Tag Archives: Derek Mooney

From top: Valletta, Malta at sunset; Derek Mooney

One of the downsides or having such easy access to British news, particularly the BBC, is that we assume Brussels to be as fixated on Brexit as the Brits imagine. As Brexit dominates the headlines here and the UK we suppose that everyone in Brussels and across Europe is as focussed on Brexit as us. They are not.

It is not that the other EU capitals don’t take the looming Dec 31st deadline seriously or are not straining to avoid a hard crash out. They would prefer see a no deal Brexit avoided, as much for Ireland’s sake as their own, but they have long since accepted that Brexit is happening. So, all that is left to resolve is the manner of the post Brexit relationship. Brexit will not be reversed, so there is no point in EU heads of government expending any further political capital on it.

Their attention therefore moves to more pressing matters, so where Brexit still dominates the headlines here, news broadcasts and papers in France, Germany, Spain and Italy feature stories about the deteriorating relationships between Hungary, Poland and the rest of the EU.

It is a crisis long in the making. Most EU member states are worried by the creeping anti-democratic behaviour of the Hungarian and Polish governments, that has resulted is sustained attacks on press freedom, restrictions on judicial independence and denial of minority rights. Attacks that have – up to now – prompted strongly worded statements but little hard action from Hungarian strongman Viktor Orbán’s EPP allies, including as Billy Kelleher MEP pointed out last week, Fine Gael.

While both countries have benefited economically from EU membership, their governments have been less than eager about allow their citizens fully share the EU’s human rights and rule of law benefits.

A recent attempt by EU member states to ensure that only counties upholding democratic standards could access the emergency coronavirus relief package and budget (worth about €1.8 trillion) hit the buffers at last week’s EU leaders’ summit as Hungary and Poland vetoed the package. While limiting access to the funds only requires a qualified majority vote, establishing it requires unanimity.

Not that Poland and Hungary are the EU’s only recalcitrant states. The EU’s first annual rule of law report, published at the end of September, examined rule of law issues including corruption, fair procedures and press freedom across EU member states. It found that counties such as Romania, Cyprus and Bulgaria still had some way to go in strengthening their rule of law provisions, but that they were broadly moving the right direction.

The other country whose report card was less than stellar was Malta. At first glance putting Malta in the same league as Hungary, Poland or even Bulgaria might seem a bit of a stretch for the sedate Mediterranean holiday spot.

Up to this time two years ago, the only political figure of note from the tiny Mediterranean island I had heard of was the charismatic Dom Mintoff, and he stepped down as Prime Minister and leader of the Maltese labour party back in 1984.

The EU’s negative finding on Malta is a lot less surprising however when you see the 2019 EU barometer survey finding that a staggering 89% of Maltese believe corruption in Malta is “widespread”. It is a feeling that has grown dramatically in the years following assassination of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.

Galizia was killed by a car bomb outside Valletta city in October 2017. Her Running Commentary blog had been reporting on corruption, kickbacks and money laundering involving dodgy Russian enterprises, well-connected Maltese businessmen and senior government officials, including advisors to then Maltese Premier and Labour party leader, Joseph Muscat.

In 2018, the CBS news 60 Minutes programme ran a feature on how the “smallest nation in the European Union is earning an unsavoury reputation, with a series of scandals involving allegations of bribery, cronyism and money laundering.”

While Galizia’s murder sparked international outrage, the Maltese criminal investigation was slow and plodding. Three low-level criminals were arrested for planting the bomb, but Maltese authorities seemed less than enthusiastic about going after who ordered it.

This lethargy did not deter her sons, friends and supporters from campaigning to stop the Muscat government from brushing the scandal under the carpet.

Around this time last year mass protests began outside the Prime Minister’s office in Valletta and continued for several days. Such was the political storm inside and outside the Maltese parliament that Muscat’s chief of staff, Keith Schembri and his Energy Minister, Konrad Mizzi, eventually resigned. So too did another minister accused of taking kickbacks.

Both Mizzi and Schrembi had been implicated by Galizia in corruption accusations arising from the 2017 Panama Papers. These pointed to both men being involved with tax-dodging offshore companies, along with one of Malta’s wealthiest men, the casino and hotel tycoon Yorgen Fenech. Some days after Mizzi and Schrembi resigned, Fenech’s luxury yacht was stopped while trying to flee Maltese waters and Fenech was arrested.

On December 1st 2019 Muscat announced that he too would resign. He was replaced last January by former competitive body builder Robert Abela. Fast forward to August/September 2020 and former Prime Minister Muscat is being interviewed by Maltese police in connection with the Galizia murder on foot of Fenech’s allegations they had inappropriately discussed key details of the case while Muscat was still in office. Meanwhile Schrembri is arrested amid allegations that he unlawfully received a kickback worth €100,000 through illegal passport sales to Russians.

While the resignations and arrests are signs of some progress, as is the growing civic society movement for reform, Malta still has a long road to travel. The case is far from closed and one year on the full story has still to emerge and the only ones still convicted of the Galizia murder are the three small time thugs who planted the bomb.

A few days ago, Pantelis Varnava the husband of the whistleblower who was one of Galizia’s primary sources, was arrested (and later released) in Greece on what he says are fabricated charges by Cypriot authorities.

Varnava’s Russian wife, Maria Efimova, had helped Galizia expose a trail of dirty money from the Maltese Bank where she worked that connected the Azarbaijan President Ilham Aliyev, and Joseph Muscat’s wife, Michelle.

Last week Max Schrem’s digital privacy organisation NOYB.eu filed a complaint against the company responsible a massive Maltese voter data breach, a company that has close ties to the ruling Labour party.

Meanwhile one of the three ministers who was embroiled in a financial scandal last year over a hospital privatisation deal, is set to step down as Finance Minister this week to become the next Governor of the Maltese Central bank and an ex-officio member of the governing council of the European Central Bank. The minister, Edward Scicluna, is the same minister as appeared in the previously mentioned 2018 60 minutes programme, saying:

“It looks bad, but it’s not.”

Wrong, Prof Scicluna, it is every bit as bad as it looks and if it is getting any better it is no thanks to you or the others who have spent years looking the other 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 Monday.Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney

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From top: Taoiseach Michael Martin giving and address on the Shared Island initiative followed  at Dublin Castle on October 22; Derek Mooney

A few weeks ago An Taoiseach Micheál Martin delivered a major speech to an online audience. At almost any other time the speech would have been seen as important and significant, but it did not receive a great deal of attention coming as it did between Leo the leaker, the Mother and Baby Home saga, Woulfegate, not to mention the process of moving to level 5 Covid 19 restrictions.

The speech, on a Shared Island/Ireland, was delivered live to a wide and diverse audience, north and south. It was a fine speech, though – not for the first time – Martin managed to detract from his speech and trampling over his own publicity, with a far from adroit performance at the event’s question and answer session. As Sean Lemass famously observed, it’s never the little too little that hurts in politics, it’s the little too much.

So, instead of the media focusing on the news that the Irish government was establishing and funding a substantial unit to work on developing major all island projects, it came away transfixed by Martin’s inability to unambiguously state that Fianna Fáil is committed to Irish Unity.

For a man who sees himself in the leadership tradition of Sean Lemass, Martin still has an awful lot to learn from the great man’s practical application of vision to action. Three and a half years after Martin’s big March 2017 announcement that Fianna Fáil was working on a White Paper on Unity, there is still no sign of it.

