NAMASTE

We are just over the one hundred day mark into the reign of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and the only substantial change is that the lack of substance is now communicated as a virtue. Of the core challenges facing the government, we can only say with certainty, that there are certain plans with less than certain outcomes.

There are also more kites floating around than on Dollymount Strand during a Kite Surfing Contest. One such kite, that flew from the Taoiseach’s lips, was the proposal to convert NAMA into a Housing Development Agency to help tackle the housing crisis. That this is considered new and innovative, as part of the new and innovative government, is disappointing.

This is, in fact, old news. NAMA has always had the ability to help in tackling the burden of homelessness. NAMA was created, on day one, with the powers to do just that.

Section 2 (iv) and (viii) of the NAMA Act state that the purposes of the establishment of NAMA are: to protect the interests of taxpayers and to contribute to the social and economic development of the state.

There it is in black and white. NAMA doesn’t need any new powers, it simply needs to be directed to carry out the task for which it was created. NAMA should already be working to “contribute to the social and economic development of the state”.

The kite of getting them to do so now is not new and innovative. The question, that sadly is not being asked, off this government is, Why Haven’t You Done This Already?

Fine Gael are in power since 2011, for them to not have even suggested this before can only be negligence and or an ideological choice. There is nothing new in putting markets before people. There is nothing innovative in falling asleep at the wheel.

The argument that they couldn’t have seen this crisis coming doesn’t hold up either. As early as 2013, the then Minister for Housing Jan O’Sullivan said:

“Homelessness is an affront to every value that we assign to the concept of citizenship. In a real republic there is an onus on us all to ensure that all citizens have a place they can call home”.

Sadly, there’s not much room for optimism. When Leo spoke of the NAMA possibility he was quickly shut down by his ‘handlers’ and further explorations were closed to questioning. NAMA are part, and have been part, of discussions on the housing crisis for years now. Foisting it on them now isn’t a solution. NAMA have shown no desire to enter the “contributing to the social development” stage of their remit.

Leo, who has a history of saying “it was like that when I got here”, needs to step away from the PR for a few hours. He has said funding isn’t an issue, great. Issue the funds Taoiseach.

Give the Local Authorities the responsibility to get on with building. Make the Department of Housing, and your good friend Minister Eoghan Murphy, responsible for removing roadblocks and expediting building.

Support the Non Governmental Organisations who are on the front line, taking the flack that six years of Fine Gael government has had a hand in creating. Make the Local Authorities, the Department and the Minister accountable. Do what Section 2 (viii) of the NAMA act says: contribute to the social development of the state; not just the social media side of things.  

 

Tony Groves

 

Opportunity Won’t Knock

There was an interesting development in how the Government have decided to handle (spin) the housing crisis this week. After a raw and at times brutal interview with a homeless Secondary School student named ‘Amanda’, the Minister for Housing, Eoghan Murphy, rather than feel ashamed decided he’d side with the poor girl. He said:

“The piece that was broadcast this morning on Morning Ireland is probably one of the most important contributions to this debate that we’ve heard in the past number of months,” he said.

“The bravery that they had this morning to come out and tell the country about their particular circumstance was very brave but very important for people to understand what these families are facing.”

The family tragedy compounded by a Minister who is calling this crisis a debate. The time for debating is long gone. It is time for action, real decisive action.

Campaigns like #MyNameIs have raised the consciousness of the general public and the sense that more must be done is palpable. In reality we have the means to take much more ambitious steps than the planned 23,000 social housing homes by 2021.

More importantly, even with this limited plan, who will be held accountable should this target not be met? Given that only 22 of the 1,500 promised by next year have been completed to date, can we believe in any new plan? Where is the accountability?

The lack of accountability in Ireland undermines many facets of our society. But to just focus on housing we can identify the problem quite quickly. Unlike many other European countries, including Belgium, France and the UK, housing is not a right in Ireland.

In Ireland, under the 1988 Housing Act, our citizens run into a verbal wall.

 

10.—(1) A housing authority may, subject to such regulations as may be made by the Minister under this section –

  1. make arrangements, including financial arrangements, with a body approved of by the Minister for the purposes of section 5 for the provision by that body of accommodation for a homeless person,
  2. provide a homeless person with such assistance, including financial assistance, as the authority consider appropriate, or
  3. rent accommodation, arrange lodgings or contribute to the cost of such accommodation or lodgings for a homeless person.

2. A request for accommodation may be made to a housing authority by or on behalf of a homeless person.
The blocker in the system is a small word that covers all manner of excuses. The word is ‘may’; as in the housing authority may or it may not do a,b,c or d.

