Author Archives: Derek Mooney

From top: Members of the Air Corp inspected at Baldonnel by Paul Kehoe, Minister of State at the Department of Defence in 2016.;  Derek Mooney

Several times over the past few years I have written about the need for a mature and grown-up public debate on Irish security and defence policy.

It is why the recent initiative by the folks at Slándáil, headed by former Irish Army office, Dr Gerry Waldron is so welcome.

Launched at the end of September, Slándáil has set itself the not unambitious task of generating and encourage such informed debate with a two-day policy forum/summit at DCU next February.

While the forum itself will look at a range of global and national factors from the implications of climate change to the future of the Defence Forces and of policing, much of the discussion will focus on contemporary cyber challenges, as Waldron explained in a recent interview with the Irish Times.

The pity is that this awareness of the cyber threat has not yet filtered through those with political responsibility for the defence agenda in government.

The State’s National Cyber Security Strategy is now two years out of date. It should have been updated in 2017. It wasn’t.

The updated strategy is said to be ready and is only awaiting a launch date. If only it was a minor housing programme in one of the four by-election constituencies, then it would be besieged by hard-hatted ministers eager to unveil it.

As I pointed out here before, it takes “a rare political talent to make the Irish defence brief controversial, yet the hapless Paul Kehoe appears to have somehow managed it”.

A series of high-profile but exasperated interventions from Defence Forces representative organisations and an array of retired Defence Force officers have highlighted the ongoing deterioration in morale and actual capacity within the defence forces.

These public criticisms were uncharacteristic. They were not born of a desire to score points or make noise, but rather of a need to provoke the Minister and Department to act after years of exasperation at the unresponsiveness of pleas made through the usual channels.

It did appear, briefly, that their urgings were having some impact with word coming out that an inter-departmental working party including officials from the departments of Defence and Taoiseach – An Taoiseach also being Defence Minister – would be established to see examine how the chronic recruitment and retention problems besetting the Defence Forces could be tackled.


Well… you’d like to think so, but so far it is looking like nothing has changed.

The €32m “increase” in funding announced at the Budget has be viewed alongside the annual underspends of €20-25million per annum over the past few years, totalling some €140 million – most achieved by running the Defence Forces at well below their budgeted strength.

It is why no one who understands the chronic skills shortage within the Defence Forces was shocked when it was announced that the government was withdrawing the Air Corps operated air-ambulance service, based at Athlone, for 16 days between now and the end of February. This is being done for “training and staff shortage issues”. First the ships, now the aircraft.

In a rare public contribution in his other role as cabinet level Defence Minister, an Taoiseach dismissed any concerns over this cutback saying it was “only for the next four months” so that Air Corps air ambulance staff could come off service for four days per month to provide training for new cadet recruits.

This makes it sound like this is a problem born of progress, but it isn’t.

There were local warnings of this happening as far back in April. The meagreness of the government’s response to the Athlone air ambulance crisis, as evidenced last week on RTE Radio 1’s Saturday with Cormac Ó hEadhra, is just one more symptom of years of political indifference on Defence.

It is an indifference that should not be measured in terms of inputs only. The solution to the current problems lie not just in simply spending more money on defence. More money will be needed, but first we need to make some decisions about the defence and security outputs we need.

The key question is what do we expect of our Defence Forces in 2020?

Ask most Oireachtas members this question and you get a long, rambling response that talks about the great role the Irish Defence Forces have played in UN peace support operations since 1958.

It is not that the answer is wrong, it is that this is only part of the answer. The Defence Forces indeed play a vital role in UN peacekeeping as leaders and participants in UN led and UN mandated missions.

We have the longest unbroken record of overseas service with the United Nations of any country. We currently have over 650 defence force personnel serving on overseas missions across 14 different countries.

Given that personnel are on 4 or 6 monthly rotations that means that almost 1,700 Irish troops will serve on overseas missions this year.  While this is down on the averages up to 2008, it is still a respectable figure for the Defence Forces’ off-island role.

The problem comes when you ask about the Defence Forces’ role on-island.

While these are still considerable, as evidenced by the 2018 year end report, the end of “the troubles” and development of various capacities within the Gardaí has somewhat reduced the calls on the Defence Forces to deliver its traditional ATCP (aid to the civil power) and ATCA (aid to the civil authority).

And – although units such as the Army Ranger Wing and the Ordnance (Bomb Disposal) Corps are world leaders, trained and equipped to the highest international standards – we still, in the words of UCD’s Prof Ben Tonra:

“…lack the minimum conventional combat capability necessary to provide for any territorial defence based on credible deterrence.”

This is not something new and, despite my penchant for sticking it to Varadkar, not something that even I can blame on him.

Successive governments have, based on the best available (military) intelligence and threat assessments, judged that we did not need fighter, attack or transport aircraft, combat tanks or heavy artillery to provide on-island defence.

Reasonable decisions, in hindsight, based on getting the greatest return on the money spent.

But what of the future?

Has the threat changed?

In a word: yes.

Ireland is now strategically important to Europe’s digital economy. As I have said before, up to 40% of the EU’s personal data is stored here. This makes us an increasingly important target for a range of malign actors, state and non-state. We are now the sixth most cyber attacked country in the EU.

The presence of so many global IT giants here has put Ireland at the nexus of a cyber security threat, into which the Irish State is operating with virtually no virtual protection capacity of its own.

The tech corporations see the threat and prepare accordingly, but they protect themselves – the bits in between, the critical pieces of national infrastructure such as hospitals, transport and information systems are the responsibility of the State.

Last month’s World Economic Forum survey of global CEOs reported that cyberattacks are now seen as the second biggest global threat to business. Cyberattacks are the number-one risk for businesses in the US, Canada, the UK and Germany and have edged out all other risks in France and Italy to be their number one concern for the first time.

Meanwhile EU leaders, including Merkel, Juncker and Macron want the EU to develop its own data and cloud services to counter the US and China’s dominance of the global digital economy.

This would mean more business for Ireland, but with that business comes more risk – yet that risk comes, in turn, with huge potential for Ireland to be a world leader in cyber security, particularly in training the next generation of cyber security specialists.

The critical importance of the IT and digital sector to the Irish economy makes cyber security a national defence issue. The Defence Forces have a key role in delivering this key element of on-island defence, along with a range of other State agencies.

To do this they must have the resources and capacity and to achieve this they must have the policy framework and political leadership they have not been shown in almost a decade.

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: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (Left) and Fianna Fáil Leader Micheál Martin; Derek Mooney

Looking back at speechwriting commissions received over the last few years (leaving aside requests for best man speeches) I see that most have had leadership as a central theme.

While the scripts have ranged from looking at the role of leadership in building communities through to the importance of leadership in delivering commercial change, they have each asked the same question: what makes a leader?

