Tag Archives: government

The decline of public language in politics is coming to Ireland

22 Sep

This is my Broadsheet column from just over a week ago – September 12th 2016 – it concerns the then MoS John Halligan will he/won’t he resign saga. Though he didn’t resign, keep this one on file for the next time this political soap opera comes around. The original column can be viewed here: www.broadsheet.ie/in-a-field-of-his-own/ 

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rain-hellThough he may not realise it: John Halligan’s pronouncements over the weekend (such as the headline [left] in the Sindo) may just be a very small part of a world-wide phenomenon.

No, I am not claiming there is global movement to secure a second catheterisation (cath) lab for Waterford. What I am saying however, is that his statements, particularly his most recent ones, contain many of the elements of the decline of public language in politics that we have heard elsewhere.

I accept that Halligan and the local consultants in Waterford hospital are sincere in desperately wanting a second cath lab, but wanting something is not the same as needing it – especially when resources are not unlimited.

For that reason it was agreed as part of the Programme for Government negotiations that an independent clinical expert would be appointed to determine if the second lab was needed.

Halligan agreed to that proposal. The expert was appointed. The expert then produced a report which concludes that services should be improved but that a second cath lab was not necessary.

That is doubtless a bitter pill for Halligan to swallow, made all the more unpleasant from Halligan knowing that he had himself agreed to the process. He staked his local political credibility on the report concluding it would be necessary, indeed he told a local newspaper that it was just a “formality”. He made a bet and he has lost it – in almost every sense of that phrase.

His response to this predicament of his own making is to take a leaf out of the political playbook of the likes of Brexit campaigner Michael Gove or even Donald Trump and conclude that the people have had enough of experts. So, he lashes out at everyone else threatening to bring all hell (I thought he was an avowed atheist) down on top of this government.

Has it occurred to Halligan or the Halligan-istas that he is potentially guilty of the same base cute-hoor behaviour he has condemned others for in the past? If the case for Waterford is as strong as he, and the consultants in Waterford, say it is – then shouldn’t that case stand on its merits, rather than be imposed by political blackmail via threats of taking down the government?

As James Lawless, T.D., Halligan’s opposite number in Fianna Fáil pointed out this week, Halligan has spoken out on almost every topic under the sun apart from those for which he was given specific responsibility as a Junior Minister: the promotion of science, technology and innovation.

While we all knew Halligan was a junior minister, I suspect that I was not alone in being a bit unsure as to what department he was assigned until Lawless reminded us of it last Friday.

Perhaps Halligan regards his Junior Ministerial title as more honorific than specific: something that gives him an elevated status, a platform from which to speak out on issues that matter to him, rather than a role coming with explicit responsibilities and duties?

To judge from his capacity to lurch from crisis to crisis it would appear that Halligan is not familiar with the great political truism of the late Mario Cuomo; you campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose. Perhaps he is, but has misheard it as you campaign in poetry, but govern in rhetoric.

To be fair, he would not be the first. Indeed, get outside of Waterford and he would be absolutely lost in the crowd as we can witness from the Brexit campaign and the ongoing U.S. presidential election.

Facts give way to feelings. Something is true because I feel it is… or, it should be, rather than because it can be independently and impartially verified. Everyone’s motives, bar mine, are suspect. Four legs good, two legs bad.

It is not a new trend, George Orwell was considering it back in the mid-1940s in his essay “Politics and the English Language”. It comes around like a Sine curve every couple of years and seems to be approaching its peak, once again, though this time accelerated and amplified by modern technologies.

A new book entitled: Enough Said, What’s Gone Wrong With the Language of Politics? by New York Times CEO and former BBC Director General, Mark Thompson examines the current slide in political discourse on both sides of the Atlantic.

Unsurprisingly, given the timing, Donald Trump comes in for some attention with Thompson picking up on Trump’s failings as an orator, but also pointing out that his often clumsy staccato delivery masks Trump’s deceptive I-tell-it-like-it-is “anti-rhetoric”, claiming that “This is the way generals and dictators have always spoken to distinguish themselves from the cavilling civilians they mean to sweep aside.”

