The past few weeks have hardly been great for the No side. Fine Gael has been pretty active on the airwaves over the Summer break, while Sinn Féin’s opportunistic decision to campaign for a Yes, having vehemently opposed the Government’s proposal in both the Dáil and Seanad, hasn’t helped the No cause either.
All this makes the increase in the pro Seanad reform level of support all the more re-assuring. Not that the poll suggests that the campaign is done and dusted. Far from it.
More than almost any other, this Seanad abolition policy, is the lone brain child of Enda Kenny. Though there seem to be no research papers, discussion documents or policy positions he can produce to justify the origins of this initiative, he is the man behind it and he has more to lose by its defeat than anyone else.
While Labour nominally favours abolition, its TDs and Ministers can reasonably see their policy obligations as fulfilled by the holding of a referendum. Don’t expect to see many of them working too hard for a Yes to abolition vote. Indeed, as the Labour Chief Whip has indicated, at least half the Labour parliamentary party may actually work for a No vote seeing it as the best way to secure a popular mandate for Seanad reform.
One of the two authors of Labour’s 2009 position paper on Seanad reform, Junior Minister, Alex White has not commented on the issue much, while the other author, Joanna Tuffy TD has indicated that she will be campaigning for a No vote.
The worrying shift in the poll numbers make it necessary for Fine Gael to up the ante over the weeks ahead.
Given that the main shift has been in the group who describe themselves as favouring reform expect to see Fine Gael focus its attentions there and try to convince them that a Yes vote is a vote for reform.
We already had a glimpse of this approach last week via its neophyte Wicklow TD, Simon Harris’s speech at the Parnell Summer School.
Harris advanced the argument that abolishing the Seanad counts as reform and gives power back to the people as it means the single remaining chamber of the Oireachtas: the Dáil will be 100% elected by the public.
Harris’s reasoning seems to hinges on the statistic that the number of people registered to vote in Seanad elections, under current legislation, is around 156,000; about 5% of the approx 3.1 million entitled to vote at the February 2011 Dáil election.
What Harris misses, however, is that this 156,000 (Councillors, Oireachtas members and NUI and TCD graduates) is defined in legislation – not the Constitution. Everyone in the North and South could be given the right to vote with the passing of an Act by the Dáil and Seanad. Indeed the Seanad has already voted for such a piece of reform with the Second Stage vote on the Quinn/Zappone Seanad Reform Bill.
The extension of the Seanad franchise to all is now completely within the gift of Deputy Harris’s colleagues on the government benches.
The only real obstacle to such a real reform is the Taoiseach’s obduracy in insisting on Seanad abolition instead of reform.
Though not central to the argument it is worth noting that the 156,000 figure is probably an understatement as it just counts the NUI and Trinity graduates who have registered to vote. Many 100s of 1000s more are entitled to vote by virtue of their graduation.
The other problem with Harris’s reasoning is the idea that the answer to existing disenfranchisement is more disenfranchisement. It defies all democratic principles to propose removing someone’s voting rights when you have it in your power to extend them.
If you were to apply Deputy Harris’s quirky logic to the campaign for women’s suffrage a century back you would determine that the way to ensure equal voting rights for all was to remove the vote from men so that the two genders were equally disadvantaged.
The very legitimate criticism that not enough people are entitled to vote in Seanad elections is properly addressed by giving everyone the right, not by removing it.
I would hope that Deputy Harris’s espousal of a position that is the absolute antithesis of reform is informed by loyalty to his party leader and desire for advancement rather than by belief in the argument itself.
If it is the former then the case for reform is all the greater, if it is latter then it is time to worry.
TNT24.ie asked me to take a quick look back over the issues emerging so far in the Seanad referendum campaign. As a protagonist on the Seanad Reform side, I do not claim this to be an impartial observation, but I have attempted to make it as fair as possible.
