Posted tagged ‘general election’

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: the Labour Party

February 17, 2011

Here is the final manifesto I shall be looking at: the Labour Party. In the education section of the document, the party puts forward a number of reasonable proposals to do with curriculum reform in schools, equity and fairness, and combatting illiteracy. The higher education element in all of this is summed up as follows:

‘Labour supports a vibrant, pluralist third level sector that offers both high quality research and high quality undergraduate teaching.’

For the moment this has not been taken beyond the rather vague rhetoric of that quotation. But there are some specifics, most notably the party’s desire to initiate a reform of the ‘academic contract’. On tuition fees the manifesto repeats the Labour commitment not to reintroduce them, while also suggesting that more radical reform is needed. This is part of a more general trend right now that appears to want to ‘compensate’ for less generous funding with higher levels of bureaucracy and control. Searching around for something to suggest that might bring in money, the manifesto echoes the Fine Gael commitment to seek more international students. Neither party seems to be particularly aware of the already existing level of international recruitment, nor of the complexities involved in any dramatic growth in the number of overseas students.

Overall, Labour’s manifesto has some interesting ideas and promises, but the passages on higher education are perhaps somewhat disappointing. The significant overlap with the equivalent passages in the Fine Gael manifesto suggests that, unless the sector can succeed in rational persuasion, the trend over the coming years will be a continuing erosion of autonomy, a further drop in the available resources and a decline in Ireland’s standing in pursuit of a knowledge society.

Party time: Fine Gael

February 16, 2011

It is widely presumed that, after the coming Irish general election, the new government will be led by Fine Gael. It is the only party that has entered a sufficient number of candidates in the election to allow it to govern on its own if the electorate so decides, as no other party will has enough candidates to win a majority even if all of them were elected. Furthermore, the opinion polls are strongly suggesting a very sold performance by the party.

In these circumstances, what the party says in its manifesto matters, and we can expect to see many of its promises become government policy shortly.

So as regards higher education, what are these promises? They are contained in section 9.9 of the document, and this provides an insight into what Fine Gael believes now constitute our priorities. This includes what is, in essence, an adoption of the proposals on funding made in England by Lord Browne’s review: there will be no up-front fees, but graduates will be required to make a ‘contribution’ amounting in total to about a third of the cost of their degree programme.

Secondly, Fine Gael wants the universities to pursue ‘greater pay and non-pay efficiencies in the third level system through greater flexibility in working arrangements, in line with the Croke Park Agreement.’

Thirdly, the party wants more coordination of the sector, and so it promises to ‘give students a better third level education by repositioning our universities and institutes to become world leaders in education through greater collaboration, specialisation and focus in every educational institution.’

Finally, the party is intending to double international student numbers. While no doubt there are several reasons, the manifesto emphasises the potential for ‘maximising the revenue potential of this rapidly growing.’

Over recent years the impression has grown amongst politicians that Ireland’s higher education system is too fragmented and inefficient. Fine Gael has been at the heart of this drive to introduce ‘reform’. While the detailed plans set out in the manifesto are somewhat  vague, they nevertheless paint a picture of system in which government will exercise greater control over institutions and change the nature of the academic employment relationship. Universities will need to engage with the party as a matter of urgency, with a good case.

I have seen the future, but does it work?

February 15, 2011

If we make certain assumptions about the likely composition of the next government in Ireland, we do well to study the manifestos of Fine Gael and Labour. Both are now available.

I shall examine the commitments made in these documents later, but it is worth pointing out that they contain a pattern regarding higher education. Leaving aside for a moment what they say on funding, the key objective of both parties is to bring about a reform of the sector, and in particular the reform of academic contracts and working conditions. It is therefore likely that current discussions around this issue (featured in this blog) will, if anything, step up a gear after the election.

A further more detailed analysis to follow.

Party time: Sinn Féin

February 15, 2011

Continuing with my posts examining higher education proposals by political parties in the Irish general election, let us have a look at what Sinn Féin has to offer. In fact, there is not very much of substance which we could assess. The main policy objective relevant to universities – actually, as far as I can tell the only one – is part of a more general policy of reducing or eliminating the cost to parents, students and families of education. This ambition is expressed in the party’s election manifesto as follows:

‘Every parent aspires to the best start for their children. We are committed to ensuring that is more than an aspiration – we are committed to delivering the best start for our children. Free primary, secondary and third-level education is a top priority for Sinn Féin. This will mean eliminating the growing parental contributions and other costs that have undermined the entitlement to free education.’

Sinn Féin makes 19 election promises relevant to education as a whole, only one of which relates to higher education specifically; this states that the party will ‘oppose the reintroduction of third-level fees through any guise and reform the grants system to take into account the real costs of going to college.’ This is also repeated verbatim in a separate election leaflet entitled Time to Return to Free Education: 6 Simple Steps.

In a report by the Irish Independent on the launching of Sinn Féin’s education policy for the election, outgoing TD Aengus O Snodaigh is quoted as saying that the party is ‘committed to making free education a reality, with its plans to make the wealthier pay more towards the public purse.’

It seems clear that Sinn Féin has not so far given much thought to higher education, and that for the moment its priorities lie elsewhere. In the brief references to this area the impression is created that there is an easy path to a free and well funded system of higher education, but this is simply too vague to allow any kind of critique.

In order to get some more detail that could be assessed here, I have contacted the party with some specific questions on higher education. I shall report here what answers I get, if any.

A different perspective on February 14: fall in love with Fine Gael?

February 13, 2011

As soon as I can get hold of the education proposals of Fine Gael in the Irish general election campaign I shall review them here, but while waiting for that you may want to consider the party’s novel approach to campaigning, in the form of what must be the cheesiest Valentine’s Day ‘card’ that I have ever seen. Have a look here, but put aside all your normal rational responses first.

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.

Poster boys (and girls)

February 7, 2011

For readers from outside Ireland, let me just point out that we are currently in the middle of a general election campaign, to culminate in the election itself on February 25. I intend to have a close look at the parties’ manifestos once we have these, but for now a different concern: election posters.

I have witnessed and followed election campaigns in at least four different countries while living there, and Ireland has one unique feature: the tendency for political parties to put up literally thousands of posters on lamp posts all over the country. Election posters on billboards are common in other countries, but not this total saturation everywhere. And it’s not pretty. Here are some views:

The recent weather has not been kind to the posters, and many of them have been blown off the lamp posts and are now littering the environment, while others have managed to cling on (such as the one on the top right) but are now no advertisement for their owners. Others are weirdly opaque. A visitor to Ireland asked me yesterday, with reference to the bottom right diamond-shaped poster, ‘Who is Lucinda Truth, and does she live up to her name?’ The offending litterer here is Fine Gael’s Lucinda Creighton, and who thought that putting up a poster with ‘Lucinda Truth’ (or ‘Lucinda Courage’, which is another one) is a good idea?

And what can I say about fresh-faced Dylan Haskins (lower left), except that his mother is probably even now out looking for him. He has the rather odd slogan ‘It starts here’ on all his posters, which one passer-by misread as ‘I[nformation] T[echnology] starts here.’ Or maybe not misread?

Overall, however, all this postering/littering is just mad, and cannot possibly persuade anyone to vote in any particular way. No wait, I’m wrong. It is persuading me, all other things being equal, to give my vote to the party that puts up the fewest posters.

Is the party over?

January 31, 2011

The latest opinion poll figures in Ireland suggest that independent candidates in the forthcoming general election may do very well: they are currently scoring 15 per cent, only one percentage point lower than Fianna Fáil. If this kind of support is maintained on the actual polling day it could, at least in theory, produce a record number of independent TDs (members of the Dáil, i.e. the lower house of parliament). This would create a completely different political composition of the country’s parliament from that of any other state (apart from Canada) of which I am aware. What does this signify, and does it matter?

Historically independent members of parliament are often elected on single-issue platforms, often to do with local services in the constituency. Where a government does not have a clear majority independent parliamentarians can become crucial to sustaining them in power, and often this is achieved through bargaining that involves the provision of resources or facilities for the area or region. A quick study of the parliamentary career of Jackie Healy-Rae in Ireland illustrates this point.

At a time when political parties are not held in very high esteem the electorate may be more willing to experiment with independents, and may even find them a better proposition. But in fact they distort the political system, because for the most part at least they are unpredictable. Taken as a group they do not represent a recognisable political direction, and so they do not help in the maintenance of sustainable and coherent policy-making, which at this point in our economic fortunes is particularly necessary. They also may, in some cases at least, represent the pursuit of pork barrell practices to support one area at the expense of others.

An interesting development in Ireland was the recent attempt to assemble a group of independent candidates (including journalists and commentators David McWilliams and Fintan O’Toole) and allow them to run under one organisational umbrella, to be called ‘Democracy Now’. However, the individuals who would have made up that group have wildly differing views on almost all matters imaginable, ranging from the fairly extreme right to the very radical left. They would have been committed to a common goal of political reform and the renegotiation of the recent Irish bail-out, but it would have been difficult for them to unite around substantive principles even in those contexts. In the event the group has decided not to proceed, and only one of them, Shane Ross, seems determined to stand as an independent.

It is my view that independents representing university seats in the Seanad, Ireland’s upper house, have played a very valuable role. But the game in the Dáil is a different one, and for me at least there is no evidence that independent TDs enhance democracy and progress. I therefore hope that current opinion poll figures turn out to be wrong. In the end, the capacity of citizens to have their political priorities reflected in government will depend on their ability to vote for a manifesto held in common by a group large enough to form an administration. I hope that the political parties are not finished yet.

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!!’