Nobody Loves You When You’re Down And Out

Life is a bed of roses for Labour leader

A few months ago it actually seemed possible. In the middle of Garglegate and the attendant witch hunt, it was whispered and then said out loud- Eamon Gilmore could be Taoiseach.

Those sporting blue shirts under their canvassing macs now openly mock the notion, but for a brief, fleeting moment Ireland was on the cusp of becoming a modern democracy.

Instead of being defined by what side they took in the Civil War, parties would now nail their colours to more traditional masts of right and left.

But what began with a socialist bang has now gone out with a whimper, and Labour only have themselves to blame. Their decline in the polls is hardly down to the political skill and charisma of the likes of Enda Kenny and Mícheál Martin – they have none.

Labour’s ills are very much of their own making, and they were made at the very top. When Enda Kenny was bunkering down and staying out of the limelight, Gilmore and Joan Burton were turning on the righteous anger- and the Irish people immediately turned off.

Though wonderfully hospitable and generous neighbours, Irish people are not natural socialists. Eight hundred years of occupation means that a dislike of and contempt for government is inbuilt in our DNA, and voting for bigger government goes against their nature. For most Irish people, casting a vote for Labour is like political chemotherapy – it might get rid of the cancer, but it’s still not something to look forward to.

At this point in time, the Irish electorate don’t want righteous anger- they have enough of that themselves. What they want is leadership, not the pointless political posturing Labour pursued.

Burton’s bizarre performance on Vincent Browne when she attacked all round her gave birth to the Moan Burton tag, and simultaneously put paid to her ambition to be finance minister.

And as for Gilmore’s righteous anger, that is long gone and he is now reduced to begging the electorate for transfers to shoehorn Fine Gael into a coalition they do not want. The man who would be Taoiseach may now end up outside government altogether, splitting the leadership of the opposition with Gerry Adams as Míchael Martin looks on enviously from the back benches.

There will of course be no shame in that for Martin- he was given an impossible job, and having any TDs at all in the next Dáil wil be a triumph for him. Nor does he seem like the sort to be ashamed of anything anyway.

Not so for Gilmore and Burton, who will be looking wistfully across the chamber at the government benches and wondering what might have been if they had taken the age-old saying to heart- better to keep your mouth shut and have everyone think you’re an idiot than to open it and confirm their suspicions.

Irish Politicians – Networking Or Not Working?

Open the papers, turn on the TV or check out your favourite blog, and the message is the same – this is Ireland’s first social media election, and commentators are queueing up to tell us how important Twitter and Facebook are going to be. But will the iPhone and the Android make a big difference at the ballot box? WIll the independents tweet their way into the Dáil? Will Enda’s ridiculous e-valentine force the electorate to fall out of love with him?

The answer is – probably not. Social media is becoming more and more important, but except in very limited circumstances it’s not going to make a difference.

The reason is simple -it’s a medium, not a message. Enda’s beloved five-point plan is still a five-point plan wheter it’s the subject of a Facebook group, a blog, a tweet  or one of those appalling campaign videos that are fast becoming the trademark of Fine Gael.

No matter where Gerry and Pearse go, they will still have to deal with questions about Sinn Féin’s bona fides on the economy.

And whether it’s a webcast or News at One, a viral video or a LinkedIn group message, Mícheál Martin still ruined the country (it appears that even he has been destroyed by the HSE, as setting it up seems to have given him amnesia). No amount of tweeting (even as gaeilge) will change that.

Social media is only useful in terms of spreading ideas – it does not create them, and as yet there is still a marked absence of big ideas in the campaign to date. The parties are still skirting each other like teenagers at a disco under the watchful eye of the ECB chaperones, but Twitter will not come up with an answer to the bank bailout disaster by itself, no more than it can ask the pretty socialist by the far wall up to dance for you.

