23 December, 2008

Happy Holidays

It' s the only way to travel, when the buses are full, and the queues for car parks have your blood boiling.

I spotted this cycling Santa in the window of Mike's Bikes on Patrick Street, just down the road from my constituency office in Dun Laoghaire. Hopefully early in the new year he'll have all the elves signed up for a bike, and safety equipment courtesy of the scheme announced in Budget 2009.

Some good news and bad news to end the year.

On the negative front Pope Benedict has got himself into hot water with his statement yesterday that saving humanity from homosexual or transsexual behavior being as important as saving the rain forest from destruction. Not quite the right note to kick off the season of peace and goodwill. I've issued what I can only hope is a measured response over at the Green Party site.

On a more positive note Barack Obama seems to have appointed a top-notch team of scientific advisers, and that can only be good for the rain forests, and the rest of the planet. For me the lesson from his campaign is not so much about using Gothic font and new media, but about connecting with people. In Ireland knocking on doors and public meetings are as important as always.

Grist, the online green magazine has some tips for the festive season here, and once the twelve days of Christmas are over you can find out where to recycle and dispose of your festive trimmings here.

Thanks for all you comments over the last year, particularly the constructive ones. See you all in January.

Beannachtaí na Nollag, agus Síocháin san Athbliain.

10 December, 2008

Green New Deal

Friday Afternoon. It's wet and cold in Poznan at the Climate Change Conference.

After a fairly turgid discussion of the need for emissions trading in the German car industry sector this morning, I headed over to listen to Al Gore. Two minutes in and I had to hightail it into a radio studio where I waited for a broadcasting slot for the last twenty minutes. Climate change was sidelined by the resignation of Niall Crowley from the Equality Authority. I made the point on RTE Newst One that promoting and defending equality cannot be seen as a luxury to be marginalised when finances are constrained.

Meanwhile back in the Polish conference hall, it's Hamlet without the Prince. While parts of a Climate Change deal are being negotiated here, at the UNFCCC COP 14 talks, the real deal is being struck in Brussels at the Heads of State meeting. COP 14 is the fourteenth Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and this is part of a process began in Bali a year ago that will hopefully conclude in Copenhagen in a year's time. We're also waiting to see how a new US President will tackle the issue.

There's some good news in the last half hour, a deal has been concluded in Brussels on a European package. French President Nicolas Sarkozy says the deal is historic, but I've just been handed a press release from Friends of the Earth International accusing industrialised countries of failing to commit to immediate binding emission reduction targets. On the positive side of things, Europe can take credit for being (roughly speaking) the first continent to set out a clear plan for tackling high emission.

John Gormley heads up the Irish delegation in Poland. Being a Leo, his weekly horoscope courtesy of Young Friends of the Earth Europe states that "This week the stars are in a perfect position for powerful decisions which can make a real difference for future generations. The Leo should more than ever use its leadership qualities , its creativity and passion to lead the world in the right direction." Well, that's just what the John and the rest of the Irish delegates appear to have been up to for the last fortnight. Pat Finnegan from Grian wants a 30% reduction by 2020, and the Irish branch of the Friends of the Earth want climate change to be enshrined in domestic legislation. All eyes will be on the US over the next few months to see what Barack Obama can deliver.

In Ireland the next wave of economic activity can and should be in green collar jobs. Green energy, green construction, green transport - all of these can create and foster employment in sectors that have experienced a downturn. I'm hoping that this will be part of the economic plans that are under preparation by Brian Cowen. A "Green New Deal"is the obvious way to kick-start a lagging economy, and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said as much yesterday.

I'm heading back out to the afternoon events, now. I'm hoping to attend a talk by the 350.org group on what is required to stabilise CO2 at 350 parts per million in the Earth's atmosphere. On the way over I'll pass a great collection of stands manned by NGOs, academics, business interests and institutions. Feasta is represented by Richard Douthwaite and others with material on 'cap and share' ; the International Atomic Agency has a glossy brochure of nuclear powers station surrounded by trees, the Heinrich Boll Foundation has leaflets on the right to development in a climate constrained world, and I picked up some good background information on the UK Hadley Centre (run by the Met Office) and the UK Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, named after our own John Tyndall from Co. Carlow.

As I head in to the meeting rooms Yvo de Boer of the UNFCC has just issued a statement saying that "The European Union's climate deal sends a clear message to the negociations in Poznan and onwards to Copenhagen that difficult roadblocks can be overcome and resolved", and European Commissioner Stavros Dimas has reiterated that the EU will commit to 30% cuts by 2020 "if other developed countries make comparable reductions under the Copenhagen agreement."

Concerns about leakage from these targets remain, but for the moment there's cautious optimism in Poznan.

01 December, 2008

Traffic News from Dún Laoghaire

Changes are on the way to Georges Street in Dún Laoghaire. From Monday 8th December car traffic is going to be allowed back down Georges Street. Currently only buses are allowed down the street.

I think this is a step backwards, and I'd be happier if if the street was completely traffic free for most of the day. However the councillors (with the exception of the Green Party) voted a few months ago to allow cars back on to the main street of the town.

There will be a review after eighteen months, but I suspect that once cars are allowed back again onto the main street it'll be hard to remove them.

It's a tough retail environment in Dún Laoghaire. Many people head off into Dublin to do their shopping, and lots more head to the cathedral of retail that is Dundrum Shopping Centre. That, combined with the aging demographics on the eastern side of the County puts pressure on all the businesses in Dún Laoghaire. Some shops haven't had a face-lift in a long time, and could do with some work; at least to replace missing letters on their shop-signs.

