Tag Archives: Derek Mooney

From top: Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Leo Varakar, Minster for Enterprise, Trade and Employment in the Convention Centre Dublin for the announcement of the members of the new Cabinet on Saturday; Derek Mooney

Last week I suggested there was a possibility my Fianna Fáil membership could come to an unseemly and abrupt end for daring to challenge the leadership orthodoxy on the programme for government.

I wrote that particular section with a tongue (my own, I should point out) firmly planted in my cheek. The observation was at best, flippant and at worst, facetious. It was not intended as a prediction. More than once I was just a click away from deleting the entire paragraph as I tried to edit 150 words out of the piece.

Little did I imagine as I hit “send” that that one week later I would find myself no longer a member of the party I joined over 42 years ago.

Let me clear. I am not in this position because anyone asked, cajoled or compelled me to leave, but because I decided by myself and for myself that my time in Fianna Fáil had sadly come to an end, for now.

As is often the case with significant personal decisions it was not down to one single cause. Instead it was a confluence of mixed and varied elements that were finally tipped over on the scale by a seemingly harmless comment.

The most obvious element in this mix is my opposition to the Programme for Government (PfG) and the government formation configuration it sustains.

I have written about my objections to and difficulties with the PfG several times, so they are were rehearsed here. Suffuce to say that I favour either a national or unity government model for two year period to deal with the crisis.

It is why I campaigned for No in the Fianna Fáil member’s ballot and why I voted No. sadly, I and my colleagues only managed to convince 26% of our fellow members to do likewise.

While this No percentage is a considerable multiple of the percentage within the parliamentary party, decisions are made by those who win, not by those who most improve.

This defeat itself was not sufficient to persuade me to leave. Just as the abject failure of the party leadership to grasp the opportunities presented by the partnership agreement with Colum Eastwood’s SDLP also failed to drive me out – though I have to concede that did bring me perilously close to departing.

The bizarre and odd straw that broke this contrary camel’s back came via an appearance on last Friday’s RTÉ One 6.01 news by the now Taoiseach, Micheál Martin. He was there to speak about the expected announcement of the Fianna Fáil membership vote.

Answering a question about the mandate for the program for government within Fianna Fáil Martin spoke glowingly about respecting the people who had campaigned for no within the FairerFuture group. A group of which I was a member.

Dismissing the interviewer’s impudent description of our group as dissident, Martin said there had been a “very energetic debate” at all levels of the Fianna Fáil party, hailing the process as proof that “democracy in our party is alive and well.

It was this throwaway comment that saw me off the premises. It is one thing trying to fool yourself and those on the side lines, but it is another one entirely to try to fool those directly involved.

Winning an election gives you the right to pursue your agenda, it does not confer the right to rewrite the story of the process and to cast everyone else in the roles to which you wish they could be assigned. (You wait until you are appointing Cabinet and Junior Ministers and to do that – but that is another story).

I will not recite a litany of real and perceived problems with how the party hierarchy responded to our campaign. Some are too complex to neatly sum up in a few words, others are petty and juvenile. The bottom line is that the current Fianna Fáil leadership seemed truly incapable of grasping the idea that there could be an alternative interpretation or analysis of the PfG, other than its own.

It seemed that the party bosses could not comprehend a scenario where any case other than that favoured by the leader could be argued or presented.

I have no doubt that their outlook contained no malice. They had no problem in seeing that members had an absolute right to say No, it was just that they could not see how or understand why anyone else in the party might be granted use of the party machinery and apparatus to present a counter argument to the leadership orthodoxy.

It most assuredly is not the Una Duce, Una Voce approach that supposedly held sway in the 1980s. This is more like Una Duce, Una Versione. One leader, one approach.

It is an approach that puts cohesion and solidarity above all. There’s “us” and only “us”, as if no “them” can be allowed to emerge. The fact that this benefits the current leader and his coterie is just coincidental.

It is a false notion of party unity that undermines the purpose and rationale of a political party. The fact that the leader goes on TV and radio and hail this una versione notion of internal democracy in an earnest and genuinely sincere manner is a signal to me that its time to hop the fence.

Let me digress here slightly. The Una Duce Una Voce stuff was never the reality. Not only does the phrase come from a joke that backfired at an off-the-record press briefing, but there was always an alternative focus of opinion to the great leader within Fianna Fáil.

Yes there was Haughey holding centre stage and making sure the lights and microphones were focussed on him and the occasional loyal spear carrier, but there was also a Colley or an O’Malley waiting in the wings, eager to supplant him.

There were two sides to all issues and arguments. This made things difficult and fraught as the battles were more often about personality than ideas, but even so a genuine policy debate could break out, the odd time.

Today’s institutionalised reluctance to encourage open debate is also to be seen in how the parliamentary party was asked to approve the PfG.

Most Fianna TDs and Senators only got the document about two and a half hours before they went into a parliamentary meeting. This surely is the political equivalent of going to buy a car only to find the salesperson has covered the contract with their jacket and insists you sign through the buttonhole now.

So what, says you, weren’t they being kept updated on what was in it all along? Seemingly not. The parliamentary party meeting immediately before that one was five weeks earlier. It was conducted by phone conference, as if Fianna Fáil TDs don’t possess Zoom, and was later described to me as more like listening into a broadcast than participating in a meeting.

So, here I am outside Fianna Fáil, but with no desire to join any other party instead (sure who in their right mind would have me?). It is quite possible, indeed it is highly likely that I will return to Fianna Fáil at some point in the not too distant future when the party hierarchy and apparatus has rediscovered and reconnected itself to the worth and value of having open debate and contrary opinions within a political party.

I am perhaps being unfair to our new Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, in supposing that such a development will require a change of leadership.

But I must go by the evidence of my own experience over the past few years – and that tells me that this situation is not going to improve or change under Martin.

I am not comfortable with the situation in which I find myself, but happy with my decision.Now I can test the validity of the transposed Aussie political claim (substituting FF for ALP) that says:

“You haven’t really been in Fianna Fáil until you have been drummed out of it… at least once”. 

Thus far, it feels right.

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: Newly-elected Green Party TDs in Leinster House on February 2; Derek Mooney

I‘m sure I’ve mentioned that I am a great fan of the former Australian Prime Minister, Paul Keating. before now. While Keating’s punchy but moderate centre-left politics attract me, it is his feisty, quick witted, no nonsense approach that seals the deal.

The internet is full of classic Paul Keating political quips and put downs. The Australian Broadcasting Company (ABC) has collected some on this webpage.

In one memorable 2007 radio interview alone Keating described John Howard’s Treasurer (Finance Minister), Peter Costello, as “all tip and no iceberg”, before launching a fusillade at his former Liberal Party opponent and successor as Prime Minister, dismissing the balding Howard as the “little desiccated coconut” adding that he was clinging on to the role like “grim death” and was “araldited” to the prime minister’s seat.

Keating’s most infamous put down came soon after he had succeeded his mentor, Bob Hawke, as Prime Minister.

Keating started the slow countdown to the election deriding the opposition’s “Fightback!” economic plan. In parliament, the Liberal leader and Fightback! architect, Dr John Hewson tried goading Keating, saying:

“if you are so confident about your view of Fightback, why will you not call an early election?

Seeing Hewson smirk after posing the question is like watching a lamb gambol to the slaughterhouse. Keating savours the moment. He leans into the microphone to ensure his response is heard clearly about the din, and says:

“The answer is, mate, because I want to do you slowly. There has to be a bit of sport in this for all of us. In the psychological battle stakes, we are stripped down and ready to go. I want to see those ashen-faced performances; I want more of them. I want to be encouraged. I want to see you squirm out of this load of rubbish over a number of months.”

What wouldn’t Fianna Fáil, or most other Irish parties, give right now to have a leader with that level of belief, conviction and passion.

