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[00:00:01]

It's Friday, August the 21st, and you're very welcome to the Inside Politics podcast from the Irish Times.

[00:00:07]

I'm here with me today, partly Corbin Jones from our political stuff.

[00:00:12]

Gentlemen, there is one item on the agenda today.

[00:00:15]

Just after seven o'clock yesterday evening, the Irish Examiner broke a story about a dinner held for more than 80 people in a hotel in Clifton under the auspices of the Rock to Golf Society.

[00:00:27]

The attendees included senators and former TDs on the Supreme Court justice and a prominent retired member of the media and an EU commissioner and an ambassador and the Minister for Agriculture, Derek Keniry. 12 hours later, Derek Vallerie resigned the last hour of the Sharna jury, but never did the same now.

[00:00:46]

But I really don't quite know where to start with this.

[00:00:50]

I'm not a great fan of whipped up public outrage generally, but I am genuinely at a loss. You know, this world generally at a loss to understand how any of these people could have or couldn't have understood what they were doing was wrong and incredibly politically stupid.

[00:01:05]

And yes, one can only conclude that they cause. It was a it would either be pass without notice how they could have thought that it's just incomprehensible to me or if they thought it would be noticed that they would get away with it, that people wouldn't mind or that it wouldn't occasion controversy. Now, if that was merely a group of retired Attractors fogeys meeting for a game of golf dinner and a few pints, they might have got away with this.

[00:01:46]

But the fact that the minister for Agriculture was there, who had sat at the cabinet table 24 hours previously when the cabinet decided to introduce new restrictions, although this gathering was in contravention of the existing restrictions and just beggars, it beggars belief. And that's the feeling just all through last night and this morning, talking to people in and around government, that's very much the feeling that that they've got. But I think it's not so much.

[00:02:23]

The feeling that, you know, that this has or the reaction that this has aroused in political circles, that is the important thing here. It's the reaction that has come through from the public now, one of the great mistakes in trying to figure out what's going on in politics that people like me often make is to mistake their Twitter timeline for the public mood. But I think on this occasion, our Twitter timelines are a pretty accurate reflection of the public mood.

[00:03:00]

I think there is widespread fury about this. I think it's immensely serious for the government because it corrodes their authority and it corrodes public trust in government just at the time when that has never been more important in the in the management of the pandemic. So it is by some distance the worst thing that has happened to this government so far. It's far more serious than the resignation of Barry Cowen a month ago. And I think it poses a clear and present danger to the continuation of the government.

[00:03:43]

And we'll come to that in a minute. But it also it feeds into the worst kind of perception of the political establishment, doesn't it, that it's that is arrogant, that it's entitled, that it's out of touch, that it's do as we say, not as we do.

[00:03:58]

Yeah, absolutely. And I think that's an inescapable consequence of the examiner story and the fallout that it really hammers home to a lot of people the sense and impression that they already have, which is that the political class considers itself capable and having a divine right to kind of float above regulations and the law. And this is proof positive of that. And and it's also problematic because while the kind of traditional maximum political scalp or cost has already and early been extracted for this controversy, that is the resignation of a cabinet minister, I don't think that has done or will do enough to stop the bleeding on this front.

[00:04:45]

I think that the public, as rightly identifies, are so annoyed about this that the controversy won't halt. And they'll also they've also been given two figures and European Commissioner Phil Hogan and Supreme Court justice and former Attorney General Seamus Wolff, who were kind of, I think, take on this kind of totemic stance and start to represent for a lot of people figures who allegedly whose privilege and indifference the opposition can can take, you know, and that will become a kind of a rolling problem for the government because it doesn't actually really have the authority and to to decide either of these figures, you know, so it's not something that can easily be tried.

[00:05:29]

It's not something where the bleeding is going to stop any time soon. And it's also it's a stumble of a different of a different order, as Pat correctly says. And it's a stumble that will be costly, not just in the traditional kind of political sense of, you know, this is going to cost us a few points in percentage points in opinion polls, or it might cost us a few seats come election time. The sense and the fear at the heart of government is that the true cost of this is not going to be narrowly political, but it's going to be broadly societal that people will lose faith in the government's key messages.

[00:06:05]

People will cease adhering to public health guidelines, and that the real cost of it will be a fracturing of trust in the political system and that there may ultimately be a cost in human lives.

[00:06:16]

Yes, but because I mean, you're quite right. Your Twitter timeline is not necessarily the real world, and nor is Liveline, which is basically on fire at the moment on as we as we record this this podcast. But we had people on on who's better qualified than than we are to talk about these kind of broad, you know, social movements or the sense of social cohesion and what can damage those. And he was talking about that on the podcast on on Wednesday.

