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The honeymoon for Leo was over… even before it started? @campaignforleo @FineGael

16 Jul

This column is from last month, June 19th 2017. In it, I looked at Taoiseach Varadkar’s first few faltering days in office and conclude that things have not been going according to his masterplan.

Even the more ardent blueshirt cannot call a cabinet that contains FG ministers who entered the Oireachtas in 1981 (Bruton), 1987 (Flanagan) and 1989 (Creed), 1992 (Fitzgerald) and 1994 (Ring) new or fresh.

Meanwhile, the Marie Whelan saga, which was not of Varadkar’s making, but his ownership of a move that looked suspiciously like a vintage political stroke, is now 100%

Original article here: www.broadsheet.ie/the-honeymoon-is-over/

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Silage

“Silage and Ice-cream”.   This is how Audrey Carville defined the classic Irish Summer on RTÉ Radio One’s Morning Ireland earlier today.

And though silage was not exactly plentiful in the Liberties, Rathmines or even Yellowbatter in Drogheda during my childhood years, I think I know what she means.

Indeed, up to this morning I hadn’t realised that silage is spelled with just one “l”. Though I cannot recall using the word in many speeches, reports or articles I am virtually certain that I used two “l”s anytime I have written it.

I know for sure that I used two “l”s when I went searching for the phrase just before writing this piece, only to discover that the two “l”-ed version of silage, i.e. sillage (pronounced as if there were no “l”s at all in the word) is the word used to describe the lingering fragrance that someone’s perfume leaves in the air.

Silage and ice-cream may also be an apt phrase to describe Leo Varadkar’s first few days as Taoiseach.

The ice-cream has come in the form of the positive coverage his elevation to high office has generated, both at home and abroad, though that may be starting to melt a bit after two solid weeks of learning what a wonderfully precocious child he was and how he wrote his first letter to the Irish Times aged three, or whatever.

His first TV interview with Tommy Gorman was good. He was clear, concise and on top of his brief. The fact that he opted to do his first one-to-one TV encounter as Taoiseach with RTÉ’s northern editor was clearly intended to signal that the North would be a priority with this Taoiseach in a way that it had not been for his predecessor.

It was also interesting that he opted to set out his government’s policy approach to the North and re-unification himself having just appointed his rival, Simon Coveney, as the line minister dealing with the brief, a signal perhaps of things to come.

But, and not for the first time, a gap emerged between what he says and what he does. His decision to just meet with the leaders of two of the North’s five major political parties was not a good first move. In using his first actions on the North to meet with just Arlene Foster of the DUP and Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill, and not to meet with the leaders of the other three centre ground parties: the SDLP, UUP and Alliance, the new Taoiseach was perpetuating the mistake made by recent Irish governments.

Yes, a deal on the return of Stormont and the Executive is not possible without the two big beasts of the DUP and Sinn Féin agreeing to again work together, but the smaller parties should not be taken for granted. Even the British government realised that when it invited all the parties to Downing Street last Thursday, not just the big two.

Taoiseach Varadkar made a silly unforced error in appearing to relegate the smaller parties to the second division of negotiation. Their participation in the institutions is as important and crucial as that of the DUP and SF. If anything, the events of the second half of last year suggest that it is even more important, as the two main parties seem unable to reach accommodations in office without the smaller parties there to give them cover.

Varadkar should know this. He sits at a Cabinet which could not continue in office if it were not for the involvement of smaller parties and Independents though, as we see from today’s latest development in the Marie Whelan appointment saga, he may know it, but he doesn’t show it.

Perhaps this is the point. Perhaps his near disdainful attitude to the smaller parties in the North just echoes his disdainful attitude to its own partners in government?

The incredible, some would say grubby, rush to get Marie Whelan quickly sworn in as a judge of the appeal court this morning so that the sorry saga is all over and down before tomorrow’s Cabinet meeting is a brazen throw down to Ministers Ross and Naughten and – by extension to Fianna Fáil.

Is this just Varadkar bravado, showing early on that he is now the boss and what he says goes? Or, is the nomination a difficult, but essential, element of the succession’s realpolitik that he must see through to the end, no matter how the stench adheres to him? I suspect this is more the latter.

Those who say that Leo has wiped Fianna Fáil’s eye by pushing this through seem to miss the point that this appointment, coupled with the fiasco of the cabinet reshuffle that wasn’t, has just shortened what could have been an extensive Varadkar honeymoon.

As every job interviewee had been told: you only get one chance to make a first impression and Leo has wasted his. Meanwhile, Fianna Fáil will wait for its moment to exact some political revenge and that will be a moment of its choosing, not Leo’s. If Fianna Fáil is to bring down this government let be on an issue of policy that affects people’s lives, not “beltway” process.

The Marie Whelan saga was not of Varadkar’s making, but his ownership of a move that looks suspiciously like a vintage political stroke, is now 100%. The appointment was brought to Cabinet as the last act of the outgoing Taoiseach and outgoing Justice Minister, but by defending it so fiercely the new Taoiseach has made it his own… alone… and, unless I am missing something, I have not seen the new, sorry… the incoming… Minister for Justice, Charlie Flanagan, (it hardly seems right calling someone who has been in the Dáil since 1987 “new”) rushing to the barricades to help.

If Varadkar has been preparing all his political life for this moment, then it is hard to believe that this is what he had planned. You cannot call a cabinet that contains FG ministers who entered the Oireachtas in 1981 (Bruton), 1987 (Flanagan) and 1989 (Creed), 1992 (Fitzgerald) and 1994 (Ring) new or fresh.

We shall see tomorrow how he handles the even trickier issue of appointing Junior Ministers. Will he be bold and courageous in these hardly earth-shattering selections, or will he just do what he did with the cabinet?

