Friday, November 30, 2007


It's been a strange and exciting political week. It's so early in the electoral cycle that we shouldn't expect such drama.

It was almost like a buy one get one free offer. No confidence debates are comparatively rare events - though there was one launched against Bertie Ahern in late September. The debate reached moments where it was electric - especially the powerful catch-in-the-throat 24 minute speech of Mary Harney's.

Her speech was impressive on a number of levels. Its scope; the extent of her apology to the women damaged by the unforgivable mistakes; and her 'I put patients first' defence of her tenure as Health Minister.

Two other traits were widely reported. The first was that Harney delivered the speech without notes and didn't miss a beat. It was, simply, a tour de force. though I would warrant that the bulk of it came from a script that Harney had learned 'de ghlan mheabhar'.

The second was her raw emotion - she seemed close to tears a few times. Another female TD later told me that the tears were of anger rather than of sorrow. Later in the speech Harney didn't pull her punches when doling out criticism to Fine Gael and Labour. I think the past ten days have also proved that FG's Dr James Reilly will be a formidable adversary. He has been able to match Harney in emotion and tears; as well as in taunts that are as hard as iron girders.

The surprise was Ned O'Keeffe's decision to drum himself out of the FF parliamentary party. Ned said it was nothing personal bur of course all politics is personal. Ned had been building up to this for some time, like a balloon being blown it. It was almost inevitable that it would burst. And while Ned's speech (he never got a chance to deliver it) was from-the-heart, his abstention from the vote had deeper and more complex reason than simply having no confidence in Mary Harney - this particular head of steam had been building up slowly since the election when Ned received the first of a number of perceived slights.

And now today, another twist (and maybe a twist of a knife in the back). The Teflon anorak just doesn't seem to work any more when it comes to the sticky stuff in the Planning Tribunal. Paraic O'Connor of NCB's evidence is very damaging. Notice too how the opposition leaders have lost all their reticence compared to their scaredy-cat attitude prior to the election. Senan Maloney's scoop in this morning's Indo (which revealed the National Lottery was a sleeping partner in a bid for a casino in the Phoenix Park) will also have implications for Ahern.

Finally, my favourite two lines of the week came from De Diary of a Nortsoide Taoiseach, the Phoenix magazine's brilliant parody of Ahern.

"Tuesday. I'm beginnin' to tink we made a tactical blunder in winnin' de election. Not dat we had a choice. De oppositon were so shite dat if we had somehow managed to lose, we'd have been de subject of a steward's enquiry."

Monday, November 26, 2007


This is my Irish Examiner column from this weekend...

WHEN I was a child growing up in suburban Galway in the late 1970s and early 1980s, disposing of our waste was a relatively simple matter.

The mindset back then was encapsulated by the catchy slogan of one of the private waste disposal companies: “Let O’Brien do the shifting”.

You threw the lot out. Except for milk bottles, which you left out each morning, and soft drink bottles for which you got a tiny deposit back.

But everything else went out to a dump in Carrowbrowne in the north of the city. And by everything I mean everything.

I remember my father loading up an old fridge on a trailer and us making the journey out the Headford Road to dump it at the tiphead.

Even then, like the milk bottles, there was a form of recycling taking place as Travellers made a living by sifting through the rubbish for copper, other metals and reusables.

The mindset changed in Galway during the late 1990s when the city went mad for recycling. Every time I made the trip home, members of my family seemed to have added yet another for-recycling container to the dolly mixture of bins outside the front door. Where Galway led, everyone else has followed since then, except for Carlow and Mayo.

The latest figures, released in August this year, showed that both counties had shamefully low recycling rates of less than 7% each in 2005.

By contrast, Galway city’s rate for 2005 was an impressive 47%.

Dublin city lagged behind at 13%.

Best of all was Longford with 57%.

The good news about the sea- change is that the recycling target of 35% set for 2012 has already been surpassed. And so it is likely that the new recycling target for 2012 of 50% will be achieved.

That means that of the projected 3.4 million tonnes of waste that is projected to be generated in 2012, only half, or 1.7m tonnes, will go onto the next stage of the process.

There is bad news though and it also applies to another shift of culture.

During the 1990s — when it became increasingly apparent that landfills and super-dumps were no longer sustainable — the Fianna Fáil-led government began casting around for alternatives.

They looked to Europe and what they saw was incineration.

The current national waste strategy set out ambitious plans for eight regional thermal treatment plants around the country.

Now there has been another fundamental change of mindset and that has coincided with the Greens arriving in government for the first time.

In opposition, the party was a fierce opponent of incineration, and I think it’s fair to say that John Gormley’s opposition was given an added intensity by the fact that the biggest facility of them all was earmarked for Poolbeg, the visual focal point of his own constituency.

The political headache for the Green Party is that the new political shift has arrived too late — nine years too late by most estimates. No matter how gargantuan his efforts, no matter how persuasive his arguments, no matter how potent his promise, time is not on Gormley’s side.

For a worryingly high number of their core issues, the Greens arrived minutes too late — the train had already left the station.

Within a short time of arriving at the Department of Environment, Gormley flurried into a series of different actions. He commissioned a review of the national waste strategy and a new one may see the light of day by early autumn of next year.

He also parlayed up the Programme on Government’s commitments in relation to waste management. If you look at the document that was brokered between FF and the Greens, you will see all the key phrases. The three Rs (reduction, re-use and recycling) would be cornerstones and for the first time there was a concrete commitment to the introduction of Mechanical Biological Treatment (MBT) facilities.

Gormley took this and ran with it, as was his right as Greens’ leader and as Minister for the Environment.

He made a presentation to Cabinet and afterwards was emboldened to proclaim that incineration was no longer the cornerstone of Irish waste policy.

The assessment wasn’t exactly shared by Fianna Fáil or by Bertie Ahern, who has conceded we may have four or more incinerators.

Then in October, Gormley got experts within his department to estimate the amount of residual waste that would be left for incineration if recycling was at 50% and if MBT was fully operational.

The figures were startling.

Out of total municipal waste of 3.4m tonnes a year in 2012, you could whittle the incineration-only stuff down to a mere 400,000 tonnes.

Suddenly, we no longer need eight incinerators; no more than two.

The problem is that it has come too late in the day.

An Bord Pleanála said it could only rely on the written and extant policy and existing laws. It granted planning permission to Poolbeg. And within days, the Environmental Protection Agency granted it a licence, albeit with 109 conditions.

Despite this latest sea-change, despite MBT coming on stream, despite higher recycling rates, incineration is a reality that the Greens can only fight a fierce rearguard battle against.

Already it’s certain that four will come on stream — in Co Meath, Poolbeg and the twin burners in Ringaskiddy.

And unfortunately for them, the Greens’ continuing campaign against them may be as futile as Don Quixote’s tilting at windmills.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


Fianna Fail isn't going to stop digging on the Bertie pay story. The latest to mount an unusual defence was Martin Mansergh, a former adviser to Bertie, a sitting TD for Tipperary South and an arch Bertie loyalist.

Below is his press release. Note that 13,000 people constitutes about 0.6%, a miniscule number, of the State's 2 million plus employees.

The only line I fully concur with in Dr Mansergh's statment is his line that a lot of the most successful people are overpaid. That they are!


From a reply by the Minister for Finance Brian Cowen, TD, to a written question, it is clear that at least 12-13,000 Irish citizens on the basis of 2006 figures will be better paid in 2009 than the Taoiseach and other political office-holders, which puts into perspective some of the recent controversy. They include, of course, a number of persons working at senior levels in the media, business people, professionals, and some higher paid GPs. A vast majority, though not all, would be in more secure employment. Either a lot of the most successful people are overpaid, or it must be accepted in the context of this society that the Taoiseach's salary is commensurate with his responsibilities, which ultimately are greater than anyone else's."

