#BookReviews


A new book by Julien Mercille (University College Dublin) has just been published by Routledge which might be of interest to readers of this blog: The Political Economy and Media Coverage of the European Economic Crisis: The Case of Ireland.

The media have played an important role in presenting government policies enacted in response to the economic crisis since 2008. This book shows that the media have largely conveyed government views uncritically, with only a few exceptions. Throughout, Ireland is compared with contemporary and historical examples to contextualise the arguments made. The book covers the housing bubble that led to the crash, the rescue of financial institutions by the state, the role of the European institutions and the International Monetary Fund, austerity, and the possibility of leaving the eurozone for Europe’s peripheral countries. The Irish Times, Indo, Sindo, Sunday Business Post, Sunday Times and RTE are all covered.

The book is available here (use code FLR40 for 20% discount) and here.

Reviews

“A book of record… An exceptionally rare example of an academically rigorous analysis forcing the powerful light of transparency and exposure into the murky world of Irish policy advocacy and punditry… A captivating account.”
Constantin Gurdgiev, Trinity College Dublin

“One of the most important political economy books of the year… Set to become the definitive account of the media’s role in Ireland’s boom and bust.”
Dr. Tom McDonnell, Macroeconomist at the Nevin Economic Research Institute (NERI)

“Tells the story of the economic crisis well and explains the media’s role in convincing the public that it was all very complicated and that government policy can do little to improve the situation.”
Dean Baker, Center for Economic and Policy Research

“Anyone who cares about democracy and economic policy should read this book and be deeply worried by it.”
Mark Blyth, Professor of International Political Economy, Brown University and author of Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea

“A stinging critique of how Irish media narrowed the debate on crisis and austerity.”
Seán Ó Riain, Author of The Rise and Fall of Ireland’s Celtic Tiger

“Outstanding research… Meticulous, balanced and clear.”
Costas Lapavitsas, Professor of Economics, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London

“Engaging, lively, critical… A must read.”
Professor Rob Kitchin, National University of Ireland Maynooth

“An invaluable concise history of Ireland’s public discussion of economic issues.”
Terrence McDonough, Professor of Economics, National University of Ireland Galway

BeyondPebbleIn May 2011, I posted a review of the book Redrawing Dublin by Paul Kearns and Motti Ruimy (Gandon Editions, 2010). In it I critiqued some of its arguments and its wider approach to urban regeneration. In recent weeks, the authors of Redrawing Dublin have published a follow-on book – Beyond Pebbledash  (Gandon Editions, 2014). The book offers a re-working of some of the arguments contained in Redrawing Dublin and has been published to parallel an artistic installation involving the recreation of a façade of a pebbledash house in Collins Barracks (see more here). Given this publication coincides with some of the key challenges of the present time and that in the introduction to the new book the authors have also made reference to my original critique of Redrawing Dublin, below I have taken the opportunity to engage in some of the arguments it presents. This is particularly focused upon the newer parts of the text.

As with the timing of Redrawing Dublin, this is an apt time to question the future of the built environment in Ireland, albeit for what are now largely different reasons to 2010. The built environment encompasses and is bound up with so many of the challenges facing Irish society that it becomes difficult to untangle the various elements. That the Beyond Pebbledash project seeks to engage with these challenges – not least through engagement with local schools – and the wider challenge of urban discourse should be commended. Moreover, that the project challenges the dominance of the three-bed semi-detached house and its relationship to market-led approaches within debates about housing should also be welcomed. However, I contend that from the perspective of creating a socially balanced and sustainable city, the central arguments contained within Beyond Pebbledash offer a questionable policy approach. Although setting out to be somewhat playful in its approach, the driving force, or central premise, of this book is to promote the city for middle-income and upper-income family living. While I don’t take issue with this in and of itself, I argue that the manner and extent to which it is being pushed is in danger of exacerbating the very problems the authors seek to challenge.

In setting out this critique, it is acknowledged that Dublin, as with other urban centres in Ireland, faces considerable challenges. The following is therefore not in defence of urban sprawl or, indeed, opposed to the densification of the city. There is a significant amount of merit to a dense city core, including walkability, the potential for cycling infrastructure etc. That increased apartment size would improve quality of life is also something worth taking very seriously. However, it is one thing to promote high-density living, but to fetishize it as being representative of the virtues of middle- and higher-earner lifestyles enters dangerous territory. Instead, as briefly outlined at the end of this review, we need to look very carefully at the connection between factors of governance, justice and their relationship to the city in addressing the future of the built environment in Dublin and other Irish towns and cities.

