If I were Minister . . .


Enda Kenny’s Cabinet was appointed a year ago this week. ‘Irish Times’ journalists assess what some of the key players are doing right, what they’re doing wrong and what they’re not doing but should be



How’s the Minister doing? The only way to test a person’s ability as taoiseach is to give them the job. Brian Cowen was seen as a natural taoiseach but performed poorly in the job and was overwhelmed by the economic catastrophe. Conversely, there were low expectations of Albert Reynolds and John Bruton before they became taoisigh, but both did better than expected. Enda Kenny has had a similar experience.

From the moment he became leader of Fine Gael, in 2002, doubters said he lacked the political acumen for the top job. But the economic collapse of 2008 that eventually propelled his party to a historic victory also saw the emergence of a politician who was more prepared for the highest office than anyone would give him credit for.

Kenny has had a very good year as Taoiseach. Sure, he has taken a couple of hits, not least the early rebuff of his efforts to get a reduced interest rate for the State’s debts, and the political acceptance that it could not diverge too much from the troika’s strictures.

His dismissal of the Opposition has sometimes verged on arrogant, and he has tended towards Bertie Ahern-like self-congratulation at times.

But, overall, Kenny’s brio, positivity and energy have distinguished him. He has not brought a quick solution – unemployment is still at 14.2 per cent – but he has brought a sense of confidence that there will be an end to this recession. It is evident at home and abroad.

What I’d do differently

Not give the impression that Ireland has become powerless in the face of German, French and ECB whims. Threaten (and it’s no harm if in public) to collapse the scrum at key points. Learn from the mistakes of Nice 1, Lisbon 1 and the Abbeylara referendums when drawing up a campaign for the fiscal treaty referendum. There will be no second chance this time. The state-of-the-nation speech was a good idea, even if the delivery disappointed. Set out a vision of where Ireland can be in 2016. Create a meaningful initiative to involve citizens in contributing voluntarily to society. Focus unremittingly on getting out of bailout. If that happens, the impact on the national psyche will be extraordinary.



How’s the Minister doing? Some politicians are more suited to government than to opposition. But in his first months as Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, who was the star turn on the Opposition benches, seemed to take a long time to find his feet in government.

Gilmore’s default disposition in opposition was indignation, but that could not work in government. It took him time to find an appropriate tone. In the early days, he also struggled against anonymity.

Some of his more fanciful assertions in opposition – Frankfurt’s way or Labour’s way – have come back to haunt him, and his party is seen to have conceded more than Fine Gael.

He has asserted himself more in recent months. He has a close working relationship with Kenny, but some Labour critics say he should try to assert his party’s distinctive approach – and his own leadership – more. The party has struggled in opinion polls, and three TDs have defected, but it won the presidential election and the Dublin West byelection.

His controversies have been the decision to close the Vatican Embassy and only a fleeting reference to human rights during the visit of the Chinese vice-president. He has been very consistent in debates on the EU referendum.

What I’d do differently

Gilmore needs to remember he is leader of the Labour Party. That may mean a public disagreement to remind people the Coalition parties have not morphed into one another. With the rise in emigration, the Ministers remit should include not only wooing investors to Ireland but also giving government reassurance to those who have left. Take the lead role for Labour in the referendum campaign. Revisit the decision to close the Vatican Embassy, perhaps working on a compromise that involves a shared embassy with the Irish Ambassador to Italy. Overseas development aid will always be an easy mark in penny-pinching budgets. Its budget has already taken a few hits. No more.



How’s the Minister doing? Of the 24 men who have held the position of minister for finance since 1922, Michael Noonan is the least powerful. The State is bust and being bailed out, and with the Department of Finance having been cleaved in two – Brendan Howlin runs the spending side of the once-mighty ministry – Noonan has much less scope than his predecessors to influence the direction of either the economy or the ship of state.

If the powers of the Minister for Finance have been lessened, his responsibilities have not. He has done most of the detailed EU-level dealings on the bailout. He has played a very weak hand patiently, and it appears at this juncture that his efforts will pay off in the form of some relief on the small but significant part of State debt accounted for by the bank bailout.

