The decline of public language in politics is coming to Ireland

22 Sep

This is my Broadsheet column from just over a week ago – September 12th 2016 – it concerns the then MoS John Halligan will he/won’t he resign saga. Though he didn’t resign, keep this one on file for the next time this political soap opera comes around. The original column can be viewed here: www.broadsheet.ie/in-a-field-of-his-own/ 

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rain-hellThough he may not realise it: John Halligan’s pronouncements over the weekend (such as the headline [left] in the Sindo) may just be a very small part of a world-wide phenomenon.

No, I am not claiming there is global movement to secure a second catheterisation (cath) lab for Waterford. What I am saying however, is that his statements, particularly his most recent ones, contain many of the elements of the decline of public language in politics that we have heard elsewhere.

I accept that Halligan and the local consultants in Waterford hospital are sincere in desperately wanting a second cath lab, but wanting something is not the same as needing it – especially when resources are not unlimited.

For that reason it was agreed as part of the Programme for Government negotiations that an independent clinical expert would be appointed to determine if the second lab was needed.

Halligan agreed to that proposal. The expert was appointed. The expert then produced a report which concludes that services should be improved but that a second cath lab was not necessary.

That is doubtless a bitter pill for Halligan to swallow, made all the more unpleasant from Halligan knowing that he had himself agreed to the process. He staked his local political credibility on the report concluding it would be necessary, indeed he told a local newspaper that it was just a “formality”. He made a bet and he has lost it – in almost every sense of that phrase.

His response to this predicament of his own making is to take a leaf out of the political playbook of the likes of Brexit campaigner Michael Gove or even Donald Trump and conclude that the people have had enough of experts. So, he lashes out at everyone else threatening to bring all hell (I thought he was an avowed atheist) down on top of this government.

Has it occurred to Halligan or the Halligan-istas that he is potentially guilty of the same base cute-hoor behaviour he has condemned others for in the past? If the case for Waterford is as strong as he, and the consultants in Waterford, say it is – then shouldn’t that case stand on its merits, rather than be imposed by political blackmail via threats of taking down the government?

As James Lawless, T.D., Halligan’s opposite number in Fianna Fáil pointed out this week, Halligan has spoken out on almost every topic under the sun apart from those for which he was given specific responsibility as a Junior Minister: the promotion of science, technology and innovation.

While we all knew Halligan was a junior minister, I suspect that I was not alone in being a bit unsure as to what department he was assigned until Lawless reminded us of it last Friday.

Perhaps Halligan regards his Junior Ministerial title as more honorific than specific: something that gives him an elevated status, a platform from which to speak out on issues that matter to him, rather than a role coming with explicit responsibilities and duties?

To judge from his capacity to lurch from crisis to crisis it would appear that Halligan is not familiar with the great political truism of the late Mario Cuomo; you campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose. Perhaps he is, but has misheard it as you campaign in poetry, but govern in rhetoric.

To be fair, he would not be the first. Indeed, get outside of Waterford and he would be absolutely lost in the crowd as we can witness from the Brexit campaign and the ongoing U.S. presidential election.

Facts give way to feelings. Something is true because I feel it is… or, it should be, rather than because it can be independently and impartially verified. Everyone’s motives, bar mine, are suspect. Four legs good, two legs bad.

It is not a new trend, George Orwell was considering it back in the mid-1940s in his essay “Politics and the English Language”. It comes around like a Sine curve every couple of years and seems to be approaching its peak, once again, though this time accelerated and amplified by modern technologies.

A new book entitled: Enough Said, What’s Gone Wrong With the Language of Politics? by New York Times CEO and former BBC Director General, Mark Thompson examines the current slide in political discourse on both sides of the Atlantic.

Unsurprisingly, given the timing, Donald Trump comes in for some attention with Thompson picking up on Trump’s failings as an orator, but also pointing out that his often clumsy staccato delivery masks Trump’s deceptive I-tell-it-like-it-is “anti-rhetoric”, claiming that “This is the way generals and dictators have always spoken to distinguish themselves from the cavilling civilians they mean to sweep aside.”

