Johnny Fallon

Irish Political Commentator

Archive for the month “June, 2014”

Our four main parties have a lot of thinking to do.

The political landscape is resembling a cartoon where all the characters run into each other and then all stumble around dizzy and seeing stars. As each party gets ready to assess where they stand they have some serious thinking to do. Fine Gael needs to look hard at the poll figures. There is no point being pleased that you still lead not when you have lost as much vote share as they have. The party has been listless and completely at sea since the troika left.

There is no vigour, enthusiasm or belief in their ability to regain votes. Most of this has to be laid at the door of the leader. However, such events happen in any leader’s term and it is all down to how you react to them. Up to now Enda Kenny has been too loyal and too slow to act. His upcoming reshuffle will allow him to re-invent himself and his team. He needs to get new faces and find a new direction for his party. Post troika Ireland needs that direction. Most importantly, FG needs to stop the slide into a culture of excuses. ‘FF ruined the economy’, ‘FF signed up to this’ or ‘FF people did worse so it’s no big thing if our guys go a little wrong’. They need to stop dismissing criticism ‘SF and the IRA killed people so don’t talk to me you’ or the tendency to dismiss alternatives and other views out of hand and put them down to jealousy, agendas or point scoring. FG desperately needs to start listening. That does not mean it can’t defend itself or lay the odd blow but it must absorb what’s said and seek to address it. A lot of avoidable errors have beset this government and that must end now.

Labour is gradually being talked to death. I’ve written enough about it at this stage and do not wish to add more to their current pain. However, the eternal wait for their new leader is proof positive of a disastrous mechanism for running their party. Yes I know it all sounds good on paper but right now everyone just wants them to get on with the vote, elect their leader and then start the task of saving their party. Labour needs to think differently. It needs new advice and should seek that from two sources, its own membership on the ground and people with no affiliation to their party. Only that mix will deliver the hard talking and decisions they need.

Fianna Fail will head into summer in another fine mess. Brian Crowley deciding to leave their European grouping should not have come as a surprise. He was never happy there. Indeed FF joined it without a huge amount of debate. In 2009 Katy Hayward of Queens University Belfast, assisted by myself, wrote a paper on FF and its European tribulations. ‘Fianna Fail, tenacious localism – tenuous Europeanism’ illustrated that the party had a strong euro sceptic streak. Real debate as to the kind of Europe FF wanted had not taken place and that there was a major disconnect between people at the top and those on the ground as regards their views of Europe. More worrying for FF is that the whole saga (not unrelated to a disastrous handling of the FF presidential nomination process) shows how the power of individual machines rules over the idea of a complete party. Unlike the past FF has nobody to draw all this together. Micheal Martin will be blamed but for the wrong reason. A leader must take decisions that offend and will become embroiled in spats all the time. This is why the management of a party and the creation of an espirit de corps cannot be left in a leaders hands alone. If Martin deserves criticism it is because he failed to realise this. As leader it was his job to appoint the people, TDs were given tasks, agendas set and internal staff employed. His job was to ensure he got this right and to be honest he has failed.

Martin needs to be concentrating on policy, on the government and on major issues, he should be able to trust that matters are dealt with internally but he can’t because there is nobody on his team capable of this. A simple example is that even now FF is continuing its outrage with Crowley over the airwaves and press statements, showing that there is likely nobody on the leadership’s side of the argument who holds the trust of the others and can go to them and talk like an honest broker.

Sinn Fein continue plodding along quite happily. Yet, the fact remains that the party should not be accepting its current rating just because it’s an increase on previous elections. SF is coming from a low base. It should be increasing and growing much faster. It has a range of policies that people broadly like, despite their dismissal as ‘fairytale economics’ people will still be inclined to ‘give them a chance’. This is the golden age for SF, their make or break time where they can establish themselves during a weak period for all competitors. SF can reasonably target a poll rating of 28% given the environment. They will not achieve that without some movement though. They must reassess their policy of a scatter gun approach to all other parties. They need to target their criticism and focus on who their enemies are. It will suit both SF and FG to put each other at opposite ends of the spectrum and define politics that way, but this means that SF must become a tad less hostile to everyone else.

