Tag Archives: Fianna Fáil

No long summer break from political debate

18 Jul

This week’s Broadsheet column was a defence of the oft criticisied Summer School season and an argument for more policy Irish think tanks, for for a Fianna Fáil aligned one in particular. Original column online here: Broadsheet.ie 

 


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At around 4.20pm on Friday last Dáil Éireann adjourned for the Summer recess. It is due to return at 2pm on Wednesday September 20th.

Cue the usual hollow complaints from the commentariat over TDs holidays and short Dáil sessions, with a few harrumphs from the Brussels side-line courtesy of Fine Gael MEP, Sean Kelly who tweeted that the EU parliament’s holiday will be 4 weeks shorter.

If this Dáil was actually processing legislation, especially the range of halfway decent Private Members Bills coming from backbenchers across the House, then there may be a basis for complaint. But, it isn’t.

To be fair, it is not as if TDs and Senators are about to head off to the Maldives or Marrakech. The Seanad is sitting this week, as are several Oireachtas committees, and they will take a shorter break than the Dáil and return earlier – and before you sigh that the committees don’t count, bear in mind that Sean Fleming’s Public Accounts Committee will be launching its report into the financial procedures at Garda College, Templemore at 2.00pm tomorrow.

However, the fact that the Dáil is taking a nine-week break, does not mean that political debate will be on hold for all that time.

The start of the summer recess also means the start of the political Summer School season. This week sees the MacGill Summer School in Donegal and it will be following a range of other summer schools, both large and small, including the  Parnell Summer School in Rathdrum, Co Wicklow in mid-August which will look at contemporary criminal, policing, penal and judicial policy and the excellent Kennedy Summer School being held in New Ross in early September which will look at a range of issues including Brexit.

While it is easy to dismiss some aspects of these Summer Schools are just the same folks talking at each other in various locations over wines of varying qualities, they still have a positive input into our policy discourse. They allow more discussion on the broader themes and issues and encourage more focus on policy and less on process – something that bedevils political commentary and debate the other 40 odd weeks of the year – including by yours truly.

The Summer School season highlights the dearth of policy discussion the rest of the year around. I am often struck by how few serious policy fora and think tanks we have here. While there are some, and they produce very good policy policies and encourage new policy directions, they tend to be from just outside the centrist spectrum, at either end: from the Hibernian Forum on the centre-right to the trade union backed Nevin Economic Research Institute. That is not to say that there no centrist fora, there are, but they tend to be sectoral or focussed on Ireland’s relationship with the EU.

It is as if the centrist parties should just look to their own limited in-house research teams and the civil service. While Fine Gael does have its Collins Institute, a quick look at the latest news section on their website suggests that annual activity is more based on a lunar calendar than a Gregorian one. The three most recent news items there are from May 2017, July 2015 and December 2014.

There is room for a significant centrist policy (big hint to Fianna Fáil) think tank and there are a range of EU institutes and fora, not to mention expertise, with which it could partner and co-operate. There is also a major issue on the horizon which it can help address: Brexit.

As I have said here several times, a lot of the discussion and focus in the Irish Brexit debate thus far has been on ameliorating and easing the most damaging economic aspects of Brexit, but there has not been sufficient discussion and exploration of the political dimensions.

One of those relates to the future of this island: as a whole.

One of the core principles of the Good Friday Agreement – and one of the primary reasons why it received huge buy-in across the island – was that the constitutional position of Northern Ireland would not change without the consent of the majority in Northern Ireland.

This was there to reassure Unionists that they would never be coerced into a United Ireland. It was also an assurance to the population that they were democratically sovereign and they alone could determine their own constitutional status. Yet, the Brexit result last year is about to change the status of the citizens of Northern Ireland not only without their consent, but expressly contrary to it and they are told, by the UK’s Supreme Court that the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement do not apply.

This is a major change and it is getting lost in the understandably loud and noisy debate over the economic aspects of Brexit.

Brexit also changes our relationship with the EU. Up to now we have been one of two common law, English speaking countries in the EU with similarly structured economies and political systems. We have shared common interests and held a range of similar views on issues from Data Protection to Employment and Social Policy. We now face into a future in the EU Council without a key ally.

