Special Report: Army councils and civil service tensions - life inside Leo Varadkar's Cabinet

Special Report: Army councils and civil service tensions - life inside Leo Varadkar's Cabinet
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar during a media briefing following a meeting of the Cabinet subcommittee on Covid-19 at Government Buildings, Dublin. Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Since the foundation of the State in 1922, almost every important decision taken by a government has happened in this room.

Situated in the bowels of the imposing Government Buildings, the Cabinet Room represents the epicentre of our political system.

Many of the decisions taken in that room determine how we as a people live our lives.

All of that is done behind closed doors with very few people involved. The vast majority of us never get to know the conversations that go on, the deals done, or the bitter battles fought between ministers.

From the rocky early days of this Cabinet under Enda Kenny in 2016 to tackling Brexit and now Covid-19 under Leo Varadkar, this Fine Gael-Independent government has endured many turbulent times.

Bedevilled at times with vicious backbiting, infighting, distrust and downright hostility, the outgoing Cabinet of this minority government has survived, against the odds, for more than four years.

Described by Fergal Purcell, the former Fine Gael government press secretary as a very “effusive” or leaky Cabinet, what does emerge is a mere fraction of what actually goes on.

“The Cabinet room is the one place where the grandstanding stops and real uninterrupted business can get done, even with all the leaks,” says one weary minister.

But as this government draws to a close, ministers past and present, advisers and officials have all spoken about what really goes on in the room and how tensions both within parties and between them are never far from the surface.

“There are pricks in there who you’d defend only for them to shaft you the next week,” is the honest assessment of one minster.

Inside the Room

According to the rules, as laid out in the 91-page Cabinet handbook for ministers, in normal times, government meetings normally are held at 10am each Tuesday morning when the Dáil is in session.

But before the Cabinet meets, under Varadkar, Fine Gael ministers gather with the Taoiseach’s top advisers, Brian Murphy and John Carroll, in the Sycamore Room upstairs for a political meeting at about 8.30am.

“Beforehand with Enda it tended to be more perfunctory, just going through the agenda. Now it’s far more political, much more useful with advisers in the room and so on,” one Fine Gael minister says.

Former taoiseach Enda Kenny. ‘Leo is far more on top of the material than Enda was, without question. He reads everything,’ says one minister. Picture: Niall Carson
Former taoiseach Enda Kenny. ‘Leo is far more on top of the material than Enda was, without question. He reads everything,’ says one minister. Picture: Niall Carson

But those Fine Gael meetings would tend to “run on”, much to the annoyance of the Independent ministers who would be made wait in the Cabinet ante room down in the basement.

“That is a legitimate criticism, that we would leave them waiting. Not that we would do it out of rudeness, but the FG pre-Cabinet would tend to run on. In the start they could have been waiting quite a while,” the minister continued.

Once the Taoiseach arrives down, the assembled ministers would then proceed into the Cabinet room itself, or the Council Chamber, in reference to the Executive Council which preceded the Cabinet structure between 1922 and 1937.

Overlooked by portraits of previous leaders, the Taoiseach sits in the centre of the table with Martin Fraser, secretary general to the Government, to his left and further to his left sits the Attorney General, Seamus Woulfe. To the Taoiseach’s right sits the chief whip.

Directly across from the Taoiseach sits Tánaiste Simon Coveney and to his left sits Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe.

All other ministers are seated in order of seniority based on the length of time they have sat at the Cabinet table.

How it works

Contrary to widespread belief, a Cabinet decision tends to come at the end as opposed to the beginning of a lengthy process.

“Cabinet is often not where decisions are taken at all. It is all done in advance by advisers and it is often a rubber-stamping exercise. The decision-making process is a long one and the final step in that is Cabinet before it goes to the Dáil.

Nobody brings a memo they know will be defeated,” says one minister.

The agenda for each government meeting is made up of memoranda brought by ministers and that agenda is confidentially available online to ministers, their private secretaries, secretaries general and other approved personnel such as special advisers in advance.

