Martin won, Leo lost but he can reclaim some face with Brexit talks before the inevitable Spring election...
What a week. Irish politics is often drab, parochial and all too predictable. We aren’t often blessed with great politicians who can command the attention of the world or political events that have a global reach. For every Parnell, there is a Pat Rabbitte and most of our political crises end with a shrug of shoulders, a nudge and a wink or in extreme cases, a never-ending tribunal that produces non-criminal results years after people have stopped caring…
The last week has been different. We had high drama that captured the attention not only of the Irish public but of the global media. It was a perfect storm of brinkmanship between Ireland’s two most powerful politicians that brought the government to the edge of collapse. It also contained a human element in the abhorrent treatment of a good man, Maurice McCabe.
Too often, the issues that can divide politicians and governments are over theoretical or abstract points that seem to be part of a different, political universe. However, the allegation that a respected Minister, Frances Fitzgerald, allowed a whistle-blower to be wrongfully labelled a paedophile brought out anger and disgust in the Irish electorate.
To briefly summarise, the allegations of wrongdoing have floated around for quite a while over Frances Fitzgerald. It came to a head last Thursday when Sinn Fein tabled a motion of no confidence in the Dail after a barrage of criticism by Mary Lou McDonald. Michael Martin quickly realised that that there was anger within his own party over the behaviour of Mrs Fitzgerald and that he could not allow Sinn Fein to be the main opposition in this crisis. So, on Friday morning last Fianna Fail lodged their own motion of no confidence to be tabled this Tuesday. The Soldiers of Destiny had crossed the Rubicon and the nation held its breath.
The onus was initially put straight back on Leo Varadkar. Many believed he would cast Frances Fitzgerald aside as the motion passing would lead to a General Election right before Christmas. He didn’t, in fact he backed her to the hilt. It was a string and decisive counter attack that many labelled as Leo calling Martin’s bluff. Many Fine Gael TDs came out with vehement defences of Mrs Fitzgerald and claimed that Fianna Fail were playing political games at a crucial period of Brexit negotiations and that the Charleton Tribunal should be allowed to do its job, starting in January.
There were behind the scenes meetings over the weekend between the leaders and documents were exchanged. On Monday morning both sides held the same line and it looked like Michael Martin was going to force an election that he wouldn’t win. His future as leader was genuinely on the line with murmurs of discontent.
Then on final flop two more damaging emails emerged Monday evening. Fianna Fail finally had a winning hand. Frances Fitzgerald was finished and now Leo had to act to avert a backlash from the public. He took his time and looked indecisive but eventually on Tuesday morning Frances Fitzgerald resigned and the motion was withdrawn.
Varadkar has lost a lot of political capital. Many political pundits are incredulous as to why he continued to publicly back her after he became aware of the further emails on Saturday morning. It strikes of political naivety and a lack of experience.
I’m not his biggest fan but I think he can easily recover. He is fortunate enough that almost immediately after this debacle, the focus is right back on Brexit talks. He, along with Simon Coveney (the Minister for Foreign Affairs) have been firm but fair in holding the Irish position on vetoing progress to the next stage without concrete proposal on the Irish border question.
He benefits from the fact that the public and all the major parties agree on this. There is no potential for an attack at home as long as he holds strong. If he continues to do so and is able to gain favourable concessions from the British government (they have already acquiesced to the financial demands of the EU this week) Frances Fitzgerald and Maurice McCabe will be yesterday’s problem.
Michael Martin clearly won a great battle this week. However, it didn’t significantly enhance Fianna Fail’s political strength. They continue to prop up Fine Gael while having to defend against attack from Sinn Fein and their new leader, Mary Lou McDonald. The Supply and Confidence agreement looks damaged beyond repair. The onus is now on either Michael or Leo to call a Spring election but Fianna Fail are yet to move ahead of Fine Gael in poling (the next poll will be very, very interesting) and as Fianna Fail have ruled out a coalition with Sinn Fein, their political mobility is limited.
In summary, this was a bad week for Leo and Fine Gael but they have a lot more flexibility and potential upside in the next few weeks. Hannibal crushed the Roman Army at the Battle of Cannae and looked to be about to conquer Rome. However, he didn’t press his advantage and this eventually allowed the Romans to consolidate their position and strike back. Fianna Fail are a little reminiscent of that post victory Carthage army wandering around Italy without a clear plan. Unless Fine Gael completely collapse on the border or Mick Wallace/The Charleton Tribunal deliver further bombshells in the coming weeks this crisis may prove to be a footnote when the almost inevitable Spring election rolls around…
It may have seemed impossible for nearly all of Israel’s existence thus far but I think it’s likely in the next five years that these two nations will open official diplomatic channels. It is an act that may cause serious backlash and anger across the Middle East. Alternatively, after years of disillusionment with the leadership of Saudi Arabia, it may simply be met with a shrug of the shoulder and further sense of dejection with the state of the region.
Since the inception of the state of Israel in May 1948, Saudi Arabia has refused to acknowledge its existence. It has supported the rights of Palestinians and called for a withdrawal from territory occupied by Israel after the war in 1967 through being a charter member of the Arab League.
Crucially, it didn’t participate in the wars in 1948, 1967 or 1973. Saudi Arabia’s long term strategic alliance with the United States may have had something to do with this. This was exacerbated by the mutual distrust between General Nasser led Egypt, the champion of pan- Arabism with secular, Soviet Union sympathies and the absolute monarchy of Saudi Arabia which used Wahhabism as a crucial pillar of its legitimacy.
However, since 1979 and the Islamic revolution in Iran, the strategic aims of Saudi Arabia and Israel have converged. They both have a desire to curb the influence of Iran across the Middle East. The ruling Saud family initially saw the emergence of the Islamic Republic as an existential threat to their existence.
In recent times, the threat to their existence has subsided somewhat. It has evolved into a struggle for hegemony in the Middle East. As the relative power and influence of Egypt waned in the years after the assassination of Anwar Sadat (who actually lost his life for signing a peace Treaty with Israel which made it the first Arab state to officially recognize Israel) the vacuum that opened up was the prize that fuelled the rivalry.
In the 1980’s Saudi Arabia, which still did not have the military capability, bankrolled Saddam Hussein in the First Gulf War against Iran. It is important to note that other Middle Eastern nations also supported Iraq but Saudi Arabia spent approximately thirty billion dollars in this conflict.
In more recent times Iran has increased its influence in Lebanon, as well as in post-Saddam Iraq and now in Syria. In Syria, it has acted as a bulwark for the regime of Bashir Al-Assad. The actions of Saudi Arabia in Yemen, Syria and Bahrain amongst others has failed so far to really damage the Iranian influence in the region.
The emergence of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia has led to a raft of major changes in a relatively brief period of time. Just last week, he consolidated his position as the heir apparent as well as the de facto ruler by purging a large number of the Royal Court’s retinue.
He has continued the war in Yemen, a key proxy battleground between Iran and Saudi Arabia while allegedly forcing the Lebanese Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, to resign over the continued power and influence of Hezbollah (albeit with a democratic mandate).
It’s his views on the future relationship with Israel though that I believe could mark one of the most seismic changes in Middle Eastern diplomatic relations over the last fifty years. He has spoken about how Saudi Arabia adopted a more rigid Islamic outlook in the aftermath of the Iranian revolution
“What happened in the last 30 years is not Saudi Arabia. What happened in the region in the last 30 years is not the Middle East. After the Iranian revolution in 1979, people wanted to copy this model in different countries, one of them is Saudi Arabia. We didn’t know how to deal with it. And the problem spread all over the world. Now is the time to get rid of it.”
The major issue with the above statement is that it could be construed to mean “get rid of the Islamic Republic of Iran”. In order to do this, he may engage further with Israel, as the one other Middle Eastern nation that possibly reaches the same level of fear and suspicion of the Iranian state.
