Tag Archives: Derek Mooney

Former UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson at the Pendulum Summit in Dublin last January; ; Derek Mooney

Winston Churchill famously said that the United States always does the right thing – but only after exhausting all other options. If only the UK were somewhere near that point.

But it is not, it is still fumbling through just a few of the worst possible option while closing its eyes to the only right option now, revoking Article 50.

Theresa May’s speech last night was a disgrace. She appeared before the public with all the trappings of office, but with none of its authority.

She tried to act like an authoritarian, an unpopular populist telling a divided public that it’s you and me against the others… against all those MPs stopping us from doing what we must do.

It was like a very bad live re-enactment of the disgraceful Daily Mail November 2016 front page that branded those judges who ruled that Parliament must be consulted on Brexit as: Enemies of the People.

It was a shocking performance and it is to be hoped that it is the one of the last acts of a British Prime Minister who may still be well intentioned, but whose continuance in office remains a blockage to any progress.

At the time of the Brexit referendum Theresa May was a remain voter, though a particularly quiet one having made, as far as I recall, only one major intervention during the campaign where she argued for a remain vote.

Though a remain voter then May has, since assuming office, striven at every opportunity to make it clear that she does not cling to any secret remain agenda.

As Prime Minister, Theresa May has set the fulfilment of that referendum mandate as her primary function, even to the point of seeing it at superseding everything else.

It is as if May sees herself as working to a higher mandate, a higher purpose, namely the delivery of Brexit for the people even if that means going over the heads of Parliament and of MPs, as she attempted to do again last night.

What she has not done, however is to define Brexit. Her meaningless Brexit means Brexit trope would make George Orwell and Lewis Carroll weep.

While we can reasonably infer that she thinks her Withdrawal Agreement defines Brexit, she has never attempted to prepare or convince the public of this, not even the 52% of people who voted for it in 2016, whose mandate she claims.

Here lies the core of the problem. The confusion over what Brexit means is not the fault of Parliament, though it has not covered itself with glory on the matter, the fault lies with her.

Over 2 1/2 years after the referendum people still struggle to define what Brexit means. The 48% of people who voted against Brexit at the referendum had a very clear understanding of what remain meant, it meant the status quo. The same cannot be said for the 52%.

Doe Brexit mean leaving the European institutions? Leaving the political infrastructure of Europe – No longer having an EU Commissioner, representation on the Council of ministers, or members in the European Parliament? Or does it mean more?

Can you no longer be part of the political institutions but still be a part of the EU? This appears to be the argument of many Tories who also define Brexit as being totally and completely outside any beneficial trading relationship with the EU.

They want Brexit to mean no longer being a part of the customs union or the single market – a single market that once was the Tory party’s biggest achievement in Europe.

But, ironically, even though there is no unanimity among the 52% about what constitutes Brexit it is also become clear that the issue which is derailing May’s Withdrawal Agreement is the one issue that was never meaningfully discussed during the referendum, namely Northern Ireland.

To their considerable credit both Tony Blair and John Major did attempt to raise the issue of Northern Ireland, the border, and the Good Friday Agreement during the referendum, but they were told by the leaders of the various Leave campaigns that their concerns where irrelevant and that there were no consequences for Northern Ireland.

Well, three years later we can see just how totally wrong those brexiteers were. The Irish/Irish Border and the obligations contained in the Good Friday Agreement look like they will at a minimum disrupt and at a maximum destroy the folly of Brexit.

It is for this reason that it that the UK needs to hit the reset button. While I personally believe that a second referendum is the still best way out of this, for as long as Corbyn plays political games in Parliament, it is not a likely option.

There is also the issue of the length of time required to run a calm, measured and orderly referendum campaign, based on facts and realities, not hype and hysteria.

What is needed now is a reset. It is time not just for the U.K. to think again but to think for the first time.

Over the last 24 hours over 250,000 people have signed a Parliamentary petition to revoke article 50. That is the reset button that is what is needed now to give the UK time to stop and work out what it does next.

This does not necessarily mean that Brexit is over, after all the 2016 referendum mandate still stands.

Revoking Article 50, which will not be politically easy will allow the UK to admit to itself what its voters realise, namely that it has squandered the past 3 years. It now needs to sit down with a new prime minister and with a general election likely before the end of the year and look to see how it can build a consensus around a form of Brexit that works

Revoking Article 50, which the U.K. can do unilaterally is preferable from the U.K.’s point of view to a lengthy extension with several EU conditions attached.

Right now, the U.K. has three options: 1. back Mays Deal, 2. Leave with no deal, 3. Revoke Art 50. While there is a 4th option, a long extension, I think revocation trumps it. We are now at endgame.

While there is the slight possibility that May could win a third Meaningful Vote (MV3) next week that would require taking back over 75 MPs who opposed MV2. It a huge ask and not one helped by May last night berating those MPs whose support she needs.

Though revoking Article 50 may cause many Tories to fear that such a revocation will mean that Brexit disappears forever, there are circumstances where that may not be case, especially if Tory MPs do, what I fear they might – replace a perceived weak leader with a perceived ultra-strong one and make Boris Johnson leader of the party.

It is how revocation is both preferable to extension and how it could happen and be made to work, in all our interests… besides, the last thing any of us in the EU needs is a Johnson with an extension.

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

Top pic: Rollingnews


From top: UK Prime Minister Theresa May in the House of Commons yesterday; Derek Mooney

Over the past few weeks we have seen a parade of British pro-Brexit talking-heads confidently telling us that the EU/UK Brexit negotiations “will go down to the wire” and that Brussels will do, what they claim it always does, and make a deal at the very last minute.

David Davis was at it before he became Brexit Secretary and has continued at it since quitting the job. Ian Paisley Jr MP was at it on Newsnight last night, asserting that the EU “…are the kings of the last-minute fudge.”

How I wish that trite political phrases such as “going down to the wire” could be expunged from every politician’s lexicon.

It is an empty, meaningless phrase. It is on a par with someone watching you looking for your lost keys or credit cards and declaring: “it’ll be in the last place you look”. D’uh, yeah. It obviously will be in the last place you look… you are hardly going to keep looking after you find it, are you?

So it is with negotiations. They end when they end. It is hardly surprising that most negotiations go right on to the deadline you set. It is called a deadline for a reason, both sides knew it was the time framework they work within it.

There is even less depth to the phrase when it comes out of the mouths of Brexiteers because it only confirms that they haven’t (i.) realised that Brexit is not a negotiation and (ii.) bothered to find out how Article 50 works.

In a classic negotiation two parties enter talks with the mutual intention of finding a deal that will be better than their current situation. They will argue where that balance lies, but their aim is mutually benefit.

This is not the case with Brexit. It is a damage limitation exercise.

The EU knows that the UK leaving cannot be beneficial to either party. It increases costs and sunders relationships built over 46 years, relationships that have been hugely beneficial to people across this island.

There is no outcome whatsoever which can leave the UK having the same advantages, benefits and market access outside the EU as it had inside it.

This is why Britain has no leverage. It has had no leverage since the moment Article 50 was triggered, but the leadership of the Tory party, and regrettably the Labour party have stubbornly failed to grasp this fact.

Similarly, British political leader never stopped to read the EU treaties and learn how the exit process works. Even to this day serious political players and pundits in Britain fail to understand that there is a two-stage sequence.

First, comes the divorce arrangement, i.e. legally binding terms of for the withdrawal, which is followed the framework for the future relationship between the UK and the EU.

This may help explain why with just two weeks to go and after two years of talks, we are still arguing over one of the three key elements of the divorce: citizens’ rights, UK’s financial obligations and the Irish Border.

Yet countless British politicians keep asking about why they can’t have a discussion on the future relationship. Did none of them bother to read the rules set out in Article 50 of the EU treaties before triggering it, not to mention before having a Brexit referendum.

So, after a day of shuttle diplomacy… no, scrub that… a day of political theatrics, following by a day of Westminster shadow boxing, we move on to today’s House of Commons vote on eliminating a no-deal.

Not that the British Prime Minister intends to show any leadership on it. Within moments of her second big defeat last night Mrs May was on her feet to tell MPs that while she would be tabling a motion to rule out a No-Deal Brexit she would be giving her Ministers and MPs a free vote on it.

With this move she eschewed her responsibility to lead (and whip) as many Tory MPs as possible to vote to rule out a no Deal Brexit. Instead she will wander in alone and wait to see who meanders in after her.

She is putting the pretence of Cabinet and Tory party unity before national interest, a move that could see the scale of the predicted majority slide, though not enough to scupper it.

By not imposing a whip she has removed the protection of the whip from MPs who know ruing out a no-deal is right, but who fear the wrath of their hard-line activists back home – especially with an election looming.

This may allow these MPs, who would otherwise have followed her as a whipped act of party loyalty, to instead head for the pro-no-deal lobby along with the couple of dozen hard-line Tory Brexiteers who still believe a no Deal Brexit is a good outcome.

There they will also find the DUP – again voting against the interests of their Northern Ireland constituents – along with an assortment of Tory ministers and ex ministers, including Boris Johnson who yesterday urged his colleagues to back a no-deal Brexit claiming it was “…the only safe route out of this and the only safe path to self-respect”.

While this is vapid jingoistic claptrap, it may yet be the type of claptrap that sees him installed as the next Tory leader.

Also, in that No-deal lobby will be another, slightly larger cohort of Tory Brexiteers who think that voting to take no deal off the table injure Britain’s supposed negotiating position with Brussels, believing that the no-deal threat must be kept alive in order to win even more concessions from the EU27.

This is the cohort that most loudly chants the “down to the wire line” while ignoring what Barnier, Tusk, Juncker and others have told them over the past 24 hours.

This group potentially includes Cabinet Ministers, like Andrea Leadsom, Sajid Javid or even Michael Gove. Is keeping these folks in a Cabinet that is already beyond being merely dysfunctional really a price worth paying?

Theresa May thinks so, but as we have seen over the past two years, her judgement on any of these matters is not to be trusted anymore.

British politics is truly broken.

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

Pic: BBC

From top: Derek Mooney canvassing with Mark Durkan in Derry during the 2015  British General Election; Derek Mooney

Though this be hard for some folks to accept, I do plan these columns.

My usual routine is to type up a few paragraphs late on Monday night and then finish off the column over coffee and toast on Tuesday morning.

This week, as I have a couple of meetings early today, I did it differently.

Around 2pm yesterday I sat down in front of a blank screen and hoped for inspiration. As I started to type I was still unsure which one of two routes to pursue.

Should I write a follow-up to last week’s column and respond to the online criticisms from Sinn Féin supporters for calling out their confusion on a border poll?

Or should I write about Minister for Justice, Charlie Flanagan’s churlish tweet chiding the Seanad for doing precisely what it is supposed to do, scrutinising and amending legislation?

I had started to write some rough opening paragraphs on both topics when I received a piece of political news which wiped both options off my screen.

A good friend called to tell me that it would shortly be announced that Mark Durkan would be Fine Gael’s Dublin European Parliament candidate.



To say I was flabbergasted is to put it mildly.

I have known Mark politically and personally for almost 20 years. There are very few politicians in Northern Ireland for whom I have a higher respect.

This is evidenced by the number of times I have quoted him in this column over the last few years, most recently in this one, on the backstop, where I cite Mark’s acknowledged expertise on both the Good Friday Agreement and Brexit.

With only a few exceptions – and the primary one is Bertie Ahern – Mark Durkan is best informed political voice on the Good Friday Agreement.

He understands it purpose, its language and its workings with an innate level of understanding and practical detail that you do not hear from noted academics or lawyers.

He has been one the strongest and fiercest defenders of the Agreement, particularly against the madness coming from ill-informed Brexiteers.

He has been forthright and direct in exposing the hollowness of their claims that the Good Friday Agreement has no ramifications for Brexit.

Mark’s dedication and commitment to politics and more importantly to the importance of policy and ideas are second to none.In many ways he is the least political politician you would meet.

As the SDLP statement following his announcement yesterday said:

“He is a first-class parliamentarian and his regrettable absence on the benches of Westminster has not gone unnoticed by parties and communities alike”

So, with all this praise you might imagine that I am now about to set out why Dublin people should vote for Mark on May 24.

No, not a chance.

Though I have the upmost respect for Mark and continue to regard him as one of the finest defenders of the Good Friday Agreement, I will not be voting for him anywhere along my ballot paper.

This will not come as news to Mark, he and I had a short exchange of texts yesterday during which I mentioned this.

What was announced yesterday was not a major political development, it was a stroke – pure and simple.

Yesterday’s launch had the all the originality and guile of Charlie Haughey’s 1982 nomination of Dick Burke to be an EU Commissioner. Except Burke ended up ahead in that failed stroke. That won’t be the case this time. 

This is college politics projected into the national arena.

It is an attempt by the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to have a sideswipe not just at Fianna Fáil in the aftermath of its partnership deal with the party once led by Durkan, it is also aimed at the leadership of the SDLP.

It is particularly targeted at Colum Eastwood for his having the temerity to seek a partnership not with Leo’s gang but with the Fianna Fáil crowd for whom Leo has nothing but contempt.

That Mark finds himself embroiled with this stroke is saddening.

