Johnny Fallon

Irish Political Commentator

The flat-pack political campaign

No matter where they take place or who is running, political campaigns seem to follow the same basic patterns the world over.

  1. You are a living saint

Ok, well we know opponents make you out to be the devil so perhaps it’s natural that your own campaign makes you out to be so amazing. But a bit of humanity would not go amiss from time to time. Listening to the endorsements and speeches about what an amazing honourable wonderful person you are really just reminds us all that if it were entirely true you wouldn’t be in politics.

  1. Social media divides obsessively until it is an echo chamber

It is kind of funny to watch a campaign on social media. The supporters of a person or an opinion waste hours of their lives valiantly arguing why the person on their side is amazing. The only people that pay them any heed are their direct opponents. They eventually spend more hours arguing and insulting each other. Then they block each other until there are only people of the same view in their timeline. After that they tell you everyone agrees with them and they haven’t heard anyone who will vote the other way. The rest of us just ignore them all and sigh as they get on their hobby horse and bang out yet another tweet about how their candidate was so amazing tonight.

  1. People with serious questions

Various debates will show people asking questions. Sometimes people will ask a question in the street. More questions will come from a focus group. There is not much value in any of them. People usually ask the best questions, and give the most telling insights, when they are alone with you. In larger media led campaigns this means it can be very difficult to ever get to the truth. Put a few people in a room and all you are going to get is a lot of chin stroking and people asking and saying what they think will sound intelligent to everyone else. Or get them a clap. One or the other. People love clapping. Don’t ask me why. The only genuine views will come from people who have a long ago made up their mind before they ever asked the question in the first place.

  1. There will be abuse

Sorry folks this one just goes with the territory. There will be abuse and lots of it. Just remember nobody has the high moral ground on this one. Nobody thinks that what they say is abusive and everyone thinks the other side are worse at it. The problem is once you start to slag off your opponent personally, you can be sure your supporters are going one step further. Of course the other side will always engage in lots of whataboutery and hurl abuse at you suggesting it’s ok because someone once said something to them.

  1. There will be a media conspiracy

Ah bless. The old media chestnut. There is not a party, campaign or grouping that doesn’t think there is a media bias against them. The questions asked of their leaders are always tougher than the questions asked of other leaders. The media is always populated by your opponents or their family and they are trying to scupper you. It truly is amazing to watch every political grouping have the exact same gripe at the exact same time but with totally opposing points of view. Of course this ‘conspiracy’ is necessary. It’s how you dismiss bad PR and errors. It is how you keep your flock together by telling them everyone else is against us. All questions dismissed, if a doubt should creep in tell everyone that is ‘what the media want you to think’ and they will dismiss the doubt soon enough. The media meanwhile are off having a few drinks and couldn’t care less what any of them think.

  1. Options are in fact limited

Despite all the talk of ideology and focus on policies the voter’s options are quite limited. The candidate is either:

a) Somebody allied to a view you could never agree with

b) Someone willing to agree with any view anyone wants them to

c) Someone you voted for before and got burned

d)Somebody who just might be crazy

7. Politics is an open relationship

When you start out you gather lots of like minded people around you. You serve these people. They work hard for you and they believe in you. Great. The problem is that this becomes a committed relationship. They expect you to always be there for them and do what they want. Unfortunately to be really successful in politics you need to woo other voters. Politics requires your supporters to accept an open relationship. You cannot always do as they want you must appeal to others. You spend your time winking and smiling at others while your arm is around your own voters. In time you must convince them that an open relationship is good for all or you hit a ceiling that you cannot grow beyond.

  1. Tell them what they want to hear

In fairness it might not be pretty but if you want to win a campaign it is a good way to go. A comforting lie is more appealing than an inconvenient truth. People have things they want to believe and will find any reason to believe them. Everyone wants it to be simple. So why do politicians have focus groups and opinion polls and research? Well to find out exactly what the public want so they can pretend to be that. Like the Taxi driver who always has the answer to everything, the politician always knows what to do until they are in government. Tell people what they want to hear and they will love you, but be prepared that if you end up in power you will then break loads of promises. But then that’s the problem with comforting people: it’s all fine until reality kicks in.

