128 words to use instead of “very” – a handy writing style guide from Luke at www.proofreadingservices.com5 Aug
This is my Broadsheet “Mooney on Monday” from Monday piece from June 27th on how the Irish Government (and politicians) must act in response to the UK’s Brexit vote.
There is a new (though not uncritical) pro-EU majority across the island that should be encouraged and fostered via a re-establishment of the Forum on Europe. There must not any a return of form of border across the island.
The original online version appears here: www.broadsheet.ie/return-of-the-hard-border/
For as long as I can recall it has been a central tenet of Unionism that the status of Northern Ireland should not change without the political consent of the majority of the people living there.
Yet, that it precisely what is set to happen over the coming years, with senior members of the DUP cheering it on
Despite the fact that a clear majority – some 56% – of the people of Northern Ireland who voted, including large numbers from both traditions, stated that they wanted to remain in the EU, their wishes are about to be ignored. It seems that a majority in the North is only a majority when the DUP is a part of it.
Thursday’s referendum result has changed things dramatically for the North and for the whole island. There will be the immediate implications, including many of the ones for which the Government has prepared, as set out in its contingency plans published last Friday.
But there are others, two of which I would like to set out briefly here.
First, is the integration of the economic interests of communities across this whole island. As the SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has said:
“…there can be no return to a physical border across this island. There must remain freedom of movement for people, goods and services across Ireland… we must ensure that any border is only operational around the island of Ireland, not across it.”
This last point is vitally important. Though the Brexiteers, including the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Teresa Villiers, dismissed any suggestion of implications for the border during the campaign, it is clear that there will.
If and when the UK eventually leaves the EU that border would potentially become a frontier between an EU State and non-EU State. This is ominous as the EU is already looking at ways of increasing security at its external boundaries, as evidenced last week by the European Parliament’s LIBE committee vote to “systematically check all EU citizens entering or leaving the EU”
There is an overwhelming economic, social and political case against resuscitating the 499km border between the two parts of this island as an international boundary. We have not spent decades of painstaking negotiation to break down barriers for them to be risen higher by a battle for the leadership of the Tory party.
The EU has been an important, though unheralded, part of the peace building process. Between 1995 and 2013 the EU spent €2 billion on promoting reconciliation in Northern Ireland and the border counties. But it has done more than that. It has provided a supra-national cross border framework and support that has avoided any major policy cleavages across this island.
Rather than having the EU border across this island, let it run around the island with the customs and border controls sensibly located at ports and airports.
But we need to go further. We need to recognise that despite differences in identity, that Northern Ireland has and will continue to have a great deal of economic and social common interest with the Republic. To give expression to this common interest the Irish Government to needs to fashion an all-island EU strategy and use its seat at the Council of the European Union to champion the interests of Northern Ireland, particularly the border regions, along with the interests of the 26 counties.
The government should start reaching out now to civic society across the North to become its connection to the EU and should formalise these relationships, perhaps initially through re-establishing the Forum on Europe on an all island basis.
Second, is the loss of the UK as a valuable EU ally. In two or three years’ time we will no longer have the UK to help us act on a brake on EU measures of which we disapprove. Given our similar structure and similar outlooks, in the area of social dialogue for example, our two governments have – regardless of political hue – worked together. During the recent discussions on the introduction of an EU wide system of Data Protection, Ireland and the UK worked together to make significant and sensible changes.
But the UK has opted to go and so we need to look for new allies. We need to look to the smaller EU states who would share our concern at the excessive influence of the larger states, but also to the other like-minded nations on these islands. To this end an Taoiseach should be reaching out to Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon in the coming weeks to see how Ireland and Scotland could work together in our mutual benefit as the fate of the UK, Scotland and Northern Ireland in the EU unfolds.
Enda may have no choice but to start talking with Nicola Sturgeon, as she seems to be the only leader on the neighbouring island with anything even approaching a plan for the future.
This piece first appeared two weeks ago on Broadsheet.ie in the aftermath of the appalling events in Pulse nightcub in Orlando, Florida- link: broadsheet.ie/2016/06/13
When faced with a massive tragedy the natural inclination of most democratic political leaders, from across the spectrum, is to put partisan politics aside for a time and stand together in solidarity and grief.
Campaigns are put on hiatus, genuine political differences are temporarily put aside while the country mourns and tries to cope with the enormity of what has befallen it.
It is what happened in the wake of recent terrorist attacks in France and in Belgium and countless times in the USA in the aftermath of yet another mass slaying of innocent victims.
