Saturday, May 9, 2015
It includes some of the country’s oldest failings, and a few new ones as well. The story holds the secret of business success in some corners, and the failings of politics in others. And, above all, it shows how, even in straitened times, the few will always prosper, while the many take the heat.
The five pieces making up this yarn are The Little People’s Bank; Chinese Walls; Denis O’Brien; Water Meters and The Inquiry.
In the beginning, there was Siteserv. This is a construction services company that got into a lot of trouble between 2006 and 2008 buying up other companies. The honchos who ran the outfit were paid up members of the club which instilled a belief of invincibility on their own members, and the Irish economy. The good times were never going to end.
Financing the buying spree were Anglo Irish Bank. In the end, Siteserv found itself in debt to the tune of €150million.
By 2011, the state had taken over Anglo’s debts, and was intent on salvaging what it could for the citizens, who, by then, had had their living standards and quality of life reduced to varying degrees.
The Anglo name was toxic so it was changed to Irish Bank Resolution Corporation (IBRC), owned by the citizens, or, if you like, The Little People’s Bank.
We now know the close relationships between the small number of seriously big borrowers, and the bank’s executives, persisted when the bank was taken over by the state. CEO Mike Ansyley was at one point in regular text contact with major developer and customer Paddy McKillan. He also dined on a number of occasions with McKillan and another major borrower, Denis O’Brien.
When the Department of Finance expressed concern about these relationships, Ansley said his relationship with customers like this was “strong but not inappropriate”. That, of course, is a subjective judgement, but for the citizens who were picking up the tab for all the reckless lending done by the bank, it is hardly reassuring.
Like much of what went on in the halcyon days, the deal with Siteserv was not orthodox. Instead of appointing a receiver to the company in order to retrieve what it could of the €150m, IBRC let them at it themselves. This is in sharp contrast to the approach the bank, and other financial institutions, have adopted in calling in debts accrued by your average citizen.
A sale was organised. The corporate advisor at the centre of the sale, Walter Hobbs, has said the best deal was obtained in flogging the company to a Denis O’Brien-owned vehicle for €45m. This left the bank out of pocket by €105m. But there was a little something for the Siteserv shareholders in the form of €5m.
For those who invested in a company that borrowed recklessly, this was a nice little parting gift.
Unfortunately, no such generosity is extended to those who bought homes in the same period and have found themselves struggling with inflated mortgages. Then there were the professionals whose ways remain a mystery. Arthur Cox solicitors acted for both sides. A lay person uninitiated in the ways of these “professionals”, might perceive a conflict of interest here.
Not on your life. These things are governed by “Chinese walls”, as Sean Corkery, the CEO of Siteserv, explained on Morning Ireland last month.
“Chinese walls are, you know, the legal firm, absolutely committing on a professional basis that information doesn’t pass between the professional dealing with one company and the professional dealing with the other, irrespective of the fact that they might be employed by the same legal firm,” he said. That’s grand so. Nothing to worry about.
Chinese Walls were all the rage through the bubble years, with legal firms, auditors, accountants and various consultants operating on both sides of the wall, fortified in the knowledge that their personal integrity always trumps the grubby business of turning a buck.
Unfortunately, it’s highly unlikely that The Little People’s Bank got a reduced rate from these “professionals” in the Siteserv deal on the basis that they were working for the other side too, with both clients contributing to the bottom line.
The principal new owner of Siteserv is a man who is now looming increasingly large over Irish life. Denis O’Brien is a dominant media owner, has a very wide range of business interests, and contributes generously in the cultural and social spheres. He is admired by some, feared by others — including politicians, due to his media interests — and eyed with suspicion, to put it at its mildest, by certain sections of the population.
O’Brien also attracted controversy when the Moriarty Tribunal found that he had paid large sums of money to former minister Michael Lowry, whose department oversaw the awarding of a lucrative mobile phone licence in 1995, which an O’Brien company won. O’Brien has vehemently disputed the findings.
This purchase of Siteserv brought O’Brien into the construction services sector. In 2013, twelve months after the purchase, a subsidiary of the company was awarded a contract to install water meters. For those opposed to water charges, this is conspiracy manna.
