Tag Archives: Mooney on Monday

From top: We have a dysfunctional rental property market and a barely functioning home one, writers Derek Mooney

Just over a week ago Iarnród Éireann announced that it was no longer able to provide catering services on its Intercity network. With the exception of some Dublin/Belfast Enterprise trains, passengers will not be able to buy a cup of tea/coffee accompanied by a stale Kit-Kat or a half-filled sandwich.

Yes, we will miss the fun of seeing what items the catering service had managed not to pack on to those wobbly aluminium trolleys which dispensed hot water with all the force of a 56-year-old man with a swollen prostate… but as problems facing this country go, this isn’t a big one.

The problem has nothing to do with the complexities of providing a cup of tea on a train and – according to the catering contractor, Rail Gourmet – has all to do with the real difficulties it is having in finding staff to push the trolleys up and down the train.

Rail Gourmet says the problem is so acute that it cannot resolve it, and so Irish Rail must now organise a tender competition so it can hopefully restore this fairly basic service sometime in 2023.

To go off-track, so to speak… it does occur to me that it might be more efficient to franchise the catering service route by route, rather than across the whole network (though network does seem a glorified term to describe our national rail system!) with local caterers tendering individually for their nearest route and either buying or renting those trollies, which I assume either Iarnród Éireann or Rail Gourmet own and would be happy to sell or lease.

To return to my original direction of travel: while not being able to buy a coffee while sitting on the Rosslare train is a nuisance, the bigger problem is the shortage of labour to fill reasonably well-paying, low skilled jobs because people cannot afford to live in Dublin… or almost anywhere in Ireland.

It’s a problem that is not unique to Rail gourmet, or even the hospitality sector. It’s a problem I’ve discussed here before in talking about the soaring costs of living in the capital, particularly the outrageous cost of accommodation… but I know from feedback that this is no longer a Dublin-only problem.

You do not need a degree in economics to realise that a housing model where it costs almost €2000 per month to rent an apartment, but just €1200 per month to buy that same apartment, is a broken one.

For most of my early life it was much cheaper to rent than to buy. I was happy to rent and live in areas where I could not possibly afford to buy. I lived in the heart of Donnybrook for almost two decades in a small but comfortable, modern one-bedroom apartment where the rent rarely increased. I took responsibility for the upkeep and repairs. I saw the owner face-to-face maybe once every three or four years and only heard from them by phone or letter twice a year. I was a good tenant. They were a good landlord. When I departed they sent me a gift!

I accept that my situation was fairly unique. I moved into the apartment just before the property boom. The initial rent was a little high at the time (it was just a few quid below what I had been paying for a two-bed duplex in Ringsend,  but it very quickly started to look reasonable, and eventually feel quite low as the property market started to lift off. So, while rents all around me were starting to soar, mine stayed relatively fixed to the owner’s monthly mortgage repayments.

Given that we have such a dysfunctional rental property market and a barely functioning home purchase one you would imagine that government policy would be focussed on fixing these problems as speedily as possible – especially as we have come though nearly eight years of squandered opportunities.

You’d think so, but I do not see much sign of the speed or scale. Without a doubt there is increasing evidence of new sites and activity with more cranes on the skyline… the problem is that it is still not on the scale necessary. This is not some random analysis that popped into my prejudiced little head, it is the view of the IMF, who in their May 5th ArtIV mission statement on Ireland, stated:

‘Housing supply policies should be further strengthened, with a focus on boosting productivity in the construction sector and improving zoning and the permits processes.’

Adding:

‘While the “First Home” affordable purchase shared-equity scheme (part of Housing for All) aims to support first-time home buyers, it does not address the key issue, which is the supply bottlenecks.’

(My emphasis in bold)

We need a major ramping up now, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because it’s the right thing to do politically. If housing is still the number one issue at the time of the next general election, then this government and many of the TDs backing it – particularly the Fianna Fáil and Green ones are toast (more on this point later).

Last September I wrote a piece about the government’s “Housing For All” where I welcomed the plan but said that:

….my big fear is that the target of addressing the crisis over 9-10 years, combined with a housing output delivery timeline that backloads the delivery does not convey a sense of Fianna Fáil fully grasping the scale.

Almost every day on social media and occasionally on the traditional media we hear Micheál Martin’s favoured Fianna Fáil representatives telling us about the latest increase in the number of housing starts and applications. All of this is real and welcome, but their optimism does not seem to allow for chronic shortage of bricklayers, plasterers, carpenters, and electricians.

I recently bumped into a colleague who had attended a Council briefing on housing. He said that it all sounded quite optimistic until you grasped the fact that the bulk of the units would not come available until after 2025 or 2026.

I’m hearing this from other people in the business. They lament the house building time lost to lockdowns and the flight of skilled building labour. The shortage of skilled building labour is now more acute than it was even just two years ago.

But coming from a political background I tend to look at these things from a  political perspective and wonder will seeing more sites opening up be enough to convince the public that the crisis has truly passed.

I don’t think it will. As a savvy back bench Fianna Fáil-er said to me pre 2020 general election, the only answer to the housing crisis is a set of keys. A site map or a fancy PowerPoint, is no replacement for the exquisite click of a key in your own front door.

Sadly, An Taoiseach and his supporters seem not to realise that there will be no electoral gratitude at the next general election for TDs or ministers who tell voters… look we solved the problem, you’ll only have to wait a couple more years to feel it.

That’s not the way politics works.

If housing he is one of the top issues at the time of the next general election, then this government will not be returned for a second term. I am not saying Sinn Féin will coast in… but that’s a more likely scenario than seeing this political combination back in office.

This prospect is not helped when the government seems unable to champion those things they are doing right. Some weeks ago Sinn Féin produced press releases around several provincial newspapers asserting that the government’s affordable housing targets for that county were “pathetic.” See this example from Limerick.

The example cited above makes it seem that the underwhelming targets had only been revealed to Sinn Féin after a Herculean effort that forced a reluctant Minister to reveal numbers he was desperately trying to hide. The reality is a lot less dramatic.

The figures came from a turgid reply to a one-line parliamentary question from Eoin Ó Broin, T.D., which asked for a  “…breakdown, by local authority, of the affordable housing targets funded by the affordable housing fund from 2022 to 2026.”

In the reply, the minister said, “from 2022 to 2026, over 28,000 affordable homes are targeted for delivery” but then proceeded to include a county-by-count table that lists “Delivery Targets from LA Lands or Advance Purchase 2022 – 2026”.

The total number of units in that table is 7550. That’s only 27% of the overall target, which is 28,000. So… which number does Sinn Féin use to denounce the government’s targets? It uses the ones in the table, which it knows account for only 27% of the actual target.

It is fair to call this Sinn Féin exercise mendacious but spare some opprobrium too for a government that is so politically inept as to hand its opponents a table of figures that is bereft of any political explanation or context.

If you do not have a table of the county-by-county affordable housing targets… then say so. Don’t offer your opponents the nearest thing, especially when it represents a quarter of the answer and not expect them not to beat you with it.

I didn’t support the formation of this government. I still don’t. I am not opposed to Fianna Fáil’s participation in government, but I think ignoring the verdict the people passed on the last Fine Gael government and then prolonging the government life of a Fine Gael party which squandered the recovery, is bad politics.

Whatever hopes there are of persuading people that this is a Fianna Fáil led government with Micheál Martin at the helm (and there are no signs that his appointment as Taoiseach has done anything to reverse his party’s declining support levels) there are no chances of that happening after December 16 when either Leo Varadkar, or his successor, takes over.

After that, this will become a Fine Gael led government that talks big and acts small. A government where spin trumps reality and where the second biggest party in government daily eats the middle-of-the-day lunch of the biggest party, as it competes with them for the support of farmers and homeowners who no longer have mortgages.

Grim, isn’t it.

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

Sam Boal/RollingNews

From top: Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill (centre) and party leader Mary Lou McDonald (right) speak at the Meadow Bank election count centre in Magherafelt, Northern Ireland on Saturday night; Derek Mooney

For about forty years, from the early 1930s up to the early 1970s, many weighty academic tomes on Karl Marx and on Charles Darwin, attempted to analysis how and why Marx decided to ask the father of the Theory of Evolution if he would accept Marx dedicating one of the volumes of Das Kapital, to him – and why Darwin politely, but firmly, declined the request?

It was a conundrum which intrigued and perplexed many fine scholars from both the left and right. Each side offering complex and multi-layered interpretations about each man’s motivations.

Was Marx just seeking Darwin’s approval – it is certain that Marx admired Darwin’s work – or was he attempting to draw parallels between his and Darwin’s theories and perhaps win the great man over to his arguments? Was Darwin’s refusal driven by a deep wariness of Marx’s politics and the fear of being associated with them.

For decades noted academics debated and dissected the contents of a letter from Darwin, found in the Marx family papers, and dated 13th October 1880. Darwin opened by extending his thanks for the “kind letter & the Enclosure” and after some pleasantries firmly rejects the request stating:

“I shd (sic) prefer the Part or Volume not to be dedicated to me” as … [it has] “always been my object to avoid writing on religion, & I have confined myself to science.”

