Towards coherent government, or a well paid, but disorderly commune-on-the-hill…?

Fintan O’Toole has a useful piece of research (subs required) in his column today, even if the premise doesn’t quite stick. It’s interesting to contrast it with the current situation in Northern Ireland, where Sinn Fein seems to be following a strategy of extraordinary candour regarding Executive discussions pf the work SDLP Minister in the new Executive, Margaret Ritchie (a key rival to one of SF’s hopefuls in the next Westminster election). O’Toole’s highlights the importance placed on collective responsibility, by quoting Ahern’s words in the Dail last year:

“Questions as to the business conducted at cabinet or cabinet committee meetings have never been allowed in the House on the grounds that they are internal to government. The reasons for this approach are founded on sound policy principles and the need to avoid infringing the constitutional protection of cabinet confidentiality.”

But he’s dug further:

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”.

With regard the Aer Lingus Shannon (no) Show, O’Toole argues that Willie O’Dea is not compliant with the Cabinet’s position. Therefore it is unlawful.

The situation in Northern Ireland’s mandatory coalition government is different. Cabinet responsibility appears to be an entirely notional matter, uaccounted for, except for specific cross community issues, in the legislation amending the Northern Ireland Act, and specified here.

The only conspicuous assertion of voluntary “Collective Responsibility has come in the unlikely form of Peter Robinson coming to the aid of Michelle Gildernew, when the Sinn Fein Agricultural Minister for Agriculture faced by criticism from his own party colleague for selling off public land.

But it would seem that whilst in theory O’Dea’s playing both ends off the middle can be censured (though not necessarily sanctioned) in the Republic, in Northern Ireland there is nothing to stop a small scale civil war going on between ministers (and therefore departments) for interests beyond and outside the conduct of the Programme for Government.

It has to be said that it is the natural instinct of political parties to seek out and exploit weaknesses in their opponents. And indeed, many have argued that the absence of a legitimate space for such legislative combat that is the very weakness of our Peace Processed™ legislature.

As Pete noted yesterday Regional Development Minister Conor Murphy, has even put details of ‘cabinet discussions’ into the public domain. In some respects this is surely preferable to the law of Omerta invoked by Bertie in the Dail (quoted above) since ministers should stand or fall on the quality of their own decisions.

But it also begs the question as to whether this is a short term bout of party bullishness, to be tucked away once the Westminster election is over and done? Or is a precedent, that if serially repeated will rip up any chances of Northern Ireland settling down to sorting its many problems. If it is so easy for Ministers to duck collective responsibility, what chance is there these institutions of producing coherent, never mind joined up, government?

As Patrick Murphy noted in the Irish News on Saturday, regarding the absence of a clear economic strategy from the First Minister Ian Paisley:

It is all very confusing. What role does he see for the state sector in our economy? Does he believe in privatising water services, for example?

Or is he just the nominal head of a loose federation of minister whose common economic thread is to spend public money to win political popularity?

After 100 days in office, the first minister’s economic policies are still a mystery.

We deserve better. But who in the assembly will ask for it?


Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty