Author Archives: Derek Mooney

From top: Fianna Fáil Seanad Leader Catherine Ardagh (right) with party leader Micheál Martin (centre) and Director of Elections Dara Calleary; Derek Mooney

At midday today the second act of the 2020 General Election drama will start to be played out.

At that time, at the Printworks hall in Dublin Castle, Oireachtas officials will commence the process of counting Seanad election votes.

The count, or should I more correctly say counts – plural, are expected to run until Friday evening. They will decide the identity of the 43 senators who will serve on the Seanad’s five vocational panels. (Seanad election infographic here).

The Oireachtas communication team will be posting updates from the count via a special webpage and on social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Linkedin.

Updates from the university panel counts, will be found on the National University of Ireland website and the Trinity College Dublin website.

In previous years the count was run in the members’ dining room in Leinster House, but it is being shifted to a larger venue to ensure that counters and officials can fully and safely observe the coronavirus physical distancing protocols as they go through the ballots sent by in the 1150 voters.

Despite the people’s October 2013 decision to reject Seanad abolition and opt for reform, the 26th Seanad will be elected, once again, by a narrow electorate comprising:

(a) For the 43 seats vocational panel seats: 949 city and county councillors plus 160 members of the incoming Dáil and around 50 outgoing Senators, and

(b) For the 6 university seats: Graduates of TCD and NUI

Don’t worry, I don’t intend to launch into a Seanad Reform spiel here. Suffice to say now that this is not what those who defeated the government in 2013 wanted to see.

Several alternative models to elect the Seanad by public franchise, none of which required a referendum, were suggested by the late Feargal Quinn, the late Noel Whelan, Prof John Crown, Katherine Zappone and Michael McDowell. But the losing side in 2013 managed to stymie any progress.

Imagine that, the losing side in an election still getting to call the shots afterwards. It couldn’t happen today… could it?

In politics, as in life, you play the cards you are dealt and that means making the most of what this week’s counts bring.

Looking just at the electors for the 43 seats across the 5 vocational panels (think of panels as constituencies) Fianna Fáil with approx. 330 voters (i.e. elected reps who take the party whip) and Fine Gael on approx. 310, should each have enough to win up to 16 seats.

The problem for both is that this was also the case in 2016 when Fianna Fáil only won 14 seats and Fine Gael 13. This despite 20-25% of independent councillors backing their candidates.

Poor candidate strategies and bad vote management in 2016 cost them both seats. There’s no evidence to suggest it’s going to be any different this time. A point I will return to presently.

But first let me highlight something that often gets lost in these discussions. The issue is not just that the current electorate is narrow and purely political – all public representatives – but that the mandate of 85% of them long predates this election.

The situation facing Sinn Féin in the Seanad election neatly demonstrates this conundrum. Though it performed remarkably in February’s Dáil election, that influences less than 15% of the outcome.

The 160 TDs elected in February 2020 account for just 14% of the Seanad Electorate. The remaining 86% were either elected in 2016 (outgoing Senators), or they were elected at the 2019 Local Election – 949 Councillors (including co-optees).

So, as Sinn Féin lost half of its seats (78) last May, it faces into the Seanad count with six sitting Senators and only enough support (around 120 votes) for four seats, five at a huge push. S

o, despite a Feb 2020 surge which saw it almost tie with Fianna Fáil and ahead of
Fine Gael, Sinn Féin will finish up with fewer seats in this Seanad than it had in the last one.

Far be it from me to argue for more Sinn Féin seats, but even a desperate partisan like me can see that this makes no sense.

The count will also show if independents are willing to vote for other. I would be surprised if they see much improvement in their numbers on the vocational panels. Most independents in the next Seanad, as has been the case, will come via the Universities route.

The thing to watch out for with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael is not whether they pick up the seats they missed out on in 2016, but whether all the candidates identified as being favoured their respective leaderships succeed.

A few weeks back, in the immediate aftermath of a dreadful election, Varadkar would have feared the wrath of Fine Gael Councillors. But, right now, improving poll numbers and the perception that he is handling the COVID-19 crisis well may just see his slate of favoured Fine Gael candidates do OK..

But what about Micheál Martin?

Be in no doubt, there is real anger across Fianna Fáil – and much of that is directed at the leader. Activists are unhappy. Not all of them, but a sizeable number.Yesterday’s Business Post/ Red C poll will not have helped the mood. Martin’s entourage will be relieved that the ballots were already in the post when those numbers emerged.

Martin’s councillors are not just dissatisfied with how the national general election campaign was run, but also with the behaviour of the Fianna Fáil leadership since then.

A sizeable number want to send a signal to Martin and to party HQ that they want change. One way to do this, in this age of no party gatherings or assemblies, is to establish which Seanad hopefuls the party leader wants to see elected…. and vote for their Fianna Fáil rivals.

The perception that someone is close to or is favoured by leadership may prove a major drag factor this time.

Doubtless many Councillors and TDs will loyally do the leader’s bidding. It’s not exactly a chore when so many of the candidates are not just defeated TDs but well liked defeated first-time TDs.

Indeed, only one of the defeated TDs running for the Seanad was a TD prior to 2016. But politics is a tough business and the anger felt within Fianna Fáil is going to mean collateral damage.

The first panel to be counted tomorrow is Cultural and Educational. It’s the smallest one with just five seats. Fianna Fáil has the votes to win two seats out of the five, but there are six Fianna Fáil candidates. Which of the six make it will be very telling

Will any of this influence Micheál Martin? Probably not.

Despite the advice of many loyal and sincere Fianna Fáil-ers inside and outside of Leinster House, Martin still stubbornly sets his face against the idea of a national government.

Instead he presses ahead with his preferred option of an FF/FG/Green/Ind government with a fervour he never mustered in the campaign debates.

Almost two months after the general election and on the eve of a Seanad count it is still sadly clear that neither Martin nor his attendants have yet studied why they did so badly in the election. If they have, then they are showing no signs of it.

While the Covid-19 crisis will have shredded all the plans and promises made in GE2020, Martin’s Fianna Fáil still needs to grasp why so many voters who had looked like they were prepared to back Fianna Fáil at the outset of the campaign, decided during it to go the other direction.

It also needs to examine why what it has been doing since the campaign is only serving to worse that situation.

The notion that Martin and Co can put all this right when they are safely embedded in Government with Fine Gael is beyond naïve.

Almost as naïve as thinking that a government with so many different parts, factions and antagonisms will hold together for the time Varadkar needs to complete his first rotation as Taoiseach and Martin gets his go… assuming, of course, that Martin can stay on long enough as Fianna Fáil leader to let that happen.

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: US President Donald Trump (centre) during a Coronavirus Task Force news conference in the White House; Corona is replaced by ‘Chinese’ in President Trump’s script;  Derek Mooney

According to the haggard old proverb: “even a stopped clock is right twice a day.”

The current US President can only dream of attaining even this level of accidental consistency.

After months of denying the threat posed by Coronavirus, even to the point of putting the blame for its arrival in the U.S. on “the Democrat policy of open borders” (See this NYTimes timeline of Trump’s statements) the current U.S. President seems, finally, to have had the realisation imposed upon him that Coronavirus is a real and present danger.