Over those three plus years Martin has gone from being comfortable saying that he expects to see a United Ireland in his lifetime, to quibbling over what is meant by unity, though – to be fair to him – he did walk that part back a few days later in his McGill School interview with Olivia O’Leary.

Whatever reasons underpin Martin’s gradually changing position on Irish unity (and there is a series of articles in that issue alone), there is no denying the importance of his speech and the significance of the Shared Island initiative.

Not only did An Taoiseach put flesh on the bones of the Budget Day commitment to spend €500 million between now and 2025 on shared island projects, he moved it forward by launching “the Shared Island Dialogue series to foster constructive and inclusive engagement on all aspects of our shared future”.

The words “all aspects” are important here. We should be encouraging wide ranging discussion on all aspects of the future of this island – and that “all” includes constitutional questions. As my  friend Dr David McCann explained in a very good article on the Slugger O’Toole blog in late July: the Shared Island unit doesn’t need to shy away from constitutional questions.

An Taoiseach may be uneasy about this, but his unease is not justified. Brexit has completely changed the context. There is no useful purpose in trying to keep discussions on this part of this island narrow when they are in a state of flux in the rest of these islands. As I have been arguing here since late 2016, Brexit has changed everything, particularly relations on and between these islands.

If you don’t believe me, just replay yesterday’s BBC1 TV Marr Show to hear the former British PM Gordon Brown calling for a UK conversation about the constitutional future of the United Kingdom, saying that he sees it as an out of date constitutional framework.

Brown is still an unashamed Scottish unionist. He wants to see the union maintained, but he also sees how the form of Brexit being pursued by the Tories at Westminster amounts to an English nationalism that will eventually make the UK a cold place for Scots and Welsh.

The Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, whose SNP is poised to gain extra seats at next May’s Scottish parliamentary election is now talking about the possibility of an independence referendum in 2021 while the Labour Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford, who is no advocate of Welsh independence, is starting to talk about the possibility of a Welsh independence referendum at some point in the future.

These discussions have huge implications for relationships here. So, let us learn the lesson of the 2016 Brexit referendum and prepare for them calmly and maturely.

If nationalism is going to make a case for unity to unionism, then it must also listen to, and engage with, unionism’s case for the union. To this end, former Northern Ireland First Minister, Peter Robinson’s, October 23 Belfast Newsletter article, telling unionists to prepare for a border poll by preparing to argue the case for the union, was fortuitous, appearing as it did on the morning after the Taoiseach’s speech.

It’s not the only propitious piece of timing. The resignation of Sinn Féin Senator Elisha McCallion in the wake of the Sinn Féin office grants saga now leaves two vacancies in the senate, the first arising from the resignation of Fine Gael senator, Michael D’Arcy in late September.

When D’Arcy resigned Sinn Féin indicated that it would back former Unionist Senator Ian Marshall to fill the vacancy. It was a smart move from a party that knew that the government had botched the opportunity to appoint two Northern Senators back in June. I have no doubt that also seeing they couldn’t win the seat for themselves as Seanad by-elections are decided by a vote of all Oireachtas members, barely registered with them.

Well, now there are two vacancies – so the Dáil parties, not to mention the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste, have the opportunity to put their combined political clout where their mouths are and facilitate the election of two Senators from Northern Ireland, representing the two main communities there.

Sinn Féin has already put Ian Marshall’s name into the ring. He proved himself a capable representative for Unionism in the last Seanad and could do so again, but so could many others. The former UUP leader, Mike Nesbitt is perhaps another credible and modern voice of unionism who has shown the willingness to put unionism’s case to audiences unaccustomed to hearing it.

The second vacancy could go to someone from the moderate nationalist tradition. Since he became SDLP leader five years ago, Colum Eastwood MP has overseen a change in the public face of that party with a slate of new younger voices and faces, any one of whom could follow in the footsteps of such formidable SDLP Senators as Seamus Mallon and Bríd Rodgers. Stepping just outside the political arena, someone like voting rights campaigner Emma de Souza could also make a huge contribution to the Seanad.

The temptation for the Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil leaders is to just carve the two vacancies up between them with one taking the vacancy on the Industry and Commerce panel and the other getting the Agriculture panel one.

This would make some party-political sense with each using the Seanad to blood a candidate they hope to get elected at the next general election. Both have several defeated TDs and potential first-time candidates who would make capable senators.

It is what parties have done in the past, though it didn’t work out for either of them last February. You see, for the Seanad appointment thing to work you need to have the reasonable chance of increasing your number of Dáil seats. As both proved last February, the strategy doesn’t work when they are decreasing.

The right and sensible thing for Martin and Varadkar to do instead is to seize the opportunity now to facilitate the election of two Senators, one unionist and one nationalist and fix the mistake they made last June by not appointing two Northern Irish Senators via the Taoiseach’s 11 nominees.

You rarely get a second chance in politics to fix your mistakes, especially a second chance that also allows you show that your Shared Island speech is a lot more than simply fine words. Don’t drop the ball on this one, Taoiseach.

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 Micheál Martin (right) is under fire from members of his own party over his handling of Tanaiste Leo Varadkar’s GP contract controversy; Derek Mooney

I’m sure many of you were shocked as I was to learn last Friday that Sinn Féin doesn’t have confidence in Leo Varadkar.

Seriously, who’d have thought it?

Who’d have imagined that the main opposition party, a party that sees the future of Irish politics as a polarised race between itself and Fine Gael, would not have confidence in current Fine Gael leader?

As I explained in my first piece here last week there is no doubt that the Tánaiste has not gone far enough in his apology or his assurances about how he conducts the business of government. Some of the explanations he offered last Tuesday were so juvenile and feeble that it was shameful to see them sent out alone without a guardian.

Many who will vote confidence in Varadkar on Tuesday night will do so with no more trust or confidence in the man now than voters had in him last February.

But, as President-Elect Biden likes to say, here’s the deal… unless substantial new evidence emerges between now and the time the division bells are sounded, the vote will be an entirely pointless exercise, designed more to embarrass Fianna Fáil and the Greens than to censure the Tánaiste.

Like it or not, this saga is not really capturing public attention. It is not that people don’t care, it’s just that they look at this and wearily conclude that (a) they are all at it, (b) when it comes to leaking Sinn Féin would be no better or worse or than Fine Gael, (c) we have much bigger things to be focused on now… or a mixture of all three.

Voters are not naïve; they know that for some politicians leaking is less an occupational hazard and more a career necessity. They see political leaks as largely, though not exclusively, falling into one of four/five categories. There are several more – but let’s stick with the principal ones here.

Category 1 covers leaks made to embarrass other parties and put your own side ahead. The second category concerns leaks made against party colleagues to help advance the leaker’s political career, though the motivation can be simple jealousy. I could give many recent examples of both, but I promised to keep this week’s piece under 1200 words.

The third group features leaks that have no direct benefit for the leaker apart from storing up brownie points with journalists. This is the chips in the bank approach where the leaker hopes to have something to cash-in with the next time they land themselves in trouble.

As Bernard Woolley, the private secretary in Yes Minister responds when his minister admit that item appearing in the newspaper was the result of a confidential press briefing, not a leak:-

Oh, that’s another of those irregular verbs, isn’t it? I give confidential press briefings; you leak; he’s been charged under Section 2a of the Official Secrets Act.

This is the difference between an authorised disclosure of information and an unauthorised one. The Taoiseach or minister of the day can authorise the release of information or documents, but that is not something they usually do by stealth without any reference to trusted confidents.

