Bubble trouble


Enda Kenny: almost proud of the housing shortage

IF you’ve ever bid at an auction, you’ll know how quickly things can get out of hand. One minute you’ve got a sensible €40 in mind for a slightly bockety smoker’s chair, the next minute there’s a competitor. Someone else wants it. At all costs, this enemy must be defeated. Higher and higher you bid, scenting his fear on the wind. At length you secure your prey, and your rival returns to his cave hungry. You have won. You have spent €150 on what, now you look closely at it, is less a chair than a high-rise development for woodworm.

Maybe that’s what happened last week, when 67 Upper Leeson Street in Dublin sold at auction for €2.2 million. The guide price was €1.3 million, and three bidders had been snapping at one another’s heels, until a young professional businesswoman suddenly emerged from the undergrowth and ran off with her quarry. Reports said the whole affair took less than a minute. When you want something, you want it.

There were two main reactions to the story. This first was a sort of breathy excitement because, even after all that’s happened, we can’t stop ourselves being infatuated by houses worth €2m and the people who can afford them. “An Aga! Cornicing! Suntrap patio! Wonder who she is…” When it comes to property, we Irish are a walking Country ‘n’ Western song. Property is the bad lover that cheated on us, made a fool of us and threw us over, but we’d take it back in a heartbeat.

The second reaction was hand-wringing, as onlookers gathered to point and marvel at what looks undeniably like a giant bubble rising over the Dublin property market, and to remark: “Is this really happening? Again? Seriously?” It’s as if the past six years were a nightmare, and a generation of Dubliners woke up to the sound of someone still shouting in their ear: “Quick! Buy now before it’s too late!” Meanwhile, outside the capital, onlookers continued to muse on how long it might take before we too could sell our houses for more than the price of a garden shed.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny was over in America talking the whole thing up. “If you had 30,000 three-bedroom detached houses in Dublin you’d sell them all in a week,” he told a New York audience. “That’s the pent-up demand that’s there.” He sounded almost proud, as if a shortage of shelter were a good thing.

Property experts later clarified that 30,000 new homes would actually represent about two years’ demand, rather than one week’s, given that only 30,000 homes were sold throughout the entire country last year. But as we know, it is becoming more and more important to attend to what the Taoiseach meant rather than to what he actually said, and with that in mind, the experts fell in behind the gist of Kenny’s remarks.

The lie of the land is that property prices in Dublin, which is where the few jobs are, are rising vertiginously. Some people might describe them as “overcorrected” – probably the same people who use “over-refreshed” as a euphemism for falling-down drunk. But average disposable income is falling, and even if it weren’t, the banks aren’t lending.

A large cohort of young people has found out – as they knew they would – that a 450-square-foot balsawood apartment in a boom-era tenement isn’t the best place to raise a family, so they want to move. And they can’t. Unless you’re a public servant, it’s probably not worth your while starting the paperwork for a mortgage. Meanwhile, thousands of homeowners are trapped, unable to sell up – not even to find employment – because the price their house would fetch wouldn’t cover the loan on it.

And while all this is going on, there is a small cohort of wealthy investors out there snapping up “bargains” all over town. Homeowners and would-be homeowners everywhere can only stand and watch themselves being squeezed out.

In response to the property impasse, people are renting their homes now at a higher rate than ever before. This is supposed to be a good sign – it means we’re getting all European about things. John Moran, secretary general at the Department of Finance, this week questioned people’s abiding need for three-bed semis and urged us all to consider renting. Yes, yet another plea on behalf of renting by someone who doesn’t rent. You can’t help thinking the subtext is not that we should all be renting, but that the Lower Orders should be renting.

There are several problems with renting, not least of which is that someone has to own all those rented properties, and the idea of creating another wealthy landlord class doesn’t have much appeal in this country, for obvious reasons. And while the banks have shown themselves generally disinclined to evict people who can’t pay for their homes, landlords have no such compunction. In any event, Dublin rents are also rising rapidly, and outside Dublin, where they’re still falling, there’s no work.

The government has been working on measures to correct this menacing state of affairs and be seen to have a plan. The aim is to increase the number of houses being built to 25,000 (from 8,000) by 2016, and to generate 60,000 jobs in construction. Some favourable terms for developers are proposed, such as lower levies and a halving of the social housing requirement to 10%. Social housing, it has been decided, is nothing more than a tax on development, and those levies won’t be needed any longer now that local authorities have the property tax, which will shortly be collected from 500,000 homeowners. Developers must be licking their lips.

Nama chief executive Brendan McDonagh this week counselled caution in respect of the rise in Dublin property prices, saying that what we’ve learnt from the past is that it’s impossible to predict the future, or words to that effect. It’s hard to know whom the warning was aimed at, though. Was he urging restraint on the part of property speculators? Or was he advising us that it’s not realistic to expect a return to the haphazard egalitarianism of the boom, when anyone from a captain of industry to a forklift driver could end up with a quarter of a million in equity?

