My #af14 analysis: @fiannafailparty’s future depends on delivering a coherent alternative

This is an article I have written for the March 2014 Árd Fheis issue of Fianna Fáil’s members’ magazine Cuisle


BjNAsq0IcAAMTFkA few months before the 2011 election, Michael Gallagher (the TCD Professor of Politics, not the Donegal postman and amateur weather forecaster) posted a blog where he asking how long Fianna Fáil could expect to spend in opposition. In it he wrote:

“Fianna Fáil is not a party accustomed to spending time there. Its longest spell on the opposition benches is still the nearly six years between its foundation in May 1926 and its entry into government in March 1932. Since then, the party has never spent more than one consecutive Dáil term in opposition and the longest spell it has been out of power remains the 4 years and 4 months of the Cosgrave coalition in the mid-1970s.”

Underpinning Gallagher’s 2010 comments is the idea that Fianna Fáil has never been that good at opposition. It is a fair point.

Not only have we not spent much time in opposition, as Gallagher points out, it is almost 30 years since we last spent a full Dáil term there.

Continue reading “My #af14 analysis: @fiannafailparty’s future depends on delivering a coherent alternative”

An analysis of @REDCMD @pppolitics poll & why the @fiannafailparty leadership is not an issue

RedC Polling
RedC Polling

Today’s RedC poll for Paddy Power brings very little good news unless you are an independent or a don’t know. The unadjusted core figures rank the parties in descending order as:

Fine Gael                   23%

Fianna Fáil                18%

Don’t Knows            18%

Independents         17%

Sinn Féin                    13%

Labour                          9%

After adjusting the figures by excluding 50% of the don’t know and adjusting the other 50% back to how they voted in 2011 the ranking positions stay the same. Only the relative gaps between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil and between Fianna Fáil and the Independents widen.

Fine Gael                  29%

Fianna Fáil               22%

Independents        21%

Sinn Féin                  15%

Labour                      11%

Sinn Fein’s lead over Labour remains at a steady 4%. While this may, at first glance, suggest some good news for Sinn Féin, the party has been in this territory before only for its good polling numbers to fail to translate into votes.

Back in December 2010, on the eve of a general election, three polls showed the party in the mid teens.  A Red C Poll for The Sun on 03/12/2010 gave the party 16%. The MRBI/Irish Times poll on Dec 16th put it on 15% while a third, the Red C/Sunday Business Post poll of December 18th put its support at 14%. On polling day, two months later, the voters gave it 9.9%.

This is not to discount its advance since. Sinn Féin has been consistently polling in the mid teens since September 2011. That said, though an Irish Times poll in early October 2011 put party support at a hefty 18% its Presidential candidate and possibly most charismatic figure, Martin McGuinness still could not get the party’s actual vote past the 13.7% mark in the ballot boxes a few weeks later.

Despite its considerable and well resourcing organisation it seems to still have a problem translating favourable poll numbers into actual votes.

Though of cold comfort to Fianna Fáil it does not, at least, have this particular problem. The MRBI/Irish Times and Red C/Sunday Business Post polls conducted on the eve of the 2009 Local elections put Fianna Fáil’s support at 20% and 21% respectively. On polling day, the party managed to scrape its way up to 25.4%.

Fianna Fáil problems are more significant. While it has won back some of its lost  “soft” support and pulled itself up from the 2011 hammering it has yet to say or do anything substantive to win back many of those who had voted for it in 2002 and 2007 but rejected it in 2011. There is nothing to suggest it is doing any better with potential first time voters either.

Despite the speculation of last weekend, Fianna Fáil’s problem is not its leader. The notion that Fianna Fáil picking a new leader whose only virtue is that they were not a member of the previous government is almost laughable. Surely no one in the party or the commentariat is delusional enough to think that the electorate is so naïve that it will flock to Fianna Fáil’s cause just because it has a leadership team devoid of anyone who served under Ahern or Cowen?

Despite its apology and acknowledgement of past mistakes, Fianna Fáil has yet to present a researched and substantive alternative policy programme. It has come up with some good micro-policies, not least its family home protection and debt resolution Bills, but many have been light on substance and appear to have been produced as well intentioned responses to specific representative groups, e.g. the Mobile Phone Radiation Warning Bill

Try finding the party’s April 2013 Policy Guide on its website. It is there, but you have to know what you are looking for to find it. Click on the “issues” button on the homepage and you get the Spring 2012 version, to locate the latest version you need to do a search for it by name.

The April 19th 2013 document shows the party has been doing some serious work on policy, but you would be hard pushed to know it from the statements coming from its spokespeople. These still read as knee jerk responses to government statements rather than as co-ordinated parts of a coherent alternative. Fine Gael may have gotten away with tactic this during its time in opposition, but Fianna Fáil does not have the luxury they had: a Government unwilling and unable to communicate with its own supporters.

Perhaps the criticisms of a small and possibly over stretched clique around the leadership have some basis in reality, but as someone who has spent a long time around the party, on both the inside and outside tracks, I think the problem lies elsewhere.

Michéal Martin has shown a remarkable capacity for getting out and about and engaging with members and voters alike, it is curious, therefore, to read of him being less engaged and accessible to members of his own very diminished parliamentary party.

Might I suggest that the fault lies on both sides. Yes, he should be having regular one to one meetings with his 33 parliamentary colleagues – God knows there are not that many of them to make such regular meetings impractical – but they too should be engaging with him.

The traditional deference to the leader needs to change. Gone are the days when you had to wait ages to have an audience with the great leader as he busied himself with the great affairs of state in the Taoiseach’s office. Parliamentary party members have the opportunity for unique access, let them use it. A minority can only exercise sole access when allowed by the majority indifference or reticence.

Despite the job losses and the massive reduction in resources, there still appears to be a sense that the party structures are operating and running as if the party is still as big as it once was. Worse still many of those working those structures have no sense memory of how the party should operate in opposition.

A small number of paid officials are being expected to do the party’s policy research and formulation with minimal input from a vast array of experts across the volunteer membership. Too much power and control is being retained around the centre and around Leinster House: not by the leadership and his supposed clique, but also by members of the parliamentary party who are criticising him for just that.

I am old enough to remember what was put in place between 1982 and 1987, the last time the party was truly in opposition. Back then a series of policy committees were established by the leadership and mandated, working with the various spokespeople, to produce credible and researched policies for submission to the party for adoption.

These committees worked with the TDs and Senators but were not run by them. Outside experts were brought in to assist and work with them.

To borrow a phrase from Fianna Fáil’s past – the phase of its recovery will be dependent on policies and substance – not personality. The party already has the potential to bring itself back into the upper 20s in terms of actual voter support – the question now for the leadership and the party as a whole is if it has the energy, expertise and inclination to innovate the policy approaches that could bring support up into the 30% plus range.

That is the challenge ahead.

Scrap the #Seanad? No, we need a new, revamped one more than ever

Sorry for being late in posting this – it is my Herald column from last Friday, May 24th, on why the the Government’s plan to abolish the Seanad is as far from reform as it is almost humanly possible to get 


Democracy Matters! Campaign
Democracy Matters! Campaign

Next week the Government publishes the legislation that paves the way for a referendum on abolition of the Seanad later this year.

Last week the same Government supported a proposal from independent Senators not to abolish the Seanad but to reform it.

So how can they advocate two such contrary positions within two weeks of each other?

The answer is simple – abolition is not as simple and straightforward as originally thought. It does not mean just rubbing out a few words in the Constitution: it will require about 75 individual amendments.

The origin of all of this is a Fine Gael knees up back in October 2009. That is where Enda Kenny made the surprise announcement that he planned to scrap the Seanad. His new policy came as a surprise as only three months earlier his policy was that it be given greater powers and become a forum on European issues.

So what happened over those summer months, when neither the Dáil nor Senate were sitting, to change Enda’s mind? Nothing it seems, apart from being upstaged by Éamon Gilmore and growing criticism within Fine Gael of his leadership.

Enda needed a soft target – and the slow, lumbering Seanad obligingly painted a nice big un-missable bull’s eye on its own backside.

While it is difficult to present an argument for retaining the Seanad as it is: with most of its members elected just by TD’s and Councillors, that is not the same as saying that we do not need some form of a Second House of Parliament.

Despite its faults, the Seanad has served the country well. It has been a champion of reform and minority rights in a way the Dáil has often not. To quote the President, Michael D Higgins from a 2009 Dáil debate: “historically, the Seanad has been the place where there has been legislative innovation.”

