You are playing senior hurling now lads: why renegotiating the PfG won’t work for @Labour

The late Séamus Brennan: “You are playing senior hurling now lads…”

“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.

Coalition Junior Partners Come Off Worse Eventually

My column from Thursday’s Evening Herald (27/Sept/2012)  on Eamon Gilmore’s travails following Dep Roisín Shortall’s resignation.


Who would want to be the leader of the Labour party today? No doubt Éamon Gilmore still does, though perhaps with a little less relish than he exuded last Monday when he was sitting cheerfully behind me on the early morning flight to Brussels.

Former Labour Party Leader
The late Frank Cluskey – took a principled stand on Dublin Gas

While the dip in Labour’s fortunes revealed in the previous day’s RedC poll may not have demonstrably dampened his ardour, last night’s dramatic resignation by Roisín Shortall will.

Eighteen months in office and he is looking like the Mr Worthing character in the “Importance of Being Earnest:”: losing  one Junior Minister, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness.

But isn’t this what happens to the smaller party in Government? When they get into battles with the larger party, don’t they usually come out the worst?

A quick glance at the history of coalitions and it would appear otherwise.

The electoral reality is that going into office costs the smaller party seats at the next election. It takes the bigger risk and, in return, gets a say in policy above its Dáil strength.

That’s the deal. Both partners they know they need the other. It is not for eternity, maybe not even for the full five years of the term, but each knows that without the other neither would in power. unless one sees an alternative, in which case the balance is disturbed.

I served in two Fianna Fáil led coalitions featuring feisty junior partners: the Greens and the Progressive Democrats. While there were the occasional stand-offs, indeed one partly led to my departure, these were the exception to the rule.

Coalition work and last where there is a well negotiated and defined programme for government around which they can agree.

Naturally, where there are two distinct parties with their own hinterlands and approaches, there will be tensions. In my experience these were confined to issues not specifically covered in the Programme for Government or those thrown up by unexpected events.

The other main source of disruptions were the interventions from senior figures, just outside of government, in the smaller party who saw themselves as the conscience of their party, Dan Boyle was particular master of this dark art. While the major partner was usually the main target of these outbursts they were just as often designed to embarrass, irk and provoke their own ministers.

While deeply frustrating, these things came with the territory.  The larger party in a coalition knows it needs the smaller one to stay in office. While it can never allow itself to be seen as a pushover, it also knew that the smaller party could not stay long in office if their members felt there were being used as a mudguard.

This is what makes Roisin Shortall’s resignation so significant. Unlike most ministerial resignations this was about policy. Yes, there are personality and political dimensions too, but essentially this is about adherence to the programme for government.

Her departure is reminiscent of the late Frank Cluskey’s 1983 resignation from Cabinet not only because it too was about policy, but also thanks to the increasing number of comparisons been drawn between both administrations’ handling of the economic problems facing them.

But, as with most parallels, it is not a perfect one. While his departure was a protest against Fine Gael’s stance on Dublin Gas, Shortall’s resignation is just as much about her own parties role in government as it is about Minister Reilly’s capacity to run a department.

When Frank Cluskey quit he made it clear that he did not expect other labour ministers to follow him out and bring down that government. There was no hint that he had lost any confidence in his colleagues. The feeling was mutual. At the meeting following his resignation he reportedly received a lengthy standing ovation from his parliamentary colleagues. Can Deputy Shortall expect to be cheered to the rafters by messers Quinn, Howlin, Gilmore and Rabbitte when they next week? I doubt it.

Dan Boyle Syndrome

What is it about the position of chairman of the smaller party in government that makes them think they are the deputy leader of the opposition?

Labour’s parliamentary party chairman, Colm Keaveney is not a wet day in the job and already he is showing signs of the delusion.

Labour: In government or opposition?

He disowns government actions and policies like a member of the opposition while enjoying the privileges perks and access that being in office bring.

I call it “Dan Boyle Syndrome”. While the avuncular Cork man was not the first to exhibit the symptom, the condition reached such a virulent pitch during his time as the Green party chairman that he came to define the condition.

The most noted previous sufferer of the condition, one Michael McDowell, did occasionally present with chronic symptoms, including a slight political tourettes, but seemed to affect a recovery.