As argued above, the central premise of Beyond Pebbledash is to promote the city for middle- and higher-income earners. This is used in conjunction with high-density living as a means of conveying what the authors perceive as a more livable city. This is most strongly articulated through the representation of the future of the Georgian core. Here, the authors argue that policy should promote Georgian Dublin as a living quarter for middle-income and, more particularly, higher-income families. This, they argue would help to promote social-mix in the city through a form of trickle-down effect: “Attracting higher-income families back to the city would assist in consolidating, often fragile, residential living elsewhere in the city centre and inner city. Dublin’s Georgian red-bricks along Upper Mount Street and other streets may, in time, become the fashionable equivalent of the New York brownstones” (2014, p.158). That this is fostered as being the end-state of Dublin is severely questionable policy-making. That one particular social group, who already have a significant advantage in the selection of housing, would become the central feature of policy making represents a severely imbalanced approach to urban regeneration – not the social mixing they seem to believe it will result in. Furthermore, that this is being promoted at a time where housing is becoming increasingly unaffordable for many raises further doubts about its merits as a policy objective. If anything, placing such debates in the context of the recent social trajectory of New York brownstones highlights how such approaches result in an increasingly unequal city, something that the authors of Beyond Pebbledash state themselves to be opposed to.

In pursuing its arguments, Beyond Pebbledash is in conversation with a number of urban discourses, all of which remain somewhat invisible or implicit. As an example, their perspectives of debates about anti-social behavior and gentrification are summarized as follows: “But the very concept of the desirability of living in an inner-city neighbourhood can often provoke illogical thinking. It’s as if certain areas of the city can never really become desirable places to live in; perhaps worse, they somehow shouldn’t. To suggest otherwise is to risk ‘gentrification’. Residential desirability for some is suggestive of something vacuous, unreal, and denuded of the political earthliness of regeneration.” (Kearns and Ruimy, 2014, p.135). Continuing, and to give emphasis to their argument, the authors refer to this supposed perspective as portraying a “profound bigotry of place.” Here, the authors make it explicit that there is a desire amongst an unidentified group to accept the city as it is.

This, however, is a false-representation of debates about urban regeneration in Dublin and other cities. To take the example of gentrification, it should be made clear that it is not that critical urban discourse somehow wants poor quality urbanism or a city plagued by anti-social behavior. Instead, amongst other factors, critical urban discourse argues that attracting the middle- and upper-classes back to the city (a dominant urban ideology of the last three decades or so) does not actually solve complex social issues. Instead, Kearns and Ruimy aim to depoliticize highly charged forms of urban change and perceive urban transformation as a simple exercise of getting on with so-called difficult decisions. This perspective ignores how bound up these issues are with social class and power. To ignore or dismiss this is not just a matter of dismissing academic arguments, but is in danger of ignoring how the city is shaped, for whom the city is for and who the city should be for in the future. These debates are also not something isolated to one particular section of enquiry, but, as is emphasized by the so-called ‘poor door‘ discussions in the UK lately, are becoming central to debates about the nature of current approaches to urban transformation.

There is a pressing need for policy discourses about city life to challenge the notion that cities can be ‘saved’ by making them more attractive to middle-income and higher-income people, and not to continue reproduce such perspectives. This is a somewhat nuanced debate, but solutions to the tangled-web of urban change – including the social problems discussed in Beyond Pebbledash – need to be led through structural approaches (both in urban and suburban contexts), some of which might be contradictory. In setting out what we as citizens want Dublin to be, and thinking through what might make it better, there is a need to think about for whom it is better for. This would bring us to questions of, for example, justice, land ownership, affordable rents/ownership, and wider questions of governance (including a significant increase in integrated decision-making within Dublin’s four local authorities so to promote inclusive decision-making). Such approaches would not preclude social mix, but would be aware of the importance of looking at social context when implementing such policies. When taken in combination, such approaches must also be seen in the context of wealth redistribution and its impact upon reproducing urban society.

There is already evidence that policy is seeking to look at alternative models of urban transformation, and possible departures in this regard have recently been outlined by Dublin City Council. There is no reason that these approaches could not include the re-use and densification of development parcels in the city centre. However, in so doing, it must seek to achieve a balanced approach and not an approach that is based on the philosophy that the attraction of middle-income and high-income residents will solve its issues. While Kearns and Ruimy perceive their approach as leading to a balanced social structure, evidence from cities such as London would point to the opposite. Indeed, unless policy seeks alternatives to this discourse, we may well be looking at a greater level of social polarization in the coming decades. Given its levels of vacancy, Dublin, of all cities in Europe, has a chance to take a different approach. The answers to this involve looking at alternative structural models which question the roots of challenging social issues such as inequality and promote the means to alter them.

Philip Lawton

While Irish Independent advertisements suggest that the difference between Greek and Irish responses to austerity is a matter of individual choices, new research from NUIM Dept of Sociology indicates that matters are a little more complex than that. Understanding European movements: new social movements, global justice struggles, anti-austerity protest, published today by Routledge and edited by Cristina Flesher Fominaya and Laurence Cox, is the first systematic attempt to situate Europe’s anti-austerity movements in their historical and cultural context.  Cristina Flesher Fominaya (Aberdeen) starts a two-year Marie Curie fellowship at the Dept. of Sociology in September, working with Prof. Sean O Riain on a comparison between anti-austerity movements in Ireland and Spain, while Laurence Cox co-directs the MA in Community Education, Equality and Social Activism, jointly based in Sociology and Adult and Community Education.