Indeed it has, even with its antiquated system of having 6 seats elected by University Graduates and the Taoiseach nominating 11 members. It has allowed many voices and views from outside the political mainstream not only to be heard but to have a say: from W B Yeats to Seamus Mallon to Éamon de Buitléar to David Norris.

The value of having a second chamber to revise laws and give proposals further scrutiny can be demonstrated with one simple statistic. Since 2011 the Seanad has made 529 amendments to 14 different laws passed by the Dáil with inadequate scrutiny.

Without a Seanad or Second chamber those defective laws would have passed on to the statute without correction.

In today’s Ireland we need more scrutiny and oversight – not less. Abolition strengthens the old system. It means fewer new voices. The answer lies in reform, not abolition: open up the system, don’t close it down.

We need a reformed Seanad that makes those in power accountable. We need a reformed Seanad that has a gender balance. One where all of us, not just an elite, get a vote, including people in the North and those forced into emigration.

These basic, but effective, reforms could be made without a referendum and major constitutional change. All that is required is a Government that has the will to make that change.
Enda Kenny is doing this the wrong way around. We should learn from the Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harpers who told his people “…that our Senate, as it stands today, must either change… or vanish.”

We should be given the option of change.

Instead, the government will spend millions on a referendum that only offers a sham choice between keeping something that we know is not working as well as it could and handing its powers and resources over to a Dáil that has proved itself less than capable of holding Government to account.

Have we learned nothing from the crisis?

Do we want to fix the system or merely consolidate it?

My latest column in Friday's Herald
My latest column in Friday’s Herald


New young politicians? Yes, but some diversity too

Miliband and McEntee – Milintee?

Not surprisingly, most of the commentary on the Meath East by-election result has focussed on the electoral drubbing meted out to the Irish Labour Party, but as Fergus Finlay pointed out in the Irish Examiner, Labour has been here before. Back in 1983, at the Dublin Central By-Election occasioned by the death of George Colley, Labour’s then candidate Jimmy Somers was beaten not only by the Workers’ Party (ironic) but by Sinn Fein in an area where Labour had until recently held a seat.

This nice analysis piece penned by the late Mary Raftery for MaGill at the time is worth reading and contains some phrases we have seen used a few times over the past week, including: “The by-election result was one of the most disastrous in Labour’s history” and “…a humiliation from which it will be difficult to recover.”

While Labour’s poor showing and Fianna Fáil’s continuing electoral recovery are the two main national lessons to be taken from the Ashbourne count centre, I want to briefly reflect on another less obvious one.

On almost precisely the same day as Fine Gael’s Helen McEntee entered full time national politics on this island, another politician was leaving it on the neighbouring island: David Miliband.

So what could these two events have in common? Well, not a lot really – but it did occur to me that Miliband, aged 48, was quitting politics at an age when politicians used to once enter politics.

In that regard Ms McEntee and Mr Miliband do have something in common, two things actually. First they both entered their respective parliaments at a relatively young age – Ms McEntee at 26 and Mr Miliband, slightly later, at 36 and second, neither had much real world experience outside of politics before entering parliament.

Essentially both were products of the political system, albeit at differing levels and grades. After completing her masters in 2010 Ms McEntee worked as a parliamentary assistant in her late father’s constituency office, while David progressed from Oxford and M.I.T to becoming Tony Blair’s head of policy via a stint at the Institute for Public Policy Research.

Neither had, to use the American phrase, “ever made a payroll”. While in America that is taken to mean running a business and being responsible for paying and employing people, in this context we can use it to mean experience of the real world, getting a job, getting promoted, running a household, paying a mortgage, providing childcare and then education for your kids.

Not that experiencing some or all of these necessarily qualify you to become a full time public representative, but wouldn’t some understanding of these help? Not that I am disregarding the pressures and difficulties faced by students these days. Frankly, as bad as the 70s and 80s were, I daily thank heavens that I am not a student in today’s environment.

Neither is this a plea for the Oireachtas to be full of 50 and 60-somethings or an attack on anyone under 25 running for the Dáil.

