Surveillance threatens vital arteries of communication in the body politic
Opinion: Personal electronic devices are now central to politicians’ ability to be informed
The Taoiseach on the phone at his party’s Ard Fheis. Photograph: Eric Luke
At least twice this week Government Ministers displayed their reliance on personal electronic devices even within the Dáil. Today FM political correspondent Gavan Reilly commented on Twitter on Thursday about how Minister of State at the Department of Education Ciarán Cannon had read his replying speech to a “topical issues” debate in the House directly from his iPad. Cannon later pointed out that for months he had being using his iPad rather than a paper script, adding that he found it curious it was still seemed worthy of comment.
In the Seanad the previous evening Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform Alan Shatter apologised to Senators for appearing to be absorbed in his mobile phone during a debate in the Upper House.
He explained that word had just come through to him on his phone of the outcome of the crucial DNA tests at the centre of the controversial case in which a child had been taken from a Roma family in Dublin on suspicion that the couple involved were not the child’s parents. The Minister then went on to give an immediate, considered reaction to the Seanad on the implications of the news he had just received.
In politics, as in all walks of life, personal electronic devices are now central to how leaders communicate with each other, with officials and with the outside world. At the higher echelons of political leadership they provide a useful means of stripping back the layers of control and gatekeeping that often surround those at or near the top.
At the height of the second World War, the then British prime minister Winston Churchill’s primary form of communication with the military and government system was by means of hundreds of short, usually blunt memos requiring some step to be taken. Churchill would attach at the top of any such urgent memo a bright red label with “Action this day” written on it.
Churchill’s memos were intended to get around the rigid hierarchical system of circulation of documentation that then dominated the British civil service. In the normal course a directive from the desk of the prime minister would have had to travel through the senior level of the department to which it had been directed before it found its way down the line to where it could be implemented.
The same problems arose in the Irish civil service even during wartime. In the first months after he was appointed Minister for Supplies in 1939, Seán Lemass got around the problem by starting his day with a series of short, one-to-one meetings with principal officers enquiring whether they had implemented orders of the previous days; issuing new directives; and gathering information on the progress of his plans to reorientate the economy rapidly to meet the changed circumstances.