Knives out on the North West Frontier

Biffo Cowen’s announcement this evening that he won’t be contesting the forthcoming southern election is interesting in a couple of respects. The first is that this brings to thirty-seven (37) the number of outgoing deputies who won’t be running again, including both taoisigh from the last Oireachtas term. In a Dáil that, taking vacancies into account, only has a membership of 163, that must be unprecedented, and bespeaks something of the raw fear in the Fianna Fáil ranks, for that is the party that’s providing the majority of the retirements, and not all of deputies of pensionable age either.

The aspect, though, that will detain us a moment is that of Mickey Martin’s newly minted leadership of the Soldiers of Fortune. Well, it makes a sort of sense, for a party of desperate men. Of the other contenders, Brian Lenihan was too compromised, Mary Hanafin not much less so, and the spectacle of Éamon Ó Cuív, the living embodiment of Old Fianna Fáil, trying to position himself as the socialist candidate for the FF leadership is the sort of thing that makes you wish Myles was still with us. Martin, being a relatively plausible TV performer and having finally grown a pair and challenged Biffo, ends up leader by default. And if he arrests the FF decline he may yet succeed in turning a total meltdown into a mere catastrophe. After all, he could hardly do worse than Cowen – for that to happen, they’d have had to elect Willie O’Dea leader.

Right so, the last little spate of retirements looks suspiciously like Mickey strong-arming some colleagues into stepping down so as to have a more rational slate of candidates – it may look defeatist for FF to be running a mere two candidates in five-seat Cavan-Monaghan, for instance, but running three or four as in the past would have verged on the foolhardy. On the same sort of theme, Éamon Gilmore must be ruing his strategy of imposing running mates on sitting Labour TDs – it may have made sense with Labour over 30% in the polls, but with a slide back down to the lower 20s there are going to be a whole lot of constituencies where two Labour candidates are chasing one seat, with possible consequences we can all foresee under STV.

One suspects, though, that Biffo’s withdrawal in Laois-Offaly is more to do with the national than the local picture. Back in 2007, he pulled in a whopping 56.4% of first preferences for FF in the constituency and therewith three seats out of five. Given that sort of cushion, Laois-Offaly is just about the only constituency in the state where it’s possible to imagine FF taking a second seat. On the other hand, Biffo is such an albatross nationally that shunting him out of the way might – just might – win Martin a precious point or two in the polls.

There are, though, a couple of other retirements over the last day or two that are indicative of FF’s constituency problems. One is the termination of Noel O’Flynn in Cork North Central, leaving FF with only one candidate (Billy Kelleher TD) in a constituency where it currently holds two of the four seats. Yet, while it may mean a loss of face for FF, it’s the only sane option when there’s a maximum of one seat available to the party. In 2007 FF took two seats with 1.79 quotas – if it’s at or below the one quota mark this time, which is entirely likely, and has become profoundly transfer toxic as well, running two candidates would come close to assuring no seats at all. Fine Gael would certainly hope to bring in a second here, and though Labour running two candidates looks optimistic with the present polls, Sinn Féin’s Jonathan O’Brien is a dark horse worth a punt. The one predictable thing is that it’ll be an almighty scrap for transfers at the end, so yes, the only way to go is to dump the surplus candidate, even if he’s an actual sitting deputy.

Things get yet more intriguing though way up in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Donegal North East), where Niall Blaney TD has just announced his retirement at the grand old age of, er, 37. This is not just a matter of the opinion polls, but also ties into a long-running saga of banjo-twanging Donegal vendettas.

We could, if we liked, go back to the 1970 Arms Crisis and Uncle Neil’s subsequent departure from FF ranks. We could even, if so minded, go further back. But it’s better to start off from the historic merger young Niall brokered with Bertie Ahern (remember him?) in 2006 to reunify the Blaney clan’s Provisional Fianna Fáil with the main party. Like many of Bertie’s bright ideas, this has come back to bite FF in the arse. Even initially, the merger was not universally popular in Donegal North East. It wasn’t popular with a sizeable chunk of the republican-minded Blaney organisation and electorate, which decamped en masse to Sinn Féin. It wasn’t even popular with the Blaney family, some of whom were moved to openly denounce Niall for his deviation from Orthodox Blaneyism.

The merger also proved to be not universally popular with the pre-existing FF organisation in Donegal North East and in particular with Dr Jimmy McDaid TD, who almost immediately launched himself into a fight to the death with the Blaneyite blow-ins. After much rural factionalising, the Blaneyites came out on top and Niall firmly established himself as the local party baron. Which would have been a nice ending had it not been for the continued presence in the Dáil of an increasingly pissed-off Jimmy McDaid who, though always a mercurial character, now went into overdrive with losing the FF whip, threatening independent candidacies and eventually, back in November, resigning his Dáil seat altogether, at just about the most unhelpful time imaginable for the government.

