Tag Archives: Derek Mooney

From top: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar  campaigning at the Rediscovery Centre, The Boiler House, Ballymun Road, Dublin on Saturday; Sunday Times/Behaviour & Attitudes poll; Derek Mooney

Of all the possible ways he could have responded to yesterday’s bad poll numbers, the Taoiseach went and picked the worst. OK, it was not quite the worst. He could have nutted a journo and told the rest of the media entourage assigned to go to hell, so at least he didn’t do that.

Where most other leaders would have taken the: well, it’s just a poll, a snapshot in time, there are three weeks of campaigning to go, the Taoiseach decided to shun humility, restraint or conciliation and went on the attack instead. He warned voters

“I think the opinion poll demonstrates that there is a real risk, a real danger that we’ll have a Fianna Fáil-led government”.

It is an approach we have seen before from this Taoiseach, when things are not going his way: the double down.

We saw it at the Frances Fitzgerald/Sgt Maurice McCabe crisis of late 2017. At a time when even his own backbencher TDs could see that the political crisis was demanding the resignation of his beleaguered Tánaiste and Justice Minister, the Taoiseach decided to double down. All he succeeded in doing was leaving himself with no alternative but to back down when the inevitable happened.

We saw it again, just a few weeks ago when he decided to double down on Charlie Flanagan’s ill-judged and ill-considered plans for RIC commemorations.

Ironically, Flanagan is the justice minister Varadkar appointed to succeed Frances Fitzgerald. Frances had originally been appointed Justice Minister in succession to Alan Shatter, who yesterday launched this latest Twitter broadside at Varadkar’s Fine Gael.

Modern political history is full of leaders who discovered too late that doubling down doesn’t make them look strong, it makes them look detached, ineffectual and querulous. Doubling down to tell voters they have no choice can often result in them finding their own alternatives.

It happened to Ted Heath in 1974. In office since 1970 his Tory government had imposed a three-day working week to try to cope with rising oil prices, fuel shortages and power cuts.

The threat of a major national strike by mineworker’s union, supported by other big unions in early 1974, led Heath to call an election.  and seek a mandate to take a stronger line with the unions. His Tory government was so sure it was going to win that it ran under the slogan: Who Governs Britain?

Heath assumed there could only be one response. There was. Just not the one he expected. Not you Heath, they said as they turfed him out and backed Labour’s Harold Wilson.

Let me be clear – I do not think Fianna Fáil is 12pts ahead of Fine Gael or that yesterday’s Sunday Times poll numbers will be replicated when the votes are (almost) all counted by this day three weeks.

As anyone who has read my musings here will know I never tire of saying that political parties do not do their polling in the same way as newspapers.

I have made this point on almost every occasion where I have commented on the latest Business Post, B&A or MRBI national opinion poll – and we have two more polls due over the next week.

I do think is the Sunday Times/B&A poll highlights two key Fine Gael electoral vulnerabilities, especially outside Dublin.

The first is that Fine Gael is at risk of losing many of the second seats it holds in constituencies across the country.  The second is that its incumbency advantage has been lessened.

Having well-known sitting TDs with networks of contacts beyond their parties usual hinterland can often ease the impact of big negative swing.

Ten of the FG TDs elected in 2016 (20%) are not running again in 2020 (6 are retiring, Deputies Peter Fitzpatrick, Maria Bailey and Dara Murphy have departed for a range of reasons and Frances Fitzgerald was elected to the European Parliament).

What the Sunday Times poll also suggests is that the Fianna Fáil versus Fine Gael contest is back where it was between March 2016 and July 2017.

During that time, which covers the first days of the 2016 government led by Enda Kenny through to the election of Leo Varadkar as Kenny’s successor, there were about 36 major national newspaper opinion polls.

Fianna Fáil was ahead in 24 of them, by margins as narrow as 1pt or as wide as 11pt (the average was 3.5pt) while Fine Gael was ahead in 10 and the two parties were tied in two.

So, was it for this that Fine Gael ditched Enda Kenny and installed Leo Varadkar?

Wasn’t Varadkar’s great selling point to Fine Gael TDs (though not so much to rank and file members) that he was the great campaigner who would give Fine Gael the political clarity and definition, not to mention long term electoral success that Enda Kenny wasn’t, and Simon Coveney couldn’t?

How ironic now to hear some folks around Fine Gael suggesting that the right response to this one poll is to get Leo to stand back a bit and get Coveney and Donohoe to front more of the campaign.

Writing here in July 2017 I suggested that there was “not so much a Leo bounce as a post Enda recoil”. What I did not foretell was the extent and degree to which the Leo bounce that seemed to return in the polls later that year and through 2018 would be due to the issue of Brexit – including adroit handling of a complex and tricky issue by both Varadkar and his government.

