Tag Archives: Mooney on Monday

From top: Taoiseach Micheál Martin; Derek Mooney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rollingnews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rollingnews

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

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

Sorry. Wrong old joke.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But, Ms Denham also concludes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But, there’s more.

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

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

Really? Judicial restraint be damned, huh?

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

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

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

Rollingnews

Meanwhile…

This morning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He then added that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rollingnews

 

From top: Taoiseach Micheál Martin and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson hold a Bilateral Meeting in Hillsborough Castle,Hillsborough Northern Ireland last month; Derek Mooney

It was a week of dead cats and ducks.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson slammed his breaking international law in a very specific and limited way dead cat on the table, in the hope that others would be so horrified they’d forget entirely that his government hasn’t the slightest clue what happens when Brexit transition ends.

As for the dead duck… well, as I discussed that at length last week, I will comment briefly on its 10% rating later.

The dead cat drop is an old political ruse. You only do it when you are in deep trouble. You reach for the dead pussy when your back is against the wall. You hope everyone focuses on the festering, fetid, defunct feline and forgets about your bigger problems.

The “dead cat on the table” tactic is proof that Johnson and his confederate Cummings are still more consumed with campaigning, not governing.

Johnson’s dead cat is a smokescreen to crash the negotiations, get a no deal and blame the EU for all the resulting economic damage, and there will be a torrent of damage.  Damage that Johnson knows is wholly due to the no-deal outcome he cannot avoid without suffering major political damage.

At the very least it makes an issue that the average British voter (and let’s be candid here, we are talking English voters, not British) was already finding complex, even more complex. This gives Johnson a hope of getting some traction for his version of the truth.

Remember the comment of Johnson’s political idol Churchill: History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.

In a week of remarkable utterances from Johnson, perhaps the most remarkable was his claim that the EU is trying to break up the UK. Why would anyone in Brussels, Berlin, Paris or Madrid be bothered when Johnson is doing such a spectacularly good job of it, by himself.

Leaving aside his bizarre attempt to characterise Macron, Merkel and Sánchez, all leaders of countries that once had empires, as rabid secessionists, the fact is that Johnson’s UK internal market bill, which the House of Commons starts debating today, further weakens the ties that hold the United Kingdom of great Britain and parts of Northern Ireland together.

The Bill is not only an assault on Britain’s reputation as a country that honours its international agreements, it does the same to its internal ones. It contains a massive power grab against the UK’s devolved governments, particularly Scotland. A power grab that means that important decisions on future infrastructure and other big spending plans would be taken in Westminster, not Edinburgh.

It will, in the words of the SNP leader at Westminster, Ian Blackford MP:

“…drive a horse and cart through devolution, it will weaken our [Scottish] parliament and put us at the mercy of the Tories”.

Not that the SNP is taking this lying down. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was already preparing herself for yet another big win at the May 2021 Scottish parliament elections.

The SNP has averaged about 54% across the 8 major opinion polls published since the start of February. This is some achievement for a party that has been in government in Scotland continuously since 2007. Its vote has risen at every Scottish Parliament election since 2007.

Where the SNP once modelled itself on Fianna Fáil, Fianna Fáil should now look to the SNP for inspiration.

7 out of the 10 opinion polls on Scottish independence held since Feb 2020 have the pro-independence Yes side ahead by between 3% and 9%. Two polls had No ahead by 1%, while the remaining one said it was a tie.

As I have said here several times (most recently here and here) Boris Johnson has done more for the cause for Scottish Independence than any one. His dead cat accelerates the likelihood of Scottish independence.

This is not something we should fear, but it will have major implications for all of us on this island. We need to start having adult conversations about this now.

The other odd assertion from Johnson is that the EU is still trying to stop Brexit. EU leaders get that Brexit cannot be stopped, not least because Brexit has already happened. Britain left the political institutions of the European Union on January 31 last.

Her Majesty’s Government is no longer represented on the European Council or the Council of the European Union. It no longer has MEPs, nor does it have a Commissioner.

Political Brexit has happened and yet – despite decades of being told by Eurosceptics that they were suffering under the yoke of these EU institutions – the great British public is not feeling any less burdened or enslaved.

The part of Brexit that has yet to happen, the part that will really impact people’s day-to-day, will be changing the EU/UK trading relationship.

Johnson’s arch brexiteer government opted to leave both the customs union and the single market. But leaving both is not a simple matter. It requires careful negotiation, especially when it comes to defining the new relationship.

Johnson cannot alter the basic facts of geography, or maths. The EU is a wealthy, well regulated market with high standards and fair procedures, including dispute resolution. The UK is sitting on its doorstep.

