Johnny Fallon

Irish Political Commentator

Archive for the month “February, 2014”

Shatter-point – The Government and the Gardaí

The controversy surrounding Alan Shatter as Minister for Justice is growing. The GSOC bugging allegations were just a start. The government hoped that granting an investigation would buy time and take some of the political heat out of the matter allowing for calm and fair reflection on the issue. It was followed quickly by the controversy over the file Micheál Martin gave to Enda Kenny and Shatter’s sacking of the confidential recipient.

The problem here is that Minister Shatter could, and should, have avoided most of this trouble. As a Minister he is elected by the people, selected by the Taoiseach and paid by the Taxpayer to be the voice of the country and ensure all matters are dealt with in the best interest of the citizens. Acting as a counterweight to group think is one of the most valuable tasks a Minister can perform. However, like a lot of Ministers in the past, Alan Shatter quickly went native.

Mr Connolly, the confidential recipient who was recently sacked has assured the Whistleblowers that their evidence of corruption had been passed on to the government. If so then Minister Shatter was aware of the allegations contained in the file but no progress was made. Throughout this crisis and the GSOC affair, the minister has displayed a very close affinity with the Garda top brass. He could have been the concerned honest broker, seeking answers but wishing to be fair to all sides. Instead he chose to be very much in the corner of the Garda Commissioner and to take a very definite side. That is what has caused his current problem. There can be no doubt that no matter what he says, any Garda with information of wrongdoing will not believe that Alan Shatter wants to hear it. That means the democratic balance in the running of state security has been completely lost.

This crisis places the Labour party in a difficult position. As of now they need information and don’t want to call for Alan Shatters head unnecessarily. That means that they must express confidence in him despite doubts. Yesterday, Joan Burton complained during question time that the opposition was introducing new documents like a ‘snowstorm’. She said that the documents needed to be handed over and considered and she saw this as a matter of respect. Just consider this for a moment. Joan Burton believes that the opposition should, as a matter of respect, provide all documents they have to the government, which is correct. Yet, she went on to express confidence in a colleague who is believed to have been in possession of those same documents for 2 years and yet never shared them with her or the rest of the cabinet. You can’t have it both ways; if the right thing for the opposition to do is to hand over the files for consideration then surely it was the right thing for Minister Shatter to have done?

Enda Kenny has expressed grave concern about the contents of the file he received from Micheál Martin. Watching him speaking I could not doubt the Taoiseach’s sincerity; he looked to me like a man who was indeed worried by what he had read. The Labour party now needs to know exactly what it is dealing with before this matter goes any further. If Minister Shatter has done nothing wrong then they need to be assured of this and see the evidence. If they are to defend him then they need to know exactly what the accusations are.

Some of you might remember the ‘passports for sale’ issue in the early ’90s. Without getting into the nuts and bolts, Albert Reynolds business had availed of a government scheme at the time whereby if somebody invested over £1 million in an Irish firm resulting in jobs etc then that person could apply for a passport. Reynolds maintained that his firm acted appropriately, followed the rules and there was no wrongdoing. The matter did cause huge controversy though and led to the end of the scheme. The Labour party at that time was placed in a very difficult position. In the midst of the media storm Albert Reynolds met with Dick Spring. He assured Spring that everything was above board. Then, to underline his point Reynolds told Spring he could have full access to the files and see for himself that everything was handled as it should be. To Reynolds shock, Spring replied that he had already sought and got the file and he was satisfied that there was no impropriety. Reynolds was pleased but he learned that Dick Spring was not a man to hang about. When Spring and the Labour party were under pressure they did not wait for invitations or explanations. Eamon Gilmore and his cabinet colleagues need to assure the wider Labour party that they know exactly what’s going on and that they are fully aware of all the contents of the file before the talk again.

In opposition Alan Shatter supported the formation of the Morris Tribunal into allegations of Garda impropriety in Donegal. At the time he said the ‘matters should not be left festering’. Yet there is little doubt the current allegations have festered and been dismissed by those in power. Shatter also maintained that without his work in opposition the Minister would never have held an investigation and the terms of reference would have been ‘deficient’. Yet the Minister is open to the same allegations in this regard today. At the report of the Morris Tribunal Shatter said that the delay in establishing it had ‘contributed personally to the damage done to the reputation of the Garda Síochána, to the public perception of that force and to the difficulties that continue to be experienced by individuals to whom this State has already had to pay compensation and to some of whom compensation payments remain to be made.’ The same accusation stands today.

Opposition parties call for resignations with ease. There is no doubt that if Labour was in Opposition they too would say Alan Shatter must resign. Equally if FF or SF were in power they would be desperately trying to establish the facts before throwing a colleague overboard. Nonetheless, the situation is a grave one. The Gardai as a force are being tarnished and damaged and it is a force that contains a huge number of great and brave men and women. Those who are doing their job well need to be protected and defended. Those who besmirch the name of the force should not be tolerated. The reaction to allegations thus far is simply not good enough. It stinks of an attitude where the powers that be wish people would just shut up rather than being grateful for the chance to root out malpractice.

The political storm will continue. The cabinet, and in particular the Labour party, must be full sure that they know everything before they are asked to leap from the trenches again.


Election Shoes taking a hammering….

In my earlier post ‘Friends, Romans Countrymen, lend me your Shoes’ I gave my views on what it really takes to get elected.

I am glad to say that we have another instalment as Labour Candidate Brian McDonagh sent me this picture of the effects the election is having on a pair of shoes that were in perfect condition at the outset.


I am glad to see that some candidates out there still know the meaning of good election work. Like I said in that post, if you ever see an election worker or candidate in pristine shoes then there’s an election manager somewhere that needs to start cracking the whip.

Yes Minister – The 3 types of politicians and their advisers

Over the years there have been many movie and TV depictions of Politicians and their advisers. It is a strange relationship, often fraught with danger. Good communication is essential to politics but it is also something that is very subjective. Advising a politician can be a difficult business. To do so effectively you must have their trust and you must believe in each other’s abilities.

In my experience, for some strange reason, women can be easier to advise. I’m not sure why but they can sometimes take criticism far better and respect opinion, without falling out, to a much greater degree than their male counterparts.

The biggest problem is of course that the adviser is not the person in the cross hairs and the politician often can’t see the wood for the trees. Striking that balance is key. Just as politicians vary in style so to do advisers. Anybody in PR will tell you that there is a range of approaches and personality types in the business. I, for instance, readily admit to being difficult. I am always seeing the cloud in every silver lining. If I am asked to advise anyone, then it will always be in a ‘robust’ manner where sorting the failings is the priority. Others specialise in more delicate diplomacy and gentle nudging. Different people work better with different types.

All that said I have generally found there to be three types of politician and for the sake of discussion I thought I’d expand a little on them.

The first type is the Alpha-Pol. Now this politician sees themselves at the head of the pack. They are utterly dominant. Everybody on their team is an employee of theirs and would be nothing without them. The Alpha-pol always needs to be in control of the room. When advising you need to remember your place. You never approach an Alpha-pol head on; they must be approached from the side. If their latest policy is absolute rubbish or they are saying some half baked statement that only they could possibly believe, there is no point telling them that straight out. You must find a time and opportunity to do so. You can never let the Alpha-pol feel like you are challenging them. This means that a lot of time gets wasted. Particularly in a crisis where time is essential. Rather than being in a position to do some plain talking and get the issues ironed out, you have to bide your time gently introducing material and nudging the Alpha -pol along. Timing is everything with them. It’s a frustrating position. In the end the Alpha-pol is really beyond control, in the right circumstance you can reason with them but usually when it matters most, there isn’t time to say what needs to be done and it’s a position guaranteed to leave everyone with regrets and ‘if onlys’

Next comes the Egg. I firmly believe that the majority of politicians fall into this category. The Egg gives the impression of a strong solid exterior. It can take a certain amount of things being lightly thrown at it and still protect what’s inside. However we all know just how brittle Egg shells are. One thing that unifies nearly all politicians is a sense of ego. You need this to survive. Without it the abuse would simply devour you. The problem is that this ego needs to be stroked. Without it the shell just cracks. The politician must be reassured that they can win the election, that they have the ability and that they are right in what they say. So, when the go on Vincent Browne or Prime Time and makes a dog’s dinner of everything, you can’t meet them face on and say: ‘That was shite; we need to sort out a plan for tomorrow’. You first, have to tell them all the things they did right. You must encourage them and agree with them that it’s all just the nasty people out there conspiring to hate them. They are just misunderstood. When you have focussed on all the great points of their interview (The lovely smile to the camera, that one come back to Vincent, and telling Miriam to ‘let me finish’ that very important point), then and only then can you stick in a few add on’s about the negatives (There were a few bad comments on twitter but we can deal with that, You looked blankly at the camera and your eyes glistened but those bloody lights were so bright, you got the figures all wrong but we can issue a statement…). The Egg can do a good job but you are always advising with one hand behind your back. They struggle to see that you are in their corner and need to be reassured. There is always a risk that criticism will send them into a panic, scare them and leave them even worse the next time they go out. However, it’s a lonely job for the adviser who knows the truth but has to waste so much effort protecting the egg and trying to keep them on track. On the other hand a manipulative adviser knows that the Egg can be controlled and worked to become a manufactured thing. The problem is, such politicians are eventually found out, but hopefully not before the adviser his lined up a lucrative new deal elsewhere.

