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.
“There’s no Labour problem that Ken (Livingstone) can’t make worse.”
This was Alan Johnson’s response to the former London Mayor’s latest unwelcome intervention in a UK Labour row.
Substitute the name “Alan Kelly” for “Ken Livingstone” and Johnson’s axiom could just be as applicable here.
Perhaps it’s his pugnacious ‘I tell it like it is’ style, but Alan Kelly has come to be personally identified with two of the last government’s biggest political failures: Irish Water to the housing crisis, not to mention his “power is a drug… it suits me” interview or his penchant for adding to his own party’s travails.
This is an article I have written for the March 2014 Árd Fheis issue of Fianna Fáil’s members’ magazine Cuisle.
A few months before the 2011 election, Michael Gallagher (the TCD Professor of Politics, not the Donegal postman and amateur weather forecaster) posted a blog where he asking how long Fianna Fáil could expect to spend in opposition. In it he wrote:
“Fianna Fáil is not a party accustomed to spending time there. Its longest spell on the opposition benches is still the nearly six years between its foundation in May 1926 and its entry into government in March 1932. Since then, the party has never spent more than one consecutive Dáil term in opposition and the longest spell it has been out of power remains the 4 years and 4 months of the Cosgrave coalition in the mid-1970s.”
Underpinning Gallagher’s 2010 comments is the idea that Fianna Fáil has never been that good at opposition. It is a fair point.
Not only have we not spent much time in opposition, as Gallagher points out, it is almost 30 years since we last spent a full Dáil term there.
Today, December 29th 2012, marks the 75th anniversary of the Irish Constitution, Búnreacht na hÉireann coming into effect. This is my Evening Herald column on it continuing importance and relevance to Irish life.
On this day seventy five years ago the Irish Constitution came into operation. As we have seen in recent and current controversies, almost four decades on, the Constitution is still central to much of our political debate.
Within the past year we have seen it successfully amend it three times: Judges Pay, Fiscal Compact and Children’s Rights. But, we have also seen the public resoundingly reject the governments request that they amend it on the issue of Oireachtas enquiries.
It is not the first time the public has done this. Not only did they defeat the Nice I and Lisbon I votes, as early as 1959 they rejected the then attempt to change the voting system. Indeed in 1968 the voters rejected the next two amendments put to them, both related to elections.
It was not until the 1972 vote on joining the then EEC that the people passed the first amendment to the Constitution. (Technically this is the Third Amendment as the first two were made in 1939 and 1941 without referendums as part of transitional arrangements.)
Over the past 75 years the public have approved some twenty five changes to the Constitution. While some were technical in nature, others – such as the five votes relating to abortion – were highly controversial and emotionally charged.
What this shows is that the Constitution makes the people sovereign. They alone decide what changes may be made to the fundamental law of the land.
This important aspect of De Valera’s 1937 Constitution has been much praised over the years. While it is easy to look at the language and some of the secondary provisions as being a product of their time and maybe a little outdated now, most legal experts view the principles set out in the Constitution of 1937 as being ahead of their time.
Five of the fifty articles are devoted to Fundamental Rights. Decades before international instruments, such as the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed fundamental rights and fair procedures, the Irish Constitution had done so.
Indeed, while the Constitution does not declare Ireland as militarily neutral, it does contain in Article 29.2 a commitment to “the pacific settlement of international disputes” and the adherence to International law. This is just something else that marks the document out as being ahead of its time.
But while it may have been well ahead of its time 75 years ago, it is still so?
I would argue that, essentially, it is. The fundamental principles it espouses are just that – fundamental. The commitment to democracy, rule of law, fair procedures etc do not change with the seasons of the prevailing political fashion.
But it is also a living document, particularly in the provisions relating to how government and the judiciary should work. Back in 1937 it seemed natural that only those over 21 should be entitled to vote, by 1972 that was changed to 18 by a margin of over 5 to 1 of those voting.
Events of recent years have thrown up some more significant issues. Are our governmental structures sufficiently responsive – or even fit for purpose – in the context of the IMF/EU bailout and an evolving European Union/Eurozone? Is the 1930’s post independence concept of property ownership appropriate in 21st century Ireland?
But where is reform on these issues being discussed? Not at the Government’s Constitutional Convention, it seems. Its initial priorities, as set out by the Government, are to discuss the President’s term of office and the voting age. This is the equivalent of setting up a dance committee after the Titanic has hit the ice. The one substantive constitutional issue on which the government, particularly the Taoiseach, is committed is abolition of the Seanad.
Just when we require more meaningful scrutiny of government policy, it proposes less and sells it under the guise of “reform”. Fortunately, it is the people who will be sovereign on this.
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”.
Over the past few days (Tues Apil 11 – 13) I ran a simple poll on my website www.derekmooney.ie . In it I asked people to select the three government ministers they believed were performing best in office.
About a week ago I wrote a piece for the Herald defending the government giving politicians a three week break for the Easter.
This was, I argued, a welcome opportunity for Ministers, TDs and their advisers to do some of the other boring, but important, work and also to take some time to reflect and think about the issues of the day.
Talk about getting it wrong. No sooner has the ink hit the pages than almost everyone in Government was out in public tearing strips off each other.
The whole cast of characters were involved: Environment Minister: Big Phil Hogan, Health Minister: James “Capt Birsdeye O’Reilly, Finance Minister: Michael Noonan, Arts Minister: Jimmy Deenihan, Welfare Minister: Joan Burton, Communications Minister: Pat Rabbitte, Justice Minister Alan Shatter, FG Party Chair Charlie Flanagan plus a few Government backbenchers including Labour’s Colm Keaveney and Fine Gael’s Regina Doherty.
The week before had seen some on the Labour side saying that Big Phil could have handled the whole household charge thing a lot better. Just as it appeared that that particular row had run its course, news broke that Big Phil was meeting with Moriarty Tribunal favourite and Tipp North TD, Michael Lowry only a few days after the publication of that Tribunal’s final report.
Within hours other Ministers, namely Birdseye O’Reilly and Noonan, were confirming that they too had meetings with Lowry. This was all too much for Joan who questioned the wisdom of this. So too did Jimmy, but more subtly.
Joan’s words riled Charlie who went on Twitter to ask if Joan had a Government death wish. Regina subsequently went on Radio to say Charlie was right and that Joan was wrong. Others thought Joan was right, including Colm, who also went on to Twitter to call the judgment of senior figures in Fine Gael into question.
Meanwhile Pat spoke to the Sunday Independent to say that he was frustrated by the “interminable delay” in bringing prosecutions following Mahon and Moriarty. Within hours of the paper hitting the breakfast table Alan had issued a broadside that had Pat in mind when it stressed the importance of not making public comments that might prejudice proceedings.
By lunchtime the Taoiseach was doing a bad Harry Enfield scouser impression telling everyone to “calm done”. All that was missing was him donning a Kevin Keegan wig and finishing off the interview saying: “Dey do do dat dough don’t dey dough”
Not only did all of this happen in just one week, it happened in very quiet week at that. If this is how the members of the Government deal with minor matters, Lord help us when the big problems come. And come they will.
The Government has had a fairly charmed existence since coming to office. While things are clearly not improving, they have not had to face any genuine crises or policy dramas.
Both parties have endured some setbacks early into their term. but none that really tested them. For Fine Gael it was the losses in the presidential election and referendum, plus the Roscommon hospital fiasco. For Labour it was the loss of three TDS, including a Junior Minister and a by-election winner, though these were offset by their man winning the presidency.
The handling of the household charge suggests they lack a certain deftness of touch, yet it pales into significance against the problems they may yet face in the years ahead.
How will a government that descends into public squabbling and faction fighting at the mere mention of the names of Moriarty Lowry or O’Brien cope if Merkel Draghi or Barroso decide to turn the thumbscrews on Corporation tax or whatever?
Have they all forgotten that they will be asking the people to take their collective advice at the end of May and vote yes to the Fiscal Compact Treaty? Might it not help their case to give the appearance of knowing what they are doing and all pulling in one direction?
As to the internecine squabbling, there are several systems in place to stop such petty rows escalating and getting into the public arena. One is called common sense. Another is the special adviser/programme manger system. Isn’t it time to get working on both?
My take on Fianna Fáil’s 73ú Ard Fheis which is taking place in the RDS this weekend (March 2 & 3). This piece was written for the Evening Herald of March 3rd
For as long as I can recall Fianna Fáil Árd Fheiseana were the party conferences where the emphasis was more on the “partying” than the “conferencing”.
They were great social and political occasions where activists from all strands of society, right across the country, gathered to celebrate their membership of the party.
There they rallied; networked; socialised and renewed friendships with colleagues from other constituencies.
To be brutally honest, for many – myself included – the formal debates and motions were incidental to the core objective: discussing politics with old friends and hearing the leader’s speech.
