Tag Archives: Mooney on Monday

From top: Green Party TDs, including leader Eamon Ryan (fourth left) and deputy leader Catherine Martin (in red) assemble following General Election ’20;; Derek Mooney

If, on the night of the election count, you had been asked to bet on which of the three leaders, of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael or the Greens, would face a leadership challenge first, I very much doubt many would have their money on Éamon Ryan.

Why would they? As the counting of ballots ended Ryan was the only one of the three with anything to celebrate. While Martin and Varadkar were trying to explain away seat losses, Ryan was almost iridescent as he watched the ranks of his Dáil party swell from just two TDs to twelve.

Ryan was not just a successful leader, he was the Green’s most successful ever leader in its almost 40-year history, winning twice as many seats as had been won under Trevor Sargent in 2002 or 2007.

It was the leadership careers of Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin which seemed to be hanging delicately in the balance that week.

Maybe it is an indication of how much politics has changed in recent months that both Varadkar and Martin seem relatively (though not equally) secure in their positions, while it is Ryan who could well be struggling for political survival.

The announcement last Wednesday by Green Deputy Leader Catherine Martin TD that she would give “serious consideration” to the request from party members to “step up and contest the upcoming leadership election” has given rise to a lazy narrative by some political pundits that this just typical green silliness and that party is not engaged in mature adult politics.

It is not a view to which I subscribe.

What is happening in the Green Party is not your traditional bun fight between competing egos looking for the top job. It is a high-stake struggle between competing outlooks for the future of the Green Party. A party which has changed significantly over the past few years.

Ryan may be about to become the victim of his own success. He has brought a new and committed generation of activists into the party, but unlike many of their antecedents, they see the government of which Ryan was a key part as the origin of the party’s difficulties.

To understand what is happening in the Green party today you need to grasp just how much the party has changed over the last few years, from the bottom up.

The Green party of today is not the same Green party that went into government with Fianna Fáil in 2007. Yes, there are some familiar faces still near the top, but go past this thin layer and it is a vastly different party in terms of membership.

Figures released by the Green party in advance of its July 2019 National Convention showed that party membership was up by over 60%, including a doubling of members over an 18-month period from January 2018. In other words, fewer than 40% of its current members were around during the 2007 – 2011 period.

This new membership has a very jaundiced view of the Green’s participation in that government. Along with those veterans who weren’t fans of the 2007 decision to enter government, or the 2009 mid-term decision to stay in, they are less focused on the global economic crash that buffeted the government than they are on:

(a) the perception that it failed to deliver significantly on Green issues and

(b) the reality that participation led to a Green electoral collapse which meant no green voice in national politics from 2011 to 2016.

This was a central theme of the aforementioned 2019 Convention and still dominates internal discussions. Why go into government now if you are almost certain that political history says you will have  no political voice for the following five years?

It will certainly be to the forefront of the minds of many activists when they vote on any deal – which assumes the process gets that far – so there will have to be a great deal in that deal (pick any pun you want in that line I’m sure I intended it) to trump these twin concerns. Remember, one of the motions debated at the 2019 convention argued that:

‘Environmentalism is totally incompatible with capitalism and we can no longer shy away from talking about it.’

Wouldn’t you love to have been a fly on the wall when Ryan put this point to Varadkar and Martin?

So, as I have said here before, I cannot see what is in it for them to enter government now.

Certainly, the Greens will never be more needed or wanted in a government than they are now and, I am sure, Éamon Ryan believes this gives them considerable leverage in the government formation process, but the need and want is not related to Green policies, it’s about their numbers.

Leo and Micheál want Éamon for his bodies, not their minds.

The Greens would be going into government at precisely the moment when the policy options and choices will be more limited than ever.

The narrowness of the options facing government over the next 18 months will make the ones facing government in 2009 look roomy. Despite the unicorns and sunbeams shoe-horned into Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael’s Framework agreement, the choices facing the next government are horrendous.

Let me be clear, this is not an argument for the Greens, or others, to avoid difficult decisions and scurry to the opposition benches to join Sinn Féin.

It is simply a reality check on how restricted the scope for meaningful policy changes will be for the next two years.

Take energy policy, for example. We will need every resource we can get our paws on to aid our post pandemic economic recovery and that means exploring the natural gas in Irish waters.

I know this is not something the Greens like to hear, but they need to remember this when they are being asked to frontload 100% of their credibility on a government which has, at the very best, only a 50/50 chance of getting to its own mid-point.

Are the Green’s ready to bet that their government partners, and here I mean Fine Gael, is going to stay the course and not cut and run when it thinks it can dump the Greens and cannibalise what remains of Martin’s Fianna Fáil?

As we saw last week, there are plenty of Fine Gael-ers who think an election now is a better bet than coalition – do the Greens (or Fianna Fáil) really think the blue leopard will change its spots because they’ll all be getting along well?

By this time next week (i.e. the June Bank Holiday Monday) the talks will be entering their last full week. At that point a few things can happen.

The Green party negotiating team could conclude that an agreement is not possible and simply walk out. This is perhaps the unlikeliest option. In her statement of last Wednesday Catherine Martin not only says that any possible leadership campaign should be subsequent to the government formation process, she stresses that she

“…believe[s] it is important that government formation talks fully conclude uninterrupted…”

I suspect the talks, which are now expanded to include independent TDs will result in some form of a document. The question is whether the Green negotiating team will be able to sign off on it as a united team.

If the full five member negotiating team cannot do that, then it is hard to see how the party’s leadership can remain united and recommend acceptance to a postal ballot of all Green Party members across the island.

While both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael only require simple majorities in their postal ballots (though winning by a margin below 60:40 could spell trouble for either man) the Greens require a two-thirds majority of those voting.

It’s a high hurdle to overcome when your negotiating team is united. Virtually impossible when it is not – and right now with Catherine Martin parking the issue of leadership until after that vote, it is hard to see how Éamon Ryan gets his 66.6%.

Ironically, it is still possible that Ryan gets to stay on as leader a few days longer than his colleagues, particularly if either of their party memberships dissent… and just right now I would not be rushing to PaddyPower.com to bet on them both winning.

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: Fine Gael Tanaisté Simon Coveney and Fianna Fáil’s Darragh O’Brien on RTÉ One’s The Week in Politics yesterday; Derek Mooney

As I opened last week’s column talking about how virtual quizzes have helped make this lockdown easier to bear, it’s only fair that I give TV a bit of credit.

Not just Television in general, even though it has helped a lot. I am thinking of one new TV drama series in particular. You know it.

Whether you follow it in weekly instalments on RTÉ, or binge watch it online, it has garnered an enormous amount of attention, stretching well beyond its normal time slot. It has given radio phone-in shows across the country plenty to talk and argue about.

Some say it captures the beauty and brutality of courtship and rejection with compassion and feeling. They point to the how the slow, methodical progression of the will they, won’t they narrative hesitantly gives way to the uneasy tensions of the first fumblings of intimacy.

The on screen appearance of a few limp dicks has set folks on to social media to rant about a loss of values, nonetheless it has still been the landmark lock-down drama.

But enough about the government formation process, hasn’t Normal People been a great watch too?

Trust me, I would much prefer to be writing about Normal People than what I am about to deliver, but I am a political wonk and that means sticking with the stuff about which I know something.

Fianna Fáil colleagues will be relieved to know that this week’s piece will not be about the party’s trials and tribulations – well not directly, anyway.

After four or five weeks of shoehorning oblique “emperor’s new clothes” references into my weekly offerings, I am taking a rest and letting them off the hook… for now.