It is not an easy question to answer. As Leadership guru Warren Bennis puts it:

 “To an extent, leadership is like beauty: It’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it.”

We appreciate leadership when we see it but, more importantly, we quickly recognise its absence.

This is certainly the case across the water. One week into the British general election campaign and the absence of leadership from either of the two main parties is already much in evidence.

While Boris Johnson is offering his best impression of leadership with, perhaps, a nod to Napoleon’s dictum that a leader is a dealer in hope, the Tory leader’s constant reliance on upbeat, though deceitful, rhetoric in place of demonstrable fact suggests that he has no notion of offering leadership by example.

Meanwhile the Labour Party offers a mirror image of the Johnson vacuum.

Whereas Johnson talks and acts like a charlatan, Corbyn appears sincere and genuine, almost to the point of insipid vagueness.  But, while Corbyn may offer a vision of a kinder, gentler Britain, his record as party leader is one of ambivalence on the bullying and anti-Semitism of his supporters.

This absence of leadership in British politics is not something new. It was obvious at the Brexit referendum. As I remarked at the time:

“it is no coincidence that the most significant and impactful interventions… have come from those who are no longer active on the main political stage, such as John Major, Gordon Brown or Ken Clarke…. the current crop of Conservative, Labour and Lib Dem political leaders have failed to impress… The few bright points from the current political generation have come from the likes of Nicola Sturgeon.”

The departure of senior political figures, most notably Ken Clarke, points to a less than bright political future for the UK. How could anyone treat any polity seriously that mistakes Priti Patel for a senior political figure?

So, what about us? Do we have a better standard of political leadership on offer here than they have in the UK?

In a word: yes.

Though our current crop of political leaders have failings and flaws, they still compare favourably with their British… sorry, English… counterparts.

Continue reading

From top a screenshot from yesterday’s Fine Gael social media campaign attacking Fianna Fáil; Derek Mooney

Being active on social media is not the same as being good at it. This is something Fine Gael learned yesterday morning.

At 9am it launched a digital attack claiming Fianna Fáil is not producing policies. Pretty basic stuff from a party in government, you’d have thought.

Hard to screw that up. Attack the main opposition party for not doing enough. Claim they are just criticising you, trying to score points and acting like an… well… an opposition.

To be fair, Fine Gael got most of the basics right. They produced a decent digital video, loaded with graphics and charts and pumped it out across social media platforms.

They backed it up with a press release in the name of Colm Brophy TD, hoping that the following day’s print media would pick up on it.

So far, so meh… yet, within barely an hour their digital campaign was not just misfiring, it was backfiring and going down in flames.

While the boffins in muppet… sorry, Fine Gael… labs got the presentation side right, they made an unholy mess of the content.

The message was not just wrong, it was badly wrong and now most of the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party was online telling everyone just how much they have been doing.

The pushback was fast and furious, but it did not come from Fianna Fáil Inc. via its official social media accounts.

It came organically, and within minutes, from individual Fianna Fáil TDs such as Jim O’Callaghan, James Lawless, James Browne, Fiona O’Loughlin posting lists of the legislation they had each produced.

They made the point that some of these initiatives, such as James Browne’s Mental Health Act, Jim O’Callaghan’s Parole Act and Michael McGrath’s Consumer Protection Act had been adopted by the Government and become law.

While others, like James Lawless’s four private members bills on Social Media transparency, Broadband, Research & Development and Drones), have been blocked by Fine Gael, despite their having support across other parties – an issue I have mentioned here before.

How dare Fine Gael accuse them of doing nothing. The first movers were soon joined online by most of their colleagues, each adding to the list of bills and reforms proposed, notably Darragh O’Brien TD who helpfully posted a list of 10 housing measures proposed by Fianna Fáil since 2017.

Within an hour or so, the Fine Gael attack had become a retreat. Even Colm Brophy, in whose name the statement appeared, was nowhere to be seen.

After two identical posts within a few minutes of each other; he scented blood in the water, realising that it may well be his, he promptly cleared off. The great Brophy attack had shown, to quote the great Paul Keating, all the ferocity and viciousness of being flogged with a warm lettuce.

This is perhaps unfair to Deputy Brophy, whose only real role in the debacle was to lend his name to this guff.

Perhaps the next time he is contacted by some Fine Gael press officer with another cunning stunt, he will do what any self-respecting government backbencher should do in such a situation and tell them to go ask some junior minister to do it, sure isn’t that what they’re there for? Failing that send them to Noel Rock.

I mention all of this because we are about to have – courtesy of the British general election – a five-week-long, big screen preview of the digital election campaign strategies, albeit on a smaller scale, we will likely see rolled out here next March, April or May.

Across the board UK parties are lining up significant online and digital campaigns. Back in 2015 British political parties spent £1.3m on the preferred platform for online political ads, Facebook, alone. That figure rose to £3.2m in the 2017 and is set to soar higher this year.

This does not include the other platforms or what the bigger parties spent in the pre-campaign period.

But paid, targeted political ads are just a portion of the digital campaigning strategy, as this BBC review of the first 24 hours of the UK digital campaigns show.

Well-produced content is reaching as many people as paid advertising and often has a bigger impact. Momentum, the Corbynite/Labour group raised £100,000 in less than 12 hours via free videos and posts shared by its supporters on Facebook and Twitter.

The last election here for which there are any figures is the 2019 European election. Though, according to ElectCheck 2019, a research report carried out by the Institute for Future Media and Journalism (FuJo) at DCU, the data from it is inconsistent making it impossible to come up with a comprehensive picture of the nature and scale of online political advertising here.

What a pity Fine Gael frustrated James Lawless’s Social Media (Transparency) Bill and stalled it back in Dec 2017. See how all this stuff comes full circle?

The little evidence there is comes from a review of the €60k spent on political ads on Facebook alone during the Europeans. To put this figure in context, it is still less than the failed Tory leadership candidate Dominic Raab spent in test ads for his bid for the top job.

Even from this anecdotal evidence you get a sense who is taking digital campaigning seriously and who is making it work. Broken down by party you find that Labour and Fine Gael each splashed out over two and a half times what Fianna Fáil spent on promoting its European Parliament candidates.

As I mentioned two weeks back, it is likely that Fine Gael will be studying the Conservatives digital playbook hard over the coming weeks and may have already planned a post-election debrief with their Tory counterparts as they did before the 2016 general election.

What Fianna Fáil will take from it is a bit more difficult to say, though if its MEP Facebook campaign spend (above) is anything to go by… it is not a lot.

While many of its spokespeople and candidates have developed solid social media and digital presences, many have not. The overall impact is less than the sum of its parts.

