Author Archives: Derek Mooney

From top: HSE CEO Paul Reid. The HSE was hit on Friday by a ransomware attack, while the Department of Health shut down its systems after finding a similar digital threat; Derek Mooney

Though I have related this Jeffrey Bernard anecdote here before, it still bears repeating. When Jeffrey Bernard was too “tired and emotional” to submit his weekly column to The Spectator, the editor would place an apologetic line explaining that there was no column that week as: “Jeffrey Bernard is unwell”.

There was also another one. It was longer, but less apologetic and appeared when the editor was feeling less charitable. It read:

“Mr Bernard’s column does not appear this week as it remarkably resembles the one he wrote last week”.

Broadsheet’s editor could be forgiven for posting a similar renunciation here, as the discourse on the HSE cyber-attack I propose to put to you is effectively a re-statement of arguments and commentaries I’ve made many times over the past few years.

I have been warning about our failure to take national cyber-security seriously since late 2019. I highlighted it as a sub-plot in this column from Sept 2019 and then expanded on the problem in a column entitled: Pleading No Defence On Cyber Security.

I could quote chunks from both pieces today, because the arguments made then are even more relevant as we count the cost of the sophisticated cyberattacks which hit the Department of Health over the weekend and shut down the HSE’s IT systems since last Thursday.

Similarly, I could quote large elements of what I said in my July 2020 column: No Ministering On Data Or Cyber Defence when I critiqued the glaring gaps in this government’s approach to data protection and national cyber security.

In all these articles, and some others, I did more than highlight the problems, I tried to offer proposals that would address them. These included assigning responsibility for the co-ordination of national cyber security and the protection of key elements of national infrastructure – included our communications, power, transport, and health IT systems to the Defence Forces.

Some in the political sphere get this, including the people who wrote the defence and cyber security portions of the Fianna Fáil 2020 manifesto.

It recognised that cyber security is a matter of national defence, not just because of the importance of the digital sector to our own economy but due to Ireland’s strategic importance to the EU’s digital economy.

The manifesto said that “Ireland needs to recommit to its Defence Forces and its defence capability” identifying cybersecurity as a vital element of national defence and committed to “…transferring this important function to the Defence Forces/Department of Defence”.

Sadly, the enthusiasm and commitment of the Fianna Fáil manifesto never made it through to the joint Programme for Government. In place of the specific commitments came this empty promise to:

“Implement the National Cyber Security Strategy, recognising the potential and important role of the Defence Forces”.

How did that happen? How did an active commitment turn into a barely passive suggestion? It can hardly be due to Fine Gael and the Greens being so opposed to the very notion of taking cyber-security seriously that they blocked Fianna Fáil’s efforts in the talks?

Or, is it not more likely that the inner civil servant mentality of many around that negotiating table – not to mention the cache of Dept of Finance bean counters outside the room, totting up the costs – won out. It was decided to do nothing, as doing nothing, costs nothing. The Irish Department of Finance’s secret mission statement is: proudly saying No for over 100 years, after all.

Not that the Merrion Street bookkeepers are wrong on costs. Having a robust national cyber defence capacity will cost a lot of money, particularly if we hope to attract and retain people with the highly specialised and transferable skillsets required.

Doing that would mean reversing the flow of qualified personnel out from the defence forces and towards the private sector, attracted by higher salaries and better career prospects.

It will also mean making tough decisions on co-operating with our European partners on cyber defence. Ireland is only involved in one of PESCO’s 46 projects – it is a very important one on upgrading maritime surveillance, but we have opted not to participate on any of PESCO’s four cyber defence projects, including the Cyber Rapid Response Teams (CRRTs) project that enables member states to help each other to ensure a higher level of cyber resilience and collectively respond to cyber incidents.

We do have a choice – having a modern cyber defence capacity costs money but, as the HSE and Department of Health attacks show, not having one also costs. Remember, the two attacks I am talking about here are only the latest of an increasing series of attacks.

Up to now, the Irish state has followed Homer Simpson’s “Can’t someone else do it?”  slogan from his stint as Sanitation Commissioner, and effectively relied on private militias, in the form of  security firms protecting the digital assets of IT giants like Google, Apple, Facebook etc.

Government has assumed that these big tech companies would more likely be the targets of malevolent cyberattacks, than it would.

But it forgot that those behind these attacks, be they criminal gangs or hostile foreign governments will attack out the weak spots, not the strong ones. (See this Reuters report on how Russian intelligence agency and Chinese spies were behind cyberattacks on the European Medicines Agency (EMA) last year)

Irish government policy over the past few years has effectively turned our critical national infrastructure into a soft target for bad actors. But Ireland is home to more than its own vital infrastructure. Around three quarters of all transatlantic cables* in the northern hemisphere pass through or near Irish waters, mainly along the South West coastline.

This matters as over 95% of all global data still passes along cables laid on the ocean floor. Despite all our talk of the “cloud” satellites still only account for a tiny percentage of global data transmission. This leaves Ireland, an Island that has successfully grown a digital economy, with the most to lose if those cables are attacked or damaged.

Fixing Ireland’s cyber defence problem is going to cost money – not fixing it will cost a lot more.

* For a better explanation of their critical importance please read the Chapter entitled: Patrolling Below The Horizon: by the Irish Naval Operations Command’s Lt (NS) Shane Mulcahy, in the 2019 Defence Forces Review. Indeed, check out the Defence Force Review archive for several more detailed articles on how Ireland could deliver an effective cyber defence capacity.

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 Monday. Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney

RollingNews

Taoiseach Micheál Martin at Dublin Zoo to mark its’ reopening to the public last week: Derek Mooney

There’s a Soviet era story comparing the leadership styles of three of its former leaders: Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev.

It goes like this. The three leaders are sitting in the plush compartment of a special politburo train traveling across the western Siberian plain.

The train suddenly stops in the middle of nowhere. The leaders send for the train manager. He informs them that the driver, co-driver and engineers have gone on strike and are refusing to move the train another centimeter.

Stalin tells Khrushchev and Brezhnev:

“I’ll deal with this”.

He climbs down from the carriage and walks to the front of the train to berate the crew.

Before the great leader can utter a word, the driver complains vocally that he hasn’t been paid in weeks, hasn’t eaten or slept over the past 24 hours and has just heard that his brothers have been arrested and sent to a gulag.

Stalin warns him to re-start the train or be shot. The driver refuses. Stalin draws his pistol and shoots him dead. He then turns to co-driver and orders him to drive the train. The co-driver also refuses telling Stalin that his situation is even worse than the now deceased driver.

Stalin gives up. He returns to the compartment and tells the other two:

“I’ve tried everything I know.”

“Leave this to me” declares Khrushchev. He goes to where the co-driver and the engineers are waiting and delivers an impassioned two-hour-long speech on how the Soviet Union is in competition with the capitalist West and that the entire future of Marxist-Leninism depends on the train getting to Moscow.

The crew are unmoved. Khrushchev puts his shoe back on, returns to the compartment and tells his two companions:

“I’ve tried everything I know”.

At this point Stalin and Khrushchev look at Brezhnev.

He takes the hint. He stands up. He walks across the compartment and pulls down the blinds on either side. He then returns to his seat and says:

“let’s pretend the train is moving.”

If you are expecting me to spend the rest of this column arguing how and why Micheál Martin is like Brezhnev, you’d be wrong. I have no idea who Micheál Martin is in this scenario. Maybe he is the deputy train manager or the guy in the dining car responsible for keeping the samovar warm, whoever he is, it is not a pivotal role.

No. In this story the part of Brezhnev is played by the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party or, at least, by a sizeable chunk of them. Whether that chunk is a half, a third or a quarter is a matter for speculation, though I am sure it is not the majority.

They are the middle ground. The fence sitters. The ones who are not totally loyal to Martin, but not yet convinced of the need for him to go. Instead, they tightly close their eyes and ears to what is going on around them.

But are we starting to see move gentle movement from this Brezhnev wing? According to the many leaks from last week’s party meeting some of this previously silent and quiescent band are beginning to speak openly about they discontent with the party’s performance on housing.

They are starting to question why they must carry the can for Fine Gael’s past failures while being attacked by Fine Gael – Q.E.D. Fine Gael T.D., Martin Heydon’s brazen performance on yesterday’s ‘The Week in Politics’ on RTÉ One.

Having warned a year ago that backing the Programme for Government would lead to this, I take no comfort in saying: I told you so. They backed the deal and put themselves on this train to nowhere.

Thus Fianna Fáil now has responsibility for the two key policy areas that will decide the face of this government, and indeed the shape our politics for the next decade to come, housing and health. And, so far, they’re not impressing.

