New Government. Same old approach.

Time will tell whether Micheal Martin is a new approach to relationships with the UK generally and Unionism in particular. He’d struggle to be worse than the Leo & Simon show.

There is a long on detail short on substance Programme for Government that has been agreed between the three Coalition Partners in Dublin, but time will tell if that is the basis of stability or a huge fallout in due course. The Greens are the newbies, with it often forgotten that there has been a relationship between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail for the past few years with Fianna Fail providing Confidence & Supply to Leo’s Government.

We explore what the new Government might mean for relationships North/South and East/West, but posturing on the EU/UK negotiations on Brexit is over. Ireland is just one of 27 and it has most to lose.

Of course the three Party coalition means that Sinn Fein become the Official Opposition in Dublin. Perhaps ‘opposition’ is what it does best as it is making a total mess of its role a principal (mandatory) coalition partner in Belfast, particularly with its performance in Belfast this past week around the funeral of dead terrorist Bobby Storey.

It is not as if there aren’t big issues to address within Government. Stories this past week on the Charity Commission and LandWeb have echoes of RHI, and raises issues of whether the public sector is capable of reform or just not fit for purpose. Given the state of the relationships within the Parties at Stormont at this point in time, is there any interest or imagination to bring in the scale of reform that is clearly required.

This week MLAs voted to take charge of their own expense regime. What could possibly go wrong?

Discussing all of this with @3000Versts

Ireland has a new Government, finally.

It has taken months. A new Government for the Republic of Ireland has been agreed among three principal coalition partners, with a detailed Programme for Government (PfG – 126 pages).

Each of the three Parties required their respective memberships to endorse the PfG Coalition. The approval could be fairly described as emphatic – 74% Fianna Fail (FF), 76% Greens, and 80% Fine Gael (FG). That is a conclusive enough endorsement to suggest that the PfG and Government might well hold for a good part of what remains of the five-year term.

It had been believed the more fundamental aspect of the Green Party might have been a larger number. The Leader of the Greens in Northern Ireland opposed the PfG because it did ‘not do enough’ for the Party’s core principles on climate and social justice, though with no chance of ever being in a Government herself she seemed to miss the point of a coalition agreement requiring compromises – and he PfG has plenty of those.

It had been thought FF internal opposition might make the vote in favour a close one. Clearly didn’t.

The big positive in this Government is that has a comfortable working majority – the formal approval of the new Taoiseach was by 93 of the possible 160 votes, larger than the three coalition Parties combined.

The last Government, starting with Enda Kenny as Taoiseach, was a minority FG Government with FF providing Confidence & Supply. While that had a good run, it was clearly never stable. FG had always to look over its shoulder knowing that ultimately FF could pull the plug whenever it wished. There were moments that seemed like a possibility but didn’t happen. Though on a glass half full consideration, while the relationship was uneasy, Martin and Varadkar have had some years of having to work together if a Government was not going to collapse.

This time there is an agreed agenda for all Parties and with commitment and focus there is every chance some significant change is possible – no matter that SF how much opines this is more of the same. That commitment and focus will be needed to face down and rise up to the challenges ahead.

Perhaps the greatest challenge in balancing priorities in the PfG will be between the Green demands for a shift from fossil fuels and Carbon targets that have every chance of placing a dampener on the prospects for growth, and the need for growth to raise the Irish economy out of the inevitable financial hole left by Covid-19. Taking the Ministries for Transport, Energy and Climate and for Communications and Culture, the Greens will be looking to protect (and expand on) the green priorities of the PfG.

How many, perhaps how speedily, the contradictions within the PfG are ironed out (or quietly deferred/abandoned) might impact on the success of this Government and its durability. With the Greens being the only Party to have had obvious red lines it will be around its priorities that cracks might first appear.

The new Taoiseach, and Government, will have a big list of challenges.

Housing and health were the two big issues of the election, and a big part of the Sinn Fein surge in votes. Those issues remain, and while there promises made in the PfG it will take enormous skill and effort to make progress.