While yesterday’s Fine Gael limp firecracker was quickly doused by Fianna Fáil TDs piling in fast, the party will not have that facility in the throes of an election. Come the campaign TDs will be paying far more attention to the folks at the doorsteps than to posts on their smartphones.

It is then that Fianna Fáil will need its official voice across all platforms. While there were signs that the party was starting to find that voice and developing the capacity to get its message out beyond its existing audience, that work appears to have stalled, if not stopped.

Perhaps the powers that be within Fianna Fáil HQ feel that digital campaigning is not as relevant to them or their potential voters right now and that they can decide, closer to the election, to buy an off-the-shelf package or service that sorts out their presentational deficiencies while they focus on the content.

While yesterday’s fiasco – where FG got the presentation right and the content wrong – may confirm some in that view, I would still advise those to watch the UK election campaign carefully and learn just how critical digital campaigning can be in supporting traditional campaigning methods, not in replacing them.  

I could be wrong. In its defence, Fianna Fáil’s softly, softly program is seeing them make incremental polling improvements, bringing it neck and neck with Fine Gael.

It is a better than even money bet that this is probably enough to see the party increase its number of seats, but is it enough to propel it ahead of Fine Gael?  We shall see.

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: Fianna Fáil Leader Micháel Martín (centre) with Timmy Dooley TD (left) and Niall Collins TD; Derek Mooney

During the Tory leadership election the YouGov polling organisation did a survey of Conservative party members to ascertain the importance of Brexit to them.

It Specifically asked how many of them would continue to back Brexit even if it meant the last of Scotland and/or the last of Northern Ireland. Remember these are paid up members of the British Conservative and Unionist Party, the clue should be in the name.

The results were surprising, though not disheartening when viewed from Dublin or Edinburgh.

Almost 60% said that they would happily see Northern Ireland or Scotland leaving the union if that was the price of Brexit. They marginally preferred seeing Scotland go (63%) over Northern Ireland (59%).

Cold comfort for the DUP after a weekend that saw it unable to persuade one single Tory MP to stick by it. 

Since Johnson has come to office it seems that he has viewed this polling result less as an indication of the current state of mind within the Tory party and more as a goal for which to aim.

Though – like the few things Johnson has succeeded in doing since becoming Prime Minister – it is better that he thinks he is saving the Union, as he usually manages to deliver the opposite of that which he set out to do.

In his latest Brexit deal, which may or may not be passed this week with an added UK wide customs union or second confirmatory referendum, Johnson has set his face firmly against Scotland with a ferocity and pig-headedness that is all but guaranteed to end in Scotland voting for independence within the next 18 to 24 months.

A Scottish vote for independence and the break up of the “precious union” of England Scotland, Wales and parts of “Northern Ireland will have consequences for all of us on this island – and it is long past time that we started preparing for them.

While these preparations must include a border poll here, it is not the starting point, nor is it near the top of the list.  While Brexit has fatally damaged trust and confidence between Edinburgh and Whitehall, it has broken down trust here in all directions.

It has damaged trust across the three sets of relationships, the three strands, crucial to progress in the North:

1. Within NI Between communities in the North,

2. Between North and South on this island, and

3. East/West, between these two islands.

While it may seem counterintuitive right now to talk about rebuilding relationships in the run up to a border poll which potentially results in reducing some of them, that is precisely what it required as the Good Friday Agreement is built on these three strands of relationships.

The Agreement, about which Boris Johnson knows so little, is hard wired to even work where the polarities are reversed, in the event of the North voting to exit the UK and join with the 26 counties in building a new all island, Ireland.

I had intended to talk at greater length about this issue and will doubtless return to the importance to Ireland of Scottish independence in the near future, however I did want to devote some space here to allow me to comment on the Votegate debacle.

As one who is not shy about kicking Sinn Féin, Fine Gael, Labour or the Greens when they transgress, I cannot just ignore what has happened and pretend that it is not deeply embarrassing to me and others who back Fianna Fáil.

I know Lisa Chambers, Niall Collins and Timmy Dooley well. I have worked with each of them. I helped Lisa while she was Defence spokesperson and worked with Niall when he played a blinder in the Marriage Equality campaign. I have the highest regard for all three.

It is why I can sincerely say that I have no doubt that there was no venality or malice in what any of them did, but it is also why I have to admit that what happened was a disgrace.

It should never have happened and none of the explanations given can excuse such a blasé attitude to the procedures and processes of our parliament.

I commend Micheál Martin for moving on Timmy Dooley and Niall Collins and temporarily taking them off the front bench (at the time of writing) while the matter is investigated, but it should not have taken Fianna Fáil 24 hours to issue a statement on this.

Surely what was clear by midday on Sunday was also clear within hours of the story appearing on the front of the Irish Independent on Saturday morning?

It does matter whether a motion before the Dáil or Seanad passes with a majority of 42, 43, 44 or 45 votes.

The essential cornerstones of our democracy are that decisions are made by the people who show up, they are made in public, and the votes cast fairly are recorded in an open and transparent manner. Every vote matters, every vote counts and they must each be counted fairly and openly.

The fault does not lie with the system of voting, after all there is a massive display board overhead where you can see the votes as they are cast, it lies with the attitude to voting and the impact of voting.

While the “ah sure, what does it matter if it passed by 10 or 11 votes” attitude can have no place in our parliamentary system, it is hard to pontificate on the absolute sanctity of every single vote when so many of them are blissfully ignored by the government.

This is a point which the mouthier Fine Gael TDs might reflect upon the next time they are just as blasé about defending the Taoiseach nonchalantly quashing another Private Members Bill that has been passed by a clear majority in the Dáil or Seanad by way of a misuse of the money message from Cabinet (an issue I raised here before).

The Votegate saga has done damage, not just to Fianna Fáil, but also to how parliamentary business is seen to be done.

My thoughts on how to tackle the former I will share with colleagues in private, but my straightforward idea on how to address the latter, I am willing to set out now.

I would suggest, as an easy to implement interim solution and pending a more detailed report to the Ceann Comhairle, that the Dáil completely abandons electronic voting for the rest of this session – up the next general election, whenever that may be – and returns to holding all votes by way of divisions.

Having all votes taken by TDs walking through the lobbies and being ticked off on lists, may be time consuming, but it could be a small first step in reassuring voters that votes are conducted fairly and that the people who are supposed to be in the Chamber and voting, truly are.

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


Earlier: Push The Button And Let Me Know

 A Limerick A Day


From top: US President Lyndon B Johnson (right) and with his Supreme Court choice Abe Fortas, June, 1968, :  Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in Thornton Manor, Cheshire last Thursday

Visitors to the Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) presidential library in Austin, Texas get to have their photos taken against a life size photo of the 6’ 4” LBJ leaning over them, appearing – figuratively – to bend them to his will. It is called “The Johnson Treatment”.