Traders in the two shopping centres, Bloomfields and the old Dún Laoghaire Shopping Centre are doing their best, but the buildings suffer from design challenges. Despite the recent refurbishment the old Shopping Centre is not the most pleasant of buildings. It presents a lot of blank brick frontage to the street, and belongs to a period when insufficient attention was paid to making buildings relate to their surroundings. Personally I'd be happy to send in the wrecking ball and start again, but realistically I don't feel this is a runner. Had it been designed differently we could have had a magnificent window facing the harbour, and the building could have been filled with sunlight. Maybe the owners might considering opening up windows to some of the shops on the outside walls, and perhaps putting apartments on top, so as to attract more life to the streets after dark. I feel the town should develop more specialist retail, that would attract more tourists to spend time in the town when they arrive from Wales, instead of heading straight for the M50.

Patrick Street in Dún Laoghaire is one of my all-time favourite streets though. All of human life is there, and there's an amazing moment at 11.45 every morning when the HSS Ferry suddenly appears in the distance, heading out to sea beyond the East Pier. Businesses on the street sell everything from pizza to memory chips, and if it wasn't for the occasional SUV parking on the footpath, it would win any prize going.

The turning on of the Christmas lights was a great occasion. The Dún Laoghaire Business Association had a parade around the town, and a stunning fireworks display at the Harbour Plaza, Around five hundred people waited in the cold for Santa, who arrived on the HSS Ferry from Holyhead. Peter Caviston also appeared on his messenger boy bicycle, and threw dead ducks at the crowd. Depending on which side of the meat-eater / vegetarian divide that you occupied this either horrified you or had you licking your lips. Refreshments were served afterwards, and the event brought hundreds of people into town for the start of the Christmas rush. It's a difficult time for retailers, and the more people that can be persuaded to shop locally, the better it will be for the County.

I still don't feel that allowing cars back on Georges Street is the right idea. We must be one of the few towns in Europe allowing cars back into a pedestrianised area.

03 November, 2008

An absentee ballot for Obama

The die is cast, in my case anyway.

I posted off my absentee ballot two weeks ago, and hope that it'll get there on time.

I've read the books, 'Dreams from my Father', the 'Audacity of Hope', and I'm hoping Barack Obama gets in.

Of course I'm also hoping for good things from the US Green Party candidate Cynthia Ann McKinney and her running mate 'hip hop' Rosa Clemente, but I'm not expecting too many surprises. Ralph Nader is also on the ticket again, as Peace and Freedom Party candidate, along with running mate Matt Gonzalez from San Francisco. It's an uphill struggle, being green in a country that is dominated by two large political parties, and I can only imagine the challenge in the US.

It was interesting being in studio in RTE this morning in the presence of American economist and Obama advisor Robert Shapiro. His view is that McCain has only a 2% chance of winning. I only hope he's right, certainly Pollster.com seems to be agreeing with him this morning. He was in town for a conference on foreign direct investment in UCD , and he was upbeat that our
highly educated workforce, state of the art infrastructure (his words, not mine!) and local demand in the EU for goods from US subsidiaries here would help pull us through. McCain has been repeatedly citing Ireland's 11% Corporation tax (it's actually 12.5%) versus 37% in the US as part of his campaign, so it was reassuring to hear an economist with a Harvard PhD be so upbeat.


I was in studio to discuss extraordinary rendition, and last week the Government set up a new Cabinet Sub-Committee to discuss, as it was rather delicately put 'Aspects of International Human Rights'. The bottom line is Gardaí on planes, and I think that is what we'll get.

One of the first pieces of paper on the desk of the winning Presidential candidate will be a letter from the Irish Government stating our opposition to extraordinary rendition, the detention facility at Guantanamo and intensive interrogation techniques such as water-boarding which are internationally considered to constitute torture. I hoping that we'll be the first European country out of the traps on that one.

There's also an intention to strengthen the legislation on search and inspection of aircraft, if required, and the Gardaí will be asked to keep the Committee briefed. In addition the Minister for Justice will update the Committee on steps taken to give effect to the Human Rights training as outlined in the Programme for Government. I'm hopeful that this represents some progress in the right direction.

My fingers are crossed for Tuesday night!

21 October, 2008

Medical card changes


That's the only word I can use to respond to the hurt and difficulty suffered by so many older people and their families over the last week.

The changes announced this morning (Tuesday 21 October 2008) have involved raising the income limits to €700 per week (€36,500 pa) or €1,400 per week (€73,000 pa) for a couple. Older people on this income or under will receive a full medical card. In addition, those with incomes above the threshold experiencing difficulty in meeting their medical needs will be eligible to apply for a medical card under the discretionary medical card scheme.

A huge amount of the debate in my head has been about means testing. Just what should the State provide to everyone, regardless of their income or assets? Whether we like it or not, that answer has to change, depending on the state of the economy.

One thing is certain; this is only the beginning of a huge challenge to tackle the economic difficulties of Ireland Inc. There may be a ten billion hole in the finances, and the hundred million euro mentioned in the context of medical cards is perhaps only 1% of the gap in the nation's finances that will need to be filled in the near future.
It begs the question as to whether we should continue to provide tax relief at source on mortgages and also on private medical insurance. The sooner we have a full reality check on the state of the nation’s finances, the quicker we’ll recover.
People have remarked on Brian Cowen’s ability to hold the line in the past, but this issue was different. This was unscripted, un-choreographed and straight from the heart. Many of the phone calls and emails have been from people who had difficulty sleeping since Budget day; people who have a State Pension, and sometimes only €2500 or even under €500 a year on top of that. Ironically, many women have small pensions because they had to leave their jobs due the marriage ban and only returned to work when that was reversed. That means they only contributed to a private pension for the last ten or fifteen years of their working life. Their pensions are small, and their fears are real.
I hope that today’s changes go some way towards meeting their concerns.

13 October, 2008

Open House comes to Dún Laoghaire

From Bentley Villas to the Irish Lights, a shot of architecture is coming to Dún Laoghaire.

