This week’s Broadsheet column looks at the faux controversy that has arisen from the decision by President Micheal D Higgins to decline an invitation from the Church Leaders Group (Ireland) to attend a #NI100 Church service in Armagh in October. The Church leaders also invited HM The Queen. Here I suggest that this situation could have easily been avoided if the Church leaders, and others, had taken better heed of the advised offered back in May 2010 by then Taoiseach, Brian Cowen on the essential principles of commemorating and remembering.
With any luck, the controversy over President’s Michael D. Higgins decision not to attend next month’s planned church service in Armagh to “mark the centenary of the partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland” will soon abate.
It is a row that does no one any credit, least of all those who claim the President has a missed opportunity to extend the hand of friendship to Unionism.
As yesterday’s Ireland Thinks/Mail on Sunday poll reported, a staggering four out of five of us believe that President Higgins is doing the right thing and for the right reason.
He is. But he has more than just popular sentiment on his side. This was not a decision made impetuously or in haste. As the President explained last week, he has been mulling over the invitation from the Church Leaders Group (Ireland) for several months. He shared his concerns with event organisers telling them that the event title was not a politically neutral and presented him with difficulties.
The attached research paper Report on EU Attendance was conducted by Markus Johansson and Daniel Naurin of the Dept of Political Science at the University of Gothenburg and presented at the SNES spring conference in Uppsala 22-23 March 2011.
SNES (Swedish Network for European Studies in political science) is Sweden’s leading research network dealing with questions of European politics and governance.
The study examined 808 EU Council meetings between 2000 and 2010 and found that Ireland had one of the highest average Ministerial attendances at Council of Minister’s meetings, 5th out of the 27 member states.
The authors of the study argue that attendance is an integral part of EU engagement and reflects the priorities of the governments involved. Ireland’s position as 5th highest out of the 27 member states from 2000-2010 is a testament to Fianna Fáil’s committeeman to Europe and strong engagement
This exposes the hollowness of claims repeatedly made by Government Ministers and the Taoiseach that Fianna Fáil failed to attend EU meetings.
The speech at Washington DC’s Georgetown University by former Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, has attracted some comment since it was reported last week in the Financial Times and Irish Times. Much of that comment has focussed upon just about everything about from its contents. It is a well drafted and cogently argued analysis of the crisis that befell both Ireland and the EU and well worth reading in full: Speech By Fmr Taoiseach B Cowen – 21.03.12
Given the venue and context it is evident that this was meant as a low key, considered and informed contribution and not as a political foray. While I think it will, in time, be seen as an important analysis of the situtaion from 2007/08 onwards. I also think it is important to note how the former taoiseach took the opportunity present to talk Ireland up and to touts for business and investment for Ireland. This is particularly evident in the final paragraphs of the speech:
“I believe Ireland is one of the best locations in the world to establish and to grow a business. This is not just rhetoric but is reflected in the rapid on-going overseas investment which is occurring in Ireland. Ireland is not just open for business but as, I believe, any independent assessmentwould indicate it is among the best places in Europe to start and grow an international business. This will ultimately pay off for our citizens. Indeed all of the fundamental strengths which prior to the crisis meant that Ireland had one of the highest growth rates of GNP per capita among advanced countries for a very long period are still in place and in many respects our advantages have improved in terms of increased cost competitiveness.”
Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s defence of his U-turn on capping the pay of Special Advisers set me to thinking.
When they came into office just eight months ago the Taoiseach started out well. He announced the withdrawal of ministerial cars and garda drivers from most Cabinet Ministers and was seen striding to work onfoot with no merc or beemer in sight.
He also said that he intended to take a similar approach to Special Advisers pay. The results there have been less impressive. Contrary to the declared intention to reduce the pay rates, it now emerges that almost 50% of them have been given exemptions and are now paid above the Principal Officer grade.
The Taoiseach defends this saying that Advisers are still paid less than previously.
Is that really so, Enda?
Back in October 2004 I was asked to become the Special Adviser to the newly appointed Defence Minister. It took me about five or six weeks to wind up my existing business and take on my duties as Special Adviser.
Within a few days of taking on the position I sat down with the Department’s HR manager. He talked me through the Departments requirements and regulations.
There were a number of forms to sign, covering a range of matters including security and related matters. I was required to produce the usual tax forms required of any new employee plus a Tax Clearance Certificate.
He then produced my contract of employment. We discussed some of the provisions while I leafed through the document. Then we both went quiet at the same time.
When it came to my pay rate the contract stated that I would be paid at the first point on the Assistant Principal (AP) grade. My understanding when I had accepted the post was that I would be paid at Principal Officer (PO) grade.