Curiously, the Keating line with which I planned to open this week’s column, is not from Keating, at all.

In “Labor in Power”, the ABC documentary series charting Hawke and Keating’s 13 years in office, Keating quotes a former ALP (Australian Labor Party) leader’s assessment of party membership and loyalty:

“You haven’t really been in the ALP until you have been expelled from the ALP, at least once”

Though I haven’t been expelled from Fianna Fáil… well, not yet, as far as I know, I did come perilously close to it a few years ago.

I had gone on to RTÉ’s Morning Ireland in November 1994 to call on the then Taoiseach and leader, Albert Reynolds to consider his position.

The charge levelled at me was the catch-all “bringing the party into disrepute”. As it turned out Mr Reynolds was gone as both Taoiseach and leader before anything was done about me.

The complaints disappeared. At least I hope they did. Who knows, maybe those old charges are just resting in a file in Fianna Fáil HQ, waiting to be dragged out whenever I transgress again.

In that case I hope no one around the current leader is reading this morning’s column or any of the last seven or eight ones I have written, for that matter.

For the past week or so I have been working with a group of other ordinary Fianna Fáil members to campaign for a No vote on the Programme for Government (PfG).

I have explained here why I am voting No and why I have a problem with the particular government configuration, so I do not propose to rehash those arguments here again this morning.

By this day next week we will know the outcome of the three votes. Most expect Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to vote yes. I suspect they are right, especially given the massive pressure being brought to bear to secure a yes, but I also think the margins will be tighter than expected, a lot tighter.

But, as interesting as the FF and FG races may be, it’s on the third race that the spotlight will fix tighter. The Green Party’s requirement for a two-thirds majority gives their no side a major advantage, but there are two things that makes a Green defeat even more likely.

The first is the campaign the no side has mounted, as typified by Neasa Hourigan’s impressive speech at their recent marathon online seminar.

The second is the campaign being mounted by Varadkar and Martin to sway their less than convinced memberships.

Every time they try to persuade their members that the Green’s 7% per annum emission cuts won’t kick in until after 2025 or that Tarbert LNG plant and the M20 Cork/Limerick motorway are not going to be sacrificed, they succeed in driving a few more Green delegates into the No column.

So, is a Green rejection of the PfG really likely?

Yes, I think it is and I have been saying this for weeks.

Is it the worst possible outcome?

Well, seeing that I am urging my own party to also reject it, it is fairly evident that I do not.

Whether the No vote it comes from Fianna Fáil or the Green Party, or both, rejecting the PfG is not just rejecting the fruits of the negotiations it is rejecting a process that has not just seen a several parties excluded,

it is it rejecting a process that is curiously built around partial rejection of the Dáil itself.

I say this as the dog that has not barked during this whole process is Dáil Éireann. Because, not only will we know the results of the three ballots by this day next week, we will potentially know the direction of travel following those results as the Friday results are likely to be followed by a full, socially distanced, plenary session of the Dáil, at the Dublin Convention Centre.

It will be this Dáil’s 23rd sitting day since Thursday February 20th. more importantly, will only the third time it has meet in full session with all TDs present since that date. That is only three occasions for all 160 TDs to meet together in the 135 days since polling day

Clearly these are different times and members and staff in the Oireachtas are entitled to the best health and safety protections, but it is frankly ridiculous that the Dáil has not been permitted to operate remotely via Zoom/Skype. Even the outdated House of Commons managed to find a way to meet in full, but in safety.

The restrictions on Dáil sittings have created an air of artificiality about the whole government formation process. Though past processes have not hardly included T.D.s at every step of the process, neither have they seen so many effectively side-lined whether voluntarily or in-voluntarily.

How could any Taoiseach, caretaker or otherwise, even considered requesting a Dáil dissolution when the Dáil has only had one opportunity over a period of 123 days (counting from Feb 20th to today) to fully involve itself in the election of a Taoiseach.

It is the Dáil, the full assembly of TDs from all parties and none, who elect the Taoiseach. It is the choices and decisions of the people’s 160 TDs that matter, even more so than several 100 swing voters in the Green party.

While yesterday’s papers were full of grim warnings from Fine Gael sources of the dire consequences of either the Greens or Fianna Fáil rejecting the deal, the political reality is that the 160 TDs together have the capacity to address those consequences.

It will be neither easy nor elegant, but this is what we elect our TDs to do. Indeed some of our 49 already elected Senators will head to Court this week to attempt defuse one of the most significant consequences: getting the Seanad to even convene.

This is not to underestimate the scale of problem. Indeed, it would not be unfair to call it a crisis, but political crises usually have political solutions.

One of the most worrying consequences of the Dáil failing to act on Saturday would be the possible collapse of the Special Criminal Court from June 29 and the implications of that for major gang feud cases. This is something that should worry us greatly, no matter what party we are in.

But how did we get to this point?

Why were government formation machinations allowed to roll on so long as to collide with this deadline? Was no one aware of this political buffer? Or, could it be that talks were strung out because some people were acutely aware of it?

These are question for a few weeks hence, right now our focus should be on the party votes, the Friday counts and the urgency of creativity and action on Saturday next.

Otherwise, it is all of us who’ll be done slowly.

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: Fine Gael’s Simon Coveney (left) and Paschal Donohe (right) with Green Party Leader Eamon Ryan at government buildings yesterday; Fianna Fáil leader Michael Martin (second left) yesterday and his negotiating team for the formation of the next government; Derek Mooney

Depending on how you look at it, when it arrives the Fine Gael/Green/Fianna Fáil Programme for Government (PfG) will arrive either 15 hours, 3 days, 9 days or 3 weeks later than expected.

This is assuming it is published sometime this morning and is not once again deferred, delayed, postponed or otherwise held up by a talks process that appears to have been designed as a slow punishment for both those who work within it and those misfortunates who must write about it.

Before I tell you why I disapprove of both the deal and the government formation it hopes to underpin, let me start out by saying something (vaguely) positive.

It is to the immense personal credit of everyone in the three plenary negotiating teams that this document made it to paper. As a piece of political communications it is not bad. Each of the teams can see their own handiwork within its pages and can each say: “I put that section there”. Though whether many of them will still want to admit this in a few years’ time, is debatable.

The primary clue to the problems lurking beneath the surface of this deal is the length of time it has taken to agree it. As any experienced political operative could attest, negotiating a coalition arrangement between three diverse parties takes time.

But this deal has taken a lot of time, even allowing for the limitations of social distancing and other restrictions. Supporters of the deal say it was vital they take the time to iron out the problems and difficulties now.

Mr Varadkar stressed this point in a recent Fine Gael parliamentary party Zoom call, saying that the 2011Fine Gael/Labour coalition PfG talks showed how issues left unresolved just fester and cause problems later.

But did we really need to take this much longer? The 2011 government barely took 12 days to put together (from Polling day to election of Taoiseach). We are now at Day 128… and counting.

If this is how long they need to address issues when working outside of the pressures of government, how much longer is it going to take them to tackle a real political crisis while in government? A government is not judged on how it delivers planned responses to planned situations but on how it responds to the unexpected ones.

These are the unforeseeable “events, dear boy” of which former UK PM Harold MacMillan famously spoke (though no one can point to where he actually said it). The political pitfalls that try the cohesion and resilience of a government.

The persistently and consistently sluggish pace of the PfG talks, including the many missed deadlines, right up to this morning should give serious cause for concern about the parties’ capacities to respond speedily to a political crisis in government.

Firm supporters of the PfG, and I hear there are such exotic creatures outside of the negotiating teams and the ranks of ministers-in-waiting, boast that this is one of the most comprehensive coalition deals ever formulated. Looking at its 100 plus pages, it is hard to say they are wrong. But we do not measure PfGs in terms heft and girth alone.

Is this a cohesive package? It contains elements that are identifiably from the parties but how do they meld together? How can you reasonably fit Fianna Fáil’s demand for greater spending on housing and health within the austerity constraints set out by Leo Varadkar?

The Fine Gael triumvirate of Varadkar Coveney and Donohue are adamant the PfG is primarily framed by Fine Gael values of fiscal responsibility and deficit reduction. But this is the very approach which voters rejected last February. Just where in the PfG is this inconvenient truth acknowledged?

On the other hand, how can you justify banning further off shore gas exploration, banning the importation of fracked gas and curtailing the planned motorway building programme at precisely the moment when the economy needs big public infrastructure projects to stimulate the economy?

How does banning gas and oil exploration and forcing us to import them instead reduce the amount we use? I totally understand why the Greens want and need this. I can even see why Éamon Ryan fears the chances of getting the 66% backing needed without these measures, but I cannot see how it makes economic sense.

The Programme for Government is replete with other policy paradoxes, from live exports, to ending the strategic housing development fast track system in 18 months or to having 2030 target dates on a range of issues.

No matter how much love, passion, conviction or heartache the negotiators put into this deal it cannot at one and the same time represent core Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Green values without them being so simplified, generalised and abridged to be rendered meaningless.

My greatest criticism of the PfG however, has less to do with its contents – some of which, despite their contradictions, have merit – and has everything to do with the basic approach underpinning it.

As I have repeatedly stated here the two main parties in this deal have never faced up to what happened when voters went to the polls on February 8th.

One can see why Fine Gael hasn’t, or at least hasn’t not done so publicly. That would require them acknowledging that a large swathe of the people who voted for them in 2011 have rejected them since. Not just once, but twice. Fine Gael has watched its first preference vote drop from 800,00 (36%) in 2011 to 545,000 (25.5%) in 2016 and down further 456,000 (21%).

Despite a leadership change that was supposed to restore its fortunes, its vote has collapsed to just over half of what it was. Yet, despite this decline, Fine Gael clenches firmly on the levers of power, particularly the ones in the Department of Finance – an issue I explored here at the end of April.

You’d almost have to admire their chutzpah. They lose votes and yet cling on. They are allowed do it because the party that said it would turf them out has done a 180o turn and is now actively asking its own members to back a deal that will keep Fine Gael in office for a historic third term.

This is because the current Fianna Fáil leadership has also not yet processed what happened last February. It is a drum I have been banging on repeatedly since early March (see here, here and here), so I won’t dwell on it here today.

The bottom line is that there are three absolute truths in Fianna Fáil today. They highlight how misguided the current strategy is, but also that Fianna Fáil had options, options that gave it leverage – and may yet do that.

The three truths are:

Truth 1. Fianna Fáil TDs do not want a second election. To be fair, this could be said of almost every T.D. While Fine Gael may talk tough about a second election, their TDs know their current poll leads are soft. As a pack, Sinn Féin TDs are less worried, but individual T.D.s, especially first timers are in no particular rush to put their nice new gigs in jeopardy.

Truth 2. Almost no government can be formed without FF involvement. This is where Fianna Fáil’s leverage resides. The only alternative government formation to one involving Fianna Fáil is one with both FG and SF. While this may happen one day, it isn’t happening now. It would be politically unsellable to its own members. Whether it is Unity – all parties, National – the three main parties, or some minority government with a C&S arrangement, there are more scenarios that put Fianna Fáil in office than outside of it.

So, why has Micheál Martin rejected all talk of other options and spurned the leverage they bring? I could speculate, but I won’t. Besides, what’s the point?

Martin has made his decision. He has taken his Fianna Fáil party to this point and must deal with what happens next. He could pull it off. Equally, his strategy could yet be derailed by membership votes in his own party members and the Green party. We will know in under two weeks.

Oh, what about the third truth? It is the most painful and difficult one of all. It is the one that TDs and senators dare not say out loud.

Truth 3. Micheál Martin has fought his last election as party leader. Win, lose or draw, we will not see Micheál Martin lead Fianna Fáil into another election. Whether the next election is in 3 months, 2 years or 4.5 years and no matter what happens in next week’s members ballots, Martin’s last race as leader has been run.

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

Rollingnews

From top: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar announcing Phase Two on Friday at Government Buildings; Derek Mooney

Tempting though it is to present you today with yet another analysis piece about the government formation process, I will resist.

My reasons are twofold:

1. There is a 50/50 chance the process will still be ongoing this time next week

2. We are in such a state of flux with events moving faster than ever, there is every chance that the facts underpinning any analysis could change while I write it up.

OK, reason one is a bit flippant. I would be extremely surprised if an agreed document, though not necessarily one agreed by everyone, has not emerged by week’s end.

The second reason remains rock solid.

The one thing I can say with any certainty today is that there are so many moving parts and shifting gears that no one outcome, or series of outcomes, is certain.

No party can take its internal vote for granted. Beware those smiling faces and soothing voices telling you that it will be alright on the night – it might not be.

Party activists and councillors are a wily lot. They will want the arguments for and against presented to them. Party HQs who try to present one side only could face a backlash.

Voters across all three parties – and each party is handling this differently – will take many factors, including ones not included in the Programme for Government, into account when deciding the future of the programme and perhaps their party.

As I explained in my last Broadsheet piece I have consistently thought the Green negotiating team would stay in the talks right to the production of some document. I have argued that the question was not about the production of a document, but rather whether the Green negotiating team will be able to sign off on it as a united team.

As of today that seems unlikely.

Perhaps the platform for Catherine Martin’s leadership bid will be: vote for the deal, but vote for me as the better person to deliver it.

But that is a confused and inelegant message. It is certainly a harder sell than the much simpler: reject the deal and reject the leader who walked us into this.

Come to think of it, that may well be a slogan which folks in other parties might want to consider if and when they decide to change leaders.

Anyways, I have already deployed almost 400 words writing about the topic I’d prefer not discuss just now.

I want, instead, to focus briefly on two other old familiar issues/challenges/opportunities which will still be around if, and when, we eventually get a new government in place.

The first is Brexit. The second is the break-up of the UK, though this an issue which arises logically from the first.

While we have been focused sensibly and correctly on tackling Covid-19 and trying to have socially distant government formation talks, the EU and UK negotiators have been busy meeting up virtually and responsibly but managing to progress nothing.

Recall that the UK, which left the EU on January 31st last, decided unilaterally that it would only allow an 11-month transition period. This was the maximum time it would permit for to negotiate its future trading arrangements with the EU.

We are not far off the mid-point of that transition and neither side is anywhere closer to agreeing those future trading arrangements. If anything the process is going the other way. In his June 5th press conference assessing the current state of negotiations the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier said:

“In all areas, the UK continues to backtrack on the commitments it has undertaken”

He went on to say that the UK doesn’t want to talk about “cooperation on foreign policy, development and defence… I still don’t understand why”.

He is not the only one wondering why. Surely, one would think, as Johnson’s government set the short negotiation time frame before Covid-19 struck, it would not be unreasonable for the UK to seek an extension of the time frame for talks.

Not only would it be reasonable, it would be sensible and practical to get an extension, as Colum Eastwood MP and others have argued.

There are very real and potentially lethal consequences for people on this island, North and South. If there is no transition extension, then the UK will be a third country for data protection rules from January 1st next.

It will be outside the scope of GDPR and that will make the transfer of personal data to the UK impossible. This includes personal health data. What is the point of Covid-19 contact tracing apps North and South that cannot speak to each other and cannot share your personal data as you cross the border?

To quote Colum Eastwood:

“the contact tracing programme is critical for cross-border workers, border communities and our wider population… Anything that hinders the free flow of data will critically undermine the contact tracing process and put lives at risk”.

(See this UCL report for more detailed explanation of how complex and difficult EU/UK data transfers will be if the UK leaves without any agreement).

Sadly, as my colleague Tom Hayes has set out in this lengthy, but detailed analysis of what motivates brexiteers today, Johnson, Gove, Cummings and the other brexiteers cannot countenance a transition extension, as that would concede a real value to EU membership, and they can never do that.

But, as the laws of political physics dictate, to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Just as Johnson and Co put the interests of Brexit and Brexiteers above those of the voters, the voters, particularly those in Scotland are putting their interests, particularly their interest in a secure, safe and self-determined future ahead of Brexit and a south of England centric United Kingdom.

Poll results released in Scotland on Friday showed 52% of Scottish voters in favour of Scottish independence. It is the fourth Panelbase poll on Scottish independence conducted so far this year and shows a consistent lead for Yes to Independence – see Scottish poll blog here.

While it is not a commanding or irreversible lead, it shows a clear direction of travel with Yes to Independence having a 3pt lead over No by 48:45 even when you include the 7% Don’t Knows, an ever-dwindling cohort.

It is as if the occupants of Downing Street want to push Scotland out of the Union, closely followed by Northern Ireland and are happy to say or do whatever is needed to provoke voters into going.

Be it his mishandling of the UK’s Covid-19 response, the Brexit talks or the Dominic Cummings Durham drive fiasco, which was bizarrely blessed with the hashtag #Cummgate, Boris Johnson proves that when it comes to rousing passions he can do it harder, faster and probably quicker, than Alex Salmond ever managed.

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: Green Party TDs, including leader Eamon Ryan (fourth left) and deputy leader Catherine Martin (in red) assemble following General Election ’20;; Derek Mooney

If, on the night of the election count, you had been asked to bet on which of the three leaders, of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael or the Greens, would face a leadership challenge first, I very much doubt many would have their money on Éamon Ryan.

Why would they? As the counting of ballots ended Ryan was the only one of the three with anything to celebrate. While Martin and Varadkar were trying to explain away seat losses, Ryan was almost iridescent as he watched the ranks of his Dáil party swell from just two TDs to twelve.

Ryan was not just a successful leader, he was the Green’s most successful ever leader in its almost 40-year history, winning twice as many seats as had been won under Trevor Sargent in 2002 or 2007.

It was the leadership careers of Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin which seemed to be hanging delicately in the balance that week.

Maybe it is an indication of how much politics has changed in recent months that both Varadkar and Martin seem relatively (though not equally) secure in their positions, while it is Ryan who could well be struggling for political survival.

The announcement last Wednesday by Green Deputy Leader Catherine Martin TD that she would give “serious consideration” to the request from party members to “step up and contest the upcoming leadership election” has given rise to a lazy narrative by some political pundits that this just typical green silliness and that party is not engaged in mature adult politics.

It is not a view to which I subscribe.

What is happening in the Green Party is not your traditional bun fight between competing egos looking for the top job. It is a high-stake struggle between competing outlooks for the future of the Green Party. A party which has changed significantly over the past few years.

Ryan may be about to become the victim of his own success. He has brought a new and committed generation of activists into the party, but unlike many of their antecedents, they see the government of which Ryan was a key part as the origin of the party’s difficulties.

To understand what is happening in the Green party today you need to grasp just how much the party has changed over the last few years, from the bottom up.

The Green party of today is not the same Green party that went into government with Fianna Fáil in 2007. Yes, there are some familiar faces still near the top, but go past this thin layer and it is a vastly different party in terms of membership.

Figures released by the Green party in advance of its July 2019 National Convention showed that party membership was up by over 60%, including a doubling of members over an 18-month period from January 2018. In other words, fewer than 40% of its current members were around during the 2007 – 2011 period.

This new membership has a very jaundiced view of the Green’s participation in that government. Along with those veterans who weren’t fans of the 2007 decision to enter government, or the 2009 mid-term decision to stay in, they are less focused on the global economic crash that buffeted the government than they are on:

(a) the perception that it failed to deliver significantly on Green issues and

(b) the reality that participation led to a Green electoral collapse which meant no green voice in national politics from 2011 to 2016.

This was a central theme of the aforementioned 2019 Convention and still dominates internal discussions. Why go into government now if you are almost certain that political history says you will have  no political voice for the following five years?

It will certainly be to the forefront of the minds of many activists when they vote on any deal – which assumes the process gets that far – so there will have to be a great deal in that deal (pick any pun you want in that line I’m sure I intended it) to trump these twin concerns. Remember, one of the motions debated at the 2019 convention argued that:

‘Environmentalism is totally incompatible with capitalism and we can no longer shy away from talking about it.’

Wouldn’t you love to have been a fly on the wall when Ryan put this point to Varadkar and Martin?

So, as I have said here before, I cannot see what is in it for them to enter government now.

Certainly, the Greens will never be more needed or wanted in a government than they are now and, I am sure, Éamon Ryan believes this gives them considerable leverage in the government formation process, but the need and want is not related to Green policies, it’s about their numbers.

Leo and Micheál want Éamon for his bodies, not their minds.

The Greens would be going into government at precisely the moment when the policy options and choices will be more limited than ever.

The narrowness of the options facing government over the next 18 months will make the ones facing government in 2009 look roomy. Despite the unicorns and sunbeams shoe-horned into Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael’s Framework agreement, the choices facing the next government are horrendous.

Let me be clear, this is not an argument for the Greens, or others, to avoid difficult decisions and scurry to the opposition benches to join Sinn Féin.

It is simply a reality check on how restricted the scope for meaningful policy changes will be for the next two years.

Take energy policy, for example. We will need every resource we can get our paws on to aid our post pandemic economic recovery and that means exploring the natural gas in Irish waters.

I know this is not something the Greens like to hear, but they need to remember this when they are being asked to frontload 100% of their credibility on a government which has, at the very best, only a 50/50 chance of getting to its own mid-point.

Are the Green’s ready to bet that their government partners, and here I mean Fine Gael, is going to stay the course and not cut and run when it thinks it can dump the Greens and cannibalise what remains of Martin’s Fianna Fáil?

As we saw last week, there are plenty of Fine Gael-ers who think an election now is a better bet than coalition – do the Greens (or Fianna Fáil) really think the blue leopard will change its spots because they’ll all be getting along well?

By this time next week (i.e. the June Bank Holiday Monday) the talks will be entering their last full week. At that point a few things can happen.

The Green party negotiating team could conclude that an agreement is not possible and simply walk out. This is perhaps the unlikeliest option. In her statement of last Wednesday Catherine Martin not only says that any possible leadership campaign should be subsequent to the government formation process, she stresses that she

“…believe[s] it is important that government formation talks fully conclude uninterrupted…”

I suspect the talks, which are now expanded to include independent TDs will result in some form of a document. The question is whether the Green negotiating team will be able to sign off on it as a united team.

If the full five member negotiating team cannot do that, then it is hard to see how the party’s leadership can remain united and recommend acceptance to a postal ballot of all Green Party members across the island.

While both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael only require simple majorities in their postal ballots (though winning by a margin below 60:40 could spell trouble for either man) the Greens require a two-thirds majority of those voting.

It’s a high hurdle to overcome when your negotiating team is united. Virtually impossible when it is not – and right now with Catherine Martin parking the issue of leadership until after that vote, it is hard to see how Éamon Ryan gets his 66.6%.

Ironically, it is still possible that Ryan gets to stay on as leader a few days longer than his colleagues, particularly if either of their party memberships dissent… and just right now I would not be rushing to PaddyPower.com to bet on them both winning.

