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)

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Mr Kenny is living on borrowed time

Photo: Newstalk
As a young boy I can remember sitting in the kitchen while my mother listened to Gay Byrne on the radio. Often a caller would come on the line and overstay their welcome – singing a long song or getting into a complicated story with no obvious ending. In such circumstances Gay’s manner turned businesslike. “Good day to you now” was how the Late Late Show presenter usually terminated such a discussion. It was a reminder that no one should ever dare try to put Ireland’s most popular broadcaster off his stride when he was on a roll.

Like the talkative radio caller, someone else who looks like overstaying his welcome is our present taoiseach. Enda Kenny has taken Fine Gael a long way since the party’s grim general election result in 2002 but no leader can realistically expect to last for more than 15 years in modern politics. Next year Mr Kenny will reach this milestone and speculation in the media is growing, by the day, over his future in politics.

Fine Gael are spoilt for choice at the moment as they have at least two first rate candidates in their ranks to replace Mr Kenny, whenever he decides to leave (or if he is deposed in a power struggle). Leo Varadkar is a very popular young politician in party circles and is a polished media performer (indeed, like Gay Byrne, it’s hard to stop him when he gets going). If, for whatever reason, the Minister for Social Protection fails to ascend to the leadership, another big name immediately springs to mind.

Simon Coveney, currently our Minister for Housing (among other responsibilities), is a safe pair of hands and equally as popular with his colleagues as Mr Varadkar. He is less smooth in style, yet remains a formidable force to be reckoned with. A possible compromise candidate, if one were needed could be Frances Fitzgerald.  She is a deeply conservative politician and less popular than the other two aforementioned gentlemen.

I’ve been observing the political scene and it seems that Ms Fitzgerald is keeping her cards close to her chest. For now she is staying loyal to the taoiseach. It is possible – similar to Theresa May’s appointment as British prime minister earlier this year – that the Minister for Justice might find herself in the top spot if Messrs Varadkar and Coveney falter in the race to succeed Mr Kenny. That scenario is unlikely to develop, but at this time cannot be ruled out as a possibility.

We have examined the possible successors to Mr Kenny. But before a successor emerges there first needs to be a vacancy. That means the Mayo TD must make up his mind quickly about his political intentions. Like the irritating caller on Gay Byrne’s radio programme, Mr Kenny, it seems, is not getting the message. Politically speaking, he is living on borrowed time and the longer he stays on the more damage he will cause – to his legacy, his party and ultimately the country.

Next month is the 26th anniversary of a momentous event in political history. In November 1990 Mrs Thatcher - once an indomitable force in world politics – lost the leadership of her party. Soon after this painful humiliation she ceased to be Britain’s prime minister. If he wants to avoid the same fate, Mr Kenny will have to set out a plan – albeit privately – to step down. In politics, as in life, time comes for everyone. His time is nearly up and there is no point in him thinking he is invincible. Reality will bite eventually whether he likes it or not.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Another interesting twist in British politics

Mr Corbyn has been sensationally re-elected leader of the Labour Party at this year's Party Conference in Liverpool. The article below was originally written in September 2015 and published in THE FAT DUBLINER,  following last year's leadership election.

Photo: BBC

Last weekend Jeremy Corbyn (pictured above) was elected the new leader of the British Labour party. He beat off three Labour MP’s – Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall – despite being a rank outsider when the leadership campaign began in June. His challengers were considered part of the ‘mainstream’ Labour party while he, in sharp contrast, has spent his entire political career (32 years) on the backbenches.

The outcome of the leadership battle sees Corbyn turning from poacher to gamekeeper. For years he has been a thorn in the side of the establishment unlike Blair and Brown, who were happy to move Labour in a more right wing direction. The new leader will now face British Prime Minister David Cameron and the former will have to rise to the challenge. It is a challenge not only for him personally but also for the Labour party, many of whom oppose his political views.

Since the leadership result was announced, a succession of Labour MP’s have resigned from the shadow cabinet. This makes Corbyn’s job considerably more difficult to conduct. But what took the MP for Islington North to the top so soon and how has this new scenario emerged? What follows is an attempt at answering that question.

To get a better understanding of the Corbyn victory we have to go back thirty years to 1985. Neil Kinnock was the Labour party leader at the time. At the party’s conference, held that year in Bournemouth, the Welshman made a speech in which he ferociously attacked the hard left. Labour’s radical fringe had been flexing their political muscles ever since Mrs Thatcher came to office six years previously.

Kinnock laid much of the groundwork for his successors. If he hadn’t hit out at the ‘militant tendency’ within the party, it is quite possible that he would not have been able to impose the discipline needed for Labour to effectively oppose the then Conservative government (this is despite the fact that they were unable to win a general election until 1997).