Then there is the danger of the old question of the ‘troubles’. FG will use this and the many unanswered questions from this era to hurt them and it will deter a good number of potential voters so long as the current leadership still has links. Gerry Adams and SF came through a difficult period after his arrest over the McConville kidnapping and murder. The public showed a degree of trust in SF. The basis of this was that Gerry Adams was an innocent man, who was appealing to those who had information to please come forward, but that in the absence of this he was being framed somehow. That was reasonable. However, inexplicably Adams has raised eyebrows among the public this week. Seamus Mallon accused the IRA leadership of not doing more to help the release of Gerry Conlon and others in Britain. Instead of directing any questions to the IRA and maintaining his line of ‘I was not in the IRA and know nothing’, Adams decided to defend the IRA leadership and said that it was not their fault. Either Adams and SF speak for the IRA or they do not. SF can and should grow, but not before they think long and hard about this question over the summer. They say the war is over and people must move on. Many agree. But then SF must accept that the romantic old vision of the IRA is gone too and it’s time to stop defending it like there is still a war on. Time to stop saying two wrongs make a right. Time to let the IRA defend itself while SF gets on with modern economic policy that people actually want to hear.

Scandals of Past and Present do not differ much

We have become used to scandals in Ireland. In particular we have become used to scandals about our past. Thankfully, we can usually shift the blame. We didn’t know. It was different back then. Let’s just move on. The Tuam babies scandal was just another in a long line. Yet there was something about this that I found deeply upsetting.

First of all there is the fact that Church run institutions could ever have thought such practices were ok. Even a cursory read of actual catholic beliefs and Christianity would have shown that this was anything but what the god people believed in espoused. Christ himself was neither a child nor a man of means. He would have been shocked by the strict rules and punishments dealt out to people in his name.

One rarely hears a litany of wealthy names attached to such institutions. That’s the problem. Who is a voice for the people who have none? Who cares? Why not just blame them? After all that will ease our conscience. It wasn’t just the Church of course. Society liked the idea of punishing young women and illegitimate children. They were to be shunned. If a politician wanted to be elected then they rowed in behind such ideals with gusto. Society voted time and time again to keep such institutions open and agreed with the harshest of sentiments that were expressed.

Even in the last 20 years what changed? The Tuam babies grave, such as it was, was discovered in 1975. We are only getting around to finding it newsworthy now. You can blame the media but the truth is we didn’t care too much for the story anyway. Who gave voice over all these years?

Today we like to think we are different. We aren’t ruled by church authority anymore. Is that enough? Does that change everything? The problem is we still like to categorise people. Those on welfare are spongers. Welfare fraud is our biggest problem. Unmarried mothers are living it up on the children’s allowance. Why would you work when you can have several babies and the state pays for everything? The strange thing is that the very person you will hear utter those words is the same person who would not in a million years live in a council flat. They would not ever want to cope with raising kids on their own. They value their job and their income highly. They would never swap. The great comfort they have is the ability to convince themselves that they are genetically different. They want to work, they are not lazy and they have too much pride. A likely story.

We are today living through the scandals of tomorrow. Every year asylum seekers come to this country and we find some reason to say they are not deserving. They are only coming for the welfare. They are getting free cars or free haircuts or a hundred other myths. We like to tell ourselves that these people must be controlled or they will go wild, just like unmarried mothers had to be controlled in the days of old. Hundreds of children have gone missing from Irish state care and nobody knows where. They are probably ok, they probably went to another country, to another family. Is ‘probably’ good enough? Next time you see a few hundred children leaving your local school just imagine all those faces disappearing. Would ‘probably’ be a good enough response?

We herd people into direct provision in Ireland. We treat them like cattle. We take away their rights to live as a family and raise their children. We prevent them from working. 3,000 asylum seekers have been living in Direct provision for more than 2 years, 1,600 for more than five years. The living space is confined with little privacy. There are reports of malnourishment. There are no play areas for children. They are often exposed to violent and sexual behaviour. This is not good enough. It reads like something from our dark past that we would rather forget. But it’s not. It’s happening today. We can make excuses and argue over points but the reality is that one day our grandchildren will look at us and ask ‘How could you? what were you thinking?’

The fact is that it continues to happen to people with no voice. It continues to happen because not enough people care. Problems can affect anyone. Any woman can get pregnant. Any family can be forced to flee persecution. Anybody can end up on a street. We are all just human but this is the price of being human when you are poor enough to pay.

The nonsense of parties ruling parties out

You know politicians minds are turning towards elections when they start ruling stuff out. We have begun the latest round of parties ruling out other parties for the purposes of forming a government. The fact is the people will vote for the party they like in each case and after that it’s a matter of where the cards fall. There is a major difficulty with the way our parties currently rule each other out. That is because it is not really based on any kind of solid argument.

Right now there is a rush to rule out Sinn Fein. Now that would be fine if a party stated why?. They don’t. They just rule them out under any circumstances…. ever. That’s that. Inevitably though things can change. It would be fine if a party were to say, ‘We cannot coalesce with SF unless they were to give up their policy on raising tax rates, or they agreed to our policy on area X’. That might make some sense. There are a whole raft of policy areas that SF are highly unlikely to move on and would make it impossible for parties to form a coalition. You can rule them out based on real and actual policy, but you don’t rule them out should SF change those policies or agree to yours. Why would you? That would be silly.

The problem is parties are afraid to say this. They are afraid because they think that people want them to just rule out SF completely. That is of course a nonsense. Now you might think SF being new are all different. The problem is that every time SF gets itself into the heat of battle it starts to act like every other political party. Sure enough they are only too happy to rule out working with FF or other parties, ever. It’s as if a party name makes the difference rather than policy. The argument should be honest and reasonable so that people know where they stand. If two parties cannot work together then you must lay out the reasons why. Politicians fear this, because they are scared that the other party might actually change and then they would have to go into power with them. The real reason they are ruling them out then is simply because they don’t like them personally and hope to gain some seats from them. They don’t want anyone treating the party as a normal or real party.

You rule out SF to make them pariahs. Don’t discuss policy just make out there is something murky there without saying what it is. In the past parties rushed to rule out FF, because of their ‘dominance’ etc, a silly argument. Now FF are ruled out because of their past. FF then rule out others they see as a threat. FG and FF rule each other out. What parties are really doing is trying to limit the electorates choice, polarise things and force them into particular choices that they want. They don’t want the electorate forcing them into new thinking or awkward personal relationships. But it’s not the electorates job to make life easy for the politicians.

Labour has now ruled out SF too. Again they did so without stating exactly what policies they had an issue with and what would happen if SF were open to discussion on those policies. Labour still professes to be a left wing party. Just think about what they are saying here. ‘ We can enter government with the most right wing party in the state and we think we can form a good government getting some of our policies through, however there is no way we could work with another party that professes a left wing ideology.’ It’s a madhouse!

It is the best example yet of a party ruling out another because it wants to attack them and fight for votes so it doesn’t want them to appear at all reasonable. Labour do it to SF, SF do it to FF, FF do it to FG, FG do it to SF, FF do it to SF, SF do it to FG. We are living in a playground.

Politicians promises will be broken. It happens because they promise us things from a world where they get their way all the time. None of us live in such a world. We all have to do what others want and politicians have to make do with what the electorate want. FF had to accept that in 1989. Politics changes, people change. The only thing you can be responsible for is yourself. You can lay out your policies and be strict as you like about your red line issues. In all likelihood you will automatically make coalition impossible with certain partners as a result, but it’s not personal. If a day comes when someone agrees with your policy then nothing can be ruled out. Next time you hear a politician definitively rule out working with anyone else, ask them to lay out exactly why, to lay out the issues they see and ask them what if those issues were addressed. That is the test of a true democrat.

Fine Gael and Enda’s grand plan

Enda Kenny has a lot to think about right now. It’s not an easy time for the government and there are a lot of problems waiting to trip them up. Enda has been a TD since 1975. Just think about that. He is a TD before many of us were even born. Barry Sweeney first uncovered the Tuam babies grave way back in 1975. Now here Enda is as Taoiseach and the story is finally getting some attention. The high point of the Kenny leadership is usually suggested as his speeches on the Church, perhaps that was because he has been there watching this all unfold slowly and horrifically down through the years.

