Johnny Fallon

Irish Political Commentator

Kavanagh & Fallon’s Guide to 2015 Eurovision songs

Yes folks it’s finally here. Once again Adrian Kavanagh & Johnny Fallon have provided a full run down on all the songs in this year’s Eurovision song contest. The biggest duo to ever grace Eurovision (or at least since McGettigan and Harrington) give you their insight in typical brutal, honest, fashion. The guide is free to download now so don’t miss your chance to be informed and prepared for this year’s contest.

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Subtle differences in answers show big differences in thinking at banking inquiry

If you are looking for heroes you won’t find any at the Banking Inquiry. Witnesses come and go in a long litany of shame. For the most part it reveals little that is of use. The hope, however, is that it might perhaps give us some lessons, some thoughts on things we might do to avoid it all happening again.

From a PR perspective there are three approaches a witness can take. At first glance they might not seem very different but on closer inspection they are profoundly different in what we can learn or take from the exercise. It is important to say that no answer exonerates a person or makes them suddenly a wonderful or forgiven figure. However, it can perhaps start us on the right track to one day being able to move on and learn something.

Option one is to say: ‘I did nothing wrong, in fact, you will see I actually performed brilliantly. You should note my many achievements, the many years of success, and how I advised the right course of action when the storm got here. I was not at fault, the problem could not be foreseen and it was just one of those things.’

Option two is to say: ‘Things went very wrong. Mistakes were definitely made. We regret these mistakes. However, nobody else saw the problems either. If you think what we did was wrong you should look at the other people. You need to understand the pressure we were under. Look at what people were saying to us, look at the market. We acted in line with advice. It’s all well with hindsight but the problem was complex and out of our control.’

Option three is to say: ‘The problem was pretty basic. There was a gamble on property. The world crisis hastened the end of that bubble but it was still just a basic bubble. There was no proper control, supervision or foresight. That was my job. I did not do it. I was wrong and I am sorry for that.’

Now, none of these options are very nice. None of them give back money or change what happened but they do indicate the thinking inside someone’s head. In option one the person is still in denial. They are unable to see any fault in anything they did. Most importantly it shows a complete detachment from the reality of what the crisis caused on the ground. It shows a lack of empathy that is deeply worrying. If that empathy does not exist then the person giving the reply is showing themselves to be unable to critically analyse policies and their effects. This is dangerous because it leads to recklessness in the future. It leads to an idea that all will work out in the end. It’s ok we can do the right thing after and rectify things, the cost isn’t the issue, the pain isn’t the issue and there is no room for consideration of alternatives. It is in effect a denial of both reality and responsibility. Mr Trichet was the latest to join this category.

Option two is the one we have become accustomed to. A myriad of excuses and finger pointing. All designed to deflect attention. The idea is that one can say sorry but still avoid responsibility. The answer is always about ‘We’ not ‘I’. It tries to ignore the role of an office holder, be they an executive or a politician, and diminish their power in an effort to say they couldn’t do anything about it. It spreads the blame in the hope that people will then just move on. It is careful never to actually lay the blame though. The problem is always more complex than that. It is the sign of someone who realises the problem that was caused but remains in total denial about their role in it. Many politicians so far fall into this category. Mr Goggins, formerly of Bank of Ireland, is also very much in this camp.

The final option recognises a simple fact. One we have been told by two previous reports into the crisis. Ireland experienced a ‘vanilla’ property bubble. Nothing special, nothing unusual. Developers, Banks and Government gambled on a market and the market collapsed. We did not have proper regulation. We did not have sufficient oversight. We did not have anyone willing to ask a question. Following the crowd is not an excuse. Instead, this answer does the decent thing by saying ‘I didn’t do my job. I could have stopped this but I didn’t.’ Now that answer doesn’t make one iota of difference to the problem we are in or make the person uttering it any kind of hero. However, it does point to someone who has thought about it. Who knows what their role was and finally has come to some understanding of what they did wrong. With this answer we can at least start to learn. Other CEO’s or politicians can look and say ‘OK how do I avoid making the mistakes he did?’ For that reason alone I was impressed and have to give a very small piece of grudging respect to Eugene Sheehy, formerly of AIB.

