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No long summer break from political debate

18 Jul

This week’s Broadsheet column was a defence of the oft criticisied Summer School season and an argument for more policy Irish think tanks, for for a Fianna Fáil aligned one in particular. Original column online here: Broadsheet.ie 

 


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At around 4.20pm on Friday last Dáil Éireann adjourned for the Summer recess. It is due to return at 2pm on Wednesday September 20th.

Cue the usual hollow complaints from the commentariat over TDs holidays and short Dáil sessions, with a few harrumphs from the Brussels side-line courtesy of Fine Gael MEP, Sean Kelly who tweeted that the EU parliament’s holiday will be 4 weeks shorter.

If this Dáil was actually processing legislation, especially the range of halfway decent Private Members Bills coming from backbenchers across the House, then there may be a basis for complaint. But, it isn’t.

To be fair, it is not as if TDs and Senators are about to head off to the Maldives or Marrakech. The Seanad is sitting this week, as are several Oireachtas committees, and they will take a shorter break than the Dáil and return earlier – and before you sigh that the committees don’t count, bear in mind that Sean Fleming’s Public Accounts Committee will be launching its report into the financial procedures at Garda College, Templemore at 2.00pm tomorrow.

However, the fact that the Dáil is taking a nine-week break, does not mean that political debate will be on hold for all that time.

The start of the summer recess also means the start of the political Summer School season. This week sees the MacGill Summer School in Donegal and it will be following a range of other summer schools, both large and small, including the  Parnell Summer School in Rathdrum, Co Wicklow in mid-August which will look at contemporary criminal, policing, penal and judicial policy and the excellent Kennedy Summer School being held in New Ross in early September which will look at a range of issues including Brexit.

While it is easy to dismiss some aspects of these Summer Schools are just the same folks talking at each other in various locations over wines of varying qualities, they still have a positive input into our policy discourse. They allow more discussion on the broader themes and issues and encourage more focus on policy and less on process – something that bedevils political commentary and debate the other 40 odd weeks of the year – including by yours truly.

The Summer School season highlights the dearth of policy discussion the rest of the year around. I am often struck by how few serious policy fora and think tanks we have here. While there are some, and they produce very good policy policies and encourage new policy directions, they tend to be from just outside the centrist spectrum, at either end: from the Hibernian Forum on the centre-right to the trade union backed Nevin Economic Research Institute. That is not to say that there no centrist fora, there are, but they tend to be sectoral or focussed on Ireland’s relationship with the EU.

It is as if the centrist parties should just look to their own limited in-house research teams and the civil service. While Fine Gael does have its Collins Institute, a quick look at the latest news section on their website suggests that annual activity is more based on a lunar calendar than a Gregorian one. The three most recent news items there are from May 2017, July 2015 and December 2014.

There is room for a significant centrist policy (big hint to Fianna Fáil) think tank and there are a range of EU institutes and fora, not to mention expertise, with which it could partner and co-operate. There is also a major issue on the horizon which it can help address: Brexit.

As I have said here several times, a lot of the discussion and focus in the Irish Brexit debate thus far has been on ameliorating and easing the most damaging economic aspects of Brexit, but there has not been sufficient discussion and exploration of the political dimensions.

One of those relates to the future of this island: as a whole.

One of the core principles of the Good Friday Agreement – and one of the primary reasons why it received huge buy-in across the island – was that the constitutional position of Northern Ireland would not change without the consent of the majority in Northern Ireland.

This was there to reassure Unionists that they would never be coerced into a United Ireland. It was also an assurance to the population that they were democratically sovereign and they alone could determine their own constitutional status. Yet, the Brexit result last year is about to change the status of the citizens of Northern Ireland not only without their consent, but expressly contrary to it and they are told, by the UK’s Supreme Court that the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement do not apply.

This is a major change and it is getting lost in the understandably loud and noisy debate over the economic aspects of Brexit.

Brexit also changes our relationship with the EU. Up to now we have been one of two common law, English speaking countries in the EU with similarly structured economies and political systems. We have shared common interests and held a range of similar views on issues from Data Protection to Employment and Social Policy. We now face into a future in the EU Council without a key ally.

That does not mean a debate on our continued EU membership – but it does require some thinking on how we develop and advance that membership and that again returns to how that is expressed on and across this island.

There is plenty to think about over the coming weeks and months and while it is good to take some time away and recharge, let’s also us some of the time while the Dáil is not in session to commence some serious debates on what lies before us.

Ends.

