Sunday 25 September 2016

How to spin and win in the great political lotto

Published 05/09/2015 | 02:30

Taoiseach Enda Kenny
Taoiseach Enda Kenny

As the lotto approaches €6 million this weekend, Enda Kenny should contemplate taking a trip to his local shop to have a flutter, because his luck is in, it seems. If we are to believe his interpretation of the Fennelly Commission Interim Report, that is. The Taoiseach says he had absolutely nothing to do with the former Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan's retirement and, if he did, he didn't mean to. So it's really quite possible that our Taoiseach could hit the lotto jackpot by merely turning up at the shop and smacking his head on the lotto machine.

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Speculation about the events surrounding the premature retirement of Commissioner Callinan have been bouncing around the corridors of Government Buildings for months, like an unexploded grenade with the pin taken out.

This week, the Government endeavoured to carpet the grenade by smothering it, ensuring that the ensuing blast was more muffled than explosive.

The choreography of the release of the report was carefully timed and deliberate in its execution. No sooner had Enda pulled the drawstring on his Speedos for the final time this summer, he was back at his desk and clearing the decks before the deck chairs had even assembled.

Close enough to the silly season to avoid full-on political combat, but far enough away from the resumption of the Dáil, the hope is that this report and its findings will have run into the ground before the real business of the general election commences.

A report of this magnitude would never be released without the engagement and agreement of the key players and the Commission in advance. In this instance, you can be certain that behind the scenes, An Taoiseach, the Justice Minister and the Attorney General, gave careful consideration to every step of this sequence.

The Government's media management of the report was slick, if a tad too deliberate to be considered deft.

Here is how it goes. Release report just before the 'Six One News', allowing national daily newspapers enough time to do the story, hoping that it is not enough time to do any real damaging in-depth analysis. Then put the principle figure on the main evening news and get your retaliation in first. Allow newspaper headlines the next day to sink in and then bombard radio panels and follow-up programmes with senior Cabinet people.

We are now entering the "keep your friends close and your enemies closer" phase. Drag in potential party leaders and Coalition partners to support the effort. Pull them into your circle of trust and, by extension, commit them to the report, the Government line, and most importantly the Taoiseach.

In keeping with the public relations principle of first up, best dressed, the Taoiseach was uncharacteristically out on the news less than an hour after the report was published. Looking not so much media-trained as brainwashed, Enda Kenny delivered his message with such conviction that I suspect he now actually really believes his version of events. If the Fennelly Commission was a best-selling novel then, according to the Taoiseach, its title would be 'Nothing to see here Gov. Move On'.

Like a turbo-charged political tag team, Health Minister Leo Varadkar and current Justice Minister Francis Fitzgerald followed up on key political programmes to support their leader in an attempt to muffle the sound of condemnation and pronounce vindication. The fact that all of this coincided with Michael Fingleton's appearance at the Banking Inquiry is merely a happy coincidence of course.

Varying interpretations about the motives for the visit to the Commissioner's house by Brian Purcell do not negate the fact that according to the Fennelly Report, legally they had no grounding to approach him with a view to removal.

To remove a Garda Commissioner requires Cabinet sanction and they did not have it. The report states that: "A visit to the Commissioner's house by the secretary general was an event without precedent. It was taking place very late at night." It was not the timing but the tactic that is the real issue. Obvious standard procedures were abandoned. Cabinet sanction requires a discussion, a decision, and a direction, and none of this happened.

What did happen, however, was palpable panic. Despite the notion that there was a large catalogue of issues fuelling debate and causing difficulties in the Justice area, there were really only two. Number one was the whistle-blower allegations, and number two was the bugging at GSOC HQ.

Once the issue of routine taping at Garda stations became a red-flag problem, no one inside Government had the objective capacity to stand back and put difficulties into perspective.

For those dealing with the "crisis", it was seen as a saturation point, which unless contained, could bring the roof down. Being in a cloud of confusion is not the dangerous part of Government, the problems occur when you lose the ability to see through the fog. In an attempt to appease the situation by approaching Commissioner Callinan, they effectively intensified their problems and began a dangerous game of political Jenga.

There was one politically-expedient decision that transpired. The Government set up the Fennelly Commission before real political momentum for a Dáil committee investigation took hold.

Had that happened, the legal procedures pertaining to Cabinet and the removal of a serving Commissioner would have become the central issue. On that, the Fennelly Commission concludes they would have failed. Coupled with the spectre of the Taoiseach and former Ministers for Justice, a former Garda Commissioner, and a former Secretary General of the Department of Justice telling their varying tales in public would have made an interesting parallel side-show to the increasingly ineffective Banking Inquiry.

In the book 'Double Down', President Obama is quoted: "Any president can only affirmatively effect 20pc of his agenda - all the rest is reaction." - a truism that this Government is learning late in the day.

In dealing with Fennelly now, they have tried to remove a difficult issue from their desks early. Late night visits from Secretary Generals will be shelved, but ministers and TDs need to proceed with caution because as the election closes in, next time, "it could be you".

 

Irish Independent

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