Smoking Tape

AngloSo the “Anglo Tapes” – internal phone recordings made during the last days of Anglo Irish Bank. Do they constitute a smoking gun?

Hoo boy, you betcha. A smoking gun, covered with bloody fingerprints, with a note taped to the barrel saying “For doing the murder with”.

This is the stuff.

I have to admit I was a little dismissive when I first heard of this, much as I couldn’t quite believe all the fuss over the PRISM revelations. (“You mean you believed US intelligence forces didn’t spy on whoever the hell they liked?”) We all knew that Anglo had ripped off the nation. Had, as the Indo bluntly put it, “cost Ireland our sovereignty“. But we also knew it was done with nods and winks and complicity, screened off by tendrils of loyalty and friendship. These people don’t leave evidence.

But that really seems to be what we’ve got here. The tapes record senior – very senior – management explaining a strategy of lying about the severity of the bank’s situation. They knew that if they revealed the full picture, government would see little alternative except to let the bank fold. They cynically calculated that if the State was tricked into giving a few billion of support at first, it would be forced to follow up with more and more in a frantic effort to save its investment. Which is precisely what happened.

They cheated the State in order to try to save their wealth and positions, cheated it of billions and billions. And when I say the State of course, I mean you and I. People who pay tax, people who rely on the State to support and protect them. Everyone in the country, in other words. We were all robbed by this, quite deliberately.

We shouldn’t oversimplify. This doesn’t let the other lenders and speculators off the hook for stoking the property boom, exonerate the politicians in Fianna Fáil (and elements of the media) who were complicit in the bubble, or mean that the euro was not grossly mismanaged. Anglo’s rooking of the public was certainly not the only cause of Ireland’s economic demise. But these men tricked the country into taking on billions and billions in debt. Billions that could have gone to creating jobs or equipping hospitals.

And there are tape recordings of them saying how they did it.

One does not want to prejudice any possible legal proceedings, so to be circumspect… Wait, what was that? Sorry, I thought I heard something. Probably thunder. Though it sounded even more like a long corridor of cell doors clanging shut.

This Is How It Begins

James Reilly (in front of microphones).
Dr James Reilly (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What James Reilly did was nothing special, just politics as usual. That’s precisely why he has to go. What passes for usual politics in this country is the whole problem. Politics as usual is what we threw Fianna Fáil out for.

James Reilly is our Minister for Health, in case you’re wondering. For the moment at least. And believe it or not, this has little or nothing to do with the Savita Halappanavar tragedy. There was a time when, as an actual doctor running the health service instead of a career politician, he seemed like a breath of fresh air. That chapter was brief, its ending a few months ago decidedly anticlimactic. His Labour party junior at the Department gave up, accusing him of manipulating health service priorities to bring investment and facilities to his own constituency. Documents released now appear to confirm this.

Is that not just the inevitable outcome of representative democracy? People expect their reps to bring back the goods. A little thumb on the scales.

No. A TD is not a warrior-champion, not a hunter. We’re sending them to Dublin to represent us there, not to loot it. Government tends to look away when a minister slips some spoils to the folks back home. It helps keep the seat safe at the next election. For ministers, it helps them keep their job and its lavish pay – not to mention its influence. Public money is diverted for their personal benefit in an only very slightly indirect way. In other words, it’s corruption. The sort of endemic, omnipresent corruption we used to mistake for normality.

But this is not a victimless crime. Favouring his own constituency disfavours the rest of the country. By taking a hospital from where it’s needed most to where it’s needed less he’s reducing someone’s chances of survival – and doing it for his own gain. Just like the worst sort of career politician.

We have had enough of this. He’s got to go.

War On The Poor

Man walking dog, Lahinch, Clare, Ireland
Clare in better days (Photo credit: Mark Waters)

It’s not that I don’t have any time. It’s just that I don’t have any time where I’m not thinking “I should really be studying now”.

But the news today finally got my attention. It seems only recently we were having a war against poverty. Now, it’s all-out war on the poor.

I really didn’t expect Clare County Council to be leading the charge though.

Some background: In 1977, during a boom not so unlike the one just past, Fianna Fáil bought an election largely by abolishing local taxation. From now on, the towns and counties of Ireland would be funded not by householders, but from central government. This situation was allowed to continue even after the economy fell face-first off a cliff in the early 80s.

After this latest crash though, and the terrible deals made to get out of it, they need all the money they can get. So if there’s an asset that can’t be hidden – like say a job or a house – a tax has been slapped on it. At the moment there’s only what they call the Household Charge, an almost token €100 a year. This is just a clever ruse though. They believe people will be shamed into paying it. What householder cannot afford €100? Look at all you get for it! But it’s a trick; what they want is to get people onto the radar. Ultimately of course they intend to charge us far more than €100 a year, but thanks to the intervening 35 there is no reliable and comprehensive registry of home ownership in this country. So a property tax would be an administrative impossibility – unless we are tricked or forced into volunteering the information ourselves.

That’s why they’re being such hard-asses about it. Central government is forcing local to force people to put themselves on the register, by the brutal tactic of declaring how many households there are in a given locality, and reducing central funding by that times €100. Local government will now run out of funding for services like water and sewage and waste – unless they squeeze it out of the people they’re supposed to be representing.

Another service local government funds – for reasons lost to time – is higher education support. What fee assistance and maintenance grants they provide though are heavily means-tested and only paid to the poorest. And now, in Clare at least, applicants will also be required to provide proof that their families have paid the Household Charge.

This is not right, and it’s not right for a whole bunch of reasons. It’s contrary to several important ideas about how society works. Are we really going to stop services for everyone who hasn’t paid their taxes? Other forms of education too? Hospital services, welfare? If so, then surely Bertie Ahern should have all his pensions withdrawn. Are we going to put pressure on parents by withdrawing life opportunities from their children? Will we discriminate against children and young adults because of the choices of their parents? Will we set families against each other to raise tax?

Yes, some people aren’t paying this because they don’t want to get on that register when they know they’re going to be hammered by a new property tax. These though are hardly the people who qualify for the paltry maintenance grant. Others refuse as a form of protest, because they consider it unjust that the ordinary citizen of this country is being forced at financial gunpoint to pay off the losses of multinational banking giants. And they are right, it is unjust. To pay this tax is effectively to hand money over to a banker; not money that you ever owed to a banker, but money that a corrupt government promised to this banker. Why would you pay that?

And then there are some who simply haven’t been able to spare that €100. This is an (inadequate) subsistence grant which only the poorest, remember, can qualify for. Making it a condition of educational assistance provides yet more discouragement to the underprivileged, pulls jobs and wealth still further away, strikes another blow for the rich against the poorest. Another in an incessant rain of blows.

But it really doesn’t matter what the motivation of parents is. To use their children as an instrument against them speaks of a society that has divested itself of all values except the monetary. I realise Clare County Council are under a lot of pressure from our broken government, but they need to be deeply ashamed about this.

Oh, I have no dog in this fight by the way. The banking industry’s failure has already taken away all maintenance and fee support for postgraduates. I will have to borrow the money for my degree. And pay it back, with interest, to a bank.

Ó Cuív Looks Out For His Own Seat

Fianna Fail Party Logo
Yes it works quite well in the American sense of the term too (Photo credit: Slugger O’Toole)

The jokes write themselves. Or maybe jokes isn’t the term I’m looking for. Depressing ironies, that’s it. If his grandfather had been a little more flexible about treaties limiting sovereignty, there wouldn’t be a Fianna Fáil for him to not leave.

I have mixed feelings about this. My admiration for the man would have shot up enormously if he had kept campaigning against the Fiscal Compact, within FF or without. So I see this as a sad caving in to party machine politics, the antithesis of democracy.

But on the other hand, I think it’s good that Fianna Fáil are supporting the Fiscal Compact. Wait! I don’t mean that supporting the Compact is right. I mean that it was probably tempting for them to take a popular stand against it. (It would also have been unforgivably cynical of course, but they have done unforgivably cynical things in the past.) I’m glad they resisted that anyway.

Mainly though, it’s a good thing because it keeps all the bastards on the same side of the fence. I’d hate to find them on mine.

What A Day

President George W. Bush accepts a bowl of sha...
Can you count all the things in this picture that make me angry?

Dropped off the radar again there, sorry. Thanks to some amazing weather for March – I think it reached 20C (68F) today – I’ve been held prisoner in the garden. At least it’s an opportunity to grow a skin. Technically, I don’t have a skin by the time winter ends. More a film.

It’s been a great day too in another sense – former leader Bertie Ahern has resigned from the Fianna Fáil party, on foot of the findings of the tribunal into planning corruption. This is huge, really. If it’s not literally an admission of guilt, it’s at least the admission of guilt he can sue you for calling an admission of guilt.

Too wrecked to go into this right now though, didn’t get any sleep last night to speak of. I’d gone shopping for a phone case online, and naturally I’d noticed small things here and there that would be useful too – a spare battery, a spare charger for the spare battery, a spare spare spare battery charger, so forth. The whole thing had rolled into a pleasant shopping safari, and it was about 4 a.m. by the time I was finally ready to proceed to the checkout. All that remained was to enter my credit card – done – and confirm my shipping address – done – and… Wait.

Of the five things I’d decided to buy, through five different sellers, not one of them would ship to Ireland. Actually it didn’t even tell me this. It just said for each item that there was a problem with my address, so possibly it was five different problems. Messages that vague and unhelpful only qualify as information in the theoretical sense, like yelling in an unknown foreign language. You know that it conveys meaning, but not what or to whom.

So what could I do about it? As mad as it may seem, Amazon.co.uk offers no system for filtering search results by where the seller will ship too. The process of separating the exporters from the non-exporters is essentially trial and error. Which is ludicrous for an online seller, and kept me up until well past dawn. And yet when you go to Amazon from Ireland, they tell you to use Amazon.co.uk. In the end I just bought almost everything elsewhere; a policy I may stick with from now on, at least until the day we finally get an Amazon.ie.

And now it is 4 a.m. all over again. Tomorrow I must go to toil in the fields once more, so farewell.