In all that discussion and analysis it seems that no one thought to find the original letter from Marx requesting Darwin’s approval for a dedication. The story of Marx and Darwin was so accepted, so instilled and embedded in the minds of the experts that no one thought to question it.

But, as Francis Wheen points out in his 1999 biography of Marx, not until the early 1970s did it occur to anyone to go in search of it. It took a young graduate student at the University of California Margaret Fay to wonder where the original letter from Marx was. And why was Darwin citing an aversion to writing about religion to refuse a dedication of a volume on economic theory?

Fay soon discovered that the whole story was untrue.

The Oct 13th letter from Darwin was not addressed to Karl Marx, it was meant for a Mr Edward Aveling.. Aveling was seeking Darwin’s dedication for his slim guide to the theory of evolution, entitled: The Students’ Darwin.

The Marx connection only came about much later when Aveling became the paramour of Marx’s daughter, Eleanor. The letter ended up in Marx’s archive in the late 1890s as Aveling was assisting Eleanor compile her father’s papers and writings, and his letter from Darwin was included along with various articles Aveling had written about the two men.

It is surprisingly easy for attractive and intriguing tales to go from being simply unchallenged, to becoming accepted and incontrovertible matters of “fact”. It does not require bad faith or deliberate misdirection, just the desire to imagine that the things you wish were true, really were true.

I detect some early hints of this propensity in the early analysis of the results from last Thursday’s Northern Ireland Stormont election – and not all on one side.

Words and phrases such as seismic and era changing are being bandied about a little too easily.

On the other hand, you have the petty attempts to dismiss the significance of the result, as both the Tánaiste and the Taoiseach attempted to do on Saturday.

An attempt that Minister Coveney tried to turbo charge yesterday and today with his assertion that a border poll is “not even on the radar.” I suppose we should be grateful at least that our part time defence minister even knows what a radar is. Maybe he recently spotted one in an equipment  catalogue?

These comments stand in contrast to the more constructive remarks of the former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, and bear too much a resemblance to the barely quarter-witted intervention by UK justice Secretary Dominic Raab, who claimed yesterday that the results showed that “58% of people fully voted either for parties who support the union or for parties who do not support constitutional change.”

Anyone who has read anything I have written here before knows that I do not support Sinn Féin. I have never given a Sinn Féin candidate a preference on any ballot paper. If I were living in Northern Ireland I would have voted SDLP last Thursday. Indeed I have supported and helped the SDLP whenever and however I could for over thirty years… but I have no problem saying that (a) Sinn Féin’s emergence as the largest party in Northern Ireland is historic, and (b) that Michelle O’Neill should be the North’s next First Minister.

To say otherwise is begrudging and undemocratic. There is much that I dislike about Sinn Féin’s extrapolation of the result into something beyond its the genuine significance, but this takes nothing away from the reality that Sinn Féin won more seats and votes than any other party.

So the starting point of any fair and substantive political analysis of the results must be that politics in Northern Ireland have changed and that, to quote Fianna Fáil’s Jim O’Callaghan on Twitter yesterday:

“100 years ago Northern Ireland was designed to ensure it would always be under unionist control. That design has now disappeared.”

There are downsides to the results. Downsides that undermine the claim that this is seismic, but it is important to first highlight the very many upsides.

I have mentioned the main one, the mandate for a nationalist First Minister. The next is the emergence of Alliance as the third party of Northern Ireland politics. It pains me that some of this Alliance advance was on the back of SDLP losses, not least the loss of Nichola Mallon’s seat in North Belfast.

But having the growing “other” community represented in such a cohesive and clear manner may help end the bi-polar, crisis-a-week politics we have seen from both the DUP and Sinn Féin.

It is a bi-polarity to which both governments have contributed by constantly seeking to broker cosy back-room deals with the two big parties to the exclusion of the other ones. Breaking this all we need to do is to get the DUP and Shinners on board and the job is done approach and having the three main parties in the room may make deals harder to reach, but they will hopefully stick when concluded.

The other big plus is the increased majorities in the new Assembly for both the Northern Ireland Protocol and the institutions themselves. There were majorities for both in the last Assembly, not that you’d know this to listen to anyone from the DUP.

But thanks to the DUP insistence that this election be fought on its chosen territories of dumping the protocol and having only a unionist as first minister, those majorities increased.

Speaking of the DUP setting the parameters for the election – it was its virulently anti-nationalist rhetoric, not to mention its participation in shady loyalist organised anti-protocol rallies across the province, which helped to shore up Sinn Féin’s support, often at the expense of the SDLP.

Which brings me to the downsides. Let me again state that none of the downsides I am about to identify diminish Sinn Féin’s entitlement to nominate a First Minister. They simply remind us that victories come with costs you cannot  disregard.

The first downside is one I have discussed before – here and here and concerns the better than (some) expected performance of the DUP. While Sir Jeffrey’s party is on a downwards trajectory, it won’t be as steep or dramatic as polls or pundits suggested. Though its first preference vote share dropped by almost 7%, much of it (40k+ votes) went straight to the TUV and came back as 2nd or 3rd preferences.

This enabled the DUP to cut its seat losses to just 3, returning 25 seats. In terms of the Assembly, this means that just 37 of the 90 MLAs are now officially designated as Unionist. A drop of three seats (all DUP) since 2017.

But here’s the problem. That is a drop of one less than on the other side. The number of MLAs designating as nationalists has dropped by 4, from 39 to 35. This is not dramatic, but neither should it be hailed as an achievement. The loss of the 4 SDLP seats is not a win for anyone, including Sinn Féin, despite its crowing and hailing the SDLP slump as a deserved punishment for daring to criticise Sinn Fein.

None of us who advocate strongly and committedly for Irish unity should allow the symbolic importance of the results (to use a description from US Congressman Richie Neal) to ignore the reality that the nationalist vote is static and has been static for some years.

While Sinn Féin has an evident vested interest in trumpeting its own successes and primarily seeing unity as a means of driving up its own support, the wider movement for unity cannot ignore these factors.

That wider movement has a responsibility to advocate for Unity with a structured and detailed vision of how a New Ireland would work (as the SNP did in 2013 with their 650 page Scotland’s Future plan for the independence for Scotland), not just mark the fifth anniversary of Gerry Adam’s calling for a referendum within five years with an… ahem… call for a referendum within five years.

That’s historic in the wrong 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: South William Street, Dublin 2; Derek Mooney

Though the Dáil has not been in session since April 7, when it comes to political process stories the past three weeks have been far from uneventful.

There was the scuppering of Dr Tony Holohan’s Trinity College secondment; a saga which will run and run as Deputy John McGuinness’s Finance Committee attempts to uncover who agreed what with whom… even if he must do it without the cooperation of the Secretary General at the Department of Health or his Ministerial sidekick.

We also have the news, which broke over the weekend, that the Gardái have finally completed their #Leoleaks investigation and sent the file to the DPP. Now we can have weeks… or is it months… of speculation over how long the DPP will take to decide if it is in the public interest, or not, to prosecute.

And if all of the above were not enough thrills and spills for the usually quiet Easter recess, we also had two national opinion poll results. These brought a mixed bag for the government parties, and gave rise to two separate, but somehow connected, items of “informed” speculation on whether Micheál Martin will become an EU Commissioner or President of Ireland when he passes the burden of leading Fianna Fáil into the next general election on to some poor patsy… sorry… worthy successor.

While these stories are all important, dealing as they do with the increasingly finite commodity that is political trust, none will be resolved this week. Each will run for a while, so I will have plenty of opportunity to comment further.

For that reason I want to use this week’s column to talk about a significant problem that has received insufficient political or media attention: the declining quality of daily life in our capital city, Dublin.

There are many aspects to this topic, from bad planning and ugly streetscapes to the disjointed mess that is public transport, but today I want to focus on just one, the anti-social mayhem in the city centre.

Almost no week passes without hearing of yet more random and vicious attacks on people whose only provocative act was to mind their own business as they walked home after a good night out in the city centre.

A few decades ago I enjoyed nothing more than heading into the city centre, bumping into friends and visiting a couple of pubs and late-night eateries. Finances permitting… or even not permitting, I would do it two or three nights a week. Across almost all that time I cannot recall ever feeling unsafe or threatened travelling the streets alone.

That is not to say I didn’t see or spot the odd brawl or fight, or didn’t hear of people being mugged. I did. But any fight you did encounter was usually between lads who had fallen out amongst themselves. I can’t recall hearing of feral gangs stalking the city centre streets to find individuals, or small groups to brutally assault in plain sight, for their own satisfaction. Behaviour like that was the stuff of Alex DeLarge and his “droogs” in A Clockwork Orange.