Saying mistakes were made is not good enough. Saying people got it wrong is not good enough. We teach or kids the difference between saying ‘It got broke’ and ‘I broke it’. Neither answer changes the fact that something is broken, neither answer fixes it. But one shows some sense of responsibility and remorse. If only we could teach that at the banking inquiry.

An open Letter to Minister Noonan on the Mortgage Arrears Crisis

Dear Minister Noonan,

Today you suggested that figures on house repossessions in the Irish Times were misleading. You argued that banks were merely using the courts to force people to engage with them. I fear we have learned nothing. A banking crisis and a government led on a merry dance into oblivion only a few short years ago as not taught us a single thing. Minister Noonan you are a very capable and experienced politician. To believe you are that naive is just beyond my comprehension.

Ireland has a serious problem with mortgage arrears. This is affecting the balance sheets of our banks. Every report on the economy raises the situation as a red flag and insists we must sort it out. Our economy will continue to struggle so long as this very real drag on the money flow continues. It is a serious bottleneck in our economy.

The main problem is this issue of customers and whether they can’t pay or won’t pay. This argument is a red herring. Now, the thing is the banks honestly believe it. Many at the top of Irish banks also believed they were solvent before the crisis. They truly believed the bank guarantee could work and everyone would walk away unscathed. They believed this because their own groupthink convinced them of one line of argument. The same is happening here. Banks remain convinced that the majority must be ‘forced’ to pay. That they are just being lazy. They have no way of knowing if this is true because people who are not ‘engaging’ are not giving them access to their financial situation. They just believe it is likely. Suppose for one moment they are wrong? What if the majority can’t pay? Believe me Minister, the banks will arrive with another crisis solution and you like others before you will then carry the political price of it.

Unlike what they tell you there is not a ‘range of options’ open to homeowners. There are only a couple. The main one being filling out endless forms every 6 months to go on interest only mortgage payments. There are options like split loan mortgages but no bank is clear on who gets these, what the criteria are or the process to getting one. All of these are temporary anyway but banks don’t really want to talk. The banks version of engagement is to write a standard computer printed letter full of mumbo jumbo. Then to follow this up with several phone calls asking ‘will you make a payment today?’ When you say ‘No’ they proceed to tell you that you are in arrears. They then ask you ‘Can you make a payment on the arrears today?’ When you say no, they inform you of the dangers of non payment.

That is not engagement. That is not a bank helping people or seeking solutions. That is the very thing that makes people scared of losing their home hide under a duvet and hope it all goes away. Today I asked an arrears support unit that received several meeting requests why they don’t meet customers I was told ‘It is our policy not to meet any customer unless they are in a long term solution.’

Think about that. We have thousands of families running scared and afraid of losing homes. As an economy this needs to be sorted out but the banks say they will not physically sit down with people unless it’s a case of having to do a long term restructuring. In other words we will keep the pressure up we will drive the issue to crisis and then we will only meet you if it proves impossible for us to do anything else.

Minister Noonan you need cash to flow in the economy again. This will not happen while we have this mortgage crisis. This is not about debt forgiveness or giving people a handout. This is about a government getting a proper idea of what the problem actually is before we go along with the banks again. YOU must tell them to do their job. They have branches, they have managers, and they can easily meet every customer who is in arrears within the next 12 months. Then we would have a real picture of the problems. We all know that no form or letter can cover every situation or take account of every issue that is why we need to meet people. Banks don’t want to do this because it takes resources. Instead of a small team of people in a central office, sending out letters and making calls, they would have to resource actual decision makers meeting people and offering many different solutions. Organisations like the Irish Mortgage Holders Organisation can really help people. They need the government to start listening to what they say though. The time has come to accept that the banks version of this story has seen it get progressively worse every year rather than reach a satisfactory conclusion. Figures are tossed about but with nothing to back them up. Nobody knows what qualifies for loans, what state some loans are in, what efforts are made, what qualifies as effort. Believe it or not we don’t even have a standard criteria or formula to tell customers as to what is a guideline for a ‘sustainable’ mortgage repayment based on income.

The situation cannot continue. It’s time to say enough. A government must decide to get some real figures and ask a few more questions of the banks. The sooner we get to the bottom of this mess the sooner the economy will benefit and we can all move on.