Compliance with the terms of the bailout and better handling of the enormous task of restructuring the banking system have earned the Government praise and helped improve Ireland’s tarnished reputation internationally. Noonan can take at least some credit for the sharp fall in the effective interest rates on Irish Government bonds as a result of all this, giving the administration a shouting chance of weaning itself off bailout funds.

The drawing-up of the budget was farcical, with leaks and redraftings happening up to the last minute. Much of that had to do with the diffused decision-making within the four-man Economic Management Council. Wresting back more control for the Department of Finance would make the cobbling together of Budget 2013 more coherent.

What I’d do differently

Be more Machiavellian: some wise old heads with long memories compare Noonan unfavourably with his 1980s predecessor Ray MacSharry. Mac the Knife earned that sobriquet not only for his spending cuts but also for his ruthlessness.

Behaving ruthlessly is not pleasant, but it is necessary in times of severe crisis. Noonan likes to be liked, not feared. The saga of who leads his long-underperforming department illustrates this. There had been a general expectation that its top mandarin, Kevin Cardiff, would not survive the change of regime. But Noonan decided against firing the official when he moved into Merrion Street. The relationship did not work out, and Cardiff moved along anyway. The kindly Noonan moved heaven and earth to ensure the departing bureaucrat obtained a top spot in the EU’s court of auditors.



How’s the Minister doing? Brendan Howlin was a surprise choice to head the new ministry that was carved out of the Department of Finance. His remit includes the spending side of the finance portfolio and responsibility for driving an agenda of public-sector and political reform. The political reform drive has yet to shift into top gear, but a comprehensive review of expenditure was completed in late summer. It did not turn out to be as radical as flagged. Drawing up further rounds of spending cuts in the coming years as the Government attempts to balance its books will, if anything, become more difficult – much of the fat has been trimmed and the capital budget has been pared to the bone.

At the end of last year Howlin unveiled a detailed and moderately ambitious reform package for the public sector. If implemented in full it should bring about significant efficiency gains. Reforming the public sector within the constraints of the Croke Park agreement will be difficult, and driving changes that affect other departments will inevitably bring him into conflict with his Cabinet counterparts.

On managing his department, Howlin has been more fortunate than Noonan, in that its very newness has lessened resistance to change. Most obviously, the newly created post of secretary general had to be filled, allowing Howlin quickly to appoint his candidate of choice.

What I’d do differently

Be bolder. The scope for fiscal stimulus is next to nonexistent, owing to a lack of cash, but shifting resources from underperforming programmes to ones that give bigger bang for buck is one of the few options available to the Government. Although that would involve more radical cuts than have been implemented up to now, it would help to perk up the economy.

Political reform will rise up the agenda later this year when a convention is convened to recommend changes to the 75-year-old Constitution. Introducing a more normal separation between the executive and legislature would make for much more effective government. Micheál Martin was bold in advocating such a change in last year’s Fianna Fáil manifesto: he proposed obliging TDs who take ministerial office to relinquish their Dáil seats. So far Howlin has not backed the proposal. He should reach across the political divide to borrow the idea.



How’s the Minister doing? Ruairí Quinn has brought some much-needed fresh thinking to the Department of Education. But after a whirlwind start his focus has shifted from reform to the messy business of cutbacks. His ability to address the funding crisis in higher education has been influenced by a reckless pre-election “no fees” pledge. And the recent controversy over his mileage expenses has been damaging. His cuts to disadvantaged schools and the subsequent U-turn have also undermined his authority.

The game is by no means lost. Quinn has the knowledge and the skills to be an outstanding Minister for Education. Refreshingly, he says the Irish education system is not what it is cracked up to be. Reform of the Junior and Leaving Cert exams has begun, and Quinn has signalled change to the college admission system.

The forum on school patronage will loosen the grip of the Catholic Church on primary-school management. And a forthcoming report on school admissions should make it harder for schools to cherrypick the best students while excluding minorities and the less academically gifted.

In an ideal world, Quinn would focus on reform before vacating the office in 2013. But he faces a difficult balancing act: seeking public support for these changes while imposing more cutbacks on the education service.

