Saturday 20 January 2018

Blair experience showed huge dangers of 'government by sofa'

Tony Blair
Tony Blair
John Downing

John Downing

In Tony Blair's heyday it became known as "government by sofa" - and it did not end well. "Decisions are often taken over a cup of tea on the sofa in Mr Blair's No 10 office - known to insiders as 'the den' - rather than in formal, minuted committee meetings," BBC political journalist Brian Wheeler noted back in July 2004.

The writer made comparisons with the iconic US political television series 'The West Wing', where swashbuckling Martin Sheen, as US president, made key world decisions on the hoof and delivered them to his aides clad in crisp white shirts.

The veteran civil servant, Lord Butler, delivered a scathing judgment on this informal mode of government when he delivered his report in July 2004 on the flawed intelligence which led Britain into war in Iraq, the consequences of which are still being felt globally.

Mr Justice Nial Fennelly's report on how Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan abruptly exited his job in March 2014 is happily dealing with problems of a much smaller scale. And the former Supreme Court Judge is more nuanced in his findings - but the report also carries echoes of the same "government by sofa".

The Fennelly Commission found no written record of the crucial meeting on March 24, 2014, attended by Taoiseach Enda Kenny, secretary general to government Martin Fraser, Attorney General Máire Whelan, then-secretary general of the Justice Department Brian Purcell and Justice Minister Alan Shatter.

We know that Mr Purcell, with an extremely heavy heart, went from there to the home of Mr Callinan, who in turn announced his retirement the following morning. Mr Justice Fennelly expressed his astonishment that there is no formal note of what precisely Mr Purcell was to say to the commissioner.

More than three years ago, on July 17, 2012, the Taoiseach was scathingly critical of the previous government's lack of records of meetings which led to the notorious bank guarantee of September 2008.

"I find it incredible that the Department of the Taoiseach does not have a single solitary slip of evidence, paper, about any of these discussions or the rationale that resulted in the incorporeal decision being made in the manner it was," Mr Kenny told the Dáil.

Mr Kenny said he would have notes in future. In bad-tempered exchanges with the Fianna Fáil leader, Micheál Martin, the Taoiseach asserted there would be notes for everything on his watch.

"If the Taoiseach of the day meets a group from Deputy Peter Mathews's constituency, Deputy Micheál Martin can be sure that whatever it is about, notes will be taken and be there for posterity," Mr Kenny said.

Irish Independent

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