Saturday, November 7, 2009

Demonstration against cuts hits Dublin's streets

ABOUT AN hour before yesterday’s march against public service cuts kicked off, the Socialist Party’s Joe Higgins was huddled in the doorway of AIB at the top of O’Connell Street. Two rainbows that had arched over the avenue minutes before had faded and he was now taking shelter from a steady flow of rain. A man who rallied so hard against the banks was seeking a refuge of sorts beneath a bank’s tall, grey walls.

He was worried the weather might keep people away and prevent a good turnout. But by half two the rain was gone, the sky was a vivid blue and thousands had assembled at the Garden of Remembrance to express their anger at the government. It wasn’t just public sector workers and union members that had come. Resident’s associations from Dolphin’s Barn and Ballymun stood alongside nurse and teacher’s unions. Traveller groups mixed with political parties.

Well-known faces, too, made their appearance. Ambling beside the nurses, Senator David Norris expressed his concern over what he saw as the dismantling of supports for the most vulnerable in society. Fellow Senator Ivana Bacik appeared on a bicycle. “Ivana!” he called and they became engrossed in conversation about Seanad business. Amongst the different banners and chants, they all had a common goal: resist the cuts at all cost.

And then there was the anger that threaded them together. The health worker who wanted the government to “stand up and listen” and pay for its own mistakes. The Dolphin House resident who said if the government implemented severe cuts they could “go to hell”. “One, two, three, four, we don’t want you anymore,” chanted scores of people, reminding Brian Cowen that his government is among the most unpopular in the history of the state.

It wasn’t only the government that came in for attack. SIPTU itself became a target when a man wearing a T-shit with “SIPTU sold me out” written on it confronted the head of the march and directed a verbal attack at the union. He claimed that after exposing the abuse of workers where he worked he had been let go and no one had fought his corner. A tub of yellow paint in his pocket was to have facilitated revenge against one union head until he was persuaded otherwise.

Blistering

But even despite the discontent, much of the demonstration had the air of a rowdy carnival. The piercing wail of whistles and the infectious beat of kettle drums filled the air in proclamation of what they claimed was a “better, fairer way”. Such was the din that one marcher complained of not having earplugs. Banners, of every colour and size, ranged from the satirical to the vitriolic. Brian Cowen and Brian Lenihan were depicted as Laurel and Hardy on one placard. On another Cowen was the grim reaper.

Some people had other reasons than protesting for being there. One enterprising poet stood by the footpath tying to sell copies of his work. Another two men stood with placards warning that “soon the whole world will be brought bankrupt to usher the reign of the anti-Christ for three and a half years”. “One third of mankind will be killed,” said one of them. Wage cuts were the least of his worries.

The sun was hanging low above the National Gallery as the stream of protesters came to a halt in Merrion Square, an hour after setting out. Out of huge speakers Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changing” and John Lennon’s “Power to the People” provided the soundtrack for the disillusioned group. Gardai estimate that 30,000 people assembled, the ICTU 70,000.

When ICTU president Jack O’Connor took to the stage to make a fiery speech, the crowd was roused further. “They didn’t think you’d turn up and you’re here to tell them otherwise,” he roared, his voice thundering around the square. With ICTU General Secretary David Begg and Senator Joe O’Toole to either side of him, he embarked on a blistering attack on the government and the wealthy.

“That five per cent that have more than they could spend in ten or a hundred life times are prepared to contribute nothing and thus far our government is accepting that. And that is an absolute disgrace,” he yelled to rapturous applause.

After his speech, David Begg and Patricia King spoke for a short while, but without anything like the same intensity and anger. In half an hour it was all over. And then the people slowly filed out of the square as “Power to People” blared out of the speakers once again.

Friday, October 23, 2009

SIPTU, there is no silver bullet for this mess

From the time that tongues first wagged and ears first listened, we have taken comfort in proverbs and myths that serve our self-interest. Caught in the seductive flow of a narrative, it is easy to close one’s eyes to reality. After all, this is how any great story works.