Tuesday, November 20, 2007


Gill and Macmillan issued a long statement today in which it admitted that there were credibility issues surrounding Justine Delaney Wilson while still standing over the authenticity of the book.


So was I. If there are issues that go to the credibility of the author, then it follows by corollary there are issues that go the credibility of the book. (I have appended the statement in full at the bottom of this piece to allow you make up your own minds).

Anyway, first, here is a think piece I wrote for this morning's paper. And beneath it is the statement issued by the publisher today:

There are times when stories crop up in print that seem just too good to be true. The scurrilous story surrounding Liam Lawlor’s death in Moscow. The unfounded allegations carried by Magill in 2002 that Mary Harney had accepted cash from a businessman. And of course Corkman Denis ‘Starry’ O’Brien’ claims that he gave Bertie Ahern £30,000 in the car park of the Burlington Hotel in 1991.
All of those stories had one common feature. They weren’t true.
And as yesterday’s amazing and frankly farcical events unfolded, you sensed that another story is about to join that growing list – the claim that a serving government minister was a regular snorter of cocaine.
The claim is made in Delaney Wilson book High society and then buttressed in the RTE series of the same name, though the minister is demoted and is now merely described Robert the Politician.
But from the moment Delaney Wilson aired the claim in public, there has been considerable scepticisms about it.
To be frank, journalists and politicians alike have simply not believed that a Government minister moseyed across the road from Leinster House to Buswells Hotel and admitted to a journalist (with whom he was not familiar) that he was a regular user of cocaine. And all the while, she was recording this and taking down contemporaneous notes.
The holes and contradictions of how this purported interview took place have reached almost cartoonish proportions in the past 48 hours.
And what it unusual and perturbing is that the RTE has found itself skating on very thin ice indeed when it comes to standing up the claims; and being honest and forthcoming about the information it has at its disposal.
The documentary series itself was appalling television. Not one ‘real life’ cocaine user or dealer was accessed on screen. The approach taken was to reconstruct everything using actors. There is a difficulty with this. You just don’t know what is real. We are given an assurance that everything is true but have to take Justine Delaney Wilson’s word for it. And everything that we see is based on information that is anonymous; unsubstantiated and unverifiable. How do we verify if a pilot or a judge or a politician took cocaine? We can’t.
Surely, it would not have been too hard to find a few former cocaine users who would be willing to talk openly – for example, a well-known male socialite, Gavin Lambe Murphy, and an Irish Independent journalist, Ian O’Doherty, have both publicly admitted that they snorted cocaine in the past.
But the central difficulty was her claim about the Minister, the one that most people zeroed in on. For weeks, journalists have been asking RTE questions about this claim.
In its response, RTE stated that it had “access to the body of material gathered by Ms Delaney Wilson, including listening to taped interview material.”
The clear impression that most journalists took from that was that the interview with the minister was taped. And RTE did nothing to disabuse newspapers which interpreted it that way last weekend. That’s why the station was accused of misleading yesterday. The response to this from Kevin Dawson, the commissioning editor of factual programmes was puzzling: RTE, in defending confidential relationships, he said, had “to be relatively economical in terms of what is said.”
Really? Why? Even if it had the effect of misleading journalists to interpret a statement incorrectly and not have it corrected.
As Sean O’Rourke put it in his remarkably tough interview with Dawson yesterday, the full story had to be beaten out of RTE.
And that was that there was no tape.
And when O’Rourke played a clip of an interview with Delaney Wilson from October 4 – where she said she recorded the interview with the minister and retained the recording – that’s when the alarm bells started to go off.
It was “troubling”, admitted Dawson. It was more than that. It undermined (fatally) the credibility of the claim. And Gill and Macmillan will also have to explain its comments to the Sunday Times on October 28, when a spokeswoman said that the publisher and its lawyers have listened to a recording of the interview with the minister and have kept two copies of this tape.
And then, to cap it all, Delaney Wilson issued a statement last night through her solicitors in which she claimed that she both recorded the interview and took contemporaneous notes.
And then the gnomic: “I have not retained the digital recording.”
That’s a pity. Because this is another story that just seems too good to be true.


Justine Delaney Wilson, The High Society

We wish to respond to press speculation surrounding the publication of
this book and the verification procedures that we undertook to
authenticate the material it contains.

The source materials, as presented to us by the author, were the texts
of the author's interviews with her subjects. Most were in digital audio
form. A minority were in the form of contemporaneous notes taken by the
author in circumstances where she has stated that the subjects did not
consent to be interviewed because of the danger of voice recognition.
Among the interviewees in this latter category was a person described in
the book as Robert, a government minister.

As a condition of publication the author was required to satisfy the
authenticity of the source material. A number of meetings were held over
a twelve-month period, during which a thorough examination of this
material, recorded and transcribed, was conducted by ourselves and our
legal advisors. On the basis of a thorough examination of this material,
we were satisfied that the text of the book was a faithful version of
the interviews. We were also satisfied that the interviews were
authentic and not staged, and that, in the case of the audio material,
the interviewees were at all times aware of being recorded and that
there were no hidden microphones.

However, the author has now admitted, through her own solicitors, that
all subjects were recorded, including the politician. She then formed an
A and B list of these recordings, transcribed the A list and represented
it to us as being the only version of these interviews. The B list was
delivered to us in digital audio form. At no time did we have reason to
believe that there was any audio version of the A list. It was agreed
that, having satisfied ourselves as to the authenticity of the
transcripts, the author would retain them, while we retained the audio

After the book was published, one newspaper made a number of attempts to
force the identity of the minister from the author, called the author's
credentials and personal life into question -- including an allegation
concerning her young child. These attempts grew so intense and
personalised that, on the advice of her own solicitor, the author
destroyed the recordings and transcripts. She did this without any
reference to us or to our lawyers. Had she contacted us, we would have
advised her strongly against this course and arranged to have the
material placed in safe keeping. Instead, we were presented with a fait
accompli. It now emerges that the previously unknown audio recordings,
on which these transcripts were based, were also destroyed.

There are issues of authenticity and issues of credibility. Ironically,
nothing in all this causes us to doubt the veracity of the book as
printed. Were we to do so, we would withdraw it from sale without
hesitation. But on the credibility issue, the author has placed herself
in a completely unsatisfactory position. Once it became public knowledge
that that there was apparently no recording of the politician, only a
transcript, we acknowledged that as being our understanding. We now
know, as of 19 November - a full seven weeks following first publication
- that this was not so.

The pity of all this is that that it was unnecessary. If the author had
been open and frank with us at all times, she would have had nothing to
fear. The evidential value of her source material was and remains
overwhelmingly convincing. The identities of those interviewed and
referred to in the book are known to us and our legal advisors. The
material in the book is true and we continue to stand over it.

As far as the recordings retained by us are concerned, we shall under no
circumstances release these, as they were taken in strictest confidence.

We shall make no further comment on this matter for the moment.

Monday, November 19, 2007


High Society was one of the worst documentaries I have ever seen. To my mind the idea of using anonymous sources and then making a documentary that relied wholly on reconstructions was questionable.

Journalists use anonymous sources all the time. But they are reluctant to rely on them to such an extent - we usually look for independent corroboration or some form of documentation to back it up. This was different... everything was based on anonymous, unsubstantiated and unverifiable information.

And journalists used to using sources also know when there's something innately unnerving about the use of a source. And there was always something about Justine Delaney Wilson's purported interview with a Government minister that didn't have the ring of credibility about it.

Yesterday it emerged in The Sunday Tribune (a Kevin Rafter and Ali Bracken story) that there is no recording in existence of the interview with the Minister (as we were all led to believe). RTE admitted that the interview was conducted using contemporaneous notes.

