Author Archives: Derek Mooney

From top: Minister for Health, Simon Harris (top eft with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar will this afternoon let the Dail know what action the Cabinet has approved to deal with the ongoing crisis in CervicalCheck; Derek Mooney

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.

This is still a big “if” as I write. While it has the potential to be a political crisis, it will not become one on the back of speculation or the trailing of crumbs alone, it will require something more substantive.

Minister Harris has acted and sounded in recent days like a man determined to address the problem and unafraid to call the situation as he sees. An impression re-enforced by the HSE boss saying that he wouldn’t have gone on the media, as Minister Harris did, to express a lack of confidence in the service’s management.

It is as if Minister Harris has studied Michael Noonan’s 1996 Dáil statement on the Bridget McCole case and learned how not to handle such a crisis.

Noonan later admitted that he had made a mistake in listening to the legal advice that he should not intervene in the McCole case and acknowledged how much he regretted that decision and his role in that saga.

Harris, Varadkar and every Minister should learn from Noonan’s situation. But there are no hard and fast rules on when to heed and when to disregard legal advice. That requires political judgement. You either have that, or you don’t – something that a severe Dáil grilling will expose.

The Taoiseach and the Health Minister will come under intense pressure in the Dáil today as try to address the many questions the opposition parties and groupings will hurl at them.

They will be expected, at a minimum, to guarantee that the independent inquiry into the CervicalCheck controversy is established quickly; to ensure that all the information regarding the delayed diagnosis of cervical cancer is provided speedily to those affected and to publish the departmental note the Minister was given about the Vichy Phelan case just before the court hearing began.

They will also have to come up with a proposal for mandatory open disclosure, something that was promised by Varadkar when Minister for Health and then abandoned by him in early 2016.

This will be a big test for the Taoiseach and his ministers. There are no bonus points for coming through it, but there plenty of negative ones if you come across as ill-prepared, ill-informed or unsympathetic. It is a delicate balancing act.

You cannot throw your officials under a bus just to save your own skin, but neither can you come in and act like a departmental official, reading from a closely worded script designed to obfuscate and confuse.

It is a test they are taking against the backdrop of the soured relations with the main opposition party that I mentioned at the outset.

While the focus of the debate and exchanges will rightly be on the lives affected by the delayed and incorrect results, the politics of the past two weeks may also leach into those interactions.

While assorted pundits and political activists may be uncomfortable with the current confidence and supply arrangement, it seems that the electorate are not as disapproving or, at least, they haven’t been up to now. Indeed, successive opinion polls have shown that likely voting intentions would not significantly alter the political make-up of the Dáil.

While the poll shifts affect the margins, the core positionings remains the same – though a new permutation: a majority coalition of Fine Gael and Sinn Féin now appears more arithmetically and politically possible.

That political possibility increased with last Friday’s two Seanad by election results. These mini-elections saw Sinn Féin Oireachtas members vote for the Fine Gael leadership anointed nominees on both panels with a greater zeal than some of their Fine Gael colleagues.

While the anti-brexit, unionist, Northern Irish farmers leader, Ian Marshall, was always likely to take one of the vacancies, the other one – which most of us expected to see go to an anti-brexit northern Irish nationalist, but somehow one was never nominated – ended up as a mano-a-mano fight between two former TDs: Fine Gael’s Anthony Lawlor and Fianna Fáil’s Niall Blaney.

Sinn Féin had a simple choice to make: which candidate represented the party they hated least. The Shinners decided that it was Fine Gael.

These wins stoke up tensions for the confidence and supply deal, a deal which unlike a particular woodstain/paint, does not exactly do what it says on the tin.

As one of the main negotiators behind the Good Friday Agreement explained to me in Belfast a fortnight back, the issue with calling the arrangement between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael a confidence and supply agreement is that it gives the wrong impression of the relationship and raises unachievable expectations.

While Fianna Fáil did secure commitments on 42 policy specifics on a range of issues such as housing, public services, crime and the economy, not to mention reversing Fine Gael’s plans for Irish Water, it is hard to categorise their implementation under Varadkar’s stewardship as anything but grudging.

My friend’s suggested description of Fianna Fáil’s role is not as a supplier of confidence, but rather as an opposition that is enabling the government to govern. Indeed, the text of the agreement itself uses similar language referring to it as facilitating a Fine Gael led Minority Government to govern. So instead of a confidence and supply arrangement, Fianna Fáil is in an enabling opposition one.

This may appear to be a Jesuitical distinction, but is an increasingly important one, now that the Taoiseach has opted to ramp up tensions and announce that he is telling Ministers and their political staff to keep lists of opposition promises.

There are two curious elements to his warning.

The first is that he feels he must tell them publicly. Irrespective of whether your party is in office or not, you keep a tally on what your opponents are promising. This is what political parties do. It is called opposition research. They don’t need to be told to do it, unless they are incompetent.

The second, is that the Taoiseach singled out Fianna Fáil. Why only Fianna Fáil? Most recent newspaper polls do not show it posing any growing threat to Fine Gael’s lead, so why these sudden shows of twitchiness and tetchiness from Merrion Street?

Could it be a case of getting your revenge in first? The Taoiseach may now fear that Fianna Fáil’s lengthy becalmed position in the polls will leave its leadership with no alternative but to up their game and increase their attacks on Leo and his ministers.

So, it is just political theatre and is for public consumption. Up to now the mantra from government and main opposition party alike is that there is no public appetite for an election.

Might the Taoiseach’s increased twitchiness be a sign of his frustration at relying for his day-to-day survival on squabbling independents and an impatient main opposition party?

Might he have concluded that the best way to bring each to heel is to start shifting the public’s “no mood for an election” disposition by hinting of the possibility of a trip to the polls before year’s end?

If it is, then the Taoiseach should be careful what you twitch for. Political momentum in politics is an odd thing, especially when so many events are beyond your control.

Derek Mooney is a communications and public affairs consultant. He previously served as a Ministerial Adviser to the Fianna Fáil-led government 2004 – 2010. His column appears here every Tuesday Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney

Rollingnews

From top: the MV Celine at Dublin Port last Friday; Derek Mooney

Up to last Friday it was difficult to find a good visual representation for Brexit in Ireland. Yes, there were maps showing the six counties in one colour and the 26 in another, but apart from those or some grainy photos of border posts and black coated customs men standing behind old tin signs emblazoned “Stad”, there were few clear, defining symbols for Brexit in an Irish context.

That all changed last Friday.

The change came in the form of a ship. But not just any ship. This one, christened the MV Celine by the Taoiseach and assorted other lesser celebrities, is the world’s largest short sea, roll-on roll-off cargo vessel. It will directly connect Ireland to the European continent via Rotterdam and Zeebrugge, by-passing the UK entirely.

As images go, it is an impressive one. But the image-makers real triumph lay in finding an appropriate nickname for the newly named ship.

While “Celine” may be the official name that adorns the ship’s champagne drenched hull, the spinners on the quayside were intent that the media – and by extension we – call it by their chosen soubriquet: “the Brexit Buster”.

What a coupling, a damned big ship with an on-message nickname. It is a neat piece of messaging, conveying the impression that Ireland is ready and prepared for the worst that Brexit can throw at us.

The MV Celine’s statistics are striking. At 234m in length, the Celine is, in terms of capacity, twice the size of any other ferry currently operating out of Dublin Port. It can hold 580 standard truck trailers along 8km of parking lanes.

But size isn’t everything.

