I recently completed a report on the online gambling market in Ireland to investigate claims by PLI that online gambling companies pose a threat to the funding of good causes by the National Lottery. PLI has described those companies as ‘parasites that should not be allowed offer odds on the lottery numbers. For a full copy of the report please click here.




On Tuesday next the Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe will present his third and very possibly the last budget of the current administration. He has been lucky in the sense that the budgets over which he has presided have been prepared against a positive domestic economic backdrop and the global economy has been behaving itself. As a consequence, he did not have to make the difficult choices faced by his predecessors and really only had to decide where to apportion his largesse. However, the stakes are now rising, as the farcical evolution of the Brexit process in the UK promises to do serious damage to important sectors of the Irish economy.
Some of what we have been treated to over the past few days in relation to Brexit should worry us. Arlene Foster’s bizarre comments about the Good Friday Agreement should worry everybody on this island, and particularly those who make their living around the Border region. The stance being taken by Boris is even more bizarre and with every day that passes, the possibility of a very dangerous Brexit outcome is becoming more real.
Paschal Donohoe needs to ‘Brexit proof’ those parts of the economy and those regions that are most vulnerable. Increasing the VAT rate for the hospitality sector would be pure and utter folly and would not take account of business conditions and employment in rural Ireland and the risks they face from Brexit. Between the second quarter of 2011 and the second quarter of 2018, employment in the Accommodation and Food Services sector has increased by 60,400 and the sector now employs 177,100 people, many of whom live in rural Ireland, and particular in the very vulnerable Border counties. To increase the VAT rate for a sector that is so vital to the competitiveness of the Irish tourism product does not make sense. Furthermore, to increase the VAT rate on newspapers would just be another nail in the media coffin.
Michael Noonan and the late great Brian Lenihan have left a strong legacy from their periods in Merrion Street. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the policies they pursued, it is a fact that they presided over the most difficult set of circumstances in modern Irish history and incredibly difficult decisions had to be taken. It is also a fact that the Irish economy today is in the best place for over a decade, and both men should take at least some credit for that. There are obviously many more problems to overcome, but at least we are moving firmly in the right direction.
It remains to be seen what the legacy of Paschal Donohoe will be, but I strongly suspect that it will be a positive one, that is unless he is tripped up by Brexit. I am sure his budget speech next week will contain at least one reference to ‘Brexit proofing’ the Irish economy, and if it doesn’t, then it certainly should. Brexit potentially represents the most significant challenge faced by many sectors of the Irish economy since the crash, and we need to ensure that in the event of a bad outcome, the economy will be as resilient as possible.
Maintaining the special VAT rate at 9 per cent in a sector of the economy that has been so successful in delivering jobs, and one which is now facing immense challenges from Brexit, would make a very positive statement about a real conviction to ‘Brexit proof’ the economy. Any increase in this VAT rate would not be good for the profitability and employment in the hospitality or newspaper sector and would just serve to exacerbate the challenges posed by Brexit. The special VAT rate is a key element of the competitiveness of the Irish tourism sector and should not be sacrificed to trade unions and other interests who seem to have a significant problem with a sector of the economy that supports so many jobs and which is integral to the health and wellbeing of rural Ireland. Of course, an increase in the VAT rate would in the near-term help the public sector unions in their push to increase the public sector pay bill. Please Minister, do the right thing on Tuesday!



