GERARD HOWLIN: Fennelly: Rare insight into how power is routinely administered

Alan Shatter and Martin Callinan: Key institutional relationships broke down in a classic case history of the importance of who know what, and when.

Only for the extraordinary consequences of ensuing events, we would never have been any wiser, writes Gerard Howlin


The most important thing about life on top of the pile, is not how important you are, it’s how dependent you are. The bigger the pile, the greater the dependence.

What the Fennelly report into the retirement of former Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan brings home is how powerful but, how dependent a Taoiseach, or indeed any minister is.

It is all about what you are told and, equally importantly, what you are not being told. It is unlikely, indeed it is practically impossible, that you would know more than 10% of what is going on at a given moment.

Part of the ‘service’ the civil service provides is to filter and distill the information you receive. Key tools in the process include not only appropriate editing, but also a judicious use of timing. It is not only what you know, it is when you are told it that counts.

The only appropriate relationship between a minister, and their public servants is one of mutual paranoia. It should also, to be successful, be leavened with friendly working relations.

The friendship should never blossom to the point of becoming an antidote to suspicion. The suspicion should never become as crude as to become an obstacle to ostensible friendship. Holding these two in the balance, the need to get on with and, the imperative never to be gotten the better of, is a finely-honed skill.

Public servants, apparently subservient functionaries, possess the most powerful of attributes, which is security of tenure. They collectively, if not individually, enjoy what always runs out on politicians in the end — namely time. Politicians, or at least the ones who become ministers, theoretically enjoy in our Irish system an expanse of power, almost unrivalled by their European counterparts.

An Irish minister is a ‘corporation sole’. That term and the idea behind it is ultimately theological. The medieval concept of the king’s two bodies, was based on the theory that while his physical body might die, the body politic was timeless. Hence the acclaim ‘the king is dead, long live the king’.

A body might be in the grave but, its power passed on undivided and intact. In time, the king’s power was increasingly delegated to his ministers. The 1924 Ministers and Secretaries Act is the source in our system of the minister as a ‘corporation sole’ and expressly provides that Irish ministers “shall have perpetual succession and an official seal”. The pretensions of kingship, delegated to his ministers, transported into the new state and still intact; but ridiculous.

It is the great pretension and great nonsense of the Irish political system that ministers are in any effective way responsible for the administration, as distinct from political direction, of their departments. Yes in theory they are.

This unrealisable power, is in fact a form of institutional entrapment. It creates a dependency, a permanent Faustian pact, between senior civil servants and their supposed political masters. Politicians are dependent on an administrative system, they usually have few skills and fewer levers to control. In return for being ‘minded’ they reciprocate by leaving the system intact. No reform, and no reforming minister, has ever dared encroach on the lack of responsibility enjoyed by secretaries general in the Irish system. Theoretically hardly more than flunkeys, they enjoy the largest span of undefined, and ultimately unaccountable power, in the State.

What Fennelly provides is a partial glimpse of one aspect of this conundrum. It is a classic case history of the importance of who knew what, and when. The former Secretary General of the Department of Justice, Brian Purcell, received a letter from then Commissioner Callinan on March 10 2014 about the historic recording of phone calls in Garda stations. His failure to pass this on to his minister Alan Shatter shaped events, and left him between the cross-hairs. In this regard Fennelly provides a rare insight into the common place actuality of how power is routinely administered. Only for the extraordinary consequences of ensuing events, we would never have been any wiser. It was essentially because the official system failed to deliver on its part of the unspoken bargain, namely to mind its office holders, that key institutional relationships broke down. The body count includes a former Garda Commissioner, a former Minister for Justice and a former Secretary General at that department.

The official system, of course will have a different perspective. It will be based on the truth, that administrative cock-ups aside, it is ultimately impossible to help those who cannot help themselves. Alan Shatter may have been a brilliant, reforming minister for justice, but he hadn’t a jot of political cop-on. He had become a political liability for his own Taoiseach, and for that there is no cure or absolution. The former commissioner had lost public confidence, and his continued leadership of the force did not equate to a confidence building measure of any sort. It wasn’t the system, it was the Taoiseach who appointed Shatter, and the Attorney General Máire Whelan. She of course was the personal pick of the former tánaiste Eamon Gilmore. There is more than a subtext to all of this that part of the underlying problem was not only Enda Kenny’s ebbing confidence in Alan Shatter, but in a dysfunction in the relationship between Whelan and Shatter. For the survivors, it is unlikely that things will ever be the same again.

The bigger picture, is that events and decisions are played out above the shifting tectonic plates of administrative and political systems which even when they are not actively competing, are never fully aligned. Within each of course is a bear pit of competing personalities and agendas. Any place else, and it would simply be office politics. In politics, it is of national consequence, sometimes.

Astonishingly a few politicians after giving the best years of their life to getting elected, and re-elected, finally arrive in office only to sink into the oblivion of its rapidly passing comforts.

Others, whose paranoia and contrarianism is uncontrollable cannot move-on from the guerrilla warfare of internecine constituency politics or the opportunism of opposition to the institutional stature, required of ministers.

Most, if they have any sense, look the part and endeavour to speak with sense and to solicit the goodwill of their officials and lie awake at night wondering what they are actually up to.

If there is ever any doubt about the transitory nature of political power ministers all know without being told that there is one important file being prepared in their departments, which they will not be shown. It is the file prepared for their successor, setting out the issues that must be addressed. A November election is improbable but possible, so very likely it already exists in draft form at least. There may be a body in the grave, but political powers passes intact. The new office holder, like the last “shall have perpetual succession and an official seal”. The king is dead, long live the king.

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