TV3’s Vincent Browne ‘People’s Debate’ in Donegal attracts lively discussion

While Fine Gael and Labour were expected to take a beating at yesterday evening’s Vincent Browne-hosted ‘People’s Debate’ in Letterkenny – in part deserved as the two parties refused to participate – Fianna Fail also took a drubbing.

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At one point, after listening to the party’s TD Charlie McConalogue berate government policies, the veteran TV host exclaimed, “I cannot understand how you can make these criticisms. Fine Gael is simply following Fianna Fail policies. Fianna Fail laid down the strategy for dealing with the banking bailout and Fine Gael and Labour are merely following it.”

McConalogue made another mistake later in the debate saying, “the agreement with the Troika was negotiable,” thus contradicting what the public had been told by Fianna Fail that the deal under former Taoiseach Brian Cowen and Minster of Finance, Brian Lenihan, was non-negotiable. Browne was quick to make the point, “Your party said details of the agreement with the Troika were non-negotiable, yet now you say they were. Make up your mind.”

On the emotive issue of water charges, McConalogue – after much fudging said he would halt Irish Water and suspend water charges. Again, Browne responded, “Your party, Fianna Fail, already had a plan in place in 2010 to impose water charges, but now you’re saying you’re having second thoughts.”

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Browne, at his best as a current affairs host when pushing political guests for a clear-cut answer, didn’t let the lively capacity audience down, especially when badgering the four-member panel for their views on a potential coalition after the next election. Asked whether he would take a ministerial seat under a Fine Gael or Fianna Fail led coalition Sinn Fein’s Pearse Doherty seemed somewhat uncomfortable in his seat.

“That is a hypothetical question and such decisions are made at our party Ard Fheis,” he said finally, as if caught by surprise, but recovering. “What we have agreed is that unless water and property charges are dropped, we will not go into any coalition.” He acknowledged, “Some members have voiced their opinion that they would go into a coalition as a minority party. We are a party hungry for change, we are not hungry for power.”

When asked the same question, his Sinn Fein colleague TD Pádraig MacLochlainn was more direct, unhesitatingly replying, “I will not participate in a government led by either Fianna Fail or Fine Gael.” As if taking strength from this, Doherty later stated categorically, “If asked by a government led by Fianna Fail or Fine Gael to be a minister, I would refuse.”

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After chastising the two Sinn Fein members for not giving a straight ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer, McConalogue himself began the dance of the slippery eel until, under bombardment from host and audience, he finally said, “I would not like to participate in a Fine Gael-Fianna Fail coalition but if I was outvoted by my party colleagues I’d have to go along.”

In his two-minute intro, Doherty said “four years ago we were promised a democratic revolution yet all we have had is more of the same with cronyism, stealth taxes and high levels of unemployment, no more so than right here in Donegal. There is a fairer and better way of moving forward and Sinn Fein’s job strategy can reshape this county.” He added that it was little wonder Donegal was known as ‘The Forgotten County.’ “I know Vincent you didn’t come here by train because this is one of only five counties in all Ireland without a mainline railway service.” Under an FOI request he said he has asked for a government paper produced on the future of small schools, adding that Donegal has the second largest number of such schools, with four teacher or less.

When corruption and lack of transparency within Údarás na Gaeltachta was brought up, including its refusal to release key information on its public spending such as lucrative pension payments to former executives which amount to half of its entire annual budget, Doherty said his party had tabled formal parliamentary questions on the issue, adding, “there should be full disclosure about people in receipt of high public pensions, it is important to have complete transparency so such payments can be scrutinized by the public.”

McConalogue said in his intro, “the last four years of government have been an attack on Donegal with post office closures, agriculture being hard hit and worsening heath services,” adding, “we have strong potential here but we need better infrastructure including the A5 project up and running and wider broadband.”

Referring to the pre-election catchphrase ‘Frankfurt’s Way or Labour’s Way,’ MacLochlainn said the government’s record has proved very different, “with a reduction in classrooms, budget cuts across the board and Donegal having the lowest allocation of medical staff of any county.” He added, “Donegal people are hard-working and passionate. All we’re asking is a fair chance and for Dublin to meet us halfway.”

Regarding the water charges, he added, “For thirty years, Sinn Fein has opposed these charges and now it has become the straw that broke the camel’s back. There has simply been too much austerity. Irish Water is a white elephant. My message is ‘scrap the water charges and go back to the drawing board.’ ”

While decrying the lack of proper health services and unfair stealth taxes, Independent TD Thomas Pringle said renewable energy had tremendous potential for Donegal as had the biomass wood industry. Speaking of Killybegs, he also said the fishing industry had been “hard-hit.’ He said water conservation should be a top priority because so much is being lost through poor network connectivity. He also said he was proud of challenging the bank bail-out through the courts and being in the forefront of water charge protests (continuing the momentum, a major ‘Right2Water’ protest took place earlier today – Saturday – in Letterkenny, with others elsewhere nationwide).

All four TDs, when asked directly, said they would vote ‘yes’ in the upcoming referendum on same-sex marriage.

Over the lively, two-hour event at the Clanree Hotel, there was no shortage of questions from the floor with periodic rambunctious catcalls, cheering and booing, which caused short stoppages and words of warning from the presenter.

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True to his word, Browne attempted to cover as many topics as possible such as equality, including the upcoming same-sex marriage referendum; family services, education, employment and health. Speakers ranged from parents of terminally-ill children; school teachers, social workers and community activists working on behalf of people as diverse as lesbians, gay, bisexuals, transgender, cancer sufferers, the disabled, and many others.

