Who needs junior ministers without a clearly defined job description?

THE controversy about whether Seán Haughey was shafted or just plain peed off has been an entirely spurious one.

The weekend stories to the effect that he was considering running as an independent in the next election were a laugh.

There was about as much chance of Seán Haughey, whose father and grandfather both led Fianna Fáil, leaving that party as there is of George W Bush trying to seek a third term as a Democrat.

The controversy has been interesting enough at one level in that it has shown up a side of the Taoiseach that, generally speaking, he prefers not to let us see. In particular, the side-of-the-mouth briefing against Síle de Valera, suggesting in effect that her reluctance to resign was the real problem, is deeply unworthy of any leader. If the Taoiseach thinks a junior minister should resign or retire, he's the boss, and he should act like one, not go around dropping hints to her local radio station.

And the row has also raised another interesting question. What exactly is a junior minister? What do they do? Why do we need them? Junior ministers have no constitutional status whatsoever they're not even mentioned there. They're appointed by the Government and answerable only to the Government.

They're no more accountable to the Dáil than any other TD, and have no responsibility whatever for the policies of their departments. Quite the contrary, in fact the original law that created the job specified that no matter what function was delegated to the junior minister, "the delegation shall not remove or derogate from the responsibility of the minister of the Government for the exercise or performance of the statutory powers and duties thereby delegated".

It was Jack Lynch who invented ministers of state, or junior ministers. Up to then, very busy members of the Government had what they called parliamentary secretaries who assisted them in carrying out their overall workload. If you were appointed as a parliamentary secretary to a minister, you were supposed to be able to handle any aspect of their brief, stand in for them in the Dáil and represent them at public meetings. There were a small number of parliamentary secretaries (for 40 years the law limited the total to seven), and it was considered a real distinction in a politician's career to get the job. But very few parliamentary secretaries were ever considered to be junior ministers.

One notable exception was the late Frank Cluskey who served as parliamentary secretary to Brendan Corish in the 1973-'77 coalition government. Corish, as well as being Tánaiste, was Minister for Health and Social Welfare, and effectively handed over the social welfare half of his brief to Cluskey.

He used the opportunity to introduce a great many innovations in social welfare, especially in relation to widows and lone parents. He frequently attended cabinet meetings in those years to explain new policy proposals, and was widely seen as a minister in all but name.

There was some muttering from time to time that Cluskey was exceeding the powers normally granted to a parliamentary secretary, but he was generally seen as extremely successful and influential in pushing out the boundary of his brief. When Jack Lynch returned to office in 1977, virtually the first decision he announced was to increase the number of parliamentary secretaries to 10, and to change their title and role. Speaking in the Dáil on the day he was elected Taoiseach, he announced his decision to increase the number of parliamentary secretaries above seven.

"I have already indicated my intention of appointing ministers who will not be members of the Government," he said. "Whether they will be designated junior ministers or ministers of state, or by another title, I have yet to decide. In my view there is a clear need to appoint such junior ministers to help members of the Government who have especially heavy workloads by reason of modern developments and international commitments."

Because the law needed to be changed to allow an increase in the number of parliamentary secretaries and a change in their title, several months passed before the full complement of 10 were appointed.

In the debate on the legislation underpinning the new role, much emphasis was laid on the increasing size and complexity of the brief that ministers had to carry, and in some quarters the job done by Frank Cluskey was seen as the model on which the new junior ministerial role should be based. There was little or no opposition at the time to the idea that a second layer of government, with junior ministers doing challenging work, was needed.

BUT, as is often the case in Ireland, when they changed the law they stopped half way. The new law made it legally permissible to delegate some functions to junior ministers, but there was no requirement to do so. And the law established that no matter what was delegated, the senior minister retained full responsibility.

Ever since then there have been two kinds of junior minister (and, of course, the number has grown considerably with several changes in law being introduced to increase the ceiling on the number) those with delegated functions and those without. And guess what? You can usually tell at a glance which is which. The junior ministers who have delegated functions and a defined role are generally seen as useful, hard-working, and capable of influencing the course of events. The junior ministers who don't have a delegation are generally among the most anonymous it is possible to find in any parliament in the world.

Of course it doesn't follow as night follows day that delegation means success. Our newest junior minister, Mary Wallace, was designated as Minister for Disabilities in her last incarnation, and was not widely regarded as a triumph in that role.

But being appointed as a junior minister without clear delegated functions is a bit like being appointed as a very well-paid messenger boy or girl. No politician worth his or her salt should ever accept the job. Needless to say, I can't think of any politician who has ever turned one down.

Often in the formation of a coalition, this issue of delegation and real functions has been central to the negotiations. In fact, it's one of the unseen advantages of real coalitions that if you're a junior minister from one party, and the senior minister in your department is from another party, you'll pay extra care to the job description you get.

As a junior minister way back when, for example, Mary Harney wouldn't have had the authority to bring about the end of Dublin smog if she hadn't had a proper delegation order.

Several examples of that sort exist among politicians of all parties. But they are seriously outweighed by the number of people who have come and gone without ever making the slightest impact in jobs that were never defined in the first place.

Either the junior minister job should matter, or it shouldn't exist in the first place. Rather than worrying about poor Seán Haughey's feelings, I wish the Taoiseach would take a long hard look at the job description instead.

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