Michael Martin will most likely improve relations with the UK – both diplomatically and with Unionism. Leo Varadkar, and his deputy Simon Coveney seemed to take every opportunity to slight the British. Micheal Martin heavily criticised the FG approach, which he described as ‘megaphone diplomancy’ and ‘triumphalism’ with regards to Brexit. On Northern Ireland and wider British-Irish relations FG was viewed as being insensitive and clumsy, particularly in relations with Unionists which have all but been broken. The role of Simon Coveney remaining at the Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade might be tension point in the Government going forward, particularly with Leo Varadkar as Tanaiste (Deputy PM) close by.

While FG and the Euro-fanaticism of Varadkar put all of Ireland’s eggs in the EU’s basket, and shared a view that Brexit was a British exercise in self-harm, pronouncements never addressed the significant challenge of maintaining an open (and largely tariff-free) trade between the Republic of Ireland and the British mainland. Huge effort was placed on securing a seamless and unfettered border on the Ireland along the Irish-UK land border, but the Irish Sea was barely mentioned. Ireland, now just one of 27, could only veto a final trade agreement between the EU and UK, but the consequences would be catastrophic for the Irish economy. Ireland has no cards on the table at this point.

It is noticeable that discussion around the Irish Protocol ebbs and flows around whether the EU feels it is valuable for negotiation but is not fundamental to final trade talks. The discussion has also faded once the UK placed its approach on the table which legally meets the protocol requirements, albeit significantly less than what the EU had in mind. Meanwhile, discussion on the future of the EU and budgets continue to threaten common corporate taxation and tech taxes which are both an anathema to the current Irish economic model. The UK would have been a strong voice against such an EU move, but no longer there to hold back that direction of travel.

Covid-19, Brexit and the economy are huge issues of themselves that FF will be taking a lead on for the next two and a half years. Unpopular decisions will be on its watch. It will have to be smart to get everything right.

Lurking, almost disregarded, is Sinn Fein.

Sinn Fein becoming the Official Opposition is not inconsequential. For the first time this organisation will have access to the papers of State, in order to fulfil its constitutional role. This remains a Party that recognises no State but that which has it in the Government, with the nominal Leader as Taoiseach. The actual ‘leadership of Sinn Fein’, from which direction is taken, remains obscure and lurking in West Belfast.

Opposition is the perfect role for Sinn Fein. It is opportunistic and tactical in the moment. It has no policy other than one that serves, at any given time, to its own advancement and that of its only policy; a United Ireland in which it imagines itself as the Government. Its principle role as political party is the destruction of any other political party or movement that it sees as an impediment, or the wholesale adoption of any cause in which it can gain advantage.

This is perhaps the greatest challenge for Michael Martin, who is viscerally hated by Sinn Fein. No matter that Leo Varadkar states that the Civil War politics that has shaped Irish politics for 100 years ends in this Dail with the rapprochement between FG and FF, the echoes remain between FF and Sinn Fein. The feeling is mutual.

Fianna Fail taking on Health, Housing, Education and Public Expenditure, places the Party firmly in the front line of Opposition targets, and Sinn Fein will be only too pleased to have the opportunity to go head to head with the Party it regards its principal republican opposition.

The new Government looks to have a reasonable chance of remaining stable for a reasonable period. That said the internal contradictions of the PfG, the uncertain legacy of FG Brexit approach, and the challenges of EU budgets and direction present a formidable series of challenges for the new Taoiseach. If that were not enough challenge, the domestic agenda is perfectly suited to Sinn Fein’s campaign style that is short on alternative, long on grievance, and will chip at any weakness or perceived divergence of view within the Coalition Government.

The new Government will hope that having taken its time putting together the PfG that time will have been well spent.


Aer Lingus lacked ‘common sense’​ approach

The first thing for a business to do in a crisis is to stay calm, review operational processes and mitigate and manage with steady and measured common sense action – let the public see a company doing its best in difficult circumstances. Sadly, this headline was avoidable: “Coronavirus: Robin Swann ‘shocked’ at images of packed flight.”

Why on earth did Aer Lingus think that simply taking fares was the priority? It wasn’t good enough to claim, as the company did, that it needed direction from Government; giving the appearance it could do nothing more. This was a communications #fail that could have been avoided.