The real significance of the MV Celine is that it points to our post Brexit trading future. A future where Ireland’s EU27 imports and exports no longer must go via the UK and suffer the hassle, time delay and cost of having to going through not one, but two, sets of customs and border patrols as they enter and then exit the UK.

This is important as around 80% of Irish road freight, destined for the rest of the EU, goes across the UK. This is what some call our land bridge to EU, though it is hardly much of a land bridge when you must take a ferry at each end.

If you want a sense of the scale and extent of the delay and inconvenience we will may face in the worst post Brexit scenarios, then consider this simple fact: goods going through Dover from outside the EU take 15 times longer to process compared to those coming from within the EU (45 minutes from outside versus 3 minutes from inside).

Can you imagine the accumulated tail backs there will be at British ports? Now, multiply all those delays by two as Irish goods going to or from the EU across the UK will have to face those potential delays twice: once as they enter the UK and once as they leave it.

In the absence of some alternative direct routes, the UK’s national customs computer system will be handling both the inward declarations of Irish exports to the UK and the transit of Irish goods travelling through the UK and on to mainland Europe.

But, the UK’s national customs computer system is due to be replaced, with the new Customs Declaration Service (CDS) system due to launch in January 2019, two months before the UK brexits. As if that were not worrying enough, a UK National Audit Office 2017 review of the UK customs computer system’s readiness for Brexit found that

“…there is still a significant amount of work to complete, and there is a risk that HMRC (Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs) will not have the full functionality and scope of CDS in place by March 2019…”

So, assuming the British government does what it currently says it will and exits both the Customs Union and the Single Market as well as the EU, then it is essential that Ireland to look for better routes to send our good to and from the rest of Europe.

These routes are vital for us as an island nation as seaborne freight accounts for 84% of Ireland’s trade in terms of volume and 62% in terms of its value. It is also highly focused on one location with 46% of all seaborne trade (by volume) passing through Dublin Port.

But, impressive as the MV Celine may be, one ship is not going to be the solution to our problems. Neither will two or three such vessels.

The real value and importance of the MV Celine right now is not the number of trucks she can carry every 38 hours to Belgium or Holland, but rather in the policy course she sets.

Should we now be looking at developing new direct shipping routes with mainland Europe, particularly with France, Belgium and the Netherlands?

But that question begets another one, are we right to assume that all these new routes should have Dublin port as their Irish hub? Should we not now be seriously evaluating our infrastructure capacity and looking to develop other Irish ports to serve these new shipping routes?

Some 60% of the trade at Dublin Port involves the UK – would it not make more sense, especially as they are investing in new customs and border facilities at the port, to make Dublin the key point of entry for our UK only good traffic, along with Drogheda and some other ports along the eastern seaboard?

Might this be a way of freeing up some extremely valuable land in and around Dublin Port for much needed high-density development in the centre of the city?

Might Brexit planning provide an opportunity for dusting off the PD’s 2006 New Quarter proposal, though this time with a more sensible and scaled down version that does not see the whole of Dublin Port shut down and shipped Northwards.

We should be considering expanding Rosslare and/or developing a new purpose-built port along the South East or Southern coasts to serve the new fast EU shipping routes.

One of the potential attraction of Rosslare, as Irish Rail was keen to tell the Seanad Special Select Committee on Brexit, is that Irish Rail is the port authority for Rosslare-Europort and so investment plans could be put in place that do not impact on the debt levels of Irish semi-state-owned ports.

Not only that but including Irish ports in the trans-European transport policy (TEN-T) could mean EU infrastructural funding for the “necessary modifications to Irish ports”.

Modification is an understatement. Increased direct shipping volumes with mainland Europe would require major infrastructural investment to provide modern facilities that provide for the speedy and high-tech loading of these faster roll-on/roll off vessels.

Perhaps the image of the ship is all the government wants just for now and so it sees its job as done, for now. Hopefully this is not the case, though it often seems to be this government’s modus operandi.

Hopefully there are contingency plans sitting on a desk somewhere while Ministers and officials wait to see if Theresa May eventually opts, when all other avenues are hopefully closed off, to take the avenue of keeping the UK in either “a” or “the” Customs Union and “a” or “the” Single Market.

If she doesn’t, then we will have very little time to act. So, now is a good time to start the feasibility planning and commence talking to a variety of international experts who know how to build, equip and run these modern ports.

Maybe that way we can turn the floating impression that Ireland is ready and prepared for Brexit into a more anchored reality.

Derek Mooney is a communications and public affairs consultant. He previously served as a Ministerial Adviser to the Fianna Fáil-led government 2004 – 2010. His column appears here every Tuesday Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney

Rollingnews

From top: Isreali Defence Forces at the Qalandiya Crossing, a passageway for Palestinian labourers from the Ramallah area to cross into Jerusalem; Derek Mooney

The story of the kerfuffle caused by the Lord Mayor of Dublin’s trip to the West Bank reminded me of how my own ill-fated trip there, back in 2004.

That visit ended in me sitting in my boxers in a security room in Ben Gurion Airport. A fate fortunately not visited on our city’s first citizen.

I had been visiting Israel and the West Bank along with three colleagues. We were part of a group from Glencree that was organising study visits to Ireland by Israeli and Palestinian politicians to meet key players in the Irish peace process, both North and South.

Our purpose was to catch up with some of those who had been on the last visit and prepare for the next one. Our four-day trip, had been planned in conjunction with our Department of Foreign affairs and had the support of the Israeli Embassy in Dublin.

It included meetings with Israeli politicians and officials in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and an overnight stay for two of us in Ramallah in the West Bank, where we would meet politicians and officials from the Palestinian side.

The President of the Palestinian Authority, Yasser Arafat, had died a few weeks earlier. So, when the two of us reached Ramallah, which is just a short drive from Jerusalem, the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council was now the acting President, and his deputy, a very charming GP who had trained in Dublin, was the Acting Speaker.

The acting speaker could not have been more welcoming, both in his office – where he talked fondly of his time as a medical student in Dublin – and on the floor of the Council chamber where he formally welcomed us to Ramallah and wished our project well.

This was all shown on Palestinian TV later that night – a channel that is watched assiduously by Israeli military intelligence.

He then brought us to visit Chairman Arafat’s tomb, where I was asked to lay a wreath (which I still swear to this day, I had to pay for on the spot). Another event that made it on to the Ramallah 6.01 News.

The following day we returned to Jerusalem via the dreadful Kalandia/Qalandiya crossing where ordinary West Bank Palestinians queue for hours to go through this highly militarised and barbed wire strewn checkpoint to get into Israel.

Before we returned to our hotel in old East Jerusalem we had a quick detour back to Tel Aviv for a last-minute meeting with the Deputy Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defence Forces, Amos Gilead – a meeting which his office had requested, as he wanted to talk with us about the Northern Ireland peace process.

Early the following morning two of us headed for home, leaving our colleagues to stay another night and finish off the itinerary. One of them borrowed my travel adaptor.

The hotel had ordered a taxi to take us to Ben Gurion airport. As you would expect Israeli airport security is tight, very tight. You are advised to arrive at least three or four hours ahead of your flight to allow time for all the checks. We were about four hours early.

As we queued up to leave in our suitcases, I heard an official call my name. I went with him, handed in my suitcase, watched it go through the scanner and then, rather than proceeding through the rest of the lengthy security screening channel with the rest of the passengers, including my colleague, I was invited to join the official in an interview room. Not a good omen.

There two army officers were waiting to have a chat with me. They took my passport, my mobile phone and my laptop bag and put them to one side. I could see pictures of me in Ramallah in the folder in front of them.

They then proceeded to ask me about the purpose of my trip. I produced my letters of introduction from the Israeli ambassador, explained why we were there and indicated generally what we had been doing. The questioning continued for about 40 minutes. The two officers then left the room.

When they returned they said they wanted to search me. I was told to remove my belt, shoes, trousers and jacket, these all were taken away. I was then asked to unbutton my shirt. “Would you not buy me a few drinks and dinner first?” was the question that popped into my mind – but luckily it stopped there and never made it to my mouth.

They next turned their attention to my mobile phone and laptop. Through habit I had turned my mobile off as I was queing up. They asked for my pin number. I refused.

They then tried to turn on my laptop. I had not switched it off properly the night before and so the battery was flat. They found the charger but saw that it came with big UK/Ireland three pin plug. Israeli sockets are like US ones, though with V shaped slots.

They asked for the adaptor. I explained that I had given it to one of my colleagues. How could they charge my laptop to see what was on it, they asked?

Seeing that we were in an airport, I suggested that one of them pop down to the travel shop and buy one. They were not amused. I then explained that even if they could get the laptop recharged that I had no intention of giving them the password.

I then reminded them that my visit had been organised in conjunction with the Israeli foreign ministry and that I the night before I had been meeting with their boss, Amos Gilead at the Israeli Defence department. They were unfazed.

After a few more pointless questions and even more pointless answers, they left me alone in the interview room for another hour or so.

About 20 minutes before my flight was due to depart, I was handed back my phone and laptop, given my boarding pass and the rest of my clothes and then rushed through the terminal and escorted on to the flight. I was the last one to board.

Luckily, I was allowed to make my own way to my seat, though arriving in a state of semi undress did mean that the elderly woman seated next to me avoided all eye contact for the whole of the flight.

I mention this as I have a business contact who once ended up being marched up to his seat in handcuffs.

His ‘crime’ was doing a quick overnight trip to speak at a conference in Tel Aviv and not being able to tell airport security afterwards the name of the hotel where he stayed – he hadn’t booked it and all business hotel rooms look alike – or explain why the sum total of his luggage consisted of old socks and briefs tucked into his laptop case.

So, apart from now being an amusing anecdote, is there a serious point to all of this? Yes, there are two.

The first, is that the Israeli authorities treat their friends and allies every bit as badly as they treat their foes. This goes for Israelis as much as it goes for outsiders.

Which brings me to the second and more important point. While we are right to be highly critical of the Israeli government, especially Netanyahu’s hawkishness, we should not forget that there are many moderate and progressive Israelis who still believe in the two-state solution and who recognise that, just as in Northern Ireland, there are no sustainable security solutions to a political problem.

I am appalled by how successive Israeli governments have moved from the policies of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, but I do not see how Ireland adopting the BDS strategy of boycott, divestment and sanctions, as urged by some in Dublin City Council, does anything except play into the hands of the hawks.

Instead of urging sanctions we should insisting that the Government act on its commitment on page 144 of the Partnership Programme for Government:

‘…to recognise the State of Palestine as part of a lasting settlement of the conflict’

In December 2014 the Dáil agreed a motion to ‘officially recognise the State of Palestine on the basis of the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as the capital…’

Another Dáil Motion tabled on 22 June 2016 and signed by most members of the opposition, called for the government to finally act on these commitments and do what eight other EU  Member States have done and recognise Palestine.

It is long past time that we did it.

Derek Mooney is a communications and public affairs consultant. He previously served as a Ministerial Adviser to the Fianna Fáil-led government 2004 – 2010. His column appears here every Tuesday Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney

Pics: Haretz


From top: John  Hume, Bertie Ahern and Gerry Adams following the IRA ceasfire in 1997; Derek Mooney

By the time you get to read this I will be in Belfast attending one of several special events to mark 20 years of the Good Friday Agreement.

One of those, at Queen’s University entitled: Building Peace, and organised by the Senator George J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at QUB, is described as:

“…the only one of its kind to gather together so many of the key influencers on the Good Friday Agreement to mark its 20-year anniversary.”

It is not an idle boast.

The former US Special Envoy for Northern Ireland, and recent star of RTÉ One’s Ray Darcy Show, will be joined by former US President Bill Clinton, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, as well as many other key players including: Seamus Mallon, Gerry Adams, Jonathan Powell, David Trimble and Peter Robinson.

It is a stellar and fascinating line up of those both in front of and behind the scenes. It is an opportunity to recall the huge efforts of the leaders who drove the process and to at last pay tribute to those countless men and women behind the scenes who did so much of the heavy lifting, including the many dedicated civil servants on both sides who worked so diligently to get the process across the line.

We rightly recall the huge endorsement the Agreement received both North and South of the border: 71% in the North and 95% in the South, but it is also important to reflect on just how close to failure this process came, right up to the final hours and days.

This is something we should bear in mind as we bemoan the failure of this generation of political leaders, particularly those in the DUP and Sinn Féin to either sustain and re-establish the institutions that were handed to them via that 1998 sovereign decision of the people, North and South.

Sadly, declining health means that the event will be without the principal designer and imaginer of the architecture and form of the Good Friday Agreement: John Hume.

In a blogpost yesterday, RTÉ’s Northern Editor, Tommie Gorman put it succinctly:

More than any other individual – living or dead – John Hume managed to put a stop to the awful killing. The Good Friday Agreement is testimony to the genius of his imagination, the wizardry of his words and the generosity of his spirit.

If anything, Gorman’s words are an understatement.

The three-stranded structure of the Good Friday Agreement, that recognised the three distinct, yet interconnected, strands of relationships between (1) the two communities in the North, (2) the two parts of this Island – North/South and (3) our two islands – East/West, was a key element of Hume’s analysis and provides the framework around which the agreement is built.

Hume recognised, as others had done before him in conflicts across the globe, that all conflict is about difference, whether that difference is race, religion or nationality.

As he said in his December 1998 Nobel Lecture:

“The European visionaries decided that difference is not a threat, difference is natural. Difference is of the essence of humanity. Difference is an accident of birth and it should therefore never be the source of hatred or conflict. The answer to difference is to respect it. Therein lies a most fundamental principle of peace – respect for diversity.

The peoples of Europe then created institutions which respected their diversity… but allowed them to work together in their common and substantial economic interest.

They spilt their sweat and not their blood and by doing so broke down the barriers of distrust of centuries and the new Europe has evolved and is still evolving, based on agreement and respect for difference.”

The European visionaries Hume refers to here are the founding fathers of the European Union, men such as Robert Schuman, Jean Monnet, Konrad Adenauer, Paul-Henri Spaak and – though it might upset the Tories and their DUP cronies – Winston Churchill.

These men had learned that the only way to get diverse, even polarised, communities to stop focusing on their differences and identities was to shift that focus to their common interests.

That is what Hume strove to do and, in that work, he had many partners, though not all as willing or even as nuanced in their thinking.

There is a reason why Hume took so much of his inspiration from the story of post war Europe. While his slogans and rhetoric come from the American Civil Rights movement and the charismatic leadership of Dr Martin Luther King Jr, the structures and institutional frameworks he favoured were distinctly European.

Hume was a great believer in Europe and the EU and saw in it and in Ireland and the UK’s joint membership of the EU, a way to gradually dismantle the border.

As the member states of the EU slowly came together to work in closer cooperation and partnership and to form a single market and a customs union, the borders between those members states started to come down and that included Ireland and the UK.

He also saw, as did both governments, that joint membership of the EU (originally the EEC) since 1973 helped the two governments develop and improve day-to-day working relations, as ministers and officials from both interacted in Brussels in pursuit of common interests.

Personal and political relationships grew, not least those between John Major and Albert Reynolds, as they served together on the EU’s ECOFIN council of Finance Ministers. T

he development of that relationship led directly to the Downing Street Declaration, which in turn paved the way for the Good Friday Agreement.

Anyone who tells you that the EU is not central to the Good Friday Agreement clearly does not know what they are talking about, especially those who repeatedly assert that the words: ‘Europe’ and the ‘European Union’ do not appear in the Agreement. They do, several times.

This juvenile effort to use Brexit to run a coach and four through both the spirit and the letter of the Agreement is their response to the way that Britain’s Article 50 Brexit negotiations have floundered. The Agreement has done more to stymie the talks than almost any other issue, even money.

But once again the Brexiteers miss the beauty of the basic architecture of the agreement. As Bertie Ahern, Colum Eastwood and countless others have pointed out recently, the
Agreement is still relevant today as we struggle to cope with the fall out of Brexit.

The three-strand approach that underpins the Agreement can also be a template for how the North (and the South) can avoid some of the harder consequences of Brexit.

This is what has informed Micheál Martin’s call for Northern Ireland to become a Special Economic Zone (NISEZ), a call he first made in early 2017 and has repeated several times since.

Some months ago, I helped put together a discussion paper, with a colleague, on how it might operate, based on how it has worked successfully elsewhere. An example, to use Hume-speak, of how you focus on common interests not different identities – the antithesis of how the UK is pursuing Brexit.

It is right this week that we take time to commemorate the achievements of 1998. Sadly, we cannot celebrate it as we might wish as the institutions are not up and running now and it has not always delivered on its potential but, we can still remind ourselves what is possible from all sides and almost all parties, when we focus on common interests and have the vision to look just a bit beyond the next electoral cycle.

While it is tempting to wish we could have another Hume or Mallon today, it is not necessary. The strength of their vision and the skill of them and others from Sinn Féin, the UUP, Alliance, the Women’s Coalition and all the other smaller parties, remain available to us via the architecture of the Good Friday Agreement.

So, let’s enjoy the commemorations this week and when they end, let us return to making what we have just commemorated, work.

Derek Mooney is a communications and public affairs consultant. He previously served as a Ministerial Adviser to the Fianna Fáil-led government 2004 – 2010. His column appears here every Tuesday Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney

Eamonn Farrell/Rollingnews

From top: Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan; Derek Mooney

I am not a big fan of the Minister for Justice, Charlie Flanagan TD Though he is a thoroughly decent and honorable guy and is doubtless motivated by a deep belief in public service, as a Minister he has shown a decidedly minimalist approach.

He was an underwhelming Minister for Foreign Affairs, who often looked and sounded completely at sea when dealing with Northern Ireland affairs.

By all accounts Flanagan was unhappy to leave that Department to make way for the lightning bolt that is Simon Coveney, and boy does it show in his current work as Minister for Justice.

The disregard I hold for Minister Flanagan, would appear to be mutual. He blocked me many years ago on Twitter. He was not a Minister then, just the Chairman of the Fine Gael parliamentary party.

The cause, if memory serves me correct, was my taking a swipe at him for tweeting “Bon Debarras (good riddance) Sarkozy” on the night the former French President lost the election.

I had the temerity to suggest, via Twitter, that this was hypocritical as, only a few months earlier he and Fine Gael, was very publicly embracing its EPP colleague. A point I remade in an Evening Herald column a week or so later.

My reason for mentioning this bad blood, is to put my next comments in context. Yesterday, for the first time in many years I felt moved to tweet kudos to Minister Flanagan.

This followed remarks he made in an interview with Sean O’Rourke on RTÉ Radio’ 1’s Today show.

Flanagan told O’Rourke that he was determined to ensure that the referendum debate would be devoid of Fake News.  The Minister was absolutely to flag up this issue and to signal real concerns about the misuse of social media, by either side, in the campaign.

But, when you are the government minister who is responsible for Data Protection legislation you need to go beyond just voicing concerns about Fake News, you need to do something concrete about it – especially when the referendum campaign is effectively under way and voting is only about nine weeks away.

You should, along with your Cabinet colleagues, be doing something to tackle the issue – and yet the Government is not.

What makes this inactivity all the stranger, is that it cannot be motivated by a lack of inspiration as it has a possible remedy not just at its fingertips, but one that already has the backing of the Dáil.

The Online Advertising and Social Media (Transparency) Bill 2017 drafted by James Lawless T.D. could go a long way to tackling the problem. It also has the huge benefit of having already been approved by the Dáil at the end of its 2nd Stage debate by 58 votes to 56.

So why is the government not pursuing it? Why was the Tánaiste so eager to rubbish the Bill last week when the Green Party leader, Eamon Ryan asked when the government proposed to advance Deputy Lawless’s Bill.

Two interesting points arise here.

Firstly, why did Fine Gael and the government oppose Deputy Lawless’s Bill so vehemently last December?

Secondly why is Fine Gael, which does not have a Dáil majority, so determined to ignore the will of the Dáil on this and many other issues?

The answer to the first may be to do with simple hubris, the answer to the second may be a bit more sinister.

First the hubris. Part of Fine Gael’s antithesis to the Social Media Bill is that they see it, not so much as way of ensuring transparency in Social Media advertising and campaigning, (here is a link to a note explaining the Bill) but more as Fianna Fáil taking a swipe against the Taoiseach’s much loved Strategic Communications Unit.

To be fair, Fianna Fáil did use some of the Second Stage debate on the Bill to take a couple, or twenty, sceilps, at the SCU, but the Bill about a lot more than just that and Fine Gael should see beyond the political point scoring and recognise that the Bill tackles real issues and fills a glaring gap in our electoral law: the world of online campaigning.

Which leads me to the second issue.

Frankly, Fine Gael and the government needs to grasp that it failed to stop the Bill and that the Dáil decided that it wanted to pursue it.

This is how it is Dáil politics is going to work for the foreseeable future. No one group or one party gets to have it their own way all the time.

If the Government wants to get its agenda through, then it needs to seek consensus with others and it has an advantage in this, as it has range of options it can pursue. It can go to Fianna Fáil or, as it has on Shane Ross’s Judicial Appointments Bill, it can go to Sinn Féin.

But even though the government still has an upper hand in the building of consensus, this apparently is not enough. It wants it all ways.

Not only is the government ignoring the reality that Deputy Lawless’s Bill already has Dáil backing, it is ignoring last week’s vote of 85 to 49 in favour of disbanding the Strategic Communications Unit and:

“…the establishment of an independent panel, appointed by the Oireachtas, to examine the most effective way of operating Government communications to ensure value for money and freedom from political interference.”

This contempt for some decisions of the Dáil, namely those that have the backing of those other than Fine Gael is also partly responsible for the latest fiasco over Minister Ross’s ill-judged (you see what I did there?) Judicial Appointments legislation, aka the Dog’s Dinner Bill.

Over the past few days we have seen a series of walking and talking Fine Gael Press Office speaking notes saying how the Bill was now a dog’s dinner because the opposition was insisting on tabling amendments.

Eh, tabling amendments to legislation as it passes through the Oireachtas, particularly during its Committee and Report Stages, is precisely how the opposition parties attempt to change and amend legislation when it is before the Dáil and Seanad.

