As 2012 draws to a close, we can conclude two things from bad-tempered exchanges in the last few weeks, (1) all mpoliticians have necks which have, in recent days, been variously described as “brass”, “hard” and “some” and (2) they are all a disgrace.
Welcome to the second annual “Politician of the Year” which is appropriate on here because of the awesome control that politicians have on Irish economic life, partly stemming from the banking collapse and subsequent bailout, partly stemming from the annual deficit between taxes and spending which means we’re still borrowing nearly €300m a week to keep the country going but mostly stemming from the historical position of politicians in Irish life where like goal-hangers, they turn up at job announcements and the “turning of the sod” to claim credit for their work and also, from that most central aspect of Irish life , the “put a good word in for me” way of advancing and enriching yourself by placing strokes and favours above merit. Welcome to the Politician of the Year 2012 where we look at the politician of the year, the Independent/small party politician of the year, the minister of the year and finally the political party of the year.
First up, a couple of developments that deserve a note
A retrograde step in transparency
In September 2012 just as the Dail returned after the Summer recess, changes were made to the way proceedings were recorded on the Oireachtas’s website. The first casualty was the independent KildareStreet.com website which could no longer automatically download and parse proceedings in a manner which made them easy to locate and follow – that website is no longer updated which is a huge loss. As a regular user of the Dail’s own website, it is obvious the September 2012 changes have led to error-packed recording of proceedings which are unsearchable using web search engines, which are difficult to link to, where copy and paste sometimes is disabled on pages, where parliamentary questions are incomplete with parts of responses omitted, where the questions are mischaracterized under incorrect or misleading categories, where debates are recorded over a score of pages rather than just one which makes searching difficult and where the record of member/topics is incomplete. It’s an omnishambles and after three months, it is high time for the elected and quasi-elected representatives to lobby for change and to hold specific people responsible for the shambles to account.
There have been almost daily protests outside the Dail since the end of September 2012, but the protestors come along, wave their flags and placards, hear a speech or two, that man with the Erin go Brath flag sticks it in front of the cameras and finally, they all go home. On occasion we get minor variations – the Eirigi folks might turn up, closely man-marked by the Gardai, on the evening of the Budget announcements there were minor scuffles which were the first during any of the Autumn demonstrations, there was a five-minute sit-down for Savita at an impromptu demonstration the day her death was announced. The biggest protest this Autumn has been the IFA’s – there were by my count less than 1,000 attending the vigil on the evening of the announcement of pregnant Savita Halappanavar’s death in a Galway hospital and the “Never Again” march the following Saturday attracted about 10,000. A pro-life demonstration in December attracted about 1,000. There were about 10,000 at the trade-union supported march on 24th November. Most of the protests have less than 100 participants, and they come and go without leaving a scratch on the political conscience of Leinster House. The disabled overnight vigil at the start of September 2012 did force a minor u-turn for now, and it is interesting that students were recently blocked from holding an overnight vigil over increased fees, but protests on the scale witnessed to date have had any impact.
Politician of the Year
Deputy director of the European department Ajai Chopra and country mission chief Craig Beaumont, as representative of the IMF. The IMF deserves most credit for reforms and economic policy in Ireland in the past 12 months and no matter how vociferous we are as a nation of 4.6m in pressing our case for relief on our debt in Europe, the added voice of the IMF is incalculably important – Germany and France can swat away whinging and the Irish “beal bocht” but the global IMF has clout and can’t be as easily ignored. The IMF is the honest-broker which provides a novel service in assessing the Irish economy and its prospects in a neutral way between the doom-pornographers and the boosterists. As this year draws to a close, we can count the following partial and completed reforms and pay thanks to the IMF – the other two members of the Troika, the ECB and EU, have their own angles, the IMF is a more honest broker.
(1) Personal Insolvency Act – assuming President Higgins gives his assent to the Bill provided to him on Friday 21st December, 2012 then we should see the partial reform of the draconian Irish bankruptcy legislation. There will still be bankruptcy tourism but we should finally have a system which bears more resemblance to a modern treatment of the reality of insolvency and less resemblance to the Victorian concept of debt as a sin and debtors’ jails.
(2) Property Price Register, despite being recommended by the landmark Kenny Report in 1974 and promised by all political parties ever since, it required the IMF to finally frogmarch the Government to deliver this very basic reform which finally provides a degree of transparency in residential property prices in a country which has a general obsession with property ownership.
