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.