And today in his masterful interview with RTE's commissioning editor of factual programmes Kevin Dawson, Sean O'Rourke pulled a rabbit from the hat: namely an interview that was conducted with Delaney Wilson on Drivetime on October 4 in which she said she had taped the interview and kept copies of the tape. (listen to O'Rourke's interview with Dawson here)

And now in the latest (farcical) twist, the author, who is abroad on holidays, claims she both recorded the interview while taking contemporaneous notes and subsequently erased the recording. Yeah, right!


This is my analysis piece from this morning's Irish Examiner

Somewhere out there in the world, I’m sure there’s a recipe book for leaders’ speeches. And when Eamon Gilmore popped his first one out of the oven on Saturday night you knew from the first bite that this one had used familiar ingredients and followed an age-old method.

I have covered every speech by every leader of every Irish party (with the exception of The Socialist Party and the Workers Party) over the past four years and they all follow a roughly similar pattern. There’s the rhetoric (I want a better Ireland); there are the specifics for news headlines (Pat Rabbitte promising lower taxes); there is the record (FF major on this, for obvious reasons); there’s the attack on the other crowd; and then there’s the climax where the leader rallies the troops into a rally of joy and expectation.
And of course the basis ingredient is rhetoric. Lots of it:

“I believe that every person is equal. It is as simple as that.”

“Labour made modern Ireland.”

“Ireland needs a New Purpose”

“We need a vision for our country, and its place in the new expanded Europe and increasingly globalised two or even three decades.”

But for all that, the speech and its delivery were surprisingly good and the conference itself also defied many expectations by turning out to be an anticlimax of the anticlimax we were all told it would be.

It must be remembered too that Labour approached this weekend’s conference in Wexford like a pupil approaching the school building knowing he hasn’t got his homework done.

It was bad enough for Labour to find itself sitting on the shelf after the May Election. At a time when introspection was needed, the party was forced into a national conference that it simply didn’t want but had to have for its own constitutional reasons.

It was always going to be an unusual conference – it’s unprecedented for one to be held so soon after an election. There was no live TV coverage. There were low expectations. There was none of the ersatz stuff you expect around national conferences and Ard Fheiseanna (which have become wholly TV-oriented and stage-managed in recent years).

Or as one delegate put it on Saturday, he sometimes feels that he is being dragged along to national conferences just to clap (for the cameras).
Perhaps it was because expectations were so low that the conference was more robust, more muscular than was anticipated. In fact, with the exception of Gilmore’s speech, it was one that belonged very much to the delegates.

And party HQ didn’t get it all its own way either (that was also very refreshing). A motion that would have committed the party to implacably oppose the Shell terminal in North Mayo was narrowly defeated (Labour Youth almost sneaked it in an early morning vote) and the party leadership by a whisker referred a controversial motion on the legalisation of cannabis to its National . And for a while in the afternoon, it looked HQ’s opposition to a fully fledged two-day delegate conference next year would be defeated by bolshie delegates.

And the motion on Labour’s presence in the North of Ireland was intriguing, with a series of very strong speeches from Northern delegates. One Michael McBrien referred to de Valera’s famous speech from 1918 in which he said Labour must Wait. And conscious of FF’s expansionist ambitions, he argued that Labour could no longer wait to organise in the north.

Another delegate Ronan Farren, a member of Labour and the SDLP, argued against either Fianna Fail or Labour arriving into the nest like cuckoos.

"The arrival of Southern parties in the North will only serve the interest of the two parties, Sinn Fein and the DUP, responsible for deepening sectarianism in the north," he said.

It must have been a very difficult week for Gilmore, following the death and funeral of his mother. Despite a nervous start, he delivered a strong speech – that was helped by the fact that it didn’t have to stay to the exact half hour for the purposes of television.

The new Labour leader set out his stall in a general way. There were few specifics in the speech, but he nonetheless sketched out where he wants to go. His attack on Bertie Ahern’s obsession with money and the Government’s poor handling of Shannon was clever. He was never gratuitous instead comparing Ahern unfavourably to Eamon de Valera and Jack Lynch.

In real terms, Gilmore isn’t a wet week in the job yet. And it’s clear from the passages on the long-term vision thing that a couple of trips to the optician will be needed before it’s brought into sharp focus. Yes, he is right saying that Irish politics is very short-termist – but his vision of Ireland in 20 years time will need a lot more detail, a lot more specifics before anybody begins to buy into it.

Anybody, who knows Gilmore will know his values and will be unsurprised that he majored on equality of access to education, on eradicating poverty, and on improving the health services (there were only two paragraphs on crime). He seems to be saying that he will try to come up with practical do-able solutions that are easily explained.

What was probably most interesting of all was his own perception of his style of leadership (not a ‘boss’ like Haughey but the captain of the team).

“I don’t rule the Labour Party. I serve it… This party belongs to all of us… My job is to steer and, sometimes to point, from the vantage point I have as leader.”

Are we about to experience a most unusual species in the modern political world – a modest and humble leader? Gilmore will realise that the party needs rebuilding and renewal, needs new candidates, needs to do well in the European elections. On radio yesterday, he said it was much too early to talk about electoral strategy. I think it’s almost too early to talk about anything. It’s a period for 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness. And to that end, the most telling thing he really said came towards the end of the speech.

“When this conference is over, I intend to embark on a journey- physical and political to relearn Ireland. To visit communities across the country, talking with people about their lives, their families, and their aspirations.”

It’s only the start of the journey for Gilmore, too early, much too early to start experimenting with the ingredients, the method or even the recipe itself.

Sunday, November 18, 2007


Eamon Gilmore's speech last night didn't depart from the recipe book of leaders' adresses. It was heavy on rhetoric and short on specifics. I think journalists last night struggled to find a news line (last time round, Pat Rabbitte included the bombshell that Labour would lower the standard rate of tax). Otherwise it had all the same ingredients and used more or the same method.

I'm not sure if I like the catchline around the word 'purpose' (too many echoes of a FF election slogan from 2002). If you were very cyncial about it you could distill it down to the following: Eamon Gilmore is a nice and worthy leader who wants to improve education, improve the health services, eliminate poverty and build a better Ireland - and do it all with purpose.

É sin ráite, he delivered it well, aside from opening nerves. He was helped, I'd say, by the fact that it wasn't televised live. And for me the most noteworthy thing was his promise of embarking on a mission around Ireland to meet and to learn. So early in the election cycle, that's the only thing to do.

Two other interesting aspects. Like Enda Kenny, Gilmore has excellent Irish and it was a pleasure to listen to a couple of complicated passages trí Ghaeilge rather than the token cúpla focal.

Secondly, there may not have been live TV but there was And it was a super service. The viewership reached a peak of about 250 during the speech. That should very low. But in such a competitive word, that amount of people sitting at home on a Saturday night looking at a stream of a political speech on their computer screens tells you two things: not bad and Anoraks!

Saturday, November 17, 2007


Wexford 4.20pm
Midway through this afternoon's session, one of the delegates said that he sometimes feels that he is being dragged along to the national conference just to clap.

Having been at every party conference of all the larger political parties in the State over the past four years, I know how he felt.

The two bigger parties have brought it much further along the line, but conferences and Ard-Fheiseanna have become increasingly stage-managed. Get you candidates onto morning TV. Have a couple of new initiatives to feed the media a line. Have a catchy slogan. Pump-prime a couple of simple (and easy to absorb) messages. And put the bulk of your energy into the leaders speech.

FF and FG Ard-Fheiseanna have become ridiculous in recent years. You get no sense that this is grass-roots democracy in action. Debate takes the form of the party leadership dictating what will be and the delegates meekly going along with it.

In recent years, the smaller parties have also got into the act. The last thing you want to do is air all your fights in public. And Sinn Fein have gone furthest along the road. You always feel (and maybe this is unfair on my part) that every moment of the debate, every instant is being controlled from the top table.

