Johnny Fallon

Irish Political Commentator

Archive for the month “October, 2013”

Are we ready for another CJH?

Some people have the ability to fascinate us in terms of their life, their charisma their problems and their failings. For all the talk about politicians it is rare to find ones that really capture our imagination for good or ill. The vast majority fade into a great grey mass of arguable merit. They neither excite or annoy us. When we feel a politician lets us down we can become easily disillusioned and sceptical and we turn instead to the banal and dull. In Ireland we have been let down many times and it is reflected in the current Dail. We have reared a generation of politicians who are experts at the safe answers, who avoid the risks and strive to be completely sanitised products.

Quietly this has led to people reviewing the past and talking about other politicians. The reason for this is simple. Modern politicians like to try keep things steady. They dont want to lose big so they never have the chance to win big. When times are tough people look for hope and leadership, they look for someone that can changes things. You can never be a true leader if you always play it safe, if you are always in line with expectations and if you never upset anybody. Leadership takes risks.

When reviewing the past the obviou person people feel safe discussing is Lemass. There is little argument across all parties but that he was a politician of a very different mould and one they all aspire to emulate. The interesting thing about Lemass is that unlike his predecessor and successor Lemas did not enjoy the full endorsement of the people while he was leader. He took risks, he changed things, he upset people and that never makes for overwhelming electoral victory. It does however make for a legacy many years later.

What I find interesting is the much quieter way people have begun to debate Charles Haughey again. With a new TV drama of his life hitting our screens soon one can be sure that our fascination with his life is set to continue. Some hate him. He represents much of what went wrong in Irish politics and his personal failings were immense. He remains as controversial a figure as he ever was. When I was researching him for ‘Dynasties’ I was struck by the depth of argument he still could provoke, sometimes among people who were only born when he was in power and never knew his governments at all. Haughey was the most charismatic man I ever met. He had a natural gift. He could also be a brilliant politician, visionary and tactically smart. Ireland will never get over the issues around his personal finances, the way he handled politics and some of the game playing that was so destructive to the economy. He also had several good economic measures and decision. That is why he remains this paradox that we still debate.

Nowadays I find people complaining about politicians then they seem to shyly talk of the past, they put out a few feelers, try suss out your reaction. If you say ‘At least they are not corrupt’ the person will often nod and agree and leave it at that. If you venture to suggest that there was merit in politicians of the past you will hear the comment ‘For all they say about Haughey, he was a great leader, he would be great now’. This type of conversation never ceases to amaze me and it sometimes comes from the most unexpected of sources.

I do feel that it is driven, not by a love of Haughey, (apart from the odd few die hards) but rather from a much deeper need. It is a need we all have to feel that the people who are at the top are smart, clever and know exactly what they are doing. That takes many guises. Haughey was brilliant at crafting an image, sometimes that image was very much manufactured and different to the reality, but it has lasted. At the height of the revelations about his personal finances, people still revelled in the idea of Haughey telling AIB that he could be a very difficult customer if they did not back off.

When we think of Haughey we know he was conniving, self serving and ruthless. They are not features we like but in the current climate it makes us think that because he was like that he would never have let the banks continue as they do, he would never have sacrificed his party and electoral fortunes to please the troika, he would not be played with like a mouse at the EU table. We like to think that Haughey was so bad he would be like a mafia character always having a trick up his sleeve.

I am not too sure about that analysis or whether Haughey could really deliver different results. What I can say is that people want someone who will. They want someone who, even if they don’t like them, they respect them. Someone who scares us a bit. In such a sterile political world someone with those talents could have a very major impact. The problem is that such people can do amazing things or they can do very wrong things. They are a risk. however, we are a nation just waiting to welcome such an individual from whatever quarter.

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Health – a poison chalice or just bad politics?

Being the Health Minister is no easy task. This week has seen James Reilly in the wars over everything from medical cards to his personal weight. I’ve written a few articles on James Reilly and his performance as minister already and I dont want to go over old ground. As to his personal weight thats a silly irrelevant argument formed by those without even a modicum of knowledge of what politics is about.

So what exactly is the problem here? At a simple biased political level all the problems can be laid at James Reilly’s feet. The reality is however that he is only experiencing the same issues as his predecessors. The only difference being that when he first came to the job Reilly carried quite a lot of hope from many in the profession.