The issue isn’t whether the government is looking to the private sector or the public sector or, whether they are backing left-wing or right-wing policies, it is that they are not delivering.

Countless families and many not so young couples and individuals are crying out for affordable housing and accommodation – they want a safe, secure place they can truly call home, not a treatise on the housing market.

The one big political lesson that politicians must take from this pandemic is that the public will no longer accept governments claiming its hands are tied and that it cannot act on health, housing, education or public transport or other issues related to public well-being.

Though it has not done everything right – e.g. nursing home support, contact tracing and early vaccination rollout – we have nonetheless seen the enormous power and reach of the State over the past year. Government, as an institution, can shut-down an entire country, close businesses and industries, keep people off the streets and in their houses, when it chooses that this is what it wants to do.

When it has the political will, it has the reach and capability to do big things. That’s what government is about. It is about making choices and taking decisions – and the scale of the problem dictates the scale and radical risk of the remedy.

While there may be a cohort of Fianna Fáil-ers who hope there will be a vaccine bounce and that voters will return from a few weeks of feeling the sun on their backs, thinking more benignly about Stephen Donnelly, Darragh O’Brien, or Micheál Martin… they are wrong. There won’t be a bounce.

Fianna Fáil’s fatal dilemma is not just that voters won’t feel better disposed towards them by the Autumn, but rather that voters will have irrevocably made up their minds about them and will not be open to being persuaded otherwise, no matter what radical changes the party makes after that.

It is not that Fine Gael is delivering for its voters any better than Fianna Fáil delivers for its lot either. It’s that this team of ministers, with the possible exception of the odd Green, isn’t delivering for anyone.

Meanwhile the Fine Gael leadership team is content to focus more on messaging than delivery as it believes its core supporters do not see government as being as essential to delivering their wants as the free market is.

This strategy may well be tested to destruction in the upcoming Dublin Bay South by-election. Here Fine Gael has managed, in the space of two years, to go from two seats to one seat and now to no seat.

The good voters of Dublin Bay South will decide if they want to keep it like that. Though the blue party appears set to endorse a fine candidate in the shape of James Geoghegan – while ignoring the superior candidacy of Kate O’Connell – the real issue is whether voters deem Fine Gael’s performance in government and Leo Varadkar’s leadership as deserving of their endorsement.

Fianna Fáil has some by-election worries too. Though Dublin Bay South is one of the very few where its local T.D. bucked the general election trend and increased his vote by almost 2.5%, Jim O’Callaghan is already in the Dáil, so he can’t be its candidate.

So, will voting for whoever Fianna Fáil nominates be seen an endorsing the leadership of Micheál Martin or can the candidate get out from the outgoing leader’s shadow and portray themselves as an O’Callaghan proxy?

It will be a tough ask, bordering on the Quixotic, for whoever is chosen. Let me make two general predictions about this element of the campaign now. 1. The Fianna Fáil candidate won’t win and is unlikely to be in the top four on the first count. 2. You won’t see many Micheál Martin posters around the constituency.

So, who can win the by-election? It would be a foolish pundit who would attempt a prediction without knowing all the candidates, however I will say that if I were a Social Democrat supporter, I’d be looking for a candidate with a strong national profile. This is precisely the type of constituency where the Social Democrats could make a big breakthrough.

Their candidate would not have to come first or even second on the first count, but once they are in that top three, and are somewhere in or around the Sinn Féin candidate, they should be able to soak up the transfers needed to win.

If not, then a credible independent be it from centre-left or from centre-right stands an incredibly good chance, this includes Hazel Chu, if the Greens decide to deny her the run she wants and she then goes independent.

Either way, when the by election is over and the results are in, the Brezhnev wing of Fianna Fáil will have to decide if keeping the blinds down and pretending to themselves that they are heading somewhere is preferable to finding a fresh driver and a radically improved engine.

****

Postscript. I considered using this week’s column to discuss the Eoghan Harris saga but decided against it as enough folks have already piled-in on him.

Harris’s Twitter sock-puppetry was a shameful mess. As was his interview with Sarah McInerney. But has the outraged response been a little excessive?

He clearly did wrong and has paid the price by losing his national pulpit. Do we really need to build a virtual pyre and invite all and sundry to add tinder?

Besides, just think of the fun that will be missed in not having a political contrarian to kick around anymore.

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 Monday. Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney

RollingNews

From top: SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon; Derek Mooney

10-days from now people across Scotland will vote in what will probably be the most consequential election yet for both the people of Scotland and the of these two islands. I say “yet” as the second Scottish independence referendum that will inevitably follow, will be the most consequential.

With its bold and direct slogan: Scotland’s future is Scotland’s choice. And nobody else’s the SNP has left Scottish voters in no doubt as to what this election is about. It is not just about deciding about who sits in the Scottish Parliament and who forms the next Scottish Government, it is also about preparing for a second independence referendum.

That is why what happens on May 6 will be hugely consequential for us on this island because. It will set the course for the final steps in the move to Scottish independence and the breakup of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

With 10 days to go, things are looking good for First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP, but a lot can happen in 10 days, and while the SNP’s dominance is in no doubt, the issue is now whether it can win a majority of seats (more than 65).

On the face of it, securing a majority should be an achievable task. The SNP did it back in 2011 when it won 46% of the popular vote. Right now it is polling close to 50% in most recent polls and the current seat projection on the excellent Ballot Box Scotland website has it set to pick up 6 seats extra and come back with 67.

But securing more than 65 seats is tough as the Scottish parliament was constructed in such a way as to make it “unlikely that one party will get an overall majority” – the quote is from the Parliament’s own information service.

This is due to how the Scottish Parliament’s 129 seats are elected. It uses what is called an additional members system. This means that 73 of the seats are filled via 73 local constituencies electing one member by first-past-the-post. The remaining 56 additional/top-up seats are elected by a modified form of d’Hondt PR from a party list, based on 8 x 7-member regions.

Voters get two ballots, one for their local constituency MP and one for their regional party list. In 2016 the SNP won 59 of the 73 constituency seats, but only 4 of the Regional ones. This is partly because the way the Scottish electoral system calculates d’Hondt, meaning that parties that do well in the constituency elections within a particular region will do less well in that regions top-up calculation.

It is also because many SNP voters have tended to view the second regional ballot as representing their “second choice”. This time around while polls show the SNP set to hit 50% on the constituency ballots, they also point to the party only getting 40% on the regional one.

To address this dilemma, the SNP is pushing a strong social media campaign with the hashtag #BothVotesSNP. If it can push its vote on the regional lists up to a point where it mirrors its support on the constituency lists, then an overall majority could well be in its grasp – even with its former leader Alex Salmond siphoning off votes, around 2-3% for his newly formed Alba party on the margins.

Securing that overall majority is not a sine qua non for Sturgeon remaining in government or for the prospects of a second referendum. There will be an absolute majority for both a second referendum and for independence in the next Scottish Parliament even without the SNP winning more than 65 seats, but the psychological impact in Westminster of the SNP being a single party majority government in a parliament designed to avoid such an eventuality, would be enormous.

That’s why the next ten days are crucial. You can expect to see Boris Johnson’s Tories and the entire British establishment throw absolutely anything and everything at Sturgeon and the SNP. The SNP’s opponents will fight this election as if their lives depended on it… because their (political) lives do depend on it.

This election is about the future cohesion of the United Kingdom. And it is not in Scotland that this is playing out.

As I mentioned here before, while the independence movement in Wales is nowhere near as advanced or as dominant as it is in Scotland, it has been on the rise since Brexit. This was evidenced in the ominous warning sounded in early March by the moderate, pro-union, Labour Welsh First Minister, Mark Drakeford when he told a House of Commons committee that:

“There is no institutional architecture to make the United Kingdom work.”

“It is all ad-hoc, random, and made up as we go along. And I’m afraid that really is not a satisfactory basis to sustain the future of the UK.”

It is further evidenced in recent Welsh polling which shows Drakeford’s Labour party gaining ground and the Welsh independence party Plaid Cymru set to emerge as the second biggest party.

Have those misanthropes who have been beseeching Irish politicos not to mention unity or border polls for fear that it will upset unionism given any thought to how what happens in Scotland will impact it?

What happens in Scotland over the next 10 days, 10 weeks and 10 months will influence Northern Ireland unionist politics more tangibly than the calm and reasoned arguments and proposals on unity they have objected to here.

Unionism’s cultural and historical connection to the United Kingdom is more often expressed through its strong connections and ties to Scotland, than to England or London. Break those and you undercut many of the historical and institutional binds that hold the Union together.

