Sunday 23 October 2016

In politics – as in football – a winning team must be based on skill, not loyalty to the boss

Published 10/07/2014 | 02:30

Consider the World Cup soccer teams. Squads aren't selected because the manager owes favours to a couple of players, or because the team must have representatives from every corner of the country. Members are drawn from the finest footballers available – that's how a winning combination is formed.

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Now consider how choices are made to fill Cabinet positions – our political World Cup side. Are ministers appointed from the creme de la creme of Oireachtas talent, picked because their skills raise them head and shoulders above the crowd? Or are they invited to line out because they were loyal previously, or fit various demographics, or as a compromise between competing Fine Gael and Labour interests?

I don't doubt a wealth of talent is eager to serve the nation in a reshuffled Cabinet – what bothers me is whether the party-itis which plagues Ireland's political firmament prevents it from being put to use.

Who can forget the scornful reaction of Brazilian fans to the semi-final rout of their national team earlier this week? Supporters chanted olé when Germany had possession of the ball, and applauded their rival's seventh goal.

Brazilian fans knew the home team was substandard, and did not trouble to hide their contempt. Irish voters will prove just as unforgiving if anybody who is not up to the job arrives on the Cabinet pitch. They won't jeer – but the polling booths will reflect their antipathy.

Presumably both the Taoiseach and Tanaiste want a Cabinet that will serve the country's needs. But how heavily do the needs of their parties weigh on them? Amid the tsunami of speculation about promotions, relegations and transfers, various rationales for who should stay or go have been put forward – from the apparent requirement of someone else from Cork at the top table, to both parties being short on women there.

None of that horse-trading is in the national interest. Just give us the best man or woman, never mind if they're from Malin Head or Mizen Head.

Here's my version of a Cabinet that's fit for purpose: one that is utterly incorruptible, effective, and delivers on all its commitments. One acting at all times in the long-term national interest, even at the cost of losing votes. One uniting new ideas and experience. One communicating clearly with the people, and listening to them, too. Now, let us ask ourselves how well Enda Kenny and Joan Burton's re-imagined Cabinet measures up.

Granted, some promotion happens on the basis of ability – that's why promising performers including Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney won ministries in 2011. Both worked hard, mastered their briefs, and never strayed into the relegation zone. They have earned their places at Cabinet, as Joan Burton did.

But high office continues to be used to repay political loyalty. Sink your teeth into that plum job in Europe, Phil Hogan, you did the party some service as Enda's Enforcer.

Despite promises about political reform, senior politicians with jobs to distribute – whether those lusted-after cabinet posts, or seats on state boards and quangos – continue to act in a venal way. They look after those who share their political DNA.

Take the case of James Reilly. If he were an executive in the private sector, he'd be gone by now – an expected half-a-billion-euro overspend would not be tolerated. Instead, we're told it would be too humiliating for Fine Gael's deputy leader to be removed from Cabinet altogether. A demotion, certainly, in view of those own goals. But send him back to the dressing room? Not when he remained faithful to Enda during the attempted heave.

Personally, I'd prefer to show the red card to every minister, junior and senior, if their performance proved to be second division, rather than worry about bruised feelings. The needs of four million citizens trump the disappointment of a handful of politicians. But, of course, shoring up support in a parliamentary party isn't on my radar.

Landing any of those ministerial jobs in the reshuffle is like slicing one into the back of the net. And speaking of nets, I wonder if the Taoiseach and Tanaiste could have spread theirs wider? No reason why they couldn't take a lead from other countries and draft in experts – drop them into the Seanad, then absorb them into Cabinet.

We could certainly have used some ministers with financial expertise in 2007 and 2008, as the economic ebb-tide left the State floundering. Today, there are key areas where a star player with international experience could make an impact – a Willie Walsh, for example. Imagine the contribution he might make to this new Cabinet. Someone not looking for re-election is free to take tough decisions.

This is not a new idea: the Roman republic was governed by two consuls elected for one year, and precluded from serving again for 10; an arrangement conducive to clarity of thought without the distraction of courting popularity.

The trouble with Irish cabinets is they reflect the party political system. And where party and national interests collide, no trophies for guessing which wins. State board appointments continue to be used as a form of patronage – a practice Fine Gael and Labour castigated in opposition, vowing to reform. Recently, as the reshuffle loomed and ministers knew time was about to be called, the carve-up became blatant. Tribalism has always been a problem with us.

Still, we must give the new Cabinet the benefit of the doubt. Although I have a suggestion to advance, should any member perform abysmally. In ancient Greece, the electorate was invited to vote for the political leader it wanted to see exiled for the next 10 years – how about applying a version of that rule to Joan and Enda's dream team?

Irish Independent

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