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Low poll would reflect a referendum campaign that just failed to catch fire

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

I’m surprised at the lack of engagement with the referendums next Friday. Sure, nobody was ever going to get into a lather of sweat about a referendum on a Court of Criminal Appeal (though it’s not entirely a good thing). But the proposal to demolish one of the pillars of our State, one of the bedrocks of our Constitution, has also left the public underwhelmed… and that’s putting it very mildly.

After all did the idea to hold a referendum on the Seanad not stem from populist sentiment? Wasn’t it Enda Kenny’s response in 2009 to the public mood that politicians and the institutions they had built up around them had fallen into disrepute? So successful was Kenny’s stunt, if it was that, that all the main parties adopted the same position going into the 2011 election.

It’s obvious to anybody who has followed politics in anything more than a cursory way over the past two years that the mood has changed. There may still be anger at the way that the establishment, political and financial, led the country into excess and living beyond our means and then frittered it all away. But that anger has subdued.

What was raw and immediate two years ago is now more resigned, more indifferent. So when politicians now post the question, should we abolish the Seanad, the most coherent response that is coming back is we don’t really care.

The consequence of all that? It looks like the turnout will be low, as low as the mid-twenties, as happened with the children’s referendum and a referendum on bail over a quarter of a century ago. Neither are directly comparable, only to say that the lower the turnout the more unreliable opinion polls are.

So while the polls over the past few months have been suggesting a comfortable gap for the Yes side (the abolitionists) the reality may turn out to be different. A low turnout will mean that only the most committed will vote.

And there are two pieces of conventional wisdom that have been bandied around about those in the past few weeks. The first is that a majority will be middle class. The second is that those middle class voters are strongly veering towards a reformed Seanad, which means a No vote rather than a Yes vote.

The difficulty is they cannot really be tested for accuracy until after the event… in other words, after people have voted.

For many months I have been saying that I think that a No vote would prevail. In recent weeks though, I sense it might be a close run thing. The fact that the gap has not closed in the Red C opinion polls is an important indicator. That surveys all potential voters, not only those who are more or less guaranteed to vote. The very likely voters will include a lot of No’s but lately it seems that the Yes side might shade it.

The other thing that has been slightly disconcerting has been that the debate has rarely been able to go deeper than the superficial.

For most of last week, we witnessed an artificial row with the opposition leaders trying to bait Taoiseach Enda Kenny into a televised debate. RTE even got into the act by extending such an invitation to Mr Kenny and Micheál Martin. But it was clear that once Kenny said No, he couldn’t backslide from that position once he made it.

In a sense it’s a pity that Kenny didn’t consent to the debate. Because a televised verbal duel between the country’s political leader is always an event. That means it is broadcast at primetime with a primetime audience.

The outcome of the poll often turns on them – and parties, therefore, always prep exhaustively, trying to have responses ready for every trick question and issue raised.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.

Connacht Tribune

Fitting farewell for a true giant of Irish political life

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John Hume and his wife Pat at NUIG in 2003. Photo: Joe O'Shaughnessy.

I met John Hume quite a few times in the last ten years of his public life in the lead-up to and aftermath of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. There were the awful moments and the extraordinary moments. I was sent up to report on the awful ‘trick or treat’ sectarian killings in Greysteel, Co Derry, where Catholics were mowed down in a bar by a Loyalist gang.

At the funeral, a mother of one of those killed approached Hume at the graveyard and told him to carry on his work for peace. He was so overcome with emotion that he wept openly.

Later, he recalled, he was the butt of a lot of criticism and under considerable pressure during that period. Everything – the killings, the grief, the pressure – came to a head at that moment.

The pressure, of course, was continuing criticism for his relentless quest to bring communities together, to replace conflict with dialogue, and to bring a lasting peace to Northern Ireland.

He himself said that meant talking to anybody and everybody. And of course, that had included – secretly – talks with Gerry Adams of Sinn Féin for the previous six or seven years.

He was being attacked mercilessly for having the temerity to ‘sip with the devil’ by anti-Republican media organisations in the south and north – including columnists in the Sunday Independent.

There were highs too. The Good Friday Agreement in April 1988 was the pinnacle, bringing together everything he had campaigned for during a long political life. His deputy in the SDLP Séamus Mallon described it as Sunningdale for Slow Learners, referring to the earlier attempt at power-sharing in 1974 (it was collapsed by strident Loyalist opposition and widespread strikes).

Of course, Hume was instrumental in Sunningdale too.

For more on the life of John Hume, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.

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Schools plan overshadowed by row over Ministerial pay

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Education Minister Norma Foley...busy week on road to recovery.

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

The good; the bad; the clever; the stupid – we’re going to get the full mixed bag during this Government’s term. But the past week was a cocktail of sublime and ridiculous.  First up was the dog’s dinner – otherwise known as the row over ministerial pay. There’s nothing that irks people more about politicians than stories about them earning more money. The perception is they are feathering their own nests.

The trigger was the presence of three super junior ministers in the Government, one from each of the three parties – all of them at the Cabinet table but with one crucial difference; they don’t have the right to vote.

The last Government also had three super juniors. But the legislation only allowed for two of them to have the salary of a senior minister – a difference of just over €16,300 from a junior.

When Leo Varadkar was appointed Taoiseach in 2017, he dropped Mary Mitchell-O’Connor as a senior minister. As compensation, a new super junior ministry was created.

But when it came to trying to bump her salary up by €16,000 to the same as the other two super juniors, Fianna Fáil just wouldn’t buy it. Mitchell-O’Connor got an extra stripe on the uniform, but no extra pay.

This time around, there was no such problem. The three government parties have a majority and agreed unanimously to right that injustice, so the third minister would get the extra €16,000.

The problem was that it needed to be legislated. It was tacked on as an amendment to the legislation setting up the new senior ministry of Higher Education – except the Government didn’t bother to tell anyone.

So, when the press found out about it, they unsportingly went to town on it.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.

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Connacht Tribune

Odds already lengthening on Coalition lasting full course

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Euro money...Micheal Martin in Brussels this week.

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

Barry Cowen’s departure is proof yet again that, when a politician is under the cosh, what often does for them is the original transgression – aided by new information. When they are hanging on by a knife-edge, even the slightest new controversy will topple them.

Most of the time, when people look at it afterwards, they realise the new information did not stand up to scrutiny. But it doesn’t matter about the substance. It’s all about timing.

In a few months’ time, the Garda internal inquiry might vindicate him (to some extent) in his claim he did not try to avoid a Garda checkpoint. But by that time, politically, it will be water under the bridge. Everything will have moved on.

What’s clear already is it’s going to be a rough ride. By the time you read this, the Green Party leadership contest will be in its final throes.

In a way it’s a replay of the debate about going into government and the vast majority of those who voted NO will vote for Catherine Martin. But the contest won’t be as lopsided as that.

Few people believe she can oust Ryan. But on a lowish turnout, she could possibly run him close. A win is a win – but if the margin is narrow, it might plant the seed of doubts as to whether or not Ryan can survive the entire term in government.

Is the Government going to last five years? That’s very difficult to know.

It has a majority of only four in the Dáil and three of the Greens voted against going into government. We have seen it already – Opposition parties tabling motions or amendments (last week it was on maternity leave, and on rights for low-paid workers) designed to embarrass the Green and put pressure on their TDs.

With Sinn Féin as main Opposition, you can bet the house that they will continuously pummel the smallest of the three Government parties on issues close to its soul, but which they had to sacrifice to the other two parties.

And while some aspects of the economy are ramping up again, everybody knows that everything is just stuttering about.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.

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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