And so as a general rule, the conferences have become sterile. No blood-letting. No arguments. No nothing.

But I must say that today's conference was an exception.

Maybe it's because this conference was a little unwanted (too early after the election; too early for Eamon Gilmore). There's no live television (except on the web- and I must say the live stream from Ustream has been magnifico) and there were very few expectations. It was all about housekeeping - deciding on strategy for elections, for policy, for establishing a presence in the North, for (yet again) a name change.

And I must say (and I never though I'd say this for a Saturday afternoon session) I enjoyed it. It began with Micheal D Higgins that social democracy is a label that can be used against Labour. It continued with a speech by his wife Sabrina Higgins who was so flamboyant in her passion that her husband seemed subdued by comparison.

"We have got to be activists," she urged. "The media is where it's happening. (But)... they are complacent. I do not see them as having a vision that we have for people and for tomorrow... Be a campaigning party."

There were a couple of robust debates and what the party hierarchy wanted, the party hierarchy didn't fully get. One of the motions called for a full delegate conference each year (the leadership also want this but don't want it to happen until 2009). That was defeated on the floor. In a bit of a procedural mess, it was then kicked into touch and referred to the National Executive Council (as the cannabis motion was this morning). The chair, Breda Moynihan-Cronin, made the mistake but otherwise she policed the session with a fist of steel.

The motion to explore the possible expansion of Labour in the North was heavily backed by the conference (no surprise there) but there were different nuances of opinion as to how this should happen (should Labour organise itself for elections in the North? Should it tie-up with the SDLP? Should it leave the SDLP to forge it alone?).

There were a couple of very good contributions to this debate, most from Northern delegates. One Mike McBrien harked back to Dev's famous speech of 1918 that 'Labour Must Wait'. He argued that Labour could wait no longer in Northern Ireland.

Or from Michael Robinson who argued for the same thing and warned about allowing Fianna Fail steal a march in the North. He reminded delegates here in Wexford of Bertie's famous self-declaration as a socialist:
"Bertie stole our clothes down here. Do not allow him steal our votes in the north," he said.

Ronan Farren is a member of both Labour and the SDLP (and a former press officer with the part). He gave a passionate and strong speech in which he warned about Labour following FF's lead by trying to woo voters in the North.

"The arrival of Southern parties in the North will only serve the interest of the two parties, Sinn Fein and the DUP, responsible for deepening sectarianism in the north," he said.

Labour's debate on its future in the North will be fascinating. But I suspect its own moves will be very much tempered by what FF may or may not do.

The best moment of all came with the very last motion, which might have seemed frivolous on the face of it. Dermot Looney from Dublin South West wanted the party to adopt the Red Flag as its anthem. The song - which has been adopted internationally and is the song of the British Labour Party - was written by a Meathman, Jim Connell from Kilsyre. Looney gave a funny, passionate and visceral speech.

When he quoted the last two lines, he brought the house down.

"Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer,
We'll keep the red flag flying here."

Once uttered, there was no way in the world that that particular motion wasn't going to get passed.


JIMMY SANDS we will never forget you, went the joke about the status of the 1981 hunger strike in Irish history.

That joke was always a bit of a cheap shot and I suppose it is an even cheaper shot to start a peroration (oops Pat Rabbitte is no longer there), ahem, an argument on the future of the Labour Party.

As he prepares to give his first leader’s address to his party’s national conference (and his preparation was thrown off kilter by the death of his mother, Celia, this week) Eamon Gilmore has two major problems as leader of the Labour Party.

The first one is organisation. The second is even more challenging. To put it in highly technical political terms: Eamon who?

Gilmore faces the same mountainous journey that Enda Kenny faced in 2002 when he became leader of Fine Gael. Outside the Dáil, outside Ireland’s political beltway, Gilmore is unknown. Not quite like Kenny, who to borrow Rummy’s famous phrase was an “unknown unknown” (ie we didn’t know him and we didn’t know if he was any good). Those of us who watch him for a living know Gilmore’s ability. But the question is can he make it stick with all those who don’t watch him for a living and whose only real interaction with him is shoving a piece of paper into a box every five years.

Of course, this particular conference — time-wise — is a bit of a mistake. It was organised at a time when Labour believed it would be in government and that Pat Rabbitte would be Tánaiste. None of those eventualities came to pass. And a new leader, for whom it is too early to begin to build up profile, will tonight address a party for which it’s much too early to build up profile. It’s like a country man putting on his Sunday suit to go down and clean out the byre.

And that’s what Gilmore has been landed with this weekend.

The conference isn’t being fully televised (there’s a live stream available on the internet). There are no potential divisions (do we all take along long spoons just in case we have to sup with the de Valeras?). The meatiest motions are the usual existentialist ones — the political take on the plea from Captain McMorris in Shakespeare’s Henry V: “What ish my nation?”

And Labour will once again be embarking on an exercise asking itself what is its nation, what is its constituency, what is its identity in a fragmented society with none of the neat divisions of class that gave the party is support.

Nowadays, in south Dublin constituencies for example, the Labour Party’s base is predominantly middle class and liberal (the prawn sandwich brigade). In the north, west and south-west of the capital, its core is still blue collar workers. And down the country, there are places (Limerick, Cork, Westmeath, South Kildare, Waterford) where it still attracts a strong traditional rural and town vote, that would be more conservative in values. And then there are other places where the party has no presence at all.

And so to the heart of what this weekend is about. Sure, it was meant to be about taking stock of the new government and seeing the best way forward for Labour. The only slight glitch is that Labour isn’t a part of the Government.

And so two commissions, a Centenary Commission and a Commission for the 21st century will be formed to explore those things. I remember interviewing Pat Rabbitte about three years ago where he mulled over the direction that Tony Blair had taken the Labour Party in Britain.

Rabbitte never saw himself as a Blairite, pointing to Gordon Brown and the late John Smith (Blair’s predecessor) as personifying what he admired about Labour in Britain. Gilmore and those advising him will need to forge a strong identity and brand within the next 12 months. The test of its efficacy? When somebody asks what does Labour stand for, Gilmore and every representative of the party will be in a position to answer in one concise and simple sentence. It sounds fatuous, but it is important. People need to know what you stand for without having to listen to a thesis full of conditionalities.

And unfortunately for the opposition, Fianna Fáil has had a monopoly in that market for a decade. Who are you we ask. We are the party that governs and runs the economy, they reply.

And on that score, you begin to worry when the motion proposing one of the commissions runs to 720 words — I’m not codding you, 720 words — that’s almost as long as this column.

On an individual level, Gilmore could do worse than follow the strategy adopted by Enda Kenny. Spend the first year going around gee-ing up the party and rebuilding. Spend the second year building up your own profile. Throw everything at the local and European elections in 2009 (including all the dosh you have) to make some gains to allow you to claim electoral success. Then begin the big push for 2012.

This weekend’s conference will be the most hi-tech event hosted live by an Irish party. It’s going out live on the Labour Party site with clips being posted to YouTube. There are also blogs, online Q&A, photos on Flickr and mobile posts on Twitter. A lot has been organised by Shauneen Armstrong aka the blogger Red Mum (

Thursday, November 15, 2007


Eamon Gilmore's biggest problem is the one that Enda Kenny had when he became leader of Fine Gael.

Outside the beltway; outside his own constituency, outside Caltra and East Galway where he grew up (and is fiercely proud of - up Galway!) Gilmore is still an unknown quantity to the public out there.

His speech at the conference this weekend will be vitally important for him. He follows a very high-profile high-personality leader. He has been (unfairly) described as a clone or mini-me of Rabbitte. He has not yet established a national profile; or a 'brand' for himself - if I can use such a crude marketing expression.

And of course it has all been affected by the death of his mother this week, which has delayed his own arrival at the conference until Saturday.