That does not mean a debate on our continued EU membership – but it does require some thinking on how we develop and advance that membership and that again returns to how that is expressed on and across this island.

There is plenty to think about over the coming weeks and months and while it is good to take some time away and recharge, let’s also us some of the time while the Dáil is not in session to commence some serious debates on what lies before us.

Ends.

 

ENDS  

@campaignforleo poll nos – not so much a Leo bounce as just an Enda recoil

16 Jul

This is my Broadsheet.ie column from last week, published before today’s Sunday Times/B&A poll showing FG on 29% and FF on 30%. This joint level of support of 59% is a positive, particularly for FF and suggests it has scope to get its average showing back into the low 30s. 

The original article is online here: www.broadsheet.ie/a-bounce-or-a-recoil

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From the Sunday Business Post/RedC

Well, that didn’t seem to last too long.

Yesterday’s Sunday Business Post/RedC poll showed Fine Gael’s lead over Fianna Fáil closing by 5pts: from 8% in late May to down to just 3% now) This suggests an abrupt end to the Varadkar honeymoon.

I stress the word “suggest”. While the RedC poll puts Fine Gael on 27% and Fianna Fáil on 24%, another poll, taken exactly two weeks earlier by the Irish Daily Mail/Ireland Thinks put Fine Gael on 31% and Fianna Fáil on 26%. While it is possible that Leo’s less than adroit handling of events over the last two weeks may have shaved 4pts off his halo, it would be folly to try to conclude that from the results of two separate polls conducted by two different companies and taken at two different time periods.

What you can do, though, is track and compare the results from one individual polling company over a period of time. Fortunately, Red C does that for you via its handy online live-polling-tracker. Here you can find the results from the 10 polls conducted by Red C over the past year.

They show that Fianna Fáil has been ahead of Fine Gael in 7 out of the 10 polls – good news for the Soldiers of Destiny, you would think. But that joy is somewhat diminished when you see that two of the three where they are behind are the most recent ones: see shaded cells in table below (data from Red C here):

Red trend

Table 1. Red C polls July 16 – July 17

Ireland Thinks’ Dr Kevin Cunningham has highlighted the trend here and tracked a gradual Fine Gael recovery from soon after it became clear that Enda Kenny was set to depart.

What this suggests to me is that there is not so much a Leo bounce as a post Enda recoil. While the May Red C poll showed Fine Gael opening up a dramatic gap on its rival, the July one shows it closing back gain. So much for all the Fine Gael TDs who confidently hoped that electing Leo Varadkar as leader would have them 10pts clear of Fianna Fáil.

What the Red C polls show is that practically nothing has changed in terms of party support since the last general election. This is hardly surprising. What many pundits and commentators forget is that the vast bulk of voters are not avidly following the ins and outs and ups and downs of politics. Let me correct that slightly, many voters do follow what is happening day to day, but they do not base their voting intentions on process, but rather on outputs. That means that they do not give much consideration as to who they will vote for until they see that an election in imminent.

The fact that nothing much has changed in terms of the polls is kind of good news in the quasi zero-sum game of Fine Gael versus Fianna Fáil.

Fine Gael has played its ace card. It has dumped the pilot and put its smartest newbie in charge and the net impact is: meh! It has recovered the ground lost over the 14 months after the February 2016 election, but effectively it is back at that result – a result that was a big contributory factor in Fine Gael dumping Enda. Where else is there now for Fine Gael to go?

It could be argued that Fianna Fáil has been threading water awaiting this changeover. Despite the mythology I mentioned last week, Fianna Fáil must know that some of the gains made were due to Fine Gael own goals. Fianna Fáil cannot depend on Fine Gael shooting itself in the foot the next time – though Fine Gael always retains that capacity – but it can now plan a strategy knowing that the Fine Gael leadership handover has happened at a time that best suited Fianna Fáil.

