Friday 22 March 2019

Liam Weeks: 'If the right person for Cabinet isn't in the Dail, look elsewhere'

Limited use of technocrats could be the answer to our problems in areas such as housing and health, writes Liam Weeks

Gardai outside Leinster House in Dublin (Niall Carson/PA)
Gardai outside Leinster House in Dublin (Niall Carson/PA)

Tomorrow marks the eighth anniversary of the election that saw the return of Fine Gael to power after a 14-year absence.

When the party had last occupied Government Buildings in 1997, Ireland was on the cusp of a boom.

Economic and employment growth were at record highs, with The Economist describing us as "Europe's shining light".

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But this was not enough to re-elect the rainbow coalition led by John Bruton of Fine Gael, as it lost the June 1997 election to Fianna Fail and the Progressive Democrats.

When Fine Gael eventually resumed the reins of office in 2011, all had changed utterly, if not for the party, most certainly for the country.

Of the Fine Gael-Labour government that Enda Kenny formed in March 2011, Kenny, Michael Noonan and Richard Bruton were the sole Fine Gael survivors from John Bruton's 1997 Cabinet. Ruairi Quinn and Brendan Howlin remained for Labour.

In the eight years since, there has been more change for Fine Gael in office than out of it. Only three members of Kenny's first administration remain - Leo Varadkar, Simon Coveney and Richard Bruton. Gone are Phil Hogan, Michael Noonan, Alan Shatter, Frances Fitzgerald and Jimmy Deenihan, not to mention all the Labour ministers and Kenny himself.

This level of change should not come as a shock as ministerial stability is quite precarious in Ireland, as it is in most countries.

Dr Conor Little in the University of Limerick has conducted some invaluable research in this area and found the average length of continuous time spent in Cabinet (not necessarily in the one post) across all established democracies is about two and a half years.

Given this limited time frame, it is no wonder Simon Harris is feeling the heat. He is already past the mean length of Cabinet occupancy, which makes him and other ministers with a greater longevity vulnerable to the chop.

But how vulnerable are they really? Dr Little proposes a number of high-risk contexts for ministers, which include: a strong prime minister, with the nerve to sack them; a large majority government, where sackings won't destabilise matters; a longer time to the next election, as upheavals tend occur earlier in the lifetime of a Cabinet; and a large pool of what are called 'ministrables', academic jargon for people with ministerial calibre.

The last context is the key factor limiting who we have as ministers to run the country. As the acerbic Sir Humphrey from Yes, Prime Minister quipped, when it comes to recruitment from the ruling party to fill government offices, of those available "about one-third are too young and callow, and another one-third are too old and senile". That leaves just enough able parliamentarians to fill all the Cabinet posts. In other words, there's almost no choice at all.

We then have to ask what if the vote of no confidence in Simon Harris had passed last week - would his replacement have made any difference? If the Taoiseach wants to revamp his Cabinet, what choices are open to him - replace Tweedledum with Tweedledee?

Despite the personnel changes, Leo Varadkar's Cabinet is not much different to Enda Kenny's first. It has two more women and is slightly younger, but that's about it. Simon Harris, Paschal Donohoe, Heather Humphreys, Josepha Madigan and Eoghan Murphy vary little in their ideology and worldviews to the crowd who went before them.

The main reason for this lack of diversity is the limited pool from which the Taoiseach must pick his Cabinet. Bearing in mind he has to take into account geographical and gender balance, experience and loyalty, not to mention certain 'big beasts' who have to be included, his choices are most hampered by Article 28.7 of the Constitution, which restricts membership of Cabinet to members of parliament.

Ireland is quite unusual in this limitation, as in many other countries non-parliamentarians may be appointed or, where they are not, members of parliament must resign their parliamentary seats on taking up government office.

The United States, for example, employs a model of Cabinet appointment far removed from the Irish case. The US president has pretty much a free choice who to pick, widening the pool of potential talent to non-partisan experts, practitioners, interest group representatives and so on. Consequently, only three of Donald Trump's current Cabinet picks have held elected political office.

But there remains a constitutional power open to Leo Varadkar that few Taoisigh have used. It is that up to two Cabinet members (apart from the Taoiseach, Tanaiste and Minister for Finance) can be appointed from the Seanad.

With Article 18 giving the Taoiseach the exclusive power to nominate 11 Senators, it means he can use this provision, in effect, to appoint anyone he wants to Cabinet.

Garret FitzGerald was the last Taoiseach to use this power when, in October 1981, he made UCD professor Jim Dooge his Minister for Foreign Affairs shortly after he had nominated him to the Seanad.

Dooge was only the third Senator appointed to cabinet, after Joseph Connolly in 1932 and Sean Moylan in 1957, both of whom were selected by Eamon de Valera.

None of these three appointments were non-partisan, however, as they had all been politically active and identified with the party in government.

What if Leo Varadkar chose to use this power in a new manner, to appoint a person from outside party politics?

Not necessarily a technocrat, but someone not beholden to party interests, someone not concerned with re-election and having to take into account short-term considerations.

Would a housing policy expert with international experience of similar quandaries to those we currently face be a suitable minister to solve the housing crisis? Or would a managerial guru be able to solve the funding black hole that is the Department of Health?

Given the considerable challenges in these two specific areas, possibly not, but it is worth remembering that in recent years, Greece, Italy and Bulgaria all resorted to technocratic governments in times of crisis. And that when we faced, perhaps, the biggest financial challenge to come before any Irish Cabinet - the infamous bank guarantee of 2008 - our ministers were shown to be quite out of their depth, lacking the policy expertise to properly scrutinise the demands of the banks and the EU.

Ditching democracy for technocracy is not something I would necessarily advocate, but bringing in one or two voices from outside the extremely limited party pool could invigorate a Cabinet. It might be argued policy advisors can fulfil this role, but they have no executive powers and lack accountability.

While the Government formed in 2016 was the first to go outside of party since 1948 in appointing independent TDs to Cabinet, maybe it's time for the Taoiseach to go one step further and extend his gaze beyond parliament.

This was something provided for under the original 1922 Free State Constitution, which catered for external ministers from outside the Dail, although none was appointed in this fashion.

More recently, it was also recommended by the Constitutional Convention in 2013. The deliberations of this body have already been used as a springboard for reform with the referendum on marriage equality, so perhaps it is time to consider ministerial appointments too.

The Taoiseach likes making big gestures, such as his hard-line stance on Brexit and the backstop. Bringing political outsiders into Cabinet would continue this pattern, but would be more than just a mere gesture.

It could potentially reform the manner by which policy is made in this country.

Something to consider for tomorrow's anniversary.

  • Dr Liam Weeks is director of the MSc in Government and Politics at University College Cork

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