In the overall scheme of things, Ireland is a tiny country with a population of just 4.7 million people, albeit a population that is rising strongly. As a country we do many things well, such as attracting foreign direct investment, providing a decent enough education to our children, and we are pretty good at tourism as demonstrated by the fact that this year is likely to see another record number of overseas visitors coming into the country. We have also produced some world-class companies such as CRH, Smurfit Kappa, Glanbia and Ryanair. In recent days the Taoiseach boasted/joked that Ireland would be able to help out the UK after Brexit. I hope he was joking, because the one thing we cannot afford to be in this country is arrogant. We have way too many institutional failures to even contemplate arrogance.
On the debit side of the balance sheet, there are a lot of issues that we seem incapable of dealing with.
In terms of minding our environment and meeting our international environmental obligations, the country just does not cut the muster and unfortunately is languishing towards the bottom of the EU league table. Ireland will go nowhere close to achieving its Carbon emission targets and we will then be exposed to potentially very significant EU fines, or at least I hope that is what will happen, given our abject failure and unwillingness to tackle the issue in a meaningful way. The total failure to address the issue in the recent extremely populist budget, is proof positive of this fact.
This week the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported that 38 towns and villages across the State are discharging raw sewage into the environment, and 28 large towns and cities are discharging inadequately treated sewage into the environment. Is this acceptable in a supposed first-world economy? I think not.
The ongoing failure to provide a broadband service remotely approaching acceptable standards across many parts of the country is also a total joke, but unfortunately one that has serious consequences for regional businesses across the country. The recent political controversy over this issue is just the latest instalment in what has been a tale of woe and gross ineptitude stretching back over many years.
The housing situation is another very significant debit entry on the national balance sheet. Having built thousands of houses in the run up to the crash, unfortunately many of which were in the wrong locations, we then virtually stopped building for a number of years, despite the fact that natural population growth was never likely to die away. We now have a serious crisis in supplying owner-occupied and rental housing and it is starting to do significant damage to the economy and its competitiveness. Earlier this week we were treated to a story about thousands of local authority properties lying idle and unoccupied. This is totally unacceptable. The responsible local authorities need to ensure that such houses turn over and are occupied within a matter of weeks. Perhaps that is too much to ask for, but I remain to be convinced.
On the health side, there is also a litany of failure. Hospital waiting lists are at unacceptably high levels, people are dying waiting for treatments, the primary healthcare system is creaking at the edges and is set to get much worse as the supply of GPs dwindles, and important regional cities such as Waterford cannot provide cardiac care at weekends. I could go on, but it is clear that despite all of the money we throw at the health service, the ability, or lack of it, to deliver an acceptable service is quite depressing. If we cannot deliver an adequate service at the moment, one shudders to think about what it will be like over the coming years as the population ages at a significant pace.
Predictably, some will argue that we simply do not spend enough money in addressing these issues, but there would appear to be little correlation between money expended and improved public services.
On cannot but jump to the conclusion that our institutional structures are all wrong and are not fit for purpose, and that our political system and our political elites are letting us down very badly. Instead of being arrogant about what we achieve, we should recognise and address that which we appear incapable of achieving.



As usual Ireland’s presidential election was a fractious affair, which demonstrates just how worked up and vitriolic people can become in relation to an issue that is of trivial significance at best. The only memorable part of the election and its aftermath was initially the somewhat unorthodox interventions of Peter Casey, which clearly struck a chord with rural dwellers in particular who are fed up of feeling under threat in their homes and in their economic lives, and then the reaction of all the closed-minded liberals in the aftermath of the election result. Less attention has focused on the anti-democratic behaviour of the two largest parties in our system who were afraid to put their own candidate forward and expected their supporters to vote for an individual that many of their voters were deeply uncomfortable with. Strange behaviour, but I guess it just reflects how totally irrelevant the role of President is in the Irish political system.
It remains to be seen how politically enduring Peter Casey will prove to be or indeed if there is any legacy from his spectacular electoral performance, at least viewed in the context of where the opinion polls had placed him prior to the election. The somewhat anti-establishment views of Casey resonated with many people and possibly is just another small indication of some very interesting trends in global politics.
Whatever the significance of Casey’s performance, it is clear that there are strange political stirrings all over the world that could have deep implications for the rest of our lives. The election of Donald Trump and the Brexit vote in the UK are examples, but the list is growing. Austria, Poland, Hungary and Italy now have strong ring-wing governments and are starting to push policy agendas that very definitely do not fit into the rule book of the European Union.
The ongoing spat between the Italian Government and the European Commission over Italian budgetary policy, which has seen the Commission reject Italy’s budget for 2019, is very significant as it poses an existential challenge to the power of the all-powerful and unelected European Commission. It is possible that the Italian government will back down and revise its budget plans, which is what normally happens in such situations, but if it refuses to do so, it could be the portent of much more challenging times ahead for the whole EU project.
Earlier this week one of the most enduring political forces in post-war Europe, Angela Merkel, stated that she is standing down as leader of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) after 18 years and will leave political life in 2021. Merkel has undoubtedly been the sane and sensible leader of the free world in recent years (not a lot of competition) and was a beacon of light in the face of the disruptive politics and behaviour of Donald Trump. The steady and mostly sensible approach that she adopted in the face of the EU economic and financial crisis was undoubtedly key to the survival of the Euro Zone. While here in this country we may not have liked or agreed with her approach to the banking crisis in particular, she did what she believed necessary to ensure the survival of the whole EU project.
Her open attitude to immigration was effectively her undoing and set her up as a viable target for the right wing AfD party. This effectively destroyed her real power base and heralded the end of her incredible reign. Her successor will have big shoes to fill, but more importantly, the EU will miss her steadying influence.
Meanwhile in troubled Brazil, far-right politician Jair Bolsonaro won the presidential election and has promised sweeping economic reforms in an economy that is struggling badly at the moment. In his first interview he has proposed to set targets for Brazil’s exchange rates, which will not go down well with markets who had expected a much more liberal approach to economic policy. Brazil was constantly heralded in recent years as a big emerging market story, but its economy is now a total shambles, and hence the rise of a much more radical political force.
Global politics is delivering some strange things at the moment and it only looks set to get much more extreme.



