Sunday 15 September 2019

Liam Weeks: 'Taoiseach must be decisive in culling Cabinet deadwood'

Leo Varadkar can learn a lesson from Boris Johnson's Machiavellian ruthlessness, writes Liam Weeks

'Like the Don before him, Boris Johnson chose to wield the knife last week, except he did the deed himself, engaging in what some British media outlets described as a massacre'. Photo credit: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire
'Like the Don before him, Boris Johnson chose to wield the knife last week, except he did the deed himself, engaging in what some British media outlets described as a massacre'. Photo credit: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

In a recent interview, Boris Johnson was asked to name his favourite film scene. "The multiple retribution killings at the end of The Godfather", he replied, referring to the moment when Michael Corleone, played by Al Pacino, has his rivals assassinated.

It's not clear if Corleone was a student of Niccolo Macchiavelli's The Prince, but he certainly showed a Machiavellian level of ruthlessness in dealing with his enemies. The 16th Century Italian philosopher advised: "Men ought either to be well treated or crushed, because they can avenge themselves of lighter injuries, of more serious ones they cannot; therefore the injury that is to be done to a man ought to be of such a kind that one does not stand in fear of revenge."

And so Corleone rid himself of his rivals in such a manner that they could not rise from the dead seeking vengeance.

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Like the Don before him, Boris Johnson chose to wield the knife last week, except he did the deed himself, engaging in what some British media outlets described as a massacre. In the greatest cull of a British cabinet in almost 60 years, almost half of Theresa May's outgoing government left their posts. Eleven were sacked and six resigned.

Johnson's purge was reminiscent of a similar episode in Irish politics more than 27 years ago, when Albert Reynolds wielded the axe over Charlie Haughey's outgoing cabinet.

Having eventually ousted Haughey from power in an internal party heave in January 1992, one of Reynolds's first acts as Taoiseach was to sack eight senior and nine junior ministers in what some described as the ''Night of the Long Knives''.

Except it didn't take all night for Reynolds. The ''Longford Slasher'', as christened by the media, did it all in less than 15 minutes. "You won't be appointed, thank you," was how he informed the ministers they would be out of a job. "It was all so fast, I could have done with a revolving door," Reynolds recounted in his biography.

Whatever one may think of the ruthless actions of Don Corleone, Boris Johnson and Albert Reynolds, they could certainly not be accused of indecisiveness. Could the same be said of our current Taoiseach?

Leo Varadkar has dithered over what to do with Maria Bailey. Even after he eventually took the decision to remove her as chair of the Oireachtas Housing Committee, the issue has not gone away.

But this was not Varadkar's first moment of indecision, and some are now wondering if he is following a pattern established from the moment he took on the job of Taoiseach.

The actions of Johnson and Reynolds might well be extreme examples of a cabinet reshuffle, but many expected a cull of deadwood when Varadkar replaced Enda Kenny.

But little changed. The departure of Kenny and the resignation of Michael Noonan created two vacancies in cabinet, but the only person demoted by Varadkar was Mary Mitchell O'Connor. Even then, the Taoiseach did not bring the axe fully down; he allowed Mitchell O'Connor to keep her place at the cabinet table as a Minister of State.

The only other changes the Taoiseach has made in the two years since have been forced by the resignations of Frances Fitzgerald and Denis Naughten.

The aftermath of the recent local elections might have been a perfect opportunity for Varadkar to remould his Government, especially in light of his party's falling poll ratings and relatively poor electoral performance.

Previous taoisigh used such results to justify a reshuffle. Having suffered Fianna Fail's worst ever local election result in 2004, Bertie Ahern removed his Minister of Finance Charlie McCreevy in an attempt to promote a more caring, socially conscious image of his governing Fianna Fail-Progressive Democrat coalition.

Is it time for Varadkar to do likewise? And who should go? Many would say Eoghan Murphy is an obvious place to begin, but none of Michael Creed, Paul Kehoe and Regina Doherty could be accused of setting their respective departments on fire.

Likewise some of the Independent ministers, but Varadkar is more restricted with them, as the removal of Shane Ross or Katherine Zappone would likely cost the Taoiseach invaluable Dail votes.

No doubt the Taoiseach is hampered in his options by the small size of his parliamentary party. It is the smallest governing minority of any Taoiseach and leaves Varadkar with seemingly little choice. But only if he restricts his gaze to his own party. Nothing in the Constitution says that a Taoiseach must choose solely from his own ranks. Enda Kenny broke the informal rulebook by appointing Independent ministers in 2016. Can Varadkar not do likewise now?

He already has two senior and four junior ministers from the Independent ranks. There are another dozen independents in the Dail he could look to.

Or perhaps in a gesture of gratitude for keeping him in office he could appoint someone from Fianna Fail? (Whether they'd take it is another matter).

How about Fine Gael's traditional allies in Labour? Fianna Fail has been cosying up to the latter in Opposition; offering a ministerial post could be a clever strategic move to bring them back on side to Fine Gael.

Or the Taoiseach could demonstrate his environmental credentials by offering Eamon Ryan another opportunity in government.

He also need not restrict his options to the Dail. The Constitution stipulates that only the Taoiseach, Tanaiste and Minister of Finance must be TDs. Any other members of cabinet could be drawn from the Seanad, with the proviso that this can be no more than two senators at a time. No Taoiseach has used this prerogative since Garret FitzGerald appointed James Dooge to Foreign Affairs in 1981.

So the Taoiseach has more choice than we might imagine. But that does not mean there is an obvious and easy solution.

Whatever he decides to do, it will not be the nature of his choices that will be critical. It will be the manner in which he makes a decision, or is seen to make one. Machiavelli wrote that "it is better to act and repent, than not to act and regret".

Boris Johnson and Albert Reynolds may have made enemies by the brutality of their actions, but likewise you do not make allies by doing nothing.

This is the dilemma facing the Taoiseach. He cannot afford to gain a reputation for being indecisive. Or he might never get another opportunity to pick a cabinet.

Dr Liam Weeks is a lecturer in the Department of Government & Politics at University College Cork

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