Tag Archives: Mooney on Monday


From top: Mary Lou McDonald at last year’s Sinn Féin Ard Fheis last year; Derek Mooney

There have been a few Fr Ted references here over the past few days, so let’s start off with another one. Remember that episode of Fr Ted where the lads need to raise money to fix the water leaks in the parochial house?

You know the one, they destroy the car Bishop Brennan gives them for the raffle and thus have to rig the draw to ensure that Dougal’s ticket wins it. Ted gets Fr Billy “SpinMaster” O’Dwyer to do the disco before the draw, but there’s a problem.

Fr Billy has only one record with him and it’s “Ghost Town” by The Specials. Undeterred, the Spinmaster plays it over and over and over again, oblivious to the fact that the crowd have stopped listening.

I like Ghost Town. Not only is it a good song, it is a serious piece of popular social commentary, but even the loyalist Special fan would concede that forcing anyone to listen to it over and over again could turn them against it.

This is something that Sinn Féin’s “spinmasters” Mary Lou MacDonald and Michelle O’Neill could do well to bear in mind.

Like Fr Billy, they have a flashy new rig complete with powerful amps and speakers, but they too have only one record to play. Theirs is the “unity poll call” and they belt it out over and over, because just like Fr Billy, they have nothing else to play.

But the more they go on playing and replaying it, the more they risk turning people against a really fine tune that should be heard by a wider audience.

If we have learned nothing else from the referendums held on these two islands over the past three years, we have surely learned that they only succeed when you prepare for them.

The lesson of Brexit is that you do not ask people a confused and confusing question about which a full and detailed discussion has not taken place.

In Brexit, the British held the vote first and then spent the past two years debating and analysing what it was they voted-on and agreed.

They went into the vote at a time when there was plenty of polling warning that people were not just ill-informed about the benefits of Britain’s EU membership they were startlingly misinformed about them.

A 2016 Ipsos MORI survey, conducted three months before the Brexit vote, showed, among other things, that British people wrongly thought there were three times as many EU immigrants in the UK than there really are.

Jump forward to just last week and you find a poll conducted for Queens University Belfast that shows just 21.1% of Northerners absolutely ready to vote for Irish unity post Brexit.

That is nowhere near the figure required, though the situation is not quite so bleak as the same poll found support for remaining in the United Kingdom at only 50.3%. Even so, it is hardly a great starting point from which to launch a unity/border poll.

Meanwhile, 69% of Northern Irish voters would favour remaining in the EU if there was another Brexit vote. Up from 56% in June 2016.

So, what is the point of Sinn Féin proposing a Border Poll now? Even if we were to have one – and it is not in Sinn Féin’s gift to grant – it would clearly fail. Both sides would divide further and then retrench.

Where does that get us?

Would we not be better focusing on an issue where the majority of Northern Irish voters have common cause with vast majority of Southern voters, in opposing Brexit?

As former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said at the Oireachtas Committee on Brexit just over a year ago:

“…the last thing I want to see as a result of Brexit is any talk of border polls… Having a sectarian or political headcount is the last thing that we should do. Yes, there should be the provisions for reunification for the future…

…There will be a time for it, and we should all work as hard as possible to get to that time and convince people and win them over, but do not insert the issue into this debate.”

As I have set out here many times since the June 2016 vote, Brexit changes the political dynamic on this island and changes relationships between these islands – that includes relationships within the United Kingdom, not least between Edinburgh and London.

Re-unification is on the agenda, but so far it is primarily on the nationalist side. As the SDLP’s Colum Eastwood has stressed, if we take this calmly and constructively we have the scope to give it a much broader reach, offering not only Unity but also a return to the European Union for the majority in the North who want it.

None of this is new.

“Ireland is too small a country not to be seriously handicapped in its economic development by its division into two areas separated by a customs barrier.”

These are the words of Taoiseach, Sean Lemass TD at the Oxford Union on October 15th, 1959. His speech, entitled One Nation, was part of debate on Irish reunification. In that speech he described as “eminently practical” the idea that

“…Irish reunification could be considered on the basis of an arrangement under which the Parliament and Government of Northern Ireland would continue to function with their present powers, while an all-Ireland Parliament would exercise the powers in relation to that area now exercised at Westminster.”

