Fake News, Leo Style


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

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18 thoughts on “Fake News, Leo Style

  1. Charger Salmons

    It all comes down to the socks.
    Clearly,as the photograph above shows,we have a leader more concerned with showcasing his sock collection than competently wielding executive power.
    Style over substance,spin over statesmanship.
    Varruca is damaged goods now – any grandstanding at the December summit will be met with mirth behind closed doors.
    Because ultimately everyone knows that an Irish veto and a Hard Brexit is just Celtic Seppuku.
    Banzai !

    1. Killian G

      Blah blah socks blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah Varruca blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah

      Repeat ad nauseam

      1. Warden of the Snort

        Yep same old tired nonsense here all the time, one trick pony, when he wants to shake it up a bit, he goes for the whole spud angle, as dull as Devon Custard

    2. Martco

      whilst it would appear to be a bit of a pickle I don’t think your assessment is necessarily what’s coming….I’d be putting my money on some sort of fudge deal where May/whomever jettisons NI altogether we get some sort of EU/UK lump sum and we’re a nation once again and fupp the DUP and the slowly fading into irrelevance unionist population. as we’re wildly speculating like.

      Question to anyone reading:
      What in your speculating opinion do you reckon Ireland might look like in 20 years from now?

      1. Charger Salmons

        I disagree.
        There will be a fudge deal but it won’t involve May jettisoning NI/DUP as that would let in Corbyn and that would be a disaster for Blighty
        ( https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/nov/27/corbyn-becoming-pm-is-worse-threat-to-british-business-than-brexit-says-bank )
        What I think will happen is some sort of holding agreement will be worked out with Ireland at the December summit so trade talks can start – what that is I don’t know but the EU is famed for lashing together late-night deals.
        The idea that Britain should commit to agreement on the border without knowing what a future trade deal would look like is understood to be nonsense by many politicians in Europe.
        Forget what Barnier and the EC are saying – it’s the heads of government who will ultimately decide the outcome of Brexit.
        The idea that the heads of 26 other countries are going to imperil their own citizens’ prosperity because of the cross-border conveyance of a few milk churns in Ireland is risible.

        1. Martco

          you disagree but yet you don’t have a concrete vision of that future either. you are of the blind faith let’s see what happens down the line brigade. you think it’s all about the trade. but you might think differently if and when people start shooting and bombing each other again.
          as little as the EU care about us they’ll not want any more conflict and to be seen as it’s architect. I think it would be very easy despite the puzzlement to build a moat and fence along the while of that border, sure it’s a nice project plenty of jobs and a few billion is all that will take…its the what happens when it’s built bit that comes afterwards that will sting. can’t see it. for a few disgruntled Tories and Farage heads who yearn for the 1st Industrial Revolution times again? delusional.

          1. Charger Salmons

            Unfortunately you’re quite wrong.
            I have a perfectly good vision of the future where the UK has a sensible trading arrangement with the EU and at the same time maintains control of its borders.
            With good will on both sides this is perfectly achievable.
            And ultimately that is all Brexit is – a reconfiguration of its trading arrangement thanks to a democratic vote of a majority of its people.
            Quite why you’re going on about returning to first industrial revolution times is beyond me – Blighty is looking forward to a future of trading in emerging markets unencumbered by EU trade restrictions.
            Although I do understand your frustration – one hundred years after independence Ireland still clings to the teat of Britannia for succour and comfort.
            Time to wean yourself off it and step out into the brave new world – holding on to Frau Merkel’s hand of course.

    3. Listrade

      Why met with mirth when the issue of the NI Border is one of the conditions of moving on to the next stage? It was part of the agreement, sufficient progress has to be made on several issues, citizens rights being one and the Irish border another. Or like when Theresa May said no single market, no customs union and no hard border.

      I dunno, seemed like every one agreed no hard border. Seems like every one agreed the next stage only happens once there is progress on the Irish border. It’s not being held to ransom if it was your policy in the first place and every one agreed to it.

      It seems like a ransom when the realisation of how screwed you are suddenly dawns on you.

      But hey, good to see an actual living person believes the utter tripe from the Brexiteer press. I genuinely thought they were fictional beings created by the guardian to generate outrage.

  2. Warden of the Snort

    jaysus you’re one annoying self pleasurer Derek

    But I’ve got to give you one thing, you do seem to know how the whole scummy system work through years of experience, you’ve probably pulled every single one of these strokes yourself, it must annoy that Leo has shown himself to be so good at it.

  3. Frilly Keane

    BTW everyone
    Leo is developing a Sock and Pants range with Dunnes Stores in the New Year

    maybe vests too, I dunno
    do lads still wear vests?

  4. Charger Salmons

    ” Leo has shown himself to be so good at it ”
    You have to laugh looking at this morning’s headlines.
    Still at least the usual pack of hyenas has turned up to gawp and cackle.
    Always following,never leading.

  5. rotide

    What exactly is fake news?

    The FG party message might have changed, but the reality of the situation hasn’t. FF would like an election. FG wouldn’t.

  6. joke bloke

    “I am sorry to see her political career come to an end this way.”
    how can you be sorry about that? she didn’t just ‘not do her job’ .. which is enough to lose your job, obviously, but she also turned a blind eye to others going about the destruction of a man’s life and name. and you feel sorry for her? fupp off. and all that plop about “We put our senior politicians through far more stress than is necessary”? double fupp off! you make it sound like they shouldn’t be held accountable for their actions. the corruption in our government buildings is some of the worst in the world, and you think we should go easey on them? infuriating. seems you can’t shake the FF our of your veins.

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