Yet, last night, even before the names and details of the 50 men and women callously slaughtered in the Pulse Nightclub in Orlanda had been released, the Republican Party’s presumptive candidate for the U.S. Presidency chose to take the other route, going was online to whip up anger and score political points off the worst instance of US domestic terrorism.
Within minutes of the news emerging, Trump took to Twitter to express his commiserations and grief saying: “Horrific incident in FL. Praying for all the victims & their families. When will this stop?”. He was expressing a sentiment shared by countless millions learning the news of the horrific homophobic attack.
But Trump could not leave it there. Within the hour he was back to acknowledge the messages he had received from his supporters. Now his focus was not on the yet unidentified Orlando victims and their families: he was shifting it back on him.
His tweet began: “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism…”. One hour out of the spotlight was too much for him to handle. Donald the Ego was back. His descent deep into the quagmire continued, actually it worsened, shortly after President Obama went on TV to express the grief and outrage of the American people.
Where President Obama sought to be measured calm and reassuring, Trump was reaching for the dog whistle both on twitter and in an intemperate statement calling for Obama’s resignation.
On Twitter he said: “What has happened in Orlando is just the beginning. Our leadership is weak and ineffective. I called it and asked for the ban…” I responded to him on Twitter pointing out that a ban on Muslim immigrants would not have stopped the Orlando attack as the perpetrator was a US citizen, born in New York city.
Within minutes Trump’s online supporters were attacking me from all sides. Apart from their collective abhorrence of the prospect of more gun control, their arguments and rebuttals flatly contradicted each other.
Some said that I was missing the point and that an immigration ban would have stopped the killer’s parents from immigrating (though they were somewhat sketchy on how a ban imposed in 2017 could be backdated to prevent them entering 30+ years ago).
Others, the more hard-line ones, said that Trump would not just introduce a temporary ban on Islamic immigrants, but that he was in favour of banning Muslims – full stop. Some of these talked about how they could set up internment camps like (according to one deluded sole) those set up in WW2 or perhaps, even, deport them.
Another smaller set of Trump supporters, identifying themselves as immigrants for Trump, harangued me saying that it was me who was implying that all Islamic immigrants were terrorists and that Mr Trump had never said that.
It was hard not to be struck by the glaring inconsistencies and absolute contradictions between these most steadfast and passionate of Trump advocates and to reflect on how it is not the detail of what Trump says, but its vagueness and hollowness that attracts them.
He presents them with a blank platform upon which they can unload their own prejudices, grievances and bigotry without reference to what their fellow Trump supporters say or think.
While ugliness and confusion of these yelped Twitter responses can possibly be explained by the anger, ignorance and frustration of those involved, no such excuse can be applied to the man who lets loose this anger by, in the guise of leadership, blowing the dog whistle on this tragedy.
One of the reasons political leaders come together in the face of crisis or attack, be it internal or external, is that there know that there is strength in unity. They know the importance of being strong in the face of attack and signalling that there is more that unites us, than divides us.
Trump took the opposite course last night. In comments that might have been viewed, in days gone by, as treasonous and unpatriotic, Trump went well beyond usual partisan politics and dismissed America’s leadership as weak and ineffectual. He as good as said that the terrorists are winning.
How can you ever hope to make “America great again” by publicly talking it down in the wake of an attack?
Prof Simon Schama’s Tweet in the midst of the anger and turmoil last night summed it up best: “…we have a cultural civil war now in USA”.
This piece first appeared on the Slugger O’Toole website on June 14th. Note that I wrote this piece a few days before the horrific murder of Jo Cox, M.P.
Shortly before polling day in last year’s Marriage Equality referendum one of the Irish national daily newspapers ran an opinion piece by a marketing/messaging expert evaluating the Yes and No campaigns to that point.
Though he had several criticisms of those of us on Yes side and even suggested that the Yes campaign was putting the outcome in unnecessary doubt, the subtext to his article seemed to be: this would have been a whole lot better if he had been running things.
I mention this now just in case anyone thinks that the observations I am about to make here about the poor state of the UK’s In/Out debate are intended in the same – if only they had asked me – vein.
They are not. Having worked on the winning side in several referenda from Lisbon II to Marriage Equality and from the Good Friday Agreement to Seanad Abolition, I know how difficult they can be and how each referendum is different from the other.