Some light-hearted moments and biting comments helped take the edge of emotions as when a thirsty Vincent Browne ran out of water and promised he’d even pay for some and when James Woods from Gortahork commented that with so much emigration, Donegal was turning into a wildlife refuge.

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All in all, ‘People’s Debate’ is an excellent initiative by TV3, no doubt demanding detailed planning to host such shows in all the constituencies of Ireland.

Fine Gael and Labour’s decision to spurn them, indicating fear and a lack of understanding of the difficulties facing ordinary people, could ultimately cost them vital votes in the polling booths.

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Yet another Irish political fiasco

I was shocked to read in a leading Donegal newspaper editorial over the last few days that John McNulty had behaved ‘with dignity’ over his recent Fine Gael botched Senate nomination.

Let’s call a spade a spade.

The last thing Mr. McNulty behaved with was dignity. He condoned the onward march of cronyism and ‘stroke politics’ thus giving his full support to this age-old blight on Irish society.

John McNulty – guilty as charged, complicity to hoodwink. Photo courtesy Independent Newspaper.

Selling Mars bars at a Mace grocery shop in Stranorlar hardly qualifies Mr. McNulty to contribute much, if anything, to the development of the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) (unless his business is merely a front for a secret network of art collectors storing priceless Van Gogh’s under the petrol pumps). There are many throughout the country with decades of high-level experience in the arts sector and thus much more qualified than he.

Yet when Fine Gael spin-doctors whispered in his ear they’d pull a few strings and shove him on the (already full) board, thus giving him an easier ride into the Senate, he leapt like a deer in heat, omitting to point out the simple fact that he was completely unqualified for such a key position.

In doing so, the 37-year-old Kilcar man is as guilty as those people – mainly under Fianna Fail’s governing stewardship – who greedily grabbed places on other boards such as FAS and the Central Remedial Clinic and proceeded to claim hefty payments and generous expenses on the backs of struggling tax-payers. (Fianna Fail actually rushed 182 of their members on to public boards in the dying days of its last reign).

It must also be remembered that, far from being a credible Senate nominee, Mr. McNulty failed to even get elected to Donegal County Council having won just over 800 votes in May, less than half of the quota required for the six-seat electoral area. In fact, he finished the race at the rear of the pack at a distant 10th place.

Choosing him shows just how desperate Fine Gael are to shore up its political representation in Donegal, especially with the additional failure of John Curran, its choice for the Udaras board, to get elected to the local council (in great part over his willingness to hand over more than a million euro of tax-payers money to the Catholic nuns to run an addiction center in Falcarragh when there’s already one in Donegal, and after the dead babies scandal in Tuam). With Donegal South-West deputy Dinny McGinley due to retire at the next election, Curran’s failure and now McNulty’s means there’s nobody in place as a successor.

John Curran – until recent local elections, was being groomed as potential successor to TD Dinny McGinley?

Public boards or private clubs?

In a bizarre twist to the tale, Fine Gael Arts Minister Heather Humphreys said in the Dail this week that Mr. McNulty was appointed to the board of IMMA “on the balance of talent and experience.” That’s a joke. The minister then added that she and her party were committed “to using the public appointments procedure in line with the guidelines.” That’s an even bigger joke. It recently emerged that at least two of the six appointees to the Board of the Heritage Council last year were made by her colleague Minister Jimmy Deenihan in contravention of that very same formal application process.

Further, a 2012 report by the Institute of Directors In Ireland on state boards showed concern at the lack of transparency around the appointment process and the lack of consideration given to the skills required to fill them. Since then, board positions have featured on Government department websites and advertised via the Public Appointments Service but some describe this as ‘pure window-dressing’. The McNulty situation, and perhaps the Curran one too, are cases in point.

Plain-speaking (maybe too plain) Minister for Health Leo Varadkar said election to the parliament of a candidate who has withdrawn – as McNulty has done to avoid further embarrassment – would not be good thing for the political process. Duh, really?

Obviously, the only way forward is to make the recruitment process entirely transparent, minimise government involvement in choosing appointees, and actively engage individuals with the appropriate skill set to fulfill these positions.

Fine Gael’s Arts Minister Heather Humphreys in the Dail struggling to deflect accusations of cronyism and stroke politics. Photo courtesy RTE News

No crying over spilled milk

Ultimately, however, we have only ourselves to blame.

Most of those who voted for Fine Gael over Fianna Fail three years ago knew deep in their hearts exactly what they were doing. Being conservative, as we Irish are by virtue of our Catholic upbringing, we voted for one party knowing full well deep down it was little different to the other. Then we deigned to pat ourselves on the back for ‘taking a bold stand.’

What baloney! Ours was nothing less than a cowardly act.

To make matters worse, when we had the chance to regain some degree of pride and do away with a Senate that is, and always has been since the foundation of the state, a complete and utter waste of public money, we declined to follow our instincts and put pen to paper. How could any of us vote for such an anachronistic and discriminatory institution highlighted by the fact that with so many worthy universities and colleges throughout Ireland, only two – Trinity College Dublin and the National University of Ireland – are permitted to have Senators? Not to mention that 11 Senators are simply appointed on the whim of the Taoiseach. No elections, no vote.

Padding expenses? Investigations well underway on shenanigans of Fianna Fail’s Brian O’Domhnaill: Handsome salary as Senator not enough?

Today the Irish Senate, unlike the American one, stands as a perfect model of cronyism and stroke politics, with even appointed party members such as Donegal’s very own Fianna Fáil Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill under investigation for milking the system by duplicating expenses.

We tossed away the opportunity to fling the Senate into the bin of history where it firmly belongs. Let’s not now cry over spilled milk. Like McNulty’s reluctance to apologise publicly for his complicity in attempting to hoodwink us ordinary folk, it’s so undignified.