I know from our brief exchange yesterday that Mark does not see it this way. He is adamant that he would do nothing to hurt or undermine Colum’s position and that he has the highest regard for his fellow Derry man.

Maybe this is an example of Mark as the un-political politician.

While Mark’s move to Fine Gael a few weeks after an SDLP special conference endorsed the SDLP/FF partnership, and just one week after Colum received a huge reception at the Fianna Fáil Árd Fheis, may be embarrassing for the SDLP, it is just that, embarrassing. The feeling will soon pass.

Indeed, Mark’s departure at Leo’s summons may have the unintended consequence of showing the FF and SDLP leaderships that their partnership needs more definition, better expression and increased impetus.

To the best of my knowledge Mark Durkan did not express any reservations about the Fianna Fáil/SDLP partnership either before or after the vote.

It is my understanding that he welcomed the clear decision taken by the SDLP in Newry. That said, while I never discerned any antagonism from Mark towards Fianna Fáil, I always assumed that he saw himself as aligned to the Irish Labour partyso I can only imagine the howls of anguish in their offices on hearing the news yesterday.

All of which brings me to the core of the reason why I won’t vote for Mark. While his defection to Fine Gael is hard to understand, this is not about partisan politics. I could transfer to a Blueshirt… sorry, an FGer. I have done it before and may even do it again, but not this year. (Full disclosure: I have transferred more often to Lab and Greens than to FG)

No, this is about the squandering of an opportunity twinned with what I see as the exploitation of a real political talent in the service of a great political ego.

According to most poll watchers Mark Durkan was well placed to win back his Foyle seat at the next Westminster election, and given the volatility in UK politics who is the say that that election is not too far away?

That is where Durkan’s talents and abilities are most needed right now. Like it or not, Westminster is where Brexit will be decided and shaped and we as an island still have a lot of skin in that game.

No matter what happens with Theresa May’s “meaningful vote” next week the Brexit issue is not going away anytime soon.

It is far more important that the real concerns of the people of Derry, of Northern Ireland and of Ireland, as a whole, have a sensible, informed and considered voice in Westminster making the case against Brexit and for the Good Friday Agreement.

Durkan was that voice.

I understand the frustration and weariness he must have felt at watching the Brexit debate from the side-line while waiting for the opportunity to get back in the game and do what he does best.

It is an indictment of the political establishment here (on all sides) that his talents were not put to better use pending his return to the frontline in Westminster – but installing him as the stabilisers on the Frances Fitzgerald campaign tandem is not the answer.

If the Taoiseach’s desire to ensure a Northern voice in the European Parliament were genuine, then the way to do it was to reach a cross party agreement to back Mark Durkan as an independent.

This is the approach that was sensibly adopted in the 2018 Seanad by election that saw the election of Ian Marshall last year. It is one approach suggested yesterday by Sinn Fein’s Éoin Ó Bróin.

In a quirk of political history, it seemed at one-point last year that Durkan was set to join Marshall in the Seanad, but it was not to be. This is a pity as his input would have had far more benefit than those of the FG placeman who got the other vacancy.

However, none of that happened and now we have Durkan fighting Labour, Soc Dems and Ind candidates for a second Fine Gael seat that will not exist.

I know Mark will campaign hard to become an MEP for Dublin – even if this does not extend as far as living here – but it will have to be without my help or vote.

I’m sorry it has turned out this way.

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

Yesterday: Lurking Durkan Causes Smirking

From top: Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald (right) with Deputy Leader Michelle O’Neill MLA at the All-Island Civic Dialogue on Brexit in Dublin Castle last week; Derek Mooney

There was a time when Sinn Féin was the master of targeting. It used to know to aim its attacks and not to waste its time or resources.

But not anymore. Maybe it’s the loss of the old big beasts or the ascent of a new middling style of leadership, but whatever the cause, it is increasingly clear that it has lost its ability to target.

We saw it last year with the misguided and misfiring presidential campaign. We saw it last week with its no confidence motion in Simon Harris. While it was supposedly aimed at the floundering health minister, most Sinn Féin speakers had Fianna Fáil in their sights.

They were not the only ones. Minister of State, Jim Daly… no, me neither… bizarrely concluded that the best way of defending Harris against Sinn Féin criticism was not to launch himself at the provos but rather to join them in lambasting Fianna Fáil.

If Sinn Féin wanted to get rid of Harris and cause an election, they would have gone after the independent TDs whose Tá votes are keeping the Taoiseach and his ministers in office.

But they didn’t.

This Sinn Féin propensity to miss the target was on display last weekend when it went into an online meltdown over SDLP leader, Colum Eastwood telling the Fianna Fáil Árd Fheis, referencing Donald Tusk’s recent comments, that there would be a special place in hell for those who call for a border poll in Ireland with no plan on how to deliver it.

No sooner had the applause for Eastwood died down than the online warriors were tetchily pounding their keyboards slamming Eastwood, the SDLP and its partners in Fianna Fáil.

It was like a bad rerun of the outrage from Farage, Rees-Mogg, Davis et al as they responded to EU Council President Donald Tusk saying there would be a special place in hell for Brexiteers who promoted Brexit without even a sketch of a plan as to how to deliver it.

Just like the Farage and Johnson, Sinn Féin’s leader in the North, Michelle O’Neill walked straight into the trap and manged to self-identify as wanting a border poll without having a plan on how to deliver it.

Really? Is the Sinn Féin of Michelle and Mary-Lou, telling us that it has looked at the absolute mess and mayhem that Cameron, Farage, Gove and Johnson have created in Britain by having a referendum for which they had not prepared and whose consequences they had not considered… and concluded, hell yeah… let’s have some of that?

All O’Neill has succeeded in doing is showing that their talk about border or unity polls now is mere sloganising.

Sinn Féin has no more interest in having a meaningful border poll that has a chance of passing, than it is in sorting out the health service problems here or the welfare/PIP mess in the North.

Sinn Fein’s concern is with having unity as a hashtag, a slogan, a way to hype up the base. It’s direct from the Trump playbook. Border Poll now is the provos’ build the wall and it is every bit as useless

Speaking at the Seanad Brexit committee two years back, former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern addressed this issue directly, saying:

Having a sectarian or political headcount is the last thing that we should do. Yes, there should be the provisions for reunification for the future. At the meetings I have attended people have tried to jump on that and say that we should have a border poll as well.

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

What Ahern said in 2017 is what Eastwood said in 2016, 2017, 2018 and again last Saturday: there will be a time for a border poll, that time is coming, and it is when it is when the necessary work has been done to have the poll, and to win it convincingly.

This is no small task.

What would a United Ireland look like? Would it be a unitary 32 county country with one parliament and government in Dublin? Does unity mean tearing down the parliament at Stormont and dismantling institutions there?

It is not a new question. It is one I have spoken about here on Broadsheet before and, as I mentioned then, it is a question that Sean Lemass posed during his famous Oct 1959 Oxford Union speech, given shortly after becoming Taoiseach and Fianna Fáil leader. In that address, almost sixty years ago, he openly accepted that:

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

In other words, Northern Ireland could and would continue to have self-government… assuming that the Assembly and Executive as established under the Good Friday Agreement are re-established any time soon.

Also recall that Lemass was referring to a Stormont parliament and government which did not have power sharing and was unionist dominated.

I have no doubt that there will be a border poll at some point over the next decade and, like Bertie Ahern, Colum Eastwood and Micheál Martin, I see now, as we finally begin to see how Brexit will play out, as the time to start preparing for that pre-campaign phase.

The first step in that preparation is to learn the lessons of Cameron’s disastrous and divisive vote now, plan later, Brexit referendum. With their badly targeted attacks last weekend we can see that Sinn Féin has not even reached this point.

Meanwhile the FF/SDLP partnership are already several steps ahead, including heeding the advice of Tiernan Brady and seeing how it is possible, as Brady demonstrated with successful marriage equality referendum campaigns in both Ireland and Australia, to have a campaign and pre-campaign process that both informs and unites people.

With their SDLP/FF partnership, Eastwood and Martin are well positioned to get moving on the next critical step of engaging openly with others, across communities and divides to discuss and explore how a new Ireland might look and feel from its day-to-day political operation, to how its health, welfare and transport systems might mesh, to whether it should have new flags, symbols or even an anthem.

It’s a complex task, but an exciting one. The question for Sinn Féin is whether it is ready to catch-up on reaching the target, or does it just want to continue taking aim at it, and missing?

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

Rollingnews

 

From top: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar; Derek Mooney

“There are two things in the world you never want to let people see how you make ’em: laws and sausages.”

If my memory and a OneDrive word search are both right, this is the second time I have used this beloved Leo McGarry West Wing quote to illustrate a point. The first time was at the end of March 2018.

Back then, I was bemoaning this minority government’s blatant contempt for Dáil decisions with which it disagreed and was especially irked at how it was treating James Lawless TD’s Online Advertising and Social Media (Transparency) Bill 2017 and the various opposition amendments tabled to Shane Ross’s awful Judicial Appointments bill.

This time… well, it’s the same thing, only slightly different.

The government is still showing the same contempt only now it is doing it via an obscure parliamentary device, which it deploys with worrying regularity, to veto Private Members legislation passed that has been backed by the Dáil, but with which it disagrees. The device is called the “money message”.

The “money message” provision comes from Article 17.2 of the Constitution. It says that:

“Dáil Éireann shall not pass any law … for the appropriation of revenue or other public moneys unless the purpose of the appropriation shall have been recommended to Dáil Éireann by a message from the Government, signed by the Taoiseach.”

Put simply, it means that legislation may only proceed to committee stage debate if parliamentary officials deem that no money message is required.

If they adjudicate, after the Dáil second stage debate, that a money message is required, then the Bill is stalled in its tracks and may not proceed until the government decides to issue such a [money] message, signed by the Taoiseach.

The old rules say that there are “no timeframes or deadlines regarding provision of these messages by Government”, i.e. the Fine Gael government can take its own sweet time and no one can do anything about it.

Its original purpose was to give the government of the days firm control of the purse strings… and for most of the past 80 odd years this has not been an issue.

Most governments in the past had workable majorities or arrangements that enabled them to vote down any opposition measure which did not accord with its budgetary policy.

This is important as in the Irish system the funding does not automatically follow the decision. It is not sufficient to say, hey, I would like to do X, Y or Z, you also have to find the money to pay for it.

Not a bad approach. It is certainly prudent.

But what happens when the provision is used not to control spending, but to overrule the legislative will of the Dáil?

This is precisely what Varadkar’s government is using the money message to do. Rather than just using it to prudently control and monitor public expenditure – something it might occasionally try doing in the Department of Health – it is using it to effectively veto pieces of opposition legislation it opposes but which the Dáil has passed by a majority.

According to analysis done 12 months ago by RTE’s Justin McCarthy 29 bills were stalled waiting for a ‘money message’.

A quick trawl through the Oireachtas website shows that the number has grown and now includes various pieces of draft legislation.

These include: the Housing (Homeless Families) Bill 2017, the Parental Leave (Amendment) Bill 2017, the International Protection (Family Reunification) (Amendment) Bill 2017, the Mental Health Parity Bill 2017, the Civil Liability and Courts (Amendment) Bill 2018, the Control of Economic Activity (Occupied Territories) Bill 2018, the Mortgage Arrears Resolution (Family Home) Bill 2017, the Statute of Limitations (Amendment) Bill 2018.

I am not arguing that all these Bills are perfect or worthwhile, indeed there are some items here with which I would personally disagree.

But, as far as I can discern, they have all been passed by the Dáil at Second Stage and are now stalled, awaiting committee stage scrutiny, because officials in the parliamentary offices have said that they each require a money message and the government has yet to issue them.

In many cases the expenditure involved would be incidental at most, but it is this word: “incidental” and how it is interpreted that is key to this issue.

As no one in the public service works for free, almost everything the State does has some form of cost, be it direct or indirect.  Giving people new rights or allocating a fresh responsibility to some department or agency all have some form of financial implication in a strict accountancy sense.

But, is this what Art 17.2 was designed to do?

Of course not. The purpose of Art 17.2 was to prevent TDs from pushing through laws that created major financial implications for the State and thereby undermined the capacity of the serving government to control the budget.

It was not intended as a catch-all clause for a government with an overwhelming minority of 57 seats out of 158 to daily overrule the other 100 TDs and stop any democratically passed piece of legislation with which it does not agree.

The money message is not a proxy for a Dáil majority, but this government acts as if it is. It is enabling Varadkar’s government to do what it does better than any of its predecessors: do absolutely nothing.

As Fianna Fáil’s Jack Chambers T.D. stated during a discussion on the International Protection (Family Reunification) (Amendment) Bill 2017 at a recent Oireachtas Justice & Equality Committee meeting:

‘This is the use of old politics to circumvent legislation by using an old interpretation of a constitutional article which is outrageous and undermines Members’ ability to have a Bill such as this passed. It flies in the face of all the rubbish we have heard about new politics. It shows new politics at their worst.’

It is a view echoed by many TDs and Senators. The committee transcript is worth reading in full as it gives some insights into changes agreed by the Dáil business committee into the operation of the Money Message process in December.

