Author Archives: Derek Mooney

From top: Ingram Pitt’s Brexit view in the Financial Times: Derek Mooney

 

According to its Brexit position papers issued last week, the British Government is absolutely determined to avoid a hard Brexit and is hell bent on making sure that there will be no changes to how the border between the two parts of this island operates.

If only it were true.

It isn’t. As many others have already pointed out, you have barely to scratch the surface of the British government’s argument to quickly realise that its glistening yet imprecise language masks a dark and base core.

Last week’s papers were not about the massive machinery of the British government and civil service setting out its key positions on crucial realities arising from Brexit, but rather they were a crude and infantile political attempt to prepare a platform from where current British Ministers can accuse the EU27 of imposing borders and costs when the inevitable hard Brexit happens.

The former Tory Chancellor, George Osbourne called it right a few months back in a tweet when he predicted that the EU/UK Article 50 negotiations will end in failure in 2019 and that the UK will crash out of the EU with no deal and end up a transitional arrangement that resembles Norway’s.

The UK position papers were not about negotiations or ambitions. They were, almost literally, about positioning.

They were about the current crop of UK Tory Ministers positioning themselves for a hard Brexit – a hard Brexit that will impose a hard border across this island – and then being able to wring their hands afterwards, claiming that this wasn’t what they wanted, and that it is all the fault of the faceless, unelected, bloated bureaucrats in Brussels, aided and abetted by ungrateful Irish politicians

They know that the negotiations are on a collision course. The best deal for Britain is not the best deal for the Tory party. And so, the Tory party’s interests are about to trump the countries, helped along by the fact that the British Labour party is even more paralysed by its divisions on Europe than the Tories.

That is why the UK position papers on the Customs Union and Northern Ireland contradict each other.

It is why they want to confuse and upset the Article 50 negotiations timeline by dragging decisions on Northern Ireland out from the first phase of talks and dragging it into the customs and trade talks, thereby frustrating both.

There was nothing to welcome in last week’s position papers and diplomatic niceties should not prevent us from saying his openly and candidly.

Brexit in any shape or form will cost us, but a hard Brexit will hurt us economically and potentially cause political turmoil by undermining much of the progress made since the Good Friday Agreement; with its dismantling of the border structures and military architecture.

It took decades for us to convince the British that there were no security or military solutions to the political problems associated with partition.

It was a slow and painstaking process that involved the building up of strong personal relationships, most notably between Albert Reynolds and John Major and followed by Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair.

Now Mrs May, and her ministers, are set to turn back the clock for Northern Ireland and this entire island, and all for reasons of Tory party unity.

This time around instead of talking about security solutions they talk about technological solutions – solutions to a problem that had all but disappeared but which their blind intransigence is determined to make reappear.

As I have said here for well over a year: Brexit changes everything on this island – and I do mean everything, not just economics.

Up to now, most of the Irish political talk has been on mitigating the economic damage and cost of Brexit and seeking the opportunities it offers – all that has been fine, if not a little understated at times, but the impact of Brexit goes beyond the economic.

The relationships between these two islands and between the two parts of this island are also about to change: economically, socially and politically… especially politically.

The hard Brexit that Gove, Johnson, Fox, Davis and Hammond are forging is about to make all-island approaches here the only viable ones.

The Brexit vote in the North has changed everything. Despite the consent principles contained within the Good Friday Agreement, the constitutional position of the people of the North, in this case as fully represented EU citizens, is about to change contrary to how a majority voted.

As the SDLP leader Colum Eastwood stated almost exactly one year ago:

“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.”

It is regrettable that Irish politicians down here – of all hues – have not focussed sufficiently on this theme over the past year. While their attention to some of the finer detail is commendable, that cannot be allowed to come at the price of missing this bigger issue.

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

Illustration: Ingram Pitt (FT)

Derek Mooney

A few weeks back I offered you my suggested Summer political reading list, today I propose an accompanying political movie viewing list. The movies below all have the benefit of being available on the Irish Netflix service, but they can also be viewed elsewhere.

By the way, one of the authors featured in my political books list, Chris Patton, will be talking with John Bowman as part of Dublin City Council’s Dublin Festival of History on September 30th.

And now for the movies…

Best of Enemies: Buckley Vs Vidal

This is an absorbing account of the rivalry, if not visceral hatred, between US writers and commentators Gore Vidal and William F Buckley. Their stores are told through their participation in a series of televised appearance during the 1968 Democrat and Republican conventions.

Rather than just show the conventions live, the US TV network CBS had elected, mainly due to costs, to invite both men, Vidal the darling of the liberal set and Buckley the arch conservative, on to debate each other and comment on that night’s convention proceedings.

We see the personal tension slowly mount between the two erudite, cultured and witty men. The movie features lots of archival material, along with selections of both men’s political prose read by Kelsey Grammer as Buckley and John Lithgow as Vidal. Even if you have no interest in politics, let alone US politics of the 60s and 70s, the story of the two men will enthral.

 

American Anarchist

Sticking with the turmoil of 60s/70s America, if Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals was the political handbook of the radical left in the 60s/70s then William Powell’s Anarchist’s Cookbook was the instruction manual for militant anarchists with its recipes and directions on how to make homemade munitions and ordinance.

The documentary interviews Powell today and explores his motivations in producing the book aged 19 and how he has spent most of life since regretting it. Powell reveals how he found the information in a series of US Department of Defence manuals openly available in the New York public library.

The documentary explores the febrile atmosphere in America in the 60s (timely given the events of the past few days in Virginia) and how the Vietnam war and political scandal alienated many in that generation.

 

Get Me Roger Stone

From Powell on the left we now turn to another product of 60s American, but time from the right: Roger Stone. A bit like Rumsfeld’s Rules or the earlier Fog of War, the makers attempt to tell the story of Stone’s career via a series of cynical rules that Stone claims has guided his career as a political operator and lobbyist.

