Tag Archives: Micheal Martin

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.”

.@RealDonaldTrump is Riding A Zeitgeist Didn’t Create But Others Have Missed

20 Jun

donald-trump CNNHere is my Broadsheet column from June 7th 2016. Published online here:  http://www.broadsheet.ie/riding-a-zeitgeist 

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“Donald Trump looks as if he was playing a President in a porn movie.”  This was Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle’s scathing put down of the Donald on BBC radio four’s News Quiz last Friday.

Maybe it is something to do with the Donald’s addiction to calling everything ‘huge’ (or as he says it: huuuuuge ) and lauding his own achievements with outlandish superlatives but Boyle’s taunt perfectly captures Trump’s OTT and hammy public appearances.

Trump’s emergence as a real contender for the White House has surprised most pundits including – if one of his former publicists is to be believed – himself.

How could this gauche, egotistical, property dealing demagogue tear up the US presidential campaign playbook and beat a string of long established Republican hopefuls?

Hard though we may find it to comprehend from this side of the Atlantic; but part of the Trump phenomenon is that he has teed-up this US presidential election to be a fight between the Washington insider: Hillary Clinton and the outsider: Trump.

Though we may find it difficult to conjure up the image of Trump as an outsider, but in the contest of Clinton Vs Trump, that is what he is.

The term “outsider” is a relative one, not an absolute. It is nothing to do with his history, background or experience, it is about the attitude and outlook he conveys.

Trump does not embody the outsider spirt, but he speaks to it – bluntly – to rally many millions of ordinary middle Americans who, rightly or wrongly, feel that they are now outsiders.

Since the 1970s the American middle class has shrunk from 61% of the population to 50%, while the American dream has become an increasingly distant prospect for the majority.

Many voters believe that America has lost its way and believe Washington is to blame. So, Trump paints the former First Lady, Senator, Secretary of State and member of the newest US political dynasty as a member of the Washington elite and a part of their problem.

It is hardly a new tactic. First you paint your opponent, particularly if [s]he is an incumbent, as out of touch and elitist and then contrast yourselves with [s]he while reciting your voters complaints back at them.

But what Trump has done is a few steps beyond that. He is riding a zeitgeist that he didn’t create, but that others have missed.

Many of his potential voters are not blind to the fact that the few solutions he offers are unworkable or that he has no grasp of foreign policy. They almost embrace these failings.

They are using Trump as much as he is using them.

He is the battering ram with which they can break what they perceive as a broken and corrupt political system. It is why (and how) you can have the seeming incongruity of some Sanders supporters telling pollsters that they are willing to back Trump now that Hillary has beaten Sanders.

Though the analysis and solutions on offer from Senator Sanders differ huuugely from those hinted at by Trump, the core message is the same – America cannot tolerate more of the same.

Things have to change.

The insider versus the outsider analysis also applies in Ireland, particularly an Ireland still coming to terms with the economic upheavals of the last decade.

It explains, in part, the last election results and the massive losses suffered by Labour and Fine Gael.

The Irish Labour Party’s problem is that it has too many insiders and is now led by the arch insider. Though its one “token” ministerial outsider, Alan Kelly tried hard to portray himself as an outsider, but as I mentioned in a Broadsheet piece a few weeks ago, his fast-tracked “rise without trace” to the top makes him an insider.

Meanwhile, Labour’s former BFF, Fine Gael, is also replete with insiders, both generational and aspirational – by aspirational, I mean those whose career paths has followed the line: college – YFG – FG research office – TD’s parliamentary assistant – Ministerial Sp/Ad – TD – minister, without any stop offs in the real world.

With his capacity for kicking against the traces, Leo Varadkar is possibly the closest thing that FG has had to an outsider since John Deasy.

On the other end of the spectrum, Sinn Féin and the various alphabet left alliances are, on the surface at least, full of political outsiders. Though, in the case of SF, it is hard to portray yourself as a complete outsider when your leader predates the electrification of the Howth/Bray rail-line and shares Trump’s penchant for the outrageous tweets.