While tonight’s address, the first by Michael Martin as leader, will remain the highpoint of this weekend’s Árd Fheis, it will come at the end of two days of serious and intense debate about the party’s future.
The issue before the Árd Fheis is that stark: the very survival of what was once the greatest modern political movement in Western Europe.
Over these two days – yesterday and today – at the RDS, members are deciding a slate of major reforms on how the party is organised and run.
Key to these is the move away from the representative/delegate model for candidate selection in favour of the One Member One Vote system (OMOV). In other words; to allow every active member in every cumann to have an equal say in selecting candidates and officers.
It is resonant of the crucial debate the British Labour Party had at their 1993 Conference. That was the year they ended the Trade Union block vote and adopted OMOV.
It was not an easy battle for them. The move to reform and modernise had been delayed for almost 14 years as they tore themselves apart with internal wrangling and infighting.
The result was three stunning defeats and three terms of powerless opposition.
Only by reforming their internal structures and systems did Labour allow itself to reconnect with its membership and, more importantly, with the people. After 14 years of irrelevance “New” Labour began to get in touch with the cares and concerns of the British people and respond effectively to them.
That is what Michael Martin hopes to achieve with this Árd Fheis. While the events of the past few days may have moved the focus slightly away from that goal, he was determined to shift it back as soon as the members start to gather in the RDS last night.
And a fair few of them gathered; with over 4000 members registered to attend by the middle of the week.
It is an indication of how serious the party’s grassroot members are about renewing their party. The number of people running for positions is another. Contest for the 20 nationally elected places on the Fianna Fáil Árd Comhairle has never been keener, with many bright, young first time candidates.
The same applies to several of the other senior positions, though the contest for the positions of Party Vice President was made marginally less intense with the withdrawals of two former party big hitters: Mary Hanafin and Éamon Ó Cuiv.
The weekend’s debates are not confined to organisational matters. The Clár contains some motions which, if passed, would herald interesting shifts in policy, including ones on gay marriage, gay adoption ending the regime of TDs’ and Senators expenses’ and reducing the voting age to 16.
There is also a slew of the more traditional Árd Fheis motions, including some Dublin centred resolutions calling for the reinstatement of the Ballymun Regeneration, Grangegorman DIT Campus and Metro North projects.
So, a great deal of serious work will be done by those gathering in Ballsbridge, but be certain too that there some socialising and banter as the faithful show that while they may be down, the party is by no means finished.
Derek Mooney was a Ministerial Adviser 2004 – 2010 and a Public Affairs Consultant and Speechwriter since the 90s
my take on the recent Sunday Times poll as seen from a different perspective, both in terms of distance and time. I never cease to be intrigued how distance can change your perspective. It is true whether that distance is in time or in space. Indeed not only does it change it, it usually improves it.
This blindingly obvious conclusion struck me late on Saturday night as I sat in my Hotel room on the Costa Blanca coast watching my twitter feed to find the results of the latest Sunday Times opinion poll.
As the old joke goes: it was like deja vu all over again. Exactly one year earlier I was sitting in another room at the same Hotel trying to follow the results of the General Election online.
Though I managed to log in every few hours to catch the resulting coming in online, I still failed to fully grasp the full impact of Fianna Fail’s defeat at the time. My mind was elsewhere. My Dad had died suddenly at my parents’ home in Spain on the eve of polling day. I had, along with other family members, rushed over for the funeral in the days that followed.
It therefore took a week or so for the full enormity of what had happened at the polls to sink in. When it did, I found myself almost detached from its consequences and outworkings. I had not been at the count centres for the emotional traumas. By the time I was back home and chatting with former colleagues; they were reconciled with their fates to the point of being phlegmatic.
Anyway, that was a year ago. Back to last Saturday night. Sitting in a similar room, one year on and almost 1800km away, I found myself having quite a different perspective on the latest opinion poll figures.
As I looked at the RTE news online I was taken aback to see them running the line that big news in this poll was the drop in support for Fianna Fail.
Really? Not from where I was sitting.
Perhaps it was the night breeze drifting in off the Mediterranean. Maybe it was the over generous Soberano.
Either way; it appeared to me that the big news in this poll lay elsewhere.
To my mind the first piece of news in the Sunday Times B&A poll was the halving of Labour’s support in one year – from 19.4% on polling day to 10% today.
Second was the dramatic increase in support for Sinn Fein. from just under 10% at the General Election to a whopping 25% in the poll.