I can hazard a guess as to the name of SIPTU’s favorite story: the biblical tale of David and Goliath. And what a great story it is. You’ve got the underdog, his heroic battle against the big bad bully, and his unlikely triumph. This seems to be how SIPTU sees the current backdrop of inevitable public pay and service cuts. Two weeks ago, SIPTU President Jack O’Connor complained the ERSI were cheerleading for the Government’s policy of placing the entire burden of fiscal adjustment on working people and the less well-off, whereas the wealthy are insulated from any requirement to contribute at all. This is simply fictitious, populist claptrap.

Does a six per cent income levy on gross income constitute no requirement to contribute? And since when has anyone advocated cutting low-end salaries and leaving the top-end alone? The fact is that in 2008 the 6.36 per cent of all earners who earned over €100,000 paid 42.5 per cent of all income tax the State collected. That figure is likely to be even higher since the April Budget. Starting at the top, whether it be through wage cuts or higher taxes - a less economically produtive option - is undoubtedly the right approach, but fiscal reality dictates that cuts cannot stop there. SIPTU, however, seem unable to accept this.

Myth

“Ordinary” workers (an incredibly vague phrase thrown about frequently) will have to pay because the vast majority of Irish people are just that: working or middle class. Therefore, it makes sense that savings will have be made there.

There is no elite group can be taxed enough to generate the €500 million we are borrowing every week. Simply, there is no painless silver bullet to fix all our woes. SIPTU are playing a divisive and cynical game by exploiting class resentment, and they are damaging the chances of the public ever pulling in the same direction by furthering a myth that cuts are avoidable. Not only that, they are actually seeking a pay rise for its members and threaten a day of action if this demand is not met.

But tell me, Mr. O’ Connor, who should pay for your members to have their pockets padded a little more snugly? Because the country doesn’t even really have the money it is paying out in wages right now. Should those on social welfare? No, no, you said that cutting there would be an “obscenity”. How about the schools and hospitals? No, you couldn’t condone that.

Well, perhaps the IMF might be of help. Because if the tough, unpalatable action you resist so strongly isn’t taken soon it might be the IMF holding the cheque book.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Man seriously injured in Fairview beating

A 22-year-old man is in a serious condition in hospital following an assault in Fairview, Dublin in the early hours of Sunday morning.

The man suffered serious head injuries in the attack, which gardai believe happened at around 3.30am opposite Marino Mall. The man, whose identity hasn’t been released, was taken to Beaumont Hospital where he is being treated for his injuries.

No one has yet been arrested in connection with the attack. Gardai are appealing for any witnesses to the incident to contact Clontarf Garda Station on 01 – 6664800, or call the Garda Confidential Line on 1-800-666-111.

Pension tax relief cut is "attack" on middle earners.

A proposal in the new Programme for Government for a single rate of tax relief on private pensions is an “attack” on middle income earners, the Irish Association of Pension Funds (IAPF) said on Monday.

IAPF Director of Policy Jerry Moriarty said the measure, which would introduce a single rate of tax relief of 30 per cent, would dissuade people from saving for their pensions.

Currently, workers receive tax relief on contributions equal to the rate at which they pay income tax, either 20 per cent or 41 per cent.

Mr. Moriarty also dismissed the suggestion the proposal would encourage lower paid workers to invest in their pensions, saying it was “not a priority for people in the current economic climate”.

When contacted for comment, Green Party Finance Spokesman, Senator Dan Boyle said a standard rate made sense because of the inequality of the current system where people on lower incomes receive less relief.

Rejecting the suggestion that it was unfair to tax earners on their contributions as well as their pensions once paid out, Mr. Boyle said the government was “taxing expenditure now for an uncertain future”.

Drugs seizure in Swords

The Garda National Drug Unit yesterday intercepted two vehicles carrying cannabis with an estimated street value of €750,000 in Swords, Dublin.

