Tag Archives: Taoiseach

Taoiseach Varadkar is more Gordon Brown than Tony Blair

26 Sep

This column first appeared on Broadsheet.ie on September 20th 2017

varadbrownOne of my favourite political anecdotes comes from the late Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. Whitlam was on a trip to China to meet the infamous Mao Tse-tung. His officials warned Whitlam that Chairman Mao disliked small talk intensely and advised that he come up with a couple of substantive questions if he wanted to keep the conversation going. Whitlam decided, given that the visit was coming around the tenth anniversary of the assassination of President John F Kennedy, that he would ask Mao to speculate on what might have happened to the world order if Nikita Kruschev had been shot that day instead of Kennedy.

Delighted with the substance and depth of his question he set off to meet Mao and to hear the Chairman’s thoughts on this great “what if”. He sat down with Mao and, after the usual formal introductions, he proceeding to ask his question. The Chairman seemed pensive and intrigued. Then, after a few moments thought, he replied, ‘I don’t think Mr Onassis would have married Mrs Kruschev’.

These what ifs and hypotheticals of modern history are interesting – and occasionally useful – exercises. They give pundits and commentators an opportunity to walk their wits and do what they like most, speculate on what might have been, but they can also be handy ways of exploring the event in question and understanding its wider effects.

The Kennedy assassination has spawned many what if/alternative histories. Ranging from how Kennedy surviving the attack might have garnered him so much sympathy and support that the Democrats would keep the Republicans out of the White House for decades, meaning no Nixon, to the diametrically opposite view from Peter Hitchens, who posited that Kennedy would have gone on to become one of the most unpopular presidents ever, thanks to the Viet-Nam war, and that the Democrats wouldn’t occupy the White House again until the 1990s, meaning no Bill Clinton.

We don’t just have to go back to the 1960s for what ifs. There is a more recent one closer to us: what would have happened if Gordon Brown had become Labor leader after the death of John Smith MP, instead of Tony Blair.

We do not even have to speculate too hard on this particular alternative history as it seems that we are watching it being played out in front of us today in Fine Gael. For Gordon Brown, read Leo Varadkar, for Tony Blair, read Simon Coveney. While you may need to squint a bit to see the comparisons from certain angles, from others it is quite clear.

Two politicians, long pitted against each other with their own inner circle of loyalists. Both having very different leadership and presentational styles. Each holding quite contrasting views as to the direction in which to take their party and both men seeing the other as the obstacle to the other’s ambitions. And if that wasn’t enough, Coveney and Blair even share a nickname: Bambi.

But while Tony Bambi made it to the top, Simon Bambi didn’t. Leo Brown took the top job, instead, giving us a potential insight into what a Brown premiership might have looked like back in 1997.

Just as with Brown and Blair, the differences between Coveney and Varadkar are as much tribal as they are ideological.

There are clear ideological differences, many of which were well rehearsed in the media and at the regional hustings during the leadership election. Coveney said then that Varadkar would push policies that would leave behind portions of Irish society, asserting that he and Varadkar had: “two very different viewpoints and two very different journeys”.

On the other side, Varadkar blithely dismissed Coveney as a lightweight and his platform as a catch all rehash of the social justice reforms outlined by Declan Costello decades before in his ‘Just Society’ document

As the hustings demonstrated and their loyal surrogates repeatedly reminded us, the two men think and behave differently when it comes to practical politics. More than any previous set of rivals for the Fine Gael leadership, they represent the two competing tribes within Fine Gael: the old style Cosgrave-ite christian democrats versus the Fitzgerald-ista social democrats.

Like Brown, Varadkar’s political outlook, temperament and vision is in the more traditionalist mould. In Brown’s case, this found its expression in cherishing the links to the union movement and espousing old fashioned left values. For Varadkar, it is his core belief in power of the market and making Fine Gael the party for ‘people who get up early in the morning’.

