Opinion

Friday 6 December 2019

The 'brave' ministers who'll blame Howlin and Noonan

Brendan Howlin and Michael Noonan
Brendan Howlin and Michael Noonan

Alan Shatter

In an era of competitive 24/7 news reporting the excitement generated by Cabinet leaks and on or off the record briefings on politically sensitive domestic issues by Cabinet ministers or by a shadowy unidentified source "close to the minister" is readily understandable. It generates copy both for the print media and online and has the capacity to fill countless hours of broadcasting space.

Even more delightful and of even greater value is the minister who, through such direct or indirect communications, creates the perception that if something within their area of responsibility goes wrong it is not their fault but is, or will be, the fault of their Cabinet colleagues. This has the added value of generating controversy and may even result in the minister concerned being praised for his or her straight talking.

As we have emerged from the summer silly season into a sunny September start to the new political year, it struck me how easily some political commentators and some of those who practice politics forget that Cabinet Government is enshrined by our Constitution as being at the central core of our democratic parliamentary system.

Article 28 of our constitution, Bunreacht na hEireann, prescribes that the Government must "meet and act as a collective authority" and it is "collectively responsible for the Departments of State administered by Members of the Government". Members of Cabinet are at all times equally responsible for Cabinet decisions made. The fact that an item on a Cabinet agenda is proposed by another does not mean that once it is adopted individual Cabinet Members can disclaim responsibility.

There is no constitutional concept of semi-detached Cabinet responsibility. What is perverse is the praise sometimes heaped on those who publicly adopt such a stance.

It is no accident that the same Constitution that prescribed the principle of collective responsibility should also require that the confidentiality of discussions of meetings of the Government be respected.

Cabinet Government cannot work effectively if colleagues cannot robustly exchange views on the options available on issues of public importance and, if need be, agree time for reflection before decisions are made and do so in circumstances in which views expressed do not unnecessarily fuel public controversy .

The essence of Cabinet Government is teamwork and the capacity of ministers to work as a team is undermined if they cannot, in the public interest, engage in serious exchanges behind closed doors. The ultimate safeguard to the public interest is the responsibility of the government to the Dail and its consequent accountability for decisions made and implemented and legislation proposed for enactment.

It was my experience in Government that the weeks leading into the Budget can be particularly fraught. Ministers in charge of the big spending departments inevitably have to engage both directly and through their officials in some form of virtual arm wrestling with the Minister of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, Brendan Howlin TD, with regard to spending parameters. Without the spending reductions and controls achieved since 2011, the economic and fiscal success which has been achieved would have been impossible. The predicted growth rate for 2014 would not be somewhere between 3pc and 5pc and the short term borrowings of €500m, raised on the financial markets this week at 0pc interest, would have been impossible.

Both Michael Noonan and Brendan Howlin deserve a great deal of credit for what has been achieved.

In the league of high spending departments, Justice comes 4th and, as Minister, it was my job to ensure that we not only had the resources required to fund the entire Justice area, which includes An Garda Siochana, but that we also reduced expenditure and effected efficiencies whilst improving service delivery.

Some of the steps taken, such as reducing garda numbers and closing some garda stations, were controversial and there came a point when I had to negotiate and secure agreement to reopen garda recruitment.

Fairness required that salary reductions effected applied across the board and it was necessary to hold a referendum to reduce judicial pay in line with reductions in other areas of the public service.

This too was and remains controversial. As recently as this week, three years after the referendum, a now retired High Court judge, for whom as a lawyer I have great respect, spoke on RTE of his annoyance at the salary reductions effected.

In the lead-in to Budget discussions or when targeted for criticism it would have been easy and no doubt personally politically expedient to blame Brendan Howlin for controversies in these and other areas affected by expenditure cuts and savings. To have done so, however, would have been a denial of my obligation and a reneging by me of my responsibility as Minister to contribute to getting the public finances back in order and delivering on a central commitment of the Programme for Government.

A minister can constructively engage in the discussions and negotiations required to agree a Department's estimates and, should difficulties occur, address these in Cabinet or in bilateral meetings which may or may not at some stage require the involvement of the Taoiseach and the Tanaiste.

Alternatively, a minister may present themselves publicly in a heroic light and target one or more Cabinet colleagues as the enemy with whom they are at war.

It is the latter approach that guarantees the spotlight, particularly if it includes having a public tantrum and throwing his or her toys out of the pram.

Such a "courageous stance", as it will be inevitably depicted by some, is essentially contemptuous of Cabinet Government and the principle of Cabinet confidentiality. It undermines the teamwork and trust which is crucial to effective governance, and which is both in the public interest and in the interests of the parties which compose the Government.

It also undermines the public perception of the Governments competence. But for political commentators and opposition deputies such a "courageous stance" is, understandably, manna from heaven.

Alan Shatter is a Fine Gael TD for Dublin South and was Minister for Justice and Defence from 2011 to 2014

Irish Independent

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