Thursday, September 30, 2010

Bail and bail outs

This was written yesterday, before we had all the figures. For a proper analysis of those see, where they have people who know about maths!

The concept of bail is an odd one. It’s a bit like a hostage situation really, except the Government is the kidnapper and it’s the family who pays up. If, that is, you have the type of family that wants you around. If not, nobody pays, and you languish somewhere overcrowded with no proper toilet facilities for a long, long time.
The concept of bail originated in medieval England, to ransom hostages captured in battle, and to cope with a shortage of travelling magistrates which meant that pre-trial imprisonment could go on for rather a long time.
These days, however, Googling ‘bail’ provides some depressing results. The legal meaning seems to have been largely overshadowed by the more recent term ‘bail out’, usually applied to financial institutions and now, increasingly, countries on the periphery of Europe.
Google ‘bail-out’ and click ‘pages from Ireland’ and an even more depressing 84,800 results comes up. 10,600 of those had been posted in the 24 hours up to my search.
Bail came to mind yesterday as I observed the reaction of people to the guy who drove into the gates of Leinster House in a cement lorry. At the time of writing he was being questioned at Pearse Street Garda station under section 4 of the Criminal Justice Act 1984.
I don’t know, at this point, if he’s going to be charged with anything. I’m not sure if I think he should or not; he did damage a lovely pair of antique gates, at, I’m sure, a cost to the taxpayer. That’s just not good manners.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t agree with his sentiment. The guy is obviously pretty angry. I’m pretty angry too. I think we all are. Angry, depressed, and waiting, like a beaten dog, for the next blow. This guy, like the dog that’s been beaten too many times, snapped.
But back to bail.
It was a friend of mine who posted on her Facebook status, along with a link to the picture of his ‘Toxic Bank’ emblazoned cement lorry “if this guy needs a contribution to his bail please call me”, that got me thinking about bail and bailouts.
We will know today how much it’s cost us to bail out Anglo-Irish Bank. It doesn’t really bear thinking about, largely because none of us can compute what €30bn actually is. €30,000,000,000. That’s a lot of zeroes, and more money than any of us will see in a lifetime, even if things do go a bit Weimar Republic.
In England Northern Rock was bailed out, in the US AIG was bailed out, in Europe Greece has been bailed out, and Russia helped to bail out Iceland.
If ‘the markets’, those faceless Blofeld types and computer algorithms that have decided Ireland is not a good bet, don’t calm down soon, it’s looking possible, even likely, that we will be next.
For what my money’s worth (for the short time that I still have any), I’m with my friend on this one. I’d prefer to bail out the Toxic Bank truck guy than the actual toxic bank. No harm for Sean Fitzpatrick and co to languish somewhere overcrowded, with no proper toilet facilities, for a long time.
Too bad we don’t have a choice.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Because I am a Girl

This week I'm guest blogging on Plan Ireland's Because I am a Girl blog.

Plan is a great development NGO working around the world providing education, healthcare, and most importantly capacity building for families and communities, with a particular focus on women. Educate a girl and you educate a whole village.

I had the privilege of meeting Plan's spokesperson Benedicta Attoh at a meeting of Network Cork earlier this year where she spoke about her experience of growing up in Africa, where she experienced much of the deprivation and discrimination that Plan is fighting against.

The blog is part of a larger campaign being run by Fuzion Communications to increase Plan's visibility in Ireland. It's a wonderful idea and I'm delighted to have been asked to participate.

You can read it here.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Saving the nation

