The abstentionist policy of Sinn Féin in respect of their seats in the Westminster parliament has been thrown into the spotlight by the narrow majority held there by Theresa May’s Government, particularly as that majority depends for its existence on her deal with the Democratic Unionist Party. It’s not too fanciful to suggest that the (self-inflicted) inability of the seven Sinn Féin MPs to argue and vote against Brexit in Westminster could have a long-lasting and damaging effect on all Irish people, north and south.

The Sinn Féin MPs refuse to take their seats as they will not swear an Oath of Allegiance to the Queen.  They are accordingly not allowed to draw an MP’s salary or pension, but they do claim substantial allowances for the costs of staff, offices and travel.  Although they will not enter the House of Commons chamber (and thus cannot vote on any issue being dealt with therein), in almost every other respect they act as normal MPs do, representing their constituents, holding clinics, and lobbying UK Government Ministers on relevant matters.

Given the high stakes involved in the Brexit issue, surely Sinn Féin should re-assess their abstentionist policy. They only need to look to Eamon de Valera’s pragmatic response in 1927 to a similar problem:  up until then, Fianna Fáil refused to take their seats in Dáil Eireann because that would have involved their taking an Oath of Allegiance (albeit a dilute and arguably ambiguous one) to the British Monarch.

However, the assassination of the Vice-President of the Executive Council, Kevin O’Higgins, led the Free State government under W. T. Cosgrave to (among other things) introduce the Electoral (Amendment) (No 2) Act .  This required every candidate to sign an affidavit stating that he or she would take their seat in the Dáil and sign the Oath if elected, or else face disqualification. Backed into a corner, de Valera and his fellow TDs overcame their supposedly inviolable principles by simply signing a book containing the oath, which they famously declared an “Empty Formula”, and were promptly admitted to the Dáil.

It would be in their constituents’, and Ireland’s, interests if Sinn Féin could adopt such a practical stance now; if they followed de Valera’s 1927 precedent, and took the historic step of overlooking this other “Empty Formula”, maybe the chances of overturning Brexit in Westminster would be materially improved.   How ironic if it were to be Sinn Féin which saved Britain from itself.

If Sinn Féin fail to act sensibly and take their seats, then surely it’s time for the UK Parliament to “do a W T Cosgrave” – that is to say, make it a requirement for all those standing for election to undertake to sign the Oath of Allegiance and take their seats, failing which they will be barred from standing at subsequent elections.

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There was an interesting article recently by Noel Whelan in the Irish Times.  The article was about Sinn Féin and how it really isn’t a normal democratic political party.  It included mention of a topic, the significance of which had largely passed me by until now but which, to me at least, goes some way to explaining why there hasn’t been any progress in restoring the Stormont assembly. 

If Sinn Féin is to be believed its current leader in Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill, holds that position at the pleasure of the current party leader. When many of us queried the lack of internal party democracy involved in her appointment to the post by Adams a year ago, we were told the role is akin to any front bench appointment which any party leader would make.

But this is very strange. There is a power-sharing assembly at Stormont (or at least there is meant to be), and one of the main principles underpinning it is that the largest Unionist party in terms of parliamentary seats won and the largest Nationalist party in terms of parliamentary seats won are joined together in a complex mechanism whereby power is shared and decisions are taken jointly.  But the largest Nationalist party is led by a person who is not elected by their Stormont representatives, or even by their party members in Northern Ireland, or by some combination of these methods.

Instead he/she is appointed in some opaque manner by whoever happens to be leader of Sinn Féin, the 32-county party based in Dublin (currently Gerry Adams). And there is certainly no transparency as regards how Sinn Féin appoints its overall leader.  Indeed I suggest that it would be a brave TD who decided, without getting the nod from the “powers that be”, to stand against Mary-Lou McDonald for election as leader of Sinn Féin– and I mean physically brave.

But should the Sinn Féin leader in Northern Ireland be appointed by the 32-county organisation? This means that Northern Ireland is governed in large part by an entity that is controlled by people outside Northern Ireland.   It seems fair to me to question whether, partly as a result of this anomaly, Sinn Féin has less than a total commitment to restoration of the Stormont executive.  If the leader of Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland leader didn’t hold office at the whim of Gerry Adams (soon to be replaced as overall party leader Dubliner Mary-Lou McDonald), would it negotiate more sensibly?  If that leader were solely answerable to its Northern Ireland MLAs and their constituents, would the power-sharing Assembly be back in business?

