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

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.

The Legend of #Enda of the wild Wesht…

The Legend of Enda of the Wild Whest…

Enda’s #armygate saga has had pundits of all hues falling over themselves to explain, or even excuse, how and why An Taoiseach went to a recent EPP gathering in Madrid and told a story about the Irish Defences Forces being on standby to protect ATMs back in 2012.

Some have seen this as just another example of the perils of letting Enda go off script. Others suggest it shows that his grip on the actualité is slipping, a bit like his story of the woman thanking him after the Budget.

In order to retain my punditry badge, let me weigh in with another possible explanation. I think Enda is suffering from Ransom Stoddard Syndrome.

Who is Ransom Stoddard, I hear you ask. He was the main character in the 1962 western: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Stoddard, played by Jimmy Stewart, is the eponymous hero who shot the outlaw Liberty Valance – except, well…. he didn’t. (I hope this doesn’t spoil the plot for anyone hasn’t seen it.)

“No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Following a long political career, built in part on his reputation as the man who shot the criminal, Stoddard attempts to clarify events in an interview with a local newspaper. As the interview ends Stoddard asks the editor if the newspaper is going to use the real story, the editor replies: “No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

For Enda the legend of Enda has become confused with fact. The Enda legend or, to use the political communications parlance, the Enda narrative, is that he and Fine Gael manfully pulled Ireland back from the brink. In Fine Gael’s mind they inherited a bankrupt and dysfunctional country and, with careful planning and skilful leadership, turned it around to become the fastest growing economy in Europe. Not only that, they also tell themselves (and others) that the recession would never have hit Ireland if only Fine Gael had been in office for the preceding decade.

It is this narrative Enda was sharing with his colleagues in the EPP. The problem is that the facts don’t back it up, so Fine Gael and Enda must construct its own facts, facts based on its legends.

As Noel Whelan points out in his column in the Irish Times: Kenny gaffe over army and ATMs part of pattern of deception this is not the first, second or third time Enda has uttered this story of Army, ATMs and the Central Bank. This story has been constructed not only to fit into a narrative of the past, it is structured so as to advance it.

Yes, as others have pointed out, it does highlight Enda’s recurring issues with going off script and ad-libbing, but it is about more than a Taoiseach who can’t be trusted out on his own and who can’t remember his lines. It is about a party in government that is all narrative and no facts.

11225395_10153631887578211_4150166261132217846_nLast week the Fine Gael placed a graphic on its Facebook page which purported to show that it alone had secured Ireland’s recovery and made Ireland the fastest growing economy in the EU. To even the most casual of viewers the graphic, especially ones who ignore the dodgy Y axis increments, shows that the bulk of the recovery had been secured before the 2011 election and that the economy had effectively flat lined for the first two years of Fine Gael and Labour’s time in office.

Try searching for the 2002 and 2007 Fine Gael manifestos on the party’s website – you won’t find them. Neither will you find the many statements from Fine Gael spokespeople urging more spending after every Budget. The reality that both campaign platforms, plus the party statements promised to spend more and tax less than the Fianna Fáil alternatives does not sit well with the new Fine Gael legend.

Where Fine Gael is all narrative and no facts – Fianna Fáil has the opposite problem, it is all facts and precious little narrative. Up to the appearance of Brian Cowen and Bertie Ahern before the Banking Inquiry Fianna Fáil spokespeople seemed singularly unwilling to talk about the years leading up to the 2011 election. It seemed that they, like Fine Gael, thought that talking about the period 2002 – 2011 could only damage the party – but as Cowen and Ahern showed, setting the record straight and speaking candidly about what actually happened does not undermine Fianna Fáil.

Cowen and Ahern’s able and informed testimony at the Banking Inquiry showed that the Governments they led were neither reckless nor directionless. Yes, they made mistakes, but as they proved by their command of the facts and the details they did have a plan and were, in the teeth of a global financial crisis, making the best decisions they could on the basis of the facts and information before them. Their assured solo appearances contrasted with Enda’s assisted one, where he did the general patter and handed over to Richard Bruton when the questions become difficult.

