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Labour’s by-election disaster is a sign of tough times still to come

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Political World with Harry McGee – harrymcgee@gmail.com

There are lies, damn lies and by-elections – and in many ways, by- elections tell you very little about things that are to come. But conversely, they can be useful weathervanes for the storms that lie ahead.

Like most other by-elections held since the foundation of the State, the Meath East by-election had its own peculiar circumstances.

A sitting TD had died. Shane McEntee was very well liked because, in essence, he was a very likeable guy: friendly, emotional and decent. Plus, it was especially sad and poignant, given that he, a relatively young man, had taken his own life.

There was always going to be a strong sympathy factor.

Meath, despite all the changes that have taken place there in a generation, is still an innately traditional county.

Sure, it’s a vastly different place to the Meath that my mother and her siblings grew up in well over half a century ago. They lived in a small village called Ballivor and some of the family and relatives lived in equally small villages closer to Dublin like Ashbourne and Ratoath.

Now Ashbourne and Ratoath are large towns, satellite downs for parents who are whizzing down the 20 kilometres of motorway that separates them from Dublin. Even Ballivor (almost an hour away from the capital) has a fair sprinkling of long-distance commuters.

In fact, the M1, M2, M3 and M4 motorways have made most of the county accessible for commutes. The radio ad that once said “Navan, only an hour from Dublin” is now obsolete. On the multi-laned speedways, it’s 45 minutes tops.

Many of those parents are Dubliners themselves. And in every of the vast housing estates we visited as we followed by-election candidates, we experienced the problems that have become common since the crash of late 2008: negative equity; unemployment and slashes in pay cuts for the many public sector employees who have made Co Meath their home.

Yet, still, despite that, Helen McEntee of Fine Gael got 38 per cent of the vote. It’s very difficult to analyse how every component of her vote was made up. Fine Gael spinners were twirling the tops furiously from mid Thursday afternoon claiming it was all down to her excellence as a candidate and voter approval for Government policies despite the headwinds of the property tax letters arriving into people’s doorsteps.
She was a good candidate in her own right; not just an indolent son or daughter trading on a late father’s name. And sure, a percentage of the Fine Gael vote would have reflected core supporters and others who approved of their policies. But my own view is that the sympathy factor was the dominant one. In other words, if Fine Gael had run a really good candidate who wasn’t a McEntee (Mairéad McGuinness for example) I don’t think they would have won the by-election.

And if you accept that the sympathy factor (people voting out of respect for her father) it leads to an interesting paradox. Everybody, including all us in the commentariat, had neatly split the constituency of Meath East into two: the more traditional and rural North and the vast commuterville that was the south.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.

Connacht Tribune

Northern stand-off underlines President’s independent spirit

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Roman triumph...President Michael D Higgins meeting Pope Francis last week.

World of Politics with Harry McGee – harrymcgee@gmail.com

There was a time when becoming President was like being sent to the Missions; one day you were here and then you were gone for seven years without a trace.

Patrick Hillary’s 14 years in the office between 1976 and 1990 produced only two particularly memorable events; a disputed phone call from Brian Lenihan asking him not to dissolve the Dáil, and a press conference to deny a rumoured affair of which nobody in the media had been remotely aware.

Otherwise, like many other Presidents, Hillary’s term was relatively anonymous, another prisoner of the very circumscribed Constitutional role of a non-executive president.

The President had few powers but the few powers were important: summoning and dissolving the Dáil, appointing the Taoiseach and members of the Government, as well as referring Bills to the Supreme Court to test their constitutionality.

It was the latter power that brought the presidency of Cearbhaill Ó Dálaigh to a dramatic end in 1976, when a Fine Gael minister Paddy Donnegan slighted him by describing him as a “thundering disgrace” after his decision to refer special powers legislation to the Court.

That all changed after 1990 with the election of Mary Robinson. She enlarged the role of the office as did her successor Mary McAleese. So has Michael D Higgins and while the office is in name ‘above politics’, he more than anybody else has stretched that concept.

Last week, I travelled to Rome to cover the President’s visit to the Italian capital, his first visit abroad since the Covid-19 Pandemic in March 2020.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.

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Parties no longer getting their own way at annual think-ins

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Brian Cowen, Mary Hannafin, and Bertie Ahern at the Fianna Fail think-in at Inchydoney back in 2004.

World of Politics with Harry McGee – harrymcgee@gmail.com

It’s Autumn and leaves are falling from the trees and blackberries are ripe and the party think-ins are in full flow. These away days for parties were originally to bring the parliamentary parties together after the summer break so they could regather their thoughts and come up with their strategies for the new Dáil session.

Then the bigger parties started getting guest speakers in, sometimes to give a contrary and unorthodox view on the economy or society.

It was at one such meeting in Inchydoney Hotel in Cork in 2004 when Fr Seán Healy of Social Justice Ireland addressed Fianna Fáil to explain to them that all the prosperity that had come into Ireland in recent years had led to widening inequalities.

It was out of that that the Inchydoney Strategy emerged, a reorientation by Taoiseach Bertie Ahern of his party’s prevailing ideology. The Fianna Fáil leader declared himself a socialist at the Cork resort and the party began to promote policies in Government that were less about economic expansion, more about the social dividend.

All of this happened during the course of the Celtic Tiger, when the economy was expanding at a ferocious rate, and already beginning to show signs of overheating. Ahern replaced Charlie McCreevy as Minister for Finance (he became EU Commissioner) with Brian Cowen. The Offaly TD was seen as less ‘PD’ than McCreevy. Indeed, he had famously said of the Progressive Democrats at an Ard Fheis: “When in doubt, leave them out.”

That strategy did reorient the economy but it was probably too late even then. The Celtic Tiger was at its height and Cowen pulled his punches when it came to taking the hard decisions between 2004 and 2008, with a series of milk-and-water budgets.

The Fianna Fáil manifesto for the 2007 general election was great for the party to get back into power but awful for the economy and society. The implications were not seen for two years, but when the symptoms of malaise appeared, of course, it was far too late to do anything about it.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.

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Or purchase the Digital Edition for PC, Mac or Laptop from Pagesuite  HERE.

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The Connacht Tribune Live app is the home of everything that is happening in Galway City and county. It’s completely FREE and features all the latest news, sport and information on what’s on in your area. Click HERE to download it for iPhone and iPad from Apple’s App Store, or HERE to get the Android Version from Google Play.

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Connacht Tribune

Coveney gets the mood of the room wrong on Zappone role

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Simon Coveney addresses the Dail Committee over the offer of a UN role to Katherine Zappone.

World of Politics with Harry McGee

When his time came to resign as Taoiseach a long time ago after a series of unedifying crises and scandals, then Fianna Fáil leader Albert Reynolds coined a memorable phrase: “It’s the little things that trip you up.”

An aide of another Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, once told me Kenny’s daily task was like being handed a skipping rope in the morning and told to skip all day. If he tripped up even once, it could have been the end for him.

I was reminded of all that while looking at Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney, going through a difficult two hours (for the second time in a week) on Tuesday.

It was all to do with the appointment of his former government colleague, Katherine Zappone (who was an independent TD for Dublin South-West between 2016 and 2020), as a special envoy to the UN.

In the scheme of things, it was a relatively small matter. In the span of Coveney’s career – a quarter of a century as a TD, a decade as a senior minister – he has made, and been subject to, some major decisions.

Even last week, Taoiseach Micheál Martin (of Fianna Fáil, don’t forget) made a huge effort to downplay this. His argument? Zappone was offered what amounted to a part-time role. The row over the appointment was a classic political “bubble” stuff. The reaction was overblown and melodramatic. And so on and so forth, as the Taoiseach frequently says.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.

Connacht Tribune Digital Edition App

Download the Connacht Tribune Digital Edition App to access to Galway’s best-selling newspaper.

Click HERE to download it for iPhone and iPad from Apple’s App Store, or HERE to get the Android Version from Google Play.

Or purchase the Digital Edition for PC, Mac or Laptop from Pagesuite  HERE.

Get the Connacht Tribune Live app
The Connacht Tribune Live app is the home of everything that is happening in Galway City and county. It’s completely FREE and features all the latest news, sport and information on what’s on in your area. Click HERE to download it for iPhone and iPad from Apple’s App Store, or HERE to get the Android Version from Google Play.

 

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