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Analysis/Comment Last Updated: Dec 16, 2010 - 6:26 AM


Irish trade union boss David Begg, 'status,' denial and the economic crash
By Michael Hennigan, Founder and Editor of Finfacts
Dec 15, 2010 - 4:32 AM

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Labour Party leader Eamonn Gilmore (l) and David Begg, general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU).

The Irish trade union boss, David Begg, is in denial about the role of the trade unions in the economic crash, his own insider status through all the bubble years and in common with former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, he is not very tolerant of critics. 

We at Finfacts have no favourites among the dominant vested interests; we are independent and so our guns are not spiked because of favour-seeking such as public contracts or bauble appointments to State boards, quangos, taskforces and the like.   

On Tuesday, The Irish Times published a letter response to an article on Monday in which Begg, the general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions since 2001, castigated Stephen Collins, the political editor, for suggesting that the trade unions were complicit in the economic crash.

Irish Times: David Begg; Reckless banks and blundering Government to blame for crisis

Irish Times Letters:  Trade Unions and the Economic Crash

Begg said in his article: "Media columnists and commentators are privileged with a public platform from which to air opinion and analysis. But that privilege also carries a heavy responsibility for accuracy, objectivity and backing assertions with actual evidence."

I presented some facts on the benchmarking fiasco and the abusive reaction of an ICTU president to comments from the Paris-based OECD on social partnership but it appears 'objectivity' to David Begg requires support for his own warped viewpoint.

On RTÉ Radio One’s News at One programme on Tuesday, Begg read an approving comment on social partnership from a paper published by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) think-tank. He conveniently ignored other ESRI research.

When the anchor, Seán O'Rourke, asked about my letter in The Irish Times, the union boss said the "people down the docks" (the ESRI headquarters is at Dublin's Sir John Rogerson's Quay), are "independent,""have a status" and are not In Kuala Lumpur.

He didn't say that he is a member of the governing council of the ESRI and as usual with people in denial or who want to ignore inconvenient facts, he brushed away the case against the special benchmarking pay award by saying that public servants had a pay cut of 15% compared with an average benchmarking increase of 9%.

Included in the 15% is a pension levy of about 7% and the net annual funding cost of public staff pensions after all contributions, still exceeds 20%.

In December 2008 a research paper showed that Irish public sector pay excluding pensions exceeded comparable private sector pay by 10% for top jobs to up to 30% for other grades. It was published by the ESRI in its Winter 2008 Quarterly Economic Commentary.

Finfacts article: Could the Irish public sector benchmarking fiasco provide a case for the DPP?

RTÉ Radio interview

Begg is a director of Aer Lingus and was a director of the Central Bank through all the bubble years - - 1995-2010 - - and now he is trying to play Pontius Pilate similar to Bertie Ahern. Did Begg rock the boat during those long years or was he a traditional impotent non-executive director?

We must assume that over those long years at the Central Bank, that he bought into the delusion about "resilient" banks with "good shock absorption capacity."  What did he think of annual credit growth of over 30%? What did he think of banks beginning to sell-off their properties to fund the borrowing binge - - the biggest bank AIB selling part of its HQ to overstretched developer Seán Dunne? What did he think of the surge in foreign borrowing by the banks from 2003?

When he was a director, the Central Bank didn't even track the number of five-year interest-only mortgages that were being issued even though these products were the mainstay of the investment property market.

Now he blames "reckless" banks for the crash, without any acknowledgement of responsibility himself.

SEE: Finfacts article; Irish Central Bank declared its impotence before launch of the euro; Why Spain's biggest banks survived huge housing boom

Last week, The Irish Independent reported that TK Whitaker, the eminent former civil servant who recently celebrated his 94th birthday, would not apportion blame for our current woes, but added advice from bodies like the IMF and ECB can be positive.

"I'm not going to go into the blame game -- I still have a few years to live," he said.

"But I do think we have to moderate our pride when taking advice. . ."

Insiders don't look too kindly on critics at a time of cosy consensus and even critics themselves can also be sensitive souls.

Daniel Okrent, the first ombudsman/public editor of the New York Times made an interesting comment on Prof. Paul Krugman: “For a man who makes his living offering strong opinions, Paul Krugman seems peculiarly reluctant to grant the same privilege to others. And for a man who leads with his chin twice a week, he acts awfully surprised when someone takes a pop at it.”

That isn’t unusual of course.

I recently got an e-mail from a trenchant Irish newspaper columnist, complaining of "sniping."

Finally, Matthew Elderfield, the Irish financial regulator, has planned radical changes to the appointment process and role of bank directors.

It is welcome and overdue.

Lord Boothby, a former Tory MP, said in the early 1960's: "If you have five directorships it is total heaven, like having a permanent hot bath. No effort of any kind is called for. You go to a meeting once a month in a car supplied by the company. You look both grave and sage and, on two occasions, say ‘I agree’; you say ‘I don’t think so’ once and, if all goes well, you get £5,500 a year.”

I wrote the following in 2002, which was published by The Irish Independent:

Directors won't bite the feeding hand

It is bizarre that fund managers, who are a group that can have a significant impact in curbing corporate excess, seem to prefer the role of Cassandras on the sidelines, rather than exercising the powerful weapon of ownership.

Pleadings and hand-wringing about the widening gap between boardroom pay and general pay, the abuse of stock option incentives and corporate governance, only damage the credibility of fund managers who should represent the interests of stakeholders in their funds - the public in the countries who provide the capital, whether it is via pension schemes or through other investment products.

The reaction to recent scandals such as WorldCom will likely be one of overkill because the principal owners of public companies have abdicated their responsibilities. In preference to commissars of bureaucracy impinging on a company's operations, if executive management had to work in accordance with the general guidelines of its company's principal owners rather than getting the nod from management appointees on audit committees etc., there would be many fewer cases of corporate excess.

Issues such as strengthening the role of non-executive directors and splitting the roles of chairman and CEO are merely smokescreens for the status quo.

While the theory and practice may coincide in a small number of cases, the simple reality is that non-executive directors are largely placemen who have little incentive to rock the boat.

Why would a semi-retired individual who may be earning a fee greater than most full-time managers in the economy, bite the hand of the person who may have proposed him for the appointment in the first place?

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