My plan, up to mid-way through Sunday afternoon, was to look at how Fine Gael was handling this government formation process.

While the plan hasn’t changed, the intemperate and petulant statement issued on Sunday by the Blueshirts… sorry… Fine Gael… altered the angle from which I will approach that analysis.

While the immediate sturm und drang thrown up by Fine Gael’s statement may abate when Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar get to meet face-to-face today, it does highlight the absence of any trust between the two parties. Yet both leaders insist this faltering process can and must result in a government capable of lasting for four and half years?

So, how did this particular drama unfold and just how did it end up with Fine Gael saying the talks process is damaged?

It started, on the face of it, early on Saturday morning with a front page scoop by the Irish Times’ Fiach Kelly. He said that plans:

“…are being drafted by officials on the orders of Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy on a contingency basis should the current negotiations to form a government fail”.

Note the bit in bold… on the orders of. Now, while I cannot speculate on where a highly respected political reporter like Fiach got this story, I am willing to bet that it didn’t come from Fianna Fáil.

It may have come from the department, it is generally accepted that senior officials do not leak, well, not unless there is a very real benefit to the department in them leaking… and I am not seeing that here.

It is not unreasonable to therefore deduce that it may have come from someone around Fine Gael, though there is no hard evidence to support that.

Not that the source is ultimately all that important, especially as the core of the story is true. Such a contingency is being considered, though probably not on the orders of the Minister.

So, now we have the lit fuse, step forward Fianna Fáil who respond by engaging in a bit of tit-for-tat. They see Fine Gael as goading them with a “we can have an election if you folks fail to agree with us” message via the Irish Times and strike back with a tweet from Barry Cowen.

This is followed up on by a few other Fianna Fáil TDs and Senators. So far, so not very unusual. Not especially edifying, but process damaging? No.

Indeed, it is worth recalling that politicos and journos have been talking about a second election for weeks. I wrote about it here at the beginning of April, and suggested that far back that such speculation was possibly fuelled by informed discussions with sources not far removed from the Fine Gael leadership.

Back to the sequence of events. Things go quiet until yesterday at noon, when Fine Gael’s Deputy Leader, Simon Coveney is asked about the matter on RTE’s The Week In Politics.

Rather than responding to Fianna Fáil’s response and ramping up tensions, Coveney does what grown-ups are expected to do and moves swiftly to de-escalate the situation.

He tells Aine Lawlor that he had spoken to his Fianna Fáil counterpart, Dara Calleary and assured him that Fine Gael was not planning for a snap general election.

Fianna Fáil’s representative on the show Darragh O’Brien TD, not known for being one of politics’ great softies, sees Coveney being conciliatory and reciprocates by putting down his political cudgel.

So, as folks sat down to have their Sunday lunch it looked like the fuse was extinguished and the crisis averted. Just then Fine Gael churned out his statement. But to what precisely was the statement a response?

Darragh O’Brien had not cranked things up after Coveney’s mollification, quite the opposite, in fact. Could the official Fine Gael statement be a response – even a rebuff – to Coveney?

Could it be that Fine Gael’s own malcontents were so outraged by the sight of Coveney being too conciliatory to them’uns in Fianna Fáil that Varadkar threw them some red meat to gnaw and so what if Coveney and the government formation process were collaterally damaged

There are odd, even eerie, echoes in this micro-crisis to the November 2017 real crisis when Varadkar risked the fate of his government to save France Fitzgerald.

I wrote about it here at the time. Re-reading that piece shows how the Fine Gael playbook has hardly changed. Constant brinksmanship. Deliberate and contradictory mixed messaging.

Minister after Minister sent out to accuse Fianna Fáil of wanting an election while the Taoiseach tells RTE’s Six One:

“I don’t believe Micheál Martin wants one [an election] either, by the way…”

Varadkar got his blame game wrong in 2017, but are his team of advisers convinced that his situation is so bolstered by the pandemic crisis, or that Martin’s is so undermined by falling poll numbers, that the tactics that failed then will work now?

Even if they were to work, what do they expect to happen?

Do they think Martin will dispatch his two loyal lieutenants to appease faux Fine Gael outrage? If he does that, Martin is toast – but even if he were to survive, how does that move anything forward?

This is more about relations within Fine Gael than it is about relations between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. That said, neither sets of relations are in good shape and won’t improve anytime soon.

While Martin and Varadkar may emerge from today’s discussion with socially distanced handshakes, the illusion of understanding and even hints of contrition, the trust that wasn’t there on Saturday morning, still won’t be there tomorrow.

The damage to the process didn’t suddenly appear on Saturday, it has been there from the start, and long before that, if the truth is told. The absence of any trust is one of the few constants in this constantly astonishing process.

People do not have to like each other for trust to develop, but they must feel that they are in something together for mutual benefit and with mutual risk.

Neither is evident here. Why would it be when one party thinks it has loads of options, though probably not many as it hopes, and the other party is being told from the top down that there is no alternative.

Who in their right mind would think this is a recipe for success? Not normal people, that’s for sure

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: Then newly elected Fianna Fáil leader Micheal Martin (centre left) with former leader Brian Cowen (centre right) after sitting for a party ‘family photograph’ on the steps of Leinster House, January 27, 2011; Derek Mooney

One of the few enjoyable aspects of the lockdown has been the return to popularity of the old-fashioned quiz. Every day brings another invitation to participate in a quiz, invariably a political one, on Facebook, Zoom, Twitter or WhatsApp.

This stepped up a gear last week when I was asked to write a round of Irish politics questions, for a workplace quiz being organised by a friend via the Kahoot app (no, I hadn’t heard it before now either).

So, this week’s column opens with a question the quizmaster deemed too “pointed” for her quiz.

Here goes:

Which senior Fianna Fáil figure said this after a RedC opinion poll put the party on 14% and Fine Gael on 35%:

“I believe that Fianna Fáil must recognize the reality of the current climate of public opinion… I have reluctantly concluded that, in these circumstances, Fianna Fáil should change its leader.”

I originally drafted this as a multiple choice with five options, the fifth being (5). None of the above. No one said anything (in public). I decided against this as I thought the answer to was so obvious. But, as my friend reminded me, the answers are only obvious when you know them.

As I said, the question was not used and was substituted with a picture round shamelessly purloined from a Twitter quiz Senator Malcolm Byrne ran on Twitter a month or so back.

How you coming along with the answer?

If you have scrolled down to this point looking for the answer then fear not, you have not much further to go. If you think you already know the answer then feel free to skip ahead a paragraph or two.

I think the answer is obvious, but the problem with knowing the answer is having to face the unpalatable conclusions stemming from it.

Knowing the answer is akin to being in the crowd watching the parade in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale The King’s New Clothes pass by. You know others also know the answer; but you hope that not saying it aloud allows the parade to last a little bit longer.

If you have not come up with the answer, here is a giveaway clue: the Red C poll in the question is not the recent Business Post one. While it also has Fianna Fáil struggling on 14% and Fine Gael frolicking on 35%, it was not the first RedC poll to have the two old parties on these numbers.

The RedC poll referenced was conducted for Paddy Power and published on January 7 2011. It put Brian Cowen’s Fianna Fáil on just 14%. It was not the first bad poll result the party had received.

The November and December RedC/Business Post polls had the party on 17%, behind Fine Gael on 34% and Labour on 23% (give or take 1pt).

It’s a familiar situation, isn’t it? Fianna Fáil on the slide. Its support falling steeply and continuously, with no immediate prospect of recovery.

The similarity with what is happening today is even reflected in party spokespeople sticking carefully to the trite old line that they will not be swayed or influenced by polls.

But, in 2011, one minister concluded that it was time to say, stop. Which brings me to the answer to my original question. The senior Fianna Fáil who uttered those words 9 years against was then Minister for Foreign Affairs, Micheál Martin TD.

Faced with steadily declining poll numbers, declining party morale and increasing unease from across the membership Martin concluded that Fianna Fáil needed a change of direction.

On June 16, 2011 Martin convened a press conference at the old Burlington Hotel to deliver a strongly worded statement confirming that he would be voting no-confidence in Brian Cowen.

Martin also told the media that he had offered the Taoiseach his resignation, but that it had not been accepted and he was therefore staying on as Minister. this was despite his lack of confidence in his leader.

Hours earlier Cowen had moved to force Martin’s hand announcing a motion of confidence in himself. The move came after weeks of anonymous media speculation about ministerial dissatisfaction with the party’s declining fortunes and Cowen’s leadership.

In the following days Martin toured the Radio and TV studios expanding on his statement saying that he had “reluctantly concluded” that the party should change its leader and said that “the very survival of the party was at stake”.

All this was in the wake of a global economic crash and almost 14 years of Fianna Fáil led governments.

While the numbers are the same today, the context is vastly different – so different that it makes the same numbers look worse. Even bleak.

Fianna Fáil is facing a greater existential crisis today than in 2011. Just as Martin concluded in 2011, this is not the moment for steady as she goes.

Today, Fianna Fáil has been in opposition for nine years, all of it with Micheál Martin at the helm. He has achieved much over that time.

As I have said here several times, he halted the parties decline at a time when it was unclear that the party was not at risk of falling further. He resisted the siren calls to turn Fianna Fáil into a socially conservative, even euro-sceptic party.

He led the party to a moderate recovery in the 2014 Local Elections (though it had an awful European Election result on the same day) and repeated those modest gains in the 2016 election. That was the high watermark. But, in 2020 and leading from the front, Martin led Fianna Fáil straight back to 2011.

In a moment of possibly unintended candour during his recent Sunday Independent interview with Irish Independent group’s political editor, Philip Ryan, Micheál Martin may have let slip the political philosophy that has long underpinned his leadership and now serves to undermine it.

Answering a question on why the election went so wrong, Martin replies:

In 2016, we came in under the radar. We were very much front and centre in 2020. So I think we became a target very early on and I think we took a view on the budget that we felt attacks would come if Fianna Fail was seen to be profiting from the budget so we took a relatively conservative fiscal position and got sandwiched in between the two…

Roughly decoded, Martin’s MO for the whole of his leadership has been the management of expectations. Indeed, it has been less about its management and more about its suppression. (See the Kenneth Baker story I related here, last November).

Aside from his highly conditional acknowledgement that Fianna Fáil’s manifesto was conservative – an understatement considering how little it had to offer the growing non-propertied group in society – the rest is a succinct statement of Martin’s approach: avoid giving your party a definition or identity of its own.

Martin has permitted his party to be defined by others and opted instead to simply lowering expectations to the point that his people can break out the bunting, organically sourced tinned salmon, and promotions when disaster is avoided, or not, as is the case right now.

The strategy is politely sold as promise low and deliver high, but that is a mantra for governing, not campaigning. When it comes to elections, the Mario Cuomo doctrine applies – campaign in poetry, govern in prose.

Martin has given this his best shot. It is now time for others in the party to offer a future that extends to something more challenging and rallying than just co-signing Leo Varadkar’s missives.

PS. As I was finishing this piece news emerged via RTÉ’s Micheál Lehane of another joint Varadkar/Martin letter, this one to Labour’s Alan Kelly. I decided not to address this development beyond mentioning it here. Besides, having just watched Catch-22 (the 1970 movie with Alan Arkin and Orson Welles, not the recent TV remake), there is only so much surrealism a person can cope with in one evening.

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

Rollingnews

From top: Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin and newly elected TDs on the first day of the 33rd Dáil on February 2; Derek Mooney

A few weeks ago I mentioned that the only place to have a rotating Prime Minister-ship is Israel. That was back in the mid 1980’s. It was part of national unity government agreement – a government that had the backing of 97 of the 120 Knesset members.

It looks like Israel is about to give the rotating premiership model another run with current PM Benjamin Netanyahu and rival Benny Gantz agreeing a three-year coalition deal that will see Netanyahu getting the first 18-month rotation and Gantz the second.

Interestingly, the two men who challenged each other in three parliamentary elections over 11 months, have also agreed to rotate the positions of foreign minister, energy minister and environmental protection minister after 18 months.

I know there are many here who would rather stick pins in their eyes than take heed what happens in Israel, but it does highlight some government formation issues which we should also consider.

The first is something I have raised here many times, specifically why are some political leaders so absolutely consumed with putting a 5-year government with a fixed 5-year programme in place right now?

Ignoring the fact that we have already used three months out of that 5-year timeframe, should we really be trying to set in stone the policies for a government post 2022?

It is wise or prudent, using the limited perspective we have now on what the post pandemic world will look like, to set the parameters of policy post 2022?

I think not. Indeed, I believe we should be united, across political divides, in focusing first and foremost on getting through the next 18 months (to two years) as safely and securely as we can.

Once we are safely through and a vaccine is widely available then we can stop, take stock and have a general election informed by an evidence-based analysis of the problems then facing us.

The time for a comprehensive five-year plan, one that has been debated with the people, in an election, is when we have Coronavirus in the rear-view mirror. Frankly, having a 5-year recovery strategy for the period 2022-2027 onwards makes a lot more sense than having a two-and-a-half-year one for 2022-2025.

The other point is why is there so much focus on the position of Taoiseach?

This may seem counter-intuitive but just bear with me for a few minutes.

If the speculation is correct, then the Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil leaders have agreed to there being a beefed-up office of the Tánaiste. One with increased staff, and oversight.

This points to the two leaders seeing the jobs of Taoiseach and Tánaiste as more akin to how it works in the Northern Ireland Executive: a first Minister and a Deputy first Minister, with both posts virtually equivalent, rather that the tradition Irish model of Taoiseach and loyal Tánaiste.

I can see their logic.

Increasing the authority of Tánaiste potentially avoids the chances of any major shifts in government approach when they rotate at mid-term. Perhaps their outlook is that it should not matter greatly to government cohesion who goes first or second, as the alternate will just be down the corridor, in a slightly smaller suite of office, with the same access to papers and officials as the one in the Taoiseach’s chair.

Understandably, Micheál Martin’s staff are eager to get their man into the office as speedily as possible as they know that every two days that Leo Varadkar gets as Taoiseach now, means one day less for Micheál Martin in the role.

However, as anyone who has served in government will tell you the character and legacy of a government is as much determined by who serves as Minister for Finance as it is by who serves as Taoiseach.

Unless I have missed out on something, there seems to be a general acceptance that Fine Gael will continue to hold the finance portfolio, albeit with a token re-establishment of a wholly separate Department of Public Expenditure.

The two departments, Finance and Public Expenditure, were split from each other in 2011 to accommodate the Labour party but have been under the aegis of one Minister since 2016.

While the Minister for Public Expenditure will be a major position in Cabinet, the Finance Minister will always have the upper hand. If you doubt that, ask any of the 26 Labour TDs who lost their seat in 2016.

In the Irish system of government money does not follow the decision; it is the other way around. Persuading just the Cabinet of the merits a policy change does not lead to that change being implemented. Real change only happens when the Department of Finance makes the money available. The Department of Finance effectively has a veto on all decisions. It is why the personality and mindset of the minister heading that department is critical.