Just over eight weeks ago Democracy Matters, the civic society group advocating Seanad Reform rather over abolition, was launched. A week later, in Government Buildings, An Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tánaiste Éamon Gilmore published their proposed amendment to the Constitution which, if passed by the people in about eleven weeks time, will abolish Seanad Éireann following the next election.
While the Seanad referendum campaign has yet to start in earnest: it has still been an eventful eight weeks with several shots fired in anger by both sides. We are already seeing some of the key lines of argument and contention emerging between the pro and anti campaigns. The debate, thus far, has seemed largely to focus on:
This has been to the advantage of the government side abolitionists so far. The discussion so far seems to have been on the government’s terms with very little real exploration of the No side’s reform alternatives. Nonetheless, the No side have had some success punching holes in some of the government’s case to date.
Costs: This has quickly emerged as an area of contention between the two sides. Fine Gael in particular has been focussing its attention of its claims that abolishing the Seanad would potentially save the State some €20million a year. This claim has been contested by several people on the No side, including Fianna Fáil, Democracy Matters and several Senators – including some Fine Gael and Labour ones. They put the figure at €10million or below
Fine Gael says its figures come from the Oireachtas Commission and offers the following breakdown on the €20m figure:
Total direct costs of running the Seanad of €8.8m (Gross), including
members’ salary (€4.2m);
members’ expenses (€2.5m) and
members’ staff costs (€2.1m)
€2m in annual pensions costs relating to the Seanad.
The additional indirect apportioned pay and non-pay costs of supporting sections of €9.3m:
Procedural sections (€2.8m) and
Other support sections (€3m).
Not that Fine Gael always used this figure. At one stage it was suggesting an annual saving of €30 per annum, but this was subsequently slimmed down – to a figure of around €10million. In June an opinion piece appeared in the Irish Times advocating abolition under the name of the then Fine Gael back bench TD Paschal Donohoe. It did not use this €20million figure, but rather suggested the €10m per annum one saying: “…at least €50 million over the lifetime of one Dáil term. Over five Dáil terms, with pension costs and expenses included, these savings alone would have us more than halfway to paying for a national children’s hospital.”
Reform advocates point to the January 2012 testimony of the outgoing Clerk of the Dáil, Kieran Coughlan who estimated the gross annual saving from abolition would be less than €10million. If you take into account that at least 30% of that €10million goes back to the Exchequer in taxes, levies and VAT, the real annual cost of the Seanad to the taxpayer is probably between €6 million and €7 million. The €2 million pensions cost would continue for all former members and might likely increase for the foreseeable future with 60 Senators being made redundant in one fell swoop.
As for the indirect costs the Oireachtas has said that it is not possible to estimate the net actual savings and advises there would be substantial increases in pension costs and redundancy payments.
The government does not mention the estimated €15+million cost of holding the referendum. This is based on the government’s own figures for the costs of the Referendum on the Protection of Children held on the 10th November, 2012.
The whole debate on costs is probably moot. As Senator Professor John Crown has pointed out, Minister Brendan Howlin has stated that money saved from Seanad abolition will be redeployed to Dáil Committees. So there will be no net savings to the Exchequer.
Scale:The government’s next big argument for abolition is that Ireland is too small a country to have a two chambered (bicameral) parliament and to have as many national politicians as we have.
These lines has been trotted out many times with the Taoiseach and Ministers making lots of references to such similarly sized places as Denmark, Finland, Sweden and New Zealand.
Reformists say that there is no direct correlation, between the size of State and parliamentary system. China with a population of over 1.3 billion has a single chamber (unicameral) parliament while the parliament of Saint Lucia (population 170,000) is bicameral.
They argue that bicameral is the norm for common law countries, such as ours – regardless of size. Indeed world’s wealthiest nations are mostly bicameral: of the fifteen countries with the highest GDP only two – the People’s Republic of China and South Korea – have a unicameral parliament.