The original photo featured LBJ’s soon to be US Supreme Court justice Abe Fortas. It is just one of many photos of LBJ applying the eponymous “treatment”, once described by the pre-eminent Washington political columnist, Mary McGrory, as…

an incredible, potent mixture of persuasion, badgering, flattery, threats, reminders of past favours and future advantages.

In a fascinating interview at the John F Kennedy library, LBJ’s speechwriter (and husband of the great presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin), the late Richard Goodwin tells how LBJ worked his “treatment” on the segregationist governor of Alabama, George Wallace after the Selma marches. Wallace had come to the White House, Goodwin recounts:

“…Wallace comes in, and of course Wallace is about 5 feet 2 and Johnson is 6 feet 4, and so he’s got a big edge on him. And so, he says, “Governor, come in.” So then Johnson sits him down on the couch, where he sinks another three inches, and Johnson sits on the edge of a rocking chair, and leans over until he’s about one inch away from Wallace… he knew the beauty of invading someone’s space, and he did it.”

As Goodwin explains, LBJ set to work on getting Wallace to allow greater voter registration for Black Americans in his State. LBJ finished up saying:

“I don’t want you to think about 1964, I want you to think about 1984. We’ll be dead and gone then. Now you got a lot of poor people down in Alabama, a lot of ignorant people, a lot of folks that need different jobs. You could do a lot for them, George, what do you want after you go? Do you want a great big, marble monument that says, “George Wallace: He built?” Or do you want little piece of scrawny pine laying there across the soil that says, “George Wallace: He hated.”

LBJ gets up and leaves. Wallace is then given the statement Goodwin has prepared announcing what LBJ wants him to do. Wallace dutifully gives it to the press corps, later saying: “[If] He had me in there another hour, he [would have] had me coming out for civil rights.” He was incredibly overwhelming.

Though not remotely in the same league as LBJ in terms of ability, substance or persuasiveness, those who have met Boris Johnson remark on how effusively personable and charming he is face-to-face.

Like many modern politicians Boris Johnson hates to be hated. He desires to please and impress the person in front of him, be it by flattery or self-deprecation.

Where LBJ used his power as well as personal skills, traits and experiences to bend others to his will, Boris Johnson has just one tool: charm. A charm that the former editor of the Daily Telegraph Matthew d’Ancona, described as

“…a confection, a stage act with roots in his true nature but with many affectations and contrivances. He is, one should never forget, “Al” (for Alexander) to his loved ones. “Boris” is a persona: it is his populist Conservative version of Ziggy Stardust, The Rock or Borat. It is a means to an end – and a potent one.

One of those potent ends was getting into Number 10 and it has so far worked. A sad reflection on the state of UK politics today but, as the Guardian’s Simon Jenkins puts it, “charm is politics’ deadliest weapon”.

Boris’s charm has not only landed him the top job, it has obscured many to the reality that Johnson (in the words of Simon Jenkins):

“…emerges from his biographical record as incompetent, lazy, dissolute and a liar, yet the public’s response is that he is “our kind of liar”.

While there are rumours about what Boris said to Leo when they met alone in Cheshire last Thursday, including tales of a one-page note produced from Boris’s inside jacket pocket that set out the British proposal, only two people know for sure.

That said, I do not think it is too unreasonable or far-fetched to imagine that the full 90 minutes was not taken up with the finer points of customs union systems or consent mechanisms.

While Leo Varadkar can claim a decent grasp of such detail, it is a boast the British Prime Minister cannot make. This is the same Boris Johnson, after all, who was caught bluffing dreadfully about trade tariffs on live TV by Andrew Neil.

It is therefore difficult not to suppose that those 90 minutes of private talks focussed less on specifics and more on the general politics of their two situations.

How could it not? Here were two politicians, leaders of centre right parties who have assisted each other in the past, each now facing an election. How could they not discuss and explore the politics of what they each face, especially when it is so intertwined and dependent on what happens with Brexit.

Though some Irish pundits were wary of Leo’s heading to the meeting, it was Johnson who had the most to lose. Boris Johnson went in on the backfoot, especially after the debacle of a “senior Downing Street source” (i.e. Dominic Cummings) briefing The Spectator that the UK government was ready to punish those EU countries who back an extension beyond October 31 and that the Taoiseach “doesn’t want to negotiate”.

Besides this briefing being politically illiterate (an extension beyond Oct 31 requires EU unanimity, so any threat to punish those who backed it means all 27) it also wrong-footed the British government’s own efforts, even if they are only about avoiding blame for a no-deal.

Johnson went into the Leo encounter with no choice other than turning the charm up to a spinal tapping 11. From Boris’s less nuanced perspective he would be sitting alone with the one man who held the key to unlocking his Brexit difficulty.

Johnson (wrongly) sees Irish support for the Backstop as the main obstacle to his securing a withdrawal agreement he can get through the House of Commons. Wrongly, because binning the Backstop is not in Ireland’s gift. The EU believes in the Backstop’s purpose, the avoidance of a border across Ireland, as much as we do.

The task Johnson set himself was enormous. Charm Leo to backing down on the Backstop. If he could do that then he could offer to help ease Leo’s political woes through the removal of the threat of a hard-crash-out-Brexit.

Leo arrived under no such pressure. Unlike Boris, who did not grasp that they could not simply talk the Backstop away, Leo absolutely knew they couldn’t. His mission was twofold. Deny the Brits any chance to blame him for refusing to talk and just listen to what Johnson’s officials had to say and appraise Brussels.

This Leo and his officials did. But he did just a little bit more. He came out looking and sounding way too happy. While their joint statement was broadly positive and talked of possible pathways, it was still bland. So, where did all the post meeting hype and press talk of significant movement from British side and changing the picture substantially come from?

Was it just Irish political optimism stemming from what the officials discussed or did the Boris attempt at his own Johnson treatment have some impact? Did Leo succumb, even briefly, to Johnson’s charm and blandishments?

Even if he did, there was never any risk of it turning into anything real, though his excess of positivity did briefly deflate the hopes of those in the UK wanting a second referendum, as well as grossly inflating the desires of those in Leinster House wanting a snap election.

But while charm may be a weapon, it is not a currency. Something confirmed by the briefings coming from Brussels last night and this morning.

The signals, so far, are that no significant progress has been made and that the Brits need to move further on Northern Ireland to secure a Withdrawal Agreement by week’s end. Johnson has backed himself into a corner from which charm alone cannot release him.

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

Pics: Getty/Noel Mullen via Rollingnews


From top: UK prime Minisister Boris Johnson; Derek Mooney

Opening his Sunday morning BBC1 show yesterday, Andrew Marr wondered if Boris Johnson’s cunning Brexit plan was to pretend that he has a cunning plan to cover the fact that he doesn’t have a cunning plan.