Open House is an initiative of the Irish Architecture Foundation, and it consists of a weekend festival where all sorts of buildings throw open their doors and allow people to walk through buildings that aren't always open to the public.

This is the first year that Dún Laoghaire has been included, and there's a mix of projects on view. The Commissioners of Irish Lights Building (pictured here) will be flying the green flag with its heat pump and solar panels, but you'll be able to visit the snazzy new community centre at St. Paul's Church on Adelaide Road, just a short walk from Glenageary DART Station, as well as the restored Harbour Lodge on Crofton Road next to the County Hall on the Marine Road. There's full details on the Architecture Foundation's site, a nice use of flash on the site.

There's also some interesting material on the Culturestruction website, such as the colouring book for children by Eilis McDonald. Click by, it's worth a look. The screening of Luastube in Temple Bar also sounds intriguing

On Thursday night (16th October 2008) at 6.30pm there's a debate chaired by John Bowman in the Liberty Hall Theatre with the topic "Has Dublin Changed for the Better?". I'll be speaking, along with Senator Ivana Bacik, Entrepreneur Jay Bourke, Dublin City Architect Ali Grehan, Artist Jesse Jones, Architect Grainne Hassett, and others. There's no admission charge, and no booking required, so you've no excuse not to come along. Between the Budget and the state of the banks I may have switched sides of the debate several times between now and Thursday.

Hope to see you there.

10 October, 2008

Remembering the Leinster

Fr. Mangan had the best line in St. Michael's Church this afternoon.

"We'll have a collection now, for the banks."

It brought the house down. It was a touch of levity at a poignant occasion, the 90th anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Leinster, the old mail boat. 501 was the official death toll, but it was probably higher than that. It was the greatest ever loss of life on the Irish Sea and it occurred just a month before the First World War ended.

There were familiar faces at the commemoration, and many had lost a grandparent or some other family member in the tragedy. Saddest of all was the mention of the postal sorters. They hadn't a chance - sorting the post below deck, many of them would have died instantly when the torpedo hit. They were four miles east of Kish lighthouse at the time, and although Captain Birch ordered a 180 degree turn in the rough seas a second torpedo led to the ship quickly sinking. He was injured in the attack and drowned when his lifeboat foundered.

The U-boat UB123 that fired the torpedoes never made it back to Germany. Commander Ramm and his crew perished in a North Sea minefield a week after the Leinster sank and thirty six more lives were lost. They too were remembered today.

After the inter-faith ceremony we marched down to the anchor monument on the Queen's Road and wreaths were laid by schoolchildren.


Meanwhile the world's stock markets have had one of their worst weeks on record. It makes matters all the more challenging for Brian Lenihan and the rest of the cabinet as they prepare for a tough budget on Tuesday.

"Bheidh an cáin fhasinéis ro-dheachair" was the view of our Oireachtas Irish class this week. The budget will be tough, and that was before this weeks downward slide of the world's markets.

09 September, 2008

Batten down the hatches

The next few weeks aren't going to be easy.

The news from the exchequer isn't good, and my pal in Finance says there's more to come. He reckons it'll be 10% cuts all round by the end of the year in order to fill a six billion hole in the coffers. Stamp duty has flat-lined, corporation tax is down, construction receipts are a fraction of their former levels, and retail's looking shaky. Sure, there's still companies moving to Ireland, but you've got too distinguish between the brass plate operations and the operations that bring long term jobs and income to Ireland. Some of the new jobs will come from unusual places.
Facebook is contemplating setting up operations here, and the new Irish Mind Series on CNBC is making a pitch to the United States on the added value of Irish education and upbringing on how we work. The massive expansion in access to third level in recent years is breathtaking, but there's concerns out there that quality could suffer as quantity of output increases. I heard rumours recently that they've brought in attendance rolls in some courses in UCD to keep tabs on whether people are making along to lectures that they're taking exams in.

Meanwhile the squeeze is on for various State agencies. Fine Gael's Leo Varadkar (not someone I'm always in agreement with!) brought out a report 'Streamlining Government' in April that has some reasonable suggestions for rationalising the plethora of semi-state bodies. Over the weekend Minister of State for Trade John McGuinness has been making waves with his thoughts on the public service. Some time ago I threw my hat into the ring with an article that you can find here. David Connolly from the Dublin Inner City Partnership didn't agree with some of what I said, and penned his response here.

Five years on I feel more strongly than ever that we need to give real power to local authorities, rather than spinning it off to external agencies, and I worry that we've reduced local government to an exercise in oversight, regulation and enforcement in so many areas. In other countries I suspect that enterprise, development and support to the unemployed are closer to the core competencies of local government than in Ireland.

Since the early nineties we have created a plethora of new bodies: County and City Enterprise boards that support the start-up & development of local business in Ireland; County and City Development Boards that are charged with bringing an integrated approach to the delivery of both State and local development services at local level; and Local Partnerships that respond to long-term unemployment and socioeconomic disadvantage.

Meanwhile within local authorities we've put in place Strategic Policy Committees that are supposed to assist the Council in the formulation, development and review of policy, yet so many of what should be core functions have been spun off. It is no wonder that so many councillors have resigned in recent years. I suspect many have become disenchanted with the rising tide of representations, a salary that fails to reflect the workload, and perhaps most of all a frustration at becoming increasingly distanced from key decision-making functions. I wouldn't abolish City and County Development Boards, Enterprise Boards and Partnerships, they all do good work but I would like to see their work more strongly tied into the heart of local government.

