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What does Leo really know… or, how a leak saved his skin on #Brexit?

14 Nov

Today’s column was written for Broadsheet and appears there as “what does Leo really know?” 

telegraph

Daily Telegraph, November 9th, 2017

What did the President know and when did he know it?’ is possibly the most famous political question of the late 20th century. It was asked, in June/July 1973, by Senator Howard Baker during the US Senate’s Watergate Hearings.

Though we tend to forget it now, Baker framed the question in the hope of protecting his fellow Republican, President Nixon. But as the White House’s defence collapsed it came to sum up the depth and extent of Nixon’s personal involvement in the cover-up.

The Baker question popped back into my head last week watching the Taoiseach answering questions on the Irish policy on moving Brexit talks to phase two.

But, where Baker’s question highlighted how deeply Nixon was embroiled in the Watergate machinations, when it is applied to our own new Taoiseach it tends to expose how perilously unaware he often seems regarding what is happening in his own government.

So, what did our Taoiseach know last Wednesday about Ireland’s approach to moving UK/EU talks to phase two… well, according to the Taoiseach himself… not that much. Responding to parliamentary questions the Taoiseach said:

“I am now of the view that it is likely we will be able to say that sufficient progress has been made at the December meeting, allowing us to move on to discussions on transition and the future arrangements.”

A few minutes later he compounded the situation, adding:

“It will not be possible to resolve the Border question fully until we start to speak about the future relationship that the UK will have with the European Union”

Within hours the news agencies were carrying the story of the Taoiseach predicting a breakthrough in December, even though the next round of EU/UK talk were not due to start until the following day.

Early the following morning a colleague in Brussels sent me a terse email saying: “Only one of these statements can be right”. Attached were links to the following two news items: Reuters – irish-pm-sees-brexit-talks-moving-to-next-stage-in-dec and FT.com – EU gives UK up to 3 weeks to make Brexit bill offer

He was right. Only one could be true and people behind the scenes in both Dublin and Brussels knew it was the second one.

Not for the first time our neophyte Taoiseach had misspoken and seemed less interested in the precise detail of his own government’s policies and more focussed on self-promotion.

discussed another episode a few weeks back, but there are several other examples, including his crass comments on Irish homelessness rates and his tweeting of photos from a confidential national security committee.

While many of his errant remarks have caused confusion and disquiet, his comments on Brexit risked undermining Ireland’s strategic interest.

The real Irish position, as opposed to the Taoiseach’s briefly imagined one, has been both consistent and straight forward. It runs as follows:

The UK has not only created this problem, it has exacerbated it by coming up with an extreme Brexit definition that means leaving the single market and the customs union.

This creates enormous economic, political, security and social problems for us – so if the UK wants this Brexit process to move forward, it must make sufficient progress now in phase one of the talks and satisfy Ireland that it has genuine proposals to address our concerns.

The issue of Ireland and the Irish/Irish border is one of three key issues in the first phase of talks, the other two are the financial settlement and citizens’ rights. Sufficient progress must be made on all three before the EU/UK talks can move to phase two discussions on post Brexit UK trade arrangements.

The EU’s Guiding Principles on Ireland/Northern Ireland issues are clear:

Ensuring the avoidance of a hard border on the island of Ireland is central to protecting the gains of the Peace Process underpinned by the Good Friday Agreement. In view of the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland, flexible and imaginative solutions will be required to avoid a hard border, including any physical border infrastructure. This must be achieved in a way which ensures that Ireland’s place within the Internal Market and Customs Union is unaffected.

The previous Taoiseach and Irish diplomats worked hard to insert these words into the guiding principles. There is absolutely no tactical advantage for Ireland to row back on this hard-won leverage – so why did Taoiseach Varadkar even briefly raise the possibility that we might already be prepared to nod the UK through to phase two?

Well, luckily for him, the Taoiseach may have just about managed to avoid having to answer this embarrassing question, thanks to a most adroitly timed leak of a confidential Irish briefing document to the Daily Telegraph.

Instead of the UK and Brussels press speculating on why the Irish government was sending mixed signals and sounding unsure, the Telegraph leak turned the focus back on the paucity of proposals on the Irish/Irish border coming from the British.

