Why we shouldn’t give the diaspora the vote

This post has been brewing for a while. A letter appeared in the Irish Independent some time ago that took a theme that I’ve seen many times before, and which I’ve begun to form a strong aversion to. Here’s the text of the letter first of all (available here):

If David McWilliams (Irish Independent, December 16) is so concerned about the power of the ‘insiders’ in the political, social, financial and religious networks of Irish life, why did he not have that on the agenda of the recent Irish Global Forum held at Farmleigh?

He knows that for more than a century the networks of Irish life have been going to the Irish diaspora with begging bowls in times of economic stress. I suggest that if he wishes the power of the ‘insiders’ diminished that he offers Irish citizens in the diaspora a vote in Irish national elections.

Most modern democracies with large diasporas have done so. Indeed, some old democracies like Britain and France are now doing the same.

Firstly, this would be a sign of recognition of the contribution made by the diaspora.

Secondly, Irish citizens in the diaspora voting in national elections would hopefully burst the bubble of ‘insider’ personalism that permeates Irish life.

Thirdly, it would give Irish people in the diaspora a sense of inclusion.

Is that too much to hope for?

Bobby Gilmore
Navan, Co Meath

I’ve written about the Irish diaspora previously here, Diaspora, schmiaspora! How about the chickens who came home to roost?, so you can probably guess that based on that article, I am strongly opposed to us providing a vote to the Irish diaspora.

I can’t argue that the letter above may have an attractive proposition to providing the vote to the diaspora as it might dilute the impact of the so-called (by David McWilliams here) “insiders”.

However, what else was the Global Irish Economic Conference organised by the selfsame David McWilliams but one big love-in amongst the “insiders” – both the diaspora and the Irish based?

But that’s really an aside. I’m against providing the vote to the Irish diaspora because they have no true (interest) in how our country is run. The diaspora choose not to live in Ireland, for whatever reason, so why should they be allowed determine the destiny of those who actually do choose to live here (or live here because they don’t have any other options).

The reason that the David McWilliams “insiders” can wield so much power in this country is because those who live here decide to let them.

It takes, I think, about 1.1m people to change the government in this country.

But based on the 2007 election approximately 1.1. people didn’t actually bother to vote at all. That’s enough people to remove the “insiders” completely from Irish life, but those people who have the most to gain by doing so, don’t actually bother.

As the truism, or saying, or whatever goes – “we get the government we deserve”.

On a more positive note though, 507,000 people last year signed up in Facebook to demand a replay for the Ireland v France World Cup playoff game while 46,000 want John Joe from the Late Late Toy Show to fix their clocks.

That’s pretty much half way towards changing how our country is run. It’s a pity so many people just don’t care enough about the things that really matter.


What did your parents teach you about money?

I loved the angle of this recent article on the Get Rich Slowly blog – What did your parents teach you about money? The article referred to a poll they ran on their website – Did your parents prepare you well for financial independence?”

Over 1000 readers responded; the results surprised me a little – especially the 48% number:

  • 17% of you said, “Yes, they did a great job in preparing me.”
  • 17% said, “They did well — I learned the basics.”
  • 18% said, “It was okay, but they missed some key areas.”
  • 48% said, “What preparation for Financial Independence?”

What about you? What did your parents teach you about money – do you think you were well prepared for financial independence?

I have to say that I was – my parents were self-employed as I was growing up, so there was a huge focus on keeping an eye on costs and spending.

The two things I always remember the two key things that I was told as time came for me to leave home and join the working world:

    1. Sort out your pension as soon as you can
    2. Avoid going into debt

And I’ve pretty much followed both of those great bits of advice over the years. So, over to you.


Vodafone are added again to the ValueIreland Overcharging Hall of Shame

I missed out on publishing this addition to the Overcharging Hall of Shame back when it happened, but it’s worth remembering that it’s the highest profile businesses in Ireland that are ripping off their customers the most.

Back in this instance, Vodafone admitted to overcharging their customers. According to this news article,

It has emerged thousands of Vodafone customers were overcharged on their bills in error last week.

The problem was due to a processing mistake in relation to credit card direct debits.