RAPID and CLÁR complicate matters even further. Again they provide a variety of useful funding in targetting graffiti, providing childcare and accessible transport, but perhaps these issues should be core competencies of local government rather than dispensed from on high? RAPID funds everything from estate management, traffic safety and measures that improve equality for women. The lead Department is Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs there and to be honest while I'm grateful for the emails that announce every details of Éamon Ó Cuív's latest disbursement of €1,050 to the North Mon Taekwan-do club in Cork, I'd be happier if the money came directly from the local Council. It has got to stage where you'd almost need a Masters in Community Development to start looking for a grant for traffic calming and that's not the way it ought to be. As a side-bar issue I'm also nervous about the designation of 'most disadvantaged' to particular communities, as it immediately begs the question 'are you in or are you out?'. A sliding scale might be more appropriate.

Proper financing for local government is a crucial issue. The current system whereby local authorities must go cap in hand to central government for any significant capital project is demeaning and over-centralised. The 2006 Indecon Review of Local Government Financing suggested that more financial autonomy could be beneficial, and the more recent Green Paper from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government "Stronger Local Government - Options for Change" referred to the this challenge. Apparently now though, we'll have to await the deliberations of the Commission on Taxation.

It is amazing how many people feel that the abolition of domestic rates back in 1977 was the nail in the coffin of independent local government. Its the only tax I know that people feel nostalgic about at the doosteps. As a fellah in the Liberties said to me many years ago, "If you didn't like what they were doing with your money you could go down to City Hall and give the councillors a piece of your mind".

Given that stamp duty on property exaggerates the cyclical nature of the property market, we might be better off abolishing it altogether and replacing it with an annual charge on residential property that reflects its floor area and the number of residents. This could allow people to move more easily to the type of property that best reflects their needs without penalising them for their decision to move. If your job was fifty miles away you could move there, and if children came along you could move again without attracting stamp duty that can hit between six and nine per cent each time you move property. It could cut down on commuting and allow people to live in homes that best reflects their needs at each stage of their lives. Certainly some alternative to the complexities of the current system would be welcome.

Meanwhile Philip Boucher-Hayes's Future Shock programme on the issue of water gave stark insight into how bad planning and a lack of capital funding has led to a run-down water supply system. I missed the original screening, and my Real Player jammed at the thirty minute mark, but I think I got the main thrust of it by the half-way mark. Again financing featured as an important issue. John Gormley has ruled out blanket water charges but I'd certainly feel if people are watering their half acre of lawn or wahing the car every week then they should pay some sort of charge for excessive useage. I'd hate to see a pipeline to the Shannon or Boyne just to ensure someone's 08D is sparkling, but perhaps we should be putting more attention into protecting and increasing the watersheds that we have in the vicinity of Dublin. Curiously enough, perhaps New York could be looked at as a city that has a decent tradition of managing their water resource.

It's not a great time to be talking about local government reform and financing when the purse-strings are tightening, but perhaps at a time of fiscal restraint we should be discussing what we really want our local councils and councillors to be engaged in doing on our behalf.

18 August, 2008

Spreading from the west...

'It is certainly a matter for regret that the climate of these northern regions makes it so uncomfortable to get wet and so difficult to get dry.

The clothes which the prevailing temperature compels us to wear are even in the summer of a thickness which renders them capable of absorbing a vast amount of water , and the air is of a dampness which slows up evaporation and so keeps them wet.

Not but that I think Ireland has a worse reputation as regards weather than she deserves. Rain is frequent, especially in the west, but seldom lasts long .
A whole wet day is rare.'

Robert Lloyd Praeger 'The Way that I Went' 1937

...And he was someone who knew his way around the Country.

This weather...

I look out of the kitchen window every morning to see how many inches of rain there are in the wheelbarrow, just to get a steer on the day ahead. Whatever way you look at it, it is depressing. Still, it could be worse, you could be living in Carlow and find that your brand new apartment block is flooded. It was good to see John Gormley pay a visit down there today.

The new draft guidelines for planning authorities on sustainable residential development in urban areas from last February states: " ...Fundamental questions to be addressed at the outset of the planning process include: ... The avoidance of natural hazards such as flood risk, and avoidance of increased flood risk for downstream areas."

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but it appears clear that more extreme weather events such as flash floods are part of what climate change may bring to Ireland. Rapid urbanisation has led to a lot more tarmacadam and concrete out there which increases the risk of flooding due to run-off from non-porous surfaces.

Flooding.ie is a font of knowledge, but I'm not quite sure if I would have the presence of mind to consult 'My Family Flood Plan' and ensure that I 'harvest any crops that can be ripened indoors, such as tomatoes' or empty any petrol lawn mowers before the water rises.

I also wouldn't be exactly comforted by clicking on the 'A flood is coming , what do I do' link and finding a page that does little more than remind me that 'Floods are the most common and widespread of all natural disasters.' Note to webmaster: check those links!

Floodmaps.ie is more technical, and includes mapping for your own area with local authority reports on flooding, press coverage of flooding events and even that famous photograph of Bertie NOT walking on water (under the Drumcondra 2002 section.)

Someone also suggested to me that the flooding from the Maretimo Carysfort stream in Blackrock last year came soon after the clear-felling of forestry on the side of Three Rock Mountain. There is a very detailed annotated map prepared by Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council on floodmaps.ie with hand-written notes that highlight areas vulnerable to flooding, but floodmaps.ie isn't great for links. Try Blackrock, County Dublin, and open the report on 'Flood Event: Hyde Park Gardens Recurring'.

Ideally all Development Plans should be underpinned by this historical knowledge, and planning authorities should ensure that land use zoning don't allow for development on land that has been repeatedly flooded unless there are compelling reasons for doing so.

Perhaps developers should underwrite the first twenty years of flood insurance with any property that they sell. That would put manners on any cowboys that there might be out there.

20 July, 2008

Clarence Hotel Decision

Thanks to Tom Cosgrave for the prompt.

