Thursday, August 2, 2012

Sean Quinn and his place in history

We often like to laud the memory of the giants that bestrode the world stage, such as Napoleon Bonaparte and our own Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone. The passage of time tends to eliminate the memory of certain of their typical characteristics, like, for example, a tendency to regard the law as something that can be safely ignored until it is rigidly enforced, or to be above serious consideration of the rights and feelings of others. It is the inspiration of their courage and daring that is valued, and whatever contributions they made as a beneficial side effect of their drive and ambition.

The human condition has produced such examples in every generation, so why should we be surprised when they crop up in ours?

In the meantime we have had the benefit of experience and, most significantly, the development of strong systems of government that owe nothing to wealthy individuals or groups, and everything to the mass of the people. These things should, in theory at least, result in regulation, and its enforcement, that would curb the excesses of those who stand out, whether in business or politics.

So why do we not hear more of the one clearly identifiable failure of regulation that led to the Sean Quinn collapse: the totally irrational provision that allowed Contracts For Difference (CFDs) to be immune from the disclosure regulations on the acquisition of company shares? Imagine what the outcome might have been if the ordinary regulatory rules applied to these and other derivatives? Sean Quinn would have been saved from his hubris because he would not have been able to secretly acquire even a fraction of the 25% stake in Anglo Irish Bank he had reached when the bubble burst. He would now remain, albeit somewhat diminished, a national figure of whom we could all be proud as the man who broke the monopolies in cement manufacture and insurance in Ireland, and who brought very significant employment to those regions around the border where it was badly needed.

We would have had, in the modern parlance, a true win-win situation.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

In praise of Sean Quinn

This article appeared in the July 2011 edition of Business Plus magazine

by Seamus McKenna

We are undergoing an extraordinary period here in Ireland, the nature of which is further illuminated by the situation at Quinn Insurance Group, which is coming out of administration after the announcement of a sale to Liberty Mutual / Anglo Irish bank following serious losses. 

At Quinn, the administrators have crystallised large losses by taking a view, on the advice of a number of actuarial companies, on the likelihood of claims arising from policies that had been written prior to the administration period. Quinn’s strategy of managing its risk up to and beyond the point of claims being made has apparently been abandoned by the administrators.

To explain this we need to remember where Quinn Insurance came from and what the situation was like for client companies that needed cover for employers’ and public liability, particularly those in the construction industry, before its arrival. Then, certain bad features dominated such business. One was a claims culture, encouraged by the policy of insurers of allowing the most spurious of claims on the basis that to contest them would risk incurring legal costs beyond the value of the claim. Such claims were cynically settled in the knowledge that future premiums could be loaded with their costs. No doubt the actuaries had run the numbers and advised that this was the best way to deal with the matter.

What the insured, the people and firms who actually footed the bill, found to be most frustrating was that they had no say in whether the claim should be contested or not. In order to get cover in the first place you had to sign away your rights to challenge all claims, to the insurance company.

Quinn changed all that. Firstly, if you were in business and you wanted insurance to cover liability for accidents in your factory or on your site, you had to submit to an audit of your Health and Safety arrangements by an H&S consultant employed by Quinn. If you did not measure up you did not get cover, at least not until you had convinced the consultants and the company that you were compliant. All this was in addition to the attentions of inspectors from the government’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE). It became easier to comply than not. This reduced accidents, which allowed Quinn to charge lower premiums, made for happier employee representatives and, for those with the wit to appreciate what was going on, more content site operatives.

The second string to Quinn’s bow was to make it policy to dispute the payment of each and every claim. Certain observers have condemned Quinn’s diligence in investigating damages on the grounds that genuine claimants were tarred with the same “claims culture” brush as those who set out to defraud, and often considered themselves to be unfairly hounded as a result. However, it was a breath of fresh air for the industry.

Of course, Sean Quinn didn’t just run an insurance company. While the contribution he has made to manufacturing and other employment in and around the border region is well documented, he also broke the monopoly that existed in the cement industry in Ireland. Certain other operators had attempted to deal with the situation by importing cement, but its bulky, relatively low value to weight nature made this a difficult exercise. Once again, the construction industry had been the direct loser up to Quinn’s arrival on the scene. Indirect losers would include every entity that requires building for its operation. Costs for providing schools and hospitals, as well as houses and offices, were far higher than they needed to be before competition arrived in the supply of such a basic building material as cement.

Manufacturing cement is a highly capital intensive undertaking. Therefore the risk involved in entering the business is considerable, and would explain how the monopoly existed in the first place. At the stage in Quinn’s career when he started Quinn Cement, it would have taken unique courage to start up such an operation. At the time, all commentators knew this and applauded his actions. Then of course, risk was “on” and real entrepreneurs, who are characterised by risk taking, were heroes.

