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”

Varadkar’s future as leader is now no more assured than is Martin’s

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.

Continue reading “Varadkar’s future as leader is now no more assured than is Martin’s”

Why An Taoiseach must act now to defer second Covid-19 vaccine doses so we can unlock sooner

This column appeared on Broadsheet.ie on Monday March 8th 2021. It looks at the faltering Irish vaccine roll out and concludes that not all the blame rests with Brussels. We have endured the longest lock down, closing all but essential workplaces for 200 days so far (and counting) – so, coming seventh or eighth in Europe when it comes to vaccine roll out,  is just not good enough. We need to be at the top of the vaccine roll out league. That means we need to have a greater percentage of our people vaccinated, even if only with one dose, by the end of April or May.

Workplace closures to mid Jan 2021 – Via Reuters Graphics

It has long been accepted that the primary responsibility of government is the safety and protection of its people.

Though we can be critical of this government for many things, accusing it of not taking this responsibility seriously, is not one of them.

True, their execution of this responsibility has been patchy and erratic. The gradual depletion of our defence forces and the wanton neglect of national cyber security are but two obvious examples of how governments over the past decade have fallen well short of their duty to protect us, but – for the most part – the State has shown the political willingness and institutional capacity to keep us safe and well.

Continue reading “Why An Taoiseach must act now to defer second Covid-19 vaccine doses so we can unlock sooner”

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.

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Martin May Be Learning Lessons Of Last Week’s Mistakes

This week’s Broadsheet.ie column follows on from last week’s one, starting from it ended and hoping that the Taoiseach can take the opportunity presented by his Brendan O’Connor Show gaffe and start to abandon his seeming agnostic stance on unity, and become more of an advocate for unity and a champion of starting the detailed debate and discussion on what a united Ireland could look like, now. 

The prospect of starting the second century of Irish independence with the challenge of building a new and better Ireland is so exciting, why would any Taoiseach delay the start of that process for even one day?

To say that was not a good week for North/South relations is to understate how utterly damaging and chaotic the past seven days have been.

They started with the Taoiseach’s inopportune comments on Brendan O’Connor’s radio show (I dealt with these last week) and finished with the astonishing suggestion from Brussels that it could invoke Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol .

While the week may have finished yesterday, the Article 16 debacle has not. It is far from over. Though the Taoiseach and Minister for Foreign Affairs worked hard over the weekend to limit the damage, be in no doubt damage has been done to relations on this island. A price will be paid here and a big price must also be paid in Brussels.

Dublin must insist that those responsible for this mess are held accountable. Hailing the Commission decision not to do the wrong thing as a “positive”, may be very diplomatic, but it is neither sufficient nor proportionate.

Returning to my observations last week on the Shared Island Unit, I do not flatter myself to imagine the political crew currently occupying government buildings read any of my scribblings. I mean, why would they read them now when they paid scant attention to what I said on the odd occasion I was ever asked for my thoughts. Nonetheless, I was genuinely gratified yesterday to hear some tiny incremental movement from the Taoiseach along the lines I suggested last week.

Continue reading “Martin May Be Learning Lessons Of Last Week’s Mistakes”

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”

Uncertainty Is More Testing Than The Exam, LeavingCert Decision Must be made soon

This column first appeared on Broadsheet.ie on on January 11th. Though I am agnostic as to whether the 2021 Leaving Cert should be the traditional exam or by assessment, I am certain that Leaving cert students want and need certainty, now. Some favour assessment, as many favour traditional exams, but whatever the decision is to be, it should be made soon, very soon, otherwise the government risks annoying everyone, again.

The government must not allow itself to be excessively worried by opposition taunts on changing its mind or doing a U-turn. Governments everywhere are playing catch-up as they see struggle to get ahead of the virus, particularly when it does not precisely follow the paths the system modellers suggested. There is no shame in changing course when the event or outcome you planned for and doesn’t arrive. To quote Keynes: “When the facts change, I change my mind – what do you do?”.

Handout photo issued by Julien Behal of Taoiseach Micheal Martin (left) during a visit to St. Fiachra’s Senior National School in Beaumont, Dublin, with Minister for Education Norma Foley, Sean Haughey, T.D., and Kieran Creaner, School Principal

When, in five- or ten-years’ time, we look back on January 2021 will we think of it as the month:

…when President Trump launched a failed coup that resulted in his being banned from office;

…when a Covid-19 peak drove authorities to get serious about speeding up vaccinations or,

….when Marks & Spencer stores in Ireland ran out of packets of Percy Pig.

I suspect, in a darkest hour is just before dawn way it will be a mix of Trump and the vaccine. Hopefully, we will look back and see this as the inflection point when, to quote Arnold Schwarzenegger’s excellent video message, a jailed or exiled Trump became as “irrelevant as an old tweet.” Similarly, we will see this as the month when Covid-19 was arrested in in Ireland via a pincer of suppression and mass vaccination.   

While I hope this is how our future selves will see things, I know there is a cohort of maybe 70,000 young citizens for whom January 2021 will still invoke memories of doubt and uncertainty. I refer to the 6th year students who want to know what will happen with this year’s leaving cert.
Continue reading “Uncertainty Is More Testing Than The Exam, LeavingCert Decision Must be made soon”