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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: January 8, 2011 @ 8:31 pm

    Sticking One’s Neck Out

    Deaglán de Bréadún

    Herewith a piece from your humble scribe which appeared in the Op-Ed page of today’s print edition. Civil and constructive comments most welcome – but  you don’t have to agree!

    THE HOLLYWOOD mogul Sam Goldwyn, who was famously prone to malapropisms, once said: “Predictions are very hard to make, especially about the future.” With a new Dáil term about to start on Wednesday, we know that a general election is to be declared, but we don’t know exactly when: current thinking is either March 11th or 25th with the latter seen as the most likely.

    There is a belief the Taoiseach may give an indication on timing when the Dáil resumes, while emphasising that this will be subject to the smooth and successful passage of the Finance Bill through the Dáil and Seanad.

    That legislation enacting the Budget will probably be brought before the Dáil on January 20th. It normally takes at least six weeks but it might be done in five this time, barring unforeseen complications.

    If the Government decided to hold a referendum to abolish the Seanad, that could push the date of the election forward to April or even May, but such a complex undertaking seems an unlikely prospect, although Brian Cowen has a penchant for springing occasional surprises.

    Talk of a possible election in late March has inevitably given rise to speculation that the annual pilgrimage by the Taoiseach to the White House will take place before polling day. Although the invitation from the US administration is normally not issued until the end of February, it seems safe to assume that Brian Cowen will be presenting the bowl of shamrock to Barack Obama on St Patrick’s Day. There is a theory that in appearing alongside Obama, the Taoiseach will secure a bounce of 1 or 2 per cent in the polls. Cowen’s critics, however, say the contrast between the two men will be to his disadvantage.

    Television debates between the leaders are regarded, rightly or wrongly, as a key feature of any general election. Before the summer of last year, RTÉ wrote to the parties proposing three debates among the leaders: Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour at the start of the campaign; Labour, Greens and Sinn Féin in the middle; and Fianna Fáil versus Fine Gael just prior to polling day.

    Unsurprisingly, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael both wished to retain the previous arrangement, with their head-to-head the main event. Naturally, Labour wanted to be in at the end as well as the beginning. The Greens and Sinn Féin favoured all-party debates. There the matter rested but it has now surfaced again. Given the party ratings in the polls, it will be hard to exclude Labour from the top table and it can be expected that Sinn Féin and the Greens will be very publicly miffed if they are consigned to a lower level.

    TV3 is expected to look for a slice of the action and, since the main party leaders all have a knowledge of Irish, having one of the debates on TG4 is a possibility.

    There will be a lot of media politics, not to mention the conventional variety, surrounding this issue and the negotiations are going to be delicate in the extreme.

    Whatever the final arrangements, the viewing audience will be very substantial since close to a million people watched the Bertie Ahern-Enda Kenny duel in 2007.

    Meanwhile, the conventional wisdom remains that Fine Gael and Labour will form the next government. The notion of a Fianna Fáil-Labour tie-up has been ruled out by Eamon Gilmore who has also poured ice-cold water on the concept of a coalition deal involving Sinn Féin.

    Touring the Wicklow and Wexford constituencies this week, the Labour leader was talking up his party’s prospects of being the largest party in the next Dáil.

    At present, Fianna Fáil has 70 seats, Fine Gael has 51 and Labour 20. Although we are entering new territory where the public mood is volatile, Labour has a very steep hill to climb. Immediately after a press conference this week where Gilmore again proclaimed his vaulting ambition, a senior party colleague confessed privately that 35 seats was a more likely outcomet. That would still be an extremely impressive result, making it even less likely that anybody could form a government without Labour support and significant amounts of Labour policy, not to mention faces at the cabinet table. Let us suppose that Fine Gael have 65 seats and Labour 40, that would probably mean a divvy-up of nine ministries for the larger party and six for Gilmore’s people.

    A majority government could also be formed with, say, 45 Fianna Fáil and 40 Labour. In that arrangement, Labour would be entitled to seven cabinet posts and half the junior ministries. Hardly worth the shellacking that would follow: remember when Dick Spring went in with Albert Reynolds?

    The political rebirth and second coming of Michael Noonan means he will have a claim on the finance portfolio in any FG-Labour administration. Labour has three obvious contenders in Joan Burton, Ruairí Quinn and Pat Rabbitte – but will the party want the job in the current climate of cutbacks and retrenchment?

