Much has been made this week of the sight of hundreds of people queueing along St Stephen’s Green North in the hope of securing one of 150 supermarket jobs on offer from the Griffin-Londis group.  Anne Marie Hourihane does a good piece about it in today’s Irish Times, and she is the first journalist I have seen putting a positive slant on the story.  It would seem obvious that a story about the creation of 150 new jobs in the depths of a recession is a good news story.  All of the media coverage I have seen (except from Ms Hourihane) has used this story to tell us how awful things really are.  It’s all doom and gloom with thousands of people out of work and desperate for any job they can get, even a basic supermarket job.  Many have said that it was a throwback to the eighties, except I don’t remember people queueing around the block for jobs in the eighties.  I do, however, remember people queueing down Pembroke Road in an attempt to get out of the country.

150 new jobs is a good news story.  The fact that so many of our young people are willing to queue for up to two hours in the hope of an interview for even the most basic of jobs is also a good news story – or is it.  Séamus Griffin, managing director of the Griffin-Londis group had an interesting statistic  for Ann Marie Hourihan.  Only 2.5% of those in the queue were Irish nationals.  This is a stunning, if not surprising, figure. 

According to the CSO, non-Irish nationals made up 20.4% of the live register for March 2009.  In the same month it was estimated that non-Irish nationals made up 16% of the available workforce.  This could tell us that foreign nationals are over represented in the ranks of the unemployed by about 4%.  However, if foreign nationals, as Séamus Griffin tells us, make up 97.5% of a queue for a job in a supermarket, we must question, as Ann Marie Hourihan did, where all the potential Irish supermarket workers are.  Irish people acount for 80% of the unemployed in the state and yet they seem uninterested in taking a job which, I assume, they feel is beneath them.

To continue to claim unemployment benefit one must satisfy the authorities that one is actively seeking employment.  Given the massive imbalance in Mr Griffin’s queue last Wednesday I would wonder how assiduosly this is checked before the dole money is shoved accross the counter each week.

Ms. Horihane concludes her article with the following question, ‘When the day comes that the Irish are the dominant nationality working in the Londis stores will that mean that our economy has hit rock bottom? Or will it mean that it has returned, at last, to normality ?’  A good question indeed.

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Inidcently, looking at census figures, as I did for this post, can throw up the most extraordinarily quirky figures.  For instance, on census night in April 2006 there were 63,276 Poles living in Ireland.  On the same night there were 10,126 poles who were visiting but not living in Ireland.  That means that about one in six Polish people living here in 2006 had family or friends visiting on census night.  Amazing!

On Saturday morning last I was driving to Loughrea from Claregalway when, on Ruth Buchanan’s Playback programme, I heard a piece from Thurday’s Liveline.  A guy called John was talking to Damien O’Reilly about being a small time heroin dealer in Dublin.  John’s main defence of his part time occupation was as follows. It is simply impossible to live on the €204  job seekers allowance that he is given by the state every week, so he is forced to supplement his income by selling heroin.

Fast forward to Monday morning and Government chief whip, Pat Carey, is being interviewed by Áine Lawlor on  Morning Ireland.  Carey had come out to defend the fact that, contrary to what was announced in the budget speech by Brian Lenihan, sitting TDs could, after all, continue to receive ministerial pensions.  During the course of the discussion Carey alluded to the recent tribunals and suggested that we did not want to return to those bad old days.  This is a shocking and disgraceful statement from any TD, but from one charged with keeping  back-benchers on side with the government message, it is all the more so.  To suggest that if our esteemed public representatives are not paid enough, or even what they would deem to be sufficient, that they would inevitably resort to corruption and bribery to supplement their incomes is an incredible position for a chief whip to take.

When John the heroin dealer declared that he must turn to law breaking to supplement his €10,608 annual income, another caller to Liveline was moved to call him ‘the scum of the earth.’

When a government TD suggests that TDs and former ministers might do the same if their wages of between €100,000 and €150,000 plus are cut by a few grand it raises barely a whimper.

Does anything tell us more about this government’s contempt for and their detachment from the electorate.  How much longer are we going to allow this powerful, wealthy, detached elite to treat us and our democracy like a private country club.  How long will we continue to be a veritable ATM for these leaches.

This ‘L’Oreal’ cabinet see nothing wrong with a Taoiseach who earns more than the President of The United States.  They see nothing wrong with TDs getting compensatory payments of over €50,000 when they lose their junior ministers’ positions and then having to eke out a living on the basic €100,000 backbencher’s salary.

Why?

Because they’re worth it.

You will not find one among the current 164 TDs and 60 Senators who genuinely does not believe that  they are worth every cent.

Many callers to Liveline today agreed that we need to pay our politicians well if we are to get the best people for the job.  In recent years, as the wages of our elected representatives have soared, this has become accepted wisdom.  If you pay peanuts, we are told, you get monkeys.  I don’t agree with this.  I think that it is just possible that the higher the remuneration the lower the standard of politician you are likely to get.

The skills and the attitude required to run profit driven, private companies and PLCs are quite different to those required to run public institutions.  Every day of every year there are tens of thousands of people, the length and breadth of this country, who engage in volunteerism.  These people selflessly give their time and energy to run GAA clubs, soccer clubs, boxing clubs.  They take care of elderly neighbours and relatives and never ask a cent for their service.  These are decent, civic minded people who give because it helps their communities and probably because it makes them feel good too.

Conversely, the more we pay our politicians the more likely it is that we will get people who are only in it for the money.  These are absolutely the wrong people to run the country.  These are the wrong people to take care of the sick, the elderly and the disadvantaged.  These are the wrong people to be charged with the sharing out of the wealth of the nation.

We, however, are the idiots who keep electing them.

 

Once again this Fianna Fáil / Green Party government shows us how completely out of touch it is with the country.  In a truly astonishing move education minister, Batt O’Keefe, today announced that funding for special teacher support for children with mild general learning disabilities in 119 primary schools throughout the country is to be withdrawn.  How this move could be seen as anything other than an attack on the most vulnerable children in our school system is beyond me.  The Irish Constitution demands of the state that it provide an education to all children.  The right of an Irish child to be educated is enshrined in the most solemn document of this republic.  Nowhere in article 42 of the constitution is there any reference to how children might qualify for different standards of primary education.  One would have to accept that, based on the rights enshrined in article 42, children with mental handicap, emotional problems or any other kind of educationally disadvantageous condition are as much entitled to primary education as any other children.  Nowhere in the constitution is there a reference to the state’s ability to provide financially for the education of any child.  The withdrawal of this necessary teaching aid to an estimated 534 children would appear to be a dereliction of the state’s constitutional obligation to children’s education.

This is not, of course, how Minister Batt O’Keefe will see it.  “There isn’t any massive change.  There are hundreds of similar kids right around that have been integrated into mainstream classes,” he said today.

It would seem that the minister believes that the provision of special teacher support for special needs children up to now has been an unnecessary luxury.  A luxury which, in times of serious financial hardship, such as the country now finds itself in, is a profligate waste of taxpayers’ money which is among the first of the unnecessary luxuries to be axed as the government seeks to cut €2 billion off the budget spend for 2009. 

Since Brian Cowen told us last week that serious cuts in public spending were needed we have seen a pension levy imposed on the salaries of public sector workers and a freezing of previously agreed public sector wage increases.  This savage cut in funding for special needs teachers is so far the only other announced budget cut.  The department of education estimates that this measure will save in the region of €7 million.  As I write this the following budget provisions are still in place.

Local Authority Swimming Pool Programme: – €18 million, Irish Sports Council: – €53.026 million, National Sports Campus: – €4.403 million, Lansdowne Road: – €1.5 million, Horse & Grey Hound Racing Fund: – €69.719, Grants to support sport in disadvantaged areas: – €1.35 million.

Yes, you did read that correctly, €69.715 million in grants to horse & greyhound racing for 2009.

We still have 20 junior ministers earning in excess of €140, 000 per annum. We still provide a car costing over €100,000, each one equipped with two full time Garda drivers, to each of our 15 ministers. We have just given a €1,000,000 severance package to a financial regulator who had to resign because of his incompetence. Each of 165 TDs ‘earns’ a basic salary of over €100,000, which rises, when membership of committees and various unvouched expenses are added on, to over €250,000.  Tonight we spent €7,000,000,000 to recapitalise two of the largest private institutions in the state and most analysts reckon that a further €13,000,000,000 will be required to do the job properly.

