News Ireland daily BLOG by donie

Tuesday 16th August 2016

Simon Coveney is the most impressive Government Minister so far

A rundown of how Ministers performed over Government’s first 100 days in office

   

M. D. Higgins and Enday Kenny with Simon Coveney.

  Minster for Health Simon Harris:  The Department of Health has put an end to many a political ambition.

How many new ministers have started full of ideas, ambition and reform, and have been stretchered off, desperately staunching the damage?

Who has emerged from there stronger than when they went in? Michael Noonan? Brian Cowen? Micheál Martin? Mary Harney? James Reilly? Even Leo Varadkar?

Step forward Simon Harris. At 29 he is the youngest Minister for Health in the history of the State.

Yet there is no evidence of youthful callowness here. Harris has been a star performer for Fine Gael since 2014. He is hard working, street smart, always well-briefed, practical and has a bucket-load of ideas. And he is brimful with confidence too.

It is hard to keep up with his energetic start. He scored an extra €500 million for a winter initiative, and this week published a “five-point” plan, with a €50 million lure, to reduce record waiting lists. He has reactivated the National Treatment Purchase Fund, and has been active on the legislation front.

He waffled a bit this week when Cathal Mac Coille pressed him on public hospital resources, resorting to political vagueness and inexactitude.

A good start. But too many of his predecessors have stumbled after a promising start. The real test will inevitably come next year when we will see if he has made meaningful inroads.

Marks: 7.5

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  The Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan

If “trucking away” does not offend the ears of the mandarins in Iveagh House, that’s what Flanagan has been doing. And we don’t mean it in a pejorative sense.

His year has been dominated by Brexit, both before and after the June referendum.

Once it became clear the referendum could be lost, he threw himself into the campaign, speaking to as many Irish groups in Britain as he could.

Since the defeat he has been equally busy. Last week he completed his last of 27 one-on-one session with foreign ministers, arguing Ireland’s unique position.

Its concerns: the Border, trade between Britain and ourselves and the Common Travel Area.

There was some criticism of the lack of a contingency plan. But, in fairness, some scenarios had been set out by the ESRI and others, and it is hard to set out a full plan or strategy ahead of negotiations starting.

Marks: 6

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 The Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation Mary Mitchell O’Connor

Her appointment was the biggest surprise of Kenny’s Fine Gael picks. Not only did she leap-frog from the backbenches, she was handed the plum job of Jobs and Enterprise. Some of her colleagues scratched their heads as to why she had gained preferment over others. She has been careful since being appointed, and has fulfilled all the duties if not really laying out her views on on the way forward for enterprise and jobs policies. As such she has inherited Richard Bruton’s annual “Action Plan for Jobs”. She has done little yet to show divergence from her predecessor. The judgment on that will have to be made in time.

Marks: 4

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  The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform Frances Fitzgerald

Frances Fitzgerald should be mentioned more as a possible successor to Kenny. She is the Tánaiste, and in a powerful position in Government, close to Kenny and in charge of a key ministry.

As Minister for Justice she is everything that Alan Shatter was not. After his very dramatic tenure, she provided a safe pair of hands.

The down side is that she does not have his reforming zeal and it is unlikely we will see far-reaching initiatives during her time in Justice.

Fitzgerald made her name as an equality campaigner, but most of her record in Justice has been as a traditional Fine Gael law-and-order minister.

In the first week she had to weather a controversy as to whether Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan’s instructions during the O’Higgins’ commission were to challenge the integrity of whistleblower Maurice McCabe. Her response was not wholly convincing.

Her tenure has been party governed by “events”, notably the appalling violence of the feud between the Kinahan and Hutch gangs.

Tougher bail legislation, an electronic tagging Bill and a new armed support unit for Dublin have all featured.

She has shown signs she will be more amenable to a more open approach to asylum seekers in the State, including recently supporting their right to cook in their accommodation. Solid, safe if not spectacular.

Marks: 5

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The Minister for Children Katherine Zappone

An Independent TD, she said part of the reason she entered Government was to ensure women’s rights and inequalities were tackled.

She also specifically said her presence would ensure the requisite ambition to pursue a referendum on the Eighth Amendment.

Moving into Government with a party you opposed for four years is a tough proposition and involves compromise and also invites claims of betrayal.

Zappone was nominated to the Seanad by Labour yet opposed many of the government’s measures. Even the act of joining Government would have alienated some supporters.

She did not help her cause by tweeting in the morning she was abstaining in the vote for Kenny as Taoiseach, and then voting for him in the afternoon.

