September 17, 2021
News Opinion

MICHAEL WOLSEY: Every time the Government takes aim at a problem it shoots itself in the foot

The Government says it will examine the system for appointing  Special Envoys to the United Nations. That shouldn’t take long because there isn’t one.

Ministers identify an issue they want to highlight at the UN and come up with someone they think would be perfect for the job. If they can get the Cabinet to ratify their choice, then it’s a done deal.

UN Special Envoy is a short-term, part-time role that pays around €15,000 a year. The appointments usually go unnoticed both by the public and the media.

Katherine Zappone was appointed two years ago to lobby for our election to the UN Security Council . Who knew?

Last March, Tom Arnold, a man with experience of both the United Nations and the food industry, was appointed special envoy on food systems. Who cared?

Other countries make similar appointments, and not only to the UN.  ritain, for instance, recently appointed the former Ireland rugby international Trevor Ringland as a special envoy to the US to lobby on behalf of industry in Northern Ireland. Was anybody bothered?

Such appointments have never been controversial and wouldn’t be now if it hadn’t been for the cack-handed attempt to appoint Ms Zappone for a second time, a piece of bungling, spectacular even by the standards of a Government that specialises in making sows’ ears out of silk purses.

The first problem was the job description: Special Envoy on Freedom of Opinion and Expression.

Foreign Minister Simon Coveney says he didn’t just dream up that one, but you don’t have to be a Sinn Féin spokesperson to view it with suspicion.

What does it mean and why do we need one? What unique insights on freedom of expression and opinion does Ireland wish to share with the world? And why didn’t Mr Coveney share them with Taoiseach Micheál Martin who had no advance warning of the appointment but let it sail through the Cabinet nonetheless.

The attempt to appoint a very able politician to a completely unnecessary job, segued into a row over the Tánaiste’s attendance at a function organised by Ms Zappone and ended with her turning down the envoy role.

It has caused huge embarrassment to all members of the Government coalition and shows, not for the first time, a total inability to communicate, with each other and the public.

It should not be that way. No previous government has ever employed so many special advisers, spin doctors and PR gurus.

Dozens of journalists with whom I once worked on national newspapers have turned from press poacher to government gamekeeper. And a poor hand they are making of it.

Covid-19 has been the dominant national issue for the whole lifetime of this Government and, by and large, it has done quite well. The vaccination programme has been a huge success. The return to normality has been hesitant, but for every critic of caution there is a nervous Nellie urging ministers not to go too fast. On balance they have probably got it right.

But time and again, Government success has been overshadowed by mixed messages from Cabinet, contradictory ministerial statements and confusion over rules and how they should be enforced.

Every time the Government takes aim at a problem it shoots itself in the foot.

Last week, when the Government should have been celebrating the achievements of its vaccinators, it was fighting the fires Leo Varadkar lit with his ill-advised attendance at the Zappone function.

It could have been rejoicing in the announcement of a return for some live music and an extension of outdoor gatherings but these triumphs were made to look like shifty, retrospective, cover-ups, devised to get the Tanaiste off the hook.

It is ministers, not advisers, who cause the problems, but the Government employs an army of advisers to help avoid them. They are being paid with taxpayers’ money to make the Government look good and it adds insult to injury that they are doing such a poor job of it.

 

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