Maybe I am turning into an old fart with rose tinted glasses who thinks all was perfect in the past and that the world has gone to hell in a handcart since I propped up the bar in Casper and Giumbinis, consuming the best part of a bottle of JD, before staggering into the Manhattan Café at Kelly’s Corner at 3am to have a mixed grill and chips, pot of tea and slices of buttered white sliced pan, each and every element hand crafted and cooked to perfection using only Auntie Mae’s deep fat fryer. But though I can already feel the heat off the 60 candles that will adorn my next birthday cake, I’m no old fogey yet.

I don’t have a Pollyanna view of my younger days. It was no joyous era of happiness and plenty with strangers greeting you with a smile, offering garlands of daisies and bluebells, but neither was it as scary and frightening as it seems today.

Up to the early 2000’s I liked to wander around town and pop into my favourite bars to see who was about. I still like it, but am wary of doing it. Maybe its an abundance of caution, but I now avoid staying out in Dublin 1, 2, 4, 7 or 8 past 10pm, even early in the week. If I do have to stay out later, I pre-book a taxi to collect me/us from directly outside the venue or bar by midnight, at the very latest. As for others, I become anxious when I hear of younger family members, or friends, heading into the city centre for a late night-out.

I suspect this sad situation is not so new. It was probably heading this way for the guts of a decade, but the situation was hurried along by lengthy lockdowns which allowed parts of our city centre, both North and South of the river, to become feral, no-go areas under the nightly control of street gangs who saw the empty streets as their territory.

But even I know this is an overly simplistic explanation. This does not account for the blatant homophobia underpinning many of the attacks, particularly in and around the Dame Street area. Nor does it factor-in the changing face of the city centre where so many new apartment complexes seem more liked gated Israeli settlements on the West Bank than integrated parts of the local community.

It is an explanation that also unfairly puts the focus on young people living in those areas, when we know that many of those who are eventually charged with these assaults have home addresses from much further afield.

The problem has to partly lie in the dire lack of policing resources in the Garda stations covering these areas. And it is also there that the solution lies. But how do we get to the point when there is both the political desire and will to dramatically increase Garda visibility and presence in our city centre.

To paraphrase a recent tweet from Master Davey Donnelly: it may take a serious assault against a tourist… maybe a rich American… to spur change and action on the anti-social behaviour.

Part of the issue in getting political attention and notice over this problem is the lack of any group or organisation to speak-up on behalf of the victims and potential victims.

The various city centre trader groups, including bar and club owners, know there is a major issue here, but they do not wish to talk about it publicly as they fear of driving people away. Too much public talk about the dangers of being in the city centre late at night is not good for business.

While this is regrettable, I have some sympathy for them. There is a logic in their position as the one thing guaranteed to make the situation worse is for more of us to view the city centre as a no-go area at night.

So the onus therefore falls on the elected politicians. They should not need a group or an organisation to call on them to act. They should be able to do something on their own initiative, but there seems to be some reluctance. I am at a loss to see why. This is not one of those situations where a social issue fails to get the political attention it deserves because it is occurring somewhere remote and far away from our political leaders.

Both the Tánaiste and the Taoiseach live close to the areas concerned, albeit both on the southside. The Tánaiste lives fulltime in Dublin 8 and is just a short walking distance of some of the most recent attacks. The Taoiseach lives for most of his working week just on the fringes of Dublin 2.

But, while neither man is unaware of what is happening, where is the spur to action? Who inside the government is speaking up for Dublin? Maybe someone is… but if they are, they need to do it a lot louder.

We have two new Citizens Assemblies. One on a directly elected mayor of Dublin [Don’t get me started on that… Limerick voted to have a directly elected Mayor three years ago, but nothing has happened] and another on Biodiversity Loss. So why don’t we have a Citizens Assembly on reclaiming and recapturing the nightlife in our city centre by tackling violence and anti-social behaviour.

I am being facetious. I dislike this growing political tendency to misuse the valuable Citizen’s Assembly model to avoid complex policy issues. I oppose the idea of a Citizen’s Assembly to look at our military neutrality as I see it as this Government just kicking that can down the political road… and this would be the case for an Assembly on the state of Dublin’s city centre.

But I know the crucial first step in addressing the issue is to publicly acknowledge that there is problem. This might usefully be done by the current or incoming Lord Mayor of Dublin calling a special conference to give a voice to both the young people who see their right to socialise in peace and safety being destroyed and to the inner-city residents communities who resent seeing their areas surrendered to the yobs.

It is a big challenge for the office of the Lord Mayor, being it the current incumbent or their successor, as very few of our 63 elected Councillors seem ready to speak about it.

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

Sam Boal/RollingNews

From top: Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party Jeffrey Donaldson (right) with Taoiseach Micheál Martin at government buildings last Summer; Derek Mooney

With the Northern Ireland Assembly election exactly one month away, a great deal of the commentary has focused – naturally enough – on the damage that unionism continues to inflict on itself.

I cannot recall a time when unionism has seemed in greater disarray. All due to the ill judged decisions and actions of hard line, irridentist unionists.

This is not to deny that there is a strong and growing seam of moderate, indeed progressive, unionism. A modern unionism that is more focused on facing the challenges of the future than re-waging the tribal battles of the past. A unionism that sees the grave dangers in the rallies against the Northern Protocol being foisted on many small towns across the six counties.

For this reason, and for the purposes of this article, I will use the phrase traditional unionism to describe the type of dominant and domineering unionism still advocated by Jim Allister’s TUV, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s DUP and such fellow travellers and carpet baggers as Kate Hoey, Jamie Bryson and Ben Habib.

I explored the serial causes of the problems besetting traditional unionism some weeks ago here when I discussed how the narrow-minded push by the DUP and TUV for the most ultra-purist Brexit only succeeded in alienating the growing group of “others” in Northern Ireland.

“Others” being the almost 40% of the Northern Irish population who self-identify in surveys as neither unionist nor nationalist, but who were content for the North to remain part of the UK for the foreseeable future.

It is not that the DUP and TUV do not recognise the existence of this large group, but rather that they have concluded that it will not vote coherently and in sufficient numbers to challenge them.

Thus the DUP and TUV play to the hard-line gallery. They know that their brand of traditional unionism is on the decline, but they also believe they have one last chance to forestall the inevitable – even if only to save their own political skins.

They have adapted the Rove-ian and Trump-ist strategies for the worst of the North’s sectarian politics. They go to the fringes. They stir up fears. They tell their people that they are in a fight for survival. They get their minority so enthused that they turn out in disproportionately high numbers.

To make it even more depressing, the same strategy is being played out on the other side, though with a lot less desperation. As is often the case in Northern politics, the fringes are mirror images of each other. Not alone that, what is good for the DUP is often also good for Sinn Féin, especially when they share a common political foe – the moderate centre.

One very visible manifestation of real crisis of identity now besetting the DUP can be found in the curious interview Ian Paisley Jr., M.P., gave to GB News – a channel later dissed by one of its founders, Andrew Neil, as a UKIP tribute band.

Expanding on his vivid description and dismissal some weeks ago of Boris Johnson’s Tory Party as an “English nationalist party” Paisley Jr told GB News presenter (and former British Labour MP) Gloria Del Piero that he no longer viewed the Conservative and Unionist Party as (traditional) unionism’s greatest friend. That, Paisley claimed, was now the British Labour Party.

When you find senior DUP figures reduced to such absurdist revisionism, then you know that the DUP and traditional domineering unionism is in trouble. To be fair, there have been some spectacularly awful and nasty Labour party Northern Irish secretaries. Roy Mason’s name immediately springs.

In her 2015 obituary of Mason, the Guardian’s former Ireland correspondent, Anne McHardy recalls the late West Belfast MP, Gerry Fitt spotting Mason entering the House of Lords bar and angrily saying to her: “That wee fucker’s here. He put things for us back 10 years. Fifteen.”

It was a conservative estimate. Peter Mandelson’s brief stint in the post, following Mo Mowlem, was not a great deal better. Though he came to the job telling nationalism, specifically the SDLP, that he would put them first. I was at the SDLP conference where he said it from the platform. Indeed, the only person in the room that day who acted as if he believed what he was saying, was Mandelson… though we all knew he knew it wasn’t true.

Of course, Paisley’s GB News comments were not born of a deep-seated need to unburden himself of some truths he had suppressed for too long. Paisley was using the interview to signal to the Tories, and especially Boris Johnson, that the DUP had other options, and that are other games in town.

But there aren’t.

Keir Starmer’s Labour Party has nothing to gain from offering the DUP either refuge or succour. Is it a mark of the DUP’s desperation and disconnection that it imagines that anyone at the top of the Conservative Party is even the tiniest bit bothered by such an empty threat.

When Starmer became leader of the Labour Party he appointed the excellent Louise Haigh MP as his Northern Ireland spokesperson. A position she continued to hold up to her recent promotion to be the party’s transport spokesperson.

One of Haigh’s first actions as Labour Party’s Northern Ireland spokesperson was to reconnect the Labour Party with one of its great achievements in government the Good Friday Agreement.

She ran a number of in person and online briefing sessions with labour party members across Britain to remind them of what they had achieved and remind them of the work and understanding of such huge Labour figures as Tony Blair and the late Mo Mowlam and the key parts played by others, most notably the former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern and US President Bill Clinton.

Indeed the Good Friday Agreement videos and materials that Louise Haigh put together should be required viewing for Fianna Fáil’s backbench TDs (and some ministers and HQ staff) to remind them of how hard won the agreement was.

It may also remind them that the agreement reached in 1998 was not the completion of a process, but rather the start of a slow, often grinding, political process. A process which is now in jeopardy and in need of a great deal more attention from Dublin, in particular from the Taoiseach’s office.

This is not intended as a criticism of the current occupant. I am sure that Taoiseach Micheál Martin is genuinely focused on driving progress. I am further convinced that he tried hard in the years between 2016 and 2019 to begin to lay the foundations for a political rapprochement with the DUP that he could deliver when he eventually achieved high office.

He was not the only one who thought so. Recall the positive mood music around his very public meeting with the then DUP leader and First Minister, Arlene Foster, at the 2018 Killarney economic conference. Back then Mr Martin told the DUP leader that politicians in the Republic had a right to express the “aspiration for a single State for all on this island without this being presented as a threat to anyone”.

These are not words we hear from him too often today. That is regrettable. Just as regrettable as the impression he gives that his strategy has not matured to reflect the reality that things have changed significantly since 2018. The traditional unionists who now rule the DUP do not interpret his soft and positive talk of a shared island and shared spaces in the way he hopes.

When the likes of Jamie Bryson hears the Taoiseach, the man they rightly see as both the leader of, and the centre of gravity for, mainstream Irish Republicanism, talk about a shared island, they think it’s just a new code for Unity.

Nuance and subtlety is lost when fears are being stoked – especially by the very ones who are stoking those fears.

This does not mean the Taoiseach should abandon his hopes and ambitions for his shared island unit… just that he must neglect the reality that there is another audience. A larger, ever growing, audience of “others” and moderate nationalists/republicans who need (and want) to hear the Taoiseach speak to their hopes and ambitions.

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

Sam Boal/RollingNews

From top: Minister for Defence Simon Coveney unveiling a new Pilatus PC-12 NG Spectre Aircraft for the Irish Air Corp at Casement Aerodrome in 2020; Derek Mooney

‘Coveney: Russian war highlights need to boost Defence Forces’ spend.’

This was the headline to a story in last Thursday’s Irish Examiner explaining how our part-time Minister for Defence is perhaps… possibly… on the cusp of the verge of being ready… in a few months… to signal that he just about  to announce plans to consider the partial implementation of some of the recommendations in the final report of the Commission on Defence… if he secures the agreement of certain key people in Cabinet.

Regrettably, the words actually uttered by Minister Coveney on the day were just marginally more definitive than my facetious parody above, telling reporters that:

“I’ll be bringing an action plan on the back of the recommendations in the commission to Government in June and it will be a strong statement of intent from me, and I hope from government, if we can get approval, in terms of the need to quite significantly increase our investment in the Defence Forces”

It did not take Putin’s merciless invasion of his smaller, militarily neutral neighbour to alert us up to consequences of the last decade of neglect of defence. To pretend that it has is deeply disingenuous. A weak Blueshirt ruse to mask the fact that their governments have treated national security and defence as a political afterthought.

Four senior Fine Gael figures have held Cabinet level responsibility for Defence since early 2011, they are, Alan Shatter, Enda Kenny (as Taoiseach), Simon Coveney (two stints including 2014 – 2016/ current) and Leo Varadkar (as Taoiseach).

Across most of that time they had a hapless super junior minister as frontman but, as I pointed out here three years ago, while that junior minister was the frontman for the dysfunction in defence, he was not the cause. Blaming today’s mess on the junior minister would be like blaming the non-performance of the harem on the eunuchs.

Despite his attempt to put the blame elsewhere, Minister Coveney is not the ill-fated political inheritor of a crisis that has only come to light thanks to the war in Ukraine. He and his Fine Gael colleagues were warned at the time, by people far more knowledgeable and expert than I, about the perils of under investing in both Defence Force personnel and resources.

Fianna Fáil’s opposition spokespeople at the time, Lisa Chambers and Jack Chambers were vocal not only in their criticisms, but in identifying the alternative strategies needed to avert the crisis.

But whatever credit Fianna Fáil earned for coming up with alternative proposals pre-2020 is quickly has been quickly erased by the dogged determination of its party leader to stand idly by and allow Minister Coveney to not only continue his neglect of defence, but to also ignore the Fianna Fáil Junior Minister at his Department.

Minister Coveney was at pains to inform Sinn Féin’s Aengus Ó Snodaigh, in a parliamentary question reply in early 2021 that, the junior minister at defence was solely appointed to fulfil a technical requirement of section 11 of the 1954 Defence Act and that he had no other role or function within the department. Taoiseach Michéal Martin’s political acquiescence in allowing a reply that was so dismissive of a party colleague is shocking, but not really all that surprising.

Almost as unsurprising as the speed and ease with which those Fine Gael TDs and Senators who had been wholly unperturbed by their government’s neglect of defence now suddenly rush to the nearest microphone to tell us how they have always believed that Ireland should be in NATO.

But – while the hard-left chunders on about Putin not being entirely in the wrong, and the goldilocks brigade in Fine Gael explain how we have simultaneously had a decade of spending too much, too little, or just the right amount on defence, we can take some comfort in the fact that the public are way ahead of the politicians on this one.

One of the most interesting, and positive, findings from yesterday’s Sunday Business Post/Red C poll on defence issues is that the public understands that delivering a realistic and effective level of national defence on land, sea, sky and cyber, costs money. They also grasp that being militarily neutral means having the real capacity to defend ourselves.

Asked if they agreed/disagreed with the statement that: “I would support proposals to significantly increase Ireland’s annual defence budget of €1.1 billion per year, which is currently the lowest in the EU at 0.2% of GDP”, 59% said they agreed and only 28% said they disagreed. That’s a 2:1 margin in favour of increased defence spending.

Now… I am around long enough to know that people can agree with the idea of increasing spending for X or Y and then baulk when it comes to forking out the extra taxes required to pay for it. But such a clear and conclusive response on an issue that has been been at the bottom of the political priorities pile for so long, is still significant.

It is also interesting to see that that this realisation that we must spend more on defence – though not defining how much more – is accompanied by a solid level of support for the existing policy of military neutrality. Asked if they agreed with the proposition that “Ireland should drop its policy of neutrality”, 57% of respondents said they disagreed and 30% said they agreed. Another significant majority, though it is down a bit from previous polls.

Much has been made over the past 24 hours of the apparent public contradiction between 57% of people saying they backed neutrality and 48% saying that they would back Ireland joining NATO. I see this as more of a paradox than a contradiction, a paradox being something you must accept and live with (as I previously explained).

The dichotomy might be explained (in part) by the framing of the question. From what I can see, those polled were asked if “Ireland should join NATO to boost its security” (my emphasis). Might some of those who said yes assumed that the proposition being put to them was if the only effective way of boosting Irish national security was by joining NATO, might they agree in that circumstance?

This is mere conjecture. I cannot fully explain why up to 18% of people could potentially say yes to NATO membership on one question, and then say yes to continued neutrality on another, but I suspect the evident lack of clarity around terms like: neutrality, military neutrality, even NATO membership, might help explain the paradox.

I attempted a few times over the past decade of writing about Defence, both here and elsewhere, to put some meat on the bones of what we mean by military neutrality, including this 2018 effort which responded to yet another attempt by Fine Gael to make the public as confused over the issue as it.

What the Red C poll tells me is that the public is not buying the mangled garbage being put about by the alphabeti-socialistis or the likes of Wallace, Daly, and Ming. The public understands that we need to spend more on defence – indeed this poll suggests that they understand this in even greater numbers that I would have anticipated. Not alone that, they also understand that whether we follow the path of continued military neutrality or go the route of NATO membership it is going to cost money.

That is a very healthy and important starting place for a very long overdue public debate on defence. I truly hope Minister Coveney and his senior officials in the Department of Defence will take note and realise that there is now nothing to be gained by waiting until June to come forward with their plan to speedily implement level of ambition (LOA 2) of the Defence Commission report, namely to:

“Build on current capability to address specific priority gaps in our ability to deal an assault on Irish sovereignty”.

To wait until June would just be time wasting.

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

IRLDeptDefence/RollingNews

From top: Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald at the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis 2021; Derek Mooney

“Lord, give us the wisdom to utter words that are gentle and tender, for tomorrow we may have to eat them.”

This guidance for politicians comes from the late Mo Udall, a long serving Democratic Congressman from Arizona.

It’s an approach you would hope members of today’s Oireachtas, from all sides, might heed – but as we see at the daily set pieces of Leaders’ Questions and the Order of Business, they don’t.

Instead, rather than acknowledging how they might have been wrong and correcting the situation, they double down and insist that they didn’t say what we think they said. We get obduracy and petulance in place of debate and discussion. In the more extreme cases we see some going the whole hog and deleting almost anything and everything they have ever said… but more about that later.

Take last week’s row over home heating oil prices. We all saw and heard senior Sinn Féin spokespeople repeatedly and specifically demand an immediate reduction in excise duty on home heating oil. Seeing this huge gaffe the Government went on the attack ridiculing the suggestion by pointing out that home heating oil is not subject to excise duty, unlike petrol and diesel.

But it was a row that did neither side much credit. Sinn Féin’s crass populism was exposed as it was caught in the act of making-up policies on the hoof. On the other side, whatever comfort the Government might derive from being proven right will soon evaporate as voters perceive it as not doing enough about the soaring cost of home heating.

While both sides in this week’s fuel row may end up having to eat their words as the devastating consequences of the War in Ukraine drives fuel costs up even higher, Sinn Féin now imagines it has come up with a novel way of not having to eat some of its older and more bitter words: just deny they were ever said.

Its mass “disappearing” of thousands of speeches and press statements going back two decades is both breath-taking and shameless. Though some naïve folk might see this as a step in the organisation’s gradual sundering of its connections to its own past, that interpretation would only have validity if it were accompanied by an attempt to learn from the mistakes of that past. But there isn’t. The move is not about disconnecting from past policies and outlooks, it is simply about avoiding any accountability for them.

As always with Sinn Féin, it is single minded in its determination to control its own narrative and its story. It will tell its story as it wishes and will neither assist nor cooperate in any attempt by others to relate it independently.

The Robert Evans view that “there are three sides to every story: your side, my side, and the truth. And no one is lying” does not apply with Sinn Féin. There is the Sinn Féin view and it is undeviating. Though, paradoxically, the only real constant in the Sinn Féin view is the capacity to change policies, outlooks, and positions to suit the needs and tastes of the day.

Thus Sinn Féin is not bothered in the slightest that its political opponents and the media have records of, and access to, copies of the many thousands of statements now deleted.

Quotes from past positions as set out in old press statements can now be denied by the current generation of Sinn Féin spokespeople as either lacking context or being cherry picked. And, if the worst comes to the worst, they can be dismissed as an attempt to deflect attention away from the government’s actions or inactions.

All that matters is that these no longer have the authority and credibility of still being on the official Sinn Féin website. After all, how can you act as if the latest statement on the Special Criminal Court which appears on your website has the status of a sacred script, when another older sacred statement consecrated uttered by one of your most lauded former high priests exists side by side on that very same website advocating the exact opposite opinion?

Rather than embrace its maturing of position on such crucial matters as criminal justice, Europe, Defence, Russia etc and show this as proof that Sinn Féin is evolving gradually, though falteringly, into a mainstream centrist party, the leadership seeks the comfort of the old dogmatic certainties while clinging to the fading notion of Sinn Féin as both radical and outside the mainstream.

It should be a difficult trick to pull off, but so far they are managing it. We see this in the opinion polls where Sinn Fein continues to stay on top. The three most recent polls show it at 33% – 34%. You have to go back to May/June 2021 to find polls that do not have the Provos in first place.

That is some achievement, but it may have less to do with Sinn Fein’s own utterances and actions and more to do with the floundering identity of the two traditional main parties and the gradual constriction of its combined vote share.

Having come into office with a combined support of 43% (at the 2020 General election), the two parties combined poll rating in the RedC and Ireland Thinks series of polls since the beginning of the year now average 39%, having hit a low of 36% and 37% at various points.

All too many of the government’s attempts to attack and criticise Sinn Féin have failed. This is not because the points being made were wrong. In many cases, particularly over the past month or two, Micheál Martin’s attack lines have hit home and struck a chord.

The problem for Martin and his Fianna Fáil party in particular, is that his attacks can all too easily be dismissed by Sinn Féin as attempts to deflect attention away from the problems in housing, health… and now the cost of living. Putin’s war in Ukraine could well see this list lengthen to include persistent inflation and recession.

Though Martin’s strategists have upped their game in recent months and have sent their man into the Dáil chamber with far better researched and sourced Sinn Féin attack lines, especially on its volte-face on Putin’s Russia, they are still missing the point.

Two points, actually. The first is that these attacks would come better from someone other than the party leader and Taoiseach. Having him get down and dirty with the Sinn Féin leadership in the Dáil week-in and week-out is not working. They need to give the task to someone else, indeed to several other people.

Second, and more importantly, they must understand that the surest way to not just halt, but to reverse Sinn Féin’s rise, is to ensure that housing is not a top three issue at the next general election. Be seen to address the housing issue at scale over the next 18-months to 2-years and then the other attack lines on Sinn Féin will have a real impact.

Don’t… and watch the slide continue with just a pile of bitter words left to chew on.

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: Tanaiste Leo Varadkar (left) and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney; Derek Mooney

For as long as I’ve been writing for Broadsheet I have been writing about defence. My first Broadsheet column on Irish defence policy appeared in August 2016. In each of the six years since then I have written numerous columns arguing for (i) increased defence spending, (ii) greater focus on cyber security and (iii) a grown-up debate on defence policy.

As time progressed, my columns became increasingly critical of the political neglect of defence shown by the last two Fine Gael led governments. Not that I think there was some golden age of defence policy. There is no time when our Defence Forces received all the money and all the political attention it deserved or required.

Most governments could have done more. This includes governments I worked for and wholeheartedly supported, but I can say with some pride that it those governments which delivered one of the most important developments in the maturing of defence policy and in the modernisation of our defence organisation: the 2000 White Paper on Defence.

Though it was a very important document, it was just a starting point. It was never intended to be an endpoint.

After over six years of writing about defence and often fearing that I was just shouting into the wind, I do know believe that the recent report of the Commission on the Defence Forces signals the most important and significant step forward for Irish defence policy for over a decade. Indeed it is the most important defence document since the 2000 White Paper.

But with opportunity, comes risk.

The risk is that we allow this moment to pass by confusing and unnecessarily coupling two related, but very separate, issues and thereby allow controversy around one to frustrate and defer progress on the other.

The two issues are:

  1. The need to increase our defence expenditure and deliver a level of national defence that is fit for purpose
  2. The future of our militarily neutrality. Put simply, do we join NATO, or not?

My concern is partly born out of Defence Minister, Simon Coveney’s announcement that a

“…period of four to five months is now required to facilitate appropriate consideration and consultation on the report and to prepare a proposed response and high-level action plan”

I worry that this could be stretched out to seven, eight or twelve months as the political debate around NATO membership that arises out of Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine dominates the political discourse.

I also worry that the Green Party’s perpetual anxiety over any question related to defence, here or abroad, could delay government action to reverse that decade of neglect. To judge from the comments made last week, it seems that some in the Green Party are happy to boast about preventing Ireland from donating to the EU’s programme to provide Ukraine with the weapons and defence equipment it needs to face down the Russian Army.

Having lived through the Green Party’s difficulties over Ireland’s membership of the European Defence Agency back in 2009, I know how slowly and painfully this can play out. I also know that the Greens need to be seen by their members to score wins and wring concessions can trump sound decision making.

Returning to Coveney’s five months, let us dispel the notion that the Department needs five months to consider its response. The Commission’s recommendations hardy came as a shock to the Minister or his officials. The Commission was open about its deliberations, publishing regular updates and minutes of its discussions. So, the focus must now be on speedy implementation, not continued consideration.

The Commission offered three stark options, which it labelled “Levels of Ambition” (LOAs).

LOA 1 would continue us on the current path, maintain defence expenditure at its paltry 0.3% of GDP and “leave the Defence Forces unable to conduct a meaningful defence of the State against a sustained act of aggression from a conventional military force.” No reasonable person, especially not one who believes in the concept of military neutrality and non-military alignment could support this option.

So, LOA 1 is clearly a  non-runner. This leaves us with LOA 2 and LOA 3.

See… it barely took five minutes – never mind 5 months – to whittle the choices down from three to two. The remaining two options are complementary with LOA 3 being a logical step up from LOA 2.

LOA 2 would probably entail increasing annual Defence expenditure to 0.7% of GDP – on par with where it was over a decade ago by “building on current capability to address specific priority gaps in our ability to deal an assault on Irish sovereignty.”

LOA 3 goes further, possibly requiring an annual defence expenditure in region of 1.2% to develop a “full spectrum defence capabilities to protect Ireland and its people to an extent comparable to similar sized countries in Europe.”

In my view, we should immediately commit to LOA 2 and see how speedily and efficiently we can proceed with the various components of the LOA 3 in view of the national defence threat assessments.

Above all, we must not allow any delay to the immediate implementation of LOA 2. Not even a public debate on continued military neutrality, or taking out full NATO membership, or any of the permutations in between.