But the fact that what happens both in Scotland and between Scotland and London will profoundly impact unionist thinking, does not mean we should standby passively and wait to see what happens. We must prepare, if only on a contingency basis, for the possible break-up of the United Kingdom and the major changes in relationships that would cause.

What happens in Scotland on May 6 will have medium- and longer-term consequences. But it will also have lessons, which we can learn now.

The first is how a single party, which has been in government since May 2007, looks set to be returned to government for a fourth consecutive term, with an increased vote, an increased parliamentary representation.

There is nothing in our psyche, or in our system, that makes such an achievement here impossible, so it must be to do with the party itself, its leadership and its message.

Having struggled for the first forty years of its existence to win even 1% of the popular vote, the SNP started to make its breakthrough in the 1970s with the It’s Scotland’s Oil campaign and the adoption of a broadly social democratic platform.

The real progress came in the 1990s though, under the inspired and charismatic leadership of Alex Salmond. The party’s support grew dramatically. Within just eight years – from 1999 to 2007 – it went from being the second largest party in the newly created Scottish Parliament to being the largest and the lead party in a minority government.

In the space of under 20 years, the SNP has managed not only to put Scottish independence at the centre of the British political agenda, but to be on the cusp of achieving it. All accomplished using only democratic and constitutional political means, even when it felt the rules were stacked against it.  And all done without ever threatening menace or violence.

The other lesson, one which should be heeded by some in government here, is that being in government during the worst pandemic in a century does automatically lead to plummeting polling numbers. Your poll numbers do not fall just because you are in government, they fall because of what you do (or, more often, do not do) while there.

The SNP has consistently polled at 50%, or higher, in almost all 25 Scottish national polls taken between March 2020 and February 2021 – hitting a high of 58% in two polls from separate polling companies, one in September 2020 and one in October 2020 and hitting a low of 47% in one in early March 2021.

Even that low of 47% makes 14%, 15% or even 16% pale in comparison.

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 Monday. Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney

From top: Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly (right) speaks to reporters outside Government buildings last week; Derek Mooney

According to the veteran American comedian George Burns there is no big secret to comic timing. It’s very simple, he said. You tell the joke, you wait for the laughter and when the laughter stops, you tell the next joke. That’s comic timing.

It’s something similar with government communications: you deliver you message and give the public the time to let it sink in.

What you certainly do not do is to talk across yourself and your message, chopping and changing the narrative while folks are still trying to take-in the last one.

There is nothing wrong with a minister having a new idea, indeed it is something to be encouraged. What is important is that it is an informed idea. What you don’t do is to contact a journalist to communicate an idea to the public until it has been fully formed and explored with colleagues and – hopefully – some real live experts.

You do not say something that could appear to have just come off the top of your head. Yet, from where I sit, that is just what appears to have happened last weekend when Stephen Donnelly told the Irish Times he was planning to ask officials to examine the option of rolling out the vaccine to 18-to-30-year-olds next, instead of to 40-and-50-year-olds.

Catching your colleagues and the experts unaware and on the hoof is not a good move. I can see why the Donnelly camp is eager for its minister to come across as ahead of the curve on the issue, considering that there is a perception that he had spent so much time behind it.

I’m sure it must be galling for a capable media performer like Stephen Donnelly to find himself having to stick strictly to a dry, jargon laden script written by others, such as NPHET and NIAC, and not have the capacity to riff or ad-lib off it.

It must be tough for someone who has enjoyed been a freethinker in the past to stand by and stand over very dry communications while ministerial colleagues, including his two immediate predecessors, happily communicate less like as government ministers and more like hurlers on the ditch hoping to reflect the public’s views back at them. It’s as if Simon Harris has reworked the awful 2005 Tory election slogan: Are you thinking what we’re thinking into I’m thinking whatever you’re thinking.

Government communications isn’t rocket science. It is about discipline. It is about honing the message down to its core essentials and then putting it across in normal everyday language that ensures that it is understood equally by all.

You decide your message. You simplify the language. You bin the jargon. You use short sentences. You give it to the public straight. You keep all ministers on the same speaking points.

When governments departments and political parties get polling companies to do focus groups, it is not to help them decide the policy, but to test if the planned communications will get the message you are trying to convey across to the public in a way that they can understand. You test the communications more often than you test the policy.

You don’t talk in terms of “quarters”. You leave that stuff to newly appointed supermarket assistant managers trying to sound like future managing directors.

Normal folks talk in terms of Easter, the summer, the June bank holiday. So, your communications should reflect this. Say the beginning of July, not the end of Quarter 2. Don’t talk about moving deliveries of vaccines from quarter 4 forward to quarter 2. Say that the vaccines we were expected to receive in the run up to Christmas will delivered before the end of June.

Speak the way people speak. Voters are inclined to assume that a minister, or even a Taoiseach, knows what they are talking about, so deploying unnecessary management-speak or civil servant-eses into your messaging risks giving the impression that you are trying to make things more complicated or – worse – that you are pretending to have greater knowledge than you do.

A friend spotted a curious example of this latter phenomenon courtesy of a Fine Gael advert in a provincial newspaper promoting a planned public zoom meeting. From what I can see it was one of a series of online meetings the party is planning featuring the Tánaiste and the local Fine Gael TD – and in most constituencies that’s now just one person – talking about remote working.

Because of my background in human resource management and employee relations I am aware of jargon and management-speak developing around what some call remote working, what others call telework, but what most folks call, working from home.

Clearly some bright spark in Fine Gael saw the perils of putting Varadkar’s face below a banner proclaiming: “The future of working from home for Mayo/Wexford/Louth etc.” as this assumes the workers concerned can afford a permanent home from which to work safely and in comfort and are not just barely managing to work remotely in a small flat, a shared apartment or off the dining table in their parents’ house.

In this case going with the jargon was a wiser course than going for the plain speak, as the plain speak could raise uncomfortable issues which no Fine Gael TD, let alone the Tánaiste, would wish to flag-up right now.

It also highlights a major difference between government and political communications. While government communications is about addressing the entire public, most political communications (and here I mean party political) is about addressing one particular section or grouping.

In the case of these Fine Gael adverts, the message is not about remote working, it is about Fine Gael and about reminding Fine Gael voters across the country, constituency by constituency and region by region, that they are still around and still relevant.

The message is not about noticing this policy or this particular action, it far simpler it is about: Notice us, notice me.

I am not saying that the Tánaiste and Fine Gael does not grasp the importance of the move to “working from home”. But, just like the expectant circus couple who when asked whether they wanted a boy or a girl, replied “we don’t mind, just as long as they fit in the cannon”, the Tánaiste is most focused on how the policy helps him win back all those voters he lost for the party in 2019/2020.

Perhaps, just as Varadkar hopes that talking about remote working helps him to win back the voters his party urgently needs and wants, Donnelly hoped that pandering to the 18-30 years-olds who have abandoned Fianna Fáil in droves, though drove seems too small a word to express the sheer scale of the exodus, would make them think more kindly about his new found party.

The end is not the issue here, it’s the means. Pandering does not work. Though telling people what you think they want to hear can get a temporary bump in the polls, it never works as a long-term strategy. Why? Because, in the long run, voters are not fools. They do not like being played as such and tend to punish those who try to – assuming they have a viable alternative to allow this.

People can cope with the facts when given them straight and in a calm and accessible way. Voters will tend towards the one they perceive as coming closest to this – this is perhaps why yesterday’s Ireland Thinks/ Mail on Sunday poll rated NPHET’s Tony Holohan 6.5 (out of 10) compared with 3.1 for Stephen Donnelly and 3.8 for Micheál Martin in terms of approval.

On an unrelated note, the same poll reports that 85% think the €81k pay increase for the Sec Gen of the Department of Health, due to be agreed by Cabinet this week, is inappropriate.

As I pointed out here over two months ago, they are right and so, I again caution Fianna Fáil TDs and Senators about letting this be nodded though. It is their Ministers who will take the flak for this.

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 Monday. Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney

RollingNews

From top: The Peace Wall gates at Springfield Road/ Lanark Way interface in Belfast on April 7; Derek Mooney

As the riots raged along the peace walls in Belfast last week, I spotted a tweet bemoaning the absence of loyalist leaders of the calibre of the late David Ervine.

David was the avuncular, savvy leader of the loyalist Progressive Unionist Party (PUP). He was aptly described by Northern Ireland secretary John Reid as “possibly one of the most eloquent politicians in Northern Ireland”.