The power balance lies with the EU, simply because it is the bigger partner. The UK has more to gain from getting favourable access to the EU market than the EU does with UK markets. This is basic maths.

Yet the UK not only wants the EU to change its rules to suit the UK’s not yet clear desires and it wants it to do it on the UK’s ridiculously short timescale. There is nothing wrong with the UK having ambitions in negotiations, the problem comes when has delusions based on an outdated notion of British exceptionalism.

Speaking of not facing reality brings us back to the dead duck and its 10% RedC poll rating. Despite everything I wrote last week I expected Martin’s Fianna Fáil to hit the mid-teens in the latest RedC/Business Post poll

It had been a reasonably good week for the Soldiers of the Legion of the Rearguard. Taoiseach Micheál Martin had been on the airwaves a lot, while Minister Stephen Donnelly hadn’t. There were no resignations and no big controversies. Quite the reverse.

Norma Foley confounded her critics by managing the schools return and Leaving Cert results effectively. Two issues which, if they had gone badly, would have ended the careers of more experienced players than Norma.

Yes, the Covid-19 infection figures were on the rise and yes there were harsh criticisms of Martin on the Fianna Fáil parliamentary zoom call, but Martin had signalled that he now had a plan and would announce it tomorrow and the Fianna Fáil call was not until after Red C had done most of its sampling. A coincidence, no doubt.

The Red C numbers were bad. Fianna Fáil’s support was down a full 5pts to just 10%. The worst Fianna Fáil figure in any Red C poll. A 1% drop in support for every two weeks Martin has served as Taoiseach. At this rate Martin and other ministers will not be voting for themselves by February 1 next?

But even these awful numbers mask the full horror. Martin’s party is not only 5% below where it was before it went it government, or 12% below where it was on a very bad polling day, it is a whopping 22% below where it was at the start of the year. Only one in three of those who were willing to consider voting Fianna Fáil in January are prepared to do so now.

It’s an odd form of leadership. Martin’s considered response to all of this is:

“No government can run on opinion polls from month to month, and it shouldn’t.”

This is a long way from what He thought back in 2011. As I pointed out in May, today’s Taoiseach was less phlegmatic then, saying:

“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.”

Martin has set the bar for the appropriate ministerial response to historically bad polling. By his own standards his current have been woefully slow to act… so far. You can almost smell the Hoisin.

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

Rollingnews

Earlier: A Limerick A Day

From top: Taoiseach and Fianna Fáil leader  Micheál Martin; Derek Mooney

“The office makes the man” is a phrase heard many times before Bertie Ahern and Enda Kenny became Taoiseach.

It stems from the notion that you cannot properly envision someone as a Taoiseach (or Prime Minister or President) until they assume the office, as the trappings of office and the authority that come with role help increase their stature.

After all, very few people, apart from Gregory Peck, Martin Sheen or Oprah Winfrey, can truly act and sound presidential without being it.

Before he become Taoiseach, Enda Kenny was portrayed as too gauche and too hail fellow well met to be a commanding Taoiseach. While the personal traits that make him a likeable and approachable politician stayed with him as Taoiseach the added sense of authority that goes with the office lifted him up. His Dáil performances improved. Helped by a combination of simply sitting in the prime seat, to the right of the Ceann Comhairle, plus having a strong team of speechwriters, from both the civil service and the political world.

The same applied to Bertie Ahern. Prior to him becoming Taoiseach there had been a barely one-dimensional portrayal of him as an anorak wearing north-sider who would much prefer to be watching the Dubs play in Parnell Park than attending an EU Summit. His capacity to use the English language like a Rubik’s Cube didn’t exactly help in persuading critics otherwise.

In reality, Bertie was an intelligent and astute politician who possessed an incisive strategic mind. He saw the importance of maintaining visibility in, and a strong personal connection with, your home place. As with Enda, Bertie got the balance right. He ensured that the trappings of office, the extra staff, flunkies, car, were deployed to increase his authority while skilfully avoiding the pitfall of becoming remote.

Bertie became more styled. His wardrobe expanded and improved. Out went the anorak and the ill-fitting jackets, and in came some well-cut and pressed suits, plus a sharp pair of canary yellow trousers for those walks on the beach with the leaders of the G8.

So, is Micheál Martin set to be the Taoiseach that proves the rule wrong?

I fear he is, but this has less to do with Martin’s political skillset than it has with how the arrangement agreed with his immediate predecessor and ordained successor, Leo Varadkar, has diminished the role.

This is something I warned about in the months before this government was formed. It is one of the many reasons why I trenchantly opposed the Programme for Government and am now an ex Fianna Fáil member.