Yep the planning approval for the Clarence gets my goat. Actually, the extra couple of floors that the Clarence got fifteen years ago annoyed me as well. Blame for that one can be laid at the door of Gay McCarron who was Dublin City Planning Officer at the time. One of the principle objections back then was that it would open the door to the future demolition of the four story buildings next door, and that's exactly what is happening.

One of the worst aspects of the current scheme is the emphasis on facade retention. It is not dissimilar to practicing taxidermy on a beautiful old friend while their heart is still beating. The Clarence is an attractive early 1930s building, and the buildings to the east are much older. They will all be subsumed into the scheme but are worthy of retention in their entirety. I didn't like the way the members of the City of Dublin Workingmen's Club which used to be located beside the Clarence were decanted into a new building off Capel Street. I also don't like the arguments that you hear time and time again about how hotels don't stack up commercially unless they double their number of bedrooms. Incidentally the Inspector felt that the building which housed the club was of regional importance on page 44 of his report.

I've argued this out with Laura Magahy when she was MD of Temple Bar Properties years ago, but the area's essential quality used to be its small scale-character, and time and again that was altered by planning decisions made by Temple Bar Properties, Dublin City Council and An Bord Pleanála. If Dublin does need a five star hotel with a flying saucer on top then maybe Docklands is the place for it, not Temple Bar.

The precedent of allowing facade retention of listed buildings (Protected Structures) is a dangerous one, and could open the floodgates for second-rate planning applications all over the country. The decision may refer to this as a "bespoke building of design excellence", but in my mind its open season . If you can't hold on to Protected Structure in a Conservation Area, then who knows where it will end? It's also worrying (and perhaps unprecedented?) that the Board's decision seems to diverge from the conservation advice given by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government

I'm also annoyed by the way the Boys went down the 'Starchitecture' route of choosing Norman Foster's firm for the job. It shows the same lack of design confidence that many cities (including Dublin) display when they opt for a Calatrava bridge. If Dublin City Council really cared that much about design they wouldn't allow replica Victorian litter bins (Did the Victorians use litter bins on their streets?) to be placed blocking the lighting on the south side of the James Joyce Bridge on the Quays. Instead of choosing architects like Kevin Roche, Norman Foster or Santiago Calatrava for projects in Dublin twenty or forty years after they've emerged on the world stage we should be choosing today's rising stars for these projects.

15 July, 2008

Urban Clutter

Metropanels and Metropoles, what ever way you look at it, the whole thing stinks.

It was a stitch-up between Dublin City Council officials and the Advertising Company JCDecaux. In return for taking down 48 billboard ads around the city, JCDecaux get to erect 120 ads all over the middle of Dublin. The amazing thing is that many of the signs they're removing never had planning permission in the first place, and they haven't even made public the list of what is being removed. JC Decaux know their way around Dublin, and I've know doubt that they've picked the highest value sites for their urban clutter.

Apart from the visual pollution they're causing a traffic hazard and an impediment to pedestrians. Just look at this poor couple crossing Parnell Street with a walking aid. In a moment they'll be invisible to fast moving traffic. It's an accident waiting to happen and makes my blood boil. Thankfully they've removed the one on Dorset Street, but they should just drop the whole project. Boards was on to it early on, as was the Village magazine and Ian Lumley from An Taisce.

Oh, they're throwing in a few free bikes as a sop to the Council, but as far as I'm concerned the whole idea should have been killed at birth. Well done to DangerInDublin, Mulley (though I can't find my way through his old entries to find the exact link) and others who have also highlighted the issue. Bee's entry on Boards.ie of a terrier pup whimpering after it ran under one grazing its back would be humorous if it wasn't so sad, not to mind the concerns of NCBI. Their guidelines on street furniture are ignored left right and centre with these signs, and there's worse to come when they put in the ones at head height.

Lunatics and asylums come to mind. I also feel a rant against Michael O'Leary coming on, but I'll deal with that in another forum.

Hopefully our County Manager in Dún Laoghaire Owen Keegan won't fall for their same sales schpiel from JC Decaux.

03 July, 2008

Finally, some good news

Wednesday evening's vote had taken place and I'd retired to the Dáil bar for a quiet pint to consider the state of the nation with Senator Dan Boyle.

Dan held up his Blackberry as I came back from the Bar with the pints.

'Breaking News Ingrid Betancourt freed from captivity'

I couldn't believe it, and I hightailed it back to my office on the sixth floor to get out a press release. I held my breath and checked RTE, the BBC, and New York Times online. They were all running with the story, so it had to be true. Ingrid Betancourt was the Green Party candidate for president of Colombia six years ago, and we had almost lost hope that she was still alive. I had written a draft release back in January at the time of the release of her colleague Clara Rojas. This was incredible news. Then there was one other thing to do, email Anne O' Connell of the Irish Betancourt Support Group and congratulate them on not giving up hope.

By the time I got back downstairs Dan had to head out for a grilling with Vincent Browne on TV3. I told him to smile gracefully if Vincent tried his 'laughing at the interviewee' technique. When I got home the midweek movie was on, and possession being nine tenths of the law I didn't get to see how Dan fared. Today Le Monde and Le Figaro are updating the story every few minutes and it all seems like good news. I'm sure there's more to the story than meets the eye, as Michael Noonan suggested to me last night in the lift, and it seems more than coincidence that France is currently holding the European Presidency, but for the moment let's rejoice.

Statements on Climate Change in the House this morning, and I'd forgotten that John Gormley was at the European Council meeting in Paris. That meant that I had to hightail it downstairs and speak for ten minutes in what will not go down as my finest parliamentary contribution. Mind you the opposition contributors kept criticising him for not being there so at least I was able to remind them that he was tackling the issue at the heart of Europe. As far as I could make out, most contributions were along the lines of "Climate change is the biggest challenge facing humanity" which hardly breaks new ground given that a least a dozen politicians either came up with the phrase independently, or else did a Terence Flanagan on the issue. Even John's been caught out on that one, and it seems from the timeline that Red Ken got there first. I went for the old 'turning the supertanker around' line, which wasn't exactly that novel either.