The difference between the first points on the AP and PO scales was in the region of €25k. The first point on the AP scale was in or around €57K as best as I can recall now.
I was a bit taken back by this and said as much to the HR manager. He explained that the default rate for my post in the department was AP grade unless I could show that my previous salary had been higher than that.
I relaxed as I knew I should clearly show that my annual income over the previous few years was in excess of the AP scale. It did take a few weeks to sort out but the paperwork was finalised as my first year’s pay was set at the first point on the PO scale.
I am not revealing anything new here. I am open about my salary as the then opposition used to ask parliamentary questions about my pay and expenses, and that of my colleagues across other Departments, at least twice a year. The replies were published regularly.
Indeed I recall opening an issue of the Sunday Independent as I was queuing to board a Ryanair flight to visit my parents in Spain and seeing one of those replies featuring my name, photo and pay rate there. Worse still, I saw some people on the plane later holding copies of the Sindo and glaring at me.
Those replies usually pointed to the fact that there were fewer advisers in the post 1997 FF/PD Governments than there had been in the 94-97 FG/Lab/DL one. About 30% fewer: as far as I remember.
I make this point as the Taoiseach has sought to assert that paying 50% of their advisers at the first point on the PO scale is some big advance on the situation while I was there.
It is not.
The point on the scale is the same, though the scale has reduced. It was reduced by the last Government, not this one. As advisers we agreed to a 9% voluntary reduction in our pay in line with the voluntary cut in Ministerial pay, as well as the increased pension contributions and reductions in civil service pay rates across the board.
Like many things this Government is doing they may want people to think it is different – the reality is that it is the same.
My latest Evening Herald column from August 8th 2011 – you can also see it online: here
Success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan. Clearly, no one has told the economists this.
In any other walk of life — architecture, dentistry, cake decorating — people run away when they see failure or disaster looming.
Not the economists. They embrace disaster. They revel in it.
As soon as a crisis looms they rush to the TV camera and the microphone to say how they predicted it.
They take a pride and pleasure in being associated with doom and failure that would do your heart good, if the consequences were not so dire for the rest of us.
In the wake of last week’s market turmoil, the weekend papers and discussion shows were full of economists doing what they do best.
Switching between the radio stations on Saturday and Sunday mornings was like playing some demented radio five-card stud — I see your dollar bond collapse and raise you an Italian bailout.
The Sunday newspapers were as bad with even more dire predictions of either the collapse of the euro or the dollar, or both.
We are living in uncertain economic times … and will be for some years to come. No one needs to tune into the radio to learn that.
This is a major culture shock for many, though not for those of us who lived through the Eighties … and no one wants to see another decade lost to despair and inactivity.
But I digress. So why have we seen renewed predictions of crisis this week? They do not seem to have been prompted by the publication of any eurozone statistics or hard figures.
Neither could they be reasonably explained away as just the result of a global slow news day.
While they may, in part, be due to the outworkings of the American debt ceiling compromise, the giveaway is in the word most often employed by economists in describing the crisis: confidence.
We have seen share values drop and bond costs increase over the past week because market analysts and investors do not have confidence in the capacity of eurozone countries to deal with all the debt in the system.
Could these possibly be the same investors who were protected from massive losses in banks and bad investments by those same governments?
Ironic, isn’t it? Eaten bread may be soon forgotten, but never with anything like the speed and hypocrisy with which socialised private losses are forgotten by the markets.
It is tough to make someone have confidence in you, particularly when you have not got much confidence or trust in them. But wringing our hands in anger on this won’t make the problem go away.
As I said earlier, the past week’s scare does not have its origin in a spreadsheet. It is fundamentally a political issue; not an economic one.
The real danger for us is that the dramatic actions and reforms the market is demanding in return for their “confidence” would be deeply unacceptable to people here and across the Eurozone.
This is the almost impossible balance that the eurozone leaders are trying to strike. To make the changes just about needed to gain market approval without totally alienating public opinion at home. The political spectre of Brian Cowen must stalk their deliberations.
Not that the eurozone leaders merit much sympathy. Merkel and Sarkozy’s slowness to act decisively in the early stages of this crisis has cost us all. Their dithering and loose talk threw Ireland to the market wolves in a futile attempt to stem the tide at no cost to themselves.
Their recent reforms to the European Financial Stability Fund have been more carefully judged, though these will take a while to work their way through.
Meanwhile, the next time you hear an economist demanding firmer and more determined actions, just remember that translates in higher taxes and higher charges for you and yours.