Simon Coveneny controversy: If the rules on state cars can be ignored, what else can be flouted?

Whatever about whether the minister for foreign affairs should have a state car, there must be transparency and proper decision making in government, writes Labour leader Alan Kelly
Simon Coveneny controversy: If the rules on state cars can be ignored, what else can be flouted?
The controversy surrounding the allocation of a state car to Minister for Foreign Affairs  Simon Coveney has an importance beyond the efficient use of central resources. Picture: Niall Carson/PA Wire

The controversy surrounding the allocation of a state car to the Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has an importance beyond the efficient use of central resources. 

Aside from what might be seen as a refusal to yield up one of the perks of being Tánaiste, there is an important constitutional issue at play.

As set out in a 2011 cabinet decision, the minister for foreign affairs does not get a state car. 

Charlie Flanagan held that ministry from 2014 to 2017 without one. Mr Coveney previously qualified for a state car because he was Tánaiste.

It now transpires that caretaker taoiseach Leo Varadkar, as almost his last official act, asked his most senior civil servant to contact his counterpart in the Department of Justice, in order to secure the retention of a state car for Simon Coveney in the next government even though he would no longer be entitled to one, as he would no longer be Tánaiste.

As I pointed out in the Dáil last week, there are five troubling aspects to this: 

  • that the request was made by the current Tánaiste (when he was taoiseach) for a minister that had not yet been appointed to a government still to be formed;
  • the current Taoiseach Micheál Martin knew nothing about the request;
  • the minister for justice knew nothing about the request;
  • there has been no change to the 2011 cabinet decision to allocate cars to just the taoiseach, tánaiste and minister for justice and that this still stands;
  • there is no paper record of decision-making concerning the allocation

In short, there was no new cabinet decision on the matter and the process was not apparently disclosed to Cabinet.

These facts raise concerns beyond the already important issue of accountability in the allocation of a state car. 

Whatever about whether the minister for foreign affairs should have a state car, there must be transparency and proper decision making in government.

The Government made a collective decision in 2011. 

The former taoiseach Leo Varadkar, who was part of that cabinet, has now simply ignored that decision and used a civil service back-channel to procure a state car in breach of the rules, which remain unchanged.

In our constitutional regime neither the Taoiseach nor individual ministers can simply ignore the rules. There is collective cabinet responsibility, and that collective has decided not to allocate a state car to the minister for foreign affairs

The current government has not changed the rules. In fact, it seems the new Taoiseach and other cabinet ministers were not even aware of the allocation of a state car or that the allocation was in breach of a previous and binding cabinet decision. 

Alan Kelly: "Whatever about whether the minister for foreign affairs should have a state car, there must be transparency and proper decision making in government."
Alan Kelly: "Whatever about whether the minister for foreign affairs should have a state car, there must be transparency and proper decision making in government."

The Cabinet Handbook sets out how items are put on the agenda for discussion and decision. 

In addition, proposals requiring a government decision should be the subject of a memorandum from the responsible minister. This all seems to have been wholly ignored.

Good governance and the rule of law necessarily involve transparency of decision-making, and adherence by the rule-makers to the rules they have made. Not only has there been no change in the rules, but there seems to be no paper record of the June 2020 allocation, which raises serious issues as to accountability.

If there was a reason to change the allocation rules, such as the security issue belatedly referenced by the Taoiseach, the correct place to consider that issue and change the rules of allocation was at cabinet. 

Put it on the agenda, set out the relevant evidential basis, let the members of cabinet each have their say and proceed to vary the existing decision and rules or not.

It was plain wrong for Leo Varadkar, who was then taoiseach, to draw in senior civil servants to circumvent the fundamental democratic requirement for a new Cabinet decision to extend the perk to his colleague.

The explanation given only creates further questions as to why individual members of the outgoing cabinet made decisions that seemed binding on the next cabinet, without the new government even knowing.

Put simply, what occurred was and remains constitutionally improper. 

The Government is the executive organ of the State; it acts collectively. Acting as that collective, it made a decision and it is not for individual members to change those decisions. 

If the rules for the allocation of state cars can simply be departed from, then what else may take place? Do Cabinet decisions mean nothing? Are individual ministers at large to ignore them?

Adherence by decision makers to their own rules is at the heart of the rule of law. Proper decision-making lies at the core of democratic accountability and cannot simply be ditched for political expediency.

These are concerns that go to the heart of decision-making, far beyond the individual issue in this instance. They must be addressed and fully answered by the Government.

- Alan Kelly is leader of the Labour Party

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