While the changes are supposed to make the process less opaque and give it some timeline, they will only apply to future pieces of legislation.

Bills which have been stalled up to now will probably be disappeared entirely and will have to be re-introduced all over again, from scratch, to benefit from the change – even though many of them have already been passed in full by the Seanad… and this government moans about opposition members wasting parliamentary time?

Laws and sausages. It’s not just seeing what goes into them that can turn your stomach, it’s also how long it can take to still deliver them way undercooked.

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

From top:  David Trimble, former First Minister for Northern Ireland; Derek Mooney

British Prime Minister, Theresa May is in Belfast today to make a speech at… sorry… to give a speech to local business leaders. The speech will re-state her “absolute commitment” to avoiding a hard border, post Brexit.

Her statement of commitment is welcome, just as welcome as it was when first made over two years ago, but with only seven weeks to go to the March 29 exit and after 18 exhaustive months of negotiations, surely it is not asking too much to expect her to say how she will turn this commitment into reality?

This is a crisis of her own making. She says she is committed to no hard border, but then she also says that she is equally committed to having a Brexit that takes the United Kingdom of Great Britain and parts of Northern Ireland out of the EU’s Customs Union and the Single Market, as well as out of the EU institutions.

The hard truth is that she cannot commit to ensuring no customs union, no single market and no hard border at the same time. You can do two out of three, but you cannot do all three.

If she wants to avoid a hard border in Ireland, then simple logic dictates that those who want to have both Brexit and no hard border must yield somewhat on the issues of the Single Market and the Customs Union to ensure there is no hard border.

The Backstop is the way that both sides have agreed – and it is important to recall that the British government have already signed off on this – that Ireland and Northern Ireland can remain part of the same EU-UK customs territory with no tariffs, quotas, or checks on rules of origin until a future alternative arrangement is agreed. The EU has produced a very useful guide to what is actually in the Backstop.

But, the Brexiteers repeatedly shriek, there is no need for this beastly Backstop. Thereby missing the fact that the current version of the Backstop was effectively designed by them.

According to such grand pooh-bahs of Brexit as Johnson, Rees-Mogg and Baker you can magically have all three right now by way of “alternative arrangements”.

Unfortunately, none of them can point to any border anywhere in the world where these arrangements are in place.

As the deputy leader of the UK’s Liberal Democrats Jo Swinson MP put it yesterday, they are:

“…old men, who can’t operate a smartphone, talking about a technology that doesn’t exist.”

The fact that the technology does not yet exist has not stopped even supposedly sensible and moderate British Cabinet Ministers from peddling the myth.

Speaking on last Sunday’s Andrew Marr Show on BBC 1, the British Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, said an alternative arrangement to prevent the return of physical checks on the Irish/Irish border “can be done” with existing technology.

Oh no it can’t.

And this is not just me, the Irish Government, the EU negotiations team and the almost every trade and border expert saying it can’t…. it’s the British government too.

Just four days before Javid told Marr that existing technology could do it, on January 30 the Minister of State at the Northern Ireland Office, John Penrose MP told the House of Commons that:

‘I understand that the Cabinet Office commissioned work on what existing software and other technologies are available from other low-friction land borders around the world to see whether they could provide a solution to the problem.’

The conclusion was that no existing off-the-shelf package could deliver exactly what will be needed in Northern Ireland, so new solutions will be needed.

Talk about a lack of joined up government.

Meanwhile, as the Brexiteers continue their ham-fisted attacks on the front door of the Backstop, Lord David Trimble, the first First Minister of Northern Ireland under the Good Friday Agreement is set to launch an attack on the Backstop via the back door.

Trimble plans to ask the Courts rule that Backstop undermines the Good Friday Agreement.

It would be easy to brush aside Trimble’s action as mere Quixotic, Brexiteer nonsense, but his key role in helping to deliver the Good Friday Agreement and his political bravery in sticking by it, means he is deserving of a bit more respect.

Trimble’s argument appears to follow the same lines as those recently put forward by his friend and former adviser, Lord Paul Bew. Bew claims that the Backstop is a top-down imposition on Northern Ireland which takes away the people’s democratic control, i.e. their consent – consent being the core principle of the Good Friday Agreement.

Trimble (and Bew’s) pro Brexit champions hail them as the authors and architects of the Good Friday Agreement.

A deserved accolade, but they are not its sole authors. The Good Friday Agreement was the product of long painstaking negotiations between the two Governments and a cross section of Northern Ireland’s political parties – though not the DUP.

While the final agreement was the result of multiple inputs, its core architecture – particularly the Three Strands of relationships at its core: internal: between the two communities, North/South between the two parts of this island and east/West between the two islands, comes from John Hume.

Hume’s protégé, Mark Durkan, who went on serve with Trimble as Deputy First Minister, is widely acknowledged as the expert on the detail of the Good Friday Agreement.

He has deftly refuted Trimble and Bew’s claims by highlighting how the Backstop, along with the Jan 14th Juncker Tusk letter, upholds the existing Strand I and Strand 2 conditions of the Good Friday Agreement and rules out any new regulatory divergence.

As Durkan has observed, is it not curious how those who now claim the Backstop undermines the consent of the Northern Ireland people were perfectly content to ignore the, bottom up, democratic will of the 56% in Northern Ireland who voted to Remain.

And, as Durkan adds:

“…they gloried in the UK Supreme Court ruling that the principle of consent specified in the GFA applies solely to a democratic choice between United Kingdom and United Ireland… [and] does not extend to the UK’s relationship with the EU.”

Impartial academics agree with Durkan’s read, including QUB’s Dr Katy Hayward who has produced this response to Lord Bew’s claims.

Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps May’s Belfast speech will provide some real insight into how she plans to resolve her own contradictory commitments?

Eh no… on reflection, I reckon we’ll see Simon Harris acknowledge his mishandling of the Children’s Hospital and the Nurses’ strike and resign long before we see that.

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

Earlier: Red For Wrong, Blue For Right

Rollingnews

From top: Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin (centre) and SDLP leader Colum Eastwood (to Mr Martin’s right) at a press conference last Thursday; Derek Mooney

In the aftermath of the disastrous June 2016 Brexit referendum result, a result we should remember went 56:44 in favour of Remain in Northern Ireland, I started talking here about the need for the political system on this island, most particularly in Northern Ireland, to start catching up with the changing political landscape.

In a range of articles from late 2016 onwards I frequently quoted from a series of thoughtful speeches from the SDLP leader, Colum Eastwood.

As well as talking about the current crisis he was also looking to the longer-term implications of the Brexit vote, in particular the difference between the results in England those in both Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Eastwood was repeatedly saying that Brexit had consequences for all of this island because Brexit meant that the English had chosen, albeit narrowly, a very different future from that of the Irish people, north and south.

Thanks to the Brexit vote and the subsequent public discourse there was now a distinct divergence in both economic positioning and political values between these two islands, with England seeing its future outside the EU and Ireland seeing its future firmly inside it.

These post Brexit complexities, economic, political and constitutional, were going to require political parties to map out and shape the ideas and policies needed – but given all island nature of the problems and the dire state of Northern Irelands party politics wouldn’t that require new party political structures?

But I did more than write about it here. I ensured that Eastwood’s analysis and thinking was brought to the personal attention of the Fianna Fáil leadership. I felt that the implicit direction of Eastwood’s logic was clear, but I could also see that it was by no means certain or easy.

Let me digress here tell you a little about my own political history. I have long been an inadvertently public advocate of Fianna Fáil becoming a 32-county party. The inadvertent bit was courtesy of the Wikileaks dump of US Embassy cables in late December 2010.

Among the cables was a US embassy note from my February 2005 conversation with an embassy official accurately quoting me speaking in favour of Fianna Fáil running in the North. This made its way into the Belfast Telegraph.

A few months later I was asked by Fianna Fáil HQ to evaluate the progress made in developing Fianna Fáil in Northern Ireland to date (the party had established a network of six county forums in Northern Ireland in 2009) and to examine future options.

I entitled my evaluation report: When not If to signal my strong belief that Fianna Fáil contesting elections in the North was inevitable, the only issue was when. Indeed, in the opening paragraphs I quoted Éamon de Valera’s November 1926 comment that Fianna Fáil was:

“…intended to be an All-Ireland organisation… the time to start organising in the Six Counties would depend on conditions there.”

So, fast forward to last Thursday’s press conference by the leaders of the SDLP and Fianna Fáil announcing their two parties’ planned partnership.

Is this what I had envisaged or desired back in 2005, 2011 or 2017?

To be honest, it was not. Sadly, it falls well short of it. What was announced was almost as minimalist at the launch setting.

But am I against it? Certainly not.

I would have much preferred if both parties had gone far further in their ambitions and set out a clear timeline for the future of this relationship, but I am satisfied that this is a sufficiently solid first step. What matters are the next steps.

I was pleased to see that the initiative will be driven by policies and ideas rather than just organisation. Yes, developing organisationally is important, but having your politics driven by ideas and debate is far preferable to having it driven by organisation or even spin and presentation.

Nonetheless there are still organisational issues which the Fianna Fáil side needs to address. There are many Fianna Fáil members in Northern Ireland, including a prominent elected councillor.

For most of the last decade the William Drennan Fianna Fáil cumann in Queens University has been one of the biggest political groups on campus. What is the role for the hundreds of existing party members in the North in this partnership?

What should anyone who wants to join and vote Fianna Fáil in the North do over the coming months and years?

Micheál Martin and his advisers need to come up with clear answers to these questions – hint, they are in internal party papers I have written over the past few years.

That said, I was very encouraged that Martin’s speech made it clear that Fianna Fáil Oireachtas members and SDLP elected representatives “will begin their work within weeks” on both Brexit and Northern Ireland’s future relationship with the EU and that he was committed to widening the policy partnership agenda thereafter.

The lukewarm, somewhat negative response to the announcement is disappointing, but not too shocking given that it was neither flesh nor fowl for so many folks.

I can understand why some in both parties feel that the two leaders could have gone further, especially given some of the briefings and “informed sources” speculation from the Dublin end over recent months, but last Thursday’s announcement does not rule out any of that.

What is equally understandable, but a lot less forgivable is the whining and kvetching by assorted Irish Labour party apparatchiks in strategically placed op-eds.

I know there are left leaning members of the SDLP who would prefer to see an alignment with what is left of the left of the Irish Labour Party…. but the fact that Labour has been slow to move or is not sufficient reason for all of politics to stand still. Just as it is smug to think that the SDLP should disband to make sure that some folks are not discommoded – bear in mind that 11 out of the SDLP’s 12 MLAs were at last Thursday’s announcement.

Just as daft is the idea that Unionists, be they UUP or DUP, will be affronted or riled by the announcement. The Unionists I know, and I know a good few elected ones, largely see the partnership as positive, though they complain that it probably does not go as far as they had expected.

There are many progressive and forward-thinking Unionists, including in the DUP, who grasp that NI politics needs to move on and mature. My good friend Mick Fealty discusses this outlook here better than I can.

Finally, the merger word. Let me let you into a secret, in almost every note, analysis or recommendation I have written on this topic for the past decade, I have avoided the word ‘merger’.

I dislike the word and understand why both parties avoided it too. What our all island politics needs is an emerging policy driven focus, rather than an organisational driven administrative merger.

If what comes out of last Thursday’s announcement is less a merger and more a truly emerging partnership that can produce workable all-island policies on bread and butter issues that people north and south care about, then I am for it, bare bricks and all.

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

 

From top: Tiernan Brady (centre) with the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) leader Ian Blackford MP and the party’s youngest MP Mhairi Black at Westminster; Derek Mooney

If memory serves me right, back in the early 1980s Fine Gael ran a fancy half-page European election advert in the national newspapers that featured a massive photo of a big Aer Lingus jet taking off into the skies.

Beside the photo, in huge font, was the slogan: Send Your Best to Europe and beneath it appears the pics and short bios of its full slate of candidates.

It was quite an effective ad, until several wags observed that the airplane featured was a jumbo jet. These which only flew to the United States, so Fine Gael was sending them in the wrong direction.

Sending our best Europe is more important now that it was back in the 1980s. This is partly due to Brexit, but not exclusively.

As Fianna Fáil’s Micheál Martin said last Friday in a carefully considered speech to the Killarney Economic Conference: Ireland has to start playing a far more active role in shaping and promoting a more urgent and ambitious agenda for the EU.

Crucial to Ireland’s pursuit of this stronger agenda is the question of who will take on the three most important and senior roles in the EU.Who will be the next Donald Tusk, the next Jean-Claude Juncker or the next Mario Draghi?

As Martin said last Friday:

“…during 2019 we have to speak up while the Union goes about replacing all of its senior leaders. By this time next year members states will have chosen new leaders for the Council, the Commission and the European Central Bank.

We can’t afford for these decisions to be based on anything other than finding people who will not only lead their institutions well but will help to address a real lack of public understanding and faith in these institutions.”

The one institution not featured in Martin’s list is the European Parliament. This is not because it doesn’t matter, but rather because its composition will be in our own hands.

This year’s European Parliament Election will be the most important one since we started having direct elections back in 1979.

One way of ensuring that voters take the European Parliament election seriously is for the political parties to take it seriously by nominating candidates of calibre and ability.

Political parties, at headquarters and national level, need to select their European candidates using the same criteria they use to select top rung candidates for the Dáil – and if that means running MEP candidates who are currently sitting TDs, then so be it.

Avoiding a by-election here or there should not trump the need to pick the best candidates and to treat this European Election as if it was as vital and critical as the next general election.

As with almost every general election, the cockpit of this election will be Dublin.

What happens in Dublin is vital and the decision of two of the three current MEPs not to run again means that the election in Dublin will be fascinating. Add to this the likelihood that the capital will be electing 4 MEPs – though a withdrawal or delay to Britain’s Article 50 process, may bump this back down to three.

Within Dublin the race for the Fianna Fáil party nomination will be critical. On the surface it looks like a four-way competition but, to be brutally frank, the choice is binary.

In Column A you have Tiernan Brady, who many of you may know as an equality campaigner from his leadership in the Irish and Australian marriage equality campaigns.

And if you think Tiernan is not the kind of candidate you would expect Fianna Fáil candidate to field, well think again – because Tiernan is as dyed in the wool Fianna Fáil as any candidate the party has produced over the past decade.

I first encountered Tiernan back in 1992 when he was one of the Kevin Barry UCD Cumann members who came in to help Ben Briscoe TD on the (in)famous 10 day “long count” to decide the last seat in Dublin South Central – an event referred to by Ben at the time as “The Agony and the Ex TD”.

While Tiernan has followed the same political paths as others: elected as a Fianna Fáil county councillor, serving two terms, including some years as Mayor of Bundoran, running Dáil election campaigns for Pat (the Cope) Gallagher and former Tánaiste Mary Coughlan, Tiernan has gone beyond them and seen that the way to change things is to reach beyond your own traditional confines and loyalties.

Across from Tiernan, in Column B, you have three former ministers, each seeking a return to national politics after some time away though, to be fair to Mary Hanafin she did get back into local politics as a councillor for Blackrock in 2014.

All three former ministers, each carrying a family name with strong political associations: Barry Andrews, Mary Hanafin and Conor Lenihan have not just proved their capabilities as Ministers, they each have admirable ministerial records in their respective portfolios: Lenihan in international development, Barry Andrews in Children’s rights and Mary Hanafin in Education. Not alone that, all three are decent media performers, some perhaps more colourfully so than others.

On this basis it can be argued that the Fianna Fáil in Dublin cannot avoid picking a strong candidate, but – and this is why I lump the three ex-ministers together and describe the choice as binary – the perceived strengths of the three amigos is also their collective weakness.

Reading the campaign emails and social media posts announcing their candidacies, it was easy to mistake one for the other. Each claimed their time as a minister, their Dáil experience and their recognised family name as a unique qualification to run, but the “unique” strengths which they each see as defining them barely separates them.

It is 15 years since Fianna Fáil last won a European Parliament seat in Dublin with Eoin Ryan (in 2004). That is a long time.

If Fianna Fáil wants to win a seat in Dublin this time – and it needs to – then it must reach out beyond its existing hinterland and attract voters who not have seen Fianna Fáil as speaking to or for them. Only one of the candidates on offer has the proven ability to do this.

The seat will not be won by nostalgically getting the old band back together to play some favourites – no matter how much some of us may care for the tune. The choice is clear.

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

From top:  First Minister for Scotland Nicola Sturgeon (right) with Irish actress Saoirse Ronan at the Scottish premiere of ‘Mary, Queen of Scots‘ in Edinburgh last night; Derek Mooney

Today is the day we find out just how truly batshit crazy some Tory and Labour MPs are.

Later tonight, probably around 8.30pm/9pm, we will know the results of the House of Commons meaningful vote on Theresa May’s Brexit deal.

I should probably say the first meaningful vote on the deal as she will likely resubmit the deal to another Commons vote in the hope that the looming approach of the Brexit abyss will compel MPs to switch.

At the time of writing (Tuesday 11am) it is certain that Theresa May will lose the vote, though is it possible that the margin of defeat will not be as great as her detractors hope, and probably not as great as it would have been if she had proceeded with the vote as planned last December.

Not that any of this speculation matters. Tonight is not the last we will hear of Brexit. The uncertainty that it has brought to politics on both these islands and the damage it has inflicted to relations between them will continue.

Brexit will continue to dominate the headlines on both sides of the Irish Sea and fill the opinion and comment pages of this and other media outlets.

British politics is in virtual freefall and almost anything is possible, including a slow break-up of the UK’s traditional two-party system and ultimately a break-up of the United Kingdom itself.

The determination of arch conservative and unionists to leave the EU in pursuit of an exceptionalist vision of a Britain that ceased to exist over a century ago may yet result in breaking up their precious union of English, Scotland, Wales and parts of Northern Ireland. Oh, the irony.

According to the pundits and the more sensible MPs there is no majority in the House of Commons for no Deal Brexit. This, they argue, means that it is yet possible that a hard, no deal Brexit can be avoided on March 29th next.

But the problem is that a no Deal Brexit is the default position. MPs do not have to vote for a No-Deal scenario, it is what happens next unless they take clear steps to avoid it.

So far, instead of any clear steps, all we see from the leadership of both the Tories and Labour is a series of stumbles – not all in the same direction.

Avoiding a No-Deal will require the concerted effort of a majority of MPs voting for a single alternative – and right now there is no clear majority for any of the alternatives to a no-deal.

One of the reasons for this is the fact that the component parts of any no-no-deal majority are scattered between the Tories, Labour, SNP, LibDems, Greens, Plaid Cymru and the sole non-DUP NI Unionist.

This is why it is hard to see the withdrawal or revocation of Article 50. It is the most sensible option, one advocated both last week and again yesterday by Tory grandee, Sir Kenneth Clarke who urged Prime Minister May:

“…to be flexible on some things, so if she loses the debate next Tuesday, will she consider moving to the obvious step in the national interest of delaying or revoking article 50, so that we have time to consider what the British actually want?”

However, the atmosphere in British politics is so febrile and fraught that the mere suggestion of seeking some breathing space and postponing Brexit is seen as treachery.

The other alternative is that of the #PeoplesVote second referendum, something I said some weeks ago here was clearly in Ireland’s best interests. While support amongst the public for the idea of a second referendum as a way to break the logjam is steadily growing, that is not enough.

There could be a succession of opinion polls showing a clear public majority in favour of a second vote, but until there is a clear majority in the House of Commons for passing the legislation required to hold one, never mind to agree the question to be asked, then I, regrettably, cannot see it happening.

I still hope it does and perhaps the attempt by Tory MP Dominic Grieve to reframe the choice that MPs must make as being between Theresa May’s Deal or No Brexit, perhaps via a second referendum, will work – but it’s still a long shot.

So, with the most sensible alternatives seeming like non-runners for now, it looks like we will have several more weeks of watching a succession of previously unheard of and obscure backbench Tory MPs appear on television to tell the British people, without a scintilla of evidence, that their default, no-deal Brexit will work out just fine and that it would all be jam and Jerusalem.

Indeed, I heard one of them argue on BBC2 TV last night that the No Deal default position would prevail as the most democratic option even though it was only the position of a minority of MPs because Britain has a first past the post system.

While the biggest immediate consequences of a no-deal Brexit for Ireland will be on the economy and trade with the border region’s agri-food sector being the first to take the hit, there will also we be political ramifications with the cohesion of United Kingdom itself coming into question.

I am not just talking here about the position of Northern Ireland – a question I have discussed here in before – but also that of Scotland.

As the UK political establishment stumbles its way through the next days and weeks you can rest assured that the Scottish government, led by the formidable Nicola Sturgeon, will not be stumbling.

It will, indeed it already has, started concrete work on moving towards independence from Westminster, within the EU, learning not just the lessons of the last Scottish independence referendum but also those of Whitehall’s crass lack of preparation for the Brexit vote and its aftermath.

While the Irish government has doubtless already started planning for how it manages bilateral relationships between London and Dublin and trilaterally between Dublin, Belfast and London in the future, I hope that somewhere in the marbled halls of Iveagh House there is also a unit preparing for the forging of deeper and more abiding relations with Edinburgh – as Scotland could well up as our newest and closest EU partner before long.

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

Top pic via Nicola Sturgeon

Earlier: Once More Unto The Breach

 

From top: Irish Times’ New Year’s Eve 2018 message; David Runciman’s How Democracy Ends; Derek Mooney

A well-known Irish politician once allegedly opined that: “Irish Times editorials read as if they were written by an auld wan sitting in a bath of lukewarm water”. He may also have suggested, a little more colourfully, that the bathwater reached less than halfway up the tub.

The bath water must have been on the chillier side of lukewarm December 29th’s editorial entitled: “Democracy in Retreat” was being written. It expressed an almost dystopian concern that democracy is now under threat across the globe.

It cited a range of phenomena and political shifts to support its claim, including: Trump, Brexit, the rise of populism of nationalism and of xenophobia and the gains made by the both the far-left and far-right.

Even as I sit down to start writing this piece more evidence, which would seem to support the Irish Times line, is appearing with videos of the vile and nasty abuse Tory MP Anna Soubry endured on Parliament Square yesterday at the hands of a gang of ultra-hard-line brexiteers.

The irony of a group of aggressive and loutish middle-aged men trying to intimidate and bully an elected representative who is doing nothing more than expressing her sincerely held views, while calling her a Nazi and fascist is doubtless lost on them.

More worryingly it also seemed lost on the band of pundits and commentators who took to Twitter to suggest that Soubry was responsible for what was happening.

Though not the worst of them, the Conservative blogger and columnist Tim Montgomerie, who usually makes a virtue of his liberal democratic credentials, wrote:

“The abuse is unacceptable and I condemn it but a parliamentarian who advocates overturning a referendum result she promised to respect should not be surprised at unleashing such ugliness.”

The rough translation into plain English of these weasel words is:

I should be deeply embarrassed by some of my fellow brexiteers and should be finding a way to see how we can unite to tackle the extremists but, instead, I want people to blame Soubry and others for not going along with us and persisting in having views of their own

Are these all threats to very existence and continuance of democracy or are they the challenges that we cyclically face that serve to knock us out of our complacency and remind us that democracy can be fragile is at all times worth protecting and defending.

Is there a really and systemic threat to democracy today, or is what we are seeing with Trump, Brexit, populism etc., a worrying but manageable response to the climate of uncertainty following the 2008 global crash?

Indeed, has there ever been a time in modern history when, in the aftermath of an economic crash, there hasn’t been a group of people sitting in lukewarm baths thinking that the world outside their immediate social circle was going to hell in a handcart?

We should not be surprised that many people question the competence of their democratic and political institutions when the events of the past decade suggest that world of finance and banking has more sway than democracies.

Neither should we be complacent about the future of liberal democracy when the claim can be made that some banks are a bigger source of repression than extremist regimes.

Yes, there are very worrying signs and trends across Europe and the Globe.

Yes, far too many people feel that governments serve the vested interests of others and are not responsive to them, but all is not yet lost.

As the pro market economy academic Johan Norberg has argued:

”Contrary to what most of us believe, our progress over the past few decades has been unprecedented. By almost any index you care to identify, things are markedly better now than they have ever been for almost everyone alive.”

On almost every single metric life is better now than it was in the past. The world is now a safer, better educated and more peaceful place than it was.

It is a trend that continued in 2018.

Global poverty is falling steadily with more people being lifted out of poverty worldwide – at a rate of about 125,000 per day – than fall into it.

While there are still wholescale atrocities being carried out in Syria, Yemen and Sub Saharan Africa (Sth Sudan Mali, Chad etc), according to the Global Terrorism Index 2018 deaths from terrorism declined by 27% last year and are now 44% below their peak. According to the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP) the number of war fatalities is dropping and is now half of what it was four years ago.

At 3.9% the global child mortality rate is still far too high, but it is half what it was in 1998. According to UNESCO there are now 99.7 girls in primary and secondary schools for every hundred boys.

Democracies own numbers are also on the rise. According to any of the four academic ratings systems used to classify political systems in various counties around the globe, the proportion of democracies is at an all-time high. The Polity measure says the percentage that are now democratic is 59% compared to 50% in 2000.

Where there is an issue is the number of those democracies earning the top score. In 2005, 32% scored the top mark, that had fallen 28% by 2016 – though bear in mind that was during the period when the number of democracies significantly increased.

I could go on quoting stats, but you hopefully get the point.

The examples that the Irish Times gave are just as real as the ones I offer. So, where lies the balance?

I am, perhaps, being a bit unfair to Irish Times. I am sure their editorial was intended, on the eve of 2019, as a call to action: a reminder that we all have duty to protect the democracy that ultimately protects all of us.

It’s a call I heartily endorse, but I would strongly suggest that what is now in threat is not democracy itself – and at this point it is worth noting that their editorial was based on the warnings contained in David Runciman’s book: How Democracy Ends – but rather the norms of tolerance and fair play that underpin democratic discourse.

Picking the right target would make be easier to call more people to action – especially if you avoid telling them that the cause you are calling them to is destined to fail. Perhaps the lapping of lukewarm bath water took their mind off 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 Tuesday Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney