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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My interim by-election review for Fianna Fáil

This column first appeared on Broadsheet.ie on July 12th, a few days after the Dublin Bay South by-Election result. That result shows that Fianna Fáil is facing a crisis of relevance and viability, one that its leader of over 10 years is unwilling to address or acknowledge. This column was offered as an independent review of what I think went wrong in the by-election. 

A few weeks after the February 2020 election I said that Fianna Fáil’s Micheál Martin needed to stop and “take a hard look at why his party lost support and seats”. I said it again, several times, over the weeks and months that followed. I even offered the independent review the Australian Labour Party had commissioned into its electoral failure as a template.

I thought it was essential that the party examine why it had done so badly before doing anything precipitative, such as going into government with the party it had promised to put out of office.

The leadership thought otherwise. It felt Fianna Fáil’s best course of action was to get into office and that its political revival would come from the government program for recovery. It seemed to miss the inconvenient truth that this meant giving Fine Gael a veto on Fianna Fáil’s fortunes.

This was one of the main reasons I ended my 40 plus year membership of Fianna Fáil. Why would I knock myself out trying to rebuild a party, when the top Fine Gael brass would have a bigger say in it than grassroot members?

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Why does Martin’s Fianna Fáil have such a stubborn problem with young people?

This week’s column first appeared on Broadsheet last Monday (July 5th). In it, I look at the argument on Fianna Fáil’s real and demonstrable problems with young voters that mysteriously leaked out from the parliamentary party. Indeed, it is long past time for folks to wonder why (and how) there are so many leaks from what is supposed a confidential meeting of elected colleagues, particularly when most of that leaked material is often detrimental to those not on the leader’s side. I also take a final look at the Dublin Bay South By-Election. 

According to the many detailed leaks from last week’s Fianna Fáil parliamentary party meeting (an issue itself worthy of an article) the suggestion that young people perceive the party as toxic and inimical to their needs, angered and upset several TD’s and junior ministers.

And not in a good way. Rather than being angered that young people feel this way – and sadly they do, as almost every poll published over the past 18 months has shown – some ministers were outraged that colleagues would dare point this out.

Even the recent Irish Times Ipsos/Mori, which optimistically showed Fianna Fáil’s support increasing nationally by 6pts to 20%, still found that the party is only on 8% among Dublin voters aged under 35. This puts it in a very weakened 5th place in Dublin, well behind Sinn Féin, Fine Gael, The Greens and Independents.

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Why does an unpopular party have a popular leader?

Last week I rekindled my love affair with the word “paradox”, so expect to see it pop up here a lot, including in this week’s Broadsheet column where I look at the paradox of Fianna Fáil’s poll ratings remaining stubbornly low, while the approval ratings of its leader move up. Has An Taoiseach, Micheál Martin learned how to disassociate himself from his party… and doesn’t this mean that what is in his interest, is not in his party’s.. and vice-versa?   

Ipsos/MRBI Irish Times Poll – June 16th 2021

Though I probably keep this fact well hidden from readers, I really try to not write about polling too often. I say this through clenched fingers as I know it must seem that I have written about little else over the past few weeks and months.

It is a fair criticism to say that political pundits talk and write excessively about polling in the guise of political analysis. While the soap opera aspects of politics, who’s in, who’s out, who’s politically in bed with whom, does help liven up what can often be a dull area, the focus should be on the policies and the decisions rather than who makes them.

The old Heisenberg uncertainty/indeterminacy principle applies to politics as much as it does to physics. If you cannot accurately measure both the position and the velocity of an object simultaneously, then you should focus more on the  trajectory of an object or an idea than analysing snapshots of where it was a few days or weeks ago.   

All of which is a long-winded way of me explaining/excusing – why I am once again talking about polling. In my defence, I do this as there is something that is worth discussing in the two most recent opinion polls: yesterday’s Ireland Thinks/Irish Mail on Sunday one and last week’s Irish Times/IPSOS/MRBI, as they offer some contradictory results.

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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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