This Broadsheet column first appeared on Oct 2nd. It appeared there under the headline: Confidence, Supply And Demand though my preferred title is: St Leo’s next letter to the Corkonian?
The news last night that one of the two Fine Gael T.D.s for Louth will henceforth be the Independent T.D. for Louth will gladden the hearts of very few in Fine Gael, not even the Dundalk Cllr selected only a few nights ago to replace him.
While Peter Fitzpatrick may not have been of much strategic importance to the Taoiseach while he was an FG backbencher, he has improved his status now as an Independent – especially one whose support for the budget seems to be conditional.
Fitzpatrick’s withdrawal of support for Varadkar’s minority government comes barely a week after another old school Fine Gael TD and Junior Minister, Catherine Byrne TD, put a shot across the bows of both the Taoiseach and his beleaguered Housing Minister.
If long(ish) serving members of the Leo Varadkar’s own parliamentary party are having public misgivings about this government’s future, then why would Varadkar seriously expect the main opposition party to rush to commit to extend its Confidence and Supply (C&S) agreement for another year, once the Budget speech is done?
The question is rhetorical as that probably is what he does expect. It is what he has been preparing himself and us. Over the summer we saw Varadkar writing lengthy homilies, in the guise of letters, at the Leader of Fianna Fáil like a latter-day St Paul writing to the Ephesians.
Up to last Friday it was difficult to find a good visual representation for Brexit in Ireland.
Yes, there were maps showing the six counties in one colour and the 26 in another, but apart from those or some grainy photos of border posts and black coated customs men standing behind old tin signs emblazoned “Stad”, there were few clear, defining symbols for Brexit in an Irish context.
That all changed last Friday.
The change came in the form of a ship. But not just any ship. This one, christened the MV Celine by the Taoiseach and assorted other lesser celebrities, is the world’s largest short sea, roll-on roll-off cargo vessel. It will directly connect Ireland to the European continent via Rotterdam and Zeebrugge, by-passing the UK entirely.
As images go, it is an impressive one. But the image-makers real triumph lay in finding an appropriate nickname for the newly named ship. While “Celine” may be the official name that adorns the ship’s champagne drenched hull, the spinners on the quayside were intent that the media – and by extension we – call it by their chosen soubriquet: “the Brexit Buster”.
This week’s Broadsheet column was a defence of the oft criticisied Summer School season and an argument for more policy Irish think tanks, for for a Fianna Fáil aligned one in particular. Original column online here: Broadsheet.ie
At around 4.20pm on Friday last Dáil Éireann adjourned for the Summer recess. It is due to return at 2pm on Wednesday September 20th.
If this Dáil was actually processing legislation, especially the range of halfway decent Private Members Bills coming from backbenchers across the House, then there may be a basis for complaint. But, it isn’t.
To be fair, it is not as if TDs and Senators are about to head off to the Maldives or Marrakech. The Seanad is sitting this week, as are several Oireachtas committees, and they will take a shorter break than the Dáil and return earlier – and before you sigh that the committees don’t count, bear in mind that Sean Fleming’s Public Accounts Committee will be launching its report into the financial procedures at Garda College, Templemore at 2.00pm tomorrow.
Enda Kenny’s fascination with his predecessor John A. Costello continues. Not only is Enda determined to beat Costello’s record for time served as Taoiseach, he now seems to want to eclipse Costello’s penchant from making major constitutional announcements outside the country.
Costello announced his intention for Ireland to abandon the External Relations Act (and effectively quit the British Commonwealth and declare itself Republic) during a visit to Canada in 1948, while Kenny announces in Philadelphia that he intends to hold a referendum to give the Irish diaspora votes in future Irish presidential elections – but only in elections after the next one.
There are many legends about Costello’s Ottawa announcement, including one version that claims he made it when was “tired and emotional” and another that asserts he did it after being offended by the placing of a replica of the Roaring Meg canon used in the Siege of Derry in front of him on the dining table at a formal dinner at the Governor General’s residence. But they are only legends.
