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Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Rural Ireland: A political Hot Potato

It was obvious from the mid-1960s that the character of the country would change in a major way because of all the forces of modernity.
In fact, the government of the day was well aware of it. A report was commissioned to determine the best way forward and that report was duly ignored.
Since then there have been other reports, other attempts to plan for the future for rural Ireland, but at every junction, a plan to cater for all the people into the future was torn up in the name of short-term political gain. What is happening now was due to occur up to 20 years ago, but much of it was delayed, and many of the problems now emerging were masked, during the frantic building boom.

The changing character of the country could not really be avoided, but it could have been managed properly. Rural Ireland would then not have to be subjected to the systemic withdrawal of services, and, to some extent, the withdrawal of the State, from many areas.
Back in 1966, a firm of English town planners, Colin Buchanan and partners, were commissioned to set out a regional strategy for development in the country. The commission was actually awarded by the UN on behalf of the Irish government.

Buchanan looked at four possible options for development. The first involved concentrating on Dublin. That was quickly discounted. The second involved two other regional centres, Cork and the Limerick/Shannon area. This was given due consideration. The third was to develop these regions and six others, and the fourth was to scatter everything to the four winds.

A report from a symposium in 1970 on Buchanan laid out that the final option was simply not on. It “offered in theory the chance of somewhat higher levels of population and employment than present policies in the areas which have suffered most from emigration”, the report stated.

“In practice, however, it seemed clear that it would not be possible to get such a large share of industrial development to the areas in greatest need of it, with the result that many new projects would fail or be diverted to other countries, so that the areas with high emigration would be likely to get only a fraction of the help intended, and the country as a whole would suffer from the consequences of a very much slower rate of economic growth.”

By then, Buchanan had been published two years previously, and had caused a huge flurry of debate. The option chosen was the one designed to develop the nine centres which, apart from Dublin, Cork, and Limerick/Shannon, included Waterford, Dundalk, Drogheda, Galway, Sligo, and Athlone.
These would be designated growth centres in which inward investment would be targeted.

The plan made perfect sense and faced up to the reality of the grinding future. If it had been followed, there could have been proper regional development, and a secondary plan to cater for outlying towns, rural areas, the development of agriculture and small manufacturing industries could have followed.
It would have been painful initially, but would have benefited the country as a whole, and particularly the rural areas.

Naturally, the sensible and universally beneficial option was not taken. In 1972, the government effectively ignored Buchanan and continued with a haphazard regional investment policy. Political pressure won the day. There would have been short-term pain with implementation. The government would have taken a hit. The opposition would have made hay. In such a scenario, the welfare of the population as a whole is regarded as entirely secondary.

Life moved on. The world changed, but attitudes in political circles to regional development continued to stagnate. The real world did, however, keep intruding. As a result, another stab was made at coming up with a comprehensive regional strategy.
Ulitmately, this took the form on the National Spacial Strategy. This recommended the development of gateway towns for investment. Along with Dublin, Cork, Limerick/Shannon, and Waterford — which had been targeted in the National Development Plan 2000-20006, the NSS identified “linked gateways” of Letterkenny, Dundalk, Sligo, and the Midlands towns of Athlone, Tullamore, and Mullingar.

One element of development in these towns was to be the decentralisation of government. Again, all of this made perfect sense. It would have allowed for regional development which could then identify how the more rural areas could be accommodated. Again, it would have meant some painful decisions. There would be anger in the towns that would have lost out. In the Midlands, for example, a decentralisation programme would have had to probably accommodate just one of the three towns in the NSS. However, decentralisation of a small portion of government functions might have provided a springboard for development in these centres.

In 2000, the minister for finance, Charlie McCreevy, announced that 10,000 civil servants would be decentralised. There followed a scramble in up to 130 urban centres around the country to get a piece of the action. While this was unfolding, the minister for the environment, Noel Dempsey, was announcing the NSS, citing the mistakes made in not implementing Buchanan, and claiming that the Irish people were now “mature” enough to comply with a balanced regional development.

No they weren’t. Neither were their politicians.
In December 2003, McCreevy put the kibosh in the NSS by announcing that the 10,000 would be scattered to 53 different locations, most prominent among them the constituencies of serving ministers. In one fell stroke, he did for the type of policy priority required to push ahead with the NSS.

Fatally undermined, the NSS lost much of its impetus. It still exists as official strategy, but in essence we are back where we were when the Buchanan report was torn up.
As with much else, the building boom masked the natural decline of rural Ireland. With employment in many main centres, whole legions of people remained in rural centres and commuted to plentiful work and the services industries that accompanied the boom.

Those days are gone. The jobs have dried up. When the tide went out on the boom, rural Ireland was exposed to some harsh elements. On top of all that, the regime of austerity and cutbacks hit vulnerable sections such as rural Ireland the hardest. Instead of a managed rearrangement of priorities, and services, there was a cull.
Now the decline of rural Ireland is regarded in political circles as a problem to be fixed rather than an inevitability that could be managed in a proper way that benefits all. In dealing with the issue, the mistakes of the past should first be acknowledged. After that, there is a lot of work to be done.

Michael Clifford

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Having a laugh with co-workers is more important than getting a pay rise

Having a laugh with co-workers is more important than getting a pay rise
People in Ireland place more value on a positive work environment than money.

Image: Shutterstock

THE MAJORITY OF Irish employees think getting along with your co-workers is more important than how much money you make.

A new survey has found that people are most attracted to companies which offer good working conditions (61%), a positive culture (53%) and a good work/life balance (52%).
Regular pay rises ranked lowest with less than a third (31%) citing this as important.
The survey, which was conducted by YouGov on behalf of Ricoh Ireland, polled 1,072 people over the age of 16.

When asked what a business needs to do to be considered responsible, the highest priority was treating employees well (75%), including not abusing their rights.
The next highest priorities were being honest about products and pricing (74%), following the law (62%), paying the right amount of tax (59%) and reducing environmental impact where they can (56%).

Just one in four people said they believe the majority of businesses in Ireland operate in a responsible manner.
Seven in ten people said they are more likely to buy from companies that act in a responsible way, even when compared with cheaper ‘less responsible’ options.

Changing attitudes 
Gary Hopwood, general manager of Ricoh Ireland, said the findings show “a need for Irish businesses to act more responsibly as they look to grow”.
Employees are now looking for much more than just a pay packet at the end of the month from their employers. Businesses need to recognise this and provide them with great working environments and a work/life balance that meets their needs.

Tina Roche, chief executive of Business in the Community Ireland, said the research “highlights the changing expectations of employees and consumers in Ireland”.

“They now want to work with and buy from more responsible and sustainable businesses. Being a good corporate citizen has become an essential part of growth and success for any organisation,” she added.

Monday, August 10, 2015

A Question Of Morals

“Always do what is right. It will gratify half of mankind and astound the other.”
Mark Twain

“So far, about morals, I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after.” 
Ernest Hemingway

“It seems to me that the idea of a personal God is an anthropological concept which I cannot take seriously. I also cannot imagine some will or goal outside the human sphere... Science has been charged with undermining morality, but the charge is unjust. A man's ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death.”
Albert Einstein

“Higgins, have you no morals, man?
Doolittle [unabashed]: Can’t afford them, Governor. Neither could you if you was as poor as me.”
George Bernard Shaw-Pygmalion

“Would you have yourself aborted, your brother, your sister, your mother or father. In the end, I suppose, that abortion is a moral choice if you happened to have one.”

“Work hard, do your best, live the truth, trust yourself, have some fun...and you'll have no regrets.”
Byrd Bagget

Mel Gibson ‘denied access to Puck pub’

Tall tales abound about Puck Fair, many of which have been enhanced and enlivened in the telling down the decades.

One of the more recent, which happened on this Gathering Day exactly 20 years ago, concerned the Hollywood superstar Mel Gibson.
Deep into the production of Braveheart, which at the time was being filmed around Meath and Dublin, the Aussie actor decided to take a few days off to visit Puck Fair — a festival he said he had heard about during his childhood.
Arriving in Killorglin just after midnight, he strolled around the town with a small entourage, un-noticed amidst the crush of humanity on that mild August night.

Passing the closed door of a pub on Langford Street, Gibson paused to listen to a well sung verse of ‘Raglan Road’ drifting through the windows. Asking the doorman to gain admittance, the Aussie received a polite but firm no.
An actor well used to the instant subservience his presence generated, Gibson played his trump card early: “Don’t you know who I am? I’m Mel Gibson, and I’ll be directing two armies in battle tomorrow morning.”

Mel Gibson in blockbuster Braveheart
The unimpressed guardian of the doorway stared him straight in the eyes and said: “I don’t care if you’re a first cousin of Charlie Haughey himself, you won’t be getting in here tonight.”
Many famous faces have been drawn to Killorglin down the years, including Brendan Behan, back in the 1950s. After an extended few days of convivial engagement in the town’s hostelries, the Borstal Boy author is said to have delivered one of his more famous observations: “Other people have a nationality — the Irish have a psychosis.”

Further back, JA Froude, a travel writer who toured Kerry in the 1800s, was moved to remark: “Order is an exotic in Ireland. It has been imported from England but will not grow. It suits neither soil nor climate.”
“Puck is the central point of the year for the people of Kerry, everything that happens in Killorglin is measured either before Puck or after Puck,” says Gerard Foley, whose family line dates back to the fair’s earliest times.

“It’s a time for meeting old friends, and many people will convene at the same pub where they met last year and just continue the conversation as if it never stopped. For exiles who live overseas, it’s a time even more important than Christmas — it is considered essential for them to be home for Puck.”
Gerard is the present generation to don the mantle of Baron of Killorglin, a title dating back to 1800, which allowed the family exact tolls from every farmer who bought livestock at Puck. Wooden trestles would block all the roads leading to the town, manned by men with stout sticks, demanding their legal dues.
In 1957, however, Gerard’s father famously declared: “Killorglin is now a free port,” and ceremoniously threw the wooden trestles into the River Laune.

“We were sorry not to have salvaged one of the trestles,” said Gerard.“It would have made a wonderful piece of Puck Fair history to display somewhere suitable.”

John Daly

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Phone minute: A bird's eye view

What price the truth? A jury decides

Independent News and Media is bringing a case to the European Court of Human Rights. The company wants the court to examine Ireland’s libel laws, following an award of €1.9m (later reduced to €1.25m) to Monica Leech, a PR consultant, in 2009.
When I read the item, I felt a queer blast from the past. I covered that trial. It centred around a claim that the Evening Herald had printed material and pictures which falsely suggested Ms Leech had had an affair with Martin Cullen, a former cabinet minister.

The jury found the material had meant there was an affair, which was false. There is no doubt that, given the jury’s decision, a wrong was perpetrated on Ms Leech and she deserved compensation. The level of the award, however, was staggering.

                                                                        Monica Leech

Put it into context. The average award at the redress board for former residents of state institutions was €60,000. Those people had their childhoods swiped away, their psyches damaged, and, tragically for many, their lives ruined before they even reached adulthood.

Ms Leech was also done a wrong. She had come to public prominence in 2004, when it was revealed that she had received contracts worth €300,000 from Cullen’s department. She had been a political supporter of Cullen’s in their hometown of Waterford. An inquiry conducted by a former chairman of the Revenue Commissioners found there was nothing wrong with Cullen’s department employing her, but it also found it difficult to determine the extent of the work she did for the money. Wherever the blame may lie for that, it wasn’t with her.