During the 1980’s the main opposition party was entrenched in a battle between ideology and pragmatism. The latter form of political strategy won out over the former and this ultimately returned Labour to government once again. However since the New Labour project ended, following Gordon Brown’s defeat at the 2010 general election, the balance has shifted in favour of a more ideological position. This may help to explain why the Corbynites are now in the ascendency.

Corbyn – rightly or wrongly – appeals to a much smaller section of British voters than Cameron. Despite the strong endorsement, last week, by the Labour party membership, the new leader is in a minority among opposition MP’s. The journalist Matthew Parris recently spoke on Channel 4 News. He made the point that the Corbyn issue could become a recurring problem for Labour with conflict between the party’s MP’s and the wider membership. Indeed some say that the new leader may only last a matter of weeks in the job.

Whatever way one looks at this, it is clear that Corbyn was democratically elected and must therefore be taken seriously. The Labour party now has a leader of real principle and that cannot really have been said of the organisation’s most recent leaders. The party's leadership have for too long neglected core ideology and this has positioned them closer to the Conservatives than ever before. Now the ideological wing have their man in the top spot as Westminster politics takes another interesting twist. This battle isn’t over yet.

Friday, 15 July 2016

Conservative right wing benefits from Mr Cameron’s demise

An awful lot has happened in British politics over the course of the last month. A new prime minister has been installed at Number 10 Downing Street leading what seems like the most right-wing government since the Thatcher era. Theresa May, we are told, is a no nonsense politician. She will have to pick up the pieces left by her predecessor following Britain’s vote to leave the European Union.

The ‘Brexit’ vote will be David Cameron’s lasting political legacy. His decision to hold a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU has obscured his earlier achievements. When he became leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party in 2005 he set about re-branding the organisation. Out went the old torch logo to be replaced by a new green and blue design. Mr Cameron was seen on a sledge with huskies on a visit to Lapland further underlining his supposed green credentials.

I can recall the final showdown between himself and David Davis (now part of Mrs. May’s newly formed government) during the leadership contest. Essentially it was a battle between the traditional wing of the party and Mr Cameron’s new, more progressive supporters. The ‘nasty party’ was to be reformed almost like ‘New Labour’ under Tony Blair. The Tories would reach out to those they had previously ignored. For awhile I genuinely thought Mr Cameron could radically change his party for the better. But despite going into coalition with the Liberal Democrats, supporting gay marriage and standing up for the disabled, he ultimately failed to resolve the big problem which has beset the Conservatives for decades – Europe.

It is said of political leaders that they ‘campaign in poetry and govern in prose’. This is no less true of Mr Cameron. His ‘Achilles heel’ was the ‘Brexit’ referendum and calling it was his big mistake. It has cost him his political career barely 12 months since, unexpectedly, winning a general election (the first Conservative leader to do so for almost a quarter of a century). All this is common knowledge now, with acres of news print devoted to the aftermath of this incredible referendum. The MP for Whitney has now departed and left Mrs. May to deal with the political fallout. She has assembled a right-wing government with figures like Mr Davis, Boris Johnson and Liam Fox in key positions at cabinet. Far from curbing the harshness of his party, Mr Cameron has, through holding the recent referendum, freed the radicals among his colleagues.

Over the course of the last 40 years, or so, prime ministers have met their demise in various ways. James Callaghan had ‘the winter of discontent’; Margaret Thatcher had the poll tax; John Major had ‘Black Wednesday’; Tony Blair had the Iraq war; Gordon Brown had the banking crisis and now Mr Cameron has succumbed to Euro-phobia.  God only knows what troubles are in store for Mrs. May. The post of prime minister is a poison chalice and she will have to tread carefully. At this time it is crucial that a strong opposition is gathered otherwise this newly emboldened government of the right (for that is what it is) could alienate more people than her predecessors did. The Conservative right have been let loose and they must be held to account.

Saturday, 11 June 2016

Brexit or no Brexit?

The referendum campaign, to decide whether or not the UK should leave the European Union, is nearing its climax. Voters will have their say and it will then be up to the politicians to implement the wishes of the majority. The main attraction to voting Leave would seem to be largely emotional. Unlike the Scottish independence referendum this campaign, in my view, is based far more on emotion. In the case of Scotland the economic arguments won out in the end. Who wants greater unemployment and a weak currency arrangement? The Scots made their decision based on cold facts . The emotional feelings of nationalism were cast aside.

Immigration, Nigel Farage tells us, is the single biggest issue facing Britain today. A growing security threat, due to the EU’s open borders policy, is also talked about by the Leavers. On the economic front, they say, Britain’s future will be far better outside the control of the bureaucrats in Brussels. The UK is a proud country. It boasts a strong multi ethnic society. Yet growing immigration has made some feel the situation has become a problem, a problem which can only be solved by leaving the EU.

It is true that Britain is one of the most prosperous nations on earth. Leaving the EU may not be a bad idea (for Britain at least) if they were part of an alternative network of trading nations, outside the EU. However this network has not yet been established and it is hard to imagine it ever being established. Leaving the EU now would be like someone walking out of a secure job with no alternative employment lined up. A ‘Brexit’, which looks increasingly likely at time of writing, could lead to greater economic risk. In addition there is only so much a democratic country can do to stem immigration levels.

