tag: Ireland

Feb 2013

The UK Bedroom Tax

Here in Ireland the government is waging low-level war on the poor and vulnerable. Hiding behind the utterly false claim that their “hands are tied” by the conditions of the bailout, they inflict death by a thousand cuts on those least able to sustain those cuts. A few million off disability allowance here, a tax on child benefit there… a property tax here, a reduction in the rent allowance cap there… pretty soon the poor are even poorer and even those on middle incomes find themselves bled dry. Which in turn, of course, means the vast majority of people are spending less, with inevitable negative consequences for the local economy.

Meanwhile, Enda Kenny and Fine Gael along with the traitorous Labour sycophants who toe the right-wing neoliberal line (in return for a few years with their snouts in the trough) steadfastly refuse to impose any meaningful austerity on those who can actually afford to shoulder a greater share of the burden. Profitable corporations and high income individuals remain untouched by the vicious cuts imposed elsewhere. Ireland remains a wealthy country, but the wealth is all concentrated in the hands of a small minority who are not expected to contribute to the well-being of the rest. As much as I’d like to see genuine socialist policies enacted in Ireland, I don’t expect it to happen given how much the political spectrum has narrowed over the past few decades. I do expect a modicum of basic fairness though… but it seems even such a humble expectation is thwarted by craven politicians without an ounce of decency or honour among them.

And yet, despite this betrayal of the vulnerable by those entrusted with representing their interests, we Irish merely have to look to our nearest neighbour to see what happens when a low-level war on the poor turns into an outright assault. I genuinely don’t understand anyone who votes for the British Tory party. Seriously, I just don’t get it. Those who defend the Conservatives generally mutter something about “sound economic policies” or how “business friendly” they are. Or maybe they’ll use the phrase “the party of law and order” or mention “family values”. But all of this ignores the fact that choosing a Conservative government is choosing to be ruled (and the way they run the government definitely merits the word “ruled”) by a bunch of vicious bastards without a shred of compassion who appear to genuinely enjoy inflicting suffering upon those they consider “less deserving” than themselves (a category that includes damn near everyone in the country).

David Cameron’s party consists of a bunch of small-minded, nasty little shits. Every single one of them. And even if they did have “sound economic policies” (which incidentally… they don’t!) it wouldn’t compensate for them being small-minded, nasty little shits.
Small-minded nasty little shits
The latest wheeze being introduced by the Tories is the “bedroom tax”. Leastways, that’s how it’s now known. Essentially this slice of undisguised cruelty applies to anyone in designated social housing, or receiving rent allowance. If they have an unoccupied bedroom in their house, their social security is reduced by 14%. Two spare rooms results in a 25% reduction. These are people right on the very edge of poverty (hell, many of them are already over that edge). Cutting their social security benefits is likely to leave them either cold or hungry (probably both). It is quite deliberately inflicting extreme hardship on people whose lives are already pretty damn hard. Meanwhile the British government continues to spend more on their military than all but three other nations. They continue to allow large corporations evade tax and they reduce taxation on the wealthiest individuals… they even go so far as to heavily subsidise some of the most profitable companies in the country by offering them a large, free workforce (an utterly self-defeating strategy, incidentally, and one that’s about as far from “sound economic policies” as it’s possible to get).

Bedroom taxOf course, the bedroom tax will hit certain people disproportionately. People who require carers (i.e. those with disabilities or health issues) are likely to get the most vicious kicking. I guess the Tory Party (along with their obnoxious enablers, the Lib Dems) can at least claim to be an Equal Opportunity Bully. And while it’s completely understandable that organisations who represent carers and those with disabilities will campaign on behalf of their interests, it seems to me that this is a much wider issue of social justice. Of course it’ll be a good thing if the most vulnerable manage to win themselves an exemption, but it won’t be cause for celebration. It will merely be a further example of a right wing government successfully pitting one group of vulnerable people against another. Everyone in the UK should be angry about this tax being imposed on even one person; carer, disabled, ill, healthy, able-bodied, it doesn’t matter… this is a fundamentally evil policy and its imposition will make the UK a fundamentally less just place.

For a party that claims to be all about “small government”, it’s difficult to imagine anything more intrusive than a policy aimed at stipulating the number of rooms a person may have in their house based upon their economic circumstances. People who have perhaps lived for years in a house or flat with an extra room will now find themselves forced out of their homes (or go hungry… can’t say they don’t have a choice I suppose) by a government that insists it hates interfering in the lives of people. What they really mean, is they hate interfering in the lives of people who matter. In other words, the rich.

But if you’re poor; they’ll tell you what house you can live in, they’ll tell you what job you must do, they’ll take away your healthcare and force you into debt if you want an education. Small-minded, nasty little shits. And I’m sorry to say this… but if you vote for them, then so are you. There are no longer any excuses.

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Feb 2013


So I was checking twitter and glanced at the ‘Now Trending’ column. It being a European football night, most of the current trends were footie related, “Liverpool”, “Suarez”, “Zenit” and so on. But right at the top of the Irish trends was the hash tag #BieberToCrokePark. And it sparked a moment of extreme cognitive dissonance.

