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