Frankly, attempting a meaningful public debate without being well on the way to fully implementing LOA 2 (at a bare minimum) is akin to committing to run a marathon before you have finished learning to crawl. Those who talk of NATO membership without first demanding a full Government commitment to full and immediate delivery of LOA 2 are wasting their own time, and ours.

I have no problem with debating the merits and demerits of NATO membership or on defining our military neutrality, but that is separate issue to the full implementation of LOA 2.

Uncoupling these two discussions is critical to making progress, whether your aim is full NATO membership or a total commitment to continued military neutrality.

Either way we must still possess the capacity to deal with an assault on Irish sovereignty and to serve in higher intensity Peace Support Operations… and that means increasing defence expenditure today.

It is just that simple – no matter how much Deputies Mick Barry, Bríd Smith or Boyd Barrett tell us that they will “…oppose any major increase in Ireland’s military spending.” Simply bringing the pay and conditions up to scratch will require a sizeable increase in defence spending, as over 70% (in reality it is probably closer to 80%) of the annual defence budget goes on pay and pensions alone).

Though I am yet to be persuaded of the merits of full NATO membership, my reservations have softened dramatically in the harsh light of the invasion of Ukraine. The attack on Ukraine has significantly changed things – for us and for our EU partners.

This seismic change in the European and global security environment has led to major changes in defence policy in Germany, but also in such military neutral counties as Sweden and Finland. Two countries with whom we frequently partner on UN mandated peace support operations. Just as events have changed their appraisal of what is their most appropriate defence and security response, so must ours.

This is also the case with our attitude to the production and supply of defence equipment. There is nothing in our current policy of refusing to supply Ukraine with the lethal equipment it needs, in which we should take pride. As I said last week: we should be gifting Ukraine’s forces with all the anti-armour, anti-tank, mortar, unmanned aerial vehicles and other systems our Irish Defence Forces currently possess.

If we are going to consider NATO membership, and the increased defence expenditure that must go with that, then we should ask ourselves why must almost all that money leave this country?

This does not mean we must develop a munitions or armaments industry, but we could become a centre for the production of dual use technology, especially for cyber defence. Then any increase in defence expenditure can go into both better Defence Forces pay and conditions and more well-paying local jobs.

Though these are not words I utter all too often, the Tánaiste was right last week when he told the Dáil that we need to rethink the assumptions we have made for 70 years around military neutrality.

He was right. He was also correct when he said that:

“…we need to increase defence spending. We need to pay our military personnel more. We need better equipment. We need to be able to guard our own seas. We need radar over our own airspace.”

These things did not suddenly become true, however. They were also true between June 2017 and June 2020 when he was Minister for Defence and while the governments of which he was a significant member neglected defence.

He has a rare chance to undo that damage. But he can do more. Having spent so long walking us backwards on Defence, he can give our Defence establishment the resources and scope to start walking forwards again before allowing the Fine Gael fringes to commit us to a headlong race into NATO.

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: The Russian Ambassador to Ireland Yury Anatoliyevich Filatov at the Russiuan Embassy last month; Derek Mooney

I start this week’s column, picking up from where I left off last week, by looking at the future prospects of the Russian Ambassador to Ireland, Yury Filatov.

Last Monday I suggested that he be sent home. I was not the first to say it. The call has echoed across most of Leinster House. At the end of last week we heard individual Labour and Fine Gael demand his expulsion. Inside Fianna Fáil, Jim O’Callaghan TD led a coordinated call by the party’s backbench TDs, MEPs, and Senators for the Ambassador to be expelled.

Sinn Féin also read the public mood and, to its credit, did a 180-degree-turn on its decades’ long stance of rarely criticising Putin or Russia by issuing a strong statement calling for both the “…expulsion of Russian Ambassador and tougher sanctions.”

The party leader Mary Lou McDonald reiterated this call on Twitter, taking time off her busy schedule of not explaining why her lone MEP, Chris MacManus voted repeatedly against a European Parliament motion last December that:

  1. Supports Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity within its internationally recognised borders…

  2. Condemns the current large Russian military build-up along the borders with Ukraine and rejects any Russian justification for it…

The lengthy and detailed motion was passed with 548 votes in favour, 69 against and 54 abstentions. Sadly, four of the against votes were Irish. Sinn Féin has yet to explain what was in the motion to make them oppose it.

For that matter, the Irish Green Party has not explained why its two MEPs shamefully abstained. They were the only Greens in the European Parliament to abstain. Only one Green MEP opposed the motion, Tatjana Ždanoka, a particularly nasty, pro-Soviet Latvian.

However, notwithstanding Sinn Féin’s refusal to explain its past opportunism, its move to now advocating a responsible position, has left the likes of Mick Wallace, Claire Daly, Bríd Smith, Ming Flanagan, and Paul Murphy alone to explain to Ukrainians, Moldovans and others raised in the shadow of Putin’s Russia, how a war unleashed by Putin is NATO’s fault.

Returning to the fate of Filatov. Yesterday, the Foreign Affairs and Defence minister, Simon Coveney, told the Sunday Independent that he expected the EU would expel Russian diplomats as part of a coordinated move, but felt that this would not include full ambassadors. He also foreshadowed the coordinated EU move to ban all Russian aircraft in EU and Irish airspace

While it is better for the EU to be seen to act in unity, we should not underestimate the symbolic power that expelling ambassadors would have in isolating the Putin regime. A point which former Russian chess grandmaster and Putin opponent, Garry Kasparov, has often made.

As a small, independent country that values its freedoms, Ireland should be to the forefront in calling for the expulsion of all Russian diplomats, including Ambassadors, as another way to register our outrage at the attempted obliteration of a sovereign country by its bigger neighbour.

Minister Helen McEntee’s comments on RTE’s This Week that expelling Filatov risks a “complete breakdown” in diplomatic relations, misses this point. Diplomacy failed to avoid this crisis, not because we failed to keep the diplomatic channels open, but because Putin’s Russia was not interested in any diplomatic resolution. Putin has misread the West’s willingness to engage as proof of weakness and preparedness to concede.

Though there is a strategic benefit to acting in unison and severing all EU/Russian diplomatic links together, we can still lead the way, right now, by expelling the two Russian Defence Attachés, Col Igor Molyanov and Lt Col Dmitry Chivikov, accredited to the Russian compound at Orwell Road.

They are military representatives of an army that has already committed horrendous war crimes. There is now no justification for Russia to have defence attachés here, and it now must be made clear that Ireland will not permit any future Russian diplomatic representation in Ireland to include Defence Attachés.

As for the Ambassador himself, we have a responsibility to guarantee his personal security and safety, and that of his retinue, while he is here. And to ensure his safe return to Russia, if and when he is expelled.

As for what happens him upon his return to Moscow, that is outside of our control. For Ambassador Filatov’s sake let us hope that he is not assigned to the task of daily briefing President Putin on the faltering state of his attack on Ukraine, and how the easy victory Putin once imagined has become a tragic nightmare for young Russian conscripts.

Though it is still possible that Russia may – through overwhelming brute force and war crimes – succeed in taking Kyiv and other cities east of the Dnipro River, Putin has managed in under five days to undo the disunity, and discord he had sown within the EU and the US, with over twenty years of dezinformatsiya and other “active measures”.

The EU is more united than ever in its resolve to stand up to Putin’s aggression. NATO is more cohesive and determined than it has been in over a decade.

Relations between the EU and the US, particularly in the area of security cooperation, are repaired after four years of Trumpism. And while Trumpism was, in part, a product pf Putin interference in domestic US politics, the repair in relations is also largely due to Putin.

But he is not entitled to all the credit. The repair is also due to the leadership of President Biden, who has helped the EU to reach a speedy internal consensus by not offering an American running commentary. We can be grateful that America has someone in the Oval office who knows how to build and lead a strong coalition.

But as important and ground shifting as these improvements have been, the most momentous change came yesterday, from Berlin. Addressing a special session of the Bundestag, German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, announced a stunning shift in German defence policy committing €100 billion to military spending, saying:

“It’s clear we need to invest significantly more in the security of our country, in order to protect our freedom and our democracy,”

As great a shift as this marks in German national defence policy, Scholz’s move is an even bigger change for his party, the SPD. Since the days of Willy Brandt, the SPD has pursued Ostpolitik, sometimes called the “changed through trade” policy of normalising and building relations with the old East Germany (DDR) and the wider eastern bloc.

Though unfairly characterised as appeasement, the Ostpolitik policy continued under Chancellor Helmut Kohl and helped to lay the foundations of democracy in several old Warsaw Pact countries. It was the right policy to pursue at the time – but now that times have changed, so too must the policy responses.

This seismic shift in Germany’s approach to Russia was not on the immediate horizon a few weeks ago. Neither was the imminent prospect of Finnish and Swedish NATO membership. This well researched Wilson Centre paper on the possibility of NATO expansion, published barely four weeks ago, concluded that:

“Given the state of public opinion in both Sweden and Finland, it is unlikely that either country will join NATO in the foreseeable future…”

To be fair to the report’s authors, I should quote the second part of the sentence, as they attached a significant and perceptive codicil:

“ …barring any significant changes in the relations between the EU and Russia.”