Enda has a government to run. The 2011 election was no tactical mastermind, it was more a case of shooting the FF fish in the barrel. Since then things have gotten a tad more difficult. The local elections were not good for Fine Gael. There are a lot of uneasy backbenchers who know that on current figures they are a long way off being able to hold their seat.

The troika leaving should have been great news but the government has struggled ever since. It would appear that real planning was always lacking. The only strategy went along the following lines: ‘Hit FF hard, wipe them out, leave no opposition. Take control, tied into troika plan there’s not much we can do, sit it out, troika leave and we are the heroes compared to the last shower, hang on a bit and things will turn and we will be there for the credit.’

In fairness it wasn’t the worst plan ever. It might even work. The problem is though that even such a simplistic plan requires a little bit of effort and drive. The government seemed stunned that people were not falling all over them the day the troika left. What they forget is that despite the rhetoric the people always knew the troika would eventually go. What they really wanted to know was if things were changing if there was real inspiration out there. That hasn’t been evident.

The Garda controversies and Alan Shatter were allowed rumble along for far too long. Enda should not have allowed this, but the age old political desire to not give in forced him to battle against the tide even when it was clear it was only damaging the party. Shatter had failed, he mucked up, he may not be a bad guy but Enda should not have kept stringing it out trying to save him.

Equally Enda has been far to loyal to James Reilly. As a minister he passed the point of no return a long time ago. I said from the outset in 2011 that Health would be one of the most important deciding factors of this government’s success. Reilly failed quickly. The government needs major reform of health, real leadership and a strong voice. Despite talking the talk, Reilly proved to be none of these things. His stock is so low now that it would be impossible for him to lead the kind of changes and battles that will be necessary in that Department for the government before the next election. Enda should have moved before, he has to move now
The biggest issue over the next 18 months is that Enda Kenny will feel pressure on both sides. A new Labour leader will be more assertive. Whatever happens Enda does not want this government to fall. He will do anything to keep it in place, He will give in to any Labour demand. This creates its own problem. FG backbenchers will start to demand Labour learn their place. The more Enda keeps Labour happy the more his own position in FG weakens.

Now, the hope is of course that the longer the government lasts the more chance the economic recovery can take hold and a few points can be recovered in the polls. In the meantime Enda needs some new faces. He doesn’t want to make the same error Brian Cowen made and waste a reshuffle appointing people heading to the end of their careers. He wants fresh voices, new impetus. Weirdly he will also be relying on former opponents in Bruton, Varadkar and Coveney to lead the charge too.

The next strategy will be to define the battleground. Now here is where Enda got a little lucky. The SF victory and narrative will suit him well. While backbenchers outside Dublin will be more worried by some of the FF performances, those in Dublin and in the national news are all talk of SF. That is the ideal point for Enda Kenny. He knows that the government is being attacked for a lack of fairness and he needs to throw a bone to Labour. That is going to upset those on the right of his party and in the business cantered media. However, he can afford to take this hit. Why? because he about to set the stage for the battle and the choice is SF or FG.

Now FF when they were pushing created a problem because they could eat at his centrist vote, but SF wont. If Enda can convince everyone that its FG against SF then no matter what bones he throws Labour or how he concedes policy, nobody on the right is going to want to vote for SF. The FG right flank is secure from SF and will indeed galvanise if he can polarise this debate. That was never possible if FF or PDs or even Labour were there but it is now. Enda will be happy to play the SF tune of Left/right politics. SF will be happy too it may shift voters away from independents and Socialist party and into their arms.

That’s the strategy. The problem is of course that Labour, FF, Socialists and Independents may not all be so asleep as to fall into this game. However, you often get lucky in politics and Enda would be happy enough to believe that that they are all so focussed fighting each other they can’t see the big picture like he can.

Labour – What to do next?

The Labour leadership contest has not been ideal. If ever a party needed quick and decisive action it was Labour at this juncture. However, their own rules and voting procedures have conspired to give a long and drawn out contest that will appear more like indecision and navel gazing to the public.

That said I can’t see Labour looking further than Joan Burton for leader. Alex white is her only competition and to be honest that can’t really work no matter how unpopular people say Burton is among certain TD’s.

Camp Burton only has to mention the Alex White replaced Roisin Shortall and by doing so helped back James Reilly and it will leave many people queasy. Obviously if Labour hoped to attract the likes of Shortall back, then White is not the man. If they want to put distance between themselves and FG then White will not appear like the right choice given his support and ability to work closely with Reilly and many in Labour see their problems often originating in the Health department.

Then there is the medical card fiasco. White has tried to extend blame for this across the cabinet but in the end the buck stops with Reilly and himself. If camp Burton is not afraid to raise these matters quietly then the leadership is already theirs.

That’s only the start. Bigger problems are to come for the new leader after that. If its Burton, she must show a completely different tack to what people have seen thus far in cabinet.

Let’s start with her appointments. Unfortunately Labour don’t have many full cabinet seats. They cannot make the ‘Cowen mistake’ (2009) of safe bets and old experienced heads. That error was made in 2011 too. If Labour is to have any chance they need new faces. Burton has to keep herself there further limiting choice. Gilmore has to be gone, as does Rabbitte. She may decide between Howlin and Quinn but can only keep one maximum. Anything less and it will all just appear more of the same. She will need to have new energetic voices that will be committed to back her and her new approach. There is no room for the older heads.

Then comes managing Labour expectations. The party must realise that it is not going to recover dramatically. This is now about saving seats. The poll figures will at best improve by a few points but more importantly the party may become more transfer friendly with the right strategy and that could save several TDs. That is the target. This must be made clear.

The relationship with FG cannot continue as it has. Burton will need to put distance between herself and Enda Kenny. The same would apply to White if he became Leader. They cannot afford to be seen as too close. The relationship can be professional and pragmatic but never best mates. A healthy tension must be visible to the public. Labour must be a party of stability willing to see out the term of government but not stability at all costs. Major redlines must be introduced and the party must be willing to walk away if needs be. Enda Kenny will always give in rather than face the government collapsing. You can bet the house on that. There are others in FG who will be angered at this but that’s not a Labour problem for now.

Rows need to happen at government and more importantly they need to be seen happening. Even of it is political theatre at times. This is the only way to attract those vital transfers. The new Leader must then set up a strategic emergency group with responsibility for Dublin. Their purpose has to be the organisation on the ground and getting it in shape for the coming battle. They need Dublin. SF is biting at their heels. They need new policies for the city and they need to get involved in communities and find projects they can advance quickly over the next 18 months. This committee has to oversee all of this, the identification, the people, the response and the communications. Labour will stand or fall in Dublin.

Finally, Labour needs to examine government policy. The priority has to be economic. They must find the areas they can win on. This may be simply finding token measures for taxing wealthier individuals and it will upset FG greatly, but they must do it. At the end of the day it probably won’t even affect that many people. The message is important though. Labour must identify what the difference between themselves and FG is on economic matters and push this. Right now people cannot see any difference between Labour and FG on these issues.

Labour has done its job for its voters on some social issues but it needs to pick its battles here. There are several issues that people will broadly support and find modernising. These should be pushed in the interest of fairness and equality. However, radical changes to schools, hospitals, and other areas of society are not seen as urgent and while Labour can make progress they might be well advised to prioritise their battles. If it cannot be finished or done in 18 months there is not much point getting stuck into the war now.

The party must realise that they are set for huge losses. This is a damage limitation exercise. They are now in the trenches and need to fight hard. They need every one of their members to be fully informed, briefed and out and about fighting their cause and looking for projects to influence. The new leader must set aside someone to focus on this task and spend the next 18 months on the road continually energising the organisation and preparing it. It will be too hard to fight for media space but your supporters can do a lot on the ground and must face the challenge of other parties. To do this the must have a direct link and contact with those at the top. Find your internal leader and put them on the road. The party leader has enough to be doing.

After that they can only hold back the flood for so long and will have to eventually let it wash over them. They cannot save all but if they give a few some firmer footing then they have a fighting chance of holding on to enough to recover in time.

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