Gilmore has done very well in parliament since becoming leader. He is non showy during the two key sessions of the week - Leaders Questions on Tuesday and Wednesday - and tends to ask Bertie Ahern pointed, sometimes blunt, questions, not giving the Taoiseach that much opportunity to pick the most convenient question to answer.

The main quote attributed to him on the Labour Party website sounds lovely when you say it out... but beyond its vague resonance of Martin Luther Kind does it really mean anything?

"Not only me, but others too; not only here, but elsewhere too; not only today, but tomorrow too."

Unfortunately for Labour, it's always been about tomorrow.

One thing to note about its conference (and I suspect the influence of super-blogger Shauneen Armstrong here) is that it has embraced technology like no other. Ustream, YouTube, flicker, twitter, online Q and A - you name it, it's there. It's going to be more exciting on the screen than it's going to be in real life down in White's Hotel! For more details of all the online stuff, see here.

And just to get in the spirit of things, my own blog will be chugging along on Saturday, and giving instantaneous (ie discount it immediately!) reaction to Gilmore's speech as it happens!


Bertie at some function with spooky writing. The video clip is actually very humorous. It's the first time ever that I have heard him being genuinely self-deprecating and making light of it.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007


I know that there are other things going on in the world but the huge pay hikes are symptomatic of a creeping me-féin attitude and greed in Irish society. There were two excellent pieces on Bertie's pay in this morning's Irish Examiner, written by my colleagues on the political team. One, a sketch, was written by Shaun Connolly who is one of the best colour writers in the business. The other was a fantastic analysis of Bertie Ahern's obsession with money, written by Paul O'Brien. Shaun kindly allowed me to reproduce his piece here:

THE cost to patients of the health service jobs freeze: Unknown.

The cost to taxpayers of Bertie Ahern’s pay rise: €38,000. The comedy value of the Taoiseach’s embarrassing attempts to justify pay rise: Priceless.

As Mr Ahern swaggered down the central steps of the Dáil chamber yesterday to bleat about not having a yacht or butler like his world leader mates he was immediately followed by hapless Transport Minister Noel Dempsey, who was in turn followed by his hapless predecessor Minister Martin Cullen.

It was like a real life version of one those ascent of man graphics showing how we evolved from apes into homo sapiens, except that this was in reverse, and more a representation of the descent of manners from a government that no longer seems to care who it outrages.

Mr Cullen used to be a byword for arrogance and calamity, Mr Dempsey then surpassed his efforts over Shannon and L-plategate, and now the Taoiseach has evolved into the supreme example of self pity fused with a total lack of self awareness.

It’s sooo unfair: Not only do his buddies in Paris and Washington have palaces and yachts, but they get “prolonged holidays” too — this from a man who attends the Dáil for 60 days a year.

Jaws were merely on the floor at this point, they went subterranean with the rest of his self-justifying Tourette’s style outburst, as he stated most of the leaders he is compared with “would not pay for a cup of tea from one end of the year to the other because they have catering staff in their homes and can use jets for social occasions”.

“It would not be hard for a member of the media to write a glowing article about how poverty-stricken we are compared to other countries. I suppose I will have to wait for that,” he moaned.

Erm, yes Taoiseach you will. But haven’t we heard the cup of tea analogy somewhere before? Oh yes, it was at the Mahon corruption probe where Mr Ahern stated he hadn’t been offered the beverage by developers, let alone the £50,000 bribe alleged.

It was an unfortunate memory to drag up, especially as he then went on to attack leaders like the French President for not being “up front” over their finances.

You could almost hear every pot and kettle in a five-mile radius of Leinster House exploding into simultaneous blackness at the remark from a man accused of being, shall we say, evasive, regarding money matters to Mahon.

But we do really need to do something about our underprivileged €310,000-a-year Premier.

Surely it’s time we showed our national gratitude to the sacrifices he has made for us by having a telethon for him — Bertie’s In Need. It will be easy to set up — a quick phone call would panic RTÉ into clearing the schedules.

We would then be spurred on to bung Bertie a few more quid by heartfelt tributes to our Taoiseach in Trouble along the lines of: “I know the economy’s nose-dived since polling day and am resigned to losing a couple of the young ‘uns to the cold and hunger this winter — after all me and the wife can always have more children when the financial situation improves — but I just cannot bear the idea of my Taoiseach going without a butler for one day longer. That is why I have decided to sell my kidneys on the Chinese organ market to raise some cash for Bertie’s In Need — sure, it’s safer than letting the HSE get their hands on them.”

Mr Ahern topped an unforgettable Dáil performance by saying he would “gladly forego” the pay rise, but that would only make page 99 of the newspapers, so what would the point be?


Tuesday, November 13, 2007


I'm sorry for harking back to pay, but the Man with the Golden Anorak can't resist talking about it. He was asked about his pay increase (see earlier blog entries passim) and came out with the following defence. I have left his words in their raw, pure and undisturbed state, uncontaminated by human hand.

He begins in this passage responding to comments by Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny that he earned more than Angela Merkel, Gordon Brown, George Bush and Nicholas Sarkozy.
Note the insinuation that the President of France benefits from opaque - possibly dodgy - arrangements; that the State haven't ponied up a yacht or summer palace for The Anorak; and, ergo, he is "poverty-stricken" compared to the rest.

And this is what he had to say about it in the Dáil today. (I have put the best bits into bold).

The Taoiseach: With regard to the comparisons with French President Sarkozy and others, the Deputy and I know all the arrangements these people have. It is like much of their tax arrangements, as they do not operate a system of transparency. They have all kinds of allowances.

I would like somebody to put all their arrangements up front. Not only do most of these people have permanent and weekend residences but they have holiday residences. They have different rules also as they are the beneficiaries of prolonged holidays, yachts and homes. We do not and should not have those regulations.

Most of the people mentioned by the Deputy would not pay for a cup of tea from one end of the year to the other because they have catering staff in their homes and can use jets for social and other occasions. They are not comparable so we should not do so.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan: We could make an amendment.

The Taoiseach: It would be interesting to write an article comparing them.

Deputy Finian McGrath: Would the Deputy vote for it?

The Taoiseach: It would not be hard for a member of the media to write a glowing article about how poverty-stricken we are compared to other countries.
I suppose I will have to wait for that.
The review body discounted the comparable salaries in the private sector by 15% to reflect the value of public service increases. I would gladly forego the increase to a future date, as happened before, if I believed it would make a whit of difference but it would probably be reported on page 99 of the newspaper.

The reality is that an independent body examined this and came up with an assessment that we decided to phase in over a period. The 2000 agreement is seven years old, so the increase is less than 3% per annum, with the 7.5% paid to us in the interim period in 2005. We have extended it by two years and it was agreed in the report that the next review would be in four years time. There is an 11 year period, therefore, with one increase. Admittedly it is a large increase, I am not arguing that, but it is an 11 year increase of just under 3% over the seven years. That is the position.

Poor man. No butler. No yacht. No summer palace. No opaque tax wheezes. Just 310 grand a year. And having to buy tea for every Jack Billy in the country.

Saturday, November 10, 2007


Thanks to Damien Mulley for this. He send me the link of a grand new site with a grand new idea to initiate a national dig-out day for Bertie, to take place two days after the Budget. Apparently he's going through a hard time politically at the moment and there's nothing that would lift his spirits more than a dig-out this side of Christmas.

The site is and is under construction right now. But if it takes off, it could be made into an annual event!


AT THE end of every Dáil term, I tot up the topics that have come up during Leaders Questions — the two slots every week where Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore ask Bertie Ahern a question without giving him notice.

When he’s in the chamber, Ahern has a large volume in front of him indexed A to Z. It’s a mini Bertie encyclopaedia and contains briefings for every imaginable issue that will come up — from crime, to anti-social behaviour, to finances, to house prices, to stamp duty, to nuclear power; to class sizes; to the Taoiseach’s pay; to the bill for Bertie’s make-up.

