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Thursday, 10 November 2011

Fingers in every pie

Our golf cup runneth over

This is a photograph of a photograph that has annoyed Pearse Doherty, the Sinn Fein TD. The ST featured the shot in a recent Atticus column, but I thought it was worth another mention here.

The original picture hangs in the members' bar of Leinster House. As the public are not allowed in this part of the Dail building, our snap was taken by a source using a mobile phone with the flash on, hence the glare over our friend in the back row, second from right. 

The photo shows the winning 1987 Oireachtas golf team being presented with the Army-Garda-Press-Oireachtas Challenge Cup (catchy title that one), sponsored by Irish Nationwide. It includes Michael Fingleton, the then chief executive of the now defunct building society. There too are Fine Gael's Austin Deasy and Tom Enright, Bobby Molloy, formerly of the PDs and Donie Cassidy, former Fianna Fail TD and senator. 

Doherty believes it is "inappropriate to have somebody of the character of Michael Fingleton on the walls of Leinster House given the damage he has caused to the country".  "It is well past time that this picture was taken down from its perch and placed in the dustbin of history once and for all," he told the Irish Independent in April. 

Doherty has also had a go at the fact that an exclusive members' bar, accessible to only TDs and senators, still exists in Leinster House. "The very notion of a private bar in a house that is meant to represent all of the people is outdated and part of the old way. Time for that to go too," he said. 

The Donegal South-West TD has told the ST he will raise his demands for the picture's removal with the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission and we will certainly Watch this one with interest (see what I did there?). 

While the photograph is old, taken a long time ago and those featured could not have known then what we know now, it is nevertheless a reminder to all of the close links some businesses in Ireland make sure they forge with Irish politicians. It says a good deal about the game of golf and even more about the way in which Ireland used to, and, some would argue, still operates.

For those reasons, perhaps Doherty, instead of removing the photo, should see to it that a copy hangs in every bar in the country. 



Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Benchmark

Newspaper Man: Mark Tighe
During my last post on The Sunday Times' FOI request for records of politicians lobbying for barristers and solicitors to become judges, I mentioned the information released would be worthy of a blog post on its own. 


Mark Tighe, the ST journalist who broke the story, has now written one which includes copies of the six letters from the politicians involved. It should be noted that in some cases it is obvious the lawyer in question requested these representations were made on their behalf while in others politicians seems to be responding to the wishes of third parties or colleagues of the person they are acting for. 


All the representations were made by Fianna Fail politicians. They are: John McGuinness and Willie O'Dea, two serving opposition TDs, Mary Coughlan and Jim McDaid, former ministers, Tom Kitt, a former government chief whip and Gerard Collins, former minister and MEP. 


Mark Tighe's Newspaper Man post is here.

Mark Tighe also wrote a Focus article in the ST on the appointment of judges. (Subscription required)

Saturday, 22 October 2011

In the public interest


FOI: The reporter's friend?


The freedom of information act (FOI) is a welcome tool for journalists, but using it to access records in certain cases can be a prolonged ordeal. If an original request is refused, and they often are, the appeal process can be tricky and take a long time with no guarantee of success.

Some requests when appealed to the information commissioner become "FOI battles" for reporters and the stakes are high. A win against a state body or branch of government means a journalist has the chance to set a precedent for the future release of similar records in addition to getting the information in question. An "FOI victory" then not only provides a story, but becomes one in itself. There is, however, a chance of failure, which means money is wasted and the result is publicly recorded.

Mark Tighe, a senior reporter, with the ST was involved in an appeal to the information commissioner recently. Case 100263 arose when Mark was denied full access to records of politicians lobbying for barristers and solicitors to become judges.The information involved will be the subject of a future blog, but the case itself is worthy of examination for a number of reasons.

It shows how branches of government are slow to give out 'personal records' even when it is clear that doing so is in the public interest and how some FOI offices try to provide the minimum information required when dealing with a request. It also shows long-running and tedious an FOI battle can be.

The department in this case was willing to receive representations from public representatives on behalf of third parties but was reluctant to make this process transparent. Some of the third parties involved also tried to prevent the release of the information using exaggerated, irrelevant and even fanciful arguments that showed a very low working knowledge of the legislation.

