Unwise to rotate the office of taoiseach


Sir,– Stephen Collins says that rotating the office of taoiseach between Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin will smooth the way for such a deal (“Coronavirus has put the skids under government formation”, Opinion & Analysis, March 13th).

This underestimates and oversimplifies the depth of opposition which exists at all levels of both parties to such an alliance.

In listing out the examples of when such an arrangement was considered in the past, your columnist gives no consideration to why it was rejected on those occasions, or the damage which it might do to the office.

First, it would permanently demean the office of taoiseach, reducing it to a bauble to be haggled over in all future coalition negotiations.

Second, and far more seriously, it would lead to a significant weakening of the political clout of the office.

Once the political system knows that when a taoiseach’s term will end, the incumbent will be steadily drained of his authority for a substantial period in advance of that date. Ministers, backbench TDs, and even leading civil servants will have one eye on the date of accession of the new taoiseach and will jockey for position accordingly, leading to an inevitable inertia in public policy.

This effect will be all the worse in a situation where the taoiseach’s date of departure is flagged from their very first day in the job.

As Leo Varadkar himself said in 2016, “when a prime minister has set a timeline, they lose their authority. A taoiseach without authority is no taoiseach at all”. The chaotic final months in office of Brian Cowen in 2010 and Enda Kenny in 2016 offer recent concrete examples of this.

A “rotating taoiseach” arrangement would subject the office to a political version of the psychodrama which surrounded the rivalry between Ronan O’Gara and Jonathan Sexton during the 2010-2012 rugby seasons. Anytime the incumbent makes a mistake, everyone will ask: “What would have happened if the other guy was on the pitch?”

Worse still, by accepting any such arrangement Fine Gael would be asking Mr Varadkar to demean himself by becoming a “Lanigan’s Ball” taoiseach, stepping out of the office this year, and agreeing to step back in again sometime in 2022.

The electorate deserves better than to watch politicians turn subject our most important constitutional office to a game of “pass the parcel”. – Yours, etc,



Dublin 3.