Not that something as hazardous or deadly serious as the worst global pandemic in a century is going to stop Trump from scoring political points.

Along with changing his messaging, Trump has also changed his language. Up to two weeks ago – when he was still denying the seriousness of the situation – he was content to call the threat by its proper name: Coronavirus or Covid19.

No longer. Now that the public spotlight has turned on to the weeks and months of his administration’s negligence and indifference Trump has found a new name for the disease: the Chinese Virus.

Trump now stubbornly refuses to call it Coronavirus, using the phrase Chinese virus instead. Indeed, during last Thursday’s daily coronavirus task force briefing, the Washington Post’s photographer Jabin Botsford snapped this image of President Donald Trump’s speaking notes.

They show the word ”Corona” crossed out from the official typed script and the word ”Chinese” put in its place, in what looks like Trump’s trademark sharpie handwriting.

When challenged by reporters about his repeated use of the phrase and asked if he thought this was racist, Trump said:

“It’s not racist at all, no, not at all. It comes from China, that’s why. I want to be accurate. …I have great love for all of the people from our country, but as you know China tried to say at one point … that it was caused by American soldiers… It comes from China.”

Though he probably does not know it, Trump is resurrecting an age-old trope. One with origins in a sexually transmitted infection!

Back in the 16th and 17th centuries, countries hit with a syphilis infection blamed enemy countries for the outbreak. Italians, Germans and English called it ‘the French disease’.

The French named it ‘the Neapolitan disease’. The Russians called it the ‘Polish disease’, so the Poles called it ‘the German disease’. The Danish, the Portuguese and Northern Africans named it ‘the Spanish/Castilian disease’ while the Turks spread the blame wider calling it ‘Christian disease’.

Whatever the etymology, you don’t need a masters’ degree in political science to work out Trump’s intention. He wants… no, in this election year… he needs, to distract from the glaring inadequacy of his failed response by shamelessly and recklessly scapegoating an entire race.

He does not care one jot that his crass politicking is fuelling and licensing racism and xenophobia, all he cares about is getting the focus off him.

It is his standard operational response where he feels politically threatened or in electoral danger. He finds a target, preferably a minority group or race, on which he can pin blame, no matter how ludicrous. The fact that racism is his first go-to-response in these situations tells us as much about the state of race relations in the US as it does about Trump.

The problem in this case is not that he is right, he clearly isn’t, but that his crude politicking is deflecting from a valid point, namely that the negligence and indifference of the Chinese State authorities, and that means the Chinese Communist Party, made this situation worse.

A regional infection quickly became a global pandemic as a consequence of their two-step strategy of blanket denial and blame avoidance.

Beijing’s initial response was no less crass or ignorant than Trump’s. When the late Dr Li Wenliang posted warnings, on a medical group-chat in December 2019, of a virus hitting Wuhan which he thought resembled Sars; he was told by police to “stop making false comments” and reprimanded for “spreading rumours”.

Dr Li’s death of Covid-19 in early February sparked public outrage in China. The volume of online posts blaming the Chinese Communist Party was so great that China’s internet censors were overwhelmed. The Communist leadership saw that blank denial was not working. They switched tack and launched an anti-corruption agency investigation …into the problems reported by the public concerning Doctor Li Wenliang” .

The investigators published their report late last week. A classic …on the one hand, but on the other… whitewash. They found Dr Li was a professional who fought bravely and made sacrifices.

They withdrew the reprimand but said his findings were “not consistent with the actual situation at the time”. The only action recommended was to name and shame the police who reprimanded Dr Li for not following correct procedures.

Needless to add the report is being met with as much anger as the news of Dr Li’s death. Meanwhile, and this is where the Trump stopped clock comes into play, official Chinese government spokespeople, notably Lijian Zhao, Deputy Director General of China’s Information Department, have been busy doing to the United States what Trump is doing to China.

Zhao is the official cited by Trump as saying that US troops were responsible for the Coronavirus outbreak.

Zhao’s Twitter timeline is so crammed with disinformation, lies and propaganda it would make a Shinnerbot blush.

Included are links to #FakeNews sources claiming US military participation in the World military games in Wuhan was behind Coronavirus. One says:

At the 7th Military World Games (October 18-27, 2019) held in Wuhan, why did the U.S. team (369 members) win ZERO gold medal? Did that even look like a reasonable record for the world’s leading military power?Did your government do it on purpose? Was anyone among the 369 participants ever (mis)diagnosed with influenza? Was it possible they were carriers of the novel coronavirus? The best thing for the U.S. now is to stop burying its head in the sand and give the 369 people PCT tests to see if they are infected.

China is not the only authoritarian regime more driven by avoiding public panic and retaining their own authority, than with public health and safety.

Neither is it the only one engaged in a propaganda battle to cover its own negligence. Russian political activist Garry Kasparov castigated CNN on Saturday for unquestioningly accepting Putin’s propaganda that Russia’s infection numbers are low, saying:

“the Russian numbers are “low” because they are lying. They are always lying until proven otherwise. They don’t take down misinformation, they take down the truth. I’m furious”.

In terms of both intent and effect there is no difference between what either Trump, Xi or Putin have done.

Though it is clear Coronavirus started in China and is not some conspiratorial plot, when it comes to those impacted it does not matter where Coronavirus originated.

Trump, Xi Putin… and others have jeopardised the health of their own people and, in this era of globalisation, that means they have risked ours too.

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

Getty

From top: Dublin city centre on Saturday; Derek Mooney

Veteran vaudevillian comedian George Burns used to ask:

“why is it the guys who really know how to run the country are cutting hair and driving cabs”?

Whether you call them hurlers on the ditch, Monday quarter-backs or that prick at the end of the bar-counter, there have always been (and will always be) those bolshie, mouthy gits who, in the words of the great Brendan Behan, go about like eunuchs in a harem seeing others doing but knowing they can’t do it themselves.

Most are irritating but essentially harmless nuisances, even the ones who manage to discover how to use social media.

But there are others. Those who go that bit further. Those whose malicious intent is less easy to spot in an online era of nonchalant cynicism and aloof detachment.

The Covid-19 crisis is a god send for them. The constant hunger for information, any information, gives them a golden opportunity to peddle their anonymous, conspiratorial garbage. No claim is too ridiculous or nonsensical for them not to push out there.

We saw several local examples of it online over the weekend.

One was the widespread dissemination of a WhatsApp voicenote purporting to feature a Dublin accented member of the Defence Forces telling fellow soldiers to “be in the barracks” early on Monday morning for an “Status Red” emergency lockdown that would be announced by the Taoiseach at 8am.

I was amazed to be sent the recording by a colleague who sincerely thought it was genuine. Though I immediately knew it was fake, I still had to take a minute to double check before telling my colleague that it was utter bullshit.

Another, even more malicious and nasty hoax was highlighted on Sunday evening by the Infectious Diseases Society of Ireland (IDS). They reported on Twitter that there was a fake message being circulated on WhatsApp which purported to come from IDS consultants in Cork.

While most of the responses praised the IDS account for calling out the hoax and rightly bemoaned the recklessness of those behind it, there were some who wanted to know what the misinformation was and wondered if the hoaxer may have a valid point.

The virtual world is full of willing idiots.

The final example came as I sat down to start writing this column. I was barely two paragraphs into typing this piece when a very good friend in Northern Ireland texted me to ask if I was aware of the fake rumours flying around WhatsApp, Twitter and elsewhere, claiming that the Irish Defence Forces were ready to seal off the border.

I checked online, and there they were, just as he had said. But there was more too. There were claims that a total military enforced lockdown was set to be imposed from 11am. There were also claims, accompanied by photos, of hire-cars and vans being rented by the Gardaí and Defence Forces.

So why would someone go to the effort of putting together these hoaxes and then try to get it to go viral? Are they all just pranks? Are they all just jokes that the bulk of us fail to find funny?

Is the incorrect and warped information being spread the work of malign individuals alone, or should we be looking beyond the cranks and pranksters and checking for the handiwork of more nefarious actors, be they domestic or non-domestic?

Cui Bono? Who gains from this misinformation? Indeed, is it simply misinformation or are we looking at something more serious, more sinister?

Do some of the examples I cite above not better fit the definition of disinformation, or to use the old soviet era term: dezinformatsiya namely, the deliberate dissemination of false reports designed to mislead public opinion and engender public cynicism, uncertainty and distrust?

Suggesting the Irish Defence Forces readying themselves to head to the border runs the risk of enflaming very deep-seated fears and passions within the two communities, unionist and republican, at a time when the border has been a hot button issue, thanks to Brexit.

The notion that Ireland would not be targeted by organised and structured disinformation and trolling campaigns, like those that have hit other EU countries, is frankly naive. Indeed there are increased signs that these campaigns are being expanded.

As I have previously pointed out on Broadsheet. Ireland is already a major target for cyber attackers, why do we think we would be exempt from political attacks, from a range of sources, especially at a time when we are so vulnerable?

The national and international responses needed to deal with the Coronavirus pandemic may see us rediscovering both the necessity and he value of having governments and institutions we can trust to deliver for us.

This is precisely what the disrupters do not want. They need the era of FakeNews to continue. It is in Ireland’s interest to see it end.

When the pandemic passes the State will have to start taking cyber and disinformation threats seriously. That means investing significantly in the building the national defence capacity to block them.

National governments and international institutions must now prove via their handling of Covid19 that they can protect their populations and start to re-establish the trust lost in the global crash. There is nothing certain about this. Our government and governments around Europe face a huge test.

This does not mean a return to the pre-crash order, however. The state capacity that was dismissed as excess by many western governments in the early 2000s is now seen as vital. But that capacity is going to be very difficult to re-instate as we look like facing into a potentially deep post pandemic recession.

The plans and promises made in the GE2020 campaign now seem a long way away and the talks on government formation will need to be based on the economic realities facing us when the pandemic passes, whenever than is.

Right now, it is hard to see how we will have a realistic appraisal of what they may look like before September, though this is not a licence to allow talks to go on that long.

I still believe an all-party national unity government is the best way to go in the immediate term, notwithstanding the ease with which it was dismissed by both Sinn Féin and the Fianna Fáil leadership.

I understand that putting several new ministers in place right now may be complex, especially as many will only hold office for six months, but it is possible to do that and still maintain the continuity of pandemic response.

There is a less complex alternative that consists, in essence, of simply formalising what happened at the beginning of last week when the three main opposition party leaders were brought into government buildings.

The leaders of Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin the Green party, independents and smaller parties are invited to nominate members, under the d’Hondt system, to join the Cabinet Coronavirus subcommittee and participate directly in the government oversight of the crisis.

A special office, with civil servants, could be established within the Department of the Taoiseach to support them in this work. Though it would be a big ask, TDs from across the parties could also try to agree, as happened in the first Dáil, a Dáil political program to broadly guide the government from now till October.

In the meantime, political leaders here should reflect on what the W.H.O. Executive Director Dr Michael J Ryan had to say yesterday:

If you need to be right before you move, you will never win! Perfection is the enemy of the good when it comes to emergency management! Speed trumps perfection! The greatest error is not to move; to be paralysed by the fear of failure!’

While he remarks were about the Covid19 pandemic, they could just as easily be applied to so many other situations.

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: Leo Varadkar (right) and Micheál Martin during the Prime Time General Election 2020 leaders’ debate on RTÉ One on January 4; Derek Mooney

When Keith Waterhouse wrote his play about the dissolute wit, columnist and sports journalist, Jeffrey Bernard, he decided to entitle it: Jeffrey Bernard is unwell.

The name came from message editors of the Spectator would insert in the blank space where Bernard’s “Low Life” column should have appeared… except he was too hungover or pissed to write one.

It is not the only placeholder they used. The other one read: Jeffrey’s column does not appear this week as it remarkably resembles the one he wrote last week.

Broadsheet’s editors might have been justified in posting that message here if I hadn’t decided at the last minute to do a partial re-write of today’s column.

After three weeks of writing about the necessarily slow, but often strategically ill advised, process of government formation, there is nothing new I can add this week to either address or reduce the concerns I raised here last week, the week before and the week before that.

Nothing I have seen or heard from either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael over the past seven days suggests that they plan to amend the barely one-dimensional strategies they have each adopted since the election.

Not that nothing has happened. Last Thursday the Fianna Fáil leader went on Sean O’Rourke’s RTE Radio One programme. To his credit, Martin was direct and open in setting out his stall. Bluntly so.

He didn’t dance around it. He made it very clear that his preferred option is full coalition between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael with Green party and possibly independent TD participation. He left the door open to the idea of a rotisserie, sorry, a rotating Taoiseach, too.

Was this attempt to prepare or soften up the Fianna Fáil base? If so, it hasn’t worked. For many Fianna Fáil activists hearing the leader of their party talk candidly about putting Fine Gael ministers back in office after a campaign that was supposed to be about replacing them was a step too far.

The party faithful had been just about willing to countenance some sort of Fine Gael Confidence and Supply arrangement, a reverse of the 2016 scenario, but here they were listening to a Fianna Fáil leader not just discounting this as a possibility, but saying that serving alongside Fine Gael ministers was his first choice.

No wonder last Thursday afternoon’s Fianna Fáil parliamentary party meeting was fraught.

But this is no bad thing. While it may not mark a change in Fianna Fáil’s approach, it may be a signal that the parliamentary party is ready to insist on having greater oversight of the government formation process. One assumes that this will include a serious examination of what went wrong with Fianna Fáil’s #GE2020 campaign.

One other positive is the fact that Fianna Fáil’s Jim O’Callaghan TD and John Lahart TD were both prepared to entertain the idea of there being a possible national unity government from across the Dáil. I mentioned this possibility here last week in the context of a note I had written the day after the election count.

There are a variety of ways such a unity government could be structured, including using the d’Hondt system of allocating ministerial posts amongst those parties and groups (of independents and smaller parties) who wish to participate in government.

While the d’Hondt method could be a useful way of ensuring a fair distribution of departments and ministers, it would not sort out the thorny issue of who becomes Taoiseach – (and it’s worth noting that there are very few examples of the rotating Prime Minister model working in practice, apart from the Israel’s national unity government of the late 1980s which resulted in a  dirty trick political scandal) or its programme for government.

In addition to seriously tackling the problems in housing and health and addressing climate action, any programme for a national unity government, be it for a year or two years would also have to address the developing Coronavirus/Covid-19 public health crisis.

I know from my time dealing with the Office of Emergency Planning that there is a robust system of emergency planning for a range of possible emergency scenarios including major accidents, nuclear incidents, weather emergencies and pandemics.

I have no doubt that the government is seeking and following the best expert advice it can get, nationally and internationally, and this will inform the discussions at the cabinet sub-committee on Coronavirus this morning. But ministers here must also watch what other governments across the EU are doing and heed the lessons of what went wrong in Italy and China.

France and Germany are set to ban gatherings of more than 1,000 people as part of their efforts to slow or impede the spread of the infection. We should too, indeed we should have already done so.

That means cancelling the St Patrick’s Day festivities across the country. This will cost tens of millions, just as it did back in 2001 when the arrival of Foot and Mouth caused parades and festivities to be cancelled (well technically postponed until May that year), but it is the responsible thing to do.

Delaying the cancellation announcement, even if only until today, is just increasing pressure on individual event organisers, such as those in Killarney town who now say they are proceeding.

Last week the Taoiseach urged people not to act unilaterally in cancelling events saying that the government was closely monitoring the situation.

He needs to act now – and that means erring heavily on the side of caution and risk avoidance when it comes to the St Patrick’s Day events. Cancelling them now could just be the occasion when his not taking a risk pays off.

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: Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin (centre) and party colleagues on the first day back at the Dáil following the General Election; Derek Mooney

Though I can understand why so many carp on social media about the government formation process moving too slow and taking so long, the real problem is that it isn’t taking long enough.

Parties… and I am primarily talking about Fianna Fáil here… have rushed headlong into the process without stopping to take in precisely what happened on February 8.

It is not that Micheál Martin, or his centralised team of advisers, haven’t grasped that they didn’t win – or even do as well as they had expected – but that they have not absorbed what the voters told them.

That message, as I said on here on the Monday after polling, was clear enough.

Voters rejected the proposals put forward by Fianna Fáil. Not as resoundingly as they rebuffed Fine Gael’s, but they spurned them all the same. Voters saw Fianna Fáil’s package of cautious change and declined it in favour of more radical options.

As I said on February 10:

“The harsh reality of yesterday’s result is that Fianna Fáil has just secured its second worse electoral result ever. That is not the type of result from which you pivot into office and carry on as if the voters have not spoken.”

Yet, on the face of it, this is precisely what Martin is doing.

Rather than stopping to take a hard look at why his party lost support and seats, he is rushing into talks to establish a government of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, the Greens and various independents based on the very manifesto that secured fewer votes for the party than it won in 2016 (down from 24.3% to 22.2%).

Not only is he not stopping to consider why voters turned away from his party he is compounding the error by not addressing the concerns of the many voters who looked to Fianna Fáil for radical solutions on housing, health, homelessness and rental accommodation – and found nothing.

Where Mary Lou McDonald has been out and about talking to voters, albeit in carefully managed events, the impression is given by his own behaviour since February 9 that Martin is in hiding. Where he does appear, he is surrounded by loyal lieutenants, not ordinary people.

These optics are important, not least if the process of putting a government together fails and we do end up with another election.

Yesterday’s Sunday Times/B&A poll gives a hint of how that second election may turn out. I say hint as the poll assumes the parties will simply re-run the February election with the same campaigns, the same policy platforms and even the same leaders?

Some around Martin are saying that yesterday’s poll is proof that the leadership is on the right track in seeking a government with Fine Gael et al because a second election could mean Fianna Fáil annihilation.

This is one interpretation of the poll numbers. It is one that curiously aligns with the individual interests of some at the top.

But, in my view, it is a wrong one.

There is another interpretation. It says the Sunday Times/B&A poll numbers prove that Fianna Fáil’s strategy is failing. That is wrong not to directly address voters and that it is making that mistake worse by asserting the mandate it received is enough to continue along the current path.

Perhaps the problem is that any proper examination of why Fianna Fáil did badly must focus on those close to the top of the party. The difficulties with Fianna Fáil’s #GE2020 campaign were not at the grassroots or constituency level.

As a well-seasoned observer of election campaigns I found the Fianna Fáil ground campaigns mounted across most constituencies (admittedly not all) were the equal of any I have seen pre 2008.

To use a crude metaphor, if #GE2020 were the D-Day landings then Fianna Fáil’s attack troops were among the best assembled. They stormed the beaches at the start of the campaign with ferocity and vigour, only to find their high command back at the bunker had neglected to put any meaningful air cover in place.

So, having set out why I think what Martin is doing is wrong, do I have any suggestions as to what they should be doing? The answer is yes, and this is not a case of me being wise after the event.

A few hours after submitting my February 10 Broadsheet piece I typed up my thoughts on how Fianna Fáil should approach the issue of government formation and shared it with some party colleagues.

I attempted to draft core principles that should underpin Fianna Fáil’s approach. This is what I wrote:

I think we need to make clear that:

A. We hear and understand what voters are saying

B. Our views on Sinn Féin have not changed

C. We put the people first

D. We will be driven by policies not partisanship

—/—

The principles on which Fianna Fails approaches government formation.

1. Fianna Fáil has not changed its long-standing view on Sinn Féin, its associations, its structures or the paucity of its policies.

2. Fianna Fáil recognises that the agenda for change which we put forward was not accepted by the voters and they have signalled through their support for Sinn Féin, the Greens and others that the changes they want delivered on health and housing are profound.

3. The support shown for the Green party is also a clear message that voters want more action on climate change than was contained in the Fianna Fáil manifesto.

4. Fianna Fáil hears very clearly that voters want more action on housing health and climate change, and we recognise that policies to promote these changes must be enacted now. Fianna Fáil will do what is necessary to facilitate these changes within the limits of our issues as set out in point 1.

5. Options including the formation of a two-year national unity government of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael Sinn Fein, and the Green party merit active discussion and consideration.

6 We firmly believe that all binary options of Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael, Fine Gael/Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil/Sinn Féin or even a Fianna Fáil/Green minority are not viable.

7. While we would have considerable policy difficulties with a left wing alliance of SF/Greens/Labour/SocDems/S-PBP and others, we would be willing to see the degree to which we could support any specific actions on housing, rental accommodation and health that such an alliance could produce.

Fianna Fáil will approach all discussions with all other parties on the formation of a government in the 33rd Dáil on the basis of these 7 principles.

I wrote these seven principles three weeks ago. They were intended to encourage a discussion within Fianna Fáil on how it responded meaningfully to the election result and played the hand it had been dealt.

That discussion would have required some weeks. I suspect the problem was less to do with time and more with the discomfort such a discussion would cause.

It is still not too late for Fianna Fáil to pause, reflect and think again about what the voters said on Feb 8 and show them that they heard them loud and clear – doing that is a far better way of preparing for a second election than pre-booking printers and ordering corriboard.

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: Fianna Fáil leader Michael Martin (centre) on the first day back to the Dáil following General Elec tion 2020; Derek Mooney

This time last week I expected the only issue that would be resolved at Thursday’s opening Dáil session was the identity of the next Ceann Comhairle.

To no one’s great surprise that turned out to be the outgoing one, Seán Ó Fearghaíl, TD., though the scale of his win, 130:28 was impressive. The dark mid-week mutterings that Fianna Fáil colleagues would abandon the avuncular Ó Fearghaíl to keep his vote for Micheál Martin as Taoiseach later that day proved baseless.

I hadn’t expecting the series of votes on electing a Taoiseach to produce any significant or notable movement on the shape of the next government, so I was pleasantly surprised when we did get some, albeit infinitesimally small.

The decision of the left-wing Independent TDs and Solidarity/People Before Profile to back Mary Lou McDonald (though with a strong caveat of ruling out Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael) and four independents to back Micheál Martin left both challengers with over 40 votes.

This left the other two challengers, Leo Varadkar with 36 votes and Eamon Ryan with 12 in the second division.

The positioning remains the same when you just rank them by the numbers opposing their nomination. From lowest to highest, in Division 1: McDonald on 84 and Martin on 97 and in Division 2: Varadkar 107 and Ryan on a whopping 115!

Though not earth shattering it does help clarify, perhaps even narrow the choices facing the TDs in forming a government and points to three clear options.

First: A left-wing government headed by Mary Lou McDonald. While Sinn Féin repeatedly declares this to be its preferred option, saying it opposes putting Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael in office, its studied outrage at Fianna Fáil’s refusal to talk to it about forming a government does seem… well, odd. Mary Lou led the field on Thursday thanks to eight left wing votes that were all given on the basis that she does go into government with either of the two big parties.

Second: A government headed by Martin and led by Fianna Fáil. Such a government could take two forms: a simple trio of FF/FG/Greens (with the possible option of a rotisserie Taoiseach) or FF/Greens/SocDems and assorted middle ground Inds, all supported from the outside by a limited form of Fine Gael confidence and supply.

Third, another general election.

The ferocity of McDonald’s personal and political attack not just on Micheál Martin but on the wider Fianna Fáil party simply highlighted the fact that options one and two are now mutually exclusive and any kind of fourth option involving SF and FF is off the table.

All of this increases the pressure on Fine Gael. Varadkar’s impromptu strategy of taking his party entirely out of the process has badly misfired.

Fine Gael cannot sit idly by and hope the blame falls on others. No matter how much it wants to slink away into the shadows and lick its wounds, it must take a decision based on these three options.

Fine Gael either (a) sits on its hands and facilitates Mary Lou McDonald becoming Taoiseach; (b) opposes everyone and leads to a second election, or (c) comes to some sort of agreement with Martin’s Fianna Fáil on either going full-on into coalition or supporting it from the outside via a some less restrictive confidence and supply agreement.

Such an arrangement could require FG to back the government on key votes to prevent the government from collapsing but allow it to vote against and defeat it at other times.

While the odds on this process resulting in a Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael/Green party and independent government have increased ever so slightly, there is still a long way to go.

Some of that long way will likely include some fallout from within the Green party as it tires of its involvement in government being assumed to be automatic.

On RTÉ One’s The Week in Politics two Sundays ago the former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern suggested that Fianna Fáil should seek a coalition with Fine Gael, that it also include as many partners as possible to give the sense that the new government represented some real change.

He hinted that he could eventually see a government with Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Green, Social Democrat, independent and rural independent ministers.

It will be difficult, if not impossible, to put together a government along these lines as the Social Democrats have made abundantly clear that they do not want to put Fine Gael ministers back in the office.

They are not the only ones.

The Fianna Fáil representatives I have spoken with over the past week are every bit as opposed to putting Varadkar, Murphy, Harris or Donohue back in office.

Former Fianna Fáil TDs – and it should be remembered that there are now eight of them thanks to Fianna Fáil’s lacklustre and uninspiring #GE2020 national campaign – and outgoing Senators are currently criss-crossing the country taking to party councillors and hearing just how unhappy they are with developments.

These 14 – 16 newly minted Senators will join the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party in early April, fresh from a month of listening to dissatisfied grassroots. If a government including Fine Gael has not been formed by that point, then these Senators could be critical in blocking its formation from inside the parliamentary party.

Right now, as we approach the end of February, I still think a second election is the single most likely outcome. I say this as the only thing required for another election to happen is for TDs, primarily Fine Gael TDs, to do absolutely nothing.

Avoiding a second election requires action. It means having Fine Gael TDs break their own red lines and back a Fianna Fáil led government – from within or without.

If we are to face into another election, even if it is two or three months away, then parties need to start honing their core message and start addressing the wider public, not their own bubbles.

Sinn Féin appears to have realised this and has resumed campaign mode – as if it had ever turned it off. Last Monday we saw Mary Lou McDonald doing the Macarena with a group of school kids in Ringsend. It was a clever piece of political marketing.

Here was McDonald looking like an approachable leader without a care or a pressure in the world. Out among ordinary people, seeming confident and even self-deprecating, a trait that Irish voters like. This contrasted with the sense that both Varadkar and Martin were, though separately, withdrawn not just from public view, but from the public itself.

It was a masterclass in brazen misdirection. It is what Sinn Féin does best. They’ve had plenty of practise at it over the years.

When they came under huge pressure in early 2005 over the violent and brutal provo murder of Robert McCartney, Sinn Féin representatives, including one Mary Lou McDonald MEP and one Deirdre Hargey MLA, were dispatched to mouth concern for the McCartney family while opposing European Parliament support for the case and asserting that Sinn Féin was really the victim here, on foot of a conspiracy involving the main political parties, the police and the media.

Does this all sound familiar? Add in a few extra public rallies and it could be today.

This is not a distant history in time or place.  In a Dáil debate on May 27 2009 a Fianna Fáil back bench TD raised the intimidation of Esther Uzell, whose brother Joseph Rafferty had been killed by the provo-IRA in April 2005.

She had called on Sinn Féin to help identify her brother’s killer, not only did they not help, they did anything but. The TD was rightly incensed, calling those responsible for the intimidation “thugs” and “scum”.

That Fianna Fáil TD later became a Sinn Féin Councillor and, in February, a TD., Chris Andrews. Seems that the change in party heralded a major change in outlook. Come to think of it, didn’t that happen to Mary Lou too?

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:  Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald and Deputy Party leader Michelle O Neill speaking to the media on the Plinth at Leinster House last week; Derek Mooney

Mandate, mandate, mandate. You couldn’t switch on a radio or open a webpage last week without someone talking at you about their mandate.

You had this one talking about the size and significance of their mandate and that one saying how much they respected and acknowledged other people’s, though usually just before they explained why they were going to ignore it.

Mandate has become the most abused word of the post #GE2020 era. So, what is a mandate? Well, put simply, it is just the authority given by voters to each elected TD.

Sinn Féin’s mandate is the collective total of its 37 TD’s individual mandates, just in the same way as Fianna Fáil’s is based on its 38 TDs and Aontu’s is due to its one.

No TDs mandate is inferior or superior, a point that seems lost in many of Sinn Féin’s pronouncements. It uses the word mandate as if it was a synonym for majority. It isn’t.

Over the past week we have heard SF talk about how Fine Gael and especially Fianna Fáil needs to heed Sinn Féin’s mandate as if this was a winner-takes-all where the one with the highest votes ignores all the others.

Sinn Féin may not take its seats in Westminster, but all that time hanging about the palace of first-past-the-post while avoiding the chamber, seems to have had an influence.

Yes, Sinn Féin won most votes and yes, the electoral strategy they adopted has left them one seat behind Fianna Fáil, but that does not mean Fianna Fáil TDs, to borrow a phrase I used last week, must embrace it or swear an oath to implement it.

Every TD and every party has a mandate, the issue is that no one party, or group of parties, received a clear or overwhelming mandate. There are several distinct sets of mandates that are individually clear, but collectively ambiguous and even contradictory.

What matters is which party or group of parties and others can put together a program for government that has the allegiance and support of 80 TDs.

In less fraught and complex times that was a relatively straightforward process. One side would be closer to having half of the seats. All it had to do was approach smaller parties to agree a platform and together get to the magic 50% figure, be that 72, 74, 82 seats etc.

But these are different times. The electorate gave a sign through its swing to both Sinn Féin and the Greens and its continued support of Fianna Fáil (as I outlined last week) that it wants change. The problem comes when you try to discern just how far that change should go.

It’s a confusion that exists even within Sinn Féin, though you never hear it mentioned by its spokespeople. One of the more curious of the RTE/Irish Times exit poll findings was that Sinn Féin voters were less in favour of increasing public spending than even Fine Gael’s [1].

The fact that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael together have fewer than half the seats, removes the biggest traditional obstacle to the formation of a coalition of the left and far left, led by Sinn Féin. (Correction, it removes the second biggest traditional obstacle, the biggest being the left’s lack of votes).

Accord to yesterday’s Rec C poll, this is the preferred choice of 61% of Sinn Féin’s voters (and 45% of Soc Dems), yet Sinn Féin appears to have given up on such a prospect and is insisting that Fianna Fáil, who it said it never wanted to see back in government, must ignore the wishes of its voters and prop it up – though only 20% of Sinn Fein voters back this option.

The fact that SF and FF combined only has 75 seats means it needs a mudguard…. Sorry, I mean it needs another party. Step forward the Greens.

But why would or should the Greens be a mudguard for Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil – or even for Fianna Fáil and FG?

While I can possibly see Green delegates seeing some merit in serving in an FF/SF government, I just cannot see them agreeing to put FG ministers back in office.

Perhaps they will conclude that the government will last for five years and their voters will forgive them in time. I am sure Dick Spring thought the same thing in 1992 when he put Albert Reynolds back as Taoiseach.

He may even have thought that again in late 1994 when he backed bringing John Bruton across the floor and making him Taoiseach, but the voters of 1997 had a different idea.

Though diminished, Fianna Fáil’s mandate on government formation has two clear elements. It told voters that it would not put Sinn Féin into government. A position it reaffirmed at its party meeting last Thursday.

It also said that it wanted change and that change for Fianna Fáil meant putting Fine Gael out of government. Though these positions were unambiguous and consistent in advance of polling day, the parliamentary party meeting seems less sure now on this point than it is on the Sinn Féin question.

Does Micheál Martin rule out the prospect of having Fine Gael ministers serve in a Fianna Fáil led coalition? Does he envisage Fine Gael offering a minority Fianna Fáil/Green/Social Democrat government the same Confidence and Supply arrangement that he offered Enda Kenny and then extended to Leo Varadkar?

Does he anticipate Fine Gael honouring such an arrangement with the same fidelity and adherence as him? I doubt we will get answers to these questions before Thursday’s first meeting of the 33rd Dáil.

What we will see is who is elected, by secret ballot, as Ceann Comhairle. While many of his colleagues would be happy to see outgoing one, Fianna Fáil’s Sean Ó Fearghaill, returned to the post, that would cost Martin a vote in the later vote on Taoiseach. At a time when every vote counts, the decision may be less about merit and more an early indicator of what way the wind is blowing.

Will Sinn Féin and Fine Gael TDs together take the opportunity to reduce Martin’s vote by one or will they think they may need that vote for a future partnership?

Will Fianna Fáil TDs abandon their colleague in a secret ballot to keep the vote for Martin?

While on the topic of Fine Gael, the most extraordinary thing about the last few days is just how little focus there has been on what is happening in Fine Gael. It has just suffered its second worst result and yet there has been little to no focus on how it responds.

Though there have been questions raised about Varadkar’s leadership from outside the Oireachtas party, from ex-Senator Paudie Coffey, former deputy leader James Reilly and former Justice Minister Alan Shatter, who tweeted a blistering attack on him yesterday, there has been an eerie silence from within the upper echelons – for now.

Varadkar’s fate as leader lay less in his own hands and more in the hands of Micheál Martin, whose own political fate is uncertain, and those of Simon Coveney and Paschal Donohoe.

Not a happy prospect, especially as only one of these has any reason to hope he stays on – and he’s not the one who is in Leo’s party.

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

[1] The Poll asked: If the Next Government Has Resources to Spare, Should More of the Money Be Used to Reduce Taxes or Should More Be Used to Increase Spending on Public Services? People who voted SF #1 went 57% in favour of public spending and 43% in favour of Tax cuts. Fine Gael voters went 59% spending 41% tax cuts, FF voters: 63% spending 37% tax cuts, Soc Dems 71%/27% and S-PBP 81%/19% 

Sam Boal/Rollingnews

From top: Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald (centre) celebrates her party’s results  at the Generel Election 2020 count centre in the RDS, Ballsbridge, Dublin 4; Derek Mooney

These comments are thrown together very late at night after over 16 hours of intense election count watching. They should, therefore, be taken more as just initial ramblings, than as a thoughtful analysis.

So here are the key things that stand out to me from the result.

First, the are two election winners. One is Sinn Féin – who saw its vote increase by 11% and second is the Green party which has seen its vote increase by 5%.

Between them they have gained a 15% swing, roughly equivalent to three quarters of Fine Gael’s total vote.

On the other side there are several losers, including Ruth Coppinger, Lisa Chambers, Shane Ross, Katherine Zappone. All of these hard working and courteous representatives are looking at seeing their political careers end.

The two biggest losers however, in reverse order were Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.

As both have lost, the idea that the two together have a mandate to form a grand coalition is a nonsense. So let’s get that off the list.

While Fianna Fáil did, as I discussed last week and the week before, offer modest and cautious change, the voters rejected that – in favour of the more radical option.

The harsh reality of yesterday’s result is that Fianna Fáil has just secured it’s second worse electoral result ever.

That is not the type of result from which you pivot into office and carry on as if the voters have not spoken. That is true whether the potential coalition partner is Fine Gael or Sinn Féin. .

While Sinn Féin did not receive an seismic overwhelming vote and is still essentially in a three way tie with the two defeated parties, it still had the momentum on the day and is the direction in which the biggest chunk of voters moved.

To simply acknowledge this reality. To respect the will of those people who moved to back Sinn Féin is not to suddenly become an advocate of having a coalition with Sinn Féin.

I can acknowledge SF’s mandate without have to embrace it or swear an oath to implement it.

The suggestion that Fianna Fáil now has an obligation endorse that mandate is to ignore what its leader and leadership have told it’s reduced segment of voters over the past weeks, months and years.