On the other side Coveney, like Blair, is less doctrinaire, less tetchy and a lot more touchy-feely. He is into reaching out beyond the traditional base, at the risk of becoming all things to all people.

The problem for Coveney is though the overwhelming bulk of ordinary Fine Gael members backed his vision for the party, the elected ones with the much weightier votes, did not. They went with Varadkar.

But, just because the other guy gets the job now, doesn’t mean you cannot still aspire to it. Coveney has not given up his ambition to lead Fine Gael, a goal that will be soothed by today’s Examiner/ICMSA B&A political poll of farmers that finds that rural Ireland would still prefer Coveney as Fine Gael leader by a margin of 51% to 38%.

Whether he will have another opportunity to go for the leadership depends on how Varadkar performs over the coming months. Coveney knows that succeeding Varadkar in the distant future is not an option. His own personal political future rests on Varadkar’s ideological gamble of taking Fine Gael to the right – at a time when voters are looking to government alone to tackle the big problems in housing and health – failing.

Or, put another way: Coveney is betting that Brown would not have brought the British Labour party the three in a row string of electoral victories that Blair did. History suggests he is probably correct.

Enda Kenny: we’ll miss him (eventually)

16 Jul

This column originally appeared on Broadsheet.ie on May 8th 2017 and suggests that Fine Gael will come to regret dumping Enda Kenny as Taoiseach and leader as speedily as they have…  www.broadsheet.ie/well-miss-him-eventually/

enda

“But as I leave you I want you to know – just think how much you’re going to be missing. You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore”

With these words, Richard Nixon departed the political scene, well almost. It was November 7th, 1962. He was concluding what he assumed would be his last ever political press conference after losing the race to become Governor of California. Two years earlier he had narrowly lost the Presidency to John F Kennedy.

While Enda Kenny’s departure, when it comes – possibly over the next week or two – will not be as bitter and waspish as Tricky Dicky’s, there may just be the slightest hint of the same sentiment: just think what we will potentially be missing.

Love him or loathe him, during his time as Taoiseach Enda has been anything but colourless or bland. For all his faults and failings, he showed quickly that he realised that one of the main roles of any Taoiseach is re-assuring the public that there is someone with a plan in charge.

He also grasped that this role as the nation’s re-assurer-in-chief requires you to get out and about and meet people as much as possible. In some ways, Enda has spent the past six years doing a passable Bertie Ahern impression.

Nonetheless, it is where we saw Enda at his best. When you meet him in person, either in a one to one chat or as part of an audience, you realise that Enda genuinely enjoys pressing the flesh. He possesses an ebullient personality, unlike either of his two possible successors, and so he comes across as warm and engaging when encountered personally.

This natural ability and skill was also a potential liability. His desire to have something to say to everyone and to do it spontaneously could lead to problems – as our greatest ever Taoiseach, Sean Lemass, famously observed – the danger with such off-the-cuff utterances is “not the little too little, it’s the little too much”.

Hence Enda’s occasional problems with the actualité. We saw it again last week in Canada when he mis-remembered discussions about human rights in Saudi Arabia and ended up recounting what he now wished he had said, rather than what he had actually said when sitting with the Princes.

One way his team of advisers had come up with to try to curb Enda’s effusive tendencies was to try to keep him to a script. It worked, but only to a certain extent. If they truly wanted him to him under control then all they had to do was to turn on a camera on.

Nothing was more guaranteed to make him appear wooden and staid than a TV camera.

Whereas many senior politicians only truly come to life when the lights switch on and the cameras start rolling, Enda was the opposite. He shifted down the gears. Gone was the bonhomie and the spontaneity and in its place a stiffness of both language and style.

It partly explains why he did not like formal TV debates. It was not his strong suit. But this was not just because of the cameras, it was more than that. Enda is not a details man. Nor is he adept at recalling long tracts of script or prepared lines.

This was clear in his head to head party leaders debate with Bertie Ahern in the May 2007 election. During the pre-debate spin Fine Gael had so reduced the expectations for their man that all he had to do was show up and not set the desk on fire for them to claim a draw.