It is a paucity confirmed by an extraordinarily lightweight article published by the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire, on the Brexit Central website under the headline: “Creative thinking can provide solutions to Northern Ireland’s Brexit challenges”. Brokenshire closes his article, saying:

“…we have agreed that the Belfast or Good Friday Agreement should be protected in full, including its constitutional arrangements… We have proposed that the UK and the EU seek to agree text for the Withdrawal Agreement that recognises the ongoing status of the Common Travel Area… None of this was ever going to be easy but I believe, with a positive attitude on all sides, it is achievable.” (My emphasis)

The passivity of the language is terrifying: “should be protected”, “seek to agree text”, not to mention the Pollyanna-esque belief that a “positive attitude on all sides” can see this through.

The Daily Telegraph leak is being interpreted by some in the British media as a hardening of Ireland’s stance on the talks. It isn’t.

The Irish stance has – right up to the Taoiseach’s comments last Wednesday – been consistent and solid. Thanks to the leak, as well as strong diplomatic firefighting, it is again solid, but we came close to the edge.

Commenting here on the Taoiseach’s mid-August strong words on Brexit, I said:

The fact that he is not doing it out of conviction or out of some deep-seated belief is irrelevant, for now, but may come back to the surface in the coming months when the depth and heft of his newly found nationalism is tested.

It resurfaced, dangerously, last Wednesday. We cannot afford another re-emergence of it anytime soon.

Our neophyte Taoiseach fades in the (BBC NI) Spotlight…

14 Nov

This column: Leo in the Spotlight appeared on Broadsheet.ie on October 24th 

SpotlightThough it has appeared to slip by without much political comment, the Taoiseach’s BBC TV interview last Tuesday (16th Oct) showed that he is not quite the master of the medium that his friends would have us believe.

He was being interviewed as part of a BBC Northern Ireland Spotlight programme profiling our neophyte Taoiseach. It looked at his life and his rise to high office, with a focus on how he has approached the North and Brexit over the four months since becoming Taoiseach.

It was a fairly standard profile format. A 40-minute programme featuring a one on one sit-down interview, interspersed with archive clips and packages on specific issues.

Though it was no fawning hagiography, neither was it the most demanding or probing of interviews. The interview section took up less than 50% of the show, with questions on current political issues only taking up about 40 – 50% of that portion: about 8 – 10 minutes.

But for a good portion of those 10 minutes the Taoiseach struggled. But, worse than that he also demonstrated a blissful ignorance of a key element of relations both on and between these two islands.

His first stumble was on the issue of Brexit, specifically on the right of people in Northern Ireland having the right to exercise their EU citizenship.

The interviewer asked him if Ireland would be prepared to pick up the tab where someone from Northern Ireland holding Irish citizenship – and by extension EU citizenship – had an operation in another EU state. As the UK would by then be outside the EU, would the bill for the procedure be paid by the Irish government, he enquired?

A technical, not to mention hypothetical, question which seemed more designed to highlight the interviewer’s research skills, than to elicit information that might help the punter gain a better understanding of the issue.

It was the kind of question for which The West Wing (TV series) mantra: “never accept the premise of the question” could have been coined.

But the Taoiseach – a former health and social protection minister – did accept it followed by the uncomfortable sight of seeing him struggle to grasp the underlining concept and, then, eventually work his way through to an answer.

Similarly, when asked about his views on Sinn Féin, the Taoiseach essentially spoke of it as just another political party. Not exactly the line he has been pushing in his recent Dáil spats with Gerry and Mary Lou. If Micheál Martin were asked that question the word ‘cult’ would feature prominently in his reply.

Though it was cringe-making, even for a non-fan like me, if the Leo interview had ended there, then it would have been a passable performance. But it didn’t.

Asked, at the very end of the programme, if Brexit had made a United Ireland more or less likely, the Taoiseach not only went off piste, he went clear off the mountain range.

He started out fine. He opened his response with the obligatory reaffirmation of the Irish government’s commitment to the Good Friday Agreement but then, before our eyes, the Taoiseach morphed into Leo Varadkar, precocious wunderkind and attempted a single-handed redefinition of consent effectively junking a central tenet of the Good Friday Agreement, saying:

“…I wouldn’t like us to get to the point whereby we are changing the constitutional position here in Northern Ireland on a 50% plus one basis”.

