Wednesday 19 December 2018

Attorney General severely undermined by Shane Ross, the Boris Johnson of Government

'Shane Ross has become the Boris Johnson of this Government – he craves the power but has no desire to accept responsibility or acknowledge the consequences of his actions.'
Photo: Tony Gavin
'Shane Ross has become the Boris Johnson of this Government – he craves the power but has no desire to accept responsibility or acknowledge the consequences of his actions.' Photo: Tony Gavin

Fionnán Sheahan

The Cabinet room is difficult to find. It's in the East Wing of Government Buildings, down the stairs from the corridor adjoining Leinster House, and adjacent to the Office of the Attorney General.

Only 20 people attend the weekly Cabinet meeting, scheduled for 10.30am each Tuesday. The status of the 15 senior Cabinet ministers is prescribed under Article 28.1 of the Constitution: "The Government shall consist of not less than seven and not more than fifteen members..."

Then there are so-called 'super' junior ministers, currently there are three, whose roles are set out in legislation and whose attendance at Cabinet is at the whim of the Taoiseach.

At times, other junior ministers or officials will attend to brief the Cabinet on matters of importance.

The Secretary General of the Department of the Taoiseach traditionally serves as secretary to the Government.

Aside from the 15 senior ministers, the only other attendee with a Constitutional imperative is the Attorney General.

"There shall be an Attorney General who shall be the adviser of the Government in matters of law and legal opinion, and shall exercise and perform all such powers, functions and duties as are conferred or imposed on him by this Constitution or by law," says Article 30.1 of the Constitution, which also states in Article 30.4 that this office holder "shall not be a member of the Government".

These Constitutional statuses matter. It matters when one of 15 Cabinet ministers says he's going to ignore the advice of the AG and vote for a law he has been advised is unconstitutional.

Minister for Transport Shane Ross intends to do just that in the Dáil this Thursday on the Protection of Life in Pregnancy (Amendment) (Fatal Foetal Abnormalities) (No. 2) Bill 2013 - Independent TD Mick Wallace's Private Member's Bill to allow for abortions in cases of fatal foetal abnormality.

Ross dismisses the advice of AG Máire Whelan as "simply an opinion". Mere mortals do not have sight of the legal advice, but Ross has the chance to question the AG on her conclusion.

Fine Gael ministers cite the AG's advice as grounds to vote down the legislation. So too does Independent minister Katherine Zappone, who made a Referendum on Repeal of the Eighth Amendment a "red letter issue" for her support of the Government, yet also accepts the AG's view. A long-time campaigner on the issue, she has signed up to the matter being addressed first by the Citizens Assembly.

The Cabinet will discuss the Government position again at its meeting this morning. If Ross voted for the legislation after the Cabinet decided the Government would oppose it as it was deemed to be unconstitutional, then he would clearly be in breach of the principle of collective Cabinet responsibility, as set out in the Constitution.

"The Government shall meet and act as a collective authority, and shall be collectively responsible for the Departments of State administered by the members of the Government," Article 28.4.2 states.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny's fudge to get around this problem, which would put Ross in clear opposition to the Government, is for the Cabinet to avoid making a formal decision.

Therefore, Ross and fellow members of the Independent Alliance will vote whatever way they want.

However, this doesn't get around the manner in which the Attorney General has been publicly undermined in such a substantial fashion by a member of the Government.

The confidential advice of the Attorney General is often employed by ministers to reject proposals that have been put forward.

Good luck to the Government the next time it tries to use the AG's advice as a get-out clause on a contentious matter.

And Ross had better hope he's not the minister in the firing line on such an occasion.

But then he doesn't really care about credibility. Shane Ross has become the Boris Johnson of this Government - he craves the power but has no desire to accept responsibility or acknowledge the consequences of his actions.

After a 35-year career of criticising from the sidelines, he wants to be both in and out of Government at the same time.

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss