‘Those were the days, my friend, we thought they’d never end’
Deaglán de Bréadún
In these difficult times, everyone needs a good laugh now and then. They say it is the best medicine of all. In that spirit, I am offering the introductory paragraph of then-Taoiseach Bertie Ahern’s statement when he announced an increase in the number of junior ministers from 17 to 20 on 20 June 2007.
Brian Cowen in happier times with 18 of the 20 outgoing ministers of state (Photograph by Dara MacDonaill, 13 May 2008)
”In determining the Ministers of State to be recommended for appointment by the Government, I have taken account of the growing burdens on Ministers and Ministers of State as a result of the greater complexity of the policy agenda, the management pressures in giving political direction to extensive Government programmes, the time requirements for the extensive legislative programme of this Government, the increasing engagement in terms of accountability with Oireachtas Committees and the extensive engagement with stakeholders at all levels, both domestically and in Europe. As a result, I have decided to increase the total number of Ministers of State to twenty, from the previous limit of seventeen. Legislation to give effect to this increase was approved by the Government this morning.”
If you can avoid sniggering when you read the above, then you have a truly saintly or otherwise superhuman disposition. I recall the day in question very well. There had indeed been a Cabinet meeting that morning where it was decided to up the number of “juniors” from 17 to 20. But nobody, not even the Government spokesman of the day, knew that the appointments would be announced after a secret Cabinet meeting that afternoon.
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. By the end of the day, out of 78 Fianna Fáil TDs, 32 had the word “minister” attached to their names in one form or another.
There was remarkably little public reaction at the time, except for some negative comments in the media and from the Opposition. Richard Bruton of Fine Gael pointed that over the lifetime of the Government each of the new juniors would cost the tax payer an extra €4 million. The €12 million that would be spent could buy 700,000 home-help hours or provide 23,000 extra families with medical cards.
Labour’s Joan Burton highlighted the ludicrous side of it all when she said: “The Department of Education and Science has five Ministers of State and one Minister. The Department of Health has four Ministers of State and one Minister. The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform kicks in with another four Ministers of State, and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment has another four Ministers of State.
“I do not know if the Taoiseach was having a laugh when he provided the Department of Education and Science with five Ministers of State.” Each of them would have “advisers, press attaches and personnel to hold their hand and carry out ministerial duties”.
Fianna Fáil’s Martin Mansergh responded that the last Rainbow Coalition of FG, Labour and Democratic Left had increased the number of ministers of state to 17, including an extra super-junior who could attend cabinet meetings.
But among the wider public there was very little comment. What a different story now when every conceivable perk or helping of “pork” arouses widespread anger and the politicians are very much on the run from an outraged public opinion.
Brian Cowen is now about to cut the number of ministers of state from 20 to 15. All will be revealed this week. Not before time: public opinion leaves him with no other option.