Tag Archives: Mooney on Tuesday


From top: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and DUP Leader Arlene Foster at government buildings last Summer; Derek Mooney

Though I did a bit of leaflet dropping for Fianna Fáil in the 1977 general election, the first election campaign in which I really canvassed was the 1979 European and Local elections.There I learned the skill of marking the register.

This involved writing a letter after the voter’s name as it appears on the electoral indicating, after you had canvassed them whether you thought they were for Fianna Fáil (F), against us (A), doubtful (D) or where you got no reply (NR) or CB for call back.

In 1979 there a lot of ‘A’s to mark on my sheet. These fell into two categories, the first were the people who voted FF two years earlier and were now very angry at how the country was going. The second were the group who had never and would never stoop to vote for “your shower”.

When encountering a person from this second group, usually after walking up a long gravel driveway and climbing a flight of granite steps to reach the ornate front door, one of fellow canvassers, a very nice woman, several years my senior, would call out “NOCD”.

This was a canvassing code with which I was not familiar, but I dutifully noted it down. When we finished later than evening to complete our canvassing returns, I set out totting up the F’s, the A’s, the D/k’s and the N/R’s.

“What about the NOCDs?” I enquired. It hadn’t occurred to her that I would be so naïve as to write it down.

“Count those as A’s” she said.

“But, what does NOCD” mean, I asked.

“They are the ‘not our class, dahling’ who still look down their nose at us”, she laughed.

They were the Fine Gaelers who still saw Fianna Fáil as a great unwashed, dinner in the middle of the day, hoard of cute-hoors who had the temerity to think they were up to the job of government. Though that generation of Fine Gaelers has now passed the NOCD attitude still soldiers on within the party.

It plays some small part in colouring its view of Sinn Féin, but it is not just limited to them. Ivan Yates gave a hyped-up version of the outlook on his Newstalk programme last week, having a go at all Northerners across the board.

Though his intent was probably more about winding up his listeners, Yates still struck a chord with some in his audience with his observation that “we don’t actually like the Nordies”.

It is not a new thing, we have seen it before, but this time around it seems to be a much stronger factor in how the DUP is perceived, not least by the Taoiseach and Tánaiste.

Though I know the dangers in overstretching the comparison, there are some echoes of how Fine Gael viewed Fianna Fáil in the past with how they now view the DUP.

Fine Gael, especially its leadership, seems to have a stereotypical view of the DUP seeing them as intransigent hardliners, stuck in the past and mouthing old slogans. They see Sammy Wilson or Ian Paisley Jr on the TV and think, how could you ever deal with them? But the political reality is that you have to.

Like it or not the DUP is the biggest party in Northern Ireland. A poll conducted by Lucid Talks (commissioned by Sinn Féin’s EU Parliament grouping GUE/NGL) puts the DUP on 33.7% support, just under 1% ahead of Sinn Féin. Its nearest unionist party rival is just on 9%.

While we may not like it, the DUP speaks for the bulk of Unionism, though the Lucid Talks poll, and a survey from Profs Coakley and Garry in QUB, does show that Unionism is not nearly as hardline on Brexit as the DUP.

Cue the chorus that the DUP is simply out of touch with its voters and is playing political games with Brexit. There is definitely some evidence for this view, not least the boorish heckling and barracking of the sole moderate independent unionist MP lady Sylvia Hermon in last week’s House of Commons debates, but there is also a bigger picture.

There are two other factors at play – factors that the Taoiseach and Tánaiste appear not to have… ehh, factored in.

Though the polls and surveys show a sophisticated and nuanced public response to Brexit and its consequences for the border, Northern Ireland politics remains stubbornly binary – it is a zero-sum game. If them’uns is winning, I must be losing.

If Simon Coveney is gleeful on Monday, then I must be unhappy – and not only that, then I must act quickly to re-establish the equilibrium. The Irish government should know this by now, and should realise that the DUP is following the Dublin media far more closely than the Irish government appears to be following the Belfast ones.

Varadkar and Coveney also need to learn the crucial importance of having solid and reliable back channels of communications with parties in the North both as part of the government and as a political party. This includes the DUP.

Indeed it is vitally that important that it does so Fine Gael can get beyond the stereotype and grasp that the DUP is a far more sophisticated political operation than it likes to portray itself and has a much stronger and progressive backroom team than you might suspect.

The other factor is that Northern Irish politicians are invariably protected from the consequences of their own actions. When something goes awry the cry goes up for an international mediator to step in or for the two governments to intervene.