What I’d do differently

Secure proper funding. Education accounts for only 16 per cent of Government spending, down from 19 per cent in 1995. Chronic underfunding means we still battle for services taken for granted in other societies. Make those who can afford it pay for third-level education. Incentivise teachers in disadvantaged schools. The most serious issue in Irish education is a chronic literacy crisis. To combat it, Deis schools need the best teachers. A new scheme of incentive payments would attract the best teachers to those schools. Review the roles of Irish and religion in schools. With an overcrowded curriculum, there cannot be radical reform (introducing foreign languages and computer/technology studies) unless the central role of these subjects is addressed. Overhaul the Department of Education. A decade ago, the Cromien report concluded that the department was drowning under the pressure of daily business with little breathing space to develop policy. Nothing has really changed.



How’s the Minister doing? Leo Varadkar has brought realism to the Department of Transport, a branch of the bureaucracy that, prior to his arrival, had been presiding over boom-time plans for “infrastructure investment” costing billions.

Last April, the Minister said only one of the three big-ticket projects for the Dublin area – Metro North, Dart Underground and the Luas link in the city centre – was likely to go ahead. In the end, he opted for the more affordable Luas BXD – running from St Stephen’s Green to O’Connell Street and onwards to Broombridge, in Cabra – and shelved Metro North and Dart Underground. An Bord Pleanála still has questions about BXD.

Varadkar ordered the Railway Procurement Agency to withdraw its application for Metro West and told the agency to halt any further planning for this “Wild West” project. He also axed a raft of major road projects still being planned by the National Roads Authority and slashed funding for the new A5 in Northern Ireland.

The Minister heralded a new era of appointments to State boards, deciding to fill vacancies on the basis of who would be best qualified, rather than packing them with Fine Gael and Labour Party hacks.

What I’d do differently

Find €175 million to upgrade the railways so that train speeds can be safely increased to 160km/h. This would deliver journey times of two hours between Dublin and other cities, matching the motorways. Tell the National Transport Authority to get real about its strategy for the Greater Dublin Area, which regurgitated all of the big-ticket schemes as if the debt crisis had never happened. Put the emphasis on improving the frequency and speed of bus services in Dublin and other urban areas by introducing European-style busways, comparable with light rail but at a fraction of the cost. Give greater priority and funding to the Smarter Travel Scheme, to encourage people to walk or cycle rather than use cars.



How’s the Minister doing? Dr James Reilly has had to row back on some of the promises he made before his appointment. He was going to abolish prescription charges but didn’t. Fine Gael was committed to retaining an emergency department at Roscommon County Hospital prior to the election; after the election it was a different story. (Though, in downgrading the service, Reilly proved himself capable of taking tough decisions.)

He promised to abolish the HSE, and he deserves credit for taking a scalpel to its board soon after his appointment.

When funding for the Fair Deal scheme ran out, he dealt with the problem decisively, though how decisively he deals with the crisis over the new national children’s hospital remains to be seen.

Reilly also vowed to tackle waiting lists through a special delivery unit. The unit has been established, but waiting lists of more than three months for planned inpatient and day-case procedures are now longer than they were a year ago.

Reilly has proved ineffective in some respects. For example, hundreds of public long-stay beds for older people are to close, and there are plans for a cut in home-help hours by the HSE this year, moves he would have decried in opposition.

And one of his most ambitious pledges has been to provide universal health-insurance cover by 2016. It’s too early to judge whether this will happen, but, with health-insurance costs rising, the price of cover for all may yet prove too high.

What I’d do differently

Invest in IT. It could cut out hours of duplication, costs and error rates and would be money well spent. Insist on a seven-day health service, rather than the type where patients are left languishing in hospital beds all weekend because no one is around to do scans and other tests on them unless it is an emergency. Get to grips, once and for all, with waiting times for public patients to see consultants in outpatients, which can still take years. Months of letter-writing to various layers in the HSE is a waste of everyone’s time. Imposing fines on individual managers who use jargon to fill letters with text that actually says nothing could raise vital funds.



How’s the Minister doing? Joan Burton was said to have been gutted to be landed with the post of Minister for Social Protection, given her expertise on economic affairs. Yet she has done remarkably well in a climate of unprecedented public spending cuts.

Granted, there have landmines: cuts to disability allowances for young people were quickly reversed following a furore, while reductions in social assistance for single parents seem unduly harsh given the lack of affordable childcare for those seeking to enter training or part-time work.

