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Analysis/Comment Last Updated: Mar 18, 2011 - 2:02 PM

Ireland 2009: People of the Year, Brass Neck and Golden Fleece Awards!
By Michael Hennigan, Founder and Editor of Finfacts
Dec 7, 2009 - 3:54 AM

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Brendan Hayes, Vice President of the trade union SIPTU and Feargal O'Rourke, a partner in the Tax & Legal Services practice of PricewaterhouseCoopers and a first cousin of Minister for Finance, Brian Lenihan.

Ireland 2009: It's time for our People of the Year, Brass Neck and Golden Fleece Awards! In these grim times, it's always the unheralded people who would never merit media attention, who make the greatest contribution to others' lives and their communities. The greatest pain is surely the misery of unemployment and for others, with the benefit of good health, how important can a cut in consumption be? It may seem too early to echo the words of Shakespeare in Richard III: "Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer"; myths may continue to be a more palatable comfort food than reality but disunited and fighting over what are now the illusory spoils of a boom, will leave us in the words of Matthew Arnold's Dover Beach"on a darkling plain/ Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight /Where ignorant armies clash by night."

With governments acting as arbiters between vested interests seeking as big a share as possible from public funds, it has long been evident that there is no constituency for parsimony.

“The scene was sickening and all the Irish were there, most of them vying with each other in eagerness to plunder the public purse,” William Ewart Gladstone, British Chancellor of the Exchequer, wrote in an 1859 letter to his wife concerning a House of Commons debate, on the cancellation of a subsidy for the mail steam-packet service between Galway, Ireland and Newfoundland. Gladstone was facing a budget deficit of £5m.

Not much has changed in the interval but in September, we were struck by the revelation that while the cost of the deliberations of the Commission on Taxation, had been €13,000 a meeting -- not counting catering costs - - two members, Brendan Hayes of the trade union SIPTU and Feargal O'Rourke of PricewaterhouseCoopers, did not accept fees. We reported it in a story that included the revelation that Irish GPs (general practitioners) were being paid almost five times more to administer the seasonal flu vaccine to patients than their counterparts in the UK.

It is an aberration that anyone would work free for the State and while thousands of appointees to boards and advisory bodies would not forego the money, the number who may would likely have the view that with so many others grabbing as much as they can, why bother?

Tribunal lawyers have become multimillionaires and claiming for a bar of Toblerone chocolate, from public funds, was an illustration of what is likely a common attitude.

Commission of Taxation fees amounted to €523,600. Members received daily fees of €700 with the Chairman receiving €1,000 per day.

Commission chairman, Frank Daly received nearly €120,000 for his work on the Commission in addition to his significant state pension for his former role as head of the Revenue Commissioners.

The highest fees paid to an ordinary member was €46,500 to Micheál Collins of the department of economics, Trinity College Dublin.

Minister for Finance Brain Lenihan said his Budget 2009 speech in October 2008, was a "call to patriotic action." 

Many of Lenihan's Oireachtas colleagues showed little enthusiasm for "patriotic action." 

Brendan Hayes and Feargal O'Rourke showed a rare patriotism in Irish public life and their decision not to take fees had preceded the most severe period of the financial crisis.

They are two of our people of the year as are the victims of monumental economic mismanagement.

There can be little dispute that the Brass Neck of the Year Award should go to Joe Duffy, presenter of the Liveline radio programme, at the State broadcaster RTÉ.

It takes some neck indeed to demand an annual salary of €400,000, equivalent to 12 average industrial wages and then act as the spokesperson of the victims of a system that only appears to respond to collective power.

At the same time, the station's base income is a compulsory flat tax and it warns that non-payment risks being brought before the courts and dubbed a "sponger."

SEE: Finfacts article, June 13, 2009: RTÉ paying price of reckless mismanagement during boom; 65% of combined surplus of €47 million in 2006/2007 was from pension fund windfalls

The Golden Fleece Award goes to all the vested interests who opposed the public spending cut proposals of the Bord Snip group, under the chairmanship of UCD economist, Colm McCarthy.

The Golden Fleece isn't directly related to Greek mythology and the story of Jason and his Argonauts but was introduced by the late US Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin (1915 - 1995).

According to his obituary in the New York Times, the first award went to the National Science Foundation in 1975 for spending $84,000 to learn why people fall in love. The Times said another Golden Fleece Award went to the National Institute for Mental Health, which spent $97,000 to study, among other things, what went on in a Peruvian brothel. The researchers said they made repeated visits in the interests of accuracy. Other Fleece recipients were the Justice Department, for spending $27,000 to determine why prisoners wanted to get out of jail.

Our Golden Fleece Award is given to the vested interests because the two characteristics, they all had in common, was firstly) public spending in their area of interest was sacrosanct; secondly) none of them felt compelled to propose an alternative to save public funds.

Finally, to return to the hint of optimism, at the outset, we conclude with the closing line of  Percy Bysshe Shelley's Ode to the West Wind: "If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?"

Finfacts article, July 03, 2009: The Waste Land - - Bord Snip, Irish Public Spending Transparency and the motto "Never do anything for the first time"

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