Yes, these days the Taoiseach is high maintenance. So high maintenance that you sometimes feel that he may have crossed the Rubicon and is now more Charvet shirt than St Bernard anorak. On that subject, let us digress for a second. He was at it again on Thursday, trying to justify his huge pay hike while telling ordinary workers that wage restraint was the order of the day. And when asked to justify his own €38,000 rise, he trotted out the same excuse that it was an independent body and that he hadn’t got a turnip for seven long years (if you forget the nice little interim award of 7.5% they got two years ago). And who wrote the independent body’s terms of reference? Erm, oh yes, the Government.

And so when they met the social partners on Thursday, we had utterly hypocritical posturing from him and from Brian Cowen — the wealthy who have just become even wealthier telling the poor why they must stay poor.

Now back from that side alley onto the main drag of Leaders Questions.

The issue that floats to the top term after term, year after year, is health. It comes up in different guises. You can be sure of one thing. The opposition will always use the word “crisis” and “scandal”. Ahern in his reply will always compare the amount of money his Government have spent on health compared to the Rainbow who preceded it. It is hard to clearly identify when the Rainbow last ruled.

Mediaeval historians place the last signs of that particular civilisation sometime towards the end of the 20th century but we can’t be sure. But it’s still the default comparison for the Taoiseach when unleashing a drizzle of statistic.

Traditionally, Ahern has responded to the barbs of the opposition in a very clever way. He will know that they have offered him a choice of questions so he’ll chose the ones that most suit. He will read out verbatim the brief written for him by a civil servant.

If there’s explaining to do, he will do it but in that unique smokes and daggers way of his that makes everything as clear as mud. And he will deliver it in that reasonable, sotto voce tone of his. It’s not pretty on the ear but it’s deft and has served him well.

There’s been a theory doing the rounds of Leinster House for the last couple of months, however, that his demeanour has changed, has hardened, that he has become arrogant and aloof. He has won his third election now and doesn’t care any more. There’s nothing more to prove electorally. All that matters is retaining the loyalty of his party, to hang on until it’s time to go.

Tony Blair underwent such a transformation in his third term. He changed from the politician who was eager to please everybody to the one who realised that wasn’t possible.

Since May, there’s been little evidence of the famous anorak. The arrogance began in the RTÉ studios on the night of victory and is still evident. Little niggling things are being said about him that were not said before — that he is obsessed with money and wealth; that he has become imperious; that he increasingly out of touch with real people.

He was certainly damaged during the Tribunal and he badly dropped the ball over provisional licences. His defence of the pay rise was indefensible. But the thing that really bolstered the notion for me was his performance at Leaders Questions on Wednesday.

Now maybe Eamon Gilmore provoked him by mentioning the unmentionables, Doctors John Crown and Maurice Neligan. What stood out from his response was his attack on the two medics and his jibe that one of them made more money than him. What had that to do with women who have just learned the horror of a misdiagnosis? There was no empathy. It was somebody else’s fault; not his.

In the past, that would not have happened. The apology would have been made within seconds. He has either lost his common touch or has become deeply complacent. Bertie’s become high maintenance with all the attitude to go with it.

This is my column from this morning's Irish Examiner

Wednesday, November 07, 2007


Bertie Ahern had a pretty torrid day in the Dáil today. His response to the scandal of the misdiagnosed cancer tests in Portlaoise was to accept zero responsibility, say he was not responsible for 120,000 workers in the Health services and take a couple of swipes at consultants who he said were paid even more money than he was.
He made a couple of decent points that strongly suggested human error rather than systems error and improvements in oncology services generally.
But his difficult was that the bitterness swelled up to swamp everything.
Still, it wasn't quite as embarrassing for him as this video of Gordon Brown (Carl O'Brien alerted me to it today)
For those of a sensitive disposition, it's not an edifying sight!

Tuesday, November 06, 2007


I thought it was only me banging on about the unconscionable pay rise paid to the State's top brass, who have now established themselves as fully-fledged members of the new 'landed classes'.

But it's what we call in the newspaper game as a story with legs. It just won't go away. Two Ministers came out and sounded windy about it at the weekend. And yesterday Bertie Ahern tried to put paid to the dispute with an amazing display of verbal gymnastics - it was all "smokes and daggers" he declared in a classic Bertieism.

But there's been a dishonesty to the way the Government has responded to the criticism. They say it's the first award in seven years. It isn't. An interim award worth7.5& was made two years ago. So the c 15% that Ahern and Cowen and all got was on top of 7.5% they got two years ago.

And the utterly misleading impression was given too that it was the first pay rise they have got in seven years. TDs and Ministers have got EVERY pay rise that's been going, all the national pay awards, benchmarking the lot.

Richard Bruton pointed out yesterday that Bertie Ahern's income has risen by 50% in the past four years (and as a point of fact, it has risen 133% since he came into office). And don't get me started on pensions. The pension bill for the public service is going to screw all other taxpayers by the middle of this century.

I was on Matt Cooper's The Last Word on Today FM with Richard Bruton of Fine Gael. Matt pressed Richard to say what an appropriate salary level for the Taoiseach should be. He refused to go there. But I'll posit a figure - €200,000 would be extremely generous and relatively non controversial.

And that figure should also apply to top civil servants, judiciary, the gardai and the lot. What's happened to the notion of public service? It's all about money nowadays. Greed is poisoning our society.


I have just come across the video in which various senior ministers justify why they are now worth €240,000 a year.

Monday, November 05, 2007


Bertie Ahern was doorstepped asbout this today and was totally unrepentant.
Pay rise was wholly justified was this theme.

In his eyes, the only thing that was jarring was the fact that it was seven years and that made it seem big in the eyes of the public. So in future, he would like to see it every three years so the increases won't be seen to be too gargantuan.

By the way, he forgot to mention that there was an interim award of 7.5% two years ago.

Or that if the Dept of Finance hadn't insisted on a reduction in pay award because of gold-plated pension, his increase would have havee 30% or over E70,000.

Oh and he threw in a Bertieism for good measure. When asked would he defer it, he said no, explaining it in these terms:

"They're really only playing smokes and daggers with it."

This isn't a conventional pay rise by the way.

This is a review by mostly wealthy business people that determines whether our public fat cats are keeping pace with the private sector fat cats.
The fact is that in a period of a decade Bertie Ahern's salary has increased by 133%.
That is a fact.

Greed, after all, is good.


Is it going to be payback time, literally? Bertie Ahern doesn't want to forfeit the extra 38 grand. But a couple of Ministers have been sounding a little peevish and watery about getting another massive rake of cash on top of all the perks, money and extras they have got over recent years.

And it's not just the politicians. It's the entire top brass.Secretaries General (Grade 1) of Government Department will all be getting €303,000, as will Supreme Court Judges, CEOs of semi states, with a whole second tier of judges, technocrats, Semi State bods, university heads getting humongous wage levels. The plain truth is that we are more prosperous now but STILL a small country, and such largess is unjustified. An independent body it may technically be but it is composed mostly of very wealthy people from the private sector - there is one workers' representative from the Labour Court. For them big six figure salaries are (excuse the mixed metaphor) ten a penny.

And what's galling is that they are all entitled to gold-plated pensions that are inured to the winds of change. And secretary generals will also be entitled to bonuses up to 20% of their salaries for 'exceptional' performance, whatever that is. And will they get docked pay for making a blunder or for under-perforimg? Umm, I thing we have a negative on that one!

Eamon Ryan didn't do well this morning under a fusillade of questions from Cathal Mac Coille on Morning Ireland (hear the interview here). And the rumour is that the Cabinet is now going to indulge in a bit of tokenism and defer the pay rise for a couple of months, and then reintroduce it when the furore has died down.

