Sunday, 30 December 2012

Ulysses S. Grant

It is an unusual experience to finish reading a book , wishing it was longer. That was my feeling on completing   “Ulysses S. Grant, unlikely Hero” by Michael Korda (published by Harper.)
Grant was the most successful General on the Union side in the America Civil War. He went on to be President of the United States.

But he was a perennial failure in every business endeavour he took up, and finished his life, suffering a fatal cancer, but working to the very end to complete an autobiography, that  he hoped would provide an income for his wife and children, after he was gone. It did. It was a bestseller.
Grant was slovenly in appearance, and did poorly in his exams at West Point.  In the peacetime army, his solitary drinking became a problem, and in response to criticism , he resigned from the army. Then he changed his mind, and sought to be reinstated, but the then Secretary or War, Jefferson Davis, refused his request. 

Davis went on to become President of the Confederate States of America in the Civil War, and Grant’s spectacular victory at Vicksburg cut the Confederacy in two, and led to the end of Davis’ career, and of his cause.
As a General, Grant was always willing to go on the attack. Unlike his analytical and political predecessor as Union commander, McClellan, who conserved his men, Grant’s tactics involved substantial casualties. But he had an instinct for the battlefield, and  was able to win battles.
After the Civil War, in 1868, he was elected as President of the United States.
His term of office coincided with a depression in 1873 which, along with a variety of scandals, tainted his reputation. After the Presidency, he again went into business, but with even less success than before.
Korda’s book bring out the humanity, as well as the genius, of this modest man 

Saturday, 22 December 2012


I am shocked to learn of the death of Shane McEntee. He was deeply devoted to his family, his wife, Kathleen, his children, mother, Madge and wider circle. He is a huge loss.
He was a man of unlimited emotional, and practical, commitment to any task he took on. It absorbed him totally. No effort was ever spared. I remember recently asking him to assist a disabled neighbour in getting adequate care, and the lengths he and his office  went to, to help out in this  case, were without limit.
He was a great success in politics. His victory in the 2005 by election testified to his deep identification with the people of Meath, and theirs with him. This by election victory was, it transpired, to be a turning point in Irish politics and greatly strengthened Fine Gael leading to its eventual success in the 2011 General Election. He always gave immense time to listen to people and their problems, and to be with them in their times of sorrow.
As a Minister, Shane was able to bring unique expertise to bear in promoting Irish food and horticulture. He had deep practical experience as a farmer, but he had also run a very good restaurant in Nobber, which had attracted custom from far and wide. So he understood, and could speak with unequalled authority, on every aspect of the business.
He was passionately interested in Gaelic football, and had a deep practical and theoretical understanding of the game. He trained , at different times, the Nobber, Ballinlough, Castletown and Walterstown teams and was very successful. He brought from  football to politics a deep sense of loyalty and of being part of a team.
He leaves a gaping void in the life of his family, his county and his country.
I extend heartfelt sympathy to his grieving wife and family

Wednesday, 19 December 2012


90% of parents who are rearing children on their own are women, and average pay of women in the Irish workforce is below that of men.  This is despite the fact that more young women than men are likely to have a third level qualification.
The Irish Central Statistics Office published an interesting statistical analysis of differences between men and women in 2011.
Irish boys are 50% more likely to leave school without a qualification, than Irish girls are -12% of boys do so, as against 8% of girls.
But only in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Bulgaria do girls outnumber boys among early school leavers.
The unemployment rate for men in 2011 was 17.5% in Ireland, as against 10.4% for women.
Ireland is unusual in this respect. Only Lithuania and Latvia had a similarly large gap between male and female rates of unemployment.
Since the recession began, there has been triple the rate of growth in male, as in female unemployment in Ireland, which is most unusual in European terms.
The higher unemployment rate for men is probably  linked to the  fact that , in the 25 to 34 age group, 50% of Irish women have a third level qualification, whereas 40% of Irish men in that age group do.
It is also probably linked to the disproportionate size of the construction sector in Ireland during the  boom. But Spain had a similar construction boom, without this difference between male and female unemployment rates arising.
In Ireland, men are more likely to go to gaol than women. Although Ireland’s rate of imprisonment is only one seventh that in the United States of America, it three times that of India.
In Ireland, eight times as many males are in prison as females. This is because males are more likely to commit the sort of crime that attracts terms of imprisonment, but also, to the extent that environmental factors induce criminality, it suggests that young men face a more difficult environment. 
This is probably linked to the fact that Irish boys tend to leave school earlier, and with poorer qualifications, than Irish girls,  but there are bound to be other explanations as well.
Boys and girls are different.
The onset of puberty comes two years earlier to girls, at 11 years of age, than it does to boys which is at 13 years of age. I have been told that that process of puberty inhibits educational development for a whole year in each case.
But a setback in education may be a lot less disruptive in our current educational system at the age of 11, than it is at the age of 13, which is the age at which some boys may begin to  contemplate dropping out of education altogether, with disastrous consequences for their long term earning ability.  I do not know if this has any link to the fact that males are three times as likely to be killed in road accidents as females.
These issues deserve to be studied.