It is not compulsory, and if it is not compulsory then there is no accountability. If there’s no accountability then there’s no repercussions for missing targets. Until may becomes must and the power to act become a duty to act then nothing will change.

This crisis didn’t sneak up on us either. It is the result of decades of bad planning and even worse policy making. We have gone, progressively since the 1970’s, from State provision to a combination of NGO and Market provision.  Both are failing – for different reasons.  The NGO solution is common – the UK for example has a similar situation, with the important distinction that the State in UK decanted housing stock progressively to the NGO’s, thereby providing a balance sheet base from which the NGO’s could leverage collateral to fund future housing stock.
The NGO model is endemic in Irish Social policy – the same approach applies in Health, Disability Services and in the past in areas such as industrial schools.  Whatever about its origins – a pauper State seeking access to property and services from institutions such as the Church, it now represents either an abdication of responsibility or, worse, an adherence to Victorian attitudes to relative poverty and provision, in one of the wealthiest countries in the world.  Without diverting from the current crisis, this needs to be reassessed in all areas of Social policy.

Given the intolerable crisis we have today – 8,160 people homeless and nearly 3,000 children – anything less than “The State Will Provide” response from the Government will not suffice. Even if we are to only do so on a temporary basis until the crisis has abated.

There’s nothing in EU Law that forbids a country from acting to protect its citizens. Therefore it follows that there is nothing in EU Law (including the Debt to GDP rules) that can prevent the government from raising money to build social housing. The “off balance sheet” argument is a red herring. They raised over €5bn to pay off the IMF. To not do the same for our citizens is an indictment of Right Wing slaves to the “free” market ideology. It is an indictment of us as a society and a country.

It is within our powers, as the 14th wealthiest country in the world, to build 10,000 social houses in the next 12-18 months. Any legislative roadblocks can and must be given the NAMA treatment. Exceptional times call for exceptional measures.

If we can create NAMA overnight, ignoring legislative processes, to stop a Bank crisis and we refuse to do the same for our citizens then any plans from the Third Emergency Housing Summit are only window dressing.

The pressure is on, Fine Gael are rattled by claims that their ideological blindness to the less well off in our country have exacerbated this crisis. Campaigns like #MyNameIs have embarrassed them and stung a Taoiseach obsessed with his image into action. This action must happen now and it must be on a scale that dwarfs the current 2021 plan.

Time is of the essence here. While things are bad they are about to get much worse. There’s 14,367 Buy To Let Mortgages at repossession stage. There is no incentive or reason for the Vulture Funds that own these properties to rent them to the social housing/homeless part of the market. This will be like throwing petrol on a bonfire unless our government turns “may” into Must.

We have the means, the finance is available and the solutions are simple:

Make the provision of housing a right, at least until the crisis has abated.

Use the NAMA exceptionalist model to protect the citizens.

Commit to building 10,000 social houses in the next 12-18 months.

Make the Departments accountable and have repercussions for failure.

Incentivise/Legislate that the Vultures make their properties available to the Social Housing schemes.

Deliver.
Fine Gael are 84 years old today. The Taoiseach used this occasion to remind people that he wants “to build a Republic of Opportunity”. Well Leo, it’s no good waiting for opportunity to knock when you don’t have a front door.
Tony Groves  

 

The Boy Who Shouldn’t Be King

A long time ago, in a village far, far away a boy was creating havoc. He was lashing out at the villagers, calling them All Ireland Champion Whingers and telling fantastical tales of adventures that never happened. The villagers, fed up of the Boy Who Cried 2 Pints, sent the lad to bed with no supper.

But the boy was not to be stopped. Deciding to run away, he put on his fathers suit and climbed aboard a small boat to the mysterious island known as Dáiland. As well as people similar to those in the village the island of Dáiland was filled with malicious Beasts known as Politician’s. The boy, trying to find his place, spent years ducking and dodging them.

Slowly, he grew more confident. He recalled the tale of the Man With 2 Pints and how he’d tricked some of the villagers. So he began to tell even taller tales. Extravagant stories and preposterous claims were told to the Beasts over and over. He spoke to them of a place where everything was wonderful that he called Retrospective Recapitalisation Land.

He spun fables of his feats of daring-do; including one about how he faced down the Evil Hordes looking to carry away all the ATM’s in Dáiland. The boy convinced the Politicians to make him their king with promises of things he called Allowances and Unvouched Expenses.

As king, the boy ordered the Politician’s do to all sorts of wild and crazy things. He told them the more they break things the better the Recovery will be. The Political Beasts, so excited by the freedom of not having to tell the truth anymore, went stomping all over the island. Kicking Austerity Dust into the faces of the inhabitants and telling them it’s part of Keeping the Recovery Going.

