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Ross wants to have his cake and eat it by shirking notion of collective responsibility


Shane Ross TD outisde Leinster house, Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

Shane Ross TD outisde Leinster house, Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

Shane Ross TD outisde Leinster house, Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

Politics throws up some daft notions at times, particularly lately. But it's hard to think of a sillier one than the suggestion on 'step in-step out' government participation from the Independent Alliance.

The Alliance indicated over the weekend that, if its support was needed to form the next government, it might accept ministerial posts, but not attend cabinet meetings.

Seriously? It would seem so. Apparently, the Alliance is determined "not to be captured" by sharing cabinet responsibility with any of the Dáil parties.

"We will not be insiders but it is difficult to be a member of the cabinet without being an insider ... you might get captured ... In Australia, where they had independents in [regional] government, they were only present in cabinet when their portfolio matters were discussed," Shane Ross was quoted as saying.

The Dublin South TD went on to say that, in such a scenario, an Independent Alliance minister could make a presentation to cabinet and discuss it, but then vote on other matters in the Dáil on an issue by issue basis.

Where to start on what is a 'having your cake and eat it' recipe for utter chaos and grandstanding? The Constitution is generally a good place. Article 28, section 4, sub-section 2 states that 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".

So collective responsibility, a system inherited from the Westminster model of government, is not just a political convention, it is required by Bunreacht na hÉireann.

For good reason. Without collective responsibility, it's impossible to imagine how governments could function. How could the public have confidence in an administration, and the laws it enacted, if members of that administration were publicly arguing against its own actions?

We actually have hard proof of how disastrous that can be from recent history.

In the dying days of the crisis-ridden Fianna Fáil-Green coalition, collective responsibility entirely collapsed. The Greens effectively declared no confidence in the government by setting a time limit on their participation in the coalition but not resigning. And there were some FF ministers who clearly didn't have confidence in then Taoiseach Brian Cowen. The situation was utterly untenable and the political equivalent of watching a car crash.

And we only need to look at what's happening north of the border to see the downsides of an absence of collective responsibility. The public bickering between the various parties in the Stormont administration is not just unseemly, it has actually lead to political and fiscal gridlock.

The argument has been made that in today's world, collective responsibility is outdated. Governments operate under the glare of media scrutiny and behind-the-scenes rows are often public knowledge. Therefore, it's naive to expect people to believe the government is united and cohesive. Perhaps.

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But there's still an enormous difference between ministers disagreeing strongly around the cabinet table, even if that leaks out, and doing so in full view of the public. The impact of the latter, on public confidence in a coalition, would be fatal.

It was a point addressed by then President Eamon de Valera when he was presenting seals of office to members of the National Coalition government in 1973. As recounted by Conor Cruise O'Brien to Stephen Collins for his superb book 'The Cosgrave Legacy', Dev told them the only way for coalitions to work was for ministers to have absolute loyalty to the Taoiseach.

Or more bluntly, you're either in government or you're not. You can't be half-in and half-out. It's like pregnancy - you can't be a little bit pregnant.

The equivalent in sport would be a player who is picked to play in all the matches, but refuses to share a dressing room with the rest of the players and will join team mates for team talks only when his or her position is being discussed. The oft-used cliché in relation to sport is that there's no 'i' in team.

Purely coincidentally of course, there's a capital 'I' in Independent Alliance.

There's no shortage of collective responsibility, at least publicly, in the current coalition but humility often seems to be in short supply.

Micheál Martin has a point when he accuses the government running the most negative re-election campaign in the history of the State.

Even those of us who believe the Coalition has done a really decent job in difficult circumstances cringe at the self-regarding 'we saved the country' hubris that comes from the mouths of some ministers.

It was on full display in last week's confidence motion as a succession of them chose to ignore the very serious findings of the Fennelly inquiry in favour of back-slapping "steering the ship of state from chaos to calm" type guff.

It's legitimate, and sensible, for the Coalition to go to the country on the back of their record in office. But they need to be careful not to overdo the 'we're the only show in town' line.

The problem for Fine Gael and particularly Labour is they fought the last election opposing many of the measures they ultimately (correctly) implemented. Many voters haven't forgiven them for that.

For that reason, what Micheál Martin not unfairly dubs the Coalition's 'vote for us or the world will collapse' message, runs the risk of repelling as much as it appeals.

Shane Coleman presents the Sunday Show on newstalk.com at 10am.