Posted tagged ‘Fianna Fail’

Irish higher education and the Soldiers of Destiny

March 23, 2012

In the light and aftermath of the Mahon Tribunal of Inquiry Report (the Tribunal of Inquiry into Certain Planning Matters and Payments), it will probably be some time if ever before Fianna Fail, the party that for so long dominated Irish politics, will be able to play a leading role in Ireland again. Tainted by the strong whiff of corruption as a result of the Tribunal report, it was already  being blamed for economic mismanagement over its final period in office.

For all that, it seems to me to be worth pointing out that its role in developing higher education over the past two decades has been significant. It initiated the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions (PRTLI – admittedly at the instigation of and with the support of funds from Irish-American philanthropist Chuck Feeney), it established Science Foundation Ireland (which became a game changer for high value foreign direct investment and for internationally competitive science research), it modernised the university system through granting university status to Dublin City University and the University of Limerick, and it brought about a significant expansion of student numbers, thereby broadening access to higher education.

Right now Fianna Fail’s destiny may well be oblivion, and I cannot easily see them taking power again in my lifetime. But when its history is written, the story will not be all bad. Not all bad.

Brian Lenihan

June 11, 2011

It was with great sadness yesterday that I learnt about the untimely death of Brian Lenihan, former Irish Finance Minister and more recently Deputy Leader of Fianna Fáil. Brian and I were students together in TCD in the 1970s, and subsequently we kept in touch and met from time to time. He was an exceptionally gifted thinker, someone who felt the attraction of politics while never quite leaving the academy behind. In academic terms he was of the best kind, a man with genuine intellectual curiosity while also having the gift of clear communication.

He will be missed. My condolences go to his family.

New day for Ireland?

February 27, 2011

I am about to go to bed for tonight, and as I do so the current seat count in the Irish general election is Fine Gael 46, Labour 26, Sinn Féin 11, Fianna Fáil 12, Independents and small parties 12. There are still 61 seats to be filled, and right now the predictions made across the media are all consistent and suggest Fine Gael will be by far the largest party, but short of an overall majority, and that a coalition with Labour (which also did well, though not as well as might have been predicted a few months ago) is the most likely outcome. Fianna Fáil will probably return fewer than 20 TDs, representing a catastrophic meltdown of its vote. The Greens have gone; a few years ago someone suggested that their votes would, in the end, be biodegradable, and so it now appears.

The Irish electorate was clearly determined to punish the parties forming the outgoing government, and to do so comprehensively. It is part of the current political narrative, and the future will reveal to what extent this is history or mythology – that an incompetent and corrupt administration, too close to bankers and developers, walked the country into an economic disaster and then sought and agreed an unfair remedy for it in the form of the EU/IMF bail-out. In this narrative other parties were innocent and the people were victims. It is possible that this narrative is not totally correct, but right now there is no mood in the country to question it and sentence is being pronounced accordingly.

I suspect that nothing much is about to change, and the new government will largely continue where the discredited one left off. I also fear that the new Taoiseach will be no better at communicating with the people than the outgoing one. But perhaps the election offers the chance for psychological renewal and for a new determination to go forward and achieve recovery. The country does deserve that.

Party time: Fianna Fáil

February 11, 2011

In the run-up to the Irish general election I propose to look a little at some of the party manifestos, and in particular at what they have to say about higher education. The first one to be considered is the manifesto of Fianna Fáil. Most people still assume that the party will have to leave government after the election. Indeed, mathematically it cannot get an overall majority as it has not put up enough candidates, even if every single one of them were to be elected. It is unlikely to be in coalition with anyone else, either – though you can never be absolutely sure.

Despite that, Fianna Fáil’s influence on higher education over the next few years will be profound, because during the past few years it took some of the key decisions that will shape the sector for some time to come. In government the party established the Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation and put in place the funding to sustain it; it commissioned the Hunt strategic review – which may not matter a whole lot over the longer term; but it placed this review in the context of some strategic priorities which were communicated to the review team, in particular the drive towards rationalising the higher education sector. This latter objective is already being implemented, with various discussions under way between institutions that are likely to lead of strategic clusters within the sector. It has set targets for the expansion (admittedly without funding) of higher education participation, and various programmes for what has become known as ‘labour market activation’, under which universities and colleges are urged (and to some extent incentivised) to recruit the unemployed and those seeking to adapt their careers to new labour market conditions.

