O Lord, give us a fresh election but not just yet #GE16Part2

54 days since the election, it seems clear that, for some, the real focus is on the next election, writes Donal O’Keeffe  

You’d want to be brave to comment on the ongoing discussions to form a government, seeing as the story twists and turns on a daily basis, but 54 days – and counting – since the election, one thing at least is clear: for some in Dáil Éireann, the last election isn’t half as important as the next.

It looks – at the time of writing – like the talking will go on well past the (presumably) scheduled next failure to elect a Taoiseach. With the Labour Party suddenly talking about talking about going back into coalition – and whither the Greens and SocDems? – it looks like this uncertainty could stretch out for weeks more.

Latest polling suggests an immediate election would only yield another hung Dáil (and cost €40 million we don’t have). The Independents might well suffer if the electorate thinks again about electing a hodge-podge of sole traders, what’s left of Labour can’t be too confident either and Sinn Fein and Fianna Fáil would rather wait. O Lord give us a fresh election, seems the prevailing opinion in political circles, but not just yet.

Please read on…

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My #GE16 opinion column: For the want of a vote, the election was lost

The game of “what if” is as old as humanity and we all know from an early age how the smallest of things can have the most profound of effects.

“For the want of a nail, the kingdom was lost” goes the old proverb, “For want of a shoe the horse was lost; For want of a horse the battle was lost; For the failure of battle the kingdom was lost – All for the want of a horse-shoe nail.”

As we close in on what politicians like to call “the only poll that counts”, we are beset on all sides by opinion polls and they all seem to point in broadly the same direction. Micheál Martin is having a good campaign – shame he doesn’t have a party; Enda is defying the lowest expectations in the history of politics – just about; Gerry Adams is proving he has a foot of clay on either side of the border; support for the independents is up and Labour is facing extinction.

If the polls are right, we can expect a hung Dáil. We could be looking at Fine Gael propped up by a hodge-podge of independents, or Enda Kenny’s nightmare scenario of a Fianna Fáil/Sinn Fein coalition or even a grand coalition of the two civil war parties – Fianna Gael.

At the time of writing – just before the final TV debate – it’s impossible to predict a game-changer in such a tight campaign.

Perhaps Joan Burton will find her voice and remind Labour’s critics that they did some good in office, too. Perhaps those who were never prouder of their country than they were on the day we voted for marriage equality will remember that it wouldn’t have happened without the Labour Party.

In the first TV debate of this campaign, Micheál Martin goaded Gerry Adams to such a degree that Adams snapped “Would you ever fff… go away and catch yourself on.” Perhaps Micheál will irritate him the rest of the way and this time Gerry won’t go with the second phrase to pop into his head.

Perhaps Enda will manage to actually top the astonishingly smug smile he gave on Sunday when he was asked if he stood over calling some of his own constituents “All Ireland champion whingers”. He did stand over it, he said. Some of them wouldn’t know sunshine on a sunny day. By the next morning, he said he had meant people from Fianna Fáil.

Sometimes, in the age of opinion polls, it seems there’s hardly even a point to voting. It’s important to remember, though, that opinion polls are only snapshots and in politics – as in every walk of life – the smallest thing can change everything.

It’s also worth remembering that at the start of the week of the 2011 presidential campaign, all of the opinion polls suggested only one likely outcome: President Sean Gallagher. Then, in the heat of a live television debate, Pat Kenny read out what appeared to be a tweet from Sinn Fein, claiming to be about to produce a smoking gun on donations to Gallagher. Rattled, Gallagher stumbled badly.

At the time, Ken Curtin (nowadays a candidate for the Social Democrats) tweeted it was an ambush worthy of General Tom Barry himself.

Next morning, Gallagher went on RTÉ Radio 1, flailing all around him, and got into a row with businesswoman Glenna Lynch (coincidentally, also a Social Democrat candidate these days). Things went from bad to worse for Gallagher and, by the end of the week, Michael D. Higgins was given the largest mandate in the history of the State and elected the 9th President of Ireland.

In the game of “what if”, perhaps there’s a world where an RTÉ researcher paused for a second and thought twice about passing the so-called “fake tweet” to Pat Kenny. For the want of a tweet in that world, perhaps President Sean Gallagher is doing a perfectly good job in the Áras (even if some of us did raise an eyebrow at his pre-election “pro-business” intervention).

