This week’s column first appeared on Broadsheet on Monday November 1st 2022, two days after the Sinn Féin Árd Fheis in Dublin. I explain why I think speculation about Sinn Féin being in government North and South within the next year, or two, is far too premature. I do not say it is impossible, just that it requires the leaderships in the two traditional big parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, to continue to mishandle events and misread the public mood. I firmly believe that one of these two former big beasts (at least) will soon come to its political senses and see that it is not offering the change demanded by a sizable cohort of what is still a moderate electorate.
For about twenty years I lived within a ten-minute walk of the RDS and Simmonscourt. This was particularly useful for the Fianna Fáil Árd Fheiseanna.
It meant I could soak up the atmosphere and anticipation in the hall during the build up to the party leader’s speech, but quickly nip home to see the full speech live on TV and catch the RTÉ news review.
This gave me a better sense of how the speech played in the world outside, as I was seeing what the people at home saw… well, those few who bother to watch these things.
This week’s column first appeared on Broadsheet on Monday Oct 18th, the day before the government decided not to proceed with its original plan to lift most of the continuing Covid19 restrictions. I think ministers are making a mistake. They should have focused instead on (a) making life less burdensome for the vaccinated and (b) placing increased pressure on the 300,000 or so un-vaxxed to folks to get vaccinated ASAP. Though I accept full 100% coverage is impossible.
Getting more people to get their shots is what drives the Italian workplace Green Pass system (which I indirectly reference below). I recommend listening to this 17-minute Podcast on the Italian system. It is from my colleagues in BEERG/HRPA.
The idea that the way to stop folks breaking rules is to make more rules is akin to saying if two wrongs don’t make a right… let’s try three.
It is absurd to hear the government talk about not lifting restrictions only days after boasting about our being the Covid resilience world leader.
Yet that’s where we are. You cannot turn on a news show without hearing yet another minister preparing us for the October 22 re-opening not going ahead.
The Taoiseach took it a step further in yesterday’s Sunday Independent. There he hinted that the government had already decided to pause further reopening. As if to sugar coat this failure of policy, Martin sought to comfort us by saying:
“… we are not contemplating going backwards. The only issue facing us now is going forward”
If he is expecting the public to be grateful that we are not going back into lockdown, he will be disappointed.
The government is doing this the wrong way around.
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 column first appeared on Broadsheet.ie on July 12th, a few days after the Dublin Bay South by-Election result. That result shows that Fianna Fáil is facing a crisis of relevance and viability, one that its leader of over 10 years is unwilling to address or acknowledge. This column was offered as an independent review of what I think went wrong in the by-election.
A few weeks after the February 2020 election I said that Fianna Fáil’s Micheál Martin needed to stop and “take a hard look at why his party lost support and seats”. I said it again, several times, over the weeks and months that followed. I even offered the independent review the Australian Labour Party had commissioned into its electoral failure as a template.
I thought it was essential that the party examine why it had done so badly before doing anything precipitative, such as going into government with the party it had promised to put out of office.
The leadership thought otherwise. It felt Fianna Fáil’s best course of action was to get into office and that its political revival would come from the government program for recovery. It seemed to miss the inconvenient truth that this meant giving Fine Gael a veto on Fianna Fáil’s fortunes.
This was one of the main reasons I ended my 40 plus year membership of Fianna Fáil. Why would I knock myself out trying to rebuild a party, when the top Fine Gael brass would have a bigger say in it than grassroot members?
Last week I rekindled my love affair with the word “paradox”, so expect to see it pop up here a lot, including in this week’s Broadsheet column where I look at the paradox of Fianna Fáil’s poll ratings remaining stubbornly low, while the approval ratings of its leader move up. Has An Taoiseach, Micheál Martin learned how to disassociate himself from his party… and doesn’t this mean that what is in his interest, is not in his party’s.. and vice-versa?
Though I probably keep this fact well hidden from readers, I really try to not write about polling too often. I say this through clenched fingers as I know it must seem that I have written about little else over the past few weeks and months.
It is a fair criticism to say that political pundits talk and write excessively about polling in the guise of political analysis. While the soap opera aspects of politics, who’s in, who’s out, who’s politically in bed with whom, does help liven up what can often be a dull area, the focus should be on the policies and the decisions rather than who makes them.
The old Heisenberg uncertainty/indeterminacy principle applies to politics as much as it does to physics. If you cannot accurately measure both the position and the velocity of an object simultaneously, then you should focus more on the trajectory of an object or an idea than analysing snapshots of where it was a few days or weeks ago.
All of which is a long-winded way of me explaining/excusing – why I am once again talking about polling. In my defence, I do this as there is something that is worth discussing in the two most recent opinion polls: yesterday’s Ireland Thinks/Irish Mail on Sunday one and last week’s Irish Times/IPSOS/MRBI, as they offer some contradictory results.