Politics in the North is broken. In the classic Northern Ireland binary/zero sum tradition, the beneficiaries of this breakage are the DUP and Sinn Féin. The only way to reduce the power of one is to reduce the power of both.

There is now a generation, or two, of political leaders in the North who have never had to pick up the pieces of the crockery they smashed. They have, instead, thrived on crisis and learned how to leverage more out of it.

We saw an example of that skill last week with the DUP. Though they are clearly not prepared to do anything that puts Jeremy Corbyn in No 10, the DUP still managed to come out of last week’s chaos ahead of where they went into it.

While keeping the DUP apart and having them as NOCDs may politically suit Varadkar and Coveney just now, it does not benefit the rest of us in the long 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


From top: UN and Defence Forces veterans march on Leinster House last week. They claim one in five soldiers is currently accessing income support as serving members; Derek Mooney

Tempting though it is to add my 2 cents worth to the vast swathes of analysis of what happened, or almost happened, on Brexit yesterday, I will resist. There is still just over a week to go to the crucial December EU Council summit and I am sure that we will see a lot more manoeuvring before then.

In the meantime, best to follow RTÉ’s excellent Brussels correspondent Tony Connolly and Politico.co.uk’s Ian Dunt for up to minute analysis of the Brussels and Westminster machinations.

Instead of looking at Brexit, I want to look back at last week’s 24 hour protest outside Leinster House by the wives and partners of members of our Defence Forces and offer two additional perspectives, which may help illustrate why the Defence Forces are a special case and worthy of a far higher priority than this government is according them.

Before I get to those, it is worth noting why the protest was by the wives and partners. Under Defence Force regulations serving members of the Defence Forces may not make representations regarding any aspect of their employment, including pay and conditions, to third parties, including elected representatives.

Though this may seem a bit draconian, it does reflect the particular nature of their job. Soldiers cannot simply down tools, especially when those tools are often loaded, and go on strike – particularly when they are one of the key services we depend upon in emergency situations. But there is, or at least there should be a quid-pro-quo in this relationship.

While the State curtails your right to trade union membership, it also recognises your employer rights via pay negotiation models (conciliation and arbitration) that parallel those of other public servants. That is theory, at least. The practice over recent years, the wives would argue, has not lived up to that model, hence their protests.

So, to my two perspectives.

First, while the protest and the discussion on RTÉ’s Primetime last Thursday with the Minister of State for Defence [Paul Kehoe] has focused on the issue of allowances, there is another area which has drastically affected the average take home pay of the members of the Defence Forces in a unique way – overseas allowances.

I am not referring to the amount of these individual allowances, though I accept that is also an issue, but rather the number of them.

There are fewer Irish Troops currently serving overseas than there has been for well over a decade and a half. During my time in the Department of Defence there were over 800 Irish soldiers serving somewhere overseas at any one time.

As most overseas tours of duty last six months that means in almost any given year in the 1990s and 2000s over 1600 individual members of the Defence Forces would have served six months overseas and each received a daily overseas allow worth around €85 for an ordinary private. Bear in mind that most soldiers serve at least one six month overseas tour every three years.

By September 2011 the number serving overseas had fallen to 524. It fell further to 440 by June 2012 and stayed in or around that level until late 2016. The number has increased over the last year with around 630 troops currently serving overseas, its highest level in almost seven years.

While part of the reason for the drop is accounted for by the decrease we made in Defence Force strength from 10,500 to 9,500 in 2009/2010 as part of the Bord Snip nua cuts, that only took the overseas figure to approx 780.

Halving the numbers serving overseas as the government has done for almost five out of the past seven years has meant a huge additional drop in income for virtually every army family.

While other groups in the public sector have also endured major cuts, this dramatic hit on Defence Force family incomes is unique and I think it has not been adequately reflected in the public discussions of the Defence Force case.

The second perspective is the damage that this is doing to the aim of public sector reform. The modernisation and reform of the Defence Forces that was undertaken in the late 1990s was a model for how the public sector can reform and do work more efficiently and effectively.

While other areas of the public sector were expanding their numbers, the Defence Forces actually reduced theirs, but not at a cost of efficiency and delivery.

The savings made in reducing both troop and civil servant numbers in the late 1990s were invested in better training and equipment, making our Defence Forces the equal of those they served alongside. We achieved an enviable reputation in both logistics and ordnance disposal, particularly improvised devices.

There has been a needless neglect and indifference shown from 2011 onwards. It started with the appointment of part-time ministers: Alan Shatter was minister for Defence and Justice, while Simon Coveney was Minister for Agriculture and Defence and ended up with the downgrading of the Department to being nominally headed up by the Taoiseach, but in reality managed by an ineffectual Junior Minister.

The fact that he had just appointed himself as Minister for Defence seemed lost on the new Taoiseach on the night he was announcing his Cabinet picks when he neglected to tell the Dáil that he would be the Minister.

We saw just how well meaning but ineffectual the Junior Minister he reappointed was when he appeared on Primetime last week to defend his non defence of our defence forces, but it was also on show in the last budget when Defence saw a miserly 2% spending increase at a time when, as Fianna Fáil’s Defence Spokesperson Lisa Chambers argued at the time, the growth rate is 3.5%.

It is regrettable that the wives and families of our Defence Forces find it necessary to take to the streets to make their case, but it is outrageous that the indifference and disregard of the current ministers put them in that position.

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; Derek Mooney

At the end of my Broadsheet piece last Friday I said that the Taoiseach:

“…still has one last opportunity to somewhat redeem his reputation by taking some right steps now.”

At the time of writing this, it appears that the Taoiseach remains doggedly determined not to take the steps needed to diffuse this ministerial-made crisis.

While sacking an old and valued colleague is not a pleasant task, it comes with the job. He is the Taoiseach, he hires and fires. He is also a politician and it must have been obvious to him since Friday that the mounting evidence of Frances Fitzgerald’s failure to act meant that that Dáil Éireann could no longer have confidence in her as Tánaiste or as minister.

So why his slowness to act? Why insist, right up to the eleventh hour when all bar a handful of people around him realise that her goose is cooked, that a general election is preferable to her resignation?

Why is there such a determination to deny her accountability and responsibility to the Dáil – a Dáil in which Fine Gael holds less than one third of the seats.

Whatever else happens today – whether the Tánaiste resigns or is sacked or whether the Dáil votes on her fate or not – one thing is clear, Fine Gael’s attempt to ram the Tánaiste unscathed through this crisis by deploying Trump-esque campaign tactics has not worked.

Compare and contrast the comments of Fine Gael spokespeople yesterday and last Friday, it is not simply that the tone has changed, so too has underlying strategy.

Take last night’s RTE Claire Byrne Show and the exchanges between Fianna Fáil’s Jim O’Callaghan and Fine Gael’s Simon Coveney. At one point, Minister Coveney went out of his way to acknowledge that Fianna Fáil was not being unreasonable and that he “accepts” their call for political accountability.

This was accepted, in turn, by Jim O’Callaghan who then reminded Coveney that he had dubbed Fianna Fail as “reckless” the previous Friday. While Coveney protested that this was not the case, it was. Indeed, he went a lot, lot further.

Speaking on RTÊ’s Morning Ireland on Friday, Minister Coveney said Fianna Fáil was trying to bring down the government for “political party reasons”, adding “This is reckless politics that is politically opportunistic to damage a Taoiseach…”. Both quotes from the Irish Independent.

Not that Coveney was the worst exponent. Fine Gael ministers, TDs, trolls and bluebots (the FG equivalent of Shinnerbots) were at it the entire weekend. Listen to Minister Michael Ring debate (or should I say rant) with Stephen Donnelly on Friday’s RTÉ Drivetime for a example of the tactic at work, albeit ineffectively.

FG sent out the message that Fianna Fáil had tabled its motion of No Confidence in Frances Fitzgerald because it just wanted to cause an election.

This despite the fact that the Taoiseach told RTÉ’s Six One News on Friday that he accepted that Fianna Fáil did not want an election, saying: “I don’t believe Micheál Martin wants one [an election] either, by the way…”

Not that this mattered. No sooner was he back in his state car than the Fine Gael talking points were being churned out saying that Fianna Fáil was only doing this because it wanted an election – something already denied by an Taoiseach.

Was this an attempt to undermine and deny what he Taoiseach had said?

No, of course it wasn’t.

It was the same facts don’t work campaign tactic as used by Trump and by Brexiteers: say whatever you need to say, even when you know its false and misleading, to switch voters your way. No matter that your leader said something else… just get your claim out then and then repeat, repeat and repeat.

This is way beyond the spin we have seen this government engage in since 2011 or even the political dissembling of old. This is not just a desperate tactic you use to get yourself out of a tight-spot, it’s the baseline strategy. Ignore facts and just accuse. Last weekend it was wall to wall on broadcast, print and online media.

