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#2017 and @campaignforleo: not so much a brand new story – more the story of a New Brand

12 Jan

This is my first Broadsheet column of 2018 – looking how Fine Gael and Leo Varadkar are more concerned with selling their story of governing than the actual business of government

One of the nicest things about the run up to Christmas are those chance encounters with former colleagues and old acquaintances as you frantically rush around town looking for those presents you claimed you ordered online six weeks earlier.

I had a few of those, but two may be of interest to you. Both involved high level civil servants, from different departments, who I knew from my time in government. After catching up with each on the whereabouts of mutual friends, we got to talking politics.

Both reported that there was virtually no real policy work going on within government and that ministers, specifically the Fine Gael ones, were focused exclusively on PR, ferreting out any possible item of good news that may be in the pipeline and getting it announced ASAP, courtesy of the Strategic Communications Unit, with the maximum fanfare and hoopla.

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From last Nov: #FakeNews @FineGael style

9 Jan

This column appeared on Broadsheet.ie on November 28th just before the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar bowed to the inevitable and accepted Frances Fitzgerald’s resignation as Minister for Justice:

Leo sits

At the end of my last Broadsheet piece I said that the Taoiseach:

“…still has one last opportunity to somewhat redeem his reputation by taking some right steps now.” 

At the time of writing this, it appears that the Taoiseach remains doggedly determined not to take the steps needed to diffuse this ministerial-made crisis.

While sacking an old and valued colleague is not a pleasant task, it comes with the job. He is the Taoiseach, he hires and fires. He is also a politician and it must have been obvious to him since Friday that the mounting evidence of Frances Fitzgerald’s failure to act meant that that Dáil Éireann could no longer have confidence in her as Tánaiste or as minister.

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Leo walked into the #emailscandal one step at a time

9 Jan

This column appeared on Broadsheet.ie on November 24th as the Frances Fitzgerald saga was coming to a peak:

emailscandalHow did we get to this situation? Well, as with any crisis, we got to it one step at a time.

Leo Varadkar did not start this week with a plan to trigger a snap election, no more than Micheál Martin did, but with a series of serious missteps Leo Varadkar walked this government to the brink and last night whipped things up to a point that the country is now on a course that means a general election either before Christmas or early in 2018.

Misstep number one came with the Taoiseach’s opening comments on Leader’s Question in the Dáil last Tuesday. when he attempted to address the issue

“The House will appreciate, once again, that I do not have first-hand knowledge of any of these matters.”

With those words it was clear that an Taoiseach was approaching the issue of Minister Fitzgerald’s level of knowledge on the campaign against Sgt McCabe satisfied that it had nothing personally to do with him and, so it was not something for him to be worried about.

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Nov, 21, 2017 column: @GerryAdamsSF is going back stage, not off the stage

9 Jan

This column first appeared on Broadsheet.ie on November 21, 2017

8667-Sinn-Fein_90529733After months of will he, won’t he, Gerry Adams, Irish politics enduring enigma has announced that he plans to shortly stand aside as leader.

Cue the long lap of [dis]honour as his fans hail the great negotiator and peacemaker and his detractors remind them that he was even more responsible for the mayhem and pain that preceded the peace. Yes, he is entitled to top marks for his role in the peace process, but his total score has to be calculated over his whole career, not just the heavily revised latter portion.

Adams’ longevity is due to many factors, not least his enigmatic persona. What we know about Adams is what he wants us to know, whether it is his penchant for writing poetry, his fondness for his teddy bear and crème eggs or his passion for naked trampolining with his dog. The Adams that he would have us know is a mass of contradictions that allows some to project onto him all those talents and skills they would wish to have in a leader.

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

14 Nov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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

16 Jul

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

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

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

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

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Silage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Enda Kenny: we’ll miss him (eventually)

16 Jul

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

enda

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

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

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

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

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

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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 may 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.

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.

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.
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