BEFORE THE VOTE: A SNAPSHOT 2010(II) CLVIII

The US Presidential Election takes place on 3 November 2020. In many ways it is the most important such election for decades, with only one issue – whether Donald Trump can be denied a second term as the 45th President of the USA. If he succeeds there is every chance he will continue his self-appointed task of wrecking what remains of the current international order in Politics, Economics and the Environment, to the world’s detriment. What follows is a snapshot of how things appeared to me on October 28, with an addendum added a day later.

As I write, less than one week out, all the indications are that Biden could, should and will win the Election. Let’s hope it stays that way. Perhaps this time next week we’ll be laughing at the outcome and wondering how did we ever have any doubts.

I don’t want to appear a Doomsayer; however, a few observations follow which give me personally some pause:

1. There are over fifty elections, one in each state in addition to the “National Poll” which is just a head count. No state has less than three electoral “votes “ in the Electoral College and a vote in a smaller state – say the Dakotas or Utah – is “worth” more than a vote in a populous state like California or New York. Most times most of the smaller states vote Republican, shoring up the Republican “Red Wall.” Roughly eighty per cent of the States do not change, except in a landslide year like Reagan in 1984, Nixon in 1972 and Johnson in 1964.

2. The current polls all say Biden, even in the critical swing states (a moveable feast of up to ten states with relatively small majorities which could change hands) where Trump has a lot of ground to make up. Indeed should the polls stay the same Biden could win in a virtual landslide in the Electoral College with perhaps 350 electoral votes (I have no doubt he will win the popular vote nationally and by a sizeable margin). RealClearPolitics, which called it last time, is showing Biden seven points ahead but down from double digits just over two weeks ago

3. Our TV coverage – and that of CNN – has pointed up the volume of early voting, which has broken all previous records. The case presented in most coverage this side of the Atlantic is that the early and postal voting will favour Biden (even though we know of at least of two early votes in Florida which will not!). The footage of the queues of those waiting to vote seems to me to be composed predominantly of people of colour, which again suggests more votes for Biden. Assuming the TV coverage we are getting is representative of what is happening in the swing states then again Biden would appear to have a significant edge. What’s not clear of course is how representative the footage we get to see is of the picture in all potential swing states. Also, most commentators agree that Trump supporters are more likely to vote in person on the day, and hence will not appear in queues to vote in advance. It is also unclear whether there is sizeable pro- Trump support out there which has never voted since they thought there was no point since nobody represented their view (some of this crew may have come out in Florida in 2016, where Trump outpolled Romney by 30,000 votes).

4. Trump and his supporters are doing all they can to outlaw or disqualify postal voting. A recent Supreme Court ruling that postal votes in Wisconsin received AFTER polling day would not be counted is regarded as a significant setback for the Democrats. A Pennsylvania Court ruling that ballots posted in envelopes franked up to and on the day of the election would be counted, provided they were received by Friday November 6, is now being challenged by Republicans. The situation in other close contests is unclear – to me at least – but given the vagaries of the US Postal system – even without Trump’s “man at the helm”- in a worst case scenario many votes could be lost to Biden. This quite apart from any attempts Trump may make to challenge the legitimacy of the whole vote in the Courts. ( A worrying development here was Judge Kavanaugh’s opinion in the Wisconsin case in which he wrote of the impropriety of thousands of absentee ballots flowing “in after election day and (sic)potentially flip the results of the Election.”)

5. I’ve referred separately to “Shattered” the book on Hillary’s 2016 defeat and in particular to the chapter covering the 2016 Democratic Primary in Michigan which Hillary lost narrowly to Bernie Saunders.To my mind at least the book and the chapter provide an excellent insight into the internal workings of a major US political party – in this case the Democrats – during a Presidential campaign, including the chief players and factors at play. Hillary’s campaign manager, Robby Mook, with his reliance on analytic data, is quite reminiscent of Dominic Cummings – except, unlike Cummings he eventually got it wrong. But essentially his modus operandi was devoted to getting the vote out at the macro rather than the micro level – and here arguably he “succeeded”, since Hillary won the popular vote. He didn’t see the shift away from Hillary by the alienated working class whites in the Rust Belt States, whose support had been all but taken for granted after their support for her in 2008 ( against of course, Obama, a black contender for the nomination). Bill Clinton, with his visceral feel for alienated working class whites – and indeed blacks – saw matters differently, as did Congresswoman Debbie Dingell, holder of the Dingle Seat in Michigan, both of whom saw what was happening but were unable to influence the campaign; both favoured old fashioned campaigning including canvassing on a door to door basis.

The mistake made in the Michigan Primary was repeated (incredibly) in the Presidential Campaign and compounded by the same approach – or lack of it – in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. All three states were virtually ignored/taken for granted and effort and resources poured into Florida and North Carolina, where Trump confounded the experts by adding thousands of new and unexpected blue collar and redneck votes. (In Milwaukee, also, one of the Koch brothers apparently financed up to 600 activists to campaign on Trump’s behalf in blue collar areas.)

6. The significance of Michigan in 2016 now is that it is far from clear – to me at any rate – that Joe Biden has done much to cultivate that lost group of alienated blue collar whites, whose lot has improved hardly if at all. If anything the financial circumstances of many have been further undermined by shutdowns to combat the Pandemic. There have been job losses, falls in income – not adequately compensated for – and in many instances the crucial issue of the loss of health insurance since March. While Trump loyalists have not blamed him for how the Virus has been handled, it is unclear how other Republican-leaning blue collars in the Rust belt states feel and that could be a crucial factor. Media coverage here, and what I have read from US sources, suggests that Biden has/will secure that blue collar vote, without providing much evidence to back this assertion up.

7. If Biden and his supporters have done their work, Joe should do considerably better than Hillary in the three Rust Belt states. If not, if there has been a presumption that blue collar support would default to Biden, then there could be trouble. And here the media coverage I have seen has not been too encouraging. The only people out campaigning until now have been Republicans, certainly in Pennsylvania. The Biden campaign apparently took the decision, in the interests of public health and safely in view of the Pandemic , to eschew door-to-door canvassing. There now seems to be some rethink here- could this be panic lest 2016 repeats? Biden appears to have a large war chest, far more than Trump’s, but will expensive TV ads work or could personal barnstorming and door to door canvassing by activists still swing it for Trump?

8. That last Debate. I think like many people I was pleased and relieved at Joe Biden’s performance. He came across as a decent, nice, old man, well versed in the issues and attentive. However, he definitely looked old and frail compared to Trump who looked very much younger and healthy as a butcher’s dog (and, moreover, a dog held on a leash, whose performance on the issues, while substantively rubbish, was more coherent than heretofore). Biden also made a serious tactical error towards the end on global warming and the phasing out of fossil fuels. His position was of course nuanced, but that will not necessarily be taken on board on the ground and could cost him dearly in Pennsylvania , where, e.g. fracking has created many jobs. Jennifer has already pointed out the damage that could have been done to the chances for an upset in Texas. She has also pointed to the visceral truth about many Americans’ attitude to climate change – with China now a bigger polluter and India catching up at a fair pace – why shoot yourself in the foot if they are doing nothing, in particular if your circumstances and expectations are already taking a battering?
In his ”Wake Up to Politics” column today Gabe Fleisher, while gung ho for Biden, sounds a note of caution pointing out that polls can be wrong!

28/10

Addendum: One aspect I have not seen covered or commented on in any detail is what happens after the Votes are counted, and, as appears likely, Biden is the victor.T here has been much speculation about Trump not accepting, resorting to the Courts, etc, but what if the result is clear enough to render any delaying-tactic obviously doomed to failure. Clearly if Trump tries to hang on and not leave there will be a Constitutional crisis. But what if he decides to go, however grudgingly. He is unlikely to “go gentle into…”We are unlikely to see any statesmanlike utterances about facilitating the transition or any practical steps to help or work with his successor. A wounded and vengeful Trump will have seventy (70) plus days left to wreak a good deal of havoc to the system. He can presumably continue to issue Executive Orders and going against them seems from a quick read to be extremely difficult. He remains the possessor of the Executive Power and CoC until 20 January. Not a very pleasant prospect.

