Just when we need strong government, Cabinet collegiality is smashed to bits
Published 06/07/2016 | 02:30
Fergus Finlay once shrewdly opined that no government was ever as weak as it appeared from outside during a crisis (or as stable at it seemed at times of calm). But this Government is surely putting that theory to the test. We can only pray that it is not as feeble as it currently looks.
Given the potential chaos caused by Brexit, the need for a strong and firm administration here is paramount. But instead, what we have got is the politics of tokenism, as demonstrated by the Independent Alliance's stand on the Fatal Foetal Abnormalities Bill.
It's no exaggeration to say that this is a time of national crisis. The fallout from the disastrous result of the UK referendum on EU membership has the potential, if things go badly, to end up being more damaging in the long term than the financial crash of 2008.
It arguably represents the biggest economic challenge to the State since World War II.
It's a daunting test for the new Government, which is barely two months old. Yet, incredibly, the Independent Alliance ministers have decided, in their wisdom, that now is a good time to effectively set the Constitution to one side.
Bunreacht na hÉireann couldn't be clearer on the subject of collective Cabinet responsibility.
Article 28.4.2 states that the "Government shall meet and act as a collective authority and shall be collectively responsible for the Departments of State administered by members of the Government".
Despite this, the Independent Alliance has dug in and insisted that its two members sitting at Cabinet must, as a matter of "principle", be allowed a free vote on Mick Wallace's bill - a bill that the Attorney General (AG) has advised is unconstitutional, based on an earlier Supreme Court judgment that it is the "capacity to be born" that is protected in the Eighth Amendment of 1983.
It is true that a government isn't bound to accept the advice of an AG. And, in the past, holders of that office have sometimes got calls wrong. But the Independent Alliance ministers don't seem to have any issue with what Máire Whelan is saying.
The absence of any independent legal opinion coming from the Law Library in recent days that would contradict her advice speaks volumes.
The reality is that this bill will do nothing to help those women who have been devastated by cases of fatal foetal abnormalities.
Not only has the AG advised that it is contrary to the Constitution, but the Chief Medical Officer has said that the bill was not medically practicable.
Other medical experts have highlighted weaknesses in its wording. It is for these reasons that the Labour Party - which is as close as we have to a pro-choice party in this State - and Children's Minister Katherine Zappone are not supporting the legislation.
None of these people are unaware of, or insensitive to, the tragedy of fatal foetal abnormalities.
Yet despite the weight of the advice, the Independent Alliance is sticking to its guns regardless and demanding the right to vote for a bill that it has been told is illegal. One of its ministers has even declared that he doesn't care if the bill is unconstitutional.
That might be understandable if they felt there was no other way of addressing this issue.
However, the Programme for Government signed up to 60 or so days ago details a very clear process, via the Citizens' Assembly, for dealing with the Eighth Amendment - and by extension cases of fatal foetal abnormalities.
That process allows the Independent Alliance ministers to, in good conscience, say that they are addressing this issue but doing so in a practical and meaningful way, as opposed to playing to the gallery or posturing.
Instead, for reasons best known to themselves, they have opted not to take that approach. Time will tell the damage this does to the stability of the Government, but the omens are certainly not good.
A dangerous precedent has been set on collective Cabinet responsibility.
A year ago, the Independent Alliance raised the prospect of accepting ministerial posts, but not attending Cabinet meetings.
It was rightly dismissed at the time as ridiculous and unworkable. But having ministerial posts without collective Cabinet responsibility is not too far removed from that.
Then there are the implications for the Attorney General. What happens the next time she gives legal advice? Is that advice now diminished? Will it be only be accepted if it suits politically?
And what about the future cohesion of the Government? Once cracks appear, they can be very difficult to cover over. Now the Independent Alliance has broken ranks on what should have been a very straightforward issue, its members will come under huge pressure to do so in the future.
Ultimately, though, what matters most for the success of a government is the relationships around the Cabinet table. It is hard to believe that Fine Gael ministers are impressed with the absence of collegiality on this and other issues. The seeds of discontent are being sown very early.
Political realities meant Fine Gael had little choice but to cave in on a free vote. But it has been a bad few days for Enda Kenny.
His big idea of a North-South Brexit forum was unwisely floated without first running it by Arlene Foster, who quickly torpedoed the proposal.
And he has had to climb down on his initial hardline insistence on a unified Cabinet position on Wallace's bill. Both cases have undermined his authority.
In the wake of the Brexit referendum, the country needs decisive leadership and clear direction to calm nerves.
Instead, so far, we have got a dispiriting mix of dithering, division and grandstanding.