Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The sovereignty myth

Walk down any high street in Ireland and you will see the outlets of large companies that have their head offices in the UK, and who regard their Irish shops as nothing more than elements of their domestic chains. Some English Premiership teams have more Irish support than all home soccer clubs put together.

92% of Irish primary schools are under the management of an organisation that has its headquarters, and the formulation of its philosophy, in Vatican City, which is in the middle of another nation’s capital. Not too long ago a senior Irish politician could start a debate about whether, spiritually, Ireland was closer to Boston or Berlin.

It’s not entirely fanciful to believe that if “Coronation Street” were to be abruptly discontinued on Irish TV we would have rioting in the streets. Almost one hundred thousand Irish people receive their salaries from US companies established here, in return for which they happily embrace US corporate culture. This includes the understanding that they are expected to work without Trade Union representation, unlike their compatriots in indigenous industries, many of whom are forced to acquiesce to exactly the opposite condition in return for being vouchsafed a job.

None of the above facts has ever given rise to as much as a murmur about the fear of Ireland’s identity being undermined. Yet, when it looks like we are about to be the recipients of necessary fiscal discipline by certain countries with whom we freely entered into a monetary union, and who now want to save that union in order for it to continue in operation for our mutual benefit, we hear no end of bleating about how our sovereignty, no less, is being attacked and undermined.

As my American friends might say - give me a break.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

OMG! A new referendum

There is a growing expectation that there will have to be a referendum in Ireland on EU treaty change, to allow for shared decision making on budgets and taxation by the countries within the Euro zone, which is known as fiscal union. Up to now the Euro zone has only had monetary union, which has meant that member countries have ceded their powers to set interest rates or regulate the money supply to the European Central Bank, but were left free to decide on such matters as taxation rates and whether or not the national budget should be balanced.

For some, like the current government, the need for a new referendum is unwelcome news. It is likely to be divisive and there is no guarantee it will be passed. Because of the attitude of certain of our Euro zone partners, most notably Germany and France, it is looking likely that Ireland’s not agreeing to fiscal union could create serious issues about the actual survival of the Euro as a hard currency and / or the part that Ireland might play in a re-designed European single currency system.

Readers of Stack Six will be aware that we follow an enthusiastic European line here. It is not too much to claim that the development of the European Union and Ireland’s place in it have been the most significant macro events that have occurred during this writer’s lifetime, having been born just a few short years after the end of World War II.

It is easy now to forget the changes that were forced upon the Irish Republic as a condition of entry to what was then known as the Common Market, and which evolved into the European Union. Some examples include: the end of the rule that meant that women had to resign from all Civil Service and many other jobs on getting married; the repeal of legalised discrimination that existed against gays; an end to corporal punishment in schools; a ban on capital punishment; and a general requirement to abide by the anti-discrimination measures of the Treaty of Rome, which set the whole thing off.

Even the NCT car test, which has contributed, along with a zero tolerance for drunk driving, to a halving of the annual rate of road deaths in Ireland since it was introduced in January 2000 [the actual reduction between 1999 (413 deaths) and 2010 (211 deaths), is 49%], was only established in Ireland because of an EU directive. It is easy to argue that we would have moved with the times in regard to these matters anyway but our history does not give any scope for comfort in this regard – we needed that external stimulus.

All relationships suffer from time to time. Those that are worth keeping are also the ones that are worth working on when difficulties arise. Ireland’s membership of the EU falls squarely into this category. An important element of our association with Europe, and a highly desirable facility in its own right, is our use of the Euro as the unit of currency. It has given us significant trade benefits, a defense against speculative attack on what would be our own ‘soft’ currency if we were not part of a currency bloc, very low mortgage rates, elimination of currency exchange costs and risk for travelers and businesses in the rest of the Eurozone, pricing transparency for same, and an additional incentive for US and other foreign direct investment into Ireland.

All of that is worth holding onto.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Martin Wolf on The Great Economic Crisis

Martin Wolf

I would like to share an article that appears in yesterday’s (Nov 30th 2011) Financial Times, by Martin Wolf, that paper’s chief economics commentator, and an associate editor.

To my thinking, this article encapsulates well where we are at the moment in terms of both Ireland and the global economy. Those whose job or inclination it is to look out for their particular national interests, especially politicians, need to understand that, no matter what their ideological position, we now live and work in a global economy, for better or worse. Actions that are taken or advocated without that in mind cannot make a useful contribution.

Two comments by Wolf stand out. They are

Fiscal indiscipline did not cause this crisis. Financial and broader private sector indiscipline, including by lenders in the core countries, was even more important.


Ireland can adjust as a small, open economy by displacing tradeable output elsewhere, where necessary. If Italy and Spain both tried to do this, they would be engaging in a costly and probably hopeless effort at beggaring their neighbours: costly, because the main way to do so would be to drive down wages via yet higher unemployment; and now hopeless, because the competitive advantage of Germany is so strong.

These stand out not because they allow us to further castigate bankers, builders and regulators, there’s been enough of that, but because they should provide confidence for those politicians and civil servants who are charged with guiding us through these stormy waters.

Wolf has convinced this writer that there is no easy answer to the current crisis. However, an understanding of what’s going on is a good place to start when looking for the solution.

Martin Wolf’s article can be read here. The link is to an online magazine in Australia (Business Spectator) which carries it. The Financial Times website sometimes requires registration, which will deter at least some potential readers.

This is an important article.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Nouriel Roubini thinks Ireland 'has a chance'

Nouriel Roubini, the US Economics professor who has gained fame for predicting the housing bubble, the disaster that would come of poorly understood mortgage backed securities and the eventual recession, and who is now best known for his brutally frank judgements on current economic matters, actually had some kind words for Ireland recently. He believes that we are “in with a chance” because of our long standing policy of attracting high-tech foreign direct investment.

You can hear what the professor has to say in the video above, which was recorded during a discussion on the margins of an economic conference in Australia.

For what it’s worth, the Dutch far right also seems to give Ireland the benefit of the doubt, even if by default. They have been quoted as calling for the expulsion of Greece, Italy and France from the Eurozone, the first two because they have blotted their copybooks and France because Nicholas Sarkozy is seen by them to be interfering too much in the economic affairs of other nations. To illustrate that logic or consistency was never a far-right area of strength, they say nothing about Germany, whose Chancellor has, if anything, been even more prescriptive to her Euro neighbours than the French president.

Should we be worried that the Dutch far right has not singled out Ireland? What are we doing that would please them, or can we hope that they just forgot we were members of the GIIPS group (this is the format I will be using for this group of countries – acronyms that make up pejorative terms are not only intellectually lazy but also fail to add anything helpful to the debate)?

One way or another, the Euro story keeps on rolling.

Friday, November 11, 2011

18 yo boy racers get control of Ferrari

A piece by John Waters in today’s Irish Times seems to claim that Ireland’s acceptance of the Maastricht treaty, which gave us Euro entry along with low interest rates and which tied our economy to those of Germany and France, is the root cause of the fiscal and monetary problems we suffer from at present.

This is a nonsensical, disingenuous argument. France still enjoys triple A ratings on its government debt and Germany has one of the strongest economies on the planet. For a while Ireland, too, had money to burn. Unfortunately, burn it we did.

