A nice little earner

Both Fianna Fáil and the Greens promised a reduction in the overall number of ministers. Instead, the number of junior ministers has been increased yet again, now seven more than Fianna Fáil promised. By Joe O'Malley


Twelve years ago Charlie McCreevy, then in opposition, suddenly discovered the ‘Rainbow law' of government, and was shocked. As he explained, adapting Parkinson's famous law for his own purpose, “work expands to fill the number of Ministers of State available for its completion”. The occasion was a Dáil debate on a bill to increase the number of junior ministers from 15 to 17. And the legislation enabled Democratic Left, in the form of Pat Rabbitte, to occupy a high-seat at the Cabinet table. He became a super-junior minister in the newly-formed Rainbow coalition, led by John Bruton.

Of course the Rainbow government was not making a new law in 1995. Instead Charlie McCreevy was simply giving a new name to an old Fianna Fáil practise, one the party had operated for nearly twenty years, and very successfully. Indeed in the three years between 1977 and 1980, when Charlie McCreevy was a newly elected backbencher, Fianna Fáil had managed to double the number of junior ministers from seven to 15.

Nevertheless, by 1995, he felt no doubt greatly outraged by the Rainbow government emulating Fianna Fáil's example and creating new ministers of state at will. And so he said: “I give this commitment on behalf of the Fianna Fáil party, we will repeal this legislation when we return to office after the next general election”. Of course Fianna Fáil didn't do so on regaining power in 1997.

Ten years later and with McCreevy banished to Brussels, Fianna Fáil went one better or, more precisely, three better. In June, Bertie Ahern increased the number of junior ministers from 17 to 20, partly to facilitate the Greens, but largely to reward more of his own backbenchers with promotion.

Before the last election, however, the Greens had promised to reduce the number of government ministers by one fifth and to cut the ministers of state by a similar proportion. If fulfilled that would have meant 12, not 15 Cabinet ministers, and 14 not 17 junior ministers. Like Charlie McCreevy, the Greens very quickly forgot all about downsizing government. The party's pre-election promise made in May was repudiated in June in the post-election negotiations for power. It had to happen.

Maintaining the number of senior ministers helped to ensure there were two places in the Cabinet for John Gormley and Eamon Ryan, while the appointment of three additional junior ministers meant there was more room to accommodate Trevor Sargent. A one fifth reduction in the number of junior ministers, as promised, became a one fifth increase, as later delivered.

Since 1977, the quota of junior ministers has been raised four times. On each occasion, save 1977, the government and opposition responses to the appointment of extra ministers of state have been wholly predictable. The political script never varies from either side, whether delivered in 1980, 1995, or 2007. 

For whoever is in power always claims that, because the business of government has grown in volume and complexity, more junior ministers are needed to handle all the additional work. Likewise the opposition counter claim invariably is that extra junior ministers are a waste of taxpayers' money, and really have more to do with political patronage than with delivering more effective government.

The opposition parties are always outraged, at least until the next time they are in a position to form a government. And then they follow the precedent set by their predecessor in office and create even more ministers of state. The ritual moral outrage of the opposition on this subject is surpassed only by the cynicism of the government. Both are engaged in acts of mutual hypocrisy, and last month's Dáil debate provided just the latest illustration.  

A mere seven parliamentary secretaries served all government ministers for the half century from 1924 to 1977 – 12 ministers until 1937, and later 15 ministers under the new Constitution. By the early seventies, after Ireland joined the European Community and took on extra international responsibilities, which included hosting the presidency of the Community for a six-month period, there was a very strong case for providing senior ministers with extra ministerial support.

And so in 1977, parliamentary secretaries were abolished and replaced by ministers of state, with three additional junior ministers appointed, bringing the number to 10. The title change occurred because, outside Ireland and Britain, a parliamentary secretary is viewed as a very junior figure in the hierarchy of government. And a minister of state is generally accepted as a minister below Cabinet rank.

Of course, because the Constitution restricts the number of Cabinet ministers to 15, no more appointments can be made without a change in the Constitution. But because the number of junior ministers can be changed by legislation, there is no limit on their number. Which helps to explain why junior ministers have increased and multiplied, a trebling from 7 to twenty  in just 30 years. 

Between the upper and lower tier of government, there are 35 ministers of greater or less status. These officeholders amount to 41 per cent of the TDs of the three coalition parties, which means that virtually every second person in those parties is either in government, or attached to it in some ministerial capacity. At such a rapid rate of growth, the government backbencher is in danger of extinction later this century.

The problem with 35 different ministers of varying rank and importance is that too many are simply in office, and too few are in power, while all (both senior and junior) are greatly over-paid by comparison with their peers elsewhere.  

As of 1 June, a minister of state is paid €147,284, which includes a Dáil salary, and represents about five times the average industrial wage. That is broadly similar to the pay of a minister of state at Westminster, but who serves a population some fifteen times greater. And it is two thirds more than the pay of a junior minister at the Stormont assembly.

In recent years, three classes of junior minister have become distinguishable. Class A is the super-junior, who has a right of attendance at Cabinet, such as Pat Rabbitte enjoyed in 1995, Bobby Molloy in 1997, and Brian Lenihan (as Minister for Children) in the last government. Like the Victorian child, however, the super-junior may be seen at the Cabinet table, but speaks only when addressed.

The class B type junior has clearly defined departmental responsibilities, which are based in one department, such as the Office of Public Works. Tom Parlon in the last government had responsibility for delivering the ill-conceived decentralisation policy.

And the class C type are those non-descript ministers of state who do anything and everything, whose title and precise departmental responsibilities almost no one ever really knows. In Education, no fewer than five junior ministers are delegated responsibilities for aspects of its work; four junior ministers are assigned various duties in Health. Add in the imminent decentralisation of many government departments to various locations outside Dublin and one can readily see the impracticality of this multi-tasking approach.

In the property market ‘location, location, location' are often cited as the three most important factors in house purchase. For location dictates the ultimate resale value of the property.  Something similar applies in the political market. Who gets a junior ministerial post may have less to do with the political abilities of the office holder, and more with the minister's capacity either to help win an extra Dáil seat in a constituency, or to help save a marginal one.

Can anything be done to check the rate of job creation in the junior ministerial sector, paid for by the taxpayer? Nothing, it might seem, but a change in the Constitution to limit, as in the case of Cabinet ministers, the number of junior ministers that may be appointed. And the recent performance of the Greens on this issue indicates the likelihood of that happening.

Joseph O'Malley was the political correspondent with the Sunday Independent from 1973 to 2007.