The people, once they’d spat the Austerity Dust out of their mouths, weren’t pleased. They set about organising and challenging the Political Beasts. The Beasts, worried that their party might be cut short, turned on the boy king. But he was ready for them, he knew the best way to cover up a lie was to tell an even bigger lie.

So the boy king told the Beasts that he was following orders from a higher power, which he called “The Troika”. He said he’d gladly step aside and let one of the Beasts take over, but he warned them that The Troika eat Beasts for breakfast! Needless to say, the Beasts scurried back all over Dáiland and told the inhabitants of The Troika and how they’d better not make anymore trouble, for all their sake’s.

The boy king, so happy that he’s lies had gone unchallenged went back to partying. He even came up with a way to handle the occasional misstep. Whenever a Beast or an Islander would step out of line, the boy king would simply have them locked up in an Inquiry. And yet…

And yet the boy king felt incomplete. No amount of records set, achievements or accomplishments could fill the hollow in his heart. The boy king, if he had the ability to tell the truth, would have admitted that he would never truly be happy in the knowledge that a village far, far away is still missing its idiot.

 

Tony Groves March 2017

Any similarities to people living or dead are purely coincidental…

A War of Words

When the Irish Times published a glossary of Alt-Right terms my echo chamber lost its mind. When I spewed my badly punctuated thoughts on NAMA on these pages I was grammatically held bang to rights. Words, even in this text speak era, still hold value. Words still have power and given the Alt-Right got its own glossary, I thought I’d try my hand at doing a Chumocracy Glossary. I should probably start with Chumocracy.

Chumocracy: a system of governance run by and for the Arms of the State and their Chums. I’d love to say I crated this phrase, but I stole it from someone referring to the Tory Toff Infighting around the time of the Brexit campaign. Eamon Dunphy refers to it as Official Ireland, but I think Chumocracy has a more onomatopoeic flow.

Accountability: a situation where a Chumocracy member is forced to issue a statement of deep regret, or a statement refuting findings against them. Once complete the contrite individual can usually return to their snout to the trough or pull the chord on a golden parachute pension.

Pronespeak: a series of phrases that are seemingly benign, but are actually malignant tumours on the body politic .For example: “not aware of, or privy to” and the old chestnut “let me just be clear”. These phrases rarely mean what they say and quite often they mean the exact opposite.

Populism: a smear used by Chumocracy members to describe anybody outside their groupthink bubble. Frequently thrown at an individual who has the temerity to question the morality of putting free(rigged) market ideology ahead of social crises.

Complex Issue: a term used to explain away the fact that those in power have failed to do anything about a particular issue right up until six hours before it becomes an RTE Prime Time Special. Usually the nodding heads, not wanting to be seen to be stupid, nod along and accept this explanation. Sure haven’t the government agreed to set up a…

Commission of Inquiry: a method of placating public outcry against injustices that are (more often than not) within the remit of the State to address, but might result in embarrassment for a Chumocracy member; see Accountability.

Stability: the state of being out of your depth and screwing up at your job, while simultaneously claiming that you are a safe pair of hands. For example Alan Kelly and Simon Coveney brought Stability to homelessness crisis.

Political Correspondent: a name used for many Journalist’s who allow Politicians make false or misleading claims (like “I refute” and “I was unaware of”) and often use their own type of Pronespeak, like “a source close to X said” or “a senior party member told me”, thus removing Accountability (see above).

Advice of the Attorney General: a phrase which gives the user a form of diplomatic immunity against charges of idiocy; particularly useful when trying to turn a simple matter into a Complex Issue.

Speaking Truth to Power: a Leadership Skill of standing up to the EU Commission when defending the Apple Tax decision, while prostrating oneself in front of the EU Commission when talking about Irish Water.

Independent News & Media: see Pronespeak.

Communicorp: see above.

Mea Culpa: it means No Worries For The Rest Of Your Days.

Tony Groves March 2017 Image result for lies cartoon

 

 

Vultures, Eagles & Turkeys

There’s a famous (or should that be infamous) episode of barbarity carried out against the Roman Empire in 88bce, known as the Asiatic Vespers. The people of Asia Minor, fed up of Roman rules, Roman taxes and Roman hegemony, rose up violently. In just one day the Roman population across Asia Minor was slaughtered; it’s estimated between 80,000 – 150,000 people were killed. This was a scrupulously prepared and viciously executed plan.

The fallout of which led to a series of wars that would last decades and pile countless more bodies on to the fire. Nonetheless, the Asiatic Vespers stand as a ruthless warning from history. A government (Rome was still a Republic) that has lost its legitimacy, has lost its mandate to govern.