After a couple of seconds it became apparent that the tag was a manifestation of the demands of Irish Justin Bieber fans that the teen popstar play a concert at Croke Park – Ireland’s largest stadium and concert venue. However, Croke Park is also the location of the conference centre used by the government when negotiating with the public sector unions. This is why the terms and conditions under which public sector workers are employed are collectively known as “The Croke Park Agreement”.

And because The Croke Park Agreement is currently being renegotiated (recast for our Austere Age), it’s in the news almost constantly these days. Hardly a day goes by without a headline including the words “Croke Park Agreement”. Whether it’s Garda representatives walking out of negotiations and refusing to re-engage until pay cuts are taken off the table, or the Health Service Unions expressing “deep misgivings” about the Croke Park Agreement. If you don’t live in Ireland you’ve probably never heard the phrase. If you do live in Ireland, you hear it all the time.

Which is why the first thing that crossed my mind when I saw #BieberToCrokePark was “Whoa… will he be negotiating on behalf of the government or the unions?” The second thing that crossed my mind was “WHAT!!!??? What does that even mean?!” Thankfully though, the thought “hang on, it’s probably about him performing, isn’t it?” arrived just in time to prevent my brain from exploding.
Justin Bieber takes part in the Croke Park negotiations

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Feb 2013

The Anglo Promissory Notes

Still busy busy busy with work, but I’ve got just enough time to post a few thoughts here.

Today, over at On This Deity, my article on The Maastricht Treaty has come around again. I’m not sure whether it’s appropriate or entirely inappropriate that, on the anniversary of the treaty that probably did more for European political and economic integration than any other single act, the Irish government have passed the Irish Bank Resolution Corporation Bill 2013 (PDF).

supplicationThis Act of Parliament is being hailed by the government as a great success. And they expect it to lead to a deal with the ECB on the issue of the Promissory Notes. All of which probably sounds like gibberish if you’re not familiar with the Irish situation. So here’s a brief crash course:

In 2007 the Irish banking system began to creak. But everyone involved – bankers, regulators and the government – all insisted that nothing was wrong.

In 2008, the Irish banking system collapsed. The only thing that surprised me about this was the fact that lots of other people seemed surprised by it. The response of the Irish government was to issue a blanket Bank Guarantee. This was a massive mistake and I still believe the people responsible should be in prison. They’re not.

At the time Ireland had several banks, all of which were in serious trouble. The two main retail banks – Bank of Ireland and the Allied Irish Bank – were taken, in large part, into public ownership and the government is still propping them up. These are costing the Irish people quite a lot of money, but I can just about understand the argument in favour of the government’s course of action with these two banks, even if I think it’s wrong.

There was another bank, however, called Anglo-Irish Bank. This bank was responsible for massive loans to Irish property developers and – although we’re unlikely to ever get to the bottom of how this bank was mismanaged – the whiff of naked corruption coming from its direction is overpowering. Together with another failed financial institution (Irish Nationwide Bank) Anglo was renamed Irish Bank Resolution Corporation and effectively moth-balled. It ceased trading as a bank, but remained a trading corporation (or “zombie bank”, as it came to be known).

The reason for this was that the corporation owed upwards of €34 billion euros to European banks and investors who had pumped money – via Anglo-Irish Bank – into the Irish property market. Just so we’re clear; private investors and private financial institutions speculated on the Irish property bubble and when the bubble inevitably burst (as anyone with an IQ higher than that of a brain-damaged bumblebee knew it would), they demanded they suffer no losses as a result of their speculation. Instead, they exerted a huge amount of pressure on the Irish government to cover their losses. And – spineless gombeens, every last one of them – the Irish government acquiesced… transferring those gambling losses onto the shoulders of the Irish people.

This transfer was done using a mechanism called “Promissory notes”. In essence, our government promised to pay more than €3 billion to the zombie bank, on March 31st every year until 2023. The observant among you will note that €3.1 billion per year, every year between 2009 and 2023 comes to quite a bit more than the €34.7 billion owed by Anglo-Irish Bank. This is because the gamblers whose losses being covered by the Irish people are also demanding that we pay interest on their losses. You could make it up, but people would think you were high.

Anyway, this €3.1 billion per year is just for the Anglo mess. The Irish government is in all sorts of other financial and economic trouble without that particular millstone hanging around their neck. So ministers have been appearing on our screens for the past couple of years insisting that “a deal on the promissory notes” is just around the corner. It’s a hell of a big corner.

Because rushed, late-night decisions always turn out well

Last night, during a last-minute, rushed sitting of The Dáil (the Irish parliament) – in a move that eerily echoes the night of the blanket Bank Guarantee back in September 2008 – the zombie bank was finally wound up. Part of it was transferred to NAMA (the National Asset Management Agency), which was a structure set up to handle the bad debts of the banking industry after the collapse of 2008. And the promissory notes have disappeared for good.

CapitalismExcept they haven’t of course. The plan is to replace them with government-issued bonds. Perhaps 15 year bonds… perhaps 20 years… perhaps 30 years… who knows? Our government is awaiting instruction from the European Central Bank. Because heaven forbid the Irish people be permitted to have a say in the repayment terms for private debts they shouldered at the behest of the ECB.

