Here is my Broadsheet column from September 5th 2016. This looks at the important and positive role Special Advisers (Spads) can play in government, particularly a partnership one. www.broadsheet.ie/treated-like-interlopers/
“To provide spurious intellectual justifications for the Secretary of State’s prejudices”
This is how the late Maurice Peston (father of ITV’s political editor Robert Peston) responded in the early 1970s when a senior UK civil servant asked him to explain how he saw his role as Roy Hattersley’s newly appointed Special Adviser (Spad).
It was more than just a casual witty remark from the Professor of Economics: it specifically referenced the fears the Department of Prices and Consumer Protection had about having an acknowledged policy expert in their midst and gainsaying their more generalist advice.
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.
Surely I cannot be alone in realising that there is less chance of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael linking up than there is of Luis Suarez having all his teeth pulled and turning vegetarian.
Yet, within hours of each new opinion poll you will see lots of speculation in print, on air, online and/or on all three that the next government will consist of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael in some combination or other.
Such speculation seems to be based just on adding together the numbers that bring you to 50% and ignores the glaring Catch 22 that renders the chances of any such FG/FF or FF/FG alliance impossible: neither party would ever agree to go into a partnership government where it was not the biggest partner.
And as, by definition, a partnership government of just two groups cannot have two biggest partners, neither party would agree to be the junior partner in such a relationship. To do so would fly in the face of the fundamental rule of Irish governmental politics: junior coalition partners come off worst.
The strategists in both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil know this. Whatever their weaknesses and deficiencies in policy formulation, these are still wily and experienced political operatives, they understand political realities. More critically they understand the laws of self preservation. They know that going into government as the junior partner while leaving Labour and Sinn Féin as the official opposition would be tantamount to writing their own party’s obituary.
Those who argue, on the basis of current opinion polls, that the Fine Gael / Fianna Fáil option may be the only viable one after the next election, do it on the basis that politics is a “numbers game”.
Well, to some degree it is, but numbers do not dictate everything. True, without the numbers you have no role and no say, but the converse is not true. Having the numbers does not mean that you must necessarily do A or B. Having the numbers does not restrict your options, quiet the opposite. Rather than being compelled to pursue some particular course, you have the opportunity to exercise judgement and think strategically.
This is not to discount the temptation and lure of ministerial office, especially to those who may not plan to face the electorate again. Saying no to power is no easy task, but the decision is made somewhat less troublesome if you know that saying yes to office today as a junior partner means that you are almost certainly ensuring that that option will be denied to you and your colleagues for many years thereafter.
Though majorly damaged after electoral pounding it took in the February 2011 General Election, Fianna Fáil is still hard wired for power – perhaps even more so that Fine Gael – so saying no to office would be difficult for some within the upper echelons of the organisation. Perhaps this is why the party leadership has recruited the membership of the party to ensure that any post election decision would be made by the broader party.
The situation is just as true for Fine Gael, though for other reasons. Having spent so long as the second party of Irish politics, it is now relishing its time in the top spot. It will be loathe to surrender that place – least of all to Fianna Fáil.
If the next election were to put Fianna Fáil ahead of Fine Gael, no matter by how small a margin, Fine Gael would do nothing to help Fianna Fáil back into power. Fine Gael would seek alliances with Labour, Sinn Féin, Independents, Socialists, Wallacites; McGrath-ites (of the Mattie or Fintan variety) Greens, People Before Profit, Profit Before People, Cart Before the Horse or whoever to keep Fianna Fáil out.
I know I risk appearing more than a little cynical in not mentioning policies and principles and just discussing the possible make up of a future government in terms of survival strategies but, I believe the chances of a Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil government are so remote and unrealistic that it is cynical not to dismiss it and to allow any more time and energy be wasted on discussing an option (and the associated policies) that does not exist.
“You are playing senior hurling now lads – but you are playing with lads with All Ireland medals”.
This, according to Eamon Ryan, is how the late Séamus Brennan greeted the Green Party team as it arrived in Government buildings for the 2007 talks on forming a government with Fianna Fáil.
It is a phrase that every Labour Party TD calling for a renegotiation of the Programme for Government (PfG) should print out and place at the top of their PC screen.
God be with the days when Labour recruited its Dáil candidates from the old ITGWU or FWUI. Those guys knew the first principles of negotiating; they particularly knew that you did not go into negotiations unless you had 1. A strong hand and 2. A fair idea of the outcome. Yet some in Labour are advocating that they enter talks with neither.
