I’m disappointed with the result of the referendum on Seanad abolition. There’s no point now in detailing once more why I thought this would have been a good idea and a worthy reform of our political system. The result was not what the polls predicted, and while polling firms might have found it difficult to estimate likely voters, there also was a definite swing against us. With this short time to consider the result, I think the blame for that most likely rests with the Taoiseach and his closest advisors. When he announced this in 2009, I thought (or hoped) it was a sign that he was truly embracing an element of radical and substantial political reform. Yet during this campaign, he did not show the confidence to explain and defend it to voters. I know of people who were leaning in favour of abolition but who voted against because they did not believe he should be rewarded and credited with such a change if he would not stand up for it. If it were a long-held party policy, or an initiative of another minister, it would have been fair enough to have delegated it to the director of elections, as usually occurs at referendums. But he was the one who reintroduced this to the political conversation in 2009. As the leader of our government, Enda Kenny should have explained clearly and plainly the merit he saw in this.
Party members were let down by this. A defeat in a poll is never a pleasant experience, and this is one that could have been avoided. The internal conversation and debates should have started long before the summer. And party members should have been involved in formulating our arguments. There is a time and a place for focus groups, but the political instincts of motivated and interested members should be respected and sought. We ran with poor campaign messages. The largest party in the country could never have credibility talking of the benefits of fewer politicians. The discussion of cost does have a place, but it should not have been the starting point. Not to mention some embarrassing stunts, which are probably all right as moments of levity during a campaign, but not when they become key pieces of it. We needed a wide-ranging and targeted campaign, one that showed from the start that it was a position of substance and principle, that stood up to scrutiny, based on solid research.
Fine Gael needs to learn from this. We didn’t learn from the referendum on Oireachtas Inquiries; here we are two years later with practically an identical margin against. Reform that requires constitutional amendment needs to be framed in a way that appreciates and addresses the legitimate suspicion the public have when the executive seeks to alter the arrangements in the constitution.
In the RDS count centre this morning, a non-aligned campaigner said to myself and a member of a different party that for people like us, it was a tribal matter. It wasn’t that for me. Had Fianna Fáil or any other party proposed this, and Fine Gael been against, I would still have publicly supported this. I am not right now disappointed for Fine Gael that we as a party have suffered a defeat in a poll. I am disappointed in Fine Gael, and I things change have to change.
And to those who opposed abolition, well done on a well fought campaign.
All we can determine from yesterday’s result is that the voters wanted to keep a second house. We should now think carefully and critically about how its 60 members should be selected and what their role should be.
I’m delighted to be involved in setting up Fine Gael LGBT, having its first meeting this evening, which will be addressed by Frances Fitzgerald, TD, Minister for Children and Youth Affairs.
We have yet to settle on formal policies and priorities of the group. Issues that would jump out for me would be equal marriage and ensuring that young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people have a welcoming and open environment in school and the wider community. But our particular focus of the group will be decided in a deliberative manner in the coming months (for most of us, our political focus will shift back tomorrow to securing a Yes vote for the Stability Treaty). We don’t yet have formal spokespersons, except in an interim capacity, with an AGM also to be scheduled soon. So even though our inaugural meeting is this evening, we will not yet be formally launching with all our structures till we have some time for people to develop an interest in being involved.
Though part of the idea of the group is to give a structured outlet for those of us who are gay to shape decisions relating to changes in law or culture, this can’t become a group just for those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. The developments in the past year, with motions passed on marriage and adoption at YFG Summer School, at YFG National Conference and at the Fine Gael Ard Fheis, came from a collective interest in the motions for debate in the organization, and was by no means something pushed by gay people alone. This work promoting these debates will continue outside of the confines of this group.
Our government colleagues in Labour also have an LGBT group, and while being distinctive in our approach, I’m sure there will be times when we will co-operate. But we should also look also to our ideological counterparts, if I can call them that, in LGBTory, who have been quite successful in their aims through the Conservative Party in government.
So these are just a few of my own ideas on this new venture. I’ve probably focused a lot on policy, as is my wont, but it will also be a visible sign of Fine Gael as a modern and inclusive party and will have a social aspect as well, to reassure the many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender members of the party that we are not insignificant in number.
I was delighted of course that today the Fine Gael Ard Fheis supported the motion, “That this Ard Fheis calls on the Government to ensure that the Constitutional Convention prioritises an analysis of the proposals for same-sex marriage in Ireland”, proposed by Mark O’Meara for Portmarnock/Baldoyle Branch and Gen. Richard Mulcahy YFG, supported by DCU YFG. Unfortunately, as I was helping the management of the Executive elections, I was not myself at the debate, but I know that there is real enthusiasm in parts of the party on this, particularly in Young Fine Gael.
