Why is inner cabinet cabal calling the shots?

The political structure in Ireland is an absurdity. In practice, the Oireachtas takes almost no decisions, aside from the Dáil electing a taoiseach. By Vincent Browne.

Shortly after Michael Noonan became Minister for Finance in March 2011, he gave an interview to the Limerick Leader in which he expressed his belief that the minister for finance could defy the taoiseach of the day because the position of minister for finance was mentioned in the Constitution.

It was constitutional nonsense and now, it seems, constitutional nonsense has extended itself beyond the Minister for Finance to other ministers at the centre of the cabinet. In other words, according to Michael Noonan, the cabinet is acting unconstitutionally, not that this seems to bother anyone in the cabinet very much, or anyone else either.

The new government established an Economic Management Council, composed of Enda Kenny, Eamon Gilmore, Michael Noonan and Brendan Howlin, and attended by senior civil servants and advisers.

There is nothing menacing about that in itself, but we have now learned from the Irish Times that this council is setting down expenditure parameters for all government departments, constraining the actions of other departments. Michael Noonan told the paper: "In terms of decision-making, I find the economic management council very effective." He said other ministers could submit their views to the Economic Management Council.

On the face of it, this seems in straight contradiction of the Constitution requirement (Article 28.4.2) "The Government shall meet and act as a collective authority and shall be collectively responsible for the Departments of State, administered by members of the Government".

There is nothing in the Constitution permitting a few ministers to take government decisions. The constitutional requirement is quite clear - they must act as a collective authority and be collectively responsible for all government decisions and, one assumes, particularly government decisions of crucial significance to the national welfare.

It has been obvious for over a year now that most government ministers have as much clue - or perhaps I should say as little - about what is going on, for instance, in relation to negotiations on the bank debt, as the rest of us who read the newspapers. The inner cabal take all the important decisions. It appears that usually these are communicated to the other ministers - but not always.

There seems to be a pretence that the cabinet as a whole takes decisions by referring at cabinet meetings to decisions previously taken by the cabal - in the absence of dissent it is taken that the cabal's decisions are approved. But in no sense does this amount to the government meeting and acting as a "collective authority...collectively responsible for the Departments of State".

The political structure as a whole is an absurdity. The theory is that the Oireachtas takes all the policy decisions and the "executive arm" of the State (ie the government) executes the policy decisions. In practice, the Oireachtas takes almost no decisions, aside from the Dáil electing a taoiseach. The convention is that policy decisions are taken by the government and the Oireachtas merely rubberstamps them. But now we find that not even does the government take all the major policy decisions, for the crucial decisions are taken by a cabal within the government. In addition, the government controls the Oireachtas and its committees, so there is no way of holding the government meaningfully accountable for anything, not even holding the government accountable for whether it abides by the Constitution in how it takes its own decisions.

The Irish Independent, the week before last, produced statistics on how many Dáil sittings TDs attended. It screamed in a front-page headline: “Revealed: [Gerry] Adams missed one in four Dáil days”. It went on to disclose that two Fine Gael TDs, Peter Mathews and Derek Keating, had a 100 per cent attendance, with Ray Buttimer, Jerry Buttimer and Clare Daly almost never missing a day.

But what were they doing? Sitting in an almost empty Dáil chamber waiting their turn to speak for a few minutes with almost nobody listening? Or attending an Oireachtas inquiry which needs the permission of the government before any inquiry can commence?

There is much hand-wringing among the cadre of people known as political scientists and political analysts (what are they?) over the calibre of our public representatives and how deplorable it is that they are engaged in a perversion known as clientelism (i.e. responding to representations from constituents).

The standard of our public representatives is at least as good as the standard of political scientists and, I suspect, even of political analysts. The problem is not about the calibre of our political representatives or about their perversions, it is about what they do. If they are not to be engaged in clientelism, what are they to do?

Of course, if the Oireachtas did take the policy decisions, as parliaments are theoretically supposed to do, the question would arise, what are ministers for? The idea that a selection of TDs, elected because of their popularity, are qualified to run huge departments of state, is another of the absurdities of our system. And we wonder why there are so many cock-ups!

But don't worry, nothing will change.  {jathumbnailoff}

Image top: stephen_dedalus.