Does Ireland need more experienced Cabinet ministers?

Bold cabinet choices in Canada made headlines last year - but how have those ministers fared during their first 12 months?

Does Ireland need more experienced Cabinet ministers?

Image: Merrion Street

The unveiling of a new Cabinet is one of the most high-profile, semi-regular political pageants in Irish politics.

Under Enda Kenny’s watch, recent reshuffles have been unveiled in photos that are half album cover, half rugby line-out. The new recruits are then led into the Dáil chamber, where we finally find out who got what job. The specifics differ slightly depending on if it’s a whole new Government or just a reshuffle, but it becomes evident rather quickly who has been rewarded and who has been punished. Then it’s off to the Aras for the ministers to collect their seals of office. After that, the real fun begins.

The unveiling of a new Cabinet might be something of a photo opportunity, but really the formation of that line-up is the result of a complex political process. The serving Taoiseach has many different balls to juggle. Loyalists must be rewarded. Bright young newcomers need to be given a shot, albeit sometimes in a way that ‘keeps them in their place’ so to speak. The geography of the country has to be considered to ensure a cross-section of Ireland is represented. Coalition partners - if there are any - must be appeased. A gender balance has become of increasing importance for many observers. Occasionally, some sort of revenge even needs to be exacted.

There are many other factors that go into deciding what TD gets what portfolio. But one important factor isn’t always top of the agenda: the qualifications of the new ministers for their job. In theory, you would definitely hope that ministers have work and education experience appropriate to their department. In reality, that is rarely the case, with political considerations typically - and in some ways understandably, especially in a minority government - the dominant force.

“The current Cabinet is not much different to any great extent,” political analyst Odran Flynn observes. “There are a couple of economic degrees who are in economic ministries, but there are very few who are in jobs that they are actually reasonably qualified for - whether through university or work.”

While every government is, as a matter of course, under constant scrutiny by the media, the opposition and of course the public themselves, two ministers have found themselves the subject of particularly fierce criticism in the first months of the minority government: Mary Mitchell O’Connor and Shane Ross.

Under fire

Ministers receiving their seals of office from President Michael D Higgins. Image: RollingNews.ie

Minister Mitchell O’Connor was handed the jobs portfolio - unquestionably an unusual choice for somebody whose pre-political experience was in teaching (and also as a school principal). Since her appointment, she has reportedly come under fire from members of her own party as well as opposition. Labour’s Alan Kelly has described her handling of Dáil questions as "the worst I have seen in my 10 years in politics".

Odran Flynn observes: “It takes a strong minister with some degree of expertise, or the capacity to get to grips with a portfolio very quickly to counteract [a lack of experience]. In my view she has not displayed any particular expertise in that portfolio at all - and indeed some of her public utterances would suggest she is completely out of her depth”.

Shane Ross, meanwhile, was guaranteed a generous Cabinet position. As head of the Independent Alliance, he was the ‘kingmaker’ for Enda Kenny. However, as Sports and Transport Minister he has hardly had an easy time of it. While some have questioned his suitability for either role, he has also faced high-profile challenges under both portfolios - such as the Olympic ticketing scandal and the various transport strikes. 

Minister Ross has even admitted that he was ‘bested’ by the OCI’s Pat Hickey during a meeting in Rio about the scandal - an admirably honest response for sure, but perhaps not one that encourages confidence either. Only this week, Labour leader Brendan Howlin accused Minister Ross of being “Trumpesque like” - very strong words in the current political environment.

“In Shane Ross’ case it was a job of where they didn’t want to put him rather than where they wanted to put him,” Odran suggests. “There were certain ministries they didn’t want him anywhere near [...] If he was an ordinary [TD] with Fine Gael, I suspect he wouldn’t be in the Cabinet.”

In such cases, it would be hard to argue that somebody with more suitable background experience may be a stronger choice. And yet even recent history has shown that a theoretical suitability for the job does not necessarily lead to success.

Take the Department of Health. The two previous ministers - James Reilly and Leo Varadkar - had medical backgrounds, but their performances were generally criticised (Reilly’s in particular). Certainly it’s an almost thankless ministry for anybody given the vast demands and constant struggle for resources, but even with that in mind those ministers struggled.

James Reilly and Leo Varadkar. Image: Rollingnews.ie

The current Health Minister, meanwhile, is Simon Harris, the young Fine Gael star with seemingly little in the way of applicable experience. While it is still early days, he seems to be performing capably.

“The problem with the Department of Health is that it’s completely and utterly controlled by the administration there,” Odran argues. “Basically you have to be able to take on the senior administrators in the HSE and if you want to do something you have to effectively outflank them.

“You would think that the likes of Varadkar and Reilly should’ve been able to do that - they should know the inside track. But the other side of that coin is that the administrators know them too and know what angle they’re going to be taking and can counter that. Somebody coming in with a fresh face? it’s worth giving it a shot. All the other ways have failed.”

A difficult start doesn't always spell disaster either - and that's why it can be hard to assess ministerial performance after only a few months. “Heather Humphreys got similar if not worse coverage to Mary Mitchell O’Connor has gotten," Odran said. "But in fairness to her, I think over the last year she has come out of it fairly well."

