My interim by-election review for Fianna Fáil

This column first appeared on Broadsheet.ie on July 12th, a few days after the Dublin Bay South by-Election result. That result shows that Fianna Fáil is facing a crisis of relevance and viability, one that its leader of over 10 years is unwilling to address or acknowledge. This column was offered as an independent review of what I think went wrong in the by-election. 

A few weeks after the February 2020 election I said that Fianna Fáil’s Micheál Martin needed to stop and “take a hard look at why his party lost support and seats”. I said it again, several times, over the weeks and months that followed. I even offered the independent review the Australian Labour Party had commissioned into its electoral failure as a template.

I thought it was essential that the party examine why it had done so badly before doing anything precipitative, such as going into government with the party it had promised to put out of office.

The leadership thought otherwise. It felt Fianna Fáil’s best course of action was to get into office and that its political revival would come from the government program for recovery. It seemed to miss the inconvenient truth that this meant giving Fine Gael a veto on Fianna Fáil’s fortunes.

This was one of the main reasons I ended my 40 plus year membership of Fianna Fáil. Why would I knock myself out trying to rebuild a party, when the top Fine Gael brass would have a bigger say in it than grassroot members?

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Why does Martin’s Fianna Fáil have such a stubborn problem with young people?

This week’s column first appeared on Broadsheet last Monday (July 5th). In it, I look at the argument on Fianna Fáil’s real and demonstrable problems with young voters that mysteriously leaked out from the parliamentary party. Indeed, it is long past time for folks to wonder why (and how) there are so many leaks from what is supposed a confidential meeting of elected colleagues, particularly when most of that leaked material is often detrimental to those not on the leader’s side. I also take a final look at the Dublin Bay South By-Election. 

According to the many detailed leaks from last week’s Fianna Fáil parliamentary party meeting (an issue itself worthy of an article) the suggestion that young people perceive the party as toxic and inimical to their needs, angered and upset several TD’s and junior ministers.

And not in a good way. Rather than being angered that young people feel this way – and sadly they do, as almost every poll published over the past 18 months has shown – some ministers were outraged that colleagues would dare point this out.

Even the recent Irish Times Ipsos/Mori, which optimistically showed Fianna Fáil’s support increasing nationally by 6pts to 20%, still found that the party is only on 8% among Dublin voters aged under 35. This puts it in a very weakened 5th place in Dublin, well behind Sinn Féin, Fine Gael, The Greens and Independents.

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Why does an unpopular party have a popular leader?

Last week I rekindled my love affair with the word “paradox”, so expect to see it pop up here a lot, including in this week’s Broadsheet column where I look at the paradox of Fianna Fáil’s poll ratings remaining stubbornly low, while the approval ratings of its leader move up. Has An Taoiseach, Micheál Martin learned how to disassociate himself from his party… and doesn’t this mean that what is in his interest, is not in his party’s.. and vice-versa?   

Ipsos/MRBI Irish Times Poll – June 16th 2021

Though I probably keep this fact well hidden from readers, I really try to not write about polling too often. I say this through clenched fingers as I know it must seem that I have written about little else over the past few weeks and months.

It is a fair criticism to say that political pundits talk and write excessively about polling in the guise of political analysis. While the soap opera aspects of politics, who’s in, who’s out, who’s politically in bed with whom, does help liven up what can often be a dull area, the focus should be on the policies and the decisions rather than who makes them.

The old Heisenberg uncertainty/indeterminacy principle applies to politics as much as it does to physics. If you cannot accurately measure both the position and the velocity of an object simultaneously, then you should focus more on the  trajectory of an object or an idea than analysing snapshots of where it was a few days or weeks ago.   

All of which is a long-winded way of me explaining/excusing – why I am once again talking about polling. In my defence, I do this as there is something that is worth discussing in the two most recent opinion polls: yesterday’s Ireland Thinks/Irish Mail on Sunday one and last week’s Irish Times/IPSOS/MRBI, as they offer some contradictory results.

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Why Fake Pollsters Do Not Mean Fake Polling

This column first appeared on Broadsheet.ie on Monday June 14th. It looks at the recent “fake pollsters” saga that seemed to put all three main parties in a tizzy. Was it really as big a scandal as some thought… or… a bit like Watergate, was the real problem the struggle all three parties had in getting their own stories straight. Rather than being something “sinister” it was just a “paradox”. I also confess to my own bit of fake polling from back in 1985 and show how fake polls – as opposed to fake pollsters – rarely have the desired impact. This I discuss via some chat about political movies such as all The President’s Men and Nasty Habits, a quirkly though sadly forgotten movie that is well worth checking out. 

While All The President’s Men remains the best Watergate related movie, there are some credible challengers. Indeed a new 5-part TV series, the White House Plumbers is currently in production. Directed by VEEP writer and producer David Mandel, it stars Woody Harrelson as Howard Hunt and Justin Theroux as Gordon Liddy, the leaders of the crew of “plumbers” who broke into the Democratic Party HQ in the Watergate office complex.

Another contender is the quirky “Nasty Habits”, a film which manages not to mention Nixon, the White House or even Watergate. Instead, this adaptation of the Muriel Spark satire: “The Abbess of Crewe” which transposed the Watergate scandal to an English Benedictine convent, moves the action again, this time to Philadelphia and an order of nuns led by the Nixonian Sr Alexandra, played by Glenda Jackson.

Alexandra has schemed her way to the top of the cloister by secretly taping the confessions of her fellow sisters. She has her Ehrlichman and Haldeman like henchmen in the guise of Sisters Walburga and Mildred, plus the globe-trotting missionary Sr Gertrude, who shuttles around the world’s trouble spots, á la Henry Kissinger, played brilliantly by Melina Mercouri.

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There’s only one issue that matters – and it is #housing

This column appeared on Broadsheet.ie on Monday May 31st and looks at the main issue occupying the minds of most Irish voters, Housing. Now that public concerns about Covid-19 are beginning to ease, its attention has almost immediately returned to the issue that dominated before the pandemic: housing… particularly the seeming inability of the two main parties to grasp the scale of the crisis for many people. 

Cherrywood site – Dublin 18

Regular readers, by which I mean those who have read a few of my columns, opposed to those who have read just one while eating a bowl of fruit and fibre,  will know that I have a few themes to which I like to occasionally return.

These include, Fianna Fáil’s future, Northern Ireland, defence/cyber security, and the old hardly annual: electoral politics. It is why opinion polls can be a useful grist to my mill. I say “can” as most of the polls published since last December have not – with the exception of one Sunday Times/B&A poll – shown much political movement.

The shifts in support between the parties over the past five months have been negligible. Across that time Red C has had Sinn Féin in a range of 27% to 29% and Fine Gael in an even tighter range of 29% to 30%. In effect, Red C polling has the two biggest parties in a continuing dead heat for first spot.

The range widens when you turn to Fianna Fáil. But is also drops. Like the proverbial stone. Red C has the party of Lemass in a range from 11% to 16%. If you treat Fianna Fail’s numbers as if they were high-diving scores (plummeting more like, says you), by removing the highest and lowest ones, the party ends up in the much tighter 13-14% range.

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Doing national #cybersecurity on the cheap costs more… time to put @defenceforces in charge

This week’s column first appeared on Broadsheet.ie on Monday May 17th. I look at the massive ransomware attack on the HSE and the Dept of Health and remind us that experts have been warning for years that government is not taking cyber defence seriously enough.

We risk being the EU’s weakest link on cyber security despite our dependence on the digital economy. 

 

Though I have related this Jeffrey Bernard anecdote here before, it still bears repeating. When Jeffrey Bernard was too “tired and emotional” to submit his weekly column to The Spectator, the editor would place an apologetic line explaining that there was no column that week as: “Jeffrey Bernard is unwell”.

There was also another one. It was longer, but less apologetic and appeared when the editor was feeling less charitable. It read: “Mr Bernard’s column does not appear this week as it remarkably resembles the one he wrote last week”.

Broadsheet’s editor could be forgiven for posting a similar renunciation here, as the discourse on the HSE cyber-attack I propose to put to you is effectively a re-statement of arguments and commentaries I’ve made many times over the past few years. 

I have been warning about our failure to take national cyber-security seriously since late 2019. I highlighted it as a sub-plot in this column from Sept 2019 and then expanded on the problem in a column entitled: Pleading No Defence On Cyber Security.

