Fragments 2006-09-21

The tussle between the Tánaiste and the Minister for Finance over the former's proposed abolition of stamp duty is only the opening skirmish in what promises to be a long war between the two. By Justine McCarthy

Fianna Fáil backbenchers, who were worried this time last year by Brian Cowen's lacklustre performances, are predicting that Michael McDowell's elevation to deputy leader of the government has put the fire back in Cowen's belly.

McDowell's stamp duty carrot elicited the statesman-like response from Cowen that, as Finance Minister, he was concentrating on the monetary here and now rather than any election waterline. It is implausible, however, that post-election scenarios are not flitting through his thoughts. Bertie Ahern will retire as party leader in the lifetime of the next Dáil. All the auguries are that he will be succeeded by Cowen, making the coalition's two intellectual heavyweights the numbers one and two in a possible three-in-a-row FF/PD administration

They have already clashed behind closed doors. It was Cowen who led cabinet opposition to McDowell's proposed outlawing of casinos. He was also one of the most ardent advocates of a privacy bill when the cabinet despatched the Justice Minister to draft one as a counterbalance to his relatively liberal libel law reforms.

But it's the economy that looms as the battlefield. The PDs' claim to re-election is that they created the low-tax capitalist climate that hot-housed the Celtic Tiger. But, as the minister holding the purse strings, Cowen will have the advantage in trumpeting Fianna Fail's copyright on the "economic miracle".

Core principles die hard with the Soldiers of Destiny and many of the infantry remember with relish when they first started to take notice of their pugilistic young deputy from Offaly. It is 15 years since Brian Cowen, alluding to coalition with the PDs, declared to an ecstatic Fianna Fail ard fheis: "When in doubt, leave them out."


Indo pensioner earns ?8m in dividends

News that Tony O'Reilly will personally earn ?8.16 million in interim dividends from Independent News and Media comes as the trustees of the Independent Newspapers pension plan meet to discuss a ?30 million deficit in the pensions fund.

The company has been attempting to force pension plan members into a new plan in which both members and the company will pay higher contributions, and which will be closed off to new members. Under the existing "defined benefit" plan, members receive two thirds of their final salary for 40 years of service. Under the company's proposals, new members will sign up for a "defined contribution" plan, under which their pension will be based on what they've paid into it – placing any financial risk on the members, and not on the company.

At time of going to print, the pension plan's trustees were meeting to discuss this for the first time – till now, the company had been acting without the knowledge of the trustees, a situation which the Pensions Ombudsman, Paul Kenny, described as "most irregular" in a letter to the company.



Mary's mystery drinks bill

President McAleese urges "sensible drinking habits", but Áras An Uachtaráin refuses to publish its own drinks bill

At the beginning of September, President Mary McAleese asked whether it is "appropriate that we [Ireland] continue to link inextricably alcohol with almost every life event – whether a Christening, first Communion, wedding or funeral? In sport, is it appropriate that after the weekly 'under 6s' or 'under 16s' matches, the pint in the clubhouse or the pub needs to play its part in the celebrations and commiserations? Is it not time that we adopted a sensible balance in our drinking habits, for everybody's sake?"

But when Village asked for details of the drinks bill at Áras and Uachtaráin, the spokesperson refused the information.

"The President receives an annual expense allowance of ?317,435 for entertainment and personal expenses. The substantial proportion of this allowance goes to meet the cost of food, refreshments and entertainment for more than 11,000 guests who visit Aras an Uachtarain each year. A detailed breakdown of this expense allowance is not available," she said.

Village then asked for a figure for alcohol consumption. "There is nothing further to be added to the statement issued to you earlier today." Village then asked how many dinner and functions there were in the Aras in 2005 and if alcohol is served at them. Again, nothing.

Coincidentally, President McAleese's Co Down home came up for sale in March of this year. One of the selling points for her Rostrevor house? A private bar, complete with optics, a range of lagers on draught and a selection of pint glasses hanging from the ceiling.



Tribunal Watch

Moriarty Tribunal

How long has it been now?

Nine years ago this month – September 1997.

What's it about?

It's investigating allegations of payments by businessmen such as Ben Dunne and Denis O'Brien to Charles Haughey and Michael Lowry. And don't forget, it's also inquiring into the source of money in the infamous Ansbacher accounts.

How much has it cost?

Up to August 2006, it has cost ?25,075,973, of which ?19,066,281 was legal fees.

Anyone we know in the witness box?

Ben Dunne, Denis O'Brien, property developer John Byrne, Larry Goodman, three Taoisigh, various Haugheys.

What have we found out?

An interim report was published in December 1997, but since then, nothing.

Any fall-out for anybody?

CJ made two settlements with the taxman for over ?6m, but less than half of what he might have paid.

Michael Lowry just paid ?1.4m. On foot of the Moriarty and other tribunals, the Revenue Commissioners also clamped down on offshore accounts. The cash rolled in: ?900m to date. Ansbacher accounts alone yielded ?56m.

Will it ever end?

There is light at the end of the tunnel. It finishes in January 2007. Chairman Moriarty has written a report which is due to be published early next year and which tribunal-addicts hope will dish the dirt. But don't get too excited, a new module on the Glen Ding quarry, in Wicklow, is due to start.

Erik Salholm



Government for sale

There are some unusual items for sale in the September edition of the The Rose newspaper. The present government cabinet is advertised, described as: "in continuous use since 1997. Now in very poor condition. Clapped-out and out of touch. A lot of cracks appearing in it. Better alternative now available."

A computer system for the health service is also advertised with the description, "Would need more money spent on it and it still might not work... Now going for a song: 'I did the taxpayers my way'".

Also for sale are some out-of-use voting machines.

These advertisements all appear in the latest edition of the Labour Party's eight-page tabloid-newspaper-styled The Rose.

The party has begun distributing 200,000 copies of the newspaper to houses in 20 key constituencies. The aim of the newspaper is to inform voters about some of the major issues affecting them – taxes, crime, the health service, childcare, and others. And whilst addressing some of the more serious issues, there are a couple of lighter, more amusing sections.

As well as the for sale section there is a an agony aunt section called 'Ask Rosie', which has timely advice for a Michael McD from South East Dublin who is worried about a "friend" of his in politics and for Bartholomew from Drumcondra. Emma Browne


Operation confusion

The Garda Síochána were again touting the success of Operation Anvil this week with information that there had been 1,700 arrests and 135 firearms seized under the operation in the last nine months.

They also released information about recent drug-busting success – in August they raided a cocaine distribution business in Meath, seizing ?400,000 worth of cocaine. In July ?4m worth of cocaine, ecstasy, cannabis and amphetamines were seized under Operation Anvil in Clare. They also recovered stolen property worth ?12m in Dublin.

However the Garda Síochána and the media quoting these successes have failed to notice that Operation Anvil was set up to tackle gun crime. In May 2005 the Justice Department announced that the Garda Síochána would launch "Operation Anvil to target gun crime". The Department of Justice and the Garda Síochána are obviously using a very wide definition of "gun crime" to include drug offences and stolen property.

In Dublin the gardaí have conducted 15,416 drug searches and just 1,129 firearms searchers under the operation. Considering that Operation Anvil seized a paltry 135 firearms in the last 9 months outside Dublin, perhaps the gardaí are so keen to point out other successes that they have forgotten what the operation is meant to be tackling.