“One of the best things about the Good Friday Agreement is that it did get very strong cross-Border support, that’s why there was a 70 per cent vote for it. I don’t think that there would be a 70 per cent vote for a united Ireland in the morning, for example, or anything remotely to that. And I really think we should focus on making the agreement that we have work.”

Worse still, he did it all unaided. There were no interruptions or interjections from the interviewer. No one else brought up 50% plus one, the Taoiseach did it all by himself, out of his own mouth.

Was this Leo making a major policy change on the principle of consent on the hoof or was this him failing to grasp a core policy position that has been around since the mid-1990s?

Regrettably I fear it was both.

This was the Taoiseach making up a policy on an issue he seemed fundamentally unable to grasp.

I say this as his address to the Derry Chamber of Commerce, a few days before the programme was aired, echoed the same approach, though without the reference to a 70% threshold.

What this Taoiseach fails to grasp, in contrast to his predecessors, including his most immediate one, is that consent is at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement. It applies equally and in parallel to both communities, as Seamus Mallon said at the 1998 British Labour party conference:

“Equality, parity of esteem and parallel consent are written into the Agreement – they are core of the new dispensation which we can and will implement.”

Simply put, you cannot say to one community in the North that the bar for their aspirations is to be set higher than for the other, whether that is 2, 5, 10 or 20% higher. That is the approach that prevailed in the North for decades.

The Taoiseach also fails to understand that the Good Friday Agreement, whose text appears on the website of his department, is not just a political document setting out some vague hopes and dreams, it is a sovereign agreement between two governments. It is a legal agreement that sets out the legal precepts underpinning the peace process and not something he can amend on a whim.

If his intention is to convince Unionism that he is their friend, then he will fail as they will see his comments as either patronising or undeliverable – or, both.

If his aim is to score political points off Gerry Adams’ fatuous calls for a border poll, then he will also fail. Not because there will be a Border Poll – there won’t – but because he is answering to Adams’ dog whistle.

The answer is not to raise the figure up from 50%+1 for one community, but to remind all those who demand a Border poll that with 50%+1 comes a great responsibility, a responsibility to make that situation work for more than just those who favour it.

Bizarrely, this is the point where Varadkar and Adams’ joint playing with numbers on consent risks unpicking the concept that made the agreement possible.

Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps what we saw on BBC Spotlight last week was not a Taoiseach making up policy on the hoof, but one who is so convinced by his own hype and spin that he went on to a TV programme ill-prepared and decided to just “wing it”.

Either way, the outcome is that he exposed his own lack of knowledge for no gain. He talked big, achieved nothing and managing to piss off all sides while doing it – just another average day for this government.

Taoiseach Varadkar is more Gordon Brown than Tony Blair

26 Sep

This column first appeared on Broadsheet.ie on September 20th 2017

varadbrownOne of my favourite political anecdotes comes from the late Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. Whitlam was on a trip to China to meet the infamous Mao Tse-tung. His officials warned Whitlam that Chairman Mao disliked small talk intensely and advised that he come up with a couple of substantive questions if he wanted to keep the conversation going. Whitlam decided, given that the visit was coming around the tenth anniversary of the assassination of President John F Kennedy, that he would ask Mao to speculate on what might have happened to the world order if Nikita Kruschev had been shot that day instead of Kennedy.

Delighted with the substance and depth of his question he set off to meet Mao and to hear the Chairman’s thoughts on this great “what if”. He sat down with Mao and, after the usual formal introductions, he proceeding to ask his question. The Chairman seemed pensive and intrigued. Then, after a few moments thought, he replied, ‘I don’t think Mr Onassis would have married Mrs Kruschev’.

These what ifs and hypotheticals of modern history are interesting – and occasionally useful – exercises. They give pundits and commentators an opportunity to walk their wits and do what they like most, speculate on what might have been, but they can also be handy ways of exploring the event in question and understanding its wider effects.