An uncertain legacy

Julian Smith has left the building.

Politics is often remembered by the moment, the big event. For Julian Smith that would be the return of the Stormont Executive. Focus on the moment and forget the consequences?

Fact is we are left with spending promises (or demands) but no idea of the basis of a future budget at Stormont, and there remains perverse plans to deal with the legacy of the past. Getting the show on the road might well be followed by keeping the show on the road, but whether that means much as changed or this iteration of the Stormont Executive is any more stable only time will tell.

A long look at the Southern Election and the impact of Sinn Fein significantly increasing its presence in the Irish Parliament is the subject of the post below. It is likely that PoliticalOD may be visiting that topic in the months ahead.

It’s complicated

As Hilary Clinton learned, winning the popular vote does not necessarily provide the keys to power.

In polling terms Sinn Fein has often touched on joining Fine Gael and Fianna Fail as being one of the big political Parties in the Irish Republic. At around 24% of the vote in the recent election its claim of having a popular mandate being in Government is a stretch, but if it were any other Party it might be more palatable as a coalition partner.

There are three good reasons why that isn’t the case politically, and there is a range of economic issues that Sinn Fein in any way part of Government that make it wholly unsuited:

  • it has a poor record in Government,
  • it has not proven to be a reliable partner in Government,
  • and then there is the IRA;
  • and the economics of the Irish economy will find no solutions in a Chavez-inspired manifesto.


Confidence in Short Supply

No sooner had the new Executive returned than the competency of the public sector burst back onto front pages of the press. This time MOT centres, with lots of questions and not a lot of answers forthcoming on “how? why? and when might it be sorted?” The New Decade has started much the same way as the last one, with public services seeming unable to cope with breakdown that should have been anticipated and better managed in anyone’s book. A search of NI Water on Slugger O’Toole will give anyone an evening of reading, and the clear impression that that saga didn’t just happen out of nowhere.

In the private sector, “heads would roll”.


Promises, promises.

What is new on the Hill? Press photo opportunities are back for the members of the Northern Ireland Executive, MLAs return to full pay, and things go back to normal on the Hill; whatever normal is?.

The document released to the media preceding statements by the five largest Parties that they were all intending to nominate someone for the Executive ‘team’ was greeted mostly with, “about time’.

That document, however, seemed to fade into the background as the whole process of setting up the Executive and MLAs getting allocated roles became the focus of attention.


Health status, Executive stasis, and Boris’s strategic manoeuvres on Brexit.

Despite many ‘Reports’ on Health reform (2011, 2014, 2016) Northern Ireland has seen little critical or  cultural change in frontline delivery of services. While the easy option for politicians is to demand and even offer more money, the current situation has arisen because of budgetary decisions taken in 2014. If it was pay or XX in 2014 it will still be pay or XX in 2019. Though our politicians are reluctant to talk about XX.

While it might seen that a new Executive is a possibility in the New Year, there doesn’t appear to be any public confidence that an Executive would have the will (or ability) to undertake difficult decisions that will be required on Health, or any of the other issues piled up on Ministerial in-trays. Last time there were major and difficult decisions to be made, Sinn Fein insisted they be sent back to Westminster.

It is Welfare Reform and the consequential impact on welfare recipients that might mean Sinn Fein needs an Assembly far more than any other Party. Yet despite the pressures on Sinn Fein there is a worrying trend in Stormont “negotiations” that enough is agreed to keep the show on the road while setting the path for the next crisis. Everyone does everything to keep Sinn Fein on board, while it does everything it can to wreck the train.

Finally, Boris’s plans for trade arrangements between GB and NI are an enigma – somewhere between what people read in the Withdrawal Agreement pages and believe to be likely, and then Boris’s view that that is all tosh. No idea, and all to some extent subject to what is decided between now and probably July in respect of a trade agreement between the UK and EU. With NI inside the UK customs union (the major difference between backstop and frontstop) there has been a shift in the dynamic of negotiation that isn’t much discussed.

All this in a handy 20 minutes or so, on this latest PoliticalOD podcast.

Back in the New Year. Have a great break. Merry Christmas.