No doubt the new Taoiseach will use the Summer to boost his profile and standing, but what works for Trudeau in Canada or Macron in France does not necessarily work here. As I opined on Twitter this week, it often seems to me that Varadkar has a good understanding of politics in general, just not of Irish politics. Gesture politics and soaring rhetoric do not play as well here as in other countries. Perhaps it is to do with scale and proximity. As (I think) the folk singer Frank Harte told Gay Byrne on the Late, Late Show many years ago, it is impossible to become a big star in Ireland as there will always be someone to pipe up: sure, I knew him when he had nothing.

Leo may succeed in raising his personal popularity ratings between now and September, but that does not necessarily translate into gains for Fine Gael – indeed recent political history suggests that the popularity of a party leader rarely bleeds across to help their party. Micheál Martin was adjudged to have had a good election in Feb 2016, but even his winning performances in the leaders debates barely moved the dial for his party during the campaign.

The danger for Fianna Fáil is not in the future of Fine Gael, but rather in the dangers of the aforementioned FF/FG zero sum game. As Table 1 above shows the combined of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil support in the Red C polls over the past year has averaged at 51%. Compare this with the figures in elections from before 2009 in table 2.

GE trendTable 2. Combined FF + FG first pref % at general elections

Whereas Fine Gael is now back at the levels of support it had for most of its modern history, Fianna Fáil is at about 60% of the level of support it enjoyed in the ‘80s, ‘90s and early ‘00s.

While this 60% is a lot better than what it was getting in 2011, the party should be aiming get back to about 80% of its previous levels of support, especially at this point in the electoral cycle. To do that it needs to see the combined Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil poll numbers increase back to around 60% combined support, which means that it must start eating back into the support it has lost to independents at one end of the range and to Sinn Féin at the other.

This is partly done by incremental and sustainable growth, but it needs something more. It needs a big political idea that makes its message, its identity and its purpose clearer. Makes it stand apart from Fine Gael. Finding that message is no simple task, but it may have been made easier by the Brexit turbulence of the past year. Brexit is set to change a lot of how we do business across this island, so why not our politics? What I suggest is… oh, I see I am out of space. I shall return to this issue soon.

ENDS.

Who would want to be a TD?

16 Jul

This column is from two weeks back (July 3rd, 2017) and is both a guarded defence of the political party system and a warning of the dangers of the constant desire of the hard left fringe parties to take politics out on to the street.  

It is said that France has the only “tricameral system” in the world – the National Assembly, the Senate and the Street – but history and experience shows that the Street has always been the biggest hindrance to reform. Origianl column online here: www.broadsheet.ie/who-would-want-to-be-a-td/

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Who in their right mind would want to become a T.D.?

The pay is good, the perks are decent and the scope for promotion (career and ‘self’) is none too bad either, but can these incentives really outweigh the forfeiture of a private life, never mind the ongoing press, public and social media opprobrium whenever you express an opinion?

Shouldn’t politics be a vocation, not a career path?

The problem with that view is not just that it is naïve, it is that it simply won’t work. Try it and we end up with a Dáil full of only those who can only afford to be there by virtue of their profession, their families’ money or simple “pull” – by the way not all of them would be on the right, a fair few would also come from the comfortable left, but that’s just an aside.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ENDS.

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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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 have my doubts about Enda Kenny’s emigrants’ votes plans

13 Mar

Enda Kenny’s fascination with his predecessor John A. Costello continues. Not only is Enda determined to beat Costello’s record for time served as Taoiseach, he now seems to want to eclipse Costello’s penchant from making major constitutional announcements outside the country.

Costello announced his intention for Ireland to abandon the External Relations Act (and effectively quit the British Commonwealth and declare itself Republic) during a visit to Canada in 1948, while Kenny announces in Philadelphia that he intends to hold a referendum to give the Irish diaspora votes in future Irish presidential elections – but only in elections after the next one.

There are many legends about Costello’s Ottawa announcement, including one version that claims he made it when was “tired and emotional” and another that asserts he did it after being offended by the placing of a replica of the Roaring Meg canon used in the Siege of Derry in front of him on the dining table at a formal dinner at the Governor General’s residence. But they are only legends.