Vodafone has said it has now reversed all charges, and refunded any additional charges that were incurred.

The company is apologising their customers, describing it as “an isolated incident”.

Their last line is curious – “an isolated incident”. Isolated for this week maybe, but not isolated in general for Vodafone – April 2009, December 2004, November 2004, and June 2004 were the 4 other incidents of Vodafone overcharging their customers.

Even better was the headline on other news websites – “Vodafone Overcharges Customers in Error”. Yup, cause they mostly do it on purpose?


In the market for a new car? Here’s some old school advice dressed up as “game theory”

Someone sent me this article from the Irish Times, In the game for the best price, from their Motoring section.

The article tells us that using “a simple game theory technique” we’ll be able to save significant amounts of money if we’re looking to buy a car.

The journalists writes thus about the professor from the US who has developed this “game theory” for buying cars:

The CIA and US government regularly ask his opinion on what the terrorist threat is likely to be from North Korea or what Iran will want to do with atomic energy. So, when he turns his attention to game theory strategies on how to buy a car, it’s time to listen up.

You can read the article for yourself – you should, just to see how to stretch the words “shop around” into a few hundred word article.


Boo hoo – we’re being bullied by Tesco

I’m getting tired of the frequent coverage given to Tesco and how they’re operating, allegedly, in the Irish grocery market. I don’t care really that it’s mostly negative – they’re too big, they’re too powerful, they’re bulling customers, they’re bullying suppliers.

There’s a very very simple solution to all of this.

Don’t shop in Tesco.

If they’ve no customers, they’ve no power, they won’t be too big, and they won’t be able to bully customers and suppliers.

If we (and I mean Irish people here – or maybe just Irish journalists) have a problem with Tesco, stop shopping there. Things would soon change.


The National Consumer Agency Price Comparison Website – RIP – and just as well

It’s some time ago that the NCA admitted that they had to give up on trying to build a grocery price comparison website in order to replace their fairly pointless half years shopping exercise around the country.

In a very weak moment, I did express support in this exercise from an organisation that I have mostly very little faith in, and unfortunately, I guess I should have know that my faith was misplaced.

I’m quite keen on the potential that there exists in Ireland for a grocery price comparison website – I’ve even gone as far as developing what I suppose is effectively a “business requirements document” for what could be achieved with such a site given current web 2.0 type available functions and application.

However, as was indicated by the NCA when they announced their ending of their efforts, any grocery price comparison website needs to get the full co-operation of all of the grocery players in Ireland – a level of co-operation that effectively means them handing over a computer data file of all of their prices countrywide every morning.

There’s no point in having a price comparison website if the prices aren’t as bang up to date as possible.

I had thought that the NCA may have been in a better position to get this co-operation than me so I sent them my ideas in case anything could be made of them.

And very kindly, the NCA did give me a couple of hours towards the end of last year to discuss my thinking on the kind of site and functionality required.

We had some relatively indepth conversations regarding how price information could be gathered and classified – particularly to classify products to allow comparison between branded and non-branded items (e.g. 1l of branded milk compared to 1l of non-branded milk).

In my own professional line of work, I work with applications where daily pricing updates are received every day from multiple external data sources where products are categorised to up to 5 or 6 levels to allow cross-comparisons.

Those that I spoke to were particularly interested in that line of conversation. At the end, while promising to keep in touch and keep me updated on their work, they – at the time – gave me a very positive update on where they were in their own efforts.

Three weeks later, they cancelled the project.

I’m writing about this now because I came across a presentation given by the Chief Executive of the NCA, Ms. Ann Fitzgerald, to something called the Eurostat Conference back in October 2009. At this conference, Ms. Fitzgerald gave some inkling as to how the NCA’s thinking was actually progressing with regards to their price comparison website efforts:

The Agency is currently engaged with retailers in an initiative designed to increase the level and frequency of the information provided to consumers.

The Agency is working to develop a system of frequent surveys, covering each of the main retail groups, which will track the prices of commonly purchased basic food and household products.

This would be delivered through each retail group providing us with the prices that they charge for a pre-agreed list of goods at regular intervals. The prices would be compiled and placed on the Agency’s website so that consumers could compare prices and make informed shopping choices on an ongoing basis. In addition, in order to facilitate consumers who may not have Internet access, versions for newspaper and other media outlets would be made available, so that they could also benefit from the information.