It wasn’t just limited to Fianna Fáil’s motivation. When it came to Brexit, no claim was too outlandish. During his Six One News interview the Taoiseach made it clear that if there was to be an election that he would prefer to have it before Christmas saying:

“If we have an election, I can still attend the EU Summit with the full executive and constitutional office and powers of Taoiseach on the 13th and 14th of December”.

Clear enough then, the Taoiseach did not feel an election in December (an election he said that neither he nor Martin wanted) would impede or reduce his abilities to negotiate on Brexit at the December Summit? So why were all his Ministers screaming about Fianna Fáil undermining the national interests on Brexit at this critical time in advance of the make or break December summit on which all our futures rest?

The simple answer is because that is what they were told to say, by the same people who helped the Taoiseach prepare for that interview. It was on their talking points – raise public fears and doubts.

By the way, the Taoiseach went much further on Brexit and the December EU Council meeting. He not only said that he was satisfied that he could attend the December summit with full authority, he then went on to downplay its singular importance adding that “…it is not all going to be sorted in December, there will be another summit in February”.

While their strategy did garner Fine Gael a lot of coverage and did succeed in whipping up public concerns on election, it did not succeed in its primary objective: saving the Tánaiste from Dáil accountability. That alone is a good result.

To cite a 2014 Department of Public Expenditure report on government accountability: while the democratic and constitutional imperative, as codified in the Constitution and legislation, requires a government to be politically responsible to parliament for the activities of departments and ministers, it is particularly the case where the minister was personally involved. In other words, this is not a case of a Minister taking the wrap for misfeasance or nonfeasance by officials, this is about personal ministerial responsibility.

Whatever her failing and misjudgements, and I think the trickle of Department of justice emails shows there clearly were oversights, I am sorry to see her political career come to an end this way.

Having been there, in the thick of it, when a minister had to resign, I know how much personal strain and pressure she and her team must be enduring. We put our senior politicians through far more stress than is necessary or, at times, bearable.

We expect them, and those around them, to endure huge intrusions into their lives and just accept a range of claims and accusations and then we wonder why it is so difficult to attract he best and the brightest into public life?

Hopefully, we will come through today without the Taoiseach taking any more wrong steps, including ones to the Áras… but that the decision rests with him alone.

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: Gerry Adams with Mary Lou McDonald (front centre) at the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis in the RDS, Dublin on Saturday. Derek Mooney

After months of will he, won’t he, Gerry Adams, Irish politics enduring enigma has announced that he plans to shortly stand aside as leader.

Cue the long lap of [dis]honour as his fans hail the great negotiator and peacemaker and his detractors remind them that he was even more responsible for the mayhem and pain that preceded the peace. Yes, he is entitled to top marks for his role in the peace process, but his total score has to be calculated over his whole career, not just the heavily revised latter portion.

Adams’ longevity is due to many factors, not least his enigmatic persona. What we know about Adams is what he wants us to know, whether it is his penchant for writing poetry, his fondness for his teddy bear and crème eggs or his passion for naked trampolining with his dog. The Adams that he would have us know is a mass of contradictions that allows some to project onto him all those talents and skills they would wish to have in a leader.

But the reality is very different. The real Adams is rarely on show, but when it is, it is unpleasant, especially when he does not think he is on the record as with his November 2014 Enniskillen speech or his responses to the provo victims.

It is also easy to seem like a skilled negotiator when you have a band of paramilitaries and a cache of weaponry that others want you to dismantle. Curious how Adams’ abilities as a negotiator have diminished since decommissioning?

Adams standing down as leader should not be confused with him relinquishing the leadership of the provisional movement. Instead, Adams moves from centre stage to behind the curtain, but have no doubt that his control, not to mention that of the others on the Army Council, will not be surrendered just yet.

If you don’t believe me then look at the situation north of the border. There Michelle O’Neill is the de jure leader, but the de facto leader remain Adams. Indeed the early and untimely death of Martin McGuinness allowed Adams and his coterie of old Belfast comrades to increase and strengthen their grip on the organisation in the North. The Northern party, once the bedrock of the Shinners set up, now must play second fiddle to the needs of the organisation in the South.

Michelle O’Neill is no accidental puppet, she was picked specifically for the role as she knew and accepted the limits that would be placed on her. This is not acquiescence, it is the provo-real-politik. She knows who truly runs the show and she is fine with that.

Just as Mary Lou will be fine with a similar situation on this side of the border. Mary Lou does not flatter herself to think that she will actually be anything more than a titular leader who will deal with the minor day-to-day tribulations while Gerry and the lads handle the big stuff, she just hopes we will not realise this – a point I will come back to, shortly.

But moving backstage does not mean that nothing at all will change. With Adams departure the provos lose their biggest celebrity whose draw and pulling power when it comes to media attention and fund raising, should not be underestimated.

While Adams will still exercise leadership over the big policy questions and directions from behind the curtain, the provos will soon feel the loss of his authority and presence when it comes to exercising day-to-day discipline and control.

Answering Mary Lou back will not be as scary and foolhardy a notion as answered Adams would have been. Unlike Adams, Mary Lou cannot invoke the whiff of cordite to engender respect and dominion.  The closest Mary Lou has come to cordite is the bang bang chicken in Wongs of Castleknock

She may wish that she had to judge from her eagerness to preside at provo gatherings, but she didn’t. Back in those more troubled and difficult days she eschewed the provo chic and was more content in Fianna Fáil in Dublin West. Indeed this, and her wish that she had taken a more central and prominent role in the past which may prove her greatest undoing.

Remember that apparent Dail dust-up between Mary Lou and the Taoiseach back in September? Most political correspondents saw the row as being provoking by comments made by Leo Varadkar. But they missed the real cause. While Mary Lou’s exit from the Dail chamber may have immediately followed Varadkar’s remarks, they did not cause it.

Fans of the West Wing will recall an early episode entitled Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc loosely translated as: after therefore because of. In the episode Bartlet points out that this is rarely the case in politics that because one action follows another that it was caused by it.

So it is with the Mary Lou dramatic exit. The comments that really got under Mary Lou’s skin came from Micheál Martin in an exchange a few minutes before.

The Toaiseach was answering questions on British-Irish relations in both the context of Brexit and the absence of an Executive in Northern Ireland. Martin referred to his own experience of negotiating with the British when Mary Lou chimed in, the following exchange comes from that day’s Dáil transcript:

Mary Lou McDonald: “Deputy Martin’s words demonstrate remarkable ignorance.”

Micheál Martin: “I have been there. I have been in negotiations with all parties.”

McDonald: “I have been there with the Deputy.”

Martin: “Deputy McDonald was not. She was never in negotiations.”

McDonald: “I have, and I have seen Deputy Martin at close quarters.”

Martin: “When I was Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy McDonald, was nowhere. What tended to happen was that certain people came out for the photo calls. The Deputy was never at negotiations with me or Shaun Woodward. Commitments that were given then were not dealt with or seen through.”

My point is that it was not the Taoiseach’s name calling and needling that got under McDonald’s skin, she is far too wilely and experienced to allow something that innocuous to irk her.

No, it was Martin disclosing her non-role in the talks and reminding her, publicly, that she has not been the central player she would have others, even within Sinn Féin, imagine her to be.

It is her Achilles heel then and will become a greater vulnerability as leader.

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

From top:Taoiseach Leo Varadkar watches the South Africa Vs Ireland rugby international during a break at the Fine Gael annual conference last Saturday; Derek Mooney

What did the President know and when did he know it?‘ is possibly the most famous political question of the late 20th century. It was asked, in June/July 1973, by Senator Howard Baker during the US Senate’s Watergate Hearings.

Though we tend to forget it now, Baker framed the question in the hope of protecting his fellow Republican, President Nixon. But as the White House’s defence collapsed it came to sum up the depth and extent of Nixon’s personal involvement in the cover-up.

The Baker question popped back into my head last week watching the Taoiseach answering questions on the Irish policy on moving Brexit talks to phase two.

But, where Baker’s question highlighted how deeply Nixon was embroiled in the Watergate machinations, when it is applied to our own new Taoiseach it tends to expose how perilously unaware he often seems regarding what is happening in his own government.

So, what did our Taoiseach know last Wednesday about Ireland’s approach to moving UK/EU talks to phase two… well, according to the Taoiseach himself… not that much. Responding to parliamentary questions the Taoiseach said:

“I am now of the view that it is likely we will be able to say that sufficient progress has been made at the December meeting, allowing us to move on to discussions on transition and the future arrangements.”

A few minutes later he compounded the situation, adding:

“It will not be possible to resolve the Border question fully until we start to speak about the future relationship that the UK will have with the European Union”

Within hours the news agencies were carrying the story of the Taoiseach predicting a breakthrough in December, even though the next round of EU/UK talk were not due to start until the following day.

Early the following morning a colleague in Brussels sent me a terse email saying: “Only one of these statements can be right”. Attached were links to the following two news items:


FT.comEU gives UK up to 3 weeks to make Brexit bill offer

He was right. Only one could be true and people behind the scenes in both Dublin and Brussels knew it was the second one.

Not for the first time our neophyte Taoiseach had misspoken and seemed less interested in the precise detail of his own government’s policies and more focussed on self-promotion.

I discussed another episode a few weeks back, but there are several other examples, including his crass comments on Irish homelessness rates and his tweeting of photos from a confidential national security committee.

While many of his errant remarks have caused confusion and disquiet, his comments on Brexit risked undermining Ireland’s strategic interest.

The real Irish position, as opposed to the Taoiseach’s briefly imagined one, has been both consistent and straight forward. It runs as follows:

The UK has not only created this problem, it has exacerbated it by coming up with an extreme Brexit definition that means leaving the single market and the customs union.

This creates enormous economic, political, security and social problems for us – so if the UK wants this Brexit process to move forward, it must make sufficient progress now in phase one of the talks and satisfy Ireland that it has genuine proposals to address our concerns.

The issue of Ireland and the Irish/Irish border is one of three key issues in the first phase of talks, the other two are the financial settlement and citizens’ rights. Sufficient progress must be made on all three before the EU/UK talks can move to phase two discussions on post Brexit UK trade arrangements.

The EU’s Guiding Principles on Ireland/Northern Ireland issues are clear:

Ensuring the avoidance of a hard border on the island of Ireland is central to protecting the gains of the Peace Process underpinned by the Good Friday Agreement. In view of the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland, flexible and imaginative solutions will be required to avoid a hard border, including any physical border infrastructure. This must be achieved in a way which ensures that Ireland’s place within the Internal Market and Customs Union is unaffected.

The previous Taoiseach and Irish diplomats worked hard to insert these words into the guiding principles. There is absolutely no tactical advantage for Ireland to row back on this hard-won leverage – so why did Taoiseach Varadkar even briefly raise the possibility that we might already be prepared to nod the UK through to phase two?

Well, luckily for him, the Taoiseach may have just about managed to avoid having to answer this embarrassing question, thanks to a most adroitly timed leak of a confidential Irish briefing document to the Daily Telegraph.

Instead of the UK and Brussels press speculating on why the Irish government was sending mixed signals and sounding unsure, the Telegraph leak turned the focus back on the paucity of proposals on the Irish/Irish border coming from the British.

It is a paucity confirmed by an extraordinarily lightweight article published by the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire, on the Brexit Central website under the headline: “Creative thinking can provide solutions to Northern Ireland’s Brexit challenges”. Brokenshire closes his article, saying:

“…we have agreed that the Belfast or Good Friday Agreement should be protected in full, including its constitutional arrangements… We have proposed that the UK and the EU seek to agree text for the Withdrawal Agreement that recognises the ongoing status of the Common Travel Area… None of this was ever going to be easy but I believe, with a positive attitude on all sides, it is achievable.” (My emphasis)

The passivity of the language is terrifying: “should be protected”, “seek to agree text”, not to mention the Pollyanna-esque belief that a “positive attitude on all sides” can see this through.

The Daily Telegraph leak is being interpreted by some in the British media as a hardening of Ireland’s stance on the talks. It isn’t.

The Irish stance has – right up to the Taoiseach’s comments last Wednesday – been consistent and solid. Thanks to the leak, as well as strong diplomatic firefighting, it is again solid, but we came close to the edge.

Commenting here on the Taoiseach’s mid-August strong words on Brexit, I said:

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.

It resurfaced, dangerously, last Wednesday. We cannot afford another re-emergence of it anytime 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. His column appears here every Tuesday morning. Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney

Pic: Eamonn Farrell/Rollingnews


From top: Sinn Fein’s Northern Ireland leader Michelle O’Neill (left) and Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams during a press conference at Parliament Buildings, Belfast, this week; Derek Mooney

Amid all the analysis and commentary on Brexit, might I suggest you check out the Beerg Brexit Blog written by an old friend of mine, Tom Hayes.

Originally from Dublin, but now based in the North of France, Tom is one of the most experienced and skilled employer relations negotiators in Europe, something reflected in his Brexit Blog.

Whereas most look at the hard politics of Brexit, especially from the British side, and I tend to look at it solely through the prism of how it effects relations on this island, Tom looks at the process as a negotiator.

While you are never in any doubt, reading any of his blog posts, that Tom thinks that Brexit is a massive folly, each week he examines developments and tests them for how the progress, or hamper, a negotiated outcome that would serve the interests of both sides.

Of course, Brussels is not the only place hosting a painstakingly slow and complex negotiation between two intractable sides – closer to home we have the seemingly never-ending negotiation/talks process between the DUP and Sinn Féin, co-chaired by the two governments.

Taking Tom’s analytical approach, it is probably more accurate to describe what has been going on in Belfast as a talks process rather than a negotiation, as neither side – and it is important to stress that the blame attaches to both parties in this, not just one – has signalled any real interest in reaching an outcome.

In one of his early blog posts Tom Hayes identifies the 10 key “rules” for negotiations. I place “rules” in parentheses as they are not so much “rules”, as they are the basic key essential ingredients for a negotiation to get up and running.

In the same way that a leader without followers is just some taking a walk, a negotiation without these key components is just a chat, and a not too friendly one at that.

Rather than boring you to death and risking repetitive strain injury trying to type all ten on an iPad, I will focus on just two or three and consider the extent to which they are absent from the current SF/DUP talks.

The first two are:

Have clear, precise objectives. Know what you want to achieve out of the discussions.

Establish what the Harvard Negotiating Project calls the Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA). In other words, work out what is the best you can do if the other side person tells you to go and f… sorry, to go and get lost.

Are we seeing any hints of the first of these from either side? While both sides say they want a return of the Northern Ireland Executive and the Assembly, there is little hard evidence that they do.

As for the second, the best alternatives to a negotiated settlement, well it seems that both sides are satisfied with the current alternative.

Now that the DUP has its confidence and supply agreement with the Tories, not to mention £2 billion for their pet projects, they are not that bothered whether Stormont returns or not. They have power, albeit without the trappings of ministerial offices or chauffeured Skodas.

On the other side, the handful of decision makers at the top of Sinn Féin have also concluded that the status quo is an option as the collapse of the Executive and Assembly has been good for business. It has not only stemmed the decline in their vote that they had experienced in the previous Assembly elections, it has partially reversed it.

So, they weaponise very real and legitimate concerns about the Irish language and parity of esteem to beyond a point where the other side can ever deliver. Thus, breaking not one but two rules of negotiations:

Manage stakeholder expectations by not promising to overdeliver.

Manage the expectations of the other party before you begin talking.

Worse still they catalogue and herald all their own failures in government and all the times the DUP out manoeuvred them in Gerry Adams’ Felon’s Club speech last January.

The history of the past twenty years shows us that the default Sinn Féin position in any fraught situation is to throw the balls up in the air.

Where other political organisations try to avoid crises, Sinn Féin thrives on them. That’s great for opposition, but lousy for government. That’s not just my opinion, while the folks around Gerry may feel they are having a good crisis, many local representatives are beginning to think otherwise – and no amount of spiking will stop that Storey.

But still the dance goes on.

The DUP knows that Sinn Féin is its best weapon in squeezing the UUP and increasing its own vote share, while conversely the DUP does more to drive nationalists to the polls to vote Sinn Féin than Sinn Féin itself.

The two big parties know each other all too well and see the current crisis as mutually beneficial, in the short term. Neither side is particularly mindful right now of the medium to long term the damage this stasis is doing to politics or the economy.

Why should they? The voters in Northern Ireland have been happy over the last few elections to reward them both.

Nationalists fed up with the intransigence and petty bigotry of the DUP have turned out to vote Sinn Féin while Unionists frustrated by the antics of Sinn Féin and fearful that Sinn Féin may become the biggest party abandoned their own moderate views and backed Arlene Foster’s DUP in even greater numbers.

The result is an impasse, but it is a time limited one.

Northern Ireland politics greatest success, and I use the word success here incorrectly, has been in insulating itself against the harsher realities of the outside world or even the consequences of its own inactions.

It is not that life in the Six Counties is some nirvana, it clearly isn’t, but it has developed a strange comfort in its own divisions, bizarre certainties and insularity.

It continues its tribal battles as if nothing anywhere else matters.

For years, the rest of the real world paid attention to what happened there, but somehow never intruded or impacted apart from sending peace envoys.

Brexit is about to change all that. Some harsh economic realities are about to hit those old certainties hard and the North’s politics will not be shielded from them.

