Monday, October 26, 2009

Nine reasons to say ‘No to NAMA’:

NAMA is working its way through the Dáil. Hundreds of amendments are being tabled by the opposition almost all of which are ignored. However the whole basis of NAMA is flawed. Most people realise that NAMA is a bad deal for them as a taxpayer and they are right. I offer below nine reasons why it is a bad deal and I would be happy to debate this issue with any member of Fianna Fáil or this Government.

Nine reasons to say ‘No to NAMA’:

(1) Economists have estimated NAMA will cost each man, woman and child in the state €15,000 (€60-€70 billion). That’s a lot of hospitals, schools, jobs and public infrastructure.

(2) The Government has done nothing to help families and businesses facing repossession, negative equity and economic hardship, they still have to pay their bills, and it is raising taxes and cutting public spending to pay for the mess they, the banks and developers have made.

(3) NAMA will pay more for developers’ loans than they are worth and let them pay them back at their leisure.

(4)The Bill relies on banks to act in ‘good faith’ when giving the taxpayer information about the bad loans.

(5)The loans these developers were given helped to drive up house prices, so we’re being made to pay twice.

(6)NAMA will be able to give taxpayers’ money to developers to finish projects and even force a purchase on land in the way of developments.

(7)The Minister for Finance (currently a Fianna Fáiler – the builders’ friends) will have the power to overturn ‘independent’ valuation of developers’ loans made by NAMA and pay them more.

(8)There is no guarantee that the banks will start lending even after NAMA clears their bank sheets.

(9) It will cost money to sort out the banks and the bad loans but nationalisation would allow us to deal with the developers, kick out the corrupt management, get banks lending again, protect homeowners and businesses, and entail the least pain for the taxpayer.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Opening of new cable-stayed bridge and bypass great news for Waterford

I attended the official opening of the new cable-stayed bridge and bypass for Waterford today. The bridge itself is every bit as impressive as the one over the Boyne at Drogheda. The overall N25 project involves a Bypass extending from west of Kilmeaden to east of Slieverue in Co. Kilkenny. The route, comprising approximately 25 kms of motorway, crosses the River Suir at Grannagh, close to the location of the existing N24/N9 junction to the north west of Waterford City, providing Waterford with its second bridge over the Suir and allowing traffic on the N25 Cork/Rosslare route to bypass the city. The next phase of the project to open will be the section from Grannagh to Kilkenny.

This is undoubtedly great news for Waterford. Many people at many levels were involved in nurturing this project from conception to completion. The idea and demand for a new bridge pre-dates most of the politicians and civic leaders in attendance at today’s ceremony and is a long time in the waiting. It will greatly help traffic flow in the city itself by diverting thousands of cars and trucks on a daily basis. When opened in its entirety the new bypass will make Waterford and the Southeast more competitive as it shortens the drive time to key cities such as Cork and Dublin.

The only sting in the tale is the tolling of the bridge. The new bypass will be tolled also. I am not a fan of PPP’s or tolling as they cost more in the long run and line the pockets of privateers. Examples of this can be seen all over the country most notably the M50. The new Suir Bridge is now locked into a 25 year tolling charge mechanism. This is regrettable but outside the control of most local politicians. However the infrastructure itself is of the highest standard architecturally and looks fantastic. The opening of the bridge is very welcome and is a great day for the city.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Back to Education Allowance scheme needs to be urgently reformed

The Back to Education Allowance is widely recognised by those who work in the sector as an important bridge for those making the transfer from welfare dependency to employment. Presently over 400,000 are on the live register and are seeking employment. As a result of failed Government policies more jobs are being lost than created. There is no doubt that proper job creation and retention policies will help turn this tide. However with the best will in the world 400,000 jobs will not be created in the next 12 months and it is going to take some time and new thinking for us to get back to full employment.

There are many people on the dole at the moment who wish to avail of education and training courses but are unable to do so. Equally there are many people on courses who are being forced to leave because of the failure of the Back to Education Allowance scheme to meet their needs. In order to qualify for the scheme you must be at least 12 months on the live register and in receipt of a social welfare payment. This is simply not working. The scale of the current unemployment crisis is so bad that it is vital that this support is extended to unemployed people much earlier. We have a crazy system at present where people are being forced to sit on the dole for 12 months and draw social welfare as a means to qualify for the back to education allowance. I know of a number of cases where people are being forced to drop out of education altogether as they fall a little short of the qualifying criteria.

