Johnny Fallon

Irish Political Commentator

Archive for the month “November, 2014”

My Life – A reflection on politics

Over on twitter I was kindly reminded that on this day 22 years ago the 1992 General election and abortion referendums took place. They hold many memories for me both good and bad. It got me thinking though. I got involved in politics very young and have often asked myself if this was a good or bad thing? Those of you who have read my 2006 autobiography ‘Party Time’ will know most of this story. Since that though much has changed and my own life has taken many twists that put a new perspective on things. I am still trying to evaluate if the whole thing was positive or negative on balance.

I grew up in a household embedded in politics. Albert Reynolds was a regular visitor and from my youngest days I remember sitting up late as the conversations went on, especially during the GUBU period. I fell in love with politics. When I was 10 I officially joined the cumann and started going to meetings. Cumann, Comhairle Ceanntair, Comhairle Dail Ceanntair, where there was a meeting I wanted to go. I didn’t care how long it dragged on for, I wanted to be there in the middle of everything. I quickly became a fixture at all political meetings.

At school I was only popular on Budget day when I would help everyone with their homework. One year we were all asked to come in and speak to our class mates about the budget rather than write an essay. We were all about 11. Now most had a quick point or two and spoke for 30 seconds to a minute. I, being in my element, regaled the class with Budget details for a full 10 minutes. When I was 12 I was youth officer in my cumann. By 14 I was on Comhairle Ceanntair Committees, by 16 I was on Comhairle Dail Ceanntair committees and doing ‘ward boss’ tasks.

The cumann was small and everything was a team effort but I was thrilled to be given the task of organising the final rally for Albert Reynolds in 1992. Now it wasn’t hard. Book the band, get on the phones, and decorate the hall. Make sure everyone had a job and it was done. It fairly much organised itself and people just showed up but it was a great feeling. I was rewarded by then Cumann Chair Joe Farrell suggesting I be installed as cumann Chair the next year in recognition of my service. That would be when I was 17. The chair of the Comhairle Dail Ceanntair, Ned ‘the county’ Reilly, thought it a great idea and said all would ‘be in good hands’. Heady stuff for a teenager. It was the impromptu and informal meetings that gave me the biggest thrill though. The off the record discussions after a meeting. The insights only the select few might be privy to. An inner circle and I was accepted into it. That same year the school principal Fr. Garvey took me aside and asked for my assistance in getting a new school wing to replace the ageing prefabs. I sat down with him and reviewed the plans. It took a while, but the building is there today.

Going to College wasn’t easy because it took me away from my political base. It took me away from people I thought of as friends. I quickly got involved in the Dundalk political scene though. Set up a cumann and got on my bike visiting every senior cumann secretary in Dundalk, drinking tea and eating sandwiches to convince them a college cumann was no threat and could be well run.
Life is funny though. When Albert resigned I was so jealous of many of those I soldiered with. They talked about having had a good time, having done their bit and letting someone else take over. I would have liked to finish on that high but I couldn’t. I still had a whole life ahead of me. Instead of taking over I found myself often bundled in with the ‘Reynolds rump’ A country n Western relic if you will. Despite having a good relationship with so many I was always going to be seen as a Reynolds loyalist. Which I was. Therefore acceptance into new inner circles was always a problem. One could get so far but never quite be fully trusted.

By the time I was 20 I was working in Dublin and travelling up and down to Longford several nights a week for meetings. I was also on a campaign trail. I decided to attempt to get election to the Fianna Fail National Executive through the Committee of 15. A national election at the Ard Fheis. To give you an idea of the task, it was not something a 20 odd year old was normally running for. In my Longford base I had 66 votes. Some counties had 400. I needed about 1300 to be elected. Luckily I wasn’t on my own. My Director of Elections was former Senator Mickey Doherty, ably assisted by Bennie Reid and Tom Donlon. This was a core of the old Reynolds Election machine. These men had a lifetime of experience and contacts behind them. However, I still had to campaign and tour the country in my car. Despite the fallings out and animosity that grew between the Haughey and Reynolds factions I always remained friendly with PJ Mara. Whatever about our leaders we overcame any issues to stay friends. While on the campaign trail one night in the Gresham Hotel PJ sat down beside me and said ‘Johnny I know why I’m here, but what the hell are you doing? You should be out on the town chasing young wans with big boobs, instead you’re stuck in here’ To be fair the man had a point.