As I say, this is being portrayed as a victory by our government. In reality it’s nothing more than the final step in the transformation of the private debt into sovereign debt. Up until now the mechanism of the promissory notes provided a barrier of sorts (albeit a very weak, almost invisible one) between the Anglo-Irish Bank losses and Irish sovereign debt. The Irish government – if it actually had any principles – could have cancelled those notes without triggering a sovereign default (though in all likelihood the markets would have reacted in much the same way as they would have done in the case of such a default). There would have been a short-term crisis, certainly, but this time next year the Irish people would have weathered that crisis and we’d have shrugged off €32 billion of debts we never incurred.

Of course, we’d still have billions of private debt on our books thanks to NAMA and the other banks, but that particular weight would have been lifted.

Instead, our government has basically mixed all that Anglo debt in with our other debt. It is ours now, and refusal to pay it would constitute a national default. Our finance minister, Michael Noonan, has managed to summon the awesome power of all twelve of his brain cells and sunk us even further into debt than we already were. As he did so, our glorious leader (Enda “The Irish People Went Mad Borrowing” Kenny) insisted that extending the terms of repayment represents some kind of triumph. I’m expecting to see a photo of him stepping off a plane waving an ECB document in the air. “Growth in our time” he’ll exclaim. And then trip down the stairs.

It strikes me that portraying a repayment extension as a victory is about as insidious as it gets. Ireland is like a man being forced to pay off someone else’s mortgage. “Look”, say the ECB, “we realise you’re having some problems paying this debt as fast as we’d like you to. So we’ve decided to let your kids help you pay it off once they’re old enough to work. Can’t say fairer than that!”

Except you can. Pretty much anything else you say would be fairer than that.

[The issuing of long-term bonds] is using posterity with the utmost cruelty; because it is leaving them the great work to do, and a debt upon their backs, from which they derive no advantage. Such a thought is unworthy a man of honor, and is the true characteristic of a narrow heart and a peddling politician.

Thomas Paine | Common Sense

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Jan 2013

Just checking in

Hey folks. Just a quick post to let you know that I’ve not become fed up with blogging so soon into the new year. It’s just the fact that almost as soon as I pledged to post more frequently, I suddenly secured a work contract that has me snowed under. Which is a good thing from my perspective, even if it does mean I’m neglecting you, dear reader. Not to worry though, it’s a relatively short-term contract, so I’ll be back before too long. In the meantime I’ll try to add some short posts. Mostly links to interesting stuff elsewhere, I suspect.

Today, for example, my article on WB Yeats has come round again over at On This Deity (the relentless march of time keeps the calendar spinning). If you’ve not read it before, you can check it out now.

Meanwhile, both here in Ireland and across the sea in Britain, the hyping of shale gas continues apace. “Shale gas could be worth billions!” says a man with a vested interest in over-estimating the worth of shale gas. Let’s not mince words, the exploitation of shale gas could end up being one of the most environmentally damaging processes seen on these islands since the clear-cutting of the old forests between 2500 and 500BC. And the notion that it’s a case of “shale gas or coal” is just a nonsense. Yes, renewable energy systems may be slightly more expensive from a financial standpoint, but measuring environmental degradation in terms of an arbitrary monetary system is literally psychotic. As Kurt Vonnegut pointed out, “we could have saved it, but we were too damned cheap.”

A quick “congratulations” to Novak Djokovic, world number one tennis player and the first man to win three Australian Open championships in a row in the professional era. Sorry British / Scottish pals, but Djokovic thoroughly deserved his victory and there’s no shame in coming second to such an incredible player. Now, let’s look forward to the French Open.

Finally I’ll leave you with a video. It’s been uploaded by SWP Ireland (but don’t let that put you off). Feel free to watch the whole thing on YouTube, but it’s the short speech by Vincent Browne (Ireland’s sanest political commentator) which starts about 18 and a half minutes in that I’m linking to. Most of it will be familiar to those of you who have read Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent, but it’s a worthwhile listen all the same.

“Common sense” in the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen.– Albert Einstein

Have a good day y’all.

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Jan 2013

The best we can do?

I didn’t hear the statement first hand, but I’m reliably informed that last Thursday on BBC Radio 4 a Tory MP (Andrew Bridgen, MP for North West Leicestershire) lamented the pitiful remuneration that he and his colleagues receive for the sterling work they’re doing to further impoverish Britain. By choosing a life of public service, he claims that MPs risk “foregoing Christmas presents for their children”. The basic salary for a member of the UK parliament is £65,738 (almost €80k). They also – as we now know in some detail – have a pretty generous expense account should that £65k prove insufficient. And their pension package is second-to-none.

Andrew Bridgen

Andrew “the poor are too rich
and the rich too poor” Bridgen MP

Now, let’s analyse that statement. The average salary in the UK is a little under £30k (approx €35k). Most of the people drawing that salary don’t have an expense account, generous or otherwise. And almost none of them have a pension plan that comes anywhere close to that of an MP. This leads us to one of three conclusions…

  1. The vast majority of people in the UK don’t get Christmas presents for their children (thank god for Santa, eh Mr. Bridgen?)
  2. The children of MPs either require or deserve more expensive gifts than the children of the plebs.
  3. Andrew Bridgen MP, and those other MPs for whom he is speaking, are terrible at managing their money and/or have more important things to spend 65 grand on than their children.

