Thursday 27 June 2019

Donnelly's choice, Howlin's radicalism and the legacy of Enda Kenny

Political Notebook: Jody Corcoran

New Fianna Fáil TD Stephen Donnelly with party leader Michaél Martin. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
New Fianna Fáil TD Stephen Donnelly with party leader Michaél Martin. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

The reaction to Stephen Donnelly's decision to join Fianna Fail has so far failed to take account of a significant factor said to have influenced Donnelly in his decision: the personal relationship that blossomed between him and Micheal Martin when first they sat down to discuss his move a few months ago.

Good personal relation-ships are important in politics, as in all walks of life. Both men are said to have spent a considerable period of time discussing policy matters - two bald men sharing a comb, if you like - over and above other mundanities such as how Donnelly will be received by the Fianna Fail backwoodsmen in Wickla.

That should not be unusual, but is. Politicians are more noted for tending to constituency matters than discussing the finer details of policy. It seems policy wonks Donnelly and Martin had several conversations about, among other things, the future of the social democracy model to which they both subscribe, which is in a state of flux, or what alarmists might like to refer to as a "crisis".


The intervention of the Labour leader, Brendan Howlin, who had no prior knowledge of the Gubu-esque events which were to emerge in relation to Maurice McCabe, indicated a leader and party more in panic than crisis, never mind flux. Since his election as leader, Howlin and his closest advisers have been discussing in which direction he should take the oldest party, to retain the red rose of social democracy or revive the starry plough of James Connolly.

Recent actions by Howlin indicate the starry-plough route beckons. His objection to the Taoiseach's attendance at Donald Trump's White House comes to mind. It is understood Howlin and his advisers have settled on the term "radical" to define where now for Labour. I am reminded of the new Tory leader David Cameron's putdown of Prime Minister Tony Blair when they first faced each other across the House of Commons: "He was the future once." Brendan Howlin? He was radical once. Last week, was he just lucky?


The future for Donnelly in Fianna Fail may seem bright, but is not as bright as you may suspect. It is said with some authority that the assurance of a future Cabinet post was neither sought nor proffered, but it is not that to which I refer.

There are two issues which give rise for concern. First, the reaction on social media to Donnelly's decision should be ignored by all right-thinking people. Social media is an uninformed sewer. The point is that Donnelly has shown himself to be remarkably thin-skinned to the criticism that inevitably came his way. He will need to toughen up a little. Second, there are several strands to social democracy. Blair's 'Third Way' was one, but could scarcely be recognised as such at his end.

Fianna Fail's defies precision. The party's name incorporates the words 'The Republican Party' in its title. 'Republican' here is said to stand both for the unity of the island and a commitment to the historic principles of European republican philosophy, namely liberty, equality and fraternity.

It is best to describe Fianna Fail as a centrist party which, as the wind blows, can move to the left or the right. Under the leadership of Micheal Martin it has moved to the left, but must now nudge rightwards somewhat to maximise its appeal. Donnelly is a Nordic model social democrat; while he advocates free-market capitalism, he also strongly supports a comprehensive welfare state and collective bargaining at national level. However, to pay for all of this, overall tax burdens in the Nordic states are among the highest in the world. Herein lays the potential for difficulty in the future. Fianna Fail the tax-and-spend party, anyone?

In their discourse, it is unknown what conclusions Donnelly and Martin came to when they discussed at length what is to become of social democracy in this post-industrial era. In the institutional and technological environment wherein we now all live, production of goods and services is becoming more knowledge-intensive and decentralised: as a consequence, it will prove costly, indeed, for social democratic governments to ensure equality of outcomes, as opposed to equality of opportunity. That is another of the downsides to the rapid advance of the technologies which have given us the social media that so viciously and predictably turned on Stephen Donnelly.


The digital advance has also delivered us Donald Trump, the first Twitter president, as all advances in mass media, from the invention of the printing press to radio, have ushered a political epoch.

To date, digital has been given a free pass, but I suspect those days are at an end, not necessarily to do with the proliferation of fake news by Facebook and Google users, more to do with following the money.

Last month, Procter & Gamble, the world's largest advertising spender, came out with guns blazing: "The days of giving digital a pass are over... It's time to grow up. It's time for action," P&G's chief brand officer Marc Pritchard has said. Facebook and Google will be required to open the kimono and let us see inside. It may not be a pretty sight. But that's another story.


As I have said, Labour is rushing towards radical for radical sake. Joan Burton was at it too last week. In a Dail debate on Brexit, she raised what some would regard to be the spectre of Enda Kenny in a room alone among 27 other Heads of State in Europe at "the final meeting" when real decisions are taken.

Now, Kenny and I have never had such a good relationship, to which I have referred. That goes back to the general election in 2007 when about this place politics, business and journalism met with a bang - and I a wee sapling of a lad in the middle - as it will eventually meet with a bang for Facebook and Google.

But there would be no better man alone in a room at that final meeting than Kenny. He is nearing his political end (they say). At such a time, a politician turns his mind to his legacy. Enda's mind is so turned. Twice in that Brexit debate he referred to Northern Ireland as "the six counties" during the course of which he was asked by Gerry Adams whether he wanted a ("de facto") United Ireland: "Of course I do. I have answered that question before," the Taoiseach said. That is the legacy he has in mind - a United Ireland - and as legacies go, it is a noble enough one. Fine Gael, the Republican Party, anyone?

As to the legacy of Fianna Fail's new Brexit spokesman, Stephen Donnelly, well, here is a prediction: he will be Education Minister, to ensure people have access to knowledge, and therefore to participation a new stream of wealth creation in this post-industrial age. What more could a true social democrat want?

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