Agreeing to a rotating Taoiseach while also agreeing to having a beefed up office of Tánaiste, now with an added extra Aide de Camp, plus allowing Fine Gael to hold the post of Finance Minister, condemned this arrangement to being a Fine Gael led government in all but name. It also considerably diminished the authority and effectiveness of any non-Fine Gaeler who went first in the rotating Taoiseach arrangement.

Martin and his team of advisers saw all of this, but still decided not only to consent to weakening the office of Taoiseach, they also insisted on going first. This raises questions about their political judgement and their capacity to distinguish between advancing personal and political ambitions.

But here’s the rub, while Martin entered an office whose authority he had diminished, he couldn’t reduce the level of scrutiny and focus that falls on the one at the top. The office does make the man, but it also throws a massive spotlight on the weaknesses and frailties of the office holder.

The flaws and failings that were not so evident when Micheál Martin was opposition leader, not only became apparent upon taking up office, they were magnified.

I do not think that Martin is the compulsive ditherer, incapable of making up his mind or sticking with a plan, as some portray him. The issue, I fear, is with Martin’s constant need to tell us how much he knows. As I said here a few weeks back:

: “…in any given interview, be it on radio or television, Martin is more likely to remind us that he used to be the Minister for Education, Enterprise, Health or Foreign Affairs than he is to set out a clear vision of what he wants to achieve in government.”

It’s as if there is some inner insecurity, a fear of being found out, which must be masked by appearing knowledgeable and spewing out an array of facts and figures. But appearing strong and in complete control is no substitute for being both and Martin has, to his own detriment, agreed to a model that impedes his ability to do either.

Martin is having all the downsides of being Taoiseach without any of the upsides. This cannot end well – but paradoxically an end is all that is in store for him.

Over the last few weeks Fine Gael sources have been busily regaling folks with a story arising from the reported August 18 clash between Martin and Varadkar. According to the Fine Gael Oireachtas members who relayed the tale to me, the Tánaiste was bitterly complaining to cabinet colleagues about how only the Taoiseach’s advisers seemed to know what was going on and they were not telling anyone. “Welcome to our world”, a Fianna Fáil minister disdainfully responded.

I have no idea if the story is true. The people who told it to me could not know either as they weren’t there, but that isn’t the point. The story may be 100% apocryphal, indeed it probably is, but a lot of people now believe the story is true and there lies the damage.

If acting strong is more important to the Taoiseach than being strong, then it works the other way around too. A few weeks ago I was on a work Zoom call with colleagues, including a former British Labour MP. Just before the call ended the former MP, who has a strong interest in Irish politics, asked me how Ireland’s experiment with operating a joint premiership was going.

They weren’t being facetious. I found myself trying to defend the arrangement, citing the inconclusive election result, to which the former MP said, well I can only tell you what it looks like from where I am, and it looks like a joint premiership with Martin bringing up the rear.

Out of the mouths of babes and labour MPs comes such truths.

Here are a few more truths. Varadkar will not bring this government down. Neither will the Greens – though this may come as news to them. The Greens may walk away as a group, or in dribs and drabs, but either way they are replaceable.

Though Varadkar may find the current set-up frustrating (á la the story above), it is still a set-up primarily designed to suit him. Time is Varadkar’s friend. He’ll be Taoiseach again in two years, if he just bides his time.

Varadkar has the complete measure of Martin and, for as long as Fianna Fáil present Martin as its only alternative to Varadkar as Taoiseach, Fine Gael hasn’t a thing to worry about. That could all change dramatically if, and when, Fianna Fáil TDs wake up and recognise that they need to offer a clear alternative to Martin if they are to survive, individually or collectively.

It is yet another reason why time is not Martin’s friend. His clock has been ticking down and has been since June 27.. He is a lame duck and across his government people are standing by with the hoi sin, pancakes and shredded spring onion.

Martin’s highest point was the moment the Dáil voted him in as Taoiseach. It was always going to be downhill from that moment, but even I never thought the descent would be conducted at as brisk a pace as 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

Derek Mooney

Welcome to my fourth annual Broadsheet Summer political reading list. This year’s list appears somewhat later than planned as I have not been able to plan my own summer break until now.

With my previous lists I tried, where possible, to pick books you can download onto your tablet or eBook reader. Who wants to stick 6 or 7 heavy tomes into the suitcase and pay Euros to Willy Walsh or Michael O’Leary for the privilege of flying them with you?

So, while this is not as big a concern this year, many of the titles I have picked are, happily, available to download, indeed at least one is available for free download.

As in past years the titles are factual. The list reflects my own tastes and prejudices – though I do genuinely attempt to include some books that challenge them.

The list is in no order, though it does start with books prompted by the sad death of one of the greatest men I have even been honoured to meet and hear speak: John Hume.

Feel free to disagree with any of my choices in the comments section below (as if some of you need a license to disagree with me!) but if you are going to disagree then suggest what books you’d include instead.

John Hume, In his own words Edited by Seán Farren

John Hume, Irish peacemaker Edited by Seán Farren & Denis Haughey

My first entry offers you a choice of two books on the one subject: John Hume.

In the first one: “In His Own Words” Hume’s great ally and colleague, Seán Farren, gathers extracts from some of Hume’s most significant speeches, articles, and interviews. Together they give a comprehensive overview of Hume’s political thoughts on the complexity of relationships within and between our two islands.

You see, in Hume’s own words, the origins of his implacable opposition to violence and how he developed his proposals for resolving the Northern Irish conflict. Proposals that underpin the Good Friday Agreement.

Farren adds a contextual narrative that helps chronicle Hume’s career from his work in the 60’s with the credit union, the Derry Housing Association, the civil rights movement through the foundation of the SDLP and culminating in the achievement of agreement across this island.

The companion piece, John Hume, Irish peacemaker is also edited by Sean Farren along with another great Hume contemporary Denis Haughey. This is a collection of themed essays from a good cross section of friends, contemporaries and academics, that assess Hume’s career and contribution.

As with In his Own Words the essays span Hume’s career from his entry into public life in 1960s Derry to his role in Europe and the US, the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the Hume-Adams dialogue and the Good Friday Agreement.

Seamus Mallon’s: A Shared Home Place (Lilliput)

If you have the time, I would also highly re-recommend reading this one from last year’s book list. Seamus died last January.

Angrynomics by Eric Lonergan and Mark Blyth

This may be one of the most enjoyable reads on my list. Written pre Covid-19, the authors, Mark Blyth and Eric Lonergan tackle the modern paradox of how and why the world most of us experience feels so uncertain, unfair, and ever more expensive while the factual analysis tells us that the vast majority of us have never had it so good.

The authors do this by way of a running dialogue. A dialogue that produces many entertaining and insightful anecdotes, (esp. the Donoghues pub ballad singer one). The model works superbly. It gives the book a pace and flow that helped this reader to easily follow their often-challenging examination of the rising global tide of anger.

The book’s blurb says it is for anyone wondering “where the hell do we go from here” and that authors “propose radical new solutions for an increasingly polarized and confusing world”. It lives up to the claims, though we may quibble about how deliverable their solutions may be.

 

You’re Fired by Paul Begala

You may already know Begala as one of CNN’s resident political talking heads. The quick-witted American political consultant and pundit was a chief strategist for Bill Clinton and an adviser to the 2012 Obama re-election campaign.

Begala takes the “You’re fired!” catchphrase from Trump’s days on The Apprentice and turns it on the orange one in a practical guide on how Trump can (and must) be defeated next November and be sent packing along with “his industrial-strength spray-on tan machine back to Mar-a-Lago”.

This one sentence offers a flavour of the book’s acerbic tone. It is a genuinely enjoyable read. While it is made lighter by Begala’s neat turn of phrase, it is still a serious piece of work and does not underestimate the challenge facing Biden and the Democrats.

The strategy Begala counsels is pragmatic. He explains how Trump’s capacity to use division to distract voters from his awful record can be turned against him and how Democrats can “drive a wedge—or, rather, a pickup truck—between Trump and many of his supporters, especially blue-collar workers and farmers”.

While many may opt to read Mary Trump’s deliciously salacious exposé of her uncle: Too Much and Never Enough (from the same publisher) I will be rereading my Begala with relish.

A New Ireland A New Union A New Society by Paul Gosling

This entry has a great deal going for it. Not only is it a free download (in PDF format) it has also been recently updated to take account of Brexit and Coronavirus.

Gosling, a financial journalist and economic commentator, tackles Northern Ireland’s constitutional future and sets out a ten-year plan for how a New Ireland with an all island economy and healthcare system, all within the European Union, can be achieved.

While the book’s narrative is unashamedly pro-reunification, Gosling does ensure that Unionist voices feature throughout and includes considered and thoughtful contributions from former UUP leader Mike Nesbitt (who Micheál Martin should have appointed to The Seanad), independent MLA Claire Sugden and DUP MLA Mervyn Storey.

It is a thoroughly good read which leaves the reader far better informed by adding far more dimensions to the unity discussion than Mary Lou or Gerry ever offer. This is a book about logic and persuasion, not coercion and does not require you read it wrapped in the tricolour. Most importantly it argues the unification case on its own merits, rather than as the only alternative as the Tories slowly dismantle the UK. (Micheál Martin take note).

It is available for sale in hardcopy but can also be downloaded from the author’s website.

