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Noel Whelan: John Halligan is not cut out to be a Minister

Fantasies about North Korea reveal dangerous self-delusion

John Halligan: rural colleagues are rightly furious at how he has managed to leave the Independent Alliance open to even more ridicule. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

At this stage one wonders why or whether John Halligan wants to be a Minister of State. Apart from making up the numbers, it is not clear what function he serves.

His bizarre job interview techniques suggest he knows nothing of the basic norms in a key policy area that falls under his department. His indifference to collective Cabinet responsibility previously revealed his complete lack of understanding of the role and workings of government in the Constitution. His fantasies about leading a diplomatic mission to North Korea reveal a dangerous tendency towards self-delusion.

Halligan’s official job title is lengthy. He is Minister for State at the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation and the Department of Education and Skills with special responsibility for training, skills, innovation, research and development.

He must struggle to fit all of this on a business card but it doesn’t actually amount to a whole lot. It entitles him to an office and a small cluster of personnel in two different departments but gives him no real power.

Halligan is not alone in the history of ministers of state being insignificant in their department, but he is a striking modern example. He doesn’t have any legally delegated function. Like other Ministers of State he sometimes get to handle sections of legislation through the Oireachtas to answer a couple of questions.

He gets to do the occasional official engagement in or near his constituency or which his senior Minister cannot or does not want to do. There is little sign that he is inclined towards raising his profile and getting involved in departmental issues, and even if he did he has to compete for these crumbs with another Minister of State in each of the two departments to which he is assigned.

I can’t think of anything in his job title that Halligan has achieved or even campaigned for

Some Ministers of State manage to carve out a niche by focusing on having a number of policy areas within their brief. At this point, two years in, I can’t think of anything in all the areas mentioned in his job title that Halligan has achieved or even campaigned for.

Since July, for example, he has issued only a handful of official statements on issues in either of the departments, and two of these were to congratulate Junior and Leaving Cert students on their results.

Other Ministers of State use their position as a training ground for senior office, but there seems little prospect of that for Halligan. A look through the Dáil record, department press releases and his media contributions shows very little imprint in his own policy area.

Ironically, the thing Halligan is most likely to be remembered for relating to his departmental brief is his self-professed ignorance of the provisions of the Employment Equality Act. This week he was found to have discriminated because he asked a civil servant at a job interview whether she was married and had children.

Inappropriate

Halligan claims he didn’t know it was inappropriate to ask such a question. Every employer in the land knows that such questions are an absolute no-no. Despite what he now claims, he gave the clear impression that he knew that as well. He prefaced his question at the interview by saying “I know I shouldn’t be asking this . . .” and then went on to ask anyhow.

He says he asked the question to put the interviewee at ease. His question, predictably, had the opposite effect, which is precisely what the act is designed to prevent. Not only was the interviewee discommoded but she also felt her commitment to the position advertised was someone being questioned because she was a mother of younger children.

Alternatively and simultaneously, Halligan claims he asked her the question so as to show he wouldn’t discriminate against her and would facilitate flexible work arrangements. One wonders if any men who applied for the job were or would have been asked the same question. It is worrying that a junior Minister in the very department which has responsibility for these issues still shows such a lack of insight about how what he did was wrong.

Bizarre twist

Halligan’s tendency to focus on matters well outside his ministerial brief took a particularly bizarre twist 10 days ago when he announced a proposal to lead an international diplomatic effort by the Independent Alliance to mediate between the US and North Korea. It’s a crazy notion but he is actually quiet serious about it. His rural colleagues are rightly furious at how he has managed to leave the Independent Alliance open to even more ridicule.

It is clear that Halligan wants to be a mere constituency champion while being free to comment colourfully on everything, apart from those things he actually has a departmental role for.

He clearly finds collective responsibility cumbersome. He should be invited to liberate himself from the burdens of ministerial office. If he declines he should be relieved of his responsibilities.