  1. Believing the hype

With all the razzmatazz of a campaign it is easy to get swept along. There are a few steady heads who know that it is all show for the most part. They don’t believe it all and keep themselves grounded. They are rare though. It is far more common to either have a candidate who thinks they are amazing, with an ego the size of an alternate universe or they get utterly crushed by it all and sound beaten before they start. If a candidate believes they are as good as the hype says then a disaster will not be far away. As an advisor if you pause for a moment and feel you have to ease the blow of telling them an interview was bad, then you have a crushed egg right there, start sending out your CV.

  1. I’m just like you

It is a fairly simple rule but when all is boiled down that is the essence of any campaign. The trick is simply to convince voters ‘I’m just like you’. In reality I’m nothing like you but that’s not the point. Once a candidate can show they identify with you, understand you; think like you, feel like you, then it’s like voting for yourself. Why wouldn’t you trust them? The candidate who wins is always the candidate who convinces the most people of this. It is all one massive piece of theatre designed to prove just how much like a normal person I am. But of course I’m not. You will be disappointed in time.

  1. Denial

It doesn’t take long for whoever wins an election to become unpopular. This is usually because they have said what people want to hear and tried to prove they are normal. Suddenly you can’t find anyone that admits to voting for whoever it was that won. ‘Who voted for this? Not me!’

  1. The circle of life

In the end every dog will have its day. Ups and downs may come but if you hang around long enough eventually the wheel of fortune stops on you. Politicians grip this moment and squeeze it for all it is worth. It will eventually be taken from them and all end in disaster and abuse. Not long after it is over they will wonder why they did it and why they clung on for so long. It is at this moment they actually do become a normal person, look back and think ‘What the hell did I do…’

Jo Cox and hatred in politics

Certain events always stand out in people’s minds.  The murder of Jo Cox MP is going to be one of those for me.  I never met her nor was I overly familiar with her work before yesterday.  However, any human being would find such an event shocking.  If you have ever been involved in politics you will feel it even more.

Politicians often have to dismiss their fears to appear in control.  Nobody wants to hear a politician saying they were afraid or scared.  There is little sympathy for them.  When bad things happen to a politician there is a defence of ‘Oh they deserved it’…’they will get over it’ or the ever popular ‘it’s no worse than their policies.’

All of this stems from an extreme feeling of self righteousness.  That we are the only ones who can be right and if someone disagrees with us it cannot be just a different way of doing things it has to be because they are stupid, they are corrupt, they are ignorant, they are personally liable and they are less human.

Politics is about debate.  Robust and tough debate.  It must always be rooted in policy.  The slide into personal attacks is a slippery slope.  No party is free from it.  All public representatives get abuse.  Some like to blame some parties over another but the truth is different representatives get it from different sectors.  The problem is when people who should know better fail to see the start of the slide.  Once you move away from debating a policy to attacking the person you have begun that slide.  Once you stop accepting that a person’s disagreement with you does not make them any less smart or honourable than you, you are in trouble.

We go from personal abuse to jostling.  Jostling to something being thrown.  Something being thrown to a punch.  From there where does it go?  Where is the line?  I’ve known many politicians down the years from various backgrounds and parties who, while they never would admit it publicly, had times when they felt very worried for themselves or their families.

Hate is indeed at the root of this as Jo Cox’s husband said.  If you want to win a debate you can stick to facts but that will require a lot of talent, strategy and ability.  There is an easier lazier way.   Forget the actual argument.  De-humanise the opponent.  They can be political opponents, other nationalities, ethnic groups, other social classes.  Make them out to be genetically different.  Not like us.  Make out that they have cultural differences that are somehow more than just human creations.  The same rules don’t apply to them as everyone else.  They are stupid, incompetent, foolish, corrupt, vile, and odious.  Once you establish that you can start to say and do what you like.  That’s how hatred works.  It’s not a way of dealing with problems it’s a way of getting a pass to get around your conscience.

The shooting in Orlando, the shooting of Jo Cox and modern terrorism all fed off this hate.  A view that somehow it’s alright.  Jo Cox was elected.  If anyone disagreed with her there was a ballot box to change things.  If you disagree with any community or view then the ballot box is there to deal with all of these things.  To put anything ahead of that ballot box is to say that just because your view is not shared widely enough you have a right to circumvent it.  This can never be allowed to happen.

Nothing can change the fact that two little children will have to grow up without the mother who loved them. Absolutely nothing can ever make up for that.  No retribution, no change, no nice words can ever make it better.  It is final and permanent.  That’s what hate does.  The only thing each of us can do is to try being better people.  Stop looking around and blaming.  Stop looking for others to make the change.  You and I, we would never do anything like shoot someone.  We would never hurl vile abuse at someone in the street.  But where exactly do we draw a line, how much are we ok with?  Do we sometimes ignore a debate because we just dislike the person making the point?  Do we make throwaway remarks?  Do we say things like ‘They should be shot’?  You see each little bit of hatred we give in to allows someone further along the line to push their hatred a bit further too.

Flooding 9 weeks after Storm Desmond

Nine weeks after Storm Desmond began the flooding problems they are getting worse rather than better in some areas.  A flood on a 100 acre Turlough has left over 30 houses marooned.  The following is a youtube link where some images of the situation can be seen.  It has become worse not better since these shots were taken.

20 Rules from Political Life

There are a few rules I’ve learned from political life over the years that are worth sharing:

1. Opinions are like body parts. Only the well formed bits should be on show. Most should be kept to yourself or only shared with a significant other.

2. Whatever is happening the consequences of it will never be as bad as the fear of the consequences.

3. A crisis is subject to a law of gravity. It always gets worse.

4. Only after you offer to help sort out a problem and get involved do people actually tell you just how bad the problem is.

5. All policies are polo mints. Nice, serve a purpose but will always have a hole in the middle.

6. Insults are only thrown when you are actually having an impact.

7. Never believe your own hype. The other guys are not as bad as you say they are and you are not as good as you think.

8. Sitting on a problem is like sitting on a hot stove. You manage it for a little while but it eventually burns your ass.

9. Take time before giving anyone an instruction. An order you regret is the one order you can be sure they will carry out perfectly.

10. People are liars. They say what they think they should say (good or bad) but its rarely what they actually want.

11. Everyone thinks they are the worst off. Everyone thinks there is a conspiracy against their section or grouping and everyone believes they are the only ones with the intelligence to see it.

12. Friends are great. Friends are also the people most likely to cause you to compromise yourself. No one ever got in trouble over a favour for an enemy.

13. You can panic. You can worry. You can have doubts. But when the door opens you meet the world with a great big smile and tell them you are always in control.

14. When it comes to forming partnerships necessity makes previously repugnant people become strangely attractive. A coalition government is like the last slow set in a nightclub.

15. The effectiveness of a decision is directly proportional to the number of people responsible for taking it. The buck must stop somewhere.

16. The greater the ego grows the more delicate it becomes.

17. No matter how great you are there is always someone to take your place and in time you will be a footnote.

18. Popularity is a credit card, the trick is to spend it and disappear before the bill comes in.

19. There is nothing you will do but a musician, actor or model will point out how they would have done it better.

20. The devil haunts a hungry man. When in need you will do most anything.

Coffee and a Chat with Roisin Shortall

Today I met Roisin Shortall in Leinster House. I stopped her and asked her for a coffee and a chat about the new Social Democrats. I am glad to say she was very obliging and here is the resulting interview we did on the spot.

Ireland misses a glorious chance on Greece

Over on the Slugger O’Toole site today I am making the argument that Ireland has missed a chance on the Greek crisis. The Irish government should have been at the centre of negotiations as an honest broker that could see both sides. The failure to see this opportunity and grasp the nettle is a sad reflection of the lack of political ambition in Ireland today. It also indicates just how short-sighted and ‘play it safe’ we have become.

Kavanagh & Fallon’s Guide to 2015 Eurovision songs

Yes folks it’s finally here. Once again Adrian Kavanagh & Johnny Fallon have provided a full run down on all the songs in this year’s Eurovision song contest. The biggest duo to ever grace Eurovision (or at least since McGettigan and Harrington) give you their insight in typical brutal, honest, fashion. The guide is free to download now so don’t miss your chance to be informed and prepared for this year’s contest.


