Saturday, March 31, 2007


This árd fheis will not be about making promises that we cannot deliver, Fine Gael deputy leader Richard Bruton said on Thursday.

Where did we hear that line before?

Oh, yes, here in fact. In this column last week we quoted Seamus Brennan saying that Fianna Fáil’s árd fheis will not be about making promises that we cannot deliver.

We all know what happened after that. We found ourselves caught in a monsoon. It might have lasted only half an hour, but it left the political establishment wholly swamped.

This column, for one, was suckered last week. It gives me no pleasure whatsoever to admit that it included this ultra confident prediction: “Unlike other party conferences held so far this season, I don’t anticipate any major announcement on tax cuts, on stamp duty, on tax bands, or on anything that’s going to cost a ball of cash down the line.”

How wrong can you be? Very wrong in my case, though, in fairness, I wasn’t alone in being duped.

So when Fine Gael start telling us that they’re not going to make any promises they can’t deliver, forgive us as we laugh hysterically while quickly finding a spare patch of sand to bury our heads in.

In fairness, you can be sure that Fine Gael won’t be making any major tax announcements for the simple reason that they have already made all their major tax announcements already.

The first part of it was the 2% cut in the standard rate, the Labour part of the deal. Fine Gael’s own portion is the proposed cuts in stamp duty Enda Kenny announced on a slow Thursday during a visit to Rathkeale.

That begged a number of questions. Why then? Why not wait until the árd fheis where you can get maximum impact for expensive — yet definitely populist — concessions on stamp duty?

Part of the answer to this became evident last night during Kenny’s opening speech to the conference and his key line that “the General Election this year will be a referendum on this Government’s handling of the health services”.

That is what you’d call a “raise on the blind” in poker parlance. It is by any measure a massive gamble, saying that the election will turn on health rather than on the economy without fully knowing if those cards will be revealed.

Sure, health is always a core issue. But will a party’s policies on health be more swayable for a majority of voters than its economic and financial policies? It’s a big call. But it has been made: you can see this calculation playing through in the themes that the party has chosen for this morning’s live TV coverage of debates — crime and health.

And yes, like Seamus Brennan a week earlier, Richard Bruton insisted this week that this árd fheis will not be a manifesto launch.

But given that the party will have an almost unfettered chance to push its agendas and candidates this weekend, I’ll be very surprised if there aren’t a couple of major announcement.

But the difference will be that big surprises will be in the areas of health and crime rather in tax, stamp duty or other wallet-fatteners.

Seamus Brennan worried about promises the opposition made and their potential to bankrupt the country. I don’t think (here I go again; a fool never learns) anything Fine Gael will promise this weekend will bankrupt the country financially.

But there are other ways of bankrupting a country. At present, the Oireachtas is debating a draconian piece of legislation proposing tough mandatory sentences, erosions to the right of silence, seven-day detention, restrictive bail laws including electronic monitoring. In the dying days of this government, it has been rushed through quicker than a Bertie Ahern árd fheis promise.

The problem is that there’s no opposition to it from the big parties. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael (and to a lesser extent Labour) do their Big Bad Wolf impressions huffing and puffing at each other to see who’s toughest. And the perverse creation and ratcheting-up of a crime crisis that simply doesn’t exist has led to the most cynical auction of all.

At last year’s árd fheis, Enda Kenny promised drunk tanks, among other hardchaw policies. That was scary. I’m worried he’ll go too far this year, establish Fine Gael’s law and order credentials by suggesting something even crazier than the Government’s crazy policies; and end up overbidding at an auction that can leave us
all bankrupt when it comes to justice, proportionality and morality.

This is my column from today's Irish Examiner.
Read Enda Kenny's opening address to the FG Ard Fheis here

Friday, March 30, 2007


Timing is everything. You wonder why the PDs chose today to launch their, ahem, humorous (I'm laughing so much that my sides are hurting) website

It couldn't possibly have anything to do with the Fine Gael Ard Fheis that's starting out in City West tonight, could it?

Or the fact that FF is gearing up to choose today as the day when it begins a detailed rebuttal of Frank Flannery's 30-seat-gain prediction? Coincidence, sheer coincidence, I tell you!

I was thrilled this morning to find out about the PD site. Great, I though. At last they are injecting a bit of humour into the campaign. Sadly, though, when you get through the feeble humour-lite front page, it's the usual over-the-top mixture of rant and scare stories. Is anybody else getting tired about being warned of the dark dangers inherent in two middle-of-the-road centrist parties like FG and Labour oining up together. Isn't there a bigger ideological divide between the PDs and FF nowadays, especially since Comrade Bertie wrapped the red flag around him?

It's worth reading though. Follow the above link but don't expect too many belly laughs.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007


You know how to get a story out?

Just tell a politician a secret.

The worst kept secret of the last 24 hours was revealed tonight when Trevor Sargent was named as the Magill Politician of the Year. I was one of about a dozen political correspondents who used our skill, expertise, deeply-held prejudices and a thumb-tack to choose the winners.

The event was held in the Royal College of Physicians just two doors down from Leinster House and there was a great turnout despite the fact that the division bells for crucial votes had been ringing all day.

Sargent completed what was a bit of a 'Scorsese on Oscar Night' for the Greens.

Eamon Ryan - who was very bashful and self-deprecating - won TD of the Year and Mayor of Galway Niall O Brolchain was a nominee in the 'one to watch' category.

What struck me is that the politicians who won awards were genuinely chuffed and pleased, including a beaming Joan Burton who won campaigner of the year ("I didn't make a speech," she joked afterwards, "because I would have cried like Gwyneth Paltrow's at the Oscars."). Noel Dempsey was also very pleased. I suppose that in such an insecure profession, it is nice to get validation (though it's not the same as getting elected).

Sargent quoted an old political maxim that when the party's doing badly, it's the leader who's at fault and when the party's doing well, the leader gets all the credit.

It is true that his party is doing well. But I think that its support might have plateaued and that it might experience the recoil that a Sinn Fein bounce will bring it. Still, sure, the Greens will do very well. I'm still predicting 10 seats or more. But I think that if things go smoothly for SF between now and May 8 they will also be winning that amount - and will be in competition with the Greens for at least one - Dublin Central.

It was great to see Terry O'Brien getting the 'one to watch' award. Terry is a rising star in the Labour Party and his attitude is just amazing. However, popular and all as he is in Tralee, the town support won't be enough to win him a seat in a constituency that makes the Titanic look like a currach.

And while the ever-pleasant, ultra-capable Oonagh McPhillips from the Dept of Justice also deserved her award, it was great to see her boss Michael McDowell bravely come along to accept his gaffe of the year award for his Richard Bruton-Goebbels outburst.

His speech was hilarious. His best line was that he was entitled to gaffe because in the PDs he is the gaffer!


The Government's abject climb-down over Tribunal fees is a textbook illustration of political 'optics' and hubris.