This question has progressed remarkably quickly in recent years here in and many other countries, and I am quite optimistic that this pace will continue. It is firmly now in the mainstream of politics. It could be the clearest and simplest reform of the Constitutional Convention. I think we have good reason then to hope for equality between all couples within this term of government, after a campaign with all-party support, which I do believe can be convincingly won. It will need a good, strong, confident campaign, and I’m looking forward to it.
One focus of the Fine Gael Ard Fheis, taking place in the National Convention Centre today and tomorrow, will have to be the upcoming referendum on the Fiscal Stability Treaty, a relatively short agreement between 25 of 27 EU countries. If we want this country to remain part of the mainstream of decisions on the euro, we will have to vote Yes. Because it only requires 12 member states to ratify it to come into effect, there is no possibility of voting No once to get better terms in a second vote. This was possible with Nice between 2001 and 2002 and with Lisbon between 2008 and 2009 as these needed the support of all then 15 and 27 member states to pass.
It is not a perfect treaty in that it is not comprehensive. As one designed to prevent the fiscal difficulties countries have found themselves in, I had hoped that it would address banking, which was where Ireland most particularly suffered, rather than a focus on public debt and deficit which was where Greece and Italy got into trouble. Specifically, I had hoped for a constitutional bar or limits on future guarantees by governments of investment debt.
But the Treaty does make sense. These are terms that should have been in place from 1992 with Maastricht, and in effect from 1999 with the introduction of the euro. Fiscal supervision is a naturally important part of a monetary union. The Irish people could certainly benefit from measures reqiring balanced budgets. It is not about imposing austerity, but about putting in places mechanisms to prevent a requirement for future austerity. It is a way of saying Never Again to fiscal imprudence. It is distinct from our fiscal program under the troika of the EC/ECB/IMF and those terms will not be affected by this Treaty. There is in fact very little that’s new in it.
We will also need to support this Treaty to gain access to the European Stability Mechanism, i.e. if we needed a further bailout. I don’t think we will need that. But if there were only a five percent chance that we would need to access this fund, we would surely not want to cut off that option for ourselves.
Though not a vote on our membership of the euro, it is a vote on the nature of that membership. If we vote No, we will be very clearly outside the mainstream of decision-making on our own currency.
This is not a partisan matter for me, one that I’m supporting because of my membership of Fine Gael. If anything, the reverse is in some part the case. I campaigned for the Lisbon Treaty in both 2008 and 2009, and it was after the second campaign that one of those I worked with in the offices of Ireland for Europe and Generation Yes, who is now President of Young Fine Gael, particularly encouraged me to get involved in Fine Gael. This will be the first European Treaty referendum fought with Fine Gael in government and we will have to launch a serious and focused campaign, fought on the merits of the compact itself. It will not be good enough to complain if other issues are brought into the debate. It will be up to the Yes side, in all parties and civic society groups, to steer the debate in the way that addresses the issue at stake.
So I look forward to a good campaign on this.
It was only in November 2008, the morning after the US presidential election, that it properly and more clearly than before struck me that I was gay. Though I had engaged in low-level lobbying within the Progressive Democrats approaching the 2007 election on the lack of progress on a promised civil unions bill, it was partly on secular grounds because of my objection to the consultation between Michael McDowell, as Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, with Roman Catholic bishops in drafting legislation relating to gay people, and partly on the urging of my then girlfriend. And it was only after Proposition 8 in California was defeated that I paid much attention to it.
It was a few days later, on 8 November, I regretfully spoke and voted in favour of a motion to disband the Progressive Democrats, something that seemed a possibility from the results of the 2007 election on.
So in looking for a new party, I was more conscious than before of parties’ attitudes to gay rights. The release of Milk early 2009 was a reminder of the value of political activism and how being honest and open can change assumptions and perception, being the story of Harvey Milk, who was one of the first openly gay people elected to public office, and who helped defeat Proposition 6, which would have barred gay teachers.
Yet I joined Fine Gael because it is the party closest to me on the role of the state in spending and economic governance. This did not mean that my deeply held liberal principles were set aside. I remembered what the late Dr Garret FitzGerald said, “You don’t join a political party because you agree with them. That always struck me as a rather static view. You join a party because you can change it. It’s a more dynamic view of politics.” And he did change assumptions not just within Fine Gael, but in the country as a whole, and remains a political inspiration for me.
