News Ireland daily BLOG by Donie

Sunday 28th February 2016

First moves get under way in a bid to form new Irish government

The Tánaiste confirms the Labour Party will back Kenny for Taoiseach.

     

Irish Election 2016, Fine Gael has suffered badly and Labour lost more than three-quarters of its seats in the election. Fianna Fáil staged a strong resurgence and Sinn Féin improved its seat numbers significantly

The first moves in the manoeuvring process to form the next government will begin today as Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil seek to win the support of Independents and smaller parties in the vote for Taoiseach when the new Dáil sits on March 10th.

Following the inconclusive election result which has left the Coalition well short of a majority, Tánaiste Joan Burton confirmed the Labour Party will vote for Enda Kenny as Taoiseach.

This means he is assured of the votes of at least 59 TDs when the 32nd Dáil meets for the first time.

Fine Gael suffered badly and Labour lost more than three-quarters of its seats in the election. Fianna Fáil staged a strong resurgence and Sinn Féin improved its seat numbers significantly.

Fine Gael looks likely to end up with 52 seats, Fianna Fáil 43, Sinn Féin 23 and Labour seven. The Anti-Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit group will likely have six; the Social Democrats three; the Green Party two; the Independent Alliance six; and other Independents 16. Fine Gael had 67 seats and Labour 33 at the dissolution of the last Dáil.

Smaller parties

Over the next 10 days Mr Kenny’s Ministerial colleagues will try to persuade some of the smaller parties, and as many of the Independents as possible, to back him in the Dail vote on the basis he is the only party leader with a realistic chance of becoming Taoiseach.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin has said he would welcome support from smaller parties and Independents. His advisors have already drawn up a list of key principles to underpin any arrangement with other groups and individuals in the Dáil.

Mr Kenny, Mr Martin and Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams are all expected to be proposed as Taoiseach on March 10th, but they will all probably be defeated.

However, if one of them can win significantly more support than the others, this will place them in a stronger position to be elected as Taoiseach at a later date.

“We respect the decision of the electorate which has not given any of us a mandate to form a government but Enda Kenny has a duty as outgoing Taoiseach to try and put a stable government in place and that is what he will do,” said one senior Fine Gael figure.

“We will talk to everybody including smaller parties like the Greens and Social Democrats who are policy driven and to the two main groups of Independents who may be more concerned with constituency issues,” he added.

He said that if the votes of more than 70 TDs could be assembled for Mr Kenny on March 10th, it would be hard to argue he should not be allowed to try and form a government, even if he was defeated in the vote for Taoiseach on the first occasion.

Minister for Health Leo Varadkar last night said: “It’s up to the Opposition to see if they can form a government. We’ve been rebuffed.”

Stable government

However, that is not the view of other senior figures in Fine Gael who believe that as the largest party in the Dáil they cannot simply walk away from responsibility to provide stable government.

Fianna Fáil’s strategy is to try and get more votes for Mr Martin than Mr Kenny on March 10th.

If this happens, the Fianna Fáil leader would be in a strong position to try and persuade the smaller parties and Independents as well as the Labour Party that he should be given the option of forming a government.

The numbers do not seem to be in place for a Fianna Fáil-led government unless Sinn Féin is prepared to throw its weight behind the idea but that seems highly unlikely.

Grand coalition

At this stage it appears highly unlikely that a grand coalition of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil will emerge from the confused result of the election that has given no clear mandate on the formation of government.

Fianna Fáil sources are adamant the party cannot go back on its pre-election commitment not to enter coalition with Fine Gael.

It will even be difficult to persuade the party to agree to some formula to allow Fine Gael to remain in office as a minority government.

Neither of the major parties is ruling out a second election in the coming months, although they accept that the voters would not welcome such a development.

“It is all very fine to say Fine Gael should remain as a minority government but we need to have a mechanism that will enable us to govern.

“There is no point being in government if you don’t have any power,” said one Minister.

Mr Kenny’s leadership is not an issue at this stage despite the poor election performance.

Process

Under the Fine Gael constitution, he cannot be challenged as long as he is involved in the process of trying to form a government.

However, most TDs and Ministers are now firmly of the opinion that Mr Kenny should not lead the party into another election.

Rent allowance tenants face delays over complaints hearings

Kieran Mulvey says plight being ‘off-loaded’ on to Workplace Relations Commission

  

Landlords are still declaring that they will not accept rent supplement tenants.

Tenants receiving State rent allowances who allege they have faced discrimination by landlords will not have their complaints heard until next year, the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) has said.

Director general of the WRC Kieran Mulvey said the plight of vulnerable tenants was being inappropriately “off-loaded” on to his organisation.

Since January 1st this year, people in receipt of housing assistance, rent supplement, or other social welfare payments can no longer be discriminated against by landlords because their rent is paid by the State.

Emily Logan, chief commissioner Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC) said landlords are still declaring that they will not accept rent supplement tenants.

The IHREC has initiated a campaign to inform prospective tenants who are discriminated against that they can take a case to the WRC, which can make a maximum award of €15,000.

However, Mr Mulvey said the WRC was not resourced or equipped to handle these complaints . “We’ve had 5,000 employment law cases since we were established last October. We’ve had a strike announced practically every week since Christmas. Our staff are not trained in matters in relation to the provision of social housing, we hardly have the capacity to hear the case we’re hearing at the moment .”

Mr Mulvey said he had been involved in consultation with the Department of Justice in 2014, prior to the establishment of the WRC, but had objected to tenancy issues being dealt with by the new body. “We are not the appropriate body for this, this is not a workplace issue.”

Since then, he said the WRC was not contacted about the matter. Equally, he said he had not been told that the IHREC was to launch an information campaign.

“Since October 1st when we were set up, nobody has sat down with us and nobody has written to us. Nobody has told us what we have to put in place to give effect to this, or has told us how we deal with issues of data protection. Do we have access to the files of the Department of Social Protection? Do we have access to the files of the Private Residential Tenancies Board?”.

Landlord/tenant disputes should be dealt with by the Private Residential Tenancies Board (PRTB) he said. “This was an off-load on to the Workplace Relations Commission.”

Condemning the decision as “ poorly thought-out ”, Mr Mulvey said: “The Department of Justice found a handy home and ignored all rational arguments.”

Complaints from tenants will not be heard until next year, he said. “We will have to tell these vulnerable people that they will be going to the back of the queue. If we got a complaint today from someone of rent supplement, they won’t be heard until next year and what good is that to someone who’s trying to get a home”

A spokesman for the Department of Justice said there had been “ongoing consultation with the Workplace Relations Commission in the development of this legislation”. The IHREC said it would not make a comment.

How Ireland falls down on Fairtrade?

Big retail chains in Ireland lag well behind United Kingdom counterparts in pushing the products

    

In the small towns and villages around the Sorwathe tea plantation, 90 minutes from the Rwandan capital of Kigali, the positive impact of Fairtrade is impossible to miss. The plantation, which supplies Bewley’s with some of its tea, is the only certified Fairtrade tea producer in Rwanda, and the money raised through the initiative is used for preschools, water-purification projects, hospitals and computer labs.

Put simply, Fairtrade makes lives there better. And it does so on the cheap. Companies from wealthy countries such as ours pay more to the farmers for the product, but that extra cost is minimal, whereas the impact of the few dollars more for the producers is massive. Everyone wins.

That is why, for the past 20 years, Fairtrade Ireland has been pushing Irish consumers to buy more such products and pushing retailers to sell more. Sometimes it is like pushing an open door, says the organisation’s Peter Gaynor. And sometimes it is like pushing a rock up a hill.

“Generally speaking there is a lot of support for what we do, particularly from consumers, but there is also fear from some companies that we will dilute iconic brands. I don’t think we do that. You just have to look at our work withKit Kat and Cadbury. They are supportive and it works for them and us.”

He believes big companies understand that “in a competitive market they have to secure their supply base and they need to establish good relationships with the producers and the suppliers”.

But is there a danger that working with multinational companies such as Nestlé compromises the integrity of the Fairtrade ideal? After all, such companies are set up to make money for shareholders, so surely altruism rarely comes into it for them?