(3) Reforms of the medical and legal professions, we are still waiting to see these reforms realized and as things stand today, Ireland is still a very expensive country for medical and legal services despite the five year economic downturn. The Fiscal Council has had an inauspicious start being ignored two years in succession and we can but hope that the IMF pays more than lip service to the completion to these reforms before its funding programme comes to an end this year, though there will be further review missions in 2014 and 2015 to ensure we remain on track to balancing our budget and manouevring into a position to repay our debt.
Enda Kenny. Despite the toe-curlingly bad oratory, the sometimes nonsensical speeches and interviews, the lack of expertise in important subjects, the Playboy of the Western World empty boasts after the June EU summit, you can’t help but notice that after nearly two years in power, An Taoiseach Enda Kenny enjoys very high personal ratings – over 40% according to the latest Sunday Times poll in November 2012 – and his party, Fine Gael seems to have escaped largely unscathed from two regressive budgets and a growing series of ministerial blunders – the latest opinion poll was conducted before Budget 2013 and placed Fine Gael at 28% . Remember also we have a Coalition of a centre-right political party with a centre-left party and despite the niggles and the clashes, the Coalition stands together this December 2012, much as it did in December 2011. Yes, there are potential bananas and land-mines lining the path ahead, but like that scene from Men in Black, “there’s always an alien battle cruiser or a Korilian death ray… or an intergalactic plague about to wipe out life on this planet” and in our own case, there are tensions between the two Coalition parties, there’s a politically unwelcome abortion debate, there’s little prospect of meaningful relief from debt and there are implementation issues aplenty with Budget 2013. But somehow, the show remains on the road for now, and the man that deserves most credit for that is An Taoiseach Enda Kenny whose 36 years in the Dail and position as “Father of the House” have cemented his role as unflappable chairman.
In Northern Ireland this year, it has been obvious that there has been a push at the Minister Alex Atwood’s Department of the Environment to green-light major developments where economics and employment have been given primacy over the usual delays and concerns over aesthetics. In Dublin, both the National Childrens Hospital at the site of the Mater Hospital and the redevelopment of Liberty Hall have been blocked by planning authorities, both for mostly aesthetic reasons at a time of 14.6% unemployment, significant emigration and a flat-lining economy. In Northern Ireland where there is 7.6% unemployment but similarly uncertain green shoots, the environment minister has recognized the Napoleonic mantra of “survival first”
Independent/small party politician of the year
Peter Mathews does have a Twitter account but his last Tweet was in February 2011 when the votes had been cast in the general election where Peter, the banking expert, successfully stood as a Fine Gael candidate in Dublin South. Deputy Mathews deserted the Twitter afterwards which is a pity because the discipline of communicating in 140 character bursts might impose some order on the talented Deputy who has now established a reputation for delivering monologues which are perceived as showboating. Someone close to Peter might tell him, as Swiss Tony would have said: “communicating your message is like making love to a beautiful woman, and if you ignore or fail to respond to her needs, then you aren’t likely to be invited back” From Oireachtas committee rooms to TV3 studios, Deputy Mathews has launched himself into pre-prepared lengthily parsed speeches when what are needed are concise and apropos responses, and the end-result with people ranging from Ciaran Lynch to Vincent Browne, is the risk of looking a buffoon when in fact, he is one of the most qualified deputies sitting in the Dail. Deputy Mathews isn’t formally an Independent but to many, he is regarded as the most independent of the 166 deputies.
Officially, there are 14 Independents in the Dail, 19 if you count the whip-less exiles from Fine Gael and Labour and 20 if you count Peter Mathews and 25 if you count the four representatives of the umbrella United Left Alliance which comprises the Socialist Party, the Workers and Unemployed Action Group, Clare Daly and People Before Profit. True Independents are eligible to receive an annual €41,152 special Independents allowance to compensate for the fact they don’t have a party support structure. They are a colourful bunch who might sometimes remind you of pirates cocking a snook at sumptuary laws.
Memorable moments from 2012 include Mick Wallace delivering a tearful contribution to Clare Daly’s first X case Bill and then a couple of months later a tearful explanation of his tax affairs. Thomas Pringle launched a simple challenge to the Fiscal Compact Treaty which looked doomed when ranged against the might of the Government and Attorney General and in the end it failed, but not before being aired before the European Court of Justice. Shane Ross maintained attacks on bankers and insiders, and found the time to pen one of the best-selling books of the year “The Untouchables” in collaboration with his son-in-law Nick Webb. Clare Daly took a lead role in promoting legislation for the X case earlier in the year, and by the time the Savita Halappanavar tragedy unfolded in November 2012, she came into her own. Probably the most effective Independent for economics has been Stephen Donnelly whose filleting of Richie Boucher’s stonewalling on individual debt restructuring and of Ray McSharry’s well-rewarded views on public interest directors attracted plaudits. As did his debate with the German ambassador to Ireland. Ultimately though, these contributions haven’t really changed anything for now, despite highlighting failings and inconsistency.
Many of the Independents focus on local issues or specialized national issues, from local hospital closures to turbary rights, and despite the obvious package of talents that each Independent must display, in terms of contribution to the political health of this State, they might all do better to just join a political party where their views might be central to creating policy rather than influencing it from the margins. No matter how talented a single Independent deputy is, it is just unreasonable to expect them to keep abreast of 14 different government Departments.
So the Independent or small party politician of the year goes to..
Jim Allister of the Traditional Unionist Voice party in Northern Ireland who showed what a single representative in Northern Ireland’s assembly can achieve through a clever combination of formal questioning of Departments and follow-up campaigning through the media. It was Jim who uncovered the fact that in Northern Ireland, life-saving abortions are far more prevalent than in the UK prompting the question was the Northern Irish system more lax than it should be under the local law which is more restrictive than the 1967 Abortion Act which applies elsewhere in the UK, and whatever side of debate you take, it was Jim’s stance which was to the fore at protests outside the new Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast. It was also Jim’s questioning ’s on the religious make-up of appointments in ministries controlled by Sinn Fein, that revealed bias in the figures if not in actual selections. Yes, the unashamedly Unionist Jim might sometimes chance his arm with suggesting kit for boxers be blue and red as is traditional in the Olympics rather than green as favoured by nationalists and his plan to deal with the recent flags issue was laughable to nationalists, but he has certainly stuck it to the DUP about flag flying at Stormont and as leader of a tiny party, it certainly boxes above its own weight and has genuinely influenced actions during the year. Independents on this side of the Border might do worse than study his modus operandi.
Minister of the Year
On the British TV comedy quiz QI, the winner is the one with the most points, but sometimes that winning score can be a negative, and so it is with our own ministers in 2012, where none of the fourteen ministers has covered themselves in glory, but some have managed to rack up less negative points than others, so the Minister of the Year is…
Joan Burton at the Department of Social Protection whose operating budget is dwarfed by the €20bn cost of the social welfare budget. And once the cuts were announced a year ago in Budget 2012, all Minister Burton had to do was deliver the new rates. It was shameful that there was no apparent impact assessment for the reduction in rent assistance levels, with housing choices for recipients being narrowed and homelessness on the rise. The fact that nearly two years into this administration that there is still no connectivity between the Revenue Commissioners taxation computer and the social welfare computer means that certain welfare payments like child benefit can’t be taxed but also means there is no political will to develop the linkage. Joan told us that the social welfare cuts in Budget 2013 were indeed bad but just look at how bad they could have been as she explained she “negotiated” a reduction in her cuts from €540m to €390m. As the year draws to a close, Joan has kept her head below the parapet and should battle commence between the Colm Keaveney supporters and the Labour old guard, it might be Joan who emerges as a new leader. So, lots of negatives but compared to this lot, less total negatives.
Richard Bruton, in whom the Terminator-like red-eyed glow of ambition for the top job still hasn’t been altogether extinguished. The minister turns up to goal-hang at job announcements but delays in delivering the partial loan guarantee scheme, the microfinance scheme and the long-fingering of the investment bank all point to a minister just going through the motions hoping that today is the day the boss finally succumbs to a politically fatal banana skin. The National Consumer Agency and Competition Authority which fall under the Minister’s auspices continue to disappoint with prices in the State still well –above the EU average whilst incomes on a per capita GNP basis are now almost precisely average. The Minister even refused to tell us if the departing chief executive of the NCA, Anne FitzGerald received a pay-off which given our straitened circumstances and the fact her contract had come to an end would not have been merited.
Phil Hogan survived the complete fiasco of the household charge and nine months after the charge was due for payment, there has been a non-compliance rate variously put between 30-50%. The new property tax looks like scratchcard economics with little research to support the revenue estimates and the curious twists in the legislation that benefit those with more valuable property leads to the suspicion that this is not such a progressive tax at all. The expert report was on the Minister’s desk for six months before it was published and there was little consultation outside the narrow walls of the expert group, which was in reality a quango-king overseeing an inter-departmental committee. His property dealings enabled by Michael Fingleton’s Irish Nationwide Building Society and his intervention in a Traveller housing matter in his constituency only made the stench surrounding “Big Phil”, whiffier. The photograph of the Minister enjoying himself in Doha during budget week did little to tarnish a reputation which outside the inner sanctum of Fine Gael couldn’t really be much more blackened.