We have a particular familiarity with the referendum process in the Republic. This is not due to some fetishist love of them, but rather because we have a written Constitution which can, under Article 46 of the Irish Constitution, only be amended by a referendum. Ratifying EU Treaties such as Lisbon, Nice and the Fiscal Stability Treaties has required making changes to Article 29 (on International Relations) to facilitate Ireland’s ratification.
We know how it can often seem that the campaign is about almost every issue bar the one on the ballot paper and that forces outside the campaigns are dragging the focus away from the matters at hand.
That said, it is hard to imagine a referendum campaign that has been as bad and confused as this one. Yes, the individual campaigns have made errors and have adopted messaging strategies that seem unfocussed and discordant with voters concerns, but these errors go nowhere near explaining the mess that is the UK’s EU referendum.
To borrow a phrase from the late Sir Geoffrey Howe:
“It is rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease, only for them to find, as the first balls are being bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain”.
There is a problem with the conduct of the EU referendum campaign, because there is a fundamental problem with British politics – namely, the big gaping hole in the centre of it. There are no big beasts, big ideas or big concepts among the current leadership on either side of the House of Commons. In its place is a political void, populated by bland assemble with no hinterland beyond the confines of Westminster.
It is no coincidence that the most significant and impactful interventions in the campaign so far, particularly from the Remain side, have come from those who are no longer active on the main political stage, such as John Major, Gordon Brown or Ken Clarke.
With a few exceptions, the current crop of Conservative, Labour and LibDem political leaders have failed to impress. They have either been absent, like much of the Labour leadership, or been insipid like Brexiteer, Chris Grayling or plain wrong like Penny Mordaunt. The few bright points from the current political generation have come from the likes of Nicola Sturgeon.
Referendums on complex issues need plenty of advanced planning and strategizing. They also need long lead in periods to allow the froth and irrelevancies to be exposed and blown away. Cameron’s strategic approach to this referendum, not least his convoluted pre campaign negotiations with EU counterparts and his assertion that he would have no compunction about recommending “leave” if he didn’t get the deal he wanted, left the scope for meaningful preparation in tatters.
The problem though is that strategy may not mean the same thing to Prime Minister Cameron as it does to others. As Hugo Young remarked in Michael Crick’s documentary “Boris and Dave”, strategy is something Cameron thinks will get you through to next Monday.
The result is that Cameron has allowed the rise of UKIP and disquiet among his backbenchers to compel him to holding a referendum which his poor preparation and planning has allowed to descend into a squalid slanging match of petty claim and counter claim with no real debate on the UK’s EU membership.
A stunning indictment of the Prime Minister’s ‘strategy’ is the fact that an Ipsos Mori survey published less than a week ago (and conducted in April and May) shows that the British public is still woefully ill-informed on the facts and realities of the UK’s EU membership. British people think there are three times as many EU immigrants in the UK than there actually are and they massively overestimate the proportion of Child Benefit awards given to families in other European countries. The actual proportion of UK Child Benefit awards going on children living abroad in Europe is 0.3%, but 14% of people think that its 30% and a further 23% think that its 13%.
Did no one around Cameron think to survey public attitudes a year or so ago and get a picture of the perceptions and beliefs of the people they were hoping to convince? If they had; then they could have tackled these wrong perceptions head on and tried to correct some of them long before the campaign proper began.
In failing to prepare and plan, Cameron has encumbered his allies on the Remain side from even before the campaign started. The gross error has been compounded by the way in which the coverage of the campaign has focussed more on the future of the Tory party and the Blue on Blue battles.
The next few days will be crucial for Remain, if it is to win – and I still expect it will. It needs to sharpen its message and redouble its efforts – it also needs to realise that it cannot solely depend on the current generation of Westminster denizens to get this over the line, it must look to more trusted and well regarded figures.
There is some good news for Remain in the Ipsos Mori survey. 51% of those surveyed predict that Remain will win, while less than half of those planning to vote Leave believe they will win. I mention this as there is some evidence from the U.S. to suggest that asking people who they think will win is a better indicator of the result than just asking them how they will vote.
In less than 10 days we will know either way… And then the real debate can start.
Here is my Broadsheet column from June 7th 2016. Published online here: http://www.broadsheet.ie/riding-a-zeitgeist
“Donald Trump looks as if he was playing a President in a porn movie.” This was Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle’s scathing put down of the Donald on BBC radio four’s News Quiz last Friday.
Maybe it is something to do with the Donald’s addiction to calling everything ‘huge’ (or as he says it: huuuuuge ) and lauding his own achievements with outlandish superlatives but Boyle’s taunt perfectly captures Trump’s OTT and hammy public appearances.