Fine Gael’s eagerness, or was it anxiety, to make Brexit an election issue, with the it is only half time in Brexit messaging, might suggest that Fine Gael’s own polling showed the Leo bounce was less attributable to him than to a policy issue on which there was a cross party consensus.

Nonetheless this is just one poll and it is one that largely predates the election campaign proper. Most Fianna Fáil colleagues I know tell me that they are viewing this poll as a very welcome morale booster, not a cause for celebrations.

In the zero-sum game of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael rivalry, a morale booster for the soldiers of destiny is a morale slayer for the Blueshirts. Varadkar is now faced with two options: double down or change strategy.

The evidence points to him doubling down. Could that work for him this time? Probably not.

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; Derek Mooney

After listening to An Taoiseach on RTÉ Radio One’s This Week programme yesterday it is hard not to conclude that he is planning to head to the Áras on Thursday to seek a dissolution of the 32nd Dáil.

Only he knows for sure, but his joint trip to Stormont today with the British Prime Minister does seem like the opening act of his pre-campaign lap of honour.

He is unlikely to head to the Park on Wednesday as the EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is in town for a meeting at Government Buildings followed by a State dinner at Dublin Castle.

That leaves Thursday as the most likely day, though the Taoiseach could opt to delay even a little longer as the Greek President arrives in town for a State visit but, whether it is this week or next week, there are two weeks left, at most, where the timing of the election remains even vaguely within the Taoiseach’s control.

As he acknowledged on Sunday, while losing a vote of confidence in an individual minister does not necessitate an election, it would be politically unsustainable to stay in office after losing one. Especially when he has long said that his preference was for a Summer 2020 election.

So, his options are limited. Call the election in the next week, or so, or wait to have it foisted upon him.

Limited choice or no choice at all – was it for this that Fine Gael TDs dumped Enda Kenny and rejected Simon Coveney? There are echoes of Gordon Brown about how Leo Varadkar has handled this, a comparison I made in a column here shortly after Varadkar became Taoiseach.

Whatever about the Taoiseach’s handling of the election’s timing, his fate will be decided by how he does in the campaign, if voters have not already made their minds up on him.

A few weeks back a good friend of mine put forward the theory that the next election could be like the 2007 campaign.

To refresh your memory on the 2007 campaign, the Fianna Fáil led government went into it with most pundits thinking it would lose. To be fair the newspaper polls were pointing to such an outcome.

An Irish Times TNS/MRBI opinion poll published just weeks before the election was called, showed a swing to Fine Gael and corresponding fall in support for Fianna Fáil.

Fianna Fáil’s support had been dropping since late 2006, due in large measure to coverage of Taoiseach Bertie Ahern’s testimony to the Mahon Tribunal and a series of leaks from the Tribunal.

On the eve of the election the Fine Gael-Labour alternative was up to four points ahead Fianna Fáil and the PDs. Chuck the Green Party in with FG and Lab and a possible FG/Lab/Green alternative was 10pts ahead.

The Fianna Fáil campaign, of which I was a part, had a shaky first week followed by a slightly calmer second week, with the campaign continuing to be dominated by Tribunal leaks. When, in the third week, the campaign focussed back on bread and butter issues, Fianna Fáil turned it around.

It is an interesting analogy but, to paraphrase the late Brian Lenihan Snr, on mature reflection it is not one with which I agree. Let me explain why.

Clearly there are some comparisons. Just as Bertie Ahern faced the electorate in 2007 on the back of two full terms in government, Fine Gael has now been in office for nine years. It owns the achievements and failings of the last nine years, but it also has the problem of over familiarity. Any party in office for almost ten years can start to look jaded stale and out of ideas.

After almost 10 years of even the most benign administration, voters are tempted to have a look at the other lot has to offer and see if there are viable alternatives.

They did that all in 2007 and – despite all the damaging stuff from the Tribunal – found the Fine Gael led alternative seriously wanting.

Despite having had all that time to prepare itself, Fine Gael went into the 2007 election offering a mish mash of half-baked micro-policies including proposals to have boot camps for miscreants, a ban on hoodies, late-night drunk-tanks, legalising “small” brothels and placing bins in youth clubs and churches where illegally held guns could be dumped anonymously.

It is as if wasn’t really prepared for a win. That is not something you can say about Fianna Fáil now.

So, if it is to have any chance to survive Fine Gael will have to do more than simply blame the current health and housing crises on what Fianna Fáil did or did not do over ten years ago.

Doubtless Fine Gael’s polling is telling it that this plays well with core voters, but that is a dwindling cohort. All this kind of response does for undecided voters is to tell them that Fine Gael have been powerless and ineffective for nine years – in office, but not in power.

Telling voters that Fine Gael has only been running housing policy for the past three plus years is not going to cut the mustard with voters either. Just as promising, if re-elected, to increase pensions by €5 per week, while promising tax cuts, stretches credulity.

