Author Archives: Derek Mooney

From top: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (right) launching Ireland’s Security Council campaign at UN headquarters in New York with from left: Bono, Tánaiste Simon Coveney and former President of Ireland Mary Robinson; Derek Mooney

Last week the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste, the Minister of State for Defence and the Minister of State for the Diaspora went on manoeuvres in New York.

While their jaunt was ostensibly to “launch” Ireland’s bid for a seat on the UN Security Council, their real purpose was more domestic.

It was an impressive display.

In addition to these four government members, curiously all of them from Fine Gael, were a former Irish President, the Defence Forces’ Chief of Staff, Bono, U2, a contingent of uniformed Defence Force members and an even bigger contingent of Irish political correspondents.

If UN Security Council (UNSC) seats are allocated on the basis of display, then Ireland should be a shoo-in.

But, UNSC seats are not won by those who just put on the best display.

They are won by years of horse trading and deal making.

Ireland’s fortunes will owe more to who we have backed in past rounds than it will on enabling UN Ambassadors to see U2 live or even getting to meet Paul Kehoe or Ciaran Cannon and shake their hands.

Last week’s New York escapade was not for the benefit of the UN Ambassadors, it was for ours. It was, as I have discussed here previously, an example of the glitzy stage production that the Varadkar Production Co., T/A Fine Gael and the Irish Government Inc., likes to mount.

The real audience was not in New York, it was here. The campaign launched was not Ireland’s bid for the Security Council, it was Fine Gael’s bid to increase its Dáil representation.

Don’t kid yourself, whether the general election is held later this year, in 2019, 2020 or even 2021 (the latest possible date is April 9th 2021), the campaign has already started.

So, how galling must it have been for the media pack, who obligingly helped bring the message to the good folks back home, to later hear that the Taoiseach was speaking so disobligingly about them behind their backs, channelling his inner Trump.

But the media will get over their indignation. They know that revenge is a dish best served cold and can pack their displeasure away on ice, to be served another day.

Meanwhile, Ireland is right to seek a seat on the Security Council for the two-year session commencing on Jan 1st 2021.

We are right to fight hard to win that place but, though you wouldn’t know it from last week’s hoopla, the decision to seek a UNSC seat was not made last week, or even last year it was made a decade or more ago.

The former secretary-general at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Irish ambassador to the United Nations, Noel Dorr, said so much during an interview on the RTÉ Six-One news. He thought the decision might date back to 2005 – two years before Varadkar even became a TD.

Ireland has a strong record in winning UNSC seats. We have sought and won a place on the Security Council approximately once every 20 years, since we joined the UN in 1955.

Our first UNSC stint was for one year, in 1962. We were back on it again, 20 years later for the 1981-1982 two-year term and again in 2001 – 2002. The Irish pattern is clear: one two-year UNSC term every two decades.

If successful this time, we would be on the UNSC in 2021-2022.

But that “if” is important. This is not the Late, Late Show, there isn’t one for everyone in the audience. More than 60 UN member states have never served on the Security Council.

The destination of the five UNSC seats for the 2021-2022 session, will be decided when the UN General assembly votes next June. They will be filled as follows:

• One for Africa

• One for the Asia-Pacific Group

• One for Latin America and the Caribbean

• Two for the Western European and Others Group

The UNSC’s rotation rules determine that the non-permanent seats rotate among the various regional blocs into which UN member states are divided for voting and representation purposes.

Thus, Ireland is one of three countries competing for the two Western Europe and Others seats: the other two are Canada and Norway.

All three bidders are widely viewed as model UN members. Even so, Ireland is a strong contender. Just as we were in 2000 and 1980,

Back in 2000, we were against Norway and Italy. We emerged the clear winner, getting 130 votes. But Norway did well too, getting 114 votes compared to Italy’s 94.

In the earlier 1980 rotation the voting was tighter with Ireland coming second (with 107 votes) just behind Spain on 109 votes.

The current view of the UN watchers is that Ireland should make it this time.

Norway’s election is seen as a fait accompli not least because it “has a huge aid budget – probably the biggest in the world,” according to one official. So, the fight will be between Ireland and Canada – with Ireland having an advantage.

Many in the Canadian media view their own bid as the weakest of the three. They attribute this to their being the last candidate country out of the traps with Canada not commencing a bid process until after Trudeau became Premier in 2015.

So how do we extend our advantage?

Though some of the Merrion Street FG spin masters may believe that there is no better way of improving Ireland’s UNSC chances than having more photo-ops with the Taoiseach and Tánaiste, Fianna Fáil’s Jim O’Callaghan has come up with one.

O’Callaghan points to Ireland’s hard sell in reminding others that we are a country that complies with the highest standards of human rights as set down by United Nations conventions.