If “frequent surveys” was the way they were intending on developing a price comparison website, then it’s probably just as well they didn’t proceed.

“Frequent surveys” would have been about as useful as their 6 monthly surveys – the data would be out of date almost as soon as it was collected, never mind when the information is eventually published.


Can you define what “traditional Irish food” is?

We went out for boxty a few weeks ago – never again. I was however salivating after reading this article, and only for it was after midnight, I’d have done nearly anything for a “full Irish” there and then. From the San Jose Mercury News in the United States:

Traditional Irish? Think breakfast

Some people have trouble pinning down traditional Irish cuisine. As with many cultures, the stereotypical foods that come to be associated with a people tend to outshine the more authentic fare that is more indicative of a culture as a whole.

For example, the Greek gryo or the Italian spaghetti are generalized “authentic” foods of these regions. Chinese should not be measured by their General Tso’s chicken, nor the Turkish for their meat on a stick. When it comes to the cuisine of Ireland, many people immediately think potatoes, corned beef and cabbage foods that have become synonymous with the St. Patrick’s Day holiday.

However, there are many other delicacies that are representative of Irish descent, particularly the Irish breakfast. A visit to the inns or bed and breakfasts of the Emerald Isle will most likely provide a glimpse into the traditional Irish breakfast. Historically, farmers’ wives would prepare and serve these foods to ensure their husbands would be satiated throughout the morning working hard on the farm. This hearty meal is so filling, that often there is little need for lunch later on in the day.

Irish breakfast consists of a few different menu items:

Rashers: A type of Irish bacon that is more like Canadian bacon than American bacon. It is not cooked to a crisp, and is softer in texture.

Bangers: These are Irish sausages made of beef or pork, spices and rusk (bread crumbs). The bangers get their name from their propensity to bang or burst open while frying at high temperatures.

Black pudding: Americans think of pudding as a dessert food. However, pudding to the Irish is another type of sausage. This dark variety is made from oatmeal, spices and pig’s blood.

White pudding: This consists of pork meat and fat, suet, bread, and oatmeal formed into the shape of a large sausage. It is like black pudding without the blood.

Beans: Irish baked beans are similar to American baked beans cooked in a tomato-based sauce. However, they’re not sweetened.

Potatoes: Boiled, sliced potatoes are served with sliced tomatoes, all warmed in the pan used to cook the puddings and other meat products.

Eggs: Several eggs served sunny-side up and cooked with Irish butter.

Brown bread: This is an Irish soda bread made with whole-wheat flour.

This traditional Irish breakfast can be served with strong Irish tea. Chances are it will be so filling you won’t need much food later on.

What do you think? Is the dirty big fry up what best defines our Irish cuisine? Definitely no beans for me anyway.


Understanding “the angles” when reading the newspaper

Recently, I’m becoming more and more aware of “the angles” or agendas of newspaper journalists when reading their published articles. Some would say that I’m just becoming more cynical. While some angles and agendas are not always obvious, you would have to sometimes wonder where a journalist is coming from when they’re writing a story.

So, as an example, when a journalist wants to address the issue of mobile phone charges being very high in Ireland – say 3 or 4 years ago at the height of Rip Off Ireland, they won’t accept the networks reasoning that it’s because Irish people talk more. As far as they’re concerned, it’s because we’re being charged more. It’s good to knock the networks after all.

ARPU – Average Revenue Per User

One thing to remember here is that the measure of how much a consumer is charged, as calculated by the mobile companies, is ARPU – average revenue per user. This ARPU value is made up of two factors – the actual charges for services levied by the networks, and the amount of those services availed of by the consumer. So, a high charge with low usage, or a medium charge with medium usage, or a low charge with high usage could all provide the same ARPU calculation.

But back to angles and agendas!

Say in 2006, the ARPU for Irish mobile users is said to be high compared to Europe – this is can only be because Irish mobile users are being charged more for their services – not that they’re using the services more. Dan White of Independent Newspapers wrote about this way back then – The €300m mobile rip-off.

