News Ireland daily BLOG by Donie

Wednesday 18th June 2014

Higgins raring to get his teeth into his old foes in Irish Banking inquiry

  

There was no sign of eggs frying on the sun-soaked plinth of Leinster House, but temperatures were running a little high inside the building.

The Technical Group were in conclave. It should’ve been a short meeting, simply a procedural rubber-stamp of Joe Higgins’s candidacy to replace Stephen Donnelly on the banking inquiry committee, as the Socialist Party TD’s nomination was unopposed.

But Joe’s former comrade, Clare Daly, took exception to the notion that her one-time ally had been selected unanimously by the group. A bemused John Halligan asked if she was opposing the choice, but the Dublin North deputy wasn’t. However, she was objecting to the use of the ‘unanimous’ word.

A lengthy wrangle ensued but in the end – as planned all along – Joe was selected unopposed in a sort-of unanimous way.

What is it about this infernal banking inquiry which seems to spark more shemozzles than the Football Championship?

First it came to pass (eventually) that the Government announced it would hold an official inquisition into how our banking sector scampered over the cliffs like a cartoon roadrunner. It was surely a no-brainer, providing an admiring electorate with the edifying spectacle of all sorts of toppled masters of the financial and political universe being summoned to account for their movements in front of a democratically selected cross-party committee of gimlet-eyed TDs and senators.

What could possibly go wrong?

Having proved themselves in recent months to be experts at the art of porcine couture (the ability to fashion a sow’s ear out of a silk purse), the Coalition didn’t disappoint this time either. A serious outbreak of faffing about by government senators led to them losing their majority on the committee – a cock-up which the Coalition promptly compounded by drafting in two extra Fine Gael and Labour recruits to restore the status quo, thereby causing opposition uproar in the Upper House.

And this hoohah led to Independent TD Stephen Donnelly throwing a strop over the inequity of it all and throwing his hat at it, declaring the Taoiseach was “treating democracy in a cavalier manner” as he headed for the door.

In steps Joe Higgins: Out on the plinth after the Technical Group pow-wow, the newest kid on the committee block was doing his damnedest not to lick his chops in anticipation of another chance to sink his fangs into his same old foes.

“I am sure that the Taoiseach who was in charge of the country when the property bubble was being blown up, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, will be brought before the inquiry,” Joe reckoned with relish. “And that Taoiseach Cowen, who presided over the initial bailout, and I also believe that Taoiseach Kenny, who continued the bailout, should be among those who would be called.”

He was clearly raring to get started, and while he may not have the in-depth knowledge of banking arcana like financial whizz-kid Stephen Donnelly, Joe has a PhD in winding up the great and the good.

“I am prepared to sit and to quiz and question in the inquiry those individuals who were central to the political and economic events of the time, and interrogate them very strenuously,” he vowed.

However, a short time later during Leaders’ Questions, a gloomy Clare Daly was determined to rain on the committee’s parade. “It’s quite clear that the toothless banking inquiry is not going to expose anything, except maybe a few politicians to a bit of badly needed publicity,” she sniped.

“It has dawned on many citizens now that the Oireachtas inquiry into banking has about as much chance of getting to the bottom of what happened in the banking sector as Billy Bunter would have in finding out who robbed the school tuck shop. It is a joke,” she sneered.

Across the chamber the Taoiseach looked a bit weary. He must be fatigued from all his recent travelling (San Francisco, Guernsey and Lebanon) and recent U-turns (banking inquiry and discretionary medical cards). “I am glad to note the political policy regulatory structures on banking governance will be examined by the Oireachtas committee free of any direction from the Government,” he began, before being drowned out by cackles from the far side.

Finian McGrath comforted Enda. “Don’t worry – Joe will sort it out,” he assured the Taoiseach, but there was general agreement among the Opposition. But it wasn’t unanimous.

Irish Central Bank issues warning on crowdfunding (peer to peer) regulations

  

The Irish central bank has issued a warning to consumers over the unregulated status of crowd-funding and peer-to-peer lending.

The two cash-raising techniques have become increasingly widespread as small businesses find it hard to raise traditional bank finance.

  They involve businesses raising funds by amalgamating small sums invested by non-experts, often through third part platforms.

The Central Bank’s warning details concerns about risks specific to lending money through crowdfunding platforms, including the risk of the investor company or indeed the platform itself failing.

It also flags “the risk of misleading or insufficient information disclosure, unfair contract terms of misleading commercial practices, and the absence of dispute resolution and redress mechanisms”.

The bank’s statement does acknowledge that crowd-funding or peer-to-peer lending “is a type of market-based finance that could help stimulate funding to small and medium sized enterprises as well as personal lending”.

Read: Borrowing without banks – here’s how you’ve done it.

While the Central Bank told TheJournal.ie this morning that it is not hitting the ‘red alert’ button on crowdfunding and peer-to-peer lending, it considers it important nonetheless that consumers know its regulatory status.

Industry response

A spokesperson for peer-to-peer platform linkedfinance.ie said that the company wanted to see the industry regulated.

“We want it regulated…we’ve engaged with the Department of Finance and the Central Bank from the start on this. We’re lobbying to get the industry regulated.”

