Michael Clifford: Caretaker Cabinet must be accountable

The stewardship of the State right now should be a matter of grave concern. Yet it is attracting little attention, writs Michael Clifford.
Michael Clifford: Caretaker Cabinet must be accountable
Health minister Simon Harris signed the order to give effect to sweeping new regulations on the evening of April 7 - but were the Taoiseach, Cabinet, and the Opposition in complete agreement? We don’t know. Picture: PA

The stewardship of the State right now should be a matter of grave concern. Yet it is attracting little attention, writs Michael Clifford.

We are in the middle of the biggest public health and economic crisis since independence. Huge decisions are being made.

Money and power are being doled out as it never would in ordinary times. And we don’t know who exactly is calling the shots and whether, in doing so, the elasticity of the Constitution is being tested to its limit.

There also appears to be little urgency attached to reverting to the democratic norm of governance by an elected administration.

A caretaker Government is in charge of the country.

Normal convention dictates that such an administration would not take any serious decisions if avoidable. Unfortunately, what has occurred has been unavoidable. Multiple measures to alleviate the worst of the crisis have been necessary.

But has the Government acted in a manner befitting its caretaker status?

Take the draconian powers granted to the gardaí around the movement of people outside their homes, particularly beyond the 2km limit.

The Dáil debated these and other new laws required to tackle the virus on March 19. It was a rushed affair in which the health minister Simon Harris said he hoped he would never have to use the new powers, but that there was a requirement to have them on hand.

The regulations were discussed at a Cabinet meeting on April 7.

Reportedly, Leo Varadkar, among others, expressed reservations about granting the Gardaí such powers.

Later that day, the Taoiseach’s spokesman told reporters that his position was the same as he had enunciated the previous day when he had stated that he was reluctant to introduce the powers.

Despite that, some hours later, on the evening of April 7, Simon Harris signed the order to give effect to the regulations.

Was the Taoiseach in complete agreement? Was the Cabinet? Were the Opposition informed that Mr Harris’ hopes expressed when the Oireachtas passed the law were now dashed?

Last Thursday in the Dáil, Independent TD Catherine Connolly referenced the sitting in March where these powers were granted.

“I gave my support to draconian legislation where absolutely no attempt to contextualise such legislation within a human rights perspective or to frame, indeed, the operation of the powers given to Garda and undefined medical officers,” she said.

She went on to point out that her reluctant support was on the basis of a number of issues: “The most important one on which I gave my consent was that we would have full and frank disclosure, full information on every issue from you and the Government.

"And I have to say, significantly, and unacceptably, that part of the bargain has not been kept.”

A failure of any Government to keep the Dáil fully informed during a time of crisis would be worrying.

When the Government in question is acting in a caretaker capacity, some might find the lack of transparency alarming.

Apart from those powers, the Government has also introduced far-reaching legislation to alleviate financial hardship as a result of the crisis.

The cost of the support schemes and other costs associated with the emergency is estimated to be around €9-10bn.

That’s nearly the full envelope of spending that was presented to the electorate in February as being available over the next five years. Gone in a matter of weeks.

All the available evidence suggests that the money has been well directed and that any waste can be attributed to the speed at which it was necessary to act.

But who is responsible for that spending?

Paschal Donohoe is the line minister. Did he act after receiving the full backing and authority of the Cabinet? Or was he part of an ad hoc subcommittee that presented the plan as a fait accompli to most of his Cabinet colleagues?

We don’t know.

To what extent were the leaders of the Opposition kept briefed, as would be expected during a period when a caretaker Government is in place?

We don’t know.

Was advice sought from consultants or experts and if so, who?

What we do know is that in the last economic crisis (remember those calmer days of ordinary madness?) a subcommittee took all the major decisions.

The Fine Gael-Labour coalition that navigated the straits of recovery after the last major recession had an economic council that presented big decisions as a fait accompli to the Cabinet.

Enda Kenny, Eamon Gilmore, Michael Noonan, and Brendan Howlin were in the driving seat.

In retrospect, maybe that narrowing of opinion, experience, and expertise was not optimum management. In any event, they, as a Government, had a mandate. The current administration does not.

Look at some of the other decisions.

Childcare supports are to be welcomed, but how were these supports introduced?

At what was described as a “heated Cabinet meeting” on March 24, children’s minister Katherine Zappone was reported to have “demanded the introduction of significant financial measures” in the childcare area to tackle the corona-virus.

Ms Zappone’s heart and instincts were, in all likelihood, in the right place.

But she is not even a serving member of parliament since the last election. She has no right to demand anything at a Cabinet meeting.

All of that is against a background in which there appears to be little urgency to form a new Government.

Seventy-one days have now passed since the country went to the polls.

On Wednesday, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael published what it advertised as a joint framework document, but which resembled a plea to take them as they are in their new left-wing clothes.

The document was completed following weeks of negotiations, but you’d have to wonder what they had spent the time at.

It is flimsy and aspirational, all-things-to-all-people and potentially reckless.

It promises much in the line of services, housing, and climate change but not a jot on where the money will come from. It won’t come from income tax, as any hike is ruled out.

The only hope is that Santa Claus will no longer be socially isolating by the time everybody sits around the new Cabinet table.

RTÉ reported during the week that it will probably be June before a new Government emerges from the pages of the document.

Is that acceptable in today’s world? In any circumstances, the caretaker Government is supposed to be in place only as long as is absolutely necessary.

We live in a world wracked by upheaval and facing months ahead of uncertainty in how we live; and, most likely, years in which economic hardship now appears likely.

Yet there appears to be no rush to form a Government that will at least have an electoral mandate and be

accountable.

It’s long past the time when the caretakers should be making big decisions and hoarding information as if they were doing so at the will of the people.

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