This is my first Broadsheet column of 2018 – looking how Fine Gael and Leo Varadkar are more concerned with selling their story of governing than the actual business of government
One of the nicest things about the run up to Christmas are those chance encounters with former colleagues and old acquaintances as you frantically rush around town looking for those presents you claimed you ordered online six weeks earlier.
I had a few of those, but two may be of interest to you. Both involved high level civil servants, from different departments, who I knew from my time in government. After catching up with each on the whereabouts of mutual friends, we got to talking politics.
Both reported that there was virtually no real policy work going on within government and that ministers, specifically the Fine Gael ones, were focused exclusively on PR, ferreting out any possible item of good news that may be in the pipeline and getting it announced ASAP, courtesy of the Strategic Communications Unit, with the maximum fanfare and hoopla.
Here is my Broadsheet column from December 12th – apologies for the delays in posting these columns on here… hopefully I will have my site updated completely later today (Friday).
Though I did a bit of leaflet dropping for Fianna Fáil in the 1977 general election, the first election campaign in which I really canvassed was the 1979 European and Local elections.
There I learned the skill of ‘marking the register’. This involved writing a letter after the voter’s name as it appears on the electoral indicating, after you had canvassed them whether you thought they were for Fianna Fáil (F), against us (A), doubtful (D) or where you got no reply (NR) or CB for call back.
In 1979 there a lot of ‘A’s to mark on my sheet. These fell into two categories, the first were the people who voted FF two years earlier and were now very angry at how the country was going. The second were the group who had never and would never stoop to vote for “your shower”.
When encountering a person from this second group, usually after walking up a long gravel driveway and climbing a flight of granite steps to reach the ornate front door, one of fellow canvassers, a very nice woman, several years my senior, would call out “NOCD”.
“…still has one last opportunity to somewhat redeem his reputation by taking some right steps now.”
At the time of writing this, it appears that the Taoiseach remains doggedly determined not to take the steps needed to diffuse this ministerial-made crisis.
While sacking an old and valued colleague is not a pleasant task, it comes with the job. He is the Taoiseach, he hires and fires. He is also a politician and it must have been obvious to him since Friday that the mounting evidence of Frances Fitzgerald’s failure to act meant that that Dáil Éireann could no longer have confidence in her as Tánaiste or as minister.
This column appeared on Broadsheet.ie on November 24th as the Frances Fitzgerald saga was coming to a peak:
How did we get to this situation? Well, as with any crisis, we got to it one step at a time.
Leo Varadkar did not start this week with a plan to trigger a snap election, no more than Micheál Martin did, but with a series of serious missteps Leo Varadkar walked this government to the brink and last night whipped things up to a point that the country is now on a course that means a general election either before Christmas or early in 2018.
Misstep number one came with the Taoiseach’s opening comments on Leader’s Question in the Dáil last Tuesday. when he attempted to address the issue
“The House will appreciate, once again, that I do not have first-hand knowledge of any of these matters.”
With those words it was clear that an Taoiseach was approaching the issue of Minister Fitzgerald’s level of knowledge on the campaign against Sgt McCabe satisfied that it had nothing personally to do with him and, so it was not something for him to be worried about.
This column first appeared on Broadsheet.ie on September 20th 2017
One of my favourite political anecdotes comes from the late Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. Whitlam was on a trip to China to meet the infamous Mao Tse-tung. His officials warned Whitlam that Chairman Mao disliked small talk intensely and advised that he come up with a couple of substantive questions if he wanted to keep the conversation going. Whitlam decided, given that the visit was coming around the tenth anniversary of the assassination of President John F Kennedy, that he would ask Mao to speculate on what might have happened to the world order if Nikita Kruschev had been shot that day instead of Kennedy.
Delighted with the substance and depth of his question he set off to meet Mao and to hear the Chairman’s thoughts on this great “what if”. He sat down with Mao and, after the usual formal introductions, he proceeding to ask his question. The Chairman seemed pensive and intrigued. Then, after a few moments thought, he replied, ‘I don’t think Mr Onassis would have married Mrs Kruschev’.
This column originally appeared on Broadsheet.ie on May 8th 2017 and suggests that Fine Gael will come to regret dumping Enda Kenny as Taoiseach and leader as speedily as they have…www.broadsheet.ie/well-miss-him-eventually/
“But as I leave you I want you to know – just think how much you’re going to be missing. You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore”
With these words, Richard Nixon departed the political scene, well almost. It was November 7th, 1962. He was concluding what he assumed would be his last ever political press conference after losing the race to become Governor of California. Two years earlier he had narrowly lost the Presidency to John F Kennedy.
