A brief history of the no confidence motion

This week’s Broadsheet column, which first appeared online on Sept 13th 2021, looked at the history of the no-confidence motion and concluded that while Minister Coveney and his Fine Gael colleagues had probably done enough to earn the dubious honour of having a no confidence motion tabled against him, it did not deserve to pass… just yet 

Johnny Carson famously called Oscar night the time when Hollywood stars put aside their petty rivalries and brought out their major rivalries.

So it is with Motions of No Confidence. Oppositions set aside the boring business of holding ministers and governments to account to solely focus on scoring big political points.

Just like the Oscars, motions of confidence are about ritual and theatricality. This applies to both sides – opposition and government.

Opposition politicians who hope one day to become government ministers act outraged and appalled. Governments ministers, who were once opposition hopefuls, accuse their rivals of base cynicism and partisanship.

The script writes itself. Scroll back through no confidence debates of the past fifty years and you see the same formulaic lines pop up each time, just mouthed by different actors, few of Oscar winning standard.

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The pubs are re-opening, so normal politics is resuming… and endgame is near

This is my first Broadsheet column in about five weeks… and what an eventful five weeks it has been. What makes it even more interesting and potentially significant is that it leads into the final steps in the re-opening of society via the relaxation of the remaining Covid-19 restrictions. This means a return to normal politics via a return to face to face meetings of the various parliamentary parties. This I believe means that the endgame is near for both the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael leaders. 

“I didn’t show up here with a speech, I came here well-resourced with material…”

At the end of July I said that come September I would be back and ready to offer my thoughts on what’s happening on the Irish political scene. 

Well, I am back, but little did I imagine we would see so much political activity in August. Like many I assumed that politicians from all sides who have – to be fair – endured a difficult 16 months, would leap at the chance of a having a calm and uneventful August.

I was wrong. I failed to the factor-in the capacity of Fine Gael’s officer class to completely overestimate their own guile and ability and to fatally underestimate the public’s impatience with the appearance of ministerial entitlement.

Though the Taoiseach and his allies, more of whom are in Fine Gael these days than in Fianna Fáil, may want to portray #Merriongate / #Zapponegate as a silly season story that is not resonating with the public, his TDs, Senators and Councillors know that’s not the case.

Voters may not be familiar the minutiae of who said what, to whom, in what text and over what platform… but who is? The stories and sequences coming from the Tánaiste and the Foreign Affairs minister seem to change every couple of days, including at today’s second attempt by the Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs to establish the facts.

Continue reading “The pubs are re-opening, so normal politics is resuming… and endgame is near”

There’s no big secret to good government communications

This column appears here out of sequence, as it first appeared on Broadsheet.ie on April 19th. In it, I look at this government’s problems with communications, particularly the Fianna Fáil side of it.

According to the veteran American comedian George Burns there is no big secret to comic timing. It’s very simple, he said. You tell the joke, you wait for the laughter and when the laughter stops, you tell the next joke. That’s comic timing.

It’s something similar with government communications: you deliver you message and give the public the time to let it sink in.

What you certainly do not do is to talk across your message or try to chop and change the narrative while folks are still trying to take it in.

There is nothing wrong with a minister having a new idea, indeed it is something to be encouraged. What is important is that it is an informed idea. What you don’t do is to contact a journalist to communicate an idea to the public until it has been fully formed and explored with colleagues and – hopefully – some real live experts.

Continue reading “There’s no big secret to good government communications”

Varadkar’s future as leader is now no more assured than is Martin’s

This column first appeared on Broadsheet on March 15th, the day after the Sunday Times [Ireland] broke the story that the preliminary Garda inquiry into the leaking of a confidential contract by Leo Varadkar while Taoiseach had been upgraded to a criminal investigation by Garda Headquarters. Here I set out why Varadkar’s grip on the Fine Gael leadership was already starting to loosen before this story broke and why his political future may be every bit as uncertain as Micheál Martin’s. 