It is how our inelegant and often clumsy parliamentary system of legislative scrutiny works. As Leo McGarry remarks in the West Wing, borrowing heavily from a quote erroneously attributed in turn to Bismarck: There’s two things in the world you never want to let people see how you make ’em: laws and sausages.

If Fine Gael wants to change things back to the days when the government side controlled the agenda and had its way on all things, then all it has to do is call an election and go out and hold on to all the seats it currently has and win 30 extra ones. Simple, really.

Until then, play the hand the electorate dealt you and please stop trying to play your Jokers as Aces.

Derek Mooney is a communications and public affairs consultant. He previously served as a Ministerial Adviser to the Fianna Fáil-led government 2004 – 2010. His column appears here every Tuesday Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney

From top: The Cover of Fine Gael MEP discussion paper on Ireland’s defence/security policies; Derek Mooney

As I am out of the country for a few days I missed last night’s RTÉ One Claire Byrne Live discussion on Irish Defence policy.

Based on the social media commentary it seems the talk was as much, if not more, about neutrality, or the myriad different interpretations of neutrality, than it was about policy.

Regrettably, most attempts to try to have a sensible discussion on national security and the threats that face us flounder on tired, ill-informed and hyper charged arguments on neutrality.

Neutrality is not unimportant, but arguing continually over its definition and who is more neutral than who means we miss the core issue – how do we develop and maintain the capability to protect ourselves and to contribute to increasing global security?

So, let us get the definitions out of the way. Ireland is militarily neutral. This means more than simply not being part of a military alliance.

It means that we decide for ourselves how much we spend on defence, what strength defence force we want and how we deploy them.

It also means that we support multilateralism, via the United Nations. It has long been Ireland’s position that one of most tangible contributions we can make to global peace and stability is to deploy our troops on Chapter 6 and 7 multilateral peace enforcement operations, mandated by the United Nations.

It is why we sent approx 1,600 troops per year to do precisely that in the decade leading up to 2009.

Whether a mission has been NATO led, EU led or whatever, has not been an issue, once it has been mandated by the United Nations – a sensible position for a small nation that believes in international law.

Now back to policy: this latest attempt to start a debate appears to have been provoked by the short discussion document entitled: Ireland and the EU: Defending our common European home from Fine Gael’s group of MEPs.

Provoked being the key word. The document so outraged the good folk in Sinn Féin that one of their number was moved to thunder on about how the FG MEPs were set “…to tear up Ireland’s military neutrality and expose[s] their extremist and dangerous far-right position on European security”.

While the Fine Gael four do indeed urge us (wrongly in my view) to “redefine the concept of Irish neutrality” and to “Amend Ireland’s Triple Lock system”, it is a gross over reaction wrong to call their document extremist or far-right.

In my opinion; its biggest problem is that it is light-weight.

It’s not there aren’t some other decent ideas in the document, there are, but a paper, even a discussion paper, making 10 recommendations “for a progressive future Irish security and defence policy” should stretch to a bit more than just seven A4 pages of text in a 16-page pamphlet?

National Defence and security are big issues. There is a serious debate to be had, so if you are going to kick start one then offer something more closely argued and researched than a poor reheating of bits of Gay Mitchell’s 2003 Beyond Neutrality policy document.

Though, to be fair, this time Fine Gael does manage not to call our military neutrality a “sham” or dismiss the triple-lock as an “abdication of national sovereignty”

Still, fifteen years later and no one in Fine Gael can make a better case against the Triple-Lock than citing a lone 2003 EU peacekeeping mission to FYR Macedonia?

If this is the only reason Fine Gael can come up with to get rid of the Triple-Lock, then advocates, like me, of the Triple-Lock have no case to answer.

Even Fine Gael’s discussion of the origins of the Triple Lock misses the point.

Read the FG paper and you would think it dates to the 1990s.

Wrong. The Triple Lock mechanism itself goes back to the 1954 and 1960 Defence Acts. It essentially states that a Triple Lock of UN mandate, government and Dáil approval is required to send contingent of more than 12 armed troops overseas.

It is worth noting here that Fine Gael frets that we would not be able to assist in a humanitarian crisis or natural disaster, but misses the point that the UN mandate part only applies when sending armed contingents of more than 12, there is no restriction on unarmed contingents assisting with natural disasters.

Though they do not make it this time, the other charge levied against the Triple Lock is that it is slow.

Yet in 2007/8 when Ireland took part in and commanded the EUFor mission in Chad we were among the first on the ground and were waiting for other non-triple lock countries to catch up.

It was during the preparations for this EU led mission that I had the pleasure of hearing the then UK Defence Secretary Dr John Reid sum up (using the words of George Robertson) the approach of so many interminable EU ministerial gatherings, saying:

“Everything that needs to be said has been said, but it hasn’t yet been said by everybody.”

This slight segue allows me to a chance to acknowledge some of the MEPs’ more positive suggestions before I return to my other major complaint.

The MEPs rightly focus on the need to establish a “cohesive National Cyber Security Strategy”.

This is an issue that Fianna Fáil’s James Lawless TD. raised yesterday when he urged the government to prioritise the National Cyber Security Centre following reports that the Russian intelligence services are taking an unhealthy interest in the Irish technology and scientific sectors.

The MEPs also call for the creation of a both a Central Intelligence Unit and a National Security Council. These are two proposals that should have been considered years back, but as with many things in Defence, they have not been a priority for almost a decade now.

Which neatly brings me back to where this document collapses in on itself.

While the Fine Gael MEPs deserve credit for bringing defence to the fore, albeit via a flimsy vehicle, their calls for increase defence spending on capabilities, research and personnel, they ignore the fact that it has been their own party leaders, who have both served as Defence Minister as well as Taoiseach since 2016, who have not just failed to act, they have looked the other way.

Since 2011 one single Minister of State has effectively run the show – and although he is a well-intentioned guy who is happy to travel overseas as to visit troops and take the salute at reviews, he has never had the political clout to make defence an issue at the cabinet table.

I am not laying all the blame for all the cuts at Fine Gael’s door. I was there when we cut the Defence Force strength from 10,500 to 9,500 on foot of the Bórd Snip Nua report in 2008/09. But that was intended as a temporary measure.

Yet, a decade later, the Government struggles to even keep it at 9,500. At the same time, the numbers serving on overseas operations has over halved, with a hefty consequent effect on soldiers pay, and that’s on top of other unaddressed issues from the Lansdowne Road Agreement.

The major progress made in modernising and improving the Defence Forces in terms of training, equipment and conditions on foot of the 2000 Defence White Paper, the first of its kind, has been all but lost.

We need now to commit to getting back to where we were in 2006/7 in terms of equipment, pay and capabilities.

A major step in that direction would be to appoint a Defence Minister at Cabinet level, for whom the role is not part time and mandate them to bring Óglaigh na hÉireann back up to 10,500. They will find that there will be no shortage of suitable and willing recruits ready and waiting to join.

Derek Mooney is a communications and public affairs consultant. He previously served as a Ministerial Adviser to the Fianna Fáil-led government 2004 – 2010. His column appears here every Tuesday Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney

Earlier: Luke Flanagan on PESCO

From top: Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson in ‘The Adventure of the Copper Beeches’; Derek Mooney

Though Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character… almost as fictional as the Strategic Communication Unit’s Taoiseach Leo, but let’s not go there this week… his creator used Holmes to bring the skill of calm, logical reasoning to a wider audience.

