Tag Archives: Derek Mooney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elementary, huh?

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

Illustration: Sidney Paget

A tweet on Saturday From Dubin Fire Brigade about the Taoiseach’s visit to North Strand 

 

Derek Mooney writes:

It’s not that Leo Varadkar’s Strategic Communications Unit has “blurred” the lines between governmental and political, between the State and FG… it has demolished them completely.

Fine Gael spin is compromising State agencies who are just trying to do their best.

Earlier: Tony Groves: The Original Strategic Communications Unit

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

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

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

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

He finished his comments with the following plea:

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

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

It is not an unfair request.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rollingnews

From top: Social Protection Minister Regina Doherty; Derek Mooney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ms Noone added:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But, alas, it didn’t.

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

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

Rollingnews


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eamonn Farrell/Rollingnews

 


From top: Incoming Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald and outgoing Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams at a Special Sinn Féin Ard Fheis in the RDS Main Hall last weekend’ Derek Mooney

I sit down to write this week’s column having just watched Prof Mary Beard’s excellent documentary portrait of Julius Caesar on BBC1. If I had hoped that watching it might give me some inspiration for today’s effort, I was wrong.

This is not the good professor’s fault. Her contention that Caesar’s legacy has echoes in the actions and words of today’s great political leaders has considerable validity – just not so much when you try to apply it to the career of Gerry Adams.

As I argued here last November Adams is not moving off the Sinn Féin stage, he is merely slipping behind the curtain. Have no doubt that his control, and that of the Army Council, has not been loosened that much.

Rather than looking to Mary Beard’s Julius Caesar, the character I should be looking to is Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn’s fictional creation: “Yes Minister’s” Rt. Hon. Jim Hacker, MP. Specifically, the Hacker of the first episode of Series Three, entitled “Equal Opportunities”. There Hacker agrees to give an interview to Kathy, a young kid from his constituency writing an article for her school magazine.

Asked to set out his personal achievements, Hacker gives Kathy a run down of his political CV, listing all the posts and high offices he has held. No, she replies, that is not what she means. What she wants is a list of those personal achievements that have made life better for others. He can think of nothing. He is stumped.

Just as stumped as Sinn Féin’s phalanx of myth makers over the past few weeks as they prepared for last Saturday’s ceremonial changing of the guard.

Asked to list what Sinn Féin had achieved during Adams 34 years, the answer came in the form of numbers: 4 MEPs, 7 Senators, 7 MPs, 23 TDs, 27 MLAs, 261 Cllrs.

To be fair, having this number of public representatives is not an achievement to be dismissed lightly but, like Kathy, punters tend to judge political parties not by what they have done that benefits the party, but what they have done that benefits society.

Their record is what Sinn Féin has gained for itself. It is numbers. Even then, the accomplishment is inflated as it does not account for the waves of resignations including the Senator who quit the party ate last year and then quit the Seanad or the dozen and a half Cllrs who quit since the last Locals.

Ask the average Fianna Fáil-er what their party has achieved and they will list things like the Irish Constitution, free travel, free first and second level education, the Good Friday Agreement, joining the EU(EEC) etc.

Put the same question to a Fine Gael-er and they may cite the declaration of the Republic, the Anglo-Irish Agreement, abolishing illegitimacy, while a Labour party member might point to equality legislation, anti-poverty programmes, marriage equality etc.

A political party is defined by how it has changed the lives of others. How it lived up to its raison d’etre. In those terms Adams and Sinn Fein’s record is a one of abject and complete failure. It did not advance political progress in the North, it has been a brake on it. The Provos campaign of violence set back the cause of Unity.

Even in government in the North its record is threadbare. Though it will pain Sinn Féin-ers to hear this, particularly those on this side of the border, the harsh reality is that the DUP ran rings around Sinn Féin in government.

Not that I expect them to take my word for it. Just read Gerry Adams’s own analysis from his January 7, 2017 speech at the Felons’ Club in Belfast.

There he listed all the areas where the DUP had outflanked them:

…there have been other significant issues of contention, including the decision to renege on the Programme for Government commitment on the Long Kesh site; the DUP’s resistance to the legacy and truth recovery mechanisms of the Stormont House agreement; the Red Sky scandal and the Project Eagle debacle.

Remember that this is barely two months after Martin McGuinness and Arlene Foster were jointly championing their achievements on Nov 21, 2016, saying

“This is what delivery looks like. No gimmicks. No grandstanding. Just Ministers getting on with the work”.