The car and truck carrying 49 kilos of cannabis pollen and nine kilos of cannabis herb were seized as part of an intelligence-led operation at the Airside Business Park at around 12.30pm.

Two men, aged 44 and 41, were arrested at the scene and are being held at Swords and Malahide Garda stations under section 2 of the Drug Trafficking Act.

They can be held for questioning for up to seven days.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Now, be careful what you say, won't you?

WELL IT is good to see that some taxpayer-funded quangos in the UK can point out to the rest of us what words and phrases aren't acceptable anymore. You know, it really is so difficult keeping up with what we should and shouldn't say these days.

So, in case you didn't know, only insensitive Neanderthals still use expressions like "gentlemen's agreement" (women can agree on things too, stupid man!) and "black sheep of the family" (because black people aren't bad...or like sheep...or something). But, you know, I don't think the likes of the The Learning and Skills Council (wow, learning and skills) went far enough in their pronouncements. We, as a civilised society - all sanitised and lemon-fresh - must endeavour to remove all offensive speech from our lexicon.

First of all, 'hay' kind of rhymes with 'gay', which reminds one of the farmyard - as though homosexuals have something in common with livestock. The outrage.

Clearly, 'hay', along with other '-ay' words will have to be eradicated.

And, then, there is that odious phrase to do with counting chickens. What right do we have to do anything, count or otherwise, to chickens without their consent? Homo sapien arrogance once again.

Until our everyday speech resembles a transcript from "Barney the Dinosaur", injustice and hurt will continue unabated. And, non-dinosaur readers, no offence is intended.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

RTE shies away from the facts - political correctness strikes again?

IT IS no secret to anyone that RTE, like most news organisations, is far from immune from bias and has its own sacred cows that it is unwilling to tackle. The more unsavory, denigrate aspects of Traveller culture is one such example. As pointed out by Kevin Myers last week, the fact that double rapist Simon McGinley - who, shockingly, raped an 85-year-old woman after being convicted of the rape of the 13-year-old girl behind the 'C' case in 1997 - was a member of the travelling community was omitted by most of the media. Myers made the point that had McGinley been the victim of a crime rather than the perpetrator, the media would have readily reported that he was a Traveller.

It was with great interest, then, that I watched a story to do with two feuding families in the Mitchel's Crescent area of Tralee on RTE's nine o'clock news this evening. The words 'feuding' and 'family' immediately set off alarm bells and, quietly confident of what I would would find, I threw a few relevant details into the search engine. Sure enough, my prejudices - because, indeed, that is what there were - were confirmed.

A story from the Kerryman - for whatever reason, provincial papers tend to be less politically correct - detailed how eleven people involved in a feud between two Traveller families in the same area were charged for threatening behaviour, possession of weapons and breach of previous bail conditions. Now, that these two stories do not relate to the same on-going feud ranks as about as likely as Michael Bay winning the Pulitzer Prize for literature.

Silence

So, why then did RTE decide to leave out the identity of families? No doubt, their rationale would be that being a Traveller or otherwise is of no relevance to the story. But considering the continuing problem of high-profile feuds between Travellers, is it really not in the public interest to know? Considering that a Traveller male is around17 times more likely to spend time in jail than a member of the general population, is being a Traveller really an irrelevant piece of information in a news report?

Are RTE really trying to avoid the furthering of prejudice, or are they actually just contributing to a culture of silence around the problems associated with the Traveller lifestyle? How can we ever address the failures of the Traveller lifestyle - and there are many - if the media prevents us from knowing the magnitude of the problem?

How can there be debate when we are too afraid to speak?

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Ireland and Spain share more of a history than you might think

ONE WAY that you know it is summer in Dublin is by the seemingly endless crowds of Spanish students which fill the streets. They come primarily to improve their English, but, nevertheless, I imagine it perplexes many a sun-starved Irishman and woman that Spaniards would leave their warm and dry homeland en masse for our rather damper shores. Of course, we Irish are only too happy to return the favour and, every year in search of the summer, travel in droves to bask in the sun-kissed avenues of Barcelona, Seville and Palermo. One would be forgiven for thinking that, aside from these summer exchanges, Ireland and Spain share few historical links. In fact, the Irish have a long history of migration to Spain, albeit for an altogether different purpose: to fight in the Spanish army.

