The 1950s called…

…and they want their decade back.

Seriously, what is going on in Ireland right now?

In the last few weeks, we (or rather, our government and institutions of state) have:

  • Confirmed that human remains of foetuses and children were indeed interred in an unregistered mass grave, believed to have been a septic tank, at the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam; but no coroners inquests have been opened and its somehow acceptable for the Bon Secours order to not even comment;
  • Decided to give ownership of a new €300 million National Maternity Hospital to the Sisters of Charity – an order of nuns who ran Magdalene Laundries, facilitated and profited from illegal adoptions of Irish children to the U.S. and abroad, and who have, so far, failed to pay the recompense due to their victims;
  • Had our Dáil vote to make it compulsory for all TDs in attendance to stand for the duration of a prayer to the Christian god (and specifically the Christian god and not any other, not even the Abrahamic one – the wording includes “through Christ our Lord” – so Alan Shatter and any other non-Christian theists are automatically excluded);
  • Had senior TDs, including a potential leader of Fine Gael (and therefore Taoiseach) tell us that they “are not comfortable” with some of the recommendations from the Citizen’s Assembly – the leader of the opposition reckons the right to an abortion in cases of rape or incest is “not that simple.”  This should, presumably, and if followed to the logical conclusions, result in the establishment of enforced-pregnancy camps, where the unfortunate are kept until the foetus is viable?  Or possibly a voucher system would apply – a Ryanair ticket issued on production of a statement to the Gardaí?

As if to underline the absurdity of this apparent desire to return to the 1950s, we then had the revelation that the Gardaí are investigating an allegation of “blasphemy” against RTÉ and Stephen Fry for the latter’s tirade against the Christian god on Gay Byrne’s “Would you believe” show.

Yes, yes, that blasphemy legislation is an Irish solution to an Irish problem – we draft a law that can (presumably! Who knows these days?!) never result in a conviction.  But it’s still a law that other countries, such as Pakistan, point to when introducing their own blasphemy laws.  And there, the penalty isn’t a fine, it’s death.

Good job, Fianna Fáil.  Good job, Fine Gael. And Sinn Féin, abstaining on the prayer vote? Shame on them all.

Journalism, 2016-style

The Irish Times used to be “the paper of record.”  Everything of import got reported, stories of interest and relevance got investigated and published.

Now, they race to the bottom.  “Are miracles happening on the streets of Coleraine?” is the headline on an article that they published last Friday. It’s essentially a completely uncritical puff-piece for a lying charlatan who claims that faith-healing cures cancer.

The charlatan-in-chief claims his “faith-healing” has cured cancer and can make a person’s short leg physically grow “longer right before everyone’s eyes.”

Because that’s not a conjurer’s trick that’s been exposed many times before.

Good job, Irish Times.

RTÉ is the state broadcaster, with a public service obligation to report the news.

In theory, it’s subject to the BAI and its edicts on fairness and balance that saw, for example, every bigot in the country given “equal time” during the Marriage Referendum so that they could tell gay, bi and lesbian people that they were less than human, or paying “compensation” to homophobes for being called homophobes.

You’d imagine they’d try to be balanced and fair in election coverage.

But apparently they were justified in playing a clip all day showing an “apolitical” “small businessman” accosting Mary Lou McDonald while she canvassed, accusing her of “punishing” taxpayers.

Only problem: the “apolitical” “small businessman” was very quickly identified on social media as Fergus Crawford, brother of a former FG TD Seymour Crawford, and an investment banker, CEO of Sarasin & Partners, and prior to that spent 12 years with ACC Bank…

RTÉ continued to run the story after this was pointed out. The journalist in question, Martina FitzGerald, has still not pulled the tweet or issued a correction, despite dozens of requests to do so.

#redacted

The background:
The hashtag #redacted has been trending in Ireland for the last few days, because [redacted], the Irish Silvio Berlusconi, obtained an injunction – the full content of which remains secret! – to prevent RTÉ from broadcasting a documentary which, in part, looked at his financial dealings.

Catherine Murphy, independent TD for Kildare North, attempted to raise this in the Dáil, and was ruled out of order.

She introduced a Private Members Bill.

Speeches given in the Dáil are Constitutionally protected, subject to parliamentary privilege.

Article 15.12 of the Irish Constitution provides as follows:
All official reports and publications of the Oireachtas or of either House thereof and utterances made in either House wherever published shall be privileged.

RTÉ, the state broadcaster, will not report on the content of that speech, because of [redacted]’s injunction. Many newspapers, likewise, have not reported the contents. (Er, I should point out, [redacted] owns many Irish newspapers. And broadcasting outlets. Did I mention the Irish Silvio Berlusconi?)