Life changes fast though. I met my wife and bought a house in Dublin. Frequenting meetings just wasn’t as easy anymore. I was no longer anybody’s right hand man. The scene moves on quickly. I still entertained some thoughts of getting back into the game when I moved back to Longford. However, I attended one meeting and a very well meaning lady came over to me and quite understandably asked ‘And who are you? Are you thinking of joining us?’ Some of the old crew then informed her but it made me realise that I was going to have to start all over again. 20 years of meetings, chicken and chips, late nights, pints, skulduggery, scheming, planning, pointless talk, smiling and rowing…I wasn’t sure I had it in me to start again. We had our first child and after that I realised that I was not going to be out at night unless I had to be.

Things are a bit different in the country. Age is not that big a barrier. Young and old crowd into the same pub and chat about the same things. If I went to my local, the Peer Inn in Lisnacusha, I would be looking out for Joe Farrell at the counter for a chat more than anyone else. When I was 16 some of the people I was closest to and experienced the most with were 40 years older than me. Joe Farrell is gone, John Coyle is gone, Yvonne Sheridan is gone, Mickey Doherty is gone, Tony Farrell is gone, Ned Reilly is gone, Larry and Josie McKenna are gone, Albert is gone…..many more are with them. Others are ill and one or two are still going strong. It’s been a long goodbye for many years and sometimes I think a teenager is not meant to consider people as friends and allies that are so much older. I even avoided going to funerals because I’m never quite sure what I am supposed to feel. Many people only get into politics around the age I was getting out. Perhaps they are right; maybe it helps stave off some of the scepticism.

I have taken to writing about politics. That is no easy task either. I have to call a situation as I see it and try predicting outcomes. When I know the people involved or understand how much any party means to its supporters it’s not easy. I know some of the things I say hurt and annoy. I only hope that when people read it they know I always write out of respect and any criticism is there as much as a warning as anything else. I am too tired to ever be bothered with malice anymore. I have learned the game and can see when it’s being played and see it as my role now to point it out and comment upon the player. So, in a way I received a tremendous education from politics. I’d be nothing without it. Hell or high water would not have stopped that teenager from going to meetings and getting stuck in. It was perhaps something like learning a trade. It has helped me see situations in a different light and particularly when writing books on politics I like to try bring that bottom up insight to what I write.

All that said there were no marks in the junior cert for knowing anything about the Maastricht treaty, there were no leaving cert points for being able to recite the Downing Street declaration. So maybe I should have stuck to school, had more girlfriends, and got myself a good education. But sure what is it they say in politics? ……’We are where we are.’

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Protests – I’m not a fan but lets not get carried away

Everybody is talking about protests. All of a sudden they are the great debate of our time. We should perhaps be concentrating on this issues but then we tire of these so quickly. Anyone who knows me knows that I am not a protester. In fact the only time you might have seen me near a protest was when I took a wrong turn or needed to get to the other side of the barrier and away from the protesters. You see I am a very simple person. I like political organisation and would much rather spend my time on a canvass or devising a strategy than shouting a slogan on a street. Now don’t get me wrong, everything has a time and place. I just believe you either argue your point politically or you start a revolution. So Ill either be working the system or I’ll be on a barricade in a full scale revolution. I just don’t do the in between measure of shouting at people.

So that’s my background and it’s only fair to point it out. All of that said there is something a bit strange within the reaction to our recent protests. Once again let me declare my bias, it is my firm belief that no politician should be personally abused or harassed, no name calling and no belittling. My point of view is formed on the basis that no matter how much we might dislike a politician or incumbent they were elected and hold an office we should respect as the office represents the people. Now, we can all argue that they don’t represent the people anymore, that they sold out, that they abused their position etc BUT either we accept the system or we don’t. Either have your revolution or accept that the people vote and this is the best system we have. Abuse your opponent or one day people abuse those on your side. Politics must be about respect.

