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on 12 December 2009
If you are Irish this book will make you very angry, if you're not I suppose you'll be entitled to wonder if we are actually capable of governing ourselves. O'Toole pushes all the buttons; financial scandals from DIRT evasion to the curious state of Bertie Ahern's finances, the madness of the property boom, the scandals involving the Catholic church, and the shortcomings of Ireland's current political system to mention but a few. Through it all he reminds us of the Irish people's capacity for Doublethink, our ability to know something but not know it, whether it concern Charlie Haughey's dubiously acquired wealth or the paedophile scandals currently rocking the nation. O'Toole is not trying to be objective here, he states at the beginning of the book that he has set out to write a polemical, in this he more than succeeds, rarely has a book made me so angry... or depressed. O'Toole makes it abundantly clear that we are the architects of our own misfortune, that we squandered our opportunity to definitively break with the economic misery that dominated our history until the dawn of the Celtic Tiger in the mid 1990s, that we got ahead of ourselves and forgot to fix the structural problems that remained throughout the period of economic boom, such as our bloated and inefficient health system. O'Toole does strike some notes of hope at the end, he belatedly reminds us that we are a capable people and that we can pull ourselves out of this, it's just going to be a slow and painful process. This book is a must read, you may not agree with all of O'Toole's points but it is a useful contribution to the ongoing debate about the causes and likely outcomes of Ireland's current economic crisis.
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on 15 January 2010
This book tells the story of the breathtaking corruption and stupidity of irish governments (and their business and banker friends and supporters) in the last 15 years. At times the circumstances of outright corruption described are so incredible that it beggars belief that any "modern" european democracy could accept them, but for 15 years the irish continually voted for the same party despite evidence that things were going badly wrong. O'Toole deals with the political parties responsible, the bankers, the developers, the "new economy" and the regulators involved (many of whom still consider themselves to be great men). His book is a highly critical review of the people involved, their actions, and the fatal results for the economy and irish society. At times you can't help but laugh (or you'd have to cry) at the outrageous corruption involved and the way it was explained away. It appears Ireland was close to becoming a plutocracy - government policy was exclusively made for the rich. This is not a history book but the tale of a country gone wrong written by a highly respected columnist. Entertaining and at the same time depressing (how dumb can people be when blinded by money?) it deserves to be read by anyone trying to understand why the "celtic tiger" turned out to be a nightmare with gigantic debts as the end result.
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on 6 February 2010
In my opinion, Fintan O'Tool is without doubt one of Ireland's best journalists. His articles are always well researched and his opinions well reasoned. 'Ship of Fools' is a sceptical takes on Ireland's economic miracle and it's subsequent collapse and it's well up with O'Tool's usual high standards.

He begins by detailing Irish bank scams that many of us may have forgotten about. This includes the Ansbacher debacle and the DIRT tax scandals where thousands of people evaded tax by claiming to their bank managers (who in many cases would have known them and actually helped them with the scams) that they didn't live in the state. Immediately a very pertinent point is made. Banks didn't just recently become unethical, they have a track record of having a poor moral compass and that's something we Irish seemed to forget about.

The book covers a wide range of fiascos from the failure of Eircom to roll out world class broadband (despite a small few investors making millions from it) to the tax scams that prop up the IFSC. But, it's the societal and economic failures of the banks and political class that ensured the property boom with end in tears that form the main part of that book. No analysis of that could omit the King of Charlatans, Mr. C. J. Haughey. O'Tool reminds us that the Irish tax payer paid 500,000 for this man's funeral who amongst a very long litany of poor ethics took 250,000 out of a colleagues liver transplant fund. But it was an entire political class that seemed categorically incompetent or absolutely aloof from people they ruled. For example, the Kenny report which was commissioned to advice on how to deal with property booms made some very simple suggestions, including that land could and should be compulsory purchased by local authorities at a market price plus 25%. This was to keep it away from land speculators. But alas it was completely ignored. A few more bad political decisions (such as ignoring the Bacon report and not allowing full public visibility into land and property transactions) meant that when the boom came, house prices increased 4 times faster than building costs, 5 times average industrial earnings and over 7 times the increases in consumer price index! Hardly sustainable.
This book would seriously make me wonder how stupid we Irish people are. Sometimes in public discourse, our colonial past is blamed for our shortcomings today. But there are many problems where we simply cannot resort to this silly proverbial claptrap.
My only criticism of this excellent book is the absence of some references. In most cases, there isn't really a need but in some parts a simple reference would ensure complete authenticity. For example, he makes some points about the low number of people in careers such as medicine and law whose parents do not come from these careers, using a range of percentages that have no references. Elsewhere, he claims that in 2005 the IFSC accounted of 75% of all foreign investment in Ireland. Very interesting, more than likely true but again no references.