It is very interesting, and probably not a coincidence, that the Crown Prince used the phrase “moderate”. Just this week, the Israeli military chief, Gadi Eisenkot, gave an interview to the Saudi newspaper Elaph where he described Iran as the “biggest threat to the region” and that Israel would share intelligence with “moderate” Arab states like Saudi Arabia.
Strategically, the US is pivoting away from the Middle East to Asia in the long term. With the current presidency of Donald Trump though, this may be the perfect window of opportunity to gain maximum leverage from agreeing to diplomatic relations and potentially forming a military alliance that goes beyond the tacit one that exists today.
This would be a potent combination of the vast reserves of cash held by the Saudis combined with the military might of the Israeli army. It may still seem a stretch to many political observers currently, but we may soon see the emergence of the Saudi-Israel axis as the key power in the Middle East.
Donald Trump's first trip to Asia was an eventful, colourful affair that encompassed visits to Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines. There were a few excellent pictures, including Trump massacring Japanese Carp (see picture directly above) and Abe Shinzo taking a tumble on a golf course.
The trip was met with mixed reviews both domestically and across Asia. My personal view is that Trump managed to not cause any major diplomatic embarrassment to the United States but achieved very little from a strategic perspective. The inflective moment when China openly overtakes the US is accelerating towards us, as I discussed recently. This trip reinforced the view held by many that America, while a crucial partner for many future projects and plans in Asia, will not be the driver and leader of this region.
This is best captured in recent events concerning the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The overarching aim of American foreign policy over the past decade has been a strategic pivot away from the Middle East towards Asia, with a key objective being the creation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
This would have been a free trade agreement between the United States and eleven different Pacific Rim states. The talks began in 2010. Trump withdrew the US from the discussion earlier this year, stating that individual trade agreements with each state would be of greater benefit to the US. The remaining eleven states agreed to the framework this weekend. While Trump will not see this as a failure, China may see it as a success. It is not currently a part of the agreement but may in time seek to join on its own terms and eventually dominate it.
The 19TH Chinese Communist Party Congress that took place in the weeks preceding Trump’s visit was a powerful demonstration of the political unity of the Chinese leadership under the President, Xi Jinping. There was no apparent heir to the throne announced and I think this shows that Xi Jinping is now the most powerful man in the world. The checks and balances of the US political system are increasingly limiting Trump’s preferred course of action on many of his campaign pledges.
However Trump’s hardline rhetoric on North Korea would have been welcomed by both South Korea and Japan.
"NoKo has interpreted America's past restraint as weakness. This would be a fatal miscalculation. Do not underestimate us. AND DO NOT TRY US."
To be honest, at this stage all this appears as is bluster by both sides. Petty squabbling between two insecure leaders who see potential enemies everywhere. The pettiness was surmised by Trump himself in this tweet;
"Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me 'old,' when I would NEVER call him 'short and fat?'"
Since the escalations in the summer I have always been of the view that it will not come to violence and that China is pulling the strings and using the situation to gain maximum leverage in future Sino-US talks…
One thing that has become obvious is that Trump is quite easy to manipulate. Sycophanyc and public displays of affection and loyalty will earn his trust, irrespective of the true underlying intentions. . A notable example of this was Trump’s behaviour in the Philippines. Despite some aggressive back and forth comments between Presidents Duterte and Trump in the past, Duterte put on a bit of a show and Trump loved it, summing up the relationship between them as ;
"We've had a great relationship. This has been very successful."
In summary, Asian leaders learned a lot about Donald Trump over the last twelve or so days. Despite his often-bullish rhetoric and strongman image at home, I think they have finally realized what Putin figured before the US presidential election had even finished. He is a man that has a very limited attention span, cannot focus on an issue over a period of months and years so is always acting reactively and not strategically and that through some grand gestures and displays can be easily manipulated…
It is hard to remember a Taoiseach who puts more effort into his public image than Leo Varadkar. He is part of a breed of new politician who put their image above everything else. Wearing a symbol as divisive as the poppy is a move that was certain to temporarily shift the political discourse away from the key issues, like the current deficiencies in our health services and the homelessness crisis.