The toxicity of the water charge issue, and all associated with it, is what prompted a revisiting of the Siteserv sale. This led all the way to the Freedom of Information request from Independent TD Catherine Murphy, which kicked the current reawakening of the controversy.
Now we are moving on to one of the great institutions of modern Irish life — The Inquiry. A familiar narrative is taking shape with the Siteserv deal. Something controversial happened in the past, but was let lie at the time. Later, often due to some unrelated issue, the controversy reawakens, and causes political ructions. Bring on The Inquiry. It would now seem that any commercial deal involving the state should make early provision for The Inquiry, to be initiated at some stage.
In this particular case, it might well be asked why an inquiry was not conducted in the months after the sale when officials at the Department of Finance expressed concerns. Instead, we do things the Irish way, which is to ignore any smell until it becomes overpowering and threatens to contaminate political interests.
This inquiry is going to be conducted in its initial phase by two professionals from KPMG.
And guess what? KPMG was also involved in the initial deal, with an executive having a role in the group which was charged with organising the sale. Naturally, the Chinese Walls will go up again. Naturally, if the KPMG lads conducting the inquiry find that anything was shoddy or ill advised they will report without fear or favour.
And that’s Siteserv in five easy pieces, a perfect example of where we’re at in Ireland today.
"Fear is a powerful emotion...but another feature of this society is it’s compassion"
Mary McAleese said last month, that the referendum is 'about Ireland's children, gay children' and that passing it would dismantle the 'architecture of homophobia'.
WE ALL know what’s going to unfold if the same-sex marriage referendum is passed. Gay couples are going to rush out, tie the knot, and immediately demand that they be provided with children to rear. We know this because the no side says children will no longer have an automatic right to a “biological mother and father”.
Without such a right, it will be open season on accessing children by any means possible in order to rear them by same-sex parents. So if you are currently raising children in a married household, put up the barricades. They’ll be a-comin’.
In any event, the “biological mother and father” will no longer be whom they once were, because their marriage will be “redefined”. The union they thought they were committed to is no more. Their relationship will be in danger of heading for the knacker’s yard.
They will probably separate, and the break-up of their union will provide an opportunity for same sex couples to grab the kids. In fact, what’s likely to unfold is that the only people getting married in the future will be same-sex couples.
All of which would be very worrying, but the conditions that will prevail should the electorate vote yes will be such that it won’t really matter. Because if same-sex marriage is introduced, the sky will fall in. Everybody will die in the natural disaster. Except same-sex couples, who will emerge from the wreckage, taking as hostages a few priests, who will be instructed to conduct church weddings on the spot before the next referendum on the slippery slope to hell happens along.
The no campaigners are not specifically sketching out the above scenario, but if you listened to some of them long enough, your imagination could go on a walkabout. The language, the subtext, the inference voters are invited to draw, all plead with you not to go down this road that darkens into the future.
The sky was going to fall in after the divorce referendum in 1995. Then, as now, children were used as pawns. The poster that read “hello divorce, bye-bye daddy” said it all. Not “goodbye”, but “bye-bye” issued like a sad child, never again to set eyes on a divorced father who was walking out the door.
Did the introduction of divorce have any impact on the institution of marriage? Did it cast a shadow of doom over society at large? Was marriage devalued or redefined, as it was claimed it would be, as it is now being claimed it will be if the referendum passes? Family life has changed in a major way over the last two decades, but precious little of the negative aspects of change could be blamed on the introduction of divorce. Instead, it was recognised that the introduction was necessary for those who found themselves trapped in marriages. Compassion won out in the divorce referendum over the forces that wanted social mores maintained in their own image. This time around, similar forces are marshalled against each other.
The principal moral imperative on the yes side is this is a matter of equality, ensuring that a minority be permitted to remove the final barrier of discrimination separating them from the majority of citizens. Just as the divorce referendum was about providing relief to those trapped in marriage, this one is concerned with opening the institution up to those excluded because of their sexuality.
There are some who have personal reservations about a change. We live in a conservative country. There are positive aspects to the forces of social conservatism that have shaped Irish society, notably the tight-knit nature of communities.
There is an argument to be made by such forces against the introduction of same-sex marriage. However, it is quite obvious that those campaigning against the proposal have no confidence in such a message. Perhaps correctly, they believe that the moral force of the yes side could not be countered by arguments that maintaining marriage as it is would benefit society at large into the future.
