The Irish public 100% understands that defence costs

This column first appeared on Broadsheet.ie on Monday March 28th and sees me return to one of my most frequent themes… the devastation inflicted on Ireland’s national defence by the decade of political indifference shown by the two Fine Gael-led governments since 2011.  

97th Cadet Class Commissioning April 2022 via Defence Forces Flickr

“Coveney: Russian war highlights need to boost Defence Forces’ spend”.

This was the headline to a story in the Irish Examiner explaining how our part-time Minister for Defence is perhaps… possibly… on the cusp of the verge of being ready… in a few months… to signal that he just about ready to announce plans to consider the partial implementation of some of the recommendations in the final report of the Commission on Defence… if he secures the agreement of certain key people in Cabinet.

Regrettably, the words actually uttered by Minister Coveney on the day were not that much more definitive than my facetious parody, telling reporters that:

“I’ll be bringing an action plan on the back of the recommendations in the commission to Government in June and it will be a strong statement of intent from me, and I hope from government, if we can get approval, in terms of the need to quite significantly increase our investment in the Defence Forces”

Continue reading “The Irish public 100% understands that defence costs”

The Painful Sting Of A Fading DUP

This column first appeared on Broadsheet.ie on Monday February 14th. This was the same day as the Irish News published results of their opinion poll, which was conducted in partnership with the Institute of Irish Studies University of Liverpool between January 25 and February 7.

Pictured is Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party Jeffrey Donaldson with Taoiseach Micheal Martin as he leaves Government Buildings in Dublin, following a meeting between the two leaders. Photograph: Sam Boal / RollingNews.ie

The latest intrigues of Jeffrey Donaldson and the DUP bring to mind the adage: “You can get an awful sting from a dying bee.”

We may well be watching the final throes of Unionist ascendency as the DUP struggles to deal with a fraught situation entirely of its own making.

Last year’s celebration of Northern Ireland’s centenary reminded us how the net impact of five decades of Unionist rule was to undermine the very hegemony that brought it into existence. When Northern Ireland was established in 1921, around 62% identified as Protestant and 34% identified as Roman catholic. This figure remained steady up to the late 1960s when the proportion of Catholics began to increase.

By 2011, 41% were identifying as Catholic and just 42% identifying as Protestant share. A major shift. It was one of two shifts. The other was the emergence of a third category, one where people did not identify as being from either community background, a category that measured 17%.

A decade later, the June 2020 study, Political Attitudes at a Time of Flux, found that this “neither” category was now the biggest of the three categories of political identity, with almost 40% identifying as neither unionist nor nationalist.

Continue reading “The Painful Sting Of A Fading DUP”

For Both Taoiseach and Tánaiste The Question is: To reshuffle, or not…?

This column first appeared on Broadsheet on January 4th and looks at the contrasting approaches that both Taoiseach and Tánaiste appear (from their public comments, at least) to the possibility of a reshuffle of their ministesr when the government mid-point/turnabout comes next December.

Justice Minister Helen McEntee – Picture: Sam Boal Via Irish Examiner

Political commentators hailing a minister who was on maternity leave for half of 2022 as their politician of the year tells you a lot about the state of Irish politics.

Not that I particularly object to their choice of Minister Helen McEntee. Her absence from the cabinet table at a challenging time did nothing to diminish her public profile, while the positive media treatment of her return, did much to enhance it.

Minister McEntee is one of the few recognisable names and faces around the Cabinet table. She has become a political figure in her own right, albeit one who is still untested – a point I made here last February.

This is not something you can say about all her colleagues. While some do stand out as individuals with thoughts and ideas of their own, most come across as either politically shapeless or just innocuous. Mercifully the Taoiseach and Tánaiste have not required certain ministers wear nametags at meetings, if What’s My Line ever returns to our TV screens, the panel would have some trouble discerning precisely what the Minister for Children or the Minister for Agriculture do for a living. Continue reading “For Both Taoiseach and Tánaiste The Question is: To reshuffle, or not…?”

