This is an important week for relations across these islands

This week’s Broadsheet column examines how the week beginning Monday March 22 may be a more important one for the medium to long term future of relations on this island that the one before, even though that week featured several important set-piece speeches by An Taoiseach, Micheál Martin on the North and the relations with UK and the EU post Brexit. My argument is not that the Taoiseach said anything wrong – he didn’t. My problem is with what he didn’t say.  On Unity.  I suspect the Taoiseach believes he is far ahead of public opinion in not discussing unity or constitutional change. The reality, I fear, is that Mr Martin is perilously far behind where the centre ground of nationalist and republican opinion public is, North and South.    

Jim O’Callaghan TD delivering his Cambridge Speech on Unity

Given the week that was in it, with St Patrick’s Day and all, and the impressive number of virtual calls and speeches made by An Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, you’d be forgiven for thinking that last week would have been a more important week for the future of relationships on these islands than this week. But it wasn’t.

To his credit, An Taoiseach seized every opportunity presented to him to speak in detail about what he called the “whole new category of challenges that we have had to deal with” following Brexit. He did so with conviction and belief.

In addition to his crucial virtual Oval Office face-to-face with President Biden and Vice President Harris, he had high profile speeches and exchanges with both the prestigious Brookings and Edward M. Kennedy institutes, plus a range of other important calls and engagements.

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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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Martin May Be Learning Lessons Of Last Week’s Mistakes

This week’s Broadsheet.ie column follows on from last week’s one, starting from it ended and hoping that the Taoiseach can take the opportunity presented by his Brendan O’Connor Show gaffe and start to abandon his seeming agnostic stance on unity, and become more of an advocate for unity and a champion of starting the detailed debate and discussion on what a united Ireland could look like, now. 

The prospect of starting the second century of Irish independence with the challenge of building a new and better Ireland is so exciting, why would any Taoiseach delay the start of that process for even one day?

To say that was not a good week for North/South relations is to understate how utterly damaging and chaotic the past seven days have been.

They started with the Taoiseach’s inopportune comments on Brendan O’Connor’s radio show (I dealt with these last week) and finished with the astonishing suggestion from Brussels that it could invoke Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol .

While the week may have finished yesterday, the Article 16 debacle has not. It is far from over. Though the Taoiseach and Minister for Foreign Affairs worked hard over the weekend to limit the damage, be in no doubt damage has been done to relations on this island. A price will be paid here and a big price must also be paid in Brussels.

Dublin must insist that those responsible for this mess are held accountable. Hailing the Commission decision not to do the wrong thing as a “positive”, may be very diplomatic, but it is neither sufficient nor proportionate.

Returning to my observations last week on the Shared Island Unit, I do not flatter myself to imagine the political crew currently occupying government buildings read any of my scribblings. I mean, why would they read them now when they paid scant attention to what I said on the odd occasion I was ever asked for my thoughts. Nonetheless, I was genuinely gratified yesterday to hear some tiny incremental movement from the Taoiseach along the lines I suggested last week.

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Did Martin Manage to Accidentally Throw His Shared Island Unit Under A Bus?

This column first appeared on Broadsheet.ie on January 25th 2021 and considers the damage An Taoiseach Micheál Martin has done to his Shared Island Unit. His unfounded claims and ill considered comments during a lengthy RTÉ Radio One interview with Brendan O’Connor hurt the prospects for the Shared Island Unit by undermining his relationship with the NI Executive, particularly with its unionist members.

An Taoiseach may have inadvertently given himself an opportunity to get his Shared Island Unit back on the rails, by accepting today’s new reality and allowing it to engage meaningfully on constitutional issues, including advocating for the positives of a united Ireland. Maybe some good can come from Martin’s little too much.

mm on boc

It’s never the little too little that hurts, it’s the little too much. This was Sean Lemass’s famous advice to aspiring politicians. Keep your own counsel and never say more than you need too, especially when what you are saying is not fully thought through.