Rarely will something get to Cabinet that has not been approved and cleared through the system. It normally will have been approved by ministers with a specific interest in a topic in advance.

“Leo has a civil servant called Andrew Munro, who is an assistant secretary in his department who is the gate keeper. He draws the agenda together and is the interlocutor between officials in your department and all other interested parties,” says one minister.

Political and press advisers would meet the day before Cabinet in a bid to co-ordinate communications strategy, but also to iron out any potential issues.

If a problem did arise, often a call from a member of the “Army Council” — Varadkar, Coveney, Donohoe — could come to assuage any concerns, particularly in the independent ranks.

Tánaiste Simon Coveney assuages concerns among independent ranks.
Tánaiste Simon Coveney assuages concerns among independent ranks.

“Supposing someone had a memo and they had a worry about the Independents. The so-called sensible ministers would pick up the phone and say ‘let’s grab a coffee’ a day or two before Cabinet. They’d say ‘listen I know you have a problem with this but I would really appreciate your support on this thing’. That would be regular enough,” says one minister.

Getting a memo through Cabinet can be all-consuming and you need to have your homework done if you are not to be embarrassed.

“Before you went to Cabinet, you would make sure you had plenty of ministers on board. Beforehand, you tick tack with everybody and you make sure everyone is ok and you have a majority in support. You also make sure to get the nod from the Taoiseach, privately and discreetly.

“Leo prefers a more informal, but intense style. He is far more hands-on. Leo is far more on top of the material than Enda was, without question. He would know the ins and out of everyone’s department. He reads everything. He gets really irritated if someone flings a memo at the last minute,” says one minister.

Presenting memos at Cabinet, several ministers confess, is a daunting prospect.

“It is like giving a best man’s speech in that you don’t eat the dinner as you are waiting to do your thing, you are not focusing on what is being said. You are building yourself up.

“Once you get your memo approved, you tend to zone out for 10 to 15 minutes in order to compose yourself, you wouldn’t really know what is going on around you.” Despite all the “crime prevention” in advance, it does not always go to plan.

While it is rare that a memo not make it through, some notable examples have emerged. Memos get delayed sometimes due to workload but sometimes it happens when matters are not fully thought through.

Simon Coveney, in 2018 in the run-up to the abortion referendum, tabled a proposal which would require a two-thirds majority in the Dáil to amend any future abortion legislation.

The media was informed the night before but by the time Cabinet was over, the proposal was “dead in the water.” 

 Attorney General Seamus Woulfe.
Attorney General Seamus Woulfe.

“It was killed before Cabinet but he asked for the AG to give his view on it to give him political cover. But he overplayed his hand on that one and he knew it.” Education Minister Joe McHugh recently tabled a proposal on reforming the allocation of Special Needs Assistants (SNAs) and according to many sources it emerged at the Cabinet that it was not ready to proceed. When he was OPW minister, Sean Canney had a memo about flooding which was kicked back.

“The Canney one was a bit of a mess and it was a case he hadn’t properly squared it off with anyone,” says one minister.

Dealing with leaks

One of the big changes under Varadkar was the clampdown on ministers bringing last-minute memos ‘under the arm’ which had become far more prevalent under Enda Kenny.

A practice usually kept for highly sensitive material or very incidental matters which cropped up late, the frequency of such memos irked Varadkar and he made clear they were to stop.

“It did open us up to leaking which was less than optimal and did us harm over the past three years, there was a very high level of things appearing in the public domain, when they shouldn’t have,” a source close to Varadkar says.

Varadkar found it hard to clamp down. The feeling was that while there may have been some more obvious suspects, you rarely had hard evidence to confront anyone.

“To this day, there is an annoyance that Finian [Independent super junior health minister Finian McGrath] would say something at the end of the meeting and you know it was said for the benefit of reading it in the newspaper the following morning,” claims one Fine Gael minister.