It is like a form of “Stockholm Syndrome”. In that; the subject comes to identify and sympathise with their captor, In “Dan Boyle Syndrome” the person loses any sympathy or attachment to their partners and projects themselves into the role of in-house opposition.

Deputy Keaveney’s angry reaction to the

latest round of health cuts, suggesting that it could precipitate an early election may have uttered with the intention of convincing the public that he was still on their side, but it only served to suggest that he still does not understand how government works.

Rather than convincing his voters that he is still on their side, they want him to convince his senior colleagues in government to start taking measures

The public is not impressed by politicians repeating their own concerns back to them. They want their representatives to reflect their views to those in authority, not reflect them back to those who hold them like a possessed hall of mirrors.

The public get 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”.

Doubtless Deputy Keaveney is getting a lot of hassle and criticism from people he meets on the street. As a first time Deputy; sitting on the government backbenches; he may gaze longingly at the Fianna Fáil benches wishing he were there opposing and criticising the tough and unpopular choices that government brings, but he would do well to remember the words of Mary Harney: “Even the worst day in government was better than the best day in opposition”.

Though it may not seem like it to Deputy Keaveney now, Harney’s counsel is right, but only if you believe politics is about changing things and improving society.

Having worked in government and opposition, I know and understand the strains and pressures of both. I am not totally unsympathetic to Deputy Keaveny’s plight, but being sympathetic is not the same as supportive.

If he seriously believes that he will firewall himself and his party colleagues from the approaching barrage of criticism and unpopularity, then he is in for a bad surprise.

Just google “Dan Boyle” and “election results” and he will see how his tactics failed. While other Greens, like Trevor Sargent and Eamon Ryan saw their vote collapse by between 40% and 50% last year, Boyle’s already low vote (he had lost his Dáil seat in 2007) dropped by almost 70%.

If Deputy Keaveney truly finds it impossible to reconcile the platform he was elected upon with the policies his party is pursuing in office then he can follow the example of his three former colleagues: Willie Penrose, Tommy Broughan and Patrick Nulty and resign the Labour whip in the Dáil.

They were not the only three Oireachtas members elected on a labour ticket missing from the five star Carton House think in. as reported here last Wednesday, three Labour senators also stayed away.

A sign to Deputy Keaveney, perhaps, that if he still around next year he may be chairing an even smaller gathering.


Intriguing insight into the worklife of Minister Quinn

My column from today’s Evening Herald on Monday night’s RTE 1 #backtoschool documentary “Inside the Department” – a fly on the wall look at life in Education Minister, Ruairi Quinn’s office. 


There are times when you despair at how little choice of TV viewing there appears to be on the domestic channels.

Wesht Wing?
The West Wing’s Toby Ziegler….. not a young Ruairi Quinn TD

Last night was not one of those nights.

You could watch the fly on the wall documentary “Inside the Department” on RTE1 or the latest incarnation of Dallas on TV3.

What a choice. A programme about power, jealousy, feuding, lust, carnality, sumptuous offices, driving ambition, back stabbing, expense accounts and flash cars….. or you could watch JR and Bobby stare it out on Dallas.

As an ex ministerial adviser, I opted for the former and watched “Inside the Department”. Indeed, I not only watched it, I recorded it and watched it a second time.

This was not due to my not believing what I had seen the first time, but rather as a means of catching on the second viewing any gems or nuggets of information I missed on the first viewing.  I needn’t have bothered.

As a PR colleague from the North observed on Twitter last night: like all bad ideas making this documentary probably looked like a good one at the time.

That is not to say it was a bad idea for the producers, far from it. It was interesting programme. The problem is that it did not achieve its goal. It was less a look “inside the department” and more a look at Ruairi Quinn and his kitchen cabinet.

And what a kitchen cabinet it is. I think I counted five of them around a table at one point. When I was a special adviser at the Department of Defence there was just the two of us: me and the Minister’s press adviser. Even so, the then Fine Gael and Labour opposition told us we were over staffed

But even they, notwithstanding their numbers, failed to note that the title of the programme was “Inside the Department” and not “Inside the West Wing”.

They also forgot that they are there as servants of the Minister, not as players. Their role is to aid and assist the minister in implementing government policy. This is work you can best do silently and discreetly.

What possessed them to agree to do interviews to camera and offer what were, in my opinion, smug and ill-considered running commentaries on the events of the day?

Worse still, how did they allow themselves and their Minister to talk so loosely on camera about “summoning” Minister Rabbitte over to the northside and being “wary” of  the planned “off the record” meeting with Rabbitte and a delegation of Labour TDs?

As Minister Quinn said during the programme itself, we all make mistakes, I know that only too well myself, but having such a discussion on camera shows naivety at best.

On the broader front, I got the sense that the neither Minister nor the advisers were ever arguing the public’s side during any discussions: either on the Déis schools or reductions in teacher numbers.

It is called “going native”. It was the accusation that stuck to the last administration after 14 years in office. It is the impression that Ministers and advisers are there to represent and present the policy of the bureaucracy, not the voters.

While it took us the guts of 14 years to that that way, these guys seems to have achieved it in as many weeks.

Listening to them talk and interact with the officials it is almost impossible to believe that they had ever been in opposition. It was if they had no problems with the existing policy and saw it merely as their role to guarantee its seamless and uncritical transmission to the public, with the odd kick at Fianna Fáil thrown in to remind them that this lot is different.

Yes, there were the clips of Ruairi calling the Department “malevolently dysfunction” back in 2010, but where did we see it reflected in his discussion with his officials?

Rather than coming across as our representatives in Government, they came across as the system’s front men to us, more concerned with presentation than substance.

Perhaps the documentary caught the mood of the place accurately, but as someone who believes in the benefits of the adviser system, I sincerely hope it didn’t.


Labour TDs could not cause an election: even if they tried

And so it starts. Only eighteen months into a five year term and some jumpy Labour TDs are talking about snap general elections.

While it may be an idle threat, intended to frighten Fine Gael backbenchers, it is the non unnatural response of inexperienced functionaries to the health cut provocations of an inexperienced and dysfunction Minister.

While Minister Reilly’s bluff and bluster approach to his portfolio has irritated and angered many, in his defence it is not as if these Labour backbenchers were not given plenty of warning about the impending health crisis.

Within a couple of months of the last Budget being passed it was clear that health spending was in trouble and that the Minister had not given the health service the tools and supports to make the almost €750 million in savings he was demanding, but were the Labour TDs threatening a general election then? No.

By July those initial worries were confirmed. The mid year numbers showed that health spending was running out of control and the deficit had almost reached €300 million, and was expected to rise to €500 million by year’s end, but were the Labour TDs threatening a general election then? No.

Only now, with the year almost over and the preparations for the next Budget underway, do they find their voices, so what good can they achieve? To be frank: precious little. While some of them may threaten snap elections, the Dáil mathematics suggests that they are powerless and they could not cause an election even if they tried.

Blessed or Reilly?
Minister Reilly tooling up for a meeting with Labour TDs?

While first time Labour TDs may think that sitting on the opposition back benches would be an easier life than sitting on the government ones, Labour front benchers don’t. Does anyone seriously think that the likes of Brendan Howlin, Ruairi Quinn or Pat Rabbitte are ready, willing or prepared to walk away from office?

These guys cannot believe their extreme good fortune to still be there after so long. Some of their Ministerial careers commenced two and three decades ago. Ruairi Quinn was first appointed a Minister back in 1982, Howlin in 1993. They have no plans to go now, or at any mid term re shuffle.

Similarly, many Labour backbench TDs know from reading the opinion polls in their own areas that an election now would only result in them losing out to other left wing parties or independents.

But even ignoring these two very important reasons, the Dáil numbers suggest that Labour withdrawal from Government would not necessarily result in a snap election.

The results of the last General Election gave Fine Gael 76 seats, Labour 37, Fianna Fáil 20, Sinn Féin 14, and 19 various left wingers and assorted independents. The death of Brian Lenihan and the resulting by-election increased Labour’s total by one at Fianna Fail’s expense.

The other changes to the maths are the election of Sean Barrett as Ceann Comhairle, reducing Fine Gael’s numbers by one and the fact that several Government TDs jumped ship, three Labour and one Fine Gael. The three dissident Labour TDs could be expected to follow Labour if it was to pull out.

