Author Archives: Derek Mooney

12/3/2017 Taoiseach's Visit To United States of America. Taoiseach and Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny speaking about an announcement that the Government had taken a decision to move forward with plans to hold a referendum to give the right to vote in presidential elections to Irish citizens abroad, including those in Northern Ireland during his visit to Philadelphia as part of his Saint Patrick's day tour of the USA. Photo Tom Keenan/Merrion Street

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From top: Taoiseach Enda Kenny in Philadelphia, USA yesterday; Derek Mooney

The government’s proposed referendum, if not managed and led effectively, could perversely be turned into a reverse border pol.

Derek Mooney writes:

Enda Kenny’s fascination with his predecessor John A. Costello continues.  Not only is Enda determined to beat Costello’s record for time served as Taoiseach, he now seems to want to eclipse Costello’s penchant from making major constitutional announcements outside the country.

Costello announced his intention for Ireland to abandon the External Relations Act (and effectively quit the British Commonwealth and declare itself Republic) during a visit to Canada in 1948, while Kenny announces in Philadelphia that he intends to hold a referendum to give the Irish diaspora votes in future Irish presidential elections – but only in elections after the next one.

There are many legends about Costello’s Ottawa announcement, including one version that claims he made it when was “tired and emotional” and another that asserts he did it after being offended by the placing of a replica of the Roaring Meg canon used in the Siege of Derry in front of him on the dining table at a formal dinner at the Governor General’s residence. But they are only legends.

Moves to repeal to External Relations Act, which gave the British Crown limited recognition around foreign relations, i.e. Irish diplomats were formally accredited by the King, were already afoot before Costello even came to office. In late 1947 Éamon de Valera’s Fianna Fáil government started preparing a repeal bill, but work on this was halted by the February 1948 election.

At least Costello was able to announce something which he could immediately legislate for and see carried into action within a reasonable space of time. Within eight months Ireland was out of the Commonwealth), in Enda’s case he has just announced plans which may not come to fruition for another 8 years (never mind 8 months) – and only then if they are passed in a Referendum, which is no absolute certainty.

We must wait a few weeks more to see the detail of the Governments proposals on extending voting rights in Presidential Elections from 2025 onwards to Irish citizens living outside of the Republic.

From what the Minister of State for the Diaspora said on Radio this morning it appears that the Government intends to publish a range of options rather than a specific plan, which suggests that this whole adventure may not even be as planned and prepared as Costello’s 1948 one.

According to Minister of State McHugh there are an estimated 1.8 million citizens outside the State and a potential electorate of 1.87 million in Northern Ireland. To put this in context the total electorate eligible to vote at the October 2011 Presidential Election was just 3.2 million (On the day just 1.8m (56%) of them chose to vote).

While it is likely, if not certain, that Enda Kenny will neither be Taoiseach nor leader of Fine Gael by the time the referendum comes around, his shadow will hang over this and let’s not forget that Enda has had a penchant for starting referendums that he cannot win.

Will this be another one? I personally hope not, but I must admit that I am far from thrilled or enthused by what I have heard from the Taoiseach and his Ministers over the past few hours.

Surely such a major constitutional change should be accompanied by detailed research and argument, not followed along by broad range of options for consideration to be published a month or so later.

While I can see some merit in Leo Varadkar’s description of the proposal allowing for the transformation of the Presidency into one for the whole Irish nation, highlighting the fact that Ireland has become a global nation via its diaspora, won’t we also be effectively limiting the Presidency to just a symbolic, ceremonial role?

Though they are not often exercised, the Irish President does have important constitutional functions, are we perhaps diluting those for what it effectively just a gesture?

I also worry about how the referendum campaign make shape up. As we have seen in past campaigns, indeed as Leo Varadkar has observed: referendums are “by and large” never what they are supposed to be about and they can often turn into a votes on “extraneous issues… or decisions being made by the Government, such as cutbacks.”

The government’s proposed referendum, if not managed and led effectively, could perversely be turned into a reverse border poll – with the focus falling not on the wider diaspora or on the positives of giving Irish citizens in the North a formal recognition in our political process – but on worse aspect of the North and the prospect of allowing a load of hard-line DUP voters (and others) have any kind of say in the South.

Public attitudes to the North down here as not always as positive and welcoming as we would have ourselves believe. A recent poll for RTE by Dr Kevin Cunningham’s Ireland Thinks found a very mixed appetite for a United Ireland among voters in the Republic, particularly when it comes to the costs of re-unification. It roughly found that that voters in the Republic split three ways with one third being in favour, one third against and one third undecided.

That said, Brexit has pushed Irish re-unification way up the political agenda for all parties North or South: not as an absolute inevitability, but as an increasingly likely consequence of the economic consequences of Brexit.

Re-unification needs to be seriously considered now, not as some rhetorical wrap the green flag around me slogan, but as a real and viable political option. This is something that needs to be thought through seriously, which is why Micheál Martin’s announcement today that Fianna Fáil will soon publish its 12-point plan to prepare the way for unification of the island is so welcome.

We need to start talking and preparing for unification by strengthening the economic, political and educational links between the Republic and Northern Ireland. While these could help re-unification, even if that were not to come about, they would still be mutually beneficial.

Hopefully Fianna Fáil’s proposals, due in the coming months, will help provide a sound and considered backdrop for the debate on giving votes for citizens North of the border.

For the record, when it comes to votes for Irish citizens outside the jurisdiction my own preference would be to look to Leinster House rather than Áras an Uachtaráin and follow the French model by having a constituency in parliament (either in the Dáil or Seanad) voted for exclusively by Irish citizens living outside the Republic,

in fact I would suggest two such constituencies: one for Irish citizens living in the North and one for Irish Citizens living elsewhere.

As it stands today, while I am inclined to vote what Enda Kenny announced in Philadelphia, I am not so enthused as to go out campaigning for it – on that score, I remain to be convinced.

Over to you Leo or Simon.

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 usually every Monday. Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney

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Sinn Fein’s party leader for Northern Ireland Michelle O’Neill celebrates last Friday  with party members Francie Molloy, left, and Ian Milne, right, after topping the poll in Mid Ulster; Derek Mooney

Northern politics needs to change.

Unionism is now the political force in crisis.

Derek Mooney writes:

Some thoughts on the quite amazing results in last Thursday’s NI Assembly election.

1. Brexit a huge motivating factor. It drove up turnout, esp among nationalists who didn’t vote at the May 2016 Assembly election, but who did vote remain at the Brexit Referendum.

2. Many of this new voting cohort voted SF, not because of any support for Michelle O’Neill or Gerry Adams, but because they saw voting SF as the best way of asserting their anti Brexit and anti Arlene Foster position. While the SDLP may closer mirror their actual anti Brexit position, it simply was neither strong nor viable enough an option to make their protest register.

3. This election was different in that the tradition (up to now) was for NI elections to be conducted in three individual silos:

Silo One – the biggest of the three silos is the unionist one with the DUP and UUP playing a zero sum game – when the UUP loses the DUP gains. This time both lost – with disgruntled DUP supporters staying at home, unhappy at Arlene’s financial irresponsibility on RHI, Nama, RedSky etc.

Some UUP voters felt unsure what Mike Nesbitt’s UUP stood for – some defected to the more secure DUP or went to the more clearly moderate Alliance. This decline in both unionist parties put seats in play that have not been up for grabs in years and the SDLP took at least two of them – on UUP transfers at that!

The instinctive Unionist response to this will be to regroup and perhaps even attempt to coalesce. Perhaps this will happen via a formal DUP/UUP merger or alliance – or perhaps the larger DUP will simply and slowly cannibalise its weaker rival.

This task could be made easier if the more moderate wing of the DUP (which now bizarrely seems to include Ian Paisley Jr) ends up in the ascendancy.

Silo Two
– the nationalist/republican one. Again, another zero sum game with SF picking up most (though not all) SDLP losses in the past. Last May the Nationalist silo reduced by a whopping 5% to drop to its lowest level. SF dropped just over 3% and the SDLP lost just under 2%. Some of the SF loss last May went to the PBP – SF took a chunk of that back this time around.

It also motivated voters in a way it had not in many years.

The SDLP had what on the surface looks like a reasonable day. It lost two seats – both to SF, via Richie McPhilips in Fermanagh and Sth Tyrone and Alex Attwood in Belfast West. These are two seats that an even moderately successful party should be losing.

The SDLP has the youngest, brightest and most politically astute leader it has ever had, but he cannot reverse decades of decline and directionlessness by himself.

The centrality of Brexit to the result and to the political future means any nationalist party needs to have a major all island focus and dimension. SF can claim this – though more in appearance than fact – the SDLP as it is currently configured does not. It needs to develop or transition into gaining it or it will continue to falter and gradually decline.

The SDLP won three seats on transfers. One was John Dallat who held on against the odds in East Derry, while the other two were new-ish seats: Dolores Kelly in Upper Bann – who won back the seat she narrowly lost last May and the really big winner on the day – Pat Catney in Lagan Valley who took a seat that no pundit saw as winnable and did it with a solid ground campaign of hard work and canvassing.

His campaign was the closest thing I have seen in NI to an old school Fianna Fáil election campaign. That said these three SDLP seats are vulnerable to either Unionist resurgence or to SF aggression.

Silo Three is the non aligned – the Alliance, Greens etc. They had a reasonable day, particularly Alliance. It did not have a great campaign, but it does have a charismatic and smart new leader in Naomi Long. She was forceful and commanding in her media appearances and could drive up Alliance gains in the future at the expense of a wounded and haemorrhaging UUP.

And finally:

4. Politics in Northern Ireland have not yet broken the mound – but the ground work for such a change has been laid and it has been laid by the voters not the politicians. They did this first at the Brexit referendum when they rejected the campaign to leave the EU and they repeated it again last Thursday.

Northern politics needs to change. Unionism is now the political force in crisis. Arlene Foster’s stubborn adherence to Brexit in the face of its popular rejection has undermined her own position and thrown Unionism into turmoil.

While she can comfort herself that most DUP voters were pro-brexit she cannot blithely ignore the concerns of 56% of the voters, if she wants to be taken seriously as a First Minister of all of Northern Ireland.

Her response to Brexit, her hands off approach to governance and her dismissive attitude to nationalism and republicanism over recent months has resulted in reawakening nationalism and republicanism – particularly in the middle classes – and making it more politically aware and motivated than it has been in decades.

This is something that was signposted last September, when Colum Eastwood said in a speech to the British/Irish Association:

“Northern nationalists are once more a restless people. The constitutional accommodation which we voted for by referendum in 1998 has been violated, not by a vote of the people of Northern Ireland, but rather by a vote of others in the UK 18 years later.

The blanket of that constitutional comfort has been abruptly removed. In particular, undermining our connection with the South achieved via common EU membership is not something which can be tolerated.

They (Brexiteers) told a story of decisions being dictated by far away people and politicians with no connection or rightful authority to the places over which they prescribed their power. They summed it up in a clever and cutting soundbite – Take back control.

To all those Brexiteers now at the heart of the British Government, Irish nationalism says this– we know how you feel. No one should therefore be surprised if in the wake of Brexit ‘Taking Back Control’ is precisely what we in the North now intend to do.”

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 usually every Monday. Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney

Pic: Peter Morrison/Associated Press

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From top: Stormont Castle; Belfast; Derek Mooney

Rarely have the two sovereign governments been less prepared and less well equipped to handle, never mind resolve, a crisis in Northern Ireland.

Derek Mooney writes:

Here is a worrying thought with which to start your week: in two years’ time, we will look back at these last few weeks with fondness and regard them as the last period of stability and calm before the storm.

Not a nice prospect, huh? Yet it is entirely possible that two separate but related and linked events due occur over the next month could throw us into several years of instability and confusion.

The first, and more obvious, of the two events is the triggering of the Article 50 Brexit clause by the British Government. This may happen at the March 9 EU Summit in Malta, though the UK’s Brexit Minister recently hinted that they may wait until later in the month, either way it is certain to happen before the end of March.

We already know how costly and disruptive this will be for us here. But a second event, due to happen later this week, could potentially make what would have already been a difficult situation considerably worse.

That second event is next Thursday’s Northern Ireland Assembly election.

Most commentators and pundits believe that the result after the election will broadly be in line with the one before it.  The issue at stake at this Thursday’s Assembly election is not who gets what number of seats but rather whether the Assembly voted in next Thursday has the political will to elect a First and Deputy First Minister and return to operation.

The issue is even more clear cut than that. Will the DUP and Sinn Féin have the political will and backbone to take the result and make it work or will they both continue to play the vapid and empty orange and green politics that we have seen them engage in for the past few weeks and months.

While each side will point the finger at each other in the classic Northern political game of whataboutery – they are equally responsible. Arlene Foster’s partisan intransigence is matched by Sinn Féin’s opportunist disruptive-ism.

Both parties cataloguing of the other’s transgressions and insults from the past is very hard to swallow when you consider that it is barely three months since the then First and Deputy First Ministers, Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness penned this joint article for the Irish News setting out how well their two parties were working together, stating:

‘Our two parties are now in an Executive facing in the same direction. We made promises to voters that we will keep – taking on the heavy responsibilities that come with elected office, governing in their best interests, tackling head-on the tough decisions. Others decided to duck the challenges and retreat to the Opposition benches. That is a matter for them…. We are in this for the long haul.’