The Kennedy assassination has spawned many what if/alternative histories. Ranging from how Kennedy surviving the attack might have garnered him so much sympathy and support that the Democrats would keep the Republicans out of the White House for decades, meaning no Nixon, to the diametrically opposite view from Peter Hitchens, who posited that Kennedy would have gone on to become one of the most unpopular presidents ever, thanks to the Viet-Nam war, and that the Democrats wouldn’t occupy the White House again until the 1990s, meaning no Bill Clinton.

We don’t just have to go back to the 1960s for what ifs. There is a more recent one closer to us: what would have happened if Gordon Brown had become Labor leader after the death of John Smith MP, instead of Tony Blair.

We do not even have to speculate too hard on this particular alternative history as it seems that we are watching it being played out in front of us today in Fine Gael. For Gordon Brown, read Leo Varadkar, for Tony Blair, read Simon Coveney. While you may need to squint a bit to see the comparisons from certain angles, from others it is quite clear.

Two politicians, long pitted against each other with their own inner circle of loyalists. Both having very different leadership and presentational styles. Each holding quite contrasting views as to the direction in which to take their party and both men seeing the other as the obstacle to the other’s ambitions. And if that wasn’t enough, Coveney and Blair even share a nickname: Bambi.

But while Tony Bambi made it to the top, Simon Bambi didn’t. Leo Brown took the top job, instead, giving us a potential insight into what a Brown premiership might have looked like back in 1997.

Just as with Brown and Blair, the differences between Coveney and Varadkar are as much tribal as they are ideological.

There are clear ideological differences, many of which were well rehearsed in the media and at the regional hustings during the leadership election. Coveney said then that Varadkar would push policies that would leave behind portions of Irish society, asserting that he and Varadkar had: “two very different viewpoints and two very different journeys”.

On the other side, Varadkar blithely dismissed Coveney as a lightweight and his platform as a catch all rehash of the social justice reforms outlined by Declan Costello decades before in his ‘Just Society’ document

As the hustings demonstrated and their loyal surrogates repeatedly reminded us, the two men think and behave differently when it comes to practical politics. More than any previous set of rivals for the Fine Gael leadership, they represent the two competing tribes within Fine Gael: the old style Cosgrave-ite christian democrats versus the Fitzgerald-ista social democrats.

Like Brown, Varadkar’s political outlook, temperament and vision is in the more traditionalist mould. In Brown’s case, this found its expression in cherishing the links to the union movement and espousing old fashioned left values. For Varadkar, it is his core belief in power of the market and making Fine Gael the party for ‘people who get up early in the morning’.

On the other side Coveney, like Blair, is less doctrinaire, less tetchy and a lot more touchy-feely. He is into reaching out beyond the traditional base, at the risk of becoming all things to all people.

The problem for Coveney is though the overwhelming bulk of ordinary Fine Gael members backed his vision for the party, the elected ones with the much weightier votes, did not. They went with Varadkar.

But, just because the other guy gets the job now, doesn’t mean you cannot still aspire to it. Coveney has not given up his ambition to lead Fine Gael, a goal that will be soothed by today’s Examiner/ICMSA B&A political poll of farmers that finds that rural Ireland would still prefer Coveney as Fine Gael leader by a margin of 51% to 38%.

Whether he will have another opportunity to go for the leadership depends on how Varadkar performs over the coming months. Coveney knows that succeeding Varadkar in the distant future is not an option. His own personal political future rests on Varadkar’s ideological gamble of taking Fine Gael to the right – at a time when voters are looking to government alone to tackle the big problems in housing and health – failing.

Or, put another way: Coveney is betting that Brown would not have brought the British Labour party the three in a row string of electoral victories that Blair did. History suggests he is probably correct.

Some drink deep from the well of compassion: Gerry Adams merely gargles.

6 Sep

This is my most recent Broadsheet.ie column – it appeared on Monday September 4th – you can view the original online here

Provisional Liability:

IMG_2256-0Much to his own delight Gerry Adams was once again grabbing the headlines last week. Ignore the fact that they were not the headlines that other political leaders would relish – for Adams, a headline is a headline, even if it contains more than a whiff of cordite.

It came on foot of the furore following Adams telling his local LMFM local radio station that jailing the provo murderers of the innocent Co Louth farmer, Tom Oliver, would be “totally and absolutely counterproductive”.