Conan Doyle crafted intricately complex scenarios and then allowed his hero the time required to think and analyse the situation logically. He called it Holmes’s iron rule:

When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

If only someone inside the British government could just stop and think, applying Holmes iron rule to the current Brexit conundrum, particularly as it relates to the border running across our island.

So, this week I want to apply the Holmes iron rule to how Brexit affects the Irish/Irish border and show why the U.K. is: 1). on the wrong course and 2) ignoring a far less painful option.

Option One: Ireland rejoins the UK. OK, I am leading-off with an absolute non-starter, yet there are, bizarrely, those on the other island who think one way to avoid a hard border is for us to see the error of our ways and return meekly to the current United Kingdom of Great Britain and parts of Northern Ireland.

These people are wondrously ignorant of modern Irish history, but then again there are former Northern Ireland Secretaries of State who are happy to tear up the Good Friday Agreement to save their imagined Brexit. So, for the avoidance of doubt, let me borrow some words from the late Mrs Thatcher that they can understand: this option is out, out, out.

Option Two: Irexit. This one is just as ludicrous as Option One, but with the dubious bobus of having some Irish advocates. You may have seen them a few weeks back, moistening the seats of the RDS as they listened to Nigel Farage and the only stopped clock never to be right even once a day: Anthony Coughlan, amongst others.

The harsh reality for these folks is that there is no backing for Irexit. The latest Eurobarometer poll, published just over a week ago, reported that 66% of us believe Ireland is better off inside the EU and that our attachment to the EU is at its highest level in 15 years.

Why would we give up our attractiveness as a base for foreign direct investment looking to access the European market?

Outside the EU the only major market access we could offer would be to the UK market – but why invest in Ireland to gain UK market access when you can invest in the UK directly and cut your cross-channel transport costs? Oh, now I see why Farage is pushing the idea, though why he would have Irish backers is still a mystery.

Option Three: UK quits the Customs Union and Single Market: If the UK is outside both the Customs Union and the Single Market then the border that separates the six north-eastern counties from the rest of this island will become an external frontier between the EU and a third country, the UK.

That is a fact. Don’t take my word for it, read what Dr Katy Hayward and Dr David Phinnemore of Queen’s University, Belfast have said:

Let us be under no illusion: with the UK outside the single market and a custom union, there will be an unavoidable increase in border controls.

The people who backed the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 – North and South –voted to replace the “border” that divided us with a cross border approach that brought communities together.

That Good Friday Agreement is more than just a hard-won political agreement, it is an international treaty between two sovereign governments.

The cross border approach it enshrined is incompatible with the sort of border and customs arrangements which Mr May mentioned last week, a reheat of paras 46 – 54 in the UK’s August 2017 NI position paper. It was a non-runner then and as Fintan O’Toole reminds us today, it’s a dud now.

Option Four: A Canada/USA style border: This option arose just yesterday when Mrs May was asked for an example of a border between two countries that were not in a customs union. She replied:

“There are many examples of different arrangements for customs around the rest of the world and indeed we are looking at those, including for example the border between the United States and Canada”

This on the day that President Trump was announcing tariffs on steel and aluminium imports from other countries, including Canada. Eh, no thanks.

Having crossed that border twice, a few years back, in a car from Seattle to Vancouver, queuing in traffic for about five hours not including the time spent out of the car at the huge customs post filling in forms, I can vouch that this one is a non-runner.

Option Five: No Brexit. I added this one as a counter balance to the previous four Irish centric, impossible options. The British people have voted to leave the EU and there is no hard data to suggest that the result of a rerun referendum would dramatically reverse that decision.
And before anyone points out that we have re-run EU referenda here, let me remind them that those first round turnouts were low, not a factor in the Brexit vote as I outlined here before.

The elimination of Option Five brings us to the one and only remaining option, no matter how improbable it may seem now. That is for the UK to leave the institutions of the EU, to quit the EU Council, Commission, Parliament etc., but to remain in the Customs Union and Single Market.

This, effectively, would see the UK return to the old EEC era – the common market. It is the solution that my friend, and former UK Europe Minister, Dr Dennis MacShane has been advocating from the moment of the Brexit vote. As Anna Soubry and Chuka Umunna have said, there is a cross party majority in the House of Commons to back staying in both.

It also has the added cachet of according with the outlook of the already mentioned Mrs Thatcher, a fact lost on the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg who forget that Mrs T was a big supporter of the Single Market.

After almost two years of chasing Brexit fantasies the Brexiteers need to face up to the logic of their own position and stop pursuing the impossible.

They also need to start coming up with real, possible alternatives, so let me end by offering the bare bones of a proposal for Mrs May and the DUP.

Though I am a firm believer in a United Ireland and a strong advocate for more all island approaches, I can understand why Mrs May and the DUP baulked when they saw the the EU’s draft legal agreement proposing a backstop “common regulatory area”.

I don’t accept their objections to the draft text which, after all only turns in legalese what the EU27 and UK already agreed last December, but I can still understand how they might feel that it undermines the “constitutional integrity” of the United Kingdom.

So, I suggest that they look to Hong Kong for some inspiration. If it is possible to have one country, two systems, then it is not also possible to have two different economic regimes in one country?

Rather than moaning at Barnier, London should be looking to actively exercise its “constitutional integrity” and itself make Northern Ireland a “special economic zone” within the UK.

Make it a “special economic zone” which is linked via the “common regulatory area” to Ireland and hence to the EU.

A “special economic zone” which secures the important trade flows from Northern Ireland to Ireland (and vice versa): Northern Ireland to Great Britain and, of course, Northern Ireland to the EU.

This leaves the Irish/Irish border frictionless and invisible, as it is now, with the UK operating its own e-checks at crossing points to Great Britain, but not imposing tariffs on goods incoming from Northern Ireland.

It is not nearly as effective and workable a solution as remaining in the Customs union and Single Market, but no matter how improbable it may seem, it is a lot less impossible than options one to five above and it is entirely within their own hands.

Elementary, huh?

Derek Mooney is a communications and public affairs consultant. He previously served as a Ministerial Adviser to the Fianna Fáil-led government 2004 – 2010. His column appears here every Tuesday morning. Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney

Illustration: Sidney Paget

From top: paid for pages in the irish Times; Derek Mooney

In November 1962, in what would become known as the “last press conference”, a tired and agitated Richard Nixon spoke with journalists gathered at his hotel as the results of the Governor of California election became clear. Nixon had lost.

It was his second major political defeat in as many years having narrowly lost the 1960 presidential election to John F Kennedy.

The defeat in his home State was about to end his political career. A political career that already had been mired in controversy and a difficult relationship with the press.

He finished his comments with the following plea:

I believe in reading what my opponents say and I hope that what I have said today will at least make television, radio, the press, first recognize the great responsibility they have to report all the news and, second, recognize that they have a right and a responsibility, if they’re against a candidate, give him the shaft, but also recognize if they give him the shaft, put one lonely reporter on the campaign who will report what the candidate says now and then.

It is the plaintiff cry of almost every politician of the modern era – give me all the stick you want, but please make sure that somewhere, somehow my unfiltered and unmediated comments can get through to the public.

It is not an unfair request.

Elected politicians should have their statements and speeches reported fairly. Voters are entitled to hear what the people they elect to high office say reported accurately and without prejudice. They are also entitled to hear alternative viewpoints reported fairly. It is about balance. In a democracy you need to hear both sides.

But the Nixon who pleaded for fairness in 1962 is also the Nixon whose flunkies and henchmen were, seven years later, drawing up “enemies” lists, sanctioning break-ins at the homes and offices of opponents and banning the Washington Post from the White House.

Nixon demonstrated that there can be a slippery slope from asking that your message be fairly heard to deploying all the levers at your command to drown-out all critical analysis.
The slide is by no means inevitable, but it is a risk that even less Nixonian political leaders can face, especially when they close their eyes and ears to the warnings.

Last November the Government’s press secretary was telling journalists that the Government’s new “Strategic Communications Unit” would be staffed by up to five people when it becomes fully operational.

Last week, An Taoiseach informed Micheál Martin and other party leaders en passant during a supplementary reply to a parliamentary question that there are now 15 people working in the unit. Fifteen. Three times the number originally suggested.

When this was put to An Taoiseach and leader of Fine Gael on the day he sought comfort in citing a Fianna Fáil-led government including a budget for strategic communications in the 2007 National Development Plan.

It is also the line that Fine Gael backbencher Noel Rock, a sort of millennial Bernard Durkan, was pushing yesterday as he tried, very non-strategically, to draw attention away from reports that provincial papers were pressured to make government advertorials look like normal news stories.

Yes, many major projects, both public and private, do have a strategic communications element. It is sensible to want to publicise that particular initiative and communicate information about it effectively. In most cases this involves a key element of modern strategic communications, a two-way interaction.

But that is not what we have here. The Taoiseach’s Strategic Communications Unit is far more preoccupied with campaign marketing than it is with public information. Its communications are anything but two-way. They are decidedly one way and that one way is from the top down – from a beneficent team of FG ministers to grateful public. There is nothing especially modern about that. It is decidedly old fashioned and mid-20th century.

It pushes a very particular image of not just the government as a concept, but of this specific government – and some key players in it – as a unique and marketable brand.

Indeed, one of the many tender contracts that the Strategic Communications Unit have awarded is for branding, the contract for the “Development of Government identity system for roll out across Government Departments” going to the people behind the Irish Water logo, a matter that Broadsheet discussed before.

One presumes this “identity system” is not a form of Public Services Card that every government department is compelled to carry anytime it wants to make a claim or renew its driving licence, but rather a rebranding system that creates a consistent identity for government departments and agencies á la UK model.

If it is just about a government logo, though I thought the 14th century Brian Ború Harp was not just the official State logo, but the government logo too, then it may be something worth exploring.

But the other contracts for “media strategy planning and buying services” and the provision of “marketing pitch specialist services” suggest that the focus is more political. These are phrases more familiar to those preparing party political election campaigns rather than cross government information projects.

But, as we have seen time and again with the Strategic Comms Unit the focus is not on all of Government with all its many departments and agencies.

It is not on all of Government, in the Art 28 constitutional definition of the 7 – 15 members who form the Cabinet.

It is not even on all the Fine Gael ministers who sit in Cabinet.

Rather, it is on a subset of those ministers: a coterie that can be marketed and sold as a fresh, young Government, newly arrived and freshly minted in 2017.

It is a cadre that includes the Taoiseach, Tánaiste and the Ministers for Finance and Environment as regular cast members with the Ministers for Health and Social Protection playing occasional walk-on parts, as required.

As last week’s Dáil exchanges highlighted, the 15-man cheerleading machine… sorry… Strategic Communications Unit is the one big initiative the Taoiseach has taken since assuming office it now dwarves, in terms of staffing and resources, other units in the Taoiseach’s department, notably the social policy division.

Yesterday and today’s revelations regarding the placing of advertorials in provincial papers that were not to be marked as sponsored should make for interesting Dáil exchanges this week.

So will answers to questions on who is getting paid outside to produce all this material and when will the Dáil be shown the plans and progress reports on all these projects, which are all paid for with public money?

Who knows, if the public discussion continues in this vein, maybe we won’t have the Strategic Communications Unit to kick around any more?

Derek Mooney is a communications and public affairs consultant. He previously served as a Ministerial Adviser to the Fianna Fáil-led government 2004 – 2010. His column appears here every Tuesday morning. Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney

Rollingnews

From top: Social Protection Minister Regina Doherty; Derek Mooney

“Standing right now, if nobody does anything, I don’t think this referendum will pass”

This was Minister Regina Doherty on RTÉ’s The Week in Politics last Sunday. Her comments were, as we have come to expect from the outspoken Social Protection Minister, forthright and clear cut.

Ms Doherty was responding to the results of the two latest opinion polls, showing both a narrowing of the winning margin for the Repeal the Eighth side and a growing concern about the proposed 12-week threshold.

Her observation that there was still a ‘job of work to do’ to win support for the abortion proposals led the radio and TV news for the rest of the afternoon.

By the time the RTÉ Six one TV news came around the Government sources who were reportedly concerned by her comments appeared to have gotten their way.

RTÉ’s Justin McCarthy was not only able to report on the Minister’s original comments, he was also able to tell us all about a clarification that the Minister had just issued which made it clear that the Minister did not in fact think that the referendum would fail, but rather that she was sure it could and would pass.

It was almost painful to watch, especially as the misspeak that the clarification was intended to clean up was not that much of a misspeak.

Yes, Ministers should all look and sound like they are on the same page and should try to always exude a positive air of confidence in their own invincibility, but they should also look and sound credible and give the impression that they can hear what people are saying.

In my view this is precisely what Minister Doherty was doing pre-6pm on Sunday. She was telling the public that the government is taking nothing for granted in this referendum and that it is aware that many voters – and let’s be crude about it, many of them are Fine Gael leaning – are unsure about the 12-week part.

It seems that this was Senator Catherine Noone’s view too. Senator Noone, who expertly chaired the Oireachtas Committee that considered the referendum proposals, told Breakingnews.ie that she thought Minister Doherty was just being realistic about the possible outcome and that: “Every day, those of us who understand and believe that the position should be changed legally in this country have a job of work to be done to communicate that”.

Ms Noone added:

“Any referendum even the Children’s Rights referendum, where it was a really positive thing, it wasn’t won by any major majority, so it’s a fair comment that the Minister made.”

Unlike many of those who may have been behind the “clarification”, Minister Doherty has practical and painful experience of what it is like to fight a referendum that looked set to pass, only to fail at the last minute, having served as the Deputy Director for Fine Gael’s ill-fated 2013 Seanad abolition campaign.

To her credit Minister Doherty gave her all to that campaign from the very start and fought it with a lot more zeal and tenacity than many of her party colleagues. She learned the hard way that opinion polls in referenda can be deceptive.

An Irish Times Ipsos MRBI poll taken at the end of September, just one week before polling had those voting yes to Seanad Abolition at 44% those voting No at 27%, undecideds at 21% and won’t vote at 8%. On the day the No side won 51.7% to 48.3%.

Clearly the issue this time around is far more difficult, far more personal and a lot more emotive. Many more people go into this campaign, on both sides, with deeply and sincerely held views than was the case in 2013, but Minister Doherty is right at this point to signal clearly to the undecided and the soft retain the 8th voters alike that she and other ministers recognise that they need to explain to people how the proposal to allow for terminations up to 12 weeks was arrived at. I know, as I am one of them.

There is also another important factor. Since 2013 we have seen nature of campaigning move on a pace.

We saw the results in the Trump and the Brexit campaigns where voters were convinced to doubt and reject the counsel of the established experts and to go with their newly informed, or should that be inflamed, guts.

The deployment of data analytics played a big role in both those campaigns, a lesson not lost on the Keep the 8th side who reportedly have retained the services of Kanto a UK data analytics company associated with the UK Leave campaign.