As for the comparisons with Scandinavian countries, you are not comparing like with like. The overall structure of these Scandinavian political systems is very different from ours. In Denmark, Finland and Sweden local government is at the heart of the political system. In Sweden, for example, there are three tiers of government. These local governments can set their own local income tax. As for the numbers, contrary to having fewer politicians all these countries have more.
Relevance: Launching the government’s referendum proposal; back in June the Taoiseach questioned the relevance of the Seanad saying that modern Ireland cannot be governed effectively by a political system originally designed for 19th century Britain.
Putting the factual error on 19th century Britain element part down to the rhetorical over exuberance of his speech writer (perhaps the same one who thought Lenin had visited Ireland and met with Michael Collins), it is a theme frequently mentioned.
Does much of the question mark over the Seanad’s relevance stem from how it is elected – mainly by other politicians?
If so, could it not be addressed by extending the franchise for the Seanad and allowing every voter on the island – North and South – the right to vote in Seanad elections?
The method of elected the 43 vocational Senators is set out in law, not in the Constitution. It would not take a referendum to give every existing (and future) voter the right to vote in a Seanad election. Every voter could decide on which panel they wished to exercise their vote: Labour, Culture & Educational, Agriculture, Industry & Commerce and Administrative and vote accordingly. Everyone would get one vote – no more multiple voting.
With this one simple act – achieved by legislation – the government could do more to address the Seanad’s relevance and the issue of Oireachtas reform than with any number of referendums.
The new, reformed Seanad would be a positive response to the fiscal crisis and loss of sovereignty. The global crisis was exacerbated in Ireland because public policy and economic dogma went unchallenged. Regulators went unregulated, civil society and the party system failed to advance realistic alternatives.
Rejecting abolition and giving ourselves a new reformed Seanad is about ensuring this doesn’t happen again.
This morning’s Sunday Independent story that back in January 2009 when he was still leader of the opposition that Enda Kenny had been in informal contact with Anglo Irish Bank’s CFO, Matt Moran, raises several questions for Mr Kenny. Some of these questions have already been posed by Fianna Fáil’s Micheál Martin.
When the Anglo tapes first came into the public arena at the end of June, Mr Kenny moved quickly to politically insinuate that the tapes suggested an “axis of collusion” between Anglo Irish and Fianna Fáil, even though the tapes did not suggest any improper or informal contacts between any Fianna Fáil ministers and Anglo bosses.
During the course of Leaders Question on June 25th, Enda Kenny was quite strident and aggressive in his exchanges with the Fianna Fáil leader, Micheál Martin with the Taoiseach repeatedly mentioning Martin’s role in the Bank Guarantee (notwithstanding the fact that it was not Anglo who had sought the guarantee and that the bank was not even represented at the meeting in Government Buildings on the night of September 28th, 2008).
Typical of the exchanges is the following line from the Taoiseach:
“Deputy Micheál Martin was part of that environment. I am not suggesting he was involved directly in any of it—– (Interruptions) —-but he was a member of the Government and the people are entitled to know why the Government had incorporeal meetings at 3 a.m. They are entitled to know about the political environment in which all of these agents operated.”
Even after Martin had finished asking his two questions, the Taoiseach continued his political allegations of collusion during his subsequent exchanges with Deputy Gerry Adams and Deputy Mattie McGrath.
During his two questions McGrath asked the Taoiseach if the Minister for Justice and Equality had known about the tapes and if the government intended to set up a criminal inquiry and a robust investigation?
Towards the end of his replies to McGrath, indeed just as the time for Leader Questions was ending and Deputies were starting to prepare for the next business the Taoiseach volunteered the following curious little revelation. McGrath had not asked if he had any contact with the bosses in Anglo, indeed the topic had not been raised, yet the Taoiseach felt the need to put the following titbit on to the record:
“I had the doubtful privilege of calling into Anglo Irish Bank with Deputy Bruton, when he was the party’s spokesman on finance, a couple of weeks after the guarantee went through. We met all of the principals in the bank’s building on St. Stephen’s Green.
