Johnny Fallon

Irish Political Commentator

Archive for the tag “government”

How to run a successful Public Affairs Campaign

In our youth most of us want to believe we will change the world. As we get older some say we are less ambitious. Others argue it is just that we grasp a reality that the world is changed little by little rather than in one fell swoop. Whatever your view it is unlikely either way that you dreamed of doing that by being a lobbyist or working in public affairs.  Despite the lack of glamour public affairs still plays an important role in our society and our system. Whether it is charities, environmental groups, NGOs, corporations or community groups the ability to influence and help shape public policy is an important tool.

So if you want to change something how do you go about it? There is often a view that it is all about secret meetings, loud media, posters and fancy footwork but the reality is very different. I have been involved in professional public affairs campaigns for 17 years now and you have no idea how old that makes me feel. Over that time the styles have often changed but the basic approach remains the same. So here are the steps I have learned that give you the basic structure and stages for a policy campaign.

  1. Research

Everything starts with research. Good research is the bedrock of a good campaign. We all set out with opinions and ideas but our own personal biases must be challenged. You need to know the history of current policy. You need to approach this with an objective mind. Then you need to examine other similar examples. This may be taking a look at other industries or sectors or it may be analysing the experience of other comparable countries. You need to have some baseline evidence to show that what you want can actually work.  Once you have drawn all this together you have to validate it. At Carr Communications we use a tried and tested ‘Devil’s Advocate’ system for this. In short you (or someone on your team) has to argue against your own research. Pick holes in it. Understand the opposing arguments thoroughly and have the ability to empathise with them. This is vital to identifying gaps. Without it you will end up with a piece of research that is flawed by groupthink and others will target the gaps later.

  1. Consult and recruit

Once you have your own research complete it is time to seek out others for their input.  At this stage you know you have a well thought out idea. You are seeking input from other related sectors or other players in the market. It may also be from communities or grass roots organisations. They will bring new angles that might not have been brought up in your initial research, they may also have additional ideas that can help or boost your plan. However, you are also seeking to recruit them. By getting their input you are also hoping to gain their support. At the end of the day it is simple maths. If you can demonstrate 20 organisations or a large number of people back your idea then it is much stronger than if you are walking in to argue your case alone.

  1. Engage with decision makers

With support now on board and a strong proposal under your arm, now is the time to meet decision makers. Many people make the error of engaging too early. If you do this then you risk the idea falling flat because of a perceived flaw or lack of appreciation of its impact. At this stage it is important that you know and can identify the actual decision makers. Too much time can be wasted talking to people who merely send your idea up the line. You need to get in front of people that can actually make things happen.  The skill at this stage is in understanding the decision maker and anticipating their questions. Answering their problems for them is critical to success.

  1. Wider engagement

This stage depends very much on the idea or proposal. For the majority it is often not needed. For larger plans however you may need to face a debate, criticism or require public support. In this case you must have much wider engagement. This means you must talk to the media and be able to clearly and concisely lay out the benefits of what your propose.  It is likely that this stage then runs concurrently with the other stages mentioned here. Personally, I insist that anybody that has to do this takes time for media training. Being right or honest isn’t the only requirement. Being understood is the real key.  Sometimes the best of ideas are lost, not because they were bad, but because the person behind them couldn’t communicate them. In the modern age your campaign may also need to engage social media and gather support on Twitter, Facebook , Snapchat and other platforms can be vital.  Once again the central ingredient is to be simple and engaging. This can take a lot of time but It can also be worthwhile if you need that broad pressure.

So there you have it. Sounds simple doesn’t it? Of course there are complexities and problems along the way and that is why so many people turn to a professional to help. However, understanding the importance of each of these broad stages is essential to building a good campaign. There is one other thing I recommend. Patience. All things come to he (or she) who waits. You will have set backs, meet barriers and encounter delays. All of this is to be expected. Working through it and navigating a way around it is where the real talent lies.


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.

What Price Irish Water?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Irish Water – Answers seem to be the hardest thing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As things stand I have not got a response

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

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

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

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

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

Budget 2015…..Careful Now

Enda Kenny and Michael Noonan will be feeling pretty good right now. Tax figures are €1bn ahead of expectation. That will show the doubters. Despite promising to keep a calm head they are bound to be thinking that things are about to turn for them and this is their chance.

The reality however is a little more grey. Between 2004 and 2007 Ireland doubled its spending while cutting its taxes. An unsustainable model was in place all gambling that even a property crash would not derail things. The assumption being that the property crash would affect Ireland only as we sleepwalked into the International crises. From 2008 on some semblance of sense returned. Much of this has been forced upon us but there was no avoiding the fact that it was necessary. As a result Ireland is improving in terms of its economic bottom line. It’s still fragile but it is better. The government can now start to look forward with some certainty and they deserve credit for this.

In the 1970’s a national crises was compounded by an international oil crises, it took us much longer to emerge. Our most recent crisis was much worse but at least this time governments did not postpone action on spending.

The problem is that the bottom line suggests that with the extra tax boost we won’t need to cut as much, but we still need to cut. In 1987 Ireland started the process of pain to stabilise the economy. We had a couple of advantages back then. Spending was not being cut from an all time high so it was easier to control. Basic tax rates were at astonishingly high levels so we had plenty of room for cuts to rates once things stabilised. We do not have these things now. Once we entered the crisis Income Tax was not touched apart from the USC. The government will no doubt plan some changes to the USC. However there is also much talk of reducing basic tax rates. Just how much reduction in basic rates do we want?

It is popular for politicians to change the basic rates because its impact is easier to see and understand. Changing something like the VAT rate would be far more effective in redistributing wealth and reducing bills but it doesn’t carry the same impact when you announce it. The USC needs reforming but changes to this are not easily understood and communicated either.

Amid all of this is the central problem we cannot escape from. The international recovery is weak and outside threats are still very real. Our borrowing is still at unacceptably high levels and we have to reduce this or we are throwing money into a black hole in interest payments. Finally, our services are nowhere near fully funded. They have not yet even adapted to the cuts that were made. Further savings are required but we already can see that the Health service, Security services, welfare services and services to groups like the elderly are all struggling. We will still instigate further cuts in the next budget to these services.

Normally one would not start to discuss tax cuts and possible pay increases or other such items until spending is under control and you have a firm idea of what is required for an acceptable level of services. None of this exists in Ireland right now. Yet, we are already taking of sweeteners. Now I know the argument will always be about a stimulus. The problem with that is timing. A decrease in VAT might encourage spending but a decrease in basic tax may just ensure people save money against future bills or threats.

Worst of all I’m not even convinced the government can rely on these sweeteners to boost them. In the early ’90s Ireland had some great figures going for the economy. Growth hit record levels, taxes were slashed, and indicators looked very strong. This had no impact with the public on the ground. It took years before any benefit was felt and people began to agree the economy was moving. Moreover cast your mind back to the pinnacle of the Celtic Tiger. Anyone would think that the government was storming to popularity with its tax cuts. In reality even Fianna Fail was still not as popular as it had been in the ’80s. The problem was it cost hundreds of millions to deliver a saving of three or four hundred euro a year to an individual. Back then we took the money but in reality we hardly noticed it given that pay increases were expected to outshine this and that cost of living wiped it out.

Now we have a situation where the government may find it will cost a huge amount of the money that was so hard got to put a sweetener in the budget. In turn this sweetener will be wiped out by water charges or rising energy costs. We will be happy for a month but once the next few bills come in we will be thinking that the few hundred euro the government threw us was worth sweet Fanny Adams in the current climate.

Finally we need to stop the debate about who contributed to the recovery. We all did. Yes middle Ireland and those in employment gave a huge sacrifice. In time this should not be forgotten. However, do not forget the sacrifice of the unemployed, many of whom lost not only their jobs but much more. They suffered rate cuts and young unemployed were targeted specifically. Do not forget the elderly. We talk a lot about protecting basic rates. Yet we forget that we slashed services and this hurt every bit as much. The cuts to services disproportionately affect poorer people and elderly people more than any other section in society. We all have a claim to make. it’s not a competition. The sooner we all realise that getting out of this is up to us working together the better. There is no room for complacency or greed. Beware of politicians bearing gifts and let’s hope that the lessons of the past have been learned by this government. There is an opportunity now and history will judge the next move.

Labour – What to do next?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resignations – A question of leadership

The word ‘resignation’ has been floating about a lot in recent times. For weeks now it has followed Alan Shatter around like a shadow. The Garda Commissioner has already retired and now Angela Kerins has retired from Rehab. Of course retiring is the new resigning.

We need to look at this issue though from a leadership perspective. A resignation is not always about a legal issue. It is more often a matter of policy and a matter of perception. The Rehab situation is a case in point. It was patently obvious once the major story broke about salaries and perks that it was doing untold damage to Rehab as a charity. The longer it dragged on and the more defences that were attempted, the more damage it did. The inevitable finally happened today but is that good enough? Is that Leadership or decisiveness? Even when faced with the obvious facts it was allowed drag on until it was left in a position from which there may be no recovery.

