Greens have sacrificed principles for the illusion of power

Sunday Tribune 10 May

What’s that sound? Is it the thunder of hooves just over the next ridge? Hurray! It’s George Lee leading the cavalry (he’s the one on a Segway) to rescue us from the dole queue. Hip, hip, hurray etc, etc.
No matter how you look at it, Fine Gael has floored Fianna Fáil with its choice of candidate for the Dublin South by-election on 5 June. George ticks all the boxes: he’s sincere, popular and knowledgable. With the exception of FF, the announcement was loudly applauded. Too loudly. The reaction bordered on mild hysteria. George, while being very, very good at maths, has no political track record. He might be rubbish. Still, it said a lot about where we, the electorate, are at emotionally.
Lee’s decision may turn out to be a missed opportunity. Many would like to see a new party enter the fray. With George’s financial acumen bolstered by a couple of seasoned dissidents, we could have seen the birth of the George Lee Party. (‘George Lee’ and ‘party’: there’s three words you don’t see together too often.) In time, it might have become known as the Glee Party – ‘Spreading the message of gloom with Glee’. Now we’ll never know.
While George was throwing shapes over the economy, another man of principle, Eddie Hobbs, reminded us of Fianna Fáil’s culture of hard-necked cronyism. Hobbs resigned in protest from the National Consumer Association on Thursday. He had called for Bertie Ahern’s ‘ex’, Celia Larkin, to step down over the revelation that she was fast-tracked for a mortgage by Michael Fingleton. True to FF form, she refused.
The two ‘people’s economists’ aren’t the only men of principle taking pot-shots at Fianna Fáil. The Greens are at it too. The first rumblings between the Saviours of the Earth and Fianna Fáil came over the TDs’ bonuses debacle. Then John Gormley announced the scrapping of electronic voting, despite a Cabinet decision to defer it. Last Wednesday, Eamon Ryan really stuck the boot in. He told Newstalk’s Eamon Keane that he wouldn’t recommend Green voters give their transfers to Fianna Fáil in the upcoming local elections. He also said the Greens would be open to doing business with Fine Gael/Labour in a possible National Government. Principled Ryan spoke of “values”. He didn’t mention loyalty to his government partners, though.
FF played down Ryan’s disloyalty and revealed its grand by-election plan to defeat George Lee. It has chosen the late Seamus Brennan’s son, Shay, to run against him. Fine Gael is putting up a trusted economist, while FF is relying on sentiment. Economies are not saved by sentiment.
To compound the impression that Fianna Fáil is entirely clueless, Brian Lenihan said, disingenuously, that the three sets of elections on 5 June don’t constitute “a referendum”. This is rubbish. Fianna Fáil will be tested across the entire voting spectrum: local, by-elections and European. The outcome will reflect the public mood: 384,000 unemployed people are looking forward to letting him and his colleagues know how we feel. You only have to look at the election posters to see FF is really worried: the words ‘Fianna Fáil’ are microscopic. It’s like they’re trying to distance themselves from themselves.
Ryan’s comments, too, were designed to distance the Greens from them in the run-up to the elections. The question is: What will the Greens do when the elections are over? If Ryan was disloyal last week, imagine what he’ll be like when FF is really down.
There’s revolution in the air. The public is subconsciously preparing for a new government. As Seán O’Rourke was grilling Lee on Tuesday’s News at One, the speculation wasn’t whether he would win the seat, but what portfolio he would get in the next cabinet. Lee had leaped that hurdle and was already in a new Fine Gael-led government in the public’s mind.
The Greens realise this and that they face annihilation in a general election. They need to start building bridges, which may be why Ryan spoke about doing business with Fine Gael on Newstalk. This double talk, however, is giving weight to ex-Green Patricia McKenna’s assertion that they are hypocrites who have sold out.
George Lee has sacrificed his power as a commentator to follow his principles. The Greens have sacrificed their principles for the illusion of power. Their weasly behaviour is at odds with the image of a party with lofty ideals. They used to stand for integrity and plain-speaking. It’s taken them just two years to learn how to speak like Fianna Fáil. They are still politically immature though. Trying to be Machiavellian doesn’t suit them and is, frankly, a bit embarassing. It’s like watching the class nerd trying to act tough.
The response to Lee’s candidacy has shown that, psychologically, we are already on a general election footing. By failing to strongly endorse their partners now, the Greens are effectively undermining them. They are hinting that they’re having doubts. If they don’t act upon these doubts, they are finished as a party. It’s a dangerous game they’re playing.
The Greens can still show they have some principles left. They should jump ship now, before it’s too late, and nail their colours to a National Government mast.
It’s either that, or get nailed by a seething electorate.

dkenny@tribune.ie

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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.

At least the price of drowning our sorrows is staying the same

Question: What’s the difference between a pint of Guinness and a Dublin city councillor? (The answer’s at the end, now please read on…)
Last week, the nation’s publicans announced their new initiative to battle the economic crisis.
The price of a pint (cue drumroll) will be… FROZEN for 12 months. Ta-dah!
This announcement was greeted with derision by most tipplers who saw it as a cynical PR ploy by the vintners’ associations.
People don’t have sympathy for publicans. Drink is too expensive in pubs, the mark-up on soft drinks is outrageous and don’t get me started about crisps.
Publicans blame the smoking ban, drink-driving laws, energy costs and Diageo (Guinness) for hiking up prices. Everybody, except themselves.
Since 2001, 10% of Ireland’s pubs (1,500) have closed. The Thomas Read group last week became the latest casualty. In isolated rural areas these closures are causing serious hardship.
In 2001, pubs held 68% of the drinks market. Last year, this figure dropped to 48% as off-licences benefited from more people drinking at home.
Why is this? Price is obviously a factor. Dublin’s city-centre drinkers are well used to being fleeced. One pub near the Dáil actually hikes up its prices after 11pm.
Then there’s the drink driving. And the new work practices; earlier starts, later arrivals home from work.
There’s the cheaper off-licences too: if you can buy a bottle of wine for the price of two pints why go to the pub?
In September, the ESRI pointed out one good reason for not doing your drinking at home. It revealed that the number of cases of women in their mid-30s presenting with liver disease more than doubled from 18 in 2002 to 39 in 2006. The figure for men in this age category had risen from 45 to 47. The HSE’s Dr Joe Barry blamed the rise on increased consumption of wine at home.
The temptation to open that second bottle is definitely greater at home where we can let our hair down in private.
And there’ll be a lot more drinking done at home this Christmas due to the bargains in Newry. Sainsbury’s up there, by the way, sells more alcohol than any other branch in the UK.
This is not good for the nation’s livers – or locals.
The pub isn’t just about getting jarred. It’s the nation’s parlour. It’s the home of debate, banter, people-watching. We romance there, we cheer our teams there, we wake our loved ones there: as Charlie Chawke was being interviewed by RTÉ outside The Goat pub on Monday, there were three funeral lunches taking place inside.
The Consumer Agency last week correctly said prices must come down if pubs are to survive. In October, the Evening Herald reported that many Dublin publicans were doing the opposite and raising prices before the budget. They did the same in August prior to a rise by Diageo.
That hike by Diageo had been criticised by the Irish Farmers Association, who said that while the company was blaming high raw material costs, its main supplier of barley was cutting the price paid to growers by more than 20%. Was this barley saving ultimately passed on to customers? No.
Despite their transgressions, the vintners deserve credit for their price freeze. Diageo should follow their lead and not raise prices next March as it have said it will.
The publicans effectively took a price cut last Monday when they absorbed the VAT hike and will do so again if Diageo doesn’t play ball. It’s small change, but it’s a start. Instead of being accused of cynicism, they should be encouraged to continue along this road.
Save your derision, instead, for Dublin City Council. Unlike the publicans, these clowns are still raising their prices. Last week, they hiked parking charges up 20 cents an hour, claiming it would free up space for Christmas shoppers.
If that’s so, will they lower the charges after Christmas? Don’t hold your breath.
And so, finally: what’s the difference between a pint of Guinness and a city councillor?
One’s famous for its big, thick head… and the other’s a pint of stout.