I have written several times about the developing crisis in Irish Defence policy-making and the impact this is having on morale and retention in the Irish Defence Forces. In this Broadsheet post from June 11th, 2019, I suggest how swapping ministers of state might help in the short-term to start the process of addressing this crisis.
It takes a rare political talent to make the Irish defence brief controversial, yet the hapless Paul Kehoe appears to have somehow managed it.
Stories of declining morale, chronic low pay, skills shortages and personnel retention problems fill the airwaves, and still the crisis worsens. Defence force strength which should today stand at 9,500 has been hovering perilously below 8,500 for months.
The 9,500 figure is itself misleading. The 2000 Defence White Paper set the number at 10,500. The reduction in 2009 to 9,500 was only intended as a temporary measure, yet it has entered the political psyche as some fixed upper limit.
While very little of the blame for these crises attach personally to Kehoe, realpolitik dictates that the time has come for him to move on. Kehoe must go.
This is my Broadsheet.ie analysis of the 2019 Local Election results (this first appeared on May 28th). Here I set out why the results brought bad news for the leaders of both Sinn Féin and Fine Gael.
It is almost exactly two years since Leo Varadkar was selected as Fine Gael leader. On June 2nd, 2017 after a two-week contest involving FG members and councillors, but primarily TDs and Senators, Varadkar was declared the winner. He beat Simon Coveney with 60% in a weighted ballot in which TDs and Senators had 65% of the total vote, the membership had 25% and councillors had 10%.
While Coveney won the popular vote among the membership He secured 35 per cent in the membership ballot, Varadkar got the backing of 51 of the 73 members of the parliamentary party.
Six months later, in January 2018, Mary Lou MacDonald was announced to absolutely no one’s surprise as the sole candidate to succeed Gerry Adams. Adams had announced that he would step down after four decades as Sinn Féin leader at a special Árd Fheis the following month.
This column originally appeared on Broadsheet.ie on May 8th 2017 and suggests that Fine Gael will come to regret dumping Enda Kenny as Taoiseach and leader as speedily as they have…www.broadsheet.ie/well-miss-him-eventually/
“But as I leave you I want you to know – just think how much you’re going to be missing. You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore”
With these words, Richard Nixon departed the political scene, well almost. It was November 7th, 1962. He was concluding what he assumed would be his last ever political press conference after losing the race to become Governor of California. Two years earlier he had narrowly lost the Presidency to John F Kennedy.
While Enda Kenny’s departure, when it comes – possibly over the next week or two – will not be as bitter and waspish as Tricky Dicky’s, there may just be the slightest hint of the same sentiment: just think what we will potentially be missing.
Love him or loathe him, during his time as Taoiseach Enda has been anything but colourless or bland. For all his faults and failings, he showed quickly that he realised that one of the main roles of any Taoiseach is re-assuring the public that there is someone with a plan in charge.
He also grasped that this role as the nation’s re-assurer-in-chief requires you to get out and about and meet people as much as possible. In some ways, Enda has spent the past six years doing a passable Bertie Ahern impression.
No one does heaves like Fine Gael does heaves. None of your subtle behind the scenes manoeuvrings for them. When it comes to getting political blood on the plush axminster the good folks at Fine Gael are major exhibitionists.
They have had plenty of heaves over the past forty years or so: most of them ill-judged, poorly timed and glaringly unsuccessful. The December 1972 heave against Liam Cosgrave is a good example of all three.
Fine Gael’s liberal wing wanted rid of the conservative, law and order Cosgrave. They complained that the party had failed under his leadership to capitalise on Fianna Fáil’s post Arms Crisis trials and tribulations, but the final straw was Cosgrave’s efforts to get FG TDs to back the government’s controversial Offences Against the State Bill – something they implacably opposed.
Cosgrave was effectively saved from the plotters by a loyalist bomb on Sackville Place that tragically killed two CIE busmen. The explosion took place just hours before the Dáil vote on the Bill. The Dáil adjourned to allow discussion between the parties. When it resumed, Fine Gael withdrew its opposition and abstained as Bill was voted through in an all-night sitting. Three months later Cosgrave became Taoiseach leading Fine Gael into government with the Labour Party.
Fast forward to 1980s and 1990s and we enter the golden age of the Fine Gael heave. The drama and intrigue within the Fine Gael parliamentary party was so intense that RTÉ ran a TV documentary series in 2003 about the period entitled: Fine Gael: A Family at War.
