July 2006: A good country to be a Banker

According to another of those interminable and infernal reports that we are plagued with these days, Ireland is now the second wealthiest nation in the world. But you all knew that already, didn’t you? Surely you have noticed how every second house in the country has a Porsche nestling comfortably beside the latest Mercedes model? No? Well, like all other reports, this one couldn’t be wrong, could it?

After all, even the Bould Bertie declared last week, in his own succinctly eloquent way, that the “boom times are getting even more boomer.” Quite.

This startling fact about how rich we all are was revealed in a “Wealth of the Nation” report published by Bank of Ireland Private Banking. The only nation to outdo us was Japan, apparently. We are ahead of the Good Ol’ US of A, probably because of Bush’s spending on war machines. We topped the Old Enemy too, Great Britain. France and Germany, the big European powers, are floundering in our wake. And Italy can have the World Cup because we have head-butted them in the chest when it comes to riches.

The bank’s boast is that each person in this nation has a net wealth of about 150 grand.  This is news to m. And I’m sure that it is news to my bank manager too, although I’m in no hurry to ring him to find out. Most of my fellow miners at the coalface of life were similarly surprised at the news of their newfound wealth. A quick check on our bank balances revealed the real truth

Like the official definition of “poverty”, this report’s definition of “wealth” is slightly different than many of us have in mind. The definition of “wealth” conveniently takes into account such things as residential property, pensions and company equity. Stripped of these star players, the Rich World Cup table takes on a slightly different look, from an Irish point of view. Our individual wealth now drops to a pitiful 18 grand per person and places us an even more pitiful eighth in the table.

I wonder does this eighteen thousand Euro include the SSIA money that we have scraped up over the past five years? If so, in the Rich World Cup, we have a relegation battle on our hands. As yet another report this week put it, we are “growth rich and wealth poor”. Now that’s more like it. Bertie might have said that we have “wealth boom but growth boomer”. Somehow, I think I know which statement sums it up for most of us.

The stark differences between the two statistics outlined above highlight how much reliance this country’s economy is on a booming property market. We now have over 300,000 millionaires in this state but they are not millionaires in the true sense of the word. Many of them owe vast amounts of money on their properties to the banks, which for years have encouraged them to take out bigger and longer-termed loans.  An ordinary house in the more desirable areas of Dublin costs over a million because of this policy. Does this make the present owner, who borrowed to the hilt to get his hands on it, a true millionaire?

I’m no expert in economics, but any report that claims that Ireland is the richest country in the world makes me nervous. Of course, when you look at who produced this report, the penny drops, in a manner of speaking. Banks have a vested interest in promoting this image. Politicians, especially those in government, will grab this golden nugget from this report and use it as proof as to how they have saved our nation and led it to world glory on the economic playing fields. They will not tell us at the hustings that a third of the nations wealth is held by 1% of the population. Now that is a statistic to really make you nervous.

Meanwhile, the bank managers and financiers lounge in their leather seats like lizards and marvel at how they have once again pulled the wool over our eyes. Hot on the heels of these indigenous reports comes another tome from the European Commission. This one tells us that Irish banks are the most profitable in Europe.

Their pre-tax profitability ratio is 50%, with the European average at less than 30%.  Irish consumers pay almost twice as much in credit card costs as the European average. The story is similar when it comes to the costs of loans in the Republic: we pay almost twice as much as our European friends.

Remember the “Yellow Pack” bank staff, those raw recruits who were literally taken in by the Irish banks at lower wages? There are part of the reason why Irish banks have such massive profits. The European Commission report cites Ireland’s “low base costs” as another reason for the banks‘ huge margins of profit.

The bottom line is that Ireland is one of the best places in Europe to be a banker. And we have a right shower of bankers here.

October 2006: Delaney’s Donkey

“Now, Delaney had a donkey that everyone admired

Tempo’rily lazy and permanently tired

With a leg at ev’ry corner balancing its head

And a tail to let you know which end he wanted to be fed ….” 

This old Val Doonican ditty sprang to mind as I watched the Cypriots’ demolition job on Stan’s Laurel and Hardy-like Irish soccer team last Saturday. It is a song about a donkey, owned by a man called Delaney, who tried to get it to run a half-mile race. You can see where I’m coming from on this.

But there is no point in blaming Steve Staunton for the footballing farce that the current Irish team has become. The man to blame is John Delaney, who appointed his own “donkey”, as it were, to run the team after the incision of the knives between Brian Kerr’s shoulder blades.

All Staunton did wrong really was apply for the job. It was up to Delaney to ask the pertinent questions at the interview. It was not as if Steve was able to bluff his way into the post. After all, if Delaney asked him what experience he had at international level, he would have been found out fairly quickly if he claimed to have any at all.

Delaney had promised the nation that he would appoint a “world class manager”. He was obviously thinking of a world that he alone lives in:  one that few of us are familiar with and one that fewer football experts know either. As no “world class” candidate emerged, Delaney should have wondered why. Could it be, heaven forbid, that nobody wanted to work for his set-up?

Along comes Stan the Man, who should have smelled a rat when he got the job so handily. This was not a footballing appointment it was a political appointment. Delaney had made it well known that he had not favoured Kerr when the FAI appointed the latter, and before Delaney became Chief Executive.

He was now making sure everyone knew that Stan was his man. His managerial credentials were secondary to anything else. Delaney had him harnessed and ready for action in no time, and Staunton was lead around the parade like the prize donkey in the afore-mentioned song.

Dressing up the appointment by adding Bobby Robson to the Delaney Dream Team did nothing to help matters. Unfortunately, Sir Bob has been in poor health and his influence on the make-up, tactics and morale of the Irish team has been non-existent, exposing Steve Staunton’s hopelessly inept qualifications for the task of managing, motivating and mothering an international group of players.