In other words, Stormont would continue. In saying this Lemass was just repeating what De Valera had stated many times since 1921.

This is something that, six or seven decades later, Mary Lou and Michelle’s Sinn Féin is still unsure about. Its 2016 policy paper: Towards-a-United-Ireland says unity “…could mean:-continued devolution to Stormont and a power-sharing Executive in the North within an all-Ireland structure”

This “could” is offered alongside a “may” in the suggestion that:

A new, united Ireland may require constitutional safeguards and protections for the political identity of unionists who must be assured of their place and political influence in any new dispensation.

It surely will, at a minimum. The policy paper is worth reading as it does attempt to list the possible benefits and advantages of re-unification – and there are many. Where it fails is that it doesn’t go much beyond that.

Though the document looks weighty, with lots of pictures and nifty design work, the text itself won’t take you long to read: at under 4700 words it isn’t even four times the length of what I am writing.

Sean Lemass famously summed up his Northern policy in three key words:

“Patience, tact and goodwill.”

Demanding a unity poll every other Sunday demonstrates none of these.

Reunification is too important an aspiration to be reduced to a slogan or a logo.

The Brexit being pursued by Johnson, Gove, Rees-Mogg and Farage has made unity an idea whose moment has been brought forward, let’s not destroy that advance by having our own Brexit style ‘vote first, plan later’ fiasco.

Though I know your others records are badly scratched, damaged and warped, for the sake of the rest of us who really like this one, you gotta change this record, Mary Lou.

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

Rollingnews

From top: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar with British Prime Minister Theresa May; Derek Mooney

I opened my third Broadsheet column with a 1962 quote from the former US Secretary of State, Dean Acheson:

“Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role”.

When that column appeared at the end of May 2016 the U.K. Brexit referendum vote was still three weeks away. We still had hope.

Almost two years later and Acheson’s quote seems truer than ever. Over the past few weeks we have seen increasing evidence that the UK Cabinet is incapable of agreeing a common and unified position on the Customs Union and the Single Market.

On one side you have the beleaguered Prime Minister and Tory leader arguing for a “customs partnership” that would see the UK just outside the existing EU Customs Union but remaining so aligned with it and EU standards as to render borders unnecessary.

On the other, you have the arch-Brexiteers like Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, and Liam Fox claiming that any form of customs partnership either renders their plans for great trade deals for the UK with China, India and Burkina Faso redundant or is tantamount to staying in the customs union and “ties” the U.K. to a E.U. that they want to leave a mensa et toro.

What is odd about the Brexiteers current manoeuvres is that some form of customs partnership or association has been on the table from the British side, almost since Day One of the Article 50 Brexit negotiations.

Speaking at Lancaster House in January 2017 from a text that had been signed-off on by her Cabinet, Theresa May said:

“But I do want us to have a customs agreement with the EU. Whether that means we must reach a completely new customs agreement, become an associate member of the Customs Union in some way, or remain a signatory to some elements of it, I hold no preconceived position. I have an open mind on how we do it. It is not the means that matter, but the ends.”

Showing that the Brexiteers are preoccupied with means, not ends, one of that faction’s spiritual heavyweights and living embodiment of what Dean Acheson was talking about, Jacob Rees Mogg, took their argument several steps further on ITV’s ‘Peston Show ‘on Sunday claiming that some architects of the Good Friday Agreement were engaging in “disgraceful” politics, seeking to keep the U.K. in the EU.

In other words, how dare anyone on this side of the Irish Sea attempt to remind the UK of its many obligations under the Good Friday Agreement, a binding international treaty between two sovereign governments.

He was not the only one at it.

The former UK Ambassador to the US, Sir Christopher Meyer was attempting to use the Good Friday Agreement to threaten Ireland and the rest of the EU 27 with a no-deal Brexit and a hard border across the island.

In a bizarrely intemperate tweet the ex- diplomat accused the EU of weaponizing the Irish issue and predicted that the EU would “either fracture the UK, betray the GFA by promoting a united Ireland through the back door, or betray the referendum-or a mix of all three.”

This is shameful stuff. One of the great achievements of the Good Friday Agreement, and its many architects, is that the Agreement explicitly recognises re-unification by consent as a legitimate aspiration.