We were given a wonderful presentation by people who were very well remunerated in their positions and received very large bonuses. As has transpired, all of that presentation was a tissue of fabrication and untruths. The questions we asked on that occasion, from the Opposition benches, were very realistic in the context of the pressures people were under and the stories, rumours and allegations that were flying around about that bank. They were all utterly denied.
I make that point for the politicians who are interested in what happened here.”
Is this just a case of Mr Kenny’ showing how unlike John Bruton, his predecessor as FG leader and Taoiseach, he is? Some years back Mr Bruton infamously defended his evasiveness in the Dáil with the line: “you didn’t ask me the right question”. Are we to believe that where Bruton was cautiously meticulous in only answering the specifics of the question asked, Kenny is more effusive? To judge from other Leaders’ Questions sessions before and since, hardly so.
It now appears that Mr Kenny was endeavouring to get something on the record regarding his contacts with Anglo bosses just in case these precise revelations were to emerge.
This brings us to Minister Frances Fitzgerald’s protestations this morning on RTÉ’s The Week in Politics that it is ridiculous to suggest that the Taoiseach might have any questions to answer as he was only leader of the opposition back in January 2009. The presumption here is that Mr Kenny knew little or nothing about what was going on back in January 2009 so what could he have told or said to Anglo’s Mr Moran?
Two points here:
First, if the conversations with Moran, who it seems hails from the same part of the world as Kenny, were so inconsequential why did the Taoiseach not make even a passing reference to them in his June 25 dump out of unrequested information? Perhaps because these were one to one conversations without Richard Bruton present?
Second: the notion that Mr Kenny was completely clueless in January 2009 does not hold water. Unlike the current government, the last one – particularly the late Brian Lenihan was scrupulous in keeping the opposition informed and briefed. Lenihan knew the enormous scale of the issues with which he was grappling. He was not going to allow himself open to the charge of a lack of transparency or openness in dealing with decisions that would affect the economy for decades. It should not be forgotten that Fine Gael had, in the wake of the Sept 28 guarantee, been broadly constructive in its approach.
We get a glimpse into openness of the contacts between Lenihan and Kenny at the time from the following comment by Lenihan at the conclusion of the Second Stage debate on the Bank Guarantee legislation (Credit Institutions (Financial Support) Bill 2008).
“When I telephoned Deputy Kenny at 7 a.m. this morning and explained to him the circumstances in which the State found itself in regard to financial stability, he responded without hesitation that he would support any measure the Government brought forward.”
This contrasts with the paucity of the briefings offered by the current government to opposition spokespeople on February 6th when the government expected the Dáil to pass the legislation winding up Anglo Irish (by then called the Irish Bank Resolution Corporation) with only 10 minutes prior sight of the Bill itself.
Only after much cajoling from both Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin did the Taoiseach eventually concede to giving the opposition an extra 30 minutes to read the legislation before debating it.
Rather than issuing bland blanket denials he needs to set out in tabular form all the contacts he and his colleagues had with Anglo Irish bank and its agents between early 2008 and before the 2011 election.
Will he heed Justice Minister Alan Shatter’s call elsewhere to tell us what he knows about “direct” contacts with Anglo? He also needs to say if he is willing to agree to co-operate with an independent Leveson style investigation into the banking crisis.
Where votes were tied (for an elimination) the one to be eliminated was picked by reference to their first count vote, where they were tied on first count is was by random selection
Interestingly both Michael Noonan and Simon Coveney received zero votes on the first count – which prompts me to shortly run a poll: Who is the best Minister in Cabinet (I may run that poll on a slightly different basis and seek the top three rather than just the one best)
Surely I cannot be alone in realising that there is less chance of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael linking up than there is of Luis Suarez having all his teeth pulled and turning vegetarian.