Have one who wants a quiet life free of hard choices, one who sees themselves as the Department of Finance’s voice in the Cabinet, and nothing will change. They meet every plea from ministerial colleagues with the response: No, that is not going to happen, or the equally negative variation: do that from within your existing budget. In other words, slash an existing programme and use any money you save to fund it. Finance officials cherish these ministers.

The other, more astute type of Finance minister recognise their role as the Cabinet’s person ruling the department. Department chiefs may not like them, but they do respect them. The Department is not implacably opposed to change or reform, but it tests the mettle of those who drive it.

It is why the working relationship between Taoiseach and Finance Minister is so important. The fact that the Taoiseach can sack the Finance Minister shifts the power balance heavily in favour of the Taoiseach. Take that power away and the balance shifts back towards the centre.

This would appear to be what the FF/FG carve up has in store. It is not a bad deal for Fine Gael, but it is a poor one for Fianna Fáil. Martin will not only have a Fine Gael Finance minister he cannot sack, he will also have a Finance minister who feels he should liaise as much with the beef-ed up Fine Gael Tánaiste as with the Fianna Fáil Taoiseach.

The only time we have had a Taoiseach and Finance Minister from different parties was in the 1994 – 1997 Rainbow. Fine Gael’s John Bruton was Taoiseach and Labour’s Ruairí Quinn was Finance Minister. The relationship between the two men was said to be good, better than the one between Quinn and his party leader, Tánaiste Dick Spring.

Micheál Martin may feel he can replicate the Bruton/Quinn act with Paschal Donohoe.

Perhaps he will, but it hard to find much evidence to back that up. It is no secret that Fianna Fáil had neither heads-up nor advance warning of last week’s dire and stark economic warnings by Donohoe as he published his department’s Stability Programme Update.

Even the infamous FF/FG Confidence and Supply agreement had a no surprises clause, though one more honoured in the breach than observance. But that was back when Martin’s party was only on the outside promising not to topple Fine Gael.

Now, with the two parties actively planning and preparing to go into government as “equals”, you’d expect the channels of communications to have opened up, not closed down.

It may just have been a one-off error of judgement by Fine Gael. One that they shall faithfully promise never to repeat, ever again. But it could just as easily be a sign of how fraught and difficult life in government buildings is going to be – and that’s before you toss the Greens, Independents (of various hues) into the mix.

Last night’s move by Fine Gael to downplay Martin’s big announcement to yesterday’s Sindo that he will scrap the pension age increase was the latest in a series of Fine Gael public rebuffs, all of which Martin has taken stoically.

It will be fascinating to see whether Martin’s TDs, Senators, Councillors and constituency activists can continue show the same stoicism after a few more weeks of this.

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

Rollingnews

From top: Micheál Martin, Leo Varadkar and Mary Lou McDonald at a General Election 2020 Leaders’ debate; Derek Mooney

In 1945, just as the Second World War was ending, Britain faced a general election. Would post-war Britain be shaped by the Conservatives under Winston Churchill or by Clement Attlee’s Labour Party, a partner in the war time unity government.

The choice was clear, but the voters had no doubt who they wanted. They resoundingly rejected Churchill, the man who had led Britain to a victory that had sometimes seemed uncertain and opted instead for Attlee, the understated but progressive social reformer.

While historians offer several reasons for Churchill’s defeat, they all boil down to voters seeing that a good wartime leader does not necessarily make a good peace time leader.

The skills (and policies) required to lead a country through a time of crisis and external threat are not the ones you need when you are trying to rebuild after the crisis. And vice-versa.

It is a simple point that has been missed by the why national/unity government is a bad idea commentary of the last few weeks.

Rather than critically analysing the options facing us, most just repeat the mantra that national/unity government can’t work, shouldn’t work and mustn’t work.

The problem is that their analysis is based on a false premise, namely that we take a far from clear election result – from before the Coronavirus changed our lives – and extrapolate it into a coherent government for five years.

We cannot say, with any certainty, will happen in four-months’ time, so why do we suppose we can plan effectively now for what will happen in 4 years?

What we need is to have a stable and secure government in place for the next eighteen months (or, even perhaps two years) to take us through this crisis and get us out safely on the other side.

When that is done, we can see what damage we have sustained, assess the costs, see the state of the world around us and commence the process of not just rebuilding, but building anew.

We could then have an election in late 2021 or early 2022 with all the parties and groups offering policies and ideas informed by the time they had spent in government tackling the crisis.

I do believe a national/unity government makes sense. It is a view strengthened by the likelihood that the current Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael led process is going nowhere.

It may take a few more weeks for the two main parties to see this, but when they do they will be left with two options: admit that they cannot agree a government and go back to the voters, at a time when it is safe to run an election, or look at the one remaining untried option.

As the fictional Sherlock Holmes put it:

“When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

It is simple logic.

I do understand that national/unity government is a bit of a clunky description and that one person’s idea of what constitutes a national government is not another one’s. What I am talking about here is a government comprising of all the Dáil parties who wish to participate.

No party is compelled to join, each can decide to stay out. But equally, no party can veto the involvement of another, nor can it veto the establishment of the government itself.

That means Sinn Féin can join the government, but it cannot place conditions on its involvement. It cannot say that it will only go into government if Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael are excluded.

The same applies to Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, the Greens and any other parties or Independents who wish to join. No vetoes. People can exclude themselves; they cannot exclude others.

Finding out who wishes to serve could be done by indicative votes in the Dáil. Remember when we urged the House of Commons to resolve its issues over Brexit by indicative votes? Well, perhaps it is time for us to look at that option.

If the parties cannot agree a fair share-out of departmental responsibilities among themselves the fallback position could be their allocation by the d’Hondt process, as happens in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Once parties indicate that they wish to join, they then move quickly to agree a short and simple Program for Government with the single goal of getting the country safely through the pandemic and achieving a speedy mass vaccination programme once a safe vaccine is available. Once that is done, there is an orderly end to its mandate.

There is another model, by the way. One many would regard as simpler: a government comprising just the three main parties: Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Sinn Féin. A three-way split with each party having five places at Cabinet.

Either one works for me, once it can be put speedily in place.

In normal times, I would be implacably opposed to Sinn Féin’s participation in government. But these are not normal times. I do not retract or disavow any of the criticisms I have made of Sinn Féin here, or elsewhere, over the past few years.

I do not have to change my views on Sinn Féin, but I can see that voters have. I may disagree with what they have decided. I may resent Sinn Féin’s support being broadly equal to that of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, but to try and ignore that reality in the face of this challenge is simply churlish.

Speaking of me criticising people and questioning policies, this week’s Phoenix magazine accurately quotes me as attacking the joint framework document. I am very critical of it. Yes, there are some good things in it, such as the childcare proposals and the education and research opportunities, but its biggest problem are the things not in it.

How can you spend four weeks in policy talks in the middle of a pandemic and not include, in the resulting document, any consideration of what happens if we are faced with a second Covid-19 wave?

Surely that is item one on the agenda for any incoming government whether it is for 6 months, 18 months or five years?

There are many other things missing as well. There is nothing on the changing nature of work, particularly growing issues with the gig economy and bogus self-employment.

Neither is there any mention of cybersecurity, an issue I raised here several times, as I highlighted the paucity of our national cyber defence.

There will be a great deal more online commerce and remote working, especially from home, in post-pandemic Ireland yet we remain one of the least well defended countries in terms of cybersecurity.

Our national infrastructure, including our hospital infrastructure, is a sitting duck. Why did no one in the two parties think to mention this key issue, even once?

Just as irresponsible is the insipid reference – I cannot in good faith call it a commitment – to national defence and the defence forces – the organisation to whom I believe primary responsibility for cybersecurity should be given.

So, what happens now?

As I said earlier, I think the Greens, Labour and the Social Democrats will not want to be seen as dismissing the framework out of hand and will engage genuinely with the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael negotiating teams over the next week or two to see if there is a basis for moving to forwards. So will the various groupings of independents.

But I do not see the process progressing beyond that.

I simply cannot see what is in it for any of the smaller parties to jump on board, especially when some sources are saying that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are virtually decided on which departments they will take, keeping three cordoned off for a third party.

What, no room for a fourth party, or even an Independent minister? Not to mention the suggestion that Martin and Varadkar have agreed on a rotating Taoiseach and beefed-up office of the Tánaiste.

So, it looks like Sherlock Martin and Dr Varadkar will spend the next few weeks exhausting every other impossibility before realising that the last remaining option, they one they rejected two months ago, is the only viable one.

Either that or it is a second election.

While a second election is both fair and inherently democratic, it is still an admission, by all parties, of failure.

The alternative is an opportunity for politicians to show voters, particularly the newer generation of voters, that for all its faults and failings, politics ultimately works.

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

Rollingnews

From top: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (right) and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin during the party leader’s General Election 2020 debate on RTÉ One; Derek Mooney

According to the headline in last Friday’s Irish Times: Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are close to agreeing a coalition framework document.

I am sure they are.

Comments from the two party leaders confirms this. The Taoiseach has said the document should be ready within a week or two. Mr Martin said it could act as a “catalyst” for other parties to join such a government.

Yes, the parties have made some progress, but there is still a long way to go before there will be a government in place.

The optimism exuding from Fianna Fáil sources last week that a new government could in place before the end of April with Martin as Taoiseach, was… to put it at its mildest… a bit premature.

Let’s look at the facts.  Together Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have 72 Dáil seats. If everyone votes, 80 is a bare majority.

Realpolitik – something Micheál Martin was talking about a few weeks back – dictates that any government hoping to last a full term have a majority that is northwards of 80, preferably in the mid 80s. That or a confidence and supply agreement with another big party, but let’s not go back there, just yet.

To get to 80 or above the two parties need the Greens, or the Labour Party, or the Labour Party and Social Democrats, or the Labour party and Labour aligned independents, or some permutation or combination of the above to be part of the deal.

There are also several independents in play, including (though not limited) to those who backed both Varadkar and Martin on the February vote for Taoiseach.

To put it crudely, agreeing the joint Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael coalition framework document is the equivalent of plucking the low hanging fruit. There is a lot more reaching, stretching, climbing and grappling to be done to get the rest. And there is no guarantee that the efforts will pay off.

It is 57 days since we voted in the General Election and 45 days since the 33rd Dáil attempted to elect a new Taoiseach and put a government in place.

Under normal conditions, and we are clearly not in normal conditions now, when the Dáil is serially deadlocked and incapable of selecting a Taoiseach, the default option, one could even call it a backstop, is another election.

The possibility of another election contributes to the government formation process by setting an endpoint. The prospect of a continuing deadlock leading to an election can help concentrate the minds of the parties and individual TDs.

So, what happens in a situation where there cannot be an election and the Dáil cannot agree a new Taoiseach?

Well… nothing happens. The status quo remains the status quo and the outgoing government remains in place.

That’s what we have now. It is also what we will have for the foreseeable future. We are in a situation where that backstop… that impetus… that threat of a second election is not imminent.

Coronavirus means it is highly unlikely there could be an election any time before September or October, and even that timeline may be a tad optimistic.

To his credit, Martin and his supporters are saying in public what they are saying in private. It is not absolutely everything they are saying in private, but most of it is.

Martin may sincerely believe that a government with 85 (or more) seats, comprising Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael and another main party/parties (along the lines mentioned above) and friendly independents can be speedily put in place.

From what I hear the framework document is drafted in such a way as to give the Greens/Labour/Social Democrats most of what the FF/FG negotiating teams think they might want and need.

So committed is Martin and his inner circle to this end that they are ready to bet all their futures on it. Indeed, in the minds of many in Fianna Fáil (and that includes yours truly) they are ready to gamble the future viability of Fianna Fáil as a significant political force on it.

The always ultra-cautious, risk averse, Martin is set to go “all-in” in a game where he holds few of the cards and the other player has a number of hands from which to choose.

But Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael close to agreeing a coalition framework document was not the only political headline appearing in the Irish Times last week.

On Friday, the headline “Second general election is now a real possibility”appeared above a column by venerable political commentator Stephen Collins.

Collins said the unwillingness of the Greens, Social Democrats or Labour to join with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael made the prospect of a second election real possibility.

He was not the only one. The Irish Independent’s Kevin Doyle did the same on Saturday, though he put it stronger. He didn’t describe it as a possibility, he hailed it as a necessity saying that the Ireland of today and tomorrow is “a very different place” from the one that voted two months ago.

He is right on this last point. The manifesto promises made last February anticipated a very difficult world and a much stronger economy.

While it is easy to dismiss this talk of second elections as speculation, perhaps even brinkmanship – I am willing to wager that it is speculation based on more than a few informed discussions, discussions with sources not far removed from the Fine Gael leadership.

So, while the option Martin talks about publicly is the same one he works on privately, that is not the case for Fine Gael. This is not to say another election is Fine Gael’s preferred option, but it would be foolhardy not to recognise that the possibility exists.

Fine Gael has choices. It has options. It has these not because it has been busy out manoeuvering Fianna Fáil, but because Martin and his lieutenants have managed to somehow under manoeuvre themselves.

Many inside his party firmly believe his decision to rule out any meaningful exploration of the national unity government option was a mistake. I am one of them and, as Éamon Ó Cuív tweeted yesterday, we are many.

Rather than exploring the unity government idea and teasing out its duration or agenda and then allowing other parties to decide whether it was for them or not, Martin moved to shut down debate inside or outside his party.

He chose to steer his party into a position where it is committed to one route only. His supporters may hail it as noble and politically courageous, the act of a principled leader. They may be right, but it is not the action of a masterful strategist.

Micheál Martin the political leader, the man who would be Taoiseach, may see his suggested coalition as the one way forward, but there is another Martin, Martin the historian, who might see some feint echoes of 1948 in today’s attempts to pull all parties, bar one, together into coalition to keep that one party out.

Today it is Sinn Féin. In 1948 it was Fianna Fáil.

I have not changed my views on Sinn Féin, no more than Micheál Martin has. My problems with Sinn Féin appears as point one in the seven principles for government formation I drafted in early February and set out here five weeks ago.

I want a government without Sinn Féin, but I also want to be able to go to the pub tonight or to grab a bus into city centre tomorrow to meet friends. There are times we do not get our first wish, or even our second.

I am not filled with glee at the prospect of Sinn Féin entering government, but I grasp that these are unique times.

At this moment and for the next year or so, or until there is a viable and widely available Coronavirus vaccine, we need all the talents and political skills that are ready and willing to serve together in a unity government, serving in one.

No bans, vetos or exclusions. We have enough of those to cope with right now.

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

Rollingnews

 

 

From top: Fianna Fáil Seanad Leader Catherine Ardagh (right) with party leader Micheál Martin (centre) and Director of Elections Dara Calleary; Derek Mooney

At midday today the second act of the 2020 General Election drama will start to be played out.

At that time, at the Printworks hall in Dublin Castle, Oireachtas officials will commence the process of counting Seanad election votes.