They want to enter a renegotiation of the government’s fundamental policy programme at precisely the moment when their party has hardly ever been weaker. Do they seriously expect that their senior partners in Fine Gael will take pity on them and offer them major policy concessions just because they are having a bad hair day?
Do they really underestimate their government partners that much?
Politics is a tough world guys. Wake up.
You do not get your way in politics just because you mean well, you get your way and get policies implemented by getting a mandate and pursuing your goals assiduously.
You certainly do not enter talks with partners from whom you wish to extract concessions with the message: we are in a weakened state and desperately need to give the impression that we can beat you into submission, so please, please, please let us.
It is the equivalent in nature of a lone deer asking a lion to not to devour them as they have a leg injury and cannot run properly today. Indeed it goes further and suggests that the lion should agree to allow the injured deer to bitch slap them around for a while so that any other deer who may be watching from a distance will think more highly of them.
There is no compulsion on Fine Gael to enter meaning renegotiation talks with Labour. They know Labour cannot cut and run now and risk facing the electorate, so they know it is strapped into this arrangement until the bitter end. The very most Labour could hope to get is a sham negotiation where we see TV clips of the pairs of Ministers from each side entering Government buildings for late night talks and the last minute “leak” from a source “close to the Labour leadership” saying the talks are at a crucial point right now and may go well into the night. The optics will look good, they may even fool a few activists, but most others (including the public) will see it as just a gesture. If the guys want to go down this road there is doubtless a battered old playbook for such an exercise laying around Government building somewhere.
The current cohort of Fine Gael TDs is possibly the most right of centre since the late 1950s. They are already getting flack from supporters and voters for the appearance that Labour is dictating too much of the government’s agenda, particularly on social issues, so they are neither motivated nor minded to give any more policy ground to them on the back of what was a bad day for Labour and, conversely, a good day for Fine Gael.
The idea of renegotiating the PfG is at best: naïve, and at worst: dumb.
That so many TDs would advocate it after only two years in office suggests that we are probably beyond the mid point of the life of this government and that the chances of there being a general election in early 2015 just got stronger.
My column from tonight’s Evening Herald on how the reform and modernisation of the Defence Forces over the past year could prove a model for public sector reform
The first tentative step on the path to a possible Croke Park II deal was taken last week when Public Sector unions and management sat down together for preliminary talks.
While reaching any form of deal will pose difficulties for negotiators on both sides, the management side has a particularly difficult delicate balance to strike. Though their political masters in Cabinet may be signalling their support for a deal they also know that most Fine Gael back benchers would be just as happy if no deal was reached.
The public service is just one more issue that divides back-benchers from both parties, with many of FG’s newer intake of TD’s echoing the “small government” rhetoric heard from US Republicans and Tea-Partyers.
It is not an uncommon view in these difficult times. There are many siren voices around attacking the public service and portraying it as riding on the back of a shrinking private sector.
Sadly, the public service often leaves itself open to these onslaughts with daft examples of wasteful spending and bad work practises. But the danger lies when occasionally justified criticisms are distilled into a dogma.
Yes, the public service is in need of reform and modernisation, but the one dimensional demonizing of the entire public service we hear from some quarters will not help reform anything. Nor will the “everything is just fine as it is” defence we hear from various public sector unions.
Public service reform is possible without hyperbole or blood on the carpets. With the right management and leadership the public service is capable of reforming and modernising itself. I know, because I was there when it happened.
The reform and modernisation of the Defence Forces over the past decade and a half is a model of how it can be done right.
The 2009 Bórd Snip Nua report found that the Defence Forces were the only sector in the Public Service to reduce numbers during the Celtic Tiger.
While the numbers working in the Public Service had increased by 17% between 2001 and 2009, the numbers working in the defence organisation actually fell by 8%, going from 11,808 down to 10,895 a drop of 913.
The reduction in numbers in uniform was reflected in a reduction of numbers of civil servants in the Department. These payroll savings were invested in better equipment and improved training meaning that the Irish Defence Forces could do more with less.
The negotiations were tough, but both sides recognised that it was in their mutual interest. While soldiers and officers do not have Trade Unions, they do have strong representative organisations: PDFORRA and RACO and a parallel conciliation and arbitration process that conducts it business quietly and effectively,
Perhaps the absence of outside influences, speculation and running commentaries, helped create the conditions for agreement – but not nearly as strong leadership, both political and military.