John is right, though, when he talks of collective amnesia. If we didn’t suffer from it we would remember that, at the time of Euro entry, each country joining had to convince the EU that it had its finances in proper order, by having national debt and budget deficits within set boundaries. It is reasonable to presume that they were meant to stay that way. That the common currency meant we no longer had the ability to devalue our way out of high inflation is not new news. It was drilled into us, over and over again at the time, that this was going to be the case.

It seems central Europe took it for granted, or was convinced by our negotiators, that the Irish government, its Finance department and their economic advisors understood these fundamental economic principles. But it appears they did not.

What happened in practice was that the good old Republic of Ireland went ahead and took advantage of all the nice things that Euro entry had to offer, such as significant trade benefits, defense against speculative attack on our currency, very low mortgage rates (which we abused), elimination of currency exchange costs and risk for travelers to the rest of the Eurozone, pricing transparency for same, an additional incentive for US foreign direct investment into Ireland - and ignored the responsibilities it brought, the most important of which was to control our inflation.

To illustrate the point, imagine what it might be like if a group of eighteen year old boy racers were given control of a souped up sports car, for example a Masarati or a Ferrari, after having convinced the provider that they were actually mature, fully trained, experienced professional drivers.

The sports car in this analogy is the highly tuned European economy that German (and Dutch, and Nordic) prudence and efficiency had nourished over the years since the last war, and which was well known to be predicated on the control of inflation so that it is positive (deflation is also bad) but low.

The supplier is the European Union and you can work out for yourself who the boy racers are.

We broke every rule in the book. 120% mortgages, lending for everything from property development to foreign homes to whatever you’re having yourself. Spending went completely out of control. State capital projects routinely came in so far over budget that the numbers were shocking. We had a banking compliance system that became a global joke. We had a government that bought its way through successive elections without any regard for, and it seems now, no understanding of what an inflation differential between us and central Europe would eventually lead to.

All is not lost, however. We do seem to have woken up and, as everything is relative, we actually now start to look good by comparison to the most errant Euro member, Greece. With a bit of luck this present crisis will allow us to learn by bitter experience.

With a bit more luck we will be allowed to stay in the Euro, despite our demonstration of an embarrassing immaturity when it comes to the most basic economic principles.

And by the way - entering into a mutually beneficial multinational, legally binding agreement, that the other parties expect your country to adhere to, does not constitute loss of national sovereignty, no matter what the venerable Olivia O'Leary says, as quoted in John Waters’s article.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Democratic deficit - what democratic deficit?

In the beginning there were 17 separate currencies where there is now only one, the Euro. This currency unit was set up as a result of the Maastricht treaty, which was democratically tested in Ireland by means of a referendum. The agreement, voted on and passed by the Irish people, included that the common currency would be monitored by the European Central Bank, now known as the ECB.

Monitoring means, and was always understood to mean, ensuring as far as possible the continued viability of the currency and the setting of the interest rate that would be attached to it, which affects most particularly the rate of inflation in the Euro zone and the exchange rate of the Euro against other global currencies.

Sixteen other states of the European Union have a stake in all of this. They were, and are, entitled to assume that ratification of the Maastricht treaty would mean that all member states would abide by the rules by which the common currency was set up, and that all members would accept the oversight of the ECB, which was specifically charged with that task in the Maastricht treaty.

In the olden days if a country found it had allowed its inflation rate, and therefore its competitiveness, to exceed what was prudent, its currency could be devalued either explicitly, or stealthily by market forces. This solution was not available, and was never going to be available in terms of their economic relationships with the other Euro zone states, to those countries that had signed up for the Euro.

All this was known at the outset. It was understood, or should have been understood, by the economists whose job it is to advise the finance ministers and compliance agencies in the various countries. And the same economists would not exactly need to have been qualified to the level of Nobel Prize winners to be able to come to grips with this principle.

What has now happened is that a number of member states of the Euro zone have taken their eyes off the ball to the extent that they have allowed inflation to increase well beyond the rate that has been achieved in some other Euro countries, most notably Germany, so there is now a serious imbalance in competitiveness within the Euro zone. Not only that, but a number of these same countries have either borrowed more than they can afford to repay or have allowed their banks, as in the case of Ireland, to lend too much, cause a property bubble which has burst, and then have their unsustainable wholesale loans guaranteed by the state.

These developments have a direct and serious bearing on the viability of the Euro. Default on sovereign debt by a Euro member state would be devastating for it. However, those Euro zone countries that have been able to keep their inflation rates and borrowings at acceptable levels, such as Germany, France, The Netherlands and Finland, and are now clamouring for the ECB to do its job and bring pressure to bear on these errant members to rectify the situation by living within their means and in other ways acting responsibly, are being accused of contributing to what has come to be characterised as a “democratic deficit”.

I’m afraid I don’t see it, this democratic deficit. Even when Nicholas Sarkozy lashes out at politicians in Italy and Greece in his frustration at seeing some of their number playing local political games with the Euro crisis, it hardly qualifies as an all-out attack on the sovereignty of that state. It might be a call for all concerned, even at this late stage, to live up to their legal and moral obligations as representatives of a country that freely, and democratically, signed up to the Maastricht treaty, and were happy indeed to take advantage of the very significant trading, foreign direct investment inflow, low interest rates, elimination of currency exchange overhead, reduction of exchange rate risk and the pricing transparency benefits of the monetary union that have been there since its inception, and which the prudent and compliant members would like to see continue. Instead of castigating them, we might take a leaf from their book.

Mr. Fintan O’Toole, c/o The Irish Times newspaper, please take note.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Ireland is not Greece

Mario Draghi, the new president of the European Central Bank, having taken over from Jean-Claude Trichet, has put the current debate about the possibility of Ireland getting a discount on the financial responsibilities it has assumed for the debts of its banks nicely into context.

We are indebted to Laura Noonan of the Irish Independent for asking the question, at Draghi’s first regular monthly press conference as ECB president, as to whether or not the Greek example, where banks with exposure to Greek sovereign debt have been persuaded to take a write-down of 50%, could be used as a precedent for Ireland. His answer was as follows:

“One has to keep in mind that the Greek situation is exceptional and unique - and unique. The sovereign signature, in spite of the recent turmoil, remains a pillar of financial stability, in the Euro zone and in the rest of the world. We are confident that the Irish government could comply with the measures announced, and the Irish government itself said it will do whatever it takes. So one has no reason to doubt about the commitment of the government”

In other words, Ireland has the opportunity to make a serious and very valuable contribution to resolving the current crisis in the Euro zone, and in so doing reassume its position as a member of the core, committed group of European Union member states. It can do this by reinforcing the value that has always been placed on a guarantee by a sovereign state, and in this case one that also happens to be part of the Euro zone. Greece’s misfortune is not that it does not want to do this; it is that it cannot.

Those of the Irish political opposition who are calling for a unilateral default by the government, whether it’s on Anglo Irish bank bonds or on Irish sovereign debt, either do not understand the consequences of what they call for or, much worse, are prepared to cause serious if not fatal damage to the European project, of which the Euro currency is a major component. Theirs is a desire to achieve a short term gain at a cost that represents extremely serious long-term damage. This damage is not even related to the regard or otherwise in which we would be held by our fellow Europeans, but rather to what would result from a grave setback to, or failure of, the European Union. See this previous StackSix entry to get a sense of the material significance of the EU to Ireland.

The historical, political and philosophical importance of it goes much, much deeper than that.

Also see this Financial Times article on "Why it's worth keeping the EU dream alive". Then read the comments for a lively debate on the issue.

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Euro zone rescue deal - "them and us"

The announcement of the Euro zone rescue package, which included a 50% loss on Greek bonds for those banks that held them, led to a number of reactions here in Ireland. One was from Mr. Peter Brown of the Irish Institute of Financial Trading, who said, on the RTE news on Thursday 27th. October:

“If they’re that keen on keeping the Euro intact, Ireland needs a deal”.

Who are “they”, in this context? The ECB? Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy? The European Commission? Ireland is a member of the ECB and the EU Commission. France and Germany are our comrade states in the entity that has given us massive social, equality and consumer legislation improvements at home and free access to a market of over half a Billion consumers, not to mention significant capital transfers through the EU Common Agricultural Policy and the Structural and Cohesion funds.

Our membership of the Euro zone provides us with protection from speculative raids on what would otherwise be our local currency, such as that which cost the Bank of England an estimated £3.4 billion in 1992. As a result of Irish government attempts to protect the Punt at the time, interest rates on Irish mortgages reached a staggering 16% at one stage.

We have vitally important price stability through the determined and consistent actions of the ECB, although we undo some of that by our own inflationary actions here at home. Our most recent crisis has shown that use of the Euro gives us access to technical and monetary assistance from those other member states, such as Germany, The Netherlands, Finland and France, that have the discipline and experience to be able to deal with low interest rates and increases in the money supply, and to impose adequate regulation on their financial institutions. Our recent property related bubble and its subsequent bursting has shown that we in Ireland are still only in the learning mode with regard to these matters.

An important consideration for travellers is that the Euro gives us the convenience of a common currency as well as valuable transparency in pricing throughout those states that use it.

And being in the Euro zone is yet another asset to go along with our educated workforce, our status as the only English speaking state in the zone and our competitive corporation tax rate to help us attract Foreign Direct Investment (FDI).

In a nutshell, when Mr. Brown talks about “them” he really means us - in order to make good on the implication of his remark, Ireland would have to be prepared to leave the Euro zone and, in so doing, jeopardise the whole EU project. In the light of the benefits we have and can continue to expect from remaining in, this would constitute the greatest example that can be imagined of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Euro-zone inflation and a new scandal in Ireland

In an interview with Bloomberg television (see above) to mark the end of his mandate as president of the European Central Bank (ECB), M. Jean-Claude Trichet spoke about his experiences. He gave an interesting insight into the way he and his colleagues found themselves confronted by the recent global financial disaster and subsequent recession, which he says has represented the worst global crisis since World War II.

M. Trichet has always been very clear on what he perceives the duty of the Central Bank to be - price stability. By this is meant only one thing: control of inflation. The target is an average rate of annual consumer price rise that is less than, but very close to, two percent. This has been clarified even further by explaining that the ECB tries to “anchor price rise expectations” at this level.

In the Bloomberg piece the retiring chief states that this is especially a requirement of the most vulnerable members of the European population.

It is a measure of the importance that is placed on the anchoring of price expectations that the ECB has recently been raising interest rates in order to maintain its inflation target, even in the face of strong evidence that this could lead to further recessionary pressures and against the trend in the USA, Great Britain, Switzerland and Japan, which between them constitute the lion’s share of the global economy outside of the Euro zone.

Since the inception of the European common currency price stability has indeed been achieved. The year-on-year inflation rate in the Euro zone over the last decade has been exactly 2.0 percent.

There have been mutterings in some sections of the media to the effect that the ECB, at the insistence of Germany in particular, is fixated on price stability. The argument goes that this is due to a kind of folk memory of the situation that existed at the time between the First and Second world wars, known in Germany as the Weimar Republic, when inflation reached such a level that wheelbarrows were required to bring the money needed for even the smallest purchases to the shops.

These modern commentators reckon that a bout of inflation now could be just what is needed to pull us out of recession. For one thing, it would enable tax increases by stealth, where the value of the money diminishes but effective tax bands remain the same. And such has, indeed, happened before.

I believe this is nonsense. It is not for nothing that the Germans are the financial overlords, not just of Europe, but of the world. They have managed their own economy since the last war in a way that has allowed them to become, initially, a global economic powerhouse, then to absorb the former Communist East Germany into the Federal Republic - no small feat after years of central party mismanagement on a grand scale, and now to be the locomotive that will pull the rest of Europe, or at least that part of it that uses the common currency, away from the disaster that originated in the recklessness of the world’s banks and the policies of 'benign neglect' of financial industry oversight practiced by many governments in the past, not least our own.

As Jean-Claude Trichet points out in the Bloomberg video, price stability, while not a sufficient prerequisite for economic recovery, is an absolutely necessary one.

All this brings me to yet another scandal that is growing on our own shores here in Ireland. Certain parties, in situations that are obviously not sufficiently open to competition, have started to abuse their positions by imposing price rises that are many multiples of the rate of inflation. Two in particular have forced themselves on my consciousness in the recent past. The first is none other than that august body, the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA). The cost of all stand tickets for the recent hurling and football All-Ireland finals were increased from €70.00 in 2010 to €80.00 in 2011. Those for terrace tickets went from €35.00 to €40.00. These represent rises of over 14% and 18% respectively. It’s no wonder that, for the first time this writer can remember, there were empty seats in some of the stands at the hurling All-Ireland between Kilkenny and Tipperary.

The second example is in health insurance. The premium for our family of four, none of whom has ever had a claim, has risen this year by an eye watering 30% percent, or fifteen times the rate of inflation. Yes, I know there was an increase in the government health insurance levy in late 2010, but this amounted to just under 11%. What justifies the additional nineteen percentage point rise?

Our health insurance is with Quinn Direct and there are two other providers in Ireland, Aviva and Voluntary Health Insurance (VHI) Healthcare.

So we decide to shop around.

You can guess what’s coming…

We have here what economists call an oligopoly – not exactly a cartel as there is no evidence of collusion, yet each and every one of the so-called competition has premiums that are equal to or in excess of those of our existing insurance company.

That such things can happen in the present economic situation is, indeed, nothing short of a scandal. This is because the people effected have already endured salary decreases and, in many cases, loss of employment. These and other austerity measures are imposed by the ECB, along with the IMF and the EU Commission, as a condition of advancing vast sums of money to rescue us from the errors of those who used to be in control of the economy. If the ECB is aiming, simultaneously, to alleviate people's hardship by controlling inflation it is simply intolerable that providers of goods and services can get away with the kind of behaviour that blows this level of relief completely out of the water.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The scientific method

The recent news that scientists at the CERN European Organisation for Nuclear Research in Geneva might have observed a sub-atomic particle that was capable of travelling at a speed greater than that of light has given some ammunition to those who would attack science, and scientists, in the interests of furthering their claims for religion. For example, Mr. Gregory Shenkman, in a letter to the Financial Times on Saturday Oct 8th 2011, has written:

“…science changes its mind about many things quite frequently. When it does so, it does not admit it was wrong before, it simply hands down a new tablet of stone. However, the current speculation at the facility at Cern as to whether certain subatomic particles can go faster than the speed of light demonstrates the need for science to keep an open mind”.

The discovery of anything that was capable of travelling at greater than the speed of light would, indeed, throw Einstein’s famous Theories of Relativity into disarray.

