Tuesday 23 October 2018

Power game - John Walshe in the corridors of government

It's another world - the hushed corridors in Government Buildings where ministers and their top advisers have their offices and access is severely restricted. In this extract from his new book, John Walshe, former special adviser to Education Minister Ruairi Quinn, reports from the inside

John Walshe at Government Buildings
John Walshe at Government Buildings
Andrew McDowell, chief adviser to Enda Kenny
Mark Kennelly, Enda Kenny's Chief of Staff
Secretary General to the Government and the Department of the Taoiseach , Martin Fraser
Ruairi Quinn and his staff, from left, Deirdre Grant, Neil Ward, John Walshe and Ian O’Mara

John Walshe

The door from the Ministerial Corridor in Leinster House to the Department of the Taoiseach is the most important door in Government Buildings, and entry can only be gained through it with a special white key card. Issuing of the cards is carefully controlled. Ministers have them, obviously; staff working on the far side of the door also.

The others are shared between senior advisers and private secretaries. The late Fianna Fail minister and my old school friend Seamus Brennan famously told the Greens when they entered coalition with Fianna Fail: “You’re playing senior hurling now, lads.”

Indeed through that door is where the senior hurling and many of the All Irelands are played. Not only is it the home of the Taoiseach, but on the far side of that door are flights of corridors holding the offices of some of the most influential and unknown — and unelected — movers and shakers at the top of Irish Government. It is where the Cabinet committees meet, it’s where the advisers meet, and it’s where the secretive EMC holds its  sessions in camera, mainly about budgetary issues.

When I was attending meetings there, I usually went in through the main gate of Leinster House on Kildare Street, through the foyer, down the corridor on the right, up the main stairs, along a passageway at the side of the Dail Chamber and over a bridge to the Ministerial Corridor, which has that door leading into the Department of the Taoiseach. If I wasn’t going to see Ruairi, I would usually ask his private secretary, Ronnie Ryan, for his swipe card, which would allow me to go through the magic door.

On the right on the way in was the office of Martin Fraser, secretary general to the Taoiseach and also secretary general to the Government. He always seemed to be in the right place at the right time. It is a hugely important post. In the relatively early days of the Coalition, in July 2011, Fraser replaced the somewhat socially conservative Dermot McCarthy, who had held the post for a turbulent decade. Towards the end of his time in office, McCarthy had assumed an almost God-like stature of authority and gravitas.

Further down the second-floor corridor is the Sycamore Room, which has a fine oblong table made of sycamore. Apart from the Cabinet meeting room, it’s probably the most significant venue in the corridors of power and is used for a variety of meetings, including those with ambassadors and official delegations.

The Sycamore Room is the venue for the monthly Cabinet committee meetings that deal with social, economic and health issues, and so on, and are attended by the relevant ministers, their officials and advisers. It was at these meetings that I really got to see Enda Kenny’s management style at close quarters. Ministers came and went, depending on what topic was being discussed. Often, you would see individual ministers hanging around outside in the corridor before they went in, chatting to each other or their advisers, or on the phone.

The Taoiseach’s chairing of the meetings was brisk and business-like. More often than not, he was good-humoured, even funny at times. He would often adopt a folksy approach to particularly thorny issues, along the lines of “Last week I met a farmer...”, or it could be a businessman in Crossmolina or a teacher in Ballina, and this person would be giving out about a particular difficulty he or she was having with some arm of the public service. Usually, the nub of the story was why was there so much red tape restricting ordinary people who were trying to go about their daily lives and better themselves.

When there was a long, tiring, intense series of meetings during the day, his attention would start to waver and he was less taxing on officials. I watched one day as an official from another department, which had clearly made a mess of acquiring a building much needed for a particular public service, got away with it when asked to explain what had happened. He looked at the Taoiseach and, in that way in which some civil servants can spin fine-sounding words out of thin air, said: “Well, Taoiseach, it’s an evolving situation”, as if that explained the cock-up. The Taoiseach accepted it and it was on to the next piece of business.

In the early days of the Coalition, the Cabinet committee meetings were spread over different days of the week. But the Taoiseach got annoyed on one occasion in January 2013 when not a single Dublin minister turned up for a committee meeting on a Monday to discuss the Pathways to Work plans, while he had left Mayo on Sunday to be there. If he had known they weren’t coming, he said, he could have stayed at home and come up on Monday in plenty of time for Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting.