For about two decades the folks in blue were regularly sharpening their knives as they awaited the opportunity to dispatch their leaders. While Dr Garret Fitzgerald managed to escape their clutches his successor, Alan Dukes, had a less happy fate.
Dukes took over from Fitzgerald after the 1987 defeat. While he started out well, Duke’s Tallaght Strategy – a less formalised precursor of the current Confidence and Supply Agreement, which facilitated Haughey’s minority government – was not too popular with FG TDs.
One TD, Austin Deasy, was so incensed that he at first resigned in protest from the party only to return in 1989 and try, unsuccessfully, to oust Dukes. Deasy was a serial heaver, launching his first one first against Garret in 1982 and finishing up with his failed November 2000 one against John Bruton.
Dukes survived, but not for long. In a snap election in June 1989, Fine Gael regained only 5 of the 19 seats they lost two years earlier. The whispering campaign against Dukes was back with a vengeance with one back bencher remarking that if it was raining soup Dukes would be out there with a fork. Things came to a head in late 1990 when the party’s candidate in the presidential election came a very poor third behind Mary Robinson and Brian Lenihan Snr.
The result had hardly been declared when Fergus O’Brien, who had been demoted by Dukes, tabled a motion of no confidence. This was followed by a flurry of Fine Gael TDs rushing to the nearest journalist to unburden themselves. Dukes could not withstand the onslaught. Within days he resigned and was succeeded by John Bruton.
Now the Fine Gael heavers shifted into top gear. It seemed as if there was a heave brewing every few months. Bruton survived five leadership contests during his eleven years at the top. The sixth one, in January 2001, led by two political heavy weights Jim Mitchell and Michael Noonan succeeded in toppling him. Noonan took the top job, beating Enda Kenny, but his reign was short lived. FG’s defeat in the May 2002 election was so calamitous that Noonan resigned on the night of the count. He was succeeded by Enda Kenny.
As you can see from these examples and the June 2010 heave against Enda outlined in my Enda’s 3am question is still unanswered Broadsheet column: most of them fail. The ones that do succeed have the oblique backing of the person who hopes to succeed and are usually attempted when the party is in opposition – not in government.
This later point is perhaps not so relevant today. Fine Gael spent most of the 80s and 90s in opposition and were not in office long enough to have the time to consider it. It was these long periods of opposition – and powerlessness – that led to the heaves. The breaking point, in most cases, being a bad election result or a series of poor opinion poll results.
This heave is different or at least it appears different. Unlike heaves of the past it has been occasioned by an actual political event, namely the chronic mishandling of the Sgt McCabe debacle and the confusion about who told who said what and when and if they told the Taoiseach or just one of his Advisers.
But it would be foolish to think that electoral considerations are not also a major factor.
While Enda Kenny has made it clear that he does not intend to lead his party into the next election, the abiding fear among Fine Gael TDs was that events would overtake them and that Fianna Fáil would pull down the house of cards before Enda quits and they find themselves facing an election with Enda still in place.
Up to a few weeks ago, they assumed that Fianna Fáil was neither ready nor willing to trigger an election until 2018 – but a series of good polls for Micheál Martin’s soldiers of destiny has convinced already rattled Fine Gael TDs that Fianna Fáil was preparing itself to call time on the government.
The problem with this scenario is that it shows Fine Gaelers thinking like Fine Gaelers, not like Fianna Fáilers. Fianna Fáil knows well that voters tend not to reward parties who trigger unnecessary elections for partisan gain. Martin’s FF eschews the “cute hoor” tag that once bedevilled the party. When it eventually moves against the government it will be seen clearly do so on an issue of policy, not personality or partisan gain.
On a more practical front, 20 of Fianna Fáil’s 45 TDs are first timers. They are just starting to settle in after two or three years of intense campaigning to win those seats. They are not ready or prepared for an election yet. Most are now watching the turmoil in the FG ranks and trying to work out whether the election of Simon or Leo – or neither – means the election will be in May, June, September or later.
Meanwhile the rest should reach for the popcorn, scan our WhatApp to see if Charlie Flanagan is messaging us and just enjoy it all.
This is my Broadsheet column from just over a week ago – September 12th 2016 – it concerns the then MoS John Halligan will he/won’t he resign saga. Though he didn’t resign, keep this one on file for the next time this political soap opera comes around. The original column can be viewed here: www.broadsheet.ie/in-a-field-of-his-own/
Though he may not realise it: John Halligan’s pronouncements over the weekend (such as the headline [left] in the Sindo) may just be a very small part of a world-wide phenomenon.
