Why don’t we vet Government Ministers?

When Leo Varadker made his sexual orientation public last week, a brief and transient thought flashed through the minds of his party colleagues, the media and the general public – does the fact that he is gay prevent him in any way from doing or holding his job as Minister for Health?

Thankfully, we now live in an Ireland that doesn’t discriminate politically between people based on the gender of people to whom they are attracted, and we have all moved on. But Mr Varadker’s announcement raised a few more fundamental questions.

The first is why we don’t have some form of vetting for Ministers before they take office to judge whether they are suitable for the role? Unlike the US where the President has the power of appointment, but the Senate has an advisory role, once the Taoiseach makes his choice (which may be for blatant political reasons) the appointee is in the job until the Taoiseach decides otherwise.

It is one of the flaws of our system that makes both the public and parliament feels disempowered – another step or process between the vote people make, and the result they get. A citizen votes for a party and party leader, who then chooses a Cabinet based on the numbers. But competence to do the job never becomes an issue. Geographical location and political loyalty are often far more important.

The issue of how a Minister will perform is never questioned either. When Dr James Reilly was appointed Minister for Health, for example, he might well have been asked if he intended to do anything that would benefit his own constituency over the rest of the country (indeed all future Ministers could be asked this question). When later he added two Primary Care Centres (PCC’s) in his own constituency to the list of national PCC’s, he would have been shown to have gone back on his word to act impartially, and everyone, including the Taoiseach, would have had to consider his position.

But there are also criteria which would make certain people ineligible for a Ministerial appointment. Just up the road in Northern Ireland, the Health Minister, Edwin Poots, is a believer in ‘young earth creationism’ – that is that the earth (and all its fossils) is a mere 6,000 years old, having being created by God around 4,000 BC. There were no dinosaurs in his Northern Ireland.

Mr Poots also banned blood donations from gay people and fought against a ruling to extend the same rights to gay people in Northern Ireland that exist in the United Kingdom – which, no doubt, did not conflict with his unionism.

These issues did not prevent Mr Poots from being appointed Health Minister in the North, and neither would they here. But if there was a vetting process by parliament, those views could be considered by the Dail and the country before the appointment was made. How can a man who believes such non-scientific tosh make fair decisions that require a loyalty to the facts above allegiance to a religion or beliefs that many of his fellow citizens do not share?

Again, take our previous Minister for Health, Dr Reilly. Dr Reilly was a GP and a prominent member of the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) for several years, including a stint as President. The IMO has been involved in controversy in recent years – including the issue of a payment of €100,000 to serving Presidents that was hidden from the general membership.  A Parliamentary vetting committee would have been able to tease out Dr Reilly’s position vis-a-vis his former union and adjudge whether he could be impartial in his dealings with them. Was he too close to his union and former benefactor to be truly impartial? Was he ever going to call for an investigation into the union to which he was so closely aligned after they paid out a €10 million euro pension to their retiring chief executive?

Another important question which Varadker’s announcement raised was the issue of TD’s personal lives, and the fact that there is a media consensus (some would say conspiracy) not to report on the private lives of Ministers – even if their private lives raise serious questions about their suitability.

I personally have witnessed a former Minister for Health drink alcohol at a medical meeting from 10pm until 8am the following day, and then sleep in the Ministerial car back to Dublin for a day’s work. Is such a fact relevant? Many would say it is, but no media outlet was willing to run such a story.

The same Minister was known to have a drinking problem. At what stage did this begin to affect his ability to do his job? The public were never going to know it was even an issue if they were waiting for the media to inform them.

Looking further back, Charlie Haughey’s long-running affair with Terry Keane was well-documented in these pages for those in the know, but most people did not know. And at the time, Haughey had to take stances on moral issues – including family issues – while hiding the fact that he thought loyalty to his own wife was not for him.

What will be the next ‘flaw’ that the media choose to hide? A painkiller addiction? A cocaine addiction? Aren’t these things that the public should know about people with extraordinary power over all our lives?

And since we don’t want a witch hunt for every Ministerial foible, it makes sense to have a system that examines what they intend to do in the job, and why. It is precisely the sort of reform that Irish people desperately want, but are denied by the political system.

Leo may be gay – who cares? But if he gets married and presents himself to the world as a loving family man while carrying on like Haughey, that would be something in which people might have a genuine interest, and not just a prurient one.

As they would with any heterosexual Minister or Taoiseach.

We accept marital breakdown, homosexuality or addiction as part of the humanity of a person holding an office. But their actions – especially when they are in such powerful positions – are still fair game for judgement. Their private lives are public issues when their private lives reflect on their public decisions.

Marital breakdown is acceptable if the parent still loves, provides and cares for their children. Addiction is acceptable if the person has conquered their addiction and is no longer in thrall to the drug. And homosexuality is as irrelevant as hair colour.

But we still shy away from asking Ministers what they intend to do in the job other than collect the good salary, conditions and pension. Being a Minister is one job where you don’t have to do even a basic interview to explain why you should have the job.

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