Yes, filter NPHET but filter the air in classrooms first

This week’s column first appeared on Broadsheet on December 6th and looks at two strained sets of relationships. The first is that between ministers and NPHET and the second is the one between the government and the hospitality industry.

When it comes to the relationship between the Cabinet and NPHET, a mutual preparedness to blur the delineation between roles of decision-maker and decision implementer, is coming back to bite… both . 

Meanwhile, the government’s willingness to propose additional restrictions for the hospitality sector can be seen as an attempt to distract from the same government’s lethargy on ICU beds, ventilation and antigen testing.  

Professor of health systems at Dublin City University, Anthony Staines on BBC’s Newsnight (Dec 3 2021)

Many years ago I was asked to help in the re-structuring and re-invigoration of a voluntary organisation. I was one of a group of outsiders. Each tasked with reviewing key aspects of the organisation’s work, operations, and structures.

Each of us brought a different skillset to the mission, HR, communications, fund raising and organisation. Towards the end of the assignment they brought us together to compare notes.

Governance had been a major issue in the organisation with the odd board member accused of crossing the line and getting involved in the day-to-day operations. So, we were all interested to see and hear what the person looking at organisation and governance would recommend.

Continue reading “Yes, filter NPHET but filter the air in classrooms first”

Maybe We’d Believe Them More If The Numbers Were Smaller?

This column appeared on broadsheet.ie on Monday October 4th, a few hours before the launch of the government’s €165 billion National Development Plan (NDP

After weeks spent playing catch-up on the self-inflicted mess that was Zapponegate, ministers and advisers will be relieved to be dealing with real hard political issues.

And there are no shortage of them. Over the next ten days we will see the fruits of their behind-the-scenes labours delivered via two major announcements. The first comes today with the launch of the National Development Plan (NDP). The second comes next week with the October 12th Budget.

Political convention suggests that the long-term political fate of this government rests on the success of these two events, plus the Housing for All package announced last month. But political convention hasn’t been right for a while, and there is no great reason to thank that is about to change.  

Though the NDP overshadows the Budget when it comes to the amounts involved, it will be a decade before we start to see if it is working or not. The NDP is the political equivalent of planting trees in whose shade you will never sit, though here it is more of a case of politicians delivering infrastructure for which they’ll never get the political kudos. Continue reading “Maybe We’d Believe Them More If The Numbers Were Smaller?”

The pubs are re-opening, so normal politics is resuming… and endgame is near

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. 

“I didn’t show up here with a speech, I came here well-resourced with material…”

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.

Continue reading “The pubs are re-opening, so normal politics is resuming… and endgame is near”

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”

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”

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.

Continue reading “No defence of defence relationships”

Government is bidding against itself on top officials pay

In this Broadsheet column, which appeared online on Monday February 15th, I look at the row over increasing the pay of the Secretary General at the Dept of Health by €80k. While some commentators are fixating on the personalities involved, I argue that the focus should be on (i). what is the role of the Sec Gen in the department of health and (ii) how is this value for money and (iii) how was this vacancy allowed to arise (and run for almost eight months) in the midst of a major public health emergency?

The Dept of Health’s impressive D2 office complex

Last week’s furor over the Taoiseach’s St Patrick’s Day trip to the White House turned out to be a storm in a tea cup, notwithstanding my modest contribution to it on last Thursday’s Today with Claire Byrne.

As I said on the show, the country has enough real problems to tackle without having to invent hollow ones like this. As it turned out the issue resolved itself by the White House opting to go for a virtual St Patrick’s Day event this year.

There was always a possibility that the White House might decide not to host the traditional St Patrick’s Day event this year – but demanding that the Taoiseach refuse an invitation to visit the White House once such an invitation had been extended never made sense.

Continue reading “Government is bidding against itself on top officials pay”