Now risk is “off”. The business world that Sean Quinn occupied in Ireland is largely in the hands of the receivers who are, to be fair, trained and conditioned to remove risk from the situation to the greatest extent possible. One might as well castigate a rabbit for eating a lettuce. It is what they do.

Business owners, large as well as small, up and down the country, applauded Sean Quinn not only for creating competition in areas where it was badly needed, but also for showing the way in terms of taking your courage in your hands and getting on with the business.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Can Europe help us fix our public health service?

Long waiting lists for elective surgery, overworked A & E departments and in-patients having to be accommodated for long periods on hospital trolleys are the kind of stories we keep hearing about in relation to the Irish public health service. Of course these things are unacceptable. But bad as they are, a letter to the editor of the Irish Times on May 27th 2012, from a GP, has described a situation that should be made a criminal offence when and if a culprit can be identified.

The letter indicates a level of inequality that simply should not exist in any country, developed or otherwise. It illustrates that ability to pay and not need is the criterion for hospital treatment here in Ireland. Read it here.

There are also the inadequate care services in Ireland for those who suffer from Cystic Fibrosis, despite the fact that we are among the countries with the highest incidence of this condition. These have been well documented on many occasions by Orla Tinsley.

The letter above prompted me to do some research. I was able to locate a report on European health services that seems detailed and is up-to-date. It’s from a Swedish benchmarking group called the Health Consumer Powerhouse, it’s called “Euro Health Consumer Index 2012”, it’s by Arne Björnberg, Ph.D., and it can be accessed here in .PDF format.

While inequality of the type highlighted in the letter to the Irish Times as it relates to Ireland is not dealt with specifically in the report, it does examine the issues of waiting lists and the cost of health care on a per capita basis in a total of 34 countries, the majority of them within the EU. In relation to Ireland, two graphs stand out. The one for waiting list times shows Ireland six places away from being the worst out of the total of 34. At the best end of the list lie Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, The Netherlands, Denmark, France, Austria, Finland and Sweden, with the lowest waiting times. But here’s the thing: In the graph that shows healthcare spend per capita, Ireland is right up there near the top along with Denmark, Germany, Belgium, Austria, The Netherlands, Switzerland, Norway and Luxemburg.

The author of the report has the following to say about waiting times:

2.3 Major non-acute operations < 90 days

What is the interval between diagnosis and treatment for a basket of coronary bypass / PTCA and hip/knee joint? It is difficult to avoid the observation that for countries, which do have official waiting time statistics (Ireland, Sweden, UK etc), this is in itself a not very flattering circumstance. Countries such as Germany, where waiting times tend to vary in the 2 – 3 weeks range, have never felt the urge to produce waiting time data, for principally the same type of reason that Madrid has less snow-ploughs than Helsinki”.

A fair comment, but one is still left with the belief that pure inequality, as opposed to typical waiting times, is unique to Ireland, at least within the EU. This is supported by anecdotal evidence from people who have experienced public healthcare in France, Belgium, The Netherlands and Germany.

Once again one is prompted to ask why there is such an antipathy to the EU on the part of the radical left wing here in Ireland. If they were real Socialists they would, surely, embrace Europe as an exemplar of equality and anti-discrimination, and not as something to be viewed with suspicion. If they were doing their jobs on behalf of the users of health services in Ireland they would be beating a path to Brussels to highlight the woeful inequalities that have been described here, and getting all available help to remedy the situation.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Vote YES on Thursday

Predictions about the effect the referendum on the Fiscal Compact this coming Thursday will have on austerity in Ireland are meaningless.

Those who are trying to convince voters that it will have any bearing at all on household charges, septic tank inspection fees, water rates or anything else of that nature are either dangerously delusional or shockingly dishonest.

What is objectively true is that Germany (Bunds [German government bonds] approaching negative yields), Finland, The Netherlands, Austria (unemployment: 4%) have taken control of their finances and are all in favour of the fiscal compact. They simply want other countries to agree to it so that when stimulus measures are put in place for the EU as a whole there will be no free riders. It's hard to blame them for that.

And they're the countries I want to be aligned with in the EU - not the ones that allow UK and US commentators to put us into awful acronyms like PIIGS.

Friday, May 25, 2012

What's the Irish left got against the EU?

It would seem that a large part of the left wing in Ireland is really, when all is said and done, against the idea of Ireland belonging to the European Union. 

Last week I took the left leaning members of the opposition to task for not making a lot more of the proposals that have been put forward by the Germans and the French for a Tobin tax. My point, which I do not seem to have done enough to get across, was that it was preferable to work with the EU on measures to raise revenue for economic stimulation instead of simply opposing fiscal discipline, as they have been doing. After all, a transaction tax on stocks and bond dealing should be close to the heart of any Socialist, and money borrowed, even for spending in the hope (and it would be a hope – borrowing and spending are not of themselves a guarantee of success) of generating growth, has to be paid back. In any event borrowing, as we know to our costs since the onset of the Great Financial Crisis, is dodgy under any circumstances.

Now I read in the Irish Times that Sinn Fein, in particular, has campaigned against every EU treaty that has been agreed to by Ireland over the last 25 years. Joe Higgins has always given the strong impression of a man that only agreed to become a member of the European Parliament so that he could work to undermine it from within. A new survey has also found that even a large percentage of traditional Labour party voters, 41%, intends to vote against the treaty, despite the strong endorsement of it from all Labour ministers in the current coalition government.

So what’s with the Irish left and the EU? In the UK, it’s the Conservatives who have the most Euro sceptic members, and the Labour Party is the one that is committed to taking a full part in Europe. In France, the newly elected President, Francois Hollande, a Socialist, might have used rhetoric in his election that will cause him to look for growth measures to go with the Fiscal Pact, but a Euro sceptic he most certainly is not. And Angela Merkel and her party, while supporting balanced budgets, are not afraid to put forward measures that will arouse the ire of capitalism (and should therefore expect to be embraced by Socialism), a good example being the aforementioned Tobin tax.

Perhaps opposition to Europe is a means our Socialists have decided on in order to differentiate themselves from other parties. This might have its attractions in providing a quick fix to gain electoral support in a deep recession, when voters are casting around for anything and everything that represents the status quo so that it can be punished, but it is not in the best interest of the country, nor, I would propose, even in the long term electoral best interests of the politicians concerned.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Is it right to be absolute?

Pope Benedict XVI and President Barack Obama

President Obama has come out in favour of same-sex marriage. Good for him.

In an article in the Irish Times last January (2011) that was inspired by the film “The King’s Speech”, Fintan O’Toole wrote of the fact that he had once suffered from a speech impediment. He was interested to hear that some people who had such a problem also reported that, as children in school, they had been forced as naturally left-handed people to do everything with their right hands. That also happened to him.

Over many centuries, left-handedness has been seen by Christianity as being associated with the devil, and was therefore regarded as something that had to be “cured”, even if this meant using force and causing severe distress to the child concerned. Apparently there are many references in the Bible that could be interpreted as a condemnation of left-handedness, although no prominent church leader is known to have come out and made anything like the pronouncements against it that have been made against Gays and Lesbians by, among others, various popes.

The current pope is very fond of one particular word. He has condemned what he calls “relativism” on many occasions. He sees it as something that is taking over the world and as being closely allied to secularism. As used by the pope, it seems to imply that, for him and the church, there are a number of basic truths that can never, ever be challenged - they must remain absolute. This, of course, immediately causes problems for those in the scientific community because the scientific method is predicated on the idea of revising or even totally rejecting anything that does not continue to accord with new evidence as it becomes available. The pope’s defenders will say he is not concerned with science (the church was proved so embarrassingly wrong with regard to scientific pronouncements in the past that it has decided it is better to get out of the field altogether). However, his condemnation of Gays and Lesbians and his total rejection of same-sex marriage indicate that he is ignoring the modern understanding that being gay is just another part of the diversity of human nature, and is neither good nor bad – it just is.

As for the idea that the church cannot change its beliefs – this fails to stand up to scrutiny too. Can you imagine the uproar there would be if a teacher in any school was found now tying a child’s hand behind his or her back and forcing them, against their natural inclination, to write with their right hand? Here, at least, is one absolute belief that’s not so absolute any more.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Another reason to vote Yes

Francois Hollande

Socialist Francois Hollande has become the latest president of the Fifth French Republic. Much has been made of his apparent attitude to the EU Fiscal Treaty, about which we in Ireland will have a referendum vote at the end of this month. 

At this stage it is impossible to know how much of M. Hollande’s words represented electioneering rhetoric and how much will result in solid changes to the treaty, but there is reason to believe that, while the austerity aspects of the treaty will not change, they might now be accompanied by measures aimed at stimulating the economy of Europe.

This represents just one more reason for Ireland to vote Yes in the referendum. It was always a good idea to confirm our position as members in good standing of both the EU and the Euro zone, and voting Yes is the means to achieve that under current circumstances. Now we have an added incentive – as members that are fully committed to fiscal responsibility, which is what the treaty is about, we can take full advantage of whatever economic stimulus is brought into being by the influence of France under its new leadership.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

How a referendum can be anti-democratic

Winston Churchill is quoted as saying that 

…democracy is the worst form of government - except for all the others that have been tried.

And democracy can indeed be frustrating. It’s difficult sometimes to understand why the majority cannot see things your way and vote in the candidates that you think will serve us best in parliament. 

Referenda are, or at least should be, the ultimate item in the toolbox for the pursuit of true democracy. The Rolls Royce in the exercise of the right of every adult citizen of a country to have his or her say on the outcome of a proposal that will effect everybody. 

We are facing an important referendum in Ireland on May 31st next, on whether or not we will sign up to the European Union Fiscal Treaty provisions. 

While the idea of a referendum if attractive to anyone who is in favour of democracy, this one, and others in the past, have brought forward at least the suspicion that in practice such plebiscites can fall more than a little short of the democratic ideal. This has been discussed here before: Democracy and a referendum on fiscal union in Ireland. Here it was argued that as, on occasion, less than half the people who are eligible to vote in referenda actually do so, the majority are in fact saying they not want referenda at all and are happy to let others make these decisions. Unfortunately this can open the door for well organised groups that have separate agendas.

I now believe this situation has the potential to get even worse. The coming referendum is shaping up to be positively anti-democratic. This situation will arise because of two things: strong evidence from opinion polls that nearly half the voters are prepared to admit that they do not understand the treaty provisions, and the decision of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions to instruct its members how to vote on the question. The admitted lack of understanding feeds into the idea that people are prepared to let others make the decision on their behalf - if not they would do whatever it takes to gain sufficient knowledge of the issues. The trade union involvement is more insidious. It suggests that, if enough of the people who vote are both trade union members and among those who do not understand the treaty provisions, the outcome could depend on the attitude to the treaty of policy makers in the trade union movement. 

The problem is that these people do not have a mandate from the public at large. They have not put themselves up for election in front of anyone other than their own members. To put it another way - what’s the difference between abrogating, in practice if not in theory, a national decision to the leaders of trade unions on the one hand, and allowing the democratically elected members of Dail Eireann to bring forward a result after a full and transparent debate on the matter in the parliament of the country, on the other? Could the answer have something to do with the subverting of democracy?

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Censorship, science and religion

The recent news about the banning, by the Vatican, of commentary and opinion being published by a number of Catholic priests in Ireland initially invoked in your blogger the reaction that it was an internal matter for the Church, with which he wants nothing to do.

A moment’s reflection, of course, determined that the same church still impinges greatly on the lives even of those who would shun it completely, nowhere more than in the matter of the education of one’s children and eventual grandchildren. The Catholic Church still controls and manages over 90% of state funded primary schools in Ireland. Therefore citizens are often constrained to send their children to one of these schools as the only means of them getting a primary education, as was the case with our family when we lived in rural Ireland. You tend to take the view that it will be all right - sure everyone is in the same boat, and this is not exactly the middle ages.

But it wasn’t all right. Our daughter, who dearly loves her father, for all his faults, was made to suffer serious anguish in the belief that he was destined to hell because, as she was aware, he had decided that there was no god. Her mother seems to have eased her mind by getting her to agree that, even though Dad didn’t believe, he was still a good man, so he would avoid hell. The whole episode generates great anger, even now. Thinking about it, it’s lucky she wasn’t in a Lutheran school. Martin Luther taught that good works were not enough. The only way to he ‘saved’, for him, was to believe.

There are other reasons why religion in schools is pernicious. It has the capacity to undermine the teaching of scientific principles, for one. In the words of Richard Dawkins, in his book “The God Delusion”:

Fundamentalist religion is hell-bent on ruining the scientific education of countless thousands of innocent, well-meaning, eager young minds. Non-fundamentalist, ‘sensible’ religion may not be doing that. But it is making the world safe for fundamentalism by teaching children, from their earliest years, that unquestioning faith is a virtue”.

And how far away is the Catholic Church from fundamentalism when we are hearing that the Vatican has taken steps to curtail freedom of expression on the part of some of its priests? This has to mean that the same culture of repression will pervade the state schools that the Church manages. For someone who sees the ability to criticise and to bring forward new ideas as an essential part of living, this is bad news indeed.

Richard Dawkins’s book is well worth reading, for anyone. However, it is especially relevant to those priests that have been silenced by the Vatican. Dawkins is a world class intellectual. At the very least, priests, such as those who have been victims of Vatican authoritarianism, should be able to address the points he makes. It is available from, here

Friday, April 6, 2012

It might be economics, but it's not science

No sooner do I coin a well-received definition of economists, to wit: 

 “…the study of economics is not a science. Note that I did not write “exact science”.It is not a science at all. It is a set of beliefs that are held by individual practitioners and invoked under any and all conditions. Economists are Keynesians, Monetarists or follow the Austrian School in the same way as the devout adhere unquestionably to Mohammed or Christ or L.Ron Hubbard. Economists cannot agree among themselves on the right course of action under any given set of circumstances and they most certainly cannot predict what will happen in the future”. (See "Vincent Browne and the Euro) 

than a group of them comes along and seems to make every effort, in the pages of The Irish Times, to support my thesis.

An article in the paper of record on Friday 6th April and signed by no less than 43 academics, many in economics positions, is entitled “Austerity without growth a guarantee of stagnation”. It points out that a subset of the same group argued, two years ago, against spending cuts and tax rises as a means of dealing with the economic crisis on the grounds that it would kill growth and create high unemployment and debt. The current article seems to be claiming that this prediction has been proved correct, 24 months later. But two years is a mere blip in terms of the time required to create the economic conditions that would come close to being defined as normality.