Though the advice comes from an age before social media and rolling news, it applies as much today as it did in the 50s and 60s.

It is such a profound piece of political advice that I assumed I had mentioned it here before. But a word search of the Broadsheet pieces I have written over the past 5 years tells me that I’ve only quoted it here once before. That was last November in a piece I wrote about the Shared Island Unit. In it, I suggested that the Taoiseach still “has an awful lot to learn from Lemass’s practical application of vision to action.”

Listening to the Taoiseach’s lengthy Saturday morning interview with Brendan O’Connor on RTÉ Radio One, it appears that it is a lesson he still needs to learn, and urgently.

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Uncertainty Is More Testing Than The Exam, LeavingCert Decision Must be made soon

This column first appeared on Broadsheet.ie on on January 11th. Though I am agnostic as to whether the 2021 Leaving Cert should be the traditional exam or by assessment, I am certain that Leaving cert students want and need certainty, now. Some favour assessment, as many favour traditional exams, but whatever the decision is to be, it should be made soon, very soon, otherwise the government risks annoying everyone, again.

The government must not allow itself to be excessively worried by opposition taunts on changing its mind or doing a U-turn. Governments everywhere are playing catch-up as they see struggle to get ahead of the virus, particularly when it does not precisely follow the paths the system modellers suggested. There is no shame in changing course when the event or outcome you planned for and doesn’t arrive. To quote Keynes: “When the facts change, I change my mind – what do you do?”.

Handout photo issued by Julien Behal of Taoiseach Micheal Martin (left) during a visit to St. Fiachra’s Senior National School in Beaumont, Dublin, with Minister for Education Norma Foley, Sean Haughey, T.D., and Kieran Creaner, School Principal

When, in five- or ten-years’ time, we look back on January 2021 will we think of it as the month:

…when President Trump launched a failed coup that resulted in his being banned from office;

…when a Covid-19 peak drove authorities to get serious about speeding up vaccinations or,

….when Marks & Spencer stores in Ireland ran out of packets of Percy Pig.

I suspect, in a darkest hour is just before dawn way it will be a mix of Trump and the vaccine. Hopefully, we will look back and see this as the inflection point when, to quote Arnold Schwarzenegger’s excellent video message, a jailed or exiled Trump became as “irrelevant as an old tweet.” Similarly, we will see this as the month when Covid-19 was arrested in in Ireland via a pincer of suppression and mass vaccination.   

While I hope this is how our future selves will see things, I know there is a cohort of maybe 70,000 young citizens for whom January 2021 will still invoke memories of doubt and uncertainty. I refer to the 6th year students who want to know what will happen with this year’s leaving cert.
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As Taoiseach, Micheál Martin’s negatives still far outweigh his positives

This column appeared on Broadsheet.ie on November 30th 2020. While I am not yet predicting there will be a heave against Martin sometime in 2021, all the indicators are starting to pint in that direct – not least because not moving against the current leader can only mean Fianna Fáil’s support continuing to languish in the mid to low teens nationally and, more worryingly, in single digits in the greater Dublin area.

Pic via: https://www.thejournal.ie/martin-fires-opening-salvo-in-fianna-fail-leadership-battle-69059-Jan2011/

Ever want to know if the Sunday newspapers are running a political poll, then check to see if the Taoiseach is down to do some high-profile media events early that week. If he is, then there is a strong likelihood there is a poll coming.

Maybe I am just cynical. Nonetheless it does seem that the Taoiseach’s TV and Radio appearances seem to coincide with the days on which REDC/Sunday Business Post are collecting responses to their polls.