And so it is that, in a quintessentially loyal Fianna Fáil constituency where the party polled 50.3% of the vote in 2007 – and indeed, where prior to that election it had three seats out of three – Micheál Martin can look at a Donegal North East where there should be certain seats for FG’s Joe McHugh and SF’s Pádraig Mac Lochlainn, with FF scrabbling for the third. And while one finds it almost impossible to imagine Donegal North East without any FF TDs, all bets are off this year. Again, a one-candidate strategy beckons. Moreover, Blaney’s USP – the rural republican appeal of the Blaney name – has largely been gazumped by the Shinners, while the party baron still has to deal with a legacy of bad blood from McDaid supporters in Letterkenny. So, not only imperative to have one candidate, but imperative that that candidate should not be Niall Blaney. Step forward, Inishowen councillor Charlie McConalogue, whilst the hapless Blaney, who was campaigning most vigorously in Letterkenny just last week, suddenly finds his political career at an end.

They do play rough in Donegal, you know. Even if Micheál Martin didn’t want a night of the long knives, they wouldn’t need much encouragement. And, with FF in every-man-for-himself mode, there will be more and more of this in constituencies across the state.

Transparent and accountable governance on the North West Frontier

From the Donegal Democrat, a lovely little tale of how politics works in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas:

Labour Cllr. Frank McBrearty Jr said that Donegal Mayor, Fianna Fáil Cllr. Brendan Byrne, has broken the trust in the council chamber by allowing a quorum of 10 Fianna Fáil councillors to adopt the 2010 budget while the remaining 19 were in a meeting down the hall.

He said that as mayor, or chairperson of the council, Mayor Byrne should remain impartial. “I would describe now Brendan Byrne the same as (former Ceann Comhairle] John O’Donohue – there’s not much of a difference between both of them,” he said.

“I should have had more sense with everything I learned over 14 years,” Cllr. McBrearty said. But he said he had given his faith to the mayor. “He took that faith from me anyway.”

The Labour councillor said he believed the mayor had a responsibility to notify the remaining councillors – who were discussing proposals for funding a cut in commercial rates – that the meeting had reconvened.

“There is no honour in what he did and he has to live with it,” Cllr. McBrearty said.

This was Cllr. McBrearty’s first budget meeting and he said he was led to believe meetings would be adjourned and reconvened several times to allow for negotiations among parties, as they had been in the past.

“Dirty tricks politics is what it is,” Cllr. McBrearty said. He said the move will affect the way he sees the chair.

“He has left no trust within the chamber,” he said. “Every time we go to the toilet or go out for a bit of fresh air we have to be watching our back in case the mayor tries to pass something without us. I wouldn’t trust him now as far as I could throw him.”

Steady on, Frank! Now, what do the Shinners have to say about this?

The Sinn Féin group on Donegal County Council are disgusted and outraged at the actions of the Fianna Fáil group of ten councillors, in passing this year’s Donegal County Council budget in the absence of the other 19 elected members. Their actions are an affront to democracy in the county.

As representatives of a political party that has presided over the economic calamity that the people of Donegal and the Irish state are enduring, we would have expected that Fianna Fáil councillors, of all the elected members, would have been most sensitive to the need to listen to the voice of others in arriving at a budget for 2010.

Next year, Donegal County Council will have half the budget they had in 2007, dropping from over 440 million euro then to 220 million euro now. This is having a profound impact on the services provided by the council to the people of Donegal. Furthermore, the council has lost a quarter of its workforce in the last year, a loss of 300 jobs.

This year, as is always the case, the Sinn Féin group went through the County Manager’s draft budget book in great detail. While the Manager had committed to reducing commercial rates as requested by all the elected members, Sinn Féin, like others, sought to reduce them further than the 3% cut suggested. At the budget meeting, we made the following proposals:
· Cut the member’s conference expenses from €5,000 per councillor down to €1,500 per councillor. Saving = €101,500.
· Cut overseas travel budget from €30,000 down to €10,000. Saving = €20,000.
· Cut members public lighting from €92,800 down to zero as the scheme has not functioned in recent years. Saving = €92,800.
· Increase the target for second home levy collection from 2.5 million euro to 3 million euro. Additional income = €500,000.

This would have resulted in a further 3% cut in the commercial rate to that agreed by Fianna Fáil. With our proposals, commercial rates would have been reduced by at least 6%. We also proposed the following to assist the council in generating extra revenue to the council for investment in the development of the county.

