Liam Weeks: ‘Better for Donohoe to be feared than loved’

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Liam Weeks: ‘Better for Donohoe to be feared than loved’

The Minister of Finance is a clever man – and he’ll need all his intellect to plot the right path between prudence and popularity


Finance minister Paschal Donohoe
Finance minister Paschal Donohoe

During the years of near-permanent Fianna Fail government, a golden rule of Irish politics was that taoisigh-in-waiting had first to do some time in the Department of Finance.

Jack Lynch, Charlie Haughey, Albert Reynolds, Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen all duly served as Minister of Finance before becoming Taoiseach.

It was a kind of apprenticeship, to test their mettle, to see if they were up to the number one job.

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The Minister of Finance has to deal with rival budgetary claims from Cabinet colleagues, has to assess the merits of competing demands from vested interests, and, perhaps most importantly, has to have the strength of character to say ”No”.

If you could stay afloat in this job, the logic was that you had the correct temperament for one more promotion.

This rite of passage rarely applied to Fine Gael, John Bruton being the one exception, because the party was never in office long enough.

But now the political rulebook has been rewritten, and with the old guard in Fine Gael removed, the informal rules of government that once applied to Fianna Fail now apply to Fine Gael’s young turks.

More specifically, this means that after the crisis-management years of Michael Noonan, Finance may yet again be an apprenticeship for future leaders.

The current incumbent, Paschal Donohoe, is having none of it, saying he’s not interested in the top job. But then he could hardly say otherwise, could he?

Of more relevance is whether the top job would be interested in him. Has Paschal Donohoe demonstrated the correct mettle in Finance to convince the powers that be that he is up to a future promotion?

While few would deny that he has the intellect for the post, it is debatable if he has yet accrued the necessary political experience, a far more valuable asset.

When Donohoe was appointed Minister of Finance by Leo Varadkar in June 2017, it might have seemed an obvious progression from the Ministry of Public Expenditure and Reform (a post he kept), but he was barely in that job more than a year.

In fact, when this promotion to Finance came along, Donohoe had only been in the Dail six years, and only in Cabinet three years. In contrast, Brian Cowen was 22 years in the Dail before he was appointed to Finance, Bertie Ahern 14 years, and Albert Reynolds 11 years.

Another obstacle facing Donohoe was an image he had with the public of being perhaps too nice a guy for Finance, potentially one not able to say no.

One party mandarin unsympathetically recalled emotion getting the better of Donohoe, when, as party secretary, he had the task of distributing ballot papers in the unsuccessful heave against Enda Kenny in June 2010.

This more saccharine side to Donohoe is best encapsulated in his portrayal on RTE’s Callan’s Kicks, where the Minister has the audience oohing and aahing to his very word.

But lest anyone be fooled by this image, Callan’s satirical depiction of Donohoe also cleverly intimates that he uses it to always get his way. “We only have a certain amount of money,” is Donohoe’s trademark response.

Never a truer word spoken in jest.

Take the story reported last Christmas about eight junior ministers of state accosting Donohoe because they weren’t afforded the same allowances as backbench TDs. Oliver Callan couldn’t have scripted Donohoe’s response better: “I listened carefully to what they had to say, but made very clear in context of pressures in finances, we need to be very careful about changes we make. I don’t have any plans to make immediate changes on support available.”

It’s not just with his colleagues that Minister Donohoe is playing hardball. Last week he penned an opinion piece in The Irish Times headed ‘Let’s not forget the State is a good employer’.

It was a message deliberately targeted at any public sector bodies looking for wage hikes, just as the nurses before them had recently tried.

He reminded readers that “public service employment offers terms and conditions that are, in truth, beyond what is available in many parts of the private sector”.

Minister Donohoe did not pull any punches about the future viability of pay agreements, warning unions that a fundamental bargain is at stake, which on their part requires “a full commitment to ensuring industrial peace and co-operation with reform”.

But these pay demands could pale into insignificance compared to the potentially spiralling costs of major capital projects.

The bill for the now-infamous Children’s Hospital is likely to reach €2bn, and yet this is something the seemingly prudent minister was not aware of, despite his civil servants having been briefed on the issue last October.

And now we have the National Broadband Plan, priced at €3bn, but also with the potential to rise and rise.

The Department of Finance is firmly opposed to the additional rural broadband extension, and it is well aware of the criticism its minister received last year from the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council for a failure to maintain “prudent economic and budgetary management”, which left the public finances more exposed to potential shock.

The Department of Finance in most countries is renowned as a conservative lot, and while ours might have thought they had found a like mind when Paschal Donohoe was appointed, in recent months such opinions may well have wavered.

Yes, the minister may be well read in the field of economics and fiscal conservatism, but he is first and foremost a politician. And for politicians the primary goal is re-election. Paschal Donohoe knows this more than most, having scraped home without reaching the quota last time out.

So as we draw nearer to the next election, we are going to see the minister having to weigh up the management of the public finances against the realities of auction politics. Already, he and the Taoiseach have agreed to postpone any changes to the Local Property Tax, shelving an inter-departmental report that suggested only upward increases in the tax.

Minister Donohoe attempted to stand eyeball to eyeball with the nurses’ unions earlier this year, before he came to an arrangement that suited both sides.

But can he do likewise with the two departments he heads in Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform?

Paschal Donohoe faces the age-old political quandary of whether it is better to be feared or loved. Being feared by unions might give him power to keep a rein on the purse-strings, while being feared by his civil servants might give him some power to loosen them. On the other hand, all politicians want to be loved. They need to be, or they’ll be out of a job.

Paschal Donohoe is a clever guy. He’s well aware of this dilemma. He’s also well aware that this is a crucial stage in his apprenticeship. He cannot afford to slip up this early in his ministerial career.

Given his interest in political philosophy, he could do worse than turning to the ”how-to” guide on being a ruler: Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince. One passage of this 16th-century text is particularly illuminating: “In the question whether it is better to be loved rather than feared, or feared rather than loved. It might perhaps be answered that we should wish to be both; but since love and fear can hardly exist together, if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved.”

Minister Donohoe needs to be feared more than loved.

Otherwise he’ll be Paschal the Pretender, not Paschal the Prince.

Dr Liam Weeks is a lecturer in the Department of Government & Politics at University College Cork

Sunday Independent

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