Who runs Ireland: introduction
Ireland’s politicians are public figures who are accountable to the electorate, but they’re not the only ones in control
Illustration: Dearbhla Kelly
Our rulers are often described as an elite by people who believe the country is run by a golden circle. But in a parliamentary democracy such as ours, is that an accurate or even fair description?
The senior politicians and public servants who make many of the key decisions that affect our lives come from a wide variety of backgrounds and are more representative of the general public than their counterparts in other western democracies.
During the long years of Fianna Fáil hegemony there was a sense of a self-perpetuating political class, with the children and grandchildren of leading politicians succeeding to senior positions. The 2011 election, in which half of the members of the Dáil were elected for the first time, ended many of the political dynasties that were a feature of Irish democracy.
The top echelons of the public service are also regarded as part of the elite, but almost all of the people occupying those positions entered the Civil Service through open competition and have risen through the ranks on merit. In recent times senior positions have been open to people from outside the public service, but appointments are made through independent competitions.
Business and the professions have more scope for a wealthy elite to retain its power and influence, but that is not as easy in today’s competitive world. The leading members of the Irish political world do not come from the narrow range of public schools and the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, like so many of their British counterparts, or from elite écoles in which most of the senior politicians and public servants in France are educated.
Four politicians – Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, Minister for Finance Michael Noonan and Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin – are the key figures on the Economic Management Council, which makes most of the important economic decisions that affect the country. Three of them – Kenny, Noonan and Howlin – are former teachers, all of whom trained at St Patrick’s College in Drumcondra, in Dublin; Gilmore is a former trade-union official and a graduate of NUI Galway. None of them attended a private school.
Two Ministers, Richard Bruton and Simon Coveney, attended Clongowes Wood College, one of the country’s elite schools, but other Ministers are from more diverse backgrounds, and almost all are university graduates.
When it comes to the top ranks of the Civil Service, the story is much the same. One of the features of Irish democracy has been the fact that recruitment to the Civil Service has generally been free of political influence. One of the pioneering decisions of the first government headed by WT Cosgrave was the establishment of the independent Civil Service Commission to supervise recruitment through competitive examinations.
The independence of the Civil Service over the decades led to it being dubbed the permanent government, in contrast to the politicians who come and go at the whim of the public.
One of the big criticisms of the service in recent times is that it failed to exercise enough independence during the boom and did not behave like the officials in the TV series Yes Minister, who managed to neutralise most of the hare-brained schemes the ministers dreamed up.
In response to such criticism, civil servants argue that even when they did advise ministers not to follow a particular course they had no choice but to implement the decisions of their political masters when their advice was ignored.
Special advisers have also come to have an influential role. The top Fine Gael and Labour advisers, who are unelected, attend meetings of the Economic Management Council and have a great deal of interaction with top politicians and civil servants. There is some resentment about the influence of these advisers, but they are now a feature of the system, and their jobs last only as long as their political masters remain in office.
When it comes to decision-making, politicians must act within the parameters imposed by EU membership and by the constraints of the globalised economy. But they still have considerable leeway to make decisions that affect every person in the State, as the events of recent years have demonstrated.
The electorate will decide whether they have made the correct choices.