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.
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.
This column first appeared on Broadsheet.ie on September 20th 2017
One of my favourite political anecdotes comes from the late Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. Whitlam was on a trip to China to meet the infamous Mao Tse-tung. His officials warned Whitlam that Chairman Mao disliked small talk intensely and advised that he come up with a couple of substantive questions if he wanted to keep the conversation going. Whitlam decided, given that the visit was coming around the tenth anniversary of the assassination of President John F Kennedy, that he would ask Mao to speculate on what might have happened to the world order if Nikita Kruschev had been shot that day instead of Kennedy.
Delighted with the substance and depth of his question he set off to meet Mao and to hear the Chairman’s thoughts on this great “what if”. He sat down with Mao and, after the usual formal introductions, he proceeding to ask his question. The Chairman seemed pensive and intrigued. Then, after a few moments thought, he replied, ‘I don’t think Mr Onassis would have married Mrs Kruschev’.