Mick Wallace’s Private Member’s motion on the Eighth Amendment presented her with a quandary. How she fared depends on what side of the fence you were.

Shane Ross and John Halligan defied collective Cabinet responsibility to support the motion. She would not go there.

In one sense it was brave because she knew she would get flak for it.

Her comment that a referendum would not succeed at this moment infuriated some campaigners.

An academic, she will be a good technocratic Minister. She has established a forum on childcare, and launched a pilot programme in Dublin’s inner city aimed at giving children a voice.

Marks: 4

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  The Minister for Communications, the Environment and Climate Change Denis Naughten

He has been the most effective Independent Minister. Despite that status, he is really a Fine Gael Minister, comfortable in this environment, though not wearing the official badge.

He has not put a foot wrong since realising there might be a way back for him to take a ministry he rightly felt should have been his in 2011. He and Kenny have returned to civil terms, and Naughten has focused on what he is best at: policy.

He has an impressive list of ticks in the first three months, including a mobile reception and broadband taskforce, steering an Energy Bill through theOireachtas, and has big plans for a domestic energy efficiency scheme with the same funding idea as the Bike-to-Work scheme.

Makes the right noises on climate change but has yet to be tested on it. Wind farms (opposed fiercely in the midlands) might pose a problem near his own backyard.

Marks: 7.

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The Minister for Social Protection Leo Varadkar

Varadkar is the most intriguing, compelling, enigmatic, frustrating and infuriating Minister of them all. There is no doubt that if the public were to decide who the next taoiseach might be, he would win hands down.

But there have been a few moments that have given some colleagues pause for thought. His time in Health in particular will be seen, at best, as a plateau for him.

Varadkar brings a dispassionate bearing and his analysis is always good. He thinks broadly, imaginatively at times.

His public thoughts often stray into the areas of his colleagues – not always appreciated by them.

Implementation has been a bit of a problem for him. He did not endear himself to non-Fine Gaelers during Government negotiations – seen as a bit distant and detached.

There is no doubt Varadkar is talented and he has certainly hit the ground running at Social Protection. He has already got paternity benefit through, set up a survey on PRSI for the self-employed, and started tackling the scary pensions shortfall coming down the tracks.

The first Fine Gael Minister for decades in a traditional Labour portfolio, his big thoughts on welfare, social protection and job-activation will be interesting when fully propounded. But will he translate them in to action?

Marks: 5

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  The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government Simon Coveney

Seen as Varadkar’s main rival in the succession stakes, Coveney has been by far the busiest Minister since taking on Housing and Local Government.

He has had to deal almost simultaneously with three of the knottiest political problems that loomed during the election – water charges, a waste dispute, and housing and homelessness.

Early in the Government he put through legislation to suspend water charges for nine months.

His choice of Joe O’Toole as chair of the expert group backfired a little, though.

He also had to sort out the mess over changes to domestic waste charges, managing to put it all off for a year.

His third big ask was the Action Plan on Housing, to be published within 100 days of Government.

The €5 billion plan is ambitious but so was Alan Kelly’s plan in late 2014.

The big problem for Coveney is that housing takes forever to deliver, with planning and ossified processes in councils.

Coveney is now pressurising local authorities to deliver and fast-track social housing. It will be next year before we know if he is going anywhere with his plans.

For the moment he has been the most impressive.

Marks: 8. 

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  The Minister of State for Disability Issues Finian McGrath

The TD for Dublin Bay North, along with Seán Canney, has been the most impressive of the Independent Alliance members in Cabinet.

McGrath has a happy-go-lucky kind of personality and there were some who were sceptical about him cutting the mustard when responsibility came knocking.

What has helped his cause tremendously is his portfolio. It is in an area he cares passionately about. He has an adult daughter with Down syndrome and has been campaigning in this area and on behalf of those with cystic fibrosis for many years.

His approach has been simple. He is not going to expound any big philosophy or set out new thinking.

He has a list of things he wants to do, and he says he is intent on getting them done.

McGrath has set about it in a simple way, with direct approaches to the two Ministers who matter, Michael Noonan and Paschal Donohoe. His demands are seldom extravagant.

He has secured an extra €28 million to give emergency support to adults with intellectual disabilities who are middle-aged and whose parents are very elderly or who have died.

He also announced a further €3 million to help school-leavers with disabilities to bridge the gap to find employment.

Next on the list is ratification of the UN Convention on Persons with Disabilities, a Bill to help disabled people meet their high transport costs, and a cystic fibrosis unit for north Dublin.