Not that it matters much. Once a nation of property lovers, always a nation of property lovers, whatever happens in the housing market. You can knock us clean off the property ladder, but you can never take away our right to spend the afternoon poring over other people’s light-filled kitchens in the property pages.


Published in the Irish Mail on Sunday, 23 March 2014

What percentage of ‘no’ do you not understand?


FAR be it from me to take Enda Kenny’s side in anything if it can be avoided, but isn’t Fianna Fáil making a bit too much hay, still, from the Seanad referendum result?

This week, children’s minister Frances Fitzgerald made one or two respectful remarks about the Upper House, which inspired FF to bleat, yet again, that the whole abolition business was a personal crusade on the Taoiseach’s part.

Has Fianna Fáil forgotten that the referendum was defeated by only 42,500 votes? It calls to mind the luckless half of the American population who spent eight years being falsely accused of having elected George W Bush. More than 600,000 people were against Enda’s Seanad “crusade”, but just under 600,000 were with him on it. Not exactly a solo run.


Published in the Irish Mail on Sunday, 29 December 2013

Nosy neighbours


Pope Francis – accustomed to being watched at all times by a higher power

WHAT began as electrifying evidence of international espionage on America’s part is beginning to look like nothing more than plain nosiness.

An Italian news magazine reported this week that the US National Security Agency spied on the Vatican in the time leading up to the election of Pope Francis last March.

The NSA reportedly bugged the phones of bishops and cardinals before the conclave, looking for information under four headings: leadership intentions, threats to financial system, foreign policy objectives, and human rights. The agency denies it.

Of course the Vatican is full of secrets – Fatima and what have you – and who wouldn’t fancy rummaging around in there to see what really goes on? But “foreign policy objectives”? “Threats to financial system”? Would it not be a lot more instructive for the US to study those subjects closer to home?

The NSA begins to come across as a crabbed, curtain-twitching busybody, snooping around in Pope Francis’s businesses for no better reason than that it can’t stand not knowing what everyone else is up to. There’s one of these pests in every community; America is ours.

Secretary of State John Kerry hinted at this on Thursday, saying much of the surveillance was being done on “automatic pilot, because the technology is there and the ability is there”. In other words, they’re listening not for the sake of discovering anything, but because they can.

The Vatican didn’t mind in the least, as it happens. Spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi was quoted as saying the Holy See was not aware of anything about it. “In any case,” he added dismissively, “we have no concerns about it.”

Of course, citizens of Vatican City believe we are all being watched, all the time, by an entity even more powerful than the US government, which might explain the sang-froid.

Meanwhile, a 13-year-old Waterford schoolboy launched his second technology firm at this week’s Dublin Web Summit. Jordan Casey noticed that one of his teachers recorded vital information about students the old-fashioned way, in a book.

“If she lost that book all the information for the entire year was gone,” said Jordan. So he created a web-based application enabling teachers to store the data in the cloud.

Presumably Jordan is aware of this week’s news that the NSA has infiltrated the cloud. But maybe he reasons that it’s unlikely Washington would be interested in the comings and goings of a provincial Irish schoolteacher with all the appearance of power and no actual power… Someone like Enda Kenny, for instance.

Like the Vatican, Kenny has been noticeably unruffled at the prospect of being spied on. Maybe he has a proper sense of his own significance, and doesn’t believe the NSA would want to know what he’s nattering about on his Nokia. Or maybe he believes he can’t do anything about America’s actions, much as his predecessor apparently couldn’t do anything about rendition flights through Shannon, for instance.

But while Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore has grumbled about “friends not bugging friends”, Kenny has been positively docile. He might at least try to give the impression that he minds, one way or another. It would look better.

Kenny has picked only one good fight so far, with the Vatican. But battling bishops quickly pales into insignificance when you’ve allowed yourself to be seen, increasingly, as a pawn.


Published in the Irish Mail on Sunday, 3 November 2013

The serge of Loop Head


YOU could tell a lot about a lighthouse keeper by his clothes. If you were around in 1934, when James McGinley was principal keeper at Loop Head Lighthouse, and if you were in a position to give him the once over, you might have been able to form an opinion as to the character of the Taoiseach’s grandfather, and hence maybe of the Taoiseach himself.

Among the rules and regulations for Lightkeepers, a stern 53-page document issued by the Commissioners of Irish Lights in 1934, are the following stipulations with regard to lightkeepers’ uniforms.

Each lightkeeper was allowed either a fine serge reefing jacket suit and one pair of trousers only, OR a rough serge reefing jacket suit, together with two pairs of trousers.

This goes to show that, perhaps not all that surprisingly really, there were two kinds of lightkeepers – those who favoured aesthetics and those who favoured practicality – and the Commissioners felt it necessary to make allowances for both kinds.