Understanding European movements is the first publication from the Council for European Studies’ research network on social movements, which is chaired by the two editors and brings together 178 scholars from 23 countries and 18 disciplines working in the field. The book’s
15 chapters include authors based in 11 countries whose analyses are all grounded in ethnographic and historical research on these movements – in Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Romania, Spain and the UK as well as transnational relationships. The book offers a comprehensive, interdisciplinary perspective on the key European social movements in the past forty years and sets present-day struggles in their longer-term national, historical and political contexts. Its four sections discuss the European tradition of social movement theory, the relationship between European movements from 1968-99 and contemporary anti-capitalist movements, the construction of the “movement of movements” within the European setting from the late 1990s onwards and the new anti-austerity protests in Iceland, Greece, Spain and elsewhere.

The book will be launched by leading social movements scholar James Jasper (CUNY) at the CES conference in Amsterdam next month. Other network events at the conference include two mini-symposia, five panels, a workshop and a roundtable on understanding contemporary waves of protest. Together with the ECPR’s and ESA’s standing committees on social movements, the CES network is also organising a symposium on social movements and the European crisis at the Transnational Institute, Amsterdam.


Cristina Flesher Fominaya and Laurence Cox, eds. (2013) Understanding European Movements:
New Social Movements, Global Justice Struggles, Anti-Austerity Protest. London: Routledge (Advances in Sociology series).

304 pp. hardback, ISBN 978-0-415-63879-1

Ireland is bankrupt and the IMF team headed by Ajai Chopra has flown to the country to negotiate the terms of the bailout. Amongst their number is an Irish-American who is a more than a little bemused by his ancestors approach to finance and public service. He is given the task of shadowing the head of the Department of Finance, Dermot Mulhearn, during the negotiations and is then left in place to monitor progress when the rest of the IMF team leave town. Mulhearn’s priority seems to be to maintain a certain kind of lifestyle for the civil service and to protect his various perks and assets such as investments in apartments, hotels and a room full of voting machines, rather than to broker the best deal he can for the country. The politicians on the other hand seem totally clueless, dancing the last waltz as the walls come crumbling down around them. Instead it is left to the Eighty Five Billion Euro Man from the IMF to go through the books and to try and get civil servants and politicians used to the high life to change their ways. Mulhearn and his cronies however have a touch of the Sir Humphries about them and they’re not about to simply lie down and roll over.

Based on the @IMFDublinDiary Twitter feed and stories in The Mire, The Eighty Five Billion Euro Man is a satire/farce, starting with the IMF’s first visit to Dublin and ending just a few weeks after Enda Kenny took office as Taoiseach. It covers a whole range of different events and parodies both the civil service and leading politicians. The story is told mainly through dialogue heavy scenes that work well to capture some of the absurdities, ironies and tragedies of the bailout and subsequent political shenanigans. There is a lot to like about the novel. Some of the scenes are very amusing and the caricatures of some politicians are particularly well done, for example, Brian Cowen, Mary Coughlan, Brian Lenihan, Michael Noonan and Joan Burton. However, the plot is a little uneven, with the tail end of the book, in the lead up to the election and afterwards, notably weaker (partially because it starts to stray too far from the situation it seeks to satirise – especially Mulhearn running for election). The level of satire also varies a little and whilst it is very amusing at times it’s never quite as biting or cutting as it could be, and it doesn’t have the sophisticated wit and cleverness of a political satire like Yes, Minister. Given the in-jokes, I’m also not sure how easy it would be for someone unfamiliar with Ireland to follow some of the scenes. That all said, The Eighty Five Billion Euro Man is a recommended read for anyone who is interested in the crash in Ireland and the government response. It’s an amusing read and provides a counterpoint to the dry journalistic accounts that have dominated the shelves to date.

Rob Kitchin

In 2006 Ireland was riding on the back of the Celtic Tiger phenomena. The country was booming. The sky was full of cranes, unemployment was the lowest in Europe, everyone seemed to be driving a new car, and shopping trips to New York seemed normal. Fast forward to the end of 2011 and the country is in a very different place. One of the biggest banking busts globally led to the country being bailed out by the troika of IMF-ECB-EU and the effective loss of economic sovereignty. Unlike most of the rest of the global financial crisis that started to unfold in 2007, Ireland’s economic crisis was not tied to the packaging and reselling of complex financial derivatives linked to sub-prime loans in the US. Rather it was a good, old fashioned property bubble grossly inflated by access to global inter-bank lending, very poor financial regulation, tax incentives, laissez faire planning, and greed. Ireland’s banks, hungry for profit and growth, started to believe the rhetoric of developers hungry for capital to buy land and build property, and lent out massive sums of money. Risk assessment, due diligence and basic market analysis were pushed to one side. The result was huge profits, high stock price, massive lending way in-excess of deposit books, and enormous over-exposure to property. As the global financial crisis started to bite, the Irish banks and their lending came under scrutiny. Large institutional shareholders, investors and depositors started to get nervous. Share price dropped, money flowed out of the country, and investors wanted repaying. A run on the Irish banks seemed likely. The Irish government stepped in with a bank guarantee scheme, offering a national guarantee to all deposits and investments (to the tune of €440 billion). Next followed a calamitous set of decision-making that ultimately led to recapitalisation and nationalisation of the banks, the formation of NAMA, effectively a state bad bank, and the country being bankrupted. Bankrupted being the right word, since by tying the state to the Irish banks through the guarantee, the country was wedded to their dwindling fortunes.