This is the point that Jim O’Callaghan, Darragh O’Brien Michael McGrath and others made strongly yesterday.

Not only is there neither the appetite nor the demand for such an arrangement, it would fly in the face of what Fianna Fáil has been promising its own cohort of 22.5%.

Like it or not Fianna Fáil has a contract/obligation not to turn its back on those who only voted for it 24 hours early. They devised to back Fianna Fáil with the clear understanding that Fianna Fáil would not put that Sinn Fein into office.

Not that Sinn Féin feels that it needs to wait for Fianna Fáil to facilitate it. Sinn Féin fate lays within Sinn Féiner’s own hands.

In last week’s column I argued that there were four possible options/permutations. They are now down to three. Those three are:

Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael grand coalition. Not only is this a non runner, in terms of mandates, if may well be that the two parties will not have the seats to deliver this when all the counts are concluded, or when it comes to selecting a Ceann Comhairle.

Option two is the Sinn Féin/Fianna Fáil coalition. Once again, I explained last week why this was not a runner, but the arguments against this became stronger when the size of the respective l mandates were confirmed in the counts.

The third option is another election. This does not come into play for a few weeks yet.

First the strengths and mettle of all three parties will be tested in a series of votes when the Dáil reconvenes in about 10 days.

Each of the parties nominees for Taoiseach – and right now I am careful to say parties nominees, not party leaders, will be voted on in turns.

There will be a full vote on each candidate where the number of TDs voting and against each nominee is recorded.

Right now it is virtual racing certainty that all three will be rejected, though by varying margins.

It is most assuredly not beyond the rounds of possibility that Mary Lou McDonald might, over the next few days, be able to convince other like-minded left-wing parties to support her nomination thereby leaving her as the most supported of the three defeated potential Taoisigh.

We will probably have a few rounds of these votes are a period of weeks to see who blinks, yields or changes position.

But, at some point, there will have to be an endpoint set if all these rounds of votes end in a perpetual stalemate where no candidate can secure more votes in favour than against – either by voting for or abstaining.

It is hard to see how this third option – the second election – will not become increasingly attractive to Sinn Féin over the weeks, especially if it is seem to exhaust all its other options, on their own terms.

If they play it right, Sinn Féin would not be seen as pulling down the shutters. Instead it would have a chance to correct the strategic candidate election errors it made and run sufficient candidates to give it another 10 or 12 seats.

As I said last week, let us be clear that each of these three surviving options are particularly attractive, in various degrees, to Sinn Féin.

Right now I think another election is the most likely outcome. It is not my preferred option, very far from it, but the longer the impasse continues with no significant movement from the parties, then it’s likelihood continues.

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

Sam Boal/Rollingnews

From top left to right: Leo Varadkar, Simon Coveney  and Paschal Donohoe at the launch of Fine Gael’s General Election 2020 manifesto; Derek Mooney

Success has many fathers, defeat is an orphan. As true as this is in sports, it is an absolute certainty in political campaigning.

Have no doubt that all those fine young marketing executives who told their colleagues over Christmas how remarkably close they were to the Taoiseach and Fine Gael, now struggle to remember just who Leo, Paschal or Simon might be.

In the words of the great yellow rose of Finglas, Jim Tunney, there are too many folks around politics who opt to buy their colours coming out of the match, rather than going in.

So, before I look at the events of the last few days and attempt a feeble look forward to what may be to come, let me raise a glass to toast those in all parties and none who are sticking by their party and candidates, despite the polls.

I may have mentioned this story before, but during the 2013 Seanad abolition referendum I read an opinion piece in one of the national newspapers by a PR person, who I hadn’t heard of then and I haven’t heard of since.

He was critiquing our vote No to abolition campaign. Though he took over 750 words to do it, his analysis basically said: these people are going to lose because they never asked him what to do. Though I was confident of our campaign and messaging, his article really got under my skin. So much so that over six years later I am still moaning about it!

So, remembering how I felt then, I will not try to criticise or second-guess the strategies and decisions of those running the major campaigns. I am sure that none of them sat down a few months back and thought: how can I design a campaign that turns away our potential voters.

The von Moltke maxim applies as much to political as military campaigning: no battleplan survives with any certainty beyond the first direct engagement with the enemy.

The world is full of backseat drivers, hurlers on the ditch, Monday morning quarterbacks and various assortments of folks none of who have never lost a game because not a single one of them has ever played one.

What I will do instead today is to look back at how I thought the campaign would go – and see (a) what I got wrong, and (b). consider how that impacts on the way(s) I see things playing out from next Monday or Tuesday onwards.

For most of the last 18 months to 2 years I have been talking about the opinion poll trend showing the combined Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael support running at anywhere between the mid 50s or sometimes even heading as high as 60%.

As the two parties had a combined total support of just under 50% in 2016, I took the trend to the mid 50s as a sign of a modest growth in the centre ground of Irish politics – indeed you could broaden that definition of the centre ground by adding in the Greens and Labour.

I had thought that a big part of this election would be about how about how that 55% divided between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael – and I felt reasonably confident that this would see Fianna Fáil hitting 30% or even a point or two higher.

That prediction was based on my long held and expressed belief that the Leo bounce of late 2017/2018 and early 2019 was more down to Brexit than any public faith or confidence in his leadership. I further felt sure that Fine Gael would approach this election with overconfidence and run a campaign that misread the public mood.

On these latter points I think I was proven right. On the capacity of the two main parties to rebuild the centre ground of politics to a modest level of 55%, I was wrong.

In my defence, I was not the only getting that bit wrong.

It seems Sinn Féin broadly agreed with me. Though they had confidence in their capacity to hold on to their 2016 vote share, despite the hammering they received at the 2019 local and European elections, their decision to run just 42 candidates in this election suggests a party strategy more focused on consolidation and modest growth, rather than one predicated on big breakthroughs and surges.

It could well be that they are right and the polls are still over-estimating their possible performance on the day but, even so, there is something happening at this election.

Thee question therefore is: how many seats will Sinn Féin add to its 2016 total? Will it be in single digits, or is a double digit seat increase on the cards? I have one spreadsheet prediction that has them on 34 seats.

As I discussed last week , the mood for change is real and palpable. Sinn Féin speaks directly to that mood while Fianna Fáil struggles to do so with clarity. What is beyond doubt is that Fine Gael cannot represent that change. So, any chance of a last minute Fine Gael resurgence is ruled out, meaning that the most likely micro-outcome of the election is a depleted Fine Gael heading to the opposition benches.

So who ends up in government, assuming the polls are broadly right?

There is no appetite in Fianna Fáil for a grand coalition. Fianna Fáil is having a tough enough time convincing a significant cohort of voters aged 25+ that it represents change, how much worse would its task be at the next election if the outcome of this one was Mícheál Martin aiding and abetting the return of rejected Fine Gael ministers to Cabinet.

Similarly, a Fianna Fáil/Sinn Féin coalition is a non-runner. Martin has been absolutely clear that he would not agree to such a coalition.

Whatever level of support Fianna Fáil secures next weekend, be it 25%, 26%, 27% or higher (full disclosure I think it will be around 26/27%)… will have been won, in part, on the basis that Fianna Fáil will not go into government with Sinn Féin.