Sadly, I wouldn't expect any of the opposition parties to do any better. The greed at the top reflects wider society. Who's going to protest about it? No politician will, that's for sure! Who else? The vested interests involved are the most powerful in the country! Who has the will and the wherewithal to do it? Anybody who has is going to be way outside the golden circle.

There are sectors in Irish society where salaries are vastly inflated. Executive pay in business is crass. Barristers and consultants at the top of their professions command obscene fees that are grotesquely out of proportion with Ireland's size and position in the world (for reference, return to home truth speech made by the German Ambassador to Ireland). And no matter how consultants try to dress it up, one of their number did described a €200,000 plus salary as "Mickey Mouse money".

I'll just finish by quoting two paragraphs from Polly Toynbee's excellent column in the Guardian last Tuesday on pay profligacy (being Toynbee, they are two very long paragraphs!.

Out of control top pay in the private sector should matter to the Treasury because it infects the public sector. Why is the cabinet secretary now paid considerably more (£220,000) than the prime minister (£187,000)? It's a plum prestige job that needs no bribery, and leads to rich jobs afterwards. Does the chief executive of Bradford need more than the PM? Bringing private sector people in now infects public pay scales, as lower ranking arrivals on £300,000 report to permanent secretaries on £170,000. (However there is plainly a rare genuine market for head of the nuclear decommissioning authority: no one applied for this toxic chalice at £80,000 so it's now been advertised at £200,000). But being director general of the BBC is not toxic: everyone wants it, so why pay a total package of £788,000 - let alone cabinet minister rates for scores of middling BBC managers? (And couldn't they take a pay cut in sympathy with those about to lose their jobs?) Sir John Bourn's downfall is a classic example of how private excess makes public people lose their financial bearings.
For Labour to refuse to give any leadership on this is an incomprehensible lacuna: the national psychology of pay affects everyone. Yesterday the government set up a new child poverty unit: Ed Balls and Peter Hain, the two ministers involved, know their 2010 half-way mark to abolishing child poverty will be missed by miles on its present trajectory. Barnardo's are joining in - but their director, Martin Narey, wonders what they can do with no extra money. Only 48p a week extra went to child tax credits this year, subsidising low-paid jobs. The bigger question is this: how can Labour ever abolish child poverty if they dare not face down the underlying forces fracturing pay scales all the way through and accelerating the country into ever greater inequality?

The selfsame argument can be made in Ireland.

Saturday, November 03, 2007


The latest opinion poll tells us that Fianna Fail is on the way out and if we are patient enough to wait out the other 1,500 days between now and the next General Election, we can collectively wave them goodbye.

In one sense, the findings of the TNS mrbi opionion poll are meaningless in the greater scheme of things. We're all still descending to base camp after the tough high altitude exertions of the elecyion – it will be next year before we will see the ambition expeditions towards the next electoral Everest begin.
But having said that, the result is very illustrative of the internal dynamics within Fianna Fail and the party's complacency and mediocrity since the Summer.

Since forging its very cute and very clever deal with the Greens, the PDs and the four independent TDs, Fianna Fail's leadership has spent the last couple of months doing what it's become good at (making sure that it feathers its own
nest) and doing what it's become bad at (looking after the rest of us).

It has to be said that the timing of this poll could not have been worse for Fianna Fail. The sampling was taken in the immediate wake of the cringe- inducing reverse over provisional driving licences and a couple of days after they accepted Biblical pay hikes for themselves and the top brass of the civil service, universities, local authorities, army, gardai and the judiciary.

It also came a week after another farce, the Department of Transport report about who knew what about Shannon losing its Heathrow slots and why Noel Dempsey was the last to find out. And On top of all that, Bertie Ahern's remarkable filmic tale at the Mahon Tribunal encompassing amnesia and his experience with international money markets was still fresh
enough in some people's minds to be reflected in this poll.

There's no doubt about it, it's a stinker of a poll for Fianna Fail and for Ahern himself.

When it comes to pinpoint accuracy, opinion polls have the same record as the Limerick hurling team in the All Ireland final. The three per cent margin of error, plus or minus, is too often ignored by the media. So a party showing 12 per cent could be on 9, and equally could be on 15. So
they're not good at picking up small shifts in support for smaller parties.

The corollary of this is that polls are good at reflecting large shifts of support (ie outside the margin of error) for the larger parties. And so we can take it that nobody in Fianna Fail can quibble with its monumental nine per cent drop in support.

Nor can Bertie Ahern. His stock has fallen dramatically. What is unclear is whether this is a one-off (an immediate reaction to a dismal week for FF) or whether the Teflon coating on his Anorak is finally beginning to wear thin. My own
inclination is that that massive pedestal on which we put this remarkable political animal is finally beginning to totter and topple.

A couple of people said to me: what difference does it make? Sure, won't he be hanging up the Anorak at the next election? It makes a big difference. Ahern wants to stay on until he decides to go. And he has given no indication so far it's going to be earlier than 2011, even though most others within FF are thinking of 2009 (and before the European and local

So, if the figures for FF continue to slump at its core support figure of the low thirties and if Ahern's own popularity fails to recover, you will begin to hear sounds from the FF committee rooms not heard for many a year – the nervous shuffling
of feet and the sharpening of long knives.

A lot of FFers believe that the Irish Times is out to get them. Their paranoia won't be alleviated by the inclusion of Tánaiste Brian Cowen among the leaders for the first time.
One of their backroom people told me Thursday night that he believed Cowen was included deliberately to make Ahern look bad. I think the reason for his inclusion was simpler – he is, after all, the anointed one.

But his popular showing of 49% compared to 43% for his leader will have a ripple effect within FF – and may see some of Cowen's supporters (who are more impatient for
the big prize than he is) begin to make subtle moves nudging him in that direction.

I'd love to think that the poll was a reaction to the disgraceful pay rises the top brass got last week. It wasn't solely that. People expect politicians to do that – that storm was only a one day blow. I really believe the pay rises to politicians, higher civil servants, and other high-ranking state employees was an affront to democracy. Ahern said there was no review in seven years. In fact the body awarded an interim increase of 7.5% two years ago. And Ministers and
TDs like Ahern, Cowen and company have benefited from every single national award and benchmarking award over the past seven years. And the body is independent but for most of its world-of- business membership, big six figure
salaries are par for the course.

Have politicians made one personal sacrifice over the past decade? No. The new class that has grown up to run our
State and its institutions has become self-perpetuating - looking after its own interests first and foremost.

Friday, November 02, 2007


This is an article I wrote for this morning's Examiner. The Green's chief spokesperson took issue with it and made a fair point (which I partly agree with) that the article was too cyncial and lacked historical perspective (I didn't sufficiently recognise the Gulliver-like leap that FF agreement and Cabinet commitment to this legislation means).
Anyway here it is...