Irish involvement in Spanish forces dates back to 1587, during the Habsburg period when Spain was almost constantly at war. Due to a demographic crisis caused by mass emigration to the Americas and epidemics such as smallpox, Spain required foreign troops to fill out the ranks of its army. These mercenaries typically came from poor or densely populated areas and both the Scottish highlands and Ireland became popular recruiting grounds. As Catholics who shared a common enemy in the English, Irish soldiers were held in high regard.

Writing to the Spanish king in 1598, Diego Brochero de Anaya extolled their virtues (if somewhat condescendingly): “that every year Your Highness should order to recruit in Ireland some Irish soldiers, who are people tough and strong, and nor the cold weather or bad food could kill them easily as they would with the Spanish, as in their island, which is much colder than this one, they are almost naked, they sleep on the floor and eat oats bread, meat and water, without drinking any wine.”

The number of Irish migrant soldiers which travelled to Spain and the Spanish Netherlands rose dramatically during the 17th century, largely due to two major events: the battle of Kinsale in 1602 and the arrival of Cromwell in Ireland in 1653. By this time, the Irish were a permanent feature of the Spanish army in Flanders, fighting the Dutch and French and helping to maintain the monarchy’s control over the Low Countries. Between 1587 and 1661, it is estimated that 6,300 Irishmen joined the army there. Uprisings in Catalonia and Portugal in 1640, however, led Spain to shift its military focus primarily to the Peninsula itself, and by 1662 the majority of Irish troops had been transferred out of Flanders to mainland Spain.

Milestone

A milestone in Irish-Spanish military affairs came in 1709 when King Felipe V decided to gather all the Irish units in the Spanish forces into a single brigade. This new brigade was made up of five regiments: the Ultonia, Hibernia, Irlanda, Limerick and Waterford. The fives regiments fought in various battles during the War of Spanish Succession, a conflict which prevented the unification of the French and Spanish kingdoms, but perhaps the most distinguished moment of any Irish regiment in Spain occurred in the Catalonian town of Gerona between 1808 and 1809.

In 1808 Napoleon had invaded Spain and put his brother on the throne. Barcelona had fallen to the French forces in February, but Gerona, 92km to the south, remained unoccupied. Despite its modest size, the city’s location between Barcelona and the French town of Perpignan meant that it threatened the lines of communication between French forces at either end. Determined to clear the route between the two hubs, General Duhesme and a force of 6,000 men attacked Gerona on June 20, 1808. The only trained troops in the city were 800 men from the Irish Ultonia regiment under the command of a Colonel Anthony O'Kelly from Roscommon. Despite being vastly outnumbered, they held the city and Duhesme’s forces were forced to retreat after incurring the loss of 700 men.

Desperate to take Gerona, Duhesme and his men regrouped and laid siege to the city again on July 24, this time with an increased force of 13,000 men. However, by this time the city’s Ultonia regiment had been joined by 1,300 light infantry from Barcelona, and, though they maintained a numerical advantage, the French were repelled yet again after a three week offensive.

The third, final and lengthiest siege was not to come for almost another year. In May of 1809, the French assembled their largest force yet at Gerona, this time under the command of a General Verdier, and began subjecting the city to heavy artillery fire. Facing Verdier by the time of the third siege were around 5,000 additional Spanish troops alongside the Ultonia regiment, all under the command of General Alvarez de Castro. The main point of attack for the French was the fort of Monjuich, Gerona’s defensive stronghold. Verdier soon breached Moujuich’s walls, but despite this, 200 Ultonia resisted two assaults on the castle and managed to hold it until August, when it finally fell.

Even though the city’s strongest point had been lost, Alvarez and his men held out for another four months. By winter, however, their situation had become desperate, with hunger, disease and relentless artillery fire all having taken their toll. Finally, on December 11th, after seven months under siege, they capitulated. Of the 800 Irish Ultonia at Gerona, only 253 survived the siege. In recognition of their bravery, King Ferdinand VII thereafter christened the regiment ‘Disinguidos de Ultonia’, until it was disbanded by the same king in 1818, allegedly due to insufficient recruits. Nonetheless, their service has not been forgotten. Today in Gerona, Irish tourists may find themselves staying at the Ultonia hotel; a quiet reminder of the heroic sacrifice made by their countrymen for the city.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

We are in denial over the economic crisis

Of all the half truths, misnomers and falsities propagated during this economic crisis – and, indeed, there have been many – the notion that the public are willing to ‘share the pain’ in terms of tax hikes, wage cuts and redundancies is surely one of the most risible. While there is a general acceptance that we are in dire straits as a country and that tough decisions have to be made, no one, predictably enough, wants these tough calls to affect their lives. Almost everyone wants someone else to take the hit: take from the other guy, sure, but keep your hands of my pile, if you will. Marches or disruptions held by the Gardai, teachers, bus drivers and others have all shown that people are far from willing to under go the sacrifices necessary to restore a semblance of fiscal order. This should come as no surprise, self-interest being such a large part human nature. Self-interest, in itself, need not be automatically reviled either; it is, after all, the motivating factor behind so much progress and endeavour.

The problem, however, is that in the time since the economic tsunami hit our shores, a self-serving myopia has plagued the public’s view of the situation. Most people don’t grasp the gravity of the mess we are in and seem to believe that other people aside from themselves both can and should pay our way out of the abyss. These ‘other people’ are chiefly the vaguely defined ‘fat cats’, the politicians and, of course, the utterly despised bankers. The only trouble is, though, that the notion of these groups being able to shoulder the entire burden of economic correction, therefore leaving the average worker unscathed, is nothing but an attractive myth. The myth is compounded by the incorrect belief that normal workers are the only ones suffering while the rich are getting off scot-free.

In reality, most of the rich have suffered greatly, just like everyone else. Sympathy for the rich is always going to be thin on the ground, but nonetheless, many have seen their fortunes decimated. At least €350bn has been lost in financial and property assets in the last two years, meaning that the majority of our Celtic Tiger-created millionaires no longer exist. The pot of wealth generated during the boom years has dried up and simply taxing the wealthiest severely will never generate anything like the amount of revenue necessary to keep us afloat. The negative effect that punitively taxing the wealthiest would have on the economy is also disregarded by quasi-socialists, such as Vincent Browne and the Labour party, who perpetuate a myth that stokes the flames of class resentment. Taking more than half of a millionaire’s income will simply make it not worth his or her while to earn more, spend or invest, the very things we need to stimulate the economy.

Moreover, the popular refrain that normal workers didn’t create the mess and so shouldn’t have to pay for it is meaningless. The fact is that we our now in free fall, and, simply because ‘ordinary’ workers make up most of the economy, ordinary workers will have to pay their share. There is no way around this, and to say otherwise is nothing but denial. Despite this, since the much-maligned emergency budget, an increasing level of hysteria has prevailed over how the ‘pain’ is spread. Despite the fact that they are the best paid in Europe, our teachers are outraged over the pension levy and hikes in the income levy. We even hear the laughable story of a 51-year-old teacher earning €63,000 who, according to herself, will be financially insecure for the rest of her life. Raise a glass too to the bus driver who doesn’t like the new timetable on his route and decides to hold the city to ransom by striking with a hundred or so others drivers. And then, even though an incredible third of our overall spending - €20bn – goes on welfare, there is indignation over the removal of the Christmas bonus. We need to get real here and avoid the populist nonsense which has been dominating discussions thanks to the opposition parties and large sections of the media.

