“The levels of hypocrisy involved in all of this are stratospheric.”

RTÉ reports on the ongoing discussions between Aer Lingus management and the pilot’s union and, while the Taoiseach’s inter-departmental group considers what to do next, Fintan O’Toole in the Irish Times [subs req] has some thoughts on the intra-governmental disagreements noted previously and on the Irish Government’s Minister for Defence, Willie O’Dea, in particular.

As Séamus Dolan of the law faculty at NUIG has explained with admirable succinctness: “The concept of cabinet confidentiality flows from the notion of collective responsibility, as referred to in Article 28.4.2. Collective responsibility mandates that individual ministers present a united front to the public, and individual ministers must each offer public support for government decisions and policies, regardless of their own private or personal views on the topic. This, by implication, means the individual minister is not entitled to criticise government policy or decisions if he wishes to retain his ministerial office.” Or, as the all-party committee on the Constitution put it even more succinctly, “the only way to record dissent from a government decision is to resign”.

This is precisely what a number of honourable politicians did when they wanted to dissent from a policy position adopted by a government in which they served. Kevin Boland (and his parliamentary secretary Paudge Brennan) did so in 1970 over the arms crisis. Frank Cluskey did it in 1983 over the government policy on Dublin Gas.

In November 2003, Willie O’Dea’s predecessor as minister for defence, Michael Smith, dissented from the health policy of the government of which he was a part when he supported protests in his own constituency against the downgrading of Nenagh hospital. But he quickly apologised to the Taoiseach and issued a statement saying that it had not been his intention “to breach the rules of collective cabinet responsibility or to undermine the efforts of his colleagues to implement government policy”, and that “he deeply regretted giving the appearance of being at variance with government policy.” The apology was the only alternative to resignation.

As Fintan O’Toole goes on to say

Three things are absolutely clear here. Firstly, a Government decision not to interfere with the Aer Lingus move was taken last week – otherwise Mary Hanafin could not have issued her statement. Secondly, Willie O’Dea profoundly disagrees with that decision. Thirdly, the only lawful and constitutional way for Willie O’Dea to express that dissent is to resign from the Government. Logic implies a fourth conclusion: Willie O’Dea’s behaviour over the last week has been utterly unconstitutional.

The levels of hypocrisy involved in all of this are stratospheric. The man whose job it is to defend the State has been flouting its basic law. The principle that is so important that it justifies extraordinary levels of State secrecy means nothing at all when political expediency demands otherwise. It is unconstitutional to reveal even the agenda for a meeting of a Cabinet subcommittee, but fine for a Minister to dump collective responsibility when it becomes inconvenient.

The governmental chaos of the last week may look like anarchy, but it is really a form of autocracy: the Government owns the Constitution and can do with it what it likes.