That was on November 21 last – the long haul is not as long as it used to be, especially when there are political points to score.

Their delight and bonhomie may also explained, in part, by the ease with which they had happily carved everyone else out of the picture a year earlier in the ill-named Stormont Fresh Start deal.

Right now, we are looking at a suspension of the key institutions established under the Good Friday Agreement: The Assembly and the Executive for a period of perhaps six months, or even a year.

So, we enter a major negotiation on our neighbouring island (sometimes known as Great Britain) exiting the EU at a time when Northern Ireland – whose status and future in those negotiations is a key interest and concern for us – is set to enter a period of political instability.

Not that you would know this from listening to anything coming out from either Dublin or London. Rarely have the two sovereign governments been less prepared and less well equipped to handle, never mind resolve, a crisis in Northern Ireland.

Here in Dublin, the political side of the government machinery is more focused on its internal machinations and the leadership of Fine Gael. Neither of the two main contenders for the Fine Gael leadership have ever exhibited much interest in the North or the Good Friday Agreement, though on this score FG is consistent as our current Foreign Minister, Charlie Flanagan, is more disinterested in the North than most.

While the political side of government is in a state of bewilderment, the institutional side is at least watching what is going on, though it is tough to do this while straining to find the resources to deal with one of the most complex negotiations we have ever conducted with the EU.

Meanwhile, across the sea Theresa May’s government is focused, nay fixated, on the Brexit negotiations and finding a way not to (a). bankrupt their economy by cutting it off from its biggest market and (b). end the Union by disregarding the clearly stated will of the people in Scotland, Northern Ireland and central London.

Coupled with this Prime Minister May has landed Northern Ireland with a Secretary of State who is disinterested in dealing even-handedly with the parties there or even following events in Northern Ireland.

This does not augur well.

The problem is not merely that the Irish government is going to have deal with two major simultaneous political crises – Brexit and suspension of the institutions in the North – but that the discussions in Brussels and the issues in Belfast are considerably intertwined and each exert pressures on, and creates stresses under, the other.

Add to this makes the potential for even greater destabilisation within the United Kingdom as the Scottish government increasingly moves towards a second independence referendum and you have a mix for a highly volatile and difficult situation not just within Northern Ireland but across this and the neighbouring island.

One of the great strengths of the Good Friday Agreement as negotiated by Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair is that it recognised that the three strand nature of relationships on these islands.

The first strand was the internal relationship between the two communities in the Six Counties. The second was the North/South relationships between the North and the remaining 26 counties of the Republic. The third is the east-west strand between the British and Irish Governments.

One of its weaknesses is that it set these in the context of our mutual membership of the EU, but did not explicitly recognise this underpinning fact anywhere in the text.

So, there you have it. We are about to face into political problems whose complexity and duality are of Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle dimensions and all we have to tackle them is a choice between are two primary school science teachers. Worrying… isn’t 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 Monday. Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney

Pic via Independent.co.uk

16/01/2014. Launch Online Of Military Service Material (1916-1923). Pictured (LtoR) An Taoiseach Enda Kenny TD, Former Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave and Commanding Officer P.Kennedy in charge of the Military Archives at the launch for the first time of Online Of Military Service Material (1916-1923) in the GPO in Dublin this evening. The Military Services Pensions Archive project is a conerstone in the Government Decade of Centenaries 2012-2022 Commemorative programme and the collection numbers of almost 300,000 application files for pensions. Photo: Sam Boal/Photocall Ireland

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From top: Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny with Former Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave at an event in the GPO in Dublin in 2014; Derek Mooney

This heave is different or at least it appears different. Unlike heaves of the past it has been occasioned by an actual political event,

Derek Mooney writes:

No one does heaves like Fine Gael does heaves. None of your subtle behind the scenes manoeuvring for them. When it comes to getting political blood on the plush Axminster the good folks at Fine Gael are major exhibitionists.

They have had plenty of heaves over the past forty years or so: most of them ill-judged, poorly timed and glaringly unsuccessful. The December 1972 heave against Liam Cosgrave is a good example of all three.

Fine Gael’s liberal wing wanted rid of the conservative, law and order Cosgrave. They complained that the party had failed under his leadership to capitalise on Fianna Fáil’s post Arms Crisis trials and tribulations, but the final straw was Cosgrave’s efforts to get FG TDs to back the government’s controversial Offences Against the State Bill – something they implacably opposed.

Cosgrave was effectively saved from the plotters by a loyalist bomb on Sackville Place that tragically killed two CIE busmen. The explosion took place just hours before the Dáil vote on the Bill. The Dáil adjourned to allow discussion between the parties.

When it resumed, Fine Gael withdrew its opposition and abstained as Bill was voted through in an all-night sitting. Three months later Cosgrave became Taoiseach leading Fine Gael into government with the Labour Party.

Fast forward to 1980s and 1990s and we enter the golden age of the Fine Gael heave. The drama and intrigue within the Fine Gael parliamentary party was so intense that RTÉ ran a TV documentary series in 2003 about the period entitled: Fine Gael: A Family at War.

For about two decades the folks in blue were regularly sharpening their knives as they awaited the opportunity to dispatch their leaders. While Dr Garret Fitzgerald managed to escape their clutches his successor, Alan Dukes, had a less happy fate.

Dukes took over from Fitzgerald after the 1987 defeat. While he started out well, Duke’s Tallaght Strategy – a less formalised precursor of the current Confidence and Supply Agreement, which facilitated Haughey’s minority government – was not too popular with FG TDs.

One TD, Austin Deasy, was so incensed that he at first resigned in protest from the party only to return in 1989 and try, unsuccessfully, to oust Dukes. Deasy was a serial heaver, launching his first one first against Garret in 1982 and finishing up with his failed November 2000 one against John Bruton.

Dukes survived, but not for long. In a snap election in June 1989, Fine Gael regained only 5 of the 19 seats they lost two years earlier. The whispering campaign against Dukes was back with a vengeance with one back bencher remarking that if it was raining soup Dukes would be out there with a fork.

Things came to a head in late 1990 when the party’s candidate in the presidential election came a very poor third behind Mary Robinson and Brian Lenihan Snr.The result had hardly been declared when Fergus O’Brien, who had been demoted by Dukes, tabled a motion of no confidence.

This was followed by a flurry of Fine Gael TDs rushing to the nearest journalist to unburden themselves. Dukes could not withstand the onslaught. Within days he resigned and was succeeded by John Bruton.

Now the Fine Gael heavers shifted into top gear. It seemed as if there was a heave brewing every few months.

Bruton survived five leadership contests during his eleven years at the top. The sixth one, in January 2001, led by two political heavy weights Jim Mitchell and Michael Noonan succeeded in toppling him. Noonan took the top job, beating Enda Kenny, but his reign was short lived. FG’s defeat in the May 2002 election was so calamitous that Noonan resigned on the night of the count. He was succeeded by Enda Kenny.

As you can see from these examples and the June 2010 heave against Enda outlined in my Enda’s 3am question is still unanswered Broadsheet column: most of them fail. The ones that do succeed have the oblique backing of the person who hopes to succeed and are usually attempted when the party is in opposition – not in government.

This later point is perhaps not so relevant today. Fine Gael spent most of the 80s and 90s in opposition and were not in office long enough to have the time to consider it. It was these long periods of opposition – and powerlessness – that led to the heaves. The breaking point, in most cases, being a bad election result or a series of poor opinion poll results.

This heave is different or at least it appears different. Unlike heaves of the past it has been occasioned by an actual political event, namely the chronic mishandling of the Sgt McCabe debacle and the confusion about who told who said what and when and if they told the Taoiseach or just one of his Advisers.

But it would be foolish to think that electoral considerations are not also a major factor.
While Enda Kenny has made it clear that he does not intend to lead his party into the next election, the abiding fear among Fine Gael TDs was that events would overtake them and that Fianna Fáil would pull down the house of cards before Enda quits and they find themselves facing an election with Enda still in place.

Up to a few weeks ago, they assumed that Fianna Fáil was neither ready nor willing to trigger an election until 2018 – but a series of good polls for Micheál Martin’s soldiers of destiny has convinced already rattled Fine Gael TDs that Fianna Fáil was preparing itself to call time on the government.

The problem with this scenario is that it shows Fine Gaelers thinking like Fine Gaelers, not like Fianna Fáilers. Fianna Fáil knows well that voters tend not to reward parties who trigger unnecessary elections for partisan gain.

Martin’s FF eschews the “cute hoor” tag that once bedevilled the party. When it eventually moves against the government it will be seen clearly do so on an issue of policy, not personality or partisan gain.

On a more practical front, 20 of Fianna Fáil’s 45 TDs are first timers. They are just starting to settle in after two or three years of intense campaigning to win those seats. They are not ready or prepared for an election yet. Most are now watching the turmoil in the FG ranks and trying to work out whether the election of Simon or Leo – or neither – means the election will be in May, June, September or later.

Meanwhile the rest should reach for the popcorn, scan our WhatApp to see if Charlie Flanagan is messaging us and just enjoy it all.

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 Monday. Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney

File photo. The Government will publish the details today of a Commission of Inquiry into claims that senior gardai mounted a smear campaign against a whistleblower in the force. Yesterday Indpendent TD, Clare Daly called for the Garda Commissioner, Noirin O’Sullivan, to stand aside for the duration of the Inquiry. Prominent whistleblower, Sgt Maurice McCabe has claimed he was targeted in a smear campaign by senior members of the force. He is supported in his claaims by the former head of the Garda Press Office, Superintentent David Taylor. The Government today announced the Inquiry would be carried out by Supreme Court Judge Peter Charleton.23/7/2015. Garda Passing Out Parade. Taoiseach and Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny with Minister for Justice and Equality Frances Fitzgerald (L) and Garda Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan for a garda passing out parade in the Garda College in Templemore in County Tipperary. 97 students graduated. Photo: RollingNews.ie

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From top: Taoiseach Enda Kenny with Minister for Justice and Equality Frances Fitzgerald (left) and Garda Commissioner Noirin O’Sullivan at Garda College in Templemore, County Tipperary; Derek Mooney

Many of the principal characters in this melodrama were more concerned with protecting their own positions with carefully scripted narratives than helping Maurice McCabe.

Derek Mooney writes:

The current political storm that could topple this government or, at the very least, see the end of one or two ministerial careers is not one single crisis – it is two crises that have become so intertwined in the public – and the medias – mind, as to appear as one.

Worse still, it is the lesser of the two crises – the political one, the one revolving around the questions about Fine Gael’s future leadership – that is getting all the attention and airplay. This is understandable in part, due to the ongoing and evolving drama of who said what to who and whose head is set to roll.

Though the political crisis is serious enough in its own right, it is still the lesser of the two and pales in comparison to the greater crisis: the poisonous culture and ethos in the senior and upper ranks of an Garda Síochána.

That is the immediate crisis that should be gripping us all. It has run on for far too long, the government has been grappling with this issue since 2014 to little or no actual effect.

As The Irish Times‘ Conor Lally, wrote:

“…a gulf is emerging in the Garda organisation, according to informed sources at every level. There is one camp within senior management – a small number who are seen as O’Sullivan’s people. And then there is everyone else. And the O’Sullivan group is regarded as having lost control.”

Not that this crisis started with Commissioner Nóirin O’Sullivan. It long predates her appointment as Commissioner, even as Deputy Commissioner, as can be seen from Broadsheet’s comprehensive timeline of events cataloguing Sgt McCabe’s more than 10 year struggle to get accountability in An Garda Síochána.

Indeed, the poisonous in-fighting and fractious nature of relationships at the top of the force is further illustrated by a series of tweets last night by another crime correspondent, the Irish Daily Star’s Mick O’Toole.

including this one where he talks of the shameful briefings against Nóirin O’Sullivan and people close to her, describing them as bad as the briefing against Sgt McCabe and this tweet where he talks of disgraceful stories planted in certain papers specifically to damage her and people close to her.

These charges and accusations need to be fully investigated and the apparent venality, if not corruption at the top of the force exposed and expunged. The failed and flawed reports, investigation and inquiries of the past few years have not succeeded in doing more than scratching the surface – it is likely that the only way forward is to have an external criminal investigation.

We also need to set a new path forward.

The principle of civilian control of the uniform services is a vital one and needs now to be exercised. We need the type of real reform and accountability for An Garda Síochána that we demanded for the old Royal Ulster Constabulary and achieved via the adoption of the Patten report.

While there have been several important and significant reforms to Garda organisation and powers over the past two decades, we need our own Patten Report now to offer An Garda Síochána the new beginning it needs and the lift to morale that its members deserve.

Turning quickly back to the lesser crisis, the statements, comments, corrections and clarifications coming from an Taoiseach as well as Ministers Fitzgerald and Zappone highlight the political dysfunction and lack of communications at the heart of government.

If their accounts are to be believed then the “relevant” ministers were so disengaged and disinterested that it never occurred to any of them to ask Minister Zappone why Sgt Maurice McCabe was meeting with her, who had requested the meeting, why was he meeting with the Minister for Children and – more importantly- to ask afterwards… how did that go?

Sadly, it seems that most, if not all, of the principal characters in this ministerial melodrama were more concerned with protecting their own positions with carefully scripted narratives than they were in actually getting to the core of what the hell is going on with this latest instalment of the smearing of Sgt McCabe.

The Tánaiste seems so determined that the media and the public believe her self-serving version of events, including her account of the meeting with Fianna Fáil’s Jim O’Callaghan, that it hasn’t occurred to her that her own account portrays her as a Minister who is disconnected from the details of her own direct responsibilities, almost to the point of negligence.

The test of our “new politics” is that it should be focused on policies and outcomes not personalities and process. The answer to this crisis is not a head or an election – it is action. Failure to meaningfully and decisively deliver that action should result in an election.

At the heart of the McCabe smear was the sustained maligning of a decent man doing his job and the consequential denial to him, by senior Garda officers, of the presumption of innocence.

While it may be satisfying, and offer some ‘poetic justice’, the denial of the presumption of innocence to the Garda Commissioner is not the answer to the McCabe smear or the crisis in An Garda Síochána.

While I may have doubts or questions in my own mind about the Commissioner’s role in the mistreatment of Sgt McCabe and indeed Supt Dave Taylor, all I know it what I have read in print and online – and that is not all Gospel.

Commissioner O’Sullivan is not the source or the core of problem with An Garda Síochána, neither is an Tánaiste – but with each passing day we must start to wonder if either can ever be a part of the solution.

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 Monday. Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney

Rollingnews

2/2/2017 . Stephen Donnelly Joins Fianna Fail. Pictured (LTOR) Stephen Donnelly (Glasses) with Fianna Fail party leader Micheal Martin TD talking to the media outside Leinster House this afternoon after Stephen announced today he was joining Fianna Fail. He has been appointed the partys Front Spokeperson on Brexit. Photo: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

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From top: Stephen Donnelly (left) and Micheá Martin; Derek Mooney

With the Stephen Donnelly ‘coup’ Fianna Fáil is not so much winning back the support of disgruntled ex-FF voters as it is convincing non-committed voters that it is the best option at the next election.

Derek Mooney writes:

Having used last week’s column to critique Enda Kenny’s leadership of Fine Gael, it is only fair that I use this week’s one to throw a jaundiced eye over Michéal Martin’s leadership of Fianna Fáil.

Around this time last year Martin was preparing to face his biggest political test as leader, the 2016 General election. Though we forget it now, the omens did not look so good at the time. A Sunday Times/Behaviour and Attitudes opinion poll published on this date last year had Fianna Fáil on just 20%.

This was a far from auspicious start to an election campaign where most pundits and commentators were predicting a return of the outgoing Fine Gael/Labour government, although with a considerably reduced majority.

Fianna Fáil was set to make some gains, even a repeat of its disastrous 2011 performance could see it gain a few extra seats, the question though was whether it could win enough extra seats to make itself relevant.

Just one year on and the party’s position at the centre of Irish political is now far more secure than most imagined possible. Not alone that but Michéal Martin’s grip on leadership is by far the most secure of all the current party leaders: Enda Kenny has Leo and Simon C snapping at his heels. Brendan Howlin has Alan Kelly stalking the corridors while Gerry Adams has the past.

The past year has been a good one for Martin. His media performances have been convincing and he conveys the impression of a man who is on top of his game and happy to engage in public debate.

This positive feeling towards him has been reflected in his own approval rating and in his party’s slowly increasing polling numbers. Last week’s coup in winning Stephen Donnelly TD to FF’s Dáil benches further suggests that Martin’s Fianna Fáil is on a continuing upward trajectory.

Martin’s newest TD arrived fully on message. In the face of an understandable chorus of disapproval from the pundits for his own very cutting past criticisms of Fianna Fáil, Donnelly could construct a reasonable and coherent narrative for his joining the Soldiers of Destiny, offering two main reasons:

First, that he saw a party “going back to its social democratic roots, emphasising a stable tax base, support for business, investment in public services and communities, and a shared prosperity” and Second, that he has witnessed the party working hard over the past six years to move on.

There is, of course, a third reason: the fact that he sees Fianna Fáil as the party most likely to form the next government and Martin as a future Taoiseach.

Donnelly may be right, but Fianna Fáil still has a big test to face before these things become certain – and it seems that Martin see Donnelly as a key player in facing that test.

The decline in Fianna Fail’s support started long before 2011 or even 2009, it started at the end of the 90s as the Irish electorate started to change.

Fianna Fáil’s wins in 2002 and 2007 were not about Fianna Fáil simply rallying its voters out to back Bertie and back the party, they were about the increasing number of non-committed, non-party affiliated voters backing the party they saw as being the most economically competent.

This is why the fall in support in 2011 was so great – the decline in core support that had started in the 90s had been masked by an increase in we might term “promiscuous” support.

Fianna Fáil is not so much winning back the support of disgruntled ex FF voters as it is convincing non-committed voters that it is the best option at the next election.

There are some committed core supporters, as evidenced by 2011, but this traditional loyal pool of voters has been falling and it continues to fall. Fianna Fáil is not unique in this, it is happening everywhere and it a phenomenon that you cannot simply address with smarter graphics, bigger and better campaigns and stronger local organisation. Fine Gael is in the process of discovering this.

Post-election surveys, including the 2016 one, suggest that Fianna Fáil support is lower in the sections of society that are growing, i.e. younger voters and those with higher education.

This is a problem that the party needs to address now. It has succeeded to win back some support from older voters and some of its more traditional base, but to what extent did it actually win back that support as opposed to merely reaping the rewards of Fine Gael losing it?

Are Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil – and perhaps the remnants of the Irish Labour party – caught in a political zero sum gain, where one party can only gain when the other party[s] lose?

I suspect the situation is not quite as dark as this and the combined support of the three parties has the capacity to grow and get back into the mid/high 60s, but it can only do so when we return to some sense of stability and faith in political and politicians begins to grow. This does not presume, however, that all three parties will continue – the lesson of the past decade is that there are no certainties.

In the meantime, Martin’s own immediate destiny is dependent on reaching out to educated voters and new voters and convincing them that Fianna Fáil capable of successfully managing the economy.

The addition of Stephen Donnelly and his positioning by Fianna Fáil over the past few days suggests that Martin gets 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 Monday. Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney

Rollingnews

Earlier: For Your Consideration: The Day Stephen Donnelly Joined Foster and Allen

Meanwhile…

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Ah here.

Thanks Antoine D’Alton

15/02/2016.Pictured (L to R) Leader of Fine Gael An Taoiseach Enda Kenny TD with Fine Gael Minister for Health Leo Varadkar at the Centric Health & HSE Primary Care Centre in Dublin today, at the launch of Fine Gael Plan for Health, Investing in Our Health Services. Photo: RollingNews.ie

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From left: Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Leo Varadkar launch the General Election 2016; Derek Mooney.

Replacing Enda without a major reappraisal of what Fine Gael stands for is to miss out on what the last election told us about the attitudes of the electorate and the state of politics in Ireland.

Derek Mooney writes:

“I have had to ask myself that key question, the 3 am. question, if we are in government and there is a national crisis, if there is a sovereign debt crisis for example and [then Governor of the Central Bank] Patrick Honohan rings the Taoiseach – who do I want to answer that phone, I want Richard Bruton to answer that… The people are saying to us they don’t have confidence in Enda Kenny.”

This excoriating quote comes from Leo Varadkar on RTÉ’s Primetime during the failed June 2010 heave against Enda Kenny.

He was not the only one questioning Enda Kenny’s capacity for leadership. On the day before the crucial parliamentary party vote Richard Bruton told RTE’s News at One that:

“I unfortunately no longer have confidence that Enda Kenny can provide the leadership that this country needs…”

While they, and many others, within Fine Gael, thought that was the time to dump Enda, the majority– slim or otherwise – of their parliamentary colleagues did not. The attempt to dump Enda failed.

The insurgents learned an important lesson six and a half years ago: do not underestimate Enda’s tenacity. While they were going on radio and TV in dribs and drabs to wound him, Enda and his supporters were working one-on-one with each individual TD, Senator and MEP to do, or offer, whatever was needed to secure the votes.

The mutineers learned that Enda is not an easy man to get rid of – not then and perhaps even not now. Back then they hoped that a series of bad polls for Fine Gael, even falling behind Labour in an Irish Times poll (them was the days!), might cause Enda to fall on his sword. They were wrong.

While he is now a lot closer to the end of his leadership than he was in 2010: Enda – and his team of loyal lieutenants – are still determined that they alone will decide when the end is nigh.

The understandable furore over Enda’s handling of the recent 3am Sinn Féin coalition question has hurt him. It has also hurt Fine Gael and has placed the issue of leadership firmly on the agenda.

Coming as it did just as another poll showed Fianna Fáil moving ahead of FG did not help the mood. But is this really enough to topple him right now? Or, to put it another way, if the mess that was the February 2016 Fine Gael election campaign was not sufficient grounds for changing leader, is this?

The problem for Fine Gael is not Enda Kenny, or at least it is not just Enda Kenny, it is bigger than that. The paradox that saw FG lose one third of the seats won in 2011 and still remain in office means it has not yet had come to terms with losing the 2016 general election. Consequently, it has not yet learned the lessons of that defeat.

Read the two post-election reports the party published in August 2016 and you will see what I mean. Both focused on communications and organisational minutiae while missing the bigger issue: what does Fine Gael stand for?

Recommendation 1 in the parliamentary party’s Pathways and Opportunities report states:
Briefing documents need to be one page, and they need to be brief…

While TDs focus on messaging problems may, perhaps, be code for Enda’s lack of communications skills, it is still misdirection.

FG did not see its number of seats drop from 76 to 50 and its vote share collapse from 36% to 25.5% because of the size of its briefing documents. It did so because of their content.

While it is probably unfair to expect reports, which were destined to be published, to gift their political opponents with any noteworthy critical analysis, it is not unreasonable to expect them to show some modicum of awareness of the core problem, even if only the usual platitudes.

Even outside the reports, we are not hearing any significant querying or questioning of Fine Gael’s purpose and vision beyond some whispering about who should be the face on the posters. According to a former Fine Gael TD. even this is not going to go anywhere until whoever wants the top job is willing to “put up”.

Switching Enda for Simon C or Leo or even for Frances, Paschal or Simon H – without a major reappraisal of what the party stands for is to miss out on what the last election told us about the attitudes of the electorate or the state of politics.

Rather than focusing on briefing notes and communications they should be deep diving into the serious analysis coming out from the last election.

This includes a recent report from Dr Deirdre Tinney and Dr Stephen Quinlan looking at populist influences in that result: particularly in terms of anti-elitism and distrust of politicians. This is the type of material that all political parties should be considering, not just Fine Gael.

As for the Sinn Féin comment that triggered this latest palace wobble: we will never know what An Taoiseach was thinking when he declined to resolutely rule out any coalition with Sinn Féin.

Perhaps he just misspoke? He wouldn’t be the first leader to have done it, though this explanation is unlikely considering how many times the question was put to him.

A more likely one is that he was trying to send out some subtle signal, but just forgot the subtle bit. Maybe he was trying to draw Mary Lou McDonald out on her comments that Sinn Féin would be open to have a “conversation” around a junior coalition role in the future.

Or, could it be that he and his advisers have concluded that their strategy of continually attacking SF is simply not having the desired effect and it is time to change tack and damage them more by pulling them in closer?

The fact that answer could be anywhere along a spectrum from wanting to consider SF as a future coalition option to wanting to cause them maximum damage indicates the scale of the problem Fine Gael faces about its lack of clarity, direction and identity.

While most of the pretenders could probably manage to appear less confused and confusing than the current leader, I am yet to be convinced that any of them possess his tenacity and steeliness or, more importantly, that the underlying reality would be that much different with someone else in charge.

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 Monday. Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney

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From top: UK Prime Minister Theresa May and Taoiseach Enda Kenny; Derek Mooney

Instead of passively waiting for our near neighbour to tell the EU their opening position Enda Kenny must act now to set out our vision of a post-Brexit border.

Derek Mooney writes:

If Enda Kenny intended his nonchalant response to Theresa May’s Brexit speech to convey the image of a Government that is perfectly prepared and in complete command of the situation, then the ploy has not worked.

Instead, his under reaction and this is all in line with what we had prepared for approach only makes his government look like it either does not grasp the enormity of the situation or – even more alarmingly – it is behaving like Tennessee William’s Blanche Dubois, and must depend on the kindness of strangers.

It is an impression that is not eased by reading the transcripts of the Leaders’ Questions exchanges between An Taoiseach and Michéal Martin and Mary Lou MacDonald last week.

On several occasions during his replies, particularly to the Fianna Fáil leader, An Taoiseach said: “We are at the start of this process”.

But we are not at the start of this process. The clock started on this messy and complex business within minutes of the announcement of the UK referendum result early on the morning of June 24 last. We are well into this process with the Article 50 negotiation talks ready to start in just under ten [10] weeks.

I cannot believe that the Taoiseach seriously meant to suggest that he and his officials needed to wait until the British Prime Minister was ready to formally set out her Brexit strategy, yet that seems to be the impression he was content to give.