The “Only Jew in the Village” justice minister Alan Shatter had another awful year, failing to deliver personal insolvency legislation on time as specified in the Memorandum of Understanding with the Troika, and only just meeting the second deadline of 30th June for the publication of the draft Bill. We finally saw the launch of the property price register more than four decades after it was called for in the Judge Kenny Report, again under the whiphand of the Troika, but Minister Shatter immediately ruled out extending the register to pre-2010 transactions regardless of the likely marginal cost. Progress on the follow-up investigation of the Moriaty Tribunal report was snail-like, burglaries increased substantially amid Garda station closures and cut-backs in the force itself, and the year draws to a close with a potential scandal of Garda taking the place of judges in tearing-up offences and stopping investigations, and the Minister overseeing an investigation into the matter by….the Gardai.
Michael Noonan looks and sounds like he is ready to retire and has dropped the ball on banking reform and pay and perks. His main focus, the alleviation of the debt burden on the State, appears mired in confusion and uncertainty and there is a massive gap between expectations that have been allowed to spiral and the reality of there being no Santa Clause in Europe that is sufficiently concerned about this small outlying State to gift a refund on our crazy bank bailout. The quarterly financial targets are generally met under the watchful eye of the Troika but we had the savage cut to the planned capital budget in 2012 to compensate for Minister Reilly’s failure to tackle drugs and consultants’ costs in the health system. You can understand the rationale of the veteran Limerick politician, who has the most ministerial experience in this Coalition, being selected for the key ministerial role as the country grapples with an economic crisis, but the conservatively baked Michael is not going to try anything novel which might risk the status quo of us drifting into a high-debt, low domestic growth economy where life will be tougher for most citizens.
James Reilly is not out of the woods yet with respect to the primary care centre in Balbriggan on a site owned by his chum, Seamus Murphy. As the year draws to a close, focus has moved to the internal audit report in October 2012 which assured Eamon Gilmore there was no political influence in the selection of the site, this despite the assertion by Roisin Shortall and others that the selection was the embodiment of stroke politics. The Minister continues to face pressures with his personal finances after the registration of a debt default judgment in Stubbs earlier this year – luckily the new property tax will exclude any amenity land over one acre from property valuations, so the Minister’s country manor, Laughton House in county Offaly with 150 acres will be valued as if it just has a solitary acre of amenity land. But it is failure to tackle costs in the Department of Health which single out the minister for most criticism, and it is his fault that the planned capital budget was cut back which costs thousands of jobs. The cut-backs in the 2013 budget look ambitious and even the Minister’s recent responses to parliamentary questions give little confidence that by mid-2013 we won’t have further crises in the health service.
Elsewhere, Brendan Howlin has failed to get to grips with allowances in the public sector and has presided over cut backs in the planned capital budget whilst the Department of Health has gone feral. As the principal minister dealing with the renegotiation of the Croke Park Agreement in 2013, you would have to be concerned that he can pull off a deal that avoids industrial action but delivers genuine savings whilst preserving services. Ruairi Quinn has weathered the storms of cutbacks at disadvantaged schools which led to a u-turn, the chaotic new third level grant system which apparently shows about 10% of applicants receiving grants three months into the new term and the increase in third level fees leaving the grants to private schools largely untouched. Leo Varadkar has likewise weathered cutbacks in the capital budget, price increases and cancellation of schemes whilst maintaining himself as the epitome of the new generation of the party alongside Simon Coveney who has been sure-footed in agriculture.
Political party of the Year
If you were to use the metric of which party made life better in this State during the year, none of them stands out – the two Coalition parties are delivering an IMF bailout programme with little deviation from the script and the Opposition parties are out of power. So there is no “Political Party of the Year”, just a review of where the various parties now stand.
Fine Gael. Despite the ministerial boo-boos, the failure to deliver a deal on bank debt, the slow pace of reforms despite the whip-hand of the IMF, the nonsensical polemic, the protestations of powerlessness, and the still anaemic state of the economy after two regressive budgets, Fine Gael stands as the most popular party in the State and has lost just one person overboard in the past two years – it is Fine Gael that is holding the country together, and as mediocre and frustrating as they can be, no-one else is yet credibly competing with them in a manner which might imbue us with confidence. And lest we conclude this is a fusty old conservative party, remember it’s not just Labour that has Young Turks and an Old Guard – there is now the so-called “Five a side” group of 10 newly elected Fine Gael TDs who have been developing policy and position papers, and when a reshuffle inevitably comes, some of these Young Turks will have their eyes on junior ministerial positions.
Fianna Fail. The recovery and rehabilitation continues apace for the Party most blamed for the financial crisis and the arrival of the IMF. A few well-placed Freedom of Information requests led to some biting questions particularly on health. The party weathered the antics of the maverick from Galway West, Eamon O’Cuiv who suffered a short-term setback when he didn’t tow the partyline on the Fiscal Compact Treaty and Micheal Martin nicely side-stepped the nightmare of a vista that led to a leadership crisis by adopted kid gloves in the treatment of Eamon De Valera’s grandchild. The phalanx of well-supported and talented movers and shakers in the Fianna Fail parliamentary party ended the year in a strong position. Michael McGrath reignited in October the debate over bankers’ remuneration with his well-placed question to AIB’s David Duffy about the digout at taxpayers expense of the AIB pension scheme in August 2012. Billy Kelleher has been tearing Minister Reilly to shreds and Dara Calleary, Sean Fleming and Willie O’Dea have all been putting in workmanlike performances. The party may be a far ways off the 40% opinion poll ratings, but it is no longer in the wilderness. Micheal Martin still suffers from the smirks when challenging Government policy, and that gives the impression of him having no shame, given his contribution to the mess left for this Coalition, but the smirks are wearing away as that party gets comfortable in opposition mode.
Sinn Fein. When you look back at where Sinn Fein is coming from in (the Republic of) Ireland, this has been another year of progress for the party where its engagement with issues beyond the peace process and Irish nationalism has led to a further “normalization”, though some still won’t touch the party with a barge pole because of the history of Northern Ireland and the involvement of some party supporters in the savagery which existed on both sides, including the British state, during the so-called Troubles. Sinn Fein was the only one of the four main parties which opposed the “yes” vote in the Fiscal Compact Referendum and its profile was undoubtedly raised by media rules which obliged broadcasters to maintain balance in any presentation or debate. After the summer, there was a Jobs Initiative whose central proposition was encouraging a stimulus from the private pension business. Alas, Sinn Fein need some completer/finisher profiles who can develop the interface between the needs of development investment on one hand and the pension business on the other – practically speaking a promoter is needed to put development propositions in a format acceptable to the pension business whose piss-poor returns could be lifted by well-run developments. Towards the end of the year, the party put in a respectable showing in opposing the Government budget and producing its own alternatives, but doubts remain on the credibility of a wealth tax. The party has suffered some slings and arrows this year, with Aengus O’Snodaigh’s suspiciously high usage of printer toners bringing comic relief but the reported €600,000 cost of the recent defamation case in Northern Ireland will hurt a party which only generates about €2m a year in income on both sides of the Border. There was little of the “New Republic” in the treatment of Peadar Toibin’s stance on abortion with the enterprise spokesperson being kicked off the chair of a committee following his failure to support a party motion on abortion. Ultimately, if Sinn Fein is to progress and consistently gain traction, it will need to demonstrate it is holding Government to account, develop policies in Opposition but also show it can deliver those policies in power and if it is serious about a “New Republic”, it needs to be a bit more clever about how it pays its politicians and deals with internal division.
Labour. As the junior partner in a Coalition, the centre-left party was always going to be under pressure from its dominant centre-right partner as the gap in the national finances was plugged through a mix of cuts and new taxes, but it looks as if the Labour Party has taken the brunt of the public hostility towards the austerity. Two years after the General Election of February 2011, and it looks as if Labour’s support is down nearly 50%, though the last poll put it at 14% compared with its election showing of 19%. Should the general trend continue however, it may be less than a year when Labour confronts the possibility of a Green Party-like wipeout. There was ultimately only a single voice of dissent in the Dail’s Labour team after the Budget 2013 announcements, but it was a most unwelcome voice and Colm Keaveney has the potential to split the party between New Labour and the Old Guard – the fallout from the dissent has taken many aback with the venom spewed by Old Labour quite shocking. The next scheduled Labour conference is in September 2013, but matters may come to a head before then with the grass roots continuing to support a chairman who has apparently lost the party whip.