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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.

So, recognising that we are in the real world, perhaps we should be looking more at how to make entry into politics less unattractive and encourage more people who would not just see it as a long-term career option, but rather as something to contribute to after they have done and achieved other things.

Billy Connolly used to say that “The desire to be a politician should be enough to ban you from ever becoming one”. He is right, but only in one narrow sense. Wanting power for the sake of having it should be disqualification, but wanting it so you can change things, whether that be how many street lights there are in your community cycle, how waste is managed or how the cost of housing is reduced – that should be encouraged.

One of the problems is that many of political parties still include obstacles and tests that deter all but the most ambitious and politically astute. There is value in these skills, but national politics needs others too: people with wider skill sets and experiences.

Politics is not well served when it full of neophytes who have spent plenty of time as parliamentary researchers and ministerial assistants but have no genuine experience of the real world.

This applies to both left and right. Politics needs more people who have built things from houses to computers to companies and fewer people who have made placards and organised protest marches.

This is one of the reasons we have political parties. The most crucial role of any party, after policy development, is candidate selection. Political parties are there to identify, encourage, resource and support new entrants – people who may not in other circumstances have considered or pursued politics. They are there to protect them and back when they come under attack and support their work by making policy expertise available.

It can and does work. After the 2011 election massacre, Fianna Fáil was left with a lot of vacancies for prospective TDs as it had a lot of constituencies with no sitting TDs and no seat blockers. This was a major plus, it had the capacity to rebuild and renew with a massive intake of new talent. But it also had a big problem. On the negative side, it had a poll rating that would not encourage many to see it as offering a pathway to the Dáil.

Squaring this circle was no easy task. It had both to identify potential future TDs and to reassure them that it was a sufficiently viable vehicle to help them make it to the Dáil and contribute positively.

Much of that work happened locally. In many cases the local organisations and activists were ahead of their national counterparts. By the time of the 2014 local elections the party, nationally and locally was starting to synchronise both tasks: it had sufficiently recovered in the national polls to offer a credible vehicle and also had a slate of people with a variety of backgrounds to fast track into the Dáil.

Looking back, it now looks far more organised and structured that it probably was at the time. Building a mythology around what was done and how it was achieved risks missing the real and valuable lessons of what really happened. It also risks allowing a re-emergence of all the obstacles and hurdles of the past.

Though much of Fianna Fáil managed over the past five years was much by local action as by national design, it still offers a template for how other parties can and should encourage more new entrants.

But there is one big proviso, they must also realise that the work does not end when you bring in a few new TDs. If anything, that is when it really starts. TDs are not shrinking violets, but neither can they be allowed become punching bags for any group, whether in or outside the Dáil, who want to take politics out on to the street and then abrogate all responsibility for the consequences.

Every TD has an equal right to be heard inside and outside the Dáil. Being a Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Labour or Sinn Féin back bencher does not lessen or reduce their mandate and should not reduce their speaking rights. Political parties are not an impediment to political progress, they are the bedrock of it.

Everyone has a right to disagree and to do so robustly and loudly, but the “What the Parliament does, the street can undo” mantra of Solidarity-PBP cannot be allowed to stand. It is a pernicious attempt to discourage wider political engagement and involvement in the guise of opening it up to those approved by Solidarity-PBP.

It is joked that France has the only “tricameral system” in the world – the National Assembly, the Senate and the Street – but history and experience shows that the Street has always been the biggest hindrance to reforms.

It is yet another reason why political parties now must ensure that many people who should be considering entering politics are given the opportunities, supports and protections to do so.

ENDS.

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

16 Jul

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

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

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

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

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Silage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Enda Kenny: we’ll miss him (eventually)

16 Jul

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

enda

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

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

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

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

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

Nonetheless, it is where we saw Enda at his best. When you meet him in person, either in a one to one chat or as part of an audience, you realise that Enda genuinely enjoys pressing the flesh. He possesses an ebullient personality, unlike either of his two possible successors, and so he comes across as warm and engaging when encountered personally.

This natural ability and skill was also a potential liability. His desire to have something to say to everyone and to do it spontaneously could lead to problems – as our greatest ever Taoiseach, Sean Lemass, famously observed – the danger with such off-the-cuff utterances is “not the little too little, it’s the little too much”.