The rain this morning didn't help , and I also understand from the spin-doctors that we're not meant to be mentioning the 'R word'. However on the brighter side of things the Green Party Staff Tag Team won last night in a game against ODSE, giants of the legal world, bringing a six week losing streak to an end.

Things are looking up.

21 June, 2008

More than beer and biscuits

Good to see reports in today's Irish Times that the Taoiseach has appointed Prof. Peter Clinch as a special advisor. He has a BA and MA degrees in economics and a PhD in environmental economics as well as a Diploma in environmental impact assessment.

What better man for the job at this point in time than someone who holds the
Jean Monnet Professor of European Environmental Policy! Jean Monnet was the architect of European unity, but I'd imagine that Peter will be dealing with issues closer to home than picking up the pieces from the Referendum.

Peter is 'an outspoken critic of decentralisation' according to the Irish Times, and if that is true, I'd tend to be of a like mind.
Two years ago I stated that decentralisation threatened the National Spatial Strategy, and I also suspected that pork was being doled out from the barrel. Devolving power to a proper system of regional governance would be great, but shifting jobs around can be counter-productive, particularly when the need for senior officials to meet face to face may result in mileage claims hitting stratospheric levels.

What annoys me most about the decentralisation programme isn't the 110% parking requirements for new government offices, or the so-called sustainable offices at Ireland West Airport Knock, or the way McCreevy slipped it into a budget speech, but the lack of any enthusiasm for cities having a place in Ireland's future. In my mind cities are the powerhouse for Ireland in the twenty-first century.

Back when I was at school, our geography book -'The World' by Sir Dudley Stamp highlighted Dublin for its production of beer and biscuits. Even then that sounded dated. Since then Dublin has played a crucial role in the development of Ireland's economy. It would be foolish not to ensure that cities like Dublin, Cork and Galway benefit strongly from government planning policies, and not just the Gateway Cities initiative. Since decentralisation was announced, I've been to packed-out meetings of angry Bord Iascaigh Maire staff who don't want leave Dún Laoghaire for Clonakilty, and architectural staff from the OPW who aren't impressed with plans to move them to Cork, Meath and Mayo. As the Trim Co. Meath information from the OPW puts it -
"There is no active rail link between Dublin and Trim at this time." For BIM, the quote in the info pack about Clonakilty must have rubbed salt in their wounds: -"A place of choice for the many and home to the lucky few". I can understand why DIG the Decentralisation Implementation Group (awful acronym) stated last year that "some elements are continuing to prove challenging, especially those relating to the State Agency sector."

Minister Éamon Ó Cuív appears to be no great fan of urban life, and in his
speech two days ago to the Rural Development Forum in Charleville in Cork, he quoted Professor Seamus Caulfield, "…'Perhaps the most unsustainable thing about rural housing is the case that is made against it.' " He also states that "rural residents expend less energy and produce fewer carbon dioxide emissions than their urban counterparts." Harry Magee cites Clinch as stating that greenhouse gas emissions reductions are one of the government's biggest challenges, and that Mr Cowen is very committed to making decisions based on sound evidence and research. Somehow I don't think that if we all head off to the dispersed village or baile fearann it will reduce emissions, unless we're all growing our own, and not driving anywhere, an unlikely prospect for the foreseeable future.

Some number-crunching is clearly required to produce clear figures for urban and rural commuting times and CO2 emissions, and maybe that'll come under Prof. Clinch's job spec. Government clearly has a role to play in ensuring that
citizens are encouraged to make the choices that are best for the environment.

There can be a thriving future for rural Ireland, but in my mind employment growth lies in areas such as agricultural diversification, forestry, properly resourced and marketed farm tourism, and vibrant towns and villages creating jobs and providing services. It's a bleak future were it to rely unduly on the back of jobs reliant on long distance car commuting to distant towns, agricultural subsidies, or the construction of one-off housing. There is a touch of irony to Ó Cuív's contention that
pressure is "forcing rural people to move to towns and cities" when the reality of decentralisation for urban dwellers is the exact opposite. In my mind it shouldn't have to be an 'us versus them' debate, and with the right policies in place both urban and rural areas can thrive.

Clinch is also the co-author of 'After the Celtic Tiger',published back in 2002, and well worth a read, '
as the building boom is coming to a shuddering end'. It wasn't the Greens what talked down the economy, it was the Fianna Fáil Minister for Finance! in fairness, I'm taking Brian Lenihan's quote out of context, and he did correct his quote to suggest that only the housing sector was suffering.

I wouldn't be downbeat, and from our perspective, I'd be talking up the new green economy. There's going to be more sunrise than sunset industries over the next few years, and a lot of green collar jobs will come our way if we play our cards right. To do that though we need to rethink decentralisation, and put cities, and improving the quality of urban life at the heart of Ireland's future.

16 June, 2008

Now What?

The omens weren't great. A pal sent me a text on Thursday morning saying 'it's probably going to be a train wreck'. Later on, when I walked into Jim's Barber Shop on Patrick Street in Dun Laoghaire, Jim said everyone who had come in the door that morning had voted No.