Mr Marr has a point. Most of Johnson’s cunning plans have thus far failed. His ruse to prorogue parliament was demolished by the Supreme Court, and he has still to win a single vote in the House of Commons.

He entered Downing Street at the head of a government with a majority (via the DUP) of one. Now, thanks to his handling of the grandest of the Tory grandees, it has a majority of minus 42.

Yet, despite these failures and setbacks, Johnson is doing well in the polls. The Tories now enjoy a steady lead over the Labour party of anywhere between 7% and 13% (YouGov polling).

As with John F Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban missile crisis, it seems that the worse he does, the more popular he gets.

This is Johnson’s cunning plan. A speedy election putting the Tories back with a solid majority, no longer dependant on the DUP and ERG. Johnson believes in nothing as deeply as he believes in his destiny to lead.

Much of the analysis of Johnson’s recent Backstop replacement pitch has concluded, wrongly in my opinion, that it is solely motivated by a desire to deliver a No Deal Brexit where the EU gets the blame.

There is some truth to this analysis, but the proposal has more depth to it than just this. We do ourselves no favours by not considering its underlying strategy.

Without question the latest British proposals do not satisfy Irish or EU demands for the protection of the Good Friday Agreement, but they are not intended to. The British have moved, not compromised, and have done it for a reason.

The proposal are not about dismantling the Backstop per se, it is about turning back the clock and rerunning the negotiations with the benefit of hindsight.

When the negotiation process started in April 2017 the UK and EU agreed it would be done in two phases. The first phase would deal with the “divorce” issues arising from the UK leaving the EU and would have three distinct elements:

* Guaranteeing citizens’ rights for EU citizens in the UK and vice-versa;

* Settling the UK’s financial commitments;

* Ireland and Northern Ireland specific issues.

Only when full agreement on these three topics was reached could negotiations move to Phase 2. Phase would deal with the future relationships between the EU and UK.

We are still at the Northern Ireland element of phase 1. 

Hard line Brexiteers, including some in Cabinet, opposed May agreeing to this timetable and sequence seeing it as a grave tactical error.

They saw the requirement to agree Irish Border issues in Phase 1 as depriving them of having the border as negotiating leverage in the future trading talks in Phase 2.

Now that the Brexiteers hold sway in Number 10 they are determined to unpick the process. The latest British proposal is their attempt to turn back the clock and move the resolution of the Irish border from Phase 1 to Phase 2.

While they may claim that kicking the fine detail of Irish border arrangements past the withdrawal agreement is because the issue is so complex and tied up with future EU/UK trading relationships, it is all about leverage.

It is why Brexiteers like Rees-Mogg and Mark Francois have fetishised the Backstop. This had nothing to do with concern for Northern Ireland, the consent of Stormont or the precious union, but had all to do instead with Britain, i.e. England, competing with the EU after Brexit as a Singapore-Sur-Thames.

The Backstop never posed a threat to Northern Ireland’s constitutional position, but Brexiteers knew they needed a highly charged argument on which to focus if they were to undo May’s denial of the border as leverage.

They quickly identified the Backstop as that focus and set about hyper charging a straight-forward matter into an issue of constitutional consequence.

How could the Backstop be such a threat when it has only ever been an insurance policy to ensure the commitments (at Paragraph 49 of 2017 EU/UK joint report) made by the British government to support the all-island economy and North/South alignment were honoured. It says:

In the absence of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement.

The chances of the Backstop ever being invoked were intended to be quite low. It is only come into effect if the UK went for maximum realignment and divergence from existing EU rules and regulations.

We now know that this is precisely the route Johnson, and his financial backers, plan to go. He even said it in his August letter to EU Council President Donald Tusk, twice even:

“…the laws and regulations to deliver them will potentially diverge from those of the EU. That is the point of our exit and our ability to enable this is central to our future democracy.”

“…we cannot continue to endorse the specific commitment, in paragraph 49 of the December 2017 Joint Report, to ‘full alignment’ with wide areas of the single market and the customs union.”

His solution is to therefore offer vague and hazy, last minute proposals in the hope that an EU eager to avoid a no-deal speedily inserts them into Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement in place of the existing Northern Ireland protocols.

It’s a risky strategy. He may feel he can pull it off by stressing to the EU that he can get his version through Parliament and that the EU will get the twin benefits of (i) avoiding the mayhem of a no-deal-crash out and (ii) a future British negotiating partner (post UK election) with a majority to deliver what they agree at talks.

It is not a totally unattractive package, but Johnson is still the one who gets the most. He secures his position for five more years, goes down in political history as the man who delivered Brexit, but most importantly he gets the leverage he vitally needs in Phase 2.

He knows the EU is committed to protecting the Good Friday Agreement and he is happy to do that in Phase 2 in return for a trade deal that benefits England.

The ease with which he has proposed two borders is the giveaway. The border in the Irish Sea to protect the EU Single Market is a hint of how much further he is prepared to go. The Customs Border across the island is just there to be negotiated away.

Brexit Secretary, Stephen Barclay was keen to remind Marr yesterday that:

“…we are talking about 1% of the total UK-EU trade, so there needs to be a degree of proportionality about this.”

The 1% refers to Northern Ireland trade.

Barclay and David Frost, Johnson’s lead Brexit negotiator have spent weeks touring EU capitals, including Dublin. They have heard Irish concerns on protecting the all-island agri-food sector and heeded it, hence the Single Market protections they have foisted on the DUP.

What the DUP seems to have not yet realised is that this is all just a ploy.

What Johnson wants and needs is a Phase 2 process free of any dependence on the DUP or their Brexiteer allies.

Then he can deliver the Northern Ireland only backstop that May agreed, or something similar, but at a much higher price.

It’s quite a smart strategy from an English Tory point of view, but it is not one that will work. It won’t work because it repeats the same basic mistake that the UK has made since day one, it misreads the EU and fails to understand how it works.

Still, you cannot help admiring Johnson’s sheer brazenness in trying 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 Monday.Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney

Pic: PA wire

From top: Bus queue in central Dublin; Derek Mooney

Benny Hill observed: you can sit on top of a mountain, but you can’t sit on top of a pin. Classical Roman poet, Ovid, put it a little more philosophically, remarking that: “dripping water hollows out stone, not through force but through persistence”, but it was the late Albert Reynolds who put it best, saying: it’s the little things that trip you up.

You know the type of thing, the everyday irritants that eventually get to you and send you over edge.

For me, last week, it was the total mess that is Dublin’s public transport.

Bad enough that the fares are prohibitive – Deutsche Bank’s 2019 annual survey of global prices and living standards declared Dublin the second most expensive city for public transport in the world – but does it have to be so unreliable too?

