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‘Irish Times’ Letters from Leo: Varadkar gets it off his chest

June 3, 2017 2:14 PM
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From bin charges to Israeli policy: A selection of many missives from the new FG leader

Sir, - Responding to the European Commission report recommending that the abolition of intra-EU duty-free sales should go ahead, Mary O’Rourke, Minister for Public Enterprise, asked: “Who governs Europe, the member governments or the Commission?” (The Irish Times, February 18th). Mary O’Rourke knows exactly who runs the EU.

The Council of Ministers voted unanimously to abolish duty-free from 1999. Among these Ministers was Bertie Ahern TD. The Commission is therefore mandated to do so unless the Council of Ministers (i.e. the governments of the member states) decides otherwise. A U-turn on the policy is being resisted by three of the EU governments.

Mary O’Rourke’s outburst reveals either a breathtaking ignorance of European law and politics or, worse still, a calculated and cynical attempt to conceal the Taoiseach’s responsibility in this regard. Like Tory Euro-sceptics, Irish Ministers travel to Brussels to sign agreements without dispute or argument only to come home and blame our misfortune on perfidious foreigners and unelected bureaucrats.

Meanwhile, the single-market project continues to be scuppered by the legal smuggling that is dutyfree and Ireland remains unprepared for the adverse consequences that the end to dutyfree shopping will have on the cost of our air fares and the profitability of our passenger shipping routes (notably Cork to Cherbourg).

Sir, - We are the two Young Fine Gael delegates who successfully proposed the new system for electing the Leader of Fine Gael. We feel shocked, appalled and betrayed at the decision of the Fine Gael Parliamentary Party to elect a successor to Michael Noonan under the old, undemocratic system.

More than ever, Fine Gael needs to consult members and councillors across the country about the future of the party and its leadership. Clearly, the rump 31 TDs and the 14 unelectables from the fag-end of a Senate have learned nothing from Fine Gael’s mauling at the polls.

As we write, candidates for the Leadership are already sowing the seeds of Fine Gael’s next election defeat by trading votes for votes with senators determined to make it back to Leinster House at any cost. The decision of the parliamentary party to decide the future of Fine Gael alone and behind closed doors is a disgrace and demonstrates their contempt both for the loyal Fine Gael membership and the 400,000 or so electors who voted for them. Shame on you all. - Yours, etc.,

Madam, - There has been much debate about US motives for war against Iraq. Is it about oil, weapons of mass destruction, control of the region, humanitarian or value-driven interests, toppling Saddam - or merely unfinished business?

In reality, it is all of these that have given rise to the impetus for war. Only in 20 years’ time, will we know which was the greatest factor.

If, at that time, Iraq is a democratic state whose liberated people have grown as rich as Europeans or Americans from their massive oil reserves and whose wealth, sophistication, democratic values and large conventional army have allowed it to become a democratic Arab superpower, then we can rest assured that the West’s motives were honourable.

However, if Iraq in 20 years’ time is a state united in name, but in reality dismembered into three regional-ethnic fiefdoms falling under the sphere of influence of neighbouring powers, with US bases outside Baghdad and in the northern and southern oil fields and with an impoverished people whose oil wealth flows to the West, we will be in no doubt as to what America’s motives were.

Perhaps, if war is inevitable, the only moral option Europe leaders can exercise is to join a multilateral coalition to topple Saddam (a good day’s work if ever there was one) and ensure that the Iraq that follows becomes a testament to the just cause of the campaign. - Yours, etc.,

Madam, - I welcome the publication of statistics on third-level access from secondary schools. Parents, students and the public at large have the right to know what policy-makers have known for years about entry to third level.

However, the Minister for Education must not be allowed to manipulate these statistics to promote his ambition of bringing back college fees and removing State funding from fee-paying schools.

It is not surprising that fee-paying schools top the league tables when it comes to college access. This is much less a reflection of the quality of these schools than of the background from which their students come. Fee-paying schools are attended disproportionately by young men and women from professional, educated backgrounds.

They come from families with no farms or businesses to inherit and no trades to follow into. Attending college is expected of them and in many respects is the only option. Thus, it is not surprising that the State schools which do feature highly in the league tables are located largely in middle-class areas with a high concentration of professional families. Admittedly, this is less apparent outside the cities.

Removing State support from fee-paying schools and reintroducing college fees would not improve access to third-level education. Rather, it would drive many middle-classes families out of fee-paying schools and restrict them to an even wealthier and more privileged élite. The statistics would get worse, not better. Furthermore, it would cause even more people to ask why they should continue to pay so much tax when the Government is forcing them to pay fees to go to school and college on top of paying for their own health insurance and pensions.

Dividing Ireland into a country of those who pay for everything and receive nothing and those who pay for nothing and receive everything, with only a small minority in between, would deal a fatal blow to what is left of Ireland’s social contract.

Mr Dempsey should look for more imaginative solutions. As secondary school numbers fall and college places continue to rise, why not reserve 10 per cent (or so) of places for students from disadvantaged backgrounds and for adults looking for a second chance to get a college education?

Rather than taking funding away from fee-paying schools and making them entirely a law unto themselves, why not require fee-paying schools to take a quota of students from disadvantaged backgrounds in return for their State funding? - Yours, etc.,

Madam, - I am appalled at the actions of opponents of bin charges in recent weeks. The argument that such charges constitute “double taxation” is totally false.

Bin collection is a service like any other. Just like electricity, post, television and heating oil, we must pay for it if we can afford to do so. Surely no one would regard paying for these to be double taxation.

Joe Higgins and his associates would like us to pay for our bin collection through higher taxes. It is certainly true that income taxes were increased in the late 1970s to pay for the abolition of “rates”, which used to cover the cost of collecting bins. This increase, however, has long since been given back to the taxpayer.

I for one would prefer to pay for the rubbish I produce with the incentive of paying less if I recycle and reduce - which is the system used in the Fingal area - than to pay higher taxes to cover the cost of managing other people’s rubbish. - Yours, etc.,

Madam, - The reaction to President Bush’s support for Ariel Sharon’s withdrawal plan is overblown.

It has long been recognised that any final status arrangement involving Israel and the Palestinians would leave Israel holding on to some of occupied territory it seized from Jordan in the 1967 war. Indeed, some of these settlements, such as the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem and Gush Etzion, predate modern Israel itself.

The UN Security Council resolutions envisage agreed changes to the 1949 armistice lines. The bilateral Beilin-Mazen agreement and the recently signed Geneva Accords go so far as to detail these changes. Indeed, the Arafat-Barak talks at Camp David and Taba did not fail on the annexation of West Bank settlements so much as the right of return for Arab refugees who left or were expelled from Israel in 1948-49. In fact, Bush’s position on the settlements and the refugee question is entirely consistent with Clinton parameters of 2001.

Clearly, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is entering a new phase. At long last, right-wing Zionists such as Ariel Sharon have accepted that they cannot subdue Palestinians and occupy their lands for much longer. The evacuation of Gaza presents the possibility of establishing an independent Palestinian state for the first time in history.

Israeli rejectionism is coming to an end. It remains to be seen whether the Palestinians will exchange the rejectionism of the intifada for some realistic demands. - Yours etc.

Madam, - I am writing to express my despair at the use of the term “Colombia Three” in these pages. Inverted commas or not, it is a propaganda term used by supporters of the three men in an attempt to associate in the minds of the public their case with miscarriages of justice against the Birmingham Six, Guildford Four and Maguire Seven.

This is a profound insult to those innocent people who had no connection with Sinn Féin or the IRA and served time in British jails for acts of barbarism and terrorism committed by IRA bomb-makers who were content to allow innocent people take the responsibility and blame for their actions.