Trump’s emergence as a real contender for the White House has surprised most pundits including – if one of his former publicists is to be believed – himself.
How could this gauche, egotistical, property dealing demagogue tear up the US presidential campaign playbook and beat a string of long established Republican hopefuls?
Hard though we may find it to comprehend from this side of the Atlantic; but part of the Trump phenomenon is that he has teed-up this US presidential election to be a fight between the Washington insider: Hillary Clinton and the outsider: Trump.
Though we may find it difficult to conjure up the image of Trump as an outsider, but in the contest of Clinton Vs Trump, that is what he is.
The term “outsider” is a relative one, not an absolute. It is nothing to do with his history, background or experience, it is about the attitude and outlook he conveys.
Trump does not embody the outsider spirt, but he speaks to it – bluntly – to rally many millions of ordinary middle Americans who, rightly or wrongly, feel that they are now outsiders.
Since the 1970s the American middle class has shrunk from 61% of the population to 50%, while the American dream has become an increasingly distant prospect for the majority.
Many voters believe that America has lost its way and believe Washington is to blame. So, Trump paints the former First Lady, Senator, Secretary of State and member of the newest US political dynasty as a member of the Washington elite and a part of their problem.
It is hardly a new tactic. First you paint your opponent, particularly if [s]he is an incumbent, as out of touch and elitist and then contrast yourselves with [s]he while reciting your voters complaints back at them.
But what Trump has done is a few steps beyond that. He is riding a zeitgeist that he didn’t create, but that others have missed.
Many of his potential voters are not blind to the fact that the few solutions he offers are unworkable or that he has no grasp of foreign policy. They almost embrace these failings.
They are using Trump as much as he is using them.
He is the battering ram with which they can break what they perceive as a broken and corrupt political system. It is why (and how) you can have the seeming incongruity of some Sanders supporters telling pollsters that they are willing to back Trump now that Hillary has beaten Sanders.
Though the analysis and solutions on offer from Senator Sanders differ huuugely from those hinted at by Trump, the core message is the same – America cannot tolerate more of the same.
Things have to change.
The insider versus the outsider analysis also applies in Ireland, particularly an Ireland still coming to terms with the economic upheavals of the last decade.
It explains, in part, the last election results and the massive losses suffered by Labour and Fine Gael.
The Irish Labour Party’s problem is that it has too many insiders and is now led by the arch insider. Though its one “token” ministerial outsider, Alan Kelly tried hard to portray himself as an outsider, but as I mentioned in a Broadsheet piece a few weeks ago, his fast-tracked “rise without trace” to the top makes him an insider.
Meanwhile, Labour’s former BFF, Fine Gael, is also replete with insiders, both generational and aspirational – by aspirational, I mean those whose career paths has followed the line: college – YFG – FG research office – TD’s parliamentary assistant – Ministerial Sp/Ad – TD – minister, without any stop offs in the real world.
With his capacity for kicking against the traces, Leo Varadkar is possibly the closest thing that FG has had to an outsider since John Deasy.
On the other end of the spectrum, Sinn Féin and the various alphabet left alliances are, on the surface at least, full of political outsiders. Though, in the case of SF, it is hard to portray yourself as a complete outsider when your leader predates the electrification of the Howth/Bray rail-line and shares Trump’s penchant for the outrageous tweets.
Traditionally, in Irish Politics, the Independent TDs have been the outsiders. In particular, people like Neil T. Blaney or Jim Kemmy, who broke away from their parties or Tony Gregory who described party politics as strangling.
Which of today’s much larger crop of Independents from the Healy-Raes to the McGraths to Ross, Halligan and Zappone will still be regarded as outsiders in two or three years time will be interesting to see.
Which brings us to Fianna Fáil: Ireland’s outsider insiders.
For most of its history, there has been something of the outsider edge to Fianna Fáil, indeed the party has been at its most successful when led by outsiders, such as Ahern and Lemass.
Even Haughey, for his love of horses, fine dining and hand tailoring had a bit of the outsider/arrivisté about him – especially when contrasted with Garret Fitzgerald’s professorial, relic of aul’ deceny.
As I said earlier, in the context of Trump’s positioning of himself, being the outsider is a relative position, not an absolute one. It is how Michéal Martin’s Fianna Fáil has repositioned itself on the political spectrum.
Compared to Enda Kenny’s Fine Gael and Joan Burton’s Labour, Martin is – despite his long experience around the cabinet table – more of an outsider.
Not only has he has learned the lessons of the crash, he demonstrated over the course of the last election and in the weeks since that he has grasped that we need to change the way we do politics and that what kind of worked in the 90s will not work today.
This is my latest article for Broadsheet.ie – available online here: http://www.broadsheet.ie/2016/05/24/the-new-politics-explained/
New Politics explained…..
What exactly is this “New Politics” we have been reading and hearing about so much lately?
It was the question that should have occurred to me as soon as the Public Relations Institute asked me to participate in a panel discussion they held last Thursday as part of a half day seminar entitled: Public Affairs in the era of ‘New Politics’.
But it didn’t. Like many others, I have been throwing about the phrase “new politics” in the two and a half weeks since the Dáil elected a Taoiseach as if everyone understands what it means.
But do we? Do the people who are supposedly responsible for our ‘new ‘politics even understand what the phrase means or what the concept is meant to encompass, apart from differentiating it from the “old politics”? Do we know in what way it is supposed to be different or why?
Unfortunately for me, this simple basic question only popped into my head while sitting on the dais last Thursday rather than during the days of preparation beforehand. But with each challenge comes an opportunity. Just as the question came in to my head the discussion opened out to the floor and with it came a rare moment of lucidity, dare I say: an epiphany.
Just then I heard a familiar voice re-enter the discussion to offer a definition “new politics”. It was a very familiar voice: it was mine.
The definition I came up with is quite simple: ‘new politics should be about policy not personality’.
Don’t get me wrong, I am no Pollyanna. I do not think that politics has changed overnight and that we have reached now some utopian perfection where every T.D. and Senator has suddenly become high-minded and abandoned all thoughts of party loyalty and personal advancement in favour of the common good
I also grasp that my definition might sound a little glib or overly simplistic but bear with me and I will try and explain why I think the definition I offer is valid.
One of the greatest failing of our supposed “old politics” was that most political crises of the past were not resolved by any great changes of policy or direction but by the drama of a political head on a platter.
Someone, usually not one of the main protagonists, was designated as the fall guy, they paid the price and the system continued along without change or reform, once the crowd’s lust for some blood on the carpet was sated.
By making a few boring, even tedious, changes to how Dáil committees operate and allowing them to actually oversee public policy and by making parliamentary questions work, we may just have moved the focus back on to the more complex issues of policy rather than the more simplistic and entertaining issue of personality.
One of the many reasons why the global economic crisis hit Ireland worse than other places is because public policy and economic dogma here had gone for too long unchallenged. The regulators went unregulated, civil society and the party system failed to advance realistic alternatives.
One of the most curious, and perhaps most re-assuring aspects to this gradual move to new politics is the fact that it has not come about by design. It is not the brain child of some think-tank or research group, rather it is the response of practising politicians working together to find a way of dealing with the result of the results of the last general election.
To their credit, the reform committee chaired by Ceann Comhairle, Sean Ó Fearghaill, comprising TDs from across the political spectrum worked quietly and quite speedily to devise an agreed reform package which though hardly exciting or thrilling may just be about to make day-to-day politics more responsive and more about policy.
The reforms agreed by committee from the establishment of a budgetary oversight committee to allowing the Ceann Comhairle to decide on the relevance of ministerial replies to parliamentary questions and the establishment of a league table of ministers who fail to properly answer questions move us closer to the levels of accountability and answerability we should have had long back.
No doubt we will continue to see “old politics” re-emerge from time to time, indeed it is hard to see Enda Kenny’s appointment of his expanded cohort of Minsters of State as an exercise is anything other than the old politics of personality – the personality in question being his and its maintenance in office for as long as it possible. We see it too in the handling of the O’Higgins Report and the embroiling of the Garda Commissioner in the controversy.
We can hope however, as the Dáil and its committees begin to exert their new powers and their responsibilities, to see less of the old politics, but not so much less that politics losses its touch of theatricality, drama and odd moments of farce. Not all aspects of the old politics should be abandoned.
This is my first column for Broadsheet.ie
“There’s no Labour problem that Ken (Livingstone) can’t make worse.”
This was Alan Johnson’s response to the former London Mayor’s latest unwelcome intervention in a UK Labour row.
Substitute the name “Alan Kelly” for “Ken Livingstone” and Johnson’s axiom could just be as applicable here.
Perhaps it’s his pugnacious ‘I tell it like it is’ style, but Alan Kelly has come to be personally identified with two of the last government’s biggest political failures: Irish Water to the housing crisis, not to mention his “power is a drug… it suits me” interview or his penchant for adding to his own party’s travails.
While Kelly’s supporters can argue that he inherited the policy messes that were Irish water and housing/homelessness, he knew what he was getting into and still decided that the best approach was the one he adopted: the unpopular populist.
So, why is the Labour party giving even the slightest consideration to making Kelly its next leader?
The sad reality for Ireland’s oldest political party is that the choices facing it are severely limited. While it can opt for the safe pair of hands that it is Brendan Howlin, Howlin comes a lot of baggage, not least over 20 years as a political insider, even when Labour was in opposition, Howlin managed to hold office as Leas Ceann Comhairle 2007 – 2011.
Sean Sherlock may seem, in contrast, like a more likeable and fresher option, indeed the 400+ people who replied to my Twitter poll rated him much higher than Kelly, but that very freshness that may be his biggest weakness. Sherlock has never been seriously tested and does he possess the gravitas or presence to carve out a niche for Labour against so many bigger opposition beasts? The same questions hang over Jan O’Sullivan.
So does Labour have to take another look at Kelly?
It’s the question Labour TDs will be asking themselves over the coming days and – depending on their decision – it may be the question that party members will have to wrestle with thereafter, if Kelly’s nomination can get past the parliamentary party.
Given that Kelly secured over 50% of the vote when he won the Deputy Leadership back in July 2014, the parliamentary party would be unwise to deny members the right to have the final say.
To deny Kelly the right to run, in favour of a Howlin coronation, may look like a good idea on paper, but it is the last thing that a party – that is now closer to extinction than Fianna Fáil was back in early 2011 – should do.
Labour needs to reconnect itself with its members and supporters – finding a way to cut the membership out of deciding on who should lead the fightback, is no way to start that fightback.
If they handle it right Labour can benefit from having a leadership contest, with plenty of constituency hustings, where members get to grill those looking to lead them back from the wilderness.
Let Kelly run. Let him explain his record as deputy leader and his central role in the party’s demise and – most importantly – allow him the opportunity to show if there is something… anything… more to him than political ambition and hunger.
How much do we really know about Kelly, even after last Friday’s Late Late Show interview and his July 2015 Saturday Night with Miriam one?
No a lot, I suspect – well not anything substantive. There is more than a hint of the “rose without trace” about Kelly.
It is as if he arrived fully formed on the political scene back in 2007 when he became a Senator. His progress to the Cabinet table was fast-tracked thereafter in two-yearly steps: in 2009 he was elected to the European Parliament; in 2011 he returned from Europe to become a T.D. (managing to jump two steps in one bound by becoming a Minister of State within a month of becoming a T.D.), leading finally to his becoming deputy leader and Minister for the Environment in 2014.
Though his supporters may point to his less than flattering media coverage as a counter argument, to the outside observer Kelly has had a charmed political career to date. He has moved seamlessly up the political ranks and achieved senior ministerial office in the same time that it has taken others to manage to just make it on to the local Council (or not, in the case of yours truly).
Has that all been due to his drive and ambition alone? Perhaps it has – and as other pundits have observed, drive energy and ambition are in desperately short supply in the Labour party right now.
But so too is humility and the capacity to recognise just how far out of touch the Labour Party became with its voters under Gilmore Burton and Kelly. Are these traits readily associated with Kelly? That’s a matter the Labour party members will have to consider in the weeks ahead – if they are given the chance.
Whether polling day is on Feb 26th or March 4th, it is clear that we are only two or three weeks away from the start of the great 2016 corriboard shortage… sorry, the 2016 general election.
Over the coming two weekends we will have the Fianna Fáil and then the Fine Gael Ard Fheiseanna, followed by Labour at the end of January – presuming that Enda hasn’t already called the election and pulled the plug on Labour’s big day out.
While the corriboard campaign posters remain in their wrappings and the Vote for me leaflets stand ready, the electioneering has already as good as started.
One the most interesting aspects of Fine Gael’s pre-campaign campaigning so far is just how much time and energy a party determined to dismiss Fianna Fáil as irrelevant is devoting to attacking them. See Today FM’s Matt Cooper’s comment on the Taoiseach’s Wednesday afternoon press conference:
Could it be that Fine Gael’s own private polling is telling them something the national newspapers polls are missing?