Rather I am just sounding a small note of caution against what I perceive as an emerging phenomenon here of people going almost straight from college into full time politics. Over the past two decades the number of jobs and opportunities in full time politics have increased. Since the early 90s the world of politics has become more professionalised with TDs and Senators now being able to employ parliamentary researchers and assistants paid for from the public purse. Not that I am one to complain having been a beneficiary of this development.

But with the creation of these additional opportunities it now seems the most successful path into the Dáil runs as follows:

University → elected as party officer – Job in Leinster House → Special Adviser → TD.

We risk having cohort of potential TDs (and Senators, if it survives) who have almost all followed the same real-life free path. Look at the UK and see how many of the men and women on the Tory and Labour benches fall into this category. While they may represent different political parties and support competing policies they essentially come from the same political background – all university educated, essentially middle class and all from within the political process.

Already we see the parties here looking out for new, young, vibrant candidates – and that’s a good thing. But what we also see is these candidates being identified earlier and earlier and based on criteria that are hard to understand.

Perhaps it is their newness and inexperience that is the attraction: a fresh clean slate for the party leadership to control and etch its views, coupled with a personal history that is free of controversy because its brevity presented damn all opportunity for it.

Turning back to Meath East, maybe it was just campaign hyperbole, or his penchant for the grandiloquent, that prompted Enda Kenny to describe Helen McEntee as “one of the most brilliant young candidates I have seen in any election” during an exchange in the Dáil on the day before polling. But what was there in her achievements or utterances that justified this high praise?

Is she a smart, confident and well educated woman, yes, without a doubt… but one of the most brilliant… in any election? Did we see anything in either the Vincent Brown or Primetime debates to support this claim?

Yes, there is a place in full time politics for young people and yes they deserve a major say in how their future is shaped, but we need to ensure that the search for the ideally packaged and presented candidate is not done at the cost of selecting those with more experience of life.

As soon as Florida became too close to call, it was all over

My take on the US Presidential election results from tonight’s Evening Herald

My Evening Herald column on the Obama victory night

“Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half!” If this is how Henry Ford felt about his cash you can only imagine how the campaign treasurers in both American parties feel about 90% of theirs.

Last January polls showed Obama and Romney in a statistical dead heat within a point or two of each other. Ten months and some €4.7billion of campaign spending later and the two parties appeared to have hardly budged an inch.

Watching the early results in the Presidential and Congressional come in this morning you had to wonder did either candidate or party get value for its money.

On Monday I said that I though Obama would win and that he would win the majority of the so called battleground States. While I was fully confident of that view when I penned it last Monday, I did have one brief  moment of doubt last night.

It came by way of a stern but firm Facebook message from an old friend in New York. He said he thought that Romney might just shade it. His comments came as a bit of a shock as my mate is no political novice and is usually a good judge of these things.

The first key result I was waiting for was Virginia. While Obama could win the election without winning in Virginia it would be a good early indicator of how the election was going.

According to the US TV networks they would be ready to make a prediction, based on exit polls, about 30 minutes after midnight Irish time.

The final pre election polls had Obama set to win it by around 2%, but that was inside the margin of error.  The exit polls would tell all. My heart sank a little when the Networks declared Virginia too close to call at the appointed time.

Could my mate be right? Could it be that Romney had managed to claw back enough to reverse Obama’s small lead? Virginia was not essential or critical to an Obama win, but it might be an indication of other problems.

The uncertainty lasted about thirty minutes. Soon reports started to emerge that Florida was too close to call. On Monday I had predicted it would go to Romney. Almost every polling company had been calling it for Romney for weeks, yet the reports coming out from precincts and districts across the State were saying that it was neck and neck.

Latino, women and young voters were coming out for Obama in bigger numbers and by wider margin than predicted. Obama had been expected to get about 66% of the latino voter, but the exit polls were not putting it at 71%..

Florida was the third easiest State for Romney to win from Obama, yet it was going to Obama, though only just. Of the swing sates only two: Indiana and North Carolina went to Romney, the rest stuck with the President.

In each case the margin was tight, but in America’s first past the post system, the winner takes it all.

By a little after 3.00am is was virtually all over. While there were several races still too close to call, all were favouring the President. Obama had not won the magic 270 electoral college votes but it looks now that there was almost no mathematical possibility of Romney reaching it.

