Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Best hope for Conservatives lie with early election

Photo: Wikipedia

In a recent article for The Guardian, Phillip Inman wrote that most of Britain’s ‘over 50’s’ have a fear of Jeremy Corbyn becoming prime minister. This cohort of voters, Inman says, are much more concerned with economic wellbeing and the best hopes – for these people – of maintaining this wellbeing lie with the Conservatives remaining in power, despite Mrs May’s chaotic administration. Furthermore, Inman states, if we zoom up to the over 70’s the vast majority are solidly in favour of the Tories. This is, frankly, not very revealing. I used to joke that the sound of creaking bones could be heard at Tory Party conferences before the clapping began. It is no secret that the vast bulk of elderly voters would be more amenable to voting Conservative than Labour at a general election.

At the present time this can be of little comfort to Britain’s governing party. One doesn’t have to be an expert to know that Mrs May and her cabinet are up to their necks in pressure. But one fact remains in their favour. Economic competence has always been the Tories’ strong point and correspondingly it proves a weakness for Labour, who are more at ease campaigning on public services and social issues. As the writer John O’Farrell once put it, ‘the Conservatives know the price of everything yet the value of nothing’. If a general election were held right now it is likely that Labour would win it, but most probably with a slender majority. This would bring Mr Corbyn into Downing Street although not in the style of a Thatcher or a Blair victory.

A Labour government is not what the Conservatives would like, but for them a small majority might be better than a thumping great one. Mr Corbyn might struggle with the former, but with the latter he could be allowed enough room to push his agenda more firmly. This is no doubt terrifying the Tories with negative anticipation. The picture, however blurred it is, is becoming a bit clearer. If the present government remain in office and play the long game they risk bringing their economic competence into question.

On the other hand, if Mrs May – or her successor – calls a general election within the next year or so, this could give the Tories their best chance to frustrate Labour. An early election is, I am convinced, the best hope the Conservatives have right now. There is a strong likelihood that they’ll lose, but they could make life difficult for Mr Corbyn if the election is held sooner rather than later. The longer it takes them to call the poll the greater damage that they will inflict on themselves. The clock is ticking, as Michel Barnier is fond of reminding us.

Forty years ago, James Callaghan (the then Labour prime minister) struggled to maintain the credibility of his government against an emerging and strong Margaret Thatcher and her party. Within a year or so Mrs Thatcher had got her bandy legs into Downing Street and was pushing her radical agenda on a then unwitting public. Times change and HISTORY DOES NOT REPEAT ITSELF, but I feel a similar fate to that of Mr Callaghan awaits Mrs May.

It is almost impossible to see where any momentum is going to come from to save the Conservatives. The hallmark of the May era has been a litany of soundbites and cleverly crafted speeches and platitudes yet with little in the way of solid action to back up the words and good intentions. Lessons must be learned from the catalogue of mistakes that this government and others have made. Politics must be about lowering expectations and not building up people’s hopes. Perhaps Mr Corbyn might better fill this massive void if he were fortunate enough to be allowed serve as prime minister.

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Will 2018 see politics maturing in Ireland?

Photo: The Irish Times
This week's announcement that Mary Lou McDonald will now officially succeed Gerry Adams as Sinn Fein president signifies that 2018 is set to be another defining year in Irish politics. Will Ms McDonald solidify her party's vote North and South? Will Sinn Fein enter government in the Republic under her leadership? What direction will she take them towards in the coming years (assuming she's afforded the time)? Will the national question remain in their focus or will it slip down the agenda? These, and perhaps many others,  are questions that can only be answered through the passage of time, but there's no doubting the strong base of support that the party enjoys throughout the island. They will continue to play a role in Irish politics for many years to come.

For Fianna Fail 2018 will be an important year in their political rehabilitation. Last year was not a good one for them and, while it is true that they have come a  long way since their decimation in 2011, Micheal Martin has a lot to do to restore his previously strong record as leader. In recent months he has been somewhat outpaced by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar's largely impressive performance. Although Mr Varadkar lost ground over the resignation of Frances Fitzgerald as Tainaiste and the fall out from that, he has since gone on to recover his credibility and Fine Gael's poll ratings have improved too. The government's stout defence of the national interest against the British government's bungling efforts to assure us of 'no hard border' was positively recieved by many.

On the other hand it has been all up hill for Mr Martin and his colleagues, who are now seeing little action other than having the satisfaction of being able to say that they are keeping the Fine Gael-led minority government in power via their Confidence & Supply agreement. But for how long can Fianna Fail keep up that riff?  I suspect the Fianna Fail grassroots are itching for a general election in the hope of wiping the smile off Mr Varadkar's face. Patience, one senses, is wearing thin with Mr Martin's leadership style and something will have to give. If the chief opposition party leave it too long then they may hand the advantage to Fine Gael and the latter could end up boosting their numbers after a poll is held, only prolonging the agony for their opponents.


A referendum has been proposed for later this year on Ireland's abortion laws. No other issue divides society here as much and trenchent positions have been taken on both sides in the past. In recent months efforts have been made by politicians (and also through the Citizens Assembly) to try to take some of the heat out of the debate. Fianna Fail have proposed a free vote among their membership on this issue and, last week, Micheal Martin took a very courageous step in supporting a change in the Constitution (something many in his party are opposed to). In trying to remove politics from what is in essence a social issue, we the people are allowed to judge more clearly for ourselves.