On the night, many pundits were in awe of Enda as he seemed to hold his own for about the first twenty minutes of the encounter. I recall a senior party colleague calling me about fifteen minutes into the exchange concerned that Enda was doing so well, but their worry was short lived. By the twenty-minute mark Enda was starting to flag, he was running out of rehearsed material. Meanwhile Bertie, who absorbs and retains facts and figures, was just getting into his stride and used the remaining sixty minutes to leave Enda behind.

Another four years in opposition, including a failed heave against him, and a further sex years as Taoiseach has improved Enda’s speech giving ability considerably. He delivered one of his best ever speeches in Canada last week. It was considered and reflective and included a section on the concept of “othering” that I mentioned here in a recent article saying:

“It is happening to the degree that the old battles of right and left might well be over, to be replaced by something that seeks, not to unite us, but to divide us, not only among ourselves, but from what they identify and objectify as the Other. They see the people not for who they are as individuals, but as what they are as an ethnic or faith or economic group.”

It was a well written speech, delivered extremely well. At several junctures, he seemed not to be reading it from a script, but rather delivering it extemporaneously. What just about stopped it from being a perfect speech, was the inclusion of the oft made, but inaccurate, claim that his government achieved the whole recovery by itself – conveniently omitting the reality that two thirds of the correctives had been made by the time he arrived in office, but old habits die hard, I suppose.

In a few week’s (or months) time I will miss having Enda to kick around. I may have a few others to miss too from around the Cabinet table. Instead I will have to focus on the possible successors: Simon, the Enda 2.0 or Leo, the anti-Enda.
Remarkably, both come to the threshold of high office with considerably more ministerial experience than Enda did when he won the leadership. But while both have many years more time spent around the Cabinet table, they come without Enda’s experience of political hard knocks. Their political paths have been charmed and uneventful, well they have certainly been devoid of any great track record or achievement.

Both will doubtless enjoy a political honeymoon and may even feel tempted to capitalise on it with a snap election – whether they will have that opportunity may well be determined by just how down and dirty the race to succeed Enda gets and how much damage will have to be repaired before facing out to meet the voters.

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.

 

 

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 @simonharristd makes the case for a #seanref #No vote much stronger #Seanad

18 Aug
The Seanad Chair

The Seanad Chair

As a firm believer in Seanad reform – and consequently a trenchant opponent of Seanad abolition – the Sunday Independent’s Millward Brown poll showing the No to Abolition side gaining further momentum is gratifying.

The past few weeks have hardly been great for the No side. Fine Gael has been pretty active on the airwaves over the Summer break, while Sinn Féin’s opportunistic decision to campaign for a Yes, having vehemently opposed the Government’s proposal in both the Dáil and Seanad, hasn’t helped the No cause either.

All this makes the increase in the pro Seanad reform level of support all the more re-assuring. Not that the poll suggests that the campaign is done and dusted. Far from it.

More than almost any other, this Seanad abolition policy, is the lone brain child of Enda Kenny. Though there seem to be no research papers, discussion documents or policy positions he can produce to justify the origins of this initiative, he is the man behind it and he has more to lose by its defeat than anyone else.

While Labour nominally favours abolition, its TDs and Ministers can reasonably see their policy obligations as fulfilled by the holding of a referendum. Don’t expect to see many of them working too hard for a Yes to abolition vote. Indeed, as the Labour Chief Whip has indicated, at least half the Labour parliamentary party may actually work for a No vote seeing it as the best way to secure a popular mandate for Seanad reform.

One of the two authors of Labour’s 2009 position paper on Seanad reform, Junior Minister, Alex White has not commented on the issue much, while the other author, Joanna Tuffy TD has indicated that she will be campaigning for a No vote.

The worrying shift in the poll numbers make it necessary for Fine Gael to up the ante over the weeks ahead.
Given that the main shift has been in the group who describe themselves as favouring reform expect to see Fine Gael focus its attentions there and try to convince them that a Yes vote is a vote for reform.

