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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

 

 

A brief history of the Fine Gael Heave #FGheave

20 Feb

 

cosgrave

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.
flanagan

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.

My 5:30am #debatenight thoughts: A win is a win, even when your opponent secures it for you

27 Sep

 

debatenightPostscript: Perhaps a better way of summing up the Clinton/Trump debate is to say that she didn’t do much to reduce her unfavourable while Trump did a lot to increase his…. 

Here are a couple of random, even disconnected, thoughts on tonight’s U.S. Presidential Debate, posting at approx 5:30 am (Irish Time).

The first is just how shockingly poor Trump’s performance really was. While many pundits were predicting that he would do badly, especially as news emerged of how little debate prep he was doing,  I hadn’t imagined it would be THAT bad.

Trump is a guy who should be most comfortable in front of the TV cameras. He has spent years as a reality TV star, surely he had learned some understanding of how the medium works.  Yet, as we saw from his constant interruptions, his snorting and sniffling and his awful reaction shots in the split screen segments, he seemed the least comfortable of the two in that environment.

To be fair to Trump, he did have a moderately good opening segment. He made it clear from the outset that he was set not only to bring the fight to Hillary Clinton, but to paint her as the ultimate political insider, but he never developed his narrative beyond that opening twenty minutes.He fared best when he offered solutions, the problem is that he spent most of the debate just reciting the problems.

As the debate went on it was soon clear that he had not prepared and that he was just recycling his standard Trump Rally material. His strategy, in so much as he appeared to have one, seemed to be to just play to his own existing voter base and ignore swing voters.

That is not a winning strategy when the race seems to be so close – well, close in terms of national vote, not quite so close in terms of the electoral college – but especially so when the candidate seems so prepared to rise to Clinton’s bait each and every time.

Hillary’s attack lines were so obvious that he and his team must have anticipated them and devised key responses and arguments that would allow him to pivot the debate back to her obvious weaknesses – yet they never came. The best he could come up with was a crude bait-and-switch, but for most of the time he not only accepted the premise of Hillary’s remarks – on his taxes, his attitude to race issues and his comments on women – he then repeated and expanded on them.

While Hillary helped him implode, most of the credit goes to him. He had too made unforced errors… such as he denial that stop and frisk had been declared unconstitutional – even contradicting the moderator when he stated clearly that it was… or his lethal throwaway “That’s because I’m smart” comment when Hillary wondered if he had paid no federal taxes. He has made his temperament and his credibility, real election issues, in a way that the Clinton had failed to do before tonight.

While Clinton clearly had a good night and did win the debate, she did not say or do enough to deal with her big unfavourables. She still lacked passion and never really addressed the accusation that she is a Washington insider, an establishment figure disconnected from the real America which feels disillusioned and ignored – something I explored here on Broadsheet.ie.

The question is whether her winning the debate will move the poll numbers for her. In the past the winner of the first debate has managed to secure a small post debate bounce . In all likelihood she will do so now, which begs the question can she secure that bounce and hold on to it.

I suspect, as the campaign progresses that she will gradually edge more swing voters to her cause, though they will probably go to her more to stop Trump that to push Clinton – but a win is a win, even when it is your opponent who secured it for you.

ENDS

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

26 Sep

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

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fu

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.

 

 

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.

 

 

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.

 

 

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.”