Indeed, there is a third equally significant story, namely the finding that, at 70%, almost three times as many people are disatisfied with the Government than are satisfied with it (26%). Not a ringing endorsement for a government just one year into its term and yet to face any seriously testing challenges.
Though it would be foolish to read too much into just one poll, Sinn Fein’s strategists North and South will be feeling understandably satisfied that their tactic of placing the Labour Party firmly in their sights is paying dividends.
In comparison with these almost double digit changes, Fianna Fail’s decrease from 17.4 to 16 is modest, though disappointing.
Yes, it is the type of news Michael Martin and Co can do without with the first Ard Fheis in two years only a week away and the Mahon report looming. But who, in their right mind, really expected voters, who were bitterly angry with Fianna Fail, to suddenly turn and cry “this shower is even worse than you lot: all is forgiven” barely one year on?
Maybe it is a back handed compliment of sorts that the party’s fortunes still merit such attention and coverage: even when the figures don’t exactly back it up.
If so, then expect plenty more of the same for the rest of the year as further polls emerge and more pundits line out to say what it all means for Fianna Fail. Meanwhile, I will see if I can manage to be away for their publication. It appears to be the best way to view them.
My Evening Herald column from today’s paper. Friday 17th February 2012
There are few topics more guaranteed to raise the hackles than politicians’ pay. I recently overheard a conversation on the topic in a pub in Cork. It was hard not to hear it given the volume of the exchange. This was curious as they were agreeing with each other – their argument was as to which of them detested politicians more.
The late Brian Lenihan kick started the process of trying to bring down the levels of politicians’ pay and expenses back in October 2008. There have been a few rounds since. Enda Kenny started out ok reducing the number of garda drivers and cutting staff levels in ministerial offices, but recently lost the plot with the €17k pay hikes for Super Juniors.
The issue of reducing politicians’ pay and re-allocating that money elsewhere even raised its head during the Presidential election. Several candidates said they favoured a cut, including Martin McGuinness who promised to only take home the average industrial wage if elected.
In doing this he was repeating what Sinn Féin elected reps say they do in the Oireachtas and the Northern Ireland Assembly. While TDs earn about €92K a year, Sinn Fein’s TDs say they take the average industrial wage: around €32,000 per year. Speaking to the Donegal Daily a few weeks ago SF TD Pearse Doherty put his weekly take home pay at around €540.
They frequently remind us of their largesse. Without a doubt anyone foregoing 60% of their salary is entitled to praise and kudos, but only when that is what they are really doing. So, this begs the question: are they truly foregoing the money?
Martin McGuinness partly answered this question in the Guardian newspaper in April 2009. This was in the aftermath of a report that he and Gerry Adams jointly claimed expenses of £3,600 a month (under the House of Commons second home allowance scheme) for rent on a shared two-bedroom flat in north London.
Speaking at the time Mr McGuinness said: “I get roughly over £300 per week from Sinn Féin, the exact same money as the person who drives me to my work”.
“I have no difficulty or problem with that, knowing that the rest of the money is being put into developing Sinn Féin and developing constituency offices all over the island of Ireland for the people of Ireland.”_
There are two things wrong with this statement. First, he regards Sinn Féin as his paymaster; not the taxpayer. Second, the sense of pride that the “rest of the money”, in his case in the region of £75k before tax, does not go back in to central funds to pay for hospital beds or SNAs: but rather goes to funding and advancing Sinn Féin’s political enterprise.
The money surrendered by Sinn Féin’s TDs and Senators does not benefit the taxpayer or the person on welfare: it benefits their own local party organisations. It goes to running constituency offices and funding local activists. In Pearse Doherty’s case it pays for two part time workers in his constituency
So, Sinn Féin takes money from the public coffers and puts it into running political operations dedicated to helping them keep their seats. This is not so much a sacrifice: it is more of an investment in their own political future.
Though on the average industrial wage, they get to be local employers with extra paid staff. I am fairly sure there are not many others on the industrial wage out there who can similarly hire someone in to help them keep their job.
Yet the rules state that a political party may not accept a donation from the same person in the same calendar year which exceeds €6,348.69 in value. So is what they are doing a donation or not?
It is an issue which freelance journalist Gerard Cunningham aka faduda.ie has attempted to raise with both Sinn Féin and SIPO, though without much success.
Is there a distinction between donations depending on whether they are allocated locally or nationally – if so, then it is a big loophole. If not, then shouldn’t all TDs and all Senators be placed on a level playing field when it comes to funding their local political activities?
Most important, if taxpayers money is being handed back – shouldn’t it be handed back to the taxpayer?