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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  

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.

A brief history of the Fine Gael Heave #FGheave

20 Feb

 

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Cosgrave at a Fine Gael Árd Fheis

No one does heaves like Fine Gael does heaves. None of your subtle behind the scenes manoeuvrings for them. When it comes to getting political blood on the plush axminster the good folks at Fine Gael are major exhibitionists.
They have had plenty of heaves over the past forty years or so: most of them ill-judged, poorly timed and glaringly unsuccessful. The December 1972 heave against Liam Cosgrave is a good example of all three. Fine Gael’s liberal wing wanted rid of the conservative, law and order Cosgrave. They complained that the party had failed under his leadership to capitalise on Fianna Fáil’s post Arms Crisis trials and tribulations, but the final straw was Cosgrave’s efforts to get FG TDs to back the government’s controversial Offences Against the State Bill – something they implacably opposed.

Cosgrave was effectively saved from the plotters by a loyalist bomb on Sackville Place that tragically killed two CIE busmen. The explosion took place just hours before the Dáil vote on the Bill. The Dáil adjourned to allow discussion between the parties. When it resumed, Fine Gael withdrew its opposition and abstained as Bill was voted through in an all-night sitting. Three months later Cosgrave became Taoiseach leading Fine Gael into government with the Labour Party.

Fast forward to 1980s and 1990s and we enter the golden age of the Fine Gael heave. The drama and intrigue within the Fine Gael parliamentary party was so intense that RTÉ ran a TV documentary series in 2003 about the period entitled: Fine Gael: A Family at War.

For about two decades the folks in blue were regularly sharpening their knives as they awaited the opportunity to dispatch their leaders. While Dr Garret Fitzgerald managed to escape their clutches his successor, Alan Dukes, had a less happy fate.

Dukes took over from Fitzgerald after the 1987 defeat. While he started out well, Duke’s Tallaght Strategy – a less formalised precursor of the current Confidence and Supply Agreement, which facilitated Haughey’s minority government – was not too popular with FG TDs. One TD, Austin Deasy, was so incensed that he at first resigned in protest from the party only to return in 1989 and try, unsuccessfully, to oust Dukes. Deasy was a serial heaver, launching his first one first against Garret in 1982 and finishing up with his failed November 2000 one against John Bruton.

Dukes survived, but not for long. In a snap election in June 1989, Fine Gael regained only 5 of the 19 seats they lost two years earlier. The whispering campaign against Dukes was back with a vengeance with one back bencher remarking that if it was raining soup Dukes would be out there with a fork. Things came to a head in late 1990 when the party’s candidate in the presidential election came a very poor third behind Mary Robinson and Brian Lenihan Snr.

The result had hardly been declared when Fergus O’Brien, who had been demoted by Dukes, tabled a motion of no confidence. This was followed by a flurry of Fine Gael TDs rushing to the nearest journalist to unburden themselves. Dukes could not withstand the onslaught. Within days he resigned and was succeeded by John Bruton.

Now the Fine Gael heavers shifted into top gear. It seemed as if there was a heave brewing every few months. Bruton survived five leadership contests during his eleven years at the top. The sixth one, in January 2001, led by two political heavy weights Jim Mitchell and Michael Noonan succeeded in toppling him. Noonan took the top job, beating Enda Kenny, but his reign was short lived. FG’s defeat in the May 2002 election was so calamitous that Noonan resigned on the night of the count. He was succeeded by Enda Kenny.

As you can see from these examples and the June 2010 heave against Enda outlined in my Enda’s 3am question is still unanswered Broadsheet column: most of them fail. The ones that do succeed have the oblique backing of the person who hopes to succeed and are usually attempted when the party is in opposition – not in government.

This later point is perhaps not so relevant today. Fine Gael spent most of the 80s and 90s in opposition and were not in office long enough to have the time to consider it. It was these long periods of opposition – and powerlessness – that led to the heaves. The breaking point, in most cases, being a bad election result or a series of poor opinion poll results.

This heave is different or at least it appears different. Unlike heaves of the past it has been occasioned by an actual political event, namely the chronic mishandling of the Sgt McCabe debacle and the confusion about who told who said what and when and if they told the Taoiseach or just one of his Advisers.

But it would be foolish to think that electoral considerations are not also a major factor.
While Enda Kenny has made it clear that he does not intend to lead his party into the next election, the abiding fear among Fine Gael TDs was that events would overtake them and that Fianna Fáil would pull down the house of cards before Enda quits and they find themselves facing an election with Enda still in place.