He added that much of the transactional activity around crowd-funding took place through ordinary bank accounts, which are themselves regulated.

Gardai Commissioner O’Sullivan announces overhaul of penalty points system

  

The Garda Commissioner, Noirin O’Sullivan, has announced an overhaul of the controversial penalty points system.

The changes to the fixed charge penalty scheme are designed to strengthen oversight of how it operates and make it easier for the public to apply for cancellations.

The moves follow an examination of the system by the Garda Inspectorate, which found widespread breaches in policy.

The inspectorate’s probe came amid allegations by Garda whistleblowers regarding the cancellation of points for some motorists.

Ms O’Sullivan announced that the authority to cancel fixed charge penalty notices will now be centralised at the processing office in Thurles, Co Tipperary.

A guide explaining how the cancellation system works will be published on the force’s website, garda.ie, while a special form for cancellation requests will be made publicly available on the website, or through the Thurles office.

Regular audits will be undertaken to keep a watch on the operation of the system and a revised internal manual outlining the changes to policies and procedures will be published.

Ms O’Sullivan said: “These and other ongoing changes of the Fixed Charged Penalty System demonstrate An Garda Siochana’s commitment to improving the effectiveness and transparency of the process.

“We will continue to work with the Criminal Justice Working Group to examine how best to implement the short, medium and long-term recommendations set out in the inspectorate’s report.

SAFETY

“An Garda Siochana’s primary focus is in ensuring that the system continues its success in improving road safety and reducing road deaths,” she added.

Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald last night welcomed the announcement.

“They are very important steps in ensuring that we 
have an efficient fixed charge penalty system in which people can have full confidence,” she said.

Ireland to lift top rate tax for offshore oil groups to 55%

 

The Irish government is to raise the maximum amount of tax levied on offshore oil and gas production to 55 per cent but has stopped short of setting up a national oil company along the lines of Norway’s Statoil.

Amid public controversy over the potential of oil and gas deposits in Irish waters, and the amount of tax companies pay on any profits any commercial fields would generate, Pat Rabbitte, Ireland’s energy minister, said on Wednesday that the new fiscal regime would increase the state’s tax take at an earlier stage in the production process.

The arrangements mean that the overall amount of tax oil companies will pay on commercial production would rise to a maximum 55 per cent, depending on the size of the field, from 40 per cent currently. The new higher rate will apply to new licences only; existing contracts are not affected.

The changes follow a report by Wood Mackenzie commissioned by the government into the fiscal regime surrounding oil and gas exploration and production in Irish waters. The consultants compared Ireland’s fiscal arrangements with those in marginal production countries such as South Africa and Spain and recommended the changes based on the potential for commercial oil and gas discoveries.

The UK and Norway were also included in the comparisons because of the frequency with which their experiences are cited by both proponents and opponents of exploring for oil and gas in Irish waters.

Mr Rabbitte said that by acting now to clarify future licensing terms, “it is my intention to communicate a clear message in relation to the stability of Ireland’s fiscal regime for the oil and gas exploration sector”. He said that would allow them to “focus on effective and timely exploration effort”.

Oil and gas companies have been prospecting in Irish waters for more than four decades. The Wood Mackenzie report says that only four commercial gasfields have been discovered, and no commercial oilfields. One industry executive estimates that up to €4bn has been spent on exploration in the waters of the Atlantic and the Celtic Sea so far.

Controversy over the financial returns from Irish oil and gas has been sparked by the delays that have plagued the Corrib gasfield off the northwest coast. It was discovered in 1996 but production is not expected to come onshore until 2015 after public protests against the building of pipelines led to arrests and the jailing of protesters that sparked public outrage.

Industry executives say comparisons of Ireland with Norway are inappropriate and premature. The Wood Mackenzie report said: “The essential point is that . . . offshore Ireland remains a very high risk, very high cost province for exploration.”

Fish do feel pain as well says an expert

   

Fish do have feelings and intelligence on a par with other animals and deserve better consideration of their welfare, according to a behavioural biologist at Australia’s Macquarie University.

DR Culum Brown came to the conclusion after reviewing the scientific evidence on fish capabilities.

He found that fish have good memories, lived in social communities, co-operated, and learned from one another.

They displayed behaviours normally seen in primates and were even able to build complex structures and use tools.

While their brains differed from those of other vertebrates, they contained structures that performed similar functions seen in other animals.

There was also mounting evidence that they felt pain in the same way humans do.

Brown believes fish are just as likely to be sentient as other animals.

He wrote in the journal Animal Cognition: “Although scientists cannot provide a definitive answer on the level of consciousness for any non-human vertebrate, the extensive evidence of fish behavioural and cognitive sophistication and pain perception suggests that best practice would be to lend fish the same level of protection as any other vertebrate.

“We should therefore include fish in our ‘moral circle’ and afford them the protection they deserve.”

People rarely thought about fish other than as food or pets, said Brown.

He pointed out that fish were second only to mice in terms of the numbers used in scientific experiments.

With more than 32,000 known species, fish far outweighed the diversity of all other vertebrates combined, he added.

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