Thompson also points the finger at Social Media. While I have taken issue with this argument in a previous Broadsheet column, Thompson does expand far beyond the simplistic it’s all Social Media’s fault and looks at other related factors, such as; the increasing number of people who get their news and views from partial online sources: sources which confirm their views and prejudices, rather than challenging them impartially. Score one for the MSM (mainstream media)

So, where does poor John Halligan fit in on this global trend?

Not high, but he is in there: inflated rhetoric; crude threats; convinced he alone is right; certain that everyone on the other side is duplicitous; dismissive of experts. He ticks most of the boxes, while ticking the rest of us off.

ENDS

Special Advisers #Spads can play an important and positive role in government

21 Sep

Here is my Broadsheet column from September 5th 2016. This looks at the important and positive role Special Advisers (Spads) can play in government, particularly a partnership one, such as the current administration. www.broadsheet.ie/treated-like-interlopers/

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sycamore-room

The Sycamore Room in Dept of an Taoiseach where the Advisers meet

“To provide spurious intellectual justifications for the Secretary of State’s prejudices”

This is how the late Maurice Peston (father of ITV’s political editor Robert Peston) responded in the early 1970s when a senior UK civil servant asked him to explain how he saw his role as Roy Hattersley’s newly appointed Special Adviser (Spad).

It was more than just a casual witty remark from the Professor of Economics: it specifically referenced the fears the Department of Prices and Consumer Protection had about having an acknowledged policy expert in their midst and gainsaying their more generalist advice.

For a serious and nuanced consideration of the role of the Special Adviser in the Irish context the research work of the University of Limerick’s Dr Bernadette Connaughton is a good starting point, especially her August 2010 Irish Political Studies article.

In that article Connaughton argues that while the main role of most Irish Ministerial Spad is that of a ‘minder’ or gofer – working vertically within Departments to help their Ministers’ obtain results – Spads can, as a collective – also have the potential to contribute effectively to the political coordination of policy-making by working horizontally across Government.

As someone who spent almost six years in partnership governments, and someone who contributed to Dr Connaughton’s research, I can attest to the truth of the latter part of her argument. From my experience the most effective Spads were those whose commitment is as much to the whole of government as it is to their individual minister.

I suspect the troubles and turmoil which has beset the current Government are due in no small measure to the absence of this.

When Fianna Fáil cut the number of ministerial advisers in 1997, before that each Minister had a separate Special Adviser and Programme Manager, it did so by effectively merging the two roles so that each Special Adviser was also fulfilling the role of departmental programme manager, being responsible of assisting the Minister get that Department’s portion of the Programme for Government (PfG) implemented.

Each party in Government still retained a single Programme Manager – each responsible for co-ordinating the delivery of their party’s elements of the PfG. This co-ordination was done both between the two programme managers, and also through the individual Spads, making the weekly meeting of advisers particularly important.

At these meetings, which took place on the afternoon before Cabinet meetings, the individual Spads would advise the group on memos their Ministers were brining to Cabinet the following morning and gauge the reaction from others.

While Cabinet memos are circulated to other Department before cabinet for reaction, some Departments are less forthcoming in expressing their views in advance than others. Often times the first real signal that another Department (by which I mean the Department at “official” level, rather than “political”) might have an issue with what your Minister was proposing came at these meetings.

Another key component in this process were the group of Spads working for the Taoiseach. Each of them usually co-ordinated with 3 or 4 Departmental Spads to also work as an early warning system for issues and problems. As with all information channels, these systems worked best when they worked both ways – not that I think they worked both ways all the time during the time of the FF/Green government, but that’s an article for another day.

They also worked best when the larger party recognised that partnership in communications should not just be pro-rata and that the smaller party in Government has to be given a bit more space and room than their size or strength of numbers dictates.

The major party sometimes needs to roll with the punches when the junior partner attempts to assert its identity and influence. It doesn’t have to respond to every snide comment, particularly those from the “reliable sources close to the Minister”, indeed the senior partner’s responsibility is to take the heat out of situations, not inflame it.

This is something that the spin conscious Fine Gael appeared not to learn in the last FG/Labour government. I know this may seem heretical for many in Fine Gael, particularly those who saw the headlines in the Irish Times or listened to Marian Finucane every weekend and convinced themselves that the Labour tail was wagging the FG dog, but when you look at the Governments policy output, the evidence is clear – Fine Gael got its way most of the time.