Finally there is the Rock. The rarest of all in politics. In fact so rare that you can go through years of elections and not come across one. When they do arrive though they are to be admired and are usually highly effective. The Rock cares little about the criticism because despite getting lumps knocked off them every now and then, they believe in themselves. The Rock likes to hear the good news stories and the odd compliment like the rest of us, but when it comes to business they are not interested in egotistical praise. They value the criticism. They know that the stuff they got right does not need to be improved; it’s the stuff they got wrong they want to focus on. You can hurl yourself with all the might you have at a Rock, they don’t mind. You can have a standing up row and they probably welcome it because they know you only do it to try benefiting them. Sometimes if you are strong enough you can move the position of the Rock, make it roll a different direction and that is the purpose of your job. At other times, despite your best efforts, the Rock will not budge. This means that things can go disastrously, but it also provides balance. The politician knows it’s their neck on the line and has a redline for what they believe. The adviser does their best but can only advise. Such relationships are built on mutual respect and deep friendships.

The funny thing about politics is that most politicians who read this will identify themselves as ‘Rocks’. They are not. The vast majority are Eggs whose advisers will tell them that they are Rocks. As for the few Alpha-pols well they wouldn’t waste their time reading some two bit blog piece from some jumped up nobody in the first place, and no one will dare tell them about it anyway.

Friends, Romans, Countrymen….Lend me your Shoes

To succeed in politics takes a lot of hard work and a lot of strategy. After years of campaigns and organising, these days I’m quite happy not to be in the trenches. It would take something pretty special to tempt me back into that game. Why? Because it’s relentless hard work and endless commitment if you want to organise a party or a campaign properly.

Now, the thing is these days I am often a bit of a grumpy old dinosaur. Being brutally honest, I am sick to the back teeth of listening to whippersnappers talking about Obama, Blair, Cameron and the lessons from these stellar campaigns. Every time somebody talks about elections or parties there is somebody being flown in from America or the UK who has a whole load of wonderful things to teach us about modern politics. It’s a load of old tosh. There I said it. These ‘experts’ haven’t got the first clue of how Irish politics works. They would be lost within a week and anytime they get involved in a campaign it seems to unravel in about that space of time. Politics in countries of 250 million or 80 million is very different to what it is here. In such places many people never even see their politician in the flesh. Campaign workers are only of use during the campaign there is nothing like the ’embedding’ in society that is required in Ireland. The reason for this is that with a small population, you can reach pretty much everybody personally.

Yes you need a good TV campaign. Yes you need a good Radio presence. Yes you need strong social media. But the whole lot of it is absolutely useless without organisation that can reach right into communities. A newspaper column or a TV show will not influence your local voters like the neighbour that they trust and respect can. That’s why you need that neighbour on your side. Irish Parties in a rush to try employ new tactics have slowly but surely started to forget this and that is part of their greatest weakness today. ‘Experts’ will always tell you the brilliance of their high level strategy….otherwise you wouldn’t pay then the big fat fee to come up with your slogan.

Nothing can replace the power of the properly organised canvass. There is not a person in Ireland who did not shake hands, or have the opportunity to shake hands, with Bertie Ahern. Irish politicians still operate in a system where it’s possible to meet everyone. A couple of degrees of separation are all that exist between us and any Taoiseach at any given time. If you don’t understand how Irish political organisations developed and thrived then there is no point in applying new systems or messages. Slogans and colour schemes are great. What wins elections is pure hard work. In fact its bloody slavery. You work with volunteers and there is no down time. It is every minute of the day, its preparation, organisation, review. It’s out in wind or snow or shine. Kids watching too many movies think that the people who win elections for you are on big salaries, wear fancy suits, bring hordes of laptops and presentations and sit in fancy rooms strategising and ‘managing the message’. It’s a load of old codswallop. The people that win an election for you are those that lick the envelopes and go out and do the small demeaning tasks. The leaflet drops, the canvassing, fighting your corner during the pub chat, the tweets, the letters to the editor, the following up on behalf of their neighbour.

If I was organising a campaign then the time spent in a room nice and cosy would be very little. Decisions should be taken quickly and I’d be biting the head off everyone who slowed down or stopped for their caramel bloody macchiato while out dropping the leaflets in the rain.

Anyway I am looking to our local election candidates to show us what it’s all really about. I always judge those who worked on a campaign with me by their shoes. If they have one pair and they remain in good condition then they need a bollocking. So if you are a candidate I want you to send me the pics of your shoes……over the next few months tweet them to me @jonnyfallon and help restore my faith. I am starting with two candidates…Noel Rock and Samantha Long…both from FG as it happens but I’m sure other people will be along….They have sent me these snaps of their shoes and I must say it does my heart good.

nrock shoes

Footie Fun…Is David Moyes Brian Cowen?

