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.
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).
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 week’s columns, which first appeared on Broadsheet on Monday October 11th, looked at Fianna Fáil’s ongoing problems with defining itself and the decision of its leader to contact out the job of defining the party’s aims and beliefs to a 12-person-commission.
As I have mentioned before, the truest rule of politics is Lyndon Johnson’s “never tell a man to go to hell unless you can send him there.”
It recognises that today’s enemies may be tomorrow’s allies, while warning that hollow threats only expose the weakness of those making them.
My second favourite political saying is: “You buy your colours on your way into a match, not on your way out.”
It comes from someone a million miles away from LBJ, the Yellow Rose of Finglas, the late Jim Tunney. Tunney was a junior minister, Lord Mayor of Dublin and a Fianna Fáil TD for 23 years. He prided himself on his absolute loyalty to his party leader, especially Charlie Haughey.
Not only had Tunney a penchant for quoting himself, he did it in the third person. He uttered the phrase less as a strategy and more as a self-description, especially when defending his decision, as parliamentary party chair, to hold open rollcall votes, rather than secret ballots.
This week’s Broadsheet column, which first appeared online on Sept 13th 2021, looked at the history of the no-confidence motion and concluded that while Minister Coveney and his Fine Gael colleagues had probably done enough to earn the dubious honour of having a no confidence motion tabled against him, it did not deserve to pass… just yet
Johnny Carson famously called Oscar night the time when Hollywood stars put aside their petty rivalries and brought out their major rivalries.
So it is with Motions of No Confidence. Oppositions set aside the boring business of holding ministers and governments to account to solely focus on scoring big political points.
Just like the Oscars, motions of confidence are about ritual and theatricality. This applies to both sides – opposition and government.
Opposition politicians who hope one day to become government ministers act outraged and appalled. Governments ministers, who were once opposition hopefuls, accuse their rivals of base cynicism and partisanship.
The script writes itself. Scroll back through no confidence debates of the past fifty years and you see the same formulaic lines pop up each time, just mouthed by different actors, few of Oscar winning standard.
This is my first Broadsheet column in about five weeks… and what an eventful five weeks it has been. What makes it even more interesting and potentially significant is that it leads into the final steps in the re-opening of society via the relaxation of the remaining Covid-19 restrictions. This means a return to normal politics via a return to face to face meetings of the various parliamentary parties. This I believe means that the endgame is near for both the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael leaders.
At the end of July I said that come September I would be back and ready to offer my thoughts on what’s happening on the Irish political scene.
Well, I am back, but little did I imagine we would see so much political activity in August. Like many I assumed that politicians from all sides who have – to be fair – endured a difficult 16 months, would leap at the chance of a having a calm and uneventful August.
I was wrong. I failed to the factor-in the capacity of Fine Gael’s officer class to completely overestimate their own guile and ability and to fatally underestimate the public’s impatience with the appearance of ministerial entitlement.
Though the Taoiseach and his allies, more of whom are in Fine Gael these days than in Fianna Fáil, may want to portray #Merriongate / #Zapponegate as a silly season story that is not resonating with the public, his TDs, Senators and Councillors know that’s not the case.
Voters may not be familiar the minutiae of who said what, to whom, in what text and over what platform… but who is? The stories and sequences coming from the Tánaiste and the Foreign Affairs minister seem to change every couple of days, including at today’s second attempt by the Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs to establish the facts.
As you will see from the opening paragraph below I wrote this column, which appeared on Broadsheet.ie on June 8th, assuming that the three parties would have produced some form of Programme for Government (PfG) – even if it was not one to which all the negotiators (i.e. not all the Green party ones) felt they could sign up..
As we see today (Friday 12th) yet another deadline has slipped in a process that full of missed deadlines and makes Bismarck’s sausage factory look like a place of beauty and efficiency. We also see today via a Michael Gove Tweet that the UK does not want a sensible transition extension and so the Tories are determined to have a hard UK Brexit crash out at year’s end.
Tempting though it is to present you today with yet another analysis piece about the government formation process, I will resist.
My reasons are twofold:
There is a 50/50 chance the process will still be ongoing this time next week
We are in such a state of flux with events moving faster than ever, there is every chance that the facts underpinning any analysis could change while I write it up.
OK, reason one is a bit flippant. I would be extremely surprised if an agreed document, though not necessarily one agreed by everyone, has not emerged by week’s end.
The second reason remains rock solid.
The one thing I can say with any certainty today is that there are so many moving parts and shifting gears that no one outcome, or series of outcomes, is certain.
This column first appeared on Broadsheet.ie on May 25th, 2020 about two weeks before Catherine Martin confirmed that she would challenge Éamon Ryan in the upcoming Green Party leadership contest. While events since this column was published confirm that the Green party is not now ready, willing or able to serve in government, they also highlight the depth and intensity of the schism within that party between the fundis (i.e. purists) and the realos (pragmatists).
If, on the night of the election count, you had been asked to bet on which of the three leaders, of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael or the Greens, would face a leadership challenge first, I very much doubt many would have their money on Éamon Ryan.
Why would they? As the counting of ballots ended Ryan was the only one of the three with anything to celebrate. While Martin and Varadkar were trying to explain away seat losses, Ryan was almost iridescent as he watched the ranks of his Dáil party swell from just two TDs to twelve.
Ryan was not just a successful leader, he was the Green’s most successful ever leader in its almost 40-year history, winning twice as many seats as had been won under Trevor Sargent in 2002 or 2007.
It was the leadership careers of Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin which seemed to be hanging delicately in the balance that week.
Maybe it is an indication of how much politics has changed in recent months that both Varadkar and Martin seem relatively (though not equally) secure in their positions, while it is Ryan who could well be struggling for political survival.