Pedantry aside, overall his thesis is very well argued. It makes his opening point about the ludicrousness of Mr.Ahern's public speaking company charging up to 30,000 for him to speak about the great Irish economy very convincing. It also makes his opinion that what happened in Ireland in economic terms wasn't a miracle more than just plausible. Perhaps we were just playing catch up with our EU partners who helped us get there. We only got ahead of ourselves because we riddled the country with tax scams and sloppy politics. For that we only have ourselves to blame and we only have to the EU to thank for things would surely be far worse right now without them.

Overall this is an excellent book. A must read for every Irish person. Especially every Irish tax paying Pprson!
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on 10 October 2010
This book is well worth reading if you want to know what happened with the irish economy during the banking crisis and why it happened.

I read this shortly after moving to ireland, knowing little about irish politics, but now I'm about as cynical as I was after years of living with incompetent governance in the UK. I'd also highly recommend it to anyone who thinks the UK has problems after the banking crisis, because after reading this book you'll realise just how bad it could be.
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on 30 July 2010
I was there at the time. Although we ordinary folk suspected that paper envelopes were being passed, no-one knew for sure. Mind you, there was plenty of talk.
To read Fintan O'Toole"s revelations - in which all the guilty parties are named - makes one feel sick. Sick at the blind hypocrisy we were all guilty of. How we admired those brave enough to "get away with it". How paying taxes was like a game - a game in which the winner paid least. Now we know that the game brought the country to its knees and every single one of us is suffering because of it.
I beg anyone who cares about decency, about democracy and about integrity to read this book.
Fintan O'Toole is rubbing our noses in it, and so he should. If Ireland is ever to hold up its head again, then we need to face the reality of what went on and what must never ever be allowed to happen again.
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From the prologue's emblematic anecdotes of 'Three Ships', this is no ordinary book - the Gatsbyesque wedding of a crony of Ahearn's on a hired, er, floating palace; the sinking of the Irish national ship the Asgaard 2; the puzzling joke of the ventriloquist's parrot on the Titantic, we are in the company of a vastly entertaining, funny writer. What had this to do with Ireland's financial collapse, or was it as O'Toole said 'almost too neat'? The key is in the adjective, the situation is 'almost' beyond imagining.
The story is a sorry one, taking in endemic corruption and turbo-charging it with little-understood financial instruments that were to wreak havoc in the West in 2008. Iceland was the worst, but Vince Cable's jibe of 'Rekjavik on the Liffey' isn't inaccurate. I am only of part Irish heritage but it was well known that, say, Haughey was corrupt to his fingernails; the plausible, clever philistine Ahearn(scorning objectors to running a road through the Tara site; says it all, he was utterly out of his depth; he and the finance minister Brian Lenihan quite unable to see the iceberg coming (if I were a Scot I'd worry that as shrewd a fellow as Alex Salmond hubristically declared his enthusiasm for a Celtic Lion very late, just before the house of cards collapsed!). It is a romp of a story, brilliantly told. And there WERE warnings; however, just as in Britain where Gillian Tett and in America Nicholas Nasseem Taleb spoke of trouble, naysayers were derided as Cassandras or worse. And so almighty hubris brought Ireland low, with a price it will be long in paying off. Politicians convicted of corruption yet being reelected, people borrowing money they could not really afford but took as it was on offer, Ahearn's shameless helping his friends and building at a ridiculous rate and more, horribly so; Ireland offers countless such tales. This is an often hilarious, always readable and important book. And if he has no 'answers' that is not his job. Why is he not more angry? I wondered. Then I realised, his laughter is of one who, otherwise, would cry. Superb.
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on 14 May 2012
Having been in Ireland for over a year now, mentions of the economic plight are never far away, along with it apportions of blame to numerous figures, mostly notably, politicians, property developers, bankers, regulators and anyone else who gambled - and lost during the Celtic Tiger years.