Before the budget, we had a choice: either trim the fat from the public service – and that means letting thousands of people go, forget the citizens of could land who say otherwise – and probably raise taxes slightly, or leave the bloated sector alone and raise taxes significantly across the board. Wrongly, the government went for the latter option, but only because the anger from the unions and thousands of laid-off public sector employees was obviously something it didn’t want to have to face. That said, while opting mainly for tax hikes rather than cuts was foolish, the average person’s tax burden here is quite low. Remember – despite what lefties will tell you – that before the budget 20 per cent of income earners paid 77 per cent of all income tax and an incredible third of earners paid no tax at all. The budget maintained this general pattern more or less, with high earners once again paying most.

If we cannot pull together, instead of creating divisions and blaming anyone and everyone for this mess, we will take all the longer to recover as a nation. We can take the knocks on the chin, or we can shirk away in denial – it depends on whether we want to be constructive or destructive. The fact is that everyone must pay their share, there is no alternative.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Miss California shows us that we don't really care what people have to say.

If you wanted to hear some well-articulated views on a contentious social issue, a beauty pageant probably wouldn’t be most people’s first choice of venue. The cliché of the vacuous but well-meaning beauty queen hopeful who wishes for an end to world hunger is a well-worn one. Few expect such women to express real opinions, but to pander to the judges by recycling contrived platitudes about peace and love. But what happens when an aspiring beauty queen actually does give a genuinely heart-felt opinion?

Miss California, Carrie Prejean, found out for herself at the Miss USA competition last Sunday when she was asked by one of the judges whether she thought all the states should legalise gay marriage. Her reply - that she felt marriage should be between a man and a woman - likely cost firm favorite Prejean the crown, with one judge commenting: “The judges were really against her, they were bothered by her answer.” And then, unsurprisingly, the vitriol began spew forth. Like some petulant child who hadn’t gotten his way, gay celebrity blogger Perez Hilton, who posed the gay marriage question, quickly branded her a “dumb bitch” on his blog.

Unbelievably though, Hilton claimed that it was not her views on gay marriage that annoyed him, but her supposedly divisive answer, saying that he “would have appreciated it had she left her politics and her religion out, because Miss USA represents all Americans.” Excuse me, leave her politics out? But was she not asked a straight forward question to which she gave an honest answer? The blogger also complained that her answer “alienated millions of gay and lesbian Americans, their families and their supporters.” If he is indeed concerned with representing all Americans, presumably Hilton would also have been indignant if the contestant had “alienated” millions of fundamentalist Christians with a pro-gay marriage answer.

Liberal

Look, the issue here isn’t whether gay marriage should or shouldn’t be legalised, but the intolerance shown by supposedly liberal people to view points which don’t match their own. I mean, why ask the poor girl if there is only one answer which is acceptable? Do we want to actually talk about contentious issues like gay marriage or just bully people who don’t subscribe to a certain outlook? It seems even more mean-spirited and frankly hypocritical to shun Miss California so readily when you consider that only 30 per cent of Americans even support the right of gays to marry. But this, of course, is disregarded, because in the politically correct age dissent from a particularly rigid liberal view is not tolerated. In Ireland it is no different.

Only last Tuesday, on TV3’s Midday show, the controversial subject of embryonic stem cell research was tackled with precious little attempt at balance or presenting conflicting viewpoints. The parents of a child born blind were guests on the show to discuss their moving story and their plans to seek non-embryonic umbilical stem cell treatment in China. Senator David Norris joined them to argue why we should allow embryonic research and expressed his concern over the “smooth-talking, dangerous, sophisticated people” who oppose the practice.

