Monday, July 14, 2008

Sarky Sarko

Way back in early 2000 Brian Cowen was made Minister for Foreign Affairs. I was editing Magill at the time and wrote a long profile, with Damian Corless, about Cowen (yep, Fianna Fail’s dauphin as the French might say).

A friend of his, a sharp-witted Labour politician, mocked him kindly. In a general comment about his social habit and dress sense, he said, yes, there have been times when Brian has spoken in the Dáil sporting a tie that had been dipped in a pint of porter the night before.

There was a bit of metropolitan snobbishness about Biffo, the original bruiser politician from Offaly, moving to Iveagh House and doing the round of formal dinners, good wines and Ferrero Rocher. There was no need to worry. Cowen was absorbed into Foreign Affairs more thoroughly than the Norman who invaded Ireland who later became ‘níos Gaelaí ná na Gaeil féin’. He went native.

It will be strange to see Cowen alongside the ultra-sophisticated Nicholas Sarkozy at the Bastille Day celebrations in France today. That’s because we still haven’t got used to him in the statesman role. But then it took a while for us to get used to Bertie in that role too.

Sure, there’s no such thing as a shallow end when you become Taoiseach (please refer to Lisbon and to the economic downturn). But there’s still a buffer period. With the exception of the Sunday Independent, most others have bided their time. The first serious assessment of a new leader or new government is made once the psychological landmark of the first 100 days has been reached. Cowen still has some 40 days to go to reach that mark, but already you can hear pencils being sharpened.

For all that, it’s still too early to see how Cowen will disport himself on the international stage. One aspect of commentary over Lisbon that has has been the recurring theme that our EU partners are angry with us, or are in a huff with us, or now want to punish us for our ingratitude. What’s perplexing about it is the acceptance that they are right and we are in the wrong for rejecting the referendum.

In other words, will Sarko be sarky about it all?

Well, there’s been no evidence to support that. We were the only EU member state that was constitutionally obliged to hold a referendum. And what people were being asked to accept was an imperfect, complicated, rambling hard-to-follow proposition, which dealt with a multitude of often disconnected issues, a lot of which were dealing with back office functions. Sure, the net effect of it was, on the whole, benefecial but…

It was the constitution cobbled into a treaty, or mutton dressed as lamb.

The rejection of it should not be accepted by Irish people or the media as a source of shame, or that we are ingrates who bit the hand that fed.

In fairness to Cowen he has not got into the mode of blaming the population for their stupidity. He has recognised that the failure in selling the treaty was more complex than that.

And Sarkozy, of all European politicians, understands the many - and sometimes contradicttory - motivations behind the vote, having gone through the same process in France three years ago.

Did the treaty attempt to do too many things, thus sewing confusion into the minds of people? Any EU Treaty will, by definition, have implications for a country’s sovereignty. Rather than making the self-defeating argument that there will be no change, should not the pro-treaty people say, yes it will bring about all these change, but, hey! those changes will be for the good? We need a Europe that is fit for purpose when biffing it out with the Yanks, the Chinese, the Russians, the Indians and the new South American powers like Brazile.

A kind of revolution in terms of thinking is needed. It’s called selling the treaty for what it is. And as for the other revolution… Happy Bastille Day.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Summer Holidays

Check this out also at The Irish Times site

It must be terribly hard for TDs and Senators. Being bundled like that out of the public eye for the whole summer. We all felt so sorry for them yesterday, to see them look so obviously glum and heavy-hearted as they nosed their BMWs out of the gates of Leinster House and headed off for ten weeks of idleness. They will be deprived of work and will have nothing to do to occupy thier time between now and September 24. It’s a hard station, we know. But (deep mournful intake of breath) it’s the life they have chosen.

My own first week working as a specialist political journalist was in August 2003. Arriving to work in Leinster House was like a GAA correspondent being assigned to Croke Park the Tuesday after an All Ireland football final. The political atmosphere was as spent as the PDs. We still had a paper to fill. It was thankless. Scrounging around for stories. Hoping that the odd TD playing golf at Playa de Nouveau Riche or at their Atlantic-hugging holiday home might have bothered to leave their mobiles on.

That autumn and the following spring a couple of the parties produced very impressive policy papers calling for Oireachtas reform. In the Senate, Mary O’Rourke was driving an all-party initiative to refrom that often entertaining, hugely interesting, but ultimately next-to-useless talking shop, the Seanad. It was great. And they kept on coming, the reform papers, throughout the period of the 29th Dáil. And how lovely they looked on the shelves. The same shelves already piled high with reform proposals for the 28th and the 27th and 26th Dáil…. ad infinitum.

Look at the Programme for Government. Look at the promises (included, the Greens say, at their insistence) to reform the Seanad and the Dáil. Note that a year has passed. Note that four years remain. Note that almost the exactly same promises will be contained in the next Programme for Government, for the 32st Dail whenever that might be.

This is not cynicism. It’s just stating a reality. A long time ago a Fine Gael TD Alice Glenn said that getting political parties to reduce the number of TDs and Senators would be like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas. The first instinct of the political class is self-preservation. It is undeniable that the life is precarious. But the buffer zone they have created for itself is breath-takingly impressive. The Dáil sat for a total of 94 days in the 2007-2008 period. That total of sitting days has stayed unforgibably low (93 days in 2005; 96 in 2006 and 74 in the election year of 2007) despite promises each year to increase them. The House of Commons sits an average of 130 days each year. The US Congress is in session 160 days a year, almost twice as much as the Dáil. By the way, the Seanad sat on only 86 days in this political year.

