Questioning the thinking of an economic think tank…

Just a quick thought…

This week, Ireland’s Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) issued some cautious growth figures for the Irish economy in its quarterly economic review.

In its commentary the ESRI warned that weak economic growth in the UK and the United States could impact on Ireland’s recovery because they were two of our largest export markets.

But what was picked up on by the media for the most part was the ESRI’s belief that €4 billion and not €3.6 billion should be cut in the coming budget in December.

So used to dealing in billions, some would probably think it’s no big thing. Even the leader of Fianna Fáil agreed in amidst trying to save his leadership of the main opposition party .

However, that’s €400 million, a lot of money. Predictably it has drawn the ire of the trade unions.

But what is most interesting and indeed a bit confusing is that the ESRI calls for more cuts yet warns of the effects of weak growth in the UK, weak growth largely considered to be a result of the epic slashing of budgets and spending being carried out by Chancellor George Osborne.

Although he wouldn’t say that himself. He’s so far blamed the weather, the royal family, the last government and Jedward* for weak economic growth, or practically none at all.

Now of course, economic circumstances in both countries are much different but Ireland, domestically at least, is seeing its economy growing just as the UK’s was before Osborne made his first round of budget cuts.

Surely to institute even more cuts than we already need to as mandated by the EU/IMF would be fallacy. Not least because of what we can all see is happening with “them across the water” to quote Aprés Match.

You would have thought the ESRI might have seen that itself but then again, wasn’t it the think tank which said something about a “soft landing”

* No, not really.

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News Picks: Ireland prepares for a very important election

Ireland

Over the last few weeks, a general election campaign has taken centre stage in Ireland where I have been working for news website TheJournal.ie (hence the lack of regular updates).

It is often said of elections in countries that they are the most important in many years or even in the history of the country. In Ireland’s case this may actually be true.

The state itself has been in existence for less than a hundred years yet at the end of last year it reached a pivotal moment in its short existence when it was forced to accept an EU/IMF bailout after a disasterous financial splurge in previous years that effectively bankrupted the country.

The government that oversaw much of the economic success that eventually turned into an economic disaster, Fianna Fail, now face an electoral wipeout like no other in the party’s history.

There’s been the usual campaign promises and high rhetoric that will count for little once whoever is elected gets into government.

Here’s a selection of stories that have emerged over the past few weeks:

Public want Kenny as Taoiseach in a single party government – The opposition Fine Gael party could be on the verge of being elected as a single party government.

They have portrayed themselves as a very competent alternative that has a plan to sort the country out. There is a lot of rhetoric that many would be sceptical of in these times but Ireland is desperate for an inspirational figure in the mould of Barack Obama, perhaps.

Ireland has Enda Kenny, he is no Obama, he is no David Cameron. He is dour, at times anonymous and sometimes gaffe prone but he gives the air of a statesman in many ways and having accepted that it’s unlikely any other person will be the next Taoiseach (Prime Minister), the public seem prepared to accept him.

Independents could play a big part as FG make approaches – Kenny and Fine Gael will most likely need the backing of independent candidates to form a government and they recognise this.

Earlier this week I summarised those running and likely to be elected with over a dozen independents set to be elected to the 166 seat parliament, underlining the anger many people feel towards the political mainstream.

There are some bizarre candidates in amongst some very intelligent and smart people who would be a welcome addition to the next government.

Some are so disillusioned they predict military intervention – This was one of the most bizarre stories I’ve worked on since being in Ireland.

Ned O’Keeffe has been a TD (MP) for Cork East for nearly 30 years but is stepping down at this election, one of many from the governing Fianna Fail party. He has become so disillusioned with the actions of his party colleagues in government that he suspects the army could be about to takeover.

This is most unlikely. Ireland’s army, the Irish Defence Force, is not nearly strong enough to overthrow a government and what’s more the democracy currently in place will see those responsible for the economic collapse be made suffer at the ballot box which will satisfy most people.

But O’Keeffe later bemoaned the lack of intellectuals in government, a statement many in the country might not necessarily agree with, being more of the view that there weren’t nearly enough to avert the financial collapse.

But at least we’ve retained our pride…and sense of humour – Amidst the arrival of the men in suits from EU and IMF late last year, a brand spanking new terminal was opened at the country’s main airport in Dublin.

Terminal 2 was planned during the boom and built during the bust, it opened with many predicting rather cynically that it would be the perfect facilitator of the many people who would be leaving the country because of the bleak employment and economic prospects.

The Dublin Airport Authority sought to portray their new building as something to be truly proud of, just like being Irish:

Others were perhaps a bit more honest in their assessment of the terminal:

News Picks: Ireland, Palestine Papers, Egypt, Sexy Anchors

Ireland

New Fianna Fail leader says sorry – Maybe it’s all too late but it was nice to hear a change from the usual bluster and arrogance of Fianna Fail leaders as Michael Martin apologised for his and his party’s actions over the last 14 years in power that have led to the country’s economic collapse.

“I am sorry for the mistakes we made as a party and that I’ve made as a minister — very sorry for those mistakes that we made,” Martin said after being elected leader of the party following the political suicide mission conducted by Taoiseach (still!) Brian Cowen last week.

Martin’s task will be to rebuild the party as a credible opposition to the likely Fine Gael/Labour coalition that will be formed in the aftermath of the election due late next month. In one sense he’s already started, challenging the leaders of these two parties to a three-way debate (much in the way Cameron, Brown and Clegg battled it out last year). This has already been rejected by Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny who wants to include more parties in the debates perhaps wary of not looking so good in alongside Martin and Labour leader Eamon Gilmore.

Palestine Papers

Saeb Erekat hits back – At first he described the revelations in the Palestine Papers as “a pack of lies” but in an article for The Guardian, chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat has said that the coverage of the release of the documents has distracted from the real issue: “That Palestinian negotiators have consistently come to the table in complete seriousness and in good faith, and that we have only been met by rejection at the other end.”

This is something I alluded to in my previous post on the subject, that really we should not be criticising the actions of the Palestinian negotiators (although they are questionable in many ways) but examining the reasons as to why, when they were being offered so much, Israel, supported by the United States, were continually rejecting what was on the table.

If Israel cannot in any way consider the offers so far put forward by the Palestinians, then what hopes for a two state solution or at least a peaceful solution?

Egypt

A Manifesto for Change in Egypt – Could this be the tipping point that sends Egypt the way of Tunisia? Mohammed El Baradei, the former head of the European Atomic Energy Agency, is returning to the country ahead of presidential elections due to take place in September. But in the midst of heavy protests on the streets of Egypt’s cities, he has warned in an article for The Daily Beast that “the Egyptian people broke the barrier of fear, and once that is broken, there is no stopping them.”

Protestors across the country are demanding change taking inspiration from Tunisia’s “Jasmine Revolution”. Toppling president Hosni Mubarak will not be as easy as Bin Ali in Tunisia. For a start Mubarak still holds considerable clout within the country and has the armed forces on his side, something Bin Ali could not really say in the dying days of his regime.

As always, Brian Whitaker’s blog, Al-Bab is an excellent resource of news and comment on what’s happening in the Middle East.

Sexy Anchors

Sexy News Anchors Distract Male Viewers – Of the many revelations that have emerged from Sky Sports over the past week in which their leading lights Richard Keys and Andy Gray have been unceremoniously consigned to the dustbin has been that they only ever hired good-looking women to anchor their programmes, particularly Sky Sports News. Anyone who watches Sky Sports News will know that there are a plethora of  blonde and attractive women delivering the latest sports news.

Now, new research in the US has found that when a female news anchor’s sexual attractiveness is played up (more make-up, tight-fitting tops), male viewers retain less information. Conversely, the researchers at Indiana University found that the men who took part in the study recalled significantly more information watching the unsexualised anchor deliver news than her sexualised version.

 

News Picks: Palin and the media, Obama, Phone hacking, Cowen’s victory

US Politics

Sarah Palin and the Media symbiosis – The excellent US pollster Nate Silver has posted an interesting piece of research about how American’s view Sarah Palin. It’s not so much the argument of how favourably or unfavourable they look upon her but just how many people actually hold an opinion of the former Alaskan governor, who until she was the surprise pick for Republican vice presidential nominee in 2008, was utterly unknown in the US.

Research found that 53% of people held a strong view of Palin, that’s second only to the President Barack Obama. Silver asks what drives this fascination with Palin? Is it her? The media? Or the American public? Probably a combination of all three.

Is Barack Obama keeping his promises? – An interesting fact check of President Obama’s 2008 campaign pledges weighing up how many he has managed to keep, how many he has broken, and how many he has compromised on or are still in the works since he entered the White House.

The results show he has kept 26% of his pledges, most notably health care (although this was laden with compromises). In total he has broken 33 promises but most pledges (44%) are described as in the works with at least two years left in office.

Christine O’Donnell – she’s back! – Remember the Republican nominee for Senator in Delaware who had to fight of accusations of being a witch? Well she lost, unsurprisingly, but that doesn’t appear to have dented her political ambitions. O’Donnell has announced the formation of a Political Action Committee (PAC), a way of staying involved in the political process and a vehicle for raising money. Sarah Palin utilises it to great effect. O’Donnell is hoping to do the same.

Phone hacking

What are the other papers up to? – The News of the World continues to be mired in controversy over phone hacking allegations and questions about just how high up in the organisation they went. The Guardian has been doggedly pursuing it’s perceived rivals, who are part of Rupert Murdoch’s News International stable, for years now.

But are they keeping their own house in order? The Press Gazette had asked it and other national media, including the Daily Mail, Trinity Mirror, Telegraph Media Group and the BBC, about phone hacking. So far only Guardian News and Media have responded to their questions.

Ireland

Cowen wins confidence vote but victory could yet be Martin’s – Unsurprisingly, Taoiseach Brian Cowen won the vote of confidence in his leadership of Ireland’s governing party, Fianna Fail, late last night and has been crowing about it in the Dail (Parliament) today.