Although, people have differing views on who deserves the largest slice of blame, they unanimously agree that a golden opportunity was squandered.

Wanting to deepen my understanding of the causes behind the crisis and figure out who really should be blamed for Ireland's economic woes, I read the acclaimed `Ship of Fools: How Stupidity and Corruption Sank the Celtic Tiger' by Irish Times stalwart Fintan O'Toole and felt compelled to pen this review.

O'Toole is well-known for his frequent baiting of politicians, particularly those who have been guilty of `dig-outs', `errors of judgement' or outright corruption and the book starts by defining Ireland's story of growth as two distinct chapters.

Students of Irish history will know from 1995-2001 the economy grew rapidly, driven by an increase in worker output and manufacturing exports. Unemployment and poverty fell too, all of which led to a rise in GDP to 111% of the EU average, but O'Toole makes the case early on Ireland was merely catching-up with Europe.

However, this new and exciting period was characterised by investment from organisations like Pfizer, Intel and Microsoft which created highly paid and skilled jobs. No doubt they were enticed to set up shop thanks to favourable corporation tax, a well-educated, English-speaking workforce and proximity to London.

These factors coupled with migration giving way to immigration and the shaking off of what O'Toole termed `authoritarian religiously' saw the emergence of a feel good factor in the Irish psyche. The key point O'Toole makes is that despite the headlines about impressive percentage growth, it was from a low starting point.

Whilst huge changes were afoot, some things remained and the author makes the case that cronyism, self-interest, and corruption was not only tolerated, but allowed to develop, thanks to light regulation and little enforcement. O'Toole draws on the evasion of Deposit Interest Retention Tax (DIRT) and the Ansbacher tax avoidance as examples of how law-breaking had been a characteristic of the Irish elite's behaviour.

O'Toole pins a generous portion of blame on the Central Bank, which in an abdication of responsibility viewed its role as merely ensuring banks were solvent, not ethical. A huge difference. Government failure to address this issue as investment poured into the Emerald Isle undoubtedly helped foster a culture of risky and unscrupulous behaviour that set the tone and foundation for what was to come.

In hindsight, holding us this era of unprecedented growth as an example of free-market globalisation at its best, as it often was, is hugely ironic. O'Toole suggests this phase was in fact a product of complex social, historical and political processes and sheer good fortune, rather than the nous of Bertie Ahern, who comes in for criticism for his lack of ideology, vision and latterly scandal.

The book prescribes the second part of Ireland's story from 2001-2006 where the economy began to slow, with growth and exports falling. Crucially, during this time manufacturing jobs were lost and replaced with construction, financial and public sector roles as signs of overheating emerged.

O'Toole states that two economies began to emerge; one in which people created goods and sold them and the second of facades and fiction. He draws the significant distinction that consumption replaced production as the means to keep the economy growing.

The author reveals from 2002 onwards the largest single source of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) into Ireland was from the Netherlands, courtesy of `high-level financial juggling by American owned transnational corporations, with their Dutch based treasury-management subsidies routing capital flows through Dublin'.

Despite the prominence of IBM, Eli Lilly and Merck et al, the majority of FDI was channeled into the International Financial Services Centre (IFSC), a small district in Dublin with low taxation and light regulation - the latter once again rearing its head as dubious practices were allowed to flourish.

Meanwhile, the rise in house prices was huge and unsustainable; between 1994 and 2006 house prices in Dublin grew by 519%. This property bubble bore no relation to reality or wages and was primed to burst. Conversely, whilst house prices rose, what are now `ghost estates' sprung up as developers continued building. For many, these abandoned shells which scar the landscape are the legacy of the Celtic Tiger.

There is now what I would define as a third chapter of this economic story which began in 2008. It will be remembered as the year when things began to unravel for the global economy. Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy in September 2008 and within a couple of months Ireland had its own scandal as Anglo Irish Bank found itself wildly overexposed to construction and property investments.

Controversially, the bank was deemed `too big to fail', nationalised and despite protestations to the contrary, was insolvent. It later emerged that Anglo Irish, as O'Toole put it had been `cooking its books' with former Chairman, Sean FitzPatrick taking out a staggering 87 million in secret loans from the bank. Once again the notion of regulation was conspicuous by its absence.

