Friday, December 21, 2007


Today is my last day with the Irish Examiner before I move over to the Irish Times in the New Year. It's an incredibly sad day, far more so than I imagined. I have been with 'de paper' for four and a half years and, professionally, it has been a very happy period in my life.

I was hoping that the last week would be relatively quiet but it's been busy. It hasn't been helped by the fact that I've come down with a cold that's not bad enough to make me miss work but is bad enough to make me feel sorry for myself.

And of course, I finish today, as I started in August 2003, writing about Bertie. The controversy he was involved in then sounds so trivial, so insignificant now. His daughter was getting married in France and the media were going bananas about the deal they had forged with one of the gossip-celeb mags and Bertie's attitude to the media.

And on my last day, it's all about Bertie again - this time, his ongoing appearances at the Mahon Tribunal.

I'm sorry for dredging up a horrible metaphor. But yesterday he was like - to use a description used of him before - a rat in an anorak. The aggression he displayed yesterday was jaw-dropping. And when Dermot Ahern, Mícheál Martin, and Dick Roche (who alleged 'bias') started getting in on the act, it was hard not to think that there was a concerted effort going on to undermine the Tribunal.

Ok the last day isn't going to descend into a long liquid Christmas lunch... but hey, we have the best Christmas panto of them all... Bertie and his Magic Anorak...

And if you can bear it, here is my analysis from yesterday's evidence... it's 1,600 long, so strictly only for Anorak anoraks!

There were moments during yesterday afternoon when the dialogue seemed closer to New Jersey and James Gandolfino’s portrayal of Tony Soprano than to Drumcondra and to Bertie Ahern’s portrayal of a Ward boss.
There is no way of exaggerating the accusation he made against the Tribunal and its lawyers, directly alleging that it was “trying to set me up and stitch me up”.
Mr Ahern repeated again and again this was unbelievable. And if you were to find a word to describe the entire day it would be the closely related unreal, maybe even surreal. This was as dramatic as the Tribunal gets, with the Taoiseach playing it tough and hard and, looked at from his perspective, saying no more nice guy, I’m going to give as good as I get here. Was this a new strategy or direction by the Taoiseach and his legal team. You would have to say yes, on balance, especially with the strategically-timed intervention late in the afternoon of the Cabinet’s self-styled bruiser Dermot Ahern who didn’t let the fact that he wasn’t there prevent him from having a go at the Tribunal and its legal team, for its “astonishing” line of questioning.
In truth there wasn’t anything all that astonishing about the Tribunal’s line of questioning. All morning and all afternoon, the senior member of its legal team, Des O’Neill, continued his same patient, snail-like, implacable, even-voiced and occasionally monotonous line of questioning.
With two days scheduled we all thought he’d jump into the second dig-out and ask questions about the size of the envelope Dermot Carew gave him or what kind of a friend Padraic O’Connor of NCB really was. But besides brief references in passing to that second payment from Carew, Paddy the Plasterer, Barry English and Joe Burke, Mr O’Neill honed in how Mr Ahern managed his finances between 1987 and 1994.
And in the end, it boiled down to two lines of questioning. The first was a detailed examination of how he managed his financial affairs without a bank account and how he managed to save £54,000. Nothing astonishing about that. A lot of unexplained cracks there, that Mr Ahern didn’t really fully Pollyfilla to a smooth finish yesterday.
And the second line of questioning centred around a loan that Mr Ahern took out in December 1993 of just under £20,000 to pay legal fees from his separation and pay off his ex-wife’s car loan.
Mr O’Neill probed him on why he needed to take out a loan when he has said he had £54,000 saved over seven years at that stage.
It gets a bit complicated from here, granted, but the sequence is very important. The loan of £20,000 was drawn down on the 23 December 1993, the same day as Mr Ahern opened a Special Savings Account (SSA). Three days later, on St Stephen’s Day, December 26, Mr Ahern received his first dig-out loan from eight friends amounting to £22,500. Mr Ahern said that when he opened the SSA he hoped to put £30,000 of his own savings in. But in fact, on December 30th he put the £22,500 from the dig-out in and waited another four months before putting the £30,000 in.
There were a couple of other unusual aspects to this. He did not start paying the £20,000 loan back until 18 months later. And on the application for the SSA, the date of 23 December seemed to have been written over another date, 14 December.
Mr Ahern’s explanation was this. He had money saved. But £20,000 of it was earmarked for a trust fund for his daughters. If he paid out another £20,000 for legal fees and Miriam’s car loan, he would have only £10,000 left. So he took out a loan to leave him with £30,000, which he then earmarked for the SSA. Then just after he applied for the SSA, the first dig-out came in and he put that in instead.
But Mr O’Neill advanced another possible scenario in the later afternoon, that Mr Ahern went into the bank earlier, on December 14th with the intention of borrowing money. But he did it in a back-to-back arrangement, whereby he promised to put in a deposit that would be equivalent to the loan plus interest paid (£19,000 plus interest would come to around £22,500). The SSA document, if it was dated December 14th and not December 23rd, would support this thesis. Then the scenario went that Bertie Ahern started going around raising the funds which were collected together by the 30th December.
The implications of this were clear. That the spontaneous dig-out didn’t happen, but the Bertie Ahern had been planning from at least 14th December to make a back-to-back arrangement.
The real purpose of why he must do this remained unsaid. But the unspoken allegation that threaded the entire day (and this is my interpretation) was that Bertie Ahern was somehow trying to conceal funds he had, and funds he was raising from friends, from his ex-wife.
That scenario challenged his version of events and led to a rare display of raw and apoplectic anger from him. Twice he used the term “stitch up”. Well, the stakes were very high. Because if that scenario were to be true, it would make Bertie Ahern into a liar. And that’s the beginning and the end of it.
Here’s a taste of his response: “That is just unbelievable. Unbelievable… To think that AIB would get into a conspiracy to set up such a convoluted set of circumstances,” he railed.
In his strongest moment of the entire day, he pointed out to the fact that if he was plotting to do that on the 14th, how could he have done it when Padraic O’Connor’s draft and the cheque from Des Richardson were not signed until the 22nd of December. “Be Jesus, I’m some fella,” he said.
In a way, some people (including the media) have slightly distorted expectations of what to expect. The name of the game is establishing the facts and the facts in Bertie Ahern’s universe don’t assemble themselves as neatly as a denouement in an Agatha Christie novel
Given the very slow pace (it is Christmas and I’m being very kind) of Des O’Neill’s examination, it is a possibility that he has laid down some traps that might be sprung today or in the New Year, (because Bertie is going to have to come back).
But it seemed yesterday that some cul-de-sacs were ventured into and we came back out as wise as we were when we went in. At one stage, Des O’Neill pointed out that the design of some of the notes had changed during the seven years Ahern was stashing money in the safe at St Luke’s and in his Minister’s office. Where was this leading to? Nowhere really (unless Des O’Neill comes back to it). There was no penalty for depositing old notes rather than the new one.
O’Neill set about his business with the same calm unflappability as December. From early on, it was clear that Bertie Ahern’s attitude had changed. There was an assertion there, verging on aggressiveness at time. Again and again, he got in cuts of thinly-veiled sarcasm. His whole body language was hostile, hunched in the witness box – sometimes glowering and glaring at Mr O’Neill using the eyeball-to-eyeball technique used by professional boxers at weighs-in. When Mr O’Neill sailed too close to the wind when questioning him about £20,000 he had earmarked for his daughters’ education at the time of the separation, Mr Ahern pointed at him aggressively while saying:
“I had saved it since 1987 through the whole period of my separation which I don’t think is any of your damn business.”
There was another novel aspect; a bit of new detail that somebody hadn’t leaked. Mr O’Neill revealed that a handwriting expert in the UK had been commissioned and had concluded that the date on Mr Ahern’s SSA application might have been December 14 not December 23.
It prompted another barb from him: “You went to the trouble of sending this to a forensic expert in the UK… I was quite amused when I saw the document because I wondered how why you had Mr Gilmartin in for weeks on end, changing diaries, changing years… making it up on the hoof. You never bothered to send any of his diaries.”
The one thing that has sore-thumb stickoutablility is the fact that there are no documents whatsoever to show beyond the balance of probability that he saved £54,000 in dry cash when he had no bank accounts. On the other hand there is no documents, or other evidence, to show that he didn’t.
Somebody said yesterday that the Tribunal’s scenario was as plausible as Ahern’s story. Perhaps. But it’s not more plausible. And unless there is hard evidence to show otherwise, Bertie Ahern has the benefit of the doubt.
But stitch-ups, set ups, none of your damn business. One thing has changed since September – the gloves have come off.