But the learned Irish political writer Harry McGee suggests that victory may, in the long run, be that of last night’s failed challenger Michael Martin who has emerged from this “pantomime” (as one opposition Labour Party member put it) with the best chance of leading Fianna Fail post general election wipeout.

Cowen apparently won the confidence vote by 2-1 which reflects rather badly on the majority of Fianna Fail TDs who claim to represent their constituents despite polls showing only ten per cent of the Irish population actually approve of Cowen.

 

News Picks: Tunisia, Ireland, Chile

Tunisia

Events in Tunisia just the start? – The weekend’s news agenda has been dominated by events in Tunisia but what’s really interesting is not only what is happening there but what may now happen in other Arab countries of a similar political structure where people young and old are gaining hope from the uprising in Tunisia.

Brian Whitaker, The Guardian’s fantastic Middle East expert, writes about clashes in Libya which, although they may die down in the next few days, are unlikely to abate long term where Colonel Gadaffi still rules after nearly 42 years. Whitaker’s Al-Bab blog is generally an excellent resource for analysis on the Arab world.

A Wikileaks revolution? – Foreign policy magazine speculates whether the diplomatic cables released late last year that highlighted the mafia-esque rule of the former President Bin Ali were part of the reason why the people rose up against their leader, demanding change.

Ireland

Tight vote expected in Fianna Fail leadership contest – Events in Dublin also dominated the weekend news agenda with a leadership battle slightly more civilised than what is happening in Tunisia.

But that doesn’t mask the sheer anger of many in the country as Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Brian Cowen announced his intention to remain as leader of his party Fianna Fail. However this is subject to a confidence vote in his leadership by the 71 TDs (MPs) in the party on Tuesday. Cowen will be confident of victory after reassurances last week from those within the party.

However, Foreign Minister Michael Martin will attempt to unseat Cowen, launching his own leadership bid at a late evening press conference in a swanky Dublin hotel on Sunday.

Martin is blitzing the Irish media over the next 24 hours or so in an attempt to shore up his position. Whilst junior ministers are lining up behind Martin, Cowen, inexplicably, commands a strong position despite desperate approval ratings which would make you question the very sanity of the 14% of people who apparently back him as leader of the country.

Events in the Republic will be extremely interesting to follow over the next day or two. I’d recommend TheJournal.ie for the up-to-date coverage of what happens.

Chile

Fuel price strikes trap tourists – We were all engrossed and utterly charmed by the story of the trapped Chilean Miners last year which sent President Sebastian Pinera’s approval ratings sky high as he was on hand to greet each of the 33 miners who emerged from the depths of the earth. Pinera revelled in the popularity as you would expect. However, there is now growing discontent in Chile with rising fuel prices, people taking to the streets and in some areas violent protests trapping tourists. Pinera’s approval ratings are down.

South Africa and going back to Ireland

At the beginning of next month I embark on what I hope will be the journey of a lifetime. I’m spending a month in Cape Town, South Africa working at a local and popular newspaper called the Daily Voice, adding another string to my journalism bow and visiting a part of the world I have always been deeply interested in.

Traveling is something I did a lot as a kid with my parents but I haven’t yet done the backpacking/inter-railing jaunt. While this is not student traveling of a conventional sort it is an incredible opportunity to see a truly beautiful and very different part of the world and hopefully gain unconventional but ultimately rewarding journalistic experience.

Most of my sporadic blogs have focused on mainstream, public interest issues (sadly, there’s probably more public interest in Susan Boyle than in the BNP) but whilst in South Africa I hope to regularly update you on my exploits both professionally and personally, giving you an insight into a naive student journalists adventures in the big bad world.

Beforehand I’m going home to Ireland for a week. My country has been affected worse than most by the recession. The good times were good in Ireland but now the bad times are very bad indeed.

We have government whose incompetency is on a different level to the UK (hard though that may be to believe) and whose response to the recession was not to increase consumer confidence by cutting prices as they did here in the UK with the VAT rate cut but actually raise them in order to raise the money they wasted so frivelously when times were better.

Like Labour, the leading party, Fianna Fail have been in power for twelve years, and like Gordon Brown, Taoiseach Brian Cowen took over from a far more popular predecessor.

However, unlike Labour, Fianna Fail have consumed a previously progressive and lively Green Party, who entered into a promising coalition with them in 2007 but have since seen their standing in Irish politics almost totally obliterated, a great shame but an example of the poisonous nature of Fianna Fail whose standing in Irish politics has never been as low as it is now.

But aside from politics, whenever I go home now the country I left two years ago is almost totally different, a collective gloom has descended on the nation. It’s as noticeable on the busy streets of Dublin as it is in the town of Athy where I am from. Businesses shutting down everyday, a rising unemployment rate and a lot of young people who have only ever known economic growth and general good times.

Now they and the rest of the population face a real test of their resolve to see whether the country can re-emerge and prosper once more. I really hope it can because it’s not much fun going home any more aside from getting to see me mammy!