· Deliver on targeted savings from new procurement and purchasing system. Potential additional income = 2.4 to 2.8 million euro.
· Seek compensation for, or recovery of, exceptional pension costs due to Government policy on early retirement from Department of Finance. Potential additional income = 1 to 2 million euro.

After the presentations by council management and initial statements from the various political groupings on the council, we broke for lunch and it was agreed that we would reconvene the meeting and immediately adjourn to allow for discussions between the parties/ groupings.

Fianna Fáil chose to meet amongst themselves and the Sinn Féin group took up an invitation from the Fine Gael group to discuss their proposals.

As that meeting was constructive and some common ground was being found, we invited the Labour and Independent councillors to join us in the understanding that the Fianna Fáil group were still involved in their own meeting. Again, the extended group of 19 councillors were engaging on a constructive basis when we were interrupted to learn that the ten Fianna Fáil councillors had passed the budget in our absence on the technicality that a quorum of seven councillors is all that is required.

While we were working together with others in the best interests of the county, Fianna Fáil were pulling a stroke. However, they are only fooling themselves. The days of Fianna Fáil running this county on their own are over whether they realise that or not.

Over the Christmas period, the four Sinn Féin county councillors will be meeting with senior party members in the county to discuss our next steps. Serious questions will be put to the Fianna Fail group and in particular, Mayor Brendan Byrne on how they thought this could be justified. Clearly, Fianna Fáil are going to have to demonstrate that they are willing to work with others in mutual respect and undo the damage done by their outrageous actions.

They should not take ongoing Sinn Féin involvement in, and support for, the technical agreement over Mayors, Deputy Mayors, and some committee positions for granted. Sinn Féin’s priority on council is to represent those who voted for us, taking our rightful place at the table of collective decision making. We sought all inclusive powers sharing on the council after this years council elections and only entered into the technical agreement with Fianna Fáil, Labour, and Independent councillor Seamus O’ Domhnaill after we learned that Fine Gael were intent on keeping us out of the senior positions on council our numbers entitled us to. Following the exclusion of our party from virtually all council positions after the 2004 election, we were not going to meekly allow that to happen again. Our agreement does not extend beyond council positions. It is not a political pact. Indeed, Sinn Féin have led the fight in this county and on council against Government cutbacks and policy, delivering over 100, 000 leaflets in recent months.

At all times, Sinn Féin councillors will defend the rights of those who support us. Fianna Fáil attempted to deny those rights at the budget meeting. They will not succeed.

Sounds like par for the course from the Soldiers of Fortune. More at The Story, where it’s noted that Donegal County Council has one of the worst reputations for transparency of any public body in the state. From what I know of the political warlord clans in that neck of the woods, somehow it doesn’t surprise me.

Catholicism news: If you think Donegal is a rum place, try on Herzegovina for size. Many Irish people of course regularly visit there on pilgrimages to the Marian shrine in the village of Medjugorje. By the way, the apparations of Our Lady at Medjugorje are not officially recognised by the Church, which is sort of the point of this story.

As you may have heard, some little time back the Holy See introduced tough new guidelines for the certification of miracles and apparitions, which involved visionaries being questioned by psychiatrists who – and I love this – may be either Catholics or atheists. (Shades of the Chinese Communist Party deciding who’s going to be the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama.) Rome has, up until now, been studiously neutral, tending to the sceptical, on the Medjugorje phenomenon.

A contributory factor is that local Catholic hierarchies, imbued with a deep distrust of lay visionaries, tend to look askance at that sort of thing. See, for example, the reaction of the Limerick clergy to local culchies worshipping tree stumps. As far as Medjugorje goes, Bishop Ratko Perić of Mostar and Duvno takes an especially dusty view, as did his diocesan predecessor the late Dr Pavao Žanić, influenced perhaps by Medjugorje being something of a political bone of contention between rival Bosnian Croat factions.

Now, after what happened to the late Archduke Franz Ferdinand, you might think Austrian dignitaries would think twice about venturing into that part of the world. But you’d have reckoned without Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, Archbishop of Vienna and big wheel in the CDF, who’s just been on a visit to the shrine. Schönborn stresses in his public statement that his visit was merely private and should not be taken as an indication of Vatican approval of the Medjugorje phenomenon. Nonetheless, the optics are all. The Medjugorje entrepreneurs are understandably cock-a-hoop; the estimable Bishop Perić less so.

Rud eile: A quite excellent article on Yemen from Richard.