But theists, such as Mr. Shenkman, are being selective. For a start, they’re conveniently ignoring the fact that it was scientists who made this news public. That shows they do, in fact, have open minds. As for changing its mind, science is in a constant state of flux. In relation to scientific models that are still with us, such as the First and Second laws of Thermodynamics, Darwinian Evolution, The Germ Theory of Disease, and Special and General Relativity, any modifications that have been made since the original discovery was published have been in order to refine the model, never to negate it, and always on the basis of new evidence. One gets weary of hearing claims that “Darwin has been proved wrong” whenever something like punctuated equilibrium, the assertion that evolutionary changes are not constant over time, but occur in bursts, is postulated on the basis of new fossil discoveries. This is adding a new detail, guys, it doesn’t do anything to discredit the original theory.

There are theories we no longer hear about but which were strongly believed in at one time, such as the existence of the “luminiferous ether”, a substance that was supposed by scientists in the 19th century to occupy all of space. It was believed that it must exist, in order to transmit light waves, in the same way that air is needed to transmit sound. Its existence was disproved by the Michelson – Morley experiment in 1887. We now understand that most of the Universe is composed of a true vacuum.

The Michelson Morley experiment was believed at the time to be a failure because it did not detect the ether, which was part of the belief system of many eminent people who had devoted their lives to science. But it was not a failure. It simply gave us more information than we had before.

And the fact that the scientific community was able to come to terms with its results is therefore a triumph for the scientific method and for evidence based, as opposed to faith based, belief.

And so it goes. There might have been something faulty with the CERN experiment. Or perhaps Einstein was wrong. If he was, that fact will be embraced when all the evidence is in.

Friday, September 30, 2011

No brainers in the news

While rising from my slumber the other morning I was informed by Ms. Ann Doyle (pictured above on the TV News), who was reading the morning news on the radio, that the main item for discussion between Nicholas Sarkozy, the French president, and Mr. Papandreou, the prime minister of Greece, at their meeting in Paris later today, would be the Greek debt crisis.

Well, I said to my wife who, for her sins, is obliged to listen to my musings on these occasions, they’re hardly going to spend the meeting talking about the Ireland – Italy World Cup rugby game, which is due to be played on Sunday (although, to be fair, they might well be interested in whether or not Ronan O’Gara will be in the starting line out for Ireland as, it seems, is every other cognisant human at this stage of our evolution).

My problem is that the above is another example of when we are treated to what my American friends call a no-brainer, as some sort of verbal packaging to contain the real story, which is that a meeting between the two heads of state will take place today in Paris.

The same thing happens when the newsreader says something like: “Gardai have begun an investigation after the body of a man was found with gunshot wounds…”. That’s not news. It would be news if an RTE reporter discovered that the police had decided not to bother with an investigation in such circumstances. Again, the real purpose of the item is to let us know about the murder, so why don’t they just get on with it?

So I have this plea to my many readers in the RTE newsroom – please give a little thought to the way these things are presented. If nothing else, Mrs. Mouse will have less in the way of irascible commentary to put up with as she awakens of a morning.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Complacency and global population growth

An editorial in the Irish Times today (Saturday 24th Sept 2011) notes that, this month, a birth somewhere in the world was responsible for “…tipping the global population over the seven billion mark. Up from a paltry billion in 1804, a mere two billion in 1927, and five billion in 1987”. The piece then goes on to remark, in effect, that Robert Malthus was wrong. This Anglican clergyman postulated that, as population growth is exponential and food production increases only according to an arithmetic progression, the growth in numbers of humans would eventually outstrip the ability of the planet to feed everyone. The Irish Times’s conclusion is based on the assertion that “The world population may have quadrupled in the 20th century, but the calories available per person went up, not down”.

There’s a lot that is wrong with this analysis. Claiming only that the number of people has quadrupled in the 20th century is to totally ignore, or be ignorant of the fact, that growth even as described in the article is indeed exponential. Therefore Malthus got that part of his calculation right. As for the rest, his failure to foresee certain advances in science, agriculture and food technology may only mean that he got his timing wrong, not that the basic thesis was incorrect. The world is after all, as it was in his day, a finite entity.

Something else that Malthus could not have foreseen is the development and growth of birth control. In the Western world this has achieved such as state of acceptance and practice that population rise due to live births hardly exists at all. One interesting exception is here in Ireland. However, we can afford the highest birthrate in the EU because our population density is way below the average. In the USA, growth is almost entirely due to immigration, much of it illegal. China has taken drastic steps to control its population, such as attempting to limit families to a single child and making abortion a government promoted means of supplementing other forms of birth control.

So the population growth that is taking place is in underdeveloped regions – the very areas that can least accommodate it. For this reason, as also noted, life expectancy is low. Most importantly, for the memory of Malthus, this is all too often due to famine or the effects of malnutrition, which is obviously much the same thing.

It does not become us to be too complacent about population growth.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Reports on abuse, and The Separation of Church and State

The Irish Times - Thursday, September 8, 2011

Sir, – Many commentators claim the abuse of children and vulnerable adults in the past was as much the responsibility of the State as it was of the churches that managed the various institutions. Thus Dermot Keogh (Opinion, September 6th) writes: “There were many so-called bystanders when crimes were committed against the weakest and most vulnerable”.

It’s not that simple. Because the professions and the wide section of society mentioned by Dr Keogh, including, most notably, the political establishment and the civil service, were in thrall to the Catholic hierarchy, to a level that seems incredible today, there was really no distinction to be made between church and State. There were, therefore, very few bystanders, and none with any power.

Now that we seem to have an appreciation for democracy and the rights of the individual, we should reasonably expect a long overdue separation of church and State. In particular, we need to reclaim our national schools so that children can, at the level of State involvement in their education, learn how to think, rather than what to think, and thereby avoid the possibility of them being subjected to the disastrous indoctrination that was the lot of their recent forebears. – Yours, etc,


Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Book review: Anglo Irish Bank as it was going down the tubes

The essential elements of the Anglo Irish Bank story and the rapid transformation of the man who personified it, Sean “Seanie” Fitzpatrick, from a perceived banking genius and darling of the business press to something of a pariah among his compatriots, are well known by all who have even a passing interest in matters financial in Ireland.

It is, however, as always, fascinating to be able to wallow in the gory details of such a tale. Simon Carswell is a Financial Correspondent with the Irish Times. He seems to enjoy access to the means of providing the kind of inside stories which, when linked together, provide a good account of what happened in Anglo, particularly towards the end.

“Anglo Republic” is reminiscent of the book produced some years ago by Carswell’s colleague at The Irish Times, Fintan O’Toole, on the Beef Tribunal and Larry Goodman called “Meanwhile Back at The Ranch”, although the new book somewhat lacks the literary poise and the finely turned phrase of O’Toole’s work.

The book is a page turner when we arrive at what might be described as the heart of the matter, the behind the scenes activities which became more and more fraught as FitzPatrick and his successor as CEO, David Drumm, found they had to deal with massive capital outflows, a rapidly sinking share price and, above all else, the severe problems caused by Sean Quinn’s ultimately disastrous decision to build up a very large secret holding of Anglo shares using Contracts For Difference (CFDs). Here Simon Carswell comes into his own and his confident knowledge of the details is impressive. Whatever faults David Drumm has, it comes across from Carswell’s material that he at least has a sense of humour.