We already had a glimpse of this approach last week via its neophyte Wicklow TD, Simon Harris’s speech at the Parnell Summer School.
Harris advanced the argument that abolishing the Seanad counts as reform and gives power back to the people as it means the single remaining chamber of the Oireachtas: the Dáil will be 100% elected by the public.

Harris’s reasoning seems to hinges on the statistic that the number of people registered to vote in Seanad elections, under current legislation, is around 156,000; about 5% of the approx 3.1 million entitled to vote at the February 2011 Dáil election.

What Harris misses, however, is that this 156,000 (Councillors, Oireachtas members and NUI and TCD graduates) is defined in legislation – not the Constitution. Everyone in the North and South could be given the right to vote with the passing of an Act by the Dáil and Seanad. Indeed the Seanad has already voted for such a piece of reform with the Second Stage vote on the Quinn/Zappone Seanad Reform Bill.
The extension of the Seanad franchise to all is now completely within the gift of Deputy Harris’s colleagues on the government benches.

The only real obstacle to such a real reform is the Taoiseach’s obduracy in insisting on Seanad abolition instead of reform.

Though not central to the argument it is worth noting that the 156,000 figure is probably an understatement as it just counts the NUI and Trinity graduates who have registered to vote. Many 100s of 1000s more are entitled to vote by virtue of their graduation.

The other problem with Harris’s reasoning is the idea that the answer to existing disenfranchisement is more disenfranchisement. It defies all democratic principles to propose removing someone’s voting rights when you have it in your power to extend them.

If you were to apply Deputy Harris’s quirky logic to the campaign for women’s suffrage a century back you would determine that the way to ensure equal voting rights for all was to remove the vote from men so that the two genders were equally disadvantaged.

The very legitimate criticism that not enough people are entitled to vote in Seanad elections is properly addressed by giving everyone the right, not by removing it.

I would hope that Deputy Harris’s espousal of a position that is the absolute antithesis of reform is informed by loyalty to his party leader and desire for advancement rather than by belief in the argument itself.

If it is the former then the case for reform is all the greater, if it is latter then it is time to worry.

Ends

Scrap the #Seanad? No, we need a new, revamped one more than ever

28 May

Sorry for being late in posting this – it is my Herald column from last Friday, May 24th, on why the the Government’s plan to abolish the Seanad is as far from reform as it is almost humanly possible to get 

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Democracy Matters! Campaign

Democracy Matters! Campaign

Next week the Government publishes the legislation that paves the way for a referendum on abolition of the Seanad later this year.

Last week the same Government supported a proposal from independent Senators not to abolish the Seanad but to reform it.

So how can they advocate two such contrary positions within two weeks of each other?

The answer is simple – abolition is not as simple and straightforward as originally thought. It does not mean just rubbing out a few words in the Constitution: it will require about 75 individual amendments.

The origin of all of this is a Fine Gael knees up back in October 2009. That is where Enda Kenny made the surprise announcement that he planned to scrap the Seanad. His new policy came as a surprise as only three months earlier his policy was that it be given greater powers and become a forum on European issues.

So what happened over those summer months, when neither the Dáil nor Senate were sitting, to change Enda’s mind? Nothing it seems, apart from being upstaged by Éamon Gilmore and growing criticism within Fine Gael of his leadership.

Enda needed a soft target – and the slow, lumbering Seanad obligingly painted a nice big un-missable bull’s eye on its own backside.

While it is difficult to present an argument for retaining the Seanad as it is: with most of its members elected just by TD’s and Councillors, that is not the same as saying that we do not need some form of a Second House of Parliament.

Despite its faults, the Seanad has served the country well. It has been a champion of reform and minority rights in a way the Dáil has often not. To quote the President, Michael D Higgins from a 2009 Dáil debate: “historically, the Seanad has been the place where there has been legislative innovation.”