This set-up is akin to having a situation where the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party was appointed by, and removable by, Theresa May.  I can’t see that going down well with anybody on this island.

As ever, where Sinn Féin is involved, anomalies and contortions are the order of the day. At some time in the future, Sinn Féin may come to behave like a normal democratic political party. We certainly aren’t there yet.

 

It’s interesting to see that Frances Fitzgerald is still talked about as a potential new leader of Fine Gael, although most commentators continue to have Leo Varadkar or Simon Coveney as favourite.

No doubt the Irish Times and its cohort of battle-hardened female journalists will do all in their power to keep her name in the frame. They must feel that this is the least they owe to somebody who was Chair of the Council for the Status of Women from 1988 to 1992.  You may recall the embarrassingly obsequious profile that the IT’s Kathy Sheridan produced in November 2014 and on which I commented less than favourably in this piece.

Now Frances Fitzgerald is certainly not the least capable of the Government frontbenchers, and I don’t think we need to feel unsafe in our beds at night just because she’s Minister for Justice and Equality. But she doesn’t strike me as having the energy or drive which a real reforming Minister would need for tackling (for example) the corruption and dysfunction that currently seems to infect An Garda Síochána.  She certainly doesn’t seem to have done much about it in the 3 years for which she has been responsible for them.

Incidentally, a wicked friend of mine went so far as to suggest that if either our Minister for Justice or our Garda Commissioner were a man, then the latter would have been pushed aside ages ago as a result of the whistle-blower controversy, but (his outrageous theory goes) the sisterhood values loyalty so highly that Frances Fitzgerald will give Noirín O’Sullivan whatever space she needs.

Her 3-year tenure as Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, from 2011 to 2014, didn’t seem to be a resounding success either, although in fairness it did coincide with the depths of the recession. At the time of the aforementioned flattering Irish Times article I wrote: “… she, as Minister for Children for the past 3 years, might have been slightly embarrassed by the proximity in the Weekend Review of another article, this one about child poverty, which starts with the words ‘Before the recession, Unicef ranked the State as one of the 10 best places to be a child.  Now it is one of the worst, ranked 37 out of 41 countries.’”

Now that I think of it, she was Minister for Children and Youth Affairs when Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, was established with much fanfare in 2014. Yes, that’s the same Tusla that has been so much in the news recently as a result of their “administrative error” which led to spurious child-abuse allegations being created against whistle-blower Garda Maurice McCabe.  Small world, isn’t it?

This is the same Tusla which, on its launch 3 years ago, asserted boldly that “This Agency will tell it as it is”.  A bit unfortunate, that claim.

That’s also the same Tusla which, like all State agencies, believes it needs more resources if it is to do its job properly. Now I don’t know enough about the details of their work to know if 4,000 employees and an annual budget of €600 million is skeleton-level funding or otherwise.  But it seems like a lot of resources in a country having a total population of 4.8 million, of whom maybe 1.2 million are aged under 18.

The promotional brochure for its launch has further hostages to fortune, all sounding hollow in the light of the Garda McCabe embarrassment:

Respect – We will always treat everyone — children, families and colleagues — with dignity and consideration.

Integrity – We will be reliable and trustworthy in the way we carry out our work by: Adhering to the highest standards of professionalism, ethics and personal responsibility. Placing a high value on the importance of confidentiality. Acting with conviction and taking responsibility for our decisions.

I don’t particularly want to knock Tusla, as it is doing a lot of fine work, and any failings it has are probably replicated in most other State agencies. I cite all the above merely to suggest that actions, or lack of action, by Ministers should have consequences in the real world.  And anybody who wishes to be considered as a potential Taoiseach should expect that their past record and achievements will be held up to the light for the public to judge their ability fairly.

That goes for women, too.

 

Here’s yet another example of an Irish politician “calling for” something to happen, as if somebody else is actually in charge of running the country.

From yesterday’s Irish Times:

Taoiseach Enda Kenny has called for a national conversation on the exposure of young people to pornography.

Mr Kenny said he has serious concerns young people were being tainted and corrupted by an avalanche of pornography.

“It’s always important that we should have a national conversation about what is important for our children – what is, and should be, a priority for our children when they’re growing up, and when they grow up.

