Tag Archive for 'Seanad'

A Perfect Opportunity

A couple of months ago, I blogged about the possibility of an experienced outsider being brought into the cabinet as Minister for Trade, Enterprise and Employment (Jim O’Hara being that outsider). Through the various twists and turns of Irish politics over the past week or so, a sequence of events has given Brian Cowen the perfect opportunity to make just such a shake-up:

  1. Willie O’Dea’s resignation from the cabinet
    With O’Dea gone from the Department of Defense, a cabinet reshuffle is now inevitable. While many are speculating that Cowen will simply appoint one of the junior ministers to fill O’Dea’s post, he hasn’t reshuffled his cabinet since taking office in 2008 (in a very different economic climate), and now would be the perfect time to do so. What’s more, with a vacant seat on the cabinet, an independent minister could be brought in without having to relegate any of the sitting Fianna Fail ministers to the backbenches. This could help diffuse any animosity that the FF parliamentary party might have about bringing in someone from outside Fianna Fail.
  2. Deirdre de Burca’s resignation from the Seanad
    As well as an opening in the cabinet, there’s now an opening in the Seanad, thanks to Deirdre de Burca. As she occupied one of the 11 Seanad seats reserved for nominees of the Taoiseach, Brian Cowen can now appoint whoever he likes, at as short notice as he likes, to replace her. Indeed, he could nominate someone on Monday morning, and by Monday evening they could be sitting at the cabinet table. Of course, as the seat was previously held by a Green, the Green Party will undoubtedly want another of their own to replace her. Cowen would do well to remind them that Fianna Fail recently elected Niall O’Brolchain as an additional Green senator to replace Labour’s Alan Kelly, and that Cowen’s appointee would be independent, rather than from Fianna Fail. Of course, if that didn’t work, a promise of an additional junior minister post for the Greens in the reshuffle would probably do the trick.
  3. Mary Coughlan’s cock-up over the Ryanair hangar proposal
    Mary Coughlan has made quite a few mistakes and gaffes during her tenure as Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, but, at a time when unemployment is at its highest in a generation, her inability to secure 500 jobs that seemed to be offered on a plate by Ryanair is the first one to really make her position look untenable. What’s more, after O’Dea’s resignation, any further revelation in the Coughlan-Ryanair saga could have catastrophic consequences for the government. It would be best for Cowen to reassign her to a different portfolio as part of a wider cabinet reshuffle, which would prevent any arguments over her handling of Ryanair’s proposals from becoming a resigning matter. In order to illustrate that her movement out of the portfolio is simply part of the reshuffle and not a demotion, she could keep the position of Tanaiste in her new role.
  4. Greece’s future is still shaky
    Within the the next week, Greece is expected to try to raise up to €5 billion euros from international bond markets, which will be a big test of market confidence in their finances. If Greece struggles through this test, renewed pressure will come not only on them, but also on the other ‘peripheral countries’ in the eurozone, including Ireland. Brian Lenihan’s budget in December bought us a bit of leeway compared to Greece, Spain and Portugal, but we can’t count on that goodwill from the markets to last forever, and now would be a very good time to differentiate ourselves once again, by bringing in an outside expert to a major economic post on the cabinet. By picking the right person, and handling the international press well, any potential fallout from Greece’s problems could be neatly defected, keeping our own borrowing within reasonable costs.

I had previously suggested Jim O’Hara to take over the role of Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, and I still think that he would be a very good choice. Of course, so long as Cowen were to avoid appointing anyone who was in any way involved in either the property or finance industries, there are quite a few successful Irish businessmen and businesswomen who would fit the bill, including some of the members of the Taoiseach’s own innovation taskforce. The important thing is to appoint someone who would be respected by the international business community, with any experience in high-tech exports as an added bonus.

Whoever Cowen were to choose, he now has a perfect opportunity to create a rare piece of good news for the government, and to end a dreadful couple of weeks for his party (and Irish politics as a whole) on a high note. Of course, whether he has the fortitude to make good on this opportunity is a different matter entirely…

Want to show the public and the markets that you're taking the economic crisis seriously, Mr Cowen? Then appoint Jim O'Hara to the cabinet.

While bouncing from economic crises to political crises and back again at an astounding rate, Brian Cowen has stumbled upon a brief opportunity to make a move that would reflect well both upon himself politically, and give a piece of potentially good economic news for the markets to ponder over for once. In a few weeks time, elections will be held to fill two vacant seats in the Seanad. The electorate for both of these seats are current TDs and Senators, and as the government has majorities in each chamber, government nominees are effectively guaranteed to win both seats. This gives Cowen the ability to bring pretty much whoever he likes into the Seanad in time for the new year. What’s more important, though, is that Cowen can, by article 28.7.2 of the constitution, appoint up to two members of the Seanad to the cabinet, which means that he can use these open Seanad positions as a platform to bring expertise into the cabinet that simply can’t be found amongst the ranks of the Dáil.

While such a step would be almost completely unprecedented (the provision to appoint Senators to cabinet has only been used, to my knowledge, once in the history of the state), the situation we’re in is similarly unprecedented. We’re currently in the midst of the greatest fiscal, economic and employment crises to afflict any developed country since the great depression, and there are only three qualified economists sitting in the 166-seat Dáil, two of whom are on the opposition benches. The degree of experience within the business sector in the Oireachtas is similarly underwhelming, which means there is very little the government can do to increase its authority on matters of the economy without bringing in outside help.

Bringing in fresh blood to take over as Finance Minister is not possible, as the position constitutionally has to be held by a TD. However, the second biggest economic portfolio, the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, is a perfect position to bring outside expertise into. The current Minister, Mary Coughlan, is widely considered to be way out of her depth in the portfolio, and her repeated gaffes are doing the government little help in the popularity stakes. As such, bringing in a suitably qualified person in her place would help show both the electorate and the markets just how seriously the government are taking the current economic crises.

There certainly isn’t a shortage of candidates more qualified than Mary Coughlan for the position, but one that immediately springs to mind is Jim O’Hara. Jim O’Hara is currently Vice President of the Technology Manufacturing Group in Intel, and General Manager of Intel’s Irish operations, where he’s in charge of over 4000 employees. He’s very well respected in the business community, and he represents exactly the kind of high-tech, export-led industry that the government so desperately wants Ireland to become focussed on as we rebuild our economy. Furthermore, he showed during his involvement in the Lisbon Treaty campaign that he’s not only knowledgeable on political affairs, but also that he’s more than capable of presenting himself well in front of the political media.

Bringing him into the cabinet could be done quickly and easily. As it would be best for O’Hara to be seen as apolitical in his appointment, running him as a Fianna Fail candidate for one of the two vacancies directly would not be advisable. However, Cowen could simply call on one of Fianna Fail’s 6 Taoiseach’s appointees in the Seanad to resign from their current seat and run for one of the vacant seats (which they’d be guaranteed to win). O’Hara could then be appointed by Cowen as an independent appointee of the Taoiseach into then-vacant slot. Cowen could perform a mini-reshuffle of the cabinet (most likely giving Coughlan back the Agriculture portfolio she previously held, and pushing Brendan Smith back into a Junior Ministry), and appoint O’Hara as Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment before the start of the new year.

Brian Cowen needs to start taking radical steps towards both fixing the economy as well as improving the government’s tattered reputation if he wants to stay in office much longer. Most of the choices available to him would involve substantial opposition from vested interests across the country. He now, however, has the opportunity to make an unprecedented move that would be opposed by virtually no-one but Mary Coughlan. By appointing Jim O’Hara as Minister for Trade, Enterprise and Employment, Cowen could show just how seriously he’s taking the crisis, and that he’s willing to think outside the box in his efforts to do so.

And, as an added bonus for Cowen, the appointment would also be a political jab against Enda Kenny. Kenny decided last month that the Seanad is useless and he’d scrap it if elected Taoiseach, an announcement that was considered rash even by many members of his own party. By using the Seanad as a means to bring extra experience into the cabinet, Cowen could prove to Kenny that it isn’t so useless an institution after all.

Abolishing the Seanad

Fine Gael last night announced that, if elected, they’ll hold a referendum to abolish the Seanad. Right now is probably the perfect time to talk about reform of the way our system of government operates, as our Government and Oireachtas are almost completely incapable of dealing with the country’s fiscal and economic collapse, and public confidence in our elected representatives must be reaching an all-time low. Talking about the role the Seanad plays in the running of our country is a vital part of that, and discussions will inevitably come to either reforming the manner in which the Seanad is elected and operates, or getting rid of the Seanad and adopting a reformed unicameral parliamentary system if it’s deemed to make law-making more effective. These sorts of decisions are not to be taken lightly, as the choice of governmental system can have a profound impact on the country for generations to come.

Unfortunately, when Enda Kenny announced the party’s plan to abolish the Seanad, it wasn’t as part of an overarching review of our system of government, with a refashioning of the legislative branch carefully designed to be more effective at devising, amending and passing laws. It wasn’t advertised as a way to allow the country to cope better with the changed circumstances that we’ll have to deal with in the coming decades. Nope, the big headline reason given for abolishing the Seanad was that (along with reducing the Dáil by 20 members) it would save €150 million over the course of a Dáil term. That’s €30 million a year. To put that in perspective, the country’s current annual budget deficit is now approaching €30,000 million. So, Enda wants to make the biggest changes to the constitution in the history of the state, all for the sake of reducing our deficit by 0.1%.

Of course, Enda did hint to more political reforms as part of a “New Politics”, but it doesn’t inspire confidence that the headline reform is so blatantly populist. It also doesn’t inspire confidence that the whole process of devising a new legislative system for the nation has been fobbed off to the party’s environment spokesman, Phil Hogan, who doesn’t even sit on the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution, the body who’s job it is to discuss electoral reform.

By all means we should start talking about reforming the Oireachtas, in what it consists of, how it operates and how it’s elected. But that debate should be given the importance it deserves, and not simply used as a populist headline-grabbing stunt as Enda Kenny did last night.