It is certainly not something they do when, as the Tánaiste said last Tuesday, they had agreed not to publish the contract as:

“The IMO wanted to do it differently and wanted to hold meetings around the country to consult and engage with its members before doing so.”

So, the Taoiseach knew the IMO believed their chances of getting the contract passed would be bolstered by not publishing it before they consulted members. Why leak it, then?

The Tánaiste says it was to show that there was “nothing in it worth opposing or agitating against”. Thus Leo Varadkar would have us believe his one and only ever leak falls into a fourth category of leaks: leaks made in the public interest.

Category 4 leaks are rare. They are often the absolute last resort where all other avenues have been explored and exhausted.

Sinn Féin says it does not buy that… but stops far short of saying this leak belongs to a fifth category of leaks: those made for corrupt personal gain. This fifth type is unacceptable under all circumstances. It should lead not just to a vote of no confidence, but a full criminal investigation.

Writing here in advance of the Tánaiste addressing the Dáil I said that it was bad politics for him and the Taoiseach to downplay his action as a mere lapse of judgement.

It was more than that. It was wrong. As Jim O’Callaghan TD commented on Twitter after the Tánaiste spoke:

Every politician knows it’s wrong for a minister to send a government document with “Confidential Not For Circulation” printed in big letters on its front page to someone not authorised to receive it. Let’s not demean ourselves by pretending otherwise.

It can be difficult, if not downright impossible, to come across as truly contrite in the Dáil chamber in the face of political game playing and point scoring. But the Tánaiste couldn’t even be bothered to feign contrition last Tuesday. It is a point which Deputy Catherine Connolly highlighted when she directly asked:

“When did the Tánaiste realise that he had made an error of judgment?”

If anyone came close last Tuesday to posing a Howard Baker-esque ‘What Did the President Know, and When Did He Know It?’ question, it was Deputy Connolly. But while this is serious, Watergate it is not.

The other reason this is not Watergate is because in Watergate the wrongdoing was on one side only. Those who came looking for answers and answerability on the break-in and cover up came with clean hands. Is that the case here?

As I said last week “The wrongs done by one [side] do not distract from those of the other”. Sinn Féin has mishandled the issues relating to its finances just as much as Varadkar has mishandled his leaking of the IMO contract.

This isn’t whataboutary, it is simply a reflection of the fact that the Sinn Féin leadership have a range of awkward and difficult questions to answer on its finances.

These go from how it embraces partition to accept a £4million donation in the North, avoiding the 26 counties’ standard in public office donation limits, to why it takes seven months to return £30k erroneously received from Northern Ireland’s emergency COVID-19 fund for small businesses – and how come that only happened a few days before the BBC Radio Ulster Nolan Live show broke the story.

If the media hadn’t pushed Sinn Féin on the three £10,000 payments would the money have remained in the bank accounts of Sinn Féin, assuming it hadn’t already been spent? How are these accounts managed and run? Who controls them?

Rather than answering the valid questions facing both, they’ve opted to poke each other in the eye. Not that the damage will run too deep. Sinn Féin and Fine Gael are the best of enemies. They are each other’s best nemesis as they set about cannibalising the parties around them and hollow out the political centre.

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

RollingNews

From top: US Democrat Presidential candidate Joe Biden (left), US President Donald Trump; Derek Mooney

The future of Donald Trump should be answered by Friday, if not sooner. Three weeks ago I predicted Biden would win. Nothing I have heard since has convinced me otherwise.

According to Professor Michael McDonald’s excellent @ElectProject, at least 93 million Americans had already voted by Sunday November 1. In 2016 just over 136 million votes were cast.

In mid-October Prof McDonald predicted that early voting would hit 85 million and that the overall 2020 turnout would exceed 150 million. As his early voting turnout has already been surpassed, it is not unreasonable to expect his turnout prediction will be too.

Doubtless this will include many who did not vote for Trump in 2016. Republicans have been busy registering more Trump supporters in rural areas, but does anyone imagine that 20–25 million extra voters are turning out because they think President Donald Trump is doing such a great job?

The US presidential was always going to be a referendum on Trump. His handling of Covid19 has made it even more so. He is pleased this is all about him, but that is the big flaw in his campaign strategy: his ego. It is not just a risky strategy; it is a bad one when so many likely voters do not like or respect you.

Two stark sets of figures make this point.

Asked to rate the candidates, likely voters give Trump a score of 41% favourable and 57% unfavourable and Biden 55% favourable: 42% unfavourable. That is a 15% gap in favour of Biden. Biden’s unfavourable rating today is 10pts better than Hillary Clinton’s 52% rating – a rating that cost her: Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan.

Trump has bet the house, by which I mean other people’s money, on him getting the minority who like him to turn out disproportionately. Early polling figures point to that strategy failing. Trump’s future now depends on a huge polling day turn-out of Trump voters.

Bizarrely, Trump could manage to get more votes than he won in 2016. The GOP’s registration and get out the vote operation could bring out extra Trump votes, but with 20+ million additional voters they simply cannot catch up with, never mind, out poll Biden.

Biden will win the popular vote by a much bigger margin than Clinton did in 2016, the question is how his vote is distributed across the battleground states.

Trump won almost 3 million fewer votes than Clinton. His win was due to where he secured several hundred thousand of them, particularly Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
Trump must now win in every State he won in 2016.

That is a big ask for an unpopular President. Trump cannot afford to lose states – and right now he is likely to lose two or more.

So here are a few of the key states I’ll be watching on Tuesday night/Wednesday morning.

First is Florida. It is counting early votes now and expects to have a result on election night. If Trump loses Florida, it is over all for him. He is losing the support of seniors and suburban voters across and only held Florida by 113,000 votes last time (1.2%). I think he may just hold Florida, but the margin could be ultra slim.

Watch Georgia and North Carolina too. Both are showing early turnouts equal to 90% plus of their 2016 turnouts and both expect to count most votes on the night. Trump won these two states in 2016 and took their combined 31 electoral college votes. This time, both could swing to Biden.

Looking at Georgia first, the latest polls show Biden ahead. Trump beat Clinton here by 211,000 votes (5%). There are also two tough Senate races here with the Trump supporting Senator Perdue under big pressure from his young Democrat rival Jon Ossoff and also a special Senate election with the Democrat facing a split republican ticket.

Turning to North Carolina, polls here have Biden ahead by between 3 and 6%. This compares with Trump’s 2016 winning margin of 173,315 votes (3.7%). There is a big Senate race here too with polls favouring the Democrat challenger over the pro Trump Senator, Thom Tillis.

Trump’s 2016 winning trio of States: Pennsylvania Wisconsin and Michigan are obviously ones to watch, but none are expected to declare a result on the night, indeed Pennsylvanian electoral law says that it may not count postal ballots until the following day.

Biden is well ahead in all the polls in Wisconsin and Michigan. As I pointed out three weeks ago Trump won the suburban and rural districts in Pennsylvania in 2016 giving him a narrow 45,000 vote margin over Clinton across the State. Biden is still ahead here, but the race is tightening.

This is why Pennsylvania is now seeing so much big-name campaigning with both Trump and Biden holding several last-minute events here.

After you look out for the results in these States, as well as Texas, Arizona and perhaps Iowa and Ohio then the focus can move to an even more critical question: what happens after the election?

A UMass Amherst poll shows that 80% of likely voters are concerned about the possibility of election-related violence. On Wednesday I retweeted posts from Dutch and Spanish journalists based in Washington.