I am not saying that data analytics alone will swing the campaign one way or the other or even that only one side with be using them. Undoubtedly, both sides will use all the campaign tools available to them from traditional, to online to social media.

I am merely making the point that in today’s ever more volatile and perhaps even disruptive political environment, it is vital not to be complacent and to think that everything and everyone with play by the Marquis of Queensbury rules.

It is why I welcome the Transparent Referendum Initiative, a project run by volunteers with an expertise in social media and online marketing, that aims to enable an open and honest referendum debate by making the use of targeted, paid political ads on social media more transparent. It should not to up to volunteers to do this, this is something that should be done by the platforms and the State.

Indeed, if the government had acted last year, well ahead of the referendum, and accepted the Private Members Bill prepared by Fianna Fáil’s Science and Technology spokesman, James Lawless TD, (and let me declare that James is a friend of mine) that provided for transparency in the disclosure of information in online political advertising, then we wouldn’t need TFI to take up the slack.

But, alas, it didn’t.

Which is another reason why I think Minister Doherty was right to send up a warning flare now and call the situation as she sees it and why those unnamed sources in the shadows – the ones who tried to fix her supposed misspeak – are the ones who really misspoke.

Derek Mooney is a communications and public affairs consultant. He previously served as a Ministerial Adviser to the Fianna Fáil-led government 2004 – 2010.  Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney

Rollingnews


From top: DUP leader Arlene Foster and aides in Stormont last night; Derek Mooney

Be in no doubt, the breakdown in talks yesterday is a crisis, a real crisis. This is bigger than last year’s collapse of the institutions. Much bigger.

Unlike recent ‘crises’ this is not merely about the two main Northern Irish parties playing hardball politics with each other and playing to their galleries, this is about a lot more.

While the legitimate demand for proper recognition of the Irish language may appear to be the catalyst for this crisis, the real cause is Brexit. And Brexit is the reason why this crisis, which is an existential crisis, will be extremely hard to resolve.

The architects of this crisis are not in Belfast, they are in London, specifically in Westminster. They are not just the 10 DUP MPs who have just reminded Arlene Foster and her crew that it is the MPs who now run the DUP show, they are also the slow learners in the Tory hardline Brexit fashion who have just now realised what Theresa May agreed to in Phase One of the Article 50 negotiations.

The hardline Brexiteers have just realised that the greatest threat to their Quixotic vision of a British Empire 2.0 exiting the EU institutions, Customs Union and Single market is the Irish/Irish Border.

Specifically, they have copped on to the fact that Brussels is determined not to flinch on either the letter or the spirit of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and that staying in the Customs Union and having a Norwegian style EFTA arrangement is the only game in town.

It is as if the penny has just dropped with them that the Good Friday Agreement was not just a political document but a binding international agreement between two Sovereign Governments. An agreement whose contents and implications they had been gleefully ignorant of for years.

But now, as they come to realise that the Good Friday Agreement which they had ignored and dismissed is the one single thing that could most likely to scupper their hopes of a Britain entirely outside the EU, the Customs Union and the Single market.

So, they have concluded, they must find a way to sink or at least damage the Good Friday Agreement in order to undermine Brussels’ clear advantage in the negotiations. In this endeavour they have willing helpers, though they may see them as useful idiots, in the form of the 10 DUP MPs.

While Stormont was up and running and the British Government had a secure majority, the DUP MPs may as well have been MEPs – plenty of status, occasional forays on to the media, but absolutely no real power or influence.

But the collapse of the Executive and the suspension of the Assembly, courtesy of Sinn Féin, and the 2016 UK election result, courtesy of Theresa May and the Tories, catapulted the backwoods men of the DUP – and you can guess how deep in the back woods a DUP-er backwoodsman can be – not just into the spotlight, but into a spotlight that come complete with a driving seat with real leverage.

With those two events, the centre of gravity of the DUP party moved firmly and resolutely from Stormont to Westminster. Foster was now the King overseas, but at home. She can travel down south to give impressive speeches, she can meet gay rights groups and Irish language organisations, but the MPs were the ones with the power. Something we have seen come to fruition this week.

The DUP MPs are on the same wavelength as the hardline Tory Brexiteers and now have the ability to deliver to the Brexiteers, something they cannot get via the Tory cabinet or House of Commons, a possible way to punch a hole in the Brussels Article 50 negotiating position.

The Brexiteers want, as a good colleague of mine termed it in a WhatsApp message this week, to screw a brass plate on the coffin of the Good Friday Agreement. They want this, not because they hate the Good Friday agreement – most of them haven’t a notion what is actually in it – but because it is a means to an end, and that end is Brexit.

Not that the DUP MPs will cry any tears over the demise of the Good Friday Agreement, many of them built their early careers on opposing it, with one Sir Jeffrey Donaldson quitting the UUP to join the DUP over Trimble’s acceptance of it.

So now the fate of the Brexit negotiation, the future of the Good Friday Agreement and the return of devolution to Northern Ireland are inextricably linked.

You see now why I say this existential crisis will take a lot of work and a lot of time to resolve.

The one bright spot just now is that the place where you find the deepest understanding of the Good Friday Agreement – both in letter and spirit – is not Stormont Castle, Number 10 Downing Street or (regrettably) Government Buildings, Dublin, but the EU Commission and Council buildings in Brussels.

There are times when it seems that M. Barnier has a deeper understanding of what the Good Friday agreement is about than some of the members of our own Government (an issue I have touched on here before). It is as if members of this Government were disinclined to talk about the Good Friday Agreement for fear of acknowledging the key part played by Bertie Ahern and a succession of Fianna Fáil Ministers in bringing about political progress in the North from David Andrews to Brian Cowen to Dermot Ahern to Micheál Martin.

That will have to change. Both the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste will have to rise considerably above the petulance we saw in the Dáil today from Simon Coveney and recognise that this is a major crisis and one to which this Government and the last Fine Gael-Labour one actively contributed by taking its eye off the ball.

It will also have to change its modus operandi and seriously upgrade and improve its political antennae within Northern Ireland. It will have to take to all parties regularly and meaningfully, not just two. It will need to learn how to understand the DUP (another issue I have discussed here before).

How did it miss the power shift from Stormont to Westminster – how did it allow itself to be both convinced of – and then become a persuader for – the idea that a deal on devolution was imminent?

It also needs to recognise that it does not have what Albert Reynolds, John Bruton and Bertie Ahern had in their day: a capable and committed partner in the British Government.

May’s government is not merely dependent on the DUP, it is dependent day-to-day on the most antediluvian faction of the DUP – its MPs. That compromises May’s government in its political dealings with the Irish Government and Irish Ministers and SpAds need urgently to wake up to this fact – I think the Irish officials have long since copped on to this, but it seems they are not always listened to.

It does not make the British Prime Minister or NI Secretary of State untrustworthy, it makes them something much worse, it makes them weak. Negotiating with a weakened partner across the table is a problem as you can never know that they can sell what they agree with you back to their people.

The first step in bolstering the chances of a real partner in this process is, as both Micheál Martin and the SDLP’s Colum Eastwood have proposed, must be the formation of the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference.

It is the key element of the Good Friday Agreement – and the protection of the Good Friday agreement and the principles on which it is based – must be the priority for both devolution and Brexit.

Derek Mooney is a communications and public affairs consultant. He previously served as a Ministerial Adviser to the Fianna Fáil-led government 2004 – 2010.  Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney

Eamonn Farrell/Rollingnews