This week we’ve seen, for the first time in it’s history, the Public Accounts Committee have submitted findings supported by the Majority and not Unanimously. This is a significant break of protocol and not just because the disagreement was over the wording about Michael Noonan and his handling (or alleged mishandling) of the Project Eagle case.

It was significant because it was part of another underlying trend at the hypocritical heart of Irish Politics. A secret 11th Commandment, not included in the Bible; Thou shalt do as we say, but thou shalt not do as we do.

You see, we’ve been lectured for weeks, whether by Pat Kenny calling us thick, or Alan Kelly calling us Populists, or Simon Coveney saying something. I can never remember what Simon says…

Anyway, apparently we have to pay water charges or we risk EU fines. We had to have austerity because we all partied. We have to have accept families in hotels because the banks balance sheets are still vulnerable. So on and so forth.

In the financial world there are rules, lots of them and contrary to popular opinion these rules are overseen by a Regulator. Many of these rules are arbitrary, some are helpful and then there are a handful of ones that are plain old common sense. One such common sense rule relates to Financial Dealings with Politically Exposed Persons, or PEP’s.

In dealing with the EU Anti Money Laundering Directive there are different criteria, based on the individual/entity and the service provided. They roughly fall under three headings: Simplified Due Diligence, Standard Due Diligence and Enhanced Due Diligence. A voucher for a Macari’s Snack Box to the first person who correctly guesses which category Politicians fall into.

Michael Noonan made a bad judgement call in meeting Cerberus the day BEFORE the sale of Project Eagle. This sale has resulted in a loss to the state in the range of €220 million. I’m not going to rake over the coals of this toxic fire sale. You can do that here and here.

I am going to point out that a Department of Finance, that is doing it’s job, might look into the EU Anti Money Laundering Act. I’m going to guess that they’d discover that a meeting with the Minister for Finance is a meeting with a Politically Exposed Person. I’d then be fairly certain that they would see this same meeting is covered under the Enhanced Due Diligence Regulations. Finally, I’d hope they might realise that breaches (if discovered) of these regulations can be punished with sanctions and or fines. The fines can be of “up to €5 million in the case of natural persons, and fines of up to twice the amount of any profits gained or losses avoided.”

I’m a banker, so my sums aren’t great, but I reckon fines of up to twice the loss (as confirmed by the Comptroller & Auditor General) could amount to €440 million. Do I think a Department of Finance that has it’s head buried in the sand is looking into this? Probably not. Do I believe a Government that is busy trying to delegitimise even the wording of a mildly critical report into this debacle, is going to look for our money back? I’m not holding my breath.

It does make me think of the Asiatic Vespers and how fed up people were of hearing “Do as we say, don’t do as we do”. I’m fed up too.

 

Tony Groves

 

 

 

Straw Man Polls

Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics; unoriginal and cliche, but so often true. None more so than when we forensically autopsy Opinion Polls. Despite predicting Brexit, Trump and our own 2016 General Election incorrectly, Polls are still afforded a undeserved gravitas. Today they are less of a weather vane of the electorate and more a tool of manipulation.

People who like to be seen as “Centrist” are led into the arms of the Poll topping Party. The warm embrace of the herd is an attractive lure to people who are generally too busy to give the talent pool of politics much thought. The consensus of a Poll can take the hassle out of voting.

For supporters of smaller parties or independents, Polls can act as a disincentive to vote. They’re reported in such a way as to tell an already disillusioned citizen that their views are in such a small minority that the very exercise of voting is futile. Pollsters constantly tell people, who are already on the fringes of society, that they don’t vote in enough numbers to change their lot in life. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy of political stagnation.

Nervous politicians can cynically use Polls to gauge which manifesto promises they should make (only to break later) in the seat retention race. Polls can bring on Leadership Heaves against a Political Corpse, or they can placate restless backbenchers. Maybe it’s better the Cadaver you know?

Take this Irish Times poll for example. It shows Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, at 28% and 29% respectively, are electorally viewed as Fianna Gael. When Pat Leahy went on Newstalk Breakfast’s with the Messrs Coleman & Williams, to explain how Fianna Gael’s support plummets when you poll people aged between 18-35, the lads were aghast. Really?

Imagine scratching your head in disbelief at the idea that the generation hammered by the 2008 Crash and the Age of Austerity would have an aversion to the Parties that oversaw the entire period? The mind boggles that their mind is boggled.

However, it was in the (whisper it) rise in the poll of Sinn Fein, that things took a more sinister turn and subtle biases surfaced. To explain I digress, your patience please…

Between 1872-1874 over 3,700,000 Buffalo were killed. Of this gargantuan slaughter, only 150,000 were killed by Native American Indians, that’s a little over 4%. The rest were butchered by the White Man; so bad was it that “the stench of rotting carcasses fouled the very winds of the Plains.” The stench of death, 96% due to the White Man, was 100% attached to the Indians. The Indian savage narrative was a convenient shroud to hide the brutality of our civilised Whites.

In much the same way, Polls are used to civilise our electorate. In a brilliant piece of analysis, Padraig O’Mara showed how in the run up to General Election 2016, with polls showing Sinn Fein trending up, media biases became more pronounced. 1,150 articles were processed and fed through a sentiment analysis engine, analysed one by one to reveal that Sinn Fein received twice the negative coverage than the other parties.

For every 100 articles on Sinn Fein, 61 were negative, 21 were neutral and 18 were positive. For combined Fianna Gael it was 28.5 negative, 22.5 neutral and 49 were positive.

Remember, the Indians did 4% of the killing and got 100% of the blame. 4% is coincidentally the same number Sinn Fein were up in the Irish Times Poll. But rather than focus on the growth of a party of opposition, Pat Leahy quickly changed the narrative, saying Sinn Fein “tends to underperform the polls in elections”.

Neither Pat, Shane nor Paul dared acknowledge that Sinn Fein’s under-performance is part driven by media biases. That inconvenient truth doesn’t suit the cosy narrative of a civilised Fianna Gael versus a savage Opposition.

Discussing Polls exposes commentator’s (conscious or unconscious) biases. Media bubble world views explain away the trend of electorate polarisation, in trendy journalistic ways. In much the same way as the White Man explained away the extermination of the Buffalo as “the only way…to allow civilisation advance”, the Pollsters explain away large swaths of the electorate as stray Buffalo, which will be corralled back into the fold in time for Election Day.

Polls can be inaccurate, culturally biased and financially driven to deliver results more favourable to whomever is paying the bill. Yet we discuss them, parse them and take learnings from them. So much importance is given to Polls that I’d hazard a guess that they are given more airtime and ink than the Homelessness and Hospital Trolley Crises combined. In fact, forget guessing. Can I get a show of hands…?

Tony Groves March 2016 Image result for polls cartoon

Mea Cúpla Focail…

There’s a story, perhaps apocryphal, that while preparing for the biggest court case of his nascent career, Cicero spent his time practising only oration and voice projection. When asked if he would not be better off spending his time learning the legal arguments for the case he is said to have replied “Only a bad orator need learn to be a lawyer”.

Now this story is most likely baseless, but I couldn’t help thinking about it while watching the Garda Whistleblower controversy evolve. Thirty Six times Clare Daly, Luke Ming Flanagan and Mick Wallace raised concerns to the Dail, but it was only when RTE broadcast the widely known slurs that the “government” deigned to actually address the issue.

When I say address it, I mean speak around it, throw shapes of indignation and then search for a vehicle to park it in, while they can get back to the business of making announcements and issuing plans that hope to lead to future announcements of updated plans. There has arguably never been a more inefficient government, nor have we ever had a more unambitious opposition.

All of which leads me to the vehicle of a public inquiry and back to Cicero.

Up and down the country Lawyers, Barristers and Public Relations Gurus are practising their oration and vocal projection. Headline writers can today file their copy for the upcoming Charleton Inquiry. Words like Defiant, Refute and Rebut will be thrown around like mea culpa’s at a Fine Gael Parliamentary Party meeting.

Phrases like “unaware of”, “not privy to”, “had no knowledge of” and “in the strongest possible terms” will be deemed acceptable answers to the most important questions.

All the while we will be placated with fluff pieces that assure the public that the Judge has the “power to compel” and “ask the hard questions” that will “bring closure”. Those responsible will point at the next person up in a vicious blame circle. Sincere expressions of sincere regret will be made that would make the Banking Inquiry blush.

There will be individual embarrassing moments and several more mea culpa’s before we arrive at a consensus that a good man was done down by a system and that because the system is to blame, nobody is to blame. Sure we all partied, on his good name.

Cicero won his case, he rose in esteem by defeating his rival orator (Hortensius)and climbed the rungs of power. The guilty party (Gaius Verres, Governor of Sicily) was sentenced to exile and was given the traditional nine days to squirrel away as much plunder to feather his retirement nest.

Our guilty parties will also be “exiled” and in the words of Oliver Callan subject to the full rigours of a massive pension. Cicero said we must “let the welfare of the people be the ultimate law”. Ultimately, I predict the conspirators and and participants in this sinister plot will fare out very well. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

tribunal

Tony Groves February 2016