Thursday, February 26, 2009

Lost in translation

The Supreme Court sat last week to hear a case in Irish. While the state has battled for the Irish language in Europe it's not as keen to give it equality when it comes to the hundreds of statutory instruments that are published each year in English only.

Article eight of the constitution clearly says that Irish is the first language of the state. The government doesn't believe this means the courts can tell them when and how to translate laws though. The judgement on this case will take a few months.

Monday, February 16, 2009


A lot of papers use "EXCLUSIVE" tags on stories to highlight a yarn they believe no one else has. My paper doesn't. I think most broadsheets in Ireland don't. I think the reasoning against using the tag is that every story, in theory, should be somewhat exclusive and there should be no need to shout about it.

It can also look daft putting an exclusive tag on a story if five other papers published on the same day have the same story. One of the most bizarre uses of "EXCLUSIVE" was the splash of this weekend's Sunday Independent. The paper "revealed" that Anglo Irish Bank loaned 300m euro to 10 individuals to buy its own shares. Some scoop eh?

Except the story looks remarkably similar to Tom Lyons' story published four weeks previously on the front page of the Sunday Times. It's also been reported in the Sunday Business Post and others like the Indo has also followed up and reported that it had been raised in an Oireachtas committee.

So the Sunday Independent report a four week old story like it's new. I don't get it.

Meanwhile we followed up on Tom's original story this weekend with a story revealing the regulator and other state bodies knew about the deal and gave it the OK.

The Regulator's response to the Sunday Times story can be seen here. This statement, issued on Sunday, is a classic case of what is known as a non-denial denial. The Regulator says it rejects the story but then in the second line of its own statement it contradicts itself and admits "the Financial Regulator and other authorities were aware of a large CFD position held in Anglo Irish Bank shares in 2008 and steps being taken to have it unwound".

Brian Cowen confirmed today in the Dail that the Reglator knew about the deal and approved it based on legal advice from, guess who, Anglo's solicitors.

"Mr Cowen said the Financial Regulator got legal advice from Anglo's advisors that this was a legal transaction and that was accepted at the time. "

This story will run and run. Click here for a full overview of the state's involvement in this mess from the Sunday Times last week.

Meanwhile, my favourite story from last week came via the Comptroller & Auditor General Report on the cost of the tribunals which is essential reading for us tribunal nerds. The report was published on Thursday and got extensive coverage in Friday's newspapers mainly due to the overall cost estimated to top 430m euro.

Thankfully there was some detail left over for the Sunday papers including the fact that Jerry Healy and John Coughlan have earned 1 million euro more than they should have in the last six years due to a typo. The Moriarty Tribunal has at least six months left in it so it really is the typo that keeps on giving. By the way this wasn't an exclusive. John Burke in the Business Post also spotted this detail buried in the report.

Finally, I wrote about a wave of Pyrite cases that are coming down the line for developers who used infill which contains this material which allegedly causes cracking in the walls and floors of homes. You can tell from the solicitor's letter we received from Logancourt that developers are not keen to be publicly associated with pyrite.

If your house is affected by pyrite though and you're not involved in the Menolly cases that have been rolling on for some time then I'd be very interested in talking to you. So by all means email me.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The return of Gama and other yarns that made the website

There is no doubt that finding the Irish edition of the Sunday Times online is a bit of a struggle. It's by the way. It doesn't really roll off the tongue. We are looking to get a simple address but I don't know if that will happen any time soon.

One yarn from last week that didn't go up on the site was about Gama. Remember them? Well hundreds of Turkish workers haven't forgotten their time in Ireland and are suing for unpaid wages amounting to over 40m euro. Click above if you want to see the story about the case which will be in court in a few weeks.

We are always told that we need to have a mix of "lighter" stories in the paper. It can be more challenging finding a light story that is interesting than a serious one sometimes. So a trip to the cinema last week unearthed one of these less serious stories in Liffey Valley. Vue now have screenings of films for "adults only" despite the film being classified 12A or 15A. Personally I've never had a problem with kids in cinemas. I've seen a lot of drunk or rude adults chatting through films though. I don't like the extra 1.5o euro charge either.

Last week's biggest story was the pension levy. In the Sunday Times we've written several stories highlighting how the public sector pay has left the private sector far behind in the last decade. The amount of the state's finances going on public sector pay grew to €18.8 billion for 2008. An ever increasing amount of this was going to pay the "unfunded" public sector pensions so it was inevitable the government would make changes in this area with the economy going down the tubes.

The knock on effect of the pension levy is going to be huge and may involve a lot of industrial action. We wrote that up to a 1,000 gardai may retire this year because, well, it makes sense to a lot of them to get a pension of half their pay and go look for some other work rather than see a huge chunk of their wages disappear from March.

