Stephen Collins: Shane Ross is Government’s Achilles’ heel
Independent Minister has behaved as if he is still a controversial columnist
“Shane Ross was politically clever enough to spot the opportunity the last election was likely to bring to put himself at the centre of national politics.” Photograph: Barbara Lindberg
Unless Shane Ross changes his tune pretty smartly Enda Kenny will have no choice but to sack him and take the chance that his minority government will be able to survive the fallout.
Since the Government took office in May, Ross has flouted the constitutional principle of collective Cabinet responsibility and done a number of solo runs on issues that have nothing to do with his portfolio as Minister for Transport.
Within his own area of responsibility he has been conspicuous by his failure to carry out the basic functions of a minister, but has had the nerve to make a virtue of his indecision.
Over the past week the Minister has inflicted further embarrassment on the Government by continuing his long-running campaign against the judiciary and following it up by demanding the right to support a Sinn Féin proposal to hold a referendum on neutrality.
The question now is how long the Taoiseach can tolerate the behaviour of his rogue minister. Linked to that is the question of how long Ross’s colleagues in the Independent Alliance are prepared to indulge their most prominent figure as he threatens to undermine their efforts to make a constructive contribution to the running of the country.
Unsurprisingly Ross is now perceived by the Opposition as the Achilles’ heel of the Government and over the past week Fianna Fáil, the Labour Party and Sinn Féin have all sought to exploit his antics for their own advantage.
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin rightly pointed out in the Dáil that it was unacceptable for a minister to utilise his position to attack the judicial pillar of democracy in a politically populist way.
“Deputy Ross, has been very cavalier, untruthful and disingenuous on the judges. It may play well, but it is not right for a minister to use his ministerial platform to engage in such behaviour,” Martin told the Dáil in the course of asking Kenny how he could stand over such behaviour.
The Taoiseach responded by saying that he had already made the point that Ross’s comments on the judiciary were personal and did not reflect the view of the Government.
However, the Kenny’s position is not sustainable in the long term. A Taoiseach cannot simply wash his hands of a Minister who continually attacks a basic principle of the Constitution and pretend that nothing is wrong.
It is difficult to disagree with Labour leader Brendan Howlin’s contention that Ross’s behaviour gives an impression of Cabinet chaos. He also pointed to the Minister’s failure to make a single appointment to a State board since his appointment. “Apparently it is beyond his ability to short-list candidates from a list of qualified candidates provided to him by the Public Appointment Service, and beyond his abilities to give the PAS guidance as to the type of short-list he wants,” said Howlin.
And if further proof were needed of Cabinet chaos, Ross demanded the right at last Tuesday’s meeting to have a free vote on a Sinn Féin Bill which would trigger a referendum on neutrality as a step to enshrining the principle in the Constitution.
Kenny and Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan strongly resisted the move. Flanagan pointed out in the Dáil that the Sinn Féin Bill would have the effect of shifting power from the Dáil to the judiciary for interpreting the meaning of neutrality in specific cases where the United Nations requested support from this country.
The paradox of attacking the judiciary on the one hand and supporting a measure that would give judges power to determine national policy on such a fundamental issue appears to have been lost on Ross although he appears to have backed down in the face of implacable opposition from Kenny and Flanagan.
The fundamental problem with Ross is that he is behaving in Government as if he were still a controversial newspaper columnist. Writing in the aftermath of the Brexit vote the British political commentator Nick Cohen lamented the baleful influence former journalists Boris Johnson and Michael Gove had played in the Leave campaign.
“If you think rule by professional politicians is bad wait until journalist politicians take over,” wrote Cohen, who pointed out that Johnson and Gove had prospered in journalism by treating public life as a game. “Here is how they play it. They grab media attention by blaring out a big, dramatic thought. An institution is failing? Close it. A public figure blunders? Sack him. They move from journalism to politics, but carry on as before.”
Ross practised this form of journalism for years, attacking established financial institutions like Bank of Ireland, Allied Irish Banks and a variety of semi-State companies while simultaneously praising unorthodox banking buccaneers like Seán FitzPatrick and Michael Fingleton.
He brought the same tactics into politics, first as a long-serving member of the Seanad for Trinity College and when he became a TD in 2011 brought the same headline-grabbing style to bear in the Public Accounts Committee.
Ross was politically clever enough to spot the opportunity the last election was likely to bring to put himself at the centre of national politics. He was the moving force behind the Independent Alliance, which won five seats in the election and made itself indispensable to the formation of Government.
Being in Government, though, is very different from being a controversial journalist or an Opposition denouncer of the failures of others. Ross has so far shown himself hopeless at the basic task of being a Minister. If he doesn’t change his ways in the near future the Taoiseach and his Independent Alliance colleagues will have to cut him loose if they want to stay in power.