With only London having higher fares, Dublin is now more expensive than Amsterdam, Chicago, New York, or even Tokyo, ask a Fine Gael Senator if you doubt that last one.

We have managed to fashion a public transport system with higher fares than Tokyo’s and reliability levels not much above Manila’s.

This was brought home to me with a trio of bus fiascos.

The first came on Monday afternoon via a short bus trip to Blackrock [County Dublin]. I live along the Stillorgan Road (N11) bus corridor, reckoned to be one of the best served routes.

The bus to Blackrock is the #17, now operated by Go Ahead Ireland. The journey there was unremarkable, the problem came with the journey back.

After doing my various errands I was ready to head home around 3:30pm. I checked the TfI (Transport for Ireland) App and saw that the next #17 was due in 3 mins. Great, I thought, and I headed to the Frescati shopping centre bus-stop and waited.

And I waited.

And I waited.

I tweeted the details a few days later. Long story short: a 1 minute wait on the App, turned into a 16 minute wait in real time. Across that waiting time the App showed the #17 on a serial loop of: “1 minute away”, “due”, “1 minute away”, disappeared, reappeared and back to 1 min away.

What is the point of having a real time display, apart from giving Scottish stand–up Larry Dean a very funny routine, if it is only going to have an Einstein’s relativity connectiveness to real time?

Incident two was more old school: the old stealth bus ploy. This is where the bus exists on the App and the display-board, just not in this dimension.

It was on Friday. I was meeting a colleague in town at 2.30pm and headed to catch a bus around 1.30pm. I got to the stop and saw that a 46A was due in 5 mins. “Grand”, I thought and waited while I watched the arrival time on the display count backwards from 5 to 4 to 3 to 2 to 1 minutes. The fact that this process took just over 10 minutes is not part of my complaint, just an interesting aside.

The display eventually showed the 46A as “due” or “ann”. I headed to the kerb to greet it. Anyone familiar with this stretch of the N11 will know that it is relatively straight, so you can see the bus coming from a good distance back. You can even see the preceding stop. I could also see that there was no 46A there.

I reasonably assumed if it was due at our stop it must be due there too – assuming there is no break in the space-time continuum between stops number 2068 and 2096.

But there was no sign of it. After a few minutes the announcement of its imminent arrival disappeared from the App and the time-display. A minute later two “out of services” buses passed.

According to the Dublin Bus timetable, the 46A runs every 8 minutes during the day. I was now at the stop for 18 minutes, so I rang the Dublin Bus helpline. They told me that the next bus was due in 8 to 10 minutes but had no idea about any the whereabouts of the earlier one.

A bus arrived 10 miutes later. What should’ve been a 6-8 minute wait turned into a 30 minute one, but at least I could get on the bus when it did show up.

This was not the case on Saturday night. The two of us were heading to the National Concert Hall. As we planned to grab a few drinks before the show we got to the bus stop at 6.20pm. we thought this would leave us plenty of time. Oh, our naivety.

Arriving at the stop we saw on the display that a #145 bus was due in 12 minutes. Rather than drag you though the minute by minute of the next hour or so, I will give you a highly condensed version.

The bus which was due in 12 minutes arrived 30 plus minutes later, not that this mattered as it was so already overcrowded that it was not taking on any passengers. Neither was the next one which followed it some 12 minutes later.

Checking the TfI I found that Dublin Bus had cancelled four successive buses due to run between 6.30pm and 7.06pm (see screen grabs here and here). So, instead of the six buses due in that time, there were just two, hence why both were so slow to arrive and overcrowded.

By the time it dawned on us that getting a bus was a forlorn hope and we started to look for a taxi, most of the fifteen or so other people at the stop had decided to do the same thing, just as the dozens more at the other stops had probably also decided.

Not only were there no free taxis available to hail along the N11, there were none responding on FreeNow (the taxi app successor to Mytaxi, about which I have moaned here previously).

Net result: over one hour wasted at a bus-stop and €67 wasted on two tickets for the NCH that were not used.

In the greater scheme of Dublin’s dysfunctions these things hardly rate a mention. None of what I have chronicled here is as remotely soul destroying as this city’s appalling housing and rental crisis, nor as harrowing as the state of our public health service.

But, the fact that such stories of the unreliability and inadequacy of public transport, privatised and semi-state, barely register should itself be a concern.

There is now almost no area or facet of Dublin’s infrastructure that is not close to breaking point.

I regularly hear from clients and colleagues about the difficulties they encounter in attracting young talented people to come live and work in Dublin as people are hearing about the spiraling cost of living and declining quality of life here.

We are pushing so much of this city’s infrastructure so far beyond any reasonable point of endurance that we put Dublin’s future as a good place to live in grave risk.

I am very proud of my city and want to continue feeing that way, but to do this politicians and policy makers from across the spectrum will have to come up with radical plans to make this a viable place in which people can both live and work.

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


From top: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister for Social Protection and Employment Affairs Regina Doherty

Twenty years ago (last Sunday) the first ever episode of The West Wing premiered on US TV.

Though anyone who has ever served in government can confirm that The Thick of It or Yes, Minister are more realistic portrayals of life along the corridors of power, The West Wing still represents the ideal, the way we would like to think it is.

This is due, in part, to the excellent characterisations, but it is mainly down to the quality of writing. The dialogue not only fizzed, it was informed by actual policy debates.

There were prescient. Much of it is still cogent despite all that has happened in the intervening two decades.

Take this Sam Seaborn discourse from Episode 9 of Season 1. The President’s aides are discussing the views of possible contenders for a Supreme Court vacancy when Sam says:

“It’s not just about abortion, it’s about the next 20 years. In the ’20s and ’30s it was the role of government. ’50s and ’60s it was civil rights. The next two decades are going to be privacy. I’m talking about the Internet. I’m talking about cell phones. I’m talking about health records and who’s gay and who’s not. And moreover, in a country born on the will to be free, what could be more fundamental than this?”

Two decades later and privacy is still a critical political issue. We don’t always refer to it as privacy, sometimes we call it data privacy or protection, but it is the same thing.

Use the word “information” in place of “data” and you realise how fundamental it is to life in this ever more digitalised world.

Two statistics highlight the vital importance of Data Privacy/Data Protection to Ireland.

The first is that 40% of all of the EU’s personal data is stored here.

Think about that. We account for 1% of the EU’s population, but we store 40% of its personal data.

That makes data a critical economic issue for Ireland – one that is set to increase post Brexit. A hard Brexit would dramatically limit data transfers between the EU and UK (UK would be outside the scope of the EU’s data protection regime).

Data is not just an issue for the big tech giants or social media platforms. Data processing and transfers are commonplace and essential to all businesses, large and small. The digital revolution has transformed all our lives.