Both reported that a week before polling day stores and businesses surrounding the White House were preparing for Election Day by closing and boarding up their windows in fear of violence and looting.

The fears are well founded, especially when the President gleefully cheers the intimidation of Democrats in Texas and the Trump cavalcades blocking highways in New Jersey and New York.

This is the short-term impact. What about the long-term impact? America is divided. Deeply so. The only hope of uniting lies with the losing side accepting the legitimacy of the winner, but outside of a massive Biden landslide, that looks unlikely. Trump signalled on Sunday that he is ready to go to the Courts on Tuesday night to force an early declaration.

A Biden win that takes days to declare fuels Trump conspiracists to claim the election was stolen. The converse is also true. If Trump is to have a second term then it must be seen to be the will of the people, not the vindication of voter suppression or court interventions. There have been over 300 legal challenges in recent days.

The winner will face the challenge of leading a nation that is deeply divided by geography and demographics. That division will not just have its expression in raw political gridlock in D.C. but could, if handled badly, even see greater regional disconnection, even secession. #Calexit anyone?

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

Earlier: Derek Mooney: Best Practice

From top: Tanaiste Leo Varadkar and Minister for Health Simon Harris; Derek Mooney

Late last Friday I pulled together some quotes and stats in anticipation of today’s column being just about the US presidential election. Then came Saturday morning and that Village magazine exposé.

So, today’s piece on the U.S. election will appear later today. I will first address the domestic elephants in the room.

The allegation that Leo Varadkar leaked a confidential government document to a friend is serious. Very serious. To describe the leak as “not best practise” is akin to Sinn Féin saying three £10,000 office grants ended up in their bank accounts “in error”. Using passive language does not make it better.

If anything, it makes it worse. It is like a poker player’s tell that shows the miscreant knows they did wrong, no matter how much they tell themselves otherwise.

To their credit – and this is not a phrase that flows easily from my keyboard – Sinn Féin have tried to deflate their problems with resignations from four party officials, including a Senator and an MLA.

It was a step in the right direction, but Sinn Féin still has questions to answer. Who controls these individual accounts? When did they know they received the payments? Were the repayments only made when journalists started asking about them?

The Taoiseach has even more pressing and serious questions. So might Minister Simon Harris. There are issues about the timelines. The draft agreement on GP contracts was not published until May 17, so why leak a copy a month earlier marked “subject to amendment/changes”?

As any experienced negotiator would tell you, leaking a draft to a third party in during a tense negotiation is not just dangerous, it is treacherous.

So, what made a negotiating neophyte imagine he knew better? How could leaking it to an IMO rival help? Did it help? Why was Minister Harris kept in the dark, assuming he was?

Both sets of questions must be fully answered. It is not an either/or. The wrongs done by one do not distract from those of the other, no matter how coincidental the timing. Both Sinn Féin and Fine Gael have profoundly serious questions to answer, so there is no reason for either to try to slide out of this to force the spotlight to fall on the other.

One other person with some questions to answer is Taoiseach Micheál Martin, though he owes the answers more to himself than the Dáil.

Whoever took the weasel phrases “best practice” and “inappropriate” from the Tánaiste’s statement and dropped them into the Taoiseach’s response did their boss no favours.

It is not in this Taoiseach or this government’s medium-term interests to downplay the Tánaiste’s action as a mere lapse of judgement.

If the Taoiseach really wants this government to be different from its immediate predecessor then he must ensure the days of governing by text and WhatsApp are over.

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: A Limerick A Day

‘I Can’t Answer That For You’

From top: Taoiseach Micheál Martin; Derek Mooney

Fear not. This is not yet another Covid 19 article written by someone without an ounce of expertise. While I have a view on whether to move to level 4 or 5 or stick with level 3, it is not sufficiently informed as to risk inflicting it on you.

It is not that I haven’t attempted to inform my view. I have. I try to find and read analysis from a wide range of experts. This week that included checking out the website mention in that controversial full-page advert in Thursday’s Irish Times.

That was not a good move. While the Great Barrington Declaration appears at first glance to be endorsed by experts, delve deeper and you find that many of the endorsements are not what they seem.

How could anyone take any declaration seriously that claims to have the backing of: Dr Harold Shipman, Dr Coroh Nahvirus, Herr Dee Münitie, and consultant eye specialist, Dr Bernard Castle.

To be fair, the website was the exception. Most of what I have been reading has been informative, confusingly so. This stuff is not light reading, not least the articles on testing, from the widely used PCR (Polymerase chain reaction) tests, to LAMP (Loop-mediated Isothermal Amplification) tests to antigen test kits to antibody ones.

After a few hours reading about tests and how some produce false positives or negatives it is hard for the lay person, like me, not to wonder if the problem with the current public debate has less to do with false positives and a lot more to do with false binaries and false dichotomies?

Though it is also attributable to the fractious nature of the social media environment in which a lot of this is being played out, I find that the discussion on Level 3 versus Level 5 has turned into a poisonous and polarised “ussuns” versus “themmuns”. A false dichotomy/false binary of government versus NPHET.

Debate descends into mindless gainsaying and sloganeering that would not sound out of place on the terraces of an old firm derby. It is just as vacuous to claim that NPHET’s decisions are based on panic as it is to say that ministers only care about protecting business.

Slight diversion. As bad as things are here, they have still not plumbed the depths to which DUP minister, Edwin Poots has dragged it in the North. Over the past few days he has been asserting that Covid rates can be broken down along sectarian lines. He reckons the rate of infection in nationalist areas is six times higher than in unionist ones. Might it have something to do with the fibres used in GAA county tops?

While it is reasonable for the public to be angry about Sinn Féin’s handling of the Bobby Storey funeral, that does not give folks a licence to sectarianise Covid-19.

Apart from anti-masker morons, almost no one has spoken as recklessly or irresponsibly on this part of the island. Nonetheless, dare to suggest on social media that you have qualms or concerns about the social and economic impact of moving to Stage 5 and you get accused of being anti science and pro coronavirus. Go the other route, say you back a full lockdown now and you get an equal and opposite outrage from the other side.

The choice is not, as one tweeter incongruously put it during the week, a zero-sum game of either being in favour of supressing the virus or of letting it rip through the country.

Saying that we need to learn how to live with the virus is not the same as saying that we should ignore infection and allow it to find its own level.

Not favouring a move to Level 5 and being against increasing restrictions is not arguing for allowing Covid 19 to spread, it is arguing that better enforcement of the existing rules may achieve greater compliance than introducing new ones.

Tightening the rules without first ensuring that you are fully and adequately enforcing the existing rules means further constraining those keeping to the existing ones, at best. At worst, it risks alienating some who feel they have played their part to date.

Without doubt there are groups, individuals and businesses ignoring and flouting the existing rules. Irish Twitter is daily agog with all sorts of examples of this, including (if accurate) the egregious case of a hotel in south west Dublin.

But recalcitrant rule breakers do not stop just because the rules get tougher, they stop because they get caught or fear getting caught.

But what percentage of the increasing number of cases are down to deliberate rule breakers? I have no idea, but I would be surprised if it were higher than the percentage due to inadvertent or negligent contact. Actually, I’d be absolutely shocked if it came anywhere next or near it.

Scan the provincial newspapers or local radio shows and you will find local GPs attributing or connecting increasing rates in their townland or county with funerals, matches, first communions and even schools.

Their claims are far from scientific just anecdotal, but they suggest that simply reducing the permitted size of gatherings is not sufficient by itself.