Saturday, 15 December 2012


One sentence in the recent article in the” Economist”, on Britain’s relationship with the EU, really alarmed me,
This was a”senior Labour figure” saying “Whatever our position on Europe, we cannot be seen as an anti referendum party”. If Labour adheres to that line, the UK, including Northern Ireland, could be out of the EU by 2016.
This is because,  in the next British General Election campaign, it would mean that both Labour and the Conservatives would be promising a referendum on whether the UK should leave the EU or not.
The parties are being driven to make this promise by the threat of UKIP to tip the balance in key constituencies. For example if UKIP took  even 5%  of its vote away from the Conservatives, this could send many tens of seats over to Labour, even though, under PR, these UKIP votes would have  transferred back to the Conservatives, when the UKIP candidate came to be eliminated. UKIP voters are primarily concerned about immigration and only secondarily  do they want Britain out of the EU.
The Conservative plan is to try to renegotiate the terms of UK membership and put the terms to a referendum. It looks as if Labour may adopt a similar policy, so as to prevent a leakage of its votes to UKIP.
 It is very unlikely that the results of any such renegotiation, whether conducted by  Labour or the Conservatives, will satisfy British popular expectations.  And if that is the case, the UK electorate may choose in a referendum to leave the EU, as a of protest against the perceived failure of their own politicians to negotiate a  good enough “deal” for Britain .
This negotiation is likely to be a disappointment because the expectations in Britain are simply unrealistic. It will not  be a  negotiation  with  bureaucrats in “Brussels”.
 The results of any renegotiation for Britain would have to satisfy the Governments of every one of the other 26 states. Britain may want to pay less, but other countries may want it to pay more. Many other EU countries see the very things British negotiators would most like to be rid of, like the working time directive, as  part of what they gained, in return for their opening  up to the Single Market in the first place. Concessions on these issues will, in particular, be anathema to left leaning Governments, of which there are an increasing number, on the continent. Exempting Britain from the CAP, another possible British demand, will get nowhere.
British popular opinion has been constantly  led to believe that the  EU is a foreign entity, with which Britain has a sort of treaty,  and not as what it actually is, a Union of which the UK is a  participating member with a vote on every decision. The role of British MEPS, British Ministers, and a British Commissioner in EU decisions is ignored.  All decisions are presented as emanating from an “unelected“ bureaucracy, and the role of “elected” British MEPs and “elected” British  Ministers in the whole process is passed over as if it never happened.
In the latest poll, 49%  of UK citizens say they would vote to leave  the EU, and only 32% that they would vote to stay in  a large margin of  17 points.
 If possible results of a renegotiation are hyped up in the next British General election, and if there is lots of talk of “red lines”, the margin could widen even more, if, as I expect, the actual results of the negotiation then prove to be  paltry.
 No matter how good the pro EU arguments might be, when the referendum campaign itself   actually starts in earnest, the mountain that might have to be climbed may simply be too high.  Referenda can deliver surprising results, for which no one has planned. Extraneous issues, anger, and complacency, can lead people to vote contrary to their own objective interests. And in the UK case, there is unlikely to be a second referendum.
I am particularly worried about the effect of Britain leaving the EU on the fragile situation in Northern Ireland.
 Northern Ireland, and its reversible peace process, is being completely ignored in the debate taking place in Britain on whether to have a renegotiation and referendum on the EU. It is also being ignored in Brussels, where the impatience with the British is palpable, and where there is little disposition to accommodate what are  seen as unreasonable British demands, being put forward when the EU has far more important things on its mind.
Obviously if the UK leaves the EU, it will negotiate a new relationship with the EU. All sides will agree on that. After all 50% of British exports go the euro zone.
But what sort of relationship will it be?
One of the big drivers of anti EU sentiment in Britain is immigration of EU citizens from central and eastern European countries, like Romania, Bulgaria, and the Baltics. Gordon Brown famously encountered this sentiment during the last British General Election.
 If the UK had left the EU, it would be entirely free to restrict immigration from these particular EU countries. But as a continuing member of the EU, the Republic could not restrict the entry of EU citizens.
 So if the UK wanted to prevent these EU citizens entering the UK through the Republic, it would have to introduce passport controls at Newry, Aughnacloy, Strabane and on all other roads by which such immigrants could cross the border from the Republic into the UK.
If the UK is outside the EU, tariffs would have to be collected on UK exports entering the Republic. Average EU tariffs are quite low, but some tariffs, on things like dairy products and clothing are quite high. Customs posts would have to be placed on all roads leading across the border to ensure collection of these tariffs. Smuggling, with all its potential as a funding source for other forms of illegality, would become very profitable again.
But the human and political cost in border counties would be the worst aspect of it. Nationalist communities would again feel cut off from the Republic by the inconvenience of passport controls, and the efforts to market Ireland as a single tourist destination set at naught. 
Some might say that these fears are exaggerated, because the UK could negotiate a free trade and free movement deal with the EU.
 To enjoy continued free access to EU markets for its goods and services, Britain would have to continue to apply EU rules, as now, but WITHOUT having had any say at all in them, something the UK does have as an EU member. This is what Switzerland and Norway have to do. It would also have to continue to contribute to the EU budget, as Norway does. That would be even more annoying to British euro sceptics than the present situation.
Furthermore free movement of people is one of the drivers of anti EU sentiment in Britain, and UKIP voters would be very dissatisfied with any deal that did not give back to Britain itself, the right to decide who could, and could not, work in Britain.
I believe the Irish diplomatic service, which had remarkable success in the 1980s in laying the foundations for previous Anglo Irish Agreements, should intensively brief all  British MPs on the possible dangers to the settlement we have achieved  in Northern Ireland , of  setting off a train of events, including a referendum, that could lead  to an unplanned and precipitate exit of Northern Ireland, along with the UK, from the European Union.