Alternatively, I suppose he could just be lying.

Of course, when taken out of context, Bridgen’s statement seems to paint him as an over-privileged, out-of-touch tosser of the first order. However, when placed into the proper context things look somewhat different. Because you see, his statement came the same week as his party carried out a singularly vicious attack on the living standards of the poorest Britons. In that context Bridgen’s statement no longer paints him as an out-of-touch tosser. In that context, his statement paints him as an evil bastard.

Oh, and don’t for a moment think he’s alone in this. Though other MPs might have the intelligence (and/or instinct for self-preservation) to refrain from making such offensive and crass statements in the national media; in private a large majority of them seem to concur with Bridgen. The majority of sitting MPs, when guaranteed anonymity, suggest that they deserve a pay-rise of more than 30%. Once again, let’s not forget this is against a backdrop of the majority of them voting for a cut (in real terms) of the income of those at the very bottom of society.

Those poor MPs

At the same time as Bridgen is whining about the terrible sacrifice he’s making by earning more than twice the national average (plus expenses), a magazine has published a list of British MPs earnings from the Gulf region. Gordon Brown pocketed a tidy quarter million dollars from his four speeches in the region in 2012. David Miliband fared less well with his paltry $230k. And the list goes on. These are sitting MPs remember… this is what they’re picking up despite the pesky distractions of public service.

There are people – and I’m sure Andrew Bridgen MP is one of them – who point to this as evidence that MPs are underpaid (“look how much we could be making…!”). But the notion that David Miliband would be getting paid $100k to give a speech in the Emirates if he wasn’t a prominent British MP is beyond absurd. Also, my mischievous side would like to point out to Bridgen that if he was any good at being an MP he’d probably be getting paid lots to give speeches in Kuwait along with the rest of them. Then his kids could have that diamond-encrusted Playstation they so clearly deserve. Turns out though, Bridgen just isn’t good enough to merit such “performance-related bonuses”. Which I guess means that as well as being an evil bastard and an over-privileged, out-of-touch tosser, he also happens to be bloody terrible at his job.

But of course that’s just the mischief in me. In reality I don’t think any MP should be earning a small fortune by making themselves available to wealthy vested-interests. Not only is £65k and a generous expense-account more than enough to live on; it’s also more than enough to ensure your kids have a good Christmas. Damn near everyone else manages on less.

There are generally two responses to this line of criticism (a line of criticism, let us not forget, that these people invite upon themselves when they start whinging on the radio about how difficult their life is). The first is that we need to pay the best salaries to ensure we get the best people. The second is that the whole subject is something of a distraction given how small the total expenditure on MP salaries is compared with the national budget. Let us conclusively examine and address both responses…

And by the way, let’s not kid ourselves that this is a British thing. It’s just as relevant here in Ireland (where, astonishingly, TDs get paid more than their British counterparts yet are just as eager to impose massive cuts on the income of the poor – all the while complaining about how “difficult” the decision to further impoverish the already impoverished is for them. For them.)

But we need The Best

This argument is also frequently used to defend the massive bonuses of bankers. And it’s really quite simple. The job of an MP/TD is extremely important. Therefore we need to make sure that the best people for the job will be attracted to it. We do this by incentivising them with large salaries. Otherwise these “best of the best” would find high paying jobs in the private sector and the nation would be in a far worse state.

The stream of colourful expletives that rises unbidden to my lips whenever I hear this argument would be enough to make even the most worldly of you blush, dear reader. It’s an argument that not only contains a basic (and blatant) fallacy, but is also at its core utterly misanthropic.

Firstly let’s deal with the misanthropy. Anyone who believes that “the best people” are currently sitting in the House of Commons in London, or The Dáil here in Dublin, must utterly loathe humanity. Because their opinion of the rest of us must be so incredibly low. Seriously, Andrew Bridgen MP… one of the best and brightest in Britain? I’d wager that were he enclosed with a handful of slightly slow chimpanzees, he’d struggle to emerge as one of the best and brightest in that room.

Yes, I know the idea is not to attract “the best people” but rather “the best people for the job”. But even that’s utter nonsense. Given the ungodly mess that these people are consistently making of running their countries, the argument becomes “the absolute best that humanity can achieve is a society that lurches from one crisis of mismanagement to the next”. I know there are plenty of people out there who possess such a relentlessly negative view of the human race that such a statement makes sense to them. I just think they’re wrong. I think we could do better if we had better people making the decisions. No, I’m not suggesting utopia is within our grasp – but I’m pretty sure we could manage a society where substantially less people were killed in wars, driven into poverty and oppressed by the powerful. It wouldn’t be perfect, but it’d be better than the unholy mess created by the Andrew Bridgens (or Eamon Gilmores) of this world.

At the moment Ireland’s unemployment rate is hovering around the 15% mark (it’s probably a fair bit higher than that, what with all the Job-bridge internships and Back-to-Work training schemes artificially suppressing the numbers). Our parliament – The Dáil – consists of 166 members, known as TDs. Now, having collected my winnings from my Andrew Bridgens / slow chimpanzees wager, let me place it all on another bet… given moderate resources, I wager I could find from within that 15% of the population who are currently unemployed, 166 people who would do a much better job at being a TD than the current crop. On top of that, I could find 166 of them who would be willing to do that job for half the salary.

That’s not hyperbole. No, I don’t personally know 166 unemployed people who would meet those criteria but I know enough people to understand that the vast majority of those who currently sit in The Dáil are not even “above average” at what they’re doing, let alone “the best”. And I know enough to know that the 400,000+ unemployed people in this country includes plenty of genuinely excellent ones.

Because – and this is where the fallacy in the statement “we need to attract the best by offering huge salaries” is revealed – the people who succeed in politics are not the best people to run a country. No, they are just the most manipulative, self-serving, hyper-ambitious, back-stabbing bastards willing to negotiate the appalling party political system. The best people to run a country would have a combination of skills and characteristics that included a genuine acceptance of the occasional need for self-sacrifice in pursuit of the common good, a broad compassion for their fellow men and women, excellent management and administration skills, an analytical mind capable of grasping and weighing up the potential consequences of any decision, the ability to communicate their ideas to a wide audience, a willingness to consider seriously alternative viewpoints and change their position where the evidence demands, and finally a thorough understanding of the history of political philosophy (allowing them to understand the difference between fashionable ideology and the long-term needs of a society). Yes, that’s a pretty lofty job specification, but it’s a pretty lofty job. And yes, those people do exist. Just not within the modern political system.

Fat Cats

It wasn’t perfect, but despite initial misgivings, everyone eventually agreed that firing the politicians and
putting a “different bunch of fat cats” in charge had resulted in the country being better run

What’s remarkable is that the modern party political system actively excludes people with many of those qualities. So don’t tell me that we have the best people for the job sitting in our houses of parliament. Hell, pick 166 random people from the register of unemployed and you’d probably get a marginal improvement. Add a half-decent selection process and you’d do even better. And no, I’m not arguing for a particular electoral system / selection process here – just railing against the nonsense of the “we need the best” argument when used to defend a system that excludes them.

If huge salaries attracted “the best people for the job” we would not have had a massive collapse in the banking sector. OK? So let’s put that ridiculous argument to bed once and for all.

It’s just a distraction

This is the other argument. It emerged most recently in the political expenses scandals. Given the billions lost in the financial crisis (by the best people for the job) and the debt crisis it has revealed, getting in a tizz about a few million euro in political salaries and expenses is silly, and it distracts us from more important issues.

Here’s the thing though. I happen to think that the type of people we have running our affairs is extremely relevant when it comes to these kinds of crises and the strategies we might use to solve them. If we have people motivated by personal greed, rampant ambition and a hunger for power… people who are willing to fiddle their expenses and cheat the public out of money they have no right to… people more interested in scoring petty party political points and making the other guy look “wrong” than they are in solving problems and making themselves “right”… people who go on the radio and insist that earning more than twice the national average is not enough to provide for their children, while simultaneously trying to reduce that national average… if we have those people in power then we’re basically screwed. Permanently.

It’s not a distraction to point that out. It’s not a distraction to point out that we need better people, and more than that, we need people who are willing to set aside personal greed for the greater good. If you don’t think there are 166 people in Ireland capable of that, then fair enough. But I think you’re wrong. I think we can do better. Because I think we are better.

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Jan 2013

Irish newspapers demand ridicule

Thanks to a tax-regime designed to encourage international investment (some would suggest “exploitation” as a more appropriate word), Ireland has successfully positioned itself as one of the world’s leading locations for high-tech and new media corporations. Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter (and many others) have located their European or non-US headquarters in Ireland. The nation has derived some economic benefit from this, primarily with the provision of several thousand well-paid jobs, but less than might be imagined (thanks to that aforementioned policy of low corporate taxation).

Nonetheless, despite the emergence of Ireland as a major internet hub, there are large sections of society who have yet to fully enter the digital age. Most notably of course, our political establishment, but also certain commercial organisations that should really know better (I don’t expect our political establishment to know better because – quite frankly – I don’t have an awful lot of faith in the intellectual ability of most who inhabit it).

Fine Gael: Searching for the Off switchThis ignorance of things digital within the political sphere was wonderfully illustrated on a recent news report on RTÉ news. It concerned the government announcement of an investigation into the abuse of social media (online bullying – or “trolling” as it was mistakenly called). This follows at least three recent suicides in Ireland which have been linked – either directly or indirectly – to online bullying. While those affected by these tragic deaths have my deepest sympathies, I was extremely uneasy when a member of the government appeared on the news to suggest a possible crackdown on online bullying by dictating how social media should be used in Ireland. His announcement that he would personally chair the committee which would recommend new “social media legislation” was accompanied by some stock footage of him at his computer. There he sat, staring at this thing on his desk as though it were an unexploded bomb, tentatively prodding the keyboard with a single finger. And I thought, so this is the guy the Irish government have chosen to set policy in the area of new media… no wonder the place is a fecking disaster area.

