Cute hoorism and the public purse
Deaglán de Bréadún
The penny is beginning to drop. We have a debate about the excessive number of junior ministers and the plethora of (often very loquacious) committees in the Oireachtas. Now I see Enda Kenny is talking of a cut in the number of TDs. Can it be that the political system is reconnecting with the people at last?
It was two years ago this week that Bertie Ahern held a secret Cabinet meeting to name three junior ministers, bringing the number up to 20. Even his own press spokesman on the day did not know about it. Journalists only heard of the meeting by accident.
Herewith an extract from a piece I wrote which was published in this newspaper next day, 21 January, which is also the anniversary of the first meeting of Dáil Éireann. That meeting in 1919 was attended by only 27 TDs incidentally. Now we have 166.
The Greens got one of the new junior ministries and made no complaint about it at the time. Now Senator Dan Boyle, a man who keeps his ear close to the ground, has raised questions about it. At least he seems to be aware that the bells are tolling for the “cute hoors” (cunning manipulators, for the benefit of foreign readers) of Irish politics.
From The Irish Times 21 June 2007:-
Deaglán de Bréadún , Political Correspondent, assesses the Taoiseach’s latest appointments.
Let us give thanks this morning for Article 28.1 of Bunreacht na hÉireann which stipulates that the number of government ministers shall be not fewer than seven and not more than 15. Were it not for the fact that a referendum is required to change this provision, we would undoubtedly be looking at a much-expanded cabinet long before now.
As it is, Ministers of State will exceed the number in cabinet by a third. There was a time when such positions held the modest title of “parliamentary secretary” and there were only seven of them. Not only has the number increased but offices which are often quite modest and undemanding have been invested with a false glamour through the portentous-sounding title of “minister of state”. Indeed it is quite common to hear flunkies and even members of the media and general public refer to these comparatively-minor functionaries as “The Minister”. Ah for the days of John Healy, who cut the job down to size by labelling it as “the half-car” as distinct from the full “Merc”.
The late Charles Haughey famously referred to the current Taoiseach as “the most skilful, the most cunning, the most devious of them all” and, as yesterday’s events unfolded, Bertie Ahern seemed determined to live up to that reputation.
A regular Cabinet meeting was held in the morning and journalists were informed afterwards that a decision was taken to introduce legislation in the immediate future to increase the number of junior ministers to 20. But it became clear later that the Taoiseach had not informed his own spokesman that a further Cabinet meeting would be held in the afternoon to name the 20 appointees. We have heard of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing but this was perhaps the first known example of the left hand not knowing what the left hand was doing.
However, secrets are hard to keep in Leinster House and suspicions were immediately aroused when a number of Fianna Fáil backbenchers were sighted wearing their Sunday best. Then Noel Treacy was spotted leaving the building amid suggestions that he was demoted and feeling disappointed. Finally, a friendly source let slip that the “juniors” had indeed been appointed and all would be revealed shortly after 5pm.
It was the Taoiseach’s second surprise move in recent weeks, the first being his early-morning visit to Áras and Uachtaráin to call the election in the first place. This one will probably work out better for him, since dispensing patronage is a surefire means of pleasing some of the people some of the time.
Even the chosen ones themselves did not know of their good fortune until they received the summons, as one of them revealed, at about 10.30 in the morning. Told to be in Government Buildings, the lucky backbencher finally heard the news officially at 3.50pm.
The underlying purpose behind the exercise is clearly Government stability and the quelling of any potential revolt. Most members of the last cabinet remain as full Ministers and now the feelings of some who were passed over have been assuaged. The implication behind it all is that politics is mainly about seeking and obtaining office and everything else is just window-dressing.
There are 78 Fianna Fáil TDs at present and, after yesterday, 32 of them will have the word “minister” attached to their names in one form or another. For those who failed to make it, there are lucrative posts such as chairing the numerous committees in Leinster House.
How much of a fuss the Opposition kicks up about this further descent into “pork-barrel politics” remains to be seen. After all, if and when they move to the other side of the Dáil chamber, they, too, will have hungry backbenchers to be placated.