The big fallout from the Banking Inquiry is not damaging Fianna Fáil the way Fine Gael’s strategists planned it would. They were full sure that parading the old familiar Fianna Fáil faces before the committee to be questioned and pilloried would re-ignite the public anger and ire of the 2011 election. Why else delay the hearings until the final run up to the election.

But they were wrong. While Fianna Fáil is hardly soaring in the polls, its support has been creeping up painfully slowly, just while the support levels for Fine Gael’s preferred enemy: Sinn Féin, have been slipping steadily downwards.

Hence the need for Fine Gael and for Enda is up the ante on the faux narrative and hype up the legend of Enda of the West complete, to return to the western movie motif, with the good guy white hats they have fabricated for themselves.

The problem is that life and politics today is much more questioning and techni-coloured now than it was in the days of the black and white western – no matter how exciting the story sounds.

I wrote this piece for the Slugger O’Toole website

The @finegael #LE14 meltdown is a repeat of @fiannafailparty’s #LE09 one #ep14

I have now updated my initial thoughts, musings, observations and mild rantings on the implications of the local election results, particularly Fianna Fáil’s stronger than expected showing.

This was first posted on Sunday morning – updated on Monday morning to reflect the revised party national totals in the Local Elections.

 

Local Election Results national overview
Local Election Results national overview

 

“If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must Man be of learning from experience.” – George Bernard Shaw.

Quite a lot, it seems.

Yesterday we saw history repeating itself, with the electorate visiting upon Fine Gael and Labour almost exactly the same devastating blow it had served up to Fianna Fáil and Labour five years earlier.

In 2009 Fianna Fáil lost around 39% of its support (when compared with 2007) while the Greens endured a massive reduction in its vote of 76%.

Yesterday, based on the Local Election results to hand, Fine Gael lost 34% of its support and Labour lost 63%.

le14 grid

While the story of the Local Elections is the rise in support for Sinn Féin and the Independents and the scale of the loss for Labour, the Fine Gael haemorrhaging of support should not be ignored.

Indeed, the case can be made that the real story of the election is this massive Fine Gael loss – a loss that should not be glossed over by what might appear to be its reasonable performance in the European Elections.

Losing 100 plus Councillors, on a day when you have increased the number of available council seats, is a political meltdown of Fianna Fáil in 2009 proportions. It will send a shiver around the Fine Gael backbenches that will match that currently coursing along the spines of their Labour colleagues.

Leo Varadkar’s line that the next election will be a battle between Fine Gael and Sinn Féin was a clever attempt to calm the troops with the notion that their lost support will come back when the Irish voters realise that Fine Gael is all that stands between them and the Shinners.

It’s clever line, but a flawed one.

For it to offer any comfort it would need to be underpinned by Fine Gael still remaining the largest party – but it hasn’t. By the time the dust settles it will become clear that the other big story of the locals is the return to frontline politics of Fianna Fáil, even if its European results are a bit rocky.

If the battle of the next election is, as Varadkar suggests, to be fought on the question of where you stand with regard to Sinn Féin then Fianna Fáil, with a few more weapons in its armoury, is standing on better – and now even firmer – ground than the depleted followers of Enda.

While Fine Gael may see itself as the antithesis of Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil can challenge SF’s voodoo economics every bit as credibly as FG, but with the added bonus that that can better undermine and dismantle the Shinner’s fallacious claim to Republicanism, especially in its back yard.

The other story of the Fianna Fáil result is its incredible variety. Its national level of support at just over 25% belies some very good and incredibly bad local results, especially in urban centres.

They range from the sublime such as its 49% in Bailieborough-Coothall 39% in Castlecomer and 38.4% in Ballymote-Tobercurry to the ridiculous: such as its 4.9% in Dublin North Inner City, 6.8% in Tallaght South and 8.7% in Lucan.

While there are several other disappointing low teen results in urban centres across the country e.g 9.6% in Waterford City South, 10.5% in Bray and 13% in Limerick City North, it is no coincidence that the single digit performances are in Dublin.

That is not to say that the Capital is a wasteland for Fianna Fail. Contrast the single performance mentioned above with the parties stunning 27.3% in Castleknock, its 24.2% in Clontarf and its 22.3% in Stillorgan.

While the overall Dublin result of 16% points to a major problem for the party, the variety in results, highlighted above, shows Fianna Fáil’s further potential for growth and renewal in large swathes of Dublin.