On EU bureaucracy Mr Farage, Boris Johnson MP, Michael Gove MP, Priti Patel MP, Chris Grayling MP and other prominent Leavers, may have a point. The EU is too political in nature (largely to form a bulwark against Russian expansion in Eastern Europe) with too many member states than is necessary. Forming a consensus between all member states must be a real problem for those in charge. Reform is badly needed if the EU’s reputation is to be salvaged. If the British vote to leave this club of nations then the over politicisation of the organisation will be to blame.

Turning to Northern Ireland, visited recently by former Prime Ministers John Major and Tony Blair. At first I was amazed at the decision of the DUP to support a ‘Brexit’. How on earth do they sell this to the large – mainly Unionist voting – farming community, I asked myself? Surely if Britain leaves the EU this would mean farmers would no longer receive subsidies. In such circumstances Arlene Foster would have to go cap in hand to the Treasury in London to make up the shortfall. At present funding to the NI executive is being cut by the central government at Westminster. It is hard to see how the province can benefit economically from Britain leaving the EU. The emotional factor plays well with Unionists but wrapping oneself in the Union Jack won’t stop an economic slump, which would be the likely outcome – at least in the short term – of a ‘Brexit’. Again there is much that needs to change in relation to the EU but separating from that group of trading nations would be akin to throwing the baby out with the water, a serious – unnecessary – risk.

On the Remain side the most credible argument for staying is economic. If it weren’t for that it is likely there would be no referendum held on this issue. The matter would’ve been decided long ago. As I write, the Leave campaign has received a boost in the polls. This puts them ahead of the Remain side (55% to 45%). If this is a true representation of voters’ intentions then it may be that the issue of immigration has greater traction with the public than economics. The latter is a more abstract subject for people to get to grips with than the former. By contrast, immigration is understood better by the ordinary man/woman out on the street. The economy is a more long term consideration, but no less important. The benefits to the UK of staying inside the EU are considerable. These benefits will probably only be fully realised if a ‘Brexit’ is triggered on the 23 June. It is important for voters to keep this in mind as Polling Day approaches.

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Bleak future now beckons for Labour

Coming shortly after Saint Valentine’s Day, this year’s general election didn’t bring much love to the Labour Party. Their deep throated embrace of Fine Gael – their partners in coalition government since 2011 – could well prove to be the kiss of death for a political organisation founded on left wing principles. These principles were – and continue to be – largely ignored by the party’s Dail contingent and it’s hard to see what sort of future Labour now has as a political force.

Could Alan Kelly – assuming he succeeds Joan Burton (not certain as I write) – be the last leader of Ireland’s Labour Party? Mr Kelly is known to be one of the chief advocates of the water charges that have caused so much controversy. The charge is an anathema to many on the left of Irish politics and the party’s support for this, in addition to stubbornly backing up Fine Gael in government on other issues, has alienated many Labour voters.

Before Polling Day Labour boasted 37 TD’s in Dail Eireann. Now their numbers barely reach seven deputies. This electoral disaster didn’t occur by accident. Similar to the Labour Party in Britain, the Irish Labour Party has abandoned its original principles. This became clear over the course of the last five years as they worked closely on economic regeneration, in partnership with Fine Gael, a party which has little sympathy for those on the thin end of the wedge. By allying themselves to the architects of austerity, Labour have been left dangerously exposed.

Only two of Labour’s seven TD’s represent Dublin constituencies. This compares with 18 Dublin TD’s before February’s election. It is hard to see them reaching this figure again. Labour hemorrhaged votes all over the place. Outside of Dublin the chief beneficiaries were the Independents, Sinn Fein and Fianna Fail. In the capital these parties took votes from Labour in addition to the Anti Austerity Alliance/People Before Profit and other smaller left wing groups who have benefited from huge disaffection among Labour voters.

Despite the Labour Party being in an extremely vulnerable position, it still remains strong as a national organisation. But that may not be for long. The future for the party will depend on whether or not the membership, rather than the leadership, can define Labour’s political identity and take it back to its left wing roots, where the party’s true support lies. Unless this happens Ireland’s Labour Party could well be extinct in a few short years. They are heading for political oblivion.

Mr Kelly’s stout defence of the water charges flies in the face of many on the left of Irish politics. This has done much damage to Labour’s reputation among the voters. By failing to assert themselves in government they have allowed themselves to be portrayed as no longer being a friend to the disadvantaged in Irish society. Much will have to be done to repair the damage and it is unclear at this stage what, if anything, can be done to stem the tide. The lesson to all political parties must be: if you ignore your voters, they will ignore you. This is precisely what has happened to the Irish Labour Party. James Connolly must be turning in his grave.