If the Luas and Dublin Bus pay disputes are anything to go by then the choreography of future pay rows, particularly public sector ones, is likely to run as follows:
Step 1. Both sides negotiate for months without success. Step 2. Employees go on a limited strike, inconveniencing the public Step 3. The strike action continues for 3 – 4 weeks while both sides posture on TV and radio news shows Step 4. Both sides then ‘suddenly’ return, without preconditions, to the negotiating table Step 5. Employers find extra cash for pay increases they previously said was not there
Would it not be better for everyone, most particularly the public who these public services are meant to… well… serve…, if the unions and management could just skip steps 2 and 3 and jump straight to step 4?
My column on this weekend’s Fianna Fáil Árd Fheis from today’s Herald
If you are planning to head to Ballsbridge for a quiet pint or a cup of coffee this Friday or Saturday – think again. From about 5pm this Friday until well past mid-night on Saturday the area around the RDS will be saturated with about five thousand exuberant and excitable Fianna Fáil-ers gathered for the party’s Árd Fheis – including yours truly.
If you decide to follow the Árd Fheis proceedings online or on air you can expect to hear the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), whose fifteenth anniversary passed two weeks ago with little acknowledgement from the Government, mentioned several times.
Many in Fianna Fáil fear that its greatest recent political achievement is being slowly air brushed out of official history.
The impression is being given that the GFA was merely the logical and inevitable consequence of the 1985 Anglo Irish Agreement, about which we have heard a lot following the deaths of both Garret Fitzgerald and Margaret Thatcher.
As one of many people who spent countless hours travelling up and down to Belfast on pre M1 roads that stopped for lollipop ladies in Balbriggan and Julianstown, I can assure you there was nothing inevitable about it.
But the Good Friday Agreement is also something of a metaphor for Fianna Fáil itself.
We now see that that getting agreement was the easier piece of work when compared with the effort and energy required to get it implemented and working – well, almost working.
The same is true of Fianna Fáil. The work required to get the party to this point has been huge, but it as nothing to the work ahead.
While last year’s Árd Fheis focused mainly on important internal reforms, such as One Member One Vote, the truly difficult work starts now.
This Árd Fheis is more about facing outwards and talking to an electorate who now shows signs of being ready to listen to what the party has to say. But the party’s improving opinion poll figures should not delude pundits, or even party members, to thinking its resurgence is assured.
To be brutally frank, what has Fianna Fail said or done in recent months to justify such increases? While it has produced some very fine policy proposals such as the Family Home Bill and Regulation of Debt Management Advisors Bill, they hardly account for bounce.
Nor does the performance of the party’s spokespeople.
Without doubt the party has scored significant hits on the government in recent months, particularly via its Health Spokesman Billy Kelliher, its Finance Spokesman Michael McGrath and its Justice Spokesman Niall Collins and, of course, the party leader Michéal Martin, but it is finding it difficult to mark all bases with such few Oireachtas personnel.
While he has several new people inside the Oireachtas who he can use effectively: such as Senators Averil Power and Marc McSharry, perhaps the leader also needs to look outside the ranks of the parliamentary party for other new faces and voices to put on Radio and TV in senior roles – Dublin Bay South’s Cllr Jim O’Callaghan for instance.
The hard truth is that the increases are as much down to Fine Gael and Labour’s travails as they are to any softening of attitude to Fianna Fáil. Besides, as the poll analysts would tell you, it is dangerous to read too much into opinion polls where over 30% of the respondents are answering: don’t know.
This is not to underestimate the size of what the party has achieved. At this time last year it was a tough job convincing others that while the party may be down, it was not finished. The big achievement has not been the increases in the polls, but rather the halt in the party’s decline.
At last year’s Árd Fheis the party helped reverse that decline by re-introducing itself to its own members, this weekend it starts the even great task of re-introducing itself to its former supporters. Let’s hope it has more success in doing that than the GFA has had in getting its institutions working.
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.
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”.