Thompson also points the finger at Social Media. While I have taken issue with this argument in a previous Broadsheet column, Thompson does expand far beyond the simplistic it’s all Social Media’s fault and looks at other related factors, such as; the increasing number of people who get their news and views from partial online sources: sources which confirm their views and prejudices, rather than challenging them impartially. Score one for the MSM (mainstream media)

So, where does poor John Halligan fit in on this global trend?

Not high, but he is in there: inflated rhetoric; crude threats; convinced he alone is right; certain that everyone on the other side is duplicitous; dismissive of experts. He ticks most of the boxes, while ticking the rest of us off.

ENDS

Special Advisers #Spads can play an important and positive role in government

21 Sep

Here is my Broadsheet column from September 5th 2016. This looks at the important and positive role Special Advisers (Spads) can play in government, particularly a partnership one, such as the current administration. www.broadsheet.ie/treated-like-interlopers/

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sycamore-room

The Sycamore Room in Dept of an Taoiseach where the Advisers meet

“To provide spurious intellectual justifications for the Secretary of State’s prejudices”

This is how the late Maurice Peston (father of ITV’s political editor Robert Peston) responded in the early 1970s when a senior UK civil servant asked him to explain how he saw his role as Roy Hattersley’s newly appointed Special Adviser (Spad).

It was more than just a casual witty remark from the Professor of Economics: it specifically referenced the fears the Department of Prices and Consumer Protection had about having an acknowledged policy expert in their midst and gainsaying their more generalist advice.

For a serious and nuanced consideration of the role of the Special Adviser in the Irish context the research work of the University of Limerick’s Dr Bernadette Connaughton is a good starting point, especially her August 2010 Irish Political Studies article.

In that article Connaughton argues that while the main role of most Irish Ministerial Spad is that of a ‘minder’ or gofer – working vertically within Departments to help their Ministers’ obtain results – Spads can, as a collective – also have the potential to contribute effectively to the political coordination of policy-making by working horizontally across Government.

As someone who spent almost six years in partnership governments, and someone who contributed to Dr Connaughton’s research, I can attest to the truth of the latter part of her argument. From my experience the most effective Spads were those whose commitment is as much to the whole of government as it is to their individual minister.

I suspect the troubles and turmoil which has beset the current Government are due in no small measure to the absence of this.

When Fianna Fáil cut the number of ministerial advisers in 1997, before that each Minister had a separate Special Adviser and Programme Manager, it did so by effectively merging the two roles so that each Special Adviser was also fulfilling the role of departmental programme manager, being responsible of assisting the Minister get that Department’s portion of the Programme for Government (PfG) implemented.

Each party in Government still retained a single Programme Manager – each responsible for co-ordinating the delivery of their party’s elements of the PfG. This co-ordination was done both between the two programme managers, and also through the individual Spads, making the weekly meeting of advisers particularly important.

At these meetings, which took place on the afternoon before Cabinet meetings, the individual Spads would advise the group on memos their Ministers were brining to Cabinet the following morning and gauge the reaction from others.

While Cabinet memos are circulated to other Department before cabinet for reaction, some Departments are less forthcoming in expressing their views in advance than others. Often times the first real signal that another Department (by which I mean the Department at “official” level, rather than “political”) might have an issue with what your Minister was proposing came at these meetings.

Another key component in this process were the group of Spads working for the Taoiseach. Each of them usually co-ordinated with 3 or 4 Departmental Spads to also work as an early warning system for issues and problems. As with all information channels, these systems worked best when they worked both ways – not that I think they worked both ways all the time during the time of the FF/Green government, but that’s an article for another day.

They also worked best when the larger party recognised that partnership in communications should not just be pro-rata and that the smaller party in Government has to be given a bit more space and room than their size or strength of numbers dictates.

The major party sometimes needs to roll with the punches when the junior partner attempts to assert its identity and influence. It doesn’t have to respond to every snide comment, particularly those from the “reliable sources close to the Minister”, indeed the senior partner’s responsibility is to take the heat out of situations, not inflame it.

This is something that the spin conscious Fine Gael appeared not to learn in the last FG/Labour government. I know this may seem heretical for many in Fine Gael, particularly those who saw the headlines in the Irish Times or listened to Marian Finucane every weekend and convinced themselves that the Labour tail was wagging the FG dog, but when you look at the Governments policy output, the evidence is clear – Fine Gael got its way most of the time.

