A year through the eyes of Irish Times writers

Editor Kevin O’Sullivan casts his eye back over the highlights of an eventful 12 months in his editorial review of 2013

Wed, Dec 25, 2013, 01:00

Within the timeframe of the past 70 years, good journalism has never been so important. Events, conflicts, great uncertainty and a deluge of questionable information support that assertion.

The Arab Spring that has not turned into Summer and the Euro crisis that is not quite resolved in the wake of the worst banking crash for almost a century immediately come to mind.

Then there are the big global power issues: an ascendant China; a United States whose global influence is in decline, and Africa showing signs of increasing wealth but increased unrest and human strife.

The same argument applies in the Irish context: ours is a republic still suffering hugely five years after an economic collapse and wrestling with a political system that has failed its citizens.

Then there is the threat to the Earth itself, evinced by accelerating indications of climate change. We are running out of time to control the consequences of indifference as the temperature rises in what is the ultimate ‘slow burn’.

All require the accountability that comes with robust, and sometimes courageous journalism. This was a year in which Irish Times journalists met that demanding brief in words, images, audio and video.

Among many highlights were:

Politics, Banking and Debt

The ending of the banking guarantee and more positive economic indicators, which emerged during February, suggested the Irish economy was moving in the right direction though there was a mid-year blip across Europe. While there was volatility in Europe and beyond, the national mood was helped by breakthrough on bailout conditions and terms of the promissory note, even if the manner with which it was confirmed by the European Central Bank bordered on the bizarre.

There was much drama captured superbly by Miriam Lord and our politics team in the hours building up to the deal as emergency legislation had to be passed by the Dáil and Senate in the early hours of February 7th when the Government was forced to introduce emergency legislation to liquidate IRBC ahead of schedule.

The move to implement new personal insolvency arrangements by lenders backed by legislation, and on foot of demands by the Government and the Troika, signalled a push to a new phase in dealing with problems at the core of the Irish economy. The issue was a prime focus across politics, business and consumer affairs for much of the year. As the Troika departed in December pressure on banks to address more fully mortgage default cases on their books was at its height.

Suggestions at a US Senate committee hearing in June that Ireland operates as a tax haven were to become a major element of a big global story on taxation regimes. Further evidence emerged of big multinationals (particularly those originating from the US) paying very little in corporation tax in a number of jurisdictions. Google and its use of Ireland became a major focus of the UK parliament. Coming to the surface as Ireland was holding the EU Presidency, was hugely problematic for the Government.

While it is not a tax haven based on OECD indicators, there were damaging allegations that the Republic had given special deals to Apple and others when they were establishing here. Colm Keena did some outstanding investigation of multinational tax returns by companies based here; all achieving massive profits and making very low tax payments.

Minister for Michael Noonan in the Budget - announced in October for the first time - was forced to outline Ireland’s international tax strategy to provide a clear and accurate picture of our corporate tax regime. In addition, companies registered in Ireland for tax reasons would no longer be allowed to be ‘stateless’ in terms of their residency.

Publication of the Magdalen Laundries report by Martin McAleese in February quickly turned into a big domestic politics story, as Taoiseach Enda Kenny misread the public mood on the need for an apology. At second asking, he made a poignant Dáil speech, after a series of meetings with campaign groups, and committed to a meaningful compensation scheme, which was announced in October.

Social media became an issue of major controversy following the death by suicide of Fine Gael Meath TD and junior minister Shane McEntee and other high profile deaths of young people in late 2012 and early 2103. Trenchant pieces on anonymity, cyberbullying and the tone of online commentary were carried on our opinion pages and prompted an extensive debate in print and online.

Helen McEntee retained her late father's seat in the Meath byelection. The outcome caused some consternation within Labour, centring the leadership of Eamon Gilmore as they secured less than 5% of the vote. Given the grim public mood at the time, Fine Gael probably sensed that it should not interpret the result as a sweeping endorsement of policy.

Legislating for X

The abortion debate which was to the fore for much of the year increasingly became concentrated around Government TDs and Ministers, notably Enda Kenny, coinciding with build-up to the publication of legislation to deal with the X case.

Pressure on politicians further escalated with talk by some members of the Catholic hierarchy of excommunication of those who voted for the Bill and possible refusal of communion, much to the consternation of others, including Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin.

The intensity of the anti-abortion campaign was inevitably going to out dissenters within Fine Gael. But, reassured by poll findings, the Coalition persevered. The controversy became even more problematic for Fine Gael as the final votes on Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill were taken in the Dáil and forced through the Seanad.

The subsequent exclusion of those who voted against the Government from within the Fine Gael parliamentary party created a significant rump, with former junior minister Lucinda Creighton the chief protagonist.