In some of the cases it was clear that while they were the subjects of representations by a public representative, whether knowingly or not, the people involved believed such activity should remain secret even though it is clear this is not in the public interest. For the purposes of clarity anything which appears below in bold is my own view and not that of Fintan Butler, the investigating officer from the information commissioner's office.

Case 100263 began on July 17 2010.  A reply to a parliamentary question revealed 42 representations were made to the justice minister in relation to judicial appointments between 1997 and 2009. Mark sent a request to the Department of Justice saying he would like "all copies of all representations made to date".

On August 3 2010 the department told Mark it was extending the statutory 4-week timescale, within which a decision must be given, by an additional five weeks so it could consult with the third parties involved. No such consultations took place, but the department's decision was still not issued until October 7 2010, seven weeks outside the statutory timescale and two weeks more than the extended period which the department had allowed itself.

The request was granted, but only in part. Mark was given a list of the politicians who had made representations to the minister from 21 April 1998 to July 2010, but only the name of the minister, TD or senator involved.

The actual letters sent to the minister were refused under section 28 (1) of the FOI Act which states that records can be denied if they would involve the disclosure of personal information. The department made no reference to section 28 (5) which, in certain circumstances, allows for the exemption in 28 (1) to be set aside.

Under section 28 (5) a request can be granted if the public interest in doing so, outweighs the public interest involved in upholding an individual's right to privacy. An argument can be made that it was clear,  at this stage, that the information should have been released on the basis of section 28 (5).

On October 13 2010, Mark sought an internal review making the public interest argument. On November 16 the department released edited copies of the letters to the minister, redacting anything that would reveal the identity of the persons on whose behalf representations were made and all other personal information again citing section 28 (1). The internal review also did not make any reference to section 28 (5) even though Mark had referred to it in his appeal.

Mark next appealed the case to the information commissioner's office stating "the public interest argument is especially strong in cases where the lawyers who lobbied TDs were appointed to the judiciary".

He was asked to confine his request to six representations which concerned people subsequently appointed judges. Of these, one had died, prior to the start date of the FOI process. Mark agreed.  

The justice department said it would consult with the judges in question and, on this occasion, did so. It passed on their observations as a collective response and the only section of the act referred to again was 28 (1). The judges referred to "judicial independence, security considerations and the possibility of misrepresentation" in a context where judges are precluded from publicly defending themselves.

The ST would never publish someone's full address in a case like this so what security considerations were involved is baffling. There is also clear precedent of personal addresses being redacted in similar requests so, even if this was worth flagging, it was never going to amount to an argument against the release of the letters. 

A concern over misrepresentation relates to the handling of the information and not its release so would be irrelevant even if valid. Judicial independence is an interesting argument given it is exactly what the ST was interested in protecting by highlighting how politicians can lobby for people to become judges. 

The investigator, Fintan Butler, wrote to the judges telling them he thought the information should be released in the public interest. One judge responded in writing and three by phone. The written submission was identical to the already rejected one made by the department with some specific comments relating to that judge's security. The telephone submissions also simply repeated the department's previous points

In the case of the deceased judge, her spouse was invited to make a submission and sent an email on July 22. He introduced a number of new arguments claiming it was unfair to a deceased person to release their records when they would not be able to defend themselves. 

He said that as"all judicial appointments since the foundation of the state are political appointments" it would be fairer if the FOI request "would encompass all the appointments of judges to all the courts". He argued the identity of the FOI requester was relevant as the information was "being sought by The Sunday Times, a Murdoch organisation, currently in the dock for its ethical (sic) gathering and dissemination of information". He also pointed out the deceased judge had, prior to her appointment, applied previously to the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board (JAAB) and had been recommended for appointment by that body  

The JAAB can advise the justice minister on the barristers and solicitors it believes would make good judges. Other judges in this case would have been suggested by the board in addition to being the subject of representations by politicians. They would also argue that they were well qualified for their appointments. This, however, is context that should have been provided with the release of the information and not a reason to refuse it.  The identity of a newspaper or person making a request is also irrelevant under the terms of the legislation.