Fast forward to this week and you realise that publicly accusing one of your independent Ministerial colleagues of “showboating” doesn’t achieve anything, apart from having one of that Minister’s allies responding in kind saying: “Fine Gael’s problem is they don’t like any dialogue and just want it all their own way” as Philip Ryan reported in yesterday’s Sunday Independent.

I can understand Fine Gael’s frustration in not having a single junior partner – with a single identity and a single voice – sitting at the table with it, but that is the reality and it is long past the time for it to develop the internal systems to address that.

Just continuing to do what it did when it was in government with Labour, isn’t going to work… indeed, as we have seen over the past few months it is not working.

If Fine Gael wants the independents to work cohesively as a group within a wider partnership, then it has to equip those independent ministers with the supports and internal early warning systems they need to allow the Spad system to work horizontally as it should.

The office of the Taoiseach has a vital role to play in that, especially when there is no single and identifiable programme manager to speak on behalf of the group of independents. It needs to recognise that those non Fine Gael faces around the table are not just interlopers, they are their partners in Government and while occasionally spinning against them may play well with its own dispirited back-benchers, collapsing your own government might even dishearten them more.

 

 

A simple primer on Irish #Defence Policy

21 Sep

Here is another of my weekly Broadsheet columns. I am slowly catching up on reposting these columns here, I hope to have my site up to date over the coming week.

This one is from August 29th and offers a quick primer on understanding Irish Defence policy: www.broadsheet.ie/mission-creep-2/ 

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army

Though you may not have noticed it – there was, over the last few weeks, an attempt to start a public debate on Irish Defence policy. While the Irish Examiner, in particular, did its level best to get it going, the discussion soon fizzled out.

The reason why the debate never really got going may be due to the fact that we tend to only discuss defence policy in public in response to some significant event or, more frequently, to some outlandish and unfounded claim.

On the rare occasions that we have any debate on defence in Ireland, they tend to be either end of the extreme ranging from claims that we are abandoning neutrality, a claim made continuously since the 1970s, to questions as to why we even have a Defence Force.

Though there is a real and clear public pride in our Defence Forces, both at home and abroad, there is also a surprising paucity of knowledge about Defence policy.

With this in mind, I want to use this week’s Broadsheet.ie offering to put some basic facts about Irish Defence policy out there, in the vain hope that the next public debate on Defence may be based on fact and reality, not myth and assertion.

Let’s start with a few basics.

The Irish Defence Forces comprise the Army, Air Corps and Naval Service and should total 9,500 men and women. The current manpower figure as set out in a parliamentary reply to Fianna Fáil’s Lisa Chambers, is just under 9100.

There are approximately 460 Irish troops currently serving overseas on a range of UN led and mandated peace-keeping and humanitarian missions. These include: 60 naval service personnel on the humanitarian search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean; about 210 troops on the UNIFIL mission in Lebanon and approx 140 troops serving in the UNDOF mission on the Golan Heights in Syria.

Though these numbers are way down from the average of 800 plus personnel serving overseas less than a decade ago, it still represents a sizeable Irish contribution to international peace and security, which in turn contributes to our own national security.

We spend about €900 million per year on Defence, though the vast bulk (over 70%) is accounted for by wages and pensions. When it comes to value for money the Defence Forces lead the way. The reform and modernisation programme undertaken between 2001 and 2010 make it a model of how public sector reform can be done right. Productivity was increased, numbers were reduced and the savings were invested in vastly improved equipment and training.

Now let’s turn to the policy side. First and foremost, Ireland is militarily neutral. While this is usually defined as not being a member of a military alliance, it also means that we decide for ourselves how much we spend on defence and – most importantly – how, where and when we deploy our troops overseas on humanitarian and peace-keeping/peace enforcement operations.

This is done via the “Triple-Lock” mechanism of UN mandate, Cabinet and Dáil approval. Triggering this triple lock is required before 12 or more Defence Force personnel are deployed overseas under arms. This enshrines not only our military neutrality but our commitment to multilateralism and the UN.