    And what of Fianna Fáil? Total wipeout is the stuff of Fine Gael and Labour dreams but a drop of about one-third in its total of Dáil seats seems virtually certain. In that eventuality we may be writing the obituary of the Taoiseach’s political career, although, as Sam Goldwyn said in a different context: “I don’t think anybody should write his autobiography until after he’s dead.”

    • MMXI.nie says:

      Hi Deaglán, I would have thought that that quote you attribute to Samuel Goldwyn (b. 1879) “Predictions are very hard to make, especially about the future” (also attributed to Yogi Berra b. 1925 as “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future”) was more a pleonasm than a malapropism (on account of subtle redundancy) and a Goldwynism, at any rate but in fact it is simply an ironic play on words and not even strictly a pleonasm (I think). Anyway reports of the demise of FF are greatly exaggerated and if a week is a long time in politics, three months is an aeon – so I’m sure the dynamic duo, i.e. Brian Cowen & Brian Lenihan have an ace or two yet to play.
      But God between us and all harm…………..Anything but Labour……….

    • Macker says:

      Deaglan, I think perhaps the crucial factor between FF having 14% and 24% is whether the election is primarily fought about what has happened up to now or is about what happens over the next few years. If it is about the past, then FF is in big trouble as there is still a desire to punish, despite us having had a recession of 2.5 years and having actually exited the recession in the third quarter of 2010.

      But if the agenda moves to what happens next, I think people are a lot less confident about FG and Labour. They will still easily get a majority but there is very little confidence in Enda Kenny, Richard Bruton, Joan Burton or a number of others who, from my own low level soundings, are seen as spoofers, and ultimately not up to senior positions in government at a time of great difficulty. M Noonan, as you say, has steadied the ship for FG, he communicates well but also seems to have the substance, which people sense. Gilmore communicates well but is still fairly untried in a crisis.

      Also, if FF moves from 40% to 15% (say), who do people want as an opposition? There is no widespread desire for a hard left approach (SF) although the very unusual circumstances of this election may get them 12% or so. But there is a need for a competent opposition so we need an FF with about 45 seats or more.

      But FF seem to have no coherent narrative. If they wanted the 24% they need to hold up their hands about the mistakes and Cowen must step down. He has been v unlucky and could have been a great leader in other circumstances. But he is too much a damaged brand now and is damaging the party. Even if the new leader were to lose his seat, it might save the party 10 seats. And there is a market there for a nationalist party, non violent, of the centre, not the hard left, that does not have the big farmer / blueshirt / Jesuit feel of FG or the trade union / public sector / social policy / beard feel of Labour. FF needs to go back to its basic principles and honestly identify where it has gone astray. Not detailed policy reviews, on a much higher level than that. And the challenge then is whether they can reinvent their basic principles (a 2016 project I would suggest!)

      My forecast for the election (%): FG 34 (Kenny to stay hidden, people to take a chance that he won’t be too important anyway), Lab 24 (Gilmore to win debates), FF 20 (Cowen not to step down, to have good campaign in own terms but not to overcome image with wider pop, good local candidates mean they will outperform national polls), SF 11 (historic vote, limited by poor candidates), Greens 2, Others 9. No major increase in the number of women or young TDs as these are media generated issues that the vast majority could not care less about, they just want the economy (and to a lesser extent the state) managed well. (But this will still not stop some commentators saying that the people should have such candidates imposed on them through an undemocratic list system).

      However, FF to see its vote increase by more than 10% in the Presidential election which will form the starting point for a revival and as dissatisfaction with the new government sets in.

      Anyway, thanks for an interesting column to get us thinking at the start of the year!

    • Betterworld Now says:

      Labour are descending in the polls just as their leader seems to be accepting that he’ll play second fiddle to Inda. The electorate are in no mood for another right wing lead government and have a real smell of a potential radical shift in Irish politics – of the right Vs left variety. It is a pity that Gilmore seems to be running scared of leading a left wing government: its beginning to look like he is deficient in the balls department. He needs to definitively say that he will not serve under Inda or any other right-wing Taoiseach. That is the missing bridge towards a new political destiny for Ireland. So far, Gilmore is trying to hold back the tide of history.

    • FF should hire you for the duration, Macker: your analysis is both subtle and intelligent. Good to have you back, Betterworld and thanks to MMXI.nie for your tactful pedantry.

    • Patrick Hennessy says:

      I fully appreciate that as the election draws nearer we will all be involved in totting up how many seats will go here and there and for which party. That said I have to admit that this time round it brings out the “yawn” in me, as all these numbers concern the superstructure which sits on the sub-structure or political system and the latter is broken beyond repair. Thus unless this is radically tackled whether the numbers fall this way or that seems largely irrelevant. What a sad state of affairs !!.


    • Patrick: I take your point that musical chairs at Cabinet is not sufficient when we need fundamental change. I tried to make this point in a previous opinion piece which you commented on yourself. Noel Browne and Donogh O’Malley made a real difference in Cabinet. At the end of the day, the Government is the Government and if they are not doing enough to deal with our problems they should be pressured to do so. If they don’t, they should be replaced with someone who will. As you know, this is a society that does not always welcome change.

      This is the piece referred to above: http://www.irishtimes.com/blogs/politics/2011/01/03/new-deal-for-a-suffering-nation/

    • Joanna Tuffy says:

      I can think of many others, besides Noel Browne and Donogh O’Malley, that made a real difference, such as Mervyn Taylor with his equality and law reform, Sean Lemass with children’s allowance, Niamh Breathnach with her Breaking the Cycle and Early start programmes for children from disadvantaged areas, not to mention her move to free third level, Michael Martin with smoking ban, Mary Harney and smokey coal. Then there was those that took the various steps as Ministers over the years towards the peace process, including Albert Reynolds and Dick Spring. Very important article by Joe Humphries in Irish Times about the importance of history, and in our debate on our political system we need to remember our political history and all the progress and the good intentions as well as the wrong turns and mistakes. As I have said before that we forget all this at our peril and could end up throwing the baby of our democracy out with the bathwater of what change is needed.

    • Betterworld Now says:

      Deaglán, You are away with the fairies in believing that we are anywhere near the idealism of post-war Britain or mid-TB crisis Ireland with your “New Deal …”

      You fail to understand the impact that decades of unrelenting exposure to neoliberal ideology’s ‘Gekkoisation’ of culture has had on the Irish mind. Our natural predisposition toward empathy, has been short circuited by the influence of unchecked hyper-individualism. As the hegemonic ideology of our era, neoliberalism has also served as “public pedagogy” that has anesthetized feelings of social solidarity throughout Irish society. It has “become an all-encompassing cultural horizon for producing market identities, values, and practices”.

      It matters little whether Berlin or Boston is your focus, both lead to the same affliction: we are blind to any horizon beyond the dictates of market. The emigrant: some one else’s brother, the beggar: someone else’s father, the repossessed homeowner: someone out there, the unemployed: someone else, not me. I’m alright Jack. The sooner they leave/die/get a job the less it will cost me.

      Now you and I know that is not going to wash in the long term or the medium term – the debt is too great for that. But Jack can’t see beyond the market recovery and believes the green shoots rhetoric. He has a long way to go yet.

      And emigrants – that recurrent pressure release valve – aren’t allowed to vote. There is a reason for that.

      As a society, we labour under a massive empathy disorder of virtually pathological proportions. And its not new: from unmarried mothers to alterboys to travellers to mentally disabled or simply old, poor or sick our culture has turned its back on unproductive units for generations. Our politicians realise that, which is why none of them are willing to take a lead and risk setting an alternate course.

      Read more here: http://bit.ly/i7trOC

    • Betterworld: I know you are a bit fan of Cuba – but didn’t I read something about a large number of state employees being let go. Half a mill, was it? Sounds like everybody’s got their problems.

    • Betterworld Now says:

      Indeed Deaglán, but their problems are considerably less daunting than ours.

      With a debt/GDP ratio comfortably below 48% and their main exports all massively outpacing inflation (nickel prices have doubled in the past three years, sugar well up on last year’s near record prices, and biotech and tourism showing healthy growth … oh, and the b#stards have just discovered oil), I’d much prefer to have their problems than ours … even with the continuing US blockade.

      I understand that our debt/GDP ratio is set to top 115% by 2012 and that no economy anywhere has ever returned from those distant galaxies. Not two months ago, international bond markets were quoting higher risk premiums for Irish debt than for blockaded, doggy paying, Cuban communist debt, which, given that the Irish economy is, even now, 15 times larger than the Cuban one, is quite extraordinary. (Come to think of it, how does a country with 1/15 our per-capita income afford a better health system, better education levels, better maternity pay, lower unemployment, higher pensions, longer holidays, lower rents, earlier retirement, much higher food security, much lower HIV infection rates, near zero illiteracy, score sixth on The Happy Planet Index and the have the greenest economy in the world? You won’t find the answer to that question in the pages of the Irish Times … that’s for sure.)

      I could go on about the economic dissimilarities and even explain the 1/2million as a statistical mis-quote, but it’d take more than 10 words so I won’t even start, beyond saying that their restructuring will be considerably less painful, involve no (nada, zero) cuts to essential services like health and education, will actually work and that Cuba will be growing at double digit levels again decades before Ireland (if we ever do). Their construction industry alone is set to grow by 24% over the next 3 years. Weep, unemployed builders of Ireland, weep.

      In a world where few long-held beliefs can be relied on any more, one thing is certain: Cuba won’t be run by the IMF any time soon.

    • Good defence, Betterworld, you are an articulate proponent of your beliefs. If Cuba would release its political prisoners and permit multi-party democracy and a free press, I might even move there :-)

    • Betterworld Now says:

      Cuba doesn’t have any political prisoners. It has laws passed by a constitutionally established parliament that it enforces. People who are found by the courts to have broken those laws are criminals. Accepting payment from a foreign power with the stated policy of overthrowing the elected government is a crime in Ireland too. We call it an Offense Against the State.

      As for elections, my evaluation is that theirs are considerably more democratic than ours. No political party is allowed to stand, all candidates must stand as independents and the state funds their election campaigns equally. Any citizen can stand for election, provided they get a majority vote in an open local ward meeting held to select candidates and organised by the election commission which is independent of government. No candidate can be elected without achieving 50% of the votes cast in any constituency, second and third round run offs are held (as in the French Presidential election) where multiple candidates fail to make the 50% quota

      Parliamentary elections are held every three years, attract 97% voter turnout, spoilt votes never exceed 1.5% and typically turf out of office at least 40% of the sitting deputies. And none of them gets paid a parliamentary salary, they just get time off work to attend the parliament and take part in its committees. They don’t get parliamentary pensions either.

      There is no question of any elected member of the Cuban parliament ever putting “what’s in the best interests of the party” above what’s in the best interests of the country.

      As for moving there … you have two chances.

    • What a classic self-portrayal of the totalitarian mind. Orwell in “1984″ is only trotting after you.

      You write: “Accepting payment from a foreign power with the stated policy of overthrowing the elected government is a crime in Ireland too.” This kind of talk is reminiscent of the 1930s in Germany and Russia.

      “As for elections, my evaluation is that theirs are considerably more democratic than ours. No political party is allowed to stand . . .” Is this an exercise in self-mockery? This is beyond satire.

      “As for moving there … you have two chances.” Oh really: how would you propose to stop me?

      There used to be people like you in the ranks of the Catholic Church but not any more.

    • william obrien says:

      Deaglán, You’re playing the man, not the ball … have you lost the argument?

    • Betterworld Now says:

      Deaglán, :

      you quote three non-objective sources for your beliefs:-

      RSF was set up by Robert Menard: see ” Reporters Without Borders Unmasked” http://counterpunch.org/barahona05172005.html.

      HRW was founded under the name Helsinki Watch in 1978 to monitor human rights violations in the Soviet Union and its vassal states in Eastern Europe. Vehemently anti-communist, it has failed to clean up its act since the cold war ended and its reportage on Latin America “is often heavily influenced by the agendas of official Washington” (http://www.webcitation.org/5jELkhpuR). “.. the HRW report could well have been cobbled together by an inexperienced State Department recruit recently out of some university in Arizona, or perhaps even Mississippi. It is such an untrustworthy piece of work …” (http://www.newstatesman.com/south-america/2008/09/hrw-report-chavez-venezuela). Its controlling “Americas” board is 100% pro-US, largely white and male according to “Hijacking Human Rights” http://www.zcommunications.org/hijacking-human-rights-by-michael-barker

      Amnesty International has cleaned up its act and no longer issues grossly distorted reports on Cuba written by its discredited US secretariat. Its reviews, in line with the UN’s, are much more encouraging now that the US misinformation has been subjected to balanced assessment. It retains, however, the unfortunate legacy of “prisoner of conscience” status injudiciously awarded by its US secretariat to axe-wielding murderers and terrorists convicted of such crimes before the Cuban courts. A recent AI report even lays the blame for a list HR abuses in Cuba at the feet of the USA “The US embargo against Cuba: Its impact on economic and social rights”: http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/info/AMR25/007/2009/en.

      For anyone interested in objectivity, let alone claiming it as their professional domain, the 2009 United Nations Universal Periodic Review of Cuba is available here: (http://bit.ly/fCUsm9 ) and sets out the difference between objective assessment of HR and the pervasive anti-Cuban propaganda found in the western media. Cuba’s HR record compares very favourably with those of most other countries in the region, including those not subject to blockade, undeclared terrorist war or illegal occupation.

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