 

Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics by Peter Geoghegan

Written by a Longford man, Peter Geoghegan, now based in London and Glasgow, Democracy for Sale is the story of how money, vested interests and digital skulduggery are eroding trust in democracy. I am such an admirer of Geoghegan’s writing (and tweeting) that even a frontpage recommendation from the sainted Fintan O’Toole could drive me away.

Democracy for Sale is a well written and researched account that looks at how the Brexit Leave campaign was funded and structured but also goes much further afield to look at how populists from Johnson to Trump to Bolsonaro operate in a murky world of dark money and digital disinformation.

A Bloody Summer: The Irish at the Battle of Britain by Dan Harvey

The sixth title in the ‘Bloody Battles’ series that looks at the part played by Irish born soldiers in the Napoleonic Wars, Arnhem and D-Day. This latest instalment from the excellent Dan Harvey, a retired Lt-Col, offers a strategic analysis of one of the greatest air battles in history while telling the personal stories of those Irishmen involved in it.

Though I include this book on this year’s list, Dan’s 2018 book, Soldiering Against Subversion: The Irish Defence Forces and Internal Security During the Troubles, 1969–1998, is also a must read.

Capitalism, Alone – The Future of the System That Rules the World by Branko Milanović

Easily the heaviest read on my list, it earns its place by being the most challenging. Billed by the publishers as “a provocative account of capitalism’s rise to global dominance and, as different models of capitalism vie for world leadership, a look into what the future may hold” it does what it is says on the tin, even if it leaves you wanting to kick that tin further down the road.

In Capitalism Alone, economist Branko Milanović argues that capitalism is the only game in town. He says that capitalism has triumphed because it works, but that the prosperity and autonomy it has delivered has come at a heavy moral price.

He describes the West’s liberal capitalism as creaking under the strains of inequality and excess, while the competing Chinese model, political capitalism, as shows itself even more vulnerable to corruption and prone to cause greater social unrest when progress slows.

It is not a perfect book. One of the best critiques I read of it beforehand said that Milanović seems to end the book in mid-argument as if his conversation was brought suddenly to an end by the arrival of the taxi home.

Strong on analysis, though overly western-centric and with gaps when it comes to the problems in the southern hemisphere (he suggests large-scale migration), it is still an important analysis of where the global system now stands from an old school Serbian pubic intellectual hailed for brilliant analysis of inequality.

Steps along the road, the evolution of a slow learner – The Writings of Ivor Browne

This is very personal choice was prompted by a recentSunday Independent interview with the great Professor Ivor_Browne. Published in 2013, the book is an anthology of papers and essays charting five decades of clinical research and reflections from one of Ireland’s greatest experts and champions of mental health.

My personal interest in Ivor Browne stems from the fact that my mother, a psychiatric nurse, worked with him for many years and remains in awe of him to this day.

My mother even features alongside Prof Browne, as a character on page 14 of John Waters’ 2010 book Beyond Consolation. There Waters mentions Ketamine Carmel the nurse who administered hallucinogenics during Prof Browne’s therapy sessions at St Brendan’s hospital. (BTW no, she never took any of it home to us!)

My mum had to quit her nursing job upon getting married, courtesy of the public service marriage ban and only returned to working in St Brendan’s in the late 1970s.

Thereafter when anyone would ask how my mother was keeping, I would reply, “oh, she’s grand, she’s back in St Brendan’s”. An answer that caused much confusion, almost none of it unintentional.

N.B. I have not included the latest book by Stephen Collins and Ciara Meehan entitled: Saving the State, Fine Gael from Collins to Varadkar on this list for two reasons. (i) It has yet to be published and thus cannot be read over the Summer and (ii) I tend not to include works of fiction – Collins was never leader of Fine Gael and W T Cosgrave was not Fine Gael Leader while he served as President of the Executive Council (The office which preceded that of Taoiseach)

Enjoy what remains of the Summer and keep safe. See you back here in mid-September.

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 Mondays. Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney

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From top: New Fianna Fáil  Junior minister Anne Rabbitte and Jack Chambers; Derek Mooney

When this new government was cobbled together… sorry, let me start again… when this new administration was formed, Fianna Fáil’s primary political imperative was to show that this government would be very different.

The assumption was that Micheál Martin and his train of attendants would move quickly to banish the political tone deafness and indifference that characterised Leo Varadkar’s time in office and replace it with the attentive and determined approach of a Taoiseach with his finger on the public pulse.

Four weeks in and all the evidence so far points more to continuity than change. To be fair to Martin, it is not the full picture. As the new Taoiseach has repeatedly said in interviews, the Dáil has rarely been so productive in producing legislation.

The problem is that he has made this point in a series of incredibly low energy TV and radio interviews that have lacked any core message beyond proving that Martin knows his facts.

Frankly, I never thought his ability to retain information from a briefing note was in doubt. The question marks over Martin relate to the direction in which he wants to lead his party and this country, not his ability to recall facts.

In any given interview, be it on radio or television, Martin is more likely to remind us that he used to be the Minister for Education, Enterprise, Health or Foreign Affairs than he is to set out a clear vision of what he wants to achieve in government.

By contrast Varadkar is always on message, the fact that it is his own personal message, not the government’s, clearly doesn’t bother the Tánaiste or his expanding retinue too much.

It also appears not to upset the Taoiseach either, though this may just be studied stoicism from a new Taoiseach determined not to let the man who is both his immediate predecessor and successor to unsettle him.

Whether the Taoiseach and his inner circle are inwardly seething or not, his backbench TDs are.

The anger and frustration that simmered at last week’s Fianna Fáil parliamentary party is just a taster of things to come. As I argued here two weeks ago Fianna Fáil backbench TDs need to assert their authority and influence, so this is good news.

In the meantime the political fallout over the pay and allowances of super junior ministers continues to tarnish the government’s reputation at a time when it is preparing for one of its biggest challenges, getting schools reopened.

The super juniors row is a near classic example of an unforced political error, compounded by three political leaders not doing their homework.

First, a brief potted history of super juniors. The position came into being back in December 1994 with the formation of the Rainbow Coalition.

After much haggling about ministerial share out Fine Gael got 8 out of the 15 Cabinet positions (including Taoiseach). Despite huge pressure to surrender a place, Labour held out and held on to its six seats at Cabinet. This left de Rossa the lone Democratic Left voice at cabinet.

The compromise reached was for de Rossa’s party colleague, Pat Rabbitte, a Minister of State for Commerce and Technology to also be appointed as a Minister of State to the Government (Super Junior) entitled to attend Government meetings in the same way as the Chief Whip. Thus was born the post of Super Junior.

The appointment attracted almost no comment in the Dáil debate on the day, apart from the observation from the former Progressive Democrat leader, Des O’Malley, that:

“the same position was offered to me by the then Taoiseach, Mr. Haughey, who told me we could have such a post, but I said “no, thank you very much”. The post was held once before by the late Senator Alexis FitzGerald and I do not think it made a great impact on the affairs of the nation or impinged greatly on its consciousness”.

I bet Fianna Fáil TDs are wishing that were the case now.

Meanwhile, answering parliamentary questions on Rabbitte’s appointment a month later, the then Taoiseach, John Bruton, told both Mary Harney (PD) and the late Séamus Brennan (FF) that Minister Rabbitte would be paid on the same basis as an ordinary Minister of State, but that he would have a special adviser and a state car, in the same way as the Government Chief Whip.

This set the standard for subsequent super junior appointments, just one and on a par with the existing Chief Whip.

The next Super Junior (Minister of State to the Government) appointed was Progressive Democrat, Bobby Molloy in June 1997.

On hearing the news Molloy’s predecessor, Pat Rabbitte, told the Dáil that he was “…delighted for Deputy Molloy who ranted and railed until the cows came home about the very post he now holds when it was established some three years ago”. Molloy was briefly succeeded as a super junior by party colleague Liz O’Donnell.

The next into super junior rank was the late Brian Lenihan Junior. Brian was appointed as super junior minister by Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and given special responsibility for Children, creating the Office of the Minister for Children.

This subsequently became the Department for Children. Lenihan was succeeded as super junior, first by Brendan Smith and then by Barry Andrews.

Fast forward to the 2011 Fine Gael/Labour government and the 2016 Fine Gael minority government and you had various labour TDs, Willie Penrose, succeeded by Jan O’Sullivan and later Ged Nash, Independent TD, Finian McGrath (Disabilities) and Fine Gael TDs, Paul Kehoe (Defence) and Mary Mitchell O’Connor serve as super juniors.

I am hurrying through this as I did promise a brief history. Bottom line is this: from 1994 up to 2017 there was just one super junior and a Chief Whip at a time. For the most part, the appointments were non-controversial.

Varadkar’s June 2017 attempt to have an extra Fine Gael super junior as well as the already agreed independent super junior and Fine Gael Chief Whip raised alarm bells.

Fianna Fáil’s then Education Spokesperson Thomas Byrne issued a blunt statement, which was resurrected this week, stating clearly that Fianna Fáil opposed the move. So too did the Labour Party.

Yet not one of the Fianna Fáil minsters or advisers recalled this statement when it was decided that they legislate to fund an additional super-junior position, or when the party leaders agreed what posts each would get?

Is that credible? Or, is it that no one thought that people would pay that much attention and that any row would be over in a day or two?

This is the type of thinking you expect from a party that has been in government too long. It is not what you expect in the first month of a party that truly has the hunger to govern.

Neither the rationale underpinning Rabbitte’s 1994 appointment, nor that of Lenihan et al, i.e. the establishment of the Office of Minister for Children, applies for two of the three latest appointments.

There is no compelling argument, either political or administrative, for having three super junior positions. There is barely an argument for two (note I am not touching the argument over there being 20 junior ministers)!

The only super junior position one that needs to exist (i.e. continue) is that of Government Chief Whip. The additional super junior post or posts being created are going to Fine Gael and the Green Party, not Fianna Fáil.

Yet, surprise, surprise all three are being lumped together and it is Fianna Fáil, and Jack Chambers in particular, who is bearing the brunt of the criticism. He is the only one whose appointment stands on merit.

Look at the ill-advised legislative change if you doubt this. It amends Section 3A of the 1998 Act to increase the number of holders of “the office of Minister of State who regularly attend meetings of the Government” from 2 to 3.

All this furore and damage to the government’s reputation for one unnecessary post?

If Fine Gael and the Green party’s collective noses are out of joint over Fianna Fáil having the post of Chief Whip and effectively having 7 voices at Cabinet, then there were other ways around achieving balance. On way was to rotate the post of Chief Whip with Fine Gael when the position of Taoiseach switches in December 2022.

While the responsibilities that the two additional super juniors are important, no one can claim that either Hildegarde Naughton’s (FG) International and Road Transport and Logistics portfolio or Pippa Hackett’s (Grn) Land Use & Biodiversity are likely to become standalone government departments any time soon.

As for the Greens getting one? They already have three full Cabinet seats. The Rabbitte argument does not apply, unless Minister Éamon Ryan fears feels isolated among his ministerial party colleagues?

The fact that Sinn Féin is not in a position to lecture anyone on claiming expenses and allowances, remember the BBC Spotlight revelations of Sinn Féin MLAs claiming nearly £700,000 in expenses for research from a company run by the party’s finance managers, will not get the government off this hook.

The government decision was politically tone deaf and imprudent. It is what voters had come to expect of the Fine Gael government they rejected it last February. It is not that voters expected a lot more of Martin or Fianna Fáil, but they are entitled to expect a higher level of political astuteness and acuity than 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

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From top: Taoiseach Micheal Martin (second right) on his way to negotiate the Programme for Government last month with Fianna Fáil deputies including Jack Chambers (second right); Derek Mooney

Since I wrote my Broadsheet column last Monday, An Taoiseach Michéal Martin has sacked a cabinet minister and reassigned three junior portfolios.

According to his supporters this action, a mere 17 days after his first round of appointments, is proof of An Taoiseach’s cool decisiveness and a major rebuff to those who consider him a self-interested ditherer.

They may well be right, but either way his unplanned reshuffle does afford us the chance to look again at the choices made by An Taoiseach on June 27 and July 1 when he chose his team of senior and junior ministers.

Technically, of course, An Taoiseach did not choose most of them. Martin himself only got to name 5 cabinet and 8 junior ministers. 13 out of the 32 positions to be appointed.

The rest, 6 Green and 13 Fine Gael were chosen by their respective party leaders and, we are told, beyond the allocation of portfolios, there was no consultation on the identities of any of those to be named.

So let’s look at some of those decisions.

Actually, let’s not.

Rather than going over the appointments actually made, let’s look instead at two important appointments which were not made. Two non-appointments which will, in my opinion, have to be corrected in the near future.

The two are related and of equal importance and significance.

The first is the startling decision not to appoint a junior minister for Data Protection.

Even the last government, whose record on data protection was questionable, managed to appoint one. Not alone that they even ensured they were [eventually] assigned to the department with primary responsibility for data privacy legislation, the Department of Justice.

Two events from the past week serve to highlight the critical importance of data protection.

The first is the European Court of Justice decision in what has become known as Schrems II. This case revolves around the transfer of personal data to the US.

While the ruling brings to an end the ongoing legal battle between Austrian privacy advocate Max Schrems and the Irish data protection commission, over how closely it regulates Facebook (and other social media giants), it doesn’t settle the issue.

The ruling has implications with stretch far beyond Facebook. It brings the validity of all data transfers to the US into question. This is significant as almost all trade involves data transfers.

This is especially critical for Ireland at precisely the time when the Taoiseach decides to appoint an additional Minister of State but drop the Data Protection one.

If this first event didn’t sufficiently highlight the critical national importance of data protection, the second one, the dismissal of Barry Cowen as minister, surely does.

Whether you sympathise with the former Minister or not, there is no denying that it revolves around an improper, even malicious, leaking of Barry Cowen’s personal data.

There are two mentions of data protection in the Programme for Government (PfG). One acknowledges“the domestic and international importance of data protection” while the other says the government will “support the Digital Single Market, ensuring high data protection standards”.

Not exactly inspiring stuff.

The second of the imprudent non-appointments, the decision not to have a Junior Defence Minister strongly suggests a continuance of the downgrading of Defence commenced under the last government. This is depressing, especially when you consider that Fianna Fáil’s recent election manifesto was the only one to contain a coherent and considered defence section.

The decision to appoint another part-time Defence minister by assigning responsibility for Defence to the Minister for Foreign Affairs is a retrograde step. It only serves to endorse Iveagh House’s long held, but deeply mistaken, belief that it ultimately runs national defence policy. It effectively relegates the Defence Department to being a supplicant of its bigger partner.

As if this was not worrying enough, it also strongly suggests that both the Taoiseach and Tánaiste now see national defence policy as a subset of foreign policy and view the Defence Forces as simply a supplier of UN manpower.

This fear is confirmed by the opening paragraphs of the Defence section of the PfG. While it rightly says our Defence Forces has the “longest unbroken record of overseas service with the UN of any country” and that “Peacekeeping and humanitarian efforts are at the core of the international reputation of the Defence Forces”, it also omits any meaningful recognition of their role in on-island security. Defence is seen solely through the prism of UN peacekeeping.

While UN overseas service undoubtedly is an important element of defence policy, it is far from the only one. The PfG language falls well short of that employed in the Fianna Fáil manifesto.

That spoke of Fianna Fáil’s belief that “Ireland needs to recommit to its Defence Forces and its defence capability” and clearly identified cybersecurity as a vital element of national defence. It spoke of providing “a pathway of transferring this important function to the Defence Forces/Department of Defence”.

That is how a robust defence strategy should look and sound. National cyber defence is an issue I have explored here several times. Ireland is now strategically vital to Europe’s digital economy.

Up to 40% of the EU’s personal data is stored here – here is the point where Data Protection and Cybersecurity intersect. We are a major target for a range of malign actors, both state and non-state.

We are the sixth most cyber attacked EU member state and our response is poorly resourced, though highly committed, National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), that only has about two dozen staff and an annual budget of €4 million.

To be fair to the PfG, there is a casual reference to the defence forces in the section on cyber security, buts it is oblique. It says the government will “Implement the National Cyber Security Strategy, recognising the potential and important role of the Defence Forces”, but never says how.

The comments last week by Minister Eamon Ryan responding to parliamentary questions from the independent T. from Kildare South, Deputy Cathal Berry did not add much to the discussion.

The failure to appoint either a junior or super junior minister with responsibility for defence leaves that Department worse off now than it was two months back.

This is not intended as a personal criticism of Simon Coveney. He is a decent and accomplished Foreign Minister, but he was a barely adequate Defence Minister the last time he held the portfolio. He was also a part-timer then as he was both the minister for agriculture and defence.

So that’s what the Taoiseach has got wrong. How can he put it right?

One quick and simple fix that would be to assign the Government Chief Whip, Jack Chambers TD. as a Junior Minister for Defence. This would hardly be a major leap as traditionally the Chief Whip has been a Minister of State at Defence.

Almost every Chief Whip since Paddy Lalor in 1978 (when the post of Ministers of State was created to replace that of Parliamentary Secretary) has been a Junior Minister at Defence… apart, that is, from Dara Calleary and Jack Chambers, both nominated by Micheál Martin over the past three weeks.

It would be a small move, but a significant one. Jack Chambers was Fianna Fáil’s spokesperson on Defence up to a few weeks ago. He wrote the Defence section of the Fianna Fáil manifesto and knows the issues better than anyone else in government, especially Coveney.

Chambers is primarily responsible for pushing the political case for both a permanent and independent Defence Forces pay body and a Commission on the future of Defence so, the allocation of the Junior Defence portfolio to him would be a welcome first step by An Taoiseach in showing that the Fianna Fáil section of this coalition was still committed to defence… assuming it is?

While Jack may not exactly be loved by some in social media’s darker corners, he is highly regarded by the people who know and understand defence policy.

The other is to allocate specific responsibility for Data Protection to a Junior Minister assigned to the two departments currently dealing with it: Justice and Communications.

A quick run through the list of ministers and their responsibilities shows that the options here are not as clear cut. Maybe Green TD Ossian Smyth who current holds the eGovernment brief or Fianna Fáil’s Robert Troy who has the weightier Trade brief or his party colleague, Charlie McConalogue, who is already a Junior at Justice?

Why not a Fine Gaeler? Well, that’s obvious.

You want someone who will do something with the role other than just Instagram about it.

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

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Meanwhile…

Ah here.