Johnny Fallon

Irish Political Commentator

Archive for the month “May, 2014”

After the elections – An assessment of the parties

The local and European elections threw up some surprising results but in other ways it was no different to the many comings and goings we have seen for years. It brought good news for some and bad for others. Here is a quick assessment of where it leaves the parties, and what they do next.

Fine Gael
Bad – FG lost seats and lost their short lived claim to being Irelands largest political organisation. The result seemed to catch them off guard. It is bound to raise questions about their profile and message. Many of these questions will be landed at Enda Kenny’s door. FG were more popular a year ago. It’s not just the tough decisions that hit them but a succession of badly handled crises. They have been a little adrift ever since the troika left and seem quite rudderless.

Good – They are still a major force at local level. They have been served their warning and still have a decent opportunity to rectify matters before a general election.

What to do – Enda Kenny needs to get firmly into the driving seat. The days of evading interviews have to go. Either he is going to go out and face down the questions head on or he should get out now and go to Europe. FG still has plenty of strength to make its case but it is coming too close to a general election for any more slip ups. Leadership must be unmerciful and the cabinet reshuffle must show a real change in key departments. The recovery in the economy is fragile but FG can argue that it is slowly happening, people will not want to risk this so long as they believe the leadership is strong enough.

Labour

Bad – The party has been dealt a hammer blow at local level. Regaining seats in Dublin will not be easy. key local figures have been removed from councils where they could attract attention. They are heavily blamed for breaking promises and are paying the price for a leadership that sought to win the maximum number of seats at all costs in 2011. The subsequent leadership battle is long and drawn out, just when the party needed a quick decisive election and a new page. Its own systems are working against it further promoting an image of a slow moving party, racked by internal debates and navel gazing while unable to get a focus on what it wants nationally.

Good – A new leader, when they eventually come, may stem the flow. labour will not recover but may manage to save some seats with a different approach.

What to do – The new leader has to put clear daylight between themselves and FG. They must admit that the former leader overstretched in 2011 and those promises were unfair to the people. Then they must identify the policy issues they can win on and make these a priority. The relationship with Enda Kenny must not be as close as it has been, it must be cordial and professional but no more best mates pictures. Labour must portray an air of stability but not stability at any cost. They need rows and arguments not to happen behind closed doors where Enda Kenny has told them to confine them. The arguments must happen in the open where people can see what Labour is fighting on.

Sinn Fein

Good – SF got a massive result in Dublin, they have increased their vote right across the country and elected new faces into MEP positions while pushing other parties back to the end of the line. They now have a strong foothold in Dublin that will not shift easily at local level and they are in prime position to subsume many of the left wing votes.

Bad – There was very little bad here. However, the result in councils outside of the cities was not as inspirational. The Dublin result aside there were many counties where SF still struggled to really advance beyond a couple of seats. Despite the assertion that they are the largest party on the island, the fact remains they are the fourth grouping in local councils. SF needs the rest of the country to catch up with the cities to change this. That said, one step at a time and its really looking for faults to call it in any way bad.

What to do – SF now needs to focus on its organisation. Those Dublin seats can be kept. They need to strengthen their base to provide what should be a flood of good general election candidates now. Outside of Dublin they need to look at areas where they didn’t make as big an impact, they increased vote everywhere so quite obviously it is only a matter of focussing on building and organising to deliver more. SF are very good at incremental growth and can ensure that they build from this point. They need to be somewhat careful not to get carried away, particularly with MEP success, those elections are not nearly as impressive as what SF did at local level. MEP results can swing and unknowns topping the poll one day can lose their seat just as quickly. Ensuring this doesn’t happen is a task their strategists will be well aware of. From there on its a matter of proving that they can deliver. Their policies will be attacked but that won’t bother them. They can ensure budgets are kept at local level. It’s no different to the North. When its good SF did it, when its bad its Westminster make us do it. When its good our councillors did it, when its bad it’s the government, particularly Labour, that made us do it.

Fianna Fail

Good – FF delivered more councillors in the republic than any other party. This is an important victory and shows the strength that still exists in their local organisation right across the country. Its heartland counties returned to it in some style. They also managed to regain a very small foot hold in Dublin.

Bad – Despite some good news in Dublin the city remains hostile territory and FF is going nowhere until it reverses that trend on a large scale. The European elections were an unmitigated disaster.

What to do – FF needs to sit down and think long and hard about Dublin and its strategy within the city. The gap between the European election vote and the local election vote in Midlands North West points to an organisational disconnect. There is a danger that in a local election the FF units can muster their strength and run themselves for friends and family etc. However, at a national level they require direction and don’t seem to have it. If that transpires in a general election FF may do worse than they expect based on the local results. There were several hiccups and messes during the campaign. Micheál Martin’s leadership is safe but he needs momentum, people in the organisation are not going to wait forever for changes. FF needs to lead the way in new structural formats, throwing out many of the old systems and roles it currently uses. This at least may give the party a feeling of progress. Equally it is clear that while FF has made some recovery it still has a long way to go. It still has not addressed the issues that people feel particularly the issue of trust.

Independents
Good – An excellent election for Independents who have been swept into local authorities in record numbers.

Bad – There is no central authority to protect the Independent brand. Every time one does something wrong everyone will take some hit. There is no way of knowing just what kind of quality is in the new ranks but as with any sudden tide there may be a few that won’t cut the mustard.