In the meantime, the DUP and Sinn Féin talk aimlessly while the British prepare for the introduction of some form of Direct Rule from Westminster.

Hard to believe that is just short of a year since those two parties were jointly telling everyone ‘Our two parties are now in an Executive facing in the same direction… We are in this for the long haul.’

Not much of a haul.

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

From top: Dáil Eireann; Derek Mooney

Though the big political event today is the Budget, I do not intend to devote too much time to it here.

So much of what is to be announced has already been trailed out that the members of the most ancient and noble orders of the economic and political commentariat could have filed their copy late on Sunday night, taken most of today off and left it to the theatre and TV critics to cover proceedings.

Not that the drama and theatrics of Budget Day are unwelcome or unappealing, but in today’s world setting the government’s budget is more a process than an event.

Much of what the Minister will do today is to confirm which political and business journalists have the most informed sources. The rest is him setting out the conclusions that have almost been reached on the income and expenditure side.

I say “almost” as today’s speech is not the quite the final, final word on the Budget. That comes with the publication, in a week or two, of the full details in the legislation, the Finance Bill 2017, that underpins the Budget. It, to quote previous Finance Bills, will:

“…provide for the imposition, repeal, remission, alteration and regulation of taxation, of stamp duties and of duties relating to excise and otherwise to make further provision in connection with finance including the regulation of customs.”

There may be a bit of “will (s)he, won’t (s)he” during the day as speculation mounts around the corridors of Leinster House about how this TD or that Minister of State is wrestling with their conscience on how they will vote for some cut or increase.

Though it is unlikely that we will hear a “man overboard” cry on any Financial Resolution votes due later tonight, even the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.

Theresa May knows the truth of that line only too well… and I am not referring to her nightmare of a conference speech last week. On April 18 last Mrs May thought she had the British Labour party on the ropes when she called a snap election to be held on June 8.

She was convinced that she had the numbers. All the Tory pollsters were telling her that. Indeed, so too were almost all the national TV and newspaper polls and even a few leaked Labour Party ones. Virtually everyone was telling her that she was set to win a landslide which could see her increase her working majority from 17, right up to maybe even 140.

But, as we now know they were wrong, badly wrong.

So was I. A few days before the June 8th vote I ran a poll on Twitter asking people how they thought the election would go. The numbers were interesting and ran against the still prevailing view that May was set to win big.

While a plurality, 41%, thought that the Tories would be back with a majority, a sizeable number, 34%, thought that Corbyn would emerge as the winner with the balance, 25% predicting a hung parliament. My own personal prediction was that the Tories would only pick up an extra 10-15 seats, as I felt a higher young vote could be a factor.

It was, but in a far more important and significant way than we realised at the time.

A major piece of research conducted by four noted US and UK election experts has shown that not only was the youth vote vital to the Corbyn surge, so too was the way in which this new cohort of young and first-time voters informed themselves.

The research, which was conducted for a book the four academics plan to publish soon, entitled: Youthquake! Brexit, the 2017 British General Election and Beyond, found that:

A flood of young voters, many of whom had relatively low levels of political knowledge, used the internet to get news about the general election.

In other words, the 2017 UK general election saw the internet, particularly social media, finally having a big impact on how individual people voted and the overall outcome.

The research found that those who used the internet to get their news about the general election were far more likely to have voted Labour. Conversely, it found that those who used the internet to gather political news less often were much more likely to vote Tory.

The impact was twofold. Young voters were not only mobilised to turn out and vote (turnout among 18-29 y/o went up by about 19% compared to the 2015 election), they were also persuaded as to whom they should support.

So, their decision to vote and the choices they made were associated with the volume of election news that they consumed online.

While it can be argued that there were very specific conditions in the febrile and uncertain political atmosphere in the UK in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum vote that may have compelled many young people to vote, it does fit in with what some believe may be “a global generational shift of voting and political engagement”.

It is a potential shift that sees a cohort of new voters who do not perceive government as something to be whittled away until it is as small as possible, but rather as their best protector against the perils not only of globalisation and automation, but of affordable housing, education and healthcare.

Is this something we might see here? I suspect it is.

But politicians and pundits be warned. While these new voters may get their news online that does not mean they are a ready and available support base for any twitter-savvy politician who knows how to produce great selfies. Content matters, even online.

Bear this in mind when Ministers and TDs take to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube and SnapChat tonight with memes, photos and video clips to reassure generation rent that all may yet be well in Fine Gael’s republic of opportunity – provided you get up in time.

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