We need a job creation and retention package to urgently tackle the current unemployment crisis. A major part of this has to be up-skilling and re-training. The current system is failing those currently unemployed and needs to be urgently reformed.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Halloween and all that

The Halloween festival is only around the corner. When I was young I enjoyed Halloween night and most especially the bonfire. I don’t know why I enjoyed it so much. The community would come together, the fire would be lit and I and my friends would stand and watch in amazement. At least that’s what I remember. In recent years the atmosphere at bonfires has changed. A more anti-social dimension has emerged. Mini bonfires involving burning of people’s unwanted furniture and other items have devastated green areas and open spaces in the heart of housing estates. Binge drinking by teenagers has also become a feature at many.

This year a number of communities are making a concerted effort to stop bonfires. Not by hoping they will go away but by providing alternative entertainment for children. I attended a meeting of residents from the Larchville and Lisduggan estates tonight. They have long been working for an alterative to the bonfire. This year they have the support of the council, the Gardaí and local businesses. They also have the support of most of the community. A fancy dress party and other events will form part of a celebratory occasion in the local community hall. At last Halloween will be given back to the children.

As I said earlier when I was growing up I enjoyed bonfires. But times and circumstances have changed. We have become more environmentally aware and burning waste, rubber and other substances is not good for the environment. They also leave ugly craters in green areas. I have already mentioned the anti-social behaviour issues. It is time we move away from bonfires and support communities in providing alternatives that allow young children to celebrate Halloween in a different way. It is going to difficult but we must start and I commend those communities who have begun to do so.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

No apology just self pity

John O Donoghue’s speech today was a shameful exercise in re-writing history. The half truths he spoke about are surely his own recollections of how he abused the spending of taxpayer’s money. He may not have broken any laws; he may not have broken any rules and he may have acted within guidelines but he is guilty of a cavalier attitude to the spending of public money. Mr O Donoghue is a man in denial. He is indicative of the political class in this country who have lost touch with the people. For John and company no wrong can be done as long as it is within the rules as laid down by his peers. No thought is given to whether the rules may need to be changed.

For those expecting an apology it never arrived. For those expecting self pity and arrogance we got it in spades. John is representative of the disease that runs through Leinster house – this sense of entitlement and of being above the rest of us. It stinks to high heaven. I have no pity for John and I say this not callously but honestly. My only pity is that John and his friends in Fianna Fáil did not see fit to apologise for their lavish spending habits or use the opportunity of reforming the system. Let us not forget that John is only one of many. If Fianna Fáil, the Green Party and others fail to properly reform the system shame on them, if we allow things to continue as they are then shame on us.

Monday, October 12, 2009

New Waterford Crystal Plan is a truly exciting prospect

At tonight’s meeting of Waterford City Council the City Manager presented a visionary plan aimed at reviving crystal manufacturing in the city. The plan consists of two phases the most exciting of which is phase two – an iconic building on the south quays. The intention is two build a barge out onto the river situated either side of the clock tower. The development will complement existing south quay buildings and will be a maximum of three stories. The barge will consist of 16,000sq foot 6,000 of which will involve the crystal dimension. It will also allow for retail and other development. A significant portion of the four lane road infrastructure on the quay will be replaced by single outer lanes creating new public realm in the centre.

This development is tremendous news for the city. Many of the jigsaw pieces are in place. The City Manager deserves huge credit for this. I have long advocated for a major development of our quays. This plan will truly make the quay a jewel in the crown of Waterford and the Southeast. It will create significant tourist opportunities and will complement the planned historic and Viking triangle. It will replace most of the existing quay car parks and replace them with sub-terannian parking. The most significant feature of the plan is that it will restore crystal manufacturing most precious to our city. In fact it will go further and bring it into the heart of the city centre.