Marks: 7. 

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Sterling drops to a three-year low against the Euro

Downward pressure weighs on pound ahead of key data being released

   

Sterling symbols on the Bank of England floor: the currency fell below $1.29 on Monday, the lowest level since July 11th and down 0.2% on the day.

Sterling has hit a three-year low against the euro, with the UK currency trading above 87p against the euro on Monday. A string of key UK economic data – including July inflation figures due on Tuesday – are expected to determine the short-term direction of the currency.

The sterling weakness will put further pressure on Irish exporters to the UK. Ibec warned earlier this month that if the euro approached 90p sterling, some 7,500 jobs and €700 million in exports from the agri-food sector would be at risk. The organisation has called for Government intervention to support affected companies.

Sterling lost some 0.7 per cent against the euro on Monday, trading at about 87p against the euro in New York on Monday night. Market data showed that significant speculative positions had been taken against the UK currency, though many analysts also expect the euro to remain weak in the months ahead.

Sterling dropped before reports this week on July UK inflation, retail sales and jobless claims, which are forecast to show the British economy is struggling in the wake of the June 23rd referendum. The pound dropped to a 31-year low against the US dollar after the Brexit vote, and resumed its decline following the Bank of England’s decision this month to cut interest rates and boost monetary stimulus.

The currency fell below $1.29 on Monday, the lowest since July 11th and down 0.2% on the day. It has dropped more than 13% against the US currency since the Brexit vote.

“[There is] no point over-thinking. Sterling is prone to short-covering but is also trending lower over time,” Société Générale strategist Kit Juckes said.

Further sterling weakness would put pressure on forecasters to reduce their Irish growth forecasts for 2017. Ibec calculates that every 1% drop in the value of sterling against the euro translates to a 0.7% decline in exports to the UK. Slower UK economic growth will also affect Irish exporters by slowing demand

Manufacturing contractions

While surveys have already signalled contractions in manufacturing, construction and services since the EU referendum, this week’s data will provide more concrete evidence of the state of the economy.

The Bank of England cut interest rates to a record low and restarted its quantitative-easing programme on August 4th in an attempt to shield Britain from the effects of its decision to quit the world’s biggest single market.The reports will provide “the first real numbers” on the nation’s economy since the vote, said Richard Falkenhall, a strategist at SEB in Stockholm.

Market forecasters expect Tuesday’s July inflation data to show a 0.5% annual rise. The inflation figures will have an influence on Bank of England policy. The central bank acted to boost the economy following the Brexit vote, but if inflation rises too quickly, then it may be limited in what further measures it takes.

For the moment, investors expect central bank stimulus to continue in the UK, US and the euro zone, which helped to drive equity markets to new highs yesterday.

Better-than-estimated corporate earnings have also helped lift stocks in the past month, boosting valuations.While the S&P500’s price relative to future earnings has climbed to the highest since 2002, volatility with American shares remained near all-time lows. “Stocks have retained a hot pitch and there’s a lot of demand for equities,” said Andrew Brenner, the head of international fixed income for National Alliance Capital Markets.

The good, the bad and the ugly of Vincent Browne

“And maybe now retired host of “Tonight with Vincent Browne”

 

Rumours that Vincent Browne had retired may have been premature, but maybe it’s time he did?

Vincent Browne will be back on his eponymous late-night TV3 show in the autumn

There will no doubt be relief among TV3 viewers at the news that the eponymous host will be returning to his chair on Tonight With Vincent Browne in the autumn, because, let’s face it, Tonight Without Vincent Browne can be a rather dull affair.

For better and worse, it’s Browne’s personality that pulls the late-night political chatshow together.

Better means it’s watchable. There’s no one more formidable than Browne when he has a mood on him. In the right frame of mind, the irascible curmudgeon is as likely to flay someone who shares his unwaveringly orthodox left-wing views of the world as he is to attack a Government minister on the centre right.

It can be deliciously excruciating to watch as his victims stumble and falter under his rhetorical assault.

His greatest moment was probably when he confronted Klaus Masuch of the European Central Bank at a press conference in Dublin as the Troika flew in to survey the ruins of their own monetary policy. If Klaus had expected gratitude from a fawning Irish peasantry, delighted that someone clever and European had arrived to save us from ourselves, he was quickly disabused of the notion, as Browne demanded to know why we had to pay unguaranteed bondholders billions of euro that we didn’t even owe. It was a reasonable question, but Masuch had no answer.

