News Ireland daily BLOG Thursday

Thursday 19th September

Michael Noonan warns of tough budget despite GDP growth


The economy returned to growth in the second quarter, bringing an end to nine months of recession.

Gross domestic product (GDP) expanded a tepid 0.4pc in real terms between April and the end of June after contracting in the previous quarter, according to figures released by the Central Statistics Office this morning.

CSO figures show Ireland exited recession in second quarter as exports rose and spending picks up

Minister for Finance Michael Noonan has warned next month’s budget will be no easier despite new figures showing Ireland exited recession in the second quarter of this year.

Data from the Central Statistics Office today show gross domestic product rose 0.4 per cent over the three-month period. In the first quarter, GDP fell by 0.6 per cent. The growth in GDP was largely fuelled by a rise in exports and consumer spending.

While welcoming the figures, which will have a crucial bearing on his fiscal calculations, Mr Noonan said Budget 2014 was still going to be very difficult. He is due to deliver the budget on October 15th.

“There’s no reason to be throwing our hats in the air or anything like that,” he told reporters at the Department of Finance today.

“I suppose what comes from the figures is that the economy is out of recession. There’s modest growth, and taking that in association with the employment figures we had from the same time of the year, jobs are being created now at about 650 jobs a week,” he said. “So it’s moving in the right direction. What we have to do now is make sure we secure our exit from the programme so we must stabilise the growth and continue to grow.”

According to the CSO data, consumer spending rose 0.7 per cent on a seasonally adjusted basis, and net exports rose by 4.3 per cent – or more than €1.5 billion – compared with the first quarter of the year. Services exports rose by 3.6 per cent year-on-year in the second quarter.Capital investment, meanwhile, fell by 3.4 per cent compared with the first three months of the year and Government spending was 1.3 per cent lower.

Year-on-year, GDP was down 1.2 per cent. Gross national product, which strips out the impact of multi-nationals, fell 0.4 per cent on the quarter and 0.1 per cent on the year.

Mr Noonan said the figures provided a solid foundation from which to cast the budget and to develop a fiscal strategy for the return to private market financing nextyear after the bailout ends.

He said the figures were more or less in line with expectations and said the Department of Finance would publish a revised set of forecasts in mid-October with the Budget to take account of the figures released today.

While Fine Gael is resisting Labour’s push to ease projected budget cuts to €2.5 billion from the €3.1 billion set out in Ireland’s bailout agreement with the troika, Mr Noonan declined to pinpoint the likely rate of retrenchment.

At the same time, he made a point of saying the return to growth meant the budget would be no more difficult than foreseen.

Priory Hall will be resolved ‘within a short period’ says Eamon Gilmore


Builder, architects, engineer, banks should be made accountable for complex, Dáil told

Eamon Gilmore met banking representatives today to begin efforts to resolve the Priory Hall crisis.

Senior Government officials met banking representatives today at the start of a 21-day process to resolve the Priory Hall crisis and Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore said he hoped for a solution “within a short period”.

Mr Gilmore was responding in the Dáil to Sinn Féin deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald who asked him if the Government would force the banks to wipe out the standing mortgages and allow the former residents of Priory Hall to hand back their keys.

One hundred and eighty families were forced to leave the Priory Hall apartment complex in north Dublin two years ago when serious fire hazards and building deficiencies were identified.

Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan this week announced a three-week deadline for a resolution to the controversy surrounding the families and their outstanding mortgages, after a 15-month process ended without resolution.

Mr Gilmore said he did not want to prejudge the outcome of the process. “It will be dealt with quickly. The residents of Priory Hall have waited a very long time.” The problems in Priory Hall “are being dealt with and there will be an outcome to that without undue delay”.

Later Mr Hogan urged all parties involved in the process “to work together constructively” to quickly facilitate the former residents and ensure that “this process is not dragged out”.

The Minister was responding to a number of TDs who raised the Priory Hall issue. He again defended his decision not to meet the residents while a judicial process was in place. Mr Hogan said “we have had a long record in this House of ministers driving a coach and four through the court and legal process. I certainly was not going to do that.” The Minister said he had to observe the legal process.

He added that people in Dublin City Council and in Nama and other financial institutions may not have wanted to engage in the process chaired by Mr Justice Finnegan but they were now prepared to engage.

He told the Dáil “I have delivered for Priory Hall residents where others have failed. I am not going to take any lectures from people who have driven a coach and four through building regulations in the past, who have done nothing about modifying these regulations to ensure they will not happen again.”

He said regulations he signed into law in July would have a major impact on building regulations, preventing the recurrence of buildings such as Priory Hall.

Labour TD Tommy Broughan, who described the residents as “victims of an outrageous fraud”, criticised the Minister for failing to meet the residents over the past two years.