“The evidence is clear”, they say, “contractionary fiscal policy does indeed restrict economic activity and employment”. This is an example of the kind of wooly thinking that's indulged in by those who have misappropriated scientific terminology. The statement is certainly reasonable, and one could even be persuaded to base policy upon it in certain circumstances. There is however no evidence, never mind clear evidence, in this opinion piece to support it.

The article is unscientific in that it never addresses other, feasible, hypotheses. For example, the proposition that taxes on high income groups actually reduce the tax take because they make it economically viable for the rich to simply remove themselves to another tax jurisdiction. Or that the EU / ECB / IMF solution to current woes - austerity now (but nothing like what the global financial markets would impose on countries like Greece and Ireland if they were to have a disordered sovereign default) to repair and consolidate Euro-zone peripheral economies so that the E-zone as a whole can prosper and grow in the future – might be the correct course of action.

The article could conceivably contain contradiction. At the start it is arguing against tax increases on low and average earners as the means of raising the funds for growth in infrastructure and other labour intensive projects. Less than 800 words later it’s calling for …”taxation targeting high-income groups, property assets, unproductive activity and passive income…”, “…stronger local taxation…”, “…the potential of social insurance and local taxation to broaden the tax base…” and claiming that “…PRSI [another form of taxation] can be expanded and combined with general taxation to provide free (sic) universal healthcare and earnings-related pensions”.  Many hold that all these measures simply trickle down as costs to middle and low earners through market forces.

Definitely not science. The scientific method has no room for ideology, for expediency or for plain, old fashioned, wishful thinking.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A little bit of James Bond nostalgia

Recently, I found a title in a second hand book stall that I first read when I was a teenager: “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”, by Ian Fleming, one of the incomparable James Bond series.

As anyone of a certain age will know, the James Bond books were a phenomenon when they first appeared in about the 1960s. Since then, they’ve been made familiar to countless movie goers through the films that were made of them starring, initially, Sean Connory as Bond, and later such worthies as Roger Moore, George Lazenby and Pierse Brosnan, to name but some. Even David Niven had a go at it at one stage.

But it was the written word in Fleming’s books that did it for me, and many others. Bond was a connoisseur of only the very best, and Fleming dropped brand names like mad. Everything from Hermes bags and other products, Aston Martin cars, Mouton Rothschild ’53 with the most routine of meals and even, on at least one occasion, Waterford Crystal glassware – James came across them all, and many, many more, in the course of his travels.

And there was more than a hint of sulphur about James Bond books. For my part, it was necessary to hide them, often in the garden hedge, as to be found reading them by parents in the early sixties was to invite trouble.

So it was nice to be able to dip into “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”. James is up to all his old tricks, smoking his head off, drinking only the best and gambling for huge stakes at a really stylish casino. By the end of chapter three he has, as expected, partaken of some serious rogering, even before he gets into the adventure proper.

But the quaintest paragraph of all comes in chapter six:

“It was at this moment that the Syncraphone in his trouser pocket began to bleep…The Synchraphone had recently been introduced and was issued to all officers attached to headquarters. It was a light plastic radio receiver about the size of a pocket watch. When an officer was somewhere in London, within a range of ten miles of Headquarters, he could be bleeped on the receiver. When this happened, it was his duty to go at once to the nearest telephone and contact his office. He was urgently needed”.

Whatever would Ian Fleming have done with the Internet?

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The swan takeoff - what a pilot

Click on the image for the video

I was walking alongside the Grand Canal in Dublin towards the LUAS tram line bridge at the Charlemont stop, which is also close to the Sixth Lock canal gate on the other side, and I stopped to watch a swan swimming strongly towards me. Hello, I said, this bird is going somewhere. Her speed through the water made a prow wave either side of the swan’s breast and a wash behind. There was a real sense of purpose here.

Then the swan turned in. To feed, I thought. No, it went slightly into reverse, legs maneuvering underwater, and I realized that it was making a one-hundred-and-eighty-degree turn, to face in the direction I was walking. Then, without any further ado, it started to take off. I was right beside it. Wings flapping so that the tips actually beat the surface of the water, it rose slightly. Then the webbed feet gave additional forward thrust by seeming to run along the surface of the water. Slowly, it rose, but was also heading for the LUAS tramway bridge.

It got gradually higher, wings working away, but swans are not pigeons – because of their weight they’re ponderous in the air. In fact, I believe they are the largest bird that can still fly. The ostrich and some penguins are bigger but they’re water or earth bound. Now it was rapidly approaching the bridge and for a second it looked like it might collide with it - and that was even before it had gained enough height to clear the overhead cables that power the tram. But then there was a last, powerful surge from the wings and it was high enough to be above everything in its way. A few seconds later I saw it landing on the other side of the canal lock.