Anglo Republic tells this tale through a forensic examination of Anglo Irish Bank. Anglo was the financial darling of the Celtic Tiger years. It grew from a small investment bank to become the third largest bank in the state. Each year it posted record profits and its share price grew accordingly. And more than any other bank its growth was tied to the property sector. Analysts were flabbergasted at its performance. Rather than questioning its business practices, they instead invested. Here was a bank that had seemingly found a magic formula. As Simon Carswell’s book reveals, however, it’s success was built on poor foundations and dodgy practices. Anglo was dependent on persistent high growth in the Irish economy to keep its house of cards upright. As soon as the economy started to slow, it started to fail. And it started using all kinds of tricks to keep the cards in place, including shifting money on and off the books when accounts were being audited and lending money to borrowers to buy shares to keep the share price up. If things were bad in the bank, things weren’t much different outside with the financial regulator, Central Bank and Department of Finance all working to keep a dying entity alive. Anglo was viewed by the Irish government as a systemic risk to the state and could not simply wound down. Its balance sheet was equivalent to 60% of Irish GDP (Lehman Brothers was 7% of US GDP), and represented a fifth of the banking sector. Globally, no bank that represented such a large proportion of a country’s banking balance sheet had failed before. All told, an entire year’s worth of tax receipts were pumped into Anglo and promptly written down, never to be seen again. When Carswell chose the subtitle, ‘Inside the Bank that Broke Ireland’, he was being literal.

Anglo Republic is a fascinating read for anyone interested in the present Irish crisis and how it unfolded from a wider banking perspective and within a single financial institution. Carswell has amassed amount of information on the company and how it operated, included access into board meetings, email between key players and dozens of interviews. He does a very good job at putting a shape to all this information, producing a compelling narrative that details what went on in and outside the bank. Crucially he manages to weave the main characters, their motivations and actions, into the story to lift the book up out of a rather dry history. Sean FitzPatrick, David Drumm, Sean Quinn, Pat Neary and Brian Lenihan all figure prominently. What is particularly interested is the ways in which FitzPatrick, Drumm and Quinn schemed to try and save themselves and their personal fortunes whilst trying to keep a sinking ship afloat. Where the book is a little thin is with respect to wider analysis and judgement. Carswell describes in great detail Anglo’s rise and fall, but does little to explain it; he shies away from commenting on the legalities and moralities of actions taken; and he fails to state how he thinks the system needs to changed to stop such a situation arising again. Overall, a book heavy on factual narrative that provides a very useful descriptive analysis of a banking and state failure. It’s also a book that should perhaps come with a health warning: ‘likely to make your blood boil’.

Rob Kitchin

Since its publication in late 2010, Redrawing Dublin by Paul Kearns and Motti Ruimy, has received a considerable amount of attention from the architecture and planning community in Dublin. For example, in supporting its publication, the Architecture Foundation drew on aspects of the book in formulating questions for their online polls. This was furthered by an evening of commentary by 20 ‘Dublin Voices’ in early March. Roughly a week later, the book also formed the focal point of a seminar organised jointly by Gradcam and UCD Humanities Institute. This high-profile status is also evidenced by the list of sponsors outlined in the opening pages of the book, such the British Council (presumably linked to their opencities project), The Arts Council, and Dublin City Council, along with a number of property companies, such as Urbancapital, Henry A Crosby, and CBRE. It is rare that a book about urban planning and urban design in Ireland receives such a level of attention.  It is therefore likely that this book will have some form of influence on Dublin’s future development. Yet, I find it hard to accept that this would be a positive outcome.

As outlined by the authors (p.15), the book seeks to “…explore the city’s psyche and identity…” and prod and probe “…suburban assumptions and urban prejudices”. The book is heavily illustrated with high quality images and graphics. Moreover, it contains some useful data about the city centre. This includes an examination of the amount of open public space in Dublin, (39%) compared to that which is private (46%), or in institutional ownership (14%). It also stresses the need for a focus to be placed upon more open space for young people within the city centre. These points are well made. However, from a broader perspective, the predominant theme of the book is too focused upon the author’s personal ideals of city-living and it lacks any in-depth background data to illustrate its arguments. These factors detract severely from the book. Indeed, the expression of the authors personal prejudices, which are presented in a manner akin to research findings, becomes tiring and tedious after a time.