Of course, in order to make a real contribution, a book such as this must offer some insight into the mechanisms that brought about the catastrophe that was the recent Irish economic collapse. There is a general acceptance that the culprit was reckless lending to property investors and developers, which was initiated by Anglo, who were then copied by other institutions when it became the perception that Sean Fitzpatrick’s operation was earning profits that "properly" belonged to the more established banks. This, however, does not deal with the detail, where the devil lies.

This writer saw a presentation by an Anglo Irish banker some years ago, back when they could do no wrong. The attitude of the presenter was that safe and profitable lending was really very straightforward – three things were required: security, the ability to repay and recourse. The irony is that the cocky presenter was probably correct. The real problems arose afterwards in the execution of the strategy when the principle was compromised, in particular by neglect of the third element, recourse, which means that loans should only have been given to those individuals who were prepared to give personal guarantees and who had a net worth sufficient to cover the repayment in the event that the asset which was the subject of the loan, and which normally provided the security, lost its value, and the ability to repay, for whatever reason, disappeared.

What happened in practice was that the usefulness of recourse was lost in two ways. Firstly, it was not insisted on at all in many cases in the later stages of the operation of Anglo and the other banks and secondly, it fell prey to an insidious development which came about because, over time, when it was in place, it depended more and more on a net worth statement that was itself totally made up of only one asset class, property. Then when all property values were destroyed, so were the means by which recourse could be exercised.

Like many publications of its kind, “Anglo republic” could have benefitted from a bit more editing. Certain parts are overlong, such as that dealing with the genesis of Anglo. And do we really need another meticulous, words-of-one-syllable explanation of how contracts for difference (CFDs) work? At the very least this part could have been confined to a notes section at the back of the book. When tables start appearing in the text it becomes reminiscent of a business report rather than a work of history. There is a charming editorial oversight in chapter 12 when the sentence “Horan also spoke to Morgan Stanley himself” appears, referring presumably to a representative of the financial services firm that was founded in the 1930s by two individuals, now long-dead, whose surnames were Morgan and Stanley.

The conclusion arrived at by Carswell is also probably the right one – that the Anglo lenders were lucky for so long that they began to believe that what was really a flawed business model was actually a gilt-edged strategy. And how many of us are guilty of eventually coming to believe our own propaganda? How many times is it necessary to characterise each lucky break, as Lucy Kellaway once wrote, as a strategic master stroke before the next one becomes for the person responsible something that, somehow, was not luck at all but the working of an inherent, subconscious, natural acumen?

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Almost viral

About a year ago I came home one night to find the Late Late show in full swing on TV. Ryan Tubridy had Sinead O'Connor as a guest and she got up to sing a version of Bob Dylan's "The times they are a changing".

I thought it was so good that I recorded it and put it up on Youtube, there and then. But here's the thing - as it was recording I found myself, well, singing along with Sinead. This can be heard on the recording, but only by those who listen to the whole song. Apparently a significant number of people have done this because I've been getting more and more emails commenting on the video, and on my participation.

At the time of writing nearly 80,000 people have viewed my entry. It's the only one I've ever made on Youtube but I'm also now getting emails from seasoned Youtube posters asking if I will link with them on the channel.

It's a funny old world for sure.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

More positivity for the Irish economy - why am I worried?

Now I'm worried. So many international pundits have been rushing recently to extol the virtues of the Irish economic recovery that one has to start remembering that we've been here before – and it didn’t work out well.

Think about it. In the mid nineties the term “Celtic Tiger” was coined to describe what appeared to be a runaway success in terms of becoming a prosperous nation in the shortest possible time. We could do no wrong. Retired Irish politicians and business leaders toured the global lecture circuit telling the rest of the world how it should be done. The Irish bought anything that came up for sale, whether it was Polish banks or Chicago real-estate.

The truth of the matter is revealed in this video clip by Alan Mattich of Dow Jones Newswires. Ireland is a small, very open economy. We depend on international trade, much of it carried out by non-indigenous Multi-national corporations that have been attracted here by our corporate tax rate, combined it must be said by the very real facts that we have a sharp, young, well educated workforce, are the only English speaking state in the Euro zone (Memo to government: don’t even think about leaving the Euro or doing anything that might endanger it as a unit of currency) and enjoy the benefits of having one of the most professional and effective development agencies, IDA Ireland, in the world.

But it is so, so easy to lose the run of oneself. Will we be more circumspect this time around? And if so, for how long?

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Fiscal Union

In economics, fiscal matters relate to revenues and expenditures, as opposed to monetary matters, which have to do with the relative value of the currency and all that it depends on, such as interest rates and money supply.

In the Euro zone, which comprises of the 17 EU member states that use the Euro as their unit of exchange, the European Central Bank (ECB) has responsibility for monetary matters. It has declared its primary objective in managing monetary policy to be the control of inflation or, to be more precise, inflation expectations. Each individual Euro zone member state is responsible for its own fiscal policy.

If fiscal policy is about revenues and expenditures, then the most important aspect of this has to be decisions about how taxes are raised, which in turn include questions about the activities that should be taxed and at what rates. The other important element of fiscal policy is how money is spent, which means how national budgets are prepared and executed.

At the extreme, full fiscal union would mean that fiscal strategy in the EU would be centralised, just as monetary policy is at present.

For Ireland, under the current bailout agreement with the ECB and the IMF, there is already an element of what might be called fiscal cooperation in place, as both these bodies now have oversight of Irish budgetary provisions. This, however, falls well short of full fiscal union. The most serious block to fiscal union is the determination of the Irish government to hold on to its favourable corporation tax rate of 12.5%, which has been a significant factor in motivating Multi-national Corporations to locate, and in many cases establish their European headquarters, in Ireland. There are well founded fears that fiscal union would result in a rise of the Irish corporation tax rate to a standard, Euro zone wide, percentage. Many other EU states maintain that the relatively low Irish rate confers an unfair advantage in the attraction of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI).

In addition to the above there are many commentators in Ireland who maintain that fiscal union would mean an effective loss of sovereignty for the Irish state. This is surprising, as we have already, and long since, effectively ceded sovereignty by accepting EU directives under legally binding treaties, by convention named after the cities in which they were formulated such as Rome, Maastricht, Nice, Lisbon and even Dublin, in areas of social policy, anti-discrimination measures, consumer legislation and the penal code, to name but some.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Has Ireland's economy turned the corner?

More and more international observers are making positive comments about the Irish economy. At the end of July 2011 an article appeared in Reuters’ US edition under the heading “Billionaire Ross bets on v-shaped Irish recovery”. It was a report on the comments made by the man who has just invested €300 million of his own money, as part of an overall foreign injection of €1.1 billion, in Bank of Ireland. Wilbur Ross is quoted as saying that the deal was fueled by positive news from Ireland that indicates it is breaking away from “its troubled peers in southern Europe” and embarking on a solid recovery.

Then, on August 17th 2011, the Financial Times published
an article from two economists, David Vines, professor of economics at Oxford University, and Max Watson, fellow of Wolfson College at Oxford, who is also a member of the Central Bank of Ireland Commission.

The academics argue that Ireland is swiftly restoring its competitive edge. We’re moving towards a sizeable current account surplus. Our public debt will peak at 110 per cent of GDP, which while large is not unmanageable (Belgium’s debt to GDP ratio was 98.6 % in 2010 and had been much higher than that for many years – since well before the latest recession).