Varadkar’s clear annoyance with leaks is seen by some of his ministers as “ironic” as he was suspected of being a prolific leaker himself when a minister under Enda Kenny.

Varadkar’s style of chairing the Cabinet sharply differs to that of his predecessor.

“Their attitudes are very different. Leo lets things go a lot more. Things went quicker under Enda. Enda gave an impression he wanted to control where the conversation was going, Leo is more relaxed. Enda was more confrontational. Leo doesn’t do confrontation. He likes peace and quiet. Enda was prepared to take it to the brink,” says one minister.

But the Covid-19 crisis has also had an impact.

Leo’s style, in being more open to persuasion, is great if you’re the one making the argument, but it is a pain in the arse if you’re the minister bringing the memo

“In fairness, that wasn’t the style before the election, they were far more efficient. It is fair to say that since the election and during Covid,[the meetings] have become more open season,” a minister says.

But Varadkar is something of a stickler for time and unlike Kenny would insist Cabinet finish at 1pm to allow him prepare properly for Leaders’ Questions.

“Unlike Enda, Varadkar prepares for Leaders’ Questions. Normally, he would insist Cabinet would finish at 1pm to give him enough time to prepare and to get some lunch. Cabinet would finish at 1pm, he would say ‘we have 25 more items, we’ll be back at 4pm to clear the agenda,’” one minister says.

The Gate-keeper

The first of two non-politicians who get to sit at the table is Martin Fraser, secretary general to the Government and the head of the civil service.

A powerful and impressive figure, the music and sport-loving Dubliner is the only civil servant entitled to attend Cabinet. He sits to the immediate left of the Taoiseach by designation.

“Fraser is clearly a genius but he also has a temper and an arrogance. When he is brilliant, he is brilliant, but the very odd time he needs to be reminded he is not a member of the Cabinet,” describes one minister.

At the start of every meeting, Fraser reads out the minutes from the previous meeting and keeps a record of what is said.

According to several ministers, Fraser and Varadkar have not always enjoyed the most harmonious relationship with some suggesting he was “frozen out” from the Taoiseach’s inner circle when he took over in 2017.

Others insist Fraser is “definitely trusted” by Varadkar and his judgement is hugely relied upon.

The other non-politician who sits at the Cabinet table is the Attorney General. Seated by designation to the left of Fraser, Woulfe is the genial Fine Gael activist and Senior Counsel appointed in 2017 to replace Marie Whelan as the Government’s lawyer at Varadkar’s behest.

The 58-year-old Belvedere College educated rugby enthusiast is another trusted adviser upon whom Varadkar relies. Those close to the Taoiseach rate Woulfe’s abilities highly.

“Seamus is sharp, has a good political antenna and solid judgement. I couldn’t fault him, Leo does rely upon him,” says one minister.

Others at Cabinet have a more mixed view of the AG.

Woulfe caused controversy in March 2018 when at a lunch he likened Shane Ross’ controversial Judicial Appointments Bill to a “dog’s dinner”.

While his point related to Opposition amendments to the bill, it had the effect of further undermining the credibility of the legislation which was already deeply unpopular among Fine Gael ministers.

Woulfe was seen by Shane Ross and the Independents to have acted politically in his utterances but this has been denied.

“That was something he made a mistake over. He should not have said it,” one minister stated.

Varadkar for his part was worried that the comments could ignite into a proper government crisis, but as one source says, he was relieved that it turned out to be a “one-week wonder”.

The Independents

The early days around the Fine Gael-Independent Cabinet table in 2016 were toxic.

“The relationship between the parties was awful at the start, really awful,” admits one minister.

With deep suspicions of each other, matters were not helped by Ross’ description of Kenny as a “political corpse” in his Sunday Independent column.

In response, there was an active briefing campaign against Ross by Fine Gael ministers, which “pissed off” the Independent Alliance.

“We had loads of rows, in the first few months at Cabinet. Shane and Finian were in rows all the time. Every judge that was proposed, Shane and Finian were chasing them, checking their political affiliation and religion almost,” says one minister.