Gaynor does not agree. “This is not meant to be about living an alternative lifestyle. It is about having an impact where it is most needed. Businesses are buying in, and we are out to change things and we do change things. We have moved from the margins into the mainstream.”

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Banana farming

Not, perhaps, as far into the mainstream as he would like. For Gaynor and his movement, the touchstone product is the banana. It is not hard to see why. Bananas are the fourth most important staple food in the world after rice, dairy products and wheat. They play a key role in food and economic security for low-income countries because they provide farmers with a regular income throughout the year.

The fruit has come to symbolise “exploitation and rough justice”, says Gaynor. “They have always been a very highly politicised commodity and represented the colonial relationships that existed.”

It also happens to be one of the most profitable goods sold by retailers and, because bananas are not very highly branded, theoretically at least it is an easier market to break into. Lyons and Barry’s have 80 per cent of the Irish tea market, and people are very loyal to one or the other, which makes it harder for Fairtrade to make its presence felt.

It characterises the banana chain as an hour glass. There are large numbers of farmers and workers in producing countries selling to a few international traders and supermarkets in the middle, who in turn sell to huge number of consumers. This market concentration can create a strong downward pressure on prices and lead to large-scale negative effects, including unsustainable living and working conditions for small farmers, worsening health and environmental pollution linked to the industrialisation of production.

Fairtrade sets itself up as an alternative model and provides some simple solutions to these negative effects, ensuring a fair price to producers, decent working conditions and benefits for workers and improved environmental practices in banana production.

There is a problem, however. Irish retailers are not buying in with the conviction seen in other countries. About 10% of the bananas on the Irish market are Fairtrade-certified, compared with more than 50% in Switzerland.

“I think Irish people want more Fairtrade products on their shelves,” Gaynor says. “If you look at the statistics over the last 20 years, Ireland has a very high awareness of the brand. And we also have one of the highest per-capita levels of donation to organisations supporting Fairtrade and ethical initiatives. And we have pretty high consumer spending in the area. But most of the spending is [outside the] home, in coffee shops such as Insomnia and Bewley’s. The only area we seem to have fallen down in is the retail space. Maybe that is a failing on our part, or maybe our retailers are failing their consumers.”

Responsible retailing

Retailers regularly trot out the line that they respond to consumer demand and they will stock more Fairtrade products only if consumers want to buy it.

“But that is a chicken-and-egg situation, isn’t it?” says Gaynor. “In Co-Op and in Sainsbury’s in Northern Ireland, they have 100 per cent Fairtrade bananas, and people buy them. Retailers should not have the right to outsource responsibility.”

He says it is hard to put an exact number on the price difference between Fairtrade and non-Fairtrade bananas because prices paid in different countries at different times of the year vary.

But a rule of thumb would suggest that the difference in price might be no more than €2 per box. “There are 100 bananas in such a box, so a single Fairtrade banana might work out at two cent dearer than an alternative and could be even less than that.”

Gaynor is concerned – angry might be a better word – about Irish retailers not doing enough.

“Our numbers have been growing every year for 20 years. Fairtrade sales nearly doubled during the recession. If growth is not going to slow down, when will the retailers realise that there is a positive trend and one they can benefit from, one they can make money from?”

He commends both Lidl and Marks & Spencer for doing more than their rivals. M&S has “an enormous basket of Fairtrade goods on offer” – 48% of the bananas it sells come under that umbrella – but its market share is much lower than the biggest players. Lidl has about 9 per cent of the Irish grocery market but sells some 40 per cent of the total Fairtrade bananas.

“If the others showed as much commitment it would make a huge difference to the movement,” he says. “Can we not expect retailers in the Republic to be as ethically minded as retailers operating in the United Kingdom?”

Pylons have “no significant effect” on Irish property prices

     

Pylons on farmland in Co Kildare. A report has found that their presence has little effect on property prices

Pylons built near homes have little or no effect on property prices, a new study has claimed.

The research, which was commissioned by infrastructure company Eirgrid, found that the presence of pylons or overhead electricity lines had “no significant impact” on the sale prices of residential and farm properties around the country.

The report contradicts opponents of pylons who have long criticised the presence of them and power lines built close to homes.

