Sunday 15 September 2019

Philip Ryan: 'Jaded ministers have taken their eye off the ball as election looms'

Pressure of power is wearing on the Government as controversies, debacles and public gaffes increase, writes Philip Ryan

Education minister Joe McHugh. Photo: Frank McGrath
Education minister Joe McHugh. Photo: Frank McGrath
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

Sometimes you wonder if their hearts are in it at all. Undoubtedly governing is tough - the hours are long and there is very little job satisfaction. Most politicians are not around to hear the plaudits about their time in government from commentators and historians.

But they tell us they're not in it for the praise, or the money and, for the most part, they're not. Although you would wonder what some of them would do if they weren't politicians.

Anyway, let's give them the benefit of the doubt and say politicians, no matter what their political persuasion, are in it for the right reasons. This includes the current administration which does feature some very capable politicians.

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However, the current crop at times seem to be doing everything in their power to ensure their legacy is tarnished by needless controversies and out of touch public comments which are either a slip of the tongue or a slip of the mask. They also have an insatiable appetite for lecturing voters on how they should be living their lives, which can make them appear devoid of empathy.

They are also especially good at telling us how we should be spending our money. Take last week, the two Fine Gael ministers responsible for the running of our education system decided to lay down the law to students and their parents about what they should do if they don't have the funds to attend one of the country's top universities.

Education Minister Joe McHugh suggested students should consider "regional options" if their parents can't afford to send them to the main universities.

Now, there are many fine regional third level institutions which produce exceptional graduates. However, whether he meant it or not, the minister's comments suggested an attitude to university education of 'if you don't have the money, you need not apply'.

Luckily, Ireland does not have the same sort of education divide as you see in England or the United States.

That's not to say there is no divide because there is, especially at secondary level, but there are no Ivy League fraternity houses or Oxford-style Bullingdon Clubs.

Next up was Minister of State for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O'Connor who told students they should use their college grants to cover the cost of sky-rocketing student accommodation.

Arguably they should, but a full grant of €3,025 would guarantee you a roof over your head for only half the term at some universities and that is before you eat, drink or pay your tuition fees.

Again, let's give the minister the benefit of the doubt and say she was just stating the obvious and wasn't so unaware to think that the student grant can cover all the costs of third level education.

But tone and timing are everything in politics. Leo Varadkar is well aware of this and he has made his fair share of gaffes since becoming Taoiseach.

When the cameras are rolling and the microphones are stuck in your face, you have to think beyond the present. All round, it was not a great week for Fine Gael ministers.

We also had Social Protection Minister Regina Doherty's debacle on the public service card and Communications Minister Richard Bruton's fiasco with a State- funded eco-friendly home renovation grant.

Doherty has buried her head in the sand since the Data Protection Commissioner rubbished her €60m plan to make public service cards compulsory for almost all State services such as passports and driving licences. But she was happy to go on the radio to discuss school dinners for young students the day before the controversial Data Protection Commissioner ruling emerged.

This is typical of Fine Gael - get out the good news and avoid responsibility when it comes to bad news. If ministers spent as much time managing their portfolios as they do trying to manage the media, the country could be a very different and better place.

Maybe they are just tired. In fact, the entire Government seems tired. They all look worn out. You only have to look at how quickly Simon Harris has transformed from a fresh-faced backbencher to a greying Health Minister over the last eight years.

One aspect of the minority government set-up is that ministers never really know how long they will be in office. From the very off, there wasn't much hope that the Fianna Fail-facilitated Government would last even a year.

Now the administration is heading toward its fourth Budget. However, it hasn't been an easy ride and the threat of a snap election lurks in the shadows ready to pounce at any time.

Ministers can't give their full attention to their departmental duties when there is an election on the horizon.

In a majority government, most ministers, bar some unfortunate event, will a have five-year term in office. They are wedded to their portfolio and responsible for the decisions they make.

But if a minister believes they could be turfed out of their department at any given moment they are not going to give the same level of commitment.

They don't have enough time to build a legacy and have one eye on an election while the main opposition party maintains a level of influence over their work.

So they trundle along and issues like the national broadband plan controversy, the children's hospital costs overrun and the CervicalCheck scandal blow up in their faces because they are not giving their portfolios the attention they deserve.

Brexit is taking up a lot of their time too, we are told, although they won't tell us what it is they are doing most of the time.

But it can't be used as an excuse for everything.

Voters gave the Government a gentle warning in the local elections which they said they heard.

However, ministers' recent comments and actions would suggest that they have not listened.

But then it's is hard to concentrate when you're worn out and thinking of the next time you might get a break from work - such as an election.

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