Friday morning I took an early train to Cork for a friend's wedding near Bantry. Enterprise Rent a Car picked me up at the station, and half an hour later I was negotiating roundabouts heading west in a Ford Fiesta. Posters of Kathy Sinnott MEP still stared out from every junction asking 'We give up power, in exchange for what?' A rhetorical question, but interesting to note that according to the website that she flags, the independence / democracy group is sponsored by 'EU-critics, eurosceptics and eurorealists'. The Workers Solidarity Movement had pasted their posters to lamp posts with a large anarchist A in a circle and the slogan - 'If you trust liars, vote yes, if you don't then vote no.' Their website cites Mikhail Bakunin's maxim that "Socialism without freedom is tyranny and brutality". Incidentally Bakunin held that the state should be immediately abolished because all forms of government eventually lead to oppression.

By the time I got to Bandon, Pat Kenny had some early tallies indicating a No vote. When I got to Dunmanway it was clear, the Treaty had been rejected.

-The Yes campaign started late. Cóir hit the ground running. The monkeys worked.
-Certain high profile individuals bizarrely stated that they hadn't read the damn thing.
-Cabinet pay hikes didn't exactly install fervour for politicians telling us what way to vote.
-People are concerned about the Mutual Solidarity Clause and European Security and Defence Policy.

Too be honest, I'm not a great fan of the line stating 'Member States shall undertake progressively to improve their military capabilities' in Article 42 of the Treaty. I guess that could mean making sure that Irish army radios can talk to other troops in Chad or elsewhere, or it could mean something more sinister. I do feel uneasy about other EU member states with large defence spending, but I certainly don't think that an arms race is at the heart of the Treaty. In fairness, Carol Fox and others from PANA put these points across in a level-headed way.

I made my own pitch for a yes vote in this week's Dún Laoghaire Gazette, and I'm glad to see that the Dún Laoghaire constituency delivered the highest Yes vote in the country. Interestingly, all the constituencies with a Green TD voted Yes, bar Dublin Mid-West. I'm disappointed that the strong lead that the European Union has taken on climate change may be diminished by the impasse over the treaty.

Saturday morning I drove back from Bantry to Cork, slightly the worse for wear from the celebrations of the previous evening. A wide-awake Declan Ganley from Libertas was on Radio One with Dunphy. He seemed to suggest that he had made most of his money in two-radios, and that really it was all about defending freedom. I'm not so sure. The car hire guy drove me back to the railway station, saying that he and his family voted no, because they didn't have enough information.

Sunday evening I went to hear Leonard Cohen up at IMMA. His voice was, well, as good as ever, but even there I couldn't stop thinking about the future of the Union. It must have been something to do with the roadies' truck, parked beside the big screen. Four bright yellow stars in an arc, reminding us that the Union is still there, and that disengaging is not an option. Where to from here? I don't think we can walk away and pretend Lisbon can't or won't happen. Hopefully we can negociate protocols that addresses the concerns both real and imaginary that people have about the EU's future. I'd hate to think that we might be left to one side as the other 26 countries chart their common future without us.

10 June, 2008

Yes! Environmentalists for Europe

Well that's where I'm coming from.

No, I haven't read every line of the Treaty, but I do know that Brussels has led the way in most of the improvements for the environment that we've seen in Ireland since 1973. Plus I like the idea of a greater role for the European Parliament in shaping laws.

The size of the small print (and the large print) on the Cóir posters annoyed me. Interestingly, though I disagree with their arguments I just donated one cent to their campaign via PayPal to see if they asked me my nationality. They didn't, and I wonder whether that may create difficulties when it comes to oversight of their campaign accounts to SIPO. Cóir's campaign premises at 60a Capel Street - 'the Life House' (not to be confused with 'Outhouse' across the road) seems to be up for sale at the moment.

The Green Party held a special convention back in the Spring to see if we'd take a view on the Treaty. As less than two third of the members present (although it was a decent majority) voted for the Treaty, the Party didn't take a view, but that hasn't prevented individual Party members from campaigning, and that's what I'm doing here, I'm voting yes.

03 June, 2008

Green Energy Fair

Sunday 8th June 2008, Leopardstown Racecourse in Dublin, 11-6pm, and a mere €5 admission; free if you're a senior citizen or a child.

Stallholders will be mostly in the Tote Hall, underneath the main stand, with some venturing outside if the weather remains as good as it's been for the last few days.

All sorts of goodies will be on display, solar panels, insulation, windmills, the whole bit.

Senator Deirdre de Burca, Eamon Ryan, and myself are organising it with the help of Nicola Browne and a raft of volunteers currently baking furiously and practicing their "lock hard" skills for the parking, though we're hoping people will take the 46A or Luas and enjoy the 25 minute walk up to the race-course. Interesting exhibitors ranging from Greenpages to Femmecup will be there, and there'll be an art workshop (accompanied by an adult) for the kids and run by Eco-Unesco and lot's of food ranging from pig on a spit for the die-hard carnivores to organic produce for those who seek a slightly smaller carbon footprint (or should that be hoof-mark) for their dinner.

There'll be workshops throughout the day hosted by Eamon, myself, Duncan Stewart, Davie Phillips from Cultivate, and others. Minister John Gormley will formally open the fair at 12, Here's a link showing you how to get there and you'll find more information about it all on the Green Party site here.

Hope to see you there.

29 May, 2008

Land Rover Greenwash

...Dear Deputy,

We are very pleased to send you the enclosed booklets "There is more to our world" and "Designed for Purpose, Not Pretence".


My thanks to David Harpur, MD of Land Rover Ireland for the info, but with respect, I don't see too many rangerovers towing horse-boxes through the streets of Dublin.

David, I think you're in serious danger of winning top prize in the greenwash awards, weasel words section 2008

08 May, 2008

Where's Bertie?

It was the strangest of days, watching Bertie Ahern seated in the back benches next to Johnny Brady, the heckler in the back benches.

Then out into the sunshine, and a scene that was more like an all-Ireland than the plinth of Leinster House. Bertie came out too, and it seemed odd to see him mixing with the crowds of Cowen supporters , a bit like the ex-boyfriend at the wedding.