It is the very patchiness of its result that points up where the party needs to work harder and better. Far too many candidates in Dublin were left to struggle on by themselves with no structured national campaign to underpin their efforts.

Having “Fianna Fáil” on your poster does not guarantee a good new candidate a certain base level of support in Dublin and other urban centres in the same way as having “Sinn Féin” on your poster did for their new first time candidates. Indeed it does not offer the prospect of that base level of support as it does in non-urban Ireland.

The candidates in Dublin raised the Fianna Fáil vote to their level, not the other way around. The vote in Dublin and other urban centres, is not the party vote plus the candidate’s unique personal support – it is just the latter. In certain parts of the city is it the unique personal support minus the residual antagonism to Fianna Fáil.

The “Fianna Fáil” identity is Dublin is not a coherent identity based on a core defining message from the party as a national political party: it is the collective identities of its various candidates.

This is not to underestimate the particular nature of Dublin voters, especially their looser party allegiances; it is just to point out that Dublin voters are just as likely to be receptive to a national message, just less continuously loyal to it.

Despite some clearly very good results in Dublin, most Fianna Fáil supporters still struggle to answer the questions: why should I vote Fianna Fáil and what does Fianna Fáil stand for. Most of the successful candidates I have encountered in Dublin answer it with the words: here is what I stand for…

It is not that there are not answers to these questions, but rather that the party has not sufficiently defined and substantiated them.

It is work that can and must be done. That work is not aided or encouraged by intemperate outbursts or Quixotic threatened heaves. The issues are policy and organisation – not personality.

The 24.3% of voters who abandoned Fine Gael and Labour saw their political alternatives this week. Some said independents, some said Sinn Féin – though not by a large margin as the swing to Sinn Féin since the 2011 election is in the 5.3%, but even more said Fianna Fáil with a swing of just over 8%, but the point should not be lost that the biggest single section of them said: none of the above.

The ones who stayed at home are the ones who were badly let down by Fianna Fáil and are now just as angry with Fine Gael and Labour for promising them a new politics and then delivering the old failed politics as usual.

Perhaps they concluded that they could afford to sit out these second order elections, as they do not see how the results will change their lives, they will not be as sanguine at the next election.

Are @AlanShatterTD and @EndaKennyTD out-Nixoning Nixon on #gsoc ?

Nixon in Oval Office with Haldeman and Ehrlichman
Nixon in Oval Office with Haldeman and Ehrlichman

In asking a High Court Judge to re-examine and review the documentation and material already available the Cabinet, and in particular the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny and the Minister for Justice and Defence, Alan Shatter are attempting to out-Nixon Nixon.

Back in early 1973, as the scandal of the Watergate Break In and Cover Up began to break, the then US President Richard M Nixon, in conjunction with his advisers John Ehrlichman and Bob Haldeman, devised a plan to get Nixon’s White House Counsel John Dean to write a report for the President on Watergate that “basically clears the President and White House staff of involvement”. Their plan was that they could cite Dean’s Report as what they had relied upon and that they could blame Dean for deceiving them.

While Dean did initially agree to go to Camp David at the President’s request to write such a report, but he soon came to realise that he was being lined up as the scapegoat and decided not to complete the report. Nixon sacked him shortly afterwards, on the same day as he announced the resignations of Ehrlichman and Haldeman.

While the Government is not asking a retired High Court Judge to become is scapegoat, it does seem to be looking to get a supposedly independent review that it determines will verify its own jaundiced version of events.

How else can we interpret the fact that while the Justice Minister was indicating how the review would operate he announced that he had decided on the review as he had received a review of the Verrimus report from RITS, a Dublin based IT security firm, that concluded that there was “no evidence at all”.

So, even as the Minister announces the review he sets out his view on what it should, if not must, conclude.

This, as with Nixon’s Dean Report, is all about attempting to draw a line under a growing political scandal rather than getting to the core of what caused it: allegations of bugging at GSOC’s premises?

Why opt for such a limited review, reporting to the Justice Minister and with Terms of Reference set by the Minister instead of an inquiry under the Commissions of Inquiry legislation?