The major challenge facing Ireland, according to the authors, is the situation with the banks. They claim that the corner has been turned here too, due to recapitalisation, a sharp division between core and non-core assets, and regular and rigorous stress tests. They might also have mentioned the new broom, no-nonsense Financial Regulator. The investment by Wilbur Ross and his consortium in Bank of Ireland, reported in the Reuters article mentioned at the outset, feeds nicely into this assessment.

Then there is the much vaunted cost of insuring Ireland’s debt, calculated by reference to the spread on credit default swaps (CDSs). While CDS spreads have fallen for all of the EU states, including countries that have been the focus of much comment such as Greece, Portugal and Spain, those for Ireland were the first in that group to show a marked decrease. No doubt these instruments will wax and wane as always but, in any event, Ireland does not have to re-enter the sovereign debt market until 2014 because of the bailout arrangement with the ECB and IMF.

The quiet man of the Irish economy, agriculture, has seen significant buoyancy over the last year as so-called "soft" commodities, which go into food production, have been subject to sharp rises on world markets. Tourism figures too are well up on previous years and this is despite the relative high value of the Euro against other currencies, most notably the US Dollar. Both of these developments are all the more welcome because they involve indigenous, some might say traditional, sectors of the economy.

All in all, this is a positive picture. It’s certainly not one to get complacent about, but satisfactory none the less, and hopefully just what is needed to encourage the redoubling of official efforts into the future to consolidate and build on what has been achieved.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A Greek silver lining

It seems possible that the US dollar might have reversed its long slide in value against the Euro. Greece, a Eurozone member, is in the news because of public unrest against austerity measures, after seriously blotting its copybook previously by falsifying data sent to the European Central Bank (ECB) and other authorities. This has adversely affected the Euro because of worries that a constituent country might be setting itself up for default on its sovereign debt.

But, of course, a lower rate of exchange for the European currency is a good thing. It makes European exports to the world’s largest consumer economy, the USA, easier. It makes imports, not just from the US but from many other countries, such as China, whose currency is pegged to the dollar, less attractive.

A decline in the Euro against Sterling will discourage shopping trips to Newry and will mean that Irish consumers will spend more at home.

Notwithstanding the perfidy of the Greek Department of Finance, there is little real fear that Greece will, or will be allowed to, default on its commitments to the extent that the whole European monetary system is irrevocably damaged. In the meantime it is possible that Hellenic fiscal management misdemeanours might have provided something of a silver lining for the other members of the Euro club.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The giraffe - a magnificent animal

New arrivals

Both Dublin zoo and Fota wildlife park have had newly born giraffes during the last few months. This will gladden the heart of anyone who is at all familiar with these magnificent animals. Their grace and power is only matched by the wonder they inspire for what can be achieved by the evolutionary process.

The giraffe seems to be a docile creature but its sheer size means that, apart from the lion, it has no serious predators. Even he, or far more likely she when it comes to hunting, the much vaunted occupant of the top of the wilderness food chain, is very respectful of the tallest member of the animal kingdom. A kick from a giraffe can kill. To defend its young in the wild the mother will place the calf underneath its body where its legs act as barriers to attack. While this can be an effective technique it is not perfect. Only about 50% of calves born reach maturity.


Its neck is, of course, this animal’s defining visible characteristic, but it also has very long legs. The combination results in the ability to feed in the higher reaches of trees, above almost all of its competitors for this type of food. Evolution is responsible for this state of affairs and it is nothing short of mind boggling to contemplate how it has come about. Individual giraffes did not stretch themselves to gain increased height that they could pass on to their offspring, although a certain Chevalier de la Marck, who pre-dated, and helped pave the way, for Charles Darwin in the study of evolution thought that such a thing was possible. Indeed he and his followers believed that it was the only way it could work. Later writers have pointed out that this would mean that an individual who had a leg amputated and who afterwards became a parent would have at least the possibility of producing a one-legged son or daughter.

The gene theory of inheritance, discovered by the Catholic monk, Gregor Mendel, showed how the process really worked. Over many generations, taller giraffes that were born as the result of random genetic mutations survived to the point where they were able to pass on their genes, including the gene that defined tallness, as they produced young, while their shorter siblings and cousins did not. Time, lots and lots of it, is an essential element of this progression, as is the rate at which the animals reproduce. The gestation period of the giraffe, at significantly more than one year, makes the evolutionary change all the more remarkable.

More ways than one

There are always in nature different strokes for different folks. The other animal that has had its eye on the leaves at the tops of the trees is the elephant. Evolution solved its problem by giving it a long proboscis, or trunk. The solution in this case meant arranging for the food to be brought down to the point of delivery, the mouth, for processing, while the giraffe had the point of delivery repositioned to achieve the same result. The swan is another example of this answer – its long neck allows it to feed off the bottom of many of the waterways it inhabits while its body floats on the surface, whereas its relation and frequent companion, the duck, is happy to dive for its food.

Nature has had much more to do in the case of the giraffe to make it a viable species than provide it with long legs and an extended neck. Its overall height has severe consequences for the ability of its cardiovascular system to do its job of delivering blood to its extremities and making sure it stays there for as long as it is needed. Firstly, the giraffe has a very large heart – much larger as a proportion of its body weight than any other animal. In the case of the upper neck there is a complex series of valves that mean blood will be retained in this location when the head is lowered, while at the lower reaches the legs and lower body have a thick, tight-fitting covering of skin which is there to contain blood that would otherwise simply burst out through the blood vessel walls if the same pressure was present in any other animal.


While the giraffe is adapted for feeding high up in its habitat and does this superbly, even elegantly, things are not so agreeable when it comes to carrying out certain other functions that are also essential for survival. Foremost among these is drinking. Lapping water from a pond or stream means spreading out the front legs and lowering the neck in way that is ungainly and obviously stressful for the individual. It also seems calculated to place the animal in a highly vulnerable position in the event that Ms. Lioness happens to be in the vicinity. Here evolution has also provided at least a partial solution. It turns out that the giraffe has the capacity to store large amounts of water in its body so that the number of occasions it finds it necessary to drink is minimised. This has the beneficial side effect of allowing it to live for long periods in areas where water is scarce.

Evolution’s outcome with regard to the physiology of the giraffe is as noteworthy as its development of the cognitive facility in humans.

The giraffe is altogether a truly remarkable animal. A trip to Fota or Dublin zoo to see them is well worth while, especially now that there are new, native-born, additions to the families.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Reports of the death of philosophy are exaggerated

In his latest book, “The Grand Design”, the Cambridge professor and author, Stephen Hawking, has declared that “…philosophy is dead”. That seems a bit, um, final, particularly as some of his own work, especially that related to so-called black holes, those regions of space where matter is believed to be so densely packed together that the gravitational forces thus generated will not even allow light to escape from them, is some way from attaining the status of a theory that can be tested by experiment. Hawking originally held that all information about black holes was lost due to their extreme density, but in 2004 he changed his mind and began to argue that certain information could, in fact, escape from them.