What to do – The theory has always been that if you elect independents en masse you will never get agreement on anything. That will be put to the test. Councillors need to show that they can work as a unit on issues as parties will be only too eager to point out every little division. It is likely that several attempts will be made to form new parties, most of these will be small and the majority of Independents will probably remain so. The problem they face however is that come the general election they will all be running against each other too.

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Banking, housing and why we never learn…

The problem with politics is that its adversarial nature rarely allows us an opportunity to take stock and actually learn something. As a result we tend to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. The announcement of the banking Inquiry is a good thing. It will be therapeutic. It will allow politicians and officials to come before the public and explain in person. It will also provide those of us who write on such matters with lots of column inches. I’m not expecting it to do much more though.

The Inquiry comes at the same time as we return to efforts to stimulate the housing market. The irony should not be lost on anyone.

In politics everything is utterly and completely your opponents fault. They got it wrong. They did this for two reasons, they were corrupt or they were utter imbeciles. This is the simplification of debate that allows you to win votes. It allows you to then tell people all they need to do is get rid of those fools and everything is ok. The real problems begin within a party when they start to believe their own hype. They convince themselves that the only thing they need to do in order to get things right, is just not be the other guy. They believe they can never make the same errors because they are not so ‘blind’ and they are not ‘corrupt’. The inevitable result is that they make the same mistakes again. Government after government, party after party all equally guilty.

There is nobody who can deny that the Fianna Fail led administrations got things horribly wrong. The punishment dished out at the ballot box was deserved. Knowing what went wrong does not always stop it happening again though. Knowing why they got it wrong does.

FF/PDs ran a government from 1997 to 2002 that didn’t do an altogether bad job. In fact it could be argued that this was quite a successful government and the electorate in 2002 agreed. The problem was that things were changing just after that election. FF lacked the backbone to stick to cut backs and breaking of some promises. A kicking in the 2004 local elections turned out to be a disaster for the country. Between 2004 and 2007 spending spiralled out of control.

Now, why did this happen? Let’s start with the promises. FF would do anything to get elected, promises were easily made. The current government showed they are no different. Now FF and SF in opposition both promise new easier paths that neither will be able to implement in government.

Then there were the banks. FF got pretty much everything wrong when it came to banks and regulation. Why did this happen? The popular line is that they were lining their own pockets, or corrupt. The truth was FF was too busy listening to banks. They were just too close to those at the top. They trusted them. It didn’t have to be corrupt or incompetent, all it needed was Ministers who thought these guys were the experts and we need to do what they say. Time and time again FF listened and failed to ask the vital questions on behalf of the people. FF believed that the people just didn’t understand this high finance world and that we needed to work with the banks and the market.

This government believes it has a new approach to banks. Why? Because this government is not FF, they don’t have the Galway tent, so it’s all going to be grand. They then sit down with the banks and listen to their proposals on Mortgage Arrears and do all they can to facilitate them. The banks are the experts and vital to the economy we can’t upset the business model and have to understand the market difficulties in lending.

FF fuelled a housing boom. At the time it was happening FF was utterly convinced that it was attempting to do something good. The famous line from the early part of the last decade was that a ‘garda or a nurse’ would struggle to afford a house in Dublin. Something had to be done. These people had to be assisted. We had a historical problem and were playing catch up. Imagine my surprise to see a government supporter use this exact Garda/Nurse line on twitter this morning. The cuts have hit wages and prices are rising, we need to help people buy a home. Of course it’s different this time. It’s different because this government is not FF, it doesn’t have a Galway tent so it’s all grand.

FF increased spending at the very time they needed to scale back. Opposition parties at the time wanted to spend even more. The political parties all partied, make no mistake. FF cannot escape the blame though, it was their job, and they mucked it up. The popular line is they did this just because they were corrupt figures who never cared about the people. The problem is nobody in FF thought like that. If villains were guys who sneered up their sleeve like a cartoon character then we would spot them easily. It’s never so simple. FF thought that this spending was required. Schools had to be built, Hospitals had to be funded, and Infrastructure had to be put in place. It was all good stuff, all things that people wanted and needed. There were tax breaks given right left and centre. These too were seen as playing a role; they could only be scaled back slowly in case they delivered a ‘shock’ to the economy. That worked out well didn’t it?

FF became obsessed with the idea that things could be managed. Nobody was going to shout stop in a construction boom. If they did they would be blamed for putting thousands of construction workers out of a job and losing millions in tax revenue. They had to do it slowly they had to ‘manage’ it. The current government believes it can manage things too, it can stimulate and deter at will so long as it does it gently. It will all work out fine because we are not the other guys.

Fianna Fail is no less to blame for the crisis just because they didn’t mean it to happen. It was not some devious plan. Fianna Fail deserve to take the rap but for the right reasons. They failed to see the signs, ask the questions and to learn.

This government and indeed the opposition are determined to keep this cycle going. The issues are always political. They are always the fault of the other guy. Just believing yourself to be a good guy, is not enough to avoid disaster or end up heaping misery on the lives of thousands of people.

There were good guys in the last government and in many previous governments. They had a host of experts, statistics and reports to back up decisions they took. They argued their corner in the firm belief that they were the ones saving the people from some kind of a disaster and instead led them straight into the mouth of the very thing they wanted to avoid.

Politics should be about learning lessons. If parties could stop hating each other for five minutes and look at the situation they could see how they are just as easily manipulated and swung until they do the very same thing. They won’t though. The only thing necessary to triumph in politics is to not be the other guy.

Banking, Housing and why we never learn…..

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