News John Downing

Wednesday 3 September 2014

Coalition must be open and honest to stem the flow of bad publicity

John Downing

Published 31/03/2014 | 02:30

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'Don't just stand there – do nothing." The old public relations maxim for crisis management comes to mind as the Government contemplates a situation that will get worse before it ever gets much better. It faces rapidly sinking popularity ratings and yet another week of fire-fighting controversies about the gardai.

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The above maxim refers strictly to what you do in public. The advice for behind the scenes is the exact opposite, with priority given to assessing the extent of the problems and identifying short and medium-term remedies.

Tomorrow is the start of the second quarter of the year and, counting from next Friday, we are seven weeks from polling in local council and European Parliament elections on May 23. The reality is that this Government has not caught much good publicity since December 15 last year and the formal exit from the EU-ECB-IMF bailout.

The first three months of the year have been dominated by a rolling series of controversies bedevilling An Garda Siochana. A revival of controversy about quashing of driver penalty points in January has stayed with us ever since.

That was followed by allegations of surveillance at the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) in early February, which also lingers. For the past week, we have had what looks like the daddy of them all with fears that 30 years of garda station taping of phone calls could cause an earthquake in the courts system.

But these government problems are not just about the gardai. There was also controversy about Irish Water's spending on consultants; persistent public unease about health insurance costs and nothing but tales of internal government quarrels surrounding long-promised remedies; and there were as-yet-unanswered questions about the Taoiseach's key ally, Frank Flannery.

Put that little lot all together and you get a great deal of negativity for the Government. In fact, there are grounds for saying yesterday's Red C survey findings in the 'Sunday Business Post' could have been much worse.

This opinion poll puts Fine Gael at its lowest rating of 26pc and Labour down at an all-time low of 9pc. That combined 35pc compares with a cumulative FG-Labour vote of 54pc at the February 2011 general election.

Yesterday, the Government adhered to that old PR minimalist maxim. Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte gave it a bit of honesty-in-dishonesty by correctly saying the Government had a bad week. His follow-up argument about the coming week was essentially wrong.

He said Government would steady the ship by winning the no-confidence vote in Alan Shatter, which would galvanise unity in their ranks, allowing them to move on. It is a given that the Government will win the no-confidence vote – but that will not return confidence.

These garda issues will stay in public focus as two reports are awaited in the coming weeks about alleged GSOC surveillance and penalty points. We will also see the establishment of a statutory tribunal of inquiry into those tape recordings and the likelihood that other high-profile criminals test the situation about those garda tapings before the courts.

Alan Shatter survived last week – but there is no guarantee that he can survive the coming weeks. Taoiseach Enda Kenny may find he has to cut his Shatter losses sooner rather than later. This week, the Justice Minister will once again be the prime target as both Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein once again also try to embarrass Labour to the maximum degree.

At Leinster House, much of the talk will be about Fianna Fail being stuck on 22pc and making no headway at the Government's expense. The party was unfortunate in not getting much blow out of its Ard Fheis in Killarney the previous weekend as, ironically, 'Shattergate' had hogged the headlines.

But it is hard to explain why effective Dail and media performances by party leader Micheal Martin and justice spokesman Niall Collins did not give them even a small boost. FF has been becalmed for a long time and it does not bode well for its upcoming election prospects. Could it be that the voters see it as too like Fine Gael and Labour?

Sinn Fein, up 5pc to 22pc, is doing solidly and spectacularly well. This is undoubtedly being driven by the 'post-war' intake of people like the telegenic Mary-Lou McDonald, Pearse Doherty and others like senator Trevor O Clochartaigh of Galway West. In contrast to all the others, SF can look forward to a good week by simply carrying on doing what it has been doing.

All of this brings us back to what the Government is to do from now on. The no-confidence motion will script itself for tomorrow and Wednesday.

But for the medium term, the authorities need to show some positive results on containing the threat from these garda tapes. They need to show progress on longer-term garda supervision mechanisms, which minimise party politics, and the swiftest possible establishment of the statutory inquiry into the garda station phone recordings.

From now on, the Government must proceed with openness, honesty and a deal of humility, which has not been evident over the past three months.

Irish Independent

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