Johnny Fallon

Irish Political Commentator

Archive for the tag “Fianna Fail”

Fianna Fail – No pain, No Gain

A month or two after the 2011 general election I met with Micheál Martin. He was talking to everybody and anybody about Fianna Fail and what the future held for them. At that meeting I outlined two scenarios for his party. The first was a dramatic and sweeping change, brutally implemented, requiring steady nerves and much leadership. It was a strategy designed to use the still massive FF organisation and would see big changes in how political parties distribute power and would be fraught with rows and arguments. The advantage was that if it was successful it could return FF to the pinnacle of Irish politics in a relatively short period of time and possibly change how political parties worked for a long time to come. The downside was that if the leadership was not there or if the strategy failed, FF could be left worse than they were and might even disintegrate. The higher the stakes the bigger the prize if you win.

The second strategy was to ensure FF survival. This was the approach of steady caution. Taking time, discussing and not doing anything too dramatic. Some quick window dressing and nice speeches and let time do its work. The advantage of this was that it would ensure FF survival probably for at least 25/30 years. The downside was that with this approach FF would never regain its dominance of Irish politics, It could survive but it would spend the rest of it existence fighting with other growing parties, juggling the also ran tag, and making up numbers. Over time it would shed some of that big organisation as not ‘being necessary to modern politics’. Eventually it might even be subsumed into another party or disappear gradually, but not now. Its current existence would be assured.

From what I knew of the FF grassroots, back in the day, I was convinced they would want option 1. They would rather go down swinging with flames all about rather than be condemned to some political half life that they use to pity other parties for. Personally, I also felt it was a better approach because I despair of how all Irish political parties that once could have taught the world how to organise have slipped into a pattern of aping British and American politics and become nothing more than boring marketing strategies.

Anyway, I think everyone can see the route FF took. They are still with us. Have they dealt with the problems of the past or the economic accusations? Absolutely not. They think they have and want to move on but it’s just not true. Dealing with it means apportioning responsibility, identifying exact decisions and errors, and facing up to personal failings. That means rows. It means hurting people. They don’t feel strong enough to do that so they avoid any split by just not talking about it.

I also said publicly at the time that the problem with the cautious approach and the advice FF was taking was that Martin was keeping things upbeat while he was touring the grassroots and energising them. This in time helped to give FF a little mild poll boost. But quite clearly the same advisers would eventually tell FF to ‘stop navel gazing’ and get back out there. Martin duly obliged right on schedule. The very weakness so many predicted was then laid bare. If Martin was not touring the grassroots anymore, energising them, focusing them and promising new reforms, then who was? Who replaced Martin when he turned back to his job as a public figure? Amazingly nothing had changed internally except a cut in staff numbers due to resources. The only change that was much heralded was a shift to one member one vote. This was welcome but it had nothing to do with where FF went wrong. Their old internal voting system was not the issue. Bad decisions, too much concentration of power, and inflexibility at the top was. Did the rules for the parliamentary party change? No. Did the roles and responsibilities of its internal staff change? Only on the surface. The cautious approach demands continuity and ensuring that things don’t get to alien at stressful times. Therefore widespread change in how FF works was not possible. Survival is the name of the game.

FF now remains stagnant. It still has a decision to make about whether to continue on this current course or try to change. Micheal Martin has yet another Ard Fheis were people will be watching for signals. The only question that is really left to answer is whether anything of its old self remains within FF. Whether anyone has the courage to take of the swim rings and go for it. New policies are often hard to find for small parties, mostly because they lack the numbers. Right now FF is in that position. A parliamentary party and a few researchers that can fit into a room will only be able to come up with a limited amount of policy. Where FF has an advantage is that it still has a big organisation if only it knew what to do with it. Put simply if you want to know how to improve social welfare payments one of the best experts you can talk to is someone on a dole queue. If you want tax strategies or policies for business talk to people involved. FF has these within its ranks, but it has no real mechanism for them to assist with policy formulation. The inner circles continue, those in the know can influence but those who are not, sit on their hands waiting for something to do.

