Johnny Fallon

Irish Political Commentator

Archive for the month “December, 2013”

Goodbye 2013 – A review of the year

It’s always nice to look back at the year that has passed us. We always hope to learn something but, in reality, we rarely do. Still 2013 brought us some big news stories and here, for what it’s worth is my review of it.

2013 started out in the shadow of the murder of Garda Aidan Donohoe. It shocked a nation. For a while it made us step back from the all too easy position we often take in Ireland of berating the gardai and accusing them of all sorts. There is no doubt that like any police force the Gardai have had their share of bad eggs, but it has also had a lot of heroes. Men and women who do a difficult job and in the main they do actually do it well. January 2013 saw a lot of us recognise this and it was only a shame that it took such a tragic event to make it happen. Of course it didn’t last long, in no time at all people in politics and media were back to accusing the entire force of being corrupt and worthless.

We also saw the release of the McAleese report into the Magdalene laundries. Enda Kenny made an error at first by stalling due to the usual government fear about compensation. He got a second chance though and managed to deliver a strong apology and a compensation scheme that was only right. The Magdalene laundries forced us as a state to look at ourselves. It forced us to start accepting some responsibility. In a country where we jump to blame the Vatican, a politician or anybody else, we finally started to admit that it was we the people and the state as a whole that failed. Those at fault for the abuses took advantage of our failures and must be held responsible but if we ever want to learn we have to accept our own part in. The state facilitated all those and it did so with the calm imprimatur of the people. That was the shame we had to face.

We got a new Pope in 2013 also. The world was in a kind of awe at the election. Even those who were not of a religious persuasion could not help being fascinated by it all. Even from a historical perspective the traditions and ceremony that surrounded it all dating back 2,000 years was enthralling for the nerds among us. Of course we all watched for the white smoke on webcams and passed the time watching seagulls dancing on the top of the chimney. Pope Francis has made a good start in his job since then. He is far more open than Benedict was and may yet set some challenges for the church itself as it interacts with the modern world.

On the other hand the world said goodbye to Margaret Thatcher. She is a long time gone from centre stage and yet her death brought so much emotion to the surface. Some mourned her while others celebrated her death. It is rare to see any democratic western leader’s passing met with such emotions. I kept thinking that it was a bit like the passing of some South American dictator. She may have always expected that it would be so, but personally I’d rather go quietly and unnoticed than have all that at my death.
The Boston Marathon bombings were worldwide news. It is always so shocking to see families and ordinary lives destroyed in such a callous manner. What got me a little bit more about the news story were those who tried to find a way to excuse it. One set made a very valid point about the amount of ordinary civilians killed and maimed in places like Iraq. This is true and I can understand it but it still doesn’t make it right. Yes media coverage was greater but so too were the amount of people in western countries with links to places like Boston. It doesn’t make what happens in Iraq any less valid and only points to the fact that we should perhaps take a greater interest in events there rather than suggesting we cover news from the US less. What really annoyed me however, was the conspiracy theorists on facebook and other places spouting nonsense about how it was all a set up and staged by the government etc. Thankfully there weren’t many but you do have to worry for the few that there was. It was repulsive and said a lot about their minds.

We got a real dose of the Obama love in 2013. The G8 came to Fermanagh and it all caused a bit of a stir. Now being honest I don’t have much interest in stuff like the G8. It always seems to me that it is a group of very powerful people who hold very long meetings and are unable to reach a definite decision on anything. It was a bit of a yawn fest, with fancy statements released and ‘ground breaking’ contacts but did we notice any change in our lives after? No. Could these people actually solve a lot of problems if they wanted? Yes. Will they ever do it? Maybe, but no right now. I like Obama, he has been a better candidate that anyone they have put up against him. Mind you I don’t have the fawning love so many have for him. His presidency has been all a bit ‘meh’. He is a fine orator in the formulaic sense, but he is not exactly the most inspiring I’ve ever heard. He seems like a decent enough bloke but do I see anything different in him? Not really. Could he be from the same political party as George W Bush? Well I can’t tell much difference but then every president looks the same to me.

Then there was the Royal baby. I have to say I had as much interest in this story as I would have in a soggy Mars bar on the floor of a Dublin Bus on a wet Thursday afternoon. Fans of the royals loved it. Fans of the celebrity world loved it. I don’t mind that, each to their own. I am however a republican at heart. The idea of monarchies I find offensive. The idea that one child can become head of state because of their blood and deny all others that chance by the same reason is simply insane in my book. We live in an unequal world its true, but at least I can cling to the hope that we aspire to make it more equal not actively block it. A family and child that will survive in great comfort thanks to the hard work and taxes of ordinary people with far less while actually doing nothing apart from showing up at events is a crazy situation. But, hey, not my business. Lots of people like celebrities and their babies but I would say that at least if you make a movie or write a song you are kind of earning your money and adulation. Anyway the royal baby, George Alexander, was welcomed to the world and I wish him well. Maybe he will put it all to a vote one day.

Speaking of celebrities it was the year we all learned about ‘Twerking’. Miley Cyrus caused quite a stir across the world. We heard a lot of talk that she was going off the rails. I really hope not, I don’t listen to music much but I do know she is an incredibly talented young lady. I would certainly not want my daughter doing what she did but I also remember a certain Kylie Minogue shocking parents and fans when she shed her teeny bop image to prance around the stage seductively in her underwear. Everyone thought that was wrong but within a few years Kylie had reinvented herself and could go back to a more normal style with a mature reputation firmly established. Miley got some advice from Sinead O’Connor who showed us all that she still loves writing letters. Sinead also showed us that a letter says a lot more than a tweet (who knew?). Sinead also proved that even if you don’t want her advice and don’t reply to her letters she will keep sending them to you.

Trappatoni left the Ireland manager hotseat. It was time. There could be no doubting that whatever he achieved at first was not going to be built on. Eventually we got Martin O’Neill with a surprise side kick in Roy Keane. Early results are not too bad. We can hope for the best and should qualify for the Euros. O’Neill is a solid manager who knows how to work with ‘limited’ players….and we have a lot of those. Most importantly we can dare to hope that we might at least become a team that is hard to beat again. I can accept being beaten by better sides 1-0 or 2-0 but there is rarely any excuse for repeatedly conceding large scorelines against any opposition.
2013 also saw the rather embarrassing situation of children being taken from their parents because they don’t look like them. The Irish state was left with serious egg on its face after these incidents. Of course it’s all batted away by saying ‘better safe than sorry’. Eh no, I don’t think so. Those poor children must have been traumatised beyond belief at what happened. Several options were available that could have allowed tests be carried out without swooping and removing the child. We can only hope we really do learn here and it doesn’t happen again.

The government finally managed to legislate for the X case after 20 years and 2 referendums. It was thought that the legislation would pose major problems for Fine Gael but in the end, although it lost a few TDs, the party handled it quite well. If anything it should us that conservative opinion in Ireland is changing. While many may not agree with abortion they are equally tired of debating it for decades and have resigned themselves to the idea that such a moral choice is up to each individual. There will be more cases and bigger debates to come on this issue but for now, in my opinion the Irish people were glad to see it finally off their agenda. It was a big boost for many in labour for whom this was a critical issue.

It was another year of rumour and counter rumour about a deal on Ireland’s debt. We are none the wiser and look set for more of the same next year. The truth is, nobody has put a proposal on the table. No country has sought to build support for a measure to be put to Germany. We are all just heading over to meetings and nodding and asking politely until Germany wakes up and smells the coffee. We all hope not to offend Germany in the meantime and resist shoving the coffee up its nose. However, with German elections out of the way perhaps there is hope. Maybe the Greeks yet again will force the issue.

The Labour party continued to struggle in the polls although with recent good economic news they have shown signs of life. Colm Keaveney resigned and did a good job of that I might add. His subsequent joining of FF was not quite as well managed but time will tell how that will work out. Keaveney certainly raised a lot of eyebrows, mine included. FF seem of late to be waking up to the fact that party support has stagnated. They are 18moths behind the news here but perhaps in another 18 months they might get around to doing something about it. FG is looking at more positive poll result too, everything depends on markets, a precarious growth prediction and a very very tight budget but if it comes off….well it will be quite the achievement. It would make us all very happy; we all desperately need this economy to pick up. Well me in particular anyway!

Finally we said goodbye to the Troika. Well …Kind of. They are actually staying and the EU will be meeting with us every 6 months but at least all the very open stuff is gone. We can go back to the markets and pretend we are big boys again. Michael Noonan said we can’t go mad again. He is of course very correct. We did say the same in the early ’90’s though and look what happened. No, this time we have learned, we really can’t go mad again. All that happened was down purely to corruption and incompetence wasn’t it? We can avoid that now. We will not go mad. As we watch the backdrop of house prices starting to rise in Dublin, complaints beginning elsewhere of something needing to be done to help stop the divide growing with the rest of the country, as the debate starts its embryonic stages about the need for tax cuts to stimulate jobs, as we demand that banks start lending to help boost business and allow people afford a home, as we call for reversals of cuts, better resources, more teachers, nurses, Gardai, as we strenuously oppose wealthy individuals paying more because we need to attract them and their money, as we fear industry leaving our shores and offer it anything to stay, as we look to back anyone who will tell us they can create jobs, don’t take their money let them use it and invest it…….Sure it will all be grand…….

20 Years Ago – Why Downing Street Declaration mattered….

Its 20 years ago this week since the Downing Street Declaration was signed. It is an event that deserves to be marked. We might remember the declaration itself, but some of the other events around that time are forgotten. In the weeks before the negotiations British customs intercepted a shipment of 300 AKM Assault rifles and 2 tonnes of explosives bound for the UVF. That is the kind of shipment meant for serious warfare. That is the kind of event we were used to. On November 30th, a catholic man was shot dead by the UFF in Belfast while in Armagh security forces defused a 2,000lb bomb. Events all too familiar to us back then. Two days later as Reynolds and Major met in Dublin another 1,000lb IRA bomb was defused in Belfast. Over the following four days the UFF would murder 3 more Catholic men, two outside a taxi depot and one in his home.

An Irish Times survey found that while Catholics backed the talks between Major and Reynolds only 37% of Protestants trusted them to continue. By the 12th of December the IRA had shot dead two RUC officers. On December 13th the UFF shot a man it claimed was an informer. On the eve of the joint statement on December 15th, a 1,500lb IRA bomb was defused in Belfast where a 78 year old woman died of a heart attack as the area was evacuated.
I could carry on the list. That is the backdrop to the Downing Street Declaration. That is the everyday series of events we all took for granted. A shooting in the USA or in France might have caused children to look up from their homework and pay attention to the news, but in Northern Ireland it was just taken with a certain numbness that was chilling. Leaders have a difficult job. Against such a backdrop there was every good political reason for Major and Reynolds to avoid getting to embroiled in this situation. Everyone said you can’t trust the IRA or the loyalist paramilitaries. So many in Britain wanted to punish the IRA, crush them. So many in Ireland didn’t want to give an inch to loyalism. It was a stalemate but at least there was no political risk in a stalemate. People died, but it was simple enough to keep blaming the terrorists and avoid dealing with the problem.

The Downing Street Declaration was an attempt by two governments to show a new face and to bring about a fresh and realistic effort to engage all sides. On its own it seemed like it was just another political statement. A worthy one and a helpful one but in isolation it was not seen as a complete game changer. The violence would not stop. The killings would go on. The politicians could praise their own efforts but would it be seen as anything more than just talk?

I remember talking to many people at that time who said that while the declaration was a good thing it changed nothing and that those who fought on both sides in Northern Ireland had no interest in peace. I was not too sure either way, but in the days after the declaration was signed I put it to Albert Reynolds that perhaps it would not lead to anything more, but even so it was a crowning achievement for him personally. He waved his hands and dismissed the idea of it being an achievement. ‘It’s a start’ he said ‘the door is open now; everything depends on where we go from here.’ Albert was never a man to hang about. John Major did not have an easy time changing British policy from the intransigence of Thatcher. He had to tread carefully and had a lot to lose. People on his side were far less supportive of the idea of a peace process that might give the IRA something.

In the end what mattered to both men was a firm belief that no matter what, the everyday narrative of death and murder was abhorrent and had to stop. Lives were being wasted and an attempt to save them was worth the risking of any political career. For too long politicians talked tough and took insufficient risks in what was really an effort to stay well clear of what was necessary to bring a solution.

It was once said of the great General Hannibal that he was a man who knew how to gain a victory but was not quite sure what to do with it. The opposite was very much the case with the Downing Street Declaration. It was a victory for democratic politics and negotiation but more importantly, in the years that followed, the governments (and a generation of people in Northern Ireland) did not rest on their laurels; they pushed ahead and used that opportunity to make it so much more than a political statement. It became the foundation for ceasefires, agreements and peace and to this day it enshrines much of what must be accepted in Northern Ireland if it is continue to chart a peaceful path into the future.

Can the government recover its popularity?

As the Christmas season gets underway the news on the political front has been remarkably quiet. Yes we had the Labour conference, the Keaveney transfer, and of course the sad news of Nelson Mandela’s passing. However, since the budget there has not been a huge amount of domestic political stories. This is very good news for the government. A former government press secretary once told me that when working for a government the best news day is a day when you don’t feature at all.

There has also been some encouraging economic news. It’s by no means a complete change or a guarantee that all is improving, but it is a ray of hope. Even the Labour party managed to gain a couple of points in the last opinion poll.

All this suggests that the government will be pretty content as things stand. They may even dare to be optimistic. Waving the troika goodbye will be another good stunt. The government is well aware that it does not mean a lot in reality as the EU remains in a supervisory capacity, it’s only the IMF that’s really departing. The point is though that it marks another step in terms of progress. The government knows that symbolism and hope mean a lot in difficult times. Not much will change in terms of policy but it at least allows people to trust that the government may have a plan and direction that are working.

2014 will be a test. After years of problems with banks Ireland can hope that the latest stress tests will prove that we have got to the bottom of the problem. This will indeed be progress. Any problems or holes in the banks finances could spell disaster for all the hope and economic talk. Ireland also needs the markets to have faith and to avoid interest rates nudging upwards. The government requires more patience from the people. It is a fragile time and they cannot afford to let markets think that post bailout Ireland is going to return to pleasing the electorate. These are all big risks that could upset the best laid plans of the government. There is no doubting though that a certain pride and swagger has returned to the government step as they can finally see a path through the trees no matter how treacherous it may be.

The question is can the government recover in the opinion polls? The answer depends on what a recovery might be. Labour showed faint signs of life, but it’s still within the margin of error. When parties fall so low it is very difficult to see them regaining a major share of the vote without drastic change. That said, if they can hold on to recent gains, get some improvement in the economy and bring some new faces to cabinet with a renewed message, then perhaps they might pull something back.

Fine Gael has lost a large portion of the vote they gained in 2011. It’s difficult to see it returning en masse but they will gamble all on an economic recovery. If unemployment does fall back below 10% in the lifetime of this government and if they can sort out James Reilly’s problems in Health, then FG should be confident of remaining the largest party in the state and crucially staying ahead of FF while retaining some of the ‘old’ FF vote.

The opposition still seem confused. It’s a difficult job. The public have been burned too many times by empty promises and wild reforms (even by the current government). They want a far more realistic approach from the opposition, but how do you do that while still opposing the government in crucial areas?

Fianna Fail began its recovery effort after the 2011 election. It had some success but as soon as the party recovered a couple of points the old habits returned. Caution became the name of the game. The party still lacks real energy or direction. It is a party that badly needs to focus. The problem is that the more Micheal Martin and others turn to face the general public and try to woo the electorate the more the cracks appear within the party itself. FF needs to be out there fighting for every vote but it does not appear to me like the time spent renewing the party internally has resulted in any kind of real change or vigour. Everything still hinges on the Leader and the parliamentary party.

Sinn Fein remains stuck where they were within a couple of months of the 2011 election. Given the economic circumstances this is just not good enough. After all that has happened, for SF to consistently trail FF in the opinion polls is a sign that something is very wrong. Now you can blame the electorate and call them names, you can blame the media and shout about agendas, you can praise your own people till kingdom come but it won’t change the facts. Politics is about knowing your own weaknesses and addressing them. Ignoring them or trying to argue them away is a sign of failure. Sinn Fein needs change. It has a very strong base if only it could reach out and take the next vital steps. It will not do that unless it starts to listen to people outside of its own bubble. It must be willing to listen to harsh criticism and face problems.

Most importantly, any government needs to be held to account. Whatever we think of the current administration they are following a policy line and they are committed to it. Questions must always be asked, and governments need to fear questions and debate at times, this is a healthy thing. However, so long as FF, SF and Independents remain in their current state it is difficult to see a coherent opposition. Both FF and SF are so concerned with each other that they have little time to oppose the government. SF in particular is keen to distance itself from every other party. This won’t work. IF FF and SF are intent on avoiding anything that might help or support the other party then they will inevitably end up backing the government at the most inopportune of times.

An opposition does not need to be close or even intend ever going into government together in order to work together. There is no need for a ‘Mullingar Accord’, indeed such a development is a bad thing. They must admit that they need each other for now. With such a small opposition, if they cannot trust each other and find some common ground then they are doomed to be swept aside by the government.
As for Independents, well, it’s hard to criticise when their poll ratings are higher than they have ever been. That said, there is no guarantee that each independent is as popular as the polls suggest. Those that work their constituency may hold their own. Those that wish to talk at a national level need to be aware that there will be problems come an election. 2011 was very unusual. The next election may see economic debate polarised in terms of recovery rather than a state of complete disillusionment. The independent who may have got lots of support for their national views in 2011 may find the parties squeeze them out in the next election by framing the debate differently.

Its 5 months until the local elections. It’s time for all sides to gear up.

Keaveney, my positon…….

The news that Colm Keaveney TD will join Fianna Fail has come as a surprise to many. As some of you will be aware I have worked as a consultant to Colm Keaveney over the last number of months. In that time my work was concerned with electoral analysis, branding and organisational advice. Over the course of those months I produced analysis, writing and advice on such matters. Our work reached a natural conclusion at the end of November where any further steps were dependent on the decisions Colm would take as regards running in European elections, policy areas and constituency work.

I was aware that some discussion had taken place with Fianna Fail but this was outside anything I had influence over. As a professional I am in the business of keeping clients and there was no personal benefit for me in seeing a client move to a party where he would have access to researchers and press advisers. It is also the case that there was no benefit I could bring to any discussion and my relationship with many in FF might best be described as ‘fraught’. At no point was I ever contacted by anybody in FF about this matter.

Colm was aware that any such move might place me in a difficult position and as a result he never asked me or informed me of what was happening with Fianna Fail. Our relationship was purely professional and his own decisions regarding his political future were always a matter for himself and his family. He contacted me last night out of courtesy to inform me of his decision.

Over the last few months I have enjoyed working with Colm and his team. I would have no hesitation in working with him again, however his need for such advice is lessened by his involvement with a party that has its own internal resources. From that perspective the move could not be seen as any benefit to me personally.
I would like to take this opportunity to wish Colm every success with his future

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