But aren’t all junior ministers super?

This column appeared on Broadsheet.ie on July 27th. Here I look at the unforced error that was the super junior saga – the article appeared just before the government caught up with public opinion and decided to back down. 

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When this new government was cobbled together… sorry, let me start again… when this new administration was formed, Fianna Fáil’s primary political imperative was to show that this government would be very different.

The assumption was that Micheál Martin and his train of attendants would move quickly to banish the political tone deafness and indifference that characterised Leo Varadkar’s time in office and replace it with the attentive and determined approach of a Taoiseach with his finger on the public pulse.

Four weeks in and all the evidence so far points more to continuity than change. To be fair to Martin, it is not the full picture. As the new Taoiseach has repeatedly said in interviews, the Dáil has rarely been so productive in producing legislation.

The problem is that he has made this point in a series of incredibly low energy TV and radio interviews that have lacked any core message beyond proving that Martin knows his facts.

Frankly, I never thought his ability to retain information from a briefing note was in doubt. The question marks over Martin relate to the direction in which he wants to lead his party and this country, not his ability to recall facts.

In any given interview, be it on radio or television, Martin is more likely to remind us that he used to be the Minister for Education, Enterprise, Health or Foreign Affairs than he is to set out a clear vision of what he wants to achieve in government.

By contrast Varadkar is always on message, the fact that it is his own personal message, not the government’s, clearly doesn’t bother the Tánaiste or his expanding retinue too much.

It also appears not to upset the Taoiseach either, though this may just be studied stoicism from a new Taoiseach determined not to let the man who is both his immediate predecessor and successor to unsettle him.

Whether the Taoiseach and his inner circle are inwardly seething or not, his backbench TDs are. The anger and frustration that simmered at last week’s Fianna Fáil parliamentary party is just a taster of things to come. As I argued here two weeks ago Fianna Fáil backbench TDs need to assert their authority and influence, so this is good news.

In the meantime the political fallout over the pay and allowances of super junior ministers continues to tarnish the government’s reputation at a time when it is preparing for one of its biggest challenges, getting schools reopened.

The super juniors row is a near classic example of an unforced political error, compounded by three political leaders not doing their homework.

First, a brief potted history of super juniors. The position came into being back in December 1994 with the formation of the Rainbow Coalition.

After much haggling about ministerial share out Fine Gael got 8 out of the 15 Cabinet positions (including Taoiseach). Despite huge pressure to surrender a place, Labour held out and held on to its six seats at Cabinet. This left de Rossa the lone Democratic Left voice at cabinet.

The compromise reached was for de Rossa’s party colleague, Pat Rabbitte, a Minister of State for Commerce and Technology to also be appointed as a Minister of State to the Government (Super Junior) entitled to attend Government meetings in the same way as the Chief Whip. Thus was born the post of Super Junior.

The appointment attracted almost no comment in the Dáil debate on the day, apart from the observation from the former Progressive Democrat leader, Des O’Malley, that:

“the same position was offered to me by the then Taoiseach, Mr. Haughey, who told me we could have such a post, but I said “no, thank you very much”. The post was held once before by the late Senator Alexis FitzGerald and I do not think it made a great impact on the affairs of the nation or impinged greatly on its consciousness”.

I bet Fianna Fáil TDs are wishing that were the case now.

Meanwhile, answering parliamentary questions on Rabbitte’s appointment a month later, the then Taoiseach, John Bruton, told both Mary Harney (PD) and the late Séamus Brennan (FF) that Minister Rabbitte would be paid on the same basis as an ordinary Minister of State, but that he would have a special adviser and a state car, in the same way as the Government Chief Whip. This set the standard for subsequent super junior appointments, just one and on a par with the existing Chief Whip.

The next Super Junior (Minister of State to the Government) appointed was Progressive Democrat, Bobby Molloy in June 1997. On hearing the news Molloy’s predecessor, Pat Rabbitte, told the Dáil that he was “…delighted for Deputy Molloy who ranted and railed until the cows came home about the very post he now holds when it was established some three years ago”. Molloy was briefly succeeded as a super junior by party colleague Liz O’Donnell.