In his findings Butler concluded there is a well-established and long-recognised public interest in ensuring transparency in all aspects of government business. He said:

"Applying this general public interest in transparency to the records at issue here, it is clear that the public interest is served where the process of judicial appointments is made as transparent as possible. It is not just the fact that judges are paid from public funds but more important perhaps is the fact that they are entrusted, on behalf of the people, with independent and far-reaching powers."

Butler found the process of judicial appointments lacks innate transparency and that, outside of the limited scope of FOI, there is very little by way of effective transparency mechanisms.

"Against this background, therefore, there is a particular public interest in knowing whether serving judges have had their candidacies supported by public representatives and, if so, by which public representatives (and from which political party, if any). This public interest carries even greater weight in circumstances in which the Government, in advising the President in relation to the appointment of persons to judicial office, is not confined in its advice to the particular names recommended as suitable by the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board. Neither is the Government confined, in its advice to the President, to naming only persons who have applied to the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board whether or not such persons have been recommended by the Board."

He also rejected the arguments made by the spouse of the deceased judge confirming the identity of the requester and the motivation of a requester, are generally of no consequence in FOI decision making:

"The submission from the spouse of the deceased judge suggests that any intrusion on the right to privacy of a deceased person is in a different category to an intrusion on the right to privacy of a living person. The spouse argues that it is relevant to bear in mind that the deceased judge is not in a position to 'verify or defend [himself/herself] in what might flow from this'. This suggests a view that having had representations made in advance of a judicial appointment carries some negative connotations. At the same time, the spouse observes that "all Judicial appointments since the foundation of the state are Political appointments" which suggests that the making of political representations is the norm."

Butler concluded the public interest served by transparency, arising from the identification of those judges outweighed the public interest served in upholding their right to privacy. He was also satisfied the identity of the deceased judge should be released in the public interest. The only information he decided not to release was the judge's addresses as was expected.

"I am satisfied that any loss of privacy or of respect for private and family life this occasions is proportionate, in accordance with the law and serves the common good. The requirement for transparency in this context applies only to the identification of the judges concerned."

Butler concluded the case on August 9 of this year  Eight weeks was allowed for an appeal to the High Court. None was  lodged and the ST was given the information. On October 9, one year and five months since making the original request, the ST was able to publish its story.



Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Come fly with Mats


Flying high: A Learjet 45


Last week, the ST reported on a cost/benefit analysis of the Ministerial Air Transport Service (MATS) carried out by the Department of Defence. The document, released under the freedom of information act,  was requested by the late Brian Lenihan, the finance minister, and was provided to him in June 2010. 

It was written by defence officials at a time when ministers were reducing their use of the government jet and other state aircraft amid intense media focus on the costs involved. As such, it reads like an attempt to justify the existence of MATS and an argument for its continued use. 

The department says the fleet, which includes a 14-seat Gulfstream IV and a 7-seat Learjet 45 is more flexible and quicker than commercial alternatives. The analysis claims ministers can get more work done on its "confidential flights" while arguing Air Corps staff are "thoroughly familiar with the procedures, protocols and sensitivities of government and presidential business".

The document shows how expensive the MATS service is when compared to commercial flights, but says consideration should be given to the "restrictive scheduled flight timetable" ministers have to adhere to when flying with an airline. At one stage, the report even argues the MATS was vital to the Northern Ireland peace talks. It says military planes can operate in areas and under conditions commercial aircraft cannot.


High-frills airline: Inside a Gulstream IV


As the ST reported this story the Sunday Independent covered the amount of money spent on MATS' flights by the Fine Gael and Labour Party coalition to date. The total spend is just under €405,000 since the new government came to power in March. The Gulfstream, including personnel and depreciation, costs €3,790 an hour while the same figure for the Learjet is €4,200.

The Sunday Independent's story claimed "government jaunts create huge bill in months", but the reality the figure over the last eight months is far less than in previous years. The MATS bill, which includes the two jets and other aircraft, was €1.5m in 2007 and €1.8m in 2008. It was €800,000 from January to August 2009. 

In its analysis the Department of Defence says the state's fixed-wing aircraft carried out 266 "missions" in 2005 and 247 in 2006, but usage dropped to 193 in 2007, 195 in 2008 and 126 in 2009. The document notes ministers have been reluctant to use the Gulfstream as its cost has been "the source of much media focus and criticism". 

