COMMENT: Lessons Need To Be Learnt From Government’s Stuttering Start

This week, as the new government settles in, Gavin highlights how the big issue of their first days in office – the lack of a Senior Minister for the West of Ireland – shows that it will have no time to ‘settle in’ to the role.

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So, the ‘troika’ is back in Irish politics. Appropriately enough, considering our fresh economic crisis. But instead of Ajai Chopra and Co., our new troika is the three-party government that was finally installed this past weekend.

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I don’t need to talk about the challenges facing this new coalition – that’s been well discussed already. But I’m sure that those within government ranks, and in particular those closest to Micheál Martin, would have been very disappointed to have had to deal with an unnecessary distraction in his first days in office.

No matter what happens over the coming period, the lack of a Senior Government Minister from West of the Shannon (not to mention other areas including the South-East) will not be forgotten. Some of those who have sought to play this down say there are no votes held during cabinet meetings (that has been the case in modern times), and point out that Super Juniors Dara Calleary and Hildegarde Naughton will have a voice at the top table. Both are capable politicians, but they are outnumbered, and they won’t wield the same influence. The old BBC sitcom wasn’t called ‘Yes, Super Junior Minister’ for a reason.

Add into this the public rebuke of the Taoiseach by Willie O’Dea, and Jim O’Callaghan’s high-profile rejection of his offer of a Junior position, it’s certainly not what Micheál Martin had envisaged for his first days in office.

I think you can legitimately argue that the identity of Ministers won’t make a difference to the general public. (Newly-appointed) Senator Timmy Dooley argued on our show on Monday that Clare has fared well at times when it didn’t have its own Minister. I saw plenty of folk from Mayo argue that they didn’t reap the benefits when they had a full Minister, or even the Taoiseach, in recent years. But that doesn’t get away from the fact that this will not be forgotten. The government’s political opponents will see to that. Any slight, any project that misses out, will be highlighted. Every funding decision will be scrutinised, to see if too little (or too much) has gone to the areas where people are most angry right now.

Remember, you only get one chance to make a first impression, and in this instance that chance has come and gone.

For me, there is a real lesson that those within government needs to learn from this debacle. It’s been reported that there was no consultation in advance between the party leaders before the Senior Ministers were appointed – that certainly seems the case when we see the results. No one party, it appears, was covering the back of the other. If that continues, and if a working relationship isn’t quickly formed between the three parties, then there will be more mistakes, more blunders and little in the way of action.

Fostering a relationship between two parties who emerged from the ashes of a civil war, and that have been facing each other from opposite sides of Leinster House for most of that time, is no easy challenge to overcome. But if the Taoiseach (in particular) doesn’t manage to make it happen, and soon, then Micheál Martin will find his ability to tackle the big challenges facing our country will be very limited. It’s not just his job to sort it out, but it is he who will suffer if that doesn’t happen.

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A word, before we finish, on what this week means in Clare. The lack of Ministerial representation is a disappointment, if not a shock, but it would be remiss of me to not congratulate Senators Dooley and Garvey once more on their appointments. For the sake of the county, I hope that they, and the other five Oireachtas members from Clare, can make the county’s increased representation count.

But I do wonder, particularly from the point of view of the government parties, if this might prove to be somewhat of a double-edged sword. Roisín Garvey was appointed as a reward for her strong performance in the General Election (she polled a higher share of votes in her constituency than any other rural Green), while Timmy Dooley has already admitted that he wants to go back to the Dáil in the future.

So both have eyes on the next general election, whenever that is held. But at that point there may be five government representatives on the ballot paper here, all of whom will be seeking election on the back of the government’s performance over the next few years, a time when it will have had to deal with unprecedented crises. A lot of water will travel under the bridge between now and then, but that already sounds like a difficult battle to me.