In the excitement of the plans potential we must not forget all of those crystal workers who lost their jobs. The Waterford Crystal brand was built on the back of the blood, sweat and hard work of ordinary working people who developed exceptional skills and talent. Their sacrifices and their loss must also be remembered. However I am sure that they will see this plan not only as salvaging something from the wreckage but as an opportunity to build again for the future. I in no way understate my position when I say that this is the most ambitious, the most visionary and the most realistic plan for Waterford City I have seen in my time on the council. It has my full support and I hope it is delivered quickly.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Rearranging deck chairs will not save the country from sinking

So the Green Party claim to have agreed a new so-called ‘Programme for Government’. This new programme is a mixed bag of re-hashed existing policies, vague promises and is a pathetic attempt to cling onto power at any cost. Rearranging the deck chairs will not save this country from sinking. The Green Party had it within their power to pull the plug on plans to make ordinary working people pay for the economic recession through NAMA and the McCarthy report. They also failed to provide new policies aimed at getting people back to work and helping those most in need.

NAMA will cripple this country for a generation. Its effects will be seen year after year at December time as money is put aside at each budget to pay for this flawed scheme. The Green Party and this Government has no mandate for NAMA or the recommendations in the McCarthy Report and they must not be allowed force them through. Internal green party support is no substitute for support of the people. I have no doubt that if NAMA is put to the people it would be overwhelmingly rejected. Saturdays vote by Green Party members was a desperate exercise in self-preservation. Ultimately it will fail. Vague promises and a re-hashing of existing commitments will be soon forgotten as the Government plan for a crippling December budget. The Green Party had an opportunity to put the country ahead of the party. The choosing of the latter will be their eventual undoing.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Obama strange choice for Nobel Peace Prize

President Barack Obama has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. It is a strange choice to say the least. I am a fan of Obama and I wish him well in his term as US President. However he has not done anything of substance to deserve such a prestigious prize. The prize was devalued for me when it was awarded to David Trimble at a time when he was refusing to take a risk for peace. The awarding of the prize to Obama is at best premature and at worst down right silly. Obama has given a lot of great speeches, has talked a lot about diplomacy and has certainly begun to heal the wounds of the Bush era but has done nothing of substance to earn this prize.

Divide and conquer tactics must not pay off

It is now official. After months of kite flying the Minister for Finance confirmed today that the public sector will be hit and hit hard in December’s budget. Expect to hear a lot about waste in the public sector, inflated salaries, Rolls Royce pensions and anything and everything designed to paint a picture of a bloated and inefficient public service. A clear attempt is being made to divide and conquer and to pit public and private sector workers against each other. This is dangerous as well as divisive and must not be allowed to happen.

I need to make it clear that I am all for cutting public spending where necessary. Indeed my party has put forward reasonable and practical proposals to government on how public spending can be curbed. However in doing so we must protect front line services and those on low and middle incomes. Contrary to the picture being painted most public sector employees are on modest incomes and many are on less then the average industrial wage. The Rolls Royce pensions we hear a lot about are reserved for a privileged few at the top.

Reform and cuts are necessary but they must start at the top. We also need to recognise that the public sector has already seen thousands of job losses as well as abolition of overtime and the introduction of pension and income levies. New and severe cuts as is anticipated will result in dire consequences. While it is the Government who are making the running on this issue they are being closely followed by those in Fine Gael. If these parties have their way expect to see savage cuts in public services and the loss of front line staff such as teachers, nurses and gaurds. Too borrow and twist a Fianna Fáil election slogan ‘a lot were done – we have more to do’. But only if we let them.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Sinn Féin forces O’ Donoghue’s resignation

Earlier today the four Sinn Féin TD’s called on the Ceann Comhairle John O’Donoghue to resign. They did so because his position was untenable. Labour and Fine Gael followed suit. He has eventually announced his resignation and rightly so. He must go further and pay back expenses which he unnecessarily claimed. However the point has to be made that this cannot be seen as the end. John O’Donoghue should not be a sacrificial lamb. His actions were a symptom of a much deeper problem in the Irish political system. The lavish and outrageous expenses he enjoyed are enjoyed by many in both houses of the Oireachtas. His resignation must herald a new beginning of accountability, transparency and proportionality when it comes to the spending of tax payer’s money.

There is much talk of the need for the banking system to be cleaned up. It is now time to clean up our political system once and for all. The entire system of salaries and expenses to elected representatives at every level must be overhauled. One resignation is not enough. There are many more John O’Donoghue’s and Rody Molloy’s. However at the end of the day it is the system which needs to change. All political parties must now commit themselves to achieving this and bring about a new era of transparency and accountability in Irish politics.