He welcomed the “belated positive response” of AIB and Permanent TSB to the residents. He said the Bank of Ireland and EBS should also be ordered to facilitate the families as should foreign-owned banks including Ulster Bank, Bank of Scotland, Certus and KBC.

Fine Gael TD Terence Flanagan said there was a “major injustice in having to pay a mortgage for a property that lies empty and which cannot be lived in”.

Fianna Fail environment spokesman Barry Cowen said the unfolding tragedy of Priory Hall was brought home with real force through the interview of Stephanie Meehan on the Late Late Show and the tragic death of her partner Fiachra Daly.

Independent TD Mick Wallace, a builder, said those who were culpable should be forced to take responsibility, including the builder, the architect and engineer who signed off on the building, the banks who sent out valuers to check the construction

Independent TD Clare Daly said if there was a resolution it was only because of the tragic death of Mr Daly and Ms Meehan’s courage and determination to bring the issue back into the public domain.

She said the “rogue or criminal developer Tom McFeely” built correctly in Britain “because standards were enforced. If he had not built well he would have been caught.” She said it was a scandal that architects signed off on Priory Hall as fire safe and compliant with the regulations.

Survey finds big variation in home insurance costs


A new home insurance comparison survey has revealed potential savings between providers of up to €362 on annual premiums.

The study was carried out by the National Consumer Agency.

It found that most companies are willing to negotiate with consumers who present them with quotes from competitors.

The survey found that up to €362 could be saved on the price of insurance for a two-bed terraced house in Waterford city.

The highest insurance quote for a four-bed semi-detached house in Rialto in Dublin was €536, while the lowest was €250.

The NCA said that only 14% of people switched home insurance provider in the past year and it said 80% of those saved money.

The agency is advising consumers to check the terms and conditions of their policy.

It said consumers should check both the excess figure, which indicates the amount a consumer will have to pay upfront on any claim, and the level of cover for valuable items.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, NCA Director of Research and Policy Fergal O’Leary said people need to be careful when comparing home insurance policies.

He said insurance companies know that a large majority of people do not switch home insurance companies, so it is incumbent on the customer to shop around.

Sugar the most dangerous drug of all – says health chief


Soft drinks should carry tobacco-style warnings that sugar is highly addictive and dangerous, a senior Dutch health official has warned.

Paul van der Velpen, the head of Amsterdam’s health service, the Dutch capital city where the sale of cannabis is legalised, wants to see sugar tightly regulated.

“Just like alcohol and tobacco, sugar is actually a drug. There is an important role for government.

“The use of sugar should be discouraged. And users should be made aware of the dangers,” he wrote on an official public health website.

“This may seem exaggerated and far-fetched, but sugar is the most dangerous drug of the times and can still be easily acquired everywhere.”

Mr Van der Velpen cites research claiming that sugar, unlike fat or other foods, interferes with the body’s appetite, creating an insatiable desire to carry on eating, an effect he accuses the food industry of using to increase consumption of their products.

‘PAINFUL’ “Sugar upsets that mechanism. Whoever uses sugar wants more and more, even when they are no longer hungry.

“Give someone eggs and he’ll stop eating at any given time.

“Give him cookies and he eats on even though his stomach is painful,” he argued. “Sugar is actually a form of addiction.

“It’s just as hard to get rid of the urge for sweet foods as of smoking.

“Thereby diets only work temporarily. Addiction therapy is better.”

The senior health official wants to see sugar taxes and legal limits set on the amount that can be added to processed food.

‘THERAPY’ He also wants cigarette-style warnings on sweets and soft drinks telling consumers that “sugar is addictive and bad for the health”.

“Health insurers should have to finance addiction therapy for their obese clients.

“Schools would no longer be allowed to sell sweets and soft drinks.

“Producers of sports drinks that are bursting with sugar should be sued over misleading advertising and so on,” he said.

The number of obese people in the Netherlands has doubled over the last two decades, meaning that more than half of Dutch adults and one-in-seven children are overweight in a country famed for its deep-fried croquettes.

Doctors working to develop a breast cancer vaccine through Shield Bio-technology


A group of Cleveland Clinic researchers are working to create a vaccine that may be able to help prevent breast cancer.  

“What we’re trying to do is what a lot of people thought was impossible,” said Dr. Vince Tuohy with the Cleveland Clinic.

Dr. Tuohy of the Cleveland Clinic has spent 11 years designing a vaccine for breast cancer.

“What I thought was, why can’t we prevent the disease? Why can’t we go on defense and actually use our immune system to protect us from developing the disease, breast cancer, in the same way that we use our immune system to protect us from developing childhood infectious diseases, like polio and measles,” said Dr. Tuohy.

To further develop the new vaccine, Cleveland Clinic Innovations has created a company called Shield Bio-tech.

