Daniel McConnell: Coalition acts early to establish how it will deal with inevitable clashes

On taking office in 2011, then Taoiseach Enda Kenny, his Tánaiste and Labour leader Eamon Gilmore had a frank heart to heart.
Daniel McConnell: Coalition acts early to establish how it will deal with inevitable clashes

On taking office in 2011, then Taoiseach Enda Kenny, his Tánaiste and Labour leader Eamon Gilmore had a frank heart to heart.

The leaders were clear that for the coalition to succeed, they had to be able to trust each other and avoid springing surprises on each other.

This discussion led to the creation of one of one of the most controversial cabals in modern Irish politics.

What they developed was a four-man committee – made up of Kenny, Gilmore and their two finance ministers Brendan Howlin and Michael Noonan – known as the Economic Management Council (EMC).

The real cabinet within cabinet, at a time of such economic turmoil for the country, those in it defended it as a necessary clearing house at the top of the coalition as a means of avoiding rows and ensuring agreement between the parties on divisive issues.

As it never leaked, it became a very important driver of government business when significant cuts to spending were being implemented.

Other ministers like Joan Burton hated it, branding it as a significant usurper of the power and influence of the cabinet.

“The EMC was deeply divisive. Those who were excluded said it rendered cabinet to nothing more than a rubberstamping talking shop. Kenny and Gilmore, and Noonan and Howlin, valued it as they knew the minute any sensitive matters went to Cabinet, they would leak,” one senior source said.

The EMC was effectively dropped when Burton became Tánaiste in 2014 and there was no need for one in 2016 when Fine Gael re-entered the minority government with the Independent Alliance.

With the creation of Micheál Martin’s tripartite coalition on Saturday, much attention is now shifting as to how his government will operate and more importantly how it will deal with the inevitable clashes.

What the three parties – Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Greens – have decided to do is to create a “Government Coordination Cabinet Committee".

“This Committee, comprising of the leaders of each Party in Government, shall meet each week in advance of Cabinet, and on other occasions when deemed necessary. In addition to the party leaders, the Secretary-General to the Government shall attend save for political discussions, as shall nominated advisers to the party leaders. Other ministers, officials and advisers may attend by invitation of the Leaders,” a key government document sets out.

This meeting will have four standing items - to review the activity of cabinet committees; to review the agenda for that week’s cabinet meeting; to discuss political priorities; and to review implementation of a specified element of the Programme for Government.

The Taoiseach made it clear in recent days that if there is an issue of concern to any party, this inner committee is the forum for its resolution.

Mr Martin said that once every three months there shall be a full-day meeting of the Government Coordination Committee in order to take a longer-term perspective on the performance of the Government and this shall include a more detailed review of actions on priority issues.

However, in a bid to avoid a repeat of the resentment which built up toward the EMC, the committee of the leaders “will not be a decision-making body and all relevant decisions will be referred to Cabinet”.

“Micheál is a believer in the primacy of cabinet and is keen to make sure all three parties are on board,” said one source.

Another big change from Varadkar’s term as Taoiseach is that Mr Martin is to restore many of the Cabinet sub-committees.

Varadkar preferred a more direct man to man style with his ministers, feeling sub committees under Kenny became too big and lost their impact.

However, it is clear that a reformed structure of cabinet committee will be established within two weeks of the coming to office of the new Government. The membership of each committee will reflect the balance within the Government and the responsibility for chairing different committees will be shared between An Taoiseach, An Tánaiste and the Leader of the Green Party.

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