Everyone remembers the comparisons between Gordon Brown and Brian Cowen. Both men had some striking career similarities. However, it may be just as much to do with the problems of taking over a vessel that has had a popular captain but is starting to leak when he leaves. So with tongue firmly in cheek I was thinking yesterday about the similarities between Brian Cowen and David Moyes…the new manager at Manchester United. In particular I was wondering if Moyes might yet find away to avoid the fate of someone like Brian Cowen.

First of all let’s take the good careers of both men. Cowen was a long standing Minister, served in several of the most important ministries. He was a very safe pair of hands, while several of his colleagues lurched from crisis to crisis, Cowen seemed to avoid disaster and remain in control. Even his political opponents described him as ‘intelligent’ and ‘formidable’. They might say he lacked some delicate personality skills but they respected him.
Moyes has been a manager in the top flight and proved that he can survive. While many managers come and go at both bigger and lesser clubs, Moyes proved at Everton that he was a safe pair of hands. He was recognised for being level headed and smart in how he approached things. He got into the odd row but he always seemed to be in control. While across the city of Liverpool, other managers were struggling at Anfield Moyes seemed to have a relative sea of calm.

The one thing that could be said negatively about Brian Cowen before he became Taoiseach was that he was not a trailblazer. He liked to facilitate, consult and listen to advice. He was not a man to come up with new or outstanding policies in his own right, nor was he a natural risk taker. He could be tough but there would be no major policy victories that would be attributed to him alone. He introduced lots of good legislation but it was never stuff that would go down in history as ‘his idea’ or due solely to his leadership.

Moyes did an incredible job at Everton given the resources; at least that is what everyone was saying. The one criticism was that he had never really won anything. He had a long list of impressive performances but no trophies. This led to question marks over his leadership and as to whether he could really inspire as well as just manage a team.

Brian Cowen took over from Bertie Ahern. Ahern had held the best record of any leader in modern Irish politics. He was popular, electorally successful; he had been at the helm for 14 years of stunning achievements. Cracks were just starting to show though. Popularity was slipping to new lows, problems were on the horizon.

Moyes took over from Ferguson. The most successful Manager in the modern game. Ferguson was a hero who led his side to 20 year of unprecedented success, trophies and stunning results. Some problems were evident. United were not quite as dominant as they once were and although they won the league last season it was generally recognised the team was not as strong as some of the previous illustrious squads.

Bertie Ahern announced Brian Cowen as his anointed one. Some in cabinet, like Dermot Ahern, were rumoured to be very annoyed at the manner in which Ahern did this. He made it impossible for anyone to challenge Cowen. Once he had given his blessing, Cowen was a shoo in.

Alex Ferguson made David Moyes his Chosen one. This brought huge pressure for Moyes and made sure that the search for a successor was a short one.

Brian Cowen was often described as an incredibly ‘unlucky’ Taoiseach. One problem after another hit as soon as he took over. The ‘pork crisis’ was a perfect example of a matter outside of his control that just side swiped the government. However, whether it was the economy, Banking, storms or a host of other issues that hit there was a feeling that Cowen just could not get a break. Those close to him blamed this bad luck. It became an excuse.
Moyes has been hit by a series of injuries, deflected goals, near misses and other plain bad luck. There is a lot of talk about if and when the team is fit, if and when luck changes and much of United’s current crisis has been put down to some bad luck. It has become an excuse when things just aren’t going well enough.

Cowen became belligerent, determined to block out other voices. He ended up spending big to save the banking sector but it could not save his reputation. It’s all well and good taking a decision like that but it backfires if it’s not the right decision.

Moyes is increasingly unwilling to accept the faults within the game play at United. He has now spent big to bring Mata to United. He is a special player but most commentators believe he is not what United needed, but Moyes isn’t listening to commentators. A lot will depend on how this signing works out and if United can improve on the back of it.

Finally, it all came to a grubby end for Brian Cowen. Ousted before an election. He did get a nice termination payment and pension in line with his contract. Some still are annoyed about that.

Moyes still deserves a shot at turning things around at United. There is still hope for him. He just needs to get control and start listening. There are a lot of problems to be overcome but United still have a squad that’s better than their results. If Moyes can get it right then things can change. However, if like Brian Cowen he continues down the line of Bunker mode then he will not last. In that case the United fans will have to accept a parting of the ways and a likely 6 or even 7 digit payout to say good bye to the Chosen one.

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