It occurred to me recently that Enda has spent the last few years doing a very bad Bertie Ahern impression – making Enda the Bobby Davro of Irish politics you might say. Enda gets the minor gestures and mannerisms right – but he misses the core of the character.
Enda may be as accomplished and expert a glad handler as Bertie when it comes to wading into a crowd and shaking the hand and slapping the of everyone around him, but he his mimicry is one dimensional. He does not possess Bertie’s skill and ability to command the facts and figures when engaging with the media on door step interviews.
While Enda still possesses many skills and abilities, not least his steely determination and ruthless streak, he is not politically hard wired to endure or sustain a long election campaign – especially if he hopes to keep his media interactions down to a few tightly managed ones.
In this context Fine Gael’s attempts to transpose the most recent Tory election campaign strategy to Ireland seriously risking backfiring on them and only highlighting the weaknesses they hoped to obscure.
It is a mistake on two fronts. First as they seem to be copying the Tory playbook here with minimal changes and basic adaptions.
Do they so see themselves as Ireland’s Tories that they cannot be bothered to make even the most basic of changes to the strategy, the text and the slogans? A series of recent Fine Gael social media posts have used the Tory line: “long-term economic plan” word for word:
While the Tories undoubtedly mounted a superb social media campaign in the 2015 UK general election and used the platforms, particularly Facebook, more effectively than most of their rivals (apart from the SNP who are the master campaigners both online and on the ground) that does not mean you take their campaign slogans and approaches lock stock and barrel.
Second, in taking the Tory campaign playbook en masse Fine Gael seems to have forgetten that we have a PR STV system, not First-Past-The-Post – indeed Fine Gael used to pride itself as being the defender of PR STV (they had opposed the two attempts to change the voting system by referendum in the 50s and 60s)
What works in a FPTP system does not necessarily work in a PR-STV one. Depending on where you live in a FPTP system you can find yourself voting for someone you don’t like rather than the one you do like most just so you can make sure the one you dislike more is kept out.
The idea that a vote for Fianna Fáil or Independent alliance is a vote for Sinn Féin is not so easy to sell in an STV system where the voter can vote the entire panel right down the line and omit the local SF candidate.
That said is easy to see the attractiveness of the Tory playbook for Fine Gael. The Tories succeeded in keeping their leader out of head to head debates, Fine Gael want and need to do the same – though for different reasons. While Cameron was wary of elevating Milliband by sharing a head to head debate platform with him – there were no questions about the PM’s capacity to perform well in a head to head debate.
The other attraction was the Tories successful cannibalisation of their Lib Dems coalition partners. Cameron’s gains came mostly from Lib Dem losses (The Tories took 27 of the 49 Lib Dem seats lost as opposed to 12 lost to Labour and 10 to the SNP) – an option that Fine Gael is eyeing up here, using Labour losses to shore up their own numbers. Fine Gael are ready to fight this campaign to the last Labour TD.
Though Fine Gael’s polling numbers have recovered recently – at precisely the time they needed them to recover – they are still on course to lose seats, even if they do get 31/32% in the polls.
While these improving numbers are no mere coincidence and are a tribute to Fine Gael’s political strategists, the idea that seems to be floating about the commentariat that Fine Gael is now some invincible campaigning machine is more than a little bit short of the mark.
Fine Gael is having a few problems of its own right now, and they are problems entirely of its own making. Though they will doubtless address the issue between now and the Árd Fheis (and possibly drum up future local difficulties in the process) Fine Gael was still short of the 30% gender quota up to a few days ago – a system they introduced and championed.
Not only that but its head-quarters operation has just ended an unseemly, costly and ultimately unsuccessful fight in the Courts with one of their own candidates: John Perry TD.
And before I am accused me of dragging up these problems like a Fianna Fáil-er whistling past the graveyard, I do not think this is a zero sum game. I do not presume that any loss of ground by Fine Gael over the campaign will automatically translate into a Fianna Fáil gain.
Fianna Fáil will have to make its own ground in this one and will need to land some hefty punches on Enda, Leo, Michael and Simon, it cannot depend on Enda and Fine Gael to just lose it.
The Legend of Enda of the Wild Whest…
Enda’s #armygate saga has had pundits of all hues falling over themselves to explain, or even excuse, how and why An Taoiseach went to a recent EPP gathering in Madrid and told a story about the Irish Defences Forces being on standby to protect ATMs back in 2012.
Some have seen this as just another example of the perils of letting Enda go off script. Others suggest it shows that his grip on the actualité is slipping, a bit like his story of the woman thanking him after the Budget.