Yet, within hours of each new opinion poll you will see lots of speculation in print, on air, online and/or on all three that the next government will consist of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael in some combination or other.
Such speculation seems to be based just on adding together the numbers that bring you to 50% and ignores the glaring Catch 22 that renders the chances of any such FG/FF or FF/FG alliance impossible: neither party would ever agree to go into a partnership government where it was not the biggest partner.
And as, by definition, a partnership government of just two groups cannot have two biggest partners, neither party would agree to be the junior partner in such a relationship. To do so would fly in the face of the fundamental rule of Irish governmental politics: junior coalition partners come off worst.
The strategists in both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil know this. Whatever their weaknesses and deficiencies in policy formulation, these are still wily and experienced political operatives, they understand political realities. More critically they understand the laws of self preservation. They know that going into government as the junior partner while leaving Labour and Sinn Féin as the official opposition would be tantamount to writing their own party’s obituary.
Those who argue, on the basis of current opinion polls, that the Fine Gael / Fianna Fáil option may be the only viable one after the next election, do it on the basis that politics is a “numbers game”.
Well, to some degree it is, but numbers do not dictate everything. True, without the numbers you have no role and no say, but the converse is not true. Having the numbers does not mean that you must necessarily do A or B. Having the numbers does not restrict your options, quiet the opposite. Rather than being compelled to pursue some particular course, you have the opportunity to exercise judgement and think strategically.
This is not to discount the temptation and lure of ministerial office, especially to those who may not plan to face the electorate again. Saying no to power is no easy task, but the decision is made somewhat less troublesome if you know that saying yes to office today as a junior partner means that you are almost certainly ensuring that that option will be denied to you and your colleagues for many years thereafter.
Though majorly damaged after electoral pounding it took in the February 2011 General Election, Fianna Fáil is still hard wired for power – perhaps even more so that Fine Gael – so saying no to office would be difficult for some within the upper echelons of the organisation. Perhaps this is why the party leadership has recruited the membership of the party to ensure that any post election decision would be made by the broader party.
The situation is just as true for Fine Gael, though for other reasons. Having spent so long as the second party of Irish politics, it is now relishing its time in the top spot. It will be loathe to surrender that place – least of all to Fianna Fáil.
If the next election were to put Fianna Fáil ahead of Fine Gael, no matter by how small a margin, Fine Gael would do nothing to help Fianna Fáil back into power. Fine Gael would seek alliances with Labour, Sinn Féin, Independents, Socialists, Wallacites; McGrath-ites (of the Mattie or Fintan variety) Greens, People Before Profit, Profit Before People, Cart Before the Horse or whoever to keep Fianna Fáil out.
I know I risk appearing more than a little cynical in not mentioning policies and principles and just discussing the possible make up of a future government in terms of survival strategies but, I believe the chances of a Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil government are so remote and unrealistic that it is cynical not to dismiss it and to allow any more time and energy be wasted on discussing an option (and the associated policies) that does not exist.
Yesterday (Thurs April 11th) the Irish Times ran a storysaying that the German chancellor Angela Merkel is facing mounting political pressure at home to demand fiscal concessions from Ireland in exchange for granting extra time to repay crisis loans.
It seems that once again Germany is insisting that it not merely have an input into EU talks and discussion, but that it have a veto on the outcome. It is the ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune’ school of political thought. While the approach is not unfamiliar in politics, it flies totally in the face of democratic process and accountability. But even more than that, in this instance, it contradicts the history of Germany’s own economic revival and the important role played by one of Ms Merkel’s most illustrious predecessors: Konrad Adenauer.
Germany’s Wirtschaftswunder – the economic miracle of the 1950s – was based in large measure on a generous programme of debt forgiveness given to Germany by its 33 debtor countries (including Ireland). The 1953 London Agreement on German External Debts, effectively wrote off half of Germany’s total mountain of debt and gave it additional time to repay the monies it owed. These debts included war reparations from both first and second world wars, plus the massive German 1930’s debt default, which was just as significant as the 2008 European financial crisis.
