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/
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.
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/
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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%.
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.
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.
This is an article I have written for the March 2014 Árd Fheis issue of Fianna Fáil’s members’ magazine Cuisle.
A 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.
My column from today’s Herald on Chris Andrew’s joining Sinn Féin
Cui Bono, who gains? That is the question political analysts normally ask when someone does something unusual or out of the ordinary.
It was the question that came to mind when I heard that my former party and constituency colleague Chris Andrews was joining Sinn Féin.
While Chris may hope he will be the main beneficiary of his defection, he will soon learn that nothing is for nothing in Sinn Féin.
Recent local election boundary changes had made Chris very likely to take a seat as an independent in the new eight seat Pembroke South Docks Ward, even with such tough opposition as local Councillor Mannix Flynn.
While running under the Sinn Féin banner would bring Chris extra votes, it would also drive away a big chunk of his previous support. Either way, as an independent or Sinn Féin he was likely to get elected.
Maybe Chris has his eye on a bigger prize than Dublin City Council and fancies his chances in the European elections? This would mean Sinn Féin bumping a loyal servant like Éoin Ó Broin in favour of a newcomer.
This would doubtless cause dismay among SF activists across Dublin, particularly as the party is already well placed to take the European seat formerly held by Mary Lou McDonald (another former Fianna Fáil-er) and currently occupied by the co-opted Socialist MEP Paul Murphy.
Running Chris for Europe would be an uncharacteristically generous act by them, but politics, especially Sinn Féin politics, does not work like that. It has not grown and developed by charitably adopting waifs and strays.
The Shinner’s acceptance of Chris has meant them closing their eyes to a lot.
Around this time last year we had the saga of Chris’s anonymous “sock puppet” Twitter attacks on Fianna Fáil colleagues both at leadership and local level. But his ire was not aimed solely at them.
Having blasted people who had worked on his campaigns, he then swung his sawn off twitter shotgun at Sinn Féin. Using his “brianformerff” identity he spoke of: “…the amount of people Sinn Féin reps killed over the years. #jeanmcconville” and “…still trying to make his SF gun men party coomrades [sic] trendy and likeable!!”
Perhaps Sinn Féin can find it in itself to pardon anonymous comments made from behind an internet balaclava, but it must be less easy to ignore the fact that Chris spent almost all of his time in the Dáil in the opposite lobby to them?
When Sinn Féin was voting against that Government’s actions – aside from the Bank Guarantee – Chris was resolutely voting for them. Looking back, I can’t remember anyone raising serious questions about Chris’s loyalty during my time in government.
Chris was just as assiduous when it came to attacking Sinn Féin locally. In a Dáil debate on May 27 2009 he spoke out about the local intimidation of Esther Uzell, labelling those responsible as “thugs” and “scum”. Esther’s brother Joseph Rafferty had been killed by the IRA in April 2005. Despite her repeated calls, Sinn Féin had done nothing to help identify her brother’s killer. They had been so unhelpful that she accused them of covering up for her brother’s killer.
Perhaps Chris can assist her again in his new role?
Anyone else making such attacks would not be given the time of day, so what has Chris got that they want so badly? His name. His pedigree.
As an Andrews he potentially allows them claim the linkage, no matter how tenuous, back to the foundations of the State that they so desperately lack and need. The statement welcoming Chris into the fold talks of his grandfather’s “ideals and values” with the added sideswipe that Chris felt Fianna Fáil no longer represented them.
Chris is entitled to that view, just as he’s entitled to decide his future and just as others are at liberty to remind him of his past.
Today’s RedC poll for Paddy Power brings very little good news unless you are an independent or a don’t know. The unadjusted core figures rank the parties in descending order as:
Fine Gael 23%
Fianna Fáil 18%
Don’t Knows 18%
Sinn Féin 13%
After adjusting the figures by excluding 50% of the don’t know and adjusting the other 50% back to how they voted in 2011 the ranking positions stay the same. Only the relative gaps between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil and between Fianna Fáil and the Independents widen.
Fine Gael 29%
Fianna Fáil 22%
Sinn Féin 15%
Sinn Fein’s lead over Labour remains at a steady 4%. While this may, at first glance, suggest some good news for Sinn Féin, the party has been in this territory before only for its good polling numbers to fail to translate into votes.
Back in December 2010, on the eve of a general election, three polls showed the party in the mid teens. A Red C Poll for The Sun on 03/12/2010 gave the party 16%. The MRBI/Irish Times poll on Dec 16th put it on 15% while a third, the Red C/Sunday Business Post poll of December 18th put its support at 14%. On polling day, two months later, the voters gave it 9.9%.
