Baron Wince, Tara and the lords of incompetence

Sunday Tribune 16 August

Tenner for the first person who guesses what ‘Carbon Wine’, ‘Brace In Now!’ and ‘Bare Cow Inn’ have in common. My travelling companions didn’t make the connection. One threatened to connect his fist with my gob if I didn’t shut up, though.
On Tuesday we headed to Tullamore for a lads’ night out with a friend who has swapped the Liffey for Offaly (he’s a ‘Liffo’). I spent the journey shouting out stupid anagrams of people’s names to irritate the other passengers. I can be really, really, really annoying when I’m bored.
Brian Cowen’s name is stuffed with good anagrams, like the ones above, but I discovered one that describes him perfectly. It’s ‘Baron Wince’. You know the way you wince at your bills these days? That’s down to Baron Wince – Ireland’s Lord of Pain.
We headed to the Baron’s local, the Brewery Tap, because I wanted to ask him what he knows about bi-location – being in two places at once. Noel Dempsey got me wondering about this last week as he defended the latest news from Tara. The Baron wasn’t about, so my question had to wait. (We’ll return to it later.)
The news from Tara is that we will have to compensate the operators of the M3 if the number of cars using it falls below a target agreed by the state. So what’s that target? Don’t ask the National Roads Authority. It would only say last week that it was “competitive”.
Don’t ask Dempsey either. Newstalk’s Eamon Keane asked him if the public will ever be told. Not if it’s commercially sensitive, he replied, adding “what we WILL know is if the target is NOT reached”. So there you have it. How many cars make the M3 viable? Answer: mind your own business.
Even after all the crookedness Fianna Fáil has displayed towards Tara, this latest revelation stopped me in my tracks. What next? Are they planning to sell the rights to Tara’s name, like The Point did to 02? Will we see ‘Welcome to The Hill of Eurolink’ as we approach Tara? It wouldn’t surprise me.
The M3 scandal embodies all that is wrong with Irish politics: greed, wastefulness, ignorance and a total disregard for democracy. Nobody wanted it in Tara/Skryne bar Fianna Fáil, which was so eager to destroy the valley that it paid almost €69,000 an acre for it. So eager, that it bulldozed the national monument at Lismullen, sparking an expensive European Court case. If/when we lose, we could be ordered to do a new environmental impact study and go back to scratch on the site.
Unesco may also order the road to be moved if it deems Tara a World Heritage Site. Environment minister John Gormley is afraid of this so he delayed presenting it for consideration. The obvious thing to do now is halt the M3 pending Unesco and the court’s decisions. ‘Green’ Gormley, however, is hell-bent on completing a motorway that is destroying a heritage site, may have to be moved and may not prove viable.
A shortfall is highly likely. Last April it was predicted that almost 23,000 vehicles would use the M3 daily when it opens next July. Those numbers need to be readjusted because of the recession. Last month, Meath experienced the largest increase in people signing on – an extra 17,000 people, or 4%. That means a lot of cars off the road until the gloom recedes. On top of that, the remaining workforce won’t want to pay €11.20-a-day in tolls when the rail service to Navan opens. Incidentally, neither Dempsey nor Gormley will have to pay the tolls – ministerial cars are exempt.
The pair’s record with sums is appalling: last year Dempsey spent €70,000 on a new logo for Transport 21. The existing one had been developed in-house… for free. At around the same time, Gormley spent €15m on a climate change advertising campaign and only €5m on the Warmer Homes Scheme.
Two men, two things in common: the M3 and financial incompetence.
Remember I wanted to ask Brian Cowen about bi-location? The M3 bail-out has made it theoretically possible for me to be in two places at once – driving through Meath while at home in Dublin. Here’s my question: why should I pay a toll on a road I don’t want, will never use, in a county I don’t live in, to a foreign consortium – for the next 45 years?
Fianna Fáil has secretly shackled us to a road that’s in the wrong place. It agreed to underwrite a bad development that was in trouble from the start. How many other similar deals has it done? After this, how can we trust its judgment on Nama?
Last week, the Greens made noises about holding a convention on Nama. Under party rules, Gormley and Co can be ordered to vote it down, effectively ending the coalition.
Here’s another question about location: where were the Greens’ grass roots when the rest of us were discussing Nama? Why have they suddenly discovered their voices when the Dáil is on holidays? Are they serious or just posing?
Considering the Greens’ hypocrisy to date, another two-word anagram comes to mind. It’s of ‘T-a-r-a’ and is normally preceded by “I smell…”
It’s also always associated with sinking ships, Mr Gormley.


One way to solve the economic crisis – get Blottoed

Sunday Tribune, 12 April

It is Easter Sunday and I bring you tidings of great joy. That’s right, ‘great joy’, for tomorrow night there will arise from our midst two new millionaires. Hallelujah. On Tuesday morning, when everyone else is glumly listening to Mourning Ireland, two lucky people will be chuckling away under their respective duvets thanks to the National Lottery’s Millionaire draw.
Have you bought a ticket? Don’t worry if you haven’t as I’ve even better news for you: I have a plan to make us all a few bob and rescue the country from the knacker’s yard. It’s this: we hold a big raffle. A VERY BIG raffle. The WORLD’S BIGGEST RAFFLE EVER, in fact.
Last Tuesday, Brian Lenihan announced that he’s buying a load of useless land and half-finished buildings on our behalf. He calls them “toxic assets”. Every day, their value is getting smaller, but someday, someone, somewhere may buy them. That’s what he’s hoping for, at any rate. My plan is, instead of leaving these “toxic assets” lying idle, we (drum roll, please)… raffle them. As this brilliant idea came to me after a few budget-free scoops, I propose to call this land Lotto, the ‘Blotto’.
Here’s how it works: Brian is blindfolded (nothing new there) and chooses one toxic deed from the pile in his office. Let’s say it’s for an unfinished street. This is then put up for the Blotto. Tickets are sold worldwide, priced at €50 each. As there are 80 million people who claim Irish ancestry, that’s a guaranteed €4bn already. Then there’s the Chinese – they love a gamble and there’s a billion of them. There’s loads of Africans too. See the potential? Some lucky Blotto player will win a (half-finished) street for €50. They can then sell it back to the developer at a reasonable price and he can finish it off using cheap Irish labour. The state, the winner and the developer all make a profit. The houses are then sold at pre-boom prices. ‘Blotto! It could be you!!’
There’s even a precedent for Blotto. In 1984, horse trainer Barney Curley raffled his Middleton Park mansion, selling 9,000 tickets at £200 each. Last October, Tony Browne from Corbally, Co Limerick, decided to do the same with his €352,000 home (he reckoned 800 tickets at €500 each would do the trick).
The authorities have played Blotto before as well. In November 2002, Cork City Council raffled 40 homes to 600 people. The pathetic state of the affordable housing scheme was highlighted when the council put the applicants’ names in a hat and offered to sell a cut-price house to the first 40 out.
But why stop with toxic assets? We could Blotto places we don’t like and are costing us money. Like the gang-ridden ‘Island’ area of Limerick where the cost of policing is outrageous. We could market it as “a disarming corner of the Shannon estuary with abundant wild life”.
Once a month, we could buy special ‘Madonna Blotto’ tickets, with the winner getting adopted by that nice old lady. Well, what’s Malawi got that Ireland hasn’t? Apart from more money, of course.
Why not Blotto the entire country? Maybe not – the Germans might win us. Any road, that’s my rescue plan. Now consider the government’s plan.
The plan is to bleed us dry with new levies and rescue their wealthy friends by buying up their “toxic” land for €90bn. Some of this land may never be eligible for planning permission. What then? Does the government plan to force permission through?
The government believes it’s “fair” to spend €90bn cleaning up their friends’ mess and then levy people on the minimum wage. That’s €18,000 a year. To put that figure in context, during the first 10 months of 2008, €23,000 was spent on serviettes and crockery at Leinster House’s catering facilities.
While we are being screwed, the drinks and racing industries are left unscathed. You can’t get a job or pay your mortgage, but you can drink yourself to death or gamble your house on the horses. That’s an interesting message to send the electorate.
Where were the incentives in this
budget? Why wasn’t VAT lowered? If even 1% was chipped off, it might have encouraged those who have money to spend it. As for jobs, if the government manages to dispose of “toxic” land, the only employment generated will be in the construction industry – the same industry that got us into this mess.
Social problems are rising and last week the gardaí said that cutbacks are hampering their ability to respond to calls for help. The government that failed to protect us from the bankers is now failing to protect us from criminals.
Brian Lenihan’s bludget is brutal in every sense of the word and, like the regime that spawned it, is utterly devoid of any original ideas. It’s the final proof that we need a National Government – fast. It makes the Blotto Plan look positively inspired.
Here’s an idea: let’s Blotto Lenihan and see how many tickets we sell. I bet we’d shift more if we Blottoed one of those paintings of bare-chested Brian Cowen.
Either way, you’re looking at the ultimate booby prize.