Saturday, December 15, 2007


“Cad a dhéanfaimid feasta gan adhmad? Tá deireadh na gcoillte ar lár.”
The famous lines from an unknown 19th century poet lamenting the loss of Ireland’s great oak forests came to mind yesterday when reading through various reports of the World climate change talks in Bali.

The sentiments of the poem were that Britain had denuded Ireland of its forests and its greatest resources thus bringing the country to its knees.

It is a familiar and perennial feature of the divisions of power throughout the centuries – the manner in which the powerful exploit the weak by robbing them of their resources – both natural and human.

As you read this column this morning, the likelihood is that an agreement has been reached between the 190 countries participating in the crucial talks in the Indonesian resort. But don’t let the fact that there are so many countries participating or that fact that it’s under the auspices of the United Nations fool you into thinking that it’s a family of nations kind of thing. The debate is about the relationship of the powerful to the weak – and particularly about their respective responsibilities to the others with which they share this globe. And has often happened under the blinkered administration that has held power there since 2000, the focus has fallen unremittingly on the United States.

The purpose of the talks in Bali have been to reach agreement on new measures to combat global warming that will take effect once the Kyoto Agreement comes to an end in 2012. Until the middle of this decade, there were a handful of powerful countries in the awkward squad, who were unprepared to meet Kyoto commitments and targets; who also refused to set targets and timetables for reductions (on the basis that if others weren’t doing it; it would hurt their economies). But little by little, that number has been whittled down so that the refuseniks can be counted on the fingers of one hand. They are primarily the US; and then Canada and Japan. Of course, China (developing at a frightening rate) is also a huge problem but at least it is now beginning to talk the talk. Between them the US and China are responsible for about 50% of all CO2 emissions. Both need to act – if they don’t they could make the planet uninhabitable within a century.

The fault-lines at Bali for the past fortnight has been the refusal of the US to accept targets and timetables and instead opt for countries setting voluntary targets (ie a complete copu-out). The EU has demanded that the final text include a specific commitment that developed nations must their emissions by 25-40% by 2020, a massive task. And so incensed was the EU by the refusal of the US to engage that it threatened to boycott the US-organised conference involving the world’s biggest polluters next month.
"The United States in particular is behaving like passengers in first class in a jumbo jet, thinking a catastrophe in economy class won't affect them," environmentalist Tony Juniper was quoted as saying in the New York Times. "If we go down, we go down together, and the United States needs to realize that very quickly."

Some people have been lulled into the fiction that Kyoto is the panacea. In fact, Kyoto (agreed in 1997 but which only began in February 2005) set very modest targets indeed for reduction of carbon dioxide – only 5% below 1990 levels for developed countries. Even here in Ireland, we got a massive derogation – we were allowed to increase our carbon emissions by 13% (and in 2005, our emissions were already 25% above our 1990 levels). Even the ‘greening’ of Government will mean we won’t meet our Kyoto commitments.

The Government has argued that Ireland was a ‘developing’ country in that time, and needed to catch up with our European neighbours who were decades of us.
That’s the argument that has been used by poorer countries in Bali where ‘climate justice’ has become a buzz word. Countries in what we used call the ‘third world’ and developing economies like India and China argue that it’s all very well for the industrialised west to call for reducing emissions but by doing that millions of people will be trapped in poverty because they can’t access electricity; they can’t build factories; they can’t increasingly benefit from machinery and vehicles that run on petrol.

