Tag Archives: Mooney on Monday

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

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

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

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

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

Buchanan was wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are three that immediately spring to mind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Not that this system always disadvantages nationalists.

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

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

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


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

Sinn Féin:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This brings us to the three critical seats:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or, this

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But what of the future?

Has the threat changed?

In a word: yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In a word: yes.

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

Continue reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Within NI Between communities in the North,

2. Between North and South on this island, and

3. East/West, between these two islands.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Earlier: Push The Button And Let Me Know

 A Limerick A Day


From top: US President Lyndon B Johnson (right) and with his Supreme Court choice Abe Fortas, June, 1968, :  Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in Thornton Manor, Cheshire last Thursday

Visitors to the Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) presidential library in Austin, Texas get to have their photos taken against a life size photo of the 6’ 4” LBJ leaning over them, appearing – figuratively – to bend them to his will. It is called “The Johnson Treatment”.

The original photo featured LBJ’s soon to be US Supreme Court justice Abe Fortas. It is just one of many photos of LBJ applying the eponymous “treatment”, once described by the pre-eminent Washington political columnist, Mary McGrory, as…

an incredible, potent mixture of persuasion, badgering, flattery, threats, reminders of past favours and future advantages.

In a fascinating interview at the John F Kennedy library, LBJ’s speechwriter (and husband of the great presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin), the late Richard Goodwin tells how LBJ worked his “treatment” on the segregationist governor of Alabama, George Wallace after the Selma marches. Wallace had come to the White House, Goodwin recounts:

“…Wallace comes in, and of course Wallace is about 5 feet 2 and Johnson is 6 feet 4, and so he’s got a big edge on him. And so, he says, “Governor, come in.” So then Johnson sits him down on the couch, where he sinks another three inches, and Johnson sits on the edge of a rocking chair, and leans over until he’s about one inch away from Wallace… he knew the beauty of invading someone’s space, and he did it.”

As Goodwin explains, LBJ set to work on getting Wallace to allow greater voter registration for Black Americans in his State. LBJ finished up saying:

“I don’t want you to think about 1964, I want you to think about 1984. We’ll be dead and gone then. Now you got a lot of poor people down in Alabama, a lot of ignorant people, a lot of folks that need different jobs. You could do a lot for them, George, what do you want after you go? Do you want a great big, marble monument that says, “George Wallace: He built?” Or do you want little piece of scrawny pine laying there across the soil that says, “George Wallace: He hated.”

LBJ gets up and leaves. Wallace is then given the statement Goodwin has prepared announcing what LBJ wants him to do. Wallace dutifully gives it to the press corps, later saying: “[If] He had me in there another hour, he [would have] had me coming out for civil rights.” He was incredibly overwhelming.

Though not remotely in the same league as LBJ in terms of ability, substance or persuasiveness, those who have met Boris Johnson remark on how effusively personable and charming he is face-to-face.

Like many modern politicians Boris Johnson hates to be hated. He desires to please and impress the person in front of him, be it by flattery or self-deprecation.

Where LBJ used his power as well as personal skills, traits and experiences to bend others to his will, Boris Johnson has just one tool: charm. A charm that the former editor of the Daily Telegraph Matthew d’Ancona, described as

“…a confection, a stage act with roots in his true nature but with many affectations and contrivances. He is, one should never forget, “Al” (for Alexander) to his loved ones. “Boris” is a persona: it is his populist Conservative version of Ziggy Stardust, The Rock or Borat. It is a means to an end – and a potent one.

One of those potent ends was getting into Number 10 and it has so far worked. A sad reflection on the state of UK politics today but, as the Guardian’s Simon Jenkins puts it, “charm is politics’ deadliest weapon”.

Boris’s charm has not only landed him the top job, it has obscured many to the reality that Johnson (in the words of Simon Jenkins):

“…emerges from his biographical record as incompetent, lazy, dissolute and a liar, yet the public’s response is that he is “our kind of liar”.

While there are rumours about what Boris said to Leo when they met alone in Cheshire last Thursday, including tales of a one-page note produced from Boris’s inside jacket pocket that set out the British proposal, only two people know for sure.

That said, I do not think it is too unreasonable or far-fetched to imagine that the full 90 minutes was not taken up with the finer points of customs union systems or consent mechanisms.

While Leo Varadkar can claim a decent grasp of such detail, it is a boast the British Prime Minister cannot make. This is the same Boris Johnson, after all, who was caught bluffing dreadfully about trade tariffs on live TV by Andrew Neil.

It is therefore difficult not to suppose that those 90 minutes of private talks focussed less on specifics and more on the general politics of their two situations.

How could it not? Here were two politicians, leaders of centre right parties who have assisted each other in the past, each now facing an election. How could they not discuss and explore the politics of what they each face, especially when it is so intertwined and dependent on what happens with Brexit.