Ireland’s lost middle ground voters

In 2007 the Irish electorate was very annoyed. Despite record spending levels many felt that the boom was still not reaching them. For 12 months before the general election parties tripped over themselves with ever better promises to woo and satisfy. The Government of FF and the PD’s seemed to be in for a hiding. That was true right up until the last two weeks of the campaign. Suddenly things changed. Brian Cowen, then Minister for Finance, warned that there were storm clouds ahead. Things might not be so rosy. He even admitted that the FF manifesto was based on growth figures that, if they did not materialise, might mean promises could not be delivered.

This acted like a torpedo to other parties manifestos that promised even more than the FF one. Suddenly as Pat Rabbitte said ‘Change became a bad word’. People feared change and risk. It’s all very well talking and shouting about it but everyone knows things can always be worse and when it came down to it people did not feel like risking.

As a result FF returned to power. However, the shudder in the economy that Cowen predicted was nothing like what happened. When I wrote ‘Brian Cowen: In his own words’ I pointed out that almost every budget speech gave some mention to property markets and the potential of a collapse or downturn but none of these predictions ever even imagined the possibility that the banks might go under. A short while ago I spoke to a former government minister who said that if he was told in 2008 of how big an adjustment would be made in terms of spending in the next 5 years he would have laughed and said that there would be revolution and such an adjustment was simply impossible. Yet it has happened.

The crisis was far greater that anyone in government thought. They were massively unprepared and completely at sea in dealing with it. By 2009 talk was of a tough budget. Several TD’s told me they favoured a ‘big bang’ approach. Get all the pain over in one budget and then still have time to let it fade rather than dragging it out over years. This line even gained traction in the media. It proves just how little was understood of what was happening that anyone even thought one budget could come close to making the adjustment that was needed.

After the crisis, the bailout and the troika the people knew what they wanted in 2011. They wanted to punish FF. They had not voted FF in on the back of their promises they had voted for them in the belief that they were the team to handle a crisis and they were badly let down. Yes some wanted FF to pay for the overspending of the boom. Yes some felt it was the job of the government to say no and protect us from ourselves at times but overwhelmingly there was a feeling of betrayal. That betrayal and annoyance came from the fact that people felt FF did not handle the crisis well. That was unforgivable. The 2011 election was an exercise in punishment, not revolution. FF got what they deserved. A new government came to power that found itself popular only because of the unpopularity of its opponent. With FF so weak and reduced to impotency people soon forgot about them and turned their attention to the people now in power. They weren’t too inspired by what they saw. The government has consistently lost ground in the polls ever since.

Sinn Fein had a dramatic early rise but despite how good the figures are for them they are not able to break the invisible ceiling that seems to be on their rise. Independents have gained the most. They continue to hold the trust that others can only dream of.

The problem for our next election is that we don’t really know what we want. We want things to get better yes, we want austerity to end. However, we are keenly aware that things have been and could be worse. We don’t want to risk what we have. We are nervous of those that promise everything, we know that promised lands quickly turn sour. That said we are in no mood to continue struggling, we have paid a heavy price and are at the limit of our ability to take any more pain. We are annoyed that banks and other institutions still enjoy enormous trust at government level and we fear that the mistakes of the past will be repeated. We do not, at the same time, really wish for a revolution, violence, or any big social upheaval.

We are caught. This government seems dangerously inept and indecisive but it has managed to oversee some steady improvements no matter what you put that down to. FF remains as it was. It has failed to inspire or demonstrate any great learning from its experiences and seems happy to just exist. There is nothing there to attract anyone or suggest forgiveness. Sinn Fein says a lot of the things we like. They talk about a society we can mostly identify with. We see they have some new and talented people that might be worth a shot. The problem is we are still wary. They continue with the line of being ‘revolutionary’. We want change yes but not revolution. They scare us off in that they might mean well but they just might muck things up. We want to believe them and trust them but we are not convinced that every other party is in some vast conspiracy to stop us.

As for those on the far left and right they will have their followers but for the vast majority they are always going too far. They always assume we support them and we don’t like our support being assumed by anyone.

So here we are. A volatile electorate unsure of what direction to turn. Hungry for change but desperately nervous at the same time. A modern day Cicero arguing with ourselves over the rights and wrongs of all sides and hopelessly indecisive about what to do. We want that leader, that leader who convinces us they can be all things to all people. When we are indecisive we look to find a leader who is decisive. We are looking for someone to trust and believe. It is unlikely we will find that this side of an election. We are probably at the beginning of a long series of conversations that will take some time to reach a conclusion and may be facing several elections before we finally decide exactly what path we should be on.

Pop-Politics – A new initiative for schools & youth groups

I am delighted to announce a new initiative aimed at second level school students. If you are involved in a school or youth group and want to help develop a greater understanding of politics then this has been designed with you in mind. Politics does matter. Now, more than ever, we need our younger generation to engage and understand the political systems that they are growing up in. Pop-Politics brings a sense of fun and enthusiasm to the subject and aims to give teenagers a knowledge that will benefit them throughout their lives. Feel free to contact me at Fallonpolitics@gmail.com if you would like to discuss it further.  Visit us on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/PoppoliticsIrl

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‘Charlie’ – my review

Last night saw the concluding instalment of the RTE drama ‘Charlie. This has been a long awaited series. It contained many positives and negatives that other future series should learn from and I have no doubt that the viewership figures should spark an interest in Irish political drama.

The first problem ‘Charlie’ had to overcome was the time span and the large amount of events. Unlike Colin Murphy’s ‘The Guarantee’ this series was played out over many years and condensing that down to 3 hours is a difficult business. Whereas ‘The Guarantee’ managed to keep an intensity and pace, ‘Charlie’ sometimes dragged with too many bits and pieces of information. Any movie struggles to cover something that spans so many years and events. The first problem ‘Charlie’ had as a drama was that too many side incidents were included. Many of these were a nod to stereotypes and old tales that didn’t really bring anything to the drama itself. In episode 1 far too many characters were coming and going with no real part to play. On the upside the series managed to capture some of the attraction of Haughey when he talked about vision or he played the part of the ‘outsider’ and local boy done well.

In truth to cover the events properly RTE would probably have to have commissioned a love/hate style weekly series over many weeks. Aiden Gillen and Tim Vaughan Lawler did a very good job with characters that everyone recognises and therefore are always difficult to play. However, a great weakness of ‘Charlie’ was the fact that we never got any depth from any other characters. Everybody else was superfluous and only there in a nod to history. In fact, the entire thing seemed more like the writers would have wished to just do a series of Charlie and PJ discussing events. As a stage show that might have even worked better.

Episode 2 saw the best of the series. However, for anyone with little interest in politics I don’t think this was drawing them in in the same was as ‘The west wing’. If we are not reaching new audiences and bringing this type of drama into lives of those who like TV but don’t necessarily watch the news then, personally, I think we are failing. The first step for any writer should be to try reaching a new audience, helping them understand and make it more accessible. I don’t think ‘Charlie’ achieved this.

It was highly surprising that there was not one opposition figure featured. No Garret Fitzgerald and No Dick Spring. I don’t believe you can understand Haughey without understanding those he was up against and the type of personalities involved. It was a big weakness that we never saw what Haughey faced or got to know any perception of the views external to Fianna Fail. Des O’Malley was reduced to a few predictable lines and wielding a sword. This is disappointing. O’Malley had a lot more political depth and his relationship with Haughey was never really examined. The entire series portrayed Haughey himself like a colossus among a world of pygmies. He was the only one capable of strategy. O’Malley and McCreevey were just hapless outwitted fools who never planned or organised. Haughey was the only one capable of vision, never the opposition.

The problem with this is that it led to every other character being completely two dimensional. We never saw or understood Haughey through their eyes. In fact, I would argue that it is the complex layers of so many of these relationships that makes the era so fascinating. We saw none of that. Having built Brian Lenihan up as a witless fool in two episodes the writers had a problem in the third and the portrayal of the presidential election was a disaster. The writers obviously only researched Haughey and never took the time to read James Downey or many of the other authors who have written about Lenihan and that story. While Haughey himself is the Character with most depth he also came across as totally emotionless and we could never empathise with the character unlike the real man. We never once saw the Haughey family. The over playing of the Terry Keane role was both distracting and unnecessary to the drama. It was probably hoped that this might give us insight into the personal man but it did not and there were more factual ways of doing that in a much better way. The story skipped along like a stone across the water but it never got under the surface.