No, I am not claiming there is global movement to secure a second catheterisation (cath) lab for Waterford. What I am saying however, is that his statements, particularly his most recent ones, contain many of the elements of the decline of public language in politics that we have heard elsewhere.
I accept that Halligan and the local consultants in Waterford hospital are sincere in desperately wanting a second cath lab, but wanting something is not the same as needing it – especially when resources are not unlimited.
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.
What exactly is this “New Politics” we have been reading and hearing about so much lately?
It was the question that should have occurred to me as soon as the Public Relations Institute asked me to participate in a panel discussion they held last Thursday as part of a half day seminar entitled: Public Affairs in the era of ‘New Politics’.
But it didn’t. Like many others, I have been throwing about the phrase “new politics” in the two and a half weeks since the Dáil elected a Taoiseach as if everyone understands what it means.
Whether polling day is on Feb 26th or March 4th, it is clear that we are only two or three weeks away from the start of the great 2016 corriboard shortage… sorry, the 2016 general election.
Over the coming two weekends we will have the Fianna Fáil and then the Fine Gael Ard Fheiseanna, followed by Labour at the end of January – presuming that Enda hasn’t already called the election and pulled the plug on Labour’s big day out.
While the corriboard campaign posters remain in their wrappings and the Vote for me leaflets stand ready, the electioneering has already as good as started.
One the most interesting aspects of Fine Gael’s pre-campaign campaigning so far is just how much time and energy a party determined to dismiss Fianna Fáil as irrelevant is devoting to attacking them. See Today FM’s Matt Cooper’s comment on the Taoiseach’s Wednesday afternoon press conference:
Could it be that Fine Gael’s own private polling is telling them something the national newspapers polls are missing?
It occurred to me recently that Enda has spent the last few years doing a very bad Bertie Ahern impression – making Enda the Bobby Davro of Irish politics you might say. Enda gets the minor gestures and mannerisms right – but he misses the core of the character.
Enda may be as accomplished and expert a glad handler as Bertie when it comes to wading into a crowd and shaking the hand and slapping the of everyone around him, but he his mimicry is one dimensional. He does not possess Bertie’s skill and ability to command the facts and figures when engaging with the media on door step interviews.
While Enda still possesses many skills and abilities, not least his steely determination and ruthless streak, he is not politically hard wired to endure or sustain a long election campaign – especially if he hopes to keep his media interactions down to a few tightly managed ones.
It is a mistake on two fronts. First as they seem to be copying the Tory playbook here with minimal changes and basic adaptions.
Do they so see themselves as Ireland’s Tories that they cannot be bothered to make even the most basic of changes to the strategy, the text and the slogans? A series of recent Fine Gael social media posts have used the Tory line: “long-term economic plan” word for word:
While the Tories undoubtedly mounted a superb social media campaign in the 2015 UK general election and used the platforms, particularly Facebook, more effectively than most of their rivals (apart from the SNP who are the master campaigners both online and on the ground) that does not mean you take their campaign slogans and approaches lock stock and barrel.
Second, in taking the Tory campaign playbook en masse Fine Gael seems to have forgetten that we have a PR STV system, not First-Past-The-Post – indeed Fine Gael used to pride itself as being the defender of PR STV (they had opposed the two attempts to change the voting system by referendum in the 50s and 60s)
What works in a FPTP system does not necessarily work in a PR-STV one. Depending on where you live in a FPTP system you can find yourself voting for someone you don’t like rather than the one you do like most just so you can make sure the one you dislike more is kept out.
The idea that a vote for Fianna Fáil or Independent alliance is a vote for Sinn Féin is not so easy to sell in an STV system where the voter can vote the entire panel right down the line and omit the local SF candidate.
That said is easy to see the attractiveness of the Tory playbook for Fine Gael. The Tories succeeded in keeping their leader out of head to head debates, Fine Gael want and need to do the same – though for different reasons. While Cameron was wary of elevating Milliband by sharing a head to head debate platform with him – there were no questions about the PM’s capacity to perform well in a head to head debate.
Though Fine Gael’s polling numbers have recovered recently – at precisely the time they needed them to recover – they are still on course to lose seats, even if they do get 31/32% in the polls.
While these improving numbers are no mere coincidence and are a tribute to Fine Gael’s political strategists, the idea that seems to be floating about the commentariat that Fine Gael is now some invincible campaigning machine is more than a little bit short of the mark.
Fine Gael is having a few problems of its own right now, and they are problems entirely of its own making. Though they will doubtless address the issue between now and the Árd Fheis (and possibly drum up future local difficulties in the process) Fine Gael was still short of the 30% gender quota up to a few days ago – a system they introduced and championed.
Not only that but its head-quarters operation has just ended an unseemly, costly and ultimately unsuccessful fight in the Courts with one of their own candidates: John Perry TD.
And before I am accused me of dragging up these problems like a Fianna Fáil-er whistling past the graveyard, I do not think this is a zero sum game. I do not presume that any loss of ground by Fine Gael over the campaign will automatically translate into a Fianna Fáil gain.
Fianna Fáil will have to make its own ground in this one and will need to land some hefty punches on Enda, Leo, Michael and Simon, it cannot depend on Enda and Fine Gael to just lose it.
Enda’s #armygate saga has had pundits of all hues falling over themselves to explain, or even excuse, how and why An Taoiseach went to a recent EPP gathering in Madrid and told a story about the Irish Defences Forces being on standby to protect ATMs back in 2012.
Some have seen this as just another example of the perils of letting Enda go off script. Others suggest it shows that his grip on the actualité is slipping, a bit like his story of the woman thanking him after the Budget.
In order to retain my punditry badge, let me weigh in with another possible explanation. I think Enda is suffering from Ransom Stoddard Syndrome.
Who is Ransom Stoddard, I hear you ask. He was the main character in the 1962 western: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Stoddard, played by Jimmy Stewart, is the eponymous hero who shot the outlaw Liberty Valance – except, well…. he didn’t. (I hope this doesn’t spoil the plot for anyone hasn’t seen it.)
“No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
Following a long political career, built in part on his reputation as the man who shot the criminal, Stoddard attempts to clarify events in an interview with a local newspaper. As the interview ends Stoddard asks the editor if the newspaper is going to use the real story, the editor replies: “No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
For Enda the legend of Enda has become confused with fact. The Enda legend or, to use the political communications parlance, the Enda narrative, is that he and Fine Gael manfully pulled Ireland back from the brink. In Fine Gael’s mind they inherited a bankrupt and dysfunctional country and, with careful planning and skilful leadership, turned it around to become the fastest growing economy in Europe. Not only that, they also tell themselves (and others) that the recession would never have hit Ireland if only Fine Gael had been in office for the preceding decade.
It is this narrative Enda was sharing with his colleagues in the EPP. The problem is that the facts don’t back it up, so Fine Gael and Enda must construct its own facts, facts based on its legends.
As Noel Whelan points out in his column in the Irish Times: Kenny gaffe over army and ATMs part of pattern of deception this is not the first, second or third time Enda has uttered this story of Army, ATMs and the Central Bank. This story has been constructed not only to fit into a narrative of the past, it is structured so as to advance it.
Yes, as others have pointed out, it does highlight Enda’s recurring issues with going off script and ad-libbing, but it is about more than a Taoiseach who can’t be trusted out on his own and who can’t remember his lines. It is about a party in government that is all narrative and no facts.
Last week the Fine Gael placed a graphic on its Facebook page which purported to show that it alone had secured Ireland’s recovery and made Ireland the fastest growing economy in the EU. To even the most casual of viewers the graphic, especially ones who ignore the dodgy Y axis increments, shows that the bulk of the recovery had been secured before the 2011 election and that the economy had effectively flat lined for the first two years of Fine Gael and Labour’s time in office.
Try searching for the 2002 and 2007 Fine Gael manifestos on the party’s website – you won’t find them. Neither will you find the many statements from Fine Gael spokespeople urging more spending after every Budget. The reality that both campaign platforms, plus the party statements promised to spend more and tax less than the Fianna Fáil alternatives does not sit well with the new Fine Gael legend.
Where Fine Gael is all narrative and no facts – Fianna Fáil has the opposite problem, it is all facts and precious little narrative. Up to the appearance of Brian Cowen and Bertie Ahern before the Banking Inquiry Fianna Fáil spokespeople seemed singularly unwilling to talk about the years leading up to the 2011 election. It seemed that they, like Fine Gael, thought that talking about the period 2002 – 2011 could only damage the party – but as Cowen and Ahern showed, setting the record straight and speaking candidly about what actually happened does not undermine Fianna Fáil.