Yesterday I went to get a sandwich in the middle of the newsroom rush. One of the annoying things about working in an industrial estate (lovely and all as Northpoint is) is that you have to drive practically everywhere, so I hopped into my car and zipped up to our local garage.
On the way, I listened to Minister for Education Mary Coughlan and the seemingly decontaminated Richard Bruton fighting about bank bonds, the state of the country (that old chestnut) and importing third-level students for the fees.
I had just finished reading an exceptionally depressing article by David McWilliams, suggesting that the country is turning into an economic wasteland, followed by another, by Dan O’Brien, saying that we are now exporting people at a rate of nine in 1,000.
Queueing to pay for my sandwich in the garage, I felt a stab of panic – then guilt – at handing over €3.99 (not including the accompanying packet of crisps, which probably cost about 50 cent). That’s €3.99 you should be saving! You’re lucky to even have a job!
Then, in a mental swerve that astonished even me, a well-known vacillator, I gave myself an invisible pat on the back for doing as we’ve been told and unselfishly spending my hard-earned cash.
I eyeballed the guy behind the counter, and telepathically communicated to him just how glad he should be that I didn’t have any bread in the house this morning, and my €3.99 was now, almost, in his pocket. Keeping people in jobs, now, I was. What a trooper.
But the bit that really got me thinking was my own reaction to an exchange between the guy behind the counter, and someone I must presume was an American tourist who was paying for petrol.
Hank – for we will call him Hank – was having some difficulty paying for his gas. A little confusion over the Chip & Pin machine and some awkward misunderstandings between Hank and the guy on the till eventually led to smiles all round and a successful transaction.
Commercial affairs concluded, Hank turned to the queue – me, Breakfast Roll Man in front of me, and a few more, all patiently waiting – and smiled widely at us.
“Now, just to remember to stay on the left hand side, haha!”
“Haha”, I trilled back, grinning like… well, grinning like something out of a Bord Fáilte ad. And doing my best to look friendly, and, er, Irish.
Breakfast Roll man was too intent on the two Mars Bars, two cans of Coke he was clutching (both 2 for €2 at the moment, special offer) to say anything. An elderly man behind me looked blank.
Now, I’m naturally friendly, something that has landed me in trouble many, many times.
But it wasn’t my natural charm and politeness coming to the fore.
Oh no. It was his money I was after.
Following the nanoseconds of conscience-wrestling in which I decided I needed to buy that sandwich for the good of the nation, my eyes had alighted on Hank (and my ears on his mellifluous twang), and I’d decided that, heck, my money wasn’t enough.
Hank was going to be the one to save us.
So I simpered and grinned like Darby O’Gill. I’m not happy about it. But I didn’t say anything beginning with ‘begorrah’.
And Hank, if you’re reading this? I hope you had a lovely drive. Begorrah. 

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Juvenile delinquents

Editorial from Thursday 16 September

I’m not talking about the Junior Certs. They’re paragons of good behaviour, compared to some of their ‘role models’. While everyone was busy sniggering at Brian Cowen, or invading the moral high ground this week, it was another image from this week’s Fianna Fáil Parliamentary Party shindig that caught our imagination here at Cork Independent HQ.

An image of An Tánaiste fixing her smart suit for an official parliamentary party photo, because she had just been sat on, for a laugh, by Cork TD Noel O’Flynn.
Whatever your views on Mary Coughlan as a person or as a politician, surely we have more respect for the office of Deputy Prime Minister?
Noel O’Flynn is Mary Coughlan’s junior by quite a bit in terms of professional ranking. Mary Coughlan is, if not the boss, the second in command.
Those of you who work for large companies, take a minute. Picture yourself at an official function. The announcement of a new acquisition, maybe, or a major contract signing. You’re not on a company night out, where the rules are a bit relaxed; there are members of the media, photographers, your immediate boss, and probably their boss too.
What do you do as the official photograph is being taken?
Do you run over to the company Vice-President and sit on his lap?
Like hell you do. Your termination notice would be in your hand before you even stood up.
Anybody working for a multinational or any kind of professional outfit will have broken into a cold sweat reading that.
But apparently it’s ok, because this is Ireland, this politics, not business, and, sure, isn’t Mary Coughlan always up for a laugh?
Imagine Bernard Allen, then a fairly junior Fine Gael TD, attempting to sit on revered Cork Tánaiste Peter Barry during a press conference. Imagine a jovial Charlie Haughey alighting on Tánaiste Seán Lemass’ knee, as the camera rolled and Gay Byrne shouted questions at them.
What’s most astounding about this is it hasn’t even been questioned. By anybody. The huffing and puffing about Brian Cowen’s state on Tuesday morning has distracted from this little episode, which raises more than one question about Irish politics.
The first one, about basic respect for public office, has already been dealt with. All of us make mistakes in our careers, but the office of Taoiseach, the responsibility it entails, is too important to be treated the same as any old nine to fiver where you can show up the worse for wear and lay your head on the desk for the day.
But the second is a different question entirely. With gender quotas back on the table; when talented young politicians like Olwyn Enright just cannot make politics work for them; and as Ireland has one of the lowest rates of female representation in the world, why is it ok for a middle aged male politician to behave towards his female superior like a teenage boy whose next trick will be to make rude noises with his armpit?
It is inconceivable that a male Tánaiste would be treated like this.
A photograph of one of Cork’s few young female politicians – City Councillor Laura McGonigle – appeared in this newspaper recently. The photo was taken at an official function she attended in her capacity as Deputy Lord Mayor, and she was wearing a ballgown. Women wear ballgowns at these things; we are expected to look decorative at all times.
A week later, she started receiving abusive text messages, with personal comments about certain aspects of her appearance, purporting to be complimentary.
If a male Deputy Lord Mayor appeared in this newspaper wearing a suit, his wife would probably be the only one to notice how he looked in the picture.
But this constituent apparently thought he had a right to express an opinion on whether he found her attractive or not. He was even surprised when she mentioned the Gardaí.
Is it any wonder Olwyn Enright decided politics might not be compatible with motherhood? Is it any wonder Brian Cowen thought the office of Taoiseach would not be compromised by a few scoops? Is it any wonder the country is the way it is, when we have no respect for the highest offices in the State, and those elected to them can’t even respect each other?