Over last few months I have written a lot… an awful lot… about Fianna Fáil’s existential crisis. These articles have mainly focused on the shortcomings of the leader, and Taoiseach, Micheál Martin.

This is to be expected. Even though I now find myself on the outside looking in, it is still the party I understand best, and care about most, having been a member for over 40 years.

But my instinctive focus on my former party should not detract from the problems facing Fine Gael – or, more specifically, those facing its leader, An Tánaiste, Leo Varadkar.

Before yesterday’s Sunday Times front page story about the Tánaiste being the subject of criminal investigation, Varadkar’s position looked unassailable. But looks can be deceiving.

Continue reading “Varadkar’s future as leader is now no more assured than is Martin’s”

No defence of defence relationships

This article first appeared on Broadsheet dot i e on February 22nd and considers the political dimension to the reported breakdown in relationships between senior management in the Department of Defence and the Irish Defence Forces. I establish that the problem has nothing to do with personalities, but rather the structural relations between the two leaderships and the perception that the Department of Defence is not championing the cause of the Defence Forces within government, most particularly with the Department of Finance. But that is impossible to do without a committed minister at cabinet with political clout. A minister who puts Defence first, not second.

A few months after I started working as the special adviser in the Department of Defence, Gerry Hickey, the late and much missed programme manager to Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, phoned me to check on some departmental facts and figures for the annual Programme for Government review.

“…and roughly how many civil servants work in the Department of Defence”, he enquired.

“From what I can tell… about half of them”, I acerbically responded.

There was an exasperated silence at the other end of the line.  Not for the first time my knack for being smart-assed at the wrong moment was backfiring.  

“What was that?” he asked.

Luckily, I had the number to hand as there had been a parliamentary question on that topic a week or two before. From memory there were about 380 individual civil servants, but as some were on job sharing schemes this was roughly equal to 360 whole-time equivalents.  

My wise-guy answer was unnecessarily facetious. Almost all the department officials I encountered during in my time in defence were hard-working and professional. This is across the department, not just those on the policy side, who I encountered most frequently, but also the junior and mid-ranking officials who made the defence establishment work efficiently, such as those in the pay and pensions branches.

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A Leaked History Of Leaking

This column first appeared on Broadsheet.ie on Nov 9th, the day before the Dáil was due to debate the opposition motion of No Confidence in Leo Varadkar on foot of the #leakgate #leotheleaker controversy

The Tánaiste in the Dáil on Nov 3rd 2020

I’m sure many of you were shocked as I was to learn last Friday that Sinn Féin doesn’t have confidence in Leo Varadkar.

Seriously, who’d have thought it?

Who’d have imagined that the main opposition party, a party that sees the future of Irish politics as a polarised race between itself and Fine Gael, would not have confidence in current Fine Gael leader?

As I explained in my first piece here last week there is no doubt that the Tánaiste has not gone far enough in his apology or his assurances about how he conducts the business of government. Some of the explanations he offered on Tuesday (November 3rd) were so juvenile and feeble that it was shameful to see them sent out alone without a guardian.

Many who will vote confidence in Varadkar in the upcoming confidence motion will do so with no more trust or confidence in the man now than voters had in him last February.

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A week of important questions… and hopefully some answers

This week’s column is a bit longer than usual as it looks at two separate topics that are only connected by timing. This piece appeared on Broadsheet.ie yesterday (Monday Nov 2nd) as two columns. The first was on the allegations of leaking that beset the Tánaiste:   https://www.broadsheet.ie/2020/11/02/derek-mooney-best-practice/ and the second as an eve of polling day assessment of the US presidential election with a guide to the key states to watch out for on the night: https://www.broadsheet.ie/2020/11/02/a-referendum-on-trump/

NB  Since I wrote this column Prof McDonald has revised his estimate of the total voter turnout to 160.2 million (67%)

Store windows in downtown Washington DC being boarded up last week in anticipation of violence as the results emerge – Pic via Arjen van der Horst on Twitter

Late last Friday I pulled together some quotes and stats in anticipation of today’s column being just about the US presidential election. Then came Saturday morning and that Village magazine exposé. So, while today’s piece will still consider the U.S. election, I will first address the domestic elephants in the room.  