But say that in 2010, the ARPU value for Irish consumers has fallen by 8% and from €49 in 2005 per month to €37.40 now *, then this can only be because the “Irish cutting back on the auld chat” according to the very same Dan White of Independent Newspapers.

In 2006, Mr. White had this to say:

The massive margins being earned by Vodafone and O2 in this country are costing Irish mobile phone users about €300m a year.

Further proof that Irish mobile phone users pay over the odds is provided by the fact that the average European ARPU is just €30.26 a month (€363.12 a year), compared to an Irish average of €47.37.

Whereas in 2010, when the Irish ARPU has fallen to a level that is still above what the European ARPU was back in 2005 (not commented upon strangely), there is no chance that the increased market competion amongst the Irish mobile market participants is given any credit for this drop. If you’ve knocked the networks before, you can’t obviosuly give them any credit now.

In 2005, we had Vodafone and O2, with a little bit of Meteor pre-paid, in the Irish mobile market. We now have a much stronger Meteor, along with 3 Mobile, and Tesco Mobile, all providing strong competion to Vodafone and O2.

But this isn’t even entertained by Mr. White – he strangely now accepts the logic rejected back in 2006 that the usage costs of Irish mobile users is dependent on how much we use, and by extension, nothing to do with the level of charges applied by the mobile companies. He’s now on the side of the argument he dismissed back in 2006 and now uses it to justify a position he cannot back up in 2010:

Having long been the most prolific mobile phone users in Europe, it seems the recession is teaching the Irish to cut back on the gab.

And as we all know, competition can and frequently does bring down prices. So, Irish consumers could actually be getting the same mobile services from their providers as they were in 2005, but are just paying less for them.

As just one example, I’m paying less on a monthly basis now that I was 2 or 3 years ago, but I’m getting vastly more for my less money now than I was for my more money back then. My ARPU for O2 would be down, but I’m not using their services less.


What would it take for you to switch your bank?

There’s a lot of talk these days about how our choice in banking is slowly but surely being eroded with the closure of Halifax, Postbank, NIB branches, First Active and the looming threat that both AIB and Bank of Ireland will engage in massive branch closures to save cash.

On that basis, this post may not be all that timely – but I guess after years of recording incidences of where banks repeatedly gouge their customers through multiple overcharging scandals, this post may never be timely in Ireland.

Is there anything that would make you change your bank account – assuming that knowing that your bank is quite likely to steal your money from your account for themselves won’t do it for you.

This article from the Get Rich Slowly website, What Does It Take to Make You Switch Banks?, asks that very question and poses a few scenarios. Are there any of the following points that would cause you to switch your banks:

  1. Higher interest rates on borrowings than the competition?
  2. Lower interest rates on savings?
  3. Poor customer service?
  4. Length of history with your current bank?
  5. The principle of the thing?
  6. Accessibility – particular now with branch closures

Another way of looking at this would be if you imagined what a bank outside of Ireland might be thinking when looking at Ireland to see if it’s worth coming into the market.

We’re going to hear much bleating in the coming weeks and months about the reduction in competition in the banking market, but if people aren’t inclined to switch banks (even during times when we had plenty of competition), what’s the point in calling for more competition if most people are going to stick with the old unreliables?


How to get free groceries – according to Dr. James Reilly, TD

There was an exchange in the Dail last week (as recorded on KildareStreet.com) where Dr. James Reilly, Fine Gael TD for Dublin North provided an insight into how consumers can get free groceries.

James Reilly
I wish to raise two matters. First, as a result of all the recent hospital bed closures around the country, people have to wait even longer for service and lie on trolleys for even longer then they did hitherto. Will the Taoiseach inform the House when the eligibility for health personal services Bill will be introduced? Will he consider inserting a provision in that Bill that if a person is waiting more than two hours in an accident and emergency department, he or she should not have to pay the fee of €100?

Bernard Durkan
Hear, hear!

James Reilly
There is a precedent for such a provision. If customers are waiting in some supermarkets for longer than 25 or 30 minutes, they will not have to pay for their groceries.

I must say, this is a new one on me. Does anyone know which supermarkets provide this service?


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