Ervine died tragically young, aged just 53, of a brain hemorrhage, in Jan 2007. Speaking at the time, the then Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern called him a “courageous politician who sought to channel the energies of loyalism in a positive political direction.”

I don’t claim to have known David well, though I did meet him several times and even debated against him in UCD before an audience of US politics students. He was characteristically witty and demonstrated a willingness to engage and debate the future of the North, that showed his confidence in his in his identity and position. This is not something you can say about many in today’s unionism.

That day in UCD Ervine told the story of his 1975 encounter in Long Kesh prison with the UVF leader Gusty Spence. Ervine had just been jailed for attempting to transport a bomb across Belfast.

Spence wasted no time in the conversation. “Why are you here?” he asked Ervine.

“Because I was caught”, said Ervine.

“No” said Spence, “why are you here?”.

“I was fighting for Ulster”, Ervine then replied.

Spence puffed on his pipe and said “No. No. Now why are you here?”

As I recall, Ervine said he and Spence went through a few more rounds of this before he saw that Gusty was trying to get him to question his own attitudes and beliefs. Spence was inviting him to see that working class Protestants were no better off than working class Catholics and thus recognize the futility of the loyalist and republican campaigns in what could only ever be a zero-sum game.

[There is a more detailed and nuanced account of this exchange on pages 192-193 of Roy Garland’s 2001 biography of Gusty Spence. A book launched by David Ervine.]

I mention David Ervine not because he would have been the solution today’s problems, but because his absence encapsulates what is missing in unionism and loyalism: informed and confident leadership.

Let me be clear, I am not suggesting for one millisecond that the teenagers, wound up by sinister elements in loyalism, are lobbing petrol bombs into the back gardens of their Catholic neighbors because they have some fundamental objection to the Northern Ireland protocol and the three levels of sanitary and phytosanitary checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain.

Clearly, they don’t. Those who are closer to the situation tell me that last week’s troubles at Lanark Way have their origins in recent PSNI successes against the drugs operations of certain loyalist gangs.

But who is going to ask the youths the question that Spence repeatedly posed to Ervine: “why were you there?” I doubt their answer will be that they were protesting the drug seizures. Is it not more likely that it will be that they were there to fight against the Fenians for Ulster, so that their people could have control over their country, their community and their street?

Given the considerable dialing-up of the unionist political rhetoric on the NI protocol and the aftermath of the Bobby Storey funeral, it is impossible to argue that what happened in Belfast is entirely disconnected from what has been happening in other places across the North, such as the illegal loyalist band parades in Ballymena, Portadown and Markethill.

Those organisers are forthright in stating that their parades are a protest against the Northern Ireland Protocol and the decision not to prosecute senior Sinn Féin figures who attended Storey’s funeral.

So, how can those Unionist leaders who have been whipping up anger on these two issues and called on the PSNI Chief Constable to resign, calmly condone some illegal protests and then condemn what is happening in Belfast?

Yet, isn’t that what Arlene Foster attempted to do in her Twitter response last Wednesday? Yes, she did call it vandalism and attempted murder and she did state unequivocally that it did not represent unionism or loyalism. But how credible is this when only a few weeks earlier she was meeting with the representatives of loyalist paramilitaries to find common cause?

How can her condemnations be taken as authentic and consistent when she goes on to say that the actions she condemns “only serve to take the focus off the real law breakers in Sinn Féin”?

How can any political leader, let alone a First Minister, stand over a statement that starts by calling out vandalism and attempted murder, but ends-up saying that it is “them’uns” who are the real law breakers? They are vandals or they are not. Their culpability is not diminished by the blameworthiness of senior Sinn Féin figures flagrantly breaching Covid rules.

I have no doubt that last week’s riots genuinely distressed the First Minister. But I’d be surprised if some of her upset didn’t also come from her seeing that her words could have helped whip up disaffected and volatile young men to think that they must fight back against those, who they are told, are hell-bent on weakening Northern Ireland’s place in the UK.

Across Arlene Foster’s time as First Minister we see that she is at her best when she tries to speak as the First Minister of all of Northern Ireland and at her worst when she speaks as the leader of unionism alone, or as the leader of a faction of the DUP.

We rightly champion the success of the Good Friday Agreement, whose 23rd anniversary we marked last weekend, but we should also remember that it has not been a panacea for all the North’s ills.

Despite increased investment into the North, the economic benefits have been pitifully slow to trickle down and improve the lives of those living in marginalized communities, particularly along the interfaces. It would be naïve not to see this as a contributory factor to this week’s violence.

The other problem is how allegiance to the sovereign power is now proving to be a problem for both communities. The Zero-sum game of: if they are winning, we must be losing, no longer dominates.

While the nationalist/republican community still has difficulty having allegiance to a State that finds their presence problematic, Unionism also has a problem. It is a growing problem as the State to which Unionism and Loyalism shows allegiance (i) increasing declines to reciprocate that loyalty and (ii) is itself increasingly coming apart.

We saw a pained expression of this growing frustration last January when Ian Paisley Jr plaintively asked Tory MPs:

“What did we do to members on those benches over there to be screwed over by this protocol?”

Unionism has never been more disrespected or shoddily treated than it is by the current occupant of 10 Downing St. The Guardian’s Nick Cohen puts this point in a historical context in an excellent analysis piece from February, while I warned last December that Boris Johnson’s duplicity would not end with Brexit, saying:

“Johnson’s duplicity is no respecter of alliances or relationships. Even the DUP, must realise by now that they cannot trust Boris Johnson any more than Dublin or Brussels can trust him.”

Maybe the DUP does grasp it, but its leadership is now so compromised by its past fidelity to Johnson that it cannot act on it.

So, we seem destined to repeat the mistakes of the past, mistakes that could well see the NI institutions, Executive and Assembly stumble along, teetering on the edge of collapse. This does not mean we are going back to the bad old days from before the Good Friday Agreement. But it could mean we are back in the one step forward, one step back choreography that plagued the first decade of the Agreement’s implementation.

Over the weekend several former Northern Ireland Secretaries of State urged the British government to take the situation there more seriously saying that the British government had “allowed this to degenerate to the most serious crisis for a quarter of a century.”

One of them, Labour’s Peter Hain, said:

“Compared with the attention Blair, Major and Brown gave to Northern Ireland, it has been treated with casual indifference”.

While another, Peter Mandelson (also Labour) accused Johnson of duplicity in his handling of the NI protocol and warned that Johnson must show “more candour & engagement”

Their criticism is fair and measured. But the remedy does not lie in the British government acting alone. The history of Northern Ireland since the 1970s has taught us that progress can only be made when the two governments act and speak together.

It is therefore vital that the British/Irish Intergovernmental Conference, established by the Good Friday Agreement, meet to allow UK and Irish ministers work to help each other to de-escalate rising political tensions in Northern Ireland. Reports in yesterday’s Observer that Number 10 is resisting calls for such a meeting with Dublin are deeply worrying.

So too is the claim that what happened in West Belfast, Carrickfergus and Newtownabbey, should make “nationalist politicians and commentators think twice before engaging in idle chatter about the imminence of a united Ireland” as one Irish political commentator put it last Friday.

Leaving aside the gratuitous loaded phrase “idle chatter”, the assertion is akin to King Canute standing at the waters edge and commanding the tide to turn back – though in Canute’s defence, he at least he did it to show the limits of his power.

Many in Unionism have believed for months that a border poll/referendum is imminent, not because political leaders, academics and policy makers here are considering what a united Ireland might look like, but because they see what has been happening across Britain, post Brexit. Informed Unionism knows that what happens in Edinburgh, Cardiff and London will have a bigger impact on political life in Northern Ireland that almost anything said in Brussels or Dublin.

They know that next month’s Scottish parliamentary elections (where the 30-day polling average has the SNP on 50.1%) is of critical and immediate importance to the future of the UK union. Especially as the SNP is unapologetically fighting that election under the banner of Scotland’s future must be Scotland’s choice. And nobody else’s, as you can see in this party political broadcast.

What happens in Edinburgh, Cardiff and London over the next 12 to 18 months will have huge ramifications for what happens in Northern Ireland and that – inevitably – has major implications for the rest of us on this island. That is the discussion that An Taoiseach Micheál Martin, and his successor, should now be preparing to have with Boris Johnson.

Any suggestion that we should not be thinking and preparing for a range of eventualities is not just a nonsense, it is effectively a call for political dereliction.

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 Monday. Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney

 Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

From top: Taoiseach Micheál Martin speaks to reporters at Government Buildings on St Patrick’s eve; Derek Mooney

Much as I would prefer not to think about it, it is impossible for anyone with an interest in politics not to see yesterday’s Red C, Sunday Business Post poll as a seminal political moment for Fianna Fáil.