But, as O’Callaghan has noted, there is a flaw in that argument, as we have yet to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture (OPCAT). Though we signed it over a decade ago, in October 2007, we have yet to ratify it by introducing the necessary legislation.

Back in November 2012 former Tánaiste, Éamon Gilmore told the Dáil that the Government would publish the legislation required to ratify OPCAT, namely the Inspection of Places of Detention, Bill the following year, ie., 2013.

Almost five years later there is no sign of it, though Justice Minister, Charlie Flanagan now says he will be ready to publish it later this year.

Hopefully he will, and we can tick another box in our UNSC campaign.

If not, then just imagine the size of the show that Varadkar & Co., will have to put on to distract from it.

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

Pic: Merrion Street

From top: A member of the Dublin Senior football team laying a wreath at the Ulster Tower at the Somme, France in May; DUP leader Arlene Foster (standing) and Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill (in black) at the Ulster final between Fermanagh and Donegal in Clones, County Monaghan last Sunday; Derek Mooney

Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc. Though I am tempted to pretend that I recall this dusty old phrase from my days doing inter-cert Latin in Synge St., the truth is that I only know it from watching The West Wing.

It is the title of episode two of season one and its significance is explained by the President Bartlett character when it translates it to his staff saying:

“‘After it, therefore because of it.’ It means one thing follows the other, therefore it was caused by the other. But it’s not always true, in fact it’s hardly ever true.”

Yet another “The West Wing” truism. Nonetheless, the point is well made. It’s a common mistake in politics to so imagine that there is order and logic in events that we manage to project some form of order and sequencing on to them.

In politics, the cock-up theory more often applies than the conspiracy one.

But, just as we should not presume that Event A caused Event B to happen simply because one thing follows another, neither should we assume that there can be no other relationship between the two except causation.

The relationship between actions and events in politics can be far more complex than it may at first seem.

All of this is a somewhat convoluted way of explaining why I think the Dublin Senior Football team was one of the key architects of Arlene Foster’s visit to the Ulster Final in Clones last Sunday, even if is was a bit inadvertent.

Back in May last a group from Dublin GAA, including several players from the senior football team, visited the Ulster Memorial Tower as part of a tour of WWI sites around the Somme.

The Ulster Tower marks the spot near Thiepval in France from where the 36th Ulster Division attacked the German lines on the first day of the Battle of the Somme on July 1, 1916. Though they were one of the few divisions to make significant gains on the day, they came at a very heavy price. During the fifteen or so hours of battle that day the Ulster Division endured over 5,000 casualties and saw 2,069 of their comrades killed.

Though the Dublin GAA visit was low key and done with a minimum of fuss and publicity, news of it quickly spread courtesy of a generous online acknowledgement by the Somme Association of the respect paid by the team.

Am I saying that Arlene Foster’s trip to Clones to watch Fermanagh play in the Ulster Final was the direct and inevitable consequence of Dublin GAA’s Thiepval trip? No, I am not. But I am saying that simple, but sincere, actions, such as those of the Dublin GAA senior team did help set background for Arlene Foster’s visit to Clones.

This does not take anything away from the significance of her action – and action is the right word, because it was an action not merely a gesture.

Though she is not the first DUP leader to attend a GAA match, back in early 2012 then then leader and First Minister, Peter Robinson attended a McKenna cup final alongside the late Martin McGuinness, it was a welcome move in the context of the political entrenchment from both Sinn Féin and the DUP over the past year and a half.

While the rules of political dynamics may tempt some to start listing the gestures or actions that they now want to see Mary Lou McDonald or Michelle O’Neill perform as some form reciprocation, that would be a mistake. Though Sinn Féin are the masters of making demands of others, out-Sinn-Féin-ing the Shinners won’t move us forward.

The kudos in these situations comes not with doing something in response to demands, particularly demands from the other side, but in doing something almost spontaneous. I say “almost” as any such moves are calculated politically with an eye to the reaction, nonetheless the spontaneity comes from your assessment that this is the right time and this is the right move.

Hopefully, this is also what has motivated today’s outreach to the Orange Order by Mary Lou, which should also be welcomed, though it is still at the gesture stage and has not fully matured to an action.

Either way, while there is still a long way to go, seeing the political dynamic in the North change from negative to positive is still progress, by which I mean it is good to see the two main parties potentially begin to up the ante on how far they can reach across to the other, rather that how hard they can poke the other in the eye.

That said, while seeing Arlene and Michelle spend an hour or two attending a game together is positive, it is nowhere near as positive as seeing the two of them in a meeting room together hammering out an agreement that would allow both the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly to get back to work.

Not that this will be an easy task just now. While July has never been an easy political month in the North, it is potentially about to become a little more tricky.

A BBC NI Spotlight investigation to be aired later tonight claims to have new information on how the DUP and the UK Vote Leave campaign worked together in the Brexit referendum, particularly in the area of spending.

The programme raises serious questions about the DUP’s Brexit campaign finances, including a massive £435,000 Brexit spending spree, exploring a money trail which BBC Spotlight says leads to Ukraine and beyond.

If its claims prove accurate – and that is a big “if” right now – it will take a lot more than a visit to a GAA game to restore the institutions.

If I were a DUP MP right now I’d start to go into training, as it may require a few of them joining the Riverdance touring company to get this show back on the road.

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

Top pic: Belfast Newsletter

From top: Fine Gael infographic marking Leo Varadkar’s first 12 months as Taoiseach; Derek Mooney

As part of the hoopla to mark Leo Varadkar’s first year as Taoiseach, Fine Gael produced the nifty infographic (top) setting out some of the new leader’s biggest achievements.

The list offers an interesting insight into what the Taoiseach cares most about or, to be more accurate, what the Fine Gael pollsters tell him that his potential voters care most about.

Pride of place goes to the very frequently hyped national framework plan, Project Ireland 2040, followed by “Brexit Leadership” and the “8th Referendum”.

At the other end you find “and gardai” shoehorned into a claim about hiring more nurses and teachers, followed by curiously worded item on housing, though the word itself fails to make an appearance.

To avoid embarrassing Leo by putting a figure on the number of houses and apartments built over the past year, the copywriters had to come up with some phrasing that managed to convey the idea of progress, without breaching the standards in advertising code.

The result is this extraordinarily clunky and impersonal boast that:

“There were 4,700 exits from homelessness in 2017”.

“Exits”? If ever a single phrase summed up Orwell’s description of political language “… as giving an appearance of solidity to pure wind”, it is surely this.

It reads as if it came from the pen of someone who writes real estate ads. You know the ones, where “open plan apartment” means the bed is between the cooker and the lavatory and “close to nightlife” means the place is directly over an all-night, bikers’ bar.

No one even vaguely familiar with the presentation of political issues could have signed off on such a phrase. Some alternative wordings must have been considered, such as “families housed”, “homes built” or even the horrid stock civil service phrase “net reductions”.

The fact that these were rejected in favour of “exits” tells you what a tough task some poor Fine Gael wordsmith had trying to script anything even vaguely resembling an achievement on housing or tackling homelessness.

They knew they had to mention the issue somewhere on the list, so there the line sits. Not mentioning it would have caused a bigger outrage. That is the problem with a record like Leo’s, when it comes to housing not only are the statistics bad, they cannot even be trusted not to be worse.

Up to very recently the Government was claiming that 85,000 houses had been built between 2011 and 2017. In reality, as the CSO has recently confirmed, only 53,000 houses were built over that period. An over-estimate of 31,000. Meanwhile, nationwide between 2014 and 2017, local authorities only built 818 houses.

When it comes to the housing crisis there is no end to the bleak statistics. Over 9,500 people are homeless in Ireland today, over 3,500 of whom are children. Rents increased last year by 7.1%.
So why, with this being such a horrendous issue for Fine Gael, is Leo talking up the chances of there being a no confidence motion in his Housing Minister?

Well, because that is what today’s Fine Gael does. Gone are the days of Enda’s obfuscation and microphone dodging, Leo’s Fine Gael is now the party of high theatricality.

Every event, every issue, every announcement is approached as if it was a one-off scene in a theatre or movie production. The focus is not on the narrative or the plot, it is all about the staging and the positioning.

Since the judicious leaking of Leo’s comments at the Fine Gael party meeting, warning of a possible Sinn Féin motion of no confidence in Minister Eoghan Murphy that would see Fianna Fáil take a kicking, the focus has not been on the issue of housing but on the party politics of the issue of housing.

We are talking about housing while not talking about it. It is the perfect Fine Gael production. Lots of high drama, plenty of column inches and dozens of social media posts featuring pictures of Leo and Eoghan, but no content.

Not a single word about policy or actual outputs. At the end of the drama everyone is precisely in the same place as they were at the start. Nothing progresses. It’s lights, cameras and no bloody action.

But through it all, Leo gets what he wants. There is a little less public discussion of the substantial housing and cervical smear controversies. He positions himself as the man above the partisan political fray, not wanting an election but caught between the warring Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin tribes.

And, in a piece of masterful timing, all of this just after a very well received visit to Northern Ireland and just before welcoming Jean Claude Juncker to Ireland for discussions in advance of the following week’s June EU summit on Brexit.

As political productions go, it was spot on. Well executed, beautifully timed and nicely played, but as with all cinematic and theatrical productions, the appearance should not be confused with reality.

The production crew who brought you last weeks’ no no-confidence motion spectacle also staged last November’s weekend long melodrama turned farce: The Saving of Frances – and that one did not turn out the way they had planned.

The worry is that this is all the FG crew has in store for us over the coming weeks and months, more and more productions and no governing. If so, then the election cannot come soon enough.

Yes, we do have Brexit looming on the horizon and there is an argument that we do not need a month or so of uncertainty at this critical juncture, but there is no major disagreement between the major parties on Brexit and anyway the negotiations are being led on a day to day basis by Barnier and his Brussels team with input from senior Irish officials.

A three-and-a-half week long, high octane campaign that results in a government team that is really prepared to govern, even if getting that government takes a few weeks of horse trading, is far preferable to a year or more of maximum quality, minimum content productions only timed for the next opinion poll.

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


From top: Home to Vote has done its job. argues Derek Mooney

Type #HomeToVote into Google and you will find pages and pages of links to news items from around the globe detailing the stories of thousands of young Irish emigres traveling back to vote at the recent referendum.

You need to dive a few pages into the results to find items relating to the 2015 origins of the hashtag during the Marriage Equality campaign. Its history, in so much as there is a history, is set out on pages 158-159 of Ireland Says Yes: The Inside Story of How the Vote for Marriage Equality Was Won (One of the books on my 2017 Summer political reading list).

#HomeToVote spontaneously appeared late in the afternoon on the eve of polling day. The campaign had its own #BeMyYes campaign which had generated tens of thousands of messages from people committing themselves to Vote Yes, including many from young Irish people abroad considering returning home.

But back in 2015, #HomeToVote was unplanned, and was all the more effective for that. Within hours the slow trickle of posts turned into a viral sensation, one commemorated by the great Annie West #HomeToVote cartoon.

Between 5pm on Thursday May 21 and 5pm Friday May 22 (polling day) around 72,000 messages were posted online using #HomeToVote.

As a campaign awareness tool, it was superb. Its viral reach brought the story of the campaign to news sites and online journals across the globe in the final hours of the campaign.

But its greatest strength was as an online mobilisation tool for what campaigners call GOTV, getting out the vote. Not just because of the many voters who returned home to vote but because of the many more people it motivated in the last day of the campaign to get out and vote Yes.

The message was clear: there are young people prepared to travel from half way around the world to vote to secure the rights of others, so the least you can do is to take 30 minutes to get to the polling station and vote.

Where the 2015 marriage equality #HomeToVote was spontaneous and unexpected, the 2018 incarnation was not just planned, it was an important element of a well-honed campaign strategy.

That is not a criticism. This is what successful campaigns do. They see what works elsewhere and adapt it to their own situation.

Both sides, Yes and No, saw the success of the campaign the first time around and realised that they both needed their own #HomeToVote operation – only one side did it much more effectively.

The 2018 cohort was as motivated and determined as their antecedents. Their 8th Ref #HomeToVote stories of the enormous lengths they went to, just to get back to cast their ballot were every bit as moving as those of 2015.

There were two differences, though and both relate to this being a planned operation, rather than a spontaneous one. Neither of these undermine the validity of the exercise, this time around, but do raise questions about any third outing for #Hometovote.

The first is the 18-month rule. Traveling back to vote is not an open-ended invitation. Section 11.3 of the 1992 Electoral Act says that Irish citizens may retain the right to vote at home, for up to 18 months after moving away, but only on the condition that they intend to return to Ireland within that timeframe.

The second difference was the added element that well-intentioned third parties might be willing to offer help to those considering returning home-to-vote but finding the cost a barrier. There were various suggestions that flights or travel costs could be crowdfunded.

I don’t question anyone’s motives here, but I do think suggestions of paying for those going to vote is approaching the point where #HomeToVote ceases to be a positive GOTV campaigning tool and comes very close to straying over the line.

Section 135 of the above mentioned 1992 Electoral Act sets out what constitutes bribery at an election, specifically a Dáil election. It makes it illegal to

“give valuable consideration to induce a voter to vote, or to procure the election of any person or the vote of any voter, or on account of a voter having voted”

It then defines “give”, “induce” and “procure” to include agreeing or promising or attempting to give, induce or procure directly or indirectly. Similarly, it defines “valuable consideration” as including the giving, lending or agreeing to give or lend, or the offer or promise to procure any money, money’s worth or valuable security or any valuable consideration or any office, place or employment to or for any person.

So, is offering to pay for one’s flight home to vote an offence in and of itself? What is the situation if it is only on the condition that they vote a certain way? And what if you offer to pay for the flight and also throw in a few Euros to cover meals and drinks?