Putin’s attack on the Ukraine, his barely veiled direct threats to Sweden, Finland and the Baltic countries and his direction that Russia’s strategic nuclear forces  raise their alert status, have changed relations not just significantly, but calamitously – for him, and for his Belarus ally, Alexander Lukashenko.

Putin went into Ukraine hoping to spread such fear and panic that he would collapse President Zelensky’s government. That has not worked. He is now attempting to do the same to the West with a very public raising of Russia’s  nuclear readiness status.

This is a deeply worrying step. But perhaps it is less worrying than if he had given the order to the Russian chain of command secretly. Doubtless Western intelligence sources would have quickly learned of the move and understood that he was not bluffing.

This step up in nuclear alert is the act of weakened leader trying hard to look strong.

The irony is that he alone picked this deck of cards. He not only stacked the deck, he also marked all the cards, dealt them and yet still managed to give himself a lousy hand that – fortunately for the civilised world – no longer contains a Trump.

The coming days and weeks will be painful for our brothers and sisters in Ukraine. Ireland is doing well in supporting them, but it can do more. Our contribution to the purchase of non-lethal material as part of the EU’s €500 million package of both lethal and non-lethal equipment to aid the Ukrainian military, is welcome, but it’s a distinction without a difference. One that borders on being as pointless and perplexing as the Green MEPs abstention last December.

We should, like Sweden, recognise that things have changed and – also like Sweden – we should be moving to directly gift Ukrainian forces with anti-armour, anti-tank, mortar, unmanned aerial vehicles and other systems our Irish Defence Forces currently possess, though recognising that we must replace these  immediately.

In the meantime, each of us can also help by donating to Ukrainian support groups, including the Ukrainian Red Cross/Red Crescent

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: Russian President Vladimir Putin during the G8 summit at the Lough Erne golf resort in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland in 2013; Dertek Mooney.

The most ridiculous and obsolete phrase you will hear in any Irish debate or discussion of the Ukrainian crisis is “… but Putin has a point.”  It is rarely uttered in isolation, but rather as the curt follow-up to an insipid denunciation of Putin’s blatant aggression. Suggesting that while Putin is doing the wrong thing, he may have understandable motives.

This is utter nonsense. The notion that Putin’s threat to his smaller western neighbour has anything to do with NATO or the prospect of Ukrainian NATO membership is absurd. There has been no major expansion of NATO membership in recent years, indeed only two counties have joined NATO since late 2009 and both of those are well over 1400Km south west of Ukraine’s western border: Montenegro in 2017 and North Macedonia in 2020.

The biggest expansion in NATO’s membership happened back in 1999 and 2004 when ten countries, including three Baltic states that were once part of the Soviet Union and several former Warsaw Pact states, joined.

Are we to believe that Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin was so distressed by this 2004 move that it has taken him 18 years to regain his composure and respond?

In reality, the threat to Ukraine has nothing to do with the possibility of NATO membership and has everything to do with that country’s very gradual, even faltering, emergence as a modern democracy that looks to the West, not its overbearing eastern neighbour.

There are other factors too. Not least of these is the long-running dispute over the Russian gas pipelines that stretch across Ukraine carrying much of Europe’s natural gas. Ukraine has been charging higher and higher transit fees, so much so that Russia has developed Nord Stream 2 a 1,200-kilometre undersea pipeline from Russia to Germany. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky called Nord Stream 2 “a dangerous political weapon”. Others agree, though not the German government, which is heavily dependent on Russian natural gas.

Putin’s NATO expansion claims and fears are bogus. They are a deflection. An effort to conceal the real purpose by diverting attention to a fake one. It is just one tactic, one of the smoke and mirrors ploys from the Soviet era Maskirovka military handbook. Maskirovka loosely translates as “something masked”, well-practised deceptions that include the infamous: false flag.

We see this in operation this week as official Kremlin approved media repeat the ludicrous claim by Putin’s Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov that: “Russia has never attacked anyone over the course of all its history”. This will come as news to the Hungarians (1956), Czechs and Slovaks (1968) and Lithuanians (1991), to mention a few.

The same Putin approved media outlets claim that Russian the build-up, by land and sea, around Ukraine is only to protect the pro-Russian residents of the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine from alleged shelling attacks from the Ukrainian military. So the Putin logic is that Russia is ready to reluctantly invade Ukraine to stop Ukraine from invading Ukraine? This includes a Russian military build-up along the Belarus/Ukraine border, which up to 1000km away from Donbass, but only 200km from Kyiv.

The false flag is one of Putin’s favourite political tactics. Indeed, he may possibly  owe his tight and long-lasting grip on high office to a vicious and blood curdling false flag operation. A false flag that is said to have been perpetrated against Russian civilians. A false flag that very few of those who imagine “Putin has a point” might care to acknowledge.

One of the great question marks about Putin’s meteoric political ascent at the very end of 1990s was: why him? Where did he come from and how did a former secret service boss with no previous political experience or history emerge as Boris Yeltin’s final Prime Minister and his chosen successor as President?

By late 1998, a year before Putin’s nomination as Prime Minister, Yeltsin’s presidency seemed doomed. It was beset by a wave of domestic and international scandals, including accusations that members of his family had accepted kickbacks from a Swiss construction company. Yeltsin’s Kremlin was losing political ground to a new political alliance centred on former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and Moscow Mayor, Yuri Luzhkov.

It was a war, with Chechnya, which enabled Yeltsin to seize back the initiative. On August 7, 1999, 2,000 assorted Chechen, Dagestani, Arab and Wahhabist militants invaded Dagestan. On 9 August 1999, President Yeltsin nominated Putin as one of three First Deputy Prime Ministers and acting Prime Minister of the Government. Putin had just served 5 months as Secretary of the Security Council, and barely a year as Director of the Federal Security Service, the FSB, the successor agency to the KGB.

Less than one month later, between September 4-16, explosions destroyed four apartment blocks in Moscow, Buynaksk, and Volgodonsk. The bombings, which targeted innocent civilians, killing more than 300 and injuring well over a 1000, rocked Russia.

Putin, who was still not well known to the wider Russian public, acted decisively and firmly. He quickly blamed the bombings on Chechen rebels. He vowed swift and immediate revenge and assumed personal direction of the attack that was to become known as the Second Chechen War.

Things were now happening fast in the Kremlin. As Putin pursued his military action against the Chechen rebels, Yeltsin announced on December 31 that he was resigning immediately as President, six months before the end of his term, and that Putin would succeed as acting President.

Within hours Putin had signed a presidential decree granting Yeltsin and his family immunity from any corruption or bribery investigations. He later granted similar immunity to Oligarchs who had prospered corruptly under Yeltsin.

Putin, who by now had become immensely popular for his firm resolve, seized the political initiative. The Presidential election planned for June 2000 was brought forward to March and Putin, a political unknown only two years earlier, was elected with 53% of the vote.

As David Satter, an author and Russia scholar has set out very many times in various articles and books and in testimony to the US Congress House Foreign Affairs committee; from the very start there were doubts in Russia about who planted the bombs.

Yeltsin’s political opponents, who had thought themselves poised to take power at the June 2000 election immediately suspected that the whole thing was a false flag calculated to protect Yeltsin and his entourage by ensuring that Putin, who would protect Yeltsin, succeeded him.

There was more than just their misgivings fuelling the doubt. Within days of the four apartment block bombs exploding, a fifth unexploded bomb was found in another Moscow apartment block. Though initially thought to be the work of the same Chechen terrorists, local police quickly discovered had actually been planted by FSB agents.

Nikolai Patrushev, a Putin loyalist who had succeeded him as FSB head, eventually conceded that his men had planted the bomb, which he claimed was a fake, and insisted that it had been planted there as part of an FSB training exercise. A public training exercise carried out during a terrorist attack on Moscow?

It was not the only inconsistency. By March 2002, the Noviye Izvestiya learned that Gennady Seleznev, a supporter of Putin and speaker of the Duma (Russian Parliament) had announced news of the Volgodonsk bombing on September 13. Three days before that particular bomb exploded.

Many of the those who have worked over the years shed light on truth behind the apartment bombings, including Sergei Yushenkov, Yuri Shchekochikhin, Anna Politkovskaya, and Alexander Litvinenko have been murdered. And while we understandably focus on Putin’s threat to Ukraine, we risk forgetting that the latest in a long line of Putin political opponents, Alexei Navalny is once again on trial, after spending a year in a maximum-security prison.

So, where are the big public protests outside the Russian embassy? It seems that the peace protesters who can find their way to the US Embassy in Ballsbridge for an instantaneous protest… blindfolded… cannot locate the Russian Orwell Road compound. You’d imagine all the folks who usually organise those Ballsbridge protests might remember how to find their way back to Orwell Road?

