Marc Coleman, founder of Octavian Public Affairs, argues for governmental reform in the wake of Barry Cowen’s removal from cabinet
While a serious issue on its own merit, the removal so early in the new Government of Agriculture and Marine Minister Barry Cowen is also likely to reflect strong regional tensions in government, particularly relating to the absence of any significant Ministerial portfolio from a western TD.
On the Fianna Fáil side, veteran Éamon Ó Cuív might have expected a full Ministry. Jim O’Callaghan was also seen as a capable performer, as was Dara Calleary and several others. On the Fine Gael side, Michael Ring pointed out how his first preference vote was comparable to the combined vote of both the Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar. In Michael Ring’s case his views on the selection of cabinet members are likely to be strengthened by the fact that, unlike his peers, he brought in a second running mate – seen in Irish politics as a feat that deserved to be rewarded by a cabinet seat.
So, while Barry Cowen’s transgression might merit removal on its own, the question begs asking as to whether the rising pressure from all sides to include those until now excluded has contributed to that removal.
Some weeks ago, this briefing highlighted the significant pressure the government will face from party political dynamics. Expressing “surprise and disappointment” from the decision, Barry Cowen now moves to the backbenches. Moreover, the farming community – a crucial and very powerful constituency for both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil – have lost one of their own in cabinet, Barry Cowen being a beef farmer. It has on the positive side gained a very capable Minister in Dara Calleary whose contribution to cabinet will be high quality.
Another factor is that the Programme for Government identifies the Midlands region which Barry Cowen represents (Laois-Offaly) as one that will be most adversely affected by the Green agenda of government, in particular the objective of phasing out peat production activities. Certainly, a Midlands Commission is to be established to compensate the region under principles of a “just transition”. In reality, however, the slowness of state agencies in responding to the more generic challenges facing business does not bode well for the economic effectiveness of such efforts, let alone their political acceptability.
The encouragement of wind energy turbines in that region by previous – and by the new government – is also a hotly contested issue, one unlikely to go without political discord. Last but not least, the midlands are one of the economically weakest regions of Ireland and significantly dependent on transfers from Government. Its small towns are worst affected by the lockdown and will be slowest to recover. Perhaps the real conclusion of all this is the need to finally address the need to create regional government structures in Ireland.
In my 2009 book on the previous “Back from the Brink,” I predicted that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil would eventually join together and end civil war politics. I hoped that this would be an orderly and planned process, and that it would be backed by a political reform process that would remove destabilising elements of the single transferrable vote system, and give effective local and regional representation in a way that would enable the executive government to focus on national, rather than regional, priorities.
Instead, both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have been thrown together in crisis against the backdrop of an unreformed political system that threatens to pull the government apartment.
Both parties will in coming months and years find the public struggling to understand the differences between them. As this happens, the concerns of grassroots members and TDs about party identity will increase as harder decisions are made in government.
This process is inevitable, but it can at least be handled in a professional and planned manner. If our politics doesn’t work then our policy making system won’t either. The centrifugal tendencies pulling resources and power towards the regions are healthy and needed. But in Ireland’s STV PR system, it forces government to allocate cabinet positions on geographic grounds rather than background. Angela Merkel does not have to worry unduly about whether her Ministers come from Munich or Berlin or Frankfurt. This is because Germany has a proper system of accountable regional government and taxation. Likewise, Germany’s electoral system, while proportionate like Ireland’s, does not have the hypersensitivity to local and regional issues. In this way, regional and electoral reform go together. Right now, were the cabinet not regionally balanced, serious instability could ensue from regions that, like the Midlands, could be left behind by the crisis.
The new Programme for Government commits to useful reforms. But neither reform of the voting system or bringing in effective regional representation are among them. These omissions could prove costly.