But then a few days ago, it emerged that the Irish government is positively ahead of the times when compared to the Irish newspaper industry (sorry for the bad pun, but it was impossible to resist).

All Your Links Are Belong To Us

Simon McGarr is a Dublin-based solicitor. His clients include Women’s Aid, a registered charity dealing with the issue of domestic violence against women. National Newspapers of Ireland (NNI) is an organisation which represents pretty much every newspaper in the country (national and regional). Recently, Women’s Aid was mentioned favourably in several newspaper articles (both online and in print). And as you would expect, they posted links to those online articles on their website. As you probably wouldn’t expect, however, they then received a demand from NNI that they pay a fee for each link to a newspaper website. Read Simon McGarr’s blogpost on this issue.

Now, you might think it perfectly reasonable that NNI should protect the right of their members to assert copyright over whatever content they publish. And you’d be correct. Everything I write on this blog is “copyright me (followed by dates)”. Though, as I mention on the About Me page, I’m generally more than happy to be cited in part (or even in full) so long as the citation is credited. Indeed, this is how online discourse tends to work and you’ll find this blog littered with extracts from newspaper articles, blogs and books along with a credit (and a link to the original source if it’s on the web). I know Irish copyright law doesn’t have an explicit “fair use” clause, but frankly I consider “fair use” to be an intellectual principle that transcends national laws and which – were we to lose it – would have an actively damaging effect on society as a whole (as well as pretty much bringing academia to an end).

All the same, I can just about accept the argument that permission should be sought prior to quoting someone else’s work. The argument is wrong, let me point out, and I won’t be bound by it unless you can demonstrate why it’s right… but nor will I think you’re completely insane if you attempt to forward it. However, that’s not the position of the NNI. No, their position is somewhat different. And it is completely insane.

The NNI is asserting that hyperlinks are themselves covered by copyright. That is; if I simply link to an article online without prior permission (like this) I have breached the copyright of the site being linked to (in this case The Irish Times). The NNI suggests that I now owe The Irish Times €300 (their cost for between 1 and 5 links). Although I have linked to more than five Irish Times articles during the lifetime of this blog, so I actually owe quite a bit more (€1,350 for between 26 and 50 links). And that’s an annual fee, let me point out, for a licence to link to those articles.

The Daily NewsNow, the NNI very graciously inform us that they are prepared to waive this licence fee if the links are “for personal use”. But that doesn’t alter their claim that they are legally entitled to such payment, and doesn’t prevent them from withdrawing the waiver on a whim should they choose to do so. They are effectively saying to bloggers and users of other social media platforms that they may, at their discretion and on a date of their choosing, take legal action to recoup money from anyone who has ever linked to one of their articles.

Foot shooting and rampant extortion

Not only is this patently absurd, not only does it completely violate the spirit of the web, but it displays a quite stunning self-destructive tendency. Most online newspapers generate income from advertising. Therefore, it is entirely in their interest to maximise traffic to their site. If a website is republishing entire articles, then I understand the NNI and individual newspapers may lose traffic and as a result lose money. So it is understandable that they should seek to prevent this happening. However, by asserting that the simple act of linking to a newspaper article potentially places a person under threat of future legal action, they provide a massive disincentive to link to them. Given that those links are generating traffic, and therefore revenue, for newspapers; the NNI appears to be insisting that the online community act to reduce the revenue of their members, under threat of legal action and/or a hefty fee.

And no, their claim that they voluntarily waive the fee for personal websites is not as reassuring as they clearly think, as it still suggests that some future change in policy could land bloggers in their debt. Part of me wants to remove all links to Irish newspapers from this blog and begin actively campaigning that other bloggers and users of social media do the same. Get a big enough snowball rolling and I suspect the online community could significantly reduce traffic to newspaper websites. However, such a link boycott would also mean engaging the NNI on their own terms rather than dismissing their claim as the absurd nonsense it actually represents.

Personally I can’t exactly afford a protracted court case, but I would love the NNI to demand payment from this blog for the many links I have made to Irish newspapers. Because – as I pointed out at the start of this article – they clearly don’t have a robust understanding of how the web works. If they did, they would realise their position – if taken seriously – effectively means that the majority of, if not all, Irish newspapers are engaged in extortion.

“How so?” you ask. Well, it’s pretty simple really. Like almost every online newspaper on the planet, Irish newspapers place social media buttons on each of their articles. They actively invite you to click these buttons. However, not a single one of them includes a legal disclaimer to the effect that clicking on these buttons creates a copyright-protected link for which the reader may be charged a substantial fee. Even if that fee is waived, the NNI is insisting that a person clicking the “Facebook Like” button on an article in the Irish Times has placed themselves in debt to the newspaper and it is only the discretion of the NNI that prevents this debt being recouped.

I’m no lawyer, and perhaps “extortion” is not the correct legal term, but I’m pretty certain that tricking someone into debt by inviting them to perform an action without first telling them it incurs a charge, is probably illegal (yes, even in Ireland, where we seem to have made a national sport out of tricking the populace into paying large amounts of money to private corporations).

