JUST how does a ‘caretaker’ Taoiseach get away with shutting down the country while away on foreign soil, without Cabinet approval and with no mandate to govern?
What Leo Varadkar did on Thursday morning was a most extraordinary act and that it was done in a rush from America only added to the sense of drama.
But was it right and proper?
On Wednesday night, Varadkar was at the annual Ireland Fund Gala Dinner in Washington DC.
With the annual pilgrimage to the United States already curtailed severely by the impact of the coronavirus, his attendance at the dinner was to be interrupted almost as soon as it began.
After making his address, Varadkar left the lavish black-tie dinner to get a full briefing on the situation back home, as well as on US president, Donald Trump’s decision to introduce a sweeping travel ban from many European countries.
Varadkar was speaking to his Tánaiste, Simon Coveney, who had been informed by Health Minister, Simon Harris, and the chief medical officer, Dr Tony Holohan, of the latest recommendation from the National Emergency Health Committee — the Government’s crack team in charge of dealing with the pandemic.
The recommendation was clear: Schools, colleges, childcare facilities, as well as cultural institutions, libraries, and museums would have to be shut for more than two weeks, with immediate effect.
Despite the enormity of the decision, it was not felt necessary, for whatever reason, to summon the cabinet.
As we reported on Thursday night, the decision to execute the shut-down was not subject to Cabinet approval before it was announced. Attempts were made to contact some ministers and inform them of the decision, as opposed to seeking their backing.
Some ministers could not be contacted by Tánaiste Simon Coveney late on Wednesday night, who hadtaken it upon himself to relay the message. The whole affair had strange echoes of the 2008 bank guarantee night, a couple of ministers told me yesterday.
It was agreed that Varadkar, as head of government, would make a statement, early in the morning (Washington time), outside his residence in Blair House, across from the White House.
Ahead of the announcement, opposition leaders, including Micheál Martin, Brendan Howlin, and Mary Lou McDonald, were told of what was to come
When, eventually, he did arrive down the steps of Blair House, Varadkar seemed somewhat dazed by the enormity of what he was announcing, some static interrupting his flow of speech at one point.
In his address, he announced the most stringent limitation on human activity ordered by a government in this State since World War II: “I know that some of this is coming as a real shock and it is going to involve big changes in the way we live our lives. I know that I am asking people to make enormous sacrifices. We’re doing it for each other. Together, we can slow the virus in its tracks and push it back. Acting together, as one nation, we can save many lives,” Varadkar said.
“Our economy will suffer. It will bounce back. Lost time in school or college will be recovered. In time, our lives will go back to normal. Above all, we all need to look out for each other. Ireland is a great nation. And we are great people. We have experienced hardship and struggle before. We have overcome many trials in the past, with our determination and our spirit. We will prevail,” he said.
The Cabinet, given Varadkar’s absence, later formally approved the decision when it met Thursday afternoon.
At the meeting, impact sectoral briefings were delivered by the Tánaiste, Simon Coveney; the Finance Minister, Paschal Donohoe; the Business Minister, Heather Humphreys: the Transport Minister, Shane Ross; the Health Minister, Simon Harris; and the Education Minister, Joe McHugh.
While at the Cabinet meeting, several senior ministers received text messages and picture messages of people ‘panic buying’ goods and it was agreed that pleas must be made to limit such activity.
Publicly, there has been little or no argument with the course of action recommended by Tony Holohan and agreed by Varadkar and Coveney.
The spike in confirmed cases, to 70, announced on Thursday night, reaffirmed this.
Behind the scenes, all is not as calm. The manner of the announcement and the absence of a Cabinet decision raise a point about the execution of power from a mandate-less leader.
On February 8, in the general election, Fine Gael lost 15 seats and came back with 35 TDs in the 33rd Dáil — the first time in history that Fine Gael was not one of the two largest parties in the country.
Did they have the authority to do it? Now, Varadkar and his supporters could rightly point out that nowhere in the Constitution — the sacred bedrock text of our democracy — does it speak of caretaker or acting Taoisigh.
Varadkar is Taoiseach until he is not, with full executive power. It is, rather, political convention that has precluded men in his position from taking any major decisions while government formation talks are ongoing. Because of that political convention, major government decisions are parked until the Dáil can eventually back a Taoiseach.
But this was perhaps the most significant decision taken by the State since the €64bn bank guarantee, again taken late at night, without Cabinet discussion or approval, and done by a leader overseas. This is not insignificant and should not be overlooked.
Another alarming aspect of the announcement is that it came out of the bluefor many at the Department of Education and other departments.
Sources told me that they were hosting a meeting on Thursday morning ,with sectoral education bosses, to discuss how they would plan and announce the closure of schools next week. But those present were informed there and then, at the meeting, like everybody else, that the schools would close that afternoon.
No advance notice. No plans. Schools were left to scramble at a moment’s notice.
The sense from some senior officials was of a rush by an ‘acting’ Taoiseach.
As one senior figure put it to me, by doing what he did, Varadkar runs the huge risk of causing untold damage to the effective operation of the normal emergency planning procedures — well-tried and tested over the years.
The failure, too, to contain the panic buying is another byproduct of the manner in which the announcement was relayed.
Whatever the merits of the decision, we are now five weeks on from election day and this incident has highlighted how much a properly constituted government is required.
Varadkar has made it clear for so long that he wants to lead his party into opposition, but, in truth, he and his battle-weary Fine Gael are gearing up for five more years with Fianna Fáil.
In his closing remarks, Varadkar said the country will, despite this challenge, bounce back and prevail. He is right about that, but did it require him to move right there, right then, at 7am, outside Blair House on Thursday?
Should he and his Government not have taken 24 hours to fully prepare schools, colleges, and parents for such a move?
By not doing that, from within his own administration he has opened himself to the charge that this scenario was driven by image concerns, as opposed to statesmanlike duty.
The crisis is authentic: but was the response?