At its most severe, the underlying theme seems  driven by a desire to take a cheap-shot at those whose opinions or perspectives the authors disagree with. For example, in discussing the areas of Dublin 1, 7 and 8, which are referred to, collectively and interchangeably, as the ‘Arc of Disadvantage’ and the ‘Arc of Opportunity’, the authors bemoan the lack of attention amongst those on the ‘Academic ‘Left’’ towards issues such as housing and public space: “There may also be a tendency amongst those on the academic ‘left’ that undue concern or interest in clean and safe streets, the delivery of quality homes and affordable local shopping doesn’t quite fit well with any grand ‘structural model’ or academic theory” (p.37). Not to mind the validity of the statement, the authors fall short of stating who the ‘academic ‘left’’ to whom they refer are. The reader is instead left to assume or guess what it is the authors are actually talking about. This is followed up by yet another  gibe: “The elite of the ‘academic left’ in Dublin invariably live somewhere else. It is usually suburban somewhere else, and usually one with clean, green and safe streets.” This tone continues throughout the book, with different groups picked out for attack.

Although less personal, perhaps more worryingly, throughout the book the authors constantly display an unwillingness to accept established ways for life, or social realities, whether suburban or urban, and instead perceive their urban vision as representing an enlightened path. For example, in dismissing what they refer to as the ‘Sub-Urbanist’s’ desire to impose a suburban way of life upon the city centre (something that remains completely unexplained, and that the reader is again supposed to just accept as a given) (p.62), the authors themselves discuss their desire to impose their own vision of urban life in the ‘Arc of Opportunity’. Here, everyone is supposed to adapt to the new trendy forms of what are assumed to be the broader tastes of the new urban middle classes. Everything else is dismissed as nostalgia.

The unwillingness to engage with social realities is perhaps best exemplified by the discussion of ‘gentrification’. Here, the authors introduce their own new term; ‘Gentrivilification’. ‘Gentrivilification’ is used as a means of dismissing those  with concerns about gentrification as simply being afraid of change. The very real fears of those people whose communities suddenly became economically valuable again during the boom, and abandoned once again now, are here simplified and dismissed. Instead, the following argument is put forward; “The provision of better food choice in new supermarkets, employment opportunities, new office blocks, or additional local services arising from a growing population are often dismissed or belittled by the adherents of ‘gentrivilification’” (p.56). Again, there is no data presented to support this statement. Were such concerns really the focus of the regeneration of the city centre during the boom?

The reality of the city image being pursued by the authors is furthered later in the book with a discussion of the importance of the rejuvenation of the city centre: “High-density quality urban spaces is also critical in attracting and retaining creative workers, both Irish and foreign born. Getting the capital city right is a direct investment in Ireland’s economy” (p.123). Again, here the existing field of research is ignored in favour of rhetoric. Research carried out on Dublin in recent years has illustrated that those working in the creative industries have followed a similar path to others; choosing the city centre when younger and then moving to the suburbs at a later stage. Would they continue to live in the city centre if apartments were big enough? Perhaps. However, this highlights the importance of looking at the broader urban region, and developing wider policy solutions, as opposed to just focusing on a particular part of the city. Surely, for example, a bigger question might be about the retro-fitting and updating of existing suburbs so as to promote more sustainable lifestyles? The focus could then gradually be shifted towards higher-densities over time.

While dismissing various perspectives as narrow, the authors themselves constantly display the desire to only look at one aspect of urban life. For example, as a means of illustrating the quality of life of cities throughout the world, the book draws upon the Mercer quality of life rankings, which are wholly focused on ‘expat workers’. The reliance on such rankings gives a skewed picture of life in a city. The authors then use such findings, along with size, connectivity and wealth, to come up with a ‘Supercity’ ranking (p.293). This skewed perspective is taken further when the authors ask the reader to ‘open their mind’ and look at cities that have been “…shunned as being either too exotic, politically incorrect, polluted, overcrowded, dangerous, over-scaled, or just downright inappropriate models of urban living” (p.297). From the central fish market in Tokyo, to the parties of Sao Paulo, the children’s play spaces in Tel Aviv, and the high quality metro system in Mexico City, the descriptions of these cities do indeed sound inviting. However, the authors again seem fixated on ‘detailed design’, ‘the 24 hour city’, ‘a hip sense of style’, and, a desire for public urban order without any detailed analysis of the factors which contribute to such. The factors the authors look at in each of these cities succinctly summarises their ideal urban vision; that which only focuses the parts of cities which are ‘vibrant’ and full of life. The rest is ignored. Indeed, in all the discussion of these cities and Dublin throughout the book, the issue of urban equality is never engaged with in any meaningful manner.

While, from one perspective, the book succeeds in its aim to be provocative, this is merely achieved through its side-sweeps and disparaging remarks about different social groups and professions. It is a form of provocation which attempts to side-line any real debate through the outright dismissal of other perspectives as backward or behind. From a broader perspective, there is very little in the message of this book which is in itself a provocation for a truly new and better type of urban society. Indeed, to a large extent it fits within the dominant policy discourse of recent years (For example, the Economic Development Action Plan is available here).  Combining a mixture of Richard Florida’s ‘creative class’ hypothesis, which includes a heavily diluted element of Jane Jacob’s theories on urban diversity, and a selective slant on the ‘European City’ model, it is a perspective which perceives the city as the playground of those interested in what is considered ‘cool’ and ‘hip’. On one level, it is a perspective which is hard to dispute. Who wouldn’t want to live in safe areas where different people live in harmony? Yet, as witnessed by the total intolerance of any existing forms of place attachment or fears about the future displayed throughout this book, this is less about real diversity and more about the city as a stage-set for those who are ‘trendy’ enough. In summary, what comes across is a city for those who focus on the interplay of old converted warehouses as ‘authentic’ and ‘design-chic’ as the definitive elements of urban life. Most importantly, it is a perspective that never really looks at the development of a more equal city.

