Gormley vs the Incinerator: – this sorry saga highlights the need for constitutional change
31 August, 2010
The disgraceful NIMBY-ism of John Gormley in relation to the proposed incinerator in his constituency (see this article for instance) brings to mind, once again, the problems caused by having ministers who are appointed from the ranks of Dáil members.
Among the problems this causes are: that national interests are subjugated to local issues when a minister’s constituency is involved; that ministers spent too much time ensuring their re-election and thus never properly master their brief; and that we scandalously limit the pool of talent for ministerial appointments to people who are good at constituency-massaging but often little else.
Dan O’Brien wrote an excellent piece last November in the Irish Times (before his appointment as that newspaper’s economics editor), in which he dealt with
the very unusual insistence that ministers are members of the Oireachtas. As most democracies believe that separating powers is a cornerstone of good governance, their parliamentarians are usually barred from simultaneously holding ministerial office, either by law or by convention.
The benefits of this separation are obvious. It means that ministers devote themselves fully to their ministries – emphatically not the case in Ireland where most ministers spend as much time on near-permanent re-election campaigns in their constituencies as they do formulating and executing policy.
Separating those who sit in parliament from those who sit around the cabinet table also allows prime ministers to recruit beyond a necessarily tiny pool of professional politicians.
In most democracies, people with no links to politics, but with real expertise, management skills and records of achievement are made ministers. Their primary function is to get things done, not get themselves re-elected. In Ireland, appointing non-TDs to ministerial office is looked down upon as “undemocratic” by many. Anyone who believes Ireland’s way is more democratic should observe how politics works in the country’s closest comparable peers where ministers are never MPs: Austria, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland. Delusions of Irish democratic superiority would quickly be dispelled.
I have little doubt that if a talented and constituency-independent minister were in charge of this issue, the incinerator would be up and running without delay. But I’ve been told by wiser heads that expecting Irish politicians to initiate such a change in the way ministers are appointed is akin to asking turkeys to vote for Christmas.
So we wallow in a constitutional trap, a political vicious circle: the present arrangements have led to politicians and ministers of inferior quality, but they are the very people who have to promote the necessary constitutional changes; and they know that to do so, although very much in the national interest, is against their own selfish interests.
We are stuck with second-rate gombeens when we need disinterested patriots.