Tag Archives: Mooney on Monday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Graphics via The Sunday Independent

From top: McGill Summer School; Derek Mooney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previously: McGill Summer School: Gombeen Davos’

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

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

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

I stress the word “suggest”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where else is there now for Fine Gael to go?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From top: Opposition benches in Dáil Éireann; Derek Mooney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Silage and Ice-cream”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pic via Random irish Photos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


There you go now.

From top:  Barrow Centre, IT Carlow last Friday ahead of a Fine Gael leadership debate.; Derek Mooney

If memory serves me right, and it rarely does, in one of the many documentaries on the fall of Margaret Thatcher, Cecil Parkinson recounts the story of Michael Heseltine approaching him in the House of Commons to ask for his vote in the leadership battle following Thatcher’s resignation.

Parkinson, a long-time confidante of the Iron Lady was taken aback by the brazenness of the approach. He tried to explain to Hezza that, given his closeness to Margaret, he could not be seen to back the man whose challenge had just brought her down. Heseltine brushed his concerns aside, saying: “I don’t care who you say you’re voting for Cecil, just as long as you vote for me”.

Coveney supporters must be hoping the Heseltine approach will sway some of those who have already publicly declared for Varadkar.

According to some associated with the Coveney camp, Simon needs to swing just 6 Oireachtas members back over to their side to neutralise Varadkar’s lead and leave the decision in the members’ hands.

It is a very long shot.

While the secrecy of the ballot may allow some individuals to exercise a buyer’s remorse and switch back to the guy they may have committed to backing in the first place, are there six, or more, of them in the Fine Gael parliamentary party?

I doubt it very much. This is not a reflection on anyone’s character but rather it is to wonder what would anyone gain by switching away from the likely winner at this point?

Doubtless, as I type there are Coveney grassroots supporters across the constituencies busy lobbying their local TDs and Senators to switch support before the parliamentary party votes next Friday.

I know how this works. I was one of the many grassroot activists who did it for Haughey during the early heaves against Charlie. But the tactic has only limited effectiveness as it can only hope to influence those who are undecided or wavering.

Those who have openly declared their support have already factored the impact on their supporters into the equation. They know that they can either ride out any local displeasure or watch those supporters switch sides when they gain preferment at the next reshuffle.

The bigger problem for Team Coveney is that the “winner alright” attitude to Varadkar has started to take hold among the group that Simon expected to win by a couple of clear lengths: the membership.

Many, if not most, of the rank and file Fine Gael party members may prefer Simon personally and support his more centrist platform, but they are political animals. They read the polls and online support trackers and can see that Leo is well ahead.

They do not want a divided party after the contest and so they will feel a self-imposed pressure to go with their heads rather than their hearts and give their vote to the person they believe will be their next leader, rather than the one they would like to be their leader.

I am around political parties and constituency organisations long enough to know that there is also a sizeable cohort of curmudgeonly gits in every organisation who will do whatever runs counter to the prevailing trend.

In this instance, they will back Simon as they resent having the parliamentary party alone decide who should be the next leader. But I also know that there are not enough of them, even among the blueshirts!

Though I am a bit of a card-carrying curmudgeon myself, they are also wrong. While it may not look great to have a small number of people take such a major decision alone, you cannot get away from the fact that it is the broader Oireachtas grouping, the TDs, MEPs and Senators, who are best placed to judge and evaluate the ability and calibre of the candidates.

They are the ones who will go into the next election under their banner. They are the ones whose futures fall or rise on the success of their choice. They are the ones who have seen the contenders up close in the Dáil and in meetings. They are the ones whose task it is to know what their voters (as opposed to supporters) want.

Leading a party, a parliamentary party when you do not have the active support and endorsement of the elected representatives on the benches behind you leads to all kinds of difficulties, as we can see with Jeremy Corbyn in the UK.

Experienced and long serving party members see this too. They know how politics works and, so, it is hard to conceive of a situation where the Fine Gael party members would land the parliamentary party with a leader it had not picked for itself.

For all these reasons, it is impossible to envisage a situation where Leo Varadkar is not Fine Gael leader at 6pm next Friday. If Simon does beat Leo it will not just be a major upset, it will send Fine Gael into turmoil.

