Monday 22 December 2008

Job Loss, Part IV: Lumen

Last week I did two second round interviews. And by Friday I had an offer. I was very very grateful to have bagged a job offer in the current horrendous job market. Most of the companies I was initially interested in put hiring freezes in place after the financial crisis broke in late September and early October.

Today the second company contacted me with an offer. I was delighted, but had already decided to accept the first offer. So I rang immediately and explained that I wouldn't be accepting offer number two. I gave the genuine reason: the commute was two long (it would probably be around an hour and a half at each end of the day while the job I accepted is less than half an hour).

In some ways both jobs are similar, though the company I will work for is much smaller (around 30 people) than the one I turned down (recently taken over by a multinational). You could say the big one might be more secure, but in the current climate, it's not even possible to be sure. Job wise the one I turned down probably had the edge, but in terms of company culture and what the job really turns out like, well, these can only be discovered after.

So today I signed the contract with my new employer and I start in the middle of January.

I consider myself very fortunate to have found a job right now. It's certainly a nice way to go in to the Christmas period.

I had prepared myself for a much longer period out of work. And I think I had got myself into a routine that was workable - basically as much activity as I could. I was enjoying the extra time and I read quite a lot and even got around to writing a few bits.

Financially our household could have stuck it out for even another year - we had found ways to narrow the gap between various outgoings and modest income: this involved adding a few odds and ends to welfare. A few bits of writing for me, and some teaching work by bean Thomaltaigh. And of course a fairly tight approach to spending. That is not to say we had cut off all little luxuries. We were prepared to use some of my redundancy money for what it was designed for: keep us alive between jobs. But the idea was to not spend it all. It is easy to imagine more rainy days in the near to medium term.

So finance wasn't the main factor that would have nagged me going into next year still unemployed. Not finance and not idleness. It was more practical. First, I felt the job market would get worse next year not better. So being unemployed in April could easily turn into being unemployed by next September - a full year. That would lead to the second problem. I feel that many employers take a dim view of long breaks in a CV. I could be wrong but that is my impression. I think this is ridiculously narrow minded, but if it's a reality it would have to be dealt with.

Therefore I felt that if by next September I was still out of work then my odds would start to decline. This is what urged me to do all I could to get back into employment now.

I hope now that it turns out fairly decent and that it lasts at least long enough so that light starts to appear at the end of the hideous economic tunnel we have entered.

Sin a bhfuil a chairde. Nollaig shona daoibh go léir agus guím gach rath oraibh sa bhliain úr.

Tuesday 16 December 2008

Peig is back!

Yes, that Peig: the one that a young conservative, nationalist, and Catholic state employed to revive its native tongue. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Peig's death and both the national broadcaster and some of the print media have been reappraising her significance.

For the guardians of the fledgling nation, Peig's world was not only an authentic remnant of a great, ancient and oppressed culture, it also contained the elements from which a modern, proud nation could be forged. The people of Dún Chaoin and An Blascaod showed perseverance in the face of hardship; their way of life was wholesome; their faith was unshakeable; they lived in a kind of pre-modern harmony; above all their culture was Gaelic, indigenous, and part of an historic continuity that had survived centuries of attempted annihilation.

And so it was that Peig was pressed into the service of the Free State, and later the Republic. That much is not terribly surprising. After all, the mythic belief in the power of shared ancestary and a glorious past reached its (often bloody) peak in the first half of the twentieth century. And the idea of employing the apparatus of state, especially the education system, to preach the nationalist myth was a familiar formula.

It is tempting now to ridicule the naivety of our early leaders. How could they have been so wrong? But to do so is to apply the insights of a lesson in nationalism and globalisation of which our predecessors couldn't possibly have dreamed. Yes, huge chunks of straw were gliding by in the wind, but it is far too easy for us now to quench the idealism and hope which carried our nation into being. And idealism and hope which were only slowly ground out of existence in the unforgiving mill of twentieth century history.

Yet it is at least interesting, and possibly useful, to look back at exactly how different the future turned out. In the last two decades of the century, the Catholic church went into a steep decline. The latest development in many rural parishes is that there is no longer a priest to administer the sacraments. Parish councils are being established to run the affairs of the parish and lay people are carrying out much of the ceremonial aspects of church life also. Lay people who are not studying to be priests are being ordained as deacons in order to perform functions such as baptism.

It is hardly possible for me to chart the extraordinary transformation that has taken place in the last thirty years in how we live in Ireland – and the world. Suffice to say that we have melded in rather well into a world culture whose main values are consumerism, hedonism, materialism, and self promotion. We have probably become as rich materially as we have poor spiritually.

And leave it all to the Gaelic culture. The invented variety has thrived in the form of the Gaelic games. And traditional Irish music has enjoyed an amazing revival and has infused a whole plethora of modern genres in Ireland and abroad. But the key marker of national identity – the national language – is on life support.

I am certain that many people will not agree that the Irish language is dead. Under the strictest definition – no more speakers – Irish is surely alive, and probably kicking. But numbers alone say very little about the health of a language. The language has entered a kind of linguistic purgatory. It was put there by a nation whose attitude towards it has become schizophrenic. We profess to love it, but cannot learn it. We do not want it to die, but can barely keep it alive. We have recently legislated for its wider use, but we use it less and less.

There are thousands of people the length an breadth of Ireland who have learned the language. But the levels of competence varies so widely and their opportunity to use the language is so circumscribed that any notion of a speaking public is almost ridiculous. The language continues to die in the Gaeltacht (now many primary schools within the Gaeltacht are having to offer the curriculum in English because the locals cannot cope with instruction in Irish). Enthusiasts always point to the gaelscoileanna. But there is no convincing evidence that these lead to Irish speaking families much less communities. (And as I have noted elsewhere, the demise of the Irish language section in most major book stores must surely be another indicator).

Language use – and language death – are extremely complex social phenomena, just as language itself is one of the most complex capabilities we humans possess. And in truth, how the fate of a language plays out is dependent on a bewildering interaction of uncountable parameters, which must include cultural norms, identity, status, and the most severe of all, economics. When all this mix got together, it did for Irish what it is doing to thousands of other languages, and that is, it pushed it towards extinction.

But Irish will not disappear entirely. It will simply become the preserve of the enthusiast, the hobbyist, and alas the academic. And this is what brought forth my original thought about Peig being back. I heard a debate, indeed a very interesting debate, on Radio one in which a panel of academics discussed the merits of Peig's narrative style, her place in the feminist canon, her lonely position in a world being pushed out of existence by modernity, and her awareness of a readership and what it wanted to hear. The discussion was, of course, in English. And informed and sharp though it was, there was a faint echo of elegy in the timbre of the discussion, a kind of weak signal emanating from between the words, a signal from a world that is now dead and distant.

Peig's world is distant, yet strangely recent. In rural Ireland at least, the journey from a life that was simple, almost pre-modern, intensely local, and drenched in tradition to one that is frenetic, fragmented, and post modern, was dizzyingly swift. It often happened withing a single lifetime. In a recent talk at the Abbey, Seamus Heaney explained that the immense, disorienting changes since his childhood were at least partly at the root of a trauma that found its expression through his poetry.

It's as if we have been propelled into the future without time to consume history as it happens. It's a kind of time warp, a discontinuity in time, and probably all modern societies are reeling from its effects. We simply haven't come to terms with what has been happening. Hence the anguish, and the confusion about who and where we are. And I think this goes some way to explaining our difficult relationship with the Irish language. We know it is dead, but we cannot bring ourselves to bury it. We are in effect, attending an endless wake, and no one is prepared to take the body to the cemetery. A quote from Pearse captures the kind of intensity we feel for a truth that we love but which is no longer possible: "No man dies for what he knows to be true. Men die for what they want to be true, for what some terror in their hearts tells them is not true". Tá Peig marbh, ach mairfidh sí go deo.

Friday 5 December 2008

Defending Economic Growth

For John Gibbons writing in the Irish Times yesterday, economic growth is "the secular religion infecting every society on Earth via globalisation". Economists are "priests of growth", "alchemists", or "sorcerers", peddling a creed that is leading us to exhaust natural resources and wreck the planet.

I think I know what Mr Gibbons is trying to say: that our consumer society, with its insatiable appetite for resources, and its spiritual emptiness, is hideous and unsustainable. Unless we change, we will bestow a damaged and depleted planet on future generations, and they will hardly forgive us for it. If these are Mr Gibbons sentiments, then we are in agreement.

But Mr Gibbons has taken aim at the wrong target. Economic growth, per se, is not the problem. Economic growth is merely an increase in value created. Its consequences are an increase in our standard of living. From economic growth we have acquired all the great things that we could never surrender – longer healthier lives, education, leisure time, the ability to travel widely. Indeed, civilisation itself could not have come about without economic growth.