The count, or should I more correctly say counts – plural, are expected to run until Friday evening. They will decide the identity of the 43 senators who will serve on the Seanad’s five vocational panels. (Seanad election infographic here).

The Oireachtas communication team will be posting updates from the count via a special webpage and on social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Linkedin.

Updates from the university panel counts, will be found on the National University of Ireland website and the Trinity College Dublin website.

In previous years the count was run in the members’ dining room in Leinster House, but it is being shifted to a larger venue to ensure that counters and officials can fully and safely observe the coronavirus physical distancing protocols as they go through the ballots sent by in the 1150 voters.

Despite the people’s October 2013 decision to reject Seanad abolition and opt for reform, the 26th Seanad will be elected, once again, by a narrow electorate comprising:

(a) For the 43 seats vocational panel seats: 949 city and county councillors plus 160 members of the incoming Dáil and around 50 outgoing Senators, and

(b) For the 6 university seats: Graduates of TCD and NUI

Don’t worry, I don’t intend to launch into a Seanad Reform spiel here. Suffice to say now that this is not what those who defeated the government in 2013 wanted to see.

Several alternative models to elect the Seanad by public franchise, none of which required a referendum, were suggested by the late Feargal Quinn, the late Noel Whelan, Prof John Crown, Katherine Zappone and Michael McDowell. But the losing side in 2013 managed to stymie any progress.

Imagine that, the losing side in an election still getting to call the shots afterwards. It couldn’t happen today… could it?

In politics, as in life, you play the cards you are dealt and that means making the most of what this week’s counts bring.

Looking just at the electors for the 43 seats across the 5 vocational panels (think of panels as constituencies) Fianna Fáil with approx. 330 voters (i.e. elected reps who take the party whip) and Fine Gael on approx. 310, should each have enough to win up to 16 seats.

The problem for both is that this was also the case in 2016 when Fianna Fáil only won 14 seats and Fine Gael 13. This despite 20-25% of independent councillors backing their candidates.

Poor candidate strategies and bad vote management in 2016 cost them both seats. There’s no evidence to suggest it’s going to be any different this time. A point I will return to presently.

But first let me highlight something that often gets lost in these discussions. The issue is not just that the current electorate is narrow and purely political – all public representatives – but that the mandate of 85% of them long predates this election.

The situation facing Sinn Féin in the Seanad election neatly demonstrates this conundrum. Though it performed remarkably in February’s Dáil election, that influences less than 15% of the outcome.

The 160 TDs elected in February 2020 account for just 14% of the Seanad Electorate. The remaining 86% were either elected in 2016 (outgoing Senators), or they were elected at the 2019 Local Election – 949 Councillors (including co-optees).

So, as Sinn Féin lost half of its seats (78) last May, it faces into the Seanad count with six sitting Senators and only enough support (around 120 votes) for four seats, five at a huge push. S

o, despite a Feb 2020 surge which saw it almost tie with Fianna Fáil and ahead of
Fine Gael, Sinn Féin will finish up with fewer seats in this Seanad than it had in the last one.

Far be it from me to argue for more Sinn Féin seats, but even a desperate partisan like me can see that this makes no sense.

The count will also show if independents are willing to vote for other. I would be surprised if they see much improvement in their numbers on the vocational panels. Most independents in the next Seanad, as has been the case, will come via the Universities route.

The thing to watch out for with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael is not whether they pick up the seats they missed out on in 2016, but whether all the candidates identified as being favoured their respective leaderships succeed.

A few weeks back, in the immediate aftermath of a dreadful election, Varadkar would have feared the wrath of Fine Gael Councillors. But, right now, improving poll numbers and the perception that he is handling the COVID-19 crisis well may just see his slate of favoured Fine Gael candidates do OK..

But what about Micheál Martin?

Be in no doubt, there is real anger across Fianna Fáil – and much of that is directed at the leader. Activists are unhappy. Not all of them, but a sizeable number.Yesterday’s Business Post/ Red C poll will not have helped the mood. Martin’s entourage will be relieved that the ballots were already in the post when those numbers emerged.

Martin’s councillors are not just dissatisfied with how the national general election campaign was run, but also with the behaviour of the Fianna Fáil leadership since then.

A sizeable number want to send a signal to Martin and to party HQ that they want change. One way to do this, in this age of no party gatherings or assemblies, is to establish which Seanad hopefuls the party leader wants to see elected…. and vote for their Fianna Fáil rivals.

The perception that someone is close to or is favoured by leadership may prove a major drag factor this time.

Doubtless many Councillors and TDs will loyally do the leader’s bidding. It’s not exactly a chore when so many of the candidates are not just defeated TDs but well liked defeated first-time TDs.

Indeed, only one of the defeated TDs running for the Seanad was a TD prior to 2016. But politics is a tough business and the anger felt within Fianna Fáil is going to mean collateral damage.

The first panel to be counted tomorrow is Cultural and Educational. It’s the smallest one with just five seats. Fianna Fáil has the votes to win two seats out of the five, but there are six Fianna Fáil candidates. Which of the six make it will be very telling

Will any of this influence Micheál Martin? Probably not.

Despite the advice of many loyal and sincere Fianna Fáil-ers inside and outside of Leinster House, Martin still stubbornly sets his face against the idea of a national government.

Instead he presses ahead with his preferred option of an FF/FG/Green/Ind government with a fervour he never mustered in the campaign debates.

Almost two months after the general election and on the eve of a Seanad count it is still sadly clear that neither Martin nor his attendants have yet studied why they did so badly in the election. If they have, then they are showing no signs of it.

While the Covid-19 crisis will have shredded all the plans and promises made in GE2020, Martin’s Fianna Fáil still needs to grasp why so many voters who had looked like they were prepared to back Fianna Fáil at the outset of the campaign, decided during it to go the other direction.

It also needs to examine why what it has been doing since the campaign is only serving to worse that situation.

The notion that Martin and Co can put all this right when they are safely embedded in Government with Fine Gael is beyond naïve.

Almost as naïve as thinking that a government with so many different parts, factions and antagonisms will hold together for the time Varadkar needs to complete his first rotation as Taoiseach and Martin gets his go… assuming, of course, that Martin can stay on long enough as Fianna Fáil leader to let that happen.

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

Rollingnews

 

From top: US President Donald Trump (centre) during a Coronavirus Task Force news conference in the White House; Corona is replaced by ‘Chinese’ in President Trump’s script;  Derek Mooney

According to the haggard old proverb: “even a stopped clock is right twice a day.”

The current US President can only dream of attaining even this level of accidental consistency.

After months of denying the threat posed by Coronavirus, even to the point of putting the blame for its arrival in the U.S. on “the Democrat policy of open borders” (See this NYTimes timeline of Trump’s statements) the current U.S. President seems, finally, to have had the realisation imposed upon him that Coronavirus is a real and present danger.

Not that something as hazardous or deadly serious as the worst global pandemic in a century is going to stop Trump from scoring political points.

Along with changing his messaging, Trump has also changed his language. Up to two weeks ago – when he was still denying the seriousness of the situation – he was content to call the threat by its proper name: Coronavirus or Covid19.

No longer. Now that the public spotlight has turned on to the weeks and months of his administration’s negligence and indifference Trump has found a new name for the disease: the Chinese Virus.

Trump now stubbornly refuses to call it Coronavirus, using the phrase Chinese virus instead. Indeed, during last Thursday’s daily coronavirus task force briefing, the Washington Post’s photographer Jabin Botsford snapped this image of President Donald Trump’s speaking notes.