Ironically, for a poll that will be viewed as a landmark, the movements it records are quite small. I am sure this is something from which Taoiseach Micheál Martin will try to draw some comfort. Fianna Fáil’s latest 2% drop is within the margin of error and it is not in itself massively statistically important – except, it is yet another step bringing the party back down at its lowest ever point.

The party has recorded 11% in Red C polls before. Last October was the last time. The time before that was… well, never. Its lowest previous Red C rating was the 14% of early 2011 that provoked Micheál Martin to challenge Taoiseach Brian Cowen saying:

“I believe that Fianna Fáil must recognize the reality of the current climate of public opinion… I have reluctantly concluded that, in these circumstances, Fianna Fáil should change its leader.”

Martin’s Fianna Fáil is now in a worse situation than Cowen’s Fianna Fáil was back in 2011. That is saying something. The party, by which I mean the parliamentary party, the ministers, TDs and Senators, is sitting idly-by, watching its support ebb away.

People who less than a year ago would have been described as core supporters are turning away in such a gradual and steady stream that Fianna Fáil is now in third or even fourth place across most demographics. Even among the cohort with whom the party still does best, voters over 65, it actually doesn’t do best.

To the small remaining group of Martinites who say that this still just a phase and that such dire ratings are to be expected when people are so angry over the lockdown and slow vaccine rollout, but that things will start to change come April… May… or June, I say, stop it.

They are right when they say people are seething. People are infuriated at the lack of joined up government thinking. They are frustrated by the slow vaccine rollout. They are furious at the months of lockdown while we leave the airport back door swinging open. They are incensed at mixed signals and political jockeying among the government parties. But their dissatisfaction isn’t hitting the whole of government, it is targeted on one side only, Fianna Fáil. So, the collapse is about more than lockdowns and a faltering vaccination plan.

It is not unfair to point out that the people inside Fianna Fáil who are saying that things will get better for Martin’s Fianna Fáil, are the same folks who were saying last May and June that Fianna Fáil needed to be in government because that was the only place where it could turn its fortunes around and recover from its 2020 electoral drubbing.

It is not a view I supported back then. I explained here, many times, why I didn’t agree, but I accept it was a respectable position to hold. The problem is that it was a position that had its origins in a political past that is now long gone. It failed to take account of what had happened in the decade before and how politics had been changed forever by time and events.

There is an interesting parallel situation that helps make the point. Just after we had our February 2020 election, Israel had its March 2020 election. It was its third in two years. It has just now had its fourth election in three years and given how inconclusive that has been, a fifth one seems a distinct possibility.

By the way, this is not the parallel I am attempting to draw. In March 2020 veteran Israeli leader, Benjamin Netanyahu was fending off a serious challenge from the centre-left, Blue and White alliance led by former Israel army chief of staff, Benny Gantz.

Gantz’s broad alliance had a single uniting goal, to put Netanyahu and his Likud party out of government. The result saw Netanyahu’s Likud gain slightly, rising to 29% compared with 26% for Gantz’s alliance. Gantz had vowed to form a government that would not include Netanyahu but then reversed his stance after the election saying he was willing to join an emergency government to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic, even though that was under the leadership of the man he vowed to replace.

He and Netanyahu agreed a rotating premiership to last three years, with Bibi going first. It barely lasted one. Within weeks of entering government and doing the very thing he had told voters he would never do, Gantz’s support plummeted. His Blue and White alliance came apart, seeing its parliamentary strength fall from 33 seats to just 8 in the latest election.

The moral of the story – don’t go into an election with a firm and clear promise to do one thing and then do the opposite afterwards and not expect to pay a big price.

Though his rolling Confidence and Supply agreement with the outgoing Fine Gael minority government was blurring the distinctions and confusing many voters, Micheál Martin still went into the Feb 2020 election with a clear message: vote me in to put Fine Gael out.

It was explicit. He said it several times over, including at this good-humoured Dublin 8 media doorstep where Martin says,

“…the message I’ve received loud and clear is that people want a new government, they want a change of government and that involves Fine Gael out of government.”

That was back in January 2020.

So, what happens now?

Not a lot, to be honest. To return to a point I made here some weeks ago, we should not expect to return to what might be termed normal politics while there is some form of lock down in force. Or, until the HSE finally manages to put together a sustainable and deliverable plan to vaccinate people in large numbers all day, every day.

The political fallout from the ongoing decline in Fianna Fáil’s fortunes won’t begin to find its full expression, never mind its resolution, until the party’s TDs and Senators can meet together a single room. Then Micheál Martin’s political fate will be sealed. He will not be Taoiseach come 2022, never mind be Tánaiste in 2023.

As I explained two weeks’ ago, it is quite possible that Leo Varadkar won’t be Tánaiste in 2022 either, but that’s a separate – though not entirely unrelated – matter. Yesterday’s Sindo interview with Justice Minister, Helen McEntee will have made for interesting reading in Greystones and other parts.

Micheál Martin will doubtless put a brave public face on the latest poll slip and discount its significance, just as he has discounted all opinion polls since that January 2011 one that spurred him to action. But he has also been around politics a long time. He understands political momentum. He knows that this is only going one way.

Yes, he holds the considerable advantage of incumbency. He has control over how internal elections are run, particularly when they are run virtually, but that can only hold the dam until his parliamentary colleagues can meet in person and do what they are going to do.

Curiously, this is where the hope for his remaining leadership lays. Once Martin has come to terms with the reality that his time as Taoiseach is finite and can be measured in weeks, he might finally do what people have been asking him to do for months: lead.

Unburdened by possessing the urge to please many, but the knack of pleasing few, he could seize the reality of being leader of a party whose support can still fall further and tell people that he sees what they are enduring. Tell them that he knows how they are struggling to cope with months of continuous Level 5 and that he will change the regulations to reflect the lives they are daily living, not the ones that theoretically exist in NPHET’s modelling.

He could go further and announce a move to deferring second doses (along the lines I have suggested) and a seismic speeding up of the vaccine roll out.

The alternative is to sit tight and imagine that everything will somehow sort itself out. Some political situations do resolve themselves. Watching your political support fall to record lows, is not one of them. Besides the HSE has already called exclusive rights on the “it’ll be alright on the night” approach.

The Taoiseach will not be facing the voters again as a political leader, but he understands history and knows that he only has a few remaining weeks to secure his place in the history books.

It is in everyone’s interests, not just his party colleagues, that he takes that opportunity – and 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 Monday. Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney

RollingNews

From top: Taoiseach Micheál Martin and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson at Hillsborough Castle, Northern Ireland last August; Dan Boyle

Given the week that was in it, with St Patrick’s Day and all, and the impressive number of virtual calls and speeches made by An Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, you’d be forgiven for thinking that last week would have been a more important week for the future of relationships on these islands than this week. But it wasn’t.

To his credit, An Taoiseach seized every opportunity presented to him to speak in detail about what he called the “whole new category of challenges that we have had to deal with” following Brexit. He did so with conviction and belief.

In addition to his crucial virtual Oval Office face-to-face with President Biden and Vice President Harris, he had high profile speeches and exchanges with both the prestigious Brookings and Edward M Kennedy institutes, plus a range of other important calls and engagements.

It was further proof of the great soft power that comes with our national holiday and how this unique, guaranteed annual access to both the White House and to Capitol Hill is not something to be scoffed at, or treated lightly.

Yes, it may seem a tad stage-Irish at times with the profusion of shamrock, Kelly green ties and scarves, but the substance is real, and the politics is current.

While the Taoiseach set out the broader institutional problems facing us across this island, describing them as:

“new difficulties raised by Brexit and its outworkings; enduring difficulties from the legacy of the Troubles; the recurrent tensions of power-sharing in Northern Ireland; and corrosive mistrust, at times, at community level”

He was less than forthright when it came to considering the constitutional issues posed by Brexit and a gradual break-up of the United Kingdom.

He correctly stated that:

“Through the Good Friday Agreement… we definitively resolved, how we decide on the constitutional future for the island – founded on the principle of consent.”

And that:

“Everyone on the island has the right to advocate for the constitutional future they wish to see for Northern Ireland – whether they aspire to a United Ireland, to remain a part of the United Kingdom, or whether they do not identify with either tradition.”

He concluded:

“I affirm that right as Taoiseach.”

All of this is both welcome and fully consistent with the Good Friday Agreement, but it does not consider the journey we are already on towards potential constitutional change on this island. Prof Colin Harvey makes the point that this debate is already well underway in this article for the Derry Journal, though I disagree with him on time-tabling.