The key ingredient in economic growth is innovation -- not a hike in the level of resources used. In fact, the beauty of innovation is that it allows us to do more with less. Think of how the miles per gallon has extended for a family saloon. Given the understanding we now have of climate change, we may need to reduce this to near zero. With innovation, it is possible to imagine such an outcome. Standford economist Paul Romer, one of the profession's eminent scholars on growth, explains it using an analogy:

Economic growth occurs whenever people take resources and rearrange them in ways that are more valuable. A useful metaphor for production in an economy comes from the kitchen. To create valuable final products, we mix inexpensive ingredients together according to a recipe. The cooking one can do is limited by the supply of ingredients, and most cooking in the economy produces undesirable side effects. If economic growth could be achieved only by doing more and more of the same kind of cooking, we would eventually run out of raw materials and suffer from unacceptable levels of pollution and nuisance. Human history teaches us, however, that economic growth springs from better recipes, not just from more cooking. New recipes generally produce fewer unpleasant side effects and generate more economic value per unit of raw material.

The key, therefore, is innovation. But the direction innovation takes is usually driven by our values as reflected in consumer tastes or in government regulations. Today, with the evolution in technology, all cars in Ireland could be say, twice as efficient as those we drove in the 80s. But instead, many people have chosen to drive SUVs. The challenge then, is not to curtail growth, but to shape our values in ways that lead to a sustainable way of life.

The demonisation of economists is far too easy. The field of political economy is so huge that tarring all practitioners with the same dismal brush, is as naive as it is ungenerous. Remember, for every hack babbling on the radio about the housing market or interest rates, there are thousands thinking about how inflation affects unemployment, how firms can be efficient, or what developing countries need to break free from poverty.

Mr Gibbons accused economists of placing no value on forests. Economists have used the term 'externality' for something not directly involved in an economic decision or calculation. But this is merely the economists way of saying that this cost does not matter to us here and now. And this decision in turn is usually based on the values assigned by society at large.

Once we became conscious of pollution as a major negative result of production, we, as a society, forced it back into the equation. The results were stunning (rememer smog, CFCS, etc). While Mr Gibbons expects the economist to be our moral compass, I would say we need to look into our own hearts. If that forest has a value, let's express that as a society, through our elected representatives, through our membership of support groups, or by hugging the trees if necessary.

Sinn Féin on Lisbon - Waiting for the Revolution

Sinn Féin’s stance on Lisbon shows us that they remain irredeemable purists. Despite all the evidence that governments across Europe have no stomach for re-opening the decade long reform process, Sinn Féin doggedly persist in arguing for renegotiation (Mary Lou McDonald, IT 2 Dec).

After ten years of painstaking talks, compromises, and fudges, Europe found a formula that all governments could sign. Referenda in France and the Netherlands saw it rejected, yet no essential changes could be made to a formula that is perhaps the only accord that can allow twenty seven nations to move forward. Do Sinn Féin have any grasp of the bewildering multitude of views that political leaders across Europe hold on how the Union should be reformed? The differences are so vast and varied that arriving at Lisbon at all was something of a miracle.

But no matter. Sinn Féin cannot bear surrendering their ideological purity. Not for them a pragmatic compromise. But wait a minute. Isn’t this the party that began by trying to bomb its way to a thirty two county socialist republic, and ended sharing power with Ian Paisely in a devolved UK government? An astonishing compromise by any measure.

Why now the retreat from pragmatism and reality? In the North, Sinn Féin had to painfully relearn the lesson that Collins taught us: seize the best on offer, then build on it.

Lisbon is flawed but workable. It can make Europe more fit for purpose in the twenty first century. We should seize it, and build from there. No point hanging around for a revolution that will never come.

PS: McDonald made a number of points about the workings of the Oireachtas committee which its chair, Paschal Donohoe refutes here.

Thursday 27 November 2008

The Course of Life

Curriculum Vitae is Latin for 'the course of life'. Heaney with his penchant for dispensing with prepositions would call it 'life course'. The Latin seems to suggest that curriculum means a path, as in a track around a race course. Certainly, some would say a career feels like that: circular, repetitive, competitive, and intended to separate winners from losers. But not I.

These past few weeks I've had the dubious pleasure of revisiting my CV. Writing a CV has become a kind of art form. In an age that values style over substance, you really have have to shape your CV a certain way – details, summary of skills, employment, projects, and so on. The important thing is to throw in keywords. They tell me that the overworked HR mandarin no longer has time to read a CV, not to mention a cover letter. Instead, they now use key word parsers to sift through candidates to find ones with the most hits.

It seems such a shame that a whole career of training and toil could be cast into oblivion simply because HR have decided to become search engines instead of managers. (It all began when the changed from being personnel – who dealt with people, to being HR – who deal merely with resources who happen to be human. But that's another story).

So nowadays you have to write your CV with Google in mind. This seriously limits your scope for using the English language. It makes jargon mandatory. You are compelled to be customer facing, instead of just dealing with them. You have to enable things instead of just doing them. You have competence not ability. Something that can perform a task has functionality. You have to think horizontal, vertical, upskill, downturn, and then take a helicopter view. You have to commit all this verbal violence while claiming to have 'an excellent command of English'.

Given that firms lie all the time in their job ads, you have to wonder how much you can lie about on your CV. I try not to lie at all. Everything on my CV has a truth to it. If I say I have done a job in the past, it means I have gone through all phases of that job, from concept to execution. At least in my head. For me it is still perfectly true to claim you have done something, if you think you could have! There is a risk here of being accused of being Walter Mitty, but I think you can get way with it if you are at least close to the mark. For me it's a bit like saying, yes I have driven a jaguar, knowing that you have only ever driven a mini. You have told a fundamental truth: I have driven cars. Now, to claim you have flown an F15 would be stretching it. Walter Mitty would have argued that this too was fundamentally sound: I have been in charge of a fast vehicle. The trouble would come if your new employer placed you in the cockpit.

I have kept most of my old CVs going back to the days when I was at college looking for a Summer job. Those CVs glow in the innocence of youth. At college, I remember a friend of mine being stunned at seeing a certain name that he knew down as a referee. Why not? I asked. A convict? he replied in disbelief. Maybe deep down I thought my ref had paid his debt to society, but really, I just hadn't even thought of it. Nor did it ever matter.

I wonder if all CVs have a kind of life of their own? Even some of my early experience has evolved over time. The more I learned about my profession the more I massaged the content of my earlier jobs. It's a bit like going back to the same canvass and touching up the background. Again, all of this in an effort to be as truthful as possible. As if I can say, on reflection, yes, I was rather central to that project. True, at the time I was peripheral, but as my life went on I became more central to it, or it to me. Or something like that!

I cannot decide whether it is a tragedy or a blessing that writing a CV does not involve the true meaning of the term: the life course. At one level it seems sad to formally revisit, reflect on, and have to show, only one dimension of a human life. True, the prospective employer is looking for the human side too: are you good with people? do you communicate well? are you proactive? can you cope with very long hours – I mean stress?

But the employer is not really looking for humanity – just a package of so called soft skills. If real humanity were required, you could talk openly about your weaknesses. You are timid or forgetful. You don't like meetings. You fear change. You take decisions but cannot cope with detail. But alas, any admission of humanity and you are set for the dustbin. (Interviews are dramatically shortened by revealing your humanity. Once you mention any weakness, a forced and lethal smile grows on the face of the employer, and very quickly, you're on your way).

But perhaps too it is a blessing. The task of writing down your frailties would be far more daunting than compiling a list of jargon. You would have to peer into your very core – to face your inner essence, with all its lights and shadows. And over time you'd see how the joy and hurt along that race track molded your life. You'd see it all, right there before you in words: tender and quick, wounded but strong, fearful and passionate - the indomitable self.

Tuesday 25 November 2008

FÁS: A sloth in Ireland's Organisational Zoo?

Recent revelations of lavish spending by Rody Molloy and his team at the head of FÁS have provoked an outcry. At a time when citizens are experiencing a painful decline in their standard of living, people have learned that the state agency partly responsible for generating employment has been splashing out a shameful abundance of perks.

As far as I know Shane Ross was central to getting some of the spenging figures out there. He said today on Kenny's radio show that at first FÁS tried to fend off his requests for information under the freedom of information act. But he persisted and got his hands on the goodies.

I think there are two important elements to this which go far wider than FÁS itself. The first is the way in which huge chunks (perhaps now the bulk) of executive functions have been farmed out to agencies in the name of efficiency and under the banner of separating policy (retained by government departments) from implementation (now largely in the hands of the agencies.