Moves to repeal to External Relations Act, which gave the British Crown limited recognition around foreign relations, i.e. Irish diplomats were formally accredited by the King, were already afoot before Costello even came to office. In late 1947 Éamon de Valera’s Fianna Fáil government started preparing a repeal bill, but work on this was halted by the February 1948 election.

At least Costello was able to announce something which he could immediately legislate for and see carried into action within a reasonable space of time. Within eight months Ireland was out of the Commonwealth), in Enda’s case he has just announced plans which may not come to fruition for another 8 years (never mind 8 months) – and only then if they are passed in a Referendum, which is no absolute certainty.

We must wait a few weeks more to see the detail of the Governments proposals on extending voting rights in Presidential Elections from 2025 onwards to Irish citizens living outside of the Republic. From what the Minister of State for the Diaspora said on Radio this morning it appears that the Government intends to publish a range of options rather than a specific plan, which suggests that this whole adventure may not even be as planned and prepared as Costello’s 1948 one.

According to Minister of State McHugh there are an estimated 1.8 million citizens outside the State and a potential electorate of 1.87 million in Northern Ireland. To put this in context the total electorate eligible to vote at the October 2011 Presidential Election was just 3.2 million (On the day just 1.8m (56%) of them chose to vote).

While it is likely, if not certain, that Enda Kenny will neither be Taoiseach nor leader of Fine Gael by the time the referendum comes around, his shadow will hang over this and let’s not forget that Enda has had a penchant for starting referendums that he cannot win.

Will this be another one? I personally hope not, but I must admit that I am far from thrilled or enthused by what I have heard from the Taoiseach and his Ministers over the past few hours. Surely such a major constitutional change should be accompanied by detailed research and argument, not followed along by broad range of options for consideration to be published a month or so later.

While I can see some merit in Leo Varadkar’s description of the proposal allowing for the transformation of the Presidency into one for the whole Irish nation, highlighting the fact that Ireland has become a global nation via its diaspora, won’t we also be effectively limiting the Presidency to just a symbolic, ceremonial role? Though they are not often exercised, the Irish President does have important constitutional functions, are we perhaps diluting those for what it effectively just a gesture?

I also worry about how the referendum campaign make shape up. As we have seen in past campaigns, indeed as Leo Varadkar has observed: referendums are “by and large” never what they are supposed to be about and they can often turn into a votes on “extraneous issues… or decisions being made by the Government, such as cutbacks.”

The government’s proposed referendum, if not managed and led effectively, could perversely be turned into a reverse border poll – with the focus falling not on the wider diaspora or on the positives of giving Irish citizens in the North a formal recognition in our political process – but on worse aspect of the North and the prospect of allowing a load of hard-line DUP voters (and others) have any kind of say in the South.

Public attitudes to the North down here as not always as positive and welcoming as we would have ourselves believe. A recent poll for RTE by Dr Kevin Cunningham’s Ireland Thinks found a very mixed appetite for a United Ireland among voters in the Republic, particularly when it comes to the costs of re-unification. It roughly found that that voters in the Republic split three ways with one third being in favour, one third against and one third undecided.

That said, Brexit has pushed Irish re-unification way up the political agenda for all parties North or South: not as an absolute inevitability, but as an increasingly likely consequence of the economic consequences of Brexit.

Re-unification needs to be seriously considered now, not as some rhetorical wrap the green flag around me slogan, but as a real and viable political option. This is something that needs to be thought through seriously, which is why Micheál Martin’s announcement today that Fianna Fáil will soon publish its 12-point plan to prepare the way for unification of the island is so welcome.

We need to start talking and preparing for unification by strengthening the economic, political and educational links between the Republic and Northern Ireland. While these could help re-unification, even if that were not to come about, they would still be mutually beneficial.

Hopefully Fianna Fáil’s proposals, due in the coming months, will help provide a sound and considered backdrop for the debate on giving votes for citizens North of the border.

For the record, when it comes to votes for Irish citizens outside the jurisdiction my own preference would be to look to Leinster House rather than Áras an Uachtaráin and follow the French model by having a constituency in parliament (either in the Dáil or Seanad) voted for exclusively by Irish citizens living outside the Republic, in fact I would suggest two such constituencies: one for Irish citizens living in the North and one for Irish Citizens living elsewhere.