It is to be hoped that this is the first of many such free votes where politicians are able to excercise their conscience on certain issues that come before them. It brings a fresh approach to debating matters which aren't easily slotted into party poltical ideology of one sort or another. This has been happening at Westminster for a good many years now and there is no reason why it shouldn't have already been common practice in Leinster House. Better late than never. The old, shameful, system of expelling a member for voting against the party whip should have been long done away with. Some issues rise above party politics. With some luck 2018 just might see a more mature style of politics blooming in this country and about time too.

Monday, 13 November 2017

Tom Newton Dunn shows his ignorance of Irish politics

Tom Newton Dunn (Photo: The Guardian)

Speaking on the BBC’s Newsnight programme, last Friday, the Journalist Tom Newton Dunn made a startling claim. The Sun’s political editor said if there was a hard border in Ireland – arising from the ‘Brexit’ negotiations – then Fine Gael, in his words, would “lose a shed load of seats” to Sinn Fein. I don’t know what facts Mr Newton Dunn has to back up this absurd claim other than a sketchy idea of Irish politics or maybe he’s just making a guess based on a little local knowledge. But, as my mother often told me, a little knowledge can be a bad thing. No, you must be in full possession of the facts before you go on television making this kind of wild assertion. Once again we are being treated to British ignorance on Irish politics – this time from a London-based journalist! When will they ever learn?

Now to put the facts in perspective for Mr Newton Dunn and for anyone else in doubt: Sinn Fein are, as correctly stated, campaigning (as the party has done since the division of Ireland in 1922) for an end to the border. The ‘Brexit’ debacle has brought this issue back into sharp focus and is now the subject of plenty of debate among nationalists. However to assert that Gerry Adams’ party will overtake Fine Gael – or even become the second largest party in the Dail – is to miss several key points.

Firstly, Sinn Fein’s support base is mainly, if not exclusively, left wing. This places them at a disadvantage. Moreover Fine Gael and Fianna Fail get most of their votes chiefly from middle class voters. This cohort of voters isn’t suddenly going to switch their support to Sinn Fein, a party with questionable economic policies. The second reason that I believe will preclude Sinn Fein from serving in government in the Republic centres around their leadership. Mr Adams’ links – going back decades – to the IRA make his presence toxic to many in Dail Eireann. It is unlikely that either Fine Gael, or Fianna Fail, would go into coalition with Sinn Fein with the current leadership. As stated here before, once Mr Adams leaves the political stage then it is far more likely that others will want to do business with his party. Until then, I believe Sinn Fein will not be in high office in Dublin.

The third reason I think Sinn Fein TD’s will not be sitting around the cabinet table any time soon relates to the party’s obstinate refusal to co-operate. As in Northern Ireland, they are too concerned with their own political ideology to work with others for the greater good. This makes it hard to see them being capable of cutting the kind of deal necessary to form part of an administration (of whatever complexion). Put bluntly, Sinn Fein are not pragmatic enough.  They do not know enough about the art of compromise to work successfully in partnership with others. This is an impediment which they will have to overcome at some point into the future. I believe they will do so eventually, but currently this is not the case.

The eminent commentator Newton Emerson, writing in the Irish Times last week, stated his view that Sinn Fein’s rise in the Republic is being ignored. In his article he correctly pointed out that the latter party attracts a large number of voters under the age of 35. But one swallow doesn’t make a summer. We cannot assume that just because Sinn Fein have advanced in previous Irish general elections that they will do so sufficiently again to reach power. At the general election of 2010 the party made a huge advance. But that was largely at the expense of Fianna Fail. Soft republican voters, who previously backed ‘the Soldiers of Destiny’ were – like many others – disgusted at the economic mess created by Brian Cowen’s government.

However it is critical to understand that in order to advance further in the South Sinn Fein need the support of middle class voters. This, I would strongly argue, will not happen for the reasons I’ve already outlined above. Of the two Newton’s , I feel that Mr Emerson has a better grip on Anglo-Irish politics. As for Mr Newton Dunn, he should stick to commenting on Westminster matters of which he is far better versed. I rest my case.

Friday, 23 June 2017

This Conservative government is hostage to fortune like never before

British prime minister Theresa May on election night 
 (Photo: Sky News)
The results of the recent British general election have plunged the ruling Conservative Party into a crisis of confidence that could ultimately see them lose office.

British Prime Minister Theresa May was – I would argue – right in calling the poll. Where she went wrong was in how the campaign was conducted. The manner and style was not in sync with how the majority of the public were feeling. ‘Strong and stable leadership’ was Mrs May’s mantra but this message failed to connect with the voters. The dementia tax and other harsh social policies in the Conservative manifesto helped draw a picture of an uncaring and tightfisted government led by a robotic prime minister who wasn’t in listening mode. Contrast that with the performance of Jeremy Corbyn. The Labour leader displayed humility and decency where this was absent in his chief opponent.

Many – including this writer – predicted that the Conservatives would win and that Labour would be badly defeated in June’s poll. This didn’t happen, largely because the government failed to prepare sufficiently for the ensuing campaign. The assumption was that voters would return the Tories with a larger majority and that the opposition would be torn asunder.  As we now know the Conservative Party no longer enjoys a majority in the House of Commons and find themselves in a minority position – but still in government – needing the support of some other MP’s (at time of writing the Conservatives are trying to stitch together a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party).

This is not how things were meant to turn out back in April when Mrs May called the vote. It came as a great surprise to me when I first heard that the PM wanted to hold the general election. Everyone was caught off guard - even some cabinet ministers seemed to have no idea of what their leader was planning. The Conservatives seemed to have a big advantage and therefore one couldn’t understand as to why Mrs May had not gone for an election sooner. Everything was perfectly poised when she announced her intentions on the steps of Downing Street. What could possibly go wrong? We were about to find out.

One of the first things that struck me about Mrs May’s announcement was the length of the campaign. A seven week duration seemed far too long. The risks must surely increase the longer a campaign lasts, I thought to myself. Surely the Conservatives, given their commanding position in the polls (some had predicted that Mrs May would return to parliament with a majority of over 100), would have been better off snipping the campaign to three weeks, thus minimising the risk factor? A long campaign, such as the recent one, gives greater opportunity to the opposition, something no governing party should allow.

During the month of May I travelled to Brazil for a family holiday. Before leaving for South America I pondered the election campaign. A terrorist outrage could occur at some point. I shuddered at the thought. Very sadly this awful thought proved true and there were in fact two horrible terrorist attacks before Polling Day. On another day, while driving through the streets of Sao Paulo, my mind was drawn back to the ongoing election campaign back in the UK. What if Mrs May were to have a reversal in fortunes? What if the result gave her a smaller majority than anticipated? I asked myself these questions repeatedly for a few hours and then thankfully my mind went back to more pleasant thoughts.

What I and others failed to realise was that there was a growing resentment among large swathes of the British public at the policies of this Conservative government. The failure of the latter to realise this fact has now put Mrs May and her party in a very difficult position. Not only did they fail to attract votes from Labour supporters but the Tories also lost votes from liberal Conservative supporters. Several Conservative MPs (Anna Soubry and Ken Clarke among them) have criticised the way in which the governing party ran the campaign. The focus should have been on the economy, they have said. Ah yes the economy of which more later.

The results of GE 2017 mean that the Conservative programme of government will have to be cut drastically. The government – and Mrs May – will have to be a good deal more conciliatory in their approach during the upcoming parliament. Any more strident ambitions will have to be forgotten. By the end of the summer the Conservatives will, in all likelihood, have chosen a successor to Mrs May. The vicar’s daughter is now too much of an electoral risk and she will have to be replaced before the Party goes into battle at the next significant poll. The chief candidates to replace her are probably the following: Boris Johnson MP (current Foreign Secretary), Amber Rudd MP (current Home Secretary), David Davis MP (current Secretary for Exiting the EU) and Phillip Hammond MP (current Chancellor of the Exchequer). These are the most likely characters to be in the final running but one cannot rule out a dark horse emerging from elsewhere. Of the names mentioned above I would put my money on Mr Hammond succeeding Mrs May, but for now – of course – that is only an educated guess.

No matter who goes on to lead this minority administration, one senses trouble ahead. A general election – few seem in any doubt – will have to be held sometime within the next two years or so. As history has shown us governments tend to lose – not win – general elections when the economic fundamentals are not positive. The Conservatives badly need some good news on the economic front if they are to regain the advantage at Westminster. One of the few positives for them in this year’s vote is that the electorate still has some level of trust in the Tories’ economic record. This is why they are still in office. But, if for any reason, should this trust be lost and the Conservatives lose control of the economy then the expectation cannot be that Mr Corbyn and John McDonnell (the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer) will take the blame. No, the blame will be apportioned to the incumbents. Now should that kind of scenario emerge, one could very well see a Labour government at Westminster – something no one could have predicted until recently.

All of this is hypothetical. However what is now perfectly clear is that this Conservative government at Westminster will have to overcome hurdles on a weekly, if not a daily, basis. Indeed one gets the distinct impression that the current administration is nearing the end of its days. All governments are hostage to fortune in some way; this has never been truer of the present British government. The future could not be more uncertain.

Friday, 9 June 2017

Tread carefully, Mr Varadkar

                                                           Leo Varadkar (Photo: BBC)

A little over seven years ago, a young Fine Gael TD made some uncharitable comments on the party's former leader, Garret Fitzgerald. In an exchange in the Dail, Leo Varadkar - now the Fine Gael party leader - compared the then taoiseach to Dr Fitzgerald. 'You are no Jack Lynch, no John Bruton, no Sean Lemass', he yelled at Brian Cowen. Mr Varadkar did not mention the Haughey years that brought so much division to the country. No, instead the name of Dr Fitzgerald was uttered by the Fine Gael deputy. 'You are not like those other leaders, but more like Garret Fitzgerald, who tripled the national debt and effectively destroyed the country', he told Mr Cowen. After the gasps had died down there was incredulity among Fine Gael people. Imagine a fellow TD saying such things about 'Garret the good'! Understandably many felt it was sacrilege and Mr Varadkar was roundly criticised for his remarks. Later he admitted that some of what he'd said was 'over the top', but his utterances caused great hurt and will continue to resonate to this day in some quarters.