You need the added carrot and stick of greater public information and increased enforcement to thwart complacency, improve compliance and thereby reduce the opportunity for further outbreaks.

Writing in the Irish Times on Friday, Dr Jack Lambert said: “As we see Covid surge in Ireland, there continues to be an absence of a strong face mask message”. (In the interests of balance I should point out that NPHET’s Prof Nolan took to Twitter afterwards to peevishly decry Dr Lambert)

But Dr Lambert is right. We can see that for ourselves. There has been nowhere near sufficient highlighting of the importance of mask wearing (and I mean proper wearing, not the “off the nose” look favoured by some) or on social distancing or the importance of hand washing.

As Dr Lambert says, watch CNN any night and you will see a PSA on one of these three topics during every ad break. Are we seeing that here?

Nearer to home, the Scottish government has been praised for its direct public service advertising campaign, including this one on protecting elders.

Word of mouth “advertising” works just as well. As I mentioned here before, my mother lives in Spain. Fortunately, it is in a part in the south of Valencia which continues to have a low rate of Covid19. She reports that virtually no one ventures out of their homes without a mask. Having visited her there, I can attest to that.

Most people living there can relate a story about someone found not wearing a mask by the Guardia Civil or Policia local and being made to go with them to an ATM to draw out cash to pay the on the spot fine.

The stories varies a bit when it comes to the size of the fine. Some claim it was €75, some say €120 while others reckon it was €250. The variations increase when it comes to the identity of the miscreant.

While no one telling the story knows the culprit firsthand, they do know it that was definitely a man… or maybe a woman… from an urbanisation or community over here… or over there… who had only gone outdoors briefly to put out the bins/collect the post/walk the dog/visit a neighbour.

The point is this. When people believe there is a good chance of getting caught and fined, they do not take the risk. That is not the case here. It may have been in March, April and May. It is not the case now.

I have no doubt that both NPHET and the government – and by government I mean the entire apparatus, not just the political apex – are both doing their very best, based the best data and analysis available to them. They are both making mistakes and fumbling the communications, but these are errors based on good intent.

The reality is that everyone is learning how to respond to this pandemic, including the experts on the hoof. It is a steep learning curve and, as the Financial Times suggests in this very useful compendium of global data, has many paradoxes. Science never speaks with a single voice.

That the government and NPHET have both allowed and permitted competing narratives is still a major failing.

Varadkar’s Claire Byrne Show attack on NPHET was ill-judged, small wonder he seemed uneasy delivering it. Simon Harris’s constant commentary is not helping either, though it could also be argued that Harris only has the space as his successor’s communications have been less than stellar.

On the other side we have those NPHET sources willing to chat to the media and opine on the attitudes of those they are there to advise. These probably low-level folks should recall the warning cited by the West Wing’s Toby Ziegler (Season 3; episode 5):

“Those who speak, don’t know; and those who know, don’t speak.”

While their bosses should note that delivering advice via the media is not the way to ensure that future advice is heeded.

While governments in normal times are happy to have a few days of contrived “will they or won’t they” media speculation, it is usually where they want to keep the focus on themselves or want the public to feel relieved that they rejected the least favoured option.

These are not normal times, and this is not a contrived choice. A major decision that will impact the lives and livelihoods of many thousands of our fellow citizens must not be played out as a battle of wills between NPHET and the government.

We are all in this together – and that starts with the government and NPHET.

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: Joe Biden in Dublin Castle during a visit to ireland as US Vice-President in 2016; Derek Mooney

When trying to forecast an election result a few weeks out from polling day political pundits protect themselves by saying well, this would be the result if people were voting tomorrow, but there are still a few weeks to go and anything could happen.

But, when it comes to this American presidential election, people are voting tomorrow, just as they were voting today, yesterday, last week and even back to mid-September.

According to Vote.org, 27 States are already voting in person and/or have totally mail-in ballots. 9 out of the 50 States have been open for early voting from six weeks before the November 3 polling date, including Pennsylvania, Illinois, Virginia and New Jersey. Early voting started in California a week ago.

Over 9 million Americans have already voted, this is 8-10 times as many as voted this early in 2016. In five states the number of ballots already returned is more than 20% of the 2016 turnout.

This suggests that many people have long made up their minds. This is confirmed by data from those early voting states that also provide party registration information, with twice as many registered Democrats turning out to vote as registered Republicans.

It is why forecasting the result of the election now is not a big problem. Joe Biden is going to win and win big. Biden may even be on the cusp of winning a Nixon or LBJ style clean sweep…. making Trump the McGovern or Goldwater of this political age.

It has been clear for some months that Trump was on his way to defeat and may even be about to take much of the GOP/Republican party with him. It is very likely that the Republicans will lose control of the Senate and maybe even of the House of Representatives such is the scale of the swing against Trump, exacerbated by his handling of the covid-19 pandemic.

As David Frum, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush and a senior adviser to the Rudy Giuliani presidential campaign, commented a month ago:

“The anti-Trump ceiling has been as hard and unyielding as the pro-Trump floor – and a lot bigger. And that was before Trump drove US society and the US economy into the worst catastrophe since the Great Depression.”

So while Trump firmly holds the support of the vast majority of those who identify as Republican, there are fewer of these than there were 4 years ago and Trump support among independents is low.

Biden’s support among independents is high, especially among women. This includes many of the soccer Mom’s and suburban women who backed Trump in 2016, but now abandon him not out of any great love of Biden or the Democrats but because they disapprove of how Trump has conducted his Presidency, a sentiment aggravated by his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Now, before I proceed any further let me point out that I got the 2016 election wrong. I thought Hillary Clinton would win and she clearly didn’t. I thought that Hillary Clinton get about 2 million more votes than Donald Trump. She did.

I did not underestimate Trump. I predicted that he would win Florida and Ohio but was confident Clinton would win traditional Democrat (blue wall) states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. I got that badly wrong.

This is precisely where Trump won the Presidency, getting less than a hundred thousand people who voted Obama in 2012 to swing to him in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. It was a targeted operation.

The point to bear in mind now is that Trump lost to Clinton in the popular vote in 2016 and today Trump is far behind the levels of support he was getting at this point in 2016.

I know the dangers of complacency or of summarily dismissing Trump. While he has lost a lot of ground, his campaign has the capacity to whip up conservative white males, the religious right and assorted other disaffected Americans from those who justifiably still feel let down and left behind to those who believe with near religious zeal that Trump is all that stands between them and a deep state, QAnon, pizzagate day of reckoning.

But while Trump is many things, a master self-marketer, a dime store despot he is not a political genius. He is a one trick pony, as his business career has shown.

Tony Schwartz, the man ghost wrote Trump’s The Art of the Deal book that helped create the Trump legend reckons Trump knows he is already beaten and is therefore determined to create maximum chaos and destruction as he watches his world crumble.

Schwartz says Trump is going full authoritarian, becoming a blend of Brazil’s Jair Bolsinaro and Jim Jones. Schwartz repeated the Jim Jones line on CNN a few nights ago adding:

“he’s feeling a sense of terror “I believe that he believes, he’s going to lose this election. And that’s making him crazy… he’s fearful of being seen as a loser.”

The one trick that Trump might try to pull is to challenge the election result. Small wonder Trump wants another pro Trump judge on the Supreme Court as soon as possible. He hopes the Supreme Court could decide the election outcome, not the voters.

This is what people outside the US should start to focus on now.

It may take several days to finally count all the votes given the volume of mail-in ballots, social distancing and other restrictions. For this reason it seems unlikely that the networks will be able to definitively project a winner on the night of the count – unless Biden is winning in a landslide.

This gives Trump a further opportunity to question the result. It is a racing certainty he will do this as he has spent months framing a public argument that the election is both unfair or improperly conducted. He and his Attorney General have spent weeks fuelling baseless claims on voter fraud.

Trump is preparing his last-ditch attempt to steal the election in the classic Trumpist move of accusing his opponents of doing precisely what he plans to do himself. Over recent days we have heard him call on his supporters to go out in strength, and for many of them that means armed, and watch the polling stations.

It has already happened in some places with the cohort of Trump supporters that Hillary Clinton rightly labelled the deplorables back in 2016 out on the streets attempting to impede and prevent voting in areas were Trump will do badly, particularly urban centres. While Trump won the state of Pennsylvania by 0.7%, (Trump 48.2% Clinton 47.5%) Hillary Clinton beat Trump in the biggest city, Philadelphia, by 67% (Clinton 82.3% : Trump 15.3%).

So, while I confidently predict Biden win, there will be much political upheaval between now and Biden’s inauguration on January 20th, 2021. There is a distinct risk that this will pour out on to the streets as Trump’s desperation to evade the thing he fears most: public humiliation and defeat, tests the US constitution to its limits. Nonetheless, I still think sanity will prevail and any attempt to steal the election will fail.

As happy as I am to predict a Biden win, I fully expect a Biden presidency will soon begin to disappoint his supporters. While most Americans and almost all Europeans will welcome the return of a normalised, measured and courteous presidency, expectations about Biden are so high that he cannot match them.

****

Turning briefly to the domestic front, the next 2-3 weeks will be critical. Tomorrow we have the budget which, despite the difficulties facing the country, should be quite straightforward – well relatively straightforward when compared to next year’s budget – assuming this government gets to producing a second budget.

The Covid-19 infection rates are the real test. Yesterday’s statement by Taoiseach, Micheál Martin on sticking with level 3 for a few more weeks, is probably the right course of action. They also contrast with Tánaiste Varadkar’s flip-flopping on a circuit break lockdown as he attempts to undo the damage of his attack on Nphet on last Monday’s RTÉ Claire Byrne tirade.

If we are going to go for a circuit breaker, and the Taoiseach sensibly attempts to dampen expectations on this front, then it must be a consistent circuit breaker across the entire island with the same rules applying across the 32 counties.

Meanwhile there are indicators that the level three restrictions in Dublin are working with the city’s 7-day average falling from 188.9 to 144.5.

The situation can be brought back under control by our actions and other people’s choices. We need both, one alone will not do it. So keep well, keep safe and see you next week.

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 from left: Former Fine Gael Minister for Justice Charles Flanagan, Chief Justice Frank Clarke and Supreme Court Justice Seamus Woulfe; Derek Mooney

An accused youth is slouched in the District Court dock, noisily chewing gum. “Tell him to stop masticating” says the judge to the court officer. Dutifully, the officer marches over to the accused and says: “The judge says for you to get your hands out of your pockets”

Sorry. Wrong old joke.

Another accused, an old lag this time, is standing in the same District Court dock. “Do you plead guilty or not guilty”, asks the judge. “Do you mind if I listen to the evidence first?” comes the reply.

This joke kept popping into my head as I read extracts from the testimony Mr Justice Woulfe gave to former Chief Justice, Susan Denham. The transcript of his testimony appears as an appendix to Ms Denham’s report.

Ms Denham had been asked to “review” Mr Woulfe’s attendance at the now infamous Oireachtas golf society dinner in Clifden. “Review” appears with inverted commas as Mr Justice Woulfe and his counsel were keen to stress (taking up about 8 of the 140 page transcript) that the process was a review and not an inquiry, an adjudication or a determination of anyone’s rights.

To be fair, when you read them in full, Mr Justice Woulfe’s contributions are a cracking good read. He speaks frankly and directly and is often quite funny. They offer a rare insight into to the mind of a member of the Supreme Court. The bad news is that they also raise a lot of new questions.

But first, let’s look at some of the original questions, posed by Ms Denham and Mr Woulfe’s often candid answers.

I say candid as they contained some very colourful observations which have, understandably, made their way into the Saturday and Sunday papers.

These include his OTT criticism of the media coverage, saying he was“..appalled at the kind of media treatment of the [Oireachtas Golf] society event and the it’s presented, in some way it’s like a Ku Klux Klan now” and his loaded commentary on how the Covid19 guidelines had been changed the day before the event: “…you’ll recall the Taoiseach’s phrase, or the Tánaiste’s phrase – everybody falls into that mistake now – “if we keep on governing like this we won’t be governing very long.”

A comment that takes on a new and heightened significance as we seem poised on the precipice of a Stage 5 lockdown.

As well as picking up on his commentary, the newspapers also picked up on his penchant for dropping the name of almost every serving and retired politician he had ever met at these events, including him reminding Ms Denham that she had once sat at the same table as then Minister Frances Fitzgerald at a Bar Council Chairman’s dinner.

This would appear to have been a pointed reference to the argument that the political and the judicial worlds should keep separate. It’s not an argument with which Mr Justice Woulfe seems to agree, stating later in the transcript that:

“I can’t see the difference between the Inns hosting a social event and politicians going there and politicians hosting a social event and judges going there”.

I wonder just how flattering the Inns will consider being likened to an ad hoc and soon to be defunct Oireachtas golf society.

What is abundantly clear from reading his responses to Ms Denham’s gentle questioning is that Mr Justice Woulfe cannot see and does not believe that he has done something wrong. He says this explicitly: “But it is fair to say that it appears now, objectively, that there was no breach by the organisers, let alone by me.”

It’s a most unique viewpoint from the former Attorney General. Nor is it his only unique viewpoint or observation – a point to which I will later return.

Throughout the discussion Mr Justice Woulfe says his actions both in playing golf and attending the golf dinner, a dinner he only really learned about as he arrived to play golf, were above reproach and done with the best possible motives.

But the issue is not what motivated him to play golf, but rather how he allowed himself to attend an indoor event at the hotel, namely the dinner at 9pm that breached the latest Covid regulations. It’s about judgement, not motivation.

On that score he did not convince the former Chief Justice. Ms Denham concludes that:

“Mr. Justice Woulfe did not consider separately the propriety, or if there would be an appearance of impropriety, for a judge of the Supreme Court to attend a celebratory dinner in a public place while there is a pandemic in the State. He should have considered whether the community may regard the judge’s participation as an impropriety.”

But, Ms Denham also concludes:

Mr. Justice Woulfe did nothing involving impropriety such as would justify calls for his resignation from office. Such a step would be unjust and disproportionate.

This is an opinion with which many other people would disagree, including several members of the Bar. It is not the outcome many were expecting.

Thus far the Clifden hotel dinner – and it is important to differentiate between playing golf over the two days and attending the golf dinner on the Wednesday night – has resulted in the resignation of a senior minister, Dara Calleary; an EU commissioner, Phil Hogan; the Seanad Leas Cathaorigh, Jerry Buttimer; not to mention six Senators losing the whip and the end of Sean O’Rourke’s broadcasting career. Was this all disproportionate?

Let’s turn the argument around. Is it not disproportionate given the circumstances of the dinner (let’s not forget that many who played golf, such as Enda Kenny, decided against attending the dinner) that there is no effective penalty for Mr Justice Woulfe?