Today’s Cabinet decision, albeit deeply flawed, runs counter to last week’s comments by both An Taoiseach and the Justice Minister and suggests either 1). A realization that the government’s spinning on the subject is not having the same impact now as it had at the start, and/or 2). Pressure from Labour members of the Cabinet growing tired of defending the Justice Minister.

—————

Background material on the Nixon/Dean Watergate Report

The timeline for Dean’s Watergate Report

March 20, 1973: In his conversation with chief of staff H. R. Haldeman about White House counsel John Dean’s phony “Dean Report,” which will say that no one in the White House was involved in the Watergate conspiracy, President Nixon says: “[The report] should lay a few things to rest. I didn’t do this, I didn’t do that, da-da, da-da, da-da, da-da, da-da, da-da, da-da. Haldeman didn’t do this. Ehrlichman didn’t do that. Colson didn’t do that. See?”

March 22, 1973:  President Nixon tells his aides to ensure that the nation never learns of the political and financial machinations that surround the Watergate burglary from his aides under investigation: “And, uh, for that reason, I am perfectly willing to—I don’t give a sh_t what happens, I want you all to stonewall it, let them plead the Fifth Amendment, cover-up or anything else.” But he wants something on paper that he can point to and say he knew nothing about the Watergate conspiracy, and that he had ordered an internal investigation of the matter. He sends counsel John Dean to Camp David for the weekend to write the document

March 27, 1973: President Nixon orders senior aide John Ehrlichman to conduct his own “independent investigation” of the conspiracy, since White House counsel John Dean has not yet produced the results of his own “investigation”

Download #seanref #seanad information booklet here…

Download the Seanad Information Booklet produced by Democracy Matters!

Seanad Reform Information Booklet

 

Powergrab

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

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

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

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.

#Seanad: an early analysis of the campaign issues so far #seanref

TNT24.ie asked me to take a quick look back over the issues emerging so far in the Seanad referendum campaign. As a protagonist on the Seanad Reform side, I do not claim this to be an impartial observation, but I have attempted to make it as fair as possible. 

The Seanad Chair
The Seanad Chair

Just over eight weeks ago Democracy Matters, the civic society group advocating Seanad Reform rather over abolition, was launched. A week later, in Government Buildings, An Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tánaiste Éamon Gilmore published their proposed amendment to the Constitution which, if passed by the people in about eleven weeks time, will abolish Seanad Éireann following the next election.

While the Seanad referendum campaign has yet to start in earnest: it has still been an eventful eight weeks with several shots fired in anger by both sides. We are already seeing some of the key lines of argument and contention emerging between the pro and anti campaigns. The debate, thus far, has seemed largely to focus on:

  1. Cost
  2. Scale
  3. Relevance

This has been to the advantage of the government side abolitionists so far. The discussion so far seems to have been on the government’s terms with very little real exploration of the No side’s reform alternatives. Nonetheless, the No side have had some success punching holes in some of the government’s case to date.

Costs: This has quickly emerged as an area of contention between the two sides. Fine Gael in particular has been focussing its attention of its claims that abolishing the Seanad would potentially save the State some €20million a year. This claim has been contested by several people on the No side, including Fianna Fáil, Democracy Matters and several Senators – including some Fine Gael and Labour ones. They put the figure at €10million or below

Fine Gael says its figures come from the Oireachtas Commission and offers the following breakdown on the €20m figure:

Total direct costs of running the Seanad of €8.8m (Gross), including

  • members’ salary (€4.2m);
  • members’ expenses (€2.5m) and
  • members’ staff costs (€2.1m)

€2m in annual pensions costs relating to the Seanad.

The additional indirect apportioned pay and non-pay costs of supporting sections of €9.3m:

  • ICT (€1.9m);
  • Superintendent (€1.6m);
  • Procedural sections (€2.8m) and
  • Other support sections (€3m).

Not that Fine Gael always used this figure. At one stage it was suggesting an annual saving of €30 per annum, but this was subsequently slimmed down – to a figure of around €10million. In June an opinion piece appeared in the Irish Times advocating abolition under the name of the then Fine Gael back bench TD Paschal Donohoe. It did not use this €20million figure, but rather suggested the €10m per annum one saying: “…at least €50 million over the lifetime of one Dáil term. Over five Dáil terms, with pension costs and expenses included, these savings alone would have us more than halfway to paying for a national children’s hospital.”