In promising to both spend more and tax less Fine Gael is at both showing that it has not learned the lessons of the economic crash, while also jettisoning its potential claim to be the party of fiscal prudence. With just one remark the Taoiseach junked his Finance Minister’s careful posturing of recent years.

Never mind the attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of all those pensioners who have been following the pre-budget machinations of every Budget since 2016 and recall the running battles between Fianna Fáil’s Willie O’Dea and successive Fine Gael ministers over past pension increases.

Without doubt the coming election campaign is going to be most nasty, vicious and personalised we have witnessed. This is set to be a battle to the political death between the two main protagonists with Micheál Martin having the advantage of having seen action as leader in past battles.

Varadkar comes into it not just as the neophyte, but one who faces into the worst of all possible worlds.

This is the campaign and the contest for which he has been preparing himself since defeating Simon Coveney. It is the election for which every action, inaction and reaction of his time as Taoiseach has been calibrated and measured.

Yet it is not at the time and political place of his choosing. He knows having the nightly news filled with reports of hospital trolley crises and problems in emergency department across the state is no backdrop against which to have an election, never mind a deferred RIC event.

The macro economy is doing well. There should be a discernible feel good factor, but voters do not give Varadkar or Fine Gael the credit it thinks it deserves, as they are more focused on the daily impacts of the long running crises in health and housing and a range of public services collapsing.

While the outcome is obviously unknown and the campaign will matter, right now, looking at the polls and seeing how the election may play out in each constituency, my view right now is that this is not just Varadkar’s election to lose, but that he is already very close to doing just 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 Monday.Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney

Rollingnews

From top: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in his office at Government Buildings in Dublin last December’ Derek Mooney

This may come as a shock to some, but it is entirely possible to want a united Ireland and not favour holding a unity poll within the next five years.

Indeed, I would suggest that it is axiomatic that wanting to see Ireland successfully reunited means having reservations about holding a referendum in the next five or even ten years.

The sensible position for anyone who thinks unity is more than just a political slogan is to not consider holding a unity poll until there is a more than a reasonable chance of it being passed.

Surely this is evident? Is this not a lesson we have taken from the whole Brexit vote fiasco?

For clarity: when I say “passed” I mean backed by a simple majority: 50% plus one. Just as retention of Northern Ireland’s existing status as a part of the United Kingdom requires a simple majority, then so does any process leading to unity require a simple majority.

This is not just a core principle of the Good Friday Agreement it is the fundamental basis of democratic process: every vote is equal.

An individual unionist’s determination to remain in the Union is as legitimate and valid as any republican’s desire to see a United Ireland. The idea of weighted majorities requiring a 55 or 60% threshold for change, as some have suggested, is not just denying parity of esteem it also denies parity of representation.

While making unity work in practical terms would doubtless require a greater public buy-in than just a bare 50% plus 1, the principle of one person, one vote – of equal value, cannot be up for grabs.

While we should avoid talk of holding unity polls now, the idea that we should stop talking about unity is a nonsense.

Not only is the suggestion wrong heading, it is simply an impossibility. For good or ill, Brexit has changed the relationships on and between these islands.

Brexit does not lead to unity, but by unilaterally removing the EU citizenship of people in Northern Ireland based on the will of a majority of English voters and against the freely expressed will of NI voters, (not to mention Scottish voters) the British government has undermined its own “precious” union and made discussion of unity not just possible, but sensible.

Almost every third level institution on this island now has a think-tank, institute or other policy group looking at how unity might work and operate. This is to be welcomed and will hopefully help inform calm and considered public debate over the coming years.

What is already clear is that there is not just one single model of unity, but a myriad of them – each with their own merits and downsides and each requiring various degrees of compromise from both sides.

This last point is crucial. While the unity debate will be a one-sided conversation among republicans, nationalists and non-aligned for the moment, the debate has to make itself both open and accommodating to Unionism.

Any viable model of unity cannot simply stem from what we might think unionists might want, but has be based on direct engagement with unionism, of all hues.

That is not something we can expect to see happen anytime soon. Before Unionism is ready to engage with us, it must first start to engage with itself. As the former UUP leader Mike Nesbitt has repeatedly observed, Brexit is unionism’s “biggest own goal” over the last century.

Unionism needs to process that reality, including seeing the ramifications of Brexit for unionism, particularly how the Boris Johnson form of Brexit – a Brexit made to suit England – plays out for it.

Not that we should expect, or want, to see this result in a defeatist unionism. As any negotiator will attest, the negotiated agreements that flourish best are those made between parties who have both confidence in their own positions and a real understanding of what the other side needs and can deliver.

But these debates among republicanism and unionism are not the only conversations on major political change happening on these islands, post Brexit.

The irony cannot be lost on constitutional republicanism here that Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish Nationalist Party may well achieve its goal of full independence, within the EU, before we are ready to move to reunification.