We use the phrase UN mandated, which means that a UN resolution is required. Nowadays many UN mandated missions are not UN led, i.e. “blue helmet”, but rather led by regional organisations – such as the EU, The African Union, NATO etc – on behalf of the UN. This was the case in the 2008 EUFor Chad  mission, which was commanded by an Irishman, Gen. Pat Nash.

I was in the Dept. of Defence during the Chad/Central African Republic mission, which was established to deal with the crisis created in the region on foot of the Darfur famine. I saw how the Triple Lock was implemented smoothly and speedily. UN resolution 1778 was passed at the end of Sept 2007, Cabinet Approval was given in October, unanimous Dáil approval by the end of November and by December an initial deployment of Army Rangers and support elements were on the ground in Eastern Chad establishing the Irish Camp.

Any difficulties in deployment were not due to the Irish or the Triple Lock but rather to the frustrating slowness of other EU countries, particularly the non-neutral ones, to respond especially when it came to offering air and medical support to the mission.

Nothing I saw at those defence meetings in Brussels led me to think that an EU Army was a realistic possibility, leaving aside the fact that we have a veto (EU requires unanimity on common defence) on it and that the Irish Constitution (Art 29.4.9) precludes Irish membership of a common defence.

Speaking of air support brings me back to the Irish Examiner article mentioned at the outset. From my perspective this appears to be based on the inaccurate, if not sensationalised misreading, of an already inaccurate report.

I say inaccurate as the original material suggests that is not Ireland which has asked the RAF to protect our airspace from terrorist threats, but rather that it is the British who have asked for Irish permission to fly into our air space in the event of terrorist air attacks heading for Britain.

When viewed this way the story is not quite as sensational, nor is it the slam dunk argument for Ireland rushing out and purchasing a fleet of F-16s.

I am not absolutely opposed to our buying a few F-16s – though if we are going to go into the fighter aircraft market why not opt for some newer F-35s?

I am sure the Air Corps would be overjoyed to have them, though I suspect the Departments of Finance and Public Expenditure might baulk at the tripling or quadrupling of annual defence expenditure necessary to keep these fighters in the air 24/7, especially when we consider the real and actual threat assessments.

So, let us have a full debate on defence (and foreign) policy by all means, but let us ground it in fact and reality.

ENDS

Sinn Féin’s Martial Docility – my Broadsheet column from Aug 22

12 Sep

Here is my “Mooney on Monday” Broadsheet.ie column from August 22nd  www.broadsheet.ie/sinn-feins-martial-docility/ Here I discuss the resignation of a Sinn Féin MLA and how it serves as an indication of the level of strict and unfaltering discipline that still operates within Sinn Féin.

 

Sinn Féin’s Martial Docility

2016-08-19_new_23906427_i1If there is one thing the Provos do well, it is commemorations. Give them the slightest reason and out come the banners, wreathes, black polo-necks, replica uniforms and the gang is ready to march anywhere.

So zealous are they to remember and memorialise that the objects of their commemoration do not even require any direct connection. All that is needed is a rallying cry, a route map, a bit of media attention and they are all set to go.

It is therefore curious, given this penchant for marking the contribution and sacrifice of others, that neither former Sinn Féin M.L.A. Daithí McKay nor Sinn Féin activist Thomas O’Hara can expect to find their colleagues publicly commemorating them anytime soon.

Last week, McKay resigned his Stormont seat and O’Hara was suspended as a Sinn Féin member after the Irish News accused McKay, then chair of Stormont’s Finance committee, of arranging for O’Hara to coach a witness due to appear at McKay’s committee in September 2015.

The witness, loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson, was there to give evidence about allegations of political corruption linked to Nama’s £1.3 billion “Project Eagle” sale of Northern Ireland property. At the Committee hearing Bryson made allegations of kickbacks to a senior politician and, at the conclusion of his evidence, accused then Northern Ireland Peter Robinson of being that politician.

This is in line with the advice Bryson received from O’Hara on Sept 19th in their Twitter direct message exchanges:

O’Hara: When talking about Robinson refer to him as ‘Person A’. So say all you have to say about him referring to him as Person A. Then in your final line say: Person A is Peter Robinson MLA.