So instead of honestly putting forward their argument, they resort to gathering up children to be used as both shield and weapon. As in the divorce referendum, the no campaigners are attempting to project themselves as the protectors of defenceless, dependant people, who are among the most vulnerable in society
As Alan Shatter noted last week, many of the figures who are using this strategy were also opposed to the children’s rights referendum in 2012. Unequipped to invest their campaign with moral force, they have resorted to using fear. Children will be deprived of the right to their “biological mother and father”. Married gays will usher in mass surrogacy. Children raised by same-sex couples…well, say no more, but we all know they’ll be somehow deficient without both their biological parents. The institution of marriage will be kaput. The sky will fall in. The horror, the horror.
Fear is a powerful emotion, particularly in a conservative country. But another feature of this society is its capacity for compassion. And what will ultimately determine the outcome on Friday week will be which of these emotions holds greater sway with the electorate.
One figure whose stance in this poll speaks volumes is former president Mary McAleese. She is well respected across society, and somebody who takes her Catholic religion seriously. She is also interested in the effect this referendum will have on children, although, unlike those who obsess on theoretical children, she’s talking about real human beings. The referendum is, she said last month, “about Ireland’s children, gay children” and passing it would dismantle the “architecture of homophobia”.
“We owe those children a huge debt as adults who have opportunities to make choices that impact their lives, to make the right choices, choices that will allow their lives grow organically and to give them the joy of being full citizens in their own country.”
Strong stuff, and no doubt informed by her real world experience of being the mother of a gay man. It is that first-hand knowledge of mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends which may well be enough to push this poll over the line.
If Ireland does vote yes, it will be the first time a national referendum on this issue will have returned a positive outcome. Such a result would be probably be regarded around the world as being newsworthy coming from a country long noted for its conservative Catholicism.
Would it be that noteworthy? For this is also a country of small communities, urban and rural, where the strength of ties ensures that the lives of others are regarded as real, rather than abstract. In that vein, a yes vote would be a source of great national pride. Yes, this is what it means to be Irish today.
Friday, May 8, 2015
Thursday, May 7, 2015
Genocide in action
On a sunny Sunday afternoon recently, I sat in Taney church, Dundrum, as Ireland’s small Armenian community commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. Like many Armenians around the world, they had come together with family and friends to remember the million and a half Armenians killed in Turkey between 1915 and 1923. Eight other religious communities attended the service, which included a Greek Orthodox priest, a representative of the Chief Rabbi, an Anglican bishop, a Methodist minister and a Roman Catholic archbishop. Several of these clerics took to the pulpit and gave well-researched and sometimes moving accounts of what had happened to Armenian men, women and children in 1915.
My interest in the Armenian Genocide began in the late 1980s when I lived in Al-Ain, an oasis town in the emirate of Abu Dhabi. Two Lebanese-Armenian colleagues told me about the Armenian Genocide, and I remember that I offered my sympathies and quickly forgot about it. Writing about the Middle East some 16 years later, the conversation came back to me and I decided to find out more online. The first website I looked at had an eye-catching photograph of a young soldier in the uniform of the German army, and wearing an Arabic ghutra and egal on his head.
Lawrence of Arabia instantly came to mind, or more likely Peter O’Toole’s version of him in the eponymous film, but this soldier’s name was Armin Wegner and he came from Wuppertal in Westphalia. In the winter of 1914 he enlisted as a medic in the German Army, and by the time he came to Turkey the following year he had already been decorated with the Iron Cross for assisting the wounded under fire. Wegner was a keen photographer and brought his camera to the Ottoman Empire, along with a determination to disobey orders prohibiting him from photographing the death marches and torture of Turkey’s Armenians. Over the course of a year he took hundreds of photographs and smuggled the plates out of the country with soldiers returning to Germany or with diplomats travelling to mainland Europe. In December 1916 he was arrested and recalled to Germany.
