Ben Conroy, Cathoirleach of Ógra Aontú, asks whether the government’s re-organisation of departments makes sense.
Who’s taking which job in the new government has as usual been a subject of careful media scrutiny. How were ministries parcelled out between Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, and the Greens? But there’s been much less coverage of the restructuring of the jobs themselves: the reorganisation and reshuffling of various government departments. But it’s worth casting a sceptical eye over these: some of the reshuffles are extremely strange, and seem to have more to do with beefing up the portfolio given to a particular minister than they do with good government.
In some cases, there’s a logic to the reorganisations because there’s synergy between the combined departments: combining the Department of Transport with the Department of Communications, Climate, and the Environment creates a sort of super-climate ministry. In theory this could help co-ordinate the government’s climate strategy.
However, there are still questions to ask about this reorganisation. First, is the new department too big? Transport alone was a ministry from 2002 to 2011, and there is a vast amount of work to be done in this area, from better serving the regions via public transport to managing the road network to decongesting Dublin. Assuming responsibility for it along with communications, climate and the environment is a tall order, even with Minister Eamon Ryan assisted by Hildegarde Naughten as a super junior.
Second and more importantly, there’s the impact of changing departments around in and of itself. Every time a reorganisation like this happens, it sucks up energy and time that could be put in to implementing policies.
As John Fitzgerald pointed out in the Irish Times earlier in the year:
“In addition to the loss of skills and expertise, the experience of decades of chopping and changing departmental titles and functions is that the act of reorganisation itself absorbs much of the attention of those making the change, leaving little time or energy for normal business.” Fitzgerald puts some blame for the combination of the Department of the Environment with the Department of Communication, Energy, and Natural Resources in 2016 for delaying “development of a progressive climate change policy as the new department tried to build its expertise in the area.”
Governments should for these reasons exercise caution about swapping around departments even when there’s good theoretical reason for a change. But some of the government’s restructuring moves seem to lack much of a reason at all.
Take moving the Equality brief out of the Department of Justice and into the Department of Children. Reforming direct provision is going to be one of the major challenges facing the Minister with responsibility for Equality, and moving responsibility for it from one department to another will only slow action on that even further. It’s hard to see the governance reason for the move (a cynic could easily spot a political reason – beefing up the third Green Minister’s portfolio).
More baffling still though is the transfer of the Community and Rural Affairs brief to the Minister for Social Protection. What these two areas have to do with one another I have no idea: I’m certainly hopeful that the government doesn’t envision its primary interaction with rural Ireland as being through the social welfare system. Again, two portfolios have been rammed together with little apparent basis.
And then there are some moves that seem actively counterproductive. Despite being a cornerstone of Ireland’s economy, tourism has been neglected as a brief by successive governments: both the Irish Tourism Industry Confederation and the Restaurants association of Ireland have called for the brief to be combined with an economic ministry, perhaps Enterprise, Trade, and Employment. The need to bring tourism into the core of Ireland’s economic planning has only intensified with the massive hit the sector has taken from the pandemic. This is a departmental restructuring that would be worthwhile if any one was.
The Tourism brief was moved from the Department of Transport, but not to an economic ministry. Rather, it’s now under the responsibility of the Minister for (take a deep breath) Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sport, and the Gaeltacht.
The ITIC and the RAI have both expressed their disappointment with this move, as has the Irish Hotels Federation. “We are shocked and deeply disappointed that tourism has been placed in a six- faceted portfolio and not part of an economic and dedicated tourism ministry,” said IHF President Elaina Fitzgerald. Being in a six-faceted portfolio isn’t good news for any of the other briefs in the Department of Everything Else either: though Minister Catherine Martin is herself passionate about the Irish language I would bet on it continuing to be at the bottom of the government’s priority list. To add another wrinkle, the Minister of State for Sports and the Gaeltacht is also… the Chief Whip. That these two roles have nothing whatsoever to do with one another should now by now not surprise anyone.
Are we seeing a theme here? Direct provision, rural affairs, tourism, the Irish language: critical areas that governments have never paid enough attention to are now being used as bargaining chips in pointless or counterproductive departmental reshuffles.