In December 2009, I went to Leinster House on the first day of the debate on the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Bill. The first response was from Charlie Flanagan, who as Fine Gael Spokesperson on Justice, Equality and Law Reform gave an outstanding speech, the best of the evening, in which he stepped beyond party policy, “while many welcome it, others believe it does not go far enough. To those people I would say that change is incremental and I hope that full equality is not far away”, and went on to remind us what secularism has done for society
It was then with a measure of hope that in July 2010, I proposed a motion at Young Fine Gael Summer School (where motions are consultative) with Trinity YFG to support allowing gay couples to marry. But this was very narrowly defeated, with a mere two votes in it. Of course I was disheartened, but I realized that I hadn’t given the time to something that to me seemed so obvious. And a rephrasing of what Milk said in the clip above formulated in my mind: a young gay centre-right political activist who all of a sudden realizes that they are gay; there are two options, move to Labour, or stay in Fine Gael and fight.
So I stayed on, was elected to the National Executive in November, and appointed Director of Policy. Many friends of mine outside the party found my involvement difficult to understand. I did feel that too often people did accentuate the negative, and assume a focus on social matters far greater than existed. The election result of last year was a time of hope and political renewal.
At the Summer School in July 2011, I proposed the same motion for Dublin South-East again at summer school, with Meadhbh. That time it got near universal support. It almost made me glad two people who would have voted for it the year before had turned up late.
Then this Saturday, on my last full day on the National Executive, a motion at Young Fine Gael Conference (where motions are binding as policy), proposed by Úna and Noel for DCU YFG, calling on the government to bring forward legislation allowing gay couples to adopt, was similarly passed with near universal support.
I am proud to have been an active part of the organization during this rapid change on this issue of personal importance to me. I was taken aback and very appreciative of the response to my comment on Facebook on this.
Indeed, the shift in public opinion here and in other countries in the last few short years has been remarkable. This has been both reflected and advanced by popular culture, and cheesy though it may seem, it was the words of this song, as performed by Chris Colfer, as Kurt in Glee, that went through my head before Summer School last year, “Some things I cannot change, but till I try, I’ll never know.”:
Tomorrow morning, Young Fine Gael will debate a motion on gender quotas, which I will be speaking in favour of,
YFG calls on the Minster for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to impose the 30% gender quota as outlined in the Electoral (Amendment) Political Funding Bill 2011 on the 2014 Local and European Elections.
Quotas would not be proposed in the ideal world, as they do set a restriction on the process of election for TDs. It is a blunt instrument that does not address the wider reasons that there is such a low proportion of women in the Dáil. These include provision of childcare and sitting hours, as well as the wider political culture which Minister Lucinda Creighton recently described as “toxic”. But it will be very likely be the thing to kickstart the changes required that would not happen otherwise.
The question for us should not be why there are fewer women than men in elected politics in Ireland; the same is true in all but two countries worldwide, Rwanda and Andorra. The question is why there are proportionally fewer than in most other EU countries, where we rank 23rd of 27 countries, with Cyprus, Romania, Hungary and Malta behind us. Quotas recognize a need to address an historic imbalance, and are used in different forms in 100 countries worldwide.
Wherever one stands on the issue, quotas are now the law, and will be in place for the next general election, due by February 2016. Parties will lose half of their allocation of state funding if either male or female candidates comprise less than 30% of their total candidates. The quota is at the point of ballot access, not of election. This will improve the current situation where those who would like the option of voting for a woman of their own party is greatly diminished: in 2011, in four constituencies there were no women candidates; the three main political parties fielded at least one male candidate each in 36 constituencies (84% of all constituencies) while the same three fielded at least one female candidate each in just two constituencies (5%), Dún Laoghaire and Longford–Westmeath.
Parties are going to have to adjust to the new system and work out how to ensure a balance across the country. Most candidates for the Dáil come through the county council system. While I would hope that being compelled to think of ways to bring new people into the system might encourage parties to look at a broader range of entry routes, looking to local business, policy expertise and community involvement, most will continue to come from local government. In order to facilitate a smoother selection process ahead of the general election, and to emphasise the importance of offering a choice of women candidates across the electoral system, it only makes sense to amend the legislation to bring the change forward to the 2014 local and European elections.
“It was the best of time, it was the worst of times … it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair”
(A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens)
Congratulations first to Michael D. Higgins, who will be deemed elected as Ireland’s ninth president this afternoon. As someone who has spent a political career with a broad view of Irish culture and society, I’m confident he will serve us well. Congratulations also to Patrick Nulty, who won the bye-election, a man very far from my own politics, though one who will be a strong contributor in the Dáil and an interesting dynamic in this coalition. It was the first time since July 1982 that a candidate from a government party won a bye-election.
