This column first appeared on Broadsheet.ie on Monday Nov. 25 – 4 days before polling in the by-elections in Cork North Central, Wexford, Dublin Fingal and Dublin Mid-West. Here I predict two wins for Fianna Fáil (Wex and Cork NC) on each for the Greens (in Dub Fingal) and Ind (Gogarty) (in Dub MW).
Shortly after he was appointed Conservative Party chairman, Kenneth Baker was presented with internal polls showing the Tories facing near annihilation in the following year’s Local Elections (1990).
The Poll Tax recently introduced by the Tories was not just unpopular, it was hated. There were angry, mass anti-poll tax protests across the UK, in the run-up to the May 3rd polling day. The biggest, in London, turned into a riot with over 300 arrested and 113 seriously injured.
Against this febrile background and with the knowledge that the Tories were going to lose big, Baker set about putting one of the finer political skills into operation: he managed expectations.
Here is my Broadsheet column from September 5th 2016. This looks at the important and positive role Special Advisers (Spads) can play in government, particularly a partnership one. www.broadsheet.ie/treated-like-interlopers/
“To provide spurious intellectual justifications for the Secretary of State’s prejudices”
This is how the late Maurice Peston (father of ITV’s political editor Robert Peston) responded in the early 1970s when a senior UK civil servant asked him to explain how he saw his role as Roy Hattersley’s newly appointed Special Adviser (Spad).
It was more than just a casual witty remark from the Professor of Economics: it specifically referenced the fears the Department of Prices and Consumer Protection had about having an acknowledged policy expert in their midst and gainsaying their more generalist advice.
This is an article I have written for the March 2014 Árd Fheis issue of Fianna Fáil’s members’ magazine Cuisle.
A few months before the 2011 election, Michael Gallagher (the TCD Professor of Politics, not the Donegal postman and amateur weather forecaster) posted a blog where he asking how long Fianna Fáil could expect to spend in opposition. In it he wrote:
“Fianna Fáil is not a party accustomed to spending time there. Its longest spell on the opposition benches is still the nearly six years between its foundation in May 1926 and its entry into government in March 1932. Since then, the party has never spent more than one consecutive Dáil term in opposition and the longest spell it has been out of power remains the 4 years and 4 months of the Cosgrave coalition in the mid-1970s.”
Underpinning Gallagher’s 2010 comments is the idea that Fianna Fáil has never been that good at opposition. It is a fair point.
Not only have we not spent much time in opposition, as Gallagher points out, it is almost 30 years since we last spent a full Dáil term there.
Today, December 29th 2012, marks the 75th anniversary of the Irish Constitution, Búnreacht na hÉireann coming into effect. This is my Evening Herald column on it continuing importance and relevance to Irish life.
On this day seventy five years ago the Irish Constitution came into operation. As we have seen in recent and current controversies, almost four decades on, the Constitution is still central to much of our political debate.
Within the past year we have seen it successfully amend it three times: Judges Pay, Fiscal Compact and Children’s Rights. But, we have also seen the public resoundingly reject the governments request that they amend it on the issue of Oireachtas enquiries.
It is not the first time the public has done this. Not only did they defeat the Nice I and Lisbon I votes, as early as 1959 they rejected the then attempt to change the voting system. Indeed in 1968 the voters rejected the next two amendments put to them, both related to elections.
It was not until the 1972 vote on joining the then EEC that the people passed the first amendment to the Constitution. (Technically this is the Third Amendment as the first two were made in 1939 and 1941 without referendums as part of transitional arrangements.)
Over the past 75 years the public have approved some twenty five changes to the Constitution. While some were technical in nature, others – such as the five votes relating to abortion – were highly controversial and emotionally charged.
What this shows is that the Constitution makes the people sovereign. They alone decide what changes may be made to the fundamental law of the land.
This important aspect of De Valera’s 1937 Constitution has been much praised over the years. While it is easy to look at the language and some of the secondary provisions as being a product of their time and maybe a little outdated now, most legal experts view the principles set out in the Constitution of 1937 as being ahead of their time.
