Though it’s a f/t #Defence Minister we really need, a new MoS would be useful now

I have written several times about the developing crisis in Irish Defence policy-making and the impact this is having on morale and retention in the Irish Defence Forces.  In this Broadsheet post from June 11th, 2019, I suggest how swapping ministers of state might help in the short-term to start the process of addressing this crisis.

Kehoe parade
MoS Defence Paul Kehoe (from Defence Forces Flick A/c)

It takes a rare political talent to make the Irish defence brief controversial, yet the hapless Paul Kehoe appears to have somehow managed it.

Stories of declining morale, chronic low pay, skills shortages and personnel retention problems fill the airwaves, and still the crisis worsens. Defence force strength which should today stand at 9,500 has been hovering perilously below 8,500 for months.

The 9,500 figure is itself misleading. The 2000 Defence White Paper set the number at 10,500. The reduction in 2009 to 9,500 was only intended as a temporary measure, yet it has entered the political psyche as some fixed upper limit.

While very little of the blame for these crises attach personally to Kehoe, realpolitik dictates that the time has come for him to move on. Kehoe must go.

His misfortune is to have been kept on at the same department for eight years and made endure the consequences of his own inactions. A fate his various colleagues at health and housing magnificently avoided.

His is the sin of omission not commission. He has not done something wrong; he has just done nothing. He has not done the same thing that so many of his ministerial colleagues have also managed not to do, namely exercise any political responsibility or accountability.

Like many of his colleagues, he has confused what appears in his own press releases with reality. He has fallen for the media spin that was only intended to beguile the public.

But things are not made true just because the press release saying so appear unfiltered and unchallenged in the newspapers.

To illustrate this point, let me go back five years to when I was lobbying in Brussels on the employee data aspects of GDPR: the General Data Protection Regulation.

This hugely complex piece of draft legislation was introduced by Viviane Reding, she was both EU Justice Commissioner and a Commission Vice-President. Note, it was a Justice/Home Affairs matter, a point that shortly becomes relevant.

Fast forward to July 2014. Enda Kenny’s mid-term ministerial reshuffle sees a rake of new Ministers of State appointed, including Fine Gael TD Dara Murphy who becomes both Minister of State for European Affairs and Minister of State for Data Protection.

This appointment is hailed as significant. The government is spinning… sorry… signalling that Ireland is taking data protection very seriously and assigning it to a specific minister.

The message was clear so, naturally, the assumption amongst interested observers, including yours truly, was that Murphy would be taking the political lead for Ireland in the important EU discussions on GDPR – an issue of vital importance to Ireland given the number of IT and Social Media companies HQ-ed here.

But how would this work? When appointed in July, Murphy was only formally assigned to the Departments of the Taoiseach and Foreign Affairs but not to the Department of Justice which handled the GDPR negotiations in Brussels.

Attempts to raise this curious anomaly were doggedly resisted by government for four months until two very specific, written parliamentary questions were tabled to An Taoiseach for reply on October 7th 2014. A few hours before the reply was due to be published, An Taoiseach, Enda Kenny slipped quietly into the Dáil to announce:

“…that the Government today assigned Deputy Dara Murphy as Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality with special responsibility for data protection. This is in addition to his responsibility for European affairs and data protection at the Department of the Taoiseach and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.”    

A couple of hours later the following one-line PQ reply was issued:

The Minister of State for European Affairs with special responsibility for data protection is being assigned to the Department of Justice and Equality and will attend Justice and Home Affairs Councils as appropriate.

The fact that he had not been properly appointed back in July was brushed aside. It was as if the previous four months of non-appointment had never happened. It didn’t matter to Fine Gael that he did not have the legal authority to deal with Data Protection as a policy, all that mattered was that it looked like he did.

Though the opposition sought to raise the issue, no one was interested. It never appeared in the newspapers or on the news bulletins, so it must never have happened? Right?

OK, in the greater scheme of things this specific mistake may not appear to be a big deal, but it is emblematic of how ministerial responsibility is very much an afterthought for Fine Gael in government.

It is how you can now have a cabinet level Defence Minister (i.e. An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar) who has the authority for, but has no interest in, defence policy and a Minister of State who exercises neither authority nor responsibility for it beyond assiduously attending his meetings and taking the salute at military reviews.

Kehoe has simply shown the same ministerial indifference as those with greater seniority. He has served as the junior to two Taoisigh and two senior cabinet members, Coveney and Shatter. Sending him to the back benches while allowing others to stay would be scapegoating.

Besides, this Government is now so near its own endpoint that it could not sustain the fallout from a difficult ministerial dismissal. So, while Kehoe is too associated with the mess to be able to meaningfully address it, the most sensible option is to make a one-for-one swap between Kehoe and one of his junior ministerial colleagues.

But who? Might I suggest David Stanton TD, the junior justice minister, as a good fit to replace Kehoe?

Stanton has a solid reputation for speaking his mind and has served, albeit briefly, as Fine Gael’s opposition Defence Spokesperson. More importantly, he is a former officer in the Army Reserve, something that may help personnel and their families have some personal confidence in him.

While switching junior ministers is far from the ideal solution – that would require a full-time Defence Minister at Cabinet level, committed to producing and implementing a Defence White Paper that took national defence seriously – replacing Kehoe with a substantial figure who comes with real understanding of the problem and the political impetus to seriously address the vexed issues of retention and pay would be a very welcome first step.

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