Fast forward to this week and you realise that publicly accusing one of your independent Ministerial colleagues of “showboating” doesn’t achieve anything, apart from having one of that Minister’s allies responding in kind saying: “Fine Gael’s problem is they don’t like any dialogue and just want it all their own way” as Philip Ryan reported in yesterday’s Sunday Independent.

I can understand Fine Gael’s frustration in not having a single junior partner – with a single identity and a single voice – sitting at the table with it, but that is the reality and it is long past the time for it to develop the internal systems to address that.

Just continuing to do what it did when it was in government with Labour, isn’t going to work… indeed, as we have seen over the past few months it is not working.

If Fine Gael wants the independents to work cohesively as a group within a wider partnership, then it has to equip those independent ministers with the supports and internal early warning systems they need to allow the Spad system to work horizontally as it should.

The office of the Taoiseach has a vital role to play in that, especially when there is no single and identifiable programme manager to speak on behalf of the group of independents. It needs to recognise that those non Fine Gael faces around the table are not just interlopers, they are their partners in Government and while occasionally spinning against them may play well with its own dispirited back-benchers, collapsing your own government might even dishearten them more.

 

 

A simple primer on Irish #Defence Policy

21 Sep

Here is another of my weekly Broadsheet columns. I am slowly catching up on reposting these columns here, I hope to have my site up to date over the coming week.

This one is from August 29th and offers a quick primer on understanding Irish Defence policy: www.broadsheet.ie/mission-creep-2/ 

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army

Though you may not have noticed it – there was, over the last few weeks, an attempt to start a public debate on Irish Defence policy. While the Irish Examiner, in particular, did its level best to get it going, the discussion soon fizzled out.

The reason why the debate never really got going may be due to the fact that we tend to only discuss defence policy in public in response to some significant event or, more frequently, to some outlandish and unfounded claim.

On the rare occasions that we have any debate on defence in Ireland, they tend to be either end of the extreme ranging from claims that we are abandoning neutrality, a claim made continuously since the 1970s, to questions as to why we even have a Defence Force.

Though there is a real and clear public pride in our Defence Forces, both at home and abroad, there is also a surprising paucity of knowledge about Defence policy.

With this in mind, I want to use this week’s Broadsheet.ie offering to put some basic facts about Irish Defence policy out there, in the vain hope that the next public debate on Defence may be based on fact and reality, not myth and assertion.

Let’s start with a few basics.

The Irish Defence Forces comprise the Army, Air Corps and Naval Service and should total 9,500 men and women. The current manpower figure as set out in a parliamentary reply to Fianna Fáil’s Lisa Chambers, is just under 9100.

There are approximately 460 Irish troops currently serving overseas on a range of UN led and mandated peace-keeping and humanitarian missions. These include: 60 naval service personnel on the humanitarian search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean; about 210 troops on the UNIFIL mission in Lebanon and approx 140 troops serving in the UNDOF mission on the Golan Heights in Syria.

Though these numbers are way down from the average of 800 plus personnel serving overseas less than a decade ago, it still represents a sizeable Irish contribution to international peace and security, which in turn contributes to our own national security.

We spend about €900 million per year on Defence, though the vast bulk (over 70%) is accounted for by wages and pensions. When it comes to value for money the Defence Forces lead the way. The reform and modernisation programme undertaken between 2001 and 2010 make it a model of how public sector reform can be done right. Productivity was increased, numbers were reduced and the savings were invested in vastly improved equipment and training.

Now let’s turn to the policy side. First and foremost, Ireland is militarily neutral. While this is usually defined as not being a member of a military alliance, it also means that we decide for ourselves how much we spend on defence and – most importantly – how, where and when we deploy our troops overseas on humanitarian and peace-keeping/peace enforcement operations.

This is done via the “Triple-Lock” mechanism of UN mandate, Cabinet and Dáil approval. Triggering this triple lock is required before 12 or more Defence Force personnel are deployed overseas under arms. This enshrines not only our military neutrality but our commitment to multilateralism and the UN.