It’s true that the sacrifice in advanced countries like Europe need to be massive – a 60%-80% drop in carbon emissions by 2050, on the other hand, it would be tempting disaster to allow developing countries to have a free hand in repeating the mistakes and the waste when playing catch-up.

That’s where two vital mechanisms play their part. One is joint implementation where countries which have developed advanced and efficient power plants (like Germany) invest in other countries (like Russia, Bulgaria etc) who have noxious power plants and get carbon credits in exchange. The other is the clean development mechanism. Here a developing country is encouraged to use alternatives like solar, windpower and hydropower. If a rich country comes in and supplies the technology, it will get carbon credits for doing so.

And back to “cad a dhéanfaimid feasta gan admad?” I was reminded of it because one of the innovations is that countries with rain forests (vital lungs that help cool the planet) like Brazil, Costa Rica and Papua New Guinea are given incentives to retain them. And in developed countries too, the idea of afforestation is an important one.
If you look at our own carbon budget, creating new forests (to absorb carbon) is the biggest component of Ireland’s blueprint. If it does go to plan, one of the beneficial outcomes will be that the great forests that Ireland once had will be restored.

This is my column from this morning's Irish Examiner

Wednesday, December 12, 2007


Politicians' pay has continued to dominate the agenda, especially since yesterday's volte face by the Cabinet. I was in the supermarket last night and people in the queue were talking about it; when I went for coffee early this morning, it was also been discussed by people at the next table. Most of the focus was on the fact that it had been deferred for a year - most people thought that it was a stunt, as simple as that.

I was surprised that none of the opposition leaders raised it during Leaders Questions this morning. Having said that the two topics raised (water charges for schools and extraordinary rendition) have merit.

Here is a piece of analysis I wrote for this morning's Irish Examiner

Last month the Taoiseach came out with a legendary Bertie-ism when he said that deferring THAT pay rise would be ‘smokes and daggers’.

So, two really bad opinion polls later in addition to getting it in the lug from Joe Public on the airways and newspapers, what does the Taoiseach do?

Um, he announces that the Government is deferring the pay rise.
Before we all go jumping to conclusions that what we have here is a classic case of smokes and daggers, the government wants to point out that, no it’s not, its something else entirely. Yep, it’s actually cloaks and mirrors.

The official reason is hilarious. The Government – wait for it! – want others to exercise restraint ahead of the new round of talks on pay and benchmarking and they want to lead by example. So the Taoiseach and his ministers has selflessly sacrificed the implementation of his E38,000 pay rise and their exorbitant hikes in salary until September 2008. So they’ll all have to slum it on salaries ranging from E214,000 to E270,000 per annum.

What was offered yesterday by the Chief Anorak and the shower that surrounds him was a sop, a wet drizzle of a sop – a pathetic attempt to retrieve some of the public support that it lost over this issue. It is a gesture and it’s meaningless.
And the Taoiseach and his chief loyalists yesterday trotted out the same old excuses (none of which stand up) as to why like the models in the L’Oreal ads they were SO worth it.

Backroom people in Fianna Fail must have been getting nervous when they saw the Ministers who were being put up to explain this to the public – Dermot Ahern and Mary Hanafin. They were two of the three ministers (along with Seamus Brennan) who presided over the shambles of a press conference during the election campaign, during which FF’s main economics adviser Colin Hunt had to ride to the rescue and publicly dig them out of a spot of bother.

And neither Dermot Ahern nor Mary Hanafin were well briefed yesterday
Before we get to that let’s stick to the facts.

This award was given by a group which compares the pay of the golden circle of the public service (ministers, judges, semi state CEO, university heads, top civil servants etc) with comparators in the private sector.

Two years ago it gave them an interim award of 7.5%. Sic weeks ago it gave them a further 15%, making a grand total of 22.5% since 2000.
First of all Ministers have tried to spin it that this was the only pay rise they got in seven years. Ms Hanafin was busying herself with the line last night; claiming on RTE’s Six One News that they have got just 2% every year.

But in fact, the salaries of all ministers have increased by between 130% and 145% in the last seven years. Bertie Ahern was paid E145,000 in 2000. After the latest pay rise he will be getting E310,000. Ditto with Brian Cowen. The Tánaiste’s salary was E125,000 in 2000. Now it’s E270,000.

When it was pointed out to her that the rise was in fact closer to 145% than the miserly 2% per annum she was claiming, she claimed that, yes, it was a substantial salary but it was a substantial job. And then she argued that we had to pay our politicians well so they are not susceptible to any outside interference (like dig-outs, for example, or spontaneous whip-rounds at functions in the North West of England?).

And the cloaks and mirrors continued with the extraordinary performance given by Dermot Ahern at a door-step interview.
It wasn’t so much the very tenuous argument he made that the Government was now exercising restraint (yeah, until next September) so that the unions might do likewise.

He also maintained the line that it was an increase of 22.5% over a period of 11 years (ergo, it was modest). This argument neglects the fact that politicians and ministers have benefited from every single national pay award (and benchmarking award) that have been going. And the cumulative effect of it all is that their pay has more than doubled in the course of only seven years.

It was the fact that he was completely and utterly aware that he had been awarded an interim pay rise of 7.5% of his Ministerial salary two years ago. For what it is worth, this is how much it was worth – around E7.500.
When the existence of this increase was pointed out to him, he said:

“That is not as a result of the examination by the independent review group (for higher remuneration).”

Well, yes it was in fact. A little later he said he did not recall that particular pay award. Well, he should have.

The net effect of this has been to prolong the kicking the Government has taken over this for another day. It also gave opposition leaders another field day.

Enda Kenny reminded us again of the following little factoid: “We have a situation where Taoiseach of this country is better paid than President Bush; better paid than Chancellor Merkel; better paid than President Sarkozy and better paid than Prime Minister Brown.”

