GERARD HOWLIN: Apple debacle reveals core truth about incompetence of Cabinet

"If it looks like it is being made up as it goes along, that is because it is"

The real damage caused by the Apple decision is the toxicity of uncertainty it imposes on Ireland’s corporate offering, perhaps for years,’ writes Gerard Howlin

APPLE isn’t the issue; it’s a symptom. So was the fracas in Government over fatal foetal abnormalities.

The underlying problem, one that threatens to be harshly, perhaps fatally, exposed in the budget, is the political incompetence and incapacity of Government to manage its business, as it is currently structured internally.

Today as the Dáil meets to allow those that must pore over the decision to appeal against the decision of the European Commission, another question arises: What school of political management so mishandles an issue expected for months that the immediate response of the finance minister is as immediately washed away so publically?

It took two Cabinet meetings to put Humpty Dumpty together again. The real damage caused by the Apple decision is the toxicity of uncertainty it imposes on Ireland’s corporate offering, perhaps for years.

The damage done to the Government now is that it exposes again how ‘new politics’ is being poured into old wineskins and leaking credibility and capital accordingly.

The structure of the Government is unique in our political experience. It has one much larger party, and three separate Independent ministers.

They are independent of each other and, as we saw with Apple last week, as on fatal foetal abnormalities before, competing with each other too.

Partly, last week’s metaphorical marching of troops up to the top of the hill by Katherine Zappone, before she marched them back down again, was a political response to the reaction she faced when she didn’t follow Shane Ross to the hilltop on fatal foetal abnormalities.

The Independent Alliance then, felt obliged to follow Zappone at least as far as the turn on the road on Apple before, predictably, all turned back together. Denis Naughten seems to have the greater savvy and steadiness, to understand the value of masterly inactivity.

Katherine Zappone
Katherine Zappone

But that is merely to observe political life as it is in this Government. The unaddressed question is how a Government, specifically a Taoiseach, manages politically in all the circumstances now.

The first requirement, before there is any hope of passing a budget, is to measure it politically. Apple, like fatal foetal abnormalities, are single issues, albeit important ones.

A budget is hundreds of issues and potentially dozens of contentious ones, capable of bringing down the Government from within, which is not to speak at all of the challenge of then agreeing with Fianna Fáil without.

In short, nothing the Government has addressed to date, however haplessly, remotely compares with the critical challenge of a budget. This, astonishingly after 70 days of formation, is a Government without any of the structures or staff required to enable it to function on a day-to-day basis, let alone deal with potentially major crises.

There is an assumption both within Fine Gael and more widely, that there is some globular entity called ‘the independents’. It doesn’t exist. Independents, usually arrive in that state either because they are not especially collegial, have sharp elbows, or both.

In the case of Ross and Zappone, it’s both.

Each of the three Independent ministers — Ross of course is joined at the Cabinet table by his Independent Alliance colleague Finian McGrath, a junior minister — effectively have the responsibilities and pretensions of political parties without the structures or supports that go with them.

If it looks like it is being made up as it goes along, that is because it is. It is categorically not the role of civil servants in departments such as Transport or Children, to go mucking around in the politics of a decision such as Apple.

Shane Ross
Shane Ross

 

The departmental advisers of ministers are certainly political, but cannot reasonably do a full-time job and take up vetting whole-of-Government decisions as a hobby.

Every coalition government since the Fianna Fáil-Labour one of the early 1990s have had structures and personnel in place to deal with intra-party politics.

The Rainbow Government of 1994-97 saw the arrival of a much smaller Democratic Left.

It had one minister in Proinsias De Rossa at Social Welfare and Pat Rabbitte at the Cabinet table as a junior minister.

With six TDs, a number of policy advisers were appointed to work with De Rossa. Aside from the structures and undoubted discipline of Democratic Left itself, the Rainbow was a stable, functioning government.

This government, with far more complexity and challenge, has put none of those structures in place. Enda Kenny has, it seems, lost the institutional memory that he should recall from his own first outing at the Cabinet table.

The process of government formation lends some clues as to why this Government is so free-range now.

It was a cartoon of a long weekend in a country house where, in the 19th century, important decisions were made, in between shooting game and guzzling it. All comers came and went at will. Nearly every suggestion was taken on board; it would be rude not to.

It was artful in the circumstances at forming government but dangerous as a template for running one.

Another clue is the structure and culture of the Taoiseach’s own political establishment over years in government.

A legacy of endless paranoid waiting in opposition, for murderous mutiny, which eventually came; its aftermath is an intensely controlling but politically ineffective apparatus incapable of either imagining or managing any wider political project.

One proof of that is the series of government misfortunes that characterised the first half of 2014.

Another is the first day of the election campaign earlier this year.

Singularly and collectively, they got out on the wrong side of the bed that morning, and the campaign never recovered.

Still, the less structure involving Independent ministers across government, the more the illusion of total control is undisturbed on the red-carpeted, hushed corridor leading to the Taoiseach’s office.

The problem is that it is one accident away from being a lot less government, permanently.

Enda Kenny and Michael Noonan
Enda Kenny and Michael Noonan

Kenny and Michael Noonan are survivors of the debacle of February 1982, when Vat on children’s shoes precipitated an election.

Now, with only weeks to go before budget day, building the full scaffolding of a working government would take too long. However, an essential recognition within must be that this Government is not tooled up to work.

One response, which requires firm political direction now, is that the full details of what is being considered should be teased out at length in Cabinet and Cabinet committees.

The greatest danger is any element of surprise.

In parallel, government as a whole, and line ministers as well, must prepare and present their estimates in advance to the relevant Oireachtas committees. Of course, it will be a circus; that’s not the point.

The point is that every opportunist with sharp elbows is given every opportunity to have their day out, on every issue, before budget day itself. Because, if not, then it will be too late.

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