We use the phrase UN mandated, which means that a UN resolution is required. Nowadays many UN mandated missions are not UN led, i.e. “blue helmet”, but rather led by regional organisations – such as the EU, The African Union, NATO etc – on behalf of the UN. This was the case in the 2008 EUFor Chad  mission, which was commanded by an Irishman, Gen. Pat Nash.

I was in the Dept. of Defence during the Chad/Central African Republic mission, which was established to deal with the crisis created in the region on foot of the Darfur famine. I saw how the Triple Lock was implemented smoothly and speedily. UN resolution 1778 was passed at the end of Sept 2007, Cabinet Approval was given in October, unanimous Dáil approval by the end of November and by December an initial deployment of Army Rangers and support elements were on the ground in Eastern Chad establishing the Irish Camp.

Any difficulties in deployment were not due to the Irish or the Triple Lock but rather to the frustrating slowness of other EU countries, particularly the non-neutral ones, to respond especially when it came to offering air and medical support to the mission.

Nothing I saw at those defence meetings in Brussels led me to think that an EU Army was a realistic possibility, leaving aside the fact that we have a veto (EU requires unanimity on common defence) on it and that the Irish Constitution (Art 29.4.9) precludes Irish membership of a common defence.

Speaking of air support brings me back to the Irish Examiner article mentioned at the outset. From my perspective this appears to be based on the inaccurate, if not sensationalised misreading, of an already inaccurate report.

I say inaccurate as the original material suggests that is not Ireland which has asked the RAF to protect our airspace from terrorist threats, but rather that it is the British who have asked for Irish permission to fly into our air space in the event of terrorist air attacks heading for Britain.

When viewed this way the story is not quite as sensational, nor is it the slam dunk argument for Ireland rushing out and purchasing a fleet of F-16s.

I am not absolutely opposed to our buying a few F-16s – though if we are going to go into the fighter aircraft market why not opt for some newer F-35s?

I am sure the Air Corps would be overjoyed to have them, though I suspect the Departments of Finance and Public Expenditure might baulk at the tripling or quadrupling of annual defence expenditure necessary to keep these fighters in the air 24/7, especially when we consider the real and actual threat assessments.

So, let us have a full debate on defence (and foreign) policy by all means, but let us ground it in fact and reality.

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.

 

 

Three cheers for the system. Hip hip…. No? Nothing…? My Broadsheet.ie column from Aug 8

12 Sep

Here is my “Mooney on Monday” Broadsheet column from August 8th last:  www.broadsheet.ie/three-cheers-for-the-system/

Three cheers for the system. Hip hip…. No? Nothing…?

blog_tag1This comes as no surprise. After the tumult and turmoil of the past few years it would require a hopefulness that bordered on the foolhardy to expect to hear anything even vaguely complimentary said about the system.

At so many levels, it failed us. The institutional accountability and oversight that we thought would prevent bank and financial crashes proved inadequate at best, and downright mendacious at worst.

It is a failure that reaches beyond the crash and extends right up to the present day with so many people seeing the present recovery as something that is happening in communities and areas other than theirs.

This feeling that is not unique to Ireland. We see echoes of it in the Brexit result in the U.K. with the high numbers of people in the former industrial heartlands of the midlands and the north of England voting to leave the EU.

We see it too in the support for Trump among blue collar workers in the “rust belt” states of the U.S. and in the support for Marine Le Pen’s Front National last December, particularly in the formerly industrialised areas of the North of France.

These were the parts most badly hit, not just by the crash, but by the advent of technology and globalisation before it. They have seen factories closed and jobs moved overseas. Not only that but it has all happened so fast, without time to adjust.

So, the lesson is straight forward: those most badly hit by the changing world and global financial crash are understandably those most likely to have lost most faith in the political and economic system.

So far, so logical. But there is a school of thought that suggests that the system – by which I mean economic and political systems – has not failed us as much as we might think.

Step forward political scientist and expert in international relations Prof Daniel Drezner. In his book: “The System Worked: How the World Stopped Another Great Depression” Drezner maintains that the Global system worked, albeit inelegantly. He says that the efforts of central bankers and other policymakers within the G-20 IMF, WTO and other global institutions prevented the international crash becoming a full-fledged depression, like the 1930s Great Depression.