This may help explain why the Taoiseach was so keen to have Minister McEntee wait until next Tuesday to answer Dáil questions on the Woulfe Saga. This was not his view back in 2017 when he was the one asking the questions about judicial appointments. What a difference three years and a seal of office can make

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Putting A Shared Island In A Shared Seanad

This column first appeared on Broadsheet.ie on Nov 16th. Here I propose that the two Seanad Éireann vacancies be filled by nominees representing the two traditions in Northern Ireland. this is something that should have happened when the Taoiseach named his 11 nominees to the Seanad back in June, but didn’t. That was a major mistake, but he now has the opportunity to correct it and prove that his Shared Island project is not just about words, it is about actions.

Taoiseach Michael Martin who gave an address on the Shared Island initiative at Dublin Castle 22nd Oct 2020. Photo: Julien Behal / RollingNews.ie

A few weeks ago An Taoiseach Micheál Martin delivered a major speech to an online audience. At almost any other time the speech would have been seen as important and significant, but it did not receive a great deal of attention coming as it did between Leo the leaker, the Mother and Baby Home saga, Woulfegate, not to mention the process of moving to level 5 Covid 19 restrictions.

The speech, on a Shared Island/Ireland, was delivered live to a wide and diverse audience, north and south. It was a fine speech, though – not for the first time – Martin managed to detract from his speech and trampling over his own publicity, with a far from adroit performance at the event’s question and answer session. As Sean Lemass famously observed, it’s never the little too little that hurts in politics, it’s the little too much.

So, instead of the media focusing on the news that the Irish government was establishing and funding a substantial unit to work on developing major all island projects, it came away transfixed by Martin’s inability to unambiguously state that Fianna Fáil is committed to Irish Unity.

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Of dead cats and ducks, ‘tis of thee we sing

This week’s column first appeared on Broadsheet on Monday September 14th. It primarily looks at Boris Johnson’s threat to roll back on commitments made in a the Withdrawal Agreement and to undermine the workings of the Good Friday Agreement

It was a week of dead cats and ducks.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson slammed his breaking international law in a very specific and limited way dead cat on the table, in the hope that others would be so horrified they’d forget entirely that his government hasn’t the slightest clue what happens when Brexit transition ends.

As for the dead duck… well, as I discussed that at length last week, I will comment briefly on its 10% rating later.  

The dead cat drop is an old political ruse. You only do it when you are in deep trouble. You reach for the dead pussy when your back is against the wall. You hope everyone focuses on the festering, fetid, defunct feline and forgets about your bigger problems.

The “dead cat on the table” tactic is proof that Johnson and his confederate Cummings are still more consumed with campaigning, not governing.  

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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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It’s about loyal-aty… plus, we have a digital Tánaiste and an analogue Taoiseach.

This column first appeared on Broadsheet.ie on July 13th. It was written before An Taoiseach summarily dismissed Barry Cowen as Minister. It looks at the continuing disquiet and indiscipline within Micheál Martin’s Fianna Fáil and concludes that the problems stem from Martin’s dogged refusal to reciprocate the party’s particular brand of loyalty… loyal-aty.

Fianna Fáil back bench TDs must now exert their influence and insist that they commission and oversee the much promised independent report into the party’s disastrous Feb 2020 national election campaign.

New-cabinet-feat

Like many Dubs, my late Dad had a habit of sticking an extra syllable or letter into certain words.

So, when Sheedy, Quinn, Townsend, Cascarino, Houghton and O’Leary put the ball in the net in Italia 90, they didn’t just score brilliant goals, in my Dad’s phrase they scored goalds.  I won’t go into how he described the Schillaci shot that sent us home. Suffice to say that it had precious few “d”s, but plenty of “f”s, “c”s and “k”s.

Not that my Dad did it consciously or deliberately. Like others, it was just part of the Dublin/Liberties patois they grew up with.

Many Dubs, including this one, still occasionally find themselves doing it. While I can manage to talk about goals without adding the “d”, I do have one word where I sometimes find myself adding an “i” or an “a” between the second “l” and “t”, transforming the word loyalty into loyal-ity or loyal-aty… a higher form of the quality or state of being loyal.

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