While he was not losing them by large margins the States were being stacked up against Romney.  By 4am it was all over once Ohio was called for Obama. With that Romney’s last remaining hope was quashed. While a few diehard Republicans refused to accept the prediction it was over and so Election 2012 ended with a stronger Electoral College victory for Obama, 332 to 206, than even I dared imagine a few days ago.

Labour could be casualty in Treaty Yes vote

My Evening Herald column from today’s (Thurs May 24th) edition:

Many different reasons to vote yes or no

With less than a week to go the referendum campaign seems more and more to be about less and less.

On the face of it, if you believe the posters, the choice is to Vote Yes to achieve stability or to Vote No to end austerity.

But do any of us really believe these claims? Regrettably, like previous EU referendums the debate has been conducted at the extremes, not the centre. It was the case in the Nice and Lisbon referendums, remember those “€1.84 Minimum Wage after Lisbon” posters?

Mercifully, we have been spared the malign input of Cóir and Youth Defence this time. The are no loss, especially as most of them wouldn’t know a treaty from a tea-bag (to rob a line I recently overheard)

But this absence of any significant ultra right involvement on the no side does highlight a curious undercurrent to the campaign, one, which I suspect, may be a factor in how some people decide how to vote next week.

While the slogans maybe about the EU and the Euro the referendum has morphed into a proxy battle on the future of left / right politics in Ireland.

From the start the battle front was drawn up along left versus right lines.

On the Yes side you had the right and centre right parties: FG, FF and Lab (more about them later), the employers’ and business organisations, the farmer’s groups and the more established/mainstream trade unions.

On the No side you had the socialist and hard left parties, People Before Profit, Joe Higgin’s Socialists, Sinn Féin, the more radical trade unions.

While the entrance of The Declan Ganley somewhat clouded the the Left/Right delineation, it hasn’t ruptured it.

The sight of him sharing No platforms with irredentist left firebrands is a joy to behold, especially when you consider that they agree on virtually nothing, including Europe. Most on the hard left are euro-sceptic while The Ganley is avowedly Euro-federalist.

While passing the Fiscal Treaty will herald no major day to day changes – mainly because it just restates the centre/centre right economic orthodoxy in place since 2008 – it will cement it into domestic law for the foreseeable future.

It is this that the left fears and opposes most.

Passing the Treaty would recalibrate the centre of the Irish political spectrum a few points to the right. It won’t be a seismic or noticeable shift, but it torpedoes the Left’s ambitions of shifting it the other way.

It doesn’t vanquish them, nor does it make them to tone the rhetoric down. If anything, it will do the opposite, but in their hearts they will know that their ambition to shift Ireland economically to the left has been reversed.

This explains why the campaign from Joe Higgins, Boyd Barrett and Sinn Féin has been so fierce. But not as fierce as when its over and they start to target each other.

I am not predicting that their poll rating drops are set to drop. They won’t. They will probably rise as voters use them to express their disapproval of government parties going pack on pre election pledges.

But the Irish electorate is sophisticated. It is overwhelmingly aspirational. This applies across all social classes and communities. They want their kids to do better than they did. That decides voting intentions more than anything.

In the meantime Sinn Féin will continue to do well at Labour’s expense, after all Gerry and Mary Lou are saying now what Éamon and Joan were saying two years ago.

It is Labour who will be the biggest casualty. Polls showing 40% of Labour supporters voting No could have longer term ramifications for the leadership. But whatever they may be, they can be so where near as damaging as Gilmore’s infamous “Frankfurt’s Way or Labour’s Way” slogan.

It may turn out to be the most devastating political slogan of recent times – devastating to its authors, that is.

Is Government the Biggest Threat to a Yes Vote?

The next French President? François Hollande
(Photo taken from the Hollande Campaign site)

Though the early polls have been positive I am getting a sense that the No side may picking up some momentum as we near the May 31st polling date for the Fiscal Stability Treaty Referendum.