Those widely publicised comments were very uncharitable towards Dr Fitzgerald, as well as being somewhat unfair. However the flaws lie with Mr Varadkar rather than with the venerable former taoiseach, I would argue. Back in the early 1980's the political scene was very fractious. There were three elections in the space of two years (one in 1981 and two in 1982). The outcome of these polls was a Fine Gael-Labour coalition headed  by Dr Fitzgerald. In the months previously the last taoiseach, Charles Haughey, had made a major error of judgement by going live on national television and telling the people of Ireland that we had been 'living way beyond our means' and that cuts would have to be made in order to manage the national finances. However in the following budget Mr Haughey did a complete u-turn and failed to implement the policies he originally said he would. 

When Dr Fitzgerald came to office in November 1982 the public finances were in a terrible state but with the situation in Northern Ireland getting more dangerous by the day, political stability had to be maintained. What was more important: an upsurge in violence in Ulster or short term economic difficulties in the Republic? The choice was not appetising. Dr Fitzgerald decided that he wanted to prioritise the national situation and that meant creating political stability in the Republic. Therefore he had no choice but to follow the Labour Party's economic agenda in government. To do anything else would have risked the survival of his government during a time of grave concern at the growing violence in the north. For Dr Fitzgerald (more of a natural intellectual than a pragmatist) - in this case - pragmatism was more important than ideology. 

This is  part of the historical context of how the Irish economy failed to grow in the 1980's. It was not simply because Dr Fitgerald didn't want to bring in economic measures, similar to those being implemented by Mrs Thatcher in the UK at the time. The simple reality was that he couldn't do it. Mrs Thatcher had a large parliamentary majority and was not dependent on any other political party to keep her in power. That was not the situation Dr Fitzgerald found himself in. The comments by Mr Varadkar are partly true.  He is factually correct about the economic consequences, but in making his remarks he fails to show an understanding of how politics works. One must be pragmatic - knowing how far you can go on any issue. That is the lesson that he needs to learn as he assumes the role of taoiseach. 

Mr Varadkar was the popular choice of the Fine Gael membership over the more centrist approach of Simon Coveney. The former said he wants to bring "definition" to Fine Gael as opposed to the latter who described the reasoning of the Dublin TD as "fundamentally" flawed. Definition, of course, brings greater clarity and direction. But it also narrows the focus and appeal of a political party. If Fine Gael are to improve their position in the Dail - perhaps gain a majority - this kind of approach has to be abandoned. 

Mr Coveney is right. With the departure of Enda Kenny comes the reminder that being too strident can cost a political leader. In 2011 Mr Kenny led a government - albeit a coalition -  with a big majority. Five years later he could consider himself immensely fortunate to still be in office. Mr Varadkar must learn that lesson if he is to have a lengthy period at the top of Irish politics. 

It has been said that Mr Varadkar is only interested in being taoiseach and that if Fine Gael lose power at the next general election - whenever that comes - he'll step down as Party leader. As of now all of this is uncertain. But one thing I feel sure about is that we have not heard the last from Mr Coveney. Should the new Fine Gael leader fail to make the grade you can expect that the Cork TD will be fast out of the traps to mount a challenge and I don't suspect he will lose next time. At this point the advice to Mr Varadkar must be: Tread carefully, very carefully.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

All cards to be in Mrs May's hands following British general election

British prime minister Theresa May has called for a general election to be held on 8 June (Photo: Channel Four News)

During a peaceful holiday spent with her family in rural England over Easter, Theresa May finally made up her mind. On her return to Downing Street, she was to drop a bombshell. Addressing the media, outside Number 10 she announced that she has proposed to hold a general election for 8 June next. The Fixed Term Parliament Act precludes prime ministers from calling general elections, so for now this is merely a proposal. But it is likely that Mrs May will get her way and Britain will go to the polls just two years since David Cameron took the Tories to victory with a slim majority at the last such electoral contest. 'Brexit' has changed the political background considerably and clearly this must have been a factor in helping Mrs May to change her mind (previously she had refused to countenance the holding of a general election, despite calls from some of her supporters to do so). A stroll in the countryside can do so much to clear one's head!

To be fair, I couldn't for the life of me understand why the vicar's daughter was holding back on calling a poll. From her perspective, the British government's and the Conservative Party's, it makes perfect sense to go to the country. No doubt Mrs May was mindful of Gordon Brown's fateful decision not to call an early general election when Labour still had a lead over the Conservatives during his first year as prime minister. In politics you must always make the most of your advantages. Mrs May, a particularly shrewd politician, obviously knows this well. She wants to press home her advantages. 

So what sort of outcome can we expect from a 2017 Westminster election? The most likely scenario to emerge in the early hours of 9 June will be a Conservative landslide, the likes not seen since the Thatcher era. For Britain's party of the Right, the glory days are roaring back into view. Mrs May will then be able to pursue her 'Brexit' negotiations with fresh vigour, safe in the knowledge that she will not have to go to the polls again until 2022 (barring a calamity). As has been noted by some commentators, it is the kind of 'Brexit' deal - hard or soft - that will help define Mrs May's premiership. Further to that, Britain's future economic performance, arising from the country's withdrawal from the EU, will present serious challenges for her government. Fighting an early general election means having one less worry on her  mind as the negotiations intensify.

For Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party he leads, the general election result will, almost certainly, be the disaster many are predicting. This will end his leadership and the only question left to be answered is: How heavily will Labour lose this time around? Mr Corbyn's divisive style of leadership reminds one of the trauma Britain's chief party of the Left went through during the Michael Foot era in the early 1980's. As I remember, Labour began it's long march back to reality once they had put the 1983 election result behind them. From that time on they became a more serious party of opposition (if not of government). Perhaps this year's election will have the same rehabilitative effect on Labour. Inadvertently, by calling this poll, Mrs May could be setting the Labour Party on the path to recovery. Once all the votes are counted we could, at last, see a more united Labour, despite losing many MP's in the process. Alternatively the blood letting could continue and we may witness the demise of the party founded by Keir Hardy. One senses Labour have reached a fork in the road and this election will determine the direction to be taken.

At the 2015 general election the Liberal Democrats were almost wiped out at Westminster. Since then they've installed a new leader in Tim Farron. Perhaps he is better suited as a constituency MP rather than party leader, nevertheless Mr Farron seems likeable and chatty - a refreshing contrast to the prime minister who has the manner of a puritan preacher at times. It will be of great interest to see how the Lib Dems fare this year. One of the factors which may play to the party's advantage is that - similar to their opposition to the Iraq war - they are the only national party at Westminster united in opposition to 'Brexit'. Despite this, I do not expect an enormous shift in their fortunes. Two years on from the last election won't bring about a transformation. Mr Farron needs more time and I really hope he gets it.

Another interesting area to watch at this year's election will be Scotland. Once a stronghold for the party, Labour are now an endangered species in this part of the UK. It is hard to see them recovering much ground in this year's contest. Meanwhile the Conservatives  - once almost wiped off the electoral map in Scotland - look set to benefit from the astute leadership of Ruth Davidson who has successfully re-branded the Tories north of the Tweed. They should make solid progress. For the governing party at the Holyrood parliament, the Scottish National Party (SNP), the 2017 poll will be important. Although this election will only return MP's to Westminster, it is an opportunity for the nationalists to further assert themselves at a critical time for their political cause. First minister and SNP leader at Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon, will no doubt use the election campaign as a platform to gain popular support for holding another referendum on Scottish independence. Incidentally, Angus Robertson MP (the SNP leader at Westminster) has proven to be a nimble performer in the House of Commons and   is often a thorn in the prime minister's side. It will be good to see him returned after 8 June, if fate allows.

In Northern Ireland the announcement of a general election could not have come at a more chaotic moment in the province's political history. The voters are, no doubt, suffering election fatigue (this will be Ulster's third poll in just two short years!) but for the political parties it will be a fresh opportunity to build support. The DUP, under the leadership of Arlene Foster, had a terrible result in the recent assembly elections. For Nigel Dodds MP - the party's leader at Westminster - the challenge should be a good deal easier. The fortunes of the SDLP, once a force to be reckoned with on the nationalist side, could improve after a long period of decline. Due to their abstensionist policy, Sinn Fein never really register at Westminster elections. For them it will all be about the size of the vote that they are able to attract. Robin Swann, the newly elected leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, says he wants to see  a return to the healthy state his party enjoyed back in the 1980's. But at this point it is hard to see that being achieved. The wider problem - beyond mere electoral battles - in Northern Ireland is of course all about national allegiances. Having a functioning executive run solely by the DUP and Sinn Fein has proven to be an impossible task. Both sides are not reading off the same sheet, moreover they have separate policies - not based on ideology but rather on national identity. Have you ever tried to charge a Samsung phone using a Nokia charger? Of course it simply won't work. That is the problem with putting the DUP and Sinn Fein together in government. It is difficult to see any short term political progress without a return to direct rule. A fresh election is not likely to bring about significant change to the problems facing Ulster and it's people.

Back at the hustings it would seem that this year's poll will be the last stand for Ukip. They were unable to progress at the 2015 general election and I do not expect them to make any this time either. The party no longer has  an MP (Douglas Carswell recently left Ukip) and Paul Nuttall's failure to get elected last February at the Stoke by-election has been a serious blow to their morale. The big problem for Ukip has been the 'Brexit' referendum result. That has taken the wind out of their sails and the only hope left for them may be to try and pick off a few Labour seats. Most though, I suspect, do not believe that Ukip are serious politicians and that is the biggest obstacle facing them.

By the morning of 9 June, Mrs May should be in an immeasurably stronger position than she is in now. She will need that strength of hand to deal with the enormity of the challenge posed by 'Brexit'. Fighting the general election campaign is the easy bit. The next phase, one suspects, will be much harder to manage for Britain's Conservative prime minister and her government. The road ahead will only get tougher.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Despite their flaws, we would be better off with Fianna Fail in government right now

Recent political events have shown the present government to be perhaps the weakest since the foundation of the state. Furthermore Enda Kenny is now effectively a lame duck taoiseach. The only bit of glory for him will be if he manages to eclipse John A Costello's record as being Fine Gael's longest serving taoiseach. With the battle for Mr Kenny's successor soon to begin, in the background an awful lot else is going on.