Enda Kenny might want to take note. First of all let me make a point about people who resign. If it is obviously forced or demanded then it leaves leaders and those around them trying to distance themselves from the individual who has been effectively fired. Remember Ray Burke? Remember how Bertie Ahern said he was ‘a good man hounded from office’? You see in politics you can always blame the opposition.

However good Leadership is about ensuring a process is understood and matters are dealt with. A government has a lot of work to carry out. It must have the confidence of the public to do this. You cannot afford to have any individual damaging the reputation and work of that government. In the latest opinion poll Fine Gael has fallen back to its November levels of support. In other words, all the hard work and good news that was derived out of positive economic indicators and the exit of the bailout programme was undone by Alan Shatter. Good news is hard to come by and too many people put in too much effort for any party to see it cast aside in such a glib fashion.

Cohesion in a government is vital. Ensuring that it remains above distraction and deals with the issues on the table, that is the priority. Enda Kenny might look back at another Fine Gael Leader, John Bruton. Over the course of his tenure Bruton dealt with 3 resignations from his team. In each case the matter was dealt with in 24/36 hours. While those who resigned might not have been eager to do so, they knew the rules. Nothing could or should destabilise the government or distract it. If matters are allowed to fester they give fuel to the opposition, they anger the public and they delay proper investigation. If someone resigns there is nothing stopping them clearing their name, making their case and returning to office at a later date. That has happened before. The advantage for the Bruton government was that such matters never got as far as creating tension or upset for Labour or Democratic Left. They avoided political footballs that dragged on damaging the ratings and they avoided any contamination of the Leader or the rest of the cabinet because no rearguard defence had to be mounted, resulting in people saying things they might regret later.

Sometimes you have to think of others. Any situation must be weighed up. What damage will be done by remaining in a post? Will it lead to distraction, does it harm confidence and is it simply selfish to think that you are the only person who can do the job? Leadership is about tough decisions. Sometimes those decisions affect those closest to you. However, when you are head of a team then the good of that team must come before everything and ahead of any individual. If you don’t isolate the problem then it will surely spread.

Callinan, Shatter and bad political choices

The resignation of Martin Callinan had become inevitable. The focus now moves to Alan Shatter who backed Callinan at every opportunity and in every action. The real irony of all this is that it’s a political crisis that should have been avoided by anyone with a modicum of political foresight.

Firstly, Alan Shatter never had any need to take the side of Martin Callinan so stringently. He could easily have been the democratically elected honest broker listening to the whistleblower concerns and ensuring they were heard while also ensuring that the views of the Garda hierarchy were known and proper procedures followed. Instead he opted to take sides and fight shoulder to shoulder with the Commissioner. Even after the Commissioner made his ‘disgusting’ comment. This now draws Shatter into a political mess he could and should have avoided.

As the issues rumbled on it became clear that people were not happy with Callinan and his remarks. The evidence did not back him up. Ministers know that eventually everything comes back to them. Leo Varadkar saw this. He was having none of it. If the Commissioner had mucked up then he was not going to taint Leo’s reputation by association. Leo did the right thing, he said straight out what needed to happen. By doing so he was saving not only himself but the public perception of the government. This in turn created a problem for the Labour party. If an FG minister was saying this then surely they, as a party seen as holding FG to account, should also be doing something. Joan Burton was quick to lead Labour through the gap. At this stage they recognised that the time for being cosy with FG was not right now. Eamon Gilmore followed too, even though he prides himself on his good relationship with Enda.

Then came the next inexplicable miscalculation. Enda Kenny had a choice. He could simply say that ‘Ministers’ have a view that will be taken into account, but that all matters would be dealt with by the Cabinet at the next meeting’. Instead Enda chose to admonish the Ministers. He said that they should only air their views at the cabinet table. That was a direct slap on the wrist. He was effectively telling them he was the boss and they were naughty children. Now, this would not bother Leo as he is playing a longer game. He can afford to smile and pass it off. However, Enda Kenny might be Taoiseach but he is not the Leader of the Labour party. In that instant he treated ministers and the Tánaiste like mere FG backbenchers to be told what to do. It was striking that within a couple of hours an experienced Minister like Quinn went out and spoke in direct defiance of Enda Kenny’s edict. The message was clear, ‘you are not the boss of us’.

While Labour Ministers may wish to spend as long as possible around the cabinet table they will not witness the disintegration of their party. Such an event will happen if backbenchers and grassroots feel an utter capitulation on their hands. Economic matters are one thing where little choice might be argued to exist, but this is another matter entirely.