This is a tricky issue for the government. The Department of Defence analysis suggests an argument can be made for the existence and use of MATS to some extent. Yet the Sunday Independent article confirms the high cost involved still leaves the government open to criticism even if it the number of flights being taken are less than previous years.

On a general note it would appear sensible for the new administration to be wary of public concern about the expense of MATS. The costs involved and the usage levels, especially on routes where commercial alternatives exist, need to be monitored closely.

During previous administrations the government jets were often used by ministers to travel from one part of Ireland to another on journeys that could be easily completed by other means. The days of such extravagance being tolerated by taxpayers are over. 


A copy of the cost/benefit analysis is reproduced in full below. It should be noted the costs of flying the two jets have changed since 2009 and are not the same as the 2011 figures quoted above. The Gulfstream is now over 20 years old so depreciation no longer applies and it is now cheaper to use. Usage of the Learjet has been reduced so the average cost is now higher. Depreciation is also a factor for  the increase.













Sunday, 16 October 2011

An architect lives in a house like this

Home sweet €25,000 home:  (Via)

On Ocotber 9th we reported on the house share with a difference. Mark Keenan's story was about Dominic Stevens, an award-winning architect who self-built his own three-bedroom home for just €25,000 and who has just published a step-by-step how-to guide to help others do likewise.



Stevens - Pic by Bryan Meade 
It took just 50 days spread over two years to complete the 600ft property in Cloone in Leitrim with the help of friends, family, neighbours and a "few specialists". Stevens, who has published his plans, including instructions and hand-drawn graphics, at irishvernacular.com, began the project after finding himself "without a lot of money and urgently requiring somewhere to live".


The house has won a 2011 award from the Architectural Association of Ireland and having spent a year living in it and sharing it with his two children, Stevens has described it as "easy and pleasant". 


The Dublin-born architect, who represented Ireland at the 2006 Venice Biennale, admits that the house is basic and looks like an outbuilding, but he argues he has proved that €25,000 is enough to build a dwelling that can match a block-built family home costing six times more. Explaining what he hoped the project would achieve he said:

"When so many people are in negative equity and banks aren't lending, I'm trying to show people that they can do it for themselves. You don't need to be trapped by a big mortgage, Irish vernacular house building was a knowledge held by the community and passed down through generations. That's the way we used to do it. The skills existed and were shared. Everyone would help to build everyone else's house. Today house-building has become a commodity, a way of making money; it's not about making homes for people"
The exterior (Via)



The house is about the same size as a two-up, two-down terraced home and is constructed of timber and insulation.The exterior is coated with corrugated Onduline — a commercially made material that combines bitumen with plant fibres and keeps the rain out. 


Stevens said you don't need to be an expert to built the house and anyone with a group cert in woodwork should be able to have a go. We didn't include it in our story but Stevens has an interesting rant on his website about the type of home-building that has become the norm in Ireland. Here is an extract:


The interior (Via)
"We have been duped. At the height of the Celtic Tiger Boom €300,000 was the average house price. In total it could be calculated that one third of this went into the government coffers in the form of taxes, levies and development charges, another large chunk went into the pockets of developers. By artificially escalating the price of houses through media hype and manipulation, the government and their developer cronies seem to have transferred the national debt to being a private debt, while the developers are sitting in luxury. Others (David McWilliams for example) can describe this more eloquently and technically than me; as an architect I was sickened to be part of a profession that played along and profited in a major way, studiously uncritical about what was going on. By building this house I am examining alternative traditions to what has become the accepted model. The model that we have become used to now places the house as a way of driving the economy – we build houses as a method of making money not in order to house people well".

Another interior shot (Via)
Plenty to think about there then. In our print story we could only fit a small number of photgraphs so there are a few more here and plenty of links to irishvernacular.com where you can find more. When you see the interior shots, in particular, it is clear Stevens has managed to build a home that many people would like to live in, especially if it only cost them €25,000.

www.irishvernacular.com is here.

