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Hello again from Ireland where the freezing rain and snow mercifully abated for the duration of the Saint Patrick's Day Parades - much to the relief of the organisers. Tens of thousands of spectators lined the streets to view the thousands of marchers and parade floats - a great success for a country that needs one!
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Until next month,
LOSE YOUR CABLE TV IF YOU WANT A MORTGAGE WRITE-DOWN
The issue of mortgage write-downs or 'debt forgiveness' has been a very thorny one in Ireland ever since the Irish banks effectively collapsed and were taken into state ownership. Thousands of home-owners lost their jobs at about the same time as the value of their property plunged. They found themselves in negative equity, preventing them from selling their now-devalued property and trapping them in apartment blocks and rural housing estates in a vicious circle that is hard to escape.
The realization that a certain level of mortgage write-downs would have to be granted was greeted with a mixture of despair by those who actually managed somehow to pay their mortgage and with an opportunistic 'nod and a wink' by those who are trying to 'game the system'. There is anecdotal evidence that a certain number of home-owners are deliberately not paying their mortgage in anticipation of a deal being struck in the future. This is preventing write-downs being offered to the most deserving of cases, stalling the property market, trapping people in homes they cannot afford.
It is estimated that as many as 100,000 Irish mortgages are now in arrears of at least three months. It is inevitable that deals will have to be done with some if not many of these cases. The banks are unsurprisingly being very cagey. Where home-owners in arrears present themselves to the bank they are being offered longer terms, mortgage holidays, interest-only payments, split mortgages, etc., in an effort to give them some breathing space. For some, even these measures will not be enough.
The new Personal Insolvency Service has laid out a number of concessions that they expect from those desperate for a deal including:
* getting rid of a second car and even trading down to a lesser model of car
* an end to taking foreign holidays
* removal of certain Cable TV services including sports and movies packages
* removal of children from private schools
* ending of private health insurance
* any other obvious 'unnecessary' expense
The Personal Insolvency Service is part of the Government's overhaul of the outdated bankruptcy laws in Ireland. Irish banks are expected to use the new rules and restrictions laid out by the Service in dealing with people seeking mortgage write-downs.
It is likely that these new measures may be tested in the Courts. The spectre of desperate families choosing between private education for their children and private health insurance over keeping their family in their home is likely to be loom large in the national consciousness and soon.
It is a battle that will likely get ever more bitter as the stark reality of a bank-imposed 'austerity lifestyle' hits home.
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GOVERNMENT 'DIVIDE & CONQUEROR' STRATEGY TO
TEST THE RESOLVE OF PUBLIC SECTOR UNIONS
A successor to the 'Croke Park Agreement' has been finalized that will see cuts of 1 Billion Euro from the Government pay bill. The deal includes pay cuts for all staff, and up to 10% for top-earners, additional hours of work at no extra pay, and reductions in allowances and premium payments.
As many as nine Unions have already indicated that they will not support the new deal and are recommending that their membership reject it. The consequences of being outside of the new arrangements are likely to make for a very difficult situation for the Unions. It is very likely that the Government will unilaterally reduce the pay of those staff who do sign up to the deal, a step that will almost certainly cause strikes.
The Government seems to be playing hardball this time around. The new proposals actually provide for some compensation to public servants in two years time in certain situations, but only to those Unions that sign up to the deal. Those staff who opt out will not receive the agreed compensation. Divide and conqueror seems to be the tactic.
Similarly the deal provides for zero compulsory redundancies for those Unions that sign up - a huge concession given the current unemployment rate of over 14%. Those left outside the umbrella of the agreement however will have no such comfort and may see compulsory redundancies implemented, on top of compulsory pay cuts.
The divisions in the Unions are becoming apparent. The huge Impact Union that represents over 63,000 public servants has recommended that the deal be accepted. The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation however is to recommend rejection of the deal to its 40,000 members. Similarly Teachers Unions have rejected the deal. Already a group representing Gardai, Nurses, Paramedics and Fire-Fighters, some 70,00 public servants, has been formed to co-ordinate its opposition to the deal.