We should now be finding ways of replicating this progressive model. Before coming into office the Taoiseach’s last big idea on the Defence Forces was that it should be running boot camps for young offenders.
Doubtless he has abandoned this nonsense having spent two years seeing them close up, but their handling of the last round of barrack closures suggests that he may not yet have realised just how the Defence Forces be a model for public service reform.
Who would want to be the leader of the Labour party today? No doubt Éamon Gilmore still does, though perhaps with a little less relish than he exuded last Monday when he was sitting cheerfully behind me on the early morning flight to Brussels.
While the dip in Labour’s fortunes revealed in the previous day’s RedC poll may not have demonstrably dampened his ardour, last night’s dramatic resignation by Roisín Shortall will.
Eighteen months in office and he is looking like the Mr Worthing character in the “Importance of Being Earnest:”: losing one Junior Minister, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness.
But isn’t this what happens to the smaller party in Government? When they get into battles with the larger party, don’t they usually come out the worst?
A quick glance at the history of coalitions and it would appear otherwise.
The electoral reality is that going into office costs the smaller party seats at the next election. It takes the bigger risk and, in return, gets a say in policy above its Dáil strength.
That’s the deal. Both partners they know they need the other. It is not for eternity, maybe not even for the full five years of the term, but each knows that without the other neither would in power. unless one sees an alternative, in which case the balance is disturbed.
I served in two Fianna Fáil led coalitions featuring feisty junior partners: the Greens and the Progressive Democrats. While there were the occasional stand-offs, indeed one partly led to my departure, these were the exception to the rule.
Coalition work and last where there is a well negotiated and defined programme for government around which they can agree.
Naturally, where there are two distinct parties with their own hinterlands and approaches, there will be tensions. In my experience these were confined to issues not specifically covered in the Programme for Government or those thrown up by unexpected events.
The other main source of disruptions were the interventions from senior figures, just outside of government, in the smaller party who saw themselves as the conscience of their party, Dan Boyle was particular master of this dark art. While the major partner was usually the main target of these outbursts they were just as often designed to embarrass, irk and provoke their own ministers.
While deeply frustrating, these things came with the territory. The larger party in a coalition knows it needs the smaller one to stay in office. While it can never allow itself to be seen as a pushover, it also knew that the smaller party could not stay long in office if their members felt there were being used as a mudguard.
This is what makes Roisin Shortall’s resignation so significant. Unlike most ministerial resignations this was about policy. Yes, there are personality and political dimensions too, but essentially this is about adherence to the programme for government.
Her departure is reminiscent of the late Frank Cluskey’s 1983 resignation from Cabinet not only because it too was about policy, but also thanks to the increasing number of comparisons been drawn between both administrations’ handling of the economic problems facing them.
But, as with most parallels, it is not a perfect one. While his departure was a protest against Fine Gael’s stance on Dublin Gas, Shortall’s resignation is just as much about her own parties role in government as it is about Minister Reilly’s capacity to run a department.
When Frank Cluskey quit he made it clear that he did not expect other labour ministers to follow him out and bring down that government. There was no hint that he had lost any confidence in his colleagues. The feeling was mutual. At the meeting following his resignation he reportedly received a lengthy standing ovation from his parliamentary colleagues. Can Deputy Shortall expect to be cheered to the rafters by messers Quinn, Howlin, Gilmore and Rabbitte when they next week? I doubt it.
Irish politics is a zero sum game. If the government is doing badly; then the opposition is doing well, and vice versa.
This makes the coming Dáil term just as vital for the opposition as for the government.
But which element of the opposition is set to fare better? The balance between Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin is almost as much a zero sum game as that between them and the government.
While the occasional opinion poll shows them in the high teens, Sinn Féin’s vote in the ballot box has remained, at best, stubbornly in the low teens. It did get over 13% at the Presidential election, but failed to break the 10% barrier at the General Election.
The question for the Shinners is whether they are a leftish haven for disaffected Labour voters or a centrist alternative to Fianna Fáil. While its instincts may be to try to do both, it is hard to see that tactic working.
On the left they are in competition with the ULA, several Independents and what is left of Joe Higgin’s Socialists.
On the other side they have Fianna Fáil, which insists on just not going away. The fact that FF has not seen any particular advance in its fortunes in the polls should come as no surprise given the scale of the hatred it engendered.