It is absolutely not impossible for Fianna Fáil to do a volte-face. After all, politics and government formation is all about numbers, but the price it would pay at any following election would be significant.

Wiser, calmer heads in Fianna Fáil know that the life span of any FF/SF government would be determined solely by Sinn Féin. At the first sign of trouble or of difficult decisions Sinn Féin would have no compunction about cutting and running.

This is not just a theoretical concern, bear in mind that it is likely there will be some form of economic downturn due soon, be it Brexit related or global.

If you think I am just being cynical or blinkered by my acknowledged dislike of Sinn Féin, see how Sinn Féin handled the welfare crisis in the North.

Faced with deeply unpopular decisions on welfare cuts, Sinn Féin, the ultra-republican party that rejects British rule and finds any form of presence at Westminster an anathema, voted along with the DUP to hand the welfare powers that had been devolved to it, back to Westminster. Not just to Westminster, but to one dominated by a Tory government that would impose swingeing cuts. This is before you even look at the three year government hiatus it triggered.

So, having ruled out a grand coalition of FF and FG or a coalition of FF and SF, what remains?

I think it is a Fianna Fáil/Green government with outside Fine Gael support via a less restrictive C&S than Fianna Fáil had to endure.

The Greens and Fianna Fáil may want others involved, such as Labour, Soc Dems or even some independents but that looks unlikely right now. Even so, the core of such a minority government would be Fianna Fáil and the Greens.

This would be Sinn Féin’s least preferred option.

It would be very satisfied with a FF/FG grand coalition that made it the main opposition party, just as it would be happy with a FF/SF coalition. It would also be happy with stalemate and a second general election. This is not an option that can be ruled out, either.

Sinn Féin has almost nothing to lose in any three of these four scenarios. As Sherlock Holmes used to say, when you have ruled out all the impossible option, then whatever remains, no matter how improbable, is the solution.

It may take a few weeks, but watch that space.

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

Sam Boal/Rollingnews

From top: Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar (left) and his front bench launch the Fine Gael general Election 2020 manifesto at the party’s HQ in Dublin last week; Derek Mooney

With eleven days of this general election campaign to go, the one clear message emerging from the national polls is that it is time to stick a fork in Fine Gael. It is not just done, it is done to a crisp. The only thing rare about Fine Gael in two weeks’ time will be the number of constituencies where it holds more than one seat.

“Hold on there, Mooney” I hear you shout, “…on what are you basing this prediction of doom? You’re the one who’s repeatedly told us that national newspaper polls are not good indicators of how seats will go.”

Yes, I reply. That is true – and extremely well put, I might add. I am also deeply moved that you have been paying such attention to my ramblings here… but, this prediction is not just based on the headline figures on party support, it is based on a series of important findings within those polls.

These findings come from separate polls, but they sit remarkably well together and underpin the trend that has been repeated in the four polls published over the past two weeks.

They are, listing them chronologically:

  • The Sunday Times/B&A poll published on January recorded the government as having a satisfaction rating of just 30%, its lowest level since Varadkar replaced Kenny. It was 39% last July and was in the mid-40s for most of 2018.
  • Even more significant, and also more devastating for Varadkar, Coveney and Co., was the finding in last week’s Irish Times Ipsos/MRBI poll, that 75% of voters want to see a change of government. That 75% divided almost evenly on the extent of that change, from changing the leading party to something more radical, but agreed that Fine Gael is not it. Indeed just 20% agreed with the statement: The Government has made progress in important areas and deserves to be allowed get on the with the job of securing a better future.

Fast forward to yesterday’s two polls.

  • First, the Red C/Sunday Business Post. Its headline figures for the main parties are broadly in line with the other three polls, but it also looked at how voters viewed the main parties in terms of the key policy issues. On housing/rental market it found that 24% of voters trusted Fianna Fáil most, followed by 20% for Sinn Féin and a meagre 12% for Fine Gael.

The figures on health were only marginally better for the outgoing party of government. There Fianna Fáil scored 24% (again) with Sinn Féin faring worse on 16% and Fine Gael again in third place with just 14%.

The only positive in this is the 2% bragging rights it gives Simon Harris over Eoghan Murphy, though I am not sure any of that will matter much when ministers come to wonder which of them will have the Portillo moment on the night of the count.

  • The fourth finding is along the same lines as the RedC one. The Ireland Thinks/Irish Mail on Sunday poll took the interesting approach of looking at party voting intentions by housing status. That found only 7% of the people they polled, and are living in private rented accommodation, would vote Fine Gael. This compares with 16% of renters who would back the Greens, 19% for Fianna Fáil and a solid 30%, for Sinn Féin.

The breakdown for those in council rented was a mammoth 43% for Sinn Féin, 15% for independents, 14% for Labour, 11% for Fianna Fáil, 9% for the greens and a paltry 2% for Fine Gael. At 25% Fianna Fáil leads in terms of those with mortgages, compared with 19% each for Sinn Féin and Fine Gael.

These last two sets of data, from RedC and Ireland Thinks, along with the evenly split breakdown of the 75% wanting change via the Irish Times, may also help explain why Sinn Féin recovered so much ground in the past few weeks.

This, after all, was the organisation that lost almost half its councillors just eight months back and suffered some hefty losses to the SDLP at the Westminster elections, particularly in Derry.

As the Irish Times report, there is a sizeable chunk of voters who want more significant and radical change than appears to be coming right now from Fianna Fáil and they are ready and willing to listen to Sinn Féin especially when it is being explained by that nice Mr Doherty or that nice Mr Ó Broin.

Fianna Fáil says it is offering change, and it is – but, it has yet to get that message across to a wider audience, especially the many younger voters who are struggling to cope with the cost of living in today’s Ireland.

These are voters with aspirations.

They did everything they were asked to do. They went gone to college, they studied hard, they saw the global crash lower their expectations, yet they went out, got decent jobs with good wages.

Now they want to plan to settle down but find, despite those decent wages, soaring rents and lack of affordable housing leave them struggling to get on the first rung of the ladder, a ladder their parents had climbed when much younger than they are now.

At its heart, Fianna Fáil is about aspiration, both personal and national.

People want to hear its political leaders talk about how they will get the system to address their needs, not adjust their needs to fit the system.

There are moments, when I am listening to statements from some Fianna Fáil spokespeople, that I think I am back in a government department trying to decipher civil servant-ese. Fianna Fáil’s job is not to explain government’s problems to us, it is to put in place the programmes to enable it address them in government.

* * * *

 I usually write a rough draft of these pieces late on a Sunday night and revise them on Monday morning, while listening to Morning Ireland. Not today, though.

As you read this, I will be heading with many hundreds of others to the small parish church at Mullaghbrack, Armagh for the funeral of one of the greatest Irishmen of the past sixty years: Séamus Mallon.

While I met the man many times over the past two decades, I did not know him well enough to attempt to pay a personal tribute here.

What I can say is that Seamus’s courage in the face of both loyalist violence and provo vilification, as recently as May 2018 was a beacon to many, including a good friend of mine who offered this heartfelt tribute. He puts it better than I ever could: Goodbye and thank you Séamus. You saved lives and changed mine.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a h’anam dílis.

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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