Yesterday’s election results were undeniably a bad day for Fine Gael. Gay Mitchell’s fourth place finish at 6.4% was by a good stretch the lowest the party has polled to date in any national election, with the 17% Austin Currie received in the 1990 presidential bid the next worst. In Dublin West, Eithne Loftus also finished fourth, though with a more respectable 15%. I would commiserate both candidates, and indeed all candidates in these elections. Particularly in the case of the presidential campaign, it was a very public and difficult campaign for them.
While the result for the party could have been devastating in 1990, when Currie’s performance led to the resignation of Alan Dukes as party leader, or had this occurred any time before the February election, where Fine Gael won 36% of the vote, becoming the largest party in terms of both votes and seats for the first time. That the party could win the most number of Dáil seats in its history and then poll its lowest result, requires a more complex relationship and response.
I think some within the party misinterpreted the results of the February general election. It was a vote of support for a manifesto promising reform and competent government, and for the strong team of prospective ministers. But having come so recently to the party, the general election results did not mean that 36% of the electorate were now dependable Fine Gael voters. There was no good reason to assume on the basis of this result that it was now Fine Gael’s turn to be the dominant party for 79 years. In the selection of the presidential candidate, some within the party seemed to work on the assumption that having got into a habit of voting Fine Gael earlier this year, people would naturally come out and vote for the Fine Gael candidate for president, putting the party on a starting platform at that level and with that lead on a first count, transfers would inevitably put them over the line. As it was Fine Gael’s best chance to date to win the presidency (and next to 1966, it almost certainly was), many within the party felt it natural that it should be someone who had served the party well and loyally through many years. Gay Mitchell was electorally successful at the time when Fine Gael’s popularity was low, one of three TDs to retain their seats in Dublin in 2002. He had a strong electoral track record till then, not losing a single public poll, though he had come fourth in the leadership contest after the 2002 election.
It was the party convention that selected him, with a broad base of the parliamentary party, councillor and the national executive. And Mitchell was encouraged to seek the party’s nomination by a number of TDs, as well as by former party leader and Taoiseach, John Bruton.
But many of the things which Gay Mitchell used publicly to present himself as a the best candidate to the Fine Gael Presidential Convention were things that made him a less appealing candidate to the electorate at large. He appealed to the fact that he had been a party member from the age of 16, whereas another of the candidates had only joined that week. While a reference to a mere 100 days as a party member might have dissuaded other party members, it means little to the public at large, the overwhelming number of them are not members of Fine Gael, and would not consider joining, even if they would vote for us. We have to avoid falling into the trap of thinking that either personalities or policies are good or bad because of their relationship to different parties. This is perhaps most true of the office of president, given that office-holders are expected to sever formal links with their party, but it is true more generally
The problem with focusing so much on an appeal to party members brings to mind the problem with a focus on Buy Irish as a means of economic development; just as a country’s industry will not become rich relying on its compatriots, but by being good enough that others will buy them too, someone cannot win a 50%+1 election relying on their own party’s base. Statements during the campaign that Mitchell would be a good choice because he would be able to work closely with Enda Kenny as Taoiseach probably fell entirely on deaf ears because of people’s perception of the nature of the role of president.
Mitchell’s appeal to Christian democracy held sway within certain sections of Fine Gael, but it immediately turned off large sections of the wider public. This is something we should certainly take heed from. While the airing of particular points of view in the Christian democratic tradition did not affect the party that much in February, without being part of a broader package of economic competence and reform to balance it, it did have an effect.
The most important thing I think we should get from this, to avoid the hubris of thinking that at 36% in the election, and still at around that figure in opinion polls, that the public at large support us because we are Fine Gael, rather than because of what we proposed and are doing in government. In contrasting the results between February and October, and indeed from the party’s electoral history since 1933, I don’t think it is even fair to consider yesterday’s vote the core Fine Gael support. This should not in any respect affect Enda Kenny’s strength as Taoiseach and leader of Fine Gael. And because we are still doing well in polls, and because I believe the country will be in better place in 2016, I would not really hold to the “despair” in the epithet above.
There is a similar lesson from the 30th Amendment Bill, the proposal to allow for Oireachtas Inquiries, and in this case, Labour also fell foul of the trap of hubris. We don’t yet know if it will be defeated, but it seems more likely than not. During the general election campaign, both parties promised citizens’ engagement with the reform of the Constitution and the political process. We are delivering on this, with the Constitutional Convention in the new year. But these Amendments could easily have been part of that, and I think it should now be considered bad practice in most instances, outside of very technical amendments like that on Local Government in 1999, to schedule referendums on the same day as other elections.