Traditionally, in Irish Politics, the Independent TDs have been the outsiders. In particular, people like Neil T. Blaney or Jim Kemmy, who broke away from their parties or Tony Gregory who described party politics as strangling.

Which of today’s much larger crop of Independents from the Healy-Raes to the McGraths to Ross, Halligan and Zappone will still be regarded as outsiders in two or three years time will be interesting to see.

Which brings us to Fianna Fáil: Ireland’s outsider insiders.

For most of its history, there has been something of the outsider edge to Fianna Fáil, indeed the party has been at its most successful when led by outsiders, such as Ahern and Lemass.

Even Haughey, for his love of horses, fine dining and hand tailoring had a bit of the outsider/arrivisté about him – especially when contrasted with Garret Fitzgerald’s professorial, relic of aul’ deceny.

As I said earlier, in the context of Trump’s positioning of himself, being the outsider is a relative position, not an absolute one. It is how Michéal Martin’s Fianna Fáil has repositioned itself on the political spectrum.

Compared to Enda Kenny’s Fine Gael and Joan Burton’s Labour, Martin is – despite his long experience around the cabinet table – more of an outsider.

Not only has he has learned the lessons of the crash, he demonstrated over the course of the last election and in the weeks since that he has grasped that we need to change the way we do politics and that what kind of worked in the 90s will not work today.

ENDS

Irish ‘New Politics’ explained…. kind of… #Dail

25 May

DSMooney_Bio_PicThis is my latest article for Broadsheet.ie – available online here: http://www.broadsheet.ie/2016/05/24/the-new-politics-explained/

New Politics explained…..

What exactly is this “New Politics” we have been reading and hearing about so much lately?

It was the question that should have occurred to me as soon as the Public Relations Institute asked me to participate in a panel discussion they held last Thursday as part of a half day seminar entitled: Public Affairs in the era of ‘New Politics’.

But it didn’t. Like many others, I have been throwing about the phrase “new politics” in the two and a half weeks since the Dáil elected a Taoiseach as if everyone understands what it means.

But do we? Do the people who are supposedly responsible for our ‘new ‘politics even understand what the phrase means or what the concept is meant to encompass, apart from differentiating it from the “old politics”? Do we know in what way it is supposed to be different or why?

Unfortunately for me, this simple basic question only popped into my head while sitting on the dais last Thursday rather than during the days of preparation beforehand. But with each challenge comes an opportunity. Just as the question came in to my head the discussion opened out to the floor and with it came a rare moment of lucidity, dare I say: an epiphany.

Just then I heard a familiar voice re-enter the discussion to offer a definition “new politics”. It was a very familiar voice: it was mine.

The definition I came up with is quite simple: ‘new politics should be about policy not personality’.

PRII

Don’t get me wrong, I am no Pollyanna. I do not think that politics has changed overnight and that we have reached now some utopian perfection where every T.D. and Senator has suddenly become high-minded and abandoned all thoughts of party loyalty and personal advancement in favour of the common good

I also grasp that my definition might sound a little glib or overly simplistic but bear with me and I will try and explain why I think the definition I offer is valid.
One of the greatest failing of our supposed “old politics” was that most political crises of the past were not resolved by any great changes of policy or direction but by the drama of a political head on a platter.

Someone, usually not one of the main protagonists, was designated as the fall guy, they paid the price and the system continued along without change or reform, once the crowd’s lust for some blood on the carpet was sated.

By making a few boring, even tedious, changes to how Dáil committees operate and allowing them to actually oversee public policy and by making parliamentary questions work, we may just have moved the focus back on to the more complex issues of policy rather than the more simplistic and entertaining issue of personality.

One of the many reasons why the global economic crisis hit Ireland worse than other places is because public policy and economic dogma here had gone for too long unchallenged. The regulators went unregulated, civil society and the party system failed to advance realistic alternatives.

One of the most curious, and perhaps most re-assuring aspects to this gradual move to new politics is the fact that it has not come about by design. It is not the brain child of some think-tank or research group, rather it is the response of practising politicians working together to find a way of dealing with the result of the results of the last general election.

To their credit, the reform committee chaired by Ceann Comhairle, Sean Ó Fearghaill, comprising TDs from across the political spectrum worked quietly and quite speedily to devise an agreed reform package which though hardly exciting or thrilling may just be about to make day-to-day politics more responsive and more about policy.

The reforms agreed by committee from the establishment of a budgetary oversight committee to allowing the Ceann Comhairle to decide on the relevance of ministerial replies to parliamentary questions and the establishment of a league table of ministers who fail to properly answer questions move us closer to the levels of accountability and answerability we should have had long back.

No doubt we will continue to see “old politics” re-emerge from time to time, indeed it is hard to see Enda Kenny’s appointment of his expanded cohort of Minsters of State as an exercise is anything other than the old politics of personality – the personality in question being his and its maintenance in office for as long as it possible. We see it too in the handling of the O’Higgins Report and the embroiling of the Garda Commissioner in the controversy.

We can hope however, as the Dáil and its committees begin to exert their new powers and their responsibilities, to see less of the old politics, but not so much less that politics losses its touch of theatricality, drama and odd moments of farce. Not all aspects of the old politics should be abandoned.

ENDS.

Why @FineGael’s #GE16 pre-campaign campaign doesn’t augur well for real thing

15 Jan

This blog first appeared on the Slugger O’Toole website earlier today.

image

 

Fianna Fáil’s poster attacking Fine Gael’s broken promises

 

Whether polling day is on Feb 26th or March 4th, it is clear that we are only two or three weeks away from the start of the great 2016 corriboard shortage… sorry, the 2016 general election.

Over the coming two weekends we will have the Fianna Fáil and then the Fine Gael Ard Fheiseanna, followed by Labour at the end of January – presuming that Enda hasn’t already called the election and pulled the plug on Labour’s big day out.

While the corriboard campaign posters remain in their wrappings and the Vote for me leaflets stand ready, the electioneering has already as good as started.

One the most interesting aspects of Fine Gael’s pre-campaign campaigning so far is just how much time and energy a party determined to dismiss Fianna Fáil as irrelevant is devoting to attacking them. See Today FM’s Matt Cooper’s comment on the Taoiseach’s Wednesday afternoon press conference:

Could it be that Fine Gael’s own private polling is telling them something the national newspapers polls are missing?

It occurred to me recently that Enda has spent the last few years doing a very bad Bertie Ahern impression – making Enda the Bobby Davro of Irish politics you might say. Enda gets the minor gestures and mannerisms right – but he misses the core of the character.

Enda may be as accomplished and expert a glad handler as Bertie when it comes to wading into a crowd and shaking the hand and slapping the of everyone around him, but he his mimicry is one dimensional. He does not possess Bertie’s skill and ability to command the facts and figures when engaging with the media on door step interviews.

While Enda still possesses many skills and abilities, not least his steely determination and ruthless streak, he is not politically hard wired to endure or sustain a long election campaign – especially if he hopes to keep his media interactions down to a few tightly managed ones.

In this context Fine Gael’s attempts to transpose the most recent Tory election campaign strategy to Ireland seriously risking backfiring on them and only highlighting the weaknesses they hoped to obscure.

It is a mistake on two fronts. First as they seem to be copying the Tory playbook here with minimal changes and basic adaptions.

Do they so see themselves as Ireland’s Tories that they cannot be bothered to make even the most basic of changes to the strategy, the text and the slogans? A series of recent Fine Gael social media posts have used the Tory line: “long-term economic plan” word for word:

While the Tories undoubtedly mounted a superb social media campaign in the 2015 UK general election and used the platforms, particularly Facebook, more effectively than most of their rivals (apart from the SNP who are the master campaigners both online and on the ground) that does not mean you take their campaign slogans and approaches lock stock and barrel.

Second, in taking the Tory campaign playbook en masse Fine Gael seems to have forgetten that we have a PR STV system, not First-Past-The-Post – indeed Fine Gael used to pride itself as being the defender of PR STV (they had opposed the two attempts to change the voting system by referendum in the 50s and 60s)

What works in a FPTP system does not necessarily work in a PR-STV one. Depending on where you live in a FPTP system you can find yourself voting for someone you don’t like rather than the one you do like most just so you can make sure the one you dislike more is kept out.

The idea that a vote for Fianna Fáil or Independent alliance is a vote for Sinn Féin is not so easy to sell in an STV system where the voter can vote the entire panel right down the line and omit the local SF candidate.

That said is easy to see the attractiveness of the Tory playbook for Fine Gael. The Tories succeeded in keeping their leader out of head to head debates, Fine Gael want and need to do the same – though for different reasons. While Cameron was wary of elevating Milliband by sharing a head to head debate platform with him – there were no questions about the PM’s capacity to perform well in a head to head debate.

The other attraction was the Tories successful cannibalisation of their Lib Dems coalition partners. Cameron’s gains came mostly from Lib Dem losses (The Tories took 27 of the 49 Lib Dem seats lost as opposed to 12 lost to Labour and 10 to the SNP) – an option that Fine Gael is eyeing up here, using Labour losses to shore up their own numbers. Fine Gael are ready to fight this campaign to the last Labour TD.

Though Fine Gael’s polling numbers have recovered recently – at precisely the time they needed them to recover – they are still on course to lose seats, even if they do get 31/32% in the polls.

While these improving numbers are no mere coincidence and are a tribute to Fine Gael’s political strategists, the idea that seems to be floating about the commentariat that Fine Gael is now some invincible campaigning machine is more than a little bit short of the mark.

Fine Gael is having a few problems of its own right now, and they are problems entirely of its own making. Though they will doubtless address the issue between now and the Árd Fheis (and possibly drum up future local difficulties in the process) Fine Gael was still short of the 30% gender quota up to a few days ago – a system they introduced and championed.

Not only that but its head-quarters operation has just ended an unseemly, costly and ultimately unsuccessful fight in the Courts with one of their own candidates: John Perry TD.

And before I am accused me of dragging up these problems like a Fianna Fáil-er whistling past the graveyard, I do not think this is a zero sum game. I do not presume that any loss of ground by Fine Gael over the campaign will automatically translate into a Fianna Fáil gain.

Fianna Fáil will have to make its own ground in this one and will need to land some hefty punches on Enda, Leo, Michael and Simon, it cannot depend on Enda and Fine Gael to just lose it.

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

19 May

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

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Fianna Fáil

Fianna Fáil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Before concluding I should admit a vested interest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

ENDS.

 

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

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

21 Mar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An analysis of @REDCMD @pppolitics poll & why the @fiannafailparty leadership is not an issue

8 Aug
RedC Polling

RedC Polling

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%

Independents         17%

Sinn Féin                    13%

Labour                          9%

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%

Independents        21%

Sinn Féin                  15%

Labour                      11%

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.

That is the challenge ahead.

Enda Kenny has questions to answer after @Independent_ie reveals his #Anglo contacts

21 Jul
An Taoiseach Enda Kenny (pic taken from FG website)

An Taoiseach Enda Kenny, T.D.  (pic from FG website)

This morning’s Sunday Independent story that back in January 2009 when he was still leader of the opposition that Enda Kenny had been in informal contact with Anglo Irish Bank’s CFO, Matt Moran, raises several questions for Mr Kenny. Some of these questions have already been posed by Fianna Fáil’s Micheál Martin.

When the Anglo tapes first came into the public arena at the end of June, Mr Kenny moved quickly to politically insinuate that the tapes suggested an “axis of collusion” between Anglo Irish and Fianna Fáil, even though the tapes did not suggest any improper or informal contacts between any Fianna Fáil ministers and Anglo bosses.