Five of the fifty articles are devoted to Fundamental Rights. Decades before international instruments, such as the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed fundamental rights and fair procedures, the Irish Constitution had done so.
Indeed, while the Constitution does not declare Ireland as militarily neutral, it does contain in Article 29.2 a commitment to “the pacific settlement of international disputes” and the adherence to International law. This is just something else that marks the document out as being ahead of its time.
But while it may have been well ahead of its time 75 years ago, it is still so?
I would argue that, essentially, it is. The fundamental principles it espouses are just that – fundamental. The commitment to democracy, rule of law, fair procedures etc do not change with the seasons of the prevailing political fashion.
But it is also a living document, particularly in the provisions relating to how government and the judiciary should work. Back in 1937 it seemed natural that only those over 21 should be entitled to vote, by 1972 that was changed to 18 by a margin of over 5 to 1 of those voting.
Events of recent years have thrown up some more significant issues. Are our governmental structures sufficiently responsive – or even fit for purpose – in the context of the IMF/EU bailout and an evolving European Union/Eurozone? Is the 1930’s post independence concept of property ownership appropriate in 21st century Ireland?
But where is reform on these issues being discussed? Not at the Government’s Constitutional Convention, it seems. Its initial priorities, as set out by the Government, are to discuss the President’s term of office and the voting age. This is the equivalent of setting up a dance committee after the Titanic has hit the ice. The one substantive constitutional issue on which the government, particularly the Taoiseach, is committed is abolition of the Seanad.
Just when we require more meaningful scrutiny of government policy, it proposes less and sells it under the guise of “reform”. Fortunately, it is the people who will be sovereign on this.
Irish politics is a zero sum game. If the government is doing badly; then the opposition is doing well, and vice versa.
This makes the coming Dáil term just as vital for the opposition as for the government.
But which element of the opposition is set to fare better? The balance between Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin is almost as much a zero sum game as that between them and the government.
While the occasional opinion poll shows them in the high teens, Sinn Féin’s vote in the ballot box has remained, at best, stubbornly in the low teens. It did get over 13% at the Presidential election, but failed to break the 10% barrier at the General Election.
The question for the Shinners is whether they are a leftish haven for disaffected Labour voters or a centrist alternative to Fianna Fáil. While its instincts may be to try to do both, it is hard to see that tactic working.
On the left they are in competition with the ULA, several Independents and what is left of Joe Higgin’s Socialists.
On the other side they have Fianna Fáil, which insists on just not going away. The fact that FF has not seen any particular advance in its fortunes in the polls should come as no surprise given the scale of the hatred it engendered.
The past 18 months has been about Fianna Fáil stabilising its position. It has put a floor under its decline, which was no small task. The issue now is if it can recover former ground.
While FF may skirmish with SF over ex FF voters who went to Labour, the main battle will be fought elsewhere and with another enemy. Surveys suggest that up to 40% of those who said they voted FF in 2007 switched to FG in 2011.
This sizeable group are still angry and hurt. They have not been ready to listen to Fianna Fáil so far. Will they become disenchanted over the coming months with Enda Kenny and Fine Gael as it struggles to deliver on its election promises?
Will this be sufficient? Will the disenchantment be enough to allow them to listen to anything the party has to say, never mind be convinced by it? These are questions taxing Fianna Fail reps at their think in today and tomorrow.
The opposition parties and independents will also need to consider the competition they face from the emerging, and varied, opposition within government.
It ranges from Brian Hayes and Joan Burton’s fighting over pensioners to FG backbenchers bemoaning its failure to take on the public sector.
The greatest challenge, though, may come from within the Labour Party. There seems to be something about becoming chairman of the smaller party in government that makes the holder think they are the deputy leader of the opposition. I call it “Dan Boyle Syndrome”.
As a first time Deputy; sitting on the government backbenches; the new Labour Chairman may gaze longingly at the other side of the Dáil wishing he were there opposing and criticising the current Government, but he isn’t.
The public gets the difference between government and opposition. They understand the fundamental truth of Mario Cuomo’s famous maxim: “you campaign in poetry but you govern in prose”.
If he thinks doing solo runs will firewall him from the approaching barrage of criticism and unpopularity, then he is in for a nasty surprise. All he needs to do is Google “Dan Boyle” and “election results” to see how these tactics failed.
FG and Lab TDs would do well to heed the words of Mary Harney: “Even the worst day in government is better than the best day in opposition”. This may seem unlikely, but it is the case, especially if you believe politics is about improving things.
If they doubt it, then they only need call the Marine Hotel and ask any Fianna Fáil TD.
My column on the Chris Andrews Twittergate fiasco from today’s (Mon August 13th 2012) Evening Herald
I am not exactly sure how I feel about Chris Andrews today. I have known him personally for over 25 years. We are near contemporaries. I have campaigned alongside him and, on a couple of occasions, for him. He managed to so something I repeatedly failed to do: to get elected.
In his case that meant serving as a Dublin City Councillor and a TD for the Dublin South East constituency. His defeat in the great Fianna Fáil wipeout of February 2011 was not a reflection on his work as a local representative.
He came closer than many to hanging on in a constituency that has not be traditional FF territory. His work rate meant that the tide which engulfed him was not nearly as severe as that which washed away so many others.
For these reasons I feel sorry to see him exit politics.
But there is another side too. Like many of his friends and supporters I am deeply angered by the report in yesterday’s Sunday Independent of his antics in setting up a fake twitter account to attack Fianna Fáil.
This anger is twofold. It is an anger at his actions and his attempts to glorify them by presenting himself now as some victim, but it is also an anger at his betrayal of the trust of supporters and colleagues, like me.
No matter how much he may seek to convince himself otherwise, Chris is no victim.
He is no principled dissenter or critic being silenced out by an intolerant leadership. His actions were petty and self serving. He hid behind a fake account (@brianfornerFF) and sniped at perceived political rivals in the hope of bringing them down and advancing himself.
I engaged with his fake persona on Twitter a few times, mistakenly believing it what that of a disillusioned young member. After a few exchanges I quickly realised that it was nothing of the sort, though I never suspected it was Chris.
There was nothing noble or admirable in his comments, Most were just bitchy and sneering rants at colleagues. The only “political” thread in his exchanges with me was his expressed disdain for political dynasties, a little ironic now given the source.
The comical point in all of this is that the real Chris Andrews and I were exchanging messages on twitter at the same time as the fake tweets.
I, like others, had become an audiences for Chris’s one man performance of his own “Philadelphia Here I Come”. Unlike Friel’s “Gar Public” and “Gar Private” his were not the inner and outer voices of the same person, one expanding upon and setting the context for the utterances of the other.
Quite the opposite. While “official Chris” publicly expressed support and praise for the party “Continuity Chris” was lashing out at those seeking to reform and rebuild. He did occasionally take pot shots at the leadership and senior figures, but his targets were mainly local.
It was all a game, and a pointless one at that.
There was no great point of principle at stake here. His attacks and indeed his departure was not about the party’s stand on the Fiscal Treaty Referendum, no more than it was about its support of Gay marriage or a reformed Seanad.
This was about high politics or the future, it was about low politics and the past. It was about settling old scores and doing it out of sight, hidden behind a screen.
It was about the worst of the old politics, which makes his parting shot, his suggestion that dissent and criticism is not tolerated in FF, all the more galling.
Because of his age, his location and indeed his background Chris was uniquely placed to play a part in crafting and determining whatever future Fianna Fáil may have. The pity is that he rejected that opportunity – it did not reject him. This is what makes me both sad and angry.
I have an aversion to the term: lobbyist. I resisted its use in describe myself when I worked with a range of national representative groups and I can’t recall ever using it to describe those whom I dealt with while I was a ministerial adviser.
The term “lobbyist” seems to have a pejorative tone to it. Lobbying is viewed with suspicion. Understandable enough after the Tribunal horror stories of men in well cut suits loitering outside Council chambers offering “incentives” to errant Councillors.
The reality is that lobbying is a practice as old as government itself. The origins of the term are often erroneously attributed to the post Civil War US President, Ulysses S. Grant.
Grant was fond of retiring to the bar of the old Willard Hotel across from the White House. News of his habit soon spread and he increasingly found himself besieged by promoters of this or that project as he passed through the lobby of the Hotel.
The term, in fact, well predates Grant and the Willard Hotel and most probably goes back to 17th century England and refers to the lobbies where constituents and petitioners could meet Members of Parliament.
Yet somehow the image of rail tycoons and land speculators in the lobby of the Willard smoking big cigars while stuffing cash into the pockets of pliable politicians seems to have stuck
This is a great pity as lobbying is an entirely legitimate and democratic activity. It is even protected by the First Amendment to the US Constitution which speaks of the right “…to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
Substitute the words “advocacy” or “campaigning” for “lobbying” and you get a better sense of what it should be about: making the best case you can to the powers that be.
When it descends to kick backs and payola it is no longer lobbying, it is just corruption, plain and simple.
Yet this is the image that still persists: guys in the lobby of the Willard improperly influencing politicians, and their more modern day equivalents.
But it is a false image. Lobbyists today come in all shapes, sizes and types.
People can be advocates on their own behalf, or they can seek the services of others with experience and skills in presenting a case on behalf of others.
They can be from schools, universities, communities, companies, trade associations, trade unions, churches, charities, environmental groups or senior citizens groups
Not all lobbyists are paid. In my experience (from both sides of the divide) most are not. During my time in government I recall getting more calls and emails from volunteer lobbyists than paid ones.
Lobbying is not simply about getting access to a TD, Senator Councillor or Official. These meetings are just the final small step in a much more complex process.
Lobbying is about preparation. It is about research. It is about assembling the facts and honestly analyzing the implications of what you propose. It is a process – and one more about research, education and communication than it is just about persuasion.
I know, from being on the other side, that a dedicated individual pleading a case that they know and understand deeply can be infinity more persuasive than the most costly lawyer or public affairs consultant.
This was the case with those who campaigned for formal recognition of the bravery of those who fought at Jadotville in the Congo in 1961. Not only were they tireless and passionate, they had done their research. No one knew or understood the complexities of this tragic situation better than they. When presented, their case was undeniable.
Far from having something to fear from lobbying such as this, democracy needs it. Just as lobbyists and public affairs people will benefit from a transparent and fair system of regulation.
As Justice Brandeis observed, almost a century ago. “sunlight is the best of disinfectants”.
About a week ago I wrote a piece for the Herald defending the government giving politicians a three week break for the Easter.
This was, I argued, a welcome opportunity for Ministers, TDs and their advisers to do some of the other boring, but important, work and also to take some time to reflect and think about the issues of the day.
Talk about getting it wrong. No sooner has the ink hit the pages than almost everyone in Government was out in public tearing strips off each other.
The whole cast of characters were involved: Environment Minister: Big Phil Hogan, Health Minister: James “Capt Birsdeye O’Reilly, Finance Minister: Michael Noonan, Arts Minister: Jimmy Deenihan, Welfare Minister: Joan Burton, Communications Minister: Pat Rabbitte, Justice Minister Alan Shatter, FG Party Chair Charlie Flanagan plus a few Government backbenchers including Labour’s Colm Keaveney and Fine Gael’s Regina Doherty.
The week before had seen some on the Labour side saying that Big Phil could have handled the whole household charge thing a lot better. Just as it appeared that that particular row had run its course, news broke that Big Phil was meeting with Moriarty Tribunal favourite and Tipp North TD, Michael Lowry only a few days after the publication of that Tribunal’s final report.
Within hours other Ministers, namely Birdseye O’Reilly and Noonan, were confirming that they too had meetings with Lowry. This was all too much for Joan who questioned the wisdom of this. So too did Jimmy, but more subtly.
Joan’s words riled Charlie who went on Twitter to ask if Joan had a Government death wish. Regina subsequently went on Radio to say Charlie was right and that Joan was wrong. Others thought Joan was right, including Colm, who also went on to Twitter to call the judgment of senior figures in Fine Gael into question.
