Thursday 23 January 2020

New politics has come to represent new rules or, in some cases, no rules at all

Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tanaiste Frances Fitzgerald at the head of the Cabinet table for its first meeting. Picture Credit: MAXWELLPHOTOGRAPHY.IE
Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tanaiste Frances Fitzgerald at the head of the Cabinet table for its first meeting. Picture Credit: MAXWELLPHOTOGRAPHY.IE

Mandy Johnston

Try to cast your memory back to a time when you had something labelled, with your name on it. A slipper bag, a uniform gabardine mac, a school locker, perhaps? In all likelihood, there is probably one commonality - you were a child.

Being a responsible adult means that you no longer require sticky labels to guide your passage through life. You have matured beyond the well-meaning apron strings of your mother and can make your own decisions.

Unless you are a member of the current Cabinet, that is.

There is a worrying climate of mistrust and misbehaviour lurking in the corridors of power, which requires remedial action now.

This week, we learned that An Taoiseach Enda Kenny has installed a new system for Cabinet meetings to ensure that ministers are paying attention without distractions from the outside world.

In addition, the crafty plan will also prevent mouthy ministers from leaking important decisions to members of the fourth estate via electronic devices.

To assist with the latest effort in team-building and morale, a neat set of boxes has been installed in the sanctity of the antechamber to the Cabinet rooms for ministers to place their vicious little mobile phones, each labelled with individual ministers' names on them. Ah, bless.

Forgive my naivety, but I had hoped that those who had made it to the most important decision-making meeting table in our political system might be responsible enough to know the boundaries of good manners.

Furthermore, I had hoped that they would have the wherewithal to realise when occasions and deliberations require their full and undivided attention.

It seems that is not the case and childlike confiscation techniques must be introduced.

Some ministers think that 'Operation Phone Ban' is a great idea altogether, with one reported to have told a journalist that it was a thoroughly enlightening experience to have been separated from his mobile for a few hours.

One remarked: "It was refreshing - like losing your right arm for a few hours." I ask you, who among us has not dreamed of losing their right arm for a few hours every now and then?

In reality, it will have no practical effect on how government communications are handled. The effort will not prevent Cabinet leaks; it may delay them by minutes, but it will not prevent them. The leaking of information comes from individuals, not iPhones. All it will do is create a further diminution of what little trust that does exist and annoy those at Cabinet who don't feel like being treated like children.

Beyond the hilarity of the effort, there is a serious point. More than simple housekeeping, the exercise signals paranoia at the heart of Government. The issue in question is far greater. Unless a fundamental understanding is reached around the necessity for Cabinet solidarity and collective responsibility, a winter of discontent looms large for what looks to us mere mortals viewing from the outside like a Coalition of the unwilling.

New politics has come to mean new rules or, in some cases, no rules at all. For example, the Attorney General's advice is no longer sacrosanct for Cabinet decision-making. Potentially, it may not remain secret if some Government members have their way.

The choice by some to ignore the advice of the Attorney General about Mick Wallace's proposed bill on fatal foetal abnormalities was a watershed moment that we may yet revisit.

On this particular occasion, the development was somewhat clouded by the topic of abortion and the very emotional debate around the issue which always and inevitably ensues.

The role of the Attorney General in advising Government is so fundamental to the operation of good government that it cannot be overstated.

It has quite simply been the cornerstone of the decision-making process for every government since the foundation of the State. If you do not collectively accept and follow the guidance, it is like saying you are a Catholic but have never been baptised.

The lines of allegiance are now blurred. Ministers cannot carve out a path forward within the current Government because they are straight-jacketed by their previous political convictions.

Masquerading as new politics, these new rules are not necessarily ones that are helpful to the stability of Government and by extension the longer-term interest of us, the people.

The Cabinet would be wise to focus on the many sporting events of this summer to learn just how important the concept of working as a team is when trying to navigate its way through a delicate budgetary process and beyond, if ministers are to maintain political equilibrium.

In coalition governments, what keeps things ticking along is a common goal to remain in power long enough for policies to be implemented in order to leverage support in a subsequent election. It is that simple.

But that strategy did not work out for Labour last time around, so high-profile Independents are squirming in their Cabinet seats and worrying about might happen to their Dáil seats when the next election is called.

When children behave like children, they are treated accordingly - hence the need for named boxes and confiscation of contraband articles like mobile phones.

Presumably a Mr Chips - and Mr Kenny is an old-school teacher - waits in the background to scold offending users.

Building a solid coalition Government can be done only on foundations of trust. Like respect, trust must be earned - never demanded. Hang together or hang separately, it's a tough decision but not one that should be foremost in the minds of ministers now.

Get the job done. Settle down before school starts again and return to the headmaster like good little boys and girls.

Irish Independent

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