Johnny Fallon

Irish Political Commentator

Archive for the month “March, 2013”

EU needs to wake up to reality

The EU finds itself in the middle of another fine mess this weekend. The argument is undoubtedly financial but the problem is very much political. The situation in Cyprus is being watched closely elsewhere and that is the last thing the EU wanted. This was a quick smash and grab effort. Cyprus is a very tiny economy, it is in a very unique position and major powers wanted to deal with it and move along quickly. Let’s cut through the spin and the rhetoric, the EU has ceased to be a union of equal partners. It is now a league with several different divisions. The treatment you get is based upon what league you are in.

If France needed a bailout tomorrow it would be treated far better than Ireland or Portugal, and the EU wisely did not even contemplate attempting in Ireland or Portugal what it has done in Cyprus. This was a political decision, one where they believed they could contain the hit simply because Cyprus does not have any form of economy that can be cut or taxed to raise the money it needs. It seemed simple, take the money from savings as it’s the only way it will probably ever be repaid and it deals with it quickly. That was the theory. It’s proved a lot more complex.

There can be little doubt that this is a game of poker now. Cyprus has decided to play hardball and the Germans do not believe in being a charity. While Russia lurks in the background the Germans are quite confident that the Cypriots will find that Russia wants its money back just as much as anyone else and there will be a high price to pay for any loan. Germany has a decision to make, it can accept a hit financially on Cyprus and then open the door for hits from all other countries or it can cut Cyprus loose, and use any misfortune the country suffers after that, as a lesson to others.

All of this has one glaring problem. The EU simply does not work anymore. It is financially broken. Economically it is holed below the water line and the current policy is to get all hands on deck to scoop the water out and keep the ship afloat. At some point however we all know that if the ship is to survive someone is going to have to fix the hole. Unless something is done to boost economic activity in the EU then a slow sinking is inevitable. An intergovernmental conference and a new treaty are on the way if the EU is to have any future. Britain has already started this process with its efforts to hold a referendum on membership based on a renegotiation of its position in the EU. The first problem is of course that the EU needs to decide what it is to become, a Union of equal partner nations, controlled and managed by democratic governments working together, or a Federal state controlled by centralised systems and some directly elected representatives.

Decisive and real action is needed to address the issue with Ireland, Spain, Italy and Portugal. These countries need to be put on a footing where they can start to contribute again rather than adding to the drag. Everybody knows this. Deep down the EU knows this. At the heart of the German government they know it too. The problem is that to solve the situation is going to mean a financial hit. Things can’t move again unless there is some sort of new start. Germany needs the EU, it needs the Euro and it relies on this. However it is Germany that will take the financial hit in order to give the new start. Politically that’s a problem. In Ireland as in other countries we are used to hearing that the man in the street says ‘I didn’t create this mess, it’s not my fault and I should not have to pay for it’. That argument is no different in Germany. As far as the man in the street is concerned, they run a tight ship, have a strong economy and they see no reason why they should have to face any kind of financial hit just to help other countries. Arguments about why Germany benefits from the Euro, from the EU or from trade are lost on the electorate. This is at the heart of the political problem. No matter how obvious the answers are to those dealing with the issue they know they cannot take these decisions and win elections.

It’s a funny old world. Angela Merkel was very fond of telling political leaders in Greece and in Ireland about how they needed to put their country before their party. So successful was the mantra that Irish politicians could not wait to sign their own political death warrants in order to ‘save’ their country even when the deal on offer was questionable. Politicians became so convinced that the unpopular thing must be the right thing that they had to act before anyone else got a say. Now there may be merit in that, but only if everyone is playing by the same rules. Angela Merkel has shown time and time again that her party comes before, not only her country, but the entire EU. She will not accept an electoral meltdown in order to ‘do the right thing’. Europe is therefore left on hiatus because of political cowardice. People are suffering because at a political level we are playing chess and delaying inevitable decisions.

We are not innocent in this regard. Unlike the EU of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s there are no partnerships or efforts to form negotiation blocs. Everybody is simply vying to be close to Germany. The idea of countries coming together to start a process where a real solution can be tabled scares the life out of the politicians because it could put Germany off side. So we keep waiting for some kind of Armageddon that may force Germany’s hand without us having to say anything. Its not that the Germans are the bad guys here, it’s simply that they have convinced everyone else how to put their own selfish interests aside while at the same time are unwilling to face that point themselves. If Germany wants the EU and the Euro, then there will be a price to pay for getting it. For the rest of the EU it’s time to start asking where the power lies and where the hell we are actually going.

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Beware the knock…..What that canvasser knows about you

The people of Meath East are currently facing a wave of canvassers. The ability and talent of these teams will vary. I am sure that most of you can remember some canvassers and forget others. That is the key to success, its all about engagement, finding a way to stay in the memory, to strike up some connection with the voter. Now, I am sure many of you are also the type who will say ‘I can’t wait for these canvassers; I’m going to give them a piece of my mind’. A good canvasser is more than ready, believe you me. A good canvasser is prepared, informed and uses a host of tools, from Mind mapping to basic psychology without ever even thinking about it.

It may be a dying art but you will still be sucked in every so often by the guy or girl who knows what they are doing. So, to level the playing field and help you out I thought I’d give you some insight into how the canvassers mind works and what they are actually doing when they come to your door.

It all starts some weeks before. A candidate will assemble a team and part of this team will be sent off to research issues for various areas. This is not complex; a simple Google search these days will throw up everything from letters to the papers, residents’ groups concerns, statistics, school newsletters, sports clubs announcements and the like. Once this information is compiled and organised it can be broken down by area and presented to the canvass teams so that I, as a canvasser, am already well familiar with the major issues affecting your estate or area before I ever go out.

Preparation is everything in politics, nobody likes a surprise and knowing your answers before you go out is critical. But what you really want to know is what is going on in my canvasser head as I approach your door isn’t it? Well that process starts as I leave the garden of your neighbour and start to focus on you. For all the talk of policy and argument, the only real failure for a canvasser is the person who nods and closes the door as quick. My job is to engage you, to talk to you, to find the ice breaker and connection so that you will remember the ‘nice chap’ who asked you to vote for Joe Bloggs. It’s my job to be a human and nice face. It’s my job to find a conversation and area of agreement with you.

It will take at most 15 seconds to reach your door and in that time the following will happen. I check the road outside your house, looking for pot holes, drains, problems with trees or roots, broken pavements, unkempt verges all things that you are likely to be annoyed by and want someone to address. If I can raise the issue before you do by telling you the pavement is shocking and laugh at how I nearly fell over while saying our candidate will try to do something about it, then your anger will not be as easy to throw at me.

Then I check out your garden. How well is it kept? This can tell me a lot about you, your pride, your resources, and your hobbies. I note the plants that you have there. If all else fails I can always ask you how you got that wonderful pampas grass to grow so well when mine just never seem to take. Then I note the presence, or lack of, other things in the garden such as children’s toys, bicycles, sports equipment, all of these let me know your priorities. I can share a story about my kids, ask about local schools ask about that bicycle or sport because when I want to make a connection I will adapt to become a new enthusiast even to a sport I hate. You may not know me or see me again so a little exaggeration of my interest is no harm. The important thing is that I draw you out.

Moving up your driveway I take full stock of your car. The make, the model, the year. It will give me the best insight into your level of affluence and even perhaps your environmental views. A car where the registration plate and the garage sale sticker are both from the same county may even indicate your geographic relationship to another area. How you keep the car will also indicate much, as will the items (if any) that you leave strewn on the back seat. Child seats may indicate your family age groups, toys, documents, newspapers all tell a story. In the modern age people don’t wear their heart on their sleeve so much as they wear their heart on their bumper stickers. For a huge amount of you I can pick up on your issues from political support, tax campaigns, sports clubs, charities, radio station preference or hobbies through the stickers in your car, a god send to any canvasser in predicting arguments or finding a nice ice breaker to get you talking.

By this stage I am approaching the door, near your front window. It remains the case that for the majority of people their TV still sits in their front room and I can either hear it or see it as I approach. I take note of what you are watching. I’ll always apologise for interrupting Eastenders or the football and then quickly ask you what’s happening in them. I’ll feign much interest in whether Phil Mitchell is taking his revenge yet, if I know that is what you are into. I may ask the score in the match and bemoan how I’m missing it, and ask you to describe that Messi goal. Of course I’ll also support whatever football club I have noticed you supporting too. That TV screen is important though, it lets me know your interests and your family’s interests from sport to current affairs.

Now I’m at your door. If you have a porch I need to check this out. People leave all kinds of stuff in their porch. Their sports gear, golf, football, their jackets or overcoats, walking aids. One of the most telling features is footwear. Nowadays it’s quite common for people to leave shoes in the porch. This can often tell me who is in the house, children, teenagers, an adult. It can tell me something about professions too, business shoes, builder’s boots, expensive dress shoes, comfy work shoes, specialist footwear etc, again pointing to whom I am going to meet. I now note any other election material in the porch, flyers or leaflets that remain on floor not bothered about, or perhaps placed on a table to be looked at or, heaven forbid, crumpled up and thrown there. This may prove a vital insight into your political opinion.

By now I am reaching for the doorbell. Carefully I stand sideways, with my back to the hinge side of the door. No matter how slightly you open it I can see you and meet you with a broad smile. Its important never to stand facing the hinge side of the door, otherwise I would end up peering around at you as you open the door over my shoulder and that is a far less open stance and invites anger.

When you do finally open that door, I will take note of everything I see. The clothes you are wearing, your hair, what you are holding, the way you are standing, the interior of your house, its furnishings, the pictures in the hallway, the items left in view, the sounds from inside the house, perhaps you are cooking dinner, every cook likes to be complimented by a starving waif on the doorstep.

You have opened up your life to me before I have even said ‘Hello’. It may take less than 15 seconds but I am as prepared for you as anyone can be, indeed I am probably more prepared than you are at that moment and despite being on your territory I am at a distinct advantage of knowing a lot more about you than you do about me.

So be wary. A good canvasser is no fool. They are sussing you out, trying to make that connection. That joke, that friendly approach that may just stick in your mind when it comes to casting that vote. You will feel like that canvasser is dropping guard, being interested and personal, talking to you out of a genuine like of you and shared interests, before having to go off wearily to face all the other people. You were the important person. Of course it’s all true, until I reach the end of your garden and start to focus on the road outside your neighbour’s house…..

We need to grow up, the media is not always out to get us….

In Ireland we really love a good blame game. We are not great at taking responsibility or noting our failures, instead we like to pass the buck and blame the problem on someone else. We have seen this in many walks of life but the one that has struck me most of late is how people react to the media. Particularly people who are part of, or support, various organisations and whose opinion could be considered bias as a result, yet the tiresome and continual shouts of media bias are always sent up from such quarters.

Let’s start with political parties. I spent most of my young life within Fianna Fail, growing up as a kid I spent endless hours listening to the complaints about the media. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind but that there was a media campaign against Fianna Fail. Haughey supporters in the early ‘80s carried banners saying ‘We will not capitulate to the media’. In the early ‘90s this obsession that the media was at war with Fianna Fail caused Ray Burke to secure his appointment as Minister for Justice and Communications, one of the most shocking and ill thought out merging of government departments in history. But, it has a reason; Burke was utterly convinced that RTE had to be tackled and that he was the man to do it. With hindsight it’s almost laughable.

When Sean Duignan was appointed Government Press Secretary he commented on how everybody in Leinster house had an absolute obsession with the media. Politicians and supporters follow every line as if the general public are doing the same but they are not and are therefore far less influenced by the media than politicos think. Over the years people in FF could point out a whole host of columnists that disliked FF, they would continually cite instances where they felt other commentators were being unfair. The problem is that the job of many columnists is to state their view and to be, at times, biased, there are other columnists who can counter that view and provide balance but of course politicos only remember the stuff that offends them.

In later years when I came to work with people from other parties I found that the opinions were identical to those within FF. Sinn Fein supporters have no doubt whatsoever that anyone raising any kind of question about their party or leadership is biased. Talking to them is like talking to the FF supporters of the ‘80s such is their absolute conviction that there is a media conspiracy against them. Every time I say something negative about SF I will quickly be picked up on it, if I say something positive they don’t even notice because the attitude is that I am only saying it because I have to admit the truth and that’s the least I could do. Recently on twitter I had an SF supporter who had no doubt but that Ireland would be ‘so proud of the society’ that SF would create if we would just elect them. He said that ‘SF is the only organisation that has ever cared about the people of Ireland’ and given the opportunity this chap had no doubt that the saints who lead the party who bring us nothing short of a utopia. Now political supporters like this are needed within parties, to always hold the line and keep believing. However, it does nothing to convince the public. There has never been a political organisation anywhere in the world, all through history, that has gone into government after election or revolution and delivered without failure for the people. Not one can claim to have been perfect and not one can claim to get every decision right. What such supporters also fail to see is that there are people equally convinced of the same in all parties.

The problem is that the media have a job to ask questions and seek answers, but when they do they are biased. The proof of this, we are told, is the ‘easy run’ the same interviewer gives to their opponent. Amazingly, every single party thinks that their side is getting the tough interviewers and the other guy is getting it easy. Shortly before the 2011 election I talked to some supporters of Fine Gael and Labour, they were very upbeat and quoted various commentators and articles to show how FF was doing everything wrong. They looked forward to certain programmes and each new hit the government would take. Even so, they told me that the media was still trying to save FF (while over in FF they were tearing their hair out wailing of how the media was destroying them). I asked them at the time if they really thought that they could keep the same commentators and policy wonks onside once in government? I asked if they really believed that once in power the same questions should not be asked of them just because they were not FF. The answer was ‘yes’. There was no shadow of doubt in their mind that the only problem was not financial, political, societal, or even down to simple errors, no, it was all down to one thing: Their immediate opponent, FF and its corruption.

Two years into government and it’s quite a sight to see the same people now annoyed at these commentators, these interviewers and the media trying to damage government. The Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte believes the media is debasing politics in an exact replica of the obsession that took hold in FF. Of course the one thing they held firm to was that the media is a conspiracy to revive FF. Meanwhile SF agree with this but then think RTE is a state run mouthpiece for FG and that every other outlet has an equally political agenda that is of course set against them. FF gather in rooms and moan about the battle they have to try and recover in the face of a media that does nothing but criticise them and make unfair allegations without any attempt at fairness.

It’s not just politicos though. Recently some hard line Catholics are complaining about a media bias and the fact that they believe coverage is totally unfair. At the same time liberals are out in force too, moaning that their opinion is not heard, that there is too much news from the Vatican and that the media is giving too much time to these ‘crazy’ religious types. The public sector feel they are being victimised by the media and not getting a fair hearing, the private sector believe the media is in the pocket of the trade unions and the journalists are far too soft of the public sector. Manchester United and Liverpool fans complain about the time, space and opinions offered on each club.

It seems to me that once people support something they seek out reasons to be offended. When I write I always try to research the opposing point of view and to add some balance or understanding. Of course, once I do this I’m eternally accused of being a fence sitter, of not coming down hard enough on someone. This is because when a supporter reads or watches something, what they really want is someone that agrees utterly and totally with their opinion, anything short of that is treated with suspicion. We need to accept that our positions must be questioned and defended and that is a good thing, we need to stop wishing that all things on our side go unchallenged.

The media is far from perfect. It does of course contain bias, opinions we won’t like, and even at times it does things plainly wrong and must be sanctioned for it. All of that is human nature and it is no bad thing. Not all politicians are lining their own pockets, not all journalists are part of some secret conspiracy against your point of view. When someone is biased there are several ways it can be tackled, but know this, the general public is probably paying far less attention to it than you are and are very well aware of bias and opinion. We need to cease the obsession that all public opinion is driven solely by the media.

There is one thing that is for sure about the media world. It needs sales and revenue. If you live in a completely hard line catholic state, where every citizen only wants to read stories that agree with that, then media will follow the market and the sales. If you live in a liberal atheist state, or one where a political figure is enormously popular then you will see the media delivering what the people want, in the main. Questions must still be asked and in such circumstances there are times when we look back at a few heroic voices that raged even when it was not popular to do so. However, we must accept that we still drive content and that we all read or hear what we want to. Ireland is a modern society with a range of views across the spectrum, whatever your opinion, you will get upset at times and disagree at times, but we need to grow up and start answering questions, accepting failings in our ‘side’ and addressing it rather than seeking to always dismiss it as some kind of conspiracy against us.

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