A gag that’s not funny… and is a threat to democracy

Sunday Tribune, April 5

Picture this: Bertie Ahern picks up the Sunday Tribune, sees a portrait of himself in the nude on page one and immediately despatches his art dealer with a brown envelope to buy it. Bertie doesn’t want an unflattering picture of himself in the public domain. The only aras he wants the public to connect him with is the one in the Park.
Plausible? Highly. True? Unfortunately not. The preceding scenario formed a newspaper’s April Fool’s gag last week and I’m not ashamed to admit that I fell for it. That’s the thing about Bertie – you wouldn’t put anything past him. For a man who loves the limelight, he’s fiercely protective of his privacy. He doesn’t like the papers showing him up. That is probably why, under his stewardship, the VAT on newspapers rose to 13.5% – the highest in Europe (Britain has zero VAT). It probably also explains why his administration published a Privacy Bill in 2006 to curb the power of the press. Naughty press, Fianna Fáil will learn youse.
That bill was subsequently ‘parked’ to give the now year-old Press Council time to prove itself effective at dealing with media complaints. Last week, another Ahern – Dermot – announced that he is going to introduce the legislation. Why? Because “there seems to be a growing disregard for the privacy of the individual”. Note the word “seems”. According to who? Who has been calling for a privacy law? Was it Dermot Ahern himself?
Ahern knows the value of privacy. For example, the equality minister now knows it’s better to keep his views on homosexuals private. Back in 1993 he agreed with Fine Gael’s Brendan McGahon that gays were deviants. Once the press highlighted this, he was branded homophobic.
His dealings with the family of terror chief Michael McKevitt might have been kept private if the press hadn’t reported that he forwarded an email on his behalf to Michael McDowell. The press hasn’t done Ahern any favours. Could this be personal?
The new law forbids “surveillance”, “stalking/harassment” and “disclosure of documentation” – all legitimate weapons in the journalist’s armoury. Documents that can’t be published will include publicly available material from, among others, county council planning files and the Land Registry Office. Without the disclosure of such documents, the extent of planning corruption in north Dublin may never have come to light.
Without “stalking”, the documentary that led to the beef tribunal might not have been made. In that programme, journalist Susan O’Keeffe approaches beef baron Larry Goodman for a comment as he is leaving mass and pursues him until he drives off. Under the new rules, Goodman could have got an injunction and halted production. Similarily, Brendan O’Brien’s legendary “stalking” of Martin ‘The General’ Cahill might not have been aired. The print labours of Veronica Guerin would have been hampered too.
With the new restrictions, Seanie Fitz might be able to get an injunction against a newspaper revealing that he’s enjoying a nice holiday in Spain.
The new law states that invasions of privacy are justified when they’re in good faith, the public interest and fair. Sounds reasonable? It isn’t. It’s ‘Catch 22’: for an invasion of privacy to be justified, you must invade someone’s privacy to prove it. However, you can’t invade someone’s privacy because that’s not justified without proof. A reporter who is stymied by an injunction can be found to have broken the rules just because he was unable to finish his investigation.
So, again, who has asked for this privacy law? Take a guess. Last year, Dublin City University released a study which revealed that two-thirds of all privacy complaints over the past 25 years had come from public figures, chiefly politicians.
The hypocrisy at the heart of this law is staggering. In February, minister Ahern was forced to introduce new European legislation requiring telephone operators to store details of all calls made for two years. Under Irish law, they had to store them for three years. All your calls, emails and internet usage are logged by the government. How about a privacy law against that?
Ahern’s announcement last week was all the more telling because of its timing. It came just weeks after this newspaper broke the Brian Cowen portraits story. This was a clear threat to the press. It was a slap on the wrist for getting uppity and a direct attack on the fundamental right to freedom of information.
We don’t need this law. The press ombudsman is doing a good job of correcting rogue journalism. It’s independent, fast and binding. As it’s free, the public aren’t put off complaining by legal costs. That’s good for democracy, unlike privacy laws and VAT on newspapers.
This brings us back to Bertie, as it was his administration that dreamed up this nonsense. When I read the April Fool’s portrait gag about him last week, it struck me that the words ‘Ahern’ and ‘gag’ were entirely appropriate given the decision to silence the press.
Forget about Cowen: Bertie deserves to be hung in the National Gallery.
I’ll start building the scaffold…

How to run a household on less than €4,000 a week

Sunday Tribune, 29 March

It was one of the great comic performances of the Celtic Tiger era. Pee Flynn on The Late Late Show, grinning like he had a coathanger in his gob after telling the audience how he ran three households on £100,000 a year. Poor out-of-touch Pee, the poster boy for gombeen politics. Who else would claim to spend so much on housekeeping?
Another Fianna Fáil man, perhaps?
Zip forward 10 years and Offaly councillor Ger Killally is bemoaning the high cost of housekeeping. Killally, a former running mate of Brian Cowen, sobbed as he told a judge he needs €4,000 a week to meet household expenses. FOUR GRAND A WEEK. That’s €192,000 a year – six times the average industrial wage.
Councillor/auctioneer Killally, who has admitted he made secret profits from land deals and resigned his party’s whip, was ordered by the Commercial Court not to reduce his assets below €8m in February. Last Tuesday, he pleaded to have those assets unfrozen to make ends meet. He wept as he detailed his outgoings, which included problems with his underfloor heating and the expense of raising two small children, with another on the way. He was “in between” cars, as his 2008 Audi SUV had been damaged in a road accident. He can’t afford to repair it. Oh, and his mobile phone has been cut off.
Killally is actually a victim of the Celtic Tiger. If it wasn’t for the boom, he wouldn’t be living in a nine-bedroom castellated monster-mansion with all those bills to pay. He deserves our sympathy. Imagine having to struggle with a €4,000-a-week housekeeping bill. There aren’t many of us who have faced that kind of challenge. With the exception of Fiona Nagle, of course.
Remember Fiona? She’s the socialite wife of Breifne O’Brien, the Dublin tycoon who has been ordered to pay €16m to investors in his alleged ‘pyramid scheme’.
Fiona is a former receptionist and party organiser who told Image magazine in 2006 that she never “sticks to one designer”. A few Chanel pieces “always rise to the top of the pile”, she said, adding that Roland Mouret makes her “feel like a woman”. Her “diamond butterfly ring from Van Cleef & Arpels goes with jeans or evening wear”. Well it would, wouldn’t it?
In January, Nagle – who is not accused of any wrongdoing – also pleaded with a judge to unfreeze the family’s assets. She said she needed money to cover her household expenses. Coincidentally, like Killally, she also needed €4,000 a week to pay her bills. Diamond polish obviously isn’t cheap (not that I’d know).
Nagle must really be short of a few bob as, last month, a judge had to instruct gardaí to bring her to court for non-payment of parking fines. The warrant was withdrawn and she has since ponied up. Still, at least she had a car to park illegally, unlike poor Ger Killally.
A week later, Nagle pleaded with the media to respect her privacy. There’s an irony in that: a PR person asking the press to stay away. It was not as ironic, however, as hearing a Fianna Fáil man blaming the crash for his ruination. It was Fianna Fáil, after all, that sowed the seeds of it with the property boom, from which he profited. It was his former running mate that was at the financial helm when everything went belly-up.
It was Fianna Fáil that refinanced the banks and then let an old-age pensioner give it two fingers over a €1m bonus. Only a hard-necked Tiger stalwart like Michael Fingleton could believe he deserves that and a €28m pension. Is he mad? He’s in his 70s – it’s not like he has a lot of time left to spend it all. Does he have housekeeping bills like Killally and Nagle? Does his house cost €4,000 a week to run?
You really have to marvel at how out of touch these people are. They just don’t get it: the party’s over. The rest of us have known this for months. No one, except perhaps Fingleton, is running up housekeeping bills of €4,000 a week any more. We’re drawing the dole or taking pay cuts.
On Friday, Judge Peter Kelly said Killally must come to his sense and reduce his living expenses. So the councillor will just have to stop crying and get on with life. He’ll have to learn how to shop with an eye for a bargain, just like us. (Eurospar has a €3.49 deal on a cabbage/turnip/carrots combo.) He may even have to use public transport and wear slippers now that the underfloor heating is shot.
Here’s an offer for you, Ger. Why don’t you hire me as your housekeeper? I know how to run a household on less than €4,000 a week. Come on, give me a call. I’ve a load of mince in the freezer and can be at your place, making your dinner, by tomorrow evening.
I have to admit that when I read about your housekeeping plight last week, the tears ran down my face as well.
Well, where would we be without our sense of humour?