Cowen and Ahern’s able and informed testimony at the Banking Inquiry showed that the Governments they led were neither reckless nor directionless. Yes, they made mistakes, but as they proved by their command of the facts and the details they did have a plan and were, in the teeth of a global financial crisis, making the best decisions they could on the basis of the facts and information before them. Their assured solo appearances contrasted with Enda’s assisted one, where he did the general patter and handed over to Richard Bruton when the questions become difficult.
The big fallout from the Banking Inquiry is not damaging Fianna Fáil the way Fine Gael’s strategists planned it would. They were full sure that parading the old familiar Fianna Fáil faces before the committee to be questioned and pilloried would re-ignite the public anger and ire of the 2011 election. Why else delay the hearings until the final run up to the election.
But they were wrong. While Fianna Fáil is hardly soaring in the polls, its support has been creeping up painfully slowly, just while the support levels for Fine Gael’s preferred enemy: Sinn Féin, have been slipping steadily downwards.
Hence the need for Fine Gael and for Enda is up the ante on the faux narrative and hype up the legend of Enda of the West complete, to return to the western movie motif, with the good guy white hats they have fabricated for themselves.
The problem is that life and politics today is much more questioning and techni-coloured now than it was in the days of the black and white western – no matter how exciting the story sounds.
In asking a High Court Judge to re-examine and review the documentation and material already available the Cabinet, and in particular the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny and the Minister for Justice and Defence, Alan Shatter are attempting to out-Nixon Nixon.
Back in early 1973, as the scandal of the Watergate Break In and Cover Up began to break, the then US President Richard M Nixon, in conjunction with his advisers John Ehrlichman and Bob Haldeman, devised a plan to get Nixon’s White House Counsel John Dean to write a report for the President on Watergate that “basically clears the President and White House staff of involvement”. Their plan was that they could cite Dean’s Report as what they had relied upon and that they could blame Dean for deceiving them.
While Dean did initially agree to go to Camp David at the President’s request to write such a report, but he soon came to realise that he was being lined up as the scapegoat and decided not to complete the report. Nixon sacked him shortly afterwards, on the same day as he announced the resignations of Ehrlichman and Haldeman.
While the Government is not asking a retired High Court Judge to become is scapegoat, it does seem to be looking to get a supposedly independent review that it determines will verify its own jaundiced version of events.
How else can we interpret the fact that while the Justice Minister was indicating how the review would operate he announced that he had decided on the review as he had received a review of the Verrimus report from RITS, a Dublin based IT security firm, that concluded that there was “no evidence at all”.
So, even as the Minister announces the review he sets out his view on what it should, if not must, conclude.
This, as with Nixon’s Dean Report, is all about attempting to draw a line under a growing political scandal rather than getting to the core of what caused it: allegations of bugging at GSOC’s premises?
Why opt for such a limited review, reporting to the Justice Minister and with Terms of Reference set by the Minister instead of an inquiry under the Commissions of Inquiry legislation?
Today’s Cabinet decision, albeit deeply flawed, runs counter to last week’s comments by both An Taoiseach and the Justice Minister and suggests either 1). A realization that the government’s spinning on the subject is not having the same impact now as it had at the start, and/or 2). Pressure from Labour members of the Cabinet growing tired of defending the Justice Minister.
Background material on the Nixon/Dean Watergate Report
The timeline for Dean’s Watergate Report
March 20, 1973: In his conversation with chief of staff H. R. Haldeman about White House counsel John Dean’s phony “Dean Report,” which will say that no one in the White House was involved in the Watergate conspiracy, President Nixon says: “[The report] should lay a few things to rest. I didn’t do this, I didn’t do that, da-da, da-da, da-da, da-da, da-da, da-da, da-da. Haldeman didn’t do this. Ehrlichman didn’t do that. Colson didn’t do that. See?”
March 22, 1973: President Nixon tells his aides to ensure that the nation never learns of the political and financial machinations that surround the Watergate burglary from his aides under investigation: “And, uh, for that reason, I am perfectly willing to—I don’t give a sh_t what happens, I want you all to stonewall it, let them plead the Fifth Amendment, cover-up or anything else.” But he wants something on paper that he can point to and say he knew nothing about the Watergate conspiracy, and that he had ordered an internal investigation of the matter. He sends counsel John Dean to Camp David for the weekend to write the document
March 27, 1973: President Nixon orders senior aide John Ehrlichman to conduct his own “independent investigation” of the conspiracy, since White House counsel John Dean has not yet produced the results of his own “investigation”