Politics Technology

Apple Pay?


Apple and their ilk – remember it’s not so long since Microsoft was Ireland’s favourite taxpayer – save billions a year simply by offering to create employment here. While it would seem to make a lot of sense for a small country to buy jobs at the cost only of tax revenue that it would not have received anyway, it’s a pretty Faustian pact. For a start, what Apple is offering is not actually that great – just a few thousand jobs, and not necessarily quality, high-earning ones that feed skills into the economy. (That 200 at the new giant data center? Mostly maintenance.)

But worse, we are aiding and abetting an act which even if not illegal (as the European Commission believes), is certainly immoral. Apple is just creating artificial transactions between artificial sections of its own corporation. On paper this makes profit in Ireland; in reality of course the only transaction that has occurred was on a spreadsheet in Cupertino. The service we are offering our corporate clients is basically to act as if this is all somehow legit.

In doing so we are not merely competing with other countries. We are helping undermine the legitimate ability of countries to tax. In this race to the bottom, the only winners are the wealthy. Minister for Finance Michael Noonan claims that taxing Apple now would harm our reputation. But which reputation – the one of being a pushover for a handful of jobs? The one of being a country that sides with big business against the interests of our neighbours and of democracy itself?

Consider what harm this does to the reputation we do want: of a knowledge-based economy that pulls in investment thanks to a talented and educated workforce. There is some truth in that on the ground; people are working hard here to innovate and create businesses. But we are providing the perfect opportunity for competitors to say “That’s all bullshit, companies invest in Ireland because it’s a tax haven.”

And it isn’t easy to gainsay that view, because there’s truth in it too. The more government policy depends on low tax for foreign investment, the less we need bother with the education and infrastructure that would otherwise be the lure. (And which, we might mention in passing, would also stimulate domestic business.) The story about talent and education becomes just shtick, a hollow patter to distract from the financial shell game.

And this devalues us; not just as a place to do business, but as a country and as a people. It devalues our talent. It devalues the Masters degree I worked damned hard for. Indeed it devalues the very companies that invest here, because obviously they’re in it for short term balance-sheet gains rather than a long term investment in place and people.

Low corporation tax has been a useful tool, but that’s all it was ever meant to be – a way to help us transition from being an underdeveloped and largely agricultural economy into a diversified social democracy. The tool has now outlived its usefulness. There is no future in being the Cayman Islands of the EU.


Not Your Parents’ Political Obit

CowenBye CartoonAs all political careers end in failure, it is traditional to look back over them and ask where they went wrong. Supposing for a moment that a single false move really could explain everything, what was Cowen’s?

Some say that as Bertie Ahern’s anointed successor he was pretty much cursed from the start. The party’s triumph as they crowned him was so loud because it was trying to drown out a whisper. Haven’t we been here before? Wasn’t Bertie meant to be the good and true leader who would make everything right after Haughey? Wasn’t he going to clear up all the questions?

Some day it will dawn on the party membership, on the country in general, that what’s wrong with Fianna Fáil cannot be fixed by just changing the guy at the top.

But people seemed willing to give him a chance, so I don’t think it’s true that Cowen was finished before he started. The first problem of his own making was probably the Lisbon referendum fiasco. While this made him look unexpectedly weak, I could argue that it still wasn’t really Brian Cowen’s fault. The 2007 election certainly hadn’t been a rout, but the majority of us did not go to the polling station to return a Fianna Fáil government to power. And yet, thanks to the political ineptitude of the former Green Party (yes I’m calling them that already), we found one jammed into our gullet. While the reasons for the rejection of Lisbon were many, I think a major one was resentment of this unwarranted government. That was not within Cowen’s realistic control.

So then of course there was the economic collapse. Again, not exactly his fault. Well at least not Cowen the Taoiseach’s; his stewardship of the Department of Finance had doubtless contributed greatly to our mad over-dependence on the property sector, but the deeply corrupting relationship between Fianna Fáil and its contributors is, again, not the work of one man. Much of the country was complicit in it.

Then, the embarrassment of a second referendum. But we can all be pretty ashamed of that one. “Not so independent-minded now you’re broke, eh?” Less said there the better really.

So the list of mistakes is long, but no one seems really enough in itself to be labelled the turning point in Brian Cowen’s career. Is it just that, with the economy in ruins, we need to blame somebody and he’s in the firing line? No doubt that’s how it seems to him. Or was it, as is so often the case, simply the slow accumulation of many small missteps?

No. If any political career failed in one single moment, this was that one. It happened when he agreed that the people of Ireland would pay back the losses of speculating bankers. That was a mistake of such enormity, you wonder if he actually had the authority to do it. Is it constitutional to give the country away?

Without this things would still be pretty bad, but he would probably have been leading his party into an election now. One in which they would have been merely punished rather than summarily executed. But by sacrificing his people to save bankers, Brian Cowen doomed his career. Doomed a lot of our careers.


It’s All Over

CowenfishAh. Hear that? That’s the restful sound of no government.

Brian Cowen was just on the radio, saying goodbye. Listing the things that Fianna Fáil didn’t screw up. Predictably, doing it with massaged figures. After being in politics so long, these people become vague about what truth actually is.