The West German CDU Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer realised that there would be no growth or revival of the West German economy for as long as it had to make huge annual payment to the Allied and other powers. These hefty payments, many of which Germany was even failing to make, were draining the West German economy of the ability to rebuild itself. He recognised that the only way to achieve growth was to get some relief from this debt burden, hence the London conference on German external debts.
Adenauer managed to convince the others sitting around the table that the only way that Germany could recover and rebuild was for them to ease the burden on it – he managed to convince them to stop doing to Germany what Germany is now doing to Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.
Easing the burden of West Germany’s debt did not make the country lazy and profligate, quite the opposite. The Agreement, along with the Marshall Plan very quickly enabled the West German government and industry to use the resources freed up by the easing of the debt burden to generate domestic economic activity and growth.
Not only did the London Agreement write off 50% of Germany’s debt it removed the requirement that interest be paid, though did say that this proviso would be revisited in the event of German reunification. The collapse of the Wall in late 1989 triggered that proviso but it was never implemented due to Chancellor’s Kohl’s protestations that demanding such interest payments would make it almost impossible for Germany to meet the considerable costs of re-unification. So, once again, Germany’s partners allowed it to walk away from its financial commitments in the greater good.
As we know, both Enda Kenny and the Fine Gael party is deeply proud of its strong association with the CDU and Ms Merkel via their shared membership of the centre right European grouping: The European People’s Party EPP. Indeed, they regard the linkage as so important and significant that Mr Kenny manged to include a quick visit to Berlin and photocall with the Chancellor in the first week of the February 2011 general election campaign.
Perhaps the next time An Taoiseach meets up with the Chancellor in either Dublin, Brussels or Berlin he might gently remind her that her countries economic resurgence and dominance is due, in no small part, to the fact that 33 other countries, including Ireland, had allowede Germany to ease its burdens when it mattered and that it may now be time for Germany to allow others the facility they once extended to it.
“You are playing senior hurling now lads – but you are playing with lads with All Ireland medals”.
This, according to Eamon Ryan, is how the late Séamus Brennan greeted the Green Party team as it arrived in Government buildings for the 2007 talks on forming a government with Fianna Fáil.
It is a phrase that every Labour Party TD calling for a renegotiation of the Programme for Government (PfG) should print out and place at the top of their PC screen.
God be with the days when Labour recruited its Dáil candidates from the old ITGWU or FWUI. Those guys knew the first principles of negotiating; they particularly knew that you did not go into negotiations unless you had 1. A strong hand and 2. A fair idea of the outcome. Yet some in Labour are advocating that they enter talks with neither.
They want to enter a renegotiation of the government’s fundamental policy programme at precisely the moment when their party has hardly ever been weaker. Do they seriously expect that their senior partners in Fine Gael will take pity on them and offer them major policy concessions just because they are having a bad hair day?
Do they really underestimate their government partners that much?
Politics is a tough world guys. Wake up.
You do not get your way in politics just because you mean well, you get your way and get policies implemented by getting a mandate and pursuing your goals assiduously.
You certainly do not enter talks with partners from whom you wish to extract concessions with the message: we are in a weakened state and desperately need to give the impression that we can beat you into submission, so please, please, please let us.
It is the equivalent in nature of a lone deer asking a lion to not to devour them as they have a leg injury and cannot run properly today. Indeed it goes further and suggests that the lion should agree to allow the injured deer to bitch slap them around for a while so that any other deer who may be watching from a distance will think more highly of them.
There is no compulsion on Fine Gael to enter meaning renegotiation talks with Labour. They know Labour cannot cut and run now and risk facing the electorate, so they know it is strapped into this arrangement until the bitter end. The very most Labour could hope to get is a sham negotiation where we see TV clips of the pairs of Ministers from each side entering Government buildings for late night talks and the last minute “leak” from a source “close to the Labour leadership” saying the talks are at a crucial point right now and may go well into the night. The optics will look good, they may even fool a few activists, but most others (including the public) will see it as just a gesture. If the guys want to go down this road there is doubtless a battered old playbook for such an exercise laying around Government building somewhere.