Indeed it has, even with its antiquated system of having 6 seats elected by University Graduates and the Taoiseach nominating 11 members. It has allowed many voices and views from outside the political mainstream not only to be heard but to have a say: from W B Yeats to Seamus Mallon to Éamon de Buitléar to David Norris.

The value of having a second chamber to revise laws and give proposals further scrutiny can be demonstrated with one simple statistic. Since 2011 the Seanad has made 529 amendments to 14 different laws passed by the Dáil with inadequate scrutiny.

Without a Seanad or Second chamber those defective laws would have passed on to the statute without correction.

In today’s Ireland we need more scrutiny and oversight – not less. Abolition strengthens the old system. It means fewer new voices. The answer lies in reform, not abolition: open up the system, don’t close it down.

We need a reformed Seanad that makes those in power accountable. We need a reformed Seanad that has a gender balance. One where all of us, not just an elite, get a vote, including people in the North and those forced into emigration.

These basic, but effective, reforms could be made without a referendum and major constitutional change. All that is required is a Government that has the will to make that change.
Enda Kenny is doing this the wrong way around. We should learn from the Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harpers who told his people “…that our Senate, as it stands today, must either change… or vanish.”

We should be given the option of change.

Instead, the government will spend millions on a referendum that only offers a sham choice between keeping something that we know is not working as well as it could and handing its powers and resources over to a Dáil that has proved itself less than capable of holding Government to account.

Have we learned nothing from the crisis?

Do we want to fix the system or merely consolidate it?

My latest column in Friday's Herald

My latest column in Friday’s Herald

 

You are playing senior hurling now lads: why renegotiating the PfG won’t work for @Labour

4 Apr
seamusbrennan

The late Séamus Brennan: “You are playing senior hurling now lads…”

“You are playing senior hurling now lads – but you are playing with lads with All Ireland medals”.

This, according to Eamon Ryan, is how the late Séamus Brennan greeted the Green Party team as it arrived in Government buildings for the 2007 talks on forming a government with Fianna Fáil.

It is a phrase that every Labour Party TD calling for a renegotiation of the Programme for Government (PfG) should print out and place at the top of their PC screen.

God be with the days when Labour recruited its Dáil candidates from the old ITGWU or FWUI. Those guys knew the first principles of negotiating; they particularly knew that you did not go into negotiations unless you had 1. A strong hand and 2. A fair idea of the outcome. Yet some in Labour are advocating that they enter talks with neither.

They want to enter a renegotiation of the government’s fundamental policy programme at precisely the moment when their party has hardly ever been weaker. Do they seriously expect that their senior partners in Fine Gael will take pity on them and offer them major policy concessions just because they are having a bad hair day?

Do they really underestimate their government partners that much?

Politics is a tough world guys. Wake up.

You do not get your way in politics just because you mean well, you get your way and get policies implemented by getting a mandate and pursuing your goals assiduously.

You certainly do not enter talks with partners from whom you wish to extract concessions with the message: we are in a weakened state and desperately need to give the impression that we can beat you into submission, so please, please, please let us.

It is the equivalent in nature of a lone deer asking a lion to not to devour them as they have a leg injury and cannot run properly today. Indeed it goes further and suggests that the lion should agree to allow the injured deer to bitch slap them around for a while so that any other deer who may be watching from a distance will think more highly of them.

There is no compulsion on Fine Gael to enter meaning renegotiation talks with Labour. They know Labour cannot cut and run now and risk facing the electorate, so they know it is strapped into this arrangement until the bitter end. The very most Labour could hope to get is a sham negotiation where we see TV clips of the pairs of Ministers from each side entering Government buildings for late night talks and the last minute “leak” from a source “close to the Labour leadership” saying the talks are at a crucial point right now and may go well into the night. The optics will look good, they may even fool a few activists, but most others (including the public) will see it as just a gesture. If the guys want to go down this road there is doubtless a battered old playbook for such an exercise laying around Government building somewhere.