Yet a series of serious, glaring, unforced errors by this government show that the folks around the Cabinet table have not yet grasped the critical national importance of data protection.

(Though not as serious as the examples to follow, let me also refer you back to my story about the mess made in 2014 of the appointment of a Junior Minister for Data Protection)

This is not just an issue that the EU can deal with and leave us alone. This is an issue and a moment where we must stop being the slowest mover.

The ongoing saga of the Personal Services Card is a case in point. I have no issue with the State having social welfare ID cards. It makes sense and works efficiently for most who use it.

But one of the core principles of data protection is that personal data is only used for the express purposes for which consent was given. Data expressly given to Welfare is for the use of Welfare. It is black letter law.

It is the rule we insist is applied to private companies who hold our data and the standard must not be lower for the State or any of its agencies.

The Taoiseach’s glib response to the negative report on the PSC from the State’s Data Protection Commission, saying that he will just change the law is not just infuriating, it is idiotic.

To quote from the Data Protection Commission’s statement:

A total of eight findings are made in the report. Three of those relate to the legal basis issue; the remaining five relate to issues around transparency. S

even of the eight findings are adverse to positions advanced by the Department, insofar as the DPC has found that there is, or has been, non-compliance with the applicable provisions of data protection law.

So, in seven out of the eight areas examined, the DPC found that the State had breached its own laws.

It is not good enough for the Taoiseach to come back and say… meh, I will change those laws.

We cannot allow the message to be sent to the rest of the EU, never mind the world, that the Irish State has a laissez-faire attitude to the protection and integrity of personal data.

The message we should be sending is that we have rules, strong rules and that we are ready to enforce them equally against all entities, public or private.

It is this area, implementation and enforcement, that brings me to the second key data statistic I wish to discuss.

Earlier I mentioned that 40% of the EU’s personal data is stored here. That makes us an increasing cyber target. Last year Ireland was the sixth most cyber-attacked country in the EU.

According to the European Parliamentary Research Service every day more than 6 million data records are stolen or lost worldwide and over 4,000 ransomware attacks are launched.

These attacks cost the European economy hundreds of billions of euros. They not only affect corporations and private entities, they affect critical infrastructure, such as hospitals, transport and information systems.

And what is Ireland’s response to this incresaing threat to a sector that is growing daily in its strategic importance? Almost nothing.

As a senior IT security specialist remarked some months back, we leave the protection of critical economic resources infrastructure to a few private militias.  Facebook, Google etc. spend hundreds of millions on their data security systems while the State struggles to put even the barest protections in place.

The National Cyber Security Strategy is now over two years out of date. It should have been updated in 2017. Work only started early this year and, according to the Department’s website:

“An updated National Cyber Security Strategy will be published later in 2019”

We have no central cyber agency or national security agency. Our Defence Forces are the experts at national defence and should have the central role in national cybersecurity, but they are being pushed aside instead.

Under the civil/military co-operation process set out in the above mentioned 2015 national cybersecurity plan, there is an SLA (service level agreement) in place for Defence Forces support, but the Junior Defence Minister Paul Kehoe has rendered this meaningless, telling Jack Chambers TD in the Dáil that:

“The Defence Forces provide seconded specialists to assist with the work of CSIRT-IE when resources allow.”

We know from the Comptroller and Auditor General’s report that the cyberunit in the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment is not fit for purpose and the Defence Forces cannot fulfil its SLA obligations due to the depletion of qualified defence force staffs across this and many other specialist areas.

Cybersecurity and Cyber resilience are areas where Ireland can and must be to the fore, but instead the government is making us a backmarker. More The Thick of It than the West Wing.

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


From top: Taoiseach and leader of Fine Gael, Leo Varadkar wth members of the Parliamentery Party at the annual FG Autumn Think-In, at the Garryvoe Hotel in East Cork last week; Derek Mooney.

Conventional political wisdom used to say that the parties in government welcomed long Dáil recesses.

Not only did they free Ministers up from having to hang around Leinster House answering awkward questions, on and off the record, from smartass opposition TDs, irritating journos and panicking backbenchers, they were a time for the government parties to get back on message and hopefully get their poll numbers up.

The idea was that Dáil sittings broadly tend to favour the main opposition parties when it comes to opinion polls, as their insolent haranguing of the Taoiseach is featured nightly on the TV news.

Dáil recess means no Dáil TV coverage and no Dáil TV coverage means less of a platform for the opposition to catch the news cycle.

The high visibility, and audibility, of the Taoiseach over the summer would suggest that his team subscribe to this wisdom. He was seen to be out and about. His appearances at the Kennedy and MacGill Summer Schools and the West Belfast Féile an Phobail went down well.

He was well received by the audiences at all three and got plenty of column inches and airtime on foot of them. Not to mention his bravura Athena performance greeting Boris Johnson at government buildings two weeks ago.

The Taoiseach had a good summer. He used the Dáil recess to maximum effect. With no Dáil platform for Micheál Martin and with Mary Lou MacDonald still reeling from the decimation of the Local and European elections, not to mention the brewing row in Northern Ireland on the direction in which she is taking the party, the Fine Gael media operation virtually had the place to themselves.

All of which makes the latest Red C polling numbers so worrying for Fine Gael.

They show Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael neck and neck in the run up to an election which the Taoiseach says is no more than eight months away, but which many suspect will be done and dusted by then. (As an aside – the Taoiseach first publicly confirmed the May 2020 election timeline at the Kennedy Summer School.)

The poll confirms something I discussed here at the end of April. Back then I was writing about a B&A/Sunday Times poll.

At that point 45 out of the 46 polls conducted since July 2017 had Fine Gael ahead of Fianna Fáil. The B&A/Sunday Times poll was the first national opinion poll to put Fianna Fáil ahead.

I wondered if those results would be repeated in the May 2019 local elections and said, if they were, that they would mark the first big shift in public opinion since Leo Varadkar became FG leader and Taoiseach in June 2017.

The Local elections broadly confirmed the B&A/Sunday Times poll. They saw Fianna Fáil get 27% of the first preference vote, ahead of Fine Gael on a little over 25% and Sinn Féin on just under 10%. And now we have this Red C poll to confirm the trend.

What will worry the Fine Gael strategists even more than their disappointing poll numbers is the emergence of new domestic issues where the government is seen to be floundering and ineffectual.

They already had the twin sagas of housing and health, now they have the beef crisis and the Personal Services Card debacle.

I do not include Brexit on this list, not because it is not a potential crisis of immense proportions, but because the backroom strategists will not see it as an electoral negative for Fine Gael right now.