They show the word ”Corona” crossed out from the official typed script and the word ”Chinese” put in its place, in what looks like Trump’s trademark sharpie handwriting.

When challenged by reporters about his repeated use of the phrase and asked if he thought this was racist, Trump said:

“It’s not racist at all, no, not at all. It comes from China, that’s why. I want to be accurate. …I have great love for all of the people from our country, but as you know China tried to say at one point … that it was caused by American soldiers… It comes from China.”

Though he probably does not know it, Trump is resurrecting an age-old trope. One with origins in a sexually transmitted infection!

Back in the 16th and 17th centuries, countries hit with a syphilis infection blamed enemy countries for the outbreak. Italians, Germans and English called it ‘the French disease’.

The French named it ‘the Neapolitan disease’. The Russians called it the ‘Polish disease’, so the Poles called it ‘the German disease’. The Danish, the Portuguese and Northern Africans named it ‘the Spanish/Castilian disease’ while the Turks spread the blame wider calling it ‘Christian disease’.

Whatever the etymology, you don’t need a masters’ degree in political science to work out Trump’s intention. He wants… no, in this election year… he needs, to distract from the glaring inadequacy of his failed response by shamelessly and recklessly scapegoating an entire race.

He does not care one jot that his crass politicking is fuelling and licensing racism and xenophobia, all he cares about is getting the focus off him.

It is his standard operational response where he feels politically threatened or in electoral danger. He finds a target, preferably a minority group or race, on which he can pin blame, no matter how ludicrous. The fact that racism is his first go-to-response in these situations tells us as much about the state of race relations in the US as it does about Trump.

The problem in this case is not that he is right, he clearly isn’t, but that his crude politicking is deflecting from a valid point, namely that the negligence and indifference of the Chinese State authorities, and that means the Chinese Communist Party, made this situation worse.

A regional infection quickly became a global pandemic as a consequence of their two-step strategy of blanket denial and blame avoidance.

Beijing’s initial response was no less crass or ignorant than Trump’s. When the late Dr Li Wenliang posted warnings, on a medical group-chat in December 2019, of a virus hitting Wuhan which he thought resembled Sars; he was told by police to “stop making false comments” and reprimanded for “spreading rumours”.

Dr Li’s death of Covid-19 in early February sparked public outrage in China. The volume of online posts blaming the Chinese Communist Party was so great that China’s internet censors were overwhelmed. The Communist leadership saw that blank denial was not working. They switched tack and launched an anti-corruption agency investigation …into the problems reported by the public concerning Doctor Li Wenliang” .

The investigators published their report late last week. A classic …on the one hand, but on the other… whitewash. They found Dr Li was a professional who fought bravely and made sacrifices.

They withdrew the reprimand but said his findings were “not consistent with the actual situation at the time”. The only action recommended was to name and shame the police who reprimanded Dr Li for not following correct procedures.

Needless to add the report is being met with as much anger as the news of Dr Li’s death. Meanwhile, and this is where the Trump stopped clock comes into play, official Chinese government spokespeople, notably Lijian Zhao, Deputy Director General of China’s Information Department, have been busy doing to the United States what Trump is doing to China.

Zhao is the official cited by Trump as saying that US troops were responsible for the Coronavirus outbreak.

Zhao’s Twitter timeline is so crammed with disinformation, lies and propaganda it would make a Shinnerbot blush.

Included are links to #FakeNews sources claiming US military participation in the World military games in Wuhan was behind Coronavirus. One says:

At the 7th Military World Games (October 18-27, 2019) held in Wuhan, why did the U.S. team (369 members) win ZERO gold medal? Did that even look like a reasonable record for the world’s leading military power?Did your government do it on purpose? Was anyone among the 369 participants ever (mis)diagnosed with influenza? Was it possible they were carriers of the novel coronavirus? The best thing for the U.S. now is to stop burying its head in the sand and give the 369 people PCT tests to see if they are infected.

China is not the only authoritarian regime more driven by avoiding public panic and retaining their own authority, than with public health and safety.

Neither is it the only one engaged in a propaganda battle to cover its own negligence. Russian political activist Garry Kasparov castigated CNN on Saturday for unquestioningly accepting Putin’s propaganda that Russia’s infection numbers are low, saying:

“the Russian numbers are “low” because they are lying. They are always lying until proven otherwise. They don’t take down misinformation, they take down the truth. I’m furious”.

In terms of both intent and effect there is no difference between what either Trump, Xi or Putin have done.

Though it is clear Coronavirus started in China and is not some conspiratorial plot, when it comes to those impacted it does not matter where Coronavirus originated.

Trump, Xi Putin… and others have jeopardised the health of their own people and, in this era of globalisation, that means they have risked ours too.

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

Getty

From top: Dublin city centre on Saturday; Derek Mooney

Veteran vaudevillian comedian George Burns used to ask:

“why is it the guys who really know how to run the country are cutting hair and driving cabs”?

Whether you call them hurlers on the ditch, Monday quarter-backs or that prick at the end of the bar-counter, there have always been (and will always be) those bolshie, mouthy gits who, in the words of the great Brendan Behan, go about like eunuchs in a harem seeing others doing but knowing they can’t do it themselves.

Most are irritating but essentially harmless nuisances, even the ones who manage to discover how to use social media.

But there are others. Those who go that bit further. Those whose malicious intent is less easy to spot in an online era of nonchalant cynicism and aloof detachment.

The Covid-19 crisis is a god send for them. The constant hunger for information, any information, gives them a golden opportunity to peddle their anonymous, conspiratorial garbage. No claim is too ridiculous or nonsensical for them not to push out there.

We saw several local examples of it online over the weekend.

One was the widespread dissemination of a WhatsApp voicenote purporting to feature a Dublin accented member of the Defence Forces telling fellow soldiers to “be in the barracks” early on Monday morning for an “Status Red” emergency lockdown that would be announced by the Taoiseach at 8am.

I was amazed to be sent the recording by a colleague who sincerely thought it was genuine. Though I immediately knew it was fake, I still had to take a minute to double check before telling my colleague that it was utter bullshit.

Another, even more malicious and nasty hoax was highlighted on Sunday evening by the Infectious Diseases Society of Ireland (IDS). They reported on Twitter that there was a fake message being circulated on WhatsApp which purported to come from IDS consultants in Cork.

While most of the responses praised the IDS account for calling out the hoax and rightly bemoaned the recklessness of those behind it, there were some who wanted to know what the misinformation was and wondered if the hoaxer may have a valid point.

The virtual world is full of willing idiots.

The final example came as I sat down to start writing this column. I was barely two paragraphs into typing this piece when a very good friend in Northern Ireland texted me to ask if I was aware of the fake rumours flying around WhatsApp, Twitter and elsewhere, claiming that the Irish Defence Forces were ready to seal off the border.

I checked online, and there they were, just as he had said. But there was more too. There were claims that a total military enforced lockdown was set to be imposed from 11am. There were also claims, accompanied by photos, of hire-cars and vans being rented by the Gardaí and Defence Forces.

So why would someone go to the effort of putting together these hoaxes and then try to get it to go viral? Are they all just pranks? Are they all just jokes that the bulk of us fail to find funny?

Is the incorrect and warped information being spread the work of malign individuals alone, or should we be looking beyond the cranks and pranksters and checking for the handiwork of more nefarious actors, be they domestic or non-domestic?

Cui Bono? Who gains from this misinformation? Indeed, is it simply misinformation or are we looking at something more serious, more sinister?