Mark's Keenan's story is here. (Subscription required)

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Labour pain

Fergus Finlay and Mary Davis

On Tuesday, Fergus Finlay, the former chef de cabinet of the Labour Party, wrote a column in the Irish Examiner complaining about the media scrutiny some presidential candidates have been subjected to. He said: 
"Sure there are serious public interest questions to be answered in the past lives, behaviour and utterances of some of them. But it's beginning to be clear that if some of the media can't find a skeleton in the cupboard of a candidate, they're going to take whatever they do find and use it as an opportunity to pour shame and derision on them anyway".
He also referred to the issues relating to Dana's American citizenship and then focused on last week's splash in the ST:
"And another national newspaper (is the Sunday Times a national newspaper?) led yesterday with the claim that Mary Davis might have cast a vote in favour of Denis O'Brien in the context of a discussion about media ownership. The newspaper didn't know how she voted - but "might have" was enough to make it the lead story".
One could ignore Finlay's cheap shot reference to a newspaper which is produced, printed, distributed and purchased in Ireland, but his assertions about the ST's story have to be challenged. The current chief executive of Barnardo's, the children's charity, is entitled to raise questions about the media's performance. His suggestion, however, that the ST has somehow manufactured a story to deliberately portray Davis badly is grossly unfair and wildly inaccurate.
 

The story
The ST researched and produced a story that shows real and relevant links between Davis and Denis O'Brien, a businessman against whom serious findings were made in the Moriarty Tribunal, albeit ones he rejects.  

The story involves the actions of a presidential candidate while she was serving on a state board, in this case the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland (BCI). The article by Colin Coyle accurately reported that Davis, whose campaign has received a small amount of funding from O'Brien, voted on three key decisions concerning his ownership of Irish media while she was on the board of the BCI.

It showed she did so having previously ruled herself out of votes in relation to O'Brien's companies when she first joined the board in 2004 due to a conflict of interest. Davis had been chief executive of Special Olympics World Games while O'Brien had been its chairman.

In June 2008 Davis, who has described O'Brien as her "mentor", sought and received legal advice to say this conflict of interest no longer existed following her move to Special Olympics Europe/Eurasia the previous May.

Mary Davis and Denis O'Brien
Just one month later, on July 27, she took part in a meeting of the 10-person board which decided that O'Brien's 25% stake in Independent News & Media (INM) did not raise any cross-media ownership issues or represent a "substantial" interest in relation to ownership of the media. 

At the same meeting, Davis took part in a decision to award Boxer DTT, a consortium 50% owned by O'Brien, the first licence for commercial digital terrestrial television in Ireland. 

Davis, who attended O'Brien's 50th birthday party in April 2008, also took part in a July 2009 meeting of the BCI which investigated whether the billionaire had an "undue" share of the media market in Ireland. Following a three month probe, the board ruled that O'Brien's interests did not breach its ownership policy. 

The issue is not what way Davis voted as suggested by Finlay. It was that Davis sought legal advice which meant she could start to involve herself in decisions relating to O'Brien. Davis, it should be noted here, has said any suggestion that she acted in any way other than in a professional manner while a board member of BCI is mischievous and misleading. She has said any suggestion of impropriety is not just a serious allegation against her, but also potentially against the BCI and other members of the board.

As it happens Finlay is right on one thing. The ST didn't know which way she voted because Davis, a candidate who has spoken at length about the need for transparency, declined to say and instead pointed out that all decisions of the board are reached by consensus.

Davis did not discuss what contribution she made to the meetings in question or whether she supported O'Brien or not. One might presume that if she had argued against O'Brien on any occasion she would say so, but either way this issue was not crucial. 

A person's business and other links are relevant when they are running for the presidency of the country. This was clearly a matter of interest and indeed two other "national newspapers" as Finlay might call them, The Irish Times and the The Irish Independent, followed up the story allowing Davis every opportunity to respond as she had been given by the ST in the first place.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Double standards?

Denis O'Brien (UCD.ie)

Last Thursday, Harry McGee of The Irish Times reported how Barry Maloney, the former chief executive of Esat, decided he would not appear at last weekend's Global Irish Economic Forum in Dublin because Denis O'Brien, his former business associate, was attending.

Maloney, now a partner with Balderton Capital, a London-based venture capital firm, wrote to Enda Kenny, the taoiseach, and Eamon Gilmore, the tanaiste, to say he would not be present as O'Brien was invited despite the severe criticisms made of him by the Moriarty Tribunal in its final report.