The current cohort of Fine Gael TDs is possibly the most right of centre since the late 1950s. They are already getting flack from supporters and voters for the appearance that Labour is dictating too much of the government’s agenda, particularly on social issues, so they are neither motivated nor minded to give any more policy ground to them on the back of what was a bad day for Labour and, conversely, a good day for Fine Gael.
The idea of renegotiating the PfG is at best: naïve, and at worst: dumb.
That so many TDs would advocate it after only two years in office suggests that we are probably beyond the mid point of the life of this government and that the chances of there being a general election in early 2015 just got stronger.
Not surprisingly, most of the commentary on the Meath East by-election result has focussed on the electoral drubbing meted out to the Irish Labour Party, but as Fergus Finlay pointed out in the Irish Examiner, Labour has been here before. Back in 1983, at the Dublin Central By-Election occasioned by the death of George Colley, Labour’s then candidate Jimmy Somers was beaten not only by the Workers’ Party (ironic) but by Sinn Fein in an area where Labour had until recently held a seat.
This nice analysis piece penned by the late Mary Raftery for MaGill at the time is worth reading and contains some phrases we have seen used a few times over the past week, including: “The by-election result was one of the most disastrous in Labour’s history” and “…a humiliation from which it will be difficult to recover.”
While Labour’s poor showing and Fianna Fáil’s continuing electoral recovery are the two main national lessons to be taken from the Ashbourne count centre, I want to briefly reflect on another less obvious one.
On almost precisely the same day as Fine Gael’s Helen McEntee entered full time national politics on this island, another politician was leaving it on the neighbouring island: David Miliband.
So what could these two events have in common? Well, not a lot really – but it did occur to me that Miliband, aged 48, was quitting politics at an age when politicians used to once enter politics.
In that regard Ms McEntee and Mr Miliband do have something in common, two things actually. First they both entered their respective parliaments at a relatively young age – Ms McEntee at 26 and Mr Miliband, slightly later, at 36 and second, neither had much real world experience outside of politics before entering parliament.
Essentially both were products of the political system, albeit at differing levels and grades. After completing her masters in 2010 Ms McEntee worked as a parliamentary assistant in her late father’s constituency office, while David progressed from Oxford and M.I.T to becoming Tony Blair’s head of policy via a stint at the Institute for Public Policy Research.
Neither had, to use the American phrase, “ever made a payroll”. While in America that is taken to mean running a business and being responsible for paying and employing people, in this context we can use it to mean experience of the real world, getting a job, getting promoted, running a household, paying a mortgage, providing childcare and then education for your kids.
Not that experiencing some or all of these necessarily qualify you to become a full time public representative, but wouldn’t some understanding of these help? Not that I am disregarding the pressures and difficulties faced by students these days. Frankly, as bad as the 70s and 80s were, I daily thank heavens that I am not a student in today’s environment.
Neither is this a plea for the Oireachtas to be full of 50 and 60-somethings or an attack on anyone under 25 running for the Dáil.
Rather I am just sounding a small note of caution against what I perceive as an emerging phenomenon here of people going almost straight from college into full time politics. Over the past two decades the number of jobs and opportunities in full time politics have increased. Since the early 90s the world of politics has become more professionalised with TDs and Senators now being able to employ parliamentary researchers and assistants paid for from the public purse. Not that I am one to complain having been a beneficiary of this development.
But with the creation of these additional opportunities it now seems the most successful path into the Dáil runs as follows:
University → elected as party officer – Job in Leinster House → Special Adviser → TD.
