Johnny Fallon

Irish Political Commentator

Archive for the month “March, 2014”

Callinan, Shatter and bad political choices

The resignation of Martin Callinan had become inevitable. The focus now moves to Alan Shatter who backed Callinan at every opportunity and in every action. The real irony of all this is that it’s a political crisis that should have been avoided by anyone with a modicum of political foresight.

Firstly, Alan Shatter never had any need to take the side of Martin Callinan so stringently. He could easily have been the democratically elected honest broker listening to the whistleblower concerns and ensuring they were heard while also ensuring that the views of the Garda hierarchy were known and proper procedures followed. Instead he opted to take sides and fight shoulder to shoulder with the Commissioner. Even after the Commissioner made his ‘disgusting’ comment. This now draws Shatter into a political mess he could and should have avoided.

As the issues rumbled on it became clear that people were not happy with Callinan and his remarks. The evidence did not back him up. Ministers know that eventually everything comes back to them. Leo Varadkar saw this. He was having none of it. If the Commissioner had mucked up then he was not going to taint Leo’s reputation by association. Leo did the right thing, he said straight out what needed to happen. By doing so he was saving not only himself but the public perception of the government. This in turn created a problem for the Labour party. If an FG minister was saying this then surely they, as a party seen as holding FG to account, should also be doing something. Joan Burton was quick to lead Labour through the gap. At this stage they recognised that the time for being cosy with FG was not right now. Eamon Gilmore followed too, even though he prides himself on his good relationship with Enda.

Then came the next inexplicable miscalculation. Enda Kenny had a choice. He could simply say that ‘Ministers’ have a view that will be taken into account, but that all matters would be dealt with by the Cabinet at the next meeting’. Instead Enda chose to admonish the Ministers. He said that they should only air their views at the cabinet table. That was a direct slap on the wrist. He was effectively telling them he was the boss and they were naughty children. Now, this would not bother Leo as he is playing a longer game. He can afford to smile and pass it off. However, Enda Kenny might be Taoiseach but he is not the Leader of the Labour party. In that instant he treated ministers and the Tánaiste like mere FG backbenchers to be told what to do. It was striking that within a couple of hours an experienced Minister like Quinn went out and spoke in direct defiance of Enda Kenny’s edict. The message was clear, ‘you are not the boss of us’.

While Labour Ministers may wish to spend as long as possible around the cabinet table they will not witness the disintegration of their party. Such an event will happen if backbenchers and grassroots feel an utter capitulation on their hands. Economic matters are one thing where little choice might be argued to exist, but this is another matter entirely.

Once this occurred it became impossible for Callinan not to be forced to act either in apologising or resigning. Labour now holds all the cards. Enda, through his own poor choice, has landed himself here. He now has another decision. If he wants to keep Shatter then he must assure Labour that it is worth their while. This means Labour can exact a price for their support. Whether it is reforms, legislation or budgetary measures, they have a chance now.

On the other hand Enda may decide that FG should not get compromised like that. This means that if Labour doesn’t wish to support Shatter then Enda will see him resign. This will create tension with some but it also means the crisis would be over and can move on with no baggage carrying forward to the next negotiation.

This government has a good relationship. Enda and Eamon get along very well indeed. Perhaps too well for some of their grassroots support. However, it is a salutary lesson; you can never take a good relationship for granted. Events overtake things and it’s very easy for a simple issue to spiral. Labour knows now, that at times they are taken for granted and they also know the strength the can hold if they desire to use it. It’s a small shift; the government can and should overcome it. The question is will they learn the lesson or repeat the mistake out of blindness?


A shocking tale…how TD’s often abuse the rights of their own staff

A TD’s office is a busy place. The role of the parliamentary assistant is central to its operation. A TD relies on the person in this role to keep things going, deal with queries and run the show behind the scenes. However, the story of these assistants is not always a pretty one.

Unfortunately most are selected from party membership ranks or people in local communities and this means that if they speak out it is seen as disloyal and negative. Over the last few months I spoke to over 20 people who either are now, or were, parliamentary assistants and what they told me was troubling. However, despite my best efforts none of them were willing to talk publicly about the issues. It would either cause friction in a local community, falling out with other friends, ruin their own budding political opportunities or they just didn’t want to give opponents the chance to say something negative.