Though some Irish pundits were wary of Leo’s heading to the meeting, it was Johnson who had the most to lose. Boris Johnson went in on the backfoot, especially after the debacle of a “senior Downing Street source” (i.e. Dominic Cummings) briefing The Spectator that the UK government was ready to punish those EU countries who back an extension beyond October 31 and that the Taoiseach “doesn’t want to negotiate”.

Besides this briefing being politically illiterate (an extension beyond Oct 31 requires EU unanimity, so any threat to punish those who backed it means all 27) it also wrong-footed the British government’s own efforts, even if they are only about avoiding blame for a no-deal.

Johnson went into the Leo encounter with no choice other than turning the charm up to a spinal tapping 11. From Boris’s less nuanced perspective he would be sitting alone with the one man who held the key to unlocking his Brexit difficulty.

Johnson (wrongly) sees Irish support for the Backstop as the main obstacle to his securing a withdrawal agreement he can get through the House of Commons. Wrongly, because binning the Backstop is not in Ireland’s gift. The EU believes in the Backstop’s purpose, the avoidance of a border across Ireland, as much as we do.

The task Johnson set himself was enormous. Charm Leo to backing down on the Backstop. If he could do that then he could offer to help ease Leo’s political woes through the removal of the threat of a hard-crash-out-Brexit.

Leo arrived under no such pressure. Unlike Boris, who did not grasp that they could not simply talk the Backstop away, Leo absolutely knew they couldn’t. His mission was twofold. Deny the Brits any chance to blame him for refusing to talk and just listen to what Johnson’s officials had to say and appraise Brussels.

This Leo and his officials did. But he did just a little bit more. He came out looking and sounding way too happy. While their joint statement was broadly positive and talked of possible pathways, it was still bland. So, where did all the post meeting hype and press talk of significant movement from British side and changing the picture substantially come from?

Was it just Irish political optimism stemming from what the officials discussed or did the Boris attempt at his own Johnson treatment have some impact? Did Leo succumb, even briefly, to Johnson’s charm and blandishments?

Even if he did, there was never any risk of it turning into anything real, though his excess of positivity did briefly deflate the hopes of those in the UK wanting a second referendum, as well as grossly inflating the desires of those in Leinster House wanting a snap election.

But while charm may be a weapon, it is not a currency. Something confirmed by the briefings coming from Brussels last night and this morning.

The signals, so far, are that no significant progress has been made and that the Brits need to move further on Northern Ireland to secure a Withdrawal Agreement by week’s end. Johnson has backed himself into a corner from which charm alone cannot release him.

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

Pics: Getty/Noel Mullen via Rollingnews


From top: UK prime Minisister Boris Johnson; Derek Mooney

Opening his Sunday morning BBC1 show yesterday, Andrew Marr wondered if Boris Johnson’s cunning Brexit plan was to pretend that he has a cunning plan to cover the fact that he doesn’t have a cunning plan.

Mr Marr has a point. Most of Johnson’s cunning plans have thus far failed. His ruse to prorogue parliament was demolished by the Supreme Court, and he has still to win a single vote in the House of Commons.

He entered Downing Street at the head of a government with a majority (via the DUP) of one. Now, thanks to his handling of the grandest of the Tory grandees, it has a majority of minus 42.

Yet, despite these failures and setbacks, Johnson is doing well in the polls. The Tories now enjoy a steady lead over the Labour party of anywhere between 7% and 13% (YouGov polling).

As with John F Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban missile crisis, it seems that the worse he does, the more popular he gets.

This is Johnson’s cunning plan. A speedy election putting the Tories back with a solid majority, no longer dependant on the DUP and ERG. Johnson believes in nothing as deeply as he believes in his destiny to lead.

Much of the analysis of Johnson’s recent Backstop replacement pitch has concluded, wrongly in my opinion, that it is solely motivated by a desire to deliver a No Deal Brexit where the EU gets the blame.

There is some truth to this analysis, but the proposal has more depth to it than just this. We do ourselves no favours by not considering its underlying strategy.

Without question the latest British proposals do not satisfy Irish or EU demands for the protection of the Good Friday Agreement, but they are not intended to. The British have moved, not compromised, and have done it for a reason.

The proposal are not about dismantling the Backstop per se, it is about turning back the clock and rerunning the negotiations with the benefit of hindsight.

When the negotiation process started in April 2017 the UK and EU agreed it would be done in two phases. The first phase would deal with the “divorce” issues arising from the UK leaving the EU and would have three distinct elements:

* Guaranteeing citizens’ rights for EU citizens in the UK and vice-versa;

* Settling the UK’s financial commitments;

* Ireland and Northern Ireland specific issues.

Only when full agreement on these three topics was reached could negotiations move to Phase 2. Phase would deal with the future relationships between the EU and UK.

We are still at the Northern Ireland element of phase 1. 

Hard line Brexiteers, including some in Cabinet, opposed May agreeing to this timetable and sequence seeing it as a grave tactical error.

They saw the requirement to agree Irish Border issues in Phase 1 as depriving them of having the border as negotiating leverage in the future trading talks in Phase 2.

Now that the Brexiteers hold sway in Number 10 they are determined to unpick the process. The latest British proposal is their attempt to turn back the clock and move the resolution of the Irish border from Phase 1 to Phase 2.

While they may claim that kicking the fine detail of Irish border arrangements past the withdrawal agreement is because the issue is so complex and tied up with future EU/UK trading relationships, it is all about leverage.

It is why Brexiteers like Rees-Mogg and Mark Francois have fetishised the Backstop. This had nothing to do with concern for Northern Ireland, the consent of Stormont or the precious union, but had all to do instead with Britain, i.e. England, competing with the EU after Brexit as a Singapore-Sur-Thames.

The Backstop never posed a threat to Northern Ireland’s constitutional position, but Brexiteers knew they needed a highly charged argument on which to focus if they were to undo May’s denial of the border as leverage.

They quickly identified the Backstop as that focus and set about hyper charging a straight-forward matter into an issue of constitutional consequence.

How could the Backstop be such a threat when it has only ever been an insurance policy to ensure the commitments (at Paragraph 49 of 2017 EU/UK joint report) made by the British government to support the all-island economy and North/South alignment were honoured. It says:

In the absence of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement.

The chances of the Backstop ever being invoked were intended to be quite low. It is only come into effect if the UK went for maximum realignment and divergence from existing EU rules and regulations.

We now know that this is precisely the route Johnson, and his financial backers, plan to go. He even said it in his August letter to EU Council President Donald Tusk, twice even:

“…the laws and regulations to deliver them will potentially diverge from those of the EU. That is the point of our exit and our ability to enable this is central to our future democracy.”

“…we cannot continue to endorse the specific commitment, in paragraph 49 of the December 2017 Joint Report, to ‘full alignment’ with wide areas of the single market and the customs union.”

His solution is to therefore offer vague and hazy, last minute proposals in the hope that an EU eager to avoid a no-deal speedily inserts them into Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement in place of the existing Northern Ireland protocols.

It’s a risky strategy. He may feel he can pull it off by stressing to the EU that he can get his version through Parliament and that the EU will get the twin benefits of (i) avoiding the mayhem of a no-deal-crash out and (ii) a future British negotiating partner (post UK election) with a majority to deliver what they agree at talks.

It is not a totally unattractive package, but Johnson is still the one who gets the most. He secures his position for five more years, goes down in political history as the man who delivered Brexit, but most importantly he gets the leverage he vitally needs in Phase 2.

He knows the EU is committed to protecting the Good Friday Agreement and he is happy to do that in Phase 2 in return for a trade deal that benefits England.

The ease with which he has proposed two borders is the giveaway. The border in the Irish Sea to protect the EU Single Market is a hint of how much further he is prepared to go. The Customs Border across the island is just there to be negotiated away.

Brexit Secretary, Stephen Barclay was keen to remind Marr yesterday that:

“…we are talking about 1% of the total UK-EU trade, so there needs to be a degree of proportionality about this.”

The 1% refers to Northern Ireland trade.

Barclay and David Frost, Johnson’s lead Brexit negotiator have spent weeks touring EU capitals, including Dublin. They have heard Irish concerns on protecting the all-island agri-food sector and heeded it, hence the Single Market protections they have foisted on the DUP.

What the DUP seems to have not yet realised is that this is all just a ploy.

What Johnson wants and needs is a Phase 2 process free of any dependence on the DUP or their Brexiteer allies.

Then he can deliver the Northern Ireland only backstop that May agreed, or something similar, but at a much higher price.

It’s quite a smart strategy from an English Tory point of view, but it is not one that will work. It won’t work because it repeats the same basic mistake that the UK has made since day one, it misreads the EU and fails to understand how it works.

Still, you cannot help admiring Johnson’s sheer brazenness in trying 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

Pic: PA wire

From top: DUP leader Arlene Foster with  DUP MP Sammy Wilson (on crutches) after a meeting with Taoiseach leo Varadkar in 2017; Derek Mooney

Many, many years ago I went to see the great Billy Connolly perform live at the Gaiety theatre. He talked about his brief time working as a riveter in the Clyde side shipyards.

At one point he asked the audience if we recalled those old British Pathé newsreels of jaunty, merry Glasgow shipbuilders waving their hats and cheering loudly as the ship, on they had been working, was launched and slid into the Clyde.

As Connolly reminded us, though the newsreels portrayed these workers as delighting in the completion of another fine ship, the simple reality what they were actually waving goodbye to their jobs as most of them would be laid off the next day.

Today’s DUP is very much like those shipbuilders. In happily cheering-on the prospect of a hard Brexit they are celebrating the end of any economic future for Northern Ireland.

In going for hard Brexit, Arlene Foster, Sammy Wilson and most – though notably, not all – of the DUP leadership team are opting for the worst of all possible worlds.

They stand on the periphery of the UK, as currently constituted, and demand all the disadvantages of a full-on Brexit with its promise of unspecified future international trade deals, without any attempt to hold on to the advantages that the EU has brought.

What has been an offer from Michel Barnier and the EU in the withdrawal talks is a form of Special Economic Zone (SEZ) for Northern Ireland. Several months ago a colleague of mine, Tom Hayes and I, put together a short paper setting out how special economic zone for Northern Ireland might operate.

Becoming a SEZ would give the North, an economy that remains way over dependent on the public sector, the potential to become a gateway to the European Union not just for the UK, but for those with whom the UK believes it will soon be able to do great trade deals.

The advantages of a NI SEZ were not necessarily a long way down the road. Making Northern Ireland a special economic zone would make Belfast, Derry and Newry attractive locations for those small and medium companies who will need to move their operations from a-post-Brexit-GB but are finding Dublin too costly

In rejecting this proposal Arlene Foster has shattered not just the illusion that the DUP is Northern Ireland’s business-friendly political party, but also the idea that it is a party of hard political pragmatists wanting the best for their community.

It is now neither.

As its approach to Brexit has shown, the DUP is prepared to sacrifice businesses large and small, national and international and they 1000s of jobs they bring in favour of political point scoring on its artificially constructed constitutional question.

I say “artificially constructed” because the Joint EU/UK Report from December last year, as signed and agreed by the British government. writes the Good Friday Agreement into the Brexit deal, and does it several times (see articles 42 – 56).

The Good Friday Agreement underpins Northern Ireland’s constitutional position, reaffirms the principle of consent and states that the constitutional position of Northern Ireland within the UK cannot change without the support a majority. Note: this means a simple majority, not a weighted one as some try to pretend.

The EU acknowledges all of this, so what is the DUP’s problem?

Using Sammy Wilson’s arguments, surely the inability to use Northern Ireland sterling banknotes in shops, pubs or stores in London or Manchester is a threat to the Union?

Of course, it isn’t. The problem here is that the few remaining backwoodsmen who still baulk at the consent principle and the Good Friday Agreement see Brexit as a sly way to weaken that Agreement and are being facilitated by a weakened DUP leader who tries to mask her weakness by talking tough.

The DUP’s much vaunted Westminster deal which kept Theresa May in office after the last British general election is all but over, though it may take a few weeks for the formal acknowledgement of this.

The one-time party of “no surrender” has managed by political petulance and stridency to surrender any leverage it had over May and chosen instead to become fellow travellers of the Johnson and Rees-Mogg Tory rump.

Foster, who had shown signs of wanting a better relationship with the South, now seems content to now sacrifice Northern Ireland’s viability in a desperate attempt to save herself.

But, her time as DUP leader is limited. It is quite likely that she will not still be leader by the start of the second quarter of 2019.

Though Arlene’s leadership is doomed, it is not because of Brexit. It is due to her inattentiveness as First Minister as recently exposed during the RHI “Cash for Ash” inquiry.

That inquiry is due to report sometime after Easter next year. Most expect the report to be highly critical of Foster as both Minister First Minister and her stewardship of the Northern Ireland Executive.

Neither the moderate or hard-line wings of the DUP will be happy to keep a damaged and discredited Foster as leader after the report. Especially in the aftermath of Brexit with the possibility of either a Westminster election or a Second Referendum, not to mention the possible return of an Executive and Assembly in the North.

It is more than likely that Foster will – just before the report is published – be persuaded to stand aside for the good of the party and make way for new leader.

But who will that leader be?

If the DUP is wise – and there is little evidence around just now to suggest that it is – it will pick somebody from the next generation.

The months following the UK’s formal exit from the EU at the end of March are going to be very tricky, even if there is an extended transition period.

The political spotlight that now focuses on Northern Ireland will likely move to Scotland, post Brexit, as it once again looks to independence within the EU, rather than dependence within the UK.

As the UK slowly comes apart and its current intransigence is seen by Unionists, in hindsight, to have contributed to its dismantling.

While the binary nature of Northern Ireland politics means that the DUP will not disappear within the next few electoral cycles, its long-term future cannot be guaranteed.

As I have said here many times Brexit will change politics in Northern Ireland. This will have major implications, many positive, for parties on this side of the border, but hanging around and waiting to see how that works out, rather than trying to shape it now, is a strategic error.

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

Pic: AFP