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/
Though 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.
Irish politics is a zero sum game. If the government is doing badly; then the opposition is doing well, and vice versa.
This makes the coming Dáil term just as vital for the opposition as for the government.
But which element of the opposition is set to fare better? The balance between Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin is almost as much a zero sum game as that between them and the government.
While the occasional opinion poll shows them in the high teens, Sinn Féin’s vote in the ballot box has remained, at best, stubbornly in the low teens. It did get over 13% at the Presidential election, but failed to break the 10% barrier at the General Election.
The question for the Shinners is whether they are a leftish haven for disaffected Labour voters or a centrist alternative to Fianna Fáil. While its instincts may be to try to do both, it is hard to see that tactic working.
On the left they are in competition with the ULA, several Independents and what is left of Joe Higgin’s Socialists.
On the other side they have Fianna Fáil, which insists on just not going away. The fact that FF has not seen any particular advance in its fortunes in the polls should come as no surprise given the scale of the hatred it engendered.
The past 18 months has been about Fianna Fáil stabilising its position. It has put a floor under its decline, which was no small task. The issue now is if it can recover former ground.
While FF may skirmish with SF over ex FF voters who went to Labour, the main battle will be fought elsewhere and with another enemy. Surveys suggest that up to 40% of those who said they voted FF in 2007 switched to FG in 2011.
This sizeable group are still angry and hurt. They have not been ready to listen to Fianna Fáil so far. Will they become disenchanted over the coming months with Enda Kenny and Fine Gael as it struggles to deliver on its election promises?
Will this be sufficient? Will the disenchantment be enough to allow them to listen to anything the party has to say, never mind be convinced by it? These are questions taxing Fianna Fail reps at their think in today and tomorrow.
The opposition parties and independents will also need to consider the competition they face from the emerging, and varied, opposition within government.
It ranges from Brian Hayes and Joan Burton’s fighting over pensioners to FG backbenchers bemoaning its failure to take on the public sector.
The greatest challenge, though, may come from within the Labour Party. There seems to be something about becoming chairman of the smaller party in government that makes the holder think they are the deputy leader of the opposition. I call it “Dan Boyle Syndrome”.
As a first time Deputy; sitting on the government backbenches; the new Labour Chairman may gaze longingly at the other side of the Dáil wishing he were there opposing and criticising the current Government, but he isn’t.
The public gets the difference between government and opposition. They understand the fundamental truth of Mario Cuomo’s famous maxim: “you campaign in poetry but you govern in prose”.
If he thinks doing solo runs will firewall him from the approaching barrage of criticism and unpopularity, then he is in for a nasty surprise. All he needs to do is Google “Dan Boyle” and “election results” to see how these tactics failed.
FG and Lab TDs would do well to heed the words of Mary Harney: “Even the worst day in government is better than the best day in opposition”. This may seem unlikely, but it is the case, especially if you believe politics is about improving things.
If they doubt it, then they only need call the Marine Hotel and ask any Fianna Fáil TD.
Below is my critique of the Sean Gallagher’s unsuccessful campaign for the Áras. This appears in today’s EVENING HERALD (Friday Oct 28th) though my column is not online there, just yet.
Already they are calling it the Gallagher moment. What they mean is that instant on the Frontline debate when the momentum that had driven Gallagher’s campaign for the previous ten days evaporated under Sinn Féin fire.
The reality may be a little less dramatic. While Sean Gallagher’s campaign did come to a halt on Frontline, it took the next 48 hours for it to go into a full nose dive.
On the face of it the McGuinness assault was intended as a signal to Sinn Féin voters not to transfer to Gallagher. The polls were showing Sean with a convincing lead over Higgins in the region of 10%, but still needed McGuinness transfers to see him over the line.
The Shinner’s strategists were determined that they would not be the ones to give Sean the keys to the Áras and by extension hand a vicarious victory to Fianna Fáil, even by proxy.
Their intent was clear, make it as difficult as possible for Gallagher in the final days. It was why they stored up the the story for a few days. Conversely that is what made the situation even more damaging for Gallagher. He clearly knew the story was out there, although in different guises and varying versions, but when confronted with it he seemed dazed and confused.
The real damage came the following day when Gallagher still seemed unable to deal with the allegation. His campaign produced a punchy and clear press release, but the candidate seemed either unable or unwilling to deliver it.
Perhaps his problem was that after months of uttering bland and cosy messages about positivity and unity (not to mention entrepreneurship) he just could not find the steel in his soul needed to take on his challengers and tell them to go take a running jump at themselves.
Yes, Sinn Féin and McGuinness were changing their story. Events that were claimed to have happened after the dinner were now being said to have happened before it. Their story was all over the place. But it appeared that Gallagher’s was too, if you were just to go by what he himself said in the interviews he did on Pat Kenny and the Six One news.
