Rearranging the deckchairs…reshuffles in Ireland

If commentators are right, it’s likely that Brian Cowen will use Willie O’Dea’s resignation/ dismissal to reshuffle the cabinet. The thinking is that a reshuffle at this time will give the government a new impetus for the latter half of this Dáil. We’re supposed to conclude that with people in new posts and some new people, the government can change its focus and renew its energies. In short it’s an attempt to make people think the Taoiseach and the government is changing course. But reshuffles can’t really change that much in Ireland because there simply isn’t the possibility of bringing radically different types of people into government.

Though they excite political anoraks, reshuffles don’t have a happy history (in Ireland or elsewhere). In the UK they happen so regularly that ministers never get long enough in their job to actually make a difference and political observers just use them as a way of gauging power between Big Beasts in the cabinet. The British prime minister Jim Callaghan was right to warn against them. He felt that the threat of the reshuffle was more effective than the reshuffle itself.  Callaghan’s logic was that ministers worked hard with the threat of a reshuffle over them, whereas those expecting promotion stayed loyal in the expectation of preferrment. After a reshuffle, some ministers might get lazy and those not promoted get shirty.

In Ireland, Garret FitzGerald as Taoiseach had a problem. His government was unpopular. Relations between some ministers were tetchy because they kept coming up against each other in cabinet discussions. Some ministers were a bit stale, others were not terribly competent. A reshuffle he reasoned would rid them of the incompetent (or at least move them to places they could do less damage) and revitalise the stale. But he fluffed this attempted reshuffle when he found people wouldn’t move and because of the questionable legality one of his proposed new ministerial jobs. Instead of renewing his government it probably quickened its demise and he further lost authority within it. Even had he planned it better and been more forceful on those unwilling to move it’s not clear it would have made a difference.

The logic of the cabinet is that you get fifteen or so minds looking at a problem. Where a minister proposes something, these fifteen people then subject it to scrutiny. These fifteen people will be the elite of the political system, and should be among the best minds in the country. Different people with different skills, different priorities and different points of view will ensure that any proposal will get a good grilling and only the best ideas will get through. The problem is that in Ireland the Taoiseach has a very limited bunch to choose from for his cabinet – probably more limited than any other parliamentary democracy.  He can only choose from those on his side of the Dáil (there is a possibility of two senators but for various reasons this is impractical and politically risky). After you remove the infirm and insane (the intoxicated can make it through!) this means for cabinet and  junior ministers, Taoisigh only have about two people to choose from for every one job.

While many of these will be bright, some we know are not. And because only those with seats, and usually safe seats get near cabinet, we tend to see Irish cabinets are populated by a remarkably homogenous group. They’re all going to be good at serving the needs of their constituents and want to spend a good deal of time there. They’re all closely concerned with the upcoming election (no bad thing but it might encourage short-term thinking). They’re all going to have spent much of their adult life in and around the Dáil. They’re all going to be quite similar.

So if the logic of cabinet government is that proposals are subjected to scrutiny by fifteen independent minds with different perspectives, in Ireland we get fifteen minds, but just one (or two) perspective(s). This limits the usefulness of the cabinet meeting as a forum to thrash out policy ideas.

A number of taoisigh have publicly or privately expressed their unhappiness with this.  They would prefer to be able to bring people in from industry, academia, the arts or wherever. This is normal, or at least not unusual,  in other countries where being elected to a constituency is not a prerequisite to being in the executive. In fact in some countries, would-be ministers have to resign their seats to get into government. This has the effect of distancing the legislature and the executive and in thus making the parliament more vigorous in its oversight of government. To do this would take a change in the constitution, but if it meant that government and the Oireachtas did their jobs better it would be worthwhile.

Eoin O’Malley

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7 thoughts on “Rearranging the deckchairs…reshuffles in Ireland

  1. Excellent post Eoin. So how do we extend the expertise of cabinet? Through a list system, using Seanad appointments? Do we really need a Minister just for Defence or should Cowen be radical and have a Minister for Public Sector Reform?

  2. Excellent post totally argee with it, I also think we need to seperate Cabinet Ministers from local politics and we could start by using Seanad appointments and bring expertise into certain posts. As for the Minister for Defence no we don’t need one but we badly need political reform root and branch.

  3. Really interesting post Eoin – another limiting factor here of course is gender balance there are only 7 women TDs from FF in the Dail at the moment (I think!). Whatever about our pathetic performance on electing women TDs internationally, it looks really bad to have a completely male-dominated cabinet which further reduces the effective scope for choice.

  4. Very good statement on some critical weaknesses of the present system and the case for a complete change on how we govern ourselves.

