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Analysis/Comment Last Updated: Aug 23, 2010 - 8:24:15 PM

Taoiseach Brian Cowen returns from Rip Van Winkle's Land
By Michael Hennigan, Founder and Editor of Finfacts
Sep 1, 2008 - 5:40:10 AM

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European Commission President José Manuel Barroso welcomes Taoiseach Brian Cowen to Brussels, in June 2008.

Taoiseach Brian Cowen returns from Rip Van Winkle's Land still mouthing the words of the Charles Dicken's Micawber character: "something will turn up." However, while Cowen's slumber was much shorter than Rip Van Winkle's, there has been quite a change in some ways, in the interval and it has also been a case of plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose (the more things change, the more they stay the same).

Cardinal Seán Brady has made the crafting of a response to the debacle that Ireland's rejection of the European Union's Lisbon Treaty has created, more difficult for Cowen's Government. The Irish Roman Catholic Primate has never had to worry about paying a mortgage and has the little luxury of having a servant provide him with a hot dinner every day. In common with the other rejectionists, who seek implausible perfection in multilateralism,  Brady's criticism of the “loss of Christian memory” and the undermining of traditional values by the institutions of the EU, seem like quibbles when set against the Christian value of engineering permanent peace between the major ethnic groups in Western Europe for the first time and also in in his lifetime, the provision of a protective embrace for the peoples of Eastern Europe, who had endured for decades, a crown of thorns in the form of a brutal Communist dictatorship, pressed down on their brows.

Last week produced another example of the air of unreality that passes as economic literacy in Ireland, when the tourism body Fáilte Ireland announced that it would investigate claims that high prices in Irish restaurants are deterring tourists. The research will examine all costs to the industry, including raw materials, wages, health and safety and utility costs. Perish the thought that there would be an examination of the disease, which would produce practical results, rather than an analysis of the symptoms. It would surely be instructive to begin the examination of the underlying cost structure, with the State body tasked with the job of defending consumer interests and a wider tableau could likely beckon. Three years after its creation, the National Consumer Agency, has no record of achievement but bizarrely is run by a 13-person board with a chief executive earning €182,000 annually and that's before adding fringe. SEE: The useless [Expletive Deleted] at the Irish National Consumer Agency.

Our Aug 16, 2008 article- - Analysis: Irish Economy - Cowen and the 100 days' milestone - a Political Pygmy amongst the Oireachtas Lilliputians- - looked at areas where political and economic reform is required to put an economy that is overwhelmingly dependent on US firms, on a stronger footing.

Brian Cowen returns from his holidays and is most unlikely to launch a visionary reform plan. Hismuddling through approach will be bolstered by journalist Vincent Browne's advice for the upcoming so-called think-ins for parliamentarians, that a focus on the ESRI's Medium-Term Review should give a bit of perspective on our economic prospects.

"After 15 years of spectacular success, we will have two years of difficulty and then resume a higher growth rate than the rest of Europe. So cheer up, boys and girls," Browne wrote in the Sunday Business Post.

It looks as if the ESRI's assumption of the price of a barrel of oil at about $70 a barrel in nominal terms to 2015, is a little optimistic - - barring a world economic recession. The assumption that the expected rebound in the world economy in 2010, will result in a return to recent high growth levels in the economies of the developed world, is dependent on a revival of a US consumption binge. SEE: Global economy is likely to recover in 2010 but economic growth may remain sluggish for several years.

As for the Irish economy, the report by McInerney Holdings, the Irish building group, last Friday that it made a loss before tax of €53.6 million in the first half of 2008, compared with a profit of €9.2 million in the same period last year, is a harbinger of much more bad news to come in the sector.

Last week, Irish Life & Permanent Chief Executive Denis Casey, expressed doubts about the value of government intervention in the housing market and economist Peter Bacon said in a radio interview that the Government should buy 10,000-15,000 new housing units at cost, as part of a social housing initiative. However, the increase in empty housing units by 122,000 in the period 2002-2006 as reported in the census' results, suggests that there is a big overhang on the market, that will not be eliminated by a limited public initiative.

An international recovery would give greater security of employment to underpin Irish first time house purchases in 2010 but it would be foolish to assume that huge writedowns by developers with big loans, will be without consequence.

As an entrepreneur, I'm an optimist but with the construction sector and its cheerleaders brought down to earth, outside of the United States, Ireland today is likely more dependent on US firms than any other country - - SEE: Foreign-owned firms were responsible for 90.2% of Irish exports in 2006 - including both merchandise goods and internationally traded services- - This is a key factor in relation to ensuring that the Irish economy remains an attractive option for foreign investment. It also highlights the longer-term risk of providing competitors for foreign investment with an opportunity to present Ireland as anti-EU and insular.

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