To try to perversely claim that the momentum to re-unification that has been prompted by this Brexit madness is somehow a betrayal of the Good Friday Agreement, is reckless and indicative of desperation.

Yet, this is the level of inanity to which some British political leaders, though it would be far fairer to say English, have descended. Sadly, not all of them on the right either, but more of Corbyn and his empty opposition on another day.

But back to Acheson and his 1962 quote.

Though it was made in the wake of Suez crisis and the declining British influence on the World stage, Acheson’s wider comments are harsh but extraordinarily prescient. His analysis of Britain’s predicament is not as glib as the one-liner might suggest and could, with just a few tweaks, be applied to the current saga.

According to report of his remarks in the Guardian on December 6th 1962:

Mr Dean Acheson, former United States Secretary of State, asserted today that Britain’s role as an independent Power was “about played out.”

He told a conference on American affairs at West Point Military Academy that Britain had lost an empire and had not found a role.

H e added:”Britain’s attempt to play a separate power role – that is, a role apart from Europe, a role based on a ‘special relationship’ with the United States, a role based on being the head of a Commonwealth which has no political structure or unity or strength and enjoys a fragile and precarious economic relationship – this role is about played out.

“Great Britain, attempting to work alone and to be a broker between the United States and Russia, has seemed to conduct a policy as weak as its military power.” Mr Acheson is President Kennedy’s special adviser on NATO affairs.

Mr Acheson said that Britain’s application for membership of the Common Market was a “decisive turning point.” Should Britain join the Six, “another step forward of vast importance will have been taken.“

It is both painful and difficult to watch our nearest neighbor and onetime steadfast EU ally turning back the clock and leave the institutions of the EU that have brought us closer together, but that is their decision and they have decided that this is what they must do.

But – to revive another political (mis)quote from the 60s, though this time closer to home – we cannot be expected to stand idly by while their ill-judged and impulsive folly inflicts damage and cost on this island and this jurisdiction.

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

Top pic: getty

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

Last week’s Dáil furore and the heightened tensions between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael persuaded me to use this week’s column to discuss the worsening relations between the main government and the main opposition parties.

I still intend to do that, but in much lesser detail. The scandal engulfing the CervicalCheck scheme and the torment that Vicky Phelan, her family and hundreds of other families have been put through by the State and the HSE makes any discussion of the friction between the parties pale by comparison.

But, as experienced political commentators have noted, the screening scandal has the makings of major political crisis if it were to emerge that more was known by the Department and, by extension, by a Minister.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are two curious elements to his warning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rollingnews

From top: 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: President Michael D Higgins TD at the National Ploughing Championships  in Screggan, Tullamore, Co.Offally last week; Derek Mooney

To have voted in just one presidential election you would need to be at least 24 years of age now. To have voted in at least two of them; you would now be 38, at minimum.

If you voted in three presidential elections you are at least 45 and if you voted in four, then the very youngest of you will be 60 before the next one.

That, of course, is if there is a next one. Though I personally think there will.

If today’s Ireland Thinks/Irish Daily Mail poll is correct, and there is no real reason to assume it isn’t, then 76% of us would like President Higgins to continue on after his first term expires in late 2018.

That is fair enough. I, like most people, like our President. I think he is doing a good job and that he projects a positive image of Ireland as a caring, cultured and outward looking country.

I didn’t vote for him in 2011 (either first or second preference), but that does not matter. If the poll is correct then just under half of those just polled did not vote for him either.

As a candidate in the 2011 election, when we had a selection of people pick from, Michael D Higgins was the first-choice pick of just under 40% of voters.

So, it would be a bit of a stretch to read today’s poll as saying that he would automatically be the first-choice pick of 76% of voters, without knowing who those other potential candidates might be.

In the same vein, it is also a major stretch to interpret today’s result as saying that 76% of us believe that President Higgins should have a second term without an election.

That said, today’s poll will doubtless come as a bit of welcome news to those hoping that the President will run again.

They were due some good news after the recent opinions pieces in the Sunday Business Post, Irish Examiner and the Sunday Times (Ireland) urging the President to think carefully about going for a second term and to keep good to his word, as given during the 2011 elections, and only serve a single seven-year term.