The problem with the deal from a Union perspective is that it requires every public servant to take a pay cut. While this may seem reasonable in the case of a person earning over 65,000 euro per year it is a lot harder on lower paid civil and public servants, nurses and front-line staff, many of whom earn less than 30,000 euro annually.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny is determined that the cuts to pay and conditions have to me made:
"Implementing these savings by agreement with public service staff would be another big step on the road to economic recovery, and would send out a signal to the world that the Irish people are determined to fix our economic problems and restore the country to prosperity and full employment."
It is 'Game On' with division, public protest and strikes inevitable.
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BLOW TO ECONOMY AS TOURISTS FROM BRITAIN DESERT IRELAND
The number of visitors from Britain has fallen by as many as a Million visits since 2007 when 3.7 Million trips from Britain to Ireland were recorded.
Six short years ago Ireland was a very different place. The 'Celtic Tiger' still stalked the land although his days were numbered. A property market collapse and financial ruin were just around the corner. Britain suffered its own recession too but was spared the carnage caused by the banks that Ireland suffered. Against this backdrop it is perhaps no surprise that visitors from our closest neighbour have decided to opt for sunnier climes.
The Irish Hotels Federation (IHF) are doing everything they can to reverse the trend but are not helped by the high costs they face in running their businesses. Commercial Rates are effectively an extra big tax on their income. Many Hotels are also suffering negative equity in respect of the development of their Hotel property after the market collapsed in 2008. Consequently Hotel rates in 2012 were at their highest level since 2008 according to a Hotels.com survey.
Killarney at 101 euro per night was listed as the most expensive destination for Hotel rooms where the country averaged 90 euro per night. Irish Hoteliers are not at all happy with the survey though, claiming that the cost of rooms has been greatly reduced in recent years despite persistently high costs and that Ireland compares favourably to most other popular European destinations.
Tourism is vitally important to the Irish economy accounting for 5.3 Billion Euro in revenue and employing 11% of the entire workforce of the country.
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IRISH FOOTBALL TEAM SUFFER WORLD CUP SETBACK
The prospect of the Irish football team lining out in Brazil for the 2014 World Cup hangs in the balance. A fine battling performance in Sweden to gain an unexpected 0-0 draw and a vital qualifying point was followed up by a 2-2 draw with Austria in the Aviva Stadium in Dublin.
It could have been so different. The young Irish team were a goal down within 11 minutes after a defensive mistake let in the Austrians who had dominated the early part of the game. Martin Harnik poked home the opening goal past the despairing dive of Irish keeper David Forde. The Irish team dug in and with the excellent Shane Long leading the attack got a lifeline with a penalty after an Austrian defender rashly chopped down Shane Long on the edge of the penalty box. A definite penalty that was expertly converted by Jonathan Walters. Long was unlucky not to score shortly after when his beautiful back-heel came back of the post. The Irish were in the ascendancy with the stadium erupting when Walters scored his second goal of the night, a header from a corner kick and right on the stroke of half-time.
The Austrians regrouped and started to dominate the game again in the second half. Ireland still threatened and might have had a third goal when the Austrian goalkeeper Heinza Lindner expertly prevented an own-goal from an Irish corner. Increasingly the Austrians gained the upper hand and it was with a sense of inevitability that they snatched a deserved equalizer deep into added time. Just seconds remained on the clock but the three points had been converted into just one with new questions abounding about the tactics employed by the Irish manager Giovanni Trapattoni.
No-one doubts the 'gameness' of these Irish lads and they are not without genuine footballing quality but against Austria they were let down by their Manager's unwillingness to believe that they could do more than just cling on and defend their goal advantage. With the Austrians dominating it became clear that the Irish team needed midfield reinforcements while the substitution of Shane Long was baffling to say the least.
It is not over yet and if the Irish can produce an away performance against Austria and turn over the Swedes in Dublin then they may yet claim second place in the group and a play-off place.
At the moment this looks like a very tall order.
Group C - Current Standing
Germany - Played: 6 - Points: 16
Austria - Played: 5 - Points: 8
Sweden - Played: 4 - Points: 8
Ireland - Played: 5 - Points: 8
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FREE ATTRACTION #9: SCIENCE GALLERY, DUBLIN
'Connecting the cutting edge of Science and Research with the Public'.
'Linking Art and Science'.