As it stands today, while I am inclined to vote what Enda Kenny announced in Philadelphia, I am not so enthused as to go out campaigning for it – on that score, I remain to be convinced. Over to you Leo or Simon.

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Debating this column on RTÉ’s Late Debate – video clip below

ENDS

 

 

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.

image

 

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 @finegael #LE14 meltdown is a repeat of @fiannafailparty’s #LE09 one #ep14

25 May

I have now updated my initial thoughts, musings, observations and mild rantings on the implications of the local election results, particularly Fianna Fáil’s stronger than expected showing.

This was first posted on Sunday morning – updated on Monday morning to reflect the revised party national totals in the Local Elections.

 

Local Election Results national overview

Local Election Results national overview

 

“If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must Man be of learning from experience.” – George Bernard Shaw.

Quite a lot, it seems.

Yesterday we saw history repeating itself, with the electorate visiting upon Fine Gael and Labour almost exactly the same devastating blow it had served up to Fianna Fáil and Labour five years earlier.

In 2009 Fianna Fáil lost around 39% of its support (when compared with 2007) while the Greens endured a massive reduction in its vote of 76%.

Yesterday, based on the Local Election results to hand, Fine Gael lost 34% of its support and Labour lost 63%.

le14 grid

While the story of the Local Elections is the rise in support for Sinn Féin and the Independents and the scale of the loss for Labour, the Fine Gael haemorrhaging of support should not be ignored.

Indeed, the case can be made that the real story of the election is this massive Fine Gael loss – a loss that should not be glossed over by what might appear to be its reasonable performance in the European Elections.

Losing 100 plus Councillors, on a day when you have increased the number of available council seats, is a political meltdown of Fianna Fáil in 2009 proportions. It will send a shiver around the Fine Gael backbenches that will match that currently coursing along the spines of their Labour colleagues.

Leo Varadkar’s line that the next election will be a battle between Fine Gael and Sinn Féin was a clever attempt to calm the troops with the notion that their lost support will come back when the Irish voters realise that Fine Gael is all that stands between them and the Shinners.

It’s clever line, but a flawed one.

For it to offer any comfort it would need to be underpinned by Fine Gael still remaining the largest party – but it hasn’t. By the time the dust settles it will become clear that the other big story of the locals is the return to frontline politics of Fianna Fáil, even if its European results are a bit rocky.

If the battle of the next election is, as Varadkar suggests, to be fought on the question of where you stand with regard to Sinn Féin then Fianna Fáil, with a few more weapons in its armoury, is standing on better – and now even firmer – ground than the depleted followers of Enda.

While Fine Gael may see itself as the antithesis of Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil can challenge SF’s voodoo economics every bit as credibly as FG, but with the added bonus that that can better undermine and dismantle the Shinner’s fallacious claim to Republicanism, especially in its back yard.

The other story of the Fianna Fáil result is its incredible variety. Its national level of support at just over 25% belies some very good and incredibly bad local results, especially in urban centres.

They range from the sublime such as its 49% in Bailieborough-Coothall 39% in Castlecomer and 38.4% in Ballymote-Tobercurry to the ridiculous: such as its 4.9% in Dublin North Inner City, 6.8% in Tallaght South and 8.7% in Lucan.

While there are several other disappointing low teen results in urban centres across the country e.g 9.6% in Waterford City South, 10.5% in Bray and 13% in Limerick City North, it is no coincidence that the single digit performances are in Dublin.

That is not to say that the Capital is a wasteland for Fianna Fail. Contrast the single performance mentioned above with the parties stunning 27.3% in Castleknock, its 24.2% in Clontarf and its 22.3% in Stillorgan.

While the overall Dublin result of 16% points to a major problem for the party, the variety in results, highlighted above, shows Fianna Fáil’s further potential for growth and renewal in large swathes of Dublin.

It is the very patchiness of its result that points up where the party needs to work harder and better. Far too many candidates in Dublin were left to struggle on by themselves with no structured national campaign to underpin their efforts.

