Thursday, August 30, 2007


You arrive back from your holidays to find that your home has been robbed. You go to the police station, where a bored sergeant with his heels on the desk twiddles his thumbs and tells you that there’s nothing that they can do about it, forget about it, and go home. You protest, but just as you’re building yourself into a froth of fury, the sergeant kicks you out the door. On the way home, you get mugged by a gang of hoodies who also give you a good kicking while you cower on the pavement. As you arrive home badly injured to your burgled house, your worried neighbour asks are you ok.

“Me,” you reply perkily, “I couldn’t be better.”

Such was the nature of Willie O’Dea’s reaction to what amounted to a public dressing down by Cabinet colleagues over Shannon.

The Minister for Defence professed himself “extremely pleased” with the outcome of yesterday’s marathon Cabinet discussion on Shannon, and, to boot, asked all the groups lobbying to retain the Shannon to Heathrow service to step back to allow the Government space to resolve the crisis.

But what is the resolution? Was the Government going to force Aer Lingus’s hand? Was it going to use the ‘golden share’ it so mercilessly hyped (reminds you of a sheep in wolf’s clothing) to force Dermot Mannion and his management buddies to back off? Was it going to abstain – or worse, still back Ryanair – in a vote if an Emergency General Meeting is held in October?

Erm, no. The Government yesterday said what it has been saying over the past month. The Aer Lingus decision is a done deal and it’s not going to be reversed. That means it’s not going to interfere with the decision. It also means (but this has yet to be teased out) that it won’t vote against the Aer Lingus management if Ryanair gets its way and forces an EGM on the Heathrow slots issue. It also means that it won’t even abstain.

If you can square Willie O’Dea’s earlier descriptions of ‘Armageddon’ and Shannon being ‘cut off from the rest of the world’ with yesterday’s ‘extremely pleased’ then you will have cracked the mystery that is Fianna Fail’s enduring ability to be for and against something at the same time.

All those empty stories of rebellion and cabinet splits came to naught. Eamon O Cuiv and John Gormley never questioned the agreed Government position, despite attempts by the Sunday Independent to paint them as rebels. And Willie O’Dea’s protests were always going to be more about form than substance.

All of the Government’s efforts will now be thrown into finding an alternative carrier to connect Shannon to an international hub. But talks with airlines are not as advanced as were reported this week. The Government knows that it will have a full-blown crisis on its hand if some alternative is not found – with a lot of the most pugnacious stuff coming from FF TDs and Senators in the region.

Politically too, the Government deserves to take a pasting for over-exaggerating the influence of the so-called ‘golden share’ last October. Never once was it mentioned during the Ryanair takeover battle that Shannon was in danger of losing its slots, even though the Transport Minister admitted yesterday that possibility was known at the time.

But since about August 12, its line has been clear. Dempsey even stood over his comments back then that some of the claimed impacts were “exaggerated”. He agreed yesterday it would have ‘some impact’ and the Government’s was discounting that. But he said that some people were talking about the lost of 10,000 jobs and 50,000 jobs and of the region being devastated.
“Overly stating the impact can do damage to the region. We do not want to create an impression that there is devastation (when there’s not),” he argued.

There were some scarier statements, he said. And what about the Armageddon envisaged by his Cabinet colleague Willie O’Dea.

“It applies to any of the scarier statement,” said Dempsey, lumping the Defence Minister with those who had exaggerated.

No wonder he was extremely pleased yesterday.