Soldiers of Fortune gain toehold at Stormont

Bearing in mind the torrid time Fianna Fáil are having in the polls south of the border, it must raise Biffo Cowen’s spirits a little that FF has now acquired its first representative in the northern assembly, and it’s even better that it has managed to do so without actually having to fight an election. This is Enniskillen man Gerry McHugh, a PSF veteran who resigned from his former party a couple of years back making various noises about the undemocratic regime in the Provos. Whether he will find FF more free and easy remains to be seen.

The odd thing is when you look at Gerry’s stated reasons for going independent. As a staunch peace process man for many years, he obviously wasn’t all that much of a hardline republican – there is, I know, something of an RSF subculture in Fermanagh, and those guys always regarded him as a backslider. But he did allow himself to sound slightly dissident:

At the time he said the direction Sinn Fein was taking was “more about appeasement of the British government and administrating British rule in Ireland rather than working towards the end of British occupation”.

Now, you can say those things and not be a militarist, because such a political stance doesn’t necessarily imply support for armed struggle. But it doesn’t sound very much like constitutional nationalism to me. If anything, such a position minus the physical force element would put you in the Blaney-Boland tradition which has almost died out within FF. And what is Gerry’s rationale for his latest move?

The 52-year-old, who represents the Fermanagh/South Tyrone constituency, told the BBC he believed the nationalist parties in Northern Ireland were “quite confined” in their ability to deliver a united Ireland.

In comparison he said Fianna Fail had “the strength and political ability” to create a united Ireland.

That’s assuming they even want to. It’s odd that, while Fine Gael and Labour started out as all-Ireland parties and shrank back to the Saorstát, FF was formed precisely as a 26-county party. Their recent move north is somewhat puzzling, and I still can’t quite grasp the logic. As a vote of no confidence in the long-term future of the South Down and Londonderry Party, yes. As a low-cost bone to throw whatever elements of sentimental republicanism remain within FF, possibly. As a gambit to deal with a possible electoral threat from the Provos down south, I suppose. It still looks very quixotic though, even more so than the Tory-Unionist lash-up.

But that’s just me not getting what Biffo Cowen is at. Gerry McHugh I can understand. He’s a desperate man, and has nowhere else to go (though I note he still intends to sit as an Independent MLA). But he’ll find some interesting company in his new party, what with Harvey Bicker and all…

Defectors go leor!


It’s a funny thing, but defectors have been much in the news the past week. Not one defector, but three. And not one of them without some kind of twist in the tale. And, wait, till I tell you, defections may be common in the south – one thinks of the late Nollaig de Brún and his multiple party allegiances – but much less so in the north. That’s why Billy Leonard is such an unusual figure.

First up is the news that Fianna Fáil, its support crumbling south of the border, has optimistically been attempting to establish a base in South Down. This has involved a high-powered delegation from HQ, including justice minister Dermot Ahern and former Ceann Comhairle Rory O’Hanlon, as well as uncrowned king of Connacht Éamon Ó Cuív, who talked about how his grandfather, President de Valera, had a long-standing connection to the constituency, having been elected there in the 1920s. One may wish to take this sentimentality at face value, and one may note that Ahern (from Dundalk) and Dr Death O’Hanlon (from Carrickmacross) are border deputies with a natural interest in what happens next door. But it’s hard not to see this stellar line-up as representing a big vote of no confidence in the long-term future of the South Down and Londonderry Party. Consider also that the Soldiers of Fortune already have a cumann in Derry, and add a little piquancy in terms of the near forty-year animus between the SDLP and the Blaneyites. Maybe Durko and Attwood should pause awhile in thought.

Anyway, lending some tone to proceedings was FF’s most prominent local figure, ex-councillor Colonel Harvey Bicker OBE, formerly of the Ulster Unionist Party and the British army. Now, Harvey defected to FF some time ago, and is currently an appointee to President McAleese’s Council of State, but he retains an interest in South Down politics and is now rather ostentatiously in favour of the all-Ireland context. Whether such an eccentric figure is symptomatic of anything is another matter. My view is that there must be something in the water around that neck of the woods, which is also the stomping ground of ex-UUP man Henry Reilly, who currently sits as a UKIP representative on Newry and Mourne council.

Another councillor to make the news has been Belcoo man Domhnall Ó Cobhthaigh, who has left PSF to join the Socialist Party. (More here.) At least we can say that Domhnall hasn’t acted for purposes of electoral advancement, and he has resigned his seat on Fermanagh council, rather honourably reckoning that, as a co-opted rather than elected councillor, he couldn’t possibly claim the seat as his. I wish Domhnall well in his new environment, and obviously this is a feather in the cap for the SP, but it does puzzle me a little.