His “rules” are far from original, but it is a handy device to narrate his story and career trajectory from a minor walk-on role in Watergate, to a bi-sex scandal while advising Bob Dole’s presidential bid, to becoming a regular on the conspiracy lunacy that is Infowars.com, to serving as an adviser to Donald J Trump.

Stone comes across as a major league narcissist who was around when a lot of things happened, but was never really a mover and shaker in any of them. He is more than just a dirty tricks merchant, but not a lot more.

All that said, he does offer a worthwhile perspective on the American Alt-Right and the blurring of the lines between media and politics and the documentary is entertaining and colourful.

 

My Way: The Rise and Fall of Berlusconi

From narcissists in America we now turn to one of Europe’s great political narcissists: Silvio Berlusconi.

In this movie, the Italian Tycoon and politician tells his own story in a series of interviews with his biographer, former FT correspondent Alan Friedman. This is very much the film of the book, but offers an interesting insight into the man.

Emmanuel Macron – Behind the Rise.

From an Italian looking backwards we move to a French man looking forwards. Behind the Rise is, as it claims, an objective look at the 200 days leading up to the final round of voting in this year’s French presidential election.

The French film makers had virtually open access to the candidate and his campaign team, offering some fascinating insider footage of the campaign. The more fascinating thing is that the makers started making this movie before Macron emerged as a front runner.

The pace throughout is brisk. The production values are high. Macron emerges as a decent and driven guy who knows his own mind. We see him when he is relaxed and when he is stressed, even angry, but at all times he seems about eerily in control of himself.

Keep Quiet

With the recent Nazi protest in Charlottesville in mind, ever wonder how an anti-Semite would feel if they discovered that they are in fact, Jewish? Wonder no more. This absorbing and intriguing movie tells the story of a young ultra-far-right Hungarian politician, Csanad Szeged, who discovers via an even more anti-Semitic rival that he is, in fact, Jewish.

At first his Jobbik colleagues advise him to keep quiet, but that proves impossible. The movie chronicles his journey from that point onwards and invites you to wonder if he is sincere or just an ambitious man looking for a cause, any cause.

 

Democrats

Finally, moving away from US and European politics, this remarkable film about Zimbabwean politics tells the stories of the two lead negotiators from Mugabe’s ruling Zanu-PF and the opposition MDC-T as they struggle to work together to write a new constitution for the divided country.

While it focusses on these co-chairs of the constitutional committee CoPac, the real main character is President Mugabe, who has only agreed to a new constitution under duress and now fights to cling to office threatening and intimidating opposition leaders. Watch Mugabe’s practised disdain as he launches the consultative process for a new constitution.

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As an antidote to the politics overload suggested above I suggest the following series on Netflix for some binge viewing: First is the hilarious Its Always Sunny in Philadelphia. It follows the increasingly manic adventures of the “gang” who own and ostensibly run a dive bar in South Philly, which never seems to have any customers.

The other is Rake, the story of a self-destructive Aussie barrister with w criminal practice – he likes cocaine – and the price of his habit is outstripping his earnings. There is an American remake, which is a bit sanitised, but enjoyable nonetheless.

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

From top: Leo Varadkar at Queen’s University, Belfast last week; Derek Mooney

By any measure, Taoiseach Varadkar’s Northern Ireland visit was a success. It combined style with a big dollop of substance.

You had the optics of his attendance at the Belfast Pride breakfast and the substance of his key note address at Queen’s University in which he set out a clear and thoughtful approach to Brexit, the Irish/Irish border and the future of Northern Ireland.

Most importantly it linked all three. I spoke with a few people who were in the room for his speech and they each said that the “buzz” was palpable. This, they each reported, was something new, different and exciting. Each liked the speech, feeling it hit the right buttons, while not sounding too preachy.

With one short visit Varadkar appears to have binned the Fianna Fáil leader’s narrative that the Irish government does not pay sufficient attention to Northern Ireland and gazumped Sinn Féin on its spurious claim to be the only one thinking about unity.

But appearances can be deceptive. Despite the visit, Micheál Martin is still right, it is just that he will find it tougher to make that claim stick after last week.

Silly and ill-considered solo-run interventions like last week’s one from Fianna Fáil’s Brexit spokesperson, Stephen Donnelly, do not help Martin. If Donnelly is going to grab the ball, then it is a good idea to plant it in the back of the other sides goal and not to dribble it towards your own goal line.

What the Taoiseach has said on the Border is not, contrary to what Deputy Donnelly may think, “reckless” nor “dangerous”, but neither is it grounds to canonise Leo – let us look at what has happened and try to decode some specific actions and see what is really going on.

First is Leo’s tough talk on Brexit and the border.

It started at An Taoiseach’s press briefing preceding his Belfast trip. His tough talk came in response to the front-page story in the previous day’s London Times quoting Coveney as saying that Ireland was not interested in a technological solution to the border.

The Times treated his remarks as something new, even though Coveney had said it all that two week earlier to journalists in Brussels. In fact, all Coveney was doing was repeating verbatim what Taoiseach Enda Kenny had said in a keynote speech to the IIEA in February.

Coveney made the running on this issue, not Varadkar. Indeed An Taoiseach was playing catch up hence his more robust language in restating what his erstwhile rival had said and what has been the Irish governments position for almost a year.

Phrases such as:

“What we’re not going to do is to design a border for the Brexiteers because they’re the ones who want a border”

“It’s up to them to say what it is, say how it would work and first of all convince their own people, their own voters that this is actually a good idea.

“As far as this Government is concerned there shouldn’t be an economic border. We don’t want one.”

They may not be the most diplomatic, but neither are they in the realms of gunboat diplomacy. Indeed, it can be argued that Dublin needed to remove some of the coding from its public language so that people could hear what it has been saying.

So, in attempting to catch up with his own Foreign Minister Varadkar has, inadvertently and accidentally, found a route to potentially steal a key issue away from Fianna Fáil and make it his own.

Suddenly, Varadkar is speaking to republicanism and nationalism, North and South in clear and ringing tones in a way that his predecessor failed to do.

The fact that he is not doing it out of conviction or out of some deep-seated belief is irrelevant, for now, but may come back to the surface in the coming months when the depth and heft of his newly found nationalism is tested.

In the meantime, the question can legitimately be asked, why didn’t we see this tough and bold Varadkar in Downing Street a few weeks earlier? Why wasn’t he saying this to Prime Minister May rather than whimpering on about Love Actually?

The other element to decode in this scenario is style.

The new Taoiseach used the Queen’s University speech and the Vincent Browe interview to underscore the major differences between him and Enda Kenny.

Not only did Varadkar give a speech at Queen’s, he also agreed to take questions from the audience, something that his predecessor was famously loathe to do.

As for the Vincent Browne interview, the only real news about it was that he had done it at all. Again, a gentle reminder that we are expected to see Leo as a stark contrast to his predecessor; who resolutely refused to appear with that man Browne.

But contrary to what the Taoiseach’s expanded cohort of convincers may have us believe, the style may not be so very different after all. As we all waxed lyrical about Varadkar’s triumph in Belfast the latest set of homeless stats that show how the government’s policy is failing badly were sneaked out late on the Friday night of a bank holiday.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

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

Peruse Derek’s Summer political reads here.

Derek Mooney

With the Summer break in mind I decided to put together a summer reading list of titles to take away with you on holidays. Some of these I have already read, some I am planning to read. It includes recommendations from friends and suggestions made on Facebook and Twitter.

The list is in no particular order. If you disagree with any of my choices, then feel free to offer your suggestions in the comments section below.

Here goes:

Ruadhán MacCormaic’s The Supreme Court (Penguin Ireland) is a fascinating history and account of our top court. It is, in the words of Vincent Browne, “…not just for people interested in law; it tells you a lot about Ireland.”

It is no mere dry chronology of landmark ruling, but rather it tells the story of the court through its people, both on and before the bench, and the influence it has had on our society. A definite must read for anyone seriously interested in public policy.

 

At the risk of giving this list too much of a lawyer-y flavour, I am also including Joyce in Court by the late Supreme Court Judge, Adrian Hardiman, and published posthumously by Head of Zeus.

It is a very readable account about James Joyce (and there are not many of them), concentrating on his interest in the law and his fascination with court proceedings. Hardiman charts the many references to real trials in both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake and looks at the legal battles to prevent Ulysses’s publication.

Though published two years ago, Chris Dooley’s partial biography of Redmond: A Life Undone (Gill and MacMillan) looks at the seven critical years of Redmond’s political life from 1910 – 1918. At the start of this period Redmond is at the peak of his powers. He is leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party in Westminster, a major player holding the balance of power.

By 1917 he is a reviled and near irrelevant figure, broken by events – not least the 1916 Rebellion – with one year of life left. Dooley’s book attempts successfully to chart Redmond’s gradual disconnection with his electorate and his resulting declining fortunes. A really good read.

My next suggestion is written by a good friend and former colleague, Dr Brian Murphy. It is: Forgotten Patriot: Douglas Hyde and the Foundation of the Irish Presidency (The Collins Press) This is not just a biography of our often neglected first President who worked to make his presidency as inclusive as he could, it is the expertly researched and well told story of how the office of the President was born and grew. More importantly, Brian dispels the lazy analysis that has portrayed the pre-1990 history of presidency as just “a retirement home” far removed from real life and politics.

While on the topic of Douglas Hyde I can also recommend Cormac Moore’s The GAA v Douglas Hyde: The Removal of Ireland’s First President as GAA Patron, also from The Collins Press. It’s an entertaining account of how the GAA dumped Hyde as its patron following the President’s attendance at a soccer match between Ireland and Poland – a breach of the GAA’s ban on foreign games. The book not only looks at the twists and turns of how Hyde was removed but looks at the ramifications

Crossing the Threshold: The Story of the Marriage Equality Movement (Irish Academic Press) is a collection of 23 essays, edited by Dr Grainne Healy, described as “the official history of the role played by the Marriage Equality organisation”. It is just that and does not try to a history of the wider campaign. The essays are thoughtful and highlight the importance of personal stories and individual activism.

It should be read alongside the other book on the topic which was co-authored by Grainne along with Brian Sheehan and Noel Whelan: Ireland Says Yes: The Inside Story of How the Vote for Marriage Equality Was Won. It looked just at the final 100 days of the campaign and highlighted the crucial importance of having allies outside the usual liberal circles and how the campaign strenuously avoided the traps of insularity – a lesson that other campaigns should learn if they wish to succeed.

Looking beyond the solely Irish context Chris Patten’s First Confession: A Sort of Memoir (Penguin Books) is not just an autobiography, but rather a well written and often funny examination of today’s big political themes, most particularly identity, seen through the author’s own history and experiences. Patten is an astute observer and still has a lot to say. Well worth a read.

As a fan of the writing Niccoló Machiavelli, I can heartily recommend Erica Benner’s excellent Be Like the Fox, Machiavelli’s Lifelong Quest for Freedom (Penguin Books). She dismisses the one-dimensional caricature of him as cynical henchman and paints him as a profound political thinker, even a champion of liberty. A non-machiavellian Machiavelli, so to speak.

