How Powerful Is The Taoiseach Within The Irish Political System? The Taoiseach is potentially very powerful indeed. The constitution of Ireland gives the Taoiseach extensive powers. He* also has extensive powers within the administration of the government and powers within his political party. The constitution gives the Taoiseach the power to nominate all the Government ministers, eleven members of the Seanad and the attorney general (he also has the power to fire any of the ministers whenever he wants).
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The constitution also gives him the power to call an election whenever he wants. In practice he sets the agenda of cabinet meetings and the order of government business within the Dail each day. Along with these extensive powers he also has the back up of the department of the Taoiseach, which contains approx. three hundred people, whose role is the co-ordination of government policy. The department also contains the chief whip, the government secretary and the government information service. (Elgie, 1999:240) Within his party the Taoiseach has control over candidate selection.
All these powers seem to suggest that the office of Taoiseach is a very powerful position indeed but as we examine each power we shall see that there are constraints to these powers. Since 1989 Ireland has had a coalition governments and we shall see that this is one of the main checks on his power. Independent T. D. s are also a check on the Taoiseach in a non-majority government. The Taoiseach’s power to nominate cabinet ministers is not as straightforward as it seems. Even in a majority government his choices are restricted somewhat by party politics.
He has to be seen to reward party loyalty to keep everyone within the party satisfied. All his TD’s may not be available for ministerial office and he still has to find ministers with talent for their given portfolio. He may also want to consider dissidents within his party for ministerial position, so as to keep the party together and his position safe. The Taoiseach can get rid of any minister he wants if he so chooses. In the past Taoiseach’s such as Lemass have used this power. Lemass was of the opinion that if a minister disagreed with him on a matter of policy he had to go (Chubb, 1992:187).
In a coalition situation the Taoiseach’s choice is limited further by the deals made with his coalition partner. This usually entails the leader of the coalition party getting the post of Tanaiste and a number of ministry’s given to that party also. In a coalition situation the Taoiseach’s power to fire ministers is tempered by his coalition partners. They may not agree to the firing of a party colleague and therefore collapse the government. His power to nominate eleven members of the Seanad is generally used to ensure a majority in the Seanad.
In 1997 Bertie Ahern used this power, having only 23 of the 49 elected seats, to gain a 32 to 28 majority for the coalition government in the Seanad. (Elgie, 1999:239). His coalition partners the Progressive Democrats however made sure they were not all Fine Fail members. The one power that cannot really be tempered by a coalition government is the power to call an Election. The Taoiseach usually sets an election date at a time favorable to his position. If the government are doing particularly well in the polls and he reckons his number of seats may improve he can call an election.
The coalition partners cannot really affect this power if the Taoiseach reckons he can gain a majority in the Dail post election. In setting the agenda for cabinet meetings the Taoiseach is effectively controlling policy making from beginning to end. He determines the order and time given to each item and also who is to speak. He determines when decisions are made or if they should be postponed. He is obliged therefore to have knowledge of each department of the government and therefore he controls policymaking. This power is curtailed in a coalition government.
The coalition partners will have to be taken into account when setting the cabinet agenda. Even in majority government this power is not all it seems. The amount of information a Taoiseach would need to study to be on top of everything that is being done in every government department is huge. He therefore has to delegate a lot of his power on policy making to his ministers. He must trust his ministers with most of the policymaking in each department but has the final say on any matter he has an interest in (Elgie, 1999:241,242). The 300 people who work in the dept. of Taoiseach help in no mall way with this problem by keeping track of the different departments. Their role is in the formulation and coordination of government policy. The government secretariat ensures that decisions are being made and the various government departments are meeting deadlines. The department of Taoiseach also contains the government information service headed by the government press secretary. In these times of television and the information technology this office is more and more vital to the success of the government. The press secretary is usually someone with exceptional skill in the media and is loyal to the Taoiseach.
The Taoiseach’s powers of policy making can be derailed totally on certain issues in a non-majority government situation. If the government is dependant on independents for a majority vote they can withdraw support for the government on any issue they feel strongly about. In the past independents such as Tony Gregory have had influence over weak governments, as they “turned to them for politically expensive support in time of need” (Coakley, 1999:26). This support may only be given at a disproportionate price e. g. a change of policy on street trader licensing in Tony Gregory’s case.
An independent can also change the minds of government TD’s on certain issues by speaking in the Dail as Des O’Malley did in 1985 on a bill designed to protect airline cartels. This bill was changed after he sowed the seeds of doubt in Fine Gael back-benchers (Gallagher, 1999: 190). Within his political party the Taoiseach selects candidates to run in elections. As the leader of a party he would be unwise to select a member to run for election if he thought that the member had significantly different views on important issues or had ambitions to oust him as leader of the party.
Likewise the Taoiseach can select a candidate in order to groom him as his successor for the leadership of the party. This power of candidate selection is not what it seems. The Taoiseach would have to select current TD’s for the next election for fear that if not selected they would run as independents and therefore may loose a seat for the party in that particular constituency. 3 out of 4 independents in the 1977 Dail were made up of TDs who either were expelled from or left a major party (Chubb, 1992: 94,95).
Also he may realize certain TD’s may have ambitions for the party leadership and not want to select them as candidates but this would only force a leadership contest as the TD in question would have nothing left to loose and everything to gain. Even though our Taoiseach has extensive powers over control of the government he always has to remember that he is only there because the Dail backs him. All the aspects of power I have discussed here are all tempered by the situation in the Dail and his position within his own party.
If he has a majority in the Dail and full party backing his powers are at their most extensive and most bills he introduces will be passed but I have shown situations where backbenchers can express their views to the government and have bills changed. It would be an unwise Taoiseach to disregard his backbenchers opinion. In a coalition government compromise on areas of ideological difference is all part of getting things done. With coalition governments the norm now in present day Ireland the Taoiseach has to keep in mind the views of a lot of different groups before he can make any decisions.
It is safe to say that the Taoiseach is potentially very powerful in the Irish political system but this power is never unlimited no matter how big a majority he commands. Bibliography: Bunreacht Na hEireann, 1999, Dublin: Government Publications Office. Chubb, Basil. 1992, The Government and Politics of Ireland. UK: Longman Group. Coakley, John ‘The Foundations of Statehood’ in Coakley, J and Gallagher, M (eds), 1999, Politics in the Republic of Ireland, London: PSAI Press. Elgie, R. ‘Political Leadership: The President and The Taoiseach’ in Coakley, J and Gallagher, M (eds), 1999, Politics in the Republic of Ireland, London: PSAI Press.