Constitutional conventions and Cowen’s cock ups

Eoin O’Malley (22 January, 2011)

Brian Cowen’s decision to stand down comes mainly because he showed a lack of political judgement in pursuing a cabinet reshuffle to renew his party just weeks before an election. Cowen claimed he should have been allowed to reshuffle his cabinet as he wanted. He said it was the convention that party leaders in coalitions could put in place whomever he or she wished. However this is not completely the case – and certainly we’d not expect conventions to apply in such unconventional times. Coalition party leaders have an implicit veto over appointments, which is given power by the constitutional requirement for new ministers to receive the support of the Dáil. It is true it is something that party leaders are very reluctant to use it, but there was an example where a coalition party leader had exercised that veto. The PDs vetoed Jim McDaid’s appointment as Minister for Defence in 1991 because he had been seen celebrating the non extradition of a Maze escaper.

If Cowen really believed that he didn’t need to get Green Party support and approval then he had less political nous than any one would have previously believed. It’s more likely that he had little respect for coalition colleagues and thought he could force the Greens into a corner.

The other convention he appealed to last week, possibly to save his leadership, was that he didn’t think it a good idea that the Taoiseach was not the leader of the largest party. It’s well known that John A. Costello was not leader of Fine Gael, but served as Taoiseach. It is also the case that in many European countries party ‘leadership’ is split between leadership in parliament, the executive and the government. There’s no constitutional  reason why Cowen can’t stay on for the next few weeks until he dissolves the Dáil. The question is whether he can survive a confidence motion.

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13 thoughts on “Constitutional conventions and Cowen’s cock ups

  1. So, Fianna Fáil is to get it’s second unelected leader (assuming Martin is annointed the leader on Wednesday) on the grounds the party expects some sort of bounce and it will draw a line under the Cowen years, while at the same time every single day we will be reminded that Cowen is still Taoiseach?

    Also, those who are TDs now are to elect the person who will be leader after the election?

    Does Fianna Fáil have the same sort of rule that Fine Gael has when the leader must be elected again when the party does not enter government after an election?

    Does Martin have the same policies as Cowen? Or will he pursue different policies? If not, in what way is Martin any different then?

    Was MArtin asleep at all the cabinet meeting where he was a fully paid up member of the Ahern/Cowen fan club and voted through every single failed policy?

    Is Martin capable of economic debate, what are his actual achievements in all the time he was a minister? The smoking ban? Is that all he has done?

    Will FG include in its adverts, Martin pleading like a child at a Health Committee meeting ( on youtube on FG ‘Send in the Clowns’ that he had no responsibility for what was going on in the department – ‘I do not’.

    The whole thing is a complete farce and the one good thing the Greens can do on Wednesday is vote the government out of office. It’s done, it’s over and it’s time for everyone to face reality.

  2. @Eoin
    “It is also the case that in many European countries party ‘leadership’ is split between leadership in parliament, the executive and the government. ”

    To make our political custom and practice “fit for purpose”, we citizens need to be much more aware of how our power is structured in other democratic states – in addition to what we think we know about the US and the US.

    PSAI would do us a real service to point out where such comparisons are set out systematically.
    Niamh Hardiman’s SSISI in November 2009 paper did this ( http://www.ssisi.ie/Hardiman26-11-09.pdf. Michael Gallagher also mentioned in a throwaway comment also point to how things are done elsewhere
    “The ‘fusion’ of government and parliament, with virtually all ministers simultaneously being TDs, greatly affects the way in which TDs, especially government backbenchers, see their role. Fusion is a characteristic feature of Westminster model countries, and as such is by no means typical of European practice generally. While in Ireland all ministers must be members of parliament, in certain European countries (notably France, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden) the offices of MP and government minister are incompatible. Whereas in Ireland only two of the approximately 150 ministers since 1922 were not previously MPs before or upon their appointment….the average European figure is 25 per cent. In the Netherlands and Norway around half of all ministers have never been MPs…..In Ireland, certainly as far as government backbenchers are concerned, there is little or no such separation”
    Michael Gallagher “The Oireachtas President and Parliament” in John Coakley, Michael Gallagher (eds) Politics in the Republic of Ireland 5th Ed. PSAI Press Routledge 2010. p.225

    To carry though the political and institutional reform that we need to undertake (as a pre-condition of economic recovery, IMO), we need wholesale awareness that if we want to change the results, we have to change the approach.