While there have been other pieces written along on the same lines over the past few years, including this from Brendan Morley in June 2016, these three particular pieces from Elaine Byrne, Alison O’Connor and Justine McCarthy will hit home, as none will be seen as coming from opponents or those with political axes to grind.

Of the three, Alison O’Connor’s will have been the least well received, choosing, as she did, to go with the issue of age.

It is a tricky personal subject, but as the few of us who have experienced two or more presidential election campaign can attest: presidential elections are all about the tricky personal subjects.

There clearly is precedent, via President de Valera, of having an octogenarian as head of State, though in the case of Éamon de Valera, the voters got to have their say when he sought re-election in 1966 at the age of 83.

In contrast, Justine McCarthy’s analysis and observations may have the most impact. In essence, she warns those supporting Higgins not to play politics with this, specifically not to be cute-hoors and continually delay the announcement of the decision whether or not Michael D is running again.

The perceived wisdom is that those supporting a second term for Michael D – let us call them Team Higgins – believe their best tactic is to have a second term by acclamation.

From their viewpoint, there is no overwhelming appetite among the main parties for another election next year, especially with a likely general election and referendum on the Eight Amendment already on the cards for 2018.

They assume that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael would be happy to see the presidency go uncontested, leaving both to focus on fighting each other. They also know that they need the two main parties to keep out if they are to coast through.

There may be some basis to this belief, but it does not factor-in the wishes of others. Presidential nominations are not the gift of the big parties that they once were.

To run you need to be nominated by 20 members of the Oireachtas (TDs/ Senators) or 4 county/city councils. This makes the independents serious players as it does Sinn Féin.

Various independent TDs and Senators have already indicated that they are determined to field a candidate and, while the candidacy of the ebullient Senator Gerry Craughwell will not be much of a worry to man nor beast, there are rumours that other independents are already talking to more substantial figures as possible contenders.

But there is a problem, it is one of timing. National presidential campaigns are complex things to design, staff and build and can take 6, 9 or even 12 months to get right.

This is probably why Team Higgins is so keen to delay its announcement for as long as it possibly can.

It knows the amount of work and resources required to mount a credible national campaign and it knows that anyone from outside the big political parties wanting to take a serious run at the park in the autumn of 2018 needs to start planning now.

If you are an aspiring non-party candidate then the next three or four months are crucial.

What seems not yet to have dawned on Team Higgins however, is that the issue of whether there is a challenger or not has already slipped out of their hands.

The best they can do now is to try to nobble a contender before their get to the starting gate – hardly the actions of a principled campaign, but this is presidential politics.

Even then, once the main parties see that there will likely be an election the internal pressure will mount to run their own candidates, at which point all bets are off and Team Higgins is in a bitter race for a second term, a second term it said clearly and repeatedly back in 2011 that it did not seek or desire.

While some in Team Higgins may still hope that they can delay an announcement well into 2018, I strongly suspect that common sense will prevail over the coming weeks and that the position will be clarified before Christmas.

If I were a betting man, I’d be putting a few euros on the President reaffirming what he originally said in 2011 and announcing that he will not be seeking a second term.

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: Dónall Ó Cualáin (left), who became Acting Commissioner of An Garda Siochana at midnight last night, following the resignation of Garda Commissioner Noirin O’Sullivan (right) pictured in 2014; Derek Mooney

It hasn’t been a good week for former Garda Commissioners.

It started with Fine Gael airbrushing a former Garda Commissioner, Blueshirt founder and first leader of Fine Gael, Gen Eoin O’Duffy out of its 84th anniversary video (BTW, since when was 84 a landmark occasion?) and it ended with the most recent Garda Commissioner, Nóirín O’Sullivan, retiring after months, if not years, of calls for her to go.

While the Commissioner has doubtless made the right decision and her going, as Fianna Fáil’s Jim O’Callaghan put it, “…paves the way for a new chapter for An Garda Síochána”, it does not solve the problem of; “…confidence within the force itself and in the wider public arena” (again to quote Jim O’Callaghan).

The hapless Commissioner may be gone, but the problem remains.

The departure of former Commissioner O’Sullivan does, hopefully, allow us to move the focus from an individual responsibility to a broader one.

As many others have argued and explained, far better than I can here, there is a major issue with both the management structures and the management culture at Phoenix Park level.

There has been an emerging “them” and “us” culture that has reflected itself in a slowness to modernise and a resentment of civilian oversight and control.

Tackling these issues will be a huge task for the Garda Authority and its first test will come in its selection of the next Garda Commissioner, a task which is should and must undertake in as completely independent a manner as it possible.

That is not to say that politicians, as a body, should be excluded from the process. If anything, we should be looking to do the exact opposite. Policing, as we have learned the hard way over the past few years, is one of the most political of the State’s activities.

It is therefore important that politicians from all sides (not just the government side as it has traditionally been) should have a recognised and defined role in policing oversight, especially if we are to achieve the broadest possible public support and buy-in to policing.

At the MacGill summer school a few months back, the former Vice Chairman of the Northern Ireland Policing Board, Denis Bradley offered a some very valuable insights (start at 55m mark) into how we start to tackle the problems in An Garda Síochána. what was needed down here.

He spoke in practical terms of how appointing politicians, from across the political spectrum, to the Policing Board in the North (10 out of the 19 members are elected public representatives) worked and advocated that the Policing Authority here do likewise.

He made the point, forcefully, that the transformation of policing in the North was a cornerstone of the peace process and that having politicians on the board meant that its achievement was in the hands of the elected representatives of the people.

He also makes the point that the genius of the Patten Report on policing in Northern Ireland was that it simplified who was responsible for what and it made it clear that the NI Policing Board was responsible for bringing about change, but that this clarity does not exist in the Republic.

That reform, unfortunately, is not likely to happen in the short-term. Our current Justice Minister has not demonstrated that level of vision in any of his previous ministries and is unlikely to undergo a Pauline conversion in this one.

So, pending such a major reform, it is vital for the Garda Authority to exert its control. The Gardaí needs to grasp that ultimate civilian control is vital.

This brings me to the issue of defining what we want from our next Commissioner. Over the past 24 hours there has been an avalanche of calls for the appointment of an outsider.

The point is continually made that Commissioner O’Sullivan was appointed after an open contest – and that is unquestionably and undoubtedly true.

But what is also true is that the world, its mother and its dog knew that she was the most likely choice. Not many serious contenders outside the jurisdiction were ready to invest a great deal of time or energy in applying for a job where they saw that there was a clear, suitably qualified front runner in situ.

So, will outside candidates think it is worth applying this time?

Possibly. They will be reassured that the process is being overseen by a body (the Garda Authority) whose structure and operation they will understand from their own jurisdictions, but that does not mean we should be expecting a rush of applications.

The pay is not especially high however, the scale of the challenge is. There are only a few similar jurisdictions from which we can reasonably recruit candidates of a suitable calibre and experience: such as the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – English speaking, common law systems.

But, if we are serious about bringing in an outsider we should we not be looking to recruit not just an individual as Commissioner, but rather a new Commissioner with their own core management team: a full Commissioner’s office, not a single person?

But recruiting a new Commissioner from outside does raise another issue, though it is not one that is insurmountable.

The Garda Commissioner is not just responsible for policing in this state they are also, almost uniquely, also responsible for state security. Are we yet ready to have someone from outside this jurisdiction responsible for national and state security?

I suppose it depends on the person involved, but the more sensible position is that we need to now start preparing to take the national security role from An Garda and set up a stand-alone and dedicated national security and intelligence agency, staffed with the many existing experts within both the Defence Forces and Garda. This will leave the Gardaí to focus solely on policing, which is its core activity.

There are very many real and practical reforms yet to be made, so let me make a prediction – the next Commissioner will be probably end up being more of an interim appointment, whose role will be to hold the organisation together while this government – and the next one – grapples with making the changes needed to bring Garda management systems and structures into the first half of the 21st century.

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: Gerry Adams; Derek Mooney

Much to his own delight Gerry Adams was once again grabbing the headlines last week. Ignore the fact that they were not the headlines that other political leaders would relish – for Adams, a headline is a headline, even if it contains more than a whiff of cordite.

It came on foot of the furore following Adams telling his local LMFM local radio station that jailing the provo murderers of the innocent County Louth farmer, Tom Oliver, would be “totally and absolutely counterproductive”.

It was an outrageous statement to make, only made worse by Adams added assertion that the 1991 crime was “politically motivated killing”. It was not.

It is well accepted and acknowledged that Mr Oliver was brutally tortured and then shot as a warning to other families in the Cooley peninsula not to talk to the authorities and to allow the provos to operate there unhindered.

It was brutal intimidation, plain and simple.

The idea that those who intimidated and threatening innocent men and women should now deserve an amnesty is affront to the principles of basic justice and a denial of the specific provisions made for this situation when the Good Friday agreement was negotiated.

The Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 provides that anyone later convicted of a scheduled offence committed before April 1998 will serve a maximum of two years in prison, after which they would be released to serve out the remainder of their sentence “under licence”.

There is no case for amnesty.

Two years is a painfully short penalty for such a callous act, but it does offer some justice and some truth to those left behind. It is what we all agreed in the context of bringing peace and it is the minimum that we can expect.

Tom Oliver is just one of the provos’ many innocent victims whose killers have not yet been brought to justice. Though thePprovos did, in 2002, apologise to the innocent victims of its campaign of violence, Adams words last week make that apology ring hollow.

The provos were not alone in their cruelty and inhumanity. There are as many victims of loyalist terrorism too – in some cases facilitated by some in the British security forces.

The whataboutery of apologists on either side gets us no-where in confronting our shared past. Neither should it prevent us from calling out the provos for their crimes.

There is an onus on us to do this; as the provos asserted that they committed their atrocities in our name and in pursuit of a legitimate aim to which most of us still aspire.

They purloined our history and abused its iconography to justify their campaign of violence, all the while ignoring the line in the 1916 Proclamation urging that no one dishonour the cause of freedom “…by cowardice, inhumanity, or rapine.”

They only succeeded in driving the divisions deeper and setting back the aim of Irish Unity. They were the enemies of unity, not its champion.

We have a responsibility to not just disavow these acts, but to pursue the perpetrators just as the British government has a duty to stop hiding behind the excuse of national security and cooperate more fully and openly with the Irish government in pursuing loyalist killers, including those behind the Dublin and Monaghan bombings by releasing all the files and papers pertaining to the case.

I mention the Dublin and Monaghan bombings here as they were erroneously cited by Fine Gael’s Junior Minister, Patrick O’Donovan, last Monday.

So over enthused and excited was he to score political points off Fianna Fáil, by linking them to Sinn Féin, that he omitted to check his facts, or possibly double check the talking points sent to him.

There are sufficient grounds for criticising the provos and its apologists, that you do not need to make up your own and then double down on them when you are caught out.

He should try reading some of the Parliamentary Replies issued to TDs from across the Dáil, over the past few years, on the Dublin Monaghan bombings to see that his government fully supports the all-party Dáil motions of July 2008 and May 2011 urging the British Government to allow access by an independent international judicial figure to all original documents in their possession relating to the Dublin-Monaghan bombings.

O’Donovan will also see, if he reads the May 2016 reply from the then Fine Gael Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan, to the Fianna Fáil Party Chairperson, Deputy Brendan Smith, that his government is unhappy with the continued foot dragging by the British government, saying (diplomatically):

“I am disappointed to report that despite our urging, the British Government is still considering how to respond to the Dáil motions.”

In so very many ways the arguments put forward by Adams in protecting from justice the killers of Tom Oliver, Columba McVeigh, Seamus Quaid, Jean McConville, Michael Clerkin and so many others right up to the 2007 murder of Paul Quinn, mirror the arguments that the British security establishment proffers when seeking to cover up its own murky and dark past.

Neither are they a thousand miles away from the infamous ruling by Lord Denning that it ‘is such an appalling vista that every sensible person in the land would say, “It cannot be right these actions should go any further.”‘

Contrary to Adams view, truth and justice cannot be totally and absolutely counterproductive. This an establishment/elitist argument – something you would not expect to hear from the leader of a party that claims to stand up for equality and the rights of the little guy?

But that presumes that Sinn Féin is yet a political party. It is still more of a cult than a party: devoted to the double speak and double standards of Adams. Where some leaders drink deep from the well of compassion and decency: Gerry Adams merely gargles.

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: Theresa May; Derek Mooney

At around 4pm (Irish time) today, British and EU negotiators will meet again in Brussels for the latest round of Brexit talks.