Up to a few weeks ago, they assumed that Fianna Fáil was neither ready nor willing to trigger an election until 2018 – but a series of good polls for Micheál Martin’s soldiers of destiny has convinced already rattled Fine Gael TDs that Fianna Fáil was preparing itself to call time on the government.

The problem with this scenario is that it shows Fine Gaelers thinking like Fine Gaelers, not like Fianna Fáilers. Fianna Fáil knows well that voters tend not to reward parties who trigger unnecessary elections for partisan gain. Martin’s FF eschews the “cute hoor” tag that once bedevilled the party. When it eventually moves against the government it will be seen clearly do so on an issue of policy, not personality or partisan gain.

On a more practical front, 20 of Fianna Fáil’s 45 TDs are first timers. They are just starting to settle in after two or three years of intense campaigning to win those seats. They are not ready or prepared for an election yet. Most are now watching the turmoil in the FG ranks and trying to work out whether the election of Simon or Leo – or neither – means the election will be in May, June, September or later.

Meanwhile the rest should reach for the popcorn, scan our WhatApp to see if Charlie Flanagan is messaging us and just enjoy it all.
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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.

Some understanding, but no grá for the GRA #Gardastrike.

12 Oct

This is my Broadsheet article from Monday, October 3rd. 

gardai-in-uniform-1878112If the Luas and Dublin Bus pay disputes are anything to go by then the choreography of future pay rows, particularly public sector ones, is likely to run as follows:

Step 1. Both sides negotiate for months without success.
Step 2. Employees go on a limited strike, inconveniencing the public
Step 3. The strike action continues for 3 – 4 weeks while both sides posture on TV and radio news shows
Step 4. Both sides then ‘suddenly’ return, without preconditions, to the negotiating table
Step 5. Employers find extra cash for pay increases they previously said was not there

Would it not be better for everyone, most particularly the public who these public services are meant to… well… serve…, if the unions and management could just skip steps 2 and 3 and jump straight to step 4?

Or, could it be that steps 2 & 3 are an essential part of the process and are needed to bring everyone to their senses or, at least, to a better frame of mind?

Has our industrial relations process developed (or, should I say ‘descended’?) to a point where, on one side, the workers need a couple of days on the picket line to let off steam and, on the other side, management need to suffer a few days of lost business, in order to create a more conducive negotiating atmosphere?

If this is the case, and it increasingly appears that it is, then we will have a bit of a winter of discontent ahead as other public sector groups get themselves geared up to dust off the picket signs and placards.

The situation is not helped by the news that the body established by the last FG/Lab government to oversee industrial relations mediation and the improvement of workplace relations and hailed at the time – by both Fine Gael and Labour Ministers – as marking a new era for employment rights and industrial relations: The Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) is just not working.

According to a recent survey conducted for the Employment Law Association of Ireland, half of the legal and industrial relations practitioners surveyed are dissatisfied with the new Workplace Relations Commission and think that the new WRC system is even worse than the much-criticised version it replaced only one year ago.

The survey’s key findings here and the Irish Examiner op-ed by the association’s chair, Colleen Cleary, both make for grim reading, though the association does identify the main problems and helpfully proposes a series of changes and reforms to make the new system work efficiently and effectively.

One group who will not likely benefit from these changes, if they are made, is An Garda Síochána as they fall outside the State’s normal industrial relations processes – and understandably so.

I fully subscribe to the principle that the Gardaí and the Army should not have a right to strike, given the significance of their roles and their importance to our safety and security.

However, if we are to ask them to surrender a very important and powerful industrial relations tool, we must also ensure that this does not weaken their ability to negotiate fair rates of pay and good working conditions.

I think the GRA are fundamentally wrong to threaten industrial action, not to mention their being possibly in breach of both the Garda Síochána Act 2005 and the Garda Síochána (Discipline) Regulations 2007, but their deep frustration and absolute exasperation is understandable.

As Gardaí see it, the State is telling them to follow a set of rules which it refuses to honour itself. In the view of the GRA the State has not lived up to its commitments in the Haddington Road agreement as the review of Garda pay levels and industrial relations promised under that deal was never completed.

The GRA now find themselves in a negotiating no-man’s land with the Department for Public Expenditure now having responsibility for addressing many of their grievances, but the conciliation and arbitration system devised to deal with such issues is based on the Department of Justice, a department which gone without a permanent Secretary General for two years.

Added to this are disputes and commotions which have seen a Justice Minister, a Departmental Secretary General and a Garda Commissioner resign, retire or relocate and a series of statements from senior Garda officers which suggest that all is well and everything and everyone inside the force is hunky-dory.

Is it any wonder their morale is low? And all that is before you even get to the subject of pay rates.