One could say that the manifesto of the party (Real Plan, Better Future) is a kind of epilogue to all that, a series of references to what was done and to the legacy that this will leave, under the guise of a programme for the future. The section on education is largely about re-skilling and upskilling, including the setting up of a fund to create opportunities for this within higher education. The manifesto also emphasises the importance of research, arguing for a clear focus on areas in which Ireland can lead, and for strong academic-industry links. The manifesto also appears to back continued funding for ‘fundamental research’ and, more generally, for research funding for universities.

Overall, the Fianna Fáil manifesto does not break new ground in relation to higher education, but suggests that the policies developed over recent years are right and should be continued. It is, as far as I am concerned, a not altogether unreasonable position, as the government has a good story to tell in this area; and indeed it should be acknowledged that Micheál Martin was an effective and far-sighted Minister for Education. But the manifesto wholly avoids addressing the huge problem of under-funding, which is threatening to turn our system into one that cannot compete internationally. Relieved of the burden of having to find compromises with the Greens in this matter, the party might have used the manifesto to put forward some imaginative proposals; it has not done so. Perhaps in opposition it will develop its thinking in this area and stimulate broader public debate.

Elections and the search for a political brand

January 27, 2011

Like many people in Ireland, I spent yesterday evening observing the outcome of the Fianna Fáil leadership election and watching the new leader, Micheál Martin, give his first press conference. The obvious question to ask at this point is whether his arrival in this position will make a difference to his party’s fortunes. Of course we don’t know, but here are some observations.

First, if you believe that Twitter in any sense reflects directions and shifts in popular opinion, then he is already making a difference. Until yesterday and over the past few weeks, the Twitter world was wholly hostile to Fianna Fáil; the tone in tweets on the party was dismissive, angry, sarcastic. It hasn’t all changed overnight, but yesterday evening the trend was more balanced. If Twitter sometimes sets a tone (as it did for Joan Burton, as covered here the day before), then the tone for Martin might give his party some slight occasion for hope, or at least less fatalism.

Secondly, the tone of his own statements was markedly different from that of his predecessor. Gone was the hostility towards ‘the media’ (which I always thought was a very unwise approach for Brian Cowen to take), gone was the somewhat grumpy aggression, in came a kind of engaging willingness to accept some blame and look forward with optimism.

But it’s very early days, and for now we don’t really yet know what the Micheál Martin ‘brand’ might be – though we shall need to find out quickly if it is to make any difference. In the end, effective politics is all about finding a brand that resonates with the public. American political analysts tend to suggest that political success is based on identifying the correct issues and associating them with popular values. The issues in Ireland right now are easy enough to identify – they are all about economics and the associated social consequences. But what are the values? And how will the values of one party be capable of differentiation from those of another? And how easy will it be to communicate the resulting brands?

It is part of political leadership to communicate this, and Brian Cowen failed because he couldn’t. I would still have serious doubts as to whether Enda Kenny, once placed into the political crossfire of the election campaign, has what it takes either.

However, the odds must still be that the election will produce a decisive outcome that propels us towards a Fine Gael/Labour coalition. It is still almost inevitable that Fianna Fáil will spend the next four or five years in opposition. For what it’s worth, I don’t think that Sinn Féin or the independents will do as well as some are predicting.

But I don’t think that all this is totally inevitable, or that the precise outcome is predetermined. And that makes it more interesting.

PS. Here is my favourite tweet on yesterday’s events in Fianna Fáil, which I think sums up the position perfectly:

‘Anagrams of Micheal Martin (sans fada): “Miracle Man Hit” Or “Am the Criminal” It could go either way!!’

Brian Cowen, Fianna Fail and Ireland

January 22, 2011

Brian Cowen’s decision to step down as Leader of Fianna Fail, still for now Ireland’s largest party, had become inevitable. I predicted a week or so ago that his decision then to cling to the post was a mistake – for him as much as the party and the country – and it has ended much as I had expected.

But here we are now, and before he goes riding off into the sunset (which he won’t do for a few weeks, as he stays on as Taoiseach until the election), I’m going to say something nice about him to balance all the other stuff right now. It’s not that I think he was the right person to lead the country, as it was clear to me for some considerable time that he lacked the desire and the capacity to create that kind of partnership with the people that every political leader must fashion if they are to survive – something that Bertie Ahern was very good at (whatever about any other failings) – in the same way that Tony Blair was very good at it in Britain, while Gordon Brown couldn’t do it.

