This week’s column appeared on Broadsheet.ie early on Monday May 11th. It looks at the ongoing government formation process and ponders the lessons that Fianna Fáil should take from the recent RedC/BusinessPost opinion poll showing the parties support sliding further… from 22% on polling day to 18% in the last RedC poll to just 14% today. A return to the perilous numbers the party got in 2011… is that where the parallels end?
One of the few enjoyable aspects of the lockdown has been the return to popularity of the old-fashioned quiz. Every day brings another invitation to participate in a quiz, invariably a political one, on Facebook, Zoom, Twitter or WhatsApp.
This stepped up a gear last week when I was asked to write a round of Irish politics questions, for a workplace quiz being organised by a friend via the Kahoot app (no, I hadn’t heard it before now either). So, this week’s column opens with a question the quizmaster deemed too “pointed” for her quiz.
Which senior Fianna Fáil figure said this after a RedC opinion poll put the party on 14% and Fine Gael on 35%:
“I believe that Fianna Fáil must recognize the reality of the current climate of public opinion… I have reluctantly concluded that, in these circumstances, Fianna Fáil should change its leader.”
Today’s RedC poll for Paddy Power brings very little good news unless you are an independent or a don’t know. The unadjusted core figures rank the parties in descending order as:
Fine Gael 23%
Fianna Fáil 18%
Don’t Knows 18%
Sinn Féin 13%
After adjusting the figures by excluding 50% of the don’t know and adjusting the other 50% back to how they voted in 2011 the ranking positions stay the same. Only the relative gaps between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil and between Fianna Fáil and the Independents widen.
Fine Gael 29%
Fianna Fáil 22%
Sinn Féin 15%
Sinn Fein’s lead over Labour remains at a steady 4%. While this may, at first glance, suggest some good news for Sinn Féin, the party has been in this territory before only for its good polling numbers to fail to translate into votes.
Back in December 2010, on the eve of a general election, three polls showed the party in the mid teens. A Red C Poll for The Sun on 03/12/2010 gave the party 16%. The MRBI/Irish Times poll on Dec 16th put it on 15% while a third, the Red C/Sunday Business Post poll of December 18th put its support at 14%. On polling day, two months later, the voters gave it 9.9%.
This is not to discount its advance since. Sinn Féin has been consistently polling in the mid teens since September 2011. That said, though an Irish Times poll in early October 2011 put party support at a hefty 18% its Presidential candidate and possibly most charismatic figure, Martin McGuinness still could not get the party’s actual vote past the 13.7% mark in the ballot boxes a few weeks later.
Despite its considerable and well resourcing organisation it seems to still have a problem translating favourable poll numbers into actual votes.
Though of cold comfort to Fianna Fáil it does not, at least, have this particular problem. The MRBI/Irish Times and Red C/Sunday Business Post polls conducted on the eve of the 2009 Local elections put Fianna Fáil’s support at 20% and 21% respectively. On polling day, the party managed to scrape its way up to 25.4%.
Fianna Fáil problems are more significant. While it has won back some of its lost “soft” support and pulled itself up from the 2011 hammering it has yet to say or do anything substantive to win back many of those who had voted for it in 2002 and 2007 but rejected it in 2011. There is nothing to suggest it is doing any better with potential first time voters either.
Despite the speculation of last weekend, Fianna Fáil’s problem is not its leader. The notion that Fianna Fáil picking a new leader whose only virtue is that they were not a member of the previous government is almost laughable. Surely no one in the party or the commentariat is delusional enough to think that the electorate is so naïve that it will flock to Fianna Fáil’s cause just because it has a leadership team devoid of anyone who served under Ahern or Cowen?
Despite its apology and acknowledgement of past mistakes, Fianna Fáil has yet to present a researched and substantive alternative policy programme. It has come up with some good micro-policies, not least its family home protection and debt resolution Bills, but many have been light on substance and appear to have been produced as well intentioned responses to specific representative groups, e.g. the Mobile Phone Radiation Warning Bill
Try finding the party’s April 2013 Policy Guide on its website. It is there, but you have to know what you are looking for to find it. Click on the “issues” button on the homepage and you get the Spring 2012 version, to locate the latest version you need to do a search for it by name.