And this little piggy had roast beef … but I’m still going for the ham

14 December 2008

Extract from
‘The Bacon Diaries’

Monday: 1pm.
I am in my local, reading the menu. Despite a weekend of Christmas parties I still feel festive. I order the stuffed turkey.
A far from paltry pile of poultry arrives. I am drooling as I lift a flap of meat with my fork … but wait, there’s something miss- ing. Where’s the ham?
I look at the menu again. There’s ‘_ and cabbage’, ‘toasted _ and cheese’, ‘_ and mash’ and ‘baked honeyglazed _’.
Switching my brain on I remember: pork is off. I push my plate away and contemplate Christmas – no, LIFE – without lovely pork. It’s horrible. I realise that I am rocking back and forth, moaning quietly, the early stages of cold turkey. Soon, I notice the sound of manic crunching coming from the gloomier recesses of the pub. It is then that I make a startling discovery, which I’ll tell you about later.
Tuesday: 11am. Air of gloom as lay-offs increase. Country waits for safety verdict from EU. A German friend of mine, Jason, is getting calls begging him not to eat Irish pork. The schweinhund! My own swine hunt continues as I beg for a rasher sandwich.
2pm. Wondering if Cowen has done the right thing by doing a Schwarzenegger (Total Recall). Is he the man to save our bacon now our goose is cooked? Medi- cal cards, Lisbon and now this?
3pm. I contemplate the thorough Irishness of the pig. No Victorian Punch cartoon of a Paddy was complete without a pig in his parlour.
Pigs feature in our mythology, bedtime stories and rhymes: from ‘Mac do Tho’s Pig’ to the ‘Three Little Piggies’ to ‘This Little Piggy Went to Market’. Actually, doesn’t the last line of that go: “and this little piggy had roast beef.”? Change that to: “this little piggy had rendered animal waste tainted by dioxin-rich fuel fumes.…”
The pig has given us phrases for when we’re celebrating: “we’re on the pig’s back.” Cocking up: “you made a pig’s ear of that.” Earning: “bringing home the bacon.” In trouble: “Sketch! It’s the Pigs!!”
I resolve to forego Lidl and wait for Irish ham to return. I will then buy lorryloads of it. I will ask you to do the same.
Wednesday: 4pm. The Danes are saying nasty things about our pork. It’s obvious they just want payback for Clontarf. It’s nothing to do with selling their products here.
While they’re mouthing off, the EU says our rashers are safe. SAFE?? Haven’t they seen the gick that comes off them when they’re frying? You’re more likely to die of a coronary eating one than dioxin poisoning. It’s ‘Rasher Roulette’ – but we love it.
5pm. I decide to appeal to any butcher reading this to make me a quiet offer on a dioxin ham. Part of the deal is you have to cook it for me. I’m serious. Email me.
Thursday: 9.30am. See some workmen forlornly eating ciabatta rolls filled with falafal and rocket leaves. Even their ‘builder’s crack’ isn’t smiling. They don’t know Superquinn is back selling Irish pork.
10.45am. Again wondering if the government overreacted. I conclude that, in fairness, it may be the first thing that Cowen’s lot has got right. It seems a case of “damned if you do, etc.”
11.30pm. Dream of Cowen posing for the cameras stuffing his face with bacon to show the world everything is okay. He looks like a man who likes his rashers. Maybe by the time this is printed he will have done so.
Friday: 8am. Wake up worried that I’m having dreams about Brian Cowen.Then I remember to explain Monday’s crunching sound.
As I was suffering pork withdrawals, the bar was doing a brisk trade on piggy methadone – aka, Bacon Fries. I ordered three packs and wondered how they would go with sprouts. Then I read the ingredients. I was startled. Did you know that Bacon Fries have zero pork in them?
Despite looking the part, they are a sham. Then, when it comes to the crunch, they disintegrate.
And no, Mr Cowen, we’re not drawing any comparisons … this time.