By episode 3 it was clear the writers had a problem. Everyone around Haughey was a stooge and unable to match him. He had no opponents whatsoever in the opposition that we had got to know and therefore how is it possible for him to fall? In the end it all rushes along and sinks quickly and rather confusingly. Haughey may have been under pressure from forces outside politics but a lot of this had to do with him losing control of his party. McSharry was never seen really despite his pivotal role in both Haughey’s rise and his economic strategy from 1987. There was no room for strong characters other than Charlie himself. It was all explained away with a secret ‘Arms trial file’ that really wasn’t necessary.

Other things were just sloppy. The start of episode three Reynolds was referred to as the Minister for Agriculture. That is a role he never held. A basic Google could have found that out. It hinted at some very rushed writing and a lack of informed research. Several of the scenes were probably played down due to budget but let’s just say the reality was far more dramatic than what was portrayed particularly in the case of the Lenihan sacking. Reynolds was only a bit part in the series but was never built up enough to take Charlie on. The idea that Charlie left with a happy heart and leaving something to help Reynolds was also taking license. That was a bitter struggle. A few people asked me about Reynolds character in ‘Charlie’. All I can say is that the writers did give some believable lines for the amount of space the character had and that wasn’t too bad. The casting was all wrong though. The mannerisms, delivery and approach didn’t come across as Albert at all. However, this series was about ‘Charlie’ and we must remember that.

I enjoyed it overall as a piece of TV. I think it could have been so much more though. To be fair to all concerned budget is always a factor. It is very hard to take a piece of history and turn it into something that everyone can watch and that will please everyone. However, what disappointed me most was that I think it fell down on some very basic research to inform the writing. Some great scenes were missed in order to facilitate some weak fictional scenes. Credit must go to RTE for funding it and risking it though and it is great to see home-grown drama getting big viewer ratings.

There should be more of this type of drama on our TV and if there is then it can develop and progress and some of the faults that ‘the ‘Charlie’ series had can be avoided in the future. Overall though we watched, were engaged and talked about it so I guess that’s a success.

2014 a political review

2014 was a year of many contrasts. It was a year that could have and should have set the government up for the next election. This was the year they should have rebuilt but instead they took a dive. It was a year filled with rumours and protests and avoidable problems but it has left the political landscape looking very interesting indeed.

The Banking Inquiry is only getting underway but its establishment was making news items over the course of the year. In the end we all know that it will be little more than a political shouting match. It may prove a little therapeutic for us all to see but in reality it will probably deliver nothing more than column inches and discussion points. 2014 saw tribunal findings called into question as George Redmond managed to get a court to rule in his favour. It illustrated the farce of so many public inquiries where the findings are little more than a load of old opinion. They are hailed as gospel by those who like them but derided as nonsense by those that don’t and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

This year kicked off controversy in the Charity sector when pay and bonuses came under the spotlight. Angela Kerins and Frank Flannery at Rehab should have seen the writing on the wall and walked early and saved their charity a lot of distress. Never mind not being able to see the wood for the trees it seems they weren’t able to see the plank of wood repeatedly beating them in the face. They hung on and fought when the fight was clearly over and only served to damage the work that was ongoing. It was an early signal though that many people in Ireland were simply fed up of hearing about large pay and bonus cultures. Yes you might think you are entitled to your salary. Yes you might believe you work hard for it. However, unless you actually know what it’s like to survive on 20k a year, working any hours you can and worrying over your house and family then you simply will not understand how people feel. Ireland is a fairly understanding place but patience has its limits and people just got fed up of hearing about large salaries where clearly a cut or two would not have destroyed them.

