“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.

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  • Wee slabber

    If O’Dea resigns I’ll eat his moustache, and without salt! He has waited for years to get his arse in a state car, he’ll be dragged screaming from it first. BTW – someone should explain to O’Dea the basics of cabinet “collective responsibility”.

  • Oilibhear Chromaill

    It’s obvious that Fintan O’Toole doesn’t understand how Fianna Fáil works. It’s clear that Willie O’Dea won’t resign – or he would have done so by now. It’s also clear that the Taoiseach is willing to allow Willie to record his dissent, make the appropriate noises off and then just sit tight until this all plays out in the coming weeks.

    I’m amazed that seasoned commentators like FOT should still be quoting dry constitutional texts at Fianna Fáil when they know that FF’s understanding of the law is a great deal looser than most.

  • Mick Fealty

    You may be right OC, but the principle is surely worth stating clearly and publicly, otherwise you are as good as stating that ‘there is nothing to see here, move along please’…

    If O’Toole had not taken the trouble to dig out such ‘dry texts’, we might all be wending our merry way to… well, where exactly???

    Politicians are the democraticially chosen purveyors of power. Journalists get paid to watch that they don’t abuse that power. O’Toole is surely only doing what any paid journalist, should be doing?

  • Yokel

    I think the heat is getting taken out of this issue on this front. The native reps do the shouting and then everything carries on regardless.

    Its now down to this EGM idea, if its still running.

  • Dewi

    Mick – I reckon Aer Lingus would be a good sponsor for Slugger.

  • Oilibhear Chromaill

    I think you may be misunderstanding me Mick. I have a degree in law myself but I think that this intervention by Fintan O’Toole is a bit over the top. Sure there’s cabinet confidentiality and collective cabinet responsibility but I think you’ll find that this issue has yet to be discussed at cabinet level. Willie O’Dea, a law lecturer himself, would be well within his rights to voice his disappointment and dismay over the Aer Lingus decision and say that he will be arguing within cabinet to get it changed, to force change, or to persuade for change or whatever. But the damage was done way back when Aer Lingus was privatised and when O’Dea voted for this route – sure it’s hypocritical now for O’Dea to be crying over spilt milk. But he’s a politician and that’s what he does best. I’m no fan of O’Dea and find his columns in the Sunday Indo sick inducing, with his constant refrain of his republicanism and his ill aimed sniping at Sinn Féin and other parties. He’s a gombeen of the highest order – and sure that’s why he’s in FF. All I’m saying is that O’Toole is naive in the extreme to think that such a character would have any cognisance for the dry letter of the law and the principle is UNLIKELY to be tested in the courts in this instance.

  • páid

    Not for nothing has FF been described as a ‘slightly constitutional party’.

    Yes, O’Dea ignores the rules.

    Yes, he should resign.

    But that’s if you play by the WASP rules.

    And WASP rules don’t always apply in Ireland, particularly in Munster, and even more particularly in Irish Catholic Limerick.

    FF stalwarts never ever take their eye off the bottom line – the voters.

  • Mick Fealty


    There’s a chapter in Machiavelli devoted to such kingdoms…


    I understand what you say, but still… I take the view that anything that makes government more accountable for its actions/inactions has to be good…

    Fintan takes Hanifin’s statement last week as an official statement of the Cabinet’s position… which is a perfectly legitimate assumption.

    It might be more effective coming from an opposition spokesman, but it would seem Paid has correctly judged this as an across the board trait, since there’s not a trace of principle in any of their positions that I have seen.

    In the end, it makes their anti government attacks in the big set pieces in the Dail ring decidedly hollow…

  • Wee slabber

    Indeed, FF are playing their old trick of appearing to be all things to all men (and women!). They let the local lad rant and rave (and boy, is he good at that), while in Dublin they wheel out people to intone a “governemnet line”. That way they leave people confused (they hope!), making impossible for anyone to say what the clear government policy is. Meanwhile, they watch which way the kite is blowing and prepare to follow accordingly!

  • Yokel


    You are onto something there. I think Mick has a good pitch to Aer Lingus that after people read some of the stuff on Slugger that they’ll need a holiday to stave off depression.

  • Mick Fealty

    Not quite the kind of pitch I was hoping for Yok… However, just keep an eye on the MessageSpace space…

  • Wilde Rover

    Great thread Pete.

    A lot of talk about the constitution, and on the ball by Fintan, in my opinion.

    “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.”

    Let us hope that Brian Cowen, when he steps up to the plate, will reveal himself to be a Ron Paul Republican.

    It would make a refreshing change.

  • George

    A government decision has not been made about what to do about Shannon so I think Fintan is more than a bit off the mark here pulling out the collective responsibility cannon.

    A decision has been made that the government can’t interfere with Aer Lingus, not that the government can’t do something for Shannon.

    No decision has been made about what could be done for Shannon, for example, buying Heathrow slots, finding another airline etc.

  • Wang Kerr

    Fintan’s being a bit pedantic I think, you can’t realistically expect every government minister who disagrees with a cabinet decision to resign, no matter what the constitution says.

    At the end of the day Ireland is still a fairly backward, conservative place and lazy to boot, so we tend only to change certain parts of our constitution when we need to, i.e. in times of ‘constitutional crisis’.

    Kind of like an unemployed, wife-beating, drug-abusing, alcoholic bum who knows his car is banjaxed but waits for it to break down on the M50, causing a 15-mile tailback during rush hour, before he’ll fix it.

    Which is worse I wonder? The hypocrisy Fintan’s referring to, or the hypocrisy involved in buying over 25% of the company in a reassuring move to the Irish public saying that foremost in their minds are the continued protection of the Heathrow slots, and then sitting on their arses doing diddly-squat when the slots are let go, and having the cheek to pretend it’s nothing to do with them, as if the whole thing wasn’t pre-cooked months ago as part of a financial package to sweeten the Belfast Agreement?

    But yeah, he’s right that the government think they own the constitution and can implement/ignore whatever parts of it they feel like, whenever they feel like it. Sure, even our election in May was completely unconstitutional, as was pointed out a number of times by Vincent Browne.

    But then, that’s what you get when you live in nothing more than a one-party state.