He continued: “This is a hypocritical decision by a hypocritical government.”
Eamon Gilmore said they were still going to accept the lavish increase (if 12 months later) and that the Government’s handling of the situation showed how much out of touch with reality it was.

Dermot Ahern did say that there has always been a difficulty with politicians and their pay. That is quite true. And the difficulty has been this. Somewhere along the line greed has become the new currency for defining public service.

For how long more do we have to put up with people on a quarter of a million euro a year (plus gold-plated pensions and expense arrangements) telling us that they are not in it for the money?

Tuesday, December 11, 2007


When is an amazingly generous pay rise not a pay rise? Well, when the Taoiseach decides to defer it for a year. No, not reject it. No, not saying: lads, we are getting paid enough already, let's do this as an example. No, what they are doing is deferring the phase-in for one year. Not even a year. They'll get the whole lot but it will start being phased in in September 2008 rather than in January.

How generous of them.

True, it would have been a humiliating climbdown for The Anorak and his shower (actually that's not a bad way of describing the Cabinet) if they had simply turned it down.

But this fudge is meaningless. And I bet that when it is phased in it will be back-dated meaning that they'll get it all as if they got it now (all that will be deferred is actual payment).

Foreign Affairs Minister Dermot Ahern came out on the Plinth in front of Leinster House and used all the standard excuses for defending it (independent body; seven years etc.). He was totally unaware that the same body for higher remuneration had awarded Ministers an interim pay award of 7.5% two years ago and seemed to be rather hazy on the details of what pay rises Ministers have got in the past seven years.

It's amazing how quickly our political aristocracy has become divorced from the harsh reality faced by their serfs.

Saturday, December 08, 2007


I DON’T know about you, but early on Wednesday morning I assumed the worst.

The moment I got into work I sat down at my desk, crouched forward, put my head between my knees and assumed crash position.

That guy Cowen, I reasoned. He didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. Do you remember when he was going on about a soft landing in the property market last year?

A soft landing? Viewing the ruins of the property market this winter was like looking at London after the German bombing campaign of 1941.

Cowen had taken a chomp out of a reality sandwich since then. In the run-up to the budget he painted a picture of the economic landscape that reminded me of another time and place. Let’s go for a nostalgic trip down memory lane. Let me bring you back to the early 1980s when teenagers sported mullets and flecked trousers and they all bought one-way tickets on the Supabus to London or on Ryanair to Germany.

The buzz phrase that has defined the past decade has been the ridiculous Celtic Tiger. Well the one that defined the early 1980s was less ridiculous but boy was it grim. And if I’m not mistaken the words first formed on the lips of Charles J Haughey. It was: “doom and gloom”.

For weeks and weeks before the budget, Cowen was incapable of uttering anything that didn’t smack of doom and gloom. Granted, he wasn’t quite phrasing it in such desperate language. But the message was clear. After years of quaffing champagne with Charlie we’d have to slum it by drinking Dutch Gold with Cowen.

But then an amazing thing happened. As we absorbed the hour-long speech on Wednesday, we searched in vain for pain. There was little to be found. Sure if you were a chain-smoking Porsche driver who happened to purchase an expensive house a month ago, you were on a loser. But the rest of us walked away from what we thought was a crash without even a scratch. Tactically, Cowen was clever in the run-up to his fourth budget. He dampened expectations, accentuated the negative, reminded all and sundry that the property market was contracting; that growth had slowed; that the public service was in bad need of reform; and that the days of double-digit increases in current spending had come to an end.

Fianna Fáil had also learned from the dog’s dinner it made of the 2002 election promises. This time around, Fianna Fáil had promised dozens of goodies. But at the end of each press conference during the election campaign, Cowen would remind people that terms and conditions applied. Everything was predicated on growth rates of 4.5% or more. When that didn’t happen, Cowen was able to go to fallback position without sounding like a hypocrite. He could deny tax cuts, PRSI cuts, extra teachers and extra guards because they would only be granted if the boom had continued. His default commitments were to the National Development Plan and to health and education. Still, if money was too tight to mention, why did we get no pain in the budget? Well there were a few stealth taxes here and there (motor tax and medical charges).

It was all made possible by two cavalier decisions by Cowen that reminded you of the swagger of the Charlie McCreevy era. One was his U-turn on stamp duty. He came up with one of the ugliest phrases I have ever heard to explain why he did this. It was, he said, a “countercyclical measure”. In ordinary parlance, that’s a 180-degree turn. But he will get away with it because people’s cynicism over FF completely changing its mind on stamp duty in six months will be trumped by the positive vibes it will have for home owners.

The other bold gamble Cowen took was to borrow heavily for the first time in a decade. Fine Gael rightly pointed out the €5 billion of borrowing next year represents a whopping €7.2bn turnaround in fortunes between 2006 and 2008. The Tánaiste described it as “modest” but it is more than that. The national debt will increase 50% over the next three years. It may just pay off, though the creep in the unemployment figures and the fall-off in job creation are both worrying. But if both gambles fail, we will all too soon find ourselves crash landing back into the 1980s landscape of “doom and gloom” quicker than we can say “countercyclical measure”.

This is my column from today's Irish Examiner

Friday, December 07, 2007


It wasn’t very dramatic in the end - after all carbon emissions is just above a double physics class on a Monday morning when it comes to excitement – but yesterday was the day during which the Green Party proved that it has what it takes to play its part in Government.

If its carbon budget was a revolution it was very much one with a small r. It’s the first budget of its kind every attempted in Western Europe and yesterday John Gormley admitted that in a sense, he was taking a shot in the dark.

"The concept of the carbon budget is new, and this year’s format can be seen as a pilot. I will consider how its content and format will be developed and improved in future years," he said.

