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.