This is not lost on Fine Gael. Unfortunately, there has been little tangible progress in the two areas mentioned above. Wearing the Poppy has allowed Varadkar to take the heat off these two issues for a few days.
Furthermore, it was a move that was always going to play well with his political base. This is not to suggest that every Fine Gael supporter is a Poppy wearing anglophile, that’s a very tired and lazy cliché. However, many of the first people to comment on the topic were indignant Sinn Fein supporters. The anger at seeing the Taoiseach in a poppy led to a flurry of calls and emails. Annoying Sinn Fein supporters and Party members will, at least secretly, please plenty of Fine Gael followers.
What I do not want to write about is the appropriateness of the wearing of the poppy by our Taoiseach. There have been numerous articles over the last decade about the poppy, about how many Irishmen fought in the belief that Home Rule would come as a reward for fighting and alternatively about how Brutal and unjust the British Army have been in the past.
There will be further publicity stunts as long as our incumbent Taoiseach sits in office. They will frequently be used to distract the electorate from the issues that matter to the majority on a daily basis. What we must do is see through these smokescreens and continue to demand more from our elected government.
Getting into an online debate about the Poppy, no matter how strong your views on the topic are will not move this country forward. Forget Varadkar’s Poppy, let’s focus on the issues that matter until we have a Republic that we are proud of…
The UK government currently seems to be slipping from one scandal to another. It is hard to remember a more visibly powerless Prime Minister (older readers feel free to give some examples below). Since the June election when the Conservative party lost its majority in the June General Election, the government has simply stumbled along.
The Brexit negotiations have been moving at a glacial pace with minimal results or noteworthy achievements. I recently labeled them almost as a "phoney war". However, this may be one factor in Theresa May's continued survival. The role of Prime Minister is currently quite undesirable for a number of members of the Conservative party. Who wants to be the Prime Minister dragging the United Kingdom out of the European Union, with no deal agreed and the British economy facing a sustained period of economic stagnation.
There are elements of the party on the pro-Brexit (or historically on the anti-Europe faction) who would relish the afore-mentioned prospect, though they would surely describe it quite differently. Boris Johnson was a late joiner to this cause when he famously declared for Brexit days ahead of the 2016 referendum. He has come as close to any since the June election to openly challenging May with his September article in the Telegraph which lay out his vision for a post-Brexit Britain that was quite different to that of May in her January speech. However the key members rallied around May and the answer to a previous article "Can Boris Oust Theresa" seems for now to be a resounding No.
The sexual harassment scandal currently enveloping Westminster has cost the Minister for Defense, Michael Fallon, his job. There are numerous MPs implicated for inappropriate behaviour. We may see a few resign in the coming weeks as further details emerge. Fortunately for May, it doesn't seem to be enough at present to topple the government or force May to stand down.
It has been a very long time since the "Irish Problem" forced a British Prime Minister to resign. The current lack of progress in forming a new government in the Northern Ireland Assembly does not seem to be a pressing issue for the British public, based on media coverage in Britain. Theresa May knows that she relies on the ten DUP Westminster seats for her working majority. The DUP can pull down this government at a time of their choosing. It just doesn't seem likely in any potential scenario short of the post Brexit border being the Irish Sea, something the Tories have emphatically ruled out. They simply can not take the risk of a Jeremy Corbyn led Labour ascending to power given his previous dialogues with republican leaders.
I haven't even mentioned the current scandal with Priti Patel and her unofficial but definitely politically motivated trip to Israel. The fact that she hasn't been dismissed by now again shows just how impotent May currently is.
This lack of power may actually be what saves her until Brexit is concluded. The analogy that comes to mind is that of the naive, deluded Islamic Caliph or Ottoman Sultan surrounded by courtiers and advisors who all have their own agendas and seek to influence the leader for their own political gain (cough... Gavin Williamson). It's a fate worse then political death for most but maybe deep down May still believes she can turn things around. It's unlikely but sure surely something has to go right after so many recent wrongs....