He made his displeasure known by getting Martin Fraser to ring the offices of the Dublin ministers, including the departments of Richard Bruton, Joan Burton and Ruairi Quinn, to let them know. He decreed that, in future, all Cabinet committee meetings would be held on the first Monday of the month and would run through the day. As Pat Rabbitte remarked after he had left government, the Taoiseach is no Bambi.

Next door to the Sycamore Room is the office of the Taoiseach’s chief adviser, Andrew McDowell. He was regarded as being intellectually articulate in negotiations. But you would hate to play poker with him, as he keeps his cards very close to his chest. He’s a descendant of Eoin MacNeill, the Minister for Finance in the first Dail, and grew up in a staunch Fine Gael family in Dublin.

His influence is hard to overstate and is graphically illustrated by an entry in Ruairi’s diary in December 2012, when he wrote “the Labour Ministers were told that the Government could collapse because of the intransigence of Fine Gael, who are dominated by Andrew McDowell”. Still, if getting on with your opposite number is an essential component of the chemistry that makes a Coalition work, McDowell did, for the most part, with Gilmore’s economic adviser Colm O’Reardon.

A couple of doors further down the corridor was the office of a bright, younger adviser, Paul O’Brien, whose shiny good looks, dark-framed glasses and slick black hair prompted a prominent Fine Gael Minister of State to nick-name him Clark Kent. Others — on the Labour side — dubbed him ‘Sebastian’ because of his debonair, public-schoolboy attitude.

At the end of the corridor was another adviser, Angela Flanagan, with whom I had a fair number of — mostly courteous — dealings over three years. A bit proper betimes, she reported directly to Andrew and, like him, she gave very little away.

Another key figure in the Taoiseach’s department was his chief of staff, Mark Kennelly. The Kerry native and long-term political survivor might leave the higher-order thinking and arguments to Andrew McDowell, but he was no slouch when it came to hand-to-hand political battles. He kept a close eye on the backbenchers, often priming ministers on what line to take, both in public and in private.

He feared, or at least pretended to fear, Ruairi’s agenda for divesting Catholic schools and would lob in an “Are ye trying to take down the crucifixes from the schools now?”-type probing question when I went in to talk to him about something else. He put you on the back foot straight away, and I would end up jabbering about Ruairi being a pluralist, not a secularist.

Once you’re talking like that, you’re losing, as he knew right well. I remember him turning around to me at one Cabinet committee meeting, when the future of small primary schools was on the agenda, and saying, “Is this another one of yer mad fecking ideas?” (The truth was that the report which prompted the discussion had been commissioned by Fianna Fails’ Mary Coughlan when she was Minister for Education and Skills.)

Kennelly spent at least some of his time on what the public might regard as trivial issues but which are important to politicians. On one occasion, I was called into a meeting to meet the two Marks — Kennelly and his counterpart in Labour, Mark Garrett. And what was so urgent, I thought.

The country was still down the tubes financially, we were facing international opprobrium over the abortion issue following the death of Savita Halappanavar, and the social-welfare cuts were going to be awful. Yet, three of us who, between us, were paid €400,000 annually (they got more than me, of course) to help save the country, could spend half-an-hour discussing board appointments to education bodies. As I tramped up and down the corridors of power, I sometimes wondered about political priorities.

Fine Gael generally insisted on its two-thirds share, Labour got the other third. The names were supposed to come mainly from the list of applicants who went to the trouble of putting their CVs online to the Public Appointments Service. This was part of the Coalition’s drive for more openness and transparency. However, not everyone came through that route. Many were appointed because of their party links. Increasingly, however, people were being appointed without remuneration or, if there was payment, they were encouraged to forgo it.

A constant visitor to the offices of Mark Kennelly and Andrew McDowell was Feargal Purcell, the Fine Gael-appointed government press secretary whose office was on the ground floor. Purcell was a military man, and much given to using military metaphors.

“We have to stop our ministers driving over their own landmines”, he once admonished us at a special advisers’ meeting. When the conservative libertarian Declan Ganley, founder of Libertas, championed the ‘No’ side in the European Fiscal Compact referendum, which was carried, Feargal remarked that Ganley had “hoped to jump on a trampoline but instead jumped into a bog”. On the eve of a Sinn Fein weekend Ard Fheis, he predicted that, in terms of publicity, “we will cover them like a cheap suit”. But even his harshest critics agree that he has helped Fine Gael successfully champion the “jobs, jobs, jobs” mantra and message, much to Labour’s chagrin.

At the end of the Fine Gael corridor was the magnificent wood-panelled Taoiseach’s office, a worthy office for the prime minister of a republic and a fitting venue for receiving distinguished visitors from overseas, some of whose photographs adorned the walls. All around the office were gifts from heads of state and other dignitaries.