There is absolutely no question that the overall structure needs to be reshaped from the roots up – in terms of co-ordinating strategy, appointments, transparency, and value for money.

The second issue that this emphasises is harder to pin dow. It is the prevalence in Ireland of wink and nod government, of patronage and close networks of old pals. And all this in a culture where the notions of civic responsibility and political integrity are almost entirely absent. (This is why Ross deserves credit – in this story his actions are remarkable if only for the fact that nearly all of our political elite know what's going on in FÁS across the myriad of state agencies, but none are willing to break the unsaid rule of letting sleeping dogs lie)

Turning back to the first issue. Our state agencies. The huge number of new agencies created under the Ahern regime is truly stunning. But that is not in itself the problem. The problem is how it was done and the way in which these agencies are themselves governed. Earlier this year the OECD examined the Irish public service and in part of that review they look at the issue of agencification. Below I have pulled out some of what they had to say.

First, the OECD give a general view that “in the absence of clear guidelines or consistent management, however, the proliferation of the agency structure in Ireland, has posed significant challenges in relation to governance, capacity and performance within agencies.”

Taking a closer look, the OECD found that “the current governance system is not transparent for the Public Service, let alone for citizens and private companies, and the management and accountability of the Public Service as a whole has become more challenging as the result of the particular path taken by agencification. This problem is compounded by the fact that, at the time they were created, little thought was given to establishing systematic arrangements for the oversight of agencies or to the idea of governance in general. As a result, the establishment of agencies in Ireland has not improved the delivery of flexible and responsive government services.”

Not only are the agencies internally difficult to penetrate, but the whole idea and concept is as vague as the kind of language used by Aherna himself. The OECD continues that “in practice there is no widely accepted idea of what is or what constitutes an agency in Ireland. This makes it very difficult to track the size of this sector or to analyse its impact. For example, no official Irish statistics are available for staff numbers in agencies in Ireland either today or 10 or 20 years ago. There are currently more than 500 non-commercial agencies in Ireland

Furthermore, “there is no agencification plan in Ireland per se. Instead, agencies have been established on a case-by-case basis. As a result, the vision and policy goals behind agencification are unclear, and agencification seems to have responded to a multiplicity of implicit objectives – some of which are inconsistent – rather than to a strategic vision about the functioning and structure of government.”

And so we arrive in the animal garden: “this situation has led to an organisational “zoo” where citizens, private firms and government have little clarity on how the Public Service operates. The proliferation of organisational forms with different governance arrangements, the lack of logic in the control environment and the absence of investment in steering capacity have hindered line departments from developing a proper steering relationship with agencies

A couple of years ago the think tank TASC looked into the growth of state agencies. According to their survey of the sector, the biggest problem was even getting a handle on the size of the whole mess “however, an absence of good information systems means that accurate assessment of their nature, scale and significance is difficult to establish. The fragmented manner in which they are established results in confusion, inconsistency and opacity.

TASC were looking at it not necessarily from a point of economic efficiency but with regard to democratic accountability. What they found was a system closer to a monarchical patronage than a modern democracy. “There is something in the region of 5,000 appointments to Public Bodies at national level alone, the majority in the gift of Government. Given the number of these appointments and the importance of the function which the appointees must perform, it is a big gap in our accountability structure that Ireland has no clearly established mechanism to ensure that appointments are free from undue political or other influence or that there is an effective independent appointments system in place. As of now, ministers and senior civil servants are responsible for appointing the majority of members to Public Bodies. Moreover, the influence of the Oireachtas in the making of these public appointments is negligible.”

We'll see now in the FÁS case whether TASC's final indictment can be verified “Without clear criteria there is the danger of making appointments where the appointee has either mediocre ability or is lacking the appropriate skills and knowledge. There is a problem of lack of accountability of those appointed. The power of dismissal is, theoretically, a considerable one, but one which in practice is rarely used.

To me the OECD writer was kind to liken the chaotic, dysfunctional, and ineffective nest of agencies to a zoo. It strikes me more like a jungle. But it is not merely the product of unclear thought and ad hoc decision making. And this is where I return to my second point, the political culture in Ireland.

If the Bertie series wasn't revealling in the narrow sense, in terms of why Bertie accepted cash or took a decision to cross Reynolds, it made up for it in another way. It showed Ahern at the centre of a culture of patronage – the proud and arrogant drumcondra Mafia, the developers who felt the had to be friends with the boss, the favours without trace. And it revealed a leader that has never and is incapable of comprehending the notion of public service and integrity in a modern democracy. Ahern tried to brush Haughey out of his past when he enterred power in 1997 and stated publicly that no officer of state should take money from anyone under any circumstances because it left the wrong impression. But he said this out of necessity, not out of conviction, and it is a message that he never again returned to.

The trouble for Ireland is that Ahern was only exceptional because he embodied the culture of nod and wink so completely, so fully. He was merely the best – or from the country's point of view – worst, of a bad lot. The FÁS shenanigans were inevitable not because Ahern had a sloppy view of public office, but because his view is deeply embedded in the DNA of our political system. Indeed, it spans far wider than that, and is likely buried somewhere deep in the national psyche.

Some improvement can be made by revising the structures that the OECD and TASC refer to. The founding fathers of the US knew that the main need for sound and robust democratic accountability is to save us from ourselves. Nothing has changed since.

But in Ireland we need to grow up as a nation. We need to admit the horrendous cost of our acceptance of political patronage and politics by envelope. We need to realise we cannot have the public services we crave, we cannot make the state (and other actors such as banks) work for us, unless we demand integrity and accountability. That is why it would be equally as valid to march on Leinster house in protest against corruption, waste, and arrogance in public office as it is to march to preserve medical cards or any other vital service. And until a rage like that builds in the public heart, we will continue to be surrounded by a tragic field of sloths and opportunists in the dreary confinement of our chaotic organisational zoo.

Monday 10 November 2008

Job Loss, Part III

Two months have now passed since my ex-boss shocked me to the roots with the unexpected announcement that I was being laid off. (See here and here) In the first few days or weeks I felt that my life had been completely blown off course. To borrow from Wilde, I felt like a ship without a rudder in a night without a star. Since then, while I have failed to find a route to a new World, I have had a rather interesting journey.

I made one very informative physical journey - to Brussels, where, over a couple of days I met a range of senior officials, MEPs, and the Irish Commissioner. For most people the notion of such a journey would draw groans of boredom, but for me, an EU anorak, it was almost fascinating. I've written a little about this particular visit elsewhere, so I'll spare the details here.

The important journey these past two months has been internal. I have used the time and space to push back the hurry of the world and try to let life happen at its own pace. Until now my professional life, and therefore my real life, has been like paddling upriver against a stubborn current. You were expected - and expected yourself - to keep pulling on the oars no matter what. It was imperative to edge upstream towards some notional destination. These past weeks, however, I've allowed myself to dissolve into the current, to meander back, drinking the wonder of life around me on the banks.

It seems strange that it was only after I became unhooked from the yoke of work that I fully realised its immense burden. Before I lost my job, I couldn't notice the solemn commuters, crammed in carriages, the tired silence in their bellies, the strained brows, the laptop bags loaded with pressure. Instead I saw copies of myself, happy in the inevitability of it all. But now I began to notice nuances that I had missed, or perhaps refused to see. I saw how a delay of single minute at a tram stop magnified the anxiety on the face of a young woman. Perhaps she had outsourced the care of her children to a creche and was running late. The precious minutes between tram and pillow were ticking away.

In town, a hurried suit, umbrella in one hand, a case in the other, darted to catch the dying flashes of a little orange man on a traffic light. A woman lugging a laptop emerged from the crowd, walking briskly, her eyes misty with distance. In an office block near Charlemont a random constellation of lights shimmered, remote signals of work that never ends. At six pm, everywhere I look, I see the penalty of work, its cruel toll etched into the very fabric of our lives.

Being out of work has turned the week upside down. Even when work was particularly interesting, I had always looked forward to the weekend. It was like coming up for air - essential and delightful. A form of temporary release. The downside was the Tyranny of weekend shopping. Sadly, the entire infrastructure of urban living is designed to just about cope with the surge of weekend demand. Now however, I can wallow in the vast spaces of mid week shopping. Streetscapes and shopping centres are open, brighter, calmer, pumped with oxygen. Shop assistants wear a smile and have a chance to provide, well, assistance. The man in the coffee shop has time to mention the weather, and I have time to learn his name is Alessandro. I imagine that as we approach Christmas the contrast between these two worlds - week and weekend - will fold into a single, frenzied madness, but it was pleasure to have enjoyed the difference for a while at least.