Other outlets – broadsheet.ie, Village magazine, for example – did.

At least some other outlets are apparently going to court next week, to clarify the terms of the secret injunction and to ask the court, pretty please, if it’s all right to report on the contents of a speech given in Dáil Éireann.

This… is pretty serious. The phrase “constitutional crisis” has been mentioned, and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration.

In other news, entirely unrelated to [redacted] the Dáil will shortly debate a bill limiting ownership of Irish media by any one individual to 20%. Reportedly, this will not effect Denis O’Brien.

The speech:

“This bill extends the functions and powers, or seeks to extend the functions and powers of the C & AG [Comptroller and Auditor General] to cover IBRC. It was the Taoiseach that first suggested that the C & AG review the Siteserv sale’s process and it was then pointed out to him that IBRC does not come within his remit.”

“With this Bill, I’m attempting to address that problem by broadening the remit of the C & AG. The reason I’m anticipating the need to involve the C & AG, if not a full Commission of Investigation, which may well be a better option, is because I believe the Government have got this badly wrong, not least because most of the key players in the Siteserv saga have links with KPMG and its eventual purchaser and vice versa, is a web of connections and conflicts, that requires outside eyes to unravel.

I have no doubt that the special liquidator [Kieran Wallace] is more than capable of doing such a review but his direct involvement in the sale process, and his relationship with the eventual purchaser of Siteserv, and his current actions in the High Court, in supporting Mr O’Brien versus RTE, place him in a position where there is, at the very least, a perceived conflict of interest, if not an actual conflict of interest.
The review is not confined to Siteserv but it is the transaction that prompted a review. I would worry about the transactions that have been excluded from the review, given that what we now know, that in the final months before prom night, the relationship between the department and IBRC had completely broken down.
“If deals were being done without the knowledge or input of the minister then we need to know what they were. We are now aware for example that the former CEO of IBRC made verbal agreements with Denis O’Brien to allow him to extend the terms of his already expired loans.

We also know that the verbal agreement was never escalated to the credit committee for approval. I’m led to believe, and I would welcome the minister clarifying, the rates applicable at this time, that the extension also attracted some extremely favourable interest terms.

I understand that Mr O’Brien was enjoying a rate of around 1.25%, when IBRC, and arguably, when IBRC could, and arguably should have been charging 7.5%. We are talking about outstanding sums here that are upwards of €500million. The interest rate applied is not an insignificant issue for the public interest.

We also know that Denis O’Brien felt confident enough, in his dealings with IBRC that he could write to Kieran Wallace, as the special liquidator and demand that the same favourable terms extended to him by way of a verbal agreement could be continued.

We now have Kieran Wallace, who’s been appointed by the Government to conduct a review into the IBRC review, actually joining with IBRC and Denis O’Brien in the High Court and seeking to injunct the information I’ve outlined from coming into the public domain – surely that alone represents a conflict.

In FOI documents released to me, the minister, his officials and the Central Bank and even the Troika acknowledge that IBRC, the former Anglo Irish Bank, is no ordinary bank and there’s a significant public interest because the bank had been fully nationalised and was in wind-down mode.

They all accept that this is the people’s money that we’re dealing with and that there can be no dispute regarding the public interest in this. The same FOI materials detail incidences where the minister can specifically intervene, and issue an ministerial order that material matters have significant interest. Included in these material matters are incidences that are outside the ordinary course of business.

I would argue that what I’ve outlined out here regarding verbal deals, extensions, etc, are outside the normal course of business and I would ask the minister to exercise his right to intervene in the current proceedings and defend the public interest.

“I’ve a motion on the order papers, signed by the majority of the Opposition – 45 members have signed it and more are welcome to – calling for a debate into the proposed review. When I tried to raise it on the order of business, I was silenced and I was told to take it up with my Whip. I am the Whip of the Technical Group and I did raise it at the weekly Whip’s meeting.

The Government Chief Whip told me that they would not be altering the KPMG review, the Government would not be giving time to debate this issue and suggested that we use Private Members’ time.

It’s not just an Opposition issue, minister. This is an issue for all in this house. It’s an issue of serious public concern where there is public money involved and I know, if you got your hands on maybe and extra €20million, I don’t think you’d have to think too hard on how to spend that money. I urge the Government to reconsider this and give the Bill and the motion the time they deserve. I believe this is in the public interest. Thank you.”

Note: The above can be found archived on kildarestreet.com. I would link to the speech on the official Oireachtas website, but they still use Lotus Notes for their back-end database (in 2015! I know!), so searches don’t work well and are liable to failure.