The list of places where cuts could have been made before attacking vulnerable, defenceless children who, through no fault of their own, face serious challenges in accessing primary education is almost endless.  The proposal to end the universal medical card for over seventies could be justified on grounds of ability to pay.  A proposal to introduce university fees could be defended on the same grounds.  One was reversed when the political heat got too much and the other will see massive student demonstrations if it is introduced.  The public sector pension levy can be justified when compared to the required contributions to attain a comparable pension in the private sector.  It remains to be seen if this government has the stomach for a fight when the students and the unions take to the streets as the pensioners did last autumn.  Will they stand up to these groups or simply turn tail and put the boot in to another vulnerable but less vocal section of our society?

This government shames me and shames my country.  That I did not vote for them is no consolation to me whatsoever.

 

Last autumn representatives of the main financial institutions went cap in hand to Merrion Street and announced that they were in some serious trouble and something really must be done.  From the outset the government would seem to have been in an incredibly strong negotiating position.  So what did they do?  They pledged to guarantee the deposits and the assets of these institutions.  They then rushed legislation through the Dáil to effect this guarantee and then they sat down to negotiate the terms of a guarantee which they were legally obliged to provide.  Wouldn’t you just love to play poker with these guys?  I can just see Biffo announcing to the guys sitting around the green baize, ‘I’ve got four aces here, lads.  So I’m putting everything I have on the table.  Anyone going to see me, then?’

Tomorrow Brian Lenihan will announce details of how €7 billion of Irish state money is to be applied to save the two largest financial institutions in Ireland, AIB and Bank of Ireland.  The negotiation of the terms of this cash injection have been going on for quite some time and it would seem, from reports which have been filtering out, and from the general demeanor of Lenihan and co, that the government has been on the back foot for most of the engagement.

Now, I’ve said before that I am not an economist, but the situation would seem to be pretty straightforward.  One scenario is that the two banks are in serious trouble and are desperately in need of a massive injection of new capital to allow them to stay in business.  In this case the banks don’t have a leg to stand on and have to accept whatever terms the government cares to dictate.  Another scenario is that the banks are actually reasonably healthy and are not, in fact, in any danger of collapse.  In this case the government can then simply take our €7 billion and do something useful with it.  The recapitalisation of AIB and Bank of Ireland is supposed to encourage the banks to start lending money to small business again, therefore safeguarding jobs in smaller firms which are experiencing cash flow problems.  If the banks don’t want to do things our way then there is another bank which could be used to channel this cash to the SMEs.  Anglo Irish Bank is wholly owned by the state and could be transformed into a kind of latter day ACC to offer credit to businesses which are otherwise sound but are suffering through a lack of cash at certain times.  As I said, I’m not an economist, so I can’t say with certainty that this transformation of Anglo Irish Bank is possible.  However, if it is not, why not just build a new ACC type vehicle to restart the flow of credit to small business.

Now, as you can see, the government has held all the aces from the very start in this sorry mess.  The fact that doing a deal with the banks has been so difficult can only lead me to one of two conclusions.  The first is that the government and those negotiating on their behalf are complete idiots who are being led a merry dance by Messrs Goggins and Sheehy and their doubtless large and expensive team of financial and legal eagles. This is a rather worrying thought since Cowen and Lenihan and Coughlan and their mates are actually supposed to be running the country.

The second conclusion is that the government is determined to give this €7 billion to these bankers at all costs.  That no matter how difficult the negotiations, no matter how tough a bargain the banks drive, the government has no other strategy but to recapitalise.  That the government has a default position that AIB and Bank of Ireland will be part of the solution no matter what the price.  Why would this be so?  Is it a kind of loyalty to fellow members of the golden circle?  Is it to prevent the banks from calling in their tabs with Fianna Fáil’s best mates in the building industry?  Why does this Fianna Fáil led government seem so determined to roll over and have their bellies tickled by AIB and Bank of Ireland?  Are they completely incompetent or completely corrupt?