Subtle differences in answers show big differences in thinking at banking inquiry

If you are looking for heroes you won’t find any at the Banking Inquiry. Witnesses come and go in a long litany of shame. For the most part it reveals little that is of use. The hope, however, is that it might perhaps give us some lessons, some thoughts on things we might do to avoid it all happening again.

From a PR perspective there are three approaches a witness can take. At first glance they might not seem very different but on closer inspection they are profoundly different in what we can learn or take from the exercise. It is important to say that no answer exonerates a person or makes them suddenly a wonderful or forgiven figure. However, it can perhaps start us on the right track to one day being able to move on and learn something.

Option one is to say: ‘I did nothing wrong, in fact, you will see I actually performed brilliantly. You should note my many achievements, the many years of success, and how I advised the right course of action when the storm got here. I was not at fault, the problem could not be foreseen and it was just one of those things.’

Option two is to say: ‘Things went very wrong. Mistakes were definitely made. We regret these mistakes. However, nobody else saw the problems either. If you think what we did was wrong you should look at the other people. You need to understand the pressure we were under. Look at what people were saying to us, look at the market. We acted in line with advice. It’s all well with hindsight but the problem was complex and out of our control.’

Option three is to say: ‘The problem was pretty basic. There was a gamble on property. The world crisis hastened the end of that bubble but it was still just a basic bubble. There was no proper control, supervision or foresight. That was my job. I did not do it. I was wrong and I am sorry for that.’

Now, none of these options are very nice. None of them give back money or change what happened but they do indicate the thinking inside someone’s head. In option one the person is still in denial. They are unable to see any fault in anything they did. Most importantly it shows a complete detachment from the reality of what the crisis caused on the ground. It shows a lack of empathy that is deeply worrying. If that empathy does not exist then the person giving the reply is showing themselves to be unable to critically analyse policies and their effects. This is dangerous because it leads to recklessness in the future. It leads to an idea that all will work out in the end. It’s ok we can do the right thing after and rectify things, the cost isn’t the issue, the pain isn’t the issue and there is no room for consideration of alternatives. It is in effect a denial of both reality and responsibility. Mr Trichet was the latest to join this category.

Option two is the one we have become accustomed to. A myriad of excuses and finger pointing. All designed to deflect attention. The idea is that one can say sorry but still avoid responsibility. The answer is always about ‘We’ not ‘I’. It tries to ignore the role of an office holder, be they an executive or a politician, and diminish their power in an effort to say they couldn’t do anything about it. It spreads the blame in the hope that people will then just move on. It is careful never to actually lay the blame though. The problem is always more complex than that. It is the sign of someone who realises the problem that was caused but remains in total denial about their role in it. Many politicians so far fall into this category. Mr Goggins, formerly of Bank of Ireland, is also very much in this camp.

The final option recognises a simple fact. One we have been told by two previous reports into the crisis. Ireland experienced a ‘vanilla’ property bubble. Nothing special, nothing unusual. Developers, Banks and Government gambled on a market and the market collapsed. We did not have proper regulation. We did not have sufficient oversight. We did not have anyone willing to ask a question. Following the crowd is not an excuse. Instead, this answer does the decent thing by saying ‘I didn’t do my job. I could have stopped this but I didn’t.’ Now that answer doesn’t make one iota of difference to the problem we are in or make the person uttering it any kind of hero. However, it does point to someone who has thought about it. Who knows what their role was and finally has come to some understanding of what they did wrong. With this answer we can at least start to learn. Other CEO’s or politicians can look and say ‘OK how do I avoid making the mistakes he did?’ For that reason alone I was impressed and have to give a very small piece of grudging respect to Eugene Sheehy, formerly of AIB.

Saying mistakes were made is not good enough. Saying people got it wrong is not good enough. We teach or kids the difference between saying ‘It got broke’ and ‘I broke it’. Neither answer changes the fact that something is broken, neither answer fixes it. But one shows some sense of responsibility and remorse. If only we could teach that at the banking inquiry.

An open Letter to Minister Noonan on the Mortgage Arrears Crisis

Dear Minister Noonan,

Today you suggested that figures on house repossessions in the Irish Times were misleading. You argued that banks were merely using the courts to force people to engage with them. I fear we have learned nothing. A banking crisis and a government led on a merry dance into oblivion only a few short years ago as not taught us a single thing. Minister Noonan you are a very capable and experienced politician. To believe you are that naive is just beyond my comprehension.

Ireland has a serious problem with mortgage arrears. This is affecting the balance sheets of our banks. Every report on the economy raises the situation as a red flag and insists we must sort it out. Our economy will continue to struggle so long as this very real drag on the money flow continues. It is a serious bottleneck in our economy.

The main problem is this issue of customers and whether they can’t pay or won’t pay. This argument is a red herring. Now, the thing is the banks honestly believe it. Many at the top of Irish banks also believed they were solvent before the crisis. They truly believed the bank guarantee could work and everyone would walk away unscathed. They believed this because their own groupthink convinced them of one line of argument. The same is happening here. Banks remain convinced that the majority must be ‘forced’ to pay. That they are just being lazy. They have no way of knowing if this is true because people who are not ‘engaging’ are not giving them access to their financial situation. They just believe it is likely. Suppose for one moment they are wrong? What if the majority can’t pay? Believe me Minister, the banks will arrive with another crisis solution and you like others before you will then carry the political price of it.

Unlike what they tell you there is not a ‘range of options’ open to homeowners. There are only a couple. The main one being filling out endless forms every 6 months to go on interest only mortgage payments. There are options like split loan mortgages but no bank is clear on who gets these, what the criteria are or the process to getting one. All of these are temporary anyway but banks don’t really want to talk. The banks version of engagement is to write a standard computer printed letter full of mumbo jumbo. Then to follow this up with several phone calls asking ‘will you make a payment today?’ When you say ‘No’ they proceed to tell you that you are in arrears. They then ask you ‘Can you make a payment on the arrears today?’ When you say no, they inform you of the dangers of non payment.

That is not engagement. That is not a bank helping people or seeking solutions. That is the very thing that makes people scared of losing their home hide under a duvet and hope it all goes away. Today I asked an arrears support unit that received several meeting requests why they don’t meet customers I was told ‘It is our policy not to meet any customer unless they are in a long term solution.’

Think about that. We have thousands of families running scared and afraid of losing homes. As an economy this needs to be sorted out but the banks say they will not physically sit down with people unless it’s a case of having to do a long term restructuring. In other words we will keep the pressure up we will drive the issue to crisis and then we will only meet you if it proves impossible for us to do anything else.

Minister Noonan you need cash to flow in the economy again. This will not happen while we have this mortgage crisis. This is not about debt forgiveness or giving people a handout. This is about a government getting a proper idea of what the problem actually is before we go along with the banks again. YOU must tell them to do their job. They have branches, they have managers, and they can easily meet every customer who is in arrears within the next 12 months. Then we would have a real picture of the problems. We all know that no form or letter can cover every situation or take account of every issue that is why we need to meet people. Banks don’t want to do this because it takes resources. Instead of a small team of people in a central office, sending out letters and making calls, they would have to resource actual decision makers meeting people and offering many different solutions. Organisations like the Irish Mortgage Holders Organisation can really help people. They need the government to start listening to what they say though. The time has come to accept that the banks version of this story has seen it get progressively worse every year rather than reach a satisfactory conclusion. Figures are tossed about but with nothing to back them up. Nobody knows what qualifies for loans, what state some loans are in, what efforts are made, what qualifies as effort. Believe it or not we don’t even have a standard criteria or formula to tell customers as to what is a guideline for a ‘sustainable’ mortgage repayment based on income.

The situation cannot continue. It’s time to say enough. A government must decide to get some real figures and ask a few more questions of the banks. The sooner we get to the bottom of this mess the sooner the economy will benefit and we can all move on.

Ireland’s lost middle ground voters

In 2007 the Irish electorate was very annoyed. Despite record spending levels many felt that the boom was still not reaching them. For 12 months before the general election parties tripped over themselves with ever better promises to woo and satisfy. The Government of FF and the PD’s seemed to be in for a hiding. That was true right up until the last two weeks of the campaign. Suddenly things changed. Brian Cowen, then Minister for Finance, warned that there were storm clouds ahead. Things might not be so rosy. He even admitted that the FF manifesto was based on growth figures that, if they did not materialise, might mean promises could not be delivered.

This acted like a torpedo to other parties manifestos that promised even more than the FF one. Suddenly as Pat Rabbitte said ‘Change became a bad word’. People feared change and risk. It’s all very well talking and shouting about it but everyone knows things can always be worse and when it came down to it people did not feel like risking.

As a result FF returned to power. However, the shudder in the economy that Cowen predicted was nothing like what happened. When I wrote ‘Brian Cowen: In his own words’ I pointed out that almost every budget speech gave some mention to property markets and the potential of a collapse or downturn but none of these predictions ever even imagined the possibility that the banks might go under. A short while ago I spoke to a former government minister who said that if he was told in 2008 of how big an adjustment would be made in terms of spending in the next 5 years he would have laughed and said that there would be revolution and such an adjustment was simply impossible. Yet it has happened.

The crisis was far greater that anyone in government thought. They were massively unprepared and completely at sea in dealing with it. By 2009 talk was of a tough budget. Several TD’s told me they favoured a ‘big bang’ approach. Get all the pain over in one budget and then still have time to let it fade rather than dragging it out over years. This line even gained traction in the media. It proves just how little was understood of what was happening that anyone even thought one budget could come close to making the adjustment that was needed.

After the crisis, the bailout and the troika the people knew what they wanted in 2011. They wanted to punish FF. They had not voted FF in on the back of their promises they had voted for them in the belief that they were the team to handle a crisis and they were badly let down. Yes some wanted FF to pay for the overspending of the boom. Yes some felt it was the job of the government to say no and protect us from ourselves at times but overwhelmingly there was a feeling of betrayal. That betrayal and annoyance came from the fact that people felt FF did not handle the crisis well. That was unforgivable. The 2011 election was an exercise in punishment, not revolution. FF got what they deserved. A new government came to power that found itself popular only because of the unpopularity of its opponent. With FF so weak and reduced to impotency people soon forgot about them and turned their attention to the people now in power. They weren’t too inspired by what they saw. The government has consistently lost ground in the polls ever since.

Sinn Fein had a dramatic early rise but despite how good the figures are for them they are not able to break the invisible ceiling that seems to be on their rise. Independents have gained the most. They continue to hold the trust that others can only dream of.

The problem for our next election is that we don’t really know what we want. We want things to get better yes, we want austerity to end. However, we are keenly aware that things have been and could be worse. We don’t want to risk what we have. We are nervous of those that promise everything, we know that promised lands quickly turn sour. That said we are in no mood to continue struggling, we have paid a heavy price and are at the limit of our ability to take any more pain. We are annoyed that banks and other institutions still enjoy enormous trust at government level and we fear that the mistakes of the past will be repeated. We do not, at the same time, really wish for a revolution, violence, or any big social upheaval.

We are caught. This government seems dangerously inept and indecisive but it has managed to oversee some steady improvements no matter what you put that down to. FF remains as it was. It has failed to inspire or demonstrate any great learning from its experiences and seems happy to just exist. There is nothing there to attract anyone or suggest forgiveness. Sinn Fein says a lot of the things we like. They talk about a society we can mostly identify with. We see they have some new and talented people that might be worth a shot. The problem is we are still wary. They continue with the line of being ‘revolutionary’. We want change yes but not revolution. They scare us off in that they might mean well but they just might muck things up. We want to believe them and trust them but we are not convinced that every other party is in some vast conspiracy to stop us.

As for those on the far left and right they will have their followers but for the vast majority they are always going too far. They always assume we support them and we don’t like our support being assumed by anyone.

So here we are. A volatile electorate unsure of what direction to turn. Hungry for change but desperately nervous at the same time. A modern day Cicero arguing with ourselves over the rights and wrongs of all sides and hopelessly indecisive about what to do. We want that leader, that leader who convinces us they can be all things to all people. When we are indecisive we look to find a leader who is decisive. We are looking for someone to trust and believe. It is unlikely we will find that this side of an election. We are probably at the beginning of a long series of conversations that will take some time to reach a conclusion and may be facing several elections before we finally decide exactly what path we should be on.

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