If you like your histories with plenty of gore and intrigue that I also suggest you grab a copy of Guy de la Bedoyere’s Praetorian: The Rise and Fall of Rome’s Imperial Bodyguard (Yale Books). It is what they used to call a “rollicking good read” and charts the history of the Emperor’s elite guard and their role in the making and breaking of their political masters. A must-buy if you are looking to send a book to the Garda Commissioner?

Moving from the intrigues of the past today’s ones, JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (Harper Collins) has received a slew of awards.

Not only has it been named as one of “Six books to help understand Trump’s win” it also has the distinction of being praised in the Dáil by Leo Varadkar, Paschal Donohue and Fianna Fail’s James Lawless.

It tells the story of a family in a rust belt town that achieves some upward mobility but finds that this progress is partially illusory and learns how the American Dream is a nightmare for many.

My final suggestion is an almost old fashioned whodunnit, but a dark one with a strong Belfast accent. It is the Guardian Irish Editor Henry McDonald’s debut murder mystery: The Swinging Detective (Gibson Square Books).

Set in Belfast, Berlin and London, the main character is Martin Peters a detective with the Berlin police is investigating two gruesome killings, but he has a past as a British army soldier who served in Belfast that haunts him. It is the first of a trilogy of Martin Peter’s planned by McDonald.

This is a personal selection. Like me it has a heavy political leaning, but enjoy nonetheless.

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

From top: Yesterday’s Sunday Independent/Kantar Millward Brown Poll l Derek Mooney

The results of yesterday’s Sunday Independent/Kantar Millward Brown Poll would appear to confirm two things.

The first one is that the two main parties are evenly matched and are together edging their combined vote back up to the 60s. The second is that there is very little likelihood of there being a general election this year.

I have addressed both this points before, so I do not plan to dwell on either one now, except to say that having the two parties so evenly match just weeks after Fine Gael has placed its ace card and changed leader; is effectively a bonus for Fianna Fáil.

The elevation of Varadkar should have seen Fine Gael use the euphoria and novelty of having a new leader to put some clear blue water between it and its main rival. It hasn’t, and that signals a big problem for the party’s strategists over the coming months.

As I have observed here several times, the main political parties do not do their polling in the same way as the major newspapers. They do not base their analysis on national quantitative surveys, but rather they employ constituency polling to measure where their messages are working and where their candidates are performing.

They do not see the country as a single battlefield, but rather as a patchwork of individual political battlegrounds, both geographic and demographic.

This is the data that decides election strategies. It is also the data that the leaders guard most jealously. It is rarely, if ever, shared beyond a handful of people. It is rarely even shared with ministerial or front bench colleagues, unless the leader wants a particular snippet or factoid to make its way into the Sunday papers or on to Morning Ireland.

It is the political equivalent of the Coca-Cola recipe. A few people may know one or two of the ingredients or how some part of the process works, but only the ones at the very top know the whole thing.

However, while the newspaper opinion polls do not swing or impact a political party’s electoral strategy, they can and often do influence the morale of candidates and activists.

Given the number and regularity of these national polls – and one has to question their value beyond selling extra copies, when an election is probably a year or so away – one bad poll result is not likely to too dispirit the troops, but get two or three on the trot and it can start to impact negatively.

And it is not just activists and aspiring candidates. Outside of the Dorcas gazelle, there is no creature on this planet who is more easily startled or alarmed than the bank-bench TD.

Show them a sequence of two or three bad Red C poll results and they are climbing the walls or, more likely, heading surreptitiously to chat with the nearest pol-corr to tell them how the leader needs to act quickly or dramatically to do x, y or z… where z usually involves their promotion.

The paradox for the party leadership is how do they reassure their unnerved backbenchers without giving away proprietary information from their internal polling.

As with all paradoxes there is no answer and so, to quote Sister Gertrude from the 1977 satirical movie Nasty Habits (based on Muriel Spark’s the Abbess of Crewe), “a paradox is something you live with”.

To be fair, any TD who is regularly out knocking on doors and maintaining a solid connection with their constituency and constituents will know whether any given poll is in tune with what they are hearing. They also know that the vast bulk of their constituents are not thinking daily about who they plan to vote for at the next election.

Yes, voters have opinions on what the government is doing on a particular issue or how it is handling the latest crisis, but voting is an aggregated decision. It has many component parts, of which how the voter feels about the party leader is one of the lower ones.

Analysis of the 2016 general election exit poll shows that less than 10% of voters cited choice of Taoiseach as a factor when they decided how they would vote.

For a much greater number the suitability of the candidates in their constituency was a key deciding factor. If you thought that water charges was the key issue you were about 10% more likely to vote Sinn Féin and about 15% less likely to vote Fine Gael.

How can a newspaper poll, conducted mid-term when a general election looks like being at least a year away, be expected to pick up on such many and varied factors – especially when most voters are not in that frame of mind right now.

This is not to dismiss newspaper opinion polls out of hand, nor is it a plea to ban polls, though banning them for the duration of a whole campaign, or at least the final 10 days is worth considering.

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

Graphics via The Sunday Independent

From top: McGill Summer School; Derek Mooney

At around 4.20pm on Friday last Dáil Éireann adjourned for the Summer recess. It is due to return at 2pm on Wednesday September 20th.

Cue the usual hollow complaints from the commentariat over TDs holidays and short Dáil sessions, with a few harrumphs from the Brussels side-line courtesy of Fine Gael MEP, Sean Kelly who tweeted that the EU parliament’s holiday will be 4 weeks shorter.

If this Dáil was actually processing legislation, especially the range of halfway decent Private Members Bills coming from backbenchers across the House, then there may be a basis for complaint. But, it isn’t.

To be fair, it is not as if TDs and Senators are about to head off to the Maldives or Marrakech.

The Seanad is sitting this week, as are several Oireachtas committees, and they will take a shorter break than the Dáil and return earlier – and before you sigh that the committees don’t count, bear in mind that Sean Fleming’s Public Accounts Committee will be launching its report into the financial procedures at Garda College, Templemore at 2.00pm tomorrow.