No matter what the polls say, a day is a long time in politics and it would be a fool who would rule out what Harold Macmillan called “Events, dear boy”.

The smallest of things can change everything. For the want of a nail, the kingdom was lost. For the want of a vote, the election could be lost.

That vote is still in your hands.

Donal O’Keeffe

Tweeting from behind the lines of Endapalooza: Fermoy #GE16

I got a much-needed laugh on Friday night when I live-tweeted from inside Enda Kenny’s private address to the Fermoy Fine Gael faithful.

The troops were already on high alert since a local member of the Anti-Prosperity Alliance, standing inside the door of the Grand Hotel – “Aren’t you a fine-looking young man” – had refused to shake the Taoiseach’s hand.

Enda’s address was pretty dreary stuff, to be honest. Like listening to a muinteoir trying to channel a revivalist preacher. Much talk of this big company boss and that multinational CEO and the other financial big shot, all of whom had been very impressed by Ireland’s recovery and by Enda’s Chance the Gardener homespun wisdom.

“Let’s keep the recovery going” was repeated ad nauseam and the local candidates (Tom “Lapgate” Barry, Dave Stanton (although Enda called him “Staunton”) and Noel McCarthy were namechecked eight hundred and ninety-six times over the course of a speech that was about as much fun as Mass. The only good bit was when Enda terrorised the local Blue-rinse Brigade with hair-raising warnings of the Sinn Féin/Fianna Fáil zombie apocalypse which will follow a hung Dáil.

Enda’s looking well, I have to say. I hadn’t met him in ten years and his hair is now an even more grand natural colour than it was when I accidentally went on the tear with him in the Ginger Man the night Shane McEntee was elected. I’m as grey as a badger. An Taoiseach is two decades older than me and hasn’t a single grey hair on his head. Maybe he’s born with it.

(I tweeted a few bits and pieces. Harmless enough stuff. In one, earlier, tweet I said that though Enda had bought the first pint that night ten years ago, I was planning on telling him it was definitely his round now.)

Tom Lapgate sat looking desolate beside his parachuted-in ex-Labour rival Noellie Mac. I haven’t seen Tom look so uncomfortable since, well, the day after Lapgate, when poor Tom was hounded mercilessly by The Dublin Media for trying to bring a bit of much-needed levity to the Protection of Life in Pregnancy debate by innocently pawing Áine Collins TD.

MInd you, Noellie didn’t look too happy either. He seemed pale and ill-at-ease, like a man only waiting for someone to ask him why he spent the last five years criticising his Labour Party colleagues for not standing up more to the Blueshirts as they enacted their Tory pauper-culling agenda and then, first sniff of a Dáil seat, he took the Queen’s shilling. Also, I guess the big farmers and stout shopkeepers who vote FG wouldn’t be Noellie’s natural constituency and maybe this was the first time he’s been alone in a room with them.

Anyway, an aeon into his speech, Enda finally wrapped things up by offering the breathless crowd his canvassing advice: “I want ye to go out there. Go out there and knock on the door *nok nok nok* and say ‘Mary or John or Paddy or whatever your name is, we can’t afford to lave the country down’. (Long pause.)

“Go raibh mile maith agaibh!” (Rapturous applause.)

Apparently, downstairs, my tweets were sending Enda’s handlers into a tizzy that “radicals” had infiltrated the meeting. By the time a burly lad in a very expensive suit tracked me down, the Dear Leader had already been bundled down the stairs and away on the Big Blue Bus.

Endapalooza

The big guy in the suit glared at me and said “Teas and coffees are through here, Sir, but I’ll be sure to tell the Taoiseach that it’s his round.

Sir.”

Donal O’Keeffe

Evening Echo Opinion: When it comes to election promises, listen to Phillo – Don’t believe a word

Phillo.jpg“Don’t believe a word

For words are only spoken

Your heart is like a promise

Made to be broken.

So sang Philip Parris Lynott, dead these last thirty years. He’d have been 66 now. I can imagine Phillo, older, maybe wiser, advising us as the 2016 General Election kicks off: “Don’t believe a word. Not a word of this is true.”

Cynic that I am, I’d be inclined to agree. Personally, I feel you’ll have no-one but yourself to blame if you believe a word out of any politician’s mouth between here and Friday the 26th of February.