Now then let’s consider the response to recent protests. This is not the first time politicians have been attacked or held up by protests. It has happened in the past yet anyone would think it’s completely new. There is a great story about Brian Lenihan senior escaping out of a toilet window during protests in Trinity College. While we might not condone the actions of some protesters we know it goes with the job so why the scandalised reactions? Perhaps because sometimes it fits the narrative. One of the reasons that violence is so useless in a protest is that it hands an advantage to your opponent. If I were in government at any point and people were protesting then the best thing to happen would be that some of them abuse someone or break a law. The large, quiet protest is what any government fears most. We need to also recognise however, that people do have a right to protest. We need to acknowledge that wherever you gather large groups of people a minority will often act up. This is not unusual. We must be careful on two fronts. We do not want to become an ungovernable state driven by a violent mob but equally we do not want to become a state that ignores people and seeks to brand many with the actions of a few.

The water protests have been peaceful in the main. I have passed by some and saw no difficulties whatsoever. I also know many ordinary people who have taken part. The attempt to brand them all is ridiculous. The suggestion that it’s all Paul Murphy or Sinn Fein is equally silly. It just fits a narrative that hopes to divide opposition and get ‘right thinking people’ to stay away. The problem is that even if they did stay away it doesn’t mean they will pay or don’t want to see the protest succeed. Protests happen and politicians should face them and deal with them. These are not small isolated protests, they are large groups of people from across the country. When that happens you need to listen and deal with the issue. Pretending it’s just an imaginary thing made up by a violent mob is just fooling yourself. The more you fail to deal with it the angrier a crowd will become. The angrier people get the more accepting they are when people abuse you.

I may not be a protester type but I can condemn actions without vilifying them personally or dismissing the point they are trying to make. Then again, I admit to being a bit of a lunatic. As I say if I felt I had to revolt it would be done properly. If I do have to get through a protest I will. I will walk right through it. I will not sit for two hours in my car. I’ll get out and walk because I’m a bit mad, Id face the questions and if someone wants to hit me or abuse me then let’s see where that gets them. I have walked through a few protests in my time, I’ve been jostled and name called but I’m still here to tell the tale. It might not be pleasant and I might condemn it but let’s not get carried away, it’s not the end of the world folks.

What Price Irish Water?

A week of turmoil and anger. A week that started with the viral sensation of a letter from Donna Hartnett in the Irish Independent. A mother who asked what are we doing to our children? Farming them out at the break of dawn for child minding just to allow parents to work to make ends meet. She had had enough she said. She could not longer do it and whatever more taxes were applied by the government, they would have to go unpaid. She spoke for many. Many who have tried and struggled. Many who have put the shoulder to the wheel and sacrificed during the recession. Many who have now reached the end of that line.

Unfortunately the week ended with protests that were verging on violent and unsavoury but if you have sense you should join the dots. To the outsider this must appear crazy. Ireland is almost out the gap. It has come through worse and terrible convulsions in the last few years. Yet, now at the eleventh hour when there are signs of growth it seems control is being lost. It’s the little things that cause the big changes. Irish Water has become a catalyst for something bigger and sadly too many are so trapped within a bubble they cannot see it.

This is not the first time politicians have faced abuse. Ask members of the last government. However, the vast majority of people unequivocally abhor such actions. This time a lot of middle Ireland is saying ‘That’s terrible and wrong BUT…..’ It is that ‘but’ that should set alarm bells going off in government. Some suggest that such actions will force people to back away from support of the anti water charges campaign. In the normal course of events that would be true, but we are not in Kansas anymore. There are many people who do not support the far left groups, from farmers to professional types but who are extremely opposed to Irish Water. They were never at ease with such bedfellows but it won’t change their position. Why? Go back and read the Donna Hartnett letter.

I have met many people who tell me they would pay water charges. They can afford it. They would pay a tax for it. They will not, however, pay Irish Water. Yes there are those who will say they won’t pay at all but the emphasis here must be on that middle ground. It is suggested a ‘modest charge’ of €4 per week will be acceptable. It may be accepted by TD’s and the Dail but I am not convinced that people will pay the bill when it comes through the door. It’s not just about the charge anymore, it’s about the whole culture and organisation of Irish Water. You don’t give money to anyone you don’t trust and the people, be they right wing or left wing, do not think Irish Water is fit for purpose.