It seems to me that the NNI really hasn’t the faintest idea what it’s doing and is running the risk of damaging the very industry it seeks to protect. It is providing us with a significant incentive to stop linking to Irish newspapers – actively driving down traffic and revenue for their members – while at the same time is stating a legal position which appears to place their own members very much on the wrong side of the law.

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Nov 2012

An alternative plan

It has become a mantra of the mainstream here in Ireland… “it’s all very well to criticise”, they say, “but I don’t hear you proposing an alternative plan”.

You hear it trotted out regularly by government politicians in the news and on current affairs programmes. Usually in response to a challenge from one of the small cohort of usual suspects from the Irish Left. It goes like this:

Clare Daly

Socialist TD, Clare Daly:
A saner voice than most, but still not sane enough

Perhaps in a Dáil (parliamentary) question, or maybe from behind the desk on the Vincent Browne show, Joe Higgins or Clare Daly or someone from Sinn Féin* will remind a minister of the basic injustice of the bank guarantee strangling this country.

The minister will then respond thus: he or she will acknowledge that mistakes have been made. There will be a rueful reminder of the complete mess they’ve inherited from the last lot. The phrase “to an extent our hands are tied with regards to…” will be used. We will be reminded that nobody wants to be in the current situation and that our politicians certainly don’t want to make the tough decisions they’re being forced to make. But those tough decisions do have to be made for the good of the country. And remember, to an extent our hands are tied…

The minister will then finish with the well worn coup de grâce. “Well”, he or she will announce with feigned gravitas, “it’s all very well to criticise, but I don’t hear you proposing an alternative plan”.

And with that, the debate in the media is won. That same discussion has been happening on our screens for the past two years, and those on The Left don’t appear to understand that every time it happens, they lose the argument yet again. And losing the same argument over and over, every night on TV for two years, makes you look like a bad bet when it comes to choosing who to run the country.

Now, some of you might be wondering why “I don’t hear you proposing an alternative plan” wins the argument. Why don’t The Left just propose an alternative plan then? After all, if they can’t do that, then they probably don’t merit your vote. Except it’s not quite that simple. See the challenge is not simply to propose an alternative plan, it’s to propose an alternative plan that can be coherently communicated to a mass audience in approximately two minutes. As Chomsky pointed out (and whatever you think of Chomsky, he’s right about this) complex or radical ideas can almost never be coherently explained to a mass audience in a soundbite. Especially if those ideas challenge pre-existing beliefs about the world.

That’s one theory why The Left is losing the media debate right now – losing the debate despite a growing groundswell of discontent with the government. Basically they do possess an alternative plan, but because it involves massive structural changes to the way Irish society works, it can’t be conveyed quickly without sounding wild or risky or just plain mad (of course, it’s only our familiarity with current social structures that obscures the wild, risky madness they represent). So those on The Left shy away from their alternative and instead talk about burning the bondholders, defaulting on the bank debt, revoking the promissory notes, overturning the bank guarantee. Repetition has hollowed out those phrases… they’ve become like marketing slogans for a product you’ll never afford. The other side has their own set of course. They talk about a return to growth, of fiscal responsibility and of being on-track to meet our targets. And they look wistfully into the middle distance and speak in hushed tones of the glorious day when we proudly rejoin the bond markets.

My other theory is less charitable to The Left. The reason they don’t discuss radical alternatives in the media is not because they’re worried about appearing incoherent when forced to shoehorn their plan into soundbite form. It’s because they don’t actually have a radical alternative. See, compared with a hundred years ago, general political discourse has today been narrowed to a tiny segment of the spectrum. The Irish Labour Party… the party of James Connolly and Jim Larkin… is now entirely wedded to the notion of free market capitalism. And they are the “centre left” member of the coalition government. But there’s a sense that even those who critique the government from further left are trapped in that free market capitalist paradigm.

They talk about ending the “casino capitalism” that has helped plunge this country into debt. But they don’t talk about ending “capitalism”. Remove the casino but leave the rest of the edifice standing. It’s reform they want… they don’t want to replace the system with a radical alternative, they just want to tinker with the way it’s running.

All of which makes it impossible for them to be coherent. By aligning themselves with the forces of market capitalism they are forced to accept the internal logic of the markets demanding Ireland sell its future.

Personally, I do have an alternative plan. Unfortunately though, when I describe the plan it sounds risky, borderline crazy and downright impossible to achieve. I don’t believe it’s any of those things, but decades of free-market indoctrination makes it seem that way from a mainstream perspective.

My plan involves radical reform of the political structures (starting with freeing TDs from party whips and strengthening local government), a wave of nationalisations, the end of a free market in non-renewable resources, the removal of the profit motive from essential industries and services, a radical localisation of those essential industries and services, the introduction of a Universal Living Income coupled with significant tax increases for those who earn more than three times that amount, a rise in corporation tax to bring us close to the European average, the implementation of secondary regional currencies which would exist alongside the euro, the immediate repudiation by the sovereign of all private debt transferred to it, a complete structural reform of NAMA, investment in local infrastructure projects and a far-reaching redefinition of “illegal activity” within the financial and political sectors. I would also radically reform Ireland’s social policies in a number of areas (drug law, marriage equality, etc.) and I’d ensure that Ireland unilaterally embarked on a journey towards a decarbonised and sustainable future… hopeful that others might follow our example.