One of the main grounds for this sense of foreboding may indeed be the May polling date itself. I fear having the poll this early may prove the biggest threat to a Yes outcome for three reasons:

1. It allows no side to raise the prospect of a second referendum later in the year. The more astute and sophisticated side of the No campaign is starting to run an argument that goes as follows: We have voted twice on the last two EU treaties.In each case we have come back with a better deal the second time. This Treaty does not come into force until January 2013. We have the time to Vote No now and use the following months to go back and get a better deal and then Vote Yes later in the year. A late September polling date would have denied this argument to them

2. This Sunday see’s the first round of the French Presidential Elections, The Second roubnd of voting will be two weeks later at the beginning of May. While Sarkozy has had a good campaign to date and has closed the gap in the first round the polls there still suggest that Francois Hollande will win the Second Round by approx 55:45.Hollande is standing on recovery platform that rejects Sarkozy’s austerity plan and talks of renegotiating the Fiscal Compact,

While this position may be dismissed as a Gallic version of Gilmore’s “Frankfurt’s Way or Labour’s Way” – ie a promise that sounds good in the campaign but doesn’t survive past polling day – it does look like Hollande is serious. His determination to imeddiately set out a renegotiation the Fiscal Compact to include a growth programme, Euro Bonds etc has probably been strengthened by the attempts of Merkel and other Centre Right EU leaders to snub him.

We will be going to vote during the first days of a Hollande presidency, the background noise to ouyr vote to pass the existing threaty will be his moves to renegotiate that very treaty – almost making a farce of that vote. The politically astute move for our Government would have been to hold off until September and see if Hollande will make a difference.

3. The one great lesson learned from previous referenda, particularly NIce I & II and Lisbon I & II is that the public needs a longer run up/lead in period to tease out the issues. The traditional three or four week campaign has been found to be insufficient, particularly in the absence of “on the ground” campaigns.

Though polling day is about six weeks away there is little sign of that debate is starting yet. Will the Refendum Commission have the time to do the job? Based on the last referendums, it would certainly appear not.  The Tanaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs had a thirty minute slot on RTE 1 last Saturday where he could have used 5/6 miinutes to explain why voting Yes is important. He didn’t. He chose instead to just give the poll a passing reference, 125 words in a script over 3100 words long. “referendum” featured only once in his script.

While the timing of the polling day is just one factor, it may prove a crucial one. The Treaty should stand or fall on its own contents alone. I am on record here as having my own qualms about the Treaty (see my post here on why I will be a reluctant Yes voter). The debate will be essential. This vote is not like others, we do not have a veto, we cannot delay or deny the progress of this Treaty by our vote alone. The EU has been horrendously slow to act to save itself from the start of this crisis. It has chosen the path of half measures over swift decisive action – usually at the behest of a Franco-German leadership that put domestic political considerations ahead of pan european ones. But we should not be blind to the developing EU real politik.

The appointment of Simon Coveney and Joan Burton as the Fine Gael and Labour campaign directors somehow does not imbue one with a sense of confidence. Coveney’s nomination does echo Charlie Haughey’s appointment of Paddy Lalor as Fianna Fáil national director of elections – a move that spurred the late Frank Cluskey to comment: “There’s confidence for ya”

The Party May be Down, But it is Certainly Not Finished

Fianna Fáil

My take on Fianna Fáil’s 73ú Ard Fheis which is taking place in the RDS this weekend (March 2 & 3). This piece was written for the Evening Herald of March 3rd


For as long as I can recall Fianna Fáil Árd Fheiseana were the party conferences where the emphasis was more on the “partying” than the “conferencing”.

They were great social and political occasions where activists from all strands of society, right across the country, gathered to celebrate their membership of the party.

There they rallied; networked; socialised and renewed friendships with colleagues from other constituencies.

To be brutally honest, for many – myself included – the formal debates and motions were incidental to the core objective: discussing politics with old friends and hearing the leader’s speech.

While tonight’s address, the first by Michael Martin as leader, will remain the highpoint of this weekend’s Árd Fheis, it will come at the end of two days of serious and intense debate about the party’s future.

The issue before the Árd Fheis is that stark: the very survival of what was once the greatest modern political movement in Western Europe.

Over these two days – yesterday and today – at the RDS, members are deciding a slate of major reforms on how the party is organised and run.

Key to these is the move away from the representative/delegate model for candidate selection in favour of the One Member One Vote system (OMOV). In other words; to allow every active member in every cumann to have an equal say in selecting candidates and officers.

It is resonant of the crucial debate the British Labour Party had at their 1993 Conference. That was the year they ended the Trade Union block vote and adopted OMOV.

It was not an easy battle for them. The move to reform and modernise had been delayed for almost 14 years as they tore themselves apart with internal wrangling and infighting.

The result was three stunning defeats and three terms of powerless opposition.

Only by reforming their internal structures and systems did Labour allow itself to reconnect with its membership and, more importantly, with the people. After 14 years of irrelevance “New” Labour began to get in touch with the cares and concerns of the British people and respond effectively to them.

That is what Michael Martin hopes to achieve with this Árd Fheis. While the events of the past few days may have moved the focus slightly away from that goal, he was determined to shift it back as soon as the members start to gather in the RDS last night.

And a fair few of them gathered; with over 4000 members registered to attend by the middle of the week.

It is an indication of how serious the party’s grassroot members are about renewing their party. The number of people running for positions is another. Contest for the 20 nationally elected places on the Fianna Fáil Árd Comhairle has never been keener, with many bright, young first time candidates.

The same applies to several of the other senior positions, though the contest for the positions of Party Vice President was made marginally less intense with the withdrawals of two former party big hitters: Mary Hanafin and Éamon Ó Cuiv.

The weekend’s debates are not confined to organisational matters. The Clár contains some motions which, if passed, would herald interesting shifts in policy, including ones on gay marriage, gay adoption ending the regime of TDs’ and Senators expenses’ and reducing the voting age to 16.

There is also a slew of the more traditional Árd Fheis motions, including some Dublin centred resolutions calling for the reinstatement of the Ballymun Regeneration, Grangegorman DIT Campus and Metro North projects.

So, a great deal of serious work will be done by those gathering in Ballsbridge, but be certain too that there some socialising and banter as the faithful show that while they may be down, the party is by no means finished.

Derek Mooney was a Ministerial Adviser 2004 – 2010 and a Public Affairs Consultant and Speechwriter since the 90s

Labour Party is the real victim of Sinn Fein’s ST poll surge

my take on the recent Sunday Times poll as seen from a different perspective, both in terms of distance and time. I never cease to be intrigued how distance can change your perspective. It is true whether that distance is in time or in space. Indeed not only does it change it, it usually improves it.

This blindingly obvious conclusion struck me late on Saturday night as I sat in my Hotel room on the Costa Blanca coast watching my twitter feed to find the results of the latest Sunday Times opinion poll.

As the old joke goes: it was like deja vu all over again. Exactly one year earlier I was sitting in another room at the same Hotel trying to follow the results of the General Election online.

Though I managed to log in every few hours to catch the resulting coming in online, I still failed to fully grasp the full impact of Fianna Fail’s defeat at the time. My mind was elsewhere. My Dad had died suddenly at my parents’ home in Spain on the eve of polling day. I had, along with other family members, rushed over for the funeral in the days that followed.

It therefore took a week or so for the full enormity of what had happened at the polls to sink in. When it did, I found myself almost detached from its consequences and outworkings. I had not been at the count centres for the emotional traumas. By the time I was back home and chatting with former colleagues; they were reconciled with their fates to the point of being phlegmatic.

Anyway, that was a year ago. Back to last Saturday night. Sitting in a similar room, one year on and almost 1800km away, I found myself having quite a different perspective on the latest opinion poll figures.

As I looked at the RTE news online I was taken aback to see them running the line that big news in this poll was the drop in support for Fianna Fail.

Really? Not from where I was sitting.

Perhaps it was the night breeze drifting in off the Mediterranean. Maybe it was the over generous Soberano.

Either way; it appeared to me that the big news in this poll lay elsewhere.

To my mind the first piece of news in the Sunday Times B&A poll was the halving of Labour’s support in one year – from 19.4% on polling day to 10% today.

Second was the dramatic increase in support for Sinn Fein. from just under 10% at the General Election to a whopping 25% in the poll.

Indeed, there is a third equally significant story, namely the finding that, at 70%, almost three times as many people are disatisfied with the Government than are satisfied with it (26%). Not a ringing endorsement for a government just one year into its term and yet to face any seriously testing challenges.

Though it would be foolish to read too much into just one poll, Sinn Fein’s strategists North and South will be feeling understandably satisfied that their tactic of placing the Labour Party firmly in their sights is paying dividends.