Once this occurred it became impossible for Callinan not to be forced to act either in apologising or resigning. Labour now holds all the cards. Enda, through his own poor choice, has landed himself here. He now has another decision. If he wants to keep Shatter then he must assure Labour that it is worth their while. This means Labour can exact a price for their support. Whether it is reforms, legislation or budgetary measures, they have a chance now.

On the other hand Enda may decide that FG should not get compromised like that. This means that if Labour doesn’t wish to support Shatter then Enda will see him resign. This will create tension with some but it also means the crisis would be over and can move on with no baggage carrying forward to the next negotiation.

This government has a good relationship. Enda and Eamon get along very well indeed. Perhaps too well for some of their grassroots support. However, it is a salutary lesson; you can never take a good relationship for granted. Events overtake things and it’s very easy for a simple issue to spiral. Labour knows now, that at times they are taken for granted and they also know the strength the can hold if they desire to use it. It’s a small shift; the government can and should overcome it. The question is will they learn the lesson or repeat the mistake out of blindness?

Striking a balance on political interference

We have a habit of complaining about political interference. That is understandable really. Politicians often make a mess of things and abuse situations when they interfere. The Cahill plan to save Aer Lingus in the early nineties worked because it made the politicians back off and leave the running of the company to the people in the industry. We have had situations of phone tapping, we had a Minister for Justice and Communications that was determined to try and destroy RTE as he perceived them as biased. We had health boards that were run at the behest of politicians. We still have grave doubts over the locations of primary care centres after alleged political interference last year. One only has to mention the word ‘planning’ to make the whole nation heave a sigh and shake their head ruefully. The list of examples is and endless stream which helps convince us that political interference is never a good thing.

Is that really the case though? I am convinced that there is a balance to be struck. The problem is that a bad politician will act in their own self interest and abuse a situation. At the same time we will suffer if good politicians become convinced that they should always steer clear. In the late ’90s it became fashionable to set up ‘independent bodies’. No matter where you looked there was another independent body springing up. The purpose of these was to create distance. Ministers were not to be held accountable and blamed for decisions, strikes, problems and activities. The Minister would simply become a conduit to ‘raise the matter’ with the appropriate people. The best example of this was the HSE, particularly under the stewardship of Minister Harney. It all seemed a good way to do business. I often thought it was the perfect example of the Bertie Ahern leadership style, where compromise and distance replaced decisiveness and speed. Procedures became more important than results.

Now, the next step was of course the appointment of people to the boards. In an ideal world the idea of a minister making such appointments makes a lot of sense. The Minister should have a voice they can trust at the table. A person who will help to ensure that the elected governments views and objectives are always kept in mind. The reality was different. Instead of it being a job it became a reward. People were not appointed to one board they were appointed to several. No longer did these individuals see their role as somehow bringing something to the board or aiding in government plans, it was instead their reward for previous work done. Therefore getting something out of it was the main objective rather than seeing it as a new role where they had to prove themselves. On the other hand, Ministers gave out these roles and then quite happily distanced themselves from everything. If decisions were taken they did not want to know. After all you can’t be blamed for something you were never told about.

We certainly do not know all the story as regards the banking crisis. However, all the evidence so far points in one direction. It was what I call the ‘golf club syndrome’. All the lads knew each other. Each one thought the other was a great guy. It allowed for groupthink to penetrate. If we all keep saying it it must be true. If there’s a rumour of an issue in a bank then we don’t haul them in or look for information. Instead, the Minister asked the Department Secretary over lunch, to talk to the Central Bank. The Central Bank has a chat with the Regulator when he pops in. The Regulator picks up the phone to the Banks CEO and asks if everything is OK. The CEO says it is. The message is relayed back and everyone is happy. Next item will be the banks invitation to a golf classic or a conference. Take them at their word. Don’t interfere; these guys know what they are doing.

Charities and boards go wild on payments, retirement packages and top ups but nobody sees a reason to mention it at the time. Worse, no politician sees a reason for them to be questioning such things as guardians of the tax payer. They don’t want to know. The less you know the less you can be blamed for.

Irish Water is the latest in this line with its raft of consultants and its laughing yoga. Minister Hogan told everyone that he doesn’t ‘micro mange’. Of course not. The best escape any minister can have is to ‘know nothing of this matter’ and to be ‘appalled when it was brought to my attention’. Not once did anyone think that in such a vital project that Ministers needed to interfere a bit by asking questions, demanding reports and ensuring satisfactory answers.