In other words, at best black holes are imperfectly understood. They are postulated to exist towards the macro, or very large, end of natural phenomena. At the other extreme, at the micro level, when consideration is given to how atoms are held together, scientists are really little better off. The classic model of the atom, which those of us who did science subjects at school were presented with, has a nucleus which is surrounded by one or more electrons kind of rotating around it, in something like the manner of the planets orbiting the Sun. But this runs into serious difficulties when it is realised that the electromagnetic forces that govern the behaviour of the components of any atom are nothing like the gravitational forces that keep the Solar System intact.

As has been pointed out by David Deutsch in his book “The Beginning of Infinity”, this explanation could not work at all because “…even gravitationally bound objects are, in fact, spiralling towards each other, [but on a time scale that is measured in eons], while the corresponding electromagnetic process [the mutual attraction of the positively charged nucleus with the negatively charged electron] would result in the destruction of all atoms in a fraction of a second”.

According to Deutsch, “…atoms could not exist at all according to classical physics”.

So how are they explained? Not in anything like a definitive manner, it turns out. Deutsch has put forward an hypothesis that is based on the latest work in quantum physics. This involves the existence of a multiverse, which is a collection of parallel universes, but he is careful to acknowledge at the start of his book that this explanation is far from enjoying universal acceptance among practitioners in the field. In fact it is controversial.

To me, all of this indicates that, in terms of things such as black holes and an explanation for the true formation of atoms, thinkers are really only at the stage where they can come up with hypotheses for testing against reality, to be modified or rejected outright if the evidence eventually does not allow them to be sustained, all of which is in accordance with the scientific method.

Which is exactly what the philosophers of antiquity did. When Plato and his colleagues put forward the idea that all matter was made up of four elements – air, fire, earth and water, they were simply starting the process, using the knowledge and methods of observation that were to hand, that was modified and added to by others in a cumulative manner throughout scientific history. This includes Ernest Rutherford, when he came up with his planetary model of the atom described above, in 1911.

On this basis, Stephen Hawking, far from being able to support his assertion about the death of philosophy, is himself one of the foremost modern proponents of it. In other words, science and philosophy are inextricably linked, and have always been so. In fact, in Isaac Newton’s day, when he was musing about the nature of gravitation by, reputedly, reflecting on the convergence of a falling apple with the top of his head, and co-inventing the branch of mathematics known as the calculus, and working out his laws of motion, among other things (one of which was attempting to find the formula that would turn base metal into gold), the work he did was referred to as “natural philosophy”. This later came to be known as physics.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Why you should become an organ donor

Following my letter in the Irish Times about the picture of Brian O’Driscoll, Michaela Morley and The Heineken Cup, I was contacted in the nicest possible way by Temple Street Children’s University Hospital. They’re naturally pleased with the fact that the Irish Times picture has highlighted the work they do.

Michaela, the six-year-old in the photo, is from Mayo. She attends Temple Street three times each week for dialysis. One can only imagine what a kidney transplant would do for her quality of life.

So I’ve decide to sign up. I have requested an organ donor card from the
Irish Kidney Association. I intend to sign it, have my wife (next of kin) sign it and then carry it with me at all times.

You should too.

Temple Street Chidren’s University Hospital can be reached
here. You should visit them as well to see how you might be able to help.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Primo Levi, and my belief

The success of the World Atheist Convention, held at the start of this month (June 2011) in Dublin, makes it appropriate to consider the nature of belief. Thanks to a recommendation by Claire Keegan in the book section of the Irish Times, I read the account by Primo Levi of his time in Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II, called “If this is a man” or, in the USA, “Survival in Auschwitz”. It’s a short book and, although it tells a story of incredible cruelty, both in terms of its scale and of the suffering that was inflicted in individual cases, it’s written objectively, with some humour and with no trace of self-pity on the part of Levi. He was a young man at the time, in his 20s, and he only survived because, apart from possessing a high degree of resourcefulness and luck, he was Italian by birth and residence and was taken by the Nazis late in the war. At that point in time they were, temporarily at least, more interested in slave labour than in genocide. He had been born into the Jewish tradition. His survival is fortunate for us too, because the book is one of the most important accounts of what happened during this infamous period in human history when so many, many others did not live to tell the tale, in any form.

After his liberation by the Russians at the end of the war Levi eventually returned to his native Turin, to the apartment where he had been born and in which he was to live out the rest of his life. He had qualified as a chemist and, as well as writing, practiced his profession in his home town. There is evidence that he suffered from time to time with depression, and this is hardly to be wondered at given his experiences.

Controversy exists over his death, which was as the result of falling from a landing in his apartment block, in 1985. Nobody saw what happened to cause the fall. Even though no suicide note was ever discovered, an inquest found that he died by his own hand. The whole question is discussed in detail in an article that was written for The Boston Review by Diego Gambetta. This is a long, closely argued and well written piece. At the end of it one is left with the clear understanding that there is no definitive evidence either for suicide or against it.

That brings us into the realm of belief. Those of us who would seek inspiration in the triumph of the human spirit, for example as demonstrated by Levi’s accounts of how he dealt with his travails and his determination not to allow them to leave him all bent and twisted afterwards, would want to believe that he did not kill himself. I contend that we are, under the circumstances, entitled to have this belief. For me, then, the reality is that Primo Levi died as the result of an accident. But there are caveats: I can only hold that as fact for as long as no irrefutable, or even strong, evidence to the contrary appears. Apart from anything else, a failure to acknowedge evidence against what I might like to perceive as truth would mean that I was fooling myself, and that realisation would be far more unsettling than the demolition of any ideal I might like to hold on to.

I do not have the right to insist that any public behavior that depends upon my version of unverified events is written into the laws of the land. Above all, it would be terribly wrong of me to attempt to impose this belief on others, or to present it to children or impressionable adults as an indisputable account of what happened.

Belief in anything in the absence of direct evidence is, truly, a private matter. Authority figures who insist otherwise are doing a great disservice to the people they are in a position to influence and, because we have a democratic system and said influenced people have votes, by extension to the rest of us.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Transforming Education in Ireland

The second Intel forum on education, entitled “Transforming Education in Ireland”, was held in Trinity College, Dublin, on Thursday, May 26th. The keynote speech was given by the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny. Panel members included Jerome Morrissey, Director of the National Centre for Technology in Education (NCTE), Regina Moran, CEO, Fujitsu Ireland, Tommie Walshe, President, National Parents Council post primary (NPCpp), Moira Leydon, Asst General Secretary, Education and Research at ASTI, Tony Donohue, Irish Business and Employers Confederation (IBEC) and Peter Hamilton of Intel Performance Learning Solutions.

The forum also provided an opportunity for Intel to launch its Smartclass post primary schools competition, details of which can be found at http://www.smartclass.ie/.

The Taoiseach’s words on the commitment of the government to change in education were welcome, although his appearance at the forum meant that mainstream reportage of the event was largely confined to his contribution. This is a shame, because many topics were also of interest, from the concern at the weight of schoolbags, which was mentioned as a priority for parents by Mr. Walshe, to the reminder from an audience participant that the former CEO of Intel, Craig Barrett, whose commitment to education, worldwide, is total, is on record as saying that Ireland is in effect deluding itself by continuing to hold the belief that we have an education system that is world class.

However, there is an air of change in education these days. How much of this is government policy being implemented or how much is due to the personal commitment of Ruairi Quinn, the Minister for Education, is yet to be fully revealed, but a number of initiatives have already indicated a breaking of the inertia that had characterised the previous administration. One is the setting up of the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector and the other is the announcement that Educate Together, the body that has already established a large number of multi-denominational National schools, to allow a choice to those parents who do not want their children to have to attend a church-dominated school, will now be considered for the management of secondary schools also.