In comparison with these almost double digit changes, Fianna Fail’s decrease from 17.4 to 16 is modest, though disappointing.

Yes, it is the type of news Michael Martin and Co can do without with the first Ard Fheis in two years only a week away and the Mahon report looming. But who, in their right mind, really expected voters, who were bitterly angry with Fianna Fail, to suddenly turn and cry “this shower is even worse than you lot: all is forgiven” barely one year on?

Maybe it is a back handed compliment of sorts that the party’s fortunes still merit such attention and coverage: even when the figures don’t exactly back it up.

If so, then expect plenty more of the same for the rest of the year as further polls emerge and more pundits line out to say what it all means for Fianna Fail. Meanwhile, I will see if I can manage to be away for their publication. It appears to be the best way to view them.

Gallagher has no one to blame but himself

Aras an UachtáranBelow is my critique of the Sean Gallagher’s unsuccessful campaign for the Áras. This appears in today’s EVENING HERALD (Friday Oct 28th) though my column is not online there, just yet.  

Already they are calling it the Gallagher moment. What they mean is that instant on the Frontline debate when the momentum that had driven Gallagher’s campaign for the previous ten days evaporated under Sinn Féin fire.

The reality may be a little less dramatic. While Sean Gallagher’s campaign did come to a halt on Frontline, it took the next 48 hours for it to go into a full nose dive.

On the face of it the McGuinness assault was intended as a signal to Sinn Féin voters not to transfer to Gallagher. The polls were showing Sean with a convincing lead over Higgins in the region of 10%, but still needed McGuinness transfers to see him over the line.

The Shinner’s strategists were determined that they would not be the ones to give Sean the keys to the Áras and by extension hand a vicarious victory to Fianna Fáil, even by proxy.

Their intent was clear, make it as difficult as possible for Gallagher in the final days. It was why they stored up the the story for a few days. Conversely that is what made the situation even more damaging for Gallagher. He clearly knew the story was out there, although in different guises and varying versions, but when confronted with it he seemed dazed and confused.

The real damage came the following day when Gallagher still seemed unable to deal with the allegation. His campaign produced a punchy and clear press release, but the candidate seemed either unable or unwilling to deliver it.

Perhaps his problem was that after months of uttering bland and cosy messages about positivity and unity (not to mention entrepreneurship) he just could not find the steel in his soul needed to take on his challengers and tell them to go take a running jump at themselves.

Yes, Sinn Féin and McGuinness were changing their story. Events that were claimed to have happened after the dinner were now being said to have happened before it. Their story was all over the place. But it appeared that Gallagher’s was too, if you were just to go by what he himself said in the interviews he did on Pat Kenny and the Six One news.

So what if he had been involved in a fund raising dinner back in 2008. The event was not a clandestine one. The donations were declared. The money was going for legitimate political expenditure. He had been the campaign manager for a successful Dáil candidate in 2007. He had a onus to help defray the costs and expenses of that election. I was in a similar position elsewhere. There were bills to be paid, so money needed to be raised by volunteers and others. No banks were robbed, no one got shot.

So confused and oblique were his replies that the problem festered and grew all day Tuesday and Wednesday. Many including myself thought the damage might be limited to his capacity to attract transfers. It now looks like it went far wider than deeper, possibly due to it all been linked to question marks over his company accounts and large fees taken by himself.

The two weeks of labelling him a Fianna Fáiler did not, as evidenced in successive polls, do him any damage. The flaws and errors in his own handling of a relatively minor crisis did. The Presidency is about judgement, his was called seriously into question.

In the case of Gay Mitchell the judgement that must be called into question is that of the senior party figures who allowed him to go forward as a candidate. Gay is and remains a deeply committed public representative and Fine Gaeler, yet it has looked for the past month that the party on the ground had abandoned him. His campaign was unfocussed and patchy from the start, not helped by whispers that he was not really Enda’s first choice as a candidate. Well, if he wasn’t then why run him? Is Enda the leader or not?

Gay can take some comfort that his own poor showing was reflected in the Dublin West by-election where the party’s candidate also faired badly. The question how is how do we reconcile opinion polls that consistently show Fine Gael in the mid 30s with these results?

There will be some pretty interesting analysis to be done when the smoke and dust settles after this weekend,.