The anti-abortion lobby and the Catholic hierarchy mounted a focused, heavy-hitting campaign, notably on the suicide clause in the legislation, but ultimately the outcome represented a significant defeat for the Catholic right in Ireland and for the hierarchy.

Referendums Outcome

Having single-handedly promoted the idea of abolition of the Seanad, Taoiseach Enda Kenny repeatedly refused to debate the issue, particularly in the final critical days of the campaign. That factor combined with a debacle over ‘saving €20 million’; a Government campaign lacking vision and any sense of meaningful political reform contributed to the rejection by the electorate.

In short, the Coalition did little to inspire people to vote Yes. Arthur Beesley and Harry McGee fronted our coverage in print, online and on the airwaves.

The outcome forced the Taoiseach to relook at the possibility of more significant reform not only of the Seanad but in other areas of politics and running the State.

Halapannavar Case

The draft report by the HSE into the circumstances surrounding the death of Savita Halappanavar from septicaemia in University Hospital Galway emerged in mid-February.

The 31-year-old dentist was admitted to the hospital suffering from a miscarriage when she was 17 weeks pregnant in November 2012. The findings vindicated the account of her husband Praveen and details of their story reported extensively in The Irish Times. Health Correspondent Paul Cullen, Dr Muiris Houston and Kitty Holland covered the story for us comprehensively at every turn throughout 2013.

While there was much controversy surrounding how she was told living in a “Catholic country” was a factor in the refusal of a termination, the most critical aspects about her death centred at the inquest around the current “legal position” in the Republic on termination including the degree of clarity in medical guidelines. There were also clear differences among hospital staff on what happened in her case, and major systems and communications failures in the hospital. The HIQA report into her death charted 13 critical medical issues that contributed to her death. This report did not address the circumstances surrounding her husband’s request for a termination.

Kitty Holland won four major awards for her coverage - including National Newspapers of Ireland Journalist of the Year.

Irish Times - Ipsos/MRBI Polls

The Irish Times IpsosMRBI opinion poll in February confirmed a Fianna Fáil rebound of sorts, was taking root - a trend that was sustained for much of the year.

The lowest rating in an Irish Times political opinion poll for Labour in more than 25 years triggered a lot of angst within the party and anxiety in government.

We commissioned an IpsosMRBI survey on Women and Work coinciding with the 40th Anniversary of the ending of the civil service marriage ban in June. Maternity issues were regarded as the main challenge to equality of opportunity though many strides have been made under other headings. Most concern related to childcare with a worsening funding dilemma for families.

With IpsosMRBI, we carried out a ‘perceptions poll’ in November on the public’s view of society, politics and State spending - it revealed significant gaps in public knowledge, which can contribute to misinformed debate - the findings were contrasted with official statistics, particularly those from the CSO.

On Foreign Fronts

Ireland’s Presidency of the European Union during the first six months of the year was dominated by the continuing fallout from the crisis in the euro zone. The Government, none the less, achieved notable success on a series of key fronts including agreements on the EU budget and CAP reform. European Correspondent Suzanne Lynch led coverage from Brussels, with Derek Scally reporting from Berlin on the view from Angela Merkel’s government, and Lara Marlowe in Paris offering insights into the floundering early months of Francois Hollande’s administration.

The debacle over the bailout rescue plan for the Cypriot economy served to again underline the fragility of the European economy and by early Summer deep economic ravages of austerity combined with record unemployment in many member states, concentrated in the young age categories, also fuelled renewed loss of confidence in relation to the EU and the euro - and contributed to a worsening public mood in Ireland. The Ecofin decision to ease repayment terms was a notable positive outcome on the Irish front.

The G8 June Summit in Fermanagh was a singular success from a domestic Irish perspective. The agenda was dominated by Syria, while the outcome was considered largely positive politically on other issues such as banking, global tax regimes and transparency - though it has to be said that Michelle Obama's visit to Dublin and Wicklow accompanied by her daughters Malia and Sasha aroused almost as much media interest.

Damian Mac Con Uladh documented online, in print and in social media the unfolding drama in Greece and Guy Hedgecoe in Madrid and Paddy Agnew in Rome described the growing sense of foreboding in two countries on the verge of being engulfed by the crisis.

Merkel’s election victory in September and the formation of her third coalition government was the big story in Germany and further east, Dan McLaughlin reported on the mass protests in Ukraine following President Viktor Yanukovich’s rejection of an association agreement with the EU.

In Britain, Mark Hennessy tracked the rise of UKIP’s eurosceptic populism and reported on the start of the referendum campaign on Scottish independence.

2013 saw the surprise abdication of Pope Benedict XVI and the election of Pope Francis, reported with verve and authority by Religious Affairs Correspondent Patsy McGarry and Paddy Agnew.