Some Labour people joked that the Blueys, as they are usually referred to, adopted an “upstairs downstairs” attitude towards the smaller party in the coalition. In fact, at that time the Tanaiste’s advisers were all upstairs, down yet another corridor, one where the floorboards creak. First on the left was Colm O’Reardon’s office. O’Reardon is an Oxford economics PhD graduate and brother of Labour TD Aodhan O Riordain. Colm had the appearance of an intellectual bouncer; he could be mercurial, and demanded high standards of those around him.

He didn’t look at you directly when he argued, and when he wanted to finish a difficult discussion he had a most unusual gesture: he would put his arms straight out in front of him, with his palms facing you — as if to push you away — and say: “Listen, what we are going to do is ...” or “What you guys need to do is ...” His body language certainly made you realise who was in control of the discussion and its conclusion.

Eamon’s other special advisor was Jean O’Mahony, a TCD graduate who played an important part in the negotiations leading up to the formation of the Government. She was young but had a good old-fashioned social democratic belief in the power of the State to shape policies that would help the lives of struggling families and the disadvantaged. I was to have a lot of dealings with her as well.

Opposite Jean’s office was that of Mark Garrett, the Tanaiste’s chief of staff. Protecting his boss was obviously his priority. He tore strips off us on one occasion for not alerting the Tanaiste’s office to a contentious report on special-needs pupils which was being released on a Thursday morning when Eamon was taking Leaders’ Questions. He has a PR background, having worked with the Competition Authority and for the management consultancy firm McKinsey in New York, and it showed.

Although I was not a member of the Labour Party, I went to the party’s annual conference in my home town of Galway in April 2012 and saw him in operation. He masterminded the appearance for the televised leader’s address on the Saturday night. There is nothing worse than RTE cutting into the middle of a speech and saying: “And there we have to leave it.” There was no danger of that on this occasion. Garrett looked like one of those airport signalling staff guiding an airplane to safety on the ground, and he gave Eamon extravagant arm signals to indicate how much time he had left and when he had to finish. He ensured that his leader finished in time and that the inevitable standing ovation also went out live.

Garrett worked closely with Cathy Madden, the Labour-appointed deputy government press secretary. In my diary, I described her as a “whippet-thin redhead, talks in sharp bursts, phone constantly ringing, looks like your stereotypical PR woman from hectic PR company, always looking for the ‘line’ to take on whatever the issue is.” She has since been replaced by another Paul O’Brien, a former Examiner journalist.

The various people who worked in or frequented offices on these corridors, along with ministers and members of both parliamentary parties, were to play an important part in Ruairi’s reform agenda. They contributed to progress and setbacks on a number of fronts, including thorny issues such as fee-paying schools, a proposed capital-assets test for deciding who should get higher-education grants and the future of small primary schools.

Ruairi knew that a lot of what he was proposing would be met with opposition from the ‘partners’ — both those in government and those in education. He had a full agenda, and it was always doubtful that we would get everything to the floor of the House, even if he were to stay the full term and survive a Cabinet reshuffle.

I recall the Junior Minister in Education, Ciaran Cannon, looking shell-shocked after we’d briefed him on two contentious issues that were on Ruairi’s reform agenda. He said that if one (the future of small schools) was a hand grenade, then the other (a proposed capital-assets test for families of those entering third-level education) was Hiroshima. That, I realised, was how politicians saw things: in terms of the level of political fallout they could anticipate.

John Walshe

As Education Correspondent of the Irish Independent for many years, John Walshe was one of the most respected journalists in the country. His exclusive stories frequently raised issues that were uncomfortable for teachers and ministers, sometimes for parents and students too.

As a reporter and commentator over several decades, he thought he had seen and heard it all. That was until he got a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work in government and see how decisions are really made - to switch from being an outsider to an insider.

Walshe did not have to think twice about accepting incoming Education Minister Ruairi Quinn's invitation to become his special adviser. So in a matter of weeks, he found himself in the seat of power in Government Buildings and up close and personal with some of the country's most powerful decision-makers.

In his new book, An Education, Walshe gives an insider's account of what it's like be part of government.

Quinn knew this would be his last cabinet post and he was determined to leave a legacy. Walshe documents the triumphs and disasters of Quinn's mission to reshape Irish education. In doing so, he gets to the heart of the mix of idealism, egotism and pragmatism that ultimately drives those who govern.

An Education - How An Outsider Became an Insider and Learned What Really Goes on in Irish Government, by John Walshe, is published by Penguin Ireland on November 6 priced at €14.99

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