The ST followed up this story on Sunday as we obtained a copy of Maloney's letter and deemed the language used in it to be significant. Maloney accused the government of "double standards" and questioned how O'Brien's invitation would be perceived by other third parties. A copy of Maloney's letter is reproduced below for anyone interested in reading it in full. The text is patchy in places due to the quality of the original but can still be made out.

O'Brien has declined to comment on the Maloney letter. Maloney testified to the tribunal that, in late 1996 the Esat founder told him he had made two payments of IR£100,000 (€127,000) including one to Michael Lowry, the former communications minister. O'Brien said he had been joking.

Minister Deenihan
The tribunal later found Lowry helped deliver the state's second mobile phone licence to O'Brien's Esat Digifone consortium and that O'Brien caused €900,000 euro to be transferred to Lowry's benefit. Both Lowry and O'Brien have rejected the findings.

One other aspect of this story is worthy of note. For our story on Sunday we asked Jimmy Deenihan, the arts minister, what he thought about the affair while he was attending the forum and he gave the following reply:
"There'd be a lot of events in Ireland with nobody at them if that principle is followed through. Denis O'Brien...that's his own business, he's contesting a lot of the findings of the tribunal. Certainly he has been very good to the Special Olympics and lots of good causes, and it's not for us to judge him."

Opinion columnists, no doubt, will follow this one up.



Barry Maloney's letter

Stephen O'Brien and Sarah McInerney's ST story is here. (Subscription required) 

Harry Mc Gee's story in The Irish Times is here.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Climb every (2,000 ft) mountain

With Peter Lahiff on Carrauntoohill, Ireland's highest peak.

Mountaineering Ireland, the representative body for hillwalkers and climbers, is devising an official guide to the 156 mountains in Ireland higher than 2,000 ft. The idea is a tribute to the late Joss Lynam, Ireland's best known mountaineer and a prolific writer, who died in January aged 86.

The Inaccessible Pinnacle
The "Ascentials", the working name for the list of peaks, is intended to complement Scotland's Munros, a series of 283 mountains more than 3,000 ft high. Some people spend years climbing the latter, including the tricky Inaccessible Pinnacle on The Isle of Skye, in a practice known as "munro-bagging".

In the 1950s, Lynam and Rev CP Vandeleur, a friend, began revising a 1930s list of Irish mountains measuring 2,000 ft. When the works was completed in 1976 it contained 257 peaks in total, but 156 separate mountains.

Mountaineering Ireland has now asked its members to help compile a detailed guide to each climb using local knowledge, as a way of honouring Lynam.

Alan Tees, the president of Mountaineering Ireland and his wife Margaret, came up with the idea. The couple, who live in Inishowen in Donegal, recently completed all 156 mountains.
Mount Brandon, a Kerry Ascential 

Alan climbed Muckish in Donegal, his first "Ascential" in 1961 aged 10. His latest, Banoge North in Kerry, was completed in August.

The couple hope to name the list officially as the "Lynams" once the guide is completed, but said members of Mountaineering Ireland would have to consulted on this. A register is planned to allow ramblers record each summit if they wish.

Margaret is one of more than 4,000 people who have registered their completion of the Munros, named after Sir Hugh Munro, who produced the original list of the mountains in 1891. She said Ireland may not have as many high mountains as Scotland, but we do have some "cracking ones".

Climbing Howling Ridge, Carrauntoohill
Helen Lawless, of Mountaineering Ireland, said the guide could serve to bring attention to less well-known peaks while promoting skilled and responsible climbing, two issues Lynam was passionate about.

She said there tends to be a focus in Ireland on climbing the highest mountain in each province, but there are others for climbers to explore and the hope is the guide will highlight that. As someone who has climbed many of the more obvious 2,000ft mountains and only a small number of the less well-known ones, I, for one, am looking forward to the guide. Ireland's highest 156 peaks in one book. Top plan.

You can read my original article here. (Subscription required).

You can get more details on the project and see a list of the mountains on Mountaineering Ireland's website here.

Alan Tees has posted online about climbing all the "Ascentials" here.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Chain of command

Death to the kittens: via: artofconversation.typepad.com

In the ST last week Cian Ginty, a freelance reporter, detailed how cyclists who ride on  footpaths or go through red lights will continue to have little to deter them after Leo Varadkar, the transport minister, dropped a plan for on-the-spot-fines.

