Economic Management Council acts as a ‘war cabinet’ in Ireland’s fight for survival

Opinion: Cabinet committees are a mark of core management in all developed countries

The EMC is not just central to the management of the policy process; it is central to management of the coalition. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

The EMC is not just central to the management of the policy process; it is central to management of the coalition. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

Although the focus is now on the constitutional convention and the Seanad referendum, the effectiveness of the heart of government, the core executive, is crucial to the quality of Irish governance.

The core executive consists of all those office holders and institutions that serve to integrate policy-making at the highest level. This includes the Cabinet but is not limited to it. The Irish system is built on the Westminster model of strong cabinet government and an executive-dominated parliament.

Cabinet confidentiality and a dearth of research limit our knowledge of how Ireland’s core executive has evolved. Thanks, however, to the online publication of Martin Fraser’s diary for 2012 and the first half of 2013, we get a rare glimpse of Irish Government at the highest level through the meeting diary of Ireland’s top mandarin. (The diary is at http://bit.ly/12IcAGt)

A recent innovation at the heart of Irish governance, the Economic Management Council, has come under considerable political scrutiny. Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton has publicly voiced her concerns about the council while the leader of the Opposition, Micheál Martin, has questioned its constitutionality. The council is so-named to give it added status.

The use of the term council is a strong signal that this body is no ordinary Cabinet committee. Its restricted membership, consisting of the Taoiseach, Tánaiste, and Ministers for Finance and Public Sector Reform together with their advisers and senior civil servants endows it with unparalleled political authority and power. It is understandable that Ministers who are not members might react against it; no one wants to be outside a power loop.

Martin Fraser’s diary highlights the intensity of activity in the EMC. The council met about 47 times in 2012, with seven meetings alone in November and early December in the lead-up to the December 5th budget. The tempo of its meetings continued in 2013 with 17 meetings in the first half of 2013. No other sub-set of the Cabinet met with such frequency.

As time is a scarce resource at the heart of government, the frequency of EMC meetings suggests that this inner core of senior Ministers and their advisers have played the central role in addressing the multiple crises that Ireland has experienced since 2008. The range of issues to be addressed as well as the linkages between them added to the complexity of the political and policy agenda.

The EMC is the equivalent of a war cabinet, and Ireland has been facing an economic war for the last five years. Bringing the crisis under control, stabilising the public finances and beginning to disaggregate an overcrowded policy agenda into manageable chunks required integrated and sustained high-level political attention. Evenly balanced between the Coalition partners, the EMC is not just central to the policy process but to the management of the Coalition, particularly with regard to the public finances. It is here that the high-stakes political bargains are struck.

The Fraser diary also sheds light on the focus of the Irish Cabinet. Cabinet committees are a marked feature of core executive management in all developed countries. Most systems have a range of permanent committees that filter issues to the full cabinet. The tendency in Ireland is not to create permanent committees but to establish them on a needs basis, largely driven by the political and policy agenda. In other words, they are problem-led. Cabinet committees have the merit of bringing together senior ministers, ministers of State who do not sit in cabinet, advisers and senior civil servants, thus bringing all of the tangled elements of government together.

The Fraser diary offers us an insight into where Government attention and effort has been over the last 18 months.

Not unexpectedly, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Recovery and Jobs and its subcommittee, Pathways to Work, with over 20 meetings, are way out there in terms of frequency of meetings in this period. Meetings of the Cabinet Committee on Health are ranked number two, which underlines the difficulty in Ireland of managing this crucial area of public provision. The Cabinet Committee on Mortgage Arrears and Availability of Credit, with 12 meetings, ranked third.

The first meeting on mortgage arrears, in this period, was dated 14th of March 2012 which underlines the struggle it has been to fashion a response to this legacy of the bust. Two other committees, the Cabinet Committees on Economic Infrastructure and EU affairs, met on ten occasions each. The remaining four committees had fewer than 10 meetings. The Cabinet Committee on Climate Change and Greening the Economy met with less frequency than any other, which suggests the economic crisis crowded out environmental issues.


Prof Brigid Laffan takes up the post of director of the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies at the European University Institute in Florence from September

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