For some Independents it was akin to master and servant.

“They believe they are Cicero and we were the servants who needed to be schooled,” says one about working with Fine Gael.

What is not known is how close the Government came to collapsing over the issue of abortion.

When then Independent TD Mick Wallace tabled a vote to liberalise abortion in July 2016, Ross, McGrath and the rest of the Independent Alliance felt they had to support it.

The only problem was the then AG Maire Whelan said it was not constitutional and had to be opposed. The Alliance demanded a free vote on what they saw was an issue of conscience. Kenny was adamant such a free vote was not possible.

“Just six weeks into government, it looked like it was over. It got out of control and we didn’t know where it was going,” says one source.

Several Alliance members made “militant statements” that they were voting with Wallace’s bill. Kenny was apoplectic, warning he was not going to accept that.

Ross and Kenny “went eyeball to eyeball” and when Ross went on Morning Ireland to say they were voting for Wallace’s bill, the collision course was set.

“Ross made the commitment publicly then and he didn’t know what was going to happen or how Fine Gael would react. It was the 11th hour and high stakes. At Cabinet, a very weakened Kenny eventually backed down at the last minute, but had he not, it was over,” admits a minister.

But the scars of those early battles have lingered. When Finian McGrath made ill-judged comments in 2019 to the media about the need to de-politicise the gardaí, ministers Charlie Flanagan and Patrick O’Donovan put the boot in.

McGrath said he was “thrown under the bus” by Flanagan who called the comments “bewildering and bizarre”.

“That pissed us off,” says one Independent source.

Even in recent weeks there has been tension among the sides over what has seen to be “active briefing” against Katherine Zappone by Fine Gael ministers over the botched Childcare scheme for frontline workers.

“That has annoyed the hell out of us but because of Covid, we didn’t make a huge deal of it. But they are the ones who lecture us about collective cabinet decision making and they were doing that to her,” one minister stated.

Shane Ross

Without doubt, Ross became a lightning rod for controversy within Cabinet and beyond.

Shane Ross became a focal point of controversy.
Shane Ross became a focal point of controversy.

While many ministers have said that since Varadkar became Taoiseach, the vast majority of relations have been cordial, there have been a small number of exceptions and Ross has generally been at the centre of them.

The two big issues of annoyance with Ross were his “quest” to reform the judiciary and his controversial drink-driving legislation.

“It would really annoy us when Shane thought he was Minister for Justice. Sometimes, he had more interest in Charlie Flanagan’s brief than his own. Charlie was remarkably patient with Ross,” says one minister.

“The attacks on Ross were not political, they were accurate. He rarely brings a memo from his own department, when he does you are not sure if he is across them properly or has he just been handed them by his officials. He picks fights on petty issues. I wouldn’t be overly impressed by him,” says another.

Others have countered that because Ross and McGrath made such an issue of the judges, there was a tendency at Cabinet for the likes of Michael Creed and Flanagan to “put him through the ringer” when he was bringing a memo.

Even those ministers who would be more supportive of Ross say he didn’t “play well with others”.

“Shane could be very black and white, stubborn. He was too black and white and as a result made a lot of enemies,” says one minister.

The other matter which caused internal Cabinet conflict was the Minister for Transport’s drink driving legislation.

While it had been painted as a Fine Gael versus Independent Alliance row, Cabinet sources say it was far more of an urban-rural divide.

“Paschal, Leo, Harris and Coveney were very supportive of Shane in terms of the main thrust of the bill. Others however like Ringer, Creed and Heather were opposed and that became quite fraught,” a minister says.

The Main Players

Within any grouping, there are leaders and followers.

According to all who contributed to this, one minister more than any other since 2016 held authority at Cabinet and that was Michael Noonan.

“Noonan had the experience and the hard yards behind him. When he spoke, which was not often, people listened. He held huge sway at Cabinet before he left. And at times he has been missed,” says one minister.