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: Fine Gael Tanaisté Simon Coveney and Fianna Fáil’s Darragh O’Brien on RTÉ One’s The Week in Politics yesterday; Derek Mooney

As I opened last week’s column talking about how virtual quizzes have helped make this lockdown easier to bear, it’s only fair that I give TV a bit of credit.

Not just Television in general, even though it has helped a lot. I am thinking of one new TV drama series in particular. You know it.

Whether you follow it in weekly instalments on RTÉ, or binge watch it online, it has garnered an enormous amount of attention, stretching well beyond its normal time slot. It has given radio phone-in shows across the country plenty to talk and argue about.

Some say it captures the beauty and brutality of courtship and rejection with compassion and feeling. They point to the how the slow, methodical progression of the will they, won’t they narrative hesitantly gives way to the uneasy tensions of the first fumblings of intimacy.

The on screen appearance of a few limp dicks has set folks on to social media to rant about a loss of values, nonetheless it has still been the landmark lock-down drama.

But enough about the government formation process, hasn’t Normal People been a great watch too?

Trust me, I would much prefer to be writing about Normal People than what I am about to deliver, but I am a political wonk and that means sticking with the stuff about which I know something.

Fianna Fáil colleagues will be relieved to know that this week’s piece will not be about the party’s trials and tribulations – well not directly, anyway.

After four or five weeks of shoehorning oblique “emperor’s new clothes” references into my weekly offerings, I am taking a rest and letting them off the hook… for now.

My plan, up to mid-way through Sunday afternoon, was to look at how Fine Gael was handling this government formation process.

While the plan hasn’t changed, the intemperate and petulant statement issued on Sunday by the Blueshirts… sorry… Fine Gael… altered the angle from which I will approach that analysis.

While the immediate sturm und drang thrown up by Fine Gael’s statement may abate when Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar get to meet face-to-face today, it does highlight the absence of any trust between the two parties. Yet both leaders insist this faltering process can and must result in a government capable of lasting for four and half years?

So, how did this particular drama unfold and just how did it end up with Fine Gael saying the talks process is damaged?

It started, on the face of it, early on Saturday morning with a front page scoop by the Irish Times’ Fiach Kelly. He said that plans:

“…are being drafted by officials on the orders of Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy on a contingency basis should the current negotiations to form a government fail”.

Note the bit in bold… on the orders of. Now, while I cannot speculate on where a highly respected political reporter like Fiach got this story, I am willing to bet that it didn’t come from Fianna Fáil.

It may have come from the department, it is generally accepted that senior officials do not leak, well, not unless there is a very real benefit to the department in them leaking… and I am not seeing that here.

It is not unreasonable to therefore deduce that it may have come from someone around Fine Gael, though there is no hard evidence to support that.

Not that the source is ultimately all that important, especially as the core of the story is true. Such a contingency is being considered, though probably not on the orders of the Minister.

So, now we have the lit fuse, step forward Fianna Fáil who respond by engaging in a bit of tit-for-tat. They see Fine Gael as goading them with a “we can have an election if you folks fail to agree with us” message via the Irish Times and strike back with a tweet from Barry Cowen.

This is followed up on by a few other Fianna Fáil TDs and Senators. So far, so not very unusual. Not especially edifying, but process damaging? No.

Indeed, it is worth recalling that politicos and journos have been talking about a second election for weeks. I wrote about it here at the beginning of April, and suggested that far back that such speculation was possibly fuelled by informed discussions with sources not far removed from the Fine Gael leadership.

Back to the sequence of events. Things go quiet until yesterday at noon, when Fine Gael’s Deputy Leader, Simon Coveney is asked about the matter on RTE’s The Week In Politics.

Rather than responding to Fianna Fáil’s response and ramping up tensions, Coveney does what grown-ups are expected to do and moves swiftly to de-escalate the situation.

He tells Aine Lawlor that he had spoken to his Fianna Fáil counterpart, Dara Calleary and assured him that Fine Gael was not planning for a snap general election.

Fianna Fáil’s representative on the show Darragh O’Brien TD, not known for being one of politics’ great softies, sees Coveney being conciliatory and reciprocates by putting down his political cudgel.

So, as folks sat down to have their Sunday lunch it looked like the fuse was extinguished and the crisis averted. Just then Fine Gael churned out his statement. But to what precisely was the statement a response?

Darragh O’Brien had not cranked things up after Coveney’s mollification, quite the opposite, in fact. Could the official Fine Gael statement be a response – even a rebuff – to Coveney?

Could it be that Fine Gael’s own malcontents were so outraged by the sight of Coveney being too conciliatory to them’uns in Fianna Fáil that Varadkar threw them some red meat to gnaw and so what if Coveney and the government formation process were collaterally damaged

There are odd, even eerie, echoes in this micro-crisis to the November 2017 real crisis when Varadkar risked the fate of his government to save France Fitzgerald.

I wrote about it here at the time. Re-reading that piece shows how the Fine Gael playbook has hardly changed. Constant brinksmanship. Deliberate and contradictory mixed messaging.

Minister after Minister sent out to accuse Fianna Fáil of wanting an election while the Taoiseach tells RTE’s Six One:

“I don’t believe Micheál Martin wants one [an election] either, by the way…”

Varadkar got his blame game wrong in 2017, but are his team of advisers convinced that his situation is so bolstered by the pandemic crisis, or that Martin’s is so undermined by falling poll numbers, that the tactics that failed then will work now?

Even if they were to work, what do they expect to happen?

Do they think Martin will dispatch his two loyal lieutenants to appease faux Fine Gael outrage? If he does that, Martin is toast – but even if he were to survive, how does that move anything forward?

This is more about relations within Fine Gael than it is about relations between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. That said, neither sets of relations are in good shape and won’t improve anytime soon.

While Martin and Varadkar may emerge from today’s discussion with socially distanced handshakes, the illusion of understanding and even hints of contrition, the trust that wasn’t there on Saturday morning, still won’t be there tomorrow.

The damage to the process didn’t suddenly appear on Saturday, it has been there from the start, and long before that, if the truth is told. The absence of any trust is one of the few constants in this constantly astonishing process.

People do not have to like each other for trust to develop, but they must feel that they are in something together for mutual benefit and with mutual risk.

Neither is evident here. Why would it be when one party thinks it has loads of options, though probably not many as it hopes, and the other party is being told from the top down that there is no alternative.

Who in their right mind would think this is a recipe for success? Not normal people, that’s for sure

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: Then newly elected Fianna Fáil leader Micheal Martin (centre left) with former leader Brian Cowen (centre right) after sitting for a party ‘family photograph’ on the steps of Leinster House, January 27, 2011; Derek Mooney

One of the few enjoyable aspects of the lockdown has been the return to popularity of the old-fashioned quiz. Every day brings another invitation to participate in a quiz, invariably a political one, on Facebook, Zoom, Twitter or WhatsApp.

This stepped up a gear last week when I was asked to write a round of Irish politics questions, for a workplace quiz being organised by a friend via the Kahoot app (no, I hadn’t heard it before now either).

So, this week’s column opens with a question the quizmaster deemed too “pointed” for her quiz.

Here goes:

Which senior Fianna Fáil figure said this after a RedC opinion poll put the party on 14% and Fine Gael on 35%:

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

I originally drafted this as a multiple choice with five options, the fifth being (5). None of the above. No one said anything (in public). I decided against this as I thought the answer to was so obvious. But, as my friend reminded me, the answers are only obvious when you know them.

As I said, the question was not used and was substituted with a picture round shamelessly purloined from a Twitter quiz Senator Malcolm Byrne ran on Twitter a month or so back.

How you coming along with the answer?

If you have scrolled down to this point looking for the answer then fear not, you have not much further to go. If you think you already know the answer then feel free to skip ahead a paragraph or two.

I think the answer is obvious, but the problem with knowing the answer is having to face the unpalatable conclusions stemming from it.

Knowing the answer is akin to being in the crowd watching the parade in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale The King’s New Clothes pass by. You know others also know the answer; but you hope that not saying it aloud allows the parade to last a little bit longer.

If you have not come up with the answer, here is a giveaway clue: the Red C poll in the question is not the recent Business Post one. While it also has Fianna Fáil struggling on 14% and Fine Gael frolicking on 35%, it was not the first RedC poll to have the two old parties on these numbers.

The RedC poll referenced was conducted for Paddy Power and published on January 7 2011. It put Brian Cowen’s Fianna Fáil on just 14%. It was not the first bad poll result the party had received.

The November and December RedC/Business Post polls had the party on 17%, behind Fine Gael on 34% and Labour on 23% (give or take 1pt).

It’s a familiar situation, isn’t it? Fianna Fáil on the slide. Its support falling steeply and continuously, with no immediate prospect of recovery.

The similarity with what is happening today is even reflected in party spokespeople sticking carefully to the trite old line that they will not be swayed or influenced by polls.

But, in 2011, one minister concluded that it was time to say, stop. Which brings me to the answer to my original question. The senior Fianna Fáil who uttered those words 9 years against was then Minister for Foreign Affairs, Micheál Martin TD.

Faced with steadily declining poll numbers, declining party morale and increasing unease from across the membership Martin concluded that Fianna Fáil needed a change of direction.

On June 16, 2011 Martin convened a press conference at the old Burlington Hotel to deliver a strongly worded statement confirming that he would be voting no-confidence in Brian Cowen.

Martin also told the media that he had offered the Taoiseach his resignation, but that it had not been accepted and he was therefore staying on as Minister. this was despite his lack of confidence in his leader.

Hours earlier Cowen had moved to force Martin’s hand announcing a motion of confidence in himself. The move came after weeks of anonymous media speculation about ministerial dissatisfaction with the party’s declining fortunes and Cowen’s leadership.

In the following days Martin toured the Radio and TV studios expanding on his statement saying that he had “reluctantly concluded” that the party should change its leader and said that “the very survival of the party was at stake”.

All this was in the wake of a global economic crash and almost 14 years of Fianna Fáil led governments.

While the numbers are the same today, the context is vastly different – so different that it makes the same numbers look worse. Even bleak.

Fianna Fáil is facing a greater existential crisis today than in 2011. Just as Martin concluded in 2011, this is not the moment for steady as she goes.

Today, Fianna Fáil has been in opposition for nine years, all of it with Micheál Martin at the helm. He has achieved much over that time.

As I have said here several times, he halted the parties decline at a time when it was unclear that the party was not at risk of falling further. He resisted the siren calls to turn Fianna Fáil into a socially conservative, even euro-sceptic party.

He led the party to a moderate recovery in the 2014 Local Elections (though it had an awful European Election result on the same day) and repeated those modest gains in the 2016 election. That was the high watermark. But, in 2020 and leading from the front, Martin led Fianna Fáil straight back to 2011.

In a moment of possibly unintended candour during his recent Sunday Independent interview with Irish Independent group’s political editor, Philip Ryan, Micheál Martin may have let slip the political philosophy that has long underpinned his leadership and now serves to undermine it.

Answering a question on why the election went so wrong, Martin replies:

In 2016, we came in under the radar. We were very much front and centre in 2020. So I think we became a target very early on and I think we took a view on the budget that we felt attacks would come if Fianna Fail was seen to be profiting from the budget so we took a relatively conservative fiscal position and got sandwiched in between the two…

Roughly decoded, Martin’s MO for the whole of his leadership has been the management of expectations. Indeed, it has been less about its management and more about its suppression. (See the Kenneth Baker story I related here, last November).

Aside from his highly conditional acknowledgement that Fianna Fáil’s manifesto was conservative – an understatement considering how little it had to offer the growing non-propertied group in society – the rest is a succinct statement of Martin’s approach: avoid giving your party a definition or identity of its own.

Martin has permitted his party to be defined by others and opted instead to simply lowering expectations to the point that his people can break out the bunting, organically sourced tinned salmon, and promotions when disaster is avoided, or not, as is the case right now.

The strategy is politely sold as promise low and deliver high, but that is a mantra for governing, not campaigning. When it comes to elections, the Mario Cuomo doctrine applies – campaign in poetry, govern in prose.

Martin has given this his best shot. It is now time for others in the party to offer a future that extends to something more challenging and rallying than just co-signing Leo Varadkar’s missives.

PS. As I was finishing this piece news emerged via RTÉ’s Micheál Lehane of another joint Varadkar/Martin letter, this one to Labour’s Alan Kelly. I decided not to address this development beyond mentioning it here. Besides, having just watched Catch-22 (the 1970 movie with Alan Arkin and Orson Welles, not the recent TV remake), there is only so much surrealism a person can cope with in one evening.

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 Fail leader Micheal Martin and newly elected TDs on the first day of the 33rd Dáil on February 2; Derek Mooney

A few weeks ago I mentioned that the only place to have a rotating Prime Minister-ship is Israel. That was back in the mid 1980’s. It was part of national unity government agreement – a government that had the backing of 97 of the 120 Knesset members.

It looks like Israel is about to give the rotating premiership model another run with current PM Benjamin Netanyahu and rival Benny Gantz agreeing a three-year coalition deal that will see Netanyahu getting the first 18-month rotation and Gantz the second.

Interestingly, the two men who challenged each other in three parliamentary elections over 11 months, have also agreed to rotate the positions of foreign minister, energy minister and environmental protection minister after 18 months.

I know there are many here who would rather stick pins in their eyes than take heed what happens in Israel, but it does highlight some government formation issues which we should also consider.

The first is something I have raised here many times, specifically why are some political leaders so absolutely consumed with putting a 5-year government with a fixed 5-year programme in place right now?

Ignoring the fact that we have already used three months out of that 5-year timeframe, should we really be trying to set in stone the policies for a government post 2022?

It is wise or prudent, using the limited perspective we have now on what the post pandemic world will look like, to set the parameters of policy post 2022?

I think not. Indeed, I believe we should be united, across political divides, in focusing first and foremost on getting through the next 18 months (to two years) as safely and securely as we can.

Once we are safely through and a vaccine is widely available then we can stop, take stock and have a general election informed by an evidence-based analysis of the problems then facing us.

The time for a comprehensive five-year plan, one that has been debated with the people, in an election, is when we have Coronavirus in the rear-view mirror. Frankly, having a 5-year recovery strategy for the period 2022-2027 onwards makes a lot more sense than having a two-and-a-half-year one for 2022-2025.

The other point is why is there so much focus on the position of Taoiseach?

This may seem counter-intuitive but just bear with me for a few minutes.

If the speculation is correct, then the Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil leaders have agreed to there being a beefed-up office of the Tánaiste. One with increased staff, and oversight.

This points to the two leaders seeing the jobs of Taoiseach and Tánaiste as more akin to how it works in the Northern Ireland Executive: a first Minister and a Deputy first Minister, with both posts virtually equivalent, rather that the tradition Irish model of Taoiseach and loyal Tánaiste.

I can see their logic.

Increasing the authority of Tánaiste potentially avoids the chances of any major shifts in government approach when they rotate at mid-term. Perhaps their outlook is that it should not matter greatly to government cohesion who goes first or second, as the alternate will just be down the corridor, in a slightly smaller suite of office, with the same access to papers and officials as the one in the Taoiseach’s chair.

Understandably, Micheál Martin’s staff are eager to get their man into the office as speedily as possible as they know that every two days that Leo Varadkar gets as Taoiseach now, means one day less for Micheál Martin in the role.

However, as anyone who has served in government will tell you the character and legacy of a government is as much determined by who serves as Minister for Finance as it is by who serves as Taoiseach.

Unless I have missed out on something, there seems to be a general acceptance that Fine Gael will continue to hold the finance portfolio, albeit with a token re-establishment of a wholly separate Department of Public Expenditure.

The two departments, Finance and Public Expenditure, were split from each other in 2011 to accommodate the Labour party but have been under the aegis of one Minister since 2016.

While the Minister for Public Expenditure will be a major position in Cabinet, the Finance Minister will always have the upper hand. If you doubt that, ask any of the 26 Labour TDs who lost their seat in 2016.

In the Irish system of government money does not follow the decision; it is the other way around. Persuading just the Cabinet of the merits a policy change does not lead to that change being implemented. Real change only happens when the Department of Finance makes the money available. The Department of Finance effectively has a veto on all decisions. It is why the personality and mindset of the minister heading that department is critical.

Have one who wants a quiet life free of hard choices, one who sees themselves as the Department of Finance’s voice in the Cabinet, and nothing will change. They meet every plea from ministerial colleagues with the response: No, that is not going to happen, or the equally negative variation: do that from within your existing budget. In other words, slash an existing programme and use any money you save to fund it. Finance officials cherish these ministers.

The other, more astute type of Finance minister recognise their role as the Cabinet’s person ruling the department. Department chiefs may not like them, but they do respect them. The Department is not implacably opposed to change or reform, but it tests the mettle of those who drive it.

It is why the working relationship between Taoiseach and Finance Minister is so important. The fact that the Taoiseach can sack the Finance Minister shifts the power balance heavily in favour of the Taoiseach. Take that power away and the balance shifts back towards the centre.

This would appear to be what the FF/FG carve up has in store. It is not a bad deal for Fine Gael, but it is a poor one for Fianna Fáil. Martin will not only have a Fine Gael Finance minister he cannot sack, he will also have a Finance minister who feels he should liaise as much with the beef-ed up Fine Gael Tánaiste as with the Fianna Fáil Taoiseach.

The only time we have had a Taoiseach and Finance Minister from different parties was in the 1994 – 1997 Rainbow. Fine Gael’s John Bruton was Taoiseach and Labour’s Ruairí Quinn was Finance Minister. The relationship between the two men was said to be good, better than the one between Quinn and his party leader, Tánaiste Dick Spring.

Micheál Martin may feel he can replicate the Bruton/Quinn act with Paschal Donohoe.

Perhaps he will, but it hard to find much evidence to back that up. It is no secret that Fianna Fáil had neither heads-up nor advance warning of last week’s dire and stark economic warnings by Donohoe as he published his department’s Stability Programme Update.

Even the infamous FF/FG Confidence and Supply agreement had a no surprises clause, though one more honoured in the breach than observance. But that was back when Martin’s party was only on the outside promising not to topple Fine Gael.

Now, with the two parties actively planning and preparing to go into government as “equals”, you’d expect the channels of communications to have opened up, not closed down.

It may just have been a one-off error of judgement by Fine Gael. One that they shall faithfully promise never to repeat, ever again. But it could just as easily be a sign of how fraught and difficult life in government buildings is going to be – and that’s before you toss the Greens, Independents (of various hues) into the mix.

Last night’s move by Fine Gael to downplay Martin’s big announcement to yesterday’s Sindo that he will scrap the pension age increase was the latest in a series of Fine Gael public rebuffs, all of which Martin has taken stoically.

It will be fascinating to see whether Martin’s TDs, Senators, Councillors and constituency activists can continue show the same stoicism after a few more weeks of this.

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

Rollingnews

From top: Micheál Martin, Leo Varadkar and Mary Lou McDonald at a General Election 2020 Leaders’ debate; Derek Mooney

In 1945, just as the Second World War was ending, Britain faced a general election. Would post-war Britain be shaped by the Conservatives under Winston Churchill or by Clement Attlee’s Labour Party, a partner in the war time unity government.

The choice was clear, but the voters had no doubt who they wanted. They resoundingly rejected Churchill, the man who had led Britain to a victory that had sometimes seemed uncertain and opted instead for Attlee, the understated but progressive social reformer.

While historians offer several reasons for Churchill’s defeat, they all boil down to voters seeing that a good wartime leader does not necessarily make a good peace time leader.

The skills (and policies) required to lead a country through a time of crisis and external threat are not the ones you need when you are trying to rebuild after the crisis. And vice-versa.

It is a simple point that has been missed by the why national/unity government is a bad idea commentary of the last few weeks.

Rather than critically analysing the options facing us, most just repeat the mantra that national/unity government can’t work, shouldn’t work and mustn’t work.

The problem is that their analysis is based on a false premise, namely that we take a far from clear election result – from before the Coronavirus changed our lives – and extrapolate it into a coherent government for five years.

We cannot say, with any certainty, will happen in four-months’ time, so why do we suppose we can plan effectively now for what will happen in 4 years?

What we need is to have a stable and secure government in place for the next eighteen months (or, even perhaps two years) to take us through this crisis and get us out safely on the other side.

When that is done, we can see what damage we have sustained, assess the costs, see the state of the world around us and commence the process of not just rebuilding, but building anew.

We could then have an election in late 2021 or early 2022 with all the parties and groups offering policies and ideas informed by the time they had spent in government tackling the crisis.

I do believe a national/unity government makes sense. It is a view strengthened by the likelihood that the current Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael led process is going nowhere.

It may take a few more weeks for the two main parties to see this, but when they do they will be left with two options: admit that they cannot agree a government and go back to the voters, at a time when it is safe to run an election, or look at the one remaining untried option.

As the fictional Sherlock Holmes put it:

“When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

It is simple logic.

I do understand that national/unity government is a bit of a clunky description and that one person’s idea of what constitutes a national government is not another one’s. What I am talking about here is a government comprising of all the Dáil parties who wish to participate.

No party is compelled to join, each can decide to stay out. But equally, no party can veto the involvement of another, nor can it veto the establishment of the government itself.

That means Sinn Féin can join the government, but it cannot place conditions on its involvement. It cannot say that it will only go into government if Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael are excluded.

The same applies to Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, the Greens and any other parties or Independents who wish to join. No vetoes. People can exclude themselves; they cannot exclude others.

Finding out who wishes to serve could be done by indicative votes in the Dáil. Remember when we urged the House of Commons to resolve its issues over Brexit by indicative votes? Well, perhaps it is time for us to look at that option.

If the parties cannot agree a fair share-out of departmental responsibilities among themselves the fallback position could be their allocation by the d’Hondt process, as happens in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Once parties indicate that they wish to join, they then move quickly to agree a short and simple Program for Government with the single goal of getting the country safely through the pandemic and achieving a speedy mass vaccination programme once a safe vaccine is available. Once that is done, there is an orderly end to its mandate.

There is another model, by the way. One many would regard as simpler: a government comprising just the three main parties: Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Sinn Féin. A three-way split with each party having five places at Cabinet.

Either one works for me, once it can be put speedily in place.

In normal times, I would be implacably opposed to Sinn Féin’s participation in government. But these are not normal times. I do not retract or disavow any of the criticisms I have made of Sinn Féin here, or elsewhere, over the past few years.

I do not have to change my views on Sinn Féin, but I can see that voters have. I may disagree with what they have decided. I may resent Sinn Féin’s support being broadly equal to that of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, but to try and ignore that reality in the face of this challenge is simply churlish.

Speaking of me criticising people and questioning policies, this week’s Phoenix magazine accurately quotes me as attacking the joint framework document. I am very critical of it. Yes, there are some good things in it, such as the childcare proposals and the education and research opportunities, but its biggest problem are the things not in it.

How can you spend four weeks in policy talks in the middle of a pandemic and not include, in the resulting document, any consideration of what happens if we are faced with a second Covid-19 wave?