Means that the committee cannot interrupt you and means that you don’t have to say robbos name until the very last second. So then it’s job done!

Shortly after the Bryson evidence, McKay was at the Dáil’s Public Accounts Committee on October 1st to discuss his committee’s investigations into the Project Eagle deal. Responding to a specific question from Deputy Shane Ross on Bryson’s evidence and why the NI Finance Committee had decided to call him, McKay replied:

Mr. Daithí McKay: It is well known that he [Bryson] has blogged at some length on this. It is also well known that he appears to have a lot of material which some believe may have been fed to him from another source. It was an issue of debate for the committee. What the committee agreed to do was to set a bar. The bar that has been set for him and future witnesses is that they have to prove that they have some connection to the terms of reference of the inquiry.

Oh the irony of McKay talking about Bryson being “fed” and his setting the bar high.

So, why does any of this matter?

Well, there is more to this episode than just dodgy goings on by Sinn Féin at Stormont. Nama’s Project Eagle was the single biggest property sale in Irish history. The investigation by Stormont’s Finance Committee was supposed to establish the truth behind the accusations of wrong doing.

Perhaps that Stormont Committee was never going to be able to uncover the truth behind the deal and expose whose fingers were in the till, but as the SDLP Leader, Colum Eastwood, has pointed out: “Sinn Féin’s interference in that democratic investigation has only served the purposes of those who are alleged to have corruptly benefited from the Project Eagle deal in the first place”.

It is hard to imagine that was Sinn Féin’s primary intention, yet it is the likely outcome of it. So why, after months of posturing and calling for a full public investigation of this massive property deal, would Sinn Féin undermine an element of that investigation?

Were they just eager to get Robinson’s name on the record or could they have had other pressing political considerations at the time? At around this this time last year senior PSNI officers were linking a murder in east Belfast with the Provisional IRA. That killing was thought to have been in revenge for a killing in May.

We are now expected to believe that undermining of what is a very legitimate public concern was all done by two lone wolves: McKay and O’Hara without any input, sanction or direction from others? Really?

The current N.I. Finance Minister, Sinn Féin’s Máirtín Ó Muilleoir has described the contacts between Bryson and the Sinn Féin officials as “inappropriate”. He denies any involvement with or knowledge of their communications, though he was a member of the McKay committee when Bryson gave his evidence and was even mentioned twice in the O’Hara/Bryson exchanges.

If the positions were reversed down here and it was a Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil Minister facing such questions, it is hard to imagine Messrs McDonald, Doherty or Ó Broin being quiet as phlegmatic and dismissive as Ó Muilleoir appears in his statement this morning.

The fact that both McKay and O’Hara have so readily been thrown under the bus without even a whimper from either is not only a testament to their loyalty and commitment but an indication of the level of strict and unfaltering discipline that still operates within Sinn Féin.

Can you imagine a T.D., Senator or Councillor in any other party being so ready to walk away so silently? No, me neither.

While it is tempting to speculate that Michéal, Enda or Brendan might yearn to have such command and mastery over their flocks, I suspect they are content to forego such control as they see the bigger picture and know that democratic accountability is not well served by such martial docility.

 

 

Three cheers for the system. Hip hip…. No? Nothing…? My Broadsheet.ie column from Aug 8

12 Sep

Here is my “Mooney on Monday” Broadsheet column from August 8th last:  www.broadsheet.ie/three-cheers-for-the-system/

Three cheers for the system. Hip hip…. No? Nothing…?

blog_tag1This comes as no surprise. After the tumult and turmoil of the past few years it would require a hopefulness that bordered on the foolhardy to expect to hear anything even vaguely complimentary said about the system.

At so many levels, it failed us. The institutional accountability and oversight that we thought would prevent bank and financial crashes proved inadequate at best, and downright mendacious at worst.

It is a failure that reaches beyond the crash and extends right up to the present day with so many people seeing the present recovery as something that is happening in communities and areas other than theirs.

This feeling that is not unique to Ireland. We see echoes of it in the Brexit result in the U.K. with the high numbers of people in the former industrial heartlands of the midlands and the north of England voting to leave the EU.