The current cohort of Fine Gael TDs is possibly the most right of centre since the late 1950s. They are already getting flack from supporters and voters for the appearance that Labour is dictating too much of the government’s agenda, particularly on social issues, so they are neither motivated nor minded to give any more policy ground to them on the back of what was a bad day for Labour and, conversely, a good day for Fine Gael.

The idea of renegotiating the PfG is at best: naïve, and at worst: dumb.

That so many TDs would advocate it after only two years in office suggests that we are probably beyond the mid point of the life of this government and that the chances of there being a general election in early 2015 just got stronger.

New young politicians? Yes, but some diversity too

3 Apr
Milintee

Miliband and McEntee – Milintee?

Not surprisingly, most of the commentary on the Meath East by-election result has focussed on the electoral drubbing meted out to the Irish Labour Party, but as Fergus Finlay pointed out in the Irish Examiner, Labour has been here before. Back in 1983, at the Dublin Central By-Election occasioned by the death of George Colley, Labour’s then candidate Jimmy Somers was beaten not only by the Workers’ Party (ironic) but by Sinn Fein in an area where Labour had until recently held a seat.

This nice analysis piece penned by the late Mary Raftery for MaGill at the time is worth reading and contains some phrases we have seen used a few times over the past week, including: “The by-election result was one of the most disastrous in Labour’s history” and “…a humiliation from which it will be difficult to recover.”

While Labour’s poor showing and Fianna Fáil’s continuing electoral recovery are the two main national lessons to be taken from the Ashbourne count centre, I want to briefly reflect on another less obvious one.

On almost precisely the same day as Fine Gael’s Helen McEntee entered full time national politics on this island, another politician was leaving it on the neighbouring island: David Miliband.

So what could these two events have in common? Well, not a lot really – but it did occur to me that Miliband, aged 48, was quitting politics at an age when politicians used to once enter politics.

In that regard Ms McEntee and Mr Miliband do have something in common, two things actually. First they both entered their respective parliaments at a relatively young age – Ms McEntee at 26 and Mr Miliband, slightly later, at 36 and second, neither had much real world experience outside of politics before entering parliament.

Essentially both were products of the political system, albeit at differing levels and grades. After completing her masters in 2010 Ms McEntee worked as a parliamentary assistant in her late father’s constituency office, while David progressed from Oxford and M.I.T to becoming Tony Blair’s head of policy via a stint at the Institute for Public Policy Research.

Neither had, to use the American phrase, “ever made a payroll”. While in America that is taken to mean running a business and being responsible for paying and employing people, in this context we can use it to mean experience of the real world, getting a job, getting promoted, running a household, paying a mortgage, providing childcare and then education for your kids.

Not that experiencing some or all of these necessarily qualify you to become a full time public representative, but wouldn’t some understanding of these help? Not that I am disregarding the pressures and difficulties faced by students these days. Frankly, as bad as the 70s and 80s were, I daily thank heavens that I am not a student in today’s environment.

Neither is this a plea for the Oireachtas to be full of 50 and 60-somethings or an attack on anyone under 25 running for the Dáil.

Rather I am just sounding a small note of caution against what I perceive as an emerging phenomenon here of people going almost straight from college into full time politics. Over the past two decades the number of jobs and opportunities in full time politics have increased. Since the early 90s the world of politics has become more professionalised with TDs and Senators now being able to employ parliamentary researchers and assistants paid for from the public purse. Not that I am one to complain having been a beneficiary of this development.

But with the creation of these additional opportunities it now seems the most successful path into the Dáil runs as follows:

University → elected as party officer – Job in Leinster House → Special Adviser → TD.

We risk having cohort of potential TDs (and Senators, if it survives) who have almost all followed the same real-life free path. Look at the UK and see how many of the men and women on the Tory and Labour benches fall into this category. While they may represent different political parties and support competing policies they essentially come from the same political background – all university educated, essentially middle class and all from within the political process.

