Johnny Fallon

Irish Political Commentator

Archive for the tag “Enda Kenny”

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.


Leo Varadkar’s long game

Leadership is a tricky business. It takes many different forms and styles. With it comes power. However, if you want power you must be able to seize it. Strategising for such an eventuality takes patience, lots of it.

In early 2011 Miriam O’Callaghan stood on the Dail plinth with a stony faced Micheál Martin and asked him if he had got things wrong, quoting PJ Mara saying ‘You have to have the numbers’. Martin had just lost his challenge to Brian Cowen. The question overlooked one thing. No Fianna Fail leader has ever lost a motion of confidence in the party or been deposed at the pinnacle of a heave. No, a heave is a much more complex situation.

Richard Bruton, supported by Leo Varadkar found this out to their cost. It was a tough lesson. Bruton’s indecisiveness cost them the initiative. Then, when they lost they were surprised and had no plan for the aftermath. In a heave you must accept that in all likelihood, unless you get very lucky, you will not defeat the leader. The all out assault is merely a ploy to keep the Leader and all the party apparatus busy while you plan for what happens when you lose.

Leo Varadkar is not planning a heave. There is no need to at this point in time. He is however, planning for the future. He is setting out his stall as a politician and positioning himself for whatever the future may bring.

No matter who you are people eventually tire of you. We get bored of the same faces and same approaches. Without any doubt a day will come when ‘Enda Fatigue’ sets in in earnest. At that point people will tire of so much of what Enda brings. After Albert Reynolds FF could not wait to install the ‘lets all be friends’ approach of Bertie Ahern. After 14 years of compromise FF were rushing to the man seen as the ‘hard man’ Brian Cowen. Now sometimes leaders don’t turn out to be what you expect, but your perception when choosing them is everything.

After a bullish Michael Noonan, FG were eager for the far more personable Enda Kenny. When we tire of Enda we will want something very different. Varadkar is crafting an image. It’s a very seductive image for an Irish politician at this point. He is showing himself to be the opposite of Enda Kenny in almost every way, yet he is still Enda Kenny’s friend. He is not afraid of decisions. He is not afraid to admit if he gets things wrong or to revisit a proposal. He is loyal to his party but not to the point that he ignores faults within it or its history. He conveys an approach that is at ease with the media, at ease with questions and happy to argue a case.

He also conveys an image of strength. Not afraid to have an argument and not afraid of speaking out. A self confidence that is often lacking in many politicians. Leo is crafting and perfecting this image in the full knowledge that whenever people tire of Enda Kenny they will look to someone who embodies very different values.

The problem for Varadkar is that he still has a tough job to do in health. The system was a mess in 2011 and one of the great advantages James Reilly had was the general perception that anything would be an improvement because it could not get worse. Somehow he managed it though. Varadkar has a lot of cleaning up to do and Health has scuppered careers in the past. On the other hand if he manages to even take some small progress from the Department and aims for more modest victories he could be hailed as a hero. If that happens he will certainly be a force to be reckoned with.

The long game is always what’s important in politics. Enda Kenny will be watching young Varadkar and will know he is a very different opponent to many of his others. Fine Gael will be watching him closely as a party and the public perception of him. If the polls demand it then a party reacts. A knock may one day come at Leo’s door and he will be dragged (kicking, screaming and protesting of course) to centre stage for the good of the party. There is a lot to happen between now and then though and Leo would be well advised to keep a close eye on those around him. One thing never changes at cabinet, everybody is threatened by ambition. Enough small boys working together can overcome the big boy.

Shatter-point – The Government and the Gardaí

The controversy surrounding Alan Shatter as Minister for Justice is growing. The GSOC bugging allegations were just a start. The government hoped that granting an investigation would buy time and take some of the political heat out of the matter allowing for calm and fair reflection on the issue. It was followed quickly by the controversy over the file Micheál Martin gave to Enda Kenny and Shatter’s sacking of the confidential recipient.

The problem here is that Minister Shatter could, and should, have avoided most of this trouble. As a Minister he is elected by the people, selected by the Taoiseach and paid by the Taxpayer to be the voice of the country and ensure all matters are dealt with in the best interest of the citizens. Acting as a counterweight to group think is one of the most valuable tasks a Minister can perform. However, like a lot of Ministers in the past, Alan Shatter quickly went native.

Mr Connolly, the confidential recipient who was recently sacked has assured the Whistleblowers that their evidence of corruption had been passed on to the government. If so then Minister Shatter was aware of the allegations contained in the file but no progress was made. Throughout this crisis and the GSOC affair, the minister has displayed a very close affinity with the Garda top brass. He could have been the concerned honest broker, seeking answers but wishing to be fair to all sides. Instead he chose to be very much in the corner of the Garda Commissioner and to take a very definite side. That is what has caused his current problem. There can be no doubt that no matter what he says, any Garda with information of wrongdoing will not believe that Alan Shatter wants to hear it. That means the democratic balance in the running of state security has been completely lost.

