Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Europe calling

It’s that time again – the time when Europe comes calling for our ‘best and brightest’. No, not the Eurovision (although that’s coming soon too), but the European elections.

Forgive a note of sarcasm in ‘the best and brightest’, but it’s difficult to avoid. In Irish politics, Brussels has traditionally been a dumping ground for those who just don’t cut the mustard at national level. While it’s not easy to get elected in a European election (the sheer amount of votes required is hard to comprehend even for successful general election veterans – Sean O Neachtain polled over 62,000 votes in 2004), the contest is generally not reserved for the cream that has risen to the top of various parties.

Usually, promising candidates who could do well in national politics are lured to Brussels by some kind of carrot. Or are exiled because of a disagreement with the current party leadership – Munster MEP Brian Crowly has famously been at odds with party HQ for years, but is holding onto his Fianna Fáil seat in the hopes of a Presidential nomination.

Often, people are dragged out of semi-retirement to fly the flag, or high flyers with even higher profiles (former GAA President Sean Kelly, again in Munster, and the courting of Packie Bonner by Fianna Fáil this time round) are lured onto the ticket, often with promises of future General Election ticket spots.

And so it is, too, in the North West. Independents like Marian Harkin (and Dana before her, and Kathy Sinnott in Munster) do better in European elections, partly because most people have no idea, or much interest, in what MEPs actually do. And the political party system is not so important in Brussels – Harkin has allied herself with the ALDE, soon to become home to FF, for years, and receives all the support she needs from them.

The current crisis within Fianna Fáil, following the surprise resignation of Sean O Neachtain, is a telling one, because the facts are that nobody really wants a seat in Brussels. This, despite the fact that MEPs have more real power than TDs, with the same salary. They pass reams of legislation, some of which then has to be passed by the Dáil, and have a voice where it really counts in a lot of issues that can matter at local level (see Marian Harkin’s involvement in the Eyrecourt sludge case, in which a European body forced
the EPA to act after years of inaction by Galway County Council).

Speaking to the Galway Independent on Sunday, Aer Arann CEO Padraig O Ceidigh, who is by any measure a perfect fit for O Neachtain’s shoes, and would easily get douze points from the North Western jury, was still doubtful.

Not because he doesn’t fancy politics; not at all. Because he doesn’t fancy the European Parliament.

However, as mentioned above, Fianna Fáil in particular is well known for it’s carrot-based approach to European elections; for O Ceidigh, who would clearly relish an economic portfolio, there would be ample reward later on. He is someone who would almost certainly get elected in Galway, probably presenting a danger to Eamon O Cuív (who might not be so happy to see him embraced by Fianna Fáil), and would be competent in an economic portfolio, providing he could be taught to toe party line.

Within Fianna Fáil he is seen as a great white hope to retain O Neachtain’s seat, but it’s possible that his candidacy may cost more than Fianna Fáil can offer. Time will tell.

Public vs Private

In Brian Friel’s acclaimed play, Philadelphia, Here I Come, the conflict between public and private is central to the play.

Gar O’Donnell, the central personality, is a dual character. Gar Public is “the Gar that people see, talk to, talk about”, while Gar Private is “the unseen man, the man within, the conscience”.

There is always conflict between public and private, and none more so than in the world of employment. When news broke last week that employees at Leitrim County Council were to continue getting a half-day off (outside their annual leave) in recognition of a traditional local festival that no longer takes place, that conflict heightened just another notch.

When Dublin Bus drivers decided to strike unofficially because of collectively agreed changed work practices, inconveniencing most people who live and work in the capital, private sector outrage at the public service jumped yet again.

As one colleague said, “I think I hear the sound of my suitcases packing themselves”.

Just like Gar Public, public sector workers are the ones being scrutinised and talked about.

Local election candidates out canvassing at the moment are reporting a strange phenomenon; civil, almost friendly welcomes from many of the newly unemployed who have been dropped in their droves from the private sector workforce… and doors in the face from their public sector neighbours who still have their jobs.

Public sector workers have suffered an unfair pension levy. Private sector workers have suffered either the loss of their jobs, or equally unfair pay cuts.

While there’s a huge divide, there’s one simple uniting factor. We might be in the soup, but we are all in it together, and whingeing is not going to help us.