It is right and proper that the Taoiseach of the Republic affirm the rights of everyone across this island to advocate peacefully and politically for the constitutional future they wish.

But An Taoiseach is not an impartial observer to the changing constitutional dynamic, he is a vital player within it. In addition to affirming everyone’s right to advocate, he has another, not incompatible, duty and responsibility as both Taoiseach, and the leader of Fianna Fáil, to speak as the leader of constitutional nationalism and republicanism.

The fact that Taoiseach Martin’s deep-rooted reluctance to talk about constitutional change or to engage with any discussion on a border poll is not stopping the discussion should sound a warning bell. As the old political maxim puts it, a leader without followers, is simply a man taking a walk.

To be fair, there are times when a leader must be prepared to take a very lonely walk and get significantly ahead of the crowd, but is Taoiseach Martin ahead of the crowd on this great issue or is he, as I greatly fear, significantly behind them?

Has Micheál Martin, or any of his advisers, seriously thought about the risks they take with his position as both Taoiseach and Fianna Fáil leader by shirking the leadership of constitutional republicanism? Do they think that the momentum will come to a standstill because its nominal leader has halted? Is there not a greater chance that the leadership will pass to someone else?

I do not doubt that the Taoiseach is taking his lonely walk for what he and his supporters feel are they right reasons, but the fact that they believe it, does not make it so.

As I have pointed out here several times before, such senior figures in today’s mainstream Unionism as the former DUP leader and NI First Minister, Peter Robinson, the very measured DUP MP for East Belfast, Gavin Robinson MP, have urged Unionism to start preparing for a referendum.

When Peter Robinson says:

“I know there are border poll deniers who think such a referendum will never be called or believe that to talk about and prepare for a plebiscite creates momentum that will speed its arrival. I do not subscribe to such complacent and dangerous thinking.”

We know that he is addressing unionism directly, but might his words not also be applied to An Taoiseach?

While An Taoiseach is focused on reconciliation, the British Prime Minister has rediscovered a love for Unionism and an apparent desire to retain the union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Johnson has now established a special union unit within Number 10, which his supporters say shows that he is determined to put the union at the heart of everything the government does once the coronavirus crisis has subsided.

His “one nation” opponents say it is too little, too late. Announcing some landmark projects or re-locating key government offices to the far-flung corners of the crumbling union, they argue, will not undo the damage he has inflicted on the union by his pursuit of a hardline Brexit.

They are probably right. But, neither their concerns, nor the fact that Johnson’s pro-union unit encountered several hitches, including the departure of the head of the unit within its first two weeks, detracts from the reality that Johnson intends to spend the next few years talking up the union and talking down who see its disintegration.

Chief amongst those who Johnson will be eager to talk down will be Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP. But she will not be alone. Even the moderate, pro-union, Welsh First Minister, Labour’s Mark Drakeford can be added to the list after telling a House of Commons committee earlier this month that the United Kingdom is over as:

“There is no institutional architecture to make the United Kingdom work”

“It is all ad-hoc, random, and made up as we go along. And I’m afraid that really is not a satisfactory basis to sustain the future of the UK.”

So, why do I think this week will be more significant for the future of relationships on and between these islands, than last week?

Well, there are three reasons. The first, in reverse order, is tonight’s Claire Byrne Live at 9.35pm on RTÉ 1, which will focus on unity and discuss what people think a United Ireland might look like.

Its Amárach Research 1000-person smartphone poll on how people would vote on unity, showed 53% for, 19% against and 28% undecided, but it’s the other poll numbers that may be most interesting, especially the demographic and regional breakdown of those numbers.

Next up is Tuesday night’s Sidney Sussex College Cambridge online seminar where Fianna Fáil’s Jim O’Callaghan TD will set out his considered views on the political, economic, and legal consequences of Irish reunification with Professor Eugenio Biagini. Some of these was trailed in yesterday’s Sunday Business Post, suggesting that his contribution will be substantial in both its breadth and vision.

The third is reason the most significant. Curiously, it has already happened, though we will not discover the true magnitude or impact of the third development for a year or so.

I am talking about yesterday’s Northern Ireland Census. When the results emerge sometime next year it will be interesting to see if the trends identified in the 2011 census are confirmed and continued. The 2011 Census found that:

Since the 1960s, against a backdrop of overall population increases, the proportions belonging to these religions have tended towards convergence, with that of Protestants and Other Christians steadily declining and that of Catholics generally increasing, reaching 42% (0.75m) and 41% (0.74m) respectively in 2011. Their combined share has, however, fallen from almost 100% to 82%.

This is not to say that we’re looking at a pro united Ireland referendum vote once the number of Catholics surpasses the number of Protestants. This is a deeply crude, not to mention inaccurate, measure that fails to recognize the growing complexity of Northern Irish society – a point well made in Dr Robbie McVeigh’s detailed 2019 report entitled: Sectarianism – The Key Facts.

The growth of the “other” category when it comes to religion and identity is of critical importance and its continued growth in this latest Census may well shape the politics and future of Northern Ireland and this island for many decades to come.

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 Monday. Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney

RollingNews

Meanwhile…

From top: Taniaste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment Leo Varadkar (left) and An Taoiseach Micheal Martin; Derek Mooney

Over last few months I have written a lot, an awful lot, about Fianna Fáil’s existential crisis, focusing on the shortcomings of the leader, and Taoiseach, Micheál Martin.

This is to be expected. Even though I now find myself on the outside looking in, it is still the party I understand best, and care about most, having been a member for over 40 years.

But my instinctive focus on my former party should not detract from the problems facing Fine Gael – or, more specifically, those facing its leader, An Tánaiste, Leo Varadkar.

Before the yesterday’s Sunday Times front page story about the Tánaiste being the subject of criminal investigation, Varadkar’s position looked unassailable. But looks can be deceiving.

The news that Gardaí think there is something to see in Leo’s nothing to see here sharing of a confidential document has set many folks to wonder if he can continue as leader.

But the trouble didn’t start this weekend. Yesterday’s revelation has only added to the numbers who were already muttering ominously about Varadkar.

Questioning the durability of Varadkar’s leadership might have seemed counter intuitive up to Saturday afternoon. Afterall, look at all the things that Varadkar had going right for him.

Though he isn’t happy not being Taoiseach, he still holds the post of Tánaiste. A position he has re-designed in such a way as to make him co-Taoiseach in all but name. He has all the trappings of the top job and a great deal of the hard power that goes along with it too.

Standing aside as Taoiseach was the temporary price Varadkar was willing to pay to get Micheál Martin to put an already enfeebled Fianna Fáil into a more parlous position. The big money payoff for this temporary arrangement is that Varadkar can now portray the next election as a stark binary choice between Fine Gael and Sinn Féin, with Fianna Fáil self-relegating to the sidelines.

Besides Varadkar knows that he will be Taoiseach again from December 2022 and that the political history books will show Martin’s tenure as a brief blip between Leo’s two terms as Taoiseach.

Add to this the fact that Fine Gael has been vying for top place in the opinion polls with Sinn Féin for most of the past nine months since this time and his own performance ratings have been higher than ever.

Indeed, it was this time last year when Fine Gael started to come back strongly in the polls. Leo’s first address on the pandemic, delivered on the steps of Blair House during his St Patrick’s Day visit to the White House, triggered a major reversal in his and Fine Gael’s fortunes.

Having secured only 21% at the February 8th, 2020 election, Varadkar saw his party stagnate and even slip back in some polls. The March 10 Behaviour and Attitudes poll conducted for The Sunday Times had Fine Gael still on 21%, but two Red C /Sunday Business Post polls taken in March and April, after his Blair House and follow up speeches, saw Fine Gael support soar to 35%.

Leo’s good fortune didn’t stop there. Polls taken in June, July and October had Fine Gael as high as 37% and 38%. But all good things must come to an end and so did his run of good polls. Though recent polls are not looking quite as rosy now, they still have Fine Gael in the mid to high 20’s – well above its Election 2020 figure.

But opinion polls are just opinion polls. Fine Gael TDs know they have been here before. The polls a few months out from the February 2020 election looked good too, showing Fine Gael in the high 20’s, even hitting 30%.

It was the election campaign that exposed Varadkar considerable weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Readers may recall my Stick a fork in Fine Gael, it’s done column published eleven days before the election, when I said that Fine Gael’s election was over. It was.

This wasn’t a Damascene conversion. Long before the 2020 election I said that Varadkar was out of touch with the real concerns of many voters and that Fine Gael’s poll numbers were soft.