Two months ago Enda Kenny could have stepped in. If he had been decisive then and said that Irish Water was getting out of control and the government was going to sort it out, people might have listened. If he had called the Board together with the Cabinet and agreed a fixed 18 month charge there and then while reforming the body people might have respected him and felt the government was acting in their interest. Instead he vacillated. There is an effort to share blame. There are no figures available now that were not available two months ago. No negotiations taking place over the course of weeks that could not have been done in a day if people were decisive. The problem is that no one wanted to be responsible for taking the decision as that might cost them their job. Now, two months too late the government is getting around to their big announcement. The problem is the people may have moved on. You don’t pay for something that there is a good chance you won’t have to pay for.

Recent protests have been compared to the early 1980s. They are not the same. Back then the majority of people who voted were part of large political parties with a very definite hold. In 1981 93% of the vote went to FF/FG/Labour. In 1982 it was 95%. Today the broad mass of voters has no home. They are unsure of direction, devoid of political hope and are disorganised. Even with Sinn Fein added to them the main parties struggle toward 75%. This is a very different melting pot. A large vacuum still exists in Irish Politics since the collapse of Fianna Fail. The danger is not who gets into government next, it’s what happens to them. Some people fear Sinn Fein coming to power. I don’t. They are just another political party. Some will like them, some will hate them. They will be voted in and out like everyone else. However, we are incubating the seeds of a people who trust nobody and may respect no government at all. Even if SF and People before Profit form a government they may end up in a state where they cannot get backing for anything. This is what happens if the middle ground becomes utterly disillusioned and feels nobody listens at all. This is the kind of vacuum someone steps into and capitalises on, most probably someone we don’t even know yet. Irish Water is middle Ireland’s moment. This is their test to see who is listening. Right now the Government has two options. Abandon charges until Irish Water is reformed and a system built that people trust or push ahead with a charge. The question is, is that charge worth it? It will be a massive political risk and what exactly is the benefit?

This government should be selling its message from the budget and instead it finds itself in the quagmire. It is there because they seem incapable of reading a situation. They must accept that this one issue is pushing them toward a precipice more than any other. Why? Why is it so important that we risk all politics for years to come for the sake of this standing charge for 18 months? It doesn’t even raise a lot of money. The government needs to move on and consign this debate to history fast. The middle ground will then return to listening to other arguments about other taxes and spending issues. They will not listen on Irish Water. You have got to ‘know when to walk away and know when to run.’

Irish Water just isn’t worth the price it will cost this country politically.

Irish Water – Answers seem to be the hardest thing

Irish Water is in a mess. We all know that. The Government is struggling to deal with the crisis and the fact that they cannot seem to get everyone into a room and come to a decision is not helping. There is to be a decision this week, then its next week, the amounts vary, the idea of a referendum continues to be talked about. Understandably the government want to get it right, but the fact is that they will eventually have to take a bit of a hit and hope approach anyway and the public are less likely to agree with it each day that passes.
The longer it goes on, the more people talk. Public representatives are no different. Last week on the ‘Late Debate’ on RTE radio, Senator John Whelan made a stunning accusation. He suggested that the Government had been misled by Bord Gais about Irish Water. The suggestion was that TDs had voted for it but had been ‘sold a pup’. This accusation has pretty serious implications. Understandably RTE distanced itself from the comments.
In the aftermath a few questions arise. Public representatives may say things under pressure but what if this is a commonly held belief in the corridors of power? That would cause a major issue. If people in the government parties believe they were outwitted by Bord Gais then how could the ordinary person be expected to trust the new Irish Water body?

There is of course a simple possible explanation: that Senator Whelan spoke out of turn with no evidence whatsoever to back him up and is a lone voice in his belief or wildly mistaken. If this is the case then the government could be expected to deal with it by giving him a ticking off and immediately expressing their trust in Bord Gais in all their dealings with the government.
I asked this of the Labour party twitter account but got no response. Joanna Tuffy is a TD who bravely engages and discusses issues and she should be noted and respected for that. I asked her if she felt the government was misled and would she express full confidence in Bord Gais and all its dealings with government. She did not feel she had enough information to answer the question however and ‘I don’t know’ was as far as we could get.

I emailed the Government Press Office last Thursday asking them to clarify the matter and whether they agreed the government was misled or whether they would express full confidence in all Bord Gais dealings with the government. I received no reply. I emailed them again last Friday and they have still failed to respond.