It was a magnificent spectacle. But for me the wonderful part was the obvious confidence the swan had in the distance from the bridge it knew it had to allow so that it could get over it. It seemed to know exactly where to turn after swimming away from the bridge in order to create an adequate runway for itself. Does it make that judgment every time, or has it, through trial and error in the past, established a landmark on the bank? I think the latter, because when I saw it swimming it never once looked behind – it just stopped at a certain point and turned.

I have been able to find videos of swans taking off and there is a link to one above. For me this is one of the many wonders of nature, but most times they have lots of space in which to get airborne. The takeoff I saw was special.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Science, Magic and Religion

The Internet truly is wonderful. Today I’d like to introduce readers to the possibility of viewing a complete undergraduate course at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), entitled “Science, Magic and Religion”, which is presented to us by Professor Courtenay Raia.

One would need to have a deep interest in the subject and/or rather a lot of time at his or her disposal in order to watch the whole course. However, the introduction video is well worth viewing, all by itself.

It is easy to imagine that it is only in relatively recent times that a clear distinction has arisen between the three elements in the title of this course: Isaac Newton, who discovered gravity, who defined mechanics and the laws of motion that bear his name, and who invented the Calculus, was an ordained clergyman who spent a good deal of his time practicing alchemy, the means by which many people of his day believed base metal could be turned into gold. Johann Kepler, who developed the laws that define the motion of the planets in their orbits around the Sun, had a steady sideline in the preparation of astrological charts which were supposed to tell the fortune of the person who commissioned them. In the Middle Ages astrology was taken so seriously that it was made a capital offence for anyone to attempt to tell the fortune of the King of England.

These videos have an added bonus in that Professor Raia is a joy to watch. She’s a supremely confident lecturer who uses her hands, in particular, to beautiful effect.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

An Irish honorary consul for the Vatican?

The Irish embassy to the Vatican, Via Giacomo Medici, Rome

The Irish government has decided to close its embassy to the Vatican, ostensibly for reasons of cost. Supporters of the Catholic church claim that it is, instead, a gesture of defiance on the part of the Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister), Eamonn Gilmore, who is on record as being a secularist, and made possible from a political point of view by the wholesale cover up of child sexual abuse by the Catholic church authorities, which had gone on for many years but has only come to light in relatively recent times.

Ireland has another embassy in Rome, to the Italian government. The Vatican has insisted that it should have a separate diplomatic mission on the grounds that it has been recognised by, among others, the United Nations, as a sovereign state. The totality of its territory is, of course, enclosed within the limits of the City of Rome and, to add anomaly to anomaly, the existing Irish embassy to the Vatican has always been situated, not in Vatican City, but in another part of Rome.

Many Roman Catholics in Ireland are not pleased about the closure of the embassy. This is reflected in the belated opposition of a number of Fine Gael back benchers, who are no doubt reflecting the views of their constituents.

Even those of us who have been campaigning for many years for the separation of church and state in Ireland can, of course, appreciate that Catholicism has been a major influence in Irish history and therefore a part of our culture, for better or worse. That cultural link will always be reflected in, for example, the names of certain notable times of the year, such as Christmas. After all, we have no problem in commemorating other, earlier, gods in some of the days of the week, such as Woden (Wednesday) and Thor, (Thursday). Maintaining an embassy to the Vatican for cultural reasons is in a different league, however. There is the cost, which is a duplication of the expense of maintaining that other Irish embassy in Rome. There is the fact that Catholicism is a religion, not actually another country, no matter what it may like to believe itself to be in this regard, and there is the little detail that the Irish embassy was never actually within Vatican City, indicating that all concerned were playing diplomatic games at the time of its inception.

The Vatican (population 860) is not unique in having an existence as a small, semi-autonomous entity in Europe. There are also The Principality of Monaco (population 35,000), The Republic of San Marino (population 32,000), and The Principality of Andorra (population 84,000), as examples. I owe this information to my son, Shane, who has politics in his degree and who works in Public Relations, as I do the fact that, in the case of Monaco, Ireland is represented by an Honorary Consul. We currently have no representation in Andorra or San Marino.

Wouldn’t the Monaco example be an excellent resolution to the current controversy with regard to the Vatican? An honorary consul to the Vatican. As Shane says, one of the cardinals could do it.


Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Democracy and a referendum on fiscal union in Ireland

Many people understand democracy only in terms of the will and dominance of the majority. However, as was well recognised by Thomas Jefferson and many others, majorities can be just as tyrannical as the worst dictators. That is why the free world operates under a system of constitutional democracy, which has other elements in the mix, like parliamentary representation and a constitution that guarantees the rights, not only of minorities, but of the individual.  
A referendum in Ireland on EU fiscal union will, almost certainly, be bedeviled by euro skeptic campaigners who will be quite happy to condemn the Irish people to all the very significant disadvantages of having to operate, in a globalised marketplace, outside of the membership of a major monetary unit, so long as they can strike a blow against abortion / the end of neutrality / the perceived defects of current government / whatever you're having yourself.  
At the end of the process it will be discovered, yet again, that half or less of those entitled to do so will have actually voted. Therefore the outcome will go to the faction that is best able to mobilise its troops.  
In the referendums on the constitution that were held in the years in the chart at the top, on no less than four occasions the turnout was below 50%. For what it’s worth, at those times a majority of the people was saying, in effect, that it did not want referendums. On no occasion was the turnout greater than 60% and in many cases it just managed to pull above the 50% level. In the 17th amendment referendum, on cabinet confidentiality, the number in favour was 52.6% of those who voted, but this was a mere 23.5% of all registered voters. Significantly less than a quarter of the eligible voters in the state were thus able to have the constitution changed. This was not really a good exercise in democracy.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Internet sheriff is coming to town

The Internet is about to be policed. In the USA there are government proposals under the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA) to restrain those web sites that allow users to download material that is subject to copyright. In the EU there has been a requirement on all member states to strengthen their copyright legislation in order to bring about the same result. Ireland has implemented this but there was an oversight in the legislation that has to be rectified.

There’s been a lot of protest to these proposed measures, especially in the US, by Internet companies such as Google and Wikipedia as well as by private individuals. A more sinister development has been the “denial of service” attacks that have been made on US government and other agencies connected with the piracy prevention proposals.

When it announced that it was about to enact further legislation to fix the problem in the EU mandated legislation, the Irish government was faced with the outrage of Internet users. In the circumstances this seems like a copycat reaction to the situation that has arisen in the USA, because there wasn’t a murmur from anyone when the original law was passed.

Many opponents of the new moves have characterised them as an attempt to censor the Internet. That allegation needs careful examination in the light of the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression and the defence, almost to a fault, by the USA courts of this principle. For example, the US Supreme Court has ruled that protests by anti-gay religious fundamentalists at the funerals of soldiers that had been killed in Iraq, which create serious further anguish for the relatives of the dead person and which often include posters saying such things as “Thank God for Dead Soldiers”, are allowed under the First Amendment provisions.

Internet piracy involves the distribution, over the net, of material such as songs, films or written works without paying the person who created it in the first place. Preventing piracy is an extension of the principle that has allowed authors, performers and producers to make records, CDs, books and films in the knowledge that anyone who tries to rip them off will be prevented from doing so. It’s a vital incentive for people to work at being creative.

The protests have a certain irony. In the past, many performers, especially in the music industry, complained that they were being seriously exploited by the record companies, who are now among the biggest supporters of SOPA et al. Then technology improved to the point where most of them could set up their own recording studios, often at their homes. Now we’ve moved on further, to where additional technological advancement, i.e. the Internet, is facilitating another generation of rip-off merchants.

There is a difference between freedom of expression and the protection of intellectual material. The Internet will have to be policed in order to ensure that copyright law is observed. To attempt to leave it in its current Wild West state is naïve. To refuse to recognise the principle of copyright protection is unfair to the world of creative endeavour. Those who organised and signed petitions against SOPA, and the web sites that blacked themselves out in protest, would be doing a much better job if they put their time into helping create meaningful legislation rather than preventing it altogether. The “denial of service” attackers are bullies and intimidators – their attitude is “do what we want or we’ll prevent you from operating at all”. Even the word they use to describe themselves, “Anonymous”, is indicative of a group that has something to be ashamed of. They must be resisted at all costs.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012


Recently a good friend posted a link on facebook to a TED talk by one Brene Brown, of whom I had never heard, although I was familiar with TED. This is a website that contains talks on various subjects either by well known people, such as Jane Fonda and Jeff Bezos, the founder of, or by lesser known but nevertheless well qualified specialists in their fields. TED is worth a browse at any time, just for its own sake.

Brene Brown’s talk, which is linked here, was well worth watching. I found that when I listened to it again, I got more from it. A key point of the presentation was that absolute certainty, in anything, is a major problem and a big mistake.

On December 15th last we woke up to the news that Christopher Hitchens had died. It was not unexpected as he had been battling with a serious form of cancer for about 18 months and it was known that he was not likely to survive. I have read most, if not all, of his books and I recently revisited the one for which he is perhaps best known, called “God is not great” (my copy is signed by the author, who I had the pleasure of briefly meeting when he debated religion with John Waters in the Gate Theatre in Dublin in 2008).

