company, Diageo, making an attack on the Irish Government and the Irish State about how they should conduct their business and investment. This is a multinational that has no interest whatsoever in Ireland except they happen to have a product beginning with ‘G’ and they promote that in Irish pubs just to get bigger profits around the world.

Abuse of Alcohol in Ireland costs Billions

A report that was recently published by the Health Research Board revealed that 58% of Irish people think the Government is not doing enough to reduce alcohol consumption. 85% of those surveyed believe that the current level of consumption of alcohol in Ireland is far too high. Average consumption in the year 2010 was 145% higher than the average amount consumed in the year 1960, a huge increase by any standard.

While the drinks industry in Ireland may be concerned at the new regulations they will surely be celebrating their most recent success at being able to continue their sponsorship of Irish sporting events.

Where they can recruit new and young devotees.

And all aided and abetted by the Irish sports lobby!

by Michael Green
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