Already we see the parties here looking out for new, young, vibrant candidates – and that’s a good thing. But what we also see is these candidates being identified earlier and earlier and based on criteria that are hard to understand.

Perhaps it is their newness and inexperience that is the attraction: a fresh clean slate for the party leadership to control and etch its views, coupled with a personal history that is free of controversy because its brevity presented damn all opportunity for it.

Turning back to Meath East, maybe it was just campaign hyperbole, or his penchant for the grandiloquent, that prompted Enda Kenny to describe Helen McEntee as “one of the most brilliant young candidates I have seen in any election” during an exchange in the Dáil on the day before polling. But what was there in her achievements or utterances that justified this high praise?

Is she a smart, confident and well educated woman, yes, without a doubt… but one of the most brilliant… in any election? Did we see anything in either the Vincent Brown or Primetime debates to support this claim?

Yes, there is a place in full time politics for young people and yes they deserve a major say in how their future is shaped, but we need to ensure that the search for the ideally packaged and presented candidate is not done at the cost of selecting those with more experience of life.

Labour could be casualty in Treaty Yes vote

24 May

My Evening Herald column from today’s (Thurs May 24th) edition:

voting

Many different reasons to vote yes or no

With less than a week to go the referendum campaign seems more and more to be about less and less.

On the face of it, if you believe the posters, the choice is to Vote Yes to achieve stability or to Vote No to end austerity.

But do any of us really believe these claims? Regrettably, like previous EU referendums the debate has been conducted at the extremes, not the centre. It was the case in the Nice and Lisbon referendums, remember those “€1.84 Minimum Wage after Lisbon” posters?

Mercifully, we have been spared the malign input of Cóir and Youth Defence this time. The are no loss, especially as most of them wouldn’t know a treaty from a tea-bag (to rob a line I recently overheard)

But this absence of any significant ultra right involvement on the no side does highlight a curious undercurrent to the campaign, one, which I suspect, may be a factor in how some people decide how to vote next week.

While the slogans maybe about the EU and the Euro the referendum has morphed into a proxy battle on the future of left / right politics in Ireland.

From the start the battle front was drawn up along left versus right lines.

On the Yes side you had the right and centre right parties: FG, FF and Lab (more about them later), the employers’ and business organisations, the farmer’s groups and the more established/mainstream trade unions.

On the No side you had the socialist and hard left parties, People Before Profit, Joe Higgin’s Socialists, Sinn Féin, the more radical trade unions.

While the entrance of The Declan Ganley somewhat clouded the the Left/Right delineation, it hasn’t ruptured it.

The sight of him sharing No platforms with irredentist left firebrands is a joy to behold, especially when you consider that they agree on virtually nothing, including Europe. Most on the hard left are euro-sceptic while The Ganley is avowedly Euro-federalist.

While passing the Fiscal Treaty will herald no major day to day changes – mainly because it just restates the centre/centre right economic orthodoxy in place since 2008 – it will cement it into domestic law for the foreseeable future.

It is this that the left fears and opposes most.

Passing the Treaty would recalibrate the centre of the Irish political spectrum a few points to the right. It won’t be a seismic or noticeable shift, but it torpedoes the Left’s ambitions of shifting it the other way.

It doesn’t vanquish them, nor does it make them to tone the rhetoric down. If anything, it will do the opposite, but in their hearts they will know that their ambition to shift Ireland economically to the left has been reversed.

This explains why the campaign from Joe Higgins, Boyd Barrett and Sinn Féin has been so fierce. But not as fierce as when its over and they start to target each other.

I am not predicting that their poll rating drops are set to drop. They won’t. They will probably rise as voters use them to express their disapproval of government parties going pack on pre election pledges.

But the Irish electorate is sophisticated. It is overwhelmingly aspirational. This applies across all social classes and communities. They want their kids to do better than they did. That decides voting intentions more than anything.

In the meantime Sinn Féin will continue to do well at Labour’s expense, after all Gerry and Mary Lou are saying now what Éamon and Joan were saying two years ago.