Meanwhile Pat spoke to the Sunday Independent to say that he was frustrated by the “interminable delay” in bringing prosecutions following Mahon and Moriarty. Within hours of the paper hitting the breakfast table Alan had issued a broadside that had Pat in mind when it stressed the importance of not making public comments that might prejudice proceedings.
By lunchtime the Taoiseach was doing a bad Harry Enfield scouser impression telling everyone to “calm done”. All that was missing was him donning a Kevin Keegan wig and finishing off the interview saying: “Dey do do dat dough don’t dey dough”
Not only did all of this happen in just one week, it happened in very quiet week at that. If this is how the members of the Government deal with minor matters, Lord help us when the big problems come. And come they will.
The Government has had a fairly charmed existence since coming to office. While things are clearly not improving, they have not had to face any genuine crises or policy dramas.
Both parties have endured some setbacks early into their term. but none that really tested them. For Fine Gael it was the losses in the presidential election and referendum, plus the Roscommon hospital fiasco. For Labour it was the loss of three TDS, including a Junior Minister and a by-election winner, though these were offset by their man winning the presidency.
The handling of the household charge suggests they lack a certain deftness of touch, yet it pales into significance against the problems they may yet face in the years ahead.
How will a government that descends into public squabbling and faction fighting at the mere mention of the names of Moriarty Lowry or O’Brien cope if Merkel Draghi or Barroso decide to turn the thumbscrews on Corporation tax or whatever?
Have they all forgotten that they will be asking the people to take their collective advice at the end of May and vote yes to the Fiscal Compact Treaty? Might it not help their case to give the appearance of knowing what they are doing and all pulling in one direction?
As to the internecine squabbling, there are several systems in place to stop such petty rows escalating and getting into the public arena. One is called common sense. Another is the special adviser/programme manger system. Isn’t it time to get working on both?
My Evening Herald column from Saturday March 31st arguing that breaks in Dáil sittings are necessary and beneficial
On Thursday Dáil Éireann takes a break for the Easter recess. It is set to return on April 18th. Cue a hue and cry from opposition TDs and assorted political hacks demanding that the Dáil return sooner or sit longer or whatever.
These protests are not only regular and predictable, they are just as entertaining as they are pointless.
These sham battles seem to be based on the notion that the more the Dáil sits the better. Really? It is hard to sustain that argument when you look at the household charge fiasco.
In its recent annual report the Government commends itself for increasing the number of sitting days, saying that the Dáil sat for about 127 days, roughly 36/37weeks, in its first year.
According to the government’s calculations this is a 44% increase on the number of sitting days in the first year of the previous Dáil (2007/08).
A major achievement you’d think. Though not quiet as impressive when compared with the years 2008/09 and 2009/10 when the Dáil actually sat for 35 weeks per annum.
But what’s a week or two between old sworn enemies?
It is the old public sector problem: measuring inputs, not outcomes. Successive governments have been guilty of it.
The Government’s legislative programme should be driven by the number of pieces of legislation it wishes to pass into law, not by a need to produce bits of legislation to fill up some allotted time slot.
TDs should not be apologising for the Dáil not sitting in plenary session over the next three weeks.
Yes, various Oireachtas committees will be sitting during that time – but something else should also be happening. Something that is, in my opinion, far more important.
Politicians and their policy advisers should be availing of this break to do something they rarely get to do: think and prepare.
There is a story, probably apochryphal, about a Minister walking along a corridor in his Department when he spies a senior policy maker sitting back with his feet up on the desk. “Have you no work to do?” asks the Minister, “I have…” comes the reply “…I am doing it now, I’m thinking”.
These short breaks in Dáil sittings afford Ministers and senior officials some time and space away from debates, motions and parliamentary questions to think and to focus on other matters in their departments – things that don’t often make the headlines at Leader’s questions.
Central to this is standing back and taking stock of where they are.
When the Dáil is sitting a surprising amount of time in a government Department can be taken up in answering TDs questions alone, particularly when its that Minister’s turn at oral PQs.
Parliamentary accountability and scrutiny is an essential part of the democratic process, but you also need time to go and effectively do all those things that the parliament will subsequently want to scrutinise.