There have been dozens of little things that I had wanted to do but couldn't get around to. I started using my handful of books on cooking again. Basically this meant looking up and then buying ingredients. This is a break with the workaday routine of rushing to the supermarket and collecting the essentials in well worn sweep of known shelves: a pasta sauce here and packet of rice there. Instead, I now try to pick out at least one solid culinary adventure per week. And then go out in search of ingredients at a leisurely pace.

Before, dinner was simply a matter of throwing the basics into pots and willing them to be ready. At the cooker now, however, I can take my time, plan a bit, experiment, hover casually, listen to radio, sing along.

There have been other odd jobs too. A trip to the national archives here, and an afternoon of DIY there.

One superb joy of being out of work is having more time with my 15 month old son. He is still in creche much of the time, but I take him out for days at a time, and even when he's in there, I often leave him in late or take him out early. He is an addiction. He is a sponge for affection, and hoovers up kisses and mad, sustained hugs.

My time off has also allowed me to return to literature. For me this has meant leaping back into the two forms I most enjoy - the personal essay and short fiction. In short fiction I have returned to my heroes - Richard Ford, Tobias Wolff, John Cheever, Vladimir Nabokov. And I have found new treasures - like the marvellous "Dog Heaven", by Stephanie Vaughan, a truly wonderful example of the short story. I found this in audio form on the New Yorker Fiction website. I have listened to it three or four times, each time discovering more nuances and connections in this complex, inventive, and delightful tale.

I came across a personal essay that struck so many inner chords that I must have chimed for several minutes. It was "For my Brothers and Sisters in the Failure Business" by Seymour Krim. He says a lot about work, and even more about the notion of failure, all of which is just right for a person in my position. Krim wrote "It is still your work or role that finally gives your definition in our society, and the thousands of people who I believe are like me are those who have never found the professional skin to fit the riot in their souls".

Over these last few weeks, the state of my soul could hardly be described as a riot, but there certainly was some kind of ruction. For the moment, I have sought to let it rage, for no doubt I will have to call it off soon enough.

How Dash Died

Wee Dash grew up just across the road from us. He was four or five years older than the rest of us, but we all played together as children.

As the eldest, Dash was always in charge. He always seemed to enjoy the mantle of leadership. And he was good at it: as six year olds he had us eating out of is hand, sometimes literally.

I remember the time he converted their little back garden into a show jumping course. He had set up a variety of obstacles to mimic what we had seen on TV. Then he timed us younger children as we trotted around hopping over the fences pretending to be Eddie Macken or Harvey Smith. Dash would provide the commentary to an imaginary crowd - " and a clear round for Paul Darragh".

Dash also organised more important expeditions - like the building of a hut in Walls's field or the raid on a silage pit to collect tyres for bonfire night. And I remember he put more thought into these things and insisted on a form of discipline, in a way that we never saw in the other older boys.

As far as I remember, around the intercert Dash dropped out of school and took odd jobs here and there before settling into a regular job as a painter. It was about this time that his talent on the football field began to show. Dash was small, and like the best small players, he had a gift for being evasive - he could switch direction in the blink of an eye. And above all, he had oodles of skill.

But as he entered his twenties Dash developed a growing dependence on alcohol. At the time stories circulated that he would show up half tanked for training. Over time it clawed him under, and prematurely ended a promising career on the field.

By the time he was thirty his addiction had consumed him almost entirely. He would drink only raw spirits. They said he'd down a half bottle, at any time of the day, then collapse into a stupor, then hours later wake and start again.

I remember meeting him ocassionally when I'd come home from Galway. He was wasting away physically, and I always thought there was a look of defeat and shame in his eyes. After a number of failed attempts during his early thirties, however, he eventually managed to cut himself free of his terrible affliction.

A couple of years ago he parked the bottle and got a steady job. Then he got a little house, of which he was fiercly proud. My mother said he kept it like a doll's house, bright, dainty, and impeccably tidy.

Dash got involved in supporting local Sinn Féin candidates. I didn't really know him in recent years, but I would say he had a traditional, nationalist outlook. Either way, he got involved and got a great kick out of election campaigns and local meetings.

Then everything - young commander, athlete, recovered alcoholic, local activist, a half a lifetime of hurt and hope - all this, ended in an instant, terrifying thwack.

Last Sunday morning, Dash and his friend were sailing along the clear, open road to Ballyshannon. Out in the distance, coursing towards them, was a young man, drunk on high speed, brimming with reckless youth, and pushing his car forward like a missile.

The speeding car went out of control and detonated into Dash's car like an angry bomb. It discharged its energy in a violent shockwave that destroyed sinew, and bone, and metal, then rippled out wider to tear mothers' hearts. The two cars exploded into one another and careened along the centre of the N15, then stopped in an ugly, mangled embrace.

A sick silence descended over the wreckage. Hot metal and warm flesh cooled together; and the smell of engine oil and dying blood oozed out into the November air.

May all three men who died in the accident rest in peace.

Monday 3 November 2008

Maith Dom, A Theanga

A theanga, atá sínte, maith dom
as thú a thréigint in uair an anáis.
Chaith mé mo chuid ama
faoi dheifir i gcroílár an anoird,
ag iarraidh an saol a chur le chéile.

lig mé an fhoghlaim le sruth,
agus lig mé an seanrún i ndearmad.

Nuair a chuala mé seanfhear ar Barrscéalta*,
arb as na Cruacha** dó,
ag déanamh spraoi,
agus ag inse scéalta agus seanchais,
a chuid focal báite sa dúchas,
a chuid siollaí ag iompar na hoidhreachta,
thit an draíocht arís orm,
an suan agus an mhuscailt araon.

Táim ar ais ag do thaobh, a theanga,
mothaigh m'anáil ar do leiceann,
Éist le mo rún i do chluais,
gach cogar a rugadh sa chroí,
á sheoladh mar ualach amach
is ag cuartú d'anam' istigh.

*Barrscéalta - Clár ar Raidió na Gaeltachta
*Na Cruacha - leagan gearr de Na Cruacha Gorma, (The Bluestacks) Sliabhraon i dTír Chonaill

Sunday 19 October 2008

Lisbon: The Brussels View

I travelled to Brussels this week with a group of Irish journalists on a media trip to the EU which co-incided with the Summit. In the two days leading up to the Summit we met a number of Irish and non-Irish MEPs, several senior officials in the Commission and Parliament (including the highest ranking civil servant in the Commission, Catherine Day), (embattled?) Commissioner McCreevy, and President of the European Parliament.

That much of the subject matter centred around Lisbon (I would say two thirds) at a time when the financial system is falling apart tells us how high up the agenda Lisbon has remained - and will remain. If there was an overall message it was this: that completing the reforms set out in Lisbon is more important now than ever, that this is mostly a problem Ireland needs to resolve, and that regardless of Ireland’s ability to sign off, this reform process is going to be brought to a close.

Irish MEPs and officials frankly admitted that the No to Lisbon has made their job harder - not just in dealing with colleagues, but dealing with third parties as well. One MEP said that in dicussions with American companies thinking about investing in Ireland that the No has thrown up a cloud of confusion about whether Ireland will remain at the heart of Europe.

Some of the Irish officials were at pains to explain that the vast bulk of political measures signed off in the Union come about after compromise, trading negotiating points, and building alliances with other states. This, they now claim, has become more difficult.

But, we asked, Lisbon doesn’t bring in clear measures which would tackle the financial crisis? True, we heard, but the fact that the Union has waged a decade long internal battle to streamline its institutions and to equip itself for the twenty first century has undermined its ability to act as a unit. They also added that in the end it is getting more important, not less, to be able to reach a common position on key international issues. In that sense they stressed the difficulty the French presidency faced in getting a unified statement on issues from Russia’s invasion of Georgia to the Financial crisis. In the end the French succeeded in twisting enough arms to get a unified face, even if there were hiccups in between.

The argument went that if say Malta chaired the Union now that it is simply not credible that the EU could have brokered a fairly quick ceasefire in Georgia - even if the aftermath has been imperfect. The rotating presidency, we were told, is a very real problem. Foreign leaders need to meet a dozen different presidents in the space of a few years, all of whom are also doing their day job of running a country. Continuity is required.

It’s Ireland’s problem. Ireland, they said, signed off on this as a government and failed to deliver. True the Irish people were asked but nearly all of the EU people we spoke to lamented the Yes campaign for being incompetent and half hearted. The views ranged from disappointment that the Irish government ran such a pathetic campaign, to near contempt for the Irish government’s incompetence, to one outright claim that Brian Cowen should have resigned after failing to convince the Irish people on the deal which he was instrumental in brokering. And yes, when questioned about the French No, the speaker said Chirac should have gone too.