In an age when we talk about whistleblowers the cloak of silence that covers parliamentary assistants is worrying, because right at the heart of our democracy is a group that feels talking out about some serious injustices would only mean severe personal repercussions for them.

TD’s can hire and fire these assistants at will. They are given no job protection whatsoever. Technically, if the TD is in a party it is the party that is the employer but in reality the TD has complete control. A number of assistants told me of situations where a party told them outright that they could not bring any grievance to them and it was a matter only for their TD. Over the years several Assistants have been dismissed from roles with often only the flimsiest of excuses. For example one TD is reported to have dismissed an assistant suddenly and with little explanation only to replace them with a partner some weeks later. Another story was told of how a TD told an assistant they would no longer be needed as the office didn’t require it and then put a family member in the role.

Anyone who follows politics knows that it is a 24 hr job. Stories can break at any time and situations often demand work outside of office hours. Several assistants told me of difficulties for some in getting overtime payments paid. Some TD’s take the view that the overtime is not necessary but at the same time if the work is not done it will be the fault of the Assistant. Therefore several are forced to work overtime and not claim for it. This in turn helps TD’s to keep the expense level down.

During the recent economic crisis the amount of available overtime for assistants was cut in an effort to reduce costs. This might seem reasonable until it turns out that the only discussion that took place on it was between the Oireachtas and the parliamentary Chairpersons…or TD’s. This means that the Assistants had their hours cut but without any input or discussion, instead their employers made the deal.

It would also appear that the problems have been getting worse due to the high turnover of staff after the 2011 general election. An Assistant who has been in the job for many years may have a handle on their entitlements but the huge volume of new assistants, right across all parties, are struggling to come to terms with their rights and nobody is too eager to tell them. A major weakness in the system is the adversarial nature of politics, as the assistants find themselves divided and pitted against other party staff. This fear and lack of trust ensures that they never come together on the issue.

Several Assistants were at pains to point out that a large number of TD’s are very good and fair employers but there are some who are abusing the system and the absolute power it gives them over assistants and this leaves everyone with a fear for how things work.

One former Assistant spoke to me of how they applied for the job and agreed the work to be carried out. However, once in the job the role changed completely from what was described and involved several tasks that they had been told were clearly not part of their work. This individual had left another good role to take up this position based on the undestanding the TD had given them about the opportunity. The role involved nothing of the work and experience that the person wanted and had been agreed and when they approached the TD about this saying the current tasks would not help them in their career at all and that they wished to do more of the research they were hired for, the TD replied ‘well these are the tasks I need done and that’s that, if you want to say you did other stuff on your CV that’s fine I don’t mind, but this is the way it is.’

So with people losing jobs, no rights as regards hours and overtime, surely there is an issue for Unions here? Well that was my first port of call. Most seem to be members of SIPTU. I contacted SIPTU a number of times and left messages but none of my calls were returned. In the meantime, one assistant told me that she had complained to SIPTU about unfair practices only to receive a few print outs of rights and laws and was told to keep talking to her TD. The perception is that SIPTU does not want to get embroiled in rows with political parties and TDs. The parliamentary assistants group is small and simply not worth the hassle if the Unions were to end up in a protracted battle with several TDs that they may need to lobby on other much bigger issues.

One current Assistant told me ‘The TD controls everything, if they are sound, then you are ok but you never know when they might change their mind. There is absolutely nothing to fall back on, anyone here could be called in and told “you are gone” tomorrow and there is not a thing you can do. The work you do is entirely up to the TD and there’s no input as regards the conditions or manner of work. Many TD’s are fine and that keeps things together but there are several who really take advantage and anyone has to feel for a colleague that is used like that.’

So it would seem that all is not well within the corridors of power and that this small group of workers must continue without any proper backing. A former assistant put it well ‘Nobody really cares about you, some of the things that go on are crazy, but if you speak out then you let down not just that TD but the party and a whole circle of friends who think you should just get on with it. There is no other walk of life where a group of workers would be treated like that, but, at the end of the day, who’s going to listen?’