The first item on this week’s agenda, we are told, will be Britain’s exit bill, with the Brits expected to set out their thinking behind how they will for calculating how much is owed to the EU when Britain leaves.

The teams with then go on, over the following days, to discuss the two other key issues which need to be resolved during this first phase of talks: citizens’ rights and ensuring the Northern Ireland peace process is not jeopardised.

While the EU (by which I mean “we”) set out its position on the British financial settlement back in May, British ministers have been extremely reluctant to attempt to put a figure on it.

While some, like Boris Johnson, have huffed and puffed about making the EU go whistle for it, the UK’s Brexit Minister, David Davis, has sufficient political nous to see that putting a realistic figure on the divorce settlement will just throw raw meat to the Tory right, who imagine they can use their debt as a bargaining chip for better terms for the future relationship.

How the British government manoeuvres its way through this round of crucial talks will be an important indicator of its future plans. The hope is that the British with arrive with a specific set of proposals for calculating the bill. The expectation is that they won’t – it is an expectation informed by past performance.

Up to now the British have attempted to keep things as vague, even confused, as possible. Their recent position papers have been aspirational at best, and contradictory at worst: a matter I addressed in last week’s Broadsheet column when I opined that Britain’s road to Brexit was: “paved with bad intentions“.

That is not to say, however, that the British negotiators strategy is merely disruptive. While their strategy may be confused and their tactics appear erratic, it would be foolish to imagine that the British, at least at a political level, do not have a game-plan – even if it is not a realistic one.

Look back at the recent series of position papers and it is just possible to discern the shape and outline of the post Brexit arrangement that the British – though it may be more correct to say, the Tories – desire.

While they obviously see the UK as being outside the Single market and the Customs Union, it is not just that they will be ‘outside’ EU institutions such as the European Court of Justice and the EU Commission, the EU Council and Parliament, they believe that they will be out from being ‘underneath’ them.

They see themselves post Brexit as not merely leaving a partnership with others, but rather as breaking free from being under an EU bureaucracy which they monstrously and wrongly caricature as entirely undemocratic.

But, as you read their position papers you see that while they see themselves as being out from underneath these institutions, they still see the need to have workable post Brexit relationships with them.

They want out from the Customs Union, but they still want a customs and border free relationship with the EU. They want to be out from under EU Data rules, but want to have a British seat at the EU data protection committee table even after they leave. The list goes on.

Add all these contradictions, aspirations and demands together and you reach a simple conclusion: the Tories want a new arrangement where the UK is the equal of the rest of EU 27-member states put together.

The Tories ideal post Brexit outcome is an open marriage between the UK groom, presumably in Edwardian frock coat and top hat, and a not so virginal EU27 bride, dressed in a blue and gold. They want it to be an open marriage so the groom can have a few external relationships with former conquests such as India and Malaysia.

This generation of post Major Tories have never ben happy with the UK as just a part of the EU, they see the UK, at the very least, as being the equal of it.

Moving from an EU with 28-member states working in partnership into an umbrella union, of their own design, which comprises two partners: the UK on one side and the entire EU27 on the other, suits the public school, the sun never sets on the British empire mindset of those now running the Tory party.

It is their answer to the question, what is Great Britain’s role in the modern globalised world. This is a question that the British have struggled to answer since the end of WWII, one witheringly posed by the former US Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, who observed in 1962 that: “Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role”.

The problem for the Tories is that this answer is unacceptable to the rest of us.

Churchill, Heath, Major Blair, and even Thatcher had seen Britain’s role as an important leader in the EU. Thatcher had initially sought to bend the shape and composition of the EU to suit this role insisting that it expansion should be wider, including form eastern bloc countries, rather than deeper, but the legacy of the Tory party post Major has been a failure to grasp that the EU was the platform from which the UK continued to be an important player, not the obstacle to it.

If my analysis is correct, then this can only end badly for the Tories and, sadly, the UK. The one slight point of consolation as Micheál Martin pointed out overnight is the British Labour Party’s decision to commit itself to continued UK membership of the EU single market and customs union during a transition period from March 2019 onwards.

A hard Brexit that will hurt us economically, socially and politically may still be most likely outcome, but it is not yet inevitable.

The next few weeks will be telling.

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: 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)

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.