Having “Fianna Fáil” on your poster does not guarantee a good new candidate a certain base level of support in Dublin and other urban centres in the same way as having “Sinn Féin” on your poster did for their new first time candidates. Indeed it does not offer the prospect of that base level of support as it does in non-urban Ireland.

The candidates in Dublin raised the Fianna Fáil vote to their level, not the other way around. The vote in Dublin and other urban centres, is not the party vote plus the candidate’s unique personal support – it is just the latter. In certain parts of the city is it the unique personal support minus the residual antagonism to Fianna Fáil.

The “Fianna Fáil” identity is Dublin is not a coherent identity based on a core defining message from the party as a national political party: it is the collective identities of its various candidates.

This is not to underestimate the particular nature of Dublin voters, especially their looser party allegiances; it is just to point out that Dublin voters are just as likely to be receptive to a national message, just less continuously loyal to it.

Despite some clearly very good results in Dublin, most Fianna Fáil supporters still struggle to answer the questions: why should I vote Fianna Fáil and what does Fianna Fáil stand for. Most of the successful candidates I have encountered in Dublin answer it with the words: here is what I stand for…

It is not that there are not answers to these questions, but rather that the party has not sufficiently defined and substantiated them.

It is work that can and must be done. That work is not aided or encouraged by intemperate outbursts or Quixotic threatened heaves. The issues are policy and organisation – not personality.

The 24.3% of voters who abandoned Fine Gael and Labour saw their political alternatives this week. Some said independents, some said Sinn Féin – though not by a large margin as the swing to Sinn Féin since the 2011 election is in the 5.3%, but even more said Fianna Fáil with a swing of just over 8%, but the point should not be lost that the biggest single section of them said: none of the above.

The ones who stayed at home are the ones who were badly let down by Fianna Fáil and are now just as angry with Fine Gael and Labour for promising them a new politics and then delivering the old failed politics as usual.

Perhaps they concluded that they could afford to sit out these second order elections, as they do not see how the results will change their lives, they will not be as sanguine at the next election.

@sluggerotoole: Derek Mooney on @FiannaFáilparty’s long road to recovery #ep14ie #le14 #ee14 ##ep2014

19 May

This is an analysis piece I penned for the Slugger O’Toole website

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Fianna Fáil

Fianna Fáil

While there are worse jobs in the world: the worst job in politics is certainly leader of the opposition.

If he didn’t already know this, it is certain that Fianna Fáil’s leader Micheal Martin will know this in just over a week.

The 2014 European and Local Election campaigns for which he and his HQ team have prepared and planned for over 18 months are proving themselves to be a source of unalloyed joy. It is hard to believe that these are the campaigns they wanted.

The latest round of opinion poll findings only confirm this. They suggest that

  • His Dublin Euro candidate will fail to take the seat
  • His Midlands North West duo may struggle to win a seat
  • While his Ireland South candidates have the best part of two quotas between but are so imbalanced as to render a second seat impossible.

If the ballots cast on Friday confirm these poll findings, then it will be hard to make any of this sound like an achievement.

Add to this a series of resignations and protests over local election candidate selections, including the Blackrock Hanafiasco that has seen my one time political rival Mary Hanafin returned as a non authorised/unrecognised Fianna Fáil candidate and you can see that the weeks ahead will be difficult ones for those at the top of the party.

The frustration of this for Martin and his supporters is that they have, on one level, a fairly decent tale to tell. If the most recent polls, which are not exactly joyous for the soldiers of destiny, are correct, then the gap between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael has closed by between 13.5% and 15.5%.

polls tableThe problem is that Fianna Fáil is not the biggest beneficiary of the decline. Fine Gael looks set to lose almost a third of the support it won in February 2011, but Fianna Fáil looks, at best, like convincing less than half of those disenchanted voters to look to it.

Where Fianna Fáil has made gains it has been among those groups it has least let down (definitely a relative term): younger and older voters. The group it has and will find hardest to convince are the middle ground – those struggling to pay mortgages and cope with massive negative equity.