29/10

HOSPITAL PASS CONTINUED: EUROPE, IRELAND, CORONA AND POLITICS 2010 CLVII

EUROPE IRELAND CORONA AND POLITICS

A cynic could point out that much of the Corona virus angst currently gripping Europe and North America is essentially First World Angst. The Virus has taken a swipe at the World’s wealthiest countries and their comfortable living standards. Deaths from the Virus have mainly been among the elderly and those with “existing medical conditions” some of which at least, like Diabetes II, are predominantly down to First World diet and lifestyle. Elsewhere, where the Virus is now taking hold, most in those categories would probably have died sooner, one way or another, with the lower life expectancies and inferior health care systems in developing countries.

The restrictions on travel, on holidays, on bars, restaurants, hotels and nightlife, have in practice curbed the lifestyle and spending of disposable income by those fortunate enough to have some, again mainly in the affluent North. The economic “hit” Europeans have taken has been considerably ameliorated by governments in Ireland and elsewhere throwing borrowed money at and to subsidise their populations, something poorer countries cannot afford. What has happened has been horrible but for many worldwide it is worse. These simple facts seem to have passed over the heads of those affected here. And if indeed the Virus is a case of God tapping humanity on the shoulder, then it is but a small foretaste of what lies ahead for us all very soon over Global Warming.

The Corona Virus has now got its second wind in Ireland as elsewhere, with new cases rising in a flow that threatens to become a flood. We’re not yet in the basket case category of Israel, which now has 190,929 cases and 1273 dead – up sevenfold fold in cases and four fold in deaths since 1 July. In the same period Ireland, which was roughly on a par with Israel for cases then, has had 8,000 new cases (to 33, 121) and another 33 deaths (to 1792). Nor are we as bad as Romania, again roughly on a par with us on 1 July but which has seen new cases quadruple to 113,589 and deaths more than double to 4458.

All over Europe the Second Wave is under way, worse than in Ireland. Alarms are ringing, with some countries, including the UK, warning of an imminent second lockdown – unless! In Ireland as elsewhere, the only scene that matters is the domestic one and here the perception is often more potent that the reality. While we are still doing well, with new cases far below those of last April, the 3347 odd new cases and 15 deaths since 7 September, combined with the accelerating rate of infections, have been enough to frighten the horses of the NPHED . New restrictions have just been announced, particularly for Dublin, with threats of more to come. However ,after months of restrictions and regulations, a weariness is setting in and there seems little public enthusiasm for more of the same.

Currently there is still – just – public support for the new measures and trust in the medical experts, but if the measures are not seen to work quickly and definitively then this could change. The happy consensus is gone, with doubts now expressed about the efficacy and desirability of more lockdown, given the effects on the economy and public morale generally. There is a growing belief that even another total lockdown, while temporarily effective, will only flatter to deceive, and that the virus will remain, dormant but deadly, returning when restrictions are eased. Questions increasingly being heard are “to what end?” and “how often will this happen? and “when will it end?” The answer to the last is all too obvious – when a safe and effective vaccine is developed and readily available. Don’t hold your breath.

One of Ireland’s top political commentators wrote recently that the Coalition’s honeymoon period was over. And how! The Corona Virus is threatening to take from the one major success of Martin’s government to date – getting the schools back, which even opponents and critics have hailed. GolfGate was a spectacular own goal by the political Establishment, costing the Government its Agriculture Minister, Fianna Fail its deputy leader and Ireland its EU Commissioner. More importantly it did much to erode public trust and the belief that as a community we were “all in it together.“ The consequences of that loss of trust have implications not just for the struggle against the virus but for the fortunes of the Government itself.

Irish politics today has an eerie half-light feel. The Government is based on the results of last February’s election, an election dominated by health and housing and a general feeling of dissatisfaction with the outgoing government’s performance, including its failure finally to put to bed the legacy issues of the 2008 Crash. How remote that now feels. One inglorious remark on the doorstep was from a gentleman who reportedly said he had had all he could take! Has Covid woken him up? February’s stalemated result led to several months of interparty negotiations even as the Covid crisis unfolded, with the outgoing government functioning as a caretaker one, and perceived to have coped relatively well. The cheap shots that usually characterise Opposition attacks on the Government were largely absent, not through altruism, but because even the most blinkered ideologue realised that combatting the Virus was the major priority facing the country.

The new Government, cobbled together from Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and the Greens, took office on June 27. It has a safe enough majority – on paper – though there are already signs of strain with the Greens, something likely to exacerbate over the October budget and beyond as Green policies rub up against those of the two bigger parties. Emerging internal divisions within Fianna Fail are another factor. What may prove the glue holding it together is the Benjamin Franklin principle, and here the major imponderable is the Corona Virus. Can it be contained? How bad will it get, given Ireland’s chronically under resourced health care system with, at the cutting edge, the lowest number of ICU beds in Europe, and a front line work force that has already been under pressure since March? How to react to hundreds more dead? Currently there seems a general optimism throughout Europe that the Second Wave will kill fewer people, since those increasingly infected are younger, fitter, and less likely to succumb, and because countries have learned how better to treat patients as well as how to isolate and protect the most vulnerable. Only time will tell how well founded this optimism is.

The major consequence of excluding Sinn Fein, marginally the largest party, from government has been to gift them the status of Main Opposition, the balance being a rag bag of small left wing parties and independents. Given that all the election issues “haven’t gone away, you know,” but are on hold and may fester, Sinn Fein have an unparalleled opportunity to criticise “constructively” and assume the mantle of the Government-in-Waiting. With the Virus, with the plethora of issues to be handled, with interparty strains and internal problems among the Coalition partners, it will take some form of Houdini act by Martin and Varadkar to rescue this.
24/9

JOHN HUME 2009 CLVI

JOHN HUME

John Hume was not the only person I know to die last month. Some days later one of my closest friends in Chicago, Pat Martin, wife of my BEST friend, Jim Martin, passed away after a stroke. She was a lovely woman, generous and hospitable and a loving companion of Jim, her husband of over half a century, she from England, he originally from Monaghan. I knew them from back in the Seventies, when Pat showed many kindnesses to my wife and me from the moment we first arrived in Chicago in 1973. She will be sorely missed by Jim, her three children and her grandchildren. May she rest in peace.

John Hume’s passing has been rightly commemorated and there is little I can add that has not already been written by people who worked with and knew John far better than I did. The tributes and assessment by former Irish Ambassador to the USA, Sean Donlon, and his fellow diplomat Michael Lillis, are particularly important since both worked extensively with him and became close personal friends, as did Sean O’Huiginn, another former Irish Ambassador to the USA. The Irish Times produced a comprehensive souvenir supplement summarising his life and career which is well worth reading.

“By their Fruits Ye shall know them,” applies very much to John Hume. His “Fruits,” his enduring monument, is the Peace which reigns in Northern Ireland which he did so much to bring about. (Regular readers may recall I used the same quote in my December 2014 column on Paisley – the very antithesis of John Hume. Enough said.)Two years ago at the celebrations to mark the twentieth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, which cemented the Peace he had striven for, the only major figure missing from the occasion was John Hume, by then sadly already in the dementia twilight. It is equally sad too that the Corona Virus restrictions recently robbed him in death of a fitting funeral.