Saturday, August 25, 2007


Let's not get too hung up on age. William Hague was the youngest Tory Leader since William Pitt the Younger. And much has been made of David Cameron’s youth. Alan Dukes was in his early 40s when he became Fine Gael leader. But which of them ever set the world alight?
On the other side of the coin, Garret Fitzgerald was in his mid fifties when he became Taoiseach; so was Haughey; Lemass was 59; and Dev (though getting in early) was clearly getting on very late when he was Taoiseach at the age of 76.
Sure Bertie Ahern was youngish (45) when he became Taoiseach. But he was unusual in that he had served a political apprenticeship of almost 20 years to get to where he was. And Dick Spring was very young, only 33, when he was (reluctantly) thrust into the role of Labour leader. But it took him a long time, over five years, before he had racked up enough experience, beefed up enough authority, to be a credible leader.
Too much has been made of the age of the parliamentary party of Labour. To be sure, it was an issue for the party during the last Dáil and it will be more of an issue for it during this Dáil (when the average age of its TDs will creep up over the 60 mark). But it’s not the only issue. Rabbitte is 58 now but is more or less of an age with Bertie Ahern and Enda Kenny.
And there will be no meaningful challenge to Kenny’s second term as Fine Gael leader, although it will take him into his sixties.
But it seems to me that we have all become a little too hung up on age. Just like there was a vogue for over a decade that you couldn’t be President of Ireland unless you were a woman, we have begun to equate renewal with youth. That, if you think about it for a couple of seconds, is only part of the story.
Leadership is about a lot of things. If you divide the necessary traits into three broad strands. The first groups together vigour and passion and energy and enthusiasm. The next concerns itself with authority and wisdom and experience and nous. And finally, there are ideas, policies and strategies – what American political wonks describe as the ‘vision thing’. And in only the first of those groupings is age a real issue.
Whatever, at 58, Pat Rabbitte decided that he did not have an appetite for another five years of it. Fianna Fail is one of the most successful, wily, instinctually survivalist political entities in the world (only in Sweden and in Mexico can we find similar specimens). No matter how irresistible your force is, FF is without doubt the immovable object of Irish politics. Whoever succeeds Rabbitte will have a daunting task.
Labour could learn a couple of lessons from Fine Gael on that score. For the first year after being elected leader, Enda Kenny stayed in the trenches. He spent most of the year criss-crossing the country, meeting the local constituency organisations and cumainn. As a strategy, it had danger written all over it. Kenny had possibly the most anonymous profile of any political leader in the history of the State. A year after being elected leader, his name and face recognition was still dismally low.
In hindsight, the strategy was correct. The party was mauled in 2002 and needed urgent resuscitative surgery. Fine Gael shored up its flagging structures, recruited new members, appointed full-time officers throughout the country, got fresh faces they to adorn the party posters, threw every bob it had into its shallow and superficial campaign for the 2004 local and European elections and… it worked. They were able to get a bit of hype going about progress, and begin to build Enda Kenny up as the next great thing. And that almost worked too… the margin of defeat was the seven minutes he was put on the backfoot by Bertie in the TV debate.
It will be a hard ask for the new leader. Rabbitte did a lot of things right. His Fair Society visions was as good as it gets in modern politics. I always like the slogan, If you think Labour, vote Labour. But nowadays being a social democrat is as out there and radical as you are allowed to be and it’s hard to be a distinctive voice when everyone’s policies are overlapping.
The new leader will have to overhaul party structures, beef it up and extend its appeal beyond the traditional Labour catchment areas. The name of the game will be reinvigoration – of the organisation, its policies, the way it describes itself to the electorate, and of personnel.
It seems to me that Fianna Fail face bigger problems when it comes to renewal. Like the Kerry team of the 1970s, they’ve been at the top of the heap for a long time. But politics is a cyclical cynical business. The moment of your greatest triumph is merely the prelude to your most humiliating downfall. And that’s why we shouldn’t get too hung up on age.

Friday, August 24, 2007


Yesterday morning Pat Rabbitte began ringing around his colleagues in the Labour Party. The news he conveyed shocked them to the core, even those who were closest to him. He was resigning with immediate effect, from that very afternoon.

None of the main players within the party had any inclination that Rabbitte was about to cut the rope and bring his five-year leadership of the party to an end.

“It came like a bolt out of the blue,” said Eamon Gilmore the Dun Laoghaire TD. “I am surprised and I am disappointed. I would have liked to see him continue on.”

It was the same for Brendan Howlin:

“It took me completely by surprise when he called me this morning. When I spoke to him earlier this summer when I was offered the position (of Leas Ceann Comhairle) he gave no indication.”

It was well known that Rabbitte was crestfallen after the election. Labour had gone in with 20 seats and returned with the same number. In the immediate aftermath, he described it euphemistically as a standstill election but yesterday’s development showed that – personally – it had gone far deeper than that.