It all hinted at the Irish becoming a little tired and worn out by being asked to understand and see the bigger picture. Somebody should have been reading the signs. If they were however they were not advising the government. The local and European elections were a harsh lesson. After the troika had departed they expected to get some thanks but the opposite was the case. The government drifted badly as soon as the troika left. To be honest the economic news wasn’t bad. Unemployment fell. Economic growth was on the up. Consumer confidence rose. The government had decided to leave the bailout without a support lifeline and that plan worked. Ireland was now able to borrow at record lows. All that is pretty impressive. The problem was of course that all people involved in politics thought the troika was a bigger deal than most people felt. That whole ‘we lost or sovereignty’ argument? The whole ‘Ireland is not viable as a state’ thing? Most of Joe public never bought it. They weren’t half as put out by the troika as those of us who follow politics were. They just wanted to keep their job and get on with things and they knew if they did it would eventually come around again. What should have been impressive news for the government was instead something Irish people saw as the least they expected for their sacrifice.

A poor local elections saw Eamon Gilmore resign as Labour leader. Sadly for his party he left it a year too late and nobody had the courage to push him earlier. Joan Burton took over but did so with all the flair of a civil servant replacing their predecessor. She brought some hope to Labour supporters themselves but to those outside of that group they don’t see much difference. Business as usual. There is no seismic shift in Labour influence. There is no sense that things are taking a very different turn. The problem is of course that Gilmore left his departure so late that any major shift is impossible without causing a collapse in government. Labour can still flex its muscle but it is likely that when it does it will be an election issue.

Fine Gael was caught up in the senate debacle with John McNulty. A silly avoidable piece of theatre. Nobody wanted to take responsibility for it because everybody knew it was a stupid senseless piece of political footwork. It got blamed on an official but the electorate knew where they were going to put the blame. It was not a big deal for the man in the street but it was yet another chip in confidence. People have to feel they trust politicians. The issue may not be that big or important to them but if it damages trust it damages the vote.

Alan Shatter got caught up with Martin Callinan with Garda Whistleblowers. Shatter had caused himself a problem by his using of information on a TV show against Mick Wallace. That was always going to create an issue for the Minister. However the whistleblower saga caused him to lose control and to lose the confidence of the Taoiseach who started talking of taking personal responsibility for matters. Shatter was often talked about as a reforming Minister. Unfortunately his record doesn’t exactly point to a raft of new legislation and reforms during his term and it’s not like he wasn’t there long enough. He did however do some good work and was far from the worst Justice Minister we have ever had. His problem largely stemmed from the fact that he had things he really wanted to get done personally and he often followed these at a cost to other items. You don’t get to choose as Minister what you have on your desk. You have to deal with the problems as well as the pet projects. Shatter could have met the whistleblowers, talked to them and asked the Commissioner for his side. He could have been the honest broker and all would have been fine. Instead he stuck his neck out inexplicably to back the Commissioner. It was this that cost him in the end. The crisis was not going to go away so long as he stayed so he had to go, for the sake of the government.

All of these issues left the public deeply suspicious of politics. The reforms have not happened. They sense no change. Most of all they still sense no real leadership. Independents continue to rise at the polls because they are easier to trust than a party. What the Irish voter hungers for more than anything right now is someone they can trust. Whatever the policies they can accept them so long as they can honestly feel this person is doing something for the right reason.

Sinn Fein had a great local and European election. They saw more increases in support. They now stand as a very real potential government party. The electorate will watch how they deal with that pressure and how they stand up to that challenge. They have to show that they are ready to go into government. The problem with leading the polls is that any suggestion that you will not enter government afterwards makes you look weak. They have overcome several problems this year and stand well positioned for the new year but for them too the landscape is changing and they must change with it. SF managed to overcome serious allegations made by Mairia Cahill, largely because people believed that FG, Labour and FF were all just using it as a political point scoring exercise and suspending any form of natural justice. The polls should have soothed SF but they missed a chance to make a real grab for middle ground voters but getting drawn into tit for tat politics. Mary Lou McDonald used the Ansbacher allegations under privilege to equally make a political point and suspend any natural justice. All in all we learned one thing. No political party is different, it’s all about them. They are innocent and everyone else is guilty.

Fianna Fail… well they had a decent local election and bad by elections. That points to a party that is still capable on the ground but is unable to capture any imagination nationally. One could go back over the issues for FF this year but why bother? They are the same issues that were there in 2013, 2012, 2011. FF is stuck in a loop and is terrified of coming out of the loop in case they stop altogether. They say fortune favours the brave and right now FF can expect very few visits from fortune. They are like the fella who sits at the bar all night telling you how he could have any woman in the room but never asks anyone to dance. If you don’t ask you won’t be turned down. That’s a kind of success.