Editorial from Thursday 9 September

Bertie Ahern might be our next President. Ivor Callely is a victim. There’s no need to be concerned at our international credit rating being downgraded. Not only are we expecting a royal visit, but Queen Elizabeth is going to move into Blackrock Castle with Gerry Adams, as they have always secretly had a thing for one another.

Cork is going to be made a Republic in a matter of months, giving Brian Cowen his wish of making Offaly Ireland’s ‘real capital’, and taking some expensive items off his shopping list for Cork (M20, Cork Docklands Project, North City Ring Road, and giving Micheál Martin an opportunity to be Taoiseach sooner rather than later, without letting him near Merrion Street).
Let me see. What else?
A vibrant, viable Opposition party with ideas and fresh thinking is actually there, it’s just been invisible for a little while. Cork won the All Ireland Hurling Final, they were just wearing blue and yellow jerseys to psych out Henry Shefflin. The world is run by elected representatives, and not by faceless investors who control everything from your mortgage repayments to how much money you’ll have to live on when you’re old. Parking is free at hospitals, and if you’re entitled to social welfare, you might get it without a seven-month delay.
All of these statements fit, I think, into the broad category of ‘delusions’.
Most of them I made up – sadly – but the first two came, independently, from the minds of the protagonists.
Bertie Ahern believes, apparently, that the biggest mistake of his 11 years as Taoiseach was not building the Bertie Bowl.
Ivor Callely is going to court to, er, ‘prove’, that he’s been victimised by the Seanad committee that found him guilty of falsifying his expenses in a most incredible way.
Medicine.Net defines a ‘delusion’ as ‘A false personal belief that is not subject to reason or contradictory evidence and is not explained by a person's usual cultural and religious concepts (so that, for example, it is not an article of faith). A delusion may be firmly maintained in the face of incontrovertible evidence that it is false.’
Now, the whole idea of ‘article of faith’ may be questionable where applied to Bertie and Ivor. I don’t want to tar all politicians, all Fianna Fáil politicians, or even all former North Dublin Fianna Fáil TDs with the same brush, but perhaps self-promotion is an ‘article of faith’ in all politics, and not just in Fianna Fáil?
I suppose it’s a necessary evil in some jobs. My photograph is at the top of this article, after all, and what is that but a form of self-promotion?
But when self-promotion evolves into self-adulation and delusions about one’s importance, popularity, and general relevance to the world, there’s a problem.
Both Callely and Ahern – like Haughey before them – seem to see themselves as tragic Shakespearean figures. Great men, wronged by those they have done so much to help.
How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless electorate!
King Lear wouldn’t have a patch on them.