As he himself said yesterday: “In the event, Labour won the same number of seats as in 2002 and failed to replace the existing government. As Leader I take responsibility for that outcome.”

But the other net outcome of the general election was that Rabbitte’s leadership was not in doubt. He had defeated Howlin, Gilmore and Roisín Shortall by a whomping majority in 2002. While a small minority of the party had quibbled with electoral strategy, there was no appetite in the party for another leadership contest, notwithstanding the electoral setback, and the question of his leadership was settled.

His colleagues knew that he was disappointed but underestimated its effects. “Sure, he took a hit but I thought that he’d get over it, lick his wounds and continue leading the party,” said a fellow TD yesterday.

While on his annual holiday in the Kerry Gaeltacht, Rabbitte thought long and hard about the election and his own future. His term of office wasn’t up for another year, until the autumn of next year. Yesterday he said it made no sense for him to stay on until then. That would have meant that a new leader had taken over just months before the local and European elections of 2008. He believed that the best time to go was right at the start of the term.

You couldn’t argue with any of that. Sure, if he was going, it was better to go now. But the bigger question was: why go?

Those close to him said that many underestimated the effect of failing to get into government had on him. Yes it was “unsuccessful only by a narrow margin” as he himself said yesterday but that was still failure.

“He gave the leadership every ounce of his being and energy over five years and he did a great job,” said Gilmore.

And having put that effort in, he decided in Kerry that he did not have the appetite to go once more into the breech. He is now 58 and given that Fianna Fail has covered all angles with its own little rainbow, it’s widely accepted that this Government will last its full term and that Brian Cowen will seamlessly succeed Ahern in 2008 (if the Tribunal goes badly for Ahern) or in 2009 or 2010 (at the latest).
And what the Labour Party needs, according to several of its strategists, is a person who has passion and energy, and has “fire in the belly”.

We will come back to that, but Rabbitte’s resignation brought to an end the career ambitions of one of the country’s most intelligent, able, and colourful politicians.
The native of Ballindine in Co Mayo first distinguished himself as a student leader in University College Galway in the early 70s before becoming the President of the Union of Students in Ireland. He later became a prominent official with the ITGWU union before entering politics full-time.

One major legacy problem that dogged him was his membership of Sinn Fein the Workers Party and its connections to the ‘Stickies’ of the Official IRA. But paradoxically Rabbitte joined the party after the split, having been previously a member of the Labour Party (he resigned because of his opposition to the 1973 coalition with Fine Gael).

And though the Workers’ Party (later Democratic Left) never really succeeded in becoming much more than a marginal presence, the party was notable for the quality of its parliamentarians – including Rabbitte, Gilmore, Proinsias de Rossa, and Liz McManus (who is now the acting Labour leader).

Indeed, when DL went into the Rainbow Coalition in late 1994, Rabbitte became a ‘super junior’ and one of the highest profile members of government, deservedly praised for his far-seeing drugs strategy.

An acerbic wit and brilliant parliamentarian, he became a darling of the media because of the ease and brilliance with which he rounded his thoughts and his hilarious put-downs. But there was an occasional arrogance and distance about him that some thought off-putting – and a sense that he could not translate his Dáil form to the streets, and could not relate to ordinary Joe Schmoes in the street in the way that Bertie Ahern did.

But Rabbitte’s performance on the hustings in the election campaign surprised everybody, showing far more appetite for the plod and flesh-pressing on the hustings. And despite going one witticism too far comparing Michael McDowell to a ‘menopausal Paris Hilton’ he was the hands-down winner of the TV debate.

But like all the smaller parties, it just didn’t happen for Labour. Some colleagues (particularly Howlin) put it down to the Mullingar Accord and the deal with Fine Gael. But Rabbitte believed it went deeper than electoral strategy.

“As regards (strategy), I remain absolutely convinced that it was correct to offer the people a choice of an alternative government,” he said yesterday. “It was not successful but unsuccessful only by a narrow margin… It would be a mistake to restrict the debate to electoral strategy.

“Whereas the core values of Labour are timeless and immutable, we must accept that Irish society has changed and we must change.”