I had been a bit worried at Cowen's speech earlier: the only mention of green seemed to be his discussion of Des Geraghty's book, 'Forty Shades of Green'. ,Once copies of Cowen's speech were circulated I raced ahead as he named his cabinet to the last few pages of his script...

"...Our economic growth path has been the envy of many but now is the time to broaden our definition of the success of the nation. Economic growth must progress two pillars of sustainable development: society and the environment.

"The World faces challenges to redress the human impact on the environment, no more so than in the area of climate change...post-Kyoto commitments...environment and economy are interdependent...government can lead change in respect of the environment..."


And Bertie? He's in the centre of the pic, between the window and the door of Leinster House. Though right now, I'd imagine he's walking through his beloved "Bot' " in Glasnevin, smelling the flowers, and plotting his next career move.

28 April, 2008

Dún Laoghaire Baths Meeting

30th April, Kingston Hotel in Dún Laoghaire at 8.30pm. Cllr. Gene Feighery and Coastwatch Ireland will give their views, and I'll be racing out from a Dáil vote in Leinster House to catch the second part of the meeting.

I'm hoping that we'll pass a motion along these lines:

"That development proposals be prepared for the Dun Laoghaire Baths site along the following lines:

* Provide a publicly owned swimming amenity fully accessible to the general public,
* Provide a new building of no more than 2/3 storeys, in total, containing an indoor heated 25m pool,
* Provide a small number of related amenity elements including, for example, a toddlers’ pool, sea-weed baths, gym and modest café/restaurant with viewing area,
* Provide other appropriate cultural facilities in keeping with character of the town of Dun Laoghaire
* Renovate and re-landscape the existing walk-ways and maritime gardens between the Baths and East Pier in an environmentally sustainable manner and without any interference with the existing coastline beyond that absolutely necessary for the protection of the leisure amenity,
And that the Manager prepare funding options for the proposal, and provide bimonthly updates to the Council on the issue."

Seems familiar? It's what the Green Party Councillors proposed at the County Council Meeting on 10th October 2005. Sadly on that occasion we were voted down. Who knows where this one will end up...

18 April, 2008

Oi, Rock This!

Ouch! Well it beats all the Cannon puns, almost...

The scene, Loreto Abbey Secondary School in Dalkey on a bitterly cold morning with a gale sweeping in from the north east, and waves crashing on the shore. Senator Larry Butler at the podium addressing a classroom full of transition year girls.

"Politics is not a sexy subject" he announces. It brought the house down. It's hard to be the guinea pigs, but there we were, Barry Andrews, Senator Eugene Regan, and Cllr. Dennis O'Callaghan, Cathaoirleach of Dún Laoghaire Rathdown County Council trying to explain what we do and why we do it.

It's all part of the Oireachtas Education Pilot Project, and with our Houses of the Oireachtas Schools Resource Packs in hand we took it in turn to describe our work. The packs feature postcards, button badges and a pull-out spread reminiscent of 'Lost' featuring a group of bewildered citizens stranded on a beach. The text reads:

"You are shipwrecked on a desert island. You are the only people on the island and it's unlikely that you are going to be rescued for some time. Please think about what type of laws you will need to ensure that everyone gets on, that everyone is treated fairly and everyone is safe.
Law to ensure fairness; law to protect people's rights, Law to keep people safe; law about offending people.

Mercifully we didn't have to give our answers to the above. Referencing Lord of the Flies was not an option! Apparently John O'Donoghue TD the Ceann Comhairle is behind all this, and it doesn't stop there. The Annual Programme of Public Events has been revealed. Sunday 29th June is Oireachtas Open Day with a Target Group of Families, and from Monday 6th to Saturday 11th October we're having The Oireachtas Festival of Politics - Target Group - Broad Public. The literature states:

"The Family Day should utilise both internal and external facilities. Externally, a ‘wow factor’ attraction, such as a hot air balloon that would reference the original Merrion Square, recreational activities at Leinster House, is proposed. Internally, guided access to the floor of the Dáil Chamber provides that sense of rare access and thus, privilege."

Gift Grub, eat your heart out. And if that wasn't enough, here's the line-up for the Festival

"The programme will consist of events that connect the Houses of the Oireachtas and its Members to a broad range of issues and via these topics to an even broader public audience. Added to this will be an array of high profile commentators, former Members of the Oireachtas, international guests and media personalities, all of whom will be chosen on the basis that they will add popular appeal to this major exercise in promoting public interest in Irish politics."

In fairness, I think it's a great idea, and it follows from experience in other countries, but no doubt we'll have the pants slagged off of us.

Meanwhile back in Loreto one of the girls asked us for our funniest moments in public life. I gave a bit of a damp squib of an example from my first few months in the Dáil when I was in a flight of rhetoric denouncing Michael McDowell over the shortcomings of a Justice Bill when all of a sudden Deputy Jim O'Keefe turns around and stage whispers "wrong bill" which stopped me dead in my tracks. Barry Andrews gave a long and complex story about sending a budgie back to its owner that had flown into his office. He was having a busy day, and had to hail a taxi on Kildare Street and send the bird off in a box, unaccompanied back to a pet shop.

Senator Eugene Regan's story was the best. During last Summer's campaign he was feeling queasy after a long day's canvassing, and after being on the receiving end of a long rant at a doorstep he said to the constituent that if he didn't stop talking he would have to vomit. Needless to say the prospective voter kept talking and Eugen turned around and puked into the flower-bed. Eugene felt he got three sympathy number ones, but if anyone had the other side of the story, I'd love to hear it.

Eugene pointed out that the constituent was very pleasant, did not rant, and gratefully accepted a potted plant as a gift the next day. Apologies, Senator!