Working things out

Editorial from Thursday 2 SeptemberThroughout the Celtic Tiger years we were told that the rising tide was lifting all boats, and the lot of every sector in society was improving as a consequence of the genius of our bankers and the Government. There are a number of untruths in that sentence, but you can pick those out for yourself.
Even during those years, there was doubt about the kind of work we value. Carers, for example, fought long and hard for recognition of the work they do every day. Most of these carers are women, and they’re caring for family members, friends or neighbours. Many of them were unpaid, while even now they receive an ‘allowance’ and not a salary, despite the work they do being the most important work, on a human level, that anybody can do.
Of course, to convince the Government – and the electorate – that this work was worth paying for, it was necessary to reduce it to numbers. €2.5 billion is the value, in monetary terms, of carers’ work to the economy each year. How much is a hug worth, or a kind gesture, or daily personal contact?
Voluntary work has also come under this kind of scrutiny over the past few years – with various interest groups and politicians coming out with numbers to quantify the work done by tidy towns committees, fundraising groups, community activists and volunteer sports coaches, among others.
But among all this talk of economic benefit we seem to have lost sight of the fact that this is supposed to be a society, not an economy. Economic benefit is a good thing, but is not the only thing we have to think about.
What about social benefit? What about individual benefit?
Work is essentially a positive thing. The right kind of work for the person can be rewarding, challenging, even life-affirming. People who feel rewarded and challenged are a benefit to society – and if they enjoy their work, they are more likely to be good at it, thus conferring that economic benefit everybody is harping on about.
The announcement that the Department of Social Protection has come up with a scheme of community work for people who claiming Jobseekers’ benefit should be, I think, a welcome one. Old-fashioned as this may sound, making a contribution to your community cannot be a bad thing.
While the dignity of unemployed people must be respected, this is not a ‘Famine’ scheme. People will not be chain-ganged or forced to break rocks, as some hysterical reactions will have you believe. Work can bring its own dignity; human interaction, giving something back to society, and a reason to get up in the morning.
The scheme is not perfect – it’s not going to give people €50k salaries, power and influence or the ability to afford a holiday. But it’s a start. And, with the alternatives reduced to emigrating or sitting at home for many people, it’s better than nothing.  

The notion of work - paid work, unpaid work, work in the home, homework – is a fluid one, dependent on place and time and individual preferences. Studying sociology in college I learned about the concept of paid for work versus unpaid (largely, women’s) work. One person’s pointless meandering through Facebook is another person’s dayjob – while mucking out horses may be fun for some but is definitely work for others.

Landmark moments

This is my editorial from Thursday 26 August. Apologies for delay updating!

We all have those moments in our lives that stand apart as landmarks. They might be a way of remembering a loved one or idyllic period, or they might be the marker of a turning point or an 'annus horribilis'. While they are moments that may be historically significant to the entire world, they can evoke a powerful individual nostalgia for that which is no more.

My history teacher used to tell us, "Mammy was making sausages for the tea when we heard President Kennedy was shot". Every time he said it, we could see him gaze misty-eyed out the window, as he remembered the smell of the sausages, the spit of the pan and the look of saintly suffering in the eyes of the Sacred Heart picture that hung over their black and white television.
My mother remembers the Bay of Pigs crisis, because the nuns made them practice hiding under desks. When she sees old footage of the crisis, or hears of it, she feels cold stone under her bare knees and smells chalk and sour milk and wet wool, that indefinable odour of a primary school. The nuns weren't to know, I suppose, that a desk wouldn't be much protection from the type of explosion that vaporises people. But if any of those women, now in their fifties, are ever stuck in an earthquake, I'd say they'll be absolutely fine.
On my own account, I remember the 9/11 attacks and the feeling of absolute helplessness when I realised that this was happening, we could watch it happening, over and over again, and yes, those dots on the outside of the Twin Towers were people, who were almost certainly dead by the time we watched the footage.
Funny that all three of our memories are based on American events. But the other common thread here is that, despite our different ages and circumstances, and interests, all the events that we remember as somehow defining a particular time in our lives, were major world events brought to us by the media.
Something that happened during the week brought home to me just how powerful media coverage of what happens, and the priority it gets, are in ordinary people's lives, and how media priorities are changing.
The first was when I watched the – by now infamous – YouTube video of a woman putting a cat in a dustbin in England. Sky News have sent a special team to the woman's house to report on an angry mob that has gathered.
Yes, it was cruel, and it was wrong. But let's get some perspective here. It wasn't really cruel on the scale of, for example, 150 women being raped in one village in the Democratic Republic of Congo in a single day. That was last month. I didn't see any Sky News reporters on the ground there. Nor, by the way, did I read of it in any Irish newspaper.
Nor was it pivotal to future world politics in the way that the lack of aid being provided to Pakistan at the moment will almost certainly be. The floods in that country, and a process of rebuilding which will be very vulnerable to manipulation from fundamentalist groups, could be a turning point in the ongoing difficulties between hardline Islam and the West in much the same way the Bay of Pigs was for the Cold War.
In forty years time, will our children and grandchildren be asking us where we were, when we found out that a woman put a cat in a wheelie bin on the side of the road somewhere in the UK? I don't think so. Maybe it's time the media grew up a little, and recognised where our priorities – all our priorities – lie.
The one thing I'd like to thank that woman for, is that she's coined a new idiom. No longer will I say 'storm in a teacup'. 'Cat in a wheelie bin' will do just fine, and I look forward to explain it to my grandchildren

Wednesday, September 1, 2010