The Science Gallery in the heart of Dublin is a unique venue in that it does not have a permanent collection of exhibits. The Gallery thus does not always have an exhibition for viewing so visitors are advised to check the Gallery website to ensure that an exhibition is actually running. Gaps between exhibitions can be two or three weeks.
Exhibitions include events, talks, debates and workshops, giving visitors the chance to get involved. The range of science topics covered is very broad with exhibitions covering such diverse subjects as learning how to transform old electronics into new musical instruments to a study of Oscillators from an economist's point of view.
The Gallery is located a short walk towards the back of Trinity College on Pearse Street and has a fine café onsite. The Science Gallery is in stark contrast to many of the most popular tourist attractions in Ireland and is a modern and bright facility. It offers a welcome and engaging change to the many otherwise fine Museums and usual tourist attractions in Dublin and is a must for anyone interested in science.
Before visiting please ensure that you check the Gallery schedule for upcoming events at: http://sciencegallery.com
FEE-PAYING ATTRACTION #9: KILMAINHAM GAOL, DUBLIN
Kilmainham Gaol is a former prison located in Kilmainham some 4km from Dublin city centre and is well served by buses and the Luas tram service. The site is of huge historical importance in Ireland and is the jail where many leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising were executed by the British. The majority of the Irish leaders in the rebellions of 1798, 1803, 1848, 1867 and 1916 were imprisoned there including Robert Emmet, Charels Stewart Parnell, Michael Davitt and Padraig Pearse.
Built in 1796 the Gaol had a fearsome reputation. Governments of the fledgling Irish State had considered demolishing the prison during the 1930s and 1940s but the cost of the demolition was prohibitive. A new proposal to demolish the site in the 1950s was thwarted when the Kilmainham Jail Restoration Society was formed with the aim of restoring the prison using private donations and thus involving less cost to the State.
In 1960 a workforce of 60 volunteers set about the task of removing decades of neglect, rubble, plant overgrowth and dangerous masonry. The Gaol was re-opened in 1971 and houses a museum on the history of Irish nationalism offering guided tours (1 hour) of the building. There is a prisoner art gallery on the first floor.
In terms of cultural importance Kilmainham Gaol is right up there at the top of the Irish 'must-see' list. Wrap-up well, allow a full morning or afternoon for your visit. Phoenix Park with Dublin Zoo and Farmleigh House are just across the River Liffey, a short taxi-ride away if you really want to make a day of it!
Find out more at: http://www.heritageireland.ie/en/dublin/kilmainhamgaol/
by Michael Collins
We'd missed the boat to Clare. I didn't think we would, because we were within the time limits stated. What we'd failed to realise, Pat and myself, was the clocks had stopped at the last small town we had passed through. We had even had time to pause on the way, at the top of the last rise before the land fell away to the shore, to admire the panorama. 'See Naples and die' they say. Pat had turned to me as we gazed: 'See Clew Bay and die' was his comment.
It was spread out before us, a semi-circular stretch of the Atlantic, girdled by mountains and dotted with islets 'One for every day of the year,' Pat had remarked with the large hump of our destination plugging the gap to the open sea like a huge whale floating patiently on the surface: Clare Island, five miles out to sea, five miles long by two miles wide, rising from sea level at its eastern end to nine hundred feet at its western extremity, where high cliffs took the buffeting of the restless ocean. And in among all those islands and islets was a small sand bar that the Beatles had bought. It had been taken over by hippies who were attempting to raise cabbages there.
But we'd missed the boat. Not our fault. You couldn't book your passage so there was no passenger list. But we had been assured that there would be a boat at 3.30 in the afternoon. Now, at 3 o'clock, we could see our boat as a speck on the water, drawing away from us towards our intended destination. There was nothing for it but to return the five miles to Louisburgh and phone from there. A frantic phone call from a phone booth where first you had to pick up the receiver and wind a handle to get the operator and only then insert your two pennies provided us with the information that no further 'official' boat was expected to sail that day but it was thought that a fishing boat would be making the crossing to Roonagh Quay and back at around 7.30. The only thing we could do was to go and get a pub meal and a pint or two and wait. I made sure we were back at the landing stage by 6.30.