Hence Enda’s occasional problems with the actualité. We saw it again last week in Canada when he mis-remembered discussions about human rights in Saudi Arabia and ended up recounting what he now wished he had said, rather than what he had actually said when sitting with the Princes.

One way his team of advisers had come up with to try to curb Enda’s effusive tendencies was to try to keep him to a script. It worked, but only to a certain extent. If they truly wanted him to him under control then all they had to do was to turn on a camera on.

Nothing was more guaranteed to make him appear wooden and staid than a TV camera.

Whereas many senior politicians only truly come to life when the lights switch on and the cameras start rolling, Enda was the opposite. He shifted down the gears. Gone was the bonhomie and the spontaneity and in its place a stiffness of both language and style.

It partly explains why he did not like formal TV debates. It was not his strong suit. But this was not just because of the cameras, it was more than that. Enda is not a details man. Nor is he adept at recalling long tracts of script or prepared lines.

This was clear in his head to head party leaders debate with Bertie Ahern in the May 2007 election. During the pre-debate spin Fine Gael had so reduced the expectations for their man that all he had to do was show up and not set the desk on fire for them to claim a draw.

On the night, many pundits were in awe of Enda as he seemed to hold his own for about the first twenty minutes of the encounter. I recall a senior party colleague calling me about fifteen minutes into the exchange concerned that Enda was doing so well, but their worry was short lived. By the twenty-minute mark Enda was starting to flag, he was running out of rehearsed material. Meanwhile Bertie, who absorbs and retains facts and figures, was just getting into his stride and used the remaining sixty minutes to leave Enda behind.

Another four years in opposition, including a failed heave against him, and a further sex years as Taoiseach has improved Enda’s speech giving ability considerably. He delivered one of his best ever speeches in Canada last week. It was considered and reflective and included a section on the concept of “othering” that I mentioned here in a recent article saying:

“It is happening to the degree that the old battles of right and left might well be over, to be replaced by something that seeks, not to unite us, but to divide us, not only among ourselves, but from what they identify and objectify as the Other. They see the people not for who they are as individuals, but as what they are as an ethnic or faith or economic group.”

It was a well written speech, delivered extremely well. At several junctures, he seemed not to be reading it from a script, but rather delivering it extemporaneously. What just about stopped it from being a perfect speech, was the inclusion of the oft made, but inaccurate, claim that his government achieved the whole recovery by itself – conveniently omitting the reality that two thirds of the correctives had been made by the time he arrived in office, but old habits die hard, I suppose.

In a few week’s (or months) time I will miss having Enda to kick around. I may have a few others to miss too from around the Cabinet table. Instead I will have to focus on the possible successors: Simon, the Enda 2.0 or Leo, the anti-Enda.
Remarkably, both come to the threshold of high office with considerably more ministerial experience than Enda did when he won the leadership. But while both have many years more time spent around the Cabinet table, they come without Enda’s experience of political hard knocks. Their political paths have been charmed and uneventful, well they have certainly been devoid of any great track record or achievement.

Both will doubtless enjoy a political honeymoon and may even feel tempted to capitalise on it with a snap election – whether they will have that opportunity may well be determined by just how down and dirty the race to succeed Enda gets and how much damage will have to be repaired before facing out to meet the voters.

Ends.

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.

IMG_7982

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

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.

 

 

Irish ‘New Politics’ explained…. kind of… #Dail

25 May

DSMooney_Bio_PicThis is my latest article for Broadsheet.ie – available online here: http://www.broadsheet.ie/2016/05/24/the-new-politics-explained/

New Politics explained…..

What exactly is this “New Politics” we have been reading and hearing about so much lately?

It was the question that should have occurred to me as soon as the Public Relations Institute asked me to participate in a panel discussion they held last Thursday as part of a half day seminar entitled: Public Affairs in the era of ‘New Politics’.

But it didn’t. Like many others, I have been throwing about the phrase “new politics” in the two and a half weeks since the Dáil elected a Taoiseach as if everyone understands what it means.

But do we? Do the people who are supposedly responsible for our ‘new ‘politics even understand what the phrase means or what the concept is meant to encompass, apart from differentiating it from the “old politics”? Do we know in what way it is supposed to be different or why?

Unfortunately for me, this simple basic question only popped into my head while sitting on the dais last Thursday rather than during the days of preparation beforehand. But with each challenge comes an opportunity. Just as the question came in to my head the discussion opened out to the floor and with it came a rare moment of lucidity, dare I say: an epiphany.