On that anniversary I wrote of John’s role over the decades as a monumental and tireless worker for peace and reconciliation. He was there at the outset of the Civil Rights campaign in 1968. He was there through Sunningdale. He it was who conceived and worked at bringing in the benign involvement of Irish American politicians whose role and influence proved so important. He was there during the dark days in the aftermath of the Hunger Strikes and the relentless violence of the mid and late Eighties. He was the vital element in helping to bring Sinn Fein in from the cold when he undertook the dialogue with Gerry Adams, for which he was widely and unfairly criticised at the time. The Hume Adams Dialogue eventually found fruition in the Downing Street Declaration of December 1993 with its crucial reference to Britain having “no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland,” a declaration that led some months later to the IRA Ceasefire and all that subsequently flowed from it.

Throughout he was consistent. The Irish Times has reprinted an article a young Hume wrote in 1964 – well before the “Troubles”- in which he criticised existing traditional nationalist attitudes, called for more involvement in the political process and an acknowledgement that the Unionist tradition in the North was as strong and legitimate as the nationalist one, arguing that the only alternative to accepting the Constitutional position was that of Sinn Fein. He suggested also that for progress to be made Unionists had to accept and respond to olive branches the nationalist side might make. Failure to do so and end discrimination could only exacerbate and harden attitudes. Adherence to non-violence and to the recognition of the legitimacy of both traditions was and remained the central tenets of his approach. It was a short step to the concept of the Agreed Ireland that he saw begin to emerge as the violence ceased.

He was persistent; he never gave up, despite setbacks. After decades of peace, younger people have little concept of just how grim the situation in the North was during the Troubles era. Tribal loyalties were entrenched and strong, particularly on the Unionist side, which produced no major political figure for decades except Paisley, who wielded a wrecking ball through the various attempts at political settlement and compromise. And inevitably violence begat a steadily escalating violence. Marches generated counter demonstrations – and violence. Nationalist rioting provoked a weaponised RUC and drew in the British Army. Rioting intensified. The Provos emerged. The first Army casualty was in February 1971. The violence ground on reaching new heights after the Internment of Nationalists in August 1971.

The killings on Bloody Sunday during a peaceful Civil Rights March in Derry were a new low. Bloody Sunday galvanised Nationalists and further polarised the communities. Britain, now directly involved politically, sought, together with the Irish government, a political settlement along the principles advocated by John Hume. The result was the 1973 Sunningdale Agreement and the first attempt at power sharing. It was brought down by a Loyalist strike in 1974.
Violence, alienation and polarisation were now chronic and the next decade was to feature nothing beyond a continuing grisly cycle of violence, with landmark atrocities, ten IRA hunger strikers starving to death, and an effective military stalemate. It was not a period for optimism. Yet through all this John Hume campaigned on as a voice of moderation, by now the dominant Nationalist politician, an MEP and one continually exploring new possible initiatives to find a solution including international and specifically US involvement.

My limited direct contacts with John were at this stage. As First Secretary in the Irish Embassy in Washington D.C. from 1975 to 1977 I got to know John at the beginning of his odyssey to win over top Irish American politicians to influence official US policy on Northern Ireland towards the non-violent approach he was advocating. Indeed he and his wife Pat stayed with us during one of his first visits. He was from the start determined and focussed. He cut an impressive figure to all who met him. Yet it was a formidable task. The IRA had vocal supporters and advocates among the Irish American community and politicians were initially leery about getting involved. Official US policy was to avoid involvement in the internal affairs of their closest ally – the UK – and institutionally the USA was unsympathetic to Irish nationalism. Yet John persevered, working closely with the Irish Embassy and Irish diplomats. He was extraordinarily successful. Anyone interested should read Maurice Fitzpatrick’s book “John Hume in America.”

By the late 1980’s the Anglo-Irish Agreement had signalled a new departure and era of cooperation between London and Dublin. Yet the violence and polarisation persisted. So too John Hume’s quest for peace. Hence his dialogue with Gerry Adams. He was widely criticised, criticism which hurt. Yet as historian Ronan Fanning remarked to me at the time “Somebody has to talk to them.” Those talks contributed vitally to the hard won Peace in the North that eventually emerged. While it involved many people and elements for John Hume above all it was a signal and crowning success.

The debt we owe him is enormous.
22/8

HOSPITAL PASS; WHO WOULD WANT TO BE TAOISEACH? 2008 CLV

HOSPITAL PASS?

CORONA VIRUS CASES AS OF JULY 22 2020
ISRAEL IRELAND
15 April 12,762 (139) 12,136 (444)
31 May 17,192 (287) 24,990 (1649)
1 July 26,462 (325) 25,477 (1738)
22 July 56,085 (430) 25,819 (1754)

Who would want to be Taoiseach?

Micheal Martin for one, though just a month in he may be having second thoughts. He has already fired Minister for Agriculture Barry Cowen, for a legacy DUI offence from 2016, has had to quell backbench resentment over appointments, has had to balance reopening the Economy against a possible resurgence in COVID 19 infections and has had to supervise the bedding down of Ireland’s unlikely Coalition Government. All this as the goodwill, consensus and solidarity generated in the public response to the Virus has ebbed, the perennial issues on which last February’s election was fought have re-surfaced and the slow simmering Brexit is beginning to come to the boil. Moreover the terms of the coalition agreement, by obliging him to step aside after thirty months, deprive him of the props which normally sustain a head of government – control of the timetable and expectation of sufficient time to get the job done.

Parking for a moment the possibility that “events dear boy” – Harold Macmillan’s phrase – may intervene to upset his now twenty nine month tenure, with the ever present threat that one of the his coalition partners may walk over policy or scandal, there is no doubt which should be Martin’s priority for his legacy – how he handles the Corona Virus, now a clear, immediate and present danger. We do not know how the Virus Crisis will evolve, but any perceived mishandling will be laid at Martin’s door. The Varadkar Government performance on the Virus met with wide approval and restored his – and Fine Gael’s – fortunes after an abysmal election campaign, fought primarily on how the Government handled Brexit, an issue still in the abstract for most and not high on the electorate’s priorities.

And, ironically, the Brexit example has analogous relevance for Martin also. If he gets it right on the Corona Virus, he won’t necessarily win any brownie points, but will then be judged on housing, the economy and whatever other issue surfaces in the meantime The Cowen affair was one that happens in politics, the message has now got through to his aggrieved backbenchers that this time around the plum appointments are of necessity few, and Cowen’s replacement, Fianna Fail deputy leader Dara Calleary, has righted the major omission from Martin’s original team. The new government appears to be settling down and while most of the aspirations in the Programme for Government are likely to remain just that, given the pressure on resources, it will have at least a brief honeymoon to advance some of its priorities on Housing, the Environment and Health. A hard Brexit at year’s end remains a looming danger.

But first there is the Corona Virus, which is not going, and will not go, away until a vaccine or some treatment magic bullet is both developed and readily available. Until then we are essentially at war, and, as during World War Two, we cannot ignore what is happening around us. And here currently Ireland is very much at a crossroads. As the economy was reopened, even cautiously, in recent weeks we have noticed, as elsewhere, that the number of new cases has begun to increase again. The numbers are still minute (350 since the beginning of July with 16 deaths), but so infectious is the Virus that the rate of spread can rapidly become geometric. Right now the nightmare scenario is Israel. Consider the figures (apologies) heading this article for Ireland and Israel on four dates; they are of reported cases with deaths in brackets; they make for chilling reading. Israel had been early into locking down and very successful in minimising the number of deaths. Then from mid- June the country began to relax….

Set against the unfolding disaster of the Virus’ progress in the USA, Ireland has been relatively successful in combatting it. The country was in the first epicentre, Western Europe, fortunately after Italy and Spain, but clearly by the end of May had a sizeable number of deaths, over half in retirement homes, and a rising number of cases. Then the effects of the lockdown began to be felt fully, with gratifying results, apparent during June. The curve was virtually flattened totally and some experts and commentators suggested that the Virus could be all but wiped out, taking a cue from New Zealand and some of the East Asian countries, were the lockdown to be continued. The dilemma was that every day of lockdown further damaged the economy, particularly in the seasonal tourist and hospitality sectors.