Would a Taoiseach ever bring in an exceptionally qualified ‘outsider’ to serve as a minister? Odran believes it’s very unlikely, and largely without precedent.

“The closest I can think about is Garrett Fitzgerald back in the early 80s brought in a guy called James Dooge into Foreign Affairs who wasn’t a TD,” he recalled. “He was appointed to the Seanad and then made Minister for Foreign Affairs, because Fitzgerald reckoned he had the ability Ireland needed when they’re dealing overseas with foreign government. [He was] somebody who was brought in from the outside, and never became a TD. He was a minister operating from the Seanad.”

Even that exceptional case was within the confines of the Fine Gael party. Crossing party lines entirely remains one of the most deeply ingrained political taboos.

How does Ireland compare to our international neighbours?

Theresa May’s recent appointments in the UK followed a relatively similar pattern to most Irish Cabinet appointments - albeit with some curveballs like the appointment of Boris Johnson as foreign secretary. In the US, Donald Trump is continuing to put together his administration ahead of his January inauguration. For the most part he has generously rewarded those who served as his allies during the election. It should be pointed out that US presidents have illustrated some degree of willingness in the past to make appointments across party lines - although this has yet to carry over to Trump’s new team.

If there’s one example really worth highlighting, it’s the current Canadian cabinet. Now there’s plenty of conditions to note when it comes to any comparisons. Ireland has a small parliament compared to Canada - and indeed most of our neighbours - instantly restricting choice. Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party, for example, has a healthy majority of 182 MPs in the House of Commons - which, of course, is a significantly larger number than the entire population of TDs in the Dáil, even without taking any political divides into account.

Still, Trudeau’s cabinet received an unusual amount of attention both in Canada and internationally.

Speaking to Newstalk, John Geddes - the Ottawa Bureau Chief of Maclean’s Magazine - says the appointments “were received almost ecstatically by [Trudeau’s] base. There was a combination of factors there. One was that he famously had a gender balanced cabinet - an equal number of men and women for first time in Canada. Then he also had, in a cabinet of roughly 30, 18 rookies to politics. So that was highly unusual - usually Canadian cabinets are made up of grizzled veterans.”

John explained that Trudeau’s ministers are a “combination of really risky and bold choices on some rookies who had interesting life experience but very little political experience - and then a sprinkling of known-quantity veterans in a few jobs.” Ottawa newcomers were appointed to ministries such as the environment and health. Even finance went to a first time MP.

Of the rookies, John highlighted Harjit Sajjan as an unusual choice for defence minister. Sajjan is a Sikh - one of four in the Trudeau cabinet - and a first time MP. “There was a strong betting line that Trudeau was going to make a former general who is in his caucus the defence minister,” John said. “Instead it want to Sajjin. He had been quite a celebrated intelligence operative for both the Canadians and Americans in Afghanistan - so he was a brave and innovative soldier in the field, but he hadn’t really run anything on a large scale. So taking this guy and making him defence minister was seen as a bold move - and Sajjan has performed pretty well, so it seems to be panning out.”

Some of the veterans were also deployed in noteworthy ways. For example, John McCallum is a long-serving politician who was given the immigration portfolio. Trudeau had promised during the election to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees into Canada in a short space of time - a goal they achieved earlier this year, albeit after some delays and changes to the original plan. “It was a job where they needed someone who could hit the ground running,” John explained. “And indeed McCallum got moving pretty fast on that file.”

'A couple of disappointments'

The Trudeau cabinet has now been in place for just over a year. How have they fared?

John observed: “I think the biggest disappointment in cabinet would probably be the foreign minister Stephane Dion, who has been seen to have stumbled a couple of times. That is a bit of a surprise because he is a veteran and former leader of the Liberal party.

"Among the rookies… there’s a woman named Maryam Monsef who was given a junior cabinet job [in] democratic institutions - but it’s nevertheless been quite high profile as there’s a push to have some electoral reform here. She’s been in charge of that and at best you could say the jury is still out on her.

“There have been some stand out, positive things - but there have also been at least a couple of disappointments,” he concluded.

Perhaps one trend to note from the Canadian situation is the need for parliamentarians with a range of experiences. When a majority party enjoys diverse representation within its own ranks, then a prime minister will have greater choice in choosing between veterans and newcomers for key positions while still staying ‘within the party’.

Obviously, Ireland currently has a minority government, which makes such things considerably more difficult - and even when there's a comfortable majority you're still likely looking at a relatively small group of TDs. Odran suggested he couldn’t see anybody from another party - let alone an outside expert - being brought in to Enda Kenny’s cabinet. “They don’t want to destabilize it by bringing someone in from outside, because there’d be people inside saying ‘why wasn’t I given that job?’”

You’re never going to remove the politics from cabinet selection - it’s a key feature of parliamentary democracies, and isn't going anywhere without radical political change. And there’s no magic formula for appointments. Seemingly ideal choices can turn out to be disasters, while unusual choices can achieve unexpected success.

Ireland will always be restricted by our size, leaving Taoisigh with limited choices. But for the electorate, cases like Canada have shown that perhaps we should be more ambitious when it comes to choosing our TDs - a Taoiseach will never be able to experiment with ministerial choices unless he or she has a group of deputies with diverse life experience to work with in the first place.