In 2004, then Finance Minister Charlie McCreevy announced that he was going to tackle the spiralling costs of Tribunals. There are lawyers working in the two main Tribunals who are getting two and a half grand a day, a couple of hundred days a year, and have been getting those Biblical sums for a full decade now.

Well, McCreevy was going to take them on, wasn't he? He announced a new fee structure that would apply to new Tribunals and to the running ones. He consulted with the chairmen of the Tribunals and came back with a deal.

We were all told that fees for Moriarty Tribunal lawyers would be reduced from €2,500 a day to €900 a day from January 2006. And for the Mahon Tribunal, that would happen in March 2007.

Of course, there was never any intention to reduce the fees. There was a bit of weaving and ducking, and the whole exercise was designed by the Government to hoodwink the public.

It was only when Tribunals got bogged down in delays and legal challenges, that we found out how badly hoodwinked we all had been.

First the Moriarty Tribunal reached and passed the fee-lowering deadline. And what did the Government do? Crumble of course in the face of the threat that the lawyers might walk out.

But as the deadline for Mahon approached, the taxpayer was given some hope when - out of the blue - Tanaiste Michael McDowell decided that enough was enough. He launched an incredible attack on the costs of the Mahon Tribunal, warning darkly that its overall bill could be as high as E1 billion. At last, we thought, we have found a people's champion. McDowell is going to stand up on our behalf.

Yesterday's news that the Government will allow senior counsel to be paid E2,500 a day showed up the charade that has been going on.

The Government spokesperson said that negotiations between Environment Minister Dick Roch and planning tribunal chairman Alan Mahon would continue but in the meantime the higher rate of fees would apply.

Translated into English, that meant that the Government has caved in and capitulated completely and that much-trumpeted 2004 agreement of McCreevy's wasn't worth the paper it was written on.

And McDowell's brave stance? A straw man, if ever there was one.


Dáil exchanges following Fianna Fáil's Ard Fheis. This is my colour piece from the morning's Irish Examiner and, no, it's not me trying to justify me getting it so wrong last week.

Concern was growing last night about the whereabouts and well-being of a senior Fianna Fail minister said to be in a State of total bewilderment following his party’s Ard Fheis last weekend.

Labour leader Pat Rabbitte raised the sad case of Social Affairs Minister Seamus Brennan during Leaders Questions in the Dáil yesterday, asking had anyone seen him or know of his well-being?

“The Taoiseach sent him out last Tuesday to present a press conference about the coming Ard Fheis and the man was but a pale shadow of himself, so shocked was he at the policy platform put forward by us,” testified Rabbitte.

Alarmed as he was at the billions being promised by the opposition, Rabbitte believes he may have been driven over the edge completely by the “Niagara of promises” Taoiseach Bertie Ahern unleashed on Saturday night at the Ard Fheis.

It must have been a full moon for strange things were happening to Fianna Failers on Saturday night. A member of the chorus line, Michael Mulcahy, TD for Dublin South Central, last week sternly urged the Taoiseach to stand firm; no tax cuts and no more spending to put the economy at risk.

While perusing his television on Saturday night, the Labour leader spotted the same Michael Mulcahy at the end of a speech in which the Taoiseach had promised 53 different commitments amounting to E300 million per minute, including, yes, tax cuts.

“I saw Deputy Mulcahy on the screen before my eyes on Saturday night, applauding like Mr Bean on speed.

Ooh, nasty. Later the Bert would describe Rabbitte as narky and there was certainly an edge to yesterday’s exchanges in the Dáil that spelt election coming up, hand-to-hand combat in the trenches, and all-out warfare over the extravagance of each other’s spending policies.

Rabbitte went in hard – and humorously – on Fianna Fail’s U-turn between Tuesday when Brennan did an impression of Ebeneezer Scrooge and Saturday when Ahern did an impression of Nero fiddling while Rome burned.

There were a couple of great lines. A woman told him that she thought the Taoiseach’s nose would come out through the screen. He also suggested that Ahern was being economical with the verite when he told Ursula Halligan he puts material to be recycled into the boot of his Mercedes.

“Nobody would believe what the Taoiseach says. He is only sort of playing cricket on some spare patch of ground. He jumps on the bandwagon in respect of anything that becomes popular. The only thing he recycles is other people’s ideas.”

Ouch. The Taoiseach and Tánaiste got in a couple of their own jibes, about the distant past, about Sinn Fein/The Workers Party, about Rabbitte being involved with subversives, and about printing presses and counterfeit money in Gardiner Street.

“I apologise for ruining the Deputy’s weekend. I assure him that Minister Brennan is very well,” he said.

If you want to read yesterday's Dail exchanges go to this link

Monday, March 26, 2007


Fine Gael were not going to take Fianna Fáil's Damascene conversion to 'auction politics' lying down.
In an amazing series of texts sent immediately after MrBertie Ahern’s speech on Saturday night , FG fulminated against Fianna Fáil’s entry into auction politics.

Here they are in all their glory...

Text 1:
FG Resp to BA speech: “who do u think u are kidding?”. FF record is one of broken promises in health crime & tax. 10 yrs + it’s not done; 15 yrs won’t change it.

Text 2:
Re. Metro + Luas comments. Metro to airort by 07 promised in 02. Not delivered. Only surprised that DART to Dingle wasn’t included.

Text 3:
Re. Health comments. FF adopting FG policies on screening and urgent care centres.

Text 4:
Re. Garda comments. 14,000 Gardaí promised by ‘07 in ‘02. Actual numbers today just 13,000.

Govt no credibility on new target of 16,000.

And you can just sense the indignation and fury boiling over in text five.

Text 5:
Guys, I’m done now. Vomiting promises for 20+ mins when u haven’t delivered on ur previous promises + accuse others of reckless ‘auction’ politics is funny.


In the knowledge it’s a little vulgar for first thing Monday morning, we still couldn’t resist distorting the famous Mae West line to describe the amazing conversion that happened Fianna Fail this weekend:“Is that a gavel in your pocket and are you just happy to see me?”

For having spent many weeks slating the opposition for getting involved in irresponsible ‘auction politics’ and out-vying each other on tax cuts, Fianna Fail this week decided that the best way of beating them was to get in on the act.

Drawing to the close of a humdrum Ard Fheis in City West this weekend– with the exception of Brian Cowen’s majestic demolition of Fine Gael’s tax proposals – Bertie
Ahern stood up on the podium on Saturday night and electrified the weekend with an unusual – nay, extraordinary – leader’s speech.

It was a baffling kind of affair, going against the grain of everything we had been expecting all week. On Tuesday, Social Affairs Minister Seamus Brennan had launched the ‘clár’ for the Ard Fheis and also took the opportunity to flay the opposition with some hard ‘timber’ for their irresponsible spending policies.

“Fine Gael and Labour have been making commitments now for over two years in the Dail and in policy documents. They add up to a frightening amount of money. It’s not a competition we are interested in entering,” he proclaimed.