While Redrawing Dublin highlights a number of debates which are certainly worth having, such as, for example that on density, its reliance on hearsay and unsubstantiated claims detracts severely from its integrity, both as a source of information and as the focal point for such a debate.

Philip Lawton

Simon Kelly started in property development as a teenager, crunching the numbers for his father, Paddy Kelly, one of Ireland’s best known developers.  He quickly progressed to become his father’s right hand man and eventual partner, specializing in the financial and legal side of the business.  In Breakfast with Anglo he tells the story of the Irish property boom from the developers’ perspective, providing a reasonably frank account of how the property development game worked, focusing especially on the finance side of things and the relationship between developers and the banks, especially Anglo Irish Bank.

Breakfast in Anglo is a curious read.  Kelly has produced a candid, seemingly open, and engaging narrative.  Whilst many elements of the story will rile many readers, Kelly has clearly been on a journey of self-reflexivity and he’s able to step back a pace and set out the ins and outs of the business, his role in it, and to acknowledge his culpability and express remorse for the ensuing disaster of the collapse of the Celtic Tiger.  That’s not to say that Kelly is full of regrets, though he has a few, or that is he rounds on his former colleagues and partners, or is apologetic for his lifestyle or the fact that he knows how to work the system and does, including walking away or sheltering from massive liabilities.  Indeed, it’s clear that even now he has a soft spot for Anglo Irish Bank and many of the staff who worked there, and he’s generous in his praise of those he worked with.  However, by wearing his heart on his sleeve and being straight, the result is a book which as much as one would like to hate it, and as much as the story annoys and riles, and for all its faults and silences, one has to admit was a pretty good read.  That’s not to say that there aren’t issues with the story being told, but that the writing craft and narrative was solid.

As for the story.  Breakfast with Anglo principally tells the financial and deal making side of the building of the Kelly’s property empire.  In particular it focuses on the relationship between the Kellys and Anglo Irish Bank, how they built a complex web of partnerships with other developers and financiers to make different deals work, and how the nature of development changed throughout the boom years.  Told from Kelly’s personal perspective it also reveals how he changed as the business grew and became increasingly disillusioned by the life he was living, but ultimately was unable to extract himself from it.

Where the book is strongest is in its insight into the way in Anglo, the other banks, and the deal making side of development worked.  Anglo built relationships that extended beyond simply servicing business.  It cultivated its clients, gave them royal treatment, bent over backwards to help them out and make financing as easy as possible, but in return demanded loyalty.  They became the bank of choice for developers because they actively facilitated them by building a relationship, cutting through red-tape, and were reactive to their needs.  They also didn’t impose ‘silly rules and restrictions’ as Kelly puts it, by which he means sensible and prudent rules and restrictions.  Some quotes gives the flavour of Anglo’s business strategy.

‘Anglo was the easiest place to source a draft for your bid, and you knew that they would be able to follow up and finance the deal if you were successful.  That was part of their unique service.  The other banks were never as free with that kind of money.’

‘We never had to worry about the money for a deal.  Once the numbers on the deal stacked up, Anglo was there – and sometimes Anglo was there even if the numbers didn’t stack up.’

‘We heard rumours from other developers of the existence of a head of risk, but we didn’t worry about him because he had no power in the bank.  The ADs [associate directors] all wanted to get their own loans through, so they would not stop each other’s.  … If a deal looked tricky, the bank would put up the price of the money but lend it anyway.’

‘In the bank’s heyday, borrowing money from Anglo was easy – provided you were already an Anglo client.’

‘They thought more like developers than bankers.’

Where the book is almost completely silent is with respect to politics, vested interests and planning.  Not one single politician makes an appearance in the story.  The much talked about cabal in the media is developer, banker, politician.  Either the Kelly’s had nothing to do with the politicians or political donations or political lobbying, or this is conveniently dropped from the narrative.  And whilst Simon Kelly might not have been actively and directly involved in this, one would find it hard to believe that he wouldn’t have known what other elements of the firm were up to given the level of interaction and family and partner plotting.  Neither is the role of vested interest groups such as the CIF much discussed and the role of developers in shaping the policy landscape around planning and tax breaks.  And the book is pretty mute on the business of securing planning permissions and working the planning system and bullying local communities through threats of compulsory purchase orders and the like, other than a couple of short notes.  There are hints at how developers played the tax incentive schemes and avoided capital gains tax and stamp duty, but these are in passing and there is no in-depth discussion as to how these were played and exploited.  The story then is selective, rather than the full warts and all promised.  For the book to have been the full expose of what went on, then all these issues needed to be explored in depth.