Then presenter Alan Cantwell made it clear how it felt about the issue by referring to that “crackpot, loony crowd in Youth Defence”. And to top off the “minutiae of the pros and cons” - as the show was risibly described - Martin King weighed-in in favour by rhetorically asking “why shouldn’t we allow it?”. So there you have it: not a single person on the show who was clearly opposed to the issue. Wow, what a balanced and reasoned discussion indeed. Ironically though, the show’s other presenter, Colette Fitzpatrick, had the biggest insight of the entire show when she remarked on how immature we are in this country when it comes to such debates. Yes, we are, and her show on Tuesday was a perfect example of that.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Not so gr8 - how text speak became the language of love

Picture the familiar scene: the lights are low and the air is oven-hot, the music loud enough to make your eardrums bleed. Wave after wave of drunken pub-goers crowd the dance floor like ants over a melted ice cream cone in June. Then, out of the corner your eye, you see her. Struggling to remain vertical in her six-inch heels, she could be trying to ice-skate on stilts, but to you at that moment she is most beautiful creature you have ever seen. And, joy oh joy, she’s walking - just about - towards you.

After screaming pleasantries into one another’s unfortunate ears – and after permanent hearing loss is assured for the both of you - you share a not quite magical kiss (say, a little more ‘Night of the Living Dead’ than ‘Sleepless in Seattle’). The night draws to a close and you make your way home with a name and phone number, the promising seeds of a second meeting.

The standard procedure then is to send a casual text message to your pub princess, to which you will often receive a reply in ‘text speak’ so impenetrable that it could have been written by a blind, fingerless chimpanzee. Whole sentences can be boiled down into short acronyms, punctuation can be as scarce as water in the Sahara and vowels seemingly become unnecessary. What is worrying about this often bewildering lexicon, though, is that it isn’t used simply for convenience sake when other forms of communication are impractical, but has become an integral part of the process of meeting and getting to know people. Texting is not just a handy way to arrange a meeting or express a quick sentiment; it has become a conversational tool in itself. As a device, however, it is utterly inadequate for expressing any sort of real emotion or opinion.

Inane

Due to the way they are constructed, I could have the same text ‘conversation’ with a thousand different people and never know the difference. The same inane stock questions and phrases make up the majority of texts, meaning that one never has to think about what they are actually saying.

An expression such as ‘RALMAO’ (Rolling around laughing my ass off) may as well be meaningless because all it does is allow the speaker to avoid actually expressing how, in this case, funny something is. And yet, this is how so many guys and gals get to know one another during the early stages of dating. How could one ever decide if they wanted to see someone again in real life based on a few hundred characters in a text?

Then, of course, there is the very real possibility of misinterpretation. With no tone of voice to refer to, sarcasm and irony don’t translate so well, and while this is also true of something like email, people don’t rely on it anywhere near as much for flirting or long conversations. An apparently playful remark to a girl or guy of your fancy can end up sounding rude or even downright offensive, leaving you having to make it up to someone you barely even know.

And, for the love of God, if you have to text, always, always double-check whose name is highlighted when you press ‘send’. I once heard of a guy who (so he thought) text his best friend worried about whether he should tell his girlfriend about his illicit shenanigans with someone else. The best friend and girlfriend’s names shared a few letters in common. Needless to say, the text wasn’t sent to the right person and someone got dumped. I guess that was one text message, at least, that was pretty hard to misinterpret.



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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Cuts foolishly ignored in favour of tax hikes

The budgetary storm has finally hit and the news isn’t overly comforting for young people looking for work for the first time. The government has decided that tax increases – euphemistically termed ‘income levies’ – rather than cuts in spending, will provide the bulk of revenue needed to fill the hole in the exchequer. The danger here is that a reduction in people’s spending power will exacerbate the downturn and result in further job losses.

More than anything, those coming from college into a job-starved economy such as myself would have wished for a budget that went some way towards improving their work prospects. There are few indications of this budget doing just that. A reduction in PRSI contributions for employers, for example, was absent and a work experience placement scheme for 2,000 graduates, while welcome, was limited in scope.

To his credit, Brian Lenihan at least acknowledged yesterday that our tax base is too narrow and needs an overhaul. However, while increased taxes will raise an estimated extra €3.6 billion, his budget has once again failed to deal with the government’s astronomical levels of spending.