Reform advocates point to the January 2012 testimony of the outgoing Clerk of the Dáil, Kieran Coughlan who estimated the gross annual saving from abolition would be less than €10million. If you take into account that at least 30% of that €10million goes back to the Exchequer in taxes, levies and VAT, the real annual cost of the Seanad to the taxpayer is probably between €6 million and €7 million. The €2 million pensions cost would continue for all former members and might likely increase for the foreseeable future with 60 Senators being made redundant in one fell swoop.

As for the indirect costs the Oireachtas has said that it is not possible to estimate the net actual savings and advises there would be substantial increases in pension costs and redundancy payments.

The government does not mention the estimated €15+million cost of holding the referendum. This is based on the government’s own figures for the costs of the Referendum on the Protection of Children held on the 10th November, 2012.

The whole debate on costs is probably moot. As Senator Professor John Crown has pointed out, Minister Brendan Howlin has stated that money saved from Seanad abolition will be redeployed to Dáil Committees. So there will be no net savings to the Exchequer.

Scale:The government’s next big argument for abolition is that Ireland is too small a country to have a two chambered (bicameral) parliament and to have as many national politicians as we have.

These lines has been trotted out many times with the Taoiseach and Ministers making lots of references to such similarly sized places as Denmark, Finland, Sweden and New Zealand.

Reformists say that there is no direct correlation, between the size of State and parliamentary system. China with a population of over 1.3 billion has a single chamber (unicameral) parliament while the parliament of Saint Lucia (population 170,000) is bicameral.

They argue that bicameral is the norm for common law countries, such as ours – regardless of size. Indeed world’s wealthiest nations are mostly bicameral: of the fifteen countries with the highest GDP only two – the People’s Republic of China and South Korea – have a unicameral parliament.

As for the comparisons with Scandinavian countries, you are not comparing like with like. The overall structure of these Scandinavian political systems is very different from ours. In Denmark, Finland and Sweden local government is at the heart of the political system. In Sweden, for example, there are three tiers of government. These local governments can set their own local income tax. As for the numbers, contrary to having fewer politicians all these countries have more.

 

Local Authorities

Councillors

Denmark

98

2,500

Finland

304

10,000

Norway

423

12,000

Ireland

31

949

 

 

Relevance: Launching the government’s referendum proposal; back in June the Taoiseach questioned the relevance of the Seanad saying that modern Ireland cannot be governed effectively by a political system originally designed for 19th century Britain.

Putting the factual error on 19th century Britain element part down to the rhetorical over exuberance of his speech writer (perhaps the same one who thought Lenin had visited Ireland and met with Michael Collins), it is a theme frequently mentioned.

Does much of the question mark over the Seanad’s relevance stem from how it is elected – mainly by other politicians?

Government just defeats Seanad attempt to refer abolition to Constitutional Convention
Government just defeats Seanad attempt to refer abolition to Constitutional Convention

If so, could it not be addressed by extending the franchise for the Seanad and allowing every voter on the island – North and South – the right to vote in Seanad elections?

The method of elected the 43 vocational Senators is set out in law, not in the Constitution. It would not take a referendum to give every existing (and future) voter the right to vote in a Seanad election. Every voter could decide on which panel they wished to exercise their vote: Labour, Culture & Educational, Agriculture, Industry & Commerce and Administrative and vote accordingly. Everyone would get one vote – no more multiple voting.

With this one simple act – achieved by legislation – the government could do more to address the Seanad’s relevance and the issue of Oireachtas reform than with any number of referendums.

The new, reformed Seanad would be a positive response to the fiscal crisis and loss of sovereignty. The global crisis was exacerbated in Ireland because public policy and economic dogma went unchallenged. Regulators went unregulated, civil society and the party system failed to advance realistic alternatives.

Rejecting abolition and giving ourselves a new reformed Seanad is about ensuring this doesn’t happen again.

ENDS

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

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.

Lucinda Creighton and the “Rats in the Ranks”

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

——

Larry Hand in "Rats in the Ranks"
Larry Hand in “Rats in the Ranks”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lucinda Creighton TD (pic taken from her website)
Lucinda Creighton TD (pic taken from her website)

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

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

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

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

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

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