Donohoe since 2017 has occupied both finance ministries and while he has not matched Noonan’s experience, few doubt his ability.

“A good contribution at Cabinet should be 90 seconds. Paschal is very good at it. He says his three or four things, he always has his list. But most importantly, his contributions are informed and people listen, because they tend to be about money,” says one minister.

“His relationship with Leo is the key axis in Government,” says another.

Tánaiste Simon Coveney is another who comes in for praise.

Certainly one of the most diligent ministers, his colleagues say, even if he is prone to bouts of verbosity.

“Simon is great and hardworking but does tend to go on. Michael Creed could be one who would contribute and go on for a long time, it must be a Cork thing. Both Coveney and Creed tend to be quite long-winded. Coveney is very good if only he could be 10% quicker,” quips one colleague.

One minister who has enjoyed a resurgence in recent times is Simon Harris. Because of Covid-19, he has been brought into the inner sanctum of the “Army Council” as some ministers who are not in it call it.

Minister for Health Simon Harris with a model of the National Children’s Hospital. One of the Government’s worst moments was the mishandling of the project in December 2018 when the price tag jumped by €400m overnight. Picture: SamBoal/Rollingnews.ie
Minister for Health Simon Harris with a model of the National Children’s Hospital. One of the Government’s worst moments was the mishandling of the project in December 2018 when the price tag jumped by €400m overnight. Picture: SamBoal/Rollingnews.ie

“A superb communicator, it is sometimes hard to get any media time with Harris doing three slots a day on TV and radio,” says a senior colleague.

There are some, including in Fine Gael, who clearly resent Harris’ high profile in the media with some labelling him a “sole trader”.

One minister who is “underrated” according to colleagues is Eoghan Murphy, the Housing Minister.

Described as “one of the most intelligent people at the table” by one independent minister, Murphy has also endured a torrid time in Housing.

At the other end of the spectrum, ministers spoken to offered the names of Paul Kehoe, Michael Ring, Mary Mitchell O’Connor, Zappone and Ross as either among the quieter or less effective people sitting around the table.

Resignation at Dawn

One of the most dramatic episodes that Varadkar’s government encountered was the circumstances which led to the resignation of his tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald in November 2017.

“That was a moment I’ll never forget. And just how it happened was bizarre,” says a minister.

Following the inability of the Department of Justice to properly answer questions about the treatment of Sgt Maurice McCabe at the O’Higgins Commission, Fitzgerald found herself at the centre of a political storm.

After a weekend of crisis talks between Varadkar and Micheál Martin, the Taoiseach was left in no doubt that a resignation was needed for the Government to survive.

Frances Fitzgerald: One of the most dramatic episodes that Varadkar’s government encountered was the circumstances which led to the resignation of his tánaiste in November 2017.
Frances Fitzgerald: One of the most dramatic episodes that Varadkar’s government encountered was the circumstances which led to the resignation of his tánaiste in November 2017.

Fitzgerald, who had been justice minister at the time of the O’Higgins Commission, was in the firing line and pressure came on her to stand down to spare the country a general election.

The night before Cabinet, there was a botched release of emails which appeared to cast doubt on Fitzgerald’s position about what she knew of how McCabe was to be treated on the stand by lawyers acting for the Garda commissioner.

The morning of Cabinet, Fitzgerald bowed to the inevitable and offered Varadkar her resignation in his office. It was a disastrous start to his term as Taoiseach.

The normal pre-Cabinet meeting of Fine Gael ministers was cancelled.

“While her resignation was somewhat expected, it was still not fully clear what was going back and forth right to the last minute and nothing was quite inevitable that morning as to what was going to happen.

“Eventually, Frances appears down in the ante-room and had a cup of tea. She doesn’t disclose her intention to any of us. Then the Cabinet meeting starts and she announces her resignation and left the Cabinet.

“It was like a political assassination before my own eyes. It was one of those moments and you ask yourself ‘did that actually happen.’ It shows how you can be there one minute and gone the next,” describes a minister.