This column first appeared on Broadsheet.ie on Monday June 14th. It looks at the recent “fake pollsters” saga that seemed to put all three main parties in a tizzy. Was it really as big a scandal as some thought… or… a bit like Watergate, was the real problem the struggle all three parties had in getting their own stories straight. Rather than being something “sinister” it was just a “paradox”. I also confess to my own bit of fake polling from back in 1985 and show how fake polls – as opposed to fake pollsters – rarely have the desired impact. This I discuss via some chat about political movies such as all The President’s Men and Nasty Habits, a quirkly though sadly forgotten movie that is well worth checking out.
While All The President’s Men remains the best Watergate related movie, there are some credible challengers. Indeed a new 5-part TV series, the White House Plumbers is currently in production. Directed by VEEP writer and producer David Mandel, it stars Woody Harrelson as Howard Hunt and Justin Theroux as Gordon Liddy, the leaders of the crew of “plumbers” who broke into the Democratic Party HQ in the Watergate office complex.
Another contender is the quirky “Nasty Habits”, a film which manages not to mention Nixon, the White House or even Watergate. Instead, this adaptation of the Muriel Spark satire: “The Abbess of Crewe” which transposed the Watergate scandal to an English Benedictine convent, moves the action again, this time to Philadelphia and an order of nuns led by the Nixonian Sr Alexandra, played by Glenda Jackson.
Alexandra has schemed her way to the top of the cloister by secretly taping the confessions of her fellow sisters. She has her Ehrlichman and Haldeman like henchmen in the guise of Sisters Walburga and Mildred, plus the globe-trotting missionary Sr Gertrude, who shuttles around the world’s trouble spots, á la Henry Kissinger, played brilliantly by Melina Mercouri.
This column appeared on Broadsheet.ie on Monday May 31st and looks at the main issue occupying the minds of most Irish voters, Housing. Now that public concerns about Covid-19 are beginning to ease, its attention has almost immediately returned to the issue that dominated before the pandemic: housing… particularly the seeming inability of the two main parties to grasp the scale of the crisis for many people.
Regular readers, by which I mean those who have read a few of my columns, opposed to those who have read just one while eating a bowl of fruit and fibre, will know that I have a few themes to which I like to occasionally return.
These include, Fianna Fáil’s future, Northern Ireland, defence/cyber security, and the old hardly annual: electoral politics. It is why opinion polls can be a useful grist to my mill. I say “can” as most of the polls published since last December have not – with the exception of one Sunday Times/B&A poll – shown much political movement.
The shifts in support between the parties over the past five months have been negligible. Across that time Red C has had Sinn Féin in a range of 27% to 29% and Fine Gael in an even tighter range of 29% to 30%. In effect, Red C polling has the two biggest parties in a continuing dead heat for first spot.
The range widens when you turn to Fianna Fáil. But is also drops. Like the proverbial stone. Red C has the party of Lemass in a range from 11% to 16%. If you treat Fianna Fail’s numbers as if they were high-diving scores (plummeting more like, says you), by removing the highest and lowest ones, the party ends up in the much tighter 13-14% range.
This column first appeared on Broadsheet on April 12th. It followed almost a week of disturbances and incidents across the North, though I mainly focus here on the attacks by loyalist youths along the peace wall in West Belfast, specially at the Lanark Way interface. The cause of these riots are complex – they also have immediate and proximate causes. While there are sinister loyalist paramilitary elements who saw this as an opportunity to make trouble for a PSNI that has enjoyed recent successes in thwarting loyalist drug dealing – especially with unionist leaders attacking the PSNI over and calling for the resignation of the Chief Constable – many of the teenagers and youths on the streets will misguidedly see themselves as fighting for their community, their people and their allegiance. Though that allegiance goes increasingly unreciprocated by the State to which they declare their loyalty.
As the riots raged along the peace walls in Belfast last week, I spotted a tweet bemoaning the absence of loyalist leaders of the calibre of the late David Ervine.
David was the avuncular, savvy leader of the loyalist Progressive Unionist Party (PUP). He was aptly described by Northern Ireland secretary John Reid as “possibly one of the most eloquent politicians in Northern Ireland”.
Ervine died tragically young, aged just 53, of a brain hemorrhage, in Jan 2007. Speaking at the time, the then Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern called him a “courageous politician who sought to channel the energies of loyalism in a positive political direction.”
I don’t claim to have known David well, though I did meet him several times and even debated against him in UCD before an audience of US politics students. He was characteristically witty and demonstrated a willingness to engage and debate the future of the North, that showed his confidence in his in his identity and position. This is not something you can say about many in today’s unionism.
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.
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.