The report, which focused only on what effect pylons may have on property prices and no other potential ramifications, found that the fear about pylons hurting property prices was incorrect.

The “perception of potential decreases in sales value as a result of high-voltage overhead lines close to property far outweighs the reality borne out in actual sales data,” it said.

“Internationally, approximately half of the available studies on the issue found no impact on property values; the remaining 50pc were generally low, in the region of 3% to 6%,” it said.

The report, which was compiled by Insight Statistical Consulting and Corr Commercial Land, looked at published international research, sales data for residential and farm property properties in Ireland, and a survey of the views of 45 Irish estate agents.

Even though the statistics showing almost no change to house sale prices when pylons were near by, estate agents made clear they felt that wires and other infrastructure projects would hurt sale prices, despite little evidence of that being the case.

Co-author of the report professor Cathal Walsh, who is chair of statistics and director of the Centre for Health Decision Science at University of Limerick, said the research should “provide comfort for property and landowners near large, planned infrastructural projects”.

He acknowledged though that there is little in the way of data available for assessment at the moment.

“In the estate agent survey we looked at nine types of types of infrastructure projects, and the agents expressed a view that there would be a negative impact on property value located close to any major infrastructural development,” he said.

“However, when we reviewed the sales data from the same estate agents of property and land situated close to transmission lines, it did not support this anecdotal view,” he said.

Pylons have long been among the most controversial of infrastructure projects in Ireland, particularly in rural parts of the country where there has been fierce opposition.

Flexible solar cells as light as soap bubbles developed

  

New solar cell is so thin and light it can rest on a bubble.

“We have a proof-of-concept that works”, Bulović says. Parylene, which is a very flexible and commonly used polymer, was used as a substrate and for over coating as well. The main light-absorbing layer was formed using an organic material called DBP.

Solar cells are usually made of materials like silicon or polymer.

PThe engineers at MIT have developed the thinnest ever solar cell that is light as a soap bubble which could be placed on nearly any material as well as a surface including clothings, smartphones even on a thin sheet of paper. However, the commercial production of this product might require a couple of years, but the proof-of-concept established in laboratory displays an innovative approach to create solar cells, which might become instrumental in future to power next-generation portable electronic instruments. Key to the creation of the new cell is the way the researchers have combined making the solar cell itself, the substrate that supports it, and its protective coating, all in one process.

Furthermore, because the substrate is made simultaneously and is never removed from the vacuum chamber where the cell is produced, it has minimal exposure to contaminants like dust-which can lower a solar cell’s performance. Parylene, a commercial plastic coating, was used to protect printed circuit boards and implanted biomedical devices from environmental damage.

In order to fulfill the proposed task, the laboratory process helped both the substrate and solar cell to grow inside a vacuum tube where the temperature was set at room temperature and the effect of external solvents was negligible. Varied types of thin-film solar cell materials, including perovskites or quantum dots, could be exchanged for the organic layers utilized in the primary tests. In addition, the team said that they have already been able to develop the thinnest and lightest complete solar cells ever made. It’s so damn thin, researchers float it on soap bubbles to show off.

A flexible parylene film, similar to kitchen cling-wrap but only one-tenth as thick, is first deposited on a sturdier carrier material – in this case, glass. Research scientist Annie Wang explains. And, he says, “The overall recipe is simple enough that I could see scale-up as possible”. But actually developing the techniques to make the process work required years of effort.

The MIT team says that while the materials they’re using are clearly working, they could possibly be replaced. This is vital for all applications where weight play a significant role, such as on high-altitude helium balloons or on a spacecraft used for research. Conventional cells can generate 15 watts per kilogram of their weight, whereas the new solar module can produce 400 times more electricity in relation to its weight.

“It could be so light that you don’t even know it’s there, on your shirt or on your notebook”, Bulovi? says.

The new thin and lightweight solar cells are so light they can go unnoticed and can easily be added to existing structures, said Vladimir Bulović. However, mass producing these lightweight solar cells will take some time. “We think it’s a lot of hard work ahead, but likely no miracles needed“. But the next question is, “How many miracles does it take to make it scalable?”

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