The motor industry provides a very good barometer for the overall economy, and particularly how business and consumers view the world. Following the severe economic correction that occurred back in 2008, new car sales literally drove over a cliff and went into free fall in 2009 to reach just over 57,000. This created serious problems for what is a very important sector of the economy, and one that provides employment in every small town around the country, not to mention the larger towns and cities. Then in line with the broader economic recovery, new car sales recovered strongly and almost 147,000 new cars were registered in 2016. At this stage the future looked bright for the market, but then the Brexit vote happened and new car sales declined by over 10 per cent in 2017 and in the first 10 months of 2018, a decline of 4.4 per cent has been recorded.

The decline in new car sales since 2016 has occurred despite what has been in theory a very supportive economic background. Employment is growing strongly and reached a record high in the second quarter of this year; the unemployment rate has come down from 16 per cent in 2012 to just 5.3 per cent at the moment; and growth in gross domestic product has been very impressive.

The key factor that has undermined new car sales has been the substantial decline in the value of sterling. The weakness of sterling has made used imports from the UK very attractive. A car costing £14,480 (sterling) in 2018 would be €3,553 cheaper in 2018 than in 2015. In 2017, we imported just over 93,000 used cars, mostly from the UK, and in the first 10 months of this year, an annual increase of almost 9 per cent has been recorded, taking the total to 86,418. For 2018 as whole, it is likely that close to 125,500 new cars will be sold and used imports look set to come close to 100,000.

For the car buyer, the savings to be made on a used import are significant based on currency and taxation differentials. However, there are a number of downsides for Ireland as whole. Cheaper used imports are devaluing the price of domestic second hand cars and this is widening the financial gap between the value of a trade in and a new car. Used imports are displacing new car sales and this is squeezing new car dealers. In addition, the cost to the Exchequer is substantial. For the average new car sold, the Exchequer collects €9,348 in VAT and VRT, whereas for the average car imported from the UK, the Exchequer collects just €3,300. There is also a negative environmental impact. New cars typically are more environmentally friendly than older ones, so there is a distinct risk that we are just filling up our roads with older higher emission vehicles.

Government is obviously oblivious to these downsides, as evidenced by the increase of 1 per cent in the VRT rate for all diesel cars registered from January 1st 2019. Surely it would have made more sense to apply the increase to used cars alone?

In 2017, diesel cars accounted for 65.2 per cent of total new registrations compared to 70.1 per cent in 2016. In the first 10 months of 2018, diesel cars accounted for 54.5 per cent of total new registrations, with petrol cars accounting for 38.5 per cent of the total. There is a move away from diesel, but electric cars remain an exotic rarity.

On a more positive note, Light Commercial Vehicle (LCV) registrations have expanded by 5.9 per cent in first 10 months of the year, which is a strong and positive indicator of business confidence and investment.

Looking ahead to 2019, it remains to be seen how the new car market will evolve. The doubt revolves around the trajectory of sterling, which in turn will be heavily influenced by that great imponderable, Brexit. Meanwhile, the overall motor industry will continue to deal with a personal sector that is craving value for money and which is still financially pressurized due to a combination of the high personal tax burden, rising expenditure on housing and subdued wage growth. Furthermore, consumer confidence is still quite fragile as Brexit concerns continue to dominate.

Based on what we know at the moment, it appears likely that new car sales will decline further in 2019, but at least the environment for the industry is still a lot better than a decade ago. Apart from the ongoing pressure on new car sales, the biggest problem for the sector will most likely be posed by labour shortages and specifically the lack of technically qualified workers.