The four debates with his rival have exposed Varadkar’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Indeed, the fact that pundits judged Coveney as the winner of most, if not all, the hustings, casts major doubts on Varadkar’s claims as a skilled debater and media performer.

His platform for the leadership was high on style and flair, but low on detail and substance, while some elements in his version of his ministerial record have been questioned by colleagues.

While the recent Irish Times and Sunday Business Post polls differ (significantly) on the size of the bounce Varadkar’s Fine Gael can expect, that there will be a bounce is not in doubt. The question is how long that bounce will last and will it be sufficient to withstand an election later in the year.

Varadkar has dismissed the idea of calling a “snap” election – but that does not rule out the possibility of a “rift” with independent ministerial colleagues “emerging” at Cabinet over policy that necessitates an early election.

Though, as Simon Coveney discovered, Varadkar’s crew are fans of the shock and awe style of campaigning and like to move quickly and take an early advantage, they also like to prepare. They know that voters do not particularly like unnecessary/stroke elections, but will Irish voters regard an election to change a replace a do-nothing government with a decisive administration as entirely “unnecessary”?

His advisers will watch the results of the British general election in 10 days’ time to see if Theresa May’s gamble paid off and whether she increased her majority. Though her campaign has been full of errors, none thus far seem to relate to her calling the election early, but the results will tell all.

That said, the real determinant as to whether there will be an election before the winter or not will be how far above the 30% mark Varadkar can bring Fine Gael’s support and for how long.

But there’s a Catch-22. The longer the bounces lasts; the more sustainable and secure it appears, but the longer you hang around the more you take ownership of the existing crises, and the opprobrium that goes with them, plus you have the added complication of some unforeseen events derailing you.

It is a delicate balancing act, and while the evidence of recent years is that Minister Varadkar can’t do balance, can Taoiseach Varadkar? By the way, do you know any horses who would like to serve in the Seanad?

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: Maria Bailey TD, Kate O’Connell TD and Minister for Housing, Simon Coveney as Mr  Coveney launched his policy priorities at an event in Dean Hotel in Dublin yesterday; Derek Mooney

The article you’re about to read is not the article that I was originally planning to write. I usually write these pieces late Monday morning, but because I am travelling this week I decided to get the bulk of it written early last Friday.

However, the events of the last few days, particularly the surge to make Leo Varadkar… the leader Fine Gael caused me to reconsider some aspects of that original draft and so what appears below is the original piece with some added reflections.

So, as Eric Morecambe would say of Ernie’s hairpiece, see if you can spot the join.

My original starting point was a casual and basically harmless comment made by Fine Gael Senator, Michelle Mulherin on the Vincent Browne show on TV3 last Tuesday night.

Responding to a barrage of criticism for the inaction of Fine Gael on several issues and specifically the outgoing Taoiseach’s slowness to act, Michelle proffered the excuse that Enda and other ministers were reluctant to act as politicians like to be liked and so naturally avoid tough decisions and unpalatable policies.

To be fair to Senator Mulherin she was merely recycling a well worn trite excuse. It is not as if she had coined the phrase on the spot. Many people use it, including commentators and political observers.

It is offered as a valid and human explanation as to why so-and-so did not do such-and-such, but when you think about the phrase, it is really a back handed insult. The phrase is unfair on politicians and should not be deployed by them, even when under pressure from Mr Browne.

Most politicians I have known and worked with over the years would much prefer to be respected than liked. The politicians who succeed are the ones who we most respect, even when we disagree with them.

They are the ones who express their views and say where they stand, rather than telling you what you want to hear or, worse still, attempt to use weasel words to both run with the hares and hunt with the hounds.

OK, many politicians do the “hail fellow, well met” act and go about back slapping, but that does not stop them from being serious and assiduous in serving the best interests of their constituents and, hopefully, having an input on national policies.

Anyone who gets into politics thinking that they’re going to be universally liked and loved will soon find their illusions shattered. It is not that there is a lot of abuse or nastiness, there may be some from time to time, but it is fleeting, indeed most people who vote for a partcular TD or Cllr rarely ever contact them directly.

There are exceptions, of course. As Frank Cluskey famously observed, there are three types of people who go to a TD’s clinic: one third want you do something illegal, one third want you to do something immoral and the final third are just effin’ lonely.

It works the other way around too. Some years ago a craftsman friend of mine was doing some specialist décor work in Leinster House over the Summer recess.

It was so slow and painstaking that he was still working on it after the Dáil and Seanad had returned. One morning, as he and I went for a coffee, he told me of the a fool-proof system he had developed to correctly distinguish between the politicians and the many officials and civil servants walking along the corridors.

“Just say hello to them” he said, explaining: “If they are a TD or a Senator they will respond immediately and effusively and greet you as a long lost friend”. “They do this”, he added, “as they daren’t take the risk of offending a possible voter by letting them think they did not recognise them, even when they don’t know them from Adam”.

“And what about the others” I enquired. His answer: “if they don’t recognise you, they’ll simply ignore you… especially the pol-corrs.”

If, as the former Deputy and current Senator Mulherin thinks, policians just want to be liked, then how does she explain the ease and speed at which Minister Varadkar has coasted ahead to be within a whisker of already securing the leadership of Fine Gael?

Minister Varadkar has cultivated the image of being a man of many fine skills and qualities, but likability ain’t one of them.

Not that he has gone the full Machiavelli route and decided that it is better to be feared than loved either, but he has (wisely and properly in my view) opted to be respected and regarded for being his own man and possessing a set of firm political views, an intellect and considerable debating skills.

In some ways, particularly when it comes to presentation, Minister Varadkar is the opposite of the Enda Kenny I described in a previous Broadsheet column. While Kenny was at his best when in a crowd of people, his personality and demeanour was dulled by a studio camera, Varadkar’s is sharpened by it. He is better in the formal setting of a TV studio or a debating chamber than in one-to-ones.

This is in contrast with his rival Simon Coveney, who is not usually too comfortable in the formal setting, though Simon’s rally speech to his supporters in Cork last Saturday night was possibly the finest and most impassioned address I have seen him give. The pity is that his campaign team did not think beforehand to arrange to stream it live so that more Fine Gael members could see it.

Both candidates for the Fine Gael leadership are, to their credit, attempting to run on platforms that go beyond the usual: “I’m great, look at my record” approach – though with a record like Varadkar’s that may be the wisest move.

But, leaving my cynicism aside, both men have placed a big emphasis on policy and are looking to political developments elsewhere for inspiration and analysis. They both attempt to set out their vision, though they are somewhat competing ones, with Leo focussing on the “open and closed” visions of the world.

It is very laudable, the problem is that all their work is now clearly wasted.

The Fine Gael Oireachtas members have decided not to consider the competing visions of where the two candidates want to lead their party and decided, instead, to jump on board the bandwagon that they, or the Fine Gael party managers, have determined will suit their personal ambitions best.

In their rush to unify and coronate, the TDs and Senators have forgotten to first stop and think. Perhaps the Councillors and party members will act as a corrective.

Simon’s only last Quixotic hope is that they do and that they manage to persuade some Fine Gael TDs and Senators to quietly change their minds in the secrecy of the ballot box.

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

Earlier: Going, You Know, Like, Forward


Need more DereK?

William Campbell (right) interviews Derek about Brexit and other STUFF in the latest edition of  his Here’s How current affairs podcast.

Listen here

From top: Michael Bernier addressing the dáil last week; Derek Mooney

Last Thursday, the EU’s chief negotiator in the Brexit process, Michel Barnier addressed the Oireachtas. While M. Barnier’s speech was, not surprisingly, short on detail it still contained sufficient key phrases, including this one:

I want to reassure the Irish people that in these negotiations, Ireland’s interests will be the European Union’s interests. We are in these negotiations together and a united EU will be there for Ireland

to reassure most of the assembled Deputies and Senators that he (and his considerable team of technocrats and negotiators) understand and have Ireland’s interests at heart.

It was a strong performance from the well regarded and highly experienced French politician. To his credit, he not only addressed the Dáil and Seanad, he then sat through some fourteen individual responses from party and groups leaders plus independent TDs and Senators.And he did all this while perched on a seat facing the Ceann Comhairle, just in front of Brendan Howlin and Gerry Adams.

Perhaps this was some bizarre cruel and unusual trial by ordeal set by the Dáil’s committee on procedures and privileges to test his stamina and fortitude? If so, he passed it easily.

Throughout his speech Barnier referred to the importance and significance of the actual negotiations themselves, using the word “negotiate” itself, or a variation on it, about a dozen times, including this important reference towards the end of his address:

“If we put things in the right order, if we negotiate with mutual respect, without any aggression or naivety and are open to finding solutions, there is no reason our strong Europe cannot maintain a strong relationship with the UK.”

The inclusion of the word “naivety” here – along with the word “aggression” – has some significance. Over the past few weeks, and particularly since the announcement of the UK general election, it has seemed that Theresa May and her ministers have been deliberately ignoring the usual dynamics of negotiation.

Speak with anyone with experience in negotiation, be it in labour relations or conflict resolution, and they will tell you how easily things can go wrong when the basic rules and principles are ignored.

They are not that complicated. Negotiations are general seen as either a positive or a zero-sum game and you adjust your approach, as appropriate, to get the result you want.

This requires a lot of preparation – including preparation around two key negotiating process dynamics.

The first of these is “attitudinal structuring” or, in other words, putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. It involves getting the other party to start to see things from your point of view, and to begin to change their own attitudes accordingly.

The second one is, “expectation management”. That involves getting your own people prepared for likely outcomes and not running the risk of seeing delivery of any negotiation outcome fail because you over promised and then under-delivered.

On none of these three areas have the UK made any realistic moves. Rather they have insisted on badly playing their already lousy hand of self-dealt cards.

The preparation has been minimal with the boss of the top civil servants trade union bemoaning the fact that May’s government has under invested in the civil service with many senior civil servants are already working six and seven day weeks trying to prepare for Brexit negotiation.

Apart from some the occasional soothing noise from the UK’s Brexit Secretary, David Davis, there has been virtually no attempt to “structure the attitude” of the EU towards the UK in a favourable direction. The traffic has been all in the other direction with senior ministers on May’s cabinet hurling insults and accusations across the channel as if they were rehearsing for a black and white episode of Dad’s Army.

What we have seen from the British Prime Minister and her team is a war on two front, not a preparation for a serious negotiation. The first front, is the one across the English Channel (and the Irish Sea) as they see themselves fighting a verbal war for liberation from a despotic and evil EU empire.

The second is the home front, but this front set along the land border with Scotland and the sea one with Northern Ireland, not downtown Walmington-on-Sea.

Where once May spoke of listening to the Brexit concerns and worries of the constituent nations of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and certain parts of Northern Ireland, she now studiously ignores them. It is worth noting that she spent more time electioneering at the Balmoral Show in Belfast last Friday than she had on the ground attempting to get the institutions up and running.

The net result of the hostilities on these two battlefronts is that she has raised expectations as to what she can achieve from Brexit to such a pitch that it cannot be delivered.

Indeed, the stakes are being raised on the other side of the negotiations. As I write this I see that President Macron has announced the appointment of Edouard Philippe as his Prime Minister.

Not only is Philippe a member of the centre right Les Republicains party, a signal of Macron’s outreach to them, he is also – as Mayor of Le Havre – an avowed critic of the Le Touquet Agreement – this could see all those refugee camps move from Calais to Dover and beyond.

While Theresa May has been politically astute in calling the election now and avoiding a more fraught campaign in the immediate aftermath of whatever eventually emerges from the Article 50 negotiations, she has over hyped the rhetoric and overheated the expectations from Brexit.

She has also considerably increased the chances of the UK leaving the EU without a deal. It is why Barnier warns of the perils of “naivety” and “aggression” in negotiations and why it was particularly important for him to do so in the parliament chamber of the EU member state poised to pay the heaviest price for such British folly.

About the only positive thing you can say for this early election is that it may mean that Boris Johnson won’t be Foreign Secretary after June 9th and an actual fully formed and sentient adult may be put in charge of the Foreign Office.
Derek Mooney is a communications and public affairs consultant. He previously served as a Ministerial Adviser to the Fianna Fáil-led government 2004 – 2010. Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney


From top: Taoiseach Enda Kenny; Derek Mooney

“But as I leave you I want you to know – just think how much you’re going to be missing. You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore”

With these words, Richard Nixon departed the political scene, well almost. It was November 7th, 1962. He was concluding what he assumed would be his last ever political press conference after losing the race to become Governor of California. Two years earlier he had narrowly lost the Presidency to John F Kennedy.