While Enda Kenny’s departure, when it comes – possibly over the next week or two – will not be as bitter and waspish as Tricky Dicky’s, there may just be the slightest hint of the same sentiment: just think what we will potentially be missing.
Love him or loathe him, during his time as Taoiseach Enda has been anything but colourless or bland. For all his faults and failings, he showed quickly that he realised that one of the main roles of any Taoiseach is re-assuring the public that there is someone with a plan in charge.
He also grasped that this role as the nation’s re-assurer-in-chief requires you to get out and about and meet people as much as possible. In some ways, Enda has spent the past six years doing a passable Bertie Ahern impression.
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.
The past few weeks have hardly been great for the No side. Fine Gael has been pretty active on the airwaves over the Summer break, while Sinn Féin’s opportunistic decision to campaign for a Yes, having vehemently opposed the Government’s proposal in both the Dáil and Seanad, hasn’t helped the No cause either.
All this makes the increase in the pro Seanad reform level of support all the more re-assuring. Not that the poll suggests that the campaign is done and dusted. Far from it.
More than almost any other, this Seanad abolition policy, is the lone brain child of Enda Kenny. Though there seem to be no research papers, discussion documents or policy positions he can produce to justify the origins of this initiative, he is the man behind it and he has more to lose by its defeat than anyone else.
While Labour nominally favours abolition, its TDs and Ministers can reasonably see their policy obligations as fulfilled by the holding of a referendum. Don’t expect to see many of them working too hard for a Yes to abolition vote. Indeed, as the Labour Chief Whip has indicated, at least half the Labour parliamentary party may actually work for a No vote seeing it as the best way to secure a popular mandate for Seanad reform.
One of the two authors of Labour’s 2009 position paper on Seanad reform, Junior Minister, Alex White has not commented on the issue much, while the other author, Joanna Tuffy TD has indicated that she will be campaigning for a No vote.
The worrying shift in the poll numbers make it necessary for Fine Gael to up the ante over the weeks ahead.
Given that the main shift has been in the group who describe themselves as favouring reform expect to see Fine Gael focus its attentions there and try to convince them that a Yes vote is a vote for reform.
We already had a glimpse of this approach last week via its neophyte Wicklow TD, Simon Harris’s speech at the Parnell Summer School.
Harris advanced the argument that abolishing the Seanad counts as reform and gives power back to the people as it means the single remaining chamber of the Oireachtas: the Dáil will be 100% elected by the public.
Harris’s reasoning seems to hinges on the statistic that the number of people registered to vote in Seanad elections, under current legislation, is around 156,000; about 5% of the approx 3.1 million entitled to vote at the February 2011 Dáil election.
What Harris misses, however, is that this 156,000 (Councillors, Oireachtas members and NUI and TCD graduates) is defined in legislation – not the Constitution. Everyone in the North and South could be given the right to vote with the passing of an Act by the Dáil and Seanad. Indeed the Seanad has already voted for such a piece of reform with the Second Stage vote on the Quinn/Zappone Seanad Reform Bill.
The extension of the Seanad franchise to all is now completely within the gift of Deputy Harris’s colleagues on the government benches.
The only real obstacle to such a real reform is the Taoiseach’s obduracy in insisting on Seanad abolition instead of reform.
Though not central to the argument it is worth noting that the 156,000 figure is probably an understatement as it just counts the NUI and Trinity graduates who have registered to vote. Many 100s of 1000s more are entitled to vote by virtue of their graduation.
The other problem with Harris’s reasoning is the idea that the answer to existing disenfranchisement is more disenfranchisement. It defies all democratic principles to propose removing someone’s voting rights when you have it in your power to extend them.
If you were to apply Deputy Harris’s quirky logic to the campaign for women’s suffrage a century back you would determine that the way to ensure equal voting rights for all was to remove the vote from men so that the two genders were equally disadvantaged.
The very legitimate criticism that not enough people are entitled to vote in Seanad elections is properly addressed by giving everyone the right, not by removing it.
I would hope that Deputy Harris’s espousal of a position that is the absolute antithesis of reform is informed by loyalty to his party leader and desire for advancement rather than by belief in the argument itself.
If it is the former then the case for reform is all the greater, if it is latter then it is time to worry.
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
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?