This is not to discount its advance since. Sinn Féin has been consistently polling in the mid teens since September 2011. That said, though an Irish Times poll in early October 2011 put party support at a hefty 18% its Presidential candidate and possibly most charismatic figure, Martin McGuinness still could not get the party’s actual vote past the 13.7% mark in the ballot boxes a few weeks later.
Despite its considerable and well resourcing organisation it seems to still have a problem translating favourable poll numbers into actual votes.
Though of cold comfort to Fianna Fáil it does not, at least, have this particular problem. The MRBI/Irish Times and Red C/Sunday Business Post polls conducted on the eve of the 2009 Local elections put Fianna Fáil’s support at 20% and 21% respectively. On polling day, the party managed to scrape its way up to 25.4%.
Fianna Fáil problems are more significant. While it has won back some of its lost “soft” support and pulled itself up from the 2011 hammering it has yet to say or do anything substantive to win back many of those who had voted for it in 2002 and 2007 but rejected it in 2011. There is nothing to suggest it is doing any better with potential first time voters either.
Despite the speculation of last weekend, Fianna Fáil’s problem is not its leader. The notion that Fianna Fáil picking a new leader whose only virtue is that they were not a member of the previous government is almost laughable. Surely no one in the party or the commentariat is delusional enough to think that the electorate is so naïve that it will flock to Fianna Fáil’s cause just because it has a leadership team devoid of anyone who served under Ahern or Cowen?
Despite its apology and acknowledgement of past mistakes, Fianna Fáil has yet to present a researched and substantive alternative policy programme. It has come up with some good micro-policies, not least its family home protection and debt resolution Bills, but many have been light on substance and appear to have been produced as well intentioned responses to specific representative groups, e.g. the Mobile Phone Radiation Warning Bill
Try finding the party’s April 2013 Policy Guide on its website. It is there, but you have to know what you are looking for to find it. Click on the “issues” button on the homepage and you get the Spring 2012 version, to locate the latest version you need to do a search for it by name.
The April 19th 2013 document shows the party has been doing some serious work on policy, but you would be hard pushed to know it from the statements coming from its spokespeople. These still read as knee jerk responses to government statements rather than as co-ordinated parts of a coherent alternative. Fine Gael may have gotten away with tactic this during its time in opposition, but Fianna Fáil does not have the luxury they had: a Government unwilling and unable to communicate with its own supporters.
Perhaps the criticisms of a small and possibly over stretched clique around the leadership have some basis in reality, but as someone who has spent a long time around the party, on both the inside and outside tracks, I think the problem lies elsewhere.
Michéal Martin has shown a remarkable capacity for getting out and about and engaging with members and voters alike, it is curious, therefore, to read of him being less engaged and accessible to members of his own very diminished parliamentary party.
Might I suggest that the fault lies on both sides. Yes, he should be having regular one to one meetings with his 33 parliamentary colleagues – God knows there are not that many of them to make such regular meetings impractical – but they too should be engaging with him.
The traditional deference to the leader needs to change. Gone are the days when you had to wait ages to have an audience with the great leader as he busied himself with the great affairs of state in the Taoiseach’s office. Parliamentary party members have the opportunity for unique access, let them use it. A minority can only exercise sole access when allowed by the majority indifference or reticence.
Despite the job losses and the massive reduction in resources, there still appears to be a sense that the party structures are operating and running as if the party is still as big as it once was. Worse still many of those working those structures have no sense memory of how the party should operate in opposition.
A small number of paid officials are being expected to do the party’s policy research and formulation with minimal input from a vast array of experts across the volunteer membership. Too much power and control is being retained around the centre and around Leinster House: not by the leadership and his supposed clique, but also by members of the parliamentary party who are criticising him for just that.
I am old enough to remember what was put in place between 1982 and 1987, the last time the party was truly in opposition. Back then a series of policy committees were established by the leadership and mandated, working with the various spokespeople, to produce credible and researched policies for submission to the party for adoption.
These committees worked with the TDs and Senators but were not run by them. Outside experts were brought in to assist and work with them.
To borrow a phrase from Fianna Fáil’s past – the phase of its recovery will be dependent on policies and substance – not personality. The party already has the potential to bring itself back into the upper 20s in terms of actual voter support – the question now for the leadership and the party as a whole is if it has the energy, expertise and inclination to innovate the policy approaches that could bring support up into the 30% plus range.