 

ENDS  

@campaignforleo poll nos – not so much a Leo bounce as just an Enda recoil

16 Jul

This is my Broadsheet.ie column from last week, published before today’s Sunday Times/B&A poll showing FG on 29% and FF on 30%. This joint level of support of 59% is a positive, particularly for FF and suggests it has scope to get its average showing back into the low 30s. 

The original article is online here: www.broadsheet.ie/a-bounce-or-a-recoil

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From the Sunday Business Post/RedC

Well, that didn’t seem to last too long.

Yesterday’s Sunday Business Post/RedC poll showed Fine Gael’s lead over Fianna Fáil closing by 5pts: from 8% in late May to down to just 3% now) This suggests an abrupt end to the Varadkar honeymoon.

I stress the word “suggest”. While the RedC poll puts Fine Gael on 27% and Fianna Fáil on 24%, another poll, taken exactly two weeks earlier by the Irish Daily Mail/Ireland Thinks put Fine Gael on 31% and Fianna Fáil on 26%. While it is possible that Leo’s less than adroit handling of events over the last two weeks may have shaved 4pts off his halo, it would be folly to try to conclude that from the results of two separate polls conducted by two different companies and taken at two different time periods.

What you can do, though, is track and compare the results from one individual polling company over a period of time. Fortunately, Red C does that for you via its handy online live-polling-tracker. Here you can find the results from the 10 polls conducted by Red C over the past year.

They show that Fianna Fáil has been ahead of Fine Gael in 7 out of the 10 polls – good news for the Soldiers of Destiny, you would think. But that joy is somewhat diminished when you see that two of the three where they are behind are the most recent ones: see shaded cells in table below (data from Red C here):

Red trend

Table 1. Red C polls July 16 – July 17

Ireland Thinks’ Dr Kevin Cunningham has highlighted the trend here and tracked a gradual Fine Gael recovery from soon after it became clear that Enda Kenny was set to depart.

What this suggests to me is that there is not so much a Leo bounce as a post Enda recoil. While the May Red C poll showed Fine Gael opening up a dramatic gap on its rival, the July one shows it closing back gain. So much for all the Fine Gael TDs who confidently hoped that electing Leo Varadkar as leader would have them 10pts clear of Fianna Fáil.

What the Red C polls show is that practically nothing has changed in terms of party support since the last general election. This is hardly surprising. What many pundits and commentators forget is that the vast bulk of voters are not avidly following the ins and outs and ups and downs of politics. Let me correct that slightly, many voters do follow what is happening day to day, but they do not base their voting intentions on process, but rather on outputs. That means that they do not give much consideration as to who they will vote for until they see that an election in imminent.

The fact that nothing much has changed in terms of the polls is kind of good news in the quasi zero-sum game of Fine Gael versus Fianna Fáil.

Fine Gael has played its ace card. It has dumped the pilot and put its smartest newbie in charge and the net impact is: meh! It has recovered the ground lost over the 14 months after the February 2016 election, but effectively it is back at that result – a result that was a big contributory factor in Fine Gael dumping Enda. Where else is there now for Fine Gael to go?

It could be argued that Fianna Fáil has been threading water awaiting this changeover. Despite the mythology I mentioned last week, Fianna Fáil must know that some of the gains made were due to Fine Gael own goals. Fianna Fáil cannot depend on Fine Gael shooting itself in the foot the next time – though Fine Gael always retains that capacity – but it can now plan a strategy knowing that the Fine Gael leadership handover has happened at a time that best suited Fianna Fáil.

No doubt the new Taoiseach will use the Summer to boost his profile and standing, but what works for Trudeau in Canada or Macron in France does not necessarily work here. As I opined on Twitter this week, it often seems to me that Varadkar has a good understanding of politics in general, just not of Irish politics. Gesture politics and soaring rhetoric do not play as well here as in other countries. Perhaps it is to do with scale and proximity. As (I think) the folk singer Frank Harte told Gay Byrne on the Late, Late Show many years ago, it is impossible to become a big star in Ireland as there will always be someone to pipe up: sure, I knew him when he had nothing.

Leo may succeed in raising his personal popularity ratings between now and September, but that does not necessarily translate into gains for Fine Gael – indeed recent political history suggests that the popularity of a party leader rarely bleeds across to help their party. Micheál Martin was adjudged to have had a good election in Feb 2016, but even his winning performances in the leaders debates barely moved the dial for his party during the campaign.

The danger for Fianna Fáil is not in the future of Fine Gael, but rather in the dangers of the aforementioned FF/FG zero sum game. As Table 1 above shows the combined of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil support in the Red C polls over the past year has averaged at 51%. Compare this with the figures in elections from before 2009 in table 2.

GE trendTable 2. Combined FF + FG first pref % at general elections

Whereas Fine Gael is now back at the levels of support it had for most of its modern history, Fianna Fáil is at about 60% of the level of support it enjoyed in the ‘80s, ‘90s and early ‘00s.

While this 60% is a lot better than what it was getting in 2011, the party should be aiming get back to about 80% of its previous levels of support, especially at this point in the electoral cycle. To do that it needs to see the combined Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil poll numbers increase back to around 60% combined support, which means that it must start eating back into the support it has lost to independents at one end of the range and to Sinn Féin at the other.

This is partly done by incremental and sustainable growth, but it needs something more. It needs a big political idea that makes its message, its identity and its purpose clearer. Makes it stand apart from Fine Gael. Finding that message is no simple task, but it may have been made easier by the Brexit turbulence of the past year. Brexit is set to change a lot of how we do business across this island, so why not our politics? What I suggest is… oh, I see I am out of space. I shall return to this issue soon.

ENDS.

Who would want to be a TD?

16 Jul

This column is from two weeks back (July 3rd, 2017) and is both a guarded defence of the political party system and a warning of the dangers of the constant desire of the hard left fringe parties to take politics out on to the street.  

It is said that France has the only “tricameral system” in the world – the National Assembly, the Senate and the Street – but history and experience shows that the Street has always been the biggest hindrance to reform. Origianl column online here: www.broadsheet.ie/who-would-want-to-be-a-td/

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Who in their right mind would want to become a T.D.?

The pay is good, the perks are decent and the scope for promotion (career and ‘self’) is none too bad either, but can these incentives really outweigh the forfeiture of a private life, never mind the ongoing press, public and social media opprobrium whenever you express an opinion?

Shouldn’t politics be a vocation, not a career path?

The problem with that view is not just that it is naïve, it is that it simply won’t work. Try it and we end up with a Dáil full of only those who can only afford to be there by virtue of their profession, their families’ money or simple “pull” – by the way not all of them would be on the right, a fair few would also come from the comfortable left, but that’s just an aside.

So, recognising that we are in the real world, perhaps we should be looking more at how to make entry into politics less unattractive and encourage more people who would not just see it as a long-term career option, but rather as something to contribute to after they have done and achieved other things.

Billy Connolly used to say that “The desire to be a politician should be enough to ban you from ever becoming one”. He is right, but only in one narrow sense. Wanting power for the sake of having it should be disqualification, but wanting it so you can change things, whether that be how many street lights there are in your community cycle, how waste is managed or how the cost of housing is reduced – that should be encouraged.

One of the problems is that many of political parties still include obstacles and tests that deter all but the most ambitious and politically astute. There is value in these skills, but national politics needs others too: people with wider skill sets and experiences.

Politics is not well served when it full of neophytes who have spent plenty of time as parliamentary researchers and ministerial assistants but have no genuine experience of the real world.

This applies to both left and right. Politics needs more people who have built things from houses to computers to companies and fewer people who have made placards and organised protest marches.

This is one of the reasons we have political parties. The most crucial role of any party, after policy development, is candidate selection. Political parties are there to identify, encourage, resource and support new entrants – people who may not in other circumstances have considered or pursued politics. They are there to protect them and back when they come under attack and support their work by making policy expertise available.

It can and does work. After the 2011 election massacre, Fianna Fáil was left with a lot of vacancies for prospective TDs as it had a lot of constituencies with no sitting TDs and no seat blockers. This was a major plus, it had the capacity to rebuild and renew with a massive intake of new talent. But it also had a big problem. On the negative side, it had a poll rating that would not encourage many to see it as offering a pathway to the Dáil.

Squaring this circle was no easy task. It had both to identify potential future TDs and to reassure them that it was a sufficiently viable vehicle to help them make it to the Dáil and contribute positively.

Much of that work happened locally. In many cases the local organisations and activists were ahead of their national counterparts. By the time of the 2014 local elections the party, nationally and locally was starting to synchronise both tasks: it had sufficiently recovered in the national polls to offer a credible vehicle and also had a slate of people with a variety of backgrounds to fast track into the Dáil.

Looking back, it now looks far more organised and structured that it probably was at the time. Building a mythology around what was done and how it was achieved risks missing the real and valuable lessons of what really happened. It also risks allowing a re-emergence of all the obstacles and hurdles of the past.