Just then I heard a familiar voice re-enter the discussion to offer a definition “new politics”. It was a very familiar voice: it was mine.

The definition I came up with is quite simple: ‘new politics should be about policy not personality’.

PRII

Don’t get me wrong, I am no Pollyanna. I do not think that politics has changed overnight and that we have reached now some utopian perfection where every T.D. and Senator has suddenly become high-minded and abandoned all thoughts of party loyalty and personal advancement in favour of the common good

I also grasp that my definition might sound a little glib or overly simplistic but bear with me and I will try and explain why I think the definition I offer is valid.
One of the greatest failing of our supposed “old politics” was that most political crises of the past were not resolved by any great changes of policy or direction but by the drama of a political head on a platter.

Someone, usually not one of the main protagonists, was designated as the fall guy, they paid the price and the system continued along without change or reform, once the crowd’s lust for some blood on the carpet was sated.

By making a few boring, even tedious, changes to how Dáil committees operate and allowing them to actually oversee public policy and by making parliamentary questions work, we may just have moved the focus back on to the more complex issues of policy rather than the more simplistic and entertaining issue of personality.

One of the many reasons why the global economic crisis hit Ireland worse than other places is because public policy and economic dogma here had gone for too long unchallenged. The regulators went unregulated, civil society and the party system failed to advance realistic alternatives.

One of the most curious, and perhaps most re-assuring aspects to this gradual move to new politics is the fact that it has not come about by design. It is not the brain child of some think-tank or research group, rather it is the response of practising politicians working together to find a way of dealing with the result of the results of the last general election.

To their credit, the reform committee chaired by Ceann Comhairle, Sean Ó Fearghaill, comprising TDs from across the political spectrum worked quietly and quite speedily to devise an agreed reform package which though hardly exciting or thrilling may just be about to make day-to-day politics more responsive and more about policy.

The reforms agreed by committee from the establishment of a budgetary oversight committee to allowing the Ceann Comhairle to decide on the relevance of ministerial replies to parliamentary questions and the establishment of a league table of ministers who fail to properly answer questions move us closer to the levels of accountability and answerability we should have had long back.

No doubt we will continue to see “old politics” re-emerge from time to time, indeed it is hard to see Enda Kenny’s appointment of his expanded cohort of Minsters of State as an exercise is anything other than the old politics of personality – the personality in question being his and its maintenance in office for as long as it possible. We see it too in the handling of the O’Higgins Report and the embroiling of the Garda Commissioner in the controversy.

We can hope however, as the Dáil and its committees begin to exert their new powers and their responsibilities, to see less of the old politics, but not so much less that politics losses its touch of theatricality, drama and odd moments of farce. Not all aspects of the old politics should be abandoned.

ENDS.

Why @FineGael’s #GE16 pre-campaign campaign doesn’t augur well for real thing

15 Jan

This blog first appeared on the Slugger O’Toole website earlier today.

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Fianna Fáil’s poster attacking Fine Gael’s broken promises

 

Whether polling day is on Feb 26th or March 4th, it is clear that we are only two or three weeks away from the start of the great 2016 corriboard shortage… sorry, the 2016 general election.

Over the coming two weekends we will have the Fianna Fáil and then the Fine Gael Ard Fheiseanna, followed by Labour at the end of January – presuming that Enda hasn’t already called the election and pulled the plug on Labour’s big day out.

While the corriboard campaign posters remain in their wrappings and the Vote for me leaflets stand ready, the electioneering has already as good as started.

One the most interesting aspects of Fine Gael’s pre-campaign campaigning so far is just how much time and energy a party determined to dismiss Fianna Fáil as irrelevant is devoting to attacking them. See Today FM’s Matt Cooper’s comment on the Taoiseach’s Wednesday afternoon press conference:

Could it be that Fine Gael’s own private polling is telling them something the national newspapers polls are missing?

It occurred to me recently that Enda has spent the last few years doing a very bad Bertie Ahern impression – making Enda the Bobby Davro of Irish politics you might say. Enda gets the minor gestures and mannerisms right – but he misses the core of the character.

Enda may be as accomplished and expert a glad handler as Bertie when it comes to wading into a crowd and shaking the hand and slapping the of everyone around him, but he his mimicry is one dimensional. He does not possess Bertie’s skill and ability to command the facts and figures when engaging with the media on door step interviews.