However, the fact that the Dáil is taking a nine-week break, does not mean that political debate will be on hold for all that time.

The start of the summer recess also means the start of the political Summer School season. This week sees the MacGill Summer School in Donegal and it will be following a range of other summer schools, both large and small, including the Parnell Summer School in Rathdrum, Co Wicklow in mid-August which will look at contemporary criminal, policing, penal and judicial policy and the excellent Kennedy Summer School being held in New Ross in early September which will look at a range of issues including Brexit.

While it is easy to dismiss some aspects of these Summer Schools are just the same folks talking at each other in various locations over wines of varying qualities, they still have a positive input into our policy discourse.

They allow more discussion on the broader themes and issues and encourage more focus on policy and less on process – something that bedevils political commentary and debate the other 40 odd weeks of the year – including by yours truly.

The Summer School season highlights the dearth of policy discussion the rest of the year around. I am often struck by how few serious policy fora and think tanks we have here.

While there are some, and they produce very good policy policies and encourage new policy directions, they tend to be from just outside the centrist spectrum, at either end: from the Hibernia Forum on the centre-right to the trade union backed Nevin Economic Research Institute. That is not to say that there no centrist fora, there are, but they tend to be sectoral or focussed on Ireland’s relationship with the EU.

It is as if the centrist parties should just look to their own limited in-house research teams and the civil service. While Fine Gael does have its Collins Institute, a quick look at the latest news section on their website suggests that annual activity is more based on a lunar calendar than a Gregorian one. The three most recent news items there are from May 2017, July 2015 and December 2014.

There is room for a significant centrist policy (big hint to Fianna Fáil) think tank and there are a range of EU institutes and fora, not to mention expertise, with which it could partner and co-operate. There is also a major issue on the horizon which it can help address: Brexit.

As I have said here several times, a lot of the discussion and focus in the Irish Brexit debate thus far has been on ameliorating and easing the most damaging economic aspects of Brexit, but there has not been sufficient discussion and exploration of the political dimensions.

One of those relates to the future of this island: as a whole.

One of the core principles of the Good Friday Agreement – and one of the primary reasons why it received huge buy-in across the island – was that the constitutional position of Northern Ireland would not change without the consent of the majority in Northern Ireland.

This was there to reassure Unionists that they would never be coerced into a United Ireland. It was also an assurance to the population that they were democratically sovereign and they alone could determine their own constitutional status.

Yet, the Brexit result last year is about to change the status of the citizens of Northern Ireland not only without their consent, but expressly contrary to it and they are told, by the UK’s Supreme Court that the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement do not apply.

This is a major change and it is getting lost in the understandably loud and noisy debate over the economic aspects of Brexit.

Brexit also changes our relationship with the EU. Up to now we have been one of two common law, English speaking countries in the EU with similarly structured economies and political systems. We have shared common interests and held a range of similar views on issues from Data Protection to Employment and Social Policy. We now face into a future in the EU Council without a key ally.

That does not mean a debate on our continued EU membership – but it does require some thinking on how we develop and advance that membership and that again returns to how that is expressed on and across this island.

There is plenty to think about over the coming weeks and months and while it is good to take some time away and recharge, let’s also us take some of the time while the Dáil is not in session to commence some serious debates on what lies before us.

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

Previously: McGill Summer School: Gombeen Davos’

From top: Sunday Busines Post/Red C Poll; Derek Mooney

Well, that didn’t seem to last too long.

Yesterday’s Sunday Business Post/RedC poll showed Fine Gael’s lead over Fianna Fáil closing by 5pts: from 8% in late May to down to just 3% now) This suggests an abrupt end to the Varadkar honeymoon.

I stress the word “suggest”.

While the RedC poll puts Fine Gael on 27% and Fianna Fáil on 24%, another poll, taken exactly two weeks earlier by the Irish Daily Mail/Ireland Thinks put Fine Gael on 31% and Fianna Fáil on 26%.

While it is possible that Leo’s less than adroit handling of events over the last two weeks may have shaved 4pts off his halo, it would be folly to try to conclude that from the results of two separate polls conducted by two different companies and taken at two different time periods.

What you can do, though, is track and compare the results from one individual polling company over a period of time. Fortunately, Red C does that for you via its handy online live-polling-tracker. Here you can find the results from the 10 polls conducted by Red C over the past year.

They show that Fianna Fáil has been ahead of Fine Gael in 7 out of the 10 polls – good news for the Soldiers of Destiny, you would think.

But that joy is somewhat diminished when you see that two of the three where they are behind are the most recent ones: see shaded cells in table below (data from Red C here):

Ireland Thinks’ Dr Kevin Cunningham has highlighted the trend here and tracked a gradual Fine Gael recovery from soon after it became clear that Enda Kenny was set to depart.

What this suggests to me is that there is not so much a Leo bounce as a post Enda recoil. While the May Red C poll showed Fine Gael opening up a dramatic gap on its rival, the July one shows it closing back gain.

So much for all the Fine Gael TDs who confidently hoped that electing Leo Varadkar as leader would have them 10pts clear of Fianna Fáil.

What the Red C polls show is that practically nothing has changed in terms of party support since the last general election. This is hardly surprising. What many pundits and commentators forget is that the vast bulk of voters are not avidly following the ins and outs and ups and downs of politics.

Let me correct that slightly, many voters do follow what is happening day to day, but they do not base their voting intentions on process, but rather on outputs. That means that they do not give much consideration as to who they will vote for until they see that an election in imminent.

The fact that nothing much has changed in terms of the polls is kind of good news in the quasi zero-sum game of Fine Gael versus Fianna Fáil.

Fine Gael has played its ace card. It has dumped the pilot and put its smartest newbie in charge and the net impact is: meh! It has recovered the ground lost over the 14 months after the February 2016 election, but effectively it is back at that result – a result that was a big contributory factor in Fine Gael dumping Enda.

Where else is there now for Fine Gael to go?

It could be argued that Fianna Fáil has been threading water awaiting this changeover. Despite the mythology I mentioned last week, Fianna Fáil must know that some of the gains made were due to Fine Gael own goals.

Fianna Fáil cannot depend on Fine Gael shooting itself in the foot the next time – though Fine Gael always retains that capacity – but it can now plan a strategy knowing that the Fine Gael leadership handover has happened at a time that best suited Fianna Fáil.

No doubt the new Taoiseach will use the Summer to boost his profile and standing, but what works for Trudeau in Canada or Macron in France does not necessarily work here. As I opined on Twitter this week, it often seems to me that Varadkar has a good understanding of politics in general, just not of Irish politics.

Gesture politics and soaring rhetoric do not play as well here as in other countries. Perhaps it is to do with scale and proximity. As (I think) the folk singer Frank Harte told Gay Byrne on the Late, Late Show many years ago, it is impossible to become a big star in Ireland as there will always be someone to pipe up: sure, I knew him when he had nothing.

Leo may succeed in raising his personal popularity ratings between now and September, but that does not necessarily translate into gains for Fine Gael – indeed recent political history suggests that the popularity of a party leader rarely bleeds across to help their party.

Micheál Martin was adjudged to have had a good election in Feb 2016, but even his winning performances in the leaders’ debates barely moved the dial for his party during the campaign.

The danger for Fianna Fáil is not in the future of Fine Gael, but rather in the dangers of the aforementioned FF/FG zero sum game.

As Table 1 above shows the combined of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil support in the Red C polls over the past year has averaged at 51%. Compare this with the figures in elections from before 2009 in table 2.

Whereas Fine Gael is now back at the levels of support it had for most of its modern history, Fianna Fáil is at about 60% of the level of support it enjoyed in the ‘80s, ‘90s and early ‘00s.

While this 60% is a lot better than what it was getting in 2011, the party should be aiming get back to about 80% of its previous levels of support, especially at this point in the electoral cycle.

To do that it needs to see the combined Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil poll numbers increase back to around 60% combined support, which means that it must start eating back into the support it has lost to independents at one end of the range and to Sinn Féin at the other.

This is partly done by incremental and sustainable growth, but it needs something more. It needs a big political idea that makes its message, its identity and its purpose clearer. Makes it stand apart from Fine Gael. Finding that message is no simple task, but it may have been made easier by the Brexit turbulence of the past year.

Brexit is set to change a lot of how we do business across this island, so why not our politics? What I suggest is… oh, I see I am out of space. I shall return to this issue soon.

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

From top: Opposition benches in Dáil Éireann; Derek Mooney

Who in their right mind would want to become a TD?

The pay is good, the perks are decent and the scope for promotion (career and ‘self’) is none too bad either, but can these incentives really outweigh the forfeiture of a private life, never mind the ongoing press, public and social media opprobrium whenever you express an opinion?

Shouldn’t politics be a vocation, not a career path?

The problem with that view is not just that it is naïve, it is that it simply won’t work. Try it and we end up with a Dáil full of only those who can only afford to be there by virtue of their profession, their families’ money or simple “pull” – by the way not all of them would be on the right, a fair few would also come from the comfortable left, but that’s just an aside.

So, recognising that we are in the real world, perhaps we should be looking more at how to make entry into politics less unattractive and encourage more people who would not just see it as a long-term career option, but rather as something to contribute to after they have done and achieved other things.

Billy Connolly used to say that “The desire to be a politician should be enough to ban you from ever becoming one”. He is right, but only in one narrow sense. Wanting power for the sake of having it should be disqualification, but wanting it so you can change things, whether that be how many street lights there are in your community cycle, how waste is managed or how the cost of housing is reduced – that should be encouraged.

One of the problems is that many of political parties still include obstacles and tests that deter all but the most ambitious and politically astute. There is value in these skills, but national politics needs others too: people with wider skill sets and experiences.

Politics is not well served when it full of neophytes who have spent plenty of time as parliamentary researchers and ministerial assistants but have no genuine experience of the real world.

This applies to both left and right. Politics needs more people who have built things from houses to computers to companies and fewer people who have made placards and organised protest marches.

This is one of the reasons we have political parties. The most crucial role of any party, after policy development, is candidate selection. Political parties are there to identify, encourage, resource and support new entrants – people who may not in other circumstances have considered or pursued politics. They are there to protect them and back when they come under attack and support their work by making policy expertise available.

It can and does work. After the 2011 election massacre, Fianna Fáil was left with a lot of vacancies for prospective TDs as it had a lot of constituencies with no sitting TDs and no seat blockers.

This was a major plus, it had the capacity to rebuild and renew with a massive intake of new talent. But it also had a big problem. On the negative side, it had a poll rating that would not encourage many to see it as offering a pathway to the Dáil.

Squaring this circle was no easy task. It had both to identify potential future TDs and to reassure them that it was a sufficiently viable vehicle to help them make it to the Dáil and contribute positively.

Much of that work happened locally. In many cases the local organisations and activists were ahead of their national counterparts. By the time of the 2014 local elections the party, nationally and locally was starting to synchronise both tasks: it had sufficiently recovered in the national polls to offer a credible vehicle and also had a slate of people with a variety of backgrounds to fast track into the Dáil.

Looking back, it now looks far more organised and structured that it probably was at the time. Building a mythology around what was done and how it was achieved risks missing the real and valuable lessons of what really happened. It also risks allowing a re-emergence of all the obstacles and hurdles of the past.