Though much of Fianna Fáil managed over the past five years was much by local action as by national design, it still offers a template for how other parties can and should encourage more new entrants.

But there is one big proviso, they must also realise that the work does not end when you bring in a few new TDs. If anything, that is when it really starts. TDs are not shrinking violets, but neither can they be allowed become punching bags for any group, whether in or outside the Dáil, who want to take politics out on to the street and then abrogate all responsibility for the consequences.

Every TD has an equal right to be heard inside and outside the Dáil. Being a Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Labour or Sinn Féin back bencher does not lessen or reduce their mandate and should not reduce their speaking rights. Political parties are not an impediment to political progress, they are the bedrock of it.

Everyone has a right to disagree and to do so robustly and loudly, but the “What the Parliament does, the street can undo” mantra of Solidarity-PBP cannot be allowed to stand. It is a pernicious attempt to discourage wider political engagement and involvement in the guise of opening it up to those approved by Solidarity-PBP.

It is joked that France has the only “tricameral system” in the world – the National Assembly, the Senate and the Street – but history and experience shows that the Street has always been the biggest hindrance to reforms.

It is yet another reason why political parties now must ensure that many people who should be considering entering politics are given the opportunities, supports and protections to do so.

ENDS.

#Macron – Le Pen and Now

16 Jul

This column appeared on Broadsheet.ie on April 24th, 2017 – just after the first round of voting in the French Presidential election when Macron and Le Pen emerged as the two front runners in Round Two: www.broadsheet.ie/le-pen-and-now

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The new would-be divine trinity: Putin, Le Pen, Trump?

You could almost hear the collective sigh of relief last night as the first exit poll results from the French presidential election emerged showing Emmanuel Macron as the front runner. Macron, the former Economy Minister under Socialist President Francois Hollande and now independent centrist candidate now faces off against the second placed right-winger, Marine Le Pen in round two of the election in two weeks’ time.

It wasn’t just EU officials and other EU heads of government who were relieved, but also the heads of the polling companies whose predictions turned out to be extraordinary accurate, in many cases within just 1% of the result.

That sense of relief continued into this morning with European stock markets rallying and the Euro rising to a five-month peak with the news that France is likely to have a more centrist pro-EU President Emmanuel Macron.

Only a month ago the polls suggested that Le Pen might emerge as the lead candidate in the first round followed by Macron, with some showing Le Pen as high as 27% and Macron around 25%.  However; the collapse in recent weeks of the socialist party candidate Hamon saw the far left’s Melechon rally and join the leading pack, consisting of Le Pen, Macron and the conservative candidate Fillon, all within 3-4% of each other.

Macron’s youth and relative inexperience became election issues. The first public election that Macron has ever fought will not likely see force will see him elected as president. The accusation that “he rose without trace” has been thrown at macron. The line was first memorably uttered by Kitty Muggeridge about David Frost in the 1960s and was intended to convey both the suddenness of his rise and the lack of any obvious intellectual connection.

It is an unfair accusation. Macron does have a track record it does have some experience having served as economy minister under President Hollande. Indeed, it even has a track record having managed to even reform French labour law, via the eponymous Loi Macron.

As a colleague of mine commented at the time of Macron’s time in office: labour market reform in France is difficult at the best of times and almost possible most of the time. Macron encountered some stiff opposition from within the Social party with about 40 socialist deputies rebelling in protest at Macron’s modest proposals to modernise French labour law: including allowing shops to open 12 Sunday per year as opposed to the previous five and making changes on collective dismissals and the provision of a suitable alternative positions for french workers were made redundant.

So great was the rebellion that the President had to invoke a little used article within the French constitution giving the government the power to bypass the National Assembly and push through a law when you didn’t have majority support. It was a rare victory in the history of French labour market reform and allowed Macron to secure a reform measure that was aimed at the opening of the French economy.

For this reason Macron has never been trusted by the Socialist Party but neither he is a Gaullist (now called Les Republicains – interesting aside, the Gaullists were once Fianna Fáil’s allies in Europe). Macron is outside the French party system. His En Marche! movement is centrist socially liberal and pro-EU with more than a hint of The Third Way/Neue Mitte of Blair and Schroeder.

It is no wonder that Brussels and most other European political leaders are happy to see Macron safely through to Round Two and safe in pole position to win the presidency with about 60/60+% of the vote. His endorsement by Les Republicain’s Fillon and the Socialist party’s Hamon yesterday sent strong signals to their voters who to back in Round Two – but they will not all follow their advice.

But there is even a greater reason for EU leaders to feel happy. Marine Le Pen’s strong antipathy towards the Euro and the European Union, not to mention her easy and friendly relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, would have considerably upset relationships in Brussels and sent the EU Commission and Council into a tail spin.

However, as often happens with Brussels, particularly with the current EU Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, it is possible that the EU may take the wrong lesson from the result and see a potential Macron win as some vindication for a euro-federalist project.

Le Pen’s support much like Brexit and even the Trump win in the USA is partly a populist revival, but it is also a response to globalisation and to the threats to the livelihoods posed by the twin pressures of international labour competition and automation.

Without question, even more than with Brexit, or even with Trump, there are clear elements of racism and xenophobia in Le Pen’s support base, but not every one of Le Pen’s 7.6 million voters is a racist or a bigot. This will be even more true when she adds to that total in Round Two. By that point, she may have secured another 4 – 5 million votes from those who backed Fillon/Melechon/etc. in Round One. The vast majority of them are just people who are worried and frightened at the prospect of globalisation and see in it a loss of national identity and attachment.

It is a sense that was better expressed by the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, during her speech as Tory leader when she said: ‘if you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere’.

Yes, we can see that Le Pen’s coarse appeal to patriotism and love of country does verge on the fascistic, nevertheless she does dissemble her true purpose just enough to allow it to strike a chord with many who do not see nationalism and national pride as a dirty word or concept.

Neither is it one that is entirely incompatible with the modern globalised world, nor a Europe working more closely together. To quote EU Council President, Donald Tusk from his open letter to EU leaders from last September:

“The keys to a healthy balance between the priorities of Member States and those of the Union lie in national capitals. The institutions should support the priorities as agreed among Member States, and not impose their own ones.”

Yes, we should cheer if and when Macron is elected in two weeks’ time. But, when that cheering has died down; let us then take a long hard look at the wider lessons from the campaigns in the Netherland, France, in the UK and later this year in Germany. Let us see then if it is now time to pause: to stop the treaty changes for a while and to let the changes already made time to bed down and gain a wider acceptance. This pause may be of even greater importance to us as our closest former ally takes themselves out of the EU.

ENDS

Enda Kenny: we’ll miss him (eventually)

16 Jul

This column originally appeared on Broadsheet.ie on May 8th 2017 and suggests that Fine Gael will come to regret dumping Enda Kenny as Taoiseach and leader as speedily as they have…  www.broadsheet.ie/well-miss-him-eventually/

enda

“But as I leave you I want you to know – just think how much you’re going to be missing. You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore”

With these words, Richard Nixon departed the political scene, well almost. It was November 7th, 1962. He was concluding what he assumed would be his last ever political press conference after losing the race to become Governor of California. Two years earlier he had narrowly lost the Presidency to John F Kennedy.

While Enda Kenny’s departure, when it comes – possibly over the next week or two – will not be as bitter and waspish as Tricky Dicky’s, there may just be the slightest hint of the same sentiment: just think what we will potentially be missing.

Love him or loathe him, during his time as Taoiseach Enda has been anything but colourless or bland. For all his faults and failings, he showed quickly that he realised that one of the main roles of any Taoiseach is re-assuring the public that there is someone with a plan in charge.

He also grasped that this role as the nation’s re-assurer-in-chief requires you to get out and about and meet people as much as possible. In some ways, Enda has spent the past six years doing a passable Bertie Ahern impression.

Nonetheless, it is where we saw Enda at his best. When you meet him in person, either in a one to one chat or as part of an audience, you realise that Enda genuinely enjoys pressing the flesh. He possesses an ebullient personality, unlike either of his two possible successors, and so he comes across as warm and engaging when encountered personally.

This natural ability and skill was also a potential liability. His desire to have something to say to everyone and to do it spontaneously could lead to problems – as our greatest ever Taoiseach, Sean Lemass, famously observed – the danger with such off-the-cuff utterances is “not the little too little, it’s the little too much”.

Hence Enda’s occasional problems with the actualité. We saw it again last week in Canada when he mis-remembered discussions about human rights in Saudi Arabia and ended up recounting what he now wished he had said, rather than what he had actually said when sitting with the Princes.

One way his team of advisers had come up with to try to curb Enda’s effusive tendencies was to try to keep him to a script. It worked, but only to a certain extent. If they truly wanted him to him under control then all they had to do was to turn on a camera on.