We see it too in the support for Trump among blue collar workers in the “rust belt” states of the U.S. and in the support for Marine Le Pen’s Front National last December, particularly in the formerly industrialised areas of the North of France.

These were the parts most badly hit, not just by the crash, but by the advent of technology and globalisation before it. They have seen factories closed and jobs moved overseas. Not only that but it has all happened so fast, without time to adjust.

So, the lesson is straight forward: those most badly hit by the changing world and global financial crash are understandably those most likely to have lost most faith in the political and economic system.

So far, so logical. But there is a school of thought that suggests that the system – by which I mean economic and political systems – has not failed us as much as we might think.

Step forward political scientist and expert in international relations Prof Daniel Drezner. In his book: “The System Worked: How the World Stopped Another Great Depression” Drezner maintains that the Global system worked, albeit inelegantly. He says that the efforts of central bankers and other policymakers within the G-20 IMF, WTO and other global institutions prevented the international crash becoming a full-fledged depression, like the 1930s Great Depression.

Indeed, he argues that while the global economy remains fragile (his book was written in 2014), that these global institutions survived the “stress test” of the crisis, and may have even become more resilient and valuable in the process.

This is not much comfort when you have lost your job and are struggling to find another. Knowing that the global system stopped the crisis toppling into a depression doesn’t make it easier to accept a big reduction in a living standard that was not all that high to start with.

Nonetheless, Drezner has a point. He reminds us how close we all came to falling into the abyss of another great global depression. His comparisons with the 1930s crash, and how we narrowly avoided it, are important as that economic and social collapse contributed to the collapse of trust and confidence in the systems of government then and the consequent rise of fascism in Europe.

So, just as we came close to another great depression, have we – or are we – coming perilously close to a similar political drift?

Many commentators see it in the global rise of populism. They see that Brexit vote in the UK, Putin’s reign in Russia, Le Pen’s progress in France and, most significantly, the rise of Donald Trump as evidence that populism is on the march, and a goose stepping march, at that. They see it in the demagoguery, the inflated rhetoric and – above all – the rejection of facts, evidence and expertise shown by Trump, Putin, Le Pen et al.

Doubtless, as we have come terrifyingly close to global depression, we may indeed be coming close to the return of some 21st century form of fascism, but just as we avoided one, I suspect we are also about to narrowly avoid the other, but only if the centre ground of politics holds and is not complacent.

While Marine Le Pen will almost certainly make it through the first round of voting in the French Presidential election next year, she is likely to be well beaten in the second round, a head to head contest between the top two candidates, especially if she is pitted against Alain Juppé.

As for the U.S., as the Trump gaffes and buffoonery of the past few weeks have shown, Donald Trump is less Benito A. Mussolini and more Rufus T. Firefly. (Firefly was Groucho Marx’s fictional leader of Freedonia in the 1933 movie Duck Soup).

This is not to say that Trump is a joke – far from it. But just as he is no joke, neither is he the Devil incarnate. Comparisons between Trump and Hitler are not just over the top, they miss the important point that his rise represents: a deep dissatisfaction and disillusionment among a large swathe of blue collar voters with the prevailing system. This is something I explored here in early June: Trump is riding a zeitgeist that he didn’t create, but that others have missed.

In France, in the U.S., indeed just about everywhere, the political centre ground is being tested and it must come up with solutions that are not just a return to business as usual. As Michéal Martin T.D. observed in his John Hume Lecture at the recent MacGill Summer School:

“…for us to rebuild levels of political trust and engagement with the public, the path of a more reflective, expert and centre-ground politics is the only credible way forward”.

Maybe then, as E M Foster remarked in the introduction to his 1950 collection of political essays: Two Cheers for Democracy,

“We may still contrive to raise three cheers for democracy, although at present she only deserves two.”

128 words to use instead of “very” – a handy writing style guide from Luke at www.proofreadingservices.com 

5 Aug

Pro-EU sentiment across #Ireland should be fostered via all island Forum #brexitresult

1 Jul

puckoonThis 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/

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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.

eastwoodFirst, 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.