It is Labour who will be the biggest casualty. Polls showing 40% of Labour supporters voting No could have longer term ramifications for the leadership. But whatever they may be, they can be so where near as damaging as Gilmore’s infamous “Frankfurt’s Way or Labour’s Way” slogan.

It may turn out to be the most devastating political slogan of recent times – devastating to its authors, that is.

Time to Postpone #EURef ?

7 May

Text of my Evening Herald column considering the consequences of the French & Greek election results for our forthcoming Stability Treaty Referendum vote

The EU political landscape has changed dramatically in the last 24 hours. The election of Francois Hollande in France and the defeat of the pro bailout parties in Greece will have repercussions far beyond the borders in both countries.

While both results will come as no great surprise to politicians who have been following the campaigns in France and Greece; it seems no one has given any serious thought as to what may now happen.

The focus of such thought, in so much as there has been any, has been on what Hollande might do to make good on his campaign promise to move the EU’s focus on to growth and investment.

There seems to have been very little thought as to what might happen in Greece. As recently as last week, pundits were citing polls that showed that up to two thirds of the Greek electorate accepted the need for a bailout.

Perhaps they did tell the pollsters that but, as we discovered last night, that sentiment did not transfer itself to the ballot box. The reality is that two thirds of Greek voters opted for anti bailout parties of various hues – from far left to far right, leaving the two pro bailout parties in tatters.

The net result, in the short to medium term, will be political stability that will make markets jumpy and herald problems for counties such as Spain and Italy when they go to the markets to borrow money.

The instability in the Eurozone that we thought had abated for a while looks like returning with a vengeance. M Hollande may not have time to set out his vision for a growth and investment plan for the EU – events may well overtake him.

Uncertainty may now be the name of the game in the EU and the Eurozone – yet the Government here seems to think that nothing that has happened in the last 24 hours has changed the mood music here.

To judge from Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore’s comments the coalition government here believes that the result there has no consequence for the Stability Treaty referendum. The Tánaiste was in Paris, in a signal of European Socialist grouping solidarity, with PES colleague M Hollande. This contrasts with the fickleness of the FG party chairman,Charlie Flanagan’s “Bon debarras (Good Riddance) Nicolas ! Bye Bye Sarkozy” tweet last night.

@Charlie Flanagan FG Chairman

@Charlie Flanagan FG PP Chairman

In Feb 2011 Fine Gael were championing their relations with Sarkozy, Merkel and the EPP – now they deny their former friends. You could almost hear the cock crow three times.

I am no fan of the Stability Treaty. Like others. I believe it is a missed opportunity. It fails to tackle the root cause of the problems in Ireland and Europe – a failed and dysfunctional banking system. But I am not convinced that voting it down brings us one millimetre closer to resolving our problems.

I am a reluctant Yes voter. I hope that passing it may give Germany the cover it needs to allow real reforms to the European Central Bank and the Euro architecture,

For that reason I want to give the Treaty every chance to gain public support. I do not believe that ploughing ahead with a vote on a Treaty that may yet be further reformed – or even improved – serves any purpose. I genuinely fear that going ahead against a background of uncertainty and volatility puts the outcome in doubt.

It is not that I think the combined forces of Sinn Féin and the ULA will convince the people to vote No, but rather that the public will opt not to endorse a Treaty that may be defunct within weeks of passing it.

This is not a new fear. I wrote about the imprudence of holding the vote this early on my website some weeks ago. While I know many would suggest that postponing the referendum sends out the signal that the Government is weak, I think that is better than landing itself with a no vote based on bad timing.

While the Tánaiste is technically right in saying that we wouldn’t need to come back and vote again if a growth package were eventually added to the Treaty – can he really justify putting only half the question to a vote? Would it not be wiser, and more democratic, to wait a few months and put a definitive position to the people?#

It would require more courage and leadership to postpone the referendum than proceed with it. This just may be the reason why it doesn’t happen
May 7th 2012