This crisis places the Labour party in a difficult position. As of now they need information and don’t want to call for Alan Shatters head unnecessarily. That means that they must express confidence in him despite doubts. Yesterday, Joan Burton complained during question time that the opposition was introducing new documents like a ‘snowstorm’. She said that the documents needed to be handed over and considered and she saw this as a matter of respect. Just consider this for a moment. Joan Burton believes that the opposition should, as a matter of respect, provide all documents they have to the government, which is correct. Yet, she went on to express confidence in a colleague who is believed to have been in possession of those same documents for 2 years and yet never shared them with her or the rest of the cabinet. You can’t have it both ways; if the right thing for the opposition to do is to hand over the files for consideration then surely it was the right thing for Minister Shatter to have done?

Enda Kenny has expressed grave concern about the contents of the file he received from Micheál Martin. Watching him speaking I could not doubt the Taoiseach’s sincerity; he looked to me like a man who was indeed worried by what he had read. The Labour party now needs to know exactly what it is dealing with before this matter goes any further. If Minister Shatter has done nothing wrong then they need to be assured of this and see the evidence. If they are to defend him then they need to know exactly what the accusations are.

Some of you might remember the ‘passports for sale’ issue in the early ’90s. Without getting into the nuts and bolts, Albert Reynolds business had availed of a government scheme at the time whereby if somebody invested over £1 million in an Irish firm resulting in jobs etc then that person could apply for a passport. Reynolds maintained that his firm acted appropriately, followed the rules and there was no wrongdoing. The matter did cause huge controversy though and led to the end of the scheme. The Labour party at that time was placed in a very difficult position. In the midst of the media storm Albert Reynolds met with Dick Spring. He assured Spring that everything was above board. Then, to underline his point Reynolds told Spring he could have full access to the files and see for himself that everything was handled as it should be. To Reynolds shock, Spring replied that he had already sought and got the file and he was satisfied that there was no impropriety. Reynolds was pleased but he learned that Dick Spring was not a man to hang about. When Spring and the Labour party were under pressure they did not wait for invitations or explanations. Eamon Gilmore and his cabinet colleagues need to assure the wider Labour party that they know exactly what’s going on and that they are fully aware of all the contents of the file before the talk again.

In opposition Alan Shatter supported the formation of the Morris Tribunal into allegations of Garda impropriety in Donegal. At the time he said the ‘matters should not be left festering’. Yet there is little doubt the current allegations have festered and been dismissed by those in power. Shatter also maintained that without his work in opposition the Minister would never have held an investigation and the terms of reference would have been ‘deficient’. Yet the Minister is open to the same allegations in this regard today. At the report of the Morris Tribunal Shatter said that the delay in establishing it had ‘contributed personally to the damage done to the reputation of the Garda Síochána, to the public perception of that force and to the difficulties that continue to be experienced by individuals to whom this State has already had to pay compensation and to some of whom compensation payments remain to be made.’ The same accusation stands today.

Opposition parties call for resignations with ease. There is no doubt that if Labour was in Opposition they too would say Alan Shatter must resign. Equally if FF or SF were in power they would be desperately trying to establish the facts before throwing a colleague overboard. Nonetheless, the situation is a grave one. The Gardai as a force are being tarnished and damaged and it is a force that contains a huge number of great and brave men and women. Those who are doing their job well need to be protected and defended. Those who besmirch the name of the force should not be tolerated. The reaction to allegations thus far is simply not good enough. It stinks of an attitude where the powers that be wish people would just shut up rather than being grateful for the chance to root out malpractice.

The political storm will continue. The cabinet, and in particular the Labour party, must be full sure that they know everything before they are asked to leap from the trenches again.

The Leaders – A Party animal or a lonely wallflower?

As the Dail recommences all eyes remain on the party leaders. The traditional winter bloodletting season could make for a bumpy ride, but how are each of our leaders fixed? Here, I take a quick look at their standing.

Enda Kenny – The Taoiseach would seem to be comfortable enough at first glance. To be fair to Enda he has settled into the job and for most people the accusation that he would embarrass himself is a distant memory. He may not be inspirational but he at least appears like a decent and able enough chap. When he is making one of those big speeches with lots of rhetoric, people actually quite like him. It’s not easy to be Taoiseach but Kenny has managed the battlefield quite well. His main problem remains that despite trying to reinvent his image, he always seems no more than one wrong word away from destroying it all. There are two major problems looming that Kenny has to deal with. The first is the Seanad referendum. He has personally invested a huge amount of political capital in this. It was seen as a ‘can’t lose’ referendum, but while still quietly confident there are a few nervous glances towards the polls on the government benches. If the referendum is passed, it gives Kenny a confidence boost and also the chance to spread out some more talk of reforms and change over the coming years. He will see it as a legacy impact for his term. However, should the referendum be lost then make no mistake it will cause rumblings among many who will see it as a personal failure of the Taoiseach. He needs a Yes vote badly. The second problem facing him is the Labour question. So far Enda has managed to tie Eamon Gilmore up in knots and keep him boxed in at every opportunity. Deep down, he knows that Gilmore may come knocking and need help to save his leadership or else a new Labour Leader might start flexing muscles. You don’t walk away from the job of Taoiseach and Enda knows that if Labour got it into their head that they could walk away, then he would be forced to make serious compromises to keep them on board. If this occurred, it will lead to the traditional grumbling in the larger party of any coalition that the tail is wagging the dog and that the Taoiseach has started saving his job ahead of his party. If that talk starts, it only ends one way. However, the job of Taoiseach is all about such decisions and challenges, Enda knows that well. He has started to shift within the party to secure his base. Figures like Phil Hogan and James Reilly no longer hold the influence over the Taoiseach that they once had and Enda may yet play all sides, including the long term game with the Reform Alliance, just to keep everyone sweet enough.