    Much of what is specified in our 1937 Constitution on how we govern ourselves stems from practice and custom in the UK during the 1930s. Last year, Andrew Turnbull ia former UK cabinet secretary and head of the Home Civil Service called for the separation of the power in the UK last year. He pointed out that “Democracy would be better served by ministers who are less political and more expert but held to account by an independent, self-governing and self-confident parliament.” Article was published in Financial Times here
    http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/73f524ca-4faa-11de-a692-00144feabdc0.html?nclick_check=1

    Last November, Dr. Niamh Hardiman observed in a paper to the SSISI that our institutional arrangments leave a lot to be desired in terms of separation of powers
    “Prime ministers’ powers are based on two things: their control over the majority party, and the formal powers given to them by the institutional rules and practices of the legislature. Ireland is at an extreme end of a spectrum, along with Britain, with very high scores on both these dimensions (Strøm, Müller and Bergman 2006, Fig. 4.4). Indeed, in some respects Ireland has an even stronger governing party stranglehold over Dáil procedures. In Britain, MPs collectively preserve some aspects of parliamentary independence quite jealously, notably the right to nominate and elect the Speaker – undertaken by secret ballot for the first time in June 2009. In Ireland, there is widespread tolerance of the notion that this is just another job that is in the gift of the Taoiseach.” WE saw that when there was a change of Ceann Comhairle last year. The full paper is available here
    http://www.ssisi.ie/Hardiman26-11-09.pdf

    I fully support a complete separation of powers and all that implies in terms of constitutional change.
    While waiting for this change, I offer the following interim approach to a serious cabinet reshuffle – in the form of an extract from my submission to An Bord Snip Nua last April
    1 “Reducing the size of the Cabinet
    1.1 I suggest reducing the number of members of the Government to seven.
    1.2 This does not need a change in the Constitution, as the number of members of the Government is determined by Article 28.1 of the Constitution, which states
    1. The Government shall consist of not less than seven and not more than fifteen members who shall be appointed by the President in accordance with the provisions of this Constitution.
    1.3 This change implies for a considerable recasting of how Government works. It would also enable a more meaningful role for Ministers of State.
    1.4 This change would require no more changes in practice and legislation than is needed when the functions of Government Ministers and Departments are changed from time to time eg. after elections, during reshuffles
    1.5 This concentration of power in fewer people needs to be balanced by greater use of checks and balances on the Government as the executive eg. extending the Freedom of Information Act, more powers and

  5. Eoin, Excellent points. Is’nt it also the case that – as in so many areas of our political landscape – reshuffles are also subject to the laws of localism? Already the gossip about possible ministerial replacements is focused to a very unhealthy degree on the regional dimension. Thus Tony Killeen moves higher up the pecking order than might be justified in a rational process of selection. Similarly, Peter Power is mentioned in lots of dispatches as a “Limerick” or “midwest” minister on the basis that “Limerick should have a senior minister at cabinet”. The same logic to some degree delivers ministers of the calibre of Mary Coughlan and Martin Cullen, who often act as plenipotentiaries for their regions rather than ministers in a national government (of a relatively small state). So surely our thinking about better models has to revolve around a re-balancing of the “local” and “national” and by definition this requires a substantive committment to tax-raising powers and real political weight being awarded to or devolved toward local government?

  6. @John O’Brennan

    Yes, localsism counts – too much so in the selection of Ministers.

    “Our basis of government
    In our system we, the people, elect a group (Dáil deputies) which in turn, elects a Taoiseach who then picks a smaller group (Cabinet) to govern for a period not greater than five years. We, who as citizens own the authority to govern, pass this authority to successively smaller groups.
    There is only one path to government power in our system. This path must act as a route for the transfer of our democratic power which authorises the government to act. At the same time, this path must also serve to gather the actual know-how needed to carry out the tasks of government. These two aspects may be equated with the distinction between the words “may” and “can”, ie the ability to do something and permission to do it.

    Dual aspects of power — politics and governing
    Any democratic political system must be able to marshal and control both elements. Our current system cannot handle the complexity of the modern world because it cannot acquire sufficient authority and know-how at the same time.
    A hypothetical example shows why this “single pathway” causes trouble. Suppose that Denis Brosnan wanted to become a Minister in the normal way. He would join a political party, attend a convention, be selected as a candidate, get well-known in his future constituency, begin a round of canvassing and clinics and then, perhaps, be elected to the Dáil. If his party forms the government (in whole or in part), if he has the right relationship with his party and its leader, if he represents part of the country that “requires ministerial representation” and several others ifs, he will become a Minister!
    This series of steps does not quite fit our idea of a man like Denis Brosnan or any other high achiever. Why? Is it because, deep down, we regard the process of getting into the Dáil as mismatched to the skills we now require in Ministers?
    A recent Irish Times/MRBI poll (The Irish Times, February 5 1987) shed some light on this aspect of our political culture. This found that, of the key factors which voters said would “influence them a lot” in deciding how to vote
    • 75% opted for “Choosing a TD who will look after the local needs of the constituency”;
    • 53% said choosing a candidate who will perform effectively on national issues in the Dáil:
    • 45% said that party policies were important;
    • 27% identified choice of Taoiseach as a key factor.
    We use our system to select people who are good repre¬sentatives — in other words, we select people to carry out the delegated authorising function. Our system is not properly shaped to select individuals who will provide the know-how which is the basis for effective and efficient government.
    As Jim Hacker said, “Here I am attempting to function as a sort of managing director of a very large and important business and I have no experience of the Department’s work or in fact of management of any kind. A career in politics is no preparation for government.” (Yes Minister, Vol- I. BBC Publications. London. 1981. p28.)”

    Hence the need for a complete separation of powers between the executive and representative side of government – as some in the UK have called for.

    The full article is here http://irishpoliticalreform.wordpress.com/resources/donal-obrolchain-paper/

    BTW. The last paragraph in my earlier posting should have read as follows:
    “1.5 This concentration of power in fewer people needs to be balanced by greater use of checks and balances on the Government as the executive eg. extending the Freedom of Information Act, more powers and resources to Oireachtas committees to investigate the executive side of government.”

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