Book review – Leahy, The Price of Power (2013)

NNiamh Richardsoniamh Richardson is a UCD Politics Joint Major. The best book reviews written as part of the course requirements for POL30080 Irish Politics and Policy are posted here to let UCD students contribute to critical reflection on key issues in Irish political and social life.

Leahy, Pat (2013) The Price of Power: Inside Ireland’s Crisis Coalition, Dublin, Penguin.

As we reached a political saturation point in Spring 2016 with blanket coverage of the election campaign, and with the government so keen to remind the electorate of the crisis context in which they took power five years ago, it was an interesting time to consider their early period in office, chronicled by Pat Leahy in The Price of Power. This book charts the disastrous dying days of the Fianna Fáil-Green administration, the formation of the Fine Gael-Labour coalition amidst a ‘national interest’ discourse, and its early efforts to reduce the costs of Ireland’s bailout deal. It concludes with the political fallout from the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill and the Meath East by-election.

The opening chapters detail the heave against Enda Kenny in July 2010. Leahy argues that this episode is crucial to understanding Kenny as a leader, in both his cabinet appointments and his handling of his party in power – as can be seen by his persistent endorsement of his most problematic cabinet colleagues, James Reilly, Phil Hogan and Alan Shatter. The book then outlines the 2011 election campaign, before settling into its overarching narrative of the adjustments to and implementation of the bailout programme. Leahy notes that there ‘was never really a debate’ (p. xxi) about economic policy: there was consensus in accepting the framework provided by the Troika, and a determination to absorb the political fallout from austerity, in the hope that a grateful electorate would reward the government for having steadied the ship.

The coalition scored some early victories – withstanding pressure to increase the corporate tax rate, securing a cut in the interest rate of loans, and eventually getting a deal on promissory notes, which was legislated for in something of a parliamentary frenzy at a rowdy all-night sitting of the Oireachtas. The book is of most interest when Leahy provides real insight into crisis governance, such as the fascinating account of the briefings given by civil servants to the new government on the stark state of the economy: both parties were shocked by both the content and quality of the briefings, with some demoralised officials unable to answer questions or locate information (pp.85-87). Most noteworthy however is the key revelation of the book, which is the extent to which Michael Noonan was threatened by Jean-Claude Trichet of the Frankfurt-based ECB, who promised that ‘a bomb will go off, and it won’t be here, it will be in Dublin’ (p.124), if losses were imposed on bondholders. We can gain some insight into the straitjacket binding the government as Noonan then dashed to the Dáil, his speech on bondholders amended to reflect this fraught exchange (p.125).

The bailout programme really is the big picture here – Troika members are key characters, featuring more prominently in the narrative than most of the cabinet. Other noteworthy events such as the early referendums, the visits of Queen Elizabeth and of President Obama, and the controversial household charge, are largely lost to the drive of the economic narrative. This is of course a reflection of the extraordinary period being recounted, but is regrettable because this book is best when it hones in on dramatic episodes such as Roisin Shortall’s departure from government. Leahy offers a keenly observed, detailed account of her struggle, which was both one of policy substance (concerning the location of primary care centres) and a symptom of wider tensions between the coalition partners. While sympathising with Shortall’s frustration with Minister Reilly – a hapless minister with ‘a constituency of one’, that is, the Taoiseach (p.182) – the Labour leadership chose not to make an issue of it, preferring to store up political capital for more existential struggles such as budgetary wrangling. Indeed, Labour’s woes are a persistent current in the narrative. Leahy notes that the smaller party was receiving a very different press within days of taking office, and documents the miserable litany of departures from the party of councillors and MEPs, and even the party chairman Colm Keaveney, as unpalatable cuts were administered. Culminating in the mortification of the Meath-East by-election, this book makes it clear that Labour were paying the titular Price of Power.

A central theme in the book is the distance between executive power and democratic accountability epitomised by the role of political advisers and the Economic Management Council. An ‘inner cabinet’ of the Taoiseach, Tánaiste, and finance ministers Noonan and Howlin was established ear on, both as a vehicle for top-level coalition communications and in order to oversee the bailout’s implementation. Described by Leahy as the ‘engine of government’ (p.101), MacCarthaigh notes that this Economic Management Committee (EMC), which included civil servants and political advisers actually ‘sets the primary policy agenda’. It became ‘the decisive organ of leadership in Ireland’, effectively rendering the cabinet a rubber stamp, an observation more usually applied to the Dáil more generally. Leahy cites disgruntled ministers who ‘suspect the whole thing is actually unconstitutional’ (p.112) and who felt excluded from this extremely powerful forum. MacCarthaigh thought it risked being ‘overly-secretive’ (p8). Political advisers such as Mark Garrett actually feature more in this book than most of the cabinet, which is telling – clearly when Leahy traced key policy decisions back to their original sources, the EMC and tight-knit groups of political advisers loomed large. It is worth noting, as MacCarthaigh does, that the EMC outlived the bailout programme it existed to implement. It represented a worrying development from a policy framework perspective, as a limited pool of people was generating and imposing public policy over an ever-increasing number of policy areas (p.112).

The Price of Power is a straightforward narrative, with no discernible biases and an intentional lack of critique or analysis. This approach has merit, as Leahy appreciates these were such extraordinary times as to be ‘worthy of chronicling in their own right… before they could be re-interpreted in the light of future events’ (p. xxi). But even taking it as just a chronicle, a record, limitations are apparent. Its basic structure is unsatisfactory – the Meath-East by-election makes for a very underwhelming conclusion. This government was so distinctly of one two halves – bailout and post-bailout – that Ireland’s exit from the programme just a few months after the date of publication would have provided a more natural and compelling ending. A more interesting approach, perhaps, would have been to see the government run its course, floundering in the absence of a rigid programme, as Leahy himself predicts in the Foreword.

Leahy does not sufficiently avail of the scope and depth that a book-length treament can offer. Many departments and ministers are largely ignored, and there is an over-reliance on media sources. References, footnotes and a bibliography are conspicuously absent. The book struggles to bridge the gap between day-to-day journalism and a more considered, substantial historical narrative, such as that achieved by the Observer’s Andrew Rawnsley’s masterful chronicles of the New Labour years in British government, which were largely based on candid interviews with key players conducted years later. Leahy’s sources are kept anonymous to allow them to be more frank. However, if sufficient time had been allowed between their period in government and the writing of this book, they might have been even more forthcoming. The Price of Power is noble in its objectives and efficient in its execution, but it is simply not substantial enough to be the essential work on this period. No prospective author interested in the period should consider that the definitive account of this crisis coalition has yet been penned. Leahy’s book is a fascinating read, but there is much more yet to be said.

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