During the course of Leaders Question on June 25th, Enda Kenny was quite strident and aggressive in his exchanges with the Fianna Fáil leader, Micheál Martin with the Taoiseach repeatedly mentioning Martin’s role in the Bank Guarantee (notwithstanding the fact that it was not Anglo who had sought the guarantee and that the bank was not even represented at the meeting in Government Buildings on the night of September 28th, 2008).

Typical of the exchanges is the following line from the Taoiseach:

“Deputy Micheál Martin was part of that environment. I am not suggesting he was involved directly in any of it—– (Interruptions) —-but he was a member of the Government and the people are entitled to know why the Government had incorporeal meetings at 3 a.m. They are entitled to know about the political environment in which all of these agents operated.”

Even after Martin had finished asking his two questions, the Taoiseach continued his political allegations of collusion during his subsequent exchanges with Deputy Gerry Adams and Deputy Mattie McGrath.

During his two questions McGrath asked the Taoiseach if the Minister for Justice and Equality had known about the tapes and if the government intended to set up a criminal inquiry and a robust investigation?

Towards the end of his replies to McGrath, indeed just as the time for Leader Questions was ending and Deputies were starting to prepare for the next business the Taoiseach volunteered the following curious little revelation. McGrath had not asked if he had any contact with the bosses in Anglo, indeed the topic had not been raised, yet the Taoiseach felt the need to put the following titbit on to the record:

“I had the doubtful privilege of calling into Anglo Irish Bank with Deputy Bruton, when he was the party’s spokesman on finance, a couple of weeks after the guarantee went through. We met all of the principals in the bank’s building on St. Stephen’s Green.

We were given a wonderful presentation by people who were very well remunerated in their positions and received very large bonuses. As has transpired, all of that presentation was a tissue of fabrication and untruths. The questions we asked on that occasion, from the Opposition benches, were very realistic in the context of the pressures people were under and the stories, rumours and allegations that were flying around about that bank. They were all utterly denied.

I make that point for the politicians who are interested in what happened here.”

http://oireachtasdebates.oireachtas.ie/debates%20authoring/debateswebpack.nsf/takes/dail2013062500028?opendocument

Is this just a case of Mr Kenny’ showing how unlike John Bruton, his predecessor as FG leader and Taoiseach, he is? Some years back Mr Bruton infamously defended his evasiveness in the Dáil with the line: “you didn’t ask me the right question”.  Are we to believe that where Bruton was cautiously meticulous in only answering the specifics of the question asked, Kenny is more effusive? To judge from other Leaders’ Questions sessions before and since, hardly so.

It now appears that Mr Kenny was endeavouring to get something on the record regarding his contacts with Anglo bosses just in case these precise revelations were to emerge.

This brings us to Minister Frances Fitzgerald’s protestations this morning on RTÉ’s The Week in Politics that it is ridiculous to suggest that the Taoiseach might have any questions to answer as he was only leader of the opposition back in January 2009. The presumption here is that Mr Kenny knew little or nothing about what was going on back in January 2009 so what could he have told or said to Anglo’s Mr Moran?

Two points here:

First, if the conversations with Moran, who it seems hails from the same part of the world as Kenny, were so inconsequential why did the Taoiseach not make even a passing reference to them in his June 25 dump out of unrequested information? Perhaps because these were one to one conversations without Richard Bruton present?

Second: the notion that Mr Kenny was completely clueless in January 2009 does not hold water. Unlike the current government, the last one – particularly the late Brian Lenihan was scrupulous in keeping the opposition informed and briefed. Lenihan knew the enormous scale of the issues with which he was grappling. He was not going to allow himself open to the charge of a lack of transparency or openness in dealing with decisions that would affect the economy for decades. It should not be forgotten that Fine Gael had, in the wake of the Sept 28 guarantee, been broadly constructive in its approach.

We get a glimpse into openness of the contacts between Lenihan and Kenny at the time from the following comment by Lenihan at the conclusion of the Second Stage debate on the Bank Guarantee legislation (Credit Institutions (Financial Support) Bill 2008).