There is no knowing now, all these years later, whether James McGinley preferred the elegance of a good quality serge jacket to the convenience of having a spare pair of trousers. But looking his grandson up and down in a hypercritical manner almost 80 years later – taking note of the unsophisticated pinstripe, the insubordinate hair and that reliable but archaic Nokia that he’s forever being photographed with – you can’t help concluding that this is a family that doesn’t rate appearances too highly.

Enda invoked his grandfather’s spirit on his visit to Loop Head lighthouse last Friday – and not for the first time. James McGinley is one of the recurring motifs of the Taoiseach’s speeches. He mentioned him at that memorable Fine Gael ard fheis in 2007, just before he amazed his party by losing another general election to Fianna Fáil; he mentioned him in his St Patrick’s Day speech on Capitol Hill last year; he mentioned him at his mother Eithne’s funeral mass in Mayo last November; and he mentioned him before a gathering of politicians, schoolchildren and local onlookers at the most westerly point in Clare last week.

“In a way, I feel I have come home here to Loop Head,” he said. “I feel a very strong spirit connection here because my grandfather served here as a lightkeeper but my late mother ran around this patch of grass and my uncle was born here so there is a very strong family connection in that sense.”

The uncle in question, Patrick Joseph McGinley, was also present. It was his first visit to Loop Head since he left the place with his family in 1934, when he was six months old. And in truth, before the lighthouse opened to the public last July, not many people visited Loop Head at all, barring those select few who stayed in the lightkeeper’s cottage, beautifully restored by the Landmark Trust and available for rent at €480 for a weekend.

That has all changed now. There were 17,000 visitors to Loop Head Lighthouse last year, which is very much a mixed blessing for the inhabitants of the peninsula. Those who own pubs, restaurants and B&Bs are glad of it. The rest of us survey the speeding cars, fuming buses and mounting litter and wonder yet again about that much-vaunted “rural tourism gain”.

Such were the numbers last summer that people frequently had to wait up to an hour for a tour of the lighthouse. They were often a little cranky already, by the time they reached Loop Head, having had no idea just how far out it was. They promised the kids a trip up the lighthouse; now they’ve driven 40 miles west of Ennis, the kids are fighting in the back of the car and there’s still no sign of this godforsaken R487 coming to an end. Remote is too small a word for this peninsula, and it’s not often that the story comes to us, as it did on Friday, when the Taoiseach arrived together with the ghost of his lightkeeper grandfather.

There are no lightkeepers any more, of course. The career was made obsolete when the last manned lighthouse in Ireland – the Baily at Howth – was automated in 1996. The last lightkeeper at Loop Head, Brendan Garvey, left in March 1991. And the history of the lighthouse, sadly, is itself a story of forced obsolescence. Loop Head Lighthouse once saved lives; now it makes money. Where once there were lightkeepers, now there are now caretakers, and county council officials, and tourists, and tour guides.

Your tour, presented by a superannuated former Loop Head lighthouse tour guide, starts here. Technically there has been a lighthouse at Loop Head since around 1670. In those days it was merely a signal fire in a brazier on the roof of a cottage (which still stands in the lighthouse complex).

The current tower dates from 1854. It is only 23 metres tall but, because of the towering cliffs on which it stands, its height above mean high water springs (MHWS) is actually 84 metres, and its range is 23 nautical miles. (Note to landlubbers: A nautical mile is a little longer than a mile.) Its character is Fl (4) W 20s, which means it’s a white light, flashing four times in 20 seconds. This, together with its daymark, is how mariners know it’s Loop Head.

The problem is that mariners know it’s Loop Head anyway, because they have GPS. For almost all of the many ships plying the Shannon estuary – from pleasure boats spotting dolphins to massive container vessels carrying cargo to Moneypoint power station and Aughinish Alumina – Loop Head Lighthouse is just for decoration. The lighthouse goes on flashing out its benign communication during all the hours of darkness, and it is benignly ignored. The message makes no difference to anyone.

Towards the end of his speech on Friday, reasoning perhaps that Loop Head was as good a place as any in which to torture a metaphor, Enda introduced the subject of the austerity treaty. “Just as this white light sends out the signal of hope and safety and confidence, may your vote on the 31st be the white light of hope and confidence for the future,” he said.

Then, after high-fiving the local schoolchildren, for all the world like someone who models himself on Barack Obama, Enda quickly surveyed the lighthouse exhibition and then ventured up the tower itself.

It was not clear enough to see the Twelve Pins to the north. Enda gazed south instead, towards the Dingle Peninsula, Mount Brandon and the Blasket Islands. Among those islands is Inishvickillane, once owned by Charlie Haughey – a man who, like Enda, preached austerity but who, unlike Enda, somehow managed to get away with it. This despite the fact that Enda is clearly wearing the worsted, whereas Haughey, had he been a lightkeeper, would have had the fine serge and still somehow finagled the second pair of trousers as well.

Published in the Irish Daily Mail, Tuesday 22nd May 2012