Fianna Fail – No pain, No Gain

A month or two after the 2011 general election I met with Micheál Martin. He was talking to everybody and anybody about Fianna Fail and what the future held for them. At that meeting I outlined two scenarios for his party. The first was a dramatic and sweeping change, brutally implemented, requiring steady nerves and much leadership. It was a strategy designed to use the still massive FF organisation and would see big changes in how political parties distribute power and would be fraught with rows and arguments. The advantage was that if it was successful it could return FF to the pinnacle of Irish politics in a relatively short period of time and possibly change how political parties worked for a long time to come. The downside was that if the leadership was not there or if the strategy failed, FF could be left worse than they were and might even disintegrate. The higher the stakes the bigger the prize if you win.

The second strategy was to ensure FF survival. This was the approach of steady caution. Taking time, discussing and not doing anything too dramatic. Some quick window dressing and nice speeches and let time do its work. The advantage of this was that it would ensure FF survival probably for at least 25/30 years. The downside was that with this approach FF would never regain its dominance of Irish politics, It could survive but it would spend the rest of it existence fighting with other growing parties, juggling the also ran tag, and making up numbers. Over time it would shed some of that big organisation as not ‘being necessary to modern politics’. Eventually it might even be subsumed into another party or disappear gradually, but not now. Its current existence would be assured.

From what I knew of the FF grassroots, back in the day, I was convinced they would want option 1. They would rather go down swinging with flames all about rather than be condemned to some political half life that they use to pity other parties for. Personally, I also felt it was a better approach because I despair of how all Irish political parties that once could have taught the world how to organise have slipped into a pattern of aping British and American politics and become nothing more than boring marketing strategies.

Anyway, I think everyone can see the route FF took. They are still with us. Have they dealt with the problems of the past or the economic accusations? Absolutely not. They think they have and want to move on but it’s just not true. Dealing with it means apportioning responsibility, identifying exact decisions and errors, and facing up to personal failings. That means rows. It means hurting people. They don’t feel strong enough to do that so they avoid any split by just not talking about it.

I also said publicly at the time that the problem with the cautious approach and the advice FF was taking was that Martin was keeping things upbeat while he was touring the grassroots and energising them. This in time helped to give FF a little mild poll boost. But quite clearly the same advisers would eventually tell FF to ‘stop navel gazing’ and get back out there. Martin duly obliged right on schedule. The very weakness so many predicted was then laid bare. If Martin was not touring the grassroots anymore, energising them, focusing them and promising new reforms, then who was? Who replaced Martin when he turned back to his job as a public figure? Amazingly nothing had changed internally except a cut in staff numbers due to resources. The only change that was much heralded was a shift to one member one vote. This was welcome but it had nothing to do with where FF went wrong. Their old internal voting system was not the issue. Bad decisions, too much concentration of power, and inflexibility at the top was. Did the rules for the parliamentary party change? No. Did the roles and responsibilities of its internal staff change? Only on the surface. The cautious approach demands continuity and ensuring that things don’t get to alien at stressful times. Therefore widespread change in how FF works was not possible. Survival is the name of the game.

FF now remains stagnant. It still has a decision to make about whether to continue on this current course or try to change. Micheal Martin has yet another Ard Fheis were people will be watching for signals. The only question that is really left to answer is whether anything of its old self remains within FF. Whether anyone has the courage to take of the swim rings and go for it. New policies are often hard to find for small parties, mostly because they lack the numbers. Right now FF is in that position. A parliamentary party and a few researchers that can fit into a room will only be able to come up with a limited amount of policy. Where FF has an advantage is that it still has a big organisation if only it knew what to do with it. Put simply if you want to know how to improve social welfare payments one of the best experts you can talk to is someone on a dole queue. If you want tax strategies or policies for business talk to people involved. FF has these within its ranks, but it has no real mechanism for them to assist with policy formulation. The inner circles continue, those in the know can influence but those who are not, sit on their hands waiting for something to do.

This weekend’s Ard Fheis will debate a lot of policy but most of it will be irrelevant to FF or its future. Once the event is over normal service resumes. The local and European elections will at least give members something to do. FF must try to hold what it has in these elections and on a very good day hope for a slight increase. The real test is after that. How quickly can FF find new candidates? It needs to identify at least 5 people that are ‘cabinet ready’ after these elections. People capable of going on TV without being star struck. People capable of leadership, people capable of arguing with a government minister at full tilt. The harsh reality is that the majority of this FF frontbench would not get a sniff at such a position back in the FF heyday. Indeed, despite all the fault and blame and venom that could be directed at members of the last cabinet it’s hard not to imagine that if the FF front bench today contained Micheal Martin, Brian Lenihan, Brian Cowen, Dermot Ahern, Noel Dempsey, Mary Hanafin and a few others it would still make a more impressive sight that what they have. Yes they could be blamed for all that went wrong but let’s face it FF still has to answer that anyway and if those figures were there such questions would be unavoidable and force their hand.

Ever since the 2011 general election Fianna Fail has one question to ask itself. What kind of future does it want? Ambition and desire shape actions. Increasingly grassroots are tiring of what they see as a return to normal business. Perhaps the party is happy where it is. Perhaps it will finally make a move to try regain ground. Whatever happens it needs to make up its mind. Sinn Fein may be struggling to advance too but it will not always be so. The government may not always have the bleak days ahead that it has had in the last few years. FF needs to stop hoping that others do stuff wrong and instead focus on themselves.

#LE14 Wearing out those shoes….Top and bottom of class

I have been continuing my search for those candidates that put in the hard yards on the doorsteps and wear out their shoes. I have always said that back in the day if I were managing a campaign then I expected to see lots of worn out shoes or else somebody would be getting the ‘hairdryer’ treatement back in campaign HQ. All of this is explained in my earlier post ‘Friends Romans, Countrymen…Lend me your shoes’

Noel Rock continues to impress and would you believe he has made it through another pair of shoes

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Now I don’t know whether its that these North Dublin boys are made of sterner stuff, but Paul Anthony Ward has also been hitting the streets and his shoes have been feeling the pain

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So I say well done to these two hard working candidates. Now, sometimes a name or a reputation can automatically mean a few votes that a new candidate must fight for. Nevertheless I have to say that the Lord Mayor himself, Osin Quinn is bottom of my class at the moment and would be on the recieving end of a good dressing down for posting this picture of his shoes

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Let the games begin….#LE14 is almost upon us in earnest

Ireland – A great little car in which to do business

It’s a great little country is Ireland. Rather like a perky small car that punches above its weight. It trundles along nicely but when you hit a rough bit of road or some bad conditions you are reminded very quickly that it is still a small car that didn’t set you back a lot. It is of course driven by politicians, who are not always the best drivers. The Media observe how the car is going and rather like a mechanic they see it as their task to keep it on the road. RTE is one of those big chain garages, if we leave the car in there everything is done but it costs us a fair whack every time. They don’t like doing things on the cheap and that means it hits us in the pocket. TV3 are like the local garage, they cost us a lot less but we are never sure if we fully trust them to have checked everything. We drive by the UTV garage with ‘opening soon signs’ and we can only wonder……

Fine Gael is firmly in the driving seat. We let them drive because they told us that they were very careful and had a full licence. Since then they have managed to hit every pot hole in the road. They do seem however to be confident that they are on the right road and that counts for something. They tell us they can see far less bumps in the road ahead. They don’t make for great travelling companions though. They are about as interesting as a long Mass and as they drive along they love patting us on the head and telling us what great drivers they are. Then they hold out their hand and ask us for more petrol money.

Labour ably assists in the driving. Fine Gael tells them that they are valued even if everyone else in the car can see the opposite. Labour have no input into the direction of the car, although they are allowed to read the map…Fine Gael just doesn’t listen. Now, they are given other tasks. When we need the fresh air of constitutional reform, Labour are allowed to open the window and take the credit even if Fine Gael finds it a tad breezy. Its ok if it keeps Labour happy. Labour are not allowed comment on the Fine Gael driving talents unless it is to praise them. They can choose the music on the radio, operate the heaters and every once in a while can shift the gear lever under Fine Gaels approving parental eye.

Fianna Fail is now in the back seat. Pint in hand and muttering about the woeful bumps from the Fine Gael driving. Fianna Fail were the last drivers and for a long time they gave us some of the smoothest drives we ever had. It was mighty craic. We souped up the car along the way and sang our hearts out. However Fianna Fail was having such great craic with us, they took their eyes off the road and when the weather turned bad we got lost. Not just lost, they drove right into the middle of a field until we were all knee deep in muck pushing the car out, while FF revved the engine and spattered us all. We said we would never let them drive again, but we know we probably would if only they would clean up their act. They were better company but right now they are just bitter and annoying and in absolutely no state to drive.