One other garda related story from last week is about a personal injury claim garda Damien Green is taking. That is just one incredibly sad story.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Moriarty and seeking asylum in Ireland

Things are getting very interesting with the Moriarty Tribunal which has spent over a decade investigating the award of the state's second mobile phone license to Denis O'Brien's Esat consortium. It's difficult to get people interested in this but it is going to be a huge story later this year. We've already reported that the provisional findings are critical of the civil servants involved in the award of the license.

John Burns has done a good review of some of the key evidence here. Basically a lot of people's reputations are on the line now.

Legal restrictions prohibit us from going in to the details of the provisional findings although it seems a lot of this will finally be aired later this month as new hearings will be held for new witnesses. Other witnesses will be recalled to clarify evidence already given.

Last Friday the tribunal called journalists and other parties shortly before 10am to say they were having a brief hearing to serve a summons on Christopher Vaughan, an English solicitor. I got the call at 9.55, hopped on my bike and was in the tribunal room by 10.01. Other journalists did make it down as well. See Colm Keena's report in the Irish Times. The net effect of this hearing was that we learned that Mr Vaughan will be one of a number of witnesses who will be appearing down at Dublin Castle in the next few weeks. It seems various parties are scrambling to have new evidence heard which they hope will have an affect on the provisional findings that Justice Moriarty has issued already.

Alan Dukes may be one of these witnesses if some civil servants who want his recall get their way.

On a different subject.... a case that has got a lot of attention as it trundles through the courts system is that of Pamela Izevbekhai from Nigeria . She is is seeking asylum for herself and her two daughters. Asylum law is one area where public and media pressure can have a huge role in influencing the outcome as Justice Ministers have the final say. As Izevbekhai is receiving such positive media coverage in general we tried to look at her case from a different/cynical point of view.

Every couple of years there seems to be high profile deportation case that grabs public attention. Great Agbonlahor, the autistic Nigerian boy, was deported despite legal action and widespread media support. Before that Kunle Elunkanlo was deported but Michael McDowell did a U-turn and he is now back in Ireland and working for SuperValu.

The Nigerian ambassador spoke to me last week about the Izevbekhai case. The Nigerians are obviously enough frustrated at how Nigeria is being portrayed in the Izevbekhai case and the ambassador promised to investigate Izevbekhai's claims that her in-laws want to perform Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) on her daughters.

A quote from the ambassador that didn't make it in to print because of space constraints was an assertion that FGM is not a serious issue in Nigeria and is restricted to "primitive" areas. This goes against all the independent evidence as quoted in the larger piece we did that shows that nearly 60% of girls are subjected to this in some parts of Nigeria. Amnesty International, who are supporting Izevbekhai, have told me they want to meet with the ambassador to discuss her views on FGM and Izevbekhai. That should be an interesting meeting if it happens.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Planning and dealing with reporters

One other yarn I had last week was about the residents of Creighton Street in Dublin agreeing to withdraw a planning objection for the tidy sum of 1.6m euro.

Understandably a lot of people don't like reporters calling them up. In this case one resident who I asked about the deal to withdraw the appeal from An Bord Pleanala was particularly belligerent on the phone. "I'm not talking to a person who claims to be a journalist," he warned me.

Fair enough point I thought so I offered to meet him in person and show my credentials. But this was met with a "I'm not helping you find out anything," before he hung up.

Despite the hostility from the residents I got the details about the settlement from another source in time to do the story. So I don't know what is the best tactic for a normal Joe Public who comes on to a hack's radar for some reason or another to do with a story.

I suppose it depends on how much information the journalist has as to whether the ostrich approach works when Joe Public's preference is not to be the centre of a newspaper story. For the Creighton St story I think the residents I called might have helped themselves if they'd explained why they'd done the deal. It would have given more balance to the story anyway. A journalist would say that though.

The refusal to talk option does work sometimes. There is one story I'm working which is dynamite stuff but the guy at the centre of it, who I'd need to talk to to confirm the details, has told me there is no way he'll talk. I'm not sure how to proceed on that one because after two abruptly terminated phone calls and one email I think any more contact could reasonably be considered harassment.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Roscommon and paying double for music

Last week's incest and neglect case in Roscommon is the most disturbing case I've covered. Barry Andrews, minister for children, was quick to react and by Saturday the HSE announced it was to hold an "independent" inquiry with a report due in six months. How the HSE allowed the six children to remain in that house when social workers were visiting them regularly is difficult to believe and a full explanation is needed.

While Andrews has moved quickly on this it is amazing that the HSE or his department didn't brief him about this case before it came to court. He only heard about it through media reports last Wednesday. You also have to wonder how independent a four person inquiry which contains two HSE officials will be. These are two reasonable points that Alan Shatter, Fine Gael's spokesman on children, has made.

Mairead O'Shea in Roscommon reported from the mother's trial for us in the Sunday Times as we covered the the legal issues and fallout surrounding the case in a focus piece.

There are restrictions over what can be said about parts of this case because of pending legal action.

One person I spoke to in the area from which this family lived was the local priest.

He told me: “People would know there were problems but nothing like what came out [in court]. People round here are no different from other country people. They would help if they knew there was a problem but you don’t interfere with a family unless you’re invited in. The children served mass and I certainly never noticed any difference with them and other children.”

One of the neighbours Mairead interviewed told us that because people knew social workers were involved with the family, people presumed any difficulties were being addressed.

By being aware of that we put our faith in that system and felt that this isn’t happening without anyone knowing,” said the woman.

From the political rhetoric from last of week it seems the biggest knock on effect of this case may be that it seals the argument for the need to have a referendum which could give children's rights a firm place in the constitution.

The shadowy "right wing Catholic group" who supported the Roscommon mother's quest to keep her family together in 2000 have finally given those (such as children's rights groups) who want a change in the constitution a shocking case to illustrate their argument. We actually don't know how much the current constitutional position of the family as a sacred institution hampered the HSE's attempts to take the children in to care. It may have been down to a lack of resources for social workers or simply a bad decision based on the mother's promise to improve but that doesn't matter now.

In other news, hard pressed small businesses are being taken to court for not paying their music licenses for playing radios or CDs by Phonographic Performance Ireland (PPI). The biggest gripe companies have is that most of them are already paying the Irish Music Rights Organisation (IMRO). PPI collects for the record companies and IMRO collects for the artists basically. There is a growing area of litigation in enforcing intellectual property rights in Ireland which I find interesting.

Last year Hollywood studios tried to get in on the act by charging toddlers for watching Disney movies in playschools. They shot themselves in the foot though by not registering their collecting body with the Irish patent office. The recent Thomas Roddy case shows how UPC are losing millions through the prevalence of "dodgy boxes".

PPI are taking the government to court later this year for allowing hotels to have an exemption from public copyright charges in their bedrooms. PPI is also heavily involved in the legal tussle with Eircom down in the four courts over the downloading of music from the web.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

First post


I've been meaning to start a proper blog for some time now.

My first attempt,, is lying in a state of disrepair and neglect and I can't figure out how to pull the damn thing down. I began that blog in 2006 after John Breslin, founder and lecturer, gave a talk to my postgraduate journalism course in NUI Galway on the merits of blogging.

Enthused by John's passion for blogging I set one up myself and started putting up a few articles I'd written for college assignments. Once I started working full time for the Irish edition of the Sunday Times I found I didn't have time to blog.

Almost three years on, and hopefully more time efficient, I'll have another go.

I usually read about four or five blogs regularly and have just discovered Michael O'Toole's impressive new blog on the life of an Irish crime reporter.

Michael's post on death knocks reminded me of my first such assignment down in Monageer in 2007 and the inspiration for this blog's name. Thankfully my line of journalism, which mainly covers legal disputes, doesn't involve too many such knocks on doors in times of tragedy.

In 2007 though, I and hacks from every other paper in the country descended on Monageer after Aidan Dunne apparently killed himself after first killing his wife and two small children. The first person I spoke to in the tiny village was Fr Bill Cosgrave, the priest who raised the alarm when his calls to the family home went unanswered.

After waiting for the rest of the congregation to leave after morning mass I approached Fr Cosgrave. It was three days after the bodies were discovered and the priest was now very familiar with journalists.

"I guess you would be a newspaper man?" he asked.

I had to think about it for a second. I'd been in the job a year but had never been called a "newspaper man" before.

After interviewing the priest over breakfast and getting directions for Poulpeasty, where Aidan Dunne's family lived, I headed for the dreaded death knock. Pulling up outside the Dunne family's remote house I could see the yard was filled with cars and there were lots of people moving about inside. Trying to decide whether to go in, I could only wonder why I was doing the kind of job that requires you intrude in a family's grief at a time like this.

Eventually though I went in and said hello. It turned out the family were very keen to chat and to defend Aidan Dunne's reputation which was already in shreds. In fairness they probably spoke to every paper in the country that week so in that respect it was an "easy" first death knock.

Anyway, about the blog. I hope to maybe give a flavour of what it's like working for a Sunday newspaper in Ireland. Despite the stress of deadlines and the long hours I love working as a journalist. I'll be honest and say if this blog attracts a bit of attention from people who want to tip me off to a story then that would be great too. There's always another deadline coming round the corner.

There are actually quite a few hacks blogging in Ireland now. The first one I came across was Adam Maguire's. Since then the Irish Times have got in to it in a big way.

Looking at some of their blogs it reminds me of the second reason I've been putting off starting a blog. I think journalists have to be very careful about being too opinionated in their blogging especially if it can lead to accusations over the balance or fairness of their reportage.

I don't think Deaglan DeBreadun is particularly opinionated in these pieces (by the way Joanna Tuffy, the Labour TD, is obviously a big fan) but voicing views in a public forum, especially on a divisive topic, leaves a journalist open to accusations of being pro one side or the other. It's a tightrope reporters must walk if they want to blog with some conviction and flavour while not harming their stance as an unbiased journalist.