In Washington, Simon Carswell reported on the difficult first months of President Barack Obama’s second term, which saw the first shutdown of the federal government in two decades and the revelations by former intelligence analyst Edward Snowden of mass surveillance and targeted eavesdropping on foreign leaders by the National Security Agency.

He covered the Boston Marathon bombings; high profile court cases such as those involving businessman Sean Dunne, and the horrific Cleveland abduction story - often using social media to effect from the scene of major breaking stories.

The turbulence in the Arab world that began with the revolutions of 2011 entered a new phase with the toppling by the military of Egypt’s elected president Mohammed Morsi, events reported from Cairo by Michael Jansen, who also reported from Damascus on the enduring slaughter in Syria. Foreign Affairs Correspondent Mary Fitzgerald reported from Lebanon and Turkey on the wider regional impact of the Syrian conflict and on the civil unrest in Turkey sparked by discontent with the moderate Islamist administration of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. She also reported from Mali in the aftermath of the French military intervention to crush a radical Islamist insurgency.

In November, she was in Somalia one of the world’s most dangerous countries, which became synonymous with war, piracy and famine in the chaotic decades that followed the collapse of its government in 1991. The growing threat of al-Shabaab militants from their base in Mogadishu featured prominently in her reportage.

In China, Clifford Coonan watched the rise of Xi Jinping as China’s leader and the sudden fall from grace of regional party baron Bo Xilai.

Peter Murtagh reported on the devastation caused by a typhoon in November that killed more than 6,000 people and displaced almost four million.

The arrest of two women at Lima airport in Peru after 11kg of cocaine was found in their baggage was a drama that dominated particularly in a digital context after footage of their questioning was released. One of the two, 20-year-old Michaella McCollum Connolly, was from Northern Ireland had been working in Ibiza. The women were sentenced to prison terms following guilty pleas.

Departed: Thatcher, Heaney and Mandela

The death of former British PM Margaret Thatcher in April, was marked by The Irish Times with compelling reportage on her career, notably in relation to Ireland; re-publishing a piece by Maeve Binchy which she penned after she had been in Downing Street for a decade, and an unpublished piece by Garret FitzGerald which he wrote when she was previously reported to be seriously ill. London Editor Mark Hennessy led coverage from London, which in the days following her death was dominated by analysis of the legacy of Thatcherism.

The death of poet Seamus Heaney in late August was recorded with a single story on our front page by Fintan O'Toole, who saluted his ability to turn “our disgrace into grace, our petty hatreds into epic generosity, our dull clichés into questioning eloquence, the leaden metal of brutal inevitability into the gold of pure possibility”. His death brought great sadness to the island of Ireland his great canvas and to every corner of the literary world across the globe.

For much of 2013 Nelson Mandela was close to death, eventually dying in early December. The Irish Times had a special edition to mark his life and for the first time in its history the front page was a single image. “Beneath a clear blue sky and blistering sun, Nelson Mandela, the first black president of South Africa, the first man chosen freely by all the people of his country was laid to rest with the praises of his peers and admirers filling the air, and with pomp and circumstance befitting a leader of his global stature,” noted Peter Murtagh at his funeral in Qunu.

Horse Meat Scandal

The horse meat controversy erupted initially in Ireland with publication of DNA test findings on products sold as beef. It brought Irish food safety back into sharp focus. Irish food companies - notably Larry Goodman’s ABP group - were the centre of attention before the widespread scale of the supply problems and mislabelling became evident implicating hundreds of suppliers across the EU and Eastern Europe. Food & Farming Correspondent Alison Healy and Consumer Affairs Correspondent Conor Pope made sure we were on top of the story from an Irish perspective.

Croke Park II

The Croke Park II breakthrough on public service pay and conditions, which was to become known as the Haddington Road Agreement, emerged in May courtesy of astute negotiating by the Labour Relations Commission, Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin and some pragmatic public service union leaders. There had been remarkable scenes at both garda and teacher annual conferences over the Easter period, when Garda Commissioner Martin Callanan and Education Minister Ruairi Quinn were the focus of protests.

Relations between the Government and gardaí hit a new low after a row between Minister for Justice Alan Shatter and the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors. The organisation accused the minister of being arrogant and condescending while he deplored the atmosphere at the AGSI Annual conference in Sligo. “I’m pleased my wife didn’t accompany me to that event because I don’t think their conduct could be described as courteous or reasonable,” Mr Shatter said.

Investigations

Berlin Correspondent Derek Scally joined with Jochen Bittner from Die Zeit in Germany in an investigation of pre-crisis banking data for Ireland which revealed direct euro zone lending including that from Germany to Irish banks before the crisis was unimportant relative to lenders in other locations. In addition, coinciding with the end of the banking guarantee at the end of March, they secured a major interview with the German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble and with others on events leading up to its introduction in September 2008 and on its impact since.