The competing pitches will likely be “Stability versus chaos” and “A fairer recovery”. In other words, “We made the tough decisions but if you re-elect us we won’t do it again” versus “No, vote for us, we have easy answers”.

Between here and polling day, you will be inundated with promises. Promises are the life blood of election campaigns and they’ll fill the airwaves and eat up all the – sigh – fiscal space too.

Promises are made, the saying goes, to be broken, but they have a horrible habit of coming back to haunt those who make them. In the dying days of the last election, the Labour Party – panicked at the prospect of a Fine Gael over-all majority – released their “Every Little Hurts” poster. A play on the Tesco advert, it listed the worst excesses likely to be enacted by Fine Gael unless Labour was in coalition to restrain the harshest of the Blueshirts’ Tory, pauper-culling instincts.

Every little hurtsSure enough, just like Fianna Fáil’s infamous 1987 “Health cuts hurt the old, the sick and the handicapped” poster – health cuts Fianna Fáil in government later introduced – Labour in coalition became part of the government which enacted every one of the cuts Labour had predicted an unrestrained Fine Gael would carry out. Promises, promises.

It could be argued the “Tesco ad” worked; certainly Fine Gael was denied an over-all majority. Former Labour leader and one-time putative candidate for Taoiseach, Eamon Gilmore said recently he had paid “very little attention” to the advert, something for which he said he had paid “a very high price later”.

Still, as Gilmore’s fellow former Labour leader, Pat Rabbitte, said, “Isn’t that what you tend to do during an election?”

Of course, what tends to be forgotten or ignored about Rabbitte’s remark is that it was made in the context of a “The Week In Politics” debate about Labour not adding a “Terms and Conditions Apply” clause to their promises (specifically stating that all political pledges are subject to the prevailing economic climate). “You didn’t go into all that detail before the election, you kept it simple,” accused RTÉ’s Seán O’Rourke, which was met with the “Isn’t that what you tend to do–?” reply.

No matter, the damage was done and – online at least – Rabbitte’s comment has stuck to Labour’s neck like Coleridge’s albatross. Then again, you could fill the GPO in 1916 with people on Twitter pretending to be disaffected former Labour voters who wouldn’t be fans of Sinn Féin themselves but who’ll be giving the Shinners a grudging vote this time out.

Although the Taoiseach launched this election on Twitter, it remains to be seen how much – or how little – social media will actually affect it. Perhaps the more sedate Facebook will be where online difference (if any) is made, as friends or at least acquaintances have polite discussions or even respectful arguments, while Twitter continues its downward spiral into personal abuse and – ultimately – irrelevance.

As usual, it’ll be on the doorsteps and airwaves that candidates will have the most impact and it’ll be there the promises will come thick, fast and made to be broken.

Mind you, as Irish Examiner columnist Michael Clifford points out, while broken promises can be bad for political parties, sometimes kept promises (like Fianna Fáil’s 1977 giveaway manifesto) can be disastrous for the country.

So, then, promises you’ll likely hear between now and the 26th. Fix the HSE? Free GP care (again)? Tax cuts? End the USC? A living wage? Fix childcare? End homelessness? #RepealThe8th? Hold back the floods?

No coalition with this crowd, that shower or the other?

Forget it. For all the promises, all the slogans and all the guff you’ll hear between now and the election, only two words matter: “79 seats”.

Since the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2011 reduced the number of TDs to 158 – and taking the Ceann Comhairle out of the equation – 79 seats is the number needed for a majority.

The barrister and pundit Noel Whelan recalls being in Fianna Fáil headquarters as the 1989 election results came in and the previously unthinkable became suddenly thinkable.

Outgoing Taoiseach Charlie Haughey had firmly ruled out coalition but, writing down every possible combination of parties and/or independents that added-up to a majority, the then-party accountant Seán Fleming realised “If those are the numbers, any of (these combinations) is possible”. Ultimately, the price of power for Fianna Fáil was abandoning its core principle and going into coalition, and going into coalition with the hated Progressive Democrats.

Terms and conditions apply to all promises and you’d want to be very naïve indeed to trust that any party will – post election – rule out a deal if the numbers add up.

79 seats. Everything else is just marketing.

Listen to Phillo. “Don’t believe a word.”

Originally published as an op-ed in the Evening Echo 11th February 2016

Donal O’Keeffe

Enda and Joan’s 93% Democratic Revolution #fgaf16

Enda JoanIn 2011, Enda Kenny declared “a democratic revolution”. Five years on, how’s that working out? Let’s ask the Taoiseach and the Táinaiste. Two weeks ago, they awarded their government a success rate of 93%.

That’s impressive, don’t you think?

Tonight sees Enda’s big speech to #Blueshirtpalooza16, er, sorry, the Fine Gael Árd Fheis. Weeks from the 2016 general election, he has a very real chance of being the very first Fine Gael leader to be elected Taoiseach for two consecutive terms. The Journal Politics noted that his opening remarks at the start of the gathering managed to include the words “keep the recovery going” ten times in under fifteen minutes.

So I wonder what tonight’s speech will be about.

The smart money would be on distilled versions of Enda’s standard Dáil deflections (“I don’t propose to take any lectures from you, Deputy Martin…” “So I say to you, Deputy Adams, that you have some cheek coming in here…) and a healthy airing of our old friend, TINA (There Is No Alternative).

Fianna Fáil wrecked the country… Sinn Féin is still being run out of the back room of a pub in West Belfast… the rest of them are typified by that Ming Wallace fella… Irish families made too many sacrifices to throw it all away now… Difficult decisions… Jobs… Fine Gael will always make sure work pays more than welfare (by cutting the bollocks out of welfare). Let’s keep the Tory pauper-cull going.

You know yourself.

Meanwhile, what about Labour, the junior coalition party currently in the end stages of what Noel Whelan so vividly described as Fine Gael’s “Black Widow embrace”?

Much has been made lately of Labour’s deputy leader canvassing with the Chief Executive of the Football Association of Ireland. Personally, I can’t decide whether it would be more damaging to be seen with Alan Kelly or with John Delaney, but I think Joan Burton’s appointment of retired union boss David Begg as Chair of the Pensions Authority is a far greater own-goal for Labour.

Although Begg’s appointment was entirely legal, the Tánaiste’s decision to bypass the Public Appointments Service and directly appoint a supporter – however “imminently qualified” – to a State job left her open to entirely-avoidable accusations of cronyism and a motion of no confidence. Anyway, as Labour TD Ciara Conway put it, “Why have the rules in place if you’re not going to abide by them?”

It’s clear David Begg didn’t even particularly want the job, calling its €20,500 remuneration “not lavishly paid”. It’s worth noting that 30% of Irish workers earn less than €20,000. As unforced errors go, this is a beauty.

At this stage, Labour looks increasingly like it knows the jig is up and just wishes the ordeal of the election were over. It can’t be long now before Joan piles the entire party into a bendy bus and drives out into the desert to meet the mothership.

I laughed when the Taoiseach and Tánaiste, our democratic revolutionaries, awarded their government a success rate of 93%. President Bartlet wouldn’t score 93% and he had the advantage of being twinkly Martin Sheen, surrounded by like-minded fast-talking, fast-walking living saints. Mind you, Jed Bartlet was a fictional character, so I suppose he had to be at least slightly believable.

Still, though, Enda and Joan are 93% happy with the state of the country after their five years in power. 93% doesn’t leave a lot of room for the 138,000 – one in eight – Irish children living in consistent, abject poverty.

93% doesn’t leave a lot of room for homeless families wedged into hotel rooms, or Traveller families living in “temporary” tinder-box halting sites or refugee families penned like cattle into damp, miserable Direct Provision centres.

93% doesn’t leave a lot of room for desperately ill and vulnerable people who depend on funds raised by volunteers standing in the rain because the State continues to outsource essential services to charities, many of which are headed by ridiculously-pensioned executives on telephone-number salaries.

93% doesn’t leave a lot of room for the Irish women (twelve every day) forced to travel abroad for medical procedures because thirty-three years ago we let religious fundamentalists hijack our Constitution.

93% doesn’t leave a lot of room for patients on trolleys in draughty hospital corridors, or the 9% of workers living in actual, consistent poverty (according to the Taoiseach himself) and it certainly doesn’t leave a lot of room for those of us utterly aghast at the idea that agents of our State can routinely monitor our private correspondence without so much as a judicial by-your-leave.