What Gormley secured in the budget was the go-ahead for the much-touted 3% reduction in carbon emissions. And in his carbon budget yesterday Gormley essentially painted a picture of where we are now and where we need to be in 2012. And most importantly, he announced the first of the measures that need to be taken to get there.

n a complicated table that is strictly for anoraks, there were enough statistics and figures to tell us how it can be done. The broadbrush picture is as follows: The 2006 figures will show that Ireland emitted 70 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent that year. To meet the 3% annual reduction and to meet our Kyoto targets, we need to reduce that by an average of 6 million tonnes each year. And the first of the new measures to help us reach that target include initiatives in energy; industry; and residential. As each year goes on, more measures will be added.

It’s a huge ask and will mean some pain. Gormley accepted that we might not achieve it but he said it would not be for the want of trying.

"We are not making it easy on ourselves. There is always a danger we may fail. We have set the bar high in striving for a 3% annual reduction in the Programme for Government," he said yesterday.

And to that end, when you look at the chart produced, it looks very like the Government will have to rely on what is euphemised as ‘flexible methods’. In simple terms, that means a carbon fund. At the moment we have E290 invested in it. In opposition, the Greens railed against it saying that Ireland was essentially buying its way out of its Kyoto commitments. But even with the new political dispensation, we may still need to rely on it. Note the subtle use of language in Gormley’s Dáil speech:

“I recognise – as Al gore did when he was in Dublin last weekend –that the flexible mechanisms are an integral part of the Kyoto Protocol agreement and an important instrument in promoting low emissions investment in developing countries. Notwithstanding this, the Government is committed to ensuring Ireland is able to fulfil its commitments by emission reductions.”

The message is: we may have to resort (reluctantly, sure) to the fund.

There were positives yesterday. The new measures that will phase out traditional incandescent lightbulbs in favour of energy-efficient ones; the new motor tax system that will be based on emissions not engine size; and the mandatory environment label system for cars (very similar to the labelling system used for white goods).

But it’s partly Lord Make Me Green but not yet. The new system for light bulbs will not be introduced until 2009. And despite the changes in vehicle registration tax being flagged in last year’s budget, they won’t be introduced until July. John Gormley didn’t really have a decent explanation for this yesterday; nor did he for the fact that the new motor taxes won’t be introduced until July.

And it’s generally been recognised that to achieve a 3% reduction in Co2, the Government will have to introduce a carbon tax. This was in the 2002 Government’s programme but was ditched in 2004. Now it’s back on the agenda. But Brian Cowen announced on Wednesday that it that the issue has been kicked to touch, with a Commission for Taxation being established to explore etc etc etc. When will it decide? How long is a piece of string?

Still, yesterday was a good start for the Greens and for Gormley. It will mean that a person buying a gas-guzzling car will be paying the top rate of 36% in VRT and the maximum E2,000 in motor tax. That means that the VRT for a high-powered car selling for E75,000 will be in the region of E24,000 with a E2,000 per annum tax bill.

As the AA’s Conor Faughnan pointed out yesterday:

“A mid range car emits 173 grams per carbon dioxide per km (an example would be a Ford Mondeo 1.6 litre petrol which emits 177g). I suggest within a short space of time the general public will be as familiar with these figures as they are with miles per gallon.”

Faughnan made a fair point that the motor tax was also a revenue raising operation (raising E83 million for the local government fund), which he considered unfair:

“Because it was called a Green Budget the Government was able to get away with increases in car tax of between 9 and 11%. There was no environmental dividend but there was a revenue dividend,” he said.

It was an undramatic yet promising start. There is still a long way to go on the road to reach the targets but at least the Government has at last got its hands on a road map.

Thursday, December 06, 2007


Charlie Bird believes we are all going to wake up one morning over Christmas and:

a. see mummy kissing daddy under the Mistletoe
b. see Santa as he disappears back up the chimney
c. discover that Bertie has gallantly turned down his pay rise.

If 'c' happens, then I can happily declare that I still believe in 'b'


Translate the following comment of Tánaiste Brian Cowen into English:
“Over recent months the dynamics of the housing market have fundamentally changed… The conditions then (before the election) would have destabilised the market. (The Mullingar Alliance’s) so-called solution would have harmed the market. I have always said that stamp duty could only be looked at within the budgetary cycle. We need to support the market and not destablilise it.”

It looks tricky doesn’t it at first glance? But the translation is very simple.
It can be boiled down to one phrase: “A perfectly executed 180 degree u-turn”.

If Brian Cowen had turned up yesterday looking tanned and well five years after his smashed-up canoe was found on a shore on the North-East of England he would have caused less of a stir than his announcement on stamp duty.

Six months after he accused Fine Gael and Labour of proposing stamp duty changes that would destabilise the market, Cowen himself yesterday announced stamp duty changes that were broadly similar. The reason? Oddly enough what would have destabilised the market six months ago was not being introduced to stabilise the market you follow his logic? Erm, not quite.

Twelve months ago Cowen was portraying stamp duty as a non-issue and talking about a ‘soft landing’ in the housing market. A year later the landing experienced by the construction industry could be described more as ‘crash’ than ‘soft’. And forced by a collapse in revenue from property taxes, especially stamp duty, the Tánaiste has essentially being forced into a 180 degree turn – or as he describes it, a ‘step change’ or overhaul of the system.

His reason for this is inarguable. During his 50 minute Budget speech to the Dáil, he said: “Activity is slowing somewhat and there is some uncertainty as to where prices will settle. The housing market is an important aspect of our overall economy and the sustainability of economic activity can be assisted or impeded by the efficiency of that market.”

And it does make for fundamental change. No duty until E125,000. And the 7% on the balance up to E1million. And over E1 million, it rises to 9% for the portion of the purchase price that is over E1 million. The scheme, as announced, is not all that different from that announced by the opposition parties and by the PDs (though a little simpler). The net is that the two stamp duty initiatives announced by the Government this year will cost E270 million (E81 million for first-time buyers; and E190 million for this year.