In order to retain my punditry badge, let me weigh in with another possible explanation. I think Enda is suffering from Ransom Stoddard Syndrome.
Who is Ransom Stoddard, I hear you ask. He was the main character in the 1962 western: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Stoddard, played by Jimmy Stewart, is the eponymous hero who shot the outlaw Liberty Valance – except, well…. he didn’t. (I hope this doesn’t spoil the plot for anyone hasn’t seen it.)
“No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
Following a long political career, built in part on his reputation as the man who shot the criminal, Stoddard attempts to clarify events in an interview with a local newspaper. As the interview ends Stoddard asks the editor if the newspaper is going to use the real story, the editor replies: “No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
For Enda the legend of Enda has become confused with fact. The Enda legend or, to use the political communications parlance, the Enda narrative, is that he and Fine Gael manfully pulled Ireland back from the brink. In Fine Gael’s mind they inherited a bankrupt and dysfunctional country and, with careful planning and skilful leadership, turned it around to become the fastest growing economy in Europe. Not only that, they also tell themselves (and others) that the recession would never have hit Ireland if only Fine Gael had been in office for the preceding decade.
It is this narrative Enda was sharing with his colleagues in the EPP. The problem is that the facts don’t back it up, so Fine Gael and Enda must construct its own facts, facts based on its legends.
As Noel Whelan points out in his column in the Irish Times: Kenny gaffe over army and ATMs part of pattern of deception this is not the first, second or third time Enda has uttered this story of Army, ATMs and the Central Bank. This story has been constructed not only to fit into a narrative of the past, it is structured so as to advance it.
Yes, as others have pointed out, it does highlight Enda’s recurring issues with going off script and ad-libbing, but it is about more than a Taoiseach who can’t be trusted out on his own and who can’t remember his lines. It is about a party in government that is all narrative and no facts.
Last week the Fine Gael placed a graphic on its Facebook page which purported to show that it alone had secured Ireland’s recovery and made Ireland the fastest growing economy in the EU. To even the most casual of viewers the graphic, especially ones who ignore the dodgy Y axis increments, shows that the bulk of the recovery had been secured before the 2011 election and that the economy had effectively flat lined for the first two years of Fine Gael and Labour’s time in office.
Try searching for the 2002 and 2007 Fine Gael manifestos on the party’s website – you won’t find them. Neither will you find the many statements from Fine Gael spokespeople urging more spending after every Budget. The reality that both campaign platforms, plus the party statements promised to spend more and tax less than the Fianna Fáil alternatives does not sit well with the new Fine Gael legend.
Where Fine Gael is all narrative and no facts – Fianna Fáil has the opposite problem, it is all facts and precious little narrative. Up to the appearance of Brian Cowen and Bertie Ahern before the Banking Inquiry Fianna Fáil spokespeople seemed singularly unwilling to talk about the years leading up to the 2011 election. It seemed that they, like Fine Gael, thought that talking about the period 2002 – 2011 could only damage the party – but as Cowen and Ahern showed, setting the record straight and speaking candidly about what actually happened does not undermine Fianna Fáil.
Cowen and Ahern’s able and informed testimony at the Banking Inquiry showed that the Governments they led were neither reckless nor directionless. Yes, they made mistakes, but as they proved by their command of the facts and the details they did have a plan and were, in the teeth of a global financial crisis, making the best decisions they could on the basis of the facts and information before them. Their assured solo appearances contrasted with Enda’s assisted one, where he did the general patter and handed over to Richard Bruton when the questions become difficult.
The big fallout from the Banking Inquiry is not damaging Fianna Fáil the way Fine Gael’s strategists planned it would. They were full sure that parading the old familiar Fianna Fáil faces before the committee to be questioned and pilloried would re-ignite the public anger and ire of the 2011 election. Why else delay the hearings until the final run up to the election.
But they were wrong. While Fianna Fáil is hardly soaring in the polls, its support has been creeping up painfully slowly, just while the support levels for Fine Gael’s preferred enemy: Sinn Féin, have been slipping steadily downwards.
Hence the need for Fine Gael and for Enda is up the ante on the faux narrative and hype up the legend of Enda of the West complete, to return to the western movie motif, with the good guy white hats they have fabricated for themselves.
The problem is that life and politics today is much more questioning and techni-coloured now than it was in the days of the black and white western – no matter how exciting the story sounds.
I wrote this piece for the Slugger O’Toole website