Is it not disproportionate that Mr Woulfe keep his job while others lose theirs? Mr Woulfe’s dogged refusal to see or acknowledge “any breach by the organisers, let alone by me” stands in marked contrast to the response of former minister Dara Calleary.

Dara acted speedily and effectively to acknowledge his own lapse of judgement and to stop it from politically damaging a government he had just joined. He saw the options were binary. There were no intermediate levels of proportionality. You resign and protect the dignity of the institution or you tough it out and risk damaging it. It is that black and white.

Rather than gainsaying or questioning Mr Calleary’s action, Mr Justice Woulfe should see it as a template. A template where someone who has just joined a crucial and honoured institution of the State puts the welfare and public respect of that institution above their own interests.

It is on this specific point that Mr Justice Woulfe offers some of the other intriguing viewpoints I mentioned earlier. Though it may be fairer and more proportionate to describe these as speculation. It is also where his comments raise more questions that originally considered by Ms Denham

On page 113 of the transcript (line 1) Mr Justice Woulfe boldly speculates that Minister Calleary might have “…been forced to resign by the Taoiseach”. It’s an odd position to take and expound in a formal review process looking into whether you keep your job or not… unless you have some sound basis for expressing it.

It gets odder when you scroll ahead to lines 23-25 on page 117. There he offers another theory, saying “…perhaps Minister Calleary was forced out on a false premise on the Thursday morning, it may well have been.”

This point is then quickly followed (at line 26) by a “…look, we won’t speculate.”

Like the joke at the start, every time I read this line I hear what a dear old friend used to say just before they delivered the most shamelessly salacious and questionable bit of gossip: “I’m not one to talk… but wait ‘til I tellya”

But, there’s more.

By line 22 on Page 132 Mr Justice Woulfe is offering yet another interpretation, this time going to the heart of today’s politics, opining:

“And one thing that worries me is my understanding is that as of last week one of the organisers told me that the Tánaiste at a meeting was insisting that the relevant rule was six people on that Wednesday night and that’s why Minister Calleary was forced to resign.”

Really? Judicial restraint be damned, huh?

The Woulfe transcript raises many questions, for him and for others. What is his basis for speculating on why Dara Calleary resigned? Did the Taoiseach push him? Or did the Tánaiste demand it? Where did Mr Woulfe hear these things? Why did he think these were pertinent to Ms Denham’s review and worth mentioning?

Could Ms Denham’s review find itself being gutted by its own appendix?

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

Meanwhile…

This morning.

From top: Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald debate PUP cuts and special advisers in the Dáil last week; Derek Mooney

Last Wednesday I appeared on RTÉ Radio One’s Today Show with Claire Byrne. I had been invited on to discuss TD’s pay and the cabinet decision to give 10 junior ministers their own special advisers.

You’d have thought that this was something better discussed, if not defended, by a loyal Fianna Fáil backbencher. Oddly there didn’t seem to be too many of them around on Wednesday to take the call. So, yours truly made a coffee, sat by my phone and waited to head bravely into the breach and make the case for special advisers.

Joining me To debate the issue were Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty, TD and the former Independent TD and junior minister, John Halligan.

Not surprisingly, Sinn Féin had taken an ultra populist line, arguing against both pay increases and appointments. After all, no one ever lost votes bashing politicians on pay and perks. To be fair, on the show Doherty toned the rhetoric down a notch, though he stuck to some of the script saying he opposed the pay increase and would be handing his back, something that ministers and several other TDs were also doing.

With the basic political points, not to mention the obligatory cuts at Fianna Fáil, out of the way Doherty moved on to advance the far stronger case that the government was showing itself to be tone deaf announcing the appointment of 10 extra special advisors on the same day that people were seeing their pandemic unemployment payments cut.

Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t defend the government on this. Luckily I didn’t want to. I was happy to make the case for advisers (which I will repeat here shortly) but not to defend announcing it on the day you cut payments for many. This was not just about poor political communications. It was about bad politics. This was not just a problem with timing, cutting the PUP rates now was a bad decision. It was unfair and unjust. Yes, the deficit matters, but so does getting us all through this pandemic together.

As for the advisers… while nobody should expect to be showered with praise for saying that ministers, even junior ministers, need advisers, the simple fact is if we want government to work, and to work well, we must put the support structures and resources in place to enable ministers to deliver their program for government – even when it is one with which you disagree.

You don’t have to take my word for it there is a fair amount of research material on this topic showing the value of ministers having advisers who are clearly on their side and have their back. One such piece was done about a decade ago by Dr Bernadette Conaughton UL.

It is important that the relationship between the special advisor and their minister is 100% based on trust. The special advisor needs to have complete confidence in their minister and be comfortable working to their agenda. It also has to work both ways.

The minister must have complete confidence and trust in their adviser, which is why ministers must ultimately have the final say in who they pick. This is important as, at some point, the adviser will have to be the bearer of bad news or be the one to tell the minister they think he or she is about to get it wrong. When this moment comes the adviser must recognise that they are not there to make decisions, they are there purely to advise, if a minister opts not to take their advice, then so be it.

But the argument on Wednesday was not about really about the merits of having advisers. Sinn Féin knows from its own experience in Stormont that advisers are necessary, though they did seem less convinced about the case for having an Executive, ministers and an Assembly for a long while, but let’s not go there just now.

Meanwhile, back on the Claire Byrne Show, the conversation correctly focused on the PUP cuts.The Taoiseach had attempted to explain the decision the day before in a very heated and testy Dáil exchange with Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald.

There are times when the Taoiseach needs to calm himself and not to rise to the bait. This was one of them. His explanation was starting to sound a lot like a justification. A justification that people were seeing and hearing alongside a justification for the extra advisers. Two issues that should not have had any relationship to one another were now being played out side by side and in stark contrast.

Martin’s twin abiding needs to always show that he is on top of the detail while gainsaying the latest OTT accusations from Mary Lou McDonald drove him to a negligent defence of one decision where he should have sought to give himself some room to reconsider.

By adopting that attitude Taoiseach Micheál Martin was leading people to the wrong conclusion that the only parties who were concerned by the cuts were on the opposition benches. This is simply not true.

I made this point on Wednesday, recalling that a number of prominent Fianna Fáil TD had already gone public calling for the cuts to be stopped and the payments reinstated, while more were expressing their concerns to ministers, in private.

The Sunday newspapers yesterday were again full of comments from various Fianna Fáil TDs hoping to pressure the government to do something about it, perhaps in the budget.

I have no doubt that the government will be compelled to back down on these unfair cuts, but thanks to the Taoiseach’s political tone deafness, it may be Sinn Féin – who shouted about wanting change – that gets the credit, rather than those Fianna Fáil TDs who applied the pressure to deliver it.

If I am wrong and this government does not revisit these cuts, then Fianna Fáil may find itself looking back on yesterday’s 14% Ireland Thinks/Mail on Sunday poll rating as its halcyon day.

There is one other point on PUP which I briefly made on Claire Byrne show which I would like to expand a bit on here, before I close.

It is difficult not to surmise that this government’s difficulty with PUP payments stems from Fine Gael’s perception that PUP is just a form of welfare. Many on the Fine Gael side of this government see the payment through that prism. We saw this when it came to the people on PUP going on a holiday.

Fine Gael’s growing centre-right wing sees PUP as just an unemployment payment, and thus thinks it should only be short term, otherwise it risks encouraging people not to return to work. This entirely misses why there is a PUP… the clue surely is in the first P, it’s because of the pandemic. No pandemic and PUP recipients are happily back to work.