In the Government’s formal response to May’s speech it “welcomes” the fact that Prime Minister May “…made clear that her priorities include maintaining the common travel area and avoiding a return to a hard border with Northern Ireland.”

She does indeed say that in point 4 of her Twelve-Point Brexit strategy. But she also said a lot more. Point 4 comes between Point 3; where she says that she will ensure that:

“…no new barriers… within our own Union are created” and Point 5; where she bluntly says that: “Brexit must mean control of the number of people who come to Britain from Europe.”

There is the problem: how can you have something that is clearly a border when it comes to keeping EU citizens out of the UK (Point 5) but it is not between the two islands (Point 3) and yet it is not a border when it comes to allowing the traditional common travel area to continue (Point 4)? It is the Schrödinger’s cat of borders?

Leaving aside the physical incongruity of it being a non-border border – a situation made more improbable when you add in the complexity of the UK not being in the customs union, but kind of being associated with it (Point 9) – and just look at the politics of this conundrum.

May has made a firm commitment to her voters in England that she will stem immigration. Won’t this domestic political imperative trump her broad wishes on our Common Travel Area? Especially, as Dr Kevin Cunningham pointed out on Twitter, when a NatCen (UK) social research survey from last November shows that 45% of British voters support introducing passport checks between the UK and Ireland with only 29% opposing it. An Taoiseach is being naïve if he genuinely thinks Point 4 can be taken at face value.

This situation is made even more complex, as Fianna Fáil’s Darragh O’Brien pointed out last week, when you factor in that Prime Minister May did not make any mention of the special status of Northern Ireland.

After Brexit it will be a region with a million or so Irish – and by extension EU – citizens who will find themselves outside the EU despite their will and without representation – a matter I will return to later.

I have no doubt that officials in the amalgamated international, EU and Northern Ireland division of the Department of An Taoiseach (sounds like a non-ICTU trade union from the 70s, does it not?) have been working on contingency positions to address many of the permutations that the UK could have taken: in/out of the single mark, EFTA, customs unions yadda, yadda…, but that has been on top of their usual daily work dealing with Northern Ireland, the EU and the rest of the world, items that probably generate enough work to fill a normal day.

Instead of passively waiting for our near neighbour to tell the EU their opening position, we should be putting more senior officials to work on Brexit on a full time basis and start setting out in detail both the major difficulties that Brexit poses for us in terms of our economy, our trade, our security and our day to day relationships with Northern Ireland and Great Britain and the measures we propose to address them. To do otherwise is a false economy.

This is a first rule of lobbying – don’t just go with a list of gripes, go with a researched and structured set of solutions. Make it as easy as you possibly can for the powers that be to give you want you need.

We have more skin in this game, North and South, than anyone else with the possible exception of Scotland. We are not merely one of 27 on the EU side of the negotiations – though we clearly are on the EU side of the table – we are unique among those 27 in having to live daily with the consequences of Brexit.

These consequences will be considerable, as the economic integration of the North with the rest of the island has risen considerably since the Good Friday Agreement, as pointed out by the Bruegel think-tank.

The retention of the Good Friday Agreement in any post Art 50 negotiation is a sine qua non for us as it sets out the relations between these two island on three individual strands – within Northern Ireland, between the North and the South of this island and east-west between the two islands.

While some of the key negotiating figures on the EU side, including Michel Barnier and Guy Verhoefstadt, have already indicated that safeguarding and protecting the Good Friday Agreement is a priority, they cannot hope to understand or grasp the finer details of its provisions better than our most senior officials.

There also needs to be a voice for the many Irish citizens in Northern Ireland who, as I pointed out earlier, are also EU citizens. One of the benefits of that EU citizenship, is the right to be represented in the EU Parliament. While it is not a right we all may equally appreciate – I suspect the prospect of having it taken away may awaken some to its value and significance.

The Irish government should be arguing for continued representation for Northern Ireland in the EU and the retention of its three MEPs – rather than allowing Mrs May to set the agenda for how a large number of Irish/EU citizens are represented and championed post Article 50.

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 Monday. Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney

Top pic: Getty

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From top: Outgoing First Minister Arlene Foster arrives with DUP members to talk to the media at Stormont this morning; Derek Mooney

With the prospect of the DUP and Sinn Féin returning as the main parties of Unionism and Nationalism in Northern ireland it is hard to see how a viable new Executive can be formed within the time allowed.

Derek Mooney writes:

Where the collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive has been about an absence of trust and respect, the next six weeks will be about patience – not least the patience of the electorate.

Voters, in most mature democracies, do not like unnecessary elections, and tend to punish the party that caused one. Whether that rule holds in a polity that is closer to pubescent than mature will be interesting to see, but it is already clear the DUP is not as bullish about its prospects as it was. We saw that in Arlene Foster’s Stormont Hall presser just before midday.

The last Assembly election was just eight months ago, the Brexit referendum was held last June. Barring a snap Westminster election, the good voters of Northern Ireland were not anticipating having to drag themselves down to the polling stations for another two years, at least, until the May 2019 Local Elections.

They were expecting almost three campaign free years, but now DUP intransigence and mismanagement has plunged the Six Counties into crisis and sent the two governments scurrying about when they were already barely coping with Brexit.

But as tetchy as the voters may be about having their period of political rest disturbed, their patience will really be tested if the DUP – and by extension Sinn Féin – attempt to run the 2017 Assembly campaign along their traditional routes.

The DUP lambasts Sinn Féin which helps Sinn Féin convince the nationalist community that it is the only bulwark against DUP hegemony. In turn, Sinn Féin slams the DUP, which helps the DUP to convince wavering UUP supporters that they must rally to them to stop the Provos getting the First Minister’s job.

It’s a symbiotic campaign tactic has worked for both in the past, but at a cost: to the smaller parties and to voter confidence.

As I have discussed here before, voter turnout in elections in the North has been dropping with nationalist voters staying away slightly more than their unionist neighbours.

The Brexit turnout was the exception. Though only seven weeks after the Assembly election; it saw voter turnout jump by a whopping 8%. In other words, about 90,000 people who were not motivated enough to come out and vote for any of the candidates running for the Assembly, were moved to come out and vote on the issue of remaining in the EU.

The question this time around is whether the new circumstances will dictate a new voter strategy? Will people still vote the way they did last May and will the 90,000-extra people who voted on Brexit have the motivation they require to come out again and vote.

Perhaps some of them will after they hear Prime Minister Theresa May say tomorrow that she is happy to accept a hard Brexit and a hard border across this island as a price worth paying for keeping his grip on the Tory party.

A six-week campaign of deep silo-ed orange and green rhetoric from both big beasts will test the voters resolve and patience.