It will be welcomed by everybody from home owners (those purchasing a E650,000 will spend a whopping E21,750 less in stamp duty) to the construction industry but also leaves the Government very vulnerable to charges of gross political misjudgement, doing too little too late to prevent the housing slump.

“He waited for the housing market to collapse before he address the need for reform in stamp duty,” said Fine Gael deputy leader Richard Bruton.

Labour deputy leader Joan Burton said that he had allowed the housing market to slump and also argued that the reforms would favour the very rich more than the very poor.
The debate between Government and opposition on this is a simple if polar one. One says the measures should have been introduced while the price curve was going upwards; the other says that it could only be introduced when it was going down, or “countercyclical” to borrow Cowen’s ugly word for it.

Cowen’s Fourth Budget was unusual in that it veered away from his usual low-key approach and had a bit of the ghost of Charlie McCreevy about it. For one, there was the stamp duty stunt, a very Charlie gesture. And secondly, it was a much more expansive budget than anybody expected from the usually conservative Cowen.

The overall economic climate has deteriorated dramatically in recent months and the Finance Minister was forced to pick up the pieces after any Government’s most torrid six months, certainly since 2002, and maybe since 1995.

“It is right and appropriate that we should run budget surpluses when the economy is performing very well. It is equally right and appropriate that we borrow when the growth outlook is less favourable,” he said in the opening passages of his Speech.

But in the run-up to yesterday, he talked about modest borrowing and ambitious growth. But the borrowing was certainly not all that modest. The Exchequer will require to borrow E4.9 billion next year. As a point of fact, Bruton pointed out yesterday that the turnaround since 2006 has been “the biggest in the history of the State.”

Then Ireland had a Exchequer balance of E2.3 billion in the black. Next year, it will be almost E5 billion in the red, a turnaround of a stunning E7 billion in fortunes in recent years.

Cowen’s thinking yesterday was clear. By borrowing to invest in the National Development Plan, he was spending wisely to reap plenty in the long term. The GDP increase will be much more modest next year at 3% but it is still better than many other EU countries. If the decline corrects itself, perhaps that will be prudent. But it does mean that the National debt will increase by a significant 50% by 2010.

The net effect of such a dip into the red is that nobody really loses and there aren’t any cutbacks. Capital spending will increase by 12% next year while current spending will rise by a more modest 8.2%. It means overall spending will be E53 billion, a relatively modest increase of E1.7b.

But there are what the opposition will portray as stealth taxes. The drug refund threshold increases to E90 per month; there are rises in bed and A&E charges, and widening the eligibility of medical cards has essentially been kicked into touch for another year to allow some review to take place.

Oh yes, and motor tax will be increased by between 9 and 11% from February (raising E83 million per annum).

Ah motor tax! The stamp duty furore almost completely eclipsed the fact that yesterday witnessed the world’s first ‘Carbon Budget’. A lot of the thunder was stolen from the Green Party’s biggest gain by the fact that the details of the Vehicle Registration Tax were leaked a fortnight ago. Still, the announcement that this year’s C02 equivalent emission of 70 million tonnes will be 63 million tonnes while hardly headline-grabbing is very significant.

Because Estimates were included there were dozens of minor sub-plots, all of them worth of mention, all of them affecting citizens of one hue or another. The E35 million increase in cancer care was a huge disappointment.

There were a couple of eye-catching initiatives like the tripling of income thresholds for family with a child under 18 with intellectual disabilities. Cowen has looked after the lowest earners and those on social welfare, though many of the increases were at a rate just above inflation. Cigarettes went up more than expected by 30c a packet; while there was some vague prose about measures that would favour low-alcohol drinks over high-alcohol ones.

And Section 481 for the film industry was extended another four years until 2012 without any of the resistance McCreevy showed four years ago.

And of course, the Government also had to take a couple of (fully deserved) swipes on the grandiose pay rises they awarded themselves, top civil servants, judges and the rest of the top brass in our society. Oh sorry, there is an efficiency review of the public service promised for next year but it has all the woolly imprecise language we have come to expect since benchmarking.

Fine Gael’s Bruton found the best put-down of it: “(Cowen) joins the solemn chorus, calling for wage restraint and for reform. But like the armchair general ordering his troops over the to into the teeth of enemy machine guns, Mr. Cowen and his pampered colleagues will be a safe distance away. When it comes to their own interests there is no demand for reform or frugality.”

No danger of a U-turn there, was there?

Wednesday, December 05, 2007


Well, he moved big on stamp duty. A huge overhaul to tackle a market in which he said the "dynamics had changed" (the opposition translated that as a 'slump'.

Senator Eoghan Harris sitting in the senators' section at the top of the chamber looked like the cat that got the cream - expect a big dose of triumphalism in the Sunday Indo next weekend.

Elsewhere there were few surprises. Anything that could have been a surprise (motor tax and VRT) were already flagged. Most of the stuff that was eye-catching (reduction on duties on credit and debit cards at the expense of the banks; 30c increase on cigarettes; tripling of the income threshold for medical cards where there is a child under 18 with intellectual disabilities) will not cost a huge amount either way; and were gestural rather than substantial.

The macro picture was as he predicted. Overall there will be an increase of 8.6% in spending (8.2% in current spending; 12% in capital spending)mistake in l. He has prioritised the NDP, the health services, education (especially to cater for the 13,000 new schoolchildren coming on stream this year) and R and D.

Cowen's priorities have always been tilted more to the lower paid (more than his predecessor that is). And so the increases in tax credits; widening of bands, and above-inflation increases in social welfare.

As for the Green Budget, it just didn't have the impact it should have had. A couple of colleagues felt that the Greens didn't get as much as they should have and that stamp duty eclipsed. My own belief is that a huge mistake was made when somebody in Government leaked the Vehicle Registration Tax (VRT) details to two Sunday newspapers a fortnight ago. That completely removed the element of surprise from the Carbon Budget, rendering it a bit of an anti-climax.


It's now just 3pm - 45 minutes away from the most difficult budget Brian Cowen will give.

The speculation that's flying along the correspondents' corridor at the moment. 1. A big move on stamp duty. 2. A bigger carbon budget that the conservative-minded Cowen will be prepared to openly admit. 3. More money for cancer services. And 4. Ministers may make a decision to waive their pay increase (even though Bertie Ahern said this would be a futile gesture).

I'm just not sure about no. 4. Journalists are as prone to being gullible to unfounded rumours (maybe even more so!) than anybody else.

Whatever, all will be revealed over the next two hours!


After the uber-loyal deputy for Tippeary South Martin Mansergh, there is no greater or more loyal defender of Taoiseach Bertie Ahern than the Minister for Foreign Affairs Dermot Ahern. As he has risen through the Fianna Fail ranks to become one of the Taoiseach’s closest allies, Dermot Ahern has assumed the kind of role that former Northern Ireland Secretary and Home Secretary John Reid played on behalf of Tony Blair – Cabinet enforcer and bruiser-in-chief.

Whenever Bertie Ahern is in trouble, it is the man whom Pat Rabbitte once dubbed as the “boot boy from Dundalk” who comes out to bat and bludgeon on his behalf.
On yesterday’s Morning Ireland on RTE, his quarry was principally the errant Cork backbencher Noel O’Flynn who was in his sights.

He was first asked about O’Flynn’s call on the Taoiseach to issue a statement.

What Dermot Ahern said:
“I totally disagree with Noel O’Flynn. I do not know what he is talking about. The Taoiseach has given 18 hours of evidence when he was asked. Not one scintilla of an allegation of corruption, or of anything, has been made against him”.

Does this stand up?
He did give 18 hours of evidence but not in relation to the issue brought up by O’Flynn- namely stockbroker Pádraic O’Connor’s claim that he was not a friend of the Taoiseach (as the Taoiseach claimed) and that the money he gave was not a loan, but a political donation. No allegation of corruption has been made. But even after giving 18 hours of evidence, many questions remain about the Taoiseach’s personal finances. The principal one that hangs is the identity of the mystery person whom he got to purchase £30,000 sterling on his behalf in 1994.

Was Pádraic O’Connor a friend of Bertie Ahern’s?
What Dermot Ahern said:
“I suggest that Noel O’Flynn read the transcripts. I have seen quotes from Mr O’Connor’s evidence where he said he was actually very friendly with Bertie Ahern and was honoured that Bertie Ahern would ask him for his advice in relation to financial matters.
Bertie subsequently appointed him to a position of great trust but his evidence was peppered throughout by the quote that he was very friendly with the Taoiseach.
And he said ultimately that it was a question of semantics about what kind of friend (he was).
To be honest, I can’t really say other than it would appear as far as Taoiseach was concerned, he the Taoiseach understood it to be a personal donation.”

Does this stack up?
No. This is a very tendentious reading of the evidence. Throughout, Pádraic O’Connor insisted that he did not consider himself to be a friend of Bertie Ahern’s. It was only when he was cross-examined by Des Richardson’s counsel Jim O’Callaghan that he accepted that he had been ‘friendly’ with Ahern, but on a professional basis.
It is a leap of imagination to put this on the same platform as friendship – the basis on which Bertie Ahern said that his “close personal friends” including Mr O’Connor had made the dig-out loans to him. And O’Connor’s evidence was not peppered with reference to him being friendly with Taoiseach Ahern.

The Foreign affairs was then asked about the inconsistency of the Taoiseach referring to O’Connor in the same breath as other supporters.

What Dermot Ahern said:
“There may have been some misunderstanding about it but does it really matter ultimately. There are no allegations of any favours asked or given, no allegations of corruption. I mean people are trying to chip away at the Taoiseach. To my mind anybody who is attacking him is not worth or isn’t able to tie his shoelaces."

Does this stack up?
Well he makes no political points there, and there are no allegations of corruption. But it does matter ultimately. Because there are major issues with a Minister for Finance taking large amounts of money above and beyond his salary. And there are major issues also surrounding a full and honest account.

The Phoenix Park casino allegations.
What Dermot Ahern said:
“The Taoiseach is confirming what he said in an interview with the Pat Kenny Show many years ago. (He said) good bad or indifferent, it’s Fianna Fáil policy that this casino would not get permission, would not get a licence, that we would not change the legislation.
This is a terrible smear to be honest because the Taoiseach was vehemently against it, so what are they alleging?"

Does this stack up?
He gave that interview on June 2 1997. It’s always been known that he came out against the Phoenix Park casino in the run-up to the 1997 election. His spokesman also said this week that he came out against it in the 1996 by-election in Dublin West. However, there remains a doubt that he may have been ambiguous about it before that. And he did accept the hospitality of one of the main backers, Norman Turner, by flying to Manchester to see Manchester United games. He says nothing turned on that.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007


Frank Fahey, the former Fianna Fail Minister, was on the Late Debate last week whinging about the poor pay of politicians. Frank should take a walk through the Leinster House carpark and count the number of brand new or almost brand new Mercs, Audis and BMWs populating the members car park. He also made the incredible claim that if politicians weren't paid more, they wouldn't be able to attract people of the right calibre.

That's the oldest chestnut in the book. Everything is brought down to lowest common denominator and the presumption is made that if these guys weren't politicians they would be global entrepeneurs.

Erm wropng. Even if you doubled the average TD's salary from €100,000 to €200,000, you would get the same shower. No matter how much you paid, I'm afraid that with our culture of dynastic politics, we'd still get the same shower, as well as a chorus of county councillors who have struck it lucky by getting into the Dail.

And while I'm at it, Frank Fahey, what's wrong with €100,000 per annum. And besides what happened to the notion of public service?


A colleague who shall remain Fionnan Sheahan yesterday put a hilarious context on Bertie Ahern's doorstep interview yesterday about the Phoenix Park and pick-me-ups and his dear dear friend Pádraic O'Connor. I'll paint the picture first.

First of all, Charlie Bird asked a really good question about the raising of a false invoice for the payment of the £5,000 from NCB.

What the Anorak did then was a bit of muddying the waters. He said that the form of pick-me-up donation (ie where a donor agreed to pay a particular bill for a political party) continued until 1999. And Charlie pointed out - 100% correctly - that this wasn't the occasion for one; this was a personal dig-out for Bertie Ahern and not a bill payment.

Secondly, Charlie tried to get him to admit that it was wrong. The Bert refused to do that, going no further than saying it wasn't the way he would have done business. But when Charlie pressed him on it, saying that what Des Richardson had done was wrong; Ahern, quick as a greyhound out of the traps, included Pádraic O'Connor in that blame game, saying there were two of them in it.

What a way to turn on one of your dearest and closest friends.

And back to Fionnan. He said it reminded him of the famous speech from the Godfather, where Michael Coreleone, after finding that his brother Fredo has betrayed him, turns around to him, kisses him on the cheeck, and says: "You are dead to me now."

And now to another good friend Dermot Ahern. Well Dermo has proved in the past he would go up every tree in North Dublin on behalf of his boss. Well this morning he proved that he is also willing to shout from every tree in North and South Dublin on behalf of his boss. Besides Martin Mansergh whose relationship to the current Fianna Fail leader is akin to that of Smithers to Mr Burns in the The Simpsons, Dermot Ahern is the archest of arch-loyalists.

When you parse what he had to say on Morning Ireland this morning (which I intend to do) the whirlwind of hot air and bluster he generated would be enough to to keep Iveagh House fully lit up for at least a year.

Sunday, December 02, 2007


Harry McGee
On Politics
“This is not personal”, Ned O’Keeffe wrote in the first line of the speech he never delivered on Wednesday night.

The phrase ‘It’s nothing personal’ has long been a cliché in Hollywood movies. It was usually uttered by a man wielding a gun just before he shot somebody. And the point of course was that it was always personal, as personal as it gets.

So when Ned O’Keeffe kicked off by saying it was nothing personal, you knew two things. Firstly, it was personal. Secondly, a political assassination was in the offing.

However, if Ned O’Keeffe’s one-man rebellion is seen as the first move of a political heave against Bertie Ahern, it’s going to be the longest shove in history.

Still, after ten years, there is the first whiff of cordite in the air. Ahern has had a lousy autumn and winter (both personally and politically) but it’s a testament to his complete dominance over his party that you can count the malcontents and mutineers on the fingers of one hand and still have a pinkie to spare.

Ahern has spread his anorak far and wide and given them all jobs to keep them happy. All of the TDS elected in 2002 and before were given some form of job and stipend (as a junior minister, committee chair, vice chair or a whip) with the exception of only two – Ned O’Keeffe and Jim McDaid. It reminds you of the old Balkan saying that goes: Keep your friends close but keep your enemies even closer.

Of course, there are other factors. The primary one is that Ahern – the classic consensus man - has united Fianna Fail in a manner not seen since Lemass and brought the party through three elections all of which provided a windfall of seats.

And his allies (of which he has many: paradoxically he has few close friends in the party) will tell you that the private grumblings of backbenchers are muted and passing – and more often than not relate to a single issue. And they’ll also tell you that the real dissidents are a tiny inconsequential rump. There are no gangs of four, or gangs of 22 or gangs of more than one within FF in the modern era.

His prime ally, naturally, is the man who Ahern has named to succeed him, in the grand Russian/Soviet style of Vladimir Putin and Nikita Khrushcev.

Cowen seems like he is happy to bide his time forever. But in the far distance there are storm clouds brewing and there are other pretenders starting to make subtle (and in Dermot Ahern’s case none-too-subtle) long-distance claim for the throne.

There have been similarities between Ahern’s third term and that of Tony Blair’s but there have also been differences. They have both taken massive hits. For Blair it was Iraq. For Ahern it has been a series of personal issues and uncharacteristic political blunders – especially his cack-handed defence of his extravagant salary.

The differences have been that Blair started his third term with the reforming zeal of the first; with new ideas on health and education reform.

Ahern is not a visionary, was never the creative force within FF (leaving that to others like Charlie McCreevy; Noel Dempsey and – in his one inspired moment on smoking – Micheal Martin). Ahern’s greatest attributes have been his skills as a consensus finder and his extraordinary strategic instinct – Ahern always knew what the party needed to do, and how it need to act, no matter what that situation. And in his third term he has continued on as he did in the first and second – but now there are real signs that that the Anorak that kept him in touch with the common weal is no longer working its magic.
His Tribunal woes could be capable of bringing his career as Taoiseach to a premature end. And we cannot be sure that he will survive intact from all the return visits to the lower yard of Dublin Castle (the next one takes place for two days just before Christmas), especially if new allegations are made.

His own credibility was serious challenged this week when former NCB stockbrokers head Paraic O’Connor told the Tribunal that Mr Ahern’s account of the dig-out loan was untrue insofar as he described him as a friend. That will create real problems for Ahern.

In fairness to Ned O’Keeffe, he had a speech in his hand on Wednesday night that the FF whips never allowed him to deliver during the no-confidence debate..
This is what he would have said: “The current health policy can now be summarised as confrontation, privatisation and Americanisation delivered by only two methods – the national treatment purchase fund and co-location, both, in my view fundamentally flawed.
"World class, centres of excellence, best practice and the messiah from Vancouver all sound great but they are no substitute for lack of capacity in existing hospitals which is the biggest single contributor to the present crisis."

O’Keeffe didn’t solely resign because of perceived slights to him. The health issue also struck a deep cord. Having said that, Ahern’s very generous reaction to his resignation (where he plied him with lavish praise) suggests calves are being fatted even as we speak. But to say that there was nothing personal in his resignation is like saying that if there was a dig-out for Bertie now, Dr John Crown and Tom Gilmartin would be the first two men queueing up to make their contributions.