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 cabinetwith 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.
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.
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.
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.
This column appeared on Broadsheet.ie on Jan 18th, 2021and looked at the impact of the pandemic on the craft and practise of normal politics. I suggest that we will not see a return to the normal exercise and discussion of ordinary politics until we are all able to safely have a pint or a drink without food in a non-gastro pub (the so-called Wet Bars). For that to happen, the vaccination programme will need to roll out much faster.
A faltering start and confusing release of data will not instill confidence in the public. If voters see Northern Ireland and Scotland a long way ahead of us by mid- March, in terms of vaccinating people and preparing to re-open, then public patience with the government, and with the Taoiseach and Health Minister in particular, will snap.
Writing traditional political analysis at a time when the usual power play and open practise of normal politics has been suspended is not easy. Writing it when people are worrying about the damage this pandemic is inflicting on their lives and livelihoods is uncomfortable.
The ups and down of this junior minister or that opposition frontbencher are so unimportant when compared with the concerns of people worried about whether their jobs will be still there, or their business will still be viable after the pandemic.
Even in normal times, the reporting of political processes, the who’s in and who’s out, only serves as a distraction from the real stuff of politics when its discussion is detached from the consequences of those movements on the formulation and implementation of policy.
While these are not normal times, their gradual return is almost within sight, and with those normal times will come a return to the normal practise and discussion of politics.
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.
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
This column appeared on Broadsheet.ie on July 27th. Here I look at the unforced error that was the super junior saga – the article appeared just before the government caught up with public opinion and decided to back down.
When this new government was cobbled together… sorry, let me start again… when this new administration was formed, Fianna Fáil’s primary political imperative was to show that this government would be very different.
The assumption was that Micheál Martin and his train of attendants would move quickly to banish the political tone deafness and indifference that characterised Leo Varadkar’s time in office and replace it with the attentive and determined approach of a Taoiseach with his finger on the public pulse.
Four weeks in and all the evidence so far points more to continuity than change. To be fair to Martin, it is not the full picture. As the new Taoiseach has repeatedly said in interviews, the Dáil has rarely been so productive in producing legislation.
The problem is that he has made this point in a series of incredibly low energy TV and radio interviews that have lacked any core message beyond proving that Martin knows his facts.
I wrote this column for Monday’s Broadsheet.ie it again looks at where we are on electing a new government and concludes that it is still the best part of a month away, despite the hype and spin. I decided to run a two day twitter poll to establish what people there fely was going to happen (as opposed to what they personally hoped to see happen). I will post the results on this page shortly.
According to the headline in last Friday’s Irish Times: Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are close to agreeing a coalition framework document.
I am sure they are. Comments from the two party leaders confirms this. The Taoiseach has said the document should be ready within a week or two. Mr Martin said it could act as a “catalyst” for other parties to join such a government.
Yes, the parties have made some progress, but there is still a long way to go before there will be a government in place. The optimism exuding from Fianna Fáil sources last week that a new government could in place before the end of April with Martin as Taoiseach, was… to put it at its mildest… a bit premature.
Let’s look at the facts. Together Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have 72 Dáil seats. If everyone votes, 80 is a bare majority. Realpolitik – something Micheál Martin was talking about a few weeks back – dictates that any government hoping to last a full term have a majority that is northwards of 80, preferably in the mid 80s. That or a confidence and supply agreement with another big party, but let’s not go back there, just yet.
This analysis piece appeared on Broadsheeton Monday Feb 24 2020. It looks back over the political developments of the previous week and attempts to look forward to where the government process will end up, [spoiler alret, I still feel a second election is the single most likely outcome]. In summary, it is hard not to conclude that neither Fianna Fáil nor Fine Gael are thinking or acting strategically, Neither are speaking to the public and neither are heeding the lesson of the election just passed. All this is serving to flatter Sinn Féin, who are just re-running their old playbook, playing to their own core (or should that be corps?). They portray themselves as great negotiators, yet they cannot see any route to amajority in a Dáil where FF and FG combined are in a minority?
This time last week I expected the only issue that would be resolved at Thursday’s opening Dáil session was the identity of the next Ceann Comhairle.
To no one’s great surprise that turned out to be the outgoing one, Seán Ó Fearghaíl, T.D., though the scale of his win, 130:28 was impressive. The dark mid-week mutterings that Fianna Fáil colleagues would abandon the avuncular Ó Fearghaíl to keep his vote for Micheál Martin as Taoiseach later that day proved baseless.
I hadn’t expecting the series of votes on electing a Taoiseach to produce any significant or notable movement on the shape of the next government, so I was pleasantly surprised when we did get some, albeit infinitesimally small.
The decision of the left-wing Independent TDs and Solidarity/People Before Profile to back Mary Lou McDonald (though with a strong caveat of ruling out Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael) and four independents to back Micheál Martin left both challengers with over 40 votes.
This column appeared on Broadsheet.ie on Sept 17th 2019 and followed the latest Red C poll which showed the two main parties neck and neck and on a combined total of 57%. At the 2016 general election the two parties were also 1% apart, but on a combined total of just 50%. I have thought for a long while that the two parties combined will poll around 60% at the next general election and, right now, I would predict Fianna Fáil to pull ahead of Fine Gael by anywhere between 2% and 4%
Conventional political wisdom used to say that the parties in government welcomed long Dáil recesses. Not only did they free Ministers up from having to hang around Leinster House answering awkward questions, on and off the record, from smartass opposition TDs, irritating journos and panicking backbenchers, they were a time for the government parties to get back on message and hopefully get their poll numbers up.
The idea was that Dáil sittings broadly tend to favour the main opposition parties when it comes to opinion polls, as their insolent haranguing of the Taoiseach is featured nightly on the TV news. Dáil recess means no Dáil TV coverage and no Dáil TV coverage means less of a platform for the opposition to catch the news cycle.
The high visibility, and audibility, of the Taoiseach over the summer would suggest that his team subscribe to this wisdom. He was seen to be out and about. His appearances at the Kennedy and MacGill Summer Schools and the West Belfast Féile an Phobail went down well.
My Broadsheet column from May 1st looks at the poor political environment against which the CervicalCheck scandal is playing out
Last week’s Dáil furore and the heightened tensions between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael persuaded me to use this week’s column to discuss the worsening relations between the main government and the main opposition parties.
I still intend to do that, but in much lesser detail. The scandal engulfing the CervicalCheck scheme and the torment that Vicky Phelan, her family and hundreds of other families have been put through by the State and the HSE makes any discussion of the friction between the parties pale by comparison.
But, as experienced political commentators have noted, the screening scandal has the makings of major political crisis if it were to emerge that more was known by the Department and, by extension, by a Minister.