This weekend’s Ard Fheis will debate a lot of policy but most of it will be irrelevant to FF or its future. Once the event is over normal service resumes. The local and European elections will at least give members something to do. FF must try to hold what it has in these elections and on a very good day hope for a slight increase. The real test is after that. How quickly can FF find new candidates? It needs to identify at least 5 people that are ‘cabinet ready’ after these elections. People capable of going on TV without being star struck. People capable of leadership, people capable of arguing with a government minister at full tilt. The harsh reality is that the majority of this FF frontbench would not get a sniff at such a position back in the FF heyday. Indeed, despite all the fault and blame and venom that could be directed at members of the last cabinet it’s hard not to imagine that if the FF front bench today contained Micheal Martin, Brian Lenihan, Brian Cowen, Dermot Ahern, Noel Dempsey, Mary Hanafin and a few others it would still make a more impressive sight that what they have. Yes they could be blamed for all that went wrong but let’s face it FF still has to answer that anyway and if those figures were there such questions would be unavoidable and force their hand.

Ever since the 2011 general election Fianna Fail has one question to ask itself. What kind of future does it want? Ambition and desire shape actions. Increasingly grassroots are tiring of what they see as a return to normal business. Perhaps the party is happy where it is. Perhaps it will finally make a move to try regain ground. Whatever happens it needs to make up its mind. Sinn Fein may be struggling to advance too but it will not always be so. The government may not always have the bleak days ahead that it has had in the last few years. FF needs to stop hoping that others do stuff wrong and instead focus on themselves.

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How to spin the budget – a difficult political problem

The government has announced that the upcoming budget will see €2.5 billion taken out of the economy rather that the €3.1 billion that was originally targeted. They say the difference will be made up by resurgence in the Irish economy. That should sound like good news to us all.

For many weeks the figure mentioned around Leinster house was 2.8 billion so the extra reduction might signal some kind of victory for those proposing a somewhat easier budget. It allows a good news story today but it has some problems beneath the surface.

Firstly, the figure of €2.5 billion is certainly as low as the government can go without getting the troika and markets completely spooked. This means that the government is taking a bit of a political gamble. They had some options here. It could be argued that they should either cut or raise that little bit extra in order to give them a cushion in next year’s figures. It is very important that the budget figures do not go off track in the coming year and fail to meet targets as happened the last time we were in the markets. If this happens our so called return to the markets may be a short lived one.

Ireland is undoubtedly at the very limit of the austerity it can take and the government seems to have decided that it must ease this as much as it can right now and it could not afford banking anything for next year. It does mean that there is no wriggle room in these figures. Everything has to work out exactly as we predict. Unfortunately fate has not always been kind in that regard. Ireland is still at the mercy of the world economy. If things pick up there then Ireland can accelerate quickly, however if they don’t or if the world situation dips, Ireland suffers more than most.

So, a political decision has been taken and it may represent the government efforts to restore its image. Surely this is also good news for Labour? On the surface it is. There is another problem though. €2.5 billion still represents a lot of harsh cuts and taxes. The €600 million difference can look paltry by comparison. Then there is the problem of presentation. Today, labour and others can praise the fact that they eased the austerity. However, we don’t know what that easing represents. It is impossible to state now what cuts are off the table as a result of this change.

Once the budget is delivered people will be annoyed at how it affects them. Telling them it could have been even worse will not really appease that. Without being able to put extra services on, or reinstate services, then this €600 million becomes nothing more than an illusion to the voter. How does a government make a good news story on budget day? Picture the quote being ‘Yes we cut the number of teachers and will close some hospital services, but on the upside we could have been closing entire hospitals’. Doesn’t really work does it? In fact it makes you feel even worse and probably angrier.

Now the government has one short term advantage. In the modern age, Budget day itself is never as bad as we expect. We live in terror of it then we hear the headline figures and it doesn’t seem too bad. The implementation of those figures and the detail behind them only becomes apparent as the year progresses so we don’t feel the pain or anger until the budget is long over and we then start paying the price. This gives some breathing room to a government. Their main task must be to avoid a big ‘headline’ issue. Like the medical cards were for FF in the past. It must stop any single cut or tax raise causing consternation on the day. That is achieved by keeping them all a bit vague or else highly complex.

The problem with the upcoming budget is that Ireland is at its limit and the difference between €2.5 billion and €3.1 billion will be lost on many that the budget affects. The economy has been cut to the bone, services are threadbare, those on welfare are in danger of going under completely, those with mortgages are just hanging in there, those on low to middle income jobs have been squeezed so much they are ready to pop. Any move, however slight is going to hurt deep now. It wont be forgotten either.