The National Cycle Policy Framework, produced in 2009 when Noel Dempsey, the former Fianna Fail TD was transport minister, stated such penalties, already used to punish motorists, will be extended to bike-users.

Dempsey, of course, is no longer in government and Varadkar, his successor, has a different view. The current minister has written to Dublin City Council arguing the introduction of instant penalties would require cyclists to register their bicycles or force them to carry identification. He thinks it is not "feasible at this time".

The ins and outs of this issue can be debated at length. What struck me about the process, however, is how an initiative considered important enough by the state to be included in an official framework document can be just dismissed as unworkable less than two years later.

If Varadkar is right shouldn't we be given an explanation as to why someone thought it was a good idea to promise/threaten the fines back in 2009? Are we not supposed to be worried when government departments spend time producing plans and policies that can be so easily rejected by an incoming minister?

Cian Ginty's story is here. (Subscription required)

You can read Varadkar's letter here.

The National Cycling Policy Framework is here.

Chuckle Norris

Making sure you know where reporters are and what they are up to is one of the tasks of a news editor. It's not always an easy one, but there are times when you get some help from photographers or TV cameramen. Yesterday, for example, Stephen O'Brien, the ST's political editor, announced he was going on the presidency canvas trail with Senator David Norris and, if the pic below is anything to go by that is exactly what he did. Can't wait for the Phoenix cover.

It's for you: Pic by Mark Stedman of Photocall Ireland 


Thursday, 6 October 2011

No hotel to go to


Dromahair's Abbey Manor Hotel in its former glory


When the Abbey Manor Hotel in Dromahair in Leitrim was refurbished and extended in 2004, Charlie McCreevy, the then finance minister conducted the official opening. A plaque commemorating the occasion is still displayed today on an exterior wall of this listed building. Fast-forward to 2011 and it is unlikely McCreevy would want to revisit this particular landmark.

The Abbey Manor closed in July 2009, almost overnight. A sign was displayed to inform customers and the doors were locked. Today, it still appears, at first glance, to be a working hotel. There is a computer in the reception, packets of Bacon Fries hang behind the bar, some of the tables are set for dinner and there are plants in the lobby.

Look closely though and all is not as it should be. The computer is old and switched off. The Bacon Fries are past their best before. Mushrooms and moss grow on the floor of the dining room and the plants are dead. The property has been broken into and stripped of copper fittings.

Like many hotels which were opened during the boom years, the Abbey Manor is owned by a group of investors and run by a management company. The latter is now insolvent. Like a growing number of buildings in Ireland it is now in danger of becoming a derelict eyesore.

But not if a group of locals have anything to do with it. As I reported last week, a number of people in the village and nearby community have formed a rescue committee. They are attempting to take over the lease and reopen the hotel.

The campaign was initiated after photographs of the building in its current state were posted on Derelict Nation, a blog by Sligo-based artist Sarah Stevens. Stevens' photographs document the Marie Celeste-like nature of the business and prompt one to contemplate what other properties are in a similar state elsewhere in Ireland.

According to Bernie Linnane McBride, an accountant who set up a Facebook page about the hotel, villagers would pass the building everyday, but were not aware how run-down it had become.

She said accommodation is scarce in Dromahair. There is nowhere for people to stay if attending a festival or visiting friends or relatives in the village. Locals are also deprived of what was a popular meeting point and venue. By last week Linnane McBride had written to some of the owners, but had received no reply.

Even though the campaign was still in its infancy, it struck me as an idea that should be supported and highlighted. The locals are attempting to save the hotel without knowing if what they have in mind will work. If they are successful, however, their campaign could become a template for others elsewhere. There are many towns and villages in Ireland with their own Abbey Manor.

Since writing the piece one of the owners has made contact with the group. A broken door to the function room has been repaired and RTE's "Dirty Old Towns" series has expressed an interest in doing a programme on the campaign. The Facebook page has had over 70,000 hits and counting.

The link to my story is here. (Subscription required)

You can check out Derelict Nation here.

The Derelict Nation post on Abbey Manor is here.

The Save the Abbey Manor Facebook page is here.