Thursday, May 8, 2008

Cowen reshuffle a mixed bag

It would be churlish not to congratulate Taoiseach Cowen on his elevation to the Holy Grail of Irish politics. I heartily do so and wish him well. It's a shame I can't say the same about aspects of his speech, but I will address that later. The purpose of this thread is to highlight the plusses and minuses of the new Cabinet, about which my feelings are decidedly mixed. He certainly left us guessing till the last minute - in that regard he has already demonstrated a style of government and relationship to the media than his precessor Bertie. Perhaps this is symptomatic of a relationship that will be less about spin and more about substance that the previous 11 years of FF-PD and FF-PD-Green. That of itself would be most welcome. The Irish public are tired of seeing kites flown in the media simply to elicit a public response upon which to base certain decisions. And anyway even when these kites are flown, public opinion wasn't always listened to by the previous regime. This was notably the guess on issues like asylum and labour movement from the new EU member states of Eastern Europe that have joined since the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty. But I won't dwell on these issues too much on this post. Like I said this is a thread primarily about the complexion of the new Cabinet, and its merits and demerits. Here are my thoughts on that matter:

Mary Coughlan: Tánaiste and Enterprise and Employment. In a still male-dominated Irish political-scene, in which male chauvinism has often pervaded the political-spectrum, it is welcome that finally Fianna Fáil has recognised what the women of Ireland have to offer to society from positions of political power. Sure we have already had a female Tánaiste in Mary Harney for 9 years, but as Mary O'Rourke's failure to win the FF leadership 14 years ago demonstrates, Fianna Fáil has traditionally been less receptive to the advancement of women in the party. Cowen's appointment of Coughlan is thus a welcome departure for Fianna Fáil, and reflects especially well on the man himself. Clearly he is indicating that he envisions Coughlan as leadership material after he has left the stage. She has also won much support in the farming community. A Farmer's Journal poll in May 2007 gave her a massive 71% approval-rating among farmers, and she played an effective role in the campaign for a "Yes" vote to the crucial Citizenship Referendum in 2004, which removed the "citizenship-tourism" loophole whereby the Irish born children of asylum-seekers received automatic Irish citizenship. My only problem with her relates to her record as Minister for Social and Family Affairs, a post in which she tried to change the law to require that the term "spouse" would only refer to a partner of the opposition gender. She also told a European Union forum on family policy that Ireland would never be ready for gay marriage or adoption. As such some in the "pink vote" - myself included - would have some concerns about her positions on some issues pertaining to gay rights. But I wouldn't judge her negatively overall because I do not believe she is a bigot. She is a Donegal woman, and these kinds of attitudes are more widespread in that socially conservative county, in which 70% voted for the 2002 Abortion Referendum and a majority voted against Divorce in 1995. If she one day graduates to become our first female Taoiseach, then Fianna Fáil will have turned to corner on a traditional bastion of male chauvinism. And I say that as a man.

Brian Lenihan: This is one of the real shocks. Just 1 year as Justice Minister and already he is being moved to Finance. It is also surprising that for the first time in many years, a Fianna Fáil Finance or Justice Minister will not be Tánaiste. It creates a certain muddle as to what Cowen's preferences for the succession after he leaves office are. I am a great fan of Brian for several reasons. I admire his work to reach an cross-party consensus on dealing with the mess following the 2006 Supreme Court ruling on the "honest mistake", as well as his recognition in the Immigration, Residency and Protection Bill, of the need to crack down hard on illegal immigration and in particular, the abuses of our asylum system by vexatious legal-challenges by obstructionist solicitors. However I do sometimes wonder could he have done more in the area of deportations, even taking account of this. For sure, the courts are largely to blame, but was it really unavoidable that just 98 people were deported from Ireland in 2007, compared with 90% of asylum-seekers failing their applications for asylum? I do feel that he tarried a bit too long on that issue, but I had high hopes that with tougher legislation than under his predecessor, that he would finally be the man to take this issue seriously. His movement to Finance calls into question whether this matter will now get its long-overdue attention. But it is also an opportunity to crack down hard on my bete-noir - waste in the public-sector. I especially want to see him stand up to the unions on benchmarking. What began as a mechanism for bridging pay-differentials between the public and private-sectors has instead become a glorified ATM at the taxpayer's expense. The public-sector now far outpaces its private-sector counterpart in pay, yet still the public-sector unions demand the squeezing of every penny out of benchmarking as an excuse for increased pay. Lenihan needs to face them down, but as the man who coughed up to them under the Ahern years is now Taoiseach, it is debatable whether he will be let do so. For now, I am willing to give Brian the benefit of the doubt, and assume that Ahern's palliness with the unions was what led to the caving in on benchmarking. Perhaps freed from these restrains, Cowen and Lenihan will bring the spendthrift public-sector to heel. I will be watching closely.

