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.

Continue reading “Why Fake Pollsters Do Not Mean Fake Polling”

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.

Continue reading “There’s only one issue that matters – and it is #housing”

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.

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

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.

Continue reading “There’s no big secret to good government communications”

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.”

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

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.

Continue reading “This is an important week for relations across these islands”

No defence of defence relationships

This article first appeared on Broadsheet dot i e on February 22nd and considers the political dimension to the reported breakdown in relationships between senior management in the Department of Defence and the Irish Defence Forces. I establish that the problem has nothing to do with personalities, but rather the structural relations between the two leaderships and the perception that the Department of Defence is not championing the cause of the Defence Forces within government, most particularly with the Department of Finance. But that is impossible to do without a committed minister at cabinet with political clout. A minister who puts Defence first, not second.

A few months after I started working as the special adviser in the Department of Defence, Gerry Hickey, the late and much missed programme manager to Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, phoned me to check on some departmental facts and figures for the annual Programme for Government review.

“…and roughly how many civil servants work in the Department of Defence”, he enquired.

“From what I can tell… about half of them”, I acerbically responded.

There was an exasperated silence at the other end of the line.  Not for the first time my knack for being smart-assed at the wrong moment was backfiring.  

“What was that?” he asked.

Luckily, I had the number to hand as there had been a parliamentary question on that topic a week or two before. From memory there were about 380 individual civil servants, but as some were on job sharing schemes this was roughly equal to 360 whole-time equivalents.  

My wise-guy answer was unnecessarily facetious. Almost all the department officials I encountered during in my time in defence were hard-working and professional. This is across the department, not just those on the policy side, who I encountered most frequently, but also the junior and mid-ranking officials who made the defence establishment work efficiently, such as those in the pay and pensions branches.

Continue reading “No defence of defence relationships”

Did Martin Manage to Accidentally Throw His Shared Island Unit Under A Bus?

This column first appeared on Broadsheet.ie on January 25th 2021 and considers the damage An Taoiseach Micheál Martin has done to his Shared Island Unit. His unfounded claims and ill considered comments during a lengthy RTÉ Radio One interview with Brendan O’Connor hurt the prospects for the Shared Island Unit by undermining his relationship with the NI Executive, particularly with its unionist members.

An Taoiseach may have inadvertently given himself an opportunity to get his Shared Island Unit back on the rails, by accepting today’s new reality and allowing it to engage meaningfully on constitutional issues, including advocating for the positives of a united Ireland. Maybe some good can come from Martin’s little too much.

mm on boc

It’s never the little too little that hurts, it’s the little too much. This was Sean Lemass’s famous advice to aspiring politicians. Keep your own counsel and never say more than you need too, especially when what you are saying is not fully thought through.

Though the advice comes from an age before social media and rolling news, it applies as much today as it did in the 50s and 60s.

It is such a profound piece of political advice that I assumed I had mentioned it here before. But a word search of the Broadsheet pieces I have written over the past 5 years tells me that I’ve only quoted it here once before. That was last November in a piece I wrote about the Shared Island Unit. In it, I suggested that the Taoiseach still “has an awful lot to learn from Lemass’s practical application of vision to action.”

Listening to the Taoiseach’s lengthy Saturday morning interview with Brendan O’Connor on RTÉ Radio One, it appears that it is a lesson he still needs to learn, and urgently.

Continue reading “Did Martin Manage to Accidentally Throw His Shared Island Unit Under A Bus?”

Normal Political Service Will Resume When Pubs (ie Wet Bars) Reopen

This column appeared on Broadsheet.ie on Jan 18th, 2021and looked at the impact of the pandemic on the craft and practise of normal politics. I suggest that we will not see a return to the normal exercise and discussion of ordinary politics until we are all able to safely have a pint or a drink without food in a non-gastro pub (the so-called Wet Bars). For that to happen, the vaccination programme will need to roll out much faster.

A faltering start and confusing release of data will not instill confidence in the public. If voters see Northern Ireland and Scotland a long way ahead of us by mid- March, in terms of vaccinating people and preparing to re-open, then public patience with the government, and with the Taoiseach and Health Minister in particular, will snap.

Writing traditional political analysis at a time when the usual power play and open practise of normal politics has been suspended is not easy. Writing it when people are worrying about the damage this pandemic is inflicting on their lives and livelihoods is uncomfortable.

The ups and down of this junior minister or that opposition frontbencher are so unimportant when compared with the concerns of people worried about whether their jobs will be still there, or their business will still be viable after the pandemic.

Even in normal times, the reporting of political processes, the who’s in and who’s out, only serves as a distraction from the real stuff of politics when its discussion is detached from the consequences of those movements on the formulation and implementation of policy.

While these are not normal times, their gradual return is almost within sight, and with those normal times will come a return to the normal practise and discussion of politics.

While no one is foolhardy enough to dare suggest a hard date for that return, I’d wager that we will not see a return to this normal politics this side of the wet pubs re-opening. I say this with deference to the many publicans who may now fear my forecast will act as an incentive for Micheál Martin to keep them closed to 2022! Continue reading “Normal Political Service Will Resume When Pubs (ie Wet Bars) Reopen”