This post has been updated and moved to the blog’s new domain, conductunbecoming.ie, and you can find it here.
While bouncing from economic crises to political crises and back again at an astounding rate, Brian Cowen has stumbled upon a brief opportunity to make a move that would reflect well both upon himself politically, and give a piece of potentially good economic news for the markets to ponder over for once. In a few weeks time, elections will be held to fill two vacant seats in the Seanad. The electorate for both of these seats are current TDs and Senators, and as the government has majorities in each chamber, government nominees are effectively guaranteed to win both seats. This gives Cowen the ability to bring pretty much whoever he likes into the Seanad in time for the new year. What’s more important, though, is that Cowen can, by article 28.7.2 of the constitution, appoint up to two members of the Seanad to the cabinet, which means that he can use these open Seanad positions as a platform to bring expertise into the cabinet that simply can’t be found amongst the ranks of the Dáil.
While such a step would be almost completely unprecedented (the provision to appoint Senators to cabinet has only been used, to my knowledge, once in the history of the state), the situation we’re in is similarly unprecedented. We’re currently in the midst of the greatest fiscal, economic and employment crises to afflict any developed country since the great depression, and there are only three qualified economists sitting in the 166-seat Dáil, two of whom are on the opposition benches. The degree of experience within the business sector in the Oireachtas is similarly underwhelming, which means there is very little the government can do to increase its authority on matters of the economy without bringing in outside help.
Bringing in fresh blood to take over as Finance Minister is not possible, as the position constitutionally has to be held by a TD. However, the second biggest economic portfolio, the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, is a perfect position to bring outside expertise into. The current Minister, Mary Coughlan, is widely considered to be way out of her depth in the portfolio, and her repeated gaffes are doing the government little help in the popularity stakes. As such, bringing in a suitably qualified person in her place would help show both the electorate and the markets just how seriously the government are taking the current economic crises.
There certainly isn’t a shortage of candidates more qualified than Mary Coughlan for the position, but one that immediately springs to mind is Jim O’Hara. Jim O’Hara is currently Vice President of the Technology Manufacturing Group in Intel, and General Manager of Intel’s Irish operations, where he’s in charge of over 4000 employees. He’s very well respected in the business community, and he represents exactly the kind of high-tech, export-led industry that the government so desperately wants Ireland to become focussed on as we rebuild our economy. Furthermore, he showed during his involvement in the Lisbon Treaty campaign that he’s not only knowledgeable on political affairs, but also that he’s more than capable of presenting himself well in front of the political media.
Bringing him into the cabinet could be done quickly and easily. As it would be best for O’Hara to be seen as apolitical in his appointment, running him as a Fianna Fail candidate for one of the two vacancies directly would not be advisable. However, Cowen could simply call on one of Fianna Fail’s 6 Taoiseach’s appointees in the Seanad to resign from their current seat and run for one of the vacant seats (which they’d be guaranteed to win). O’Hara could then be appointed by Cowen as an independent appointee of the Taoiseach into then-vacant slot. Cowen could perform a mini-reshuffle of the cabinet (most likely giving Coughlan back the Agriculture portfolio she previously held, and pushing Brendan Smith back into a Junior Ministry), and appoint O’Hara as Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment before the start of the new year.
Brian Cowen needs to start taking radical steps towards both fixing the economy as well as improving the government’s tattered reputation if he wants to stay in office much longer. Most of the choices available to him would involve substantial opposition from vested interests across the country. He now, however, has the opportunity to make an unprecedented move that would be opposed by virtually no-one but Mary Coughlan. By appointing Jim O’Hara as Minister for Trade, Enterprise and Employment, Cowen could show just how seriously he’s taking the crisis, and that he’s willing to think outside the box in his efforts to do so.
And, as an added bonus for Cowen, the appointment would also be a political jab against Enda Kenny. Kenny decided last month that the Seanad is useless and he’d scrap it if elected Taoiseach, an announcement that was considered rash even by many members of his own party. By using the Seanad as a means to bring extra experience into the cabinet, Cowen could prove to Kenny that it isn’t so useless an institution after all.