Tuesday 18 June 2019

The only thing Ross has achieved is to prove empty vessels make most noise

Shane Ross TD, Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport. Photo: Robbie Reynolds
Shane Ross TD, Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport. Photo: Robbie Reynolds
Ivan Yates

Ivan Yates

We need to talk about Shane Ross, arguably the worst ever Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport.

Dysfunction is evident at political level in this vital infrastructural and public service department. His absence from normal ministerial events and lack of appointments of nominees among semi-state bodies under his aegis is without precedent.

Systemic vacancies appear right across chairman posts and board directorships of several important bodies, due entirely to ministerial inaction. CIÉ, the National Transport Authority, Dublin Bus, Bus Éireann and Irish Rail are without chairpersons. The chair is a pivotal leadership role, setting out future strategy, responsible for oversight, and a critical liaison between the minister and senior departmental officials.

The lack of a chairperson renders the organisation leaderless, rudderless, in a state of perpetual drift. It paralyses the running of the board. The number of director vacancies continues to rise with every passing month: Fáilte Ireland has four, Dublin Bus has one, Irish Rail has two, the Dublin Airport Authority has two, Bus Éireann has two, CIÉ has three, Irish Rail has three, Transport Infrastructure Ireland has three, and Sport Ireland has two.

There are more marine vacancies at regional level: Dublin Port has two, Dún Laoghaire Harbour has three, the Shannon Group has three, Drogheda Port has three, Galway Harbour has four, New Ross Port has four, the Port of Cork Company has two, and the Shannon Foynes Port Company has five.

Taking into account that some board positions are nominated externally (eg. worker directors and industry representatives) and that the usual term of a board member is four to five years, it's clear that over the past 18 months Mr Ross is personally culpable for most non-appointments. Where specific boards have a smaller composition of eight members, missing members have a paralysing impact on corporate governance.

Mr Ross is indolent in fulfilling his ministerial diary duties. It's standard for ministers to attend 'red letter' calendar events of state organisations. This includes announcements, launches, conferences, media gigs. This typically covers capital development projects, large commercial contracts, new public transport routes/initiatives and key reports. His immediate predecessors, Paschal Donohoe and Leo Varadkar, were invariably visible - Mr Ross is astonishingly a no-show of apathy and disinterest.

Department insiders confide working remotely away from the Leeson Lane head office or Barn Lodge, Dublin 11, is part of his modus operandi. Where is he? He's to be seen having long coffees at supermarket entrances in his Dublin Rathdown constituency. Two favoured haunts are just outside Dunnes Stores at Leopardstown Valley shopping centre and Stepaside Village, outside Kennedy's shop. He's a regular at Taney Church of Ireland barbecues. Mr Ross brings Bertie-esque politics to leafy southside voters.

Indecision makes him a sham minister. While swanning around basking in others' work to secure Ireland as host of the 2023 Rugby World Cup, a vital rugby project to redevelop the RDS arena with a capital cost of €35m languishes in Mr Ross's department. Approval is long awaited. There is no green light internally, while privately Paschal and Leo promise overall Government support for the 50pc aid. The futures of Leinster Rugby and the Dublin Horse Show must be put on hold, due to inexplicable ministerial machinations. He refuses to engage effectively with promoters of the project.

Re-opening Stepaside garda station was his top political priority as a Cabinet minister, included in the policy Programme for Government negotiated by the Independent Alliance.

Back in 2013, he led protests against his constituency colleague, then-justice minister Alan Shatter, organising public meetings and petitions.

The political fixer culture of the Department of Justice delivered the criteria to make it the only one of 139 closed stations to reopen, despite falling crime in the area.

Mr Ross distributed the Government 'goodie bag' that June day with alacrity, proudly claiming total personal credit locally.

It was Enda Kenny's last Cabinet meeting. The then-Taoiseach successfully blindsided Mr Ross with reciprocal strokes to elevate Attorney General Máire Whelan to the Court of Appeal Justice. Mr Ross had for months vetoed judicial appointments as part of his campaign against political patronage, resulting in wholesale shortages of judges.

When the Dáil row exploded on Leo's first week, Ross's 'cronyism' credibility was in tatters.

Re-opening Glenalbyn swimming pool remains his other Government priority.

Mr Ross's promises of "radical" political change at national level have come to nothing. He assembled a motley crew of five Independent Alliance TDs (Michael Fitzmaurice departed) - their main goal was a ministry for each of them: Finian McGrath, John Halligan, Kevin 'Boxer' Moran and Sean Canney (rotating).

Despite Ross railing against pork-barrel politics as a Senator since 1981, their individual agendas have been mostly constituency related.

Mr Ross's political hallmark is hypocrisy. He lectured on corporate governance and standards in public office, but delivers traditional parish-pump largesse.

For years, he excoriated the whip system of voting in the Dáil, dismissing backbenchers as lobby fodder. The chickens have come home to roost big time, as the shallow superficiality of columnist musings are crushed by parliamentary reality. Mr Ross's two main legislative initiatives relate to road safety: a mandatory driving ban for alcohol-related breathalyser offences; and the reduction of the permissible legal limit of alcohol from 50 mgs per 100 mls to zero. These measures won't be enacted. Mr Ross has been hoist on his own petard of 'free votes', because rural members of the Alliance have insisted upon and being granted a free vote. Consequently Fine Gael will find it impossible to impose a three-line whip to secure a Dáil majority.

Mr Ross's other crusade is enacting the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill to create a quango to replace the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board. It's set to get bogged down in another Fine Gael quagmire, subtly orchestrated by Charlie Flanagan. Meanwhile, important judicial reforms of training and discipline are neglected.

I wasn't a Ross critic prior to his ministerial appointment. To me, he was eloquently entertaining.

His detractors found his 'Sindo' columns revering Michael Fingleton, Sean FitzPatrick and Sean Quinn repugnant, his sanctimonious stances about transparency, accountability and corporate governance insufferable, his stockbroking punditry and postures on public enterprise both facile and shallow.

He's strived his whole adult life to attain a seat at the Cabinet - what an enormous national let-down. He proves empty vessels make the most noise. Columnists make lousy ministers. It's time the Taoiseach intervened to ensure minimum levels of effectiveness in running this vital department.

Irish Independent

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