Separately, Washington Correspondent Simon Carswell has forged strong links with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists which published a major investigation through the Guardian on secret offshore accounts. It has identified more than 50 Irish account holders.

The RTÉ Prime Time investigation of childcare abuses in crèches dominated all media over a period of almost two weeks. While television often brings a strong human-interest story to new heights as it did in this instance, Chief Reporter Carl O'Brien had already established a good record in this area, and generated a series of significant exclusive stories on the controversy in the days following the broadcast.

On Home Fronts

Controversy over rural policing and Garda station closures, was heightened by the callous murder of detective Adrian Donohue. Shot dead on January 25th during a raid on Lordship Credit Union, Bellurgan near Dundalk, Co Louth, his death prompted considerable debate around modern policing requirements.

Strained relations between Minister for Justice Alan Shatter and Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan were to surface in the public domain. The fallout arose in the first instance following an unprecedented row between the Garda Ombudsman Commission and the force over allegations that it was obstructing a major investigation by the GOC of the criminal activities of a garda informer and drug dealer - it prompted the Minister to intervene in a very public way.

Mr Shatter eventually faced a no confidence motion after he became embroiled for an extended period in a controversy in relation to information he had received on a possible penalty-point offence committed by Independent TD Mick Wallace, which the minister confirmed he had received from the Garda Commissioner. In turn, it emerged that Shatter prior to his appointment had been stopped by a Garda when going home from the Dáil and was unable to provide a breath sample because of being asthmatic.

It was a damaging period for the Government in a key ministry - Miriam Lord captured best the sorry mess and public mood, while Crime Correspondent Conor Lally had a number of new angles on the GOC case.

The story that stood out over all others during June was that of the ‘Anglo tapes’, which was carried by INM titles in the first instance. It featured recorded calls to the trading floor at the failed Anglo Irish Bank, and provoked widespread public outrage. The Government was on the back foot immediately after the first instalment because of its failure to progress a banking inquiry or to finalise what structure it might have.

Derek Scally’s coverage of Germany reaction and particularly from Angela Merkel added fuel to the story. In WeekendReview Fintan O'Toole captured the outrage relating to "the smartest guys in Ireland"; and the real face of the “slick and buccaneering” management style in Anglo. The disparaging tone and attitude displayed by many of those featured towards the Government, the regulator and Central Bank meant public anger and distaste persisted.

Ruadhán Mac Cormaic had, arguably, the best background account of the modus operandi of rogue solicitor Thomas Byrne who was sentenced to 12 years in jail for fraud and theft offences.

Top-up controversy

Martin Wall and Carl O'Brien have been the outstanding reporters on the salary top-up controversy in relation to voluntary hospitals and State-supported health charities. The practice in relation to senior managers in voluntary hospitals and agencies had been covered by us in recent years, but new details of top-ups in relation to senior managers and medics who act as masters in maternity hospitals brought the controversy to a new level. Public anger has centred on the use of monies raised by charities being used in some instances for such purposes and a lack of transparency - at a time of major cutbacks in health services.

Diplomatic channel

Details of US diplomatic cables sent between Washington and Dublin were not only fascinating but historically significant. They were obtained by Gavin Sheridan of thestory.ie under the US freedom of information Act on foot of a request to the State Department for any records from 1989 relating to Charles Haughey. Some records were refused for US national security/foreign policy reasons. Stephen Collins and Diarmaid Ferriter reported on and analysed the cables. Many of the cables from 1989 deal with the fallout from Haughey’s disastrous decision to call a surprise general election in June which resulted in Fianna Fáil losing seats.

Supplements & Series

Our series on ‘Inside Ireland’s Supreme Court’ by Ruadhan MacCormaic brought a new understanding to the most important court in the Republic.

A supplement to mark the fifth anniversary of the demise of Lehman Brothers reflected a changed world of finance and banking. Paul Cullen and Frank McDonald brought their considerable expertise to coverage of the collapse of the Dublin planning corruption trial due to Frank Dunlop’s illness.

Carl O’Brien reported on conditions in asylum centres, providing details of damning findings on conditions in some facilities, and new information on the scale of State funding for private operators, many of whom were using offshore accounts to run their businesses. The articles led to the Minister for Justice undertaking to publish all inspection reports relating to the centres in future.

We marked “25 years of Irish Life through the columns of Fintan O’Toole” with a supplement on November 20th. It underlined the vibrancy of his journalism over a remarkably long period. The Guardian recorded his achievement with an editorial noting he had “lampooned the Celtic Tiger (for turning the famine into a corporate celebration), skewered the mega-rich (who made their money from opportunism, political connections and cuteness) and quizzed his nation’s real rulers, the German executive board members of the European Central Bank”.

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