The following is an excerpt from the book:

‘Religion is man made. Even the men who made it cannot agree on what their prophets or redeemers or gurus actually said or did. Still less can they hope to tell us the “meaning” of later discoveries and developments which were, when they began, either obstructed by their religions or denounced by them. And yet – the believers still claim to know! Not just to know, but to know everything. Not just to know that god exists, and that he created and supervised the whole enterprise, but also to know what “he” demands of us – from our diet to our observances to our sexual morality. In other words, in a vast and complicated discussion where we know more and more about less and less, yet can still hope for some enlightenment as we proceed, one faction – itself composed of mutually warring factions – has the sheer arrogance to tell us that we already have all the information we need. Such stupidity, combined with such pride, should be enough to exclude “belief” from the debate. The person who is certain, and who claims divine warrant for his certainty, belongs to the infancy of our species. It may be a long farewell but it has begun and, like all farewells, should not be protracted”.

After such words, nobody can be under any illusion that Christopher Hitchens or those, such as myself, who agree with him, can themselves be certain about their positions. All we can do is maintain that an explanation of how the world came into being that does not rely on a supreme creator is one that works for us. 

I have come across many who are deeply religious and who use this as the backdrop for living exemplary lives. These tend to be the religious people who do not attempt to persuade me to their way of thinking, and I’m more than happy to recognise that theirs is the solution to life’s complexity that works for them. I certainly have no interest in winning them over to my position on the matter. Where problems arise is where believers feel they have to proselytize – where they arrogantly think, for whatever reason, that everyone they meet should be “given the opportunity” to conform to their philosophy. Is this because they're insecure in their beliefs and need the reassurance that numbers of like-minded people can give? Do they feel threatened by those who insist on rational explanations and who hold, as Cicero did, that what is incapable of happening never happened, and what is capable of happening is not a miracle?

And there are those people of religion who would insist that they are not proselytizers, such as the RC Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, but whose actions do not match their words. The Archbishop certainly comes across as a reasonable man. He is on record as saying that lapsed Catholics “should have the maturity” to leave the church. He is, one might think, the acceptable face of Irish Catholicism. That is until we realise that he and his colleagues insist on having what is known as the integrated curriculum in Irish state funded national schools, of which, for historical reasons, they manage well over 90%. The integrated curriculum means that Catholic doctrine is not just confined to religion classes but permeates all subjects throughout the school day. The end result is that parents who do not want their children indoctrinated but who have no alternative primary school to which to send them and who are, after all, part of the body of taxpayers who provide the funding for the schools, are forced to put up with what is a totally unacceptable situation. It means that not only does the Catholic Church proselytize, but it insists on having as its target audience those who, because they are children, are by definition immature, with their critical and cognitive faculties still only in formation.

It must come to an end. The only certainty should be that there are no certainties.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Vincent Browne and the Euro

Vincent Browne is one of Ireland's most venerable journalists. He and I will agree on some things and not on others. One area of accord is probably (based on Vincent’s writings to date) the belief that the study of economics is not a science. Note that I did not write “exact science”. It is not a science at all. It is a set of beliefs that are held by individual practitioners and invoked under any and all conditions. Economists are Keynesians, Monetarists or follow the Austrian School in the same way as the devout adhere unquestionably to Mohammed or Christ or L. Ron Hubbard. Economists cannot agree among themselves on the right course of action under any given set of circumstances and they most certainly cannot predict what will happen in the future.

Vincent doesn’t claim, of course, to be an economist although I understand he has standing as a lawyer. His piece (Irish Times Wed Jan 4th 2012), on the possible upcoming referendum on fiscal measures that have been mooted in the context of resolving the debt crises of certain members of the Eurozone, seems to rely on a legal interpretation of the relevant treaties, especially when he claims that no country can be expelled from the Euro zone, and also when he implies that Ireland can veto the proposals and thereby do a “service to all the people of Europe”.

Taking the last point first, we need only look back a short number of weeks to when the British attempted to use their veto to block EU Tobin tax proposals. In short order they found themselves completely circumvented by the other EU states and at the same time pushed noticeably closer to the EU exit door than even the most rabid Euroskeptic could have wished for.

With regard to the existing treaties not allowing a state to be expelled from the Euro, no nations have better illustrated, through history, the adage that there are many ways to skin a cat than the Germans and the French. In the limit, both of these (along with other fiscally responsible states such as Finland and The Netherlands), could themselves opt to leave the single currency and put in place an alternative that would satisfy their requirements. For those left in the rump Euro the effect would be just as devastating as if they were expelled from the original. I cannot tell the future any more than Vincent or an economist can, but history has indicated a high probability that they would be subjected to very high interest rates, including on home mortgages, speculative attacks on the currency that they would not be in a position to defend, an inability to borrow internationally to repay either the amounts owing as a result of the bailouts or for current requirements, and a fall off in Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) due to uncertainty and a lack of confidence in the currency. The rump Euro would also be subject to significant devaluation, which Vincent and others would probably welcome as an aid to exports and tourism, but this also carries a price, and that price is excessive inflation. We would be back, at best, to the situation that pertained in Ireland in the 1970s, when savings and pensions were destroyed and when profiteering was rampant.

Vincent Browne, and all the rest of us, should be very concerned that he might just get what he has wished for.