Nothing was more guaranteed to make him appear wooden and staid than a TV camera.

Whereas many senior politicians only truly come to life when the lights switch on and the cameras start rolling, Enda was the opposite. He shifted down the gears. Gone was the bonhomie and the spontaneity and in its place a stiffness of both language and style.

It partly explains why he did not like formal TV debates. It was not his strong suit. But this was not just because of the cameras, it was more than that. Enda is not a details man. Nor is he adept at recalling long tracts of script or prepared lines.

This was clear in his head to head party leaders debate with Bertie Ahern in the May 2007 election. During the pre-debate spin Fine Gael had so reduced the expectations for their man that all he had to do was show up and not set the desk on fire for them to claim a draw.

On the night, many pundits were in awe of Enda as he seemed to hold his own for about the first twenty minutes of the encounter. I recall a senior party colleague calling me about fifteen minutes into the exchange concerned that Enda was doing so well, but their worry was short lived. By the twenty-minute mark Enda was starting to flag, he was running out of rehearsed material. Meanwhile Bertie, who absorbs and retains facts and figures, was just getting into his stride and used the remaining sixty minutes to leave Enda behind.

Another four years in opposition, including a failed heave against him, and a further sex years as Taoiseach has improved Enda’s speech giving ability considerably. He delivered one of his best ever speeches in Canada last week. It was considered and reflective and included a section on the concept of “othering” that I mentioned here in a recent article saying:

“It is happening to the degree that the old battles of right and left might well be over, to be replaced by something that seeks, not to unite us, but to divide us, not only among ourselves, but from what they identify and objectify as the Other. They see the people not for who they are as individuals, but as what they are as an ethnic or faith or economic group.”

It was a well written speech, delivered extremely well. At several junctures, he seemed not to be reading it from a script, but rather delivering it extemporaneously. What just about stopped it from being a perfect speech, was the inclusion of the oft made, but inaccurate, claim that his government achieved the whole recovery by itself – conveniently omitting the reality that two thirds of the correctives had been made by the time he arrived in office, but old habits die hard, I suppose.

In a few week’s (or months) time I will miss having Enda to kick around. I may have a few others to miss too from around the Cabinet table. Instead I will have to focus on the possible successors: Simon, the Enda 2.0 or Leo, the anti-Enda.
Remarkably, both come to the threshold of high office with considerably more ministerial experience than Enda did when he won the leadership. But while both have many years more time spent around the Cabinet table, they come without Enda’s experience of political hard knocks. Their political paths have been charmed and uneventful, well they have certainly been devoid of any great track record or achievement.

Both will doubtless enjoy a political honeymoon and may even feel tempted to capitalise on it with a snap election – whether they will have that opportunity may well be determined by just how down and dirty the race to succeed Enda gets and how much damage will have to be repaired before facing out to meet the voters.

Ends.

I have my doubts about Enda Kenny’s emigrants’ votes plans

13 Mar

Enda Kenny’s fascination with his predecessor John A. Costello continues. Not only is Enda determined to beat Costello’s record for time served as Taoiseach, he now seems to want to eclipse Costello’s penchant from making major constitutional announcements outside the country.

Costello announced his intention for Ireland to abandon the External Relations Act (and effectively quit the British Commonwealth and declare itself Republic) during a visit to Canada in 1948, while Kenny announces in Philadelphia that he intends to hold a referendum to give the Irish diaspora votes in future Irish presidential elections – but only in elections after the next one.

There are many legends about Costello’s Ottawa announcement, including one version that claims he made it when was “tired and emotional” and another that asserts he did it after being offended by the placing of a replica of the Roaring Meg canon used in the Siege of Derry in front of him on the dining table at a formal dinner at the Governor General’s residence. But they are only legends.

Moves to repeal to External Relations Act, which gave the British Crown limited recognition around foreign relations, i.e. Irish diplomats were formally accredited by the King, were already afoot before Costello even came to office. In late 1947 Éamon de Valera’s Fianna Fáil government started preparing a repeal bill, but work on this was halted by the February 1948 election.

At least Costello was able to announce something which he could immediately legislate for and see carried into action within a reasonable space of time. Within eight months Ireland was out of the Commonwealth), in Enda’s case he has just announced plans which may not come to fruition for another 8 years (never mind 8 months) – and only then if they are passed in a Referendum, which is no absolute certainty.

We must wait a few weeks more to see the detail of the Governments proposals on extending voting rights in Presidential Elections from 2025 onwards to Irish citizens living outside of the Republic. From what the Minister of State for the Diaspora said on Radio this morning it appears that the Government intends to publish a range of options rather than a specific plan, which suggests that this whole adventure may not even be as planned and prepared as Costello’s 1948 one.

According to Minister of State McHugh there are an estimated 1.8 million citizens outside the State and a potential electorate of 1.87 million in Northern Ireland. To put this in context the total electorate eligible to vote at the October 2011 Presidential Election was just 3.2 million (On the day just 1.8m (56%) of them chose to vote).

While it is likely, if not certain, that Enda Kenny will neither be Taoiseach nor leader of Fine Gael by the time the referendum comes around, his shadow will hang over this and let’s not forget that Enda has had a penchant for starting referendums that he cannot win.

Will this be another one? I personally hope not, but I must admit that I am far from thrilled or enthused by what I have heard from the Taoiseach and his Ministers over the past few hours. Surely such a major constitutional change should be accompanied by detailed research and argument, not followed along by broad range of options for consideration to be published a month or so later.

While I can see some merit in Leo Varadkar’s description of the proposal allowing for the transformation of the Presidency into one for the whole Irish nation, highlighting the fact that Ireland has become a global nation via its diaspora, won’t we also be effectively limiting the Presidency to just a symbolic, ceremonial role? Though they are not often exercised, the Irish President does have important constitutional functions, are we perhaps diluting those for what it effectively just a gesture?

I also worry about how the referendum campaign make shape up. As we have seen in past campaigns, indeed as Leo Varadkar has observed: referendums are “by and large” never what they are supposed to be about and they can often turn into a votes on “extraneous issues… or decisions being made by the Government, such as cutbacks.”

The government’s proposed referendum, if not managed and led effectively, could perversely be turned into a reverse border poll – with the focus falling not on the wider diaspora or on the positives of giving Irish citizens in the North a formal recognition in our political process – but on worse aspect of the North and the prospect of allowing a load of hard-line DUP voters (and others) have any kind of say in the South.

Public attitudes to the North down here as not always as positive and welcoming as we would have ourselves believe. A recent poll for RTE by Dr Kevin Cunningham’s Ireland Thinks found a very mixed appetite for a United Ireland among voters in the Republic, particularly when it comes to the costs of re-unification. It roughly found that that voters in the Republic split three ways with one third being in favour, one third against and one third undecided.

That said, Brexit has pushed Irish re-unification way up the political agenda for all parties North or South: not as an absolute inevitability, but as an increasingly likely consequence of the economic consequences of Brexit.

Re-unification needs to be seriously considered now, not as some rhetorical wrap the green flag around me slogan, but as a real and viable political option. This is something that needs to be thought through seriously, which is why Micheál Martin’s announcement today that Fianna Fáil will soon publish its 12-point plan to prepare the way for unification of the island is so welcome.

We need to start talking and preparing for unification by strengthening the economic, political and educational links between the Republic and Northern Ireland. While these could help re-unification, even if that were not to come about, they would still be mutually beneficial.

Hopefully Fianna Fáil’s proposals, due in the coming months, will help provide a sound and considered backdrop for the debate on giving votes for citizens North of the border.

For the record, when it comes to votes for Irish citizens outside the jurisdiction my own preference would be to look to Leinster House rather than Áras an Uachtaráin and follow the French model by having a constituency in parliament (either in the Dáil or Seanad) voted for exclusively by Irish citizens living outside the Republic, in fact I would suggest two such constituencies: one for Irish citizens living in the North and one for Irish Citizens living elsewhere.

As it stands today, while I am inclined to vote what Enda Kenny announced in Philadelphia, I am not so enthused as to go out campaigning for it – on that score, I remain to be convinced. Over to you Leo or Simon.

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Debating this column on RTÉ’s Late Debate – video clip below

ENDS

 

 

Sinn Féin is not so much a “party in transition” as it is “transitioning into a party”

26 Sep

This is my Broadsheet column from last Monday (Sept 19th) and appeared online here: www.broadsheet.ie/still-behind-you/

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Yesterday was a busy media day for Sinn Féin’s Deputy Leader, Mary Lou MacDonald. Within the space of an hour she had appeared on RTÉ’s The Week in Politics and BBC 1’s Sunday Politics.

Mary Lou was doing what she does better than anyone else in Sinn Féin: taking no prisoners, firmly holding the party line and all without seeming unduly hostile or aggressive.

During the course of her one-on-one interview with BBC Northern Ireland’s Mark Carruthers; Mary Lou described Sinn Féin as being a party “in transition”.  Given the context this was a reference to either: the potential for generational change in the Sinn Féin leadership or, to Sinn Féin’s ambition to be more seen as a potential party of government.

Perhaps it was a reference to both – either way, I am sure Mary Lou meant the phrase to convey the sense of a political party undergoing change and development.

I happen to agree that Sinn Féin is “in transition”, except that the transition I believe it is undergoing is into becoming a normal political party. It is a transition that it has been undergoing for some time, with varying degrees of success, but it is still an ongoing process.

Sinn Féin is not so much a “party in transition” as it is “transitioning into a party”.

The party leadership is an obvious example. It is not the only example. Normal political parties do not have T.D.s collecting convicted Garda killers from prison upon their release, nor do they hail convicted tax evaders as “good republicans”, but for the purposes of this piece, let’s just focus on the autocratic nature of Sinn Fein’s leadership.

Though he is over thirty-three years in the role, we are expected to believe that no one over that time in Sinn Féin has ever been unhappy with Gerry Adams’ leadership or ever willing to challenge openly it.

For most of those 33 years obedience to the leadership of Adams and McGuinness has been a core principle – one that seemed to trump everything else. But as the fictitious Chief Whip, Francis Urquhart, observes in the opening sequence of House of Cards: “Nothing lasts forever. Even the longest, the most glittering reign must come to an end someday.”

The blind obedience has started to slip over recent years. From the resignations of various Councillors North and South in the years after the 2007 election to more recent murmurings, including the resignations of 18 SF members in North Antrim in protest at the manner in which a replacement MLA was appointed and the Chair of Sinn Fein’s Virginia-Mullagh Cumann writing to the Irish News to say it was time for Adams to step down.

Even the most disciplined and united of political parties have various groups or factions not entirely happy with the leader. Our post popular and electorally successful party leaders like Jack Lynch, Garret Fitzgerald or Bertie Ahern have had their internal party critics, even at times when their leadership seemed at its most secure and assured.

They either feel the leader is too progressive or too conservative, too weak or too strong, or they believe that their personal talents and skills may be better recognised if there was a new leader in place.

These stresses and pressures are customary in a normal political party. They are the forces that keep a political party democratic. They are also forces that grow over time, particularly after a leader has been in place for a decade or more. They

Now, after over three decades of Gerry Adams’ leadership, it seems that Sinn Féin has a plan to do what other political parties do routinely and relatively seamlessly: change leader.

Except in Sinn Féin’s case it is a “secret” plan. Even the current Sinn Féin Deputy Leader concedes that she does not know what precisely is in this plan.

In most political parties the process for electing a new leader is transparent. People can see how potential leadership candidates are nominated and who has a vote in electing the new leader.

In some cases, this is done by an electoral college such as in Fine Gael where members of the parliamentary party have 65% of the votes; party members 25% and county councillors 10% or, as in the case of the Labour Party, it is done via a one member one vote system with all valid party members having a vote – though as we saw in the recent contest only the parliamentary party can nominate the candidates.

How will it happen in Sinn Féin? The stock answer from Adams and others is that the Sinn Féin Árd Fheis will decide, but how will that play out? Will it really decide? Will there be a real contest with rival candidates travelling to constituencies to meet those voting in the leadership election and set out their competing visions.

Or, will a new leader ‘emerge’, as the British Tory party leaders once did, following the intervention of a group of shadowy figures in Belfast with that decision gaining the semblance of democratic authority with a set-piece ratification at an Árd Fheis.

While I won’t hold my breath waiting for that change of leadership to actually happen, I am also a political realist and recognise that asking any leader to be specific as to when they plan to stand aside is to ask them to surrender their leadership at that moment.

How Sinn Féin conducts the change of leadership, whenever it happens, will be a major test of its transition. It will determine if the transition is merely an illusion or it is a sincere and genuine attempt to become a real political party.

Though I am clearly no fan of Sinn Féin, I believe that it is more the latter than the former, particularly as the organisation takes on new members and is compelled to allow more internal debate. Time will tell if I am right to be so optimistic.

 

 

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.”

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”. 

 

.@RealDonaldTrump is Riding A Zeitgeist Didn’t Create But Others Have Missed

20 Jun

donald-trump CNNHere is my Broadsheet column from June 7th 2016. Published online here:  http://www.broadsheet.ie/riding-a-zeitgeist 

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“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.

ENDS