Wednesday 25 April 2018

Meet the players in Enda and Eamon's West Wing

Who really runs the strange world of the Economic Management Council, asks John Drennan – and what goes on in there?

John Drennan

John Drennan

AS the Government faces into yet another defining Budget, political attention is turning once again to the strange creature known as the Economic Management Council. There will be no shortage of public thunder and lightning as pre-budgetary claims across the media during the August dry season.

Already the Cabinet is limbering up for an austerity showdown between those who remain in thrall to the Economic and Social Research Institute's school of economics and the disciples of Keynes.

Ultimately, though, the Economic Management Council (EMC) is the modern privy chamber where the future of the State has been, and will be, shaped. Recently released figures reveal that while other cabinet committees meet a maximum of eight times a year, last year the EMC met on 43 separate occasions.

The four-person EMC is also, however, by some distance the most controversial cabinet committee in the history of the State. This may be because little is known about the inner machinations of this political innovation.

The participants may claim it is little more than "an interesting point of cohesion for the Government" which facilitates speedier, more unified, decision-making.

But the air of secrecy surrounding the EMC gives it a mysterious quality, and leads to thoughts of a secretive cabal serving the interests of an increasingly autocratic State.

Last week, the EMC came under further fire when Micheal Martin, in a fine display of utter forgetfulness of how Fianna Fail governed, claimed the EMC was symbolic of that fatal 'flaw' in Irish politics where there is an imbalance between a very powerful government and a weak parliament.

In fairness, he is not alone in worrying about the constitutionality of a Cabinet that essentially rubberstamps decisions made by the EMC, rather than meeting and acting as "a collective authority".

There has also been criticism from ministers like Joan Burton, Simon Coveney and Pat Rabbitte. But what really happens behind the closed doors of the EMC, and who are its dramatis personae?

An account by a number of political insiders close to the EMC reveals that the defining impulse behind it has been to bring "simplicity and unity to government decision-making".

This may not always have been apparent, given the cataclysmic squabbles that have accompanied each pre-budget run-up, but the fact that the Government has survived such rows is down to the cohesion provided by the EMC.

The average meeting is an hour but on critical occasions, such as the promissory note deal, they can go on for two to three hours. Significantly, despite the plethora of mandarins and spin doctors who, though not on the EMC also attend the meetings, ultimately when the hard decisions have to be made the room is cleared and the politicians get down to the rough trading.

One source noted that "there can be no absence of shouting and rows amongst the big four but they are all big lads and eventually resolve all differences". And no matter how serious the rows are, much to the annoyance of the Opposition and the media, the EMC lives up to its status as "the one committee that does not leak".

The EMC's agenda is shaped by the Tanaiste who is "somewhat more assertive and dogged than his public profile suggests".

Enda Kenny chairs the meetings but it is Michael Noonan who is "the stabilising force, he is instinctively cautious, very much the banks' man but he is also very closely connected to the concerns of the people", according to one source.

The fourth politician, Brendan Howlin, is one of the strongest EMC enthusiasts because he believes it has resolved one of the worst problems of the last administration – a "complete lack of joined-up thinking in government, and no coherent message".

'When hard decisions have to be made the room is cleared'

The two key figures among the apparatchiks are the Labour adviser Colm O'Reardon, the low-key brother of the somewhat more flamboyant Aodhan, and Andrew McDowell, the main economic adviser to Enda Kenny.

Both are perfect coalition functionaries, tight-lipped in a manner that would be totally alien to such former high-powered spin doctors as PJ Mara or Sean Duignan.

Their power elicited the tart comment of one minister who said: "The two of them think they actually write the Budget, and sometimes that might be right."

According to one source, when it comes to O'Reardon, "Colm is a bit of an agonised West Wing-style social democrat''. In contrast, McDowell is "very much the Taoiseach's man, he is very conservative, very right of centre, a classic conservative in his views".

McDowell's status as the Taoiseach's man means that, for some, the balance of power sways towards Fine Gael.

But Labour sources are anxious to note that the EMC "is not about ideology; it is about what will work".

The party also appears happy that membership of the EMC "puts Gilmore and Howlin at the heart of the Government's economic strategy".

Their presence, apparently, also answers the perennial question – can Labour manage the economy?

Others to attend include the discreet and knowledgeable Eoin Dorgan from the Finance Department, and the "dogged" Ronan O'Brien from Howlin's office. Mark Garrett and Mark Kennelly, the Taoiseach's special adviser, complete the core group of spin doctors.

Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore's anxiety to foster a key role for women in political decision-making means his representative is Geraldine Byrne-Nason.

Outside of Josephine Feehily, Ms Byrne-Nason who played a key role in negotiating the EU deal on bank debt, is the most important woman in the public sector.

The Taoiseach's mandarin Martin Fraser is a Northside boy who rose through the ranks.

Intriguingly Robert Watt, Howlin's chief mandarin is "very like his political master, very pugnacious, also a Northside boy," said one source.

John Moran, the former banker and juice bar owner, is unlike any other mandarin, let alone a blueshirt.

The EMC may be despised by many politicians but it is not going to go away. It may even be more of a force for democracy than its opponents believe.

One senior source told the Sunday Independent: "The biggest change of all is that the EMC has put the Department of the Taoiseach back in charge of Finance, it must answer regularly to Enda and Eamon, rather than operating as an independent entity like the old days."

Sunday Independent

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