As with the first Intel forum on education, this reviewer was left with the impression that there are a great many committed and responsible players in Irish education. That they were starved of resources during the so-called “Celtic Tiger” period is reprehensible, and it would be a tragedy if the current economic circumstances were used as an excuse for a continuation of this situation.

Once again, Intel is to be thanked for making it possible for people involved in education in Ireland to have their voices heard outside of the profession.

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Queen and Mr. President

I can’t help wondering whether some mischievous agency was responsible for the close juxtaposition of the visits of Queen Elizabeth of Britain and Mr. Barack O’Bama (sorry – Obama), President of the United States of America, to our fair shores this month. Here we will have, in a country with a long, deep and often complex relationship with both jurisdictions, the opportunity to be host to what will inevitably become a comparison between ancient, inherited status on the one hand, and the quintessence of the Republican ideal on the other.

The comparison will not, of course, be confined to the ideological differences between the two heads of state. Their motivations, and therefore what we can expect of them in public, could not be more different. The Queen does not need to be re-elected and so does not require the support at the ballot box of that proportion of the large Irish Diaspora that inhabits her country. Her Majesty, by her nature and upbringing, is not prone to pressing the flesh and relating closely to the person in the street. Mr. Obama, by sharp contrast, is charisma personified.

All in all, despite the promised disruption to our lives and the controversy that the visit of each, in its own way, will give rise to, I look forward to taking part in whatever events are arranged to allow us mere mortals to participate in the festivities. Somehow, though, I cannot see the second Elizabeth arriving in College Green on an open-topped bus. That Mr. Obama is not likely to do so has far more to do with considerations of security than with any other inclination that he, or his political advisors, might have.

And when it’s all over, can we expect to see composite photos of the two of them, of the sort that was popular in the ‘Sixties of JFK and Pope John XXIII, on every Irish mantelpiece for years to come? Somehow, I think not.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

A great evening was had by all

A large crowd greatly appreciated the Chamber Philharmonic Europe when they played in St. Ann’s Church, Dawson St., Dublin last Friday (May 6th 2011). They applauded until the rafters rang, and well they might. This is a world-class chamber orchestra. The tour is called the “Powerful Emotions Tour” and it is well named. We went from being stimulated by Hummel’s Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra in E-flat Major to being deeply moved by Johann Sebastian Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor. Time stood still during their rendition of Faure’s Pavane (Op. 50). The seven violins, one cello, a double bass and the trumpet perfectly recreated every nuance and mood of all the great pieces that were played.

You might think I’m going on a bit here but I can assure you it was not only me. People practically embraced the musicians in the church porch after the performance.

They play in The Mermaid Arts Centre in Bray tonight (Saturday) and then in many other locations nationwide. Full details are
here. They’re back in St. Ann’s Church, Dublin on Sunday 22nd. May. It’s incredible to think that you can have a performance of this standard for only €18.00 entry.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Chamber Philharmonic Europe comes to Dublin and a large number of regional venues

I am absolutely delighted to be able to announce the return to Ireland of the Chamber Philharmonic Europe orchestra. I heard their concert in Dublin last year and it was wonderful - all the better for being performed in St. Ann's Church, Dawson Street with its emotive, historic ambiance and its excellent acoustics. They'll be in Dublin on two evenings, Fri May 6th and Sat May 22nd. Don't miss them!

Concert details:

Click here for Ticketmaster booking for the Dublin Concert on Friday 6th May and Saturday 22nd. May at 8:00 PM.
Tickets in all cases are €18 Adults and €15 seniors, unwaged, students and children.

Tickets will also be available at the door for all venues on the night.

Chamber Philharmonic Europe - Powerful Emotions Tour 2011

The Chamber Philharmonic Europe orchestra is revisiting Ireland along with the award-winning soloists Pawel Zuzanski (Violin) and Kirill Gusarov (Trumpet). You can enjoy an evening of versatile sounds and complex emotions with selected works of J. S. Bach, A. Vivaldi, J. N. Hummel, E. Grieg and G. Faure.

Tour dates May 2011:

4th May 2011 - 8 pm, Friars Gate Theatre Kilmallock http://www.friarsgate.ie/ Phone: 063 98727
5th May 2011 – 8 pm, Waterford Christ Church Cathedral http://www.christchurchwaterford.com/ Phone: 051 858 958
6th May 2011 – 8 pm, Dublin St. Anne's Church Dawson St. Ticketmaster
7th May 2011 – 8 pm, Bray Mermaid County Wicklow Arts Centre http://www.mermaidartscentre.ie/ Phone: 01 272 4030
8th May 2011 - 8 pm, Naas The Moat Theatre http://www.moattheatre.com/ Phone: 045 883030
9th May 2011 - 8 pm, Kilworth Village Arts Centre. Phone: +353 25 27109
10th May 2011 - 8 pm, Thurles The Source Arts Centre Thurles http://www.thesourceartscentre.ie/ Phone: +353 (0) 504 90340
11th May 2011 – 8 pm, Kenmare Carnegie Arts Centre http://www.carnegieartskenmare.ie/ Phone: 064 6648701
12th May 2011 – 8 pm, Nenagh Arts Centre http://www.nenagharts.com/ Phone: 067 34900
13th May 2011 – 8 pm, Carlow The George Bernard Shaw Theatre http://www.gbshawtheatre.ie/ Phone: 059 917 2400
14th May 2011 – 8 pm, Omagh Strule Arts Centre http://www.struleartscentre.co.uk/ Phone: 028 8224 7831
15th May 2011- 8 pm, Armagh St Patrick's Cathedral http://www.stpatricks-cathedral.org/ Phone: 028 37527359
17th May 2011 – 8 pm, Listowel St. Johns Theatre and Arts Centre http://www.stjohnstheatrelistowel.com/ Tel: 068 22566
18th May 2011 - 8 pm, Macroom The Briery Gap Cultural Centre http://www.brierygap.com/ Phone: 026 41793
19th May2011 – 8 pm, Ballina Arts Centre http://www.ballinaartscentre.com/ Phone: +353 96 73593
20th May 2011 – 8 pm, Londonderry Waterside Theatre http://www.watersidetheatre.com/ Phone: 02871 31 4000
21st May 2011 – 8 pm, Galway Town Hall Theatre http://www.tht.ie/ Phone: 091 569777
22nd – 8 pm, Dublin St. Anne's Church Dawson St. Ticketmaster

Tickets in all cases are €18 Adults and €15 seniors, unwaged, students and children. Tickets for the DUBLIN concerts can be booked here on Ticketmaster. In all other cases tickets can be obtained from the venue.

The Chamber Philharmonic Europe is a private orchestra initiative founded 2006 in Cologne/Germany, which engages musicians to create a demanding artistic ensemble. It employs over 60 talented professional musicians from 18 nations, a compilation of years of experience on international stages. Since its inception, the Chamber Philharmonic Europe has been built upon a broad range of professional experience. Our musicians have performed in many reputed concert halls and opera houses, including:

Théatre des Bouffes-Parisiens, Paris
De Munt Opera, Brussels
Koninklijk Theater Carré,
Amsterdam Grand Théatre de la Ville,
Luxemburg Konzerthaus, Berlin