The April 19th 2013 document shows the party has been doing some serious work on policy, but you would be hard pushed to know it from the statements coming from its spokespeople. These still read as knee jerk responses to government statements rather than as co-ordinated parts of a coherent alternative. Fine Gael may have gotten away with tactic this during its time in opposition, but Fianna Fáil does not have the luxury they had: a Government unwilling and unable to communicate with its own supporters.
Perhaps the criticisms of a small and possibly over stretched clique around the leadership have some basis in reality, but as someone who has spent a long time around the party, on both the inside and outside tracks, I think the problem lies elsewhere.
Michéal Martin has shown a remarkable capacity for getting out and about and engaging with members and voters alike, it is curious, therefore, to read of him being less engaged and accessible to members of his own very diminished parliamentary party.
Might I suggest that the fault lies on both sides. Yes, he should be having regular one to one meetings with his 33 parliamentary colleagues – God knows there are not that many of them to make such regular meetings impractical – but they too should be engaging with him.
The traditional deference to the leader needs to change. Gone are the days when you had to wait ages to have an audience with the great leader as he busied himself with the great affairs of state in the Taoiseach’s office. Parliamentary party members have the opportunity for unique access, let them use it. A minority can only exercise sole access when allowed by the majority indifference or reticence.
Despite the job losses and the massive reduction in resources, there still appears to be a sense that the party structures are operating and running as if the party is still as big as it once was. Worse still many of those working those structures have no sense memory of how the party should operate in opposition.
A small number of paid officials are being expected to do the party’s policy research and formulation with minimal input from a vast array of experts across the volunteer membership. Too much power and control is being retained around the centre and around Leinster House: not by the leadership and his supposed clique, but also by members of the parliamentary party who are criticising him for just that.
I am old enough to remember what was put in place between 1982 and 1987, the last time the party was truly in opposition. Back then a series of policy committees were established by the leadership and mandated, working with the various spokespeople, to produce credible and researched policies for submission to the party for adoption.
These committees worked with the TDs and Senators but were not run by them. Outside experts were brought in to assist and work with them.
To borrow a phrase from Fianna Fáil’s past – the phase of its recovery will be dependent on policies and substance – not personality. The party already has the potential to bring itself back into the upper 20s in terms of actual voter support – the question now for the leadership and the party as a whole is if it has the energy, expertise and inclination to innovate the policy approaches that could bring support up into the 30% plus range.
My column from yesterday’s Evening Herald (21/Feb/13) taking a very personal look at where Fianna Fáil is today; almost exactly two years on from the political meltdown of Election 2011
Though I don’t share his politics I like John O’Farrell. O’Farrell, whose father hailed from Galway, is a comedy writer and British Labour Party supporter who is now their candidate in the Eastleigh by-election.
My reasons for liking him stem not just from his days as a script writer on Spitting Image but from his hilarious 1998 memoir: Things Can Only Get Better: Eighteen Miserable Years in the Life of a Labour Supporter.
In it he details the disappointments, frustrations and the heartache he endured at all levels of the Labour Party until he came to realise that “Michael Foot would never be Prime Minister… and that the nuclear arms race was never going to be stopped by face painting alone.”
A few months after the punishment beating that was Fianna Fáil’s 2011 General Election result I started to wonder if I should start work on my own homespun version.
I toyed around with several possible titles, including: I Thought That Things Could Only Get Better: Boy, Was I Wrong or Fianna Fáil: the view from the edge.
The idea never got beyond a few lines on the PC screen, however. This was partly due to my not seeing anything even vaguely humorous in my situation, but also to me not knowing any publisher sufficiently cracked to commission it. Back in 2011 it was hard to imagine a market for such a work.
I also had a slight suspicion that the party was not yet ready for the scrapheap, nor for 18 years in the wilderness.
Yes, it was in bad shape – very bad shape. Not just the organisation, but the people too. Friends and colleagues who had worked in politics were shell shocked by the result. Not just elected reps, but people on more modest salaries working behind the scenes. Researchers, press officers, organisers and administrators. Losing 51 seats meant HQ shedding staff over half its staff.
But along with this loss, a loss that many hundreds of thousands of other people have had to face, was the realisation that people of my vintage were the ones who had allowed the decline to happen: we could be the generation that not only wrecked Fianna Fáil, but damaged the values on which it was founded.