For Gar, the answer to his conflicts (with himself, his father and his life in Ballybeg) is simple: Philadelphia. Unfortunately, emigration isn’t currently an option for either private or public sector workers.

While our solution may not be so clear-cut, one thing is clear. Like Gar, we are fighting ourselves. So maybe it’s time to pull together and act, not like two dogs with a bone, but like one society facing the biggest threat to our common interests in generations.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Fussy finances

Last week news broke of a survey conducted by online dating company Parship, which found that Irish women are the fussiest in Europe.

Money was a big issue for most, with 55 per cent of women saying they wouldn’t date an unemployed man and almost one-third saying they could ‘barely accept it’. Eighty-four per cent of women don’t want their partner to be financially dependent on them, while just 46.4 per cent of men say this is an important issue.

What the survey completely fails to mention is that a fairly high proportion of men in their twenties and thirties are now unemployed. During the Celtic Tiger, being unemployed was pretty unusual and in a lot of cases, it showed nothing more than a lack of motivation, but we ain’t in Kansas any more.

This leaves us in something of a quandary; do these ‘fussy’ women lower their standards in order to acknowledge the prevailing realities, or will they just have to take a vow of chastity until the recession ends and all the former young up-and-coming professionals regain their jobs along with their eligibility?

Women were fussier than men about almost everything in this survey, and men were only more choosy in two categories; the importance of good looks and ‘a toned body’.

With some experts predicting that the recession could last more than five years, a lot of women could reach age barriers they haven’t yet considered. By the time the recession is over, they could have a whole new set of worries – ticking biological clocks, wrinkles and even, as Celia Holman Lee is currently advising us from a pharmacy window near you, thinning hair!

So here’s the equation. With 55 per cent of women refusing to date someone who’s unemployed, five years to wait before the 10 per cent of unemployed people see a rise in the jobs market, and 60 per cent of men, in the same survey, saying good looks are very important to them… how do you add it all up?

They say quality is one of the first casualties of a recession – cutbacks are resulting in poorer products and fewer options in every sector, but has anyone thought of how it’s impacting on our love lives? It’ll be interesting to see if next year’s survey has the same results.

Early birds and late starters

They say the early bird gets the worm, but there are clearly a number of political types around Galway City and County who’ve never heard the maxim.

Of course, it wouldn’t be fair to tar all the candidates with the same brush. Some, such as Labour’s Niall McNelis, have been campaigning ferociously behind the scenes since before Christmas, while others, such as Green Niall O Brolcháin, have been upping their publicity and their visibility since long before that.

Whether you’re an advocate of the canvassing-is-everything method, or the publicity-gimmick way of doing things, there’s no doubt that being well-known early on is an advantage.

Even if a candidate is well known as a pillar of their community, becoming well known as a candidate as soon as is humanly possible, is crucial.

A lot of candidates make the fatal mistake of presuming people know they are running. Wrong. Nobody knows unless they are told – by the candidate, their campaigners, or the media.

And the protection, or even mentoring, of a political party is not always helpful in this. While Independent candidates can have trouble getting out there (lack of know-how is the main culprit here, but a lack of contacts and ‘party machine’ can also hinder Independents), those running for political parties can have even more trouble.

And there is a fair amount of evidence to suggest that this is the case, particularly for rural candidates.

One problem of running within the confines of the party system is that there is usually a sitting candidate who does not want a running mate. They, with minimum five years of contact with local VIPs and media, can make it very difficult for a new candidate to get a foothold.

Another is that political party ‘head offices’ are widely known to be very controlling. They have a strategy, they have a wider aim, and one candidate in Ballinasloe, or Tuam, or wherever, is not going to distract that.

As one party press officer admitted to me recently, “Sure we have hundreds of candidates, I wouldn’t have the names… could you not ring Cllr X?”

Cllr X, who clearly does not want upstarts ruining his chances, is not going to be the best advocate of his new ticketmates, now is he?

So there are candidates all over the country, not least in Galway, whose announcements are not making it as far as local press, who do not have photos of themselves for papers, and whose very existence is questionable, given that many of them don’t appear to have their own contact details.