“When I telephoned Deputy Kenny at 7 a.m. this morning and explained to him the circumstances in which the State found itself in regard to financial stability, he responded without hesitation that he would support any measure the Government brought forward.” 

http://oireachtasdebates.oireachtas.ie/debates%20authoring/debateswebpack.nsf/takes/dail2008093000018?opendocument

This contrasts with the paucity of the briefings offered by the current government to opposition spokespeople on February 6th when the government expected the Dáil to pass the legislation winding up Anglo Irish (by then called the Irish Bank Resolution Corporation) with only 10 minutes prior sight of the Bill itself.

Only after much cajoling from both Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin did the Taoiseach eventually concede to giving the opposition an extra 30 minutes to read the legislation before debating it.

While Kenny’s informal contacts with Anglo Irish in 2008 and 2009 are clearly no where near the scale of Nixon’s pre 1968 back channel communications with the Vietnamese, they do raise some important question for the Taoiseach to answer now.

Rather than issuing bland blanket denials he needs to set out in tabular form all the contacts he and his colleagues had with Anglo Irish bank and its agents between early 2008 and before the 2011 election.

Will he heed Justice Minister Alan Shatter’s call elsewhere to tell us what he knows about “direct” contacts with Anglo? He also needs to say if he is willing to agree to co-operate with an independent Leveson style investigation into the banking crisis.

Why the Good Friday Agreement is a good metaphor for @FiannaFailparty

26 Apr
Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis this weekend

Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis this weekend

My column on this weekend’s Fianna Fáil Árd Fheis from today’s Herald

If you are planning to head to Ballsbridge for a quiet pint or a cup of coffee this Friday or Saturday – think again. From about 5pm this Friday until well past mid-night on Saturday the area around the RDS will be saturated with about five thousand exuberant and excitable Fianna Fáil-ers gathered for the party’s Árd Fheis – including yours truly.

If you decide to follow the Árd Fheis proceedings online or on air you can expect to hear the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), whose fifteenth anniversary passed two weeks ago with little acknowledgement from the Government, mentioned several times.

Many in Fianna Fáil fear that its greatest recent political achievement is being slowly air brushed out of official history.

The impression is being given that the GFA was merely the logical and inevitable consequence of the 1985 Anglo Irish Agreement, about which we have heard a lot following the deaths of both Garret Fitzgerald and Margaret Thatcher.

As one of many people who spent countless hours travelling up and down to Belfast on pre M1 roads that stopped for lollipop ladies in Balbriggan and Julianstown, I can assure you there was nothing inevitable about it.

But the Good Friday Agreement is also something of a metaphor for Fianna Fáil itself.

We now see that that getting agreement was the easier piece of work when compared with the effort and energy required to get it implemented and working – well, almost working.

The same is true of Fianna Fáil. The work required to get the party to this point has been huge, but it as nothing to the work ahead.

While last year’s Árd Fheis focused mainly on important internal reforms, such as One Member One Vote, the truly difficult work starts now.

This Árd Fheis is more about facing outwards and talking to an electorate who now shows signs of being ready to listen to what the party has to say. But the party’s improving opinion poll figures should not delude pundits, or even party members, to thinking its resurgence is assured.

To be brutally frank, what has Fianna Fail said or done in recent months to justify such increases? While it has produced some very fine policy proposals such as the Family Home Bill and Regulation of Debt Management Advisors Bill, they hardly account for bounce.

Nor does the performance of the party’s spokespeople.

Without doubt the party has scored significant hits on the government in recent months, particularly via its Health Spokesman Billy Kelliher, its Finance Spokesman Michael McGrath and its Justice Spokesman Niall Collins and, of course, the party leader Michéal Martin, but it is finding it difficult to mark all bases with such few Oireachtas personnel.

While he has several new people inside the Oireachtas who he can use effectively: such as Senators Averil Power and Marc McSharry, perhaps the leader also needs to look outside the ranks of the parliamentary party for other new faces and voices to put on Radio and TV in senior roles – Dublin Bay South’s Cllr Jim O’Callaghan for instance.