While Enda still possesses many skills and abilities, not least his steely determination and ruthless streak, he is not politically hard wired to endure or sustain a long election campaign – especially if he hopes to keep his media interactions down to a few tightly managed ones.

In this context Fine Gael’s attempts to transpose the most recent Tory election campaign strategy to Ireland seriously risking backfiring on them and only highlighting the weaknesses they hoped to obscure.

It is a mistake on two fronts. First as they seem to be copying the Tory playbook here with minimal changes and basic adaptions.

Do they so see themselves as Ireland’s Tories that they cannot be bothered to make even the most basic of changes to the strategy, the text and the slogans? A series of recent Fine Gael social media posts have used the Tory line: “long-term economic plan” word for word:

While the Tories undoubtedly mounted a superb social media campaign in the 2015 UK general election and used the platforms, particularly Facebook, more effectively than most of their rivals (apart from the SNP who are the master campaigners both online and on the ground) that does not mean you take their campaign slogans and approaches lock stock and barrel.

Second, in taking the Tory campaign playbook en masse Fine Gael seems to have forgetten that we have a PR STV system, not First-Past-The-Post – indeed Fine Gael used to pride itself as being the defender of PR STV (they had opposed the two attempts to change the voting system by referendum in the 50s and 60s)

What works in a FPTP system does not necessarily work in a PR-STV one. Depending on where you live in a FPTP system you can find yourself voting for someone you don’t like rather than the one you do like most just so you can make sure the one you dislike more is kept out.

The idea that a vote for Fianna Fáil or Independent alliance is a vote for Sinn Féin is not so easy to sell in an STV system where the voter can vote the entire panel right down the line and omit the local SF candidate.

That said is easy to see the attractiveness of the Tory playbook for Fine Gael. The Tories succeeded in keeping their leader out of head to head debates, Fine Gael want and need to do the same – though for different reasons. While Cameron was wary of elevating Milliband by sharing a head to head debate platform with him – there were no questions about the PM’s capacity to perform well in a head to head debate.

The other attraction was the Tories successful cannibalisation of their Lib Dems coalition partners. Cameron’s gains came mostly from Lib Dem losses (The Tories took 27 of the 49 Lib Dem seats lost as opposed to 12 lost to Labour and 10 to the SNP) – an option that Fine Gael is eyeing up here, using Labour losses to shore up their own numbers. Fine Gael are ready to fight this campaign to the last Labour TD.

Though Fine Gael’s polling numbers have recovered recently – at precisely the time they needed them to recover – they are still on course to lose seats, even if they do get 31/32% in the polls.

While these improving numbers are no mere coincidence and are a tribute to Fine Gael’s political strategists, the idea that seems to be floating about the commentariat that Fine Gael is now some invincible campaigning machine is more than a little bit short of the mark.

Fine Gael is having a few problems of its own right now, and they are problems entirely of its own making. Though they will doubtless address the issue between now and the Árd Fheis (and possibly drum up future local difficulties in the process) Fine Gael was still short of the 30% gender quota up to a few days ago – a system they introduced and championed.

Not only that but its head-quarters operation has just ended an unseemly, costly and ultimately unsuccessful fight in the Courts with one of their own candidates: John Perry TD.

And before I am accused me of dragging up these problems like a Fianna Fáil-er whistling past the graveyard, I do not think this is a zero sum game. I do not presume that any loss of ground by Fine Gael over the campaign will automatically translate into a Fianna Fáil gain.

Fianna Fáil will have to make its own ground in this one and will need to land some hefty punches on Enda, Leo, Michael and Simon, it cannot depend on Enda and Fine Gael to just lose it.

The Legend of #Enda of the wild Wesht…

1 Nov

The Legend of Enda of the Wild Whest…

Enda’s #armygate saga has had pundits of all hues falling over themselves to explain, or even excuse, how and why An Taoiseach went to a recent EPP gathering in Madrid and told a story about the Irish Defences Forces being on standby to protect ATMs back in 2012.

Some have seen this as just another example of the perils of letting Enda go off script. Others suggest it shows that his grip on the actualité is slipping, a bit like his story of the woman thanking him after the Budget.

In order to retain my punditry badge, let me weigh in with another possible explanation. I think Enda is suffering from Ransom Stoddard Syndrome.