The point that we forget, however, is that 5 independent TDs voted for Enda Kenny as Taoiseach when the Dáil first met on March 9th 2011.

If these five independents were to stick with Fine Gael that would give a single party Fine Gael Government 80 seats, just three short of an overall majority. Admittedly, this is a very big “if” though the likes of Michael Lowry would find it hard not to vote for his former friends and colleagues.

There is no guarantee that everyone else would vote together to bring about an election. All Fine Gael need is a few abstentions and it can struggle through. The most the combined left: Labour, Socialist, Sinn Féin, People Before Profit and assorted other left leaning independents can muster, at a very big push, is 65.

This gives Fianna Fáil and a few other independents, such as Shane Ross, the effective balance of power. Is that really what these jumpy Labour TDs want?

I doubt it. The bad news for them is that they are stuck on this rollercoaster to the end. They suggested last year that there was as easier way out of this.

There wasn’t. They cannot now just cut and run when the going gets rough. I suppose, in a way, this makes them very much like the rest of us.


Thus leaving Gay Mitchell as the last man standing…..

And then there was one. It is just over two and a half years since we elected Gay Mitchell, Proinsias de Rossa and Joe Higgins as our three MEPs.

Within eighteen months Joe had made his way back into the Dáil. He waved goodbye toBrusselshis seat was taken by Paul Murphy. (No, I don’t know much about him either).

Fast forward another twelve months to this week and veteranDublinMEP Proinsias de Rossa announces that he is to stand down and his seat will pass to Dublin City Councillor, Emer Costello.  As if to complete the row of falling dominoes, Cllr Costello’s vacancy on the City Council will in turn be filled by someone selected by her local labour organisation.

And so, two of the three people who asked us in June 2009 make them MEPs for a five year fixed term have decided to move on or move out. Thus… and who would have imagined we would ever again hear these words…leaving Gay Mitchell as the last man standing.

Everything that Joe and Proinsias have done is entirely and wholly within the rules. Casual vacancies arising from MEPs dying, resigning or otherwise being disqualified are filled this way. It applies across the EU.

It is arguable that this method of filling occasional vacancies is fairer and more democratic than the by-election route.  The people’s decision on the five year mandate of their MEPs made in 2009, by proportional representation, is allowed to stand for the duration.

Nonetheless, it is disappointing that some of those who contested the Euro Election so fiercely can so easily renege on their mandate mid way through the term. I won’t dwell on this point as I cannot claim to be an impartial observer on this aspect having worked on Eoin Ryan’s 2009 campaign.

The point I will comment upon is broader. It is the degree to which these seats are becoming the property of the political party in a manner that starts to resemble the introduction of the party list system.

This may look like a big extrapolation from just one or two co-option processes, but when taken together with recent commentary from Prof David Farrell and others on changing Dáil sitting times to drag TDs away from constituency work, then the leap may not seem so great.

One of the particular features of our multi-seat PR/STV system is the level of personal attachment and connection between Public Representative and voter. This can often transcend party affiliation and may even be said to be on the increase.

Yet there is a curious clamour for this personal connection to be broken. The accusation of the parish pump and cliental-ism is made TDs are said to be so obsessed with getting re-elected that they encourage constituents to think that entitlements they were due were only won thanks to the intervention of the TD.

They argue that TDs should be spending their entire working week legislating and debating. They miss the risk that such a system would just institutionalise the control of party hierarchies.

TDs based in Leinster House Monday to Friday, doing virtually no constituency work for almost five years would be dependent on the national party structure to get them re-elected. Bad news for mavericks.

Not to mention the loss of to our system of representative government. How else can you represent people if you do not spend a good proportion of your time meeting with them and really learning their concerns?

Like all things; there is a balance to be struck. You cannot have TDs who only see life through the prism of how it will affect their re-election chances. But going to the other end of the spectrum is not the answer either.

You don’t learn much by sending out glossy 8 page A3 newsletters every six months. You got to get out and knock on doors. There is no point speaking in the Dáil if all you are churning out is what you found on Google; read from a focus group or what popped into your head over night.

The personal connection between the elected and the elector is important. Anything that diminishes it, undermines the democratic process.

Though I never voted for him (not even a 3 or 4) I will be sad to see Proinsias quit the stage. I wish him well.

Twitter @dsmooney