Let’s hope the Russian Ambassador can find his way to Iveagh House to receive a well-earned carpeting if Russia does invade Ukraine. And that his is able to find his way back again there again in the event of cyber attacks on critical Irish infrastructure… assuming he hasn’t been sent home by then.

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: Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) Jeffrey Donaldson (left) with Taoiseach Micheál Martin at Government Buildings in Dublin last August; Derek Mooney

The latest intrigues of Jeffrey Donaldson and the DUP bring to mind the adage:“You can get an awful sting from a dying bee.”

We may well be watching the final throes of Unionist ascendency as the DUP struggles to deal with a fraught situation entirely of its own making.

Last year’s celebration of Northern Ireland’s centenary reminded us how the net impact of five decades of Unionist rule was to undermine the very hegemony that brought it into existence. When Northern Ireland was established in 1921, around 62% identified as Protestant and 34% identified as Roman catholic. This figure remained steady up to the late 1960s when the proportion of Catholics began to increase.

By 2011, 41% were identifying as Catholic and just 42% identifying as Protestant share. A major shift. It was one of two shifts. The other was the emergence of a third category, one where people did not identify as being from either community background, a category that measured 17%.

A decade later, the June 2020 study, Political Attitudes at a Time of Flux, found that this “neither” category was now the biggest of the three categories of political identity, with almost 40% identifying as neither unionist nor nationalist.

Before I go any further let me explain that I dislike using the labels protestant/catholic when talking about political identity. It is a crude measure of political fealty, but you find yourself having no real alternative when trying to draw comparisons over time, especially in what was a sectarian state.

“Religion” matters in Northern Ireland as a pointer to community background, not theological principle. But not every Protestant is a unionist. No more than every Catholic backs reunification. Though this is not equally true.

Polling, especially pre-Brexit, has showed protestant support for the Union, at much higher levels (90%) than catholic support for Irish unity (55-60%). The already mentioned June 2020 study found that more Catholics now self-identify as strongly nationalist than previously. While eight out of 10 nationalists believe a United Ireland is more likely because of Brexit.

So, while the number of “other/neither” grows; the number of nationalists increases slightly and the number of unionists steadily dwindles, the variances in commitment to the Union with Britain should still mean that Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom remains secure for a few more years.

But Unionism – particularly the Jim Allister’s TUV and Donaldson’s DUP – won’t accept Yes for an answer – especially when that Yes is dependent on non-unionists. Rather than recognising how their push for a purist Brexit might alienate those in the “neither” and “nationalist” categories who were content for the North to remain part of the UK, the TUV and DUP march backward in search of a long-disappeared supremacy.

Instead of pursuing a Brexit that can work for Northern Ireland they chose to hitch their wagon to the Eurosceptic rump of a United Kingdom which, as DUP MP, Ian Paisley Jr., told the House of Commons last Monday, is currently led by:

“…Conservative and Unionist party that governs this nation is actually an English nationalist party that is concerned not about a border in the Irish sea but about a red wall on the mainland island…”

The DUP, which we were once led to believe was a disciplined, savvy, and astute political party that ran rings around its rivals, now shows itself to be a naïve rabble. The party of Paisley Sr is so diminished that it both willing to believe any old lie, once delivered in Etonian or Harrovian tones, and ready to destroy anyone in its own ranks who dares to recognise that it’s not 1950 anymore.

The current leadership of DUP must realise, just as the such leaders of loyalism as David Ervine and David Adams grasped over three decades ago, that Northern Ireland is not as British as Finchley (to misquote Margaret Thatcher’s Nov, 1981, parliamentary speech).

Not even she believed that. Her Northern Ireland Secretary, Peter Brooke declared in 1990 that the Thatcher Government had “no selfish economic or strategic interest” in Northern Ireland and that should the majority vote for unification, they would consent.

Thus the idea that the Protocol creates an Irish Sea frontier that never previously existed, is a fiction. There has always been a constitutional and legal frontier down the Irish Sea. The 1801 Act of The Union gave Ireland a separate and autonomous Exchequer, Courts of Justice, and civil service. The 1921 partition of the island maintained Northern Ireland as a separate constitutional entity. Even the 1972 introduction of “direct rule” never integrated the Six Counties fully within the UK.

Northern Ireland has always been different. Ask anyone who has flown from London to Belfast. I am old enough to remember the separate boarding areas and security protocols at London airports for Ireland and Northern Ireland only.

The DUP knows this. Indeed it depended on this very separation to have its restrictive laws on abortion and gay marriage. All the Northern Ireland Protocol has done is to superimpose a new layer on an existing constitutional border. A layer that the EU still endeavours to make as gossamer-thin as possible.

So, just at the point when Northern Ireland is set to reap the benefit of a special status delivered by Dublin and Brussels, one that gives the province access to the UK and EU markets, the DUP concludes that delivering a boost to the North’s economy is not as important as satisfying its own hardliners.

Why now? Because the DUP now has the TUV doing to it; what it did to David Trimble’s UUP, post-Good Friday Agreement. It has learned nothing from its own lived history.

Neither has it grasped the basic truth that it cannot have both a hard-line Brexit and strong Union with Britain in a province that voted to remain in the EU. The DUP is refusing to face up to the changed reality of today’s Northern Ireland and see that they need the consent and support of those who voted Remain to keep Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom and that they must accept compromises on Brexit to keep the previous Union.

They act and speak as if the last 50+ years had never happened. Over the past few weeks we have had the political obscenity of Sir Jeffrey Donaldson corrupting the consent principle that underpins the Good Friday Agreement and attempting to re-writing consent to mean that nothing can happen in Northern Ireland until it has the majority consent of unionism alone.

So Donaldson’s consent moves from being “the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland”, as set out six times in the text of the Good Friday Agreement, to being the consent of a majority of a minority. A unionist veto over the majority. Almost Verwoerdian.

This poses a major headache for Dublin and one that will go on for some time. The collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive is just a very poor first act of a play that we know is going to end badly for unionism.

The second and third acts, the May Assembly election, and the post-election drama as the DUP sees its grip on power slip further, will be painful to watch. Though Unionism may attempt to cobble together a pact to give it a claim to the first Minister’s post, the legislation is clear:

(4). The nominating officer of the largest political party of the largest political designation shall nominate a member of the Assembly to be the First Minister.

(5). The nominating officer of the largest political party of the second largest political designation shall nominate a member of the Assembly to be the deputy First Minister.

Though the posts of First and Deputy First have the same power and the deputy First Minister is not subordinate to the First Minister, the symbolism of the title is important. Ironically the Good Friday Agreement envisaged the first and deputy First Ministers being elected on a joint ticket, but that was changed at the St Andrews Agreement, at the behest of the DUP. They must now live with the consequences.

Thus, it is impossible to see any speedy return of the institutions post an Assembly election, especially one in which the DUP comes back with fewer MLAs than Sinn Féin. In 2017 the DUP won just one seat more than the Shinners with the two parties only 0.2% apart. The latest poll has Sinn Féin about 5% ahead of the DUP, though this gap was 8% a few months back..

How does Dublin handle a situation where the institutions are again down and where it has no reliable or trustworthy partner in London? The Good Friday Agreement works best when both governments work together in partnership and trust. No one can seriously claim that there is any trust in Boris Johnson.

It is only a few weeks since Johnson’s government tried unsuccessfully to change the Northern Ireland Electoral Acts to the DUP’s advantage by allowing MPs to run for the Assembly.

Each week Johnson makes ever louder threats to trigger Article 16 and upend the Northern Ireland Protocol – though Johnson has over hyped this as offering his hard-line Tory and DUP Brexiteer allies an immediate relief. A political happy ending.

In reality, Article 16 does not allow either party to suspend provisions of the protocol permanently or in their entirety, indeed all Article 16 does is to commence a period of negotiation – of around three months.

Added to all of this is the complicated political situation here and in London. A bad May local election could see the Tories move against Boris – not necessarily a bad result for those wanting to see the situation in the North calm down – but it will still set the process back.

June and July are never easy times in the North during a political vacuum. A difficult marching season in which Unionism still reeling after a bad Assembly result could leave the two governments waiting until September to get people back into the same room.

But that leaves only a very small window until the preparations start in Dublin for the handover from Taoiseach Martin back to Taoiseach (we assume) Varadkar.

Will that handover see Martin return to his beloved Department of Foreign Affairs as Tánaiste, replacing Simon Coveney? Who knows? If it doesn’t, it will leave Fianna Fáil with no input into Northern policy – a situation that could only gladden the likes of Sen Ned O’Sullivan.

It is therefore vital that the Irish government in the person on An Taoiseach  immediately state its position, in terms that cannot be misconstrued or misinterpreted in the run up to the December changeover. A clear and unambiguous statement that firmly commits itself to the principles of the Good Friday Agreement and to getting the Institutions back up and running speedily.

Simply saying we are concerned, even deeply concerned, won’t be enough.

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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