Last time I checked, Enda was the Taoiseach. Has he no views on the matter?  If he doesn’t like the way the country deals with pornography, then do something about it. Irish politicians are ridiculously scared of being seen to have an actual policy on something, in case a few votes are lost back in the constituency. Other commentators have picked up on this.

Contrast this waffle with the way things are done in the UK. You may agree or disagree with the policy, but at least the politicians in power have particular views on things, and are not afraid of taking action.

This from July 2015:

Mr Cameron launched an opt-in system for pornography in 2013, meaning users had to tell their internet providers that they wanted access to adult material. The filter also blocks websites advocating self-harm and anorexia.

After concerted pressure from Downing Street, this year, Sky, BT and TalkTalk imposed automatic filters unless customers asked them to be turned off. 

This is but a single example of this infuriating tendency.  Enda should lead from the front, or get off the stage.

 

 

These comments from March 2013, following the death of Hugo Chavez:

President Michael D Higgins:

“President Chavez achieved a great deal during his term in office, particularly in the area of social development and poverty reduction”

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams:

“President Chávez worked tirelessly to improve the lives of Venezuelan citizens. He dedicated himself to building a new and radical society in Venezuela.  His progressive social and economic changes took millions out of poverty.”

And this from yesterday’s Washington Post:

“Venezuela is stuck in a doom loop that’s become a death spiral.    Its stores are empty, its people are starving, and its government is to blame. It has tried to repeal the law of supply and demand, and, in the process, eliminated any incentive for businesses to actually sell things. The result is that the country with the largest oil reserves in the world now has to resort to forced labor just to try to feed itself.”

Just sayin’.

 

Sherlock Holmes famously spotted the significance of the “curious incident of the dog in the night-time“: the fact that it didn’t bark was of great importance.  But this has nothing on the biggest non-barking dog in Ireland: the absence of any follow-up to the 4-year-old Moriarty Report.

In October 2015, Lucinda Creighton told the Dáil:

It is almost five years since Mr. Justice Moriarty, in his tribunal report on payments to politicians, found that it is beyond doubt that Deputy Michael Lowry imparted substantive information to Denis O’Brien which was of “significant value and assistance to him in securing the licence”. It has since emerged that there has been, for over three years, a Garda investigation following the Moriarty tribunal’s findings of suspected criminality in payments to politicians. Extraordinarily, this has not yet led to an investigation file being sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions, DPP. No one has yet been charged and there have been zero consequences for two of the key individuals against whom adverse findings were made…….

But it seems that Lucinda may not be completely accurate here: the delay might not be with the Gardaí, but in the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions.  According to TheJournal.ie,

“Gardaí have not begun a full investigation into the findings of the Moriarty Tribunal over four years after its findings were published, it has emerged.  Though Gardaí carried out an initial examination of the report they are still waiting for guidance from the Director of Public Prosecutions as to whether a full Garda investigation should be carried out.  This has been the same position that the government has been outlining in responses to Dáil questions about the tribunal since May 2012….Identical or almost identical responses have been issued on at least eight occasions to TDs who have submitted queries.”

So what’s going on in the DPP’s office?  Why hasn’t she supplied the requested guidance?  Is her office working overtime on this, as they should be, or is there some deliberate foot-dragging going on?

Three years ago, in a different context, I wrote:

 …the current DPP, James Hamilton, takes early retirement this month, and the Government have appointed Claire Loftus as his successor.  She has been promoted from her role as the Head of the Directing Division in the DPP’s office, and before that she was the DPP’s chief prosecution solicitor from 2001 to 2009.  I hope she can move things forward at a faster rate than her predecessor, but unfortunately I can find no reason to believe that a long and successful career in our DPP’s office is an indicator of a dynamic and energetic character.  Maybe I will be proved wrong.  For the sake of the morale of the general populace, I hope so.

The DPP’s information booklet, available on their website, assures us that “the DPP is independent when making her decisions. This means that no-one – including the Government or the Gardaí – can make the DPP prosecute a particular case or stop her from doing so.”  And the Code of Ethics for Prosecutors is equally reassuring: “Prosecutors shall carry out their functions in accordance with section 2(5) of the Prosecution of Offences Act, 1974 which provides that the Director of Public Prosecutions shall be independent in the performance of his functions. They shall exercise their functions free of any extraneous influences, inducements, pressures, threats or interference, direct or indirect, from any quarter or for any reason.”

So it would surely be very wrong for anybody to suggest that the DPP is succumbing to political or other pressure to sit on the file until after the election, or maybe forever?  Hmmmm.

As for the boys in blue, we know that, because any evidence presented to a Tribunal of Inquiry cannot be used to secure a criminal conviction, the Gardaí need to start from scratch and produce criminal-conviction-standard evidence through a new investigation.  But why aren’t they getting on with this task instead of using the DPP’s delay as an excuse?  What is it that they want guidance about from the DPP before pulling their finger out?  Are they under pressure to slow things down?  It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the resources being applied to this case within the Gardaí are less than adequate, and that there isn’t any real desire to get cracking.

It stinks.

And meanwhile, poor Denis O’Brien, and poor Michael Lowry, have to suffer the indignity of not being able properly to clear their names after Mr Justice Moriarty accused them of corruption.  I’m sure they are itching to have things brought to a head, and are despairing of the sloth being displayed in the Gardaí and the DPP’s office.

So what can they do about it?  Well, how about Denis or Michael making a complaint to the DPP’s office about their delay in the case?  The DPP’s Information Booklet helpfully tells us:  “9. Can I complain to the Office of the DPP?    Yes. If you have a complaint about how we work, you can contact us at our Office – see contact details on page 16.”

So there you have it.  And if Denis or Michael are too busy to lodge a complaint about the DPP’s tardiness, maybe a helpful member of the public would do so instead?  I’m sure they would be grateful.

 

 

 

 

If you were a senior politician in this decidedly unpopular Government and wanted to promote yourself through the medium of a laudatory and unchallenging newspaper profile, preferably one that takes up almost two whole pages in a weekend edition (which more people have time to read), how would you fancy your chances of achieving same?  Well you might reasonably think that the probability ranked somewhere alongside the chances of winning the Lotto jackpot, even if you have a fleet of handlers and spin-doctors who are paid handsomely to promote your merits on a daily basis.  After all, our newspapers are usually wall-to-wall with caustic and unflattering articles about politicians of all parties, particularly the current Government parties, it would seem.

But there is one class of politician, and one particular newspaper, to which this does not seem to apply.  They are, respectively, well-educated women and The Irish Times.

On Saturday 1st November, the wimmin who pull most of the strings in our Paper of Record excelled themselves by according our new Minister for Justice a lavish and soft profile on the lead page (and most of the second page) of its Weekend Review section.  You will get a flavour from the heading “Minister with a Mission to Deliver”, and even more so from the sub-heading “Practical, tireless, sharp and fast-moving, Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald is showing she has a flair for the feasible”.  Enough to make even a politician blush, I would have thought.

The writer, Kathy Sheridan, also makes sure to provide space in the article to promote Ms Fitzgerald’s suitability as our next Taoiseach:

She could yet make it to Taoiseach. Does she want it? “I’ve had a chequered political career, so I don’t even go there,” she says.  True. But surely she would say yes, if offered?  “There’s no question of the Taoiseach going anywhere.”   But supposing it opened up? “You’d have to examine the circumstances . . . I don’t think a woman should say no to anything.” So she would take it? “Of course,” she says, with some exasperation.

I can picture other senior Government members, and potential successors to Enda Kenny, gnashing their teeth and shaking their head in disbelief as they read the article.  But there’s more:

Many doubted her ability for justice – why is not clear, since she had been a resounding success elsewhere. In a glowing reference, Fergus Finlay, chief executive of Barnardos Ireland, said she had “worked tirelessly” as minister for children. “She wasn’t afraid to listen, learn and debate with those working directly with children . . . Her commitment to the role is evident from her long list of achievements, accomplished in an impressively short tenure.”

Now Ms Fitzgerald is probably one of our more capable politicians, despite her less than stellar electoral record, but it’s a bit tiresome to have to continually witness the gender bias of the Irish Times, particularly in its coverage of politics (see here for another example).

And even she, as Minister for Children for the past 3 years, might have been slightly embarrassed by the proximity in the Weekend Review of another article, this one about child poverty, which starts with the words “Before the recession, Unicef ranked the State as one of the 10 best places to be a child.  Now it is one of the worst, ranked 37 out of 41 countries.”  No mention of that in Kathy Sheridan’s article.

Ms Fitzgerald, a former head of the National Women’s Council of Ireland, can be confident that the sisterhood, and particularly its many representatives in the Irish Times, will be looking after her interests in the months and years ahead.

 

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