Yes, on one level, I can see it. Domhnall is a socialist, and wants to be in a party with its socialist identity front and centre, and the SP is certainly that. He feels that Gerry has moved to the right, and I can’t disagree with him there. He admires Joe Higgins, which is certainly understandable. And I can see the mechanics – he’s grown disillusioned, and will have been talking to the SP’s Paul Dale, who’s been a council candidate himself in Enniskillen. And yet… you know, when a councillor goes independent, as some PSF councillors have done recently, it’s one thing, but going over to another party is a definite statement of intent. And what has me scratching my head is that there are more obvious places for a disillusioned socialist republican to go. Of late, éirígí have been pleased with picking up councillors Louise Minihan of Dublin and Barry Monteith of Dungannon; below the elected reps level, I know of some activists over the last wheen of years who have gone to Sinn Féin Eile or to the Communist Party, either of which makes sense.

Having read what Domhnall said in the Impartial Reporter, I’m not much wiser. He is convincing when talking about his disillusionment; his statements on the neoliberal politics of the Assembly are the standard SP boilerplate. What I’m wondering is whether he’s still a republican. The point about the SP is that it’s the most determinedly anti-republican formation on the Irish left, and has spent decades defining itself against “left republicanism”. If Domhnall thinks you can be a republican in the SP, he’s in for a quare gunk. On the other hand, if he’s been convinced by the SP’s hallmark policy of the “socialist federation of Britain and Ireland”, that’s well and good for him, but I don’t see it having much purchase in rural Fermanagh. Well, we shall see, and I look forward to hearing more from Domhnall.

Finally, we have to take a look at Ian Parsley (not Paisley), the fresh-faced young Alliance councillor in North Down who was Alliance’s candidate in the recent Euro-election, but has now defected to the Ulster Conservative and Unionist New Force, via its Tory component. His rationale is that this allows him to plug into UK-wide politics, which is a bit cheeky, since he surely knows that many Alliance people are card-carrying members of the Liberal Democrats. The word is that this fits in nicely with UCUNF’s small headache of finding a candidate in North Down, since the sitting Unionist MP, Lady Sylvia Hermon, is a stalwart Labour supporter and has been notably sceptical of the whole UCUNF boondoggle. Counting against Ian, however, is his rash declaration that he isn’t actually a unionist. This may be a slight disability if you want to win the endorsement of the Unionist Party.

All I can say about that is that I’m glad I’m not a North Down voter. The prospect of a battle of the young fogies between Ian Parsley and Peter Weir is almost too grim to contemplate.

Arise, King Biffo!

And so it is that the heavyweight finance minister ascends to the throne, in yet another uncontested election, which seems to be the in thing nowadays. Or is it a return to the grand tradition left behind with Lemass, whereby FF leaders would ’emerge’ after the fashion of British Toryism?

Whatever about that, Biffo will make for an interesting contrast in style with Anorak Man. Of course he doesn’t have Bertie’s preternatural gift for the jovial hail-fellow-well-met stuff. But he’s a fairly substantial figure in his own right, and doesn’t have Bertie’s *ahem* negatives.

There will be, I imagine, some griping from Dublin trendies about a big culchie now leading the state’s hegemonic party. But then, a lot of that will come from the same people who used a different set of arguments about Bertie, and who would never vote FF in the first place.

And, with Bertie’s departure, would it be too much to hope for light at the end of the tribunals? Just a thought.

Our Glorious Leader stands down


Veteran leaders are dropping like flies at the minute, aren’t they? Here in Norn Iron, Papa Doc has signalled his retirement, which should be due in a matter of weeks. Word from Zimbabwe indicates that Uncle Bob may have reached the end of the line. But let’s not forget our own Man for All Seasons, our European statesman, our first socialist Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern.

The timing of Bertie’s departure, if not the fact of it, has taken us all by surprise. When the backslapping finishes, the question that will be asked by students of our Machiavellian leader is, “What did he mean by that?” The Phoenix is the place for that sort of theorising, so we’ll just have to wait and see if it went to press before Bertie’s announcement. [Update 5.4.08: I notice the Phoenix has indeed been caught on the hop by Bertie’s timing. Sir, I salute you!]

But perhaps more interesting is the question of what Bertie will do next. Is there some big international sinecure lined up for him? President of Europe, perchance? One would hate to think that he had invaded Chad in vain. Or, if he’s forced to remain in Ireland, he could advise the Shinners on how to transform themselves into Fianna Fáil Nua, as Grizzly and the boys don’t quite seem to have the acumen for it.