Michael Martin: The Minister who failed to tackle reform in the Health portfolio is moved to the relative powerless of Iveagh House. This is welcome. He is a likeable enough man and that can't be a bad thing for our foreign-relations. But his failure to push the unions into reform in the health-service (other than establishing the HSE) might raise questions in the minds of some as to his suitability in future negotiations in the North, should things go pearshaped up there. While he did introduce the HSE, it was in the context of a sellout to the unions that promised there would be no redundancies. This has deprived the taxpayer of large savings that could have accrued from the abolition of the bureaucratic health boards, and bequeated us an equally wasteful HSE in which the duplication continues, with resources that could have gone to healthcare going to pen-pushers instead. By press reports, he was one of the favourites for promotion to Finance. I am on balance glad that he was not moved there. If he didn't have the bottle to reform the health-service, then why would he be any different in Finance, which also requires bottle to stand up to the avaricious greed of the public-sector unions and reform of the wasteful 'benchmarking' system which is draining the Exchequer's coffers dry? He is largely remembered for the fiasco over nursing-home charges. While the 2005 Travers Report cleared Martin of blame, arguing he had not been properly briefed on the illegal charges, it also points to a disagreement between 2 officials one of whom claimed to have seen the missing file outside the minister's office in early 2004. The controversy was widely seen as a major blow to Martin's prospects of taking over as party leader.

Martin Cullen: Remembered for the fiasco of e-voting, Cullen had been one of those tipped for demotion or removal from the Cabinet. His introduction of the Planning and Development(Amendment) Act, 2002 represented a cowardly cave-in the the Fianna Fáil builders, who were no longer required to provide social/affordable housing on 20% of their developments provided they paid a fee to the Council. This allowed the housing-bubble - for which the Irish economy and public are paying the price in the form of another 11,000 on the dole in March - to continue. His handling of e-voting is also dubious. He stood over a flawed plan to use electronic-voting in the 2004 Local and European elections, until forced to back down following a report in 2004 by the Independent Commission on Electronic Voting castigating the proposed system for its accuracy and lack of secrecy. As Minister for Transport from 2004-7, he presided over cost-overruns in the construction of the Dublin Port Tunnel, LUAS. The one bright stop in a failed tenure as Transport Minister was arguably the privatisation of Aer Lingus. But it should have happened years ago. At least in his new post at Tourism and Sport, he won't be responsible for so much government spending, but in my opinion he should have been relieved of ministerial office for these failings.

Mary Hanafin: The minister who presided over endless delays to construction of school-buildings, pre-fab classrooms, water-charges for schools and cave-ins to the unions on school league-tables gets a deserved demotion to Social and Family Affairs. I had high hopes for her in the beginning as she was a fresh face in a Cabinet that was starting to look a little tired. I am critical of her record on a number of levels. Firstly as a secularist I am disappointed that she failed to grasp the nettle of secularism in our education system - once even comparing the idea of nondenominational education to Henry VIII's policies on the monasteries. As Ireland continues to attract tens of thousands of immigrants of different faiths and none, the status-quo of schools segregated by religion is in my opinion tenable. There have been some hints of change, with even some Catholic clergy conceding they may have to take a backseat on school-management, but nothing concrete has happened as of yet. I firmly believe that it is not the role of government to promote religion, and that all schools in receipt of funding by the State should be secularised and non-denominational. If we do not proceed on this basis we will have an increasingly segregated, divided and ghettoised environment like in the UK. I do not want us to see the kinds of clashes on the streets of Ireland between different ethnic-groups that we have seen in the UK. We have enough problems on our hands without importing that here. Between 2000 and 2006, €80m has been spent by the government on the purchase of pre-fab schools, but since 2003, a decision was made to rent rather than purchase them - at a cost of €70 million in 2007 alone. This is a flagrant waste of public money. That in Celtic Tiger Ireland we are reduced to this is a damning indictment of the government and a failure by the minister to build enough schools. And while it is undoubtedly true that population-pressures accruing from immigration is playing a major role in all this, this should and could have been anticipated before Enlargement. I also have a bone to pick with her over Irish language policy. She was right to introduce changes to the Leaving-Cert to put more emphasis on the oral-aspect of the subject, but she was very wrong to keep the still too strong emphasis on poems, stories, grammar etc. When a language is not the vernacular of the country it needs to be taught as a foreign language is taught i.e. with an overwhelming emphasis on speaking the language. Her decision to force the Gaelscoileanna to teach English is a retrograde step when this part of the education-system has been the most successful in reviving the language by total immersion. On the positive side, I welcomed her plans to end the "straight A's" requirement for selecting medical students, which was in part responsible for the increasing reliance of the health-service of cheap labour from the Third World. A consequence of the latter in the First World has been the depletion of medical staff from the Third World - in some countries as much as 70% of nurses have emigrated. Morally, this is not something that can continue indefinitely. On balance, I agree with her demotion and the decision not to remove her completely from the Cabinet. She has her bad points but some good points too, and this blogger is prepared to give her a second chance.

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