Kind words and high praise from Ministers and Deputies during Leaders Questions and Dáil debates is no substitute for good pay. A starting pay of €23,750 is not generous. Yes, there is range of allowances (over 50 as far as I know) and, according to one calculation, a new Garda can probably expect to get allowances for unsocial hours etc. equal to about 25% of their salary – but that is still a low basic rate of pay.

By announcing four days of industrial action in November, the GRA has put itself on a hook which the Minister and the government must assist the GRA to prize itself off. Mainly because we cannot have a situation where Garda go on strike, but also because this Minister has played some role, via inertia and listlessness, in creating the conditions that allowed it to happen.

The decline of public language in politics is coming to Ireland

22 Sep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ENDS

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

21 Sep

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

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sycamore-room

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

A simple primer on Irish #Defence Policy

21 Sep

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

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

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army

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s start with a few basics.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ENDS

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

12 Sep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 Jul

puckoonThis is my Broadsheet “Mooney on Monday” from Monday piece from June 27th on how the Irish Government (and politicians) must act in response to the UK’s Brexit vote.  

There is a new (though not uncritical) pro-EU majority across the island that should be encouraged and fostered via a re-establishment of the Forum on Europe. There must not any a return of form of border across the island.

The original online version appears here: www.broadsheet.ie/return-of-the-hard-border/

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For as long as I can recall it has been a central tenet of Unionism that the status of Northern Ireland should not change without the political consent of the majority of the people living there.

Yet, that it precisely what is set to happen over the coming years, with senior members of the DUP cheering it on

Despite the fact that a clear majority – some 56% – of the people of Northern Ireland who voted, including large numbers from both traditions, stated that they wanted to remain in the EU, their wishes are about to be ignored. It seems that a majority in the North is only a majority when the DUP is a part of it.

Thursday’s referendum result has changed things dramatically for the North and for the whole island. There will be the immediate implications, including many of the ones for which the Government has prepared, as set out in its contingency plans published last Friday.

But there are others, two of which I would like to set out briefly here.

eastwoodFirst, is the integration of the economic interests of communities across this whole island. As the SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has said:

“…there can be no return to a physical border across this island. There must remain freedom of movement for people, goods and services across Ireland… we must ensure that any border is only operational around the island of Ireland, not across it.” 

This last point is vitally important. Though the Brexiteers, including the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Teresa Villiers, dismissed any suggestion of implications for the border during the campaign, it is clear that there will.

If and when the UK eventually leaves the EU that border would potentially become a frontier between an EU State and non-EU State. This is ominous as the EU is already looking at ways of increasing security at its external boundaries, as evidenced last week by the European Parliament’s LIBE committee vote to “systematically check all EU citizens entering or leaving the EU”

There is an overwhelming economic, social and political case against resuscitating the 499km border between the two parts of this island as an international boundary. We have not spent decades of painstaking negotiation to break down barriers for them to be risen higher by a battle for the leadership of the Tory party.

The EU has been an important, though unheralded, part of the peace building process. Between 1995 and 2013 the EU spent €2 billion on promoting reconciliation in Northern Ireland and the border counties. But it has done more than that. It has provided a supra-national cross border framework and support that has avoided any major policy cleavages across this island.

Rather than having the EU border across this island, let it run around the island with the customs and border controls sensibly located at ports and airports.

But we need to go further. We need to recognise that despite differences in identity, that Northern Ireland has and will continue to have a great deal of economic and social common interest with the Republic. To give expression to this common interest the Irish Government to needs to fashion an all-island EU strategy and use its seat at the Council of the European Union to champion the interests of Northern Ireland, particularly the border regions, along with the interests of the 26 counties.

The government should start reaching out now to civic society across the North to become its connection to the EU and should formalise these relationships, perhaps initially through re-establishing the Forum on Europe on an all island basis.

Second, is the loss of the UK as a valuable EU ally. In two or three years’ time we will no longer have the UK to help us act on a brake on EU measures of which we disapprove. Given our similar structure and similar outlooks, in the area of social dialogue for example, our two governments have – regardless of political hue – worked together. During the recent discussions on the introduction of an EU wide system of Data Protection, Ireland and the UK worked together to make significant and sensible changes.

But the UK has opted to go and so we need to look for new allies. We need to look to the smaller EU states who would share our concern at the excessive influence of the larger states, but also to the other like-minded nations on these islands. To this end an Taoiseach should be reaching out to Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon in the coming weeks to see how Ireland and Scotland could work together in our mutual benefit as the fate of the UK, Scotland and Northern Ireland in the EU unfolds.

Enda may have no choice but to start talking with Nicola Sturgeon, as she seems to be the only leader on the neighbouring island with anything even approaching a plan for the future.

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