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OPINION: Do we really need all these junior ministers?

Monday, 9th January, 2017 11:48am
OPINION: Do we really need all these junior ministers?

How's this for government extravagance: 18 junior ministers, whose responsibilities in government are vague, each earn a whopping €34,381 on top of their normal TD salary of €87,258 (plus an entitlement to hire a driver)!

Yep, our revered leader, Dame Enda, has ensured that 15 Fine Gael cronies enjoy large honorariums for doing what amounts to sweet fanny-adams! The others are drawn from the Independent Alliance stable and trouser the same loot.

A junior minister is a person assigned to assist a specific cabinet minister. Three of them can attend cabinet meetings, but they don’t have a vote. They consist of Government Chief Whip Regina Doherty, Paul Kehoe and Independent Alliance man Finian McGrath.

As for the rest, well, they have no defined legislative authority. Rather they are assigned ‘certain functions’ but no one quite knows what the term means and, certainly, no politico ever tried defining it. Without sounding too cynical, it seems that the role of a junior minister is to support the government blindly, never rock the boat and to be forever grateful to Enda for his liberality.

Under the original act of 1977, which created the position, the number of junior ministers was limited to 10.  In 1980, this was raised to 15. In 1995 it became 17 and, in 2007, reached a monstrous figure of 20. 

Then, in 2009, in the wake of considerable public anger at what was perceived as a gross Fianna Fáil rip-off, Brian Cowen insisted all 20 Ministers of State should resign. The following day he re-appointed a reduced number of 15 ministers.

However, there is no limit to the number of junior ministers that a Taoiseach can appoint and, under Kenny, the number began to edge upwards.

 

Money for old rope

Kenny defends his mini-minister splurge on the basis that it is in line with the party’s commitment to delivering ‘real improvements.’  Others see it as an exercise in ‘jobs for the boys’ – positions that require minimal duties and which go to potentially disloyal politicos who, if outside government, would be scheming against him.  In other words, it’s money for old rope to keep the lads onside!

Just before Christmas, the matter of junior ministers hit the headlines with assertions that at least a third of them were ‘powerless’ and not delegated any specific responsibilities.  For instance, Vlad (The Impaler) Varadkar, Simon Coveney, Shane Ross, Michael Noonan and the Widow Twankey of Irish politics, Paschal Donohue, were criticised for keeping full control over their departments.

Kenny denied that all junior ministers were powerless and, in typical gobbledegook fashion, explained the situation, as follows: ‘some had statutory responsibilities designated to them and some had responsibilities assigned to them without a statutory declaration.’  Geddit?

Inevitably, the Soldiers of Destiny enjoyed a field day at Kenny’s expense. They called into question his logic and declared (with a straight face) that if he was serious about the role of the junior minister – as opposed to using them as tools of political patronage – it was time every one of them had a defined authority within their department.

But most full-blown ministers didn’t agree. Shane Ross, for instance, had no intention of passing powers down the line to anyone. Coveney was more discreet. His junior minister slavey, Damien English TD, would ‘relate’ with himself ‘in relation to relevant business matters,’ he said.

Consequently, the office of junior minister is perceived as a shifty device to delude punters into thinking that a special relationship, based on confidence and loyalty, exists between the Taoiseach and an exceptional group of politicos – when it is anything but!

Making matters worse is the fact that large parts of the country have no junior ministerial representation at all. Cork South West – much to the teeth-gnashing frustration of our own Jim Daly – is a case in point.

Independent Alliance TD ‘Boxer’ Moran and his chum Sean Canney perfectly demonstrate the farcical nature of the job: They share the position and tossed a coin to decide who would take over after a year!

 

New year resolutions

Is it any wonder, then, that Enda Kenny’s new year resolutions go in one ear and out the other! His latest ‘firm’ decision is that he has no plans to dump poorly-performing ministers.

Rumour had it that the Minister for Jobs, Mary Mitchell O’Connor, was for the chop. Also facing doom were Transport Minister Shane Ross and the Minister for Vituperative Linguistics, John Halligan, whose exotic comments on Irish landlords (‘jail the bastards’) were furiously denounced as ‘despicable, filthy and foul mouthed.’ 

Indeed, Halligan’s unique public announcements put Ireland’s greatest parliamentarian, Edmund Burke, in the halfpenny place!

But although Halligan and chums breathe easier, thanks to Kenny’s ‘no reshuffle’ policy, many dyed-in-the wool Blueshirt deputies cannot be described as happy campers. After all, they expected ministerial roles in the wake of the last election only to find themselves now superglued to the backbenches. A reshuffle would have opened a window of opportunity, and the fact that it is not going to happen will result in increased bitterness towards Kenny, plus a festering of the internal opposition towards him.

Currently seething like a mass of maggots, backbenchers realise that, if they are ever going to get a crack at high office, Kenny must go. Trouble is, he’s a hard man to dislodge.

For instance, he successfully faced down a serious heave orchestrated by Richard Bruton. More recently, although Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald, Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney intimated they are solid Taoiseach quality, all are reluctant to make a conspiratorial move.

Locally, for instance, there’s Jim Daly TD, who’s been sniping at the leader, but his radicalism amounts to nothing more than a limp demand that Kenny should give an indication of when he will step aside.

Meanwhile, the Dear Leader is adamant there will be no 2017 general election. ‘We have a three-year confidence and supply agreement with the Fianna Fáil party, with a review at the end of 2018. The last thing on my mind is the thought of a general election,’ he recently said.

Nevertheless, the Great Man would be wise to keep options open and to put little trust in Fianna Fáil, a party that would smile to one’s face while happily stabbing the victim in the back. The irony is, of course, that Kenny’s ragbag government needs the support of the Soldiers of Destiny if it is to prevent a move by dissident Blueshirts from picking up a head of steam.

But, for the moment, the key element keeping the show on the road is the payroll vote, namely the junior minister scandal and the support it engenders for the Taoiseach among politicos and, sad to relate, from the very tolerant plain people of Ireland!

And that’s his trump card, if you’ll pardon the pun!

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