Ireland fifth best place in the world to live? I think you’ll find that was more before your stewardship than after. Ireland receives more US investment than Brazil, India and China combined? Now seriously. If “funnels cash through for tax purposes” is the same as “invests”, that may just be true.

I will not deny that this government occasionally did things right. Even on purpose sometimes. The problem is, if they’d given us a space program that discovered a friendly civilization who sent us unlimited free energy, it would still have been the worse government we’ve ever had by some considerable margin.


Meanwhile, Back On The Farm…

Man in this country-town pub has the worst laugh. Every time, it sounds like he’s sneering at someone he’s just kicked bloody. Please stop telling that guy jokes.

Oh God. Radio reminds me that Tony Blair is the EU’s most important diplomat to Egypt. We choose the single former leader who invaded a Middle East country as ‘peace envoy’. Was that supposed to be ironic? A large proportion of the population doubtless sees him as some sort of latter-day Crusader. He mentioned his fears of the Muslim Brotherhood exploiting the situation two or three times. He mentioned democracy, freedom from oppression, and self-determination… about not at all.

Something else I note from the news – Though Ireland is technically not in recession because our GDP is going up, our Gross National Product is  ‘growing’ at a rate of -0.3%. GNP is similar to GDP but represents Irish owned business only, leaving out foreign investment. How can foreign business here be profitable but local ruined? I would suggest it’s because while almost all foreign invest here is in export industries, too much Irish-owned business is about servicing other parts of the Irish-owned economy (in which I include the state sector), making it a house of cards. We need more indigenous export industry.

But you know, that was kind of obvious.

Money CartoonMeanwhile back on the political pitch, Micheál Martin is naming his front bench. Wait, what? Yes – the leader of Fianna Fáil has his own shadow cabinet, even though Fianna Fáil under Brian Cowen is still in government until tomorrow… The party is its own opposition. I mean, officially now. That’s not the way Micheál Martin sees it himself of course. A few days ago he came out with an extraordinary offer: To support a Fine Gael government. He thinks he can actually refuse to go into opposition. Clearly the party is just too used to being in power.

Oh, and stop press: Senator Ivor Callelly has been awarded €17,000 for loss of earnings while suspended from his Senate seat. Reason for suspension? Because the bastard was corrupt. He should be on all the opposition parties’ election posters. This is Fianna Fáil. This is the face of a party that is farming the people of this country like cattle.

Dammit Fianna Fáil, you are going to go into opposition, and you are going to stay there.


This Week’s Column

I thought I’d put up a link to the print version. It’s pretty much just a distillation of posts here from the last few days about Fianna Fáil’s tailspin, but rewriting it give me the chance to shape and sharpen things up.

Despite its new leader Fianna Fáil is a party in disarray


Is He Actually Qualified To Be A Caretaker?

Bogman Cartoon

I’d have thought it would be better for Fianna Fáil to let Cowen stay on. Whoever leads them through the election is going to suffer a huge, possibly fatal, blow to their political career. Cowen… Well he has nothing left to lose. Why not let him absorb the damage? They must have come to the conclusion that the electoral result under Cowen would be such a wipe-out that it will be worth sacrificing one of their  players.

Any one of their players. Though the grey ghosts that haunt the higher echelons of Fianna Fáil can pretty much directly pressure a leader into resigning, they cannot dictate who the party as a whole will elect as replacement. Heavily influence certainly, but not quite dictate. A shoo-in as when Cowen replaced Ahern is not going to be possible with party discipline in its current parlous state.

There is going to be a leadership fight, and the biggest loser will be the winner.

The ideal outcome of course is that they will get a new leader that they can afford to sacrifice. Someone sufficiently experienced for the electorate to take seriously, attractive enough to help prevent them being entirely wiped out, but who was never really a serious future election-winner. Hanafin perhaps. First female FF leader, it would seem fresh. Cynical, yet fresh. On the other hand Brian Lenihan sustained a lot of damage as Minister for Finance and his health problems militated against him ever becoming Taoiseach anyway. He has a brother to continue the dynasty. Maybe now is the time to play his card.

And as I write, rumour reaches me that Ó Cuív will stand. That has to be a sacrifice candidate. I mean, Ó Cuív. He is surely more decorative than useful. Still, it would be cute if the history of Fianna Fáil had matching bookends.


Cowen To Step Down?

Speculation is rife – rife, I say – about what Brian Cowen is going to announce any second now. As the pronouncement is coming from a hotel rather than government property it’s safe enough to assume that he’s speaking in his private capacity, so… Stepping down as party leader, but staying on as Taoiseach? It’s technically possible. The Taoiseach is elected by the Dáil after all.

It would just be really strange. He’s actually going to continue running the country from the dustbin of history. A first.

But it’s easy to imagine that cooler heads within Fianna Fáil have pointed out to him that they must go into an election with a different leader, and if there’s going to be time to get one he needs to get out of the way. God, that’s got to hurt.

What I cannot imagine is, who the hell will want that job?


