Monday 17 December 2018

All hail, Enda's shadow government

Cabinet responsibility has been subverted in ways not even Haughey dared attempt

Illustration: Tom Halliday
Illustration: Tom Halliday
Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

Did you notice the revelation, on Tuesday morning last, that the Cabinet no longer has a governmental function? That the Cabinet has been effectively demoted to the status of an advisory body?

The revelation was made quietly on the front page of The Irish Times, in the fifth paragraph of the lead story, on changes to the Water Tax proposal.

You didn't notice? You're not aware that the country is being run by an unconstitutional shadow government that operates in secrecy?

Pay attention, folks. Pretty soon there'll be an election. And all those "positive thinkers" will be telling us, as they always do, that we have a duty to vote.

People fought and died, they'll say, so that we have the right to elect our own government. It's what 1916 was about, they'll say.

There are countries where people queue for 12 hours to exercise their right to vote, they'll say. And other countries where oppressed people dream of the right to vote, they'll say.

And all this is true.

The right to vote, the benefits of parliamentary democracy, were hard won by masses of people over years of struggle. Bourgeois democracy, as we remnants of the 1970s like to call it, is not supposed to be just about the right to mark a ballot paper. It's supposed to be about the right to argue and assemble, the right to protest and to inform, the rule of law and the right to fair treatment by the machinery of State.

So, tell me this: how come we stand idly by as the democratic structures that are the whole point of voting are dismantled?

And where do we stand now - in the Water Tax fight - with the debris of the broken parliament all around us?

Let's start on November 13, in the Dail. That was the day that Mary Lou McDonald staged her sit-in, after the Ceann Comhairle refused to listen to her concerns about the behaviour of the Tanaiste, Joan Burton.

McDonald asked Burton would she rule out deducting water charges from wages or welfare payments?

An important question. Parliament exists so that such matters can be teased out. Burton, as usual, waffled: "If Sinn Fein has decided the quality and condition of the water is not of enormous concern . . ."

She really is beginning to sound like Mario Rosenstock doing Oliver Callan doing Joan Burton.

She didn't answer the question. Alan Kelly was preparing a package, which would be revealed when the shadow government was ready. It was none of the Dail's business.

No previous government has enforced the marginalisation of the Dail as consistently as this one. The political suppression of Lucinda Creighton, when she voted against the party whip, was ruthless. The message is clear: obey us or we ruin you.

The Dail, more than ever, is a rubber stamp. And the Cabinet itself has been subverted. A four-person Economic Management Council (Kenny, Burton, Noonan and Howlin), makes all major decisions, constituting a shadow government.

This shadow government is not accountable at any level.

It tells the Cabinet what it wants done. The party whips have "briefings" at which backbench TDs are told how to act. Dare to question this, in the name of parliamentary democracy, and you'll be Creightoned.

In the days after Burton refused to answer McDonald's questions, the party mechanisms went into action. In order to soften up and manipulate public perception of the Water Tax crisis, information denied to the Dail was systematically leaked over a period of days - in the interests of party political perception.

(I'm not sure why the media co-operates in this charade - perhaps the pull of a leaked story is irresistible. But, we could at least send the parties an invoice for our services. Why do for free work for which 'consultants' are paid enormous amounts?)

By Tuesday morning, almost the whole package had been leaked - little surprises, things that mightn't go down too well, were withheld.

In The Irish Times, Fiach Kelly and Marese McDonagh casually told us: "The Cabinet will today discuss the charges package".

The shadow government made decisions; information was withheld from parliament; then it was spun through the media in as manipulative a way as Kenny and Burton could manage.

Finally, a newspaper could tell its readers that the measures that had been fed to the media for several days would at last be "discussed" in Cabinet - which has Constitutional responsibility for them.

We've known about the shadow government for some time, but never have I seen it so contemptuously treat not just the Dail but the Cabinet.

The Constitution says: "The Government shall be responsible to Dail Eireann". It should now read: "Dail Eireann shall be responsible to the Shadow Government".

The Constitution says: "The Government shall meet and act as a collective authority, and shall be collectively responsible". It should now read: "All duties of government and parliament shall be carried out as directed by the Shadow Government".

The Ceann Comhairle has said nothing about the subordination of the Dail over which he presides. Perhaps he feels he has enough on his plate defending the Dail's old dress code.

No member of Cabinet has publicly sought to defend its Constitutional role. It's as though there hasn't been a fundamental shift in governance.

If a four-person group, without oversight, can wield such power, why not a two-person group? Or one?

If Haughey had done this there would have been outrage. The sidelining of the Oireachtas and now the subversion of the Cabinet go way beyond anything the Monarch of Kinsealy ever dreamed of doing.

Perhaps this explains the arrogance with which the Water Tax was imposed. We calmly accepted all the other austerity taxes. So, we were told to sign up or they'd cut our water to a trickle.

The people rose up and said a very firm "No" and forced them to retreat.

Now, the strength of the protests has ensured that they can't cut non-payers' water to a trickle. We got rid of the attempt to build a commercial database of PPS numbers. We got a cap on charges lasting until the end of 2018. They had to postpone the billing period. They'll have to change the board. They had to pledge not to privatise - though, their pledges are bugger all use.

They will, as we predicted, do anything to get us signed up. Including risking offending the EU rules on funding such projects. They are very, very scared.

They've been forced to make these concessions in the hope that we'll sign up.

At which point, safely re-elected in 2016, they can begin to claw back the concessions they're now making.

We desperately need a proper water supply. They insist on persisting with what remains an austerity project.

The range of people opposed to the Water Tax has been wide, along with the reasons for opposition. In this newspaper, for instance, views expressed ranged from outright opposition to doubts about particular aspects of the policy. Some people will be satisfied by the concessions, others see that the long-term strategy is unchanged.

If, as the politicians say, the cap will be continued, then we don't need water meters. They're as redundant as the old e-voting machines. The Water Tax is now just a tax, unrelated to the water we use.

Yet, the meters continue to be installed. It's pointless to install meters if the payment will be capped, but they can't give them up, having recklessly squandered hundreds of millions. They'll use them yet.

The protests gave them a huge problem - they hope the concessions, along with the smears, will fracture the protest movement and get them through the next election. At which point the meters will start spinning, as the charges soar.

Sunday Independent

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