Elsewhere he described it as the ‘brand’. Unions no longer wield the same emotional draw. People’s definition of working class, of blue collar, their expectations of politics, of how society should be ordered, has changed radically.

(For Rabbitte's own analysis of the election, follow this link. It is his delivery of the Jim Kemmy Lecture to the Tom Johnson Summer School in Galway)

It’s clear somebody else will have to be the architect of that change. The party can’t really skip a generation like it did in the early 1980s with Dick Spring. It’s too early in their careers for any of its three new TDs. The others, if not of Rabbitte’s generation, are very close to it.

Surprising though the announcement was, Pat Rabbitte was right. If the party wants to renew itself, the time to do is now.

Saturday, August 18, 2007


It was the dog that didn’t bark who decided it at the end of the day.

A bit like the plot-line of the Hound of the Baskervilles, we were all listening to the wrong dogs barking up the wrong trees.

Over the past week, it was all Willie O’Dea putting on his own end-of-the-pier act. Roll-up! Roll-up! Watch the Minister for Defence in his all new rage and fury show. You think Gordon Brown’s four-hour holiday was self sacrifice? Witness an Irish Government minister who has defied human nature by not taking a holiday for a full two years. Marvel as he builds himself into such a tornado of outrage that he self-immolates before your very eyes.

And, politically, that’s more or less what happened.

As a colleague acidly put it on Thursday: “Willie went one Morning Ireland too far.”
We have not heard a peep out of Bertie Ahern since the controversy first erupted ten days ago. Actually for almost a week, it seemed that the entire Cabinet had become anchorites, with Government Buildings shrouded in a monastic silence.

That was, until Willie O’Dea arrived back from the first holiday he had taken for a full two years. And from there on in, we got a spectacular full-on Broadway production – a chorus line of 100 councillors and co-starring roles for half a dozen local TDs and two junior ministers. But there was only one star.

The Minister for Defence gave a bravura performance of defiance and bluster all week. So much so that you kind of suspected that he was beginning to believe in his own invincibility. He would force, erm, persuade Aer Lingus of the errors of its ways. He spoke of an Armageddon scenario, of the mid-west of Ireland being cut off from the rest of the world because of the loss of Heathrow. Seriously, cut off from the rest of the world.

In his only substantial comments on the controversy, Transport Minister Noel Dempsey said he agreed with Dermot Mannion that some of the claims being made about the downside of the Aer Lingus decision were exaggerated.

On Morning Ireland, Willie responded to that in this manner: “(Noel Dempsey) is taking his own advice. In this situation unfortunately that advice does not convey the seriousness of the situation here.”

That was a blooper if ever there was one. The comments served to undermine Dempsey and his authority. O’Dea had clearly overstepped the mark.

And still the dog didn’t bark. Bertie Ahern (still on holidays but apparently working away behind the scenes) said nothing.

But then on Thursday evening, a statement was issued in the name of Education Minister Mary Hanafin. In the second paragraph, it noted that she was “speaking on behalf of the Government”.

The key line came in the next paragraph: “As a listed plc, Aer Lingus has to take its own decisions. It is inappropriate for the Government to intervene in the decision-making of a private company.”

That was it. It was over. Bertie Ahern had not uttered one syllable in ten days. But the mark of the Anorak was all over the statement. O’Dea was now being put firmly in his place. Two of Ahern’s most senior loyalists, Mary Hanafin and Dermot Ahern, were wheeled out to repeat the Government line. Aer Lingus has made its decision and that decision is would stand.

It was the one act of decisiveness by a Government in a fortnight of mess and blunder. At least, Aer Lingus chief executive Dermot Mannion knew where he stood before meeting local politicians and business leaders and knew it wasn’t a case of the Government showing him the door, as it did with Willie Walsh.

The stance will be politically unpopular (and that’s as mild an assessment as possible). Ahern and Cabinet ministers will have a rough passage through meetings with its own representatives from the region.

But at the same time you have to also question Willie O’Dea’s judgement. Is he or isn’t he a member of the Cabinet and answerable to collective responsibility? As a Minister, he was party to the decision to privatise Aer Lingus and should be brave enough to live with the consequences (despite what he said this week, the airline did not need to be privatised to raise the funds for fleet replacement). And O’Dea has put local interest above national interest on every occasion – on the deregulation of taxis; on Barrington’s hospital and frequently on Shannon. Other ministers like Dempsey (with an incinerator in Meath) and Micheal Martin (over Cork Airport) have been prepared to take the heat that goes with being a Minister.