Junket John must go

Recent revelations surrounding the lavish spending habits of Ceann Comhairle John O’ Donoghue are an example of the same cavalier attitude to the spending of public money that became all-pervasive during the Celtic Tiger years. It is an area that I have highlighted time and again and have consistently called for change. A culture of unaccountability and a sense of entitlement prevailed and has not passed with the death of the Celtic Tiger. It must come to an end.

This culture is not confined to John O’Donoghue. The lavish expenses enjoyed by TD’s and Senators are obscene. Our local Oireachtas members between them have drawn down hundreds of thousands of Euro since the last General Election. Those at the top in some state and semi-state bodies are equally as culpable. I am sure what happened at FÁS is only the thin end of the wedge. The un-vouched nature of some expenses to councillors must also be tackled.

While being rightly outraged about recent revelations we must keep a sense of perspective. Reasonable expenses and travelling is required by elected representatives and others in public life. The key here is accountability, transparency and proportionality. All of the political parties must sit around the table and thrash out new guidelines for the spending of public money. However the cavalier attitude of John O’Donoghue has made his position as Ceann Comhairle untenable and he must resign.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Mixed feelings as I stood at the Brandenburg gate

I was catching a plane to Berlin early on Saturday morning as the early indications of the Lisbon result began to emerge. It looked like it was going to be a decisive yes vote. I arrived in Berlin in the late afternoon and joined hundreds of thousands of Berliners in celebrating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Berlin is a magnificent city rich in culture, heritage and history. As I stood looking up at the splendour of the gates and took in the history of this once divided city I did so with mixed emotions. It was great to be celebrating with the people of Berlin the unification of Germany but disappointing to hear of the official Lisbon result – two thirds in favour.

The result was unsurprising. The yes side had the weight of the entire establishment behind them not to mention most of the media. The treaty itself was presented as mere window dressing and its proponents skilfully turned it into a referendum on jobs and economic recovery. The result was always going to be a foregone conclusion. As the campaign dust settles we can now ponder on what it is we actually voted for. We have taken another step towards complete EU integration and the development of a European super state. We have given the EU more power, reduced our voting strength in key institutions, created a constitutional framework for the EU to act as a state on the International stage, lost our veto in key areas, given the EU power to significantly amend existing treaties without recourse to national parliaments or referendums, voted to reduce the size of the commission post 2014 and elevated competition rights over those of workers and public services. It felt ironic to be celebrating the ending of centralised power across Eastern Europe only to see history repeat itself once again. Only time will tell if this will be good or bad.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Social solidarity is necessary in the time ahead

I have given a lot of thought in recent times as to what type of society has emerged in Ireland as a consequence of the Celtic Tiger. Such analysis is important if we are to both work our way out of the current crisis and build a fairer society. Margaret Thatcher once famously declared that there is no such thing as community only individuals. Her Government fostered a dog-eat-dog mentality and worked against any notion of social solidarity. The welfare state had to be dismantled; public services privatised, small Government and low regulation was sacrosanct and massive wage differentials necessary to increase motivation. All ideas that underpinned Government policies here during the Celtic Tiger years and that has created a nation of individuals as opposed to a society.

Now that our economy has come crashing down around us and our public finances are in freefall the failure of these policies are obvious. People are becoming more and more irritated at the unjust and unfair nature of our society. Golden handshakes, outrageous expenses and the immoral salaries of bankers, business executives and some at the top of the public sector is causing understandable consternation among those feeling the pain of the current crisis. So how do we get out of this mess and what kind of new patriotism do we need?

We need a new commitment to social solidarity. We need to move back to being a nation of communities and not individuals. Thatcherist policies need to be given a decent burial. In November the trade union movement is mobilising for a national day of action designed to force the Government’s hand in advance of an expected painful budget. These are mostly the same trade unions, with notable exceptions, that acquiesced to Government policies through successive partnership agreements that increased wage differentials and did nothing to tackle poverty. There is one certainty about what needs to happen in the future – the need to sort out our public finances. This will require a combination of tax increases, cuts in public spending and fresh policies to grow the economy. To get back to what I was advocating earlier – social solidarity – all of this needs to happen with an explicit commitment to protect the most vulnerable, the unemployed and those on low pay.