To understand how big the Green Party’s change of tack on same sex marriage was this week, we have to go back to what Marx said about principles.
“Those are my principles, and if you don't like them... well, I have others.”
Ok, we are being very cynical here. It was the slightly less heavyweight Marx, Groucho, who made the above comment.
But it was clear from the debate in the Dáil about same sex partnership this week that pragmatism won out over principle for the Green Party.
It is understandable. In Government, they have six TDs compared to 78 for Fianna Fail. And all of the usual drawbacks of being a minor coalition partner apply. You can only punch so much above your weight. You are not going to win every battle. You have to choose your moment. Compromise is the name of the game. Sometimes you have to swallow hard.
And the Greens have taken a couple of big hits – as they and we always knew they would – since they entered coalition with Fianna Fail and the PDs earlier this year. They had to bow to the vast strength of FF when it came to road-building; to the M3; to the Rossport terminal; and to incineration (though John Gormley is trying to fight a fierce rearguard battle that may or may not prevent Poolbeg from being built).
The light wouldn’t need to be glowing too brightly in the attic to realise that a very liberal party like the Greens would find it difficult to argue for legislation (and constitutional change) that would put same sex unions on a par with marriage. The broad brush of opinion within FF would consider that a step (and think of a step taken by Gulliver) too far. It was never going to happen.
The Greens managed to get a commitment into the Programme for Government on same sex unions. But that was for civil partnership. And that doesn’t stack up to marriage. It’s more to do with recognising succession rights, social welfare rights, tax arrangement and arrangements when such unions come to an end. This more minimalist approach fell short of the full equality sought by the partner.
Realpolitik dictated that this was going to be the case, that a compromise would e cobbled together.
Sure, they would take a hit. But that’s the nature of being a coalition partner.
But the optics of what happened this week was that the Greens panicked and walked straight into a neat ambush prepared by the Labour Party.
The party’s constitution spokesperson Brendan Howlin this week used his party’s private members time to table a Civil Union Bill, which ostensibly gave gay couples the right to solemnise the relationship, to put them on a distinct but equal footing with heterosexual marriage.
The huge political difficulty for the Greens was that Howlin was merely retabling a motion which he first introduced in the Dáil last February.
And then, the Greens were unstinting in their praise and admiration for Deputy Howlin’s Bill. Its justice spokesperson Ciarán Cuffe compared it to Rosa Louise Parks’s refusal to give up her seat on a bus to a white man 50 years ago.
At the time, he said: “To relegate same-sex couples to some marriage-like institution is to deny them their human rights, dignity and rights as citizens of the State. We would like to introduce legislation that would go further and permit the removal of all gender specific terms from current legislation and regulations governing the granting of marriages.
“This would allow same sex couples to enjoy the equivalent rights and responsibilities of marriage afforded to heterosexual couples, should they so chose.”
And there was more: He said the Constitution was stuck in the sleepy backwaters of the 1940s, and does not recognise families other than those based on marriage.
Tactically, it was a smart move for Labour to re-table the motion as it was sure to embarrass the Greens. To employ a Healy-Raeism there wasn’t a chance in the wide earthly worlds that FF were going to buy into it.
If the answers were gay marriage and a constitutional referendum, the question had to be: “What would FF not go anywhere near in a month of Sundays.”
And politically, the optics were bad for the Greens this week. Instead of taking the flak full in the face (everybody expects that they would have to do that over the issue) we got promise of a new Civil Partnership Bill that seemed to have been hastily cobbled together.
Green Party leader John Gormley and Justice Minister Brian Lenihan appeared with little warning in the political correspondents’ room in Leinster House to announce they would be legislating for civil partnership.
But two words came to mind about their counter-motion. The first was ‘back’; the second was ‘envelope’. There were no written proposals. There was a couple of nebulous references to adopting recommendations of groups like Colley, an Oireachtas committee and the Law Reform Commission. And there was a promise that the heads, or scheme, of the Bill would be published next March.
It all had a rushed feel to it. And because of that, it made the contrast between the relatively feeble measures it contained and the brave words of Ciaran Cuffe last February all the more glaring.
The Green Party accepted Lenihan’s argument that the Labour Bill would be open to constitutional challenge. But in accepted there would be no legislation for same sex marriage and no prospect of a constitutional referendum.
Ciaran Cuffe gamely went on Morning Ireland and – in his scrupulously honest way – conceded that what was on offer was less than he desired.
“There is a difference between proposing while in opposition and enacting while in Government,” he said.
But still, Gormley’s comments that it was a historic decision seem a little hollow. The Greens seemed to be reacting rather than leading the charge – and they will need to do far more of the latter if they are to survive their coalition with the wiliest and slickest operators in Irish politics.


Some weeks you find yourself scratching around for fodder for the weekend column. Mostly it goes something like this: what the hell am I going to write about this week? Should I gratuitously attack The Anorak for no good reason again (that's a joke by the way)or do another organ-grind of my favourite gripe that there are too many of them; that they're all over-paid; and that as our State has evolved, their main function has increasingly become to look after their own interests. There's an actual committee (chairman gets paid an extra 20 grand) called 'Members' Interests'. That for me says it all!

But not this week, like manna from Heaven, like the fatted calf for the prodigal son, like the loaves and the fish, the Irish Times opinion poll landed on our laps this morning.

Sure, there are only 1,500 shopping days or so until the Next Election. But this was telling in its own way.

The figures have been parsed elsewhere this morning (see the Irish Times main article here) Polls are crude instruments of measure at the best of times. What they are very good at doing though is recording big falls and big rises of support for the main parties.
So the rises for Fine Gael (+4) and Labour (+5) are significant as is the whopping nine point drop for FF.

The reasons for this: the debacle over provisional driving licences; the cynical pay rises they all accepted last week; and a first public verdict on Bertie Ahern's extraordinary account of his dabblings in international monetary exchanges.

The most interesting thing is that Ahern's own stock has fallen sharply. And what complicates this is that the Times decided to include the anointed one, Brian Cowen, in among the leaders for the first time. I spoke to a FF insider for whom I have a lot of respect last night who said that he was suspicious of the Times's motives in including Cowen and that it was deliberately throwing a cat among the pigeons.

But that's not really fair. Cowen is widely accepted as the heir to the throne and it's always good to get the public verdict on his performance.

The Greens? Holding up. Gormley will will be happy with his rating. 5% is what they got in the election. Their support rose up to near 10% on a couple of occasions but ultimately that was meaningless.

Thursday, November 01, 2007


Well, as the saying goes, you say tomato, I say total and abject capitulation.

Us political hacks were roused out of mid-afternoon somnolence yesterday to be told that John Gormley and Brian Lenihan would be over to brief us on something significant.

And what was it? A new proposal to legislate for civil partnerships.

If you weren't as hard bitten and cynical as us, you would say: great. That's a fantastic breakthrough.

But there's a fly in the ointment!

And it's this:

Last February, the Labour Party tabled a Bill that would make civil unions between homosexual couples legal.

The Green Party enthusiastically endorsed it, with its justice spokesperson Ciaran Cuffe backing it to the hilt (listen to Cuffe's interview on Morning Ireland here)

In fairness to them the Greens also got a commitment into the Programme for Government. But the more hesitant FFers insisted that the phraseology be civil partnership rather than civil union.

The difference is important. A civil partnership can never be considered the equivalent of gay marriage - it will never be on a part with heterosexual marriage will will retain its preeminence in the Constitution.

Civil partnership is certainly a massive improvement on what we have at present. It will allow the legal rights of partners to be recognised by law (including succession rights and a possible share of assets). Forms of life partnerships other than homosexual ones will also be recognised.

But the manner in which it was all rushed through last night smacked of a little panic (though Green handlers were blue in the face last night saying that the party's programme manager Donal Geoghegan has been working on it since last September).

Tactically, it was a clever little move by the Labour Party. By retabling a motion that the Greens backed so solidly last February, they were calling the junior coalition party's bluff.

Would the Greens have to vote against a Bill they backed only last February and face more embarrassing taunts of sell-out and capitulation?

Did they have any choice but to pressure the senior partners to come up with something that would give them comfort?

The Government's own proposals (yep, they have been working on it since last September) were delivered orally by Brian Lenihan and John Gormley and were so vague that two words came to mind. One was 'back'. The other was 'envelope'. Heads of Bill by next March. Legislation by the end of this term. Proposals saying they would take account of the plethora of reports that have been produced in recent years.

All it was was a reiteration of the Programme for Government commitment with a couple of bells and whistles.

You need to be careful about the optics. This will be perceived as a reactive measure rather than something they came out with themselves. The Greens can't always be responding. They need to begin to assert their own agendas.

Otherwise it's going to pan out as a series of ass-saving exercises.