Well within four days the Fianna Fail star players had entered the fray. And in 30 minutes, Bertie Ahern had managed the amazing feat of making more new promises and commitment than the combined opposition had made in two years.

There were some pundits (including this one) who were made to look foolish by Ahern’s speech, having confidently predicted that there would be nothing new or substantial in his speech in terms of promises. Ministers would consistently tell you that they would continue in Government mode (ie running the country) for as long as possible and that the party’s policies and manifesto would appear only after Easter. Until yesterday morning, when ministers started dropping big hints into their own speeches, there was no general inkling that it was going to take place.

So what happened? Had we been given a bum steer? Had those clever backroom wonks in Fianna Fail managed to keep it all strictly confidential to be gloriously revealed by Ahern on Saturday night?

Erm, no. The first hint was on Saturday evening. Usually, the script of the leader’s speech is released under embargo in late afternoon to allow TV, radio and Sunday newspapers to absorb it. But for once, the script was late, not arriving until after 6pm. This suggested that late amendments had been added.

And later that night a member of the Cabinet told me that none of the proposals to cut rates of tax and PRSI were in the original speech. Yes, the Minister said, there were a couple of sweeteners in the speech. But the decision to include the kitchen sink and all was taken at a very very late stage.

And the reason for that? Nerves verging on panic. Ahern himself had always spoken about Easter as being the natural starting point for the campaign. But what he read on Saturday night was, to all intents and purposes, the party’s manifesto masquerading as a leader’s speech.

The decision to shunt everything forward, according to the senior minister, was made on the back of two opinion polls that spelt bad news for Fianna Fail this week.

The first in the Star on Thursday showed the party at 32% in Dublin, support levels that would invariably lead to the party losing seats. And then yesterday, the Sunday Business Post’s latest monthly tracking poll showed marginal slippage for FF for the second successive month. Given that the party’s support levels were consistently in the 40s in the run-up to the 2002 election, this gave Ahern some cause for concern.

Hence, the front-loading of all its best goodies and the decision to start now, not at Easter. And in his interview with RTE Radio’s ‘This Week’ yesterday Ahern gave credence to this when accepting that his party were lagging behind the others.

“When you are in government for a decade, it’s just that bit harder. The polls are very interesting if you look back over the past 15 months.

“There has been a swing of about four times of us being up five and being back down five. I accept that we are down in the opinion polls even though there are on a small basis.”

Well, there are two reactions to panic – fight or flight.

And certainly Ahern’s instincts on Saturday were all fight. His leader’s address was the best he has made in a couple of years, helped by the fact that he was talking in simple language about tangible things and not about concepts.

Promises came faster than bids at a charity auction. No sooner had Ahern hit the gavel on a new promise, than another one had materialised. The policies seemed to poach bits out of other party policies with a couple of novel ideas of FF’s own making. The elimination of the ceiling on PRSI will be popular as will the halving of rates, and the dropping of tax rates

It was getting harder to keep up with the pace of Bertie’s speech, as the promises stacked up. Increasing tax bands; rises tax credits in line with wage inflation; the State pension to be increased from E200 to E300 over five years; outflanking Fine Gael on tough cop stuff with promises of mandatory jail terms for unprovoked assaults, CCTV cameras everywhere and compulsory drugs tests in prisons. More cops. Step-down beds. More teachers. Cafes for teenagers. It went on and on.

But when you start looking at how much all this is going to cost, Fianna Fail’s earlier claims of auction politics begins to look very hollow indeed. After the speech, senior ministers argued that these promises weren’t part of the auction because they were all costed and affordable.

But then all of the other parties have done the same exercise. And I think, strategically, that Fianna Fail has realised very late in the day that it blundered by ignoring massive the E8 billion surplus warchest in the Government Exchequer.
All the other parties saw that dropping ball and caught it before it bounced. Thus, they were able to offer wallet-fattening incentives without being accused of spending beyond their means.

The upshot of it all is that the gloves are now off. Fianna Fail also unveiled its first poster yesterday, a sure sign that the bidding war is on. It might not have been called yet but the election campaign is now in full flight.

This is my analysis from today's Irish Examiner

Sunday, March 25, 2007

A colleague texted me tonight saying: "Looking forward to humble apology to your readers."
Hands up! The column today was as spot on as the agent who said the Beatles were going nowhere fast.
I have an excuse, kind of.
Yes it is true that the Bert revealed most of the FF manifesto, including tax cuts, tonight, But it seems that that was not the
original plan... more later!

Saturday, March 24, 2007


My column this morning (the previous post) was completely, utterly, 100%, totally and comprehensively wrong in its conclusions that nothing substantial would be announced today.
I'm out in City West at the moment preparing for Bertie's speech.
And given the heavy hints that we have been given all day, it will be like Willie Wonka's Chocolate Factory out here, with more promises than you can shake a fist at.
More later!



THE way Fianna Fáil plays it is always pure Hollywood.

The body count is always high. Our heroes will have survived more scrapes than Indiana Jones and 007 combined. But somehow — despite all the odds — they emerge triumphant at the end.

It’s not that Fianna Fáil hasn’t shipped damage as the plot of this election has thickened. It has. Where do you begin? Decentralisation; electronic voting; BertieGate and debts of honour; nursing home charges; the sly cuts after the 2002 election; the CC case and statutory rape controversy; Eddie Hobbs and ‘Rip-Off Republic’; the Ivor Callely and Seán Haughey mess; the shifting mists that were Bertie Ahern’s views on Charlie Haughey; and, come to think of it, on everything else! And then there were the minor sub-plots: the exiling of Beverly Flynn and the utterly anonymous Michael Collins.

But the party clearly calculates that none of these — individually or collectively — will be enough to swerve it off course. The party felt emboldened enough earlier this week that the election will be fought on just one issue. And what is that? The Big E. No, not the environment, sadly. It’s the economy stupid.

Séamus Brennan set the tone when he began Fianna Fáil’s first bit of ‘pre-taliation’ by accusing the opposition of spendthrift flagrancy in their policies so far. These would end up costing billions and could bankrupt the country, claimed Brennan in his most sincere ‘I’m not messing now’ voice.

Of course, the corollary to that is that Fianna Fáil has kept its powder dry so far and is sure to announce its own lucky bag of goodies (of course, also costing billions) closer to the election.

Of course, the 71st Ard Fheis this weekend is an election one. But what’s interesting when you flick through the clár and observe the confident body language of ministers is this: they believe that the Big E will bring them home in 2007, as it did in 2002.

There will be no death by a thousand cuts this time. Yes, all those issues will be a factor. Some will hurt electorally. And, of course, the health and crime crises are biggies and could inflict potentially massive holes below the waterline.

But the net conclusion is that none is big enough to down FF completely. The party is like an SSIA account holder who has gone down the equity route. With only one month left it is hoping that no sharp shocks or corrections happen on stock markets that could put it all in jeopardy.