In the general election of 2011 Fianna Fail took an enormous walloping from the voters. The party, founded by Eamonn deValera, has been in office for longer than any other in Irish politics. With their depleted numbers the party's leader, Micheal Martin, went about recasting 'The Soldiers Of Destiny' so as to try and wash off the stains left from Brian Cowen's disastrous period as taoiseach. However the people haven't forgiven Fianna Fail - yet.

In last year's general election Fianna Fail emerged as the second largest party but were unable to form a government. They refused to join with Fine Gael - their arch enemies - in a grand coalition. Therefore the only realistic option was for Fine Gael (the largest party) to try and form some sort of administration. This was eventually done with the support of an array of Independent deputies backed up by a Confidence and Supply agreement with Fianna Fail. This has given us a flimsy government passing little in the way of solid legislation and being totally relient on the main opposition party for its very survival.

Mr Kenny's government is lurching from crisis to crisis. There is no reason to believe the situation will be any different once his successor is chosen. The problems won't magically disappear. But this government could be immeasurably stronger if Fianna Fail were to put aside their pride and arrogance in order to participate fully in a grand coalition with Fine Gael. Taking this bold step would be putting the country first but it is unlikely to happen unless a truly major national crisis developed. Surely we are not far from that point now?

If the two civil war parties came together - for the betterment of the country - instead of having one of the weakest governments in history we would have maybe one of the strongest. But for narrow political reasons the Fianna Fail party do not want to entertain such an idea. To the party's rank and file: TD's, Senators, Councillors and wider membership throughout the country, anything less than total power is an anathema. They have absolutely no intention of entering into government with 'Blue Shirts'. No doubt this sort of stuff is regularly stated at Fianna Fail meetings up and down the country. But will Mr Martin be doing us, the people, any favours by keeping his party out of government at a time like the present? I think not.

Fianna Fail have had their ups and downs over the years: the early dominance of deValera gave way to the economic brilliance of the Lemass years. In the 1970's and 1980's the party went through leadership troubles with the accession of Charles Haughey. Mr Haughey was of course a ruthless operator who polarised opinion (both within Fianna Fail and the wider population). However, by the 1990's Ireland was enjoying unprecedented economic growth. The 'Celtic Tiger' economy was the envy of the world.

One of the architects of this stunning economic recovery was Ray MacSharry, former Fianna Fail minister for finance. Another former government minister, Conor Lenihan, writing in his 2015 book, 'Haughey: Prince of Power' describes Mr MacSharry as: " ...the best taoiseach that the country never had". Sadly many of the gains made from that period would be lost under Mr Cowen's tenure as taoiseach culminating in Fianna Fail's decimation at the 2011 election, as mentioned earlier. Fianna Fail have been at the centre of most political events in this country's history. I have no reason to doubt that they'll continue to form an important role well into the future, despite what was said by many after 2011.

Given the present situation it is difficult to understand why Fianna Fail obstinately and stubbornly refuse to enter government. Surely the country would benefit from the collective experience of Mr Martin's front bench being in government instead of crowing from the opposition. Much more can be done in office than out of office. Last year, at his party's annual Wolfe Tone commemoration, the Fianna Fail leader gave a typically well crafted speech. In it he warned that the current government was "drifting" and not performing adequately. "The people voted for change not just in policies but also in the way our country is governed. We continue to work to deliver this", Mr Martin told his followers. 

Also last year, Stephen Donnelly, then an Independent TD, gave a speech to the MacGill Summer School. In his address he was sharply critical of the party political system in Ireland. He spoke of the need for Irish politics to modernise. Despite being short on detail, Mr Donnelly's speech contained some good points on the direction our political system should be going in. In particular he mentioned the outrageous expulsion of Fine Gael TD's who voted against the government's Abortion bill in the last Dail. This is another example of political arrogance (not practised by Fianna Fail on this occasion). Mr Donnelly didn't refer much to Fianna Fail in his speech but, interestingly, he did have this to say: "If an existing party, or a new one, demonstrates that it is doing things differently, it might be well rewarded on election day". 

More than six months on from that day in Donegal, he is now that party's speaker on 'Brexit', having recently joined Fianna Fail. The former Independent deputy - and one time Social Democrat founder - clearly feels that Fianna Fail are finally moving out of the shadows of the past. Similar to Mr Lemass' progress in the 1960's and Mr MacSharry's in the 1990's, if Fianna Fail can get their act together, after the next general election (whenever it occurs), we might begin to see a much stronger body of politicians sitting in Leinster House. Until then we will have to put up with weak governance and that serves no one well.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

‘Brexit’ is a reminder that governments continue to prioritise trade over humanitarian issues

Photo: Al Jazeera
Next June President Trump is due in the UK on a state visit. The invitation has provoked a storm of anger amongst the British public – the Speaker of the House of Commons is the latest to voice his objections. Already an online petition has been set up to oppose the visit (with more than one million signatories as I write). British Prime Minister Theresa May has been severely criticised for extending the diplomatic gesture to the American leader. But the prime minister has to be seen close to Trump right now, for ‘Brexit’ has dramatically narrowed her country’s scope for international trade. No matter how obnoxious the US president may be it is economics and trade that will trump all other issues. Mrs May seeks the prize of American investment and Trump’s reputation won’t put her off the scent.

