The Irish Sunday newspaper #frontpages for July 21, 2022

There should a mid-point review of the PfG… in fact the review should be annual

You do really have to wonder if the Taoiseach and Tánaiste understand politics at all?

Their immediate and absolute refusal to accede to calls for a mid-point review of the Programme for Government, coming from senior representatives in their two parties, is an example of this.

What is so wrong with agreeing to a mid-point review, a political stock-take, of the programme so painstaking negotiated back in June 2020?

Why shouldn’t the moment at which the two leaders switch roles also involve an appraisal of how effective this government has been at implementing the lengthy programme announced just over two years ago?

Continue reading “There should a mid-point review of the PfG… in fact the review should be annual”

Here’s an appalling vista – a politics dominated by Sinn Féin and Fine Gael

In this week’s opinion piece I look at what I term the appalling vista: the prospect of a decade of Irish politics dominated by Fine gael versus Sinn Féin. We had a worrying glimpse of what it may look and sound like when Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, T.D., and Sinn Féin finance spokesperson Pearse Doherty, T.D. clashed during Leaders’ Questions, last week. It was unedifying for all except the most passionate shinner and blueshirt partisans.

An appalling vista. The phrase most infamously comes from Lord Tom Denning’s odious dismissal of the Birmingham Six’s 1980 appeal against their wrongful conviction.

Denning was so firm a fixture of the British establishment that he refused to entertain the possibility that the West Midlands police had lied and framed six innocent Irishmen, declaring that:

…it would mean that the police were guilty of perjury; that they were guilty of violence and threats; that the confessions were involuntary and improperly admitted in evidence; and that the convictions were erroneous… That was such an appalling vista that every sensible person would say, “It cannot be right that these actions [the appeal] should go any further.

And so, Lord Justice Denning compounded the injustice being suffered by the Birmingham Six and dismissed their appeal.

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For Both Taoiseach and Tánaiste The Question is: To reshuffle, or not…?

This column first appeared on Broadsheet on January 4th and looks at the contrasting approaches that both Taoiseach and Tánaiste appear (from their public comments, at least) to the possibility of a reshuffle of their ministesr when the government mid-point/turnabout comes next December.

Justice Minister Helen McEntee – Picture: Sam Boal Via Irish Examiner

Political commentators hailing a minister who was on maternity leave for half of 2022 as their politician of the year tells you a lot about the state of Irish politics.

Not that I particularly object to their choice of Minister Helen McEntee. Her absence from the cabinet table at a challenging time did nothing to diminish her public profile, while the positive media treatment of her return, did much to enhance it.

Minister McEntee is one of the few recognisable names and faces around the Cabinet table. She has become a political figure in her own right, albeit one who is still untested – a point I made here last February.

This is not something you can say about all her colleagues. While some do stand out as individuals with thoughts and ideas of their own, most come across as either politically shapeless or just innocuous. Mercifully the Taoiseach and Tánaiste have not required certain ministers wear nametags at meetings, if What’s My Line ever returns to our TV screens, the panel would have some trouble discerning precisely what the Minister for Children or the Minister for Agriculture do for a living. Continue reading “For Both Taoiseach and Tánaiste The Question is: To reshuffle, or not…?”

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.

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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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