But Cowen did understand one thing that, in the long run, is vital to the future of universities: that we are now in an era in which knowledge trumps everything. The other day I heard some economist, I think, on the radio suggesting that we must now return to less ambitious industrial development in which we’ll start chasing call centres again. This is complete nonsense, because we cannot return to that. Not only are we still a very large distance away from being competitive in such contexts (and could only become so by further massive pay cuts), but such investments now routinely go to Asia, and I expect soon to Africa; they are not coming back to us. Regardless of what anyone might think, knowledge-intensive investments and indigenous start-ups are where our only really promising future now lies.

In supporting, as Finance Minister, the Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation, which in turn had been formulated under the leadership of Michéal Martin (possibly his successor-to-be as Leader of Fianna Fail) with the support also of Mary Hanafin (also a possible contender), Cowen showed some ability to understand this vision, which he continued to support as Taoiseach. Admittedly this was somewhat undermined by the cuts in higher education that have also followed, but I would still argue that he leaves an important legacy that may help us into the future. I say that without wanting to deny that other parts of his legacy will seem less attractive.

I have met Brian Cowen on a fairly large number of occasions and have had occasional opportunities to exchange thoughts with him. His career is not going to end in a happy way, and I am afraid he has himself to blame for much of that. But nevertheless, I appreciate an important part of what he did in office, and on a personal level I wish him well.

Mysteries of the political endgame

January 17, 2011

In an often misquoted passage in his biography of Joseph Chamberlain, the late British politician Enoch Powell wrote that ‘all political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.’ Politicians in fact often make every imaginable effort to prove him right, and in Ireland at this time Taoiseach Brian Cowen is working hard in this endeavour.

Not every reader will share this opinion, but I am of the view that Brian Cowen will leave a legacy of some achievements. Of all the politicians I have met (and I have met many, from different countries), he was one who perhaps most easily understood the value of universities in a modern country and society, and having understood this he genuinely tried to do something about it. Working with Micheal Martin (now set to vote against him in this week’s confidence vote) he secured the adoption of the Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation, which changed the funding framework for  research.

But right now, Brian Cowen is in that curious mood that seems to grip some politicians when crisis threatens to overwhelm their tenure – the mood that persuades them that their continuing in office is a matter of national interest, when virtually all the signs shout otherwise. Furthermore that mood, once it has asserted itself, leads the victim to certain doom, not least because the wider population quickly learns to distrust someone who claims emphatically that their political survival is pivotal in securing the national interest.

I have met Brian Cowen (though not as often as other Irish politicians), and I have always found him to be decent, courteous, interested and intelligent. When he was a minister – and regardless of how one might evaluate his achievements in office – he was clearly in command of his environment. Not so as Taoiseach. Almost from the word go it became clear that he could not adopt the leadership style that this office demands, and in particular that he simply could not communicate to the nation the kind of message that would inform, encourage and inspire. A  man with a very close connection with his party, he did not manage to show that he could transcend its organisational boundaries.

Brian Cowen’s political career is coming to its end. That much, I believe, he cannot change. But he had choices about how that might play out, and he has chosen the path that will in the end break him much more comprehensively than any other option he might have gone for. I cannot help feeling that it is sad, and not just for Brian Cowen.

Parliamentary matters

January 4, 2011

As far back as I can remember, every so often someone pops up in Irish politics and suggests that the Irish parliament’s upper house, Seanad Éireann (the Senate), should be abolished. Back in the 1980s this was suggested by Fianna Fáil grandee Martin O’Donoghue, more recently it was put forward as a new Fine Gael policy (about which the party front bench apparently knew nothing until they heard it on the radio) by party leader Enda Kenny, and now Fianna Fáil and the Labour Party have also proposed abolition. Pretty much everybody, therefore.

Indeed, it has been suggested that we may have this put to us in a referendum on the same day as the coming general election (abolition would require a constitutional amendment). This would create an interesting situation, in the sense that there would be some confusion as to whether a new Seanad could or should be elected if the electorate has just voted to abolish it, but where in the absence of implementing measures such an election may actually be required.

There are arguments that could made made either way as to whether a bi-cameral legislature is necessary or is (or isn’t) a better way of expressing democracy. In a country such as Ireland where, to be frank, the lower house doesn’t exactly exercise an independent voice, the abolition of the second chamber could raise questions. On the other hand, the current composition of the Seanad (with 11 members appointed by the Taoiseach) is weighted towards government support, so perhaps its survival should depend on fundamental reform. An upper house composed of people other than aspiring or rejected politicians could be an interesting proposition, for example.

But whatever position is taken in this, it should be based on proper analysis and consultation. So far it is difficult to see what is driving the proposals for abolition, other than pseudo-populist instincts and the assumption that it would please an angry electorate to get rid of some political institutions. That is not a good basis for decisions on the nature of our parliamentary structures. Doing all this hastily, to coincide with the March election, is not sensible. Democracy deserves a little more attention than that.

So while I could perhaps be persuaded either way, if this turns up on the March ballot paper and we haven’t had a really informed debate nationally, I shall be voting against the proposal.

OK, another ‘no-fees’ statement

August 17, 2010

A few months ago the government, having (courtesy of the Green Party) committed itself to a position of not having third level tuition fees during the lifetime of the present coalition, passed the whole thing on to Colin Hunt’s strategic review group. The latter was then expected to report in March, but didn’t do so, and right now we expect to see a report in October or thereabouts. While waiting for that to happen, the Tánaiste (Minister for Education Mary Coughlan TD) has come out with a statement confirming that ‘there will be no reintroduction of third-level tuition fees in the Budget.’

I don’t really know what this statement is supposed to communicate. If you take it at face value, she is obviously right. First, it is not just inconceivable but actually impossible for fees to be reintroduced to take effect during the academic year about to begin. If they were to be reintroduced, the very earliest date for them to take effect would be September 2011, but realistically it would probably be a year later than that. Secondly, even if they were to be reintroduced tomorrow afternoon I don’t see that this would have any effect on the Budget. Fees, if they really were fees, would be paid to the universities and colleges. No change to the Budget would be needed (or sought).

So what is this statement about? The only thing that the Tánaiste can have intended with her statement was to send out some general mood music to reassure those worried about fees, presumably in particular middle class voters. Otherwise, what was the point? Or are we to see this as a general statement of intent suggesting longer term Fianna Fail opposition to fees, maybe beyond the next general election? Curious.

Party time

July 26, 2010

On Saturday I was a guest on Newstalk radio’s Saturday morning show with Brendan O’Brien. One of my fellow guests was someone I had never heard of before until the middle of last week, Leo Armstrong. His claim to fame, and the reason for his presence on air, was that he had organised a meeting (attended by 50, we’re told) to discuss the setting up of a new political party. The news report on the meeting said that several speakers had complained about the political system’s ‘corruption’, ‘cronyism’ and other failings.

I thought that Mr Armstrong, who is 70 years old, was a totally affable man, a somewhat old-fashioned gentleman if that term still means anything. But I absolutely could not fathom why we were discussing his plan, or indeed why his meeting had merited the attendance of an Irish Times journalist and an article the next day. Don’t get me wrong, he is absolutely entitled to explore the potential for a new party, and he is welcome to lead it. But before the rest of us get excited about his chats over a pint in a Kilkenny pub, we would need to see more of his credentials. So far all we know is that he was a serial member of Fine Gael and the Greens, neither of whom he now likes, though maybe he dislikes them less (or possibly more) than Fianna Fail; and that he failed to get elected at the last local government elections, coming last of eleven candidates. On the air I asked him to set out his stall politically and say what his proposed party would stand for. Good question, he agreed; but he had no answers other than his dislike of the others, and his belief that many other people shared his disaffection.

In the end, politics is a mixture of personalities and ideas, and you need to have the right mixture of both to connect with the electorate. I thought Leo Armstrong was a charming man, but he didn’t have the political stature or presence that he would need, and he clearly hadn’t applied his mind to the ideas thing at all at all. So why in heaven’s name was he news? That we were discussing him and talking with him probably tells us something about the state of the political system right now. In particular, it tells us something about the alarming inability of some of the political leaders to communicate their message and through that keep the country focused. If a small meeting in a pub with an ill-defined political agenda makes it into the news, someone should be worried. Pat Cox and Michael McDowell’s teasing the MacGill summer school may be one thing, but getting all excited about the chat over a pint somewhere or other is quite another.

All the political parties need to re-tune their message and engage the wider public. Democracy depends on it.