“What we wanted to do here in my program at the Cleveland Clinic is to develop a way of stimulating the immune system. It’s there to keep you healthy, but we have to stimulate it, so that it has the direction it needs to prevent the development of these adult onset diseases like breast cancer,” said Dr. Tuohy.

The next step for the vaccine is to get permission from the FDA to test it in women. That will take at least two years.   Once it’s approved for trials, Dr. Tuohy says the drug will be about 10 years away from the marketplace.

“We’ll back at this time as a time when, ‘Oh that’s when they didn’t have the breast cancer vaccine’ in the same way we look back in the 1940s and 1950s as the time they didn’t have the polio vaccine,” said Dr. Tuohy. “I really believe that this has a very, very good chance of working and the only foolish thing I think we can do is not try it.”

According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, one in eight women will develop breast cancer in their lifetime and is the second leading cause of death among women.

Alien life found living in Earth’s atmosphere, claims scientist


Aliens do exist and have been found living in the clouds above the Peak District, according to new claims by scientists.

Researchers from the University of Sheffield and Buckingham University claim to have found evidence for microscopic organisms living 16 miles up in the atmosphere between Chester and Wakefield.

The scientists used a specially designed balloon to gather samples in the stratosphere during the recent Perseid meteor shower.

They found the fragments of single celled algae known as a diatom.

They argue that this could be the first evidence to show how life may have arrived on Earth from space, perhaps carried here by meteorites.

It is not the first time organisms have been found in the atmosphere and indeed the skies are thought to be teeming with microscopic life.

Many scientists, however, insist these microorganisms are carried up into the atmosphere by storms and other natural processes.

Professor Milton Wainwright, from the department of molecular biology and biotechnology at the University of Sheffield who led the work, said: “Most people will assume that these biological particles must have just drifted up to the stratosphere from Earth.

“But it is generally accepted that a particle of the size found cannot be lifted from Earth to heights of, for example, 27km.

“The only known exception is by a violent volcanic eruption, none of which occurred within three years of the sampling trip.

“In the absence of a mechanism by which large particles like these can be transported to the stratosphere we can only conclude that the biological entities originated from space.

“Our conclusion then is that life is continually arriving to Earth from space, life is not restricted to this planet and it almost certainly did not originate here.”

The findings are published in the Journal of Cosmology, a scientific journal that often publishes papers on astrobiology but is highly controversial among scientists.

It has often been criticised by the scientific establishment for publishing papers of a more fringe variety.

Two years ago it controversially published a paper that claimed to have identified fossils of microbiotic life in a meteorite, sparking a blaze of publicity, but some astronomers were highly sceptical of the findings.

Professor Wainwright and his colleagues claim that their findings could be “revolutionary” and will “completely change our view of biology and evolution”.

They collected their samples after launching the balloon into the atmosphere near to Chester on 31 July 2013.

It carried microscopic studs in a drawer that opened for 17 minutes in the stratosphere so that particulate material in the atmosphere would attach to them.

The samples were taken at altitudes between 13 miles and 16 miles.

The balloon landed close to Wakefield and was taken to the laboratory where the studs were placed under an electron microscopes to searchfor signs of life.

The researchers insist they swabbed the balloon with alcohol before launch and took other precautions to prevent contamination of the samples.

Earlier this year scientists working with Nasa announced they too had discovered bacteria living between four and five miles above the Earth’s surface.

Air samples taken from the upper troposphere by an aircraft revealed 314 different types of bacteria in the air above the Atlantic Ocean and the US.

However, they concluded that much of the bacteria, which accounted for 20 per cent of the particles they collected, were thrown up there by the movement of air as hurricanes formed.

A team of British researchers, who are separate from the scientists in Sheffield, have this week also set off on a 2,000 mile expedition to take samples from clouds in an effort to search for signs of life.

The Cloud Lab expedition, which is being filmed by the BBC, will use Nasa instruments to analyse samples for signs bacteria and fungi in clouds at up to 8,000 feet.

It is thought these microorganisms may play a key role in cloud formation by catalysing the formation of ice crystals, leading to water to condense around them to produce clouds.

Many of these organisms would likely fall to earth in rain drops.

Felicity Aston, the lead meteorologist on the Cloud Lab expedition and a former researcher at the British Antarctic Survey, said: “One of the holes in our knowledge about clouds is exactly how a cloud droplet grows and what makes it fall out the sky.

“It is really interesting to look not only at how life is affected by weather but how weather is affected by life – what role do these organisms play in cloud formation.”

Professor Wainwright and his colleagues now hope to carry out further tests using balloons next month to coincide with the Haley’s Comet-associated meteorite shower.

Prof Wainwright said that he hoped to conduct tests on any organisms found to help unravel where they are coming from.

He added: “If the ratio of certain isotopes gives one number then our organisms are from Earth, if it gives another, then they are from space.

“The tension will obviously be almost impossible to live with.”


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