Though much of Fianna Fáil managed over the past five years was much by local action as by national design, it still offers a template for how other parties can and should encourage more new entrants.

But there is one big proviso, they must also realise that the work does not end when you bring in a few new TDs. If anything, that is when it really starts. TDs are not shrinking violets, but neither can they be allowed become punching bags for any group, whether in or outside the Dáil, who want to take politics out on to the street and then abrogate all responsibility for the consequences.

Every TD has an equal right to be heard inside and outside the Dáil. Being a Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Labour or Sinn Féin back bencher does not lessen or reduce their mandate and should not reduce their speaking rights. Political parties are not an impediment to political progress, they are the bedrock of it.

Everyone has a right to disagree and to do so robustly and loudly, but the “What the Parliament does, the street can undo” mantra of Solidarity-PBP cannot be allowed to stand. It is a pernicious attempt to discourage wider political engagement and involvement in the guise of opening it up to those approved by Solidarity-PBP.

It is joked that France has the only “tricameral system” in the world – the National Assembly, the Senate and the Street – but history and experience shows that the Street has always been the biggest hindrance to reforms.

It is yet another reason why political parties now must ensure that many people who should be considering entering politics are given the opportunities, supports and protections to do so.

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

From top: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in Downing Street today; Derek Mooney

“Silage and Ice-cream”.

This is how Audrey Carville defined the classic Irish Summer on RTÉ Radio One’s Morning Ireland earlier today.

And though silage was not exactly plentiful in the Liberties, Rathmines or even Yellowbatter in Drogheda during my childhood years, I think I know what she means.

Indeed, up to this morning I hadn’t realised that silage is spelled with just one “l”. Though I cannot recall using the word in many speeches, reports or articles I am virtually certain that I used two “l”s anytime I have written it.

I know for sure that I used two “l”s when I went searching for the phrase just before writing this piece, only to discover that the two “l”-ed version of silage, i.e. sillage (pronounced as if there were no “l”s at all in the word) is the word used to describe the lingering fragrance that someone’s perfume leaves in the air.

Silage and ice-cream may also be an apt phrase to describe Leo Varadkar’s first few days as Taoiseach.

The ice-cream has come in the form of the positive coverage his elevation to high office has generated, both at home and abroad, though that may be starting to melt a bit after two solid weeks of learning what a wonderfully precocious child he was and how he wrote his first letter to the Irish Times aged three, or whatever.

His first TV interview with Tommie Gorman was good. He was clear, concise and on top of his brief. The fact that he opted to do his first one-to-one TV encounter as Taoiseach with RTÉ’s northern editor was clearly intended to signal that the North would be a priority with this Taoiseach in a way that it had not been for his predecessor.

It was also interesting that he opted to set out his government’s policy approach to the North and re-unification himself having just appointed his rival, Simon Coveney, as the line minister dealing with the brief, a signal perhaps of things to come.

But, and not for the first time, a gap emerged between what he says and what he does.

His decision to just meet with the leaders of two of the North’s five major political parties was not a good first move. In using his first actions on the North to meet with just Arlene Foster of the DUP and Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill, and not to meet with the leaders of the other three centre ground parties: the SDLP, UUP and Alliance, the new Taoiseach was perpetuating the mistake made by recent Irish governments.

Yes, a deal on the return of Stormont and the Executive is not possible without the two big beasts of the DUP and Sinn Féin agreeing to again work together, but the smaller parties should not be taken for granted.

Even the British government realised that when it invited all the parties to Downing Street last Thursday, not just the big two.

Taoiseach Varadkar made a silly unforced error in appearing to relegate the smaller parties to the second division of negotiation. Their participation in the institutions is as important and crucial as that of the DUP and SF. If anything, the events of the second half of last year suggest that it is even more important, as the two main parties seem unable to reach accommodations in office without the smaller parties there to give them cover.

Varadkar should know this. He sits at a Cabinet which could not continue in office if it were not for the involvement of smaller parties and Independents though, as we see from today’s latest development in the Marie Whelan appointment saga, he may know it, but he doesn’t show it.

Perhaps this is the point. Perhaps his near disdainful attitude to the smaller parties in the North just echoes his disdainful attitude to its own partners in government?

The incredible, some would say grubby, rush to get Marie Whelan quickly sworn in as a judge of the appeal court this morning so that the sorry saga is all over and down before tomorrow’s Cabinet meeting is a brazen throw down to Ministers Ross and Naughten and – by extension to Fianna Fáil.

Is this just Varadkar bravado, showing early on that he is now the boss and what he says goes? Or, is the nomination a difficult, but essential, element of the succession’s realpolitik that he must see through to the end, no matter how the stench adheres to him? I suspect this is more the latter.

Those who say that Leo has wiped Fianna Fáil’s eye by pushing this through seem to miss the point that this appointment, coupled with the fiasco of the cabinet reshuffle that wasn’t, has just shortened what could have been an extensive Varadkar honeymoon.

As every job interviewee had been told: you only get one chance to make a first impression and Leo has wasted his.

Meanwhile, Fianna Fáil will wait for its moment to exact some political revenge and that will be a moment of its choosing, not Leo’s. If Fianna Fáil is to bring down this government let be on an issue of policy that affects people’s lives, not “beltway” process.

The Marie Whelan saga was not of Varadkar’s making, but his ownership of a move that looks suspiciously like a vintage political stroke, is now 100%.

The appointment was brought to Cabinet as the last act of the outgoing Taoiseach and outgoing Justice Minister, but by defending it so fiercely the new Taoiseach has made it his own… alone… and, unless I am missing something, I have not seen the new, sorry… the incoming… Minister for Justice, Charlie Flanagan, (it hardly seems right calling someone who has been in the Dáil since 1987 “new”) rushing to the barricades to help.

If Varadkar has been preparing all his political life for this moment, then it is hard to believe that this is what he had planned.