In the world of politics that means an A&E disaster; a CC case or Fr Brendan Smyth-type scandal; or an announcement from one of the huge technology companies that its ditching us for Timbuktu or Bora Bora.

And having done the political calculus, the Taoiseach and his closest aides have come to the conclusion that the economy out-trumps them all. The thinking goes: ‘The only thing that has made all these things possible — from roads to health to childcare — has been a thriving economy. And the only party that can guarantee the Big E is FF.’

Look at the slogan. “Leading Ireland Forward“. It could as easily be, More of the Same, or, Five More Years.

Listen to what Brennan had to say this week about this: “The task ahead in the future is to keep that going, not to put it at risk and to protect that economic development.”

Expect Ahern to expand on that in his presidential address tonight. Unlike other party conferences held so far this season, I don’t anticipate any major announcement on tax cuts, on stamp duty, on tax bands, or on anything that’s going to cost a ball of cash down the line. Not this weekend, maybe later (though there will be a couple of news lines to feed us ever-hungry news hounds).

The purpose this weekend will, therefore, be to rally the troops, for Ministers to bask in the glory of their mini fiefdoms, and an effort to portray a Government on top of its game.

Bertie Ahern is the poorest public speaker of them all, though Trevor Sargent gave him a good run for his money at the Green Ard Fheis last month. But that doesn’t matter. Bertie is still his party’s biggest asset. His worth to the party lies beyond oratory, in that ethereal quality that can be described only as Bertiality. And its effect has not worn off enough to prevent his face from adorning a lamp-post near you.

Yep, in true Hollywood tradition, what Fianna Fáil is really planning is ‘2002: The Sequel.’

This is my column from today's Irish Examiner

Click Here!

By the way, this is Bertie Ahern's opening address to the conference last night. He majored on the environment - it's definitely get scared of the Greens time!

Friday, March 23, 2007


We are going to have more opinion polls than Spring showers between now and polling days. The latest one is this morning's from The Star (commissioned from Lansdowne, which conducts our Examiner polls).

The poll was confined to Dublin and had a sample of 500 people across the 12 constituencies (I'd reckon the margin of error is, therefore, in the order of plus or minus four).

Still, like all opinion polls (crude instrument, snapshot etc that they are) the findings are fascinating. Fianna Fail has taken a bit of a hit (down five points to 32 since the 2002 elections) and Fine Gael seems to have staged a bit of a comeback that could see its miserly return of three seats in Dublin rise (but not as much as the party hopes).

Of late, the story du jour has been the rise of the Greens (and you read it here first, a long long time ago). And it is no different here. Five points up. At a heady 13 points only one point behind Labour. That's going to reap a seats bonanza (suddenly Patricia McKenna and Tony McDermott are looking very very good; and you never know, David Healy might be looking like he could squeeze past Larry O'Toole in Dublin North East).

And Sinn Féin? Hard to say. The party will gain, but may only have one extra seat in Dublin when the votes are cast.

A warning though. The findings (bar the FF fall and the Greens gain) are all within the margin of error. And from a stats perspective, there has been little change since then...

Thursday, March 22, 2007


We all know. What do we all know? Nothing. May 18th was repeated so often as the probable date of the election, that it was beginning to be carved like stone in our minds. All those knowing references we made. Bertie will call it as soon as we get back after Easter. He favoured an early election. It would happen on a Friday like it did five years ago.

Well from today, all those theories have well and truly been scuppered. When the Bert wants to listen to advice, he talks to himself in the mirror. We all knew that Sean Haughey would get the leg-up once Ivor got the flick. I knew it so well that I went on the News at One (in my own defence, after being briefed by a very well-placed source) and confidently said that Haughey would be elevated. Half an hour later the Bert announced that Mary Wallace was the chosen one - the same Mary Wallace who had the hump after being demoted by Ahern in 2002.

There you go. These are bytes of what the Bert said today on a Friday poll:

"I think it's open. I listened to the argument the last time and it didn't work the last time. Friday did not work. I was all over Dublin. What people do is get out of the city.
"The polls in the city were very low after 6pm. I know it was a very bad day (the weather was appalling)."

So it's going to be a Thursday. But what Thursday? Definitely not May 17th and it might not even by May 24th but could now be pushing into June. This is what he had to say about it on this morning's doorstep.

"It was always clear that we would come back after Easter and the Dail would sit for a number of weeks."

The maths of this are as follows. They come back from the Easter break on April 24th. What does a number of weeks mean? Two? Three?

Modern campaigns are sharp affairs - lasting three weeks. That means that if it is called on May 1 or May 2, we will have a May 24 poll. However, if it's called a week later, that will push the election back into June.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007


Bhí mé ag caint an tseachtain seo caite faoi laochanna agus níl laoch níos mó, dar liom féin, ná Liam Ó Maonlaí. Tá a dhlúthdhiosca 'Rian' ar fheabhas ar fad, go háirithe a leagan ar Na Connerys. Seo bhlúirín ó chlár teilifíse ón Tuaisceart ina gcasann sé 'Sí do Mhaimeó' le tionlacan ó thriúr ceoltóir óg ón gceantar.
Mar a deireann siad ar 'An Taobh Tuathail' ar RnaG: réchúiseach. Damanta maith actually!


This is the ad that has mysteriously appeared on the Internet and has taken the Democratic primary debate by storm. It's a very clever parody of a 1984 ad for Apple Macintosh computers (based on George Orwell's novel 1984) which effectively portrayed IBM as Big Brother and promised to smash the consensus.
In this ad, it is Hillary who is portrayed as the evil and controlling establishmentarian. It certainly puts those wan so-called Fine Gael attack ads from the beginning of the year (see the billboard discussions here!)into the shade, in terms of professionalism, the personalised nature and focus.

There is a clever reference to Barack Obama's website at the end but his camp have hotly denied any involvement.

In the double-cross conspiracy theories, some people believe that Hillary's people put it up so they could put about the suggestion that Barack Obama's people were getting so desperate they had to resort to attacking her.

Anyways, as far as political advertising in this country goes, let's paraphrase a very famous sentence from 1917 in Russia: I have seen the future and it sucks!


The Wexford Echo is running a poll today, conducted by Red C.

The surprise are at both extremes. John Browne is his county's answer to Michael Ring. Despite being a junior minister, he is ubiquitous - at funerals, weddings and barmitzvahs! He told me a couple of years ago that his constituency office deals with 14,000 pieces of correspondence each year.

It is, therefore, not surprising that he is the likely poll topper this time round as he was in 2002. But what's flabbergasting is his showing in the poll. 30 per cent! That's double what he got five years ago. Now the last time I looked at Browne he hadn't unveiled hitherto concealed superhero powers or disclosed that he was putting his name forward as the next leader of FF.

So why the jump. If you look at the local constituency polls done so far, you see the leading contenders getting massive showings of support (Mayo, Galway West and Dublin Central are cases in point). It suggests that voters have not yet fully committed themselves and are plumping in opinion polls for the candidates they know best. I will perform a jig in Michael Flatley's most outre costume in the Bull Ring in Wexford town if Browne repeats that on polling day.