So our democratic revolutionaries think we have 93% of (to use a phrase Enda doesn’t seem to anymore) The Best Small Country In The World In Which To Do Business (By 2016). The rest of us will have to bunch up if we’re to squeeze into the 7% of the country that Enda and Joan deign to acknowledge they’ve made a complete and utter hames of.

The CRC: spending other people’s money like water

Aside

“The money that man got would allow me to create 50,000 nursing hours for my children. I resent that.” – Jonathan Irwin, CEO of the Jack & Jill Foundation.

So it turns out Paul Kiely, former CEO of the Central Remedial Clinic, got the guts of three quarters of a million, in a secret deal, basically to shag off. Using accountancy mechanisms which the late Father Ted Crilly might have recognised, the money was kept off the books via a “donation” from the charity “Friends and Supporters of the CRC”. By turning over this particular rock, the Dáil Public Accounts Committee certainly earned their money this week.

€700,000, as Gavan Reilly tweeted, is 233,333 of those CRC Santa Bears. Or, as many commentators have noted, about half of the money donated charitably in one year to the CRC.

An important point, which is in danger of being lost in this controversy, is that the CRC does vital work for vulnerable children and adults with profound disabilities. The money that was given to Paul Kiely had been raised in good faith by decent and kind people, and donated by decent and kind people, to provide support for people in desperate need of help. In fact, Tony O’Brien, head of the HSE, says that the money given to Kiely would have shortened waiting times for CRC patients. Go on. I suppose that’s why Tony’s on the big money himself.

Maria Nolan is the mother of 17-month-old Oisin. Oisin is dependent on the services of the Central Remedial Clinic. Maria calls the CRC “a lifeline” and “a second home”. Speaking to RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, she appealed to the public to continue to support the charity. I would really urge you to listen to what she had to say.

http://soundcloud.com/morning-ireland/parent-of-child-attending-the

Dr Tom Clonan has also spoken and written very movingly of the care and affection given to his eleven-year old son Eoghan, who is a patient of the CRC, by the frontline staff there. “They are the reason people like me can sleep at night,” he says. He calls the CRC “an extension of the family and an oasis”. He feels that the patients and staff are the victims of a tactically-timed government leak to distract from the damage being done by Health Minister “Calamity James” Reilly and it’s very difficult to argue that he hasn’t a valid point.

Still, if not for the devastation being caused to real people, I might grudgingly like Reilly. It’s hard not to smile at a man so comically-inept he seems hardly able to answer the phone without setting fire to himself.

The CRC scandal throws up a very important question. There is a pressing need to ask what sort of a supposedly grown-up country outsources essential services to the charity sector but, to recycle the old Irish joke, if we were going there we probably wouldn’t start from here. Welcome to The Land Of We Are Where We Are.

The CRC scandal is a legacy of the nest-feathering cronyism that went on in our Ceaușescu Era, back when Fianna Fáil ran the country, possibly out of the back room of Fagan’s in Drumcondra. But not to worry, we’ve had a democratic revolution since then. Everything’s grand now.

You may, however, have noticed that the small matter of Irish Water (and the staggering €50 million which has already been spent on consultation fees) was also before the Public Accounts Committee on the same day. For instance, €4 million went to Ernst & Young to come up with a name for Irish Water. They came up with “Irish Water”. €4 million. Nice work if you can get it.

Of course you may not have noticed either, given the Augean stink raised by Paul Kiely’s pay-off. Just a coincidence, I’m sure.

Unless you are a completely starry-eyed innocent, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that while the CRC was the way Fianna Fáil ran the country, Irish Water shows how Fine Gael and Labour do it. Once every five years, our ruling elite lets us change the donkeys nominally in charge and pays them well so they stay onside. Nobody is ever really held accountable. Small people suffer and the big boys, the lads who helped crash the country and their drinking buddies, retire on telephone-number pensions. Even if the money for those pensions has to be collected in buckets by the families and friends of disabled kids.

Imagine if, when nobody was looking, I dipped my hand into a CRC collection box and helped myself to half of the contents.

You’d call me a scumbag. And you’d be right. But compared to a man who would trouser three quarters of a million in charitable donations, I’d still only be the second-lowest of the low.

Donal O’Keeffe