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Like Brezhnev… many in Fianna Fáil Are Riding The Rails With The Blinds Down

This week’s column appeared on Broadsheet.ie on May 10th and opens with an old Soviet era story contrasting the leadership styles of Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev and moves on to me suggesting that the fence-sitters, the undecideds, in the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party are acting like latter-day Brezhnevs… hoping to survive just long enough to pass on the huge problems they can see, but ignore, to someone else. I also take a quick pre-campaign look at the upcoming Dublin Bay South by-election #DBSBE21

There’s a Soviet era story comparing the leadership styles of three of its former leaders: Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev.

It goes like this. The three leaders are sitting in the plush compartment of a special politburo train traveling across the western Siberian plain.

The train suddenly stops in the middle of nowhere. The leaders send for the train manager. He informs them that the driver, co-driver and engineers have gone on strike and are refusing to move the train another centimetre.

Stalin tells Khrushchev and Brezhnev: “I’ll deal with this”. He climbs down from the carriage and walks to the front of the train to berate the crew.

Before the great leader can utter a word, the driver complains vocally that he hasn’t been paid in weeks, hasn’t eaten or slept over the past 24 hours and has just heard that his brothers have been arrested and sent to a gulag.

Continue reading “Like Brezhnev… many in Fianna Fáil Are Riding The Rails With The Blinds Down”

There’s no big secret to good government communications

This column appears here out of sequence, as it first appeared on Broadsheet.ie on April 19th. In it, I look at this government’s problems with communications, particularly the Fianna Fáil side of it.

According to the veteran American comedian George Burns there is no big secret to comic timing. It’s very simple, he said. You tell the joke, you wait for the laughter and when the laughter stops, you tell the next joke. That’s comic timing.

It’s something similar with government communications: you deliver you message and give the public the time to let it sink in.

What you certainly do not do is to talk across your message or try to chop and change the narrative while folks are still trying to take it in.

There is nothing wrong with a minister having a new idea, indeed it is something to be encouraged. What is important is that it is an informed idea. What you don’t do is to contact a journalist to communicate an idea to the public until it has been fully formed and explored with colleagues and – hopefully – some real live experts.

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Time’s Up for Martin… But It’ll Take A Little Longer To Play Out

This column first appeared on Broadsheet on March 29th and draws together some of the points I have been making over previous weeks, particularly relating to Fianna Fáil’s existential crisis and the dramatic changes it must make, and quickly, if it is to remain relevant in Irish politics. The party’s support levels are now lower than they were when Martin moved to out his predecessor. Martin cannot halt the inevitable, but he can still determine his legacy.  

Much as I would prefer not to think about it, it is impossible for anyone with an interest in politics not to see yesterday’s Red C, Sunday Business Post poll as a seminal political moment for Fianna Fáil.

Ironically, for a poll that will be viewed as a landmark, the movements it records are quite small. I am sure this is something from which Taoiseach Micheál Martin will try to draw some comfort. Fianna Fáil’s latest 2% drop is within the margin of error and it is not in itself massively statistically important – except, it is yet another step bringing the party back down at its lowest ever point.

The party has recorded 11% in Red C polls before. Last October was the last time. The time before that was… well, never. Its lowest previous Red C rating was the 14% of early 2011 that provoked Micheál Martin to challenge Taoiseach Brian Cowen saying:

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.”

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This is an important week for relations across these islands

This week’s Broadsheet column examines how the week beginning Monday March 22 may be a more important one for the medium to long term future of relations on this island that the one before, even though that week featured several important set-piece speeches by An Taoiseach, Micheál Martin on the North and the relations with UK and the EU post Brexit. My argument is not that the Taoiseach said anything wrong – he didn’t. My problem is with what he didn’t say.  On Unity.  I suspect the Taoiseach believes he is far ahead of public opinion in not discussing unity or constitutional change. The reality, I fear, is that Mr Martin is perilously far behind where the centre ground of nationalist and republican opinion public is, North and South.    

Jim O’Callaghan TD delivering his Cambridge Speech on Unity

Given the week that was in it, with St Patrick’s Day and all, and the impressive number of virtual calls and speeches made by An Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, you’d be forgiven for thinking that last week would have been a more important week for the future of relationships on these islands than this week. But it wasn’t.

To his credit, An Taoiseach seized every opportunity presented to him to speak in detail about what he called the “whole new category of challenges that we have had to deal with” following Brexit. He did so with conviction and belief.

In addition to his crucial virtual Oval Office face-to-face with President Biden and Vice President Harris, he had high profile speeches and exchanges with both the prestigious Brookings and Edward M. Kennedy institutes, plus a range of other important calls and engagements.

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