If their patience is exhausted and we get, as I suggested last week, a situation where the DUP and Sinn Féin return as the main parties of Unionism and Nationalism, albeit with reduced numbers, then it is hard to see how a viable new Executive can be formed within the time allowed.

If that is the case, then the Secretary of State can call another election, except this time the existing executive doesn’t continue into a caretaker/acting capacity, instead we get a return of direct rule.

This is a problem. Given that the Executive has effectively collapsed due to absence of real parity of esteem, it would test the patience of nationalist voters, from across the spectrum, to see the political instability triggered by DUP intransigence result – even temporarily – in direct rule from Westminster, especially one so driven by Brexiteers. This is not in our interests either.

There is also a sound practical political reason why direct rule is a bad alternative. If you want to get all the parties to come to their senses and break any likely deadlock, then don’t threaten as a default something that one of those parties does not view as something to be avoided at all costs.

There is, as Colum Eastwood and the SDLP have suggested, an alternative. It is one that Governments had already envisaged for such a deadlocked scenario: it is: Joint Authority, though back then they called it Joint Stewardship.

In Armagh on 6 April 2006 the then British Prime Minister, Tony Blair and the then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, issued a joint statement on the then deadlocked political situation.

In April 2006, the two Governments concluded that the people of Northern Ireland should not be asked to vote repeatedly in elections to a deadlocked Assembly and proposed cancelling salaries and allowances for MLAs pending “a clear political willingness to exercise devolved power”.

More specifically, at Point 10 of their statement the two Governments agreed:

“…that this will have immediate implications for their joint stewardship of the process. We are beginning detailed work on British-Irish partnership arrangements that will be necessary in these circumstances to ensure that the Good Friday Agreement… is actively developed across its structures and functions. This work will be shaped by the commitment of both Governments to a step-change in advancing North-South co-operation and action for the benefit of all.”

Significantly adding at Point 11 that:

“The British Government will introduce emergency legislation to facilitate this way forward.”

Perhaps the two Governments, but more especially our own Government, should be considering this approach now as a way of bringing some political leaders to their senses before everyone’s patience is tried.

One last word on patience. Though I am no fan of his and I have had no problem criticising him here and elsewhere, it must be said that Martin McGuinness showed considerable patience and perseverance over the past few months as he used his personal leadership skills to hold an increasingly fractious Executive together.

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 Monday. Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney

Pic: Hannah Gay

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From top” Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster; Derek Mooney

The North is heading for another Assembly election barely eight months since the last one.

But this is not some Sinn Féin campaign to get rid of Arlene Foster and the DUP knows it.

Derek Mooney writes:

What makes this ‘Cash for Ash’ scandal different is that, unlike Northern Ireland’s political crises of the past, is not about flags, marches, emblems or legacy – it is purely political. Or, at least, it started out that way.

Cash for Ash is about ministerial competence and responsibility and how they allowed a projected £500 million overspend over the next twenty years on subsidising the use of renewable pellets in heating systems.

But that is not how the DUP First Minister wants to play it. She, and her supporters, have dialled the political rhetoric back to the 1980s, talking the crisis up as not just orange versus green, but as deepest orange versus light orange and all of green.

According to Arlene this is all about her, not the public purse.

Though they cursorily acknowledge the deep public disquiet at the waste of public funds, the DUP asserts that the row has been motivated by the First Minister’s political enemies and opponents.

Arlene Foster herself has even claimed that “A lot of it is personal, a lot of it sadly is misogynistic as well because I am a female – the first female leader of Northern Ireland.”

At some points, she talks as if the crisis was just some part of a big Provo plot to undermine her.

That particular assertion suggests that – despite outward appearances – the DUP has not moved on one iota from its pre-Good Friday Agreement days. It is also as complete a fiction as the notion that the saga is based on misogyny.

It wasn’t Sinn Féin who brought the Cash for Ash scandal to public prominence, it was the BBC’s Stephen Nolan, through both his TV and Radio shows.

It was Nolan’s BBC Radio Ulster morning show that highlighted the scandal with day by day drip feeds of newly leaked material. It was Nolan who featured Arlene’s former DUP ministerial colleague, Jonathan Bell, in a TV interview where Bell pointed the finger at Foster and her Special Advisers for extending the scheme.

Similarly, it has been the traditionally Unionist Belfast newspaper, the Belfast News Letter which has kept the story on its front page since mid-December, courtesy of the tenacity of its Political Editor, Sam McBride.

In the Assembly, it was the SDLP, supported by the UUP, Alliance and Green parties, that tabled the motion calling on the First Minister to be excluded from office for six months. When it came to the vote, Sinn Féin merely abstained.

This is not some Sinn Féin campaign to get rid of Arlene and the DUP knows it. This is a scandal that has its roots in ministerial misfeasance, whether there are elements of malfeasance has yet to be established.

Right up to last Friday, even after the DUP provocatively cut funding for an Irish language scheme, Sinn Féin was still struggling to find a way to get Arlene off the hook.

This, at least, was acknowledged by the First Minister when she said “with the exception of the issue of stepping aside, we believe that the proposals provided to us by Sinn Féin… provide a basis for taking an investigation forward.”

Gerry Adam’s speech over the weekend where he catalogued the times that the DUP had out-foxed Sinn Féin in government signalled a hardening of their position.

The tipping point now is whether the First Minister is prepared to stand aside for a four-week period while the mooted whirlwind investigation is conducted. The DUP say she will not stand aside for even a day. Sinn Féin thinks she must, as indeed did the Assembly by a vote of 39 – 36.

So, who will blink?

If no one does, then an election is inevitable. The Deputy First Minister (who is actually the Co-First Minister) Martin McGuinness can trigger her resignation by resigning himself. This would effectively collapse the Executive and lead to an election.

Will it happen? We should know in the coming days. But even if it doesn’t and one side gives way, relations and trust between the two Executive partners are now so strained and damaged that it hard to see how it can hope to continue for much longer.

It is also hard to see how an election alone can resolve the impasse. Public confidence in NI’s political parties has been falling from election to election. Voters are so turned off by NI politics that fewer people voted in last year’s Assembly election (55%) than voted in the Brexit referendum (63%).

Given the choices currently on offer, is there any reason to hope that voters will not be turned off even further by the petty partisan politics of the past few weeks?

If voters continue to stay away and both the DUP and Sinn Féin return as the main parties of Unionism and Nationalism, albeit with reduced numbers, can a viable Executive be formed with the same two parties at its helm?

Last June’s Brexit vote potentially changed the political landscape in the North, with a majority voting to stay in the EU – it is time that the North’s party political landscape caught up with that change.

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 Monday. Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney

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