The Children’s Hospital

One of the Government’s worst moments was the mishandling of the National Childrens’ Hospital in December 2018 when the price tag for the project jumped by €400m overnight.

It was a collective Cabinet mistake, described as “a fuck up,” by one minister.

In a rush to clear the decks before the Christmas break, Simon Harris tabled a memo for Cabinet detailing the significant cost increase to the project.

“It was never properly communicated across Cabinet in a timely fashion what was going on. When it came, it came at the 11th hour at the last meeting of the year. All this other shit came from health on the same day,” a minister says.

The scale of the problem was underestimated by everyone, another minister now admits.

“No one foresaw just how big a deal it would become. When it did become a big deal, Harris cloaked himself in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and it worked and it damaged Paschal. It took Paschal some time to recover his credibility.” Harris argued for the Government not to do a ‘mea culpa’ but rather defend the cost increases.

Harris was overruled and the Government came out with its hands up, but it was very damaging.

Brexit

Before Covid-19, without question the most consuming matter to confront this Cabinet was Brexit.

Since the British referendum in 2016, the Irish Government went on “a war footing” to combat the fallout of the decision of the UK to leave the EU.

Brexit: On the issue of the Irish border, several ministers have made clear that when it came to the return of border checks, the full truth was not being told.
Brexit: On the issue of the Irish border, several ministers have made clear that when it came to the return of border checks, the full truth was not being told.

After Fitzgerald’s resignation, Coveney was appointed Tánaiste and made Ireland’s Brexit Minister.

As the crisis with Britain escalated, Coveney and Varadkar tightened the circle of trust as to what was going on and many at Cabinet felt excluded.

“It is true there were criticisms and concerns about Coveney becoming too controlling over Brexit. But at the same time, there was a general acceptance that he was doing a bloody good job of it so some people were prepared to go along with it,” says one minister.

Others are less content. “It was not acceptable. Did we not learn anything from the banking crash when a small subset of people made a decision and members of the Cabinet were blindsided? Coveney was way too precious. He’d bollock you out of it when he felt you overspoke or stepped out of line,” says another.

Despite Varadkar’s clampdown on ‘under the arm’ memos, Coveney began bringing quite a few of them, for fear of leaking, which angered many.

“Many would say how am I supposed to approve this when we were getting it for the first time as he delivered it. It was crazy,” says a minister.

On the issue of the Irish border, several ministers have made clear that when it came to the return of border checks, the full truth was not being told.

“I think when it came to the border, very few people knew the full story or answer. Of course, you would plan for all scenarios, that’s prudent, but you don’t necessarily share all of those plans to Cabinet,” admits another.

Given the sheer pace of events, those close to Varadkar have argued that with Brexit, it just simply wasn’t possible to keep the 20 people at Cabinet constantly in the loop on it.

Covid-19

A similar gripe has been articulated by ministers over the response to Covid-19.

Several ministers, who are not on the ‘Covid Army Council’ — which comprises of Varadkar, Donohoe and Harris — have complained that Cabinet has been “effectively sidelined” while a smaller group have made all the decisions.

There too has been “significant tensions” between the politicians and the “permanent government” in the civil service as to who is in charge, ministers say.

Tensions persist between civil service and politicians.
Tensions persist between civil service and politicians.

“I make that point clear at NPHET meetings and at Cabinet that politicians need to make the decisions. Yes, you listen to the advice but it was for the politicians to make the decisions,” says one minister.

Ministers point to the Cabinet meeting in Dublin Castle last Thursday week as a case of the Cabinet flexing its muscles over the civil service.

“It was a welcome reassertion of power by the politicians which had been missing for the previous month or so. That’s the first time in two months that we asserted our authority,” explains one minister.

However, tensions remain.

“There is a significant tension at the moment between the civil service and the current or outgoing government. There is a tension by the fact that you hear senior civil servants say certain decisions are a matter for the next government which does annoy us,” admitted another.

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