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What Britain wants from #Brexit: a new EU of just 2 – it and the #EU27

6 Sep

This is my Broadsheet.ie column from August 28th, 2017 – the original appears online here

Britain's SoS for Exiting the EU Davis and EU's chief Brexit negotiator Barnier talk to the media ahead of Brexit talks in BrusselsAt around 4pm (Irish time) today (Mon Aug 28), British and EU negotiators will meet again in Brussels for the latest round of Brexit talks. The first item on this week’s agenda, we are told, will be Britain’s exit bill, with the Brits expected to set out their thinking behind how they will for calculating how much is owed to the EU when Britain leaves. The teams with then go on, over the following days, to discuss the two other key issues which need to be resolved during this first phase of talks: citizens’ rights and ensuring the Northern Ireland peace process is not jeopardised.

While the EU (by which I mean “we”) set out its position on the British financial settlement back in May, British ministers have been extremely reluctant to attempt to put a figure on it. While some, like Boris Johnson have huffed and puffed about making the EU go whistle for it, the UK’s Brexit Minister, David Davis, has sufficient political nous to see that putting a realistic figure on the divorce settlement will just throw raw meat to the Tory right, who imagine they can use their debt as a bargaining chip for better terms for the future relationship.

How the British government manoeuvres its way through this round of crucial talks will be an important indicator of its future plans. The hope is that the British with arrive with a specific set of proposals for calculating the bill. The expectation is that they won’t – it is an expectation informed by past performance.

Up to now the British have attempted to keep things as vague, even confused, as possible. Their recent position papers have been aspirational at best, and contradictory at worst: a matter I addressed in last week’s Broadsheet column when I opined that Britain’s road to Brexit was: “paved with bad intentions”.

That is not to say, however, that the British negotiators strategy is merely disruptive. While their strategy may be confused and their tactics appear erratic, it would be foolish to imagine that the British, at least at a political level, do not have a game-plan – even if it is not a realistic one.

Look back at the recent series of position papers and it is just possible to discern the shape and outline of the post Brexit arrangement that the British – though it may be more correct to say, the Tories – desire.

While they obviously see the UK as being outside the Single market and the Customs Union, it is not just that they will be ‘outside’ EU institutions such as the European Court of Justice and the EU Commission, the EU Council and Parliament, they believe that they will be out from being ‘underneath’ them.

They see themselves post Brexit as not merely leaving a partnership with others, but rather as breaking free from being under an EU bureaucracy which they monstrously and wrongly caricature as entirely undemocratic.

But, as you read their position papers you see that while they see themselves as being out from underneath these institutions, they still see the need to have workable post Brexit relationships with them.

They want out from the Customs Union, but they still want a customs and border free relationship with the EU. They want to be out from under EU Data rules, but want to have a British seat at the EU data protection committee table even after they leave. The list goes on.

Add all these contradictions, aspirations and demands together and you reach a simple conclusion: the Tories want a new arrangement where the UK is the equal of the rest of EU 27-member states put together.

The Tories ideal post Brexit outcome is an open marriage between the UK groom, presumably in Edwardian frock coat and top hat, and a not so virginal EU27 bride, dressed in a blue and gold. They want it to be an open marriage so the groom can have a few external relationships with former conquests such as India and Malaysia.

This generation of post Major Tories have never been happy with the UK as just a part of the EU, they see the UK, at the very least, as being the equal of it.

Moving from an EU with 28-member states working in partnership into an umbrella union, of their own design, which comprises two partners: the UK on one side and the entire EU27 on the other, suits the public school, the sun never sets on the British empire mindset of those now running the Tory party.

It is their answer to the question, what is Great Britain’s role in the modern globalised world. This is a question that the British have struggled to answer since the end of WWII, one witheringly posed by the former US Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, who observed in 1962 that: “Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role”.

The problem for the Tories is that this answer is unacceptable to the rest of us.

Churchill, Heath, Major Blair, and even Thatcher had seen Britain’s role as an important leader in the EU. Thatcher had initially sought to bend the shape and composition of the EU to suit this role insisting that it expansion should be wider, including form eastern bloc countries, rather than deeper, but the legacy of the Tory party post Major has been a failure to grasp that the EU was the platform from which the UK continued to be an important player, not the obstacle to it.

If my analysis is correct, then this can only end badly for the Tories and, sadly, the UK. The one slight point of consolation as Micheál Martin pointed out overnight is the British Labour Party’s decision to commit itself to continued UK membership of the EU single market and customs union during a transition period from March 2019 onwards.

A hard Brexit that will hurt us economically, socially and politically may still be most likely outcome, but it is not yet inevitable. The next few weeks will be telling.

ENDS

The perks of abstinence…?

16 Jul

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

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BBC NI

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ENDS

 

 

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

12 Oct

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

27 Sep

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ENDS

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

12 Sep

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

 

Sinn Féin’s Martial Docility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, why does any of this matter?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Ehh.. #SocialMedia alone not to blame for coarsening of political debates

27 Jun

JoCoxFlowersThis is my Broadsheet opinion piece from June 20th, written in the aftermath of the horrific murder of labour MP, Jo Cox. broadsheet.ie/ad-hominemphobia/


As people struggle to come to terms with how Jo Cox MP could be so brutally slain outside her constituency clinic, many have focused on the coarsening of public debate and the abuse, both actual and online, aimed at politicians.

Though there has undeniably been a coarsening of public debate in recent years, we should not delude ourselves that there was once a golden age when all political discussion was genteel and free from ad hominem attacks.

There wasn’t.

Politics has always been a rough trade where vigorous and full bodied exchanges are the order of the day. Take this robust response from Frank Aiken T.D. in Dáil Éireann in July 1959, which I found while doing some research on Irish diplomatic history.

Incensed by Fine Gael claims that he was too supportive of Chinese representation at the U.N. and that he had chosen to attend a U.N. meeting instead of the funeral of Pope Pius XII, Aiken, who was Foreign Minister at the time, fumed:

He [Deputy McGilligan] is a low type who would climb on the body of a dead Pope to have a crack at Fianna Fáil.

Can you imagine the memes if someone said that today? But blaming Social Media alone for the eroding of civility in public discourse, as some have done in recent days, is to miss a bigger point.

Of course there are armies of irresponsible anonymous online warriors out there ready to pour a stream of bile and abuse on anyone who disagrees with them or points out that their heroes have feet of clay.

They are on both the left and right. Indeed, some of the most illiberal vitriol can come from those styling themselves as liberal, but whose social media output is anything but.

There are lone wolves and there are organised hoards. Our own domestic example of the hoard are the Shinner-bots, a virtual battalion of anonymous trolls (with the emphasis on ‘anonymous’).

Within minutes of Gerry Adams being criticised online for his disgraceful ‘Django’ tweet, the Shinner-bots were insulting and lambasting anyone who dared to question the actions of the dear leader. Their goal: smother the critics by saying and posting anything necessary o shut down the discussion and drive their opponents offline.

Sadly, politicians and journalists, particularly female, come in for equally appalling treatment on social media. The attacks on journalists are probably more pernicious, as the aim is to influence their reporting not by weight of facts and debate, but by simple bullying.

But the point to remember is that the vast majority of people do not post or talk about politics on social media. Just in the same way as the majority of the people who vote for an individual TD do not contact them by email, letter or phone.

Most people are part of what Richard Nixon (OK, not the first name to leap to mind when talking about open dialogue) termed: “The Silent Majority”, the people who are following events, but who are not protesting, speaking out or expressing their political opinions beyond the ballot box or the odd discussion at home or in the pub.

Blaming the coarsening of debate on social media alone is akin to attributing the rise of Hitler to the invention of valve radio. It is a factor, particularly the facility for anonymous posting which certainly has helped the erosion of mutual respect in discussion, but there are other significant ones, including the dumbing down of political debate.

This dumbing down is practised by politicians and journalists alike.

In the 1968 U.S. presidential election the average candidate sound bite used on the TV evening news was 42 seconds. By the 2000 election, that had shrunk to about 7 seconds.

The trend was not limited to broadcast media. During the same period the average quote from a candidate appearing on the front page of the New York Times went from 14 lines to about 6.

We now do politics as if it was a skills test on a reality show: Your task is to set out how you will sort out Irish healthcare in 30 seconds… explain the rational for the UK remaining the EU in 140 characters.

Couple this rush to simplification with the urge for immediate commentary and analysis and you have a dangerous mix. In the days before social media, talk radio and rolling 24-hour news, politicians and journalists alike had the time to consider their responses and the space to expand on them.

Political analysis and political responses are now expected be immediate, hurried and brief. But what is the virtue of the immediate short response, be it in a radio interview or online?

If expecting a Minister to give their immediate gut response to a particular issue is now the norm, then how can we slam others for doing the same online, when they do it under their own name?

 

 

The problem with #EUref campaign, is the problem with British politics #Brexit #VoteRemain

20 Jun

BrexitThis piece first appeared on the Slugger O’Toole website on June 14th. Note that I wrote this piece a few days before the horrific murder of Jo Cox, M.P.

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Shortly before polling day in last year’s Marriage Equality referendum one of the Irish national daily newspapers ran an opinion piece by a marketing/messaging expert evaluating the Yes and No campaigns to that point.