Brian Kerr was co-commentator at the game in Cyprus. He must have found it difficult to talk at all during the game, given that he probably had his head up his sleeve most of the time, laughing at how things were panning out for Delaney and his donkey. Between that and trying to voice comments that did not contain even a hint of gloating, Kerr earned his corn, unlike the hapless Staunton stuck in the stands.

Steve Staunton has been hard to listen to when doing his media thing ever since his appointment. He still has not realised why he was appointed in the first place. It is almost as embarrassing to listen to comments, as it is to watch the players on the football pitch.

He parrots out all the football clichés that one would expect from somebody who hasn’t a clue what is happening around him. He knows it is his duty to defend players’ performances but it beggars belief that he could say that “the young lads did very well for us” when they have just been trounced by a team ranked 60 places below you in the world, 5-2. Who knows what his version of doing badly is?

Similarly, moaning on about how many players were on the injured list is not valid. Against Cyprus, Ireland had a defence made up of five Premiership players who played like a St Eunan’s Centenary Reunion team: if that is not an insult to those who watched the game last Saturday after turning out for their former school earlier in the day.

Some of these injuries apparently occurred due to the long plane journey home and the delays encountered. An experienced coach would have ensured that players would warm down properly after the game and have proper after-match treatment to keep them fit for the next game. Yet Staunton says such injuries are “bad luck”.

No, Steve, such pat statements and excuses are not fooling anybody. Stop beating yourself up, man, and admit the obvious. You have overreached yourself. You are not experienced enough and the international arena is beyond you as a manager at this point in time. A man who has his own agenda within the FAI and the Irish footballing world is using you.

Your race is run, Stephen. (I could say something about “ass” and “on the line” but I’ll spare you the blushes.)  For your own sanity, get out now and rehabilitate yourself by booking into Brian Kerr’s Ex-Managers’ Knacker’s Yard. I think it’s located in Bray somewhere.

December 2007: Bertie the Bear

While the teddy bear’s picnic that is the budget may be stealing the headlines in the past few days, I came across another little publicised news item that interested me. I bet few of you have heard about the Irish schoolteacher that got into bother when she encouraged her class to name a toy animal “Bertie”, did you?
No? Well, there you go. It just shows you that they still manage to cover up some of the less savoury stories in this downtrodden country.

It all began innocently enough for this national school teacher. She was not long out of training, and she had just started her stint at the school, called “Waiting For Replacements For The Rat-infested Pre-Fabs Since 1980” National School. (I know it’s a long-winded name for the place but it’s the principal, if you know what I mean.)

Anyway, this teacher…. let’s call her Mary, in deference to the Minister for Education… was happy to take up the temporary contract, the only one she was offered. In fact, the principal was so happy to have her; he did not ask her too many questions about religion and the like. Or politics for that matter. Mary settled in quickly and four months flew by without any trouble at all. It was when she introduced a teddy bear to the class that the real ructions began.

Mary asked the children to suggest a name for the cuddly brown bear as part of a project to teach them about animals. Little Willie left down his toy rifle, after pretending to shoot his pal Seamus with it, and put up his hand.

“Let’s call him Bertie” he said “he’s my favourite animal of all time”. The rest of the class launched into a chorus of agreement, saying Bertie was the most popular boy around. Well, not all of them joined in, actually. Enda and a few of his pals, sulked in the corner as the other kids milled around the teacher: “Yes, Miss! Yes, Miss! Let’s call him Bertie!”

“All right so, children, this is now officially Bertie the Bear” the teacher announced. From that moment on, her fate was sealed.

The secretary of the school, who actually preferred Rabbites to bears any day, snitched on her colleague. She reported to the principal, saying that Mary had broken a golden rule of the state’s new religion. Bertie, she explained to the bemused principal, was the new God and for this teacher to name a teddy bear Bertie was outright blasphemy.
The principal then got on his high horse and galloped up the nearest tribunal, telling the Judge that this jezebel should be charged with inciting hatred and insulting the whole of Ireland for her dastardly deed.

The teacher was promptly arrested and pleaded her innocence. She said that she was probably a bit idealistic and too full of new ideas. She just didn’t realise that it was such a problem in using Bertie’s name in such a perceived blasphemous way. She added that cultural differences between her and the rest of the country may have caused the problem. After all, she had been brought up in Northern Ireland where such things were of little importance.

Pretty soon, the extremists were out in force. “What has happened was not haphazard or carried out of ignorance, but rather a calculated action and another ring in the circles of plotting against Bertie” the government press office said in a statement. Religious leaders stood up and called for her to be punished by forty days of fasting for making fun of Bertie. Some even suggested forcing her to go to mass every Sunday and to eat fish instead of meat on a Friday.

Others Fianna Failers pointed out that while there is no ban in their manifesto on using images of Bertie as much as possible, likenesses are considered highly offensive by them. The fact that the children got to take Bertie the Bear home with them one night a week, and the fact that they kept little notebooks with his name on the front only added to the outrage of his followers.

“Who knows what they are writing in those little books when they are alone with Bertie” one particularly zealous follower was heard to rant, “and Bertie will not be held responsible for anything they say he did …or didn’t do! They might even be forcing money down his throat!”

And so the poor teacher got her come-uppance for daring to slur the name of Bertie. Thankfully, she avoided the Lenten fast and, indeed, as foreigners began to hold the episode up to ridicule; her punishment was not too bad. She was told to leave the country and go to somewhere like Sudan where her devious ways might be tolerated.