Overall the message was that in December Brian Cowen doesn’t just need a set of proposals and ideas - he needs a solid plan that he is ready to roll on. But what if? Well, some refused to be drawn on it, saying they trust the Irish government will speak very forthrightly to the Irish people and that in consequence of such frank outlining of Ireland’s position that the Irish people would make the right choice. But still what if? What then of Lisbon? we begged. “What then of Ireland” was the response.

It seemed pretty clear - there will be no substantial opening up of Lisbon. Though not one speaker ruled out the possibility of retaining a commissioner. But no reopening of the substantive institutional agreements. The reforms have taken too long and people are simply exhausted. It’s got to be signed off ASAP. That was the message. Europe needs this out of the way.

And the message was clear too - that if Ireland fails to come along, some formula would have to be found to let the others proceed. Personally I feel that those who say this actually want it to be true more than knowing it to be true. Because of course the risk is that if Ireland is sidelined that other states may well object. But is that where Ireland really wants to be?

Among both officials and some MEPS the idea of partial oireachtas ratification was entertained. This has been referred to here at Irish Election in a previous post. While legally possible for a partial parliamentary ratification, I find it hard to believe that the government will have the political capital in reserve to sustain the backlash. Judging by the current budgetary crisis the government may not have any political capital at all - it mightn’t even be in office!

Friday 3 October 2008

Minister, show backbone in dealing with Banks

The EU Commission has said that it will look into whether the Irish bank plan breaches competition rules and if it does, the commission will force Ireland to recoup the money from banks. This may sound like more of Brussels poking its nose into our affairs. You know what it really is: a God send for the tax payer.

While I know the government had to do something to help the banks I am inclined to believe the went too far. Why had no other governments used this approach? Why was Ireland so roundly criticised? Doesn't a blanket prop really invite moral hazard since there isn't even a fear of failing now. At least on a case by case basis bank execs would wonder if they were going to get the help the need.

But I don't know. Perhaps as more facts emerge we will be provided with justification for the nuclear option. Fair enough. But one thing really worries me. It is that the government will not be robust enough with the banks in the even of their drawing down tax money. In our little clientelist, boys network elite, can we have confidence that the government will go in hard and rough if they have to bail out a bank?

In France, before Dexia was bailed out the government set strict conditions. They insisted not only that the CEO would go, but he would go without his golden parachute. Can you imagine that happening here? I can't.

The minister has talked about possibly taking equity and maybe putting members on the board or management team in the event of a major bailout. I haven't heard what is provided for in the legislation but I gather it is up to the minister in each case. Will he make use of the full rigour of these provisions or will he pussy foot and give funding with no guarantee other than the financial regulator will monitor the bank's activity.

Well you know what. The Financial Regulator is worse than useless. Yes, worse. If there were no regulator at least there would be no pretence of oversight. But the current regulator has been gutless, even reckless, in his dereliction of duty.

On prime time, CEO of the Regulator, a very uninspiring John Neary, insisted that the only problem in the Irish banks was the international credit freeze. He denied they had lent recklessly or taken too much risk with a construction bubble. You know what John - you are either stupid or lying. Perhaps a bit of both. And it is shocking John if the likes of you are left guarding 400 billion of tax payers money. What kind of crony are you? Where did you crawl from you spineless, disgraceful twit?

So please please, Mr Lenihan, I hope you show that under your sweaty shirt there is that which our regulator so singularly lacks: a backbone. Please, it's our money, so you have our full permission to be tough with the banks. Use it.

Tuesday 30 September 2008

Financial and Economic Crisis will hurt the Greens

I was listening to Thomas Friedman of the New York Times talking on KRCW's To the Point. Friedman has been arguing for years that the US needs to drastically cut its dependence on oil and to transition to more sustainable technologies and behaviours. "The problem for the US economy" he said "is that it has become a giant money laundering system. We borrow money from the Chinese and give it to Saudi Arabia after running it through our gas tanks".

Friedman sees a world balanced at a delicate juncture. A new and radically different world lies before us. The future must be green. There are, says Friedman, huge opportunities now to spot the potential of new green sustainable technologies. And the US, he thinks, could be and should be leading the way.

Friedman argues that the world will take a new direction economically, like a mini revolution, and the Us needs to be at the front of the pack not lagging behind. If the US doesn't innovate and alter its course, others will. Japan, Europe, and even China, will quickly respond to price signals about energy and will drive hard from new technology. Already, the US is behind. Friedman finds it insane that one of the contenders for the White house holds to the mantra "Drill Baby Drill". He sees this as analogous to advocating more investment in type writing and carbon paper at the point when the PC was just being born.

But Friedman must be right when he remarks that the current financial and economic crisis is now going to kill off, for the time being, a transition to more sustainable technology. Any movement in a new direction will require innovation funded by generous amounts of venture capital and by heavy political sponsorship to alter taxes or set carbon limits so that signals are sent to the market to move to new technologies. In the current climate this kind of manoeuvring is unthinkable. Leaders will be forced to be parsimonious with spending. They will retrench and hold the line out of fear.

Surely when the tax payer is being asked for at least $700bn, it is impossible to start playing with taxes to give incentives to invest in green energy.

And so I thought of our own Green Party who entered government saying they were not a PD style watch dog, they were not powerful enough to dictate major policy, but that they would above all else, focus on moving Ireland on to a more sustainable path in terms of energy use and carbon footprint.

With the economy falling apart however, and public finances in deep trouble, there is now almost no scope for bold initiatives that might encourage investment in green technology. No capacity to reduce tax say on items that are environmentally friendly. No scope to pour funding into exciting new ventures for conservation or energy production. Instead, all we hear is that Ireland's carbon output has been grossly underestimated. Overall then, the Greens are facing a fairly sparse time in terms of what they can hope to achieve.

Some commentators have mooted that there may be bold new carbon plans or insulation incentives in the budget. I honestly doubt if there will be anything of the magnitude required to make a difference. Given the depth of the current economic crisis, it seemly highly likely to drag on for several years. This means that the latitude for generous green projects is reduced to almost Nil. And I feel the Greens will finish their first term in government will precious little to show.

Thursday 25 September 2008

Lisbon and the Irrational Voter

Voters are not ignorant, according to Bryan Caplan, they are irrational. Caplan is the author of the provocative “The Myth of the Rational Voter”, a book in which he lays a large part of the blame for poor political outcomes on the shoulders of voters. The voter messes things up because he or she makes choices about issues which they do not understand and about which they hold inbuilt biased opinions. Given the huge amount of discussion about how well or badly voters were informed on the issue, I immediately thought of Lisbon.

If the only problem were that voters are ignorant the so called Miracle of Aggregation would still hold. Suppose 90% of voters knew nothing about the EU or about the Lisbon treaty and the remaining 10% understood the EU institutions, how they work, and the exact nature of the proposed changes. Well, the 90% of voters just don’t know, so some are swayed to vote Yes, some to vote No. Overall they statistically cancel each other out. The remaining 10% of ‘informed’ voters effectively make the choice, and that choice, since these voters understand the policy implications, is the right one. (whether that is yes or No can be debated elsewhere!).

But Caplan calls on an impressive swathe of empirical evidence to show that voters aren’t simply ignorant, they are, he argues, irrational. They have inbuilt biases which predispose them to prefer policies which are anti-foreign, or pro-national, or to policies which are against the free market (Could this be why voters latched on to many of the very right, very left or socialist campaigners during Lisbon?) By bias here he means that they prefer certain policy choices that go against the accepted wisdom in the relevant field of expertise. He focusess on economics, but argues the same applies to other fields too. He cites a number of voter biases in economic and foreign policy and argues that it there are likely other biases, which haven’t yet been tested, which mean that the voters make the wrong choices.

Are the experts right? Well Caplan argues that most lay people on the whole accept the opinions of doctors in medical matters, physicists in nuclear energy, traffic planners, legal advisors and so on. Why then would they not accept the analysis of economists and foreign policy experts?

Caplan would not be surprised by the evidence that voters didn’t understand Lisbon - there is good evidence for this from polls after and since the vote. But he would go further. He would argue that voters are pre-disposed to prefer inward looking, anti-foreign choices.

Not only that, he argues that emprical evidence show that voters take an overly pessimistic view of policy proposals in general. He showed that voters had thought the outcome of previous choices at the time would be worse than they turned out. During Lisbon there was much of the hype about conscription and doomed farming communities. Caplan may have a point.