This is not to underestimate or disregard the mistakes we made and the anger we caused to those people whose support we had sought and won over the decades. Nor is it a plea for pity. It is just to acknowledge that the 2011 defeat had real consequences for many of us.
While there were reports of some particularly heated and fraught exchanges during the campaign, what I experienced at the doors was a harsh coldness. The voters had long since made up their minds on Fianna Fáil – we had let them down badly and we would pay the price.
I suspect many voters even surprised themselves with the scale and magnitude of the Tsunami that engulfed Fianna Fáil two years ago.
Two years is not a long time in the life of an established political party. While the coldness and mistrust may have thawed somewhat, there is still a lot of real anger out there that will take a long time to address.
This should not be confused, however, with the contrived disdain that characterises some people’s attitudes to Fianna Fáil. As Sean Gallagher discovered during his presidential bid, it is now almost McCarthey-esque. You can talk about us in a way that you could not about almost any other group.
It ranges from the scorn that perceives FF as unprincipled, gauche, maybe even a bit NOCD (not our class dahling) to the more visceral anti Fianna Fail-ism that sees us all as chancers and strokers.
But for as long as I know that I am in a party that works to give people the means and opportunities to succeed, I reckon I can live with that.
The attached research paper Report on EU Attendance was conducted by Markus Johansson and Daniel Naurin of the Dept of Political Science at the University of Gothenburg and presented at the SNES spring conference in Uppsala 22-23 March 2011.
SNES (Swedish Network for European Studies in political science) is Sweden’s leading research network dealing with questions of European politics and governance.
The study examined 808 EU Council meetings between 2000 and 2010 and found that Ireland had one of the highest average Ministerial attendances at Council of Minister’s meetings, 5th out of the 27 member states.
The authors of the study argue that attendance is an integral part of EU engagement and reflects the priorities of the governments involved. Ireland’s position as 5th highest out of the 27 member states from 2000-2010 is a testament to Fianna Fáil’s committeeman to Europe and strong engagement
This exposes the hollowness of claims repeatedly made by Government Ministers and the Taoiseach that Fianna Fáil failed to attend EU meetings.
The speech at Washington DC’s Georgetown University by former Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, has attracted some comment since it was reported last week in the Financial Times and Irish Times. Much of that comment has focussed upon just about everything about from its contents. It is a well drafted and cogently argued analysis of the crisis that befell both Ireland and the EU and well worth reading in full: Speech By Fmr Taoiseach B Cowen – 21.03.12
Given the venue and context it is evident that this was meant as a low key, considered and informed contribution and not as a political foray. While I think it will, in time, be seen as an important analysis of the situtaion from 2007/08 onwards. I also think it is important to note how the former taoiseach took the opportunity present to talk Ireland up and to touts for business and investment for Ireland. This is particularly evident in the final paragraphs of the speech:
“I believe Ireland is one of the best locations in the world to establish and to grow a business. This is not just rhetoric but is reflected in the rapid on-going overseas investment which is occurring in Ireland. Ireland is not just open for business but as, I believe, any independent assessmentwould indicate it is among the best places in Europe to start and grow an international business. This will ultimately pay off for our citizens. Indeed all of the fundamental strengths which prior to the crisis meant that Ireland had one of the highest growth rates of GNP per capita among advanced countries for a very long period are still in place and in many respects our advantages have improved in terms of increased cost competitiveness.”
An Taoiseach’s national address was well intentioned but badly executed.
To his credit; from the moment he became Taoiseach, Enda Kenny has shown that he realises the importance of talking to people. He has demonstrated regularly that he knows the job of Taoiseach is not just the traditional one of government Chairman or Chief.
He understands that it is also that of the “confidence giver in chief”, particularly at times of crisis like this. The person who tells the rest of us what is happening and how he and his team have a plan to get us through the difficulties.
Television has not been his friend. Neither have the formal set pieces: Ard Fheis speeches etc. He has been more comfortable in informal situations, particularly those where his words and message are delivered unmediated: live to a flesh and blood audience.
For all these reasons, last night’s TV “Address to the Nation” was going to be a big ask. The fact that it was billed as the most important address he would ever give, the “speech of his life”, did not help.
In the event, the speech did not succeed in achieving its desired result.
A speech is not about offering a litany of facts and figures, it is about putting across a clear message. The Taoiseach acknowledged this truth in his address saying that he was “outlining the Government’s strategy.”