Bertie may also like to take some retirement advice from his old friend Mr Tony Blair. Since standing down as British prime minister, Mr Tony has kept up a veritable whirlwind of activity. First off, someone with a keen sense of humour made him the Empire’s high-powered peace envoy for the Middle East. Then there are the multimillion-dollar directorships at Morgan Stanley and Zurich – not bad for a virtual economic illiterate. He’s launching a foundation for interfaith understanding. And next year he’s going to be a visiting professor at Yale, which confirms a lot of my opinions about Yale.

There’s also the fine example of Liverpool University’s Mr Tony Blair Chair in Peace Studies. This opens up a line of thought – maybe UCD might consider a Bertie Chair in Personal Finance?

San idirlinn, sa Phoblacht na mBananaí…


I rather like Éamon Gilmore. Had I been a member of the Labour Party, which I’m not, I’d be quite happy with him taking over the leadership. He’s a smart guy, has some ideas, knows how to express them and isn’t hemmed in by the inherited orthodoxies of Stickiedom. On the other hand, I can’t quite figure out what he thought he was doing coming up with the idea of a no confidence motion in Bertie. Grabbing a cheap headline with a motion that was bound to fail is something you might expect from Electric Enda, who, all credit to his persistence, is still trying to put himself forward as an alternative taoiseach. But I would have hoped for a slightly more sober approach from Gilmore.

I’ve written before about my views of the Tribunal system (apologies for the repetition), and I also direct readers to WorldbyStorm on this issue. Just to recap, the Tribunals, apart from their dubious constitutionality, have become an enormous white elephant. Their main material function – apart from their political function – is to provide journos with easy copy and multimillionaire barristers with a very substantial state subsidy. With no end in sight, and a projected bill that could well top a billion euro, a sane body politic would have introduced strict anti-corruption laws (and maybe stricter ones than those currently in place are called for) and then moved to wind the Tribunals down. Unfortunately, since Des O’Malley browbeat Charlie into setting up the Beef Tribunal in 1991, no government has had the balls to get a grip on the legal eagles.

So we have this current situation with Bertie. We should reiterate that there has been no proof, nor anything like it, that Bertie has done anything illegal. Unethical and dishonourable probably, but no smoking gun of illegality has been found. All that Mahon has been able to demonstrate so far is that Bertie is a bit dodgy, a bit of a geezer, a little bit werrrr, a little bit weyyyyyy, a little bit arrrrgggh. But we knew that already. Did anyone really expect him to break down in the Dáil and wail that his entire political career had been a complete fraud?

Then there is the partisan aspect. The one thing that keeps me from straight out calling for the Tribunals to be scrapped is that that’s what the gaimbín wing of Fianna Fáil would like to happen. But that’s not to say that they don’t have a point. No matter the fact that Frank Dunlop paid off politicians of all parties; both the official opposition (Fine Gael and Labour) and the real opposition (the Irish Times) have shown a touching faith in the idea that endless exposés of “Fianna Fáil corruption” would oust the Soldiers of Fortune from power. (The gormless left of course also cling to this notion, with their little placards calling on the gardaí to arrest elected representatives.) The recent election should have proved otherwise, but I suppose that for a certain type of political mind it just proves that the Irish population get the leaders they deserve.

But there is a dynamic here that FF supporters are keenly aware of, and it’s a dynamic that undermines the credibility of the entire Tribunal system. Multiple judicial tribunals have been sitting for so many years, at such hideous expense and with so few tangible results that the only way they can be redeemed is by claiming the scalp of the Taoiseach. And, in the absence of a smoking gun, that means poking around in Bertie’s personal finances and trying to make him look so shifty that he becomes too much of a hot potato to remain in power. Trouble is, Bertie’s personal finances are so convoluted and his brass neck so tough that we could see this whole saga drag on for the rest of our natural lives. Well, maybe a few people would be satisfied with that, but it doesn’t do much for the public good.

Rud eile: No, I haven’t forgotten Gail Walker this week, she just didn’t interest me that much. We had the media’s treatment of Britney Spears, Sir Hugh Orde’s bit on the side and yet again some slagging off of the BBC. Elsewhere in the Telegraph this week, Lindy McDowell branched out from local politics to have a pop at Ahmadinejad, although not surprisingly she managed to bring the Provos into the argument. For another view of Ahmadinejad’s American adventure, you may find Justin Raimondo interesting.

Clinging to the flotsam

More on Fianna Fáil’s excellent adventure in the North: on Radio Ulster’s Inside Politics today, SDLP deputy leader and South Belfast MP Alasdair McDonnell was almost effusive in his welcome. Now, for some curious reason, Bertie and the boys have their sights set on the 2009 local elections and after that may take a run at Stormont, but, probably at the heel of the hunt due to the FPTP electoral system, are ruling out running for Westminster.

Alasdair thinks they are being too modest. Dúirt sé: “I have no doubt they will very quickly decide that if there’s an opportunity there and a representational job to be done, they will avail of it… They are very pragmatic and very effective.” Well, pragmatic and effective are two adjectives you could apply to the Soldiers of Fortune. Do I detect, though, a nod and a wink to FF with an eye to candidate selection? Possibly – but why? Electorally speaking, Alasdair is a dead man walking – does he think being the Fianna Fáil candidate for South Belfast will be a winning strategy?

In any case, Alasdair may need a couple of extra suits if he’s planning on strutting his stuff in island-wide politics. You can’t go to the FF Ard Fheis in a jumper with a zip up it.

You can read more on the headline-grabbing FF move in Jim Fitzpatrick’s newsletter at the Beeb.

Any rags, any bones, any bottles today…


All right, so there are a few straws in the wind about political realignment in the North. We’ll start off with unionism, and the ongoing existential crisis of the Official Unionists. The DUP has been pressing the OUP for talks on an electoral pact for the next Westminster poll, and Sir Reggie isn’t ruling it out. This seems bizarre, given that Reggie has been talking up the possibility of the OUP playing an oppositional role at Stormont. It is doubly bizarre when you realise that at the last Stormont election the DUP was ahead of the OUP in seventeen out of eighteen constituencies. (The OUP pipped the DUP by 99 votes in the overwhelmingly nationalist Newry and Armagh, but that was entirely due to Paul Berry’s sports massage problem.) So we can assume that Robbo’s talk of “maximising” unionist representation boils down to the OUP withdrawing its candidates in Fermanagh/South Tyrone, West Tyrone, Mid-Ulster, South Down and possibly South Belfast. Does Reggie have a death wish? Or does he reckon that doing a deal with the Paisleyites is the only way the rump OUP can survive?

Mid-Ulster OUP MLA Billy Armstrong has at least taken this to its logical conclusion. Under the New Dispensation, Billy reckons, there is no need for two pro-agreement unionist parties, so there should be a merger. Under the present balance of forces, this would mean the OUP rump subsuming itself into the DUP.

Meanwhile, there continue to be rumblings about the possible formation of a new anti-agreement unionist party to challenge the DUP from the right. The steady trickle of resigning DUP councillors suggests there might be critical mass for at least a small party along these lines. I hope this happens, if only for the entertainment value of seeing Big Ian being called a Lundy. The problem is that the unionist ultras are a scattered and demoralised lot. They have no seats in Stormont, most of them hate each other, and their most credible leader, Bob “Cream Bun” McCartney, has now retired from politics, much to this blog’s regret. As a result, the putative leader is MEP Jim Allister, who was elected to Strasbourg on the DUP ticket to replace Big Ian. Unfortunately, Jim has all the charisma of an oven glove, so any attempt by him to assume Papa Doc’s mantle as the leader of unionism is probably doomed.

On the other side of the fence, we have the announcement that Fianna Fáil is to start organising seriously in the North, with an eye to contesting the next Stormont election. (Also, see WorldbyStorm on this.) It’s a bit of a turnaround – although Fine Gael and Irish Labour were founded as 32-county parties and shrunk back to the Free State (Labour is to some extent reversing this), FF was resolutely partitionist in its own organisation until setting up a small and reclusive cumann in Derry a couple of years back. Presumably, Bertie is still concerned about PSF eating into the FF base in the South, wants to take on the Provos at source and has found the SDLP not fit for purpose.

This really is another nail in the coffin of the South Down and Londonderry Party. Since it’s hard to see anyone in the Six, except maybe for the Derry traders who set up the SDLP in the first place, actively wanting to support FF, what we are presumably looking at is a takeover (hence Durkan not rejecting a “merger”) whereby the Attwood brothers’ vast electoral nous would be supplanted by that of PJ Mara. One assumes PJ couldn’t do any worse.

But this points up a possible alternative strategy for Sir Reggie and the boys. Why doesn’t the OUP negotiate a merger with Fine Gael? Both sit in the same Strasbourg group, both are parties with dubious long-term prospects – shouldn’t Sir Reggie and Electric Enda be natural partners?

Why aren’t they doing tomorrow’s new dance steps the way they used to yesterday? Caoimhín Ó Beoláin contra mundum


The latest in our series of profiles of unlikely individuals takes as its subject the late Kevin Boland, which might cause readers to scratch their heads a little. Kevin, it must be said, was not an anti-capitalist, nor was he an anti-imperialist except in the limited sense of being consistently anti-British. Yet this most establishment of Irish politicos would end up as an exponent of a distinctively Irish strand of radicalism.

It was of course the explosion in the North in 1969, and the consequent Arms Non-Crisis, that threw Kevin into a serious political tailspin. Unlike Neil and Charlie, he himself had not been implicated in the arms importation scheme; nonetheless, he resigned not only his ministry, but even his Dáil seat. (Kevin was always one for standing on his honour, even at some cost to himself.) He then went further and set up a splinter party, vowing the destruction of the Fianna Fáil party he had grown up in. This was in sharp contrast to Charlie, who in Kevin’s colourful phrase ate humble pie till it was coming out of his ears, being determined, doubtless on the advice of Pádraig Ó hAnnracháin, to stay within the fold at all times and wait for his inevitable elevation.

There is a superficial version of this put about by those who have reasons to burnish the Lynch legend. The argument is – Stephen Collins recaps this in The Power Game – that Kevin was an unstable character, given to threatening resignation whenever he felt at all unhappy, and that anyway he’d always been an extreme republican. By this interpretation, the vast majority of the Fianna Fáil party prior to 1969 was “extreme republican”. You can’t explain by this why Gerry Boland had savagely suppressed militant republicanism during the Emergency, or why Kevin sat in the cabinet that interned republicans – notably Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, at the time an elected TD – during Operation Harvest.

The explanation is that the Bolands, in distinction to the Lemass technocrats, were Fianna Fáil ideologues. That is to say, they continued to take the party programme seriously. Today, the Fianna Fáil “ethos” has got pretty convoluted, and the party’s former radicalism a museum piece. But the original 1927 programme repays study – the ideas found in the La Scala speeches, the resolutions of the First Ard Fheis and the Seven Aims written into the Córú. Nowadays, the Seven Aims – which may still be in the Córú for all I know – would be as obscure as cuneiform tablets to your average FF TD, what with the economic ones being in breach of EU law, reunification being reduced to the rhetorical level and language revival not far behind it.

Make no mistake, although the New Departure of 1927 was a turn to constitutional methods, the programme was a revolutionary one, for the abolition of the Saorstát. This divided into two stages, removing the legal impedimenta to the southern state’s independence and ending partition. As we know, the first was achieved, more or less, with the enactment of the Bunreacht in 1937. The second would remain in abeyance. Then, when the northern colony collapsed and an opportunity to end partition presented itself, Fianna Fáil buckled. The question Kevin had to ask was, why?

The answer was a sobering one, about how a once radical party had become institutionalised. As Kevin would point out, quoting Seán Etchingham’s arguments in the Treaty debates, the party had accumulated decades of Free State fat. From being a movement dedicated to abolishing the state, Fianna Fáil had become one of the biggest vested interests in the state. Hence the cry that went up in 1969, “We must preserve what we have achieved down here”, and its obvious corollary, “We must restore stability up there”.

That’s how Kevin came to the position that, if FF was no longer the constitutional republican party, it needed to be replaced. He was worried that FF’s desertion would lead to the national struggle devolving to the Provos. (A lot of us thought that, although not all of us were worried about it.) This was the logic behind the Aontacht Éireann experiment, which ended in failure, notwithstanding Blaney’s Provisional Fianna Fáil being a sort of local analogue in Donegal. The failure was probably inevitable – the new party had few defectors, no resources and its political horizons were confined by the historical FF programme. There was also FF’s legendary discipline and pronounced leader cult, which led lots of party activists to tell Kevin they agreed with him, but couldn’t break from the party. And, all told, maybe in the 1970s there really wasn’t a market for a slightly constitutional republican party.

So, Kevin didn’t leave a political movement behind him, and it’s tempting to see him just as a holdover of an earlier era, a traditionalist Fianna Fáiler who couldn’t accommodate to the new technocratic age. But he did bring his old-fashioned republicanism to bear as a sharp critic of the Irish political class, and, while he never moved leftwards, he did deepen his critique over the years in some relevant ways, notably in economic policy. And anyone who’s interested in Irish political history might like to track down his books, which are all long out of print but can still be found in second-hand shops. Up Dev! is a rollicking personal account of the Arms Non-Crisis and its aftermath, scathing about the Lynch administration and told with a mordant wit that belies Kevin’s image as a dour old curmudgeon, and well deserving of a reprint. The Rise and Decline of Fianna Fáil takes in a broader historical sweep and is narrated in a more restrained style, but still useful for the student of FF. There are some minor works as well, but those two will give the reader a fair taste of the old-fashioned de Valera republicanism that tends to make de Valera’s latter-day heirs shuffle their feet in embarrassment.

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