Some commentators pointed to the large Yes vote for Lisbon among middle class males a sign that this cohort favoured the treaty because they thought it would benefit them. Caplan would take a different view. First, Caplan says his findings show that voters are far less selfish than we might expect. In general they are more in favour of improving the general social welfare than merely their own welfare. (Caplan spends a lot of time demolishing the traditional public choice hypothesis of the Self Interested Voter). The problem is they don’t know which policies are best to bring it about. Second, Caplan would say that his studies show that as a persons level of education increases their views converge with those of the experts. So if middle class males happened to be (statistically speaking) better educated, they would be more likely to agree with the experts. Since most experts were for Lisbon, this is likely why middle class males voted Yes, not because they thought Lisbon would favour them as a cohort.

One of the most controversial aspects of Caplan’s work is the exceptionally dim view he takes of what he calls the median voter. Basically, he says most voters don’t know about issues terribly well and are biased against optimum policies. Therefore it would be WORSE not better if more voters come to the polls. This is because those who currently don’t vote are generally the least educated and knowledgeable about politics. If they voted they would bring down the average choice.

Caplan goes further. Because educated voters make ‘better’ decisions, it would be better if their vote had extra weighting. The result, he argues, would be better for everyone. (Caplan doesn’t go into the ethical or practical difficulties with this approach or the dangers of ending up aiming for philosopher kings and getting dictators). Perhaps next time Lisbon comes round the government will only give the vote to PhDs in European Politics.

Tuesday 23 September 2008

Getting a Start in Life

Twelve year old Rebecca has a hole in her heart. It is a congenital defect and it may cause her problems in the future. But it is not by a long way her biggest challenge in life. Rebecca's parents are both heroine addicts and they have abandoned her to her granny who is now in her eighties.

Granny does her best for Rebecca but raising a child at that age is an enormous challenge. And recently Granny and Rebecca got some terrible news: Granny has cancer. It is not yet known how badly or how quickly it will affect her health, but even the knowledge of having it is weighing heavily on her ability to cope.

Rebecca attends a school near where she lives in Dublin's south inner city. The school is designated as a disadvantaged school, a term which fails to convey the immense difficulties faced by both its pupils and teachers alike. Many students have acute learning problems. Some, like Rebecca, have attention deficit sydrome. Many more are hyperactive or have low self esteem. Some can barely read or write. And still more have behavioural issues which flow directly from family environments which are chronically dysfunctional. Then there are those who barely attend. One of Rebecca's friends, Natasha, attended for only one month over both terms last year.

Her teachers say Rebecca tries as hard as she can despite her ADS. But often she retreats from learning and finds it impossible to stay focussed. Even if Rebecca had one to one tuition, one teacher said, it would be a huge challenge to keep her from leaving school and to get her to Junior Cert level. As it is, with twenty others in the class, there is little hope that Rebecca will obtain a successful Junior cert.

Teachers in most shools are charged with the task of covering the maths or geography curriculum and getting their pupils to obtain reasonable grades in Junior cert. But in Rebecca's school the mission is of a wholly different order. The school's role is more social than educational. One major aim is simply to keep the children in school for another few years, so that they aren't on the street all day, every day. Another aim is to provide basic literacy and numeracy skills which are normally associated with the early phase of primary school.

It is tempting to think that the state ignores the plight of schools such as Rebecca's. In fact, the state has made enormous efforts in recent years to help children in disadvantaged schools. Through the DEIS (Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools) programme, disadvantaged schools have been identified and targeted for extra resources.

Rebecca's school has a much lower pupil teacher ratio than the average; there are extra resource teachers and special needs teachers; the school gets much higher capitaion grants and has state of the art facilities in terms of teaching equipment and classroom kit; and the pupils, many of whom would otherwise be malnourished, are provided with a lunchtime meal.

Yet the teachers in Rebecca's school face almost insurmountable challenges. Some of their pupils will drop out, get addicted to drugs, or fall pregnant. Parental support is often absent. A neutral parent is considered a bonus - a small number of parents have threatened teachers physically for reprimanding their often difficult children.

Some pupils who stay in school will be seen to make little progress. One teacher felt disheartened and said she sometimes wondered if all the effort and resources weren't a waste of time. But of course, we know we have to try. If society can be judged on how it treats its most vulnerable citizens, then it will fail miserably if it doesn't attempt to help these poor souls who are given such a terrible start in life.

The trouble is that the school is being expected to do far more than it can ever hope to achieve. The problem is not educational, but a breakdown in how society has provided for its citizens over the long term. Teachers in Rebecca's school deserve admiration and respect for facing up to a problem that wider society and its political masters have created. The lesson must be, try hard to help Rebecca make a better life for herself, whatever the odds, but try far far harder to build a more inclusive society where there are fewer and fewer twelve year olds in Rebecca's predicament.

Tuesday 9 September 2008

Job Loss: Part II

Yesterday I went to the welfare office. There remains a tinge of stigma on anything to do with welfare. I will admit that I'm not immune from it. As I made my way to the 'dole' office, something gnawed at my pride. Of course, this effect is shaped entirely by the orthodoxy that insists we must be working all the time.

We are not invited to look at it rationally, which would give a picture something like this: we work most of the time and pay in to a system that is intended to provide a safety net. More important, globalisation as made many jobs very volatile and Ireland has bought in particularly heavily to this model, therefore it is right that the state should provide adequate bridges to help people make their way between islands of work.

I was pleasantly surprised by my first visit. I had this image of nasty staff harassing applicants in a deliberate effort to discourage people from making further claims. In fact, the lady who dealt with me was courteous and helpful. And the process seamed relatively smooth to begin with. This all made it much easier. I need to go back in a few days with more documents, then I hope the payments will start. I view it as a refund of my own money!

Over the last few days I've had time to reflect on what has happened. Strangely enough, the downturn in Ireland is not the reason the company had layoffs. It is more to do with the fact that the firm never fully recovered from the dot com bust. It has been struggling ever since. Certainly, the bust in 2001 accelerated the phenomenon of offshoring which was already underway. This meant that while the market for our services (IT development) recovered, the downward pressure remained on costs and we kept on struggling to win projects. The company has an office in Eastern Europe and over the last few years that office grew while the Irish office shrank. It seemed like a deliberate ploy to keep costs lower. But even that wasn't enough.

The senior management too have been less than inspiring. They have been with the company almost since the start and are all engineers bar one, who is an accountant. I'm sure they read management blurb and are influenced by the latest trends. But they show a poor understanding of some elements of business. A poor quarter and they abandon their latest and greatest strategy for a new one. They cannot surrender pet projects – a few of which have been embarrassingly costly and were obvious dead ends. They seem to forget a very important fact: a service company relies on people! The latter failing has been catastrophic. While management grew more and more obsessed about building stories for the market and the press, they simply let the whole notion of a career in the company die a slow painful death. Morale ebbed away to reach biblical proportions. Cynicism spread through the workforce like a silent plague. A company that once gave people careers now gives jobs – mostly bad ones, and obviously not very secure ones either.

So while the layoffs were a bolt from the blue, with hindsight a few fragments of straw had been swirling by in the breeze. The company was doing badly and had been struggling for years. Over the last year our new owners, (we were taken over a few years ago), had become increasingly irritated by the performance of the company. They were stepping up the pressure on management to stop making losses, whatever it might take. And certainly a number of our business lines have been, to say the least, unimpressive. There had already been some mild restructuring – a department head removed here, a research project canned there, and so on.

But there you are. It's academic for me now and one merciful aspect of my recent experience is that I'm now liberated from an environment that had become infected with gloom.

Finally, just to say that, in a social setting, I have already met many of my ex-colleagues who survived the cull and their response was overwhelmingly, almost embarrassingly, sympathetic. I have felt a very genuine sense that they felt sorry or my situation. True, they now face going back in to a workplace where morale is even lower than is possible to measure, but still, I believe the good wishes were heart felt. That kind of reassurance is very welcome at a time like this. Not only were they re-assuring but helpful as well, in some cases providing me with a list of contacts they knew that might give me leads in a search for a new job.

And of course, there have been some very kind remarks here online as well. So there is such a thing as humanity after all! Alright, let's leave it at that. Time to move on and figure out what's next.

Monday 8 September 2008

Job Loss: Part I

A senior manager called by my desk last Wednesday and asked if he could have a word. There was nothing unusual in that. He had occasionally asked me to his office to discuss a project or a customer. And anyway, my immediate boss was on holiday and we had just put in a bid for a new project with a US customer, so he was going to ask about that, I thought.

But something in his tone of voice struck me as unusual, some timbre that was heavy with portent. And he turned more swiftly than usual to head back to his office. He had more or less avoided eye contact as he asked me to his office.

As I followed him down the corridor a brief thought shot across my mind that this could be serious. Some nerve quivered but rationality took over and insisted that I had just read the signals badly: no, this would be the usual stuff.