Can Colm O'Gorman be scoring as low as 2%? That happened too to John O'Mahony in Mayo. It's worrying for him but it's still early days. In his case, he has to get over the hump people will have about him (like O'Mahony) being a parachute candidate. But at the same time, the PDs better start worrying if he is their main hope of a gain.

Saturday, March 17, 2007


Being St Patrick’s weekend, the Cabinet are away doing (delete where applicable) thankless drudge work/damn all; working to exhaustive schedules/lounging beside a pool; and drowning the shamrock/drowning the shamrock.

They may deprive the population of admiring their extremely tight-fitting but fabulous flesh-coloured outfits on parade stands all over the country today.

But one thing is guarantedd, they won’t be slouching when they come back knowing their collective and individual futures are on the line.

People are still in the thinking mode that goes: The election will happen towards the end of May and isn’t that a full two months away?

But the reality is that the 29th Dáil is down to its last 11 or 12 days and counting. So, when it comes to proposed Bills, unless the guillotine is applied with the abandon of France 1789, most of the priority legislation is going to disappear down the plughole.

For over the next couple of days, Government chief whip Tom Kitt will be marshalling his colleagues like a RyanAir check-in attendant. Hand-baggage only. No heavy stuff. No frills. Only stuff you can carry on board. You need to travel light from here on in.

So a lot of the worthy and useful stuff will be chucked out for the expedient reason that they don’t win elections. And only the real essentials will remain.

And of course, they will all revolve around the big three issues that will win or lose this election – Iraq, questions surrounding Bertie Ahern’s governance, and Eamon O Cuiv’s handling of the Dingle controversy. Ok, a little joke there. Predictably, the star issues are economy, crime, and health.

That’s why a doorstep of a new Criminal Justice Bill (CJB) was published on Thursday, less than a year after another massive CJB became law. The phrase ‘rush to judgement’ doesn’t do justice to the haste with which it came. It’s a runaway train. New mandatory minimum sentences. New electronic monitoring. A radical erosion of the right to silence. And sorry for being so crude, but it will become law quicker than fresh dung sliding off a shovel.

And that’s why too the Government is so keen to resolve the row with consultants by the end of March – to proclaim that, yes, folks, we have turned around that elusive corner on health.

You look at McDowell’s spontaneous combustion act for a not strictly necessary CJB and compare it with the perfectly still surface of that backwater known as mental health policy.

In January 2006, the Government published a report called a Vision for Change. It presented the findings of an expert group on mental health policy. Well-researched, well-argued, nobody demurred from its own recommendation that ‘A Vision for Change should be “accepted and implemented as a complete plan.”

When it was published groups like Mental Health Ireland said it gave the “country a second, and possibly last, chance to develop balanced and integrated modern mental health services.”

A second chance? Yes. There was an earlier document called Planning for the Future. That was published in 1984. It took 22 years for successive governments to fail to fully implement that one. Last year’s plan is already showing early signs of the slippage that doomed the 1984 plan. And that’s why the groups are getting so nervous and concerned.

Their problem is that, electorally, they are nowhere. They campaign in huge and complex areas. But unfortunately they affect a minority and, ergo, don’t sufficiently influence electoral outcomes.

In fairness to the Government, there has been progress. But it has been halting and limited, and not helped by the off-the-wall comments we occasionally get from the junior minister in charge Tim O’Maley.

Sure, the number of people with ID placed inappropriately in mental hospitals has gradually fallen to about 250. But where are they going? According to Inclusion Ireland, hundreds have ended up transferred from inappropriate mental hospitals to even more inappropriate nursing homes where inspections are geared towards standard of accommodation, not towards activation, quality of life, or development of potential.

There is O’Malley’s plan to sell 10 old mental hospitals to raise new funds. When is that is going to happen? In two years? In five years? A decade? The C&AG identified one home with 250 residents where “a custodial culture had developed largely due to constrained resources”. That was shocking. These are the most vulnerable people of all in our society.

As Dr John Owen, chairman, of the Mental Health Commission referred in its 2005 report to the severely mentally ill.

“These people still make up the majority of inpatients and while many have been
discharged to alternative community residences this has often been an exercise in relocation, serving the priority of closing mental hospitals rather than a
treatment and rehabilitation exercise in its own right.”

Sad. More sadly, there has been no rush from our political masters – or indeed from ourselves in wider society - to right this appalling situation.

This is my column from today's Irish Examiner

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Well, most ministers have now departed like the Four Evangelists to the furthest corners of the World to spread the Gospel according to the Bert.

The press relief justifying this was purgatorially long (nine pages for a press release!). Of course, that immediately aroused suspicions on the basis that the Government doth protest too much.

It was full of spurious claims and half-truths. An inedible concoction stuffed with cheerful prose and garnished with pious piffle.

“A unique even in the global calendar.”

“An unrivalled opportunity to promote modern Ireland overseas.”

Phrases not included: Junket; Jolly; knees-up; waste of taxpayers’ money.
The second worst part of it is the selling of each event as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to promote trade.

Batteen O’Keeffe slaving away for us in Ho Chi Minh city. If Timmy O’Malley didn’t make it to Osaka, sure wouldn’t the whole of Ireland’s lucrative export potential to the Far East slip down the drain.

The worst part of it was the following line.

“The Taoiseach and Ministers this year will highlight the global threat of climate change and the urgency of acting together to meet this challenge.”

Yeah, sure. With 18 long-haul destinations around the globe (each involving delegations of between four and six) there is no better way to highlight the threat of climate change. See Liam Reid’s story on carbon footprints in the Irish Times (subscription)

What hypocrisy!

When the news of Tony Blair's family holiday to Miami last Christmas was made public, he was forced into stumping up the cost for offsetting the carbon emissions of the long-haul flights. It didn't cost a huge amount, a few hundred quid sterling (see Guardian story on it here). Similarly Irish government ministers flying to far-flung climes should be made stump up to offset their carbon footprints. And that should come from their pockets and not be another freebie that we suckers have to eventually stump up.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007


The egregious attack on the leader of the Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai defied description. Ireland is due to play Zimbabwe in the opening match of the cricket World Cup. Already Laour councillor Aidan Culhane is calling for a boycott tonight, based on the beating meted out to Tsvangirai and his supporters.

Whatever the merits of mixing sports and politics, the attack by police - which resulted in Tsvangirai sustaining a fractured skull - was a disgrace.

Fine Gael's foreign affairs spokesman Bernard Allen captured the mood with an extraordinarily strong statment which I have pasted to here, completely unfiltered:

Attack on Zimbabwean opposition leader a 'shameful act by a shameless Government' – Allen

Bernard Allen TD, Fine Gael Spokesperson on Foreign Affairs, has today (Wednesday) called on the Irish Government to denounce the attack on the Zimbabwean Leader of the Opposition, Morgan Tsvangirai, which
constitutes the latest assault on democracy in Zimbabwe.

"It is almost two years to the day since the Dáil debated a motion on the imprisonment of an opposition politician in Zimbabwe, Roy Bennett.

At the time, I described the imprisonment of this MP as a shameful act by a shameless Government. Today, this phrase is no less apt in describing the serious assault on the Zimbabwean Leader of the Opposition.

Since the 2005 Dáil debate, the Government of Zimbabwe has continued to undermine democracy and human rights. The latest episode, which has seen the Zimbabwean Leader of the Opposition being admitted to hospital with a fractured skull following a beating he received in custody, is only the latest in a long line of unacceptable actions on the part of Robert Mugabe and his agents.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007


When I came into the Dáil this morning, there was a letter in my pigeonhole from Gay Mitchell. It was the script of probably the last second stage contribution that the Fine Gael TD for Dublin South Central will make before he retires from the chamber after 26 years.

The speech was ostensibly about the Electoral Act. But conscious that it was a bit of a valedictory for him, Mitchell ranged far and wide, returning to a couple of his favourite themes - neutrality; compulsory national service and the need for Fine Gael to become a Christian Democrat party that appeals to 30% of the electorate. The corollary of that is that he is against it trying to be a catch-all party, spreading itself too thinly in order to attract 60-70% of the vote.

It also included a couple of very unusual suggestions, some of which would prove to be very controversial.

In the context of Northern powersharing and the reform of the House of Lords he had this to say:

"Would we be prepared to allow our Parliament to sit in Belfast while Dublin remained the capital? Alternatively, could the Senate meet in Belfast and the House of Representatives (the English name for Dáil Éireann) meet in Dublin?"

Or a little later:

"We must have more democracy and more democratic debate. What passes for debate in modern Ireland is little short of a sham. Far too many political parties vie for the middle ground, and where there are ideologies they are more likely to be bigoted than open to persuasion by the arguments of others."

Strong stuff. But what else would you expect from one of the Dáil's strongest personalities. He will be a loss to Brussels. A colleague once told me that if he was a dog he would always be chasing cars. It was meant as a compliment.


Here is Dan Sullivan's first tentative steps at being the next Fellini!


Outside conference season, Sundays are usually quiet days for political journalists. The political parties all know it is a quiet news day. Most of the press releases all have a 'Here's one I prepared earlier' vibe to them.

But in a strange kind of way, weekends have almost been busier than weekdays over the past two months. To be sure, a lot of it is explained by the party conferences and Ard Fheiseanna.

But it's axiomatic that an election is approaching faster than an Atlantic squall.

Sunday was a short straw day. Four separate press conferences - two Government, one PD, and one Labour. At least one of them - and maybe two - was a neat demonstration of the goldfish syndrome. Backroom people know that collective memories last all of about three seconds. So the trick is to announce the same thing over and over again.

But Sunday was the first time that I got a sense of the Grid. The Grid is the diary mode that all parties go into in an election campaign. The schedule everything to wonkish, nerdish, paranoid and exhaustive detail. There's the message of the day. There's the issue of the day. All the effort to get maximum exposure for the party's top personalities across as many demographics, across as wide a geography, as possible.

The Grid will be on the web, on the pod sphere and, yes, on the blogosphere for this election. Political parties will try to fulfill the American civil war maxim of getting there firstest with the mostest. A number of politicians - Dominic Hannigan, Joanna Tuffy, Ciaran Cuffe, John Gormely - have well established blogs. Labour threw up a video of Pat Rabbitte asking us the famous question with the weasel comma: But, are you happy? Mary Harney went one better this weekend with a slick video to accompany the PDs' billboard campaign on health. And here it is but see below for continuation of discussion!

Not so slick though was the actual launch of of the billboard by the Progressive Democrats. Its location was the junction of Stephen's Green and Grafton Street on a busy Sunday morning. That was a mistake. The reason. Politicians might actually encounter what they fear most - the electorate.

It was a very predictable event. The photographers do their smiley shots. Then the reporter huddle around to ask questions of our heroes. All us rabble are missing are the cards with the 'press' legend slipped into the band of our fedora hats.

But there was a guy passing who wasn't reading the script. Con Kennedy threw in a question right at the end of the huddle. The press officers tried to fend him off gently. But he was not to be deflected. He has a four year-old-son who has anaphylaxis which means that Con Kennedy always needs to carry shots of adrenaline. He asked a simple question: why was there no paediatric immunologist in Ireland to deal with his son's rare condition.

No amount of statistics, or general political pronouncements, or aspirations can deal with such direct human experience.

In fairness to Mary Harney, she did her best. But from a public relations perspective, a carefully coordinated press conference had been essentially hijacked.

It was a little like Tony Blair being ambushed by the Women's Institute or John Prescott throwing his famous uppercut. The dailies on Monday morning didn't report the PD billboard launch, rather the fact that an angry young father had rained on the parade.

The Grid. It's not in the sphere yet. In America maybe. But over here, the election will be fought on the streets and in the hustings. Not on the web. Its influence is growing, certainly, though it will take some time before it reaches critical mass.

As an end note, here is one of the vaguely funny parodies that are doing the rounds on You Tube. Do people have nothing better to do with their time except feeds us with such abundant blog fodder?

Monday, March 12, 2007

INSIDE POLITICS - Sinn Féiniúlacht

Bhuel tá Seachtain na Gaeilge tosaithe anois go hoifigiúil (agus maith an rud é go bhfuil an bheirt laoch úd Seán Óg Ó hAilpín agus Dara Ó Cinnéide ag tabhairt a gcuid tacaíochta). Níl fhios agam go baileach cén fath nach bhfuil focal scríobhtha agam i nGaeilge go fóill beag sa mblag seo. Ni féidir liom a rá nach raibh neart agam air, cé gurb é an Béarla lingua franca mo chéirde. Ach ar aon chuma, tá sé chomh maith tosú.

Bhíos ar an raidió ar an Aoine i gcomhluadar iriseora ón Tuaisceart dó ó dhúchas. Is frith-phoblachtánach é anois, go smior. Agus nocht sé a chuid smaointe le neart spleodar agus splancanna uaidh, ag clamhsán faoin nádúr míleata a bhain le feacht SF 7rl, ag maíomh nach raibh puinn dearfach ag baint leis an toghchán; ag argóint (ar bhealach) nach raibh an t-IRA imithe ach go raibh sé ag gníomhú ar mhodh agus bonn difriúil anois).

Ar aon chuma, an rud a rith liom (i ndiaidh an chláir agus ní ar an bpointe buise, caithfidh mé a admháil) nach bhféadfá a rá go húdarásach go raibh aon rud cearr leis an, ná neamhdhleathach faoin, bhfeachtas a rith Sinn Féin. Cinnte, is léir go raibh smacht mileata á chur i gcrích, go háirithe in Iarthar Bhéal Feirste. Le scaradh réidh ar na vótaí - agus Gerry Adams ag séanadh culatas na pearsannachta - bhuaigh SF cúig shuíochán as sé sa toghcheantar sin.

Siúráilte, níl dabht ar bith go ndeachaigh SF go dtí eastáit thithíochta áirithe agus mheabhraigh don phobal ansin cén chaoi a mballóidí a chaitheamh.

Ach nach é sin an tseift chéanna a mbaineann chuile páirtí úsáid as sa Deisceart, Fianna Fail go mór mór. Cinnte, ní bhaineann siad an úsáid chéanna as - níl an cúlra míleata acu.
Ach ag an am céanna, is ballóid rúnda atá i gceist. Agus níl fianaise da laghad go bhfuil SF ag cur imeagla ar dhaoine, ag cur brú míréasúnta orthu. Is léir go bhfuil tacaíocht dlúth agus láidir don 'tactic' sin i measc a lucht leanúna agus go bhfuil sé sin ag dul i méad sa Tuaisceart.

Rinne SF iarracht ar an gcleas céanna sna toghcháin i 2003 ach bhuaigh Diane Dodds an séu síochán le bearna fhíor-bheag.

Má tá teip i gceist, is í teip na bpáirtithe eile daoine a mhealladh ó SF agus ón DUP. Ni féidir a shéanadh go bhfuil an pobal ar 'chaon taobh den scoilt ag vótáil ar son na treibhe, go bhfuil imní agus amhras faoin taobh eile.

É sin ráite, ar bhealach eile tá bóthar fada siúlta ag SF agus an DUP. Ní féidir a rá a thuilleadh gur fórsaí diultacha ná antedeluvian amach is amach iad. Is léir go bhfuil an dá thaobh toilteanach dul i mbun rialtais, gur sórt macasamhail den SDLP agus an UUP iad na laethanta seo. An t-aon cheist anois ná cathain? An dtarlóidh sé ar an 26ú Márta nó níos déanaí?

Saturday, March 10, 2007


A pier is a disappointed bridge, James Joyce once wrote. We’ve seen a lot of disappointed bridges in the past 10 years since the Good Friday Agreement was hailed as having signed, sealed and delivered a future for the North.

Driving on the literary rut for another couple of seconds, we come to Cré na Cille, the majestic novel written by the great Connemara writer Máirtín Ó Cadhain. All of its main characters are dead and are buried in the local graveyard beside the sea. All have carried the petty jealousies, snobberies, prejudices, gossip and tittle-tattle of their lives to the grave, where the sniping continues ad infinitum.

Yesterday we crossed that kind of divide or Rubicon.

And as the results trickled in, we got the accompanying flood of negativity and bickering. Paisley’s bellicose remarks about republicanism, democracy and evil set the tone. Soon doubts were being expressed about the March 26 deadline. The media honed in on other problems. How could Sinn Fein say it was committed to policing and then parlay its way out of its own MP Michelle Gildernew’s comments? (She said she would refuse to contact the PSNI about suspicious dissident republican activity.)
Beyond that, there was the more universal brand of pessimism. The DUP and Sinn Fein had almost wholly emasculated the more moderate SDLP and the Ulster Unionists. Extremism had won out. Tribalism had triumphed. This wasn’t power-sharing. It was cantonisation. It was Balkanisation. Another false dawn.

All those disappointed bridges. The IRA ceasefire in 1994; the Good Friday Agreement; the Weston Park agreement in 2001; Hillsborough in November 2003; The IRA declaration that it was standing down in July 2005; decommissioning that winter: the St Andrews Agreement of last October; Assembly elections; and March 26.

To be sure it was sad to see the SDLP slip down to just 16 seats and have to face the reality of having only one ministry. It wasn't nice to see moderate unionism outflanked, outmanoeuvred and outplayed by the DUP.

I have likened Sinn Féin before to the cuckoo who laid its egg in the SDLP nest. Or as a senior SDLP figure put it this week, SF has stolen the SDLP’s clothes, ill-fitting as they are. And on the other side, the same can be said for the DUP’s stealthy moderation over the past five years.

But there’s another version of history that could be inferred from this week’s events. The DUP and SF were both given thumping mandates. And strangely enough, the mandates were very much pro-devolution, pro-powersharing.

This was clearly demonstrated by the routing of the splinter republican and loyalist parties. The former SF activists who opposed its decision on policing got salamandered at the polls. The handful of other DUP naysayers got trounced – including Paul Berry in Newry-South Armagh. The UK Unionist Party leader Robert McCartney saw his seat disappear and his party reduced to an empty husk.

One of the great paradoxes of this election was that the candidate who actually took Bob McCartney’s seat was Brian Wilson, winning the Green Party its first seat in the Assembly. That was a crucial breakthrough.

This was a small sign of hope, of a society keen to move on, to make a painful transition, to move from crisis to normality, from vetoism to democracy. It was shown too in the relatively stable showing of the SDLP (admittedly with slippage) and by the strong showing of the Alliance Party. They just scraped their six seats in 2003 but comfortably retained and consolidated this time around.

From parsing the results you got a sense that the main political parties are lagging behind their electorate, that they has not quite copped on to the sense of impatience there is for change. There were a couple of neat illustrations of that.

For one, there was the election of the first Assembly member from an ethnic background. Alliance MLA Anna Lo, who took a seat in South Belfast, was born in Hong Kong.

And then there was the eyebrow-raising (if slightly unscientific) text poll run by Stephen Nolan on his show on BBC radio. Some 83% of respondents wanted the principal parties to enter government, without further negotiation. That bears repeating. Without further negotiation.

Of course, the DUP being the DUP, they will do things at their own pace. And that may mean further negotiation, lots of it. At the same time, while the Reverend roared as of old, other figures of the party were making more mollifying sounds. Jeffrey Donaldson volunteered the observation on Morning Ireland yesterday that perhaps Michelle Gildernew had been ‘off message’ in her comments on dissident republicans. Nigel Dodds was also clarifying and softening his ‘not in my lifetime’ stance, saying it related solely to the appointment of a SF justice minister, not to sharing power with republicans.

Granted the DUP will not be rushing to sign their names to devolved government immediately. We are still standing on a pier. But we are so close to the other side that already it’s beginning to feel like a bridge.

This is my column from today's Irish Examiner

Thursday, March 08, 2007


The Kylie moment. Back in 2002, Pat Rabbitte, then a humble backbencher (that's an oxymoron if ever there was one) came out with a rapier comment that was never surpassed during the election campaign.

It was March, early April maybe - certainly a good few weeks before the election campaign was launched. And quicker than the Black Death had spread throughout Europe in the middle ages, Bertie posters had suddenly appeared on every lamp-post in the country.

Rabbitte couldn't avoid them in his Tallaght and Clondalkin heartland. Bertie's face was more ubiquitous in his constituency, he said, than Kylie Minogue's bum. (The Australian icon allegedly had surgery on her backside that - predictably - prompted oodles of pictorial coverage in the tabloid press).