Eamon Gilmore – The Tánaiste continues to hang in there. He knows that he needs something to claim from the budget in order to give him a fighting chance. It’s likely he will get it but it won’t be major. Most accept that rather than €3.1 bn needing to be made up in the budget, the figure will be about €2.8 bn. This could allow Labour claim some victory. The real problem is that Eamon cannot really recover his personal strength. He remains leader because no one else really wants to take the job right now. That can change. Labour could leave him in situ until after the local elections, but this may ruin any chance of even a 2 or 3% recovery to save a few seats. It also means that Labour would need to look at Gilmores leadership next May/June. This timing is poor with another budget looming the following October. Another scenario is that potential rivals go with Eamon on the upcoming budget but do so while still grumbling. The budget gets passed and before Christmas, potential rivals blame its worst parts on Eamon’s failures and remove him. Allowing them some hope of even a tiny bounce before the locals and still saying that the time is too short to blame the new leader for a bad result. It also allows sufficient time for the new leader to talk tough and even look to renegotiate parts of the programme for government in advance of the budget next year. No matter what way one looks at it, Eamon Gilmore is no longer a leader in the real sense. He is on borrowed time, a bit like Haughey in November ’91 to Feb ’92: Everyone knew he was only there by the grace of others and it was only a matter of when.

Micheál Martin – The FF leader continues to wrestle his party and grapple to turn things around. He has had some success and a mild but soft recovery in the polls has calmed some early nerves. Serious questions still present themselves. At times Martin seems to lack the decisive will to make things happen. He avoids risks, doesn’t like doing things quickly and seems to follow the same backroom as his predecessors. He hasn’t shown any drastic change. At other times he goes to the opposite extreme, stifling debate, seeking to impose outcomes and trying to dominate proceedings. The abortion issue was the latest in that kind of cycle. There was only ever one outcome for FF in that debate and it was worrying that the Leader or those around him could not see that. This has led some to say that Martin is weak or in a weak position. Martin is not weak but he doesn’t always pick his fights well and a lack of foresight is more the problem. His position is safe enough for now. There is no value to FF in changing leader. In fact Martin could still do a huge favour as a former minister in leading the charge for openness and answers on the activities of the last cabinet and what happened around the table. He is still the best placed to engage with the Irish people on what the hell actually happened. Unfortunately like his predecessor Brian Cowen, he wants to move on rather than dwell on the past. FF might find dwelling on the past might be the best thing they could do right now. The local elections will be a test for Martin. FF needs to be in the mid 20s to hold what they have at local level, more or less. They seem on course for that. A slight increase would be taken as a big victory. Should the party numbers fall though, questions may come quickly.

Gerry Adams – It’s been another interesting year for Gerry. From his entertaining, if strange, twitter account, to the SF poll battle people continue to ponder what his future might hold. SF is doing well in the polls. If they got 19% in a general election it would be a massive achievement and major step forward. The problem is they are struggling to understand why they are not even higher, especially given the FF figure. My answer to that, as always, is organisation. SF is still building up theirs. Many do suggest however that Gerry is not the man to lead SF in this battle. He has struggled to impose himself on southern politics and to really show a genuine grasp of the debate. SF has been much better served by Doherty, Tobin and McDonald in this regard. SF may need the injection of new leadership to bring some impetus to the project. This carries two problems; the first is that SF needs to retain its strong link with the North. Can a southern leader do that? Secondly, SF still has to decide its path. The party is struggling to define its enemies in the same way as FF did many years ago. It does not really know whether it should be attacking its traditional rivals FG, or whether it needs to hit FF hard to stop any recovery or strike out at Labour to eat into their vote. SF is fighting battles on every front and eventually will have to pick a side and deal with each one by one. A new leader will be forced to accept that. Gerry helps them avoid it for now although even he seems increasingly uneasy about it. I don’t see SF changing leader this side of a general election unless they start to fall back in the polls and I don’t think that’s likely at this point. There is a problem for the general populace in identifying with Adams however. He reminds me more and more of De Valera in the 1950’s: there are stronger leaders in the ranks below, people perhaps better prepared for the new age, but he is a hero within the party, seen as a patriot and an icon and therefore nobody is really able to bring themselves to criticise him or say his time might be past. De Valera stayed a decade too long, will it be the same for Adams?

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