In contrast, these three men have confirmed and confessed links with Sinn Féin. They were convicted of terrorist offences in a country that has no quarrel with Ireland. Guilty or innocent, these men travelled on false passports to spend weeks in the Colombia jungle communing with a left-wing narco-terrorist organisation which is involved in the murder of civilians, destruction of churches, abduction of presidential candidate and Green Party activist Ingrid Betancourt and the smuggling of cocaine out of Colombia to places such as Ireland, where it exacts a terrible toll of suffering on our communities.

Perhaps you could consider using the term “Colombia fugitives” as the national broadcaster does. Alternatively, might I suggest “Colombia criminals”? - Yours, etc,

Madam, - The revelation that the Taoiseach received thousands of euro from wealthy friends to pay his personal legal bills should be a wake-up call to all of us. In a brazen display, the Taoiseach has tried to compare these payments to his Communion or Confirmation money. I do not believe that the Taoiseach is so naive and he should not believe that Irish people are so naive either. I have plenty of friends but I do not know anyone who would be willing to pay my mortgage, decorate my apartment, pay for my holidays or take on my legal bills. I wonder if the Taoiseach has ever asked himself why he has those kinds of friends when the rest of us do not.

Within days of the public learning that Ben Dunne had paid for an extension to Michael Lowry’s home, Mr Lowry was forced to resign from office. Last year, Ivor Callelly had to resign when it was revealed that he had a similar relationship with a wealthy developer. Now the same standards must be applied to the head of government. If not, a message will be sent out to everyone in politics that conflicts of interest such as these are acceptable. We will be right back where we were 20 years ago.

It will be interesting to see how the new Tánaiste, Michael McDowell, who climbed up a pole to tell us that Fianna Fáil could not be trusted on its own in government will respond to the revelations. - Yours, etc,

Madam, - The decision of the Green Party to enter government with Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats represents a massive betrayal of its own voters and, in particular, the communities it represents. Five of the Green Party’s six TDs represent Dublin and four of these five represent constituencies in the commuter belt area around the M50. This is no coincidence. Most of the people who voted Green did so because of their revulsion at the over-development, devoid of infrastructure, that has occurred in the commuter belt directly as a result of Fianna Fáil’s planning policies and the involvement in planning corruption of some of its members.

In my own commuter-belt constituency, fewer than 10 per cent of Green voters transferred their votes to Fianna Fáil while more than 60 per cent transferred to Fine Gael and Labour.

For years, the Greens have told us that “Green politics is clean politics” and that it was their mission to restore high standards to politics in Ireland. Now, however, they are prepared to join a coalition led by a Taoiseach with the most Byzantine finances since Charles Haughey and supported by TDs such as Beverley Flynn and Michael Lowry. By entering government, the Green Party has consented to being little more than a spare mudguard for Fianna Fáil to be used if the PD mudguard fails. - Yours, etc,

Madam, - I just cannot get over the depth of Brian Lenihan’s denial about the state of the economy and his ineptitude in addressing the problems that we face.

On Monday, he told us Ireland had been harder hit by the economic slowdown than any of its EU partners because it is an open economy with ties to the British and US economies. While both countries have recorded negative growth in the past quarter, Britain’s economy is still expected to grow by 1.1 per cent in 2008 and America’s economy will grow by 1.6 per cent. Ireland has recorded negative growth in the past two quarters (ie a recession) and the economy will shrink by 0.5 per cent or more in 2008.

We are in the midst of a deep domestic recession and are about to be hit by the effects of an impending recession in Western economies. There will be no global recession. The Minister for Finance really needs to understand this.

He also told us that he was “not blaming Europe”. In fact, we should thank the European Commission for exposing the fact that the Budget will not ameliorate the fiscal crisis and for calling time on Ireland’s spiral into massive borrowing.

I shudder to think how much Fianna Fáil would sink us into debt if it we were not bound by the European growth and stability pact. I shudder to think what would happen to financial institutions in Ireland if the European Central Bank withdrew the €60 billion that it has on loan to them. And I shudder to think how much we would have had to increase interest rates to beat off an attack on the punt, if it still existed. In Iceland, they’ve just gone up to 18 per cent. - Yours, etc,

Madam, - Brian Hunt is right to call for tough decisions from our elected leaders (Opinion, January 8th). Five months ago, Fine Gael called for the pay deal to be suspended, a reduction in the number of junior ministries and Oireachtas committees, an end to decentralisation, and public spending cuts of 3 per cent.

We need a government that governs, not one that avoids decisions or outsources them to An Bord Snip or the so-called social partners. He is incorrect, however, about overnight and mileage allowances paid to politicians. These are paid only to members from outside the Greater Dublin region.

Most of our expenses go on our constituency offices, public meetings, leaflets and telephone bills, not into our pockets. I have published my accounts for 2008 on my website. We should move to a system of vouched allowances. The power to do so lies with the Minister for Finance, not the Oireachtas. The Oireachtas Commission put such a proposal on his desk months ago.

Ten years ago, Germany embarked on a long public spending freeze. The government showed leadership by reducing the size of parliament and cutting costs. We should do the same.

However, in doing so we must realise that cutting the Oireachtas budget by a quarter would save only €40 million. The Government deficit is €20,000 million. It cannot be closed without higher taxes and cuts in pay, some benefits and services. It will take years.

The Government should be honest about this and then go ahead and do it. Honesty and courage are the core qualities of leadership. If the Government won’t provide them, Fine Gael will.- Yours, etc,

Madam, - Fintan O’Toole (Opinion, July 21st) is right to draw attention the background, instincts and ideology of the members of “An Bord Snip”. In doing so, however, he betrays much of his own ideology and flawed orthodoxy.

He contends that the economic crisis was caused by “the banks and developers”. This is facile. The banks and some developers certainly share much of the responsibility for this crisis, but absolving all others does not stand up to scrutiny. This is particularly true of the crisis in the public finances which he argues are merely “a function of the real economy”.

When the Rainbow Government left office in 1997, voted current account spending stood at €16.8 billion or 27.8 per cent of our national income. This year, it will reach €56.6 billion or 40 per cent of our national income. If you include non-voted current account spending and capital spending the figure rises to €62.4 billion or 44.6 per cent of gross national income (GNI).

Next year, public spending will break the 50 per cent barrier, making Ireland one of the highest spending countries in the world. Higher than many countries with far better public services, greater equality, a larger national debt to service, a large military to sustain and many more pensioners to support. Ireland’s fiscal mess is not a function of the real economy. Rather, it stems from the policies of a reckless government which taxed and regulated the economy like right-wing conservatives, but spent public money like left-wing socialists. Expediency was their only ideology. Instead of using the boom’s windfall tax receipts to fund increases in current spending which in turn fuelled inflation and the asset bubble, the Government should have sought to slow the economy by restricting spending, maintaining the tax base and saving more money for a rainy day. Blaming developers and bankers for these colossal policy mistakes overestimates their influence. The politicians who presided over these massive increases in spending and the interest groups and commentators who encouraged it must also accept culpability. The same applies to their tax breaks.

The global economic crisis challenges us all to question free market economic orthodoxies, but we should not do so in a reactionary way. One thing we have learned from the past 10 years is that the old social democratic orthodoxy that increases in public spending automatically result in better public services or greater equality has been disproved. We have also learned that the old fiscal conservative orthodoxy of balanced budgets and a counter-cyclical fiscal policy is a wise one that we should have followed.

Mr O’Toole says that the McCarthy report should form part of an à la carte menu which should also include cutting corporate welfare, tax reform and capital stimulus. I agree. But with a deficit of €15 billion, “An Bord Snip” is likely to be the appetiser for a very bitter meal. - Yours, etc,


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