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Ministers feel excluded from key Government decisions

Frustration kicks in as sub-group, NPHET, civil servants make key Covid-19 decisions

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister for Health Simon Harris are two of the three members of the sub-committee; the third member is Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe. Photograph: Leon Farrell/PA Wire

A number of Cabinet members have expressed frustration that critical Government decisions on the Covid-19 pandemic have been taken by a small group of Ministers and unelected officials.

Ministers have privately said they felt excluded from key all-of-Government decisions during the coronavirus crisis, with the Cabinet being asked to approve decisions which had already been made.

Ministers, who spoke on the basis of anonymity, said the decision-maker was not the wider Cabinet but its three-person sub-committee on Covid-19; the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET); and senior civil servants such as Government secretary general Martin Fraser, and Robert Watt of the Department of Public Expenditure. The three members of the sub-committee are Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Minister for Health Simon Harris, and Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe.

The matter came to a head last week at a Cabinet meeting where Ministers discussed the NPHET roadmap for easing restrictions. Some of the senior politicians present including Tánaiste Simon Coveney and Michael Ring were said by colleagues to have objected strongly to continuing restrictive measures for over-70s into the autumn.

As a result, the Government’s final roadmap for easing restrictions removed a key reference to over-70s remaining in a cocoon status beyond August. One Minister said part of the purpose of this was to remove uncertainty around the word “cocoon” which has been synonymous with “lockdown” for some. The NPHET roadmap had already provided for the easing of restrictions for over-70s from this week, and cocooning after August would not be the same as cocooning now.

The Cabinet also decided to make another very minor adjustment in the language on the use of facemasks.

As one Minister put it, the change was a minor victory that re-established the primacy of Cabinet in these matters.

Strange set of circumstances

However, the same Minister accepted there existed a strange set of circumstances. Four of those who attend Cabinet are no longer elected TDs, and the pandemic has resulted in a caretaker administration operating in the absence of a fully functioning parliament.

“The whole thing is really unsatisfactory from a parliamentary point of view,” said a Minister. “It’s like the Economic Management Council in 2011. Then Enda Kenny, Eamon Gilmore, Michael Noonan and Brendan Howlin made all the decisions. They were presented as a fait accompli to the wider cabinet which was expected to rubber-stamp them.

“It’s even more difficult now because we do not have parliamentary accountability.”

In addition, Cabinet members have spoken of an absence of written records for many decisions and also decisions on spending – such as the top-up payments for childcare workers – which did not go through the normal channels prior to approval.

Another Cabinet member said when the Taoiseach first announced major restrictions in Washington in mid-March, the “caretaker” status of the Government was immediately dropped. The next fortnight saw all hands to the wheel. But as the full restrictions kicked in, most Ministers quickly found themselves back as caretakers, sometimes being asked to green-light spending or policies without fully understanding the context or motivation. The situation improved when chief medical officer Tony Holohan began briefing the Cabinet.

“As time went on, the frustration for some that they were not being included came to the fore. There was also the question of the balance of power between Cabinet and NPHET, and of the influence of the senior civil servants,” said one.

All Ministers who spoke to The Irish Times denied serious splits or tensions or divisions but all agreed to a sense of frustration.

“There are strong differences of opinion which is natural. If you don’t have that, you have groupthink, which is worse,” added one Minister.

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