We risk having cohort of potential TDs (and Senators, if it survives) who have almost all followed the same real-life free path. Look at the UK and see how many of the men and women on the Tory and Labour benches fall into this category. While they may represent different political parties and support competing policies they essentially come from the same political background – all university educated, essentially middle class and all from within the political process.
Already we see the parties here looking out for new, young, vibrant candidates – and that’s a good thing. But what we also see is these candidates being identified earlier and earlier and based on criteria that are hard to understand.
Perhaps it is their newness and inexperience that is the attraction: a fresh clean slate for the party leadership to control and etch its views, coupled with a personal history that is free of controversy because its brevity presented damn all opportunity for it.
Turning back to Meath East, maybe it was just campaign hyperbole, or his penchant for the grandiloquent, that prompted Enda Kenny to describe Helen McEntee as “one of the most brilliant young candidates I have seen in any election” during an exchange in the Dáil on the day before polling. But what was there in her achievements or utterances that justified this high praise?
Is she a smart, confident and well educated woman, yes, without a doubt… but one of the most brilliant… in any election? Did we see anything in either the Vincent Brown or Primetime debates to support this claim?
Yes, there is a place in full time politics for young people and yes they deserve a major say in how their future is shaped, but we need to ensure that the search for the ideally packaged and presented candidate is not done at the cost of selecting those with more experience of life.
My column from tonight’s Evening Herald on how the reform and modernisation of the Defence Forces over the past year could prove a model for public sector reform
The first tentative step on the path to a possible Croke Park II deal was taken last week when Public Sector unions and management sat down together for preliminary talks.
While reaching any form of deal will pose difficulties for negotiators on both sides, the management side has a particularly difficult delicate balance to strike. Though their political masters in Cabinet may be signalling their support for a deal they also know that most Fine Gael back benchers would be just as happy if no deal was reached.
The public service is just one more issue that divides back-benchers from both parties, with many of FG’s newer intake of TD’s echoing the “small government” rhetoric heard from US Republicans and Tea-Partyers.
It is not an uncommon view in these difficult times. There are many siren voices around attacking the public service and portraying it as riding on the back of a shrinking private sector.
Sadly, the public service often leaves itself open to these onslaughts with daft examples of wasteful spending and bad work practises. But the danger lies when occasionally justified criticisms are distilled into a dogma.
Yes, the public service is in need of reform and modernisation, but the one dimensional demonizing of the entire public service we hear from some quarters will not help reform anything. Nor will the “everything is just fine as it is” defence we hear from various public sector unions.
Public service reform is possible without hyperbole or blood on the carpets. With the right management and leadership the public service is capable of reforming and modernising itself. I know, because I was there when it happened.
The reform and modernisation of the Defence Forces over the past decade and a half is a model of how it can be done right.
The 2009 Bórd Snip Nua report found that the Defence Forces were the only sector in the Public Service to reduce numbers during the Celtic Tiger.
While the numbers working in the Public Service had increased by 17% between 2001 and 2009, the numbers working in the defence organisation actually fell by 8%, going from 11,808 down to 10,895 a drop of 913.
The reduction in numbers in uniform was reflected in a reduction of numbers of civil servants in the Department. These payroll savings were invested in better equipment and improved training meaning that the Irish Defence Forces could do more with less.
The negotiations were tough, but both sides recognised that it was in their mutual interest. While soldiers and officers do not have Trade Unions, they do have strong representative organisations: PDFORRA and RACO and a parallel conciliation and arbitration process that conducts it business quietly and effectively,
Perhaps the absence of outside influences, speculation and running commentaries, helped create the conditions for agreement – but not nearly as strong leadership, both political and military.
We should now be finding ways of replicating this progressive model. Before coming into office the Taoiseach’s last big idea on the Defence Forces was that it should be running boot camps for young offenders.
Doubtless he has abandoned this nonsense having spent two years seeing them close up, but their handling of the last round of barrack closures suggests that he may not yet have realised just how the Defence Forces be a model for public service reform.