[00:06:41]

And I think we briefly touched on the impact of the Dominic Cummings controversy in the United Kingdom. There was some talk last week when Michael Collier, the chair of Folch, Ireland, stepped down, that that might be Ireland's Dominic Cummings moment. It wasn't.

[00:06:56]

This is isn't it, with the important distinction that Dominic Cummings is still at the heart of the British government, whereas Derek O'Leary resigned first thing this morning. You know, I think it's important to realize is that very powerful and widely held critique of not just government, but of politics in general that Jack outlined, that it's, you know, one law for the establishment, one law for everybody else.

[00:07:27]

It's stamina's and all that that is is largely untrue. In Irish politics, Irish politicians tend to be closer to their voters than than politicians in most countries you can think of. But what is true is that there is an attitude amongst Irish politicians that surfaces occasionally and that suggests that they can get away with this type of thing, whereas ordinary people can be expected to to observe. They observe the guidelines. So and you can just see how this is is playing politically and will play politically.

[00:08:09]

I think it's immensely damaging to both Fianna Fáil and and finical and and to the government as a whole in both the medium term and in the short term. That having been said, I think, you know, there was a strong feeling of kind of autumn 2010 around this morning with the you know, when the resignation started to Tomberlin and the public outrage was evident everywhere. And, you know, if you cast your mind back to the sort of equivalent occasion in that time when in another Galway hotel, Brian Cowen, who was then Teisha stayed up late drinking and singing songs and very unwisely sounded very hung over the following morning, there was a catastrophic loss of authority for his premiership, I think, on that occasion.

[00:09:06]

But the reason that Brian Cowen's government eventually collapsed, I don't think was because of that incident. It was because of the larger and more substantial fact of the country falling into a bailout or having to choose between a bailout and bankruptcy under under his watch. And I think that this government will stand or fall on its management of the pandemic. But what this incident does is it makes it more difficult for the government to deal with the pandemic. And we really are at a crucial point, I think, over the coming weeks in that management of the pandemic, the good, the return to school, the management of the emerging and the management of the emerging spike in infections, and how the government seeks to suppress that and whether it can do so successfully.

[00:10:03]

And then thirdly, the Leaving CERT results, I think, at those tests over the coming weeks will decide the future of this government. I think not a golf game and an unwise dinner in Galway, but the golf game and the only dinner in Galway make it more difficult for the government to successfully manage those challenges of the coming weeks.

[00:10:25]

But just taking on board what Wattpad says there, I mean, we shouldn't lose sight as well of the fact that this hasn't been a very good week on those fronts already for the government. The manner in which it announced and rolled out the new restrictions announced on Tuesday was in many ways shambolic. I know, for example, in the area of entertainment and culture, which a lot of these things affected, particularly because it was about cinemas and theatres and concerts and those kinds of things, there were six or seven different times in which different government departments had to correct and clarify what the new new rules meant and what the outcome of those were.

[00:11:01]

And Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly had a fairly catastrophic media outing. And generally the sense is, is that things are not under the level of assured control that you would hope to have from a government at this point. So in a way, as part of saying in a way, he's right, this huge bomb exploding last night just adds fuel to all that fire, which is there already and which may be getting a lot worse with the huge twin Roc's of back to school and the leaving search results coming down the hill towards us.

[00:11:32]

Yeah, absolutely. The to hark back again to the kind of 2010, 2011 era and the most recent crisis that the country had to go through, which probably every one of us thought would be the biggest crisis that the government that the country would have to go through in our lifetimes and the economic collapse and the bailout that followed. And one of the major differences between then and now is that from 2011 onwards, even though you had a government that was doing unpopular things in difficult times, it was doing so with like a relative degree of coherence.

[00:12:10]

It had the Economic Management Council, it spoke with one voice, albeit an unpopular voice and ultimately a voice whose policy agenda was rejected in 2016. But it spoke with one voice and it stuck together. It stuck to the knitting. And here you have, first of all, a situation which I mean, it's it's so much more dynamic. And so much more febrile than a mere economic collapse. You know, we're dealing with fundamental challenges to how the economy, society and how politics are stitched together and have been stitched together for decades.

[00:12:46]

So it's a bigger challenge. And on top of that, you have a government in place that does not seem to be able to have a conversation with itself. It doesn't the left hand doesn't seem to know what the right hand is doing and even at the relatively simple things, and it manages to mess up quite badly, you know, like even even talking, as you said, with one voice and talking intelligently or coherently about what the policy is on theatres or concerts or cultural events.

[00:13:21]

You had four or five different contradictory statements coming out on Wednesday evening at the same time as Stephen Donnelly was going on the radio, the Minister for Health, during the defining public health crisis of our time, going on the television and talking about how it was kind of equivalent to going on a trampoline. And you can see people scoffing at that and it becoming kind of immediately minified and the government's authority and its seriousness being totally undermined. And the government at the moment, it reminds me of like a footballer that is massively low on confidence and is snatching a chances and fluffing chances and just doesn't seem to believe in its own capacity to do anything competently.

[00:14:03]

And there needs to be, I think, particularly after this, because it has come to a head so dramatically and so totally with the Cleary resignation. I think there needs to be a moment where the government reaches for some kind of reset button and has a kind of come to Jesus moment, whether that's, you know, the teacher addressing the nation or something like that. And it acknowledges that it has had a terrible week and it is not doing particularly well and says we will now get this back under control because like the confidence is flowing from themselves and from the public in them.

[00:14:38]

And something has to be done to address that because we live in remarkably serious times.

[00:14:44]

What do you think of that idea of a reset part and what might a recession entail? Yeah, there's a fair bit of chatter around our government circles about the need for a recess. To be honest, I've written a lengthy piece which I concluded just before this broke last night about the government's bad week. It's now being substantially redrawn. And I think the problem in in government and there is obviously a need for a reset, but I'm not sure that there will be the time and scope for the government to do that before this addresses the issues I outlined earlier of the schools coming back, the management of the existing of the current spike in infections, and after that, the M and after that, the leaving search results.

[00:15:32]

And if there is to be a future for the current government, then it has to manage those.

[00:15:41]

Challenges competently, and it can only do that, I think, if it exhibits the sort of common purpose and shared sense of a shared objectives that it hasn't done so far, it has most of the time looked like three parties stuck together doing their own thing. And when they come together, things don't work particularly well. And we had evidence of that in the public row at cabinet between Leo Varadkar and Martin earlier this week, even before, and if there was any word of of golf dinners or suchlike.

[00:16:24]

And so I think that that is the biggest problem that the government has. Obviously, it has you know, it has had controversies to deal with. It's in the middle of one now. But its biggest problem is the lack of of cohesion, the sense of shared objective and the cooperation and trust between the parties that is needed to make that work. And unless it can discover that it's very difficult to see it meeting both the immediate challenges and those that will follow it like a like construction of a budget and recovery plan and a plan for cover for the next six months.

[00:17:04]

And really, if the government cannot act with that shared sense of purpose, then it's difficult to see the point in it anyway. And that's why I think that, you know, the coming weeks are really, you know, a really crucial time for the very existence of this administration.

[00:17:21]

Can I ask you something about that? Like part? I was writing a column yesterday. The unfortunate thing about writing for the features department is that I had to send my column off yesterday. I'm hoping it's not too much out of date by the time it appears in tomorrow's newspaper.

[00:17:34]

I think I may have just about hedge my bets sufficiently, but that argument was part referred to earlier in the week between Leo Varadkar and Bill Martin about the fact that these measures were brought straight to cabinet rather than through the the usual subcommittee process. And that might be seen as a rather dry argument over procedural matters. But it also probably led to some of the problems that you referred to as well. So I wonder why did that happen in the first place and why didn't you know if processes are breaking down, that's not just a bad thing for the outcome.

[00:18:03]

It's a bad sign of the relationship or the systems that are not working. Yeah, so cast your mind back, you know, to controversies ago or as it's known in the lifetime of this government, three days and as you rightly rightly identified, that there was a cabinet meeting earlier this week which was characterized by a major spat, let's say, between the Tannishtha and the teacher. The original reason for this was because on Monday there was a meeting of the National Public Health Emergency Team, and they sent a letter through to Stephen Donnelly, which is the normal kind of pro forma way that things proceed.

[00:18:45]

And and when it landed into the Department of Health, there was a sense that what was being recommended in that letter was of such an order that it couldn't go through the usual procedure, which is for the Cabinet subcommittee on Uncovered to kind of thrash it out and figure out what it means in terms of policy decisions that the government has to make. And what was being recommended was sufficiently serious that it had to be discussed by a full cabinet the next day.

[00:19:18]

Now, what happened next is actually the matter of some debate, and it goes to the heart of some of the the kind of poor relations that are currently characterised in government. There was a meeting between the advisers of the three leaders which effectively signed off on the idea that there will be a full cabinet meeting the next day. Now, talking to people in Phoenix all following that, they felt that it actually was an idea that originated within Fianna Fáil, that it would go to the full cabinet the next day.

[00:19:49]

But then when Cabinet rolled around, you had Leo Varadkar get on the line from his holidays and very grumpily inform Mehar Martin that, you know, we don't like this way of doing business. And if we keep doing business this way, we won't be doing business long at all, which obviously is a killer line, but it's a killer line that can't be put back in its box afterwards. It clearly characterises that relations are at a low ebb and people in Fianna Fáil further felt that it was a line that was contrived to be leaked.

[00:20:18]

It was to go to line and they're looking across the corridor and suspiciously saying, look, our together are actively trying to undermine us and create this sense that, you know, a government led by Fianna Fail is a government with chaos at its heart. Whereas when we were in charge, you didn't like us, but we were fairly orderly about it, you know, and if the internal relations of the government are characterised by such and by such poor temper and suspicion, that just goes to as another layer of difficulty in addressing the things that are at hand.

[00:20:51]

And I think that that people were becoming increasingly frustrated with this. I mean, I mean normal people. I mean punters. I mean voters. They'll be getting increasingly frustrated with this because what is cutting through is that this is a government that not only can can generate the normal political controversies and contrivances, but can then misstep in such a way that, you know, stories like the Kill One totally burst outside the bubble and hit home in a way that that really leaves people very annoyed and very annoyed at the government and and leave confidence ebbing away from the policy response to it.

[00:21:26]

Those are exactly the kind of mutual suspicions and recriminations that can collapse a coalition government, aren't they? Part? I mean, I think back to the reminiscent of some of the things that happened in the Fianna Fáil Labour government in the early 1990s when there was just too much suspicion on either side and people just thought the other side was trying to pull a fast one on them all the time. And the other part of this I wonder about is Stephen Collins, I think, wrote about this in this morning's Irish Times, is opposed traditionally for coalition governments to work.

[00:21:52]

People have to kind of metaphorically, at least bed in together, and they're spending time in each other's company. And day to day working relationships are being built up and understanding improves to some extent, hopefully, as part of that. But it was all being conducted through the medium of zoom and emails and remote working. That all becomes much more problematic and more and more likely to go awry, maybe in the way which Chuck just described there.

[00:22:16]

Yeah, I think there's a last to that point that the the normal interactions, the normal human interactions of government have been, to some degree arrested by the pandemic restrictions and that so people aren't meeting for a cup of tea before cabinet. They're not dropping into one another's offices in the dole. They're not meeting each other for a drink in the dole bar at night, that that type of thing. And but all that is important. But it can't substitute for the lack of a shared objective and shared purpose and a common ownership of the government's program and a common interest in its success.

[00:22:58]

And I think Jack has outlined there the lack of trust that is currently at the heart of this government, and that is its biggest problem. And. Unless that is fixed and of course, trust can't be built overnight, but it is to some extent at least a leap of faith and an act of will on behalf of the people in in the three parties to trust one another and to get along with one another and to give one another the benefit of doubt.

[00:23:23]

And unless that happens, it's very difficult to see it meeting the challenges that will define its rise or fall.

[00:23:29]

I think so. Some of this labor brokers fault, Chuck, is the overorder continue to sort of stir the pot a bit. Every week something comes out where he basically has either directly says something or indicates something about his unhappiness with the way things are being run in this government, of which he happens to be a part and it's all their fault.

[00:23:49]

I mean, Leo Varadkar can't can't escape it. He's around the cabinet table. So, yes, he bears his own part of responsibility. Absolutely. The question that you ask is, is whether Varadkar is, you know, beyond playing his part as a minister in a government that isn't doing a very good job is whether he's, you know, acting as some kind of bad actor, as though he's kind of purposely trying to undermine and look without knowing the inside of Roger's mind or his private thoughts.

[00:24:24]

I don't I can't confidently answer whether it's the case or not. What I can say is that there is a sense in the fall that when he on his way into a cabinet meeting. Clearly kind of scoops the T-shirts and says the pope's probably aren't going to be reopening. Maybe not in so many words, but effectively said that when he on his way into the the the doll says, you know, I'm not mad on this greenness, that it's been a bit mangled.

[00:24:54]

Again, not a direct quote. You know, that these things are coming too thick and too fast and with too great a degree of regularity from a guy who is seen as always having deployed this straight talking LEO card with a kind of cold political calculus behind it. And they look at that and they do say, this looks to me like what's happening again, and this makes me trust him and trust me to go that little bit less. So, you know, whether he's doing it on purpose or not, I don't know.

[00:25:27]

And ultimately, it's kind of immaterial because certainly there's a large element of them, people who believe he is doing it on purpose.