Even before yesterday’s newspaper headlines started to circulate, many Fine Gael TDs were coming to the same conclusion.

In all probability they came to that conclusion at the election. But, just as the pandemic has compelled Fianna Fáil TDs not to metaphorically kick their leader with the child in his arms, the fact that the calls for him to go are not yet public, does not mean many are not thinking it.

Where Fianna Fáil parliamentary party meetings leak like sieves, Fine Gael’s have seemed more disciplined and tight-lipped. Thus, the sudden appearance of very pointed comments from former ministers, not to mention the daily online musings of the Samuel Pepys of Greystones, Minister Simon Harris, take on a significance that runs beyond their content.

And while they may not presage a heave in the short run, they do point to many in Fine Gael imagining a political world without Leo.

This development may well be linked to the increasing speculation that there will be a Fianna Fáil heave sooner rather than later. Though Fine Gael TDs are confident that Varadkar would easily brush Martin aside at an election and focus solely on Mary Lou McDonald… what happens if a Fianna Fáil, no longer led by Martin, re-connects with its core beliefs and chooses not to walk meekly to its own demise just to satisfy Fine Gael?

Fine Gael TDs know a busted leader when they see one. Don’t forget this is the party of Dukes, Bruton, Noonan and Kenny. They know Martin’s last race as leader is run – a point I have been making here for well over a year.

While some in Fianna Fáil may still not accept this basic fact, Fine Gael see that Fianna Fáil TDs and Senators will not be so quiescent as to face into another election, even a snap one, with the same leader, posters, slogan, and messaging as before.

A change in Fianna Fáil leadership, particularly a change that comes with a radical rethink of the party’s core message and identity would raise serious doubts about Varadkar’s prospects.

Even if the Garda investigation as disclosed by John Mooney in the Sunday Times does not result in a prosecution, never mind a conviction, the Leo the leaker hashtag has done real damage. The whole sorry mess stank and, as I said here at the time, raised major questions about Leo’s prudence and acumen.

As does the game playing and contrary statements on NPHET and lock down strategies. These may be calculated to politically undermine the Taoiseach, and his diminishing Health Minister, but they are also harming the whole of government, including Fine Gael.

As if all of this were not enough, Fine Gael may be about to suffer another setback as its Seanad bye-election candidate on the Agriculture Panel faces losing out to independent Unionist rival, Ian Marshall. Marshall, a former Senator, has support from a wide cross section of opposition parties, most notably Sinn Féin, and the many independents.

To be fair, Seanad by-elections do not shift leaders or destabilize governments, but they can have a political impact, especially when they go wrong. On paper, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael should have the two upcoming Seanad by-elections sown up. Combined, even without the Green Party, they have 50% of the votes.

They also have an electoral pact that shares the two vacancies between them. The two vacancies stem from the departure of a Fine Gael and a Sinn Féin Senator.

Fine Gael is running the well regarded and capable former Senator, Maria Byrne, but she very much the leader’s personal choice. This leaves Varadkar with skin in this game. Losing the seat will be more than just the loss of a Fine Gael seat, it will be a loss of face by Leo.

To add salt to Leo’s wounds, Fianna Fáil’s candidate on the Industry & Commerce panel, Gerry Horkan, is seen as a safer bet. He has two advantages over his Fine Gael colleague. First, he faces a less unified opposition and second, he was the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party members’ choice, defeating others thought to be favoured by Martin.

It never had to be like this. In a column here last November I urged both Taoiseach and Tánaiste to facilitate the election of two Senators, one unionist and one nationalist. This would have fixed the June 2020 mistake, when two Northern Irish Senators were not included in Taoiseach’s 11 nominees.

I know many across the political divide contacted the two leaders before my column appeared, asking them to seriously consider this idea. Sadly, neither man acted upon it.

While at least one of them will rue the day they didn’t, it is very possible that both men will soon have plenty of free time to reflect on this and other mistakes.

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 Monday. Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney

RollingNews


From top: Taoiseach, Micheál Martin at the Meath Primary Care Centre in Dublin last week as patients over 85 received their vaccinations; Derek Mooney

It has long been accepted that the primary responsibility of government is the safety and protection of its people.

Though we can be critical of this government for many things, accusing it of not taking this responsibility seriously is not one of them.

True, their execution of this responsibility has been patchy and erratic. The gradual depletion of our defence forces and the wanton neglect of national cybersecurity are but two obvious examples of how governments over the past decade have fallen well short of their duty to protect us, but – for the most part – the State has shown the political willingness and institutional capacity to keep us safe and well.

Right now, this solemn duty to protect underpins the vaccination programme. And, once again, while the government has the right intention, its execution falls short. Well short.

This is a curious failure from a government nominally headed up by a Taoiseach whose political watchword is to under-promise and over-deliver.

As I have said before in this column, Micheál Martin believes deeply in managing expectations. Under-promise and over-deliver has been his political modus operandi for most of his career. His approach is the polar opposite of that of the former New York governor, Mario Cuomo, whose famous maxim was: campaign in poetry, govern in prose.

Martin has long eschewed the poetry part. He prefers to campaign in prose and then govern, when he gets the chance, in a dirge-like prose…

While I am on the Cuomo side (the daddy Mario, not the handsy Andrew) and favour campaigning in poetry, you must still ensure your campaign poetry does not soar so high as to lose touch with the grounded reality you hope to govern.

The under-promise and over-deliver stratagem only works as a campaigning tactic when it pursued by folks who plan, when elected, to increase delivery to a level well above that which would have happened without their intervention. It tends to be used more by governments seeking re-election, rather than oppositions seeking to replace them.

When they do, then all too often it is deployed by insipid, uninspired, or even cynical politicians planning to do as little as possible when elected and then taking credit for everything that would have happened whether they were elected or not.

Under-promising and over-delivering is more a conventional governing strategy than a campaigning one. We see this across the Irish Sea where the post Dominic Cummings crew around Boris Johnson, especially Downing Street’s new press officer, Allegra Stratton, is deploying the under-promise and over-deliver approach with some success.

The polls have seen Boris Johnson pull ahead of Labour in recent weeks and months, thanks to a vaccination rollout that has exceeded everyone’s expectations – even Johnson’s fiercest critics. This is a lesson that Micheál Martin, Stephen Donnelly and others in government need to learn fast.

We saw one of the major downsides of Martin’s iteration of the under-promise approach with An Taoiseach describing the latest failure to reach a modest delivery target as a “bump in the road”. Missing the target by almost 20% is no mere bump.

Almost all vaccination delivery targets are being missed. This is not to say that the programme is failing. It isn’t. It has undoubtedly improved enormously since February. Nonetheless it is hard not to conclude that we now have a programme of under-promising and under-delivering that is sapping all public hope and confidence.

The stock answer that our failure to reach targets is due to problems with EU the supply pipeline is hard to sustain when you look at the number of other EU countries who use that same pipeline, but who are fare ahead of us, particularly Denmark.

Denmark vaccinated all people in care homes with their first dose by the end of the first week in January. This is something that we didn’t achieve until over a month later, indeed we only started to vaccinate people in care homes with their first doses on the date Denmark announced it had finished theirs.

At a time when we were still storing and hoarding supplies of Pfizer in fridges Denmark was putting them into arms and then going to Brussels and demanding extra supply. It went out, as it was perfectly entitled to do, and sourced extra supplies for itself.

Our lethargy on this is amazing. Perhaps there is a fear in government that looking to source Sputnik V or unused AstraZeneca in France and Germany risks being seen as over-promising and under-delivering. Who knows… but it is hard to fathom why ministers have been so unenthusiastic about pursuing these options?

What I do know is that the current approach is not working and should not be maintained. While our situation is not hopeless, the various institutions of the state from Cabinet to NPHET to HSE have succeeded in expunging almost all hope from the national discourse.

However, in that horrible phrase: we are where we are and where we are right now is at least two months behind Northern Ireland and the UK and several weeks behind many other countries in Europe.

Though we are in the top third of the table of 27 EU countries in terms of vaccine rollout, our problem is that we lead the EU table when it comes to workplace closures.

We have endured the longest lockdown, closing all but essential workplaces for 163 days from the start of the pandemic to the middle of January (See Reuters Graphics report). The comparable figure for Germany was 34, for France it was 84 and for Italy it was 134.

The Irish figure now stands at almost 200 days. So, coming 7th or 8th in Europe when it comes to vaccine rollout simply is not good enough. We need to be at the top of the vaccine rollout league. That means we need to have a greater percentage of our people vaccinated, even if only with one dose, by the end of April or May.