It is quite clear that there are politicians who abuse their power and that will never change. We must simply guard against it. Always question their motives and ask them for answers. It should not be a reason for politicians to back away from decisions and responsibility. When they do we can see that other people are equally capable of abusing a situation, and they carry on using public money with absolutely no concept of public accountability. Such people also lack any kind of judgment when it comes to public opinion and seem completely disconnected from the lives of everyday people. Perhaps before taking up any such role we should ask an individual to spend 6 months on the dole just to let them understand why value for money is important.

In any event we must strive for a balance. Where politicians abuse their power we must ensure it is reported and uncovered. We must also demand that politicians stop abdicating their responsibility as protectors of the public and start demanding answers and actions rather than throwing their hands in the air and sighing with the rest of us helpless sods.

20 Years Ago – Why Downing Street Declaration mattered….

Its 20 years ago this week since the Downing Street Declaration was signed. It is an event that deserves to be marked. We might remember the declaration itself, but some of the other events around that time are forgotten. In the weeks before the negotiations British customs intercepted a shipment of 300 AKM Assault rifles and 2 tonnes of explosives bound for the UVF. That is the kind of shipment meant for serious warfare. That is the kind of event we were used to. On November 30th, a catholic man was shot dead by the UFF in Belfast while in Armagh security forces defused a 2,000lb bomb. Events all too familiar to us back then. Two days later as Reynolds and Major met in Dublin another 1,000lb IRA bomb was defused in Belfast. Over the following four days the UFF would murder 3 more Catholic men, two outside a taxi depot and one in his home.

An Irish Times survey found that while Catholics backed the talks between Major and Reynolds only 37% of Protestants trusted them to continue. By the 12th of December the IRA had shot dead two RUC officers. On December 13th the UFF shot a man it claimed was an informer. On the eve of the joint statement on December 15th, a 1,500lb IRA bomb was defused in Belfast where a 78 year old woman died of a heart attack as the area was evacuated.
I could carry on the list. That is the backdrop to the Downing Street Declaration. That is the everyday series of events we all took for granted. A shooting in the USA or in France might have caused children to look up from their homework and pay attention to the news, but in Northern Ireland it was just taken with a certain numbness that was chilling. Leaders have a difficult job. Against such a backdrop there was every good political reason for Major and Reynolds to avoid getting to embroiled in this situation. Everyone said you can’t trust the IRA or the loyalist paramilitaries. So many in Britain wanted to punish the IRA, crush them. So many in Ireland didn’t want to give an inch to loyalism. It was a stalemate but at least there was no political risk in a stalemate. People died, but it was simple enough to keep blaming the terrorists and avoid dealing with the problem.

The Downing Street Declaration was an attempt by two governments to show a new face and to bring about a fresh and realistic effort to engage all sides. On its own it seemed like it was just another political statement. A worthy one and a helpful one but in isolation it was not seen as a complete game changer. The violence would not stop. The killings would go on. The politicians could praise their own efforts but would it be seen as anything more than just talk?

I remember talking to many people at that time who said that while the declaration was a good thing it changed nothing and that those who fought on both sides in Northern Ireland had no interest in peace. I was not too sure either way, but in the days after the declaration was signed I put it to Albert Reynolds that perhaps it would not lead to anything more, but even so it was a crowning achievement for him personally. He waved his hands and dismissed the idea of it being an achievement. ‘It’s a start’ he said ‘the door is open now; everything depends on where we go from here.’ Albert was never a man to hang about. John Major did not have an easy time changing British policy from the intransigence of Thatcher. He had to tread carefully and had a lot to lose. People on his side were far less supportive of the idea of a peace process that might give the IRA something.

In the end what mattered to both men was a firm belief that no matter what, the everyday narrative of death and murder was abhorrent and had to stop. Lives were being wasted and an attempt to save them was worth the risking of any political career. For too long politicians talked tough and took insufficient risks in what was really an effort to stay well clear of what was necessary to bring a solution.

It was once said of the great General Hannibal that he was a man who knew how to gain a victory but was not quite sure what to do with it. The opposite was very much the case with the Downing Street Declaration. It was a victory for democratic politics and negotiation but more importantly, in the years that followed, the governments (and a generation of people in Northern Ireland) did not rest on their laurels; they pushed ahead and used that opportunity to make it so much more than a political statement. It became the foundation for ceasefires, agreements and peace and to this day it enshrines much of what must be accepted in Northern Ireland if it is continue to chart a peaceful path into the future.

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