Intriguing insight into the worklife of Minister Quinn

My column from today’s Evening Herald on Monday night’s RTE 1 #backtoschool documentary “Inside the Department” – a fly on the wall look at life in Education Minister, Ruairi Quinn’s office. 


There are times when you despair at how little choice of TV viewing there appears to be on the domestic channels.

Wesht Wing?
The West Wing’s Toby Ziegler….. not a young Ruairi Quinn TD

Last night was not one of those nights.

You could watch the fly on the wall documentary “Inside the Department” on RTE1 or the latest incarnation of Dallas on TV3.

What a choice. A programme about power, jealousy, feuding, lust, carnality, sumptuous offices, driving ambition, back stabbing, expense accounts and flash cars….. or you could watch JR and Bobby stare it out on Dallas.

As an ex ministerial adviser, I opted for the former and watched “Inside the Department”. Indeed, I not only watched it, I recorded it and watched it a second time.

This was not due to my not believing what I had seen the first time, but rather as a means of catching on the second viewing any gems or nuggets of information I missed on the first viewing.  I needn’t have bothered.

As a PR colleague from the North observed on Twitter last night: like all bad ideas making this documentary probably looked like a good one at the time.

That is not to say it was a bad idea for the producers, far from it. It was interesting programme. The problem is that it did not achieve its goal. It was less a look “inside the department” and more a look at Ruairi Quinn and his kitchen cabinet.

And what a kitchen cabinet it is. I think I counted five of them around a table at one point. When I was a special adviser at the Department of Defence there was just the two of us: me and the Minister’s press adviser. Even so, the then Fine Gael and Labour opposition told us we were over staffed

But even they, notwithstanding their numbers, failed to note that the title of the programme was “Inside the Department” and not “Inside the West Wing”.

They also forgot that they are there as servants of the Minister, not as players. Their role is to aid and assist the minister in implementing government policy. This is work you can best do silently and discreetly.

What possessed them to agree to do interviews to camera and offer what were, in my opinion, smug and ill-considered running commentaries on the events of the day?

Worse still, how did they allow themselves and their Minister to talk so loosely on camera about “summoning” Minister Rabbitte over to the northside and being “wary” of  the planned “off the record” meeting with Rabbitte and a delegation of Labour TDs?

As Minister Quinn said during the programme itself, we all make mistakes, I know that only too well myself, but having such a discussion on camera shows naivety at best.

On the broader front, I got the sense that the neither Minister nor the advisers were ever arguing the public’s side during any discussions: either on the Déis schools or reductions in teacher numbers.

It is called “going native”. It was the accusation that stuck to the last administration after 14 years in office. It is the impression that Ministers and advisers are there to represent and present the policy of the bureaucracy, not the voters.

While it took us the guts of 14 years to that that way, these guys seems to have achieved it in as many weeks.

Listening to them talk and interact with the officials it is almost impossible to believe that they had ever been in opposition. It was if they had no problems with the existing policy and saw it merely as their role to guarantee its seamless and uncritical transmission to the public, with the odd kick at Fianna Fáil thrown in to remind them that this lot is different.

Yes, there were the clips of Ruairi calling the Department “malevolently dysfunction” back in 2010, but where did we see it reflected in his discussion with his officials?

Rather than coming across as our representatives in Government, they came across as the system’s front men to us, more concerned with presentation than substance.

Perhaps the documentary caught the mood of the place accurately, but as someone who believes in the benefits of the adviser system, I sincerely hope it didn’t.


One thought on “Intriguing insight into the worklife of Minister Quinn

  1. Very good analysis of the programme. The public service exists to provide a career for public servants, serving the public is not part of the agenda for too many of the senior management. The politicians and their advisors are either unable, or unwilling to tackle it. Once they get their well remunerated asses on the chairs in government buildings, they take the line of least resistance and defend the status quo.


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