O'Toole also vilifies Brian Cowen. Although, BIFFO will be remembered as the man responsible for signing the financial rescue package with the Troika of the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund, it is his complicity in the role of Minister for Finance, a period where casino banking grew and regulation shrunk that Cowen perhaps deserves greatest censure.

Reading `Ship of Fools: How Stupidity and Corruption Sank the Celtic Tiger' it is apparent how difficult pinning the blame on one person is. The book describes in detail the myriad micro and macro-economic, cultural and technological factors that simultaneously struck to tame the Celtic Tiger, but for me, it highlights one of man's eternal problems; that of too much power being held in the hands of just a few.

With construction bosses sitting on the boards of banks which lent freely to their companies, whilst simultaneously making lavish donations to politicians as regulators sat back and did nothing, it is little wonder things turned toxic. Granted, this is an oversimplified version of events and there were more shades of grey than O'Toole concedes, but undoubtedly the Celtic Tiger was Ireland's opportunity to usher in an era of sustainable growth, prosperity and development.

O'Toole surmises that the few, termed the `Golden Circle' were allowed to ride roughshod over the dreams of a generation, not to mention saddling them with huge debt thanks to a combination of incompetence, greed and criminality. Although, O'Toole uses the book to tell how the famed luck of the Irish ran out, it's difficult to think that those responsible, those who have yet to be held to account are doing anything but riding theirs.

Follow the link to read my review in full:

Ben Cotton
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on 9 December 2009
A clear, devastating and clinical analysis of how the Irish economy became the basket case of the EU. Fintan O'Toole lays out the jaw-dropping corruption, arrogant stupidity and cupidity thathas brought Ireland to its knees in a readable, often savagely funny account that had me gripped even though I'm not particularly interested in the subject.
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on 9 February 2010
I shall keep this short. You know how when one reads a book of this type, one tends to tut-tut every few pages. In this book, there is one tut on every page and often one for every paragraph. If there was a crime of incompetence or one of cronyism, the whole of the Irish Government cabinets from 1990 would be in jail. Aside from the book, I wonder how it was that the European Central Bank and the European Commission let this sort of greed, madness and bad governance take place without doing anything about it.
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That finances and thus the economic destiny of a country can be allowed to come under the control of a motley bunch of people completely and utterly devoid of the slightest ability to run a raffle in a house of ill-repute let alone the finances of a nation is beyond credibility and frankly shocking and disgraceful. Yet this is exactly what happened in Ireland during the 1990's and until 2008/9. That a seemingly more prudent financial regime now exists was not a voluntarily taken on board by the Irish - it was forced on them much against their wishes by the International Financial authorities as a condition of staving off the ignominious bankruptcy of Ireland and all that would entail.

Noted Irish journalist Fintan O'Toole in his book 'Ship Of Fools: How Stupidity and Corruption Sank the Celtic Tiger' carefully and eruditely delves into the reasons for this catastrophic financial mess, from corrupt politicians and public servants,to no better than wide-boy property developers given the financial carte blanche by bankers devoid of their good banking practice senses, to an inability of the nation as a whole to take on the modern technological infrastructure needed to encourage and sustain new industries, and finally to a venal and hugely inequitable taxation system that allowed those milking the system to escape taxes with impunity. Above all there was the omnipresent and malignant presence of greed running rampant throughout the whole political and commercial system of the country.

The author fingers the main culprit as the Fianna Fail-Progressive Democratic government led from 1997 to 2008 by Bertie Ahern who learnt his 'trade' from his predecessor as Prime Minister, Charles Haughey, who not only amassed Euro 45 million in office, 171 times his total salary payments as a politician - but even stole Euro 250,000 from a fund set up to pay for a liver transplant for one of his friends. But although the wrong doings of politicians and their cohorts were plain for all to see, the electorate either turned a blind eye or thought that this gutter level of governance was acceptable, whichever reason until the muck hit the fan in 2008 stood back and allowed the the 'Ship Of Fools' to continue it's inexorable voyage straight onto the rocks.

An eye opening book that tells a complex tale of financial woe in a really interesting manner. It does, however, leave the reader puzzling how on earth did such incompetents and incorrigibles ever manage to get control of the ill-fated ship in the first place?
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