The government will gamble that it can do this budget and the next 12 months will see a significant change in the economy and a glorious return to the markets. If it works then they can be well pleased. However, since this crisis began, every government decision has been hoping for a change in the next year. A few more stable figures and markets making demands, as opposed to the troika, might sound good to the politicians but it won’t make a jot of difference to the people. Unless it’s going to put money in their pocket they will find this hard to accept and it’s difficult to see any money arriving in pockets anytime soon.

In 1989 FF faced the country having spent the previous 2 years stabilising the economy. That government was widely regarded as having done a good job with a little help from FG in opposition. The figures were improving. FF however, lost seats, not many, but it still hurt. Despite their work, nobody cared because people were still suffering the pain. In 1992 the outgoing government was pointing to a big improvement in figures and economic growth. That election was decided by the question of trust, ethics, honesty and a desire for change. The slowly improving economy was still not putting enough money in pockets for people to forgive the government the things they held against them. In 1997, the outgoing government faced the people with the economy improving steadily, complete budgetary stability, ongoing improving growth and increased spending. They too were pushed aside as the debate raged about tax decreases and how to spend money now. In fact the only government to benefit from an economic boost was in 2002 and this was because it came at the very height of the boom when pain was a distant memory and good times were rolling. We are a long way from that point.

Anglo Tapes – Ireland, Banks, Politics, Has anything really changed?

The summer break can’t come quick enough for many politicians. It has been another long year. No doubt some will point to progress but the public are unlikely to be too convinced. When Brian Lenihan set out his four year plan many people were fuming and quite understandably so. The Lenihan plan set out four years of hardship and sacrifice and even at the end of that 4 years we were only to be looking at things stabilising. As it turns out that’s exactly the picture that’s emerging.

Now, that is not necessarily praiseworthy. The Irish people have suffered immensely for years now and the EU has been paralysed in acting. The EU that does hold the answers and can fix the problem whenever it gets around to sorting out its own petty differences and growing up enough to actually face the problem. In the meantime hapless governments in bailed out states are just trying to bob along like victims of a sunken ship desperately scanning the horizon for a rescue boat.

The Anglo Tapes will increase the fury of even the most level headed citizen. The attitude displayed on the tapes is appalling. While you and I and so many families, fall behind in our mortgages, struggle to pay the food bill and continue to sacrifice we are reminded, by these tapes, that some guys thought it would be ok to fool the state and have them pick up the tab. We are paying the price for a society that at its top level believed lying was ok, that it’s normal and that sharp practice is a victimless crime so long as the victim is only an ordinary punter. We are paying the price for a system that lauded such disregard of people. Perhaps we should not be surprised. A casual glance at TV programmes like the Apprentice seemed to show us that an attitude of being an obnoxious asshole was a pre-requisite to work in business.

We are paying the price for a regulatory system that was run on the cheap and believed that the people who know best about a business are those who run it. Don’t interfere. We are paying the price for a culture where the ‘providing of jobs’ was paramount and an excuse to allow a business free rein to do as it pleased, to breach rules or avoid paying simply because …well…think of the jobs.

Finally, we are paying the price for a political system that lacked courage or conviction. A system that accepted any information it was fed, that failed to question for years before the crisis. Politicians and government ministers stood in awe of the great captains of industry. A fool’s trust was exercised on golf courses and dinner functions where if someone says it’s ok then it must be ok. As David McWilliams continually points out we were suffering from extreme groupthink and nobody wanted to appear the fool in front of the group.