The allegation that Leo Varadkar leaked a confidential government document to a friend is serious. Very serious. To describe the leak as “not best practise” is akin to Sinn Féin saying three £10,000 office grants ended up in their bank accounts “in error”. Using passive language does not make it better.

If anything, it makes it worse. It is like a poker player’s tell that shows the miscreant knows they did wrong, no matter how much they tell themselves otherwise.

To their credit – and this is not a phrase that flows easily from my keyboard – Sinn Féin have tried to deflate their problems with resignations from four party officials, including a Senator and an MLA.

Continue reading “A week of important questions… and hopefully some answers”

We Need To Talk About Micheál

This opinion piece appeared on Broadsheet.ie on Sept 7th and continues a set of themes I have addressed in previous op-eds, namely (i) the problems of a rotating Taoiseach, (ii) the paucity of government’s communications and messaging and (iii) the lack of identity and vision dogging a Fianna Fáil led by Micheál Martin

Tánaiste and Taoiseach at Convention Centre…. or joint Taoisigh?

“The office makes the man” is a phrase heard many times before Bertie Ahern and Enda Kenny became Taoiseach. It stems from the notion that you cannot properly envision someone as a Taoiseach (or Prime Minister or President) until they assume the office, as the trappings of office and the authority that come with role help increase their stature.

Afterall, very few people, apart from Gregory Peck, Martin Sheen or Oprah Winfrey, can truly act and sound presidential without being it. 

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Better never than late – Why I’ll Vote No on PfG + 3 key truths for Fianna Fáil

Screenshot (60)
From:  http://www.fairerfuture.ie

Written early on Monday June 15th, this Broadsheet.ie column appeared online just a few hours before the FG/Green/FF Programme for Government landed – a document which Fianna Fáil TDs did not get until a two or three hours before they met to explore and agree its 140 pages of aspirations.

Here I explain why I resolutely oppose the PfG and reject its false T-I-N-A mantra… there are alternatives, several of them. What is missing is the political will and focus.  Indeed the roadblock on which this PfG push depends may be lifted entirely if next week’s court action by a group of Senators succeeds and the Seanad is permitted to convene without the 11 Taoiseach’s nominees.    

Depending on how you look at it, when it arrives the Fine Gael/Green/Fianna Fáil Programme for Government (PfG) will arrive either 15 hours, 3 days, 9 days or 3 weeks later than expected.

This is assuming it is published sometime this morning and is not once again deferred, delayed, postponed or otherwise held up by a talks process that appears to have been designed as a slow punishment for both those who work within it and those misfortunates who must write about it.

Before I tell you why I disapprove of both the deal and the government formation it hopes to underpin, let me start out by saying something (vaguely) positive.

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Sherlock Martin and Dr Varadkar and the case of the missing third party… #governmentformation #ge2020

This Broadsheet column was written last Sunday aand appeared online on Monday morning (April 20th 2020) under the headline:  They should be in it together

GE2020 posters

In 1945, just as the Second World War was ending, Britain faced a general election. Would post-war Britain be shaped by the Conservatives under Winston Churchill or by Clement Attlee’s Labour Party, a partner in the war time unity government.

The choice was clear, but the voters had no doubt who they wanted. They resoundingly rejected Churchill, the man who had led Britain to a victory that had sometimes seemed uncertain and opted instead for Attlee, the understated but progressive social reformer.

While historians offer several reasons for Churchill’s defeat, it boils down to voters seeing that a good wartime leader is not necessarily a good peace time leader. The skills (and policies) required to lead a country through a time of crisis and external threat are not the ones you need when you are trying to rebuild after that crisis. And vice-versa.

Continue reading “Sherlock Martin and Dr Varadkar and the case of the missing third party… #governmentformation #ge2020”