When I turned into the office I saw the head of HR was already there. Then I knew it was grave, but before I had time to weigh it up, I think before the boss had even taken his seat, the bomb had exploded. He was sorry to say that I was being made redundant.

Boom : shock and awe. There was no warning, nor no warning signs. I was in utter shock. Sound became muffled and a mild form of tunnel vision narrowed my view. Only words followed: amalgamating departments, board decision, Q4, profits, support staff.

The HR manager, who managed to convey a sense of genuine empathy, was now going through the figures. A package was mentioned and statutory and tax. That's when I stopped him. I'm sorry, I said, can we talk about the details later? At this point, I'm not taking much in. Ok, he said, we could talk later. But my PC had been disabled he said and it was probably better if I could just leave the building now.

I made my way to my desk, picked up my bag and headed for the door. Then I stopped. I had to say goodbye to a few colleagues. After all, I'd known some of them 8 years. I told them I was gone. There was a round of layoffs. They were stunned, but those who survived said later that I looked like I'd seen a ghost. I went to the lobby phoned by wife, who was calmer than I thought, and then I left for home

Tuesday 2 September 2008

Palin - not all plain sailin

McCain's choice of running mate is not as inspiring as it looked at first. Tomaltach's first reaction was very close to that of his old friend, An Spailpín, who gives a glowing assessment of McCain's choice. True, on the face of it, Palin's selection is a stroke of genius, a relatively young woman with considerable political experience, and who is sufficiently conservative minded to pull in republican voters that were put off by McCain not being too centrist.

One thing which I had assumed was that the candidate had been rigorously vetted. This would have implied that many senior hacks in the GOP would have known in advance and would have given their approval. An Spailpín too assumed that the Republican camp were thinking advance and pulled this stroke of genius. But that seems not to be the case.

According to the NYtimes the appointment of Palin was a belated and hasty response to rejection of McCain's originally preferred candidate, Joe Lieberman, by the conservative wing of the party. The whole thing was rushed. Basically the feelers for how Lieberman would go down in the convervative wing went out too late, and when the cold air came blowing back, a touch of panic set in. A name was needed - for the convention at the latest, but preferrably in order to make the news the minute Obama closed his acceptance speech in Denver. A fresh news cycle would obliterate Obama's glow and the stage would be set for McCain's nomination.

But events dear boy, events. The hurricane shattered the notion of a smooth transition into the Republican convention. But the real trouble is starting to flow from the Palin nomination.

Now that we've had time to digest the McCain's surprise, however, calmer assessments can take place. Moreover, a few things are coming out now which may undermine McCain's bid from a number of directions.

First, Palin's credentials among the chirstian, conservative wing of her party . One of their cardinal values is the importance of the family. How important can your family be, however, if you have a down syndrome child and a pregnant teenage daughter and you choose to be second in command of the most powerful nation in the world? Family may be important to Palin, but not as important as power. Simple as that. The same applies to men. Famliy could hardly have been that important to Tony Blair when he sat out an extra term despite having a young family. That was his choice, and his family I'm sure were well looked after. But no-one can argue they were more imporant to him than remaining in power. The same thinking can be applied to Palin. Family, yes, but power first.

Second. Again the breaking story now of the rushed decision on Palin exposes another flaw: judgement. Is McCain the determined but clear sighted maverick, or is he simply erratic. The latter certainly seems plausable. Certainly there is no ground for the notion that he and his camp burned the oil in the small hours over recent months building a solid strategy for running mate. Instead it was poor planning, and in the end and improvised effort tinged in all likelihood with no small amount of panic.

The third problem, achlowledged by shocked insiders in the republican campaign, is that there is now no plausable way to launch attacks on Obama's experience. Democrats could defend this, but it was a weakness in terms of Obama's youth and his lack of executive power. But I disagree with my friend an Spailpín here, when he says "While Senator Obama has done nothing, Ms Palin has governed Alaska. For a little less than two years, granted, but she has had hands-on gubernatorial experience.". This would sound reasonable if the word Alaska were replaced with say, California, or Florida, or, well almost any other state. Alaska is the ultimate nowhere in American politics. Geographically, demographically (Dublin has a far bigger population than the entire state), and of course, politically.

I'm sure there will be passionate exchanges between fanatics in either camp extolling the great experience of Obama on the one hand and the great leadership of Palin on the other. But without getting into the gritty, I would say Obama through his hard won nomination race, and his term in the Senate, is far better prepared on issues such as Foreign Policy, Security, and National politics. But either way, Palin's nomination now gifts the democrats with a defence on the experience argument, which was seen as a significant Achille's heel for Obama.

Finally, it will not help in reaching out the ever present and important patriotic element (another angle of attack against Obama) that Palin was a member of the Alaskan Independence party for a couple of years. She is now campaigning to lead the union she sought to cede from.

While seeming an inspiring choice at first glance, Palin promises more than anything to complicate things for McCain.

Friday 29 August 2008

Village Dies

Who can be surprised by the announcement - reported in today’s Irish times - that Village Magazine is to cease publication?

Village went intro terminal decline pretty quickly. From the start the mag made losses that were as impressive as its copy was unimpressive. True there were a handful of strong journos at times - Justine McCarthy and Browne himself (though personally I find much of his output in recent years has been tedious, incoherent, lightweight given his stature, and often irritating).

Early last year when McCarthy’s exit was announced and when the magazine switched from weekly to monthly, it became only a matter of time, and I personally marvelled that Browne had continued to publish it. Incidentally McCarthy moved to the Tribune where, she was “offered a real journalists Salary as well as regular working hours”, jibbed Phoenix.

Even after becoming monthly, the mag struggled to fill pages, and it was always padded out with inane items like the boring two page ’state of the world’ map that became a regular filler. Then it added items on science and nature (this was Ireland’s political monthly remember).

Occasionally there was a reasonable splash on the government and the coverage of Bertie’s finances was thorough and convincing. But overall the Village remained little more than a vehicle for Browne to vent his own spleen against his usual bugbears - the last puff of which was his rant on Lisbon.

I stopped buying buying Village quite a while back. It just became so empty ( it should be added that it’s product values weren’t exactly a pull either, with chunky graphics, a very early 90s feel to layout, and bewildering mixes of colour ) If there is anything to lament about the death of Village it is that Ireland seems incapable of sustaining anything like a real political magazine that can retain talented journalists, conduct in depth investigations of political life, and present us with more penetrating analysis than can be provided by the Newspaper.

Monday 25 August 2008

The Free Fees Fantasy

Here we go again with another round of debate on third level fees. And again we all climb back into our ideological boxes. Free fees are fair because education should be free to all, scream the egalitarian idealists, or at least those who made a politicial stroke out of free fees. Too right, scream the rich and upper middle class, who happen to benefit most from the largesse. We already pay our taxes, they continue, and higher taxes than the poor. No, cry those for whom individual responsibility is the supreme virtue, we should all have to pay, if we pay the price, we know the value. In the end, the politicians look at the voting numbers and decide to leave it all as it is.

And so we are for the forseeable future stuck with the absurdity of free fees. It is absurd because we live in a time when all kinds of forces have made it extremely difficult for governments to argue the case for higher spending - even if they wanted to! We lived through an unprecidented boom in Ireland, and coming from a low base we saw absolute spending figures grow rapidly on education, health, and other services, such as transport. yet we remain at or below, mostly below, OECD averages in all of these areas. And let's face it, in reality, the boom is over, and even if we return to sustainable growth, our per capita spend on education and health is not going to rise rapidly any time soon. That leaves us with the reality that our current per capita education spend is going to stay where it is. Given the shortage of government cash then, it is utterly absurd for the state to pay for expensive higher education for children of the rich ( for whom our country is configured to favour in so many other ways already ). We simply cannot afford it.

Meanwhile reality gnaws at us from another direciton. It is this: our universities are relatively low in international rankings and that position is likely to decline. If indeed we are serious about hooking in to a global knowledge economy, and frankly, for a small open economy, there is little option, we need to push our universities up the rankings. This does not mean that we are going to compete with Oxford or Harvard. The elite universities are a class apart and we don't have to worry about them. What we need to do is to be as good as the plain ordinary universities in Europe or the US. I'm thinking of say matching the University of Helsinki, or Oslo, or some of the mid ranking State universities in the US. (The only Irish University which features in these lists is Trinity, which does pretty well on the THES listing at about 53, and on the Shanghai Listing at between 200-300) This cannot be done without vastly greater funding to build up world class facilities, to attract top academics, and to fund pioneering research programs.