Who is Ransom Stoddard, I hear you ask. He was the main character in the 1962 western: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Stoddard, played by Jimmy Stewart, is the eponymous hero who shot the outlaw Liberty Valance – except, well…. he didn’t. (I hope this doesn’t spoil the plot for anyone hasn’t seen it.)

“No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Following a long political career, built in part on his reputation as the man who shot the criminal, Stoddard attempts to clarify events in an interview with a local newspaper. As the interview ends Stoddard asks the editor if the newspaper is going to use the real story, the editor replies: “No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

For Enda the legend of Enda has become confused with fact. The Enda legend or, to use the political communications parlance, the Enda narrative, is that he and Fine Gael manfully pulled Ireland back from the brink. In Fine Gael’s mind they inherited a bankrupt and dysfunctional country and, with careful planning and skilful leadership, turned it around to become the fastest growing economy in Europe. Not only that, they also tell themselves (and others) that the recession would never have hit Ireland if only Fine Gael had been in office for the preceding decade.

It is this narrative Enda was sharing with his colleagues in the EPP. The problem is that the facts don’t back it up, so Fine Gael and Enda must construct its own facts, facts based on its legends.

As Noel Whelan points out in his column in the Irish Times: Kenny gaffe over army and ATMs part of pattern of deception this is not the first, second or third time Enda has uttered this story of Army, ATMs and the Central Bank. This story has been constructed not only to fit into a narrative of the past, it is structured so as to advance it.

Yes, as others have pointed out, it does highlight Enda’s recurring issues with going off script and ad-libbing, but it is about more than a Taoiseach who can’t be trusted out on his own and who can’t remember his lines. It is about a party in government that is all narrative and no facts.

11225395_10153631887578211_4150166261132217846_nLast week the Fine Gael placed a graphic on its Facebook page which purported to show that it alone had secured Ireland’s recovery and made Ireland the fastest growing economy in the EU. To even the most casual of viewers the graphic, especially ones who ignore the dodgy Y axis increments, shows that the bulk of the recovery had been secured before the 2011 election and that the economy had effectively flat lined for the first two years of Fine Gael and Labour’s time in office.

Try searching for the 2002 and 2007 Fine Gael manifestos on the party’s website – you won’t find them. Neither will you find the many statements from Fine Gael spokespeople urging more spending after every Budget. The reality that both campaign platforms, plus the party statements promised to spend more and tax less than the Fianna Fáil alternatives does not sit well with the new Fine Gael legend.

Where Fine Gael is all narrative and no facts – Fianna Fáil has the opposite problem, it is all facts and precious little narrative. Up to the appearance of Brian Cowen and Bertie Ahern before the Banking Inquiry Fianna Fáil spokespeople seemed singularly unwilling to talk about the years leading up to the 2011 election. It seemed that they, like Fine Gael, thought that talking about the period 2002 – 2011 could only damage the party – but as Cowen and Ahern showed, setting the record straight and speaking candidly about what actually happened does not undermine Fianna Fáil.

Cowen and Ahern’s able and informed testimony at the Banking Inquiry showed that the Governments they led were neither reckless nor directionless. Yes, they made mistakes, but as they proved by their command of the facts and the details they did have a plan and were, in the teeth of a global financial crisis, making the best decisions they could on the basis of the facts and information before them. Their assured solo appearances contrasted with Enda’s assisted one, where he did the general patter and handed over to Richard Bruton when the questions become difficult.

The big fallout from the Banking Inquiry is not damaging Fianna Fáil the way Fine Gael’s strategists planned it would. They were full sure that parading the old familiar Fianna Fáil faces before the committee to be questioned and pilloried would re-ignite the public anger and ire of the 2011 election. Why else delay the hearings until the final run up to the election.

But they were wrong. While Fianna Fáil is hardly soaring in the polls, its support has been creeping up painfully slowly, just while the support levels for Fine Gael’s preferred enemy: Sinn Féin, have been slipping steadily downwards.

Hence the need for Fine Gael and for Enda is up the ante on the faux narrative and hype up the legend of Enda of the West complete, to return to the western movie motif, with the good guy white hats they have fabricated for themselves.

The problem is that life and politics today is much more questioning and techni-coloured now than it was in the days of the black and white western – no matter how exciting the story sounds.

I wrote this piece for the Slugger O’Toole website