Indeed, he argues that while the global economy remains fragile (his book was written in 2014), that these global institutions survived the “stress test” of the crisis, and may have even become more resilient and valuable in the process.

This is not much comfort when you have lost your job and are struggling to find another. Knowing that the global system stopped the crisis toppling into a depression doesn’t make it easier to accept a big reduction in a living standard that was not all that high to start with.

Nonetheless, Drezner has a point. He reminds us how close we all came to falling into the abyss of another great global depression. His comparisons with the 1930s crash, and how we narrowly avoided it, are important as that economic and social collapse contributed to the collapse of trust and confidence in the systems of government then and the consequent rise of fascism in Europe.

So, just as we came close to another great depression, have we – or are we – coming perilously close to a similar political drift?

Many commentators see it in the global rise of populism. They see that Brexit vote in the UK, Putin’s reign in Russia, Le Pen’s progress in France and, most significantly, the rise of Donald Trump as evidence that populism is on the march, and a goose stepping march, at that. They see it in the demagoguery, the inflated rhetoric and – above all – the rejection of facts, evidence and expertise shown by Trump, Putin, Le Pen et al.

Doubtless, as we have come terrifyingly close to global depression, we may indeed be coming close to the return of some 21st century form of fascism, but just as we avoided one, I suspect we are also about to narrowly avoid the other, but only if the centre ground of politics holds and is not complacent.

While Marine Le Pen will almost certainly make it through the first round of voting in the French Presidential election next year, she is likely to be well beaten in the second round, a head to head contest between the top two candidates, especially if she is pitted against Alain Juppé.

As for the U.S., as the Trump gaffes and buffoonery of the past few weeks have shown, Donald Trump is less Benito A. Mussolini and more Rufus T. Firefly. (Firefly was Groucho Marx’s fictional leader of Freedonia in the 1933 movie Duck Soup).

This is not to say that Trump is a joke – far from it. But just as he is no joke, neither is he the Devil incarnate. Comparisons between Trump and Hitler are not just over the top, they miss the important point that his rise represents: a deep dissatisfaction and disillusionment among a large swathe of blue collar voters with the prevailing system. This is something I explored here in early June: Trump is riding a zeitgeist that he didn’t create, but that others have missed.

In France, in the U.S., indeed just about everywhere, the political centre ground is being tested and it must come up with solutions that are not just a return to business as usual. As Michéal Martin T.D. observed in his John Hume Lecture at the recent MacGill Summer School:

“…for us to rebuild levels of political trust and engagement with the public, the path of a more reflective, expert and centre-ground politics is the only credible way forward”.

Maybe then, as E M Foster remarked in the introduction to his 1950 collection of political essays: Two Cheers for Democracy,

“We may still contrive to raise three cheers for democracy, although at present she only deserves two.”

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.

Alan Kelly: @labour’s unpopular populist? (From @broadsheet_ie)

17 May

DSMooney_Bio_PicThis is my first column for Broadsheet.ie

“There’s no Labour problem that Ken (Livingstone) can’t make worse.”

This was Alan Johnson’s response to the former London Mayor’s latest unwelcome intervention in a UK Labour row.

Substitute the name “Alan Kelly” for “Ken Livingstone” and Johnson’s axiom could just be as applicable here.

Perhaps it’s his pugnacious ‘I tell it like it is’ style, but Alan Kelly has come to be personally identified with two of the last government’s biggest political failures: Irish Water to the housing crisis, not to mention his “power is a drug… it suits me” interview or his penchant for adding to his own party’s travails.

While Kelly’s supporters can argue that he inherited the policy messes that were Irish water and housing/homelessness, he knew what he was getting into and still decided that the best approach was the one he adopted: the unpopular populist.

So, why is the Labour party giving even the slightest consideration to making Kelly its next leader?

The sad reality for Ireland’s oldest political party is that the choices facing it are severely limited. While it can opt for the safe pair of hands that it is Brendan Howlin, Howlin comes a lot of baggage, not least over 20 years as a political insider, even when Labour was in opposition, Howlin managed to hold office as Leas Ceann Comhairle 2007 – 2011.

Sean Sherlock may seem, in contrast, like a more likeable and fresher option, indeed the 400+ people who replied to my Twitter poll rated him much higher than Kelly, but that very freshness that may be his biggest weakness. Sherlock has never been seriously tested and does he possess the gravitas or presence to carve out a niche for Labour against so many bigger opposition beasts? The same questions hang over Jan O’Sullivan.