Ireland could have done better, certainly, like the Scandinavians, Sweden apart, or Austria, but it could also have done horribly worse, as in Britain, for several reasons. Ireland is an EU Member State with a small open society and economy. As an island it is heavily reliant on air and sea traffic for trade and contact; it has also a very much open border with Northern Ireland, which applies British Corona Virus regulations. Ireland has a significant Tourist industry with the largest numbers of tourists coming from Britain and the USA and has up to now applied a relaxed attitude to visitors at its borders. Moreover very high numbers of Irish residents holiday abroad with Spain, Italy, Greece, Portugal, Britain and the USA the favourite destinations. The often made comparison with New Zealand does not really apply.

As Ireland saw other European countries begin to re-open, without apparently precipitating any cataclysmic second wave (cases surging in places but without any surge in deaths – yet), domestic pressure told and a cautious re-opening began. Which is where we are at. Already there have been problems mirroring happenings elsewhere in Europe and the USA – little social distancing, particularly among the young, who account for many of the new cases – and some expressions of resentment over regulations to control what is widely perceived to be an ailment easily shrugged off by younger people who are impatient to see “normality” restored. Again, the wartime analogy has relevance here; “Normality” is a long way away and indeed is likely to be superseded by a newer altered version as we learn to live with the disease.

The first critical issue to arise for the new government has been over Border Controls. Should we close our borders totally? Should we impose strict quarantine on those arriving – instead of just an unenforceable and largely unverifiable “honour” system of self-quarantine? What about visitors from and tourists arriving via Northern Ireland? How to cope with visitors, including some from the USA, who anecdotally thought the Virus crisis over exaggerated? And what about the two million or so who holiday abroad annually; how to treat them on return? The first attempts at constructing a list of “safe” countries have been ridiculed; the list of fifteen includes Monaco, San Marino, Gibraltar and Greenland, not to mention Italy. Hardly an auspicious start. The Taoiseach will have to do better; but can he win either way Who’d be a Taoiseach?
23/7

THE GOVERNMENT’S FIRST TEN DAYS 2007(II) CLIV

THE GOVERNMENT’S FIRST TEN DAYS

The new and different Irish Coalition Government has presided over the first significant relaxation of Lock down, but it will be a considerable time before the economy scrambles back to any semblance of normality. Indeed the pace of recovery will partly depend on whether or not the relaxation backfires and the virus re-surges. The jury is still out on that one, but judging by the first weekend of pub openings the omens, in Ireland as elsewhere, are not good.

Hopefully it was just pent-up demand and matters will settle down. Hopefully. Next up a major stimulus package has been promised for mid-July. It had better be ambitious and considerable, with unemployment over 20% and whole sectors like leisure and tourism barely functioning.

The Government is on a steep learning curve with time running out. The traditional dreary steeples of Housing and Homelessness have emerged once more and this time Health has the added kick of the Corona Virus. Currently there is pressure for relaxation of travel restrictions, but with many of the – admittedly few – new daily cases linked to foreign travel, for the moment the new Government is holding firm. Re-introducing a lock down could be difficult, would test public support and would certainly hold back attempts at economic recovery. Moreover, now that there IS a government, the public consensus that sustained the country during the Lockdown is fast disappearing, aggravated by the feeling of disgruntlement from that section of the electorate which did not support the Coalition. Sinn Fein, now spearheading the Opposition, has vowed to present the strongest opposition any Irish government has faced.

Already there has been trouble, The Coalition agreement provides for a “Rotating Taoiseach” with Martin scheduled to step aside for Varadkar in November 2022. Whether this will ever happen remains to be seen; whatever about a week, thirty months is a very long time in politics! The net effect was to leave no honeymoon period and the new Taoiseach was obliged to hit the ground running. Which he did. First up was picking the Cabinet, which provoked howls of disappointment from Fianna Fail back benchers – and a few front benchers – who failed to grasp that there were very few loaves and fishes to distribute as Fianna Fail’s share (five Cabinet posts plus seven junior Ministers). Most surprising was that Fianna Fail’s Deputy Leader, Dara Calleary, did not get a Cabinet post, becoming instead an unhappy Chief Whip.

As a sign that attitudinal change “comes dropping slow”, there was resentment across the board in the West, among politicians and the general public alike, that there was no cabinet post for anyone West of the Shannon and some surprise at the new Minister for Health, Stephen Donnelly, who only joined Fianna Fail in 2016. However Donnelly was Opposition Spokesman on Health, knows the brief thoroughly and Martin was taking no chances with the Corona Crisis far from over. Interestingly, three Cabinet members are from the one Cork constituency, while two more are from Wicklow. Interesting also is that little dissatisfaction was heard from Fine Gael ranks though they suffered the greatest hemorrhage of former senior and junior Ministers. The Greens, who did best in terms of posts, have been quietest.

Most commentators consider that Sinn Fein, though excluded, stand to gain most. Not only will their un-costed populist election manifesto not be put to the test, but their exclusion has absolved them of any responsibility for what are likely to be difficult decisions for the Government. Circumstances would appear to have gifted them an unparalleled opportunity. Since it became clear the Government would be formed without them, they have been parroting two themes. The first was that the country had “voted for change” and this was being denied them. The second was that their vote (535,595) was greater than any other party and that those who voted for them were entitled to have their voices heard –i.e. to be in government. This was of course straight out of the old Sinn Fein play book in the North a generation ago when Gerry Adams spoke of the “mandate “Sinn Fein had from those who voted for them. And, in the particular circumstances of the North, where there was no political consensus and every election a zero-sum game over national identity, it had validity. The Good Friday Agreement and all that has flowed from it, inter alia acknowledged that “mandate” by enshrining cross-community power sharing as central to devolved government (by then Sinn Fein had in any event muscled its Nationalist rival the SDLP out of the way).

The argument has little validity in the South, where there is no tribal division in politics. Last February Sinn Fein got 24.5% of the vote – hardly a mandate for inclusion in government. The three party Coalition has 50.2%, without the Greens 43.1%. When Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald complained in a radio interview on 28 June that the other parties had conspired to exclude Sinn Fein ,she had no answer when the interviewer pointed out that every coalition government in the State without Fianna Fail had effectively shut out Fianna Fail, the largest party and poll getter by far.

For the record, Fianna Fail were shut out after five elections in which they secured by far the largest percentages of votes and seats: in 1948, 41.9% and 77 seats; in 1954 43.4% and 65 seats; in 1973 46.2% and 74 seats; in 1981 45.3% and 78 seats and in 1982 46.2% and 75 seats.

Well, did the Electorate “vote for change”? The call for “change” underpinned Sinn Fein’s election campaign, one which saw their support hold up over the final months leading into last February, in contrast to previous elections where it had fallen away as polling day approached. It’s a powerful argument, particularly given the size of the actual Sinn Fein vote. The theme that “the people voted for change” and that the popular will has been frustrated by the other main parties, is a new page in the playbook, one which Sinn Fein are likely to push at every opportunity. This has become a popular refrain, trotted out regularly by all those dissatisfied with the election result for whatever reason (it was relayed to me just last week by a cab driver) and one that is likely to be heard more and more if the new Government fails to deliver.

There has of course, as one columnist pointed out last week, been one very major “change” in that the two old Civil War parties are now in government together, something unthinkable only a few years ago. But this was hardly what those voting “for change” had in mind. However, it’s not quite the vote for change yet. As I mentioned last time, the votes for the two traditional parties and the aggregate identifiable Leftist vote, are virtually identical at 43% each, with the balance made up of the Greens and the various Independents, many of whom can hardly be described as radical.