For that reason, I strongly believe we should be considering adopting the UK strategy here and deferring the delivery of 2nd doses for eight to twelve weeks. This would allow us to vaccinate more people, more quickly and then unlock the country after what will easily be the longest continuous lockdown in Europe.

There is sound medical evidence for taking this approach. The University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy has produced a very detailed scientific report advocating the deferral of second doses where vaccine supply is faltering and the threat posed by new variants is increasing.

It considered the risks associated with deferring the administration of the second vaccine dose beyond that recommended by manufacturers and concluded that:

…evidence from other vaccines suggests that an extended time between vaccine doses does not generally compromise – and indeed may increase – the antibody response to a vaccine boost.

It further found that:

“High levels of protection, however, were measured even after the first dose, with a vaccine efficacy over 92% for both vaccines [Pfizer + AstraZeneca] beginning at 14 days post–dose one. Even among older adults, vaccine efficacy remained high following both dose one and dose two…”

Various studies show that the level of immunity offered by a single dose is extremely high and that the first dose also dramatically reduces your chances of spreading the virus.

So, if we expect to get 1 million doses of vaccine per month in April, May and June allowing us to vaccinate 1.5 million people with two doses, would we not be better in vaccinating 3 million people with one dose and then proceed to give them their second doses from the ever-increasing levels of supply due in July, August and September? We might even have sufficient supplies of the J&J one dose vaccine by then to complete the programme sooner.

This strategy would allow us to unlock earlier, making the mid-summer deadline look like an under promise that was over delivered. This is not an untried theorem – it is happening on our doorstep, in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England and we can see it is working.

We are weeks behind where we should be, but we can still play catch-up and get back to where we should be, but only if we act now.

I hope someone, somewhere in government is looking seriously at this option and that they have been looking at it for some time, as we will need a decision on this over the next two weeks, so that everyone vaccinated from the March 31st onwards can be given one dose and told not to expect to get their second dose until sometime from the end of June.

We’ve had enough under-promising. It’s time to focus on some serious over delivery – and fast.

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 Monday. Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney

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From top: Soldiers of the Irish Army section of the Defence Forces on a training excerise on the Curragh Plains, County Kildare; Derek Mooney

A few months after I started working as the special adviser in the Department of Defence, Gerry Hickey, the late and much missed programme manager to Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, phoned me to check on some departmental facts and figures for the annual Programme for Government review.

“…and roughly how many civil servants work in the Department of Defence”, he enquired.

“From what I can tell… about half of them”, I acerbically responded.

There was an exasperated silence at the other end of the line.  Not for the first time my knack for being smart-assed at the wrong moment was backfiring.

“What was that?” he asked.

Luckily, I had the number to hand as there had been a parliamentary question on that topic a week or two before. From memory there were about 380 individual civil servants, but as some were on job sharing schemes this was roughly equal to 360 whole-time equivalents.

My wise-guy answer was unnecessarily facetious. Almost all of the department officials I encountered during in my time in defence were hard-working and professional. This is across the department, not just those on the policy side, who I encountered most frequently, but also the junior and mid-ranking officials who made the defence establishment work efficiently, such as those in the pay and pensions branches.

Back in 2005, the Department of Defence and the Defence Forces/Óglaigh na hÉireann were poster boys for public sector reform. The reforms made under the 2000 White Paper on Defence resulted in the military and the department becoming more efficient, better equipped and with higher productivity than when they had greater numbers.

Defence was the only sector across the entire public service to see a cut in numbers in the first decade of this century. While public service staff numbers increased by 17% between 2001 and 2009 – defence was the exception. Its numbers fell by 8%. It showed how public sector reform could work and that you could do more with better structures and systems (See Table 2.1 Pg 12 of Bórd Snip Nua Report Vol I).

The payroll savings made from reducing the Defence Force size to 10,500 and closing smaller barracks were invested back into better training and equipment.

Not that we achieved some defence nirvana. There were still major issues with barracks accommodation, equipment and renovation works. Though the Cabinet had politically decided that monies saved would be ploughed back into defence, that news never quite seemed to penetrate the inner recesses of the Department of Finance.

Its officials fought each investment project tooth and nail with ministerial interventions from the Ministers for Defence and Finance being frequently required to ensure that decisions already made at cabinet were acted upon. This highlights one of the great peculiarities of the Irish system of government: the money does not automatically follow the government decision – ministerial muscle and political clout is still required long after the cabinet memo has been signed off.

I think this latter point is critical to understanding the unseemly and alarming deterioration in the relationships between the Defence Forces and Department of Defence which has been expertly reported by both The Irish Times and The Irish Examiner.

These two newspapers have shown a keen and clearly informed interest in defense issues over the past few years and both would appear to have impeccable sources in both critical parts of the Irish defence establishment.

While there are bound to be what we might euphemistically call “creative tensions” at the senior levels of any organization, the breakdown in relationships as reported are not just serious, they are calamitous.

Though it may be tempting to view the problem are merely the out-workings of some personality clashes between senior figures within the Department and the Defence Forces/ Óglaigh na hÉireann, I strongly believe this is a misreading of the situation.

This is not about personalities, but rather the structural relations between the two leaderships and the perception that the Department of Defence is not championing and arguing the cause of the Defence Forces within government, most particularly the Department of Finance.

I think there is some basis to this concern – actually, it is hard to argue that there isn’t when, as Conor Gallagher reminded us in an excellent analysis piece in Saturday’s Irish Times, the Department has…

“…handed significant sums of money to the Exchequer every year – €130 million since 2013 – having failed to spend it.”

The Department’s innate inclination to avoid kicking sleeping dogs and at times to act like a supplicant, particularly when it comes to dealing with departments like Finance or Foreign Affairs, seems to have come to the surface, especially in the absence of any political clout at the head of the department.

Not to overwork the canine metaphor here, the absence of any serious political direction or influence within the department is the dog that hasn’t barked in the discussion of the deterioration of relationships.

For over a decade the Department has endured a sequence of what were effectively part-time ministers. Since 2011 it has had, in sequence:

  • a defence minister who was also Minister for Justice, Alan Shatter;
  • a defence minister who was also Minister for Agriculture, Simon Coveney;
  • two defence ministers who were also Taoiseach, first Enda Kenny and then Leo Varadkar;
  • and now a defence minister who is also Minister for Foreign Affairs, welcome back Simon Coveney.

Defence has had a decade of playing second fiddle to its own political master, having a succession of ministers whose primary political concern was their other, larger, and more newsworthy, department, be it Justice, Agriculture or even Taoiseach’s.

Perhaps the department has been too willing to allow itself to be sidelined by its own minister and perhaps placated as its departmental resources are secured while those of the Defence Forces/ Óglaigh na hÉireann lose ground, but it is extremely difficult for a department to successfully make a case for scarce resources when its own minister is effectively arguing against it by making a stronger case for their other department.

Not that there isn’t some blame on the other side too. While there is genuine sympathy with the uniformed side in this saga, we should not lose sight of the critical importance, in any democracy, of the supremacy of civilian authority over those in uniform.

It is an important principle, though not one that would be diminished or reduced by making the Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces, the accounting office for the military budget.

By law, the Chief of Staff’s duties are determined by the Minister, while the Chief of Staff is, in return, directly responsible to the Minister for the execution of such duties, including responsibility for military effectiveness, efficiency, organisation, and economy of the Defence Forces.

So, having an engaged and active the Minister is pivotal to having an effective Chief of Staff – but how can any Chief of Staff be held responsible for military efficiency and economy without possessing some responsibility for the day-to-day management of military expenditure?

Assigning this responsibility to the Chief of Staff would effectively mean taking it from the head of the department, the Secretary General. While I am sure senior officials will view this suggestion as hailing the end of civilization as they know it, the world did not end in July 2006 when the Garda Commissioner was appointed as the Accounting Officer for the Garda Budget.

I do see that the two situations are not analogous. The Garda budget, unlike the Defence Forces/Óglaigh na hÉireann budget, is only a portion of the overall Justice budget, even so there is scope within the Defence Acts 1954 to 2015 for some reassignment of responsibly while still retaining departmental oversight.

Just as the breakdown in relationship has its origins in a decade of political neglect and indifference, its remedy requires targeted and vigorous political action by the Taoiseach, Tánaiste, and Defence Minister. That is a tall order as two out of these three permitted the problem to arise.

Nonetheless, that’s the hand that defence has been dealt. One thing we know for sure is that this problem is not going to just sort itself. How could it when that’s precisely how it developed.

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 Monday. Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney

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