At the end of the book, Kelly provides ten lessons for the boom.  Interestingly, they all focus on what a developer should remember in order to be successful and avoid crashing.  None of the ten lessons focuses on what Ireland should do to avoid future boom and bust – no mention of the Kenny Report, nothing about financial regulation, nothing about a more robust planning system, nothing about political reform, and so on.  Ultimately, Kelly cannot see beyond the developer horizon.  If after being at the centre of the property development boom and bust, the ten lessons are simply about protecting developer interests, one ultimately feels that despite his self-reflexive soul searching, Kelly hasn’t learnt a lot beyond self-interest.  And he is one of the developers who isn’t still in denial, as NAMA accuses in this morning’s papers.  Unless the cabal of developers, bankers and politicians can start to see the bigger picture beyond their own interests, then one anticipates reading a similar book by a Kelly-wannabe or the next generation of his family in 30 years time.

Overall, a book as interesting for its silences as for what it has to say about property development in Ireland, but an engaging read nonetheless.

Rob Kitchin

It’s a year on from Fintan O’Toole’s damning critique of the Celtic Tiger model of development in Ship of Fools and his analysis of the political and economic decisions that sailed Ireland onto the rocks.  In Enough is Enough he turns his attention to what he sees at the core problems at the heart of Ireland’s present woes and what needs to happen to rebuilt a new republic fit for purpose in the twenty-first century.  Split into two parts, in the first half of the book he argues that there are five myths that shape how Ireland functions – these are 1) that Ireland operates as a Republic, 2) that people are politically represented, 3) that the Dail functions as a parliamentary democracy, 4) that every decent service was delivered by charity and through the church rather than by the state, 5) that Ireland is a wealthy country.  In each chapter, he reveals through polemical argument how each of these supposed truths are in fact self-delusions; that there is in fact deep flaws in the nature of Irish political democracy that require fundamental redress.  In the second half of the book, he sets out five ‘decencies’ that should underpin the ideals of new republic.  These are the decencies of security, health, education, equality and citizenship.  In an appendix he sets out 50 suggestions for immediate actions.

Enough is Enough is an engaging read.  O’Toole writes with passion and at a level that is easy to follow.  The argument is polemical and forceful, and he makes good use of sources and data to back-up his contentions.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, it does feel a little rushed, but clearly this is a book trying to tap into and react to the zeitgeist.  And he makes a convincing case that there are a number of problems with how the Irish political system functions and the ideals that underpin its operation that do need revisiting and revision.  However, whilst he sets out the ways in which he would like reform, it is often at a quite conceptual or abstract level.  Where there are specific suggestions, these often lack sufficient detail as to what changes would need to happen and their consequences.  At a more general level, it is also not clear where the impetus and drive is going to come from to enact the kinds of changes he feels are necessary – it is certainly unlikely to come from the present political classes.  In this sense, the book sets out a broad vision that provides a framing for a more detailed debate, but does not quite set out the road map he wishes for in his opening chapter, nor the mechanisms needed to shift citizens from the present map to his new one.

More broadly, politics and ideals, only gets us so far.  Building a new republic will not simply consist of reconstituting the political base of society and hoping all else flows from that process.  It is clear, to me at least, that we also need to rethink the Irish economic model predicated as it is on a form of neoliberalism.  In other words, the book would have been more powerful if it had been widened to re-envisioning the broader political economy of the country.  Clearly, setting out such a new vision would have been a more challenging task, but one that we undoubtedly need to undertake.  That said, the book is nonetheless an important and timely contribution to the on-going debate about Ireland’s future and it deserves to be read and debated.

Rob Kitchin

 

Wasters is an account of the misuses of state funds, poor governance, organisational failure and cronyism in public bodies in Ireland.  It includes chapters on the growth of semi-state agencies, cronyism and political patronage, ministerial expenses, FAS, HSE, CIE, DDDA/NAMA, PPPs and other ‘bad deals’, and social partnership.  It’s often fascinating, but suffers from a sense that one is reading little more than a name and shame list.  In fact, there is very little narrative beyond an indignant list of issues and their cost to the taxpayer, and the ordering of chapters seems to be somewhat random (in fact, they could be re-ordered and it would have little effect on the read).  At one level this is fine, and provides a useful service, but at another it is a significant shortcoming.

There is very little attempt to explain why the present state of affairs exists beyond a general lack of appropriate governance and oversight, cronyism, corruption and propensity to establish semi-state agencies and public entities.  Analysis is left purely at the level of the implicit and empirical.  I was not expecting a detailed academic explanation of the operations of the Irish state, its political economy, and its underlying ideology – this is after all a general readership book – but I did expect some attempt to make sense of the situation (as with Fintan O’Toole’s Ship of Fools, for example) and to provide a nuanced portrait of the public sector.  In Ross and Webb’s account all public bodies exhibit the same poor governance, and the same levels of waste and inefficiency.  This is clearly not the case.  There are plenty of examples of bodies that do a very good job on limited resources, where senior management have a sense of responsibility and desire to deliver quality services, and do not treat the entity as their own personal piggy bank and jolly expense account.  They also display the same level indignity for all expenses, regardless of whether they are legitimate or not, and the scale of expenditure, with scorn poured equally on a couple of euro for a coffee as for millions of euros on inappropriate property ventures where there are clear conflicts of interest.