Martin’s twin challenge upon becoming leader was first: to halt the decline and then to try win to win back as many of those people who voted for it in 2002 and 2007, but who chose Fine Gael in 2011.

That he has succeeded in the first task is clear but, his scorecard on the second may not be as impressive. Many of those who voted Fine Gael in February are deeply disenchanted by their performance in Government.

The party that promised new politics and a major break with the way things had been done by the previous crowd, has delivered neither. Instead; it merrily implements the broad policy approaches of the last Fianna Fáil led administration without their protections for those most hurt by the recession.

Despite this, the majority of these voters are prepared to either stick with Fine Gael or look to Independents or others. While these voters are prepared to engage with Fianna Fáil candidates at the doors, particularly newer, younger candidates – they remain largely unconvinced.

Meanwhile, for a huge swathe of voters unhappy with the government, Fianna Fáil is effectively as much a part of the “government” as either Fine Gael or Labour. Right now voting Fianna Fail is most certainly not the way to go if your aim is to register protest at what the government is doing.

Martin’s Fianna Fáil still has a lot of work to do to convince them, it has yet to offer a clear and comprehensive statement of either what it stands for in a post-recession Ireland or how it plans to secure and expand the recovery to benefit everyone.

While the biggest job of work it faces is on the policy side, the last few weeks and months have also exposed some serious organisational issues. The party’s structures are still centred on its elected reps and candidates. Offend a candidate and you lose their organisation.

Worse still: select a bright candidate with great ideas but poor organisational abilities and you have neither the capacity nor the available expertise to help them get elected. This helps, in part, explain some of the party’s problems with its MEP campaigns.

Fianna Fáil’s problem with being seen as the “same as the government” is also reflected in the European Elections. While middle ground voters have not turned Eurosceptic, they are certainly euro critical. They are looking for MEPs who will go to Brussels to bang the table and tell them what for. This may explain Sinn Féin’s strong European showings, plus Ming Flanagan’s apparent lead over fellow Independent and long standing MEP, Marian Harkin.

The irony is that Fianna Fáil belongs to a group, ALDE, whose nominee for the Commission Presidency Guy Verhofstadt: recently reflected precisely these euro critical views in a debate with his rivals saying that the “current Commission leadership always phones Berlin & Paris before making a decision. That is the main problem”
But have you heard any of Fianna Fáil’s European candidates say this forcefully in recent weeks?

The German narrative of the eurocrisis – which is also the EPP, Merkel, Sarkozy, and Barosso narrative – needs be challenged. It is something I have written about several times since mid-2011. See this one from April 2013

Perhaps some of them will do this during the final day’s debates – I sincerely hope they do.

We should be critical of Europe for precisely the reasons Verhofstadt outlined. No one knows this better than the members of the last government.

Yes, we did need Europe to help us bail out the banjaxed banks, but that help came at a massive price. Sarkozy and Merkel contrived to defend the Euro on the cheap on Irish soil… failed… then insisted that we pay the bill for the whole escapade.

It is this part of the narrative of the past six/seven years that Fianna Fáil has failed to develop, perhaps thanks to the understandable fear that no one really wants to hear its side of the story.

Before concluding I should admit a vested interest.

Though I have referred to Fianna Fáil in the third party throughout this piece; I am no impartial observer. I am a Fianna Fáil-er and have been involved at a senior level for decades. I am involved in several local election campaigns in Dublin. I backed a candidate other than Mary Fitzpatrick for the Dublin nomination. I was mooted as a possible Director of Communications for the Dublin euro-campaign, though the idea was binned. I ran against Mary Hanafin twice… but came out the wrong side of the encounter.

That said, I think Micheal Martin has done a decent job. He has done well on phase one: halting the decline, but not so well on phase two – making Fianna Fáil a party capable of governing.

The parallels with the party’s biggest political achievement of recent decades: The Good Friday Agreement, are significant.

While reaching that Agreement was a mammoth task that sometimes seemed impossible, looking back this part of the process was as nothing when compared to the difficulties in implementing it and making those institutions work.