The past 18 months has been about Fianna Fáil stabilising its position. It has put a floor under its decline, which was no small task. The issue now is if it can recover former ground.
While FF may skirmish with SF over ex FF voters who went to Labour, the main battle will be fought elsewhere and with another enemy. Surveys suggest that up to 40% of those who said they voted FF in 2007 switched to FG in 2011.
This sizeable group are still angry and hurt. They have not been ready to listen to Fianna Fáil so far. Will they become disenchanted over the coming months with Enda Kenny and Fine Gael as it struggles to deliver on its election promises?
Will this be sufficient? Will the disenchantment be enough to allow them to listen to anything the party has to say, never mind be convinced by it? These are questions taxing Fianna Fail reps at their think in today and tomorrow.
The opposition parties and independents will also need to consider the competition they face from the emerging, and varied, opposition within government.
It ranges from Brian Hayes and Joan Burton’s fighting over pensioners to FG backbenchers bemoaning its failure to take on the public sector.
The greatest challenge, though, may come from within the Labour Party. There seems to be something about becoming chairman of the smaller party in government that makes the holder think they are the deputy leader of the opposition. I call it “Dan Boyle Syndrome”.
As a first time Deputy; sitting on the government backbenches; the new Labour Chairman may gaze longingly at the other side of the Dáil wishing he were there opposing and criticising the current Government, but he isn’t.
The public gets the difference between government and opposition. They understand the fundamental truth of Mario Cuomo’s famous maxim: “you campaign in poetry but you govern in prose”.
If he thinks doing solo runs will firewall him from the approaching barrage of criticism and unpopularity, then he is in for a nasty surprise. All he needs to do is Google “Dan Boyle” and “election results” to see how these tactics failed.
FG and Lab TDs would do well to heed the words of Mary Harney: “Even the worst day in government is better than the best day in opposition”. This may seem unlikely, but it is the case, especially if you believe politics is about improving things.
If they doubt it, then they only need call the Marine Hotel and ask any Fianna Fáil TD.
Text of my Evening Herald column considering the consequences of the French & Greek election results for our forthcoming Stability Treaty Referendum vote
The EU political landscape has changed dramatically in the last 24 hours. The election of Francois Hollande in France and the defeat of the pro bailout parties in Greece will have repercussions far beyond the borders in both countries.
While both results will come as no great surprise to politicians who have been following the campaigns in France and Greece; it seems no one has given any serious thought as to what may now happen.
The focus of such thought, in so much as there has been any, has been on what Hollande might do to make good on his campaign promise to move the EU’s focus on to growth and investment.
There seems to have been very little thought as to what might happen in Greece. As recently as last week, pundits were citing polls that showed that up to two thirds of the Greek electorate accepted the need for a bailout.
Perhaps they did tell the pollsters that but, as we discovered last night, that sentiment did not transfer itself to the ballot box. The reality is that two thirds of Greek voters opted for anti bailout parties of various hues – from far left to far right, leaving the two pro bailout parties in tatters.
The net result, in the short to medium term, will be political stability that will make markets jumpy and herald problems for counties such as Spain and Italy when they go to the markets to borrow money.
The instability in the Eurozone that we thought had abated for a while looks like returning with a vengeance. M Hollande may not have time to set out his vision for a growth and investment plan for the EU – events may well overtake him.
Uncertainty may now be the name of the game in the EU and the Eurozone – yet the Government here seems to think that nothing that has happened in the last 24 hours has changed the mood music here.
To judge from Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore’s comments the coalition government here believes that the result there has no consequence for the Stability Treaty referendum. The Tánaiste was in Paris, in a signal of European Socialist grouping solidarity, with PES colleague M Hollande. This contrasts with the fickleness of the FG party chairman,Charlie Flanagan’s “Bon debarras (Good Riddance) Nicolas ! Bye Bye Sarkozy” tweet last night.
In Feb 2011 Fine Gael were championing their relations with Sarkozy, Merkel and the EPP – now they deny their former friends. You could almost hear the cock crow three times.
I am no fan of the Stability Treaty. Like others. I believe it is a missed opportunity. It fails to tackle the root cause of the problems in Ireland and Europe – a failed and dysfunctional banking system. But I am not convinced that voting it down brings us one millimetre closer to resolving our problems.