Surely that is item one on the agenda for any incoming government whether it is for 6 months, 18 months or five years?

There are many other things missing as well. There is nothing on the changing nature of work, particularly growing issues with the gig economy and bogus self-employment.

Neither is there any mention of cybersecurity, an issue I raised here several times, as I highlighted the paucity of our national cyber defence.

There will be a great deal more online commerce and remote working, especially from home, in post-pandemic Ireland yet we remain one of the least well defended countries in terms of cybersecurity.

Our national infrastructure, including our hospital infrastructure, is a sitting duck. Why did no one in the two parties think to mention this key issue, even once?

Just as irresponsible is the insipid reference – I cannot in good faith call it a commitment – to national defence and the defence forces – the organisation to whom I believe primary responsibility for cybersecurity should be given.

So, what happens now?

As I said earlier, I think the Greens, Labour and the Social Democrats will not want to be seen as dismissing the framework out of hand and will engage genuinely with the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael negotiating teams over the next week or two to see if there is a basis for moving to forwards. So will the various groupings of independents.

But I do not see the process progressing beyond that.

I simply cannot see what is in it for any of the smaller parties to jump on board, especially when some sources are saying that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are virtually decided on which departments they will take, keeping three cordoned off for a third party.

What, no room for a fourth party, or even an Independent minister? Not to mention the suggestion that Martin and Varadkar have agreed on a rotating Taoiseach and beefed-up office of the Tánaiste.

So, it looks like Sherlock Martin and Dr Varadkar will spend the next few weeks exhausting every other impossibility before realising that the last remaining option, they one they rejected two months ago, is the only viable one.

Either that or it is a second election.

While a second election is both fair and inherently democratic, it is still an admission, by all parties, of failure.

The alternative is an opportunity for politicians to show voters, particularly the newer generation of voters, that for all its faults and failings, politics ultimately works.

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

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From top: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (right) and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin during the party leader’s General Election 2020 debate on RTÉ One; Derek Mooney

According to the headline in last Friday’s Irish Times: Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are close to agreeing a coalition framework document.

I am sure they are.

Comments from the two party leaders confirms this. The Taoiseach has said the document should be ready within a week or two. Mr Martin said it could act as a “catalyst” for other parties to join such a government.

Yes, the parties have made some progress, but there is still a long way to go before there will be a government in place.

The optimism exuding from Fianna Fáil sources last week that a new government could in place before the end of April with Martin as Taoiseach, was… to put it at its mildest… a bit premature.

Let’s look at the facts.  Together Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have 72 Dáil seats. If everyone votes, 80 is a bare majority.

Realpolitik – something Micheál Martin was talking about a few weeks back – dictates that any government hoping to last a full term have a majority that is northwards of 80, preferably in the mid 80s. That or a confidence and supply agreement with another big party, but let’s not go back there, just yet.

To get to 80 or above the two parties need the Greens, or the Labour Party, or the Labour Party and Social Democrats, or the Labour party and Labour aligned independents, or some permutation or combination of the above to be part of the deal.

There are also several independents in play, including (though not limited) to those who backed both Varadkar and Martin on the February vote for Taoiseach.

To put it crudely, agreeing the joint Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael coalition framework document is the equivalent of plucking the low hanging fruit. There is a lot more reaching, stretching, climbing and grappling to be done to get the rest. And there is no guarantee that the efforts will pay off.

It is 57 days since we voted in the General Election and 45 days since the 33rd Dáil attempted to elect a new Taoiseach and put a government in place.

Under normal conditions, and we are clearly not in normal conditions now, when the Dáil is serially deadlocked and incapable of selecting a Taoiseach, the default option, one could even call it a backstop, is another election.

The possibility of another election contributes to the government formation process by setting an endpoint. The prospect of a continuing deadlock leading to an election can help concentrate the minds of the parties and individual TDs.

So, what happens in a situation where there cannot be an election and the Dáil cannot agree a new Taoiseach?

Well… nothing happens. The status quo remains the status quo and the outgoing government remains in place.

That’s what we have now. It is also what we will have for the foreseeable future. We are in a situation where that backstop… that impetus… that threat of a second election is not imminent.

Coronavirus means it is highly unlikely there could be an election any time before September or October, and even that timeline may be a tad optimistic.

To his credit, Martin and his supporters are saying in public what they are saying in private. It is not absolutely everything they are saying in private, but most of it is.

Martin may sincerely believe that a government with 85 (or more) seats, comprising Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael and another main party/parties (along the lines mentioned above) and friendly independents can be speedily put in place.

From what I hear the framework document is drafted in such a way as to give the Greens/Labour/Social Democrats most of what the FF/FG negotiating teams think they might want and need.

So committed is Martin and his inner circle to this end that they are ready to bet all their futures on it. Indeed, in the minds of many in Fianna Fáil (and that includes yours truly) they are ready to gamble the future viability of Fianna Fáil as a significant political force on it.

The always ultra-cautious, risk averse, Martin is set to go “all-in” in a game where he holds few of the cards and the other player has a number of hands from which to choose.

But Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael close to agreeing a coalition framework document was not the only political headline appearing in the Irish Times last week.

On Friday, the headline “Second general election is now a real possibility”appeared above a column by venerable political commentator Stephen Collins.

Collins said the unwillingness of the Greens, Social Democrats or Labour to join with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael made the prospect of a second election real possibility.

He was not the only one. The Irish Independent’s Kevin Doyle did the same on Saturday, though he put it stronger. He didn’t describe it as a possibility, he hailed it as a necessity saying that the Ireland of today and tomorrow is “a very different place” from the one that voted two months ago.

He is right on this last point. The manifesto promises made last February anticipated a very difficult world and a much stronger economy.

While it is easy to dismiss this talk of second elections as speculation, perhaps even brinkmanship – I am willing to wager that it is speculation based on more than a few informed discussions, discussions with sources not far removed from the Fine Gael leadership.

So, while the option Martin talks about publicly is the same one he works on privately, that is not the case for Fine Gael. This is not to say another election is Fine Gael’s preferred option, but it would be foolhardy not to recognise that the possibility exists.

Fine Gael has choices. It has options. It has these not because it has been busy out manoeuvering Fianna Fáil, but because Martin and his lieutenants have managed to somehow under manoeuvre themselves.

Many inside his party firmly believe his decision to rule out any meaningful exploration of the national unity government option was a mistake. I am one of them and, as Éamon Ó Cuív tweeted yesterday, we are many.

Rather than exploring the unity government idea and teasing out its duration or agenda and then allowing other parties to decide whether it was for them or not, Martin moved to shut down debate inside or outside his party.

He chose to steer his party into a position where it is committed to one route only. His supporters may hail it as noble and politically courageous, the act of a principled leader. They may be right, but it is not the action of a masterful strategist.

Micheál Martin the political leader, the man who would be Taoiseach, may see his suggested coalition as the one way forward, but there is another Martin, Martin the historian, who might see some feint echoes of 1948 in today’s attempts to pull all parties, bar one, together into coalition to keep that one party out.

Today it is Sinn Féin. In 1948 it was Fianna Fáil.

I have not changed my views on Sinn Féin, no more than Micheál Martin has. My problems with Sinn Féin appears as point one in the seven principles for government formation I drafted in early February and set out here five weeks ago.

I want a government without Sinn Féin, but I also want to be able to go to the pub tonight or to grab a bus into city centre tomorrow to meet friends. There are times we do not get our first wish, or even our second.

I am not filled with glee at the prospect of Sinn Féin entering government, but I grasp that these are unique times.

At this moment and for the next year or so, or until there is a viable and widely available Coronavirus vaccine, we need all the talents and political skills that are ready and willing to serve together in a unity government, serving in one.

No bans, vetos or exclusions. We have enough of those to cope with right now.

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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