Though he had several criticisms of those of us on Yes side and even suggested that the Yes campaign was putting the outcome in unnecessary doubt, the subtext to his article seemed to be: this would have been a whole lot better if he had been running things.

I mention this now just in case anyone thinks that the observations I am about to make here about the poor state of the UK’s In/Out debate are intended in the same – if only they had asked me – vein.

They are not. Having worked on the winning side in several referenda from Lisbon II to Marriage Equality and from the Good Friday Agreement to Seanad Abolition, I know how difficult they can be and how each referendum is different from the other.

We have a particular familiarity with the referendum process in the Republic. This is not due to some fetishist love of them, but rather because we have a written Constitution which can, under Article 46 of the Irish Constitution, only be amended by a referendum. Ratifying EU Treaties such as Lisbon, Nice and the Fiscal Stability Treaties has required making changes to Article 29 (on International Relations) to facilitate Ireland’s ratification.

We know how it can often seem that the campaign is about almost every issue bar the one on the ballot paper and that forces outside the campaigns are dragging the focus away from the matters at hand.

That said, it is hard to imagine a referendum campaign that has been as bad and confused as this one. Yes, the individual campaigns have made errors and have adopted messaging strategies that seem unfocussed and discordant with voters concerns, but these errors go nowhere near explaining the mess that is the UK’s EU referendum.

To borrow a phrase from the late Sir Geoffrey Howe:

“It is rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease, only for them to find, as the first balls are being bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain”. 

There is a problem with the conduct of the EU referendum campaign, because there is a fundamental problem with British politics – namely, the big gaping hole in the centre of it. There are no big beasts, big ideas or big concepts among the current leadership on either side of the House of Commons. In its place is a political void, populated by bland assemble with no hinterland beyond the confines of Westminster.

It is no coincidence that the most significant and impactful interventions in the campaign so far, particularly from the Remain side, have come from those who are no longer active on the main political stage, such as John Major, Gordon Brown or Ken Clarke.

With a few exceptions, the current crop of Conservative, Labour and LibDem political leaders have failed to impress. They have either been absent, like much of the Labour leadership, or been insipid like Brexiteer, Chris Grayling or plain wrong like Penny Mordaunt. The few bright points from the current political generation have come from the likes of Nicola Sturgeon.

Referendums on complex issues need plenty of advanced planning and strategizing. They also need long lead in periods to allow the froth and irrelevancies to be exposed and blown away. Cameron’s strategic approach to this referendum, not least his convoluted pre campaign negotiations with EU counterparts and his assertion that he would have no compunction about recommending “leave” if he didn’t get the deal he wanted, left the scope for meaningful preparation in tatters.

The problem though is that strategy may not mean the same thing to Prime Minister Cameron as it does to others. As Hugo Young remarked in Michael Crick’s documentary “Boris and Dave”, strategy is something Cameron thinks will get you through to next Monday.

The result is that Cameron has allowed the rise of UKIP and disquiet among his backbenchers to compel him to holding a referendum which his poor preparation and planning has allowed to descend into a squalid slanging match of petty claim and counter claim with no real debate on the UK’s EU membership.

A stunning indictment of the Prime Minister’s ‘strategy’ is the fact that an Ipsos Mori survey published less than a week ago (and conducted in April and May) shows that the British public is still woefully ill-informed on the facts and realities of the UK’s EU membership. British people think there are three times as many EU immigrants in the UK than there actually are and they massively overestimate the proportion of Child Benefit awards given to families in other European countries. The actual proportion of UK Child Benefit awards going on children living abroad in Europe is 0.3%, but 14% of people think that its 30% and a further 23% think that its 13%.

Did no one around Cameron think to survey public attitudes a year or so ago and get a picture of the perceptions and beliefs of the people they were hoping to convince? If they had; then they could have tackled these wrong perceptions head on and tried to correct some of them long before the campaign proper began.

In failing to prepare and plan, Cameron has encumbered his allies on the Remain side from even before the campaign started. The gross error has been compounded by the way in which the coverage of the campaign has focussed more on the future of the Tory party and the Blue on Blue battles.

The next few days will be crucial for Remain, if it is to win – and I still expect it will. It needs to sharpen its message and redouble its efforts – it also needs to realise that it cannot solely depend on the current generation of Westminster denizens to get this over the line, it must look to more trusted and well regarded figures.

There is some good news for Remain in the Ipsos Mori survey. 51% of those surveyed predict that Remain will win, while less than half of those planning to vote Leave believe they will win. I mention this as there is some evidence from the U.S. to suggest that asking people who they think will win is a better indicator of the result than just asking them how they will vote.

In less than 10 days we will know either way… And then the real debate can start.

ENDS