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Ehh.. #SocialMedia alone not to blame for coarsening of political debates

27 Jun

JoCoxFlowersThis is my Broadsheet opinion piece from June 20th, written in the aftermath of the horrific murder of labour MP, Jo Cox. broadsheet.ie/ad-hominemphobia/


As people struggle to come to terms with how Jo Cox MP could be so brutally slain outside her constituency clinic, many have focused on the coarsening of public debate and the abuse, both actual and online, aimed at politicians.

Though there has undeniably been a coarsening of public debate in recent years, we should not delude ourselves that there was once a golden age when all political discussion was genteel and free from ad hominem attacks.

There wasn’t.

Politics has always been a rough trade where vigorous and full bodied exchanges are the order of the day. Take this robust response from Frank Aiken T.D. in Dáil Éireann in July 1959, which I found while doing some research on Irish diplomatic history.

Incensed by Fine Gael claims that he was too supportive of Chinese representation at the U.N. and that he had chosen to attend a U.N. meeting instead of the funeral of Pope Pius XII, Aiken, who was Foreign Minister at the time, fumed:

He [Deputy McGilligan] is a low type who would climb on the body of a dead Pope to have a crack at Fianna Fáil.

Can you imagine the memes if someone said that today? But blaming Social Media alone for the eroding of civility in public discourse, as some have done in recent days, is to miss a bigger point.

Of course there are armies of irresponsible anonymous online warriors out there ready to pour a stream of bile and abuse on anyone who disagrees with them or points out that their heroes have feet of clay.

They are on both the left and right. Indeed, some of the most illiberal vitriol can come from those styling themselves as liberal, but whose social media output is anything but.

There are lone wolves and there are organised hoards. Our own domestic example of the hoard are the Shinner-bots, a virtual battalion of anonymous trolls (with the emphasis on ‘anonymous’).

Within minutes of Gerry Adams being criticised online for his disgraceful ‘Django’ tweet, the Shinner-bots were insulting and lambasting anyone who dared to question the actions of the dear leader. Their goal: smother the critics by saying and posting anything necessary o shut down the discussion and drive their opponents offline.

Sadly, politicians and journalists, particularly female, come in for equally appalling treatment on social media. The attacks on journalists are probably more pernicious, as the aim is to influence their reporting not by weight of facts and debate, but by simple bullying.

But the point to remember is that the vast majority of people do not post or talk about politics on social media. Just in the same way as the majority of the people who vote for an individual TD do not contact them by email, letter or phone.

Most people are part of what Richard Nixon (OK, not the first name to leap to mind when talking about open dialogue) termed: “The Silent Majority”, the people who are following events, but who are not protesting, speaking out or expressing their political opinions beyond the ballot box or the odd discussion at home or in the pub.

Blaming the coarsening of debate on social media alone is akin to attributing the rise of Hitler to the invention of valve radio. It is a factor, particularly the facility for anonymous posting which certainly has helped the erosion of mutual respect in discussion, but there are other significant ones, including the dumbing down of political debate.

This dumbing down is practised by politicians and journalists alike.

In the 1968 U.S. presidential election the average candidate sound bite used on the TV evening news was 42 seconds. By the 2000 election, that had shrunk to about 7 seconds.

The trend was not limited to broadcast media. During the same period the average quote from a candidate appearing on the front page of the New York Times went from 14 lines to about 6.

We now do politics as if it was a skills test on a reality show: Your task is to set out how you will sort out Irish healthcare in 30 seconds… explain the rational for the UK remaining the EU in 140 characters.

Couple this rush to simplification with the urge for immediate commentary and analysis and you have a dangerous mix. In the days before social media, talk radio and rolling 24-hour news, politicians and journalists alike had the time to consider their responses and the space to expand on them.

Political analysis and political responses are now expected be immediate, hurried and brief. But what is the virtue of the immediate short response, be it in a radio interview or online?

If expecting a Minister to give their immediate gut response to a particular issue is now the norm, then how can we slam others for doing the same online, when they do it under their own name?

 

 

Shameful… @realdonaldtrump’s dog whistle politics

27 Jun
pulse-nightclub

Pulse Nightclub, Orlanda

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”. 

 

The problem with #EUref campaign, is the problem with British politics #Brexit #VoteRemain

20 Jun

BrexitThis 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.

ENDS