As I say… risky, borderline crazy and downright impossible to achieve. Accurate descriptions to those living in a society that has lost its ability to re-imagine itself and therefore abandoned all attempts to do so. Instead we blunder down exactly the same path we’ve been on for the past few decades; a path destined to lead us to disaster. Me? I’d rather take a risk on a different path, even if we don’t have an accurate map of where it might lead. Especially when we know the one we’re on ends with a plunge into the abyss.

* On the subject of the financial crisis – and is there any other subject right now in Ireland? – Sinn Féin qualify as part of The Left.

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Nov 2012

Sean Quinn jailed for nine weeks

Sean Quinn: looking down on the rest of usIt’s only a few years ago that Sean Quinn was Ireland’s richest man. Today he starts a nine week jail sentence. How the mighty have fallen.

Of course, it’s possible to argue that Mr. Quinn – along with the rest of the “mighty” who helped plunge Ireland into decades of crippling debt – hasn’t fallen nearly far enough. For years, it was impossible to switch on an Irish television without being assaulted by adverts for ‘Quinn Direct’, Sean Quinn’s insurance company and flagship of his business empire. These days… not so much.

All the same, despite his declaration of bankruptcy and his very public fall from grace – and despite the fact that nine weeks in prison is a bit more than just a slap on the wrist – Quinn’s punishment hardly seems sufficient given his part in our downfall. Because while nine weeks is indeed more than just a slap on the wrist, it’s not much more. And surely he deserves much more.

At least, morally speaking he does. Legally? Well, the best the court could do was hand out a custodial sentence for various charges of contempt of court. See Quinn’s real crimes aren’t actually “crimes”. That is – in a world driven into the abyss by a neoliberal ideology little short of psychotic – a shameful cabal of bankers, politicians, property developers and financiers can destroy the very fabric of our nation and yet still not be seen to have broken any laws. So we trip them up on technicalities and get to see them poke their heads briefly behind bars before emerging to a life of continuing luxury. And nor does Quinn’s version of “bankruptcy” amount to worse than a slap on the wrist either. By passing tens – if not hundreds – of millions of euros in assets to family members, despite owing billions to the Irish people, Quinn once again avails himself of a corrupt system set up specifically to ensure contemptible men like him always land on their feet.

Meanwhile the rest of us eye the forthcoming budget with concern as we wonder whether it’ll be the home heating or the grocery shopping budget that will need to be slashed this winter.

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Jun 2012

Paraguay is NOT Uzbekistan

Today, in economic news, Alex Banbury of Hamilton Capital has put together a list of countries’ denials:

“Spain is not Greece” – Elena Salgado, Spanish Finance minister, February 2010.

“Portugal is not Greece” – The Economist, April 2010.

“Greece is not Ireland” – George Papaconstantinou, Greek Finance minister, November 2010.

“Spain is neither Ireland nor Portugal” – Elena Salgado, Spanish Finance minister, November 2010.

“Ireland is not in ‘Greek Territory'” – Irish Finance Minister Brian Lenihan. November 2010.

“Neither Spain nor Portugal is Ireland” – Angel Gurria, Secretary-general OECD, November 2010.

“Italy is not Spain” – Ed Parker, Fitch MD, June 12, 2012.

“Spain is not Uganda” – Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy, June 2012.

“Uganda does not want to be Spain” – Ugandan foreign minister, June 13, 2012.

(stolen from here)

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Jun 2012

Was it fear or stupidity?

supplicationIn a development that has surprised many of their neighbours, Mr. Patrick Murphy and his wife Sinéad today announced they would be making a copy of their front door key and giving it to the burglars who have been ransacking local homes over the past few years. “We’ve decided to make the burglars co-signatories of our child’s Savings Account too”, said Mrs. Murphy, “y’know… just in case they’re still a bit short of cash after they’ve sold our telly and stuff…”

When asked for his opinion on this unusual tactic, one neighbour – Mr. Yannis Papadopolou – shook his head with a mixture of despair and anger. “Bloody fools!” he muttered, “we thought we’d try a similar thing a few months ago and invited the burglars in for a chat. We thought that maybe if they got to know us a bit better they might not be so willing to steal our possessions.” When asked how that worked out, Mrs. Papadopolou became visibly annoyed, “everyone knows how it worked out! That’s why I can’t understand what the hell the Murphy family are doing. The moment we invited the burglars into our home, they trashed most of the furniture and kicked the dog. Now we’re getting threatening letters saying they’ll burn down the entire house if we don’t invite them back.”

Everyone on Europa Avenue agrees that the situation is intolerable. But because the burglars are all either members of the local police force or have seats on the town council, there’s no obvious solution to the problem. Although Mr. Papadopolou, taking a short break from fitting bars to his windows, did have one final observation… “I don’t know exactly how we solve this mess, but I do know the solution is not to make life easier for these criminals. But I guess the Murphys will find that out the hard way. And they’ll only have themselves to blame.”

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