What fascinated me about Wegner was not that he was witness to the attempted destruction of an entire race, or that he wanted to photograph such unspeakable horror, but that he had the bravery to do so. I wondered how many of us would have risked our lives to speak out as he had. Wegner continued to advocate for Armenians after the war, and at the Paris Peace Conference he lobbied Woodrow Wilson to create a sovereign Armenian state. The Independent Republic of Armenia was formed by the Treaty of Sèvres in 1918 but lasted only two years before being conquered by the Soviet Red Army. It would be another 71 years before it gained independence again. Wegner also testified at the trial of Soghomon Tehlirian, an Armenian accused of killing Talat Pasha, one of the instigators of the genocide. Partly due to Wegner’s evidence, Tehlirian was found not guilty on grounds of temporary insanity.
Beg for food or die
That day in Taney Church, what came as a surprise was the familiarity the non-Armenians had with the circumstances of the genocide. It is hardly surprising that the invited guests would have thoroughly researched the topic, but it was a new experience for me. Last year I published Anyush, a novel set against the backdrop of the Armenian Genocide, and of all the readers’ comments I received, by far the most common was: “I never knew about this”.
Most people of my generation will remember the genocides in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur. More recently we’ve watched the Syrian tragedy unfold. Thanks to Armin Wegner, people of his generation knew about the Armenian Genocide. Because of his photographs and the accounts written by American ambassador Henry Morgenthau, news of the Medz Yeghern or Great Crime spread without the help of mobile phones, communication satellites or the internet. Donations flooded in to help Armenian refugees in the camps at Deir al Zor in the Syrian desert, but to little effect. Of the 45,000 Armenians who made it to Deir al Zor, only 40 remained alive at the end of the war.
Wegner never forgot the suffering of the Armenian people. Although it seems likely that he was a human rights activist by nature rather than by choice, the atrocities he witnessed during the Armenian Genocide became the catalyst for his subsequent humanitarian activities. In 1933 as the Nazis extended their grip across Germany, Wegner wrote an open letter to Hitler protesting the state-organised boycott of German Jews. He was arrested by the Gestapo, imprisoned and tortured. For the duration of the war Wegner was incarcerated in various concentration camps before his eventual release and flight to Italy.
A poignant note in Wegner’s story is that he believed people had forgotten him by the end of his life. He never returned to Germany and lived the remainder of his days in Italy. His epitaph reads:
“I loved justice and hated iniquity
Therefore I die in exile.”
In the documentary, The Forgotten Genocide, Wegner looks directly into the camera, a white-haired, clear-eyed, 82-year-old man with a pronounced German accent. A citizen of Italy who speaks as if he left Prussia days before. The same man who once said: “Germany took everything from me. Even my wife.”
In 1968 Armin Wegner was awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Veshem in Israel, and the Order of Saint Gregory the Illuminator by the Catholicos of All Armenians. After his death in Rome at the age of 92, some of his ashes were taken to Yerevan where a posthumous state funeral took place near the perpetual flame of the Armenian Genocide monument.
Towards the end of the service at Taney Church, 100 candles were lit by two Armenian children. They were laid out in the shape of a cross and a single tall candle was placed in the middle. All electric lights were extinguished and the candles burned like a flaming crucifix in the darkness. As I watched, the words Hitler addressed to his troops in 1939 came back to me:
“Who after all speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
The choir began to sing an Armenian lullaby and the congregation joined in. I didn’t understand the words but hummed along anyway. Everybody sang. Everyone lent their voices. Afterwards the Armenians in Taney Church bowed their heads in silence to honour their dead. When the lights came up and people began to leave, I stayed a moment to remember one of them. The man who bore witness. A German soldier by the name of Armin Wegner.
Martine Madden is the author of Anyush (O’Brien Press, €14.99)
THE latest twist in the fallout from the recent Garda scandals is throwing up some interesting nuggets, both in terms of personnel and the issues at stake.
On Tuesday evening, Sgt Maurice McCabe launched judicial review proceedings against the inquiry. Higgins was set up last December, under the chair of former judge Kevin O’Higgins, to investigate claims of garda malpractice made by McCabe.
The allegations were first examined by senior counsel Sean Guerin, whose report last May led to the resignation of former justice minister Alan Shatter. Guerin reported that the allegations merited further investigation under the Commission of Inquiry model.
Now Mr McCabe, who is central to the inquiry, has moved to have it stopped on the basis that he claims he will be out of pocket unless there is revision of the legal fees that are to be allowed by the inquiry. And guess whose pocket could be heavier or lighter depending on the outcome of the challenge?