With not far off 400,000 people on the dole, there is simply no excuse for continuing to shelter the public service from redundancies and wage cuts. This isn’t a matter of fairness or private sector resentment, but of fiscal reality. We no longer have the number of tax-paying private sector workers needed to foot a public pay bill of €20 billion. It is utterly illogical for the public service to remain its present size when the economy has shrunk so drastically.

There is little political will to tackle this, however, so instead the government has turned to trying to tax our way out of this economic abyss – a risky process.

Perhaps surprisingly, the dole – aside from the December bonus and payments for under-twenties – was left untouched. For a great many vulnerable people, especially those with families, this will come as a huge relief. However, for a single person without a mortgage or children such as myself, a modest cut in line with deflation would have been quite reasonable. This saving could he been better spent on retaining the full early child payment, for example, which was slashed by half.

One of the most dramatic elements of the budget is undoubtedly the decision to half dole payments to under-twenties to €100. The rationale behind this drastic cut is to encourage younger people into training and keep school-leavers out of the dole queue. While ensuring the dole is not an attractive option has some merit, the degree by which it was cut was absurd. Living on such a meagre payment would be beyond difficult. And, more to the point, just what jobs exactly would these people be training for?

We need hope from the budget

Clichés are used all the time to side-step debate and reinforce lazy assumptions, but some, at least, have truth in them. Anyone too young to remember the 1980s must now surely have the odious phrase “you have never had it so good” ringing very loudly in their ears. It was a sentiment we were raised on, readily deployed by our parents or superiors whenever we complained too much or languished in self-pity. But it was, at least in many ways, true.

Until the house of cards (or should it be of ‘houses’?) came crashing down, the Irish had come to regard low taxes and one of the lowest unemployment rates in the world as a given. This was the world a student could expect to live and work in after college. Whatever disappointments we encountered along the way, there was always the promise that, out in ‘the real world’, things would be better for us than previous generations. Now, for the first time in a long time, this is no longer the case.

In May, I walked out of a university lecture theatre for the last time and in September I graduated. Life since then has held both the sweet taste of opportunity and the sombre feeling of the loss of it. Days before my last exam I was offered what, as an aspiring journalist, was a dream job in a national newspaper. Then in November I was let go and the term ‘recession’ became more to me than just a word that endlessly filled newspaper headlines. For a while, I bumbled between temporary jobs like some directionless daddy long-legs, before eventually biting the bullet and paying a visit to my local dole office.

When you sign-on for the first time you lose many of your preconceptions about social welfare and its recipients. Suddenly you are aware that it isn’t just the lazy or the apathetic that collect the dole, it is also people who have no other choice. By the end of this year, up to 70,000 people with hard-earned third level qualifications will be among those who don’t have a choice. It would be foolish and arrogant to suggest that recent graduates and those about to graduate are hurting more than most at the moment – for the most part we don’t have other mouths to feed or mortgages to pay.

Nonetheless, as a graduate it is hard to escape a feeling of disillusionment with what we are to inherit. On our road to the world of work we were nourished on two, now hollow-seeming, principles: firstly, that western civilisation is ever-progressing, and that every new generation is better off than the previous one.

And secondly, despite whatever obstacles you may face, if you work hard you will succeed in life. Nice ideas, indeed, but what is the point of studying for three or four years only to be told, as I was in a certain fast food outlet, that even flipping burgers is a job which is out your reach. Most people don’t expect a free ride or an easy passage, but unless there is ladder there for people to try and climb, hopelessness is inevitable. Whatever measures Mr. Cowen and company propose tomorrow, they must at least leave people – graduates or otherwise - with the sense that shaping their own destiny is within their power. Feelings of powerlessness will only serve to prolong this mess.

But despite it all, there is reason for some optimism. Remember that irritating phrase about never having it so good? The expression was coined in 1957 in a speech celebrating the success of Britain’s post-war economy by the then British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan. If there was truth in that expression in the wake of the most horrific war the world has ever seen, then surely we can get through this current economic nightmare. In time, I’m sure there will once again be good reason to drive young people mad with that infuriating refrain: “you have never had it so good”.