This column first appeared on Broadsheet on March 15th, the day after the Sunday Times [Ireland] broke the story that the preliminary Garda inquiry into the leaking of a confidential contract by Leo Varadkar while Taoiseach had been upgraded to a criminal investigation by Garda Headquarters. Here I set out why Varadkar’s grip on the Fine Gael leadership was already starting to loosen before this story broke and why his political future may be every bit as uncertain as Micheál Martin’s.
Over last few months I have written a lot… an awful lot… about Fianna Fáil’s existential crisis. These articles have mainly focused on the shortcomings of the leader, and Taoiseach, Micheál Martin.
This is to be expected. Even though I now find myself on the outside looking in, it is still the party I understand best, and care about most, having been a member for over 40 years.
But my instinctive focus on my former party should not detract from the problems facing Fine Gael – or, more specifically, those facing its leader, An Tánaiste, Leo Varadkar.
Before yesterday’s Sunday Times front page story about the Tánaiste being the subject of criminal investigation, Varadkar’s position looked unassailable. But looks can be deceiving.
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 cabinetwith 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.
In this Broadsheet column, which first appeared on February 8th, I look at the choices facing our Justice Minister, Helen McEntee T.D., as her ministerial inbox starts to fill up with difficult and pressing issues. Does she allow herself to be overwhelmed by the problems that face any Justice Minister, as happened to Nora Owen, or does she get ahead of them and not allow circumstances dictate her record, something Maire Geoghegan Quinn deftly managed to achieve. Time is still on her side… but only just.
In the final episode of Yes Minister, the fictional Minister for Administrative affairs and party chairman, Jim Hacker, is faced with the difficult choice of backing one of two disreputable candidates to be the next Prime Minister.
His primary determining factor is what will the result mean for his career. While backing the losing side would probably see him being sent to Northern Ireland, Hacker concludes that the question facing him is not just one of picking the winner. As party chair his support could tip the balance, so Hacker feels he must ultimately decide whether he wants to be Foreign Secretary or Chancellor of the Exchequer?
Examining his options aloud in the company of Bernard Woolley, his civil servant private secretary, Hacker pronounces that neither job is attractive. To become Chancellor is to become Mr. Killjoy, he says, as all he does is raise taxes on beer and cigarettes. Besides, as no new economic policy has any real effect for at least two years, Hackers opines that he would spend his first two years as Chancellor paying the political price for the mistakes of his predecessor.
As for becoming Foreign Secretary, Hacker tells his private secretary that is an even worse job. While the Government wants to be nice to foreigners, he knows the electorate, especially his voters would want him to be nasty to them. Not to mention the fact that the British Foreign Office is now virtually irrelevant as Britain had no real power abroad and had just become a sort of American missile base since the 1950s. [Recall that this episode was first broadcast at Christmas 1984… a long time before Brexit]
In this, the last column of 2020, I throw a very jaundiced eye over the political year, a year dominated by Covid and Brexit. I also look at the Taoiseach’s remarkable claim that we didn’t bail out the banks and suggest that his remarks were not an intemperate outburst as some suggest, but a clumsy and failed attempt to call out what he sees as populism.
The version below is a longer version of the column which appeared on Broadsheet.ie on Monday December 21, 2020.
To paraphrase the David Frost programme of the 1960’s: That was the year that was — It’s over, let it go… except, we can’t, not just yet. Politically the year is far from over. 2020 is not quite yet finished with the two issues that have so far dominated the year: Brexit and Covid. While the two issues will also dominate 2021, they each have a bit left to be played out in this year.
On Brexit we still have the will they/won’t they saga over whether the EU and UK negotiators can finalise a deal in Brussels. Last week I said I thought they could and would. I still think they can, though it now seems possible that it may take until January to get that deal defined on paper and possibly until February to get it formally passed in Europe. Continue reading “Goodbye #2020: That Was The Year That Was”→
This column first appeared on Broadsheet.ieon Nov 9th, the day before the Dáil was due to debate the opposition motion of No Confidence in Leo Varadkar on foot of the #leakgate #leotheleaker controversy
I’m sure many of you were shocked as I was to learn last Friday that Sinn Féin doesn’t have confidence in Leo Varadkar.
Seriously, who’d have thought it?
Who’d have imagined that the main opposition party, a party that sees the future of Irish politics as a polarised race between itself and Fine Gael, would not have confidence in current Fine Gael leader?
As I explained in my first piece here last week there is no doubt that the Tánaiste has not gone far enough in his apology or his assurances about how he conducts the business of government.Some of the explanations he offered on Tuesday (November 3rd) were so juvenile and feeble that it was shameful to see them sent out alone without a guardian.
Many who will vote confidence in Varadkar in the upcoming confidence motion will do so with no more trust or confidence in the man now than voters had in him last February.
NB Since I wrote this column Prof McDonald has revised his estimate of the total voter turnout to 160.2 million (67%)
Late last Friday I pulled together some quotes and stats in anticipation of today’s column being just about the US presidential election. Then came Saturday morning and that Village magazine exposé. So, while today’s piece will still consider the U.S. election, I will first address the domestic elephants in the room.
The allegation that Leo Varadkar leaked a confidential government document to a friend is serious. Very serious. To describe the leak as “not best practise” is akin to Sinn Féin saying three £10,000 office grants ended up in their bank accounts “in error”. Using passive language does not make it better.
If anything, it makes it worse. It is like a poker player’s tell that shows the miscreant knows they did wrong, no matter how much they tell themselves otherwise.
To their credit – and this is not a phrase that flows easily from my keyboard – Sinn Féin have tried to deflate their problems with resignations from four party officials, including a Senator and an MLA.
This opinion piece appeared on Broadsheet.ie on Sept 7th and continues a set of themes I have addressed in previous op-eds, namely (i) the problems of a rotating Taoiseach, (ii) the paucity of government’s communications and messaging and (iii) the lack of identity and vision dogging a Fianna Fáil led by Micheál Martin
“The office makes the man” is a phrase heard many times before Bertie Ahern and Enda Kenny became Taoiseach. It stems from the notion that you cannot properly envision someone as a Taoiseach (or Prime Minister or President) until they assume the office, as the trappings of office and the authority that come with role help increase their stature.
Afterall, very few people, apart from Gregory Peck, Martin Sheen or Oprah Winfrey, can truly act and sound presidential without being it.
This column appeared on Broadsheet.ie on July 27th. Here I look at the unforced error that was the super junior saga – the article appeared just before the government caught up with public opinion and decided to back down.
When this new government was cobbled together… sorry, let me start again… when this new administration was formed, Fianna Fáil’s primary political imperative was to show that this government would be very different.
The assumption was that Micheál Martin and his train of attendants would move quickly to banish the political tone deafness and indifference that characterised Leo Varadkar’s time in office and replace it with the attentive and determined approach of a Taoiseach with his finger on the public pulse.
Four weeks in and all the evidence so far points more to continuity than change. To be fair to Martin, it is not the full picture. As the new Taoiseach has repeatedly said in interviews, the Dáil has rarely been so productive in producing legislation.
The problem is that he has made this point in a series of incredibly low energy TV and radio interviews that have lacked any core message beyond proving that Martin knows his facts.
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.
This Broadsheet column was written last Sunday aand appeared online on Monday morning (April 20th 2020) under the headline: They should be in it together
In 1945, just as the Second World War was ending, Britain faced a general election. Would post-war Britain be shaped by the Conservatives under Winston Churchill or by Clement Attlee’s Labour Party, a partner in the war time unity government.
The choice was clear, but the voters had no doubt who they wanted. They resoundingly rejected Churchill, the man who had led Britain to a victory that had sometimes seemed uncertain and opted instead for Attlee, the understated but progressive social reformer.
While historians offer several reasons for Churchill’s defeat, it boils down to voters seeing that a good wartime leader is not necessarily a good peace time leader. The skills (and policies) required to lead a country through a time of crisis and external threat are not the ones you need when you are trying to rebuild after that crisis. And vice-versa.