Money is the very reason that Trump is now ensconced in the White House. He’s a very successful businessman and usually gets his way. At the recent presidential election the American people wanted a leader from outside the Washington political establishment and that’s primarily why they voted for the New York reality TV star. His direct, uncompromising style will work in government the voters felt. This gave him the edge over Mrs Clinton. However many feel he lacks the necessary skills to succeed politically. We are now seeing his shortcomings as he continues his controversial operations from inside the oval office. Trump – unpalatable as it may be for many – is now Commander-in-Chief.  No doubt Mrs May would prefer to be able to deal with a more benign character, but deal she must with the Trump card in the US deck.

Back in the UK, last week, the prime minister delivered a sharp rebuke to the Labour leader in the House of Commons. “He can lead a protest, I’m leading a country”, Mrs May yelled at Jeremy Corbyn to loud cheers from the Tory benches. These few words perfectly illustrate the reality she has to face on a daily basis as opposed to the world in which Mr Corbyn exists. The question must be asked: can he really be seen as a prime minister in waiting? That question will be answered at the next general election. In the meantime Mrs May is the person charged with leading the UK through a very interesting and challenging period.

Last week was historic for Britain. Parliament gave the government the go ahead to trigger Article 50 thus allowing the UK to begin the negotiations on leaving the EU. ‘We will no longer be dictated to by the bureaucrats from Brussels’, Conservative Eurosceptic MP’s jubilantly cheered. But that’s not the end of the story. Listening to some Tory MP’s you’d think leaving the EU will be as easy as checking out of a hotel. On the contrary, some are now saying that it may take until as long as 2021 to complete the negotiations. This would hardly be surprising given the raft of legislative changes needed after almost 45 years in the EU.

Apart from the enormous political implications of ‘Brexit’, Britain will be forced to cut new trade deals elsewhere around the world. Not as easy to achieve as you might think. Although she may be more pragmatic than the Labour leader, Mrs May will increasingly be seen with leaders of countries with less than wholesome reputations (President Erdogan of Turkey and Netanyahu of Israel, to name but two). The reality – as it has been for many years in fact – is that trade is worth more to the British government than other issues. It means that climate change and human rights will be pushed further down the international agenda in the insatiable desire for trade. Leaving the EU will make international trade an even greater priority for the UK than ever before.

In the 1980’s Mrs Thatcher steadfastly refused to impose sanctions on South Africa during the Apartheid period. One of the main reasons for her refusal, it has been said, was that she didn’t want to endanger Britain’s trading relationship with that country. Fast forward to December 2016. Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson MP was slapped down by Downing Street for making comments critical of the regime in Saudi Arabia. His boss was said to be furious at his public indiscretions. Understandably collective government responsibility had to be abided by and Mr Johnson was therefore rapped on the knuckles. The episode was revealing in that a government minister was trying to be honest. But the facts are that too much honesty can damage trade with sensitive parts of the world (BAE Systems for example). At the time Tom Brake MP had this to say on the matter: “The Conservative government rightly condemned Fidel Castro for his human rights record, but have fallen completely silent when it comes to the appalling record of countries they have been cosying up to in the Middle East.”

So President Trump will most likely dine with the Queen next Summer during his state visit. Many will protest, no doubt. It is a sign of the times that the British government has to lower their standards in international relations. When economics and trade are at stake it is better to shut up and say nothing controversial. We can expect buttoned lips from Mrs May next June. The same from her American counterpart would be a welcome change.

Monday, 9 January 2017

Pride comes before progress in Northern Ireland's politics

Martin McGuinness (courtesy The Irish Times)

The sight of a frail looking Martin McGuinness, on television, announcing his resignation as deputy first minister in the Northern Ireland executive made for sad viewing. Sad for him personally, but more significantly the future of  this country. As a neutral observer it is distressing to see what looks like a political heavyweight now on the ropes. But Mr McGuinness’ withdrawal from frontline politics highlights a deeper malaise, one that has been with us for a very long time as most Irish people will be only too well aware.

Whilst  I have not followed the latest political crisis in Ulster closely, it is clear to this writer that Sinn Fein and the DUP are ideologically incompatible. This is particularly problematic when issues of national pride enter the equation. The DUP have always been hard line in their approach. They make no secret of how proudly British they feel as unionists. On the other hand Sinn Fein are resolutely Irish and have always fought (albeit now peacefully) for Irish unity. These two positions are not mutually acceptable when nationality comes to the fore and this is the crux of the problem here.

The fudge that was the Belfast Agreement (which created the Northern Ireland executive at Stormont and the Assembly), has ultimately brought peace to this island. However in advancing peace an artificial political system was constructed to take account of the sectarian divide in Ulster. We are now seeing the failure of this system as a result of years of compromise.

Sinn Fein have, rightly, compromised for the good of peace. We are all the better for that. The IRA have ceased their armed campaign and the violence that led to so much devastation has largely been confined to history. But, under the surface, the pride of republicanism versus the pride of unionism has not been relinquished. It burns as brightly as ever over everything decided at Stormont and the devolved Assembly.

I happen to believe that ‘Brexit’ may have been a major factor in the present crisis. Astonishingly, the DUP enthusiastically supported Britain leaving the EU. This is despite the strong probability that it would harm Ulster’s farming community (many of whom are unionists). As I have stated here before, it is unlikely that the Treasury in London will continue to increase investment in Northern Ireland (funding has been cut in recent years). Therefore leaving the EU will put extra pressure on the province’s economic viability.