So does Labour have to take another look at Kelly?

It’s the question Labour TDs will be asking themselves over the coming days and – depending on their decision – it may be the question that party members will have to wrestle with thereafter, if Kelly’s nomination can get past the parliamentary party.

Given that Kelly secured over 50% of the vote when he won the Deputy Leadership back in July 2014, the parliamentary party would be unwise to deny members the right to have the final say.

To deny Kelly the right to run, in favour of a Howlin coronation, may look like a good idea on paper, but it is the last thing that a party – that is now closer to extinction than Fianna Fáil was back in early 2011 – should do.

Labour needs to reconnect itself with its members and supporters – finding a way to cut the membership out of deciding on who should lead the fightback, is no way to start that fightback.

If they handle it right Labour can benefit from having a leadership contest, with plenty of constituency hustings, where members get to grill those looking to lead them back from the wilderness.

Let Kelly run. Let him explain his record as deputy leader and his central role in the party’s demise and – most importantly – allow him the opportunity to show if there is something… anything… more to him than political ambition and hunger.

How much do we really know about Kelly, even after last Friday’s Late Late Show interview and his July 2015 Saturday Night with Miriam one?

No a lot, I suspect – well not anything substantive. There is more than a hint of the “rose without trace” about Kelly.

It is as if he arrived fully formed on the political scene back in 2007 when he became a Senator. His progress to the Cabinet table was fast-tracked thereafter in two-yearly steps: in 2009 he was elected to the European Parliament; in 2011 he returned from Europe to become a T.D. (managing to jump two steps in one bound by becoming a Minister of State within a month of becoming a T.D.), leading finally to his becoming deputy leader and Minister for the Environment in 2014.

Though his supporters may point to his less than flattering media coverage as a counter argument, to the outside observer Kelly has had a charmed political career to date. He has moved seamlessly up the political ranks and achieved senior ministerial office in the same time that it has taken others to manage to just make it on to the local Council (or not, in the case of yours truly).

Has that all been due to his drive and ambition alone? Perhaps it has – and as other pundits have observed, drive energy and ambition are in desperately short supply in the Labour party right now.

But so too is humility and the capacity to recognise just how far out of touch the Labour Party became with its voters under Gilmore Burton and Kelly. Are these traits readily associated with Kelly? That’s a matter the Labour party members will have to consider in the weeks ahead – if they are given the chance.

 

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.

Lucinda Creighton and the “Rats in the Ranks”

15 Jul

Thanks to a lot of travelling with work it has been a few weeks since I last posted on here. Here are my belated thoughts on Lucinda Creighton’s departure from the ranks of the Fine Gael parliamentary party and how it connects with the “rats in the ranks”

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Larry Hand in "Rats in the Ranks"

Larry Hand in “Rats in the Ranks”

If you enjoy political machinations and intrigue then you should definitely watch the excellent 1994 Australian documentary “Rats in the Ranks”   It chronicles the back stabbing and political manoeuvrings among the 12 local councillors electing a new mayor in a suburban Sydney district of Leichhardt. Watch the trailer here:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=huxbBH78nhg

It has become ritualistic viewing for me, I usually watch it a few times a year. The central character, Cllr Larry Hand, not only offers a quick primer in petty political power-play as he attempts to retain his post as Mayor, he also comes out with a few nice political aphorisms.

My particular favourite is his observation following yet another row with his Australian Labor Party (ALP) counterparts: “I’ve always felt you haven’t really joined the ALP until you’ve been expelled from it.” Hand had originally been an ALP member.

Perhaps the line has a particular resonance with me as around the same time (the mid 90s) I came perilously close to being expelled from Fianna Fáil. The reason was my going on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland in early November 1994 to call on Albert Reynolds to stand aside in the wake of the controversy surrounding the appointment of Harry Whelehan as President of the High Court.

My public comments on that Monday morning provoked a motion to discipline me (for conduct unbecoming a member) for the following Thursday’s Fianna Fáil Árd Comhairle, but it was never discussed as Reynolds resigned on Thursday morning.