[00:25:33]

I think that's exactly right. Just on that point, I can't tell you whether Leo Varadkar is purposely undermining the government, but there are people in fall that certainly nurture it, including at quite senior levels that certainly nurture that that suspicion at president. There are also people in Phoenixville to whom the the thought has has occurred in in recent weeks. And again, I go back to again I go back to my point that if on unless the people in FENA fall can be reassured by Leo Varadkar that he is working too far, the government's success and vice versa, unless the people in FENA fall can convince Phoenixville that they can get their operation together, they can get their communications together on the covid restrictions.

[00:26:27]

And beyond that, then it's hard to see how this government has a future. So, you know, we talked earlier about people talking about the need for a reset. I think it's something more profound than that. It's a complete reinvention of of of the government. And unless that happens over the coming weeks and unless there is a new kind of founding agreement almost between everybody involved in this government, it's hard to see what future it has.

[00:26:56]

But I don't see that there's any time, Jack.

[00:26:59]

I mean, apart from the fury which is out there at the moment as a result of this particular news story, there is this rising home of kind of worry, concern, you know, incipient panic, perhaps to some extent among teachers and parents about this school thing is is a massive thing, which is starting in only a week's time. People are going to kids are going to start going back to school. And a lot of people are very, very nervous about how that's all going to happen.

[00:27:24]

That's going to suck up any oxygen in the room at all for the succeeding couple of weeks. So where is the time to sit down and have a reset?

[00:27:32]

Well, I think that they have to have to make the time and perhaps the two could be kind of folded into the one kind of strategic reset announcement. Perhaps you can kind of like. I understand that there is, you know, a lot of work going on in the Department of Education to make sure that the leaving source calculate a system and that the reopening goes. The plan, you know, perhaps if you could. Take some of the elements of that, take some other big policy pieces that the government is working on, like the red list or and that's the travel red list or the the switch from faded into color coding, if you could bring some of that forward and and say, you know, here is our new plan and here is how it's going to work and say it in a way that implies that it is credible or gives across the impression that it is credible and that the government, as one that the government as a whole believes in this and will strive towards it.

[00:28:39]

If you can do that kind of strategic statement about your priorities and a plan that seems great about that and that will hold together, then maybe that's what they need to do. Because I agree, they don't they don't have time and they certainly don't have the kind of latitude for another set of crises. You know, like I mean, ultimately, the government like it can't have another KRY induced bonfire when when the when the schools reopen, you know, there is no desire for an election, I think, amongst the population or the government.

[00:29:14]

And it's not even clear exactly how an election would work. But like at some point, you know, a government that continually steps on massive land mines of the order that we're not even usually used to in the normal and the normal kind of rhythm of political controversy, it can't go on. So it may collapse even though nobody particularly wants it to collapse. And that can't happen really, because, you know, like they said, this is a fundamental challenge that the state is facing.

[00:29:42]

And it needs the government to get us through this like we need to get to a budget and pass a budget. That is what governments do. We need to have this medium term plan about the economy and we need to have that finished because we are so fundamentally challenged on that front. Like covid is changing the way we will live our lives. And it is changing as effectively, I think, by barring a Hail Mary and kind of vaccine development, like it's changing it permanently or at least semi permanently.

[00:30:15]

And this government, it's their job to put in place a framework under which we can work and live together in that new reality. And it needs to kind of wise up and get on with that. And, you know, because the alternative is not very palatable and the alternative looks a lot like kind of chaos.

[00:30:35]

I think the politics of it are more immediate and a bit simpler than that. I think if the government can manage the return to school, the leaving search results and the next two weeks of of covid management, their restrictions are the opening of the middle of September, then it has the prospect of a future. If it can't manage those, then I think we're looking at or near the end of of this government, partly because it won't have any purpose anymore.

[00:31:04]

And so I I think it's all I think it's all pretty immediate, to be honest.

[00:31:09]

And does that mean an election then when a government falls, there will be an election?

[00:31:13]

I mean, you could see a zombie government stuttering on far for a few months, but it's hard to see how the Green Party would tolerate that sort of you and finagled us while an election wouldn't be wouldn't be something that they might welcome at the moment, that they could survive us and even gain seats out of it. So I think if the government cannot meet those immediate challenges, then a whole new array of political of political circumstances would become immediately apparent.

[00:31:47]

So it's all down to the next four to six weeks then? I think so. We'll be covering all that. We'll leave it there. Anderson, thanks very much to Jack Underpass. Thanks also to our producer, Declan Connellan. You can e-mail us a politics podcast, Atari's Times dot com until the next time. Thanks very much indeed for listening.