The problem is that I am not so sure that much has changed. The EU seems no closer to facing its issues, in fact the EU still seems to carry a candle of hope that the problems will go away themselves if the US and China sort it out and the bailed out states can eventually grow in their own time. The EU still does not want to lead and still procrastinates on any action while an option exists to stay put. The suffering of ordinary people does not matter, that is but a fleeting page in a history book that will instead focus on legacies and long term plans.
What about our banks? Have they learned? Definitely not. Their approach to their business remains the same as ever. Humility or regret is not part of their make up. The salaries at the top just prove that all believe that the world can and should continue as normal for them. This week thousands of mortgage holders are in distress. The banks have failed utterly and completely to engage, their plans for dealing with mortgage debt are hopelessly inadequate and the offer little or no real solutions that would allow the borrower to pay off arrears and get back on their feet. They are swamped in paperwork and hike up the interest and charges on the borrower while taking months to come to basic decisions on interest only payments etc which are in themselves pretty ineffective. Why is this? It’s because the banks want stronger rules on repossession and they are getting their way. That’s because it might take work to meet and discuss with mortgage holders and arrive at a solution. They don’t want that, they want a form filled in and put into a computer and rejected then move on. Mortgage holders are ordinary people, the banks are professionals, therefore when it comes to government policy, the banks get their way. Nothing has changed.

What about politics? Well I doubt anyone is shocked to find it’s the same old story. Fianna Fail took a hammering and we were told it was a sea change. It was a sea change for us political nerds. It was a sea change in terms of names of political movements. That was all. Brian Lenihan famously said ‘We all partied’, the quote, often taken out of context, was referring to all political parties whom he was accusing of making rash promises about the economy in order to get votes and he claimed all were guilty. All parties were. Fianna Fail were the ones at the wheel though and they must take the blame, they cannot look at the opposition or others and say ‘you made me do it’, they lacked courage to question, the lacked conviction and they were not brave enough to accept losing in order to do the right thing.

The current government must now accept its share of blame. It cannot continue saying ‘FF made us do it’. This government has also lacked conviction and belief, we know that there may not be much scope in terms of many policies, voters even accept that, but what has shocked them is the fact that the personality of the government is no different. In fact at times it has been even more arrogant, tied closer to business interests and displayed the same awe of those at the top as any of its predecessors. If politicians cannot look at the last government and see where that led what hope is there for us? Surely it’s now evident that long term governments are not naturally correct? That staying in power is not always the brave thing to do? That voting against what you believe does not automatically mean you are putting the country first?

According to the polls Labour will suffer most. It’s hardly surprising. What is surprising is that this party which showed such strength and conviction in opposition, being the only ones to vote against the bank guarantee, is now a party utterly lacking in belief or direction. No doubt some supporters will point to me of several things they are trying to achieve, the latest of which will be the ‘X’ legislation. I am unconvinced that the hard pressed voter will feel a labour capitulation on economic matters was worth it for ‘X’ legislation, but perhaps I’m wrong. It seems however that courage has deserted their ranks and instead they will await a good opportunity to change. No new leader will emerge to rock the boat until awkward elections are out of the way or difficult budgets are made. A strategy that’s nothing to do with what you actually think, nothing to do with bravery and nothing to do with the people, but everything to do with supposedly being politically smart. They should ring Bertie he might tell them where that leads.

Irish Politics, It’s like booking a holiday…

Ah yes, its summer. That time of year when we all start to head off on a holiday somewhere nice and sunny. Ireland is a country that’s badly in need of a holiday but if our political parties are the tour operators then that is where we start to have a problem.

You see we used to go on holiday with one tour operator for many years. This operator, Fianna Fail, gave us some very good holidays. They also gave us some bad experiences but in the main we were feeling ok, especially in recent times when we went to some lovely destinations. They normally partnered with a smaller local operator for tours and they often had to change these and told us that any problems were down to them. These smaller local operators (PDs and Greens) did not fill us with confidence but we went along with them as part of the package.

It was all fine until a few holidays ago. We wanted a real break and felt we deserved it. We decided to treat ourselves and go to Barbados. It wasn’t cheap but Fianna Fail told us it was well within our reach so what the hell? We work hard, now it was time to relax and enjoy it. The problem was when we got off the plane we were not in Barbados we were in….Bratislava. We quickly mentioned that there must be a mistake, but to our surprise, instead of sorting it out and finding us another flight out, the tour reps smiled and shrugged saying ‘We are where we are, you might as well try to enjoy it’. Well, we now felt like right tools walking around in our floral shirts and Bermuda shorts in Bratislava. There wasn’t even a pool. When we asked the local operator, the Greens, if there was anything for us to do or see here, they looked at us blankly and said ‘We never intended to end up here either’. It was the most miserable holiday of our lives and we swore never, ever again. Fianna Fail had broken our trust and no matter what went before, this was a disaster too far. On the flight home, FF ditched the guys who sold us the holiday and put up an ‘under new management’ sign, but it was too little too late. We marched into them and told them we were taking our business away for good. That felt great at the time, but it’s almost a little scary that as we plan this year’s holiday we are starting to feel like we may have no option but to go back to them. Why? Oh well that’s because of last years holiday.