Democracy is a wonderful thing and America is a wonderful democracy.  This is demonstrated every four years when America goes to the polls and the resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue knows and accepts that they may have to relinquish the most powerful political position on the planet.  Recently America has had a desire to export this wonderful democracy to certain, but not all, countries in the Middle East.  Their greatest democracy exporting experiment is currently taking place in Iraq where President George W Bush travelled this week in the dying days of his final term.   As we know an Iraqi journalist who takes a certain umbrage at America’s actions in Iraq attacked Bush with a pair of size ten shoes while he was giving a press conference alongside Iraqi president Nouri al-Maliki.  The journalist, Muntadar al-Zeidi, was promptly arrested and according to reports is to be charged with ‘insulting the Iraqi nation.’  Had al-Zeidi carried out his actions in the United States he would certainly have been arrested, but one can only assume that any charges which followed would be related to the attempted assault on the president.  I don’t know of any serious democratic nation where it is a crime to insult the country.  This however is the new ‘democracy’ which America is promoting and supporting in Iraq.  The idea that insulting the Iraqi nation is a punishable crime has a certain resonance when one thinks of the literally hundreds, if not thousands, of Iranians who were executed in Iran following the 1979 revolution who were acussed of ‘crimes against Islam.’  I wait anxiously to see what will happen when Iraq is finally cut loose from America’s apron strings and elects itself a strict Islamic government.  I can only guess that when that happens America will be just about as keen on Iraqi democracy as they were on Palestinian democracy when Hamas were elected.

BTW.  Having observed Bush’s fantastic, evasive body swerve I can only assume that he has at some time been on a duck shoot with Dick Cheney!

In The Irish Times this week an interesting story about US president elect, Barack Obama turned up as an eight line story under the headline ‘Obama to offer Israel nuclear umbrella.’  It seems that, according to the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, Barack Obama has given assurances to the jewish state that in the event of an Iranian nuclear attack on Israel, the United States will respond with a nuclear strike against Iran.

Now, there’s change you can believe in.

I have said privately for quite some time that Barack Obama’s election will make very little difference to American foreign policy, particularly American Middle East policy.

Still, it must be comforting if you are living in or around Tel Aviv to know that if Iran, a country which does not possess nuclear weapons, was to launch a nuclear attack on your country, Israel, which does have nuclear weapons, then the country which gave you those nuclear weapons, in flagrant breach of nuclear non-proliferation treaties, will save you the bother of wasting a couple of warheads by taking out several hundred thousand citizens of  Tehran on your behalf.

Change you can believe in.

No mention, however, of America’s intended reaction to an Israeli first strike, with American nuclear weapons, on Iran.

Change..?

No.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

And so the waiting begins.  Bertie has bid farewell to Mr. Justice Alan Mahon and his esteemed colleagues down at Dublin Castle, and when Owen O’Callaghan has given his tuppence worth the three judges can get on with writing their final report.

I must say that I will miss the tribunal.  In entertainment terms it has been the best show in town for quite some years now and had come to feel almost like an old, reliable friend.  The sort of old friend who could always be relied upon to cheer me up and give me a giggle on a dreary, wet Monday in Dublin traffic.  After a 12 year run the end of it will seem a bit like the last episode of The Riordans.

The tribunal even outlived the Vincent Browne Show.  The re-enactments pioneered on the show were always fantastic entertainment.  Way back in the dim and distant past, before pod-casting had been heard of, I used to set my cassette recorder on a timer to record the show before I went to bed at night.  Driving out the N4 at 3 or 4am the next morning I was often convulsed with laughter while listening to Tom Gilmartin of Liam Lawlor giving evidence.  Gilmartin’s recounting of the occasion when Lawlor gate crashed a meeting in London nearly put me in a ditch west of Enfield one dark morning.

You see, there were one or two consummate entertainers at the tribunal a few years before Bertie came on the scene.  Imagine how disappointing it would have been if Bertie had completely flopped in the comedy stakes.

Good old reliable Bertie, though, he really didn’t let us down.  Bertie’s run had many highlights.  Everything from how as minister for finance he didn’t engage with the banking system to Michael Wall not eating the dinner and many more fabulous anecdotes in between proved his status as a raconteur without peer.  However, the day he told us that he won the money on a horse has got to be the pinnacle of a performance with more peaks than the Himalayas.

I look forward eagerly to the publication of the final report.  It is sure to be a bestseller and should easily outstrip Justice Floods interim report from a couple of years ago.  Perhaps it will enliven the blogosphere, which quite frankly has been a little quiet of late.

Over in Dublin 4 work on the new Lansdowne Road stadium continues apace.  When the newly built venue opens to the public in 2010 rugby and soccer fans can expect a much enhanced day out for their sports viewing.  What they won’t be expecting, however, is the crowds of spectators urging them on as they go to spend a penny in the stadium’s many toilet facilities.

“The other big thing is the toilet facilities, something that the old stadium was lacking in, to put it mildly. It’ll be a much better spectator experience.”  So said Martin Murphy, Lansdowne Road Stadium Director