In that moment, Browne was what his breathless admirers, steeped in fantasies of what the news business should be all about ever since they first saw All The President’s Men at an impressionable age, always imagined him to be – a journalistic white knight speaking truth to power.

At its worst, however, this side of Browne does have the tendency to turn into… well, the word “bullying” has been used in the past by those who fell foul of his temper. Former Tanaiste Joan Burton said as much, as did Irish Independent editor Fionnan Sheahan when he had a legendary row with the broadcaster over his long-standing hostility to Independent News and Media.

The charge of bullying may be unfair, but he does have what former Labour leader Eamon Gilmore called a “macho style” of confrontation that lays him open to the charge of bulldozing guests rather than giving them a chance to explain themselves in an atmosphere of reasonable debate. There are times, watching Tonight, when one does get the uncomfortable impression that the whole edifice is a sort of temple to the presenter, and that none may challenge him there.

He also unashamedly uses that platform to advance a very narrow political and economic agenda, one reinforced in his newspaper columns, which can be fearsomely tedious as they pile statistics on statistics to prove the world has gone to hell in a handcart and that his way alone can save us from perdition.

For years now, Browne has pushed the idea that Ireland, far from being broken by the recession, remains a fabulously rich country that could easily afford a socialist paradise if only we stopped being silly and took the money needed to build it off the rich.

It’s such an enticing idea that it almost seems like bad manners to suggest that it might not be quite as simple as that – and anyone foolish enough to try is buried under another avalanche of Browne’s minutiae. He’s great at tangling up guests in their own contradictions, and he invariably “wins” the argument, without ever quite convincing those who don’t share his assumptions that he’s right.

It’s a very lawyerly skill; he is, after all, a trained barrister. But this approach is more impressive than persuasive. Those who tussle with him may give up, but they don’t go away with a belief that he is right, just that there’s no point fighting with him.

This is a common fault among those on the left. They often come out top in debates, but the audience remains stubbornly unconvinced that what they heard actually makes any sense.

The epitome of Browne’s approach was the long series of People’s Debates, which he ran on TV3 in the run-up to the election. Browne travelled the country, visiting every constituency, inviting TDs and other candidates to answer questions from an audience of voters. These often descended into ugly and undignified scenes, with politicians being harangued from the floor. It felt some nights like a circus, with Browne as the ringmaster, and it highlighted his increasing populism.

He reflects a widespread hostility to politicians, which is an understandable mood, but where does that lead, ultimately? Someone has to run the country, and it often seems that none of them would be good enough for him.

It’s not surprising that many decide a visit to the TV3 studios isn’t worth the bother, because they’d just be playing second fiddle to another grandstanding performance. It’s his gaffe, his rules, they’d only come out second best.

His own prickliness doesn’t reflect well on him either. A man who makes a living from putting others on the spot shouldn’t himself be over-sensitive, and Browne does often give off the impression, as Sheehan put it after that row a few years ago, that “he can give it, but he can’t take it”.

The news that he will play a part in TV3’s autumn schedule, despite persistent rumours of retirement, could be a sign Browne still needs to work, either because he’s been at the centre of Irish media and political life for decades and is not ready to give it up, or simply because he needs the money – he’s been refreshingly honest about his finances.

But one can’t help wondering whether it’s a good idea. His once-terrifying technique has been reduced to a series of trademark rhetorical tics and tricks, with ever-diminishing returns. Jeremy Paxman hung up his own arsenal of frowns and sighs two years ago and he’s younger than Browne. Maybe it’s time Vincent did the same. There’s only so long you can flog a dead horse before the viewers start feeling sorry for the nag.

Tetley brewing up future trends in tea drinking

Tetley has looked into the tea leaves and predicted future trends for the country’s favourite brew

   

A brand of “super” tea will be among new versions of the beverage launched in future years, including some pledging to reduce tiredness or improve concentration and one for hangovers, says a report.

Tetley has looked into the tea leaves and predicted future trends for the country’s favourite brew, with help from the Future Foundation.

Ideas included “remedy” teas – enriched with medicines, from painkillers to antibiotics – tea tablets and personalised blends.

Laurent Sagarra of Tetley said: “Britain’s love affair with tea is enduring. The way we consume tea has gradually evolved since the 17th century, but now we are entering a period of rapid change.

“Significant advances are being made to meet consumer demand and our Super Tea range of functional blends with clinical health benefits already represents the biggest innovation in tea since the tea bag.

“We’re constantly innovating, grading, blending and tasting and now’s the time to see what’s next for the iconic British cuppa.”