Further reading/viewing:

https://plus.google.com/u/0/+BernieGoldbach/posts/f5kKMh5cfPG
http://www.broadsheet.ie/tag/siteserv/
And, er… Twitter. Facebook. politics.ie… But not in the newspapers. They’re still #redacted

Water, water, everywhere…

There is a lot I could say about Irish Water. I will quite probably write in some depth in the very near future about the topic.  But one thing really jumped out at me in the coverage and analysis pieces on last Saturday’s protests.

One of the reason we must have Irish Water, we are told, is that the infrastructure is leaking. 40% of our water, apparently, leaks straight into the ground.  “This must be fixed!”, we are rightly told.

Irish Water have therefore budgeted the princely sum of €51 million to deal with leaks. Until the end of 2016.

Irish Water has already spent €50 million on consultants.

They haven’t gone away, you know…

I see that the party that came up with the policy of moving government departments and offices to their ministers’ constituencies – at the cost of efficiency, corporate memory, careers, effective public service and €238,000 per job – still think it’s a good idea.

Facepalm. And obligatory Einstein quote.

“Insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Einstein

Except that’s not quite apt. It’s more accurate to say that a Fianna Fáil politician will do or say absolutely anything to get elected or re-elected, and hang the consequences for the country in the medium to long term.  Which is, of course, just like any other party.

Between this, and the utter stroke politics being attempted by Enda Kenny in the past week, I’ve come up with new guidelines for Irish elections:

1. Don’t vote for any candidate from a party with an Irish-language name.

2. See who is left.

3. Sigh. Select the least worst.

Howlin’s most petty last “last ask”

In the past couple of weeks, some public servants have started receiving emails and circulars regarding their temporary cut to annual leave.  This was one of the minor clauses contained in the Haddington Road Agreement (aka Croke Park II), something glossed over or ignored by the unions when advising staff to vote in favour of it.

In essence, those on the max of their salary scale, earning between €35k and €65k per annum, and with more than 23 days’ annual leave entitlement, lose up to six days’ annual leave, temporarily, between now and 2015.  So, e.g., an Administrative Officer reaching the top of their scale this year will lose 2 days in 2014, 2 more in 2015, and one in 2016 – and in 2017 will be back to their full leave entitlement.  People effected are essentially working an extra six days over three years.

Why? Er, reasons. Just because.

I suppose ostensibly Howlin will claim it’s necessary, it’ll increase productivity, and sure look, it’s part of the (cue his overused phrase) “last ask” for public servants.

So the Administrative Officer on max of scale loses 6 days leave. Her division head on more leave and a lot more money loses nothing.  The Junior Systems Analyst on max of scale loses 6 days leave but his boss on possibly less money loses none.  Two people in the same grade but where one started a couple of months before the other – one loses days, the other doesn’t.

It’s petty.

It won’t increase productivity by any measurable amount.  Every office, department, and public body has lost staff that haven’t been replaced.  Some of us working an extra two days a year for a couple of years doesn’t – can’t – make up for that.

It’s there because Robert Watt told Brendan Howlin to do it, because, on paper, x number of civil servants working 2 days extra per year for three years can apparently roughly translate into a monetary amount that can go onto one side of a balance sheet.

What isn’t taken into account is that after the pay freeze, the numerous pay cuts, the lack of any promotional opportunities, the longer hours, the reneging on the Croke Park Agreement by Labour and Fine Gael, the gutting of family-friendly work practices (such as flexi-time and term-time) and everything else, this latest unnecessary, inequitable exercise does come at a cost – whatever goodwill or flexibility that may have remained.

Another cost may well be a pretty direct relationship between the number people losing leave and the number of votes lost by Labour and Fine Gael…

Destroying FoI

Not content with attacking the pay and conditions of workers in the centenary year of the 1913 Lockout, Brendan Howlin is now attempting to completely undermine the Freedom of Information Act.

Prior to the general election, both Labour and Fine Gael had promised to restore the Act, removing the hindrances introduced over time by Fianna Fáil.

Now it seems it actually suits them to gut the Act, making it effectively impossible to use it for in-depth investigative journalism.

My own experience of using the Act, as a member of the great unwashed public, is that you really have to know what you’re looking for, and where is the best place to put your question, because you won’t be helped.  In the past, I’ve gotten about 500 pages from one government department, giving all the information that had been requested, for no charge, when the agency that actually “owned” the information had quoted a prohibitive cost for obtaining the same information.

I’m not a journalist, my livelihood doesn’t depend on this.  But I am a citizen, and the society I live in is best served with a strong, affordable FOI Act.