In my first post of 2023 (apologies for the delay) I look back at the first few weeks of the Donohoe #Postergate saga and explore how Fine Gael has taken the old political dictum: when you are explaining, you are losing, and turned it on its head. Though they may feel it is working in the short-term… I believe that in the longer term, it will not. I do not see Minister Donohoe resigning – even post SIPO investigation – but I think his value (commercial or otherwise) to Fine Gael is now considerably diminished.
If you are explaining, you are losing.
So ubiquitous is this political truism that its authorship is variously ascribed to such election campaigning greats as Ronald Reagan or Karl Rove.
The idea underpinning the phrase is appropriately straight forward. If you want to win voters over to your cause you must sound confident and convinced. You do this best by having a message that is clear and concise. Spend too much time explaining your position and you come off looking desperate to convince.
Though this approach has come in for criticism over the years – one notable critic being the former GOP Congressman J.C. Watts who equated it with “a bumper sticker culture” – it has been the prevailing campaigning mantra… or least it has been, up to now.
In this blog I discuss the principal factors a party leader should consider when contemplating a mid-term reshuffle. Though I draw many of these from British political research, I also consider recent Irish expamples and refrain – largely – from engaging in too much speculation about who may be in or out next Saturday… or next week when the junior ministries are announced.
Aware of Paddy Ashdown’s background as both a Royal Marine and a Special Boat Service officer, Charles Kennedy observed wryly to the House of Commons in Oct 1998 that Ashdown was: “the only party leader who’s a trained killer. Although, to be fair, Mrs Thatcher was self-taught.”
Not that the Iron Lady saw it that way. Speaking about her post-election reshuffle options in a BBC interview on the day after her 1983 election win, she resisted Sir Robin Day’s invitation to call herself a good (political) butcher. Instead, she disagreed with Herbert Asquith’s claim that a good Prime Minister must be a good butcher, before adding that they did need to know how to carve the joint. A distinction without a difference?
In this blogpost I suggest that the latest Fine Gael suggestion that Ireland abandon the UN mandate element of the triple-lock mechanism is just about distracting public focus from its ongoing failure to undo the decade of neglect it has inflicted on Irish defence.
Last Wednesday evening (around 5.30pm) Seanad Éireann debated a Private Members motion on “Ireland’s Military Neutrality.” It is well worth a read (or a viewing) as it is a calm and reasoned discussion of Irish Defence policy and the large gaps that appear therein.
Huge credit is due to the two proposers of the motion: Senators Michael McDowell and Tom Clonan. They crafted a motion that was both measured but frank. The motion, which was passed, ultimately called on the government to:
You do really have to wonder if the Taoiseach and Tánaiste understand politics at all?
Their immediate and absolute refusal to accede to calls for a mid-point review of the Programme for Government, coming from senior representatives in their two parties, is an example of this.
What is so wrong with agreeing to a mid-point review, a political stock-take, of the programme so painstaking negotiated back in June 2020?
Why shouldn’t the moment at which the two leaders switch roles also involve an appraisal of how effective this government has been at implementing the lengthy programme announced just over two years ago?
Earlier this week, An Taoiseach Micheál Martin, accompanied by ministers Simon Coveney and Eamon Ryan headed to McKee barracks, beside the Phoenix Park, to launch the overdue and long anticipated government’s action plan response to the Report of the Commission on the Defence Forces, entitled: “Building for the future – change from within.”
It is a good document. It commits the government to moving the State’s level of defence capability to Level of Ambition 2 (LOA) over a period of six years between now and 2028. In terms of cash and people, this means growing the annual Defence budget to €1.5 billion by 2028 (in 2022 prices) plus expanding the defence establishment by 2,000 personnel (civil and military).
In this week’s opinion piece I look at what I term the appalling vista: the prospect of a decade of Irish politics dominated by Fine gael versus Sinn Féin. We had a worrying glimpse of what it may look and sound like when Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, T.D., and Sinn Féin finance spokesperson Pearse Doherty, T.D. clashed during Leaders’ Questions, last week. It was unedifying for all except the most passionate shinner and blueshirt partisans.
An appalling vista. The phrase most infamously comes from Lord Tom Denning’s odious dismissal of the Birmingham Six’s 1980 appeal against their wrongful conviction.
Denning was so firm a fixture of the British establishment that he refused to entertain the possibility that the West Midlands police had lied and framed six innocent Irishmen, declaring that:
…it would mean that the police were guilty of perjury; that they were guilty of violence and threats; that the confessions were involuntary and improperly admitted in evidence; and that the convictions were erroneous… That was such an appalling vista that every sensible person would say, “It cannot be right that these actions [the appeal] should go any further.
And so, Lord Justice Denning compounded the injustice being suffered by the Birmingham Six and dismissed their appeal.
A year ago we were told by those close to the Fianna Fáil leader that the persistantly poor poll numbers were due to disunity and sniping at the leader. So why… after 10 months of back benchers holding their tongues…. are the party’s poll figures still stuck in the mid to high teens? The party fared disastrously in Feb 2020…. but that figure now looks like a long distant high water mark.
Exactly two years ago, on June 15th 2020 in a column entitled Better Never Than Late, I stated that there were then three absolute truths for Fianna Fáil. Truths that highlighted how misguided the leadership’s strategy of putting Fine Gael back into government was as it ignored the reality that that Fianna Fáil had options and leverage.
I revisited those three truths several times in both late 2020 and early 2021, but it has occurred to me that I have not examined them again lately.
For the first time in almost six years I am writing a weekly opinion piece which will not appear on Broadsheet.ie. Though I have written for various print magazines and newspapers over the years, writing a weekly opinion piece for Broadsheet was both enjoyable and slightly.
The Broadsheet platform offered me the potential to reach a different audience than when I was writing for the Evening Herald. An audience that might not instinctively identify with my more moderate brand of politics. To judge from the comments on my Broadsheet farewell piece the exercise kind of worked. Many people leaving messages along the lines of “while I didn’t often agree with you, I enjoyed reading your point of view and seeing your analysis.”
I am deeply sorry that Broadsheet is gone. We will miss its eclectic assortment of quirky and whimsical stories, doggie/cat pics, news items, and early sight of the next day’s front pages. We will be the poorer for its demise It served its readers… and its contributors… well.
I am grateful to John – who I have known from the days of In Dublin and Magill – and to all the team behind Broadsheet. I wish them all well for the future.
The fact that I no longer have the Broadsheet platform from which to rant, won’t stop me foisting my weekly analysis on an unprepared and unguarded public, though they may have to search a little harder to find me – be it on my website, podcast and/or Social Media… starting now.
This column first appeared on Broadsheet.ie on Monday March 28th and sees me return to one of my most frequent themes… the devastation inflicted on Ireland’s national defence by the decade of political indifference shown by the two Fine Gael-led governments since 2011.
“Coveney: Russian war highlights need to boost Defence Forces’ spend”.
This was the headline to a story in the Irish Examiner explaining how our part-time Minister for Defence is perhaps… possibly… on the cusp of the verge of being ready… in a few months… to signal that he just about ready to announce plans to consider the partial implementation of some of the recommendations in the final report of the Commission on Defence… if he secures the agreement of certain key people in Cabinet.
Regrettably, the words actually uttered by Minister Coveney on the day were not that much more definitive than my facetious parody, telling reporters that:
“I’ll be bringing an action plan on the back of the recommendations in the commission to Government in June and it will be a strong statement of intent from me, and I hope from government, if we can get approval, in terms of the need to quite significantly increase our investment in the Defence Forces”