The net point that Rabbitte was making was a serious one: under the electoral acts, there were strict limits on spending by candidates and parties.

In 2002, the limits for each candidate was:

- €25,394.76 (£20,000) in a 3 seat constituency;
- €31,743.45 (£25,000) in a 4 seat constituency;
- €38,092.14 (£30,000) in a 5 seat constituency.

During an election campaign, political parties are allowed, well, a great big zero to begin . The only income they are allowed iswhatever money is assigned by its individual candidates. So for example, a candidate in a 3 seat constituency was allowed 25 grand or so in 2002. The party allowed him or her to keep, say, €15,000 for personal campaign spending with the balance of €10 grand going to the party nationally. With 100 candidates, say, the party could then have an allowance of €1 million.

Not a lot of dough, when you are talking about TV and newspaper ads, leaders' travel expenses, daily launches etc.... all closely monitored by the Standards in Public Office Commission.

But the trick is that these limits only apply DURING the election campaigns (which last barely three weeks).

There are absolutely no limits on spending before the election campaign. That will give an answer as to why Fine Gael have launched a rake of billboards; why the Labour Party has followed suit and the PDs will launch their fourth in a series of five next Sunday when they launch a Health one.

Fine Gael's spend has been incredible, certainly running into seven figures. So far, FF has been the only party to hold back. Expect a blitzkrieg, a tidal wave, an epidemic, a blizzard, a plague of FF stuff from late March/early April.

We have the appearance of ethics and standards in spending and donations since the great unpleasantness of the middle 1990s. But in reality, there is little of it. What we do have is a total swiz, a magician's distraction.

For one, parties can spend as much as they like at any time other than those narrow three weeks of an election campaign.

And for two, what's worse is we don't have a clue how much they raise, despite the introduction of all these laws of transparency.

Sure, you have to declare a donation if it's above a certain limit. What parties have done is made sure that the vast bulk of their individual and corporate donations fall below that limit. So we hear about silent collections and envelopes at Fine Gael and FF shindigs - presidential dinners, Galway Races and the like. But when you see if there's any record of how much has been raised, there is nothing - because all the donations fall tantalisingly below the limit. It's the same with Bertie's Christmas fundraiser in Clontarf castle - it raises a huge amount of money for his well-greased organisation. But how much? The figure remains as much a mystery to the general public as Paddy the Plasterer.

Soon Bertie's face will start to appear everywhere. And for a couple of weeks the country will look like a tinpot former Soviet dictatorship as we succumb to the cult of personality surrounding the one and only The Bert.

By the way, The Bert's legend has spread far and wide - to Canada no less. Check out this comedy sketch:

Saturday, March 03, 2007


This column needs to summon every political cliché to its side this week. A week is a long time in politics… we have never had it so good… events, dear boy, events… all political careers end in failure… and all credit to the lad, we're over the moon and sick as a parrot.

And boy do we need them. Two years ago, this column was confidently predicting big gains for Sinn Féin. A year ago, this column was confidently predicting big gains for Sinn Fein. A week ago, this column was confidently predicting big gains for the Greens.

And the obvious corollary? This column is no longer predicting big gains for Sinn Fein.

And now the tricky bit. Explaining it. The easy thing to do would be to borrow the legendary phrase of the Independent former political editor Chris Glennon: "I was right at the time".

But unfortunately easy explanations won't pad out the 500 words or so still left in this column.

You need to borrow another hackneyed phrase - this time from the fickle world of fashion - to explain the phenomenon in the equally fickle world of politics.

Just as cobalt blue (so I'm reliably informed) is this year's black, so the Greens are this year's Sinn Fein, when it comes to being the potential darling of the voters.

Trevor Sargent delivered easily his worst leaders' address at the Ard Fheis last weekend, yet the same political correspondents who gave him 'nul points' for that performance also quickly nominated him as a contender for the politician of the year award.

In the past 12 months, Sargent has brought his party from just north of nowhere to just south of everywhere. The momentum for that upward thrust has come from within and also from without.

The Greens have learned the lesson that to get anywhere, you need to take a bite of a reality sandwich. It has been lucky that its six TDs have high profile, have been identified with tangible issues (it's fatal politically to wholly dwell on the abstract and all its abstractions). The party leadership has also made sure that it doesn't have its hands tied too tightly when it comes to coalition government.

For example, at its Ard Fheis last year, the party didn't adopt Niall O Brolcháin's proposal to make the banning of US military planes from Shannon a precondition of government. And Sargent has been correct in steering the party independently into the election, not getting involved in any accords or alliance, in Mullingar, Mullinahone or in Mulligans, Poolbeg Street or wherever. And he has also been clearer that Pat Rabbitte when reporters put 'what if' hypotheses and suppostions to him.

Outside the Greens, there has been a marked shifting of the ground in the past year. Uncertainty over fuel supplies; a series of scary reports on climate change and global warming; Al Gore's hugely influential documentary 'An Inconvenient Truth'. Yes there has been a dramatic change in the mood, in the zeitgeist. And the Greens will capture that zeitgeist despite the discovery by all the other parties of newfound green credentials.

And what about Sinn Fein. For the first two or three years after the 2002 election, the party seemed to be on an inexorable rise. It got 7% of the vote in the last election but by late 2004 its support had risen to a heady 12% or 13% in some opinion polls

This column has previously expressed its reservations about mid-term polls but it's the only slat tomhais we have. And there were elections too. Sinn Fein did very well in the European elections in 2004. Its southern star Mary Lou McDonald edged out the Greens' Patricia McKenna and Piaras Doherty in Donegal also achieved a massive showing.

The consensus - flouted in this column and elsewhere - was that they could double their seats.

What has changed? The Northern Bank raid and the McCartney murder had a huge corrective effect, as did the party's duplicity over the three eco tourists who were nabbed by Colombian authorities while looking for lesser spotted monkies in jungle that just happened to be in Farc-controlled territory.

Gerry Adams's box office appeal was such that in the south his poster drove the SF campaign down here in 2002, though he wasn't a candidate. He and the SF leadership have a lost a little of that mojo, that star quality since then.

Like Bertie, Adams remains a huge asset but like Bertie Ahern, his star has waned a little with longevity. What he has achieved - and will achieve in the next month- is momentous, and a huge credit to his vision and leadership. But it doesn't compel pencils down to SF on the ballot paper as quickly as it once did.

The five SF TDs in the Dail have been a disappointment overall, though, ironically, all have improved in the last year. They have also started to take constructive positions on issues - the domestic violence motion this week is a case in point - rather than eternally opposing every thing but having nothing to offer themselves.

There are lots of possible gains for SF. In Donegal. In North Dublin. In Wexford. But some of its own TDs are also vulnerable. They once talked about 10 SF TDs or more this year. Now it's closer to seven, maybe eight.

This is my Irish Examiner column from this morning