How do we get that vastly increased funding? First, by abandoning our entrenched positions and examing the reality of Irish third and fourth level education and asking where we need to go. For funding we need to think of flexible and innovative ways of raising money. We need to pull industry into the sector far tighter. Industry in Ireland, including the multinationals, simply point the finger at government. "We don't have enough high quality graduates". "People are deserting science". If so, industry too needs to get stuck in. They need to work with government - not in a token way, but in long term partnerships, to turn things around.

But there are other options. Fees cannot be ruled out (Actually I believe that the abolition of fees was a terribly regressive move, though I acknowledge that the old means tested system was chronically abused and deeply unfair to PAYE workers) We need to come up with a fair and sensible way of promoting university attendance among lower earning families. But grants, graduate taxes, scholarships, and student loans are all options. Perhaps we also need to foster a culture of philanthropy and of the university as a place which launches a person on their path to prosperity. In this way, alumni might be persuaded to pay something back afterwards. The universities too need more autonomy - to raise funds themselves like businesses.

Some fear the introduction of business practices in University. But there is nothing to fear if the sector, government, and business make clear goals and objectives together and come up with solutions which match our economic and yes, social goals. This means that history and Irish language don't need to disappear. The American university system is a complex mix of public, private and with a fair dose of market forces. It is not ideal and is elitist and too expensive for many students. But it demonstrates that its mix doesn't mean the death of humanities or the end of studies which don't feed directly to the economy. American universities are pioneers in anthropology, geology, literature. There is nothing to fear by borrowing some of the things they have done to become world class.

Our university sector has been transformed over the last 15 years. When I began in UCG (NUIG) in 1991 I arrived at a campus that was chronically underfunded. Buildings were overcrowded and decrepit. Class sizes in some cases were horrendous - students crammed into the isles in theatres. Facilities were from the 70s - our engineering facility had clapped out mainframes, a handful of groaning PCs, and old poorly equiped labs. There were many prefabs. The library was pathetic. Since then whole new buildings have sprung up - a new IT wing (god bless them), a brand new Irish language centre, a new engineering building, a new millenium arts wing, a brand new sports centre, etc.

All of this was necessary and is welcome, but it brought NUIG from the 70s to the 90s. But that push in our sector stagnated around 2003/2004 and funding was again cut. Since then there has been a constant battle by university heads to re-ignite the funding debate, but each time we get drawn in to the fees quagmire and ferociously entrenched positions. Sadly we will squander the great progress made unless we open up our minds again and accept that we live in a time when complex and innovate solutions are required. We also need to realise that we cannot continue to live in the fantasy where we crave a top class university sector but refuse to pay for it. We seem to want first rate eductation, but no one wants to pay - not students, not the tax payer, not business. The first challenge is to shatter this fantasy and to face reality.

Thursday 31 July 2008

Tomaltach ar Saoire: Tomaltach takes a break

Well, Tomaltach is set to head off on holiers with Bean Thomaltaigh agus Mac Thomaltaigh tomorrow!

It feels likes an age since I've had a real holiday, but it's only been two years. Last holiday was a lovely trip around Andalucia in 2006. Last year my annual leave was used for a very different purpose - to take time off for the birth of our son, Mac Thomaltaigh. That was a wonderful experience, but doesn't count as a holiday I'm afraid. I've had a couple of trips abroad since - but they were with work and again, not exactly a holiday.

So I'm really looking forward to our little trip dans la Vendée. I find the sense of excitement and expectation of heading on holiday is a huge part of its value! I'm genuinely excited about setting off tomorrow - though in funny way, since I don't particularly enjoy air travel (who does these days). But still the sense of voyage - even if this one is modest in scope - is always a bit of a thrill. In some ways I hope I don't get more of an adventure than I'd like - this of course is our first time travelling with Mac Thomaltaigh.

And so this week was our first time to pack for going away with a young child. Oh how life has changed. First, no more last minute packing. Worse, no more 'carrying light'. No matter how you compress it, you need bottles and a few toys and lots of clothes and a million bits and pieces. Then there's the push chair. I reckon it at least doubles the load - and almost the cost! But such are the joys!

So while on previous holidays we always liked to travel around, explore and area, do some trekking, check out some monuments, explore the nooks and off-beaten tracks of cities, this time it'll be a more settled affair. A rened house and stay put - perhaps we'll take a couple of 1/2 day trips to look around.

Ok, a change, but I'm kind of looking forward to it. I've packed a couple of books and might buy a few french books while there. And there should be ample time to sit back and read at our leisure. If the weather is bad (and the Vendée is changeable enough) - the book can be washed down with a beer, or if its hot, a nice rosé. And hopefully we'll manage to dine out a few times.

Here's the master plan: for the first week we will be accompanied by my wife's brother and law, his wife, and their one year old. For the second week, my parents arrive. The extra hands should give everyone a chance to break away a bit and do what they like, and I hope that includes a couple of fine meals and a bottle or two of the good stuff.

Cheap mé ar dtús go dtiocfadh liom mo chuid francaise a chleachtadh, ach sílim go mbeidh cuid mhaith béarlóirí thart faoin trá agus faoin tsráidbhaile. Mar sin féin, is cinnte go mbeidh orainn roinnt mhaith rudaí a shocrú agus mar sin de. Is breá liomsa an teanga sin a labhairt mar bhí sí ar bharr mo theanga agam nuair a bhí cónaí orm sa Fhrainc. Tagann meirg ar do chumas labhartha i dteanga nach labhrann tú go minic. Is annamh a fhaighim seans é sin a dhéanamh ar na laetha seo.

An rud is tábhachtaí ar saoire - dó scíth a ligint. Le go nglanfaidh tú imní an tsaoil amach as d'intinn ar fad. Bíonn deis agat macnamh a dhéanamh ar do shaol féin agus breathnú ar an chaoi a bhfuil cúrsaí ag titim amach. Tá súil as Dia agam go n-éireoidh liom na rudaí fíorthábhachtacha seo a dhéanamh.

Rud eile - is deas an rud é roinnt mhaith ama a chaitheamh i gcuideachta do chlainne agus do mhuintire gan aon bhrú ama a bheith ort nó brú intinne. Is iontach an chaoi a gcuireann an obair isteach ar shaol an duine. Cuireann an obair sriain ar do shaol ar fad, agus cuireann sin isteach ort ar an iliomad bealaí. Is deas agus is pleisiúrtha briseadh ón tsriain sin anois agus arís.

Sin a bhfuil, beidh mé ar ais is dócha faoi cheann coicíse nó mar sin.

Friday 25 July 2008

The Right to Whip and be Whipped

I was delighted that Formula One boss, Max Mosley, won his case against the News of the World who paid one of his prostitutes to secretly film one of their orgies. The paper ran the headline "F1 boss has sick Nazi orgy with 5 hookers". Mosley sued the paper for invasion of privacy. The paper argued the exposé was in the public interest.

Mosley had hired 5 prostitutes for a sadomasochistic orgy. But the court found there was no evidence for the allegation of Nazi undertones. More importantly it ruled that the public interest was not served by this severe invasion of the man's private life.

The reason I'm delighted is that this is a slap in the face to the cheap, sordid, kiss and tell sleaze that has become the stock in trade of British tabloids.

I watched John Snow interview a legal guy from the News of the World. The guy from the paper was seething at this judgement. It was just so beautitful and satisfying to see him frothing at the mouth. He kept on repeating that the public ought to know about Mosley's "Dark Secret Vice". Really? Snow asked that, since the court found that there were no Nazi overtones, why should the public know about this mans sex life? Again, the answer was, when it comes to the "rich, the influential, or the powerful" we ought to know if they have a "Dark Secret Vice". Well, snow asked, if we ought to know about the sex life of the rich and influential, should we know what the editor of the News of the World gets up to? Pause. Or it's senior legals? Pause, and then "the editor perhaps, but not me" (Ooops, I hope that hooker last night wasn't filming). You could hear the scratches from the bottom of the barrel.

The News of the World guy went on then to complain about the curtailment of freedom of speech creeping into Britain from Strasbourg. He was referring to the protection of privacy which is enshrined in the European convention on Human rights, which Britain signed in 1998. The convention doesn't provide an absolute right to privacy, but, basically, specifies that privacy should be protected unless there are genuine public interest concerns.

Let's be clear: freedom of speech is vital, and the function of the press in investigating matters of public interest is essential to democracy. But the interesting thing here is that the British court looked at the various provisions, took into account the European convention and made a judgement that is both fair and sensible. And the court explicitly stated that it believes its ruling will not curb the power of the press to conduct its work in matters of genuine public interest.

All said, a sound ruling. And just so great to see the vile, despicable, and debased rubbish that is the British tabloid, getting what it deserves: a whipping.