The Commission of Inquiry Act was enacted in 2004, largely in response to the ballooning costs of tribunals. At the time, the Flood and Moriarty tribunals had been in session for seven years each, with some barristers earning up to €2,500 a day for their services. There was growing public unease about the costs. Chief among those harbouring unease was then justice minister Michael McDowell.
In his ministerial capacity he introduced the Commission Of Inquiry Act, which ensured that future inquiries could be held behind closed doors, which, along with other provisions, greatly cut down on the legal costs. The model is regarded as a major success, and has been used a number of times since, most prominently in inquiries into clerical sex abuse.
Since leaving politics, Mr McDowell has returned to the law library, and has for the last six years or so represented Mr McCabe. If the judicial review is successful, the senior counsel will be one of those to benefit by an increase in fees.
It’s the second time in recent years that Mr McDowell has found himself on the opposite side of legislation that he was responsible for enacting. The malpractice highlighted by Mr McCabe, above all, demonstrated the shortcomings of the Garda Síochana Act 2005, which was introduced in response to the garda scandals uncovered by another long running tribunal, chaired by Frederick Morris. Mr McDowell was also the line minister who brought that one through the Oireachtas.
To be fair to the legal eagles who are representing Mr McCabe, his role in the Higgins inquiry is unique. It is the first occasion that an individual is so central to an inquiry. Guerin looked into 11 allegations about alleged malpractice, and also recommended that a few other issues form part of the inquiry. It is expected to last up to two years.
Because of both his direct involvement and his intimate knowledge of all the cases, McCabe will have to be present at practically all the hearings, and will require corresponding representation.
The amount of preparation work to be undertaken by his solicitor and barristers will be considerable. Those who are representing him may well find themselves in a position where other work and accompanying goodwill will have to be sacrificed.
Understandably, the public has little sympathy for very well paid legal personnel. It is notable, however, that even in the halcyon days of tribunals, a number of barristers resigned at various junctures to return to private practice. Career concerns and simple economics dictated that they were better off disembarking from the tribunal gravy train.
Under the Commission of Inquiry Act, a guideline for legal costs is formulated by the line minister, in this case the sitting Minister for Justice, Frances Fitzgerald. The inquiry is then bound by those guidelines.
While the amounts set out by the minister in this case have not been published, it is understood that they are typically a fraction of the kind of day rates enjoyed by barristers at tribunals 20 years ago. In the Planning Tribunal, for instance, barristers were entitled to a rate of €1,950 per day when it was established in 1997, and enjoyed a few hikes to that rate over the course of the tribunal’s 15-year tenure.
Mr McCabe has filed an affidavit with the High Court for the judicial review in which he sets out that the guidelines “confine and restrict the entitlement of a witness to recover legal costs necessarily incurred to the extent that they are inoperable null and void and of no practical effect. The amount, including maximum amounts as fixed and measured by the Respondent (the Minister for Justice) in the guidelines have the effect of transferring the obligation to pay and discharge legal costs from the exchequer to the witness,” the affidavit states.
In short, Mr McCabe’s case is that he fears that he will be either left severely out of pocket, or without the representation he requires unless there is some revision to the guidelines.
Whether the High Court accepts his claims remains to be seen. The aspect of the judicial review that is likely to be key is his centrality to the inquiry, and whether or not that should entitle him to a level of costs above and beyond the issued guidelines.
One way or the other, some resolution will have to be found that will ensure his full involvement, or else the inquiry will represent a performance of Hamlet without the royal personage.
The issues Higgins is investigating are vital. As a result of the controversies generated by Mr McCabe’s allegations, and how they were dealt with, a minister for justice has resigned. A garda commissioner’s resignation was, at least in part, also attributable to his role in the various controversies. An independent policing authority is being established. The Garda Ombudsman has been awarded enhanced powers. And major reforms have been initiated within the force.
Guerin’s report generated major public and political disquiet about what was uncovered, yet his brief dictated that he had only scratched the surface. The full story may be delayed with this legal challenge, but the public interest demands that it must be written.
Tuesday, May 5, 2015
President Michael D Higgins has said a commemoration for the 40 children killed in the Easter Rising should spark a redoubling of efforts to build a Republic they would have been proud of.
