Friday 22 March 2019

Shadowy back room boys and girls with the ear of ministers

Karen O'Connell
Karen O'Connell
Andrew McDowell
Mark Kennelly

Daniel McConnell

They appear in the background of photographs of their ministers. They are seen walking alongside them on their way into important meetings.

To the public this is as much of a special advisor as you are likely to see or ever encounter.

But just who are these shadowy gatekeepers and spin doctors, who hold huge sway over how our country is run and determine access to their political masters.

And all paid for by the taxpayer, at last count amounting to about €3.5m a year.

Many of them, particularly in Fine Gael, have an annoying habit of acting as if they are cast members of the West Wing, and swan around with a hugely inflated sense of self-importance.

Plucked from obscurity and placed into jobs on salaries they previously could only dream of, others see themselves as the Malcolm Tucker types, effing and blinding to beat the band in a bid to intimidate those in the press - their peers within Government.

Whatever the modus operandi, the political advisor is now a permanent feature of Irish politics and ministers depend on them for dear life.

Such is the reliance that ministers often pick people who have zero expertise in their line departments, but are experts in local constituency and Dail politics.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny is the archetypical politician who is heavily handled by his tight team of advisors.

In charge of operations in Mr Kenny's office is his chief of staff Mark Kennelly. The Kerry native began his political life in Fine Gael during the Rainbow coalition. He was then elevated to the position of special adviser to Michael Lowry in 1995. He played an "important role" in Programme for Government negotiations and operated as Mr Kenny's election tour manager.

Despised by many in Fine Gael for his extremely close working relationship with Mr Kenny, Kenneally - often referred to as 'Smithers' (a reference to Mr Burns' grovelling sidekick in the Simpsons cartoon) - is never far from the Taoiseach's side.

Another key voice in Kenny's ear is Andrew McDowell, who is very much an "economist in the Fine Gael tradition."

First cousin once removed to Michael McDowell, he joined Fine Gael in 2006 where he worked for then Finance spokesman Richard Bruton and later, Michael Noonan.

Mr Kenny has two other policy advisors in his office, Angela Flanagan and Paul O'Brien, whose nickname is 'Sebastian' for his preppy schoolboy look.

It was interesting in Brussels last week to see how tightly Kenny is managed. German Chancellor Angela Merkel despite being up all night attempting to broker a ceasefire in Ukraine managed a press conference of over an hour.

Kenny on the other hand managed a curt five minute blast with Irish hacks on his way out, for fear he might get asked anything difficult.

Joan Burton since replacing Eamon Gilmore last year has installed her key team within Government Buildings.

Burton's chief of staff Ed Brophy is her key advisor and led the negotiations with McDowell in Kenny's office when she became leader. On moving over, Brophy saw his taxpayer-funded salary increase from €119,572 to €144,550.

Also in Burton's office is former Irish Examiner Political Editor Paul O'Brien, whose quiet but effective manner has seen him elevated to the position of Deputy Government spokesman.

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His wise and shrewd counsel has worked to make Burton more focused as leader.

Terry Quinn has also been seconded in from the Central Bank by Burton to be her chief economic advisor while Burton's former Personal Assistant, Karen O'Connell, is now also a special advisor.

Finance Minister Michael Noonan relies on a small key team to advise him. His long term associate, Mary Kenny was appointed a special advisor back in 2011 and remains there.

His other special advisor is Paul Bolger, a civil servant who was his former press officer. Bolger is a no-nonsense individual but is well regarded by journalists and his fellow Government handlers.

Other rising stars in the advisor ranks are Jim McGrath, key advisor to Environment Minister Alan Kelly, Sarah Meade (advisor to Arts Minister Heather Humphreys), Deborah Sweeney (advisor to Transport Minister Paschal Donohoe) and Conor Quinn (advisor to Jobs Minister Richard Bruton).

McGrath has accompanied Kelly on his swift rise and has played a central role in his minister's journey toward the leadership of the Labour party.

Meade, formerly of the Fine Gael press office, earned her money on taking office having to guide her rookie minister through some choppy waters in relation to the John McNulty IMMA scandal.

Sweeney is another Fine Gael press officer selected for greater things by a minister and too has had to overcome a rail strike, a deficient penalty points law controversy as well as the Aer Lingus sell-off.

As we near a general election, the role of these advisors will undoubtedly steer their efforts towards getting their minister re-elected.

Money well spent, I'm sure you would agree.

Sunday Independent

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