News Fionnan Sheahan

Sunday 21 September 2014

Fionnan Sheahan: Kenny presides over shift in the corridors of power

Published 15/11/2011 | 05:00

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EVERY Wednesday at 2.30pm, a group of a dozen -- 11 men and a woman -- gather around the table in the Sycamore Room of Government Buildings.

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Four politicians, four advisers and four civil servants make up the unofficial membership of the Government's war cabinet of the economic crisis.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny is accompanied by his economic adviser Andrew McDowell and his department's new secretary general Martin Fraser.

Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore brings his economic adviser Colm O'Reardon and the new second secretary general in the Department of the Taoiseach, Geraldine Byrne-Nason.

Finance Minister Michael Noonan has economic adviser Jim O'Leary and Department of Finance Secretary General Kevin Cardiff, while Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin is joined by his adviser Ronan O'Brien and the new secretary general of his new department Robert Watt.

Two middle-ranking civil servants from the Taoiseach's department are also regular attendees for administration purposes.

On occasions, other officials will be asked to attend if there is an item on the agenda of particular relevance to them, including Mr Kenny's chief-of- staff Mark Kennelly and his counterpart in Mr Gilmore's office, Mark Garrett, or Department of Finance banking chief John Moran.

Before entering Government, neither Mr Kenny nor Mr Gilmore distinguished themselves with their grasp of economic minutiae.

Mr Noonan and Mr Howlin, though vastly experienced at a political and ministerial level, never held an economic portfolio before.

From the perspective of economic management, the professions of the four are less than inspiring -- three teachers and a trade union staffer.

Whatever about their backgrounds, what appears to have changed is the back-up and the level of interaction at senior levels in government.

Seeking advice is not perceived as a weakness. Unlike Brian Cowen, who kicked advisers out of Cabinet subcommittee meetings as soon as he became Taoiseach, the new administration is operating an open-door policy to expertise.

Mr Cardiff is the only survivor from the previous administration in the group -- and soon he'll be gone to the European Court of Auditors, because of his links to decisions made under the previous government.

Regime change is still in full swing on Merrion Street.

"We're trying to put a new face on the entire public service," a government source said.

Sometimes the group will meet more than once a week and other times only the four politicians will be in the room.

"The Tanaiste manages the agenda and the Taoiseach chairs the meeting. It's like a committee chairman and committee secretary, in the good old GAA committee sense of the word," a government source said.

"The meetings range from good conversations, to robust exchanges of views to horsetrading."

The meetings of the Government's Economic Management Council (EMC) are steadily emerging as the real decision shaper for economic policy.

The Cabinet as a whole still makes the formal decisions, but the EMC is where the areas of tension are first identified.

Every major decision, from the bank recapitalisation to the budget projections, passes through there first.

"It's about distilling it for the Cabinet. It separates the wheat from the chaff," a coalition source said.

The clear point is that the game is run from the Taoiseach and Tanaiste's end. The Department of Finance once dictated the play over economic policy, but the new Government has substantially diluted its influence.

The old department has been split in two, with the Department of Finance broadly responsible for taxation, banking and fiscal matters and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in charge of its two key areas.

The glory days of Charlie McCreevy giving Bertie Ahern a peek at the budget just an hour before he stood up in the Dail to deliver it and the power struggles between Mr Cowen and Brian Lenihan are gone.

No longer are the junior coalition partners kept out of the loop, like the early-hours call to the Green Party's John Gormley on the fateful night of the banking guarantee.

The idea of just Mr Kenny and Mr Noonan taking a decision and getting everyone else to ratify it afterwards, as Mr Cowen and Mr Lenihan did in September 2008, doesn't enter the equation.

Unlike the distrust that undermined the Fianna Fail and Green Party coalition, many of those on the Fine Gael and Labour Party worked together previously.

Mr Kenny and Mr Gilmore tic-tacked constantly in opposition, Mr Noonan and Mr Howlin negotiated the Programme for Government and Mr McDowell and Mr O'Reardon have a good relationship over recent years.

"There is a shared memory there of where both parties came from," a source said.

Through the eurozone crisis, the group has kept abreast of developments -- and more importantly tries to ascertain where the crisis might be going.

Ms Byrne-Nason's extensive contacts across Europe from her time as an EU diplomat are invaluable and Mr McDowell is highly regarded for his ability to keep his finger on the European pulse from a network he has built up, going back to his days with Forfas.

The group also formulates the Government's message on economic and European developments as it teases out where and why there may be a sensitivity at a domestic or international level.

The new system will be tested with next month's Budget and the eurozone crisis. In the event of a further escalation of the eurozone crisis, the midnight oil will be burned with high-stakes decisions on the table.

"It's very clear this system is different. There is not a monolith, which is the Department of Finance, over everything. They controlled a huge part of government by themselves. This is a counterbalance to that. In different circumstances, things may return to the old ways of doing it. No one here is trying to claim it's the perfect model," a Government source said.

Irish Independent

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