Independent Ministers’ behaviour is bordering on farce

Denis Naughten’s defence in the Dáil of his INM warning was frankly risible

Minister for Communications Denis Naughten. File photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Minister for Communications Denis Naughten. File photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

 

The behaviour of Independent Ministers this week bordered on the farcical.

Firstly, the most serious. The Irish Times revealed on Wednesday that Minister for Communications Denis Naughten gave advance warning to a public affairs consultant acting for Independent News and Media about the prospects for a takeover bid that INM was pursuing.

This was a grave error of judgment for the Minister. It is hard to believe he was not warned by his officials against doing precisely this kind of thing.

The department that Naughten heads endured the years of the Moriarty tribunal inquiring into its role in the awarding of the State’s second mobile phone licence to Denis O’Brien’s Esat Digifone – a process that culminated in Mr Justice Moriarty’s finding that the then minister Michael Lowry “delivered” the licence to Esat.

It was an experience that I am told left the department “scarred”, which is what you would expect. (Both O’Brien and Lowry dispute the tribunal’s conclusions).

The nature of the department’s work means its officials and Ministers are in daily contact with large commercial entities. One former minister told me that because of that daily interface with the world of commerce – and the power of the department to affect commercial interests – its senior officials are “paranoid” about any contacts between Ministers and business. It is just inconceivable that Naughten was not warned by his officials – probably many times – not to say anything about the INM takeover bid.

Frankly risible

Naughten’s defence of his actions in the Dáil was frankly risible. The idea that he could speak in a private, non-ministerial capacity to an interested party about a decision he would soon make as Minister is not one that stands up to much scrutiny.

“I expressed a purely personal view . . .” he said. “I was by no means expressing a definitive view.”

I hope this is just the best that Naughten could make of a tricky situation under time pressure, and that he does not actually believe this stuff. If he does, then he is clearly too dim to be a Minister, and that is not a bar that is set especially high.

Naughten’s error was serious and his defence flimsy.

However, the scrapping over the Independent Alliance’s second junior ministerial post is beyond parody.

When the alliance was making its agreement with Enda Kenny two years ago, there was to be ministerial jobs all round. But they were one short, so Sean Canney and Kevin “Boxer” Moran tossed a coin to see who would go first.

Canney won the toss, and duly handed over the job (somewhat reluctantly, I understand) to “Boxer” last year. Twelve months on, and he figured it was his turn again. His colleagues demurred. This means “Boxer” will continue to be lionised in local media as the “King of the Midlands”, while poor Canney is just a minor East Galway princeling by comparison.

Amusing it may be, but the game of musical chairs illustrates how ministerial office is seen as a personal bauble, rather than a responsibility to deliver good government. For too many politicians, simply being a minister is the end in itself – not what they actually do with the job.

This view is not confined to the Independent Alliance, but it seems to be especially acute in their case. That perhaps explains why they have been so undistinguished as Ministers.

Office has shown up the Independents in an especially unflattering light

The flagship policy departure of Minister for Transport Shane Ross, a reformed system of judicial appointments (the reopening of Stepaside Garda station doesn’t count), also looked to be in trouble this week when Sinn Féin threatened to block it.

It was always likely that the opposition would not be able to resist the temptation to yank Ross’s chain and create difficulty for the Government on this. And it is not as if Ross’s belief that the judiciary is a corrupt swamp of cronyism is widely held by other politicians, even the Shinners.

It is only fair to mention Finian McGrath’s progress on disabilities, both in funding and in the ratification of the UN convention.

It is not a coincidence that alone among the Independent Alliance Ministers who entered Government two years ago, McGrath had a lifetime of activism and commitment to a particular area of public policy. Because he had a clear idea about disabilities, he was better able to negotiate the compromises necessary to achieve what he wanted.

Unflattering light

The same could be said of Katherine Zappone – the other Independent (though not Independent Alliance) Minister who is well regarded within Government circles. But most of the rest of the Independent Ministers just wanted to be ministers; they didn’t particularly care in what area they assumed responsibility. That of course is true of many politicians in the big parties as well. But office has shown up the Independents in an especially unflattering light.

The public has noticed. Perhaps the strongest trend in polls since the last election has been the decline in the strength of the Independent and small party vote. At the last election, Independents and small parties won almost 30 per cent of the vote; in Thursday’s Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll, their support was at 16 per cent. If this is replicated in a general election, there will be a massacre of the Independents.

That does not mean, however, that Independents will not return to government. On the poll’s numbers, neither Fine Gael nor Fianna Fáil will be within an ass’s roar of the numbers required for a Dáil majority. Both have ruled out coalition with Sinn Féin. We’ll watch the progress of that one, but there is every chance that Independents who survive the electoral grim reaper will have a shot at government again. One can only hope they make a better fist of it next time.

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