Water charges took on a life of their own. Just when we thought it was all over the government allowed it to do untold damage. They took far too long to reach decisions on it. They lost the middle ground and while they got over the hump of the protests they will still be holding their breaths come spring in the hope that people will pay. There is no guarantee they will. Even if they do the damage is now done to the government and their image. Nobody honestly believes that the government is n control of Irish Water. If they are not in control then who do you turn to? Yet again that feeling of voter trust has been eroded.

2015 will be a big year for anyone who can gain that trust. The field of play is still open and there is still a very volatile electorate out there that can swing wildly. There was a lot of talk about new parties but still very little action and it still hard to decipher if there is any real potential for one.

Finally I can’t let a review of 2014 pass without mentioning the passing of Albert Reynolds. For me personally, that is what I will recall most about this year. A friend, a leader and a man I respected more than any other apart from my own father. Life is far from perfect. Politics is an imperfect science. You won’t get everything right but you hope the scales show a favourable balance. Whether its politicians of the past or those of the present we should remember that it is those that get into the arena that deserve the credit. Whether we agree with them or disagree with them, whether they do things right or wrong, they go out there and do something. If we want it then we should be willing to do the same. Happy New Year.

Johanna Lowry speaks out on TD’s, employment rights and her search for justice

Some time ago I wrote an article outlining a case where James Bannon TD had dismissed his parliamentary assistant. After this I was contacted by several people with stories of TD’s abusing their position and treating parliamentary staff unfairly. Unfortunately, due to party loyalties or the fear of being ostracised they did not want to put their names to any story. In recent weeks Sean Conlon TD has faced a case for unfair dismissal and caused media attention to be turned back on the matter.

I met with Johanna Lowry, the former assistant dismissed by James Bannon and she told me her story. I must point out that in the past and again this week I have contacted Fine Gael who declined to comment and despite my efforts have been unable to get Deputy Bannon to tell me his side either.

However, Johanna paints a story that is deeply worrying and raises many questions about the system. She has endured much hardship and stress as a result of the loss of her position as she described it to me ‘The loss of a job is a form of bereavement. When that loss is sudden and inexplicable, the impact is considerable. The failure to achieve closure is intensified by any action that curtails the right to redress in the appropriate forum. Access to the Labour Court or Employment Appeals Tribunal is not something that should be subject to manipulation. In this regard, the use and abuse of political position to block my case against James Bannon TD being heard has been blatant. The stress caused to me is immeasurable.’

‘If things had gone according to the norms of procedure without interference, the hearings in my case might have well been concluded by now. In fact, I am involved in two different cases, one contractual and the other, unfair dismissal; both have seen numerous obstacles put in the way of resolution’

This process has been a long one for Johanna and there seems little hope of resolution in sight. Indeed it is highly likely there will be a general election before the matter is dealt with. I asked her to outline the history of her experience and how this case came to arise.

‘I worked with Mr Bannon for eleven years. The difficult situation in which I found myself started in the aftermath of General Election 2011, which was strange given that I had helped him through elections previously. Leaving aside the on-going extra work which started before the Selection Convention 2010, the four weeks leading up to the General Election of 2011 had, as in the 2007 General Election, brought an excessive extra workload and a huge level of responsibility for briefings, press releases, speeches, articles, surveys, opinions, policies, e-mails, etc, on which so much depended.’

‘On Tuesday 01 March, 2011, four days after the election, Deputy Bannon, who had not been in touch with me about the result of the election of the previous Friday, arrived unexpectedly in Leinster House and asked me to go to the Longford Constituency Office for two days, out of my five day week, while continuing to work in my role as Parliamentary Assistant. I live in Dublin, I was studying at night there and the travel would be difficult and at my own expense. In fact to be totally accurate he said that ‘our leader’ had said that I was to go to the constituency office. The fact that Enda Kenny was involved in difficult negotiations at the time to form a government, made this assertion seem somewhat bizarre. However, this was not unusual, as Mr Bannon was prone to ascribing a variety of matters to Enda Kenny and not all of it complimentary .’