More problematic in many ways is that the book makes no suggestions as to what should happen to address the various problems that they identify.  It is simply not enough to say ‘here is the problem and its scale, and it should be dealt with’, as if there is one, obvious solution.  In my view Ross and Webb needed to conclude, not with a sideswipe at the Office of the Comptroller & Auditor General, but rather with a path forward that they would like to see implemented to address the various inter-related issues.

From my own reading, I think the following should happen:

  • There should be a full audit of the total number of public bodies; their role, staffing, costs and benefits (and I know that there’s been the Local Government Efficiency Review Group and An Bord Snip Nua reports.  For a list of public bodies see here).  This is about getting a sense of the size and shape of a public sector that has accreted over many years in odd, contingent ways without necessarily tidying up in the wake of new formations, rather than being the lead in to a simple slash and burn exercise.
  • Where there is duplication or significant overlap in organisation mission and operations there should be mergers and appropriate re-profiling of staffing
  • There should be fully accountability and freedom of information availability for all state-funded entities, including NTMA, NAMA, Dept of Finance.
  • The renumeration of senior staff grades within state agencies and entities should be reviewed.  No public sector salary should be in excess of a government ministers.
  • The awarding of bonuses in the public sector should be scrapped
  • Fees and rates to consultancies and external service providers, including the legal profession, should be reviewed and appropriately capped.
  • All boards should consist of members appointed through a competitive process.  That is, no board should consist of any direct political appointees, but by people best suited to the job because of their experience and knowledge who apply for the position and are interviewed by an appropriate appointment panel.
  • All members of boards associated with public bodies should receive no or very limited renumeration based on ‘real hours’ contributions and expenses should be at cost, based on receipts.
  • There should be no conflicts of interest between board members and other entities they work for or also represent.
  • The expense claims of all employees and board members of any public body should be signed off by an appropriate line manager who is suitably qualified for that task; individual claimants should be legally libel for any mis-use or mis-appropriation of state funds.
  • There should be no business or first class flights for public sector employees and board members and there should be a ceiling on accommodation/food per diems that cannot be exceeded by any state employee or board member.
  • No member of family should be travel on the state’s tab; no exceptions.

These are all relatively straight-forward and easy to implement and do not involve any excessive introduction of an audit society which is often counter-productive, but rather they set parameters and the conditions of good governance.  There are clearly other alternative ways to tackle the issues that Ross and Webb identify and if they had had a go at setting out what they would like to see changed their suggestions would, no doubt, be different to mine. I suspect they would include more about re-inventing some entities, getting rid of some public bodies in their entirety, and introducing rigorous systems of accountancy, oversight, management and governance in terms of key performance indicators, goals and milestones, and the like.

Overall, Wasters fulfils a role in setting out the governance and accountability issues that affect a number of public bodies in Ireland.  Some of the examples will make your blood boil and Ross and Webb provide a great service by exposing some of the excesses and waste.  As a read, however, it really lacks a narrative that seeks to explain why such a system exists and how it should be changed.  In that sense it is a missed opportunity.

Rob Kitchin

In many ways this book bears many similarities to The Banksters by David Murphy and Martina Devlin covering much of the same time period and events. It discusses the crisis currently facing Ireland paying particular attention to the personalities, relationships, political and economic culture, and power relations at the centre of the current storm.  It begins particularly effectively with a prologue highlighting in a very simple way the unhealthy relationship between regulators and bankers, a theme that dominates the book. While other writers have laid the cause of the crisis firmly at the feet of certain individuals, this book differs in that it highlights the systemic failures of the banking system, regulation, politicians and civil service or the ‘mandarins’ as Ross refers to them. In fact, it is the scathing nature with which this latter group are dealt with that particularly distinguishes this book from the Murphy and Devlin text.

The Bankers is an exceptionally well-written and well-researched book and is an absolute pleasure to read. There is a sense that this text was a long time in the making; it is carefully crafted, questioning, provokes thought and pulls no punches. Rather than merely reporting fact, Ross goes behind the scenes and the level of minute detail that he brings to the story is remarkable. It is clear that the author received exceptional levels of cooperation from a range of insiders and it is little wonder that many of them wished to remain anonymous given the information that was provided. The collusion between a range of state agents and the private sector to maintain a system that worked in the interests of those in power (be it political or economic) is breathtaking. Worryingly, one is left with the feeling at the conclusion of the book that not much has changed. While new institutions, such as NAMA are currently being established, the culture that permitted the crisis to develop does not seem to have fundamentally changed.

This book is well worth a read. If one is looking for a basic synopsis of the facts of what has happened in Ireland since the beginning of the international banking crisis, then IDavid Murphy and Martina Devlin’s The Banksters is a basic starting point. However, if one wishes to read a more in depth and nuanced account of how we got to where we are today, as well as one that focuses on the range of systemic failures beyond just the banking sector, then The Bankers is a must-read.

Niamh Moore

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