The Department of Health is a mess. It resists reforms and it is made up of several competing agendas. Doctors and Consultants have one view as to how a hospital should be run. However they are not exactly experts when it comes to financials or organisation. A law firm does not make a lawyer the financial controller or the head of HR for instance. Doctors are medical experts but theres more to a health system than medicine unfortunately. The Administrative and financial staff have another view as to what makes a hospital run well but then this often limits the service and the options for patients. The patients have a view of what they want from a health service but it is often at odds with any kind of practical limitation. Nurses have a view and form the backbone of the system but will feel the effects of any systematic change more than most and that’s unavoidable.

At the head of all this you will find a hapless Minister. Each Minister will promise lots while in opposition or in other Departments but when put to the task we are all too accustomed to failure.

From the 1970s to the mid ‘90s the health service was suffering huge cuts, it was underfunded and left lagging behind. As Ireland struggled through recessions successive governments saw it simply as something that the country could not afford to keep running. Minister after minister has talked about ‘value for money’. With the boom came a lot more money that could be invested in the health service.

Despite this the problems have continued. Mind you the numbers put through our health system are impressive and despite all the flak many people find themselves getting excellent care. This is a credit to all the staff of the service.

Ministers during the boom used to bemoan the fact that even though spending increased hugely the results were not as impressive. When the state papers are released from that time I can guarantee you that you will be reading some explosive arguments between Charlie McCreevy and Micheal Martin. Again on a simple political level its easy to say the ministers were rubbish and wasted the money but the problem was of course more complex.

Such was the level of cutting and hardship imposed for 20 years on the service that it had to come from a very low starting point. Money was simply filling gaps and making up for years of chronic underfunding. Imagine spending €30k rebuilding and old car you found in a scrap yard with no engine or wheels and rusting badly. Then imagine spending €30k upgrading a new car. The performance of the new car will of course outstrip the performance of the old. While Ministers complained to those running the service that they were not getting value for money they failed to note that the system was not at the same starting point as other systems.

Can we ever reform health? Yes, its possible. However it is not possible without offending people. To begin with a Minister must be highly regarded and trusted. The minister must accept, however, that that trust will not last long so you need to act incredibly quickly. A minister must accept that they won’t even last to see the reforms through, they can only get things going in an irreversible direction. We need a Minister for Health with a genuine sense of urgency. Highly decisive and not concerned with their popularity. That Minister must start the work and within two years have pushed through the kind of major reforms that cause strikes, controversy and huge change. The Health system moves slowly, so do all the vested interests. Taking them on means you will have to act quickly. They will eventually get you and they will ruin you but a bit like Noel Browne if you do it right you will know that what you started must now continue and though you maybe be cast aside today, you will be remembered for the right reasons many years from now.

We have had several health ministers who have moved too slowly, sought to set up bodies to divert the flak. They have done everything possible to avoid strikes and confrontation with any group. Their careers have always looked beyond their time in the Department of Health.

James Reilly had the potential to be different but he hasn’t turned out that way. In many ways he was well regarded but he was also far too close to many of those involved in the service. He had an idea for a new health system but he wanted to remain popular and not upset former friends. As always happens he has ended up upsetting them anyway without achieving any kind of real reform and hes now two years into the post. If he was forced to resign tomorrow he won’t be remembered as a Noel Browne.

The issue now is that Reilly has let his stock fall while waiting to try and implement real change. He has used up all of his political capital before he ever got started. He now no longer has the trust or the reputation to be able to bring anyone with him. That means when the time comes to face a confrontation and try deliver change his position is already too weak to get a result. Real reform will now only happen after a reshuffle when another minister comes to the post. At that point the new minister will be faced with the choice of real action and long term legacy, or short term career and survival.

Sadly its been many decades since we have had the calibre of politician in any party that saw a two or three year stint as long enough to make things happen and who were happy enough to face the consequences and walk away knowing that in time they might be appreciated for what they did.

Budget 2014 – FG happy while Labour holds its breath

It’s a terrible thing to believe in the reasons you take an action but to not believe in the action itself. Governments often find themselves faced with such a situation. The Labour party in particular is haunted by it.

Yesterday’s budget was never going to be easy. It is a very difficult time to try and balance the books. Michael Noonan and Brendan Howlin were both laying on the hyperbole to remind all that the fault for the crisis lay with Fianna Fail. This was a completely understandable approach and a legitimate point, even though its one the public is tiring of hearing.

Politically the budget ticked a number of boxes. Labour can point to a number of things as a success. They will say the cuts could have been worse without them, they will claim the credit for the free GP care for under 5’s and they will say that the budget is in line with their policies for job creation.

At the end of the day however, there is no escaping the fact that it was Fine Gael that was happier. The Fine Gael, right wing vote would see very little wrong with this budget. While Labour might wish to claim the idea of creating jobs, the harsh reality is that the extra spending here was very much in favour of business owners and investors. That is not a bad thing at all, and Labour know that but sometimes ideology ties you up.

Lets look at what occurred in very simple terms. Michael Noonan, an FG Minister, got to his feet and spent most of his speech announcing a €500 million package to be invested in business, entrepreneurship and investment. The bulk of this spend will be overseen by another right wing FG Minister, Richard Bruton. The lad’s down at IBEC and ISME would be very pleased. There was nothing in the measures to upset anyone of a right wing persuasion. No tax increases, lots of incentives no extra costs going to hit those who have solid and steady incomes. From that point of view this budget was very successful and does deserve praise.

Then the Labour Minister, Brendan Howlin got to his feet. The left wing Minister announced a series of cuts to the elderly, to the young unemployed, to medical cards, even to the dead. This was not the kind of stuff that would impress a left wing voter. One did have to wonder how FG managed to create a situation where they avoided delivering the bad news to such sectors but got to be in pole position to announce all the good stuff on the jobs front.

There was some good news for labour. Job creation is of course a priority, if only they had been allowed announce some of the spend. They did get to tell us that there will be more teachers and gardai which was a positive for their vote although whether this will be in sufficient numbers to satisfy their voters is another question. The free gp care for under 5’s was an election promise fulfilled but that did come with the tinge of hurt caused by tough medical card reviews.

What was interesting when you sat back and looked at the picture unfold was that key FG ministers, Noonan, Bruton, Varadkar, Coveney all had some great news and plans for the future. THe only FG Minister in a tight spot was the Health Minister and that is perhaps to be expected.
Labour Ministers on the other hand were all trying to defend tough decisions. Despite their best efforts to talk about the positives they were being hit by questions about their departments and those departments are the key ones for their vote. Whether it was Dole cuts, Maternity benifit cuts, Invalidity cuts, telephone allowance, bereavement grants or overseas aid, Labour will face the grilling.

No matter how much one talks about governments creating jobs there is always going to be a hole in the argument. No matter how labour would try, they will know that this morning their best friends will be right wing commentators. THeir best defenders will be found in business associations and employers groups rather than in the Trade Union halls. Thats not an easy position to find yourself.

Detractors of the Labour party will say that it no longer is a left wing party. However, within Labour itself many do still believe they are left wing and just see their role as an effort to bring some of that ideology to a situation where difficult decisions are required. They are a left wing party in a right wing government.

Many within the party will hold on believing that they have to try and continue and that things would be much worse without them. The truth is however that the more time they spend in government the more reasonable many of the policies appear, the more ministers start to think with a little bit more of the right wing mentality. That becomes a worry for the broader mass of supporters.

In Ireland and across the world many parties avoid an ideological pigeon holing for that very reason. They do not want to be bound by theory and would rather rely on trust and the ability to adapt to circumstance. Ideological parties would accuse these of not standing for anything but it can be worse to stand for something and then have to admit you can’t deliver it.

At first glance Labour avoided the big showdowns of previous years by not having any particular policy omitted like a tax on high earners for instance. But is avoiding defeat more important than fighting? Time will tell. The government will hold firm. The majority of people in Ireland have a job, a good steady income and are not thinking about retirement. These people were largely unaffected by the budget. The next opinion polls will be the test, FG will definitely expect a bounce. If Labour can get a bounce too then the strategy will have paid off handsomely. However if Labour fail to get that bounce then they may just be out of options.

How to spin the budget – a difficult political problem

The government has announced that the upcoming budget will see €2.5 billion taken out of the economy rather that the €3.1 billion that was originally targeted. They say the difference will be made up by resurgence in the Irish economy. That should sound like good news to us all.

For many weeks the figure mentioned around Leinster house was 2.8 billion so the extra reduction might signal some kind of victory for those proposing a somewhat easier budget. It allows a good news story today but it has some problems beneath the surface.

Firstly, the figure of €2.5 billion is certainly as low as the government can go without getting the troika and markets completely spooked. This means that the government is taking a bit of a political gamble. They had some options here. It could be argued that they should either cut or raise that little bit extra in order to give them a cushion in next year’s figures. It is very important that the budget figures do not go off track in the coming year and fail to meet targets as happened the last time we were in the markets. If this happens our so called return to the markets may be a short lived one.

Ireland is undoubtedly at the very limit of the austerity it can take and the government seems to have decided that it must ease this as much as it can right now and it could not afford banking anything for next year. It does mean that there is no wriggle room in these figures. Everything has to work out exactly as we predict. Unfortunately fate has not always been kind in that regard. Ireland is still at the mercy of the world economy. If things pick up there then Ireland can accelerate quickly, however if they don’t or if the world situation dips, Ireland suffers more than most.

So, a political decision has been taken and it may represent the government efforts to restore its image. Surely this is also good news for Labour? On the surface it is. There is another problem though. €2.5 billion still represents a lot of harsh cuts and taxes. The €600 million difference can look paltry by comparison. Then there is the problem of presentation. Today, labour and others can praise the fact that they eased the austerity. However, we don’t know what that easing represents. It is impossible to state now what cuts are off the table as a result of this change.

Once the budget is delivered people will be annoyed at how it affects them. Telling them it could have been even worse will not really appease that. Without being able to put extra services on, or reinstate services, then this €600 million becomes nothing more than an illusion to the voter. How does a government make a good news story on budget day? Picture the quote being ‘Yes we cut the number of teachers and will close some hospital services, but on the upside we could have been closing entire hospitals’. Doesn’t really work does it? In fact it makes you feel even worse and probably angrier.

Now the government has one short term advantage. In the modern age, Budget day itself is never as bad as we expect. We live in terror of it then we hear the headline figures and it doesn’t seem too bad. The implementation of those figures and the detail behind them only becomes apparent as the year progresses so we don’t feel the pain or anger until the budget is long over and we then start paying the price. This gives some breathing room to a government. Their main task must be to avoid a big ‘headline’ issue. Like the medical cards were for FF in the past. It must stop any single cut or tax raise causing consternation on the day. That is achieved by keeping them all a bit vague or else highly complex.

The problem with the upcoming budget is that Ireland is at its limit and the difference between €2.5 billion and €3.1 billion will be lost on many that the budget affects. The economy has been cut to the bone, services are threadbare, those on welfare are in danger of going under completely, those with mortgages are just hanging in there, those on low to middle income jobs have been squeezed so much they are ready to pop. Any move, however slight is going to hurt deep now. It wont be forgotten either.

The government will gamble that it can do this budget and the next 12 months will see a significant change in the economy and a glorious return to the markets. If it works then they can be well pleased. However, since this crisis began, every government decision has been hoping for a change in the next year. A few more stable figures and markets making demands, as opposed to the troika, might sound good to the politicians but it won’t make a jot of difference to the people. Unless it’s going to put money in their pocket they will find this hard to accept and it’s difficult to see any money arriving in pockets anytime soon.

In 1989 FF faced the country having spent the previous 2 years stabilising the economy. That government was widely regarded as having done a good job with a little help from FG in opposition. The figures were improving. FF however, lost seats, not many, but it still hurt. Despite their work, nobody cared because people were still suffering the pain. In 1992 the outgoing government was pointing to a big improvement in figures and economic growth. That election was decided by the question of trust, ethics, honesty and a desire for change. The slowly improving economy was still not putting enough money in pockets for people to forgive the government the things they held against them. In 1997, the outgoing government faced the people with the economy improving steadily, complete budgetary stability, ongoing improving growth and increased spending. They too were pushed aside as the debate raged about tax decreases and how to spend money now. In fact the only government to benefit from an economic boost was in 2002 and this was because it came at the very height of the boom when pain was a distant memory and good times were rolling. We are a long way from that point.

Seanad Referendum – A roadmap to failure

The defeat of the Seanad referendum was a major blow for Enda Kenny. Of course the government must dust itself off and move on but it will leave quite a few lingering doubts. Many within FG will be watching closely to see if Kenny and the Party at large can learn from what happened.

First of all it must be pointed out that referendums are difficult things to win. This government has a particular love of them, but that affair may be reaching a turning point. They are starting to learn what their predecessors knew; referendums are always a recipe for a surprise.

It is important to examine what happened here and to do that we must go back to the start. Enda Kenny made this proposal to abolish the Seanad in a surprise move well before the general election. There was little consultation or discussion and he shocked many in his own party by doing it. It was from the same pool of thought as many other unnecessary election promises. It was borne out of the indelible mark of fear that the FF recovery in the 2007 general election left on Kenny’s mind. Anything can and would be promised just to ensure FF could not bounce back this time. Labour was also doing well in the polls at the time and the Seanad abolition was Enda’s attempt to grab the headlines.

The idea worked well at first. So well that it looked like a hugely popular measure. When the election came, even FF decided to row in behind it as they prepared their manifesto with all the signs of a student trying to cram in all their study to the night before the exam. However, such proposals always start to weaken upon further examination. The abolition argument started to run into trouble in government when it became clear that not everyone would agree.

That said, it was still easy enough to win it. The second problem was timing. The country was not ready for this referendum. We are used to governments talking about delivering a promise over the lifetime of the government. With so many promises pushed back the public was right to wonder why the Seanad suddenly became so important. There are serious problems affecting the everyday lives of citizens in this country. Serious problems that await legislation or action from the government. The Seanad is not one of these. People do not really care, its something that can be dealt with once more important matters are attended to. The government however was eager to tick the box and show its reforming zeal so it got stuck in.

Throughout the debate we heard much talk of a uni-cameral system. This could have even won the day. There was an issue with it however. The government’s whole argument for a uni-cameral system was as a result of their need to abolish the Seanad rather than the other way around. If the government had left this referendum for another year and in the meantime designed a proper uni-cameral system with greater checks on the executive, genuine Dail reform and a proper plan for what happens post abolition then the people may have had a different view. On this the government failed. Any further changes to the Dail would be a legislative process without need for a referendum and they could not prove that their system would be any better or more efficient than what we have. For the referendum to work it had to be about more than just the Seanad it had to be about a whole new way of doing business.

Then there were the promises. The savings and the fewer politicians. Those arguments in particular pointed to a belief that the electorate wouldn’t think too deeply about this. That is always a dangerous assumption.

The defeat will now linger. Reforming the Seanad will not be easy and could even be quite messy. It’s difficult for a government to control or shape a reform it has suggested it doesn’t believe in. Who will champion it? Who wants the credit? At the same time it might appear easier to kick the can down the road of endless discussion. The problem here is that while some might say it proves that reform was impossible, it is far more likely the electorate will view it as petulance on Kenny’s behalf and an unwillingness to listen. Kenny needs the Seanad put on a firm reform path and out of his hair quickly. He doesn’t want too much time spent talking about it and reminding everyone of the defeat for years to come.

The failure of the Taoiseach to debate may not have been the deciding factor but it was a contributory one. This failure must change the approach taken in the Taoiseach’s office. Kenny was right to point out that previous Taoisigh did not take part in head to head debates on such issues. The problem is the world has changed, and people expect different things now. Precedent has gone out the window. More importantly, while former Taoisigh might not debate, at least some of them were very likely to do media interviews. It was amazing that FG did not see the opportunity to avoid a debate but to do a one to one interview instead. A big interview facing the questions and answering them could have done more than any debate for Kenny. The fear remained however, that Enda should only do tightly scripted events. This is a strategy by handlers and it’s deeply unfair to Kenny who is not nearly as bad as people make out in such situations.

One thing is for sure, the next time there is a call for a debate it must be heeded. Enda got a yellow card and a new approach to the media is now necessary. He must be more available, more engaged and less controlled if he is to stabilise and recover. If not then this could represent the beginning of the end and a gradual downward spiral towards the public and colleagues losing faith in him.

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