The Democratic Post-Mortem

The campaign car of Joseph McGuinness, who won...
It's taking a while, but it's happening

Having done nothing to repudiate the last administration’s nationalisation of private debts, what did the government expect? The only reason the judge’s pay referendum passed was that a lot of the public thought it would hurt lawyers, whom after the Tribunal bills they hate almost as much.

People have had it demonstrated to them quite clearly that one party cannot (or won’t) do anything to reverse the mistakes of another. It makes it look like government is powerless in the face of our financial dependence on the EU. Which, when it comes down to it, seems to really mean dependence on major continental banks – the very banks by and large who lent excessively to ours. It should be eye-opening that the candidate of Sinn Féin, the only major party that declares it would repudiate the banks debts, out-polled Fine Gael‘s two to one.

Democracy has been suborned by capitalism when it should have been circumscribing it, and now it begins to feel like an exercise in futility. What sort of turnout is 52% for the most fiercely-contested Presidential election in the history of the state plus two referendums? Half of the population don’t think there’s any point. And the worrying thing is, they may be the half that’s right.

Sinn Féin Out On The Final Count

Martin Mc Guinness.
My Goodness

It says a lot about the state of the parties in Ireland right now that the ‘government’ candidate and Sinn Féin’s were neck-and-neck all the way. In fact as I write they’ve just been eliminated together.

A quick explanation: In the Single Transferable Vote electoral system, you number candidates on the ballot paper in order of preference. Votes are initially distributed according to the first preference, after which the candidate with the fewest is eliminated and the votes that went to them are transferred to the one marked as second. This process continues until one candidate has a ‘quota’ of votes, which in a presidential election is simply 50% of the valid poll. (If someone had gotten over 50% of the first preference votes the contest would have been over then and there of course, but that rarely happens.)

This is good because it takes into account the fact that voters may not only prefer one candidate, but particularly despise another. For instance I gave Seán Gallagher my seventh preference – out of seven candidates.  (I could actually have not numbered him at all, but mathematically it would have made no difference.)  A simple majority system can actually help the most-despised get elected, if their opposition is split among the less objectionable candidates. A case in point is 1990, where it would have given us Brian Lenihan Snr as President.

Sinn Féin’s McGuinness and Fine Gael‘s Mitchell were eliminated simultaneously because distributing the next-preference votes of either could not have elected the other, a logically valid time-saver. It is now theoretically possible that their redistributed votes could push Seán Gallagher over the finish line ahead of Michael D. Higgins in the most astonishing electoral reversal since, well, since yesterday. But that won’t happen. Both Sinn Féin and Fine Gael voters are going to strongly prefer the official Labour candidate over the unofficial Fianna Fáil. In fact all other candidates have conceded, so the count is something of a formality at this stage.

But to get back to the original point, Michael D. was never really seen as representative of government – perhaps because he’s a socialist. Fine Gael’s Gay Mitchell was taken by the electorate to be the official candidate of a government swept to power in February on a mandate for change – yet there is little between his vote and that for the man who is widely believed to have been leader of the IRA. I was surprised by this. I really thought Martin McGuinness would do better.

It’s A Halloween Miracle

Presidential Election Campaign 2011 - Michael D
Ladies, Gentlemen, The President

Kind of a weak headline I know, but I have a rule about not using the C-word before November. Winter during an economic recession is depressing enough.

But wow, what an electoral rollercoaster ride. You have to ask if the polls were ever right about Gallagher’s huge lead. What I’d be most curious about is how the people who said they were going to vote to pollsters compare to the numbers who actually bothered. The Michael D. vote probably represented more loyalty.

Well this comes as a relief. I think we would have regretted a Gallagher presidency.

No On Both Referendums

"Well Connected" - Photo Irish Independent

Turnout is low. Too low.

Late in the day as it is, I want to urge people to get out and reject both referendums. There is a lot of confusion about them, I do not think government has paid sufficient attention to explaining them – in itself a reason to refuse their request for a change – and in particular there seems to be misunderstanding over the judges’ pay issue with many associating it with the exorbitant legal costs, of the Tribunals in particular.

The legal profession does need to be reined in, but this amendment simply has nothing to do with that. It is the fees charged by barristers and law firms that make legal action so expensive. Judges are paid by the state, and the cost of employing them is almost trivial by comparison.

Of course reducing their pay would save some cash. But not a lot, and it would come at the price of a very important principle. What is there to stop a future government, with a bill being tested in the Supreme Court for constitutionality, threatening judges with drastic pay reductions? If this amendment passes, nothing.

The independence of the judiciary is essential to a free country, and we shouldn’t even be dreaming of compromising it.

As for the other amendment, I think the Oireachtas should have the power to hold parliamentary enquiries. But I would rather we did without them for a bit longer than give excessive powers to government. This amendment seems very vague, and I simply can’t believe that broad new powers for TDs and Senators won’t end up being abused for political ends. We need to examine this more carefully.

And as for the Presidency, that’s turned from a fun game into a desperate last-minute attempt to snatch victory from the jaws of Fianna Fáil. You may not be a fan of Michael D., but he’s the only one now who can prevent our next President being a man who, increasingly, looks like a new Bertie Ahern.

Please, get out there and help.