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Opinion The argument for more ministers? Just look at Roderic O'Gorman's workload

This argument isn’t about jobs for the boys and girls, writes Fianna Fáil Senator Malcolm Byrne.

THERE HAS BEEN some questioning of late as to whether, in light of the challenges of accommodating displaced persons as a result of Putin’s War on Ukraine, Minister Roderic O’Gorman has too much on his plate.

The Department of Children, Equality, Integration, Disability and Youth covers a very broad range of critical and demanding areas.

A similar case could be made about the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media: the title itself is a mouthful.

Arguments are regularly made that we need a standalone Department of Defence, especially given the need to protect the country in a cyber age.

For a long time, there was a perception that because of its focus on primary and secondary schools, the Department of Education didn’t pay sufficient attention to further and higher education, research and science.

A new government Department was established to address this: not just to administer the system but to prepare Ireland for future opportunities and challenges and our need to upskill and reskill.

But we cannot establish any more Government Ministries as the Constitution limits the number to a maximum of 15.

The early Governments from the First Dáil through independence to de Valera’s under the new constitution at the end of 1937 numbered between seven and 10 members.

The inter-party government of five parties and independents of 1948 had 13 members, and it wasn’t until 1973 that cabinets comprised the maximum of 15 members. 

Those earlier governments did not have to deal with the increasingly complex set of demands of modern society nor with budgets that would have been unimaginable in the first few decades of the State. 

There is a case for Constitutional change to increase the maximum number of Cabinet members. This would allow more flexibility in the formation of government departments.

Among similar-sized democracies, Denmark has 23 Ministers of Cabinet rank, Finland has 19, New Zealand has 20, Slovakia has 16. 

While some will argue that this will just be a case of politicians arguing for more jobs for the boys and girls, any change in cabinet size could be accompanied by raising the ratio of TDs to the size of the population (constitutionally set at one TD per 20,000 to 30,000 people). After the next election, there will be between 11 and 20 more TDs because of our increasing population.

For reference, while the Dáil currently has 160 members, the national parliaments of Denmark (179), Finland (200), New Zealand (120) and Slovakia (150) are not that dissimilar in size although interestingly all these examples are unicameral parliaments (they only have one legislative chamber, unlike here where we have the Dáil and the Seanad). That said, they have stronger systems of local government and far more councillors as we shall see.


This leads to a question of whether Government Departments have too much control over issues which would be better decided at a local or regional level. We have one of the most centralised democracies in the world with councils effectively being little more than local administration.

A radical devolution of powers would free up more time for the national legislature and Ministers to focus on national and global issues. 

We have far fewer locally elected representatives than any other democracy of reasonable size. On average, each of our 949 councillors serve 5,399 people. Compare to the following ratios: in Denmark, each of their 2,432 Councillors represent on average 2,399 people; in Finland, their 8,859 represent on average 627 people; and in Slovakia, each of their 20,646 Councillors represents an average of 265 inhabitants. 

Our system essentially makes the Minister responsible for everything that happens in the control of his or her bailiwick. A radical overhaul of the Ministers and Secretaries Act could ensure greater responsibilities but concurrent accountability for those in the civil and public service who actually make decisions in the Minister’s name. 

In addition, we are limited by whom can be appointed to Cabinet. Ministers must be members of the Dáil or the Taoiseach can appoint a maximum of two from the Seanad (it has been done twice: Sean Moylan in 1957 and James Dooge in 1981. Senator Pippa Hackett has been appointed as a Minister of State in the current government). 

I will, of course, contend that all our Ministers are doing excellent jobs, but surely in appointing a government of the best talents, a Taoiseach may be able to find potential Ministers outside of the two chambers of Leinster House.

There could be individuals in business, academia, activism, public service or any number of fields that may be willing to serve and lead a government Department. All Ministers would have to be accountable to the Oireachtas, whether they are elected or not. This too would require constitutional change.

The digital revolution is forcing legislators to consider new ways for the State to interact with its citizens, as well as coming to the realisation that it is impossible to try to regulate – in detail – technologies that are developing so quickly as to make some legislation redundant by the time it is enacted.

(Will an avatar of a TD or Senator be posing parliamentary questions to a ministerial avatar in the metaverse in the near future? To what extent will we allow artificial intelligence and machine learning to make decisions on the part of the State, and where should Ministers take control?)

In a rapidly changing and far more complex world, we expect and need government to respond to more demands and opportunities. Our democracy has been broadly served well by the model to date but it is time for an overhaul.

Malcolm Byrne is a Fianna Fáil Senator and the party’s spokesperson on Further & Higher Education, Research, Innovation & Science.


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