Council at apex of Government draws criticism from Ministers outside the loop

The big four: Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Michael Noonan with (on left) Eamon Gilmore and Brendan Howlin

The big four: Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Michael Noonan with (on left) Eamon Gilmore and Brendan Howlin

Tue, Feb 5, 2013, 00:00

The concentration of power at the apex of Government in the form of the Economic Management Council has caused ripples of discontent among Ministers outside the loop – but the Coalition leaders believe it is a vital institution in the battle to exit the EU-IMF bailout.

Critics say the four powerful figures in the Government who are members of the EMC have in effect marginalised other Ministers and undermined the constitutional provision on collective cabinet responsibility.

Others say the new structure is a vital reform that has speeded up the decision-making process at a time of national crisis and paved the way for meeting the bailout targets.

One unarguable consequence of the council is it has reduced the previously dominant power of the Department of Finance to determine the direction of Government policy.

The council comprises Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, Minister for Finance Michael Noonan and Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin. The weekly meetings are attended by the four politicians, their senior officials and the two key economic advisers to the Government, Andrew McDowell of Fine Gael and Colm O’Reardon of Labour.

Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton and Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney have gone public with their reservations about the system while other Labour Ministers have privately complained in recent days about being kept out of the loop on the promissory notes negotiations.

However, those involved with the council at political and adviser level say it has speeded up decision-making and made for a joined-up, coherent Government approach to major issues.

One fundamental change arising from the council process is the department no longer has the right to bring items before Cabinet without giving prior notice. Until 2011 it did not have to follow this procedure which applied to all other departments, which are obliged to give notice to the cabinet secretariat about all memos that go to government.

Erosion of power

This has led to an erosion of the power formerly wielded by Finance, with a corresponding increase in the clout of the Taoiseach’s department. The move of the bulk of the EU section from Foreign Affairs to the Taoiseach’s department has further concentrated power in the hands of Kenny and Gilmore.

“Finance no longer has the power to bounce the Government into appalling decisions like decentralisation or obstruct good ideas from other departments, and that is a big plus,” says one official.

Former Labour Party minister Barry Desmond says that from the foundation of the State until the 1970s the department was a replica of the British treasury, with dominant officials and autocratic ministers such as Ernest Blythe, Seán MacEntee, Gerry Sweetman and Charlie Haughey dominating their respective governments. Charlie McCreevy was very much in the same mode.

Desmond recalled that during the Cosgrave government of the 1970s an attempt by the tánaiste, Brendan Corish, and his economic advisers to submit a document to cabinet on the economic crisis was blocked by Finance officials, who insisted only they could bring a memo on the subject to cabinet. The Labour document was never considered.

Pivotal role

Kenny chairs the council and the other 10 Cabinet subcommittees and that has given him a pivotal role in all Government decisions. In tandem with his Tánaiste and a tight group of civil servants and advisers, he has played a decisive role in the direction of policy across all areas of government.

Supporters of the council tend to underplay its power and say it is the most important Cabinet subcommittee. On the formation of the Government, Cabinet subcommittees were established dealing with economic recovery and jobs; social policy; climate change and the green economy; European affairs; economic infrastructure; Irish and the Gaeltacht; public service reform; health; mortgage arrears and the children’s referendum.

The importance of the committee system has been evolving for two decades. The role of committees increased during the tenure of the Fianna Fáil governments led by Bertie Ahern. He chaired many of the committees that operated during his three terms. Under his successor, Brian Cowen, the wider cabinet tended to have a greater role and some cabinet meetings held during the worst days of the economic crisis tended to go on for a long time.

Over by lunchtime

The current Government has short Cabinet meetings, sometimes little more than an hour, and they are almost always over before lunchtime on a Tuesday.

“Cabinet government has been evolving and subcommittees are now where the real decisions are made. It is only when there is agreement at the EMC or any of the other subcommittees that the formal memorandum goes to Cabinet but at that stage all the hard work has been done,” says an official.

It is a far cry from the all-day meetings of the FitzGerald government in the 1980s when the cabinet sometimes thrashed out issues from Tuesday morning until the early hours of the following day.

Desmond believes the current system involving the EMC and Cabinet subcommittees is far better way to operate.

“I fully support the move to the EMC structure. Ferocious bilaterals over individual departmental budgets will continue but shared responsibility and functions via the EMC will serve the nation much better and provide political stability in the austerity ahead.”

Economic Management Council: What it does

The Economic Management Council meets almost every Wednesday at 3.30pm and at other times when it is deemed necessary by the course of events. At times meetings are held on Monday evenings in advance of the weekly Cabinet meeting on Tuesday morning if there is a pressing item that needs to be signed off on by the full Cabinet.

Enda Kenny, Eamon Gilmore, Michael Noonan and Brendan Howlin and their advisers are joined in their deliberations by their senior officials. The key ones are Martin Frasier from the Taoiseach’s department and Robert Watt of Public Expenditure and Reform, along with a senior official from Finance, secretary general John Moran, on banking issues or assistant secretary Derek Moran, on budgetary matters.

There are a number of standard items on the agenda for the council. The first is the progress being made on issues arising from the EU-IMF bailout and the Government’s efforts to amend the terms of the deal.

The second is the growth agenda and the progress being made on costs, competitiveness and jobs. The third is the ongoing efforts to restore the banking sector to health. The overall architecture of the budget is another recurring item, as is the monitoring of the euro crisis and its impact on this State.