When the boat, with its two-man crew, arrived to deposit a passenger and return to the island before nightfall, the tide was at its lowest ebb. We had to scramble thirty feet down an iron ladder, manoeuvring our rucksacks, into the well of a boat that looked frighteningly small and smelt like a fishmonger's shop on a bad day. I had thought I was accustomed to boats, having crossed the English Channel and the Irish Sea up to fifty times. This was different. The large steamers I was used to ploughed through the waves: the tiny craft we were now sailing in sat on top of them like a cork. The waves rolled in from the stern, higher than the mast, and the boat was eased up the hills of water, to slide down the far side into the trough like a roller coaster. I did not feel confident, but the crew seemed to regard it all with the dispassionate attitude of experts.
Then Clare loomed up out of drizzly mist, all grey and green, dotted with the white squares of cottages. It was dead calm in the lee of the island, enabling me to lean over the side. The sight was astonishing. The water was a crystal-clear, pale bluish-green and the bright sandy bottom was clearly visible, with small flatfish cruising around like aeroplanes.
The boat docked at 8 o'clock and once again we set about heaving and hauling to get our baggage on shore. We walked along the top of the harbour wall, in the curve of which nestled a ridiculously tiny castle, proceeded another fifty yards and entered the pub. I say 'pub': it was everything post office, grocery store, pub and private dwelling all rolled into one. Pints were pulled. Around 11.30 supper was called, a vast fry-up of sausages, eggs, bacon, black pudding. And more pints. It was like a hefty breakfast and a night out on the town all rolled into one.
At around 1 a.m. I wandered down to the tiny beach to clear my head and got strangely excited about finding a small dead dogfish stranded on the sand.
Our three-week holiday started the next day. Our time was spent working on the 'roads' a euphemism for tracks made of compacted gravel and clay. Spare time was spent in the pub, wandering over the island, fishing for mackerel from a boat and for cod from the shore. The weather changed the first day: we could have been somewhere on the Mediterranean. A heat wave in the West of Ireland!
The watch on my wrist soon became redundant. I was used to a life regulated down to the nearest minute. The islanders lived much more according to the rhythms of daylight, darkness and weather. Not even the pub had real opening times: generally the first customers would trickle in around 9 p.m., the bar staying open until the last drinker left in the wee small hours or as the sun was coming up.
The result was that I was rewarded by sights that are not usually granted to the clock-watcher. One morning, after a particularly fine night of story-telling and singing, two of us emerged into the fresh air just as rosy-fingered dawn was painting the sky. Rather than going home to bed we decided to climb to a point high above the track to watch the sun come up. We sat in the shelter of a tumbledown dry-stone wall and watched the sun rise above Croagh Patrick, the sacred mountain of Ireland's patron saint that stands on the far mainland shore looking, from our vantage point, rather like a resting volcano. The sunlight shone on a grassy plateau some thirty feet beneath us, a plateau dotted with wild flowers. And as the cold air warmed we smelt the wild thyme and saw the hares emerging from their nighttime hiding places to jump and gambol like children just released from school.
Another early-morning exploit found me with two islanders in a curragh, a traditional rowing boat made of tarred sacking stretched over thin laths, dropping a handline weighted with a stone and bearing six hooks baited with bits of silver paper. I could feel the mackerel thudding into the hooks as the line became steadily heavier. We hauled the fish aboard six at a time. Ninety mackerel in half an hour. Fishing from the shoreline was different. The bait was limpet, knocked from the rocks, the prey small codlings or wrasse. Not sport: they were strictly for the pot.
Then there was the day that we decided to take the long walk to the west of the island, a steady five-mile slog as the land slowly rose from sea level to cliff height. We lay on our bellies on grass cropped by that most efficient of lawn mowers, the sheep, and watched the gulls wheel and scream along the cliff walls, hearing the dull boom of the ocean as it gently pummeled the rocks below. A curragh came into view, rounding a headland to our left, and bobbed about like a toy boat as its occupants hauled in lobster pots. We knew the men, but there was no point in greeting them: a wave of the hand would have gone unnoticed and any shouting would have been drowned by the ocean's deep bass voice.
I fear that this was an experience I can never repeat. Tourism and commercial interests have changed the nature of Clare. The pub has closed. There is mains electricity and a helicopter pad. But the visitor to Clare Island will still be able to savour something of what I felt when I first landed there. In June 1971.
© 2013 Michael J. Collins