Are these first faltering steps a case of the promises made to secure election restricting the ability to operate, or is the problem more fundamental? Can Varadkar be the thrusting and dynamic Taoiseach his Fine Gael parliamentary colleagues longed for, or will he just become the commentator-in-chief?

Is that the sillage of silage or of raspberry ripple ice-cream. Excuse me, I must be off to Teddys in Sandycove!

 

The perks of abstinence…?

16 Jul

This Broadsheet column first appeared online on June 12th 2017. In it, I explore the ramifications of the 2017 Westminster election result on politics in Northern Ireland, and suggest – borrowing heavily from an Irish Times article by Denis Bradley – that politics on the nationalist/republican side may be set for a major change over the coming year… www.broadsheet.ie/the-perks-of-abstinence/

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BBC NI

 

The results page from the BBC NI website – www.bbc.com/results/northern_ireland

 

While the outcome of the Westminster election was far from conclusive in England and Wales, the same cannot be said for Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Only for the resurgence of the Scottish Tories under Ruth Davidson, Theresa May would be moving furniture rather than clinging to office by her fingertips. While the same Scottish result has, sadly, delayed the prospect of an Indy2 referendum, as the SNP Westminster representation collapsed from 56 seats to just 35 thanks to a 13% drop in support.

While in Northern Ireland the two parties that were at the heart of the post Good Friday Agreement Executive the: the SDLP and the UUP have been wiped out in terms of Westminster representation with the spoils being shared out between the DUP and Sinn Féin.

The Westminster line-up going into last Thursdays election was DUP 8, SF 4, SDLP 3, UUP 1 and Ind 1. The line-up coming out of it looks far starker: DUP 10, Sinn Féin 7 and Ind Unionist 1.

In crude political terms the balance has not shifted, however. There were 11 broadly unionist MPs and 7 broadly nationalist ones in the last House of Commons. This time around there will be: 11 broadly unionist MPs and 7 broadly nationalist ones, only that none of the 7 will attend.

Much has been made of Sinn Féin’s abstentionism over the past few days with most parties in the South using it as a stick to beat them with. I think the parties here have got it wrong on this one.

I would have happily voted for any of the SDLP candidates and I am deeply saddened not to see Mark Durkan, Margaret Ritchie or Dr Alasdair McDonnell in the House of Commons ensuring that the voice of nationalist and republican Ireland is heard. That said, the reality is that nationalist and republican voters still opted for candidates they knew would not take their seats.

Why voters in the North decided to vote for candidates who are happy to take the wage and the perks without doing the job is the issue that our political leaders should be addressing. The issue was excellently summed up by Denis Bradley in his analysis piece in last Saturday’s Irish Times:

“Since the Good Friday Agreement, Irish nationalism, across the whole island, has allowed itself to be reduced to a critiquing and an opposing of Sinn Féin instead of better understanding and explaining to itself and to others the desirability and the possibility of Irish unity.”   

Bradley then went further and made the case for not just slagging off Sinn Féin hollow and ultimately directionless narrative saying:

“There will always remain Irish nationalists who are unconvinced that Sinn Fein are the best proponents and providers of Irish unity but they continue to await a message and a messenger that is better.”

I believe this group is in the majority, North and South. As I have said here very many times, Brexit has completely changed the nature and scope of the debate in the North. One of the fundamental principles of the Good Friday Agreement is consent. Consent means, in the context of the Good Friday Agreement, that the constitutional position of Northern Ireland will not change without the consent of the majority of the people there.

There was a vote on Brexit in the North and 56% of people there, across communities, said no to Brexit. Yet it was still pushed through Westminster – despite the impassioned pleas of people like Durkan, Ritchie and McDonnell – and will proceed, we presume, in some shape or other. The EU citizenship of the people of Northern Ireland is not only being ignored, it is being annulled by the government at Westminster – small wonder that nationalists and republicans are angry.

Yes, it would be far better for this island North and South if Sinn Féin took their seats in this finely balanced parliament and used their numbers to raise the many legitimate and real concerns of Irish people on a hard Brexit and a hard border, but that is the type of analysis and criticism you apply to a political party, not Sinn Féin.

There are so many other areas on which to challenge Sinn Féin, top of that list is the perpetual sloganizing and game-playing that it engages in which helps it squeeze out an extra percentage point or two here and there but which also pushes the prospect of reunification further over the horizon. As Cllr Mannix Flynn said in his podcast with the Irish Independent: “The Sinn Féin promise of liberation is nuts.”

Over the past few days we have seen successive SF talking heads on TV Radio and Social Media telling us what a brilliant election they have just had and how their mandate is even further strengthened.

In the most simplistic terms, they are right. Sinn Féin did have a good Westminster election, but the shift in votes needed under the archaic first-past-the-post system to deliver that result was not huge. They took two seats off the SDLP and took one off the UUP, but when you look at the movement of voters, it was not a seismic change.

While SF saw its vote share since the most recent assembly election increase by 1.5% and the SDLP saw its vote decrease by a mere 0.2%, the biggest swing was to the DUP which saw its vote surge by a stunning 7.9% to 36%.

That DUP swing was decisive, not just in terms of the North, but also in terms of its clout in Westminster. So, the DUP now has the ear, if not the more tender regions, of a weakened UK Prime Minister, while Sinn Féin has 7 MPs with no clout, no Executive, no Assembly and an NI MEP who will be redundant in less than two years.

The other thing that Sinn Féin may have achieved is to have opened up a political space that it cannot occupy, but which could be filled and expanded by a new, or even an old, pro-European, business friendly, republican political party. Things in the North may be about to get a whole lot more interesting.

ENDS