You see we decided to get away from FF and went to another company we had holidayed with the odd time FG/Labour. Now we had some bad experiences with them 30 years ago but it was all changed now, they had proven themselves fairly solid. We also remembered the some good holidays we had spent in their company. At least they never had the utter disaster we experienced with the whole Bratislava business. FG/Labour were very eager for our business. That felt good too. They had special health insurance, a 5 point plan for a good holiday, handy checklists, and they told us we could start paying into a holiday fund month by month and then choose our destination when the time came. It was perfect. If we saved hard we could be on our way to Barbados soon. Finally after much saving in the holiday fund, they sent out the brochure with this years options. It was a rather flimsy affair. We had saved all our money with them and now they tell us there is only one destination this year…..Bratislava. We were very angry. We went into the office and demanded an explanation as to why they had told us so much was possible. They just smiled broadly and said ‘Oh but it is, its all still possible…just not yet….new destinations will be coming on stream in the next 5 to 10 years just stick with us’. We tried pointing out that they didn’t tell us this at the time but it was no use. We ask if at least the new health insurance is on offer……they smile ‘Oh it will be..it will be…eventually’. We point out that everything in the Bratislava holiday is exactly what FF had given us the last time but the soothe us as they walk us dejectedly out of the office by saying ‘Ah but yes, the difference is this time you are not travelling with FF, the last time you thought you were going to Barbados, at least this time we told you before you got on the plane? Isn’t that so much better?’

Perhaps we were being harsh. Maybe Bratislava would be fun. But it wasn’t, it was the same old thing as the year before and we felt even more cheated. We went to the local operator, Labour, to see if they had at least got some exciting day trips, only they told us no, apparently FG had not accounted for any of their things in the price and that they were not allowed bring us anywhere, it was a matter to take up with FG. Bloody marvellous. The only difference this year was we had a jumper on and that was about as much comfort as we could take. We began to idly wonder if FF had learned a lesson, but we seriously doubted it.

So where to next? Well there’s a few people endlessly talking about setting up a new tour operator but they just don’t seem to be able to organise themselves. There is another sizeable company Sinn Fein. The problem with these guys is that they do the extreme holidays. They are the company we went with when we finished the Leaving Cert or after first year exams in college. They are great for the under 25s. They do all the radical stuff. The problem is we don’t really want that kind of holiday anymore. Sure it was all great fun at the time but now we like something a bit more relaxed and stable. We didn’t care at 18 but now we have bills and responsibilities and we were never quite convinced that the Insurance policy SF offered, should something go wrong, was really adequate. There were stories from years ago about people that never came back but at least they appeared to have sorted all that out now. Still though, we are a bit long in the tooth to going extreme snowboarding in Tibet. Now maybe if SF partnered with FG or FF and we got a more normal destinations and a bit more relaxing but with better service then we might consider it. However SF told us they don’t do partnerships so it’s off the agenda for now.

We had friends who went with some independent operators. These were fairly ok but the problem is it’s a lot of work. Its like booking from Dublin to London with one operator, then he gives you a number of a fella to ring when you get there and he can get you from London to Paris, then he has a number for a guy that might put you up for a few nights before another guy can get you a connecting flight to somewhere else. Its all a bit disorganised and you don’t really get looked after the way we want. It’s a bit like backpacking around the world on your own steam. Its grand and you manage it and end up with great stories to tell, but in reality at this stage of life we don’t have time for that craic and have long thrown out our rucksacks.

So maybe we should forget holidays and just stay at home until the operators sort themselves out. Maybe we should return to FF crossing our fingers that they have learned and are not going to laugh heartily as the drop us in outer Mongolia, maybe we should stick with the guys we have now, FG/Lab, see if they come good on their word eventually? Even if they are about as much excitement as a sleepover at Danas house. Or maybe we cud risk the SF or Independent route and relive our youth? Ah who are we kidding? They all have the same governing body, the troika, and their idea of a holiday for us is a two night midweek in Tubbercurry.

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