Scottish nationalism is on the cusp of realising its dream without resorting to violence, terrorism or, as the 1916 proclamation puts it, dishonouring its cause with “inhumanity, or rapine”.

The SNP realised that a key first step to gaining Scottish independence was showing that Scotland could govern itself. It seems it has only now dawned on some folks here that this is also true for Northern Ireland. Having a stable Northern Ireland that works and can govern itself is a prerequisite for a successful unity campaign.

It is why the Good Friday Agreement is still a critical roadmap to how we proceed. A speedy return of the Agreement’s institutions: the NI Assembly and Executive (in the coming days) is vital for republicans who want to see unity.

As I have repeatedly said, including in this piece from this time last year, Scotland is not just a crucial and important ally, but what happens in Scotland is vitally important for what happens here.

All this talk of unity and reconciliation does seem very far off however as we watch the emerging fiasco over upcoming commemorations of events 100 years ago.

The announcement of State commemorations to acknowledge those who served in the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) prior to independence has understandably raised concerns. The tragedy is that this was all avoidable.

In 2006, shortly after we marked the 90th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising, discussions started within government on how we should prepare for the centenary commemoration not just of 1916, but also of the whole decade of pivotal but complex events leading up to Independence from the lock out of 1913, through the War of Independence and beyond to the Civil War.

Those discussions, which including an all-party working group, focused less on the mechanics of how the ceremonies would be organised and more how we could address the complexities of commemorating these key events when people on this island have a common history but still do not have a common memory.

Many of the positive fruits of those discussions can be seen in Taoiseach Brian Cowen’s landmark May 2010 speech on marking this decade of commemorations. The text of speech is worth reading in full, however as it is no longer on the Dept of the Taoiseach’s website I cannot post a link here. You can however get a flavour of its contents here on the UCD website.

Notwithstanding the online expunging of this speech, I assumed the constructive and sensitive approach outlined by Brian Cowen was continuing to inform the current government’s attitude to these commemorations.

This seemed to be the case reading the 2018 report of the Expert Advisory Group on Commemorations, headed up by Dr Maurice Manning and Dr Martin Mansergh. In that report they say:

The aim of commemoration should be to broaden sympathies without having to abandon loyalties and, in particular, to recognise the value of ideals and sacrifices, including their cost… The goal of inclusiveness is best achieved, not by trying for an enforced common interest or universal participation, but by encouraging multiple and plural commemorations which remember the past while ensuring, as far as possible, that the commemoration does not re-ignite old tensions. [My emphasis]

Yet this is precisely what the Justice Minister has managed to achieve with his planned DMP/RIC event. The controversy comes not from the decision of senior public officials to refuse invitations, but rather in the way the government announced it.

Its own advisory committee proposed an inclusive event, namely: “a formal commemoration for all of those who lost their lives during the War of Independence be held in July 2021 [Again, my emphasis].

Those seeking this additional RIC and DMP event appear not to realise that the RIC, during the Irish War of Independence, included the Black and Tans, a force specially recruited to bolster an RIC that was losing members under pressure from the emerging Irish State.

The service and story of the RIC and DMP should not be air brushed from the events of the coming years, but there is a sensitivity around these State commemorations, not least those around the Civil War. T

he impression should not be given that these events can be revised to accommodate the outlook of whoever may be on the reviewing stand on the day.

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: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at government buildings, Dublin during Brexit talks last September; Derek Mooney

Addressing the 1992 US Republican convention, the former Nixon and Reagan speechwriter and perennially unsuccessful right-wing challenger for the presidential nomination, Pat Buchanan, described that year’s Democrat convention as “…the greatest single exhibition of cross-dressing in American political history.”

Buchanan’s problem with the 1992 Democrat convention, and its selection of newcomer Bill Clinton as nominee, was that it wrecked Republican plans to paint them as liberal and disconnected.

Instead of going to the radical left as Buchanan and President Bush (1) had wanted Clinton moved quickly to the centre and reached out to the working-class voters who had backed Reagan at the two earlier elections.

Desperate to save the Bush strategy, Buchanan was now trying to claim that the Democrats were still fundamentally liberal (a dirty word in American politics) and were only “dressed up as moderates and centrists” to fool the voters.

Buchanan was wrong.

And not just in the past. Still writing and broadcasting, Buchanan continues to get it wrong in print and online.

Buchanan is a fan of Prime Minister Boris Johnson. He has likened BoJo to President Trump, so one wonders if Buchanan would level the same, crude, “cross dresser” accusation at Johnson’s Tory party for campaigning like an opposition, despite being in power for almost a decade.

Probably not. But he wouldn’t be the first man to attack others for practising what you preach.

Though I am appalled by the prospect of Johnson having his stubby little fingers on the levels of power for five years, part of me is still in awe of what he has done.

Not that Johnson can take all the credit. His victory is due as much to the unsuitability of Jeremy Corbyn to be prime minister as it is any great enthusiasm by the great British public to make Johnson PM.

A survey [by Opinium] of folks who voted Labour in 2017 but defected this time, found that 37% cited Corbyn’s leadership as the main reason for switching. 21% said they changed due to the Labour’s confused position on EU membership and only 6% said it was do with its economic policies.

This factor alone knocks on the head any idea that there was anything in the British campaigns that Irish parties should replicate here.

While Fine Gael and the Tories have some history of helping each other in the past, particularly on social media campaigning, there is not much in the Johnson playbook that Varadkar could try out here.

Unlike Johnson, who had only been prime minister for about 100 days when the election was triggered, Varadkar has spent two and half years as Taoiseach and 9 years, since March 2011, at the cabinet table.

Like it or not, he owns all the problems facing the country and – to judge from his somewhat tetchy and detached Saturday morning radio interview with Brendan O’Connor on RTE Radio One – this is something he is neither liking nor dealing with well.

While blaming health service problems on what Fianna Fáil did and did not do ten years ago may play well with the folks in Fine Gael as well as playing merry hell with my blood pressure, it can also been seen as a reminder that you’ve been powerless and ineffective for nine years.

The other Johnson trick that will not play here was his refusal to fully engage with either the opposition or with the media, particularly when it comes to debates and interviews.

Johnson’s Tories went into the campaign 10 points ahead of Corbyn. BoJo had nothing to fear from avoiding the tough scrutiny of Andrew Neil or others, apart from risking a chill on the kidneys hiding in a fridge to avoid the Good Morning Britain TV crew.

Varadkar is not in that position. He does not have a poll lead. Staying away from debates will not highlight his main rival’s weaknesses, if anything it will serve to emphasise his unwillingness to be challenged.

Varadkar’s team will instinctively strive to dictate how the media covers them, but it is not a one-way street. Their capacity to deliver that is more dictated by how the media, and the opposition parties, chose to respond.

OK, so those are the lessons we must ignore. But, what about the ones that should be learned?

There are three that immediately spring to mind.

The first is something I have talked about online here. We need to learn the lessons of online campaign abuse elsewhere and legislate now to ensure transparency in social media political advertising.

Fianna Fáil’s technology spokesperson James Lawless TD produced such a draft piece of legislation, the  Social Media (Transparency) Bill, over two years ago but this government has been stalling it since Dec 2017.

Second, if we really want to understand how to run a successful and engaged election campaign then do not look to the Tories, look up. Look to Glasgow and Edinburgh and take serious campaign notes from the SNP.

Sturgeon is easily the most effective political campaigner operating in any part of the neighbouring island. Her SNP started the night with 35 of the available 59 seats and finished up with 48.

All this apart from the fact that the SNP has been in office in Scotland for almost 12 years. That is how you successfully run as an incumbent with a record that you do not have to hide from.

Third, there are no such things as red green or blue walls, especially when the voters are volatile. These are blocks or groups of seats that a party traditional wins at an election.

At the 2016 US presidential election the Democrats thought their blue wall of democratic leaning districts across such old industrial states as Philadelphia, Ohio and Wisconsin would keep Trump out of the White House.

Jeremy Corbyn’s crew were convinced that a red wall clump of previously Labour supporting-constituencies across the North of England would stop, or at least reduce the chances of Johnson getting a majority.

Both were wrong. This is the simplest and most basic lesion of politics, take your voters for granted and they will have no compunction about switching sides.

The blue line of FG seats across the south and east of Dublin city are now far more vulnerable than they were. If the Taoiseach is hoping that traditional Fine Gael voters will stick with him no matter what, then he is in for a shock.

The same applies to Sinn Féin. Its view that once it takes a seat it never loses it. This was blown asunder by SDLP leader Colum Eastwood MP, after his stunning win in Derry. Just as with the Local Elections down here, Sinn Féin saw its vote halved in Derry.

While last week’s UK general election was a single election to a single chamber, in reality it was three very distinct elections, in three very different countries with three very dissimilar results.

While Johnson won the elections held in England and Wales quite easily, he lost the ones held in Northern Ireland and Scotland.

The consequences of this dichotomy will dominate Johnson’s five years in government and have an increasing significance and importance here.

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

Top: Fianna Fáil members canvassing in Derry, from left:  Mark Holt, Frank Kennedy, Briege MacOscar, Jim O’Callaghan TD, Colum Eastwood SDLP leader, Richard Comerford, Kathleen Hunt, Derek Mooney; Derek Mooney

Hot on the heels of my by-election punditry… well, three out of four is not bad… let me throw my not too jaundiced eye over the race for the 18 House of Commons seats in Northern Ireland. There went 10 DUP, 7 Sinn Féin and 1 Ind Unionist last time, in 2017.

Unlike the four by-elections here, which were run under PR (proportional representation) the seats in Northern Ireland seats will be allocated under the arcane and unfair first-past-the-post (FPTP) system.

Not that this system always disadvantages nationalists.

In 2015, then SDLP leader, Alasdair McDonnell held his South Belfast seat with 24.5% of the vote, just 900 votes (2.3%) ahead of the DUP candidate. This accomplishment left McDonnell with the dubious honour of being the MP with the smallest ever vote share.

Though he increased it at the 2017 election, McDonnell failed to hold on, losing out to the DUP who saw their vote jump by a whopping 8%. It is a feat they are unlikely to repeat this time around, but I will return to Belfast South in more detail later.

First let’s take a quick look at the 10 constituencies where there is no question about how they’ll end up, as the winning party in each case had majorities ranging from just under 8,000 votes to over 21,500. They are:

DUP:

  • North Antrim – 20,643 majority
  • Lagan Valley – 19,229 majority
  • Strangford – 18,343 majority
  • East Antrim – 15,923 majority
  • East Londonderry – 8,842 majority
  • Upper Bann – 7,992 majority

Sinn Féin:

  • Belfast West – 21,652 majority
  • Mid Ulster – 12,890 majority
  • Newry and Armagh – 12,489 majority
  • West Tyrone – 7,956 majority

This is not to suggest that the remaining eight seats are all up for grabs. They are not. Two, or maybe three, look like changing. It is just that the winning margins the last time put these in the ones to watch pile.

So here, in reverse order, are my assessments of the remaining eight NI seats. First, let’s look at five seats where there could be some political shifts, though not enough to change the outcome.

South Antrim. The DUP took this seat from the UUP in 2017 by about 3200 votes. Though it is unlikely to swing back, the former UUP’s candidate, the ex-MP Danny Kinahan is well regarded. If the UUP is to have a future, then it really needs to start winning back support in seats like this. A DUP hold

South Down. For almost three decades this was solidly SDLP, but a big swing to SF’s Chris Hazzard saw him topple Margaret Ritchie, one of three former SDLP leaders to lose their seats in 2017. Hazzard’s majority is just under 2.500 and the SDLP’s candidate Michael Savage is running one of the strongest ground campaigns seen in the area since the days of the legendary SDLP MP Eddie McGrady. Probably a Sinn Féin hold, but it’s vulnerable.

North Down. Held for almost 18 years by independent unionist, Lady Sylvia Hermon, previously UUP, the strongly anti-Brexit MP is not standing again. The DUP vote in this affluent and solidly Unionist constituency jumped by 14% between 2015 and 2017 when its candidate Alex Easton finished up just 1208 votes behind Hermon.

Hermon announced her intention not to seek re-election after the SDLP, SF and the Greens had decided not to challenge her. While Alliance should be the beneficiary of their unintended largesse, its wilful refusal to strategically stand aside elsewhere to help remain candidates suggest it won’t.

Logic says that the DUP should win (it took 3 of the 6 Assembly seats here last time), though instinct says that voters in a seat that went 53% remain in 2016 will not be content to see a pro-Brexiteer replacing an anti-brexiteer. Oh, the joys of FPTP! Barring some seismic Alliance surge, this looks like a DUP gain.

East Belfast. In truth, this constituency should be in the list of 10 safe seats as the sitting DUP MP’s 2017 winning margin of 8,474 votes (a vote share of almost 56%) hardly puts it in the ones to watch column.

East Belfast is unionist heartland. It was represented by the former DUP leader Peter Robinson for 30 years, but it was his famous 2010 defeat by Alliance’s Naomi Long that puts East Belfast on this list.

The current MP Gavin Robinson (no relation) is seen as a moderate, in DUP terms. It is hard to see Long pulling off another 2010 win – notwithstanding her big success at the European Election. Long’s best chance of securing an Alliance seat may have been to move herself to the neighbouring North Down. This is a DUP hold.

Fermanagh and South Tyrone. One of the three seats on this list where the contest is between unionism and nationalism (see also Belfast North and South). Sinn Féin’s Michelle Gildernew took the seat back from the UUP’s Tom Elliott by 875 votes in 2017. While this would be regarded as a slim majority elsewhere, in the history of Gildernew wins here since 2001 it ranks among one of the biggest.

While the DUP have again withdrawn to facilitate Elliott, and Sinn Féin is seeing some discontent among its own voters, it is difficult to see the hard-working and well liked Gildernew losing out this time. A Sinn Féin hold.

This brings us to the three critical seats:

North Belfast. The race here is between the DUP and Sinn Féin – no surrogates or proxies. It is a winner takes all contest under a winner takes all voting system. One of just two constituencies where there are only three candidates (East Belfast being the other).

The sitting MP, the DUP’s Nigel Dodds held on by just under 2100 votes in 2017. Sinn Féin’s John Finucane is hoping that a strong anti-Brexit message and the absence of SDLP and Green party candidates and will see their 2700 votes come his way. Taking the seat off arch brexiteer Dodds would be a huge win.

But, Dodds has been here before. Back in 2010 he saw his majority fall to 2200, only to almost triple it five years later. Also, the presence of an Alliance candidate risks siphoning off remain voters unwilling to commit to Finucane. While the odds favour Dodds on paper, a nasty postering and banner campaigns by loyalists in both North and South Belfast may backfire.

While last week’s not quite full Ulster Hall rally, with its strident pro-Brexit and unionist imagery, was intended to unite and invigorate unionism, it was also a signal to moderate nationalists and others that one way to rid Northern Ireland of that political extreme is to defeat Dodds. While I think Dodds will win, every election produces a surprise, and this could be it.

This brings us to the two seats which I expect to switch hands.

Foyle: The Derry city constituency of Foyle was once the seat of John Hume and later Mark Durkan. Durkan’s 2017 defeat by Sinn Féin came as a body blow, the tightness of the margin, 167 votes, making it feel even worse.

Winning this seat back is a key goal for the SDLP’s new leader, Colum Eastwood and all the signs are that he is set to do it. [I should declare an interest here: I know Colum well and have been a supporter of his for years, including canvassing for him last week in Derry.]

Where winning the seat back is important to the SDLP and its Fianna Fáil partner, not losing it is an absolute imperative for Sinn Féin. It has poured a lot of manpower and resources, over the past few weeks, into trying to cling on, but just a few hours knocking on doors in what should be strong SF areas tells you that it is too late. SDLP gain at SF expense.

South Belfast. The contest here is between sitting DUP MP Emma Little-Pengelly and the SDLP’s Claire Hanna. This staunchly pro-remain constituency (70%:30%) is set to return one of the most articulate, vibrant and dynamic pro-remain voices on the Northern Ireland political scene, Claire Hanna.

The decision by both the Green and Sinn Féin parties to stand aside in Hanna’s favour all but makes her election inevitable, so you have to again wonder at the Alliance strategy to stay in a race where it can, at best, only be a spoiler who helps the pro leave DUP. SDLP gain from DUP

So, there you have it. Based on the assessments above I expect the final totals should look either like this:

  • 10 DUP – Unchanged. Loses 1 in S Belfast and gains 1 in N Down
  •   6 SF – Down one. Loses Foyle
  •   2 SDLP – Up 2, Foyle and S Belfast.

Or, this

  • 9 DUP – Loses 1 each in S Belfast and N Belfast, gains 1 in N Down
  • 7 SF – Unchanged. Loses Foyle but gains N Belfast.
  • 2 SDLP – Up 2, Foyle and S Belfast.

The significance of this second scenario is that it would mark parity between nationalist and unionist Westminster representation – 9 seats each.

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

From top: Fianna Fáil Senator Lorraine Clifford Lee (third right) with party workers canvassing in Swords, County Dublin for the Fingal by-election, which is being held this Friday; Derek Mooney

Shortly after he was appointed Conservative Party chairman, Kenneth Baker was presented with internal polls showing the Tories facing near annihilation in the following year’s Local Elections (1990).

The Poll Tax recently introduced by the Tories was not just unpopular, it was hated. There were angry, mass anti-poll tax protests across the UK, in the run-up to the May 3 polling day. The biggest, in London, turned into a riot with over 300 arrested and 113 seriously injured.

Against this febrile background and with the knowledge that the Tories were going to lose big, Baker set about putting one of the finer political skills into operation: he managed expectations.

Polls were leaked showing the Tories likely to do considerably worse than expected. They even suggested that Tory London council strongholds such as Westminster and Wandsworth were in jeopardy.

When, on the day, the Tories seemed to confound their worst expectations, keeping seat losses to under 240 and comfortably holding their London strongholds, Baker declared it a huge win.

His strategy of putting media focus on Wandsworth and Westminster worked masterfully. Tory newspapers hailed it as a major win.

It is hard not to detect a whiff of the auld “Ken Bakers” about the curious emergence, over the weekend, of predictions claiming that Fianna Fáil might win all four by-elections being fought this Friday.

Maybe it’s the cynic in me, but I cannot help thinking that someone, somewhere is trying to prepare the ground for a post by-election analysis focused more on why Fianna Fáil didn’t win all four, than on why Fine Gael could only win one – or none?

It is ironic that the media interest in the by-election results will be higher than it was in the campaigns themselves.

If it wasn’t for the controversy raised by two of the candidates, via racist comments or dubious twitter archives, would anyone outside the four constituencies know there were by-elections? Indeed, are many within them especially exercised about them?

This is curious as wins by Labour, Sinn Féin, Greens, independents or by parties other than Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael could bring down the government (assuming any Inds elected would not join Confidence and Supply).

Donning my punditry mantle, my own best guess at to the outcomes, offered with the obvious health warnings that: (a). I am a Fianna Fáil hack and (b). there are still four campaigning days left, is that Fianna Fáil is likely to win two of the four contests: via Pádraig O’Sullivan in Cork North Central and Malcolm Byrne in Wexford and that two Dublin seats will probably go to a Green and an Independent

Despite a shaky start, Fianna Fáil’s Lorraine Clifford-Lee will be in the hunt in Dublin Fingal, but it still looks like the Green candidate will win here, though Labour is also said to be doing well.

Fine Gael’s lone hope of a win could be with its Dublin Mid-West candidate. She is fighting hard to hold the seat previously held by Frances Fitzgerald MEP – but it will be an uphill slog.

There are several strong contenders in Mid-West, including Sinn Féin’s Mark Ward, Fianna Fáil’s Cllr Shane Moynihan, Paul Gogarty, once a Green TD now running as an Ind, Labour’s former TD Joanna Tuffy and the SocDem’s Anne Marie McNally (also of this Broadsheet parish). My money has been on Gogarty since the start and it stays there.

When looking at any of the by-elections you have to remember that in eight out of the past 12 by-elections the winner was the one who topped the poll on the first count. In the other four, the eventual winner came second on the first count, but was sufficiently close to the poll topper to be able to pull ahead on transfers.

This will be a big factor in both Dublin Fingal and Dublin Mid-West, where the first count gaps between the top two, three or even four candidates may not be so wide.

So much for the punditry. Looking at the campaigns themselves, especially the week-long tumult over Fine Gael’s Wexford candidate, one has to wonder if political parties, as structured entities, understand their roles?

As any first-year political science student could tell them, candidate selection is one of the primary functions of a political party. This includes the vetting and preparation of candidates.

We know that the two main parties do a lot of constituency polling, but it is shocking to hear, as the Taoiseach admitted, they do not vet or do basic oppositional research?

Is nobody inside Fine Gael HQ capable of doing a simple Google search, just to see what is out there on the net about their candidate… or, is Google search solely reserved for policy development?

Perhaps I should not whine about this too much. There is obviously a business opportunity here and I am sure I could be persuaded to provide this commercial service, to any party serious about preparing its candidates.

Here, as a free sample, is an initial piece of advice I would give to any candidate: get someone with critical sense to check over your social media archive at regular intervals.

If you have posted some major crap then, doubtless, someone has it screen captured and saved, ready to roll it out when it will do you the most harm. So, you should, at the very least, be well prepared for that.

My final point today, is about by-elections themselves. Are they a fair way to fill casual vacancies that arise during the lifetime of the Dáil?

To be fair, by-elections are a lot fairer now than they were. Electoral law was changed in 2011 to create a six-month deadline in which vacant seats must be filled.

This followed the 2010 High Court case taken by Sinn Féin compelling the faltering Fianna Fáil/Green government to finally hold the Donegal South West by-election to fill the vacancy created – almost 18 months earlier – by Pat ‘The Cope’ Gallagher’s election to the European Parliament.

The loss of The Cope’s seat along with the loss of three other Fianna Fáil seats helped herald the end of the 2007 Fianna Fáil/Green government – or at least made its continuance problematic.

(The other three seats were: Seamus Brennan, who tragically died in July 2008, his seat was won by Fine Gael’s George Lee at the June 2009 by-election; Martin Cullen resigned as a Minister and TD in March 2010 and Jim McDaid resigned as a TD in November 2010. Neither of these two by-elections were held).

The question is: should a government with a narrow majority potentially fall due to casual vacancies rather than a specific political action or movement?

Losing a Council or European election, both of which are conducted nationally, does not precipitate a government collapse – though it can have long term political implications – so, why should [a] by-election[s] in individual constituencies, particularly those occasioned by the death of a TD, potentially have that effect?

The Constitution says, at Art 16.7, that the “…filling of casual vacancies, shall be regulated in accordance with law”, so this is not a matter requiring a referendum.

I suppose the issue is what mechanism you use instead of a by-election? Should we use the replacement list system used in the European Parliament to fill casual vacancies – but then how do you define a casual vacancy?

Should we differentiate between resignations due to ill health and those made as a political protest. If we were to have replacement lists, should the resigning TD have the right to invoke a specific legislative clause to trigger a by-election to show their resignation was a deliberate act?

In the greater scale of things, these are not pressing reforms, just thoughts prompted by Friday’s votes. To borrow the meaningless Boris phrase, this is not a question over which I am willing to die in a ditch.

In the meantime, if you happen to live in Dublin Mid-West, Dublin Fingal, Wexford or Cork North Central do go out and vote on Friday – decisions are made by the people who show up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Result?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But what of the future?

Has the threat changed?

In a word: yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rollingnews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In a word: yes.

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

Continue reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rollingnews

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Within NI Between communities in the North,

2. Between North and South on this island, and

3. East/West, between these two islands.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rollingnews

Earlier: Push The Button And Let Me Know

 A Limerick A Day