With less than two months left to the election, candidates who are only now declaring are in serious trouble. While some, like Independent Daniel Callanan, have been strategically delaying their announcement in order to guarantee mounting suspense and more coverage despite being pretty much certain to run (a strategy that didn’t really work),

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

O Neachtain resignation

Sean O Neachtain's resignation has come, it appears, as a mighty shock to most of Fianna Fáil, and it's the last thing the party needs with Declan Ganley heavy breathing down its neck in the North West.

Although fears that Ganley will mop up a Galway vote abound, personally I don't think it's likely. All the digging I've done on the guy has come up with one conclusion; he rubs everyone up the wrong way. A former employee took him to the Labour Court and won - but is afraid to go public for fear of the consequences. A former schoolmate I spoke to was always somewhat wary of his lust for power. And most of the Galway business community, not just the lefties, people who would have been serious PD supporters, are certainly not Ganley voters.

The man has his supporters, but most of them are not in Galway. We heard a lot about the looney left in the run up to Lisbon I but it's the looney right you need to worry about in the more rural parts of the North West.

However, that's not to say Fianna Fáil will retain O'Neachtain's seat. In earlier predictions I anticipated that O Neachtain's seat was safe but unfortunately now we will never know. With him gone, it's hard to see who will fill the gap. Theories that he is being shafted to make way for a junior minister who's lost his job are floating around. But these are not likely for a number of reasons. Sligo's Jimmy Devins is unlikely to fit the MEP bill, as he is too close to Mooney geographically and there would be no sweeper in the south end of the constituency to sort out Clare, Galway and Mayo.

Galway East minister Michael Kitt is unlikely to fit the bill either as he is far too quiet - the main reason he's likely to be dropped is his lack of media profile. In his last junior ministry, Irish Aid, he had ample opportunity to display his largesse (this was before the budget cuts) but failed to do so. Another member of the Kitt dynasty falls short of cabinet... maybe Aine will have a better chance...

FF can't afford to drop a TD now, despite rumour that Noel Treacy (who previously ran and failed) reportedly being interested. Reports in today's Irish Indo name Eamon O Cuiv's son (who lives in London), Padraig O Ceidigh of Aer Arann, while Galway councillor Mike Crowe has also expressed an interest.

Sounds like the party is frantically scrambling behind the scenes to find a replacement, but it's hard to know who would sweep up the votes as Fianna Fáil would require - O Ceidigh would be the perfect choice but is unlikely to relinquish a successful business career in favour of an expensive election campaign and exile to Brussels... time will tell...?

Poster posing

Two weeks ago, Galway City Councillors voted on a voluntary ‘ban’ on election posters in the city in the run-up to the Volvo Ocean Race.

This ‘ban’ is pointless for a number of reasons. While I have no doubt it was a well-intentioned proposal from ‘King’ of Knocknacarra, Donal Lyons, it is entirely impractical and largely for show.

Firstly, the ban only works to the benefit of well-known sitting councillors. Not everybody likes to drive to work with grinning mug shots staring at them from every lamppost and electricity pole, but how else are candidates supposed to become familiar faces?

Any candidate worth their salt is canvassing already and will probably have been to many homes in their area. Some candidates will visit each home twice or even three times in the run-up to the election, and thus should be familiar to many householders. However, that includes just one person in each home, many of which could house four or five voters, and depends on them being home at the time (and answering the door).

Some candidates (mainly sitting councillors) have good media profiles because they know what makes a story. But even if you have met a candidate already, has their face remained in your mind, and does it match their name?

Posters are a proven electoral benefit to candidates and only someone whose seat is completely safe or who did not really want to get elected would voluntarily give up a key electioneering tool. Environmental concerns are well and good, but as Cllr Catherine Connolly pointed out, democracy is not, and cannot be considered, litter. Besides, posters must be taken down within a specified time limit after elections, or candidates are fined.

In every market there is a dominant product and often that product does far less advertising than its rivals. Why? Because people buy a familiar, well-known product. And, where those products are people, they know that. Hence the support of longer-serving councillors with formidable machines for this ban.

For those who have stood against it as the pointless PR exercise it is, fair play. They will respect the VOR route and that is all that’s required. But, as Catherine Connolly pointed out, democracy is not the same as litter. Maybe it’s time we stopped treating it that way.