While PUP may fall under the auspices of the Department of social protection, it should more correctly be seen as a fledgling form of universal basic income. This is not something about which this government should be apologetic, it should be championing it. It should be screaming it from the rooftops and using it to signal a major change in how we will approach welfare in the post covid years ahead.

Indeed the pandemic has become the catalyst for the introduction of some form of universal basic income in many countries.

The United Nations Assistant Secretary General, Kanni Wignaraja has written powerfully on the opportunity we now have to change how we deal with inequality, saying:

“A new social contract needs to emerge from this crisis that rebalances deep inequalities that are prevalent across societies. To put it bluntly: The question should no longer be whether resources for effective social protection can be found – but how they can be found. UBI promises to be a useful element of such a framework.”

One of the many lessons we can already take from how our own government, and many other ones across the globe, have dealt with Covid-19 is that all governments have the capacity to make things happen quickly when they really need and want things to change.

Yes, it differs from country to country and is limited, or accelerated, by political history, culture etc., but in broad terms, we have seen that government is not the thing you need to get out of the way when you want to make progress, it can be the agent of that progress, when it has the will and the leadership.

Even this government, but only if it looks deep within itself and connects to a bold and ambitious vision of how life in this country could be improved by 2025.

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

From top: Taoiseach Micheál Martin about to address the nation last Friday evening;Derek Mooney

Have you noticed how we talk about numbers when we talk about Covid-19. Daily infection figures, R numbers, hospitalisation rates, daily and weekly testing rates, App download (and deletion) rates.

All these numbers are important. They are key measures of both the threat posed by the infection and our effectiveness in combating it. They inform our responses, both national and personal.

They provide the basis for key public policy decisions and so, if the State is to succeed in supressing the virus while maintaining some economic and social continuity, we need evidence-based decision making. Decision making in which people can have confidence.

We have had that, but there are signs that confidence is beginning to wane. The fault is not all on the side of those who are losing faith. People who were more than willing some months back to do all that was necessary to stop our hospitals being overwhelmed, are not now seeing a similarly urgent need.

Is this just public complacency, or could it be that the public is moving ahead of the policy and decision makers? Are people seeing that infection rates go down when you lock down but then go back up as you allow more movement and activity? Is there a developing public sense that a new balance – an acceptable level of risks – should be struck between preventing infection spread and imposing social restrictions?

To put it crudely is there a level of infection risk with which the public would be comfortable – one that is above that envisioned by NPHET’s modellers?

Tough I broadly disagree with the decision to move Dublin to Stage 3 I should, as a fairly consistent critic of An Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, say that I thought he handled last Friday’s announcement, and the media follow up, well.

Martin’s public address was focused. It was less preachy and hectoring than his previous performances. The “I am doing this more in sorrow than in anger” tone worked, as did his interview on Brendan O’Connor on RTÉ Radio One on Saturday. His messaging was clear and concise.

If this is a sign of things to come, then it is an auspicious one, but while Martin has improved his messaging, the decision still troubled me, particularly how some key elements are contrary to NPHET’s own data.

In an interesting and revealing Twitter intervention a few hours before the government announced its Stage 3 move, the President of Maynooth University and key NPHET adviser, Prof Philip Nolan argued that citing official stats showing that only 9 out of the 3036 Covid19 outbreaks (from Sat 9th Sept) came from a restaurant/cafe setting was “misreading and misinterpreting the data on outbreaks and clusters”.

These statistics on outbreak settings, he explained, were based only on the movement of a person with Covid-19 for the 48 hours before they developed symptoms. This, according to Prof Nolan, was because public health officials are less fixated on where the patient may have got the virus, 5 days before, and more focused on where the virus is going.

He then added that:

“we would like to go back and find out where people are getting the virus, but we don’t have the time or resources to pursue this academic exercise.”

It could be that NPHET’s contention that closing pubs, cafes, and restaurants, laying off staff and stopping all indoor dining-out across Dublin for three weeks is correct.

This may be the price that must be paid to get the infection rate down. But, for how long? Is this now a switch we need to throw every few months? Do we need three weeks of lockdown every 9 weeks to keep the infection at bay?

Why publish detailed statistics that inform public debate and then offer a re-interpretation of them when the action you propose does not accord with the figures?

The Stage 3 move in Dublin (and previously in Kildare, Laois, and Offaly) smacks of taking a stick to the people who have been following the rules.

Why place businesses and employees that have invested in new bringing their premises up to new standards and practised everything that NPHET preached, into limbo while others have a three day or three-week public discussion with themselves on what the statistics mean or do not mean?

Where does this leave our evidence-based decision making? Where does this leave track and trace? What about the numbers on testing?

Over the past week or more we have heard the Taoiseach, Tánaiste and others tell us that we are doing lots of testing. Back in March Simon Harris, the then Health Minister and now the universities minister and (it often seems) the government’s commentator-in-residence on the actions of his colleagues, giddily announced that the State would soon have the capacity to do up to 15,000 tests per day – 105,000 per week. This was revised modestly back to 100,000 per week with the delivery date pushed back to mid/late-May.

That was three and a half months ago. Check the Covid-19 App on your smartphone, assuming you are not one of the many who have since (very unwisely) deleted it. There you will see a figure for the number of tests conducted over the last 7 days.

At the time of typing it is 84k. This is a big improvement on this day last week when the 7-day total was 72k, but it is still short of the 100k promised in March for implementation by May. It has been a long way short of it for most of the past seventeen weeks.

As I said, it is critical that we have evidence based decision making, so why are the Taoiseach and Tánaiste not calling out these shortfalls rather than glossing over them over with bland statements that all is well in the world of testing and tracing?

It is wrong for officials, permanent or non-established, to place the Taoiseach in the invidious position of telling us that we cannot test at airports because we must prioritise other venues, when they know it is because we never achieved the testing capacity levels they promised.

It is just as reckless to send a neophyte Agriculture Minister out on the airwaves to talk about ramping up tests at meat and food plants when officials were winding them down. Testing at Airports is possible and is effective, as the Icelandic government has shown since June.

Mistakes have been made and will continue to be made – on all sides. Mistakes were made by the last government at the start of the outbreak, such as leaving nursing homes to fend for themselves, and allowing Italian rugby fans to travel here and Irish racegoers to head to Cheltenham.

More recently, allowing several hundred anti-mask conspiracists parade and gather across Dublin with impunity was a big mistake. It was an unnecessary health threat to the many people who were in town that day, including retail and hospitality workers who were just doing a day’s work.

Everyone, and that includes policy makers and officials, is struggling to cope with this extraordinary and difficult situation. Everyone comes to this crisis with much to learn. We are all fatigued.

This is the first pandemic caused by a coronavirus, but it is also the first pandemic that can be controlled. We can change its course. As Dr Mike Ryan, the Irishman leading the WHO pandemic response, commented some months back:

“We can reach control of this virus. We may not get rid of it completely, but we can reach a point where we can control the virus and with it we can get our economies and social systems back on track”

I am sure we can reach that point – though, as I said at the outset, I suspect the public may see it as being at a level other than the one currently imagined by NPHET.

It seems, on the surface, that we have come though the past six months OK, but what will the next six months look like? And the six months after that? They cannot simply be a repeat of the past six months.

This is the public debate we should be having now, though there are no signs that either government or opposition are yet up for it. Pity. I think the public 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

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