How would we feel about a #HomeToVote operation in a constituency where party X only held its seat by a dozen or so votes, or where party Y was just a handful of votes short of the final seat the last time out?

Would we all be as understanding of a #HomeToVote operation that was so narrowly focussed and financed? Would we see it as positive and altruistic?

It is not as if we cannot imagine such situations arising. It is almost exactly a year since allegations of voter fraud were flying about in the Derry constituency of Foyle when the sitting SDLP MP, Mark Durkan was beaten by just 169 votes.

Those allegations focused on the surprising increase in the number of proxy votes issued. In Northern Ireland, and the UK, people can apply to vote by proxy (i.e. appoint someone to vote on their behalf) if they are going to be at work, away or have some other reason that prevents them from getting to their polling station.

The number of proxy votes applied for in Foyle, in 2017 was about 300% higher than the 2015 general election figure, roughly equivalent to 1,000 extra votes. Remember the winning margin was 169 votes.

Not only that, but the distribution of these extra proxy votes was not exactly even across the constituency. They were concentrated in specific areas, with some of these having a proxy vote rate more than 17 times the UK average.

It is a reminder that a well-intentioned scheme to encourage greater participation can be abused by unscrupulous individuals and outfits.

#HomeToVote was too iconic to be allowed fall into the same hands. It has done its job, now it should be let slip into retirement.

But the cause of increasing voter participation should not be allowed slip away with it. This is yet another reason why we need the immediate establishment of the independent Electoral Commission promised back in February 2011.

It is well past time we took the electoral process more seriously by giving it the resources it deserves and stop leaving it up to a few over stretched officials scattered across the councils.

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

Top pic: Twitter

Meanwhile…


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where does that get us?

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

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

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

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

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

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

None of this is new.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Patience, tact and goodwill.”

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

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

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

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

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

Rollingnews

Top from left: the first deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, Seamus Mallon; former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern; Senator George Mitchell; and Gerry Adams, at an event to mark the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, at Queen’s University, Belfast last month; Derek Mooney

In a week when a referendum campaign that has managed to divide some of us comes, mercifully, to an end; it is worth recalling that this week, in fact this day, marks the twentieth anniversary of a referendum that briefly united us across this island.

Twenty years ago today, almost 2.5 million people across this island went to the polls to vote on accepting the Good Friday Agreement. Just over 2.1 million of them said Yes to the Agreement while 360,000 voted against.

The results, North and South, endorsed what the parties had agreed at Stormont Buildings and saw Northern Ireland set to see a return of devolution based on partnership government.

Heady days. But anyone who thought that having such a sizeable public endorsement and mandate for the Good Friday Agreement was going to ensure its smooth and speedy implementation was soon to be sorely disappointed.

Even though 71.1% of Northern Irish voters who turned out to vote (the turnout was a healthy 81.1%) voted Yes and that this 71.1% still represented about 58% of all voters in Northern Ireland, the establishment of the institutions, particularly the Executive and the Assembly was painfully slow and pitiably erratic.

The Executive was more often suspended than it was sustained in the early years… just as it is now. How little has changed.

Actually, that last part is not that true. Though it is easy to be cynical and say that Northern Ireland politics is still as bitter and divided as it was prior to 1998, that is a simplistic analysis. In reality, things have changed and politics has improved.

Gone are the days when the only times that politicians from either side of the divide in the North could meet to discuss their differences was in private and out of sight of their own colleagues, lest they be accused of selling out or being a Lundy (Robert Lundy is now reviled as the Governor of Derry who sold out to the Catholic James II and betrayed the Williamites during the 1688 siege of the city).

The DUP who were opponents of the Good Friday and opposed it from without – one might say besieged it – are now on the inside and although the DUP are not now in the Executive, they have provided three DUP First Ministers to serve alongside a Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister, the late Martin McGuinness.

Where once the declined to be seen together, DUP and Sinn Féin MPs and MLAs now appear regularly in TV and Radio studios to engage directly and debate, if debate is, at times, the right word.

Yes, there are many issues still to be resolved such as parity of esteem and respect for cultural identity and difference, but progress has been real, though persistently faltering.

But, falteringly is how politics works in divided communities. It takes years for trust to build and for politicians to foster the personal relationships, across the political divides, needed to make the institutions work.

Many important issues that seemed difficult two decades ago and completely intractable and beyond resolution only a decade before that, have been tackled. These include  decommissioning, reform of policing and changes to the criminal justice system.

Perhaps they were a form of political low hanging fruit. The more ripened and mature issues that were so clearly and obviously difficult that both sides had been preparing themselves to deal with them.

While the outstanding issues that prevent a return of the Executive and Assembly remains may seem trivial alongside something like decommissioning, they are still totemic and run to the heart of the Good Friday Agreement. What is missing in the political impetus – an impetus that must again come jointly from London and Dublin.

Nationalists and Republicans feel that the lack of official recognition of the Irish Language suggests that they do not belong. Unionists fear that nationalists are attempting to hollow out their Britishness and see the Irish language as a wedge.

But aren’t these two sides of the same coin? Isn’t the resolution of one the resolution of the other?

Meanwhile the two sides, by which I mean the DUP and Sinn Féin claim a mandate for their own intransigence, based on recent Assembly and Westminster results, yet ignore the fact that these mandates came from falsely accusing the other side of being the intransigent one and demanding the mandate to face down the other.

It is what Seamus Mallon has called “…the hypocrisies which are unbelievable and the untruths which are believable.” As he said at the recent QUB anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement:

“Politics has been debased and diminished by these two political silos which have almost Balkanised the Northern Ireland that I live in… It is the future we should be looking at.”

Maybe it is comments such as this that compels Sinn Féin to oppose Mallon being granted the Freedom of Drogheda?

Throughout his political career Mallon has been forthright in condemning the Provos and their apologists. But he has also been just as vehement in opposing all violence, from whatever its source. Just as he continues to be as fierce in standing with all victims and demanding that those responsible for creating the victims be held to account.

Mallon’s current work with TARP – The Truth and Reconciliation Platform – alongside Stephen Travers, Eugene Reavey, Alan McBride and others, makes him a suitable candidate for the Freedom of Drogheda, let alone his achievements as an SDLP MLA, MP, Deputy Leader, Senator or Deputy First Minister.

The horrible reality is that Sinn Féin’s opposition the Mallon being granted the honour is part of a much wider and darker attempt to rewrite recent political history and airbrush out all those whose acknowledgement expose its dark and murky past.

There will be another example of it later this year when the Provos attempt to claim that their campaign of terror against the two communities was born out of the Civil Rights movement – the very antithesis of what the Provos campaign was about.

Much has changed and improved in the twenty years since we voted together for a new start in the North. It is right to celebrate and commemorate that, once we realise that there is still a good deal of work to be done that includes addressed what TARP’s Stephen Travers has called:

“The pain that continues to cripple society in the North will eventually totally disable it if it is not addressed very soon. The real urgency, and the first priority, is not reconciliation; it is the acknowledgment, by both sides, that terrible things were done in their name.”

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

From top: Pro-life campaigner Maria Steen and Solidarity–People Before Profit TD Brid Smith on last night’s Claire Byrne Live; Derek Mooney

On the morning after the night before’s hyped-up 8thRef Claire Byrne debate: committed Yes campaigners are insisting that the Yes side won it while staunch No activists are declaring with equal ferocity that their side prevailed.

In my own view, neither side significantly moved the dial among undecided voters with the real loser in the whole sorry mess being public sector broadcasting.

This was not the fault of the presenter/moderator Claire Byrne or any of the lead speakers for the Yes or No sides, but of the folk in RTÉ who decided that having daytime TV style confrontation in front of a cheering crowd was the best way to discuss a fraught, complex and emotionally charged issue.

What was needed was a calm, respectful and reflective discussion, in its place we got a he said/she said wall of noise. It needed Jeremy Vine, we got Jeremy Kyle.

All that was missing to make the Jerry Springer Show effect complete were lurid chyrons running across the bottom of the screen screaming the titles of upcoming shows: I get turned on by number 1s, but not number 2s or Spoiler Alert: they’re topping the poll.

OK, I exaggerate, though the Brid Smith versus Maria Steen encounter, complete with audience boos and hisses, did make me wonder if Steve Wilkos and a team of black t-shirted security staff were waiting just off camera.

So, what was the problem with the format? It was the audience. Not any one individual or even a group of individuals, but rather the constant and incessant cheering and clapping for speakers on their side and the hectoring of those on the other.

No doubt, each side will claim that the other one went further in heckling or shouting down the other, but that doesn’t matter.

The question is why the debate was formatted and structured in such a way as to allow them to do it. Actually, if I was really bad minded, I might even wonder if is was structured in such a way as to encourage it?

Think back to any of the US presidential debates of the last decade or so. In each of them, the moderator has opened proceedings by setting out the debate rules, as decided by the US agency that arranges the debates: The Commission on Presidential Debates.

The host then explains that the audience must remain absolutely silent for the duration of the debate, with the exception of welcoming both candidates out on to the stage, so that people at home can focus on what the candidates are saying.

Opening the second presidential debate of the 2012 campaign between President Obama and Mitt Romney, the moderator CNN’s Candy Crowley, announced:

“The audience here in the hall has agreed to be polite and attentive — no cheering or booing or outbursts of any sort.”

The format of this debate was what American broadcasters call a town hall. There ordinary voters ask their questions of the candidates directly, but that audience is made up of uncommitted voters chosen by independent pollsters.

Much of last night’s audience were chosen by the two campaigns. Both of whom seemed more interested in getting as many loud and vocal people there as possible.

I know that I am at risk of sounding po-faced, or even hypocritical. I have not been averse, in the past, of doing a bit of fairly boisterous heckling at political discussions – not all of them involving other parties.

Like many politicos of my vintage this also included a few stints in the audience of the grand old dame of Irish TV political debates Questions and Answers.

There I would attempt my faltering impression of an innocent member of the public. It was unconvincing. Indeed, the only thing worse was my dire impression of an electable politician, but we live and learn.

I know that political shows can be boring or tedious and need a bit of showbiz and spectacle from time to time. I realise that listening to a procession of TDs and Senators drone on can be a ratings killer. But going the opposite way is not the answer.

The secret is knowing when the time is right and how far to go. Last night was an example of getting the mix wrong – and it is not the first time.

We saw the same format deployed to equally unsatisfactory effect almost seven years ago in the 2011 presidential election debates – though that night had the added frisson of dodgy tweets.

Surely the only lesson they learned in the intervening time cannot just be: don’t read out the Tweets?

While we do not need to go as far as setting up a dedicated quango dealing with debates, be they presidential, Dáil or referendum along the lines of U.S. Commission on Presidential Debates, the decision on formats should not rest with the broadcasters alone.

There should be a role for an independent electoral commission, charged with overseeing our electoral process.To be fair, this government is looking at setting up such a commission.

The 2016 Programme for Government states:

A) Establishing an Electoral Commission

We believe that Ireland needs an independent electoral commission, as a matter of priority.

The new commission should examine the voter registration process and in particular the possibility of the PPS system being used to automatically add people to the electoral register once they reach voting age.

It should also look at ways to increase participation in our political process through voter education and turnout.

The new commission could also:

Assume the role of Registrar of political parties

Regulate political funding and election expenditure

Oversee the Referendum Commission, which would be a sub-section of the commission

The newly established Electoral Commission would be independent of Government and directly accountable to the Oireachtas.

As with many things the promise is there, it’s the action that is missing. The last time the electoral commission issue was raised with Taoiseach in the Dáil appears to have been back in October 2017.

Back then he said:

“There is no timeframe for it. It is very much a long-term project.”

Given that this government’s remaining time in office can be best measured in months, not years, we see that 2011 and 2016’s “priority” is today’s: “Meh, we may get around to it.”

To be fair, in the hierarchy of this Government’s broken promises this one does come a fair bit down the list, but that does not excuse its lethargy.

With a little bit of political will and Dáil time the legislation could be processed speedily. A nascent Electoral Commission could be in place for a presidential election later this year.

Much of the preparatory work has already been done. The various reports, consultation and scoping documents are already there. I understand that the Department of Environment has been preparing a Regulatory Impact Analysis for a draft Bill.

The aims and intentions of James Lawless’s Online Advertising And Transperancy Bill could be rolled into it too, so that electoral fairness is not depending on the largesse of the IT giants.

So, what’s the delay? Must we wait for Russian interference to finally act?

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

Watch Claire Byrne Live here

Top pics: RTÉ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was not the only one at it.

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

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

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

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

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

But back to Acheson and his 1962 quote.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top pic: getty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are two curious elements to his warning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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From top: the MV Celine at Dublin Port last Friday; Derek Mooney

Up to last Friday it was difficult to find a good visual representation for Brexit in Ireland. Yes, there were maps showing the six counties in one colour and the 26 in another, but apart from those or some grainy photos of border posts and black coated customs men standing behind old tin signs emblazoned “Stad”, there were few clear, defining symbols for Brexit in an Irish context.

That all changed last Friday.

The change came in the form of a ship. But not just any ship. This one, christened the MV Celine by the Taoiseach and assorted other lesser celebrities, is the world’s largest short sea, roll-on roll-off cargo vessel. It will directly connect Ireland to the European continent via Rotterdam and Zeebrugge, by-passing the UK entirely.

As images go, it is an impressive one. But the image-makers real triumph lay in finding an appropriate nickname for the newly named ship.

While “Celine” may be the official name that adorns the ship’s champagne drenched hull, the spinners on the quayside were intent that the media – and by extension we – call it by their chosen soubriquet: “the Brexit Buster”.

What a coupling, a damned big ship with an on-message nickname. It is a neat piece of messaging, conveying the impression that Ireland is ready and prepared for the worst that Brexit can throw at us.

