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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  

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

16 Jul

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

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

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

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

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Silage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The perks of abstinence…?

16 Jul

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

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BBC NI

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ENDS

 

 

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

 

 

I hate to admit it, but @JuliaHB1 and other #brexiteers may have a point, just not the one they think

12 Oct

Here is my Broadsheet article from Sept 28th regarding the calls for a second #Brexit referendum vote. I would love to be able to support the call, but I cannot. Experience of re-runs of Irish EU referendums tells me that this is not an option in the UK given the high voter turnout.

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questiontimeI have to confess that my heart sinks a little whenever I hear English Tories or English nationalists, like Nigel Farage, mention Ireland during their rants about the EU. The reference is usually patronising or condescending or – even worse – is given in the form of advice that would have us join them in their march back to a glorious era that never existed.

This is why my heart sank when Julia Hartley Brewer, a British Talk Radio host, Leave campaigner and former political editor, stated on last Thursday’s BBC Question Time that the EU had forced Ireland, and other countries, to vote again on EU referendums.

Her comments came during the course of a discussion on whether Britain might have another referendum on Brexit – a proposal put forward by the failed Corbyn challenger, Owen Smith MP or that the UK might have a separate vote on the final deal hammered out on the conclusion of the Art 50 negotiations, an idea put forward by Tim Farron’s Liberal Democrats.

Though hearing Hartley-Brewer getting it badly wrong on the notion of the EU ‘forcing’ us to vote again made my heart sink a little, it sank even further when I realised that she and her fellow panellist that night Jacob Rees-Mogg MP (who looks like he is being portrayed by Joyce Grenfell) may actually have a point, just not the one they think.

Though I and other Remainers may wish it to be otherwise, the hard fact is that Ireland’s voting again on the Nice and Lisbon treaties is not relevant to the UK’s situation for one simple reason: turnout.

In the first referendum on the Nice Treaty (Nice I) in 2001 the turnout was just under 35% – the result then was 54% No: 46% Yes. At second referendum on the Nice Treaty (Nice II) in Oct 2002 the turnout shot up to just under 50% with Yes getting 63% and No dropping to 37%.

It was a broadly similar situation in the case of the two Lisbon Treaty referendums. In Lisbon I in June 2008 the turnout was 53%. No won by 53%:47%. At Lisbon II the turnout had again increased, this time to 59% with Yes now winning by 63%:37%

In both cases the turnout in the first referendum was low to start with, in the case of Nice I it was exceptionally low, just in the mid-30s, so there was a convincing argument to be made for a second vote, particularly when you felt that a second referendum would have a higher turnout.

This was not the case in the UK’s Brexit referendum. The turnout there was a whopping 72%. This is a substantial turnout. It is much higher that recent UK General Election turnouts, indeed you have to go back to Tony Blair’s 1997 election victory to find a UK general election turnout of over 70%.

The huge political risk you take by having a re-run second Brexit referendum in these circumstances is that you get a lower turnout. It is politically saleable to try to reverse one mandate with a smaller one?

To be clear, turnout alone was not the reason why there were re-runs of the Nice and Lisbon referendums. In both cases post referendum polling and analysis found that the main reason for voting “No” or abstaining was a lack of knowledge of either treaty. Both “Yes” and “No” voters were highly critical of what they viewed as a dearth of clear, accessible information on the treaty’s merits.

While the Remainers can clearly point to a lot of misinformation from the Leave side, not least the claims that leaving would mean £350 million extra per week for the NHS, they cannot yet point to any substantive research or analysis suggesting any changes in opinion.

Noted UK pollster, Prof John Curtice, reckons that there is little evidence of a “significant rethink” three months on from the result with those who voted Remain still convinced that they were right and likewise for the Leavers. Very few minds have been changed, though let us see if that remains the case as the details of the Brexit deal on offer emerge during the course of the next year or so.

The problem with all this abstract discussion on a second referendum is that it takes the focus away from the very real and tangible issues with the first result: most crucially that the Hartley Brewer, Farage and others do not want to honour the clear Remain majorities in Northern Ireland and Scotland. Instead they want to use the votes of English and Welsh people to forcibly drag Northern Ireland and Scotland out of the EU against their declared will.

This is no small issue, yet it is receiving scant attention in the UK and, sadly, here.

Voters in both Northern Ireland and Scotland voted convincingly to stay in the EU, by much bigger margins that the people across the UK voted to leave. Many of those voters in Northern Ireland hold Irish passports and are thus also EU citizens, even if the UK leaves. Can that citizenship – and the guarantees and privileges it offers – simply be snatched away from them on the say so of 50%+ of voters in the south of England?

As people like Michéal Martin and Colum Eastwood have repeatedly said over the past few weeks and months; trying to drag the North out of the EU against its will ignores the layered complexities of the Irish political process.

It is a refutation of the basic principles of the accommodation achieved in the Good Friday Agreement and that is something that concerns all of us on this island.

We should be debating and discussing this now. We should be looking at the significant consequences of Brexit for our economy, for our trade – both North/South and East/West, our education system, out health service.

We should not allow the foot dragging by the British Government on outlining its terms of exit to stop us from forcefully setting out our concerns and our alternatives. We need the speedy establishment of the all-island political/civic forum I called for here at the end of June. I know the Taoiseach and his team messed up their first attempt to get the idea up and running, but they need to go again and get it right this time.

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.

 

 

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

12 Sep

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

 

Sinn Féin’s Martial Docility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, why does any of this matter?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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