You cannot call a cabinet that contains FG ministers who entered the Oireachtas in 1981 (Bruton), 1987 (Flanagan) and 1989 (Creed), 1992 (Fitzgerald) and 1994 (Ring) new or fresh.

We shall see tomorrow how he handles the even trickier issue of appointing Junior Ministers. Will he be bold and courageous in these hardly earth-shattering selections, or will he just do what he did with the cabinet?

Are these first faltering steps a case of the promises made to secure election restricting the ability to operate, or is the problem more fundamental? Can Varadkar be the thrusting and dynamic Taoiseach his Fine Gael parliamentary colleagues longed for, or will he just become the commentator-in-chief?

Is that the sillage of silage or of raspberry ripple ice-cream. Excuse me, I must be off to Teddy’s in Sandycove!

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

Pic via Random irish Photos

From top: Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland Michelle O’Neill, centre, celebrates last Thursday night after picking up two seats from the SDLP; Derek Mooney

While the outcome of the Westminster election was far from conclusive in England and Wales, the same cannot be said for Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Only for the resurgence of the Scottish Tories under Ruth Davidson, Theresa May would be moving furniture rather than clinging to office by her fingertips. While the same Scottish result has, sadly, delayed the prospect of an Indy2 referendum, as the SNP Westminster representation collapsed from 56 seats to just 35 thanks to a 13% drop in support.

While in Northern Ireland the two parties that were at the heart of the post Good Friday Agreement Executive the: the SDLP and the UUP have been wiped out in terms of Westminster representation with the spoils being shared out between the DUP and Sinn Féin.

The Westminster line-up going into last Thursdays election was DUP 8, SF 4, SDLP 3, UUP 1 and Ind 1. The line-up coming out of it looks far starker: DUP 10, Sinn Féin 7 and Ind Unionist 1.

In crude political terms the balance has not shifted, however. There were 11 broadly unionist MPs and seven broadly nationalist ones in the last House of Commons. This time around there will be:  11 broadly unionist MPs and seven broadly nationalist ones, only that none of the seven will attend.

Much has been made of Sinn Féin’s abstentionism over the past few days with most parties in the South using it as a stick to beat them with. I think the parties here have got it wrong on this one.

I would have happily voted for any of the SDLP candidates and I am deeply saddened not to see Mark Durkan, Margaret Ritchie or Dr Alasdair McDonnell in the House of Commons ensuring that the voice of nationalist and republican Ireland is heard.

That said, the reality is that nationalist and republican voters still opted for candidates they knew would not take their seats.

Why voters in the North decided to vote for candidates who are happy to take the wage and the perks without doing the job is the issue that our political leaders should be addressing. The issue was excellently summed up by Denis Bradley in his analysis piece in last Saturday’s Irish Times:

“Since the Good Friday Agreement, Irish nationalism, across the whole island, has allowed itself to be reduced to a critiquing and an opposing of Sinn Féin instead of better understanding and explaining to itself and to others the desirability and the possibility of Irish unity.”

Bradley then went further and made the case for not just slagging off Sinn Féin hollow and ultimately directionless narrative saying:

“There will always remain Irish nationalists who are unconvinced that Sinn Fein are the best proponents and providers of Irish unity but they continue to await a message and a messenger that is better.”

I believe this group is in the majority, North and South. As I have said here very many times, Brexit has completely changed the nature and scope of the debate in the North.

One of the fundamental principles of the Good Friday Agreement is consent. Consent means, in the context of the Good Friday Agreement, that the constitutional position of Northern Ireland will not change without the consent of the majority of the people there.

There was a vote on Brexit in the North and 56% of people there, across communities, said no to Brexit. Yet it was still pushed through Westminster – despite the impassioned pleas of people like Durkan, Ritchie and McDonnell – and will proceed, we presume, in some shape or other.

The EU citizenship of the people of Northern Ireland is not only being ignored, it is being annulled by the government at Westminster – small wonder that nationalists and republicans are angry.

Yes, it would be far better for this island North and South if Sinn Féin took their seats in this finely balanced parliament and used their numbers to raise the many legitimate and real concerns of Irish people on a hard Brexit and a hard border, but that is the type of analysis and criticism you apply to a political party, not Sinn Féin.

There are so many other areas on which to challenge Sinn Féin, top of that list is the perpetual sloganeering and game-playing that it engages in which helps it squeeze out an extra percentage point or two here and there but which also pushes the prospect of reunification further over the horizon.

As Cllr Mannix Flynn said in his podcast with the Irish Independent: “The Sinn Féin promise of liberation is nuts.

Over the past few days we have seen successive SF talking heads on TV Radio and Social Media telling us what a brilliant election they have just had and how their mandate is even further strengthened.

In the most simplistic terms, they are right. Sinn Féin did have a good Westminster election, but the shift in votes needed under the archaic first-past-the-post system to deliver that result was not huge. They took two seats off the SDLP and took one off the UUP, but when you look at the movement of voters, it was not a seismic change.

While SF saw its vote share since the most recent assembly election increase by 1.5% and the SDLP saw its vote decrease by a mere 0.2%, the biggest swing was to the DUP which saw its vote surge by a stunning 7.9% to 36%.

That DUP swing was decisive, not just in terms of the North, but also in terms of its clout in Westminster.

So, the DUP now has the ear, if not the more tender regions, of a weakened UK Prime Minister, while Sinn Féin has seven MPs with no clout, no Executive, no Assembly and an NI MEP who will be redundant in less than two years.

The other thing that Sinn Féin may have achieved is to have opened up a political space that it cannot occupy, but which could be filled and expanded by a new, or even an old, pro-European, business friendly, republican political party.

Things in the North may be about to get a whole lot more interesting.

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

Meanwhile…

There you go now.