In six and a half weeks they went from a collegiate we are working so closely together to a huffy you just cannot work with these people. All in six and a half weeks, not allowing time off for Christmas and New Year.

Try as they may to claim it, the Sinn Féin tail has never wagged the DUP dog.
When it comes to working within a partnership government Sinn Féin could do with taking a leaf out of the PDs, Labour, Greens or Independents book on making government work.

When I suggest they take a leaf out of their books, I mean just a leaf and not – as Sinn Féin has been doing for the past few months – taking another party’s story of achievements and rewriting it as theirs.

As Adams prepared to step back we saw the myth makers attempt to co-opt the record of the civil rights movement and the legacy of John Hume and other genuine peace makers like Seamus Mallon, Dr Joe Hendron, Ivan Cooper, people who stood up to the Provos, and claim it as their own.

When it comes to political cynicism, no one, is as cynical as the Sinn Féin myth makers. They are shameless. But this shamelessness has a purpose. Their rewriting of history and their “everyone else is a sell-out, except us” narrative is there to mask their real vulnerability.

If calling them out on their paramilitary associations, addressing their murky past or their equivocation on political norms were enough, then Sinn Féin would still be in single digits in terms of support here in the South.

But they are not. Reminding people of their frightful history is not really working. This is not because the public do not care about it, but rather because people do not judge parties, or brands, in the same way that they judge individuals. While character does matter, the public thinks more in terms of capability.

This is the point that political parties have missed. Sinn Féin’s vulnerability lies not so much in its lack of character but in its political incapability.

The self-styled party of equality and the plain man and woman is anything but.

For Sinn Féin, Sinn Féin comes first. The Sinn Féin/Adams project was never about Unity, equality or justice, they are just the slogans. The “project” is just about Sinn Féin pre-eminence.

The primacy of the party is what matters, not its professed primary purpose. It was the case with Adams at the helm and it will remain so with McDonald and O’Neill.

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

Rollingnews

From top: Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll of January 25; Derek Mooney

The last few political opinion polls from the Sunday Business Post, the Irish Times, The Irish Daily Mail and the Sunday Times have all painted a similar picture of the current state of play among the main political groupings.

While they may quibble over the hard numbers, they agree on the relative positions. They show Fine Gael in prime position, enjoying a comfortable lead of 6% or more over Fianna Fáil who, in turn, enjoys a similar, if slightly wider, lead over Sinn Féin.

Without doubt it is good personal news for Varadkar, and happy news for a party that only twelve months ago was still coming to terms with the 2016 fall in its fortunes.

What a difference a year can make? An important lesson for any political leader in these still uncertain times.

But, before the government friendly pundits crack open the Champagne and start the celebrations for the next Fine Gael election victory, let us take a few moments to consider why it is still far too early for Leo, Paschal or Regina to count their chickens.

The first point I would make, is not a new one. I have said here many times before that newspapers and media outlets do not conduct their political polls in the way that political parties conduct theirs.

The main political parties do not test their own levels of support with mass quantitative polls, but rather with a series of constituency polls. These offer a more accurate picture of the real levels of voter intention.

They are their holy grails and are guarded almost as jealously and religiously as the fictitious Brothers of the Cruciform Sword tried to guard theirs. Only a few people at the top know the numbers and they don’t share them with anyone, especially not the candidates concerned.

So these numbers do not leak out, but even a simple exercise based on data already in the public domain demonstrates that even the best Fine Gael poll numbers in the capital city might not convert into much.

According to the latest Irish Times MRBI-Ipsos poll from January 25th, the level of Fine Gael support in Dublin has grown to twice that of Fianna Fáil: 34% versus 17%. In 2016 Fine Gael won 14 seats compared to Fianna Fáil’s 6 – and Sinn Fein’s 7.

This included one Fine Gael seat that was uncontested, due to the automatic return of the Ceann Comhairle, giving Fine Gael three out of four in Dún Laoghaire.

So, even before the first election poster is hung, Fine Gael is set to lose at least one seat in Dublin.

Another one, in Dublin North West, is knife-edge with Fianna Fáil’s Paul McAuliffe now having an advantage thanks to boundary changes and Fine Gael unlikely to benefit so much from Labour transfers next time.

So, where are Fine Gael’s possible gains in Dublin? Dublin Fingal and Dublin Bay North are contenders, but neither are certain. The Taoiseach will be under big pressure to pull in a running mate in Dublin West, but that will be a tall order.

Dublin South West is also an FG target, but the person they hope to unseat is fellow Cabinet Minister Katherine Zappone, which is an as you were for the government.

On the Fianna Fáil side, the prospects for gains look far better. It has more pathways to closing the gap with Fine Gael, due mainly to its low 2016 base.

For Fianna Fail, 17% across the Capital is an improvement on the 14% it got back in 2016. That 17% is a city wide average, and varies considerably area to area.

Even a marginal vote rise would see it win a seat in Dun Laoghaire, with either former TD and Minister, Mary Hanafin or young local Cllr and former Mayor, Cormac Devlin. It puts Cllr Paul McAuliffe, already mentioned, strongly in contention in Dublin North West to unseat a Fine Gael TD, while assuring Senator Catherine Ardagh of a seat in Dublin South Central where she narrowly missed out by just 35 votes last time.

Though Fine Gael will be eyeing up Dublin Fingal for a potential second seat, so too will Fianna Fáil who were 3.5% ahead of them there in 2016. Meanwhile, an increase in voter share and favourable boundary changes puts Mary Fitzpatrick in contention in Dublin Central.

The point here is that the figures in a national poll can vary hugely in constituency polls when you bring local factors and individual candidate’s support into play.

Extra votes in some Dublin constituencies will drive up Fine Gael’s national share but will not put another bum on a Dáil seat – and that is what counts on the day after polling.

But there is a second, more telling point. It is unwise to try to forecast a result from a period when one party is on maneuvers and the other one is on a sabbatical.

Where Fine Gael used the slow news period from New year to mid-January to get its message out and have its key players making all manner of policy pronouncements, Fianna Fáil has been doing its trappiest monk routine: practising taciturn reserve. It has been schtum.

Apart from Micheál Martin’s own speech on Repeal the Eighth two weeks’ back, can you recall any major policy statement from them in recent weeks, if not months?

Even allowing for the efforts of their €5million Strategic Good News Unit, Fine Gael has had the field to itself for most of the time since Frances Fitzgerald saga. Is this because Fianna Fáil has decided that this strategically suits its purposes, or is it just laziness?

It could be that that Fianna Fáil strategists are operating a form of reverse political rope-a-dope, refusing to expend its limited resources in sham battles with Fine Gael now, when it feels that the election is still a while away and the battle lines have yet to be formally drawn?

It could also be that Fianna Fáil simply decided to collectively take a month off and recharge its batteries – or, perhaps it a little of both. Either way, though Leo and his team would like the impression to go abroad that his path to victory is strewn with rose petals and the bodies of his political foes, there are way too many imponderables yet for anyone to make any serious predictions.

He could well be right. He could be on course for a famous third win in a row for Fine Gael that will propel his personal political career on to new international heights in the EU, WTO or wherever, or he could end up being, as I have argued here in the past, Ireland’s Gordon Brown, looking back at this period of time and thinking, why didn’t I just call the election then.

Either is possible.

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

Graphs via Irish Times

From top: Fianna Fáil Finance Spokesperson Michael McGrath (left) has said he does not support Party leader Micheál Martin (right) on the removal of the Eighth Amendment with access to abortion up to 12 weeks; Derek Mooney

Back in late 2014 I was invited to assist the nascent Marriage Equality campaign with its preparations. They asked me to help draft a campaign playbook, or ‘campaign bible’ as it was labelled by some, along the lines of the one I had put together for the successful 2013 Seanad referendum.

As part of my groundwork I tried to get some insights into the mindset of No voters. To this end I went for a few beers and a chat with an old political colleague who I knew to be quite socially conservative.

I dragged the conversation slowly and steadily around to the topic of gay marriage and prepared myself for the explosion. None came.

Have you decided how you will vote?”, I asked

Not sure, yet” came the reply.

I was astounded that he was not a definite No, so I pushed a bit further.

Are you saying that you might even vote yes”, I enquired.

Yes” he said. “This is not like abortion. I am not comfortable with gay marriage, but it doesn’t hurt me and at the end of the day this isn’t about life or death… abortion is.”

That was the moment when I realised that the marriage equality referendum was very winnable. It is also the conversation that echoed in my mind in the weeks after the marriage equality result when some sought to use that big win as a predictor of any future abortion referendum.

In that one line my friend summed up the outlook of many of those opposed to repealing the 8th Amendment. They sincerely and passionately believe this is about the protection of life.

It is black and white to them. It is not about some zealotry or wanton disregard for the rights of women, it is about a deep-seated belief, not necessarily religious, that this is about taking a life.

I am not arguing that they are right, neither I am defending the campaign material the No Repeal side has produced, I am merely reminding the Repeal the 8th campaign that many who will vote No will be acting sincerely.

I am also suggesting that the Repeal campaign recognise that, something I have not discerned from much of their public commentary, so far.

To this end I offer a paraphrasing of the cautionary note I included at the start of the marriage equality campaign playbook/bible:

This campaign is not about being proven right or correcting the wrongs of the past, it is about getting 50% +1 of those who turn out to Vote YES.

Do not criticise voters for their deeply held views. These views should be respected. Avoid labelling opponents, and dismissing sincerely held beliefs, as ‘conservative’, ‘backward’ etc.,

…but be firm in identifying where the other side is scaremongering, raising baseless fears and deliberately misleading and confusing voters.

Messages that fail and are counterproductive:

Voting No will embarrass us internationally

We need to drag Ireland into the 21st century

This will be a liberal victory over conservatism

I offer this to the repeal side not because I am implacably on their side but because much of their messaging so far has seemed directed at those who have already decided to vote to repeal. The same is true for the No side, some of whose self-ordained leaders have already decided to go with the old “scorched earth” approach.

As it stands, both sides appear more focused on addressing their own partisans rather than persuading the cohort of “undecided” or “unwilling to say how they’ll vote” – which a recent poll put together at 20%.

While it may seem like a winning strategy on paper for the repeal side right now, they ignore the ‘differential turnout’ factor at their peril. As the good folks in Ireland Thinks observed in the analysis of their December 2017 poll for the Daily Mail on this question:

In any referendum campaign it is not just which side people prefer but whether they actually turn out and vote that is important… It is often ‘who wants it more’ that determines who is more likely to turn out and vote.

Perhaps it was the prospect of a shrill and deeply entrenched campaign that helped bring the calm and reasoned Dáil statement of the Fianna Fáil leader, Micheál Martin, last week, into focus.

In my view it was the first major input into the debate that (a). sought to persuading the undecided middle ground and (b). didn’t attempt to portray the other side as the devil incarnate.

Though many pundits seemed surprised by its contents, it was clear he was heading that way, indeed he flagged it himself in an interview (from 11m35s) on Radio Kerry a few days before.

There he also readily accepted that the majority of his TDs were opposed to the Oireachtas Committee recommendations – perhaps by a margin of 4:1 – so why are some Fianna Fáil activists acting so shocked?

Fianna Fáil adopted the policy of allowing a conscience votes back in 2013 when the Protection of Human Life Bill was being discussed. The idea that you can allow some a conscience vote but then bind the leadership according a members’ vote is an affront to the concept of conscience, democracy and leadership.

Party membership carries many rights and privileges but replacing you and your views for the electorate at large is not one of them. Neither 50,000 nor 500,000 self-selecting members of party X or Y are representative of anyone except themselves. It is one of the mistakes that Momentum has made in its relationship with the UK Labour Party and there is no reason to go that road here.

Members earn the right to be listened to and to have a say in candidate selection and party organisation by virtue of their activism, but that very activism, knocking on doors and meeting the wider public, reminds them that there is a diversity of views out there and that political parties that succeed are the ones who listen to that diversity and reflect it in their policies. Good leaders realise that. Great ones act on it.

Hopefully Martin’s intervention – and the measured response yesterday from Fianna Fáil’s Michael McGrath on Sean O’Rourke’s show on RTÉ Radio 1 arguing the other side – is an indication that tone and pitch of the campaign debate is set to rise, but I will not get my hopes up.

And even if it does, bear in mind that this week sees the 45th anniversary of the landmark Roe Vs Wade case where US Supreme Court ruled abortion legal. 45 years later it is still a defining and divisive issue in American politics. Win, lose or draw, this debate is not likely to go away for very long.

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

From top: Sinn Féin’s Michele O’Neil (second right) addresses media following Barry McElduff’s resignation as MP for West Tyrone; Derek Mooney

The essential ingredient of politics is timing.” So said Pierre Trudeau, former Canadian Prime Minister and father of Leo Varadkar’s current favourite politician.

The former member of parliament for West Tyrone, Barry McElduff, has learned this basic lesson the hard way. But he is not the only one.

If he had resigned last Sunday or Monday, much of the pain and distress of the past week could have been avoided.

The relatives and friends of the victims of the Kingsmill massacre would have been spared the nonsense excuses and the insult of seeing the Sinn Féin leadership, North and South, imposing and then repeatedly defending its three-month non-penalty.

Sinn Féin’s political opponents would have been denied the open goal presented to them to score points off them and the Sinn Féin leadership would have avoided the embarrassment of defending its slow and inadequate response.

Indeed, if Sinn Féin had not waited two full days to deliver its three-month suspension and had acted more speedily and decisively to address the spiraling McElduff crisis on the Saturday after the tweet it could have even helped to jump start the process of ending the year-long political stalemate between Sinn Féin and the DUP.

But it didn’t.

To paraphrase Abba Eban, some politicians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

So, one week later, Barry McElduff is no longer the honourable member of parliament for West Tyrone, a by-election is imminent and a return of he Northern Ireland Executive is as far off as it was before Christmas.

While McElduff did act over a week late, he is nonetheless entitled to some personal credit for doing the right thing. It does seem that he alone took the decision to resign, something that Sinn Féin’s Northern leader, Michelle O’Neill acknowledged in the opening line of her statement at the hastily convened press conference responding to the resignation.

Yet we see some “sources” in Sinn Féin attempting, this morning, to hint that McElduff may have been compelled to resign for the greater good, to ease the mounting pressure on senior Sinn Féin figures – particularly after Miriam O’Callaghan’s moving interview with the one survivor, Alan Black .

According to Fiach Kelly in today’s Irish Times:

“Sinn Féin sources maintain Mr McElduff made his own decision to resign but acknowledged it was impossible to defend his “stupid” actions as the controversy intensified.

“If I had been sent out to defend it, I would have found it very difficult,” said one TD.

One party source said that it was noticeable that Sinn Féin spokespeople did not seek to defend Mr McElduff in weekend media appearances. “No one was jumping to his defence.”

While that may be true for the Sinn Féin TDs who spoke with the Irish Times, it wasn’t quite true for all of them. It also completely misses the point that the problem was not just with McElduff’s tweet it was with the leadership’s paltry and derisory response. Together, McElduff and the leadership tainted themselves with the sins of the past.

There was no shortage of Sinn Féin public representatives happy to retweet McElduff’s original twitter video, including Sinn Féin’s former Finance Minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir. Neither was there any shortage of them to stand by McElduff in the days immediately after the tweet.

True, the solidarity did somewhat dissipate after last week’s suspension and the acknowledgement by Michelle O’Neill that the tweet was “ill-judged and indefensible” but some were still prepared to go out and argue McElduff’s cause and more were happy to defend how the leadership responded.

This included the usually adept Éoin Ó Broin TD who went further than most on Sunday’s Marian Finucane radio show on RTÉ Radio One, dredging the depths of the Sinn Féin lexicon to come up with the weasel phrase “unjustifiable killings” to describe what had happened at Kingsmill.

Just as we call what happened at Bloody Sunday “murder”, so too should we call what happened at Kingsmill “murder”. Ten brutal, callous, sectarian murders which Seamus Heaney described as ‘one of the most harrowing moments in the whole history of the harrowing of the heart in Northern Ireland’.

Heaney’s telling of the horrific story of Kingsmill in his 1995 Nobel Prize lecture is worth reading. In it, he tells how the masked gunmen, who stopped the minibus full of workers heading home, ordered the group out at gunpoint and called on any Catholics to step forward.

There was one. Fearing that the masked gunmen were loyalists, one of the protestant workmen took the lone Catholic’s hand and squeezed it in a signal that said, don’t move, we’ll not betray you. The catholic stepped forward, only to be pushed aside by the gunman who then murdered the others.

Heaney observed:

“The birth of the future we desire is surely in the contraction which that terrified Catholic felt on the roadside when another hand gripped his hand, not in the gunfire that followed…”

It was – and it still is.

While the past 10 days have brought back many painful memories from a dark and difficult past, it is possible for political leaders from all sides, North and South, to still siphon some progress from the wreckage.

While all politics is about timing, Irish politics is also about tone.

Arlene Foster’s tone in her speech to Killarney Economic Conference last Saturday was way more positive than we have heard from her and the DUP in well over a year, not only that, but it was delivered to a southern audience.

While the test of that changed tone will be to see if it is followed up with actions, the odds of seeing them would be dramatically increased by a similar improvement in tone from Sinn Féin. One that indicated that they are ready to engage in the real dialogue essential to see a return of the Executive and a meaningful input on Brexit from Northern Ireland’s elected leaders.

While Sinn Féin may feel content that the current crisis is benefiting them electorally, the current impasse is not working for nationalists or republicans on the ground. It is time for a new strategy. The events, missteps and bad judgements of the past ten days may, inadvertently, have given them the space to move to it, if they can acknowledge them.

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

Pic: PA

From top: Sinn Fein MP Barry McElduff in a video posted on Twitter on Friday night with an alleged reference to the IRA murders of 10 protestant workmen in 1976; Derek Mooney

Precisely how do you suspend an abstentionist MP?

Do you make them show up and take their seat in the House of Commons for three months as part of their punishment?

Eh, no… you don’t.

But, as we have learned since Sinn Féin “acted quickly” to deal with Barry McElduff’s tweet mocking the Kingsmill massacre, he will be on full pay while he is suspended from party activities for three months.

It is almost worthy of a Lewis Carroll story. “Acting quickly” means waiting two full days to gauge public reaction and decide what is sufficient to assuage any anger among the middle ground.

“Suspending” means no actual loss of definable privileges for the guilty party, just the appearance of a loss of some non-specified ones.

To be fair to Sinn Féin’s leader in Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill, she did concede that what McElduff had done in his online video was “inexcusable and indefensible”.

This is something that many of McElduff’s online defenders, both named and anonymous, were not prepared to accept or acknowledge at any point on Saturday or Sunday.

O’Neill also accepted “the seriousness of the issue” and – directly addressing the families of the Kingmill’s victims – told them that she “recognised the hurt this has caused and I wholeheartedly apologise for any distress.”

While her words give the impression of a leader who gets it, even if it had taken her a few days to get it, her inaction tells a very different story.

She had the opportunity to properly sanction McElduff and send out the message that the next generation of Sinn Féin leader was different from the last one – and she flunked it.

The deliberate irony in her statement is that McElduff’s non-punishing punishment bizarrely fits his offence. His online joke, at the expense of the victims of the provo atrocity at Kingsmill, was aimed at an internal audience. So was his punishment.

His joke was intended to go over the heads of those outside the provos. It was an in-joke. The problem is that he forgot that others would see it and might just wonder what the hell was funny about a guy walking around a convenience store late at night with a sliced pan on his head.

The in-joke, for his provo audience, was probably not intended to mock the victims as such, just to tell his own people that the victims of the provos terror are not to be accorded as high a place in any hierarchy of victims as their own dead.

It was type a dog whistle to the provos not to pay much heed to the next day’s anniversary commemoration of Kingsmill and not to take any of the media coverage of the provos callous slaying of 10 protestant workmen in 1976 seriously.

McElduff has carved out a role for himself over the years as a sort of in-house court jester. He is the one warming up the crowd at Sinn Féin gatherings with jokes at the expense of others. Every party has such a figure. But in other parties they, or those around them, know what is suitable for joking and what is not. It does not take them three days to cop on.

What Elduff got wrong was that he forgot that Sinn Féin’s public position is that all victims are equal and that all victims are due equal respect. He gave the game away.

He demonstrated with his buffoonery that Sinn Féin believes that its dead are superior to everyone else’s. It is an old tactic. Dehumanise the other side. See them as less than you. That way it is easier to inflict the terror. The “war” may be over, but the attitudes continue.

McElduff’s punishment is a bit better crafted than his in-joke. The three-month apparent suspension is primarily aimed at the external audience – at you and me. It is intended to convince us that Sinn Féin’s new leadership takes this matter seriously and that its words about respecting all equally have meaning.

But the internal audience is the more important one.

That older audience within Sinn Féin will know the three-month suspension is meaningless. All those who defended McElduff over the weekend will see that this is not even a slap over the wrist.

They will take this message the way it was intended. They will see that the “new” leadership is telling them, just as the old leadership always did, that what they are saying and doing is all ok. The message is clear, nothing at all has changed.

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

Pic via Irish News