Nick Chiarelli, director of the Future Foundation, said: “We’ve blended the consumer trends we are predicting for 2026, with input from Tetley experts and elsewhere to develop a very compelling vision of tea in the future.

“Our report predicts that exciting and satisfying new tea formats will develop, and that tea will evolve to deliver personalised health benefits.”

Schizophrenia patients may benefit from exercise

   

Research shows that nearly 12 weeks of aerobic exercise training can significantly improve Schizophrenic patients’ ability to understand social situations.

The study presents the first large-scale evidence supporting the use of physical exercise to treat the neurocognitive deficits associated with schizophrenia. (Representational image)

Aerobic exercise can significantly help individuals improve the ‘cognitive deficits,’ especially loss of working memory linked with schizophrenia, finds a study. Schizophrenia is a long-term mental health condition and its acute phase is typified by hallucinations and delusions, which are usually treatable with medication. However, current medications for schizophrenia do not treat the cognitive deficits including poor memory, impaired information processing and loss of concentration linked with schizophrenia.

“Cognitive deficits are one aspect of schizophrenia which is particularly problematic. They hinder recovery and impact negatively upon people’s ability to function in work and social situations,” said Joseph Firth from the University of Manchester in Britain. The findings showed that nearly 12 weeks of aerobic exercise training can significantly improve patients’ ability to understand social situations, their attention spans and their ‘working memory’ – or how much information they can hold in mind at one time.

Patients who are treated with aerobic exercise programmes, such as treadmills and exercise bikes, in combination with their medication, will improve their overall brain functioning more than those treated with medications alone. Further, the study also found evidence that programmes which used greater amount of exercise, and those which were most successful for improving fitness, had the greatest effects on cognitive functioning, the researchers said.

“The study presents the first large-scale evidence supporting the use of physical exercise to treat the neurocognitive deficits associated with schizophrenia,” Firth added. “Using exercise from the earliest stages of the illness could reduce the likelihood of long-term disability, and facilitate full, functional recovery for patients,” Firth said. For the study, published in Schizophrenia Bulletin, the team combined data from 10 independent clinical trials with a total of 385 patients with schizophrenia.

Scientists identify brain’s ‘generosity centre’

Holding hands.      Photo credit: biologycorner/Flickr

The area of the brain appears to control pro-social, generous behaviour, the study said

Whether you are a saint or a sinner may depend on a specific part of the brain, new research suggests.

Scientists have identified a region of the cerebral cortex they have dubbed the brain’s “generosity centre”.

Brain scans show that it is especially active in people with a more generous or “pro-social” mindset. These individuals also appear to have higher levels of empathy – the ability to understand and share the feelings of others.

Participants who are naturally more selfish and less empathic show a lower degree of activity in the “generosity centre”.

Lead scientist Dr Patricia Lockwood, from Oxford University, said: “This the first time anyone has shown a particular brain process for learning pro-social behaviours – and a possible link from empathy to learning to help others.

“By understanding what the brain does when we do things for other people, and individual differences in this ability, we are better placed to understand what is going wrong in those whose psychological conditions are characterised by anti-social disregard for others.”

Pro-social, “generous”, behaviour is a fundamental part of being human and essential to community living.

But while most people show a natural inclination to be pro-social, some individuals are more giving than others. Why this should be so is still not fully understood, although empathy is thought to play a central role.

To investigate links between empathy and generosity the Oxford team set up an experiment in which 31 male volunteers played a computer game that involved learning to associate abstract symbols with money rewards.

Participants, who were all aged between 19 and 32, were given opportunities either to win cash for themselves or for another player.

The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed that while people readily learned to make choices that benefited others, they were quicker at identifying symbols that rewarded themselves.

The MRI scans revealed one particular brain area that seemed to be involved in thinking generously by prioritising a good result for someone else.

Dr Lockwood said: “A specific part of the brain called the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex (sgACC) was the only part of the brain that was activated when learning to help other people. Put another way, the subgenual anterior cingulate seems to be especially tuned to benefiting other people.”

However, the scans showed that the sgACC was not equally active in every volunteer.

“People who rated themselves as having higher levels of empathy learned to benefit others faster than those who reported having lower levels of empathy,” Dr Lockwood added.

“They also showed increased signalling in their subgenual anterior cingulate cortex when benefiting others.”

The research may have implications for understanding what drives psychopaths and anti-social or criminal behaviour.

The scientists wrote: “Taken together, our findings reveal a computational link between pro-social learning and empathy in humans and therefore pave the way to characterise atypical pro-social interactions in those with disorders of social cognition and behaviour.”

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