But if the need for this “thinking” time is important for Ministers and officials is it absolutely vital for an opposition and its support teams.
The Minister has a full time team of 8 or more in his office to fetch, carry and prepare – plus those other senior officials along the corridor to advise and research – the opposition spokesman is often depending on two or three.
But it is not a matter of resources. While the Dáil is sitting the agenda is set by the government. The opposition is usually just reacting to it – or reacting to the media reaction to events.
This is not always a bad thing, especially for an opposition that is effective at harrying the administration. This was the case in the latter half of the last government. The only crumb of comfort it got from the polls was when the Dáil was in recess. When it was in session both oppositions parties’ ratings went up, especially Labour’s.
But an opposition also needs to set the agenda too. It takes a lot of preparation and planning for an opposition to get the focus on its agenda. These breaks can often provide that space.
Politicians on both sides should acknowledge this fact. Who knows, maybe the reporters who cover the Dáil and actually benefit from the break might even credit them for it.
My take on Fianna Fáil’s 73ú Ard Fheis which is taking place in the RDS this weekend (March 2 & 3). This piece was written for the Evening Herald of March 3rd
For as long as I can recall Fianna Fáil Árd Fheiseana were the party conferences where the emphasis was more on the “partying” than the “conferencing”.
They were great social and political occasions where activists from all strands of society, right across the country, gathered to celebrate their membership of the party.
There they rallied; networked; socialised and renewed friendships with colleagues from other constituencies.
To be brutally honest, for many – myself included – the formal debates and motions were incidental to the core objective: discussing politics with old friends and hearing the leader’s speech.
While tonight’s address, the first by Michael Martin as leader, will remain the highpoint of this weekend’s Árd Fheis, it will come at the end of two days of serious and intense debate about the party’s future.
The issue before the Árd Fheis is that stark: the very survival of what was once the greatest modern political movement in Western Europe.
Over these two days – yesterday and today – at the RDS, members are deciding a slate of major reforms on how the party is organised and run.
Key to these is the move away from the representative/delegate model for candidate selection in favour of the One Member One Vote system (OMOV). In other words; to allow every active member in every cumann to have an equal say in selecting candidates and officers.
It is resonant of the crucial debate the British Labour Party had at their 1993 Conference. That was the year they ended the Trade Union block vote and adopted OMOV.
It was not an easy battle for them. The move to reform and modernise had been delayed for almost 14 years as they tore themselves apart with internal wrangling and infighting.
The result was three stunning defeats and three terms of powerless opposition.
Only by reforming their internal structures and systems did Labour allow itself to reconnect with its membership and, more importantly, with the people. After 14 years of irrelevance “New” Labour began to get in touch with the cares and concerns of the British people and respond effectively to them.
That is what Michael Martin hopes to achieve with this Árd Fheis. While the events of the past few days may have moved the focus slightly away from that goal, he was determined to shift it back as soon as the members start to gather in the RDS last night.
And a fair few of them gathered; with over 4000 members registered to attend by the middle of the week.
It is an indication of how serious the party’s grassroot members are about renewing their party. The number of people running for positions is another. Contest for the 20 nationally elected places on the Fianna Fáil Árd Comhairle has never been keener, with many bright, young first time candidates.
The same applies to several of the other senior positions, though the contest for the positions of Party Vice President was made marginally less intense with the withdrawals of two former party big hitters: Mary Hanafin and Éamon Ó Cuiv.
The weekend’s debates are not confined to organisational matters. The Clár contains some motions which, if passed, would herald interesting shifts in policy, including ones on gay marriage, gay adoption ending the regime of TDs’ and Senators expenses’ and reducing the voting age to 16.
There is also a slew of the more traditional Árd Fheis motions, including some Dublin centred resolutions calling for the reinstatement of the Ballymun Regeneration, Grangegorman DIT Campus and Metro North projects.
So, a great deal of serious work will be done by those gathering in Ballsbridge, but be certain too that there some socialising and banter as the faithful show that while they may be down, the party is by no means finished.
Derek Mooney was a Ministerial Adviser 2004 – 2010 and a Public Affairs Consultant and Speechwriter since the 90s