It was in the fall-out from that story that the false allegations surfaced, for which the jury found she was wronged to the tune of €1.9m. Her counsel characterised the false allegation as casting her as a “slut, harlot, tart, floozy”.
He said the interpretation of the material cast her as “a liar, a cheat, cheating on her husband, cheating on her children, a tramp and a slut.” Presumably, that representation had a major effect on the jury, although the characterisations might well belong in the century that preceded the last one.

After the case, Ms Leech went on the radio and outlined what had befallen her as a result of the false allegations. “I have been assaulted in restaurants,” she told 4FM. “I’ve had my car vandalised. I’ve had stones thrown at me from moving cars. I have received horrible letters.”
Not even bankers have been subjected to the kind of treatment meted out to Ms Leech over the false allegations, but that’s the way it goes. There is no question but Ms Leech was entitled to compensation, but proportionality is another matter. That’s just one of a number of problems with the libel laws in this country.
What care you about the libel laws? Well, if you give a fig about corruption, abuses in public life, scrutinising decisions and criminality, you should do.

In January of last year, referring to the controversy over RTÉ paying out compensation to individuals who said they had been libelled by Panti Bliss on the Brendan O’Connor TV show, Pat Rabbitte issued a statement saying it would be “a matter of serious concern if recourse to our defamation laws was to have a chilling effect on public debate”. The phrase “chilling effect on public debate” is constantly and correctly used in reference to libel laws in this country.

RTÉ was heavily criticised for paying out without testing the alleged libel in that instance, yet anybody with any knowledge of the libel laws endorsed the decision. Defending a case in front of a jury that awards millions for damages unseen makes no sense.

And the damage perpetrated is unseen. In this country, somebody who believes their reputation has been injured does not have to produce evidence of the damage. It is akin to a plaintiff wearing a large overcoat appearing before a judge, alleging that he has lost his left arm, but not being required to produce the stump. Many successful plaintiffs in libel actions prospered in their careers in between the libel and the trial, and yet claimed that their reputations had suffered greatly. In light of the size of some of the awards that have been made in recent decades, is it any wonder that media outlets shy away from putting their trust in juries.
Then, there are the costs. When an outlet successfully defends an action, it may have to fork out for its own legal fees, even when the judge awards costs. Most plaintiffs simply wouldn’t have the money to pay the enormous costs involved. So, for a media outlet, it’s a lose-lose, taking a financial hit even when it is completely in the right. Is this the case in any other area of law?

Down the years, there was much huffing and puffing about reforming the law on libel, which ultimately led to a new law in 2009. In reality, the changes have been minimal, and much the same problems pertain.
For the centres of power, it’s a win-win. The libel laws have had a “chilling effect” on public debate. Increasingly, lawyers employed by media outlets to protect against libel are acting as censors. Traditionally, lawyers employed by media outlets attempted to allow editors to include as much material as possible on the right side of the libel laws.

Now, if there is even the smallest chance that somebody can make even a prima facie case for taking an action, then the media’s lawyer blocks that material on the basis that it will inevitably cost money, and possibly, in light of the structure of the laws, huge amounts. This is not a criticism of the media lawyers. They are acting in their client’s best interests.
However, it changes the dynamic of the media’s function to act as a watchdog for society. The issue is not one of ensuring that what you are publishing is fair and accurate, but ensuring that there is no possibility that that law can be used as a weapon to strike back against the media.

What’s the problem if you’re 100% sure of your facts? In the first instance, it’s not possible to always be 100% sure, and in that grey area lie many of the stories which unearth wrongdoing and corruption. For instance, a number of the cases highlighted by RTÉ’s Prime Time programme in relation to health scandals might never have seen the light of day if done by one of the less-resourced media outlets.

Equally, even when a case is successfully defended, the plaintiff is unlikely to have resources to pay the media outlet’s legal fees. (Plaintiff’s own counsel in libel actions generally operate on a no-foal, no-fee basis). Now, it would seem that one media outlet — INM — is going to Europe to see if some remedy can be found that might bring laws in this country into line with others, particularly the neighbouring jurisdiction, which has reformed its laws in recent years. Developments will be interesting to observe.

Michael Clifford