So what if he had been involved in a fund raising dinner back in 2008. The event was not a clandestine one. The donations were declared. The money was going for legitimate political expenditure. He had been the campaign manager for a successful Dáil candidate in 2007. He had a onus to help defray the costs and expenses of that election. I was in a similar position elsewhere. There were bills to be paid, so money needed to be raised by volunteers and others. No banks were robbed, no one got shot.
So confused and oblique were his replies that the problem festered and grew all day Tuesday and Wednesday. Many including myself thought the damage might be limited to his capacity to attract transfers. It now looks like it went far wider than deeper, possibly due to it all been linked to question marks over his company accounts and large fees taken by himself.
The two weeks of labelling him a Fianna Fáiler did not, as evidenced in successive polls, do him any damage. The flaws and errors in his own handling of a relatively minor crisis did. The Presidency is about judgement, his was called seriously into question.
In the case of Gay Mitchell the judgement that must be called into question is that of the senior party figures who allowed him to go forward as a candidate. Gay is and remains a deeply committed public representative and Fine Gaeler, yet it has looked for the past month that the party on the ground had abandoned him. His campaign was unfocussed and patchy from the start, not helped by whispers that he was not really Enda’s first choice as a candidate. Well, if he wasn’t then why run him? Is Enda the leader or not?
Gay can take some comfort that his own poor showing was reflected in the Dublin West by-election where the party’s candidate also faired badly. The question how is how do we reconcile opinion polls that consistently show Fine Gael in the mid 30s with these results?
There will be some pretty interesting analysis to be done when the smoke and dust settles after this weekend,.
The presidential campaign is barely a week old and already we have candidates producing P60s showing how much they have earned over the years. This was in response to dark propaganda about earnings and directorships.
And they say that negative campaigns don’t work. If we are at this stage just one week into the race then it cannot be long until the demands come that this candidate or that one produces their birth, baptismal or parents’ marriage certs.
We should not really be that surprised. Academic/college politics is said to be so much more vicious than real politics because the stakes are so low. It could just as easily be said about Irish Presidential elections.
It is not that the office is unimportant; it is that the powers are limited and the office appears to fade into the background once the campaign is over.
The fact that Mary McAleese has been an excellent President somehow adds to the notion that it doesn’t matter an awful lot as to who succeeds her.
As none of the candidates have so far convinced us that they are cut from the same cloth as her, the debate is slowly turning to which of them will be the least worst.
The office of President is so tightly defined and closely managed that almost no occupant could manage to go truly rogue. So, while many people, myself included, have severe misgivings about the possibility of McGuinness occupying the office, the truth is that his being President would not change anything. Martin McGuinness being President will not make a significant difference to anyone’s daily life – apart from his own.
The reality of the past decade is that Sinn Féin has been moving steadily to the centre in the North. No sooner do they move into office but they very quickly adopt the policies and strategies of those who were there before them. Sinn Féin in Government in the North is not a thorn in anyone’s side, least of all the DUP’s. They may head up anti hospital closure committees in the 26 counties, but in the North they merrily implement the cuts imposed byLondon.
So, while his election may not herald the end of civilisation as we know it, it could send out a very embarrassing signal at this crucial time.
Almost any of the other candidates: Michael D Higgins, Mary Davis, Sean Gallagher or Gay Mitchell could each fulfil the role in their own individual ways without causing us any embarrassment or sparking an international crisis.
This least-worst approach appeared to be the underlying theme to last night’s TV3 debate. Unlike past encounters, there was some spark to it. The cross talk between the candidates did not yield much and at times became insufferably twee. The competition to be the most concerned by the trauma of suicide bordered on distasteful.
It was the questioning and serial grilling by the moderator that managed to reveal something more about each of the candidates. As someone said on Twitter last night, it was not that any one candidate emerged as the winner: it was more that some managed to emerge less damaged and scarred.
David Norris and Dana were not among them. Though a veteran of past campaigns, Dana seemed the least prepared and most unfocused. While Norris’s continuing obfuscation in the face of very specific questions from Browne on who it was inIsraelwho had advised him not to publish the remaining letters was telling.
David’s protestations that the public will decide this issue ring particularly hollow when he refuses to give them access to the full facts by releasing the outstanding letters. This issue is not going away and the longer it continues the worse he will get for him.
His media adviser is a big admirer of Tony Blair’s spin doctor, Alastair Campbell, He should remind his client of Campbell’s famous rule that if you allowed a bad news story to dominate the headlines for more than four days, you are in trouble.
David has had more than four days of such headlines and the only end in sight is his own. And, to think, we still have three weeks more of this to go.