The MV Celine’s statistics are striking. At 234m in length, the Celine is, in terms of capacity, twice the size of any other ferry currently operating out of Dublin Port. It can hold 580 standard truck trailers along 8km of parking lanes.

But size isn’t everything.

The real significance of the MV Celine is that it points to our post Brexit trading future. A future where Ireland’s EU27 imports and exports no longer must go via the UK and suffer the hassle, time delay and cost of having to going through not one, but two, sets of customs and border patrols as they enter and then exit the UK.

This is important as around 80% of Irish road freight, destined for the rest of the EU, goes across the UK. This is what some call our land bridge to EU, though it is hardly much of a land bridge when you must take a ferry at each end.

If you want a sense of the scale and extent of the delay and inconvenience we will may face in the worst post Brexit scenarios, then consider this simple fact: goods going through Dover from outside the EU take 15 times longer to process compared to those coming from within the EU (45 minutes from outside versus 3 minutes from inside).

Can you imagine the accumulated tail backs there will be at British ports? Now, multiply all those delays by two as Irish goods going to or from the EU across the UK will have to face those potential delays twice: once as they enter the UK and once as they leave it.

In the absence of some alternative direct routes, the UK’s national customs computer system will be handling both the inward declarations of Irish exports to the UK and the transit of Irish goods travelling through the UK and on to mainland Europe.

But, the UK’s national customs computer system is due to be replaced, with the new Customs Declaration Service (CDS) system due to launch in January 2019, two months before the UK brexits. As if that were not worrying enough, a UK National Audit Office 2017 review of the UK customs computer system’s readiness for Brexit found that

“…there is still a significant amount of work to complete, and there is a risk that HMRC (Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs) will not have the full functionality and scope of CDS in place by March 2019…”

So, assuming the British government does what it currently says it will and exits both the Customs Union and the Single Market as well as the EU, then it is essential that Ireland to look for better routes to send our good to and from the rest of Europe.

These routes are vital for us as an island nation as seaborne freight accounts for 84% of Ireland’s trade in terms of volume and 62% in terms of its value. It is also highly focused on one location with 46% of all seaborne trade (by volume) passing through Dublin Port.

But, impressive as the MV Celine may be, one ship is not going to be the solution to our problems. Neither will two or three such vessels.

The real value and importance of the MV Celine right now is not the number of trucks she can carry every 38 hours to Belgium or Holland, but rather in the policy course she sets.

Should we now be looking at developing new direct shipping routes with mainland Europe, particularly with France, Belgium and the Netherlands?

But that question begets another one, are we right to assume that all these new routes should have Dublin port as their Irish hub? Should we not now be seriously evaluating our infrastructure capacity and looking to develop other Irish ports to serve these new shipping routes?

Some 60% of the trade at Dublin Port involves the UK – would it not make more sense, especially as they are investing in new customs and border facilities at the port, to make Dublin the key point of entry for our UK only good traffic, along with Drogheda and some other ports along the eastern seaboard?

Might this be a way of freeing up some extremely valuable land in and around Dublin Port for much needed high-density development in the centre of the city?

Might Brexit planning provide an opportunity for dusting off the PD’s 2006 New Quarter proposal, though this time with a more sensible and scaled down version that does not see the whole of Dublin Port shut down and shipped Northwards.

We should be considering expanding Rosslare and/or developing a new purpose-built port along the South East or Southern coasts to serve the new fast EU shipping routes.

One of the potential attraction of Rosslare, as Irish Rail was keen to tell the Seanad Special Select Committee on Brexit, is that Irish Rail is the port authority for Rosslare-Europort and so investment plans could be put in place that do not impact on the debt levels of Irish semi-state-owned ports.

Not only that but including Irish ports in the trans-European transport policy (TEN-T) could mean EU infrastructural funding for the “necessary modifications to Irish ports”.

Modification is an understatement. Increased direct shipping volumes with mainland Europe would require major infrastructural investment to provide modern facilities that provide for the speedy and high-tech loading of these faster roll-on/roll off vessels.

Perhaps the image of the ship is all the government wants just for now and so it sees its job as done, for now. Hopefully this is not the case, though it often seems to be this government’s modus operandi.

Hopefully there are contingency plans sitting on a desk somewhere while Ministers and officials wait to see if Theresa May eventually opts, when all other avenues are hopefully closed off, to take the avenue of keeping the UK in either “a” or “the” Customs Union and “a” or “the” Single Market.

If she doesn’t, then we will have very little time to act. So, now is a good time to start the feasibility planning and commence talking to a variety of international experts who know how to build, equip and run these modern ports.

Maybe that way we can turn the floating impression that Ireland is ready and prepared for Brexit into a more anchored reality.

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

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