I am a reluctant Yes voter. I hope that passing it may give Germany the cover it needs to allow real reforms to the European Central Bank and the Euro architecture,
For that reason I want to give the Treaty every chance to gain public support. I do not believe that ploughing ahead with a vote on a Treaty that may yet be further reformed – or even improved – serves any purpose. I genuinely fear that going ahead against a background of uncertainty and volatility puts the outcome in doubt.
It is not that I think the combined forces of Sinn Féin and the ULA will convince the people to vote No, but rather that the public will opt not to endorse a Treaty that may be defunct within weeks of passing it.
This is not a new fear. I wrote about the imprudence of holding the vote this early on my website some weeks ago. While I know many would suggest that postponing the referendum sends out the signal that the Government is weak, I think that is better than landing itself with a no vote based on bad timing.
While the Tánaiste is technically right in saying that we wouldn’t need to come back and vote again if a growth package were eventually added to the Treaty – can he really justify putting only half the question to a vote? Would it not be wiser, and more democratic, to wait a few months and put a definitive position to the people?#
It would require more courage and leadership to postpone the referendum than proceed with it. This just may be the reason why it doesn’t happen
May 7th 2012
The attached research paper Report on EU Attendance was conducted by Markus Johansson and Daniel Naurin of the Dept of Political Science at the University of Gothenburg and presented at the SNES spring conference in Uppsala 22-23 March 2011.
SNES (Swedish Network for European Studies in political science) is Sweden’s leading research network dealing with questions of European politics and governance.
The study examined 808 EU Council meetings between 2000 and 2010 and found that Ireland had one of the highest average Ministerial attendances at Council of Minister’s meetings, 5th out of the 27 member states.
The authors of the study argue that attendance is an integral part of EU engagement and reflects the priorities of the governments involved. Ireland’s position as 5th highest out of the 27 member states from 2000-2010 is a testament to Fianna Fáil’s committeeman to Europe and strong engagement
This exposes the hollowness of claims repeatedly made by Government Ministers and the Taoiseach that Fianna Fáil failed to attend EU meetings.
I have just been watching Labour’s Dominic Hannigan on The Week in Politics and was amazed to hear him claim that Labour didn’t know the magnitude of problems facing Ireland during the General Election campaign last year. He offered this as the reason why they have abandoned so many of the promises made in that campaign.
It is the same attitude you hear when Ministers trot out the glib little phrase “we inherited this from the last government”.
I am long enough around in politics to know that the Government will be using variations on this theme for a long time to come. When there is a change of government, particularly on the scale we saw last year, the incoming Government is naturally going to dump on the previous one.
It happens everywhere. In the UK, although he is well now two year ins office, David Cameron starts off almost every reply to Prime Minister’s questions saying how he is trying to tackle the problems left by Gordon Brown.
Doubtless he will continue to trot out the line for a while more, though polls there are suggesting the British electorate are starting to tire of it,
I understand that the Taoiseach and his assortment of Ministers are going to spend the next year or more prefacing every utterance with the “it wasn’t me, it was like this when I got here” line of attack.
I just wish they would drop the “inheriting” hook and find a line that does not make them sound as if they are some unwilling group plucked from obscurity and press-ganged into taking on the Ministerial offices, salaries and cars against their will.
Most people “inheriting” a situation have found themselves in that space despite their wishes, not because of them. As far as I know you cannot legally inherit from someone you have helped to do in, even when that someone was already doing a good job of doing themselves in.
This government came into office knowing the situation they faced full well. They set it out clearly in their election campaigns and went to the people asking them for their mandate to tackle the enormous problems we face. Labour’s Finance spokeperson said the economy was banjaxed:
The two parties now holding the levers of power have every right to talk about the size of the problems, the need for difficult decisions and to throw a few belts into the outgoing government for good measure.
They should not, however, be talking as if this all something that has taken them somehow by surprise. They also forfeit the right to lash their predecessors on every single issue by effectively taking the same policy approaches.
The health issue and the fate of local A&Es is a good case in point. There is no credibility in the Health Minister outbidding the outgoing Government by writing open letters to the voters in February saying “Fine Gael undertakes to retain the emergency surgical, medical and other health services at Roscommon Hospital”, only to reverse that commitment a few weeks later.
The Taoiseach only adds salt to the wound by offering the defence that when Dr Reilly “…was contesting the general election he was not in possession of the informati
on about the difficulties surrounding the recruitment of non-consultant hospital doctors.”