The pity is that while this may have been the aim, the content and delivery failed to convey any sense of strategy or coherent plan.
The address should not just have been another element of the package of budget speeches: but an opportunity to set out a vision of where we are going and how we can get there together.
It could have been a vision of the kind of Ireland the Taoiseach wants to see in place by 2016, the centenary of the Easter Rising and an exposition of how he sees us achieving that.
Instead of the expected “state of the nation” we got a curiously cold and passionless presentation that omitted both vision and purpose. A bland party political broadcast that seemed, in part, to be an attempt to explain both why The government was now implementing policies it had opposed and why it had abandoned promises made only nine months ago.
It was less an “address to the nation” and more an apology from the leader of Fine Gael.
As the Taoiseach and his advisers are now starting to realise there are some very obvious risks with such addresses.
The expectations were high.
People expect to be better informed and maybe even more confident after the broadcast than they were before. Looking at the online commentary as I write this, I do not see this being the emerging consensus. Most politically unaligned posters appear to be seeing the address as a “wasted opportunity”.
But there are other risks too. The leader comes on TV to say that things will get better… but, they don’t. As a consequence we lose faith in them.
The other worry is that the Leader comes on TV to say that things are even worse that he had suggested they were… the opposition have a field day using his own words to attack him and his popularity plummets
Though I have no firm evidence for thinking this, I believe that these were the two of the key factors behind Brian Cowen’s reluctance to make a similar address in 2008/2009. The one issue Cowen would not have had to address if he had chosen to make such a speech then is the crisis facing the EU and the Euro.
In my view the Taoiseach made a mistake in not devoting more of his script to this crucial issue. Not only did the EU section amount to less than 10% of the total text, the section was bland and failed to seriously address any of the issues facing us.
In other EU countries they are talking of having “less than a week” to save the Euro. Within the coming days we will learn more of the Merkel/Sarkozy plan to fundamentally change how the EU and the Euro function, but here our Taoiseach reduces the matter to almost an afterthought in his keynote address to the nation.
It kind of sums up the whole exercise, well intentioned, but poorly done.
IT IS a year since this country lost a man Enda Kenny described as iconic: Army Chief of Staff. Dermot Earley.
Far better people than me have given eloquent testimony to what an extraordinary man Dermot was. This can be readily verified by a visit to the excellent exhibition on his life and career at the GAA museum at Croke Park. On a purely personal level, what amazed me most about him was his capacity to command great authority while at the same time exhibiting a sense of humility.
He was strong and forceful, yet also gentle and relaxed. For almost six years, from 2004-2010, I worked down the corridor from him in the Parkgate HQ of the Defence Forces and Department of Defence.
Within a short space of time I witnessed his great personal skills, not least his ability to put people at ease. Both he and I were attending a social occasion organised by the soldiers’ representative body PDFORRA.
Through their involvement with the Euromil, the network of military representative bodies across Europe, PDFORRA had been supporting other groups seeking their own representation systems.
Attending the social function were three of four officers of a sister organisation not recognised by their own military authorities.
While I am 90pc sure I remember the country concerned, I won’t name it here. One of the PDFORRA senior officials asked me if I would mind meeting these guys. I said I had no problem and was introduced to them.
They were in civvies, as they were here on their own time.
Minutes later we were joined by Dermot, who arrived in the uniform of a Major General, as our Deputy Chief of Staff. He suggested we sit down at one of the tables and have a chat and a drink. The guys were not just impressed, they were visibly moved. Here was the second in command of our army not just meeting them, but sitting down and talking face to face when their own mid-ranking officers would not.
My other abiding memory was a a trip to the EUFOR HQ outside Paris. During a break, three or four of us, including Dermot, went outside to stretch our legs.
As we strolled we noticed a number of French soldiers on duty looking over at him from a distance. They could tell he was a senior general from his insignia, though it was clear they were unsure who he was, or where he was from.
He noticed this and chuckled as we saw them talk among themselves. At this point I piped up: “I think I know what they are saying.” “What’s that,” asked Dermot. “They are saying,” I replied, “you see yer man over there… he’s the greatest Irish footballer never to win an All-Ireland medal.” He looked at me sternly for about five seconds and then burst out laughing. He may have said something back at me, but I cannot quite recall just now. It is, however, the way I will remember him.