But what social media will do is level the playing field. A Twitter account, a blog and a website cost next to nothing, and a PR person recently told me that a Facebook page is actually more valuable than a bespoke website these days. These simple tools combined with the few hours of donkey work involved in reaching out to various networks can help candidates at the lower end of the campaign financing ladder to even out the discrepancies.

I’ve been impressed so far by the likes of Kate Bopp and Michael Loftus, and less so by the main parties, for one simple reason – the independents are managing to come across as much more human than the auto-generated, knee-jerk trash being spouted via the communications departments of the major parties.

Whilst Kate is linking to audio recordings of debates and Michael is using Twitter to build a network, it is frankly embarrassing to see the strategies being used by some of the people at HQs who really should know better – canvassers breathlessly retweeting “great reaction on the doorsteps tonight, voters srsly concerned about quality of silage in West Cavan” when in fact no-one mentioned it at all.

The debates are even worse. It wouldn’t surprise me if FG had people lined up to tweet “thought Kenny did well there”, even for the TV3 debate that he didn’t show up for. The affirmation of the leader and the manifesto in 140 characters or less has become the new “we are where we are”.

Social media users see through this formulaic rubbish, and the Fianna Fáil canvasser who has the guts to tweet “got handed my arse by a single parent about USC tonight, and rightly so” will most likely win their candidate a damn sight more votes than our silage-loving canvasser mentioned above. Despite the possibility of anonymity, honesty is paramount in the not-so-brave new world of Twitter and Facebook – everything else is just anti-social media.

Those involved in the media in general are never slow to overestimate their own importance, but the truth is that very few commentators have any actual sway at all. The likes of Constantine Gurgdiev, David McWilliams and Miriam O’Callaghan have the capacity to reach a vast number of people, but for most tweeters the reach is limited and the effect equally so.

And yet one of the few growth industries in Ireland during this election has been that of social media commentator; but whilst it is interesting to hear what others are saying, it’s far from scientific and definitely not representative. Vincent Browne starts every show by mentioning the blog, the text line, the hash tag and the e-mail address, but the only thing that ever gets mentioned are a couple of tweets by Colm Tobin (not the novellist) before he looks at the headlines in tomorrow’s papers (Vincent, not Colm).

This election will not be decided by social media, no more than it will be decided in Brussels or Frankfurt. This election will be decided in the think tanks at the HQs of the major political parties – the party that comes up with the creative solutions to solve this country’s problems and the cojones to implement them will win the day. Those that don’t risk being wiped out, their places taken by independent candidates providing a fresh voice, if nothing else.

So far, we still haven’t seen any big ideas, on Twitter or anywhere else. And time is running out.

Note: Non-Twitter users can follow the Twitter activity of many candidates in #ge11 on

Gloves Come Off For TV Debate

Seconds out, round one...

As the contestants prepare for the debate which is due to begin in about an hour, you can be sure that someone, somewhere will be playing the Rocky music to psyche themselves up. My money is on Mícheál Martin, but it could just as easily be Enda “the Empty Chair” Kenny. Much of the rhetoric will be about struggles and battles, and at least one paper will go with the “Valentine’s Day Massacre” headline, no matter what the outcome.

When it comes to public speaking, one of the best I’ve ever seen was not a politician but a boxer. Dubliner Steve Collins was super-middleweight champion of the world in an era when super-middleweight was about the toughest division in boxing. I brought him to Canary Wharf in London to talk to a sales team who were spread out around the world, all working alone trying to create new business. The Celtic Warrior wasn’t polished, but to this day those who listened to him still talk about him, and for a public speaker there is no finer accolade.

Collins spoke about life in the ring, and the tactics he’d use to get an opponent to break his rhythm. He’d mimic his opponent’s movement, his footwork and head fakes, and choose his moment carefully. When the time came, he’d throw in a little nod of his own- if the opponent followed he was on the hook, and a couple of seconds later he would be on the floor. Boxers call this tactic “lead and pace”, and anyone tuning in to RTE tonight will see plenty of it.

Collins also had a memorable response to a question about how he dealt with the thousands of blows aimed at him. “In my line of business, you’re not going to last very long if you keep letting people hit you in the f**ckin’ head,” he said gruffly. He reckoned in his entire professional career, he’d only really been hit maybe two dozen times, or less than once for every professional bout he undertook. Boxing is about power, but it is also about concentration and control, and Collins had the nous and the discipline to know that and keep a cool head, even when the other guy was trying to knock it clean off his shoulders.

Expect to see the others lead and pace Kenny into trouble. He’s quite an arrogant man and won’t like to be shown up, so Martin and the others will try to make him appear arrogant and lose his temper- if he does, he’s done for and won’t last six months in office.

Martin will ride the blows- he hasn’t lasted this long in politics by standing still, and his abdication of responsibility for the last fourteen years shows him to be quick on his feet.

But the one with most to lose tonight is Eamon Gilmore. A good performance on The Week In Politics last night has thrown him a lifeline, but if he turns on the indignation as he has at recent press conferences he’ll seem boorish and petty. If he can take the moral high ground and refrain from personal attacks when defending his tax policies he’ll be fine. If he can’t he’ll be on the ropes from the get-go.

As David McWilliams pointed out this morning, the debates are a sideshow and won’t tell us anything that will be of any use; like professional boxing, money now steers everything and what happens in the ring is almost secondary.

But as the country fights for its future, it may well offer some pointers as to who we have in our corner, and how they’re going to help us fight back.

It’s Not Just The Parties That Set The Agenda

Fine Gael functionaries in Leitrim deal with Bobby's questions

In the end, there was no empty chair. Plenty of empty rhetoric and a bunch of hollow threats and empty promises, but no empty chair. So who were the real winners last night?

At a stretch, bearded Bobby in Leitrim made the best case– if he had been slightly more eloquent and cut short his rant a little, the man who called Kenny out before being thrown out himself would have been the major winner in last night’s debates. As it was, they threw up nothing, apart from another chance for the parties to repeat their messages again.

There is a truism in communication that the listener cannot be told what to think, but they can be told what to think about. People are most influenced by others around them – family members, friends, co-workers, team-mates etc., and it is by discussing the issues of the day with them that we come to our own conclusions.

By focussing on what you are good at – or indeed what the other crowd are bad at – you control what people talk about in the pubs and factories around the country, and that is what ultimately gives you a chance to change their minds.

No election poster or canvasser in the world ever convinced someone to change their vote; we don’t trust them the way we trust our friends and family, and rightly so. They are in it for them, not us.

Seen in the context of this election, Mícheál Martin is hoping to look forward and to conveniently ignore the fact that the banks stole the country on his watch. There will be no more “sorry”, no more excuses, for a good reason – there is simply no chance that they can convince us that what anything they did in government was of any benefit whatsoever. Their legacy is tarnished beyond repair.

Instead, he and the rest of Fianna Fail would have us suspend our better judgement, ignore the past and give them another crack of the whip, as if everything that happened was beyond their control. Frighteningly, about 16% of voters have already bought this line of reasoning.

For Labour, the balancing act is more difficult. Irish people have a pathological aversion to paying tax, and any mention of raising them will cause voters to run a mile. But without taxes there can be no stimulus, and besides, the burden of the ECB/IMF debt cannot be serviced without money coming in to the state’s coffers. It is easier for Labour to concentrate on attacking the opposition than pushing their own agenda.

Meanwhile, Enda Kenny and Fine Gael are in pole position and the election is theirs to throw away- and with the defensive tactics they are employing, they could yet do so.

Kenny’s charisma deficit is a major flaw, but not fatal; what could prove fatal is his mealy-mouthed excuses for not engaging with the other leaders, and his clumsy efforts to avoid the arena in which he is least comfortable.

If he were straight with the electorate, they’d probably forgive him. No-one likes a chicken, but for once the public is well-prepared to accept a leader who doesn’t pretend to have all the answers- having been fooled into believing that Bertie Ahern, Charlie McCreevy and Brian Cowen had somehow become economic geniuses because they could engineer a property boom, it’ll be a long time before they trust anyone again.

Kenny would do well to study the steady hand at the tiller that is displayed by Swedish prime minister Fredrik Reinfeld – since taking over the Moderate party, Reinfeldt has reinvented himself as a statesman, carefully delegating responsibility but always seeming in control.

He, like Kenny, is charismatic in person but it doesn’t transfer well to the medium of TV, and the first step to solving this problem is to acknowledge it and not try to force it – we’re trying to elect a leader here, not a host for the Late Late Show. Instead, Kenny has in turn tried to run away from it, and then tightly control it by broadcasting his own public meeting on the internet. In doing so, he has made himself a laughing stock.

SInn Féin have been a bit schizophrenic, mixing some excellent contributions with some seriously shoddy ones, especially on economic issues. The opposition has managed to create the impression that they can’t do detail, and that is likely to stick unless they either buck up on the homework or shift the focus entirely.

The outcome of this election depends on who manages to dictate not what we think, but what we think about. The revelations this morning that Anglo may need another €15 billion would, in any other country, have buried Fianna Fail forever.

The no-show by Enda Kenny and his subsequent kicking by bearded Bobby would have put paid to Enda’s chance of being Taoiseach, had there been a credible alternative. Eamon Gilmore had the chance to show that he was that alternative on the TV3 debate, but didn’t – or couldn’t – take it.

And that is essentially what we should be thinking about – the lack of a credible alternative to the politicians that have repeatedly failed us. There are still no big ideas, there is still a yawning chasm in the credibility of all the leading politicians, who in effect allowed this to happen.

But it works both ways – we can’t tell our leaders what to think, but on the doorsteps and in the media we should be telling them what to think about, such as burying the bad banks and providing a future for the country that is not overshadowed by debt and death on hospital trolleys.

By communicating our own agenda loud and clear, we can at least get them to talk about it among themselves, and maybe even change their minds as we go along.

It could never happen here

It all seems so quaint.

Caught short of cash, the minister used her government-issue bank card to buy a few things- mostly benign items like chocolate bars. As she looked a shoo-in to take over as party leader and the next prime minister of her country, the press got hold of the story. She resigned, and despite having paid back every cent, plus interest, was forced to wander the political wilderness for years- though she did go on to lead her party (if not her country), most would agree that “the Toblerone Affair” destroyed Mona Sahlin’s political career in Sweden.

As the runners and riders for the Irish general election line up at the post, I notice the miracle of political science that is Michael Lowry is once more limbering up to give Irish democracy another undeserved puck in the eye. Lowry, described in print by Fintan O’Toole as “a cheat and a liar”, is no stranger to a tribunal or a spot of tax avoidance- having allowed Ben Dunne do up his home to the tune of several hundred thousand euro, Lowry spent years trying to avoid the taxman, all the while legislating that others should do the opposite.

And his reward for his lying and cheating? A well-deserved prison sentence and a banishment from politics? A date with the Criminal Assets Bureau? Far from it. This is Ireland, and that is not the way we do things here.

Rather than banishing Lowry to the ‘Joy, the good people of Tipperary North instead gave him so many votes that he has since topped the poll in every election- a resounding endorsement of a crook if ever there was one. Instead of being behind bars for his lax attitude to tax, Lowry finds himself in the Dáil, making the very laws he seems so fond of flouting. If we want to know why the banks were allowed to get away with their actions, we’d do well to look at what our politicians have been allowed to get away with first.

Of course, there is the “good on ya, Michael!” crowd, who say they would have done the same themselves. WIth their help, Michael sees no shame in the fact that he allowed a businessman to build a west wing on his mansion- why should he, when neither the authorities or the electorate have forced him to see the error of his ways? In the meantime, Mona Sahlin reflects on the space left in the Swedish history books for the first female prime minister and silently curses her penchant for Toblerones.

Though their haste towards the exit has been unseemly, it’s actually a good thing that many in Fianna Fáil recognise that it’s the end of the road and are not standing for re-election. It means that, even in the cradle of crony capitalism, their behaviour over the last few years is neither justified nor condoned, least of all by themselves.

But as the campaign gathers pace, there are some who still believe that they had no part in our downfall, even though they served in government or cabinet. Let’s call them the “We All Partied” Party. There are some who actually believe that they acted honorably in selling out their country and their voters (if in doubt, check out the tweets of a particular loudmouth Green TD from Dublin)- first to the developers, then to the bondholders and finally to the IMF and the ECB. There are some who still operate from the standpoint that “sure everyone was doing it, so why not me?”.

In short, there are still a lot of Lowrys out there, and it’s time to show them the door if we are serious about building not just a new Ireland, but a better Ireland. Just ask Mona.

Stockholm Calling

Distance makes the heart grow fonder. Apparently.

In all the years since I left Ireland, I have never wanted to be back at home more than now. This election marks a time of real change, but make no mistake; the Irish electorate could still snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and vote for more of the same, just when radical change is necessary.

Witness the non-runner that was (and is) “Democracy Now”- all the best ideas in the country rolled up into one chaotic movement that, somewhat predictably,  never got out of first gear.

Living and working in Sweden as a journalist/writer, I am spared from a lot of the pub talk and media waffle about Ireland and the upcoming election, so the idea of this blog is to reflect from an international perspective on some of the issues, personalities and tactics in use in the General Election of 2011 and to hold the arguments of the parties up to the light.

What is just as important as what is said is how it is said, and I’ll be hoping to point out recurring themes such as “trust” (Inda and the Bogtrotters), “change” (Eamon and Croke Park Combo) and “an older boy made me do it” (John Gormley and what used to be the Green Party), as well as the bias, waffle and humbug coming from the Fourth Estate themselves (that’s journalists, to you and me- the first three are unfinished satellite towns near Athlone).

The Scandinavian way of political life is entirely different from the parish-pump politics that we know and love, so a lot of what happens will be viewed through the prism of a working democracy, rather than the anarchic back-slapping cattle mart (occasionally without the cattle) that is Leinster House.

The last election I covered in Sweden was in the autumn of last year, and it too was seismic in its own way, as the far-right Sweden Democrats finally managed to clean up their Nazi image enough for them to be allowed in to parliament.

I’ve also been involved at a low level on some Irish political stories, two of which should have brought the last government down long before the Greens got their knickers in a twist over a cabinet reshuffle.

I have access to Irish media via online newspapers, Irish radio via iPhone and a gizmo that lets me watch Irish TV over the internet (most of the time). I also have a tremendous list of hacks, wags and general layabouts on Twitter to keep me in tune with the mood of the people, and when I want to telax and take a break from reality, I have the tweets of Paul Gogarty (soon-to-be-ex-Green Party TD) for my enjoyment.

I had intended to put my normal journalistic integrity to one side for the next few weeks, but seeing as there is not a single candidate running that I would consider voting for yet, I don’t have to take that decision until closer to polling day.

What I will say is that living in Scandinavia for over ten years has taught me that you don’t get great public services without paying high taxes, and anyone telling you different (I’m looking at you, Enda Kenny and Leo Varadkar) is either lying or not much good at the sums.

Once again, we go to the polls looking for the best Ireland has to offer, and once again it looks like we’re going to come up very, very short on that front. Like any dedicated foreign correspondent, I’ll update the blog when I can or when anything interesting breaks that is worth commenting on.

Please note that these occasionally partisan and often insulting views are entirely my own and not shared by any of my past, present or future employers- if they were, I would have gotten a proper job writing about the election instead of covering cross-country skiing…

/Our Man in Stockholm, Feb 2 2011.