As Red C’s Richard Colwell argues in his analysis of the latest poll:

“Fine Gael have been seen to perform well throughout the negotiations and are seen as safe pair of hands with regard to Brexit… Even a third of Fianna Fail voters see Varadkar as the best option to lead on Brexit.”

At a time when the domestic political agenda is slipping away from him and his government is perceived as a do-nothing administration, Brexit could be perversely seen as one of the very few bright political spots on Varadkar’s horizon.

Almost everything Varadkar and his government do over the coming months must factor-in Brexit. But as they are not in control of Brexit. Their scope to yield political benefits are, at best limited. All Varadkar can do is manage his political responses to events.

This includes the holding of the four by-elections following the election of Billy Kelleher, Frances Fitzgerald, Mick Wallace and Clare Daly to the European Parliament.

The opposition would like to see the four by-elections held before Christmas, ideally in November.

Whether the government would be equally as thrilled is another matter, though it knows it cannot forestall their holding and it is probably better to get the pain of three or four defeats in one day out of the way sooner rather than later.

Indeed there was talk up to a few days ago that they might be held alongside a referendum to extend voting rights in Presidential Elections to Irish citizens in Northern Ireland and beyond (the Bill providing for such a change has just been published by the government).

These plans seem to have hit the rocks. It is said that the detailed work to implement such a change is behind schedule.

This may be fortuitous. It was not the wisest move to think about holding a referendum to extend voting rights to the North, even if only just in presidential election, just at the moment when the Brexit debate is at its most febrile.

But when is there ever a good time to talk about anything when Brexit looms on the horizon? Not anytime soon, it seems.

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


From top: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (right) with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the taoiseach’s office at Government Buildings, Dublin yesterday; Derek Mooney

Boris Johnson came to call on us,

He wanted to tell all of us,

Brexit won’t put a wall ‘round us, it’s frictionless.

Not so, says Leo back to him.

We’re waitin’ for some facts from ‘em,

So it’s the Backstop we’ll be backing then, Athena.

Take him up to Monto, Monto, Monto…

If you listen closely you can just hear the ghost of George Hodnett groan at the thought of his comic folk song “Monto” having my pitiful new verse inflicted upon it.

Nonetheless, commemorating the visit of the reigning contender for the twin titles of worst and last ever UK Prime Minister to our fair city, in verse does somehow seem appropriate.

To be fair, Prime Minister Johnson did not make a show of himself… well, not by his recent standards. His remarks were coherent and almost relevant. They bordered on emollient:

“I have one message that I want to land with you today, Leo, that is I want to find a deal, I want to get a deal”.

The pity is that none of what he said amounted to a plan. Instead we got the usual Johnson line about the UK never imposing checks along the border, but nothing about how this plays out in the no-deal Brexit for which so many in his party yearn.

Johnson had even less to say about the other direct and dire consequence of an October 31 no-deal Brexit, the imposition of Direct Rule in Northern Ireland on November 1. Such a unilateral move would torpedo the Good Friday Agreement.

Through a mixture of waffle, grimaces and curious arm exercises Johnson ignored Tommy Gorman’s direct question on direct rule.

An Taoiseach did not.

Varadkar was candid, saying: “the Irish government will oppose the reintroduction of direct rule were that to happen”, adding that it would be contrary to the Good Friday and St Andrews Agreements.

The introduction of Direct Rule in Northern Ireland has been a live issue for months, particularly since a leaked April memo that quoted UK cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill, as saying:

“The current powers granted to the Northern Irish secretary would not be adequate for the pace, breadth or controversy of the decisions needed to be taken through a no-deal exit. Therefore we would have to introduce direct rule.”

Sedwill’s analysis was later confirmed by the former Deputy Prime Minister David Lidington MP at a Westminster parliamentary committee and again last week on BBC radio’s Today Show.

Let’s be clear. A unilateral move by the British to impose Direct Rule would up-end three decades of progress. Ireland cannot countenance a British solo run. No ifs, buts or maybes.

While An Taoiseach did say yesterday that he would want a consultative role for Dublin under the Good Friday Agreement, as with previous comments he did not indicate how Dublin would act to protect the Good Friday Agreement from such an egregious attack.

His caveat that “ultimately, it will be the responsibility of the sovereign government, which is the UK, to manage affairs in Northern Ireland” goes the opposite direction. It risks allowing Johnson to surmise that Ireland will “wait and see” and may only respond after the fact.

We do have options, after the fact, powerful ones. As Varadkar told Johnson yesterday:

“…the story of Brexit won’t end if the UK leaves the EU on October 31st or January 31st…We all have to deal with issues like tariffs and state aid, ratified by 28 governments.”

It is a repeat of what the outgoing EU Commission President, Jean Claude Juncker told the European Parliament last April:

“…whatever happens, the UK will still be expected to address the three main separation issues.

· Citizens’ rights would still need to be upheld and protected.

· The UK would still have to honour its financial commitments made as a Member State.

· And thirdly, a solution would still need to be found on the island of Ireland that preserves peace and the internal market. The UK must fully respect the letter and spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. [My emphasis]

“No-deal” does not mean no commitments. And these three issues will not go away.”

Both statement are reminders to the UK that negotiations after a no deal Brexit will focus on the same issues, but with one important difference; they will not be run under Article 50 of the EU Treaties. That covers EU members quitting the EU.

As a third country outside the EU future talks would be conducted under Article 218. This is the 27 member-states and the European Parliament a veto over any UK deal. It’s a higher bar than Article 50.

That means a future Dáil could reflect on the damage done by the UK to, borrowing President Juncker’s phrase, the letter and spirit of the Good Friday Agreement when considering the deal.

But our approach is not limited to responding after the fact.

There is an active option available now to both governments, though Irish statecraft will have to drag or cajole the Brits to get to it. It is to resurrect the detailed partnership proposals (Plan B) announced by Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair in their joint statement of April 6th 2006.

Their response to the political challenges to devolution was to take their shared stewardship of the Good Friday Agreement seriously and declare that:

We are beginning detailed work on British-Irish partnership arrangements that will be necessary in these circumstances to ensure that the Good Friday Agreement, which is the indispensable framework for relations on and between these islands, is actively developed across its structures and functions. This work will be shaped by the commitment of both Governments to a step-change in advancing North-South co-operation and action for the benefit of all.

The timeline section (Annex D) of the St Andrews Agreement repeated the warning to all parties that there was a Plan B alternative to simple Direct Rule:

“…failure to agree at any stage, and the Governments will take forward new partnership arrangements on the basis previously announced.”

This time around it is the British government, a minority British government at that, which needs to heed this warning. As has been the case at every crisis point in Northern Ireland over the past twenty plus years, the only way forward is partnership between the two governments.

That remains the case now even though one of the parties is opting to take itself outside the wider partnership within the EU.

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