Posted tagged ‘Irish government’

Welcoming the new Irish education minister

March 10, 2011

The new Minister for Education and Skills is Ruairi Quinn. I have know him for some time, and remember debating industrial relations law with him when he was Minister for Labour in the 1980s. I regard him as a good choice for the education portfolio, in which he has both experience and an established interest.

As I would see it at any rate, he made a serious tactical error in signing a Union of Students in Ireland pledge on tuition fees during the election campaign, but apart from that his approach to education has been consistently well thought out. He will certainly be less inclined than other politicians to base his higher education policies on anecdotes and prejudices.

I wish him well in his new role.

Communicating in a time of crisis

November 16, 2010

Right now we do not know for sure whether Ireland will require EU or IMF support to secure financial stability. In fact, we don’t know whether there have, or have not, been discussions between the Irish government and EU officials or other member states about this. We don’t know what exactly the implications of a ‘bail-out’ would be were one to take place. We don’t know what impact any of this might have on the previously announced targets for cutting the public finance deficit. In short, we the people are pretty much in the dark about everything.

When there is a crisis, communication is almost as important as taking the right substantive steps. The key ingredient that will create confidence and a positive outlook, both at home and abroad, is a popular understanding of the position and of what must now be done. The Irish government may well be taking all the right steps, but it is not sharing its thinking with the people, and this is creating uncertainty and a loss of confidence. I confess that I cannot understand why the Taoiseach has not been on television explaining the position and the actions that will be taken to lift us out of financial crisis; indeed I don’t know why he has not been doing this on a regular basis. An ad hoc interview on a news programme, though probably better than nothing, is not a substitute.

An increasing number of commentators have been calling for a change of government. For myself, I doubt that would make much difference to our chances of recovery, and it would seem to me that political continuity right now has benefits. But there needs to be leadership, and this must include proper and visionary communication. This has been completely missing, and I suspect that our current difficulties have been aggravated by that. It is high time, perhaps beyond time, that this is corrected.

Reshuffle blogwatch

March 24, 2010

The news media have come down on the reshuffle like a ton of bricks – I have been unable to find any comment in the main newspapers that is even neutral, never mind positive. So how about the blogs?

There are some interesting comments on irisheconomy.ie. Both of the comments I am about to cite indicate a view that the reshuffle is really all about internal Fianna Fáil issues, and that it will either lead to internal party dissent or attempt to sidline it. Here is the first, from TCD’s Brian Lucey:

‘For what its worth, I met a FF diehard on the train home this evening, a man who has given time and effort beyond the norm to his party, ran for election and taken the bullet. This is a younger man, extremely well educated, not blindly FF but a genuine believer that they can do the job. He was apoplectic with rage at the lack of thought and effort made. He characterised it as “a death spiral, totally lacking in any competence” .’

And here’s another comment from the same blog, suggesting that it’s all about power play within the cabinet:

‘There is more substance to ths reshuffle than meets the eye. If you go back to the famous day when the unions were shown the door 7 cabinet ministers rebelled against the Taoiseach and sided with Lenihan. these were believed to be Hanifin, Ahern, Cullen, O’Dea, Harney and the two Greens.
Of these 7, Cullen and O’Dea are gone to be replaced by unknown quantities. Hanifin has been shafted. the balance of power in the Cabinet has shifted to the pro Cowen axis. Moroever, ilness will diminish Lenihan’s powers in the months ahead.’

Another theme that runs through the blog (and for that matter, the media) commentary is that the changes display caution and risk-averseness, just when the Taoiseach is rightly pointing out that we need to be courageous, creative and innovative in how we handle our economic problems. This is a point made in several of the blogs hosted by the Irish Times, including this one by Laura Slattery.

A slightly less caustic, if still sceptical, view is expressed by fellow presidential blogger Ciaran O Cathain of Athlone Institute of Technology. He fears that the government approach to education may become disjointed as a result of the reshuffle, but he is keeping an open mind. His suggestion that the higher education issues might be addressed with the appointment of a junior HE minister (which I had also raised) won’t be followed, as we now know.

The twittering community has also been active with micro-comments about the reshuffle – you can see them by going here. It wouldn’t be wholly appropriate for me to quote any of them – many are unprintable – but the overall tone is cynical and negative. I couldn’t find any supportive tweets at all.

What does any of this matter? The purpose of reshuffling a government is to generate a sense of energy, purpose and vision. All governments, even when they are very good, have the capacity to appear jaded to the public when its members have simply been around too long, and the trick is to generate some excitement and a sense of renewal. A ‘tidying-up’ reshuffle is almost always a waste of time. In the case of Ireland right now, the publication a few days ago of the report by the Innovation Taskforce created a backdrop that should have prompted an innovative and innovation-driven reshuffle, and the verdict will be that this opportunity has been missed.

Nevertheless, cynicism and a pessimistic outlook get us nowhere. We have the cabinet we now have, and we have things to be getting on with. It would certainly be my hope that the higher education sector will now quickly establish an effective partnership with the Tánaiste to advance the national agenda for high value renewal, and that we work with Minister Batt O’Keeffe in his new role to ensure that Ireland’s ambition to be a research and development hub is met. The Taoiseach could have sent stronger signals in his decisions; but we have an opportunity to move ahead anyway, and we should not lose momentum.

Understanding the reshuffle

March 23, 2010

Maybe readers were expecting this particular change, but I wasn’t. Anyway, we have now learned that the Department of Education and Science is to become the Department of Education and Skills, and that the Minister is to be Tánaiste Mary Coughlan. She therefore replaces Batt O’Keeffe, who will swap places with her in the (also re-named) Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation. There are other changes, too – but I think I need to get a fix on the education changes before worrying too much about anything else.

What are we to make of this? It has of course been a subject of intense speculation over past weeks whether Mary Coughlan would be moved from her post, and most of the reasons given would not have been complimentary to her; though in fairness she has also had her supporters, who have argued that perhaps the chorus of criticism of her performance might have sexist undertones. But nevertheless, what does it mean? What significance is there in this in terms of the government’s sense of priority for education? I’ll give it all the benefit of the doubt and assume that, particularly as she remains Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister), Mary Coughlan’s appointment indicates that Education is seen as a key Department representing urgent national needs. Also, the part of education that she would have got to know best in her last post would be higher education, and so we may perhaps hope that she will show a strong sense of commitment to this brief; but we will need to wait and see what she says early on.

Progress in the higher education agenda can only come from close and constructive collaboration between the Minister, the HEA and the universities and colleges. We will need to play our part to ensure that this is how it plays out in practice. Mary Coughlan has my best wishes, and I hope that she will find her appointment to be rewarding and successful.

More comments on the changes will follow later.