Some of the Government’s rhetoric on protecting the most vulnerable is also hard to square with a range of cuts, such as reductions in the back-to-school allowance.

However, initiatives such as the internship scheme and a new focus on pathways to work are imaginative, if not without flaws.

One of the biggest mistakes made during the last downturn was to allow large numbers of people to end up in long-term unemployment. Burton can’t tackle this alone. Economic growth and a wider Government focus on jobs will be crucial. But many will ultimately judge the Minister on her record in tackling this most challenging of issues.

What I’d do differently

End universal child benefit. If computer systems in Revenue and the Department of Social Protection can’t talk to each other, introduce self-assessment for child benefit as a short-term measure. New childcare initiative. The free preschool year for children aged between three and four is a great initiative. A more ambitious scheme of affordable childcare could change the way we go about trying to tackle disadvantage. Individualised payments for people with disabilities. The State pays €1.5 billion to voluntary groups who provide residential and day services to people with disabilities. Audits indicate there is significant waste in this area. Instead, give disabled people money directly to buy the services they need. A single benefit payment. There is a mind-boggling array of different welfare payments. A single basic payment would dismantle layers of administration and save money.



How’s the Minister doing? Within weeks of taking office last March, “Big Phil” Hogan pledged to review the 2010 Planning Act to give back more powers to councillors for land rezoning. He also terminated planning investigations of five local authorities, notably Carlow County Council.

He abolished Comhar, the Sustainable Development Council, and scrapped a proposed levy on incineration – widely seen as a move favouring the Poolbeg project in Dublin.

With no sign yet of his promised “paper” on local government reform, Hogan aims to strip councils of one of their core functions – water services – and give it to a State utility, Irish Water. Domestic water charges will help fund it, but progress on metering is slow.

The Minister had to deal with two urgent matters: EU demands that Ireland must protect the tiny fraction of peatland habitats designated for conservation; and stopping pollution from 450,000-plus septic tanks in rural areas. In both cases, he ran into virulent opposition from rural lobbies.

Hogan’s record on climate change has been equivocal – first saying that legislation was not a priority, then pledging to enact it by the end of next year. He published a revised sustainable-development strategy, much of it nebulous, on the day before Christmas Eve.

What I’d do differently

Set targets to cut greenhouse-gas emissions, sector by sector, between now and 2020, to show we’re serious about tackling climate change. Drop plans for radical changes in the waste-management sector by leaving companies to compete with each other in the marketplace, and direct that the 600,000-tonnes-a-year Poolbeg plant be scaled down. Impose a 15 per cent surcharge on commercial rates for out-of-town retail complexes, as is being proposed in Northern Ireland, and introduce charges for the use of their (currently free) car parks. Stand up to the turf-cutting lobby and ensure the protection of the less than 5 per cent of peatland that is designated as either special areas of conservation or natural heritage areas. Introduce wide-ranging reforms of local government, including directly elected mayors (starting with Dublin), abolish superfluous town councils and institute real devolution of power from Custom House to consolidated local or regional authorities.



How’s the Minister doing? Richard Bruton has the Sisyphean task of getting as many unemployed people back into gainful employment as possible. Recent high-profile successes, such as PayPal, and the Action Plan for Jobs, are welcome. Yet among Irish SMEs and the start-up community the dependency on foreign multinationals and the arrival of yet more reports and plans has created an understandable air of cynicism. Business leaders have complained about the drought in credit facilities – the lifeblood of most businesses – and it remains a major problem. We’re nearly five years into the recession: if a firm was still at the planning stages five years into a crisis it would be closed and the management dismissed. As for the creation of an Irish Silicon Valley and a smart economy? It still seems a fanciful dream.

What I’d do differently

Ban any more action plans and reports. We have a library of promises. It’s time to deliver. Be bold about attracting venture-capital funding, which involves high levels of risk but would reward the country with jobs and business success. Deliver on the loan guarantee and microfinance promises made by this administration and the last one. Everyone talks about the need for a highly educated labour force and the need to push science and tech jobs. Focus on areas such as incubators at college level and the support network for start-ups. Be sure that all these businesses have a global perspective and not just local ideas.