Do some of the examples I cite above not better fit the definition of disinformation, or to use the old soviet era term: dezinformatsiya namely, the deliberate dissemination of false reports designed to mislead public opinion and engender public cynicism, uncertainty and distrust?

Suggesting the Irish Defence Forces readying themselves to head to the border runs the risk of enflaming very deep-seated fears and passions within the two communities, unionist and republican, at a time when the border has been a hot button issue, thanks to Brexit.

The notion that Ireland would not be targeted by organised and structured disinformation and trolling campaigns, like those that have hit other EU countries, is frankly naive. Indeed there are increased signs that these campaigns are being expanded.

As I have previously pointed out on Broadsheet. Ireland is already a major target for cyber attackers, why do we think we would be exempt from political attacks, from a range of sources, especially at a time when we are so vulnerable?

The national and international responses needed to deal with the Coronavirus pandemic may see us rediscovering both the necessity and he value of having governments and institutions we can trust to deliver for us.

This is precisely what the disrupters do not want. They need the era of FakeNews to continue. It is in Ireland’s interest to see it end.

When the pandemic passes the State will have to start taking cyber and disinformation threats seriously. That means investing significantly in the building the national defence capacity to block them.

National governments and international institutions must now prove via their handling of Covid19 that they can protect their populations and start to re-establish the trust lost in the global crash. There is nothing certain about this. Our government and governments around Europe face a huge test.

This does not mean a return to the pre-crash order, however. The state capacity that was dismissed as excess by many western governments in the early 2000s is now seen as vital. But that capacity is going to be very difficult to re-instate as we look like facing into a potentially deep post pandemic recession.

The plans and promises made in the GE2020 campaign now seem a long way away and the talks on government formation will need to be based on the economic realities facing us when the pandemic passes, whenever than is.

Right now, it is hard to see how we will have a realistic appraisal of what they may look like before September, though this is not a licence to allow talks to go on that long.

I still believe an all-party national unity government is the best way to go in the immediate term, notwithstanding the ease with which it was dismissed by both Sinn Féin and the Fianna Fáil leadership.

I understand that putting several new ministers in place right now may be complex, especially as many will only hold office for six months, but it is possible to do that and still maintain the continuity of pandemic response.

There is a less complex alternative that consists, in essence, of simply formalising what happened at the beginning of last week when the three main opposition party leaders were brought into government buildings.

The leaders of Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin the Green party, independents and smaller parties are invited to nominate members, under the d’Hondt system, to join the Cabinet Coronavirus subcommittee and participate directly in the government oversight of the crisis.

A special office, with civil servants, could be established within the Department of the Taoiseach to support them in this work. Though it would be a big ask, TDs from across the parties could also try to agree, as happened in the first Dáil, a Dáil political program to broadly guide the government from now till October.

In the meantime, political leaders here should reflect on what the W.H.O. Executive Director Dr Michael J Ryan had to say yesterday:

If you need to be right before you move, you will never win! Perfection is the enemy of the good when it comes to emergency management! Speed trumps perfection! The greatest error is not to move; to be paralysed by the fear of failure!’

While he remarks were about the Covid19 pandemic, they could just as easily be applied to so many other situations.

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: Leo Varadkar (right) and Micheál Martin during the Prime Time General Election 2020 leaders’ debate on RTÉ One on January 4; Derek Mooney

When Keith Waterhouse wrote his play about the dissolute wit, columnist and sports journalist, Jeffrey Bernard, he decided to entitle it: Jeffrey Bernard is unwell.

The name came from message editors of the Spectator would insert in the blank space where Bernard’s “Low Life” column should have appeared… except he was too hungover or pissed to write one.

It is not the only placeholder they used. The other one read: Jeffrey’s column does not appear this week as it remarkably resembles the one he wrote last week.

Broadsheet’s editors might have been justified in posting that message here if I hadn’t decided at the last minute to do a partial re-write of today’s column.

After three weeks of writing about the necessarily slow, but often strategically ill advised, process of government formation, there is nothing new I can add this week to either address or reduce the concerns I raised here last week, the week before and the week before that.

Nothing I have seen or heard from either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael over the past seven days suggests that they plan to amend the barely one-dimensional strategies they have each adopted since the election.

Not that nothing has happened. Last Thursday the Fianna Fáil leader went on Sean O’Rourke’s RTE Radio One programme. To his credit, Martin was direct and open in setting out his stall. Bluntly so.

He didn’t dance around it. He made it very clear that his preferred option is full coalition between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael with Green party and possibly independent TD participation. He left the door open to the idea of a rotisserie, sorry, a rotating Taoiseach, too.

Was this attempt to prepare or soften up the Fianna Fáil base? If so, it hasn’t worked. For many Fianna Fáil activists hearing the leader of their party talk candidly about putting Fine Gael ministers back in office after a campaign that was supposed to be about replacing them was a step too far.

The party faithful had been just about willing to countenance some sort of Fine Gael Confidence and Supply arrangement, a reverse of the 2016 scenario, but here they were listening to a Fianna Fáil leader not just discounting this as a possibility, but saying that serving alongside Fine Gael ministers was his first choice.

No wonder last Thursday afternoon’s Fianna Fáil parliamentary party meeting was fraught.

But this is no bad thing. While it may not mark a change in Fianna Fáil’s approach, it may be a signal that the parliamentary party is ready to insist on having greater oversight of the government formation process. One assumes that this will include a serious examination of what went wrong with Fianna Fáil’s #GE2020 campaign.

One other positive is the fact that Fianna Fáil’s Jim O’Callaghan TD and John Lahart TD were both prepared to entertain the idea of there being a possible national unity government from across the Dáil. I mentioned this possibility here last week in the context of a note I had written the day after the election count.

There are a variety of ways such a unity government could be structured, including using the d’Hondt system of allocating ministerial posts amongst those parties and groups (of independents and smaller parties) who wish to participate in government.

While the d’Hondt method could be a useful way of ensuring a fair distribution of departments and ministers, it would not sort out the thorny issue of who becomes Taoiseach – (and it’s worth noting that there are very few examples of the rotating Prime Minister model working in practice, apart from the Israel’s national unity government of the late 1980s which resulted in a  dirty trick political scandal) or its programme for government.

In addition to seriously tackling the problems in housing and health and addressing climate action, any programme for a national unity government, be it for a year or two years would also have to address the developing Coronavirus/Covid-19 public health crisis.

I know from my time dealing with the Office of Emergency Planning that there is a robust system of emergency planning for a range of possible emergency scenarios including major accidents, nuclear incidents, weather emergencies and pandemics.

I have no doubt that the government is seeking and following the best expert advice it can get, nationally and internationally, and this will inform the discussions at the cabinet sub-committee on Coronavirus this morning. But ministers here must also watch what other governments across the EU are doing and heed the lessons of what went wrong in Italy and China.

France and Germany are set to ban gatherings of more than 1,000 people as part of their efforts to slow or impede the spread of the infection. We should too, indeed we should have already done so.

That means cancelling the St Patrick’s Day festivities across the country. This will cost tens of millions, just as it did back in 2001 when the arrival of Foot and Mouth caused parades and festivities to be cancelled (well technically postponed until May that year), but it is the responsible thing to do.

Delaying the cancellation announcement, even if only until today, is just increasing pressure on individual event organisers, such as those in Killarney town who now say they are proceeding.

Last week the Taoiseach urged people not to act unilaterally in cancelling events saying that the government was closely monitoring the situation.

He needs to act now – and that means erring heavily on the side of caution and risk avoidance when it comes to the St Patrick’s Day events. Cancelling them now could just be the occasion when his not taking a risk pays off.

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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