It was an outrageous statement to make, only made worse by Adams added assertion that the 1991 crime was “politically motivated killing”. It was not.

It is well accepted and acknowledged that Mr. Oliver was brutally tortured and then shot as a warning to other families in the Cooley peninsula not to talk to the authorities and to allow the provos to operate there unhindered. It was brutal intimidation, plain and simple.

The idea that those who intimidated and threatening innocent men and women should now deserve an amnesty is affront to the principles of basic justice and a denial of the specific provisions made for this situation when the Good Friday agreement was negotiated.

The Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 provides that anyone later convicted of a scheduled offence committed before April 1998 will serve a maximum of two years in prison, after which they would be released to serve out the remainder of their sentence “under licence”.

There is no case for amnesty.

Two years is a painfully short penalty for such a callous act, but it does offer some justice and some truth to those left behind. It is what we all agreed in the context of bringing peace and it is the minimum that we can expect.

Tom Oliver is just one of the provos’ many innocent victims whose killers have not yet been brought to justice. Though the provos did, in 2002, apologise to the innocent victims of its campaign of violence, Adams words last week make that apology ring hollow.

The provos were not alone in their cruelty and inhumanity.

There are as many victims of loyalist terrorism too – in some cases facilitated by some in the British security forces.

The whataboutery of apologists on either side gets us no-where in confronting our shared past. Neither should it prevent us from calling out the provos for their crimes. There is an onus on us to do this; as the provos asserted that they committed their atrocities in our name and in pursuit of a legitimate aim to which most of us still aspire.

They purloined our history and abused its iconography to justify their campaign of violence, all the while ignoring the line in the 1916 Proclamation urging that no one dishonour the cause of freedom “…by cowardice, inhumanity, or rapine.”

They only succeeded in driving the divisions deeper and setting back the aim of Irish Unity. They were the enemies of unity, not its champion.

We have a responsibility to not just disavow these acts, but to pursue the perpetrators just as the British government has a duty to stop hiding behind the excuse of national security and cooperate more fully and openly with the Irish government in pursuing loyalist killers, including those behind the Dublin and Monaghan bombings by releasing all the files and papers pertaining to the case.

I mention the Dublin and Monaghan bombings here as they were erroneously cited by Fine Gael’s Junior Minister, Patrick O’Donovan, last Monday.

So over enthused and excited was he to score political points off Fianna Fáil, by linking them to Sinn Féin, that he omitted to check his facts, or possibly double check the talking points sent to him.

There are sufficient grounds for criticising the provos and its apologists, that you do not need to make up your own and then double down on them when you are caught out.

He should try reading some of the Parliamentary Replies issued to TDs from across the Dáil, over the past few years, on the Dublin Monaghan bombings to see that his government fully supports the all-party Dáil motions of July 2008 and May 2011 urging the British Government to allow access by an independent international judicial figure to all original documents in their possession relating to the Dublin-Monaghan bombings.

O’Donovan will also see, if he reads the May 2016 reply from the then Fine Gael Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan, to the Fianna Fáil Party Chairperson, Deputy Brendan Smith, that his government is unhappy with the continued foot dragging by the British government, saying (diplomatically):

“I am disappointed to report that despite our urging, the British Government is still considering how to respond to the Dáil motions.”

In so very many ways the arguments put forward by Adams in protecting from justice the killers of Tom Oliver, Columba McVeigh, Seamus Quaid, Jean McConville, Michael Clerkin and so many others right up to the 2007 murder of Paul Quinn, mirror the arguments that the British security establishment proffers when seeking to cover up its own murky and dark past.

Neither are they a thousand miles away from the infamous ruling by Lord Denning that it ‘is such an appalling vista that every sensible person in the land would say, “It cannot be right these actions should go any further.”‘

Contrary to Adams view, truth and justice cannot be totally and absolutely counterproductive. The is an establishment/elitist argument – something you would not expect to hear from the leader of a party that claims to stand up for equality and the rights of the little guy?

But that presumes that Sinn Féin is yet a political party. It is still more of a cult than a party: devoted to the double speak and double standards of Adams. Where some leaders drink deep from the well of compassion and decency: Gerry Adams merely gargles.

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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sbp.redc_-1024x502

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.

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!

 

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.