‘It is important to note that he did not state that if I did not accept the offer, he would reduce my 5 day-week – but he was essentially making it impossible for me to work for two of the days, particularly as he stated that no travel and subsistence would be paid. A letter dated the following day Wednesday 02 March 2011 from Deputy Bannon, then offered me three days in Leinster House only. Mr Bannon had not waited for a written response to his request to go to the constituency office.’

It should be noted here that TDs are entitled to a parliamentary assistant, paid for by the taxpayer to assist with parliamentary work in Leinster house. They are also entitled to a secretary who can be based in the constituency and this is also paid for by the taxpayer. In theory these two roles are very different and recognised as such by the expenses system. Johanna outlined to me how Mr Bannon proceeded to reorganise his office staff.

‘Mr Bannon offered the secretary in the constituency office, a five day week from her previous 2.5 days. Another staff member, who had shared the secretarial role with her, was subsequently promoted to Parliamentary Assistant to job share with me and two of my days were given to this employee. Under the contract for 2011 agreed by SIPTU and Houses of Oireachtas Commission, PAs are to be based in Leinster House. This staff member continued the role in the constituency as before.

At no time during or before the election campaign did Mr Bannon say that there would be any change in my position. In other words he waited until the work had been done and the election was over to change my working hours. From this point, I continued to work with Mr Bannon for a further two years. The expectation on his part was that five day’s work would be fitted into three, which was incredibly stressful. Tue/Wed/Thu are Dail sitting days and the work is mostly reactionary – matters arising, speeches, press releases, briefings for radio, motions to be written; Order of Business question to be selected and written, news sites monitored etc. Allied with the excessive workload, the reduction in my salary left me with the same financial demands, but less than two thirds of my previous salary to meet them. Despite mentioning to Mr Bannon that the reduction in my salary was causing severe financial difficulty, he just made light of the situation.’

On Friday 08 March 2013 a letter of suspension, following no norms of procedure, was delivered to my home. It intimated that dismissal would follow. A number of bizarre incidents had culminated in this abrupt communication and subsequent dismissal three weeks later. What made the matter particularly strange was that two days prior to the letter, Mr Bannon had said that we should put everything behind us, as we worked very well together. I can only wonder what would have happened, if he didn’t, as he said in his letter of 02 March 2011, ‘hugely value your work, and appreciate your loyalty, commitment and support’.

Getting a hearing for her case has also proven difficult for Johanna. The following is a timeline of the events, hearings and arguments for deferrals that were made:

04 February 2013: Contractual case heard in Rights Commission.

02 August 2013: Hearing re same in the Labour Court adjourned on foot of letter (Dail headed paper) by Deputy Bannon, that he couldn’t attend the hearing as he would be in Egypt. This turned out not to be the case on the day and was compounded by a letter from the Chief Whip, Paul Kehoe TD, on Dail headed notepaper, backing up Mr Bannon’s contentions.

12 November 2013: Hearing adjourned following recommendation to my side by Chairman of Labour Court who had stated on 02 August 2013 that he wasn’t prepared to rule on a case with collective implications, although he later amended this and said there was a case to be heard.

19 December 2013: (First hearing of Unfair Dismissal Case). Adjournment given on basis that Mr Bannon contended certain legislation would be taken in the Dail on the 19th, when that was impossible to predict. Mr Bannon also stated that he is the only sitting TD for Longford/Westmeath he needed to be in the Dail. He is in fact one of four.

07 January 2014: Attempt to have the case dismissed by counsel for Mr Bannon on so called technical point. Rights Commissioner took a number of weeks to decide if case would go ahead or not.

03 March 2014. Hearing scheduled following a ruling by the Commissioner that he had jurisdiction in the matter (as raised by counsel for Mr Bannon on 07 January 2014) and was hearing the case. Mr Bannon strangely got leave at the last moment to appeal directly to the EAT, for which there is a wait of over a year.

Johanna Lowry is a strong and impressive woman. She has endured much in her quest for a fair hearing. I do not know what Deputy Bannon or Fine Gael think on this matter but they consistently refuse to comment in any way shape or form, despite the fact that it is possible for them to do so in at least some capacity. For Johanna, the wait goes on and the stress and pressure continues for as long as the system continues to allow it.

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.’

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.

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