Aside from the obvious major implications of ‘Brexit’, the trust between the pro British/pro Irish parties in the Stormont government has been further eroded. Power sharing, a neat idea in theory, is not easy in practice. The chickens are now coming home to roost with the news of Mr McGuinness’ departure. He may not be fit to fire a gun in anger in his present state, but one senses that the Sinn Fein well of compromise has finally run dry.

This crisis signifies the failure of a great political fudge. Coalition governments fall apart eventually – they are artificial in most cases. The problem in Northern Ireland is that swallowing national pride doesn’t come easy to either tradition. Intensive negotiations involving both the British and Irish governments may be the only answer to this lasting political conundrum. This is the last thing the politicians need as the ‘Brexit’ negotiations get nearer and potentially perilous.

Monday, 7 November 2016

An anti-Thatcher Conservative and his life in politics

Sir Julian Critchley MP
(1931 - 2000)

‘A Bag of Boiled Sweets’ - the only safe pleasure for a politician – is the title of the memoirs of Julian (later Sir Julian) Critchley MP. The former Conservative member for Aldershot was a prominent opponent of Margaret Thatcher and once described her as the ‘great she-elephant’. As the famous prime minister was on the rise, her party was in decline, Critchley once wrote. It is clear he was never going to have a role in her government – but this didn’t bother him too much. The backbenches were his habitat and it was from this position that the Europhile MP operated. He was a constituency MP as well as regularly writing articles for newspapers and his talent for the written word is obvious once you start turning the pages of this charming book.

Growing up in the 1980’s, I was acutely aware of the harshness of Mrs Thatcher and her government. It was hard for me to bring myself to feel anything but antipathy for ‘the grocer’s daughter’. My late maternal grandmother – a staunch Fine Gael supporter – was an ardent admirer of Britain’s first female prime minister – probably one of the few matters of disagreement between the two of us. During her time in office (1979-90) I rather ignorantly assumed that the only people who disliked Mrs Thatcher lay outside the Conservative and Unionist Party. How wrong I was!

Julian Critchley's was one of the few voices, within the Tory ranks, that refused to be silenced in opposition to the authority of Mrs Thatcher. He grew up in Shropshire during the 1930’s and 1940’s, living through World War II while at school. After attending public school he went on to spend time in Paris and became a lover of that city and its lifestyle. He even was involved, at one point, in the establishment of a Young Conservative Club in the French capital. Critchley married three times during his lifetime, yet he comes across as a gentleman. One suspects he may not have been entirely comfortable around gay people – but that is probably due to the era in which he lived through more than any great prejudice. There is no evidence to suggest the author was anything other than a caring, decent man – but one who enjoyed life’s finer past times nevertheless.

He first entered the House of Commons in 1959 representing the constituency of Rochester and Chatham. Following a period in the political wilderness – due to electoral defeat – he returned to the mother of all parliaments in 1970, for the safe Tory seat of Aldershot. He fought every subsequent general election until his retirement at the 1992 general election which saw John Major’s government unexpectedly returned to office. Critchley suffered from polio in childhood yet managed to overcome this problem to live an almost trouble free life for decades before it returned with a vengeance when he was in his 60’s, sadly rendering him disabled and leaving him in terrible pain. However, for many years he’d got used to living the good life drinking fine wines and dining well. All this high living contributed to his waistline – the perennial hazard of a life in politics – but it didn’t diminish his enthusiasm for life.

Towards the end of the book we are reminded of the events of November 1990 in which Mrs Thatcher spectacularly lost the leadership of her own party and with that her premiership. There then followed a witch hunt by pro-Thatcher Tories in which attempts were made to de-select some of the MP’s who had plotted against her. Critchley was one of those MP’s. Although efforts were made to have him de-selected, his local Conservative Association in Aldershot gave him the benefit of the doubt and stood by him. All attempts to remove him were thwarted and Critchley managed to see off his enemies. However as time went on the Conservatives became more and more right wing – despite Mrs Thatcher’s departure from front line politics. Anti-European sentiment had taken root and this would eventually lead to Critchley leaving the party that he had spent his life supporting. This larger-than-life figure, who was a friend and political ally of Michael Heseltine (he once wrote a biography on the Conservative grandee who is now aged 83), could never tolerate the ideological direction many of his colleagues were travelling in. He went on to be a vocal critic of William Hague’s leadership when the Yorkshire man succeeded John Major in 1997.

Julian Critchley eventually left his second wife as their relationship gradually became more strained. In the early 1990’s he began a relationship with Prue Marshall, who he had known in the 1960’s. Romance didn’t blossom then, but this time was different. The relationship worked out and the couple were together until his death in the year 2000 at the age of 69. This book, written in 1995, is a fitting tribute to a fascinating political figure who – although never assuming high office – entertained many with his witty observations. One wonders what he would make of ‘Brexit’ and the state of the Conservative Party today. He’s perhaps safer in his grave, no longer suffering the stresses of political life. Anyone with an interest in British politics during the latter half of the 20th century should seek out this book. It is an entertaining and stimulating read from start to finish.

  • 'A Bag of Boiled Sweets' by Julian Critchley (Faber & Faber, 1995)