I emailed Minister Alan Kelly’s press officer asking if he would distance himself from the accusation that the government was misled and if he would express confidence in Bord Gais dealings with government. He too failed to respond. Later that evening in an interview the Minister said that he would not ‘necessarily go down the line of saying that anyone was misled, because I wouldn’t think that’s appropriate.’ That is hardly the ringing endorsement that one might expect. Surely a minister should be saying that the Government was not misled in any way shape or form? The language hinted at some kind of doubt and that the wording of the accusation was just inappropriate rather than plainly wrong.
I emailed Minister Alan Kelly’s press officer putting this to him and again asking him to say categorically that the Government was not misled and that they had full confidence in Bord Gais and all their dealings. Still I was met with silence. How hard can it be to say you trust the people you are working with on the biggest project the government has before it?

I also contacted Senator John Whelan and asked him if he would wish to retract the comment or say he stands over it. Unsurprisingly after two emails I still got no response there either. After a while if you keep ignoring something then perhaps it will go away and people will doubt it ever happened. If no one asks the question then you don’t have to answer and once it’s not asked ‘live on air’ we will be fine.
So I experienced what it is like to become the invisible man. There are no answers. I wouldn’t mind but all I wanted them to do was fully back their own project and team in simple terms. Makes you wonder….

Update: After I posted this blog earlier a twitter friend Anne-Marie (@thecailinrua) asked Senator When for his thoughts on the blog. He responded with the following ‘I think Delores O’Riordain was recruited by Govt to get #water off front pages and @jonnyfallon should write a blog about that.’

We both asked him for a straight answer to which he responded ‘last week alone I was on midlands 103, RTE news and Late debate and answered all questions put to me as I always do’

I responded by reminding him that the questions in my email remained unanswered and asked ‘Do you stand over the allegation that Bord Gais misled the govt? yes or No?’

As things stand I have not got a response

Update 21/11/2014:As the government announced its revised Water Charges scheme Government TD’s and Senators hit Social Media in an effort to sell it. This prompted another opportunity to ask John Whelan about this. I asked him ‘Yes or No did Bord Gais mislead the government on Irish Water?’ He replied “Yes – I said we were sold a pup and today it is being put right by @AlanKellyLabour as any reasonable person would agree”

So it is now quite clear that John Whelan stands over his assertion. Despite repeated attempts and opportunities the Minister and the Government press office have still not replies to questions and this can only be taken at this stage as an acknowledgement that Whelan has a point or at least some support in his view. No Government source has been willing to express complete confidence in Bord Gais and their dealings with the Government on this issue.

I contacted Bord Gais (Ervia) about this and asked them for their view. Their response focussed mostly on the work they were attempting to do and how they hoped to gain the trust of the public. The first paragraph vageuly alluded to the question of who misled who. I include their response in full below. However, the Irish people are left in a most unsatisfactory position. Clearly some issue has arisen between Bord Gais and The government at a senior level. Some breach of trust must have happened as no side seem to be in a position to deny this. It is startling that an organisation that is now so dependent on gaining trust starts its life with doubt hanging over the very agreement it was based upon.

Bord Gais Statement:
Bord Gais put in a proposal to government in late 2011/early 2012. Detailed project plans and budget were agreed with the government subsequently and since then, the company has worked closely with the Government to meet milestones and deliver to a challenging timeline.

Obviously we cannot speak on behalf of the government. For our part, we welcome yesterday’s government announcement, which provides greater clarity and certainly to the public. The challenge that Irish Water faces in transforming water services in this country is considerable. In addition, the timeline set for the utility’s establishment was very challenging, and Ervia CEO Michael McNicholas has acknowledged this in interviews since yesterday’s announcement. He acknowledged that Irish Water had not yet won public trust and confidence, and apologised for that. We have made considerable progress in many areas since our establishment. For example by next summer, boil water notices will be down from over 20,000 to just 5,000; 12,000 people in Roscommon will soon have clean drinking water; and major waste water treatment projects are now in construction in locations including Youghal, Carrigtwohill, Clifden, Bunclody, Killybegs, Clonakilty and Waterford. We acknowledge we have not achieved all we need to achieve, and we are fully focused on winning the confidence of the public and making vital improvements to our water infrastructure.

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