The next into super junior rank was the late Brian Lenihan Junior. Brian was appointed as super junior minister by Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and given special responsibility for Children, creating the Office of the Minister for Children. This subsequently became the Department for Children. Lenihan was succeeded as super junior, first by Brendan Smith and then by Barry Andrews.

Fast forward to the 2011 Fine Gael/Labour government and the 2016 Fine Gael minority government and you had various labour TDs, Willie Penrose, succeeded by Jan O’Sullivan and later Ged Nash, Independent TD, Finian McGrath (Disabilities) and Fine Gael TDs, Paul Kehoe (Defence) and Mary Mitchell O’Connor serve as super juniors.

I am hurrying through this as I did promise a brief history. Bottom line is this: from 1994 up to 2017 there was just one super junior and a Chief Whip at a time. For the most part, the appointments were non-controversial.

Varadkar’s June 2017 attempt to have an extra Fine Gael super junior as well as the already agreed independent super junior and Fine Gael Chief Whip raised alarm bells. Fianna Fáil’s then Education Spokesperson Thomas Byrne issued a blunt statement, which was resurrected this week, stating clearly that Fianna Fáil opposed the move. So too did the Labour Party.

Yet not one of the Fianna Fáil minsters or advisers recalled this statement when it was decided that they legislate to fund an additional super-junior position, or when the party leaders agreed what posts each would get? Is that credible? Or, is it that no one thought that people would pay that much attention and that any row would be over in a day or two?

This is the type of thinking you expect from a party that has been in government too long. It is not what you expect in the first month of a party that truly has the hunger to govern.

Neither the rationale underpinning Rabbitte’s 1994 appointment, nor that of Lenihan et al, i.e. the establishment of the Office of Minister for Children, applies for two of the three latest appointments.

There is no compelling argument, either political or administrative, for having three super junior positions. There is barely an argument for two (note I am not touching the argument over there being 20 junior ministers)!

The only super junior position one that needs to exist (i.e. continue) is that of Government Chief Whip. The additional super junior post or posts being created are going to Fine Gael and the Green Party, not Fianna Fáil. Yet, surprise, surprise all three are being lumped together and it is Fianna Fáil, and Jack Chambers in particular, who is bearing the brunt of the criticism. He is the only one whose appointment stands on merit.

Look at the ill-advised legislative change if you doubt this. It amends Section 3A of the 1998 Act to increase the number of holders of “the office of Minister of State who regularly attend meetings of the Government” from 2 to 3. All this furore and damage to the government’s reputation for one unnecessary post?

If Fine Gael and the Green party’s collective noses are out of joint over Fianna Fáil having the post of Chief Whip and effectively having 7 voices at Cabinet, then there were other ways around achieving balance. On way was to rotate the post of Chief Whip with Fine Gael when the position of Taoiseach switches in December 2022.

While the responsibilities that the two additional super juniors are important, no one can claim that either Hildegarde Naughton’s (FG) International and Road Transport and Logistics portfolio or Pippa Hackett’s (Grn) Land Use & Biodiversity are likely to become standalone government departments any time soon.

As for the Greens getting one? They already have three full Cabinet seats at. The Rabbitte argument does not apply, unless Minister Éamon Ryan fears feels isolated among his ministerial party colleagues?

The fact that Sinn Féin is not in a position to lecture anyone on claiming expenses and allowances, remember the BBC Spotlight revelations of Sinn Féin MLAs claiming nearly £700,000 in expenses for research from a company run by the party’s finance managers, will not get the government off this hook.

The government decision was politically tone deaf and imprudent. It is what voters had come to expect of the Fine Gael government they rejected it last February. It is not that voters expected a lot more of Martin or Fianna Fáil, but they are entitled to expect a higher level of political astuteness and acuity than this.

 

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