The Progressive Democrats used to be in the car. Like a hitchhiker we picked up for 20 years. They got in the car, told everyone how to do everything and then eventually offended so many people in the car that we stopped, opened the door and asked them to leave.

The Green party were fun while they were a passenger. Always telling us we needed to change to one of those Eco cars. Then we let them go up front with Fianna Fail and help drive. We know what happened. Once the car was stuck in the field we told the Greens to please get out now too. We planned on leaving them in the field, where they might be happy but like a kid on a skateboard they are following the car desperately hanging on.

That knocking sound you hear in the boot? That’s the Independents and People before Profit and Socialist Party. We don’t normally let them out, we are just happy to have them shout their views from the boot. Sometimes the driver might listen to a suggestion for where to pull over for something to eat but that’s about it. Funny thing is they have become such a jolly lot lately, and we are so fed up with everyone else we are starting to think we might let them into the car properly next time. We know it won’t make for an easy decision making process and it will be a car full of people talking over one another but hey, at least it would not be boring.

Sinn Fein are sitting on the roof of the car. They have secrets they don’t want anyone to know. They also claim the car smells. They are determined that they won’t get into the car or drive unless absolutely everybody else gets out. They, like Fianna Fail, are not impressed with the driving of Fine Gael and Labour. However, Sinn Fein don’t want to be seen anywhere near Fianna Fail so nobody really hears either of their complaints. Sinn Fein is not convinced that the road we are on is the right one at all. They want the car turned around immediately. Fine Gael tries to tell them it wouldn’t be so cold and wet if they got into the car but they won’t listen. They want a new car, a new road and all in a new country. Everyone else says we can’t afford it but Sinn Fein simply tells them to leave the car to them and they will make it all happen. Problem is we are not too sure that if we hop out and let them in the driver seat they won’t speed off without us and smash it into a tree.

Privacy and Recordings – Why its not always an invasion

Privacy has yet again become an issue in Ireland. There is no doubt we all demand our privacy and want to be left alone at times. That should be respected by media. Nobody wants to have their house watched or snapped when out with their kids and so on. Photographs are however very different to sound recordings. This is where we must start to draw a line. Kate Middleton was photographed topless and it’s hard to argue that the snap was of any value except to sell papers and it was an invasion of privacy. Sharon Ni Bheolain was snapped wearing her pjs and walking the dog. Was it of any real interest? No. Did she have any control over it? No. That’s what made it unfair.

Now on the other hand, take a politician bemoaning the fact that they are recorded giving a private view. Take a Garda making comments in private. Take a public figure uttering any statement that they know they would not want the public to hear. Is that of interest? You bet your life it is. The public has a right to know and understand the views of those they interact with. In a modern world one would expect that recordings should never pose a problem as people should not say one thing in public and give another view privately. A politician should not ever say ‘I am pro choice’ and then secretly tell people, ‘I’m working against it really’. I have heard all sorts over the years. People defending traveller’s rights, and then going to meetings in quiet corners saying that the same travellers are a problem. People talking about immigration in a sensible way but then nodding and perpetuating the view privately that immigration is something to be tackled.

We all know the people who come to us and say ‘Don’t tell anyone I ever said this but…….’. There is nobody involved in politics who has not heard the line ‘Well of course we agree but we can’t ever say that publicly….’ This is exactly our problem. The invention of lying as an accepted form of communication is an evil that should be eradicated.

The very idea that I come to you and talk to you in the hope that you will never repeat my views is a shocking indictment of society’s thinking. If you are about to say something that you would not stand over in public, then surely you know there is something wrong with the statement, isn’t it sign to re evaluate it and not say it? This perception that seems to exist that politicians, doctors, Gardai or anyone else in power has a right to a private view as regards their work and a separate view they show to the public, is a cancer on the system.

Modern technology has advanced enough that people can be recorded. This should not be seen as a bad thing. Rather it should be seen as a warning to all those in positions of power that the age of lying should end. The view you hold should be the same in public or private and you should never be something you are not. It is not an invasion of privacy to have comments and views that you genuinely hold reported. The only problem occurs when you don’t want to stand over that view in which case it is you and not the person recording that has the issue.

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