    We all have a lot of work to do.
    hintedsee here

    • The sort of changes you mention only work in a large country.

      Ireland is far too small for yet another level of avoidance of responsibility.

      Also, if such a system operated in Ireland, then Sean Fitzpatrick would have been Minister for Finance and God onl knows who else the likes of CJH, Reynolds, Ahern & Cowen would have appointed to government departments.

      One of the Bailey lot as Minister for the Environment?

      What would be interesting to quantify is whether Ministers from outside politics are more or less effective in their roles – the French experience doesn’t inspire much confidence.

      The accountability of the system – whatever that system is – is the problem. There is ZERO accountability in the Irish public sector – at all levels – and whether a Minister is a TD or Senator or neither doesn’t address that fault.

  3. I think Cowen is fully entitled to carry on as taoiseach and, as the election date is known, the opposition should withdraw their no confidence motions and let the rest of thge term run smoothly in the interests of the country. The electorate will decide in March.

    • He clearly does not have the support of the majority of those in FF and therefore in the Dáil.

      He is acting just like Gordon Brown did and clinging into power for as long as possible which begs the question why. The Finance Bill can be passed by the new government in plenty of time for April and the IMF, so why else is Fianna Fáil so desperate to cling to power for the next few weeks – we know from history what FF does in its last weeks in power before election – this is the first time when it is certain FF will not be returning to power after the election, so the mind boggles at what is being done in departments by departing FF ministers and their cronies, which will require a de-Fianna Fáilisation of the entire public and civil sector.

  4. The ‘fusion’ of government and parliament, with virtually all ministers simultaneously being TDs, greatly affects the way in which TDs, especially government backbenchers, see their role.

    It is not just that, though. The number of TDs means that any TD has, on entering the Dáil, a reasonable chance of getting to hold ministerial office, provided they keep their nose clean. In the UK, the parliament is significantly larger. There, unlike in the Dáil, there is a cohort in the parties whose careers are spent as backbenchers. They can — and do — take on committee roles, genuinely holding government and officials to account. “Rebellions”, as they are rather excitedly called, against the whip occur on issues of national policy more frequently in Westminster Palace than in Leinster House.

    Which suggests to me that to improve our parliamentary system in Ireland, we may need to increase the number of TDs. (Not a popular suggestion, I expect!)

    • Fully agree with you. And this is probably a very unpopular idea. But we complain about the caliber of TDs and their high constituency workload, and the very first thing some of our parties are proposing is to have even less TDs and abolish the 60 members of the second chamber, which with something of a revamp might provide some useful legislative oversight.

      Committees need bodies to fill them. And if we’re left with perhaps 40 government backbench TDs in a reduced Dáil (once 30 ministers/junior ministers are excluded) who is going to staff all these committees (no matter how many extra powers they are given)?

      I don’t understand this preoccupation with the number of TDs. Even compared to the Scandinavian countries, our Dáil is quite proportionate in size. 200 in Finland, with a population not much bigger than our own. Norway has a parliament almost identical in size with a similar population. Sweden has about double our population with a parliament more than double our own in size.

      And it’s arguable with constituency workloads here way above average that our parliament should be even bigger than our population should ordinarily merit.

      I’d have no problems severely cutting back pay levels and expenses for politicians. But given that it was dysfunctional governance that probably has us in the financial mess we are in, I think populist money saving ideas like this are very unwise. Penny wise in the short term, but pound foolish in the long term.

    • I prefer to have separate elections for the Dáil (Legislature, Representative assembly) and the Rialtas (Government, Executive).

      Our political culture already has elements of that in so far as the notion that the leader’s face on posters has influence on voters. The polling companies seem to think so, based on questions about preferences for Taoiseach.
      Couple that with the leaders debates.

      • @Donal,

        I am a little surprised you seem to be advocating moving away from our ‘government in parliament’ model. It is easy to fault the media and polling companies for facilitating ‘presidential’ style elections, but they are merely reflecting the reality. The challenge is to change that reality by electing parliamentarians who will ensure that government is of parliament, elected by it and fully accountable to it.

        The irony is that parliaments emerged to wrest power from dictatorial sovereigns; we have ended up with an elected dictatorship in parliament. Rather than executions – Charles I and Louis XVI – we just need a bit of ‘house-training’ – and the parliamentarians to enforce it.

  5. Whatever about different political structures the issue here is that the FF party has deemed Cowen unsuitable and incapable of leading Fianna Fail but at the same time they have no issue with him leading the country. That is, in my view, a massive insult to the Irish people and clearly demonstrates the contempt FF has for Irish people. FF first, country second. And that is the very reason this country has been near destroyed. FF are without doubt the least patriotic party in Ireland and hopefully they will be punished accordingly in the election.

  6. You get the sense that Fianna Fail seem to believe that the cause of the destruction of their party rests almost fully on the shoulders of Brian Cowen, and that the destruction is more an issue of image & political gaff’s rather than any issue of policy. Each of the white knights vying to become the new party leader has alluded to ‘garglegate’ or ‘golfgate’ as being the moment when they lost confidence in their former leader. As mentioned by a number of commentators, none have mentioned monumental moments such as the creation of NAMA or the arrival of the IMF into the country. This is further backed up by a belief that Michael Martin, a man who has been in cabinet for 13 years, a man who has no known ideological differences with Brian Cowen, will help to pull in the votes for them. It seems lost on them that the party’s demise might have something to do with the country falling asunder and the IMF running our affairs.

    On this theme, I’m beginning to feel a little bit sorry for Brian Cowen (a little bit mind!). Here is man now who is being scapegoated for all of the current problems in Ireland with little real debate going on as to the origins of each of the problems or the collective responsibility of Government for dealing with them. Perhaps I’m more angry with others than sorry for him, but I find it rather galling to listen to Michael Martin, Mary Hanafin, Conor Lenihan & others talking about change and what Ireland now needs – is this some sort of joke? Mary O’Rourke is now permanently on the radio circuit, commenting from a perch as some sort of aloof ‘Auntie Mary’, detached from any responsibility. This woman has gone through the lobbies as voting fodder for the past number of years and supported the government on all it’s policies and legislation, yet listening to her you’d be forgiven for thinking that she works as John Drennan’s assistant, knocking out the satirical comment on the latest going’s on from Leinster House.

    There has been no real debate on the issue of ministerial pensions and the absurdity of the size of them considering the state of the country’s finances. It got a relatively fleeting mention last week when Harney & Co decided to ‘retire’, however it really needs further examination. Much of the current economic and social turmoil in Ireland can be traced back to the Ahern Government’s of 1997 & 2002 and the disastrous economic policies of Charlie McCreevy. How much are we paying this man in an annual pension? During the bankers bonus scandal in December, the Government was able to bring through emergency overnight legislation to apply punitive tax rates on future payments, as well as tearing up contract law and stopping payments which were about to be paid. Is it not possible and in fact morally correct that such legislation should and could also be brought in to apply to the excessive pensions and termination payments currently in train for ‘retiring’ ministers?

  7. Going back to Eoin OM’s original point, Brian Cowen seems correct to say that party leaders in coalitions do allow each other to pick their own ministers, but BC omitted to add that they inform each other about their intentions and that in the last analysis their coalition partner might indicate that it simply could not accept a proposed appointment, as in the James McDaid case that EOM mentions. The idea that the Greens would simply put up with finding out about such a large-scale reshuffle via the media is strange indeed.

    There is a case for believing that Brian Cowen’s tenure as Taoiseach went wrong on day one back in May 2008 over precisely this issue, namely ministerial selections. On that day he made the most minimal changes possible to the government. Only two ministers disappeared from the government: his predecessor Bertie Ahern, and the late Séamus Brennan, who stood down due to ill-health. This demonstrated an exceptionally unimaginative and non-assertive approach to the role of Taoiseach; BC was content to take over as chair of Bertie Ahern’s government rather than constructing his own government. The kind of large-scale changes that he tried unsuccessfully to make last week would have been a good idea if implemented twelve months, or even four months, earlier.

    And on another aspect of BC as Taoiseach, on which there has been some discussion, it’s not the case that he would somehow be behaving unconstitutionally by remaining as Taoiseach even if he does not contest the forthcoming election. The Taoiseach must be a TD, but of course once the 30th Dáil is dissolved there will not be any TDs. He remains Taoiseach, perfectly constitutionally, until the 31st Dáil elects a successor, whether or not he is elected to the Dáil at the forthcoming election. We do have a precedent for this: the Tánaiste too must be a member of the Dáil, but at the 1992 election the then Tánaiste, John Wilson, did not contest the election. Nonetheless, he remained Tánaiste until Dick Spring took that position as part of the post-election government formed in January 1993.

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