Cowen Collapses Into Black Hole

A Black Hole Earlier Today

This appears to be what happened: Several cabinet ministers did not want to run in the election – particularly once they knew they’d be doing it with Brian Cowen as leader. So he wanted to replace them with fresh new faces, presumably in the hope that voters would fool themselves into thinking they weren’t looking at the same old Fianna Fáil.

The Greens were less than happy with what they perceived as the conversion of the cabinet into an electoral window display. They said they would pull out of government rather than accept the appointments. As that would precipitate an election, Cowen instead shared the portfolios out among the remaining cabinet members, and finally chose the election date – March 11th – in the hope that this would stay the Greens’ hand. (We’ll see.) His backbenchers meanwhile were busy explaining to the press that they wouldn’t have accepted cabinet posts anyway. They now perceive that their best hope of holding onto their seats lies in distancing themselves from Cowen as far and as quickly as possible.

So Cowen’s attempt to assert his authority and remain leader has unravelled. If there is any surprising part, it’s that the man who is inexorably steering his party into its greatest election defeat ever thought he had any authority to assert. No doubt he sees himself not as the man responsible for his country’s woes, but as the man to lead us out of them. The problem is though, that as the Taoiseach who gave us the ruinous blanket bank guarantee and Minister for Finance throughout most of the economy-wrecking property bubble, he is the man most responsible for his country’s woes.

At least, of those still around. Which isn’t quite fair on him of course. More of the blame for the bubble belongs to his predecessor Bertie Ahern, just as responsibility for the party’s corruption under Ahern really belongs more to his predecessor. (It’s easy to imagine that the failures of modern Fianna Fáil can be traced back to character flaws in DeValera himself; flaws which were minor then but have been cultured within the party over decades.) Though this might as well be Cowen’s political epitaph, his going makes little difference. The leader is just the bit stuck on the front. The problem with Fianna Fáil – and of the wider political culture – go right to the roots and require far more thorough changes than one of mere leadership.

The coming election is the first real hope we have ever had of that change.

  1. Micháel Martin looks decent and honest and innocent? Remember, we thought that about Bertie Ahern once.

Hallelujah, That I Live To See This Day

After last night accepting the resignations of much of his cabinet, alleged Taoiseach Brian Cowen has finally called the long-overdue election. However, despite the fact that there is approximately zero chance of getting any actual work done before it, he has appointed new people to the vacant positions. All the resigning ministers have decided not to run in the election, rather than have their political careers end in an ignominious defeat, and Cowen says he wants to appoint ministers who are running and so have “the potential to stay in government.”¹

He lives in another world, doesn’t he? They have about as much chance of being in government after the election as I do of teaching a duck to play tennis.

In truth, these appointments are bribes to ensure future loyalty. It borders on the academic, seeing as he’s not going to be leader of anything for much longer, but he might as well spend what political capital he has while he can. He doesn’t have a hell of a lot of other moves left.

So what happens between now and the election? If Cowen does secretly accept that Fianna Fail have no hope of being in the next government (and I’m sure, in the quietness of solitude, he does), then his real problem is to make sure that they aren’t destroyed permanently as a political force. Most do not consider that a possibility, more a fantasy of us commentator-types, but it could happen. Where once it had a distinct nationalist agenda, Fianna Fáil now depends for its vote on patronage, on the sharing out of the goods the State has at its disposal² to friendly faces in business.

Obviously they won’t be making powerful friends if they can’t bring gifts to the party. But this known corruption is essential for the FF base too. It helps give the impression to voters that by electing a FF representative they will get a better deal personally. The voter wants a representative who will do them favours, use their government insider status to secure them an advantage with state mechanisms that are meant to be impartial. This is why you barely ever hear politicians accused of corruption in Ireland. A level of corruption – on their behalf – is precisely what voters have come to look for in their politicians.

Of course, the ways in which a lowly TD can really influence state bureaucracy are small (particularly if the petitioner is an ordinary person whose interests do no align with those of more generous business contributors ), but TDs work hard on the illusion that they are bending rules and pulling strings for their constituents.

This illusion though can only be maintained if FF are in power on a more or less ongoing basis. Otherwise, constituents will discover that they have pretty much the same benefits even if their TD isn’t furiously writing letters for them. But the thing is, they have been. Fianna Fáil has been running this country for all but nineteen of the last seventy-nine years. The longest they have ever been out of power is less than five. It is less a party now than a permanent ruling elite.

This must be number one of Fianna Fáil’s first successive terms in opposition. Cut off from the supply of the State’s (that is, our) money to give to its supporters, it will inevitably shrink. It won’t be the end of corruption in Irish politics of course, but it will be a huge step towards bringing it down to a controllable level. And by ‘controllable’, I mean a level that will not entirely bankrupt the country. Again.

  1. In Ireland all ministers must be elected representatives.
  2. Which includes information.

Cowen Survives!

Cowen ‘won’. If only FF TDs were representative of the country, he’d be in great shape. Unfortunately for him, FF TDs are now representative of about everything the country hates.

Micheál Martin won the real game. The loser here is best positioned to be the next leader of Fianna Fáil – which is the highest office any member of Fianna Fáil will be getting for the foreseeable future.

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