So it is with phase two of Fianna Fáil’s recovery.

There is still a long way to go – and the leadership needs to look far beyond its own limited circle for the skills and energy to see it through.

ENDS.

 

This piece can be downloaded in Pdf format:   FF and the long road to recovery

My #af14 analysis: @fiannafailparty’s future depends on delivering a coherent alternative

21 Mar

This is an article I have written for the March 2014 Árd Fheis issue of Fianna Fáil’s members’ magazine Cuisle

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BjNAsq0IcAAMTFkA few months before the 2011 election, Michael Gallagher (the TCD Professor of Politics, not the Donegal postman and amateur weather forecaster) posted a blog where he asking how long Fianna Fáil could expect to spend in opposition. In it he wrote:

“Fianna Fáil is not a party accustomed to spending time there. Its longest spell on the opposition benches is still the nearly six years between its foundation in May 1926 and its entry into government in March 1932. Since then, the party has never spent more than one consecutive Dáil term in opposition and the longest spell it has been out of power remains the 4 years and 4 months of the Cosgrave coalition in the mid-1970s.”

Underpinning Gallagher’s 2010 comments is the idea that Fianna Fáil has never been that good at opposition. It is a fair point.

Not only have we not spent much time in opposition, as Gallagher points out, it is almost 30 years since we last spent a full Dáil term there.

We thought our world had ended in Nov 1982 when we ended up a mere 5 seats ahead of Fine Gael, though it is worth recalling that its vote then, 39.2%, is still the biggest percentage vote Fine Gael has ever won.

Not only was Fine Gael on 70 seats, it was ensconced in Government with its most popular leader to date. Faced with those realities we could not be blithely sure that we would spend just one term in opposition. The prospect of two successive terms was a stark possibility.

That is why we should look to that period for lessons and insight.

We quickly grasped that we needed to perform strongly in opposition – we needed to hold the Government to account. To that end the party established a series of policy committees, manned by party members with demonstrable abilities or expertise in specific areas.

These committees worked with the spokespeople but were not run by them. Neither were they mere talking shops, members were assigned very specific tasks, there were no passengers in this process.

While these committees did not “make policy”, that remained the prerogative of the parliamentary party, their work and inputs helped underpin the policy platform that emerged in the run up to the 1987 election.

Back in the 1980s the party looked to the membership to take up the slack on the policy side – and it is what we must do again today.

While the party’s membership, its structures, its needs and demands are as great as they ever where, the truth is that we do not have the resources we had.

Actually, that is the point: even the pre-2011 manpower levels in both party HQ and Leinster House would not be sufficient to meet today’s demands. Not only have the staff numbers been halved, the Programme Managers and Ministerial Advisers, of whom I was one, that once supplemented those teams are also gone.

These reductions have hit us particularly hard on the policy side. We are now making ever more demands on fewer people, people who have no sense memory of how a party operates in opposition

Yet, conversely, there appears to be some unexpressed reluctance to properly harness the real expertise we possess within the party.

This is not a demand to allow individual members to start writing the next manifesto – far from it. Neither is it a call for everyone to email in their two-line pet idea: we need considered analysis, not random suggestions.

Rather, is it is a plea for us to recognise that we need, in this area, to take a leaf out of our 1982-87 playbook and structure expert membership inputs.

Our party’s research people have come up with some important and innovative proposals, not least our Family Home Protection and Debt Resolution Bills. They have done some serious work: but you would be hard pushed to know that from the press coverage.

In the absence of any over arching narrative or analysis our individual statements can come across as micro policy responses rather than as co-ordinated parts of a coherent alternative.

Fine Gael could get away with that flannel during its time in opposition, but Fianna Fáil does not have the luxury they had: a Government unable to communicate with its own supporters.

To borrow a phrase from the 1980’s: the next phase of our recovery will be dependent on policies and substance. While the headline numbers in recent published polls have brought us little comfort, the high level of voter dissatisfaction with the current Government demonstrates that there is demand for a realistic viable alternative.

That alternative must be based on sound analysis and presented by a purposeful opposition that utilizes all the tools, skills and talents available to it.