Do we just not do resignations?
Alan Shatter is in the news this week as the latest in a line of government ministers to stick their foot in their mouth. Immediately this raises questions as to whether he should resign. Rather unsurprisingly he does not think he should. That leads to the debate about accountability and the idea that in Ireland we are not accountable and we ‘don’t do’ resignations. The example of the UK is often cited. I am no expert on UK politics but while I follow the stories over there I’m not exactly overwhelmed by the numbers resigning or the very strict demands of Prime Ministers. Yet many tell me that it would all be different if we were like the UK. Apart from the current crisis surrounding Alan Shatter and I will write more on his predicament and wrongdoing soon, I thought first id take a look at this question of us and the UK. Not least because some of my friends in the UK do not agree that their politicians are any more accountable and they too feel that resignations are avoided at all costs.
Lets start by saying there are two broad types of resignation, that done on principle or personal choice and those due to accountability issues. I am only concerned with the latter. A minister resigning over a policy difference, over supporting a different leader or just wanting to leave politics is a very different matter.
So in terms of scandals and wrong doing what have we got in Ireland. Well let’s start in 1996; Michael Lowry is forced to resign due to financial questions. The resignation took some time to happen and when it did the Taoiseach John Bruton was not happy to accept it, he was tearful as he shook Lowry’s hand calling him his ‘Best friend’.
A couple of years later and it was Ray Burke who was forced to resign due to financial impropriety. Yet again the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern this time, was reluctant to accept the resignation saying a ‘good man’ was hounded from office.
You see Irish governments take resignations personally, it’s seen as a failure not just for the individual but for the whole government, it’s like giving away a goal to the opposition in football.
A few years further on and Ivor Callely had to resign amid financial question marks surrounding the decorating of his house. This too was reluctant but was inevitable. A later government saw Trevor Sargent receive much public sympathy when he resigned over an ill advised representation on behalf of a client, yet people seemed to accept he made an error and liked that he got on with it and resigned without trying to cling on.
Bertie Ahern could hold back the tide no longer and resigned in 2008 amid ever increasing difficulty from the tribunal. His colleagues were no doubt reluctant but it is also clear that they were tiring of supporting him and Ahern knew the end was coming. He might like to have said it was a time of his choosing but it wasn’t, Cowen had visited him at home and a push was clearly on.
John o’donaghue wa also forced to resign as ceann comhairle due to a high level of expenses while he was a minister. He fought it but the fate was a forgone conclusion.
Willie O’Dea was forced to resign after making a mess of comments to a journalist containing spurious allegations about a political opponent that he had heard in the rumour mill. While an initial fight was put up, it evaporated quickly before the Green Party ever had to stamp their foot as it was clear that O’Dea could not hope to survive without seriously damaging everyone in government.
So what was happening in the UK while we were doing all that? Well they were quite busy. In 1997 Ron Davies was resigning over mysterious meeting in Clapham common. In 1998 Peter Mandelson resigned over receiving a dodgy home loan. In 2001 Stephen Byers had to resign and Henry McLeish resigned in Scotland due to financial irregularities.
Mandelson returned and soon enough had to resign again over a donation to the Labour party in return for a passport. Two others Mike O’Brien and Keith Vaz were also caught up in that particular mess. Mandelson went on to become EU Commissioner.
In 2004 David Blunkett had to resign after speeding up a visa for his Nanny, but he was brought back quickly enough only to resign again in 2005 thanks to a breach of rules regarding his private apartment.
That same year Beverly Hughes resigned over misleading the public about a visa scam, but she too returned to government a year later.
Estelle Morris resigned because she felt she was failing at her job and not meeting her own standards. This unusual stance shocked many and more than a few felt huge sympathy for her as a result. She went on to join the House of Lords.
In 2008 Peter Hain resigned over political funding and 2010 saw David laws resign over an affair here he was channelling money to his partner.
The latest (I think) was Andrew Mitchell in 2010, who threw abuse at police guarding the prime ministers residence. That resignation took a month of pressure and David Cameron did not seem all that sure about it.
So what does all that tell us? Well at a basic level the UK has had more resignations. That said the scandals that many in the UK were involved in were pretty serious and I don’t think any politician would have survived them over here. Callely certainly showed that the expenses thing can be fought but you will resign. Ahern pushed financial stuff to its limits but it did catch up. Had Ahern not been in the top job and been Taoiseach I think he would have had to resign even earlier.
The cases of Blunkett and Mandelson are interesting as both had to resign twice and Mandelson still ended up an EU commissioner. Morris and Hughes also found life after resignation. In Ireland that is rarer. Resignation is fought tooth and nail because it is seen as the ultimate failure, the chances of coming back with in year or two of a resignation is pretty slim. It’s seen as a career ender. Whether that’s because they fight the resignation or not is a good question, perhaps it’s chicken and egg? Had the greens survived and stayed in government perhaps Trevor Sargent could have returned because he did not make such a fight?
One could argue that Willie O’Dea is certainly back. This however is more to do with what happened to FF in the last election than any real matter of choice. After all everyone in the FF parliamentary party is on the front bench!
There is a very interesting study to be done in this sphere and I’m sure some bright young academic will soon solve it. For now I think it’s hard to compare scandals but I think it is fair to say the UK has more resignations but perhaps politicians are more willing to step aside as it’s not seen as the final act for sure. In Ireland I think we will continue to have two big problems. The first is that politicians don’t resign because they themselves feel that their whole life’s work is over if they do. The second is the culture of circling the wagons. Privately TDs will quickly admit to you when they thing a colleague has done wrong, but the wont do it publicly. Why not? Because that would give the other shower something to crow about and at the end of the day politics is a football match, ignore the red card tackles, don’t mind if people hate you or say its boring, just don’t let the other crowd score. In a perfect world they would play fair and be open and at the end of the game shake hands and admit their faults, but that is not going to happen. If you avoid a resignation then it’s the opposition who lose and you never give in to an opponent. The problem is the crowd are watching…you may be thrilled that your man was not sent off today but the post match analysis will come eventually and you will be judged.