And the dog might not have barked this week. But boy, did it still have a fierce bite.

This is my column from today's Irish Examiner

Sunday, August 12, 2007


On Politics
Harry McGee
Politics, during the summer, is as dead as vaudeville. Of course at the same time we need to ink our pages, even during the most taciturn and underwhelming days of silly season.
Since the dawn of civilisation, government ministers tend to disappear during August leaving one or two ministers on duty during the month.
On very slow weeks, somebody will mention at a news conference that the Taoiseach is out of the country.
That will lead to the inevitable question from a senior editorial person: “Well if he’s abroad, who else had skived off? And who has been left behind to run the country?”
Occasionally, fate will deliver a golden hand and intelligence will come back confirming that the only minister who’s still around is the most junior, gaffe-prone, incompetent, ill-regarded and generally hated minister.
The next step in the process will be to find a crisis of some kind– no matter how unimportant or infinitesimally small – and then take the silk purse (a marginal rise in unemployment figures; some hospital cock-up) and make a proper pig’s ear of it.
CRISIS AND LOOK WHO’S LEFT RUNNING THE COUNTRY? will scream the (totally unjustified and totally over-the-top) headline, the following morning.
Yes, it’s cynical and it can be a cheap shot. But it can also be highly effective. John Prescott was Tony Blair’s deputy prime minister and the man in charge of the country when the PM was abroad. But the man who was nominally running the country was photographer playing croquet with his staff in his summer residence. That did untold damage to the country.
Last Sunday we saw this at the worst when the Sunday Independent launched Scuds of outrage and bombast in the direction of Tánaiste Brian Cowen. His crime? He had gone off on holidays to the Algarve. The crisis? The housing market had collapsed and the economy was in freefall. I don’t know about you but somehow I didn’t notice Armageddon last weekend. It just seemed to pass me right by.
The fact is that crises during the summer are more manufactured than real. The last really deep crisis to beset a government here happened in the summer of 1982 with the sensational news that a double murder suspect Malcolm Macarthur had been staying in the flat of the then Attorney General, Patrick Connolly. The A-G was due to fly out on his holidays to the US the next day and refused to alter his plans. The Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, was on his holiday island of Inisvickilaun and either at the end of either a very bad line or a very good wine. When first contacted he didn’t grasp the depth of the crisis. The following day – when all hell broke loose – he cottoned on very quickly.
But then,
Then just when we though silly season had reached its nadir, along comes a real crisis. Not only did it catch the Government completely off guard, it also found both main opposition parties with their eye off the ball – their transport spokespeople were nowhere to be seen (or heard) earlier this week.
What was extraordinary about the Aer Lingus story was that, for once, the ‘who’s left running the country?’ attack was valid. Since the its announcement on Tuesday, the Government has given us the benefit of one full sentence. The Taoiseach won’t speak. The Minister for Transport won’t speak. The Minister for Enterprise won’t speak. The Minister for Finance won’t speak. And only belatedly did the Minister for Defence speak. Willie O’Dea said he was aghast at the disgraceful decision. Sure, wasn’t everybody in the mid-west similarly aghast.
The question for O’Dea is: what is the Government going to do about it? It’s all very well for Willie O’Dea to criticise Aer Lingus but if the Taoiseach and the relevant government ministers are not going to do anything, or not even going to say anything, all he’s involved in is a exercise to give him political cover.
The Government made a huge play about safeguarding Heathrow slots and ensuring balanced regional connectivity when it allowed Aer Lingus to cut the apron strings. Was this part of an under-the-table deal? Did senior Government ministers really only learn last Friday? Why didn’t the Government use its 25.4% shareholding as leverage?
The capitulation of deed and word has been a disgrace. And the Government’s continuing silence is an insult to the people of the mid-west and also to its back-bench TDs. The problem with third-term governments isn’t that the citizens begin to grow indifferent to them; it’s that they begin to grow indifferent to the citizens.