While Enda Kenny’s departure, when it comes – possibly over the next week or two – will not be as bitter and waspish as Tricky Dicky’s, there may just be the slightest hint of the same sentiment: just think what we will potentially be missing.
Love him or loathe him, during his time as Taoiseach Enda has been anything but colourless or bland. For all his faults and failings, he showed quickly that he realised that one of the main roles of any Taoiseach is re-assuring the public that there is someone with a plan in charge.

He also grasped that this role as the nation’s re-assurer-in-chief requires you to get out and about and meet people as much as possible. In some ways, Enda has spent the past six years doing a passable Bertie Ahern impression.

Nonetheless, it is where we saw Enda at his best. When you meet him in person, either in a one to one chat or as part of an audience, you realise that Enda genuinely enjoys pressing the flesh.He possesses an ebullient personality, unlike either of his two possible successors, and so he comes across as warm and engaging when encountered personally.

This natural ability and skill was also a potential liability. His desire to have something to say to everyone and to do it spontaneously could lead to problems – as our greatest ever Taoiseach, Sean Lemass, famously observed – the danger with such off-the-cuff utterances is “not the little too little, it’s the little too much”.

Hence Enda’s occasional problems with the actualité. We saw it again last week in Canada when he misremembered discussions about human rights in Saudi Arabia and ended up recounting what he now wished he had said, rather than what he had actually said when sitting with the Princes.

One way his team of advisers had come up with to try to curb Enda’s effusive tendencies was to try to keep him to a script. It worked, but only to a certain extent. If they truly wanted him to him under control then all they had to do was to turn on a camera on.

Nothing was more guaranteed to make him appear wooden and staid than a TV camera. Whereas many senior politicians only truly come to life when the lights switch on and the cameras start rolling, Enda was the opposite. He shifted down the gears. Gone was the bonhomie and the spontaneity and in its place a stiffness of both language and style.

It partly explains why he did not like formal TV debates. It was not his strong suit. But this was not just because of the cameras, it was more than that. Enda is not a details man. Nor is he adept at recalling long tracts of script or prepared lines.

This was clear in his head to head party leaders debate with Bertie Ahern in the May 2007 election. During the pre-debate spin Fine Gael had so reduced the expectations for their man that all he had to do was show up and not set the desk on fire for them to claim a draw.

On the night, many pundits were in awe of Enda as he seemed to hold his own for about the first twenty minutes of the encounter. I recall a senior party colleague calling me about fifteen minutes into the exchange concerned that Enda was doing so well, but their worry was short lived.

By the twenty-minute mark Enda was starting to flag, he was running out of rehearsed material. Meanwhile Bertie, who absorbs and retains facts and figures, was just getting into his stride and used the remaining sixty minutes to leave Enda behind.

Another four years in opposition, including a failed heave against him, and a further six years as Taoiseach has improved Enda’s speech giving ability considerably. He delivered one of his best ever speeches in Canada last week. It was considered and reflective and included a section on the concept of “othering” that I mentioned here in a recent article saying:

“It is happening to the degree that the old battles of right and left might well be over, to be replaced by something that seeks, not to unite us, but to divide us, not only among ourselves, but from what they identify and objectify as the Other. They see the people not for who they are as individuals, but as what they are as an ethnic or faith or economic group.”

It was a well written speech, delivered extremely well. At several junctures, he seemed not to be reading it from a script, but rather delivering it extemporaneously. What just about stopped it from being a perfect speech, was the inclusion of the oft made, but inaccurate, claim that his government achieved the whole recovery by itself – conveniently omitting the reality that two thirds of the correctives had been made by the time he arrived in office, but old habits die hard, I suppose.

In a few week’s (or months) time I will miss having Enda to kick around. I may have a few others to miss too from around the Cabinet table. Instead I will have to focus on the possible successors: Simon, the Enda 2.0 or Leo, the anti-Enda.

Remarkably, both come to the threshold of high office with considerably more ministerial experience than Enda did when he won the leadership. But while both have many years more time spent around the Cabinet table, they come without Enda’s experience of political hard knocks. Their political paths have been charmed and uneventful, well they have certainly been devoid of any great track record or achievement.

Both will doubtless enjoy a political honeymoon and may even feel tempted to capitalise on it with a snap election – whether they will have that opportunity may well be determined by just how down and dirty the race to succeed Enda gets and how much damage will have to be repaired before facing out to meet the voters.

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