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Bertie Bails Out The Bores

Posted on: July 28th, 2008

THANK God for the gaffe. It all promised to be oh-so boring. And it was. Until along came Bertie.Bertie Ahern’s silly comment about suicide last week did a power of good to his pals in the unions.

Until Bertie arrived in the seaside resort of Bundoran, the biennial bash for the Irish Congress of Trades Unions was dying a death. It was all meant to be so different. When the Congress bosses booked the venue their choice of Bundoran seemed inspired. The overworked comrades would be able to bask in the Donegal sun and take the odd July swim in the warm waters of the North West.

Problem number one: it rained all week. Justice or just bad luck? Climate change should have been the first item on the agenda, not number 35.

The brethren have not yet summoned up enough courage to hold their conferences in Monte Carlo like the auctioneers, or in Barbados like others, but watch out for a future destination of Havana. Or maybe Damascus, where they could debate the absurd item 71 on the agenda: “Implementing ICTU policy in Palestine”.

The whole of Israel must be quaking in its boots.

No one could blame the comrades for sleepwalking through the pie-in-the-sky agenda. Their health debate starred soporific speakers including Vincent Sheridan of the State-owned VHI and an apparatchik from the Department of Health.

After the scintillating debates the guys put their hands up in time-honoured fashion. Unanimous votes were the order of the day.

None of the media covered much of the conference except the loyal old Irish Times.

Then Bertie arrived.

The Taoiseach had been slotted in to massage ICTU boss David Begg’s ego and depart. The day before, in an effort to stir up a sparkle of controversy, ICTU had warned Bertie that they would go ape if he pulled out of the European Charter on workers’ rights.

Bang on cue, Bertie took the ICTU podium the next day to concede all. He announced that the Government never had any intention of doing so.

A non-story, but it looked like a climbdown by the Government in the face of union demands. A successful conference. Another phantom battle won.

Then Bertie blew it, by rabbiting on about suicide.

The conference came alive.

The radio recordings clearly indicate laughter – not shock – from many of the high priests of morality among the brethren. They thought his remarks funny.

But the media failed to zone in on this embarrassing little reaction to the episode. The media is far too kind to the bearded brethren.

And our competitors in the Irish Times seems to believe that it is their duty to give the ICTU saturation coverage. So let us just say that their editorial treatment of the ICTU sleep-in was generous.

The week before the conference, the paper of record decided to tantalise the nation with a preview of the historic rendezvous in Bundoran.

On Tuesday it gave us a taster with a piece headed “Begg calls for extra mortgage relief ”. What a titillating piece.

On Wednesday, it began a three-part series in honour of Begg’s outfit written more than a week beforehand. Each day it treated us to nearly a full page of copy, previews all sympathetic to the trade unions.

Begg was, not surprisingly, liberally quoted in the series.

I had overdosed on Begg’s baby well before it was born.

But on Tuesday they did yet another short preview. A riveting story told us how inflation was to top the agenda at the three-day conference. Wednesday and Thursday gave more than half-a-page to the totally flaccid event.

RTE and most papers led with Bertie’s gaffe. The Irish Times buried it in paragraph six. On Friday, even the slavish Irish Times could not give the sleep-in more than one piece as the day’s highlight featured the anaesthetic topic of pensions.

No doubt Begg and his cohorts have plenty of clout with the Irish Times, but a question must be asked: If one of the most powerful organs in the State gives such blanket, uncritical coverage to the trades unions, is it any wonder the Government and others are prone to put them on a pedestal?

McGovern will not be missed at the EBS

ED McGovern’s departure from the EBS is hardly a tragedy for its members. I will miss his wife Mary Caffrey’s anonymous, but bilious, interventions at AGMs.

She was the well-spoken lady who aimed to bolster her husband’s stature behind the cloak of her maiden name. But even the loyal Mary Caffrey’s support did not persuade the board to resist Ted’s departure.

And it was right for Ted to resign, not just because of his own and his wife’s crass behaviour at the AGM, but also because of the appalling products being offered by EBS.

Last week, the Make Me Rich column in the Sunday Independent showed how foolhardy it was for borrowers to accept the EBS offer of a grand into their hand for switching a mortgage to the building society.

In nearly all cases the €1,000 would be whittled away within months.

So Ted deserved to be shown the door because of both bad products and poor public performance.

Ted says he had always intended to depart around this time.

Maybe, but Ethna Tinney – the woman who lost out to Ted and his board in a bloodbath at the AGM last April – will happily chalk this up as a scalp. And it is.

Hopefully there will be more scalps to come. Ted may not have been worth a fraction of his €760,000 package – but the boss will be seen as a scapegoat if the same old cabal, led by chairman Mark Moran of the Mater Private, is left in charge of appointing his successor.

The EBS case has similarities to another building society in turmoil: remember the First Active debacle back in 1999 when a third-rate former building society board decided that they, as directors, would stay put while their managing director, John Smyth, set out for new pastures.

In both cases the board is a bigger problem than the boss.

Just last April the directors at the EBS voted to award themselves pay increases. They are now paid €44,000 a year – while their members are stuck in below-par products.

Never has a better case been made for an end to mutual status. Those of us who were once believers in the benefits have been convinced by the behaviour of the EBS that mutuality hoodwinks members, whether borrower or lender.

It is a paradise for the time-serving board.

EBS members must be green with envy as they see their rival, Michael Fingleton’s Irish Nationwide, poised to pay out five-figure sums to each member.

But they are no longer prepared to suffer in silence. Unless there is a complete clearout of the old board, expect moves towards mutuality to begin.