Right now the future is uncertain; indeed who could have predicted 2020 thus far? So. Will Sinn Fein exploit their good fortune? Or will this unique Coalition actually succeed?
8/7/2020

WHAT A YEAR! 2007 CLIII

WHAT A YEAR.

2020 – What a Year! And we’re only half way through.

In January we had – finally – Brexit, with the finale to come at year’s end. February saw that General Election with the inconclusive result, of which more below. March to June 2020 will be forever identified with the Virus – still very much with us and something which has coloured every aspect of our lives. Even as it rages through the Americas, the Middle East and the Sub- Continent, for the moment here in Ireland, as elsewhere in those Western European countries first attacked, the Corona Virus is held in check and the cautious opening up of the countrywide lockdown is now well under way. Ireland’s all-island death toll is nudging 2,300 and the magic R figure is well below one. We are no longer in the world top twenty for deaths ( now 27th) but remain ninth in terms of deaths per million, behind the USA and seven of our EU partners. And, as elsewhere, Irish deaths are overwhelmingly among the old (many in retirement homes), the sick and the infirm.

Any sense of relief is tempered by awareness of the bereavements suffered and those voices predicting a second more vicious wave of infection. This may well happen, but at all levels the general opinion seems to be that this time we will not be caught unawares, that we know more about the virus now and that importantly we know how to contain it. Indeed renewed limited infections of a disease where the mortality rate hovers around two per cent may prove to be a lesser task than economic recovery. Getting the toothpaste back in the tube in terms of undoing the economic and social havoc wrought by the Virus will be a monumental task and one for the long haul; there was full employment and a booming economy before the Virus struck, whatever about deficiencies in housing and health.

But first off we need a government. We now have one – a historic three party coalition, just agreed after months of negotiation, not helped by the stultifying omnipresent Virus, with the hatchet buried between the two old Civil War parties Fianna Fail and Fine Gael as they enter coalition with the Greens. Agreement was a close run thing with the two thirds majority required by the Greens barely achieved and some sceptics convinced therefore that it will not last.

The February election had been historic. Not only had Sinn Fein broken through big time but it actually garnered more votes than either Fianna Fail or Fine Gael. In terms of seats Fianna Fail just edged it with 38, Sinn Fein got 37 and Fine Gael 35, out of 160. With eighty plus seats required to form a government what was clear was that the process was going to be long and arduous, matching if not exceeding that of 2016, with the Greens, (12 seats) and a slew of small parties and Independents featuring also in the mix.

Sinn Fein had campaigned on a shamelessly populist and dubiously costed platform tailored to public demands for action on housing and health (overwhelmingly identified in polls as the two issues most of public concern), packaged and presented as a “mandate for change.” Was its result a flash In the pan, just a temporary surge born of dissatisfaction with the other parties and therefore part of the periodical “throw the bums out” rushes of blood to the head which grips the Irish electorate at intervals? Or did it represent the start of a seismic shift to the Left in Irish politics as Sinn Fein and others proclaimed? And was it a “mandate for change?” Sinn Fein and the other identifiable Leftist parties clocked up around 36% of the votes with the Greens winning another 7%, the 43% total matching almost exactly the combined vote for Fianna Fail and Fine Gael. With many of the Independents carrying FF or FG sentiments “in their DNA” the jury remains out on that one.

What WAS abundantly clear was that no two parties could together form a government. The necessary numbers could be achieved only by coalition with a third party or a significant number of Independents. After Sinn Fein’s Initial attempt to form a left of centre government failed, the options for Fianna Fail and Fine Gael were clear – either involve Sinn Fein or shut them out.

Right away the decision was to shut them out even though a three party grand coalition would easily have the numbers. This before the Virus struck. Clearly Sinn Fein were seen as having too much historical baggage for both the other parties and were potentially also an existential threat to Fianna Fail in particular. The major argument in favour of inclusion – that Sinn Fein would thus have to get off the fence, participate in and share responsibility for some tough decisions – was discounted. Shutting them out narrowed the possibilities down to opting for a second election – for which there was no enthusiasm – or for the two parties to agree to form a historic coalition, suspending, however temporarily, traditional enmities and then court the Greens and/ or others to get the necessary numbers. There had been informal arrangements in the past – after 1987 and again in the “Confidence and Supply “arrangement after 2016, but formal coalition would be something else. For better or worse this was the option chosen.

Would the two parties have decided similarly only weeks later when the extent of the economic and social carnage wrought by the Virus became known? And, a rhetorical question, how much does Leo Varadkar, now riding high in the polls for his government’s handling of the Virus emergency, regret calling the election in February and not waiting? Whatever, the pressing need to form a government by bringing in the Greens (vastly preferable to handling a gaggle of independents) gave them enormous leverage, something the Greens have not been slow to exploit. The result has been a wordy, lengthy (137 pages) Programme for Government with the imprint of the Greens all over it, despite the low priority the public have given to fighting climate change. Whether it will survive the first months’ brush with reality remains to be seen.

The Programme is largely aspirational and not costed – but what aspirations! It commits the Government, inter alia, to an average 7% annual reduction in overall greenhouse gas emissions from 2021 to 2030 (51% over the decade) – the Red Line issue for Green participation. Moreover a 2050 target for net zero emissions will be included in a Climate Action Bill to be introduced in the government’s first 100 days. This, and the other measures to combat global warming, if implemented, would put Ireland among the global leaders in saving the planet. There’s plenty of waffle on housing targets and just about everything else with nothing stated on where the money will come from.

The new government will see Micheal Martin as Taoiseach swop with Leo Varadkar after 30 months. The Greens (twelve seats) will have three Cabinet Minsters (out of fifteen) and four Junior Ministers ( out of twenty) . Not a bad haul. More next time.
25/6

SAINT PATRICK’S DAY 2020: LETHAL GAME CHANGER 2004 CXLVIII

SAINT PATRICK’S DAY 2020: LETHAL GAME CHANGER

How strange and surreal it is to be writing this. Two weeks ago it would have been inconceivable. A week ago, hopefully, unlikely. That was then and this is now. The Corona Virus has struck with all the immediacy of an asteroid impacting. It’s not in China, like SARS, nor in Central Africa, like Ebola. It’s here in Ireland, in Europe, in North America, in the prosperous First World.

Again, pursuing the asteroid metaphor, the dust and debris have not yet settled so we have no idea, other than a pessimistic inkling of the damage wrought. It promises to be fearsome. Western Europe, now deemed to be the Epicentre, has five hundred million people, North America three hundred and sixty. If left unchecked up to seventy percent could be infected; repeat 70% or 600 million. For most, perhaps up to ninety per cent, it will be mild, for ten percent more serious, requiring hospitalisation, and for the unfortunate minority – fatal. Based on the evidence from China, the death rate could be 2% or higher; and 2 % of 600 million comes to 12 million deaths. For the island of Ireland, with 6.9 million, this works out at around 100,000 dead. For Britain, with ten times the population, the estimate is around one million. Even an infection rate of 10% would yield figures of  fifteen and one hundred and fifty thousand dead. Do the math for North American deaths.

These are wartime figures. For make no mistake. Our societies are at war. The casualties have begun to mount, the infection rate appears to be doubling perhaps every three or four days and if we do nothing will continue at that pace. The collateral damage will be colossal; already the Western economies are taking severe hits with a downturn and recession now a virtual certainly. But the societal damage is even worse, again akin to that in war. Italy, the country outside China worst hit so far has seen its health system buckle under the strain and has even begun to triage patients in need of the limited supply of respirators. That on the basis of casualties, as I write, of 31,000 infected, half of one percent of Italy’s population. And as the system buckles, as the earlier experience in Wuhan demonstrated, the mortality rate rises; in Italy with 2,500 deaths, it is already well over 5%, culling brutally and disproportionately the elderly and the already sick.

The first case was diagnosed in Italy on 21 February, less than four weeks ago, and it is the sheer speed with which the virus has spread which has thrown Western politicians and populations off balance. They – we – had watched with  fascination as the virus picked up tempo from its still murky origin in Wuhan, China last December. We watched as the Chinese government, authoritarian and therefore able to mobilise, control and direct its population had gradually fought against the virus, effectively locking down hundreds of millions of people for lengthy periods. We marvelled, but were complacent enough to think it could never strike in Europe, and, moreover, that it would be unthinkable to contemplate, yet alone introduce, similar curbs on personal freedoms into western democracies.  A comforting sub – text to this thinking was that by the time it DID strike, a vaccine would have been developed, and/or like SARS or some of the other flu like viruses that originate in China it would be self-limiting or would weaken and attenuate.

The vital lessons which the Asians had learned from combatting SARS and were relearning and applying to control the current virus, were noted but not applied in time, particularly the essential devices of adequate testing and then contacting and isolating the wider pool of those third parties potentially infected. Even as the horrific developments in Italy were played out on the European media, politicians and governments seemed content to concentrate what testing there was on people who had visited Northern Italy, completely underestimating the virulent contagion rate of the virus.

Now it’s a massive “Operation Stable Door” throughout Europe to emulate the Asian success in slowing down the rate of infection (“flattening the curve”) and it is clear that the reputations of the current crop of governing politicians will be determined by how they handle this crisis.  Sport has been cancelled, even not-so- large gatherings banned. Pubs and restaurants are being closed in more and more countries. People, the elderly especially, encouraged to stay home. Italy is in lockdown, as are Spain and France – Macron yesterday declaring that France was at war. Borders have been closed, States of Emergency have been declared throughout Europe as the figures for infections have rocketed – and will continue to increase dramatically as more people are tested.

The other grim lesson from Italy is that where a society is mainly healthy and prosperous, a country’s health system is likely to be tailored and resourced to reflect this, with an embedded assumption that it will never have to face a massive and immediate existential threat. Italy is running short of essential equipment to cater for the ever increasing numbers of seriously ill. It is doubtful whether any other European country is much better equipped. With catastrophe threatening and doctors facing the prospect of who to save or not, the avowed aim of the measures taken thus far is to try to slow down and flatten the rising curve of infection. Even some flattening would relieve pressure on Europe’s national health systems.

Ireland had its first confirmed case on 29 February. The current figure for the island is 354 (69 new today), including 62 in the North and is increasing sharply. According to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, a doctor, the daily figure is expected to increase by 30% and the total infected could reach 10-15,000 by the end of March, two weeks today. The vast majority will not require hospital treatment, but at 2%, 2-300 could die. The Chief Medical Officer, Dr Tony Holohan, has stressed that the next seven days will be vital in flattening the curve and partially heading off disaster. The economy is shattered and further emergency measures seem likely. No one can even speculate what the final outcome will be.

Thus far our nearest neighbour, Britain, has marched to a different drum, initially downplaying the threat (though not on the scale of Trump), while eschewing the more drastic measures taken by other major European countries. Perhaps there was an illusion that, as an island, Britain would be spared the worst (which may well turn out to be partially the case, and for Ireland also). Perhaps also through adherence to the notion of “herd immunity,” which might eventually prove valid, but which constitutes a hell of a risky policy bet. As the figures mount British policy is now changing, perhaps too late.

For us all this is a war. And even if we succeed in “flattening the curve” this will not constitute victory. It will not constitute a Stalingrad, a Midway, a Kursk, a D-Day. At best, to quote Churchill, a Johnson favourite, it will constitute an “end of the beginning.” And even that will require “Blood, Sweat, Toil and Tears.”

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!

END

17/3/2020

THAT ELECTION RESULT 2003 (2) CXLVII

THAT ELECTION RESULT

Ireland is still coming to terms with the General Election outcome. Is it a sign that populism is alive and well and thriving in Ireland?  After all results across Europe have shown a rise in support for populist parties, so why not in Ireland? Has populism here, honed on the Water Charge issue several years back,  now found wider expression. Or is it a sign that Sinn Fein has definitely “arrived” as a political force, signalling, as well as the party coming in from the cold, a giant stride towards a left/right alignment in Irish politics?  More prosaically is it just the latest example of a mood swing in Irish politics with yet another rejection of the government of the day for failing to deliver at a time when the need for some form of radical action to tackle the housing and homeless situation and do something to improve the quality of delivery in the health area has rarely been greater. The answer probably is a mixture of all three with only one clearly evident conclusion  so far –  rejection of the outgoing government which ran on its record, and that record was found wanting.

Put simply it was the third post-Crash election and the third “Throw the Bums Out” election. In 2011 Fianna Fail were emphatically rejected. In 2016 a dissatisfied electorate took out its anger by savaging Labour, which was destroyed as a political force, and also less severely Fine Gael, which managed to cling on in power through an unprecedented arrangement which saw it propped up by Fianna Fail. This time around both the main parties were rejected and Labour’s vote declined still further. Between them the three parties mustered less than 50% of the votes cast, a far cry from the 79% secured in 2007. With the main Bums rejected, left were Sinn Fein, demanding to be given its chance, and promising goodies for which someone else would pay , the Greens  who wittered on about Climate Change but had obviously only restricted appeal, the hard left,  with even less , and a collection of favourite sons and daughters with strictly local appeal.

Sinn Fein launched “ Giving Workers and Families a Break”, an unashamedly populist (and dubiously costed) manifesto somewhat reminiscent of Fianna Fail’s in 1977, advocating tax cuts, including abolition of property tax (deja vue anyone?) with miscellaneous other proposals on housing and health, to be financed by taxation hikes on the wealthy and companies. The party ran a brilliant campaign, targeting successfully sections of the public dissatisfied with the Housing and Health situations in particular. (Find one person who ISN’T dissatisfied with both though most not directly affected recognise there is no quick fix for either.) Check out pages three to six of their manifesto and compare it with the results of an exit poll asking voters why they voted as they did. That poll, incidentally should be writ in stone for the other parties’ negotiating teams; the poll results should certainly concentrate minds.

Two issues dominated, with almost 60% citing health (32%) and housing (26%). Next (8%) was the pension age issue, followed at 6% by jobs ( there is virtually full employment) and climate change, about which only the Greens seem concerned. 4% cited taxation, 3% crime and childcare, and one per cent (1% !) Brexit and Immigration. So much for the various lobby and pressure groups and for the outgoing government’s “achievement” on Brexit. So much also for Sinn Fein’s “core political objective” of achieving Irish unity through a referendum. It may be buried among the “something else” cited by 6% but it certainly did not feature as a major issue for the voters. The Sinn Fein surge was down to domestic internal Irish issues.

The inept campaigns of the Big Two, both forced to defend the record of the outgoing government and  promising only gradual improvement  offered nothing new. There was obvious appeal  in the notion that, after years of frustration and austerity, the party dangling  change, action and improvement should be given a chance ( again, deja vue?). This, rarely stated explicitly, is Sinn Fein’s strongest card for being part of the next government. The downside, as I pointed out last time, based on previous electoral history, is that parties who promise much and fail to deliver, get unceremoniously dumped next time around; not even the whinge that the party in coalition was not free to implement fully its policies on account of its partners cuts much mustard.

The result, an effective stalemate, means that, barring some sudden unexpected development, it will take some time – and negotiation – for the next Irish government to emerge.  Even any two of the Big Three together will not hack it, hence the courting by all of the Greens (who should and could extract a heavy and cast-iron policy guarantee – last time up they were merely voting fodder for Fianna Fail and suffered accordingly).  The alternatives are some patched up arrangement involving very minor parties and/or some Independents ( of which there are 21), a Grand Coalition involving all the Big Three ( which nobody is talking about), some form of minority government propped up by a variant of the last “confidence and supply arrangement” or another general election which nobody wants.

Crucial to what is eventually hammered out as a programme for government are the priorities. Compromise will be necessary all round and, therefore, there are no “red lines,” however party spokesmen may huff and puff.  While the result conveyed a demand for change from a section of the electorate, it was far from a majority, whatever Sinn Fein, and some loud voices on the left may assert. 70% of the votes cast (and over 70% of the seats) did not go to Sinn Fein and the hard left. Sinn Fein apologists have pointed to the fact that, with more candidates their surpluses could have racked up perhaps a dozen more seats. It can equally be argued that it was only the vagaries of the later counts of the PR system that hindered some of the 16 runner-up Fianna Fail candidates from being elected. The result is as it is –stalemate- and now the voters expect the politicians to sort something out.

Despite the clear evidence to the contrary there has been much speculation and comment that the Sinn Fein vote in some way brought Irish unity nearer, and indeed their manifesto calls for a referendum “North and South for a united Ireland”. Good luck with that. Scrutiny of the many elections held in the North over the past decade show little evidence of shifts in tribal loyalties and even the prospect of a Catholic majority carries no guarantee that  all would vote for unity. A recent very comprehensive poll in the North gave 52% opposed to unity and 29% in favour; equally tellingly 73% of those who declared themselves neither nationalist or unionist, would oppose unity.

There is just one imponderable: what happens to and in post-Brexit Britain. Already there are hints that the trade and future relationship negotiations between Brussels and English-Nationalist London will turn very nasty very quickly. And then: who knows?

Author’s Note

I circulated on 12 February my initial reaction to and report on the recent General Election. There follows some further analysis on the WHY  and the HOW it happened.

It is likely to be some time before a government emerges. What is beyond dispute is that in any agreed Programme for Government the first priority will have to be the Housing Crisis and its Siamese twin  – the Homeless problem. Whichever parties make up the next government, its success, and therefore their reelectibility, will depend on the government’s record on housing. It will not be easy, and, indeed, media comment since the election has been good at  itemising what’s wrong but being fairly light and non – specific on the small print of solutions. Some form of holistic and integrated approach to address the multiple interrelated issues is called for.

Perhaps a start might be to declare a “Housing Emergency” and establish a Cabinet sub-committee to meet weekly, to be chaired by the Taoiseach and including inter alia  a senior politician of a different party as Minister for Housing plus the Attorney General and the Minister for Finance; the sub- committee to draw up a plan of action and report on its implementation on a monthly basis. Toes will be trodden on clearly, but the fate of previous governments which have failed to deliver on promises should be kept firmly in mind.

I touch on the united Ireland and the Border poll issue. Suffice to say that whatever impelled the surge in the vote for Sinn Fein, support for the party’s stance on a united Ireland, was not a major factor. In view of media speculation and the comments of some politicians, it is worth taking note of the results of the many elections in the North over the past decade. Last December’s General Election saw the DUP gain 30.6% and the UUP 11.7% i.e. a solid pro-Union vote of 42.3. Sinn Fein got 22.8 and the SDLP 14.9, a Nationalist vote of 37.1. In 2017 the blocs secured 46.3 (unionist) and 41.1 (nationalist). In 2015 the figures were 41.7 to 38.4 and in 2010 44 to 41. The Assembly elections over the same period demonstrated the same overall picture The waters are muddied somewhat by the intrusion of independents, usually Unionist, and the  yoyo performance of Alliance, currently on the up – 16.8% in 2019 – a party  generally reckoned to be moderately  Unionist and to include numbers of middle class Catholics. The vote on Brexit muddies matters further, but it’s reasonable to assume that those Unionists who voted Remain did not do so on the basis that it was also a plebiscite on Irish unity. The most recent, fairly reliable poll, showed 52% to 29% opposed to Irish unity were a border poll to take place, with over 70% of those not affiliated opposed to unification ( the details of the poll are well worth studying). The demographics are shifting certainly, albeit slowly, and who knows what horrors may be forced on both parts of the island by the gung ho English nationalists running Britain in the impending negotiations with Brussels, but Irish politicians should keep in mind Tip O’Neill’s dictum that “All Politics is Local.” The new Dail faces enough challenges in the present jurisdiction.

4/3/2020

THE 2020 IRISH ELECTION 2003 (1) CXLVI

THE 2020 ELECTION

Sinn Fein 24.5%; Fianna Fail 22.2%; Fine Gael 20.9%

Sinn Fein 37; Fianna Fail 38; Fine Gael 35; Greens 12.

The Headlines say it all. A storm blew through the Irish political scene on February just as  Atlantic storm Ciara was battering Ireland. In the General Election Sinn Fein polled more votes (535,595) than any other Irish political party. The final seat tally late Monday shows them one seat only behind Fianna Fail. This as a result of the vagaries of Ireland’s PR system, plus the tactical decision of Sinn Fein to run only one candidate in most constituencies.  All but five of their forty two candidates were elected, with a number of them racking up surpluses large enough to have delivered a second seat, surpluses that in some instances helped elect left wing candidates, giving the next Dail a distinctive left-of-centre hue, with for the first time the combined seats and votes for the traditional big two centre parties falling below 50%.

The country, the politicians and the pundits are drawing breath and wondering what happens next. Some excited commentators are describing the results as seismic and as heralding the definitive end of the old two-party system based on civil war politics which has dominated Irish politics since the early days of the state.  Maybe.That system’s decline, which had been gradual, was given impetus by the 2008 Crash and has now been given a hefty shove. The People have spoken, hardly definitively, with no party garnering even a quarter of the popular vote, but with a certain emphasis – change. The policies and politics of austerity, the steady-as-she-goes cautious approach, the handwringing official tolerance of the intolerable in terms of Housing, Homelessness and the creaking Health System have taken a battering. The task now is for the elected politicians to cobble together a government and an action programme for that government; not easy tasks.

In the end the opinion polls got it close to right. Sinn Fein actually managed to better its high standing – just – while the dismal showings for Fine Gael and Fianna Fail were replicated in the one poll that mattered – the actual vote on Election Day. This less than nine months after Sinn Fein had been routed in Ireland’s local elections, losing half its seats and seeing its vote share drop by a third to less than 10% and being badly mauled simultaneously in the European Parliamentary Elections. On 8 February several candidates who had polled a few hundred votes last May stormed home as poll toppers. Sinn Fein as a whole saw its share of the vote increase by 10.7%, while Fine Gael saw it’s vote drop by 4.7% and Fianna Fail by 2.1%.

It’s clear that something dramatic happened to boost Sinn Fein. Its election manifesto was ambitious and populist, advocating inter alia cuts in personal and property taxes, a massive housebuilding programme and increased taxes on companies and the better off in a programme which was way above the potential available spending envelope adhered to by its rivals. This, combined with the fact that it was untainted by any of the blame for the 2008 Crash and the subsequent years of austerity presided over by Fine Gael (and Labour for five years) and shored up by Fianna Fail in the Confidence and Supply arrangement, was sufficient to convince enough  voters to cause the swing. Promises from the other parties of jam tomorrow, amid cautionary tones about Brexit and economic uncertainty, signally failed to excite the electorate which saw only the worsening housing crisis, with a young generation unable to aspire to own their own property, the homeless sleeping in the streets of the major cities and towns and the scandalous condition of the Irish health service.

Sinn Fein promised change and it worked.  It ran a superb campaign focussed on leader Mary Lou McDonald, who at fifty is short –odds to become Ireland’s first female Taoiseach. It survived a potential hiccup in the campaign’s final days over reminders of its chequered past and links with the IRA, but here too an interesting development to note. The Good Friday Agreement was over twenty years ago and a whole generation has grown up with no memory of the violent decades that preceded it. For this generation there were the boom years of the Celtic Tiger, then the Crash, followed by the decade of austerity, with clear political scapegoats in the form of the main political parties, who now appear to threaten a future with little improvement and apparent inability to tackle the serious problems  the country faces. Is this generation going to ponder overmuch on Sinn Fein’s past, or indeed examine the small print in their election manifesto?

A word of caution lest Mary Lou’s success be regarded as akin to the Second Coming. . There have been somewhat similar surges before in support for one or other political party. And the pendulum has always swung back – with a vengeance. Fianna Fail bought the election in 1977 with a blatant populist programme, which, after implementation, undermined the country’s finances for decades; this to counter an austerity government as the country adjusted to EC membership. Fianna Fail gained 19 seats and actually won 50.6% of the vote; it subsequently never achieved an overall majority. In 1992, Labour saw its vote increase by 9.8% and gain 18 seats after a particularly injudicious performance by the Fianna Fail Taoiseach. Five years later, having abandoned Fianna Fail and installed a Fine Gael Taoiseach, Labour saw its vote decline by 8.9% and lose almost all those seats gained. In 2011, as Fianna Fail saw its vote drop by 24% and lose 51 seats, dropping to 20, Fine Gael saw its vote increase by 8.8% and gain25 seats, while Labour achieved an increase of 9.3% and an extra 17 seats. Five years later those chickens came home to roost; in 2016 Fine Gael lost 16 seats and saw its vote drop by 10.6%, while for Labour the election was a catastrophe. Labour dropped from 19.4% to 6.6% of the vote and lost 26 of its 33 seats.

The message should be clear. The Irish electorate does not respond well to promises made and not delivered. Sinn Fein now has its chance; but it had better perform.  But first a government has got to be formed and a programme agreed.  No party can do it alone. The magic number is 80. Short of an unlikely left leaning coalition involving Sinn Fen (37), the Greens (12), Labour (6), the Social Democrats (6), SPBP(5) and 15 of the 21 Independents, the only other choices for government involve some coalition between Sinn Fein and either Fianna Fail or Fine Gael plus a minor party (the Greens?) or some form of Grand Coalition between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, thus excluding Sinn Fein. There are other permutations involving a minority government shored up by some form of Confidence and Supply arrangement.

In 2016 it took 63 days of negotiations for a new government to emerge. Given some of the public utterances to date, it could be much the same this time. “Hard pounding Gentlemen.”

11/2/2020

 

GENERAL ELECTION DAY : A SCREENSHOT 2002 CXLV

GENERAL ELECTION DAY SATURDAY 8 FEBRUARY 2020: A SCREENSHOT

As I write we are well into the second week of the General Election campaign; the vote to take place on Saturday 8 February.  Though the early opinion polls show the two main parties neck and neck, as they have been virtually since 2016, it has not been a good start for Leo Varadkar and Fine Gael. They have lost that vital early momentum which governments generally have and will have to strive to recover it, particularly as there is a tendency for incumbents running on their record to underestimate their unpopularity and to forget that eaten bread is soon forgotten.

No party appears likely to win an absolute majority so the end results for the minor parties and the Independents are likely to determine the makeup of the next (coalition) government. How the Greens will fare, given the hot topic of the moment – Climate Change – and whether Labour can recover from the meltdown of 2016 will therefore be watched with interest. So also whether Sinn Fein, currently riding high in the polls at around 20%, can hold on to this or whether, as has happened recently, their support will fall away.  A big question also is whether either of the major parties will be willing to strike a deal with Sinn Fein, and under what conditions, current positions notwithstanding.

In the end, after all the talking around dates, the Taoiseach’s hand was forced when it became clear that his government could no longer command enough support in the Dail to win a threatened No Confidence vote  on Health Minister Simon Harris. Though many in his party were pushing for an early date, he would probably have preferred to delay for several months – February is not the best time to be canvassing and a severe winter or a surge in winter sickness levels could both adversely affect his party’s chances, and who knew what other banana skins might be lying around.

One huge banana skin has already been trodden on, with an ill- conceived scheduling for late January of an event to commemorate those Irishmen who served in the RIC and the DMP before independence. We are currently in a decade of what have been hailed as commemorations of anniversaries and centenaries, with the Treaty, the Foundation of the Free State and the Civil War to come. The script was written – peace, reconciliation, inclusiveness and parity of esteem.  It was after all the construct on which the Good Friday Agreement was based and to which the great and the good had signed up.

However, not everybody was in favour of honouring former policemen, most of whom had been conscientious and dutiful, but some of whom had been active on the British side in the War of Independence. (They were clearly seen as different to those Irishmen who had served – and died in great numbers – in the World War, and who have recently been given recognition after decades of being airbrushed out of history.) There was uproar from the public, academics and in the media, with allegations of RIC brutality and atrocities and even the involvement of some Irishmen in the ranks of the infamous Black and Tans recalled. Justice Minister Flanagan quickly postponed the planned event (will it ever take place?) but both he and the Taoiseach ex pressed regret at the public reaction with the Taoiseach stating “we should respect all traditions on our island and be mature enough as a State to acknowledge all aspects of our past.”

Whether any lasting electoral damage was done to Fine Gael is unclear; an immediate early opinion poll hinted that it had, but a subsequent poll showed the party had recovered. However, Fine Gael was definitely wrong-footed by this and by two further events which dominated the week’s news, just as the election was called, siphoning off any positive headlines the Government might have expected.

First the grisly murder and dismemberment of a seventeen year old youth, a minor foot-soldier in one of the feuding drug gangs in Drogheda; then a tragic accident in which one of Dublin’s homeless, sleeping in a tent by the Grand Canal, in preference apparently to accepting hostel accommodation (too dangerous) was critically injured by heavy machinery employed to remove his tent to “clean up” the canal bank, not too far from Patrick Kavanagh’s bench.  Manna for the headline writers and opposition politicians, hitting at two of the areas where the government is at its weakest – Crime and Homelessness.  The apparent impunity with which a criminal gang could operate has shocked public opinion while the unfortunate accident at the canal has thrown into sharp focus the harsh reality of life for the homeless.

The Taoiseach and other Ministers were noticeably uncomfortable at having to comment on specifics instead of the usual waffle on generalities and the promises in party manifestos. They will be hoping for a better fortnight to come and no more nasty surprises. Their election strategy seems to be the combination of a safe pair of hands on the Economy and a “much done, more to do” low key approach generally.  This may well work.  And in fact Fianna Fail  are adopting a somewhat similar approach, both parties working on the assumption that after the ups and downs since 2008, the public are  sceptical about instant solutions or panaceas.  It could make for a fairly dull election campaign; even if promises are made most will be tinkering rather than game changing. The grim spires of Housing and the Health Service on top of the Homeless are not susceptible to quick fixes. Fine Gael can declare that on all fronts progress has been made; Fianna Fail may argue that more needs to be done. And that will be that.

It will nevertheless be an important election, not just a decision on which person will have the dubious honour of shaking Trump’s hand in the White House come St. Patrick’s Day. Apart from other domestic issues the electorate will also be voting for a government to deal with the still unclear aftermath of Brexit (it hasn’t gone away, you know!). We now face into the transition period in which the future relationship between the EU and the fifth largest economy in the world is worked out. One certainty continues to be that there will be collateral damage to Ireland, though how much is unclear.

There will be a new balance of power within the Union, something rarely commented on (Imagine how the balance in the USA might shift were California, or New York, or both, to leave). There will also be the issue of how the EU reacts to Britain’s departure – a major contributor to the EU budget. We  face into a full financial seven year period in which Ireland will be a growing net contributor to the EU budget, and where the significant requirements of combatting climate change will have to be financed nationally , with an end to shadow boxing and rhetoric.

In Irish politics personalities count, and ultimately too many  Fine Gael stalwarts  are set to retire.So, it’s early days, but if I had to give a punt it will be that Micheal Martin will be the next Taoiseach.

21/1/2020