This article first appeared on Broadsheet.ie on February 22nd. Here I look at the political dimension to the reported breakdown in relationships between senior management in the Department of Defence and the Irish Defence Forces/Óglaigh na hÉireann and make the point the problem has nothing to do with the personalities concerned, but rather the structural relations between the two leaderships and the perception that the Department of Defence is not championing and arguing the cause of the Defence Forces within government, most particularly the Department of Finance, but that this is impossible to do without a committed minister with political clout at cabinet, one who puts Defence first, not second.
I discuss the contents of this article here: https://vimeo.com/515750083
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.
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?
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.
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]
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”
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.
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.
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”
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?”.
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”
This column looks at how a speedy roll-out of the various Covid-19 vaccines across Ireland is just as critical to combating the virus as suppressing it, both fronts in the war on Covid-19, both are equally important.
I also examine how a decade of under-investment in our emergency services, particularly the Defence Forces and Gardaí has left the state with very little spare capacity to tackle emergency situations, such as this pandemic. This column first appeared on Broadsheet.ie on January 4th 2021
Though the daily Covid-19 numbers are spiralling ever higher and the prospect of even tighter restrictions looming large, we must hold on tightly to the belief that we are almost through the worst of this pandemic.
For most of the last year we have fought this pandemic on just one front, that of containment. It is a fight that we have waged with reasonable success, due to the efforts of the government and – most especially – the thousands of essential workers from medical staff to delivery workers to retail personnel.
Now, a critical second front against the vaccine has been opened with the approval and distribution of vaccines. We now have two fronts and the speed of progress on both fronts will decide whether we are weeks or months away from progressing steadily back to some form of normality.Continue reading “We Have 2 Fronts In The War on #Covid-19… Both are Equally Vital”
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 was written just before the UK and EU agreed a post Brexit deal. It first appeared on Broadsheet.ie on December 14th, 2020. In this column I argue strongly that the lesson we must take from how the British government conducted itself during those talks with the EU is that nobody on these islands, in Europe, or even further afield, can trust the Westminster government. The duplicity and mendacity demonstrated in talks could well succeed Johnson himself for as long as there is a Tory component to any future British government.
Considering that I have fairly quick to criticise Micheál Martin over the past few months, it is only fair that I be just as swift in acknowledging when he gets it right. That is precisely what the Taoiseach did on yesterday morning’s Andrew Marr Show (BBC1).
The Taoiseach came across as calm, authoritative and knowledgeable. He made it clear that Ireland wanted to see a deal agreed, but that the EU27 were solidly behind Michel Barnier and Ursula von der Leyen. Whatever happens between now and December 2022, Micheál Martin can look back at his Marr Show interview as one of the finer moments of his brief stint as Taoiseach. Continue reading “Johnson’s Duplicity Will Not End With #Brexit”