The youngsters – aged from two to 16 and largely forgotten in the decades since - were mainly killed in crossfire on the streets of Dublin and were among 374 civilians who died in the six days of the rebellion.
The president addressed a special ecumenical service at St Patrick’s Church in Ringsend, Dublin, and said it was an occasion of recovery and reclamation, but not recrimination
“Today, as we recall the innocent lives who were lost during the traumatic events of the founding period of our nation, let us all redouble our efforts to ensure that we fashion together a Republic of which they would have been proud,” he said.
Much of the detail of the children was forgotten until it was researched by RTÉ broadcaster Joe Duffy.
Mr Higgins said it was fitting to use Ireland’s decade of commemorations to remember those whose loss was less thought and spoken about.
“The history of 1916 and its decade is, of course, made up of many different stories, and today we are invited to remember the neglected, but not lost, stories of the families ruptured, and the young lives cut short, of some of the forgotten victims of the Easter Rising – the children who lost their lives during the final days of April 1916,” he said.
“Many years and decades now separate us from April 1916, and it is critical that we not only recall that past, but remember it in a way that is ethical and honest, that is inclusive of the stories of all, including those who filled the streets, and played and made friends on the streets of Dublin at that time.
“Now that we have new material and fresh research, we must use it in a way that will enable us to engage with our history of the period in all its complexity.”
The president remarked how the children’s deaths were being remembered by name even though their loss did not inspire memorials, plaques, songs or poetry.
“We can perhaps best honour their memory through the rebuilding and renewal of our society and the creation of an ethical foundation on which our Republic can grow and thrive and, most importantly, by making ours a country in which our children can fulfil their potential in peace and security, in health and in happiness,” he said.
A campaign has been ongoing for a permanent memorial to the children and to trace all relatives of those who died.
The rate at which homes are being repossessed has increased by more than 500 per cent since last year, according to figures from the Courts Service.
Some 586 repossession orders were granted by the circuit court in the first three months of this year, compared with 95 in the same period last year. Of the 586, some 383 were for primary homes, 97 were for buy-to-lets and 106 were “unknown”.
Some 210 applications for repossession were refused.
In Cork, 75 orders were granted (57 primary homes, three buy-to-lets and 15 unknown), followed by 39 in Laois (35 primary homes and four buy-to-lets) and 36 in Wexford (10 primary homes, three buy-to-lets and 23 unknown).
The fewest granted were in Sligo, where one order was made for a buy-to-let, and Carlow, where five orders were granted – two for primary homes and three for buy-to-lets.
In contrast, in the first quarter of last year, of the 95 repossession orders granted, 33 were in Dublin circuit court, nine were in Cork and seven were in Waterford, with six in each of Laois, Wexford and Tipperary.
In the High Court, which does not give a county breakdown, some 29 cases were initiated in the first quarter of this year and 25 repossession orders were granted.
A spokesman for the Courts Service said it was important to note that the making of a court order for possession did not necessarily mean that the applicant had obtained possession of the property affected.
“It is a matter for the person or company who obtained the order for possession to pursue its execution. The Courts Service does not have statistics on the number of actual repossessions.”
As previously reported by The Irish Times, as of January 1st, some 7,101 civil repossession bills have been lodged across the State’s 26 circuit courts. This is thought to have risen to about 8,000 bills before the courts now.
The dramatic increase in the rate of orders granted since last year will further increase pressure on Government, grappling with a housing and homelessness crisis, to introduce accessible solutions to help households in mortgage arrears stay in their family homes.
Solutions the Government is said to be considering are easier access to arrangements such as split mortgage or mortgage-to-rent schemes.
The institution which has been granted the most repossession orders so far this year is Permanent TSB, which was granted possession of 175 homes in the first quarter. It had 88 applications refused.
Ulster Bank was granted 82 repossession orders and had 44 refused.
Some 55 orders were granted to EBS Limited with 30 applications refused. KBC Bank Ireland was granted repossession orders for 50 primary homes, 16 buy-to-lets and 10 unknown; four orders were refused.
One surprising player in the statistics is Dún Laoghaire/Rathdown County Council which was granted three repossession orders in the first quarter, one for a primary home, one buy-to-let and one unknown. It was also refused one application.