Sunday, 9 December 2012


I have just finished reading “A Concise History of Greece” by Richard Clogg, published by Cambridge University Press. I am travelling to Greece next week to talk about economic development and the book was part of my preparation.
Modern Greece came into being in stages. The Greece that gained independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1831 consisted only of the southern portion of modern mainland Greece. Other bits were added in 1864, 1881, 1913 and 1920. 
 In 1923, Greece, after an unsuccessful war with Turkey, had to take in about 1 million Greek refugees who had to leave Turkey.
This war had been initiated partly on foot of Allied promises to Greece of “territorial concessions” in areas of what is now Turkey, but which were then inhabited by people of Greek heritage. These promises were designed to induce Greece to join the Allied side in the Great War. Involvement in the Great War was a matter of deep and lasting division in Greek politics.
For much of the 19th and early 20th centuries, Greek politics had been bewitched by the so called ”Great Idea” of uniting all people of Greek heritage in the Near East, in a state whose capital would be Constantinople. This would, in effect, have reversed the 1453 conquest of Constantinople by the Turks, and would have brought together in one state, Greek communities in parts of what is now Turkey, in Cyprus, parts of Albania, as well as all of modern Greece.
Through much of recent history, the energies of Greece, and of its people, have tended to be devoted to this type of territorial ambition, rather than to the   development of lands the Greek state already controlled. This has also led to Greece spending more on military affairs than was the European norm.
The Second World War was a terrible experience for Greece. Having defeated an Italian invasion, it was overwhelmed by Germany, and suffered a famine under the German occupation. This was followed by a civil war between anti Communist and pro Communist resistance forces, which retarded post war recovery.
From early on, Greece had a much larger public sector than was usual, and public sector jobs, often obtained by political patronage, were the chosen route out of poverty for many families. One very prominent early 20th century Greek politician, George Rallis, reputedly had 1000 godchildren, whose parents must have hoped he could find them all public sector jobs when they came of age!
 Public sector workers are an important constituency in Greek politics. But the effectiveness of the public sector is questionable. Greek courts get new cases at a rate of 8000 per year, but only decide them at a rate of 3000 per year. The pupil teacher ratio is about half that in Germany, but Greek educational performance is not commensurately better.
Greece has a history of poor export performance, and of debt problems in the public sector. In 1893, and again in 1933, it got into financial difficulties with its overseas creditors, partly because its limited foreign earnings from tobacco, olive oil, and currants were insufficient to service its foreign debts. Even today, Greece’s export sector is weak, and this must be put right.
Pensions in Greece were recently at an average rate of 93% of general earnings from work, whereas German and British pensions are only 40%, and 30%, respectively of general earnings in those countries.
Today’s problems in Greece have deep roots, some going back even to the times before it gained its independence.
Richard Clogg’s book will help readers put them in context, and should encourage patient support for today’s Greek politicians, as they try to overcome a legacy that is far less simple than instant 

Saturday, 1 December 2012


Ireland faces another difficult budget in the next week or so.  Irish people have seen the value of their assets fall, and most of them have seen a fall in their incomes through a combination of  wage reductions and tax increases.

But it is important to keep “austerity” in proportion
  • Real GNP is back now to the  level it was at in 2004, but it is still  60% higher than it  was in 1997 (in 2007 it was 90% higher than it  was in  1997)
  • Household net worth (which takes account of borrowings) is back to the  level it was in  2003 
  • Consumer spending in the first quarter of 2012 was  back  to the  level it  was  in 2006, but  is  still 80% higher than it was in 1997 (Admittedly there are more people in the country than there were in 1997, do  consumer spending per person is not 80% up on  1997)
  • Ireland has regained competitiveness. Its real exchange rate vis a  vis the rest of the euro zone has recovered from the worst excesses of the bubble economy and is now back to the  level t was at in  2000, but Ireland is still  a good deal less competitive than it was in 1997.

So, overall, the spending power of Irish people is  still there, but it is differently distributed than it was at the height of the boom, and than it was back in  1997, when  the country had a solidly based economy, that had not been  pumped up artificially by borrowing. Some of the changes that will be made in the budget  will be ones that we would have had to make anyway, evn if our creditors were not demanding them, because of the eventual  ageing of  our society and the extra costs that will bring.