Hand’s words came to mind again while watching Lucinda Creighton’s departure from the Fine Gael parliamentary party last week.

Though her fairly intensive milking of the situation in the days since her departure has not impressed me as much, it still does not take away from her steadfastness in sticking by her beliefs and pre-election commitments on X case legislation.

At this point it is worth pointing out that while I am a constituent of hers, I have never voted for her and that I don’t share her reservations and disagree with how she voted last week. Nonetheless, her actions stand in marked contrast to the capitulation of some of her colleagues. Notwithstanding the weeks of watching them publicly wrestling with their consciences, it was almost inevitable that they were going to beat their consciences into submission.

Step forward Deputy Michelle Mulherin. The paucity of her argument was exposed in the final line of her excruciatingly self pitying Dáil speech:  “I am now faced with either supporting the bill or being booted out of the party, my party, and I am not going to allow myself to be booted out so I am supporting this legislation.”

If her intention was to secure sympathy, she failed miserably. The only thing she succeeded in doing was making her constituency colleague John O’Mahony look less spineless than her.

His statement, at least, made some attempt at arguing a case for reneging on Fine Gael’s the pre-election commitments made in Phil Hogan’s infamous letter of comfort.

O’Mahony had to share his particular fig leaf of pretence with Deputy James Bannon. Bannon is  another one of the cadre of Fine Gael Deputies who once swore up and down that they would never ever support something like this and now happily marched into the Yes lobby hoping that the people to whom they given those solemn promises would ignore their volte-face.

While I would happily advise anyone wanting a peaceful and contented existence to resolutely ignore Deputy Bannon, I suspect they will not ignore his duplicity on this one.

Returning to Lucinda, the pundits and observers who were this week predicting her slow disappearance into obscurity on the back benches seriously underestimate the Deputy for Dublin Bay South.

Lucinda Creighton TD (pic taken from her website)

Lucinda Creighton TD (pic taken from her website)

While political history does show that many TDs who have defied the whip manage do disappear, never to be heard from again: Alice Glenn springs to mind, there are several notable exceptions.

Charlie McCreevy’s expulsion from Fianna Fáil under Haughey was the making of his career, not the breaking of it. Similarly Mary Harney’s 1985 expulsion from the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party for voting for the Anglo Irish Agreement did not end her career.  This applies too to Des O’Malley, though I will concede that their routes back came via a new party.

While her stance on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill would not reflect the views of most in her constituency, I suspect they will still admire her conviction and preparedness to walk the walk when necessary.

The same can be said for Wicklow TD, Billy Timmins. Billy was the Fine Gael opposition spokesperson for most of my time in the Department of Defence. He was an extremely effective opposition spokesman who showed more loyalty to Enda Kenny (via his attempted defence of Enda’s hare brained call for Army boot camps to deal with young offenders)  than Enda showed to him.

While the conduct of this week’s debate bordered on the farcical with serious doubts now raised over the Government’s ability to order the business of the Dáil, by contrast the Taoiseach emerged somewhat stronger in the short term thanks to his put down of most of the wavering or doubtful TDs.

But, as for the implications for Enda in the medium to longer term, these may not turn out to be quite as rose tinted as they now appear. While the likes of Mulherin and Bannon now have little or no credibility, those others who were forced through the lobbies without all the public hullabaloo will quietly seethe away, just waiting for the moment when Enda needs them.

Poll results: Worst Minister in Government

8 Jun

Last weekend I ran a poll under PR STV on the excellent www.opavote.org website to select/elect the worst Minister in Government. I closed polling a few minutes ago.

Many thanks to all those who took the time to vote. I ran this poll to see how well the site performed.

139 people voted and elected Dr James Reilly with 78 votes on the final count, beating Alan Shatter and Éamon Gilmore. http://www.opavote.org/results/1667002/0

Count

Results in Tabular format

1

First count as a bar chart

Where votes were tied (for an elimination) the one to be eliminated was picked by reference to their first count vote, where they were tied on first count is was by random selection

Interestingly both Michael Noonan and Simon Coveney received zero votes on the first count – which prompts me to shortly run a poll: Who is the best Minister in Cabinet (I may run that poll on a slightly different basis and seek the top three rather than just the one best)