The Oireachtas is also the legislature. A paltry total of 25 Bills have been passed since the Government returned a year ago. And some of these were standard bills that crop up every year like the Finance Bill, the Social Welfare Bill and the Motor Vehicle Duties Bill, all which give effect to budgetary changes. Some were necessary to give statutory effect in Ireland to European directives. Two of the bills corrected legal flaws in earlier bills. So we had the law-makers come up with a desolatory handfull of bills this year - the Immigration Bill, the Dublin Transportation Authority Bill, the Intoxicating Liquer Bill.

We don’t need to go into pay and expenses but the average basic salary for a TD is now well over €100,000. We have a total of 35 minister, 166 TDs and 60 Senators, pro rata way way more than any of our EU counterarts. And there are only two established Government backbenchers (Ned O’Keeffe and Jim McDaid) who don’t get some extra stipend for chairing or whipping committees.

Oh sorry, the committees sit during the summer, we are told. Erm, most of them will sit once, if that. That means that members (and they don’t all show up) have to come in one or two days during the summer just to show Joe Punter out there that it’s still ticking over, that the show is on the road.

Recession? What recession?

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Seamus Brennan

I have resumed blogging within the new Irish Times site and will be duplicating those blogs here. It's strange returning to instant journalism (churnalism as Nick Davies would have it) after an absence of several months. The first post marks a sad occasion - the passing of Seamus Brennan.

Here it is:

Seamus Brennan came up with one of the best summations for Bertie Ahern, when Ahern was Fianna Fail chief whip at a time the party was riven by splits and sulphorous enmities.

"As chief whip, Bertie Ahern learned to come down the white line and take both sides of the street with him. I don't know how he got away with it."

In many ways, it could serve as an epitaph for Brennan himself. He was universally popular with political friend and foe alike in Leinster House and that innate likeability served him well as a very effective chief whip and capable minister. He radiated calm too - even in the deepest of crises. There was no better politician to go in and fix a problem or appear in the media to becalm a storm.

But unlike Bertie - who was a man for all seasons - Brennan had a very distinct ideological core. He and Charlie McCreevy were seen as the two senior politicians within the party who were Fianna Fail by nature but PD by instinct. Besides his much-publicised decision from the 1980s to open up the aviation market, Brennnan had big privatisation plans when Minister for Transport for Dublin Bus, the airports, Iarnrod Eireann and Bus Eireann.

"We need to get a bit of jizz into the market," was his mantra, delivered in the flat Galway city accent that never deserted him despite living in Dublin for over half his life.

Jizz was the word I always associated with Brennan. Jizz just pinged off him, if you excuse the slang. His optimism and positive attitude were always present. He was crestfallen when he was moved from transport into Social and Family Affairs. But despite going from a Peedee style free-market department to an old-fashion Fianna Fail 'socialist' department, he quickly adapted to the changed circumstances.

Once he got over his initial disappointment, he couldn't ignore his own nature and took to what some considered an atypical Brennan portfolio with typical gusto. Journalists loved him because he could always provide an instantaneous announcement or yarn. He used to do a carousel of interviews with politcal journalists at Christmas. Each would come away with at least a dozen stories on initatives and new projects. Problem was that every other journalist had also got the same 'exclusive'. And more often than not the brilliant idea or scheme did not have the stayability to survive lits appearance under banner headlines in print.




He was never cynical about it. Media savvy sure. But there was a bit of wish-fulfillment to it as well, even though he knew that only a fraction of it would become real.

I remember doing an interview with him when I worked in the Connacht Tribune where he said his political dream was to arrive back in Galwayin an open-topped car like John F Kennedy did as Taoiseach. He never achieved that ambition and knew from mid-career that it would not be.

The Kennedy reference was unsurprising. He was enamoured by US Politics. He travelled there in 1976 for the Presidential campaign and saw at first hand the slick marketing and, yes, jizz of the Jimmy Carter campaign. Then a youthful general secretary of Fianna Fail - and a loyal acolyte of Jack Lynch - Brennan imported many of those tricks to the Fianna Fail campaign in 1977 that saw the party score a landslide victory, unprecedetned before or since. He never lost his interest in the US political system.

He was a stayer too. He was one of the Gang of 22 who opposed Haughey but still became a minister under him. He might have started off as outside the inner circle but he had an uncanny ability to make himself indispensable. He did the same trick with Albert Reynolds. And with Bertie Ahern. During the autumn reshuffle of 2004, Brennan had to fight a mighty rearguard battle to retain his place in Cabinet. He did not conceal his disappointment at losing Transport then but soon bounced back. In the run-up to last year's elections, there was a lot of speculation that Brennan would go if FF were returned to power. But because of his past dealings with the Greens (as chief whip) he became part of the negotiating team and was instrumental in brokering the deal for the new coalition. It would have been seen as an act of political churlishness by Ahern if Brennan had been dropped. Even this year, when his health was deteriorating, he still displayed the same ambition and appetitite, though it was becoming more evident that this was a battle that he could not win.

Brian Cowen mentioned this morning that his colleague had come out to meet and greeet him at the Dundrum centre when he and Eamon Gilmore did a joint canvass during the Lisbon campaign. He was clearly ill but made little of it. I met him that day. He was characteristically upbeat and positive and, as s always asked me, a fellow Galwegian, how things were in Salthill and Glenard and Devon Park. As I write this my email inbox is clogged with tributes to him. A man who was able to go down the white line and take both sides of the street with him. He will be genuinely missed. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a h-anam.