The hard truth is that the increases are as much down to Fine Gael and Labour’s travails as they are to any softening of attitude to Fianna Fáil. Besides, as the poll analysts would tell you, it is dangerous to read too much into opinion polls where over 30% of the respondents are answering: don’t know.

This is not to underestimate the size of what the party has achieved. At this time last year it was a tough job convincing others that while the party may be down, it was not finished. The big achievement has not been the increases in the polls, but rather the halt in the party’s decline.

At last year’s Árd Fheis the party helped reverse that decline by re-introducing itself to its own members, this weekend it starts the even great task of re-introducing itself to its former supporters. Let’s hope it has more success in doing that than the GFA has had in getting its institutions working.

 

Why waste time speculating about possible @FiannaFailparty and @FineGaeltoday link-ups?

24 Apr

This piece is also on www.TNT24.ie 

Surely I cannot be alone in realising that there is less chance of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael linking up than there is of Luis Suarez having all his teeth pulled and turning vegetarian.

Yet, within hours of each new opinion poll you will see lots of speculation in print, on air, online and/or on all three that the next government will consist of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael in some combination or other.

Such speculation seems to be based just on adding together the numbers that bring you to 50% and ignores the glaring Catch 22 that renders the chances of any such FG/FF or FF/FG alliance impossible: neither party would ever agree to go into a partnership government where it was not the biggest partner.

And as, by definition, a partnership government of just two groups cannot have two biggest partners, neither party would agree to be the junior partner in such a relationship. To do so would fly in the face of the fundamental rule of Irish governmental politics: junior coalition partners come off worst.

The strategists in both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil know this. Whatever their weaknesses and deficiencies in policy formulation, these are still wily and experienced political operatives, they understand political realities. More critically they understand the laws of self preservation. They know that going into government as the junior partner while leaving Labour and Sinn Féin as the official opposition would be tantamount to writing their own party’s obituary.

Those who argue, on the basis of current opinion polls, that the Fine Gael / Fianna Fáil option may be the only viable one after the next election, do it on the basis that politics is a “numbers game”.

Well, to some degree it is, but numbers do not dictate everything. True, without the numbers you have no role and no say, but the converse is not true. Having the numbers does not mean that you must necessarily do A or B. Having the numbers does not restrict your options, quiet the opposite. Rather than being compelled to pursue some particular course, you have the opportunity to exercise judgement and think strategically.

This is not to discount the temptation and lure of ministerial office, especially to those who may not plan to face the electorate again. Saying no to power is no easy task, but the decision is made somewhat less troublesome if you know that saying yes to office today as a junior partner means that you are almost certainly ensuring that that option will be denied to you and your colleagues for many years thereafter.

Though majorly damaged after electoral pounding it took in the February 2011 General Election, Fianna Fáil is still hard wired for power – perhaps even more so that Fine Gael – so saying no to office would be difficult for some within the upper echelons of the organisation. Perhaps this is why the party leadership has recruited the membership of the party to ensure that any post election decision would be made by the broader party.

The situation is just as true for Fine Gael, though for other reasons. Having spent so long as the second party of Irish politics, it is now relishing its time in the top spot. It will be loathe to surrender that place – least of all to Fianna Fáil.

If the next election were to put Fianna Fáil ahead of Fine Gael, no matter by how small a margin, Fine Gael would do nothing to help Fianna Fáil back into power. Fine Gael would seek alliances with Labour, Sinn Féin, Independents, Socialists, Wallacites; McGrath-ites (of the Mattie or Fintan variety) Greens, People Before Profit, Profit Before People, Cart Before the Horse or whoever to keep Fianna Fáil out.

I know I risk appearing more than a little cynical in not mentioning policies and principles and just discussing the possible make up of a future government in terms of survival strategies but, I believe the chances of a Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil government are so remote and unrealistic that it is cynical not to dismiss it and to allow any more time and energy be wasted on discussing an option (and the associated policies) that does not exist.